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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OP Recommends: The Best Philosophy Books of 2017, Recommended by Nigel Warburton at Fivebooks

A view of Edinburgh Central Library’s Reading Room

Now that my papers are done and I have five weeks or so to choose my own reading, I’m heading to Edinburgh’s beautiful Central Library to pick up some books I’ve been itching to get into. One of them was already on my list: Dennis Rasmussen’s The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship That Shaped Modern Thought (one of my goals for the year is to learn as much about Scotland’s intellectual history as I can while I’m here). Nigel Warburton has made a list of his five favorite philosophy books of 2017, and Massimo Pigliucci’s book is among them. These are two excellent philosophers in the public square I’ve been following for a long time, and their philosophy podcasts are among my favorites.

Looks like I have four more books to add to my list; better get to it!

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Q&A With Singer: A Philosopher On His Craft and Practicing it at Princeton, by Michael Hotchkiss

Peter Albert David Singer at The College of New Jersey in 2009, by Bbsrock, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Albert David Singer at The College of New Jersey in 2009, by Bbsrock, Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Peter Singer is one of the world’s best-known philosophers, recognized for his thought-provoking views on topics including animal rights, bioethics and the plight of the world’s poorest people.

Since 1999, he has been the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University. He splits his time between Princeton and the University of Melbourne in his native Australia, where he is Laureate Professor.

Singer’s influential books include “Animal Liberation,” “Practical Ethics” and “Rethinking Life and Death.” His book “The Life You Can Save” challenges readers to help improve the lives of the world’s poorest people, and he is the co-founder of a nonprofit group by the same name that is devoted to effective philanthropy to serve people living in extreme poverty.

Singer also regularly writes brief essays on topics related to current events. A new book, “Ethics in the Real World,” compiles many of those essays with other reflections to explore, in an easily accessible form, some of the deepest philosophical questions.

Singer recently answered questions about his book, philosophy and teaching at Princeton.


Why do you write the kinds of brief, topical essays that are compiled in “Ethics in the Real World”?

Singer: I think it’s important to play a role in contributing to public debates and hopefully trying to improve the standard of those debates. In many areas of academic life — but perhaps particularly in ethics — there’s a lot of debate that goes on and a lot of it is to a rather low standard. If you can contribute to showing people how it’s possible to have reasoned discussion of ethical issues, I think it’s a valuable thing to do. A lot of people think ethics is all just subjective, a matter of taste. They think you can’t really say anything, therefore you might as well just abuse your opponents. I think there are other possibilities.

What does it mean to do philosophy?

Singer: I think doing philosophy really means learning to think more deeply and rigorously about hard questions that cannot be answered by straightforward empirical investigation. There are many things people think hard and rigorously about — physics, history or whatever it might be. In some of those fields you can answer questions by doing an experiment or finding the relevant documents. Generally speaking, you can’t run experiments to settle the kind of questions philosophers talk about. And you’re not going to turn up documents in some archive that are going to solve them either. So you have to think. The discipline of thinking, of recognizing good and bad arguments, of recognizing fallacies and where an argument is rigorous or where its weak points are, that’s something you can be trained in and can develop through practicing. That’s why we want people to do philosophy, to talk about it and write about it, not simply to learn what other philosophers of the past have said.

What does it mean to do philosophy at Princeton?

Singer: I think this is a great environment for doing philosophy, particularly for the area I work in, which is practical or applied ethics. Having the University Center for Human Values sitting alongside the philosophy department and the politics department produces a substantial body of people who are very good at discussing a range of practical and applied ethical questions. Plus, of course, we have really excellent students. For me, that’s one of the most rewarding things about being at Princeton. You get truly outstanding students who are very rewarding to teach, and that is just the undergraduate level. Many of them are also really enthusiastic about the role they are hoping to play in the world. When you get to the graduate level, you get yet another level of discussion. All of that makes a really exciting combination.

“‘Ethics in the Real World: 82 Brief Essays on Things That Matter’ by Peter Singer” book jacket

In his new book, Singer compiles brief essays on topics related to current events that explore some of the deepest philosophical questions. (Courtesy of Princeton University Press)

What are the most important tools you have at your disposal to engage people?

Singer: The primary tool is the ability to express ideas. As a teacher, you will mostly do that using your voice, speaking, though sometimes you will get students to read things. As a public intellectual, I’m much more likely to do that in writing. Being able to express yourself clearly is the most important tool for what I do. I’m grateful for my education in analytic philosophy at the University of Melbourne and Oxford because of the emphasis placed on clarity of expression. If something you said wasn’t clear, then it wasn’t good even though there might be some deep thing lurking there. You had to try to bring that out. It’s a contrast that exists to this day between most English language philosophy that comes out of that analytic tradition and that which comes out of what you might call a continental tradition, where clarity is not really prized and it seems to me at least that profundity is hinted at through ways of expression that might be clever but certainly aren’t clear.

