Friday, February 07, 2003

Peter Singer is Evil

Peter Singer is a very famous philosopher and ethicist in the utilitarian tradition, currently teaching at Princeton. Now, I am sure that he isn't in his personal life particularly mean, or nasty, or that he kicks puppies or pushes old people down the stairs (unless they have a low quality of life), but nevertheless, he is evil. I have been reading a book of his recently called Practical Ethics. In this book he argues that not only is abortion moral, but also infanticide and euthanasia are moral. Indeed, lots of people may be killed if a utilitarian calculation of future world-courses shows that their lives are not likely to be good. Singer gives a polite and scholarly veneer to evil, but the positions he reaches are evil.

How does he come to these conclusions? Singer thinks that all ethical judgments originate from a universalization of our own basic concern for furthering our interests. An interest is defined as that which someone desires, and everyone wishes to mazimize his desires. Our behavior becomes ethical, he thinks, when we extend this concern for our interests to others.

How does this become evil? There are situations where there are competing interests: a couple has a child, but the child is deformed. The interests of the child conflict with the interests of the parents. How do we decide between them? "To take the lives of any of these people, without their consent, is to thwart their desires for the future. Killing a snail or a day-old infant does not thwart any desires of this kind, because snails and newborn infants are incapable of having such desires." (PE 78) Some humans can't have interests, because they don't have the intellectual development necessary to have such interests. So, in general, those with more intellectual development trump those with less, and the child has less.

So, given this sort of ethical measuring of interests (never mind that it is impossible to do this sort of measuring, a fact which never seems to bother utilitarians. See my post on this subject.), it follows as night follows day that abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia are all able to be accpeted. After all, Singer agrees with pro-lifers who claim that there is no moral difference to the fetus before birth or after birth. Therefore, if it is ok to kill the fetus, it is ok to kill the baby!

I think that Singer has made a crucial blunder at the very beginning of his thinking. It is not interests that we seek to maximize, but rather our good. The fact is that interests are quite often opposed to our good; this is why moral demands are experienced by humans as a struggle. We know what the good is, and try to change our interests to match this good. Now, if universalization is the first ethical movement, as Singer thinks, then the first thing we realize is that we must not just promote our own good, but the good of everyone.

Now, here is the clincher, the destruction of Singerism: The good of a being doesn't depend on its interest! If I really like drinking vodka for breakfast, it still isn't in accord with my good. Now, if this is true, then the question of whether a baby has interests or not doesn't matter. The baby surely has a good, and acting ethically requires us to recognize this good. Abortion and infanticide are clearly wrong.

Now, Singer would counter that the recognition of human good and our duty to promote it is a philosophical fiction, a relic of Christianity. I acknowledge that as an ethical first principle, it cannot be proven. But I think that Singerism can still be opposed because if we accept his first principles, we cannot rule out any course of action. We can always come up with a justification for any action we want, based on utilitarianism. The difficulty in drawing a meaningful line based on the functional analysis of human beings might be a clue that his fundamental means of analysis for moral situations is wrong. The fact that utilitarianism can make no concrete moral claims about anything (because of its reliance on predicting the future and in measuring various interests), might be a mark against the theory in general, abortion or no abortion.

Peter Singer's theory is consistent and well argued, but it is evil.

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