New Effort to Oust Peter Singer


“Disability activists have launched a petition demanding Princeton University professor Peter Singer resign over his outspoken support for euthanasia and infanticide,” according to an article in The Washington Times.

The petition, which  currently has 823 signatories, makes the following demands:

  • That Princeton University officials should immediately call for Professor Singer’s resignation;
  • That Princeton University officials should publicly disavow Singer’s statements that both devalue the lives of people with disabilities and advocate public policies that would end those lives through denial of healthcare; and
  • That the New Jersey Legislature and Governor Chris Christie publicly denounce the lethal and discriminatory public health care policy advocated by Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer.

This isn’t the first time people have objected to Singer’s employment at Princeton. At issue are Singer’s remarks about people with severe disabilities. This latest effort to oust him seems to have been prompted by a recent appearance by Singer on the radio show, “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio” to promote his new book, The Most Good You Can Do

What seems to get him into hot water is his advocacy of a strong principle of beneficence, combined with a denial of the moral significance of the distinction between killing and letting die, and empirical claims about the relative utility of the lives of people with severe disabilities. The view generates the judgment that there could be circumstances in which what we ought to do is kill (rather than let die) some people with (severe) disabilities. The authors of the petition claim that this qualifies as hate speech that violates Princeton’s own policy on Respect for Others, and that this consideration should trump concerns with academic freedom.

On a related note, I would recommend readers check out “Confessions of a Bitter Cripple,” a post by Elizabeth Barnes (Virginia) at Philosop-her, before commenting on this news item here.

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Will Behun
Will Behun
6 years ago

First, thanks for the link to the Elizabeth Barnes post. That’s stellar.

Regarding Singer, I find his position to be repugnant, morally vacuous, and personally offensive. I also recognise the value of such positions and the importance of them being supported by prominent thinkers. If we are concerned by entitled students who want to silence certain voices because those voices offend their delicate sensibilities (as I think we should be) I think we ought to be equally quick to defend those who push the limits of discourse and challenge accepted wisdom, especially if that wisdom is our own (or in this case, if that challenge has immediate ramifications for my personal flourishing).

All that said, the answer, I think, in this case, is to engage and challenge Singer’s claims; we aren’t dealing with an uncritical ideologue impervious to reason.Report

Alastair Norcross
6 years ago

Here are relevant quotes from the Washington Times article:
“My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life support — which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection — but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.”
More recently, in an April interview with WND’s Aaron Klein, Mr. Singer said bluntly: “I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.”
So, what is objectionable, repugnant or “morally vacuous” here? Would you rather a baby die painfully and slowly? And how many of the people objecting to Singer’s views consider themselves to have “zero quality of life”? I suspect none. So, why do they think Singer’s views apply to them? Does Singer have empirically false views about the actual quality of life of people with various disabilities? I don’t know. Those quotes certainly don’t suggest that he is committed to the view that any of the people who are protesting him should be killed, or should have been killed.Report

Jean
Jean
6 years ago

Once you lay out all the details, Singer’s position stops seeming totally outrageous. As I recall, he says infanticide is permissible when: (1) the infant is under a certain age, so lacks preferences about his/her own future, and (2) the infant’s disabilities are so severe that a short and/or low-quality life is virtually inevitable (pace Elizabeth Barnes), and (3) raising that child would stop the parents from conceiving another child with a much better quality of life, and (4) the child’s life would drastically lower the quality of life for the parents and other family members, and (5) this is a child who the parents would have chosen to abort, had the disability been revealed early in pregnancy. You can think he’s wrong that infanticide would be permissible under these conditions, but I don’t think the view is appalling and offensive. Rather than trying to get Singer fired, I think disability activists should engage with him, as did Harriet McBryde Johnson in this thoughtful, intelligent article–http://www.nytimes.com/2003/02/16/magazine/unspeakable-conversations.htmlReport

Andy Metz
Andy Metz
6 years ago

Peter Singer’s views are uncomfortable, but also get blown out of proportion. For example, he has said:

“My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life support — which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection — but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.”

That doesn’t appear to be such an unreasonable position.

The comment that he has raised on the radio show about not wanting to have insurance premiums to go up over expensive treatments over individuals who have “zero quality” of life is tough to hear. But, the discussion of the allocation of resources in society often involves uncomfortable discussions. That is no reason for someone to lose their job.Report

Elizabeth Barnes
Elizabeth Barnes
6 years ago

I find Peter Singer’s views appalling. I also think his arguments are bad, and rely on assumptions about the quality of life of disabled people (assumptions he never seems to give much argument for) which are overly simplistic, and not adequately informed either by the experiences of disabled people themselves or by the people who love and care for them. Casually tossing around assertions about what kinds of people have ‘low’ or ‘zero’ quality of life – when these people and their loved ones would tell you otherwise – is, unsurprisingly, something many people find offensive. But I don’t think he should be fired. For academic freedom to have any substance, it needs to allow scholars to say what they think, even when what they think is – at least from my perspective – pretty chilling.

That being said, I also sympathize with the protestors. Academic freedom should allow Peter Singer to say what he thinks, but it shouldn’t protect him from the consequences, including public outrage. He has a habit of saying things that are extremely offensive to disabled people. (This was another recent gem: http://www.dogster.com/the-scoop/controversial-philosopher-peter-singer-thinks-guide-dogs-are-waste-of-money) Disabled people are going to get up in arms about that, especially since they deal with the – very real, very rational – fear that the views of influential thinkers like Singer will have influence both on public policy and on wider public perceptions about the quality of life of people with what Singer calls ‘severe’ disabilities. (If you don’t think those fears make sense, you probably want to brush up on your disability history.)Report

Scott Forschler
Scott Forschler
Reply to  Elizabeth Barnes
5 years ago

I’m a bit baffled by your claim that Peter Singer has said anything offensive in the story you linked to. The headline reports an offensive claim, certainly…the problem is that it is unsupported by any quotations in the article. As is all too common, Singer is clearly being misrepresented here. It’s one thing for a news article or blog to do this; when professional philosophers repeat this without critical analysis, I despair for the profession. Singer clearly is saying that if we’re training guide dogs but *not* spending money to prevent blindness from easily-preventable causes, then we are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Which is pretty obviously correct. Find me a source that says he thinks it would be wrong, after we increase our spending on the latter, to spend further money on the former, and then you’ll have a point. But I don’t think he does. Nor did I see anything in this link, or anything else in Singer’s writings, supporting the claim that he “casually toss[es] around assertions about what kinds of people have ‘low’ or ‘zero’ quality of life.” Rather, he asserts that *if* a human being has a zero quality of life, that life is not worth preserving. He very rarely says which specific lives these are, and as Alistair points out above, it most certainly does not include the lives of anyone who could possibly read or understand Singer’s ideas, let alone be offended by them.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

“In a word, the University’s fundamental commitment is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed because the ideas put forth are thought by some or even by most members of the University community to be offensive, unwise, immoral, or wrong-headed. It is for the individual members of the University community, not for the University as an institution, to make those judgments for themselves, and to act on those judgments not by seeking to suppress speech, but by openly and vigorously contesting the ideas that they oppose. Indeed, fostering the ability of members of the University community to engage in such debate and deliberation in an effective and responsible manner is an essential part of the University’s educational mission.”

From the Princeton University regulations on freedom of expression.Report

annonnnn
annonnnn
6 years ago

I find it slightly odd that you chose to link the Elizabeth Barnes article in this context. It seems pretty explicitly targeted at arguments that are /not/ of the kind that Singer makes. You might find his views repugnant but they are not unreflective or un-argued.Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

There seem to be two main issues this time around. First is Singer’s (long time) endorsement of infanticide of disabled infants in certain circumstances. Two things about this. One, Singer also endorses infanticide of non-disabled infants in certain circumstances. Two, infants are not persons, so there’s in his view a world of difference between an infant (disabled or not) and a person (disabled or not). If as a matter of fact parents in general prefer to practice infanticide on disabled infants, then his view if implemented will mostly impact disabled infants, but I fail to see how that is Singer’s fault.

