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Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One

December 5th, 2012 by Matt

This is the first section of the paper I presented to the the Evangelical Philosophical Society Annual Meeting in Milwaukee two weeks ago. Several people have asked me to post it on MandM. It will appear as a two-part post series.

Christian theism has traditionally taught that human beings have equal dignity and worth, a moral status that separates them from non-human animals. Peter Singer has famously rejected this teaching, holding that human beings are not any more special than animals and doctrines of human dignity are indefensible.  He contends that killing a new-born infant is, in and of itself, no more problematic than killing a non-human animal such as a cow or a pig and defends the permissibly of infanticide under certain conditions.

Peter SingerThis paper will critically assess one important part of Singer’s position: his understanding of why it is wrong to kill.  In I I will sketch Singer’s “desire account” of killing and its relationship to his own preference utilitarianism and project of animal equality. Following Don Marquis, I will argue in II, that this “desire account” is subject to important counter examples. In III I note Singer’s attempts to modify his position so as to avoid these counter examples and suggest that these modifications are problematic. In IV, I will suggest that, despite this, there is an important truth in Singer’s critique, one that Christian thinkers can appropriate in developing moral arguments for Christian theism.

I. Preference Utilitarianism and the desire account of the wrongness of killing
Classical Utilitarianism conjoins three theses. First, the maximisation thesis; an action is right if and only if it maximises overall net benefit:  net benefit being the total amount of  benefit accruing to individuals as a consequence of the action, minus any harms resulting. An action maximises net benefit when the consequences of performing it constitute a higher net benefit than that associated with any alternative action.

Second, , the thesis of equal consideration: a benefit or harm to any one individual is counted as having equal weight to a similar sized benefit or harm to any other individual.

Third, the thesis of hedonism: on this account, benefits and harms are understood in terms of pleasure and pain. Something benefits an individual or is good if it causes him pleasure and harms him if it causes pain.

Peter Singer is a preference utilitarian. Preference utilitarians accept both the maximisation and equal consideration theses however reject hedonism in favour of a desire fulfillment or preference satisfaction view of the good. Something is good for an individual if he desires or prefers it, and it is bad if contrary to his preferences or desires.

Singer uses preference utilitarianism to reject the doctrine that human beings have equal dignity and worth, a moral status that separates them from non-human animals.  Sentient animals clearly have desires; they can suffer and feel pain and desire not to. The equal considerations thesis entails that in so far as these desires are similar to those of human beings the suffering of an animal must be considered equal with that of a human being.

However, in terms of actual as opposed to potential psychological capacities, some human beings have a comparable mental life to that of animals.   A new born human infant’s psychology is primitive. David Boonin notes “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks are more intellectually developed than a new born infant.” [1]  This means that the desires of a new born infant are similar to those of other animals.

Singer illustrates this point in a discussion of animal experimentation.

If experimenters would not be prepared to use a human infant, then their readiness to use non-human animals reveals an unjustifiable form of discrimination on the basis of species, since adult apes, monkeys, dogs, cats, rats, and other animals are more aware of what is happening to them, more self-directing, and so are as far as we can tell, at least as sensitive to pain as a human infant. [2]

Singer grants that infants are often loved by their parents in a way in which other animals are not, and so experimenting on infants would contradict the desires of adult human beings. But antecedent to such desires is a preference for the interests of a human infant over that of an animal; this Singer considers merely an arbitrary and irrational bias in favour of our own species.

Racists violate the principle of [equal consideration] by giving greater weight to the interests of members of their own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race…Similarly, speciesists allow the interests of their own species to override the greater interests of other members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case [3]

Singer argues that facts about the suffering caused by factory farming, when conjoined with the equal considerations and maximisation theses entail a duty to become vegetarians. Whether this is correct is controversial and I will not go into this controversy today.

All I will note here is the implications for his position on human dignity.  Singer notes his conclusion “differs strikingly from the prevailing attitude in our society” that human beings have a special equal dignity. “How is it”, he asks, that our society should have come to accept such an irrational position?“Our present attitudes date from the coming of Christianity” [4]. Christians, Singer explains, believed all human beings were created in the image of God. “During the centuries of Christian domination of European thought, the ethical attitudes based on these doctrines became part of the unquestioned orthodoxy of European civilisation” [5] Singer offers no argument against these doctrines. He simply states they are “no longer generally accepted” [6] and instead proposes to explore belief in human dignity “as part of a broadly secular ethic” [7]. He concludes:

Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term ‘human’ has been stripped away, we may continue to see normal members of our species as possessing greater qualities of rationality, self-consciousness, communication and so on than members of any other species, but we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of every member of our species, no matter how limited its capacity for intelligent or even conscious life may be [8]

Singer’s rejection of human dignity and his preference utilitarianism have implications for the morality of killing. “According to preference utilitarianism, an action contrary to the preference of any being is, unless outweighed by contrary preferences, wrong. Killing a person who prefers to exist is therefore all else being equal wrong” [9] If an individual does not desire to live then unless some third party desires they do, killing them is not wrong. If we use the phrase “right to life” as shorthand for when killing someone is against their interests and so directly wrongs them, Singer’s position entails the desire account of killing:

Desire account: An organism has a right to life if and only if that organism has a desire to continue existing.

