On “Unspeakable Conversations” Essay
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The issues of euthanasia and infanticide have long been subjects of heated debate, and there are no signs that the arguments for and against the two ethical dilemmas are coming to a halt. For the most part, the issue stems from the classic stand-off between religion and science, or religion and the state. In cases where the aforementioned conflict applies, what are brought to the table are arguments revolving around and stemming from the idea of a human being’s “right to life”.
Generally the church invokes the central belief that a life can only be ended by the supreme being that created it, to counter whatever propositions that may have been deducted from scientific studies and philosophical undertakings that deviate from the said belief. Nowadays, debates on euthanasia and infanticide no longer just stem from religious beliefs. Opposition for the legalization of the two issues likewise comes from various organizations that, in more ways than one, are (or will be) directly affected.
An example of such an organization is Not Dead Yet: a movement that concerns itself with the plight of the disabled, and of which Harriet McBride Johnson – whose article “Unspeakable Conversations” is at the heart of this position paper – is a member. For purposes of clarity, this paper focuses on the implications of and points in Johnson’s article in exploring the philosophy of Peter Singer, who is undoubtedly one of the most controversial philosophers – nay, figures – today, with the intent of refuting his position relative to the two areas of concern.
In a nutshell, this paper, while acceding to the logicality and coherence of Singer’s position, argues that the world in general is not yet ready for his revolutionary view of morality and ethics; and that there are more grounded alternatives that have yet to be considered and taken which do not require the legalization of either euthanasia or infanticide.
The Merriam-Webster Medical Dictionary defines euthanasia as “the act or practice of killing hopelessly sick or injured individuals (as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy; also : the act or practice of allowing a hopelessly sick or injured patient to die by taking less than complete medical measures to prolong life—called also mercy killing”; infanticide, on the other hand, translates to “the killing of an infant”.
Since the latter definition elicits horror, it is important to emphasize that what Singer proposes is selective infanticide – a concept that is not as horrifying when understood in the context of his philosophy. Harriet McBride Johnson’s “Unspeakable Conversations” is a personal account of the lawyer’s relationship with Singer, which began when she accepted the latter’s invitation to two speaking engagements in Princeton University in March 2002, and her thoughts on his philosophy.
Even before her encounter with the controversial bioethicist, Johnson had been fully aware of Singer’s philosophy, what with her organization Not Dead Yet being a thorn on the professor’s side, disrupting his lectures and even protesting his appointment in Princeton University.
As such, it is no surprise that in the latter part of the article Johnson recounts that her agreeing to be involved in one of Singer’s talks in a non-violent manner (so to speak) aroused negative feedback not only from her co-members in the organization – who believe that a discussion with him is out of the question since giving him an audience legitimizes his view – but from her sister, who clearly is of the opinion that Singer’s view, if used as a basis for future legislation / action, may pave the way for another genocide.
Johnson’s opposition to selective infanticide is grounded on two ideas: (1) that people are not fungible, and (2) the basis for selecting disabled infants is prejudicial. The first concept is clearly a response to Singer’s assertion that infants are replaceable, and thus infanticide cannot be considered wrong when done under the correct pretense. Such a striking proposition is rooted in what Johnson sees as Singer’s view that infants cannot be considered “persons” on the basis of their inability for self-awareness, and their inability to express preferences, the most important of which is the preference to live.
As for the second idea, Johnson strengthened her argument by raising the issue of race versus disability (in relation to trends in adopting babies): if the basis for killing a certain infant is the prediction that its life will be worse-off in the future due to disability, then why can’t a mixed-race baby – whose chances of being adopted are slimmer compared to white babies, thereby raising its chances of living a life that is not at all appealing – also be considered? This oversight, for her, is a product of prejudice prevalent today.
As indicated in the article, Singer responded to the question by saying that whereas preferences based on race are not reasonable, those based on ability are not. With regard to euthanasia, or assisted suicide, Johnson made use of the ideas of Andrew Batavia and Carol Gill to better make understood her point.. For Batavia, assisted suicide is but another way of upholding a person’s autonomy: if a person wants to die, then out of respect for the autonomy of that person, everything – even assistance – should be given to facilitate the choice.
Carol Gill, on the other hand, considers assisted suicide a form of discrimination directed towards the disabled. This idea stems from the fact that on a general note, society takes every known measure to prevent the occurrence of suicides; and yet, suicides for the ill and the disabled – though assisted – are considered (or even encouraged). This contradiction is explained by Gill as a product of the underestimation most people have of the quality of life a disabled person has or can have, which likewise gave birth to the stereotypical image of the disabled as people who are to be pitied.
With the above statement in mind, it only follows that society is not surprised – in fact, Gill went as far as to say that it is considered rational – when a choice to die is made by a disabled/ill person. Johnson quite expectedly sided with Gill, adding that what is worrying is what she calls the “veneer of beneficence – the medical determination that, for a given individual, suicide is reasonable or right. ” Debunking Batavia, her article implies that choices are, in fact, illusory when the discussion is that of a disabled person’s preference to die.
Why is this so? Under “normal” circumstances – that is, with a non-disabled person – a choice is to be upheld in respect of a person’s autonomy. When it comes to a disabled/ill person’s “choice” to die, however, the issue is not that of upholding the choice but of the very occurrence of the thought that the person prefers to die rather than live. For Johnson, prior to legalizing assisted suicide, what should be done is exhaust all possible means of upholding the right to live of the disabled and the ill.
Quoting her: “We shouldn’t offer assistance with suicide until we have all the assistance we need to get out of bed in the morning and live a good life. Common causes of suicidality… are entirely curable. ” In defense of Singer and his views, Johnson acceded that the professor’s work is logical, in that “it does make sense – within the conceptual world of Peter Singer”. If one were to read his work “Practical Ethics”, it is clear that the ideas of Singer regarding infanticide and euthanasia are entirely rational, albeit horrifyingly so for the majority of the human race who have yet to understand his way of thinking.
A utilitarian through and through, Singer merely applied the dictum of producing the most happiness for the most people in conjunction with his view that what matters is not the species of a creature but its sentience and ability for self-awareness. With these in mind, and all subjectivity aside, his pursuit of the legalization of euthanasia and selective infanticide are logical – as logical as his pursuit for animal rights are. However, such a revolutionary way of looking at the universe in general is still unwelcome today.
To think like Singer is to uproot age-old beliefs and completely reconstruct one’s brand of morality – a feat that is perhaps not impossible, but improbable. As such, Johnson’s idea that before thinking of assisted suicide, assistance first should be given to the disabled and the ill, is the better route to take.
REFERENCES Johnson, Harriet. (2003). Unspeakable Conversations. New York Times. February 16, 2003, from http://query. nytimes. com/gst/fullpage. html sec=health&res=9401EFDC113BF935A25751C0A9659C8B63 Mar. (2008). Princeton Bio-Medical Ethics Professor Peter Singer Teaches Controversial Ethics. Associated Content. February 21, 2008, from http://www. associatedcontent. com/article/616049/princeton_biomedical_ethics_professor. html? cat=5 Singer, Peter. (2008). Putting Practice Into Ethics. The Sun: New York. January 16, 2008, from http://www. nysun. com/arts/putting-practice-into-ethics/69595/