In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option to euthanise infants with disabilities.
In the 1970s, the Australian moral philosopher Peter Singer, perhaps best-known for his book Animal Liberation (1975), began to argue that it is ethical to give parents the option (in consultation with doctors) to euthanise infants with disabilities. He mostly, but not exclusively, discussed severe forms of disabilities such as spina bifida or anencephaly. In Practical Ethics (1979), Singer explains that the value of a life should be based on traits such as rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. ‘Defective infants lack these characteristics,’ he wrote. ‘Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.’
The thought of killing disabled babies is especially dangerous because the concept of disability often functions as a mere cloak, thrown over much uglier hatreds. In ‘Disability and the Justification of Inequality in American History’ (2001), the historian Douglas Baynton points out that African-American enslavement was justified through disability models: there was a supposition that African Americans suffered from a number of medical conditions that were understood to make them unable to care for themselves. Until 1973, homosexuality was a psychological disorder justified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders; the current edition, the DSM-5, still considers transgender people disabled.
Singer generally frames severe physical disabilities through a medical lens. His ideas chafe against models of the disabled as a minority group. To Singer, severe disability is more a problem to be solved than a difference to be embraced and accommodated.
For years, I thought Singer was morally bankrupt. I grew up in a family with hereditary deafness, and though deafness is far from the type of disability that Singer was focusing on (with some arguing that it’s not a disability at all), I still recognised an idea that the disability community has faced for centuries: that people with disabilities are fundamentally less entitled to their rights – even their lives. Singer’s ideas stood in opposition to my core belief that the disabled body is created largely through a lack of accommodation, and that people with disabilities are different perhaps, but not less.
While most of Singer’s other writings seemed so thoughtful, so compassionate, his writings on disabled children seemed to be approaching the slippery slope toward ethnocide – the intentional and systematic destruction of cultures, like the Deaf culture that my own family embraced. I had never been able to shake what he was saying about the disabled – and I wanted to know more: what he thought today; if his ideas had ever shifted; and, mostly, how he could believe so strongly in something that seemed so out of sync with his reverence for life.
This past winter, I reached out to Singer to learn more.
I was nervous to talk with him, even over the blurry, jumpy distance of Skype, but I had no reason to be. Though his ideas felt abrasive, even violent, to me, he took opposition with thoughtful consideration. And as we talked, I began to wonder if I hated his ideas because they poked at sore spots in my worldview, exposing its vulnerabilities.
Singer resists the idea that disability is mere difference; there is suffering involved, he says, and not only of the social variety. ‘I don’t think the idea that it’s better to be able rather than disabled is in itself a prejudice,’ he told me. ‘To see that as akin to racism or sexism is a mistake.’ He argues that if it weren’t preferable to be able-bodied, we wouldn’t have a problem with pregnant women taking drugs or drinking heavily, that avoiding disability would have to also be seen as prejudicial. It isn’t, and Singer maintains that it shouldn’t be.
Instead, Singer maintains that disability, unlike race or gender, comes with intrinsic suffering – sometimes great enough that it is more compassionate to end the lives of infants than to force them to live in pain. Over the years since he first began discussing this proposal, Singer has had to contend with studies showing that quality-of-life assessments of people with disabilities are not that different from those of able-bodied people – a fact that could grossly undermine his argument of alleviating suffering. While he has found those studies compelling, he maintains that it’s not fair to allow them to speak for those too severely disabled to respond to such a survey. (In general, he doesn’t buy the idea that people with vastly different disabilities ought to be speaking to each other’s experiences.)
Disturbingly, though he focuses mostly on severe disabilities, he also resists putting strict parameters around which disabilities would qualify for infanticide. ‘Look,’ he told me, ‘I don’t think it’s for me to tell parents [that] if your child is like this you are to end the child’s life, and if the child is like that you ought not to.’ Instead, he considers how class, family, community, not to mention regional and national support, shape the potential life of the child.
Particularly surprising was how Singer’s responses often revealed under-investigated issues in the disability movement’s rhetoric: the idea that class and location could have tremendous impact on a parent’s ability to raise a child with a disability, for instance, or that some are so disabled that they have no ability to speak to their own quality of life. The way that Singer’s ideas are often engaged with exhibits an intellectual laziness that tosses these issues dangerously aside.
