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

Tue Mar 7 07:39:06 PST 2000

I should probably know better than to get into this. One time when I was teaching philosophy at Ohio State I was asked to be a respondant to the infamous racist philosopher Michael Levin of CCNY, whom Antioch College in Yellow Springs had asked to speak on why Blacks are inferior. I was tapped because I was close by and had written a letter in the APA Proceedings responding to one of Levin's attacks on affirmative action. I discovered that Antioch, formerly a progressive school, has become the world capital of political correctness.

I argued that Levin's argument did not follow--a mistake. Because to show this, you have to say, EVEN if the premises are true, the conclusion does not follow. Thus, I argued that because IQ is not a reliable measure of intelligence, it does not show that Blacks are dumber than whites even if (as is the case) on average their IQ scores are lower; and that Levin was confused about the notion of heritability, so that even if IQ did measure intelligence, it did not follow from the heritability of IQ being .75 (as he claimed) or less, that Black kids were genetically stupid, and even if they were genetically stupid, it did not follow from that that affirmative action was a bad thing; on the contrary.

Well, you can imagine. I had not been brought on board to refute Levin, but to denounce him. I had not done my job. I was not supposed to even hypothetically concede that his factual premises could be right. In political correctness land, it is a contradiction in terms to say that it might be possible, even if it is not true, that some historically disfavored group has lower capacities than white men. By definition, all groups have capacities equal to those of white men. Even entertaining the contrary is not merely a mistake, but a crime. The student paper wrote me up as an ally of Levin and the Nazis and slaveowners, someone who thinks that Blacks are inferior and should be exterminated or at least reinslaved.

OK, the connection to the stuff Singer says should be obvious. Singer is not saying that Blacks are genetically stupid and women are genetically submissive. He is saying that from a moral point of view it does not matter if they are. To make this point he says, concede arguendo that they are, does it make a difference? No, because even if some group is genetically stupid or submissive you cannot treat their interests as less valuable for that reason.

I agree with Singer. It might be true that Blacks are genetically stupid. it is not true, but it is an empirical claim and it might be true. The fact that this false empirical belief has been used to justify oppression does not mean that we should deny even the logical possibility that it could be true. Singer is also right that it does not matter, morally, if it is true.

Singer thinks, and I agree with him, and so does everyone here, that there is some point at which genertic dumbness does matter morally. He draws the line at month old-babies, Many of us would draw it earlier. However we all agree that however genetically dumb Blacks are supposed to be in racist fantasies, they do not fall below that level. So that is not to the point.

Yoshie is wrong to suggest that Singer is a Levinite or even a Jeffersonian racist and sexist. He is simply arguing conditionally. If it is insentive, or racist to do that, that's the way the cookie crumbles.

In a message dated Tue, 7 Mar 2000 12:24:15 AM Eastern Standard Time, Yoshie Furuhashi <furuhashi.1 at> writes:

