[This essay was intended to be published as a Worthy of Attention article on the Panangelium.tk site. However, the site shut down before it was published. I am publishing it here on the date that the essay was initially drafted; had it been published, it would have first been edited and likely would not have been posted for another couple of weeks from this publishing date. Note that ideas from this article were used in On Infanticide, a paper that was submitted for a grade in a bioethics class.]
Peter Singer is one of my favorite authors. He ranks right up there with Stephen Jay Gould, Howard Zinn, Charlie Kaufman, Orson Scott Card, and Douglas Hofstadter. So when the chance came up to write a book (or movie) review for my Deviant Behavior class, naturally I was quite ecstatic. I have so many favorite writers (both for film and book format), and I was sure that any that I'd choose would be great--so how did I come up with Peter Singerahead of all others?
One word: infanticide.
Last summer, you see, I spent my afternoons on the lawn in front of the Washington Monument reading Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, a compilation of some of his previous works, most notably from Practical Ethics. Reading Singer's book gave me a singular frame of mind--usually, philosophy does much to make me think, but it is rare to find cogent arguments presented for ethics in particular, precisely because it so difficult to arrive at soundness from cogency when dealing with fields such as ethics. So as I read Singer, I felt a deep kinship between his words and my thoughts, not because I had thought such things before (in point of fact, I really hadn't), but because his words were actively convincing me that his viewpoint was the correct one to take. He convinced me so well that now, but a few months later, I can actively say that I fully agree with Singer on many of the issues he brought up in Writings on an Ethical Life. It is one such viewpoint that I felt most fully epitomized the concept of deviant behavior (so much so that the topic alone caused me to choose Singer over Kaufman, whom I think would also have made for a good paper), and it is on that topic that I plan to write this paper: infanticide.
As a philosopher, Peter Singer is attempting to create a viewpoint for understanding moral issues that is both consistent and follows from premises that he believes all men will admit as obvious. I am reminded of the story of Descartes, where he finds a copy of Euclid's Elements lying open at Proposition 45. There he reads how to construct a parallelogram equal in area to any given rectangular figure with a given rectilinear angle. Unbelieving that this could be possible, Descartes is referred to Proposition 44, which he also disbelieves. So he flips back further and further, at each point disbelieving what is written, and yet following the dependencies of Euclid's logic. Until finally, he arrives at the initial axioms, and exclaims aghast: "So it all must be true!"
In the same way, Singer attempts to give initial axioms which cannot be disbelieved, even in the face of very strange deductions, and then he attempts to construct an ethical system which follows from these initial conditions. Hopefully, I will be able to reconstruct his argument in this essay. I will start with a few premises which I hope will be immediately accepted.
- First, that it is wrong to discriminate against one individual and for another on the basis of criteria which has nothing to do with the decision at hand. (To decide against a minority applicant in favor of a non-minority applicant for the sole reason that they are a minority applicant is not ethically justifiable.)
- Second, that the ending of the life of a person has negative value. (It is wrong to kill a person in every non-teleological ethic. Even if a teleological ethic is used, the ending of the life of a person is assigned a negative value in all circumstances.)
- Third, that if the correct decision between two options is unclear, and one decision encompasses the other decision in scope but adds additional imperatives, then it is best to decide upon the more strict option. (If it is unclear as to whether cursing or cursing with the Lord's name is the wrong thing to do, then it is best to not curse at all, since that way you're guaranteed to be correct in either case: you won't ever be cursing with the Lord's name, nor will you ever be cursing at all.)
- Fourth, that Ockham's Razor is true. (Given two equally plausible explanations where neither explains more than the other, and where one explanation requires more assumptions than the other, then it is best to more easily accept the explanation that requires less assumptions.)
Singer's first point is that of the definition of the word "person". Historically, the word 'person' has had many different meanings. There was a time when some humans were given the distinction of being called persons, while other humans (whether they were called barbarians, slaves, or women) were considered 'less than a person'. So it is difficult to give an accurate definition.
