Monday, October 11, 2004

Dangerous minds

Last night I watched the documentary "Singer: A dangerous mind", about the controversial Australian ethicist Peter Singer. For those who aren't familiar with his work, Singer is most famous for his views on animal rights and euthanasia, both of which revolve around his theory of personhood. According to Singer, it is not enough to say "human life is valuable"; we must ask why. Investigating this question leads us to the idea that what makes human life valuable is that we are "persons" - we have the capacity to experience pain and suffering, but more importantly, we can conceive of ourselves existing over time, plan for the future, and experience pain when those plans are frustrated. It's a very compelling viewpoint, but it has the consequence that not all persons are human beings, and not all human beings are persons. To the extent that higher animals can also conceive of themselves as existing over time (and there is some evidence that at least some - such as our close primate relatives - do), then they too are worthy of moral consideration - which bars eating them or using them for medical experimentation. And to the extent that some human beings are unable to do this - if they are severely intellectually disabled, in a vegetative state, or simply very young - it allows them to be treated in the same way that we would treat an animal.

This is obviously a controversial viewpoint - it uses our desire for consistency to on the one hand challenge our treatment of animals, and on the other hand undermine our traditional assumptions about the value of human life. And it has attracted a great deal of opposition, not all of it intellectual. Singer has had trouble with the German government for advocating active euthanasia of the severely mentally retarded, and his lectures in the United States have met with protests and disruption. So I wasn't sure what to expect from a documentary on him - whether it would be a fair assessment of his views, or a hatchet-job from religious-fanatic Americans. Fortunately, it was the former.

"A dangerous mind" followed Singer to various parts of the world: to America, where he lectured his students and had them visit a hospital ward full of premature babies; to Britain, where he met with the family of a disabled boy whose doctors had tried to euthanise him without their consent; to Austria, where he researched the fate of his Jewish grandparents in the Holocuust and speculated on the merits of thinking with the head rather than "with the blood" or the gut; and to Australia, where he talked to medical ethicists and the family of an elderly woman who had committed suicide rather than suffer further cancer treatment. It also had comments from other ethicists, both supporting and opposed to Singer's viewpoint. It was a good, thoughtful piece of television, which is obviously why it was on at 11:30 at night.

One of the things that came across very clearly was that while Singer's critics abuse him for "playing god" and making decisions about the value of human life, these decisions are made all the time. Doctors faced with marginal cases - premature babies with little chance of a normal life, elderly patients with Alzheimers who are just a walking, breathing shell - disguise these decisions under the label of "medical futility". The perniciousness of making these decisions in this way was illustrated in his visit to Britain, where doctors had decided that a disabled boy did not deserve basic medical treatment, and in fact tried to kill him (and won a court case saying that they could override the wishes of parents and relatives when making this decision). What Singer does is bring this debate into the open, and provide us with clear criteria against which such decisions can be assessed. Those who don't like those criteria and their consequences really only have one option: to develop better ones. So far though they have been unable to present a credible alternative.