January 26, 2007

Questioning "dignity."

Peter Singer has a NYT op-ed about the "Ashley Treatment" (which we discussed recently here). The idea is to restrict the girl's growth and prevent her from reaching puberty because she is, mentally, a baby and will always be. Singer:
A Los Angeles Times report on Ashley’s treatment began: “This is about Ashley’s dignity. Everybody examining her case seems to agree at least about that.” Her parents write in their blog that Ashley will have more dignity in a body that is healthier and more suited to her state of development, while their critics see her treatment as a violation of her dignity.

But we should reject the premise of this debate. As a parent and grandparent, I find 3-month-old babies adorable, but not dignified. Nor do I believe that getting bigger and older, while remaining at the same mental level, would do anything to change that.

Here’s where things get philosophically interesting. We are always ready to find dignity in human beings, including those whose mental age will never exceed that of an infant, but we don’t attribute dignity to dogs or cats, though they clearly operate at a more advanced mental level than human infants. Just making that comparison provokes outrage in some quarters. But why should dignity always go together with species membership, no matter what the characteristics of the individual may be?

What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying. Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her. Lofty talk about human dignity should not stand in the way of children like her getting the treatment that is best both for them and their families.
Are you so ready to throw out the "dignity" talk?

31 comments:

David said...

As a society our philosophical bedrock must be the dignity and intrinisic worth of the individual. Each must be allowed to develop to the mental and physical potential inherent in life.

That said, certain elements of society link capital punishment/abortion to human rights and turn the argument just made to a "means justifies the end" or "end justifies the means." The means is an end in itself. Certain conditions of existence, when violated, can justifiably result in a revocation of the dignity/intrinsic worth contract.

Being an innocent does not negate the contract! Being a serial murderer/rapist etc., arguably negates the contract of normal coexistence. Life must be celebrated and not cheapened as inconveniences to be disposed of or deprived of whatever hope they were born with.

David said...

To answer your question, No.

Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her.

Behind that statement of Singer's is something extremely disconcerting. If the parents decided that they didn't love her and didn't want to care about her, and no one else was willing to shoulder the burdens of her care by adopting her, Singer thinks that the parents would have the right to decide whether or not to kill her. For Singer, infanticide in such a case is morally no different than abortion.

See here for Singer's line of reasoning:

http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/by/1993----.htm

Anonymous said...

Once I saw Singer's name I was sure he was going to advocate killing Ashley off. Color me surprised.

Now that I've had some time to get over the initial shock I've grown even more accepting of the choices that Ashley's parents have made. I still don't think I would make the same choice. If it somehow became the norm, however, I can imagine the possibility of allowing it to happen should I be in the same situation.

One of the things I have thought about is just how many of my former clients were tiny. Not because anything was done to them either. Since things have gone so wrong genetically it is very common for developmentally disabled people to be almost little people. One community living home I worked in had only one resident normal sized. The rest were child sized, perhaps perpetually 6-8 year old sized.

This had a number of advantages similar to those in the previous piece about Ashley. Jiggering things to make her more like her potential house mates are naturally. . .well, considering it from that point of view has tempered my perspective.

I think all of this "dignity" talk from both sides is just buzzword BS. Manipulation through language selection is so tedious and opens you up to counter spin such as we see in Singer's piece.

"Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her."

Ah, there's the old Peter Singer we all know and loath. Ashley as a human being has zero value to Singer or at least less value than a dog. It is only because she has sentimental value to real people that he even assents to her being kept alive.

This is the danger of Secularism ascendant. Once you depart from an outside standard that says that people are equal in their value then more people are going to accept the objective reality that that isn't actually true. In a purely secular world Singer makes excellent points.

Joe Baby said...

I would think this is very bad news for crustaceans like Peter Singer:

she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her

Anonymous said...

While I feel very sorry for Ashly and her entire family, I get the sense that the issue of stunting her growth and her ability to grow into a mature woman has more to do with their convenience than anything else.

Having a period is a messy experience...lets get rid of that!! To carry the process to and extreme. Since she isn't mobile anyway, wouldn't it be much easier to deal with her if they just amputated her arms and legs? After all, she would weigh so much less and take up so much less space. They wouldn't love her any less if she was a neat compact package that they would be able to place anywhere they like in the house. So much easier to put her into the car. Correct?

Sick....I know. Sorry, but once you open the flood gates, God knows what can come through.

Daryl Herbert said...

Are you so ready to throw out the "dignity" talk?