The second issue concerns the distribution of health care, and I haven’t read * The Most Good You Can Do.* But I read the NYT piece “Why We Must Ration Health Care.” And I read it after reading all the other links. It seems to me we have here, once again, an utter failure by a philosopher’s critics to even remotely comprehend what the philosopher actually asserted. Moreover, and I direct this at *philosophers*, I challenge you to find even *one thing* in that article that is repugnant or morally vacuous.

At the same time *I* am personally offended by the careless disregard for proper presentation of the facts that critics of Singer engage in. Consider this passage from the “petition”:
‘In the article Singer spoke “hypothetically” of assigning a life with quadriplegia as roughly half that of a life without any disability at all. On this “hypothetical” basis, Singer laid out a case for denying health care to people with significant disabilities on the basis that our lives have less value than the lives of nondisabled people.’
Yes, Singer did this. And what did he then *say* about the case he laid out? The sort of thing any honest philosopher would have, if they had thought about it enough. (He didn’t straightforwardly endorse the proposal, but you wouldn’t know this from reading the petition.)

Singer is at Princeton because he’s a terrific, careful philosopher who is unafraid to embrace the conclusions of his arguments, arguments that are very difficult to dismantle. The only petition I’ll be signing is one urging Princeton to again do the right thing (as they did in 1999 when Presidential hopeful Steve Forbes tried to get Singer’s appointment rescinded by threatening to cut off his donation to Princeton).Report

Richard Hanley
Richard Hanley
6 years ago

Just a quick personal reflection. I have used Singer *Practical ethics* for more than two decades now. One reason I use it is that students respond so positively to it. Students often come into the class already in anti-Singer mode. (I even had one student complain–before taking the class–that the book was on the syllabus. They suggested I balance it with a book by Ann Coulter… I didn’t do that.)

Once they immerse themselves in the actual arguments, the students are (a) impressed with Singer’s intellectual fairness, and (b) nonplussed or even angry at the brainless criticism that Singer is subjected to on a regular basis.

It is a wonderful object lesson in the joys and pitfalls of doing philosophy.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
6 years ago

@Alastair To begin, I have to thank you for “would you rather a baby die slowly and painfully?” I will be using this in my logic classes. It is an absolutely beautiful example of both a straw man and a false dichotomy. Brilliantly done.

However, what is repugnant to me, since you asked, is that the premise that we ought to kill an infant if it doesn’t meet our particular standards of fitness to live; that we take upon ourselves the right to place an arbitrary use value on a life and then treat that value as if it had objective meaning. I find such philosophical moves objectionable, yes.

His utilitarianism leads to conclusions which are deeply morally questionable. Most thinkers would take this as an opportunity to reevaluate the premises that lead to such a conclusion. There is a sort of arrogance in assuming that some basic moral principle (don’t kill children) must be faulty rather than our normative approach. I find such thinking vacuous.

You may not do. And this is precisely why I argued that Singer ought not to be removed from his position, a point you seem to have neatly evaded.Report

To annonnnn
To annonnnn
6 years ago

Perhaps the link to Barnes was in large part a reminder to commentators to be thoughtful in how they discuss the issue and make their points, given that some readers and contributors are disabled. It seems to me to be a very reasonable reminder that, with just a bit of care, we can discuss these issues in a way that avoids unnecessary alienation or insult to our colleagues.Report

Shen-yi Liao
6 years ago

@ Elizabeth / comment 5

Could you help me see what’s so disturbing about the recent Singer quote about the guide dogs? I think the headline is grossly misleading. As I understand him, Singer’s point is that in the current world, the asymmetry in treatment of people due to geography and colonial history is much greater than the asymmetry in treatment of people due to disability status. IF we only have enough resource to either use guide dogs to improve the quality of life for disabled people in developed countries or to improve the quality of life for many more similarly disabled people in developing countries in other ways, we should choose the latter. (Contrary to the blog post you linked, I don’t think Singer was making a false dichotomy.) That doesn’t seem to me an appalling view, even if one disagrees with it. So I’m wondering if I’m missing something?

In general, I feel that Singer could certainly learn far more and be far more nuanced about quality-of-life judgments from disability advocates. But I don’t find the general principles he advocates to be fundamentally problematic, especially given that we live in a world with limited resources.Report

Elizabeth Barnes
Elizabeth Barnes
6 years ago

Shen-yi, I think a big part of what’s offensive about the guide dogs comment is that it’s part of a wider pattern of attempts to deny accommodations to disabled people based on the idea that such accommodations are too expensive, not worth the investment, etc. These views about accommodation are something that disabled people struggle with, on a practical level, every day – and seeing them endorsed by someone as high profile as Singer is unfortunate. These kinds of comments about accommodation also reinforce the idea that accommodation is something we do to make up for the personal deficiencies of disabled people, rather than something we do to try to address systematic injustice (namely, that we designed so much of our society in a way that disadvantages the disabled.)

His focus on prevention vs. accommodation is also pretty unhelpful, and I do think he’s presenting a false dichotomy. (Why does accommodation in our own countries have to be viewed as coming at the expense of improving the lives of disabled people in other countries? Is there a set worldwide disability budget?) Again, these comments are a part of a larger, troubling pattern. The idea that what we should *really* be spending our money on is prevention or ‘cure’ is yet another way in which disabled people are routinely denied accommodation.

To understand why Singer’s remarks are so troubling, I think it’s important to appreciate these aspects of the lived experience of disabled people – what they have to fight against, how they are disadvantged, etc – and to view Singer’s remarks in their larger political context. Disabled people are, quite rightly I think, very concerned when an influential guy like Singer says these kinds of things, because of the very real impact such comments can have on their lives.

Fwiw, though, I didn’t actually think the guide dog comment was appalling (I was using ‘appalling’ to refer to his more notorious views.) My reaction to the guide dog comment was more “Oh, come on. . .”Report

Crimlaw
Crimlaw
6 years ago

Many of the cases Singer talks about are cases where there is no “false dichotomy” between a slow death and a quick death. Or perhaps Will Behun has another option that he has yet to provide to the medical community for conditions like advanced Leigh’s disease?Report

Elizabeth Barnes
Elizabeth Barnes
6 years ago

Another thing that’s worth pointing out – and which might help provide context to the response of members of the disability rights movement – is that Singer seems to have a habit of focusing on disability, where plenty of other examples would work. He could just as easily argue, for example, that rape crisis or rape prevention groups in western countries are misguided in how they spend their money, and should instead be focusing on rape and human trafficking in third-world countries. Or he could argue that groups advocating for the political and social rights of LGBT* people in countries like the US are likewise misguided, and should instead be focusing their efforts on repealing the extremely harsh anti-gay laws in other countries.

Regardless of what you think about the merit of these arguments, I think it’s safe to say that the political fallout from alternative examples like this would be intense. Perhaps Singer tends to focus on disability just because he thinks it’s a particularly egregious case. Or perhaps he knows its easier to say these things about disabled people than it is about other groups. Either way, its easy for it to feel like he’s picking on us. (And it makes sense to worry about the real, practical effects of that.)

