A guru of animal rights ensnared in a moral maze

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The Independent Online
PETER SINGER looks weary. He is resigned to being called the professor who wants to kill babies. It is not what he came here to talk about. He is here to give series of lectures and seminars in London, Oxford and York on "Darwinism and Politics" and "Animals, Ethics and the Environment".

The trouble is that this philosophy professor does believe that disabled babies should, in certain circumstances, be given lethal injections and, if asked he is not disposed to deny it.

And he was asked about it yesterday, on Radio 4, after a tabloid diatribe had been launched almost as soon as he got off the plane from Australia where he is director of the Centre for Human BioEthics at Monash University. If doctors, parents and the legal system have concluded that a new-born baby is so brain-damaged that it should not be given treatment, or food, he said, then it would be kinder to administer a lethal injection to end the infant's suffering.

To make matters worse Professor Singer is the man who in 1976 wrote Animal Liberation, the seminal work which first popularised the idea of that animals have rights and gave birth to a worldwide movement of animal activism. So animals have rights, but disabled babies don't?

No wonder he looked weary. "I don't want to run away from what I have written," he said when we met yesterday. "Let me explain. When I got involved in ethical issues I discovered that it is standard medical practice for doctors to make life-and-death decisions on whether new-born babies are considered fit to survive.

"These are cases were the child would have what one judge has called a `demonstrably awful' life. One case was a Down's Syndrome baby whose digestive system was blocked. In others, there were decisions that spina bifida babies did not have to have the operation performed to relieve the pressure on the brain. But the result of implementing these decisions was the withholding treatment or food - which meant that the baby died slowly of complications, starvation or dehydration."

A lethal injection seems a more humane option, he said, to relieve the unnecessary suffering of the child, parents and healthcare staff. There are two problems with this. It makes certain assumptions about the basis on which we value human life. And it takes for granted that there is no difference between killing someone and allowing them to die.

Utilitarian philosophers like Professor Singer call the latter the "act/omission" fallacy. If an action, or an omission, produce the same effect they have the same moral worth, they argue. "Actions are right or wrong according to their consequences," he said. "If the outcome or results of an act and an omission are the same they have the same moral value."

So neglecting to send food to a Sudanese refugee camp is morally equivalent to sending a warplane to strafe the occupants, because they die either way? "No, to send an aircraft shows that you want them to die. To neglect to send food shows that you are indifferent."

But what if you are shooting them to save them a lingering death from starvation? "That's not very likely, but if that really was your motivation, then perhaps it would be acceptable," he replied.

Common sense tells us otherwise. There might be no difference in logic between action and omission yet the idea of killing a disabled baby violates some deep taboo within us. We sense that actions are worse than omissions, rather like our sense that telling a lie is somehow worse than not telling the truth.

Because our moral sense on this is intuitive, I suggested, that does not mean it is muddled sentimentality or moral cowardice. "My guess is that our intuition has developed over the centuries in which we have been taught ethics as a system of rules," Professor Singer replied.

But those centuries of Judaeo-Christian morality are over, he believes.

"We have now entered a new era [which he thinks began with the ruling to allowed doctors to stop feeding the Hillsborough victim Tony Bland] - one in which we look at the quality a human life may have rather than talking about its sanctity."

Which brings us to the second problem with Professor Singer's view. How, in this brave new world, are we to measure quality of life? By the ability to reason? By the ability to feel? By consciousness? That seems a good enough criteria, Professor Singer replied. Isn't there anything about human life, and how we respond to it, which might be symbolic or sacramental?

No, says Professor Singer, it is all about allowing everyone the maximum reign for their preferences and interests. People and animals too. In the end some animals might be more morally important than some human beings.

Such is the outcome of the utilitarian calculus. It is where, if we abandon the notion of absolute values, we will inevitably end up.