Peter Singer, Bioethics and Anomie

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Peter Singer, Bioethics and Anomie

Copyright © P. Meehan November 2000.  All rights reserved.

Bioethics is said in the pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica to identify, “[T]he discipline dealing with the ethical implications of both biological research and the applications of that research, especially in medicine.”  It identifies, in fact, something more than a mere freshly minted academic discipline; it stands for a movement, constituted for the most part of professional philosophers and other, assorted, academicians, which has as its object a refashioning of the moral order of the nation, and, indeed, of the civilized world, a mission for which its sectaries plainly, and amusingly, fancy themselves specially fitted.  The moral nostrum they come bearing us is the metaethical principle of utility, a doctrine articulated by the English lawyer and polemicist, Jeremy Bentham, in the age of Enlightenment:

Nature has placed mankind under the governance of two sovereign masters, pain and pleasure.  It is for them alone to point out what we ought to do as well as what we shall do.  On the one hand the standard of right and wrong, on the other the chain of causes and effects, are fastened to their throne. … By the principle of utility is meant that principle which approves or disapproves of every action whatsoever, according to the tendency which it appears to have to augment or diminish the happiness of the party whose interest is in question: or, what is the same thing in other words, to promote or to oppose that happiness.1

In this thesis is, clearly, a nihilistic, anarchic spirit; one that obtusely plays with the fires of anomie.  And a thesis from which Bentham elaborated the normative ethical theory of utilitarianism, forthrightly proclaiming a hedonistic, rational self-interest to be the sole and obvious source of human action, a theory belonging to the philosophical tradition known as consequentialism, in which it is held that the moral reckoning of an act is dependent only upon its consequences.  Promoting this doctrine that each person’s happiness is, and is bound to be, the sole object of that person’s actions, Bentham nevertheless held acts morally obligatory which are conformable with a principle that has long since taken the singsong form, “The greatest happiness for the greatest number,” where happiness corresponds to pleasure, or at least to an absence of pain.  Why the members of a collectivity of self-serving egoists should, any of them, act to augment the pleasure of the others, or to diminish their pain, is a question to which the answers he gave have not seemed persuasive to many.  But the English philosopher, John Stuart Mill, strove, in the Romantic age, to provide an answer that he thought should be persuasive to all, while confecting a variant of Bentham’s system that is generally known as classical utilitarianism, or, sometimes, among narrowly focused academicians, as act utilitarianism.  Specifically, with respect to what is of interest here, Mill undertook to establish a logical proof of the validity of the principle of utility and of the moral obligation to act for the greatest happiness for the greatest number.  But, alas, the thinking student of logic is apt to turn from a reading of this proof in confusion or disbelief, or, if impudent, with mirth.

In setting forth his proof, Mill first considers whether happiness is sought through human action as an end in itself, or, equivalently, as a good, in the philosophical sense of these locutions.2  He asserts that a determination whether a thing is such an end, or a good, is accomplished by a determination whether it is desirable, and that, just as the only proof that a thing is visible is that people see it, or that the only proof that a sound is audible is that people hear it, so it is that the only proof that a thing is desirable is that people actually desire it.  And the fact that happiness is desired, and taken to be an end, or a good, by each of us, may be verified by each of us through processes of self-examination.  Which is to say, the proof that happiness is desirable and, as well, an end, or a good, to each of us, is said by Mill to be a matter of self-knowledge–or, in effect, to be self-evident.  And, therefore, Mill asserts, it follows that the general happiness, or the sum total of the happinesses of the individuals making up an aggregate of individuals, is desirable to that aggregate, and is an end, or a good, to that aggregate.  Hence, happiness is an end of conduct and a criterion of morality.  He proceeds with arguments purporting to show that happiness is not only an end of conduct, it is the only one, other desired things simply being productive of higher or nobler forms of happiness than is the happiness produced by sensual experiences.

Taking this thing in the reverse order of its presentation, the confusing relation between the desire for happiness of each individual in an aggregate of individuals and the desire of that aggregate for happiness, is on its face an instance of two logical fallacies.  It is, first, a case of the treatment of a collection of real objects–i.e, individual human beings–as itself a real object, rather than as the abstraction which it is–i.e., a collection of individual human beings–which makes this case one of the fallacy of reification; and, second, it is a case of the assignment, to this objectified collection, of the attribute common to its member objects–i.e., a desire for happiness–which makes this a case of the fallacy of composition.  Simply put:  collections, like other abstractions, exist in the mind only; and abstractions do not have desires.  It is suggested here that Mill could as plausibly have argued that if fifty habitual tipplers were, each of them, to allay the pain of sobriety with a tumbler of gin, the pain of the lot of them would be allayed by the allaying of the pain of each of them–the lot of them being some unearthly hundred eyed, fifty mouthed creature galvanized into being by frankensteinian wizardry.

As for the notion that the property of desirability is inherent in whatever is desired, those who do not share the conviction of the planarian worm that life consists of shrinking from sources of pain and squirming toward sources of pleasure are, I daresay, of the opinion that desirability is inherent only in what is worthy of desire.  And the question of what is worthy of desire is an enduring one, quite possibly having first been raised in paleolithic times, and unresolved still, despite that it by no means goes unanswered.

Further, the relation between “audible” and “heard” on the one hand, and that between “desirable” and “desired” on the other, are in no sense equivalent.  The former relation is one between a phenomenon of the natural world and the detection of that phenomenon by a natural process; the latter is one between a state of mind and a property which something possesses that induces that state of mind.  Mill’s analogic assertions relating the domains of the visible and the audible to the domain of the desirable are instances of the fallacy of false analogy.

Finally, Mill’s claim that it is self-evident that happiness is the end, or good, for which human beings strive, may be disposed of by observing that, for a great many among us, the end, or good, sought is plainly salvation, and for more than a few others, it is evidently a sense of worth that comes of the cultivation of virtue.  Into an enumeration of other such goods it is needless to go; either of these suffices to invalidate Mill’s claim.  His argument that a pursuit of one of these ends, or goods, is, in fact, simply a pursuit of pleasure, but a nobler pleasure than is the pleasure pursued by the sensualist, is neither persuasive nor even defensible.  This introduction into the thesis of utility of a relational ordering of pleasures, with the ordering relation being signified by such terms as higher or nobler, is the insinuation into this thesis of standards drawn from philosophical traditions distinct from, and wholly at variance with, the aforesaid thesis.  A person who has striven to acquire and maintain the virtues may well take pleasure in having done so, but it remains, nevertheless, that virtue is as alien to the thesis of utility as is the quality of character that inspired the silent pledge of the knightly Huckleberry Finn to help the bondsman, Jim, reach the mouth of the Ohio and liberty:  that is to say, the quality of honor, which could be considered the beginning and the end of right conduct, and which is written by an unseen hand in the hearts of infants, in a script that needs no schooling to read and a language that is unknown to none.

Into what it was that possessed so respected a thinker as Mill to pen this nonsense, it is not to the purposes of this critique to go; it is sufficient for those purposes to note that it is nonsense of a sort that evidently does not disconcert the thinkers in the ranks of the bioethics movement, most of whom are sectaries of belief systems differing in no meaningful way from Mill’s classical utilitarianism.  They are at bottom and for all practical purposes acolytes of Mill.  Among these thinkers, one of the most acclaimed, most disingenuous, obfuscatory, sophomoric, tedious, and inimical to the civil order of the United States, is a certain Peter Singer, a philosopher educated at Melbourne University and Oxford, and not long since appointed DeCamp Professor in the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University.  He is, among other things, bent on eliminating from our national mythos the principle of the sanctity of human life, and to establishing in law categories of human beings, free of offense, who may lawfully be killed by administrative action taken by categories of human beings granted authority to kill them at will or to spare them.  To bioethicists or to any others who object that what is left unsaid here makes Professor Singer’s moral vision take on a wholly different coloration, it is submitted that what has so far been said precisely characterizes the essence of Professor Singer’s moral vision, and that what has so far been left unsaid is, with respect to that vision, incidental.  His moral vision derives from what is at the heart of this professor’s apprehension of reality:  his bioethical theorizing as it pertains to the killing of human beings is founded upon a core belief that human life has no intrinsic worth.

