Peter Singer disinvited from philosophy meeting in Germany for views on euthanasia of sick or deformed newborns

I’m not sure where or when Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer first suggested that it may not be unethical to euthanize newborns if they have a terrible deformity or disease, but that view has caused tremendous controversy.  Apparently, almost all people see the moment of birth as some irrevocable line beyond which “assisted dying” is unethical, both because birth seems to mark some threshhold of “personhood”, and because the infant has no choice in its fate. But of course the concept of “personhood” doesn’t automatically go along with natural exit from the mother (after all, many think it begins when the infant could be viable when removed from the mother by Caesarian), and the concept of “choice” for an infant doomed to a horrible illness or early death is debatable.  At the very least, I think Singer’s suggestion is worthy of rational debate, and shouldn’t be automatically dismissed based on kneejerk reactions about “personhood.”

I for one am able to see some merit in Singer’s suggestion—so long as the infant’s affliction would doom it to either an early death or a horrible, painful life. Infants aren’t aware of death and probably have limited self-consciousness; so both their own well being, and that of their suffering parents, should be taken into consideration. Consequentialist ethics may lead one to agree with Singer. Readers may disagree with him, and if you do please weigh in below, but first read a precis of his views, which you can see in an interview below.

This has come up because, according to Leiter Reports, a popular website run by my Chicago colleague Brian Leiter (a philosopher and legal scholar), Singer has just been disinvited from a philosophy conference in Cologne because of these views.

The details were given by people who translated German articles in the comments sections of Leiter’s page. Apparently Singer was scheduled to speak on “Do vegans save the world?” before his invitation was rescinded. Singer’s previous appearances in Germany have been protested, and one can understand why Germans—the descendants of those who killed not only sick, deformed, and mentally ill infants, but adults as well—would take special umbrage at his views. But I don’t see that as a reason to avoid discussing them.

The disinvitation came when the organizers became aware of an interview Singer just gave to a Swiss newspaper that included some of his “euthanasia of infants” views (among other issue), views which have been known for a long time. As one commenter on Leiter’s site said “There, he is quoted saying: ‘A prematurely born baby of 23 weeks has no morally different status than a 25 week old baby inside the womb’.” Another commenter  added this (I’ve kept the original spelling and capitalization):

Here is how the organizers justify the cancellation on their facebook page:

They say they knew of earlier publications and statements of Singer with regard to PND and disabilities, but had not inticipated that he would put “his questionable claims” in public focus in such a way as he did in the NZZ (the Swiss paper) interview from May 26th. Now, they wirte [sic], a focused discussion on the subject matter that was planned for his talk (veganism) is no longer possible. They also write that they had to balance “the high good of free speech — an essence of philosophy” with the contents of Singer’s position. (The phrase between quatation marks is a literal translation; it sounds no less strange in the German original.)

While the organizers’ estimation that a sober-minded discussion on veganism would not have been possible at the festival may be right (I don’t know the nature and extent of the anticipated protests against the event), one wonders whether it might not have been possible to keep Singer invited and change the topic in order to discuss such things as the controversial nature of his claims, the vigorous reactions to them in the German public, free speech and whether a philosopher ought to be considerate of readers’ sentiments. Here is Singer’s NZZ interview that caused all the ruckus.

NZZ stands for the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, [roughly, The New Zürich Gazette] “Ein Embryo hat kein Recht auf Leben” (“An embryo has no right to life”). Here is a snippet from that interview—the bit that presumably caused the trouble, again translated by a commenter:

NZZ: Next week, you are due to receive an award for the reduction of animal suffering. This has provoked protests because you, allegedly, want to have disabled children killed. Is that true?

PS: There are circumstances where I would consider that to be justified, yes. For instance, when an extremely premature baby suffers from a cerebral hemorrhage so massive that it will never recognize its mother and smile at her. If such a child requires artificial respiration, almost all doctors would advise to switch the device off and let the child die. The artificial respiration is terminated because they do not want the baby to live. But if the child is already capable of breathing on its own, killing it requires a lethal injection. Why should it be morally relevant whether I switch off a device or give the child an injection? In both cases, I decide over the child’s life. [JAC: People often make a distinction here between a direct action that terminates life and an indirect action that allows life to end, but I consider that a distinction without a difference.]

NZZ: Would you also kill a new-born child with a mild disability?

PS: If the disability is compatible with a good quality of life, it should be possible to find a couple willing to adopt the child if the parents do not want it. Why should it be killed then?

NZZ: So it doesn’t make any difference to you whether a child has already been born or whether it is a case of a terminated pregnancy?

PS: With regards to the status of the child, it doesn’t. The opponents of abortion are right in one respect: birth does not mark a clear-cut boundary. Other factors are more important, like whether the child feels pain or develops self-consciousness. But the moral status of a premature child born after 23 weeks of pregnancy is no different from that of a child still in the womb at 25 weeks.

You can see that Singer doesn’t endorse blanket mercy-killing of all sick or deformed infants. It depends, he says, on their quality of life, something that his opponents seem to ignore. And I’m sensitive to Germans’ awareness of the horrible killings that occurred there (and in Nazi-occupied territory) during the Second World War. But it’s time to get past that, for Germany is no longer a Nazi country, and should be able to engage in philosophical discourse without the taint of Hitler. Singer, as always, raises issues of serious moral import (e.g., Should we kill animals for food? How can we justify living in luxury as well-off Westerners?), and they’re worthy of serious debate. Preventing him from raising the issue, after he’d already been invited to a conference (and has views that have been expressed for years) is a form of censorship.


  1. Nicholas
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 12:47 pm | Permalink


  2. eric
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I agree Singer should not have been disinvited. I think he’s generally wrong because he’s ignoring human behavior. We already have problems with female infanticide; give people a legal right to do it ‘if the child has severe defects,’ and I’m sure millions of Chinese and Indian parents will decide their girl children have severe mental defects not apparent to outsiders.
    Sure, we would be able to detect (and prosecute) such abuses of Singer’s idea in modern western societies, when births are monitored by independent hospital staff. But in home births and births in third world countries (where the problem is largest), nope. In those places, his principle would IMO lead to greater male/female disproportionality due to infanticide, and the killing of thousands if not tens of thousands of healthy baby girls for every severely disabled baby he thinks his idea should actually apply to.
    It is not enough to base laws on moral principles that would work if we were all perfectly rational beings. We have to base laws on principles that will work given that we aren’t perfectly rational beings.

    • GM
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      Do you think anyone who has achieved the level of rationality required to accept Singer’s views would go for gender-selective infanticide?

      • eric
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

        I think we couldn’t allow one sort of rule for people who have ‘achieved the level of rationality’ and a different rule for others. So the question is moot; you have to either apply it to everyone on no-one.

        Normatively, I would probably also argue that trying to create a two-tier system where only some people are allowed to practice infanticide based on some socially measured criteria of rationality is a ‘cure’ much worse than the problem Singer is trying to fix.

        • GM
          Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

          How is this in any way even remotely related to what I said?

          I said that they only way Singer’s vision would ever end up being implemented goes through society as a whole achieving a level of rationality that would make it unthinkable for anyone in it to go for sex-selective abortion and infanticide.

      • JP Sch.
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

        Yes. Absolutely.

        Having a “level of rationality” in one some areas does not exclude the possibility of holding irrational believes or engaging in harmful practices. (Withholding vaccines from their children, supporting death for apostasy, and on and on.)

    • Gregory Kusnick
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:34 pm | Permalink

      But isn’t this the classic dilemma of utilitarianism? Basically you’re saying it’s right to prolong the suffering of Western babies in order to prevent the suffering of a greater number of Third World babies — even though those suffering Western babies bear no responsibility whatever for the crimes of Third World parents.

      • eric
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

        I’m saying its wrong to pass a law you are fairly sure will result in far more murders than mercy killings.

        I would say the same about ‘stand your ground’ laws; if they’re going to result in far more legally sanctioned murders than they will ‘save’ cases of self-defense that might otherwise have been missed, they’re a really bad idea. Singer’s is a really bad idea for the same reason.

        • Curt Nelson
          Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

          Your idea that such a law would lead to more healthy babies being killed than sick ones seems made up. Wouldn’t there be third parties, like doctors, involved in deciding what constitutes a severe defect?

