Peter Singer came to town to talk about altruism for a humanities festival. Local disability activists (sadly not including me), picketed the event, and the Daily Northwestern covered it. In their interview with Singer, he revealed something new to me.
Singer’s extreme utilitarian views has led him to argue many things with which I disagree (i.e. -to be an altruist go work for Wall Street so you can get rich and do more good than if you work for a humanitarian organization; which ignores a culture of Wall Street that undoes whatever good rich individuals who happen to be altruistic do). In my community, though, we fix on his remarks about disability. They are, namely:
- The correct ethical choice is to terminate pregnancies following a diagnosis of disability, because that maximizes “happiness.”
- This has led him to claims about denying healthcare for disabled infants, to maximize resources for society.
- And related claims about euthanasia for disabled adults, especially the elderly, being the correct ethical position.
I lost a friend recently over Singer. I criticized him too broadly, she charged into my mentions to slice and dice my critique, I asked her to stop politely, and it went south. I’d rather not lose any more friends. So let me say ahead of time that I know that both Singer and his defenders would say they aren’t actively advocating a Nazi-like murder of the disabled, but just thinking through the problem in a philosophical fashion and that philosophy and ethics should have no conceptual limits.
On the other hand, were he endorsing the elimination of other marginalized segments of the population based on his thought experiments, I am fairly sure he would not be lauded and celebrated around the world as the “most influential” philosopher alive.
One of the criticisms of Singer is that he doesn’t know anything about what life with disability is like. He makes assumptions about happiness that don’t track with reality, and when confronted with the reality of individuals with disabilities who are happy, he makes them exceptions that prove his theories correct, rather than reconsidering his theories.
That may be changing. From the Daily Northwestern [my emphasis]:
Singer later told The Daily that though protesters don’t confront him often, it has happened before.
“Parents ought to have choices if they give birth to a child with a very severe disability about whether that child lives or not,” he said to Hamilton.
The exchange was similar to one he had in 2001 with former disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson at the College of Charleston, chronicled in a 2003 article in The New York Times magazine. When asked about Johnson, Singer said she helped expand his horizons.
“I accepted that maybe the lives of people with disabilities can be better than I had thought,” he told The Daily. “And certainly I think that Harriet was leading a rich and full life. But it is going to vary a lot with circumstances.”
Singer, who said he stands by his former work, is ready to move on.
“I want to find new and interesting things to say,” he told The Daily. “I wrote about the disability movement in the ’80s. It is a very specific problem that affects a very small number of people. The effective altruism movement has a lot more potential to do good.”
If you’re interested in Singer, do go read that New York Times piece. It’s amazing.
This little quote reveals a few things. First, that he’s actually shifted his thoughts on disability a little. That’s news to me.
Second, though, he thinks his ideas from the 80s were so long ago that really people should just leave him alone and let him do his new stuff, and that the disabled are such a small segment of the population that it’s really not a big deal he suggested the correct ethical position is termination.
But just last year, on the radio (as detailed by Lawrence Carter-Long at the National Council on Disability), he once again suggested that healthcare laws would be best (because of utilitarianism) if we admitted the “necessity of ‘intentionally ending the lives of severely disabled infants.'”
So he has he moved on? I don’t think so. He just doesn’t think it’s a big deal and would like protestors to leave him alone.