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Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two

December 19th, 2012 by Matt

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.

II. Marquis’ Critique
In my previous post I sketched Singer’s desire account of killing and how it relates to Singer’s preference utilitarianism and position on vegetarianism. Don Marquis has offered two kinds of counter examples to the desire account of killing:[1] take depressed people who are either suicidal or simply don’t care about life, but whom we know will with medication or counselling overcome this. Such people have no desire to live, yet it seems they have a right to life. Killing them is not in their interests and we would wrong them, not just their relatives or society, if we killed them.

Or consider people brainwashed in a religious cult to commit suicide, or people who, believing they will be rewarded in the afterlife, offer themselves as voluntary human sacrifices. These people lack a desire to live yet they still have a right to life. Morality requires we try and save them from the cult rather than that we kill them. The desire account thus appears false, and given that preference utilitarianism entails the desire account, preference utilitarianism is problematic.

These counter examples are part of a more general problem. Singer’s position infers a right to continue to exist from a desire to continue existing. However, the inference that “X has a prima facie right to Z” from “X desires Z”, is problematic. Children have rights to medical care, nutritious food, and education, but often children have little or no desire for these things. Often in cases of complicated medical procedures the child lacks a conception of the operation itself, yet it still has a right to such things. This claim is based on it being in their interests to have these things, and they will be harmed by not having them, it’s not plausible to ground these rights in the fact the parents or society want the child to have them.

III. Singer’s reply
Peter SingerIn A Reply to Don Marquis,[2] Singer acknowledges the cogency of Marquis’s counter examples and offers a revision to the desire account of killing. He cites the example of a tennis player who desires to drink a bottle he believes is full of water, but in reality contains poison. Singer concludes from this case “if a person’s desire to die is based on a false belief, it does not justify assisting him in satisfying the preference”[3], also ruling out the example of the fanatical religious believer. Similarly, “for a preference to be one we should act upon it should be based not only on accurate information …” but also a “calm and rational assessment of the situation”; this rules out the example of the depressed individual.[4]

Singer’s revision means the issue is not the actual desires an individual has but rather their ideal desires, i.e. desires the individual would have had if they were reasoning correctly and had correct information. Marquis’s counter-examples therefore fail.

IV. Critique of Singer’s Reply
I will offer three lines of response to Singer’s reply.

Motivation and Arbitrariness
The first problem is that Singer’s position appears unmotivated. Anticipating Singer’s response, Marquis noted that while infants lack actual desires to continue to exist, it’s not clear they totally lack a rational desire to live because “if a fetus were fully informed and rational, it would desire to live” [5]. Singer’s modification then would appear to undercut his advocacy of infanticide.

To avoid this, Singer adopts a particular conception of ideal desires. Ideal desires are a being’s actual desires corrected for false information and errors of reasoning. Seeing infants lack any desire to continue existing they cannot in this sense have an idealised desire to exist in the future. Consequently, Singer suggests that preference utilitarianism should be modified so as to involve the maximisation of idealised preferences so defined. The problem is that apart from the fact it enables him to both support abortion and infanticide and avoid the counter examples, Singer offers no reason why one should adopt this particular conception of ideal desires. Various different conceptions of ideal desires have been proposed which will get around the counter examples aforementioned and not all of them involve the modification of actual desires. Consequently, Singer’s position appears unmotivated.

Singer’s response to this rejoinder is to state,

“Adjusting a person’s actual desires for errors is one thing; attributing a wholly new desire to a being that is not capable of having any desires  at all, or any desires of the relevant kind is something else altogether, and something for which there is no obvious motivation” [6]

This is inadequate; Singer asserts that his account is different from one other account and that this other accounts is unmotivated. But the fact other accounts are unmotivated does not entail that Singer’s own account is motivated.

The Hamlet problem
A second problem is that even if Singer’s account escapes Marquis’s counter example it seems vulnerable to a new one. Consider the following lines from Hamlet,

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt

Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,

Hamlet expresses a desire to die, but refrains from doing so only because he believes God has issued commands prohibiting self-slaughter.  This is not an eccentric position – large numbers of people believe that suicide is wrong on the basis that God prohibits. Nor is it implausible that many of these  people  are such that, if they believed God did not exist or that he did not issue such a law, and  instead held beliefs like Singer’s they would have no objection to suicide in a variety of circumstances.

Singer however considers the belief that God prohibits killing human beings to be “religious mumbo jumbo” and his theorising is premised on considering such doctrines false. Moreover, Singer’s adoption of preference utilitarianism is closely connected with his belief that “those features of ethical judgement that imply the existence of objective moral standards can be explained away by maintaining this is some kind of error-perhaps the legacy of our belief that ethics is a system of divine law”. [7]Consequently, from the point of view of Singer’s moral theorising the religious believer’s desire to preserve his life is based on a false belief.   Singer’s argument appears to justify involuntary euthanasia for a large class of people whose reason for avoiding suicide is religious.

Singer responds to this objection as follows:

At the level of ethical theory, as distinct from the world in which we live, Flannagan is right; but it scarcely needs saying how dangerous it could be for people to take it upon themselves to judge whether others-who have their own view about whether they want to go on living-would have the same views were those views accurate, and on the basis of that judgement, kill those who would want to go on living if their beliefs were accurate. With John Stuart Mill, I think we should generally assume, that for competent adults at least, “each is the best judge and guardian of his own interests” This will not always be true…but we should normally treat it as though it were.