Again, of course I think Singer has every right to say what he says and should under no circumstances have his employment threatened because of that. But I also think people are pretty quick to dismiss the reactions of disability rights advocates as confused, irrational, hysterical, etc. And I think it’s really important to view Singer’s remarks in their political context – a context which includes a long and troubled history of imposing severe harms on and denying justice to disabled people because of unreflective views about their ‘quality of life’ or the ‘impracticality’ of accessibility – before dismissing wholesale what disability advocates are saying.Report

Not a Singerian
Not a Singerian
6 years ago

I think this particular mis-reading of Singer is part of larger pattern of mis-interpreting Singer’s views. The context of the guide dog comment is a discussion of “effective altruism” where one aims to make decisions about resource allocation in order to do the most good. Singer thinks that if you have, say, $100 to give, it’s better to give it to say, the Fred Hollows Foundation, which does cataract surgeries and blindness prevention in the developing world, than to a foundation in the developed world that trains guide dogs. Of course, it’s still better to give to the money to the foundation that trains guide dogs than to use the money to do many many other things.

The quotation comes from an article in the Australian news paper “the Age”:
http://www.theage.com.au/queensland/philosopher-peter-singers-qa-guide-dogs-comments-questioned-20150511-ggytgp.html
What’s really objectionable is the response to Singer from the psychologist who accuses him of ignoring the “human aspect” of his argument: “”My personal view, is that if you give to charity domestically, what it does, it will change the life of somebody who can make a difference to others,” he said. “Whereas your hundred dollars overseas in Africa might restore vision to an African child who has a cataract but that extra vision isn’t going to help if they can’t eat.” If you’re looking for something to be appalled by, Singer’s respondent is a better candidate.

Ultimately, I don’t think that Singer’s unbending utilitarian principles can be incorporated into a workable practical ethics for human beings. My view is that Singer works out the implications of utilitarianism in a way that ends up being a reductio of utilitarianism. But I don’t think Singer’s view is degrading, unreflective, or unreasonable.Report

Jon Swift
Jon Swift
6 years ago

Good god. Singer’s is *precisely* the kind of view for which academic protections exist. For my sanity’s sake, I’ll hereafter imagine that any academic trying, apparent sincerity, to silence Singer with is actually engaging in some kind of performative reductio of whatever principles would censor or censure him.Report

Fritz Warfield
Fritz Warfield
6 years ago

@15, If Singer has a “habit of focusing on disability” then he also has a habit of focusing on a great many other things. He has argued, as one might recall and you surely know, that all sorts of spending in a really wide variety of situations is hard to defend given that the money could do far more good if used instead to fund the most efficient life saving charitable organizations. He certainly doesn’t restrict his attention to spending concerning disability. He has argued that a great deal of charitable giving is indefensible because better charitable choices are available. He has argued that extravagant spending on children is indefensible given the needs of the children of the world. And on and on and on about a wide range of spending choices.
His occasional focus on killing and letting die in the early stages of life (sometimes but not always concerning disability) seems to come out of his view that the principles governing standard medical practice are false. Whatever he may be wrong about, he’s surely not wrong about that.Report

Will Behun
Will Behun
6 years ago

@CrimLaw There are certainly situations, like those you cite, in which there would be a valid dichotomy between “quick painless death” and “slow painful death”. I have no problem conceding that point. Singer’s argument, as I understand it (which may be poorly, I admit) extends significantly beyond that, as Elizabeth Barnes and others have cogently argued. My primary issue is the reduction of human life to use or enjoyment value, and that is hardly unique to Singer. He is, however, the thinker at issues here, and arguably with great intellectual honesty draws that reduction to its ghoulish conclusion. Even given all of my concerns about his positions, I don’t think he should be fired.Report

L13
L13
6 years ago

Firstly, I think Peter Singer’s right to academic freedom covers the kind of public statement he is often quoted making, and thus that calls for his dismissal are groundless.

Secondly, however, I think his statements *are* very offensive, and very contentious, and am surprised by the attempts made in this comment section to present them as run-of-the-mill intellectual masturbation.

His argument rests on a de facto redefinition of personhood according to which personhood is conditional and bestowed months, potentially years, after one’s birth, until which point human children are the property of their parents–controversial–and on the unsubstantiated and incredibly offensive assumption that the likelihood of a disabled infant either contributing to society or enjoying life in any capacity is so small that killing it is best for both society and the infant itself. There’s an empirical claim about the average effect of disability on happiness, potential, and human capital in the family unit folded into this second assumption–an empirical claim Singer has never defended and will never defend because it is bogus–and an even more preposterous assertion that living in harsh conditions, or even without any happiness at all (to go with his bogus premise), is worse than death. (I mean, one *could* make that argument, sure, just like one could make the opposite argument–but it’s a topic far too hefty for a thinker of Singer’s caliber, so he never addresses it with any conviction.) And all these groundless and offensive claims amount to, in the end, is an argument for eugenics.

A retrogressive argument gone viral: a true Princeton specialty. (Recall Susan Patton’s idiotic statements about gender roles, interracial marriage, etc.)

Anyway. These are just some random and slightly incoherent thoughts, fit for an online comment but not a reasoned argument against Singer’s position. An actual reasoned argument would obliterate it.

tl;dr: Forget his conclusions, which are patent garbage. They rest on even more controversial premises that can and ought to be contested to the death. Let’s not inflate his credibility by pretending his “actual position” is not that controversial, or that his logic is sound.Report

THD
THD
6 years ago

I’m not an ethicist and I haven’t read Singer, but for semi-personal reasons, I’m hoping somebody can help me understand his position on infanticide. I was born with severe brain damage and physical disability. My parents were informed by several doctors that I would never learn to speak, and would require expensive physical assistance for the rest of my life. Both claims turned out to be false: these days I have a nearly full range of unassisted motion, and am in fact a graduate student at Singer’s university.

I’m relieved my parents were given no opportunity to end my life, but they had every reason to do so, had that option been presented. My situation met all five conditions Jean lays out in comment #3. Doctors advised that my quality of life would be very low or zero (by Singer’s lights), and that my upbringing would be expensive and exhausting. But this expert medical advice was bullshit, and killing me would have been disastrous for my happiness and possibly even deleterious to that of my parents, who have grown fond of me in the intervening years.

How does Singer’s position on infanticide deal with the fact that disability in infancy is not a perfect predictor of quality of life–even accepting Singer’s characterization of “quality of life”–later on? Would my parents’ false beliefs, shared by their doctors, about the consequences of keeping me alive have justified killing me?Report

Gary Bartlett
6 years ago

THD (@21), you misunderstand Singer’s premise. He does not think that disability in infancy is a perfect predictor of quality of life. Indeed he would be extremely foolish to think this, given the obvious fact that individuals such as yourself exist. I am sure he is perfectly aware of such cases. His premise is that disability in infancy is a *very good* predictor of quality of life. He also assumes that in medicine one must make decisions based on such imperfect predictors nearly all the time, and that it is inevitable that sometimes those decisions will be wrong.

Whether Singer is correct in his premise (about the high predictiveness of disability in infancy as regards later quality of life) is something that is definitely up for debate; as is the question of whether that premise, if true, justifies a decision to end the life of any given disabled infant. I am by no means sure myself of either of these. But one needs to be clear on what his premises are.

Also, in general, let’s be clear that Singer is not a fool. Ad hominem remarks from people such as L13 (@20) to the effect that he is not very smart (“a topic far too hefty for a thinker of Singer’s caliber”) are ridiculous and unhelpful.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

THD,

I’m not that familiar with Singer’s particular arguments, so others can correct me if I’m wrong. But I can think of plausible arguments, even if I don’t feel confident they are correct.

I suspect most who hold his view do not think the imperfection of predictions about quality of life is a problem for their arguments. I think their argument is that a decision about infanticide is between one option which, because the infant isn’t yet a person, does no harm, and another that could be either harmful or beneficial to a potential person.

I don’t know if that’s correct, but if it is, then we ought to choose based on the best information we have about potential quality of life. And this would be true even if our predictions are highly uncertain, since all of the risk is on the side of life. If we choose infanticide and are wrong, no one is harmed because the person never comes into existence. But if we choose life and are wrong, someone is harmed.

