Tuesday, April 26, 2005

It's Logical to Kill Disabled Babies, Right?

A few weeks ago, Time came out with a list of the 100 most influential people for 2005. The list spanned a number of fields and there were a number of interesting people on it. The little spiel for Princeton Professor Peter Singer, however, rubbed me the wrong way:

It is easy to demonize Singer, 58, since his theory points toward conclusions that some find morally repugnant—for example, that euthanasia might be the appropriate response to the intractable suffering of an infant born with a terrible genetic malady. Those who scorn his views can rarely produce an argument about why he is wrong—they simply don't like his conclusions. But ethics is all about arguments, not moral pronouncements.

The fact that Singer advocates this point of view was not news to me as I had been aware of the various controversies he has stirred up for awhile. What bothers me is the smug nature of the writer's pronouncements: basically that no one can challenge the brilliance of Singer's arguments, they just cannot stand his rock-solid conclusions. In reality, that's complete hogwash: his conclusions and his arguments can be attacked even by a "novice" such as myself. There is a lot of things he says that are questionable, but I will just address his idea that disabled children should be euthanized.

I'm not going to write an essay; I am going to keep this simple.

The argument for euthanizing disabled children comes from the assumption that we should be utilitarian and give the greatest good for the greatest number and along with that, that we want to minimize pain whenever possible.

Problems w/ Singer's Arguments: Disabled children may in fact take up more resources than healthy children, but contrary to popular belief we have the resources to afford their care. As far as food goes, famine is now caused not by food shortages but by supply problems do to disaster or warfare. Health care for such children is expensive , but there is plenty of excess production for goods that do nothing but produce marginal hedonistic pleasure, so spending more money on health care seems a reasonable expenditure of resources. Pain can be managed easily with modern medicine and disabled children usually are not trying to kill themselves to end what pain they do have to endure. Therefore, the best judge of pain, i.e. the person experiencing it does not feel that it is worth the loss of life.

Problems w/ Singer's Assumption: Calling on the authority of utilitarianism is a cheap rhetorical trick that assumes that going for the greatest good for the greatest number is always the best way to go. It is not that simple. Utilitarianism, taken to its extremes, would support the following:

1. Four people need transplants in order to survive and live a long and healthy life. One needs a heart, one needs a liver, and the other two need a new kidney each. They all have the same blood type and thus need the same donor.

2. There's a perfectally healthy man who matches this donor-type.

3. We kill this perfectally healthy man in order to save five lives because it is the greatest good for the greatest number. Saving four lives is worth one death, right?

(Oh and killing disabled babies is taking the theory to the extremes, isn't it?)

In the end this is the problem with trying to create new "logical" belief systems in order to replace the higher morality that man has followed for thousands of years. Relativist arguments fall apart but at least our inner morality has a firm compass to ground it and the possibility of at least being divinely inspired. "Logical" belief systems have to rely on circular arguments but cannot find that firm ground to build their assumptions.

With shaky rhetoric, Singer thinks that he has found the ethical path for resolving the conflict between maximizing resources and human life. My logic may be just as shaky, but I would much rather ere on the side of life instead of economic convenience.

(Think Singer is just a thoughtful academic fearlessly addressing controversial issues? Hmm.. perhaps, but the Dutch take his kind of thinking a little more seriously apparently.)

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