        • Gregory Kusnick
          Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          Even granting your premise, it seems to me your policy is not without unintended consequences of its own. The real miscreants in your scenario are the murderous parents, but your proposal excuses them as blameless and instead visits the punishment on innocents. I can’t see that as a sound basis for long-term social good.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:17 am | Permalink

          “For instance, when an extremely premature baby suffers from a cerebral hemorrhage so massive that it will never recognize its mother and smile at her”

          Extrapolating that, fairly specific instance, to a phantasmagorical dystopian other land of China and India seems a bit of a stretch.

    • slandermonkey
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

      You using a ‘slippery slope’ argument. Singer is not arguing that parents should be able to terminate pregnancies, or commit infanticide for any old reason. Singer is arguing that in cases where the child would die shortly any ways, or be in terrible pain then it might be ethical to euthanize the child.

      Having the ‘wrong’ sex certainly would not qualify.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:18 am | Permalink

        Correct he is arguing nothing like it.

    • Anonymous
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      By your logic abortion advocates are also wrong because they are “ignoring human behavior.” In many places in China abortion is de facto legalized female infanticide — and this a known fact, unlike your imagined scenario (which I don’t find plausible, for GM’s reason) of what would happen if Singer’s idea were widely accepted.

      No, I don’t think Singer is wrong for your reason just as I don’t think pro choice is wrong for your reason. If an idea is correct, then just because it may be difficult to put into practice in some parts of the world populated by people with some very bad ideas, doesn’t make it wrong.

  3. J K Smith
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Given their history with eugenics (although they are not alone in this), it is not surprising there is sensitivity over this in Germany, but I think the ‘dis-invite’ is somewhat rude.

    It is the role of philosophy to ask tough questions, and I’m not sure I could argue against PS’s views (even though I was born with a disability).

    If you don’t like his views ask/argue with him in whatever fora you can.

  4. sean
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    I’ll bet this is driven almost entirely by German self-conscience…

    You can see this collective self-conscience on display in their weird patriotism, that can get a politician fired for being overly patriotic. (Just imagine that in America!!)

    (Full disclose: have never been to Germany…)

  5. Kevin
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Singer makes valid points. Very interesting discussion. I too believe critics are making distinction without a difference.

  6. Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    First, isn’t this precisely the sort of thing philosophy is touted as being especially good at dealing with: the hard ethical issues with which many philosophers say science cannot deal?

    Second, I’m not directly familiar with Singer’s position, but I would guess that he’s not suggesting anything mandatory, rather simply advocating that euthanasia be available as an option for parents in unenviable circumstances to consider.

    Third, having written all that, I don’t that his position is unproblematic. Can it really be 100% determined at birth that a child will suffer enough to warrant euthanasia? Many, many people with Down Syndrome will tell you that they enjoy their lives. Also, the severity of whatever condition is not always able to be ascertained at birth, or at 1, or 2, or even 3 years old. The severity of many disabilities only become apparent as the child ages and fails to meet milestones.

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

      “I don’t *think* that”

      • Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

        *becomes apparent*

        My kingdom for an edit function!

    • GM
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

      I will for further than advocating for the option, it should in fact be mandatory. The overall societal good should also be taken into account (in terms of the quite significant resources that go into supporting very sick children that have only vague self-awareness).

      The same applies to old people with severe dementia. I personally would not want to spend the last 5-10 years of my life in a vegetative state which makes life hell for everyone around me, and I am horrified of the thought that it might get so bad so quickly that I will not even be able to understand what’s happening and act accordingly.

      P.S. Eugenics is one of those subjects that the scientific community has voluntarily shut down discussion on for no objective scientific reason, basically just irrationally caving in to predominant societal perceptions and guilt by association with other crimes. There are many clear cases where it would be good to eliminate certain variants by methods like selective abortion or not allowing certain people to reproduce (Huntington being the classic example). And now we have the technology to do that on the scale of the whole population.

      P.P.S Also, there is the much grimmer reality that if we are to get out of the ecological overshoot we’re already in (and digging deeper every day), there will have to be hundreds of millions of state-mandated forced abortions and infanticides (because people in the regions where this matters will not voluntarily go for any sort of population-reduction-by-not-having-kids scheme on the time scale that will make a difference). And most of those will have to be on perfectly healthy children…

      • eric
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        P.S. Eugenics is one of those subjects that the scientific community has voluntarily shut down discussion on for no objective scientific reason

        I disagree; I think the objective scientific reason is that there’s not much scientific to be learned here.* What new thing about the world do you think we will learn by sterilizing certain people? Eugenics seem to me to be inherently social experiments, not scientific ones.

        *Unless you want to really go to town and start doing multi-generational involuntary experiments on humans. You could probably learn something scientific about the genetic basis of various behaviors and traits if you were willing to breed humans like d*gs. I hope you will agree with me that there are good objective reasons not to do that, too.

        • Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          I hope you will agree with me that there are good objective reasons not to do that, too.

          Well no, being a little argumentative here:

          I agree with you that there are good reasons, indeed very good reasons, not to do that, but they are subjective reasons not objective ones.

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:01 pm | Permalink

        Yes. Death panels would not be a bad idea.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 1:06 am | Permalink

        Read Jun’ichi Saga’s ‘Memories of Silk and Straw’ for a view of what life was like in impoverished rural Japan not so long ago – infanticide was regularly practiced, and in some areas, the old would be abandoned to die of starvation (there’s a film about this called ‘Narayama Bushiko’). Infanticide was not uncommon (nor was the killing, or at least allowing to die, of the aged, it seems) among the Inuit, partly to keep a balance between the sexes, and was a reason for their being able to survive as a people. Principle & pragmatism – but surely the euthanasia of infants with serious and crippling deformities who have no expectation of a painless life and every expectation of a very short and horrible one is not wrong.

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

      “can it really be 100% determined” …
      I have had that discussion with people and have referred them to “Birth Defects Compendium” (1979) edited by Daniel Bergsma.

      Trigger Warning: After reviewing this text for a few minutes one of my co-worker when to the restroom and was very sick and left work early.

      • Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

        Perhaps I should’ve written: “can it really be 100% determined in any given case…”

        Certainly there are conditions that can be determined 100% to consign the infant to a life of terrible suffering, and in those cases it may be more cruel to force the child to suffer through life, however short, than to euthanize the child.

        Many conditions, however, come in degrees, and you can’t assume at birth that the condition will be severe enough to warrant euthanasia (wherever that line may be, the definition of which is another problem).

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:55 am | Permalink

        That can be a good response to the God as designer argument.
        Worst designer ever.

    • Adam M.
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Even when it can’t be determined with 100% accuracy and you get it wrong, little or nothing is lost. Since it has no thoughts, goals, or values of its own yet, its value is only its value to other people, so even the death of a perfectly healthy newborn is little or no loss if nobody wants it. (It won’t reach its potential, but loss of potential value isn’t loss of actual value.)

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:22 am | Permalink

        Exactly. I don’t think Singer is arguing that specifically, but that is the reality.

    • Posted June 19, 2015 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      Down’s syndrome, like Williams’s syndrome, is a moot point. They are severely disabled but not necessarily unhappy and suffering. (Williams’ -the ‘pixies’- are even known to be very happy -and often musically gifted.

      On the other hand, som syndromes, say Alport’s syndrome, are a different matter.

      I agree with Singer that these things should not be taboo and should be open for discussion, even in Germany.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted June 19, 2015 at 3:48 am | Permalink

        I wonder though, whether Downs syndrome people, although they may not be in pain, realise they are partially disabled and wish they were ‘normal’. (I’m not looking to incur a discussion about what is ‘normal’ here). People do have a capability for making the best of things, so I’d never suggest that, having achieved sentience (at whatever early age) they should be deprived of it. However, that is a totally different discussion from the question of whether Downs or other disabled children should be born in the first place. I wonder what happens to Downs people when their parents die and can no longer take care of them.

        Here (NZ) there is a fairly reliable pre-natal screening program that allows parents to decide if they want to take the risk or have an early abortion. But of course we have our closet fetus freaks of ‘Right to Life NZ’ who are trying to claim that the screening program is, get this, ‘genocide’ and are trying to take the NZ Government to the World Criminal Court. Which just shows their complete ignorance of history, sociology or genetics IMO (also pretty insulting to any group that has experienced real genocide). What really annoys me about them though, is that they’re trying to inflict misfortune on other prospective parents. No surprise I guess, given their stance on abortion and voluntary euthanasia, they love the idea of making others suffer for their toxic beliefs.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted June 19, 2015 at 5:40 am | Permalink

          It is an interesting thought.

