You are here:   Dialogue > Putting A Value On Human And Animal Life
 

 
Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, Peter Singer, right, and Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford University, Nigel Biggar (Eliza Beveridge) 

DJ: We have just been attending a conference in Oxford entitled "Christian Ethics Engages Peter Singer". Perhaps we should kick off with a question that you, Nigel, asked at the end of the conference.  On what grounds, Peter, would you give greater weight to the interests, the preferences, the needs of the Jewish victims in the Holocaust, rather than the Nazi perpetrators? We should recall here that many members of your family actually were murdered by the Nazis. You argued in the conference that of course not all preferences have equal weight, which implies that there must be some higher court of appeal, that there is some meta-ethical foundation on which you can assign greater weight to the victims rather than the perpetrators. How does that work? 

PS: I don't think that it's a meta-ethical question, I think that it's a matter of trying to understand the significance of the preferences for the people whose preferences they are. Also, I should add, it's trying to promote preferences that can be in harmony with other preferences, so that you don't have a situation where you can only satisfy the preferences of one person by denying the satisfaction of the preferences of others. So the first thing I would say is that a person's preference to go on living is a far more important preference than someone else's preference that that person should die.  That's not important in terms of any outside objective values, but just more important for that person. The second thing I would say is that of course I would want to discourage people from having preferences which are of the sort that can only be satisfied if you thwart the most important preferences of someone else — whether that is by killing them or by making them racially inferior through apartheid.

DJ: Who makes the decision as to whose preferences are more important? Where does that come from? You as a philosopher may take that view, but what if somebody challenges that and denies that the preferences that you want to give way to are more important? How do we resolve that kind of dispute?

PS: That's one of those disputes that we can only talk about. First, we have to understand each other, so that when we say this preference is more important than that we mean the same thing by "more important". Somebody might be appealing to other values, and on that basis say that a preference to unjustly kill someone is just not a preference that you give any weight to, because it is morally wrong. I can sympathise with that view because we want to discourage people from having those preferences, but I don't have this objective standard of it being wrong independently of whether it is going to satisfy or thwart preferences. So I would want to make sure that the person who challenges my views understands what I'm saying. Then we should think about the cases, and think whether one can really deny the importance of somebody's preference to go on living. Can one really disagree that that preference is more important than someone else's preference for the extermination of members of some racial minority that one doesn't like?

NB: I don't think that works. I don't think that you can get by without actually making an affirmation of objective moral values. So to the question, "Why should the Nazis' preference for cleansing the world of Jews not be satisfied?",  your answer is, "Because their Jewish victims' desire for continued life is clearly more important and outweighs the Nazis' preference to destroy them." Now that could simply be in terms of numbers, for example, 100 Nazis and 200 victims. You could come back and say it's not that simple, it's actually because the Jewish victims' desire for life is clearly far more important for the Jews than the Nazi desire to cleanse the world of Jewish life is to the Nazis. But how on earth do you establish that? Jewish life is obviously more important to you and me than the Nazi desire to exterminate it, but not to the Nazi.

PS: Hang on a minute, we are talking here about a factual question, it's not a question of the value of life, it's a question about the strength of the preference for going on living. The Nazis may not have really thought about this at all, but if they do think about how important it is to the Jew that the Jew wants to go on living and how important it is to the Nazi that they don't want there to be Jews in the world, I think that a Nazi who considers the issue cannot fail to recognise that this is more important to the Jew. The problem is that the Nazis were basically saying that Jewish preferences don't count because they are Jews, and that's of course what I am rejecting.

NB: You just shifted from a description of what Nazis do want to what Nazis ought to want.

PS: No, no, no.

NB: You shifted from an "is" to an "ought". I don't want to be pedantic, but it seems as if you are trying to describe the strength of a Nazi's attachment to cleansing the world of Jews and compare that to the strength of the Jewish victims' desire to live. I have no idea how on earth you can determine which is the stronger. If you want to make a judgment that the Nazi desire to cleanse the world of Jews is wrong and the Jews' desire to live is right, then I'm with you there, but that has to be in terms of some appeal to what's objectively valuable in the world and what's immoral. I know that you want to avoid that but I don't think you have succeeded in doing it.

