Singer’s Assault on Universal Human Rights

[This post is the second in our new series of Thinking in Action posts, the series being devoted initially at least to discussion of talks at the Cognitive Disability conference in NYC in September.]

Following Rob Wilson’s Singer on Parental Choice, Disability, and Ashley X , I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own about Peter Singer’s talk at the recent Cognitive Disability: A Challenge to Moral Philosophy conference. These comments address issues in parental choice and the protection of universal human rights.

Clip 1: Cognitive abilities and moral status. A transcript of this video clip appears at the end of this post. Some parts that are particularly relevant to this post appear in red letters.

Dr. Singer suggests that parents should be allowed to make whatever decisions they consider in the best interests of children who have severe disabilities. This is based on two important assumptions: (1) Parents can accurately determine the best interests of their children, and (2) Knowing their children’s best interests parents will choose to act according to those interests. Before examining these assumptions in regard to the particular case of children with disabilities, severe or otherwise, we need to examine these assumptions in regard to other children.

Clip 2: Parental Choice and Ashley X. A transcript of this video clip appears at the end of this post. Some parts that are particularly relevant to this post appear in red letters.

Do parents always know what is in their children’s best interests, and as a society do we grant parents the unlimited right to determine those interests? The evidence clearly demonstrates that the answer is “NO!” Most parents act in their children’s best interests most of the time, but many parents honestly believe that beating their child severely helps their child. A significant number truly believe they are helping their children by denying them life-saving transfusions for religious reasons, and some others genuinely believe their daughters will have better lives as a result of genital mutilation.

In one high-profile murder case, a mother explained that she believed it was better to drown her two sons than to allow them to suffer through the turmoil of their parents divorce. In another believed that it was better to drown her five children before they were old enough to be stained by sin. These cases may seem bizarre, but repeatedly psychological studies of parents who kill their children tell us that about 50% of cases are such altruistic filicides meaning the offender believes he or she is acting in the best interests of the child. A few people may endorse this kind of parental choice if these parents honestly believe they are doing what is best for their child, and argue that society should not interfere. Society, however, only allows parents to exercise parental choice within limits. When society believes that parents are doing serious harm to their children, we step in to protect children. We are no longer satisfied to treat children as mere property of parents.

In Dr. Singer’s presentation, he suggests that the parents of Ashley X are acting in their best interests because they believe that removing their daughter’s breasts (note that Dr. Singer uses the euphemism removal of breast buds – medical and billing records call this bilateral radical mastectomy), sterilizing her , and stunting her growth will somehow “protect her from possible sexual abuse.”

As someone who has spent more than two decades studying sexual abuse, I want to be very clear that there is absolutely no evidence that mutilating the bodies of children to make them less attractive to potential sexual offenders offers any protection against sexual abuse and exploitation. I know of no respected authority on sexual abuse who would endorse such action under the guise of child protection. On the other hand, I know of many child protection experts who believe that respecting the rights of the child and the integrity of the child’s body is an important element in preventing sexual (and other abuse). Hysterectomy easier to conceal, but there is no evidence that it inhibits its occurrence. On the other hand, there is actually clinical and research evidence that recognizing the rights of children and respecting the integrity of their bodies reduces the risk of abuse, and this does not require intrusive and painful surgery. Similarly, there are many millions of parents who believe that altering their daughter’s bodies through female circumcision and genital mutilation protects them from sexual exploitation and abuse. This too is a poor substitute for respect and protection.

Another large group of children are maltreated by parents who know that they are acting against their children’s interest and do it anyhow. The year when Canadians are most likely to die of homicide from birth zero to one-year-old. In the United States, about 10% of all childhood trips to emergency rooms for injuries are a result of maltreatment, and, as a group, the injuries that these children sustain are significantly more serious than those sustained accidentally. Approximately 65% of severe brain injuries in infants is the result of intentional injuries. The World Health Organization estimates that on our planet 155,000 children, age 14 and younger, die each year as a result of child maltreatment. Biological parents are responsible for 80% of this maltreatment, while stepparents and adoptive parents are responsible for another 15%. A recent study published in Lancet concluded that each year between 4 and 16% of children are physically abused, and between 15 and 30% of girls and 5 to 15% of boys are sexually abused. Dr. Singer may feel that these parents should be free to exercise these parental choices but society steps in to protect typically developing children from parents who want to abuse or kill them. Society no longer simply accepts the ideas that “father knows best” and that children are simply personal property of their parents to be used or disposed of as parents see fit.

The obvious next question is whether children with intellectual disabilities should have the same protection as, less protection than, or more protection than other children. Dr. Singer seems to suggest that they should have less. Unless he honestly believes that it would be fine for the parent of a typical child to choose to kill the child or subject the child to intrusive surgeries with no medical rationale, his position that these things should be left up to the parents of children with disabilities clearly is a call for less protection. Notice he says that parents should be able to make these decisions “for those with profound mental retardation, maybe in others as well.” One potential reason for suggesting that less protection should be given is the belief that less protection is required because there is less risk of maltreatment. While there are many studies that provide evidence that the risk of abuse or neglect is higher for children with intellectual disabilities than for other children, two major studies stand out for their excellence in design and execution. In 2000, Sullivan and Knutson reported on a large cohort (50,000+) of school-aged children in Nebraska, and in 2005, Spencer and Colleagues reported on a large cohort (119,000+) of children in West Sussex. In the Nebraska study, children with intellectual disabilities were 3.8 times as likely to be abused as children without disabilities, and in the West Sussex study, children with intellectual disabilities were 4.7 times as likely to be abused as children without disabilities. Clearly the risk of abuse is greater, not less, for children with disabilities. This implies that they need more protection to achieve an acceptable standard of safety.

