February 23, 2003


Unspeakable Conversations (HARRIET McBRYDE JOHNSON, February 16, 2003, NY Times Magazine)
He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies as they come along and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.

Whenever I try to wrap my head around his tight string of syllogisms, my brain gets so fried it's . . . almost fun. Mercy! It's like ''Alice in Wonderland.''

It is a chilly Monday in late March, just less than a year ago. I am at Princeton University. My host is Prof. Peter Singer, often called -- and not just by his book publicist -- the most influential philosopher of our time. He is the man who wants me dead. No, that's not at all fair. He wants to legalize the killing of certain babies who might come to be like me if allowed to live. He also says he believes that it should be lawful under some circumstances to kill, at any age, individuals with cognitive impairments so severe that he doesn't consider them ''persons.'' What does it take to be a person? Awareness of your own existence in time. The capacity to harbor preferences as to the future, including the preference for continuing to live.

At this stage of my life, he says, I am a person. However, as an infant, I wasn't. I, like all humans, was born without self-awareness. And eventually, assuming my brain finally gets so fried that I fall into that wonderland where self and other and present and past and future blur into one boundless, formless all or nothing, then I'll lose my personhood and therefore my right to life. Then, he says, my family and doctors might put me out of my misery, or out of my bliss or oblivion, and no one count it murder. [...]

In the lecture hall that afternoon, Singer lays it all out. The ''illogic'' of allowing abortion but not infanticide, of allowing withdrawal of life support but not active killing. Applying the basic assumptions of preference utilitarianism, he spins out his bone-chilling argument for letting parents kill disabled babies and replace them with nondisabled babies who have a greater chance at happiness. It is all about allowing as many individuals as possible to fulfill as many of their preferences as possible.

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. [...]

When I put the phone down, my argumentative nature feels frustrated. In my mind, I replay the conversation, but this time defend my position.

''He's not exactly a monster. He just has some strange ways of looking at things.''

''He's advocating genocide.''

''That's the thing. In his mind, he isn't. He's only giving parents a choice. He thinks the humans he is talking about aren't people, aren't 'persons.'''

''But that's the way it always works, isn't it? They're always animals or vermin or chattel goods. Objects, not persons. He's repackaging some old ideas. Making them acceptable.''

''I think his ideas are new, in a way. It's not old-fashioned hate. It's a twisted, misinformed, warped kind of beneficence. His motive is to do good.''

''What do you care about motives?'' she asks. ''Doesn't this beneficent killing make disabled brothers and sisters just as dead?''

''But he isn't killing anyone. It's just talk.''

''Just talk? It's talk with an agenda, talk aimed at forming policy. Talk that's getting a receptive audience. You of all people know the power of that kind of talk.''

''Well, sure, but--''

''If talk didn't matter, would you make it your life's work?''

''But,'' I say, ''his talk won't matter in the end. He won't succeed in reinventing morality. He stirs the pot, brings things out into the open. But ultimately we'll make a world that's fit to live in, a society that has room for all its flawed creatures. History will remember Singer as a curious example of the bizarre things that can happen when paradigms collide.''

''What if you're wrong? What if he convinces people that there's no morally significant difference between a fetus and a newborn, and just as disabled fetuses are routinely aborted now, so disabled babies are routinely killed? Might some future generation take it further than Singer wants to go? Might some say there's no morally significant line between a newborn and a 3-year-old?''

''Sure. Singer concedes that a bright line cannot be drawn. But he doesn't propose killing anyone who prefers to live.''

''That overarching respect for the individual's preference for life -might some say it's a fiction, a fetish, a quasi-religious belief?''

''Yes,'' I say. ''That's pretty close to what I think. As an atheist, I think all preferences are moot once you kill someone. The injury is entirely to the surviving community.''

''So what if that view wins out, but you can't break disability prejudice? What if you wind up in a world where the disabled person's 'irrational' preference to live must yield to society's 'rational' interest in reducing the incidence of disability? Doesn't horror kick in somewhere? Maybe as you watch the door close behind whoever has wheeled you into the gas chamber?''

''That's not going to happen.''

In all the discussion of this piece from last week's NY Times Magazine, the most important and ineffably sad point seems to have been mentioned little: Ms Johnson effectively supports Mr. Singer's case. As an atheist she has no belief in the intrinsic value of life and no conception of good and evil, she's forced to fall back on ad hoc definitions. The definition of human that she has chosen, so far as one can tell, is anyone who has been born. So she talks about her fear that disabled infants could come to be treated like fetuses, which is to say not human and therefore disposable. But she assures herself: "He won't succeed in reinventing morality." This ignores the fact that the wholesale killing of fetuses required just such a reinvention of morality, a new definition of who is not human and who is disposable. Nor is even that definition consistently applied--as for instance when someone is charged with murder if they shoot a pregnant woman kill the baby--nor accepted by even a simple majority of society.

