Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Eugenics With a Smile

When I was younger, I used to wonder how people who lived in Germany let the Holocaust occur. Over the years, I have come to believe that it was a series of small steps which seemed somewhat reasonable at the time, combined with a sense of "that doesn't apply to me" when many things came up, and finally, a tendency to believe those in authority.

Today I think I saw up close and personal how things like the Holocaust get started.

Peter Singer gave a talk today on a local campus. His topic was "Medical Decisions in Life and Death". After watching him today, I don't think that the devil wears Prada. Instead, he wears a rumpled shirt, smiles, is generally pleasant, and advocates for things like puppy dogs and poor people, right before he tries to convince the audience that some people are more valuable than others, and killing babies is OK if their parents decide it's the right thing to do.

OK, maybe Singer isn't the devil. But it was somewhat chilling to see students sitting in the audience quietly listening while Singer glibly tried to show that the definition of death is shifting and arbitrary, and that what we should be using to determine whether someone's life is worth living is Singer's somewhat nebulous definition of "personhood" which depends not on brain activity but on the ability of the person to be self reflective. Since he doesn't believe that humans are self aware before they are several months old, they are not persons, and therefore it's OK to kill them, especially if they are disabled.

Singer started by questioning the definition of death, then used selected quotes from (and pictures of) George Bush to (not so subtly) suggest that those who oppose Singer's definition of death and personhood are right wing religious wackos. Singer then quickly reviewed several cases where people with persistent vegetative states had their feeding tubes removed, and suggested that there was no difference between removing the feeding tubes and letting them die, and actively killing them. He finished by talking about assisted suicide, and how Oregon's law is leading the way forward.

There was time for questions at the end, and after waiting a respectful 4 seconds (so it wouldn't appear that I was gunning for him) I went up to the microphone to ask him a question. I was hopping mad, and I could hear my voice shaking just a bit. I asked him how he could place so much importance on preventing what he terms speciesism (discriminating against other animals merely because they are members of different species) while he so freely engaged in disablism by advocating that parents should be able to decide to kill their children up to several months old just because they (the parents) decided selfishly that their own lives would be better, and that the child's life was not worth living. After all, when disabled adults are surveyed, the majority of them report being happy. Singer was not fazed at all, and thanked me politely for the question. He then proceeded to respond with a bland recounting of why babies weren't persons (because of the lack of self response) and how we should respect the parents' wishes. He then moved on to the next question.

I looked around the room at the audience, which was composed mostly of students. Some seemed to get the point I was making, but most just sat there.

And I think that's what happened in Germany, too, when people heard that the Germans were killing the disabled, and later the Jews.

For a much better account of how Peter Singer is up close and personal, read Harriet McBryde Johnson's account of her time with Singer here.


Anonymous said...

Wow. That is crushing. I think my skin would have been crawling listening to that. I know it was hard just to read your post. I do know some people think this way about people with disabilities though. I don't agree with it and I think it is wrong. I am amazed when I think I know someone and some of these beliefs begin to surface.

Ange said...

I feel like I am going to vomit. Good for you for at least attempting to bring balance to the discussion... so when are you going to give your presentation there? At least yours would be well informed, truthful, and humane.

Jenny said...

Singer is advocating for murder, with a smile.

Who in the world invited him to pollute the minds of students at your school? What if these students become doctors and decide not to try to save a baby that they think is not a worthy human? What if they decide that Chinese/Russian/Indian/Norwegian /club-footed babies are over-represented in the world?

Since the babies are not human, can one just like leave them in the gutter or can you strangle them with one's hands to hasten their death? Does he have some rules figured out? Is he volunteering to be the one who strangles the babies with his bare hands? If not, why not?

My child was born with an obvious congenital problem. People like Singer would probably think my kid should have been killed at birth.

Singer should be locked up, not invited to speak at universities! If he was advocating for the legal murder of 65 year olds wouldn't he be locked up? Oh, he wouldn't do that would he. Well, if he has a stroke tomorrow, maybe he'll be happy to let someone put him out of his misery, or maybe he'd beat someone too it and put himself out of his misery.

Niksmom said...

OMG, this is absolutely chilling. So, to carry out his sick and twisted reasoning one step further...if babies arent' persons (in his view) becasue of a lack of self-reflection (which, let's be real here, doesn't often begin until the early teens/pre-teens and even then not with any significant depth and regularity (speaking in grosses ot generalities)...does that mean that he thinks that ALL infanticide is acceptable if it's the parent's choice?

Pardon my profanity but the man is f**cking nuts in my estimation. And dangerous because he **seems** so "normal." Oh, and the whole position of authority with which to cow people into trusting/believing him. I feel ill.

kristina said...

