Disability activists call for Peter Singer’s resignation

June 19, 2015 • 8:30 am

Two days ago I posted a piece about how Princeton philosopher Peter Singer was disinvited from a philosophy conference in Germany because of his views on euthanasia of newborn infants having horrible diseases or deformities (he’s long been in favor of that form of mercy killing). His disinvitation was prompted by a recent interview in a Zürich newspaper that dealt with these views.

Singer’s position on the assisted dying of both infants and adults who are ill appears on his FAQ page; here’s the bit on infants, which is far more nuanced than many of his critics claim:

Q. You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?

A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.  As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.  That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do.  It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment.  That will often ensure that the baby dies.  My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.

Q. What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?

A. Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it.  And that’s a good thing, of course.  We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby.  It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child.  Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.

These views, which seem reasonable—or at least justifiable—have been known for a long time, so it seems unfair to disinvite Singer for re-expressing what he’s long avowed. But of course Germans are extraordinarily sensitive about euthanasia given its widespread and vicious employment by the Nazis.

But according to the Washington Times, disability activists have begun gathering signatures on a petition at change.org asking that Singer leave his faculty job:

Their petition, which has over 800 signatures, demands that Mr. Singer resign and asks that Princeton officials disavow his comments. It also demands that Gov. Chris Christie “publicly denounce the lethal and discriminatory public health care policy advocated by Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer.”

“Rather than challenging Singer’s advocacy as a form of hate speech,Princeton University has provided Singer with a prominent platform and increased access to US media and policymakers for 16 years, establishing itself as the home for the worst of overt — and deadly — bigotry against disabled people of all ages,” the petition states.

Note that here Singer’s views, which at the very least should provoke debate, and have, in my view, considerable justification, are characterized as “hate speech.” Such is the way campus activists try to ruin the careers of those who merely raise provocative questions. And, in truth, Singer’s proposals have very little chance of being adopted, at least in the U.S.

The petition is one product of demonstrations at Princeton in which a group of activists, many of them with disabilities, blocked Nassau Street in early June, calling for Singer’s resignation. (There have been such periodic protests since Princeton hired Singer in 1999.) Planet Princeton reports:

At one point, the protesters marched in a circle on Nassau Street and called for Singer’s resignation, shouting “Hey hey, ho ho, Singer’s got to go.”

. . . “I don’t want to call him a  professor. I don’t think he can be a professor,” said one rally participant. “He’s talking about euthanization.”

Here’s one photo of the demonstration from Planet Princeton:


I can understand the anger of some of these people, though I’m not sure that any of them have medical conditions that, under Singer’s view, would have been cause for euthanasia in infancy. If they did, I can also sympathize with their feelings, which must be something like, “Hey, I’m here and I am okay with my life. But if Singer had his way, I wouldn’t be here now.”

Yet that is surely the case for every fetus that is aborted, most of them being infants without any medical condition. Surely nearly all of them, if allowed to become adults, would decry the desires to abort them. But does it really make a substantive difference whether that “abortion” occurs before or immediately after birth, and, if the latter, is practiced only on the kind of sick children to which Singer refers? Further, one has to balance the view of those who are disabled, but have become old enough to become self-aware, against the well being of their parents, and against, as Singer emphasizes, the burden that their care would place on society.

Finally, regardless of what these people think of Singer’s views, to call for his resignation or condemnation on the grounds of “hate speech” is unconscionable. Singer is a philosopher, not a “hater”, and has garnered a considerable reputation by getting people to think about hard questions—questions that we’d prefer to avoid but which have serious social consequences. Are we justified in eating animals to slake our craving for meat? Should we well-off Westerners give away much of our income to help impoverished people in the rest of the world? Those are questions in the tradition of Socrates. For asking them, Socrates was sentenced to death. Today we’re more humane: we only try to get philosophers fired for posing uncomfortable questions.

148 thoughts on “Disability activists call for Peter Singer’s resignation

  1. Bye, bye free speech…

    Also, if these people had been euthanized as infants, they would never have felt angered by Peter Singer’s positions on the issue. Which kind of makes his point…

    1. “Bye, bye free speech …”

      Really? The protesters have every right to call for Singer’s dismissal. I doubt very much they’ll succeed (and sincerely hope they don’t), but they are only using their freedom of speech in the attempt.

          1. Freedom of speech is infringed if the cost is losing your job because of something you said instead of merely having to endure other peoples free speech in return. That is what some of the protesters are trying to make happen.

            I am pretty sure that is what GM is referring to.

          2. No, freedom of speech is freedom from government censorship or punishment. It is freedom from *those* consequences of speaking, not freedom from *any* consequences of speaking.

            You could argue that employers should not be able to discriminate against their employees on the grounds of their political or philosophical views, but that’s a separate issue to that of freedom of speech. Personally, I think employers should have the right to fire people who bring their organisation into disrepute (note that I think that Singer brings Princeton into disrepute).

          3. Except that a University is an institution predicated on the concept of Academic freedom:

            “The belief that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment.

          4. “That should be “not” rather than “note” in the last sentence!”

            That makes quite the difference!

          5. Disagree.

            1) You are insisting on the context of legal free speech. A perfectly permissible other context, and the one that seems most relevant in this discussion, is the principle of free speech which, though it is the basis for free speech laws is not the same thing.

            2) Even if you insist on the legal context only, that Princeton is a private university would not necessarily free them from legal complications should they choose to acquiesce to the protesters demand to fire Singer. Legal precedent is that even private universities have an obligation to abide by promises made or implied by them about what kind of institution they are, such as academic freedom. While private entities are granted freedoms to violate some constitutionally granted liberties within certain limits and under certain conditions, which can vary by jurisdiction and what not, it is not “anything goes.” In other words private entities are not free by law to violate your free speech rights in any way they choose. They are merely less restricted than the federal government.

          6. And who judges this disrepute?
            Goodbye philosophy departments everywhere on your view.
            Unless, of course, the philosophy discussed stays within ‘repute’.

