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The Singer Revolution

Ethicist and animal rights advocate Peter Singer has faced public outrage over his views on infanticide and euthanasia. Richard Taylor explains why he regards Singer as the most important thinker of the present generation.

Peter Singer has emerged as the most important and influential philosopher of this generation and, with respect to philosophical ethics, of several generations. He has established the foundation for a revolution in ethics, which he considers inevitable because of the inconsistencies inherent in traditional approaches. These rest on the belief in the unique value of human life. Singer insists that this no longer works, and that ethics must be concerned, instead, with reducing suffering.

My purpose here is not to promote Singer’s ideas, for in fact our basic suppositions are quite different. Singer assumes, with just about everyone else, that ethics has to do with one’s treatment of others, whereas my concern is with how we treat ourselves. Thus, Singer finds human goodness exemplified in such people as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg or, less dramatically, in blood donors – people who do good to others. I, on the other hand, think of a good person as someone like Beethoven, Picasso, Malcolm X or Amelia Earhart – people who distinguished themselves, not by what, if anything, they did for others, but what they did with themselves. Singer thus belongs to the Judeo-Christian tradition, which sees ethics in terms of right and wrong, whereas I am inspired by the classical Greek tradition, in which the basic concepts are virtue or fulfillment (eudaimonia). This is perfectly illustrated in Aristotle’s ethics, where the concepts of moral right and wrong do not even appear, the aim being, instead, to find the marks of a truly superior man.

This does not at all diminish my estimate of Singer’s overwhelming importance. His impact on contemporary thought, not only in philosophy but in the world at large, can hardly be exaggerated. His recent appointment to an endowed chair at Princeton University produced a stream of critical editorials in the most widely read magazines and newspapers in America, and a wealthy presidential candidate, who happens to be a trustee of Princeton, declared that he would withhold future gifts to the University until Singer is fired.

This illustrates once again the sad fact that people consider themselves authorities on ethics, even when they have had no training whatever in that subject. It is as if a philosopher, with no training in medicine, were to presume to tell an established physician what is wrong with his procedures. The whole thing is made worse by the nature of the criticisms. Columnists think it enough simply to say that Singer has “gone too far,” that he is “off base,” or that some of his conclusions are “not acceptable.” All they are really saying is that some of his views conflict with traditional ethics. But of course! They seem to see no need to consider Singer’s reasoning, which is flawless, or his observations, which are incontestable.

Singer’s visits to Germany and Austria have produced firestorms of protests. His lectures there were shouted down before they could begin, high government officials have become embroiled, and university courses which were to include his views had to be cancelled. Of course such hysteria arises, not from ignorance, as in America, but from the gross distortion of some of his views.

One positive result of all of this has been soaring sales of Singer’s books – not something academic philosophers normally expect.

Singer’s stature rests on three things rarely found together in one thinker, namely, his erudition, his personal involvement in the world, and, above all, his philosophical acumen.

Most of what follows will deal with the last of these, but first, a few words about his erudition and involvement in the world.

Both are displayed in his book, How Are We To Live? Here Singer moves from classical and modern sources in philosophy and literature to cultural history and contemporary life, always with relevance to the point he is making. The follies of modern affluent societies are scathingly exposed. Many of these we are familiar with – financial scandals, greed, the excesses of the rich, the self-absorption of urban intellectuals and so on – but Singer exposes them more effectively than any social critic I have read. The quest for the ‘American dream’ – i.e., wealth – is shown to be simply stupid, and the envy it incites, misdirected.

Worse yet, Singer claims, those who attain this American dream are, very often, the “moral equivalent” of murderers!

This shocking indictment is defended with the following kind of argument.

Suppose you were to find your barn engulfed in flames. Your expensive car is in there, but also, you discover, in another part of the barn are some children, unknown to you, who have no business being there. There is not time to save both. Do you get your car out and let the children perish, or do you rescue the children instead?

Anyone with the least moral sense would save the children, even at considerable personal loss. To do otherwise would, in effect, make one a murderer.

