Tag Archives: Quality of life

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 Speakers were prevented from speaking – even physically attacked, conferences closed down, academic invitations withdrawn and there had been difficulty in getting academic books published.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

Such titles always bring euthanasia to my mind, but I realise that is my perspective – I am just so much close to the problem of dying with dignity than I am to problems related to death and quality of life at the initial stages of life. But I recently came across this blog post – Why Infanticide Can Be Moral – which got me thinking. This issue is actually very relevant to young parents and parents to be.

The author, Tauriq Moosa – a tutor in ethics, bioethics and critical thinking at the University of Cape Town – wrote it as an introduction to a series of articles he is doing on the morality of infanticide. As we might expect, several commenters reacted very emotionally to his raising the subject of infanticide. In this introduction he tries to reduce the emotion by explaining why he thinks “it’s moral, in certain cases, to ‘let’ an infant die or deliberately end its life humanely.”

“Child euthanasia” more appropriate

Like euthanasia, this is a morally difficult subject, but nevertheless one that many people have to confront. Especially young parents and medical professionals. The word “infanticide’ is really so tainted as to make it inappropriate here and “child euthanasia” is probably more appropriate.

These days many researchers into human morality stress the intuitional basis and emotional nature of morality. That we all react quickly, and emotionally, to moral situations – far too quickly for any reasoned processing of the issues. Reasoning usually comes later when we rationalise our behaviour to provide reasons for it. In some cases I think the researchers’ concentration on the emotional and intuitional nature of morality underplays the role that reason must play in some of our moral decisions.

Surely end of life decisions are the very situations when we, especially parents and relatives, must make rational decision based on careful reasoning, rather than knee jerk reactions based on dogma, emotion and social pressure. And society at large sometimes has to take part in such reasoned decision-making because of their involvement in producing and approving laws related to euthanasia, assisted suicide, child euthanasia and capital punishment.

I don’t doubt that medical professionals sometimes must make decisions not to intervene, and therefore allow a new-born child to die, because they recognise he or she has no prospects for a proper life. In other cases where intervention would still result in very limited prospects of life, or a life of any quality, I imagine parents would, or should, be involved in such decisions.

Examples that come to mind are the condition of spina bifida which require an operation on the new born infant to close the spine. In some cases the existing damage to to the baby may be so great as to morally justify non-intervention. A tragic decision but a morally justified one.

Dismissing the ethics out-of-hand

The ethics of end of life decisions potentially concern us all. But especially they concern those professionally involved. So, of course, this is a proper subject for philosophers specialising in ethics. Peter Singer, an Australian moral philosopher, has written at some length on this subject. His arguments, which relate to other sentient animals as well as humans, are certainly worth considering – even if one doesn’t agree with all of them. After all, this is a difficult but important subject. We need to discuss it. And the arguments of such an important contributor should not be dismissed out-of-hand, or judged dogmatically or irrationally.

After all, if a commenter attacks Singer for rehearsing the issues, they are also effectively attacking the parents and medical professionals who must do the same and are far more emotionally involved.

But that is what happens for some people. I have noticed a tendency for Christian apologists to misrepresent and attack Singer.They will use his arguments for child euthanasia to claim, for example, that Singer is (in)famous for his advocacy of infanticide, the killing of newborn infants. They create a picture akin to someone running a death camp during the holocaust rather than an ethicist seriously considering the issues faced by parents and medical professionals considering the morality of intervening to save the life of a seriously damaged infant and the consequent repercussions.

Mind you – I think people like Peter Singer and Tauriq Moosa could defuse their opponents somewhat by using the more correct term “child euthanasia” and not “infanticide” – with its connotations of murder and crime.

Singer as a diversion

Lately I have noticed that religious apologists resort to attacking Singer for his “advocacy of infanticide” as diversionary tactic. Specifically when the Christian apologist William Lane Craig is criticised for his justification of biblical genocide, ethnic cleansing and infanticide using “divine command” ethics (see Concern over William Lane Craig’s justification of biblical genocide).

Specifically Craig justifies the biblical infanticide by saying:

“I would say that God has the right to give and take life as he sees fit. Children die all the time! If you believe in the salvation, as I do, of children, who die, what that meant is that the death of these children meant their salvation. People look at this [genocide] and think life ends at the grave but in fact this was the salvation of these children, who were far better dead…than being raised in this Canaanite culture.”

Of course, there is plenty in the bible which can be used by a literalist to justify all sorts of evil.  And that is a real problem for advocates of “divine command ethics.” They don’t help themselves with the mental gymnastics they have to perform to claim that the evil is actually good because it was commanded by a “loving and just god” who could not order anything evil!  Or that this “killing brings about some greater good.” Or that Craig’s view is that his god’s command was “to drive the inhabitants out of the land (land to which the Israelites had legal title), with only the die-hard occupants who refused to leave being killed.” And anyway his god was commanding destruction of “the nations as a collective group, not to destroy every individual.”

Now I think “infanticide” is an appropriate word to describe what Craig was justifying. This was ethnic cleansing, the denial of the right to life based on ethnicity of the children. Craig was justifying behaviours more typical of a death camp commander in the Holocaust than that of a moral philosopher considering the issues faced by young parents and medical professionals when new-born infants face certain or likely death with little chance of intervention enabling a reasonable quality of life.

Perhaps we will yet see Holocaust deniers resorting to attacking Peter Singer as a diversion.

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