This article will continue my response to Peter Singer’s case for infanticide. (Part 1 can be read here.)
A Couple of Potential Rebuttals
In Part 1, I argued that abortion being legal does not prove that the unborn baby lacks a right to life. It could simply prove that the baby does not have a right to use the woman’s body as Judith Jarvis Thomson and David Boonin argue. However, as a utilitarian, Singer rejects Thomson’s argument and says he would hold “that, however outraged I may be at having been kidnapped, if the consequences of disconnecting myself from the violinist are, on balance and taking into account the interests of everyone affected, worse than the consequences of remaining connected, I ought to remain connected.” (1) The same applies to abortion. If the consequences of not remaining pregnant would be worse for everyone involved, then the woman should remain pregnant. (2)
The general problem with this argument is that as J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig show, you have to be damn near omniscient to know whether the consequences of one action are going to end up being better than the consequences of another actin. (3) For example, let’s say that in the moment, the woman, the man, and all the family are very happy that she didn’t have an abortion. However, the child that is born is a sociopath. When he gets old enough, he dumps a bunch of kerosene around the house and lights a match. Everyone dies in a big inferno. In this case, it could be argued that it would have been better for everyone involved if the woman had had an abortion. Everyone would have been much happier in the long run. As Moreland and Craig write, “Someone could sincerely do A, thinking that it would produce the most utility, but actually do the immoral thing if B turned out in the long run to maximize utility vis-à-vis A.” (4) And then we would be right back to abortion being allowable even if the fetus is a person.
I also argued that the unborn has a rational nature that goes beyond anything a cow, pig, or chicken has. We see evidence of this nature in the types of beings that they grow up to be. But Singer writes, “It is of course true that the potential rationality, self consciousness and so on of a fetal Homo Sapiens surpasses that of a cow or pig; but it does not follow that the fetus has a stronger claim to life. There is no rule that says a potential X has the same value as an X or has all the rights of an X.” (5) But here he is misunderstanding the substance view of persons. Proponents are not basing the baby’s right to life on abilities she will have in the future. We are basing it on the nature that all humans have from the moment they come into being. Or as Christopher Kaczor says, “At least as articulated by informed participants in scholarly debate, the classic pro-life view is not that the prenatal human being is a potential person, but rather that the prenatal human being is a person with potential.” (6)
Now, I will move on to Singer’s utilitarian defense of infanticide.
Indirect Classical Utilitarianism
Singer explains that indirect classical utilitarianism is concerned with increasing happiness rather than unpleasant feelings such as fear. (7) When it comes to infanticide, he writes, “The indirect, classical utilitarian reason does not apply because no one capable of understanding what is happening when a newborn baby is killed could feel threatened by a policy that gave less protection to a newborn than to adults.” (8) In other words, the baby doesn’t know that a law is being passed that makes it okay to kill him. He is not being caused emotional distress by the legalization of infanticide. Therefore, these laws would not increase negative feelings.
Singer explains that preference utilitarianism “holds that we should do what, on balance, furthers the preferences of those affected.” (9) Once again, he does not believe this applies to the newborn because “Newborn babies cannot see themselves as beings that might or might not have a future, and so they cannot have a desire to continue living.” (10)
Principle of Respect for Autonomy
Respect for autonomy means respecting a person’s capacity to choose and act on their own decisions. (11) As Singer argues, utilitarians do not have to concern themselves with this in the case of the newborn because the newborn baby is not an autonomous being who can make choices. (12)
Singer concludes, “In all this, the newborn baby is on the same footing as the fetus, and hence fewer reasons exist against killing babies and fetuses than exist against killing those who are capable of seeing themselves as distinct entities, existing over time.” (13)
I agree with Singer that the newborn infants are not capable of feeling fear over laws that allow their lives to be taken. I agree that the newborn does not have preferences for how their life should go. And I agree that newborns can’t make or act on their own decisions.
I only have one fundamental disagreement. I disagree that these premises lead to the conclusion that infanticide is okay. (I guess that is a pretty big disagreement. But how interesting would this article be if there wasn’t a major disagreement, right?)