You only waited 4 seconds to get to the microphone?

Anonymous said...

I made a series of videos on Singer for Youtube. I received hundreds of very fervent responses from Singer's students and from young people from all over the world who have read his books. They all just wanted to argue over the philosophical nature of what Singer writes and to support his views. It was always people under the age of 23 that supported his views. Not one person who was an "adult" or parent supported his views. I came away from the experience as believing that a cult of personality surrounds Singer. Eli Wiesel condemned Singer's views. Singer has been banned from speaking in the universities in Germany, Austria and many in Israel.

S.L. said...

You've hit the nail on the head--with the whole "it's not me" thinking. It's rampant. It is sickening what is considered "academics" at some universities. I'm glad you attended, and shared with us. It is eye-opening to say the least.

Between his and others who share the same view (those with disabilities are sub-human and don't count), and the footage that makes the news of autistic families (and how dreadful their lives are, how their children were "kidnapped" by autism or "trapped" by it...again, soulless and not quite human), how does one reach out to the public, to university students?

I applaud you for sitting through the entire speech (I'd have been escorted out by security, I have no doubt!), and for asking your question.

Even if you got 5 of those students to think about what this madman was saying, you've made a major difference. Bravo.

Club 166 said...

This talk was, indeed, very chilling because of how "normal" Singer appeared, as well as how well the mostly young audience seemed to accept him.

I almost yelled out a couple of times during the presentation. It was so surreal how we was just leading the audience down the "my thinking is progressive, therefore it's good" path, and how they apppeared to be lapping it up.

I had already positioned myself in a spot close to the microphone when I came in. I knew I was going to get my question in.

I think you're right about the age thing. Young people are evidently so self centered and unable to conceive of themselves as someday being disabled that Singer's views are not seen as threatening at all. And because he is kind to puppy dogs and poor people, his other teachings must be OK.

Yes, as a proponent of what he calls "Preference Utilitarianism" Singer would allow parents to kill any baby that they didn't like, whether it be for minor abnormalities, sex preference, etc. He has stated that it would be sad if unadoptable mixed race babies (that were otherwise "normal") were killed, but not wrong.

The greatest danger we face (IMO) in society is not from guys with swastikas or white sheets on. The greatest danger is from sweet and friendly looking polite aging professors who are proponents of evil.


Anonymous said...

Reading this excellent post made me do something I should have done a few weeks ago, and I thought I'd share it here. Singer spoke at my college last week; the topic was ethical obligations and global poverty. I was bothered by the choice of speaker, but didn't do anything about it for various reasons. I wish I had. Still, after reading this I decided it wasn't too late and sent a professor associated with the event an e-mail explaining why this is offensive and providing a link to Johnson's piece. I didn't mention my own AS diagnosis in the e-mail. I now feel a bit antsy and nervous about the move, but I guess that's to be expected with my particular disposition. It's probably too little, too late, but maybe they won't invite him back again. Maybe.

The OP and comments here are great. It frustrates me that my institution professes to be so liberal and accepting and caring about diversity--but when it comes to disability issues, it's not at all.

Anne Corwin said...

Joe said: The greatest danger we face (IMO) in society is not from guys with swastikas or white sheets on. The greatest danger is from sweet and friendly looking polite aging professors who are proponents of evil.

YES. This is something I have been trying to harp on for...let's see, years now, at least in some discussion fora. The degree to which so many people are apparently swayed by "nice demeanor" characteristics frightens me terribly.

Anonymous said...

He is absolutely despicable. Furthermore, if he thinks that babies, even newborn babies, aren't aware and aren't responsive, then he is severely mistaken. A newborn baby will often settle just because the baby's mother is in a darkened room with the baby and the baby can smell the mother. Or if a soft toy or blanket with the mother's smell is passed to the baby they will often settle. They will often relax just by being cuddled. Tom, my older lad, always needed to be swayed as well, but Jacob used to just lie calmly if I was just holding him. They will look longer at simple pictures of a happy face than a sad face. When an experiment was set up which allowed newborn babies to make a mobile work by moving their heads the babies deliberately moved their heads to move the mobile. If a baby is crying in the maternity ward other babies will often join in, something that Tom didn't do, but Jacob did. Even with Tom's difficulties he still smiled and laughed as a baby, he still was responsive to things. To dismiss a baby as not worth being alive because their communication and self reflection skills are rudimentary, is inexcusable.

Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Like Christschool, I have also made posts about Singer. I agree with your post whole-heartedly. Eugenics with a smile... perfect. It reminds me of my recent post on Lou Dobb's smile when he called autism "an ugly, ugly, ugly disease."

All over the media, perversion and murder and advocating for such is done with a smile. We have to speak out actively against perfection and how even the media presents how people SHOULD live. To me, this is the most dangerous eugenics movement ever...through the media.

The Singer's of the world are the new Mengele's, plain and simple. Let's call a spade a spade and see things clearly.

Anonymous said...

Survivors of the death camps say Mengele was charming to them, between his ghastly experiments. Evil will come with a kindly smile.

Daisy said...

This is terrifying. Simply terrifying. The self-centered nature of today's youth is all too pervasive. I fear that many of them will buy into philosophies like Singer's. Thank you for getting up your courage and speaking to him publicly, and for posting this.

David N. Andrews M. Ed., C. P. S. E. said...

Singer's a piece of shit.

Pure and simple. That's him.

VAB said...


When you refer to several months of age, are you counting from conception or birth?

Club 166 said...

Good for you for standing up to your professor. It's often harder to stand up to someone with the ability to hurt you (anyone with authority over you). If you can, also consider a letter to the editor of your student newspaper.

Yes, it would seem that nice demeanor covers up a whole lot of advocating for bad actions.

I remember the times when it was generally felt that babies didn't feel pain, so they didn't have to be given anesthesia or pain meds. This feels like a big step backwards beyond even those times.

Yes, the media is a very powerful force (ask any politician). We each have to feel like we can make a difference (even if it's in a small way). The internet helps to counteract the media, but can also spread hate as well as truth.

Thanks for dropping by, and the vote of confidence.

I hadn't known that about Mengele. That's really creepy.

Long time no (virtual) see. Hard to disagree with you, buddy. He just kept on smiling while dishing out his garbage. I half expected him to stop at some point and say "Fooled you!", but it never happened.

Singer was referring to several months post birth, though he left it open. He did refer to the fact that babies who didn't perceive "object permanence" obviously didn't have a formed sense of their own self. This would put the time (according to Piaget) at somewhere around 7 months.


Anonymous said...

The beginning of the Holocaust was a severely handicapped baby named Knaur. Hitler, when petitioned by the father, instructed his escorting physician to authorize the euthanasia.

It's something to think about.

VAB said...

That's pretty messed up.

Anonymous said...

In 1939, Germany's mental hospitals became killing fields. Gas chambers replaced sterilization as the final solution to the problem of supporting "lives not worth living."
… Acting on Hitler's suggestion that incurable mental patients "be granted mercy killing," a panel of psychiatrists and medical doctors completed a one-page questionnaire on each of 283,000 patients in mental hospitals throughout Germany. More than one-fourth of cases, those who were incurable or could not work, were marked with a "†" for death.
… The gassing of mental patients ceased in August 1941, … many doctors and other personnel who had gained expertise in running gas chambers at mental institutions were then transferred to Poland, where the first gas chamber was built at the Auschwitz extermination camp in January 1942.

Watson, James and Müller-Hill, Benno (2003). “In the Third Reich”, in DNA Interactive website, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, New York. Accessed: March 2008.

Brett said...

In his most recent book, "I Am a Strange Loop", Douglas Hofstadter also talks about the different "sizes" of the "souls" (you have to read the book, but bear with me) of children, adults, and - yes - those with cognitive disabilities. He also extends the concept of the "soul" to the "lesser" animals.

Far from using this as an excuse for eugenics or to treat animals in whatever way we may want, though, Hofstadter uses the idea of these "souls" to say that all life is precious. So much so that this is what has led him to be a vegetarian.

Isn't it amazing how two people can take the same basic, underlying principle and come up with such completely different philosophies of what it means and how we should act?

Club 166 said...

I've seen that part of the website before. It's pretty strange that the Cold Spring Harbor website has this little section on the history of eugenics (given the historical connection that CSHL had with the eugenics movement), while until recently James Watson was their director, and a regular proponent of eugenics (through genetic engineering and sterilization to improve the human race).

Singer extends his ideas of "personhood" to lower animals, and is one of the principle architects of the animal liberation movement. He, too, is a vegetarian. Singer doesn't think all "people" are equal, though. Instead, he values an adult gorilla more than a child with Down's syndrome, as he feels that that child is not "self aware", while the gorilla is.

Singer is also an atheist, and thus has no concept of a "soul".


Brett said...


