What I Learned About Disability and Infanticide from Peter Singer, by Katie Booth

Illustration from A System of Midwifery, Including the Diseases of Pregnancy and the Puerperal State, 1875 by Leishman & Parry, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’

The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.

Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.

For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.

While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.

This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.

I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.

Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.

Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)

Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.

Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.

Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Katie Booth is a freelance writer and a 2017-18 John W Kluge fellow at the Library of Congress. She has written for the Indiana Review, Mid-American Review, The Fourth River and Vela. Her first book, The Performance of Miracles: Language, Power, and Alexander Graham Bell’s Quest to Cure Deafness, will be published by Simon & Schuster. She lives in Washington, DC. (Bio credit: Aeon)

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New Podcast Episode: Compassion, Emptiness, and the Heart Sutra, by Ryan V. Stewart

d1185-guanyin252c2bthe2bchinese2bexpression2bof2bavalokiteshvara252c2bnorthern2bsung2bdynasty252c2bchina252c2bc-2b1025252c2bwood252c2bhonolulu2bacademy2bof2barts252c2bpublic2b1Listen to this podcast episode here or on Google Play, or subscribe on iTunes

One of the chief concerns of philosophy, since time immemorial, has been to properly address the question, “How do I live?” Namely, “How do I live well?” Naturally—for as long as our species has had the wherewithal to question its purpose and condition, the problem of ethics has found itself at the frontiers of human thought. Many moral philosophies have since rushed into that wide gulf between knowledge and truth, systems of understanding and action which attempt to conquer our ethical indecisiveness and color in a void where so much uncertainty exists.

Many traditions prescribe the ideal, virtuous, or noble life. From the ancient, academic, or political—e.g. Epicureanism, utilitarianism, humanism, or libertarianism—to the more mystical or overtly religious—e.g. Jainism, Christianity, or Taoism—many are concerned with how one acts (or can act), or at least how one views oneself in relation to others and to the world at large…. Read the original essay here

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, entirely supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

On Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion

I was listening to an episode of Inquiring Minds podcast the other day, and in it, cognitive scientist Paul Bloom discusses his and others’ research on the earliest manifestations of morality in human babies, a hot topic in psychology and neuroscience these days.

Near the end of the (fascinating) interview, Bloom discusses the difference between compassion and empathy, as he sees it:

‘..I’m writing a book on empathy now, and I’m against it. I’m arguing that empathy’s a poor moral guide. And it’s… it’s like saying you hate kittens, or you’re in favor of Ann Coulter… it just sounds really weird. But I would make a distinction between empathy and compassion, where empathy is putting yourself in someone’s shoes and feeling their pain. And I think empathy can do good in the short term, but it tends to distort things. It’s racist and parochial, it’s a lot easier for me …to feel empathy for someone who looks like me and is adorable, than someone who scares me or lives far away and doesn’t look like me.

Empathy is innumerate, it tends to focus on the plight of individuals, not on groups. It’s because of empathy that societies like ours tend to care much more about a little girl stuck in a well than we do about global warming. Because I can empathize with the girl and her family. Global warming is some abstract thing. Yeah, it might kill billions of people, but show me one… and if you can’t, empathy has no moral pull. Compassion is valuing people, it’s valuing human life, and in a distant sort of way. And I think in every possible way, compassion trumps empathy. Even at the local level. So it’s not just contemporary doctors, but it’s actually Buddhist theologians [who] have long pointed out that feeling empathy for suffering people will exhaust you and will burn you out and make you useless, while a more distanced compassion, where they [people] have value, and you care about them and you want them to be better, but you don’t feel their pain, is actually better to be a good person.So I’m a big champion of compassion and very down on empathy.’ – Paul Bloom, ‘Babies and the Origins of Good and Evil’, Inquiring Minds #60, 46:38 – 48:24

I was edified by Bloom’s remarks: a few times over the last several months, I thought over what I’d written in a previous mini-essay, ‘Empathy for Immigrants‘. In it, I appealed to those who take a hard-line stance against amnesty for illegal immigrants, challenging them to imagine having to choose between obeying the law and trying to procure health, safety, and access to a better life for themselves and their children.

While I continue to think it important to be able to put ourselves in others’ shoes, to take their emotional perspective, to realize that their interests are just as important to them as ours are to us insofar as we can feel with them, I’ve been doubting that this is of primary importance. To think it is, is to imply that if we don’t feel emotionally attached to others’ interests, then they might not be important. Empathy, it seems, is too narrow, too dependent on us happening to feel like being good to others. What leads to empathy in the first place?

As I was thinking about it, over time, I realized that what I was really calling for in that piece was more like sympathy, or compassion. But let’s take a moment here to consider an objection that probably already arose in your mind, or was about to: isn’t it just a question of semantics to be picky about the meanings of empathy, sympathy, and compassion? Aren’t they more or less interchangeable terms? Or aren’t they close enough to the same that the differences aren’t worth worrying about?

It’s true that they are often used interchangeably, and in some cases, it doesn’t matter which term is used, if what’s being said comes across clearly enough through context. Other times, though, they’re used interchangeably and confusingly, as in the Wikipedia article which seems to mix up the meanings of ‘sympathy’ and ’empathy’ multiple times in the first paragraph alone, and the Dictionary.com article which contradicts psychotherapist Stephen Crippen. In any case, it’s not the semantics of the words themselves which are so important (though for clarity’s sake it helps to distinguish the differences, and use accordingly), of course: it’s the ideas these terms are meant to convey.

