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A Curious Encounter with a Philosopher from Nowhere

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus

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Fr. Richard John Neuhaus reflects on his debate with Princeton ethicist Peter Singer who advocates killing persons deemed undersirable by society.

One could hardly imagine a more civilized setting. A crisply sunny November afternoon at Colgate University, its campus of handsome nineteenth--century buildings tucked into the cadenced hills of upstate New York, all covered with the last fine glow of autumn foliage. The four hundred bright--eyed students, along with faculty and townsfolk, filled the auditorium, with many standing and sitting in the aisles. The great attraction, I was well aware, was Peter Singer. "The controversial Peter Singer," as he is routinely called, holder of a chair in bioethics at Princeton's University Center for Human Values. He and I were to debate the question, "Who Should Live and Who Should Die?" It was a standard format, with opening statements and rebuttals, followed by another hour of responding to questions from the audience. Don't ask me who won. As is usual with public debates, partisans on both sides claim victory and are reinforced in what they believed before. I don't think I did too poorly, but Singer, his forensic talents honed by the assumption that his views will meet with resistance, is an impressive performer.

I had not met Professor Singer before, although I had of course read a good bit of his work. After all, the New Yorker declares him to be the world's "most influential living philosopher," and even in the guild of professional philosophers there are some who agree with that estimate. In addition to the two hours of public exchange, we spent several hours in conversation, and I confess that there is much about him that one cannot help but like. He is a bright, articulate, and very personable bloke, as they might say in his native Australia. He does not mind at all being called a gadfly; on the contrary, he obviously relishes the role. He would like to think that he is also something more than a gadfly, but for him philosophy is clearly not defined, as the classical authors would have it, by the love of wisdom but by, as he is prone to putting it, getting people to think for themselves.

The opening line of Rethinking Life and Death sets forth what for him is self--evidently the case: "After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed." That is the presupposition, variously phrased, that runs throughout his argument. And there is another, from the same text: "The views I put forward should be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended." Although he does not put it so baldly, he seems to believe that the fact that his argument clashes with accepted moral views is evidence of its superiority. One would expect no less of a gadfly.

His system of ethics, which he tends to assume is ethics tout court, is an individual preference version of utilitarianism, going back to the nineteenth century and Jeremy Bentham's doctrine that each is to count as one and none is to count as more than one. The ethical goal is to minimize pain and maximize pleasure. Among the many traditions of ethical thought, this one, for Peter Singer, not only counts as more than one but is the only one. Utility, equality, universality, and individual choice--these are the dogmatic points of reference in a scheme presented as the enemy of dogma. This is pretty conventional stuff in some circles of academic philosophy, but in the utilitarian tradition Prof. Singer has gained fame and notoriety by drawing from it some unusual conclusions, or at least by promoting his conclusions with unusual candor. He also wants to believe that he is not rigidly tied to any system, utilitarian or otherwise. At times he declares that the lodestar of his thinking is one simple imperative: reduce suffering.

Singer has been widely quoted as saying that he and the Pope are the only ones who understand what the abortion debate is about. He says he does not remember saying that, but he allows that he well might have. I pointed out in the debate that, in his role as gadfly, Prof. Singer renders the very useful service of making clear that the logic supporting the unlimited abortion license imposed by the Supreme Court in 1973's Roe v. Wade decision necessarily extends to infanticide, euthanasia, eugenics, and other measures that he espouses, and for which many who support that license wrongly criticize him as an extremist. Peter Singer, with his scheme of individual preference utilitarianism, has simply thought the matter through more consistently than most supporters of the pro--choice position, which is a position of--although such people may never have heard the phrase before--individual preference utilitarianism.

Rights, Animal and Human

In our opposing positions, we were fairly pitted against one another. I defended the proposition that civilization is marked by an expansive definition of the human community for which we accept common responsibility, which requires, in turn, the uncompromisable rule that it is always and in every instance wrong intentionally to kill an innocent human being. Prof. Singer defended the proposition that the ethical goal is to reduce suffering and respect preferences, and that goal may at times permit and even require the killing of the innocent. At many times, as it turns out. To be sure, his argument has important qualifications. Not all who are biologically human beings should be counted as human beings. Some human beings are more human than others. The unborn, the newborn, the anencephalic, and those in a vegetative state, for instance, do not count, or at least do not count fully, as human beings. The other qualifying prong of his argument is that it is not rational to draw a hard and fast line between human beings and other forms of animal life. To do so is an instance of "speciesism."

