Mixed feelings
February 15, 2003 12:15 PM   Subscribe

Unspeakable conversations (NYTimes) (printer friendly). Controversial ethicist Peter Singer (previously mentioned 1, 2, 3, 4) advocates the euthanasia of severely disabled infants. In the referenced article from the NYT magazine, attorney and disability rights advocate Harriet McBride Johnson describes a genteel encounter and debate with a man who may have had her killed. Aside from confronting the central issue (as we surely shall!), Ms. Johnson also describes the difficult balance between her impressions of Prof. Singer the man, her loathing of his ideas, and the enmity toward both from her colleagues at Not Dead Yet. Have you ever tried to reconcile feelings so charged?
posted by tss (16 comments total)
"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."

That's quite reasonable. Although before I read the article I knew merely by the premise that I agreed with Peter Singer on this point if not for the same reason. Turned out it was, though. We have little enough trouble experimenting on apes - and there's no real mental difference between a newborn ape and a newborn human. If the definition of disabled were later expanded to include asthma and nearsightedness would I accept my own premature death as having been for the greater good of society? Well, yes, of course - I wasn't a person then, and therefore it would be no great loss to me.

As for attempting to reconcile feelings so charged - try being severely mentally ill and encountering the attitudes of mainstream American society towards mental illness. A lot of the time it feels like everybody out there wants you euthanized even as a sentient adult human being. Check the recent rulings by state courts to allow the use of Halidol in asylums when a much better and less harmful drug that WOULDN'T turn the patients into zombies is available - simply because it costs less. Now check out the recent trend towards allowing the mentally ill to be involuntarily committed. Put 1 and 1 together and you end up with a very, very nasty conclusion - they'd like to render us all into so much walking meat even while we're still alive and thinking. Unlike never having existed in the first place, which I wouldn't notice, that bothers me.
posted by Ryvar at 12:31 PM on February 15, 2003

Agree or disagree with Singer, he's logically consistent and however unorthodox his theories are, he arrived at them honestly. While I don't buy into the level of perfect utilitarianism necessary to agree with his most controversial arguments, it's good to have someone like him around.

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.

This is my problem with the article. Singer comes off as eminently polite and methodical -- the model philosopher -- but she keeps dropping back to punt the "he's a baby killer, I mean did you hear what he said?" line. She tries to sound scholarly, but her basic appeal is emotional, and it doesn't really undercut anything she's opposed to.

Plus, despite her protests that her life is happy and fulfilling, she sounds really bitter and pissed off most of the time.
posted by Hildago at 12:54 PM on February 15, 2003

If being bitter and pissed off is a reason to end someone's life, I better start looking over my shoulder.
posted by 4easypayments at 1:05 PM on February 15, 2003

Add this story to the recent story on sex-selection abortion, discussed here on Metafilter, and it seems unmistakable that some pro-lifers have infiltrated the Grey Lady ... what's next, a long think piece on how the Dutch euthenasia regulations are permitting people to push Grandma off the cliff when she gets hard to deal with...
posted by MattD at 1:35 PM on February 15, 2003

At either end of the life spectrum we now have the technology to keep beings alive well beyond what was possible even twenty years ago.

We do not, however, have the common sense and compassion to use that technology appropriately.
posted by five fresh fish at 1:41 PM on February 15, 2003

I have a A Modest Proposal (mp3)
By Jonathan Swift
posted by ambirex at 1:42 PM on February 15, 2003

yeah, she never really took his arguments seriously - she refused to consider the animal rights arguments, for instance. It was interesting, and I think she made some good points - especially the fallacy (I think) utilitarian philosophers begin from, in assuming that human happiness is quantifiable and based on objective factors (ie, someone in a wheelchair will have less happiness than someone in top physical shape). But she didn't really consider his opinions; she based her judgment more on his politeness...

Agree or disagree with Singer, he's logically consistent

I dunno, supporting the euthanasia of physicallyhandicapped babies doesn't really follow from his other arguments in my opinion. I don't have a problem with the euthanasia of babies that have severe mental retardation or painful, shortly fatal diseases, but a child with a perfect brain and an imperfect body is still a person by his standards. I understand that the argument is that as a baby they're not yet a person, but a line has to be drawn somewhere, and the moment of birth seems pretty reasonable, except in those special cases I just mentioned.
posted by mdn at 2:15 PM on February 15, 2003

I agree with mdn to some degree. There is more than one argument going on here. One argument is for the killing of infants before they are self-aware. This argument, while revolting to some, is fairly sound if you believe his premises of humanity being linked with self-awareness etc. Once you accept that argument you now can choose which babies to kill, he chooses disabled babies. His first argument is not dependent on killing only disabled babies though.

This argument is the shadier one. It is in fact not an argument at all really. He says the quality of life for disabled people is poor, so that, since according to argument one killing pre-self-aware humans or non-self-aware humans is acceptable in all circumstances, it is beneficial to kill disabled pre-self-aware humans. The quality of life however is non-quantifiable, it is qualifiable however. The article itself is written by a person who says her quality of life is good, she is self-aware, and she is disabled. This is one problem I have with what I'll call "argument two". The line is gray, and not based on any quantitative measure.

The beneficiaries of this killing are said to include the parents, the child killed, and, one assumes, society due to decreased cost of healthcare. What he is not taking into account, and what is deeply troubling is the effects of removing adversity from the lives of these people.

