What is Death? (4) More on Personhood:View of Peter Singer
I hope my visitors got the idea from my last posting that the concept of personhood, which is an important element to consider when discussing both life and what is death is complicated and controversial. One side of the controversy are the views of the Australian ethicist, Peter Singer who is currently at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J. He has supporters of his view of personhood and,of course, many detractors. But for those who haven't formed opinions, his view definitely should be heard. He has a Princeton website where you will find much information about his academic background, positions and rewards and you will find a very interesting FAQ section from which I extracted the portion below to portray his views regarding the definition and significance of personhood, not by my interpretation, but in his own words. Don't write comments to him. I am sure he has heard plenty good and bad but write them to my blog. I myself and I am sure other visitors would be most interested to read them. No, this is not a college ethics class and I am not grading you, but I hope you will think the concepts out carefully and provide a rational basis for your particular views. ..Maurice.
From FAQ by Peter Singer
Q. I’ve read that you think humans and animals are equal. Do you really believe that a human being is no more valuable than an animal?
A. I argued in the opening chapter of Animal Liberation that humans and animals are equal in the sense that the fact that a being is human does not mean that we should give the interests of that being preference over the similar interests of other beings. That would be speciesism, and wrong for the same reasons that racism and sexism are wrong. Pain is equally bad, if it is felt by a human being or a mouse. We should treat beings as individuals, rather than as members of a species. But that doesn’t mean that all individuals are equally valuable – see my answer to the next question for more details.
Q. If you had to save either a human being or a mouse from a fire, with no time to save them both, wouldn’t you save the human being?
A. Yes, in almost all cases I would save the human being. But not because the human being is human, that is, a member of the species Homo sapiens. Species membership alone isn't morally significant, but equal consideration for similar interests allows different consideration for different interests. The qualities that are ethically significant are, firstly, a capacity to experience something -- that is, a capacity to feel pain, or to have any kind of feelings. That's really basic, and it’s something that a mouse shares with us. But when it comes to a question of taking life, or allowing life to end, it matters whether a being is the kind of being who can see that he or she actually has a life -- that is, can see that he or she is the same being who exists now, who existed in the past, and who will exist in the future. Such a being has more to lose than a being incapable of understand this.
Any normal human being past infancy will have such a sense of existing over time. I’m not sure that mice do, and if they do, their time frame is probably much more limited. So normally, the death of a human being is a greater loss to the human than the death of a mouse is to the mouse – for the human, it cuts off plans for the distant future, for example, but not in the case of the mouse. And we can add to that the greater extent of grief and distress that, in most cases, the family of the human being will experience, as compared with the family of the mouse (although we should not forget that animals, especially mammals and birds, can have close ties to their offspring and mates).
That’s why, in general, it would be right to save the human, and not the mouse, from the burning building, if one could not save both. But this depends on the qualities and characteristics that the human being has. If, for example, the human being had suffered brain damage so severe as to be in an irreversible state of unconsciousness, then it might not be better to save the human.
Q. You have been quoted as saying: "Killing a defective infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Sometimes it is not wrong at all." Is that quote accurate?
A. It is accurate, but can be misleading if read without an understanding of what I mean by the term “person” (which is discussed in Practical Ethics, from which that quotation is taken). I use the term "person" to refer to a being who is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. As I have said in answer to the previous question, I think that it is generally a greater wrong to kill such a being than it is to kill a being that has no sense of existing over time. Newborn human babies have no sense of their own existence over time. So killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living. That doesn’t mean that it is not almost always a terrible thing to do. It is, but that is because most infants are loved and cherished by their parents, and to kill an infant is usually to do a great wrong to its parents.
Sometimes, perhaps because the baby has a serious disability, parents think it better that their newborn infant should die. Many doctors will accept their wishes, to the extent of not giving the baby life-supporting medical treatment. That will often ensure that the baby dies. My view is different from this, only to the extent that if a decision is taken, by the parents and doctors, that it is better that a baby should die, I believe it should be possible to carry out that decision, not only by withholding or withdrawing life-support – which can lead to the baby dying slowly from dehydration or from an infection - but also by taking active steps to end the baby’s life swiftly and humanely.
Q. What about a normal baby? Doesn’t your theory of personhood imply that parents can kill a healthy, normal baby that they do not want, because it has no sense of the future?
A. Most parents, fortunately, love their children and would be horrified by the idea of killing it. And that’s a good thing, of course. We want to encourage parents to care for their children, and help them to do so. Moreover, although a normal newborn baby has no sense of the future, and therefore is not a person, that does not mean that it is all right to kill such a baby. It only means that the wrong done to the infant is not as great as the wrong that would be done to a person who was killed. But in our society there are many couples who would be very happy to love and care for that child. Hence even if the parents do not want their own child, it would be wrong to kill it.
Q. Elderly people with dementia, or people who have been injured in accidents, may also have no sense of the future. Can they also be killed?
A. When a human being once had a sense of the future, but has now lost it, we should be guided by what he or she would have wanted to happen in these circumstances. So if someone would not have wanted to be kept alive after losing their awareness of their future, we may be justified in ending their life; but if they would not have wanted to be killed under these circumstances, that is an important reason why we should not do so.