Prof. Singer's book on animal liberation has sold hundreds of thousands of copies, and in law schools today there are scholars developing a legal framework for the defense of animal rights based on his work. (In deference to Singer, the dinner at the president's house was vegetarian and, I must admit, very tasty.) The natural result of Singer's argument is to shrink the circle of those protected by virtue of human rights, and to expand the circle of beings protected by rights deemed to be superior to the rights of some human beings. The argumentative strategy requires, of course, the blurring of the line between human animals and other animals. Many commentators expressed shock when, in the past year, Prof. Singer came out in defense of sexual relations between human beings and animals, a practice traditionally known as bestiality. (He qualified his argument by emphasizing that it is not permissible to cause the animal pain.) Clearly, the commentators who were shocked had not been attending to his argument. It follows. Yet I admit that I am still puzzled about why, in the absence of clear consent on the animal's part, such intercourse is not a form of rape. But we had so many things to discuss, and perhaps on some other occasion Prof. Singer can set me straight on that one.

We can all agree that contemporary medical technology presents some new circumstances in making life--and--death decisions, although some of us think they are not so new as the Singers of the world claim is the case. In the debate, I began with the rule that we are always to care and never to kill, and then considered "hard cases" in the light of that rule. Prof. Singer, as you might expect, began at the other end with the hard cases (the anencephalic infant being his prime example), which, he contended, discredit the rule. Of course he agrees that we are always to care; it is only that sometimes caring means killing. He does not object to my saying that he is a proponent of the kindness that kills. In his view, what matters is the kindness.

 That is one reason why he resents so deeply the German universities that have denied him a platform. The Germans claim that his argument is reminiscent of, if not identical with, the Nazis and their doctrine of "life unworthy of life." In his writings, Singer has protested vigorously that it is the German students who shout him down who are the real Nazis. I pointed out in response that, while it is true that the Nazis denied free speech, it is not for that that they are chiefly remembered. After the Holocaust and other atrocities of the Nazi era, the sanctity of human life was entrenched in the basic law of Germany, and Singer is very explicit about his goal of overthrowing the idea of the sanctity of human life, which he depicts as a discredited Christian imposition on clear thinking. Some Germans claim he is a Himmler in academic tweeds. Of course he is not a Himmler. He had grandparents killed in the Holocaust. Moreover, he is an intellectual and a gentleman, and his purpose is to reduce suffering.

A spot of unpleasantness

There was a spot of unpleasantness in the debate. Singer's Benthamite principle that each counts as one and none as more than one has led him to insist again and again that, from an ethical viewpoint, our duties to friends and family are not different from our duties to strangers. That is part of what it means when he says his ethical theory is universal. One has no more ethical duty, for instance, to one's own daughter than to a girl of the same age ten thousand miles away in Bangladesh whom one has never seen and whose name one does not know. My family, my friends, my country--each must give way to the universal. Each person counts as one and no more than one. But then, in a long and generally sympathetic interview in the New Yorker, the question came up about Singer's devoting many thousands of dollars and elaborate nursing care for his own mother who had Alzheimer's. In the interview, Singer is reported to have explained, "Perhaps it's more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your mother."

Singer's critics understandably seized on this blatant contradiction. Peter Berkowitz, writing in the New Republic, said: "The ethicist's innocence, at this late date in his career, of the most elemental features of his subject matter boggles the mind. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a more stunning rebuke to the well--heeled and well--ensconced academic discipline of practical ethics [Singer's much--used text is titled Practical Ethics] than that its most controversial and influential star, at the peak of his discipline, after an Oxford education, after twenty--five years as a university professor, and after the publication of thousands of pages laying down clear--cut rules on life--and--death issues, should reveal, only as the result of a reporter's prodding, and only in the battle with his own elderly mother's suffering, that he has just begun to appreciate that the moral life is complex."

In my opening presentation, I suggested that Singer's claim to "neutrality," to representing the rationality of "the disinterested observer," was a kind of "view from Nowhere," and I pointed out that nobody actually lives in Nowhere. In this connection, I referred to the public discussion of Singer's very preferential treatment of his mother. I said he was to be commended for what he did, but that it is a cockeyed ethical theory that is embarrassed by a son's caring for his elderly mother. Prof. Singer very sharply, one might say rudely, interrupted my presentation, protesting that I was invading his privacy, that his mother had recently died, and that the New Yorker article misrepresented his views. I was quite taken aback and apologized for any offense given, while noting that I thought he had made the subject a matter of public discussion, and that it did drive to the heart of his rule that none counts for more than one. But his appeal to his privacy and bereavement did score him points, as indicated by applause from much of the audience.

