Disabilities and the Good Life

I was sad to note today that Harriet McBryde Johnson has died. She was a lawyer, writer, and disability activist who wrote a great essay and book about her encounters with Peter Singer, who argues that euthanasia for disabled infants is morally acceptable in certain specific situations.

Singer is public enemy #1 for many people with disabilities, but Johnson found herself oddly comfortable debating him, first in Charleston, South Carolina, where she lived, and then at Princeton, where he invited her to speak. Here she was, face to face with a man who believes her parents wouldn’t have been wrong to have her killed, yet she couldn’t help but like and respect him. A woman with a big heart and an open mind!

Can serious disabilities keep you from living a perfectly good life? Of course, says Singer, while Johnson says No. The problem with having a disability, she says, is entirely socially manufactured. Society does much too little to accommodate differences, and it’s this that makes the lives of the disabled difficult. What is the nature of this “good life” that’s equally attainable by anyone, no matter how severe their disability? Well, she doesn’t quite say, but I surmise it’s “different strokes for different folks.” What’s good for me is one thing, what’s good for a person with a severe disability is (often) another.

The idea that there is a single way for all humans to flourish gets you into some silly ideas about people with disabilities. In Martha Nussbaum’s book Frontiers of Justice, the general picture is this: justice should be defined by results. In a just society, every human fulfills a set of human capacities (and each kind of animal fulfills the capacities typical of the species— the book also has a chapter about animals). The goal must be for every human, regardless of disability, to have human dignity, not just their own form of dignity.

To see how peculiar this view is, you have to think about what it would mean in practice. One of the distinctively human capacities is the capacity to participate in political activity. If disabilities stand in the way for “Sesha”—a person Nussbaum uses as an example–some facsimile of political participation should be arranged anyway. But wait, what if Sesha has no grasp of politics? What if she couldn’t care less? It’s still important for her to flourish by our species standard.

On such a notion of what the good life amounts to, a disability is entirely something to be overcome. Each person must in one way or another, symbolic or real, attain the goods that are definitive of being human. I’m with Johnson here. She attained the goods that are definitive of being Harriet McBryde Johnson, and to hell (I can hear her say) with any peculiarly human goods that were beyond her.

But then, there’s also a problem with Johnson’s view. Some disabilities are so severe as to put all goods off limits, or even to make life a constant misery. Why is even a life like that worth preserving? I like the fact that Johnson does not resort to vapid phrases like “the sanctity of human life”—she was an atheist–but the fact is that she doesn’t have an answer.

Johnson is featured in a chapter of my book about the good life, where I explain more about the Singer-Johnson debate and try to steer a course between them. Her book is called Too Late to Die Young, and though she didn’t really die young (she was 50), she died too soon.


Leave a comment ?


  1. If Johnson is saying that serious disabilities will never prevent one from living a good life, then she’s just plainly in the wrong. I’m sure there are examples a dime a dozen of disabled people who have not lived a good life, particularly because of their disability.

    Singer has the stronger position, that it -=can=- prevent someone from living a good life…. Not that it necessarily -=will=- prevent you from living a good life.

    If Johnson thinks that disabilities are things to be overcome, then she has to admit that some people will not be able to overcome them. Society may make it harder for disabled individuals to overcome their disabilities, but I think society stands in the way of most people’s ability to live the good life. No?

  2. “Some disabilities are so severe as to put all goods off limits, or even to make life a constant misery.”

    That may be the case, but if the idea of euthanasia is on the table, I don’t think we’d want to be anything but certain that some sort of good life is impossible before we take such an action, and how can we be 100% certain? The consequence of death seems to me far too high to allow anything less.

    Also, does someone have to be able to fulfill some sort of ‘good life’ to be allowed to live? I expect it would be said that we are only trying to prevent certain misery, not taking away a right to live, but even then I think it would be better to at least ask permission, so to speak. We cannot weigh the choices in the mind of another person for him or her as he or she would do it, so who’s to say for certain what choice would be made? Once again I would say that, given what is being suggested, this choice should not be left with a chance for error.

  3. Disabled infants: Isn’t it possible that medical science may discover, if not cures, drugs or surgical procedures which make the lives of these disabled children better? If so, wouldn’t it be a tragical mistake to kill them when next year some sort of relief may be at hand? In any case, what is a good life is a decision that each person, whether she is disabled or just hopelessly neurotic like me, makes, not one that any committee of experts, even from Princeton, should have the right to make. Even a tenured position at Princeton does not confer the right to play God.

  4. amos: We can play that what if game, and that would eliminate EVERY action that we can possibly choose to do, including inaction (because what if we don’t develop cures?). And exactly what does playing God mean? And why is it something so morally impermissible? I want to make the “playing god” argument” into a fallacy.

    Singer thinks that it would be wrong for doctors or the law to impose onto parents that they HAVE to keep a particular child alive. The typical arguments that are used to promote abortion, can be utilized on newborn infants as well, since they are not rational, self-aware, persons. If its okay to have an abortion, than infanticide seems to be permissible on the same grounds.

    Additionally, if an infant needs a life saving operation, then doctors need to get the consent of the parents to perform the operation. If the consent is not given, then the baby dies of the condition… This is passive euthanasia. Why allow someone to die a painful death, when we can give them a much less painful death? So it seems like active euthanasia is permissible for infants…

    Singer is NOT promoting the all out execution of all disabled infants. Some parents will definately want to raise their children disabled or not. But the decision should not be taken out of their hands. (It’s been a while since I’ve read Singer’s position on euthanizing infants so I might be mischaracterizing him a bit here.)

  5. Wayne: No, the typical argument used to promote abortion is that the fetus would not be viable outside of the womb. That is why abortion is limited to the first few months of pregnancy. I don’t know of anyone who is in favor of abortions in the 7th month of pregnancy. Even a new-born baby is not a rational, self-aware creature. In fact, a six-month old child is neither rational nor self-aware. Is a one-year child rational or self-aware? By age 2, a child is at least self-aware.

    Are you sure that doctors need to get parental consent in order to perform a life-saving operation on a child? In Chile at least doctors can easily get a court order permitting them to over-rule any parental objection to a life-saving medical procedure.

    If you wish, I withdraw my affirmation that infanticide on a disabled child is “playing God”. I still think not only that it deprives the disabled child of the possibility of what may be a good life, but also is not prudent, given the possibility of medical advances which help disabled persons.

  6. Amos: Okay true… I was thinking typical philosophical justification. Viability has tons of problems with it morally speaking. Fetus viability is ultimately relative to location of mother (to high quality medical care) or income of the parents. And if we ever invent an artificial womb, all children would become viable at conception, so abortion would never be permissible, according to this standard, which I don’t think many pro-choicers would find intuitively correct.

    By most standard psychological measures, a 6 year old is most definately self-aware, and exhibits some rationality. Self-awareness develops in infancy… Am I wrong on that? Mirror tests with dots on their faces… does the infant touch the mirror face or their own face helps determine self-awareness right?

    Singer admit (and most philosophers) that personhood is a gradual development. He sets an arbitrary date of I think 2 months after birth that we can still commit infanticide, I think just so that there is some kind of practical date that we can work with as a limit, like with adulthood and 18.

    As for parental consent, absolutely sure. This is actually one of the primary arguments Singer uses to show that infanticide is permissible. Down’s Syndrome babies have a higher than average rate of doudenal artresia that can be easily corrected with a simple surgery, but doctors must approach the parents with the option of surgery, and sometimes the parents say no, and the child starves to death. Yes… There have been cases of the government stepping in to intervene with medical treatment, but with infants, in the US its not very common. Holland recently made euthanasia for infants (infanticide) legal a year or two ago. Since infants are not agents themselves (at least not legally and probably not morally either), we make decisions for them. Typically that right is given to the baby’s parents. This is true all the way up through adulthood pretty much…

    I agree that it may not be prudent, but the question is whether its morally permissible or not.

