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February 14, 2003

It must be said....

This long article from The New York Times Magazine is about the confrontation/dialogue between Peter Singer (extreme utilitarian philosopher) and a disabled rights activists. Personally, I think both hold unreasonable extremist positions-Singer's utilitarianism does not take into account human feeling and frailties, and ironically, nether do disabled right's activists-who deny that there might be a case to be made that there is a qualitative difference of life between the abled and disabled. More comments later-but I am surprised that the article did not bring up Rawls' "Original Position," ie; what society would be just if you lived behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing your own status or abilities?

Posted by razib at 04:22 PM




The article starts off: "He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened."

She is of course referring to Singer's advocacy of infanticide. For my part I think there is a certain arbitrariness to where you draw the line for right to life but he has drawn it too chronologically late for most people to be comfortable with. Nonetheless his position with regard to the specific issue is a sound one because the infanticide option would be totally unnecessary with genetic screening. The prpblem with these disability activists is that they *would* have a problem with the screening principle itself, not just the infanticide option and when the latter is rendered unnecessary will still find the idea that parents might choose to screen out mentally or physically disabled offspring as outrageous.

Posted by: Jason Soon at February 14, 2003 04:54 PM


singer is a hypocrite, he's provided special care for his own mother-but he espouses universal love. in his own personal situation, human nature takes over. but his utilitarian ethics neglect the darwinian imperative to favor one's own genes from what i can see (this coming from a man who has written about creating a politics of the Darwinian Left).

as far as the disabled rights activists-they use the example of euthanizing mixed-race babies. i don't believe in infanticide personally, but a more appropriate example-i think it is up to the individual whether they should abort based on race, gender or possibilit disabilities. the government should not dictate these choices as in the past-but neither should the government prevent the choices of individuals.

the problem that both singer & the disabled rights activists face is that human beings do not love our fellow man equally. in a perfect world for the disabled rights activist society would step in and take care of those with infirmities and ailments-but in the real world, it is the near relations that do this, so it seems reasonable that the near relations (in particular the mother and father) should be allowed to decide through genetic screening whether they should go ahead with a pregnancy that will result in a person that will be a significant financial drain on them. conversely, it is not singer's place to lecture people who will be taking on financial risks that they should abort, even if (unfortnately) it causes the existence of a life that might suffer. human beings bond with each other-and trascend a utilitarian calculation of value, yes. but human beings also make judgements and weight positives and benefits before entering into these implied social contracts, whether that be marriage or parenthood.

perhaps more later. got to work.

Posted by: razib at February 14, 2003 06:11 PM


Singer's hypocracy is heroic. He IS human, but he conciously sets himself up for ridicule by promoting standards that he believes in, whether or not he is able to live up to them. Think of the conversation in "The Diamond Age". To me, Singer the son resembles Jefferson the slave owner. In fact, I'll write a poem praising him.


To heroes enduring

First of hypocrites
Finest mouthed virtue
What of one's actions
Centuries hence

Words outlast bodies
Carnal and venial
Choicest legacy to
All but your heirs

Praised be your wisdom
and desperate courage
Tis due from all those touched
by just your ideas

Posted by: michaelvassar at February 14, 2003 08:46 PM


Dude, Jefferson couldn't free his slaves because he was desperately in debt and didn't want to leave his children in hock. Don't be so hard on him. Nonetheless point taken - Jefferson cared ultimately more for his relatives than his ideals, and who can blame him?

Posted by: Jason Soon at February 14, 2003 10:59 PM


You often hear it said thqat "Washington freed his slaves but Jefferson didn't". In fact Washington freed his wife's personal slaves on her death, but not his field slaves. Similarly Jefferson freed some of the Hemmings. There is no moral distance between them on this issue.

Posted by: Dick Thompson at February 15, 2003 08:48 AM


As I said, this is Praise. I wish I could do as much good as Singer some day, not to mention Jefferson. FAR better to cause millions to admire a better ideal than to live up to that ideal oneself.

Posted by: michaelv at February 15, 2003 08:40 PM


As I said, this is Praise. I wish I could do as much good as Singer some day, not to mention Jefferson. FAR better to cause millions to admire a better ideal than to live up to that ideal oneself.

Posted by: michaelv at February 15, 2003 08:40 PM