PS: I'm not sure why I haven't succeeded in doing that. I agree it could be done in the way that you are suggesting if you were to have this independent standard of objective values, which you then need to ground in some way. What I'm suggesting is that it's enough to try to put yourself in the position of both the Jewish person who's going to be killed, and then to put yourself in the position of the Nazi and see whether they are comparable desires.

One way of putting it would be to say if you were the Nazi, to think about your own life, and think about whether if you had the choice of saying, "So the Jew will be killed but you will also be killed," will you accept that choice? Or alternatively saying, "The Jew will live and you will live," then I'm sure that 99.9 per cent of Nazis would have said, "Oh well, if that's the choice, then yes, I will let the Jew live." That is a way of indicating that for the Nazi himself the desire to live is more important than the desire to satisfy his racist or ideological preference that there not be Jews in the world.

DJ: Peter, one of your most controversial positions is your support for infanticide in certain and very limited circumstances. How does your argument work there, when this is clearly something which deeply offends the sensibilities of very large numbers of people? Why would the preference of, let us say, a couple who don't feel able to look after a Down's syndrome child take precedence over the general disapproval of infanticide?

PS: Well, it might not. It depends on the circumstances and it might depend indeed upon the society and the culture in which you are. In this case, it's not only the preferences that the couple have now, it's the preferences that they will have throughout their lifetime with the child. Now you mentioned Down's syndrome, which is a case where the child can have, I think, an enjoyable life, and also a case where you may be able to find that if that particular couple does not feel able to bring up the child then another couple may well feel able to do so. In that case, I would not support infanticide of someone with Down's syndrome.

The clearer cases are the cases where you have a condition in which it is likely to be distressing or painful for the child and perhaps for the parents as well, and you don't have another family who would be willing to adopt the child because of the severity of the disability. Then what you have is the preferences over the lifetime of the child, which may be difficult to work out. However, maybe at least in some conditions the life is so poor and in so far as the child has preferences they would be negative ones against that kind of existence — plus the preferences of the parents of the child who would be caring for the child throughout its life.

Against that you may have the attitudes of others, and if you are talking about the attitudes of the community as a whole, it's just one thing going on that they don't like. For most people, if you ask them whether they accept infanticide then they might say no, but is that a major preference for them that, if infanticide were to be practised in hospitals, would disturb their entire life? I would say no. The evidence of that is that infants with disabilities are allowed to die. Some people are opposed to that but it does happen and it doesn't really greatly disturb the  lives of those who are opposed to euthanasia. So I think it's not necessarily going to outweigh the preferences of the parents,  who are much more centrally concerned in this situation.

DJ: You would extend this obviously to other cases, at the end of life —euthanasia.

PS: The difference between the infanticide cases and euthanasia is that at the end of life you either have or have had a being who is capable of making decisions about his or her life. That's important. The easiest case for me is the case in which the person says, "I have got a disease that is terminal, I know I could perhaps live another month, another three months, but I feel the quality of life that I have now makes it no longer worth living — so I want to die."

That's that person's preference. That then, to me, becomes the central factor. Some other preferences might be relevant, but that is the central factor.

Suppose on the other hand you have someone who is no longer conscious, or maybe has Alzheimer's disease, or is no longer capable of thinking about that issue, but did have preferences before, then I think that we should take account of those past preferences. So if the person was a fully paid-up member of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society [now called Dignity in Dying] and said, "If this ever happens to me, then I don't want to go on living," then I think we have a situation rather like that of the competent person. On the other hand, if the person said, "No matter what, I want to live as long as I can," then we should respect that preference too, at least within the resources which we have available to do that.  

DJ: How would you respond to that, Nigel?

