Aw, Shucks, Peter, You Shouldn’t Have

On last night’s LeagueCast, Peter Singer’s view that disabled infants may be permissibly killed came up. I actually haven’t looked at his reasoning in a while, so I decided to take a gander and see what it’s all about. Turns out…he’s doing it (partly) for me! Um, thanks, but no thanks.

Allow me to say that I do think there is a circumstance where I think non-voluntary euthanasia (that is, killing the person for the sake of that person without her consent) would be permissible – for a degenerating, non-conscious person. And there may be a case here and there that is an exception. But allow me to quote fairly liberally from Singer’s Practical Ethics so we can get at his view:

In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. This conclusion is not limited to infants who, because of irreversible intellectual disabilities, will never be rational, self-conscious beings….

No infant – disabled or not – has as strong a claim to life as beings capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.

The difference between killing disabled and normal infants lies not in any supposed right to life that the latter has and the former lacks, but in other considerations about killing. Most obviously there is the difference that often exists in the attitudes of the parents. The birth of a child is usually a happy event for the parents. They have, nowadays, often planned for the child. The mother has carried it for nine months. From birth, a natural affection begins to bind the parents to it. So one important reason why it is normally a terrible thing to kill an infant is the effect the killing will have on its parents….

Parents may, with good reason, regret that a disabled child was ever born. In that event the effect that the death of the child will have on its parents can be a reason for, rather than against killing it. Some parents want even the most gravely disabled infant to live as long as possible, and this desire would then be a reason against killing the infant. But what if this is not the case? in the discussion that follows I shall assume that the parents do not want the disabled child to live. I shall also assume that the disability is so serious that – again in contrast to the situation of an unwanted but normal child today – there are no other couples keen to adopt the infant….

Infants are sentient beings who are neither rational nor self- conscious. So if we turn to consider the infants in themselves, independently of the attitudes of their parents, since their species is not relevant to their moral status, the principles that govern the wrongness of killing non-human animals who are sentient but not rational or self-conscious must apply here too. As we saw, the most plausible arguments for attributing a right to life to a being apply only if there is some awareness of oneself as a being existing over time, or as a continuing mental self. Nor can respect for autonomy apply where there is no capacity for autonomy. The remaining principles identified in Chapter 4 are utilitarian. Hence the quality of life that the infant can be expected to have is important….

A more difficult problem arises – and the convergence between the two views ends – when we consider disabilities that make the child’s life prospects significantly less promising than those of a normal child, but not so bleak as to make the child’s life not worth living….

Given these facts, suppose that a newborn baby is diagnosed as a haemophiliac. The parents, daunted by the prospect of bringing up a child with this condition, are not anxious for him to live. Could euthanasia be defended here? Our first reaction may well be a firm ‘no’, for the infant can be expected to have a life that is worth living, even if not quite as good as that of a normal baby. The ‘prior existence’ version of utilitarianism supports this judgment. The infant exists. His life can be expected to contain a positive balance of happiness over misery. To kill him would deprive him of this positive balance of happiness. Therefore it would be wrong.

On the ‘total’ version of utilitarianism, however, we cannot reach a decision on the basis of this information alone. The total view makes it necessary to ask whether the death of the haemophiliac infant would lead to the creation of another being who would not otherwise have existed. In other words, if the haemophiliac child is killed, will his parents have another child whom they would not have if the haemophiliac child lives? If they would, is the second child likely to have a better life than the one killed?

Often it will be possible to answer both these questions affinnatively. A woman may plan to have two children. If one dies while she is of child-bearing age, she may conceive another in its place. Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, and then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. It is also plausible to suppose that the prospects of a happy life are better for a normal child than for a haemophiliac.

When the death of a disabled infant 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. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him….

When death occurs before birth, replaceability does not conflict with generally accepted moral convictions. That a fetus is known to be disabled is widely accepted as a ground for abortion. Yet in discussing abortion, we saw that birth does not mark a morally significant dividing line. I cannot see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be ‘replaced’ before birth, but newborn infants may not be. Nor is there any other point, such as viability, that does a better job of dividing the fetus from the infant. Self-consciousness, which could provide a basis for holding that it is wrong to kill one being and replace it with another, is not to be found in either the fetus or the newborn infant….

