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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Peter Singer: Moral Iconoclast or Just Dangerous

I try to refrain from writing about Peter Singer. Those familiar with the health care debate, bioethics, Euthanasia, and animal rights will know his work. Singer is currently at Princeton University in the Center for Human Values. I was shocked when Princeton hired Singer. I knew of his work, controversial views and thought he was not a good match for Princeton, a notoriously stuffy institution. But in retrospect I was wrong--the philosophy department at Princeton was top notch and Singer would regularly put the university in the headlines. Princeton, I thought, was in a win win situation--it hired a renown scholar who was respected by his peers in philosophy and would be in the headlines. Afterall, some think he is the most outstanding contemporary philosophical mind in the world while others, myself included, think he is simply dangerous. I base my concern on a thorough understanding of the Singer's work. He is a productive, first rate scholar and from what I understand a true gentleman. This does not mean I like his work. Quite the contrary, I take exception to much of what he believes, especially as it relates to Euthanasia. Singer, like most scholars, does not like to be critiqued. In reply to those that have the nerve to critique him he often replies that his words are taken out of context. I will not let that happen. Below is a complete transcript of what Singer recently said in a short video clip posted at I could not bring myself to embed the video itself such is my dislike for the man. The video clip is entitled "The Case for Allowing Euthanasia of Severely Handicapped Infants". Here is Singer's answer to one question:

"Question: Why do you think we should be allowed to euthanize sick babies?

Peter Singer: Let me start with why I got interested in writing about it, I was directing a bioethics center in Australia and we were contacted by doctors who had ethical dilemmas, they were working in neonatal intensive care units, intensive care units for very small children and they have conditions, for example, Spina Bifida in which in their view, it was not really a good thing for these babies to survive. The babies, if they did survive would need multiple operations, would be severely disabled in various ways. And often the parents also thought, given the description of the condition, it was not going to be a good thing for the baby to survive.
So these babies were essentially being not treated. And the result of being not treated was that almost all of them died before they were 6 months old. Some of them died in the first week or 2, some of them in the first month or 2 and other gradually throughout that first 6 months.
And this was a very draining experience for the parents, the doctors, the nurses, you had this small babies in the hospital, but not being treated in order to make them live, but nevertheless, living for quite a long time.
And the doctor said, “Are we doing the right thing here? Is this justifiable?” S we, my colleague, Helga Kuhse and I, looked at it and we decided that yes, it’s a reasonable decision for the parents and doctors to make that it was better that infants with this condition should not live, basically the more severe variance of this condition should not live. But we couldn’t defend the idea that the right thing to do then was to let them die, this seems slow and painful and as I said, terribly emotionally draining on their parents and others.
So, we said, “Look, the difficult decision is whether you want this infant to live or not. That should be a decision for the parents and doctors to make on the basis of the fullest possible information about what the condition is. But once you’ve made that decision, it should be permissible to make sure that baby dies swiftly and humanely. If that’s your decision, if your decision is that it’s better that the child should not live. It should be possible to ensure that the child dies swiftly and humanely.”
And so that’s what we proposed.
Now, that’s been picked up by a variety of opponents, both pro-life movement people and people in the militant disability movement, which incidentally didn’t really existed the time we first wrote about this issue. And they have taken us the stalking-horse, the boogeyman, if you like, because we’re up front in saying that we think this is how we should treat these infants.
I can understand to some extent why the pro-life movement takes us that way, but I think the disability movement ought to be just as upset about letting children die because they have a disability, and since that’s a very common practice in many hospitals, I’m not so sure why they’ve gone after us in particular rather than after the doctors who were actually doing it. Because I really don’t see the difference between letting the children the die, and making sure that their death comes swiftly and humanely."

Let's start with Spina Bifida, a condition that in the estimation of doctors, nurses, and parents "was not really a good thing for these babies to survive". The most severe form of Spina Bifida, Myelomeningocele, results in paralysis and life long urinary and bowel dysfunction. I will readily agree this is less than ideal but is it reason to end a child's life? I think not and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes points out that most people with Spina Bifida "are of normal intelligence" whose physical problems range from severe to minor. Essentially doctors, nurses, and parents are deciding to end the life of a child who is cognitively intact. Again, why? Why end a child life who has Spina Bifida? According to Singer, to survive such a child would need "multiple operations, would be severely disabled in various ways". I do not have Spina Bifida. However, I did have a rare neurological condition that caused great pain and paralysis. I had dozens of spinal taps as a child, three massive spinal surgeries, and spent months on end in the hospital. This was in the late 1960s and 1970s when pediatric neurology was primitive at best. Yet no one suggested I should die. In fact, I am not be able to move well over half of my body, struggle to control my bowels and bladder but do not consider myself "severely disabled". Long ago when I characterized myself as such my mother hissed at me: "You can use your mind, the most important part of your body, consider yourself lucky". My mother was right and as a result I am alive. I have a family, a career and lead a happy life. If Singer were my parent I might be dead. This is a sobering thought.

As for Singer's opponents, he appears to have a particular dislike for "people in the militant disability movement". This I assume is a veiled reference to Not Dead Yet. Somehow Singer can overlook the pro-life movement, a truly militant movement with a history of violence whose extreme views are out of touch with much of mainstream American society but he has a special disdain for people in the disability rights. This I don't get. However I do have an idea: I suspect Singer's dislike for the people in the so called "militant disability movement" is tied to demonstrations that took place at Princeton when he was hired in 1999. Singer knew his hiring was not going to simply pass by without protest. But of the hundreds of protesters it seems that Not Dead Yet bothered him the most. Not Dead Yet protesters blocked doors, some chained themselves and their wheelchairs to buildings and were removed by police. Singer notes this made for front page headlines and good television. What Singer did not do is actually engage with Not Dead Yet or other people in the disability rights movement. Princeton and Singer considered such actions below them. Ironically when Singer did engage disability rights, notably with Harriett McBryde Johnson he got whipped badly. Here I refer to the NY Times Magazine article, "Unspeakable Conversations" Johnson published and reprinted in her memoir Too Late to Die Young.

