Peter Singer on That Quote

Recently I’ve seen a lot of people on social media sharing the following quote by Peter Singer,

Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.

While I strongly disagree with Singer’s brand of utilitarianism, many of the people sharing this have little understanding of Singer’s philosophical views and so they seem to interpret it as saying more (and sometimes less) than it actually says in context. Singer has an FAQ where he addresses this, among other things,

You have been quoted as saying: “Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all.” Is that quote accurate?

It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term “person” to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future.  As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living.  That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do.  It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.

Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment.  That will often ensure that the baby dies.  My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection – but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.


Kill the Premature Infants — They Cause Too Much Stress

The United States is a bit odd — on the one hand we have some of the least restrictive abortions laws in the world, while simultaneously also generally going far beyond what hospitals in other countries will attempt to save very premature births (which is one of the major reasons the U.S. infant mortality rate appears so much higher than comparable countries).

In Europe, however, it’s become fashionable for the intellectual elite to ponder whether or not it might be better to actively euthanize such infants who may have a “poor quality of life”.

An unsigned article/editorial published in the November 9, 2006 edition of The Economist does an excellent job of showing the dangers of going down that route.

Responding to a Nuffield Council on Bioethics report that recommending broader public debate about active euthanasia of infants, The Economist wrote,

There is another reason, too, why baby euthanasia needs discussing, but talking about it is virtually taboo. Families who bring up massively handicapped children often find the stress too much for them.

Take the case of Charlotte Wyatt, born at 26 weeks in 2003 with severe disabilities. Her doctors wanted to withhold treatment but her parents argued successfully that she should be kept alive. Now the parents have separated and Charlotte is up for adoption. Disabled children are nine times more likely than others to end up in the care of the state.

Tiny babies do tug at the heartstrings but raising a severely impaired child is heartbreakingly hard. It is brave of doctors to question whether they should save the life of each and every one.

The Charlotte Wyatt case does raise a number of questions about the sort of care offered to premature infants. Only weighing 1 pound at birth, Wyatt suffers from brain damage and lung problems. Three years after her birth, she has to be constantly hooked up to oxygen and fed through a nose tube.

Total costs of keeping her alive so far have topped 1.1 million pounds. No one would (or should) object if her parents were footing that bill, but under Great Britain’s socialized health care system the 1.1 million pounds spent taking care of Charlotte Wyatt is 1.1 million pounds that can’t be spent addressing other health care concerns.

There will always be questions in cases like Charlotte’s over just how much extraordinary (and incredibly expensive) medical intervention should be undertaken.

But it is a huge jump from that cost-benefit driven issue to whether or not Charlotte should have been euthanized because she would stress her parents out.

It is true, as The Economist writes, that “now the parents have separated and Charlotte is up for adoption,” but this is a bit of a lie through omission. Yes, her parents have separated, but both Debbie and Darren Wyatt have also cited the legal battle they had to fight to obtain life saving support for their daughter as a major strain on their marriage. One could just as easily deduce from the episode that the state and hospitals should immediately give in to such requests, because doing otherwise could dissolve the marital bonds of the two people most able to care for the child in question.

Second, The Economist gives the impression that Charlotte’s health problems are so severe that her parents no longer want to care for her. In fact, her father has applied to the court overseeing the case to have Charlotte come home to live with him, but that court has ruled that a single parent is incapable of meeting all of Charlotte’s medical needs. Instead, she is expected to be released to foster care once she is well enough (and presumably if her parents reconcile or remarry, they might regain custody of Charlotte provided they can demonstrate they can adequately care for Charlotte).

The Economist’s view that it is “brave” to consider actively terminating a child’s life to avoid undue stress on the parents is very close to Peter Singer’s formulation that we should not consider infants as “persons” until they reach their 31st day of life. After all why stop at stress caused by severe disabilities? Taking care of an healthy child can be extremely stressful, especially for women predisposed to having post-partum depression. If the amount of stress an infant will impose upon its parents is a valid consideration in deciding whether or not to kill a baby, then why not for other cases where even infants with mild disabilities (or, in the extreme, even perfectly health infants) may impose great stress on their parents?

Which is exactly why active euthanasia should be completely off the table when it comes to medical interventions with infants.


Suffer the little children. The Economist, November 9, 2006.

Baby Charlotte faces foster care as parents can’t cope. Neil Sears & Dan Newling, The Daily Mail, October 16, 2006.

Charlotte Wyatt set to be fostered. Portsmouth.Co.Uk, December 20, 2006.

Peter Singer vs. George Bush? No Contest When It Comes to Ethics

This weekend, the Guardian published this op-ed by philosopher Peter Singer that takes George W. Bush to task over the president’s pro-life views. Singer attempts to show that Bush is not worthy of being called pro-life, writing,

Last month, the military forces that this same president commands aimed a missile at a house in Damadola, a Pakistani village near the Afghan border. Eighteen people were killed, including five children. The target of the attack, al-Qaeda’s No 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was not among the dead, although lesser figures in the terrorist organisation reportedly were. Bush did not apologise for the attack, nor did he reprimand those who ordered it. Apparently, he believes that the chance of killing an important terrorist leader is sufficient justification for firing a missile that will almost certainly kill innocent human beings.

