Singer vs Bush

by Brian on February 10, 2004

I have a higher opinion of Peter Singer than many philosophers, but I still think this is a bad idea.

The President of Good and Evil: The Convenient Ethics of George W. Bush by Peter Singer

Anyone who has followed recent critiques of the administration would learn nothing new from these familiar arguments and conclusions, such as that the justification for the Iraq war might have been problematic. Singer’s logic can also be mushy. A chapter that decries the influence of religion on Bush’s policy dissolves into vague, emotional language better suited to a TV pundit than a philosopher. Singer’s most intellectually adventurous chapter involves stem-cell research, where the author exposes fissures in Bush’s “compromise” to allow research on existing stem-cell lines. But mostly Singer’s critique does little to distinguish itself from other anti-Bush books.

The quote is from the Publishers Weekly review on the Amazon site. I hope when the book comes out it will turn out to be an unfair review. But I fear it won’t be. The blurb makes it sound like the book is targetted at Michael Moore fans. Writing mass-market critiques like this is not what God invented philosophers for. Other people can do that better than we can. On the other hand we do careful analysis fairly well, or so we say, and I hope that Singer has written such a careful book.

It doesn’t surprise me that the chapter on stem-cell research gets a more favourable review. That’s a topic Singer is an expert on, and I’d imagine he has more resources to bring to bear than other commentators. Hopefully he’s brought similar expertise to bear on the other topics. Because it really would be interesting to see what Singer qua theoretical philosopher had to say on the Iraq war. After all, the war raises all kinds of juicy issues for a preference utilitarian like Singer.

  • As always when we try to apply utilitarian theory to a practical case there are hard questions about preference aggregation and the relative weighting of preferences. In particular, we have to decide how we shall compare self-regarding vs other-regarding preferences.
  • Utilitarians can’t simply say that because the administration lied to get the war going, the war was thereby wrong. After all, this may be an occasion when lying led to a better outcome.
  • On the other hand, many of us would prefer to live in a society where governments do not launch wars on the basis of lies. Is that preference morally relevant, and how should it be weighed against the preference of an Iraqi not to be living under Saddam’s rule?
  • Finally, issues about how to weight informed vs uninformed preferences become crucial here given how much misinformation is flowing around.

I think these are all hard issues, some of which tell in favour of the morality of the war from the point of view of preference utilitarianism and some against it. A thorough discussion of them would tell us a lot about what one of the most prominent modern utilitarians thinks about the state of utilitarian theory. But it probably wouldn’t make Good and Evil leap off the shelves at Barnes & Noble.

{ 51 comments }

1

Tinky 02.10.04 at 1:33 am

Isn’t Peter Singer the guy who thinks its okay to kill babies and disabled people?

I guess I could see him appealing to Michael Moore fans.

2

Donald Johnson 02.10.04 at 1:36 am

With equal logic, I guess I could see him appealing to Elvis fans.

3

Donald Johnson 02.10.04 at 1:37 am

With equal logic, I guess I could see him appealing to Elvis fans.

Okay, those of you with sensible comments to make can start posting now.

4

David W. 02.10.04 at 3:14 am

It’s at times like this that I’m happy to be a rule-based utilitarian, because for me it isn’t o.k. to lie in order to serve someone else’s assertion about what’s supposedly the greater good.

5

DJW 02.10.04 at 4:11 am

Anyone whose tempted to become a Peter Singer fan ought to be required by law to read this:
http://www.racematters.org/harrietmcbrydejohnson.htm

6

Brian Weatherson 02.10.04 at 4:30 am

I think Singer comes out of that pretty well actually. Look everyone thinks that for any given living creature it would have been OK to kill it at some stage of its development – I take it no one thinks sperm and eggs have moral rights. The question is where we draw the line. Singer (a) draws the line later than most and (b) thinks the line is determined individual by individual not species by species. I’m not sure I agree on either point, but it’s a plausible point of view.

And it’s “who’s” not “whose”.

7

msg 02.10.04 at 4:54 am

A few years back, actually a lot of years back, it was very common to hear people on talk radio forums demanding service from public servants. They’d emphasize that word, servant.
People wanted tax “relief”, so good public servants did what they were told and lowered taxes, in response to the expressed desire of the public.
What kept spinning me out was the glaring lack of civic leadership, anywhere, by anyone.
Leaders don’t do what their constituency demands. Their responsibility is to need, expressed or not. There’s something of the servant in a parent, and something of the parent in a leader.
Lying to someone for their own good is not something I have a problem with, whether doing it myself or having it done to me; if it’s truly for the good. If it causes harm then it’s wrong, but wrong for that specific reason, harm.
So I don’t have a problem with a politician lying to the public, especially a public whose integrity is as degraded as this one’s is.

The people as a mass object have too much momentum and inertia to respond swiftly to crisis; by the time the information’s been processed by a majority it will have become too late to do anything with it, in too many instances.
Leaders assume responsibility for that. Democracy’s the leadership of the people, by the people. To make that work requires civic leaders to become a kind of surrogate of the people. That’s pretty much what representative government’s about. But the strongest principle underlying that assumption must be the delegation to do what’s best, regardless of the current majority’s demands. Choosing representatives who re-present the highest qualities of the public, as opposed to those who cater to the public’s self-interest, is paramount.

