Slippery Slopes

It’s so damn easy to hate the philosopher Peter Singer. Those who do, and their number is legion, have a seemingly endless stock from which to refuel their fires of wrath. Take Singer’s pronouncement that “The life of a newborn baby is of less value to it than the life of a pig, a dog or a chimpanzee.” Quoted out of context, this statement reads appallingly. It is just this kind of misrepresentation that propelled Singer to compile his latest volume, Writings on an Ethical Life, a compendium of key writings over the past 30 years as a pioneer in the field of “practical ethics.”

Most contemporary philosophers incite nothing more strenuous than yawns, but when Singer arrived at Princeton University in September 1999 to take up his new position as Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics, the outcry of protest was so vociferous the university was compelled to hire special security. So outraged was then–presidential candidate Steve Forbes, he threatened to cut off donations to his alma mater until the university got rid of Singer.

A mild-mannered Australian, Singer rose to prominence in the 1970s as the author of Animal Liberation, the book often cited as the inspiration behind the animal-rights movement. It remains by far his most successful work, with more than half a million copies sold to date, and even its author acknowledges it has given him an influence beyond the wildest imaginings of most contemporary philosophers. But while Singer’s views on the rights of animals infuriate his opponents, among them scientists whose research is thrown into question by his moral scrutiny of animal experimentation, it is his ideas about the sanctity of human life that have put him at the center of a whirlwind.

The protesters at the gates of Princeton could not have cared less about his opposition to the Draize test (in which potentially toxic compounds are sprayed into the eyes of captive rabbits), or to factory farming (Singer is a vegetarian who condemns the practices of modern agribusiness), or to his blistering critiques of global economic injustice and his indictment of First World wealth in the face of vast Third World poverty. What they loathed was his blunt rejection of the ethic that holds human life to be intrinsically sacred and may not be taken under any circumstance. Singer can imagine many circumstances in which it would be morally justifiable to end the life of a human being.

One is when the person in question is terminally ill and wants to die. Voluntary euthanasia is hardly a universally accepted concept, but neither is it any longer an especially controversial one; what really infuriated those protesters at Princeton was Singer’s advocacy of the right of parents to terminate the life of a severely deformed infant. We are not just talking abortion here — selective abortion of the malformed being already a widespread practice — but the calculated killing of an innocent baby.

In Germany, where Singer is especially loathed, his presence at conferences incites waves of public indignation sparking comparisons with the Nazis. Both in Germany and in the U.S., groups of the disabled and their advocates have decried Singer’s utilitarian ethic, claiming it is the first step down the slippery slope to Third Reich–style ethnic cleansing — in other words, eugenics. And put baldly (out of context and stripped of their full argumentation, as his views so often are), Singer’s ideas cannot fail to shock. But that is the last emotion he aims to induce. What Singer wants — and a full reading of this book bears out his sincerity — is a long, thoughtful and, he would be the last to deny, painful reassessment of an ethics that for all practical purposes has become untenable.

In the age of modern medicine, when we can keep patients in an irreversible coma alive for decades, when prenatal genetic diagnosis is routine and organ transplants are a standard procedure, Singer argues that traditional pronouncements about the sanctity of life have become a farce. Indeed he says, “the sanctity-of-life ethic” is “terminally ill,” representing nothing more than a convenient fiction we hide behind in order to avoid facing up to the realities of what we are already doing.

Consider the revolution over the past 30 years in our definition of death. Following the famous Harvard Brain Death Committee report of 1968, the U.S. (and since then most other countries) has adopted brain death, or permanent loss of all brain function, as the criterion for declaring a person legally dead. This radical change in our definition, which had previously held that death occurred when the heart stopped beating, transpired with almost no opposition despite its revolutionary nature, and has been hailed as one of the great achievements of bioethics. What is not so widely known, Singer points out in one chilling chapter, is that this redefinition coincided historically with the advent of organ transplants — just nine months before the Harvard report came out, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful heart transplant. This change in the definition of death has meant that “warm, breathing, pulsating human beings” can have “their hearts and other organs . . . cut out of their bodies and given to strangers.”

Several studies have shown that many of the doctors who deal with “brain-dead” patients do not really believe they are dead, and that it’s simply not true that all brain function has ceased. Brain regulation of hormones and other bodily functions continues. If it did not, the precious organs would quickly deteriorate. What we have to face up to, Singer says, is that we are harvesting organs from people who are alive. Rather than hide behind bogus definitions of death, Singer believes the only honorable course of action is to admit that all lives are not equally valuable and that some lives are indeed in such a degraded state that even though they are technically “alive,” it is still okay to take their organs.

One group for whom this philosophy has immediate consequences is severely deformed newborns — anencephalics, for example, who are born with only a brain stem and have no chance of ever gaining consciousness, or those with severe spina bifida whose lives will be very short and filled with pain. If anencephalics are allowed to die naturally, by the time they are dead their organs may no longer be useful for transplant purposes. Singer advocates in such circumstances, and assuming the parents make a free-will choice, that it is morally acceptable to kill the infant. Organs can then be harvested while they are still healthy. Even if organs are not harvested, Singer believes that in cases of severe abnormality, parents, in consultation with their doctors, should have the right to terminate a newborn life. For this he has been dubbed “Professor Death” and called the most dangerous man in the world.

