Skip to comments.Life or Death - A Conversation With Peter Singer
Posted on 02/25/2005 11:17:31 AM PST by NYer
When talking to Prof. Peter Singer, you dont get the impression that youre talking to a monster. His views on what constitutes an ethical life might be diametrically opposed to 2,000 years of Catholic moral teaching and might even be construed as monstrous as seen through a God-centered view of the universe, but Peter Singer the person is intelligent, affable, complex and serious.
For years he has held one of the most prestigious positions in academia as an ethics professor at Princeton University in New Jersey.
Born in Australia, Singer has written and taught extensively on the topic of ethics. If his views frighten Catholics, we should know that he is respected elsewhere. He has been credited with helping found the modern "animal rights" movement with his book Animal Liberation.
My objective in interviewing Singer was not to engage him in some kind of ethical warfare, because I disagree so strongly with so many of his premises as I suspect the vast majority of our readers do. But I believe it is important for us to know how people who disagree with us think and how they have come to their conclusions.
Some of what you are about to read might shock you. It might anger you. But read on with a seriousness of purpose. Singer is not merely a fringe figure. His views might not be completely mainstream, but his position in one of the most important academic institutions in the world makes it imperative that we pay attention to what he has to say.
At the end of 2004, the Groningen Academic Hospital in the Netherlands announced a new medical protocol whereby infants who are deemed to be suffering too much and/or stricken with severe disabilities may be administered lethal doses of sedatives to bring about their demise. Known as the Groningen Protocol, this new development in the world of euthanasia was the impetus for the following interview with Dr. Peter Singer, the holder of the bioethics chair at Princeton Universitys Center for Human Values.
According to the Groningen Protocol, deformed or suffering newborn infants are euthanized by doctors at the direction of parents. Does this reflect a position you have been promoting?
Well, I think its something Ive been suggesting can be defended in certain circumstances, so I think its a smaller step than many people think beyond what already happens in hospitals not only in the Netherlands but also in the United States, and, in fact, in Catholic hospitals as well.
That is, decisions are taken in hospitals to assess the condition of infants with serious problems to discuss those issues with parents and, in some cases, to withdraw life support even though the infant could live perhaps indefinitely, but on the basis of the decision that this infants quality of life is going to be very poor and its therefore not best to keep that infant alive. So I think its a smaller step than many people realize, when you think about what is already going on and what in fact most people, including Catholic theologians, are prepared to accept.
This protocol allows human beings to be killed by the acts of the doctor. How can you equate that with the Catholic teaching of not using heroic or extraordinary means to support life in certain situations?
I wouldnt exactly equate it, but I would say there is not a really morally significant difference. Its possible to distinguish these things with the use of fine arguments of what are ordinary and what are extraordinary means or measures.
But I think in substance, morally speaking, there is no significant difference in both cases.
How are they morally the same?
We have an assessment of an infants condition, we have consultation, we have a decision that it is better that life should not continue. Then we have steps taken that have the result that the infant dies. I think whether this is done by withdrawing extraordinary means of life support or whether this is done by active euthanasia is not really the crucial issue. The crucial issue is always the decision whether the infants quality of life is so poor it is better it should not live.
Do you have any thoughts as to why movements such as the Groningen Protocol have their starts in places such as the Netherlands?
Yes. Well, certainly I do think its better to be open about this. I think theres an enormous amount of hypocrisy that goes on in terms of people who talk about the sanctity of human life and criticize those who support active euthanasia but are in fact supporting actions that have a similar effect. Perhaps in the United States, for political reasons or something like that, people have not talked openly about this because they dont want to confront those who support the sanctity of life.
Theres a certain tendency, I think, to pay lip service to it, to say one thing and do another, in the United States. I think the Dutch have a lower tolerance for that. They actually are a little more blunt, a little more direct. So its all up there right in front for critics to get into and attack. And what goes on in the United States and other countries is much more difficult to discover.
You separate the species part of human beings from the personhood of humans through standards such as being able to plan for the future, having an understanding of ones environment and having a pronounced sense of self-awareness that is why you have the position that newborn infants do not possess a complete personhood.
Yes. Im looking for what it is that might make a morally significant distinction between beings who have the fullest right to life, if you want to put it that way, from those who dont have such a serious right to life. I dont think that distinction can be just whether you happen to be a member of the species Homo sapiens or not, irrespective of the characteristics or capacities that you might have. I think theres something wrong with assuming that every member of the species Homo sapiens is somehow a more morally significant being than every member of every other species.
