Peter Singer Values Thriving

October 31, 2008

I try to be a realist and an idealist. I promote human exceptionalism, knowing that as an imperfect species, we are unlikely to ever fully achieve the dream of universal human equality. But the only way to get very close, it seems to me, is for our reach to exceed our grasp. That’s my idealism.

My realist side tells me that this ideal has been almost universally rejected at the level of the intelligentsia, and that our betters among the big brained intend to move us to a “quality of life” culture that will literally become a culture of death for the weak and vulnerable.

This is epitomized by the advocacy of Peter Singer. Alas, being a realist, I have to admit that Singer’s anti-human values are triumphing and becoming increasingly mainstream among society’s movers and shakers. Witness the appalling success of the Great Ape Project, about to become a legal reality in Spain only 15 years after it was launched. Witness the increasing respectability of infanticide, with the notion of killing babies for eugenic purposes not only occurring regularly in the Netherlands, but touted as a matter of respectable consideration in the New England Journal of Medicine, the Hastings Center Report, and the New York Times, among other places.

When Culture of Death first came out, my bioethicist critics claimed that it was all Peter Singer all the time and that he was a fringe thinker. That was bunkum, as I demonstrated in a letter reacting to one particularly caustic review. I wrote in part:

I am also criticized for quoting extensively from Joseph Fletcher and Peter Singer. I do make much of Fletcher, and with good reason. Based on the flow of events, it seems to me that he was, perhaps, the most influential American philosopher of the last half of the 20th century. (Would that Paul Ramsey had had such influence! Bioethics would have taken a far different path.) I am faulted for calling Fletcher the “patriarch of bioethics.” But I am not the first person to make that assertion. I was quoting Al Jonsen from his book on the history of bioethics. As to Peter Singer (who I like to call Son of Fletcher), he is probably the most publicly known and influential modern-day bioethicist, as painful as that may be to others in the movement. That is why he was brought from Australia to Princeton University, despite advocating the right of parents to kill unwanted infants during their period of nonpersonhood, among other travesties.

But to claim that I dwell almost exclusively on Fletcher and Singer is to do a real injustice to my work. I make it very clear that as important as these two are, they are not the sum and substance of bioethics. Indeed, I explore the thinking and advocacy of many prominent bioethics practitioners, including Callahan, Veatch, Harris, Glover, Beauchamp, Childress, Hardwig, Dworkin, Frey, Arnold, Youngner, Agich, and Caplan, among others. Most of these promote at least some “death culture” policies to one degree or another.

For example, while Callahan opposes assisted suicide, he is the nation’s foremost proponent of healthcare rationing and strongly supports futile care theory, both of which lead, at least implicitly in my view, to a duty to die. Meanwhile, Hardwig posited an explicit positive duty to die in a cover story for the Hastings Center Report. Battin also has supported the odious notion, among others. Frey believes that if we are going to vivisect animals we had better also be willing to vivisect those humans who have a lower moral status than animal subjects based on an inferior quality of life. Youngner believes in doing away with the dead donor rule in organ procurement. Veatch accepts redefining death to include a diagnosis of permanent unconsciousness. (I guess if such a person awakens, we would have to call it a resurrection.) Frankly, many among the general public are shocked and deeply disturbed when they learn that these are deemed respectable subjects in bioethics discourse.

If that was true then, it is even more true today. Indeed, proving the point, Singer will give the keynote address at the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH), the primary professional organization in the field. This validation of Singer by the most important bioethics society in the country illustrates the radical direction in which the field is increasingly going. Fringe character my removed tonsils!

The answer, of course, is to never give up, but keep striving to let the greater population understand the wickedness that this way comes. As I alluded to in my letter, our hope lies in the common sense and decency of Main Street. The universities and similar environs are the problem, and are not likely to be the solution any time soon.


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