The good king serves his kingdom, not by obedience, but by the selfless application of his gifts.
Bush lied about the invasion of Iraq – his reasons for the invasion were other than what he said they were. But the moral problem isn’t the abstract sin of lying, it’s that he lied to cover up venality; or worse, treachery.
I’m personally not convinced that oil isn’t anything more than a second layer of deceit, real enough, but not the primary motive.
Still, deception’s not the problem, and ultimately intent isn’t either, though it’s closer.
The problem is what was done, regardless of motive, and the harm it’s caused; and worse, and far more incriminating, the harm it’s going to cause.

8

jp 02.10.04 at 5:01 am

Anyone whose tempted to become a Peter Singer fan ought to be required by law to read this:
http://www.racematters.org/harrietmcbrydejohnson.htm

I think it’s cute that you think everyone shares your views such that mere reference to his point of view is enough to convince them that he’s a monster.

9

bad Jim 02.10.04 at 5:49 am

Shorter msg: Das führerprinzip requires a competent leader.

Given the free availability of information these days, and the evidence that perhaps the majority of humans have better access to it than the average American, at least in the case of the case for the war against Iraq, it would appear that lying is fast becoming least useful contraption in the toolbox.

10

bad Jim 02.10.04 at 5:53 am

becoming the least useful

[sob]

11

Chirag Kasbekar 02.10.04 at 8:48 am

Yes, I think there is a potentially rule-utilitarian case to be made for international rules prohibiting pre-emptive action and such — for the kind of reasons you cite: lying governments, etc.

12

DJW 02.10.04 at 9:56 am

Brian, the point of Johnson’s essay isn’t primarily the folly of Singer’s position, as much as his method and general approach toward moral reasoning. The reason he comes off poorly, IMHO, has less to do with the position he defends as it has to do with his utter cluelessness when confronted with the substantive consequences of his position for the living, and his complete inability to consider the possibility that his intuition (and it really isn’t any more than that) about what constitutes being ‘worse off’ is worthy of reconsideration in light of the subjective experience of others. Which, in turn, is related to his assumption that all the heavy lifting in moral theory can be done simply through abstract reason, without discourse with reference to actual lived experience and subjective understanding.

And sorry about the grammar. I’ve got to remember to watch myself a little more closely on these classy blogs :)

jp, if you think I’m inferring that, you’re wrong. If you think Johnson’s inferring that, pay a bit more attention to the style she’s writing in, which is a first-person account of her experience, as she experienced it, and not a philosophy paper. I certainly assume readers are capable of grasping that and drawing their own conclusions. But I think her stylistic choice is helpful–it’s probably pretty hard to articulate the just how difficult it is to engage in civil discourse with someone who doesn’t think you have a right to exist (I wouldn’t know, I’ve never had to do it).

I ought to apologize for bad blog behavior, though–Singer bugs me, Johnson helps me understand at least some of the reasons why, and therefore I recommend that essay to people frequently when Singer comes up. But that’s no excuse for hijacking a perfectly good thread topic with a tangential hobby-horse. So sorry about that.

13

metanarrative imperative 02.10.04 at 2:19 pm

I am Cloud William, chief. Also son of chief. Freedom is our worship word: you will not speak it.

14

humeidayer 02.10.04 at 2:34 pm

Singer bugs me…

He deplores “speciesism,” but I have yet to see how he gets past his own position being anything more than value judgments made a mere human being: one Pete Singer. To me it seems like he tries to practice sort of stealth transcendentalism that amounts to the sanctimonious ethics of “Petesingerism,” which is even more specialized than “speciesism.”

Man is the measure of all things… (Peter Singer included)

15

Keith M Ellis 02.10.04 at 2:39 pm

Which, in turn, is related to his assumption that all the heavy lifting in moral theory can be done simply through abstract reason, without discourse with reference to actual lived experience and subjective understanding.—djw

Yes, because actual lived experience and subjective understanding have been such a reliable guide to moral reasoning in the past.

16

PJS 02.10.04 at 2:44 pm

Sadly, Singer’s views on the Iraq war aren’t likely to be as interesting as they could be. For reasons that I don’t fully understand, when Singer talks about international relations he tends to put his preference utilitarianism aside and adopt a pretty run of the mill Chomsky-ite line. I suppose it is possible that a Chomsky-ite take *could* align exactly with a utilitarian perspective. But my experience is that Singer never explains how or why it would. It’s a shame, because, as you indicate, it is not at all obvious what a properly utilitarian take on contemporary international politics would look like.

PJS

17

bryan 02.10.04 at 4:19 pm

‘Singer (a) draws the line later than most and (b) thinks the line is determined individual by individual not species by species. ‘

Ted Bundy drew the line rather late as well, and thought the line was determined by what he could get away with.

18

Tinky 02.10.04 at 5:02 pm

So let me get this straight, he defends the killing of babies and cripples… and you all think this is okay?

