Whats love got to do with it: The ethical contradictions of Peter
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer says some humans
particularly fetuses, newborn babies, and elderly people
suffering from dementia should be killed if their deaths will
reduce overall suffering. Never mind that Singer broke all of
his own rules when his mother became ill with Alzheimers
Dr. Peter Singer, a tenured professor of the Center for Human Values
at Princeton University, is one of the world's most famous and
influential philosophers. He's best known for his most infamous idea:
that parents who aren't able to care for their newborn baby healthy or
not should have the right to kill it.
No one would accept such a horrific idea, right? Wrong.
Singer's "utilitarian" theories have a growing following. His numerous
books and articles have appeared in countless translations all over the
world, and his writing style appeals to a wide range of audiences, from
the most intellectual to the most popular.
What is Utilitarianism? It's a philosophy that says we have a moral
duty to decrease the level of suffering and increase the level of
pleasure experienced by as many people as possible, at all costs.
Moral absolutes against killing, in some cases shouldn't be
allowed to stand in the way of this goal.
There are utilitarians, for instance, who think killing some humans
is ethically the right thing to do if it achieves the overall goal
of reducing suffering and increasing pleasure. How can they justify this
reasoning? Many utilitarian-minded ethicists who believe it's okay to
kill some humans agree with an unquestioned assumption of contemporary
bioethics that some members of the human species are not persons.
Their term for these humans is "non-person humans."
Singer makes a clear-cut distinction between a biological definition
of humanity, and a definition of persons based on conscious activity. (Practical
Ethics, Cambridge UP, 1993, 85-87). He doesn't doubt or deny, but
in fact strongly affirms, that from the moment of conception human
embryos are human beings, as are all of the other humans he's willing to
kill. From a genetic/biological point of view especially with our
advanced technology it would be absurd to deny that any of these are
members of the species "Homo sapiens."
When does a member of the human species also count as a
person? To answer that question Singer develops the teachings of the
philosophers John Locke and Joseph Fletcher, whom he rightly refers to
as the forefathers of this view, saying, "I propose to use [the term]
'person', in the sense of a rational and self-conscious being"
(Practical Ethics, 87). And so, a "non-person human" is a being who is
undeniably a member of our species based on biology and genetics, but
who is incapable of the conscious activities typical of those members
when they are alert: thinking, feeling, hoping, experiencing pleasure
and pain, etc.
In a striking and revolting text, Singer makes explicit his position:
"If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal,
a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have
superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality,
self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly
be considered morally significant."( Sanctity of Life or Quality of
Life, Pediatrics (1983) Vol. 27: 128-29). In other texts he asserts
that healthy infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor
self-conscious, and therefore do not count as persons and may be killed
(See for example, Practical Ethics, 170 74).
You could say that when utilitarians lost
the battle on a scientific level they can't claim any longer
that an embryo isn't human they switched to the idea that
embryos and other vulnerable forms of biologically human life
are not persons.
One way to understand this reasoning would be to recall the argument
pro-abortion advocates used to make that an embryo "isn't even
human, it's just a blob of tissue." No one says that anymore, thanks
to advances in genetic and DNA research. You could say that when
utilitarians lost the battle on a scientific level they can't
claim any longer that an embryo isn't human they switched to the
idea that embryos and other vulnerable forms of biologically human
life are not persons.
To counter some of Singer's ideas, last year I wrote and
presented a paper contrasting the idea of human suffering as described
by Pope John Paul II with that of Peter Singer. I sent the paper to
Singer, and to my surprise he wrote back. Although his response was
cordial, and in some respects helpful, ultimately it was disappointing.
Singer's views often elicit strong negative emotions in those who
disagree with him. Yet his writing style makes it difficult to pin down
the reasons why his conclusions are wrong; I hope to identify some of
those reasons here.
In his book, The Expanding Circle (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1981), Professor Singer criticized Blessed Mother
Teresa of Calcutta because she described her love for others as love for
each of a succession of individuals rather than as "love for mankind
merely as such." "If we were more rational," he says, "we would use our
resources to save as many lives as possible, irrespective of whether we
do it by reducing the road toll or by saving specific, identifiable
lives" (p. 157). His idea seems to be that since Blessed Teresa was not,
for example, spending her energy calculating auto accident rates against
various speed limit options, she was irrational, because in doing so she
could help more people.
