Peter Singer: Architect of the Culture of Death
new tradition that Peter Singer welcomes is founded on a
"quality-of-life" ethic. It allegedly replaces the outgoing
morality that is based on the "sanctity-of-life."
"After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death
for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has
On this triumphant note, Professor Peter Singer begins his milestone
book, Rethinking Life and Death. It conveys an attitude of
revolutionary confidence that brings to mind another atheistic
iconoclast, Derek Humphry, who has said, "We are trying to overturn
2,000 years of Christian tradition."
The new tradition that Singer welcomes is founded on a
"quality-of-life" ethic. It allegedly replaces the outgoing morality
that is based on the "sanctity-of-life." Wesley J. Smith states that
Rethinking Life and Death can fairly be called the Mein Kampf
of the euthanasia movement, in that it drops many of the euphemisms
common to pro-euthanasia writing and acknowledges euthanasia for what it
is: killing." A disability advocacy group that calls itself "Not Dead
Yet" has fiercely objected to Singer's views on euthanasia. Some refer
to him as "Professor Death." Others have gone as far as to liken him to
Josef Mengele. Troy McClure, an advocate for the disabled, calls him
"the most dangerous man in the world today." There is indeed a bluntness
to Singer's pronouncements that gives his thought a certain
transparency. This makes his philosophy, comparatively speaking, easy to
understand and to evaluate.
Despite the vehemence of some of his opponents, Professor Singer is
regarded, in other circles, as an important and highly respected
philosopher and bioethicist. His books are widely read, his articles
frequently appear in anthologies, he is very much in demand throughout
the world as a speaker, and has lectured at prestigious universities in
different countries. He currently holds the Ira W. Decamp chair of
Bioethics at Princeton University's Center for the Study of Human
Values. And he has written a major article for Encyclopedia
Singer's philosophy begins in a broad egalitarianism and culminates
in a narrow preferentialism. His egalitarianism has won him many
supporters; his preferentialism has earned him his detractors. Hence, he
is both strongly admired and soundly vilified. In his widely read
article, "All Animals Are Equal," Singer expresses his disdain for
racism and sexism. Here he is on solid ground. From this beachhead, he
invites his readers to conquer "the last remaining form of
discrimination," which is discrimination against animals. He refers to
this form of discrimination, borrowing the term from Richard Ryder, "speciesism."
This latter form of discrimination rests on the wholly unwarranted
assumption, in Singer's view, that one species is superior to another.
"I am urging," he writes, "that we extend to other species the basic
principle of equality that most of us recognize should be extended to
all members of our own species." Here Singer endears himself to animal
"rights" activists. In 1992, he devoted an entire book to the subject,
Animal Liberation: A New Ethic for Our Treatment of Animals.
Singer rejects what he regards as non-philosophical ways of
understanding human beings and non-human animals. He finds notions of
"sanctity-of-life," "dignity," "created in the image of God," and so on
to be spurious. "Fine phrases," he says, "are the last resource of those
who have run out of argument." He also sees no moral or philosophical
significance to traditional teens such as "being," "nature" and
"essence." He takes pride in being a modern philosopher who has cast off
such "metaphysical and religious shackles."
What is fundamentally relevant, for Singer, is the capacity of humans
and non-human animals to suffer. Surely non-human animals,
especially mammals, suffer. At this point, Singer adds to his
egalitarian followers those who base their ethics on compassion.
Singer deplores the fact that we cruelly and unconscionably oppress and
misuse non-human animals by eating their flesh and experimenting on
them. Thus he advocates a vegetarian diet for everyone and a greatly
restricted use of animal experimentation.
By using a broad egalitarian base that elicits a compassionate
response to the capacity of human and non-human animals to suffer,
Singer thereby replaces the sanctity-of-life ethic with a
quality-of-life ethic that, in his view, has a more solid and realistic
foundation. In this way Singer appears to possess a myriad of modern
virtues. He is broadminded, fair, non-discriminatory, compassionate,
innovative, iconoclastic, and consistent. It is the quality of life that
counts, not some abstract and gratuitous notion that cannot be validated
or substantiated through rational inquiry.
Charles Darwin once conjectured that "animals, our fellow brethren in
pain, disease, suffering and famine ... may partake of our origin in one
common ancestor — we may all be melted together." Singer takes Darwin's
"conjecture" and turns it into a conviction. Thus he adds to
his coterie of adherents, Darwinists and assorted evolutionists.