Singer has not focused on infanticide for decades, but his ideas still ache in the disability world, like a wound that won’t heal. Singer is still deeply entrenched in questions about the hierarchy of lives, and his ideas about the inferiority of many people with disabilities – and the dangers that those ideas imply – are as pertinent today as they’ve ever been. The epidemic of spina bifida that spurred his arguments has now passed, but the larger questions he poses are still central to questions of prejudice and equality in the disability community. This makes it hard to sort through Singer. His arguments are built intricately and beautifully, like a perfect mathematics equation, but at their core beats a single assertion, one that is still too difficult to concede: that this group of human beings aren’t really people. That’s the pain that obscures the rest.
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Western conventional wisdom about animal ethics is that killing an animal is not the problem; the problem is making the animal suffer.
Western conventional wisdom about animal ethics is that killing an animal is not the problem; the problem is making the animal suffer. As long as we have treated and killed an animal in a ‘humane’ way, we have done nothing wrong. A compelling example of this belief is found in the case of dogs and cats, animals particularly valued in Western culture. If someone inflicts suffering on a dog or cat, they are excoriated. But unwanted dogs and cats are routinely ‘put to sleep’ – killed – in shelters with an intravenous injection of sodium pentobarbital, and most people do not object as long as the process is administered properly by a trained person and there is no suffering inflicted on the animal.
Why do we think that killing animals per se is not morally wrong? Why do we think that death is not a harm for non-human animals?
Before the 19th century, animals were mostly regarded as things. Neither our use nor our treatment of them mattered morally or legally. We could have obligations that concerned animals, such as an obligation not to damage our neighbour’s cow, but that obligation was owed to our neighbour as the owner of the cow, not to the cow.
To say that we thought of animals as things didn’t mean that we denied that they were sentient, or subjectively aware, and had interests in not experiencing pain, suffering or distress. But we believed that we could ignore those interests because animals were our inferiors. We could reason; they couldn’t. We could use symbolic communication; they couldn’t.
In the 19th century, a paradigm shift occurred, and the animal welfare theory was born. In a relatively brief period of time as far as major shifts in thinking go, we claimed to reject the notion of animals as things, and to embrace the idea that animals had moral value. Prominent in this paradigm shift was the lawyer/philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who argued in 1789 that, although a full-grown horse or dog is more rational and more able to communicate than a human infant, ‘the question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?’
Bentham maintained that the fact that animals were cognitively different from humans – that they had different sorts of minds – did not mean that their suffering did not matter morally. He argued that we could no more morally justify ignoring the suffering of animals based on their species than we could ignore the suffering of slaves based on their skin colour.
But Bentham did not advocate that we stop using animals as resources in the manner he had advocated abolition in the case of human slavery. He maintained that it was morally acceptable to use and kill animals for human purposes as long as we treated them well. According to Bentham, animals live in the present and are not aware of what they lose when we take their lives. If we kill and eat them, ‘we are the better for it, and they are never the worse. They have none of those long-protracted anticipations of future misery which we have.’ Bentham maintained that we actually do animals a favour by killing them, as long as we do so in a relatively painless manner: ‘The death they suffer in our hands commonly is, and always may be, a speedier, and by that means a less painful one, than that which would await them in the inevitable course of nature … [W]e should be the worse for their living, and they are never the worse for being dead.’ In other words, the cow does not care that we kill and eat her; she cares only about how we treat and kill her, and her only interest is not to suffer.
And that is precisely what most of us believe today. Killing animals is not the problem. The problem is making them suffer. If we provide a reasonably pleasant life and a relatively painless death, we have done nothing wrong. Interestingly, Bentham’s views are endorsed by Peter Singer, who bases the position he articulates in Animal Liberation (1975) squarely on Bentham. Singer claims that ‘the absence of some form of mental continuity’ makes it difficult to understand why killing an animal is not ‘made good by the creation of a new animal who will lead an equally pleasant life’.
We think that this view is wrong.
To say that a sentient being – any sentient being – is not harmed by death is decidedly odd. Sentience is not a characteristic that has evolved to serve as an end in itself. Rather, it is a trait that allows the beings who have it to identify situations that are harmful and that threaten survival. Sentience is a means to the end of continued existence. Sentient beings, by virtue of their being sentient, have an interest in remaining alive; that is, they prefer, want or desire to remain alive. Continued existence is in their interest. Therefore, to say that a sentient being is not harmed by death denies that the being has the very interest that sentience serves to perpetuate. It would be analogous to saying that a being with eyes does not have an interest in continuing to see or is not harmed by being made blind. Animals in traps will chew their paws or limbs off and thereby inflict excruciating suffering on themselves in order to continue to live.
