Princeton Bioethics Professor Peter Singer: Devaluing Human Life

Related to my previous blog, way to go Kurt Warner! After winning the NFC championship game Sunday and earning a trip to the Superbowl, Kurt Warner, who has been criticized for his vocal faith in Christ, was interviewed by Terry Bradshaw over the stadium PA. Warner looked up at the stands and said to everyone, including millions of television viewers:

"Everybody's going to be tired of hearing this, but I never get tired of saying it; there's one reason I'm standing up here on this stage today, and that's because of my Lord up above. I got to say thanks to Jesus."

Here's the 40 second video, worth it even if you're not a football fan:

What if all of us, for all of our successes, in business and parenting, in sports and school and all of life, insisted on saying public thanks to Jesus? As Jason Hanson made me a Lions fan, and Timmy Tebow and his family made me a Gator fan, Kurt Warner has made me a Cardinals fan. Go, Cards! Win the Superbowl! (Sorry Steelers fans, but you beat our Seahawks in your last Superbowl, and it's time to spread it around.)

Peter SingerAlright, as alert readers may have noticed, the man in the picture is not Kurt Warner. It's Peter Singer. He came to mind as I was thinking about the January 22 anniversary of legalized abortion in America. Singer is one of those rare people who is consistent with his worldview. Commendable if you have the right worldview, sometimes horrifying if you don't.

I have long been interested in the career of Princeton bioethics professor Peter Singer. I've written about him in my books ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments and Why Prolife?

The New York Times, explaining how the values of Peter Singer trickle down through media and academia to the general populace, noted that "no other living philosopher has had this kind of influence."

The New England Journal of Medicine said he has had "more success in effecting changes in acceptable behavior" than any philosopher since Bertrand Russell. The New Yorker called him the "most influential" philosopher alive.

Well, on that note, let me introduce you to the beliefs of this extraordinarily influential professor. Peter Singer wrote,

"The life of a fetus is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc.”Singer says, “If we compare a severely defective human infant with a nonhuman animal, a dog or a pig, for example, we will often find the nonhuman to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant.”

When Singer came to teach at Princeton, he was protested by Not Dead Yet, a disabilities rights group. They took offense at Singer's books, which say it should be legal to kill disabled infants, as well as children and adults with severe cognitive disabilities.

Singer suggests that individual human worth is based on its usefulness to others:

"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 hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

Peter Singer says, “There [is a] lack of any clear boundary between the newborn infant, who is clearly not a person in the ethically relevant sense, and the young child who is. In our book, Should the Baby Live?, my colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggested that a period of twenty-eight days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others.”

Dr. Charles Hartshorne of the University of Texas echoes Singer’s ethic: “Of course, an infant is not fully human.… I have little sympathy with the idea that infanticide is just another form of murder. Persons who are already functionally persons in the full sense have more important rights even than infants.”

During an interview, Singer was asked, "Is there anything wrong with a society in which children are bred for spare parts on a massive scale?"

His answer: "No."

He also reaffirmed that it would be ethically OK to kill 1-year-olds with physical or mental disabilities, although ideally the question of infanticide would be "raised as soon as possible after birth."

Given a choice between keeping alive an adult chimpanzee and a human infant, the chimp should beat out the child.

In another interview, a woman asked him, "Would you kill a disabled baby?"

"Yes, if that was in the best interests of the baby and of the family as a whole. Many people find this shocking, yet they support a woman's right to have an abortion. One point on which I agree with opponents of abortion is that, from the point of view of ethics rather than the law, there is no sharp distinction between the foetus and the newborn baby."

“Human babies are not born self-aware or capable of grasping their lives over time. They are not persons. Hence their lives would seem to be no more worthy of protection than the life of a fetus.”

And writing specifically about Down Syndrome babies, he advocates trading a disabled or defective child (one who is apparently doomed to too much suffering) for one who has better prospects for happiness:

“We may not want a child to start on life's uncertain voyage if the prospects are clouded. When this can be known at a very early stage in the voyage, we may still have a chance to make a fresh start. This means detaching ourselves from the infant who has been born, cutting ourselves free before the ties that have already begun to bind us to our child have become irresistible. Instead of going forward and putting all our effort into making the best of the situation, we can still say no, and start again from the beginning.”

And in an article titled, "Making Our Own Competency Should Be Paramount Decisions about Death," Singer wrote these fascinating words:

Any discussion of the ethics of voluntary euthanasia must begin by considering whether it can ever be right to kill an innocent human being. The view that this can never be right gains its strongest support from religious doctrines that claim that only humans are made in the image of God, or that only humans have an immortal soul, or that God gave us dominion over the animals—meaning that we can kill them if we wish—but reserved to himself dominion over human beings.

Reject these ideas, and it is difficult to think of any morally relevant properties that separate human beings with severe brain damage or other major intellectual disabilities from nonhuman animals at a similar mental level.

For why should the fact that a being is a member of our species make it worse to kill that being than it is to kill a member of another species, if the two individuals have similar intellectual abilities or if the nonhuman has superior intellectual abilities?

One final thought, especially for parents paying their children's tuition at Princeton, where their children may attend Singer's popular classes:Well, that's Peter Singer for you. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, it won't stop with killing the unborn.

Singer also teaches that there can be moral justification for killing the elderly.

Photo by Joel Travis Sage (Own work) [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries

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