If the value of life is to be determined solely by the definitions we choose, as to who's human and who's not, we don't even have any ground to criticize slaveholders, who after all had merely defined blacks as not fully human or the Nazis who believed Jews to be sub-human. And, if we should one day, perhaps under the pressure of rising medical costs, decide that the disabled, the terminal, the extremely elderly, the Alzheimer's ridden, etc., are not what we choose at that moment to define as human, then how can someone who believes in nothing more than definitionalism quarrel with that result? Ms Johnson's subjectivism leaves her with no defense against the subjectivism of the majority.

Posted by Orrin Judd at February 23, 2003 9:45 PM

Hey, two can play Singer's game: he is attempting to redefine morality/legality such that newborn and the infirm aren't "persons" and so can be killed by others without consequence. OK, so why can't some of the rest of us redefine things such that a Singer-like monster who has so little regard for the lives of others is not a “person” and can be killed by others without consequence?

The shoe fits, Professor, so go ahead and put it on!

Posted by: at February 23, 2003 11:14 PM

Asked and answered. Somewhere in a Singer interview, he was given the following: if it could be definitively shown that ridding the world of philosophers would improve mankind's lot would he favor the action? He would, he would. Of corse, he found that "unlikely". Whatta a bleeping ********.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at February 24, 2003 6:59 AM

Heh. Corse = course

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at February 24, 2003 7:01 AM

I recall reading that Singer also believes that all incomes above $30,000 should be taxed away because no one "needs" more than that, yet his own income hovers somewhere upwards of $200,000. After you, professor.

Posted by: Jed Roberts at February 24, 2003 7:14 AM


As an atheist she has no belief in the intrinsic value of life and no conception of good and evil.

That statement is precisely as accurate as saying "As a Christian, she is committed to the slaughter of apostates and unbelievers."

I am an atheist, I value life and can clearly discern between good and evil. On what basis? That I (and I bet any atheist you might care to talk to, rather than insult) take as axiomatic that everyone, by the very fact of their existence, is equally entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We disagree over what constitutes an "everyone." Pre-partum, there is wide disagreement as to when, or if, everyoneness occurs. Post-partum, there is scarcely any.

I'm not particularly familiar with Peter Singer, and what little I know turns my stomach. But it is no more fair to tar atheists with his brush than it would be for me to tar Christians with the Pat Robertson or World Church of the Creator brushes.

That aside, here is a hypothetical. If I were to suffer some awful, non-terminal, disease and reached the poitn where I no longer desired to live, should I be allowed to act on that decision?


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 24, 2003 7:28 AM


Yes, that's what Richard Rorty refers to as "free-loading atheism"--you wish to deny the God from whom the values are derived but then keep the values. That works fine while the society is wholly Judeo-Christian, but down the road you end up with no foundations left for what you feel the need to believe.

As for end of life issues, I have no problem with someone who's dying ending their own life. I don't think that's a sin or morally wrong or any other such thing, so long as they're terminal. Or, I could envision a system whereby assisted suicide were allowed so long as a panel of doctors were unanimous that the condition was terminal, it was done by executioners, rather than health-care staff, and the departed's estate automatically reverted to charity rather than family.

Posted by: oj at February 24, 2003 7:58 AM

Jeff, you may believe that, but it's clear that for the author of this piece, her atheism is the prime reason for her self-doubts. For her, at least, it is her atheism which is the source of her subjectivism which makes her unable to justify her own existence.

Posted by: John Thacker at February 24, 2003 1:29 PM

Jeff, you may believe that, but it's clear that for the author of this piece, her atheism is the prime reason for her self-doubts. For her, at least, it is her atheism which is the source of her subjectivism which makes her unable to justify her own existence.

Posted by: John Thacker at February 24, 2003 1:30 PM

So, I am to conclude there were no values anywhere prior to Judeo- Christian ones? Or that non Judeo-Christian cultures don't have values similar to ours?

The values espoused in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) constitute a world view--collectively they are an assertion. So far as I know, there are no biblical passages specifically espousing those things. If memory serves Deuteronomy has at least a few passages that water down even the seemingly clear cut "Thou shalt not kill."

I would find assertions of Judeo-Christian moral superiority vastly more convincing if history wasn't so thoroughly replete with pogroms, Inquisitions, sectarian violence, intolerance of dissent and the dead hand of religious orthodoxy.


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: at February 25, 2003 8:22 AM


Those non-monotheistic cultures are rife with infanticide, euthanasia, etc. It is only from God that you can derive an absolute morality and a unique worth of all persons, which comes from their reflection of and relation to God:


Posted by: oj at February 25, 2003 3:48 PM


Better read your history a little more closely. European cultures have also been rife with infanticide of unwanted babies--check the etymology of the Spanish last name "Esposito," for instance.

Who would have though millions of newborns would have been dumped in Christian Europe up through the 1800s?


Jeff Guinn

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at February 25, 2003 8:39 PM