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

Michael Pollak mpollak at
Sun Mar 5 23:39:54 PST 2000

On Sun, 5 Mar 2000, Marta Russell wrote:

> 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.

That's not quite right, Marta. It clearly doesn't go to the parents in the instance of the "prior existence" version of utilitarianism.

I read this passage somewhat differently. I see it as Singer presenting a forced choice between "prior existence" utilitarianism -- where we should kill no being whose life would contain a positive balance of happiness over misery without our intervention -- and "total" utilitarianism. He wants people to reject the latter, and say the former is obviously more in accord with our moral intuitions. And then he will say Well, if you accept that, then you can't kill animals -- to kill animals, you have to accept the latter version.

I think disabled people are just a stalking horse for him to get to animal rights. He wants to say If your moral intuitions don't allow the killing of disabled infants (which for most of us they don't), then they shouldn't allow the killing of animals.

But I defer to your wider experience of his work.


__________________________________________________________________________ Michael Pollak................New York City..............mpollak at

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