Obviously this is a premise on which the Catholic Church would seriously disagree with you.
If you look at the Catholic tradition, of course. If you believe every human being has an immortal soul and no non-human animal has an immortal soul you would differ from my views on that.
Are there conditions such as severe mental illness where you can see involuntary euthanasia as an ethical choice?
Well, I mean we have to make sure were talking about a case where there is no capacity to make an informed judgment, a considered judgment, and there is no previous statement of the persons wishes or intentions, then clearly if someone is suffering greatly and there is no hope of recovery, I think any human person would say we shouldnt keep this patient alive.
Do you find yourself more of a lightning rod of controversy when you give lectures?
It certainly happens that a lot of people take objections to what I say, but thats the nature of philosophy. It goes back to Socrates; the role of the philosopher is to stimulate people to think critically about assumptions they normally take for granted. I think if I wasnt doing that I wouldnt be doing my job properly.
How much do you think your way of looking at things will gain ground? Does that depend on the universities?
Its partly education, but its also partly that there are developments in technology that force us to be clearer about our values in some of these questions weve been talking about, like the sanctity of life and the treatment of newborn infants and things that were forced to re-examine because technology opens new possibilities to us. For example, severely disabled infants used to just die anyway, whatever anyone did, because we didnt have the medical means to keep them alive very long, so there was no real moral issue there.
We could all say yes, every life is precious, but tragically we cant save these lives. Now weve got the means to save them and we have to ask the question, "Do we want to save them?"
Suffering, and the possible good that can be wrought from it, is a cornerstone of Catholic teaching. Would it be fair to say you reject that premise altogether?
If you go to the dentist, that dentist might hurt you, but you get a relieved pain in the long run. So yes, sometimes we have to go through a certain amount of suffering for a greater good.
But it seems to me that the Catholic view of suffering as a good in itself more or less is one they need to come up with because otherwise its difficult to believe that a God could have created a world with so much suffering in it. In fact, I think even with that view, its very difficult to believe that because there is a lot of suffering animals go through that is presumably not redemptive for them in the way that Catholics believe suffering is redemptive for humans. To me, its still a bit of a mystery that anyone can really believe that this world was created by a God who was both omnipotent and benevolent.
But putting that aside, I would say Catholics who hold this view of suffering in connection with the topics weve been talking about like euthanasia should be free to choose to suffer to the very end, but they shouldnt impose those beliefs on others. If other people want to avail themselves to voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide or write living wills that they would like their life ended if they were no longer capable of making decisions like that about themselves, then I think its wrong for Catholics to stand in the way of people who dont share their religious beliefs and who dont share their views about the positive aspects of suffering.
I would like to thank Professor Singer for taking the time out of his holiday to speak to me by phone from his home in Melbourne, Australia.
As a note of clarification, it is important to understand that Professor Singer does not limit his withholding personhood from only disabled infants as the following quote from page 225 of his book Writings on an Ethical Life makes abundantly clear:
"In the modern era of liberal abortion laws, most of those not opposed to abortion have drawn a sharp line at birth. If, as I have argued, that line does not mark a sudden change in the status of the fetus, then there appears to be only two possibilities: oppose abortion or allow infanticide."
With all due respect to Professor Singer, I must answer that quote with one I found within the body of work of G.K. Chesterton:
"MAN is an exception, whatever else he is. If he is not the image of God, then he is a disease of the dust. If it is not true that a divine being fell, then we can only say that one of the animals went entirely off its head."
The Logic of Despair
National Catholic Register
Feb. 20-26, 2005
Why feature an extremist like Peter Singer on the front page of the Register?
Because he isnt extreme at all.
The Princeton University ethicist has drawn a lot of attention because of his so-called cutting-edge views that dare to call into question the basic right to life of human beings who are already born. They say he dares to come to "tough" ethical conclusions about severely handicapped children and he spells out his thinking in concise logic.
Pardon us if were not impressed.
You dont have to look far to see that Singer isnt so unique after all nor all that courageous.
Look at the last election. Presidential candidate John Kerry voted six times to keep partial-birth abortion legal and he almost won. In partial-birth abortion, a doctor induces labor, then snuffs out the life of a full-term baby while hes being born. Former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it "infanticide."
And new Sen. Barak Obama, the rising star in the Democratic Party, won in Illinois despite the fact that he had voted against the Born Alive Infants Protection Act. Thats a law that would protect the lives of children who are born accidentally during doctors attempts to abort them. Nurses say they are usually killed today.
