Iwant to argue that false philosophy can be dangerous, and to suggest that, if circumstances prevent its being refuted in print, it is probably all right, in extreme cases, to try to silence it in other ways. I shall take as my example a philosophy that can be contrasted with humanism and that I shall call “personism.” But first a few remarks about the influence of philosophy in general.
In Book 1 of his Treatise on Human Nature, David Hume writes that “errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.” F. H. Bradley, on the other hand, says in Ethical Studies that “the man of mere theory is in the practical sphere an useless and dangerous pedant.” It is quite possible that Hume was being ironical. Leaving that aside, though, it seems to me that his thesis is wrong, whereas Bradley’s has more than a grain of truth in it. Hume’s thesis is wrong, firstly because there is no general reason why an error could not be dangerous as well as ridiculous, secondly because some doctrines are both philosophical and religious, and so on his own showing can be both ridiculous and dangerous. And, thirdly, Hume thinks bad philosophy is harmless because he holds that human reason is inactive. If this were so then good philosophy, and religion, and science would be just as ineffective as he takes bad philosophy to be. But that can’t be right.
In August 1991 Peter Singer published an article in The New York Review of Books called “On Being Silenced in Germany”; eight months later another paper from his word processor, “A German Attack on Applied Ethics,” appeared in the Journal of Applied Philosophy. Singer, a professor of philosophy at Monash University in Victoria, Australia, and a founder of the Monash Centre for Human Bioethics, wrote these two essays partly as the result of his own recent experiences in Germany.
In the essay in the Journal of Applied Philosophy Singer writes:
Since 1989 I have been unable to lecture openly at universities and conferences in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Courses based on my book Practical Ethics have been repeatedly disrupted and have had to be abandoned. A conference … had to be removed from Germany to the Netherlands … The 15th International Wittgenstein Conference [August 1991] was cancelled because of objections to some of the invited speakers [including] myself …
Singer is indignant about these events. It would appear that he regards them as attacks on the freedom of expression and as personal insults to himself. Although he does not explicitly say so in the paper quoted, it seems probable that he adheres to the conventional doctrine of the sanctity of free speech.
Singer’s indignation reminds us that we need to distinguish between freedom of expression and the special right or privilege of addressing the world at large from a public platform. The first is a basic human right. The second is essentially a privilege attaching to certain professions: to priests, politicians, editors, journalists, TV programmers, academic bigwigs, and the like. I think it is impossible for everyone to have this privilege because if everyone had it it would cease to exist. If everyone were a priest there would be no congregation and so no sermons, if everyone were a professor there would be no students and so no lectures. It follows that the privilege of regular access to this or that type of public forum is not a basic human right. In any case it is completely unrealistic to imagine that Singer’s regular access to public platforms is a privilege shared by the ordinary people who picketed his talks in Germany.
Freedom of expression is exercised in different ways. In countries where the right is respected, you can exercise it by speaking openly to your friends, and by writing letters to politicians, and through peaceful demonstrations, and by picketing Peter Singer’s lectures. In unfree countries you can try circulating letters in samizdat and you can try sitting down in Tiananmen Square. If worst comes to worst you can throw yourself under Soviet tanks in Budapest or Prague.
It is important for freedom generally that the professional privilege of addressing the public at large should exist, and should not be hampered by government; but that doesn’t mean that the rest of us are obliged to sit around in reverential silence. Professors and others abuse the privilege of the public forum when they jeer at women, or insult the Jews, or stir up hatred and incite people to violence. In my opinion the privilege is badly abused when academics call for the deaths of unwanted children or other innocent human beings. This particular misuse is also cowardly. The bioethics lobby never targets anybody who might be able to hit back.
Unlike Solzhenitsyn, Peter Singer will never go to jail, nor will he ever lose his job. He can say whatever he likes and write whatever he likes. If people don’t want to read what he writes, or don’t want to have him preaching “euthanasia” in their own backyards, then his plight is about as bad as the plight of those many ordinary citizens who can’t persuade newspapers to publish their letters.