Hofstadter, too, is an atheist and uses the term "soul" in a non-religious context (unfortunately making it hard to use his term without some explanation). By soul, he is referring to the level of self-awareness, or as he calls it "I-ness", of a person (or animal). Sounds very similar to how you describe Singer's views, except Hofstadter draws a distinct line between human souls and non-human souls. Here's a quote:

"Why do I see such unequal treatments by society as tacit distinctions between the values of souls? Because I think that wittingly or unwittingly, we all equate the size of a living being's sould with the "objective" value of that being's life, which is to say, the degree of respect that we outsiders pay to that being's interiority. And we certainly do not place equal value on all beings' lives! We don't hesitate for a moment to draw a huge distinction between the values of a human life and an animal life..."

Except, of course, for people like Mr. Singer, whom Hofstadter would, I believe, call a "small souled man."

Club 166 said...

Interesting, Brett.

They do, indeed, sound like they come from a very similar place, yet the consequences of their mindsets are very different when it comes to little children.


Anonymous said...

wow, glad to know at least he's banned to speak in some countries.

Anonymous said...

Well, you know, "The prince of darkness is a gentleman" and all that...

I think I would have had an overwhelming urge to take a cleansing bath in chlorine bleach if I had the honor of attending this talk. But what really gets to me is wondering if some 20 years ago, when I was the same age as the students sitting there, I would also sit quietly, take it all in and not see it for the utter nightmare it is... I hope not, but I still wonder.

spockette said...

There are several people that would love to be parents of those "unworthy" children. If you wanted to have a child, were lucky enough to conceive and carry a child to term... nothing is ever what you imagine it will be. A "disabled" child is a unique gift, a whole human being, like every other child.

If enough genetic diversity is eradicated, the human species will die off.

lurker said...

A child shouldn't be considered a gift to anyone. Since a child is a person just like the person who gave birth to them, they need the same rights to pursue and attain the fruits of life as any other human. There's too much consideration on children existing to fulfill a specific person's wants.

I hope nobody uses the condemnation of the vile ideas of this vermin Singer to justify their own extreme views. This monster Singer is just a careerist academic with little relevance to the outside world. I doubt you can verify that the students in the audience agreed with him because they said or did nothing.

Most of them likely didn't believe what he said as few people would. But likely they felt compelled not to contradict him or speak out. I wonder what faculty of the school were at that speech. A lot of students are browbeat into not expressing disagreement with and into showing agreement with what their intellectual professors in the social sciences express.

Also consider the deference youth are urged to show from a young age to such people, while you complain their lack of response is due to "immorality" of youth that you love to complain about and never yourselves claim any responsibility for. What kind of society creates conditions where it would be thinkable for such a humanity drained lunatic to gain such a respectable forum?

Club 166 said...

Yes, it's difficult in hindsight to know what each one of us would have done when we were younger, and in the same situation.

Yes, one person's castoffs are another's treasure. It does inspire hope for we humans that there are still plenty of people who see the value in fellow human beings, even if they are "imperfect".

I won't presume to speak for Spockette, but I didn't have the sense from her post that she was speaking of children as being the property of particular people that were obligated to fulfill their specific wants.

What I understood from Spockette's comment was that each child is a gift to the human race as a whole. This would not strip them of any rights at all.

I don't think young people are necessarily immoral. I do think that when we are young we are much more self centered, which might make them less likely to see the worth in a disabled person's life. I also think that the speech was designed to lull the students into accepting the horrid parts (elective killing of babies) by wrapping that message in one that was designed to have broad appeal to a young, liberal mindset (concern for the poor, disdain for George Bush, and animal rights).

I grant that because of the unequal status (being students vs. being professors) that the students might be less likely to speak out.

Finally, I DO think that much more responsibility lies with the professors that were in the audience, as well as those that sponsored the talk, and I have let them know as much. I agree that it reflects poorly on society when we support forums for such people to speak.


lurker said...

Club 166, I know you would say something like that about that gift comment, but it's not just about what someone says or even how they say it, but underlying agendas that I know people have. I think when some people say things like that, they have other considerations from agendas they like to justify by condemning in certain ways, something obviously bad.

I hardly ever see the harsh attitudes expressed by youth towards the disabled being attributed to the people out there they grow up around. I usually hear that when disabilities are explained to children, they tend to become compassionate. It's not like youth never hear their parents' harsh attitudes towards the types of unfortunate people out there.

It's like when a child grows up great, there's always a parent or whoever around taking credit for it, if one turns out lousy, they act like they had nothing to do with it. I can see how the speech was crafted to be more palatable by sprinkling in agreeable viewpoints about issues. The unequal status is what I was talking about, the students being a captive audience. I've been a student in classes where I sensed disagreement among other students with something a professor contended, but where they didn't have too much comfortability expressing dissent. I agree the responsibility is a lot on the professors and the ones who planned the event. I wonder what it is about those figures that they would choose such a speaker.