Singer recognises that ‘an animal may struggle against a threat to its life’, but he concludes that this does not mean that the animal has the mental continuity required for a sense of self. This position begs the question, however, in that it assumes that the only way that an animal can be self-aware is to have the sort of autobiographical sense of self that we associate with normal adult humans. That is certainly one way of being self-aware, but it is not the only way. As the biologist Donald Griffin, one of the most important cognitive ethologists of the 20th century, noted, it is arbitrary to deny animals some sort of self-awareness given that animals who are perceptually conscious must be aware of their own bodies and actions, and must see them as different from the bodies and actions of other animals.
Even if animals live in the ‘eternal present’ that Bentham and Singer think they inhabit, that does not mean that they are not self-aware or that they do not have an interest in continued existence. Animals would still be aware of themselves in each instant of time and have an interest in perpetuating that awareness; they would have an interest in getting to the next second of consciousness. Humans who have a particular form of amnesia might be unable to recall memories or engage in ideation about the future, but that does not mean that they are not self-aware in each moment, or that the cessation of that awareness would not be a harm.
It is time that we rethink this issue. If we saw killing an animal – however painlessly – as raising a moral issue, perhaps that might lead us to start thinking more of whether animal use is morally justifiable, rather than only whether treatment is ‘humane’. Given that animals are property, and we generally protect animal interests only to the extent that it is cost-effective, it is a fantasy to think that ‘humane’ treatment is an attainable standard in any case. So if we take animal interests seriously, we really cannot avoid thinking about the morality of use totally apart from considerations of treatment.
Anna E Charlton & Gary L Francione
This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.
Is life worse or better than non-existence? And if it is, who is judging? Welcome to anti-natalism, a small but lively corner of philosophy.
Is being born worth it? If you weighed life’s pleasure against the suffering and sorrow, do you end up ahead? Gustave Flaubert claimed that he would have cursed himself if he became a father, as he desired to “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence.” Fyodor Dostoyevsky was even more bleak in The Brothers Karamazov, writing, “I'd have let them kill me in the womb, so as not to come out into the world at all.”
Arthur Schopenhauer was especially pessimistic on this topic:
If children were brought into the world by an act of pure reason alone, would the human race continue to exist? Would not a man rather have so much sympathy with the coming generation as to spare it the burden of existence, or at any rate not take it upon himself to impose that burden upon it in cold blood?
We can even find this view in the New International Version of the Bible:
And I declared that the dead, who had already died, are happier than the living, who are still alive. But better than both is the one who has never been born, who has not seen the evil that is done under the sun.
Welcome to anti-natalism, a small but lively corner of philosophy that, in our time of climate change, prospects of nuclear war, and divisive populist politics, has been growing of late. Though David Benatar, one of the chief modern architects of this philosophy, may or may not have coined the term “anti-natalism”—he’s done “intellectual archaeology” to figure it out, and his jury of one is still debating—his recent appearance on Sam Harris’s Waking Up podcast further solidified his stake in this long debated topic: Is life worth living? Benatar says no, at least for the unborn.
According to Benatar, head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town and author of Better Never to Have Been, being born is “not always a harm, but always a very serious harm.” Summating his philosophy, he continues:
We ought not to bring new people into existence, but I think the view is broader, that we ought not to bring new sentient beings into existence. It’s not just the view that it’s harmful to come into existence, but a further view that it’s wrong to bring beings into existence.
Harris finds a correlation with Buddhism. According to a translation of Buddhist texts by Sir Hari Singh Gour, Buddha claimed that men are ignorant of the suffering they unleash; existence is the cause of old age and death. If man would realize this harm he would immediately stop procreating. That might offer insight into why Buddha named his own son Rāhula, which means “fetter” or “impediment.” Of course, Buddha had his son before embarking on his legendary quest, so selfishly the name implies Rāhula was getting in the way of his father’s search for enlightenment.