Later, in friendly conversation, I told him that I thought his eruption was more than a little unfair, and asked how the matter had been misrepresented in the New Yorker interview. He explained that the extensive care he had provided his mother was not entirely his idea, there were family pressures, and so forth. The striking thing is that he was clearly more interested in defending his curious theory than in defending his commendable care for his mother. In any event, his explanation does not detract from the force of Berkowitz's criticism. After all, it is Peter Singer himself who wrote in Practical Ethics, "Ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice. The reverse of this is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect as well, for the whole point of ethical judgment is to guide practice."

Not Christian altruism

It is not only in relation to his mother, however, that Singer's practice clashes with his theory. His view from Nowhere prescribes a universal and radically egalitarian altruism that is a formula for living a life of unappeasable guilt. He is reported to give away one--fifth of his very considerable income, mainly to organizations feeding the hungry around the world. He readily admits that he could give more, that some children are dying every day because he does not give more. Some writers claim it is an irony that Singer, who so inveighs against the Christian ethic, in fact subscribes to a Christian ethic of unlimited, and impossible, altruism. But, of course, the Christian ethic, in sharp contrast to the view from Nowhere, underscores that we are "situated" creatures with duties framed by specific place and time and possibility. Singer's ethic is a form of "angelism," meaning the human aspiration to an angelic status that is not and cannot be ours. Put differently, the view from Nowhere is a gnostic delusion of liberation from the particular. The Christian view is grounded in the particular, and most particularly in the incarnation of the universal in the child of Mary. And, of course, the "traditional Western ethic" that Singer repudiates also has roots in Greek traditions of virtue that are assiduously attentive to our being creatures of space and time. The vaulting ambitions of Singer's concept of "a morally decent person" are implausible in theory and impossible in practice. He says he is proposing an ethical ideal, but it is, I believe, not an ideal but a delusion induced by moral hubris.

He believes that his view from Nowhere is a view from Everywhere, but just as nobody actually lives in Nowhere, so nobody actually lives in Everywhere. In this version of a universal ethic, Nowhere and Everywhere are synonymous. Both result in an ethic for a world that does not exist. The eerie sense of unreality induced by his argument was especially strong when the debate turned to his long--standing claim that it is sometimes permissible, even ethically required, to kill children after they have been born. In the past, Prof. Singer has urged a waiting period of twenty--eight days after birth before deciding whether a baby has rights that we are bound to respect. If the child is severely defective, and if the parents so decide, he or she can be killed. Now, after extensive discussion with medical authorities, he is persuaded that the twenty--eight day limit is arbitrary and too inflexible.

In the question and answer session, an undergraduate sharply challenged Singer, asking why, if Singer's argument is right, his parents could not kill him or have him killed. Singer replied that the rule would not apply to the student because he was a conscious and responsible moral agent, or at least presumably so. This elicited appreciative chuckles from some in the audience. I was less than satisfied with his answer and asked Prof. Singer what, then, should be the cut--off age at which parents would no longer be free to kill their children. One year? "Oh," he said, "I should think it would be somewhat short of one year. But my point is that it's not for me or anyone else to say. It should be up to the parents." He added that it is a decision that parents should make in consultation with their doctor.

Time out for reality

Perhaps you have experienced such moments. In the middle of a conversation, a person says something so striking that time seems to stop and an entire scenario unfolds in your mind. That is what happened to me at that point. It went something like this:

Mike and Elizabeth had one child, three--year--old Elizabeth, and had really hoped for a boy this time, but decided to go ahead with the pregnancy when the tests indicated another girl. They named her Anne, and they loved her very much. Their best friends, Bob and Debby, lived only a few houses away, and they all agreed that such an adorable and happy baby had never before been seen.

