Bioethics Matter!

Peter begins a two-week tour of Australia tomorrow, running teacher-training events focusing on how to approach teaching about issues in Bioethics in RE and RAVE classrooms.  Alongside providing a packed DVD of resources, which includes one volume of Charlotte Vardy’s new Ethics teaching resource which will be released for the new academic year, Peter will cover touch on thorny topics such as the Sanctity of Life (and Peter Singer’s challenge to the principle), cost-benefit analysis and human rights.

Peter just had an article published in Eureka Street, explaining more about why teaching about Bioethics matters…

Theologians should face Peter Singer’s challenge

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Peter Vardy |  31 July 2014

Peter SingerThe philosopher Whitehead said that all philosophy is a footnote to Aristotle and Plato and he had a good point. There are not many new ideas in ethics — most theories are in some ways a revising of old ideas and the debates today would have been recognised by the ancient Greeks. Not much is new.

However, there has been an emerging challenge to traditional ethics which is not fully recognised or articulated and which strikes at the heart of all traditional religious ethics.

In some ways this challenge stemmed from Ludwig Feuerbach who argued that human beings are simply animals — ‘we are what we eat’, we are simply material beings who copulate, give birth, grow and die. Life has no transcendent purpose and, essentially, no meaning except that which we create.

Darwin’s discovery of the means by which evolution takes place (the survival of the fittest) as well as the work of Freud, Marx, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and 20th century atheists such as Bertrand Russell, A. J. Ayer and others built on this insight. However it is the Australian philosopher, Peter Singer, who has done more than any other to codify and express this insight in ethical terms.

Singer is what is called a preference utilitarian — he holds that the more sentient beings can exercise choices and not suffer the better. He is passionately committed to the view that traditional religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam are speciest in holding that human beings are in an ontologically different category to animals and therefore argues strongly for the rights of animals. A dolphin or a monkey is able to suffer to a greater degree and also to experience happiness than someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease and, therefore, it is wrong to deny them rights. He is a vegetarian and a passionate complainer for animal rights.

Traditionally Christians have wanted to hold that humans were in a different category than animals — indeed it was a heresy called Traducianism in the early Church to hold that a man and woman could have sex and make a human baby — as this would have meant we were no different from animals. God was needed to implant a soul as the soul was immortal and could not be generated by human agency.

The early Church fathers such as Augustine held that souls were implanted 40 days after the conception of a boy and 90 days after conception of a girl and, indeed, Augustine argued that if someone hit a woman and caused a miscarriage prior to these dates they were not guilty of murder as, since no soul had been implanted, a person was not really present. Islam follows this idea of implantation of souls and still holds that Allah implants a soul 100 or 120 days after conception and, after this date, the status of the foetus changes.

This gives rise to the idea of the sanctity of human life — human beings, it is held, are not simply animals — they are made in the image of God and are immortal. Singer utterly rejects such ideas as medieval and today many Christians no longer hold to the implantation of a soul. However this makes it difficult to respond to Peter Singer’s challenge and the consequences of this are profound.

If the sanctity of life is rejected, then many of Peter Singer’s ideas become persuasive. For instance if a baby is born badly disabled and the parents do not want it then why not, Singer argues, simply kill it and have another one? We would do this with a dog or a cat and since humans are simply animals surely the happiness and well-being of everyone would be improved if the disabled baby was killed and the couple had a new, healthy child.

For a badly disabled child, Singer says that life has begun very badly whereas if one kills it (humanely of course) then the next baby might well be healthy and would therefore have a better quality of life. ‘When the death of the disabled infant’, writes Singer, ‘will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.’ Life that is free of suffering is to be cherished. Speaking of a baby, Singer argues in Practical Ethics, for the need to ‘put aside feelings based on its small, helpless and — sometimes — cute appearance’.

Euthanasia would also make great sense — again we put a dog or a cat that is suffering out of its misery, so why not do the same for Granny? Religious people may react with horror to such suggestions but this is based on emotion and Singer urges us to forget emotion and be guided by reason. If humans are essentially animals, if there is no god and no meaning except that which we construct in this life, then his position becomes persuasive.

‘After ruling our thoughts and our decisions about life and death for nearly two thousand years, the traditional Western ethic has collapsed.’ On this note, Professor Peter Singer began his book — Rethinking Life and Death. He argues for a ‘quality-of-life’ ethic to replace what he considers to be the outgoing morality that is based on the ‘sanctity-of-life’. Writing in the British journal ‘The Spectator’ in 1995 in an article entitled ‘Killing Babies isn’t Always Wrong,’ Singer said of the Pope, ‘I sometimes think that he and I at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at stake.’ The sanctity-of-life ethic is the key issue at stake.

‘That day had to come’, states Singer, ‘when Copernicus proved that the earth is not at the centre of the universe. It is ridiculous to pretend that the old ethics make sense when plainly they do not. The notion that human life is sacred just because it’s human is medieval.’

Singer rejects ideas like ‘sanctity-of-life’, ‘dignity’, ‘created in the image of God’. ‘Fine phrases’, he says, ‘are the last resource of those who have run out of argument.’ He sees no moral or philosophical significance to traditional teens such as ‘being’, ‘nature’ and ‘essence’. What is fundamental, for Singer, is the capacity of humans and non-human animals to suffer. Human life is not sacrosanct, but certain kinds of human life can be ‘meaningful’.