These legislators dont just argue from the safety of a classroom that some babies dont have rights. They actually strip the rights of the babies already in our midst.
Singer is helpful, though, because he spells out the consequences of the mainstream pro-choice movement. "In the modern era of liberal abortion laws, most of those not opposed to abortion have drawn a sharp line at birth," he writes. "If, as I have argued, that line does not mark a sudden change in the status of the fetus, then there appears to be only two possibilities: Oppose abortion or allow infanticide."
But he isnt any more "cutting edge" than Cicero or Plutarch.
Cicero (106-43 BC) said "deformed infants shall be killed" and reported, "We drown children who at birth are weakly and abnormal."
Plutarch (ca. AD 46-120) wrote about how common infanticide was among the Carthaginians, pointing out that infants were killed "as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan." Singer isnt cutting-edge if you look at modern China, either. Their draconian one-child-per-family policy means that many children are aborted, or born and left abandoned to either die or be raised in orphanages. It also means that the country is disproportionately male. Being female in China is often a severe enough "handicap" to get you killed.
In a way, Singer isnt any more cutting-edge in his thinking than women like the mother who was recently arrested in Denver for throwing her newborn baby into a dumpster.
Singers high-minded rhetoric about severely handicapped children might sound new, but it has all the marks of the same despairing philosophy that has appeared again and again throughout history.
Faced with children who will either suffer or cause others to suffer, our human nature very naturally loses hope. We cant see beyond the immediate, physical circumstances. Without any firmly rooted principle of the dignity of every human life, it doesnt take a doctorate for us to become child-killers.
The real cutting edge ethical code is the one that dares to say that every human being no matter how weak or how ugly has a right to life.
This morality has always been revolutionary. It was when the Didache, an early Christian document, was written between 85 and 110. Its teaching that "You shall not commit infanticide" and "You shall not kill a child by abortion" only gradually took hold as Christianity did. The protection of infants deepened and saw its full flowering in the laws of Europe alongside the rest of the achievements of Western Civilization.
It wasnt until the 20th century that Europe began to embrace death again, with the rise of pagan fascists and atheist communists who feared that the weak would hamper the ascent of the strong.
Christianitys core message is very different. Its the same as Pope John Paul IIs favorite exhortation: "Be not afraid." Christians believe that God so loved us that he has spent several millennia trying to win our love even suffering and dying in the fervor of his courtship. With such a God looking after us, why should we fear? And why should we judge which of us is worthier of Gods gifts than any other?
In a world marred by death, pain and suffering, infanticide is just more of the same old hopelessness. Hope is whats radical and cutting edge. And its our duty to spread this Good News with the same logic and intensity as the philosophers of despair.
Page One Story
Hate the Song, Love the Singer
A Catholic Response to Peter Singers Position
by REV. THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, LC
Many of the ethical questions raised by Peter Singer in his Register interview have been addressed by the Church. The Register asked Rev. Thomas D. Williams, LC, an American moral theologian and dean of the Theology School at Romes Regina Apostolorum pontifical university, for his comments.
I think it is evident to anyone with even a rudimentary familiarity with Catholic moral teaching that Peter Singers ethical stance on nearly all contemporary life issues stands in direct opposition to the Catholic position. But since Singer has chosen to downplay those differences, I think it is important to highlight just how far removed his thought is from a Christian, and indeed classical understanding of human life, its inherent dignity and the ethical consequences stemming from this dignity.
I am sure that Register correspondent Robert Brennan is right in asserting that Peter Singer is "no monster." Yet civil people can come up with monstrous ideas, and even rational-sounding ideas can lead to monstrous consequences when carried out to their logical conclusion just as Karl Marx led to Stalin and Friederich Nietzsche led to Hitler.
To Kill or Let Die
The first question to be addressed is Singers contention regarding the moral equivalence of active euthanasia and the discontinuance of extraordinary means of life support, permitted by Catholic morality.
Singer sums up the moral reasoning going on in both cases as an assessment of an infants condition leading to "a decision that it is better that life should not continue." He introduces the category of "quality of life" as the determining factor in the decision.
Yet from a Catholic perspective, it is never the case that one human being will look at another and decide: "It is better for you not to live."
