Skip to comments.Unspeakable Conversations (Should I have been killed at birth? The case for my life.)
Posted on 02/14/2003 4:47:38 PM PST by Pokey78
Katy Grannan for The New York TimesHarriet McBryde Johnson asks, should I have been killed at birth? In "Unspeakable Conversations," she presents the case for her life.
He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.
Whenever I try to wrap my head around his tight string of syllogisms, my brain gets so fried it's . . . almost fun. Mercy! It's like ''Alice in Wonderland.''
It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called -- and not just by his book publicist -- the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that's not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live. He also says he believes that it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn't consider them ''persons.'' What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.
At this stage of my life, he says, I am a person. However, as an infant, I wasn't. I, like all humans, was born without self-awareness. And eventually, assuming my brain finally gets so fried that I fall into that wonderland where self and other and present and past and future blur into one boundless, formless all or nothing, then I'll lose my personhood and therefore my right to life. Then, he says, my family and doctors might put me out of my misery, or out of my bliss or oblivion, and no one count it murder.
I have agreed to two speaking engagements. In the morning, I talk to 150 undergraduates on selective infanticide. In the evening, it is a convivial discussion, over dinner, of assisted suicide. I am the token cripple with an opposing view.
I had several reasons for accepting Singer's invitation, some grounded in my involvement in the disability rights movement, others entirely personal. For the movement, it seemed an unusual opportunity to experiment with modes of discourse that might work with very tough audiences and bridge the divide between our perceptions and theirs. I didn't expect to straighten out Singer's head, but maybe I could reach a student or two. Among the personal reasons: I was sure it would make a great story, first for telling and then for writing down.
By now I've told it to family and friends and colleagues, over lunches and dinners, on long car trips, in scads of e-mail messages and a couple of formal speeches. But it seems to be a story that just won't settle down. After all these tellings, it still lacks a coherent structure; I'm miles away from a rational argument. I keep getting interrupted by questions -- like these:
Q: Was he totally grossed out by your physical appearance?
A: He gave no sign of it. None whatsoever.
Q: How did he handle having to interact with someone like you?
A: He behaved in every way appropriately, treated me as a respected professional acquaintance and was a gracious and accommodating host.
Q: Was it emotionally difficult for you to take part in a public discussion of whether your life should have happened?
A: It was very difficult. And horribly easy.
Q: Did he get that job at Princeton because they like his ideas on killing disabled babies?
A: It apparently didn't hurt, but he's most famous for animal rights. He's the author of ''Animal Liberation.''
Q: How can he put so much value on animal life and so little value on human life?
That last question is the only one I avoid. I used to say I don't know; it doesn't make sense. But now I've read some of Singer's writing, and I admit it does make sense -- within the conceptual world of Peter Singer. But I don't want to go there. Or at least not for long.
So I will start from those other questions and see where the story goes this time.
That first question, about my physical appearance, needs some explaining.
It's not that I'm ugly. It's more that most people don't know how to look at me. The sight of me is routinely discombobulating. The power wheelchair is enough to inspire gawking, but that's the least of it. Much more impressive is the impact on my body of more than four decades of a muscle-wasting disease. At this stage of my life, I'm Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin. When, in childhood, my muscles got too weak to hold up my spine, I tried a brace for a while, but fortunately a skittish anesthesiologist said no to fusion, plates and pins -- all the apparatus that might have kept me straight. At 15, I threw away the back brace and let my spine reshape itself into a deep twisty S-curve. Now my right side is two deep canyons. To keep myself upright, I lean forward, rest my rib cage on my lap, plant my elbows beside my knees. Since my backbone found its own natural shape, I've been entirely comfortable in my skin.
I am in the first generation to survive to such decrepitude. Because antibiotics were available, we didn't die from the childhood pneumonias that often come with weakened respiratory systems. I guess it is natural enough that most people don't know what to make of us.
Two or three times in my life -- I recall particularly one largely crip, largely lesbian cookout halfway across the continent -- I have been looked at as a rare kind of beauty. There is also the bizarre fact that where I live, Charleston, S.C., some people call me Good Luck Lady: they consider it propitious to cross my path when a hurricane is coming and to kiss my head just before voting day. But most often the reactions are decidedly negative. Strangers on the street are moved to comment:
I admire you for being out; most people would give up.
God bless you! I'll pray for you.
You don't let the pain hold you back, do you?
If I had to live like you, I think I'd kill myself.
I used to try to explain that in fact I enjoy my life, that it's a great sensual pleasure to zoom by power chair on these delicious muggy streets, that I have no more reason to kill myself than most people. But it gets tedious. God didn't put me on this street to provide disability awareness training to the likes of them. In fact, no god put anyone anywhere for any reason, if you want to know.
But they don't want to know. They think they know everything there is to know, just by looking at me. That's how stereotypes work. They don't know that they're confused, that they're really expressing the discombobulation that comes in my wake.
So. What stands out when I recall first meeting Peter Singer in the spring of 2001 is his apparent immunity to my looks, his apparent lack of discombobulation, his immediate ability to deal with me as a person with a particular point of view.
Then, 2001. Singer has been invited to the College of Charleston, not two blocks from my house. He is to lecture on ''Rethinking Life and Death.'' I have been dispatched by Not Dead Yet, the national organization leading the disability-rights opposition to legalized assisted suicide and disability-based killing. I am to put out a leaflet and do something during the Q. and A.
On arriving almost an hour early to reconnoiter, I find the scene almost entirely peaceful; even the boisterous display of South Carolina spring is muted by gray wisps of Spanish moss and mottled oak bark.
I roll around the corner of the building and am confronted with the unnerving sight of two people I know sitting on a park bench eating veggie pitas with Singer. Sharon is a veteran activist for human rights. Herb is South Carolina's most famous atheist. Good people, I've always thought -- now sharing veggie pitas and conversation with a proponent of genocide. I try to beat a retreat, but Herb and Sharon have seen me. Sharon tosses her trash and comes over. After we exchange the usual courtesies, she asks, ''Would you like to meet Professor Singer?''
She doesn't have a clue. She probably likes his book on animal rights. ''I'll just talk to him in the Q. and A.''
But Herb, with Singer at his side, is fast approaching. They are looking at me, and Herb is talking, no doubt saying nice things about me. He'll be saying that I'm a disability rights lawyer and that I gave a talk against assisted suicide at his secular humanist group a while back. He didn't agree with everything I said, he'll say, but I was brilliant. Singer appears interested, engaged. I sit where I'm parked. Herb makes an introduction. Singer extends his hand.
I hesitate. I shouldn't shake hands with the Evil One. But he is Herb's guest, and I simply can't snub Herb's guest at the college where Herb teaches. Hereabouts, the rule is that if you're not prepared to shoot on sight, you have to be prepared to shake hands. I give Singer the three fingers on my right hand that still work. ''Good afternoon, Mr. Singer. I'm here for Not Dead Yet.'' I want to think he flinches just a little. Not Dead Yet did everything possible to disrupt his first week at Princeton. I sent a check to the fund for the 14 arrestees, who included comrades in power chairs. But if Singer flinches, he instantly recovers. He answers my questions about the lecture format. When he says he looks forward to an interesting exchange, he seems entirely sincere.
It is an interesting exchange. In the lecture hall that afternoon, Singer lays it all out. The ''illogic'' of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.
As soon as he's done, I get the microphone and say I'd like to discuss selective infanticide. As a lawyer, I disagree with his jurisprudential assumptions. Logical inconsistency is not a sufficient reason to change the law. As an atheist, I object to his using religious terms (''the doctrine of the sanctity of human life'') to characterize his critics. Singer takes a note pad out of his pocket and jots down my points, apparently eager to take them on, and I proceed to the heart of my argument: that the presence or absence of a disability doesn't predict quality of life. I question his replacement-baby theory, with its assumption of ''other things equal,'' arguing that people are not fungible. I draw out a comparison of myself and my nondisabled brother Mac (the next-born after me), each of us with a combination of gifts and flaws so peculiar that we can't be measured on the same scale.
