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Summary of Andrew Sloane's Critique of Peter Singer on Infanticide (Denise Cooper-Clarke)

Summary of Andrew Sloane's Critique of Peter Singer on Infanticide (Denise Cooper-Clarke)

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Published by: Michael Bird on Aug 22, 2013
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12/14/2013

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Defending the publication in the
 Journal of Medical Ethics
(November 2011) of an article arguing thecase for infanticide, editor Julian Savulescu
pointed out that the ideas in it were ‘largely not new’.
Thisis true: the widely published philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer made the case for infanticide in1985 in
Should the Baby Live? 
(with Helga Kuhse), and in
Rethinking Life and Death
in 1994.
Rethinking Peter Singer: A Christian Critique
(Ed. Gordon Preece, Melbourne: IVP, 2002) has a chapter,by Sydney theologian and ethicist Andrew Sloane ,
‘Singer, preference utilitarianism and infanticide’,
which specifically addresses the assumptions and weaknesses of the general ethical theory on which
Singer’
s defence of infanticide rests.
Sloane concludes that Singer’s
 
“preference utilitarianism suffers
from fatal philosophical flaws which justify its rejection; that therefore his views on infanticide should
be rejected”.
I would encourage you to read this chapter (indeed the whole book) for yourself, buthere is a much abridged version:Peter Singer
’s
argument that defective newborns do not have a right to life, and so may be killed(painlessly) in certain circumstances, is a serious challenge to the traditional commitment to infantsas vulnerable beings entitled to protection and respectful treatment, whether they are defective ornot.
Singer’s views on infanticide are a specific
application of his ethical theory,
 preferenceutilitarianism.
 
Singer’s arguments for infanticide
 
Singer believes that parents should have the option of openly and painlessly killing their newborns,say, by lethal injection, if they decide that they do not want them for any reason. He recognises thatthis idea conflicts with deep-seated moral intuitions. However, he believes that we should reject suchintuitions as unjustified vestiges of a crumbling ethical tradition.He offers two main reasons for his view: 1) that an infant is not a
person
, and 2) that theconsequences of killing that infant may be better than the consequences of not killing her, and soinfanticide is a permissible, or even the right, action.
 
2
1)
Infants are not ‘persons’
 Rejecting traditional notions of the sanctity of (human) life Singer claims that what makes killingwrong is not that the entity that is killed is a human being, but that such an entity is a
 person
, humanor otherwise. By
 person
he means an entity that is rational, self-conscious, aware of its own existenceover time, able to communicate, and so on.1Infants, like foetuses, do not have such capacities, andso are not persons. It would be wrong to make them suffer, but not necessarily wrong to kill them,painlessly.2) Evaluating consequences is all that counts, morallySinger argues that the consequences of killing a newborn may outweigh those of her surviving.Usually the consequences of killing a normal healthy infant do not outweigh those of letting her live:the benefits of her life to herself and her parents, hence killing a normal healthy baby is wrong. But inthe case of severely handicapped infants, killing them may not be wrong, because the negativeconsequences of letting them live (the suffering of the child and parents and possibly others, as wellas the frustration of the
parents’
preferences) may outweigh those of killing them . In other words, if the parents do not want the child and her quality of life is likely to be poor (one example he uses isDown Syndrome), she ought to be killed.
The connection between preference utilitarianism and infanticide
Peter Singer's ethical theory can be stated quite simply: "Whatever action satisfies more preferences,adjusted according to the strength of the preferences, that is the action I ought to take."2We shouldnote that the interests of all beings who have demonstrable interests should be considered,regardless of species and that no interests have more weight than any others (the principle of universalisability).Singer's is a
consequentialist 
theory: the moral value of an action lies only in its historical. There isnothing about an action which has intrinsic moral value. More specifically, it is a utilitarian theory, in
1
Singer,
 Practical Ethics
, 83-95; Kuhse and Singer,
Should the Baby Live?
131-132.
2
P. Singer,
The Expanding Circle: Ethics and Sociobiology
(Oxford: Clarendon, 1981) 101.
 
3
that it aims at maximising the non-moral goods, and minimising the non-moral evils of all affected bya decision. For Singer these goods are the
interests
, or
 preferences
of sentient beings, and the non-moral evils to be avoided are the corresponding
 frustration
or
thwarting
of such interests orpreferences.3 Only sentient beings have interestsAny being that is not
sentient 
, i.e., capable of experiencing pleasure and pain, such as rocks, plantsand micro-organisms, has no interests to consider in an ethical decision.
Only persons have a ‘right to life’
 Only those sentient beings that are capable of reason and communication, of some sort, andconscious of themselves as existing over time,
and hence are ‘persons’,
have any valid claim to a
‘right to life’
.
Non ‘persons’ (whatever their species)
can have no interest in their continued existence,for they are not aware of it. It is this claim that has the clearest impact on Singer's views oninfanticide. So, for Singer, human infants, while clearly sentient, in that they can experience pleasureand pain, are not
 persons
. Hence, while it is wrong to cause an infant to suffer, it is not wrong to killhim or her.
Outline and critique of preference utilitarianism
Singer's views on infanticide are a consistent and coherent application of his ethical theory. But whyshould we believe his theory?
It is derived from RM Hare’s universal prescriptivism, according to
which there is no objective realm of moral facts,
no objective ‘moral order’.
Instead, Singer sees thedevelopment of human morality in terms of the altruistic behaviour of many species, which has, hebelieves, a genetic basis.Given that there
is nothing ‘out there’ to which ethical
statements refer, they are no more thanexpressions of preferences. However, for Singer this does not mean that need not be rational. Bytheir very nature these prescriptions, or "ought" statements are universalisable, because the process
3
Singer,
 PE 
, 13;
 EC 
, 101.

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