Peter Singer & Vegetarian Dogs (was Re: The Heiress and theAnarchists)

Marta Russell ap888 at
Sun Mar 5 12:28:27 PST 2000


I just wrote a long response to this which Netscape dumped. AAAAAGH. So I will briefly rewrite.

I do not go for Singer's utilitarianism because I don't think people *know* what makes them happy. Parenting has its ups and downs, no one is guaranteed happiness from any child. a "healthy" child does not automatically equate with happiness. Anyway, why should children bear the burden of making parents happy. It seems like a silly premise to me.

You wrote: Singer's talk about infanticide and euthanasia is not to be applied to persons whose disabilities can be handled by reasonable or even extraordinary accommodations, but only to the most extreme cases.

But this is not so. The following excerpt is taken from "Practical Ethics", Chapter 7, which

titled "Taking life: Humans" pages 182-186.

Given these facts, suppose that a newborn baby is diagnosed as a hemophiliac. The parents, daunted by the prospect of bringing up a child with this condition, are not anxious for him to live. Could euthanasia be defended here? Our first reaction may well be a firm 'no', for the infant can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if it is not quite as good as that of a normal baby. The 'prior existence' version of utilitarianism supports this judgment. The infant exists. His life can be expected to contain a positive balance of happiness over misery. To kill him would deprive him of the positive balance of happiness. Therefore it would be wrong.

On the 'total' version of utilitarianism, however, we cannot reach a decision on the basis of this information alone. The total view makes it necessary to ask whether the death of the hemophiliac infant would lead to the creation of another being who would not otherwise have existed. In other words, if the hemophiliac child is killed, will his parents have another child whom they would not have if the hemophiliac child lives? If they would, is the second child more likely to have a better life than the one killed?

Often it is possible to answer both these questions affirmatively. A woman may plan to have two children. If one dies while she is of child-bearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, then gives birth to a hemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child than for a hemophiliac.

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.


The right goes to the parents in any instance.

I do think is is fair to criticize Singer for his lack of omission of a consideration of the societal prejudice and barriers which prevent disabled persons from leading what he may define as a qualitative life. In fact his omission shows an extreme insensitivity to what disabled people deal with. As I mentioned before, he did not even know any disabled people nor did he bother to get to know any back when he was writing this stuff.

Singer is not a Nazi, but his views are similar to social Darwinists who laid the foundation for what the Nazis did. An analogy to Peter Singer can be found in the writings of two social Darwinists: Alfred Hoche, a professor of medicine, and Rudolf Binding, a professor of law.

Singer, for instance, writes in "Practical Ethics": "Although people sometimes talk as if we should never judge a human life to be not worth living, there are times when such a judgment is obviously correct." As stated in the passage above, a baby with a condition as mild as hemophilia can be killed if such a death has "no adverse effects on others." He believes in ending anyone's life when it is "not worth living" and in the involuntary killing of anyone who has become a "burden" to their families (failure to bring them happiness).

The phrase "lives not worth living" came from the title of a book published in 1920, Release and Destruction of Lives Not Worth Living, by Hoche and Binding. The book defended the right to suicide, and called for the killing of not only incurably sick people but the mentally ill, the feeble-minded, and retarded and deformed children. Arguing that such people led "ballast lives" and were only "empty human husks," these professors medicalized the concept of killing disabled people by making it seem therapeutic; they contended that it would be "healing work" and humane to destroy such lives which, in their view, were "not worthy of life."

To Singer, the killing of disabled infants is therapeutic because it resolves the unhappiness of the parents. What is making choices purely based on degrees of happiness if there is not some therapeutic value involved - whether singer's view is an inaccurate one or not.

Singer's concept that an infant is a non person until it is 28 days old reeks of quackery. What is the difference between 28 and 29 days? Has the infant developed so remarkably in that one day that it is all of a sudden a "person" at 29 days?

Already, prenatal screening is used as a search and destroy mission to eradicate disabled fetuses. (a eugenic tool) If society were to adopt Singers view on infanticide, what is to prevent that from becoming a means of disposing all disabled infants? Devalued marginalized people are not given the same consideration as the over rated nondisabled.

I do think it is disingenuous of Singer to say that some distinction would be made between severely and non severely disabled infants during the killing decision making process when he himself doesn't make that distinction. Who is going to enact and control such a code of killing? Even if Singer were to retract his statement above, it is practically impossible (and I believe that he knows it) to make the distinction and control (enforce) that in our society.

