Peter Singer on the misrepresentation of Peter Singer

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

Peter Singer – The Genius of Darwin: The Uncut Interviews

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 Speakers were prevented from speaking – even physically attacked, conferences closed down, academic invitations withdrawn and there had been difficulty in getting academic books published.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.

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24 responses to “Peter Singer on the misrepresentation of Peter Singer

  1. Ah excellent! An opportunity to discuss the issues themselves rather than what X did or did not say which is somewhat tiresome! So what are your tentative answers to the dangerous questions you raise?


  2. Max, if you are asking me (not clear), I think I have already given some specific answers in previous discussions. If there is anything specific just ask and I’ll do my best to answer (I do say these are difficult ethical questions and I don’t pretend to have firm answers or even views to everything).

    But what about you. I suspect you have strong views on at least some of these questions and related issues like abortion and euthanasia in general. What about telling us what they are?


  3. Ok specifically to start off: Under what circumstances do you think a parent has the right to decide a child should be euthanized?

    “But what about you.”
    Sure. Ask away and I will answer any questions you have:


  4. Max, I suspect I may largely agree with Singer there (as I understand him not as Matt does).

    Taking the example of neural tube defects at one end – the worst cases with lower spine damage and hydrocephalus which would condemn the child to probably a very short life of pain, many operations, and very little awareness I support euthanasia. Most likely that is simply a matter of not intervening to install a shunt in the head and close the spine. And I think this probably already occurs (but is not discussed).

    At the other end, especially where paralysis and hydrocephalus do not occur I would clearly oppose euthanasia.

    In intermediate cases I would rely strongly on advice from attending medical professionals taking into consideration expected degree of brain damage and life expectancy.

    Before birth, where there is a family history I would strongly advocate conferring with consulting professionals and where scans or tests indicate a likelyhood of spina bifida occurring I would support abortion.

    What about you?


  5. I dont know enough about the specific case you mention. However, if a child’s life is going to consist of nothing but agony, and is soon to die, and there is no chance of recovery, then I see nothing wrong with a quick death.

    I am obviously against killing children who could live a long pain free life – even if this life was ‘inconvenient’ to others. Eg. a blind child or a child with down syndrome.

    No real disagreement ob extrene cases.


  6. Well Max, I think so far you agree with Singer (certainly as I understand him).


  7. Maybe. But as I said I am more interested in the actual ideas than what one man may have said about them.

    What I *am* opposed to is infanticide/euthanasia of children who are considered sub-par in some way on quality of life reasoning. For instance the idea that a child with down syndrome, a blind child, etc. If the idea was that this child could be killed under the logic that in doing so a “healthy” child could be supported instead and this would result in a “better” life being lived – then I would be very opposed to any such policy.

    Does Singer say this? Don’t really care at this point. What say you Ken?


  8. No, he doesn’t – in my understanding.

    He considers the logic of two different arguments – the ‘prior existence’ and the ‘total’ version of utilitarianism. The ‘prior’ existence does not lead to that conclusion. However, in a few limited circumstance the ‘total’ version can. My reading is that Singer is developing the logical outcomes of these approaches – not advocating for either. He is being an academic teacher.

    Now, Matt claims that Singer does advocate the “total” view. However, his evidence is only, at this stage, his personal opinion – relying on a footnote in an entirely different book (and, I think, a change of definition).

    I won’t accept that till I see and can consider this footnote (I have asked for it). I don’t find Matt reliable in his interpretations of Singer at all.

    Currently I interpret from other things Singer writes in this book, particularly in his answers to German critics, that his view would be more consistent with the “prior existence” view.

    That’s why I say your views are also consistent with his (and mine).


  9. OK. Like i said – I am not interested in Singer really at this point. More interested in the ideas themselves. So my views may be consistent with Singers – or his may be consistent with mine.. but not the issue I am interested in.

    What do you think about the sort of infanticide/euthanasia of children who are considered sub-par in some way on quality of life reasoning, which I outlined above?


  10. Max, I think I covered that in my comment.


  11. Well spell it out for me?

    We are open for discussion right?

    Under what circumstances do you think the parents have the right to kill an infant? Would blindness count? Mental retardation?

    Don’t back of Ken. Let’s actually discuss these issues as you suggest!


  12. Max, you are getting silly again which will only divert the discussion. My original comment surely made clear that one can only give blanket answers to the clear cases at the extremes. (Blindness is obviously at one extreme and is a no-brainer surely) Intermediate case would be judged on their facts together with health professionals and family.

    You surely don’t expect me to deal with complex hypothetical where you certainly are deciding beforehand either.

    Fortunately at this stage these moral issues are no longer directly relevant – but I imagine they may be more relevant when great grandchildren start to arrive.


  13. I am not being “silly” as you put it. I am just trying to move beyond the abstract into some real life situations.

    Is there something “silly” about asking about real world applications of a view? Sorry if it seems that way. it was not meant to.

    Well blindness is a no-brainer for me yes. But some people do not have the same moral intuition as me. Sorry if it insulted you to be asked a direct question but you did seem willing to have a real discussion.


  14. And yes… I was hoping you might be willing to talk about a complex hypothetical!


  15. Max, I don’t notice you delving into rigid decisions on complex hypothetical cases. And I don’t expect you to.

    it’s a diversion.

    By the way I have now replied to all of Matt’s justifications for his negative view of Singer. He really is rather weak.

    Always pays to read these books for oneself and not to rely on the opinion of others.


  16. I am not sure what you mean by “diversion”. Diversion form what? i am just interested in your opinions… but if you are determined that the topic remain on some narrow track – then what is the narrow track?


  17. The post is about the misrepresentation of Singer’s views. And how that closes down discussion of important ethical questions.


  18. You did ask:

    “But what about you. I suspect you have strong views on at least some of these questions and related issues like abortion and euthanasia in general. What about telling us what they are?”

    So I assumed you were keen to share views and move a little in the conversation. But if not that’s cool 🙂


  19. Yes, Max – after you initiated that angle. And I shared my views as far as is I think practical where concrete situations must be considered in any intermediate situation.

    I have no hard and fast rule that discussion should be linked to the subject of the post by any means. Just that it shouldn’t deteriorate by getting silly about details which are not accessible.

    Accusing me of not being cool is surely passive aggressiveness on your part.


  20. But I do find the unwillingness to engage with the reality of Singer’s position frustrating.

    I was pleased that Matt gave specific quotes from Singer which he claims to hang his attitude on. But he seems unwilling to engage any further when I pointed out his misinterpretations and leaps of logic.

    These irregularities don’t go away when you ignore them.

    And it’s an important issue.


  21. Ken! I never said you were not cool!


  22. Thanks for the book recommendation Tripledomer. Looks interesting and I would think any serious Christian critic should read it.


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