19

Brian Weatherson 02.10.04 at 5:24 pm

He doesn’t defend killing ‘cripples’, as you’d know if you bothered to actually read what he wrote rather than 10th hand summaries. He defends taking active measures to end people’s suffering (i.e. kill them) in cases where mainstream opinion says we should ‘not take active measures to ensure survival’. That seems like a perfectly humane position to me. As for the babies, unless you are going to seriously defend “Every sperm is sacred” you’ll need better arguments than this.

20

Thorley Winston 02.10.04 at 5:35 pm

So let me get this straight, he defends the killing of babies and cripples… and you all think this is okay?

* Crickets chirp *

21

DJW 02.10.04 at 6:34 pm

Well, Keith, it’s not exactly like retreating into your own mind, no matter how clever it is, has been without some notable failures either. Moral reasoning is hard, and fallible. It’s hard for me to imagine how it could reasonably be done without both.

As for the babies, unless you are going to seriously defend “Every sperm is sacred” you’ll need better arguments than this.

Brian, I don’t want to get into a whole thing here, but you’ve got to see there’s much more going on here. As a society, we have to determine a moment at which a potential human becomes a human for moral/legal purposes. With some notable voices of dissent notwithstanding, we’re moving toward a consensus that that moment is birth, which seems appropriate to me. What Singer proposes is a different, later line for a particular class of people, based on his assumption that they will be inherently “worse off,” without considering that a significant part of the reason one could reasonably assume that is unjust social arrangements and attitudes that also treat them as less than human. When confronted with the fact that much of the same could be said of, say, mixed race babies, he suggests that in the former case the parents belief is ‘unreasonable’ in the latter case, and ‘reasonable’ in the former case. I can’t imagine I’m the only one who finds that deeply unsatisfying to say the least.

Maybe you think that’s reasonable, but I simply don’t see how the “every sperm is sacred” line is relevant. It’s not the location of the line drawn between potential human and human that raises my ire, it’s the drawing of two different lines. I would think egalitarian liberals would join me in finding problematic.

22

Thorley Winston 02.10.04 at 6:41 pm

Brian Weatherson wrote:

As for the babies, unless you are going to seriously defend “Every sperm is sacred” you’ll need better arguments than this.

Actually, Peter Singer has said “killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person.” Last time I checked, an infant (disabled or not) was still considered to be a “baby” and by most sensible people to be a “person” rather than just “sperm.”

So in answer to Tinky’s question, yes Peter Singer does advocate the killing of the disabled and the newborn because in his screwed up worldview, they are not really people.

23

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.10.04 at 6:43 pm

I hate talking about Singer because we always have to hear about how nuanced he is. Lets have him in his own words:

Peter Singer from his book Practical Ethics:

“Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all” p.191

“We should certainly put very strict conditions on permissible infanticide, but these conditions might owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant.” p.173

“Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. . . . When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.” p.186

“the quality of life of someone with Down syndrome [is] below the standard at which medical treatment to sustain the life of an infant becomes obligatory” p.111 of his Should the Baby Live?

Note that hemophilia is difficult to treat in some children, but it is absolutely possible for them to live good lives. Note also that the worth of the hemophiliac child is measured by the burden on the mother. Note he is not talking about abortion, he is talking about post-birth killing. Note again that he is talking about very treatable diseases, not mere ‘hopeless cases’.

But all this is beside the point. As far as I can tell almost all utilitarian theories are mere shell games. They want to make more ‘objective’ decisions on morality based on overall measures of happiness (or whatever their metric of the day is). But all that does is move the moral intuition behind one set of curtains. What counts as happy or whatever metric you are using? Why is the metric you are using important as opposed to some other metric? You just make all your moral choices earlier and then hide them behind utility theory.

24

Brian Weatherson 02.10.04 at 7:56 pm

DJW, Singer doesn’t defend a different line for different people. He doesn’t think any baby becomes a person until quite a lot later than you or I do. Whether it is disabled or not is irrelevant to the issue of personhood. No baby is a person on his view. Whether a particular non-person is disabled is relevant to whether there is a reason to expend lots of effort on keeping it alive as opposed to minimising its suffering, but the kinds of disabilities in question are not relevant to the question of personhood.

What’s odd is all the libertarians who object to this. Singer’s argument is really hard to combat I think if you have the kind of individualist morality that you need to be a libertarian. As he argues, just looking at the individual it’s hard to see what moral difference birth makes. I think (unoriginally) it makes a big difference to the social status of the baby, and that’s morally relevant. In particular I think it’s important that after birth many people can have a direct relationship with the baby, whereas before birth they are at best indirectly related to it through the mother. (Unless they are the mother, which is part of why I think the mother has a special moral status vis a vis the foetus.)

If you’re an individualist about morality, and you don’t believe every sperm is sacred, then you have to find a feature the individual picks up between being a disconnect sperm/egg and being a baby that makes a significant moral difference. Singer believes that there is one moral difference in that time – the onset of sentience – but he doesn’t think sentience alone is sufficient to make it wrong to kill, provided that in so doing you are minimising pain.