One decade after the publication of Lives Not Worth Living over 275,000 disabled children and adults were "mercy" killed by their physicians. Many working disabled people were dragged to the hospitals to be gassed in chambers in hospital basements. 45% of the German physicians joined the Nazi party. American Physicians were envious of the German program. Do we think all that sentiment has dissipated into thin air?

I was not one of those who thought Singer should not be allowed to teach at Princeton, and I did not advocate to shut him up. But the fact that Singer was invited to and joined Princeton University's Center for Human Values signals the issue of infanticide may again be legitimate discussion for bioethicists. Perhaps some think that is no need for concern. Given our experience with the medical profession, and bioethicists in general many in the disability community think there is great cause for concern and this is why there are demos against him around the world.

I've got to get off now and get some work done, but here is a URL some may want to look at:


JKSCHW at wrote:

> I am not a utilitarian, but I don't think utilitarianisnism should be
> cariactured. I thank Marta for laying out her understandiing of Singer
> clearly and briefly: I'll explain where I think it is mistaken or misleading.
> In a message dated 00-03-04 22:09:35 EST, you write:
> << NOT DEAD YET's assessment of Singer, I pretty much concur with it.
> best,
> Marta
> > Personhood
> > According to Singer, to be ethical, we must treat all "persons" according
> to
> moral guidelines. But not all humans are "persons." Singer claims that in
> order to be "persons" and to deserve moral consideration, beings must be
> self-aware, and capable of perceiving themselves as individuals through time.
> This almost correctly represent Singer's views. (As I said, there is nothing
> utilitarian about this particular claim. ) It is not true, however, that
> Singer thinks that only persons get moral consideration. Singer advovocates
> animal rights on utilitarian grounds, arguing that animals that are not
> persons should be treated decently (and not killed) because they are sentient.
> > Singer claims that no newborn infants are "persons." He claims that some
> people with life-long cognitive disabilities never become "persons" at any
> time throughout their lives. And he claims that some people who acquire
> cognitive disabilities through injury, Alzheimer's Disease, or other means
> cease to be "persons."
> Singer says this, and given what we mean ordinarily by "person" I think it is
> a plausible view. Adult cats are smarter than newborns, very advanced
> Alzheimer's patients, and some people who are desperately retarded. but we
> don't think adult cats are persons.
> Moreover, iof we were to meet something on Mars that had the cognitive
> capacity of an adult cat, much less a newborn, etc., we would not think it
> was a person. On the other hand, if we were to meet a Martian who was at
> least as cognitively developed as an ordinary adult, or even a
> Congressperson, we would have no doubts that it was a person. These
> hypotheticals show that we do not care so much about whether something is a
> homo sapiens and we do care a lot about whether something has a fairly high
> level of cognitive capacity, in deciding whether it is a person as we use the
> term.
> > Singer says that killing a "non-person," even if it is human, does not
> carry
> the same moral weight as killing a "person."
> He thinks that, and although the view is trouble, it is not crazy, nor is it
> a call to massacre the nonpersons.
> > Infanticide
> > It may be all right, according to Singer, to kill infants. Because they
> are
> not "persons," they have no interest in staying alive, and it is only
> superstition that makes us think that killing them is intrinsically wrong.
> Well, Singer is a utilitarian, so the only thing he thinks is "intrinsically
> wrong" is pain and frustrating desires, and then something's being
> "intrinsically wrong" in the athat sense (causing pain or leading to
> frustarted desires) is not a decisive reason against it. For Singer as for
> all utilitarians, we are to do what maximizes net happiness (pleasure over
> palin, desire satisfaction over desire frustration), so even with regard to
> killing a person, that is only wrong if it would not maximize happiness.
> There is nothing special about killing persons versus nonpersons here.
> If something's being a person is special and gives it a moral weight
> nonpersons don't have, it is because it is capable to taking an interest in
> its future interests in a way that would lead to increased pain or desire
> frustration if we kill the person, moreso than if we kill the nonperson. That
> is, being a person involves certain facts about how much happiness or
> frustration that there is or would be that are are not involved when we talk
> about nonpersons.
> Thsi is rather abstract, but the thought may be illumunated by example. If I
> say, I am going to kill you, and you understand it, in addition to the pain
> of dying and the lost happiness of your unfulfilled desires after you are
> dead, there is also the fear that is created by your contemnplating your
> immanent death. If you cannot experience that fear, there is less unhappiness
> involved in killing you.
> > Singer is quick to note that it is still wrong to kill most infants, for
> other reasons. The killing of an infant would, in most cases, make the
> parents unhappy. Second, in the cases where the parents do not want the
> infant, there are other couples and individuals who would like to adopt the
> child, so the child should be kept alive and put up for adoption.