Catholics understand human life is always good in itself, to be respected and defended. One thing is to be unable to prevent the death of another human being except by extraordinary means (which would make the person suffer uselessly) and to choose to forgo those means; another thing altogether is to decide that another human being should die and actively bring about his death. It is true that the end result (death) might sometimes be the same, but the human choices involved are radically different. Something akin to helplessly witnessing your child get struck by an automobile versus intentionally running her down.
Legal provisions for the killing of sick infants seriously compromise the common good and create a climate where the good of human life is put up for grabs. In this regard, the Netherlands certainly does not provide a model of a humane society. Despite idealistic talk of looking out for the best interests of the child, decisions to terminate life often stem from concerns with the difficulties and costs of caring for such a child. Why else would so many children diagnosed with Down syndrome be aborted, since these children live happy, fulfilled lives? On the other end of the spectrum, how else can we explain the migration of so many senior citizens from the Netherlands across the border to Germany to avoid being killed if they go to the hospital?
What Makes Us Human
As serious as this is, a more pernicious problem emerges from Singers reasoning. The rejection of the universal and equal dignity of human beings in favor of distinctions between one human beings worth and anothers bears the seed of the greatest abominations. Slavery, racism, genocide and eugenics all stem from the same premise that some human beings are inferior to others and dont deserve the same protection under the law. The criteria for evaluating "worth" might vary from case to case, but the underlying principle remains the same.
If human dignity and the basic rights that flow from it is not rooted in a universal human nature, but rather in the possession or exercise of certain "qualities," then in reality dignity (and rights) vary from person to person, according to intelligence, athletic ability, health, degree of self-awareness, etc. Thus, smarter people are not only smarter but superior and worthy of better treatment than the less intelligent. The distinctions Singer is willing to make between those who have a full right to life and those who "dont have such a serious right to life" is downright frightening.
If "whether you happen to be a member of the species Homo sapiens or not" is irrelevant, I can only wonder why Singer thinks he should be treated differently from his dog. True, his dog might not be as intelligent, but nor does it make dangerous proposals that, if applied, would seriously jeopardize social harmony. The dogs "utility" to the human community might be merely neutral, while his masters could well be negative. If every human being needs to earn and maintain his right to life by proving the moral relevance of his particular existence, we have indeed reached moral anarchy and the tyranny of the strong over the weak.
A final bone of contention concerns Singers understanding of human suffering. Since utilitarians believe that pain is the only real evil and pleasure the only real good, once suffering and pain become intense and there is no hope of betterment (no hope that at the end of pain there should be a greater pleasure), one should eliminate pain by eliminating life.
Singer believes that it is a question of "credo": If you are a believer, you will defend the sanctity of life. If you are a non-believer, you will be a utilitarian. Yet utilitarianism is unacceptable, even for a non-Christian, since it fundamentally misunderstands human good.
The only value animals are able to perceive is the pleasurable and the painful, and thus they flee pain and seek pleasure. Human beings, on the contrary, are able to discern values rationally; they perceive many values animals do not perceive: aesthetic values, intellectual values, moral values, religious values. From here, man can and must establish an objective hierarchy of values. For example, the value of truth-telling ("do not tell lies") is a higher value than that of pleasure or pain ("even if you lose certain advantages or pleasures that you could obtain by a little lie").
Behind a smokescreen of apparent rationality, Singers proposals do not lead to moral progress but to the dehumanization of society. They couldnt be further from the Christian understanding of the basic good of human life and the corresponding moral responsibility to uphold and defend it.
Catholic Ping - Come home for Easter and experience Gods merciful love. Please freepmail me if you want on/off this list
Know your enemy!
"Some of what you are about to read might shock you. It might anger you. But read on with a seriousness of purpose. Singer is not merely a fringe figure. His views might not be completely mainstream, but his position in one of the most important academic institutions in the world makes it imperative that we pay attention to what he has to say."
This is precisely the problem with Peter Singer
And defeat your enemy.
I was in a philosophy class 14 years ago at CU (Yes, where Ward Churchill is wreaking havoc), and had to read "Practical Ethics" by this Aussie clown. He hasn't modified his radical philosophy of death and indignity towards the helpless.
His is a life truly not worth living.
In this case, Dr. Singer (May God strike him a mighty blow with the grace of conversion and repentance!) is exactly right. With the scientific knowledge we know have regarding the nature of an unborn child, there is no middle ground.