He responds to each point with clear and lucid counterarguments. He proceeds with the assumption that I am one of the people who might rightly have been killed at birth. He sticks to his guns, conceding just enough to show himself open-minded and flexible. We go back and forth for 10 long minutes. Even as I am horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can't help being dazzled by his verbal facility. He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument, that by the time the show is over, I'm not exactly angry with him. Yes, I am shaking, furious, enraged -- but it's for the big room, 200 of my fellow Charlestonians who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail.
My encounter with Peter Singer merits a mention in my annual canned letter that December. I decide to send Singer a copy. In response, he sends me the nicest possible e-mail message. Dear Harriet (if he may) . . . Just back from Australia, where he's from. Agrees with my comments on the world situation. Supports my work against institutionalization. And then some pointed questions to clarify my views on selective infanticide.
I reply. Fine, call me Harriet, and I'll reciprocate in the interest of equality, though I'm accustomed to more formality. Skipping agreeable preambles, I answer his questions on disability-based infanticide and pose some of my own. Answers and more questions come back. Back and forth over several weeks it proceeds, an engaging discussion of baby killing, disability prejudice and related points of law and philosophy. Dear Harriet. Dear Peter.
Singer seems curious to learn how someone who is as good an atheist as he is could disagree with his entirely reasonable views. At the same time, I am trying to plumb his theories. What has him so convinced it would be best to allow parents to kill babies with severe disabilities, and not other kinds of babies, if no infant is a ''person'' with a right to life? I learn it is partly that both biological and adoptive parents prefer healthy babies. But I have trouble with basing life-and-death decisions on market considerations when the market is structured by prejudice. I offer a hypothetical comparison: ''What about mixed-race babies, especially when the combination is entirely nonwhite, who I believe are just about as unadoptable as babies with disabilities?'' Wouldn't a law allowing the killing of these undervalued babies validate race prejudice? Singer agrees there is a problem. ''It would be horrible,'' he says, ''to see mixed-race babies being killed because they can't be adopted, whereas white ones could be.'' What's the difference? Preferences based on race are unreasonable. Preferences based on ability are not. Why? To Singer, it's pretty simple: disability makes a person ''worse off.''
Are we ''worse off''? I don't think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables. For those of us with congenital conditions, disability shapes all we are. Those disabled later in life adapt. We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.
Pressing me to admit a negative correlation between disability and happiness, Singer presents a situation: imagine a disabled child on the beach, watching the other children play.
It's right out of the telethon. I expected something more sophisticated from a professional thinker. I respond: ''As a little girl playing on the beach, I was already aware that some people felt sorry for me, that I wasn't frolicking with the same level of frenzy as other children. This annoyed me, and still does.'' I take the time to write a detailed description of how I, in fact, had fun playing on the beach, without the need of standing, walking or running. But, really, I've had enough. I suggest to Singer that we have exhausted our topic, and I'll be back in touch when I get around to writing about him.
He responds by inviting me to Princeton. I fire off an immediate maybe.
Of course I'm flattered. Mama will be impressed.
But there are things to consider. Not Dead Yet says -- and I completely agree -- that we should not legitimate Singer's views by giving them a forum. We should not make disabled lives subject to debate. Moreover, any spokesman chosen by the opposition is by definition a token. But even if I'm a token, I won't have to act like one. And anyway, I'm kind of stuck. If I decline, Singer can make some hay: ''I offered them a platform, but they refuse rational discussion.'' It's an old trick, and I've laid myself wide open.
My invitation is to have an exchange of views with Singer during his undergraduate course. He also proposes a second ''exchange,'' open to the whole university, later in the day. This sounds a lot like debating my life -- and on my opponent's turf, with my opponent moderating, to boot. I offer a counterproposal, to which Singer proves amenable. I will open the class with some comments on infanticide and related issues and then let Singer grill me as hard as he likes before we open it up for the students. Later in the day, I might take part in a discussion of some other disability issue in a neutral forum. Singer suggests a faculty-student discussion group sponsored by his department but with cross-departmental membership. The topic I select is ''Assisted Suicide, Disability Discrimination and the Illusion of Choice: A Disability Rights Perspective.'' I inform a few movement colleagues of this turn of events, and advice starts rolling in. I decide to go with the advisers who counsel me to do the gig, lie low and get out of Dodge.
I ask Singer to refer me to the person who arranges travel at Princeton. I imagine some capable and unflappable woman like my sister, Beth, whose varied job description at a North Carolina university includes handling visiting artists. Singer refers me to his own assistant, who certainly seems capable and unflappable enough. However, almost immediately Singer jumps back in via e-mail. It seems the nearest hotel has only one wheelchair-accessible suite, available with two rooms for $600 per night. What to do? I know I shouldn't be so accommodating, but I say I can make do with an inaccessible room if it has certain features. Other logistical issues come up. We go back and forth. Questions and answers. Do I really need a lift-equipped vehicle at the airport? Can't my assistant assist me into a conventional car? How wide is my wheelchair?
By the time we're done, Singer knows that I am 28 inches wide. I have trouble controlling my wheelchair if my hand gets cold. I am accustomed to driving on rough, irregular surfaces, but I get nervous turning on steep slopes. Even one step is too many. I can swallow purees, soft bread and grapes. I use a bedpan, not a toilet. None of this is a secret; none of it cause for angst. But I do wonder whether Singer is jotting down my specs in his little note pad as evidence of how ''bad off'' people like me really are.
I realize I must put one more issue on the table: etiquette. I was criticized within the movement when I confessed to shaking Singer's hand in Charleston, and some are appalled that I have agreed to break bread with him in Princeton. I think they have a very good point, but, again, I'm stuck. I'm engaged for a day of discussion, not a picket line. It is not in my power to marginalize Singer at Princeton; nothing would be accomplished by displays of personal disrespect. However, chumminess is clearly inappropriate. I tell Singer that in the lecture hall it can't be Harriet and Peter; it must be Ms. Johnson and Mr. Singer.
He seems genuinely nettled. Shouldn't it be Ms. Johnson and Professor Singer, if I want to be formal? To counter, I invoke the ceremonial low-country usage, Attorney Johnson and Professor Singer, but point out that Mr./Ms. is the custom in American political debates and might seem more normal in New Jersey. All right, he says. Ms./Mr. it will be.
I describe this awkward social situation to the lawyer in my office who has served as my default lunch partner for the past 14 years. He gives forth a full-body shudder.
''That poor, sorry son of a bitch! He has no idea what he's in for.''
Being a disability rights lawyer lecturing at Princeton does confer some cachet at the Newark airport. I need all the cachet I can get. Delta Airlines has torn up my power chair. It is a fairly frequent occurrence for any air traveler on wheels.
When they inform me of the damage in Atlanta, I throw a monumental fit and tell them to have a repair person meet me in Newark with new batteries to replace the ones inexplicably destroyed. Then I am told no new batteries can be had until the morning. It's Sunday night. On arrival in Newark, I'm told of a plan to put me up there for the night and get me repaired and driven to Princeton by 10 a.m.
''That won't work. I'm lecturing at 10. I need to get there tonight, go to sleep and be in my right mind tomorrow.''
''What? You're lecturing? They told us it was a conference. We need to get you fixed tonight!''
Carla, the gate agent, relieves me of the need to throw any further fits by undertaking on my behalf the fit of all fits.
Carmen, the personal assistant with whom I'm traveling, pushes me in my disabled chair around the airport in search of a place to use the bedpan. However, instead of diaper-changing tables, which are functional though far from private, we find a flip-down plastic shelf that doesn't look like it would hold my 70 pounds of body weight. It's no big deal; I've restricted my fluids. But Carmen is a little freaked. It is her first adventure in power-chair air travel. I thought I prepared her for the trip, but I guess I neglected to warn her about the probability of wheelchair destruction. I keep forgetting that even people who know me well don't know much about my world.