Humans and non-human animals are fundamentally sufferers. They
possess consciousness that gives them the capacity to suffer or to enjoy
life, to be miserable or to be happy. This incontrovertible fact gives
Singer a basis, ironically, for a new form of discrimination that is
more invidious than the ones he roundly condemns. Singer identifies the
suffering/enjoying status of all animals with their quality of life.
It follows from this precept, then, that those who suffer more than
others have less quality-of-life, and those who do not possess an
insufficiently developed consciousness fall below the plane of
personhood. He argues, for example, that where a baby has Down syndrome,
and in other instances of "life that has begun very badly," parents
should be free to kill the child within 28 days after birth. Here he is
in fundamental agreement with Michael Tooley, a philosopher he admires,
who states that "new-born humans are neither persons nor quasi-persons,
and their destruction is in no way intrinsically wrong." Tooley believes
that killing infants becomes wrong when they acquire "morally
significant properties," an event he believes occurs about three months
after their birth.
According to Singer, some humans are non-persons, while some
non-human animals are persons. The key is not nature or species
membership, but consciousness. A pre-conscious human cannot suffer as
much as a conscious horse. In dealing with animals, we care only about
their quality of life. We put a horse that has broken its leg out of its
misery as quickly as possible. This merciful act spares the animal an
untold amount of needless suffering. If we look upon human animals in
the same fashion, our opposition to killing those who are suffering will
begin to dissolve. The "quality-of-life" ethic has a tangible
correlative when it relates to suffering; the "sanctity-of-life"
seemingly relates to a mere vapor.
Here is where Singer picks up his detractors. According to this avant
garde thinker, unborn babies or neonates, lacking the requisite
consciousness to qualify as persons, have less right to continue to live
than an adult gorilla. By the same token, a suffering or disabled child
would have a weaker claim not to be killed than a mature pig. Singer
writes, in Rethinking Life and Death:
Human babies are not born self-aware or capable of grasping their
lives over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives would seem
to be no more worthy of protection that the life of a fetus.
And writing specifically about Down syndrome babies, he advocates
trading a disabled or defective child (one who is apparently doomed to
too much suffering) for one who has better prospects for happiness:
We may not want a child to start on life's uncertain voyage if the
prospects arc clouded. When this can be known at a very early stage
in the voyage, we may still have a chance to make a fresh start.
This means detaching ourselves from the infant who has been born,
cutting ourselves free before the ties that have already begun to
bind us to our child have become irresistible. Instead of going
forward and putting all our effort into making the best of the
situation, we can still say no, and start again from the beginning.
Needless to say, we all begin our lives on an uncertain voyage. Life
is full of surprises. A Helen Keller can enjoy a fulfilling life,
despite her limitations; Loeb and Leopold can become hardened killers,
despite the fact that they were darlings of fortune. Who can
prognosticate? Human beings should not be subject to factory control
criteria. Even in starting again, one still does not generate the same
individual that was lost. Singer's concern for quality-of-life causes
him to miss the reality and the value of the underlying life.
Ironically, the man who claimed to be conquering the last domain of
discrimination was offending his readers precisely because of his
penchant for discrimination (and even in failing to discriminate). A
number of statements that appeared in the first edition of his
Practical Ethics were expurgated from the second edition. They
include his demeaning of persons with Down syndrome, reviling mentally
challenged individuals as "vegetables," rating the mind of a
one-year-old human below that of many brute animals, and stating that
"not ... everything the Nazis did was horrendous; we cannot condemn
euthanasia just because the Nazis did it."
For Peter Singer a human being is not a subject who suffers, but a
sufferer. Singer's error here is to identify the subject with
consciousness. This is an error that dates back to 17th Century
Cartesianism — "I think therefore I am" (which is to identify being with
thinking). Descartes defined man solely in terms of his
consciousness as a thinking thing (res cogitans) rather than as
a subject who possesses consciousness.
At the heart of Pope John Paul II's personalism (his
philosophy of the person) is the recognition that it is the concrete
individual person who is the subject of consciousness. The subject comes
before consciousness. That subject may exist prior to consciousness (as
in the case of the human embryo) or during lapses of consciousness (as
in sleep or in a coma). But the existing subject is not to be identified
with consciousness itself, which is an operation or activity of the
subject. The Holy Father rejects what he calls the "hypostatization of
the cogito" (the reification of consciousness) precisely
because it ignores the fundamental reality of the subject of
consciousness — the person — who is also the object of love.