In announcing Professor Singer’s Princeton appointment, Harold T. Shapiro, President of the University, noted, among other things, that the professor is “intellectually astute and morally serious” and that he “examines important questions with integrity, rigor and originality.”3  It is submitted here that nothing in this appraisal is in any sense accurate, a submission the validity of which lies plain in the open text of every tractate issued from the professor’s pen.  The accuracy of this claim is demonstrated here through a critical review of what lies in the pages of Practical Ethics, his signature work, and one that is in wide use as a textbook.4  Scarcely more than a glance at its opening passages is sufficient to reach an understanding that it is not by any imaginable measure a serious work, despite that it is clearly meant by its author to be taken as a learned disquisition in philosophy.  But this book is one of large consequences, and as a practical matter therefore must be taken seriously, and is so taken here.  It is examined, and measured, on its author’s own terms; i.e., as a philosophical work, or a work of speculative thought.  It is, in those terms, the elaboration of an ethic through a marshalling of arguments uninformed by culture, of which its author is largely ignorant, its poorly articulated, sometimes incoherent, lines of reasoning fraught with logical fallacy, with substantive assertions accompanied neither by empirical evidence nor by references to philosophical foundations, and with intolerance and contempt for all beliefs at variance with the author’s own.

In the book’s opening section, one which Professor Singer styles, “What ethics is not,” he disposes in cavalier fashion of the non-consequentialist ethical traditions of the West, an undertaking that he initiates with a startling display of petulance directed against those whom he terms traditional moralists, deploying, in so identifying them, the logical fallacy of anonymous authority.  He charges these so called traditional moralists with endlessly carrying on

about promiscuity, homosexuality, pornography, and so on, and not about the puny amounts we give as overseas aid to poorer nations, or our reckless indifference to the natural environment of our planet.

This passage serves to illustrate his willingness to distract or to confuse his reader with logical fallacies while feigning to engage in reasoned discourse, instanced in this case by the fallacy of the abusive form of argumentum ad hominem and, as well, that of the red herring.  A persistent resort to logical fallacy is a practice of this professor that plainly cannot be other than deliberate.  He is, after all, a professional philosopher, and, so, must have as sharp an eye for a logical fallacy as does a professional gambler for a marked deck.  It is sexual conduct with which he is concerned here, conduct which, he asserts, “raises no unique moral issues at all,” citing neither a philosophical nor an evidentiary basis for this assertion.  Finally, he makes an invidious comparison between sexual conduct and the use of an automobile, once again distracting his reader with an instance of the red herring fallacy:

[T]he moral issues raised by driving a car, both from an environmental and from a safety point of view, are much more serious than those raised by sex.

Where, one is impelled to ask, is the empirical evidence for this assertion?  It must be noted that in 1998 the illegitimacy rate in the United States was 32.8%, as contrasted with 3.8% in 1940, figures that should give pause to anyone concerned with the well being of children.  Surely the relation between sexual conduct and illegitimacy merits the attention of a thinker who has undertaken to reshape our ideas of moral conduct.  In the United States, as a matter of record, there were born to unmarried women in 1998, 1,293,567 children, while automobile accidents in that year caused the deaths of 41,471 human beings and injured another 3,192,000.  What effects automobiling had in 1998 on the planetary environment are unknown to me, and, so, are left to Professor Singer to disclose.5

The professor disposes summarily of normative ethical systems founded upon what is known as deontology, or the theory of moral obligation or duty, or, sometimes, and alternatively, the theory of rights.  All such systems, he characterizes as consisting of short, simple rules that are unsuited to life’s complexities; and all of them he lightly shrugs off as failures, asserting in passing that the consequentialist view “is quite untouched by the complexities that make simple rules difficult to apply.”  What, precisely, he means by these assertions, I cannot begin to comprehend–neither those concerning deontology nor those concerning consequentialism.  The lack of clarity here–a thing not uncommonly found in his writings–he compounds by putting into play an example of the straw man fallacy, which is to say, by confecting an absurdly inadequate and largely deceitful description of the deontological tradition and then disposing with ease of this travesty; i.e., he props up a straw man and then knocks it down.  Worse, he leaves unmentioned the ethical system of the outstanding figure of the deontological tradition, and in fact an outstanding figure of Western philosophy, namely, Immanuel Kant, whose so called categorical imperative has, as one of its four formulations:

Act so as to use humanity, whether in your own person or in others, always as an end, and never merely as a means.

This is certainly short and simple.  But Professor Singer’s judgement that it is unsuited to life’s complexities is a hypothesis, I suggest, that remains to be demonstrated.

He dismisses the entirety of moral theology with the comment, “I shall treat ethics as entirely independent of religion.”  And by way of explanation he sets up, as his first step, a preposterous straw man in the form of the following fallacy of anonymous authority:

Some theists say that ethics cannot do without religion because the very meaning of ‘good’ is nothing other than ‘what God approves’.

This, he strives here by implication to assert, is the whole fundament upon which theology rests its claim to moral authority.  He then knocks the straw man down by deploying the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam (appeal to awe–or to authority):

Plato refuted a similar claim more than two thousand years ago by arguing that if the gods approve of some actions it must be because those actions are good, in which case it cannot be the gods’ approval that makes them good.

Which is to say, he gestures to a figure of authority; in this case to a sage of antiquity.  Clearly, he could make the argument himself, but he has striven here to amplify its force by making it through the mouth of a thinker whose name has to it an aura of magisterial grandeur, come down to us through the ages.

From all this, it may be inferred, an inquiry into the question of right conduct may proceed without reference to God.

But in gesturing to this figure of antiquity, Professor Singer is pointing to the Euthyphro, a Socratic dialogue recorded by Plato.  And in the Euthyphro, Plato records nothing in the nature of a refutation, but records, rather, a colloquy between Socrates and an odious and egotistical ass named Euthyphro in which Socrates, with shrewd insight and feline dartings of his subtle intellect, toys with this ass, entertaining the reader with a small study in irony while laying bare Euthyphro’s unpleasant nature and limitations of mind, and in the course of this display raises and leaves unanswered the question whether a thing that is holy “is beloved by the gods because it is holy, or holy because it is beloved of the gods,” which, suitably rephrased, remains an enduring question of philosophy, commonly referred to as the Euthyphro Dilemma:6  Does God will what is good because it is good, or is it good because God wills it?  Professor Singer is, at best, ill informed concerning the nature of this dialogue.

It is worth noting that the professor, in reviewing and rejecting the non-consequentialist ethical traditions fails to mention the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle the Stagirite, a system of ethics with which the concept of moral philosophy as a distinct field of study was brought to birth, but of interest for far more than historical reasons:  for Aristotle, character is the essence of ethics, as distinguished from the belief of the utilitarians, for whom its essence is reason.  The very word, ethics, derives from the Greek word for character; to wit, ethos.  Simply put, ethics stands in this tradition for a description of the forms of behavior that give expression to virtuous character; and a given virtue is acquired by doing those things that are precisely the things that give evidence of possession of that virtue, just as the skills of a stonemason are acquired by functioning as a stonemason.  Is it possible that Professor Singer neglects any mention of this tradition because its description raises echos that are familiar and appealing to those reared in the thousand year old ways of the English speaking peoples?

