This is point of inquiry for Friday, November 7th, 2008.
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I’m really happy to have our guest today back on point of inquiry.
He’s considered the founder of the field of modern bioethics. The New Yorker calls him the world’s most influential living philosopher. And Time magazine listed him in the TIME 100, which is their annual listing of the world’s 100 most influential people. That’s not to say everyone loves him. Social Justice Review called him the architect of the culture of death. And many think his moral reasonings to be very similar to Nazi justifications that some life is not worthy of life. Still, his arguments are persuasive to many of us. He’s decamp, professor of bioethics at Princeton University and laureate professor at the Center for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne. He’s a humanist laureate of the International Academy of Humanism and also a founding member of the Great Ape Project, which is trying to get the United Nations to adopt a declaration on great apes that would award them the legal status of personhood. He writes a regular column for Free Inquiry magazine and is the author of dozens of books, including Practical Ethics, Rethinking Life and Death and Animal Liberation, which has sold more than a half million copies. Welcome back to a point of inquiry. Peter Singer, thanks.
I’m really happy to be with you.
TIME magazine professor called you the most influential philosopher in the world. Many of your peers consider you one of the most important ethicists working today. You pretty much started the worldwide animal rights movement. Your arguments on abortion, on euthanasia kind of rebooted the thinking in those fields. But the paradox to me is, is that the majority of people who would run across your arguments for the first time would find that the positions you propose are the exact opposite of what most people consider to be ethical or moral. Here’s the question. Do you think that’s just because most people are much more unethical or inconsistent in their ethics than you are?
Well, firstly, let me say, I think that statement is a little too sweeping. I think that in some of the areas that I’ve written about, for instance, about our obligations to help the world’s poorest people, many people would say that what I’m saying is ethical. Some people would say it’s too demanding. But I don’t think anybody would think that it’s the opposite of what we ethically ought to do. You’re probably referring to some of my views about euthanasia, abortion, even infanticide. So on those sorts of issues, there are certainly some people who would think my views are the opposite of what’s ethical. And I think that’s really because people don’t think very clearly on these issues, because they actually just accept a conventional morality without having really tried to work through what moral judgments are and should be based on.
And that traditional morality kind of handed down to them is the opposite of your whole project, which is really exploring what an ethical system would look like if you took the naturalistic view of the universe seriously, if you took Darwin seriously. You have the view that there is no God who gives us our morality. There is no evidence for the supernatural round. There’s just us and other animals. And we all evolved from common origins, common shared ancestors. What would an ethics look like if it took all of this into account? That’s your project. And for you as such an ethics wouldn’t really give the human species a special place in at all. It would, in fact, include many non-human animals in the category of things we should be ethically considering.
Certainly, if we’re not taking a religious perspective, then we can’t just assume that humans alone were made in the image of God because we don’t think there is a God at all. We don’t think humans were made, for that matter. We think that we’ve evolved from other species. We also have no reason to believe that humans alone have an immortal soul or that indeed anyone has an immortal soul. And thirdly, we certainly would not believe that God gave us dominion over the animals. And many Christians have interpreted that to mean that we can do as we please with the animals. So all of those things have to go out of the window. And that means we just have to look at our situation and say, well, here we are. We’re on this planet. We have evolved from other beings. There are other beings on this planet who are like us Sandison beings, that is, they capable of feeling pleasure and pain. And how are we to be living among those being.
How are we to be acting among ourselves with other human beings? And how are we to be acting with other species? Those are the sorts of questions that we need to ask. Mm hmm.
On some of these big ethical issues, not all of them, as you mentioned, not poverty issues, et cetera, but say cloning, stem cell research, abortion, euthanasia, animal rights on these issues. Your. Pushing a view that’s the exact opposite extreme as, say, a Bible believing Christian. In fact, in that community, you’re like public enemy number one. You’re considered the most radical challenge out there to Christian ethics. Does that mean, Peter, that you think that if you believe in the Bible, if you’re a Bible believing Christian, it’s going to be harder for you to be moral or maybe put it another way, that only by basing your ethics in a naturalistic view of the world informs, say, by Darwin’s theory of evolution, can we arrive at the right place when it comes to the issues I just mentioned? In other words, religious ethics and your natural affect don’t really seem to be compatible one iota.