> Right, he says this.
> > But infants with known disabilities, and especially cognitive disabilities,
> he says, do not bring the same amount of happiness into the lives of their
> parents. Additionally, the very fact that someone is disabled means that he
> or she will have an unhappier life than other people. And therefore the
> reasons not to kill non-disabled infants do not apply to disabled infants.
> That is not quite right--I mean, he qualifies this. Firstly, it is not true
> of everyone who is disabled or even cognitively disabled. So let's restrict
> ourselves to the very small class of people who will never attain the degree
> of development that Singer thinks is required for personhood. Even with
> these, some people will get happiness out of caring for those disabled
> individuals. It is true, however, that someone who can never take an interest
> in his or her own future will not have the same degree of potential happiness
> (or, if things go wrong, unhappiness) that some who can take such an interest
> will have. Therefore the same set of utilitarian reasons does not quite apply.
> > Singer argues that it should be legal for parents to decide to have their
> disabled infants killed up to 28 days after birth. This way, he says,
> parents could have non-disabled replacements. In addition, the infants would
> provide a source of organs for transplantation to other infants who could
> grow up to be non-disabled.
> He does argue this. It can be objected, however, that even on his own
> premises, he ought to give others who would take pleasure in raising them
> have a chance to do so.
> > Euthanasia
> It may be all right, according to Singer, to kill people whose doctors claim
> they are severely cognitively disabled. Although Singer doesn't give a list,
> we know that people to whom labels like "mentally retarded," "demented,"
> "persistent vegetative state," and "severely brain-damaged" are applied are
> likely to have that judgment applied to them.
> Yes, he says this.
> > Singer claims that such people are not "persons," and therefore can not be
> said to have an interest in staying alive. Unless the benefit to the people
> who love these "non-persons" outweighs the emotional and financial burden to
> individuals and society of keeping them alive, they can safely and
> deliberately be killed.
> And this.
> > The euthanasia of people whose minds are judged inadequate would be a way
> to
> save money. It would be a way to allow families to "move on." And it would
> provide a source of organs for transplantation to people whose minds have
> been judged acceptable. According to Singer, very often people with
> cognitive disabilities should be killed.
> "Very often?" Well, even sometimes would be troubling. How often it would be
> OK for a utilitarian depends on empirical facts about what would maximize
> overall happiness.
> > Academic Dishonesty
> >In building his case, Singer makes many assertions that he does not support,
> because they can not be supported.
> Well, Singer may be wrong. But the reason he is an effective advocate is that
> he argues patiently and clearly from plausible premises. "Dishonest" is not
> the word that comes to mind. "Terrifyingly consistent" and "Frighteningly
> honest" are terms that do. Singer is a consistent utilitarian. I am not,
> partly because I find his conclusions unacceptable. But he doesn't cheat.
> That's unfair to say.
> > Singer writes as if impairment itself guarantees that people with
> disabilities will have fewer opportunities in life. He ignores the fact that
> many of the barriers people with disabilities face every day are created and
> sustained by the very society he claims should be allowed to kill them.
> This is also unfair. Singer's talk about infanticide and euthanasia is not to
> be applied to persons whose disabilities can be handled by reasonable or even
> extraordinary accommodations, but only to the most extreme cases. As a
> utilitarian, he has expresssly argued for a massive redistribution of wealth
> from the rich to the poor, and to the extent that this would make life better
> for the less severely disabled, he thinks that it should be done. Moreover,
> you have to put his views about abortion and infanticide together with his
> views about animal liberation. He does not advocate the mass killing of
> animals because they are not people; quite the contrary. To the extent that
> the severely disabled are similarly nonpersons. he thinks that they should
> only be killed in extreme circumstances, as one might, e.g., a sick or
> crippled animal, but not an ordinary healthy one even though it lacks much
> cognitive capacity.
> > He leads readers to believe that if some medical professionals judge the
> lives of people with disabilities as not worth living, that is indicative of
> how people with disabilities judge their own lives. In fact, study after
> study has shown that medical "experts" routinely underestimate the quality of
> life reported by people with disabilities.
> Right, but we are talking mainly about thoise who cannot report anything
> because they cannot have views about how their lives are going.
> >But Singer does not include people with disabilities in the discussion of
> the
> quality of their lives. He assumes that non-disabled academics and
> professionals are better qualified to discuss what it is like to have a
> disability than disabled people themselves.
> No. Ordinary disabled people, those who are merely bllind or deaf or unable
> to walk, etc. are not touched by his theory. Or rather, they are, and they
> are treated as full persons. Persons with diminished but effectrive cognitive