We reach the hotel at 10:15 p.m., four hours late.
I wake up tired. I slept better than I would have slept in Newark with an unrepaired chair, but any hotel bed is a near guarantee of morning crankiness. I tell Carmen to leave the TV off. I don't want to hear the temperature.
I do the morning stretch. Medical people call it passive movement, but it's not really passive. Carmen's hands move my limbs, following my precise instructions, her strength giving effect to my will. Carmen knows the routine, so it is in near silence that we begin easing slowly into the day. I let myself be propped up to eat oatmeal and drink tea. Then there's the bedpan and then bathing and dressing, still in bed. As the caffeine kicks in, silence gives way to conversation about practical things. Carmen lifts me into my chair and straps a rolled towel under my ribs for comfort and stability. She tugs at my clothes to remove wrinkles that could cause pressure sores. She switches on my motors and gives me the means of moving without anyone's help. They don't call it a power chair for nothing.
I drive to the mirror. I do my hair in one long braid. Even this primal hairdo requires, at this stage of my life, joint effort. I undo yesterday's braid, fix the part and comb the hair in front. Carmen combs where I can't reach. I divide the mass into three long hanks and start the braid just behind my left ear. Section by section, I hand it over to her, and her unimpaired young fingers pull tight, crisscross, until the braid is fully formed.
A big polyester scarf completes my costume. Carmen lays it over my back. I tie it the way I want it, but Carmen starts fussing with it, trying to tuck it down in the back. I tell her that it's fine, and she stops.
On top of the scarf, she wraps the two big shawls that I hope will substitute for an overcoat. I don't own any real winter clothes. I just stay out of the cold, such cold as we get in Charleston.
We review her instructions for the day. Keep me in view and earshot. Be instantly available but not intrusive. Be polite, but don't answer any questions about me. I am glad that she has agreed to come. She's strong, smart, adaptable and very loyal. But now she is digging under the shawls, fussing with that scarf again.
''Carmen. What are you doing?''
''I thought I could hide this furry thing you sit on.''
''Leave it. Singer knows lots of people eat meat. Now he'll know some crips sit on sheepskin.''
The walk is cold but mercifully short. The hotel is just across the street from Princeton's wrought-iron gate and a few short blocks from the building where Singer's assistant shows us to the elevator. The elevator doubles as the janitor's closet -- the cart with the big trash can and all the accouterments is rolled aside so I can get in. Evidently there aren't a lot of wheelchair people using this building.
We ride the broom closet down to the basement and are led down a long passageway to a big lecture hall. As the students drift in, I engage in light badinage with the sound technician. He is squeamish about touching me, but I insist that the cordless lavaliere is my mike of choice. I invite him to clip it to the big polyester scarf.
The students enter from the rear door, way up at ground level, and walk down stairs to their seats. I feel like an animal in the zoo. I hadn't reckoned on the architecture, those tiers of steps that separate me from a human wall of apparent physical and mental perfection, that keep me confined down here in my pit.
It is 5 before 10. Singer is loping down the stairs. I feel like signaling to Carmen to open the door, summon the broom closet and get me out of here. But Singer greets me pleasantly and hands me Princeton's check for $500, the fee he offered with apologies for its inadequacy.
So. On with the show.
My talk to the students is pretty Southern. I've decided to pound them with heart, hammer them with narrative and say ''y'all'' and ''folks.'' I play with the emotional tone, giving them little peaks and valleys, modulating three times in one 45-second patch. I talk about justice. Even beauty and love. I figure they haven't been getting much of that from Singer.
Of course, I give them some argument too. I mean to honor my contractual obligations. I lead with the hypothetical about mixed-race, nonwhite babies and build the ending around the question of who should have the burden of proof as to the quality of disabled lives. And woven throughout the talk is the presentation of myself as a representative of a minority group that has been rendered invisible by prejudice and oppression, a participant in a discussion that would not occur in a just world.
I let it go a little longer than I should. Their faces show they're going where I'm leading, and I don't look forward to letting them go. But the clock on the wall reminds me of promises I mean to keep, and I stop talking and submit myself to examination and inquiry.
Singer's response is surprisingly soft. Maybe after hearing that this discussion is insulting and painful to me, he doesn't want to exacerbate my discomfort. His reframing of the issues is almost pro forma, abstract, entirely impersonal. Likewise, the students' inquiries are abstract and fairly predictable: anencephaly, permanent unconsciousness, eugenic abortion. I respond to some of them with stories, but mostly I give answers I could have e-mailed in.
I call on a young man near the top of the room.
''Do you eat meat?''
''Yes, I do.''
''Then how do you justify--''
''I haven't made any study of animal rights, so anything I could say on the subject wouldn't be worth everyone's time.''
The next student wants to work the comparison of disability and race, and Singer joins the discussion until he elicits a comment from me that he can characterize as racist. He scores a point, but that's all right. I've never claimed to be free of prejudice, just struggling with it.
Singer proposes taking me on a walk around campus, unless I think it would be too cold. What the hell? ''It's probably warmed up some. Let's go out and see how I do.''
He doesn't know how to get out of the building without using the stairs, so this time it is my assistant leading the way. Carmen has learned of another elevator, which arrives empty. When we get out of the building, she falls behind a couple of paces, like a respectful chaperone.
In the classroom there was a question about keeping alive the unconscious. In response, I told a story about a family I knew as a child, which took loving care of a nonresponsive teenage girl, acting out their unconditional commitment to each other, making all the other children, and me as their visitor, feel safe. This doesn't satisfy Singer. ''Let's assume we can prove, absolutely, that the individual is totally unconscious and that we can know, absolutely, that the individual will never regain consciousness.''
I see no need to state an objection, with no stenographer present to record it; I'll play the game and let him continue.
''Assuming all that,'' he says, ''don't you think continuing to take care of that individual would be a bit -- weird?''
''No. Done right, it could be profoundly beautiful.''
''But what about the caregiver, a woman typically, who is forced to provide all this service to a family member, unable to work, unable to have a life of her own?''
''That's not the way it should be. Not the way it has to be. As a society, we should pay workers to provide that care, in the home. In some places, it's been done that way for years. That woman shouldn't be forced to do it, any more than my family should be forced to do my care.''
Singer takes me around the architectural smorgasbord that is Princeton University by a route that includes not one step, unramped curb or turn on a slope. Within the strange limits of this strange assignment, it seems Singer is doing all he can to make me comfortable.
He asks what I thought of the students' questions.
''They were fine, about what I expected. I was a little surprised by the question about meat eating.''
''I apologize for that. That was out of left field. But -- I think what he wanted to know is how you can have such high respect for human life and so little respect for animal life.''
''People have lately been asking me the converse, how you can have so much respect for animal life and so little respect for human life.''
''And what do you answer?''
''I say I don't know. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me.''
''Well, in my view--''
''Look. I have lived in blissful ignorance all these years, and I'm not prepared to give that up today.''
''Fair enough,'' he says and proceeds to recount bits of Princeton history. He stops. ''This will be of particular interest to you, I think. This is where your colleagues with Not Dead Yet set up their blockade.'' I'm grateful for the reminder. My brothers and sisters were here before me and behaved far more appropriately than I am doing.
A van delivers Carmen and me early for the evening forum. Singer says he hopes I had a pleasant afternoon.
Yes, indeed. I report a pleasant lunch and a very pleasant nap, and I tell him about the Christopher Reeve Suite in the hotel, which has been remodeled to accommodate Reeve, who has family in the area.
''Do you suppose that's the $600 accessible suite they told me about?''
''Without doubt. And if I'd known it was the Christopher Reeve Suite, I would have held out for it.''
''Of course you would have!'' Singer laughs. ''And we'd have had no choice, would we?''
