Cold-Blooded Intellectuals: Peter Singer

Alternatively: I love Wikipedia.

The Wikipedia article on Peter Singer does an excellent job at encapsulating his position on abortion, infanticide and euthanasia. Peter Singer, if you’re not already familiar with the man, is an Australian philosophy and bioethicist famous for his ruthless utilitarianism. He is one of the few who attacks the first premise of the pro-life argument against abortion, rather than the second.

The pro-life view can be stated as follows:

  1. It is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human person.
  2. Elective abortion is the intentional killing of an innocent human person.
  3. Therefore, elective abortion is wrong.

Most people question the humanity or the personhood of the pre-born (the second premise). Singer, instead, accepts it, and attacks the first. Singer writes,

[The argument that a fetus is not alive] is a resort to a convenient fiction that turns an evidently living being into one that legally is not alive. Instead of accepting such fictions, we should recognise that the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being’s life. (Singer, Rethinking Life and Death, p. 105)

Wikipedia explains,

Singer states that arguments for or against abortion should be based on utilitarian calculation which weighs the preferences of a woman against the preferences of the fetus. In his view a preference is anything sought to be obtained or avoided; all forms of benefit or harm caused to a being correspond directly with the satisfaction or frustration of one or more of its preferences. Since a capacity to experience the sensations of suffering or satisfaction is a prerequisite to having any preferences at all, and a fetus, at least up to around eighteen weeks, says Singer, has no capacity to suffer or feel satisfaction, it is not possible for such a fetus to hold any preferences at all. In a utilitarian calculation, there is nothing to weigh against a woman’s preferences to have an abortion; therefore, abortion is morally permissible.

Similar to his argument for abortion, Singer argues that newborns similarly lack the essential characteristics of personhood—”rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness”—and therefore “killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.”

His position is extreme, but so essential for understanding so many arguments in favour of abortion. Why do you think abortion supporters hate science so much? Once you reject the “fiction,” as Singer puts it, that the pre-born child is not a human person, your only recourse to defend abortion is to say that it’s okay to kill innocent people anyways… and, Singer, being true to his own beliefs, carries that idea through to its logical conclusion: infanticide. What difference does birth make if it’s okay to kill human beings because they’re in the early stages of development?

Anyways, this isn’t news for anyone whose familiar with pro-life apologetics, but I wanted to (a) highlight the fact that Wikipedia has excellent summaries on complex arguments, and (b) start to point out some of the more intellectual honest, and thus more extreme, positions among supporters of abortion.

Isn’t it telling that intellectually honest defences of abortion always seem to lead to extreme conclusions? It seems there are three options: clinging to a “convenient fiction,” becoming a cold-blooded intellectual, or coming around to the pro-life view.

2 Comments on “Cold-Blooded Intellectuals: Peter Singer

  1. I would be interested in an article criticizing Singer’s arguments. What is it wrong to kill an innocent human being, aside from the suffering caused? Is the death itself a harm? If so, how do we draw a distinction between killing a human and killing a nonhuman animal, especially one with more awareness than an unborn human child? Etc.

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