25

Sebastian Holsclaw 02.10.04 at 8:13 pm

I’m not at all sure that I would call libertarians generally ‘individualist about morality’. You could easily be a moral absolutist who believes that many or most arguments about morality shouldn’t be solved by the government. Furthermore almost all libertarians believe that harm to others is not generally ok even under the most permissive system. Surely a debate about infanticide comes down under that rubric.

26

DJW 02.10.04 at 8:38 pm

The other problem with libertarians coming down against Singer on the side of an obligation to assist infants with severe physical disabilities is that in order for these infants to be future meaningful participants in society, we’re going to have to require that others make non-trivial accomodations. And they probably have to be mandatory if people like H.M. Johnson (for example) have any chance of survival, let alone meaningful participation in the public sphere.

Brian, thanks–I did misspeak. It’s been a while since I’ve given Singer much serious attention. It seems to me, though, that he’s placed infants in an intermediate third stage. The first stage, embryos/fetuses, we can terminate at will for whatever reasons we find appropriate. The third stage, persons, we can only kill in highly specialized circumstances like war and self-defense and requests for assisted suicide. The ‘infant’ stage is neither–a space where he can import his asocial assumptions about traits that make people ‘fundamentally worse off’ and whatnot with impunity. This seems like sophistry to me, but I suppose I should either read his justifications for this more carefully or resist the temptation to spout off.

27

humeidayer 02.10.04 at 8:41 pm

What’s odd is all the libertarians who object to this. Singer’s argument is really hard to combat I think if you have the kind of individualist morality that you need to be a libertarian.

Brian, people often refer to libertarians as a homogenous group; but in my experience, I’ve run into two different types of libertarians that seem to have a fundamental difference between them. Maybe the best way to draw the line is between ethical objectivists and ethical subjectivists. Here’s what I think I see…

On one side are the ethical objectivists / absolutists: followers of Ayn Rand, most net libertarians, natural rights theorists, followers of Locke and Jefferson, etc. They tend to see ethics (and consequently politics) as a matter of absolutes. When their freedom is threatened, they point out their rights (“back off man, you’re violating my rights!”). These libertarians tend to be, I’d say, more right wing, more idealistic, more individualist and pro-capitalist.

On other other side, I’d say, are the ethical subjectivists. When their freedom is threatened (usually by someone making some moral claim), they’re more likely to point out the subjective nature of the claim (when provoked: “back off, man, take your fanatical views elsewhere!”) These libertarians tend to be more left wing, more cynical, more communitarian and more likely to be critical of capitalism.

Then again, maybe I’m just seeing things.

28

DJW 02.10.04 at 9:43 pm

What makes the second group libertarians? How can a left-communitarian critic of capitalism be a libertarian?

29

Brian Weatherson 02.10.04 at 9:52 pm

On rereading it seems I was a little over the top in some comments, so let me try being a little more academic. Because it seems that there is something very valuable in Singer’s work that we should all agree about even if (especially if) we disagree with his conclusions.

Start with a thought experiment from Parfit. Lucy gets some tests done on the unfertilised egg(s) she is carrying and told that any child that comes from them will end up with Down’s Syndrome. Lucy responds by resolving not to have children until this danger has passed, and takes a pill to sterilize the eggs. The next month she is given the all clear and conceives a healthy baby.

Now we all agree that what Lucy did is morally acceptable. (Or I think we all do. If you don’t like contraception assume she goes sex-free for the month. I don’t think that matters much.) Indeed, many of us would think she’s a moral monster if she did otherwise.

The usual question now is in virtue of what is Lucy’s action morally required. But let’s ask a different question.

All of us (I hope) think that if Lucy gets pregnant anyway, has the child, then decides 5 years later she made a mistake and kills it to conceive another, she would not be doing the right thing. Indeed, in this case she would again be a moral monster. This leads to two (hopefully related) questions.

The practical question is: if it’s OK to sterilise the egg, but not OK to kill the 5 year old, where in between do we draw the line? Actually since Lucy is required to not let the egg grow into a child, but not permitted to kill the 5 year old, there are probably 2 lines here – when it ceases being required to not let the egg/embryo/foetus/baby develop, and when it ceases to be permissible to stop it developing.

The theoretical question is: in virtue of what are those lines where they are?

Singer has an interesting answer to the two questions. The practical question he (famously) says should be answered “a lot later than you think”. The theoretical question he answers by arguing that being a moral agent (what he confusingly calls a ‘person’) requires having future-directed preferences, and those don’t arise until a long time after birth.

There’s a hyper-theoretical question that comes up here which Singer doesn’t directly address. (At least not in stuff I’ve read – he may address it elsewhere.) Which of the two questions should we answer first? Many people here I think take it we should answer the practical question first, and let that constrain permissible answers to the theoretical question. Singer thinks the opposite – the theoretical question is primary, and the practical question later. I’m rather indecisive on that one, but I think both points of view have merit.

For what it’s worth, my answers to the questions are (a) at birth and (b) because moral status depends inter alia on membership in a moral community and that’s something babies have and foetuses (in general) don’t.

