Hentoff's Aim at Singer Misses Mark

Irving News Comments
Sept. 12, 1999
Reproduced with Permission
CINLit Archives

Nat Hentoff wrote a very important piece on Peter Singer and his new appointment as tenured bioethics professor and Director of the Center for Human Values at Princeton University in the Washington Post (Sept.11, 1999) which deserves recognition and comment.

Although it is a relief to see someone with Hentoff's immense stature and sincere dedication finally address the Singer issue so articulately and publicly, the Singer issue is essentially an academic one and needs to be accurately presented as such so that people who are not academics can really "get it" and do something about it. Fast.

Academia has failed to stop its own rampant intellectual abuse. It is now up to the American people to act. That is why I would suggest that Hentoff's piece is not quite accurate enough, and doesn't go quite far enough.

FIRST, Hentoff states that "What led to our discussion in class -- and to various protests outside the university against his appointment, which starts this month -- is that he is also an advocate of infanticide. Not of any infant, but of severely disabled infants." (emphasis added).

This distinction Hentoff makes is quite inaccurate. But to see this one needs to realize that the issue is not infanticide -- or even abortion or euthanasia. The issue is a strictly academic philosophical one: the philosophical definition of "personhood".

Peter Singer is playing "philosopher", not social helper or do-gooder. Philosophy is his claim to fame -- what he, apparently, is academically credentialed in, and why he is now a professor of philosophy at Princeton.

So the philosophical issue of personhood is the correct perspective from which people need to fully grasp the significance of what Singer teaches, as well as to understand the significance of the conclusions that necessarily flow from Singer's philosophical definition of "person". It is not just disabled, or even severely disabled, human infants that Singer would render as non-persons, as Hentoff has stated it. It is all human infants.

Singer defines a "person" as an animal (human or otherwise) who is actively exercising "rational attributes" (self-consciousness, knowing, choosing, loving, willing, autonomy, relating to the world around one, etc.) and/or who is actively exercising "sentience" (feeling pain or pleasure). Therefore, it is because all human infants do not actively exercise rational attributes or sentience that they are all not persons, according to Singer.

"Non-personhood" does not apply to disabled newborns just because they are disabled. If one is not a person -- disabled or otherwise, infant or adult -- then one is merely an object, possessing no ethical or legal rights or protections.

Quoting directly from today's PBS interview with Singer:

"Well as I used the term 'person' -- a 'person' is a being who is capable of anticipating a future, having wants and desires for the future, which are cut off, thwarted, if that person is killed. And I think that is generally a greater wrong than it is to kill a being who has no sense of existing over time. And that might be, for example, a chicken has no sense of existing over time. And that, I think, is one reason why it's normally worse to kill a human being than to kill a chicken. But also, of course, newborn babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So, it's not equivalent. Killing a newborn baby -- whether able-bodied or not -- I think, is never equivalent to killing a being who wants to go on living." (emphasis added). See http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/singer.html.

Hence it is not just that an infant is disabled that he/she is not a person. No infants are persons, according to Singer. According to his own logic and published statements (e.g., above), even perfectly normal healthy human newborn infants are not persons and therefore may be killed -- if the parents so "choose".

Other philosopher/bioethicists here and abroad agree with this definition of "person". E.g., American philosopher/bioethicist Prof. R. Frey (following Singer's philosophical principles) has recently published in an astute international bioethics textbook (used in college bioethics courses, often required) that therefore adult human beings who are mentally retarded, the frail elderly, Parkinson's and Alzheimer's patients, etc., are not persons and therefore these human adults should be substituted for animal persons (e.g., the higher primates - pigs, dogs, apes, chimpanzees, chickens, even "prawns") in destructive experimental medical research. Hello?

To frame the issue as just one of "disability" as Hentoff has done, or as just "pro-life", is precisely what Singer et al want. That way anyone who disagrees with them can be automatically dismissed as "far right radical idiots." Then the opposition just fades away. No one pays them any mind at all -- those "nuts". But can we continue to allow them to get away with this? This effectively shuts down any discussion at all. This is what happened in the abortion issue. Render all opposition as "nuts" or "stupid".

Hentoff may not realize it, but that is precisely what he has contributed to by misrepresenting Singer's position as just a concern of the disability and pro-life groups.

So the issue is not infanticide; the issue is personhood.

This is important for people to realize, since it should not be just the "radical far-right disability and pro-life groups" who should be alarmed about Singer. It is all of us who should be alarmed -- sooner or later we will all fit under the Singer definition of "non-person. Yet where are the protests and voiced concerns from the rest of us? Do we just not "get it"? Have we too been convinced that only radical "nuts" care about Peter Singer and his "theories"?