The course description for your undergraduate class ‘Practical Ethics’ is full of questions: Should we be trying to live our lives so as to do the most good? Does a human embryo have a greater claim to protection than a chimpanzee? Should we be able to choose to end our own life, if we are terminally ill? Why do you take that approach?

Singer: I ask questions because I see the role of the course as challenging students to think about issues that otherwise they might not think about a great deal. I do not simply want to get them to absorb the truth, whatever the truth might be on these ethical questions. I certainly don’t want to encourage the idea of professors as authorities from which they just take statements and write them down. I want to challenge their way of thinking so they may come to see that what they’ve been thinking is superficial and they need to go deeper.

What are the questions you find your students engage with the most?

Singer: We have a lot of spirited discussions. Probably in recent years the two topics that have been most spirited have been questions about the treatment of animals and whether we ought to be eating them, and questions about global poverty and what we ought to do about that. Do we, as comfortably well-off people in an affluent nation, have an obligation to actually do something, to contribute some of our wealth to people to whom it can make a much bigger difference than it makes to us?

Many academics have critics, and you have your share. In the ‘Practical Ethics’ course, you assign a book called ‘Peter Singer Under Fire’ that features essays critiquing your views and your responses. Why do you bring your critics right into the classroom?

Singer: That book is listed because it has critical essays about me. And if students are going to get my views from me firsthand they need to have ways of pushing back and seeing what other people have said that is different. Those essays are specifically written to criticize Peter Singer’s views. A lot of the reading, not just the essays from that book, is opposed to what I think. There are a number of other books on the reading list that are written by people who have a very different perspective, people who differ from me. Those views do get represented in my courses, always.

Do you find a lot of students become really engaged with your ideas and pursue them further? What’s that like for you?

Singer: I find a significant number of students do become engaged and continue to live in ways that are influenced by some of the thoughts that maybe they started thinking in my classes or reading some of my works. In fact, one example just came up recently. It’s not the majority of students who become as engaged as that, of course, but a few individuals can have a very big impact on many people. I find that rewarding. I find it really encouraging when I discover my teaching has made a significant difference, changed someone’s life in some important way, perhaps, or just reinforced them in going down a path they were going down anyway. If that’s a positive path, as it is generally, I feel pleased because I have indirectly made a positive contribution to the world.

In the book, you mention that you learned from some of your students about the racist parts of Woodrow Wilson’s legacy. What else do you learn from your students?

Singer: I learn lots of things from my students. You get a range of people I would not ordinarily meet and get to talk with. You also learn a lot about the way young people think. I consider myself very fortunate to be always mixing with young people both in the classroom and out of the classroom because it keeps me fresh in terms of what’s going on in the world and what people are thinking about. I think it’s easy to be mixing mostly with people of your own age group and not really be aware of what 20-year-olds are likely to be thinking.

You came to Princeton from Australia in 1999. What have you taken from that experience?

Singer: It’s a pretty cosmopolitan campus, really. We have a lot of international students. We have other students who are immigrants or children of recent immigrants. I really value that. I think it’s tremendously important that we think about the world as a whole and that we be a truly cosmopolitan place. That connects with some of the essays in the book, which talk about how we should be thinking about the world, globalization, global poverty, what we should be doing about it. I value the “service of humanity” aspect of the University’s informal motto and the experience of Princeton because they point the way to getting beyond just a focus on the United States. When you come to the United States as I did, it’s one of the things you discover. Because you have come to a really big and important country, it’s natural that the media are going to be more focused on the United States here than the media would be on Australia in Australia, for example. Even having said that, I think the lack of attention on other parts of the world where America’s interests are not directly affected is something that’s pretty deplorable, and I think it’s important that universities try to counterbalance that by having international breadth and international understanding.

In one of the essays in your book, you describe the experience of learning to surf later in life. Why is that kind of experience important?

Singer: My experience with surfing shows that even if you think you might be too old to learn something new, that’s not necessarily going to be the case. Sure, you may never be really good at it. I’ll never be really good at surfing. But I can do it well enough to enjoy it and get a lot of satisfaction out of it. There is a lesson there for people at any stage of life: Don’t think things have passed you by. Obviously, objectively some things will have passed you by. I’m never going to become a footballer, but there are a lot more things that are still open as you go through life. More people are realizing that. You can change career directions later in life. If there’s something you want to do but you’ve thought it’s too late, think about it. Maybe it’s not.