But are we not all, who live in comfort beyond our needs in an affluent society, in a similar situation? There are children in the world who face death from sickness or hunger and we could, almost effortlessly, save some of them simply by contributing to relief organizations. We choose, however, to let the children die rather than trim our extravagances.

It is not surprising, then, that Singer himself systematically contributes a fifth of his gross income to relieving world hunger and, in addition, promotes organizations devoted to reducing the suffering of domestic animals. Suffering is evil, wherever it exists, and it can often be easily reduced.

Singer is, indeed, a worldly philosopher, but above all, he is a philosopher. I turn now, then, to his philosophical acumen and the effect it is having on traditional ethics.

We note at the outset that Singer does not employ his dialectic in trying to prove any theory of ethics, and this by itself sets him apart. Philosophers such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill have considered it their task to show that their ethical theories were true. Virtually all modern philosophical moralists have done the same, resulting in dreary discussions, hair splitting and trivial subtleties batted about in seminars and philosophical journals, casting little shadow in the outside world. Not Singer. He accepts the label ‘utilitarian’, but does not defend the theory. He believes that no theory of ethics, including this one, can be proved anyway.

Instead, Singer bases his philosophy on the simple, incontestable observation that suffering is evil, wherever it exists. We ought, therefore, to reduce it where we can.

Obvious as that is, it is not the principle on which our traditional ethics is based, and in fact it is often in direct conflict with it. That is the principle of the sanctity of human life. It has its origin in the Biblical declaration that human beings (but no other beings) are created “in the image of God,” but it is accepted as obviously true by just about everyone, including secular philosophers. Kant expressed the same idea by declaring that rational nature (i.e., a human being) is an ‘end in itself’. So fixed in our minds is this principle that one needs only to utter it to receive nods of approval, as if it were simply obvious. Even humanists, who think their values arise from reason and not from inherited religion, declare their belief in the unique worth and dignity of all persons.

It is this principle that has given rise to all sorts of presumed absolutes, such as, the doctrine of universal human rights, the unqualified prohibition of murder, the presumed necessity of sparing no cost to keep alive any human being, young or old, regardless of circumstances, and the absolute right to life that is thought to be possessed even in the womb, from the very ‘moment of conception’. Non-human beings, on the other hand, are by this principle excluded from ethical consideration.

The revolution in ethics that Singer envisions will result from the subordination of that basic principle to another, which has already begun to replace it in situations in which the two are in conflict, namely, the imperative to reduce suffering. Indeed, the sanctity of life principle is no longer considered compelling even by those most strongly committed to it. And therein lies the power of Singer’s dialectic, namely, in showing that this principle is untenable even by its most ardent defenders, a devastating method of refutation first perfected by Socrates.

Suppose, for example, a physician declines to prescribe the antibiotic that would cure the pneumonia of his elderly patient with advanced Alzheimer’s. The patient dies, as expected, with minimal suffering, the cause of death being given as pneumonia, and no fault is found with the doctor. Indeed, pneumonia is sometimes referred to in medical circles as the “friend of the elderly”, having in mind just such cases as this.

Compare that, then, with a mother who withholds food and water from her infant, with the result that, as expected, the infant dies of starvation. The mother is charged with murder.

What is the difference? In both cases a life-saving substance is withheld, and death is the direct result. The difference cannot be found in the principle of the sanctity of all human life. It is, rather, the quality of life, that is, the degree of anticipated suffering or fulfillment. Again, a child is born hopelessly deformed, such that its life expectancy will not exceed two or three years of profound suffering, retardation and inability to perform the most basic functions. The child is nevertheless kept alive, in a hospital, with the devices of advanced technology. The father of this child enters the hospital unit armed, holds the medical staff at bay with his weapon, unplugs the devices, and holds the child lovingly in his arms as it dies. A grand jury refuses to indict him. Why? Again, the issue is not the sanctity of human life, on which the medical staff was acting, but the evil of suffering, which the grand jury heeded, notwithstanding the fact that the father clearly committed murder.

