What I learned about disability and infanticide from Peter Singer

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.

Peter Singer at the Effective Altruism Global conference in Melbourne 15 August 2015.

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.’

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A ‘Humanely’ Killed Animal Is Still Killed—And That’s Wrong

Western conventional wisdom about animal ethics is that killing an animal is not the problem; the problem is making the animal suffer. 

A newborn calf, isolated from other calves the first days, is pictured on December 14, 2017 at an intensive cattle farm, known as the 1,000-cow farm, in the northeastern French town of Drucat. (Photo credit: PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

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Is living really better than never being born at all?

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. 

Affebook, Wikicommons

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.”

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What Hope Actually Meant to Martin Luther King Jr.

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.

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