Note that even if you think (contra as I read him Singer) that the theoretical question should be answered first, having the questions posed is really quite valuable, because the constraints you get on answers to the theoretical questions tell you quite a lot about what theories of value you can accept. And that I think is a service, much like Descartes’ discussion of scepticism is valuable for asking the right questions, even if he gives the wrong answers.

30

humeidayer 02.10.04 at 9:59 pm

What makes the second group libertarians? How can a left-communitarian critic of capitalism be a libertarian?

For a short answer, I think it mostly boils down to issues of property, what is controlled and used by whom and why.

When one is born into a world consisting almost exclusively of private property, it’s not so easy to be free, regardless of how much one desires freedom.

Should the control of structures and institutions created over course of hundreds and even thousands of years by generations of human effort be determined by birth right?

Property, for example, is a contentious issue.

31

humeidayer 02.10.04 at 10:00 pm

What makes the second group libertarians? How can a left-communitarian critic of capitalism be a libertarian?

For a short answer, I think it mostly boils down to issues of property, what is controlled and used by whom and why.

When one is born into a world consisting almost exclusively of private property, it’s not so easy to be free, regardless of how much one desires freedom.

Should the control of structures and institutions created over course of hundreds and even thousands of years by generations of human effort be determined by birth right?

Property, for example, is a contentious issue.

32

sennoma 02.10.04 at 10:23 pm

The first stage, embryos/fetuses, we can terminate at will for whatever reasons we find appropriate. The third stage, persons, we can only kill in highly specialized circumstances like war and self-defense and requests for assisted suicide. The ‘infant’ stage is neither—a space where he can import his asocial assumptions about traits that make people ‘fundamentally worse off’ and whatnot with impunity

I think Singer’s case-by-case approach provides him with some insulation from this criticism. HM Johnson’s parents/guardians/whoever were willing and able to care for her, in which circumstance Singer makes no claim that they did anything wrong. What Singer claims is that if they had been willing to kill her as soon as the extent of her disabilities became clear (at birth, I’m assuming), that would not have been wrong either.

In cases where current practice is not to “strive/needlessly to keep alive”, I think it more humane and more honest simply to kill. That leaves an enormous number of cases, though — witness HMJ — and I agree with you that Singer is rather too ready to decide on which lives are not worth living. It’s important to note, though, that not everyone with a disability is born into a family as supportive and able to cope (particularly in a financial sense) as HMJ’s. So I think a corollary of my position must be a willingness to pay, via taxes, for greatly increased disability support.

33

sennoma 02.10.04 at 10:56 pm

moral status depends inter alia on membership in a moral community and that’s something babies have and foetuses (in general) don’t

But then I think you have to ask, why don’t they? In general, we accept babies as part of the community because they’ve “arrived”, whereas a foetus still might not get here alive, but I’m not sure that is any part of what constitutes a moral agent. What of the people who would consider their dogs “people”? Can a hermit be a moral agent?

On the other hand, the social status of the neonate is clearly different from that of the foetus. Whether that makes a moral difference or not, it does provide a reasonable basis for drawing the legal line between potential and full-fledged membership in the tribe, with all the rights and protections attendant thereupon.

Disclaimer: I don’t have kids, and (for a variety of reasons) never will have any. So I consider my opinions to carry somewhat diminished weight in this debate, since I will never personally face the implications of my ideas.

34

Donald Johnson 02.10.04 at 11:53 pm

I jumped on tinky for that stupid Michael Moore comment, but on the issue of Singer I agree with him/her. I’m not competent to point out the logical flaws in either Singer’s premises or conclusions, but if he thinks that parents have the right to kill their babies or badly disabled children like Johnson then I don’t really feel I have to find them myself to know they are there. It’s intensely depressing that anyone takes Singer seriously for even a moment, except of course as a purely intellectual exercise, the way one might examine Zeno’s paradoxes to find the flaw.

It’s also a little depressing that a philosopher who takes Chomskyite positions on foreign affairs (good for him) is associated with these beliefs on the disabled. It’d be nice to read a philosopher who argues for extreme leftwing positions in that area, but given his other beliefs people will quite naturally doubt his reasoning in this area as well as others.

35

humeidayer 02.11.04 at 12:45 am

How can a left-communitarian critic of capitalism be a libertarian?

One more thought…

It all depends on how one organizes the political continuum (the standard left-to-right things seems insufficient to me), but it seems to me that if you go one click farther away from the center on the right side of libertarianism, you start running into anarcho-capitalists; and if you go one click farther away from the center on the left side, you start running into anarcho-syndicalists.

Then again, I could be wrong.

“We have no king! We’re an anarcho-syndicalist commune!”

36

humeidayer 02.11.04 at 1:26 am

For those interested (purely coincidentally from me), there’s something on left-libertarianism at the 2/6 Leiter blog:

http://webapp.utexas.edu/blogs/archives/bleiter/000788.html

Sorry for the digression.

Now, back to the regularly scheduled program.

37

Jim Miller 02.11.04 at 2:33 am

Just out of curiosity, Brian, what do most philosphers think of Singer? I don’t need a long answer, but I have wondered for years whether many in his field didn’t find him more than a bit embarrassing.