Club 166 said...

Thanks for your continued comments.

Perhaps I am just blissfully unaware of underlying agendas, but I took the comment at face value. I know that many people have other agendas, but I also think that even when people have other agendas that not every thing they say relates to those agendas.

I agree that if a parent is to take credit for all of the good that their children do, that they also need to take credit for all of the not so good stuff. Personally, I feel that parents have almost exclusive influence on their children up to the age of 5, then varying amounts of influence until they graduate high school, and rapidly decreasing influence after that.

At some point kids need to take responsibility for who and what they are. This attitude can be taken to the extreme (such as when 14 year olds are tried as an adult for criminal offenses), but by the time they are 21 they should accept responsibility for their own thoughts and actions.

Finally, I think that although society's views on disability are much better than they were 100 years ago, discrimination against the disabled is just so ingrained in our society that most people fail to see its existence.


love_is_all_you_need said...

Yeah, I have to say, the whole utilitarian bioethics philosophy scares the crap out of me. And I do think that people need to educate themselves on this topic before it sneaks up on them, and it is too late. After all, Peter Singer teaches at Princeton, one of the most respected universities in the country. That means that he gets much more respect than he deserves. Also, let's face it, ivy league grads and people with power and money call the shots, sometimes with no regard or compassion for the rest of humanity. If they buy into this philosophy, it could permeate our society and our hospitals without the general public having much say or warning. Chilling stuff.

Club 166 said...

@love is all you need,

Thanks for finding and commenting on this post from last year. Unfortunately, the content is still topical today.

As the US health system moves into a new system of organization, it will be more important than ever for all of us to be watching for signs of discrimination against those who are disabled being "hard wired" into the system. Then it will be our obligation to get the word out and expose various policies for what they are.


jon said...

I feel you are mis-representing Peter Singer. He does not want to kill disabled babies or adults. Rather he believes people who are in pain should be allow to die if they want to. When if comes to babies who can not choose if they want to be born to a servilely painful life, the parents make the decision. But its not the case that of parents killing babies for convenience - which is how many commentators have made it sound.

Club 166 said...


I just went back and re-read this post, to verify what I had said. I never said that Singer personally wants to kill babies or adults. Indeed, when it comes to his own mother having Alzheimer's Singer didn't have the courage of his convictions, and allowed money to continue to be spent on her in a nursing home, rather than go ahead and do her in. He refers to this as a "failing" on his part.

What he espouses is what he himself calls "preference utilitarianism". In this society that he describes, any parent could bring their baby back to the hospital to be euthanized, for any reason whatsoever, whether that be because the patient had Down Syndrome (which he has specifically mentioned), other physical or developmental problem, or because they just don't like the color of the kid's hair.

Singer places the upper age limit on when the baby could be brought back to be euthanized as the time when the baby recognizes "object permanence". In Piaget's stages of development, this comes no sooner than 6 months of age, and typically occurs more towards 9 months of age. Of course, if the baby was developmentally delayed, it might be later than 1 year.

Singer specifically said when challenged (at this forum) that he supported parents making such a decision for any reason whatsoever. His words, not mine. He also added that he didn't think parents would turn their kids in for minimal reasons, but supported their right to do so, and specifically supported euthanizing Down Syndrome kids.

Of note is that if you ask Down Syndrome kids and adults if they would rather be dead or not have lived their lives, they overwhelmingly voice the opinion that they'd rather be living than dead, thank you very much. Of note, their parents, when asked 5 years after they have a child with Down Syndrome if their lives are happy, overwhelmingly agree.

So, Singer's views go WAY beyond allowing "people who are in pain should be allow to die if they want to." His stated preferences, and the very basis of his philosophy, is that people should all be allowed to make choices due to their own preferences, and that by doing so, an ever better society will result.

Needless to say, when it comes to allowing parents to kill their own children (or more accurately, have someone else off them for you), I disagree.


Anonymous said...

I disagree with you. You misrepresent Singer's position and make him out to be something that he is not, and this is not good.

His position is that, if a child is severely disabled or disease ridden to the point that they must experience great pain and suffering on a daily basis, the parents should be permitted to decide to end the childs life before it reaches a certain developmental stage.

You might disagree with what age that cut off is, but currently we allow abortions up to a certain period during pregnancy. If a parent made the same decision for the same reason after genetic detection of a serious disease, for example, but at this stage rather than at 7 months of age, would you still object?

Most people would not.