We talk about the disability rights critique of Reeve and various other topics. Singer is easy to talk to, good company. Too bad he sees lives like mine as avoidable mistakes.
I'm looking forward to the soft vegetarian meal that has been arranged; I'm hungry. Assisted suicide, as difficult as it is, doesn't cause the kind of agony I felt discussing disability-based infanticide. In this one, I understand, and to some degree can sympathize with, the opposing point of view -- misguided though it is.
My opening sticks to the five-minute time limit. I introduce the issue as framed by academic articles Not Dead Yet recommended for my use. Andrew Batavia argues for assisted suicide based on autonomy, a principle generally held high in the disability rights movement. In general, he says, the movement fights for our right to control our own lives; when we need assistance to effect our choices, assistance should be available to us as a matter of right. If the choice is to end our lives, he says, we should have assistance then as well. But Carol Gill says that it is differential treatment -- disability discrimination -- to try to prevent most suicides while facilitating the suicides of ill and disabled people. The social-science literature suggests that the public in general, and physicians in particular, tend to underestimate the quality of life of disabled people, compared with our own assessments of our lives. The case for assisted suicide rests on stereotypes that our lives are inherently so bad that it is entirely rational if we want to die.
I side with Gill. What worries me most about the proposals for legalized assisted suicide is their veneer of beneficence -- the medical determination that, for a given individual, suicide is reasonable or right. It is not about autonomy but about nondisabled people telling us what's good for us.
In the discussion that follows, I argue that choice is illusory in a context of pervasive inequality. Choices are structured by oppression. We shouldn't offer assistance with suicide until we all have the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality -- dependence, institutional confinement, being a burden -- are entirely curable. Singer, seated on my right, participates in the discussion but doesn't dominate it. During the meal, I occasionally ask him to put things within my reach, and he competently complies.
I feel as if I'm getting to a few of them, when a student asks me a question. The words are all familiar, but they're strung together in a way so meaningless that I can't even retain them -- it's like a long sentence in Tagalog. I can only admit my limitations. ''That question's too abstract for me to deal with. Can you rephrase it?''
He indicates that it is as clear as he can make it, so I move on.
A little while later, my right elbow slips out from under me. This is awkward. Normally I get whoever is on my right to do this sort of thing. Why not now? I gesture to Singer. He leans over, and I whisper, ''Grasp this wrist and pull forward one inch, without lifting.'' He follows my instructions to the letter. He sees that now I can again reach my food with my fork. And he may now understand what I was saying a minute ago, that most of the assistance disabled people need does not demand medical training.
A philosophy professor says, ''It appears that your objections to assisted suicide are essentially tactical.''
''By that I mean they are grounded in current conditions of political, social and economic inequality. What if we assume that such conditions do not exist?''
''Why would we want to do that?''
''I want to get to the real basis for the position you take.''
I feel as if I'm losing caste. It is suddenly very clear that I'm not a philosopher. I'm like one of those old practitioners who used to visit my law school, full of bluster about life in the real world. Such a bore! A once-sharp mind gone muddy! And I'm only 44 -- not all that old.
The forum is ended, and I've been able to eat very little of my pureed food. I ask Carmen to find the caterer and get me a container. Singer jumps up to take care of it. He returns with a box and obligingly packs my food to go.
When I get home, people are clamoring for the story. The lawyers want the blow-by-blow of my forensic triumph over the formidable foe; when I tell them it wasn't like that, they insist that it was. Within the disability rights community, there is less confidence. It is generally assumed that I handled the substantive discussion well, but people worry that my civility may have given Singer a new kind of legitimacy. I hear from Laura, a beloved movement sister. She is appalled that I let Singer provide even minor physical assistance at the dinner. ''Where was your assistant?'' she wants to know. How could I put myself in a relationship with Singer that made him appear so human, even kind?
I struggle to explain. I didn't feel disempowered; quite the contrary, it seemed a good thing to make him do some useful work. And then, the hard part: I've come to believe that Singer actually is human, even kind in his way. There ensues a discussion of good and evil and personal assistance and power and philosophy and tactics for which I'm profoundly grateful.
I e-mail Laura again. This time I inform her that I've changed my will. She will inherit a book that Singer gave me, a collection of his writings with a weirdly appropriate inscription: ''To Harriet Johnson, So that you will have a better answer to questions about animals. And thanks for coming to Princeton. Peter Singer. March 25, 2002.'' She responds that she is changing her will, too. I'll get the autographed photo of Jerry Lewis she received as an M.D.A. poster child. We joke that each of us has given the other a ''reason to live.''
I have had a nice e-mail message from Singer, hoping Carmen and I and the chair got home without injury, relaying positive feedback from my audiences -- and taking me to task for a statement that isn't supported by a relevant legal authority, which he looked up. I report that we got home exhausted but unharmed and concede that he has caught me in a generalization that should have been qualified. It's clear that the conversation will continue.
I am soon sucked into the daily demands of law practice, family, community and politics. In the closing days of the state legislative session, I help get a bill passed that I hope will move us one small step toward a world in which killing won't be such an appealing solution to the ''problem'' of disability. It is good to focus on this kind of work. But the conversations with and about Singer continue. Unable to muster the appropriate moral judgments, I ask myself a tough question: am I in fact a silly little lady whose head is easily turned by a man who gives her a kind of attention she enjoys? I hope not, but I confess that I've never been able to sustain righteous anger for more than about 30 minutes at a time. My view of life tends more toward tragedy.
The tragic view comes closest to describing how I now look at Peter Singer. He is a man of unusual gifts, reaching for the heights. He writes that he is trying to create a system of ethics derived from fact and reason, that largely throws off the perspectives of religion, place, family, tribe, community and maybe even species -- to ''take the point of view of the universe.'' His is a grand, heroic undertaking.
But like the protagonist in a classical drama, Singer has his flaw. It is his unexamined assumption that disabled people are inherently ''worse off,'' that we ''suffer,'' that we have lesser ''prospects of a happy life.'' Because of this all-too-common prejudice, and his rare courage in taking it to its logical conclusion, catastrophe looms. Here in the midpoint of the play, I can't look at him without fellow-feeling.
I am regularly confronted by people who tell me that Singer doesn't deserve my human sympathy. I should make him an object of implacable wrath, to be cut off, silenced, destroyed absolutely. And I find myself lacking a logical argument to the contrary.
I am talking to my sister Beth on the phone. ''You kind of like the monster, don't you?'' she says.
I find myself unable to evade, certainly unwilling to lie. ''Yeah, in a way. And he's not exactly a monster.''
''You know, Harriet, there were some very pleasant Nazis. They say the SS guards went home and played on the floor with their children every night.''
She can tell that I'm chastened; she changes the topic, lets me off the hook. Her harshness has come as a surprise. She isn't inclined to moralizing; in our family, I'm the one who sets people straight.
When I put the phone down, my argumentative nature feels frustrated. In my mind, I replay the conversation, but this time defend my position.
''He's not exactly a monster. He just has some strange ways of looking at things.''
''He's advocating genocide.''
''That's the thing. In his mind, he isn't. He's only giving parents a choice. He thinks the humans he is talking about aren't people, aren't 'persons.'''
''But that's the way it always works, isn't it? They're always animals or vermin or chattel goods. Objects, not persons. He's repackaging some old ideas. Making them acceptable.''
''I think his ideas are new, in a way. It's not old-fashioned hate. It's a twisted, misinformed, warped kind of beneficence. His motive is to do good.''
''What do you care about motives?'' she asks. ''Doesn't this beneficent killing make disabled brothers and sisters just as dead?''
''But he isn't killing anyone. It's just talk.''
''Just talk? It's talk with an agenda, talk aimed at forming policy. Talk that's getting a receptive audience. You of all people know the power of that kind of talk.''
''Well, sure, but--''
''If talk didn't matter, would you make it your life's work?''
