Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Interview: When does human life begin -- and what does this really mean? Peter Singer explains.

Editor's note: This is the second of three segments spanning a discussion with Peter Singer. Read the first and third articles.

Story by Joseph Ford Cotto

What does it mean to be ethical? 
The only honest answer to this question might well be another question: What are ethics in the first place?
Many billions of people chalk this query up to god, goddess, or whatever higher power they believe in. For others, though, only more fact-based answers will suffice. Certain individuals devote their entire careers to understanding the hows and whys of, more or less, hows and whys.
Peter Singer is one of these people. His decades-long work investigating morality, how it serves human needs (or perhaps does not), and what the best manner of applying ethical practices are has earned him worldwide acclaim -- though more than a few detractors to boot. (Read more here)


Joseph Ford Cotto: You have received extensive media exposure due to your views about when human life begins. Should American jurisprudence recognize a specific point during which this happens, or is it more of an incremental process?   

Credit: Alletta Vaandering
Peter Singer: Sorry, but you haven’t stated tis accurately.  My view of when life begins isn’t very different from that of opponents of abortion.  It isn’t unreasonable to hold that an individual human life begins at conception. If it doesn’t, then it begins about 14 days later, when it is no longer possible for the embryo to divide into twins or other multiples.  Where I disagree with opponents of abortion is that I don’t think that the fact that an embryo is a living human being is sufficient to show that it is wrong to kill it.  I’d like to see American jurisprudence, and the national abortion debate, take up the question of which capacities a human being needs to have in order for it to be wrong kill it and when, in the development of the early human being, these capacities are present.

Cotto: As an outspoken advocate of abortion rights, you believe that fetal viability ought not prevent a woman from terminating her pregnancy. When should such a procedure should be permissible until?

Singer: Viability varies with the state of medical technology, and for that reason doesn’t seem a good place to draw a line.  It’s unusual for a woman to want or need an abortion after viability, but I think that she should still have that option, if she has a serious reason for the abortion.

Cotto: Some might perceive your utilitarian approach to ethics as irrational, or even counterproductive. Why is utilitarianism a better bet for America's long-term future than traditional Western philosophies which promote absolute certainty? 

Singer: I never claimed that utilitarianism is a better bet for America’s long-term future.  Utilitarianism is not “America first”.  It does not favor any particular nation.  Utilitarians seek the wellbeing of all sentient beings.  That’s why it is a better bet for the world’s long-term future.  Most likely, since America is part of the world, it will also, in the long run, be a better bet for America’s future, but that isn’t the point.

Utilitarians seek to produce the best outcomes, so if advocating utilitarianism were clearly counter-productive, utilitarians would cease to advocate it.  In that respect utilitarianism has an advantage over other ethical views which do not adapt well to changes in circumstances.I don’t really understand why you think other Western philosophies promote absolute certainty. Perhaps you mean that they advocate absolute rules, like “Never take an innocent human life.” But then look at our recent air support of Iraqi troops fighting ISIS.  Our rockets have killed innocent human beings.  Is that right or wrong?  Where is the certainty?

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