It was not until about the seventh month that Elizabeth and Mike noticed the odd twitching in Anne's left leg and arm, and the way she refused to look them in the eye. She spent hours in the corner twirling her little yellow plastic duck, increasingly oblivious to everything and everyone around her. The doctor referred them to a specialist who spoke of a neurological problem and exploratory surgery. Even more troubling were the early signs of autism. They were told that there are wonderful programs now, most of them paid for by the state. With the help of therapists ten hours a day, there was a better than 50--50 chance that at age five or so Anne would be almost like other children. Although the neurological problem might leave her with the odd quirk and apparent vacancy of mind from time to time.

That's when Elizabeth began to think, very tentatively at first, that they should send her back. When she finally got up nerve enough to suggest it to Mike, he was appalled. What do you mean send her back? You mean we should kill her? Not at all, Elizabeth explained, the law is very clear. You just sign some papers saying that you have decided it is the best thing for her, and then they gently put her to sleep. It's the merciful thing to do, Mike. She would have never had a really normal life. (By this time, she was beginning to talk about Anne in the past tense.) Anyway, there is my job to think about. I couldn't have been supervising all that therapy for five years, and you're on the road half the time. And next time we can have the boy that we wanted. Knowing that the burden of caring for Anne would fall unequally on Elizabeth, and loving Elizabeth very much, Mike finally relented.

When she told Debby that they had decided to send Anne back, Debby was horrified. But you can't do that, she said. She's your baby, Elizabeth. You can't kill your own baby. It's one thing to have an abortion, but she's been part of your family, part of your life, for seven months. You can't just kill her. Elizabeth protested that they would not be doing it, that it's done in the hospital, and anyway their doctor agreed with them. The doctor also explained how her body parts could save the lives of other children, so it isn't as though she had lived for nothing. Moreover, Anne wasn't really part of the family. She didn't really relate to anybody, and her autism would probably have gotten worse. It would be cruel to have forced her to live a life that was not worth living. Debby noted the past tense and knew the decision had been made. It was a painful conversation. That night Debby and Bob talked for a long time. They agreed they had lost their best friends; they would not be able to have Elizabeth and Mike over any more.

Elizabeth's mother, Mary, told her she would never speak to her again. Grandmothers often are that way. Henry said, Listen, honey, you'll get over it. Anne is their baby, after all, not ours. We have four other grandchildren, and Elizabeth and Mike can have another one who doesn't have all those problems. It's not as though they're doing something criminal. It's legal, and more and more people are doing it. Remember the Schmidt baby, and he was almost two years old. I know how you feel, honey, and I don't like it either, but I don't see how we can impose our judgment on Elizabeth and Mike. It's their baby, after all. And you know she wouldn't have had a happy life. Maybe this is the best thing.

Mary was not convinced; not then, not ever. After a while, she did speak to Elizabeth again, but it was never the same. She remembered how Anne, then less than a month old, had giggled and let out that funny yelp when Father Rittle baptized her, and how they used to recall that, and laugh again. Mary took down from the mantle the Christmas photo of Elizabeth and Mike with little Elizabeth and littler Anne, and put it away in a drawer. Every once in a while, when she was alone, she would open the drawer to look at it, and to remember. She remembered Anne, and she remembered the day that Henry told her that they had sent her back. Elizabeth explained to her father that it wasn't so bad after all. The doctor was waiting for them at the hospital, and there was this really nice room where she and Mike could say their goodbyes, and then a very understanding nurse took Anne from her arms. Don't be embarrassed to cry, she said. Sometimes things just don't work out the way we hoped. Then Elizabeth knew that they had decided to do the right thing. It was with a smile of regret, but mainly of enormous relief, that she watched the nurse carry the poor thing off to another part of the hospital where they put down the babies.

We have no right to say

That was the point at which I returned from my reverie, and it seemed that no time at all had elapsed. Prof. Singer was still talking. He was patiently explaining that people like Father Neuhaus were always worrying about the slippery slope, but what they forget is that most parents love their children and want what is best for them. Most parents would never have any reason to even think about killing their children. So why all the worry? In addition, he wanted it to be clearly understood that he supports the alternative of adoption for defective children, and some parents might be very happy to give up their unwanted child to a couple who would care for it. If such a couple is motivated by a belief in the discredited concept of the sanctity of life, that's their preference and they have a right to believe what they want. Their antiquated belief may help to meet their needs in some odd way.

