Dorries, Humanism and Infanticide (2)

So, less than a hour after I posted my own response to Nadine Dorries’ first attempt to smear humanists as advocates of infanticide, Dorries is back with a second shot at the same desperate smear, which comes complete with a sideswipe at David Allen Green:

We have had a number of emails regarding my comment on my blog earlier this week regarding the attitude of humanists towards infanticide.

Some have forwaded snapshot Tweets from people such as a lawyer announcing that he was proud to be a humanist and asking me to prove that humanists would advocate killing babies.

Err, no – not exactly… in fact these are the only two tweets that David made in response to Dorries’ first ‘article’:

Never been so proud to be Humanist: http://bit.ly/nIEupN #Dorries #Narnia

You can vote for Dorries, or someone else, at the @NewHumanist #BadFaith poll here http://bit.ly/mTMk2t #Narnia

So, proud to be a Humanist, yes, demanding proof, no – at least not in David’s case, although her claim that a humanist had recently commented that ‘termination of a child’s life was acceptable up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life’ did attract a fair degree of scepticism and a number of calls for a citation.

Dorries’ response to these calls for a citation runs as follows:

Well, here you go. Here is the proof in the words of the Australian humanist Peter Singer who was awarded ‘humanist of the year’ by the Australian humanist society in 2004.

This, in my opinion, evil humanist states that infanticide is ok and that the life of a baby is of less value than a pig.

In 1979 he wrote, “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

In 1993 he stated that no newborn should be considered a person until 30 days after birth and that the attending physician should kill some disabled babies on the spot.

I think they call this ‘Eugenics’.

So, Dorries’ recent comment by ‘a humanist’ has miraculously turned into a couple of out of context citations gleaned from different editions of Peter Singer’s book ‘Practical Ethics‘ – via an anti-abortion website – the most recent of which dates to 1993. In short, Dorries lied in her first ‘article’ about have seen a ‘recent comment’ and is now citing Singer in an effort to cover her original lie – unsuccessfully, of course.

As things stand, its possible to pick up copies of both the 1979 and 1993 editions via Amazon, although only the 1993 edition and the new 2011 edition can be viewed using the site’s ‘Look Inside’ facility, from which we can put Dorries’ use of these two quotations quickly into context – the two chapters which deal with his arguments on the taking of human life (including embryos/foetuses) run to around 70 pages of text of which Dorries has cited four statements, all out of context – and it is, of course, highly unlikely that Dorries has ever seen any of these statements/arguments in their original context.

Had she ever bothered to read Singer’s work then she might even have been aware that his views on the status of severly disabled foetuses and, in some cases, even neonates, has very little if anything to do with eugenics – his arguments on euthenasia are wholly unrelated to an notion of improving the species, which is the central premise of eugenics, as Dorries unwittingly goes on to demonstrate:

Instead of upgrading the fetus to the status of a person, however, Peter Singer downgrades the newborn to the status of nonperson because newborns, like fetuses, are incapable “of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” They are not rational, self-conscious beings with a desire to live. Since, in Singer’s criteria, personhood hinges on these factors killing a newborn (or fetus) is not the same as killing a person. In fact, some acts of infanticide are less problematic than killing a happy cat. If, for example, parents kill one disabled infant to make way for another baby that will be happier than the first, the total amount of happiness increases for all interested parties. Singer’s logic can be summed up this way: Until a baby is capable of self-awareness there is no controlling reason not to kill it to serve the preferences of the parents.

There is a lot more about him on this blog.

This would be a fair, if extremely sketchy, overview of Singer’s position on neonates and personhood where it not for the author’s tendentious efforts to ‘sum up’ the alleged logic of Singer’s position as one which licenses parents to dispose of their unwanted offspring, with the most extreme prejudice, until it becomes capable of self awareness.

