Peter Singer: The Milo of Philosophers

Thanks to Louise for alerting me to the Journal of Practical Ethics doing a glossy Q&A with Peter Singer. Singer is a bigot. Philosophy embraces him as a titan of the field, letting his ableism slide merrily by under the glamor of robust debate. Yes, yes, #NotAllPhilosophers

At any rate, this is a long “20-questions” feature with Singer, and I, too, have some questions.

Singer says, among other things, this incredibly damaging response (there’s more in the whole article, but I want to zoom in here):

I was assuming that there are other couples who are unable to have their own child, and who would be happy to adopt a child with Down syndrome. If that is the situation, I don’t see why it is selfish to enable a couple to have a child they want to have, and for my wife and myself to conceive another child, who would be very unlikely to have Down syndrome, and so would give us the child we want to have. For me, the knowledge that my child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal, in every sense of the word, who would never be able to have children of his or her own, who I could not expect to grow up to be a fully independent adult, and with whom I could expect to have conversations about only a limited range of topics would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop. 

“Disability” is a very broad term, and I would not say that, in general, “a life with disability” is of less value than one without disability. Much will depend on the nature of the disability. But let’s turn the question around, and ask why someone would deny that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being is of less value than the life of a normal human being. Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being? This sounds like speciesism to me, and as I said earlier, I have yet to see a plausible defence of speciesism. After looking for more than forty years, I doubt that there is one.

Unpack: 1) He wouldn’t love a child less intelligent than he is. 2) He wouldn’t be able to have good conversations (Berube took this apart a decade ago). 3) Disabled people are like dogs and pigs (using ableism to attack specieism).

I may do some longer writing around this essay and its problems, but my real concern isn’t with Singer, but with Philosophy. I think of Singer like Milo, saying inflammatory things for attention, protesting “free speech” when called out on his hate or when people advocate to no-platform him.

Imagine if Singer – which he surely would have in another era – was using his academic status to push for race science. Can’t you imagine him using this argument, based on assumptions of black inferiority, to work for animal rights using racism? I mean, the suffragists famously demanded white women get the vote because black men did. Would race science exile Singer from the halls of respectability?

My son’s full humanity is not a position that is worthy debate, any more than my full humanity as a Jew is. Some positions do not deserve platforms.

Perhaps this is not a person who merits your keynotes, features in the press, adulation in the profession. No matter how edgy he is.

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