  7. michael reidy

    We all may have views about what constitutes the good life and whether such a one has it or not. All this will be based on our value system and it is obviously dangerous to make decisions on whether this particular life is worth the name of life or not from a personal perspective. Neither should we leave this decision to committees or even a wise philosopher. We ought not to proceed on the basis of our intuitions however precious a guide they may be. Is it possible to distinguish in any situation, no matter how tangled, a hierarchy of values in operation? It requires ethical skill or moral sensibility to do so. In the cases under review the having of life itself must be a the top or near the top of the hierarchy in the sense that it only becomes sensible to discuss flourishing etc when life is there. The nature of modern medicine and its heroic interventions, if you have the money to pay for them, is like the detergent that forces black and white out and forces grey in. In the final analysis it depends on the individual’s moral sensibility and philosophers like Singer are no help at all. After all he has made the banal error of eroding the difference between the human and the animal kingdom.

  8. I saw the separate but equal articles about Singer and Johnson when they appeared in the New York Times. I was stunned by Singer’s simple-mindedness, judging a person’s worth on a single coin. On one side you have abled and on the other side disabled. I looked at the pic of Singer on my sliding scale and he came up quite short. Clearly he does not value thinking ability when judging the likes of Johnson, so I only used a physical scale. I don’t think he could curl or press enough pounds to get anything better than a sneer from me in the weight room. We could all leave him in our dust or bubbles. He just doesn’t rate high. At what point does he become dispensable?

    Granted, times have changed and our definition of normal has become so narrow that half the faculty in the physics department would now fall into some borderline autistic camp and artists are all off the manic scale. Parents have percentiles to fret about and anyone with enough enthusiasm to pursue his/her interest is clearly unbalanced. So Singer has his work cut out for him. All measurable, all on a scale, all waiting for his judgement of unworthy just to exist.

    Bottom line: Get thee to a gym, Singer, before you get dumped from the scales you designed.

  9. I fear Singer is being viewed as much more monstrous than he is. So, two clarifications.

    (1) Singer himself judges quality of life based on interest-satisfaction (not the same standard as Nussbaum’s, by the way). Roughly, if you go through life with satisfied desires you’re in good shape, but otherwise not. By his standard, HMJ actually wound up having a great life, despite her physical problems, and I think Singer would be happy to say so. On the other hand, many disabled people don’t have great lives, by that standard (he says).

    (2) Singer actually qualifies his “ok” for euthanising disabled infants quite a bit. He says killing an infant is not the same as killing an older child (because the infant has no awareness of its future and thus no interest in its future). But (important!!!) that doesn’t mean it’s nothing. It isn’t nothing because by killing the infant, you take away its future.

    If the life is going to be one of relentless misery, then there’s really nothing lost. But if the life’s going to be better than that (but still not “normal”) then adoption should be pursued if the parents don’t want the baby. If there’s no one to adopt the child, then euthanasia is OK, but the future good in that infant’s life needs to be “replaced.” That will happen if the couple “starts over” with another pregnancy.

  10. Anyhow, getting back to Harriet McBryde Johnson, who I mean to be honoring with this post….She says the problem with having a disability is entirely socially manufactured. You can immediately try to refute this or first take the time to see the truth in it. Her very personal writing about her disability makes you see how much truth there is A lot. You have to really think in detail about what it’s like to be in a wheelchair to appreciate how much of the problem is outside of yourself.

  11. Eric MacDonald

    There are disabilities and there are disabilities; there are persons and there are persons. Johnson was enabled, through intelligence and opportunity, to live what she considered a good life. Good for her. But her claim that this is the case for all disabled people is just wrong. Some disabled people have miserable lives and wish they had never been born. Some, like Tracy Latimer in Saskatchewan, have miserable lives, and do not have the ability to choose, so someone else chose for her. Finally, her father said, enough. So he placed her in the cab of his truck and brought her sad suffering life to an end. And then, this compassionate man was sentenced to life for second degree murder.

    My wife, as I have said before, had MS. One year ago this very day she brought her life to an end. This morning we lit a candle at the time she died, as she had requested, for, she said, “My light burned brightly.” But she had had enough, and she went to Switzerland, and she had assistance in hastening her dying, which would have reduced her, in a very short time, to complete paralysis. She was unwilling to be trapped in her body.

    All these things are context specific, There is no general answer to the question about assistance in dying, no general answer to the question whether euthanasia of a child born with multiple disabilities is appropriate or not. And the option to adopt is not, all things considered, a fair one. A mother who feels that her child’s life is going to be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short, is not going, nor should she be willing, to hand the child over for adoption. It’s not just a question of wanting to keep the child. It’s a question of what is in the child’s best interests.

    Rabid ‘sanctity of life’ people are prepared to preserve life no matter what, no matter whether that life is going to be short, and lived in unremitting pain during that short life. This kind of absolutism, on either side, is not ethical. It’s simply a matter of fulfilling some abusrd ideological commitments.

    In his Church Dogmatics Karl Barth has this to say about someone whose dying is hastened because of great pain. “But how can the participants in euthanasia really know, or, even if they agree, how can they be quite certain, that even the life afflicted with the severest suffering has ceased to be the blessing which God intends for this person? How can they be sure that as now lived it is not the supreme form of divine blessing?” (Church Dogmatics, vol. III, Part 4, 425) Then a page or so later he is talking about self-defence, and says that there is uncertainty, so it has to be left up to human judgment. Well, so does assistance in dying. And any claim to the contrary is ideological. It has no basis in the lives of real people lived.

    Johnson, through several different circumstances, was able to transform diability into opportunity. This is not given to everyone to do. In fact, it is tolerably rare. To base a position on assistance in dying on the experience of one person is to be guilty of the fallacy of hasty generalisation. And since this whole issue is so surrounded by (religious) passion, it is about time we stopped doing it.

    Actually, though the problem with neonates is obviously a difficult one, the problem with those who are exercising their own personal autonomy is not. And it is about time we got the absurd religious folk off the backs of the suffering and allowed them to make their own decisions, governed, of course, by safeguards concerning competence and non-coercion, whether their lives are truly worthwhile, considering the sufferings and indignity that they are experiencing. This is not about disability at all, despite Johnson’s attempt to make it so. It is about personal autonomy, and what is in the person’s best interests, from her own perception of what those interests actually are.

  12. I’d like to get back to the process of decision in infanticide: that is, who makes the decision.
    Should we assume that all parents are good and wise persons? It may be that some parents are selfish people who want to avoid the expense and trouble of raising a disabled child. It may be that some parents are just ignorant, with many prejudices. Are all parents capable of understanding the options that doctors explain to them in a complicated case of disability? I doubt it. On the other hand, if a committee of experts makes the decision, who should compose that committee with powers of life and death? No Catholics, of course, since Catholics oppose euthanasia. Non-Catholic doctors? Non-Catholic philosophers? Who is going to choose said committee of non-Catholics? The voters?
    The Medical Society which has a vested interest in
    carrying out expensive medical procedures?
    I don’t think that the decision should be left to the parents.

  13. Eric: Our posts crossed. I agree with you completely that euthanasia should be an option for adults or for children old enough to consider the matter rationally. I also believe that adults have a right to suicide and that attempted suicide should not be considered a crime. The problem is for disabled infants whose future quality of life is still difficult to foresee.

  14. Eric, I’m glad this thread gave you a chance to say this is the anniversary of your wife’s death. I’d tell you I’d include her in my prayers (hey, it’s a nice phrase) but thinking of her will just have to do!

    What’s interesting about Johnson is that she was an atheist, so none of her thoughts about disability or euthanasia had a single thing to do with religion. Her belief, I think, I was that we have too narrow a view of what counts as a good life, and too little appreciation of how the world contributes to the problem of disability. I think this is wise and I’m prepared to “listen” to this point of view, and I think it’s even changed the way I look at people I know with disabilities.

    But, well, she leave out some important truths. It’s awfully hard to sustain her position if you’re talking about really extreme disabilities.

    The issues about euthanising infants are quite distinctive. I think Singer’s key point is that infants have no self-awareness or conception of the future, so killing an infant is not in the same category as killing an older person who does have those abilities. There aren’t the same limits, yet there are some limits (as I said at 1:04).