This however is inadequate in light of the previous discussion. Singer deals with Marquis’s counter example of a fanatical religious believer who consents to human sacrifice by saying that it’s not the person’s actual desires which count but their “rational” desires, that is, the desires we would have if we had no false religious beliefs.

When he responds to the person who refrains from suicide only because they believe God prohibits it he claims it’s dangerous to ask whether people would want to go on living if their beliefs were updated to be accurate and we should rely instead on what their actual desires and decisions are.

This seems inconsistent, for if we should follow what people actually want then he falls prey to Marquis counter example and if we should focus on rational desires he falls prey to mine; he can’t just switch back and forth between the two accounts.

Infanticide of non-disabled children
This brings me to a third and final problem with Singer’s response to Marquis. His modification of preference utilitarianism appears to render his stance on infanticide inconsistent with his position on animal experimentation and vegetarianism.

In his discussion of infanticide Singer makes it clear that he supports only the killing of disabled infants. He states:

“the difference between killing disabled and normal infants lies not in any supposed right to life the latter has and former lacks but in other considerations, most notably the attitude of the parents”

….the 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…it is different when the child is born with a disability.[8]

Singer explicitly appeals to the actual desire parents and other adults have for “normal” infants to live as the basis for why it’s wrong to kill such infants.

Singer’s revision of preference utilitarianism in terms of ideal desires undercuts this argument.  By Singer’s own admission the actual desires parents and society have towards infants are both irrational and based on false beliefs. Singer grants that his views about the status of infants are “at odds with the virtually unchallenged assumption that the life of a new born baby is sacrosanct as that of an adult” “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”[9] So according to Singer, current parental and societal attitudes towards infants are ultimately largely based on “religious mumbo jumbo” and hence based on false beliefs.

In a similar way Singer stance on animal experimentation entails that such preferences are irrational. His position is that antecedent to any actual desires human beings to preferring the interests of a human infant over that of an animal is an arbitrary irrational bias in favour of our own species. Very few parents or other people in society show the same “rational” concern and care for dogs, or pigs or cats, that they do for new born infants. So it’s hard to see how people’s strong desire to preserve new born human infants can be a preference that Singer’s modified preference utilitarianism should take into account. Singer’s stance on infanticide (in emphasising that it could only apply in limited cases) therefore seems to contradict his position on animal experimentation which does not allow for over-riding by religiously motivated desires.


[1] Don Marquis “ Singer on Abortion and Infanticide” in  Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics  ( Chicago and La Salle : Open Court Publishing Co, 2009) 141.
[2]  Peter Singer “ A Reply to Don Marquis” in  Peter Singer Under Fire: The Moral Iconoclast Faces His Critics  (Chicago and La Salle : Open Court Publishing Co, 2009) 153-162.
[3]  Ibid, 155.
[4]  Ibid.
[5]  Don Marquis “Singer  on Abortion and Infanticide” 144.
[6]  Peter Singer “ A Reply to Don Marquis” 156.
[7] Peter Singer, “About Ethics” in Writings on an Ethical Life  ( Harper Collins: London, 2000) 22.
[8] Peter Singer, “Justifying Infanticide”  in Writings on an Ethical Life  ( Harper Collins: London, 2000) 187.
[9] Ibid.

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5 responses so far ↓

  • [...] Read: Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two [...]

  • I admire your work, but I want to play devil’s advocate here and see what you think of my response. I agree with you, that Peter Singer does not motivate his account of ideal desires. However, I think there is a way to motivate it as follows: Marquis objects to Singer’s account because he thinks there is an alternative account of ideal desires that is just as plausible as his. But I think Marquis’s account of ideal desires leads to a reductio. If his Marquis’s account is right, then it seems that spiders would have rights to life. This is because if spiders were fully informed and rational, they would desire to live and thus have a right to life. This is analogous to Marquis’s claim that if infants were fully informed and rational they would desire to live and thus have a right life on Singer’s account. But granting spiders the right to life seems absurd. Thus Marquis’s account of ideal desires seems mistaken. However, Singer’s account of ideal desires is not absurd because for Singer, spiders do not have desires at all and hence cannot have ideal desires. Hence, because Singer’s ideal desire account can avoid the reductio, his account is more plausible then Marquis’s. (Obviously this is excluding your Hamlet counterexample, but I am curious what you think about the above.)

  • In reply to my comment it may be said that spiders will not naturally grow to be rational, unlike fetuses/infants. To address this worry, you can imagine hypothetical scenario were doctors have created a serum that would make spiders rational if they were injected. Hence, it seems that on Marquis’s account of ideal desires, spiders would have a right to life if they were fully informed and rational.

  • [...] response to my post Peter Singer Human Dignity and Infanticide, Ben Jury offers some astute [...]

  • […] There’s no shortage of mudslinging across the ideological divides of religion. So it’s not surprising that there is plenty of hostility and misrepresentation in even the more academic religious critiques of Singer’s ideas (See for a local example Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part One and Peter Singer on Human Dignity and Infanticide: Part Two). […]