Singer’s advocacy of abortion and infanticide follows from the desire account of killing.  A human infant, like an animal, is not a person: “a thinking, intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking being, in different times and places.” [10]  However only persons are aware of their own existence over time, and so only persons can desire to continue to exist. It follows then that “No infant – disabled or not – has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” This has fairly radical implications: infants do not gain awareness of their future existence until around age two and even here personhood develops gradually; a strong desire to continue exist probably emerges even latter.

 However, although they have no right to life and killing does not harm them, Singer emphasises that it doesn’t follow that killing infants is generally permissible.

“[T]he birth of a child is usually a happy event for the parents. They have, nowadays, often planned for the child. The mother has carried it for nine months. From birth, a natural affection begins to bind the parents to it” so usually killing an infant will be against the interests, desires or preferences of the parents or perhaps broader society.” [11]

In most cases infanticide will be contrary to the desires of parents and the broader society. However this is not always the case “It is different when the infant is born with a serious disability. Birth abnormalities vary, of course. Some are trivial and have little effect on the child or its parents; but others turn the normally joyful event of birth into a threat to the happiness of the parents, and any other children they may have.” [12]

Singer therefore concludes that, in those cases, where the parents or society do not desire an infant to live, it is permissible to kill infants. “the main point is clear, killing a disabled person is not morally equivalent to killing a person very often it’s not wrong at all”.[13] This will happen he believes only when the child is disabled.

Read: Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two

[1]David Boonin A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) 121.
[2]Peter Singer, “Tools for Research” in Writings on an Ethical Life  ( Harper Collins: London, 2000) 52.
[3]Peter Singer, “All Animals are Equal” in Writings on an Ethical Life  ( Harper Collins: London, 2000) 35).
[4]Singer, “What’s Wrong with Killing” in Writings on an Ethical Life  ( Harper Collins: London, 2000) 35) 129.
[6]Ibid, 130.
[7]Ibid, 125.
[8]Peter Singer, “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life?” Paediatrics, 1983, 72:1, 128-9.
[9]Peter Singer, “Whats Wrong with Killing” 134.
[10]Ibid , 128.
[11]Peter Singer, “Justifying Infanticide”  in Writings on an Ethical Life  ( Harper Collins: London, 2000) 187.
[13]Ibid 193.

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14 responses so far ↓

  • So, would it be fair to say, that this kind of preference utilitarianism doesn’t concern itself with potentials, such as the future mental capacities of infants; that instead, it is only concerned with capacity at that given moment? If so, I find this be troublesome. If one of the premises is that I only have a right to life when I have a desire to continue existing, then should I ever slip in maintaining that desire (that is should I ever have no desire at all or desire to end my life), then it would become more ethically justifiable to kill me as opposed to someone who does have a desire to live (assuming no one wants me to live). In that case, would it not be more ethically justifiable to kill someone whenever they are not in a state where they are capable of producing and maintaining that desire to live? I can think of a few instances where a person would not be able to generate a desire to live:

    *Early Non-REM sleep cycles
    *Chemically induced comas for medical procedures
    *General non-dreaming unconsciousness
    *Possibly situations where the survival of other lives is more important then one’s own survival

    These are simply moments when the desire to live is simply absent (to the best of my knowledge). Since the utilitarian discounts future potential and past capability, it wouldn’t matter if the particular individual is capable of forming a desire to live; at that exact moment, because they lack the desire to live, they would not qualify for the status of “person-hood.” If future potential does matter, then the person who could be awoken and then have the desire to live is fundamentally no different than an infant who will mature in time. If past capability does matter, then the person who just fell asleep is comparable to the person who has any person who has consciously lost that desire to live, regardless of whether they desire to end their life or not. Then it would seem that the arguments for allowing infanticide, suicide, or euthanasia are undercut by Singer’s own definitions.

    Does this make sense? Or am I simply over-thinking this?

  • Hi Alabaster
    Singer rejects the claim that potentiality has moral significance as he thinks it leads to the conclusion that contraception is wrong. I don’t agree with him on this, but it’s the position he holds.