          7. “Personally, I think employers should have the right to fire people who bring their organisation into disrepute….”

            That’s reasonable.

            Would you reasonably agree that it is all too easy and convenient for employers to view employees’ disagreeable opinions (political or not) as not just disagreeable but disreputable and disparaging of the company? It must be so if the employer says so, eh?

            Do you think employers should have the right to fire their private servants for no reason at all if they so choose? After all, they are only “resources” and “capital.” Does an employer have the right to require an employee to reveal his private opinions/views (political or not), and fire him if he refuses?

            Private tyrant corporatist types want less government regulation/oversight/protection of employees, and want to privatize more and more, so as to that much more bend their servants to their will.

            Who fires the private tyranny when it does something disreputable or criminal? Unlike a flesh-and-blood person, the corporation per se cannot be incarcerated. (It can of course be forced to pay a fine which, if not too large, will be merely considered a cost of doing business, and therefore the misbehavior will continue.) What flesh-and-blood person can work the justice system so that s/he is not required to admit guilt?

          8. Perhaps employers would try to abuse this and fire people whose political opinions they did not like, however there are labour laws and civil rights that protect one against this.

          9. Yes, but corporate private tyrannies and their handmaidens in the U.S. Congress implacably, inexorably continue to try to erode those safeguards. There are surely cases where employers call the bluff of employees who, fired (and worrying about making ends meet and getting another job), have to get a lawyer (for mucho $$) to try to remedy the situation, and/or persuade gov’t civil rights types, possessed of limited resources vis-à-vis money bags corps, to take a given case. And then there’s that equitable, noble employment contract arbitration clause imposed on the prospective employee.

          10. I think, at least in Canada, there are a lot of free services (or at least there were). Employers can be jerks about you working elsewhere too. When I was at BlackBerry in the hey days, BlackBerry wanted to hire a lot of former Motorola employees. Motorola didn’t like this and made it so their former employees weren’t allowed to work for BlackBerry (forget how they did this – some slimy tactics I’m sure). I think in the end, Motorola was told to go fly a kite because their employees could work anywhere once they’d left – if they were worried about secrets, that’s what NDAs are for.

          11. 1. Singer was dis-invited from a philosophy conference for his views on euthanasia.

            2. Singer is facing calls to be forced out of his position at Princeton for his views on euthanasia.

            3. Singer was invited to speak at a European symposium on “Bioengineering, Ethics and Mental Disability” His invitation was viciously attacked, Singer’s positions labelled as Nazi, the symposium cancelled and Singer’s invitation consequently withdrawn.

            4.A course in ethics using Singer’s book Practical Ethics as main text was forced to shut down.

            5.While giving a lecture in Zurich, Singer was shouted down, assaulted on stage and the lecture had to be ended.

            Meanwhile freedom of speech is alive and well. In a galaxy far far away… from Singer.

          12. J.S. Mill argued that we should have the freedom to say anything that we like, so long as we are not inciting violence. I think most advocates of free speech follow Mill in that.

            The people who are protesting against Singer are not, so far as I am aware, inciting violence against him or anyone else, so if we are following the Millian line, we should support their freedom to make their protests.

            Freedom of speech is not the right to have a platform for your speech. The fact that Singer was disinvited from a conference doesn’t diminish his freedom of speech, only his opportunity to speak on that occasion.

            I don’t know the details of the philosophy course being cancelled.

            I wouldn’t normally condone heckling someone at a public meeting, but that’s a question of bad etiquette on the audience’s part and is something that has always and will always go on when people speak about controversial issues. Freedom of speech is not freedom from being heckled.

          13. I welcome the protests against Singer. No one is challenging the protesters freedom but when protests and the exercise of arbitrary authority reaches the point of shutting down the exercise of free speech as happened on numerous occasions with Singer then those who condone such a state of affairs are not clear on the meaning of “freedom”.

          14. What do you mean ‘violence’?
            Calling for someone to be banned or sacked is a kind of violence.

      1. They are calling for a suppression of his speech.
        “Bye, bye free speech…” is an accurate summation.

    2. Sorry, I didn’t phrase this properly.

      I meant bye bye free speech if there are really consequences.

      It’s just that it is very strange that this is happening right now. He had been subject to many quite vitriolic attacks back in days but then people sort of forgot about him and things went quiet. So why is this flaring up all of a sudden?

    3. Speaking strictly in terms of the 1st amendment, no those protestors are not denying Singer his right to free speech.
      But they are trying to squelch debate.
      Whether we define the anti-Singer protests as anti-free speech is secondary to the issue that Singer is proposing very difficult questions, questions which require debate, which is unlikely to happen when people feel sanctified in silencing anyone who says anything with which they vehemently disagree or makes them feel bad. IMO, that’s the real issue here, not what nomenclature we use to describe the protests against Singer.

      1. Agree bobsguitarshop. Also, those protesting are widely misrepresenting Singer’s position to demonize him. They have a right to protest, but they don’t have a right to lie about what he says. And those lies are shutting down the debate, or at least taking it off track.

        As a philosophy professor, it’s his job to prompt discussion on difficult topics. It would be wrong for him to lose his job for doing his job.

  2. When it comes to aborting disabled fetuses, the issue as I see it, is that disabled people, and those who speak for them, see it as the equivalent of egregiously killing a disabled 10 year old.

    They don’t seem to understand that when a disabled fetus is aborted, that is precisely so that it cannot live to suffer and whatnot.

    They also ignore that in the end, this should be an individual decision. Who is going to take the responsibility and pay the millions of dollars in bills to keep a severely disabled child alive for life? It is wrong to force a family to risk ruining the next three generations, and to go bankrupt in the process, just because some people believe that every fetus *must* be born, no matter the cost, emotional, physical and financial.

    1. disabled people, and those who speak for them, see it as the equivalent of egregiously killing a disabled 10 year old.