I think that there are some areas where they are compatible. I think really, if you take the teachings of Jesus Christ as presented in the Gospels, as you know your model to learn from, for instance, you would have to follow all these things about how, you know, the rich man should give away everything that he has. It’s hard for a rich man to go to heaven, for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. There’s lots of saying in the Bible about how we should be helping the poor. We should those who are hungry, we should give food and those who are thirsty, we should give to drink and and so on. All of which, in a way, I think are quite noble and right. I think the problem is just that Christians basically don’t do them. They hang on to their wealth and they somehow hope that they’ll get to heaven despite having all that riches. I don’t really quite understand how they combine that. But they do so on those issues.
We have some parallel on poverty issues, but on stem cell research, cloning, euthanasia and a life Chris Mooney, you know, is there a biblical position on cloning and stem cell research?
Even I don’t see it. I mean, I can’t see anything in the Bible that tells you how you ought to think about those questions.
Now, it’s true that many people who call themselves evangelical Christians would say that it’s wrong to destroy embryos in order to obtain stem cells. But there’s nothing I can see in the Bible that justifies that belief. There’s not even really anything about abortion. I mean, if you go back to the Hebrew writings, then you would say that, well, maybe yes, there’s something about people who cause another woman to miscarry after pay a penalty even. Of course, you know, that’s understandable because most women who are pregnant want to have their child and that you are harming the child. There’s nothing that I can see really specifically against abortion in scripture. So I think it’s not so much that I’m against scripture that rather I am against the way in which the Christian tradition has very often gone with that. So, as I can see, much basis in the writings that they regard as sacred.
So it’s not that you’re setting yourself against an ancient text, but against the way that a religion is developed around it. You’re talking about basically different views of Jesus, right? You know, there’s a version of Jesus that the liberation theologians used to advance the cause of the poor in the Third World. But there’s also this pro capitalist Jesus of Protestant America. You know, some Christian leaders actually preach prosperity gospel that says Jesus wants you to succeed in your business or succeed on Wall Street, that Jesus wants you to be rich. Just as there are these kind of many faces of Jesus. Right. Depending on what your own views, depending on what they are. There are also many Darwin’s and you’ve suggested that your naturalistic ethics is taking into account the Darwinian world view. But there’s the Darwin of the eugenics movement, the Darwin that was used to justify notions of pure race and how we should weed out undesirable elements from the gene pool. Then on the other extreme, there’s the Darwin that Marx said undergirded his arguments. So before we get into the specifics of your ethical positions, tell me what makes you so sure that your version of Darwin that’s informing your ethics is the right Darwin?
Well, I’m not particularly wedded to Darwin as such. I’m wedded to an evolutionary understanding of how we got here and of what human nature is like. So it’s not really, for me, a question of arguing about how best to interpret Darwin.
It’s really a matter of looking at the best scientific view of what we are like and what the world is like. And so that’s obviously not Darwin’s anymore because science moves on. But I think it’s the current evolutionary theorists and evolutionary psychologists are working within a broadly Darwinian framework. I don’t actually think by the way, let me make this clear, because you’ve been talking about ethics in Darwin quite a lot. I don’t think that any ethical conclusions follow from Darwin or what Darwin wrote or for that matter, from evolutionary theory as such. I think that people who believe that because of evolution, therefore. There’s some ethical imperative to promote the survival of the fittest, we’re simply mistaken there, committing a fallacy that philosophers call the naturalistic fallacy. In that sense, there’s a difference between facts and values. And Darwinian theory is at the level of facts describing what the universe is like. And it doesn’t tell us what we ought to do. But I do think that in trying to work out what we ought to do, it obviously helps to have a sound understanding of what we’re like, what human nature is capable of. And that’s where I think a Darwinian understanding is helpful to going about. Trying to work out what is an ethic that will actually suit human being. Mm hmm.
I want to get into a few of the big ethical questions you’ve addressed throughout your career. First, let’s talk about end of life issues, euthanasia, physician assisted suicide. In Portland, there’s a law that’s been on the books for about 10 years that permits physicians to help terminally ill and suffering patients to kill themselves. It might just be a coincidence, but I note that the highest rate of unbelief in the U.S. is in the Pacific Northwest and the area where Portland is. Do you think that in a completely secular society, it necessarily follows that we’re going to be much more willing to support suicide and euthanasia? In a sense, this kind of proves the point of the religious right when they say that secularism and Athie ism will necessarily lead to a devaluing of human life. You’re actually kind of arguing that we should value human life a little less than we have traditionally.
It depends what you call valuing human life. I mean, what I call valuing human life is allowing the human beings who are living that life to decide for themselves when it’s a life that’s worth living.