> Marta wrote:
> >Obviously, I don't think Singer's philosophical construction is as air
> >tight and you and
> >Justin seem to think it is. I totally disregard his concept of
> >"personhood." Is it
> >scientifically possible at this point to determine that the intelligence
> >of an under 28
> >year old infant is below a cat's intelligence? Based upon what? Because
> >Singer says
> >so? And even if it were possible, I'd say so what? The under one month
> >old infant
> >qualifies in my book as a person. I held my daughter in my hands at birth
> >and I KNOW in
> >the deepest sense that she recognized me. So we have a basic
> >disagreement. I find
> >Singer an elite bore and you two find him fascinating philosopher.
> Among his assumptions, Singer has a bias for underestimating the mental
> capacity of the second-rank humans (those oppressed based on race, gender,
> & disability) & overestimating that of animals. In _Practical Ethics_,
> before moving on to his attacks on "speciesism" & the "sanctity of life"
> doctrine, Singer spends first two chapters laying out his general
> conception of ethics and meanings of equality. The only meaning of
> equality that Singer thinks we can & should defend is equal consideration
> of interests. This is a "minimal principle," for he thinks that "a more
> thoroughgoing form of egalitarianism is difficult to justify." Why is a
> more robust principle of egalitarianism indefensible in Singer's view?
> Because as part of his basic philosophical premises he explicitly
> incorporates a possibility that "differences in IQ between different
> races," "psychological differences between the sexes" especially with
> respect to "aggression," etc. may be "genetically based." Though Singer
> says that he accepts studies by Arthur Jensen, et al. "for the sake of
> exploring" the implications of the genetic hypothesis, in order to show
> that the alleged moral conclusion doesn't follow even if genetic
> differences between races and sexes exist, it is clear that he has *no*
> intention of refuting racist & sexist research -- nor does he discuss the
> works that have been written to rebut the myths of IQ, to debunk race as a
> biologically relevant concept, etc. Hence his notion of equality is
> basically the same as Thomas Jefferson's below:
> ***** [T]he principle of equality is not based on any actual equality
> that all people share. I have argued that the only defensible basis for
> the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests, and I have
> also suggested that the most important human interests -- such as the
> interest in avoiding pain,... -- are not affected by differences in
> intelligence....Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the ringing assertion of
> equality with which the American Declaration of Independence begins, knew
> this. In reply to an author who had endeavoured to refute the then common
> view that Africans lack intelligence, he wrote:
> "Be assured that no person living wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a
> complete refutation of the doubts I have myself entertained and expressed
> on the grade of understanding alloted to them by nature, and to find that
> they are on a par with ourselves...but whatever be their degree of talent,
> it is no measure of their rights. Because Sir Isaac Newton was superior to
> others in understanding, he was not therefore lord of the property or
> person of others."
> Jefferson was right. Equal status does not depend on intelligence.
> (Singer, _Practical Ethics_ 31) *****
> Well, it appears Singer thinks that Jefferson's paternalistic and
> condescending remarks on black people are as much as we can hope for in
> defense of racial equality, at this day and age! (Singer also conveniently
> forgets that Jefferson was a slaveowner and didn't at all endorse equal
> rights for blacks in reality.) While animals get "the benefit of doubt"
> when the presence of self-consciousness, etc. is insufficiently documented,
> oppressed humans are to hope for only "equal consideration of interests,"
> on the assumption that they may be genetically inferior to the "normal"
> human beings (= able-bodied white men). And keep in mind that "equal
> consideration of interests" is "a minimal principle of equality in the
> sense that it does not dictate equal treatment"; while "unequal treatment"
> may be an "attempt to produce a more egalitarian result," it can also
> "widen rather than narrow the gap between two people at different levels of
> welfare" (an ominous remark that has a practical implication in his
> recommendations for what to do with disabled infants and other human beings
> who are "non-persons").
> >No one has answered this question - if you accept Singer's definition of
> >personhood, how
> >is it that a 29 year old day infant differs from a 28 day old infant? How
> >is it that
> >one day or even a week makes the infant transform from a "nonperson" into
> >a "person"?
> >Because Singer says it does?
> Singer himself admits that the expiry of "non-personhood" is set
> arbitrarily: "It would, of course, be difficult to say at what age children
> begin to see themselves as distinct entities existing over time." Given
> his admission, Singer's rejection of three popular alternative conceptions
> of the beginning of "personhood" -- birth, viability, & quickening --
> widely accepted among those who support the right to abortion, on the
> ground that they are all arbitrary, is unjustifiable. If anything, his
> conception is even more arbitrary than the available choices he criticizes,
> due to the difficulty of determining what rationality, self-consciousness,
> etc. mean. It seems to me that his redefinition of "personhood" is solely
> motivated by his desire to give parents a better chance to reject one child
> (disabled) in favor of another (non-disabled) by extending the period of
> "non-personhood" & "replaceability":
> ***** Regarding newborn infants as replaceable, as we now regard fetuses,
> would have considerable advantages over prenatal diagnosis followed by
> abortion. Prenatal diagnosis still cannot detect all major disabilities.
> Some disabilities, in fact, are not present before birth; they may be the
> result of extremely premature birth, or of something going wrong in the
> birth process itself. At present parents can choose to keep or destroy
> their disabled offspring only if the disability happens to be detected
> during pregnancy. There is no logical basis for restricting parents'
> choice to these particular disabilities. If disabled newborn infants were
> not regarded as having a right to life until, say, a week or a month after
> birth it would allow parents, in consultation with their doctors, to choose
> on the basis of far greater knowledge of the infant's condition than is
> possible before birth. (190) *****
> Given Singer's conception of "personhood," however, there is no "logical
> basis" for limiting the period of "personhood" to the first 28 days after
> birth either. Since Singer also justifies the non-voluntary euthanasia of
> "someone who has never been capable of choosing to live or die" under
> certain circumstances, in the case of the people who have been "profoundly
> intellectually disabled since birth," there is never a moment in their
> lives when they can be free from others' judgments over their "quality of
> life," that is, if their lives are "worth living":
> ***** The case of someone who has never been capable of choosing to live
> or die is a little more straightforward than that of a person who had, but
> has now lost, the capacity to make such a decision. We shall, once again,
> separate the two cases and take the more straightforward one first. For
> simplicity, I shall concentrate on infants, although everything I say about
> them would apply to older children or adults whose mental age is and has
> always been that of an infant. (181) *****
> In this fashion, Singer's "equality of consideration of interests" is
> designed to put different values on different lives. Animals who are
> "persons," for instance, are more morally significant than disabled human
> beings who are "non-persons": "there are strong arguments for thinking that
> to take the lives of persons is, in itself, more serious than taking the
> lives of non-persons. So it seems that killing, say, a chimpanzee is worse
> than the killing of a human being, who, because of a congenital
> intellectual disability, is not and never can be a person" (117-8). Among
> "persons," it is assumed that white males are, on average, intellectually
> superior (though morally equal) to white females and people of color.
> Singer's minimal view of equality, to repeat, is that our interests will be
> all "taken into account," _despite_ large differences that Singer argues
> exist among us; that the utilitarian philosopher will kindly condescend to
> take our interests into account, however, doesn't at all mean that every
> one of us has even a right to continue living. Before we gain such a
> right, it appears that we must first measure up to the standard of the
> "quality of life" set by Singer. In fact, if we live long enough, all of
> us, even able-bodied white males among us, are likely to eventually become
> "non-persons" through the natural process of aging.
> Yoshie

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