Surprisingly the response from religious thinkers to Singer have been muted — at least in terms of clear philosophic argument. This may partly be because the alternatives available in terms of response are limited. They include the following:

If one can hold onto implantation of souls as Islam does then this would refute Singer’s claim that there is not essential difference between human beings and animals. However most modern philosophers reject this dualist approach and even the Catholic Church no longer firmly endorses this idea.

In the 1975 Declaration on Abortion, the Roman Catholic ‘Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’ said that ‘if the infusion of the soul [at conception] is judged only as probable to take its life is the same as incurring the danger of killing … it is certain that even if one were to doubt whether the result of conception is already a human person, it is objectively a serious sin to incur the risk of committing homicide.’

Aristotle holds that human beings are rational animals and this is close to Singer’s position as well as that taken by most modern philosophers.

It might be claimed that human beings are distinct from animals as they have greater rationality, consciousness, intelligence or the ability to feel pain than animals. This fails as an argument as there are many humans that have lesser capacities in these areas than animals. Kant, in his early years, argued that what made humans distinct from animals was their rationality and held that a non-rational person was not really human at all (the Nazis drew on this idea from Kant to justify some of their obscene policies). However later in Kant’s life he recognised that this view was mistaken.

It might be claimed that human beings have greater potentialities than animals and are therefore to be valued differently from animals because of this. Singer maintains that the value of a human life is to be judged by its present capacities not by its potential — an embryo has the potential to become an adult but does not have the capacities of being a human so should not be regarded as such. Even if one maintained that potentialities should be taken into account, this would only affect some — for instance a patient with advanced Alzheimer’s has limited potentiality.

Once the Sanctity of Life Principle is abandoned then there is no longer any fixed point at which human beings should be respected. Peter Singer is willing to kill an unwanted, disabled infant at 28 days after birth, but why not three months or even a year after birth? This could lead to terrible consequences with people who are intellectually or physically sub-normal being terminated against their will.

In other words it could be argued that rejecting the Sanctity of Life principle means embarking on a slippery slope with unacceptable consequences. Singer would not be convinced by this — it would be up to legislators with the agreement of the public to impose restrictions so that unacceptable consequences did not follow.

Oxford University has established a centre for the study of Transhumanism. The aim is to develop human capacities considerably beyond where they are at present. Human beings are not seen as the end point of evolution. Separately robotics as a science is developing rapidly and the possibility of self-conscious robots (think of the film I Robot or the recent film Her) is now at least conceivable. If the human species is not distinct from other forms of life, then the application of these technologies to produce a super race is now within the bounds of what is conceptually possible. This would not trouble Singer.

Singer is a philosopher and, as such, presents cogent and rational arguments. However this does raise the question whether reason should be the final arbiter in all such matters. Instinct and emotion have a role to play in what it means to be human. The instinctive abhorrence that some people feel against killing full term babies should not be rejected on the grounds that they may not be rational. It could be argued that a denial of the Christian idea of love and a rejection of a commitment to the intrinsic worth of each individual no matter what their capacities may be rational but it is not human.

G. K. Chesterton wrote the following: ‘If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgement. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.’

A robot may be highly rational but is unlikely to share the emotions or instincts of human beings. This is potentially an important insight but the question remains whether the emotional reaction is an appropriate one and whether such a reaction is based on being ‘speciest’ as Singer holds because we have an emotional reaction to the protection of our own species.

If one believes in God, then it may be claimed that it is God who has created human beings directly. Human beings are immortal and their lives do not end in death and have far greater significance than any animal. If there is life after death, then it places the whole of this life in a completely different framework — this life is, at least in part, about preparing for the next and quality of life here is of less significance than preparing for death.

Plato argued that the task of the philosopher was to care for the soul as whilst the body perished the soul survived and would have to account for how life had been lived. This is a potentially interesting counter to Singer as it places human life in a completely different context and could justify the emotional reaction that many feel to Singer’s position. It depends, of course, on an assumption (life after death) but this assumption is central to Christianity as St Paul recognised when he said that if Christ Jesus was not raised then human beings would be the most to be pitied.

The religious claim, therefore, can challenge Singer and show that his position is flawed. However this is a faith claim and one which in Australia, New Zealand and Europe is widely rejected so it is unlikely to command majority support and in a democracy this is crucial.

At the least, religious philosophers and theologians should further engage with the challenge to traditional ethics that Singer’s position provides and should seek to engage with it. It is also wrong to demonise him as in the area of animal rights, care for the poor and the moral obligation of those who are wealthy to actively assist with problems in the Third World. He offers much to challenge religious believers. He gives away 20 per cent of his income and argues that this should be a minimum — how many religious believers do that?

It is important for young people (and therefore teachers) to be aware of the challenge to the Sanctity of Life that Singer provides as it is they who will have to influence future politicians in their decision making process. Singer puts forward a powerful case and it is one which, in the current climate where people seek happiness and quality of life above everything else, will find increasing support particularly with the difficulty of funding medical care for those who are old or disabled.

Increased support is not, of course, the same as saying his position is right — but that is why it is so important to engage with the issues and be clear about the basis for arguments which seek to show he is mistaken.


Peter VardyDr Peter Vardy was formally vice-principal of the Jesuit run Heythrop College, University of London for twelve years. He is running a series of teacher training workshops on bioethics across all capital cities in Australia in August. Details can be obtained from Wendy Rowe, Wombat Education.


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