We have been having a raging debate here in the comments on a previous post End of life decisions. A lot of it is centred on the writings of the moral philosopher Peter Singer. One of the commenters posted a video where Singer explains his views in this and other issues. Its well worth watching, part of the Uncut Interviews recorded for the series The Genius of Darwin
Singer is controversial because he is dealing with controversial ethical subjects. Subjects where there seems to be a taboo on discussion or even active attempts to present discussion. In the 2nd edition of his book Practical Ethics.
Singer describes the extreme reaction his writing had received in Germany. Speakers were prevented from speaking – even physically attacked, conferences closed down, academic invitations withdrawn and there had been difficulty in getting academic books published.
I thought his description of the way his ideas get distorted was very useful because it seems to happen all the time in controversial areas, or just in areas where some groups oppose ideas where there is actually a consensus.
Here it is:
For the most part each of the books [criticising Singer's ideas] appears to have been written to a formula that goes something like this:
1: Quote a few passages from Practical Ethics selected so as to distort the book’s meaning
2: Express horror that anyone can say such things.
3: Make a sneering jibe at the idea that this could pass for philosophy.
4: Draw a parallel between what has been quoted and what the Nazis thought or did.
But it is also essential to observe one negative aspect of the formula:
5: Avoid discussing any of the following dangerous questions: Is human life to be preserved to the maximum extent possible? If not, in cases in which the patient cannot and never has been able to express a preference, how are decisions to discontinue treatment to be made, without an evaluation of the patient’s quality of life? What is the moral significance of the distinction between bringing about a patient’s death by withdrawing treatment necessary to prolong life and bringing it about by active intervention? Why is advocacy of euthanasia for severely disabled infants so much worse than advocacy of abortion on request that the same people can oppose the right even to discuss the former, while themselves advocating the latter?
These are important ethical questions and should be discussed. It’s a pity that people with fixed opinions attempt to close down discussion by presenting extreme parodies of participants in the possible debate.