Nevertheless, Singer obviously feels aggrieved. “Initially,” he writes in the Journal of Applied Philosophy,
the German opposition to applied ethics focused on my own writings and in particular on my support for euthanasia in the case of severely disabled newborn infants … [my] position is, of course, at odds with the conventional doctrine of the sanctity of human life, but it is shared by several philosophers and bioethicists.
In a footnote he lists eight books whose authors are in general agreement with his position and says that “many more could be added.”
It is indeed true that, although there are distinguished exceptions (Anscombe, Finnis, Foot, Uniacke, Coady, Ford), many, perhaps most authors working in the field of bioethics are opposed to so-called “conventional” ideas and in general agreement with Singer’s views. Perhaps this partly explains why people in Europe attempted to silence him; in their eyes he represented, not freedom, but the oppressive power of an elite.
I am not in a position to know if any of the many Germans, Austrians, and Swiss whose actions caused the cancellation of lectures and conferences had first attempted to refute Singer in print. Perhaps they had, but couldn’t find publishers or publicity. Maybe they weren’t philosophers or medics and so couldn’t get lecture slots in conferences on bioethics. Perhaps they wrote letters to newspapers that were suppressed at the behest of bioethicists (this once happened to me). Or maybe they just felt unable to tackle a professor on his own ground. Who knows? Be that as it may, it won’t do for Singer to complain if I exercise my right to free expression by setting out to refute him in print.
When Singer explained his views on euthanasia in the Journal of Applied Philosophy and The New York Review of Books he was surprisingly economical with the truth. He misrepresented the contents of his book Practical Ethics to a very serious degree. Thus in the Journal of Applied Philosophy Singer speaks only of his “support for euthanasia in the case of severely disabled newborn infants,” whereas in his book he argues that a far wider range of human beings can rightly be killed.
In his book he asserts that human beings qua human beings have no right to life: “The wrongness of killing a being cannot depend on its species.” In his book he asserts that killable infants need not be defective: “The only difference between killing a normal infant and a defective one is the attitude of the parents.”
These two statements are in stark contrast with the clear implication of the Journal of Applied Philosophy paper that only defective newborns may be killed on Singerian principles.
Both the above quotations come from Chapter 2 of Practical Ethics. In the same chapter we read that killable infants need not be newborn: Singer states that it is perfectly all right for fertile parents to kill a month-old hemophiliac baby in order to replace it with a more healthy one. Waiting for a month will give its biological or adoptive parents time to assess the degree of its illness, and to decide whether they really want it. Singer says that infants are “replaceable” and that it is all right to replace an infant by killing it and conceiving another. (It is interesting to note that in Arabia, in primitive times, female infants were replaced by males in this manner, as we know from the Koran, which condemns the practice as a terrible crime.)
Nor need killable infants be very young: Singer states that children who do not yet understand they are persons are not persons, and can be killed if they are not wanted by their parents. But at what age do children acquire a concept of personhood? Is it two? Or four? Or seven? Must the child be able to articulate its belief? And what is the status of a child who knows it can think but believes that all human beings are persons? Singer does not address himself directly to these questions, but his stated principles appear to imply that those who lack a right to life include inarticulate human children, and even articulate children (or adults) whose understanding of what constitutes a person differs from Singer’s own.
Thus it turns out that Singer thinks that just about any child can be killed if there are no potential adopters and the parents don’t want that particular child. In support of this idea he says on pages 131-2 of Practical Ethics: “No infant, defective or not, has as strong a claim to life as a person.” (The Singerian distinction between human beings and persons will be dealt with below.)
Some of the people in Europe who opposed Singer’s lecturing there were cripples in wheelchairs. One can understand why such individuals would find his conclusions distasteful. If Singer’s principles had been adopted when these lifelong cripples were infants they might not have lived to protest against his book.
Is Singer blind to the distasteful character of his opinions? The fact that he glosses and distorts his doctrines when explaining them in the Journal of Applied Philosophy seems to show either that he is capable of insincerity or (to give him the benefit of the doubt) that he is not completely blind. Maybe an original blindness was partly cured by witnessing those wheelchairs lined up outside the conference centers.
