G.K. Chesterton and the Madness of Peter Singer
For years I have been teaching my Senior students about personhood theory, speciesism, and the preference utilitarianism of Peter Singer. Their reactions when confronting his ideas about infanticide, why not all humans are persons, and how to make responsible moral decisions are predictable. Some of them instinctively recoil from both what Singer both says and implies, while others are confused and uncertain if he really means what he says. Every once in a while a student, perhaps due to false bravado or a desire to be contrary, will say something like, “I agree with everything he says. He makes really good sense.” One year a student shared the selections from Singer I assign with her mother, who read them carefully and told her daughter that Singer was absolutely right. “Other animals kill their retarded young,” she said. “Why shouldn’t humans?” I noted in class that other animals also fail to provide care for their aged or sick parents, something the girl’s mother might want to discuss with her children before making “nature” the final court of appeal and waiting for them to act accordingly. Yet without fail a large number of students indicate that while they want to disagree with Singer on, among other things, the morality of infanticide, they find his arguments rational. It’s hard for them to find what they consider a good reason to disagree with him, even if this makes them uncomfortable. “This all seems to make such good sense,” they say in a variety of ways. “He is so logical.”
Peter Singer and friend
My usual response, after trying to explain what Singer’s is actually proposing, is to draw attention to where he is inconsistent, where his conclusions do not logically follow from his premises and where he makes unwarranted assertions. This is not hard to do, for Singer embraces a strange and inconsistent form of humanism, one that includes our ethical responsibility to impoverished nations, that is at odds with his embrace of a materialistic philosophy that rejects not only any form of teleology, but also any logical grounds for making any statements about what anyone ought to do. As some students wonder after their assigned readings, how can Singer logically insist that the human animal has an obligation to reject the amoral behavior of other animals? Where does such an obligation come from if we are merely the product of a blind evolutionary process? “We are under a moral obligation to do better,” Singer insists, than amoral animals who unthinkingly kill. “Who says so?” is thus a necessary question.
Some students also ask why we shouldn’t accept the ethical implications of Social Darwinism and the eugenics mentality that followed upon it, as we usually cover Singer immediately after our consideration of those topics. In addition, students often ask if, since all newborn babies, with mental disabilities or not, fail to meet Singer’s criteria for personhood, all parents should be able to kill their newborns. Why not, since even the healthiest two-week-old lacks the rational capacities and independence that make a person a person in his accounting. They have no preferences of any kind, while their parents do, and preference utilitarianism is clear regarding whom we should listen to. Likewise, when Singer writes that the preference of the hunted person to live probably outweighs the preference of his hunters to kill him, though we can’t really be certain (numbers matter, he also tells us here, so if the hunters outnumber the hunted by a thousand to one. . .), I ask if there is there any reason to take anything he says about the moral life seriously. We can’t really know, with certainty, that the Jew hiding from the gang of Nazis, or the black trying to escape a lynch mob, or a Tutsi running from a gang of Hutus, has a preference for living that outweighs the preference of his attackers to kill. This is meant to be taken seriously as logical thinking?
I think all this is necessary, that it is important to draw attention to the weakness of his arguments. He is not so “logical,” after all, and the idea that killing someone’s child is morally wrong if there are parents who want it to live, and that the harm is done to the parents, not the child, is as logically absurd as it is chillingly heartless. But I think that maybe the better response ultimately looks in another direction, one pointed to by Chesterton in the following quote:
“If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgement. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”
Let’s for a second assume for the sake of argument that my students’ first reaction is correct, that Singer’s arguments are logical in that his conclusions follow clearly and inevitably from his premises. A perfectly logical argument, however, is not always a correct one. Any number of syllogisms could be trotted out to show that logical arguments can be false, especially where the premises are flawed. “All men are green in color/Socrates is a man/Therefore, Socrates is green in color” is a perfectly logical argument, though it is also a false one. This is the case with Singer’s attempts to develop a rational ethical theory and apply it to the matters he addresses, and for reasons precisely the reasons Chesterton notes. Singer’s main problem is that he begins from flawed premises. Flawed because they are not rooted in the most basic of human truths, particularly the importance of a compassion rooted in love, which Singer abandoned long ago. He may often speak of compassion, but he is willing to invoke it as he stands on the graves of its victims, as his form of compassion will readily kill the weakest and most vulnerable. My students, though still relatively unformed in their ethical reasoning, are fortunately far more “delayed by the things that go with good judgement,” including this genuine compassion. They are, thank God, “hampered by charity” and the “dumb certainties of experience.”
This has been illustrated on numerous occasions in my classes over the years. One semester a student related to the class how she read every night to her younger brother, who suffered from severe mental disabilities. “I love him. He’s my brother. And of course he’s a person, regardless of what Singer says.” Another student talked about her babysitting experiences with a child with Down Syndrome, and the joy that marks his life and those she called blessed enough to be a part of it. “Is a chimpanzee really more of a person than he is? How absurd.” Other students simply & instinctively cringe. The ick factor, this is sometimes called. Is this reaction the sign of a prejudice? One shaped by their socialization? Absolutely. And thankfully, for it is a sign they have learned well, even if they are in the beginning stages of learning to understand and articulate their distaste for a culture of death that teaches them to shout "compassion" as they stand on the graves of its victims.
The sane affections Chesterton notes and that we all need to develop in order to love the least of these are precisely what madmen like Singer can’t understand, and what so many of my students demonstrate in their lives and testimony. They hold no degrees or chairs in bioethics, and prior to our class would not be able to identify what personhood theory or preference utilitarianism is, yet they can often see through Singer’s efforts to turn more people in our society against the weak and vulnerable, and to treat weakness and vulnerability per se as fatal flaws that eliminate a person’s right to even be considered a person. “Human being, yes,” Singer says; “But not a human person,” as if such a distinction makes any real sense to those who love. Those students with real-life knowledge of weakness and vulnerability possess Chesterton’s dumb certainties of experience that enable them to see the horror of Singer’s propaganda. As parents and educators, it is an important part of our job to nurture this instinctive recoil and to help our charges to understand why this sensibility is the proper one and how to connect it with others that will enable to become virtuous people. “Men without chests” is how C.S. Lewis described those who lack such sensibilities, whose education has left them incapable of seeing the lunacy of schemes like those of Peter Singer and others who depart from that great tradition of thought that sees love as the human vocation. That he has gained so much press is perhaps not surprising; that he apparently is preaching to an ever-growing choir is terrifying. Something more important than mere reason is missing in them. “We castrate & bid the geldings be fruitful,” Lewis famously said in The Abolition of Man. Despite my students’ first reaction to his work, Singer is ultimately betraying reason by rejecting every hint of those necessary human qualities Chesterton mentions above, and that they so often instinctively display.