          “I wonder what happens to Downs people when their parents die and can no longer take care of them.”

          Many years ago I worked in “Mental Retardation”. There were several very large institutions called training centres.
          There were many downs people there.
          Those institutions were ‘rationalised’ and went community. So they need looking after still.
          I don’t remember the idea of whether they had relevant awareness of themselves relating to normal, either from them, or my tutors.
          They also closed down large mental institutions, for ‘community’, to save money and for ideological reasons.
          Resulting in more troubled people on the street and some killed by police.
          This was in Australia. I left the field.

          On abortion, I was having discussions with some in America and they try the same tactic.
          They try to paint someone like Margret Sanger as not much better that Hitler and use the same rhetoric you mention.
          They are despicable.

        • Cindy
          Posted June 19, 2015 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          I have met one of the pro life NZers who claims that screening for DS in NZ is genocide. The fellow claims that DS is not a defect, but simply a trait, like eye color.

          He haunts Patheos blogs, arguing against abortion. Bit of a nutter.

          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted June 19, 2015 at 9:25 am | Permalink

            I’m sure they only do it because genocide sounds dramatic. It leads them into idiotic positions like how valuable Downs is and how tragic it is that numbers are declining. Might as well lament the decline of cholera.

            (In no way does that imply that Downs sufferers themselves are undesirable, any more than seeking to reduce accidents is discrimination against paraplegics).

            • Cindy
              Posted June 19, 2015 at 9:35 am | Permalink

              I usually ask them, that if Downs is so damn wonderful, then shouldn’t humanity strive to create even more of them? What if everyone was Downs?

              Oh, and I find it incredibly offensive the way they exploit the disabled, by trotting out various success stories. They ignore the children who are left to sit in their own pee and poop, unloved and unwanted, in institutions, and instead focus only on the ‘inspiration’ stories. It’s porn, really.

              I was at the hospital one day, talking to a young lady who was blind, and I think deaf. She appeared mostly normal, and had managed to get a degree despite her disabilities. I said to her ‘wow, you’ve done really well, that is so awesome’

              And then I looked at her and said ‘shit, what did I just do. I just talked down to you because you overcame your disabilities. That was wrong’. Yeah, I felt dirty, doing that. In praising her, I treated her as if she was somehow an inferior, simply because she overcame adversity.

              • Anonymous
                Posted June 19, 2015 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

                There’s a totally blind girl who, once a week, catches the same bus as I do. She feels her way to a seat and, when the bus reaches her stop (she knows it from the turns in the road) she gets off unaided. I admire her courage. And I’m not being patronising in saying that; what is an easy bus-ride for me must be a major effort for her and require quite a lot of courage and determination.

                So what strikes me is how difficult it is for her to do things that ‘we’ don’t need to give a second thought to. I can’t imagine what it must be like to live her life (or maybe I can, but just don’t want to). And while I have no doubt what she’d say in no uncertain terms to anyone who proposed mercy-killing someone like her** (she must have terrific determination to do what she does), I don’t know what her answer might be if asked whether more children with her affliction should be born into the world.

                (** Which is NOT, of course, what Singer is suggesting)


              • infiniteimprobabilit
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 7:05 am | Permalink

                Oops, that ‘Anonymous’ was me, posting from another browser. Thanks PCC for letting it through.


  7. Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    I read a moving essay by a Dutch doctor who had always opposed the euthanasia of infants. Then he had to deal with an infant with such weak skin that it would tear from even minor friction. Holding the baby to comfort her led to friction and tears that left exposed skin as in a burn. The condition doomed the infant to die in childhood. The baby stayed in the hospital for weeks as methods were worked out to hold and diaper it and treat the injuries without causing further injuries from bandages. The distraught parents inquired about euthanasia for the baby. The doctor stuck to his principles, but after seeing this suffering he changed his mind and advocated for laws allowing infanticide in this sort of situation. I think there are some cases when euthanasia of infants should be allowed — after the case is reviewed carefully.

    • rickflick
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 8:38 pm | Permalink

      By the sound of that case, I would think the baby would have wanted the review to be done mercifully swiftly.

    • gijswijs
      Posted June 19, 2015 at 3:21 am | Permalink

      I remember that article! I can’t seem to find it though. Do you have a link?

  8. jay
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Part of the growing “YOU CAN’T SAY THAT” mentality to shut down conversation instead of challenge and debate. I wonder how many of those who are scraming consider themselves ‘pro choice’.

    If you express certain opinions, you must be silenced or even fired; the Tim Hunt story is an illustration of this (his comments were of questionable validity, but they still were simply an expression of opinion). The vehement diatribes (and actual vioent threats) against several people who dared to publicly question Jenners’s claim to womanhood is another.

    • jay
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

      Sorry about typos, posting from a phone

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:31 am | Permalink

      Correct, and this readiness to condemn both precludes further thought on the matter and gives unwarranted voice to those incapable of decent further thought.

      Singer is a world class philosopher, it should be (should?) both a pleasure to listen to him and a pleasure to try and find counter arguments to points one disagrees with.
      For the thinking person, you would think.

      I think the thinking persons are being sidelined by those who have stopped thinking because they already know.

  9. Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:31 pm | Permalink

    Just mark the doorpost of the home with the blood of a slaughtered spring lamb. The spirit of the Lord will adjudicate the sanctity of life without the need for ethical debate or moral philosophy.

  10. Randy Schenck
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    Just another one for the Outrage industry. End of discussion because someone might be offended and making progress on this important subject is just not right if someone is offended.

  11. nickswearsky
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:13 pm | Permalink

    How can you invite Singer in the first place and not be aware of his thoughts on this? I know very little about Singer, but I sure as heck know his views on killing severely deformed infants. If you invite someone, maybe know who you’re inviting.

    • John Scanlon, FCD
      Posted June 19, 2015 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      I presume it’s nearly always someone else that does the disinviting, after some sort of power struggle or rank-pulling in the host institution, rather than new information coming to light.

  12. Robert Seidel
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Mistake: The link “Singer has just been disinvited from a philosophy conference in Cologne” also leads to Brian Leiter’s wiki page, not to his OP.

  13. RossR
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    I think if a German university permitted Singer’s views to be discussed – and they surely would be – somebody would be bound to play the Nazi card and (hence) alert the media. And many Germans are still very sensitive about that particular aspect of their public image.

  14. Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    Exceedingly important issues such as this especially should be open for debate. It won’t go away by not talking about it. Nazi sensitivities should not be concidered.

    Another approach to this problem is in use by a
    group of orthodox Jews in the eastern US who are using DNA testing of group individuals before they marry in order to (hopefully) prevent engendering babies with Tay-Sachs disease.

  15. Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    It is too much of an overreaction to advocate euthanasia for pusillanimous university administrators?


    • rickflick
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

      I assume you meant that in the nicest possible way. 😎

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:34 am | Permalink

      Not if it is precluded by an angry mob marching on them with flaming torches and pitchforks.

  16. Larry Smith
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 3:25 pm | Permalink

    A few thoughts:

    1) Singer would also likely be disinvited from a similar conference here in the US; it’s not just Germany (though of course as noted that it hits closer to home there). In fact, I predict this will happen more and more to him from now on;

    2) Not sure what his views on infanticide have to do with veganism;

    3) The “take off the respirator” vs “lethal injection” issue is a reworking of the trolley problem, I think;

    4) I think birth/viability as the primary criterion for “right to life” is a way to avoid any slippery slope possibilities. Including “quality of life” as part of that discussion is very tricky and potentially subject to abuse, and thus very hard to factor into this life or death equation.

    Singer’s “sin” is to look at these touchy, difficult issues and ask “why?” But, as someone else wrote, that strikes me as the very heart of what philosophy is.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:49 pm | Permalink

      Isn’t it the other way around? The respirator vs injection deaths are real cases and the trolley problem seems to be an illustration fitting it.

  17. Diana Hook
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    In 2002 Singer participated in a debate with Harriet Johnson, an advocate for the rights of the disabled (she was severely disabled herself). Her article on the debate was published in the NY Times ( It’s an interesting read. She obviously disagreed strongly with Singer’s stand on the morality of euthanizing deformed or disabled infants.

  18. Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:06 pm | Permalink

    Singer has had trouble speaking in Germany for years. His collection _Writings From an Ethical Life_ (which I got over 15 years ago) mentions this – though I forget details.