His chief point was that neither Fr. Neuhaus nor he nor anyone else has a right to tell parents what is best for their own children. Or to tell old people how or when they should die. Although, he added, such decisions should be made with medical advice. He most particularly admires the progressive attitudes and practices of the Netherlands. There euthanasia has been legalized and each year thousands of old people are sent to their final rest, with or without their consent. Ethical progress, he notes, always meets with resistance from alarmists who go on about a supposed slippery slope. But once the step is taken, people get used to it. People are resilient, and it is amazing what they can get used to. The world doesn't come to an end, he observed. The Dutch are still a morally decent people; in his view, more decent since they abandoned outmoded religious inhibitions against doing the rational thing. And so he continued in a tone so reasonable and reassuring. Slippery slope? What slippery slope? Happily sliding downward, he invited the students to follow, and some were obviously asking that most insidious of moral questions, Why not?

As I say, there is much to like about Peter Singer. He has a boyishly mischievous manner, as gadflies often do. To shock conventions is to score points. And there is no doubt that he is very smart. In the course of my presentation I quoted--making clear that I meant no disrespect--Chesterton's line. The problem with a madman, Chesterton wrote, is not that he is not logical; the problem is that he is only logical. Taking no offense, Prof. Singer seemed pleased that I thought him logical, mistakenly equating logical with reasonable. There are glaring contradictions in his argument--notably, but by no means only, with respect to the principle that each counts for one and none for more than one. But one gets the impression that in Singer's view a ready admission of moral guilt covers a multitude of gaps in practice. Nobody said being "a morally decent person" is easy.

And if someone decides not to be a morally decent person? Well, that, too, is his or her choice. We are entitled to take measures to prevent their interfering with our choices, but what they do with themselves or with others--especially if it is determined that the "others" are not really human beings after all--is none of our business. Of course, if people act in such a way as to increase, rather than reduce, suffering--if, for instance, they protect and thus prolong painful and "meaningless" lives--we can let them know in no uncertain terms that we think they are not morally decent persons, or at least that they are morally misguided. The principle of equality requires that we respect their right to choose, even if they choose to believe that the sanctity of life means that all are equally deserving of respect, although they also believe that we are not able to, and should not, treat all in the same way. We may hope, in Prof. Singer's view, that with the advancement of education and enlightened thought, they will come to see the error in their position. Meanwhile, he is sure, we do have a right to impose upon them the rule that they must not impose their rule upon us. That is only logical.

"Interesting" questions

 I was, all in all, glad for the debate, and grateful for the friendly discussion of a view from Nowhere. There is a certain charm in playing thought games of "what if," as in what if we human beings were a different kind of creature than we are, in a world very different from the world that is. And what if reality, which Prof. Singer insists is accidental and meaningless, were amenable to the logical working out of whatever premises we prefer. Admittedly, the charm of the game pales somewhat when we remember how the world was when some premises, such as the sanctity of human life, were repudiated.

"The views I put forward should be judged not by the extent to which they clash with accepted moral views but on the basis of the arguments by which they are defended." And we remember how difficult it is to come up with answers that will be recognized as arguments by those who ask, Why not? Yes to the sanctity of human beings, we say, because they are who they are and we are who we are, and everything depends upon our believing that is true. But to our universal and disinterested observer that is a quaint prejudice, at best a personal preference easily explained, and explained away, by cultural conditioning. Ethical progress requires that wisdom received from the experience and teaching of others must give way to conclusions reached by thinking for ourselves, disallowing the possibility that thinking for ourselves may lead us to gratefully embrace the wisdom received from others, and embrace it because we have been convinced that it is true. Ah yes, say the philosophers from Nowhere, but what is truth?

 Between these positions it may seem that such a great gap is fixed that we may ask whether there is any purpose in debate or discussion. The answer is yes. Because the interlocutor has faculties of intelligence, will, and conscience that, no matter how disordered, are not beyond the reach of reason, and of grace. Because there is always something to be learned through intellectual engagement, no matter how wrongheaded the arguments proposed. Because such arguments must not be permitted to prevail by default. And because it is important to be reminded from time to time that barbarism, so brutal in its consequences, can appear in kindly mask and speak in tones ever so reassuringly civilized. I say that meaning no offense to Prof. Singer, and I expect that he will not take offense. To a certain kind of mind any question can be "interesting." If it is addressed boldly, with intellectual independence, employing logical arguments untainted by the experience of life as it is lived, and especially if it clashes with "accepted moral views." The next debate: Why not barbarism?

Father Richard John Neuhaus is president of the Institute on Religion and Public Life

Copyright (c) 2002 First Things 120 February 2002: 77-96.

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