      I wouldn’t put it that way. I think they’d say that Singer is wrong to imply that the disabled infant will be ‘better off’ dead or would choose not to be. If the disabled 10-year-old is enjoying their life and not suicidal, then that says something important about whether the disabled infant can grow up to have a happy, fulfilling, productive life: it says they obviously can. The disabled 10-year-old is an empirical counter-example to any argument such as “they’ll never have a high quality life.” Those arguments are prima facie invalid in the presence of similarly-positioned people who are grateful to be alive.

      1. “a happy, fulfilling, productive life”

        Happy, maybe, for some values of ‘happy’. Fulfilling, less certain. Productive – very rarely, I would think.

        Depending on the degree of disability, of course.


      2. Eric,

        you state “…then that says something important about whether the disabled infant can grow up to have a happy, fulfilling, productive life…”

        But that does not guarantee a disabled person will grow up that way.

        How can a disabled 10 year old child, with some measured quality of life at that point, invalidate an (or THE) argument that a child born with anencephaly should be euthanized immediately?

        Singer’s position is actually a very well articulated justification of euthanasia (with out requiring it) that sufficiently stands against such squeamish reactionary responses.

        The examples you and I mention are independent and widely divergent events around the principle Singer is articulating. It would be more humane to address the issue Singer makes than point to emotional “counter examples” just to enable a poorly justified dismissal of what is and can be a horrible moment in a family’s existence.

        The protestors want Singer to lose his job? They should pay for the pleasure: stand a death watch. Anencephaly is only one of many terminal afflictions in newborns and fetuses which may take minutes or hours or DAYS to expire.

        Singer’s position seems to provide a way to avoid that circumstance.

        What is wrong with THAT?

        1. During residency, I helped care for an anencephalic baby who was, amazingly, nearly a year old. Its underdeveloped brain was only able to run the automated body parts: heart, lungs, guts, etc. It was clearly never going to have a life. The medical and family costs for its care were tremendous, especially after having been kept “alive” so very long. And, it was in the hospital to undergo more painful procedures. That brain wasn’t developed enough to even recognize pain, though: no grimace, no movement, not even an elevation of vital signs.

          It was DOA and still “alive” — interminably.

    2. This comes down to a subset of the abortion debates.What is personhood (in the legal and moral sense), a question which can beinformed, but not answered by science. And just like these, anti abortionists will demonstrate using people whose mother had considered abortion.

      As a related issue, in an article on trigger warnings etc covering a conference at Smith College featuring the outspoken Wendy Kaminer, the official transcript changed the phrase “we’re just wild and crazy, aren’t we” to “we’re just wild and [ablist slur] aren’t we”


  3. I have no objection to Singer saying these things. However, I fundamentally oppose the idea that we can arbitrarily define some human beings as non-people. In this way his ideas do remind me strongly of the Nazis. Throughout modern History we have different groups that have created definitions that have excluded their opponents from the protection of the law (such as it was). Once you define aristocrats, kulaks, Jews, etc. as outside the circle of the protected, it is very easy to get people to treat them that way. In this case I say Singer’s definition is arbitrary because he chooses (at least as quoted above) only a few aspects of being human to determine whether someone is a person. I could say that being a person is dependent on someone’s potential, and, therefore, a baby is a person, and an old person, who will die soon, is not.

    1. I think Singer is far more concerned with the definition of “person” as meaning “when during development does an individual gain certain rights”? In that way he differs from the Nazis, which deemed Jews (and others) of all ages as being non-people.

    2. By your definition a fertilised egg is a person. And how much potential is there in a single sperm? Arguably more, since it has the potential to join with one of many eggs. We can imagine a continuum of the potential of damaged people from zero for people in persistent vegetative states, then negligible, through to vast. How much human resource (which could be better spent on the well-being of others) do you spend on the negligible potential? How much on the negligible plus a smidgen more? How much anguish of the people who love that “person” do you force on them before you allow them to authorise euthenising that “person”? These are the questions Singer is brave enough to ask and attempt to answer.

      I don’t think his definition is arbitrary. He may be wrong, but he’s not being arbitrary.

    3. I take your point in that I think Singer’s use of language provokes an emotional reaction that makes discussion of what he is saying more difficult. However, the discussion is really worth having because if you think of animal rights and sentience, these are things we have to think about when it comes to how we treat living beings. There is so much more to tease out of Singer’s statements that unfortunately we don’t get to do when people react emotionally to his language.

      1. I’ve always thought his language carefully chosen. IMO it’s the subjects he deals with, not the language he uses.

        (I agree with him on most subjects and would have arrived independently at some of the same conclusions he has.)

    4. How can you determine potential sufficient to determine personhood.

      The actuality of personhood must exceed potential, potential has the possibility of being nothing, whereas actuality already is.

      1. The actuality of personhood must exceed potential

        Have you never heard someone described as “a person who has wasted their potential”?

        1. Yes must. As I said potential has the possibility of being zero.

          That some has guessed that someone wasted their potential doesn’t change the value that they have by being in the state they are.

          Unless we have a context misunderstanding.
          The potential I am talking about is the potential of a not yet person.
          A zygote, embryo, even new born.

          No one knows for sure if a person wasted there potential.

          1. [SHRUG] The future is too unpredictable to WOMBAT on “potentials”. I’ll deal with what is already.

          2. I’m sure you did. You were up at Froggat edge?
            (For many years, there was a wild colony of wombats living on the moors of Central England, near Sheffield. I think they’ve been exterminated now, but I’m not sure.)

          3. No, other side of the world.
            Did they really have wombats in Sheffield?

  4. These views, which seem reasonable—or at least justifiable—have been known for a long time

    Well, he’s still equating a baby to a possession, and saying that a lot of the moral negativity comes from taking away some adult’s valued possession. It seems to me his philosophy still puts him on the ‘wrong side’ of issues like gender-based infanticide: if neither the parents nor anyone in that society want to care for a normal healthy girl-child, then (according to Singer’s logic) killing that girl-child isn’t any more wrong than killing a baby born with no brain? I reject that position.