    As for active/passive euthanizing, I’m actually of the opinion it matters, sometimes. The twist is that I actually think the usual view is *backwards*. If the goal is to minimize suffering, at any rate.

    Years ago I defended this in class. It was not popular, though I did get many classmates to admit that they weren’t actually about minimizing suffering.

    • Michael Waterhouse
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:38 am | Permalink

      If you poke a deontologist enough sooner or later you will find a consequentialist.

  19. kelskye
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Perhaps it might be understandable why Germany is a little sensitive over the whole euthanasia thing, but disinviting someone on the basis of their argument being controversial is a dangerous strategy. Let’s hope this is a culturally-isolated incident and doesn’t affect academics (especially Singer) outside of Germany.

  20. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:38 pm | Permalink

    So I don’t know Singer. (And I am not too hot for vegan arguments from philosophic ethics as opposed to social morals, humans are omnivores and can choose to stay so.)

    But this strikes me as odd:

    PS: If the disability is compatible with a good quality of life, it should be possible to find a couple willing to adopt the child if the parents do not want it. Why should it be killed then?

    Why drag the problem of parents that doesn’t want their children into it? The underlying problem was disability, parents can dislike their children (and vice versa) for all sorts of reasons but that doesn’t mean they get to adopt away their children by default.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

      Re omnivores, we have probably _earned_ it. Apparently the other apes that show any ability to accumulate fat are orangutans and to a lesser degree gorillas.

      Chimps, or at least bonobos, have two states: females have some body fat, males have nearly zero body fat! No starvation bottlenecks for them…

      “I can’t be the only one surprised at how little body fat male bonobos have. A study of bonobo dissections by Adrienne Zihlman and Debra Bolter (2015) included data from six female and seven male bonobos collected over many years. The females had very low body fat percentages, with the highest value only 8.6% and three of the six females under 1.2%. But the males were the interesting story, with no male among the seven measured as high as 0.01% body fat.

      As Zihlman and Bolter explain, these are minimum estimates, since the necropsied bonobos did not necessarily include fat included in the viscera or near internal organs, and fat that could not be dissected as separate chunks was not weighed separately. But subcutaneous fat and other small adipose areas are included in this estimate, and comparable values for male humans are upward of 20%.”

      [ ]

      • peepuk
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

        Thanks, very interesting fact. Have to think about it 🙂

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

      Is it not a good thing for parents to be able to adopt away their children for *any* reason?


  21. Robert Seidel
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    The German reports on this event suggest the dynamics are a bit more complex than just objection to the statement “A prematurely born baby of 23 weeks has no morally different status than a 25 week old baby inside the womb”.

    One day prior to phil.COLOGNE disinviting him, he received the “Peter-Singer-Price for Strategies to Reduce Animal Suffering” (yes, a price named after himself) in Berlin. The honorific speach was scheduled to be given by Michael Schmidt-Salomon, president of the Giordano-Bruno-Foundation (the German equivalent of the FFRS) who declined at the last minute, because of that NZZ interview.

    Michael Schmidt-Salomon stated that Singer seemed to have radicalized and/or altered his views and he could no longer endorse Singer, since it was now unclear to him what his actual positions are, and if those are compatible with the Giordano-Bruno-Foundation’s politics.

    The examples Schmidt-Salomon cited were the statement above – claiming that Singer once considered birth a non-negiotiable mark for the right to life, but seems no longer so [1] – but also some more statements, like these:

    1) In answering the question if he, Singer, would torture a baby if it would ensure permanent happiness for humanity, Singer answered that he personally couldn’t do this, but it would be the right thing to do – which, Schmidt-Salomon says, questions the right to not be tortured,

    2) Asked if the implementation of assisted suicide could pressure old people to end their life so as to not be a burden to their family, Singer answered it would be reasonable to weigh ones own quality of life against other’s quality of life – if, for instance, you need to be cared for and hamper your kid’s career.

    Then, two days after Schmidt-Salomon’s declaration, phil.COLOGNE made its move, and though they only cited the killing-a-newborn bit, and did a poor job defending themselves, I think Schmidt-Salomon’s declaration was likely on their minds, and they actually had the same reason: That Singer has become somewhat unpredictable, and you better not associate with him right now, in case he turns out to be toxic.

    [1] I think he was wrong there: Singer did say birth should be a legal boundary, but for pragmatic reasons of jurisdiction, not for moral reasons, and thinking that killing a newborn was not equal to killing an adult or older child was quite compatible with thinking being born should grant someone a steadfast right to life. So there’s not much of a “radicalization” here.

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

      Number 1 seems like a non-sequiter to me. I cannot imagine any possible real situation in which torturing a “baby” (emotive term in any case) could produce “permanent happiness for humanity”, however you want to unpack that expression. If I were Singer I would just say the hypothetical doesn’t make any sense.

      Number 2 is the kind of straw man which is dragged up (drug up?) perpetually in the discussion of euthanasia. Assisted dying is really only for those people who are incapable of killing themselves, and wherever it is practiced legally, is surrounded by multiple safeguards. Killing yourself is not really that difficult if you are determined enough.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      Number 1 is a bullshit scenario that could never happen and has no bearing on reality. If, however, the premise is taken literally then Singer’s answer is the most ethical of the two choices.

      • Posted June 17, 2015 at 7:53 pm | Permalink

        It’s also, it just so happens, the entire premise of Christianity. Jesus, the ultimate innocent, was tortured and killed in order to ensure eternal happiness for all mankind.

        Seems to me it’s the religious on the low moral ground here, and the rationalists the sane ones with our “Are you fucking kidding me? In what alternate universe is there even the hypothetical possibility that torturing and killing a baby could do the slightest bit of good for anybody, let alone all of humanity!?


        • darrelle
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 8:02 am | Permalink

          Yeah. The foundational premise of Christianity is disgusting. Adoration and praise indeed. Even many Christians would agree. If it were desribed to them plainly, free of the elaborate raiments, and they weren’t aware that it was their religion that was being described.

          Christianity was born of barbarism and is built on the barbaric values of its time. It protects and enshrines barbaric values and that is why it, and most religions of course, have been such an impediment to our societies’ progress. And why, even in a society dominated by modern, liberal Christians, that it continues to be. Christianity is not nice. It is always troubling to me to see decent people so committed to it. It is like a pandemic of Stockholm Syndrome. It is as if they have been abused and need some counseling to help them through it.

          People often argue that even if you remove religion we would still have most all the strife because the motivations causing it are more basic than religion. I say, not so fast. How do you know that? Religions are the basis for the world view of many their many adherents, and they codify and aggrandize barbaric values from ancient times. I can’t so blithely dismiss the influence that has had on the rate of change of societal values from. And the smaller argument that getting rid of religion wouldn’t get rid of all strife . . ., well, I’ll try not to sprain an eyeball as I roll my eyes.

      • Tim Harris
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 12:29 am | Permalink

        Ethical from a utilitarian point of view – which raises the question of the ethical adequacy of utilitarianism. Of course, in the splendidly utilitarian Cheney-world, in which rather too many US citizens and GOP presidential candidates seem to live, it would, I suspect, be a ‘no-brainer’ for the unfortunate child of some terrorist suspect to be tortured if that seemed more likely to extract information from the suspect than torturing the suspect himself. Safety & happiness all round! The torture-mongers of the Soviet Union, Syria, Iraq and other countries were, and in many cases are, well aware of the usefulness of family members, the more vulnerable the better, in getting their way with the recalcitrant.

        • Michael Waterhouse
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:47 am | Permalink

          It seems that that kind of utilitarianism doesn’t amount to ‘good’ or good enough,for you. Or many, probably. Thus it is inadequate and further considerations are required.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted June 21, 2015 at 4:21 am | Permalink

            How do we know when a conclusion deriving from the utilitarian calculus is adequate? Who decides whether it is adequate or not? Who is in charge here? Philosopher kings, perhaps?

            • Michael Waterhouse
              Posted June 22, 2015 at 2:23 am | Permalink

              Believe it or not, I was going to throw in the calculation problem qualifier to that comment, but decided not too as the I was trying to get at a different quality of consideration rather than the actual calculation difficulty.
              If that makes any sense.
              I realise your query still applies and it is a difficult questions as are all moral questions when we try to universalise them, or normalise them.

              Who decides? Who decides now? Philosopher Kings may be reasonable but hard to come by.