    Amos, I’m not satisfied with vague thoughts about how maybe disabilities will have medical solutions some day. In some cases, there’s a very low probability of that, and meanwhile raising the child will create mayhem in the parents’ lives, there will often be no possibility of adoption, and the problems with that kid may stop them from being able to manage a second child. It’s “nice” to give every child a chance, but the costs for everyone else can be staggeringly high, and just not worth it.

    But as to who makes these decisions, yes, that’s a huge problem. How to make laws that allow euthanasia without putting the wrong lives at risk? That’s really the crux of the matter. But as a private, non-legal matter, I will say (to be totally honest), that I would both assist a suicide (like in the case of Eric’s wife) and euthanize an infant. I would not allow a child of mine to be pointlessly poked a prodded and subjected to surgeries just to go on to a life with huge hardship and insignificant satisfaction.

    On the other hand, I would hope that I could accept some kinds of disabilities, and I really admire parents I know who treat their own disabled children as “successes” even if they don’t succeed by mainstream standards. I think people do need to work on their prejudices and misconceptions about disabilities–and do much more to create accommodations.

  15. The good old days. Really. What happened in the doctor’s office stayed in the doctor’s office. Lawyers did not get into the examining room. The family doctor knew you and you trusted the family doctor. It was understood when unusual medical procedures were not in the best interest of anyone. Of course there were no plugs to pull, which simplified some decisions. What your doctor prescribed for you according to your wishes and his understanding of your situation was not the business of the courts.

    There are two movies, perfect illustrations of two points of view. The Mademoiselle and the Doctor is about the choice of the 79 year old perfectly healthy woman not to live past 80. And she doesn’t. The other is The Diving Bell and the Butterfly about the 40ish man in worst possible condition who chooses to continue. Both *good* decisions, of course, because it’s a private matter. No generalizations are possible. No lawyers should profit from interference in their lives or deaths.

  16. I agree generally with the idea that disability is socially constructed. I think back to the deaf lesbian couple who wanted a sperm donor from a deaf man so that their child would most likely be deaf. This was seen as outrageous for many, trying to make a disabled child…. But the couple didn’t see it that way. They saw it as helping their child have a place in a rich culture… The deaf culture.

    I personally don’t see anything wrong with this.

    But like you said Jean, I think this is pretty hard to extend to other conditions… Severe mental retardation.

    Amos: I think there are lots of prudent reasons for not infringing upon the authority of parents. Doing so legally, may produce precedent for all sorts of odd behavior, like indoctrinating them with a particular set of values, etc.

    Like Eric says, much of this is context dependent. And the people most aware of all the context are those who should make the decision. And nobody is more aware of the context in this case than the parents, as they are the ones who will be raising the child.

  17. My computer broke down, so I’ll not be able to continue with this discussion, but the problem of authority is real. Parents do not own their children, and not all parents are willing to selflessly raise children with disabilities. Another problem is that state institutions are not a good option for caring for disabled children. But let’s not idealize parents or so-called parental love. In fact, disabled children and adults are often abused physically and psychologically by family members. Some kind of authority needs to watch over the interests of disabled people. There needs to be some kind of relatively impartial and informed decision-making body.

  18. michael reidy

    If one considers the overall effect of a life such as Peter Singer’s then perhaps it would have been better if he had been stifled like a kitten surplus to requirements. But really, how can we know the total effect of any life no matter how unpromising or even that of a full bird prof? We can’t is the long and short answer. It is a fact that medical folk routinely radically underestimate, to a greater degree than lay, the quality of life of the severely disabled.

    “Furthermore, studies consistently demonstrate that disability attitudes of health professionals are as negative and sometimes more negative than public attitudes (Gething, 1992; Ralston, Zazove, & Gorenflo, 1996; Roush, 1986). More specifically, health professionals significantly underestimate the quality of life of persons with disabilities compared to the actual assessments of people with disabilities themselves. In fact, the gap between health professionals and people with disabilities in evaluating life with disability is consistent and stunning. In a survey study of attitudes of 153 emergency care providers, only 18% of physicians, nurses and technicians imagined they would be glad to be alive with a severe spinal cord injury. In contrast, 92% of a comparison group of 128 persons with high-level spinal cord injuries said they were glad to be alive (Gerhart, Koziol-McLain, Lowenstein, & Whiteneck, 1994).”


    The whole piece is worth reading, it’s just a page. Clearly the word is ‘hold the killing bottle’.

    Re Preference Satisfaction: As a foundation for ethics it seems no more than a mirage. In any group there will be a great many preferences on the go. Which is to be taken as paramount, the Doctors, Patient, Guardians, Legal System, Society (Common Good as its preference). I doubt that it is entirely coincidental that the avatars of utilitarianism Bentham and Mill were so interested in the Law, Mill even to the extent of considering it applicable in determining whether a couple ought to be permitted to have children. In effect the Law is the wisdom of Solomon that rises above the fray of striving preferences.

  19. Michael, Most interesting (your quote) and will read link. I do think disability activists like HMJ need to be listened to. We do have all sorts of biases about what it’s like to be disabled. I sometimes think Singer has not given that enough thought. He’s very quick to allow that animal lives are different but good, but seems not as quick to see the same thing about the lives of the disabled.

    On the other hand, I can imagine situations that are hopeless and where the only reason to keep an infant alive is because of some vague “sanctity of life” doctrine. I can’t bring myself to think that life itself is an absolute good.

  20. Mark Zarb-Adami

    From that article…

    “Furthermore, only 17% of the professionals anticipated an average or better quality of life should they acquire this disability compared with 86% of the actual spinal cord injury comparison group. ”

    17% and 86% can’t both be right. Luckily though, unless a spinal cord injury improves your quality of life, 86% is impossible. The disabled group are clearly overestimating the relative quality of their lives.

  21. Well, but the paragraph can accurately report the data. Many people with spinal cord injury just may be wrong in their judgment that they have average or better quality of life. But what a nice mistake to make. It’s a sign of happiness. This is consistent with what I’ve read in the positive psychology literature (e.g. Daniel Gilbert). We think people are much more miserable after or because of disability than they really are (on average).

  22. Re Preference Satisfaction: As a foundation for ethics it seems no more than a mirage. In any group there will be a great many preferences on the go. Which is to be taken as paramount, the Doctors, Patient, Guardians, Legal System, Society (Common Good as its preference).

    The one with the most aggregate value…. Why is that a mirage? Obviously not all preferences are equal to each other, but that can be taken into consideration, along with the context, which affects the value of one preference to another, etc.

    If one considers the overall effect of a life such as Peter Singer’s then perhaps it would have been better if he had been stifled like a kitten surplus to requirements.

    Why would you believe that? I think he’s done quite a lot of good in the world. Even if you don’t agree with him, your position becomes more refined and reflected because of him. How is that a bad thing?

  23. Wayne:
    If you add the following sentence then balance appears.

    But really, how can we know the total effect of any life no matter how unpromising or even that of a full bird prof? We can’t is the long and short answer.

    But why call Singer’s life and work into question? For the obvious reason that he is giving academic credibility to ideas which had become a blot on humanity in the 20th.C. I mean eugenics and ‘life which is not worth the name of life’.

    I say that the calculation of “The one with the most aggregate value” is a mirage because it could never be done and as per the paper that I quoted is riddled with bias. Would you be prepared to do any sums with a busted calculator?

    The ‘sanctity of life’ as Singer says is a well worn cliche but try this recasting of it by poet William Blake:

    For every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life;
    Because the soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.
    Fires inwrap the earthly globe, yet man is not consumed;
    Amidst the lustful fires he walks: his feet become like brass,
    His knees and thighs like silver, & his breast and head like gold.”

    (From America; A Prophecy: Plate 8)

    Add to that his characterisation of the calculating mentality:

    He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars.
    General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;
    For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars,
    And not in generalizing Demonstrations of the Rational Power:
    The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.