NB: With regard to both the killing of infants and the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia, my concern is to maintain a general social commitment to upholding hindered human life. It seems to me that we need therefore to encourage people to support each other when life is difficult. In this country we have child abuse, and at any one time we have about 500,000 cases of elder abuse, mostly by family members, according to Age UK. So given the fact that we don't live in ideal social circumstances, and where people often do abuse each other, I think we need to be as conservative as possible as to where we draw certain lines. Regarding abortion and infanticide, I agree with Peter, and Christians would tend to agree with him, that the status of the foetus is actually a crucial issue. Unlike some feminists who say the issue is simply a matter of the mother's choice, the personal status of the foetus is a central issue.

I also agree with Peter that it's not clear  that a human foetus is the same kind of thing as an adult or a mature human being, and therefore deserves quite the same treatment. It then becomes a question of where  we draw the line, and there is no absolutely cogent reason for drawing it in one place over another.

Peter's view is that human life is only valuable if it exhibits certain qualities, and an infant before birth doesn't have these qualities, so we can abort it — and an infant after birth doesn't have these qualities either, so we may kill it. My view is that we should draw the line much more conservatively. This is simply because the killing of any human being is a morally hazardous business, even if it is permitted at an early foetal stage. It isn't something that we should do casually and wantonly, and I suspect that Peter would agree with that.

So I would be inclined to draw the line for abortion at 18 weeks after conception, which is roughly about the earliest time when there is some evidence of brain activity, and therefore of consciousness. In terms of maintaining a strong social commitment to preserving human life in hindered forms, and in terms of not becoming too casual about killing human life, we need to draw the line much more conservatively.

DJ: You are making the case there on utilitarian grounds, saying that society needs us to be very cautious in this, rather than appealing to a transcendent law or commandment.

NB: The argument there is consequential, but not consequentialist. Within Christian thinking there is scope for making consequential arguments, but consequences are not the only considerations. In addition to questions of consequences, in certain cases the quality of the intention and the motive are also relevant and important.  Generally speaking, one should never intend to kill a human being in the sense of wanting to. There should always be reluctance. The more mature a foetal life becomes, the more reluctant we should become for two reasons. First, because it's not clear when the human embryo becomes personal — we don't know for certain. It's not clear and if we end up doing damage to something that is an emerging person, then we do damage to something that is preciously good in itself. We shouldn't want to do that. Second, we have to encourage the whole of society to be very cautious about the taking of human life.

DJ: How do you respond to that, Peter?

PS: That's an interesting position and there is certainly a consequentialist element to it, and obviously people who are not consequentialists very often do make consequentialist arguments — we couldn't live without doing so. I accept that. I suppose that I'm not as confident as Nigel seems to be that the best way to reduce child abuse and elder abuse is to prohibit euthanasia at the end of life. If you have a situation in which somebody doesn't actually want to go on living, but they don't have any means of ending their own life, and at the same time they are a burden to their family, leaving the carer to become desperate, one could imagine that abuse could occur. That would be a kind of a double tragedy — both for the person who was not able to choose to end his life and he was then a further burden on the family, which then had led to abuse. So, I think yes, that can be a problem. When women have children that they don't want to have, that can also be a source of child abuse.  That's a reason for respecting women's autonomy over whether they are going to give birth to a child or not.

I was also interested in where you think that we should draw the line, conservatively, as you said, around 18 weeks. I also think that somewhere around that point — and I wouldn't commit to exactly 18 weeks — but somewhere around that point, where you do have the beginnings of the development of brain activity and perhaps conscious awareness, I agree that there is something else there to worry about — a sentient being. We should be very concerned about that, at the very least not to inflict unnecessary pain on that being if an abortion is going to occur. I would agree that at that 18-week stage it should only occur for important reasons. You would hope that very few abortions are carried out at that stage.

I do think that these considerations are relevant, but I'm not so convinced that prohibitions on other forms of killing, or killing at other stages of life is the best way to achieve the goals that you and I both share about reducing the abuse of both children and old people.

DJ: Peter, in some of your writing you are very clear, and you even talk about a new commandment, that the worth of human life varies. This flies in the face of the whole Judaeo-Christian tradition, which relies on the idea of the "sanctity of life". How do you answer the charge that once you open the door to subjective judgments about the values of different lives, there is no stopping place? Above all, you are not taking proper account of what Immanuel Kant called the "radical evil" that exists in the world, that human beings are capable of doing terrible things. Is your calculus really a strong enough safeguard against man's inhumanity to man?