It is also the issue of personhood on which Singer bases his conclusions about euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide to which Hentoff referred. Adult human beings who are not exercising rational attributes or sentience are also not persons, according to Singer. So we should "dispose" of them -- even better if they give us quasi-permission to dispose of them (especially in our autonomy-ridden society). That is why Singer states that if a human being is not competent (i.e., not a "person"), then the government has the right to euthanize him or her. Those are his words.

Who among us is "not competent"? Better, who among us is?

So personhood is the issue here too; it is what determines "competency". If one is not "competent", that means that one is not a "person" according to Singer. Once again, the issue is not euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide; the issue is "personhood".

SECOND, Singer is a utilitarian, as Hentoff has noted. However, academically Singer fits into a "new breed" of utilitarianism sometimes referred to as "preference utilitarianism" (more common in bioethics than the classic utilitarianism of Bentham or Mill), where "interests" and "preferences" are the basis of right and wrong -- especially those of society as a whole.

And although it is true that Bentham is the modern progenitor of classic utilitarianism, it is really the contemporary British philosophical mentors of Singer at Oxford who academically have most influenced Singer's "preference utilitarian bioethics" -- all very out-spoken and enthusiastic eugenicists.

For example, Singer is the pupil of philosophers such as R.M. Hare, who argues that the government should decide how many perfect children parents may be allowed to have in order to breed the most possible perfect society.

And then there is the ultra mentor, Jonathan Glover, who also argues the same line of eugenics and preference utilitarian governmental public policy -- and who was actually offered the Princeton chair first but turned it down. Only then was it offered to Singer.

So not only is the "brand" of utilitarianism different from what one would normally expect (and to which Hentoff refers), these British philosophers all ultimately argue for absolute governmental control over "the best society", and want to design the most perfect governmental public policy on breeding to attain that. (Anyone read Plato's Republic, Books IV and V, and end of Book VII lately?).

Abortion, infanticide, human embryo research, contraception, the use of abortifacients, prenatal diagnosis, euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, germ-line gene "therapy", curing terrible diseases, etc. -- these are all simply only the means by which to breed the perfect society.

[To see how this all really fits together with bioethics, all one has to do is look at the extensive work of someone like scientist/bioethicist/UN advisor Darryl Macer (Japan) on his web site. It is all there, perfectly articulated for the whole world to see -- assuming they will look.]

Which is also why these utilitarian philosophers (and their bioethics peers) ultimately do not really acknowledge any such thing as "rights" at all. Hello? Utilitarianism does not believe in rights. Check it out. Singer has stated this in black and white. Oh, here and there they talk romantically about "autonomy". But that is just a big fat delicious "carrot" they dangle so that the American public (especially feminists, the press, and students) will swallow their bitter pill.

The bitter pill to be swallowed is this: that if "autonomous" people don't "choose" according to this weird utilitarian ethic, then the government can force them to make the right "choice" -- for the "greater good of the greatest number", of course.

All three of the gentlemen I have noted above have published this for years in their various and sundry books (many available on Amazon.com). But you do have to read several of their books -- especially Singer's -- to get the whole story. Singer, e.g., tends to say one thing in one book, and another thing in another book so that he can deny both when necessary, especially when being interviewed by the press or caught in debate with his academic peers.

Very practical, indeed, and very clever. After all, who on earth is going to take the trouble to track down these congenital contradictions from one book to the other? No one.

However, if one were to study Singer carefully, one would then see that in one book, especially if a couple have a disabled infant, Singer argues that it is up to the "autonomous choice" of the parents whether or not the child should be killed. This is his version of the autonomy "carrot" -- especially for his American audience. But Singer is admittedly a utilitarian, so according to his own philosophical principles and tenets he cannot so defer to either the child OR to the parents’ autonomy.

Thus in another book he argues that if the parents do not so choose, then the government has the moral right and duty to force the parents to choose to kill the infant -- for "the greatest good of the greatest number of people" in society -- so that overall there will be more pleasure than pain (i.e. an "ethical" society).

And that is why the defective infant must be killed -- not because the child will not feel any more pain (as Hentoff has put it, and as sometimes Singer puts it himself), but because the "greatest amount of happiness" will be provided for the "greatest number of people" in their "perfect" society.

Furthermore, in utilitarianism the "interests" of individuals must defer to the "interests" of the group, community or society (and ultimately, to the UN where Singer also works). According to Singer's own utilitarian principles, then, this applies to the present scenario as well. The "interests" of the child and the "interests" of the parents must ultimately yield to the "interests" of society.

It is very important for Americans, who are so used to their Constitutional rights, and who care so deeply about individual human dignity, to understand that Singer et al are coming from an entirely different planet, with entirely different definitions of the major terms used in these debates.