    (From Jerusalem: Plate 55)

  24. Eric MacDonald

    Jean hasn’t replied, Michael, so I’ll hazard an opinion.

    I’m not impressed with Blake. I have enjoyed some of his poetry, never his big, impressive ‘prophetic’ works or his British Israelitism, but some of ‘Innocence and Experience.’ But his conception of science and reason and its life-denying-ness, no. So, even with Blake the idea of ‘sanctity of life’ doesn’t scan for me. ‘Because the soul of sweet delight can never be defil’d.’ Yeh, right! ‘The Infinite alone resides in Definite and Determinate Identity.’ Closer, but no cigar. Why does he bother with the infinite at all? Never could figure that. Why not just the particular? Does it have to be universal too?

  25. every thing that lives is holy, life delights in life

    I do think this is beautiful, and beauty is not irrelevant. But now what if I imagine myself in the shoes of someone who has just given birth to a very severely disabled infant (make it very, very)? I can see how this new life is holy. But what does the baby’s future really hold? Plus, I’ve got a life too, that has just been taken drastically off course. Furthermore, I could so easily create another life, which would be holy too. It is really not clear to me that, out of reverence for life, I’m stuck with the cards I have been dealt. What Singer is saying is that I may destroy/create, not simply that I may destroy. So there is some life-affirmation in there too.

    Now, Singer defends infanticide even if the infant is only mildly disabled (something his PR people should definitely hide). If I don’t want a mildly disabled infant, and nobody wants to adopt the child, I can destroy/create, he says, and try and have the child I want.

    Maybe the second claim goes too far, and infants are not quite as replaceable as that. But why not? This is what I find puzzling.

  26. Who am I to demand perfection? The baby doesn’t come in a shopping cart. I’m grateful for what I can get unless I think I have made a huge blunder doomed to utter and irrevocable misery. Then it becomes who am I to demand this pathetic creature has to satisfy my needs by living out a wretched life.

    Unquestionably, if I’m not prepared to deal with plenty of imperfections I’d better leave the baby making to someone with a less needy ego to serve. Poor kid doesn’t even get to choose his/her parents.

    re: quote M.R. who is quoting Blake, *General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite, and flatterer;’ I think that’s a great line. Yes, it’s the particulars that require attention; baby is not an abstract concept.

  27. rtk:
    Glad you enjoyed the Blake bits. I have this idea that Plato in one of the dialogues when he wants to get started on the inquiry into some concept first asks as though he were touching a base of impersonal wisdom – ‘what do our poets say’? The fragments of Heraclitus are very important. It’s their compression and density that arrest the mind.

    You are right about the notion of sending back a baby like a poorly cooked dish to the kitchen of a restaurant. On what is the intuition that this is a morally deficent approach based? But the lesbians were happy with their deaf child. Others might be unhappy and say ‘you can’t expect me to accept this’. In general we either expand to meet life or shrink it to fit our present size.

    Isn’t there the sense in Singer that infanticide is the duty of the refined moral sensibility when faced with serious disability?

    There is everything in Blake. Do you know Van Morrison’s ‘What is the price of Experience?. The horror of the SICK ROSE.

  28. Can we send children back if we are dissatisfied with them? Thank you, Peter Singer. In my household we have a 7 year old child who has aleady been thrown out of two schools for violent behavior against teachers. He takes medication of course.
    He is loud, violent and destructive. He has no sense of empathy and no super-ego. His intelligence is normal, but I don’t see him as a future doctor or philosopher. We now have to send him to a special private school for disorderly children, which costs a fortune, since the public school system wants nothing to do with him. What method does Singer propose for doing away with young pests: the electric chair, hanging, a firing squad composed of selected utilitarian philosophers? Seriously, we try to make do with him, without any great hopes that he will change. Life deals you cards, some of those cards being called children, and you have to put up with them as best you can.

  29. Life deals you cards, some of those cards being called children, and you have to put up with them as best you can.

    Life also deals you those cards called jokers, aka parents. Putting up with them when you have the disadvantage of size and experience can also be challenging. Especially when your shared genes are all too apparent.

  30. Michael, Well…Singer’s defense of infanticide in case of minor disability could certainly make you flinch. It makes me flinch. In case of very severe disability, I think it’s different, and in fact he’s wrestling with a problem that has no obvious, “happy,” entirely life-affirming solution.

    Amos, Well sorry to hear about all those travails. Ouch. FYI–Singer does not think you could “start over” with him. Since he’s now got his own desires for the future, he’s no longer in the same category as an infant. Infants are replaceable (ok, it sounds ugly) but after a year or two they aren’t So…no need to select a method of execution.

  31. If infants are replaceable (which I deny), I suggest that Singer try his hand at the dirty work once. Singer sounds like Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. Wasn’t Raskolnikov sure that the old woman was just a parasite? Maybe good old Pete could take an axe and split a diabled infant’s head.
    Then he might think about whether he wanted to reconsider his theory. It’s all very easy to kill infants or the population of Iraq from your desk chair or from your computer screen. Maybe Singer could invent a computer game about killing disabled babies and donate the profits to Oxfam. I overpassed my time in the cibercafe and now I’m going to have to pay extra. Someone needs to write a novel about Singer.

  32. Eric MacDonald

    I didn’t enjoy the Blake bits, Michael, and referring me to Van Morrison is referring me back to Blake. And what of the sick rose? The rose is sick because mortal, as are we all. The crimson joy of the rose is sick withal. As are we all; as are we all. But this still doesn’t make a point. It’s not an argument.

    I’m not quite sure I get the point about Singer and ‘infanticide’. Singer speaks of ‘neonaticide’, if you like, for specific and indentifiable reasons, some of which may be thought trivial. But it wouldn’t include children like Amos’s terror of teachers. He is, and would be for Singer, definitively a person, and not a candidate for ‘sending back’, which is a travesty of Singer’s point. Amos will have to look elsewhere for a reason for justifiable homicide. It is unfair to Singer, and to any moral person, to make such allegations, even if one has to pay extra at a cibercafe to say it.

    Jean, I know you think that Benatar’s arguments are weak, but I beg you to consider, whatever Johnson may have said about the way she valued her own life, privileged as it was, what a minor disability might be. At some stage of minor, the question does not even arise; when it does arise, are you so sure that your decision would be the right one?

    I still remember the woman who remarked, about those who sought assisted dying: ‘Why should human dignity be connected to bladder or bowel control?’ (Such minor, trivial concerns!) But I know, from experience, that, whatever you say, if you lose this control, it may well be a serious affront to dignity. Are you going to say to the person for whom this is true, ‘You have no right to feel this way’?

    ‘Everything that lives is holy……’ Really? The dandylion that I just pulled out of my lawn this morning? The mosquito that I swatted as I sipped wine last night? The man-eating leopard of Rudryprayag that Jim Corbett killed in 1925 in the district of Kumaon? I think it had already killed around 125 people. Everything that lives is not holy. Some things are deadly. And some things that live are cruel. I’m sorry, Jean, it doesn’t sound in the slightest beautiful to me.

  33. Amos: Just because you’re not willing to do it, or don’t have the skills to do it, doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t go around advocating it. If one has good reason backing their position, then one should adopt it. I think people should have heart surgeries, but I don’t have to do one, and know the pain of a failed heart surgery or know the joy of a successful one before I can advocate it.

    *sigh* I feel like whenever Singer comes up on this blog, I’m going to read every mischaracterization of his philosophy before we get to his actual position, then the next blog post goes up, and everyone diverts their attention to the next issue at hand.

    Much like Eric is suggesting, Singer wants to say that the sanctity of life is absolute mythology thats inhereited from christian doctrine. We need to be much more clear on when it is moral and immoral to kill people, rather than just making blanket statements that it is always wrong to kill people… including infants.

    Michael: And what exactly is wrong with eugenics? I’ve always seen the wrong being that one’s free will is being subverted in who one would like to reproduce with, and preventing others from reproducing. But this is NOT what Singer is advocating. We wouldn’t call euthansia eugenics… Why would we call it eugenics when applied to infants, and particularly infants that in all likelihood are so severely disabled that they may not or could not reproduce themselves anyway?