For Singer, life is not something to which all beings have an equal right. In particular, membership in the species Homo sapiens is not sufficient to guarantee equal treatment. In his view, the right to life belongs not to Homo sapiens per se but to what he calls “persons.” Here a “person” is defined as a being with rationality, self-consciousness, autonomy, an ability to feel pleasure and pain et cetera, and, critically, an awareness of itself as existing over time. That is, a sense of its own future. As one of Singer’s colleagues has put it, a person is “a being with a biography not just a biology.” By this definition, neither a fetus nor a coma patient is a “person.” A human being yes, but a person no. “Since no fetus is a person,” Singer writes bluntly, “no fetus has the same claim to life as a person.”

While right-to-lifers go ballistic, many people will accept this difficult but sensible distinction. Yet Singer himself is quick to stress that it has unsettling implications. For one thing a newborn infant cannot be classed as a person either, since it is neither rational nor autonomous and has no conscious sense of its future. A newborn human is a potential person, but not yet an actual one. Thus, says Singer, killing a newborn does not carry the same moral weight as killing an adult, or even an older child.

To those who cry murder, Singer notes that this distinction has been acknowledged by many cultures the world over. The ancient Greeks for one, who left deformed and sickly infants to die on hilltops. The Greeks held a special ceremony at which the child was given a name to formalize its acceptance into the community. After that point it could not legally be killed. Like the Greeks, Singer suggests, we should understand that persons are not created at birth (still less at conception), they come into being, as it were, over time. It matters not whether one believes personality is formed by environment or genetics, or some combination of both; whatever its genesis, personality (Singer would say “personhood”) is not yet present in the newborn babe, or only to a slight degree.

One implication of this shift in perspective is a blurring of the boundaries between ourselves and nonhuman animals. By Singer’s definition of personhood, the great apes (especially chimps) must also be seen as at least partial persons. So also to some degree must dogs, cats and some farm animals. “Those who protest against abortion but dine regularly on the bodies of chickens, pigs and calves show only a biased concern for the lives of members of their own species,” Singer writes. “On any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure, pain and so on, the calf, the pig and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy.”

The distinction between a human being and a person has immediate practical consequences. Under current U.S. law, organs can be harvested from someone in an irreversible coma, but not from someone in what is known as a persistent vegetative state — here slightly more of the brain is functioning, though there is generally no sign of consciousness. People in comas cannot breathe without respirators; those in a vegetative state may do so — one reason courts have been reluctant to declare them dead. (A case is currently working its way through the California courts where the wife of a man who has been in a “minimally conscious” state for the past decade has petitioned for the right to have his feeding tube removed. She insists this is what he would have wanted; his mother and sister, however, are fighting to prevent the withdrawal.) As medical technology improves, it is going to be possible to keep alive more and more victims of car accidents, shootings, strokes and so on. Hospitals cannot keep up with this increasing load of semicomatose patients; deciding what to do with them is an urgent matter.

What about the slippery-slope argument? As Singer’s detractors see it, any one step over the edge will inevitably precipitate a race to the bottom. Hence the comparison with the Nazis. But Singer too has the slope in sight — we’re already on it, he says. Every time we declare someone brain-dead, or withdraw a feeding tube, or perform an abortion, we step onto the slope. Indeed we cannot avoid it. Rather than pretend that we can, Singer believes our responsibility is to learn to negotiate this slope with conscious forethought “so as not to slide anywhere we don’t want to go.” In short, instead of being ostriches we need to become skiers. And quickly.

For someone who incites so much heat, Peter Singer writes in a distinctly cool fashion. There are no polemical fireworks and very little sense of the man himself — only on Page 310 do we learn that he is the child of Austrian-Jewish refugees and that three of his grandparents died in the concentration camps. Eschewing the mania for autobiography that so dominates nonfiction publishing today, Singer presents his arguments with force of reason alone, and few writers argue so cohesively or persuasively. Though the heat is absent from the page, there is no question that Singer believes passionately in what he says. There have been few times during the last 25 years when he has not headed at least one organization fighting for better treatment of animals, or for better protection of the environment, or for more justice for poorer nations.

Although it is his work on life and death that has drawn the lion’s share of attention, Singer notes that his ideas about global economic injustice are ultimately of much greater significance, because this affects far more people. In two gripping chapters, he lays out “the Singer solution to world poverty,” arguing that we should be judged not just by our actions, but also by what we don’t do. In the face of Third World hunger, he says, inaction — both collectively and individually — must be seen as a supremely unethical choice. We can no more justify on moral grounds our failure to give to overseas-aid organizations than we could justify our failure to wade in and save a child from drowning if we happened to walk past a shallow pond and saw one floundering. We have so much, they have so little; it is, he says, our moral duty to lessen that imbalance.

During the past 30 years Singer’s output has been prolific. Writings on an Ethical Life presents a chance to get an overview of his philosophy in a single volume. Whether you agree with him or not, this is one of the most important books of our times.

Margaret Wertheim is the author of, most recently, The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space From Dante to the Internet.

WRITINGS ON AN ETHICAL LIFE | By PETER SINGER | The Ecco Press/HarperCollins | 361 pages | $27.50 hardcover