I don’t expect you to explain how much higher your own opinion is, since that isn’t always good for own’s career, but if you do, that would be interesting, too.

38

robin green 02.11.04 at 3:56 am

My view is that whether or not Singer is right in some abstract and asocial and therefore unrealistic sense, he neglects to consider that due to the strong, quasi-universal social belief in the immorality or at least disgustingness of infanticide, people in society generally would have way more justifiable cause to feel wronged if the state allowed infanticide to happen with impunity, than any one severely disabled person would have justifiable cause to feel wronged by their parents not killing them after birth (or any one parent of such a child would have just cause to feel wronged by not being allowed to kill them).

Although Singer briefly alludes to the social context as a practical explanation of the disconnect between his theory of infanticide and reality, he fails – I think – to fully pick up on the extent to which the social context is a first-order morally-relevant clincher, not just a practical sociological explanation.

One might counter that with the objection that during times of slavery, the moral beliefs of slaveholders should not be taken into consideration when judging slavery immoral. However, with slavery, I think the arguments of the slaveholders are overriden by the moral urgency of abolishing slavery – whereas with the frankly quite marginal cases Singer talks about, it is hard to see that the changes in “utility metric” that he predicts outweigh the social opprobium on infanticide.

39

Brian Weatherson 02.11.04 at 4:43 am

Jim, my impression is that he tends to arouse fairly extreme reactions, far more so than any other philosopher I know. His reputation is not as bad as you might think for a few reasons.

One, we’re less inclined to judge other philosophers by how much we like their conclusions than we could be. Robert Nozick, for instance, was very widely admired throughout the profession (and quite rightly so) even though there are very adherents to any of his views. This isn’t to say we never let views about conclusions colour views of people, but we’re not as bad as some caricatured version of the profession.

Second, the views on infanticide are really a very small part of what Singer is known for. Ask any philosopher what is most notable about Singer and they’ll say his work on animal rights, which has a central part in one of the most important stories in contemporary philosophy. Even within bioethics, they’ll probably just as likely cite his support for voluntary euthanasia as his arguments for the permissibility of infanticide. Singer’s own work is less important in the story here, but again it’s something where philosophers have had a role in a big and ongoing change in social values.

Obviously not everyone likes Singer. There’s a fair bit of institutional opposition to utilitarianism in various parts, and that rubs off on him. But it doesn’t account for all of the feelings he arouses, which as I said can be fairly extreme.

I think senoma’s point that it’s hard to say why membership in a community should count as morally relevant is a good one. It’s a variant really of the argument Singer ends up giving against birth being morally relevant. I’d need to be a much better ethicist to give a thorough answer here. Again though, I think this is why Singer’s arguments are valuable. Finding alternative answers and justifying them is hard work, and it’s just the kind of hard work you need to do to come up with a plausible theory of value.

For what it’s worth, I do think dogs are moral agents. I suspect they have future-directed preferences, i.e. goals, though this is an empirical question. And I suspect that’s sufficient (though unlike Singer I’d question whether it is necessary) for moral agency. They certainly have some moral standing – it’s immoral to prevent a dog getting any water in a way that it isn’t immoral to prevent a plant getting water. But whether they have higher moral standing that that is tricky.

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Will Wilkinson 02.11.04 at 6:48 am

If you’re an individualist about morality, and you don’t believe every sperm is sacred, then you have to find a feature the individual picks up between being a disconnect sperm/egg and being a baby that makes a significant moral difference. Singer believes that there is one moral difference in that time – the onset of sentience – but he doesn’t think sentience alone is sufficient to make it wrong to kill, provided that in so doing you are minimising pain.

Not sure what you mean about ‘individualist’ here, Brian. Probably the most common way of being an individualist about morality is to hold that moral reasons are grounded in the desires/goals/projects of the individual person. Or that value is always agent-relative, i.e., is always value for somebody or other rather than just value, period.

But just about all contractarians, say, are individualist in this sense. Libertarian contractarians just think suitably situated rational choosers would prefer a small, limited state. It’s not clear this has anything much to do with the infanticide issue.

Anyway, I don’t see the problem for moral individualism. Suppose most normally developed people just happen to have an intense aversion to infanticide, would be morally outraged if others were to kill babies, and so forth. So there arises a generally recognized moral norm that proscribes infanticide.

For most people, their natural sentiments will provide sufficient reason to refrain. For others, socialization will suffice to provide a reason. And for still others, the prevalence of the norm, and the jealousy of its enforcement, ensures that it won’t be in their interest to do it, and so they won’t have a reason to do it.

Why, on a moral individualist account, does the BABY need to pick up any properties at all other than the relational property of being the subject of certain norm-supporting moral emotions?

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Keith M Ellis 02.11.04 at 7:44 am

I appreciate Brian’s thoughts on Singer because I was getting a little tired of the piling-on here in the comments.

My very, very strong sense is that the people that deeply dislike Singer do so because his conclusions clash so violently with their sensibilities. He makes some deeply counter-intuitive and counter-cultural arguments; and he does so in a very analytical manner that, I suspect, just pisses people off more.

