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The Incredible Shrinking of Man

The name Peter Singer should be familiar by now. An animal rights advocate, moral philosopher, and ethicist, Singer was recently appointed to a chair in “bioethics” at Princeton and is the subject of a profile in The New Yorker magazine (Sept. 6, 1999). Singer tells the magazine writer, “It is ridiculous to pretend that the old ethics still make sense…. The notion that human life is sacred just because it’s human life is medieval.” A “person,” for Singer, is any creature capable of a certain kind of self-consciousness, and Singer has argued that some animals are persons (hence should not be killed) but that newborn babies are not yet persons (hence may be killed), the severely disabled are not quite persons (hence may be killed), and the incapacitated elderly are no longer persons (hence may be killed). About the hopelessly ill he says: “The person that used to be there is gone. It doesn’t matter how sad it makes us.”

The magazine writer says that Singer’s “philosophy is called preference-utilitarianism…. Singer’s thought is shaped by the assumption that the results of your behavior should agree with the preferences of anyone whom your behavior would affect. For Singer, killing is wrong because when you kill someone who wants to live you make it impossible for that person to fulfill his preferences. Obviously, if you kill somebody whose preferences don’t have much chance of success — a severely disabled infant, for example, or somebody in an advanced stage of Alzheimer’s disease — the moral equation becomes entirely different.”

That word “preference” says so much, because it says so little. It is reductive in the technical sense, in that it attempts to reduce a complicated thing to simpler terms — which sometimes can be done, particularly in physical science. But “preference” is also reductive, fatally reductive, in the emotional or poetic sense — even, indeed, in the strictly anthropological sense: It is belittling, impoverishing, and laughably undersized, a half-pint word claiming to describe a ten-gallon phenomenon. To illustrate: There was a joke going around recently. It was a list of spoof redactions of the titles of great literary works. The idea was that the great works are too stark, uncompromising, and disturbing for modern tastes, so they should be revised to make them less intimidating and more innocuous. On the list was a Tennessee Williams play about lust, greed, regret, fear, envy, rape, and insanity, famously titled A Streetcar Named Desire. It had been renamed A Streetcar Named Preference. A good joke. But would Peter Singer get it?

It’s true that people have preferences. It’s also true that the population of California is greater than twenty-seven. But the latter statement doesn’t begin to represent the actual population of California, and the former doesn’t begin to convey what a human life is. Statements that are trivially true and greatly false are always dangerous. Diminishing labels and denaturing rhetoric are classically employed in order to legitimize killing, not to stop it — to give some warrant to behavior that is unethical, not to clarify what is ethical. Killing other humans (as indicated above) is the obvious test case of an ethical system. Why not kill? Singer (says the magazine article) would call illegitimate any answer that relies on “emotion” or “intuition.” What would he think, then, of the answer given in the Book of Genesis on the occasion of the very first murder, when Cain slew Abel? God does not inform Cain that Cain has made a utilitarian miscalculation regarding the net maximization of preferences. God utters a thunderous and terrible indictment: “The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground … which has opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.” No doubt this would sound to Singer like mere emotion and intuition.

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