This need is exactly the reason that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely accepted and endorsed human rights treaty in the history of our planet, specifies that children with disabilities must have special protection to achieve equal human rights. Dr. Singer, of course, suggests that there should be no such thing as human rights. He explains that the notion of human rights is all based on a misunderstanding and speciest biases. He interprets Kant to say that being human is not adequate reason to be respected or afforded rights, rather rights should be afforded on the basis of the demonstration of rational thinking to clever apes and parrots, computers, fictional aliens with big brains, or any other entity that can pass a test of reasoning. Just as literacy tests were once used to determine who had voting rights, Singer suggests some new test of rationality to determine whose lives should be protected. If we accept Dr. Singer’s premises and arguments that there should be no universal human rights and no rights of all human children from birth to the age of majority, we must reject the Convention on the Rights of the Child and all other human rights documents that guarantee basic rights simply on the basis that an individual is a living human.

This leads to the second possible reason for arguing less protection for the lives of people with disabilities. Singer’s argument against protecting the lives of people with intellectual disabilities is based on the view that these lives are simply not worth protecting. In his view, these individuals are human non-persons with no moral status and no rights. As his presentation suggests, he considers convincing people that there should be no such thing as universal human rights to be an essential step toward greater recognition of animal rights. Children with profound intellectual disabilities would be the first casualties to this attack on human rights. Would others follow? I do not know and hope we never find out, but I do believe there is a danger that if we decide that we can exclude some others may follow.

I agree with Professor Singer that non-human animals should receive much better treatment and perhaps have recognized rights. I applaud the Spanish Parliament for recognizing Apes right to life and liberty and freedom from torture in 2008. I greatly appreciate the important conceptual work of Dr. Singer and others in helping to bring this about. I strongly disagree that an attack on Universal Human Rights by denying them to individuals with profound disabilities is necessary, sufficient, or in any way helpful in achieving better lives for animals. Pitting animal rights against human rights is divisive and counterproductive for bettering the lives of people with disabilities and for bettering the lives of nonhuman animals…. But that is an issue for another Whatsorts blog entry.

Transcript of the Peter Singer Video Clips:

Clip 1: Cognitive abilities and moral status

I do want to challenge you, the conference is subtitled, Cognitive disability: A challenge to moral philosophy, and I think it goes in both directions, actually. Moral philosophy is a challenge to how we think about people with cognitive disability and, to some extent, to how we think about questions of moral status. So a lot of the issues that I was thinking about in listening to previous sessions like the one we just had now… a lot of the issues, I think, people are thinking within a certain sphere… we’re thinking within a certain sphere, and I want to broaden the sphere so that we are not just looking at people with cognitive disabilities but we’re looking at how our thoughts about moral status altogether relate to beings who do not have the cognitive abilities that normal humans do have. That’s really what I want to talk about.

Clip 2: Parental Choice and Ashley X

“Now let me say something about the views of parents on this issue. Because that, of course, is relevant. And this is something about Down Syndrome. Obviously, people with Down’s are not profoundly retarded; it’s not the kind of category I am talking about at all. But I did want to just give you a couple of comments that I’ve had when I’ve spoken about this issue, in terms of the views that parents have. Parents obviously do have a say in how their children should be treated, and I think that that’s tremendously important. So that in debates about, for example, infants born with Down Syndrome and other complicating conditions that required surgery, some parents have said that they didn’t want surgery performed because they didn’t want to have a child with Down’s. Other parents have said that they did. And some have said, as Ann Bradley has said here , that some people with children with Down syndrome wish that all of their children had this extraordinary syndrome, which replaces anger and malice, deletes anger and malice, replacing them with human thoughtfulness and devotion to friends and family.

So that’s fine for parents who have this view and make that choice obviously. But there’s also the contrary view that I’ve had expressed to me in letters when I’ve … when my views have been publicized on these issues, about parents whose children have been saved by doctors when they were born, in this case, an extremely premature baby, although not actually as premature as many who are saved now, but who have had a lot of problems. And this woman wrote to me that had she known what was in store for her son, and had the doctors asked her whether they wished to intubate him, in other words, to keep him going on the ventilator so that he would survive, she would have said “No”. She would have would have said, that would have been a gut-wrenching decision, but it would have been for the best, both best for her son himself, and for the family and the other children. So, the views of parents on these issues go in both directions. And I don’t think, therefore, resolve the question in a way, if you like, in favour of protecting life, in all cases. Rather, the arguments that I have suggested imply that parental choice ought to have an important role in decisions. At least in decisions for those with profound mental retardation, maybe in others as well.

I want to mention also the case of Ashley that received a bit of publicity last year, for those of you who heard about it. This was a case of a girl in Seattle. There was some dispute about how profoundly or severely her cognitive disabilities were. It was said that she can’t walk or talk, keep her head up, roll over, or sit up by herself. She was fed with a tube, she didn’t swallow and the case was controversial because her parents used growth attenuation to make her, to keep her small, and make her easier to care for, which involved operations like hysterectomy, removal of breast buds, and some hormone treatment, to … so they could still pick her up and keep her with them. And they said that this was in her interest, for her benefit, so that she could travel on family holidays with them, and so on. Also, they said it would protect her from possible sexual abuse. Now, it was a controversial issue. But one of the things that I don’t really agree with is the claim made in this Los Angeles Times article about it, which says that “This is about Ashley’s dignity. Everybody examining the case seems to agree at least about that.” Well, I mean again, as I a said before the term “dignity” is a very vague term. I would say that it’s about what’s in Ashley’s best interests. We are prepared to use the term “best interest” for animals without too much hesitation. We know what that means . We’re not prepared to use it for nonhuman animals . And I don’t really think that someone as developmentally disabled as Ashley is described as being is actually someone with dignity in a sense we’re prepared to deny to nonhuman animals.”


14 thoughts on “Singer’s Assault on Universal Human Rights

  1. This is an interesting post Dick. The stats about abuse are disturbing but informative, and you persuasively show that Ashley’s parents did not act in her interests. I’m not sure, however, if your characterization of Singer’s position is entirely accurate.

    Starting from the beginning, you say that “Dr. Singer suggests that parents should be allowed to make whatever decisions they consider in the best interests of children who have severe disabilities”. I don’t think Singer holds this position. You have to take the word “consider” out of that sentence. Singer is a consequentialist after all. What matters is the outcome. If a decision taken ends up not being in the best interests of the child, then it was the wrong decision. Good intentions might be a mitigating factor, but it doesn’t make the decision any less wrong. If I’m right about this, and I may not be, it tends to defuse some of what you say afterwards. The examples of beating children, denying blood transfusions, and genital mutilation would all likely be condemned by Singer. The only way these actions would be justified is if they could actually be demonstrated to be in the interests of the children, simply thinking they are is not good enough.

    Singer didn’t actually say that Ashley’s parents were acting in her best interest. He said that they said they were acting in her interest. I suspect Singer probably thinks they were, but his point in this section of the talk seems to be one about dignity; he left open the question of whether the surgery really was in Ashley’s interest. I think you’ve pretty clearly shown that it was not in her interest. My point is that Singer might well agree with you without changing his fundamental position.

    I’m not exactly sure why you believe that Singer thinks parents should be free to abuse their children. It’s true that Singer thinks parents do not do wrong if they decide to kill infants or “profoundly mentally retarded” children, but regarding physical abuse, Singer certainly thinks causing unnecessary suffering is wrong whether the sufferer is moderately disabled, severely disabled, or not disabled at all. I know it seems strange that killing would be allowed where physical abuse is not, but we do treat animals this way. I can have my cat put to sleep any time I choose, but I can’t abuse it.

    I also don’t think Singer suggests children with intellectual disabilities should have less protection. As I just mentioned, every being capable of suffering deserves equal consideration of interests where physical abuse is concerned. What Singer says is that “profoundly mentally retarded” people do not possess the same interests as persons, and so parents exercise greater authority over them – authority that includes the power to determine whether the child lives or dies. I admit this sounds shocking and even disgusting, but every animal owner possesses the same authority over the animal, and it is Singer’s aim to ask us why this should be the case.

    This leads to my final point. On what grounds are we basing human rights? It is not that Singer thinks there shouldn’t be human rights; he just thinks there aren’t human rights. Holding this position, I think, is actually compatible with promoting human rights conventions as a matter of political expediency. But the question remains: where do these human rights come from? Singer is willing to point to something that justifies the special status of persons, and I don’t think it is rationality so much as what comes from this capacity (e.g., setting goals, pursuing projects, possessing a narrative story, and so on). What can we point to that all humans, and no animals, possess that would justify universal human rights. I take it for granted that, as nice as it sounds, we don’t actually want to give animals and humans equal rights, so we need to be able to say why humans have rights that animals don’t. The only reason I can think is that God set all humans apart. If I believed this, then I wouldn’t be so troubled by Singer. Unfortunately, I don’t.
    Marc Workman

  2. Hi Mark,
    You make some excellent points.
    I don’t really think that Peter Singer would endorse parents abusing their (human or nonhuman) children just because they think it is the best think to do, but I do think that he suggests in the case of children with severe disabilities that killing them or performing surgery without medical indication is okay if the parents think it is okay without demonstrating any effort to determine whether it is actually in the child’s interest. When Susan Smith drowned her two boys to spare them suffering through the breakup of her family, she was right to say that this spared them some future suffering. There is a lot of evidence that children suffer as a result of family breakups, but we don’t say this justifies killing them. In regard to children with sever disabilities, Singer says, “allowing them to live is fine for parents who have this view and make that choice obviously” and goes on to say “Rather, the arguments that I have suggested imply that parental choice ought to have an important role in decisions. At least in decisions for those with profound mental retardation, maybe in others as well.” This reverses the assumptions and changes the burden of proof. For most children, we assume there lives should be protected and killing them through actions or inactions is presumed wrong, even when parents think they are doing the right thing. Singer is suggesting the views of parents in the case of children with profound intellectual disabilities (and possibly some others as well) become more important. Here there is no presumption of the child’s right to survival and we seem to be forced to prove that it is not. I think this is lesser protection.
    Regarding the the issue of Human Rights versus sentient-being rights. I am not basing this idea on a God that grants a special position to humans. If there is such a thing as an all-powerful, all-seeing God, she, he, or it would be so much more capable than us, that the difference between our minds and God’s would be much greater than between ours and Apes or Chimps that it is hard to see why God would draw a line between human and nonhuman animals. SO I am not sure that God provides a good solution unless we subscribe to a very specific version of God.
    I don’t think either (human or nonhuman) rights or moral status is God-given or inherent in nature. I simply think that it is a pact that we make. It was an invention (I think a good one). It was invented by humans and has so far been seen as primarily for humans. There is no logical reason why it couldn’t be extended to others, if we want to do that and we can make that work. You might call the drawing the line between humans and nonhumans arbitrary, I would say that is a matter of convention.
    However, I would say that drawing the line between sentient and non sentient beings is a lot more arbitrary. Awareness, sentience, intelligence and such traits exist on a continuum within as well as among species. If we can’t assume that all humans meet the Singer’s criteria, we can’s assume that all members of any other species should meet those criteria. It is interesting that Dr. Singer recognized the Spanish law recognizing some basic rights for Apes as a good thing and did not feel a need to point out that there are few profoundly disabled apes that should be excluded. If we say that humans with intellectual disabilities are out of the deal, why wouldn’t we have to say some gorilla’s but not others qualify. What about dogs and cats, in or out? Should it just be mammals. Birds make plans, communicate, build homes, and, in some cases, create their own tools as well as use them. So, if awareness, intelligence, and sentience exist on a continuum, basing moral status or rights on some level of these traits is more arbitrary than making the human nonhuman distinction because it treats a continuous variable like a categorical one, while human versus nonhuman is inherently categorical.
    So I don’t oppose giving more rights or recognizing the moral status of some nonhumans. I think this is actually a great idea. Saying that this is less arbitrary, more logical, or even more natural than what we are doing now is hard to defend, without indicating exactly where the line is drawn among individuals and why that needs to be right there.