And to decide for themselves when because they are terminally ill, perhaps dying of cancer or some painful disease, it’s no longer worth living. So I would say we allow the individuals to put their own value on life when they’re obviously mentally competent and thinking calmly and taking some time to make that decision. And that’s what the law that you referred to, which which actually applies to the state of Oregon, not just to Portland. That’s what it that’s what it does. And there are a couple of other countries that have similar laws or ones that actually allow active euthanasia as well. Like the Netherlands and Belgium. So I think that in those countries, what people really value is the individual right to decide. If if your life is worth living. And yes, I would say that if you have a secular society, then you are free from this idea that somehow God’s the one who’s going to decide when you live or die. And you know, it’s your duty to maintain your life as law until God takes it from you or something like that. I mean, because I don’t believe any of that. I asked myself the question, well, who is in the best position to decide when your life is no longer worth living? And my answer is if you’re mentally competent. Thinking calmly, you are.
It’s also this argument against the sanctity of human life. It’s not just a matter of that. It’s my right to decide. But also, since there is no sanctity of human life, human life is in no sense sacred, that we can’t argue the state should protect people from ending such a sacred human life.
Well, that’s true. I don’t accept the idea that there is such a thing as the sanctity of human life. But again, I think it’s essentially a religious notion. And I don’t see that the state, therefore, would have a role to play in protecting that. The state can have a role to play in ensuring that these decisions are made by people who are mentally competent or that they’re made in a proper way, that then there’s no abuses or attempts to sort of put pressure on people to end their lives. I think the state can have a role in that sense, but I don’t think it should be trying to force people to stay alive against their will. Jim Underdown.
You mentioned the Netherlands, an act of euthanasia that occurs there. They don’t do. Only a physician assisted suicide, but they’ve engaged in killing severely disabled infants. It’s not just a voluntary decision of a mentally competent, terminally ill and suffering patient to end his or her life. But parents or physicians saying this severely disabled baby has no good life prospects in our judgment. So let’s, you know, do the right thing in quotes and kill it. But this is kind of a slippery slope that a lot of people in America are so afraid of. It’s exactly what the pro-life cultural conservatives say. Physician assisted suicide is going to lead to this act of euthanasia. Possession is by definition kind of anti Jim Underdown life or anti kind of life at all costs. You could argue that it’s pro quality of life or something like that.
It’s certainly anti life at all costs. And I think that’s right. I don’t believe that life is always a value, no matter what its quality might be. It is. It is about quality of life in terms of of non voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands. Euthanasia, severely disabled infants. It’s it does happen. But I think on a very small scale, I think there was a paper published by one of the leading hospitals which talked about 22 cases in seven years, about three cases a year. And always the parents were fully consulted and briefed by the doctors and they were really pretty hopeless case. I think, you know, people ought to realize that it’s not all that different from what goes on in major hospitals in this country where doctors and parents decide to withdraw life support, to pull the plug. Pull the plug. Exactly. And that happens. And nobody really or very few people seem to object to that. I haven’t seen protests outside hospitals that acknowledged that they do that. And, you know, I think that the Dutch are really right to say there’s not a very big distinction between saying this baby’s prognosis is so bad that we should turn off the life support and saying, well, this this baby’s prognosis is so bad that it’s better that it not go on living. And since this baby is not on life support, we can’t. And that baby’s life by pulling the plug. But we can end the baby’s life by giving a lethal injection. You know, I think what’s what’s important is the decision whether the baby should live or die on the basis of the baby’s condition. And of course, the consultation with the parents is not so important where the death comes because you’re able to turn off a respirator or because you give a lethal injection. They’re both sort of technical means of achieving the same.
So quality of life is much more a value to you than quantity of life.
Yes, I think that’s right. I think, as I said, normally with someone who’s competent of under her able to understand the issues. That person would be the one who makes the decision. But where you have severely disabled infants, I think that somebody else has to. And I think the parents and physicians working together and consultation are the ones who make it. At the other end of life, I think people ought to be able to make living wills, not just to say I don’t want to have life support if it should happen that I’m in such and such a state as people do. But I should also say I don’t want to go on living. I mean, I would I would say that I would say that if I suffer from Alzheimer’s and get to the point where I can no longer recognize my children and are not capable of reading or discussing anything with anyone, and I’m just lying there in bed, I don’t want to go on living. I think that’s not how I would like to see myself of ending. So I think I ought to have that right to make that decision as well.
