Friday, April 10, 2009

More on Peter Singer and People with Disabilities

The New York Times closed the comments on Nicholas Kristof's opinion piece about animal welfare and the philosopher Peter Singer's work in behalf of the cause rather suddenly yesterday, but Kristof kept them open on his blog. One of the more interesting comments came from a poster identified as Gypsy Boots.
The ultimate issue is not really animal “rights,” but power over human life. Embroiling people in debates about animal rights (no matter how they end up, knowing that most of us are unlikely to stop eating meat or fish) is good for this agenda, because it weakens the idea that human rights pre-exist social consensus or have any “sacred” character, and promotes the idea that human rights are the endowment of small groups of “expert” philosopher kings.

Read the entire response here.

For those interested in a comprehensive and intelligent discussion of how Singer's philosophy is seen by a person with a disability, the late Harriet McBryde Johnson's long essay in the New York Times from 2003 is the perfect place to begin.

1 comment:

Victoria Mixon said...


This is a fascinating article. Thank you for posting the link.

I understand Johnson's quandry in facing Singer and the moral dilemmas they discussed. However, I see an angle from which there are no conflicts between Singer's stand on animal rights and the Not Dead Yet stand on human rights.

Singer's stand on animal rights depends upon his belief that animals suffer in the same ways that humans do and therefore deserve the same protection from suffering. Meat-eaters and vegetarians alike can agree on that, although it means meat-eaters must make the effort to eat only meat that has been raised and slaughtered with the animals' right to protection from suffering in mind, as per recent California legislation.

Singer's stand on killing as an option for the parents and/or legal caretakers of disabled newborns depends upon his belief that, while it is wrong to cause suffering, it is does not cause suffering to kill those who don't choose to live. In accordance with his stand on animal suffering, he concludes that to kill a newborn causes no suffering because the child does not choose life.

His error lies in claiming that newborns don't choose life. How could he possibly know that? There is no evidence that babies don't choose life.

Until Singer can scientifically prove either that newborns have no preference for life or that certain newborns prefer death, he has no grounds for suggesting that to kill a newborn does not cause suffering.

And if it causes suffering, then it cannot be morally right, according to his own belief system.

The suffering of the parents of a disabled child is a significant issue, as is the suffering of all parents who get themselves into parenthood without a written guarantee that it won't be harder than they expect. The parents of the disabled love their children just as deeply as the parents of the able-bodied. There is simply no comparison between the difficulty of raising a disabled child and the suffering of a child who is killed.

Of course, the other issue is that Johnson dealt with Singer entirely within the framework of her own physical condition. What would that discussion have been like if they'd pursued it into the framework of Singer's physical condition? Might he have a physical issue or two that in a purely theoretical context (which appears to be the context from which he argues) would qualify him, according to his own moral stand, for exactly the same treatment as the treatment he proposes for officially-disabled newborns?

I have always found it enlightening to turn a discussion around to include the circumstances of not just one but all participants in the discussion. An amazing number of hidden assumptions and invisible false proofs tend to crop up that way.

Thanks again for keeping this article alive over the years and for bringing it to our attention now.

all the best,