It may still be objected that to replace either a fetus or a newborn infant is wrong because it suggests to disabled people living today that their lives are less worth living than the lives of people who are not disabled. Yet it is surely flying in the face of reality to deny that, on average, this is so. That is the only way to make sense of actions that we all take for granted. Recall thalidomide: this drug, when taken by pregnant women, caused many children to be born without arms or legs. Once the cause of the abnormal births was discovered, the drug was taken off the market, and the company responsible had to pay compensation. If we really believed that there is no reason to think of the life of a disabled person as likely to be any worse than that of a normal person, we would not have regarded this as a tragedy.

A few random thoughts:

The replaceability thing makes total sense if you are a utilitarian, and is why I cannot be a utilitarian. It seems morally wretched.

I’m not going to re-read his whole book here, because I don’t have time. But I take it this doesn’t actually have all that much to do with disability, and justifies the killing of any infant that a parent decides she doesn’t want for whatever reason, no?

Maybe this just means I’m not a utilitarian. But just because something is not so good about your life, does it mean it’s actually less worth living? If you’re poor or fat or ugly or bad at math or in debt or whatever. Is your life necessarily less worth living? Can you not grant that it is bad not to have arms and legs, without saying your life is less worth living?

Does Peter Singer have access to the experiential life of infants? Once again, isn’t there a serious moral risk here? What if we are wrong about what it is like to be an infant or a disabled person? Isn’t there less moral risk in preserving life?

Is he really a vegan who thinks it’s okay to kill disabled infants? That’s how you get the Princeton jobs, isn’t it?

My kid with disabilities is rational (in the sense of “acting for reasons/for ends/with plans”), is self-conscious, has a continued mental self over time. Actually, he had that pretty early on, I think. He will never be autonomous. So who is Peter Singer talking about here? My kid really is, in the scheme of things, pretty disabled. There are people who are more disabled, but not that many. So why could I kill him as an infant and not his brother if I decided neither would make me happy? Both have most of the eventual necessary conditions Singer laid out for a right to life. Interestingly, my disabled child is of a much more cheerful temperament than his typical older brother. Should he get preferment?

The philosophers who write on disability strike me as having relatively little lived experience with it. [Update] – I should be more clear here. I’m not sure there are any polls on the issue. But basically every parent of a kid with special needs that I know went through the same thing. You are devastated upon getting the news for a long time. There are unquestionably some who continue wishing earnestly their kid had never been born. Indeed, some few kill their children. But most of us feel that we prefer our lives with our kids with disabilities, even though it is a more difficult life. I just found out someone with whom I went to high school and barely knew also had a kid with a different ridiculously rare syndrome and wrote a PhD thesis on the experience of families with severely disabled kids. And I’m reading it. Most of these families are not as hunky-dory as I am, I must say. The stars aligned for me – child care worked out, my marriage worked out, our friends accepted him socially, our family has been supportive, our insurance has been awesome, we have good medical care and services, and he is Mr. Sunny Smileypants who has managed after the first year of his life to keep crazy medical crises to a bare minimum. And yet I see it again and again. These parents say, “I wouldn’t trade this – it isn’t what I asked for, and it’s hard, but (it turns out) I love him/her so much and I’m so glad we have him/her.” And obviously you don’t know that yet when the kiddo is an infant. Which is why John Stuart Mill’s argument about the quality of pleasures, which, among other things, was supposed to show that it is better to be fully intelligent and depressed than happy and cognitively disabled, actually also serves as a utilitarian argument for why parents of disabled children should, all things considered, keep their kids. “If I am asked, what I mean by difference of quality in pleasures, or what makes one pleasure more valuable than another, merely as a pleasure, except its being greater in amount, there is but one possible answer. Of two pleasures, if there be one to which all or almost all who have experience of both give a decided preference, irrespective of any feeling of moral obligation to prefer it, that is the more desirable pleasure. If one of the two is, by those who are competently acquainted with both, placed so far above the other that they prefer it, even though knowing it to be attended with a greater amount of discontent, and would not resign it for any quantity of the other pleasure which their nature is capable of, we are justified in ascribing to the preferred enjoyment a superiority in quality, so far outweighing quantity as to render it, in comparison, of small account.” Since most people who’ve had both disabled and typical kids say they’d keep their disabled kid, then maybe we should take us at our words.

Rose Woodhouse

Elizabeth Picciuto was born and reared on Long Island, and, as was the custom for the time and place, got a PhD in philosophy. She freelances, mainly about disability, but once in a while about yeti. Mother to three children, one of whom is disabled, two of whom have brown eyes, three of whom are reasonable cute, you do not want to get her started talking about gardening.


