April 20th 2002


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Articles from this issue:

Cover Story: PM leads Australia down the slippery slope

Urgent action needed to save Australia's sugar industry

The ALP and the embryonic stem cell issue

NSW Euthanasia bill overwhelmingly defeated

Report recommends relaxing controls over violent computer games

Can the Public Service be depoliticised?

Straws in the Wind: Living fossils / Engineers of human souls

Western Australia: MP looks at SA's marijuana laws

Media misrepresentation on stem cell therapy (letter)

Media bias (letter)

Refugees: where do you stand? (letter)

Water and Australia's priorities (letter)

The high price of misplaced idealism

Is the 'war on terrorism' being hijacked?

Peter Singer's utilitarianism

Books: 'The Unsleeping Eye: A Brief History of Secret Police and their Victims' by Robert Stove

Books: 'Children as Trophies?' by Patricia Morgan

Film: Some Like it Hot - a tribute to Billy Wilder

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Peter Singer's utilitarianism


by Bill Muehlenberg

News Weekly, April 20, 2002

In the March 29 edition of The Age there appeared an article by Peter Singer entitled "Why we should ignore the Catholic Church on stem cells". In it he took the Catholic Church in general, and Archbishop Hart in particular, to task for speaking out on the stem cell debate.

The gist of the article contained these two themes: 1) The Catholic Church has no right to speak out on the stem cell debate; and 2) embryos are not persons and have no inherent right to exist.

Concerning the first proposition, Singer argues that the Catholic Church depends on the Bible for its positions, but the Bible means nothing for those who do not accept its authority. He argues that Hart's position is indefensible, "except within the terms of his own religion."

Several things can be said about such statements. First, Singer is again using the sectarian card. He argues, in effect, that Christians should be precluded from the debate, that they have nothing to say on the debate, and/or what they say is somehow lacking in credibility.

But the truth is, religious people have as much right to speak out on social and moral issues as anyone else. And the question needs to be asked, if Singer thinks they should not, then who does get a say? He would of course answer, in part at least, that the scientific community has the right to speak on such issues.

But several problems can be mentioned here. Science does not always get it right. Scientists can get it wrong. Also, scientists can be bought for a price, like anyone else. There is big money in bio-tech, and as Daniel Greenberg argues in a new book, Science, Money and Politics, there has been a history of science selling its soul to the highest bidder. Wearing a white lab coat does not guarantee that financial interests have no sway.

Furthermore, we know from history that science is not always as neutral and objective as it ought to be. Just consider the way in which the scientific and medical community was used by the Nazi regime.

Secondly, most people argue from the presuppositions of their own worldview. This is as true of the religious person as the non-religious person. Singer has certain a priori beliefs which under-gird his system, just as religious people do. We all argue from the basis of certain presuppositions. The question is, which presuppositions are more coherent and logical than others? That discussion cannot be entered into here. Suffice it to say that religious folk have as much right to argue from their religious first principles as secularists do from their non-religious principles.

Thirdly, if Singer rejects any religious-based ethical system, he nonetheless brings his own ethical system into play: secular utilitarianism. He has replaced one philosophical system for another. Secular humanism has as many "faith" components as do religious belief systems. Indeed, not too long ago the US Supreme Court declared secular humanism to be a religion. The concomitant beliefs that there is no soul, no afterlife, no God, an so on, require as much faith to believe as do their counterparts. Science just cannot answer these kinds of questions. At least that is not an area it can claim expertise in.

Singer's ethics show up in several places in his article. As a utilitarian, he sees no intrinsic worth in human life. Instead, everything must be based on utilitarian considerations. Thus he says it is no big deal that embryos be destroyed, since "the world already has more than six billion people".

But to argue that human life is expendable to help correct a perceived problem of overpopulation is itself a statement of faith. Science itself is not united in the belief that we are overpopulated.

And even if it were, the argument is the same as was used by the Nazis. The notion of "lebensraum" (the need to give Germans more space) was used to justify the slaughter of millions. This too was a type of ethical argument - even if a bad one.

Singer's other main point is that the embryo is somehow not a human, and he spends several paragraphs arguing that laboratory rats are more qualified to live. He regurgitates his argument against "species-ism", that humans should not receive preferential treatment above other species. We should not elevate embryos, he says, "to a higher status than we give to non-human animals".

Indeed, "surplus human embryos are an ideal laboratory tool. Much better to use them, if we can use them to save the lives of more developed human beings, than to use 'lab animals'."

Singer here is at least being consistent. As a supporter of abortion, euthanasia and infanticide, he has always been more interested in animals than in humans. He has argued, for example, that there is a greater case to be made against fishing than against abortion.

But it is Singer who now is bucking science. There is little doubt that human life begins at conception. Size is not the issue. A real human being, with a distinct genetic makeup, exists at fertilisation. This human life is full of potential, but it is not a potential human being. It will not grow into a carrot or a wombat.

If we are no better than animals, who is to argue that democracy is superior to the law of the jungle?

  • Bill Muehlenberg




























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