Morals are a critical component of Buddhism, as well as the founding principle of anti-natalism. Benatar believes there exists “an asymmetry of values between the good and bad things in life.” When we consider the uninhabited corners of the universe (which would be most of the universe), we don’t consider the absence of good that could be out there. But if we were to contemplate that suffering does not exist, for example, on Mars, we would think it positive that the beings that don’t exist have escaped suffering. Benatar focuses much energy on this perceived absence of pain.
Harris mentions that Benatar’s observation is directly in opposition to philosophers working in existential risk, the idea that a catastrophic event would drastically curtail or end human existence. Harris cites Oxford philosopher William MacAskill, who says the greatest possible wrong would be to do something (i.e. nuclear war) putting us at risk of self-annihilation, which is wrong because it closes the door to all the untold goods that exist after untold years of creative involvement with the cosmos. Harris believes those hypothetical losses are equally important to any suffering that might be wiped out.
Harris then speculates on what it would take to create a “life worth living,” which Benatar calls “an ambiguous sentiment.” Benatar distinguishes between a life worth starting and a life worth continuing. Missing that ambiguity makes his fundamental point impossible to understand, as he is not advocating for suicide. As to bringing others into existence, however, the bar for starting a life must be much higher than it currently is.
If you’re thinking about bringing someone into existence, you’re not just thinking about when they’re young, but also when they’re in their eighties. Parents don’t think about the cancer that will ravage their future child’s body decades after they themselves die.
Benatar draws an analogy to a play you were looking forward to seeing. You buy tickets and attend the show, which turns out subpar. If you had known in advance that it was not what you thought, you would not have wasted your time. Again, this is in alignment with Buddhism, only from that perspective it’s your perception that needs to change; you don’t necessarily need to wipe the slate clean.
Harris continues to search for benefits. There’s no telling how beautiful life could have been if you’re not willing to give it a shot in the first place. Turning the lights out in a universe with the potential for beauty is not as bad as bringing life into a world that is purely hell, but that’s not the situation we find ourselves in at this moment. We don’t know how good life can be, at least not in our current experience.
This, Harris believes, is an especially important question as we design artificial intelligence, as we might build minds that suffer to degrees we cannot even understand without being aware that we’ve done so. We have the potential to create hells inside of our computers in our ignorance.
Harris, of course, leans heavily on science, though Benatar says that the suffering of now isn’t worth it to the many generations that will continue to suffer for a potential benefit a thousand years from now. While Harris states there are many potentially better existences than non-existence, Benatar simply cannot imagine any possible existence that is better than never having existed.
The two-hour conversation is exhilarating and exhausting, as the same ground is covered through numerous analogies. But, like in Buddhist debating traditions, those details are necessary. Anti-natalism is not a philosophy that can be summated in an elevator pitch, especially given that it goes against our most base biological impulse. Tell almost any parent that their child should not have been born and a reasoned response is not forthcoming.
Happily the conversation never becomes heated, a feat in a topic this emotional. Harris is always a reasoned debater while Benatar has tread this territory for decades. When Harris mentions those who grow from their suffering—many people come out the other side of pain with unforeseen cognitive and emotional benefits—Benatar concedes that your perception of existence shifts your understanding of reality. If you perceive your life to have grown richer from an experience, it did.
In the end, though, the suffering still isn’t worth it. Benatar invokes rape victims. You can take that experience and help others through counseling and therapy, but would the rape be valuable enough given the suffering it caused? It is an analogy of a bigger question about existence the living will continue to grapple with, but if you ask Benatar, it is the unborn who benefit most.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Once upon a time, hope meant confronting suffering, not avoiding it. Have overly sugary connotations about hope diminished its true grit?
Here's an exercise: If there's someone near you right now, ask them to define hope. Quickly. What did they say: was it motivational? Did it deal with future ambition, expectation, and desire? Historically, hope has not always had such sugary connotations, and at one point—not so long ago, actually—it was more about confronting suffering in the present than mentally projecting yourself forward to a time where you have overcome your suffering. Drawing from an 1886 painting by George Frederic Watts called 'Hope', which inspired Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1959 sermon 'Shattered Dreams', Andre C. Willis presents a view of deep hope, a method of facing adversity that is woven together from the African American Protestant tradition.
This video was filmed at the Los Angeles Hope Festival, a collaboration between Big Think and Hope & Optimism, a three-year initiative which supported interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored.