Hate the Song, Love the Singer

Many of the ethical questions raised by Peter Singer in his Register interview have been addressed by the Church. The Register asked Rev. Thomas D. Williams, LC, an American moral theologian and dean of the Theology School at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum pontifical university, for his comments.

I think it is evident to anyone with even a rudimentary familiarity with Catholic moral teaching that Peter Singer’s ethical stance on nearly all contemporary life issues stands in direct opposition to the Catholic position. But since Singer has chosen to downplay those differences, I think it is important to highlight just how far removed his thought is from a Christian, and indeed classical understanding of human life, its inherent dignity and the ethical consequences stemming from this dignity.

I am sure that Register correspondent Robert Brennan is right in asserting that Peter Singer is “no monster.” Yet civil people can come up with monstrous ideas, and even rational-sounding ideas can lead to monstrous consequences when carried out to their logical conclusion — just as Karl Marx led to Stalin and Friederich Nietzsche led to Hitler.

To Kill or Let Die

The first question to be addressed is Singer’s contention regarding the moral equivalence of active euthanasia and the discontinuance of extraordinary means of life support, permitted by Catholic morality.

Singer sums up the moral reasoning going on in both cases as an assessment of an infant’s condition leading to “a decision that it is better that life should not continue.” He introduces the category of “quality of life” as the determining factor in the decision.

Yet from a Catholic perspective, it is never the case that one human being will look at another and decide: “It is better for you not to live.”

Catholics understand human life is always good in itself, to be respected and defended. One thing is to be unable to prevent the death of another human being except by extraordinary means (which would make the person suffer uselessly) and to choose to forgo those means; another thing altogether is to decide that another human being should die and actively bring about his death. It is true that the end result (death) might sometimes be the same, but the human choices involved are radically different. Something akin to helplessly witnessing your child get struck by an automobile versus intentionally running her down.

Legal provisions for the killing of sick infants seriously compromise the common good and create a climate where the good of human life is put up for grabs. In this regard, the Netherlands certainly does not provide a model of a humane society. Despite idealistic talk of looking out for the best interests of the child, decisions to terminate life often stem from concerns with the difficulties and costs of caring for such a child. Why else would so many children diagnosed with Down syndrome be aborted, since these children live happy, fulfilled lives? On the other end of the spectrum, how else can we explain the migration of so many senior citizens from the Netherlands across the border to Germany to avoid being killed if they go to the hospital?

What Makes Us Human

As serious as this is, a more pernicious problem emerges from Singer’s reasoning. The rejection of the universal and equal dignity of human beings in favor of distinctions between one human being’s worth and another’s bears the seed of the greatest abominations. Slavery, racism, genocide and eugenics all stem from the same premise that some human beings are inferior to others and don’t deserve the same protection under the law. The criteria for evaluating “worth” might vary from case to case, but the underlying principle remains the same.

If human dignity and the basic rights that flow from it is not rooted in a universal human nature, but rather in the possession or exercise of certain “qualities,” then in reality dignity (and rights) vary from person to person, according to intelligence, athletic ability, health, degree of self-awareness, etc. Thus, smarter people are not only smarter but superior and worthy of better treatment than the less intelligent. The distinctions Singer is willing to make between those who have a full right to life and those who “don’t have such a serious right to life” is downright frightening.

If “whether you happen to be a member of the species Homo sapiens or not” is irrelevant, I can only wonder why Singer thinks he should be treated differently from his dog. True, his dog might not be as intelligent, but nor does it make dangerous proposals that, if applied, would seriously jeopardize social harmony. The dog’s “utility” to the human community might be merely neutral, while his master’s could well be negative. If every human being needs to earn and maintain his right to life by proving the moral relevance of his particular existence, we have indeed reached moral anarchy and the tyranny of the strong over the weak.

Human Suffering

A final bone of contention concerns Singer’s understanding of human suffering. Since utilitarians believe that pain is the only real evil and pleasure the only real good, once suffering and pain become intense and there is no hope of betterment (no hope that at the end of pain there should be a greater pleasure), one should eliminate pain by eliminating life.

Singer believes that it is a question of “credo”: If you are a believer, you will defend the sanctity of life. If you are a non-believer, you will be a utilitarian. Yet utilitarianism is unacceptable, even for a non-Christian, since it fundamentally misunderstands human good.

The only value animals are able to perceive is the pleasurable and the painful, and thus they flee pain and seek pleasure. Human beings, on the contrary, are able to discern values rationally; they perceive many values animals do not perceive: aesthetic values, intellectual values, moral values, religious values. … From here, man can and must establish an objective hierarchy of values. For example, the value of truth-telling (“do not tell lies”) is a higher value than that of pleasure or pain (“even if you lose certain advantages or pleasures that you could obtain by a little lie”).

Behind a smokescreen of apparent rationality, Singer’s proposals do not lead to moral progress but to the dehumanization of society. They couldn’t be further from the Christian understanding of the basic good of human life and the corresponding moral responsibility to uphold and defend it.