  3. Okay, I think we might be getting somewhere. I want to stay with the idea of human rights verses person rights because I think it is at the heart of Singer’s argument.

    This seems to me ultimately to be about consistency. You say there is no logical reason why we shouldn’t extend human rights beyond humans, and you don’t oppose giving more rights or recognizing the moral status of some non-humans. Singer would say we have no choice in the matter. We must include non-human animals if we want to be consistent. And it wouldn’t involve simply giving more rights; it would be necessary to give equal rights to most, if not all, animals.

    You point out that rights have been extended beyond the category of people to whom they were originally granted. The question is: why were they extended? I think the answer has a lot to do with consistency. We learned that sex and race were morally arbitrary, and we learned it from women and people of different races who pointed out that it was morally arbitrary. King said something like “judge someone not by the color of his skin, but by the content of his character”. The point seems to be to judge someone on what is morally relevant. I guess I don’t think white, property-owning males simply decided to let others have rights, which would reduce the extention of rights to merely a matter of convention; their theory of rights demanded it. They really had no choice if they wanted to be consistent. Singer is saying something very similar. Our theory of rights, if it is to apply to all humans, must be extended to non-human animals, and not to a lesser extent, but equally.

    I’m pretty sure Singer doesn’t want to extend human rights equally to non-human animals, and I don’t think anyone else really does either. So the question becomes: on what grounds can we deny equal rights to animals? The answer Singer comes up with is on the grounds of personhood, something that nearly all humans and only a small number of non-human animals possess. I’m not sure if the fact that intelligence runs on a continuum makes this more arbitrary than using a category like homosapiens. It certainly makes it messier and harder, but I don’t think it’s more arbitrary. Intelligence, reason, rationality, etc seems to be the only morally significant thing that sets most humans apart from nearly all non-human animals. I think possession of this capacity is morally relevant, at least more so than being born of human parents. I believe, however, if you could come up with other grounds for not granting animals equal human rights, Singer would be interested in them.

    There seem to be three options: 1) simply accept the inconsistency (i.e., ignore the contradictions in our moral theory), 2) extend equal human rights to nearly all non-human animals, which would necessarily leave many humans worse off (rights may be infinite, but the resources needed to enforce them are not), or 3) accept that not all humans possess human rights, and that some non-human animals do possess them. I don’t really like any of these options, so if there is another alternative, I’d like to know what it is.
    Marc Workman

  4. There is nothing internally inconsistent about giving human rights to humans. It is in itself perfectly consistent. What it is inconsistent with is Singer’s view of Kantian philosophy, that the only meaningful thing that distinguishes humans from nonhumans is the their higher cognitive abilities, and therefore these abilities are more important than being human. I disagree with that premise. Call it a bias if you like, but I am a human and I feel a special obligation to other humans. I would not be upset if a gorilla felt a special obligation toward other gorillas. Call it inconsistent but I treat my own family (mother, father, sisters, wife. children) in a special way. I do not feel a need to ensure that they have some special abilities that no other people on the planet have to be treated in like family members. This doesn’t mean that I don’t care about other people or other nonhumans. Even Koko, who Singer points to as the paragon of Gorilla equality is a speciesist in Singer’s parlance. Koko owned a kitten… The kitten did not own Koko.
    So, I see nothing inconsistent in moral theory in recognizing some rights are uniquely granted to humans and are called human rights. I think if we define a person in the sense that Singer does, there might also be rights granted to human and nonhumans called personal rights. This is not inconsistent with moral theory, it is simply another moral theory.

    The only place that I think we disagree is about the word arbitrary and I suspect that is based on the meaning we apply to it. The closest we have to a measure of cognitive function is IQ, which has little reliable meaning, particularly below an IQ of 70 or above 130. It is even more unreliable when accommodations or translation is built in. Yet without accommodations and translation Koko and people with sensory and physical disabilities may be severely disadvantaged. Being human is a lot easier to determine, and I would like to see rights extended to animals who are cognitively limited as well as really smart ones.
    Call me an anti-intellectual but all that I care about in human or non-human animal is the ability to experience pleasure or pain and when I can’t be sure whether this ability is present, I will assume that it is present, because I prefer making the less dangerous error. If a human has the ability to experience pleasure or pain, I see no moral reason to consider the life of someone with an IQ of 8 as less important than the life of someone with an IQ of 180.

  5. Marc,
    You talk of both “equal rights” and “extending rights equally” from humans to animals. But which rights in particular? The right to education? To vote? There is a lively discussion of the latter of these in the Q&A session at the Cog Dis conference during the Q&A to the opening session with Nussbaum and Berube–tune in around 8.37 for Jeff McMahan’s question, or around 12.37 for Anita Silver’s, if you haven’t listened to this yet. It might be worth blogging on separately, esp. given your interest in the capacities approach that Nussbaum has favoured for a long time.

  6. Dick, you said, “Call it a bias if you like, but I am a human and I feel a special obligation to other humans”. I just don’t understand how this is any different than saying, “I am a white, property-owning male, and I feel a special obligation to other white, property-owning males”. I think the inconsistency is in granting rights to a closed set of people for no justifiable reason. I will do my best to explain Singer’s position in more detail.