    On the free speech aspects of this case, I’m all for allowing him to speak and hold his position at the University.

    1. I highly doubt that Singer is in favor of gender-based infanticide. I won’t speak for him, but several of the causes that make him favor euthanasia of sick children (future suffering of the infant, unwillingness of others to adopt) do not apply to gender. Before you put words into his mouth, why don’t you find out how he feels about that issue?

      1. True I don’t know his issue on this particular, specific subject, and I do promise to look at his FAQ after finishing this post, but the Singer arguments you’ve quoted DO apply equally to both unwanted girl-children and disabled children. Consider:

        I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person

        Okay that’s fairly clearly a general statement about the moral value of all infants. Healthy babies as well as developmentally disabled ones. I don’t see any reasonable way to read that as drawing a distinction between disabled babies and healthy ones.

        That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

        That’s baby-is-valuable-as-possession, and applies equally to both healthy and developmentally disabled babies. So if baby X is not loved and cherished by their parents, it may not be a terrible thing to kill it…and Singer draws no distinction here between babies not loved because they are disabled and babies not loved because they have the ‘wrong’ genitals.

        although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.

        Again, baby-as-valuable-possession. And again, this argument applies to healthy babies and disabled ones equally. So would Singer then say that if there is one theoretical adult in the world who would be happy to love some disabled baby, then it would be wrong and terrible to kill it? That is where his logic leads, but if so, that kinds of undercuts his whole position, as I’m sure we can always find some adult who will claim such, even for brain-dead babies.

        1. Pointing to a particular distinction Singer makes:

          …is usually to do a great wrong to its parents. (not the child)

          As an argument of “baby-is-valuable-as-possession” is, I believe, and incorrect assessment. Singer’s is categorizing wrongs and assessing which is “wronger than wrong” (see Asimov).

          Your promoting a “slippery slope” argument against Singer’s position, and at no point can you prove forced euthanasia as a matter of convenience will follow. And that undercuts your position.

          Recognizing and defining quality of life in terms of life (that we live) AND death (that we, as a society allow) is actually more noble than you credit.

          1. addendum:

            “…s I’m sure we can always find some adult who will claim such, even for brain-dead babies.”

            So what? And should that be allowed?

            Your statement takes what is “best for the baby” compares it unfairly to what might be preferred by an adult. And in that comparison the baby loses?

            Infant euthanasia must be restricted to consideration of what is best for the patient at the moment it needs to be decided. Singer articulates a definition of person that facilitates a decision fairly and with out reward for what would be nice or preferred.

      1. Okay, I’ve just read the FAQ and I don’t think I’m mischaracterizing him. The latter two parts I quote above (what I’m calling Singer’s ‘baby-as-possession’ arguments) are Singer’s responses to someone specifically asking about healthy babies. Here is the FAQ question that he is responding to, when he talks about how its bad to kill babies that are loved by their parents or some other adult:

        Q. What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?

        So yes, from the FAQ it certainly appears to me that Singer’s argument for why its wrong to kill healthy babies amounts to “because they are or will be loved by some adult.” This reply has major philosophical problems, because it puts unwanted healthy babies in the same category as unwanted disabled babies. Singer does address the potential issue of healthy babies that may be just as unloved or as unwanted as some disabled baby. This is IMO culturally myopic. I think there have been and probably still exist today cultures and groups who would equate female gender with a disability, so of course there are going to be cases like the one he fails to address.

        1. If the (future) baby is unwanted, that’s a pretty good argument for an abortion. What sort of life does an unwanted child have to look forward to? It’s not as if the world needs more people. The fact that (in some societies) gender may play a part in the ‘wantedness’ is strictly irrelevant to this argument. The baby-as-possession argument is very relevant to its future welfare and quality of life. We have no trouble applying it to pets – unwanted pets whose owners don’t look after them may be siezed by the authorities after which, if other adoptive owners** can’t be found, they might end up being ‘put down’.

          Where Singer’s argument gets more contentious in popular estimation is that the moment of birth has commonly been taken as a convenient dividing line (except for the rabidest foetus freaks). He’s technically correct that the line is a blurred continuum, but that suits neither popular thought nor legislation.

          (** Staff, in the case of cats, of course.)


        2. “This reply has major philosophical problems, because it puts unwanted healthy babies in the same category as unwanted disabled babies.

          That is one feasible logical extension, but I think you are jumping the gun attributing that to Singer. In context I don’t see anything that would lead me to think that Singer holds that position or that he is likely to have missed or disregarded this possible philosophical problem.

          “Singer does not address the potential issue of healthy babies that may be just as unloved or as unwanted as some disabled baby.”

          Exactly. He does not address that issue, at least not here. Because that issue is not topical to what he is addressing here, whether or not it is ethical to euthanize severely disabled babies.

        3. He says clearly several times that it would be wrong to kill a healthy new born.
          His utilitarian reasoning may cause some confusion.
          A couple of things to consider.

          If not one person anywhere cared if the baby lived or died, would it be wrong for the parents to kill it? Why?

          And, that you and others do care for the wellbeing of newborns not wanted by their parents provides sufficient reason to say that it is wrong.

          Singer says clearly that it is wrong to kill healthy newborns, just not as wrong as killing persons.

    2. Well, he’s still equating a baby to a possession

      No, he’s clearly making the argument that, since full personhood requires foresight and planning, an infant isn’t as morally important as an adult that does qualify on that score, such as its parents. He still makes the point that killing it is a weighty moral decision, especially for some feeble reason like “parents don’t want it”, which is why he expressly says that “even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.” You can’t go from that to “Singer thinks baby=possession” without assuming that “has one fewer moral right than a fully qualified person” means “has no moral rights whatsoever”.

      It’s not that radically different from someone who argues that horses don’t trump people but killing a horse is still a bad thing to do. He makes it pretty clear here:

      “Moreover, although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed.”