So, either: uncertainty isn’t a problem because the uncertainty is only on one side of the choice. Or: uncertainty isn’t a problem because it’s not avoidable either way, either choice depends on an uncertain prediction about quality of life.

I find something unconvincing and worrisome about this argument, but it’s not obviously false to me, so I can’t really dismiss it completely.Report

BunnyHugger
BunnyHugger
6 years ago

Like many in this discussion, I will start with the disclaimer that I am not a Singerian or any sort of utilitarian at all.

Does Singer really have a habit of focusing on disability, or do his critics have a habit of focusing on his beliefs about disability? His views in this area are generally his most notorious, but I am not sure that is reflective of an undue emphasis in his thinking. He makes unpopular suggestions in a lot of areas, but most are not going to shock and offend as much.

For instance, despite (once) being the darling of the animal rights movement, he believes that the attention paid by the movement to reforming (or eliminating) animal research is suboptimal as it represents a tiny fraction of animal suffering compared with the heinous state of animal agriculture. He also argues, in line with his thinking about effective altruism, that funding groups that rescue dogs and cats from the street is a relative waste because that again represents such a small amount of the overall picture of animal suffering. (I use animal examples only because it is the area of applied ethics that I know best.)Report

Richard Yetter Chappell
6 years ago

I believe that the guide dog vs. Fred Hollows Foundation example was originally borrowed from Toby Ord. The example works because it’s very easy to quantify the huge amount of good done by FHF, and compare it to the large (but orders of magnitude smaller) amount of good done by donating to help train guide dogs. It’s much harder to quantify and compare the cost-effectiveness of the sorts of advocacy causes that Elizabeth Barnes @15 proposes, which makes them worse examples for this purpose.

It’s also worth clarifying that Singer isn’t here arguing that people who train guide dogs are wasting their time, that the organizations should shut down, or anything like that. He’s specifically arguing that *philanthropists* should donate to the charities that do the most good, and those will often be charities that deal with foreign rather than local problems. There’s really nothing remotely objectionable here.Report

Avi Z.
Avi Z.
6 years ago

I am crippled from time to time. It has made me relish walking more than before, and I cannot say being crippled doesn’t diminish the quality of my life compared to when I am able to walk. However, the diminishment is not sufficient for me to rationally prefer that someone not crippled be saved and I left to die. I don’t know to what degree my quality of life would have to be diminished for me to rationally prefer someone else to live instead of me. The examples Singer uses are pretty extreme and people do in fact make living wills (in part to prevent their own suffering and to ease the burdens on their families, but it is conceivable one could do it for humanitarian reasons in a situation of scarce medical resources). Despite its being difficult to imagine a less popular opinion, Singer is right about the guide dogs. That said, I’m not sure someone who donates to guide dog and animal rescue causes simply wants to reduce suffering wherever it is found. In many cases, it will be because they love dogs or know someone who is blind, etc. We could also divert the money spent on our eyeglasses and contact lenses into blindness prevention in poor countries. Is it rational for me to prefer that I see well enough to drive a car, sail, and appreciate natural and artistic beauty at the cost of many impoverished people going completely blind? Singer is right that we could do always do more for those in need. Should one stop donating for guide dogs or just sell the yacht? Barnes is right that there isn’t a set global budget to be allocated for the disabled and also that we should be concerned about Singer’s arguments being repeated in a careless and casual way to defend discrimination against the disabled (and I, though young, would add: the elderly).Report

Nonymous
Nonymous
6 years ago

I am not only not a Singerian, I am an anti-Singerian, indeed an anti-utilitarian and anti-consequentialist. But the question raised by this petition is whether Princeton should remove Singer from his position. For addressing that question, I frankly don’t see why it matters whether Singer’s arguments are objectionable or whether some of you are rightly offended by them. I’ve yet to see a philosophical argument for a moral conclusion that wasn’t in some way objectionable, and whether or not you are offended by some such argument seems to be primarily a feature of your personal psychology. I would imagine that many of the people here taking offense to Singer’s views are also in favor of abortion rights, and I probably don’t have to tell you how many people are deeply offended by philosophical arguments in defense of abortion rights. Lots of philosophical arguments for abortion rights are also quite objectionable; it’s a familiar point that many of the considerations cited in support of abortion rights would seem to justify infanticide just as well. So we have objectionable arguments that are offensive to many people on two contentious issues; the difference seems to be simply that the people attacking Singer here find the conclusion of one of those arguments offensive, but are untroubled by the other. On both issues it would be perfectly sensible to insist that people should make an effort not to present these arguments in an offensive way, and it is of course entirely appropriate to object to the arguments on philosophical grounds. But what seems to be lost in much of the discussion here is that neither of these considerations has any bearing on whether Singer, or anybody else making one or the other of these arguments, should be removed from his position. I firmly reject Singer’s position on disability (and on most everything else), while I don’t reject abortion rights; but it doesn’t matter. Were there a petition by a group of pro-life conservatives calling for the ouster of Michael Tooley, we would probably not find a bunch of comments about whether Tooley’s arguments are any good; we would deride the petition and move on. Perhaps a thread discussing the flaws and merits of Singer’s position about disability would be a fitting response to the petition, but if so, shouldn’t it be a different thread, one that illustrates that the right way to respond to a set of arguments is with another set of arguments?Report

Alex
Alex
6 years ago

Several comments imply or suggest that philosophers (in these comments?) have supported this petition. While many people have objected to Singer’s views, I don’t see anyone supporting Singer’s ouster.Report

Dept Chair
Dept Chair
6 years ago

FFS, people, it’s an article in the Washington Times and a petition with 800-odd signatures.Report

THD
THD
6 years ago

Thanks to Gary Bartlett and Anon @23 for addressing my question. Anon @27 makes me hasty to affirm: Peter Singer should not lose his job for expressing views.

Gary, thank you, but I didn’t misunderstand the premise. Let me try to restate my thought. Given that disability in infancy is obviously *not* a perfect predictor for quality of life, Singer/Singerians must believe that it’s okay to use an imperfect predictor to determine which babies should be killed and which spared. But there are many problems attendant on *this* premise, problems mostly belonging to epistemology and the philosophy of science and medicine. When I ask how Singer deals with the fact that his chosen predictor is imperfect, I’m wondering about his specific and detailed responses to these problems, not suggesting that he is not aware of its imperfection.

For instance, it’s fine to say that doctors always deal in uncertainties when making decisions. But if you want to grant them baby-killing rights, you have to actually determine the acceptable threshold of certainty conditional for exercising those rights. How good must the predictor be? 99% hit rate? 51%? How much certainty do I need before I throw caution to the winds and my patient’s newborn daughter into the hospital furnace?

The personal case I discussed presents another problem, because pace Anon @23, it doesn’t turn on simple probabilistic uncertainty. It’s not as though my doctors had a 95% chance of being right, and I happened to get lucky. They just made a false, incompetent prognosis which never had any chance of coming true. They made it, however, with grave confidence and unanimity, and under the aegis of a state-sanctioned system of medical education and accreditation. The problem here is not uncertainty but error. Their error was apparently undetectable to their expert peers and to the state overseeing their training and practice. Confronted with such an error I can say: thank goodness nobody told them they were allowed to kill me! But what does a Singerian say? Better safe than sorry?