  34. I feel like whenever Singer comes up on this blog, I’m going to read every mischaracterization of his philosophy before we get to his actual position

    Ahem. I did try to preempt some of this with my comment June 8th, at 1:04 pm!

    But look, an aspect of what Singer is saying actually is fairly shocking, so I’m not going to try to deny that. The shocking thing is the basic idea of replaceability. He thinks some lives are (with lots of provisos) replaceable–those where the individual has no sense of self and the future. This applies to infants, the disabled, and animals. This is not the way we think of lives. Maybe it’s not the way we ought to think of them. I actually think you could make a case against replaceability without invoking the sanctity of life or religious doctrine or anything of the kind. To me, this is the interesting heart of the matter. There is room for debate and nobody has to think Singer is right!

    Then again, I may not be completely convinced, but I’m not offended by Singer’s ideas because I think he’s basically a good guy (technical term, sorry). Even Harriet Johnson thought so, as you can see if you read the article I linked to in the post. Also, I’m open to playing around with weird ideas, which comes with the territory of philosophy.

    Eric, I don’t really understand your point (re: Benatar, minor disabilities, etc). But as to the line of poetry “everything that lives is holy, life delights in life”–it’s poetry. It expresses a sentiment worth expressing. It’s not a worked out, explicit statement about exactly what does and doesn’t have value. Of course if you take it as such a statement, there are counterexamples.

  35. michael reidy

    Wayne wrote:

    And what exactly is wrong with eugenics? I’ve always seen the wrong being that one’s free will is being subverted in who one would like to reproduce with, and preventing others from reproducing. But this is NOT what Singer is advocating. We wouldn’t call euthansia eugenics… Why would we call it eugenics when applied to infants, and particularly infants that in all likelihood are so severely disabled that they may not or could not reproduce themselves anyway?

    As Amazon has it: the people who bought eugenics also bought infanticide. Words from the critics – “Sometimes difficult decisions have to be made” (A.H.) The obvious paradox of Singer as the child of Jewish refugees from the Nazis promulgating the same noxious thanatophiliac rationalizations etc. Here I begin to gnaw the podium.

    You don’t know what’s wrong with eugenics. Well it’s good for animals and I suppose that if you accentuate our common capacity for suffering as a unifying factor, which is debatable, then you might suppose that it is also good for humans. That leaves out the homo sapiens, man as rational animal aspect which is what is precisely at issue here. Harriet was capable of taking up a stance towards herself and deciding her own value. She wasn’t given a value or had it conferred on her by anyone. ‘I exist and it is good’. Some philosophe remarked ‘ I am not obliged to take that view’. Indeed but consider whether on the whole, pan historically speaking the conferring of value by others on person-objects has led to an increase of felicity?

  36. Wayne: I don’t know how to fix computers, so I’m still looking for a repairperson to fix mine, but killing someone seems a little different than fixing a computer or performing heart surgery, in your example. What I’m saying is that the act of ending another life gets one’s hands dirty in a way that advocating it doesn’t. I think that there is something morally cowardly in that. If people are favor in ending lives, be it in the case of capital punishment or in the case of infanticide, they should be willing to participate in the killing process.

  37. Eric MacDonald

    Sorry, Jean, didn’t mean to be telegraphic. Benatar’s point, remember, is that it would be better not to be, and that even the slightest pain makes that the best option. I guess my question about Singer is related. If moderate disabilities can be life-disabling, that is, make life much worse than another life might be, then perhaps it would be better, before such a life gets a start, and begins, for better or worse, to become biographical, to stop it before it gets underway.

    A couple came to me many years ago. She was pregnant. They had ultrasound and amniocentresis evidence that the child would have been born with spina bifida, with a severe exposure of the spine. The outlook for the child to be born was very grave, and though she may have survived, there was some doubt whether, despite multiple surgeries over a period of some years, she would survive into adulthood. She would endure a lot of pain, and long periods of hospitalisation. I was not in the advice business, but we talked until they decided — and I did not disagree — that they should abort and try again, which is what they did. The next child was born normally, and is a beautiful, happy child. Were they wrong to make the decision they did?

  38. Eric, Well, Benatar says we ought to abort all children (literally). This is a bit extreme. But in the case you describe, there are serious disabilities involved Spina bifida is serious, as I understand it. Everyday, thousands of woman have pre-natal screening, and as I understand it, 90% abort even when a disabiity is not severe (e.g. Downs syndrome). I’m not inclined to condemn that. In fact, I could imagine doing it myself. Now, once the baby’s born, we have the intuition that the life has “got going” to a much greater degree, and it takes much more to justify killing. Singer’s replaceability argument essentially denies that. I think I’m not convinced, but wouldn’t rule out cases where euthanasia for infants is ok (but it’s very tricky, as I said at June 8 3:43).

  39. Tarantino’s next movie: Kill Baby, vol.1
    screenplay: Singer
    director: TP poster
    editor: TP poster

    Is it like a really nasty smell, if you’re exposed to it long enough you don’t even notice? If you read the K word and the B word in the same sentence often enough, especially couched in what we must not call elitist language, does one’s heart harden and mind go numb? Who is this Benatar character, anyway? Feel a toothache coming on? (I’m making the motion of slicing off my head)

    Not to be confused with pro choice. If you don’t want to have a monstrous baby, don’t. But this other stuff being spoken of so glibly is pretty nasty business. Is there some tradition that one must chill out when considering ethics and not ruin the balance of theories with niceness, cuteness, downright cuddliness, kindness, (gasp) warm feelings toward humans and other animals, especially dogs, more especially Basset hound puppies?

    Off subject: is there any way a photo can be put up? I have an excellent one of a hind tit runt. I took the pic in either Portugal or Ireland. I didn’t realize its social significance before happily reading it here.

  40. Yeah, OK, the whole thing seems creepy…but this is a serious question in medical ethics that doctors and parents face every day. Somebody has to think about it!

    David Benatar is author of Better Never to Have Been. More weird stuff but ain’t that just the fun of philosophy?

    Don’t know of a way to post photo in comments. We’ll all just have to use our imaginations.

  41. Eric MacDonald

    I agree, Jean, that it is more tricky, and, these days, when you can have pre-natal screening for these kinds of defects, it’s perhaps less justifiable to consider termination when life has just begun. And I’m not sure I agree with Singer here either. But, then, I wonder, for all those women who don’t have pre-natal testing, and where the life of the neonate (scarcely an infant) promises hardship, even fairly minor… I’m simply not sure, and I wonder whether it’s our place to decide. Who’s in charge here? The life but scarcely begun? The parents? The doctor? The society? Who has the right to decide? And, who has rights here? And on what basis are these decisions made?

    Harriet McBryde Johnson is very compelling. She had a life that was obviously, despite all its drawbacks, a life of value, and one thing that gave it value was fighting for the value it had. One does not want to deny, or even appear to deny, that. And one wants to say: Yes, we must recognise those who are differently abled as being just as valuable as anyone else.

    That’s one of the things that became so very clear to me, as my wife became more and more disabled. Her condition, of course, was progressive, so each stage was shortlived, and soon she was passing through another. This was a marked difference to those who have relatively stable conditions. But once she was in a wheelchair permanently, she often said that, given the choice, she would not have chosen to be born, if that would have been her lot in life. Life itself was hard enough, in all conscience, without that.

    So, yes, I know what Benatar says, which is, as you say, a bit extreme. But how extreme do disabilities and likely pain have to be before we make a decision that a life, scarcely begun, should not be continued? That’s wnat I don’t know, and I don’t know on what basis and who is to make that decision. And, to tell the truth, exemplary as it was, I’m not sure that Johnson’s life and witness gives us an answer.

