The Right Coast

March 11, 2005
Princeton Professor not eligible for babysitting job
By Tom Smith

I am thinking I would not let Peter Singer babysit my kids. In this charming discussion, he allows as how killing a newborn baby is not killing a person. What I want to know is, is killing a Princeton philosophy professor who thinks it's OK to kill a new born baby, killing a person? And even if it is killing a person, technically, might it still be justified on utilitarian grounds? By killing Peter Singer we probably reduce on the margin the possibility that someday we will live in a world where you can kill new born babies but not eat fried chicken. That's a lot of utility right there. I would be willing to kill him in a humane way, or at least a not terribly tortuous way. I was thinking maybe dropping 100 tons of bullshit on him. There would be a certain poetic justice in that.

Ready for a really deep philosophical idea? Prepare yourself. Sit down. This is the sort of thing that gets you a chair in ethics at Princeton. To be a person, you have to have a sense of yourself existing over time, and be able to think about what you want in the future. New born babies don't have that according to Singer. No doubt he read a psychology article once to that effect. Sometimes philosophers, unable to be stupid enough by themselves, have to borrow stupidities from other disciplines in order to achieve the maximum effect. Does any sensible person think that new born babies have no idea of the future or of time, and in any event, how on earth are we supposed to know what the time sense of a new born is, at least with the certainty that is presumably required to justify killing it? Golly, another philosophical question.

You may recall the name Peter Singer from a while back when he published an article on the internet allowing that it was OK to have sex with animals. Not only do a lot of people do it, according to Professor Singer, but there's no reason they shouldn't. His English Sheepdog Rosie was unvailable for comment. (She was getting her hair done.) I read the article, but I'm not going to link to it. If you want, just google "Peter Singer sex animals dogs ducks camels morality" and it will probably pop up. In any event, he does actually seem to think it is just fine to take your relationship with your emu to a whole new level, as long as it does not harm the animal. Whether it does you know presumably in much the same way you figure out little gurgling Amanda's sense of time. You really have to wonder about Professor Singer's sincerity. If he had a daughter, would he really want her to go out with a man, even a Princeton man, who had had relations with a duck? Let us say, so the animal would not be harmed, a big duck, a swan even, sort of Leda and the Swan in reverse. I like to think not. I quite understand that Professor Singer is an extremely distinguished academic. As we academics would say, "he is very smart; he has written on these issues. He is a very smart guy." And it may be true. But he thinks it is OK to have sex with ducks.

All this leads me to conclude that Professor Singer will not be invited to babysit or even dogsit at my house any time soon. As my mass-challenged male labrador is always hungry, he might conclude morality required that he feed him my baby, which would not do. And I would not trust him with my female yellow lab, who does not smell, and seems to have a somewhat concupiscent temperament. It would be interesting to know what the attitude of the folks at Princeton would be to this question. They are reputed to be very open minded.

BIT OF A BROOHAHA over at VC as to whether I misrepresented Peter Singer or not. Here's a long quotation from the FAQ at his website:

Q. You have been quoted as saying: "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all." Is that quote accurate?

A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term "person" to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection - but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.

Q. What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?

A. Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it. And that’s a good thing, of course. We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.

Alrighty then. This view, though dazzlingly brilliant, does seem to leave that unfortunate non-person, the unwanted baby, in rather a tough spot. Indeed, what if you are that even more unfortunate not-a-person, the baby whose parents would like to kill you, because you cry a lot and poop in your pants? Does the state, or the kingdom of ends, or moral decency or anybody have the warrant to command, Don't kill that baby! He's a person! Apparently not.

Also, the idea that newborns do not want to stay alive deserves ridicule on its face. Not just newborns but prematurely born babies routinely behave in ways that causes neonatal nurses to say, for example, "he may make it; he's a fighter." Not only do they want to live, they fight like hell to live. To blithely say, oh, you see, they don't have any sense of the future you see, so they cannot want to stay alive, so you are not depriving them of anything they want . . . " is spurious, offensive nonsense, based apparently on a complete ignorance of the realities of earliest human life. It would be interesting to know if Singer has any children, or has had any experience in a neo-natal care unit. Those little pink frogs are persons, all right, and that's part of what makes them so morally compelling. Killing them is killing people, and its moral depravity is not limited to the grief it would cause their parents. I mean, really.

Just as a philosophical opinion, I would like to assert that the idea that to be a person, you have to have some sense of the future, is rubbish. I particularly value those moments when my sense of the future slips away, when watching a beautiful sunset, or finishing a second bottle of wine, and I certainly don't expect anyone to think that they can kill me without killing a person. It may well be that animals deserve more respect than we give them. I am something of an animal lover, even though I eat them. I was even a vegetarian for about 10 days once, but gave it up out of weakness of will. You can be an ethical vegetarian without adopting views that in addition to being false, help undermine the ethical status of the most vulnerable human persons.