These concerns are not supposed to be refutations. The little Singer I have read has been remarkably and admirably plain about the concrete problems that arise in practical applications of his views; I’m sure his argument for killing disabled babies is no less marvellous. In commenting here, I’m just hoping that someone familiar with his works will point me to where he discusses these problems in relation to infanticide specifically (he has after all written something like 30 books and god knows how many articles). I must confess, for me reading ethics is about as fun as eating a bowl of raw flour, but arguments for my extermination certainly spice the dish! All the more reason for Princeton to retain Singer in the face of this ridiculous petition.Report

A Person
A Person
6 years ago

Anyone else ever notice that many of Singer’s most strident opponents have seemingly never bothered to really study his work very carefully? (That’s not to say that none of the critics in this discussion have worthwhile objections.)Report

Arthur Ward
6 years ago

THD,

You might not be totally happy with this answer, but I think you’ll agree that if one is not impressed with the doing/allowing distinction (as Singer is not), then all your worry about risk and uncertainty goes out the window. There is no “safe” option of inaction if you jettison the doing/allowing distinction because there is risk no matter what you do. If you devote resources here, you are not devoting them elsewhere; if you refuse to kill here, you are letting die elsewhere.Report

Langdon
Langdon
6 years ago

Singer’s use of the concept ‘person’ is itself repugnant. The only reason to employ that notion of personhood in the manner Singer does is if one wants to justify killing human beings. But Singer, of course, is not alone in this. Many philosophers are perfectly willing (and often eager) to kill human beings in all sorts of contexts.Report

Philo Dough
Philo Dough
6 years ago

I find it odd that the guide dog comment is your prime example here. Singer is not saying money for guide dogs should be allocated away from addressing blindness, but would be better allocated given the goal of addressing blindness. What’s more, it seems likely to me that Singer is right in his cost-benefit calculation (the article doesn’t even contest that).

So, what if Singer does convince people to divert money away from guide dog training and toward charities that prevent blindness? What is the cost? Fewer guide dogs but many fewer blind children. I don’t fault a person in need of a guide dog for disliking that outcome, but that is not the kind of outcome you advert to by invoking disability history.Report

Trajan
Trajan
6 years ago

Langdon — Interesting. I find the concept ‘human being’ repugnant.Report

Disabled Grad Student
Disabled Grad Student
6 years ago

As a woman in philosophy, I understand the importance of academic freedom. Without that concept it stands to reason that a lot more women would have been pushed out of philosophy for expressing, say, feminist opinions. But I don’t think every argument is equally valid or equally useful (practical ethics should be useful, no?) and I’m extremely uncomfortable with giving airtime to views that place subjective value judgements on, and stigmatize the lives of, disabled people.

As a disabled philosopher, I don’t think my existence as a disabled person should be something that’s ‘up for debate’, as it were. Other disabled philosophers have different views on this point, but I’m inclined to believe that encouraging, nay, even allowing conversations entertaining the notion that people like myself and my peers are somehow less worthy of funds, attention, or even life, is a really bad route to be traveling.Report

Pgradstu
Pgradstu
6 years ago

Absolutely, having able philosophers commenting on the experience of disability like this is shockingReport

Ligurio
Ligurio
6 years ago

I am at the point now in these debates that I can’t even be sure that #36 is the brilliant reductio charity dictates we must read it as.Report

DD
DD
6 years ago

When talking about individuals whose lives have zero or near zero utility Singer is, assume, mainly talking about individuals with mental disability. Anyone able to go to university (such as people contributing to this blog discussion) is clearly not in the group to which he is referring.

I would be interested to know about any good work done on the quality of life of mentally handicapped individuals. It is very difficult to judge another’s quality of life, even when that other is not mentally handicapped. In my mid-teens I was crushingly, heartbreakingly lonely, bored and miserable. But talking now to people who knew me then, they claim to have been unaware of this. I kept going because I had hope that I could change things and get out of that slough (and philosophy provided me with something interesting and meaningful to engage in). But if life had carried on as it was then it would have been better for me that it not carry on.

How much more difficult then to judge the quality of life of a mentally handicapped individual who cannot clearly and rationally understand and express their quality of life, nor significantly change it for the better. (Many non-mentally handicapped individuals have enough difficulty judging their own quality of life and changing it for the better). Many mentally handicapped individuals do not appear to live happy lives. How are we to know whether we are doing what is best for them in keeping them alive? (Bearing in mind that without being kept alive by us they would die). Are we, by keeping them alive, forcing them to live on in a living hell? Certainly that sort of life and condition appear hellish to many people, and many write living wills demanding not to be kept alive if they (through accident, disease or dementia) find themselves in such a state…Report

Alex
Alex
6 years ago

Well, I’m certainly willing to admit when I am wrong (or very close to it) (@28). Apparently philosophers really ARE interested in censoring Singer.Report

Eureka
Eureka
6 years ago

There is a distinction to be made between the following two statements:
1. We ought to terminate the life of an infant who can experience zero quality of life and, in fact, would experience a life filled with immense suffering if left to live.
2. A being with disability X (insert whatever disability) is someone who experiences zero quality of life and, in fact, will live a life filled with immense suffering.

As far as I know, Singer’s discussions of infanticide concern mainly claim #1 and, *occasionally,* he gives examples of *extreme* disabilities that are arguably instances of #1, such as his claim that we ought to terminate the life of those severely cognitively impaired infants whose lives will contain immense suffering and, arguably, little to no happiness (or see the quote Alastair references in his comment). As far as I know, Singer does not go beyond this to make empirical claims about the lives of humans with other disabilities, such as those with autism, various physical disabilities, etc. As DD points out, and as far as I know, Singer’s arguments about infanticide concern the severely cognitively impaired or those infants who will inevitably die days after birth, after being subjected to immense suffering– and those of us commenting on this message thread certainly do not fall into either of these categories. If I am wrong about any of this, I would be happy if someone could provide a reference from Singer’s work that illustrates this.

I think the issue is that many people assume that Singer is claiming that it is permissible to humanely kill ANY infant with a disability. And, this is clearly false, as he is very careful to give examples of cases that involve an immense amount of suffering– a life that contains so much suffering that it would not be worth living. And, we would be fooling ourselves if we couldn’t think of a few examples where, unfortunately, this is the case for some infants (and I think Singer does a nice job providing such examples).

On a side note, I do wonder if the same people who are up-in-arms about Singer’s discussion about infanticide live a vegan lifestyle? Since, afterall, those who choose to eat animals are essentially making value judgments about the lives of nonhuman animals on the basis of their so-called “mental inferiority” or the so-called fact that their lives are of an inferior quality to that of rational humans.Report

Eureka
Eureka
6 years ago

On another note, I find it interesting that the anti-Singer petition states that Singer’s discussion about infanticide “devalue the lives of people with disabilities and advocate public policies that would end those lives through denial of healthcare,” when, in the exact passage the Washington Times references, Singer makes a clear distinction between: (1) killing persons with a sense of self and who want to go on living and (2) killings beings who have no sense of existing over time (such as infants or the severely mentally impaired). His discussion about inftanticide concerns the killing of beings who do not have a sense of existing over time– he is not advocating that we kill persons with disabilities who want to go on living. So, I find it hard to see how this discussion “devalues the lives of people with disabilities” or how his writings will generate “the judgment that there could be circumstances in which what we ought to do is kill (rather than let die) some people with (severe) disabilities.”Report

Utilitarian philosopher
Utilitarian philosopher
6 years ago

I believe that some of the discussion e.g. Eureka is misdirected because people assume that Singer is only advocating infanticide in cases of the most extreme disabilities and suffering of the infants. This is not consistent with Singer’s actual claims in several books and articles. He advocates infanticide in cases of mild disabilities but (in his mind) lower quality of life. These cases include infants with Down’s syndrome, hemophilia and spina bifida. The people with disabilities who picket his events are often those with these very disabilities. It is also not quite accurate to say that he is solely concerned with the suffering of the infants. He clearly argues that parents will be inconvenienced by having children with these mild disabilities and that they should be allowed to kill their baby in order to have the possibility of “replacing” that baby with one who is “normal”.
If the discussion were centered on Singer’s claims about killing babies with hemophilia, then the offensiveness of his claims and the outrage of the opponents would be much more understandable.
I myself have been forced to absent myself from talks Singer gave making these horrifying claims because I simply could not endure listening to a discussion about killing these babies. Yes, some reasonable philosophers do not have the stomach to calmly discuss killing mildly disabled babies, and good for them. Just because Singer is granted a forum to talk about these horrors does not mean that others must endure listening to him.
See below:
http://new-compass.net/articles/peter-singer-and-eugenics-0Report

Disabled Grad Student
Disabled Grad Student
6 years ago

I’m seeing a lot of people here defending Singer’s view with the claim that it ‘doesn’t apply’ to people with ‘less than severe’ disabilities like myself – but that simply isn’t true. He discusses spina bifida and Down’s syndrome, for example, conditions with which many people do live – people who are perfectly capable of articulating how they feel about their own ‘quality of life.’ Singer seems to believe that parents of children with such conditions ought to be offered the opportunity to kill their children after birth, presumably because resources could be better spent on children with ‘better prospects.’