I find it hard to believe a smart man like Singer, and he is undoubtedly smart, cannot understand disability rights. He wonders why "they've gone after us in particular rather than the doctors who are actually doing it". I can tell you why. Singer and those who share his views see nothing positive about disability. They adhere to a medical model of disability, reject disability as a positive identity, and fail to grasp the social implications of disability. Note the use of the word social--Singer firmly grasps the financial and economic aspects of disability. Like others, he thinks we are too costly to justify. Our existence is not feasible, the resources used to keep those of us with severe disabilities alive would go further and serve the greater good if spent on people without disabilities, preferably those that can make an economic contribution to society. In essence he is providing the theoretical justification for the actions of the doctors who are ending the life of people with a disability. To me, this makes him far more dangerous than any doctor however misguided they might be.

I will give Singer one sort of praise: he certainly gets people talking. I am not sure he gets them thinking however. I also have no doubt he has a huge ego. I was stunned to read a volume published in his honor--Peter Singer Fires Back edited by Jeffrey A. Schaler. The book was supposed to be Singer "under fire" from his critics and give him an opportunity to "fire back". This is a great idea whose execution was badly mangled. The success of such an approach rest upon a well balanced and mutually respectful exchange. This did not take place as Singer and his ideas were a sacred cow. Hyperbole abounded and I knew I was in trouble by page XXIV when the editor wrote "the level of vituperation Peter Singer has had to endure is not unlike what Socrates had to go through". Yikes, that is about as over the top as I can ever recall reading in a supposedly academic text. Only one entry really stuck out--and that was by Steve Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet. The two men do not like one another nor do they respect one another. This made for interesting fireworks but not much more. This is unfortunate but expected when it comes to Singer. He does not honestly engage critics and disability rights is one such field he rejects out right, with little or no serious consideration. I wish this were not the case. Singer like many others could learn a lot about disability rights--even from militants like me and Not Dead Yet. All it takes is an open mind.


FridaWrites said...

Peter Singer considers himself a utilitarian, belief in the greatest good for the greatest number of people--that underlies his belief about killing disabled infants; his beliefs herald back to Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill. But Singer misses the nuances in the writings of Mill, who wrote about the "tyranny of the majority," that minority groups can be wrongly oppressed by majority rule. He also believed that the "greatest good" should not harm minority groups and that, in fact, power should never be used to harm others.

Does Singer address this tyranny of the majority? Not that I've read. Mill's On Liberty is well worth reading for those of us within the disability rights movement.

It is patently ridiculous to kill babies for spina bifida. Wealthy white women have more surgeries covered by insurance for relatively minor inconveniences, such as sinus or knee problems.

FridaWrites said...

Also, the use of the word "militant" is a rhetorical device used as a distancing label. Certainly it can be said that killing disabled people is a lot more militant. As a matter of fact, it brings one particular military group to mind. I've never seen Singer explain how his beliefs actually differ from the Nazi's in this regard, and I'd like to see him do this, if they do in fact differ; so far, I've only seen him decry the label.

Becs said...

This is a dangerous man. A very wrong, dangerous man. The prestige of Princeton gives him a stage from which to proclaim his views and have them taken seriously.

If he was just standing on a street corner babbling this bile, people would avoid him like a rabid dog.

william Peace said...

Becs, Many share your view though are curiously silent. I for one refuse to engage the man in academic discourse. I will not lower myself to his level. I lost much respect for Princeton when he was hired.
Frida, I have not read Mill in some time but based on your remarks I will. Yes, the use of the word militant is purposeful distancing. Singer has a special dislike for Not Dead Yet. I suspect Singer likes meek cripples happy for society largesse. He does not know how to deal with peaceful acts of civil disobedience from those society often pities. Hence such people are dismissed as militant.

Matthew Smith said...

Hyperbole abounded and I knew I was in trouble by page XXIV when the editor wrote "the level of vituperation Peter Singer has had to endure is not unlike what Socrates had to go through". Yikes, that is about as over the top as I can ever recall reading in a supposedly academic text.

Peter Singer is more like Socrates' enemies, as they shut him in a room and expected him to drink hemlock, while he wants to leave disabled kids to die. What a ridiculous comparison.

Eric Fischer said...

alright i've got the hang of it comment simply ran on so long i decided to post it to my blog. If you're interested it's here:
Otherwise here is the short version: some good points, some emotionally charged dissection, some personal involvement.

william Peace said...

Eric, Thanks for the comment and link--I throughly enjoyed reading your views. I agree will much of what you wrote but one thing truly resonated: "how many parents can stand up and counter legions of doctors, specialists and professors and tell them they are wrong?" I can answer this--far too few. I was blessed with such parents who I value more and more as I age. They gave me a skill set to not only assert my rights but do it when confronted with opposing forces with power.

erika said...

I vote for "just dangerous". It sounds like you had a wonderful Mom.

william Peace said...

Erika, I was blessed with not one but two wonderful parents. In fact they were as close to perfection as two humans can be in parenting skills. As human beings, they were among the finest I ever met. How many people get to write that about their parents?