Should Anyone Respond To Such An Argument?

I quoted Peter Singer’s comments on the justifiability of infanticide:

The moral status of newborn infants is a real issue, and it is proper for academic journals to publish articles that, like this one, discuss it in a serious and well-reasoned manner. People who wish to defend the traditional view of the sanctity of all human life should respond to the authors’ arguments, not by mere abuse….

I don’t really think Singer is right about how pro-life* people are obliged to rebut him; here in the U.S., it ought to be enough to point out that we live in a nation founded on the principle that all men are created equal – so as long as the U.S. Constitution is law of the land, then the baby is equal to the mother (and as long as nobody is able to pinpoint exactly when and how a “blob of tissue” becomes a living human being, anti-abortion* activists will continue to challenge the legitimacy of the idea of abortion).

He makes an outrageous, unsupported claim and then arguing that it should be treated as true (or at least equal to conventional wisdom) until someone proves it otherwise. Obviously if he had to support his claim, there would be no reason for anyone to bother, because there is no argument to be made in favor of it that is strong enough to get people to take it seriously in an honest debate; what Singer really wants is a debate on whether it should become permissible to put asterisks on people – so that when we say “all men are equal”, it comes out “all men* are created equal” (where the word “men” has some fine print somewhere giving someone – presumably Singer – the right to decide who is and is not a human).

It’s a game he’s playing, and the reason it interests me is because of how he’s rigged the playing board. Entering the argument means ceding to him certain presuppositions that he could never win honestly.

Those who feel we must respond to this argument should focus not on when it’s okay to asterisk someone – that’s the trap. Start instead by identifying and challenging all the presuppositions he has packed into the debate,

One that Singer will have a particularly difficult time rebutting logically (without begging the question) is, why should we privilege Singer’s opinions on what qualities are important for humans to have? If we were to accept that it might be better to disenfranchise some people from the human race, why should Singer’s values be the ones we rule according to?

What possible benefit is there for anyone other than Peter Singer if we replace ideals of equality with Peter Singer as the one who gets to decide who lives and who dies?

At least the old kings had the myth of Divine Right to lend them legitimacy – what does Peter Singer have, other than having gone to expensive schools (or whatever his claim is regarding why he’s so qualified at “doing ethics” that he is entitled to throw out the Golden Rule in the name of making the universe more “ethical” – by placing his own sorry self at the very center of the moral universe we all inhabit)?

I vote that if we’re going to asterisk anyone – that is, exclude them from the human race – based on the idea that they lack some quality that is essential to being fully human, we start with empathy – and the first victims should be anyone who wants to asterisk anyone.

I think we should argue that, whatever Singer advocates on behalf of those he asterisks, he should consider the possibility that maybe we have a right to do unto him (and for readers of those journals that apparently spend so much time deciding when and whether it’s justifiable for them to off the plebs). Since, after all, he never did present any good argument about why we should stop viewing reciprocity as being essential to ethical behavior.

*When I say pro-life, I do not mean merely anti-abortion, but rather the position of defending the principle of the sanctity of life. While it is arguably true that all pro-life positions are necessarily opposed to abortion, it is not true that all pro-abortion positions are necessarily pro-life.


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  1. Pingback: “Conflict in ethics of baby-making” | Intellectual Imperialism

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