      Or to put it more clearly:

      Person > Infant

      BUT Infant =/= 0

      1. In fact Singer explicitly talks about loving and caring for babies, which seems to put them pretty clearly in a different category from inanimate possessions.

  5. Professor – Thanks for posting your support for Dr. Singer. I’ve been a fan of his since college 30 years ago and pretty much agree with his brand of ethics, which more or less boils down to compassionate utilitarianism in my view. It’s horrible that free speech is coming under attack from supposed liberals in our “higher” centers of learning of late. The demonization of unpalatable ideas leads to intellectual blandness, if not a back door to totalitarianism.

  6. Singer has always advocated for a reduction in aggregate suffering. Anyone unfamiliar with his work simply doesn’t understand the philosophical process involved when establishing ethical priorities. It’s absurd to think that someone who applies scrupulous sensitivity to human and animal rights is simultaneously pimping for indiscriminate euthanasia.

    1. For some reason he is often represented as saying that not that “parents should have the choice” and “parents in extreme situation X should consider Y as the most human option (e.g., euthanasia for anencephaly) but rather that *all* should be. I read his contribution to _Cognitive Disability and the Challenge to Moral Philosophy_ and those of his critics. They either thought that he meant “all” (somehow) or are angry by the possibility that there would be a *choice* by parents, which could (in principle) become “all”.

      He also had to make it clear that an adult with (say) Down syndrome is very different from a neonate with the same condition, as everyone knows, but somehow people don’t get that the cognitive capacities change.

      In my view that’s the trickiest part. Often traditionally DS people were treated as children of age X when they were X+Y. This is an oversimplification, and I for one would want more work (as I am sure is going on) on better means to explore this. (Including intelligence as a vector quantity, for example – which psychologists already do, sort of.)

  7. Singer’s wisdom is a good template to begin a rational discussion about issues like these. It is dishonest to our species to quietly, without discussion, do what we have done before just because it is based on religiously steeped tradition.

  8. Peter Singer will probably already have given a far greater proportion of his income to charity then the vast, vast majority will ever even consider. His work on ethics is founded on what is the best outcome with regards to well-being and suffering. He then gets this kind of demonisation. If that happened to me it would make me so bitter and less motivated to help. But I suspect Singer is a better person than me.

  9. “It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term ‘person’…”

    I’d say that the term “defective” is at least equally in need of clear definition.

  10. There are some highly emotive subjects (including abortion, euthanasia, population growth, climate change, torture, capital punishment, nuclear power, and so on) which trigger ‘activists’ into a ‘if you’re not with us you’re against us’ response.

    You can usually tell when you hit this emotional response because there are statements of the form ‘x is absolutely wrong’ – without any explanation of why that is ‘absolutely’ so. Yet if they cannot bear to explore the subject (because it is so absolutely wrong) then I find their opinion has no special value, not does the strength of their opinion add any extra validation.

  11. At the risk of upsetting some people… he is right.

    Thinking about it is biological terms, & us as pure animals, offspring are an investment, so an older child is a bigger biological investment. Losing a child near or at reproductive age is therefore worse than losing one What rto me he seems to be saying is what nature says – cut your losses.

    1. Which is why I find it ridiculous that pro-lifers say that every zygote is equal to value of any random 40 year old. 100pct equivalent, they say.

      So what value does that bring to being a person? None. Sentience and sapience mean nothing. Our value is purely in our DNA, apparently.

      Oh, but many pro-liars are quick to dismiss the value of genetically defective zygotes. The ones that, due to chromosomal abnormalities, fail to implant, or miscarry shortly after implanting. They are not ‘people’ because their genetic defects are incompatible with life. I find that funny. I often ask them, that if zygotes = born people, then how is it that a zygote that will become a hydatidiform mole is of less value than a Tay Sachs baby? Both are terminal. One is just cuter than the other, and happens to live a few months longer.

      1. Which is why I find it ridiculous that pro-lifers say that every zygote is equal to value of any random 40 year old. 100pct equivalent, they say.

        Yes they misconstrue ‘potential’ with ‘actuality’.

        The media also expresses potential with more importance than actuality when they typically (always?) emphasize the tragic deaths of infants/children above adults (as in airplane/car crashes/shootings/bombings). Aren’t the adults the one’s who lose the most? It is simply emotional manipulation, and quite shameful imo.

        1. One pro lifer that I know has argued that embryos are more valuable than infants because embryos have greater potential.

          And others make the argument that maternal mortality is totes awesome because women have already lived, and that it is only fair if they die for their babies.

          1. Yes, die for their babies so the babies can live without a mother. Wow! What kind of fu**ed up thinking is that?

          2. Ayup.

            I related the sad story of an African woman who died from illegal abortion to a pro-lifer who really didn’t seem to care all that much about children.

            I told him that this woman had six kids, and was pregnant with a seventh. That she sought out abortion because she couldn’t afford another child, what with being a single parent in f*cking Africa with six kids!!!

            His response? The slut shouldn’t have spread her legs. Zero compassion for the children who are now orphans. Zero compassion for children who suffer because mom keeps having children she can’t afford to feed.

          3. What a nasty story. I wonder what his views on contraception and sex education were.

        2. I disagree with you there. The death of children is often more tragic than an adult. One might argue that an adult’s actual family and actual friends feel the loss and are negatively affected whereas a child has no few friends and so less impact on their community. But then why don’t we mourn most the 85 year old? Because they had an entire lifetime to enjoy and very few think they should live another 30 years. From that vantage, the death of children is a tragedy because they never even got the chance.

          I would much rather die at age 50 than age 20 and I think many might agree. Die at 50 rather than age 5? There’s an inflection point in here somewhere.

          1. The death of every un-fertilized ovum is a tragedy, as those ovum will never get to live.

          2. Think of it in animal terms – us as animals. What you say is true ’emotionally’ perhaps, but I am thinking in terms that are beyond emotion – nature is indifferent.