Yet, there is a difference between the love of Blessed
Teresa for each person she met and the love Singer calls "love of
mankind." Let's call Blessed Teresa's love, "love of the individual."
Love of the individual involves a one-to-one relationship based on an
attitude of care and respect that demands your full attention before
moving on to the next person. "Love of mankind," on the other hand, is
not a focus on one individual, but rather on the sum total of all
Singer's view implies that face-to-face relationships
sap time and energy that could be put to better use in lowering the
overall suffering of mankind. This idea tends to separate individual
people from suffering so you can get a measurable thing called "overall
suffering." After that, you do whatever it takes to decrease suffering,
even if it sometimes means killing an innocent person.
Of course, Blessed Teresa also wanted the overall
suffering of humanity to be reduced, but she never tried to achieve that
goal by killing someone. In fact, she believed that in addition to the
terrible violation of the individual killed, doing so would inevitably
lead to more suffering in the long run.
In principle, Singer is open to killing anyone as long
as that single death will reduce overall suffering, but he focuses on
fetuses, newborn babies, and elderly people suffering from dementia,
since, as mentioned above, they lack certain abilities that healthy
What's fascinating is that it is
precisely when Singer gets into the position of reuniting
suffering with a specific individual person, one whom he
loves, that he reverses in his actions what he insists
upon in his books.
Something interesting happens, however, when the individual in
question is a family member. Peter Singer broke all of his own rules
when his mother became ill with Alzheimer's disease. Michael Specter
reported on this in a profile of Singer titled, The Dangerous
(The New Yorker, September 6, 1999). Singer's
mother had reached a point in her life where she no longer
recognized Singer, his sister, or her grandchildren, and she had
lost the ability to reason. In this state, according to Singer's
theory, she did not meet the definition of a person. According to
his ethical theory, she ought to have been killed or left to die.
Certainly no money should have been spent on her care, since the
money could be better spent lowering the suffering of the greatest
number of other people. Instead, Singer and his sister hired a team
of home health-care aides to look after their mother, spending tens
of thousands of dollars in the process.
What's fascinating is that it is precisely when Singer
gets into the position of reuniting suffering with a specific individual
person, one whom he loves, that he reverses in his actions what he
insists upon in his books.
Many people have asked Singer about this contradiction
between his behavior and his theory, and in many of those instances he
has responded in ways consistent with his theory. Yet, when Michael
Specter pressed him on the point, Singer said, "I think this has made me
see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really
very difficult... Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before,
because it is different when it's your mother." (The New Yorker,
The difference, when the sufferer is your mother, is
that you love her. And it is love that opens our eyes to the true source
of the worth of persons: their inner preciousness, unrepeatability, and
uniqueness. It is precisely a glimpse of the unrepeatable uniqueness of
another human person that inspires love. Once this glimpse is achieved
and love springs forth in the soul as it does like a surprising gift
that love then has the remarkable power of allowing you to see more
clearly and deeply the unique preciousness, as well as the humanity, of
the person you love. That vision in turn inspires more love. When that
happens, there is no philosophical argument that can make you kill the
one you love or in any other way abandon her.
Of course, some people believe it's merciful to kill
someone who is in pain; that, however, is not love, but abandonment and
murder. The request to be killed is actually a plea for two basic
things: to be loved and to find pain relief. As soon as a person feels
loved and/or has their pain managed, they no longer ask to be killed
(and they're grateful that their request was not heeded). Pain is the
trump card used by pro-euthanasia activists to promote their cause, but
in our high-tech world we have the ability to eliminate this reason for
the request to be killed. As for the other reason feeling like an
unloved nuisance we must rise to the challenge presented by the
recognition that loving each person is an infinitely higher value than
cost management and perfect physical health.
It's very important to point out that while the love you
have for someone is one reason why you would never kill him, it isn't
the deepest reason. The deepest reason is the inner worth of the person.