Another example: As a result of an accident a man is left paralyzed from the neck down and kept alive by the technology available in a hospital. His devoted brother enters with a shot gun, confirms that this victim does not want to go on living in this condition, and puts him to death in an act of love. He, too, is not indicted for murder by the grand jury, notwithstanding the clear fact of murder with a gun.

In such examples we see the conflict between two moral principles, that of the sanctity of life and the imperative to reduce suffering, and in these it was the latter which prevailed.

But of course it is not always so. Thousands of patients, hopelessly comatose and without any hope of recovery, are sustained in a persistent vegetative state, sometimes for years. The basic vital processes in such a victim, such as respiration, pulse and so on, can continue indefinitely even when there is no hope of ever regaining awareness. It is thought that one cannot ‘pull the plug’ without clear proof that such is the victim’s wish, which is often not available, since the victim did not anticipate such a condition, and thus has expressed no wish in the matter. The fact that it is fairly obvious that no one would want to spend his or her life this way is not considered sufficient – except in England, where the question is more likely to be, not what is the patient’s right, but rather, what is best for the patient. The two seemingly similar questions can produce quite different answers, and thus very different results in terms of suffering.

The suffering that usually accompanies terminal illness, often intense, lengthy and intractable, raises especially acute problems for the sanctity of life principle. People used to die at home, but now they usually die in hospitals, where the technology exists to hold death at bay, sometimes for a long time but not, of course, forever. Typically the goal is to prolong the dying but at the same time do what can be done to reduce the pain of it. It is in almost all jurisdictions a crime to bring that process to a more swift and merciful end, whatever might be the wishes of the patient or the family. Our right to life is never questioned, but any corresponding right to abandon life, and to seek help to that end, is somehow denied.

Dying, however, is a natural biological process, like many others, such as menopause, osteoporosis and hypertension, the difference being that it is one we all undergo, and it is final. There is no reason why, under certain safeguards, assistance in bringing that process to a quick end should not be considered an appropriate medical service. Calling this ‘assisted suicide’ is a simple distortion, for suicide is the premature taking of one’s own life. Still, no matter what may be the cost in suffering, we are forbidden such assistance, again out of deference to the presumed sanctity of life.

It is, however, in the area of life’s beginnings that the breakdown of traditional ethics has been most dramatic. The principle of the sanctity of life would seem to extend even to the womb, and this is, of course, the source of the often violent opposition to abortion. The fertilized ovum is a human being, albeit a tiny and undeveloped one, and is thus considered a member of the human family and possessed of an absolute right to life. Its human soul, according to traditional Christian theology, is infused ‘at the moment of conception.’

This simple and, to some minds, noble view has been found to be loaded with absurdities, however. There is, for instance, no moment of conception. The fertilization of an ovum is a complex process that takes upwards of twenty-four hours, within which no such moment can be identified, except arbitrarily. Moreover, once sperm and ovum have become united, the resulting embryos more often than not simply fail to become implanted and are flushed away into nothingness, which would seem, as Joseph Fletcher once noted, to make God a kind of supreme abortionist. Even more troubling to the theological understanding is the fact that even after twelve days and a considerable development, the human embryo sometimes splits into two, resulting in identical twins. Which one gets the soul that was implanted at conception?

Such metaphysical difficulties sweep away the theological basis of the principle of the sanctity of the unborn’s life, but the larger ethical issues arise, not in connection with conception, but with birth and infancy.

Abortion on request is a constitutional right in America up to twenty-four weeks of pregnancy, and in some jurisdictions it can be performed much later if there is fetal defect. To kill an infant, once born, is, however, a crime in every jurisdiction, quite regardless even of severe defect. And this gives rise to a glaring inconsistency, for consider an infant born prematurely but with a severe defect, which would have warranted abortion, and a fetus of the same gestational age and development with a similar abnormality. The latter can be innocently aborted, whereas to destroy the other amounts to murder and will be prosecuted as such. The only difference in the two cases is that in the first the fetus has not yet entered into the light of day whereas in the other it has. Opponents of abortion can, of course, use this as a defense of their position, but by the same token anyone supporting the right to abortion no longer has a solid basis for the absolute prohibition of infanticide. Singer cites an example of an infant born with Down’s syndrome, and also with a defective esophagus, a condition that can be surgically corrected. The physician complied with the parental request that the surgery not be performed and, as a result, the baby died. This got into the news, creating such outrage, fed by journalistic hyperbole, that it became a federally enforced policy that ‘the handicapped’ shall be entitled to the same high level of care as any other newborn.