    As to Spina Bifida, I had a student once in an moral education course, way back in 1975, who had been a Spina Bifida child, and who was now a teacher. From her own experience, not shared by many other Spina Bifida sufferers, there was no reason for any mother to abort her spina bifida foetus. Like most ethical decisions, it ends up in someone’s pocket. This woman’s life was fairly good and promising. She had a limp and was slightly deformed. She was married and had children. Like Johnson, she saw no reason to question the value of a spina bifida child, even foetus, since she was Catholic, and identified readily with Catholic views on the value of every human life, no matter how deformed or limited. But it still left me with questions… still have them.

  42. Eric, My thoughts about all these things are fluid, shall we say? I’m not sure, and not easily shocked. As to what you say about abortion and infanticide…

    I had a relevant experience when I was pregnant with twins. If you have amniocentesis to check for genetic problems (which is done in the US before the abortion time-limit), you actually risk miscarriage. So the notion that abortion is ok but not infanticide puts pregnancies at risk, ironically. If one twin has a serious problem, you can have a “selective reduction” and try to keep the other. But there’s a very big risk to the other one. Again, seeing abortion as fine but not infanticide puts the pregnancy at risk. This all struck me as a bit inane. It was as if I was cornered into higher risks just because people find abortion less offensive than euthanasia. It doesn’t seem right to think of them like day and night.

    Facing all these issues, I chose not to have any invasive prenatal testing after reading a book by Michael Berube to see if I could deal with having a Downs Syndrome child. Good book by someone who has one and is eager to show you that disabled kids are a-ok. Not irritating, either, because he’s pro-choice. It’s good to read that kind of stuff.

    As to HMJ not “giving us an answer”–my approach to answers is to read lots of different stuff, throw it all into a pot, and stir. I’m satisfied to get a piece of the truth from any given source. Her “piece” is that we have limited, biased ideas about disabilities and don’t accommodate them enough. I also appreciate her openness to Singer, even though her buddies think he’s the devil.

  43. Eric MacDonald

    One thing I would say, Jean, is that ‘infanticide’ is already begging the question. I agree that we have limited, biased ideas about disabilities and don’t accommodate them enough. We hardly accommodate them at all! I learned that much. So, a lot of ‘disabled’ people could live better lives, more fulfilled lives, than they do. You won’t get any questions from me on that score. So, HMJ, as you call her, had something very valuable to say, and I know it. I just don’t know how that helps when parents are faced with what must be, cannot be other than, a split-second decision. Unless the neonate is anencephalic, minutes count in the biography of consciousness.

  44. There was a farmer with a bull called Bentham. One morning he is discovered yoking him to a plough. He was asked:
    – why?
    – I’m going to teach him that there’s more to life than pleasure.

    That’s it really. If you believe that is all life is for then you may be walking round but you’r seriously disabled and dangerous.

  45. Abortion and euthanasia: I see the problem in the case of twins. However, as a general rule, I’d say once he or she is born, the parent has bought it, so to speak. One cannot send the product back even if it’s not to one’s liking. Marxist critics would see Singer’s worldview as a severe case of reification, of viewing everything, even disabled people, as commodities, as exchangeable. However, abortion is always an option and they can detect birth defect fairly early in pregnancy these days.

  46. Eric MacDonald

    Amos. It’s not a matter of sending the product back. It’s a matter of considering the life prospects of the child born. This is a very complex matter that cannot be dealt with in a series of posts, but it is not as simple as simply saying that ‘the parent has bought it.’

    Decisions have to be made sometimes, and are still regularly made. At one time, doctors made this decision, based on their own perception of the neonate’s condition or deficiencies. Now, parents are brought into the decision. Questions arise as to whether this is wise, in some cases, where it seems obvious that the decision to terminate the life should be made. Why involve parents in a decision that may make them feel guilt for the rest of their lives? But it is, for all that, a complex, sensitive, and real issue.

    And, by the way, abortion is not always an option, something for which, in some jurisdictions, we have the Roman Catholic Church or American evangelicals to thank, and something which is simply not available in places where minimal medical services are to be found. Nor, of course, is this ethical problem as simple as speaking of a bull named Bentham (whose namesake was far more ethically sensitive than this story suggests).

    There is a good chapter in Mary Warnock and Elisabeth Macdonald’s recent book “Easeful Death” on the question of newborns — Chapter 4, simply entitled “Neonates”.

  47. Eric Macdonald wrote:

    Nor, of course, is this ethical problem as simple as speaking of a bull named Bentham (whose namesake was far more ethically sensitive than this story suggests).

    That would be Auto-Icon Bentham who had signet rings made for 25 of his closest devotees with a lock of his hair and his profile within it. They were to meet in the presence of said auto-icon to discuss the greatest utility of the greatest number watched by the cerulean eyes of the mummified head. No doubt this was in line with the popular practice of stuffing family pets and creating tasteful tableaus of gambling guinea pigs and hunting rabbits.

    The softer parts of his body were dissected by a medical acolyte called Southwood Smith in the presence of, among others Grote (History of Greece), Mill (Fine Grinding) and Place (Self made tailor and radical). What the utility to these students was is hard to discern as Mill for one was known to be unable to brush his hair at the age of 14.

    (good account by a writer of the history of UCL)

    It used to be said that if the womb were made of glass then abortion activists would not be so keen and their lack of imagination would be overwhelmed by what was seen to be the case i.e. human life. That wasn’t true because now medical men and paltering vicars having assured parents that this is life not worth the name of life ease that life before them out of existence or even in an act of heroic supererogation take on the guilt by not telling them.

  48. If I read correctly, there will be a committee in the delivery room: a philosopher, doctor, maybe clergyman, lawyer of course, all convening to collectively deduce the value to society of the 7 pound bundle on the other side of the room. Have any of you ever approached an animal with a new litter? Be afraid. Be very afraid. The woman who just grunted and groaned that bloody bundle into this world is not in the mood for some elite – there! I used the e word – deductions. You’re dealing with an animal and its newborn. The animal in the wild also knows when she has produced something less than the creature it should be and rejects it. The human animal mother is fully as capable. So just take your little deductions elsewhere, fill your meershaum pipe, have a cup of tea and leave mother and baby to their tasks.

  49. Eric MacDonald

    Ah, well, Michael, we all have our little peccadilloes! And if we used every man after his deserts, who should ‘scape whipping!

    Nevertheless, adding your post to rtk’s, and we still haven’t got an ethical argument. Yes, I’ve seen Bentham in his glass case, and it still doesn’t make an argument, though I never got to play with the five keys or hold the great man’s head in my hands.

    No, rtk, you did not read correctly, and no one contemplates committee meetings in the delivery room, though in some cases it may happen. But even then, without all those experts, decisions will be made, and sometimes mothers (and fathers too — omygosh!) will be involved. And if you think that all births are without problems, ethical, medical, and deeply personal, then you haven’t been near many delivery rooms. And if you think mothers are just animals, without thinking, reflective, heads, then you really don’t understand. It’s more dramatic, very often, and more emotional, than most operas. And not everyone hopes the heroine will win.

  50. It used to be said that if the womb were made of glass then abortion activists would not be so keen and their lack of imagination would be overwhelmed by what was seen to be the case i.e. human life.

    Yes, through the glass one may very well see the lovely final scene of 2001:Space Odyssey, but with the help of a crystal ball, you might also see a girl whose life is ruined by a small mistake. Not just the raped 14 year old whose parent will kill her or she’ll beat up her kid, but a good productive life wasted by an unwanted turn of events, no matter how appealing through a glass (very darkly).

    Eric: I didn’t say the mothers are *just* animals or that problems don’t arise. I did imply they can be solved by those directly involved and that those solutions are best not deduced, that we can rely on the excellent instincts we share with animals.

  51. Eric: I agree with you that it’s a very tough problem, which may produce guilt feelings in sensitive parents.
    and that there are cases and cases. General rules in ethics tend to have exceptions, and so I would never say “never” to euthanasia of a baby. There seems to be something about Singer’s tone, so different from your tone, which irritates people like me. By the way, the idea of the value and/or sanctity of life is not just a Christian idea. It’s a human idea, based on experience, to which the Christians have given theological justification. The idea of the sanctity of life can stand by itself without theological justification. One can posit life as an absolute or perhaps intrinsic value, and many atheists do that.