      2. Every sperm is sacred.
        Every sperm is great.
        If a sperm is wasted,
        God gets quite irate.

        Let the heathen spill theirs
        On the dusty ground.
        God shall make them pay for
        Each sperm that can’t be found.

        Every sperm is wanted.
        Every sperm is good.
        Every sperm is needed
        In your neighbourhood.

      3. Pro-liars, good one.

        I wrote somewhere else that ‘potential’ has the possibility of being zero, nothing or minimal, whereas ‘actual’ already is.

        Potential isn’t and may never be.

        There is no comparison at all.

    2. I largely agree with Singer, but I disagree with your take. Sure, from an evolutionary perspective, it makes more sense to cut your losses earlier, but that’s only a strategy to maximize your chances of leaving more descendants. It’s not morality.

  12. Those protestors, both the disabled and their sympathisers, are stupid. Singer is not advocating any measures directed against them personally; they’re alive, they’re here, Singer is not suggesting their rights should be infringed in any way.

    How does it profit them to have more disabled around? In fact it must be to their personal disadvantage since the available resources to take care of them will be more stretched. In fact they’re basically advocating inflicting their condition on more people – ethically about the same as an aids sufferer who tries to infect as many others as possible.


    1. A commenter on Love Joy Feminism once wrote that she didn’t want her particular disability to ever be cured, because then she might lose her benefits.

      Another wrote that certain disabilities should be just be ignored, and no treatment ever offered, not even for the most severe cases,as they are ‘simply another way of being’.

    2. You’re assuming that disability benefits are a zero-sum game, but we know that’s not the case.

      Taking the example of the AIDS epidemic (since you brought it up), in the early 1980s, when the number of patients was relatively small, resources to assist them were virtually nonexistent. It was only after the numbers became large that significant resources were brought to bear. So in fact the community of AIDS sufferers did benefit from an increase in their numbers.

      In the previous Singer thread, Diana Hook posted a link to a NYT article about Singer by disabled activist Harriet McBryde Johnson. I don’t agree with Johnson’s position but it’s pretty clear that she’s not stupid.

    3. Like deaf people, who campaign against giving children cochlear implants, because they don’t want the community of deaf people to shrink. I was astonished that anyone would be so self-absorbed that they would actually say such a thing! I can imagine being that selfish, but I can’t imagine wanting the rest of the world to know about it!

      1. I think it’s a bit more complex than mere selfishness. From the point of view of deaf parents, giving their children cochlear implants is like aboriginal peoples giving up their children to be raised by English-speaking missionaries. It’s not just about correcting a disability; it’s about the extinction of their native language and culture, and the assimilation of their children into mainstream hearing culture. A certain amount of reluctance is understandable.

  13. singer’s got nothing to worry about. princeton will defend his academic freedom just like it has been steadfast in defending uber anti-gay bigot robert george’s virulent anti-gay activism.

    george is the mastermind of numerous right-wing often catholic anti-gay organizations that have been guiding countries like russia and uganda in devising their draconian anti-gay legislation.

    he was also involved in commissioning and directing the now discredited and even mock-worthy regnerus hoax, which was intended to smear gay parents by deliberately using inaccurate and falsely manipulated data, all being timed to appear just as scotus was hearing the doma case. truly diabolical.

    unlike singer, the overseas activism of george’s groups has helped stir up anti-gay violence that has resulted in actual injury and death. and princeton’s fine with that.

  14. Now, there’s a petition I won’t sign.

    Singer is very brave, brave as Dr. Kavorkian was. (Speaking of whom, I turned his last name into a verb, when I first said that I hope to Kavork, someday, at the appropriate time. Suicidal, I’m not. Kavorkable, I am.)

    Had I an anencephalic fetus or infant, I’d want to Singer it, partly for its own sake, and partly because those millions of dollars ultimately spent to keep such a being alive, in our medically expensive America, could actually help save the functional, self-aware lives of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, around the world, with clean water, mosquito nets, vaccinations, and higher medical care.

    1. I despise the ‘boycott people you disagree with to shut them up’ strategy. It is completely antithetical to free speech. What disabled individuals are supposed to do is debate Singer, not demand the University remove him.

      Silencing Singer by having Princeton University fire him and lose his livelihood is analogous to Singer banning all disabled protesters from the Princeton area unless they forfeit a year’s salary. It’s a form of extortion.

      1. Exactly.

        I mean, I disagree with the conservative Christians at Princeton such as Robert P. George, anti-woman, anti-gay bigotry. However, I don’t think that he should lose his job. He, and people like him, should be debated.

  15. “But of course Germans are extraordinarily sensitive about euthanasia given its widespread and vicious employment by the Nazis”.

    It may be true that the history of the Nazis lies behind German sensitivity about euthanasia but I would query the suggestion that the Nazis practiced it widely and viciously. As I understand it, euthanasia (‘good death’) is defined as the intentional ending of a life in order to relieve pain and suffering. What the Nazis did had nothing to do with mercy or kindness and was murder, pure and simple, aimed at eliminating Jews and other categories of people that they had decided were undesirable.

          1. The concept of Jewish exclusivity in the Holocaust and the efforts to ride roughshod over the suffering of gays, mentally ill and Roma in the holocaust is an issue that ought perhaps restrain one from flippancy when discussing the groups who were victimized.

          2. I’m Jewish, and I keep correcting that “six million” trope with “twelve million.” I understand there were six million Jews annihilated, but that there were also six million in other categories, which I proceed to list. I’m not alone in this. Still, the general population doesn’t want to hear it, and it’s hard enough to get them to listen regarding just one Nazi-targeted group.

          3. That’s laudable, but gatekeepers of the narrative e.g. Elie Weisel, who argued that “a focus on other victims may detract from the Judaic specificity of the Holocaust” have long helped create the climate wherein your stance, as factually correct and ethical as it is, was not allowed to become the mainstream.