Moving to Professor Singer’s thesis of utility, it must be noted that the utilitarian statement of human equality, namely, that “each [of us] counts for one, and none [of us] counts for more than one,” obviously cannot be derived from the principle of utility.  This principle depicts the human race as a hedonistic caricature of itself, a collection of egoists each of whom dwells upon wringing or wheedling pleasure from life’s agencies of ecstasy while thwarting the machinations of its agencies of pain.  To augment that depiction with a principle of equality is to adjoin something totally distinct from the notion of utility, something that needs a philosophical basis upon which to stand.  And to bring that basis in from outside this stew of utilitarian egoism is to bring something in which by definition has no stench of utility clinging to it, but has, rather, the odor of a moral standard.  Professor Singer seeks (apparently) to brush this dilemma away by equating the principle of equality to a principle he refers to as the universality of ethics; and despite that the precise meaning of what he is driving at is not readily deduced from a reading of the vague and muddled passages that mark its introduction and treatment, his universality principle, coherently phrased, may be taken to read:  Integral to the idea of ethics is the ancillary idea that the standards of conduct which are its subject matter are universally applicable.  Since he evidently can find no philosophical basis consistent with the principle of utility for adopting this principle of the universality of ethics, he cites as his basis for doing so the fact that throughout the ages all manner of philosophers and moralists have done so.  He then cites an impressive series of disparate ethical systems in which this principle is incorporated, instructively, and amusingly, including those of the Hebrews and the Christians, despite his contemptuous announcement that, for him, ethics is entirely independent of religion, and, mirabile dictu, recollecting of a sudden that among the notables in the annals of philosophy is a certain Immanuel Kant, one of whose formulations of the categorical imperative the professor intones.  It is a totally shameless example of the fallacy of argumentum ad verecundiam, and a revealing demonstration of what passes for integrity, rigor and original thinking in bioethical circles.

But–Professor Singer believes–it serves to establish the principle of human equality on a solid footing, for to him that principle and this principle of the universality of ethics are one and the same thing.  That is to say, he believes that to announce that all are equally under the law is to announce that all are equal under the law; a belief that clearly defies reason.  It must be noted that this belief is not clearly stated; much of what constitutes the substantive in Professor Singer’s thesis of utility is vaguely articulated, somewhat disconnected, poorly phrased.  But it remains that Professor Singer believes that he has adjoined, through the use of reason, the principle of human equality to the principle of utility.  He has not; nor has Bentham done so, nor has Mill.  Nor has anyone.

Professor Singer has simply incorporated within his thesis of utility, by fiat, the principles of the universality of ethics and of human equality.  Having done so, he somewhat confusingly undertakes an inquiry into the nature of this latter principle with the questions, “[W]hat, exactly, does [equality] mean and why do we accept it?” and, ignoring these questions, pursues an answer to a third imprecisely stated one, which, stated precisely, reads:  On what ethical foundation should the principle of equality be based?  Which seems an utterly outlandish thing to ask.  The word equality, in an inquiry into the nature of right conduct, may, unexceptionally enough, designate a relation between human beings upon which it is thought right conduct should be founded, but it is bewildering to come upon a notion that it may designate a relation between human beings which it is thought should be founded upon some principle of conduct.  Beginning with this singular point of view, and following in a superficial way the forms of a logical inquiry, Professor Singer considers certain human characteristics that he calls “factual” in terms of their potentials for serving as the foundation that he seeks:  most notably, intelligence, rationality and possession of a moral personality.  Which is to say, he seems at this point to be searching for an answer to another question entirely, namely, On which human trait should the principle of equality be erected in a system of utilitarian ethics?  In answer to this question, he rejects all the characteristics with which he toys, declaiming against the concept of basing the principle of equality upon any characteristic that is unequally distributed among human beings, thus ruling out “factual” traits entirely.  Referring to attempts to use such traits for this purpose as “fantastic schemes,” he moralizes in a superficial fashion about race, genetics, redistribution of income, slavery, differences between the sexes, and other such widely assorted topics, with an assertion surfacing in the midst of these moralizings which is the thing that he sought in launching this inquiry:

[T]he only defensible basis for the principle of equality is equal consideration of interests.

This hazily phrased assertion, which is an answer to none of the questions he raises in his inquiry, is, essentially, Professor Singer’s attempt at a postulation of the belief system known as interest utilitarianism, as distinct from classical, or act, utilitarianism.  In summary, he has arrived at this postulate by means of an incoherent inquiry into the implicit question of what the proper relation should be between the concept of human equality and a utilitarian theory of right conduct; an inquiry which was plainly designed to arrive at precisely this postulate, in part by the device of his ruling that “factual” traits may not be considered in fixing upon the relation of concern; instructively, one of these traits, rationality, he subsequently makes the cornerstone of his thesis of utility, proclaiming that the very essence of moral significance inheres in it, and ruling whole categories of human beings who lack the capacity to reason to be, properly, candidates for painlessly inflicted violent death.

The immediate question here concerning this postulate is, What is meant by a “consideration of interests?” putting aside for the nonce the question of the equitability of that consideration.  Well, Professsor Singer says, given a situation in which he must decide upon a course of action, if he ceases to think in what he terms a pre-ethical way and begins, instead, to think ethically, he can no longer permit his interests alone to count in his decision-making:

I now have to take into account the interests of all those affected by my decision.  This requires me to weigh up all these interests and adopt the course of action most likely to maximise the interests of those affected.

It must first be asked, Why?  What makes interests matters of concern in questions of right conduct?  And are all interests of every sort to be considered?  And who decides?  The bioethicists?  And how is it determined whose interests will be affected by a given action, and by whom?  What does it mean to “weigh up” a collection of interests?  Are interests to be assigned weights?  Where is the handbook to be found in which the weights corresponding to the infinitude of imaginable human interests are recorded?  And what does it mean to “maximise the interests of those affected?”  What measure is to be maximized in maximizing “interests”?  Can it actually be unknown to this professor that nouns are not susceptible to maximization?  And, given that a measure is associated with interests, how is this measure to be maximized?  Under what constraints?  Are we to formulate and solve systems of linear algebraic equations?  These questions are neither flippant in intent nor are they misplaced.  Professor Singer proposes that the way in which we live be utterly revolutionized, but discloses nothing of the new order under which he expects our daily lives to proceed, flourishing before us instead a proclamation as superficial and uninformative as is the balderdash found on billboards.

Jeremy Bentham, having succumbed to the delusions of utility, devoted himself to the task of devising the engagingly named felicific calculus for which his delusions plainly called:  a scheme for assigning numerical values to the intensities of several categories of pleasure and pain, with scale factors to account for the durations of these sensations and for their secondary effects, and for the effects of attenuation at emotionally remote points, with probabilistic models relating categories of human actions to these pleasures and pains, and with computational methods for operating upon all these quantities to arrive at the utilities of specific human actions.  Utilitarians, by acting in accordance with the solutions to moral conundrums, arrived at by the operations of the felicific calculus, can in theory transport their neighbors to bliss, or, presumably, if evil fancies were to sieze these felicific adepts, to agony.  Utilitarians, after all, like all manner of others of an outwardly moral stamp, may be scoundrels.

Is it said that this felicific calculus is laughable?  But the entire theory of utility is laughable.  It begins with a grotesque parody of human nature and a defiant exaltation of anarchy; isolated, arid, sterile, it then surreptitiously purloins, from the metaphysic of that very Christendom which it despises, the principle of human equality, with which, by logical sleight of hand, it feigns to metamorphose utilitarian egoism into utilitarian altruism and prates of a communism of pleasure, everyone alike, cows, schoolteachers, apes, clerks, soldiers, squirrels, mechanics, merchants, all making merry on the village green, and the whales, the oysters and the penguins sporting in the seas, for the theory of utility as it came from the pen of Bentham compassed not simply the whole human race, but each animal species of the earth high enough on the evolutionary scale to possess sentience.  Every living thing that is capable of suffering and of delight.  Nor does the interest utilitarianism of which Professor Singer waxes enthusiastic depart from this tradition:  the equal consideration this theory gives interests, it gives not simply to the interests of human beings, but to those of animals as well.  Those interests we human beings have which are considered of moral significance by utilitarians, if served, yield us pleasure; as all the interests of animals, if served, yield them pleasure.  The philosophical theory of the good is, for the interest utilitarian, pleasure; there is no other good.  And so the discriminating norm that distinguishes between right and wrong conduct in the theory of interest utilitarianism is that of the theory of act utilitarianism:  pleasure and pain.

