Philosopher Peter Singer, Ethical Theory, and Down Syndrome

A philosopher's attempt to justify aborting a fetus with Down Syndrome.

Posted Nov 16, 2011

Peter Singer may be our best known ethicist. A shy, bespectacled Australian who teaches at Princeton, he is regularly interviewed on The Colbert Show (watch him here.) Popular interest usually does not extend to philosophy. Gosh, private interest usually doesn't.

But Singer has become associated with an argument for animal rights- or, as he would put it- an argument for nonhumans having some interests equal to our own. PETA's platform used to be a basic cut and paste of his thought. The Federal guidelines on the use of animals in research ask of us what he'd want: count every animal, no matter no how small, if it can feel pain. We are asked to justify any pain felt in terms of predictable benefit.

PETA wasn't thrilled with Singer when he ended up approving a type of research on primates a few years back. Singer, in a filmed discussion about Tipu Aziz's research on Parkinson's disease, became convinced that vivisection on 100 primates was "justifiable" if it has helped 40,000 humans (Singer was willing to take Aziz's word on those numbers).

Singer's words:  

"Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided-I take it you are the expert in this, not me-that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research."

Animal "rights" advocates (properly called) were outraged. When you advocate for rights, properly speaking, you are not willing to see these rights compromised or traded. But anyone who thought Singer had comprised had failed to recognize the philosophical basis of his view: his utilitarianism.


A classic utilitarian is not a supporter of "rights talk" in ethics for the same reason she comes to the other conclusions she does. A utilitarian wants explanation and justification, and like the first proponent of the view (Jeremy Bentham) Singer is going to find most of the reasons we give for "rights" to be "nonsense upon stilts." Of course this means some of our most typical explanations, that something is "natural" or even "prudent", will fail to impress a utilitarian as well. Your own benefit is not a moral reason for an action. And why would "natural" be any type of guide to right action?

Before they read Peter Singer, my students justify eating meat (or other people doing so) on the basis of how natural it is. I've yet to have a student study Singer and make the same argument. He moves us from having just assumed easy truths about a matter to having reckoned with the ethics of it. After reading Singer they, at minimum, acknowledge that, from a moral perspective, at issue is the harm done to the animals we eat.

As a kind of shorthand, I like to think of similar "assumed easy truths" as taboos. They are taboos in the sense that we don't consider and will not analyze them. We get upset if they are challeneged, yet have no defense of them. Utilitarians are taboo-busters. What we forget to question, or what we inherit from Christian thought or any other traditional way of regarding right and wrong, Singer means to hold up to the proper test. Is this needlessly harming people? Is this based on a failure to "count in" the suffering involved?

This approach allows Singer to examine topics we find uncomfortable (a good Utilitarian would seek these out). Is euthanasia wrong? Why? Is it better to be "hands off" with a dying infant, or to end a painful death deliberately? He is attempting to get us to push past taboos by focusing on the foundational moral good: reducing needless pain.

Singer has offended many groups, of course. You can imagine someone who actively campaigns "against the sanctity of life" would do so. But one conflict has come from disability rights activists, and, I wonder if it could be defused.

Singer on Down Syndrome

Singer included a defense of the abortion (and even early infanticide) in his 1994 book, Rethinking Life and Death. He challenges the idea that parents who do not want to raise a child are morally required to. He is, as you can imagine, a serious advocate for overcoming the "taboo" of thinking we must keep all fetuses (and even the newly born) alive. He sees clinicians as hamstrung by government policy that mandates the unquestioned promotion of human life. He would like to bust this taboo.

You may already be offended. But Singer took on something else uncomfortable in this book- and attempted to add an additional justification- parents should not be forced to raise children with Down syndrome, should they not want to.

Here he may seem to have done nothing unusual, given his utilitarianism. But he has. He attempts to justify the termination of these pregnancies (or the refusal to allow a simple life-saving surgery) by talking of Shakespeare's metaphor of "life as a journey." He suggests that parents confronted with having a child with Down syndrome may very well have in mind another journey. This, he seems to suggest, along with the ability to have other children, is justification enough for parents who do not want to have a child with Down syndrome. (Singer himself admits that living with Down syndrome cannot be associated with more than average pain.)

Why Not Be Utilitarian About It?

Does a utilitarian need to rely on metaphor? Does a utilitarian distract us from a focus on balancing benefits to pain? "Life as a journey" is the type of metaphor that stands in for clear thinking about ethics; I'd have expected a classic utilitarian to scoff at the idea. It is exactly the kind of taboo-inducing sentiment that the approach is good at pushing past.

There is more. The following passage from the 1994 book Singer wrote has outraged the disability rights community:

"To have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child's ability. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player."

Every one of his examples fail to suit, as one example, the writer Michael Berube's son- who has legions of interests and passions, and yes- discusses film like a true fan of the genre. Berube has written Singer to ask that he change the line. He has written this passionate reaction to Singer's words here.

But I would point out that Singer's own utilitarianism, properly applied, would fix the problem.

Utilitarianism is supposed to shine a clear light on the rationale for our decisions. In addition, facts really matter- a utilitarian needs to stay open to the facts, facts about how animals are treated on farms, facts about vivisection, and facts about our children. Singer was attempting to push us past a taboo we have about families getting to choose their children, but, in response to various philosophical debates over the issue, he introduced a metaphor and a focus on activities that is not easily traced back to moral harm or pain. At least not by readers trying to keep up with the view. 

And what a pity. It kind of leaves us adrift. And our ethical theories are often better guides than the easy truths we assume.

Here is a video of Peter Singer giving a portion of the talk Berube discusses. Here he says he is not talking of people with Down syndrome when he talks of the profoundly retarded.

PS The intense vitriol for Singer puzzles me a bit, given how of few us continue on with pregnancies after a diagnosis of Down syndrome (fewer than 20%?) It seems like Singer's non-utilitarian take on why parents make this decision is likely no better than (as bad as) the reasons most people have for terminating these pregnancies. To be fair, the vitriol would need to be directed to these parents themselves, which seems unlikely. As I see it, the only way to improve people's reasoning is to do exactly what Singer has- expose it, attempt to articulate it, fit it into some ethical framework so that disconnections can be pointed out.

In addition, though Berube seems to think Singer is a dangerous influence on people's thought about Down Syndrome, I am rather sure that he is not an influence on common thought on this issue but, again, reflecting it. (And even if his view were more widely used, this would mean utilitarian thought was considered applicable- not the reasoning in the paragraph cited above.)

Or do you disagree? Please let me know, and thank you so much for the feedback I've gotten.


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