Maybe this argument is logical. Maybe it makes sense. After all, the children who die aren’t going to miss anything, because they have no conception of their own existence. But what about the rest of us? The disabled people who made it to adulthood? I think what we need to remember about these kind of arguments is that they don’t occur in a vacuum. It’s not just academic philosophers listening to and interpreting these arguments. Singer is doing applied philosophy – he wants to have an effect on the world. The general public is hearing a message here, and that message is ‘disabled lives are worth less than those of able-bodied people.’ Statements like this serve to reinforce that message: “I don’t want my health insurance premiums to be higher so that infants who can experience zero quality of life can have expensive treatments.” This kind of attitude is incredibly stigmatizing. It devalues the lives of people living with a disability, without cause for doing so. People with disabilities, even those that Singer has categorized as ‘severe’, can lead meaningful and fulfilling lives – lives that shouldn’t be reduced to a ‘numbers game’, and one which seems pretty vague at that.

Who determines what constitutes good quality of life? In ‘Why we must ration healthcare’, Singer ‘hypothetically’ assigns value to the lives of people with quadriplegia, but on what empirical basis? Has he consulted people who use wheelchairs? Is it enough to use a hypothetical estimation of someone’s quality of life to determine whether babies with the same condition ought to be killed before they have an opportunity to experience life? Able-bodied and/or neurotypical philosophers have the luxury of thinking about this in an abstracted way which disabled people aren’t often afforded. In Elizabeth Barnes’ words:

“I have sat in philosophy seminars where it was asserted that I should be left to die on a desert island if the choice was between saving me and saving an arbitrary non-disabled person. I have been told it would be wrong for me to have my biological children because of my disability. I have been told that, while it isn’t bad for me to exist, it would’ve been better if my mother could’ve had a non-disabled child instead. I’ve even been told that it would’ve been better, had she known, for my mother to have an abortion and try again in hopes of conceiving a non-disabled child. I have been told that it is obvious that my life is less valuable when compared to the lives of arbitrary non-disabled people. And these things weren’t said as the conclusions of careful, extended argument. They were casual assertions. They were the kind of thing you skip over without pause because it’s the uncontroversial part of your talk.”

It’s painful to hear these arguments. It’s hard enough when we get this from other philosophers – our peers, our colleagues, our students. But as I said, it isn’t confined to philosophy. The socio-political context is important here. When Singer makes claims about severely disable people having ‘zero quality of life’ and thus its being morally acceptable to kill them, he does so against a backdrop of extreme discrimination and violence against disabled people. The stigmatization of disability and mental illness makes our lives harder. I sometimes think that the most difficult thing about my disability isn’t the condition itself, but the way I am treated by others as a result. We live in a world where parents are already killing their disabled children and getting away with it – even garnering sympathy in some cases for having to ‘deal’ with a disabled child for so long (see: http://www.xojane.com/issues/yet-another-disabled-child-killed-by-family and: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2013-09-03/young-kyla-puhle-death/4930742 )

Should Singer and other bioethicists who advocate for eugenics be praised for promoting these kinds of sentiments? Certainly Singer has a right to his opinion. But the question of whether institutions like Princeton ought to continue to offer him a platform is a different, more difficult one to answer. Knowing that the opinions of influential academics like Singer are widely disseminated and often accepted by others who have power over the lives of disabled people – doctors, politicians, parents – I’m not sure if I can continue to support his holding such a prominent and respected position.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
6 years ago

Disabled Grad Student @44 writes: “Singer has a right to his opinion. But the question of whether institutions like Princeton ought to continue to offer him a platform is a different, more difficult one to answer.”

If Singer’s “right to his opinion” is compatible with Princeton being able to fire him for that opinion, that’s a pretty worthless sort of right to have.Report

Eureka
Eureka
6 years ago

A couple of points: I have Practical Ethics in front of me and, in his discussion of spina bifida, Singer refers to “the most severe form”…”in which the baby has a wound on the back exposing the nerves” (185). In the cases he refers to, a doctor predicted that the babies would have poor prospects for a worthwhile lif. So, we should be careful not to say that Singer advocates for killing *all* infants with spina bifida, when he specifically references “the most severe form.”

Grad student 44 says: “Singer seems to believe that parents of children with such conditions [down syndrome and spina bifida] ought to be offered the opportunity to kill their children after birth, presumably because resources could be better spent on children with ‘better prospects.’” — Yes, he would agree to this in severe cases of spina bifida, if it cost a significant amount of money to keep the baby alive with *severe* spina bifida who has poor prospects for a worthwhile life. But, in his discussion of down syndrome, Singer’s focus is on the *happiness of the parent(s)* (not about the spending of resources)— specefically, his claim is that the parent(s) should have the choice to painlessly kill their infant with down syndrome since, in some cases, having a child with down syndrome would not produce *happiness* in a couple’s life, or as much happiness if they had a child without this disability (remember, he is a utilitarian after all!). So– Singer is not “advocating” infanticide in these cases of disability without suffering— that is such a strong claim to attribute to him. And, in fact, he states that it’s rational for parents to keep such an infant if doing so would make them just as happy as they would be if they had an infant without down syndrome. He is merely arguing that parents, or the woman, should have the *choice* to painlessly kill an infant with down syndrome. And, again, this goes back to his view that killing a non-person is not, in-and-of-itself, morally problematic.

I would be curious to know whether those who are critical of Singer’s view about killing infants with down syndrome are also opposed to a woman aborting her fetus after her prenatal testing for down syndrome comes back positive? Should we tell that woman that she is a monster for aborting this fetus and for not wanting to bring to term a child with down syndrome? I can only assume that there would be less objection to this (and, in fact, it’s quite common for women to abort a fetus for this reason when their prenatal test comes back positive– the last I saw, it was around 75%). Yet, the reason why one would abort a fetus with down syndrome or painlessly kill an infant with down syndrome are the same, yet we find the infanticide discussion to be more horrifying simply because we don’t share Singer’s view about whether or not it is permissible to kill a non-person.

As a side note, I find it troubling that Singer is being criticized for exploring the logical entailments of the ethical theory he endorses– and what’s more is that the theory he endorses is an influential ethical theory in the philosophical community. If we cannot explore the entailments of the ethical theories we endorse without being harrassed and called names, then why should we even attempt to pursue honest ethical discourse? **And, as a disclaimer, I do not necessarily agree with all of Singer’s arguments and I definitely do not identify as a utilitarian. But, I don’t think Singer should be subjected to such ridicule by his own academic community for unapologetically defending a widely accepted ethical theory and exploring its entailments.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

“I would be curious to know whether those who are critical of Singer’s view about killing infants with down syndrome are also opposed to a woman aborting her fetus after her prenatal testing for down syndrome comes back positive? Should we tell that woman that she is a monster for aborting this fetus and for not wanting to bring to term a child with down syndrome?”