            Slavs where also singled out for their ethnicity and around 10 million of them are estimated to have been murdered by the Nazis.

          4. It was also my understanding that, once the Poles had helped get rid of Jews and other targeted groups, they, themselves, would be next. No one was to remain, in the end, except the “master race.” I wonder, sometimes, who they intended to master, after killing off everyone else.

    1. The pedant and completest in me feels obliged to point out that Nazi killings, as the opposite of euthanasia could be called, dysthanasia.

          1. Clever, guys, but both sound too euphemistic to my ears. I’ll take murder, genocide, etc.

          2. I thought of genocide but to my ears thanos (death) sounds terrible. I guess you just need to cozy up to the ancient languages to get that perspective. I highly recommend it 😉

            Yesterday someone made the mistake of asking me what a cron job was. I went into a long story of how I someone tried to condescend me when I first couldn’t understand that word but it was because it was misspelled. Cron from Cronos (Kronos -> κρονος) is the Greek Titan. Chronos with a chai (χρονος) is time. A cron job is a scheduled job on a machine. Therefore it should be spelled Chronos.

            It’s a blessing and a curse.

  16. It is widely held by many that an adult should be allowed to take their own life if the duration of that life will be dominated by interminable suffering. It is also widely held that a family may, with consultation from doctors, withdraw life support or even actively end the life of a loved one who is no longer ‘capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.’
    Infants cannot speak for themselves and children have limited legal rights to speak for themselves, and so here any such decisions must be made by their parents. So I can see how one could argue that said parents might be allowed to end the life of an infant or child who will otherwise interminably suffer a miserable existence without hope of a moment of joy or release from pain. Given the gravitas of such a situation, since we are dealing with our most vulnerable and all, it must be done in close consultation with doctors and ethicists.
    IF Dr. Singers’ views are along these lines, then I can see why he is making this argument.

    1. IF Dr. Singers’ views are along these lines, then I can see why he is making this argument.
      I’m almost positive that his views are along the lines you proposed. In this I too think it is a worthwhile argument.

  17. I know an anecdote that really influenced my thinking on issues like this. There was a documentary made a few years ago, The Boy Whose Skin Fell Off, about a person named Jonny Kennedy, who had been born with the genetic skin disease, dystrophic epidermolysis bullosa. It caused him immense suffering throughout his entire life (he died at age 37). One of the questions posed to him in the documentary was what if he impregnated a woman, and it was discovered that the fetus had the same condition as him. He replied that he’d want the woman to have an abortion. He wouldn’t want another human being to have to go through the suffering he had.

    Granted, Kennedy was talking about abortion, not euthanasia like Singer, but I still find examples like this informative. There are some conditions that really limit the quality of life a person can experience, and sometimes the most compassionate option is euthanasia.

    1. This gets at a problem that I am wrestling with on this very difficult issue, which is: what sorts of conditions are we talking about? Besides this one there are things like harlequin-type ichthyosis (which is now much more manageable with aggressive treatment, but it has be really really awful), brittle bone disease, and others.
      What I want to know, besides finding out what sorts of conditions we are talking about is what do survivors of these conditions say? If they all say ‘my life sucks. I wish my parents had ended my life’ then I can see why early euthanasia is an option. But if any numbers of them say ‘my life sucks, but I still have parts of it that I enjoy’ then I have a much more serious problem with ending a life before the person has a chance to say what they think about it.

        1. Thank you. You see this outlines the problem very nicely, and it helped me to feel my way around it. I must say her essay is wonderfully written, and it only speaks to the amazing range that is humanity. I am shocked to see that apparently Singer considers that a person with her condition could have been justifiably killed as an infant, according to his morality. At this point I do not see how anyone would entirely agree with Singer in situations like this. Maybe there are other situations, resulting in intense physical suffering with no prospect of relief. But not this one.

      1. I think the question Singer is raising is not really about which conditions should be on that list. Rather, given that there are conditions that would cause most people to terminate a pregnancy and try again, is there any sound reason not to apply that same ethical reasoning in cases where the condition isn’t discovered until birth?

        1. See, I have a problem with that since that includes conditions like Down Syndrome, which can be terminated during pregnancy. But for some reason I recoil from that during late fetal development (where abortions are generally done to protect the woman), and after birth.

  18. “I’m not sure that any of them have medical conditions that, under Singer’s view, would have been cause for euthanasia in infancy.”

    Well, quite.

    A disability that doesn’t prohibit one (cognitively or physically) from being an activist is not the kind of neonatal condition that Singer’s thinking about.


  19. One point that I haven’t seen made and which Peter Singer makes in one of his books is this (and I hope I am remembering this correctly): that when considering having an abortion, you are entitled to consider the lives of future children that you will not have if you have this child. That is, if you planned to have just one child in your 30s and you find yourself pregnant in your 20s, you can consider the life of the child that you will not have later if you have this child now.

    I don’t remember for certain whether he extended this to include such consideration when considering euthanazing a disabled baby – but I think he did. Perhaps some other readers know what he wrote on that.

  20. Singer should be commended for enunciating issues
    that many would prefer to keep sub rosa. Look at the reasoned discussion that has occurred here. This is precisely what should be happening and, won’t, if philosophers like Singer are muzzled.

    Rational guidelines for long term care vs. abortion or so-called euthanasia of potential children with excessively severe disabilities (like no brain, skin that tears when touched,etc.)that need to be elucidated and developed will not occur. Why must individuals and families deal with this alone, with the exception of religion and Church strictures on sexual and reproductive issues? Why must the severely disabled be required to live until death, or until able to determine for themselves if life is worth living or not? This issue also has a societal impacts that ought to be considered, not just individual “ownership” of children and sacred “personhood”.

    Some progress finally is being made on LGBT and
    death with dignity issues thanks to the people who were willing to stand up and voice the unspeakable. This is another such area requiring intelligent, thoughtful discussion before we can be more humane in choices of great concern to individuals, families and societies (whose ultimate responsibility it is to care for such individuals through disability payments whether parental resources are depleted or not.)