To begin with, there is a questionable assumption in these arguments which is that you cannot be harmed if you’re not aware of that harm. As Kaczor points out though, “if a woman buys the winning lottery ticket, but a man secretly replaces it with a losing ticket, she has been harmed, even if she is unaware of the switch.” (14)
Second, I disagree with the idea that increasing good feelings and decreasing bad feelings be the basis for whether to make an action illegal or not. For let’s imagine that there is a country with more poor people than rich people. Furthermore, it would make the majority of people very happy if they could simply rob the rich to get out of poverty. Of course, Singer may say that that would still cause fear in the people who it was now legal for the poor to rob. However, imagine that the night before the government passed the new law, they released a chemical into the air that removed all of the citizen’s fears. When the law was passed the next morning, no one was scared of being robbed at all, and the majority of the citizens were happy because they were not poor anymore. Would anyone doubt that the rich people were still being wronged even though the majority of people were happy, and the rich were not afraid of being robbed? The answer is no. And that shows that we inherently disagree with the classical utilitarian principle as a basis for law.
Third, I disagree with basing a person’s rights to be protected on whether they have certain desires. As Patrick Lee points out, sleeping and comatose people may not be desiring not to be killed at the moment, but they surely still have a right to life. (15)
Singer responds to this with an argument by Michael Tooley: “To have a right to life, one must have, or at least at one time have had, the concept of having a continuing existence. Note that this formulation avoids any problems in dealing with sleeping or unconscious people; it is enough that they, at one time, have had the concept of continued existence for us to be able to say that continued life may be in their interests.” (16) Meanwhile, the newborn baby has never had a concept of their continued existence and so they are still excluded from consideration.
Two responses can be made here. First, this seems to be shifting the ground. Now it’s no longer about people having preferences currently but also about their preferences in the past. Second, this criteria can be met with a troubling counter-example. As Lee writes, “Consider… someone who has been conditioned not to desire that to which he or she has a right. A slave for example, has been conditioned not to desire his freedom, or a woman has been conditioned not to desire intellectually challenging activity. In these cases there are no past desires for the objects the individuals have rights to, but their rights are clearly violated.” (17) In the same way, a newborns right to life could be violated even if she had never desired to live.
Fourth, Singer’s disregard of human beings who are not autonomous still undermines his own goal of human equality. Why aren’t newborn infants autonomous? Because their brains haven’t developed enough. Why haven’t their brains developed enough? Because they haven’t had time to. And what is time related to? The newborn’s age. (18) So similar to Singer’s criterion of sentience, this also appears to be a form of ageism. It’s also a form of ableism. It is saying that the newborn does not have a right to life because it lacks certain abilities. And as Scott Klussendorf writes, if we’re going to base human rights on traits that everyone possesses to different degrees, “This relegates the proposition that all men are created equal to the ash heap of history.” (19)
Fifth, this criteria would also be difficult on a practical level to enforce in law. As Kaczor asks, how are we supposed to determine whether an organism is self-aware (or autonomous?) The onset of autonomy is going to vary from child to child. We might be able to run a test that would help the child manifest their autonomy but that would only shows what already existed. Their autonomous ability would exist prior to when the test was conducted. (20) He concludes, “Decisions about who shall live and who shall be killed cannot justly be made on the basis of vague and arbitrary tests.” (21)
Singer admits that,
“It would, of course, be difficult to say at what age children begin to see themselves as distinct entities existing over time. But a difficulty in drawing the line is not a reason for drawing it in a place that is obviously wrong, any more than the notorious difficulty in saying how much hair a man has to have lost before we can call him ‘bald’ is a reason for saying that someone whose pate is as smooth as a billiard ball is not bald.” (22)
Singer’s point is well taken here. We should try to avoid the fallacy of the beard as it is called. (23)
However, Singer is not really dealing with the point that pro-lifers are making. Imagine if they started to do tests to determine whether a newborn baby is autonomous or not. Kaczor makes the following point about rationality and self-awareness, “A particular test might make manifest that the child is self-aware, but self-awareness is only revealed by such tests; self-awareness can and does exist prior to the administration of tests of self-awareness.” (24) In the same way, a test may make autonomy manifest but autonomy can and does exist before the administration of such tests. Which means that a person of moral value could already exist when the abortion is done. So, it might not be a reason for drawing a line where it’s obviously wrong. But it is a reason to be cautious about killing. As Trent Horn writes, “After all, we wouldn’t blow up a building if we thought there could still be people inside of it.” (25) Likewise, we should not destroy a newborn baby if we are not sure she is a person.