    We want to argue that all people are equal. This is why granting rights only to property-owning males is wrong: it is inconsistent to say that all people are equal, and yet maintain that members of group X get rights that no one else gets simply because they belong to group X. Now we said all people are equal, so there is no inconsistency as long as we give the rights to all people. The problem arises when we start to ask what makes all people equal. I assume we want to give reasons for the claim rather than just asserting it. Well, we aren’t equal in terms of abilities; there is a wide variation among every given ability. We are all equally members of the human species, but this just doesn’t seem like the best answer. Singer thinks that our equality lies in our interests. We all have interests, and they are equally worthy of consideration. But animals have interests as well, and it is hard to come up with a reason why they are not equally worthy of consideration. So here is where it looks inconsistent. If equality is grounded in our having interests that are equally worthy of consideration, then consistency would demand that we give equal consideration to the equally worthy interests of animals. We do so for the same reasons that the equality of men and women demanded that men and women have equal rights. So it seems to me if you want to deny equal rights to animals, you have to offer an explanation of the equality of humans that would 1) show the ways in which humans are equal, and 2) not be based on qualities or characteristics that very many animals possess. All this is to say, it is inconsistent to hold that all humans are equal and yet deny rights solely based on group membership; so too is it inconsistent to ground human equality in qualities or characteristics that many animals possess and yet grant humans rights we deny to equally worthy animals. I hope that’s clear; though I worry it’s not.

    There is no doubt that measuring cognitive ability is difficult, maybe even impossible. It is much easier to simply determine if the being is a human or animal and then dispense rights accordingly. But to make this argument is really to admit that we should be excluding some humans; we just don’t have the tools to accurately assess people. So even though we should exclude some humans, we’re not going to do that because of practical, and perhaps insurmountable, challenges. I’m sure this isn’t your position, but talk of the difficulty in measuring cognitive ability suggests that we should actually exclude people, but we won’t because it is too hard to guarantee we will exclude only the right ones.

    I just want to point out that intelligence has very little to do with what separates persons from humans. Singer will say that a 5-year old child with downs is every bit the person that a Harvard professor of physics is. For that matter, an animal may be every bit the person as the professor. It is the goals, projects, and narrative story that set persons apart from humans.

    If, as you say, all that matters is the ability to sense pleasure and pain, then I don’t understand why you would consider the life of an animal who experiences both as less important than the life of a human. And if you do consider them equally important, then they would seem to deserve equal rights. Even if these were only the most fundamental rights to life, liberty and security (rights that don’t seem to me to be exclusive to a particularly human way of life the way, for example, rights to education and voting arguably are), this would require major changes in our society (e.g., mandatory vegetarianism — probably veganism – no owning of animals, no spaying or neutering animals, and many others I’m sure).
    Marc Workman

  7. Marc,
    I don’t assume the life of animals is less important than or inferior to my own, just as I don’t assume that the life of a human stranger is less important or inferior to my own. I do feel some obligations to my fellow humans, and I even share part of my earnings through taxes and charity with them, but I give my own family a bigger share. In the same way, I consider my first obligation to my human family, but I also see that there are some moral obligations to nonhumans.
    I won’t say to much about whether I believe that admitting favoritism to family over strangers or humans over nonhumans is the same as favoring white, male, property owners. It is the same in the sense that it is categorical, but I not all categorical distinctions are bad. In addition, I don’t see how the categories of intentional or nonintentional are any less categorical or any less discriminatory. Some very intelligent, very intentional people live miserable lives, some people who are a lot less intelligent and planful seem to really enjoy their lives. So, I don’t think that their is any rational reason to say mere intentionality makes a life more valuable. In many cases people with big intentions make life miserable for themselves (because of their failure to achieve their intentions) or others (because they achieve their intentions). the holocaust, the Ukrainian famine, the Rwanda slaughter are all the work of people with a great deal of intentionality. I have never known a person with a profound intellectual disability to bring that kind of suffering into the world.
    Like you, I don’t see rights as handed down by an all powerful God. I see them as a set of negotiated rules. I have no problem with establishing a set of rights that will be recognized for some or all animals, but I don’t think the way to get there is by reconstructing human rights as animal rights. For example, if we have a common set of rights this requires not only that all people become vegetarians (which I could support) but that lions, tigers, bears and other carnivores become vegetarians. Alternatively, if we want to have a common set of rights based on what lions tigers and bears might see as natural rights we could give any (human or nonhuman) animal the right to eat any other (human or nonhuman). People are generally obligated to clean up dog excrement but dogs are not expected to clean up human excrement. Strict equality is not workable or even desirable, better treatment of animals is possible and desirable. If we conceptualize better treatment of animals or even of animal rights as requiring strict equality, we make something that could be achieved unworkable. So, I do not argue with the premise that animals have interests in better treatment and respect for a basic set of animal rights; I simply say that by trying to achieve this through reconceptualizing universal human rights as universal personal rights, it threatens the rights of some humans while making the actual achievement of animal rights less rather than more attainable.
    Even within humans we recognize that some rights are not the same for all humans based on biological differences. For example, we recognize women as having a greater say in certain reproductive rights than men because they play a different role in reproduction. For example, a woman is generally seen as having the right to terminate a fetus that she has conceived, but a man is not, because the fetus is carried in the woman’s body and not in the mans.
    Singer seems to believe in a kind of unified theory in which everything flows logically from one central assumption. I don’t see the world in that way. I do not see any contradiction in recognizing that every human being is entitled to a specific set of rights, simply for being human, and if we choose also recognizing that some nonhumans have the same or even a different set of rights.
    As I said, plans and intentions vary, but most people with severe intellectual disabilities exhibit some degree of planning and intention. Most who do not exhibit this have severe physical and or sensory disabilities as well as intellectual disabilities and so it is hard to say with certainty whether they lack any intentions or merely cannot communicate them. So the actual number of candidates for excluding on this basis would be very small, certainly less than 1 in 1000 and probably much less than 1 in 10,000. Denying this tiny minority equal status or human rights will do nothing to make the lives of animals better.