That Singer’s doctrines are supported by many authors in the bioethics field does not show they are right. Bioethics is at the “pop” end of philosophy, and like “pop” newspapers, it keeps itself afloat by constructing bad-news stories. You thought doctors ought to stick to the Hippocratic Oath? Bad news! Singer says they don’t have to! You thought everyone had a right to life? Bad news! Bioethicists say only some human beings have this right! You thought experimentation on living human flesh went out with Nazism? Bad news!! Clever professors at Monash say such experimentation is OK!
On the other hand, the fact that Singer’s ethical doctrines entail distasteful conclusions that he himself sometimes tries to disguise is not quite enough to show they are wrong. To show conclusively that they are wrong we need to look at the history of the doctrines, and, more importantly, at their underlying premises or assumptions. This I shall now do.
Singer, as far as I know, is not a religious believer. Nonbelievers, including me for example, often call themselves humanists. It is important to understand that Singer has no right to that title. A humanist is one who places value on human enterprises like art and learning, and ultimately on human beings as such. Singer denies that human beings as such have any intrinsic value, hence he is a non- or anti-humanist. I think the best label for him and for those who agree with him is “personist.”
What are the underlying assumptions of Singer’s personism? His basic premises or assumptions consist of a dogma and a definition. The dogma: nothing in the universe has any intrinsic value except happiness and pleasure (utilitarianism). The definition: a person is a conscious thinking being. From these premises all kinds of things are inferred, for example: Human life per se has no intrinsic value; Not all human beings are persons; Only human beings who know they are persons are persons; Persons as such have rights; human beings as such have no rights; Several sorts of human beings have no right to life.
In Practical Ethics, Singer lists the kinds of human beings who have no right to life, explicitly mentioning not only disabled newborn infants but also month-old hemophiliac infants not wanted by their parents or adopters, any young infant not wanted by its parents or adopters, and all human beings who do not know they are persons.
I will not stop to ask whether conclusions 1 to 5 actually follow from the two basic assumptions. Rather I will ask what reasons, if any, are offered by Singer in support of those assumptions. Apart from an appeal to authority (Locke’s) and some rather vague and unevidenced references to “current intuitions,” Singer offers no reasons in support of his premises. They are effectively treated as axiomatic, and can therefore be rightly rejected by all those who, like the German, Austrian, and Swiss objectors, have humanistic intuitions and different axioms.
The dogma that only happiness has intrinsic value rests on nothing stronger than the intuitions of utilitarians: Jeremy Bentham, J. S. Mill, Peter Singer and (presumably) his bioethicist friends. In other words, it is a dogma pure and simple, and if your intuitions tell you it is false it is perfectly OK to reject it, whether or not you can “put something else in its place.”
The definition comes from Locke, who would not, however, have accepted the inferences that Singer draws from it. Locke’s definition in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding is as follows: A person is “a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself.”
On this definition personhood consists in memory, reason, consciousness, and self- consciousness. It does not consist in being human.
Now several philosophers have drawn attention to the logical howlers engendered by Locke’s definition. Singer, though, is not interested in any logical howlers to be found in Locke’s thought, but rather in what he sees as that philosopher’s “impeccable” authority: “This sense [of the word ‘person’] has impeccable philosophical antecedents. It comes from John Locke.”
Yet when Singer draws ethical conclusions from the definition, he decides after all to ignore the “impeccable” authority. For it’s clear that Locke would have rejected personism— firstly because he was a Christian, secondly because he believed in natural rights (and natural rights can only belong to a natural species), and thirdly (as implied in Chapter 27 of the Essay) because he held that it’s important for justice that neither persons nor human beings (human bodies) be wrongly punished.
Why does it matter how “person” is defined? Well, it would not matter if the concept of “human being” could retain its moral import come what may.
