What's love got to do with it: The ethical contradictions of Peter SingerPETER COLOSI
Utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer says some humans -- particularly fetuses, newborn babies, and elderly people suffering from dementia -- should be killed if their deaths will reduce overall suffering. Never mind that Singer broke all of his own rules when his mother became ill with Alzheimer's disease.
No one would accept such a horrific idea, right? Wrong. Singer's "utilitarian" theories have a growing following. His numerous books and articles have appeared in countless translations all over the world, and his writing style appeals to a wide range of audiences, from the most intellectual to the most popular.
What is Utilitarianism? It's a philosophy that says we have a moral duty to decrease the level of suffering and increase the level of pleasure experienced by as many people as possible, at all costs. Moral absolutes – against killing, in some cases – shouldn't be allowed to stand in the way of this goal.
There are utilitarians, for instance, who think killing some humans is – ethically – the right thing to do if it achieves the overall goal of reducing suffering and increasing pleasure. How can they justify this reasoning? Many utilitarian-minded ethicists who believe it's okay to kill some humans agree with an unquestioned assumption of contemporary bioethics – that some members of the human species are not persons. Their term for these humans is "non-person humans."
Singer makes a clear-cut distinction between a biological definition of humanity, and a definition of persons based on conscious activity. (Practical Ethics, Cambridge UP, 1993, 85-87). He doesn't doubt or deny, but in fact strongly affirms, that from the moment of conception human embryos are human beings, as are all of the other humans he's willing to kill. From a genetic/biological point of view – especially with our advanced technology – it would be absurd to deny that any of these are members of the species "Homo sapiens."
When does a member of the human species also count as a person? To answer that question Singer develops the teachings of the philosophers John Locke and Joseph Fletcher, whom he rightly refers to as the forefathers of this view, saying, "I propose to use [the term] 'person', in the sense of a rational and self-conscious being" (Practical Ethics, 87). And so, a "non-person human" is a being who is undeniably a member of our species based on biology and genetics, but who is incapable of the conscious activities typical of those members when they are alert: thinking, feeling, hoping, experiencing pleasure and pain, etc.
One way to understand this reasoning would be to recall the argument pro-abortion advocates used to make – that an embryo "isn't even human, it's just a blob of tissue." No one says that anymore, thanks to advances in genetic and DNA research. You could say that when utilitarians lost the battle on a scientific level – they can't claim any longer that an embryo isn't human – they switched to the idea that embryos and other vulnerable forms of biologically human life are not persons.
To counter some of Singer's ideas, last year I wrote and presented a paper contrasting the idea of human suffering as described by Pope John Paul II with that of Peter Singer. I sent the paper to Singer, and to my surprise he wrote back. Although his response was cordial, and in some respects helpful, ultimately it was disappointing. Singer's views often elicit strong negative emotions in those who disagree with him. Yet his writing style makes it difficult to pin down the reasons why his conclusions are wrong; I hope to identify some of those reasons here.
In his book, The Expanding Circle (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), Professor Singer criticized Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta because she described her love for others as love for each of a succession of individuals rather than as "love for mankind merely as such." "If we were more rational," he says, "we would use our resources to save as many lives as possible, irrespective of whether we do it by reducing the road toll or by saving specific, identifiable lives" (p. 157). His idea seems to be that since Blessed Teresa was not, for example, spending her energy calculating auto accident rates against various speed limit options, she was irrational, because in doing so she could help more people.
Yet, there is a difference between the love of Blessed Teresa for each person she met and the love Singer calls "love of mankind." Let's call Blessed Teresa's love, "love of the individual." Love of the individual involves a one-to-one relationship based on an attitude of care and respect that demands your full attention before moving on to the next person. "Love of mankind," on the other hand, is not a focus on one individual, but rather on the sum total of all people.
Singer's view implies that face-to-face relationships sap time and energy that could be put to better use in lowering the overall suffering of mankind. This idea tends to separate individual people from suffering so you can get a measurable thing called "overall suffering." After that, you do whatever it takes to decrease suffering, even if it sometimes means killing an innocent person.
