The Book Club

Holt and McGinn

I have never met or talked philosophy with Peter Singer, though we were students in Oxford at the same time. I have reviewed one of his books, contributed to another, and written a paper for a new collection of essays on his work. He is known for three iconoclastic ethical positions: animal liberation; the view that our general uncharitableness to the poor and suffering of the world is a serious moral failing, not much different from murder; and a permissive attitude toward certain cases of human death, specifically in the areas of abortion, infanticide, and euthenasia. The first two are clearly “pro-life,” on the side of preventing the suffering and death of animals and people; the third is, or is perceived as, “pro-death.” I am in favor of the first of these positions with little qualification; I regard the second as exaggerated and wrongheaded, though basically on the side of the angels; the third is the topic of this communication.

The topic has recently come to public attention through the appointment of Singer to the Princeton Center for Human Values, where he will occupy a chair in bioethics. The point of contention is that Singer has questioned the traditional “sanctity of life” conception and proposed to replace with it with a “quality of life” conception: Lives are valuable in proportion to their quality and not simply in virtue of being lives. Thus a terminally ill patient whose quality of life is very low and who wishes to die should be allowed to do so and given assistance where necessary. This view is perhaps not so unusual (I have no problem of principle with it), but Singer also holds views on death that put him in a small minority of ethical thinkers, specifically on infanticide. In his 1993 book Practical Ethics he wrote: “If we can put aside these emotionally moving but strictly irrelevant aspects of the killing of a baby we can see that the grounds for not killing persons do not apply to newborn infants.” And he goes on to commend the pre-Christian practices of infanticide in a variety of cultures. These are indeed shocking claims, as he himself recognizes, but he thinks they are forced upon us by consistency and reason. The question is: Has he arrived at a morally absurd conclusion by faulty reasoning or has he uncovered a genuine incoherence in our usual attitudes toward life and death?

Singer is a philosopher. Philosophers make mistakes in their reasoning, often generating outrageously implausible conclusions. Some go back to their reasoning and look for the flaw; others announce a revolutionary discovery. In most areas of philosophy none of this matters much because nothing concrete is at stake, but in ethics it can matter tremendously, especially when the subject is life and death. I think Singer is guilty of a characteristically bad piece of philosophical reasoning. But instead of seeking out where his reasoning has gone wrong, he sticks to the absurd (and morally repugnant) conclusion. Let me then expose his mistake. What troubles me is that a philosopher should allow himself to be so carried away by an argument whose weak point is so glaring. But I suppose that is hardly uncommon (except for the seriousness of the conclusion).

Singer arrives at his position on infanticide through considering the question of abortion. He wishes to allow that abortions can be morally permissible, as I would too, and he proposes that they are permissible because the fetus is not a “person,” a being capable of self-consciousness, rationality, and a sense of its identity over time. He then notices, correctly, that this criterion makes early infanticide permissible, and goes on to embrace this consequence. He thinks: If abortion is OK, then infanticide is too, because there is no difference of principle between them. He rightly dismisses the idea that it matters whether the baby is physically in the womb or not, on the sensible ground that this can make no difference to the intrinsic nature of the baby. The right to life depends on the psychological capacities characteristic of persons, he thinks, and neither fetuses nor infants have these characteristics.

There are two large problems with this position. The first is that his diagnosis of why abortion is permissible is highly questionable. Why require that a right to life depends upon full-blown personhood instead of simple sentience or some intermediate stage of mental development? Such a demanding criterion threatens to exclude all children under the age of three or four! Indeed, doesn’t this create trouble for the idea that it is wrong to kill animals for no good reason? I would say that early abortion is acceptable because the fetus is not yet a sentient psychological being at all, but just a clump of cells; while late abortion is unacceptable because sentience has begun. True, very late abortion and infanticide are morally equivalent, but that is because both are morally wrong.

The second point is where the bad philosophical reasoning comes in. The obvious reply to Singer’s claim that the life of an infant is equivalent to that of an animal at the same mental level is that the infant has the potential to become more than the animal. Singer considers this reply and dismisses it, on the ground that it would also rule out contraception and celibacy, since in these cases too we are dealing with something (sperms and eggs) that have the mere potential to become full persons. Just as the infant is potentially a person, so is the sperm and egg, he argues: Hence it cannot be more wrong to kill the former than the latter, if merely potential personhood is what matters. But this is simply a lousy argument, because it crudely conflates very different kinds of potentiality–and it is what Singer’s repugnant position on infanticide depends upon. Thus consider: We could say of a mere tree that it has the potential to be a great composer in the attenuated sense that if you were to combine the particles that compose the tree into the brain and body of Mozart you would get a great composer. Of course, it would be silly to argue on this ground that burning the tree would be as bad as killing Mozart, since the tree has the “potential” to be Mozart only in this very weak sense. But if I were to say of the young Mozart himself, on the basis of his demonstrated musical talent, that he has the potential to be a great composer, that would be a very different thing. This potential holds in virtue of young Mozart already being very close to fulfilling his potential: The necessary capacities are already in place. And we would regard it as very sad, a tragedy even, if young Mozart’s musical potential were to be frustrated, say by forcing him to give up music (unlike with the “potential” musical talent of the tree). In much the same way the sperm and egg have a remote potential to be a person, but the infant has such potential in a far more proximate sense. The infant has personhood as a gleam in his or her eye, whereas the sperm and egg are just the raw materials for making a person. It is because of this distinction (which is of course imprecise and unformalizable) that we regard the thwarting of developing talent as a worse thing than the mere not bringing into existence of such beginnings. It is also why we tend to regard the death of a promising young 16-year-old as more tragic than that of an 80-year-old man with only a year to live anyway. The reason we regard the death of a normal infant as especially tragic is precisely that its proximate potential cannot now be fulfilled, not because (pace Singer) we are stuck in post-Christian irrationality (for the record, I am an atheist and general opponent of religion). So there are two good reasons why infanticide (and late-term abortion) are morally wrong: (i) that the baby is already a sentient being with a fairly complex psychology, and (ii) that the baby is potentially (in the proximate sense) a self-conscious rational being like us.

In short, then, Singer’s controversial position on infanticide results (partly) from inattention to the logic of the concept of potentiality–a typical philosophical mistake. My criticism of him is not that he has made a philosophical blunder–that is a common failing among philosophers, to which none of us is immune. It is that he has had the bad judgment to accept a morally absurd thesis on the basis of an argument in which such mistakes are only too easy to make. At the very least, he should have acknowledged that his repugnant conclusion might be the result of faulty reasoning and so should not be taken as gospel–still less as a basis for actual life-and-death policies. Greater philosophical humility, in other words.