I came out decisively against dignity and in favor of the parents' decision from the start!

Tim said...

Singer's rational "Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her," indicates our worth as persons is entirely derived from what our value is to other persons.

This is perverse. For example, once Singer deems human dignity as only defined by what others bestow upon another human, he has no philosophical objection to slavery, since human dignity alone does not prohibit slavery. Worse yet, slave-holders, valuing their slaves, will care for them, if only because they are an economic asset.

Or, to take another example, the dignity of an orphan, runaway or otherwise abandoned child (thereby not being close to anyone else who deems the child "precious) is no defense against child molestation, since a child molester, valuing a child for what he or she enables the child molester to do, is the one who bestows value upon the child.

stoqboy said...

I'm not familiar with Mr. Singer, so my context may be incomplete. But, the quotes people seem to be reacting to appear to leave out some important context: "What matters in Ashley’s life is that she should not suffer, and that she should be able to enjoy whatever she is capable of enjoying."

His next two words are "Beyond that," meaning, as I understand it, in addition to. It seems to me that Mr. Singer is assigning some intrinsic value to Ashley's and her well being regardless of how she is valued by outsiders.

Faeless said...

Peter Singer writes an op-ed attacking a meaningless piece of reporting or a cliche.

stoqboy said...

If I should ever have followed a link before posting, this was it. After a cursory look at david's link, I believe I would disagree with most of Mr. Singer's opinions.

Anonymous said...

How very fortunate then that Ashley is loved - and therefore precious - or else she might fall prey to one of Professor Singer's most utilitarian of recommendations: the harvesting of the organs of severely disabled children for transplantation into sick animals.

In an analogous way Singer reminds me of what my late Abbot said of liturgists that "They are a gift from God to ensure that no Christian is deprived of the grace of suffering for their faith."

Singer graciously reminds me every time he speaks of why I stick with my faith.

Anonymous said...

Dust Bunny Quees (great name btw) wrote: "I get the sense that the issue of stunting her growth and her ability to grow into a mature woman has more to do with their convenience than anything else."

I agree with you in part. But if stunting her growth allows her to stay at home rather than be hospitalized or put in a treatment center, it gets complicated. Many people do not do well in that type of situation.

My mother in law had a stroke and was paralyzed from the waist down. Our prayer when she was in rehab was that she could manage the strength to help get herself out of bed. Without her help, my wife could not do it alone. We wanted her to stay with us, because we love her, and because we were afraid that she would die quickly in the nursing home.

She could not get to a place where she had the strength to allow us to keep her in our home, so we took her to a wonderful nursing home, we visited at least twice a week, and she died 6 months later. It makes me cry to write this a year later.

That part of me understands the parents' thought process. So maybe it is not so much about convenience as it is possibility. If she stays small, more things are doable with her at home. If she gets full sized, staying at home may not be an option. So in that way, it is more than convenience. Or at least, it could be.

Trey

Anonymous said...

What is interesting to me is the juxtaposition of this story and the one on Dakota Fanning, and the similar positions of the traditional right and left.

If I am reading correctly, the left is all for Mistress Fanning (which I believe is the correct, Victorian Era term for prepubescent females) portraying a rape scene with at least the appearance of being nude, with the complicity of her parents, but objects to the parents of this child, who will mentally remain an infant, correcting her body to remain in sync with that mentality. While the right is in favor of the surgery, and against the movie scene.

I believe the parents had, not only as biological parents, but as caregivers and eternal guardians had the right, and responsibility, to have the surgery done, and the hormone treatments. They are in the best interest of the child. Who could argue that it would be better for the child to go through puberty, menstruation and the possibility of pregnancy?

In the same vein, who could argue that a 12 year old has the mental capacity to agree to do a possibly pedophilic erotic scene in a movie? How can they argue that a apparent has no right to the first action, but is not only within their rights, but is IN the right for the second? Is it a case of Art for Art’s Sake or is it a more of a political philosophy?

Comparing the two shows a basic difference between right and left- Left believes anything goes, morally, as long as someone is able to enjoy the outcome, while the right believes we have to have a bright line that cannot be crossed, even if we have consent of the minor and their parents.

Given this basis, give me the right everytime.

vbspurs said...

Oh My God. :(

I'm sure someone has mentioned this before, but this situation reminds me too uncomfortably of old Joe Kennedy's reasons for having his daughter, Rosemary, lobotomised.

She was born with slight retardation (probably Asperger's), and as she grew older, her "acting out" increased -- this included staying out late at night, which old Joe feared might lead to pregnancy.