  52. Re: Singer’s tone. It always surprises me really that people find him so monstrous, because when I read him I find him plainspoken but sensitive and fair. When he says something unconventional, it’s always because genuinely compelling arguments lead him there. There’s no willful nastiness or disrespect. So Amos–a brutally honest question. Have you read him or is it Singer’s conclusions, as explained by others, that bother you?

  53. Eric MacDonald

    Ah, Jean, thank you. I always find Singer a very ethically sensitive writer, right from his first big time win, Animal Liberation, way back in the seventies. He almost convinced me, but most vegetables make me sick,. even tofu. Most meat makes me sick too, so I have problems, perhaps ethical, but certainly dietary.

    Amos, I’m not familiar with atheists who have absolute values. Where do they get them? If everything — and most atheists today (exceept for Jains or Buddhists, perhaps, if they count) are like this — is open to proof or disproof, how do you get to absolutes? Well, you could be an ideologist of some other kind, like a Marxist-Leninist-Stalinist-Maoist-Pol Potist, but just someone who holds that there probably is no god?

    rtk. I still think using your head is helpful too, and sometimes two heads, I’ve been told, are better than one.

  54. I’m not familiar with atheists who have absolute values. Where do they get them?

    Hold on there! If you mean “objective” then most ethicists today believe in objective values, and objective right and wrong, and without a religious foundation. Peter Singer certainly does. If you mean “absolute” as in “exceptionless” there’s still no reason why ethics shouldn’t recognize absolute values independent of religion. Again, Singer does. It’s just that life is not one of them. Of course, there is a vast literature in metaethics that tries to explain what objective morals and values are all about, but I’d say that the prevailing view is that they exist and have nothing to do with religion.

  55. ….sometimes two heads, I’ve been told, are better than one.

    Any mother knows that 2 heads is a good reason not to use heroic means to save the neonate. No sometimes about it.

  56. Eric MacDonald

    No, not objective. I think there are objective values. No question. The word ‘absolute’ calls me up short, I’m afraid. I’ve had too much of absolutism. I can’t think of an absolute value, in the sense of exceptionless. You can always imagine a situation in which it wouldn’t apply, even if you never come upon it. Absolute leads to … well, absolutism! But I stand to be corrected, of course. I won’t be absolute about it!

  57. Eric MacDonald

    Ah, thank you rtk. I shouldn’t let myself open for a riposte like that. On the other hand, you know, they say that scars are often a token of courage.

  58. Eric: I don’t hang out with many professional philosophers, but I do know, for example, pacifists, for whom human life should never be taken under any circumstances. I would consider that human life is an absolute value for said pacifists, who are also atheists and vegetarians.
    I’m not a pacifist myself. I also know atheist- libertarians, for who freedom appears to be an absolute value of sorts. I’m not a libertarian either.
    The fact that a value is an absolute does not imply
    any metaphysical status, just that the subject posits said value as an absolute, an ultimate end, an intrinsic good.

  59. Eric MacDonald

    Amos. I don’t mean that no one ever posits a value as absolute. I just can’t think of a good reason for doing so. In fact, I suspect, other things being equal, that positing something as an absolute tends to lead to wickedness. I can think of some values that seem to me close to absolute, but I can also think of situations in which I would not hold them to be so. That’s all. However, if values are objective, then, in some sense, they must have an ontological status. But I’m not sure. My head always spins when I think of ontology. In fact, after I had written that ‘I think there are objective values. No question,’ I began to feel a distinct sense of philosophical vertigo! Perhaps Jean can come to my rescue!

  60. I don’t see why positing a value as an absolute would lead to wickedness, but as I said above, I myself never say “never”.

  61. michael reidy

    Eric wrote:

    Ah, well, Michael, we all have our little peccadilloes! And if we used every man after his deserts, who should ’scape whipping!

    Nevertheless, adding your post to rtk’s, and we still haven’t got an ethical argument. Yes, I’ve seen Bentham in his glass case, and it still doesn’t make an argument, though I never got to play with the five keys or hold the great man’s head in my hands.

    Pharonic considerations aside, I posed two problems for the Singerites.

    1. It is by no means self evident that the concept of common suffering smooths out the distinction between animals and human beings more than the having of rationality divides them from each other.(@ Jean)
    2. If preference is so radically biased against the disabled by the medical professionals how is preference supposed to be an aid to decision. It is an x which is constantly changing its value (@ Wayne).

    No alleviation of my doubts were offered. I presume that these matters are articles of faith. To those points I add: How can we speak of Singer being objective when the concept of intrinsic value is scorned. I note that elsewhere Wayne holds that truth has intrinsic value. I can’t imagine what that might mean in Singerworld but I’ll grant that it has a ring to it.

  62. JK: re Singer. I quite agree with him at the beginning of his lines of thought, but after a few therefores, he seems to be off in some logic tunnel. Being a bit claustrophobic, when wandering in caves (real ones) I am reluctant to continue after the second turn, having lost the light source. I feel quite the same way with ideas. Singer doesn’t seem to hesitate; he ergos his way from good thoughts to screwing animals and murdering babies without any sense of maybe having lost his original idea. I know it’s heresy here to suggest that logic has its limits, but I wonder if three therefores, the number that takes you around the square might be a practical limit. Then face the original thought and see if it’s changed color or shape beyond recognition.

  63. Jean: Just a layperson’s question: what do philosphers mean by “objective values”? Thanks.

  64. This and that–

    The first thing I ever read by Singer is “Famine, Affluence, and Morality” (will add link). The person who wrote that article couldn’t possibly be a monster. (read it and see if you agree)

    As to objective values and morals. “Torturing babies for fun is wrong.” If you think that’s objectively true, what you think is that it’s not a matter of taste, opinion, custom, etc. You think all reasonable people ought to agree to it. All the major schools of ethics (Kantian, Utilitarian, Social Contract, Intuitionist, etc. etc.) say there are objective moral truths. What they disagree about is what they’re based on. That is, what makes it true that you shouldn’t torture babies for fun? Deep, difficult question.

  65. michael reidy

    “I grant that some of the difficulties with preference utilitarianism to which Nussbaum points are real – in particular, the questions she raises about the nature of preferences, more specifically, about ignorant or greedy preferences, and adaptive preferences. My view is that the preferences we should satisfy, other things being equal, are those that people would hold if they were fully informed, reflective, and vividly aware of the consequences of satisfying their preferences.” from http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/20021113.htm

    How useful is this criterion? Is a criterion that could never be satisfied or never be known to be satisfied a criterion at all?

    “I hold to the preference utilitarian approach because I cannot deny that for me, a good life is one in which my own considered, informed preferences are maximally satisfied. If I hold this judgment in a form that makes no particular reference to myself – as I must, if it is to be a moral judgment as I understand the term – then I must hold that this is true for others as well, other things being equal. This gives preference utilitarianism a strong, plausible foundation. Can we say the same of the capabilities approach?” (ibid)

    Indeed the world would be a better place if we were all altruistic which is what I take the nebulous phrase ‘in a form that makes no particular reference to myself’ to mean. But why should one be altruistic? Because a wise person has told us that is the way to maximally satisfy our preferences even though there may be a temporary inconvenience while our short sighted view is transcended. We could have a lifetime of this and really isn’t it more in accord with common sense to admit that altruism is not a pleasure.

    The master Mill admits that it will be a while before things are righted – “yet every mind sufficiently intelligent and generous to bear a part, however small and inconspicuous, in the endevour will draw a noble enjoyment from the contest itself, which he would not for any bribe in the form of selfish indulgence consent to be without.” (from Utilitarianism)

  66. Objective values: ethics seems to me to be the accumulated, collective wisdom and reflection of humanity about what constitutes a good life among others. There are no ethical facts outside that culture. My view does not imply relativism, since it is precisely humankind which reflects upon what a good life is, and a good life does not involve torturing babies: humanity has decided that based on experience and reflection.

  67. Eric MacDonald

    All the major schools of ethics (Kantian, Utilitarian, Social Contract, Intuitionist, etc. etc.) say there are objective moral truths. What they disagree about is what they’re based on.

