Singer: Infanticide

Peter Singer: Infanticide, Yes; Kangaroo Cull, No

Princeton bioethicist Peter Singer is famous for two primary reasons: First, he jump started the animal rights/liberation movement with his 1975 book Animal Liberation. Second, he is the world’s foremost proponent of the legitimacy of infanticide. Thus, writing on page 186 in Practical Ethics, he supported the right of parents to kill a newborn with hemophilia in order to make life easier for a hypothetical, yet-to-be-born sibling:

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be higher if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.It should be noted that the disability of the infant isn’t why he can be killed, but rather, his view that infants are not persons.

Cut to Australia where an overpopulation of kangaroos threatens the animals with starvation. The government is proposing a cull. But Singer opposes. From the story:

Professor Singer has urged the Australian Defence Force to use kangaroo contraceptives instead of guns to control numbers. Defence has applied to kill up to 3200 kangaroos at two of its sites around Canberra. The animals risk starvation and are damaging the environment, Defence says.

Professor Singer, whose 1975 book Animal Liberation spawned the modern animal rights movement, is one of the world’s best-known and most controversial thinkers on animal rights. He said the cull did not seem to be necessary. “We need some form of fertility control to deal with these situations,” the Princeton University bioethics professor told the Canberra Times.

The thing is, Singer doesn’t believe in either human rights or animal rights. He is a utilitarian who believes what should and should not be done must be based on whether the outcome would promote satisfaction of preferences or interests, or be detrimental to those goals. He broke out of the crowd because he asserted that in taking such utilitarian measurements, the interests of animals deserve equal consideration with the interests of people.

With the kangaroos, Singer apparently weighed the suffering in the animals that would be caused by the cull and that of potential starvation, and believed the cull would cause more suffering and hence should not be done. But if the happiness were increased with the cull, he would support it–as he did experimenting on monkeys last year.

You see, for Singer, principles of right and wrong make no sense. We follow Peter Singer at great peril to human rights and the well being of the weak and vulnerable among us.

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Another inconsistency in Singer’s logic is that he says the future happiness of a healthy infant is greater in moral importance than the happiness of the hemopheliac infant. This statement rests on the notion that the future happiness of healthy infants in general is of great moral importance. Yet in other texts (”Rethinking Life and Death”), Prof. Singer says that future happiness for the unborn does not matter, since they presently are not persons and have no consciousness, and he quotes John Locke’s definition of a person (one whose life matters) as one who is presently aware of themselves as themselves in different times and places. This contradicts in principle the notion underlying his above argument. As well, Prof. Singer states that abortion on healthy infants should be legal if they are unwanted by their biological parents. i.e., abortion should be legal on demand. The reality of loving adoptive parents cancels any reduction of future happiness for these infants. So Prof. Singer can’t use utilitarianism with respect to the future happiness per se of adopted children to justify abortion. At the same time, in the above example from “Practical Ethics” he has committed himself to the notion that in general the future happiness of healthy unborn children is of great moral importance.

So Prof. Singer is contradicting himself in principle if he continues to support abortion on demand because the unborn presently lack awareness, even though many, if not most, unborn possess the exact same quality (a high potential future awareness) that Prof. Singer contends gives great moral importance to the life of the healthy unborn infant over the life of the hemophiliac infant in Prof. Singer’s above example.

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