Of course, Blessed Teresa also wanted the overall suffering of humanity to be reduced, but she never tried to achieve that goal by killing someone. In fact, she believed that in addition to the terrible violation of the individual killed, doing so would inevitably lead to more suffering in the long run.
In principle, Singer is open to killing anyone as long as that single death will reduce overall suffering, but he focuses on fetuses, newborn babies, and elderly people suffering from dementia, since, as mentioned above, they lack certain abilities that healthy adults have.
What's fascinating is that it is precisely when Singer gets into the position of reuniting suffering with a specific individual person, one whom he loves, that he reverses – in his actions – what he insists upon in his books.
Many people have asked Singer about this contradiction between his behavior and his theory, and in many of those instances he has responded in ways consistent with his theory. Yet, when Michael Specter pressed him on the point, Singer said, "I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really very difficult... Perhaps it is more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it's your mother." (The New Yorker, 55)
The difference, when the sufferer is your mother, is that you love her. And it is love that opens our eyes to the true source of the worth of persons: their inner preciousness, unrepeatability, and uniqueness. It is precisely a glimpse of the unrepeatable uniqueness of another human person that inspires love. Once this glimpse is achieved and love springs forth in the soul – as it does like a surprising gift – that love then has the remarkable power of allowing you to see more clearly and deeply the unique preciousness, as well as the humanity, of the person you love. That vision in turn inspires more love. When that happens, there is no philosophical argument that can make you kill the one you love – or in any other way abandon her.
Of course, some people believe it's merciful to kill someone who is in pain; that, however, is not love, but abandonment and murder. The request to be killed is actually a plea for two basic things: to be loved and to find pain relief. As soon as a person feels loved and/or has their pain managed, they no longer ask to be killed (and they're grateful that their request was not heeded). Pain is the trump card used by pro-euthanasia activists to promote their cause, but in our high-tech world we have the ability to eliminate this reason for the request to be killed. As for the other reason – feeling like an unloved nuisance – we must rise to the challenge presented by the recognition that loving each person is an infinitely higher value than cost management and perfect physical health.
It's very important to point out that while the love you have for someone is one reason why you would never kill him, it isn't the deepest reason. The deepest reason is the inner worth of the person. Your love for him is inside of you, but his humanity, uniqueness, and preciousness are inside of him. When you love someone you can more clearly see his inner worth. The person has this inner worth whether or not you love him, so no one should kill him – but unless love is in the picture you might have trouble knowing about his inner worth.
Here are his words: "Suppose, however, that it were crystal clear that the money could do more good elsewhere. Then I would be doing wrong in spending it on my mother, just as I do wrong when I spend, on myself or my family, money that could do more good if donated to an organization that helps people in much greater need than we are. I freely admit to not doing all that I should; but I could do it, and the fact that I do not do it does not vitiate the claim that it is what I should do" (p. 29).
This answer is frustrating because he equates two unequal ideas: on the one hand, donating money to the poor in the form of tithing, and on the other hand, killing someone and then donating the money you gained from that to the poor. I would ask Dr. Singer to answer the following questions:
Most people don't respect a teacher who doesn't live according to the demands he makes on others. To remain consistent, Singer should have written: "I want to apologize to all my followers for my error, I am sorry I failed, and I assure you that if this same situation happens with any other family members of mine, I will not let you down again!" But he didn't write that. He very well may act in just the same way with other ill family members: he may care for them – only time will tell. Why is it, we could wonder, that the leader of this movement can do the exact opposite of what he preaches – and boldly admit it – while adding that none of this undercuts his theoretical assertions?
In making this defense, however, Singer forgot to look on page 2 of his book Practical Ethics, where he asserts, "...ethics is not an ideal system that is noble in theory but no good in practice. The reverse is closer to the truth: an ethical judgment that is no good in practice must suffer from a theoretical defect..." It seems that not only his critics think his action towards his mother negates his ethical theory, he does too! Will he take his own advice and admit that his ethical theory must suffer from theoretical defects, since it is no good in his very own practice?