    Ah, that’s where my head starts to spin! However, for all that, I don’t think Singer can possibly be thought to be a monster. It’s because we can say things like that that I believe values must be objective, though I’m not sure that Singer has found the right basis for them.

  68. Eric MacDonald

    You know, Amos, I was just sitting here thinking, and it seems to me that you are wrong. Ethics is not

    the accumulated, collective wisdom and reflection of humanity about what constitutes a good life among others.

    I say that because I believe, in my humble opinion, and all that, that our sensitivity to others has advanced by leaps and bounds over the last two or three centuries, halting as the progress has sometimes been. Despite all the horrible things that have happened, we are much more conscious of what makes life go better for more people.

    Stephen Pinker did one of those short ‘famous thinkers views on x’ for The Edge Magazine a year or two ago, and he pointed out how different our values are now than, say, in 16th or 17th century Europe, when roasting cats alive on stage was thought to be great entertainment, or criminals were regularly tortured to death, or had their ears or tongues cut off or eyes gouged out.

    Terrible things still happen, of course, but I think moral sensitivity has increased by leaps and bounds, exponentially, almost, with growing recognition of rights, equality, freedom, etc., though there are forces that seek to drive us back again. These changes cannot, I think, reasonably be said to be due to the accumulated wisdom of humanity. Indeed, it seems to me that it is often the accumulated wisdom of the ages that works against the spread of moral enlightenment.

  69. Eric: There’s nothing wrong with Aristotle’s ethics, except that they only were valid for adult, male members of the polis. However, a process, a tradition that begins with Plato and Aristotle, Buddha, the Hebrew prophets, etc, has now become extensive, in theory although not in practice, to all humankind.

  70. Eric MacDonald

    Well, yes, Amos, we are the legatees of the tradition of rational thought that began with Thales and the flourishing of philosophy in Athens, which influenced a fairly derivative, but still rational tradition in Rome, took a long hiatus during the development and spread of Christianity, and resurfaced during the Enlightenment. Though you can put the Hebrew prophets, and even Jesus, if you push hard enough, to the uses of rational ethical discourse, as they stand they are neither rational, nor particularly moral. They’re still full of inanities about divine revelation and the justification of people’s suffering as the the consequence of sin, and whoring after false gods. I’m not familiar enough with Buddhist writings to say, but Buddhism didn’t have very much influence in Western ethical thought until the nineteenth century at the earliest. So I still don’t see contemporary progress in ethics as the outcome of the collective wisdom and reflection of humanity. For most of its history — and I leave the East out of this, because they have intellectual traditions, and especially in China, traditions of reason which go back further than Aristotle, I think — morality was based largely on the imagined revelations of a god, and as a consequence was often troublingly immoral. Which is one reason why, it seems to me, the interventions of the Roman Catholic Church in contemporary moral questions is almost always wrong, and sometimes disastrously immoral.

  71. Eric: We could be arguing this same point, if either of us lives that long, for the next 20 years. An ethical tradition may begin with a religious justification and later continue without that justification. In fact, even Plato generally brings in punishment in the afterlife (The Republic, Gorgias) to justify his ethics. Kant is basically a closet Christian in ethical terms, as Nietzsche points out. Perhaps Nietzsche is one of the few thinkers who takes atheism to its logical conclusion in ethics. In our thought religious and non-religious views are intricately bound together.
    I hardly need to point out that some people who have made great contributions to contemporary advances in ethical behavior, for example, Martin Luther King,
    were motivated by religion. We are the heirs of Christianity and Judaism in our ethical thinking as well as of the Greeks (almost all theists). Let’s be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath-water.
    Your rejection of your Christian heritage reminds me of those kids who claim that they have nothing in common with their parents, when in reality……..

  72. Eric MacDonald

    You’re right, we could carry on this discussion for ever. Nor would I claim that our ethics does not contain an admixture of religious themes. However, just to go one more time, I do think there was a marked hiatus between say, the sixth century, and the 16th. It was like an interrupted conversation. Faith took over, and not only in benign ways. And then the conversation was picked up again, and it is that that we are the heirs of today. I don’t deny the presence, in contemporary ethics, of trace elements of religious traditions, but where I see those trace elements, it seems to me they often do more harm than good. That’s all. And I’m glad to be rid of my religious heritage, at the same time that I acknowledge a debt to it. But the harm that it did is much greater than the good, and the further we get from it, the better it will be. In practically every moral area in which religion involves itself today, religion is resolutely on the wrong side. Religions simply do not understand that they’ve got to let their heritage of religious texts and authoritative pronouncements go if they’re going to speak rationally. So long as they try to find grounding for their beliefs in holy texts, they will continue to be a menace.

    You’re right, Christians have been involved in moral advances: freedom for the slaves (though not for women), equality between the races (though not between the sexes), concerns about justice (so long as wealth can be seen, at the same time, as God’s blessng), compassion for the sick (so long as the compassion does not include help in smoothing a person’s passing from life), and so on. And in practically every case, it took something extra-religious to get the ball rolling. Freedom for slaves did not come before the (secular) human rights movement of the eighteenth century. Freedom for women came in the face of opposition to women taking their place alongside men in the leadership of churches and other religious institutions, an opposition which is almost as fierce now as it was then. Absurd religious ideas that life is God’s and only God can take it away are bedevilling all attempts by reasonable people to establish that we have a right — I have a right, and insist upon it — to die in a way that the person dying considers to be consistent with the way he or she has lived his/her life.

    So, I don’t deny the elements of the religious heritage in contemporary morality, but I believe that, in almost every case, it is a retarding, rather than a progressive or helpful force for good. It’s just too easy to say that we come at the end of a tradition, and you can spot parallels between religious and philosophical ethics (if I may call it that). Of course you can, but that doesn’t mean that the religious tradition had any idea how those principles were part of an ongoing critical ethical conversation, and how this conversation should temper and modify the strictness and the inhumanity of the way religious people learned to apply them. The pope is still idiotically condemning women for the use of birth control, or the attempt to use non-gender specific language in relation to God, or fulminating against the unnaturalness of homosexuality, the so-called murder of zygotes, and the choice that people make to die with dignity. This just goes to show that he has no idea, not even the shred of an idea, of what it means to be moral. I am well rid of such a heritage.

  73. As a former bioethicist and father to a seriously chromosomally compromised girl, I applaud Singer and others in this forum who celebrate human life and have the guts to speak out against blind adherence to our cultural/legal mores.

    On a technical note, I’m not sure if Nussbaum included “political involvement” in her list of what makes up a happy human life. Regardless, certainly there is SOME list of qualities, no?

    Eric: “well rid of such a heritage”. Kudos. I can assure you, a discussion about religion certainly is relevant with this topic. You’d be surprised how many people refer to mythological deities and irrelevant platitudes while trying to discuss what’s best for a human on this ACTUAL planet in a REAL hospital bed.

    I might add that it shows incredible moral weakness that anyone would make decisions on the basis of any such factors, rather than do the difficult thing and look a girl square in the eye, in order to come up with a fair and ethical course of care. Surprising how many people already have their conclusions formulated, before even going to the bedside.

    I speak from very direct experience as I go through this today. God has inflicted much pain on my daughter, by sending the wrong messages to his “followers”. He has made them very stupid and careless. Fortunately, my wife and I are not religious and instead refer to the pain and cringing on her face to arrive at good moral decisions.

    I ask all caregivers to please step aside if they even feel remotely tempted to start invoking witchcraft, religion or fear of afterlife retribution. Just as I would have you not take care of my daughter if you were high on morphine, I would ask the same if you’re high on religion.

    To put this into comical, but poignant perspective, here’s a link. I hope you’ll reconsider this stupidity immediately thereafter and come down to earth with the rest of us.

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  76. Peter Singer is just being a good atheist. If there is no God there is no objective right or wrong. Your only purpose in life is simply looking out for number 1.

  77. Micah Fish,

    There are plenty of moral systems that don’t need God.

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