  8. I would like to address the debate Marc and Dick have been having over the comparison between giving preferences or showing favoritism to family members, humans, and white, male, property owners.

    The comparison employs several different categories which might well have very different moral statuses: family, human, race (white), gender/sex (male) and economic status (property owner). Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued, for instance, that giving preferences to family members over strangers can be justified in a way that giving preferences to members one’s own race cannot. Preferences for family members are justified by the intimacy and shared history that we have with them–a justification that does not extend to race, since we do not have intimate relationships with or have a shared history with all members of our race. That’s why we should reject arguments for racial preferences that are supposedly grounded on an analogy with the family, Appiah suggests (this argument originally appeared in his piece “Racisms,” which is in the book *Anatomy of Racism* (David Theo Goldberg ed.)). Appiah’s argument supports Dick’s suggestion that showing favoritism to family members is morally justified, while showing favoritism to members of one’s own race (other whites, in the example) would not be.

    However, Appiah’s argument obviously does not support Dick’s claim that we should give preferences to humans over non-humans. Since we do not have intimacy or share a history with all other humans, Appiah’s argument cannot be used to justify showing favoritism or giving preferences to other humans over non-human animals. Indeed, those of us who have pets share more intimacy and history with some non-human animals than we do with lots of humans.

    I had an idea this morning, however, that might help to defend Dick’s claim that the category of “human” should have a special moral status. The idea is drawn from the work of the 19th Century German philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel. Although I’ve written a great big book about Hegel’s logic (to be published in 2009), I hadn’t previously thought of connecting Hegel’s point to this debate. As a result, I am not sure how well the suggestion will stand up to the scrutiny of the internet, but I thought I’d throw it out there anyway.

    Hegel argued that certain concepts have a special logical or categorical status. The term that Hegel used in German to capture these special sorts of concepts has no exact English equivalent. It is generally translated into English by the word “genus,” but, as the German term makes clear, the concepts in question are special sorts of genera. In general, a “genus” is a natural kind, or a kind of living thing that can be found out there in the natural world. When Hegel referred to the concepts that he thought had a special logical or categorical status, however, instead of using the general German term for “genus,” he used the special term “Gattung.” This word is rooted in the German word “Gatt,” which means “spouse” or “mate.” A “Gattung” is thus a genus that has to do with mating—not just a natural kind, but a natural mating kind. It is a natural kind that is defined as the kind that it is by the life cycle of the individuals that make it up—more specifically, by their reproductive life cycle—and that, in turn, has a central role in defining those individuals.

    The life cycle of a house cat, for example, defines it not only as the individual house cat that it is, but also as its natural mating kind. House cats are birthed and raised by other house cats, and they go about life having house-cat wants and desires–the most important of which, for Hegel, would be that they grow up to desire (or have an urge) to mate and reproduce with other house cats. I do not want to spend too much time on all this, but Hegel’s idea was that a category such as “house cat,” or “elephant,” or “human” has a special logical and categorical status because of the centrality that the genus has in the life-cycle of the individuals of the genus. Humans would not survive long without other humans, they have human nutritional and health requirements, they are defined as individuals (in terms of their wants and desires) in the context of social communities with other humans and have recognizably human sorts of wants and desires, and they generally grow up to want to share their lives with other humans, with whom they often desire to have human children (whether biologically or otherwise). Certain concepts, for Hegel, are not mere categories, but categories that are fleshed-out into the real world (in his terminology, they are “ideas”). Given the way that the category of “human” is fleshed out into the real world, it may well have a special moral status in the lives of human beings that other categories do not have. Other human beings and thus the “Gattung” “human” has a central role in defining who we are.

    Moreover, people with profound cognitive disabilities are recognizably human in Hegel’s sense. They are raised and cared for by other humans in human social communities, they have human sorts of nutritional and health demands, they have human sorts of wants and desires—for human contact and attention, for example, and for things that are products of a human social world (a desire for eating cake, for instance (to use one of Dick’s examples), rather than for eating raw mice (as my house cat does)), and so on.

    Other categories may have moral importance for other reasons that do not apply to the category of “human”—the category of “family” (for the reasons Appiah suggests, for instance), or of “gender/sex” (the fact that a woman has the baby inside of her does seem to be morally relevant, for instance, as Dick argues)—and there are good reasons for thinking that some categories should not be given the moral relevance that they have been given (race, perhaps, as Appiah argues, or property ownership). But Hegel’s account of the special logical or categorical status of “Gattungen” may well help to suggest that the category of “human” is defensible as having a special moral status for human beings, and therefore that we should give other human beings preferences in moral consideration over non-human animals.

    Julie Maybee

  9. I agree that not all categorical distinctions are bad; however, I think the onus is on the person who would make such categorical distinctions to show why they are justified. Since you want to say that you have special obligations to other humans, I think Singer would say it’s up to you to say what those obligations are and why they are justified.

    I suspect if you actually said what the obligations were, it would imply that you value human life more than animal life, and that is why I suggested you did. I guess we won’t really know until you say what obligations you have to humans as compared with animals.

