Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Soylent Green is people!

Here’s an example of how Peter Singer—an influential, secular bioethicist—approaches life and death issues:

In dealing with an objection to the view of abortion presented in Chapter 6, we have already looked beyond abortion to infanticide. In so doing we will have confirmed the suspicion of supporters of the sanctity of human life that once abortion is accepted, euthanasia lurks around the next comer - and for them, euthanasia is an unequivocal evil...I do not deny that if one accepts abortion on the grounds provided in Chapter 6, the case for killing other human beings, in certain circumstances, is strong.

In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings.

The difference between killing disabled and normal infants lies not in any supposed right to life that the latter has and the former lacks, but in other considerations about killing. Most obviously there is the difference that often exists in the attitudes of the parents. The birth of a child is usually a happy event for the parents. They have, nowadays, often planned for the child. The mother has carried it for nine months. From birth, a natural affection begins to bind the parents to it. So one important reason why it is normally a terrible thing to kill an infant is the effect the killing will have on its parents.

It is different when the infant is born with a serious disability. Birth abnormalities vary, of course. Some are trivial and have little effect on the child or its parents; but others turn the normally joyful event of birth into a threat to the happiness of the parents, and any other children they may have.

Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born. In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against killing it.

Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self- conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing non-human animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here too.

The total view [i.e. total version of utilitarianism] treats infants as replaceable, in much the same way as it treats non-self-conscious animals (as we saw in Chapter 5). Many will think that the replaceability argument cannot be applied to human infants. The direct killing of even the most hopelessly disabled infant is still officially regarded as murder; how then could the killing of infants with far less serious problems, like hemophilia, be accepted? Yet on further reflection, the implications of the replaceability argument do not seem quite so bizarre. For there are disabled members of our species whom we now deal with exactly as the argument suggests we should. These cases closely resemble the ones we have been discussing. There is only one difference, and that is a difference of timing - the timing of the discovery of the problem, and the consequent killing of the disabled being.

There is, anyway, little historical evidence to suggest that a permissive attitude towards the killing of one category of human beings leads to a breakdown of restrictions against killing other humans. Ancient Greeks regularly killed or exposed infants, but appear to have been at least as scrupulous about taking the lives of their fellow-citizens as medieval Christians or modern Americans. In traditional Eskimo societies it was the custom for a man to kill his elderly parents, but the murder of a normal healthy adult was almost unheard of. I mention these practices not to suggest that they should be imitated, but only to indicate that lines can be drawn at places different from where we now draw them. If these societies could separate human beings into different categories without transferring their attitudes from one group to another, we with our more sophisticated legal systems and greater medical knowledge should be able to do the same.

All of this is not to deny that departing from the traditional sanctity-of-life ethic carries with it a very small but nevertheless finite risk of unwanted consequences. Against this risk we must balance the tangible harm to which the traditional ethic gives rise - harm to those whose misery is needlessly prolonged. We must also ask if the widespread acceptance of abortion and passive euthanasia has not already revealed flaws in the traditional ethic that make it a weak defense against those who lack respect for individual lives. A sounder, if less clear-cut, ethic may in the long run provide a firmer ground for resisting unjustifiable killing.

Now for a few comments:

1.Singer is not a member of the lunatic fringe. He’s a professor of bioethics at Princeton.

2.Under our current system, your views don’t need popular support to become the law of the land. They only need the support of five justices on the Supreme Court.

So even if Singer’s position represents an elite minority viewpoint, that doesn’t prevent it from becoming public policy.

3.Keep in mind that Supreme Court justices typically hail from the same Ivy League culture as Peter Singer. There would be no dearth of candidates who share his general outlook.

All it would take is two or three Democrats in the Oval office to make this happen.

4.Notice Singer’s criteria for the right to life: sentience, rationality, autonomy, self-consciousness, absence of pain, viability, and value to others.

His criteria are confined to psychological, physiological, and sociological criteria.

Notice what is missing from his criteria? He has no moral criteria. Just psychological, physiological, and/or sociological criteria.

5.This probably accounts for the fact that he’s written a great deal in support of abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, and animal rights, but nothing comparable in support of capital punishment.

And that’s because capital punishment, especially in the Christian tradition, involves moral criteria. The offender has done something sufficiently wrong to merit the death penalty. But moral criteria don’t figure in Singer’s calculus of who lives and who dies.

