Defense of Genocide
Australian bioethicist Peter Singer has arrived to begin a new
position at the Princeton University Center for Human Values.
Singer's appointment has provoked anger among disability
activists because he actively advocates the killing of disabled
infants up to 28 days after birth.
The Australian bioethicist Peter Singer has arrived to begin a new
position at the Princeton University Center for Human Values. Singer's
appointment has provoked anger among disability activists. “Peter Singer
is attempting to establish a philosophical foundation for denying
disabled people the equal protection of the law and killing us for his
version of the greater good,” says Not Dead Yet's Diane Coleman. NDY,
she “considers his appointment a major affront to our minority group, a
serious threat to our lives and, hopefully, it will also be a wake-up
call for the entire disability movement.”
Although Singer is best known for his work on animal liberation, it
is important to understand the consequences of his ethical theories for
people with disabilities, especially since he argues that our lives are
not always worth protecting
Who should live?
Singer's understanding of whose life should be protected comes from a
moral theory called “preference utilitarianism.” According to this
theory, you should behave so that the result of your behavior is, to the
greatest extent possible, in accordance with the preferences of those
who will be affected by it, whether directly or indirectly.
When you kill someone who wants to stay alive, you make it impossible
for any of her preferences for the future to be realized — this is what
makes killing a particularly bad thing. But it may be morally
praiseworthy to kill someone who wants to be killed. And killing someone
whose preferences are likely to be frustrated even if she stays alive
may be less blameworthy than killing someone whose preferences are
likely to be fulfilled.
But not everyone, Singer thinks, is capable of wanting to be alive.
He argues that in order to have an interest in staying alive, you have
to be a thinking, self-aware being and have an understanding of yourself
as a being which endures through time. Following philosophical
tradition, he calls such beings “persons,” in order, as he says in his
1993 book, Practical Ethics, “to capture those elements of the
popular sense of 'human being' that are not covered by 'member of the
species Homo sapiens.'“ Only persons, he says, can be said to have an
interest in living and a right not to be killed; non-persons, by
Obviously, wherever Singer's ideas are accepted as the basis for
policy, it becomes a vitally important thing to be seen as a person.
Infants, for example, are seen as non-persons. According to Singer they
may therefore be killed with far less justification than would be
required if they were understood to be persons. Certain adults to whom
labels such as “persistent vegetative state” (PVS), “profound mental
retardation” and “dementia” are attached may also be killed with less
justification, according to Singer.
It would be okay, for example, to kill a “non-person” if you did it
because everyone else's preferences would be more likely to be fulfilled
if that individual were removed from their lives: that's one
justification Singer gives for letting parents kill newborns expected to
become disabled children. If parents, freed of responsibility for the
disabled infant, were able to try again, says Singer, both they and the
non-disabled child they'd ultimately raise could expect to live happier
“We know,” he says in his 1994 book, Rethinking Life and Death,
“that once our children's lives are properly underway, we will become
committed to them; for that very reason, many couples do not want to
bring up a child if they fear that both the child's life and their own
experience of child-rearing will be clouded by a major disability.”
Another justification Singer offers for killing a “non-person” is
that it frees “persons,” or society, from what they may see as the
“burden” imposed by the life of a “non-person.” In Practical Ethics,
which is often used as a textbook, Singer advocates making it legal to
kill disabled infants up to 28 days after birth as well as older
“non-persons with disabilities.”
Singer's work suggests a number of questions:
there a meaningful distinction between human persons and human
so, is there a reason to believe that personhood or lack thereof is
a judgment that can reliably be made?
disabled people (and our families) really less likely than
non-disabled people (and their families) to have happy lives?
so, what is the appropriate public response?
The distinction between “persons” and “non-persons” has led to
Singer's prominence within the animal liberation movement. He argues
that it is mere “speciesism” (the prejudice that membership in the right
species is what earns beings moral consideration) leading us to believe
that all human lives are of equal value. Singer wants us to recognize
that many non-human animals should be treated with the same respect with
which we believe humans should be treated.
But his theory also allows that some humans can be treated less well.
While his attack on speciesism has gained him a reputation as a
progressive in some circles, he has been attacked in other circles for
“intelligism” and “ableism” (prejudices that perceived intelligence or
lack of disability is what earns beings moral consideration).
In his 1995 article, “The Proof of the Vegetable,” published in the
Journal of Medical Ethics, Australian disability advocate Chris
Borthwick discusses ethicists' interest in “the distinction between
those beings who are accorded the privileges of humanity and those who
should be. The identification of a class of people who are `humans' but
not human, if any such could be found, would therefore be central.”
Borthwick argues that a diagnosis of PVS is not enough to conclude
that someone is unconscious or that she will not recover consciousness.
He points out that a great deal of the judgment that someone has PVS
depends upon her failure to react in ways that seem to doctors to
demonstrate consciousness. We should give anyone who appears unconscious
the benefit of the doubt, says Borthwick, pointing out that 58% of
people judged to be permanently unconscious in one study were considered
conscious within three years.