The felicific calculus is, essentially, a subject of interest solely to philosophers and economists in search of some plausible topic about which something may be turned out for the journals.  But however absurd it may be, the felicific calculus is a decision procedure by means of which, in theory if obviously not in practice, all utilitarians called upon to choose among actions having moral consequences, if given identical problem statements, arrive, perforce, at identical conclusions.  Which presumably is the sine qua non of a theory of right conduct.  Utilitarian altruism without it, or something like it, is headless, and its practitioners helpless.  How does a utilitarian calculate the scope and the intensities of the pleasures and pains propagated among the living things of the earth in pondering whether it is right to subject a given mountain forest to clear cutting or whether it is right to selectively log it?  Faced with this glaring anomaly in the theory of utility, its sectaries surreptitiously purloined and transplanted onto the shoulders of this headless absurdity a deontological head, and to furnish it a name, coined the oxymoron, rule utilitarianism.  Of which, more later.  Professor Singer, one of Bentham’s intellectual heirs and assigns, who is as pixilated by utility as was Bentham, confronted by one of the fundamental anomalies of altruistic utilitarianism, only gestures vaguely and pontificates airily.  The details are left to the student to work out–Practical Ethics is, after all, a textbook.  But the student knows, of course, or should know, that Professor Singer’s usages of such terms as “weigh up” and “calculate” are not to be received as if charged with meaningful content; that these are merely instances of the sort of verbal flourishes that mountebanks permit themselves, and which their dupes are at pains to let pass unexamined:

[T]here are utilitarian reasons for believing that we ought not to try to calculate these consequences [of our actions] for every ethical decision we make in our daily lives, but only in very unusual circumstances, or perhaps when we are reflecting on our choice of general principles to guide us in future.

General principles?  Rules?  Here, Professor Singer first touches upon the notion of rule utilitarianism, an awkward thing, clearly, for a sectary of utility to cope with; instructively and amusingly, it is a thing that goes unmentioned in Practical Ethics, despite that it is germane to much of the bioethical theorizing that appears in the pages of this book.  To avoid embarrassments, Professor Singer no doubt relies upon the belief that few of his students will notice anything they are not instructed to notice, and that those few may be summarily banished from his classroom on charges of impertinence.  As for his larger readership, those within it who think about what they read can simply be chalked off to profit and loss.  Surely no mountebank expects to rope in the whole human race.

As for the equality of consideration that Professor Singer says must be given the (like) interests of all who are found to have them, he says:

There is no logically compelling reason for assuming that a difference in ability between two people justifies any difference in the amount of consideration we give to their interests.  Equality is a basic ethical principle, not an assertion of fact.

The reference here to logic is mystifying.  Obviously there is no logically compelling reason for adopting a doctrine of differing consideration of interests in cases of disparate competencies; there is no logical reason at all for doing so, let alone a compelling one.  Nor, patently, is there a logical reason for adopting a doctrine of equal consideration of interests in such cases.  Nor, if it comes to that, are there logical reasons for rejecting these doctrines, either of them.  A moral agent’s choices of action are made with reference to moral standards, not with reference to logic.  Nor does logic have any discernible connection to the assertion about equality in the passage quoted above.  Indeed, the passage quoted above is incoherent.

Professor Singer denies the legitimacy of the American mythos, but seeks to abstract for his own purposes aspects of that mythos, doing so with an air of innocence that can disarm the reader who does not maintain a stance of critical vigilance.  Having asserted the legitimacy of equality, and having assigned it a basis in his metaphysic, Professor Singer, in yet another, and astounding, example of argumentum ad verecundiam, reaches with light fingers for another, and seemingly needless, confirmation of his assertion that equality is based on no “factual” trait of human beings, but is an inherent property of the concept of ethics:

Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the ringing assertion of equality with which the American Declaration of Independence begins, knew [equality does not depend on intelligence].

Here, he brings himself to utter incoherence.  America’s Declaration of Independence opens with a statement of faith that is central to her civil religion, the communicants of which are almost the entirety of her Christians, Ashkenazic Jews and Deists; a statement of faith that unequivocally contravenes Professor Singer’s entire metaphysic.7  It is a statement of a deontological rights-ethic, founded upon a theory of natural law in which there is expressed the philosophical idea of a self-evident truth that identifies human equality as a design of God, and an ethic in which there are expressly enumerated, from among the multitude of implicit rights that are gifts and guarantees of God, these three:  life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  The last of these is not a reference to the utilitarian’s happiness, but is a locution of the Enlightenment age that comes about through an unfortunate rendering of the untranslatable Greek word, eudaimonia, which is most accurately rendered “the state of having a good indwelling spirit,” and is well rendered as “a state of well-being.”  It is a state of well-being that Mr Jefferson believed to be a product of virtue and a dutiful assumption of public responsibilities, words, these two, virtue and duty, that are as unlikely to be found in Professor Singer’s mouth as is prayer.

As for the right to liberty, there is an incredible, unseemly, twenty-three page appendix in Practical Ethics in which Professor Singer dwells upon being denied the freedom–apparently quite forcefully–to give voice to his bioethical theories in the learned forums of Germany and Austria.  But aside from the question of academic freedom, there seems nothing in the concept of liberty that interests him.

The first of the three rights enumerated, life, is definitely not one with which he is in sympathy.  He is in fact not taken with the concept of rights at all, save for an insistence upon a scrupulous observance of his own rights in the world, but this right in particular draws his disfavor.  He dismisses the notion of the sanctity of human life as a relic of the long dominance in Europe of Christianity, the doctrines of which he asserts are

no longer generally accepted, but the ethical attitudes to which they gave rise fit in with the deep-seated Western belief in the uniqueness and special privileges of our species, and have survived.

A survival which he quite plainly deplores.  In keeping with his fixed practice when making substantive claims, his assertion that Christian doctrines are no longer generally accepted is made with not a scintilla of evidence offered in its support.  Let it be noted for the record that the Statistical Abstract of the United States, issued by the United States Census Bureau, shows that in 1998, of the non-institutionalized population of the United States composed of individuals at least 18 years of age, 7% either failed to state a religious preference or stated explicitly that they had none, 2% stated their religious preference to be Jewish, 27% to be Catholic, 59% to be Protestant, and 5% to be Other.  The fraction of this population belonging to a church or a synagogue was 70%.8  It is a fair guess that Christian doctrines are still generally accepted in America.

The word, foetus, is reported in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) to mean, in Latin, offspring, and to signify, in its English language usage, “The young of viviparous animals in the womb, and of oviparous animals in the egg, when fully developed.”  The earliest written use of this word that is reported by the great dictionary occurred in 1398:  “The chylde that is conceyved in the moder hyght Fetus in latyn,” or, in translation:  The child conceived in the mother is called, in latin, Fetus.  Prior to the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, it was a word in use primarily as a technical term, and, so, was more or less restricted in use to those whose doings focused on the biological sciences or medicine.  As is known to all, it is now become part of the common speech.  Even some anti-abortion militants at times use it, although only those who are of limited understandings, for it was brought into general use by social revolutionaries and their familiars of the press in the endless and unrelenting campaign of these rebellious, perpetual nonards to reshape the popular apprehensions of meaning and reality through the reshaping of the national idiom.  Alas, Abraham Lincoln’s claim that to call a calf’s tail a leg does not make it one, has been shown by the officers of the club known as NOW and the scriveners of the The New York Times to be less than accurate.  But this spiritual and intellectual giant, a half-felt presence in all places American, no doubt shrugs at this play of shadow figures and waits for our curious age to pass.

Professor Singer asserts that, prior to the eighteenth week of human gestation:

[T]here is no good basis for believing that the fetus needs protection from harmful research, because the fetus cannot be harmed.

It cannot be harmed, given Professor Singer’s conception of the natural order of things, because, he says, its cerebral cortex is not sufficiently developed before that point for synaptic connections to form within it, and, so, it cannot receive signals of pain.  And an organism–or, in his parlance, a being–of any species that is without the capacity for suffering or for experiencing pleasure, or, in other words, is not sentient, is without interests and without moral significance.  The concept of harm has no meaning in relation to such a being:

[Sentience] is a prerequisite for having interests at all, a condition that must be satisfied before we can speak of interests in any meaningful way. … A stone does not have interests because it cannot suffer.  Nothing that we can do to it could possibly make any difference to its welfare. … If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing [with respect to that being] to be taken into account [in considering equally the interests of all morally significant beings].

