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.