The Evil Gardener Or The Bioethics Guru?

November 3, 2008 09:00 AM

Bioedge is giving all of us something to think about that, frankly, has nothing to do with elections, politics or voting. Aside from being alarming for those of us who respect the ethical framework within which all scientific research should be pursued, the report you are about to read is acutely painful to contemplate but not very hard to believe.

In a short comment, Bioedge relates the following:


Want a peek into the future of American bioethics? It could be Peter Singer. The American Society of Bioethics and Humanities has selected the controversial philosopher as a keynote speaker for a national undergraduate bioethics conference in March 2009. The conference will be held at Harvard University and will be sponsored by the Harvard Undergraduate Bioethics Society and a number of other Harvard groups. It is a two-day event, which will draw about 200 students from around the country. That Singer is to be welcomed at Harvard, home of some of the most talented students in the US, when appearances in Europe provoke protests over his views on infanticide, abortion and euthanasia could mean that American bioethics will tilt even further towards utilitarianism. Time will tell.


For those unfamiliar with Singer, let me give you a walk through his ethics garden. It won't be particularly pleasant, but it will be instructive.

The first encounter with Singer's version of ethics I bring to you through the ever-brilliant writing of Professor Dianne Irving, who tells us in "Reading the Singer on 'Bestiality,'"


Peter Singer's 'global ethics' (read, BIOethics) is notoriously controversial, and for good reason. Among other outrageous 'ethical conclusions' he has taught for decades now is that the infanticide of newborn human infants is 'ethically acceptable' because they are not 'persons,' whereas the killing of certain animals who are 'persons' is not:

Now it must be admitted that these arguments apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain (sentience), and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee. [Peter Singer, "Taking life: abortion", in Practical Ethics (London: Cambridge University Press, 1981), p. 118.] (emphasis added)


The man seems to know little of the special nature of the human person, and in some of his writings, it becomes clear that he views anyone who is in anyway dependent or less than perfect as a real drag! But let's look further before making a hasty decision about Singer's viewpoint on the human being.

Wesley J. Smith examined Singer's perspectives on end-of-life care in March of this year, when Samuel Golubchuk's "worthiness" to live was being debated in Canada. Though in the end, Mr. Golubchuk died a natural death, Smith points out that in the heat of that debate during the months prior to his death, things were not going so well, at least not in Singer's opinion. Singer, who wrote "No diseases for old men,"  was convinced that Golubchuk's children were in error when they pressed the Canadian government to maintain their father's life support. Singer called their request an appeal to the government to support their religious beliefs, which, of course, he found outrageous.  Smith writes, 


We shouldn't be surprised that Singer would promote death for those he deems less morally valuable than "persons." In other venues, Singer has promoted non-voluntary euthanasia for people with dementia, so there is no reason to think he wouldn't also support forced imposition of Futile Care Theory.

Funny thing though: When his own mother had Alzheimer's he took good and proper care of her—even though she had stated she did not wish to be maintained.


In fact, a writer for the New Yorker related the following account:

So I asked him how a man who has written that we ought to do what is morally right without regard to proximity or family relationships could possibly spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on private care for his mother. He replied that it was 'probably not the best use you could make of my money. That is true. But it does provide employment for a number of people who find something worthwhile in what they're doing.'

This is a noble sentiment, but it hardly fits with Peter Singer's rules for living an ethical life. He once told me that he has no respect for people who donate funds for research on breast cancer or heart disease in the hope that it might indirectly save them or members of their family from illness, since they could be using that money to save the lives of the poor. ("That is not charity,'' he said. "It's self- interest.") Singer has responded to his mother's illness the way most caring people would. The irony is that his humane actions clash so profoundly with the chords of his utilitarian ethic.

One can easily see a pattern emerging, given just these few glimpses of the thought process of a man who does not think of his fellow human beings in the most glowing of terms. So why are Harvard's supposedly best and brightest inviting Singer to be the main speaker at a bioethics conference? Perhaps it has everything to do with the very definition of bioethics – at least, what it actually means versus what the dictionary tells us.
Webster's definition of bioethics: a discipline dealing with the ethical implications of biological research and applications especially in medicine

However, according to Professor Irving,


The philosophical underpinnings of bioethics are completely different from those that underlie traditional medical ethics. Traditional medical ethics focuses on the physician's duty to the individual patient, whose life and welfare are always sacrosanct. The focus of bioethics is fundamentally utilitarian, centered, like other utilitarian disciplines, around maximizing total human happiness.

So, if a group of students or even an entire program at Harvard is interested in delving into the foundations of utilitarianism, Singer is their man. They want to spend time in a garden where only the fit are allowed and where they can encounter a few animals they deem more important than human beings. And while they are in the garden, they will perhaps notice that it is replete with crawling vines and poisonous flowers. One can only hope they realize, at some point. that such plant life is clearly of the variety that spreads quickly and sucks the very essence out of what it means to be a member of the human family.

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