It should be understood that there are categories of morally significant beings in possession of characteristics beyond mere sentience with which Professor Singer is very much concerned, but which for the nonce are ignored here.

Of import at this point in this review of Practical Ethics, Professor Singer adds a qualifier to his sanctioning of experimentation upon the unborn:

While the fetus prior to 18 weeks may, strictly speaking, be unable to be harmed, if the fetus is allowed to develop into a child, the future child could be very seriously harmed by an experiment that caused the child to be born in a disabled state.  Therefore research that allows the fetus to survive beyond 18 weeks does not come under the permissive rule suggested [above].

He does not elaborate upon this, but it appears that if there is no a priori intent to kill an unborn infant upon whom experiments are to be performed while in the womb, these experiments cannot be ruled bioethically acceptable if they have a potential for permanently damaging the infant.  The mentality of a woman who would consent to have her unborn infant experimented upon and that of a scientist who would perform such an experiment are, it seems clear enough, abnormal in the extreme, but no discussion of their abnormalities is essayed here.  It is with the mentality of Professor Singer that there are concerns here, and with the question whether bioethicists have any place within the precincts of the American academy, or, indeed, within the civil order of the United States.  These matters are taken up in the sequel.

Professor Singer asserts that when an unborn infant reaches a state of consciousness:

[A]bortion should not [at this point] be taken lightly (if a woman ever does take abortion lightly).  But a woman’s serious interests would normally override the rudimentary interests even of a conscious fetus.  Indeed, even an abortion late in pregnancy for the most trivial reasons is hard to condemn unless we also condemn the slaughter of far more developed forms of life for the taste of their flesh.

One is inclined to wonder why there should be the sudden vengeful burst of savagery that is on show in the wording of this grotesque red herring  And the answer is that the savagery is there, with all that it implies, to signify the disfavor in which Professor Singer holds speciesists:  those who believe that the interests of members of the species, homo sapiens, take precedence over the interests of animals.  As was previously noted in this critique, the doctrine of equal consideration of interests applies not simply to human beings, but to all organisms that are at least sentient.  Aside from his antagonism toward speciesists, he is not in any case inclined to be protective of infants in the womb, since the degree of consciousness of such infants, even in late term, is not generally thought high, and consciousness is something which for Professor Singer is crucial in his ruminations about killing:

[O]n any fair comparison of morally significant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain, and so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy–while if we make the comparison with a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of consciousness.

How much rationality may be present in the mind of a rooster or a hen is a determination that I suggest is better left to farm children than to bioethicists, but if one tarried to treat in detail every line in Practical Ethics that warrants critical comment, one would end with a critique many times the bulk of what it criticises.  Consciousness has numinous force in Professor Singer’s metaphysic; it is the sine qua non for inclusion within the “sphere of equal consideration of interests.”  But it does not of necessity provide moral armor against being killed:

As long as sentient beings are conscious, they have an interest in experiencing as much pleasure and as little pain as possible.  Sentience suffices to place a being within the sphere of equal consideration of interests; but it does not mean that the being has a personal interest in continuing to live.

It is well to bear in mind that what Professor Singer says of sentient beings, above, and in what follows, applies not only to animals, but to unborn human infants:

[T]he wrongness of painless killing [of sentient beings] derives from the loss of pleasure it involves.  Where the life taken would not, on balance, have been pleasant, no direct wrong is done.  Even when the animal killed would have lived pleasantly, it is at least arguable that no wrong is done if the animal killed will, as a result of the killing, be replaced by another animal living an equally pleasant life.

Those utilitarians who favor what is called by Professor Singer the total view, hold that with respect to this replaceability notion, the value of organisms that are merely sentient lies in the fact that they may experience feelings of pleasure, and therefore, collectively, serve as receptacles of pleasure in the cosmic order.  Should a receptacle be broken, but be replaced, the sum total of cosmic pleasure remains undiminished, and, so the breakage has no measurable consequence.  It is not without relevance to the purposes of this critique, and to the notion of the total view, to note that modernist professors of philosophy are in the habit of inventing hypothetical situations of a puerile character, which they commonly call thought experiments, and which are taken quite seriously within the ranks of their collegium.  Paraphrased from an example of the genre turned out by a certain Roger Crisp, Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at St Anne’s College, Oxford, the following specimen of juvenilia passes among the moral philosophers of our time as something worthy of a grave reception by an educated person:

Imagine yourself a soul awaiting incarnation in some form of earthly life, and imagine being given the choice of:  (1) a long life as Franz Josef Haydn, filled with the sophisticated pleasures of composing musical masterpieces; or (2) a life as an oyster, with its primitive pleasures, a life which may last as long as you please–millions of years, if that is your desire.  Which would you choose?9

The total view apparently arises from, or is associated with, the interest of utilitarians in the question of the happiness of aggregates–called in its modernist incarnation, collective utility–which leads them to ponder schemata–evidently not unlike those of the felicific calculus–for determining this utility through mathematical operations on measures of qualities of life, such as those of the lives of oysters or of great musical composers, and to muse over hypothetical states of collective utility, whether through changes in the qualities of life of living individuals of the cosmic collectivity or whether through changes in the number of its living individuals.  These ponderers turn out learned papers that are devoted to various aspects of collective utility; there are, e.g., papers that focus upon what their authors gravely call the Repugnant Conclusion; which is to say, the conclusion–to which they find themselves unhappily driven–that a world in which a significant number of people enjoy lives of very high quality must be reckoned inferior to a world in which a much larger number of people live lives that are barely worth living, by virtue of the fact that the collective utility of this latter world sums to a larger number than does that of the former one.  Having deluded and fuddled themselves with fallacy, with moony ponderings, with fantasies of oysters dancing minuets in the halls of the powers and principalities of the air, these incredible, comic opera scholars confound themselves with the imbecilities that abound in the daft and imaginary worlds come of delusion.

As was done with foetus by social revolutionaries, so Professor Singer does with person; save that where foetus was fetched out of the recesses of the laboratory to serve as proxy for the word that no social revolutionary of this era dares speak, i.e., subhuman, Professor Singer has expropriated a word in general use to serve as proxy for what is in effect signified by the locution, lifeworthy, with all those not qualifying as lifeworthy becoming what may, in effect, be called either deathworthy or bioethically subhuman, depending upon the nominal categories to which they are said publicly to belong.  Among the meanings of person that are found in the OED, the one upon which the professor has fastened is:

In [the] general philosophical sense:  A self-conscious or rational being.

He fixes upon these characteristics, self-consciousness and rationality, to signify what he means by person.  But he not uncommonly characterizes those he assigns to this category somewhat differently, citing them as able to conceive of themselves as distinct entities and to comprehend that one of the dimensions of the universe they occupy is time.  His expropriation of this word, person, is, plainly enough, presumptious and heavy-handed, as well as making for much confusion; in this critique the locution bioethical person serves in the place of the professor’s person.  This category, bioethical person, is one to which Professor Singer assigns apes as well as human beings, and, tentatively, such animals as whales, dolphins, monkeys, dogs, cats, pigs, and a few others; but this mixing of human beings with animals is, I submit, a matter that receives much more attention than it deserves.  Why on earth should any rational person care who or what Professor Singer includes in his category of the lifeworthy?  Let him, by all means include tarantulas, sharks and boa constrictors, if he cares to, and if it comes to that, flies and hyaenas.  It is the exclusion of certain human beings from this category of his that has an ominous significance.

Neither unborn nor newborn infants can be said to be bioethical persons, for the ability to reason is a thing that is not yet astir within them; rationality needs time in which to brighten into being.  The fact that such little ones cannot possibly meet the test for inclusion within the ranks of the earth’s bioethical persons–who form what Professor Singer calls the moral community–is, I suggest, the principal reason why the notion of the bioethical person occupies the place that it does in his metaphysic:

I have argued that the life of a fetus (and even more plainly, of an embryo) is of no greater value than the life of a nonhuman animal at a similar level of rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel, etc., and that since no fetus is a [bioethical] person no fetus has the same claim to life as a [bioethical] person.  Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. … [T]he newborn baby is on the same footing as the fetus, and hence fewer reasons exist against killing both babies and fetuses than exist against killing those who are capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.

