Not a Modest Proposal

Ethical Perspectives 6 (2):126-138 (1999)
The July 1998 announcement of Peter Singer's appointment to the chair of bio ethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values as the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics raised a very loud controversy, largely due to Singer's favourable opinion of infanticide.The present paper is not the forum in which to recount this well publicized and often overly emotional conflict. Indeed, sustained critical discussion of the issues at hand was often found lacking in this debate. Generally the debate included on the anti-Singer side people who had read little of his works, or who had perhaps merely heard his views second hand. The student newspaper of Princeton, the Daily Princetonian, documented many instances of this kind of opposition.On the other hand, his supporters tended to reply with accusations of quotations taken out of context and calls for academic freedom. This present paper is not interested in this debate, but rather concerns itself with the way in which Singer views the distinction between the human being and the person. It is this distinction which grounds his position on infanticide, and thus it is to this that we must turn.In this paper I take issue with Singer's use of the distinction between the person and the human. In so doing, I first explain Singer's basic position on personhood and sentience, and the relative value of organisms named under these two terms. With this discussion in hand, I then lay stress on a simple and repeated dictum of Singer's: the newborn infant up to the age of one month is not a person.This leads us to the position that the only possible ground for the selective infanticide of disabled infants is that newborn infants, healthy or not, are not persons, primarily because they lack self-consciousness. Then I investigate his ideas of personhood and self-consciousness as abstractions. Finally, in conclusion, I offer some observations drawn from Jonathan Swift
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DOI 10.2143/EP.6.2.505351
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