''But,'' I say, ''his talk won't matter in the end. He won't succeed in reinventing morality. He stirs the pot, brings things out into the open. But ultimately we'll make a world that's fit to live in, a society that has room for all its flawed creatures. History will remember Singer as a curious example of the bizarre things that can happen when paradigms collide.''
''What if you're wrong? What if he convinces people that there's no morally significant difference between a fetus and a newborn, and just as disabled fetuses are routinely aborted now, so disabled babies are routinely killed? Might some future generation take it further than Singer wants to go? Might some say there's no morally significant line between a newborn and a 3-year-old?''
''Sure. Singer concedes that a bright line cannot be drawn. But he doesn't propose killing anyone who prefers to live.''
''That overarching respect for the individual's preference for life -might some say it's a fiction, a fetish, a quasi-religious belief?''
''Yes,'' I say. ''That's pretty close to what I think. As an atheist, I think all preferences are moot once you kill someone. The injury is entirely to the surviving community.''
''So what if that view wins out, but you can't break disability prejudice? What if you wind up in a world where the disabled person's 'irrational' preference to live must yield to society's 'rational' interest in reducing the incidence of disability? Doesn't horror kick in somewhere? Maybe as you watch the door close behind whoever has wheeled you into the gas chamber?''
''That's not going to happen.''
''Do you have empirical evidence?'' she asks. ''A logical argument?''
''Of course not. And I know it's happened before, in what was considered the most progressive medical community in the world. But it won't happen. I have to believe that.''
Belief. Is that what it comes down to? Am I a person of faith after all? Or am I clinging to foolish hope that the tragic protagonist, this one time, will shift course before it's too late?
I don't think so. It's less about belief, less about hope, than about a practical need for definitions I can live with.
If I define Singer's kind of disability prejudice as an ultimate evil, and him as a monster, then I must so define all who believe disabled lives are inherently worse off or that a life without a certain kind of consciousness lacks value. That definition would make monsters of many of the people with whom I move on the sidewalks, do business, break bread, swap stories and share the grunt work of local politics. It would reach some of my family and most of my nondisabled friends, people who show me personal kindness and who sometimes manage to love me through their ignorance. I can't live with a definition of ultimate evil that encompasses all of them. I can't refuse the monster-majority basic respect and human sympathy. It's not in my heart to deny every single one of them, categorically, my affection and my love.
The peculiar drama of my life has placed me in a world that by and large thinks it would be better if people like me did not exist. My fight has been for accommodation, the world to me and me to the world.
As a disability pariah, I must struggle for a place, for kinship, for community, for connection. Because I am still seeking acceptance of my humanity, Singer's call to get past species seems a luxury way beyond my reach. My goal isn't to shed the perspective that comes from my particular experience, but to give voice to it. I want to be engaged in the tribal fury that rages when opposing perspectives are let loose.
As a shield from the terrible purity of Singer's vision, I'll look to the corruption that comes from interconnectedness. To justify my hopes that Singer's theoretical world -- and its entirely logical extensions -- won't become real, I'll invoke the muck and mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived. That's the best I can do.
Harriet McBryde Johnson is a lawyer in solo practice in Charleston, S.C. She has been a disability rights activist and advocate for more than 25 years.
Doesn't this line of argument apply to everyone who favaors abortion?
I agree that in the long run, morality remains pretty constant. But it can be temporarily warped through all sorts of sick rationalizations and redefinitions of humanity.
A human is a human from the moment of conception to the point of natural death. Whatever a person's physical or mental state, whether developing or degrading, is irrelevant. I don't understand how anyone can be so cruel. When in doubt, it is better to err on the side of life.
An excellent synopsis. I find Singer despicable and the author centerless.
People look down on atheists because most know they're in denial.
It is remarkable in this woman in that meaningful discussion of values, meaning, and ethics on the one hand, and atheism on the other, are mutually exclusive.
There. Now someone's told you.
Great line, I love it.
You got it.
The article annoyed and puzzled and saddened me, but your gloss made all clear.
Since neither Singer nor Johnson acknowledges the existence of a higher power, what is "good" is only what each of them believes or has "reasoned" out. Each stands for their own point of view without having any overarching reason to do so - if there is no God, there is no absolute good, and one person's "sincere belief" is just as good as another's.
The reason Singer bothers her is because she's looking in the mirror.
I don't think this is logically consistent all the way down the line, however, because ultimately viewing human life as a good in and of itself has its roots in a religious faith -- namely, that a higher power views life as an a priori good. Otherwise, why is living better than not-living, in the grand scheme of things? It can be an awful bother at times.
Here's something I wrote for the student newspaper after my conversation with the Not Dead Yet protester:
When he talks about disabled people being "worse off," surely he has some standard by which to make that judgement. And he also must have some means of gauging at what point one is sufficiently disabled to warrant death.
I would like to know what those criteria are. I suspect that in each case there are exceptions that would pose big problems for his "rational" system of ethics.
Singer's suffering to a large extent from "ivory tower syndrome". Like so many navel-gazing professors, he's playing a semantic game with himself, as he admits, trying to construct a world-view from a purely logical and utilitarian starting point. He has persuaded himself that his philosophy and teaching lives in a separate pigeon-hole from his "self" - and that's the dichotomy that Johnson picked up on. She was uncomfortable with his "split personality" even as she succumbed to it. Since Singer is an atheist, he doesn't acknowledge that his thinking and teaching (broadcast to students and the world at large) affects his character. But over the long haul it does. (Hitler was extremely kind to animals. So what?)
When his own quite elderly mother became ill, he paid vast sums of money to obtain round-the-clock nursing home care for her. He didn't see the irony of this (or the "injustice" of it under his declared system) even when it was pointed out to him! The most he could say is that well, he didn't live up to his own system.
Silly man! He just stumbled over one of the great proofs of the existence of God - that man KNOWS the moral code in his heart, even when he professes to believe something else.
Singer is playing a double game. He's trying to keep his philosophy and his "self" in two watertight compartments.
Unfortunately, one can keep up this charade for only so long. Something's got to give, and since he has rejected the clear signposts that have been given to him (first his elderly mother, and now this woman) I fear the worst.
LEGAL ACCOUNTABILITY: WRONGFUL LIFE SUITS
Support for amniocentesis and selective abortion, in the absence of gene therapy, may come from an unexpected direction. Using a tort action known as wrongful life, children born with genetic defects have sometimes sued physicians whose duty it was to warn parents of potential genetic conditions. At first these cases were not accepted for legal action because the courts could not measure the value of a life lived or unlived. However, some cases are now being heard, although none has been won yet by the plaintiff (28).
These cases differ from typical malpractice cases because they presume that a person's life should never have existed at all, if the defendant had done his or her duty. To date, a wrongful life action has not been brought by a child against parents. In the past, children were constrained from suing parents, but courts now permit cases that involve property and finance (29). In 1987, an Illinois appeals court ruled that a 5-year-old girl, injured in a car accident while still in her mother's womb, could sue her mother for negligence (30). If a child born with severe deformities or a genetic defect decided that the parents could have detected the disorder prenatally, a suit against the parents might be based on wrongful life or negligence. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote a legal opinion in the late 1880s stating that there is "a conditional, prospective liability for one not yet in being" (31). Later courts have argued that every child has a right to begin life with physical and mental health (32). Marjorie Shaw, M.D., J.D., an expert in law as it pertains to genetics, has concluded that
knowingly, capriciously, or negligently transmitting a defective gene that causes pain and suffering and an agonizing death to an offspring is certainly a moral wrong if not a legal wrong. Thus, if reproduction is contemplated (or not consciously prevented) there is an ethical obligation not to harm the offspring and one's genotype should be determined so that appropriate steps can be taken to avert the disease in future generations. (33)
Pressures on parents to use genetic services will certainly, in part, be considerations of ethical duty to the child and responsibility to society. Parents might also choose to do what is most convenient for them, feeling themselves incapable of or unwilling to raise a handicapped child. But the moral and ethical responsibilities of the parents to do no harm to their children may yet be reinforced by court actions. After all, the children suffer the handicaps, not the parents.