    You might be right that the category of intentionality verses non-intentionality is just as discriminatory. I tend to think it is morally relevant because it is 1) the foundation for being a moral being (most, if not all, animals can’t act morally or immorally), and 2) it is necessary for forming a conception of the good. There may be a better answer, but the Rawlsian answer will do for now. When asked the question: why should we treat members of Group X differently from members of Group Y? Pointing to the will seems to be more convincing than pointing to membership in the human species. I hope this clarifies that relying on intentionality has nothing to do with how much suffering it leads to, though Singer would probably have to argue that overall more happiness than suffering comes from intentionality – something, I suspect, no one can prove right or wrong. But even if you aren’t convinced about the moral relevance of intentionality, the purpose of seizing on intentionality is to find some way of justifying special obligations to humans. Without such a justification, we would need to drastically reorganize society to take into account the many new obligations we would have to animals.

    I can’t really say what equal respect for the lives of animals and humans would entail. You’ve done a good job of showing how difficult it would be to work out. However, I’m not sure if we have to have that discussion. The main question is what special obligations do we have to humans qua humans, and why? It is this question that Singer thinks proponents of human rights haven’t answered satisfactorily. If there is no satisfactory answer, it is at that point that Singer offers his own answer for having special obligations to most, but not all, humans and a small number of animals. If you reject his answer, it is at that point that we have to start thinking about what it would mean to treat animals with the same respect we treat humans. But before we get there, you could try to say what special obligations we have to humans and why we have those obligations. If you’re unable to do this, then we need to start thinking about what equal respect for the lives of animals really means.

    I agree that Singer’s reliance on one central assumption from which all moral obligations are derived is problematic. Though I’m equally as skeptical as to whether the concept of human rights can do all the heavy lifting that people want it to do. It’s important to remember that Singer’s argument with respect to people with “severe” disabilities rests on the claim that there are human rights.
    Marc Workman

  10. Hi Marc & Julie… I want to make distinction here, which may or may not be philosophically cool. I am not trying to mount a philosophical argument, but I do want to explain my position. Perhaps this also presents another reason why bias in favor of family or species is not as heinous as bias in favor of race or gender, etc.

    First I do want to clarify something else about how I feel. This may appear to be a contradiction but I don’t think that it is. Here goes: (1) I don’t think that human life is more valuable than other animal life, but (2) I do value human life more than I value other forms of life. The reason that I honestly hold both positions is that I the first is about an objective position. I think that the value placed on any category or individual is based on judgements. If I was looking down as an alien from space, I don’t think there would be any reason to say that human life is better than ape life or the life of some other animal. But I am not. If it were not for other humans, I would never have been born and if it were not for other humans, I would not have survived as long as I have already, and if every other human being disappeared from the earth tonight, I’d die, probably freeze to death within a week. If every great ape or chimp disappeared from the earth, I would be very sad, and I think it would be a real tragedy. But to be honest, my life doesn’t depend on it. So I believe that I have some responsibility to other animals based on the believing the world is a better place if they suffer less and have good lives and I have this same obligation to humans. But I also feel that I have an additional obligation to other humans, not based on intimacy but rather based on our interdependence.

  11. Sorry to jump in on this discussion — I’ve started working on a comment on the Hacking discussion that occurred later in the “Challenge to Moral Philosophy” conference. (Indicating that I’m not really a _moral_ philosopher anyhow — in a certain sense anyhow.)

    I agree with at least the attitude of Dick’s philosophically “uncool” post. I think Singer’s ploy has been to load the burden of proof on those of us who believe that human beings are _prima facie_ morally important, by arguing that if we accept that principle we are thereby illogically treating non-humans as unimportant.

    He supports this point by operationalizing the traits which (allegedly) allow us to discriminate between humans and nonhumans. He chooses traits with support from the history of Western philosophy (natch). If we preferentially respect humans it must be because of [fill in the blanks] rationality, reflexivity, etc. These traits are the ones that are most vividly exemplified by … (who? …) Philosophy professors of course. Traits that might be valued by other social classes seem to be neglected. Being a Philosophy professor myself, I’m not sure what these are, but I’d bet that they include such things as loyalty, compassion, and maybe even the refusal to be tied down in one’s judgment by simply-stated logical rules.

    I’m not sure whether rights-talk or welfare-talk (or some other kind of talk) is the way to deal with this problem. But given that the topic is still the Ashley X case, I feel compelled to make a confession.

    When I first heard about the Ashley X case, I had been arguing about a case involving dwarfism — the rights of dwarf parents to “choose” to have a child with dwarfism, and/or the problematic nature of aborting a fetus on grounds of dwarfism. Up pops the Ashley case.

    Here’s my confession: My first reaction was this:

    What’s the big deal about causing Ashley to remain small?

    If I’m willing to argue that dwarf parents have a reasonable right to choose to have a child with dwarfism, why should I complain when Ashley’s parents make a similar choice? Indeed, Ashley’s parents have a _better_ (in the utilitarian sense) reason to choose small stature for Ashley than parents with dwarfism have to choose dwarfism for their offspring — Ashley (it was reasonably argued) would get better treatment as a small person than she would as a large person, whereas the dwarf child of dwarf parents would have many of the same difficulties as the parents did in growing up small in a large-designed world.

    This opinion was not very persistent. The sexual nature of the medical procedures, and their similarity to sterilization laws in Germany and the U.S., pretty soon made me turn against my earlier pro-smallness opinions. But one discomfort has stuck with me.

    Even though I disclaim any Singer-ish rules about how we must _state the operational criteria_ upon which we make moral decisions, I am still uncomfortable about the conflicting intuitions that I had in this case, and have had in some others. If _choosing a non-standard body for one’s offspring_ is acceptable in some cases, why is it not acceptable in other cases? If dwarf parents are reasonable in choosing to have a dwarf child, why are Ashley’s non-dwarf parents wrong in choosing to have a dwarf child?

    Again, I accept the disability community’s rejection of the sterilization procedures. Those were just too ugly for acceptance. But what about size? What’s the big deal? If small size is ok for some people, why not for other people? Both cases involved parental choice over offspring sizes — why the difference in approval?

