Thursday, February 24, 2011

Killing babies again

Peter Baron at Philosophical Investigations (which seems to be much less Wittgensteinian than I had hoped) asks:
"When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with the prospects of a happy life, the amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed," argues Peter Singer.  What's morally wrong with this view?
He gives several answers, but isn't the right one: because that's not how babies are made? Maybe that's not a moral objection, but it seems pretty relevant.


  1. As one who has been confined to a wheelchair since birth, I find this line of reasoning as persuasive as Anselm's ontological argument. Many unchallenged assumptions lurk in the shadows. First, why are we to believe that being disabled must be so miserable? Studies in psychology have actually shown that people in a variety of contexts and situations see themselves as having generally positive "amounts" of subjective well-being so long as basic needs are met (Ed Diener, Richard E. Lucas, Christie Napa Scollon. "Beyond the Hedonic Treadmill" American Psychologist. 2006. Vol. 61, No. 4, 305–314).

    Secondly, this view assumes that any pain and/or suffering is always such that it is antithetical to happiness. While this may be true in the immediate, pain and suffering can in fact deepen us by giving a different spin on what is most important in life. For example, I would likely not have the interest in philosophy that I do, if not for the fact that being in a wheelchair forces difficult questions upon me. Moreover, certain insights I have, I can trace to this or that difficult experience or struggle. That isn't to say that I'm a better thinker than my peers, merely that I see things others tend to miss, for having a distinct phenomenological history. Even if I abstain from saying that these goods "outweigh" my disability, is it not clear that such a life has its own joys? I would add to say that being so close to difficulty on a daily basis gives me a very deep appreciation for the "little things" that make life enjoyable.

    So what is morally wrong with Singer's claim? In short, it's not true.

    That being said, can I get a citation for that statement? I find it fascinating that a philosopher as well-known as Peter Singer can make such an assertion.

  2. Thanks, Stephen. You make good points, and I agree that Singer's claim is not true.

    As for the citation, it appears to be from p. 163 of the most reason edition of Practical Ethics (Cambridge University Press, 2011). The passage also appears in two previous editions. Singer is talking about haemophiliac children and those with Down's syndrome, but he generalizes the point (while taking care to emphasize the fact that, of course, people with such conditions can lead happy lives). His point is that people have aborted fetuses (and euthanized infants) that were suspected of having such conditions and then sought to create a new one in the hope that it would have a better chance of having a happy life. When this works he thinks it is morally OK.

    This is not my view, but explaining fully how I think Singer goes wrong would take me a long time.

  3. Thanks, Dr. Richter.

    I saw this post (resulting in a mini-rant) when I was looking for material on Wittgenstein and ethics. I'm interested in unpacking what ethical implications there are (or may be) of language as "participation" in a form of life, and I'm having trouble finding material on that. Can you recommend any books or articles?

    My own thinking was to link it with Paul Grice's "Cooperative Principle" in order to flesh it out. Or one could use MacIntyre's definition of "practice," argue that language fits this definition, and move from there to discuss the virtues of the practice of language. Can you direct me in any good directions for this idea, or does it seem problematic to you from the start?

  4. Your idea seems problematic from the start in the sense that I really nothing positive whatever about what one ought to do or how one ought to live follows from Wittgenstein's ideas about language or the nature of philosophy. On the other hand, I think there might be a lot of negative conclusions to draw. These would be along the lines of judgments that this or that philosopher is wrong about what philosophy can tell us about ethics. Most of Elizabeth Anscombe's criticisms of other moral philosophers seem good to me, as do Iris Murdoch's. And Rai Gaita's. And Cora Diamond's. But I could keep naming names and it might not do you much good (which is not to say that I don't recommend these people's work highly--I'll be happy to give more precise references if you want).

    One approach you might want to take is to read Sabina Lovibond's book "Realism and Imagination in Ethics" and then look at responses to Lovibond's work by Cora Diamond and, after that, Reshef Agam-Segal.


  5. I should add that my first sentence above is meant as a kind of joke. I don't think that ethical conclusions of the kind I've mentioned there follow from Wittgenstein's work, but it might usefully clarify what ethics is and is not.

  6. I am somewhat familiar with Wittgenstein on ethics, and I've read Anscombe's famous 1953 article. What I specifically had in mind was something like this: it seems that language fits the profile of 'practice' as defined by MacIntyre in After Virtue. If that is right to say then it seems that we cannot pose a radical moral skepticism without engaging in language--a practice.

    This is clearly to depart from Wittgenstein and Anscombe, so I'm not trying to read either as saying this. It does however strike me as a possible route for drawing some limits to the inquiry. That's all I would really be aiming for at the moment.

    That being said, I will look up the names you referenced above. I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.

  7. I see. There's a large literature on MacIntyre, of course, but I'm afraid I can't guide you to anything in it that matches your interests. Good luck with the project though.