So, without Rose Kennedy's knowledge, he had her 'fixed'.

And yes, when Rose Kennedy came back and found this fait accompli, old Joe told her it was to maintain Rosemary's dignity...

I'm not this family, nor do I have their problems, bless 'em, but yes, based on these motives, I am ready to throw out the 'dignity' talk.

Cheers,
Victoria

David said...

Lest anyone think that good objections to Singer's views on "dignity" and infanticide must be religiously based, here's a link to philosopher Colin McGinn's objections:

http://www.slate.com/id/2000013/entry/1002123/

McGinn describes himself as ". . . an atheist and general opponent of religion".

Revenant said...

Singer's rational "Beyond that, she is precious not so much for what she is, but because her parents and siblings love her and care about her," indicates our worth as persons is entirely derived from what our value is to other persons.

That's a misinterpretation of Singer's statement.

First of all, the "not so much" suggests that she does have some small intrinsic worth.

Secondly, the idea that a person doomed to go through life helpless and with sub-canine intelligence has little intrinsic worth does not imply that your or I have little intrinsic worth.

he has no philosophical objection to slavery, since human dignity alone does not prohibit slavery

I think you're letting your initial emotional reaction cloud your judgement. In the sentence before the one you quoted, Singer specifically cites the importance of not letting people suffer and allowing them to enjoy life as best as they can. That quite obviously precludes slavery!

Sigivald said...

Tim: I imagine Singer's reduction of her "preciousness" to that is predicated on her permanently and severely reduced mental faculties.

By which I mean his statement in this case is not, as it stands, meant to apply universally, but only to those of infant-grade mental facility.

This is perfectly consistent with his previous arguments re. infanticide and "animal rights".

Singer is first and foremost a philosopher, and while his judgements are easily disagreed with, it helps if one takes them for what they are - the consistent results of applying his predicates.

Moral intuition disagreeing with the conclusions is fine, but not very effective, philosophically. Better to argue contra his predicates and assert a theory of innate value. The problem with that is that it's tricky and difficult to do consistently without also violating moral intuition.

(Plus what stogboy said - for all Singer's faults he's uniformly against suffering.

The uniformity and his particular predicates are part of what people disagree with, re. his animal rights writings. Utilitarian moral arguments have that effect on most people, which is part of the problem with them; a moral system that deeply conflicts with moral intuition simply won't be accepted. I'd argue, philosophically, that there is in fact something wrong with any such system.)

I knew that Philosophy degree would pay off.

Al Maviva said...

Revenant, if you think Singer sees intrinsic worth in any living thing, you haven't read Singer.

As for Sigivald's comments, philosophy generally is meant to answer questions, rather than futilely attempting to impose a stupid consistency on any given set of facts. Absolutely consistency to a single facet of a philosophy isn't necessary a worthwhile cause. For isntance, you could look at the first principles of Judeo-Christian philosophy, the Ten Commandments, and interpret them perfectly consistently. Take "thou shalt not kill" as an example. Killing means ending the life of another living thing by other than natural means. Thus not only is killing humans forbidden, but so too killing animals, plants, and presumably the little bacteria that grow milk, or pretty much any other thing existing on this earth. Ingestion of food, movement and pretty much everything else would be rendered impossible, were you to consistently follow the injunction, "thou shalt not kill." The mere act of living probably kills lots of stomach bacteria, not to mention just sitting there probably crushes dust mites. Yet if one was to attempt to kill one's own self, to avoid harm to others, one would be killing... Madness that way lies.

Hence the maxim, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Singer is a second rate philosopher as he's only able to apply utilitaranism mechanically, in a radically consistent method where nothing can ever interfere with its first principles, probably starting with the erroneous premise that all things (human and non-human) are equal. I don't think that qualifies as thinking, so much as the unsophisticated automatic application of a single facet of utilitarianim. I have little time for Mr. Singer's foolish consistencies, along with the philosophies of others who suffer from the same malady of excessive logic singularly applied. (Rand and Rothbard come to mind).

Jeremy Bentham was trained to think that way, and it drove him mad, you know.

Anonymous said...

Singer and the Peta people do have a rational and consistent ethos: everything is equal, and nothing should ever experience any pain. In the world where lions lie down with lambs, this will be so. Until then, unless you are a Jain, eating stuff remains the name of the game. It implies violence, since there's nothing that you can eat that doesn't have life.