What, then, of an anencephalic infant, that is, one born with a normal brain stem, but no brain? Such a condition, if discovered, would obviously justify abortion. Once born, such an infant is indeed handicapped. It can sometimes be kept alive, with enormous difficulty and cost, but it can never become conscious or even minimally aware. The question has to be faced: Is it worth saving? If all human life is sacred, the answer has to be yes, even if the resulting suffering of all who are involved is overwhelming, and even if, because of the cost, normal children are deprived of the care they need. Plainly, it is not worth it, and the principle of the sanctity of all human life must be replaced with something else – such as, for example, the principle of minimizing suffering.

Another example: A woman has her pregnancy tested by amniocentesis and ultrasound. By the latter she can actually see what is unmistakably a tiny human being in her womb. There is no sign of Down’s syndrome, but it is discovered that there is a reversed chromosome. What the effect of this might be is not known, but it raises the possibility of fetal abnormality of some kind. What is she to do? She decides,and is supported in this by physician and friends, not to take the chance, and the pregnancy is aborted.

Now reason certainly suggests that, since the probability of serious abnormality is small, it would be better, from the standpoint of the fetus and everyone else, to wait and see, to go ahead with the birth and then, at that point, decide whether to abort. Why is this not even considered? Because that would be to consider infanticide. And, because (as it is assumed), human life is sacred, infanticide is murder.

About one per thousand infants is born with spina bifida, a condition which formerly could not be survived due to inevitable infection. The development of antibiotics has made it possible to keep such infants alive, but often for only a few years, and these are likely to be filled with much suffering, paralysis of the lower body, incontinence and so on. The principle of the sanctity of all human life, and the right of the handicapped to whatever level of care may be required for the sustaining of life, require that whatever measures are necessary for this must be undertaken. To withhold the antibiotics is equivalent to infanticide. But again we are led to ask, what is more important, the principle of the sanctity of all human life, or the principle of reducing suffering? In fact, hospitals find reasons, or ‘excuses’ if one prefers, to be selective in such cases. So again, the principle of the sanctity of human life is compromised.

Such are the considerations that have led Singer to the endorsement, under clearly defined and restrictive conditions, of infanticide, and it is this, together with his arguments in favor of medical assistance in dying, that have produced outrage among his popular critics. People are seldom rational when it comes to matters of ethics, preferring what amount to pious slogans and emotionally laden expressions like ‘murder,’ ‘mercy killing’ and ‘infanticide,’ as if these should put an end to further consideration. Singer’s philosophy, however, has the advantage of consistency, which in the long run always prevails over its opposite.

I have concentrated on Singer’s contributions to medical ethics because that is the area where his arguments are at present most compelling. It is clear, however, that abandoning the principle of the sanctity of human life will, in time, have repercussions throughout the whole wider realms of ethics, social policy and religion.

It should be noted, too, that Singer has addressed many issues, some of them of overwhelming importance, that I have hardly touched on here. His work has provided the foundation for the growing animal rights movement, which is gaining influence in veterinary science and other areas where policies are set with respect to the treatment of domesticated animals. He has brought attention to bear on such important matters as what constitutes a person, as distinct from a mere human being, what makes for a fulfilling life, the nature of altruism, and indeed, the very meaning of life. To find such themes addressed, not just by the clergy and self-styled moralists, but by the very ablest of philosophical thinkers, is not just intellectually refreshing. Singer’s reflections provide the framework for the reorientation of traditional ethics, social policy and life’s goals. To call this ‘revolutionary’ is hardly overstatement.

© Professor Richard Taylor 2000

Richard Taylor is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Rochester, New York.

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