(I just can't see my Mom escorting me into a courtromm where she argues that she wishes I had never been born at all. I also can't see how a dead child is better than a handicapped child. Is it just me?)
And I don't believe that you're so thick you are unable to absorb a few simple propositions/observations. Ignorance can be cured. Deliberate ignorance... that's tricky.
I very much agree that argument alone hasn't the power to persuade.
God can use persuasion as part of the process of turning on the light. He did with me, he can with many.
And whether or not Mr. Denial personally takes the benefit that is resident in the thought that what I said might hav provoked, (A) I've learned always to care about Unseen Lurkers, and (B) over the years I've developed a strong antipathy to seeing truth lose by default for lack of spokesmen.
What have we to appeal to in order to reinforce the notion that the right to life once conceived is an inalienable right? Don't we first have to establish from whence comes the inalienable? Could we do that by the following?...
That the human race exists is 'self-evident'. That we appear to be the only species on earth with the reflective quality of valuing other living beings not directly connected to our continued existence is only slightly questionable (elephants appear to have some 'mourning' instinct over lost fellow elephants; my present cat companion appeared to 'miss' our other cat friend when he was run over in the street). In the absence of any evidence that any other species has made any form of acknowledgement of a Creator, that trait also seems uniquely human. Is there an a priori value to individual human life? Only if we acknowledge such. What if we don't acknowledge that, as with Singer? Have we, in denying an a priori value to individual existence, negated the ONLY reason for our own individual existence?
Put another way: If we acknowledge that we are a created creature--by a Creator or by evolutionary chance, somehow existing at a higher than any other species level, don't we cancel our own individual right to existence when we deny the value of ANY OTHER individual human's existence, whether in embryonic age or after decades of existence?
Even so I felt the need for a bath after reading it.
Reminded me of another encounter between Singer and one of his opponents - in this case, Father Richard John Neuhaus:
A Curious Encounter with a Philosopher from Nowhere
First Things, February 2002
One could hardly imagine a more civilized setting. A crisply sunny November afternoon at Colgate University, its campus of handsome nineteenthcentury buildings tucked into the cadenced hills of upstate New York, all covered with the last fine glow of autumn foliage. The four hundred brighteyed students, along with faculty and townsfolk, filled the auditorium, with many standing and sitting in the aisles. The great attraction, I was well aware, was Peter Singer. The controversial Peter Singer, as he is routinely called, holder of a chair in bioethics at Princetons University Center for Human Values. He and I were to debate the question, Who Should Live and Who Should Die? It was a standard format, with opening statements and rebuttals, followed by another hour of responding to questions from the audience. Dont ask me who won. As is usual with public debates, partisans on both sides claim victory and are reinforced in what they believed before. I dont think I did too poorly, but Singer, his forensic talents honed by the assumption that his views will meet with resistance, is an impressive performer.
I had not met Professor Singer before, although I had of course read a good bit of his work. After all, the New Yorker declares him to be the worlds most influential living philosopher, and even in the guild of professional philosophers there are some who agree with that estimate. In addition to the two hours of public exchange, we spent several hours in conversation, and I confess that there is much about him that one cannot help but like. He is a bright, articulate, and very personable bloke, as they might say in his native Australia. He does not mind at all being called a gadfly; on the contrary, he obviously relishes the role. He would like to think that he is also something more than a gadfly, but for him philosophy is clearly not defined, as the classical authors would have it, by the love of wisdom but by, as he is prone to putting it, getting people to think for themselves.
The opening line of Rethinking Life and Death sets forth what for him is selfevidently the case: After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed. That is the presupposition, variously phrased, that runs throughout his argument. And there is another, from the same text: The views I put forward should be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended. Although he does not put it so baldly, he seems to believe that the fact that his argument clashes with accepted moral views is evidence of its superiority. One would expect no less of a gadfly.
His system of ethics, which he tends to assume is ethics tout court, is an individual preference version of utilitarianism, going back to the nineteenth century and Jeremy Benthams doctrine that each is to count as one and none is to count as more than one. The ethical goal is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Among the many traditions of ethical thought, this one, for Peter Singer, not only counts as more than one but is the only one. Utility, equality, universality, and individual choicethese are the dogmatic points of reference in a scheme presented as the enemy of dogma. This is pretty conventional stuff in some circles of academic philosophy, but in the utilitarian tradition Prof. Singer has gained fame and notoriety by drawing from it some unusual conclusions, or at least by promoting his conclusions with unusual candor. He also wants to believe that he is not rigidly tied to any system, utilitarian or otherwise. At times he declares that the lodestar of his thinking is one simple imperative: reduce suffering.
Singer has been widely quoted as saying that he and the Pope are the only ones who understand what the abortion debate is about. He says he does not remember saying that, but he allows that he well might have. I pointed out in the debate that, in his role as gadfly, Prof. Singer renders the very useful service of making clear that the logic supporting the unlimited abortion license imposed by the Supreme Court in 1973s Roe v. Wade decision necessarily extends to infanticide, euthanasia, eugenics, and other measures that he espouses, and for which many who support that license wrongly criticize him as an extremist. Peter Singer, with his scheme of individual preference utilitarianism, has simply thought the matter through more consistently than most supporters of the prochoice position, which is a position ofalthough such people may never have heard the phrase beforeindividual preference utilitarianism.
Rights, Animal and Human
In our opposing positions, we were fairly pitted against one another. I defended the proposition that civilization is marked by an expansive definition of the human community for which we accept common responsibility, which requires, in turn, the uncompromisable rule that it is always and in every instance wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being. Prof. Singer defended the proposition that the ethical goal is to reduce suffering and respect preferences, and that goal may at times permit and even require the killing of the innocent. At many times, as it turns out. To be sure, his argument has important qualifications. Not all who are biologically human beings should be counted as human beings. Some human beings are more human than others. The unborn, the newborn, the anencephalic, and those in a vegetative state, for instance, do not count, or at least do not count fully, as human beings. The other qualifying prong of his argument is that it is not rational to draw a hard and fast line between human beings and other forms of animal life. To do so is an instance of speciesism.
Prof. Singers book on animal liberation has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and in law schools today there are scholars developing a legal framework for the defense of animal rights based on his work. (In deference to Singer, the dinner at the presidents house was vegetarian and, I must admit, very tasty.) The natural result of Singers argument is to shrink the circle of those protected by virtue of human rights, and to expand the circle of beings protected by rights deemed to be superior to the rights of some human beings. The argumentative strategy requires, of course, the blurring of the line between human animals and other animals. Many commentators expressed shock when, in the past year, Prof. Singer came out in defense of sexual relations between human beings and animals, a practice traditionally known as bestiality. (He qualified his argument by emphasizing that it is not permissible to cause the animal pain.) Clearly, the commentators who were shocked had not been attending to his argument. It follows. Yet I admit that I am still puzzled about why, in the absence of clear consent on the animals part, such intercourse is not a form of rape. But we had so many things to discuss, and perhaps on some other occasion Prof. Singer can set me straight on that one.
We can all agree that contemporary medical technology presents some new circumstances in making lifeanddeath decisions, although some of us think they are not so new as the Singers of the world claim is the case. In the debate, I began with the rule that we are always to care and never to kill, and then considered hard cases in the light of that rule. Prof. Singer, as you might expect, began at the other end with the hard cases (the anencephalic infant being his prime example), which, he contended, discredit the rule. Of course he agrees that we are always to care; it is only that sometimes caring means killing. He does not object to my saying that he is a proponent of the kindness that kills. In his view, what matters is the kindness.