I don’t agree with the outrage about infanticide. It has been acceptable in some cultures, and it’s not at all clear to me that infants are fully human in the sense that’s relevant to this discussion. It especially disturbs me that a strong pro-choice position favors the legality of late-term abortions but, I daresay, many of those same people find infanticide abhorrent.

People strongly dislike Singer for his animal rights positions. Here, too, a lot of the criticism seems to me to be motivated by an outrage that he’s deeply violating cultural norms. He’s a smart man and a pretty rigorous thinker; and it’s revealing to me that people would mistakenly assume that his fellow philosophers would find him an embarassment.

I’m a utilitarian, but I’m also deeply influenced by complexity theory. The latter moderates the former—I’m skeptical of a “utilitarian moral theory of everything”, so to speak, since I think that we likely can only determine utility for an appropriate level of description of a system and certainly not for the whole of it.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 02.11.04 at 8:30 am

“He makes some deeply counter-intuitive and counter-cultural arguments; and he does so in a very analytical manner that, I suspect, just pisses people off more.”

Actually I think the main reason anyone listens to him at all is because many in academia have the deeply silly belief that a really counter-intuitive argument must mean you have a really deep argument.

Some self-deceptions are so complicated that only a really smart person could sustain them. I find that impressive only in the way that a train wreck is impressive. Peter Singer has quite a few of them.

The same could be said for piling on. Our culture has the perverse idea that if enough people that you don’t like say something is wrong, there must really be something to it. The truth of something is technically independent of how many people say it is wrong.

BTW I don’t think Singer has ever really explained why his system should help animal rights. He debases human rights enough to make it seem as if animals wouldn’t be particularly lucky to be treated the same.

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Donald Johnson 02.11.04 at 1:22 pm

The last two sentences in my previous post weren’t very clear. I was sorry someone with Chomsky-like views on foreign policy is also associated with a defense of infanticide. Maybe Singer secretly enjoys being on the fringe of every issue.

It’s rare that I find myself in agreement with Sebastian Holsclaw, given what I can remember of his positions in other posts I’ve read. What’s the temperature in hell today?

I suppose I’m in some slight disagreement with him even here. Zeno’s paradoxes, as I understand, really are deep, even if wrong and it was worthwhile for philosophers and mathematicians to think deeply about the convergence of infinite series and so forth. So maybe there’s something to be learned from pointing out the flaws in Singer’s arguments. But no one needed to take Zeno’s conclusions seriously because there was no independent evidence that we were all being deceived in some way. And Singer’s arguments should receive the same treatment. Yes, some cultures practice infanticide, just as some practice female circumcision, slavery, and genocide. Most people still wouldn’t feel the need to rethink their opinion on those issues in the event that some extremely clever man defends them. But maybe something could be learned from dismantling his argument.

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Keith M Ellis 02.11.04 at 2:09 pm

Yes, some cultures practice infanticide, just as some practice female circumcision, slavery, and genocide. Most people still wouldn’t feel the need to rethink their opinion on those issues in the event that some extremely clever man defends them.—Donald Johnson

Yes, and within those cultures most people don’t feel the need to rethink their opinion on those issues when some extremely clever man attackes them. Slavery could include the captivity of primates[1]; male circumcision could be compared to “female circumcision”[2]; and genocide could include abortion[3]. These are all quite contrary to current American opinion and most people dismiss without consideration arguments making these claims.

The “laugh test” is a very unreliable test for a moral argument because history has demonstrated that a good deal of moral intuition is culturally determined. Leon Kass thinks otherwise, but I think he’s wrong. I am not persuaded that it is manifest that infanticide is a horror because, well, our culture says it is and, hey, we’re enlightened, aren’t we?

I agree that the liberal tradition is one of expanding recognition of essential individual rights and, yes, to contract them offends my personal sensibilities. But I really can’t imagine a more unconvincing argument than the one you make above. Conventional wisdom is not an argument.

So why did I mention that other cultures have found infanticide acceptable? Not that I think that says anything one way or another about its moral status. Rather, my point was that to dismiss Singer’s argument about infanticide as “unthinkable” is simply incorrect, since history demonstrates that infanticide has not only been thinkable, but conventional.

fn1. And I think it will, in time.

fn2. “Female circumcision” is a misleading term, because the larger portion of female genital mutiliations include clitorectomy and removal of the labia minora. A friend of mine who is an activist against male circumcision did not realize this and thought that male circumcision was more closely comparable to FGM than it is. Still, male circumcision is itself genital mutilation as the foreskin is now understood to be closer to an organ than an inert piece of flesh. Thus, I don’t equate MGM with FGM, but I do think that it is unacceptable, convention be damned.

fn3. Obviously, a significant minority of the American public claims to believe that abortion is equivalent to genocide. If true, I find it disapointing that they’re not blowing up all the abortion clinics. My point is that a serious argument can be and is made that abortion is genocide, but our culture for the most part disregards this argument. As it happens, I don’t think it is—I’m pretty solidly pro-choice—but I worry that abortion might be genocide. On the other hand, I’m not sure that infanticide is murder, either. The status of infants as fully human seems unclear to me and I don’t think either my intuition or conventional wisdom are reliable guides to deciding this matter.