Let me add, by the way, that when people who are religious say that they are pro-life, I’m appalled by this handful of cases in the Netherlands of doctors who and the lives of severely disabled babies. I would say if they’re really pro-life, there’s lots of lives that you can save around the world, which really is where they should be putting their energy. I mean, the United States has a really for a developed industrialized country, a very high rate of infant mortality.
And that’s because of our horrible health care system. You’re seeing.
I think a large part of it is because we don’t fund health care properly.
I mean, even, you know, vastly poorer countries like Cuba actually has lower infant mortality than the United States, which is astounding.
Where are you getting those figures from Cuba or from?
You should go online and look at the CIA handbook. The Central Intelligence Agency has a handbook.
Oh, they’re world fax handbook.
Yeah, that’s right. Well, they can. And that itself acknowledges that when you compare the figures for the US thinking about Cuba, has it not a big difference, but Cuba has a slightly lower infant mortality rate than the United States. Now, if you look at some other countries, like the Scandinavian nations, I think Holland to which we were just talking about killing more babies is a FEIWEL. So it kills a handful of babies a year or severely disabled where doctors and parents decide that’s better. But there’s a much larger number of babies lives that are saved because they have better health care. And countries like Singapore actually also has a vastly better infant mortality rate than the United States. So we don’t do too well on it. But the other thing I would say is if you go if you go to poor countries, you really want to save human lives. I mean, there is an appalling rate of deaths of infants and small children. According to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Foundation, 27000 children die every day from poverty related causes. That’s about 10 million a year.
And those are completely preventable deaths.
That’s right. I mean, that they’re dying from diseases that we could either prevent by helping people to get better sanitation, safe drinking water, bed nets so they kids don’t get malaria, that sort of thing, or their diseases, which we know how to cure. Simple things like diarrhea where we can we can provide the cure or measles. You know, we have effective vaccine against that. So so there are things that we could do. We just had to put a little bit more money into it, the kind of money, say, that the Christian right puts into elections. To put that into some of these organizations that are working to save lives around the world. I’m sure it would be far more effective and it would really be making a difference in saving lives.
That would be a real pro-life agenda.
I think it would, yes. And it would certainly be one that I would support as well.
One issue, Peter, that divides so many people, even some secularists who, you know, agree on so many other issues regarding kind of a naturalized ethics is the issue of abortion or stem cell research really the moral status of embryos and fetuses? Questions like is abortion moral or should we destroy embryos to do stem cell research, stuff like that? The crux of it is, are these frozen embryos that we want to use for scientific research? Are they human life and therefore worth being protected? Is there a sanctity to human life? You broached this topic earlier, but I find it just really interesting that you seem to disagree with many pro choice people on this matter. You say the question isn’t whether or not a blastocyst is a human life. You concede the fact that embryos and fetuses are human life. A blastocyst is human life in the sense that it’s a member of the species homosapien and. Is alive, it is a human life. So here’s the question. If you concede that embryos and fetuses and blastocyst that their human life, then doesn’t it follow that as a human life? It’s an innocent human life? I mean, it doesn’t deserve to be killed. And because it’s always wrong to take an innocent human life. Isn’t abortion or stem cell research that uses embryos? Isn’t it unethical?
You’re you’re right about my views. I’m quite happy to say that the early embryo is a human.
What else can it be if it comes from human parents and it’s alive? I mean, you can tell when it ceases to grow and not going to grow anymore, then it’s dead. But as long as it’s growing, the cells are dividing.
It’s alive. But what I reject is the assumption that if a being is human, then irrespective of the capacities that it actually has, it’s wrong to end its life. I don’t think that being a member of one species rather than another, whether it’s homo sapien or, you know, the chimpanzees pann troglodytic or whatever else might be, is what determines whether it’s wrong to kill. What determines whether it’s trying to kill is the capacities and characteristics that a being has. And the embryo doesn’t even have the capacity to feel pain. It doesn’t even have a nervous system sufficiently developed to feel pain. That happens at some stage, perhaps during pregnancy and the development of the fetus. But the best estimate is that that happens well after the time at which the great majority of abortions are carried out. So in that sense, the capacities of these embryos or early fetuses that are being aborted and certainly of the embryos being used for stem cell research is less than that of non-human animals. It’s less than that of dogs or cats, because obviously they can feel pain. They’re conscious beings. And the embryo, early fetus is not. So I don’t see why the fact that it’s human should make it wrong to kill it.
So the question is less. You’re saying about whether or not it’s human and more about whether or not it’s a person, you know, these certain mental qualities like self-awareness or I don’t know what what other qualities merit being put in this category of having some moral rights that we’d have moral duties toward it.