"Consciousness itself' is to be regarded "neither as an individual
subject nor as an independent faculty."
John Paul refers to the elevation of consciousness to the equivalent
of the person's being as "the great anthropocentric shift in
philosophy." What he means by this "shift" is a movement away from
existence to a kind of absolutization of consciousness. Referring to
Saint Thomas Aquinas, the Holy Father reiterates that "it is not
thought which determines existence, but existence, "esse," which
Singer, by trying to be more broadminded than is reasonable, has
created a philosophy that actually dehumanizes people, reducing them to
points of consciousness that are indistinguishable from those of many
non-human animals. Therefore, what is of primary importance for the
Princeton bioethicists is not the existence of the being in
question, but its quality of life. But this process of
dehumanization leads directly to discrimination against those whose
quality of life is not sufficiently developed. Singer has little choice
but to divide humanity into those who have a preferred state of life
from those who do not. In this way, his broad egalitarianism decays into
a narrow preferentialism:
When we reject belief in God we must give up the idea that life on
this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no
meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a
chance combination of gasses; it then evolved through random
mutation and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not
happen to any overall purpose. Now that it has resulted in the
existence of beings who prefer some states of affairs to others,
however, it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful.
In this sense some atheists can find meaning in life.
Life can be meaningful for an atheist when he is able to spend his
life in a "preferred state." The atheistic perspective here does not
center on people, however, it centers on happiness. This curious
preference for happiness over people engenders a rather chilling logic.
It is not human life or the existing human being that is good, but the
"preferred state." Human life is not sacrosanct, but a certain kind of
life can be "meaningful." If one baby is disabled, does it not make
sense to kill it and replace it with one who is not and "therefore" has
a better chance for happiness? "When the death of the disabled infant,"
writes Singer, "will lead to the birth of another infant with better
prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater
if the disabled infant is killed."
Singer has a point, though perhaps marginal at best, that all other
things being equal, it is better to be more happy than to be less happy.
Yet this point hardly forms a basis for ending the life of a person who
has less happiness than the hypothetically conceived greater happiness
of his possible replacement. Ethics should center on the person, not the
quantum of happiness a person may or may not enjoy. It is the subject
who exists that has the right to life, and neither Peter Singer nor
anyone else who employs a "relative happiness calculator" should
expropriate that right.
Having neglected concrete existence, Singer inevitably wanders into
abstractions. He is a humanist, one might say, because he wants people
to enjoy better and happier states of life. But the more relevant point
is that he is not particularly interested in the actual lives of those
who are faced with states that he believes to be less than preferable.
On the other hand, Pope John Paul II stresses that each human life is
"inviolable, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable." In stating this, the
Pontiff is implying that our first priority should be loving human
beings rather than preferring better states.
In a 1995 article in the London Spectator entitled "Killing
Babies Isn't Always Wrong," Singer said of the Pope, "I sometimes think
that he and I at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at
stake." The Culture of Life based on the sanctity-of-life ethic is at
stake. The Pope and the Meister Singer are poles apart. "That day had to
come," states Singer, "when Copernicus proved that the earth is not at
the center of the universe. It is ridiculous to pretend that the old
ethics make sense when plainly they do not. The notion that human life
is sacred just because it's human is medieval."
There are a number of things that are "plain." One is that Copernicus
did not "prove" that the earth is not at the center of the universe. He
proposed a theory based on the erroneous assumption that
planets travel in perfect circles and hypothesized that the sun was at
the center, not of the universe, but of what we now refer to as the
solar system, Another is that the sacredness of life is a Judaeo-Christian
notion, not an arbitrary fabrication of the Middle Ages. Yet another is
that it is unethical to kill disabled people just because they are
At a Princeton forum Professor Singer remarked that he would have
supported the parents of his disabled protesters, if they had sought to
kill their disabled offspring in infancy. This is the kind of unkind
remark that will ensure that his disabled protesters will continue to
An additional error in Singer's thinking is the assumption he makes
that the suffering (or happiness) of individuals can somehow be added to
each other and thus create "all this suffering in the world." C. S.
