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: 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
In A Reply to Don Marquis, 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”, 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.
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” . 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” 
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 [Read more →]
Tags: Don Marquis · Ethics · Evangelical Philosophical Society · Human Dignity · Infanticide · Milwaukee · Peter Singer