Frankly, though, if I have to choose between the ethics of Peter Singer and that of George W. Bush I’ll take Bush in a landslide any day. Bush, whether directly or indirectly, supported the attack on this village that ended up killing 18 people and did not get its main target. Were 18 lives worth the chance of getting Al-Zawahiri?

I don’t know. But certainly that is a much better tradeoff than Singer offers when in 2001, for example, Singer said it was okay to kill babies simply because they might be wheelchair bound.

First, Singer established that he had changed his views slightly since saying in 1995 that infants under 28 days old were not really self-aware persons and could be killed,

Frolke: Most proponents of the right to die would agree with your ideas about euthanasia. But you lose them when you suggest that it’s OK to kill a baby before it’s 28 days old, because until that time, it is not self-aware and “doesn’t have the same right to life as others.”

Singer: I wrote that in 1995. I have changed my position. Now I believe you should look at every individual case.

Then Singer gives an example criteria of a case where it might be better to kill new

[Viktor] Frolke: Maybe you’re not saying that the lives of disabled people are not worth living, but on a scale they’re closer to that point than you are.

Singer: There are so many more factors important to the quality of life. Maybe the life of a disabled person is much more worth living than mine. All I’m saying is that at birth you can’t tell that. It’s reasonable to say that a life with a serious disability has the expectation of turning out less well than a life without disabilities. And I’m not talking about intellectual disabilities. I can imagine that parents of a newborn that is paralyzed, that’s always going to be in a wheelchair, might decide that they don’t want that child and that they are going to have another one. That’s a decision I can understand.

Singer is one ethicist who has no business lecturing anybody about respect for human life.


Not terribly pro-life, is it Mr President?. Peter Singer, The Guardian, February 18, 2006.

PETA and Bestiality, Round 2

In March, one Harold Hart, 63, of Neillsville, Wisconsin was arrested for allegedly had committed sexual acts with cows at a Greenwood, Wisconsin farm more than fifty times since 2004. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, of course, was all over this, but their reaction was a bit odd given Ingrid Newkirk’s previous claims about bestiality.

PETA’s Daniel Paden sent a letter to Clark County District Attorney Darwin Zwieg urging Zwieg to order psychological testing for Hart and waxed on about how people who have sex with animals are also supposedly more likely to engage in other criminal behaviors,

A recent study by Jory, Flemming, and Burton shows that 96 percent of offenders who had engaged in bestiality also admitted to sexual assaults on humans. When asked how many serial killers had a history of abusing animals, FBI supervisory special agent Alan Brantley, a psychologist who was formerly on staff at a maximum security prison, said, “The real question is, ‘How many do not?Â’” Experts agree that it is the severity of the behavior, not the species of the victim, that matters.

PETA’s Martin Mesereau also maintained there was a link between bestiality and other sex crimes, saying in a press release,

Studies show that offenders who commit bestiality often go on to commit sex crimes against humans. The community should follow this case closely because anyone capable of this kind of cruelty poses a definitive risk, not just to animals, but to fellow human beings.

If people who have sex with animals are so much more likely to engage in other criminal sexual acts, why was Ingrid Newkirk so nonchalant about it when defending Peter Singer’s claims about bestiality?

Singer, you might remember, was roundly criticized by most animal rights activists and groups for saying the following in a book review,

The potential violence of the orangutan’s come-on may have been disturbing, but the fact that it was an orangutan making the advances was not. That may be because [Birute] Galdikas understands very well that we are animals, indeed more specifically, we are great apes. This does not make sex across the species barrier normal, or natural, whatever those much-misused words may mean, but it does imply that it ceases to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings.

The only prominent activist who came to Singer’s defense was Ingrid Newkirk, who said of bestiality,

If a girl gets sexual pleasure from riding a horse, does the horse suffer? If not, who cares? If you French kiss your dog and he or she thinks it’s great, is it wrong? We believe all exploitation and abuse is wrong. If it isn’t exploitation and abuse, it may not be wrong.

Following Newkirk’s claims, shouldn’t investigators first establish whether or not the sex between Hart and the bovines was consensual and or not? Certainly the fact that he apparently tied the cows up first might initially lead one to conclude that it was not, but perhaps the cows on this particular farm have some sort of bondage fetish. Either way, at a minimum — using Newkirk’s benchmark — bestiality may not even be wrong, much less lead people to commit sex crimes against humans.

Perhaps Hart’s defense should claim that he was merely taking noted animal advocate Ingrid Newkirk’s advice. No, wait a minute . . . if a judge learns Hart takes Newkirk seriously, that would be proof positive that he’s nuts.


PETA pressures DA in cow-sex case. Marshfield News-Herald, March 9, 2005.

Peta Demands Jail Time, Psychiatric Intervention If Alleged Neillsville Animal Rapist Is Convicted. Press Release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, March 8, 2005.