That is one reason why he resents so deeply the German universities that have denied him a platform. The Germans claim that his argument is reminiscent of, if not identical with, the Nazis and their doctrine of life unworthy of life. In his writings, Singer has protested vigorously that it is the German students who shout him down who are the real Nazis. I pointed out in response that, while it is true that the Nazis denied free speech, it is not for that that they are chiefly remembered. After the Holocaust and other atrocities of the Nazi era, the sanctity of human life was entrenched in the basic law of Germany, and Singer is very explicit about his goal of overthrowing the idea of the sanctity of human life, which he depicts as a discredited Christian imposition on clear thinking. Some Germans claim he is a Himmler in academic tweeds. Of course he is not a Himmler. He had grandparents killed in the Holocaust. Moreover, he is an intellectual and a gentleman, and his purpose is to reduce suffering.
A Spot of Unpleasantness
There was a spot of unpleasantness in the debate. Singers Benthamite principle that each counts as one and none as more than one has led him to insist again and again that, from an ethical viewpoint, our duties to friends and family are not different from our duties to strangers. That is part of what it means when he says his ethical theory is universal. One has no more ethical duty, for instance, to ones own daughter than to a girl of the same age ten thousand miles away in Bangladesh whom one has never seen and whose name one does not know. My family, my friends, my countryeach must give way to the universal. Each person counts as one and no more than one. But then, in a long and generally sympathetic interview in the New Yorker, the question came up about Singers devoting many thousands of dollars and elaborate nursing care for his own mother who had Alzheimers. In the interview, Singer is reported to have explained, Perhaps its more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your mother.
Singers critics understandably seized on this blatant contradiction. Peter Berkowitz, writing in the New Republic, said: The ethicists innocence, at this late date in his career, of the most elemental features of his subject matter boggles the mind. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more stunning rebuke to the wellheeled and wellensconced academic discipline of practical ethics [Singers muchused text is titled Practical Ethics] than that its most controversial and influential star, at the peak of his discipline, after an Oxford education, after twentyfive years as a university professor, and after the publication of thousands of pages laying down clearcut rules on lifeanddeath issues, should reveal, only as the result of a reporters prodding, and only in the battle with his own elderly mothers suffering, that he has just begun to appreciate that the moral life is complex.
In my opening presentation, I suggested that Singers claim to neutrality, to representing the rationality of the disinterested observer, was a kind of view from Nowhere, and I pointed out that nobody actually lives in Nowhere. In this connection, I referred to the public discussion of Singers very preferential treatment of his mother. I said he was to be commended for what he did, but that it is a cockeyed ethical theory that is embarrassed by a sons caring for his elderly mother. Prof. Singer very sharply, one might say rudely, interrupted my presentation, protesting that I was invading his privacy, that his mother had recently died, and that the New Yorker article misrepresented his views. I was quite taken aback and apologized for any offense given, while noting that I thought he had made the subject a matter of public discussion, and that it did drive to the heart of his rule that none counts for more than one. But his appeal to his privacy and bereavement did score him points, as indicated by applause from much of the audience.
Later, in friendly conversation, I told him that I thought his eruption was more than a little unfair, and asked how the matter had been misrepresented in the New Yorker interview. He explained that the extensive care he had provided his mother was not entirely his idea, there were family pressures, and so forth. The striking thing is that he was clearly more interested in defending his curious theory than in defending his commendable care for his mother. In any event, his explanation does not detract from the force of Berkowitzs criticism. After all, it is Peter Singer himself who wrote in Practical Ethics, Ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice. The reverse of this is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect as well, for the whole point of ethical judgment is to guide practice.
Not Christian Altruism
It is not only in relation to his mother, however, that Singers practice clashes with his theory. His view from Nowhere prescribes a universal and radically egalitarian altruism that is a formula for living a life of unappeasable guilt. He is reported to give away onefifth of his very considerable income, mainly to organizations feeding the hungry around the world. He readily admits that he could give more, that some children are dying every day because he does not give more. Some writers claim it is an irony that Singer, who so inveighs against the Christian ethic, in fact subscribes to a Christian ethic of unlimited, and impossible, altruism. But, of course, the Christian ethic, in sharp contrast to the view from Nowhere, underscores that we are situated creatures with duties framed by specific place and time and possibility. Singers ethic is a form of angelism, meaning the human aspiration to an angelic status that is not and cannot be ours. Put differently, the view from Nowhere is a gnostic delusion of liberation from the particular. The Christian view is grounded in the particular, and most particularly in the incarnation of the universal in the child of Mary. And, of course, the traditional Western ethic that Singer repudiates also has roots in Greek traditions of virtue that are assiduously attentive to our being creatures of space and time. The vaulting ambitions of Singers concept of a morally decent person are implausible in theory and impossible in practice. He says he is proposing an ethical ideal, but it is, I believe, not an ideal but a delusion induced by moral hubris.
He believes that his view from Nowhere is a view from Everywhere, but just as nobody actually lives in Nowhere, so nobody actually lives in Everywhere. In this version of a universal ethic, Nowhere and Everywhere are synonymous. Both result in an ethic for a world that does not exist. The eerie sense of unreality induced by his argument was especially strong when the debate turned to his longstanding claim that it is sometimes permissible, even ethically required, to kill children after they have been born. In the past, Prof. Singer has urged a waiting period of twentyeight days after birth before deciding whether a baby has rights that we are bound to respect. If the child is severely defective, and if the parents so decide, he or she can be killed. Now, after extensive discussion with medical authorities, he is persuaded that the twentyeight day limit is arbitrary and too inflexible.
In the question and answer session, an undergraduate sharply challenged Singer, asking why, if Singers argument is right, his parents could not kill him or have him killed. Singer replied that the rule would not apply to the student because he was a conscious and responsible moral agent, or at least presumably so. This elicited appreciative chuckles from some in the audience. I was less than satisfied with his answer and asked Prof. Singer what, then, should be the cutoff age at which parents would no longer be free to kill their children. One year? Oh, he said, I should think it would be somewhat short of one year. But my point is that its not for me or anyone else to say. It should be up to the parents. He added that it is a decision that parents should make in consultation with their doctor.
Time Out for Reality
Perhaps you have experienced such moments. In the middle of a conversation, a person says something so striking that time seems to stop and an entire scenario unfolds in your mind. That is what happened to me at that point. It went something like this:
Mike and Elizabeth had one child, threeyearold Elizabeth, and had really hoped for a boy this time, but decided to go ahead with the pregnancy when the tests indicated another girl. They named her Anne, and they loved her very much. Their best friends, Bob and Debby, lived only a few houses away, and they all agreed that such an adorable and happy baby had never before been seen. It was not until about the seventh month that Elizabeth and Mike noticed the odd twitching in Annes left leg and arm, and the way she refused to look them in the eye. She spent hours in the corner twirling her little yellow plastic duck, increasingly oblivious to everything and everyone around her. The doctor referred them to a specialist who spoke of a neurological problem and exploratory surgery. Even more troubling were the early signs of autism. They were told that there are wonderful programs now, most of them paid for by the state. With the help of therapists ten hours a day, there was a better than 5050 chance that at age five or so Anne would be almost like other children. Although the neurological problem might leave her with the odd quirk and apparent vacancy of mind from time to time.
Thats when Elizabeth began to think, very tentatively at first, that they should send her back. When she finally got up nerve enough to suggest it to Mike, he was appalled. What do you mean send her back? You mean we should kill her? Not at all, Elizabeth explained, the law is very clear. You just sign some papers saying that you have decided it is the best thing for her, and then they gently put her to sleep. Its the merciful thing to do, Mike. She would have never had a really normal life. (By this time, she was beginning to talk about Anne in the past tense.) Anyway, there is my job to think about. I couldnt have been supervising all that therapy for five years, and youre on the road half the time. And next time we can have the boy that we wanted. Knowing that the burden of caring for Anne would fall unequally on Elizabeth, and loving Elizabeth very much, Mike finally relented.