Whether or not one accepts the idea of “non-persons,” says Borthwick,
we've shown we cannot reliably identify such individuals.
But Singer assumes that we can. In Rethinking Life and Death,
he quotes his own words, originally from a 1983 article in Pediatrics,
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.
He then goes on to say that this assertion is “not only true, but
Borthwick shows, though, that we cannot truly be sure even that it
is true. At best, we are making assumptions based on current
theories of neurology and practices of intelligence testing, and
treating those assumptions as if they were fact. Far from being
obvious, this presumed inferiority is founded on uncertain
“If the discipline of ethics cannot cope with uncertainty, it is
useless in the real world. If it persists in attempting to deny the
existence of uncertainty, it may also be dangerous,” says Borthwick.
What Singer is advocating is that we create a class of human beings
whose “capacities, both actual and potential,” are “obviously” rather
than uncertainly inferior, and whose members must therefore demonstrate,
to the satisfaction of non-disabled testers, their personhood in order
to be accorded the same rights given everyone else. Singer seems willing
to give the benefit of the doubt to non-humans like pigs and dogs who
haven't mastered our communication system. He is less willing to extend
the same courtesy to humans whose disabilities impact communication.
Is life with a disability any more “clouded,” as Singer terms it,
than life without a disability? And if so, what should we do about it?
Several studies focusing primarily on people with severe, stable
disabilities suggest that people who have been disabled long enough to
become accustomed to it rate their quality of life similarly to
non-disabled people. The medical professionals treating them, though,
tend to underestimate their subjective quality of life.
“Many people assume that living with cerebral palsy means that I am
endlessly confronted by my body's limitations,” writes human services
consultant Norman Kunc in a 1995 article with his wife, Emma Van der
Klift. “Actually, this is not my experience. Having cerebral palsy means
living a life in which innovation, improvisation, creativity and lateral
thinking are essential.” The description of his life that Kunc offers
readers makes it sound more like a dance than a diminishment. While some
people with disabilities do attribute significant frustration to
disability, it is clear that frustration is by no means a necessary
consequence of impairment.
People with disabilities do often find their preferences frustrated
in ways that people without disabilities do not. But that frustration is
not inherent in their impairments. Rather, it arises from an environment
— physical or social — which is not designed to accommodate all members
of the human race.
What, then, ought we do about that frustration? To offer a parallel:
Is the selective infanticide of daughters in societies where boys are
offered many more opportunities than are girls an acceptable practice?
The girls' lack of opportunity is not intrinsically connected with being
born female; nonetheless, the parents and the child they will eventually
raise can expect better prospects if daughters are “replaced” by sons.
Singer's theory could, therefore, be used to justify the practice of
killing off infant girls, thus guaranteeing sons to parents who want
them. To date he has not offered that justification.
“I question whether Princeton would hire a faculty member who argued
that parents should be permitted to kill their infant daughters so that
they could have a son,” says National Council on Disability chairperson
Marca Bristo. And yet prejudice against people with disabilities is so
much more pervasive and unquestioned than sexism that promoting
identical methods directed against us raises no concern.
Edward Stein of Yale University, in a recent paper on genetic
screening and sexual orientation published in Bioethics, argues
convincingly that choosing only to have children with characteristics
valued by society — such as heterosexuality — reinforces the social
preference for that characteristic. If this is the case, then choosing
to have only sons — or only children without apparent disabilities —
produces moral consequences far beyond the effect it will have on one's
Such choices have an effect on all of us, Bristo told Princeton
students. “Singer's core vision — that the life of a person with a
disability is worth less than the life of a person without a disability,
and therefore it is okay to kill infants with disabilities if that is
what the parent wants to do — amounts to a defense of genocide.”
Tolerance and speech
Because Singer advocates the killing of disabled infants up to 28
days after birth, Christopher Benek of Princeton Students Against
Infanticide argues that his hiring violates Princeton's “Commitment to
Community” policy, which warns that “Abusive or harassing behavior,
verbal, or physical, which demeans, intimidates, threatens, or injures
another because of his or her personal characteristics or beliefs is
subject to University disciplinary sanctions.”
Benek has called for Princeton either to rescind the appointment or
abandon the policy on tolerance. He maintains that there is an essential
difference between limiting Singer's speech, which Benek is not
proposing, and not offering Singer a privileged position from which to
Bristo agrees. “Princeton University does not condone hate,” she told
an audience at a PSAI-sponsored rally this spring. “Princeton University
does not abide racism or anti-Semitism or homophobia. Princeton
University should not abide Peter Singer.”
Montgomery, Cal. “A Defense of Genocide.” Ragged Edge Magazine
Reprinted with permission of Ragged Edge Magazine
Cal Montgomery, a member of Not Dead Yet, represented NDY at a rally
on the Princeton campus in April protesting the appointment of Peter
Singer to Princeton's faculty.
Copyright © 1999