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mc 02.11.04 at 3:44 pm

I don’t think it is—I’m pretty solidly pro-choice—but I worry that abortion might be genocide. On the other hand, I’m not sure that infanticide is murder, either. The status of infants as fully human seems unclear to me and I don’t think either my intuition or conventional wisdom are reliable guides to deciding this matter.

Well, Keith, thankfully for everyone :) there’s such a thing as legal definitions and human rights standards that define very clearly a person as a human being from the very moment of birth to the moment of death.

You’re 1 day old, no, 1 second old, then you’re a person with the very same human rights as a 25 or 45 or 75 year old. No matter what illnesses or disabilities you may have.

The rest is all abstract speculation, good for challenging philosophical arguments and heated academic debates (and for publishers ;) ), but – thankfully again – not ever standing a chance of changing those (almost) universally accepted standards and legal definitions.

(“Almost” referring to the fact in many countries, the basic idea that say, women and children are also individuals fully entitled to their own rights is not yet accepted)

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cbk 02.11.04 at 5:17 pm

—If you’re an individualist about morality, and you don’t believe every sperm is sacred, then you have to find a feature the individual picks up between being a disconnect sperm/egg and being a baby that makes a significant moral difference. Singer believes that there is one moral difference in that time – the onset of sentience – but he doesn’t think sentience alone is sufficient to make it wrong to kill, provided that in so doing you are minimising pain.—

See, this is why the argument jumps so, because it is framed erroneously.

This atheist sees the defining “feature” of a human being is unique, individual human DNA. That occurs when sperm connects with egg. They are not disconnected sperm and egg, they are connected chromosomes. Connected human chromosomes. Connected, reproducing, unique, individual, human chromosomes.

CBK

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bad Jim 02.12.04 at 9:28 am

As an habitual carnivore, the concept of not eating anything with a face was something I used to keep in the back of my head. A visit to northern Spain and weeks of feasting on seafood decalibrated my sensitivities, and upon consulting my Seafood Watch afterwards I realized that the appalled attention my fellow travelers applied to my avid appetite for the cheeks of a monkfish were not merely squeamish.

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Nix 02.12.04 at 11:29 am

I don’t see my `defining feature’ as being `unique, individual human DNA’. That’s kind of hard: I’m one half of a pair of identical twins, and the twin died shortly after birth. Yet I don’t consider myself half-dead.

If you consider yourself to be your DNA, then obviously you would have no objection to the replacement of your head with a large bag of crystallised cbk’s-DNA. After all, there’s more DNA in there than there is in your head as presently constituted.

It’s a fallacy that DNA is in some way `guiding’ or `controlling’ in moral matters — when it’s really the mind/brain that counts — just as it’s a classic fallacy that humans replicate (do they? I’m not a copy of either of my parents).

The genotype is not the phenotype: you are more than your DNA.

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cbk 02.12.04 at 5:34 pm

Certainly one is far more than their DNA. But one begins with their DNA, their single egg, the bases for the reproductions of cells that become a fully formed human being. We are MORE than our DNA, but we were never less than that origin.

I still say the existance of DNA, human DNA, makes one human. Just as chimp DNA makes one chimp.

There’s nothing hard about framing morality in this manner. It simply means that killing babies, either fully formed or not fully formed, is killing babies.

There are many arguments to allow it or disallow it. That hardly contradicts the fact that combined chromosomes define a creature within its species as a member of that species. Any attempt to reduce a fetus to a small and insignificant lump denies the fact that that lump contains all that is necessary to be classified as a human being, even though not fully formed.

CBK

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Dave 02.13.04 at 2:59 pm

Why do intelligent people even treat Peter Singer as a peer? At what point do someone’s utterances become so outrageous that the person is treated like that “special” relative no one really wants to sit next to at the family reunion. In my opinion the man is a loon. The fact he is a professor at a very prestigious university is embarrassing. Anyone who has spent that much intellectual capital trying to mitigate the social constraints regarding sex with animals is so far beyond the pale he is irrelevant.

The man is like David Blaine. Singer has put himself in a box of self-inflicted silliness; where are the masses throwing rocks and hurling the deserved insults?

Read a few issues of the Atlantic Monthly is you want reasoned critiques of the President….

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Dave 02.13.04 at 3:00 pm

Why do intelligent people even treat Peter Singer as a peer? At what point do someone’s utterances become so outrageous that the person is treated like that “special” relative no one really wants to sit next to at the family reunion. In my opinion the man is a loon. The fact he is a professor at a very prestigious university is embarrassing. Anyone who has spent that much intellectual capital trying to mitigate the social constraints regarding sex with animals is so far beyond the pale he is irrelevant.

The man is like David Blaine. Singer has put himself in a box of self-inflicted silliness; where are the masses throwing rocks and hurling the deserved insults?

Read a few issues of the Atlantic Monthly is you want reasoned critiques of the President….

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