Peter Singer has been awarded the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Humanities and Social Sciences [shared with Steven Pinker] for “innovative academic contributions in the spheres of rationality and the moral domain” as announced by its sponsors. Philosopher at Princeton University and advocate for “animal liberation”, which he developed in his work of the same title, he is a clear exponent of contemporary utilitarianism.

Utilitarian bioethics is characterized by seeking “the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people”, but understanding this happiness — and this is fundamental in this approach — as the ability to experience pleasure and avoid pain. According to utilitarianism, this concept of utility constitutes the supreme value that must be extolled.

More than two centuries earlier, Jeremy Bentham related happiness with pleasure and the absence of pain, which had already been argued in Greece by Epicurus of Samos three centuries before Christ. Bentham’s views were seconded by other utilitarians such as John Stuart Mill, and their influence continues to this day. Peter Singer is one of its leading proponents.

Utilitarian approaches often involve the sacrifice of some to benefit a majority. Means must therefore be assumed that are harmful to some, but whose use would be justified by the benefit of the end that is to be achieved.

This approach, which is nothing new, implies undermining the dignity and rights of some human beings to benefit others with greater numbers. Historically, attacks on human dignity (eugenics, enslavement, torture, murder) have been justified according to this approach, and their consequences have been devastating in all cases.

Thus, eugenic infanticide — incidentally currently advocated by the award-winning Singer — is recurrent throughout history: Greece, Egypt, Rome, Carthage, and even in 1970s China and Ancient Sparta. He is therefore not original in his eugenic approaches.

Other practices advocated by utilitarians such as Singer seek to “improve the species” by selecting individuals with certain qualities and eliminating others who are “defective”. Singer is an advocate for abortion, infanticide, and euthanasia in states of vulnerability, illness, high dependency, or irreversibility.

Thus, from a utilitarian stance, human beings are detached from any intrinsic dignity by the fact of being so, this being conditioned by circumstantial parameters such as the ability to feel pleasure or pain, to decide, or simply to possess certain levels of consciousness. This approach opens the possibility to consider that there are “lives unworthy of being lived”, because they involve suffering, vulnerability, or dependence.

This is not a finding of Singer’s either, nor is it situated at the “frontiers of knowledge”, as the prize now awarded is called.

The term “life unworthy of being lived” (Lebensunwertes Leben, in German) was a term used in 1930s Germany to identify sectors of the population who, according to the Nazi regime, had no right to live. It included the euthanasia program officially adopted in 1939 as a result of Adolf Hitler’s personal decision, and grew in size and scope with the project “Aktion T4”, officially ending in 1941. The killings took place from September 1939 until the end of the war in 1945, exterminating about 300,000 people in psychiatric hospitals in Germany, Austria, occupied Poland, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. After their application of euthanasia, the Germans continued to implement their practices of extermination in the final solution against the Jews.

We could mention other consequences of utilitarian thought, such as slavery, where, again, for some people, other human beings did not fulfill the quality of persons, possessors of dignity, and were treated as things, because they served the greater good of a population greater in number.

Also inspired by utilitarian views were the Nazi medical experiments on prisoners held in concentration camps, with Dr. Josef Mengele at the head, or those carried out in the United States with African American prisoners in Tuskegee, which allowed the death of 325 men, several dozen infected wives, and many children born with congenital syphilis who were left to die for subsequent autopsy.

Later, between 1946 and 1948, in collaboration with senior Guatemalan officials, US researchers, again applying utilitarian criteria, deliberately infected 1500 people in Guatemala with syphilis, including soldiers, inmates, and psychiatric patients. To do this, utilitarian researchers used already infected prostitutes and direct injections of the pathogen. The study, which aimed to establish the effectiveness of penicillin as a treatment, was led by John C. Cutler, a doctor who had taken part in the Tuskegee study, and had the approval of the US government’s National Health Advisor. Undoubtedly in this case, it was also intended to obtain a greater benefit for a large number of citizens, which involved infecting and sacrificing others. Perhaps those considered less worthy?

The hedonistic views that underpin utilitarianism, now rewarded in Mr. Singer, have lethal side effects in every case for all those that pose a threat to the enjoyment of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. Thus the suffering that comes with pregnancy can justify abortion. Or the sacrifices that may be required to have a disabled child or dependent family member may justify their elimination without further ado. It should not be forgotten that, for a good utilitarian, all suffering constitutes a threat that must be avoided – if necessary, by eliminating the one who suffers.

But Singer goes further. The mere fact of being immature, such as the embryo, fetus, or neonate, or having altered consciousness, such as comatose patients, or autonomy as in the case of highly-dependent individuals, assumes a sufficient reduction of “quality” (dignity) in their lives that would justify their extermination. Adolf Hitler also considered race or mental illness to be a sufficient cause.

For Singer, however, this does not happen with other “non-human” beings, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans, from which it is reasonable to follow that animals are equal and even superior to people, especially when we talk about people who lack certain abilities. Singer accords more dignity and rights to these animals than to dependent or immature human beings, in a biological misconception that reduces the human being to the material nature of his biology and to the ability to feel.

Human dignity

When we talk about human dignity, we do not refer to it as something we have, because if we have it, we can lose it. Human dignity does not belong to the logic of “having” but to the logic of “being”. And this is predicated of each and every person. Thus, as Kant explained, a person is an end in himself, he is irreplaceable, he is priceless. Hence the transcendence of ontological dignity: it does not depend on having a certain set of properties, abilities, or feelings.

Human beings, intelligent and free, can reject pleasure or accept pain if a good for the other depends on it. Because human beings can love, even their enemies, and can give their life to save the lives of others. That is to say, they can detach themselves from the tyranny of instinct, which seeks always to seize pleasure and avoid pain, the only valid ethics recognized from utilitarianism.

Freedom consists of loving until it hurts, as Saint Teresa of Calcutta said, because it is not pleasure that dignifies us as human beings, but love. We are more than sentient beings, and that is what sets us apart from the rest of the animals, those that the laureate Singer seems to prefer in many cases.

Julio Tudela and David Guillem-Tatay

Bioethics Observatory – Institute of Life Sciences

Catholic University of Valencia


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