Morality and Disability: ethical theory, utilitarianism and Peter Singer

Before I get into the body of this, some clarification; I was not expecting to do a blog on Peter Singer as I thought the controversies surrounding him would be best left alone. Then he did an interview with an independent media outlet that I respect, in which he brought up his utilitarianism and I thought that this was worth exploring.

Coining the term speciesism, his 1975 book Animal Liberation argues that all sentient beings should be regarded as morally equal in the sense that their interests ought to be considered equally. He differs from many vegans in that while he is against animal testing in many cases, his philosophy on life allows him to concede that some testing is necessary if, for example, its the only way to help alleviate human suffering on a grand scale.

He also proposes a theory of effective altruism – the notion that you should be altruistic in the most effective way possible. He recommends people give the majority of thier disposable income to charity, if it will reduce suffering for the most amount of people. Emotional attachment does not factor in to this worldview – even the interests of your own child do not count for more than those of a group of starving individuals.

However, he has attracted controversy for some of his views, and the ones we will be focusing on today are his views on disability. Notably, he has publicly justified the killing of infants with disabilities if doing so increases the happiness of ‘all involved’. Needless to say, I find that disgusting.

Underpinning Singers worldview is the concept of utilitarianism – a philosophy which believes that all actions should aim to maximise happiness and/or welfare for affected beings – in this case animals and humans. Utilitarian’s believe that the consequences of any actions are the only measurement of right and wrong so from an animal-rights, utilitarian perspective, us living in a culture that consumes animal products is immoral in that it sustains the mass suffering of animals. On the one hand, this is a kind philosophy that can encourage generosity. On the other, this can seem quite a cold and calculating idea that prioritizes the ‘greater good’ above other moral values. We will delve into Singer more later but first lets provide some background…

Some thoughts on utilitarianism…

In its original form, the principle of utilitarian moral theory states that the correct action is the one that produces the most happiness for all involved. It has certainly been a useful theory in the past and can result in adherents fighting for a fairer society. John Stuart Mill, who adopted Jeremy Bentham’s original theory fought for women’s rights, against slavery, and for fair labour practices. Aside from that, I think ideas like effective altruism have thier place in encouraging humane acts of charity. I, for instance, would recommend you donate to the Autistic Self Advocacy Network over Autism Speaks any day, because while both of these actions are well intentioned, the former group are likely to spend thier resources on actions that help people on the spectrum, while the later would use those funds in ways that hurt us. As well as that, I completely see the appeal of looking at issues on a macro as opposed to a micro level. I too tend to see things in more systemic terms, tending to observe how specific decisions, particularly ones by individuals in authority, effect the rest of society. Utilitarianism also considers this and is not just focused on the individual.

Still, the theory is terribly flawed in other places. Applying a utilitarian mindset asks us to compare our possible actions based on the benefits and harms they reap. That is to say, assign values to the benefits of each of our actions. However this is not congruent with how people think in real life and relies on subjective, rather than objective judgments. How do we go about assigning a value to life or to art for instance? You could make a piece of art and justify it on the basis that your work brings happiness into other peoples lives, whereas to someone else that time could have been better spent being more ‘productive’. More than that though, no one can be expected to calculate the individual consequences of each and every one of thier actions. Complexity theory exists precisely to chart the individual causes of social problems and how those causes interact with each other, but our cognitive ability to measure and to predict the benefits and harms resulting from a decision is dubious, to say the least.

It’s also arguable that the idea violates the standards of justice in pursuit of finding the greatest good for the greatest number. One example which often gets given is of an innocent man being accused of a crime. There is lots of civil unrest surrounding the case, negatively affecting a lot of peoples wellbeing and happiness. In the spirit of fairness, most would advocate that the innocent man be set free. However, from a utilitarian perspective, wouldn’t the better decision be to sentence him, if that reduces the social unrest overall? A lot of disabled people can relate to this line of thinking – if, for instance, your disability is defined in terms of suffering and difficulty, you might struggle to find work as businesses might view employing someone with a disability to be a net-negative with the risk of reducing how comfortable staff members and customers feel. That’s obviously completely unreasonable, but I hope you can see that making decisions based on what increases overall happiness can be based on subjective value judgments that may not be congruent with equality and progress. It’s wrong to unjustly punish someone, but not if all that matters to you is the net gain of what you see as ‘happiness’. To utilitarians, increasing the happiness of the many can justify making a few miserable.

We can conclude from this that while consequence should be an important guiding factor in our decisions, it should not be the only guiding factor in our decisions. Rights, fairness and even emotion can be equally important. Utilitarianism boils down the deeply layered process of making a decision down to a mathematical calculation of good and bad. For that reason, while it can be a powerful reminder that morality calls us to look beyond the self to the good of all, it can also be harmful. Peter Singer, on disability, is a prime example of this.