As a result, while he defends the right to abort unwanted babies or euthanize unwanted hemophiliacs, he doesn’t share the same enthusiasm for executing murderers or pedophiles. For that would involve moral criteria, which have no place in his system of bioethics.

6.This, in turn, brings us to a fundamental shift in the presumption of life.

i) In Christian bioethics, there’s a prima facie presumption that human life qua human is sacrosanct. That’s the default setting. All things being equal, human life is sacrosanct.

That presumption can be overcome under certain circumstances. For example, if a human being does something sufficiently heinous, he thereby forfeits his right to life.

So the presumption can be overcome if certain moral criteria are transgressed.

ii) But for a secular bioethicist like Singer, the presumption is reversed. The life of every human being must be justified by certain psychological, physiological, and/or sociological criteria. There is no inherent or antecedent warrant to live.

It would behoove more people to think long and hard about the ramifications of this shift in the presumption of life. Where the default setting is against the presumption of life. You are not entitled to live unless you can meet a certain psychological, physiological, and/or sociological threshold.

This view puts every human life in jeopardy. No one has a prior claim to life.

7.There is a superficial sense in which Singer does appeal to moral criteria in terms of his utilitarian presuppositions and calculations. But that is ultimately circular.

For example, he says the life of a hemophiliac is valuable if (and only if) it is valued by others. But unless human beings have some intrinsic value, the fact that one worthless human being values another worthless human being is a viciously circular way of grounding the value of human life.

You can’t appeal to the common good if the aggregate is reducible to a set of individually worthless human beings.

8.Regarding his attempt to deflect the slippery slope argument, I’d say three things:

i) The objection to his position is not a slippery slope argument. A slippery slope argument is an argument to the effect that while a given action, taken in isolation, may not be wrong, it will likely lead to wrongful consequences down the line.

a) But that is not the objection to his position. From a Christian standpoint, his position, as it stands, even if taken no further, is already evil.

b) There is the further objection that if you accept his position, then that logically commits you to extending his position to further wrongs. It’s based on necessary implications rather than probable consequences.

ii) It’s true that a permissive attitude towards killing one class of human beings does not automatically lead to wholesale slaughter. Rather, a more likely outcome, on Singer’s criteria, is the ruling class will exempt itself while killing members of the underclass with impunity.

iii) What is more, Singer has no firewall against random killing or mass murder since “medical knowledge” is not a moral criterion for taking human life. There are situations in which a patient’s medical condition is relevant to dispensing or withholding medical care. But that’s hardly a sufficient condition for receiving or withholding medical care. There would be no reason to care for any sick or injured individual unless human life is inherently valuable.

9.Apropos (8), Singer’s disclaimer about the “small risk” of unwanted consequences if we ditch Christian bioethics for secular bioethics is pitifully naïve and horrendously dangerous. Even from his own standpoint, there’s no way to assess the risk. Any rules men can make, men can break.

And from a Christian standpoint, where we’re dealing with fallen humanity, we can expect the worst-case scenario to play out at one time or another. To have an evil premise taken to its evil extreme.


  1. Steve, this was written in 1993. Has Singer's position changed at all since that time? There doesn't appear to be a huge groundswell of public support to enact some of these positions into law. Is he lobbying within academia (for example?)

  2. Wesley Smith does a good job of tracking these trends, here and abroad:

    It's a cumulative process.

    Remember that my argument wasn't predicated on a "huge groundswell of public support." I explicitly said otherwise. It only takes five votes on the Supreme Court.

  3. I understand what you mean about it being "cumulative." But it would take a lot of that before it got to the Supreme Court. It would be more alarming if he (or someone else) were to start a political movement. But lots of stuff festers in academia without going anywhere else.

    I'll give the Wesley Smith site a look. Thanks Steve.

  4. There's no "huge groundswell of public support" for SCOTUS rulings like Lawrence v. Texas.

    The process operates at different levels. It can be a topdown process (e.g. SCOTUS).

    It can involve individual states, e.g. assisted suicide in Oregon and Washington or stem cell research in CA.

    It can also involve an unspoken, underground culture, such as euthanasia in hospitals.

    For example, if the euthanasia community takes over the bioethics community, that, in turn, begins to inform med schools and hospitals.