              Reasoned consensus perhaps, with a more sophisticated utilitarian calculus, which was what I was getting at, which having read more of your comments I gather you appreciate.

              I can’t go into a full sophisticated consequentialist case here but, what alternative is there. Consequences matter. In my opinion, consequences matter most.

              To the second point. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used ‘correct’. You said that the Thompson thought experiment ‘shed light on’ as ‘as such thought experiments surely should do.’ and the other example ‘I do not see that the ‘thought experiment’ that Singer was presented with and which he answered throws light on anything at all,’

              So whatever you meant by the qualitative difference in thought experiments was what I was getting at when I said ‘correct’. So seeing as you seem to have an opinion on the values of thought experiments I leave you to answer yourself. I think I said that any thought experiment could be ‘correct’.

              There are a lot of extra comments below that I will try and go through soon as I want to address your further thoughts on the issue.

          • Tim Harris
            Posted June 21, 2015 at 4:25 am | Permalink

            And what, pace your remark below about philosophically ‘correct’ thought experiments in connexion with Thomson’s writings, constitutes a philosophically ‘correct’ thought experiment? And what makes a thought experiment philosophically ‘incorrect’?

        • darrelle
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 7:02 am | Permalink

          But your scenario isn’t equivalent to the No. 1 above. And no. 1 from above is of no use in studying a scenario more like your’s, or in trying to determine what people’s likely responses would be to scenarios that actually resemble reality.

      • Michael Waterhouse
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 4:54 am | Permalink

        Absolutely correct. If it not some kind of deliberate gotcha, for the literalists so prevalent at the moment, then as you say, Singers answer was most ethical.

        But even other wise, it could still be discussed.
        Like, how much torture does it have to endure. 1 smack.
        What if we extrapolate a bit and ask, would you want to be tortured as a baby to ensure happiness for personkind?

        • Posted June 18, 2015 at 5:33 am | Permalink

          God let his baby be tortured and killed to save mankind!

          Oh. No. Wait.


        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

          No, scenario 1 is of no relevance to anything whatsoever, so why did Singer honour it with an answer – an answer that seems to have been taken, doubtless mistakenly, by Singer’s critics as having implications for the real world? I wonder why someone should ask the question in the first place if they think it has no resemblance to reality and no relevance to all to the real world but exists only in some metaphysical Never-Never Land.

          • Michael Waterhouse
            Posted June 19, 2015 at 5:44 am | Permalink

            The philosophy of ethic is full of various thought experiments. Sometimes the most extreme to help tease out full consequence of the train of thought.
            It is no surprise that Singer would answer a question.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted June 19, 2015 at 7:49 am | Permalink

              I am well aware that that the philosophy of ethics is full of thought experiments. I wonder why you, instead of taking issue with what I said, did not take issue with darelle’s comment that the scenario proposed has no resemblance to scenarios that actually resemble reality and is therefore useless where determining what people’s responses might be to the latter kind of scenario. Thought experiments, like any other kind of experiment, need to have some relevance to reality; what significance do they have if they have no relevance to reality? I seem to recall Hume saying that metaphysics should be consigned to the flames. I suggest that thought experiments that both darelle and you seem to regard as wholly irrelevant to anything, yet nonetheless regard as having some sort of value, might similarly be so consigned.

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:52 am | Permalink

                I thought I did comment on darelle’s comment.

                My comment to you was really had two parts.
                The general one that thought experiments are used and slightly independently that it is no surprise that Singer would answer a question.
                I disagree with your take on thought experiments. Some can be more theoretical and some more related to actuality.
                Way way back we used to ask questions like that a lot. (My group of friends)

                Judith Jarvis Thomson’s example was interesting and may have helped some understanding, but hasn’t really changed that many minds (??) because it has limitations.
                Same with Frank Jackson’s example.
                John Searle’s might be slightly better.

                The idea of sacrificing one person for the greater good is an old question. A fundamental moral puzzle.
                Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a story called ‘The ones who walk away from Omelas’ dealing with a similar question. For example.

                Funnily enough I was having a discussion on you-tube re metaphysic and empiricism. The other guy said “empiricism has its basis in metaphysics”. I disagree, however.

                Perhaps I misunderstood your comment. All I was really saying was Philosophers philosophize, why wouldn’t he answer a question?

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 4:56 am | Permalink

                It just occurred to me that you probably used Thompson’s example because it was topical, rather than as an example of correct philosophical thought experimenting. If so disregard my reference to the other examples.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 8:14 am | Permalink

                What I find amusing, shall we say, is that in his reported response to the question Singer said that the ethical thing to do was to torture that unfortunate child so that permanent happiness would ensue for all humankind, but that he himself would not be able to bring himself to do it. Does he not have the courage of his philosophical convictions? If he knew he was going to be permanently happy, having tortured the child, then why have (moral? or what?) qualms? After all, once the child has been tortured, everybody, including the torturer or torturers and Singer himself if he does have the courage of his ethical convictions, is going to be permanently happy – they won’t care about the child, he or she will be forgotten amidst the general rejoicing – it’s a bit like the murti bing pill, isn’t it? And the torturer can feel extra happy for having saved mankind! But will the child be happy, with fingernails removed, burns, broken limbs, blinded, etc, and in continual excruciating pain? – ah, there’s the fly in the ointment of happy mankind, wings pulled off and drowning in the happiness, suffering away like the fly in the shoe in Ferdydurke: clearly the child has to be tortured to death if this splendid future is truly to come to pass! And in Singerian ethics a free pass can be given to killing the child precisely because it is now suffering intolerably’ It’s a win-win situation! Except for the child.

              • Cindy
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

                Torturing an individual for the good of humanity.

                Gee, that does sound familiar.

                Christians like to justify God’s torture of innocent children, babies born without lungs and so on, as evidence that God simply wants to ‘teach us compassion’.

                That might be a reason, but it isn’t a justification. If God is all good and all loving,it is impossible to justify torturing the innocent for the benefit of others.

                But I digress.

              • Posted June 21, 2015 at 10:19 am | Permalink

                torture that unfortunate child so that permanent happiness would ensue for all humankind

                That fragment right there exposes the inherent contradiction in all such notions. Clearly, the “unfortunate child” cannot possibly be human if this scenario is to be taken seriously — else it’s not “all humankind” that benefits, but “all the rest of humankind” that benefits.

                That these “thought experiments” are framed as such is no coincidence. Hitler tried to exterminate “undesirables” for the benefit of all humankind, and could do so with a clean conscience because the undesirables clearly weren’t human.

                Indeed, it’s why Christianity makes as much sense as it does. Jesus was able to suffer for all humankind because he himself wasn’t human; he was the celestial paschal lamb, the proverbial “other” onto which all the nasty shit gets shoved so we don’t have to deal with it. It’s now his problem, not ours.


              • Robert Seidel
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

                I should clarify that Singer said perhaps he couldn’t do it because of his nature given to him by evolution, not out of moral qualms.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted June 20, 2015 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

                Ah, yes, determinism! Torturing a child’s like an avalanche occurring! And if Singer did bring himself to torture the child despite his evolutionary history he could subsequently stifle the infinitesimally small pangs of guilt he might fancy he felt in a state of permanent happiness by reflecting that it was all determined, and though nevertheless in some sense he might be taken to be responsible he wasn’t really responsible, and certainly not morally responsible. I think Singer should have been disinvited for not having the courage of his philosophical convictions.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted June 21, 2015 at 7:37 pm | Permalink

                Thanks, Ben. Naturally I agree entirely: the contradiction you point out was of course why the child had to be killed in my account of the consequences. Ah, philosophy… and certain philosophers….

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted June 22, 2015 at 3:39 am | Permalink

                I haven’t been tortured.
                I have suffered quite sever mental and physical pain.
                If some one asked me, ‘would you endure this amount of suffering to enable permanent happiness and lack of suffering, for all beings capable of suffering, including yourself’?
                What should I say?
                What would I say?

                How long and how severe must the torture be?

                What sort of torture? How about chopping of a bit of your genitals without anaesthetic?

                Is that enough to ensure said happiness?

                Should Singer be condemned for not having the courage of his convictions?
                Of course we are without full context as to what exactly he meant but still.

                If he is to be condemned, we had better be careful. If our reasoning brings us to a point which we are incapable of materialising what should we do? It is hard to unbelieve something and if one is truly incapable of the action in question should one necessary suffer penalty for thought.
                How could one escape this bind?
                Whether one should have the courage of ones philosophical convictions is an interesting philosophical question.
                What if Singer could persuade or find someone to do the act?
                I better stop asking questions and come up with the answer.