Utilitarianism only works for the majority; the minorities are left out of the utilitarian equation. No innate human rights, no innate human dignity, no government of the people by the people and for the people. Government should be run by "those in the know", the intellectual elite (i.e., bioethicists, and ultimately eugenicists like Singer, Hare and Glover) -- not by the "public yuk factor", as they themselves have put it.

ALL minorities "should sleep with their lights on" (to borrow Hentoff’s wonderful phrase!)!

That's what Singer is about, and that is what contemporary preference utilitarian bioethics is about.

Furthermore, utilitarianism is not a "neutral ethics" -- the so-called "perfect" ethics to be used in a "pluralistic" society. This too is but a "carrot". Utilitarianism defines itself in the ethics textbooks as a normative ethical theory, i.e., it takes a stand on what is right or wrong. Therefore by its own definition it is not "neutral". There is no such thing as a "neutral ethics". So if utilitarianism is not "neutral", then why should it be forced on the rest of us in our pluralistic society any more than communism or natural law?

Utilitarianism is also an ethical theory that was quite literally laughed out of the academies of Europe over a century ago because it could not defend itself academically. It was totally lost in the annals of philosophy after that -- only to be pointed to in the history of philosophy texts as a perfect example of how not to do ethics. Unfortunately, bioethics came along about 30 years ago and instantaneously revived it.

The American people need to know these things so that they cannot be fooled by subtle "folksy" logic, screwy re-definitions, and downright fake philosophy and science. We are not going to lose our democracy through military intervention from China or Russia or some perverse foreign terrorist. We are going to lose it by the dumbing down and the propagandizing of our own people right under our own collective nose.

We have already almost lost it entirely through the preference utilitarian-based bioethics that has already taken over our universities and our public policy machinery for 30 years now -- and no one even knows it. And if people don't believe that, they should make sure that they attend the next "mega-bioethics" meetings (anywhere in the world) where "bioethics in public policy making" is the declared theme (has been for decades). Or simply plug in "bioethics" on a big "mega-search engine" and just see how far this has gone. Try it.

Yet Art Caplan wants us to believe that the American people don't really care what a bunch of dizzy professors in "ivory towers" are talking about? That's clever too. No one knows better than Art Caplan how entrenched bioethics is in the very machinery of our policy making centers -- private and governmental!

THIRD, although Hentoff makes the sound Constitutional point that Blackmun agreed in Roe that "once born, there is indeed a person under the Constitution whose 'right to life' would then be guaranteed," Hentoff still misses the mark on two points.

As I just explained, Singer et al do not believe in our Constitution, any U.S. law, or any human rights. So Hentoff's astute observations will fall on deaf ears and be seen as totally irrelevant by them. That is their raison d'etre -- to change the laws and our Constitution. That is precisely what bioethics lawyers and professors have been doing and accomplishing for decades now. That is what all these cases going up before the Supreme Court are all about. That is what the new fields of law like "health care law" (taught in most law schools now) and "animal law" (soon to be taught at Georgetown and Harvard) are all about. That is what Princeton is all about.

Additionally, Hentoff fails to point out that Blackmun also said that if it could be demonstrated scientifically that the fetus is a human being (rather than just a "potential" human being or a "possible" human being -- or a "person"), then the Amendment would also clearly apply to the fetus.

Now, the "science" that Blackmun implicitly relied on was essentially that of the "pre-embryo" -- the false human embryology promoted by McCormick and Grobstein (as I have explained ad nauseam) and by most bioethicists in the bioethics literature for decades. That is, the unborn is just a "potential" human being. But this is ridiculously and objectively false. Science has known for over a hundred years that the immediate product of fertilization is a new unique living human being.

Further, the definition of "person" used by Blackmun was also drawn (plus or minus) from the likes of bioethicists like McCormick, Grobstein and Singer et al (i.e., the fetus is just a "potential" or "possible" person). In fact, this is precisely the argument that bioethics lawyer John Robertson uses in his briefs and in his law journal articles, quoting page by page the false "human embryology" of Clifford Grobstein.

So, if the "human embryology" the Court used was wrong, and if therefore the definition of "person" the Court used was wrong, then Blackmun's conclusion in Roe was wrong -- objectively speaking -- and he and the Supreme Court would now have to acknowledge and agree that the fetus is also protected as a person by the Amendment as well.

However, when the Court read my amicus brief, and others like it, the "word" was sent down that even though the Court had to admit that the human embryology definitely proves that the fetus is a human being --"the American people are just not ready to hear this yet!"

What? The American people are not ready to "hear" Biology 101 that has been known for over a hundred years?

Nor do I hear the roaring thunder of throngs of pro-lifers charging to the Courts to overturn Roe, either.

Which is all to explain why I suggest that Hentoff was aiming at the right target, but he unfortunately missed his mark. Half of the truth is just not good enough when the stakes are this high.