So how do these three terms differ, and why is it important to understand the difference?

Keeping in mind that it’s the ideas behind the words, not the semantics, that are important, I’ll be using the word empathy in the way that academics and researchers such as Bloom, Rebecca Saxe, and Steven Pinker tend to use it, to refer to a state of internalizing anothers’ mental state, of ‘putting yourself in their shoes’, of experiencing, if only for a moment, another’s pain, joy, or perplexities as your own. Sympathy, while a related concept, is more often used (according to my own experience and my admittedly rather perfunctory research) to refer to a state of general concern for or identification with anothers’ experience, without necessarily internalizing it. Pinker describes it as ‘aligning another entity’s well-being with one’s own, based on a cognizance of their pleasures and pains’ (576). In other words, when we sympathize, we still identify with another’s internal experiences and care about them, but it’s enough to know they have them: we don’t necessarily have to feel them ourselves. Sympathy, then, is more like compassion, which is to care about the well-being of others and desire to help them as a result of our convictions, regardless of whether we feel like it at the time.

So to go back to my objection about empathy: it seems too narrow, too contingent, to be more than a starting point, morally speaking. It can give us the original impetus to do good, but doesn’t go far enough. Empathy gives us patriotism, local-sports-team-fandom, a feeling of religious, racial, ethnic, cultural, and ideological identity. These can all be important; David Hume points out how central the passions or ‘sentiments’ are to human morality, including empathy (in his time, termed sympathy). (Book III, Sect 1, Pt 1) Without our empathetic responses first toward our families, then our immediate social circles, then our wider community, morality would probably not exist. Those instincts first show us in life how to care about other people, as it did our earliest pro-social ancestors. Caring about people like ourselves is relatively easy.

That’s because, as Bloom points out and as history shows us, our empathetic response is usually aroused by the cute and the familiar. Just about everyone wants to help big-eyed babies, dimpled little children, good-looking people, and members of our racial, national, religious, cultural, political party, or sports team ‘tribe’.

Yet, empathy does little for us when we encounter people from other groups. We don’t like to think about it, but we rejoice when we watch someone we don’t identify with take a fall; we don’t really want to help them most of the time. This is so common, we take it for granted so much, that we don’t even notice it happening. Gun enthusiasts rejoice when George Zimmerman is set free and mock Trayvon Martin’s defenders, and anti-gun activists feel a thrill when yet another school shooting adds weight to their argument, even as both groups speak regret for the victims. Conservatives gloat over Bengazi and liberals over Iran-Contra, and act as if each occurrence is a ‘proof’ of the rightness of their party and of the evilness of the other; we say little or nothing about the dead unless it serves to bolster our talking points. We beat up fans wearing the wrong sports jersey as we leave the game, ‘our’ team victorious, and we turn up our noses as we find ourselves having to share space with unsophisticated, poor, ‘uncool’, awkward, or otherwise ‘outsider’ people. We can’t, really, imagine what it would be like if ourselves or our children belong to groups who are more routinely beaten, imprisoned, or shot while committing the sort of petty crimes and youthful indiscretions, or having a public outbreak of mental illness, that our group routinely goes through unscathed. We bomb, declare war on, execute, allow to starve and die of illness in refugee camps and across the border, and otherwise treat our fellow human beings with an abundance of neglect and destruction, because we happen to not feel like caring for them. Empathy fails all the time.

It takes that leap of the imagination, inherent in sympathy or compassion, to want to help those who are not like us. Sympathy and compassion make us want to help people not just because we feel like it but because we believe in it for its own sake, for philosophical, religious, or other ideological reasons. Experiencing more kinds of people who are not like us, personally through travel and virtually through media, expands our opportunities and our instincts for empathy to some extent. Hume made this case somewhat controversially in his time, and our experience in our new cosmopolitan, digitally connected world bears this out. Yet sympathy/compassion can extend this capacity orders of magnitude more: it leads us to universalize the kindness and generosity that we naturally extend to our members of our close communities. Sympathy/compassion is the habit of  extending our concern for others based on our beliefs about justice, community, human rights, human flourishing, and so on. When we base our convictions on the right way to treat others on reason at least as much as on our pro-social instincts, we expand our moral characters, and not only increase our sympathy/compassion, we develop and expand our capacity for empathy as well.

*Also published at Darrow, a forum for culture and ideas

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Sources and Inspiration:

Bloom, Paul. ‘Babies and the Origins of Good and Evil‘, Inquiring Minds podcast episode #60

Crippen, Stephen. ‘Empathy, Sympathy, and Compassion 101‘.

Hume, David. A Treatise of Human NatureVolume III – Of Morals (online). Originally printed for Thomas Longman in London, England, in 1740. (I had a glorious time referring to versions published in Hume’s own lifetime during my trip to Edinburgh!) 

Pinker, Steven. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Had Declined. New York: Viking Penguin, 2011.

Saxe, Rebecca et al. ‘Finding Empathy‘, Video

Stueber, Karsten, “Empathy“, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.)

What is the Difference Between Empathy and Sympathy?‘, Dictionary.com Word FAQs.