PS: First, you said the words "once I have opened that door" — that is the door when one says that some human lives are not to be valued the same as others, or not equal to others. My response to that would be that the door is already open and it's not possible to close that door in any society that has  modern methods of healthcare, because they are going to have to make decisions about whether to prolong some lives or not. There really is no debate in any developed society that we do that — we turn off life support on some patients whose lives we could prolong. 

DJ: It's not quite the same as deliberately killing though, is it?

PS: That is a different question. You asked me about the judgments about the equal value of human life. You pointed out that I challenged the view that all human life is of equal value. So what I'm saying is that even when we allow people to die by withdrawing life support, which is basically a judgment that their prolonged life is not of the same value as it would be in another case, as it would be with someone who is fully conscious and able to participate in the life of the community — although they might need to have exactly the same forms of life support, a respirator let us say — because they are conscious and participating we think that their life is worth more. The same person who is on a life support machine, but is in a persistent vegetative state and always will be because we can see how damaged their brain is, might live just as long.

For example, in the United States there have been people who have lived on life support for 40 years on respirators, but we don't think that their life is of value and, generally, we take them off. We don't have people in Britain who have been on respirators for 40 years, and we don't really have that in the US any more. That particular judgment that some human lives are not of the same value as others — that's what I'm saying is inevitable, and that is what I mean when I say that the door is already open.

Now, you then asked me the challenge, given man's inhumanity towards other men, which of course we have this terrible record of, wouldn't it better to never make that judgment? Well, as I already said, I don't think that we can really do that, unless we were to completely change our policies and try to keep everyone alive. Does it make a difference that I am suggesting that we should be able to actively kill rather than simply allow to die? I don't think that does make a crucial moral difference. Sometimes I think that it is actually kinder.

It sometimes happens in hospital where a very severely disabled baby is born and the family doesn't want it, no treatment is given and the baby may be allowed to die slowly because of some infection developing or may not be fed, and I think that is worse — in fact it is cruel. If you have decided that this baby should not live, then you should give the baby a humane end and make sure that the baby dies quickly.

NB: I agree in drawing a distinction between "biological life" and "biographical life". I'm not sure whether that phrase originated with you, Peter, but it's one you have adopted. Except, instead of talking about "biographical life" I prefer to talk about "responsible life". Some descriptions of what biographical life involves seem to me to be rather male and thrusting and bourgeois. For example, to have a biographical life you have to be able to launch and have "projects", whereas responsible life, for me, could encompass the severely handicapped child whose face lights up whenever Mozart's music is played. It is responsive in the sense of being able to respond to beauty or goodness in the world.

So I want to expand the concept of rationality here, or biography, to include those who can make an appropriate response to real values or goods in the world. They may not be clever or articulate, or capable of undertaking projects, but they can respond intuitively to goods in the world, not just to beauty, but justice, friendship, etc. I want to expand rationality to include the morally intuitive responses of the hindered human being.

Second, I turn to a case such as that of  Tony Bland, the Liverpool supporter who was crushed at the Hillsborough football ground in 1989. He continued to live in the sense that, with the help of a life support machine, he was able to breathe and blink. But the cortical part of his brain had turned to water and I understand that to mean that any form of consciousness was forever denied him. Consciousness was not only temporarily absent; it was forever gone and totally irrecoverable.

Now, in that rare case, it seems to me you have a human being who is living and not. Living biologically yes, but not living responsively or personably. Now, all other considerations apart, I think it would be morally admissible to turn off the machine and terminate life in such a case, but it's a very rare one. Again, I think that we need to be extremely conservative and cautious in judging when human life is bereft of personal capacity, and also to be generous in how we think of personal capacity. I say that we should be cautious not just because by instinct I am conservative, but because the value of human life is so precious. We now live in a society that has been taught to value life in a way that our ancestors didn't, and this has been a historical achievement.