I would assume everyone would agree that this woman, and disabled people, black people, gay people are shaped by their adversity to a great extent. How confident are we that the effects of removing this diversity would be acceptable? Is it harder for her? Possibly. Is life harder for black people, Deaf people? would they be willing to become hearing and white to overcome these obstacles? I think Singer might not understand their choice to remain "disadvantaged".
posted by rhyax at 3:04 PM on February 15, 2003

One important thing to note is that he's not calling for the extermination of disabled babies, but for parents to have a choice in whether or not they want to keep theirs. A very nasty sort of distinction, but an important one, and one that Johnson conveniently neglects to make at several points.
posted by Hildago at 3:20 PM on February 15, 2003

Hildago: indeed, that's highly important.

Forcing ethics on people is something that a society should strive to do as little as possible - obviously some basic rules based off of 'treat others as self wishes to be treated' need to be enforced (no murder, raping, mugging, etc.). Beyond that, though, one might consider the benefit of striking a middle ground between a society which ships off all it's disabled and gay population to the ovens, and one which destroys itself completely at the genetic level by completely removing natural selection from the realm of human experience. There's something pretty obviously dangerous about not filtering out congenital defects AT ALL. Let the parents decide what their beliefs are, and an intelligent balance will naturally be achieved.
posted by Ryvar at 3:52 PM on February 15, 2003

Well, first I have to say not many people consider homosexuality to be a congenital defect. Secondly, if your argument is about forced ethics stay there. I'm not sure that your grasp of natural selection is complete enough. Allowing gay people to be born actually doesn't influence the gene pool that much, because, get ready, they don't have a lot of kids. If you're worried about disabled people and gays taking over the gene pool so much that you feel it necessary to strike a balance between allowing them to live and sending them off to death camps, relax. Those populations reproduce at a lower rate. This is, incidentally, the reason that they haven't taken over the gene pool now, because in fact these populations have existed for thousands of years. We are not currently at the beginning, we are already at equilibrium.
posted by rhyax at 4:16 PM on February 15, 2003

I agree with Hidalgo's impression: Johnson moves the goalposts often, constantly makes appeals to emotion, and is burdened by a foolish, erroneous, prejudice against Singer that is pushed at her constantly by her friends and colleagues. But her article is honest and largely fair.

This, in my view, is Singer's great flaw; he is too disdainful of the role of emotion in human existence. Starting from his central position, the objective view of the universe, he cannot be logically faulted. But Singer's propositions require a dedication to doing the logical thing (and also going along with the logical thing) that almost all human beings are incapable of, and fairly so, because we probably wouldn't have survived as a species if we did have that capability.

It's the angel/ape conflict (a very useful metaphor). Singer, like many before him, assumes we can become angels. He expects, earnestly exhorts, angelic behavior from humans. Purely rational, purely fair. But we are entirely too much ape. Philosophers and religious leaders tend to assume that it is the role of our angelic sides to judge good and evil, and that all evil derives from our ape natures: violence, greed, cruelty, wilful ignorance. Few accept that emotional good, such as love, self-sacrifice, pleasure, appreciation of beauty, derive also from the ape nature.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 4:26 PM on February 15, 2003

Singer's Animal Liberation was a great influence on my becoming a vegetarian and later, a vegan, but over the past couple years I've become very way of Singer's cut-and-dried utilitarianism.

First of all, I no longer buy the concept that no moral distinction can be made between a mentally defective human and a brilliant chimpanzee. The distinction is in our blood - literally. A human is granted rights denied to non-human animals specifically because that being may be related by blood to someone el se whose rights we would be trampling if we used that human as we do animals. If we were routinely having interspecies sex, it would be different. (Note that I do not believe this distinction gives us any right to exploit chimpanzees; it only points out t hat Singer's way of constructing the argument is problematic).

Which brings us to Singer's infamous defense of bestiality, which moved my picture of Singer as a beleaguered academic who stands his ground no matter what the consequences to that of a headline-seeking publicity whore. There's no excuse for saying that humans can have "mutually satisfying" sexual relationships with captive, unable-to-consent animals. Sadly, this is, it's now obvious to me, only a logical extension of the man's insular utilitarian logic and/or his desire to keep his name in the news.

It's no wonder nobody takes animals' interests seriously.
posted by soyjoy at 8:14 PM on February 15, 2003

Regarding "Singer's infamous defense of bestiality", he was actually reviewing a book for the relatively obscure sexual discussion site, Nerve. I fail to see how that can be interpreted as the actions of a "headline-seeking publicity whore". By accident I had come across Singer's article on Nerve prior to the uproar in the media about it, so, when it did blow up, it all seemed amusingly out of proportion.
posted by Onanist at 9:07 PM on February 15, 2003

People who write about qualitative (as opposed to quantitative) theories of macroeconomics, like utilitarianism, or public choice/efficiency, tend to fall into rather absurd corners -- Singer's pieces to be sure, but also Posner's notorious piece about the virtues of a market in babies, and there are many other examples. Not sure it is just publicity hounding -- just a built-in tendency to ignore the warning strip and crash right into the outfield fence of reductio ad absurdem in a particularly morally outrageous fashion.
posted by MattD at 10:16 PM on February 15, 2003

MattD - That's exactly the problem I see with Singer - as the "godfather" of animal rights, his own philosophical foibles get mistaken for fallacies of the movement itself. His own decisions to go to extremes are seen as evidence of the inherent extremism (read: delusionality) of the movement. While you may be speaking here specifically of Singer, many others take his brand of utilitiarianism to be the only way of looking at human/animal relationships, and thus reject it as silly.

And Onanist, yeah, I should have said "hound" instead of "whore." In other words, I don't think he's "whoring" himself out to someone else for any external purpose, but he does seem to seek controversy to keep his name in the headlines (which this review in a "relatively obscure sexual discussion site" certainly did). Really, what other explanation is there for his deciding to write a piece - book review or otherwise - calling the rape of animals "mutually satisfying"? I must be missing something...
posted by soyjoy at 12:21 PM on February 17, 2003

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