By way of an almost complete contrast, this is what Singer actually has to say in the most recent edition of ‘Practical Ethics’:

None of this is meant to suggest that someone who goes around ran­domly killing babies is morally on a par with a woman who has an abor­tion. We should put very strict conditions on permissible infanticide; but these restrictions should owe more to the effects of infanticide on others than to the intrinsic wrongness of killing an infant. Obviously, in most cases, to kill an infant is to inflict a terrible loss on those who love and cherish the child. My comparison of abortion and infanticide was prompted by the objection that the position I have taken on abortion also justifies infanticide. I have admitted this charge to die extent that the intrinsic wrongness of killing the late fetus and the intrinsic wrong­ness of killing the newborn infant are not markedly different. In cases of abortion, however, we assume that the people most affected – the parents-to-be or at least the mother-to-be – want to have the abortion. Thus, infanticide can only be equated with abortion when those closest to the child do not want it to live. As an infant can be adopted by others in a way that a pre-viablc fetus cannot be, such cases will be rare. (Some of them are discussed in the following chapter.) Killing an infant whose parents do not want it dead is, of course, an utterly different matter, just as forcing a woman to have an abortion she does not want to have is utterly different from allowing a woman to choose to have an abortion.

What Singer argues, like Mary Anne Warren, is that the conditions in which infanticide may be equated to abortion and, therefore, be regarded as morally permissible, arise only in extremis, i.e. only under certain, rare, conditions under which there is no one who is willing to care for the neonate. And, of course, in Western society such conditions are extremely rare if not non-existent.

So, the Australian humanist society makes their man of the year one who advocates infanticide. Nice.

Except that, as we’ve already seen, Singer’s advocacy of infanticide is heavily qualified and does not amount to an argument in favour of a general license to commit infanticide – to suggest otherwise is both wrongheaded and a gross caricature of an argument which, in practical terms, is intended to address a very difficult set of moral questions in a nuanced manner.

  • Luke

    This article is well written and convincing, except one paragraph.
    “Dorries lied in her first ‘article’ about have seen a ‘recent comment’”. I don’t think this stands up as I understood her to mean she read it recently. Its a small point but leaping in with the word ‘lie’ here makes you seem almost as wild eyed as her (in my opinion). 

  • Keith

    Sorry Luke, but if you look at her original blog entry she states that a “humanist recently commented that…”

  • Uksceptic

    I think the bigger issue here is that Dorries seems to think that by showing the opinions of one humanist to be extreme we therefore all have the same opinions.

    I’m not saying her assessment of Singer’s opinions are correct just that even if they were that doesn’t mean we all think the same.

    To make assumptions about a whole group of people based on the opinions of one extremist is basically the kind of racist innuendo you expect from a daily fail article.

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  • I accept your point that Singer only allows infanticide in very regulated situations, and perhaps even a situation that may never occur, but nonetheless you are defending his position that infanticide could be morally permissable. This is an extremely dangerous stance to take, and even if is not eugenics in the sense of improving society, it will surely become that shortly. It already happens in  sense when you look at the disproportionate amount of down syndrome babies being aborted compared to healthier babies.                                                 

    You have effectively said that we can kill a living breathing human being on the basis that (when the mentioned circumstances exist) that the child is incapable “of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” They are not rational, self-conscious beings with a desire to live.” How long until someone who is mentally disabled can be killed at any age for the same reason? Or someone who has a mental age which restricts their ability to be rational. How old does a child have to be before they are rational and have a desire to live? 1, 2 or maybe 10? I suppose it depends upon the opinion of the person with authority to decide this.

    I do accept the orginal premise that Dorries has made a mistake in her statements (unless she has further evidence she has yet to show which seems unlikely now.)

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  • Anthony Garrett

    Honestly, I don’t see that any of her ignorant and foolish opinions are of great significance. What IS significant is that she has a platform (dare I say, a pulpit) from which to promote her stream of wild views. This, as much as the expenses scandal, shows that there has to be a right of recall, not just for constituents but nationwide if enough supporters can be found for the motion. After all, she is demonstrating that an MP has the potential to impact on all our lives, not just constituents’.

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