That is a major contribution of Judaeo-Christian thought to Western civilisation. First of all, Christianity broadened the definition of the favoured people from the Jews to the Gentiles. Under the influence of Christianity the Romans stopped abandoning unwanted infants on hillsides. It took until the 18th and 19th centuries in this country and America for Christians to expand the definition of full humanity to slaves, but even in the New Testament you have St Paul urging a slave owner to treat his slave as a beloved brother. 

The point is that the instinctive value of human life that you and I share is not just part of the cosmic furniture, it's not universal. The Aztecs didn't think it was, nor did the Spartans, nor even certain Romans. Our high esteem for human life is a historical achievement and it can be lost. My concern is about cultural degeneration, and I often find that sunny liberals tend to be blithely unconcerned that things can go backwards as well as forwards.

PS: Given my background and the fact that my parents were refugees from the Nazis and my grandparents perished in the Holocaust, I am very well aware of the fact that we can lose this, and that even in what appeared to be highly civilised nations at the heart of Europe, that can get lost. I am not going to disagree with you on that for a moment, there is a grave danger that we need to guard against. The question is, how do we best do that? You have agreed with me that there are some cases where biologically human life is not something that needs to be preserved, and that it can even be justified to end that life. What's important is that we do this on the principles of compassion and concern for others. I agree with you that it should not be done lightly, it is a serious act. However, I think that if we allow people to make choices, essentially for their own lives, in the cases of competent adults who are terminally ill, and allow parents, in what I think would also be very rare instances, to make decisions for their infants who are severely disabled, that is consistent with an ethic that says we are deeply concerned for everyone. We are acting out of care and concern for them, and not from a state ideology  that says that certain races or other groups of people are useless or evil.

NB: In Christian tradition there has always been freedom permitted for individual discretion, and that's what conscience is about. There is a certain conscience which is bounded and Christians have been happy for some time to say that if you are terminally ill and in great distress, it is up to you and your conscience to decide whether this or that treatment is going to be too burdensome for you. Even if the treatment might save or prolong your life, you may refuse it if it is too burdensome. It is up to you to judge.

The question then is what the bounds of autonomy are because if individuals are given complete freedom to decide upon the value of their lives, and they then take it to extremes, then logic would move us to sanction masochistic suicide. I'm thinking of the notorious 2001 case of Armin Meiwes, who advertised on the internet for someone to be dismembered and eaten. A volunteer came forward and together they engaged in "consensual cannibalism". Now it was consensual, it was the victim's preference, but he nevertheless undervalued his own life. I don't see how society's condoning of that is compatible with generating a social norm of high regard for human life. Autonomy — yes, we all agree that there should be some scope for individuals to decide about what to do with their lives. The question is where you draw the bounds around autonomy.

PS: That case was so bizarre that we think, what was this person, both of them actually, really thinking — but particularly the person who wanted to be eaten?  Could some treatment have helped him to get through that? I think that we could legitimately question allowing that, at least in those circumstances. However, there are people who may not be terminally ill, but who maybe suffering from a deep and prolonged depression, and who find their lives miserable, and no help has been availing to relieve their condition.  In this case I would allow them the autonomy to say, "I have tried, but this life has been a burden to me. I don't want to be here any more. I want to leave it." I would accept the autonomy to end one's life. Although I would want to restrict that to people who were not acting on a whim, not the lovesick teenager whose girlfriend has left him and there is no more joy in life now that she's gone; we all know you get over that. When there is a serious case to assess the situation and judge that there is nothing worth living in it, I think I would respect people's autonomy by allowing them to do that.

DJ: Where does God come into all this? The traditional formulation that goes right back to the earliest Hebrew scriptures, that man is created in the image of God, is central to the Judaeo-Christian conception of man. You want to do away with that, and you even talk about a Copernican revolution in ethics. You clearly believe that progress in ethics is not only possible, but essential and you see yourself in its vanguard. How confident can you be that there cannot be a regression as we have seen in the last century? Indeed, it was the first century where state-sponsored atheism became a very widespread situation — and it was also the century that saw the worst genocides and atrocities. How do you answer the charge that by excluding God from the picture, you make everything possible? 

