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  • Peter Singer’s Challenge
  • Eugene Goodheart

The politicizing of the Terri Shiavo case has made it difficult to think clearly and judiciously (as distinguished from judicially) about what it means to decide to end the life of a terminally ill or disabled person. Can we take seriously the rhetoric of the sanctity of human life from the mouths of exponents of the death penalty? And yet there are those who consistently and in good faith hold euthanasia in whatever form morally anathema. Many of those who share this view have expressed disapproval of government intervention in the Shiavo case. They cannot be accused of having a political agenda. Over the years, philosopher Peter Singer has made the case for euthanasia most forcefully. This may be a good time to consider critically his arguments, free of the immediate tumult surrounding the Shiavo case. Such consideration may even help us in our understanding of the issues involved in that case.

Singer has been variously characterized as "the most controversial," "the most influential" and "the most notorious" philosopher in the world. His books cover a wide range of ethical issues, from animal liberation to euthanasia (including infanticide), and from globalization to the workings of George W. Bush's mind. The controversy, influence and notoriety come from positions he has taken, with a candor that one rarely finds in the work of a respectable philosopher, on the most sensitive issues of life and death. Whether or not one is in agreement with his views (I am not, as will soon become evident), they are argued with a provocative clarity and consistency. A radical advocate of animal [End Page 238] rights, he wants to dissolve the species distinction between human beings and non-human animals. An advocate of euthanasia and infanticide, he substitutes the commandment that honors the sanctity of human life for one that sanctifies the quality of life. In both instances, human beings are being denied a privileged place in the world simply by virtue of being human.

If, as Copernicus demonstrated, the universe is not earth-centered, and if, as Darwin has shown, human beings are not the separate creation of God, there can be no justification for providing human beings with a separate ethical system, often at the expense of non-human animals. Singer calls this speciesism and analogizes it to racism. In Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 1994), he argues against speciesism that in their susceptibility to pain and pleasure, in their capacity for consciousness and even in certain instances a rudimentary self-consciousness, animals deserve to be treated with the same consideration as human beings. He does not deny the superior capacities of human beings, but he views the differences between human and non-human animals as differences in degree and not kind. He provides the following memorable account of the gorilla Koko:

She communicates in sign language, using a vocabulary of over 1000 words. She also understands spoken English and often carries on 'bilingual' conversation, responding in sign to questions asked in English. She is learning the letters of the alphabet, and can read some printed words, including her own name. She has achieved scores between 85 and 95 on the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Test.

talk about what happens when one dies, but she becomes fidgety and uncomfortable when asked to discuss her own death or the death of her companions. She displays a wonderful gentleness with kittens and other small animals. She has even expressed empathy for others seen only in pictures.

(p. 181)

Why then should animals (Koko is unusual but not alone in these capacities) not be accorded the same ethical consideration as human beings? The differences between human and non-human animals in intelligence, linguistic and symbolic capacity, consciousness and self-consciousness may be a difference in degree, but of such an order of magnitude that quantity becomes quality. To say that non-human animals have 98% of DNA in common with human beings tells us nothing of the effective intellectual superiority of human beings. No matter. Singer provides a deeper reason for his anti-speciesism. "Whether or not dogs and pigs [animals...


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