Your love for him is inside of you, but his humanity, uniqueness, and
preciousness are inside of him. When you love someone you can more
clearly see his inner worth. The person has this inner worth whether or
not you love him, so no one should kill him but unless love is in the
picture you might have trouble knowing about his inner worth.
In making this defense, however,
Singer forgot to look on page 2 of his book Practical
This brings us to Dr. Singer's surprising and alas disappointing
response when I pointed out the discrepancy between his life and his
philosophy. He shared with me an article he wrote that has since
appeared in The Ethics of Assistance
2004), a book edited by Deen Chatterjee, and gave me permission to
quote it. In the article he defends his theories against those who
would use his behavior to refute them. The many people who wrote
against Singer said, in effect: "Look, you didn't follow your rules
when it came to your own mother, doesn't that mean your rules are
wrong?" Paraphrasing, his answer is basically this: "No, that
doesn't mean my rules are wrong, it only means that I disobeyed them
in the case of my mother, and acted unethically."
Here are his words: "Suppose, however, that it were
crystal clear that the money could do more good elsewhere. Then I would
be doing wrong in spending it on my mother, just as I do wrong when I
spend, on myself or my family, money that could do more good if donated
to an organization that helps people in much greater need than we are. I
freely admit to not doing all that I should; but I could do it, and the
fact that I do not do it does not vitiate the claim that it is what I
should do" (p. 29).
This answer is frustrating because he equates two
unequal ideas: on the one hand, donating money to the poor in the form
of tithing, and on the other hand, killing someone and then donating the
money you gained from that to the poor. I would ask Dr. Singer to answer
the following questions:
Has he learned from this experience and made a firm intention
not to make this moral error in the future? For example, when
his wife, children, or sister become debilitated, will he do
what he believes to be the "right thing" and kill them?
If it is the case that his action toward his mother, while in
direct opposition to his written work, does not negate his
theories, how many such actions would it take to negate them?
If he is convinced that he did an objective wrong against the
greater good when he cared for his mother, does he also think
that he has thereby incurred moral guilt by caring for her?
Most people don't respect a teacher who doesn't live
according to the demands he makes on others. To remain consistent,
Singer should have written: "I want to apologize to all my followers for
my error, I am sorry I failed, and I assure you that if this same
situation happens with any other family members of mine, I will not let
you down again!" But he didn't write that. He very well may act in just
the same way with other ill family members: he may care for them only
time will tell. Why is it, we could wonder, that the leader of this
movement can do the exact opposite of what he preaches and boldly
admit it while adding that none of this undercuts his theoretical
In making this defense, however, Singer forgot to look
on page 2 of his book Practical Ethics, where he asserts,
"...ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in
practice. The reverse is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that
is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect..." It
seems that not only his critics think his action towards his mother
negates his ethical theory, he does too! Will he take his own advice and
admit that his ethical theory must suffer from theoretical defects,
since it is no good in his very own practice?
These questions and the contradictions in Singer's
thought are important, but even they don't approach the real problem,
expressed in the following question: Why can't Singer take the step from
his experience with his mother to see that Blessed Teresa's way of life
is the most rational? She acted in the same way he did towards his
mother with every person she met. Her noble effort never to abandon
anyone springs from an insight that Singer rejects over and over again:
No person is replaceable, and no person ever loses his worth. Love,
which clarifies the vision of the beloved, is an experience common to
believers and non-believers alike, and so even though Singer is an
atheist, these insights, which guided Blessed Teresa's life, are
available to him through his experience with his mother.
To kill or abandon one single human
person, is in a certain sense just as horrible as killing or
abandoning thousands. Since persons are irreplaceably
precious, killing one of them represents an infinite crime.