If she is a monster according to the arguments of the critics of Singer, it is not because she is terminating the life of a non-person. It is because her reasons for doing so express a devaluation of a certain class which includes both non-persons and persons. This means that her reasons devalue persons (adults with Down syndrome) in that class just as much as non-persons (fetuses with Down syndrome). This does not necessarily have any direct bearing on what acts are permissible: devaluing the lives of adults with Down syndrome is consistent with thinking that they are valuable enough, qua persons, not to be killed (in contrast to a fetus). We might also hold abortion to be a legal right independently of one’s reasons for the abortion, even if we think that some reasons for an abortion are bad ones or even morally problematic. To see this distinction, change the reasoning so that it is based on the race or gender of the child and make the basis her view that members of that race or gender are inferior in ability to the most superior race or gender. The woman then reasons that this inferiority will lead to a lower quality of life than if she were to have a child of a superior race or gender (or that she would be happier if she were raising a child which didn’t require extra effort to compensate for its inferiority or which she would not be alienated from because of its inferiority).

Or, for a less essentialist take, see the following case (not involving abortion, but involving preferring a white child over a mixed race child for quality-of-life reasons): http://www.towleroad.com/2014/10/lesbian-couple-suing-sperm-bank-after-giving-birth-to-mixed-race-baby/

What Singer is being taken to task for with respect to his views of people with disabilities is not his support for infanticide simpliciter, but his support for infanticide on the basis of certain reasons: reasons which either implicitly or explicitly devalue the lives of persons with disabilities.Report

Eureka
Eureka
6 years ago

@ Anon 47: I am aware of the distinction between the moral and legal, and I wasn’t, at any point, asking if Singer-critics believe that we should deny a woman the legal right to abort for reasons having to do with disability. My question concerns whether we should criticize her if she were to terminate her pregnancy after she receives positive results from the down syndrome screening [and yes, criticize her reasoning as opposed to her act of killing a non-person] since her reasons mirror those who would be inclined to painlessly kill an infant with down syndrome. What I gather from your response is that you are inclined to think we should criticize her reasons, since you seem to believe that aborting a fetus because it will have down syndrome is morally equivalent to aborting a fetus because it is an “inferior race or gender.”

I really don’t see the reason for suggesting that these two cases [aborting because of down syndrome and aborting because of “inferior gender or race”] are, by any means, comparable. For one, having a child with down syndrome would be considerably more demanding parenting wise (and let’s not forget who would be expected to assume this additional parental responsibility) and it would require significantly more resources (think about all of the additional therapy and medical costs that would be required) than would be needed if one were to have a child of an “inferior race or gender.” And, quite frankly, some people are unable to take on these significant emotional, time, and financial requirements– I am thinking of a single mother, a 17 year old girl who becomes pregnant, or a couple who is already living paycheck to paycheck and working overtime to make ends meet. While some couples very well could have a child with down syndrome without it affecting them in a significant way (which Singer himself acknowledges), unfortunately, this is not the case for everyone– and to be critical of anyone who dares to terminate a pregnancy for reasons having to do with down syndrome seems to reveal a bit of privilege.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

“What I gather from your response is that you are inclined to think we should criticize her reasons, since you seem to believe that aborting a fetus because it will have down syndrome is morally equivalent to aborting a fetus because it is an “inferior race or gender.””

That is false. I did not present the two as morally equivalent, I presented the alternate case involving race/gender in order to show clearly the distinction between the act and the reasons for the act, and how the reasons can involve problematic attitudes towards persons (and not just the non-person fetus). I picked race/gender in particular because those seem cases that would clearly count, in most people’s eyes, as choosing to abort for reasons that express a problematic devaluation of the lives of certain groups of people. So there is analogy, but I nowhere stated that the two cases are morally equivalent. And I certainly never suggested that the case of a parent who cannot afford to raise a child with Down syndrome is equivalent to these cases.

Your new example of a woman who can’t *afford* to raise a child with Down syndrome reduces Singer’s argument to the argument that abortions and, by extension, infanticide are justified when a parent cannot afford to raise the child. That’s a rather uninteresting argument with respect to disability, and not one that Singer seems to intend to restrict himself to. Note, for example, that previously your characterization of it is that the parent’s expected happiness is what can justify infanticide on the basis of disability: “specefically, his claim is that the parent(s) should have the choice to painlessly kill their infant with down syndrome since, in some cases, having a child with down syndrome would not produce *happiness* in a couple’s life, or as much happiness if they had a child without this disability (remember, he is a utilitarian after all!).” But parents could be financially privileged and still expect to be unhappy with a child with Down’s syndrome because they expect their child will have a lower quality of life, or because they feel they will be alienated from their child, etc…, etc… Heck, in the quote I just nabbed from your prior post, you present his argument as the claim that it is justified even if the parent(s) wouldn’t expect to be unhappy, but that they would be happier with a different child.

And here, I will cite Singer himself on the subject giving what is certainly *not* the narrow argument you present, an argument that also does not focus on the parent’s happiness but the weighing of the relative worth of those with disabilities and those without:

“Note, however, that neither haemophilia nor Down’s syndrome is so crippling as to make life not worth living, from the inner perspective of the person with the condition. To abort a fetus with one of these disabilities, intending to have another child who will not be disabled, is to treat fetuses as interchangeable or replaceable. If the mother has previously decided to have a certain number of children, say two, then what she is doing, in effect, is rejecting one potential child in favour of another. She could, in defence of her actions, say: the loss of life of the aborted fetus is outweighed by the gain of a better life for the normal child who will be conceived only if the disabled one dies […] It may still be objected that to replace either a fetus or a newborn infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled. Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so.”

No mention of the economic situation of the parent. Only a comparative weighing of the ‘quality of life’ of someone with Down syndrome vs a ‘normal’person. The assumption that, *of course*, having a disability like Down means one’s life is ‘less worth living’ than the life of someone without.Report

Eureka
Eureka
6 years ago

@Anon 49: In my previous comment, I was not suggesting that Singer makes the argument that painlessly killing an infant with DS is justified only if the mother cannot afford the expenses (nor was I trying to reduce his argument to this position)—I was merely providing an example which illustrates why aborting a fetus because it has DS is not comparable to aborting a fetus just because it is of an “inferior gender/race.”

One of the reasons why I referenced the emotional, time, and financial requirements entailed by having a child with DS is to draw attention to the fact that these considerations might significantly affect the level of happiness in *some* people if they were to have a child with this disability– and I think these considerations are morally relevant, as they are often life changing (in ways beyond the changes entailed by having a child without a disability).—and for some, this might seriously detract from their overall well-being. And, as such, I don’t find it obvious that we should just assume that all parents should be criticized for preferring to have a child without DS for the reason that they believe that their happiness would be significantly impaired if they had such a child (or that Singer is “morally repugnant” for his arguments).

In regard to the quote that you provide which illustrates that Singer believes that the lives of humans with DS are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled: what edition of Practical Ethics did you find that from? I have the third edition and instead of this passage you quoted:“Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so”…the third edition reads:“Yet that belief is the only way to make sense of actions that we already take for granted.” The quote from my edition seems less controversial, so I would be interested to know if he changed it for the later edition.

In any case, I think Singer’s example regarding Thalidomide, which follows the quote you referenced, might be helpful for Singer-critics to consider that what he is suggesting is not so morally outrageous or counterintuitive. So let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that there is a sleeping drug that, were pregnant women to take, their fetus would be born with DS (and there are no other side-effects of taking the drug). Would Singer-critics argue that the drug should not be pulled from the market? And say the drug does remain on the market: should we criticize a woman who now will no longer take the drug just because of the DS side-effect? After all, by refusing to take this drug (that she normally would have taken) just because she doesn’t want her baby to have DS, she would be making a value judgment about the lives of humans with DS.