But the PETA people will argue that an ant is the same as a child. Peter Singer is the cornerstone of the whole animal rights philosophy. He argues that a chicken can feel pain, and so it deserves rights. The same as black people (he actually amkes this comparison). The NAACP has protested the comparison of black people to chickens, but Singer presses on.

It's hard to believe, but there are some people in the movement who go even further than Singer:

"Animal rights advocates do not distinguish between human beings and animals. In the words of Ingrid Newkirk, founder of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA), "There is no rational basis for saying that a human being has special rights. A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy. They're all mammals." Michael Fox of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) has said, "The life of an ant and the life of my child should be accorded equal respect."

Actually, I rather like to commit genocide against ant colonies. I wiped out two colonies of carpenter ants in my home over the last year. I hope I don't end up imprisoned in the Hague awaiting trial!

bearbee said...

I saw this film on PBS years ago. May was a slip of a woman, less 5' and 100 pounds of perseverance

'May's Miracle'

The baby was blind, severely retarded and had cerebral palsy when May adopted him and patiently cared for him. At 16, he could not feed himself, stand alone or speak, yet she never gave up hope. Then the unexplained happened. One day she found him at the piano, picking out familiar tunes. It was thus that his rare musical talent was discovered.

This site has video clips:

Leslie Lemke
In a modest cottage on Lake Pewaukee where she lived with her husband, Joe, May loved and tended to Leslie like a frail little flower. She taught him how to swallow so he could eat and how to make sounds so he could communicate. When he was able, May literally strapped his fragile body to hers to teach him how, a step at a time, to walk. She put his hands over hers as she played simple tunes on a piano she got for him. And she sang to him.

So, who's to say what can be accomplished.

Anonymous said...

For light relief there is another PETA - People Eating Tasty Animals - an intended parody.

Likely as not to be found at www.peta.org - though the domain name remains contended.

Revenant said...

Revenant, if you think Singer sees intrinsic worth in any living thing, you haven't read Singer.

I didn't say Singer believed in intrinsic worth. He does, however, believe that self-aware human beings have worth beyond that which other human beings assign to them.

Take "thou shalt not kill" as an example. Killing means ending the life of another living thing by other than natural means.

That's a mistranslation; the actual commandment is against murder, not killing. Killing -- even of other humans -- was not merely allowed, but under various circumstances *required* (e.g. holy wars and sacrifices).

Hence the maxim, "a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds."

Another maxim, of course, is "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing". I don't think you have a good grasp of either Singer's or the Bible's moral philosophy -- or of what the "hobgoblin" quote meant, for that matter.

probably starting with the erroneous premise that all things (human and non-human) are equal

The notion that humans and animals are morally equal is an axiom that is neither provable nor disprovable. It is no more "erroneous" than the idea that morality derives from God, from the sanctity of human life, from kindness, or from any other source.

Anonymous said...

God gave people the righ to name the animals, and to eat them, in the Book of Genesis.

It's fairly fundamental(ist), to assert this.

With postmodernism and the death of God no one's in charge any more. The ants have equal rights, etc.

It's possible that there's a gay right-wing who has taken their ideas from Jeffrey Dahmer among ants that thinks they should have the right to eat Peter Singer's privates. I wonder how he's going to like that!

Anonymous said...

I'd love to see a PETA person - preferably a really senior, smooth-talking, ever-plausible, PR-coached sort - sit down with a tiger and explain her [it would be a her] point of view.

Don't ask me to pick up the resulting human detritus. I wouldn't have the stomach.

PETA are like all heretics - they take some portion of the truth and so distort it, making it thereby nothing but a lie. That is so more dangerous than an utter fallacy.

The problem with Singer is not that he is unreasonable, it is that he has lost everything but his reason.

Save the tiger from such non-sense. Viva la Inquisición.

Mitch said...

Are you so ready to throw out the "dignity" talk?
No. Not until I am ready to throw out the "soul" talk, or the "human" talk, or the "life" talk.

Cat said...

Victoria - I didn't make the connection between poor rose. I think she still lives in an institution in Michigan. That said, Rose was born at a time when people understood so little about the brain that Dr's pushed lobotomy was a "cure." I don't doubt she was loved and she wasn't hidden, as people like to imagine - having a "challenged" child in her class at the time at home at that time was unusual - until after her lobotomy. It was a decision that would haunt Joe Kennedy. (I am no fan of the Kennedy's) Shows you how far we've come.

