Peter Singer on Q&A

The crowd was silent in the bright fluorescent studio at ABC studios before the first words were uttered by Peter Singer, the renowned Bioethicist and public figure who holds the view (among others) that it is morally permissible, nay even dutiful to murder a human being if they do not fulfil Singer’s synthetic definition of a “person”.

I shook my head as his comments fell on nodding heads and nonchalant expressions from the audience and the majority of the programs panel. Did they really hear what he just said? Did it occur to them the practical and logical extension of his arguments? I felt like leaving my seat, walking up and down the aisles clapping in people’s ears.

Did you hear that?

Peter Singer’s first comment regarding Euthanasia: “I think the most appropriate approach is to do what is in the best Interests of your Patient and what your patient wants you to do….as long as your patients of course is a competent adult making their own decisions”

A competent adult? Since when did Philosophers determine the competency of adults and therefore their moral-worth? It seems no less arbitrary and factually false than the once popular practice of phrenology. I immediately attempt to rouse within myself a patient and reflective attitude in the face of these deplorable propositions. I hope briefly that the rest of the panel has adopted a similar professional attitude. Not attacking the person but rather his arguments. I expect one of the following comments to be a polite commentary on the arbitrariness or downright bad consequences of Peter Singer’s views gaining a foothold in society. I am disappointed sadly as almost all the panel bar one simply consents to Singers line of thought. Pru Goward when pushed only goes as far as to say that “the doctor can has a right to say no” – that is of performing Euthanasia. I suppose she expects applause for her large-minded (a-hem) acceptance of other people’s views. Never once is the term murder used. Never once is it made clear that never before has a western society legislated for the right for someone to give permission for another to murder them until 2002 in the Netherlands. Is it questioned why in the history of Western Civilisation there is no attempt to make legal or normalize such behaviour?

The answer is no. Not until the sobering common-sense comments by British Phillip Blond are spoken (to my immense relief) are we to even assume that there is a massive contingency (or even a train of thought) of Australians who fundamentally disagree with Euthanasia. I believe this is common and passé nowadays: to present a view in such a delicate and false way as to make it appear intellectually palatable. It is the art of misrepresentation.

Perhaps a line from Alfred Tennyson is applicable here: “A lie that is half-truth is the darkest of all lies.”.

I think this highly applicable of the lie that is legalized Euthanasia. By inserting a slither of truth the immoral acting of killing is justified. And what is that truth? Human Suffering.

All throughout life humans suffer. From health problems, relationships, mental health, marriage difficulties, natural death. It goes on and on. But the perspective that Euthanasia advocates put forward is to argue that suffering is to always view it as a negative. A marriage to be abandoned. A girlfriend/boyfriend is dumped after a bad fight. A son leaves his family’s home after a heavy disagreement with his father. In the case of Euthanasia it is a suffering human life to be destroyed. No metaphor here. Never mind the rich history of thought which engages with Suffering as a means to ad richness and new dimension to life. No, Euthanasia advocates would have us believe by painting horrifying two-dimensional scenarios of pure misery and self-pity of which the only proper “loving” response is to end their life- that suffering is something which is to be removed and has no human or redeeming quality whatsoever. The famous Marcel Proust put it bluntly: We are healed from suffering only by experiencing it to the full. The famous sci-fi novel “Brave New World” by Aldous huxley warned of an age where suffering- with all its dimensions and ties to happiness and its humanness is removed with Soma ( a drug which induces an artificial ecstasy)- but all that was good and beautiful about humanity is outside in the “savage” reservations.

Are we at the stage of partitioning aspects of the human experience yet? I don’t think so, but its pondering where anti-suffering might lead. This is not to de-legitimise many suffering people who reach the stage of desperation or even “peaceful acceptance” and choose Euthanasia as the solution- the suffering is very real and needs much care and genuine sympathy. What is not the answer is to eliminate the problem- in this case the centre of all experience- the human person.

Sadly many are convinced by this sly approach. Often emotions do trump reason. It is up to us to combat it with reason, patience and compassion.

So how do Singer-like views of human arbitrariness gain foothold?

I think it is through distracting the issue of human life and converting into an issue of “choice”.

This “choice” smoke-screen is used by the vast majority of pro-Ethanasia advocates (and also abortion advocates) in order to make the solidly illogical, ethically inconsistent positions seem acceptable at a personal level. The term choice is the buzz word for such positions. “But where is the persons “choice” ? they will taunt. “Why can’t they “choose” to die with dignity?” they will ask, charged with emotion. One may stop to ask; since when has choice or autonomy been prima facie a solid groundwork for any moral theory? A person may choose to act in one way or another. These actions can have moral content based on a system of principles or propositions. But mere choice being the supreme guiding ethical consideration of all moral decisions? One can admit that autonomy and intention plays a significant role in determining ethical culpability or guilt. But surely it is painfully obvious that when someone commits an ethically bad action with “autonomy” or “free-choice” this doesn’t change its inherent ethical character? A man may make a decision to kill himself because he is depressed or intensely alone, but does this make his decision to do so more acceptable because it was his decision? The answer is surely no. One may feel pity and sorrow for the man AND also admit his decision was a morally bad one. Empathy does not require or does it preclude moral law. One such moral law has been that human life is not to be destroyed.