When she told Debby that they had decided to send Anne back, Debby was horrified. But you cant do that, she said. Shes your baby, Elizabeth. You cant kill your own baby. Its one thing to have an abortion, but shes been part of your family, part of your life, for seven months. You cant just kill her. Elizabeth protested that they would not be doing it, that its done in the hospital, and anyway their doctor agreed with them. The doctor also explained how her body parts could save the lives of other children, so it isnt as though she had lived for nothing. Moreover, Anne wasnt really part of the family. She didnt really relate to anybody, and her autism would probably have gotten worse. It would be cruel to have forced her to live a life that was not worth living. Debby noted the past tense and knew the decision had been made. It was a painful conversation. That night Debby and Bob talked for a long time. They agreed they had lost their best friends; they would not be able to have Elizabeth and Mike over any more.
Elizabeths mother, Mary, told her she would never speak to her again. Grandmothers often are that way. Henry said, Listen, honey, youll get over it. Anne is their baby, after all, not ours. We have four other grandchildren, and Elizabeth and Mike can have another one who doesnt have all those problems. Its not as though theyre doing something criminal. Its legal, and more and more people are doing it. Remember the Schmidt baby, and he was almost two years old. I know how you feel, honey, and I dont like it either, but I dont see how we can impose our judgment on Elizabeth and Mike. Its their baby, after all. And you know she wouldnt have had a happy life. Maybe this is the best thing.
Mary was not convinced; not then, not ever. After a while, she did speak to Elizabeth again, but it was never the same. She remembered how Anne, then less than a month old, had giggled and let out that funny yelp when Father Rittle baptized her, and how they used to recall that, and laugh again. Mary took down from the mantle the Christmas photo of Elizabeth and Mike with little Elizabeth and littler Anne, and put it away in a drawer. Every once in a while, when she was alone, she would open the drawer to look at it, and to remember. She remembered Anne, and she remembered the day that Henry told her that they had sent her back. Elizabeth explained to her father that it wasnt so bad after all. The doctor was waiting for them at the hospital, and there was this really nice room where she and Mike could say their goodbyes, and then a very understanding nurse took Anne from her arms. Dont be embarrassed to cry, she said. Sometimes things just dont work out the way we hoped. Then Elizabeth knew that they had decided to do the right thing. It was with a smile of regret, but mainly of enormous relief, that she watched the nurse carry the poor thing off to another part of the hospital where they put down the babies.
We Have No Right to Say
That was the point at which I returned from my reverie, and it seemed that no time at all had elapsed. Prof. Singer was still talking. He was patiently explaining that people like Father Neuhaus were always worrying about the slippery slope, but what they forget is that most parents love their children and want what is best for them. Most parents would never have any reason to even think about killing their children. So why all the worry? In addition, he wanted it to be clearly understood that he supports the alternative of adoption for defective children, and some parents might be very happy to give up their unwanted child to a couple who would care for it. If such a couple is motivated by a belief in the discredited concept of the sanctity of life, thats their preference and they have a right to believe what they want. Their antiquated belief may help to meet their needs in some odd way.
His chief point was that neither Fr. Neuhaus nor he nor anyone else has a right to tell parents what is best for their own children. Or to tell old people how or when they should die. Although, he added, such decisions should be made with medical advice. He most particularly admires the progressive attitudes and practices of the Netherlands. There euthanasia has been legalized and each year thousands of old people are sent to their final rest, with or without their consent. Ethical progress, he notes, always meets with resistance from alarmists who go on about a supposed slippery slope. But once the step is taken, people get used to it. People are resilient, and it is amazing what they can get used to. The world doesnt come to an end, he observed. The Dutch are still a morally decent people; in his view, more decent since they abandoned outmoded religious inhibitions against doing the rational thing. And so he continued in a tone so reasonable and reassuring. Slippery slope? What slippery slope? Happily sliding downward, he invited the students to follow, and some were obviously asking that most insidious of moral questions, Why not?
As I say, there is much to like about Peter Singer. He has a boyishly mischievous manner, as gadflies often do. To shock conventions is to score points. And there is no doubt that he is very smart. In the course of my presentation I quotedmaking clear that I meant no disrespectChestertons line. The problem with a madman, Chesterton wrote, is not that he is not logical; the problem is that he is only logical. Taking no offense, Prof. Singer seemed pleased that I thought him logical, mistakenly equating logical with reasonable. There are glaring contradictions in his argumentnotably, but by no means only, with respect to the principle that each counts for one and none for more than one. But one gets the impression that in Singers view a ready admission of moral guilt covers a multitude of gaps in practice. Nobody said being a morally decent person is easy.
And if someone decides not to be a morally decent person? Well, that, too, is his or her choice. We are entitled to take measures to prevent their interfering with our choices, but what they do with themselves or with othersespecially if it is determined that the others are not really human beings after allis none of our business. Of course, if people act in such a way as to increase, rather than reduce, sufferingif, for instance, they protect and thus prolong painful and meaningless liveswe can let them know in no uncertain terms that we think they are not morally decent persons, or at least that they are morally misguided. The principle of equality requires that we respect their right to choose, even if they choose to believe that the sanctity of life means that all are equally deserving of respect, although they also believe that we are not able to, and should not, treat all in the same way. We may hope, in Prof. Singers view, that with the advancement of education and enlightened thought, they will come to see the error in their position. Meanwhile, he is sure, we do have a right to impose upon them the rule that they must not impose their rule upon us. That is only logical.
I was, all in all, glad for the debate, and grateful for the friendly discussion of a view from Nowhere. There is a certain charm in playing thought games of what if, as in what if we human beings were a different kind of creature than we are, in a world very different from the world that is. And what if reality, which Prof. Singer insists is accidental and meaningless, were amenable to the logical working out of whatever premises we prefer. Admittedly, the charm of the game pales somewhat when we remember how the world was when some premises, such as the sanctity of human life, were repudiated.
The views I put forward should be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended. And we remember how difficult it is to come up with answers that will be recognized as arguments by those who ask, Why not? Yes to the sanctity of human beings, we say, because they are who they are and we are who we are, and everything depends upon our believing that is true. But to our universal and disinterested observer that is a quaint prejudice, at best a personal preference easily explained, and explained away, by cultural conditioning. Ethical progress requires that wisdom received from the experience and teaching of others must give way to conclusions reached by thinking for ourselves, disallowing the possibility that thinking for ourselves may lead us to gratefully embrace the wisdom received from others, and embrace it because we have been convinced that it is true. Ah yes, say the philosophers from Nowhere, but what is truth?
Between these positions it may seem that such a great gap is fixed that we may ask whether there is any purpose in debate or discussion. The answer is yes. Because the interlocutor has faculties of intelligence, will, and conscience that, no matter how disordered, are not beyond the reach of reason, and of grace. Because there is always something to be learned through intellectual engagement, no matter how wrongheaded the arguments proposed. Because such arguments must not be permitted to prevail by default. And because it is important to be reminded from time to time that barbarism, so brutal in its consequences, can appear in kindly mask and speak in tones ever so reassuringly civilized. I say that meaning no offense to Prof. Singer, and I expect that he will not take offense. To a certain kind of mind any question can be interesting. If it is addressed boldly, with intellectual independence, employing logical arguments untainted by the experience of life as it is lived, and especially if it clashes with accepted moral views. The next debate: Why not barbarism?
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Bingo, CC! This statement is the crux of the whole issue.
I read the article earlier today, and came to this same conclusion. It was interesting all through the article to see how they had to perform so many semantic somersaults and gymnastic gyrations to avoid having to mention the soul or the Creator. I found myself feeling nothing for her, I suppose simply because she so carefully stepped around the truth. We already know what Singer says. He's made no bones about it. But she prevented an emotional connection to her audience by refusing to acknowledge that even cripples, babies, and atheists posess souls.
Freedom, Wealth, and Peace,
Francis W. Porretto
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