Also, it is not clearly wrong to draw the line at the moment a human person is conceived. 1) Sure, they do not have the immediate capacities for autonomy and making free choices. But they do have basic capacities. As Klussendorf writes, humans of any age “possess this basic capacity in virtue of the kind of thing they are– members of a natural kind, a biological species whose members (if not prevented by some extrinsic cause) in due course develop the immediate capacity for such mental acts.” (26) 2) As I pointed out earlier, there are people in comas or under anesthesia that do not have that immediate capacity either. And yet, Singer is willing to grant that they have the right to life. 3) And the truth is, no one holds that you must currently be exercising your ability to choose in order to be a moral agent. If we did, we’d get a revolving door of moral rights. When someone was unconscious they’d lose their rights. When they woke up, they’d regain their rights. This is absurd. (27) 4) As Kaczor writes:
“Rather, it is sufficient for moral status to be capable of sentience or capable of rational functioning. An appeal is made here not to actual functioning but to the kind of thing the being is, the kind of being capable of sentience or rational functioning. We have, in other words, an appeal to nature by those who claim to reject nature as ethically irrelevant.” (28)
In other words, Singer has to fall back on the coma person’s basic capacities in order to say they have a right to life, not the immediate capacities he insists are so important. And to that, all I can say is welcome Brother Singer to the world of the substance view of persons.
In this article, I attempted to show that the utilitarian view is not a good basis for making abortion legal. I also argued that when it comes down to it, Singer ends up grounding moral rights in human nature as well.
(1) Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 3rd ed. (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 133.
(2) Singer, Practical Ethics, 134.
(3) J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 438.
(4) Moreland and Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview, 438.
(5) Singer, Practical Ethics, 138.
(6) Christopher Kaczor, “A Reply to In Defense of Abortion Rights,” in Kate Greasley and Christopher Kaczor, Abortion Rights: For and Against (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 196.
(7) Singer, Practical Ethics, 139.
(8) Singer, Practical Ethics, 152.
(9) Singer, Practical Ethics, 13.
(10) Singer, Practical Ethics, 152.
(11) Singer, Practical Ethics, 83.
(12) Singer, Practical Ethics, 152.
(13) Singer, Practical Ethics, 152.
(14) Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life and the Question of Justice (New York, NY: Routledge, Taylor
and Francis, 2015), 19.
(15) Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 19.
(16) Singer, Practical Ethics, 83.
(17) Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 20.
(18) Stephanie Gray, Love Unleashes Life: Abortion and the Art of Communicating Truth (Toronto, ON: Life Cycle Books, 2015), 47-48.
(19) Scott Klussendorf, The Case for Life: Equipping Christians to Engage the Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009), 53.
(20) Kaczor, “Abortion as Human Rights Violation,” in Greasley and Kaczor, Abortion Rights, 134.
(21) Kaczor,”Abortion as Human Rights Violation,” in Greasley and Kaczor, Abortion Rights, 134-135.
(22) Singer, Practical Ethics, 152.
(23) Francis, J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge, EN: Cambridge University Press,
(24) Kaczor, “Abortion as Human Right’s Violation,” in Greasley and Kaczor, Abortion Rights, 135.
(25) Trent Horn, Persuasive Pro-Life: How To Talk About Our Culture’s Toughest Issue (El Cajun, CA: Catholic Answers Press, 2014), 122.
(26) Klussendorf, The Case for Life, 54.
(27) Kaczor, “Abortion as a Human Right’s Violation,” in Greasley and Kaczor, Abortion Rights, 135.
(28) Kaczor, “Abortion as Human Rights Violation,” in Greasley and Kaczor, Abortion Rights, 135.
Born in Vancouver, B.C., Chris has been married to Amy since 2017. He has a BA in Religious Studies (Youth Leadership), and an MA in Theological Studies (Apologetics). He enjoys acting, evangelism, and debates.