PS: First, let me say regarding what you said about the 20th century, that Stalin's atrocities occurred in a state that was officially atheist, but Hitler's certainly did not.  He was an Austrian which was a solidly Catholic country and Germany was a Christian country, partly Catholic and partly Protestant, at the time that he became leader, so I don't know that you can say that the greatest atrocities of the 20th century were specifically laid at the door of atheism. That doesn't seem to me to be accurate.

DJ: Are you not omitting China from this? You could add North Korea too.

PS: Yes, you could add China and North Korea, but you could still argue that Christian countries have participated in atrocities of similar scale — and been equally atrocious. I don't think that you can put the blame at the door of atheism, but if you're asking, "Can one guarantee that this will not happen again?", the answer is no, one cannot. If the suggestion is that we need God in order to be ethical, then that's not the case. We have societies where God has really not been a significant part of it, that have practised very ethically. You mentioned China, of course, China under Mao, but earlier Chinese tradition such as the Confucian tradition is an ethical tradition that is not a theistically ethical tradition.

NB: The pre-Christian Greeks and Romans had ethics, no doubt about it. Certainly we can be ethical without God. The question is, can we be humanistically ethical without God? Now this is a controversial point — obviously atheist-humanists think you can. But there are some philosophers, like Jeremy Waldron, who really doubt that the concept of basic human equality really has any secure home outside of theology, outside of the notion that all human beings are equal in the sense that they are responsible to God. Thus, Peter, I respect you, not because I like your preferences, not because I think your preferences are good (indeed, they may be vicious). No, I respect you because you have an independent relationship to God, an independent vocation that is not mine. You have a unique role in the world, a unique responsibility and a calling to promote good in the world in your own particular circumstances and with your own distinctive talents, which I don't share. That acts as an  objective break upon my will, stopping me from using you as a tool of my will; and some think that such respect for another's equality cannot be secured except through a theological reference. Another point where God enters the picture is through the way in which monotheism implies an objective moral order. For reasons I understand, you are quite reluctant to affirm any kind of objective, moral reality or order, and you want to articulate your ethic in terms of individuals' preferences —although I continue to see in you inadvertent affirmations of some kind of objective morality. For example, in the case of the man who volunteered to be dismembered and eaten, you wondered whether he could have been treated, implying that his understanding of his own good was wrong.

PS: Well, it was not a well-informed and considered understanding. Not that it was wrong in some other sense.

NB: He thought it was well-considered and informed.

PS: I don't know enough about the case to know whether or not he did.

NB: The issue is that even if he thought really hard about it, I think you would still think that he was wrong. It's not really a matter of how long he has thought about it.

PS: It is to some extent whether he has really considered it and decided if that is something that he really wants.

NB: Suppose he really had?

PS: Maybe I would go along with it. I mean, it's really grotesque, but it's consensual and it doesn't harm anyone else. If that's what he really wants, then maybe I'm not going to object.

NB: I do see reluctance on your part to affirm any kind of moral objectivity.

PS: I thought that I made it really clear at the conference in the last day or two that I have been influenced by Derek Parfit's arguments in On What Matters to think that maybe there is an objective basis for ethics so in that sense it's not inadvertent references, or some references that you think I make are inadvertent, but I am now prepared to say that some moral claims are objective truths in the same way that we think of mathematical truths as being so.

DJ: Could you please give an example of such a truth?

PS: Well, that agony is bad. That, other things being equal, it's bad for a being to be in agony. That would be an argument that is of course consistent with saying that you may have to endure agony for some greater good, but at least taken on its own the state of being in agony is something to be avoided.

DJ: Am I right in understanding it that you regard the state of being in agony for an animal, especially obviously one of the higher apes, or those that are closest to us in species, but actually of any sentient being as equally morally repugnant, and of it being equally true that agony is bad whatever kind of being it is?