***Pleased to meet you, won't you guess my name?***
My daughter takes a required class at her school--Global Justice. The course is as bad as you think it might be. A requirement of the course is to listen to Peter Singer. He showed up in person last year; students, many of them, did not receive him well. This year, it was a taped interview. Many of the students were outraged, but their opinions were really not wanted.
although the article describes Singer's views as not mainstream, among academics, his views are the norm. I'm in a PhD program in philosophy and nearly every professor that does ethics here agrees with Singer. However, since they have not chosen to pursue the "public intellectual" path Singer has, no one pays attention to them and no controversy is generated when they teach a class or give a talk. Sadly, many of the grad students (ie future professors) agree with Singer too.
As a whole, I see our society going down the road of Singer's views. Witness the difficulty of passing Born Alive bills in blue states like Illinois, the light sentences given for infanticide, and the whole Terri Schiavo case.
*With the scientific knowledge we know have regarding the nature of an unborn child, there is no middle ground.*
Here is a true story that clarifies the insanity of Abortion and Euthanasia.
Recently a baby was born with heart defects. The parents were advised of this prior to birth and the doctor told the parents to abort him. They called a Maronite Catholic priest friend, who told them to have the baby. He said it was better that the baby be baptized into the Church and called home by God Himself, than to be killed in his mother's womb. The parents accepted the priest's advice, and named him Charbel, in hopes of a miracle from his patron saint. He was baptized immediately following birth and pronounced to be in a dangerous state of health.
Many prayer requests went out for Baby Charbel. Today, we learned that Charbel was born without the proper construction of a heart - the valves and ventricles, and that is why his situation was so dire. He has since had a successful operation wherein they basically constructed a working heart out of almost nothing almost, and is now breathing on his own. The doctors say his prognosis is very good.
Moral of the story: Where there is life, there is hope! When we place our trust in God, He will not hear our prayers.
Saint Charbel Mahklouf
He said it was better that the baby be baptized into the Church and called home by God Himself, than to be killed in his mother's womb.
This advice should be given to every parent expecting a handicapped child. Even if the prenatal diagnoses were always correct, which they are not, life is God's to give or take.
It's gotten so I cringe every time someone brings up "quality of life" or "dignity" as an issue. It seems they equate "quality" with "productivity" and "dignity" with "autonomy." Those criteria applied to kill an elderly or disabled person are also sufficient to kill a baby: he's neither productive nor autonomous, and there's no guarantee he ever will be.
Peter Singer is the public face of the deep ecologist agenda. Negative population growth via ignoring Africa's genocides and health issues, euthanasia, abortion, banning DDT, encouraging homosexuality, pornography and making child bearing more costly, encouraging people to not have children by promoting la dulce vida, and even some things that freepers would agree with like their global campaign to raise the marriage age are all part of the deep ecologist agenda.
Good post NYer. I quoted the Catholic Response above to remind everyone that the same holds for infants. Sigmund Freud summed it up as the "Pleasure Principle" or Id, our biological animal nature that is selfish, egocentric. +Augustine recognized that too. By our nature, we are unable to turn to God until we reach the age of reason. This means that our soul by itself is suppressed by our nature and that if we are ever to become Christ-like we must work to defeat our nature. The "feels-good, feels-bad" underlying structure to our existence is why conditioning work on animals as well as humans. Rewards and punishment modify behavior -- and thinking.
There is also the issue of mercy and compassion. Is letting a human being suffer merciful and compassionate? May I remind you that Jesus helped end a woman's torment on a Sabbath and was chastised by the Pharisees for breaking the God's Commandment. What Jesus replied was is essence that doing a compassionate thing is not breaking God's Commandment but not doing it is! Mercy before judgment.
We do believe that those who suffer are blessed. We even elevate those who suffer for the faith to sainthood even if they are not all that "saintly" otherwise. But letting someone suffer who cannot help himself and believing we are doing him a "favor" has a flavor of Gnosticism in it!
Let me make myself clear: I am not in favor of euthanasia if for no other reason than for the fact that human nature is corrupt and any such practice would lead to abuse and ever-greater sin and that allowing is opens a Pandora's box. My opposition is not that it is wrong per say to easy someone's suffering, but that human nature corrupts that which is good.
Sensless suffering is just that -- sensless. For if suffering were what we worship, we would make sure we suffer all the time. Just refuse anesthesia next time you go to a dentist. Or, per haps your dentist should simply not use anesthesia so you can suffer more!
We recognize that those who suffer are blessed, but we should not aid in sensless suffering. The idolatry of suffering is not what our Lord taught. He suffered for us because He chose to. Letting any living creature suffer is unmerciful and cruel.
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