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted June 22, 2015 at 3:44 am | Permalink

                Thanks for the murti pill reference. I hadn’t herd of that and it seems very interesting.
                I may try and read it soon.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted June 22, 2015 at 9:19 am | Permalink

                The only thing I can really say is that ‘permanent happiness’ is not a feasible goal. We are not here to be happy – if we are lucky, or of a certain kind of disposition. we are happy, and happiness we know partly from the times when we are unhappy or not exactly happy. A perpetual and permanent happiness – I can think of few things more dreadful. There are Buddhist tales about some monk who out of compassion for all living things lets himself be killed and eaten by a starving animal. There are the cases of self-sacrifice in extreme circumstances – in the German death-camps, for example – or of accepting that one will be shot for disobeying an order to kill another prisoner. There is the thought-experiment devised or discussed by Bernard Williams, in which a traveller in South America is told by the army officer in charge that if he shoots one prisoner, the rest will be allowed to stay alive, whereas if he does not, they will all be shot, the question being, of course, what the traveller should or shouldn’t do. But these are all genuine situations. Permanent happiness for all mankind is a nonsense.

              • Posted June 22, 2015 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

                It’s a mistrake to focus too closely on the “what should you do in this moment” aspect of the sadistic Nazi “thought experiments.” Indeed, by doing so you’re falling into the trap, playing their game and thus granting them victory.

                The only thing to take away from these scenarios is that that’s what Hell is like, and we as a civilized people have a moral obligation to ensure that nobody ever gets stuck in such a scenario. It is up to us to erect safeguards to prevent such scenarios from ever arising…and, if they do, to have compassion for the survivors, regardless of the choice they make, and do what we can to help them recover.

                It’s the exact same problem as with the Trolley Car bullshit. If you find yourself in that situation, you don’t dare touch critical safety infrastructure unless instructed to do so by somebody qualified. If you’re qualified, your qualification has included extensive training on how to avoid and mitigate such situations, and any philosopher’s armchair hypothesizing is so laughably incomplete and inadequate as to be nothing but a really, really bad and childish joke. Instead, you first call for help and help the investigators with their post-incident analysis. Once again, the real lesson is that there were inadequate safety precautions in place to prevent the fat man and the pretty woman from being unaware on live tracks with moving trains with broken brakes, and you’re not even remotely to blame if one of them is injured or dies.

                …but play along with the “thought experiment,” and all you’re doing is re-enacting Milgram’s experiment with the philosopher playing the role of the evil Nazi officer.


              • Tim Harris
                Posted June 23, 2015 at 4:00 am | Permalink

                I largely agree with that, Ben, but will only say that the thought experiments of Judith Jarvis Thomson and Bernard Williams are responsible and are designed to bring out the complexity of situations in which ethical decisions are important. They are not simplifying things, but, rather, complicating them.
                Regarding, Michael, what we are here for, all one can I think say is that there is a great deal of suffering as well as times of great happiness in life. And, yes, I believe we should try to mitigate the sufferings of others and give them a chance of happiness. But permanent happiness? No.There is no such thing. I suppose my ethical beliefs are summed up in two poems by Seamus Heaney, one of the most wonderful and generous men you could ever hope to meet (I introduced his poetry when he first came to Japan):’Sunlight’ & ‘A Kite for Michael and Christopher'(his two sons):

                (the last stanza of the first)

                And here is love
                like a tinsmith’s scoop
                sunk past its gleam
                in the meal-bin.

                (and the penultimate lines of the latter poem)

                Before the kite plunges down into the wood
                and this line goes useless
                take in your two hands, boys, and feel
                the strumming, rooted, long-tailed pull of grief.
                You were born fit for it.

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted June 23, 2015 at 1:37 am | Permalink

                “Permanent happiness is a nonsense.”
                “We are not here to be happy”

                We are not here to ‘be’ anything.

                So leave things as they are?

                We are not here to not suffer?

                Oki Doke.

              • Michael Waterhouse
                Posted June 23, 2015 at 1:40 am | Permalink

                Ben, if you get this, the trolley problem may become important when increasingly intelligent machinery may have to make such a real world life and death decision.

            • Tim Harris
              Posted June 19, 2015 at 8:31 am | Permalink

              To put it another way, the thought experiments that, for example, Judith Jarvis Thomson, presents us with throw light both on the nature and the complexity of the ethical dilemmas that we are faced with, as such thought experiments surely should do. I do not see that the ‘thought experiment’ that Singer was presented with and which he answered throws light on anything at all, and with this darelle, at least, seems to be in agreement.

              • darrelle
                Posted June 23, 2015 at 9:39 am | Permalink

                A day late (or several) late, and a dollar short. But . . .

                I am not sure what part of my short comment you disagree with so I don’t know if I can meaningfully. Coming back and reading your further comments throughout this discussion I can’t identify much that I disagree with you about the thought experiment Singer was presented with (No. 1). If I understand what you have been saying.

                “I do not see that the ‘thought experiment’ that Singer was presented with and which he answered throws light on anything at all, and with this darelle, at least, seems to be in agreement.”

                That is pretty much all I said about it. The only other possibility that seems to leave is my statement that if the premises of the thought experiment are granted then Singer made the most ethical choice of the two choices given. Is this what you disagree with?

                To clarify, the two choices are, by my interpretation anyway. 1) All the misery in the world goes away forever, the suffering of billions is abated, at the cost of inflicting terrible suffering on one. 2)The suffering of billions continues.

                Personally, I think both choices suck. I suspect nearly everyone would agree. That is, after all, the point of constructing such thought experiments.

                You seem to object to choice 1 because we are not made to be totally happy all the time, forever. That that would not be desirable in the first place. I am not sure I agree with that. Not sure I disagree either. But, that doesn’t have any more congruence with reality than any other part of the thought experiment. It is not something that has any chance whatsoever of actually happening, even to merely any significant degree. I agree that “happy forever” should be rejected, though in my case because it is completely unrealistic, not because it is undesirable. But that objection doesn’t seem to be “accepting the premises of the scenario,” which is what I meant by taking it literally.

                I think it is wrong, ridiculous even, to condemn Singer, or anyone, for a choice they’ve made given such a scenario. Or for anyone to think that they could fairly assess Singer’s or anyone’s, ethics based on the choice they make given such a scenario.

              • Tim Harris
                Posted June 24, 2015 at 12:03 am | Permalink

                I think, as I have said, that the most ethical choice would have been to say, ‘I’m not playing your silly game.’ That is all. What if it were ten billion people (and not all humankind) who would gain permanent happiness as a result of the child’s being tortured? What would be the ‘ethical’ choice then? Or it were ten million? Or ten thousand? Or one thousand? Or one hundred? Or ten? Or even one (someone who, unlike the child, had gained proper ‘personhood’)? At what point does the utilitarian calculus kick in and tell us that – hooray! – it’s OK to torture this child?

            • Tim Harris
              Posted June 21, 2015 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

              Except, of course, Ben, that the child HAS to be human if this ‘thought experiment’ is going to be morally disturbing (to people who don’t look too closely at it) and if a positive answer to it is going to provoke the requisite level of moral outrage that morally outraged people like to feel on these occasions.I’m not sure about the ‘otherness’ of JC – he, too, had, or has, to be in some way human if his godly life and grisly end is to be properly affecting.

              • Posted June 21, 2015 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

                There might be a shortcut. If you think the child is human, the conclusion is that the torture is outrageous; if the child isn’t human, the torture is essential.

                …and, naturally, the gods are all things to all people simultaneously — it’s one of their fundamental literary characteristics, and why they’re so popular…as George Carlin might have put it, it’s why the fact that Jesus has a special burning place for fornicators is evidence that he loves you….


    • charlize
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 11:00 pm | Permalink

      Can’t judge the validity of Schmidt-Salomon’s stance on this particular issue
      but I’ve found him to be rather disappointingly tepid in his role as “Germany’s Chief Atheist” where one would hope for a figure with a stature and heft much closer to that of his Anglo/American counterparts. Instead, his repertoire leans heavily on warmed over Dawkins delivered with a school-boyish/marmish sputtering style which often seems to leave him sidelined in his talk-show appearances. Not a place you’d want to see someone who’s on the right side of reason and reality.

