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  • BIOETHICS FORUM ESSAY

Puzzling about Peter Singer

Peter Singer has vastly expanded our moral imaginations with his argument for the moral worth of nonhuman animals. According to that argument, a being does not need a human genome to be a person. If beings like gorillas and orangutans have selfawareness— that is, a sense of themselves as a separate object with a past and a future—then they are persons. Notoriously, Singer has also argued that people with the profoundest of cognitive disabilities are not persons: while they have a human genome, they don’t have self-awareness. So it was with a mix of admiration, antipathy, and curiosity that I went to hear him speak at a recent conference on cognitive disability and philosophy convened by Eva Kittay and Licia Carlson in New York.

Singer is famous for his commitment to giving reasons unsullied by emotion, but he acknowledged at the conference that his argument against the personhood of infants with profound cognitive disabilities emerges out of his own deep sense of moral outrage. While working in an Australian neonatal intensive care unit in the 1980s, he was mortified to find that some medical professionals were not respecting the expressed wishes of some parents, who wanted to allow their profoundly cognitively impaired infants to die. He came to think that the practice of keeping such infants alive grows out of the false belief that all beings with human genomes have equal worth. Moreover, he came to believe that the notion of all humans having equal worth smuggled in “the implication” that the lives of humans are worth more than the lives of animals.

He decided that one way to show that all humans do not enjoy equal worth would be to show that some animals are in fact worth more than some humans. Indeed, at the recent conference, he argued that some animals not only have more self-awareness than profoundly impaired humans, but they also have higher IQs, and thus, more moral worth.

There’s considerable appeal in thinking that a single criterion, like the capacity for self-awareness, can capture what we’re getting at with a word like person. Just think of abortion opponents, who argue that the fact of fertilization can alone tell us whether a given cell (or organization of cells) is a person. Unfortunately, what single-criterion approaches gain in succinctness they lose in representing the world as it is experienced by potential parents. To more fully understand that world, we need to recognize that potential parents can and do choose whether to enter into a relationship with the being in question (whether the being is an embryo or an infant with profound cognitive disabilities).

I share Singer’s view that we should respect those potential parents whogive truly informed consent to allow their profoundly impaired infants to die. What I find deeply disturbing is the lack of respect for other parents that is implied by his conclusion that the infants they have welcomed into their families lack the moral worth of persons. If parents view their profoundly impaired infant as a person, it is not because they have failed to apply Singer’s criterion, but because they have chosen to enter into a relationship.

Thinking about relationships is hardly a panacea. But if we’re going to follow the imagination-expanding direction that Singer has set out, we will need more than a single-criterion approach to the moral worth of persons.—Erik Parens

Erik Parens is a Senior Research Scholar at The Hastings Center. This piece appeared in the Field Notes section of Hastings Center Report (November-December 2008).

Published on: November 20, 2008
Published in: Bioethics

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