Lewis explains that if you have a toothache of intensity x and another
person in the room with you also has a toothache of intensity x, "You
may, if you choose, say that the total amount of pain in the room is now
2x. But you must remember that no one is suffering 2x." There is no
composite pain in anyone's consciousness. There is no such thing as the
sum of collective human suffering, because no one suffers it.
Yet another error in Singer's thinking is that philosophy should be
built up solely on the basis of rational thinking, and that feelings and
emotions should be distrusted, if not uprooted. Concerning the infant
child, he advises us, in Practical Ethics, to "put aside
feelings based on its small, helpless and — sometimes — cute
appearance," so we can look at the more ethically relevant aspects, such
as its quality of life. This coldly cerebral approach is radically
incompatible with our ability to derive any enjoyment whatsoever from
life. By "putting feelings aside," we would be putting enjoyment aside.
It is not the mind that becomes filled with joy, but the heart. Thus the
man (Peter Singer) who allegedly prizes happiness is eager to
de-activate the very faculty that makes happiness possible. Dr. David
Gend, who is a general practitioner and secretary of the Queensland,
Australia, branch of the World Federation of Doctors who Respect Human
Life, suggests that Singer's announcement of the collapse of the
sanctity-of-life ethic is premature:
Nevertheless, Herod could not slaughter all the innocents, and
Singer will not corrupt the love of innocence in every reader. As
long as some hearts are softened by the image of an infant stirring
in its sleep, or even by their baby's movements on ultrasound at
sixteen weeks, Singer's call to "put feelings aside" in killing
babies will reek of decay."
Reason and emotion are not antagonistic to each other. This is the
assumption intrinsic to Cartesian dualism in the integrated person,
reason and emotion form an indissoluble unity. For a person to set aside
his feelings, therefore, in order to view a situation "ethically" is
tantamount to setting aside his humanity. It is precisely this
utter detachment from one's moral feelings, particularly relevant in the
case where an individual experiences no emotions whatsoever while
holding an infant, that is suggestive of a moral disorder. Singer seems
to view practical ethics the way one views practical mathematics. But
this is to dehumanize ethics. Perceiving the ethical significance of
things is not a specialized activity of reason. There is a "moral sense"
(James Q. Wilson) and a "wisdom in disgust" (Leon Kass), a "knowledge
through connaturality" (Jacques Maritain), and a "copresence" (Gabriel
Marcel), that involves the harmonious integration of reason and emotion.
"The heart has reasons that reason knows nothing of," said Pascal.
Neurobiologist Antonio Damasio, author of Descartes' Error: Emotion,
Reason, and the Human Brain, finds scientific evidence that
"Absence of emotion appears to be at least as pernicious for rationality
as excessive emotion ... Emotion may well be the support system without
which the edifice of reason cannot function properly and may even
collapse." The ethic that is more likely to "collapse," therefore is not
one that is based on the personal integration of reason and emotion, but
the rational approach that is dissociated from emotion and thereby left
one-sided, vulnerable, and counterproductive.
Professor Singer underscores the importance of reason,
broadmindedness, and compassion. But his emphasis on reason displaces
human feelings. His advocacy of broadmindedness causes him to lose sight
of the distinctiveness of the human being (he does not object to sexual
"relationships" between humans and non-human animals). And his
sensitivity for compassion is exercised at the expense of failing to
understand how suffering can have personal meaning. In the end, his
philosophy is one-sided and distorted. It plays into the Culture of
Death because it distrusts the province of the heart, fails to discern
the true dignity of the human person, and elevates the killing of
innocent human beings — young and old — to the level of a social
Donald. "Peter Singer: Architect of the Culture of Death." Social
Justice Review 94 no. 9-10 (September/October 2003):154-157
Reprinted with permission of Social Justice Review.
SOcial Justice Review is a pioneer American journal of
Catholic social action founded in 1908 by Frederick P. Kenkel. It is the
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DeMarco is Professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell,
CT and Professor Emeritus at St. Jerome's University in Waterloo
Ontario. He has written hundreds of articles for various scholarly and
popular journals, and is the author of twenty books, including
The Heart of Virtue,
The Many Faces of Virtue, Virtue's Alphabet: From Amiability
to Zeal and
Architects Of The Culture Of Death. Donald DeMarco is on the
Advisory Board of The Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
Copyright © 2003