Professor Singer does not in reality believe that anyone has a claim to life, or a moral right of any sort, informing his reader that:

I am not convinced that the notion of a moral right is a helpful or meaningful one, except when it is used as a shorthand way of referring to more fundamental moral considerations.

In the case of a right to live, the “more fundamental moral consideration” that interests Professor Singer seems to have been formulated by a certain Michael Tooley, an American philosopher, whose pertinent theorem the professor paraphrases as, “[A]n individual cannot at a given time–say, now–have a right to continued existence unless the individual is of a kind such that it can now be in its interests that it continues to exist.”  Whatever, precisely, this preposterous sentence Professor Singer has crafted means, if in fact it means anything at all, I leave to the cryptographers to discover.  What the professor is actually driving at by speaking in a general way of “more fundamental moral considerations” has to do with what what was earlier alluded to here as rule utilitarianism, a belief system in which a moral rule, not an act, is adjudged for its general effects upon the cosmic collective utility.  The underlying moral considerations are, as ever, pleasure and pain.  And a utilitarian may morally act in breach of a moral rule confected in accordance with the principle of utility if circumstances point toward a larger collective utility as a consequence of doing so than would be achieved by an act in keeping with the rule.  Such rules, for example, as, “It is wrong to steal,” or, “It is wrong to kill.”  Rules abstracted from the ethical traditions of the West, but not written in letters of fire across the face of the sky; written rather with a fingertip on the surface of the sea.  These rules, as Professor Singer makes clear, are no more than shorthand designations of fundamental moral considerations; which is to say, to considerations of pleasure and pain.

Meantime, the originator of this notion of a moral right to live is found by the professor to be the malefactor he discovers at the bottom of almost everything he scathes:

[Our] present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value.

Neglecting to hold the Jews of antiquity equally culpable with the Christians for ruling infanticide an evil, even though to any impartial observer it is clear that they are every bit as blameworthy, and perhaps even more so, he gestures to the former prevalence of this practice, ranging geographically, he observes, from “Tahiti to Greenland” and culturally from the “nomadic Australian aborigines to the sophisticated urban communities of ancient Greece or mandarin China.”  In some of these societies, he notes, “Not to kill a deformed or sickly infant was often regarded as wrong,” and opines that, “[I]nfanticide was probably the first, and in several societies the only, form of population control.”  These hortations are, as a purely logical matter, properly dismissed with an exasperated, So what?  But the gratuitous opinion concerning population control is deserving of a comment in passing.  Uninformed guesses as to the nature of phenomena that have since the Age of Discovery been subjects of scientific investigation and scholarly study are revealing of an especially obnoxious sort of hubris.  Does Professor Singer think it needless for him to look into a few anthropological tomes before making an anthropological proclamation?  Is he perhaps omniscient?

His argument in favor of infanticide is outlined using his own words:

[T]he fact that a being is a human being … is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is … rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference.  Infants lack these characteristics.  Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings or other self-conscious beings. …  When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled child is killed.  The loss of a happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second.  Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant [for example] has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view [of utilitarianism], be right to kill him. …  The total view treats infants as replaceable, in much the same way as it treats non-self-conscious animals. …  I cannot see how one could defend the view that fetuses may be ‘replaced’ before birth, but newborn infants may not be. …  [K]illing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a [bioethical] person.  Very often it is not wrong at all.

He proposes that the parents of a severely disabled infant be granted in law some period following the birth of the infant, a week, say, or a month, in which to decide, in consultation with a physician, whether to put the child painlessly to death; and that this tribunal of two be granted the authority to instruct the physician to carry out their decision, should that decision be for death.

Professor Singer does not say precisely what he means by “severely disabled,” but this, it seems to me, is not significant, save to serve as a demonstration of the imprecision and indiscipline that is almost everywhere evident in his reasoning.  To become concerned with the question of how narrowly or of how widely he means to cast his nets is to become, in an implicit way, complicitous with him in this affair:  confronted with his proposal to make some category of newborns the objects of violence, it should be of significance to us not what criteria Professor Singer may have in mind for singling out those he would place in that category, but, rather, the simple fact that he has devised and publicized this killing regime.  Indeed, the single criterion that he has so far advanced–severe disability–is worthy of attention solely because it gives witness to the fact that he advances one at all.  From the nature of his beliefs, clearly revealed in Practical Ethics, no reason whatsoever can be adduced for the limitation in this killing regime to those newborns who are afflicted with disabilities.  Certainly he imposes no such limitation in the case of abortion; there, he does not concern himself at all with the health of the infant marked for death, but only with shielding it from pain in its dying.  As a utilitarian, he is set against inflicting pain on any organism that is at least sentient, and, so, is set against any abortion carried out with indifference to the suffering of the infant who is done to death, complaining in fact of the brutality of some present day practices:  “Late abortions–which are the very ones in which the fetus may be able to suffer–are sometimes performed by [a gruesome method],” which he describes, but which will not be described here.

What could possibly lead him to restrict the killing of newborns to those with disabilities?  From a reading of the doctrines touching upon pleasure and pain that are acclaimed in the pages of Practical Ethics, it is inescapable that the parents of a perfectly healthy newborn infant who consider the child ill suited to their needs or wants, even in some matter of a trifling nature, or of a whimsical one, will, in killing this child, be acting in an unassailably moral way, from a utilitarian viewpoint.  They increase in doing so the collective utility of the cosmic collectivity, since they increase their own happiness, and they subtract from it nothing that cannot be replaced by their procreation of another child, who may be more to their liking.  The child they kill loses the years of life to come, but since there is in this child’s mind, in Professor Singer’s words, “no concept of having a continued existence,” there is no will to live that is thwarted, and, so, no pain of loss is entered into the aggregate of pleasure and pain of the cosmic collectivity.  Professor Singer puts it concisely and in a utilitarian perspective:

Killing a snail or a day-old infant does not thwart any desires [for the future], because snails and newborn infants are incapable of having such desires.

Why does Professor Singer balk at the plain implications of his theories?  It is submitted here that he almost certainly does so because he is not a creature of reason and logic, but of advocacy.  And his is an advocacy that is designed to gain support among progressive thinkers for the advancement of the bioethics movement, as is true of the advocacy of bioethicists generally.  In this age few are shocked by acclamations of late term abortion or of killing infants who are said to be severely disabled, and certainly progressive thinkers in general are not; the hortations of eugenicists alone during the past century, to say nothing of those of the abortion lobby, have so softened and blunted the once hard sharp edges of the sensibilities of the peoples of the West, that there can be little shock felt in its precincts at the clamorings of bioethicists for legitimizing such killing regimes.  Nor do the progressive thinkers of the West seem strongly opposed to such regimes; not, at all events, if their silence as a group at the vetos and judicial nullifications of American statutes banning late term abortions is taken as a fair measure of their feelings about these things.  But it is almost a certainty that few Western progressive thinkers, if any, would react with anything but shock if confronted by a proposal to kill healthy newborn infants.  It is a thing that is still unthinkable.

That Professor Singer is essentially, and for all practical purposes, an advocate and publicist, is clear from a reading of the dirge he incorporated as an appendix to Practical Ethics detailing how he was blocked from preaching bioethics in Germany and Austria.  He complains in that appendix that while outside those two countries the “study and discussion of bioethics is expanding rapidly,” within them there is a danger that the “atmosphere of intimidation and intolerance” that has “spread from the issue of euthanasia to all of bioethics  … will continue to broaden.”  A situation that he thinks outrageous, and, what is worse, one brought about not “from right-wing conservative and religious groups, but from the left.”  Since those of the left form his constituency, he calls this state of affairs “bizarre,” and seems uncertain how to proceed.  But he plainly is not satisfied with the notion of a bioethical refashioning of the moral order of some subset of the nations; he wants a bioethical world, and it is a world that includes Germany and Austria.

“‘Euthanasia’,” Professor Singer says, “means, according to the dictionary, ‘a gentle and easy death.'”  It is perhaps worth noting that he demonstrates here a carelessness that marks him in large things and small, in not indicating in which dictionary he finds this quote.  Continuing, he asserts:

[But ‘euthanasia’] is now used to refer to the killing of those who are incurably ill and in great pain or distress, for the sake of those killed, and in order to spare them further suffering or distress.