So how does this relate to disability?…

At the end of the interview, the interviewer asked about the controversy surrounding his stance on disability. See, Singers views on this subject have made him something of an enemy to the community and the interview made me initially angry that the controversy was addressed in what I saw as a quite a non-challenging way. In Practical Ethics, Singer details how he thinks the interests of beings should be weighted, arguing that:

“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

Singer, Practical Ethics

This rests on a series of assumptions. What does ‘lead to’ mean? Parents may not have the foresight to know if they will have another child, and why would they necessarily choose not to have another if they kept the disabled child? Why is Singer presuming to know that the ‘hemophiliac’ will lead a less ‘happy’ life than a non-disabled one? The quote furthers the idea that disability is more likely to presuppose unhappiness than being abled, when ‘happiness’ is a subjective measurement that depends on a range of factors. By some ratios – family, where you live, support available to you – some severely disabled people have better lives than that of some abled people. Singer would probably prefer to talk about people who are likely to ‘suffer’ but that’s a word that’s so often used to describe anyone with a disability that the option of euthanasia could apply in practically every case. My autism means that I can struggle with my sensitivity. If we’re comparing, I might not have experienced some of the happiness that I would if I were non-autistic. Should I have been killed? How on earth can parents make a judgement about the ‘total happiness’ that a person will experience? Even if they could, this would still be ableist as it presupposes that abled people can make value judgements about our lives based on subjective concepts about our happiness relative to that of non-disabled people.

In the interview I watched, Singer draws a comparison between this and abortion: ‘many of the same people who criticise what I say about people with disability will defend the right of a pregnant women to end her pregnancy and that will include if the child has a disability’. If abortion were allowed up to the point of birth, he might have a point, but this is rarely the case. I’m from the UK, where there’s a 24 week limit justified in law by the fact that this is when life becomes capable of surviving on its own. Irrespective of your views on this issue, this comparison doesn’t work. I’m not going to delve deep into issues like screening for downs syndrome, except to say that the lives of people with disabilities are worth living. I’m going to recommend you read this article in the Atlantic which gives nuance to the debate.

The article makes clear that if you handed any parent a whole list of every factor that would increase their chances of unhappiness relative to someone else —illnesses etc. then everyone would be too scared. It concludes that we should move away from traditional measures of what counts as happiness. At one point, the author points out that people in the medical profession, or in this case philosophers, base their identity on their intelligence; ‘might the system be biased on the question of whose lives have value?’. You can perhaps see why to some disabled people, Singer might appear to be calling into question the value they add to the world.

I’m bringing value judgements into this discussion because this factors into Singers own thinking. In one interview he posed the question that if most people see the life of a dog or a pig as inferior to that of a human being “On what basis could they hold that the life of an intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being?”. However, intellectual capacity is not calculable to such a specific extent. Again, there’s no consideration of emotion – if you saw a dog and a disabled person drowning, you’d instinctually want to rescue the person, either because they have longer life expectancy, or because there’s more sentimental value attached to the person. Interestingly, in another article, Singer argues for rationing healthcare based on average life expectancy – this seems to contradict his assertion that the value of an intellectually disabled person is potentially worth less than that of a dog. This also relates to a blog post I wrote a couple of weeks ago, where I talked about patients in the UK being hit with do not resuscitate notices because of thier learning disabilities. We don’t know what the rationale for this was but there’s a chance that the shorter lives of many people with learning disabilities, and the fact that they are less likely to be ‘productive members of society’, was part of the decision. However, both of these are largely social phenomena based on the fact that intellectually disabled people often don’t have access to the medical support that they need, and are often shut out of society.

In that sense, shouldn’t a true ethical utilitarian approach to disability be to advocate for making society more fair and safe for marginalized groups? Wouldn’t that be more in line with the concept of creating happiness, than relying on value assessments as to who is deserving of life, the conclusions to which are informed by existing stigma? Don’t get me wrong, Singer would say that he is in favour of that levelling up, but to me its about the precedent set by his views. His is a cold, calculating utilitarianism that asks people to make strong decisions that ignore complexity, based on arbitrary concepts about the ‘utility’ of decisions. There’s a short-sightedness at play that ignores the fact that having less disabled people and treating their birth with disgust, means that we are less likely dismantle the barriers which make their lives unhappy in the first place. Any attempts to create that new world have to be grounded in approach which grants dignity and agency to disabled people, so that they can be an essential part in shaping the society we want to see. Any approach that ignores that, and looks to short-term solutions in the vague hope of long term gains is simply papering over the problems we have with vague platitudes of mercy and reducing suffering. It’s an approach which makes sense to some utilitarian’s but can only be antithetical in the long run.

An Atypical Perspective…

Much as this blog gives the impression of being about Pete Singer and utilitarianism, its moreso about our cultural attitudes to disability and how we assign value based on the assumptions that non-disabled and disabled mean better and worse off respectively. We base our conception of downs syndrome and ASD and hemophilia off sets of assumed truths. “They’re never going to have a job, they’re never going to get married, they’re never going to go to uni”. Indeed the narrative that ‘disabled’ people do attend uni and get married are helpful in pointing out how disability is socially forced upon people. Nothing changed in the biological make-up these conditions to allow these changes to happen. Rather, society shifted focus to better accommodate them.

But what about those that don’t work or get married but like to do art or to be with family. Do we ascribe less value to these people based on a culturally constructed notion that they are somehow “worse off? Singer might answer yes and that families and medical experts should get to decide whether or not that persons life is worth living. One of the reasons he sees it as appropriate to kill babies with disabilities is because their lives are difficult and they are not first in line to be adopted. What this fails to consider is the fact that these difficulties are socially constructed, and that an approach to ensuring ‘more happiness’ should be changing society, not getting rid of the disabled.

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