PS: Yes, that is right.  In fact, the closeness to us in biological terms is not relevant. All that is relevant is whether it is agony and whether the agony is as severe as in one being. One might question, I suppose, whether some rather simpler beings with more limited  cognitive abilities can really feel in the same way as some beings with higher cognitive abilities — that is the question. If the degree of agony is the same, then I think it is equally bad that it should occur no matter what the being that is experiencing it.

DJ: What you are really doing here is upgrading the moral importance of, particularly, primates, but actually all animals, while downgrading the moral importance of, for example, the unborn or severely disabled child or the extremely ill, dying adult. I am only trying to get at why your views seem to excite such extraordinary controversy.

PS: Well, they do challenge the ideas that we hold very dear to us that somehow humans are special, that we are all up there on a higher pedestal than the other animals. I think that we like to keep this gulf between us and animals. You only have to look at the response to Darwin. He also excited this kind of outrage and I think on similar grounds.  You are right: I want to consider beings for what they are, that is what their capacities are — what they can feel and experience, and not for their species. That does actually have the effect that I am raising the level of many non-mammals, while some human beings who have had a high status just because they were member of our species, since they don't have capacities, feelings, cognitive abilities higher than those of some non-humans, do get a lower status on that basis.

NB: I am with you in saying that we shouldn't have this gulf that we may have assumed before between the human species and all other species. Christians regard all beings as creatures. We have a biblical tradition which makes it quite clear that human beings are  not platonic spirits, but animals. We do have things in common with animals.Where I differ from you is in denying that human beings are special: I think that we are special as a species. We have the capacity to respond to good, and respond in ways to values and goods in the world that even chimpanzees don't have. I'm with you in saying that we ought to extend humane treatment to certain primates because they do seem to exhibit at least primitive forms of personhood. Nevertheless it remains true that human beings by nature are special, although there may be human beings who through illness or genetic malformation cannot fulfil their potential, and those are difficult cases to judge.

PS: I think that we are not really disagreeing here. Of course I agree that as a species we are special. No other species has been able to create the sorts of things that we have, or to be able to hold conversations involving abstract ideas such as this one, or to create literature and so on. So yes, we are special as a species, but my point was only that merely being a member of that species in itself does not give you that higher status, if in fact you don't have the higher capacities.

DJ:  Nigel, in the conference you remarked that "when the church of Peter Singer has been around for two millennia, I dare say it will have done things that will make even Peter Singer turn in his grave." Well, if there is such a church, what we have heard today is something like its creed. Thank you both very much.

View Full Article
 
Share/Save
 
 
 
 
Richard Hain
October 28th, 2015
7:10 AM
David, this doesn't work. The only alternative to a belief is another belief - it isn't no belief. Just as the only alternative to a location is another location, not 'no place'. You can't have 'no position' on existential matters, any more than you can have no physical location. Existing at all means you have a position, because that's what existence means. You exist physically in dimensions of time and space, and non-physically you exist as a set of beliefs about the universe. Perfectly sound to say that your own belief is that it isn't certain whether or not God exists (most people would be with you there), but not to claim that that is somehow a different sort of belief from theism or atheism.

David Lilley
October 14th, 2015
8:10 PM
Nigel and Peter, I have only read the first page and a half but I found so many things wrong. I came to this site after reading Nigel's Times article on Syria which was interesting. Garry Kasparov' article below yours was also interesting. I have made a contribution to the cosmological argument on the YouTube Fr. Copleston v Russell 1948 debate. I have also introduced a new position wrt Goddo, "NO POSITION" and suggest that this is the dominant position in GB and Western Europe. It is the same position that I expect you have wrt UFOs and ghosts and may be represented by the phrase "I'm not even going there". I have also made a strong case that parliamentary democracy is, and has been, the only way that we have made moral decisions for the last century. We don't consult bibles, the greatest happiness principle or the categorical imperative. We get to the best decision, the best argument, via freedom of thought, speech and press followed by debate and scrutiny. If you or any citizen doubts that parliamentary democracy doesn't make the best moral decision you have all the tools at your disposal to introduce a better argument and we will always bow to the best argument. Best regards

Post your comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.