    Just wondering …

  12. No need to apologize for joinging the discussion. I’m sure we’re all happy to have others weigh in.

    I don’t actually think Singer says if you consider humans morally important, then you must necessarily consider non-humans unimportant. I think what he does is look around and see that the lives of animals are, legally and in practice, treated as less important than the lives of humans, and he asks why we accept this differential treatment. His challenge seems to me to be based on a widely-held assumption: discrimination needs to be justifiable. Singer thinks you won’t be able to find grounds on which to discriminate among humans and animals if the goal is to include all humans and exclude all animals, as in the case of “human rights”.

    You could try focusing on capacities or qualities other than rationality or reflexivity, such as loyalty or compassion, but he doesn’t think this will work – many animals exhibit loyalty and compassion while some humans do not. Not even Singer’s chosen traits of rationality or reflexivity allow us to discriminate humans from animals because, again, not all humans possess these capacities to the degree some animals do. Singer concludes that we can’t set all humans on one side and all animals on the other.

    But if you disagree; if you want to say that we do have special obligations to humans, that we can treat the lives of animals as less important – as evidenced by the eating of animals, forcing them to work for us, owning them as pets, using them in medical experiments, etc, then you need to offer some sort of justification for the differential treatment. Dick has offered the idea of interdependence, but I just don’t know if this will work. It does seem to offer a reason for treating those in our immediate community differently than we treat others. However, we just are not interdependent with all human beings. Dick, you said if all humans disappeared tonight, you would freeze to death in a week. This is probably true, but if every human outside Canada disappeared, I think survival for Canadians would still be possible. On the other hand, if every bacterium in your body disappeared, and stayed gone, death would be inevitable. The interdependence argument seems to imply that we should give a special moral status to bacteria; for we depend on them, and they depend on us. Moreover, if every animal disappeared, humans would be in trouble. So it doesn’t seem to me that interdependence is a sufficient justification to discriminate all humans from all animals.

    Though, I like the idea Julie presented (Hegel’s “gattung”). It doesn’t seem to rely on all humans possessing any common traits, and there seems to be more to it than interdependence (though that is a part of it). A couple of questions arise for me: 1) is there any reason the “gattung” “Aryan” could not hold the same moral significance for an Aryan that the “Gattung” “human” holds for many humans? And related to that, 2) does the fact that the “gattung” “human” has a special moral status in the lives of humans mean it ought to have that status? Could it be something to overcome just as a racist might need to overcome the special moral status race has for him or her? I certainly think “gattung” is an interesting concept; I need to think more about it.
    Marc Workman

  13. Don’t be sorry for jumping in. I am not sure that Singer’s position is an intentional ploy, but it seems to be based on assumptions that that I disagree with. First, that importance of value can only spring from one characteristic or exist for one reason. Second, that values must be determined by logic. I disagree with both.In the real world we may value things for a lot of different reasons, and those reasons vary with our needs. Gold and water are both valuable for different reasons. This morning, if offered a choice between a kilogram of gold or of water, I would take the gold, but it is easy to imagine circumstances in which I would prefer water. In the same way, I agree that we should have some respect for animals like apes, dolphins, elephants because they typically show self awareness and other evidence of minds that have some similarity to our own. But I can also place a special value on other humans.
    Logic is basically a tool. It cannot direct us without at least some basic values. There is no purely logical reason to assume that pleasure is better than or that life is better than death. Once we make a few basic assumptions like this based on values, we can use logic to achieve these things.
    A third interesting assumption that Singer makes (and Kant who based this idea on seemed to make) is that what might make humans unique is a in individual trait rather than a collective characteristic. I disagree, there are other possible differences that might be less important. I think that there is a bigger difference between humankind and other non human species than there is between any individual human and other animals. (it’s not entirely a good difference, but is a pretty clear difference). Humankind has formed highly durable and complex civilizations. I don’t think any other animal comes close.

  14. Marc raises great questions about Hegel’s concept of “Gattung.” I want to take a stab at answering them.

    I think Dick may provide the answer to the first question. For Hegel, the special status of Gattungen is grounded in something like the collective character of humans—that there is such a collective character. The genus “human” has a collective character that is recognizable in individuals. That character would be made up of basic health and safety requirements, reproductive practices, and general social needs that all humans share. I would argue that the category of “Aryan” cannot be demarcated in the same way. Just as there are no morally relevant characteristics that belong to races (as Kwame Anthony Appiah has argued), so there are no morally relevant characteristics that belong to the category “Aryan.” There are no basic health and safety requirements, reproductive practices, or general social needs that Aryans share only with other Aryans and not with any other humans (as the slave holders who preferred to mate with their slaves showed us as well). This last point also points toward the answer to the second question, which asks for a justification from the move from facts to values. The justification is that the collective characteristics that the “Gattung” “human” has are morally relevant characteristics. What humans need to survive, to avoid pain, to reproduce, to keep their babies safe—these basic collective characteristics are morally relevant ones. They also perhaps suggest why it might not make sense to ask us to get beyond a bias for other humans (Marc’s third question). Think of the sorts of collective characteristics that Hegel points to: basic health and safety requirements, mating and reproductive desires. To give up our bias for other humans in terms of our mating desires, for instance, we would have to start desiring to mate and have babies with other mammals. What made the racist slaveholders’ claims about the special status of their race ridiculous was in part the fact that they ran down to the slave quarters at night. Their claim for a special moral status for their race was belied by their mating and reproductive desires. Perhaps the fact that humans do desire to mate and reproduce with other humans and share other basic health and safety requirements are real, morally relevant (collective) characteristics of humans that could be used to justify giving the category of “human” special moral status.

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