  1. Even leaving aside the weirdness that is total utilitarianism, with its accounting for the utility of beings that never exist, embracing the repugnant conclusion to the mere addition paradox, etc (I’m more of an average utilitarian), Peter Singer is being close-minded and a lazy thinker (again). I believe I’ve mentioned in the past that I’m a bit bitter about the fact that Peter Singer is probably the most well known philosopher who espouses utilitarianism.

    It’s perfectly reasonable, and I’d argue proper, for a utilitarian to assign negative utility to (untimely) death, so that one person dying and “being replaced” by conceiving and creating a new person is indeed a net loss of utility, a tragedy to be averted.

    • And, to be clear, that one specific critique is hardly the only thing wrong with it.

    • Yes, that makes sense. Doesn’t it just seem like he embraces the most outrageous conclusions that are possibly consistent with a basic notion of utilitarianism and runs with it?

      • Yes and no. For really outrageous ideas, there’s the general duty under total utilitarianism to increase population, the embrace of the repugnant conclusion of the mere addition paradox. Look at Robin Hanson and his claim that it’s desirable to increase population until available resources can only support that population at a subsistence level. Nasty as it is, I’d take “parents may choose to kill disabled infants in order to “replace” them with healthy ones” over “parents are forced to kill disabled infants because they literally cannot afford to feed them”.

        But Peter Singer is probably a bigger name than Robin Hanson, and he’s more likely to make a big deal about his outrageous conclusions, and he’s more likely to apply those conclusions to issues of immediate public concern.

    • This misses the point entirely, which is that a young infant doesn’t have the capacity for utility, negative or otherwise. I can’t say for certain whether Singer is right about this—though the fact that we can’t remember our own births makes it at least plausible—but his conclusions follow pretty trivially from that premise.

      Conservatives argue against third-term abortions by saying that there’s effectively no difference between killing a baby just before it’s born and killing it just after, and they’re pretty clearly right about this—nothing magical happens in a baby’s brain at the moment of birth. The point at which an fetus/infant develops the capacity for subjective experience and utility is an empirical question, not a philosophical one.

      That is, if a third-trimester abortion is not murder, then it’s not obviously true that fourth-trimester euthanasia is. Conversely, if fourth-trimester euthanasia is murder, then it’s not obivously true that a third-trimester abortion isn’t.

        • I agree with you that nothing magical happens at birth. (I have MAJOR bones to pick with the pro-choice movement here, and I’ve written on this on this blog many times – although I err away from infanticide and against late-term abortion.) I agree with you that subjective experience and utility are, in principle, empirical questions (the answers to which Peter Singer has no access).

          What I meant was that determining what constitutes utility remains a philosophical question, and one that is far from solved among utilitarians. So while finding utility it is an empirical question, it’s a philosophical question of what we should be looking *for*.

          And of course, the other questions remain: is utility the real question here? How far out should we look for the ramifications? are the possession of certain cognitive capacities necessary for moral status? If so, are they sufficient for moral status? If so, which ones? ANd reflective equilibrium: should we check back and forth with our intuitions to see how our theory is doing? (this addresses a bit what Boegiboe was saying about thought experiements, if he’s still following this thread anywhere — this is something on which Peter Singer and Murali agree, and I disagree). That is, let’s say I come up with a moral theory that seems perfect, but it allows me to kill disabled people, and that seems horribly wrong, should I check back in with my moral theory to tweak it? Murali and Singer say no (too reliant on intuitions, not enough on reason), I say yes.

          • It bears keeping in mind that by and large the pro-choice side doesn’t defend late term abortion out of some deep philisophical belief that late term abortions are morally justified but rather out of the miserable calculus that if they concede this area to the pro-life side it will be used to roll back abortion in general. In countries where there’s no threat of broad abortion bans late term abortions are generally not permitted and there’s generally little to no controversy over this.
            Late term abortion is just another “we fight them there or else we’ll have to fight them here” case and another example of how the deadlock in America is sub-optimal.

      • If that’s really the argument, why all the talk about replaceability?

        Not that Singer doesn’t make the argument, primarily elsewhere (note how he refers to earlier chapters in the linked excerpt). But the concept of replaceabilty is something he talks about at length here, and it’s at best a red herring in this context.

        • He’s arguing from a total utilitarian perspective. His claim is that the death of the first infant cannot be considered as having negative utility, because an infant hasn’t yet developed the neurological capacity for utility. However, he acknowledges that euthanizing the infant may still be condemned on total utilitarian grounds, as the infant might otherwise have developed to the point of being able to experience the positive utility of living.