In addition, since utilitarian ethics allows for the killing and
abandonment of individual persons to achieve its stated goal of
reducing overall suffering, it has actually doomed itself to failure
from the outset. The link between the legalization of euthanasia and
large-scale killing is not correctable through "guidelines," but
follows from an inner and unavoidable logic. Not only has
large-scale killing followed on the coattails of legalized
euthanasia historically, but the logical connection between the two
can also be demonstrated. I would formulate that reason like this:
To kill or abandon one single human person, is in a certain sense
just as horrible as killing or abandoning thousands. Since persons
are irreplaceably precious, killing one of them represents an
infinite crime, and so killing many is not a "greater" evil in a
quantitative sense, such that when you reach a certain number, say
100,000, only then does immorality kick in.
My friend, Dr. Maria Fedoryka, put it this way: "Killing
many persons should be understood as a 'greater' evil in the sense that
it is repeating many times over an already infinite crime of violating a
unique person." And so, if the killing of any person becomes allowed,
then the only foundation on which mass killing could be opposed has been
stripped from the equation. Only a person who understands this can truly
bring about what Pope John Paul II calls a "civilization of love." On
March 20, 2004 Pope John Paul II announced the following to participants
at an international conference titled, Life-Sustaining Treatments
and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas:
"I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic
value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter
what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if
seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is
and always will be a man, and he will never become a 'vegetable' or an
'animal.' Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the
clinical condition of a 'vegetative state' retain their human dignity in
all its fullness" (Zenit.org, April 5, 2004).
Suffering is an unavoidable and overwhelming fact of
life. John Paul II also says that one of the deepest meanings to be
found within it is its ability to "unleash love," which if realized in
individual cases, will eventually result in an entire civilization of
love (Salvifici Doloris, Nos. 28-30). Yet, we can be strongly
tempted to think people who are sick have lost their worth and do not
deserve love and care. It is for this reason, it seems to me, that the
Catechism of the Catholic Church insists, "Those whose lives
are diminished or weakened deserve special respect" (No. 2276). This is
not because they are worth more than the healthy, but because it is too
easy for the healthy to forget they still have all of their personal
dignity. As soon as love comes into the picture, however, the right
attitude toward individuals returns.
Despite his experience with his mother, Singer has yet
to admit this in his writing. His answer that he did wrong when he
cared for his mother, as one of my students, Maria Scarnecchia, put it,
"excuses his action, but does not express the motive for it." His
critics are looking for that motive, and so I will suggest one: He did
not kill his mother because he loves her, and this love made him see the
reasons within her being for which she should not be killed.
If utilitarians are sincere in their desire to bring
about the greatest good for the greatest number of people, let them
strive to achieve a civilization of love on the only basis possible: the
inviolable preciousness of every person.
Peter J. Colosi. Whats love got to do with it: The ethical
contradictions of Peter Singer. Godspy (February 25, 2005).
This article reprinted with permission from the author, Peter Colosi,
Peter J. Colosi teaches philosophy for Franciscan University of
Steubenville at their study abroad program in Gaming, Austria. He has
been developing a series of lectures and articles setting Christian
personalist philosophy against contemporary utilitarian ethics, and in
particular as a response to its most popular proponent, Dr. Peter Singer
of Princeton University. His first article in this regard, "The
Intrinsic Worth of Persons: Revisiting Peter Singer and His Critics",
appeared in The Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. XV
(2003): 3-22, an abstract for which can be found
here. This was followed by
"John Paul II and Christian Personalism vs. Peter Singer and
Utilitarianism: Two Radically Opposed Conceptions of the Nature and
Meaning of Suffering". Presented at the 3rd Global Conference: Making
Sense of: Health, Illness and Disease July 5 July 9, 2004, St
Catherine's College, Oxford University. That article can be found in
here. Then in Geneva, Switzerland, in August 2004, He delivered a
lecture at one of the preparatory conferences to the Doha International
Conference for the Family; that lecture will be published in a
forthcoming compilation of many of the submissions to those conferences,
and it is titled, "Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Christian Personalism
vs. Peter Singer and Utilitarianism:Two Radically Opposed Conceptions of
the Nature and Meaning of Family". This article is a revised version of
Unleashing Love: Why We care for those who suffer published in
Franciscan Way (Autumn, 2004), Franciscan University, 1235
University Blvd., Steubenville, OH 43952.
Mr. Colosi may be contacted at
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