> capabilities--the educable retarded, are also persons, even if they cannot
> participate fully in our discussions. Singer's cut off line is very
> low--about one month. So we are talking about the people who will not develop
> cognitively, or who have lost the cognitive capacity down to the level, of a
> baby who is less thana month old. You couldn't ask them, or they couldn't
> tell you how it was with them.
> > Singer suggests that decisions about who is a "person" can be made
> objectively and with little doubt, by doctors. In fact, doctors routinely
> underestimate the capacity of people who are judged to be mentally disabled.
> This is a more troubling objection, but perhaps less so if you consider how
> low the line must be for Singer before infanticide or euthanasia is on the
> table.
> > In short, a lot of Singer's "logic" is smoke and mirrors. It has no more
> basis in fact than the eugenic models of racial superiority and inferiority
> that were widely held and respected in the first decades of this century.
> This is just pernicious claptrap. Singer may misestimate how effectively
> doctors can judge the extent and permanance of cognitive disability, but that
> is hardly an "error" on the level with theories of racial inferiority. In
> fact, Singer himself would say that if there is good evidence that doctors
> regularly get this wrong, infanticide and euthanasai ought to be even more
> difficult than he thinks they should be if he is right about his estimates,
> which is pretty difficult to start with. Trying to sweep Singer in with the
> Nazis may be good polemeics, but it is not intellectually honest.
> > Demands for Injustice
> Singer is not simply arguing academic theories. He is urging that policy
> decisions be made on the basis of his ideas. His demands for "academic
> freedom" are merely attempts to keep the affected people out of the
> discussion.
> This is ridiculous. Of course Singer thinks we ought to do the the right
> thing, actually do it, and not just talk about it. He has views about what he
> right thing is that flow from his utilitarian premises and certain minimal
> plausible empirical views, as well as from a plausible nonutilitarian view
> about what makes personhood, as he defines it, special. His views are
> startling and may be wrong, indeed I think some of them are, but it is not
> absurd for him to say we ought to do what the correct moral theory calls for.
> As for keeping the affected people out of the discussion, Singer is a good
> liberal and he wants everyone in who has something to say. You will not find
> a sentence in hsi writing that suggests the opposite. On his theory, if you
> can participate, you will not be negatively affected by his theory because
> you will be a person.
> I find it disturbing that some people would want to shut Singer up because he
> presents controversial views. And I do not put him in the camp of Holocaust
> deniers and other lunatics, who, btw, I also do not want shut up. Singer is a
> consistent spokesperson for one of the major ethical theories. We may not
> like the theory or its results. But we don't deal with that by firing him,
> refusing to publish his works, or indeed, in his case, sitting in at his
> lectures. You deal with it by refuting him, and honestly, without
> misrepresentation.
> > If Singer's approach were to be put into law, as he wants, a new class of
> non-citizens would be created. A group of people with disabilities would be
> forced to prove that they were "persons" before even being granted the most
> basic right, the right not to be killed at society's convenience.
> That's true, although I note that you prove you pass the test if you can even
> complain about it.
> > When people assume mental capacity, they tend to find mental capacity.
> When
> people assume mental incapacity, they tend to find mental incapacity. To
> demand that people assumed to be incapable pass a higher test than those
> assumed to be capable merely to stay alive is simply unjust.
> No, the test is the same.
> > Singer claims to be speaking for the vast majority of non-disabled people.
> He claims he is only saying what everyone else thinks. We in the disability
> community call for a clear statement on the part of people without
> disabilities that we are entitled to the equal protection of the law.
> >>
> I don't know whether Singer thinks he says what everyone thinks. I am quite
> sure that he know his views are counterintuitive for most people.
> At any rate I think you ought to attack Singer for what he thinks and not for
> a caricature of it. He does not think that anyone with the slightest
> limitation, or even most people who are more severely limited, ought to be
> killed. He does think that the reasons we have for not killing the few people
> whose mental capacities don't develop beyond that of a month-old baby are
> different from the reasons we have for not killing those who do. And he has
> far more stringent views about killing nonpersons than most of us
> nonvegetarians. He is profoundly aware that the quality of life for most
> people is determined by an indefensible dustribution of wealth that he thinks
> we must change. And to start on about race science and eugenics in the
> context of discussing his ideas is to abandon any pretense to rationality.
> Please. Utilitarianism ought to be rejected, i agreem and in part because it
> leads to unpalatable conclusions like Singer;s actual ones. But his actual
> conclusions are a lot more modest than you make out here.
> --jks

-- Marta Russell author Los Angeles, CA Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract

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