          This is where replaceability comes in. If euthanizing the first infant frees up resources for the parents to have another baby, this neutralizes the total-utilitarian objection. Conditioned, of course, on the absence of disutility from euthanizing the disabled infant.

          I don’t have enough context to say whether Singer actually endorses total utilitarianism or is just addressing potential objections.

          The crux of his argument is here, I think:
          I cannot see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be ‘replaced’ before birth, but newborn infants may not be. Nor is there any other point, such as viability, that does a better job of dividing the fetus from the infant. Self-consciousness, which could provide a basis for holding that it is wrong to kill one being and replace it with another, is not to be found in either the fetus or the newborn infant….

          • FWIW, I don’t have enough context either. But I gathered from what I read that he was endorsing that view.

          • If he’s arguing from a total utilitarian perspective, then the need for a “replacement” is simply a special case of a general duty to have more children when it maximizes total utility, even if it makes already existing people worse off. As I said, in that case it’s a red herring at best: if we accept, for the sake of argument, that infanticide is not a harm per se, then there’s no more need to justify infanticide with a “replacement” than there is to justify intentionally avoiding pregnancy. If we count the potential utility of a new, “replacement” child as an argument for infanticide, then we must also count the potential utility of a new child as an argument against choosing not to have (more) children.

          • Right. And for all I know, he goes into the question of an obligation to have as many children as possible elsewhere. It looks like he’s treating the replacement issue as a Really Big Deal because it’s half the excerpt. But really, it’s three paragraphs out of literally dozens of books that he’s written.

          • I haven’t seen him seriously examine total utility maximization and the repugnant conclusion. He doesn’t discuss when he defines the “total” and “prior existence” views of utilitarianism, despite discussing a handful of issues with each view. There is a cursory discussion in the previous chapter on abortion in general, but it doesn’t really resolve the problem, it just dismisses it with the same rhetoric I gave above: “it does not provide any reason for thinking abortion worse than any other means of population control”. Elsewhere, he gives a surface-level environmentalist argument for limiting human population in order to limit resource consumption, but that fails to address the core issue: whatever level of resource consumption is appropriate, total utilitarianism demands those resources be split among more humans, even at the cost of reducing individual living standards, if that maximizes total utility.

            The part you cite is important, to be sure, in addressing the problem of infanticide/murder as a harm per se. But he hardly discusses that at all in this chapter. If that were the end of it, there’s little need to discuss disability in the context of infanticide at all, he could simply refer back to the previous chapter about abortion and infanticide in general, with it’s own discussion of how it relates to total utility maximization (which I thought was cursory, true, but clearly he thought was sufficient for that purpose). There’s no good reason to discuss replaceability in the context of disability rather than in the context of abortion (and pregnancy avoidance) generally.

  2. Sometimes (about once every five years), I think I have some sympathy for utilitarianism. Then I read a utilitarian, feel like I’m going to throw up, and the whole thing passes.

    Weirdly enough, I don’t feel this way about pragmatists.

    • And that’s why I’m bitter about Singer being such a public face for utilitarianism.

      • He’s not the only utilitarian whose arguments nauseate me. Just the most noticeable one.

  3. Yes, your life is less worth living. I feel sad that the fat person (or the person with weak knees) cannot climb the mountain. Cannot run around the bases.
    But I’m staring at the idea of countable infinities right now, and I’m not willing to put more than a less than sign on the “less worth living.”
    Which is a fancy way of saying that infinity minus one is still pretty damn big.

    • I guess he and I are both begging the question by asking what is a life worth living. for him it is by definition of life that is more pleasurable. for me, it mean something more like who would you choose to die if you had to choose one. Now, I know for Singer, the answer to the first question is automatically the answer to the serving. I don’t go there. Those aren’t principled reasons to choose one life over the other.

      • note: a life that is more pleasurable could certainly be had by someone who is mentally retarded. This more applies to physical difficulties.
        I’m way too deep in the medical field to think of “choose to die” without thinking of lifespan. Which opens a new can of worms.

  4. Rose,
    I wouldn’t trade my daughter for any of your beautiful children. But, I also treasure the afternoon spent in the company of you and your kids, and the experience of holding and being adored by your son with the ridiculously rare syndrome was something I will never forget. Next visit, I promise to give the older son more attention. How much has my life, and consequently, the lives of other people, especially my daughter, been enhanced by that short afternoon of cuddling. How much has his life been enhanced? It’s impossible to measure the effects of a life.

