Thursday, June 09, 2005

Tell Me, Oh Wise "Ethicist" Singer,
Am I A Viable Human Being?

This is a truly chilling post. Get ready.

Disabled Lawyer Harriet McBryde Johnson, confronted "Ethicist" and Chair of the Princeton Philosophy Dept, Peter Singer, at one of his speaking engagements. Her question: Should I be dead?

From Marlowe's Shade, via TVD:

As soon as he's done, I get the microphone and say I'd like to discuss selective infanticide. As a lawyer, I disagree with his jurisprudential assumptions. Logical inconsistency is not a sufficient reason to change the law. As an atheist, I object to his using religious terms (''the doctrine of the sanctity of human life'') to characterize his critics.
Singer takes a note pad out of his pocket and jots down my points, apparently eager to take them on, and I proceed to the heart of my argument: that the presence or absence of a disability doesn't predict quality of life.
I question his replacement-baby theory, with its assumption of ''other things equal,'' arguing that people are not fungible. I draw out a comparison of myself and my nondisabled brother Mac (the next-born after me), each of us with a combination of gifts and flaws so peculiar that we can't be measured on the same scale.
He responds to each point with clear and lucid counterarguments.

He proceeds with the assumption that I am one of the people who might rightly have been killed at birth.

He sticks to his guns, conceding just enough to show himself open-minded and flexible. We go back and forth for 10 long minutes.
Even as I am horrified by what he says, and by the fact that I have been sucked into a civil discussion of whether I ought to exist, I can't help being dazzled by his verbal facility. He is so respectful, so free of condescension, so focused on the argument, that by the time the show is over, I'm not exactly angry with him.
Yes, I am shaking, furious, enraged -- but it's for the big room, 200 of my fellow Charlestonians who have listened with polite interest, when in decency they should have run him out of town on a rail.

(After the speaking engagement, McBryde-Johnson) ... begins corresponding with him. (PapiJoe at Marlowe's Shade) can't help but note how Ms Johnson's atheism hobbles her philosophical argument in service of her intstinctive opposition to Singer's monsterous beliefs.

Singer seems curious to learn how someone who is as good an atheist as he is could disagree with his entirely reasonable views. At the same time, I am trying to plumb his theories.
What has him so convinced it would be best to allow parents to kill babies with severe disabilities, and not other kinds of babies, if no infant is a ''person'' with a right to life? I learn it is partly that both biological and adoptive parents prefer healthy babies.
But I have trouble with basing life-and-death decisions on market considerations when the market is structured by prejudice. I offer a hypothetical comparison:
''What about mixed-race babies, especially when the combination is entirely nonwhite, who I believe are just about as unadoptable as babies with disabilities?'' Wouldn't a law allowing the killing of these undervalued babies validate race prejudice?
Singer agrees there is a problem. ''It would be horrible,'' he says, ''to see mixed-race babies being killed because they can't be adopted, whereas white ones could be.''
What's the difference? Preferences based on race are unreasonable. Preferences based on ability are not. Why?
To Singer, it's pretty simple: disability makes a person ''worse off.
''Are we ''worse off''? I don't think so. Not in any meaningful sense. There are too many variables.
Pressing me to admit a negative correlation between disability and happiness, Singer presents a situation: imagine a disabled child on the beach, watching the other children play.It's right out of the telethon. I expected something more sophisticated from a professional thinker.
I respond: ''As a little girl playing on the beach, I was already aware that some people felt sorry for me, that I wasn't frolicking with the same level of frenzy as other children. This annoyed me, and still does.''
I take the time to write a detailed description of how I, in fact, had fun playing on the beach, without the need of standing, walking or running. But, really, I've had enough. I suggest to Singer that we have exhausted our topic, and I'll be back in touch when I get around to writing about him.
In the rest of the piece she struggles at length with her inability to hate Singer. She realizes (and I trust her perception) his views come from good intentions combined with his secular utilitarian logic.
This is the crux of it. We know in our hearts that these "practical" conclusions are a failure of human reasoning. Yet because we can't bear this terrible burden alone, we simply stop listening to our hearts.
Without God, we become like Peter Singer. Reasonable respectful considerate monsters.

Read the rest, over at Marlowe's Shade.