I think it's really interesting (I suppose now) it's thought that Rose Kennedy had Asperger's. Most people with Aspergers and Autism were thought "retarded." Now, retardation has plummeted, but there is a huge increase in autism. That increase isn't blamed on changing a diagnosis, but on vaccines...but that's another post.

P. Froward said...

Singer's schtick is to use bad logic to justify "ethical" positions grossly at odds with ordinary human decency and common sense. It's like the socialist (and sometimes liberal) notion that a healthy economy fueled by self-interest just isn't good enough; what we really need is something completely artificial, because... um... because... Because a foolish consistency is the only kind certain tenured philosophers (or most overexcited undergraduates) feel really at home with?

Can you make much of an academic career out of common sense, thoughtfully and humanely applied?

Sigivald, above, is right: ...a moral system that deeply conflicts with moral intuition simply won't be accepted. I'd argue, philosophically, that there is in fact something wrong with any such system.

Try to force parents to value their own children no more than children they've never met, and you're trying to break a billion years of evolution. It's easier and more effective to work with the properties of your materials than against them, wherever possible. That's unless you're more committed to showing your materials who's boss, than to getting good results.

What's this guy's track record as an ethicist, exactly? I get hired to write C++ code because I've worked on successful products that made money. What's he accomplished? Is there any evidence that putting Singer's ideas into practice would gain anybody anything a sane person would want? Where has he tested this stuff?


Anyhow, Singer says

...we don't attribute dignity to dogs or cats...

It's hard for me to imagine anybody who's known many cats without attributing dignity to at least one. They're very formal creatures. I'm as prone to anthropomorphizing the little monsters as any cat enthusiast, but he's not saying we don't validly attribute dignity to cats; he's claiming that we don't do it at all. He's spectacularly wrong.

But by "we" he may mean "the set of all people whose views count", otherwise known as "Peter Singer".

Johnny Nucleo said...

Here is a fun drinking game. Think of something ridiculously repugnant - like eating doo-doo or bathing in lava. If Peter Singer is for it, take a drink. You will be drunk in no time!

Why does anyone take this lunatic seriously? I'll tell you why. Retards and gimps freak people out. But animals are cute!

We all love pets - cats, dogs, rodents and such. But retards and gimps? Not so much!

Singer says, Kill the retards and gimps at birth - they have no quality of life! But don't kill the animals - they have rights!

(Please note: Though he sounds like a folk singer, Peter Singer is not the same dude who is in Peter, Paul and Mary. Peter, Paul and Mary sing "Puff the Magic Dragon," while Peter Singer is an agent of "The Dragon.")

Revenant said...

I'd love to see a PETA person - preferably a really senior, smooth-talking, ever-plausible, PR-coached sort - sit down with a tiger and explain her [it would be a her] point of view.

Disclaimer: I do not agree with PETA.

That said, morality doesn't require that the other guy agree with your morals. Gandhi, for example, advocated the principle (common in various strains of Hinduism and Buddhism) of total non-violence, even in the face of those who intend violence towards you. I'm not sure to what extent he applied that philosophy to animals, but there is a definite anti-killing (animals included) motif in the Vedas, and Gandhi did follow a strict vegetarian diet. Of course, just because Gandhi did something doesn't mean it was morally right... but it does kind of fly in the face of the notion that only lunatics and moral imbeciles take a strong anti-killing/animal-rights view.

Anonymous said...

Singer says that he is a "parent" and a "grandparent" in the article. When you Wikipedia him there is no personal information at all. Just stuff about his ideas.

It doesn't mention a marriage or the name of his wife.

Is he really a dad and grandfather? Or did he just have children at some point before he went back to philosophizing. Are there pictures of him with his children somewhere?

If ind it weird that people aren't more partial to their own children. Isn't that what nature is all about?

I assume that even cougars are partial to their children, and would protect them against any kind of assault. Singer would open his to assault, it seems, in that everything has equal rights. If the primary right is life, and the only way to maintain life is through eating, then: Presumably, a colony of army ants has equal rights to eat. So he should feed his children to the army ants, or else face the charge of "speciesism."

Revenant said...

Is he really a dad and grandfather? Or did he just have children at some point before he went back to philosophizing. Are there pictures of him with his children somewhere?

According to this interview, he's married with three grown daughters, or at least was in 1999.

If the primary right is life, and the only way to maintain life is through eating, then: Presumably, a colony of army ants has equal rights to eat.

Singer does not believe that the primary right is to life. He is opposed to causing animals to suffer, not to killing and eating them per se. His view of rights is based around sentience and capacity for suffering (ants have neither), and not around simply being alive