    You’re probably familiar with the physicist joke “Assume the cow is a sphere.” Physics is a science that reduces well, so that simplifying assumptions are helpful to advancing understanding of a complex phenomenon. Thought experiments that only slightly resemble reality have yielded huge leaps in understanding of basic physical laws.

    It strikes me that human existence, by virtue of being enhanced by the presences of different, other people, is not susceptible to analysis by simplification. Singer makes a grave error in attempting to argue as though human existence can be simplified into thought experiments. How can one conduct a philosophical argument about human existence without resorting to such simplifications, though? How do you do your work? I don’t really expect a full answer of that question, obviously, but this is why I am an engineer and not a philosopher, so I am curious.

    • Boegiboe, what an absolutely lovely comment to read. We had such a lovely day that day too. Your daughter is seriously so cute – I have such girl envy! And how much did my kid take to you?! That was really adorable! (And don’t worry about my older son. As you may have noticed, he has ways of making his presence felt when he thinks his brother is getting too much attention.)

      But I think you’re right that there is utility in being with cognitively disabled people, in trying to mentally inhabit the mind of someone so fundamentally different. Being the mother of a child with special needs has fundamentally changed my life *for the better*. I simply love him to pieces, first of all; I found added meaning in my life in taking on the role of his caregiver and advocate; it has brought me much closer to my parents. I see his presence bother some people occasionally. More often, I see people take to him. And he makes them happy in some way. He is a different kind of person than other people, and it is a different kind of experience to be with him.

    • I don’t think the thought experiment with simplifying assumptions are never useful in philosophy, as aids to thought. Take the trolley problem, for example. But when it comes to make practical claims about the world, you can’t do that. And you have to be particularly careful to think the whole problem through when you’re a utilitarian.

      If I wanted to make an analogy to an engineer problem, I’d say that the kind of error Singer makes here (a kind of error he makes frequently) is like the problem with o-rings in the Challenger disaster. Treating the material properties of the o-rings as constant is a simplifying assumption; it might be reasonable and helpful if your simply trying to examine or illustrate some general principle of design. It works less well in reality.

      When I discuss the trolley problem, it’s perfectly reasonable to leave aside issues of, say, how trolleys actual work. That’s not the same thing as Singer’s willingness to make statements like this, while, as Rose points out, displaying ignorance about the lived experience of parents of children with disabilities (among other things).

    • Oh, I forgot to answer your thought experiment question. Well, there’s a lot of debate about the value of thought experiments. In some cases it’s much more useful than others. Conceptual analysis perhaps more so than moral theory.

      I don’t write on ethics (yet), so this isn’t really an occupational hazard for me that frequently. I write about imagination, and would put a lot of what I write more in the category of theoretical psychology. Where I can, I will use peer-reviewed empirical data. A lot of times, more often than I like, I will use an obvious fact that isn’t really verified, e.g., “In general, people are willing to watch fictions that induce negative emotions, such as tragedy or horror. Some people find the negative feeling too overwhelming and don’t enjoy it.” I don’t cite a study, I just know that that happens. I try to use thought experiments sparingly. Sometimes I will say, “This is my reaction, and I expect it would be most people’s, but I might be wrong.”

  5. Peter Singer’s a vegetarian, not a vegan. I’ve seen him eat crab Rangoon.

  6. I guess he’s technically a pescetarian, which makes sense because crabs probably don’t have much of an inner life worth protecting.

  7. My kid with disabilities is rational (in the sense of “acting for reasons/for ends/with plans”), is self-conscious, has a continued mental self over time. Actually, he had that pretty early on, I think. He will never be autonomous.

    Your kid is Stephen Hawking.

  8. In Chapter 4 we saw that the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.

    As a pro-lifer, I really want to say: This? This is where the chain of when-does-a-life-not-count leads to. Because really, what is the fundamental difference in consciousness or awareness between a baby a day before it’s born and the day after it’s born that makes it acceptable to kill one but not the other? Even the form of the argument is similar to abortion arguments: the value of the child’s life depends not on the child itself, but on whether its parents want it or not; if they don’t, it’s fine to kill the child.

    An on the disability thing, he’s teetering on the edge of – actually no, he’s not, he’s right over the edge of – eugenics.

    Yikes, I have a book by this guy (it’s on use of scientific advances, particularly in the biological sciences, for development and global health). I had no idea he was so creepy.

Comments are closed.