Note that in ordinary life the word “person” is strongly humanistic. Outside philosophy and religion its meaning is governed by the fact that its extension is in practice the same as the extension of the term “human being.” In other words, in ordinary life “person” and “human being” refer to the same things. For this reason the ordinary sense of the word “person” does not, indeed cannot, detach moral import from the concept of the human. The case is otherwise with the Singerian view of personhood, because when Singer draws his distinction between human beings and persons he carefully detaches moral import from his idea of the human and transfers it to his idea of the person. A humanist deciding to draw the same unsound quasi-Lockean distinction might well detach moral import from “person” and attach it to “human being.” But remember that Singer is not a humanist.
Consider the statement that “the wrongness of killing a being cannot depend on its species.” Where does this thesis come from? How did Singer discover it? The answer is: It has been derived, ultimately, from nothing stronger than an arbitrary definition of the word “person.” That definition is arbitrary indeed: it does not mirror ordinary use (because ordinary use equates persons with human beings), it does not mirror legal use (ditto, roughly), it does not describe a naturally existing class of natural objects (such as a species), and it does not even mirror Locke (for the reasons explained above).
Singer’s philosophical procedures just aren’t good enough. It is obvious that nothing of any significance can be derived from arbitrary definitions and/or the subjective intuitions of Bentham and a bunch of bioethicists.
After appealing to authority and intuition Singer attempts to rebut opposition with tendentious adjectives and irrelevant accusations. Thus he describes the doctrine of the sanctity of life as “conventional,” as if it were analogous to conventions about what side of the shirt has the buttonholes. And he says that his opponents’ intuitional apparatus has been spoiled by ancestral adherence to outmoded religious beliefs.
These moves aren’t good enough either. It is absurd to reject an ethic merely because it is, or was, or could be part of a religious belief system. And if human life itself has only conventional importance it becomes terribly hard to see how Singer’s wish to speak at conferences could have any importance whatsoever. Moreover, to describe the value of human life as a matter of mere convention is contrary to all experience of what human beings value. Of course human beings value human life. Of course they don’t think their own lives, and other human lives, are conventionally rather than intrinsically important.
In Singer’s bioethics, “person” is an honorific term. The persons of bioethical theory are almost godlike beings when compared to ordinary men, women, and children. Persons have dignity, and they alone among human beings have an unchallengeable right to life. Persons who are not persons (if I may put it that way) do not have dignity, and their rights, if any, are relative or conventional. The persons of bioethics are much better people than human beings because they are constituted by consciousness, self-awareness, intelligence, memory, foresight, knowledge of the concept of person, etc., etc., etc. Strange to say the persons of bioethical theory seem to be almost immaterial. At the very least they always possess big dualistic wardrobes.
Even if Singer is not religious, he does have a kind of theology. His ideas resemble those of religions that say that one has to belong to a special group—the baptized, the circumcised, the elect, or whatever. In some religions membership in a special group is thought to be a way of avoiding getting sent to an unpleasant place such as hell. Somewhat similarly membership of the special group picked out by the bioethicists goes with protection from mundane destruction because it’s argued that the favored group has a real right to life. Since the favored breed consists of persons who know they are persons in the Singerian sense, no one could possibly be more special, more protected, than the bioethicists themselves.
Singer expounds his personistic ethical system in many places, including all his books but one. The system, which is his lifework, depends crucially on the two foundational premises mentioned above, and especially on the arbitrary quasi-Lockean distinction between human beings and persons. It would be terribly hard for Singer to give up those premises, this distinction, because if he did his lifework would collapse. I hope to have shown that a collapse may in the end be inevitable. Of course that will be sad for Singer, but he himself seems to imply that refutation is less painful than suppression by popular demo.
Let us end by returning to the words of F. H. Bradley:
The man of mere theory is in the practical sphere an useless and dangerous pedant… . [The best adviser] is the man who from his own knowledge, and by sympathy, can transport himself into another’s case: who knows the heart.
It is interesting to speculate about whether Bradley believed that pedantic dangers can be avoided, and, if so, what prophylactic he would have recommended. Refutation might not do the trick, especially if the pedantry rests on an intuition. Mass demonstrations in support of a different intuition might well be more effective.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 11 Number 8, on page 25
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com