      And, now, having just read the NZZ Singer interview I have to wonder what’s Schmidt-Salomon even on about?

      • Robert Seidel
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 7:21 am | Permalink

        Here’s the link from where I got the information on Schmidt-Salomon:

        For the non-German-speakers: His problem, in a nutshell, is that Singer, in his view, may have adopted a stance where the right of individuals should be sacrificed to the good of society. And as long as he can’t be sure about Singer’s real positions, he feels unsafe to endorse him.

        • darrelle
          Posted June 18, 2015 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          The general description you gave sounds less unreasonable. But when you consider the specific statements you referenced, and Singer’s actual statements, Schmidt-Salomon seems much less reasonable.

          • Robert Seidel
            Posted June 18, 2015 at 11:06 am | Permalink

            Yes. As I said, I think Schmidt-Salomon is wrong on the killing-of-newborns bit at least, as Singer apparently hasn’t “radicalized” his view on this issue. I also think he’s giving Singer an uncharitable reading, but I can see why he might consider Singer a hot potato, after that interview.

            It has also been suggested in one German report I read, that Singer is made a scapegoat for people worried about the “economization” of human affairs, i.e., thinking of individuals in terms of a resource.

            • peepuk
              Posted June 18, 2015 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

              When I read the linked article, one point I agree with Schmidt-Salomon is that Peter Singers opinion seems more and more shifting to sacrificing individuals for the greater good or how he calls it “strukturelle Überbetonung des Kollektivs“.

              It would have been a good opportunity to criticize him for that, dis-invitation is in my opinion childish behavior.

          • charlize
            Posted June 19, 2015 at 3:51 am | Permalink

            My reaction precisely. This whole episode confirms Schmidt-Salomon both as a lightweight as a thinker and not at all clear on the concept of freedom of expression.

        • charlize
          Posted June 19, 2015 at 3:57 am | Permalink

          Thanks for that link. On that page in the comment section I would especially like to recommend the comments of one Julian Estragon.

          He nails it.

  22. ladyatheist
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:32 pm | Permalink

    “JAC: People often make a distinction here between a direct action that terminates life and an indirect action that allows life to end, but I consider that a distinction without a difference.”

    This is the famous “trolley” problem played out in real life.

    (in my opinion the anti-vaccine movement is also an example of the trolley problem – they wouldn’t kill their children directly but they’d let measles or polio do the job)

  23. Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

    Seems really, really straightforward.

    If we can agree on a right to die for adults, then parents must be able to exercise that right on behalf of their children, just as they would exercise any other medical right.

    And, once you’re at that point, everything else really does become obvious. Just as there’re all sorts of safeguards in place for physician-assisted suicide in places that permit it, we’d obviously have similar safeguards in place for the children. No physician is going to kill gramps if he says he doesn’t want to go on the cart. Same thing for some toddler who didn’t want to die even if her parents wanted her dead. And for those unable to communicate, young or old, there are reasonable safeguards that can be put in place as well.

    Will it be perfect? Of course not. But since when is perfection a requirement for anything in medicine, let alone anything else? We’re quite happy prescribing cancer treatments in full knowledge that they’re not 100% effective and carry significant risks of horrific complications, and I could go on with similar examples all day long. So why should this be any different?


  24. Marella
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 5:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s far more moral to take responsibility for your decision to allow a baby to die by administering a lethal injection, than simply allowing it to die, probably painfully, by itself. That is cowardly and hypocritical. If death is preferable to life then it should be done expeditiously and painlessly.

    Dis-inviting Peter Singer is as rude and disgraceful as all dis-invitations. If you’ve screwed up, and invited the wrong person, you just have to suck it up, unless they’ve done something truly execrable.

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 10:16 pm | Permalink

      Agreed. Before there were life-saving medical interventions, and welfare/social support (hollow laugh; I’m in the UK) a pillow over the face of severely disabled infant was often, sadly,the kindest course of action. (I’m thinking up until about the 1970s)

  25. lancelotgobbo
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    It’s not long since terribly malformed infants were handed to their parents to hold till they died. I’ve seen it done with anencephalics, and I hope such humane behaviour still continues in hopeless cases. I am currently struggling with a situation with a child with lissencephaly. She isn’t conscious as we understand the word, and has no pleasure in her existence. She is sent to school for ‘mainstreaming’ but can gain nothing from the experience (but her caregivers do gain a brief respite). She has seizures continually and aspirates and gets pneumonia. Her parents have separated, and neither of them has any kind of life other than passing her back and forth for 24/7 supervision and care. Now the childrens’ hospital wants her to have a feeding tube so that all this might continue for the foreseeable future. I’m horrified but can say nothing other than oblique hints that the parents ought to express their wishes. This poor child is essentially a lab preparation, completely dependent for evermore on 24/7 care, and has ruined the marriage and lives of her parents. What should a humane, caring society say to them? It’s tough, but that’s the card you drew, so suck it up and carry on? All I know is that her parents suffer dreadfully, and she isn’t even conscious. If Peter Singer advocates ‘euthanasia’ in this situation I can have some sympathy with him.

    • Cindy
      Posted June 17, 2015 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

      I have argued with pro lifers who think that brainless fetuses must be carried to term so that they can “experience” life.

      Yes, many pro lifers are so dumb that they think that a live body , minus a functional brain, is all that is needed to experience life.

      • ladyatheist
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 9:23 am | Permalink

        If the point of life is to experience free will so you can choose to accept Christ, wouldn’t the absence of a functioning brain mean that there’s no free will?

        • Posted June 18, 2015 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

          Considering the absence of a functioning brain in so many Christians…hmmm…tough to work that out….


    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 5:16 am | Permalink

      This argument about whether severely impaired babies should be allowed to die tends to ignore the fact that in past years they would mostly have died anyway. It’s only modern medical care that allows them to survive.

      Because they _can_ be kept alive by heroic medical measures is no reason why they _should_ be kept alive, if they have no quality of life to look forward to.


  26. Cindy
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    The difference between a 23wk in utero and a 25wk ex-utero is that the former is infringing on the pregnant persons’ bodily autonomy.

    I came across this a few weeks ago, and it was quite horrifying. Many folks naively think that it’s all sunshine and roses to be born at 23 weeks. It isn’t. Pro-lifers claim to care deeply about non-existant fetal pain at 20 weeks, yet don’t seem to have a problem torturing a 22 week neonate. In fact, those Catholics think that suffering is what God wants, and that suffering is great because it will ‘teach us compassion’.

    Anyhoo, here is what an NICU nurse has to stay about extreme neonates:

    Infants born at 22-23 weeks gestation have a 1-10% chance of survival, with the high end requiring the most advanced NICU care possible. Of those survivors, greater than 95% will suffer profound neurodevelopmental impairment NICHD/NIH. By profound neurodevelopmental impairment, I do not mean the child will have a learning disability, or need to walk with canes, or have mild cerebral palsy. I mean the child may suffer from intractable seizures, need a feeding tube because of being unable to swallow, have varying degrees of blindness and deafness, have spastic quadraplegia and be wheelchair bound, never speak, never crawl, never walk, never run, etc.

    I have cared for many infants at the edge of viability. It is always emotionally draining. There is no justice to it. The extreme measures involved to keep a 22-23 week infant alive is staggering, and it is ugly. I once had a patient who had an IV placed on the side of her knee due to such poor IV access. When that IV infiltrated, I gently pulled the catheter out, and her entire skin and musculature surrounding the knee came with it, leaving the patella bone exposed. I have seen micro-preemies lose their entire ear due to scalp vein IV’s. I have watched 500 gram infants suffer from pulmonary hemorrhages, literally drowning in their own blood. I have seen their tiny bellies become severely distended and turn black before my very eyes, as their intestines necrose and die off. I have seen their fontanelles bulge and their vital signs plummet as the ventricles surrounding their brains fill with blood. I have seen their skin fall off. I have seen them become overwhelmingly septic as we pump them with high powered antibiotics that threatened to shut down their kidneys, while fighting the infection. I have seen many more extremely premature infants die painful deaths in the NICU, then live.

    • Posted June 17, 2015 at 10:15 pm | Permalink

      Thank you. I wish every Catholic priest would spend two weeks as your assistant.