New AVMA President Calls for More Leadership on Animal Welfare Issues

Incoming American Veterinary Medical Association president Dr. Bonnie Beaver said at that group’s convention that the AVMA must more directly engage in issues of animal welfare or risk ceding that territory to the animal rights movement.

In an July 23 speech to the AVMA House of Delegates, Beaver outlined her vision of the AVMA’s role in promoting animal welfare saying (emphasis added),

The third area of importance to AVMA is animal welfare. Veterinarians are the ultimate authorities in animal welfare. It is important that we retain this authority in light of challenges by animal rightists and humane organizations, as has been evident in recent newspaper attacks. Peter Singer, president of the Animal Rights International which was one of the sponsors of the New York Times ad, told the AVMA Animal Welfare Committee that when his group goes to a legislative body asking for a new law, one of the first questions he gets is “What does AVMA think about this?” When it becomes clear our positions differ, our position was chosen over his. Mr. Singer made it clear to the Committee that he was determined to remove obstacles in the way of his issues. As the world changes, our need to become more outspoken in this area has increased so that the image of the veterinarian being the one true advocate for the animal is not lost. Animal rightists are pushing their agenda in small increments under the guise of animal welfare and with mistruths, but the public is not aware of the slippery path ahead. Just as happens in many of the other areas we touch, we have accomplished a lot for a little. As an example, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a $17 million budget with a staff of 200. The Humane Society of the United States has a $70 million budget, 300 staff members, and no animal shelters to support. Other animal rights organizations have a combined income of over $14.5 million. How about the AVMA? As you know, our $24 million budget is divided into many areas. Currently we devote around $200,000 and one FTE to animal welfare activities! Truly, a mouse that roars.

For several years the issues associated with animal welfare have been on our radar screen, but as you know they have become increasingly visible over the last few years. In the Executive Board visioning sessions during this past year, animal welfare moved into the highest concern for issues we face. The Executive Board then reemphasized the importance of AVMA’s role in the animal welfare arena, with veterinarians as the experts. Only in this way can we serve our biggest public–the animals.

Good for Dr. Beaver.


New AVMA president calls for leadership in animal welfare. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, September 1, 2004.

Building for the Future by Serving Society. Bonnie Beaver, September 1, 2004.

Peter Singer Looks Back at 30 Years of Animal Liberation

Peter Singer wrote an article in May for The Guardian looking back 30 after the publication of his essay/book review in The New York Review of Books, “Animal Liberation.”

Singer writes that, “A lot has changed since the appearance of that review and of the book, also called Animal Liberation, that grew out of it.” Of course what has not changed are Singer’s specious arguments. For example, Singer still apparently thinks this is a good argument for animal liberation,

Being able to reason better than another being doesn’t mean that our pains and pleasures count more than those of others — whether those “others” are human or non-human. After all, some humans — infants and those with severe intellectual disabilities — don’t reason as well as some non-human animals, but we would, rightly be shocked by anyone who proposed that we inflict slow, painful deaths on these intellectually inferior humans to test the safety of household products. Nor, of course, would we tolerate confining them in small cages and then slaughtering them in order to eat them. The fact that we are prepared to do these things to non-human animals is a sign of “speciesism,” a prejudice that survives because it is convenient for the dominant group — in this case, not whites or males, but all humans.

It is still difficult to understand how Singer can make the leap from how we treat human beings with differing reasoning capabilities to how we treat members of other species where not a single member of that species shows any evidence of higher-level cognitive skills.

Moreover although Singer concedes later that “evolutionary theory effectively debunks the idea that God gave humans dominion over the animals,” he is apparently oblivious to how other developments in evolutionary thought, including evolutionary psychology, have undercut what little substance there was to Singer’s claim that “speciesism” is mere prejudice. In fact what Singer dismisses as mere prejudice in fact is the best hypothesis yet on the evolution of moral foundations.

Another thing that has not changed is Singer’s selective citing of scientific research, such as his reference in his Guardian article to studies claiming that fish feel pain. In fact that study simply demonstrated that fish are capable of nociception and are able to respond to external stimuli, not that they feel pain.

Even Singer is forced to concede the obvious — 30 years later there is no society on the planet that is close to adopting his view of human/non-human relations,

Still, no society is even close to giving equal consideration to the interests of all animals. The spread of western methods of intensive farming to China and other nations in the developing world is threatening to incarcerate billions more animals in factory farms. After 30 years, the most that can be said is that — at least in the developed world — we are beginning to move in the right direct.

Singer seems to be pinning his hopes here that an increasing awareness of animal welfare issues will inevitably lead to animal liberation. Europe seems the only place where that even has a shot, but even there it is Europe’s increasingly anti-science, anti-technology views that have allowed the animal rights movement to gain ground rather than any serious contemplation of granting animals equal interest.


Some are more equal: Why do we insist that rights to life, liberty and protection from torture be confined to humans? Peter Singer, The Guardian (London), May 19, 2003.