One wants to give all humans the benefit of the doubt, but this goes against our first premise. If we do not have a good definition of person, then why exclude nonhumans from our list of potential persons? The question is: what makes a person a person? That they are human is insufficient. If an alien were to ring your doorbell, and you were to open your door, see that it was an alien, and then promptly shoot it with your gun, would you not feel bad about it afterward? And it would not be because you had shot some non-person thing, but instead you would feel bad because you would have shot a person. Obviously, the status of being Homo sapiens is not identical to the status of personhood.
What, then, does it take to be a person? One required condition, Singer argues, is that the being feels that it is the same being from one moment to the next. Surely, we would not assign personhood to anyone who lacked that quality. If a being is unable to distinguish itself continuously from one moment to the next, and (further) has never in the past been able to distinguish itself continuously from one moment to the next, then that being is definitely not a person.
While Singer only gives a necessary condition for personhood, and is unable to furnish a defendable sufficient condition, by our third axiom it is clear as to whom we should consider persons: at the very least, we should consider all beings who have the necessary condition for personhood to be persons. Although we will probably end up including a few nonpersons in our list of what is considered to be a person, we will at least not be excluding any potential persons from our list, and that is what is most important.
(It should be noted here that this list happens to include many nonhuman animals, such as dogs, cats, cows, and pigs. It is for this [among other] reason[s] that I am vegetarian and an aspiring vegan. Furthermore, I have quite serious thoughts on fructarianism, which many find to be particularly ludicrous, but whatever.)
So now we have clarified our second axiom by choosing an appropriate meaning for 'person', even though we could not find the exact definition of the term. Where, then, does Singer go from here, and how does any of this mumbo-jumbo relate to infanticide?
As it turns out, it relates pretty darn directly. Infants, by our very broad and quite generous consideration of terms, are not persons. As such, we need a separate rule to say that it is wrong to end the life of an infant, or else we may end up admitting that it is not inherently negative that an infant die. (Keep in mind here, that this is not an argument that the death of infants is not generally negative--of course it is negative--but that its negativity arises not from the inherent value assigned to the death of an infant in general, but instead to mitigating circumstances: the potential of the infant to turn into a person at some future point, the desires of the parents and family who may want the infant to live very much, the need of a beginning society to have as many new children as possible, etc.) But by axiom four, inserting yet another premise is unacceptable when we could equally admit the negative value of most infant death to mitigating circumstances.
Of course, at this point, Singer argues, we might say that all of this is but pedantic nonsense, and is totally useless--for why in this day and age would infanticide be even considered? But it turns out to be far more relevant than any of us might like to admit.
The field of bioethics, it turns out, constantly has to grapple with the inconsistency of infanticide being generally considered immoral by the public, and yet regularly practiced by physicians in the heat of neonatal care. The standard phrase used in the medical community is "letting nature take its course". According to one NICU physician, stating hospital policy on infants weighing in at less than 500 grams: "We generally keep them warm and let them expire by themselves. These are not viable babies, and it's crazy to do anything more." In most severe cases of Myelomeningocele (spina bifida cystica), which occur in as many as one out of every hundred births in areas with diets lacking in folic acid, physicians are genereally relieved when the infant has a complication. Because then they may recommend to the parent that they "let nature take its course", so the infant may die at a young age. When an infant with severe myelomeningocele doesn't have a complication, then it is cause for worry; such children are generally completely paralyzed, with severe brain damage due to hydrocephalus. Modern technology is able to keep such children alive up to their preteen years, but they always live with severe pain and discomort, which when added to paralysis, incontinence, and intellectual disability is enough to cause most doctors to hope for a complication to arise during the infant stages so that they may recommend "letting nature take its course". This is, no matter how one looks at it, legal infanticide. (In point of fact, the vast majority (~80% as of Singer's 2000 publication date) of the worst cases of spina bifida cystica are not given life-saving treatment.)
Singer argues that infanticide, as practiced by physicians today, is wholly justifiable. Though it seems strange and 'out there' at first--it certainly is a prime candidate for "deviant behavior" if I ever saw one--infanticide has a fairly good justification as told by Peter Singer.