  27. kmbunday
    Posted June 17, 2015 at 9:07 pm | Permalink

    Jerry, you wrote, “And I’m sensitive to Germans’ awareness of the horrible killings that occurred there (and in Nazi-occupied territory) during the Second World War. But it’s time to get past that, for Germany is no longer a Nazi country, and should be able to engage in philosophical discourse without the taint of Hitler.” But the historical context really does matter a lot more in Germany, because killing of the sick and disabled in Germany is what preceded killing racial outsiders (as the twisted Nazi views on “race” defined those) in Germany. The specific technology of using poison gas (originally, exhaust gas of motor vehicle engines) to kill people originated with the project to get rid “life unworthy of life” that was thought to be an economic burden on society. Please don’t take my word for this. On another online forum, I learned about Richard Evans’s magisterial three-volume history of the Third Reich, and I read all three volumes in the last year. Germans are sensitive to issues like advocacy of euthanasia, especially for sick and disabled children, because they observe in their own history that ideas like that were the stepping stones to all the inhumanity of the Final Solution (which had originally been a plan of forced emigration).

    • Chris
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 5:52 am | Permalink

      The T-4 program preceded WW2, if I remember correctly, which is part of the problem.

      Whether Peter Singer should have been disinvited? I don’t know. But I agree that sensitivity is far higher there than in the US (where there was also a flourishing belief in eugenics which didn’t go that far, oh, apart from racial segregation and all that).

  28. Posted June 18, 2015 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    My mother was an OB nurse in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up and she told me that infanticide in such cases was quite common. A baby born with defects making life impossible was put aside to die in peace. And this was in a Catholic hospital in South Texas.

  29. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted June 18, 2015 at 2:23 pm | Permalink

    Infants aren’t aware of death and probably have limited self-consciousness

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but I distinctly recall hearing a radio programme (or podcast) in the last few years discussing advances in the medical treatment of infants before birth where the surgeon under interview said that “until relatively recently” (the last couple of decades) many surgeons held similar opinions and consequently developed the idea that infants didn’t feel pain – pre-birth infants in particular. And so as a logical consequence, when surgical procedures were required on a neonate, they were routinely done without anaesthetic, or with minimal anaesthesia.
    I forget the details (I filed it under category 3 problems – someone else’s problems), but the context may have been recent advances in surgical intervention in heart problems in infants before birth. There was an advance recently in treating a heart defect that sometimes resurfaces in adult life affecting scuba diving, which was why I paid attention to that part of the discussion, but I do recall there were some quite bizarre ideas put forward.
    Sorry, long day. Very much knocking-off time.

    • Cindy
      Posted June 18, 2015 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

      According to this study, an infant is incapable of distinguishing touch from pain until 35 weeks

      I was listening to one of the people behind the 20 week abortion bans on NPR, and the amount of bullshit made me shudder. The politician behind the bill claimed that her side ‘had more citations’ than the pro-choice side, and that because of this, she was correct in that fetuses feel intense pain at 20 weeks. Which is absolute bs btw, since fetuses are incapable of even basic consciousness until 25 weeks, as the cerebal cortex is not yet functionally mature. The necessary hardware is not yet in existence. Which, btw, didn’t stop an idiot pro-lifer from telling me this past week that human zygotes have the capacity for sentience prior to developing that capacity because they…develop naturally! I kid you not.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 18, 2015 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

        When people let their gonads rule their brain cells, there arenlt generally good results.

  30. Bethlenfalvy
    Posted June 18, 2015 at 8:40 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much for having me labelled as a descendant of Nazi murderers.

    I didn’t know that German farmers in East Slovakia (who had lived in the region for almost 800 years before being “cleansed away” courtesy of the victorious Allies) were involved in the euthanasia programme but I am always eager to learn more. Thanks for academic elaboration.

    And as you are talking about responsibility of “the Germans”, it would be much appreciated to know how “our” two deputies (out of three representatives of the “Zips German Party” in the National Assembly), who were taken to Ilava concentration camp on 1 September 1939, could have reacted more adequately. Perhaps writing “I strongly disapprove of the policies of Mr. Hitler” on the cell wall might have been the best option.

    • Tim Harris
      Posted June 19, 2015 at 4:40 am | Permalink

      If your comment is aimed at what Jerry Coyne wrote, then, in all honesty, I do not think you are being fair, and, though I may have missed something in the comments, I don’t think that any of the commenters have asserted that all Germans are descendants of Nazi murderers. What Jerry said was this: ‘And I’m sensitive to Germans’ awareness of the horrible killings that occurred there (and in Nazi-occupied territory) during the Second World War. But it’s time to get past that, for Germany is no longer a Nazi country, and should be able to engage in philosophical discourse without the taint of Hitler.’ What Jerry and the commenters are speaking of is a cultural matter. I am not, as it happens, a particular admirer of Singer, and think there are far better writers on ethics about, among them Bernard Williams & Martha Nussbaum, and am also, if it matters, partly of German extraction, though pre-Nazi (my German ancestors settled in England in the 19th century). Regarding your justified anger about the treatment of the German community in Slovakia, it is sad, also, to learn that the German community in Romania, who were also in the country for many centuries and who were sent to prison camps merely for being German by the Russians, have now largely left Romania for Germany – or so I have heard.

      • Bethlenfalvy
        Posted June 19, 2015 at 10:44 am | Permalink

        J. Coyne’s wording “Germans — the descendants of those who killed not only sick, deformed, and mentally ill infants, but adults as well –” is rather brazen to say the least.

        “Argumentum ad Hitlerum” used to suffocate the freedom of expression (Singer incident) is one thing, rash language use another (and your German extraction certainly does not matter as it comes to the analysis/judgment of historical facts).

        As for Romania (which you mention for whatever reason): The Romanian government was decent enough not to deport its German population, which in parts had lived in the region since the 13th century (Soviet forces would extract slave labourers though). Btw: the mass deportation of +/- 14 million people classified as “German” (Reich citizens and others) was not devised by “Eastern thugs” alone but supported & encouraged by the Western Allies (Committee for the removal of German populations in London, established in 1941; Potsdam Conference).

        • Tim Harris
          Posted June 20, 2015 at 12:54 am | Permalink

          My fault: I missed that sentence of Jerry’s. Yes, I know about the deportation of Slovakian Germans. And I know that the Romanian government did not deport its German-speaking citizens – I merely find it sad that after many centuries of living in Romania, at peace with their neighbours, many of the German-speaking population have been leaving in recent years.

  31. gijswijs
    Posted June 19, 2015 at 8:01 am | Permalink

    Dutch law already provides for these cases.

    The law permits physicians to terminate the lives of *newborn infants* and to perform late-term abortion (after week 24)

    So this is not just a controversial view from a philosopher, this is already practiced in The Netherlands.

    You can read about it (in English) on the Dutch Governmental site:

  32. Wayne Tyson
    Posted June 21, 2015 at 6:21 pm | Permalink

    I confess. I screwed up. What I get for having several posts up at once. I posted my comment here (#37) instead of here, where it belongs. I compounded the error by posting a comment about my confusion on CC’s later post.

    Yours in sackcloth and ashes,

    So here it is to correct the record:

    (No, the system would not allow the post, so if anyone wants to read it she or he can click on the link above (unless I’ve screwed up again).

  33. Wayne Tyson
    Posted June 23, 2015 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    This seems to be the crux of the issue presented by the post (kindly correct me if I am wrong):

    “they had to balance “the high good of free speech — an essence of philosophy” with the contents of Singer’s position.”

    It is interesting, though, to note that nowhere in the extensive commentary is the word “speech” mentioned.

  34. Wayne Tyson
    Posted June 23, 2015 at 8:20 pm | Permalink

    However, the post does invite discussion of the substance of the subject Singer wishes to discuss:

    You can see that Singer doesn’t endorse blanket mercy-killing of all sick or deformed infants. It depends, he says, on their quality of life, something that his opponents seem to ignore. And I’m sensitive to Germans’ awareness of the horrible killings that occurred there (and in Nazi-occupied territory) during the Second World War. But it’s time to get past that, for Germany is no longer a Nazi country, and should be able to engage in philosophical discourse without the taint of Hitler. Singer, as always, raises issues of serious moral import (e.g., Should we kill animals for food? How can we justify living in luxury as well-off Westerners?), and they’re worthy of serious debate. Preventing him from raising the issue, after he’d already been invited to a conference (and has views that have been expressed for years) is a form of censorship.”

    Yet I am also a bit surprised that the commentary does not include the implications of evolutionary biology to this subject.

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