  21. This is from a UK perspective. Money spent on keeping terribly disabled babies alive could be spent elsewhere in the NHS. Resources are always finite and balancing priorities is unavoidable.

    A stat which may be relevant: 94% of women who test positive for a foetus with Downs syndrome opt for an abortion.

  22. While I agree that Singer’s ideas should provoke debate, and that it’s wrong to call for his resignation and to attempt to stifle free expression and discussion of ideas, I don’t find his arguments about disability and infanticide nuanced, reasonable, or particularly justified. The example that keeps popping up in this thread is the anencephalic infant, who isn’t going to live very long in any case, and for whom there’s no chance of cognitive development even if ze did survive.

    But if you want to have a more challenging debate, discuss philosophical issues and justifications, and push the ethical boundaries of Singer’s ideas, then I would propose a different example from anencephaly: perinatal hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, subsequently manifesting as cerebral palsy. This can affect neurons in the cerebral cortex, basal ganglia, cerebellum, or brainstem (or some combination thereof) and is unfortunately a common enough birth injury that many people know relatives, friends, and acquaintances with the disorder. Smart, well-educated people like Singer often think that they can know or reason things, such as the potential for quality of life and intellectual development in an infant with HIE, but I would argue that this is not knowable, and may never be. It isn’t about the peer-reviewed and the tautly philosophical – it’s about individual experience and development. In therapeutic riding programs, I’ve worked with many adults and children who have CP, and I’ve heard a disturbing number of smart, well-educated, able-bodied people say horrible insensitive things in their presence. Smart, rational individuals, who might even make a living from thinking and writing great thoughts, can still make bloody stupid assumptions about the cognitive abilities and awareness of others.

    Rather than provide a personal example, I’ll give a more public one: the Irish poet and novelist Christopher Nolan, who died in 2009. A perinatal anoxic event resulted in spastic quadriplegia, and he could only control movements of his head and eyes. He was raised in a supportive and enlightened family, with parents who read to him and exposed him to as much of the world as possible. He fought (successfully) to attend school in classes with children who had no such physical impairments. If you’re curious about Nolan’s intellectual abilities and experiences, I’d recommend reading the semi-autobiographical Under the Eye of the Clock (and if you’re also a fan of James Joyce, I think you’ll really like it). In closing I’ll say that of course I don’t know whether Nolan would have been an infant for whom Singer would have supported euthanasia, but I suspect that may have been the case.

    1. Wasn’t one of Singers qualifiers, loving and caring parents?
      What of the case where such a person is just put in a corner in an institution.

      1. How are you going to determine that during the early neonatal period? The mother might have her own health issues because of a difficult birth, or impaired by postpartum depression. Both parents could be irrational and emotionally disturbed initially because of the baby’s abnormalities, but might come around subsequently, to love and nurture the child regardless of disabilities. My argument is that you can’t know this within the period that’s being discussed for infant euthanasia. And because HIE and consequent CP often occur in the perinatal period, it’s not something that can be identified by sonography or MRI during fetal life.

        1. Can you delineate “the period that’s being discussed?” I thought it was deliberately left vague, in order to accommodate the discussion of a wide range of scenarios.

          1. From Singer’s quotes provided in the OP, he’s discussing newborn infants, not fetuses. I don’t know precisely what period Singer means, but I’m thinking any baby within the first week after birth would qualify as a newborn infant.

            If you define personhood as having a sense of one’s existence over time (as Singer appears to do, again, from the quotes provided), then the period under discussion might extend out further, beyond the first week after birth. I don’t know, because that’s not my definition of personhood. That definition would seem to erase the personhood of some adults with dementia or other memory disorders.

          2. If babies are people, then it would seem that mere sentience is all that it takes. But if mere sentience is the only criteria, then why can’t animals be people too?

        2. “Both parents could be irrational and emotionally disturbed initially because of the baby’s abnormalities, but might come around subsequently, to love and nurture the child regardless of disabilities.”

          What’s irrational about not wanting to have an abnormal child? I can think of some very cogent reasons for not wanting such a child, including its huge impact on their lives, the huge costs, its probable fate if they become unable to look after it in later life, and

          “Might” come round is not good enough, if they don’t want it they shouldn’t have it and they shouldn’t be guilt-tripped into having it by pro-life enthusiasts who aren’t going to do a damn thing to help care for it later. They can always try again, or adopt. The world is already over-supplied with babies.


          1. Drat. Hit ‘post’ too soon. Should be:

            “…in later life, and just plain compassion for the baby – if it was a kitten, we’d have it put down humanely but promptly”.

  23. Again, I really don’t get the tendency to simply want to silence dissenting views. Whatever happened to refuting Singer’s points? Whatever happened to arguing an alternate point of view?

  24. I think that these demonstrators do not understand that when you are a fetus you are just a fetus. They think that killing a fetus today is the same that killing the result of that fetus twenty years later.

    And what about this nonsensical and deleterious idea of “hate speech”. Isn’t it obvious that it belongs to that despicable genus of words that includes other pearls like “islamophobia”? Isn’t it obvious that it is also “a word created by fascists, and used by cowards, to manipulate morons”?

  25. Intellectual discourse should, in the ideal world to which I presume this blog is dedicated, reach a resolution (even if it ends in statements of different conclusions, and all agree that there remain no new points to be made and that all points have been squarely addressed).

    I realize that there has not perhaps been enough time for responses to”
    “Posted June 19, 2015 at 9:30 pm | Permalink

    “Again, I really don’t get the tendency to simply want to silence dissenting views. Whatever happened to refuting Singer’s points? Whatever happened to arguing an alternate point of view?” . . . but I do hope that the kelskye attempt to restore the subject at hand bears fruit, at least in the context of the case before the forum–should
    Singer be allowed to sing, or should his voice be silenced?

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