Originally published in News At Princeton, at Princeton University’s website

~ Michael Hotchkiss, social sciences writer, went to Princeton in 2012 after seven years as an editor at The Wall Street Journal. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri in 2000 but really learned the ropes of writing and editing at Mississippi community newspapers… At Princeton, he develops news and editorial content about the teaching, research and service missions of the University, with a special emphasis on the social sciences. (Bio credit: Princeton University)

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Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham!

Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon at University College London, 2003 by Michael Reeve, GNU Free Documentation License Version 1.2

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon at University College London, photo 2003 by Michael Reeve

Jeremy Bentham, the great English moral and legal philosopher born on February 15, 1748, was a very strange man. A brilliant one, but strange nonetheless. He was a precocious child and advanced in his studies very early, finding Westminster and Queen’s College at Oxford too easy and therefore rather boring. He was trained as a lawyer but decided not to practice law after hearing William Blackstone’s lectures. Blackstone’s treatise Commentaries on the Laws of England is still considered one of the most authoritative and foundational works on English law, so for a guy to consider them so flawed that he’d want to give up his career seems a bit… well, presumptuous. But he demonstrated his own great intellectual capacities through his lifetime of prolific writing, mostly on legal theory, moral philosophy, and social reform. In the end, he earned the right to a certain degree of arrogance.

Bentham is generally considered the father of utilitarianism, the moral philosophy which judges anything that can be judged as right or wrong, good or evil, according to how conducive it is to ‘the greatest happiness of the greatest number.’ Utilitarianism, then, is a type of consequentialism, which holds that a thing is right or wrong based on its consequent harms or benefits. Bentham did not invent the principles of utilitarianism; he discovered them in the writings of Cesare Beccaria (who authored the ‘greatest happiness’ axiom), David Hume, Claude Helvétius, and Joseph Priestley. But he spent a lifetime synthesizing these principles into a cohesive, fleshed-out moral philosophy founded on utility, whether a law or action increases or decreases pleasure or happiness. This principle can seem too subjective to apply to matters of law or public policy; after all, what makes one happy can make another less so, and how can we determine whether the happiness of one is greater, or more important, than the happiness of another? Bentham, careful and systematic in his approach to this as he was to everything else, devised his ‘Felicific Calculus’ to solve this problem. Bentham believed that pleasure, a natural phenomenon like everything else in the world, was likewise quantifiable. He hoped his method of assigning unitary measurements to pleasure, then determining their relative values through mathematics, was a way to make his moral philosophy practicable, conducive to real social reform.

To many, the idea that pleasure and happiness could be reduced to mathematical formulas seems very strange; some think he may have had Asperger’s syndrome or another cognitive feature that caused Bentham to view emotion with such scientific detachment. But as socially awkward as he and his ideas often were, his utilitarian philosophy led to him to some moral conclusions that we now consider extremely progressive and much more caring than those typical of his times. For example, he was an early proponent of racial equality, women’s rights, and animal rights. As to animal rights, just as for all classes of human beings, considering only the pleasure and pain of some sentient beings and not others when it comes to morals is unscientific and therefore unjustifiably biased. After all, animals, like all human beings, have feelings too, and their feelings are just as important to them as ours are to us. So, a moral system based on feelings must consider all equally important, so that one unit of pig happiness, for example, is just as morally significant as one unit of human happiness. The only correct way to balance them out in matters of morals and public policy is to apply the Felicific Calculus to determine how much pleasure or pain each experience in any given situation.

At the end of his long and productive life, the committed naturalist arranged to have his body publicly dissected, both for scientific inquiry and to provide an example to others; he believed that a perfectly good body should never go to waste and that everyone should donate their body to science. He also arranged to have his head and skeleton preserved, dressed in his clothes and stuffed to look as lifelike as possible, to be displayed in some public place. The preservation of Bentham’s head, with its glass eyes he had purchased some years before, left much to be desired; the expression it ended up with creeped people out. So his Auto-Icon, as he called it, sits today in its glass case at University College, London with a nice lifelike wax head in its place. His real head is safely stored away where students, prone to stealing over the years in a series of pranks, can no longer get to it.

Read more about the brilliant and eccentric Bentham at:

Jeremy Bentham – by James E. Crimmins for The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Jeremy Bentham – University College London website

Jeremy Bentham on the Suffering of Non-Human AnimalsUtilitarianism.com

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