    As to your counter example of the unconscious person that in fact is an argument some have pushed against the desire account of killing. David Boonin has given a reasonably plausible response to this example by distinguishing first is between an occurrent and dispositional desire, “A desire of yours is occurrent if it is one you are consciously entertaining.”” Boonin gives an example: “If this discussion is striking you as tedious, for example, then you may right now be experiencing an occurrent desire to put this book down.” A dispositional desire is “a desire you do have right now even if you are not thinking about it right at this moment.” He states, “I suspect, for example, that when you began to read this sentence you really did want to live beyond tomorrow evening, even though it is unlikely that you were entertaining just that desire consciously as you began to read this sentence.” He suggests people who are unconscious can have disposition desires and killing them can contradict this desire.

  • Surely it is the disposition of all life that it tries to keep on living, even life in its simplist forms. Sure this disposition may be unconcious [as in a sleeping person] or lacking in self awareness [ as an amoeba ], but what life has a disposition to die?

  • Jeremy , yes but that’s not a dispositional desire,

  • Thanks for replying!

    Does Boonin ever discuss if infants or newborns would have dispositional desires? If so, at what point would our dispositional desires begin to commence? I imagine it would be dependent upon some sort of stage of brain development?

  • My question to David Boonin, though, would be how having a dispositional desire is different (i.e., in a morally significant way) from having no desire at all? Would it be because the former could be an occurrent desire? For example, I may only have a dispositional desire to live at one point, but if someone asked me if I had a desire to live, or if someone threatened my life, that dispositional desire would quickly become an occurrent one. But if this were the case, wouldn’t Boonin be arguing in favor of potential? Wouldn’t he essentially be saying that beings with dispositional desires should be given moral consideration because their dispositional desires have the potential to become occurrent ones? And wouldn’t that logically require anyone who follows the dispositional/occurrent desire argument to believe fetuses and newborns have rights as well? After all, much like beings with dispositional desires, they will eventually be able form occurrent desires. And if the potential to have occurrent desires is not the morally significant difference between it and having no desire at all, then what could be?

    You’ll have to forgive me if I am not understanding Boonin’s argument, or if these questions have been addressed already. I have not read his argument and I have not gone through every article on your site. However, based on the information you have given in your first response to Alabaster, I just can’t see how Boonin’s argument could present a viable counter to the attack on desire as the means to measure personhood with.

  • No sorry i just cannot see any real difference between a dispositional desire to go on living held without conscious thought (ie asleep or preoccupied with something else) and a simple disposition to go on living. This seems any entirely artificial and functionally meaningless construct.

  • Matthew what would Boonin or Singer say to a scenario in which involves a drunk person A who has had too much to drink and ends up telling everyone he has the desire to kill himself within the next 10 minutes?

    I would take it that anyone nearby who wants to step in and stop this man would be acting immorally?

    Wouldn’t this cause a problem as there is a good chance that when the alcohol wears off of A he will most likely not have this desire?

    Lastly, would this be considered as an occurrent and dispositional desire?

  • Therefore it is ok to murder someone.
    As long as they are asleep.

  • and yeah – contraception is wrong.

  • Cornell,

    My guess would be that Singer would say that it is morally acceptable to stop this person because he is not acting by his own free will. In the same way a drunk woman can’t be said to want sex even if she says she wants it, a person who threatens suicide while drunk can’t be said to really want to commit suicide. However, some utilitarians do think it is morally wrong to stop a person who from killing himself when his decision to do so is based on an informed decision – something I disagree with.


    Boonin rebuts this challenge by pointing out there is a difference between what he terms “dispositional desires” and “occurent desires”. Matthew outlines this quite nicely in his response to Alabaster.

    Now, I certainly don’t support Boonin’s argument because I don’t see the morally relevant difference between having a dispositional desire and having no desire at all. In fact, the only possible difference I can see between the two would logically require Boonin to support the very argument for potential he almost certainly opposes (see my last post). All that I am saying is that would be his response to your rebuttal.

    I hope you guys don’t mind me answering your questions. I know they were directed at Matthew and if you would rather have him answering than me, please feel free to ignore this post.

  • Have you not heard of that madman who lit a lantern in the bright morning hours, ran to the market place, and cried incessantly: “I seek God! I seek God!” — As many of those who did not believe in God were standing around just then, he provoked much laughter. Has he got lost? asked one. Did he lose his way like a child? asked another. Or is he hiding? Is he afraid of us? Has he gone on a voyage? emigrated? — Thus they yelled and laughed.

    The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.

    Fyodor Dostoyevsky once observed that when God is dead anything is possible.

    And now the possible is becoming the reality: Post-birth abortion, isn’t that a nifty, convenient way to put it!

  • [...] This is the second half of the paper I presented to the the Evangelical Philosophical Society Annual Meeting in Milwaukee three weeks ago. It is part of a two-part post series; make sure you have read part one Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide. [...]

  • I really believe this amazing posting , “Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One
    | MandM”, incredibly engaging plus it was a good read.
    Thanks for your time-Lovie