Monday, March 21, 2005

Two weeks ago my sister was kind enough to send me her current alumni magazine, which had several articles on moral philosophy. The one which caught my eye was about Peter Singer, the Australian ethicist who is currently a professor at Princeton and who wrote, most famously, Animal Liberation.

What struck me most about the article was not Singer's stance on vegetarianism per se. Rather, what struck me is the way he bases his much more controversial positions -- such as that it may be ethical to commit infanticide -- on the same rationale that supports his argument for vegetarianism. According to Singer, whether we are talking about animals or infants, valuing one form of conscious life over others is logically inconsistent and therefore ethically wrong.

As sympathetic as I am to Singer's main point -- that we humans need to do a better job of valuing all conscious life -- I can't help but disagree with both its specific structure and the general understanding of ethical philosophy underlying it.

The crude version of Singer's argument is as follows:

a) it is ethically permissible to terminate conscious but non-rational life

b) both animals and infants constitute conscious but non-rational life

c) it is ethically permissible to terminate the lives of animals and infants

Against this line there are a variety of counter-arguments. The most compelling is that while neither animals nor infants are capable of rational thought, infants nonetheless contain the potential for rational thought. Feed them, nourish them, and protect them, and eventually they will grow to a point where they begin performing advanced cognitive processes. To privilege a human infant is, therefore, to privilege a future rational being.

Singer's response to this is simply to qualify that the infants in question have severe mental handicaps. Since mental retardation inhibits the cognitive abilities by which humanity has historically distinguished itself, Singer is forcing his opponents to find another standard with which to argue for human uniqueness.

Alas, here the game effectively stops. In his own terms Singer will always win, because it simply is not possible to logically distinguish a severely handicapped human from an animal with lower cognitive abilities. The only two ways to proceed at all are either to define human uniqueness in a circular, taxonomical way (ie, regardless of cognitive ability, every human is unique because every human belongs to the human species), or to venture into ethical theology.

To his credit, rather than killing infants along with animals, Singer refrains from killing either; he rejects the initial premise that it is ethically permissible to end conscious life at all. Yet as admirable as that rejection is, he still provides no other way to distinguish human from animal life. In embracing vegetarianism, he leaves humanity indistinct from bovinity, avianity, felinity, etc.

The trouble with this is that as rationally unassailable as it is, it is also emotionally unappealing to many. Indeed, a majority of people, including myself, prefer to delve instead into some form of theology in order to distinguish human life. Why? Singer and his proponents might consider it a lack of conviction or courage, but for myself at least, it has to do with something else: call it an historical awareness, evidenced most visibly in the Soviet gulags, that living solely by logic is no way to live at all.

UPDATE: I first began this post a week ago, but haven't had the time to return to it until today. In the meantime, the issue has gained an unexpected relevance: please see this recent article in the International Herald Tribune, about a Dutch physician who practices infant euthenasia.


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