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Philosophical Monsters

2003-02-15 17:19:17+00 by petronius 4 comments

In a time of increasingly intense rhetoric in the protest field, with much political analysis subsumed by ad hominem attacks, it might be interesting to look at the disconnect between somebody's ideas and the person themself. In the New York Times Magazine (sorry, registration needed)a veteran disability rights attorney writes about debating Professor Peter Singer of Princeton, philosophical founder of the Animal Rights Movement and recently attacked for arguing that parents have the right to kill malformed babies, or that society has the right to kill the suffering comatose. As a prime candidate for involuntary euthanisia, the author is appalled by the professor's ideas, but is troubled by the fact that that he seems to be genuinely nice person. She is attacked by her fellow crips (her term, not mine)for even shaking hands with him. Can we separate people from their ideas, or should we? A very good article.

[ related topics: Politics Law Civil Liberties Peter Singer ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2003-02-15 19:32:14+00 by: Dan Lyke

It's Saturday morning and I'm only thinking in short choppy sentences. So:

Damned fascinating article. I've found myself agreeing with Singer before, after this I'm going to have to go out and read some of his writings.

And in her summation of his argument, I think Ms. Johnson misses the argument of the impact of one's life on the lives of those around.

As for the "do we relate to people if we think of them as monsters" issue, could you carry on a conversation with someone who works as a telemarketer?

#Comment made: 2003-02-15 23:04:58+00 by: petronius

Dan:I assume you mean in your 3rd paragraph the impact a "bad baby"(a rather mordant slang term used by some interns I used to work with) has on the parents and family. I guess this comes down to "why does your right to exist overcome my happiness or convenience"? By the same token we could argue just as easily "why does your convenience overcome my right to existence?" And around she goes. Maybe the real problem is that I think an attempt to construct a fully logical philosophy of human relations is doomed from the start.

First, logic is at best an imperfect tool when wielded by imperfect humans. A good debater can logically talk you into anything.

Second, we humans do not exist in a logical world. I suppose we could argue by logic that we don't really need to relate to anyone, yet at all times and locations humans create societies. We are hardwired with some needs and ideas, although the details are infinitly variable. We protect babies, we don't eat human flesh, we don't screw our sisters (at least we don't in Illinois). When societies set themselves up to disobey these directives, problems develop in other zones. For example, how much of the demographic implosion in Russia is due to old Soviet attempts to absorb family structures into the State by encouraging family members to rat on each other?

Third, every attempt to argue for exterminating some group begins by denying their full humanity. The Jews under Hitler, the Indians under Custer, the bad babies under Singer. Why the caveat on making them non-human? Or does Professor Singer entertain some illogical predjudice that you can't go around just killing people?

#Comment made: 2003-02-16 13:06:50+00 by: meuon

First, I have to say I have a good friend that is not only a telemarketer, she has trained and managed pools of them 'for hire' (she's good at it). As a human being, she's an incredible person who is quite lovable and "not a monster".

On the 'bad babies' issue and similiar issues: I've seen both sides of this personally. I have a 26yr old (ex-)stepdaughter that is "special". On one side, she is capable of being a drain on society and her family. On the other side, she is a warm and loving human that exemplifies some of the best qualities in a fellow human being I know. - Years ago, I was working at All Saints Episcopal Hospital in Forth Worth, I had to swap out video camera's (tube type) in a patient's room because the image of a long term comatose patient had burned into the phospher.. he'd been there a LONG time, looked like a skinny sick white person. About a year later, I was up in the extended care unit, and this cheerful pudgy very black person brought in snacks and was an absolute riot. When I was told he was the same person, I was shocked. Since then, I worked in several 'potato farms' ie: long term care facilities. Few recover, but some do.

Yes. I worry about our future collective gene pool and the drain of such cases on our society: "bad" babies, "uncurable" long term patients, chronic repeat offenders of violent crimes..

I've even had times where, in exercises of cold logical thinking, I would agree with Mr. Singer about "involuntary euthanasia". Does that make me a bad person? Would you stop being my friend because I've considered it? I think it is a luxury our society affords us to NOT have to practice it. If our society was not as rich in resources as it is, we might be forced to side with Mr. Singer out of practical necessity. Until then, I am still proud to be an American.

#Comment made: 2003-02-17 02:15:06+00 by: Dan Lyke

First off, I accept that language is a metaphor, I've ragged on philosophers in general on Flutterby before and I don't withdraw that sentiment now. The word is not the thing.

I believe that much of what we refer to as "rights" are luxuries of a privileged culture. It's great that we, collectively, are able to give so much to those who would otherwise perish, and in the specific case of disabled children expect so much from parents, but as we extend further out we're constantly pushing the limits of our abilities to give. Concerned about rising healthcare costs? Then you'd better be ready to make the hard decisions about who to keep alive and who not to, because the real costs of healthcare are coming from redefining what a viable organism is.

Perhaps Ms. Johnson isn't as blisfully ignorant that she's alive because a lot of people have given far beyond "where it hurts" to make sure that she's alive today as she comes off, but given the assorted stories I've read of him I'm fairly sure that Singer has thought about this. I don't necessarily agree with him, frankly all I've read has been reactionary literature by people so afraid that his ideas are powerful that they're largely unwilling to give them any airing, but I think it's important to think about where to do the triage, and I think it's important that everyone be more aware than they are of their impact on others.

Along those lines, I was just yet again involved in a discussion of needs and desires in a situation that I was being asked to fund the resolution for. Once we'd gone through it deeply it was determined that the person in need could, in fact, scrape together the resources on their own rather than me writing a 4 digit check to make this particular life change (nominally a "loan", my experience with such things is that it rarely is). I don't mind helping, but as a culture I'd much rather that people thought more deeply about their places in the economic structure, what it costs to keep them alive, and how they can better direct their self-determination in that structure. It seems from the second hand reports that Peter Singer is helping some people ask those questions. I think that's a good thing.

It's not that hard to say that to be a right, that thing has to be able to exist in isolation from the society. Freedom of speech? Sure, you can say what you want in the absence of other people. Shelter? Only if you build it. From there, I don't think it's that hard to extrapolate that it's not a duty to help those in need. Good for community building, helps build a civilization that's more pleasant in a lot of ways, but not a right. If we can get that far (and I do), then it's also not hard to say that we can not support some in our society.

From there it's walking a fine line between saying it's more just to euthanize those we'd other let starve, and deciding who can and can't support themselves. Dangerous territory, but territory that needs to be explored, because as technology gets better and better I think we'll be able to extend human life so far out that it will be massively intertwined with animal, plant and machine life. What is living when 95% of the organism is mechanical or electrical? In my lifetime I think I'll need a hard answer.