I would suggest that when participating either personally or from afar in a discussion on Euthanasia watch out for a couple of fallacies/poor argumentation which will serve to warn you of the validity of the argument in question:

The first is Appeal to emotion – where an argument is made due to the manipulation of emotions, rather than the use of valid reasoning. Within this the most likely emotion to be manipulated is pity- for the person suffering particularly. Once they induce enough pity for the hypothetical (or real) person then ethanasia will appear like a genuinely compassionate response when it is not.

The second is Cherry picking (suppressed evidence, incomplete evidence) –the act of pointing at individual cases or data that seem to confirm a particular position, while ignoring a significant portion of related cases or data that may contradict that position. This is also tied up with the other fallacy of False analogy – where a particular case in point is used as a rule or to justify a common approach. This can be used with using obscure diseases as a fact in point that a human being can be unable to express or sometimes even have self-consciousness. This may be used to justify a singer-like argument which bases Ethics on ideas of person-hood relating to consciousness or rationality. Another favourite but thoroughly misleading is the idea of pain. Comparing animal pain to human pain for example is a cornerstone fallacy used by Singer to advocate an ethics which places Human beings and animals on an equal moral footing.

One final (and this list is by no means exhaustive) fallacy is the excluded middle – that is assuming there are only two alternatives when in fact there are more. Either this person will live in complete pain and misery and die an undignified death or he can be Euthanized is an example. Palliative care, love, greater funding for hospitals, options of home treatment are all valid alternatives to the aforementioned which do not involve murder.

Some final suggestions.

Without falling for the trap of emotive dialogue consider first whether the ethical standpoint in question isn’t formed using the adoption of simplistic thought experiments or highly particular and often incomplete scenarios. Also pay attention to the style of argumentation used by the person: in the case of Singer his use of the terms “consent”, “mature”, or phrases like “I respect your right to not do this/that” tend to be used as masks or distraction from his real argument of extreme Utilitarianism.

After reminiscing on Q and A I wonder how many severely ill people in the Netherlands are wondering if today is the day they will blink their last. Will the doctor decide they are in too much pain or suffering to live a noble life? A decision which was once always inconceivable by anyone is now open to a simple sign with a ballpoint pen and an injection.

As English Journalist and media personality Malcolm Muggeridge put it:

This life in us; however low it flickers or fiercely burns, is still a divine flame which no man dare presume to put out, be his motives never so humane and enlightened; To suppose otherwise is to countenance a death-wish; Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred, or intrinsically of no account; it is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one, and in some the other.

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  • Brendan Paul Burnett

    The animal-human equivalence point is interesting. Not to try and stray too far from the main subject, but it’s interesting to analyse the assumptions and inconsistencies in some people’s reasoning. For example, some pro-euthanasia advocates are bound to be ethical vegetarians. They claim we ought not to use animals to kill and then eat, but at the same time it should be morally justified to put down our grandparents! How on earth ssomeone justify such an absurd inconsistency? I can’t!

  • Gordon Hanzmann-Johnson

    “Another favourite but thoroughly misleading is the idea of pain.
    Comparing animal pain to human pain for example is a cornerstone fallacy
    used by Singer to advocate an ethics which places Human beings and
    animals on an equal moral footing.”

    What’s the fallacy and what makes it thoroughly misleading?

  • Philospherofthenight

    Humans have the understanding of continuity of existence or what is termed “consciousness” which makes the experience of pain entirely different on phenomenological level. Also because animals do not abide by moral (only natural) laws- there is not a case to include Animals as equal moral agents, like Singer attempts. Singers perspective on pain as an important moral part of decisions is wholly unsubstantiated: he just assumes it. There is a great article critiquing Singer in detail in the current issue of the Quadrant.
    9 hours ago · Like

  • Philospherofthenight
  • Gordon Hanzmann-Johnson

    “Humans have the understanding of continuity of existence or what is termed “consciousness” which makes the experience of pain entirely different on phenomenological level.”

    I don’t know of anyone who defines consciousness that way. Google couldn’t find any either – This seems about right: “Consciousness is variously defined as subjective experience, awareness, the ability to experience “feeling”, wakefulness, or the executive control system of the mind.”

    Animals, including humans, are indeed conscious –

    Back to what you were talking about though: understanding of continuity of existence. How would you test if someone has an understanding of continuity of existence? For those who don’t have this understanding, how is their experience of pain different on phenomenological level?

    “Also because animals do not abide by moral (only natural) laws- there is not a case to include Animals as equal moral agents, like Singer attempts.”

    I agree that probably all non-human animals lack the mental capacity to consider morality and act morally to the extent that humans are capable of. It’s nevertheless worth mentioning that many animals do altruistic deeds at the expensive of their own personal interest/s.

    Why do you need to abide by moral laws to regarded as an equal moral agent? You of course realise there are many humans who do not abide by moral laws?

    “Singers perspective on pain as an important moral part of decisions is wholly unsubstantiated: he just assumes it.”

    Could you explain this further?

    I read the article. It was surprisingly accurate. I agree with many of the criticisms of utilitarianism. I find it repugnant that the trivial interests of many can trump the significant interests of the few.