Below in my post titled What the “Utilitarians” offer, commenter Shane reasonably rebukes me for speaking too broadly, implying that all atheists agree with Peter Singer and his ilk. Shane was absolutely right that I didn’t properly caveat my statements so it was stated far to broadly. For that, I apologize. From what I’ve seen significant portions of atheists and the vast majority of agnostics do not hold the extreme views of the utilitarian bioethicists like Peter Singer and I apologize for sounding as if I believed that.
However, there is a relationship between atheism and the utilitarian bioethicists that I feel compelled to elaborate on. You will not find religious people advocating for the hyper-darwinian, suffering paranoid ethical positions that people like Singer advance. At the same time, the arguments that Singer and company use are the same arguments that atheists, particularly scientifically oriented ones in general use. While Singer may take them to much further logical extremes than the average atheist, the fact that they’re grounded in the same principles should scare just about everyone, including the atheist who isn’t willing to advance what Singer is.
To be absolutely clear about Singer, while there was a small amount of caricature of Singer in my post (something Shane pointed out as well), I wouldn’t consider it over the top. Who would be willing to deny the following?:
- Singer advances that elderly and disabled have a moral obligation to kill themselves when they become a burden.
- Singer thinks both physically and mentally disabled fetuses should be aborted and parents who don’t are doing an injustice to society.
- Singer thinks infanticide can be justified when pre-natal disabilities are not discovered before birth and the infant can be killed at that point just as they could be aborted before hand.
- Going further with infants, Singer doesn’t think infants have the rights of “personhood” any more than a cow does.
- Singer thinks physically and mentally disabled people, even those who are not terminally ill, should have the right to kill themselves.
- Whether he would encourage them to kill themselves is perhaps stretching it, but Singer dances awful close to that line, crossing it for sure when they become a burden.
These are Singer’s repeatedly stated positions. In the article linked in the post below, he added to it the idea that there’s nothing wrong with the purposeful extinction of the human race through non-reproduction. Just like with encouraging disabled people to kill themselves, while he won’t explicitly state that he things this is a good idea, he dances enough on line without crossing it to know where he’s coming from.
OK, so Singer may be an extreme example, and I concede that many atheists won’t endorse Singer’s extreme positions, but it’s both more common that many would be willing to admit amongst atheists and, and this is the more important point, the philosophical underpinnings are the usually the same.
I purposely chose the cow in my bullet point about infant “personhood” because it’s the animal Dawkins reference to the ethical nature of abortion based on the comparison of the nervous system of a cow and a fetus in TGD. So while Dawkins may not be for infanticide, the reality is that Singer is using the same concepts, the equivalency of animals to our fetuses or our disabled people, to determine whether those human beings have “personhood”, to argue for infanticide.
The underlying concept at play in all of this is human exceptionalism. Human exceptionalism is the idea that a human race is a unique and special species that is set apart from all other species. Only our species is a moral species. This gives every human being special worth, worth beyond that of any other animal.
The alternative is to believe that we are not unique, that being human does not give us particular rights. Instead our worth is determined by our capabilities, both physical and mental. “Personhood” becomes the threshold. “Personhood” is the utilitarian bioethicist’s word to replace “human rights” because they deny that merely being human gives one particular rights. While different groups put the “personhood line” at very different places, some including all sorts of animals as having “personhood” and others thinking only certain humans have “personhood”, they universally believe that certain humans do NOT have “personhood”, even though it may be an extremely small group of humans who miss the cut.
It’s not technically necessary to be religious to believe in human exceptionalism (one could just be observant and see how different we all from all other animals and embrace the idea). At the same time, it IS necessary for religious people, particularly those from western religions, to by definition believe that humanity is special, created by God in a special way and with special worth. Simply stated, just about all religious people believe in human exceptionalism.
Where then does that leave us? Religious, by the very nature of their beliefs will never endorse what Singer does. Atheists, may not be willing to either, but their atheism leaves them open to the possibility. I think it’s important for the average atheist to concede that while they won’t go to the same extremes that Singer does, these utilitarian bioethicists are only able to advance what they do because they deny the existence of God and the exceptional nature of the human race, something that the vast majority of atheists agree on despite being unwilling to take the implications of that statement to its logical extreme.
This is what I was pointing to in my previous post and I believe it to be defensible. Thoughts or rebuttals?