Well, the first thing would be that being as capable of feeling pain for sentient being until a being a and I think you have no moral duties towards it. You might have moral duties towards its parents or its mother. You know, love and cherish the fetus because of the child that they wanted to become. But but if they don’t, then I don’t think we have duties to it. Now, a second important stage is reached when you have not just the capacity to feel pain, but some sort of self-awareness, some sort of capacity to understand that you’re alive, to have that you have a future, that you have desires, that future patellar being like that is a different sort of thing because you’re cutting off that being’s wishes and desires and hopes for the future and making hopeless the projects that are being had.
So when you get to that sort of point, I think you have something much more serious. But that doesn’t happen until sometime after birth.
So that’s why I think that there is really a difference in killing of a small child as compared with an infant. I don’t think a newborn infant has this kind of capacity at all.
Is there much of a difference for you between a newborn and almost newborn? In other words, still in the womb, but not yet birth? Like, there’s there seems to be no magic category that says, oh, it’s all right for an abortion to happen if if the baby’s not yet been born.
Yeah, I think you’re right. It’s a continuum. And to that extent, people are opposed to abortion. Have a point. That is that they say, well, you know, whereas a magic cutoff line and their argument, of course, is that it’s all a continuum. So you’ve got to go back to conception. There’s no cutoff line after conception.
And when they do that, they’re talking about things like installment. It’s not just that it’s human life, but that it’s sacred human life. God put a soul in in the you know, in the homosapien or so, you know, something like that. Right.
I don’t know how they know when God the soul. And I mean, people have had different views about that through the history of Christianity. Yeah, that may be their view, but the more defensible anti-abortion view, I think would just say, well, because it’s all a continuum, we should just start with conception. But my view is, yes, it’s a continuum. But there are significant points in the development that make killing more serious. And the two most significant points are, firstly, the development of some sort of consciousness and secondly, development of some self awareness. And that does take you past birth. And that’s why it challenges the conventional views, and that’s why basically most of the pro-choice people don’t really want to talk about that, because they know that politically that’s not a good move. But I do think that it’s implicit in the idea that the fetus does not have a right to life, that you have to say something about when the right to life develops Jim Underdown and that it develops because of these mental qualities.
Well, that’s my view, that it develops because of mental qualities. I mean, the problem is to say otherwise, which say what is it about birth that makes such a difference? Given that you can have a premature infant born at six months of gestation and you can have a fetus in the womb at seven or eight months of gestation, so does birth make such a difference? I find that a little difficult to defend the view that just the location inside or outside of the womb makes all the difference. Now, of course, you know, the pro-choice movement would say, well, we’re talking about the woman’s choice to control her own body. And that’s okay as far as it goes. But of course, it doesn’t help you much when you come to embryos and stem cell research because they never in the woman’s body. So if the whole argument in favor of abortion is supposed to be based on the right of the woman to control her body and not on anything about the status of the embryo or fetus, you’ve got a problem in saying why it’s okay to destroy the embryos for stem cell research.
Jim Underdown. The other problem with that pro-choice argument seems to be that too many religious thinkers, they hear the pro-choice argument that it’s just a woman’s right to choose as being it’s a woman’s right to choose to do the wrong thing or to murder a baby. In other words, if you remove discussion about the moral status of the fetus and make it all about almost property rights or privacy rights, the personal rights of the woman to choose, you’re not even touching on whether or not it’s ethical to make that choice. You’re just talking about how you have the right to make that choice, ethical or not.
I mean, then you get into debates about, well, you know, do women have rights to choose even if they’re going to choose something that is unethical on some theories of the role of the state. People would say, well, you do have a right to choose what’s unethical. The state shouldn’t be a nanny and should tell you what’s right or wrong. But I guess the anti-abortion people are really going to say that you have to protect the rights of the fetus against the rights of the woman. And so then we get back to the question of whether the fetus has a right to life. And that’s why I don’t think we can really avoid looking at that question. I just think that when you look at it, it doesn’t come out the way that the anti-abortion people wanted to go.
We’re getting tight on time, but I’d still love to talk to you about animal rights and vegetarianism, your views on that, which caused a stir at our conference last year when you kind of challenged Richard Dawkins on the issue. Would you mind joining me next week just to continue our discussion? Because there’s a lot more ground to cover.
Sure do. I mean, happy to do that.
OK, thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Peter Singer, thanks. And good to be with you. Jim Underdown.
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