These questions and the contradictions in Singer's thought are important, but even they don't approach the real problem, expressed in the following question: Why can't Singer take the step from his experience with his mother to see that Blessed Teresa's way of life is the most rational? She acted in the same way he did towards his mother with every person she met. Her noble effort never to abandon anyone springs from an insight that Singer rejects over and over again: No person is replaceable, and no person ever loses his worth. Love, which clarifies the vision of the beloved, is an experience common to believers and non-believers alike, and so even though Singer is an atheist, these insights, which guided Blessed Teresa's life, are available to him through his experience with his mother.
My friend, Dr. Maria Fedoryka, put it this way: "Killing many persons should be understood as a 'greater' evil in the sense that it is repeating many times over an already infinite crime of violating a unique person." And so, if the killing of any person becomes allowed, then the only foundation on which mass killing could be opposed has been stripped from the equation. Only a person who understands this can truly bring about what Pope John Paul II calls a "civilization of love." On March 20, 2004 Pope John Paul II announced the following to participants at an international conference titled, Life-Sustaining Treatments and Vegetative State: Scientific Advances and Ethical Dilemmas:
"I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life. A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a 'vegetable' or an 'animal.' Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a 'vegetative state' retain their human dignity in all its fullness" (Zenit.org, April 5, 2004).
Suffering is an unavoidable and overwhelming fact of life. John Paul II also says that one of the deepest meanings to be found within it is its ability to "unleash love," which if realized in individual cases, will eventually result in an entire civilization of love (Salvifici Doloris, Nos. 28-30). Yet, we can be strongly tempted to think people who are sick have lost their worth and do not deserve love and care. It is for this reason, it seems to me, that the Catechism of the Catholic Church insists, "Those whose lives are diminished or weakened deserve special respect" (No. 2276). This is not because they are worth more than the healthy, but because it is too easy for the healthy to forget they still have all of their personal dignity. As soon as love comes into the picture, however, the right attitude toward individuals returns.
Despite his experience with his mother, Singer has yet to admit this in his writing. His answer – that he did wrong when he cared for his mother, as one of my students, Maria Scarnecchia, put it, "excuses his action, but does not express the motive for it." His critics are looking for that motive, and so I will suggest one: He did not kill his mother because he loves her, and this love made him see the reasons within her being for which she should not be killed.
If utilitarians are sincere in their desire to bring about the greatest good for the greatest number of people, let them strive to achieve a civilization of love on the only basis possible: the inviolable preciousness of every person.
Peter J. Colosi. "What's love got to do with it: The ethical contradictions of Peter Singer." Godspy (February 25, 2005).
This article reprinted with permission from the author, Peter Colosi, and Godspy.
Peter J. Colosi is assistant professor of moral theology at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood PA. He has been developing a series of lectures and articles setting Christian personalist philosophy against contemporary utilitarian ethics, and in particular as a response to its most popular proponent, Dr. Peter Singer of Princeton University. His first article in this regard, "The Intrinsic Worth of Persons: Revisiting Peter Singer and His Critics", appeared in The Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies. XV (2003): 3-22, an abstract for which can be found here. This was followed by "John Paul II and Christian Personalism vs. Peter Singer and Utilitarianism: Two Radically Opposed Conceptions of the Nature and Meaning of Suffering". Presented at the 3rd Global Conference: Making Sense of: Health, Illness and Disease July 5 – July 9, 2004, St Catherine's College, Oxford University. That article can be found in full here. Then in Geneva, Switzerland, in August 2004, He delivered a lecture at one of the preparatory conferences to the Doha International Conference for the Family; that lecture will be published in a forthcoming compilation of many of the submissions to those conferences, and it is titled, "Mother Teresa, John Paul II and Christian Personalism vs. Peter Singer and Utilitarianism: Two Radically Opposed Conceptions of the Nature and Meaning of Family". This article is a revised version of Unleashing Love: Why We care for those who suffer published in Franciscan Way (Autumn, 2004), Franciscan University, 1235 University Blvd., Steubenville, OH 43952.
Mr. Colosi may be contacted at here
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