I would agree that, in my hypothetical example, the drug should be pulled from the market and that the woman is completely justified in avoiding that drug just because she would prefer not to have a child with DS. But, according to the logic of the Singer-critics, dut to my response to these questions, I do in fact believe that it is better to be born without DS than with this disability. And, consequently, I have implicitly made the value judgment that the life of a being with DS is “less worth living’ than the life of someone without.” So, this must make me appalling, offensive, and morally repugnant. Thankfully, I am commenting anonymously so no one can start a petition to fire me from my position as a graduate student 

But, in reality, I don’t think this, by any means, demonstrates a lack of respect for people with DS (even if my answer entails that I think that the lives of humans with DS are “less worth living”). There are observable difficulties that people with DS face, which are not by any means insignificant, and if a woman is given the opportunity to choose to give life to a being without these difficulties, she should be able to do so without being subject to moral criticism.Report

DD
DD
6 years ago

Anon states in post 47 [with regard to someone who kills a foetus or baby with Down’s Syndrome] ‘her reasons devalue persons (adults with Down syndrome) in that class just as much as non-persons (fetuses with Down syndrome).’

This is one of those woolly claims which, when examined, is seen to be empty propagandizing. It is up to the individual what value he places on any other individual. It is perfectly possible for person P1 to kill non-person N1 with characteristic C but treat as an end / as having absolute value, person P2 with characteristic C. For example, if a dog has rabies then he may kill that dog, but he may do this whilst treating as an end / as having absolute value, a person with rabies.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

@DD – “This is one of those woolly claims which, when examined, is seen to be empty propagandizing.”

Hardly. You are totally misinterpreting my claim by decontextualizing it. Look at Singer’s argument: it is based on the view that adult *persons* with Down syndrome have a life “less worth living” than people without. The argument *explicitly* devalues persons with Down syndrome. You are, I suppose, free to define ‘devalues’ in a way that would make this false, but that doesn’t make anything woolly propaganda. It just means you like to use the word differently. Nor does that constitute any kind of response to those who think that Singer’s claim that people with Down syndrome have lives less worth living than people who don’t objectionable.

If the woman’s reasons for getting an abortion are the reasons Singer gives in his argument, then there is no getting around the fact that her reasons involve seeing the lives of people with Down syndrome as being less worth living than people without. If the woman’s reasons for getting an abortion are different from Singer’s, then she is irrelevant as an example for the purposes of this debate.

@ Eureka:

” And, as such, I don’t find it obvious that we should just assume that all parents should be criticized for preferring to have a child without DS for the reason that they believe that their happiness would be significantly impaired if they had such a child (or that Singer is “morally repugnant” for his arguments).”

That’s fine. I just think that that the arguments you have given so far won’t move the debate past a deadlock where Singer’s critics disagree precisely on this point. In particular, raising the issue of abortion doesn’t really do much (except concerning the separate issue of what distinguishes abortion from infanticide).

As to the quote, it can be found in the Second Edition of the book. It’s definitely interesting that he changed it. I’m not sure what to make of how much his argument or point of view has changed given the new quote, though it does seem to be a moderation (or at least some kind of hedging).

“In any case, I think Singer’s example regarding Thalidomide, which follows the quote you referenced, might be helpful for Singer-critics to consider that what he is suggesting is not so morally outrageous or counterintuitive.”

This kind of argument is discussed in the philosophy of disability, see e.g. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/677021 (and a précis of the same here: http://peasoup.typepad.com/peasoup/2014/11/ethics-discussion-at-pea-soup-elizabeth-barnes-valuing-disability-causing-disability-with-critical-p.html) As a side note, I don’t know that any of his critics charge his views for being counter-intuitive. They probably think that his views are ‘intuitive’, in the sense that they are the natural product of growing up in a society which sees disabled people as inferior. I’m not able to offer any kind of argumentative defense for the degree of outrage they express, all I’ve been trying to do is show that their basic complaint isn’t so easily dismissed.

In particular, the disability-as-difference view is probably held by many critics of Singer. This is precisely why I think that your examples and appeals to intuitions about what sorts of choices about what children to have are criticizable aren’t going to go far in the debate.Report

Anon
Anon
6 years ago

A further elaboration in response to DD:

The disanalogy with the example of the dog that you have given is plain: the woman, if she is reasoning along the lines that Singer endorses, chooses to abort because of her evaluation of what she anticipates will be true at times when the fetus has become a person, given that the fetus having Down syndrome implies that the person it becomes will have it as well. The person shooting a rabid dog is not doing so because of something they anticipate will be true at times when that rabid dog has become a rabid person, so of course killing the rabid dog doesn’t involve any views about rabid people.

So I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. If it’s that the woman might think it’s permissible to kill a fetus with Down syndrome, but not a person, that has no bearing on whether she thinks people with Down syndrome are less valuable than those without. If it’s that the woman might be a Kantian and think that degrees of value are impossible and that personhood makes the difference between being absolutely valuable and absolutely valueless, then I suppose that’s true, but it’s far from obvious to me that Singer is such a Kantian (though he does think that persons have a right to life).Report

DD
DD
6 years ago

Hello Anon

Thanks for your reply

I was just making the point that it does not follow from person P1 killing a non-person with Down’s syndrome because that non-person has Down’s syndrome that P1 does other than treat as an end, or ascribe absolute value to, a *person* with Down’s syndrome.

One explanation for P1’s acting like this is the last one you mention – that P1 is a Kantian (of the stripe that sees adult individuals with Down’s syndrome as persons. Though presumably Kant himself, and many Kantians, would not see an adult with Down’s syndrome as a person because he does not have the requisite mental capacities).

I am not an expert on Singer’s work, and not a fan either so will not attempt to elaborate his position.

I would be grateful were you (or anyone else) to answer my question in Post 39 above…Report

Andy Metz
Andy Metz
6 years ago

Lots of interesting arguments here. A couple of observations.

If the argument is framed in absolutes, such that any person — both with a disability or not — has the same value, then Singer’s argument does not hold water. But, to hold that argument would mean that aborting a fetus with a known serious medical issue would also be wrong. Why abort that fetus if you did not abort a fetus without a known serious medical issue if the potential people here would have the same value? (Of course, that argument could be extended to doing away with abortion itself — a whole other discussion.)

Even if we were to treat fetuses differently from newborns, medical accidents happen. What if a medical accident left a newborn with catastrophic, but survivable, injuries? If we allowed a fetus to be terminated because of potential disabilities, why would we not allow it in the situation of a medical accident?

But, what if we are not talking absolutes. What if we are looking at a case-by-case basis? Assuming we don’t have unlimited resources in terms of medical care, would there be cases where it would be reasonable to terminate the life of a newborn if they had severe disabilities? If so, wouldn’t it be the parents who would have to make those decisions?

And then, where do you draw the line? Do children with Down’s Syndrome survive the cut? Quadriplegia?

Those are difficult questions. I applaud Peter Singer for raising them. He deserves better than a call for his dismissal.Report

Scott Forschler
Scott Forschler
5 years ago

I don’t know if he made this point anywhere in print, but years ago I heard David Velleman explain how he would respond to a disability activist making this kind of objection against parts of his position, on a point where I think he and Singer would roughly agree. The gist of it was: “you are confused if you think that we want to rid the world of you. Rather, we love you and are glad you are here, and will try to help you enjoy life like everyone else. We just don’t think there should be any more people like you, if we can help it.” Now that last line, out of context, could sound callous; but when it means preventing or curing blindness, debilitating illnesses, etc., it should seem quite innocuous. Someone could argue that aiming at the latter implies a value-judgment which will interfere with the former; but this is an empirical claim, and is far from obviously true. Indeed, I think it is false, in general.Report