No part of the euthanasia regime that he endorses, Professor Singer asserts, is in any way comparable to that of the Nazis, which, he notes, was not motivated by “concern for the suffering of those killed.” In this matter of motivation, he is quite correct.  The Nazi program was intended to be, and was, a realization of eugenics theory; its essential object was that of racial purification and health.  Secondarily, as Professor Singer points out, it served the purpose of, “Doing away with useless mouths,” a phrase used by those who administered it.  It must be obvious that it was to serve this secondary purpose alone that the Nazis killed those in catatonic states; no one existing in such a state could pose a threat of any sort to the racial purity of the German nation.  The question here is, Why should Professor Singer, as a bioethicist, advocate that those existing among us in catatonic states be killed?  As in fact he does.  They are neither in pain nor in distress, any of them, but are, each of them, in an unbroken and dreamless condition akin to sleep.  The professor’s verdict is, “[T]heir lives have no intrinsic value.”  And so it seems that there is more to the euthanasia regime endorsed by this bioethicist than a felt need to relieve pain and distress; there is an interest, as well, in ridding the collectivity of lives that have no intrinsic value.

There may be a meaningful moral distinction between ridding a nation of useless mouths and ridding it of lives without intrinsic value, but if there is, it is not worth the trifling expenditure of mental energy needed to find it.  But for a great, humane and generous nation, it is possibly worth the expenditure of social energy needed to collect these people and care for them in public facilities until their hearts are stilled by time.  It may after all be possible that in the cosmic order of things it is not pleasure that is precious and elusive, but is in some mysterious fashion, the pulse of life itself.  And it may be that, in reckoning what worth there is in the lives of helpless, inoffensive children of misfortune, there is committed a transgression that diminishes those who do the reckoning.  As for the disabled newborn infants whom the bioethicists favor killing, it may be well to let the sisters of mercy reopen the orphanages closed by the misdirected reforming zeal of mid-twentieth century progressive thinkers and care for these little ones there.  Among these infants, those whose conditions are in fact hopeless should not die by the violent acts of man nor should they die in the course of heroic medical efforts meant to maintain in them as long as possible the breath of life, but should die sedated and cradled in the arms of women, feeling human warmth and hearing softly sung cradle songs.

There is the question of those who were at one time bioethical persons but whose minds are gone or are going.  Of these, Professor Singer, in one of his lapses into embarrassingly poor English, asserts:

The lives of those who are not in a coma and are conscious but not self-conscious have value if such beings experience more pleasure than pain, or have preferences that can be satisfied; but it is difficult to see the point of keeping such human beings alive if their life is, on the whole, miserable.

These erstwhile bioethical persons, now bioethical subhumans, are, if their lives are miserable, reckoned deathworthy by Professor Singer and grouped with disabled infants–who are bioethical subhumans ab initio–and those in catatonic states–who are to him without moral significance–and this group is assigned to a category whose members are candidates for what he calls non-voluntary euthanasia.  Which is to say, candidates for violent death under a bioethical killing regime the victims of which give no assent to their deaths, by virtue of their having no capacity to do so, and, indeed, no capacity to understand what is being done to them when their killers do them to death.  One is inclined to wonder whether this bioethicist is actually capable of imagining any solution to a physiological problem besetting human beings save that of killing those who are beset with the said problem.  Putting aside for the nonce Professor Singer’s predilection for killing, it is difficult to believe that human beings living out their second childhoods cannot be minded and kept content in institutions operated by sisters and brothers of mercy.  Let them be called hospices or let them be called citadels of grace, or be called anything anyone at all wants to call them, so long as those who serve in them are called to vocations of faith and charity.  As for the point that Professor Singer finds it difficult to see, it is in part an affirmation of life and in part something inherent in the better angels of our nature, and it is in part an understanding, derived from an ethos forged during the flowering of the civilization of the West, that human beings are not utensils, to be thrown away when broken by age or by accident.  There is a lyric quality in human life that is evident in a mother struggling with grocery bags too heavy for her and in a father who comforts a hurt child, and there are ghostly lyric traces that stir in these oldsters whose minds wander in forgotten places and vanished times.  Are some among them perpetually sorrowed, and not to be solaced?  What of that?  It is difficult to see the point in stealing from them the breath of life because they are not joyous.

Involuntary euthanasia is a term Professor Singer reserves for the killing of those bioethical persons who (evidently) should consent to be killed but who do not:

I shall regard euthanasia as involuntary when the [bioethical] person killed is capable of consenting to her own death, but does not do so, either because she is not asked, or because she is asked and chooses to go on living.  …  Killing someone who has not consented to being killed can properly be regarded as euthanasia only when the motive for killing is the desire to prevent unbearable suffering on the part of the [bioethical] person killed.

The question whether he sanctions what he describes in the passage quoted above is answered by Professor Singer in the affirmative:

The classical utilitarian might have to accept that in some cases it would be right to kill a [bioethical] person who does not choose to die on the grounds that the [bioethical] person will otherwise lead a miserable life.

Here, with no apparent diffidence, he exhibits a belief that those who are in possession of the revealed truths of utility and wrapped in a mantle of authority conferred upon them by knowledge of these truths, may properly arrogate to themselves total sovereignty over others, who, in defiance of their authority, linger on, alive though suffering, refusing to kill themselves or to submit to being killed.  This hubris of the bioethicist is sufficient to demonstrate, if a demonstration is wanted, that the force driving the bioethics movement has nothing in it of the humane.  It is driven by the deadly sin of pride; laughably so driven, for it is pride founded upon vacuity.  There is no trace of originality in bioethical theory, nor any sign in it of thinking that goes beyond the superficial or of ideas that are worth a second thought.  As for utilitarians other than those of the classical strain, what they “might have to accept” is a question into which, I submit, it is needless to go.  Every strain of utilitarianism is simply classical utilitarianism masquerading in a verbal disguise assumed in an attempt at concealment of some aspect of the irrational, antisocial nature of the theory of utility.

Voluntary euthanasia is the term Professor Singer uses to signify a regime for the killing by physicians of soi disant suicides, and for what is called physician assisted suicide; the two are obviously indistinguishable, save in the ruminations of pedants, and are treated here as one.  Professor Singer of course favors the establishment of such a regime, referring not unfavorably in this connection to the doings of the notorious Jack Kevorkian; interestingly, and characteristically, he fails to report Kevorkian’s goal of organizing a suicide industry focused on subjecting those seeking assistance in killing themselves to medical experiments, including vivisection, and on the harvesting of their organs and their blood.10  Especially their blood, which seems to fascinate him.  These are practices that Kevorkian many years ago proposed be applied to convicts under sentences of death, but the nation’s press, although already unsavory, had not yet shrugged off the last restraints of sanity and common sense, and, so, Kevorkian’s mooting of his ghastly scheme was given short shrift.

The professor comments favorably upon the long established regime for voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands, a corrupt regime, in fact, in which patients who do not ask for death, and who are not necessarily dying, or even ill, are at times killed by physicians who act against them because they do not deem the lives these patients live to be lives worth living.11  A state of things that was predictable, and was predicted, at the initiation of this regime more than a quarter of a century ago.  There is needed, for the evolution of a public program designed to kill searchers for death into a governmentally protected private club for serial murderers, no more than the passage of a few years; a vocation, after all, has its largest appeal to those who are temperamentally disposed to carry out its essential functions.  And a vocation that calls for killing presumably calls into its service agents with mentalities shaped for killing.

All the killing that Professor Singer advocates, he advocates be done by physicians.  It seems a brazen piece of effrontery, this lobbying for a re-definition in law of the function of a profession not his own.  If the bioethicists want certain categories of human beings killed, it seems only proper that they should themselves volunteer to do the killing, leaving the physicians to go about their chosen tasks of bringing the blessings of renewed life and health to the ailing and the broken.  It should not require above six weeks for a bioethicist to learn everything about poisons that is needed in order to assume the office and function of bioethical killer.

