Singer is the Princeton bioethicist who first broke into the public’s consciousness more than thirty years ago with Animal Liberation, a book in which he claimed that granting human beings special privileges based on being human is “speciesist”-discrimination against animals. Instead of society being human centric, he asserted that the lives and wellbeing of animals deserve “equal consideration” with those of humans.
Singer’s intent was (and is) to destroy human exceptionalism-the belief that human life matters morally simply because it is human-and replace it with a “quality of life” ethic in which being a “person” rather than a human is what matters morally. Personhood status would be earned by possessing minimal cognitive capacities such as being self aware over time. This means, Singer wrote in Practical Ethics, that “some members of other species are persons: some members of our own species are not.” The latter category includes the unborn, infants, people with catastrophic cognitive impairments.
One consequence of replacing the sanctity/equality of human life with the “quality of life” ethic would be the destruction of universal human rights. As just one example, Singer argues that infanticide is acceptable because babies are not persons. Thus, writing again in Practical Ethics, Singer stated that parents should be allowed to kill a baby with hemophilia if they believed that doing so “would lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life.”
Singer is also the moving force behind the Great Ape Project (GAP), which he announced in 1993 with the goal of obtaining a United Nations declaration that apes, chimpanzees, bonobos, and orangutans are members with human beings in the “community of equals.” No, apes would not be given the right to vote, but they would be deemed morally equivalent to human children.
At first glance, this seems paradoxical because the GAP is explicitly speciesist. But there is method to this madness. The GAP isn’t intended “just” to give apes human-type rights. As he and philosopher Paola Cavalieri wrote in The Great Ape Project, breaking “the species barrier” would establish the principle that humans do not have unique moral worth. That would break the spine of Judeo/Christian moral philosophy opening the door to even more animals being accepted in the moral community.
At this point too many readers may be rolling their eyes, laughing, and saying to themselves, “Ape rights! Infanticide! It can’t happen here.”
More dangerous words were never uttered. One reason Singer Values are triumphing is that too many refuse to acknowledge the evil that this way comes. Moreover, it is happening here:
- Eugenic infanticide has become almost common in the Netherlands, with two studies in the Lancet revealing that 8% of all infants who die there are killed by doctors-about 90 such murders per year, all with the support of the Dutch Medical Association.
- Cognitively devastated human patients, most famously illustrated by the Terri Schiavo debacle, are dehydrated to death by removing tube sustenance based on quality of life judgments.
- Futile Care Theory, allowing doctors to refuse wanted life sustaining treatment, again based on quality of life, is the law in Texas and other states.
- And this just in: the species barrier is about to be officially breached in Spain, where the Parliament is poised to pass the Great Ape Project into law and require the country’s diplomats to promote it internationally.
The threat to human exceptionalism is real and immediate. The danger to the weak and vulnerable acute. In the world that would rise from the ashes of human exceptionalism in which we would be viewed as just another ape in the forest, an individual’s value would be subjective and rights temporary, depending on the extent of each animal’s individual capacities at the time of measuring. In such a milieu, none of us would ultimately be safe because if we were ever deemed to lose (or not yet to have gained) our personhood, we would come to be viewed and treated, well, like animals.
CBC Special Consultant Wesley J. Smith is also a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His blog Secondhand Smoke can be found at www.wesleyjsmith.com .
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