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Saturday, February 15, 2003

Confronting Professor Singer.

Harriet McBryde Johnson's remarkable essay in tomorrow's New York Times Magazine describes her encounter with Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, the utilitarian advocate of legal rights for animals — and selective euthanasia for disabled human beings. Johnson, a lawyer and disability rights activist, uses a motorized wheelchair and travels with a health aide; a muscle-wasting disease has transformed her spine into a "a deep twisty S-curve." Most people find her appearance unsettling — "At this stage of my life, I'm Karen Carpenter thin, flesh mostly vanished, a jumble of bones in a floppy bag of skin" — but she and many other people find Singer's views more unsettling still. He says that parents should have the right to abort or kill children with disabilities that impair their quality of life; she thinks he is setting up an argument for something like genocide.

So many interesting things about the article: Johnson describes the odd sensation of actually liking the person whose views she finds not only reprehensible but directly threatening, which prompts some careful self-examination. Furthermore, Singer and Johnson are both atheists, but with quite different perceptions of how to anchor human values. For one thing, Singer wants to live in a world of abstractly-derived principles, but Johnson sees how dangerous this is. She is a liberal humanist of a different order — in my view, a much more humane order:

As a disability pariah, I must struggle for a place, for kinship, for community, for connection. Because I am still seeking acceptance of my humanity, Singer's call to get past species seems a luxury way beyond my reach. My goal isn't to shed the perspective that comes from my particular experience, but to give voice to it. I want to be engaged in the tribal fury that rages when opposing perspectives are let loose."

As a shielf from the terrible purity of Singer's vision, I'll look to the corruption that comes from interconnectedness. To justify my hopes that Singer's theoretical world — and its entirely logical extensions — won't become real, I'll invoke the muck and mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived. That's the best I can do.

(For more on Singer, read Peter Berkowitz's New Republic critique, "Other People's Mothers".)

Copyright © 2003 by Philocrites | Posted 15 February 2003 at 11:30 PM

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