Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

21 May 2005, 22:07 p.m.

Machiavelli's The Little Prince

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2005 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

A while ago, I read Peter Singer's Writings on an Ethical Life, the reader he put together to fairly represent his controversial views on animal rights, ecology, poverty, abortion, infanticide, and right living. After reading his book, I think activist Harriet McBryde Johnson has a weaker case than I thought she did before reading Singer's book. However, I do think it would be good for us to have more information on the abilities of people with major physical disabilities to have fulfilling, happy lives; I have much less of a problem with the abortion of fetuses with entirely missing brains than I do with the abortion of fetuses with disabilities on the quality-of-life borderline (e.g., Downs syndrome, Klinefelter syndrome).

The weirdest thing Singer says in the whole book is that we can't derive morals from facts. I'm still trying to figure that one out. Maybe I'm like Cindi Lightballoon in Arrested Development misunderstanding that George Sr.'s statement "Faith is a fact" is on the blooper reel.

Anyway, there's a contradiction between Singer's views, as I see it, on the idea of "potential." When it comes to poverty and the responsibility of humans to help one another, he says that we're responsible for the easily foreseen consequences of our actions. However, on the issue of abortion, he dismisses "potential life"; since the embryo cannot desire anything now, aborting it does not thwart any desires, and hypotheticals as to its future wishes are irrelevant. I understand that introducing "potential" into the argument also invites a slippery slope regarding onanism and birth control, but Singer's method of dismissing it seems solipsistic.

Singer's points on euthanasia seem formidable, but Rivka points out that it is practically impossible to administer euthanasia (or Physician-Assisted Suicide) fairly and ethically in this society; the theory does not work in reality because of logistical and financial constraints in the health care system. As she points out, people with terminal illnesses want to die because of depression (curable) and fear of pain (curable with proper pain management). But she distinguishes cessation of treatment from active killing. I'm still struggling with that argument, as am I with Harriet McBryde Johnson's arguments in general.

Singer, Johnson, and Rivka all want better care for all patients concerned. After all, if we all had excellent preventive care, pain management, counseling, and family planning tools, then the ethics of conception and end-of-life care would cause less agony for all concerned. I think they're on the same side of many issues, but Rivka and Johnson infer policy implications from their beliefs and Singer's on the other side. I need to read up more.