Concerning homicide, Professor Singer informs his reader that, for the classical utilitarian, no moral significance is attached to the fact that all plans for the future die with the bioethical person who is a homicide victim, and, so, there is nothing in the nature of what he calls a direct wrong done in committing such a homicide.  But, he says, the lives of bioethical persons would be fraught with anxiety, were there to be no rule against killing them, and so:

[T]he classical utilitarian can defend a prohibition on killing [bioethical] persons on the indirect ground that it will increase the happiness of people who would otherwise worry that they might be killed.

It is clearly beyond Professor Singer’s comprehension that what he submits here is an enormity to a reader bred in the ways of civilization, for whom the rule of law and the sanctity of human life are not conveniences fixed upon as are the regulations governing the dispensing of spirits, but belong to an order as natural seeming as are the coming and the going of the seasons or the dawning and the fading of the days; but he does seem to realize that there is something amiss in it disturbing enough to normal human beings to call for his issuance of a nostrum of some sort.  He delivers one in the form of an indirect assurance that the sense of what he calls the oddness of all this is a question of perspective:

There is, of course, something odd about objecting to murder, not because of the wrong done to the victim, but because of the effect that the murder will have on others.  One has to be a tough-minded classical utilitarian to be untroubled by this oddness.

It is anyone’s guess what he means by tough-minded; my guess is that the sort of mentality he is attempting to identify would be called grotesque by normal human beings, or, possibly, merely primitive.  But this indirect reason to prohibit homicide falls, Professor Singer makes clear, in cases of surreptitious homicides that go undetected as such.  That is to say, the theory of utility has nothing to say against murder by stealth.  But, he points out:

There is something to be said, however, against applying utilitarianism only or primarily at the level of each individual case.  It may be that in the long run, we will achieve better results–greater overall happiness–if we urge people not to judge each individual action by the standard of utility, but instead to think along the lines of some broad principles that will cover all or virtually all of the situations that they are likely to encounter.

This, I suggest, clearly demonstrates the antinomic nature of utility as a social thesis.  Summarizing what the professor says in the passage quoted above and what he says elsewhere, he concedes, in effect, that utility is another name for lawlessness, but proposes that we make believe it is not, by artifice of inventing rules of conduct and calling them those of utility–the doctrine of utility, founded upon an antipathy for and an abolition of rules of conduct, now become rule utilitarianism.  But these rules of utility, may, in a grotesque inversion of the concept of right conduct, be ignored at will by a rational moral agent if the cosmic collective utility may be made to grow by doing so–an utterly meaningless, nonsensical sum continuously re-computed, for all anyone knows, only by some leprechaun counting upon his fingers at the foot of the rainbow.  And if this number were actually to become known–to be recorded every quarter hour across the face of the sky–why should anyone care what value it might assume from one tick of the clock to the next?  What on earth could this preposterous number or what it stands for mean to anyone not palpably a halfwit?  One could as well bob one’s head approvingly, or shake it worriedly, over the daily count of flies devoured by frogs dwelling in the Great Dismal Swamp.  The thesis of utility is obviously not a social thesis at all, but is what Bentham openly and defiantly proclaimed it to be:  An exaltation of anarchy.

It is not amiss to note that pleasure can be, and sometimes is, demonic in character, a thought that goes unmentioned by Professor Singer.  And this the most significant thought that must come to mind upon a first reading of Bentham’s principle of utility by anyone who is neither a natural-born harebrain nor stupefied at the time by drink.  Let me for the nonce pretend to be a modernist moral philosopher, and, in so pretending, concoct a thought experiment:

Imagine a nation in which those who form the overwhelming majority of the populace are of a distinctive ethnicity, and that, almost universally, they despise the members of a minority group of the nation whose members are of another distinctive ethnicity, and who are, with the land upon which they live, within the national frontiers through conquest, not choice; and imagine that the collective utility of this nation is low, the minoritarians being fearful of the majoritarians and the majoritarians being afire with their hatred of the minoritarians.  Imagine, further, that the majoritarians, by government directive, massacre the minoritarians, all of them, to the very last one, replacing in doing so all their own unhappinesses with happinessess, and eliminating all the unhappinesses of the minoritarians, through the simple removal of these unhappinesses from the cosmic account book, thus vastly increasing the collective utility of the nation, despite reducing the number of individuals who populate it.  And imagine, finally, that the total destruction of these minoritarians leaves no one at all in the nation who is fraught with anxiety over the prospects of being lynched.

I submit that within the ambit of utilitarianism this massacre has to be reckoned a moral act.  And I submit as well that those devotees of utility whose haunts are within the university cloister, might well, most of them, agree with this submission, for the toying with ideas by Advanced Thinkers is nothing more than dazzling word play and the display of mere technics, and the logic of this massacre is inescapable:  such a mass killing is utilitarianly right.  So was the massacre, I submit, that was perpetrated in 1915 by the Turks upon their Armenian minority.  Here, of course, many, if not all, of the cloistered utilitarians would without doubt balk, for it is one thing to play at make believe, consigning babies in imagination to death, and quite another to look into the abyss, and to dimly see something in its depths looking back.  There is a photographic record of what the Turks did to the Armenians, and it serves well as a demonstration of the living reality of evil.  These play actors of the academy, most of them, are taken only with the stage effects of the poses they strike, and with registering their affected detestation of all things American; they hide beneath their beds when faced by some intolerable intrusion of the real and meaningful into their lives.  They are as hollow as are so many jugs.

But with those utilitarians who are in the world, i.e., the bioethicists, the case is otherwise.  I submit that those who function as bioethicists are as bankrupt intellectually as are their cloistered colleagues, and are equally impoverished of spirit, but the moral leprosy with which they afflict themselves is of a wholly different virulence.  They mean what they say when they speak about medical experiments upon the unborn and the killing of newborn infants.  They are wholly, and consciously, given to the service of evil, despite that, as Advanced Thinkers, they deny its reality.  Their assertions that they differ from the Nazis because they are motivated to eliminate suffering while the Nazis were, at best, motivated to purge their nation of the unhealthy, is utterly without merit.  They have turned, as did the eugenicists of Nazi Germany, to an idolatry of darkness, guising it as an elevation of reason, a faculty for which there is no more aptitude evidenced in their works than is seen in those of the eugenecists.  The bioethicists, in the use of reason, are squarely on all fours with Mary Baker G. Eddy, boosters of social darwinism, pyramidologists, and fans of the dope-addled visionary, and certifiably immortal, Elvis Presley.  They are, at their damnedest and their worst, perverse and tiresome ignoramuses, assassins of sense, and barbaric assailants of the human spirit.


Professor Singer concludes Practical Ethics with the question, Why act morally?  And in considering this question, he asserts that those who are unreflective and those whose reflections do not bring them to the vantage point of the ethicist, are not by virtue of these things irrational.  One can only assume that he means by this characteristically murky assertion that it does not follow from their limitations of perspective that they do not use reason.  He proceeds with this line, observing that psychopaths may simply be able to obtain more happiness through antisocial acts than through relating to others in the ways customary among human beings, and–one may infer–are not therefore, ipso facto, irrational; and observing, further, that there is nothing at all irrational in narrowing one’s focus in life to just those functions attendant upon the collecting of postage stamps.

On this note, which has the unearthly ring of a gothic horror story told by an unhinged simpleton, I rest my case.

1 The following is an online copy of Bentham’s basic work on utility.  The quoted passage is from its first chapter.

Introduction to the Priciples of Morals and Legislation
2 For Mill’s proof, see chapter 4 of his treatment of utilitarianism:

“Utilitarianism”, J. S. Mill, Oxford University Press, 1999, Oxford University, Inc., New York.
3 The quotes are from

Princeton Weekly Bulletin December 7, 1998
4 “Practical Ethics, Second Edition”, Peter Singer, Cambridge University Press, 1993, 40 West 20th Street, New York, NY 10011-4211.

5 For data on illegitimacy, see:

“Nonmarital Childbearing in the United States, 1940-1999”, National Vital Statistics Reports, From the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics, Volume 48, Number 16, October 18, 2000.