That’s what Peter Singer explained to Harriet McBryde Johnson. It’s very revealing, I think, to directly proclaim to someone that you can imagine her parents killing her as an infant, since they should not have expected her to have a fulfilling life, or because she would have been such a relentless burden to them, or because they might have preferred a kid who could do cartwheels, and then maintain that it’s not really about her. Also telling that since he’d invited Johnson to Princeton to debate him, that decision would have been wrong even according to his framework: She had a productive life. But there is no sense that he recanted, or even qualified his dogma in the face (literally) of so powerful a counterexample when they debated that day.
After class, I kept wondering how it was possible that knowing Johnson hadn’t changed Singer’s mind, or at least planted some doubt about predicting the value of a life with disability. I looked up anything he might have written about her, and found an obit he wrote for the New York Times. I have to say that it’s very nice, if plagiarized and a little patronizing. (It appears to be very closely based on, and not attributed to, Johnson’s writings about their meetings, but I won’t talk about that at the moment. See for yourself: www.nytimes.com/2008/12/28/magazine/28mcbryde-t.html?_r=1&) He acknowledged the usefulness of Johnson’s life, as well as his regard for her, though without commenting in any way on how her existence might contradict his belief system. The title of the piece is “Harriet McBryde Johnson | b. 1957 | Happy Nevertheless.” It confirmed an impression I had, that Singer is so situated inside his own head, his own experience, that he cannot imagine the view from another perspective or an understanding outside of his own. I don’t think I mean this in a psychological way, but more ontologically. His reality is reality. He had to qualify Johnson’s life - she was happy even though she was disabled - because that was how he saw things, not how she did.
In the obit, he wrote:
I know that surveys have found that people living with disabilities show a level of satisfaction with their lives that is not very different from that of people who are not disabled. Have people with long-term disabilities adjusted their expectations downward, so that they are satisfied with less? Or do even severe disabilities really make no difference to our happiness, once we get used to them?Again, telling. There’s an answer to this question IF YOU JUST ASK SOMEONE! But apparently he hasn’t, and because he hasn’t experienced first hand (yet) what it’s like to have a disability, and because he understands in so objectifying a way, he doesn’t know the answer to this most fundamental question. If you’re promoting such a nocuous idea, that certain lives are not worth living, you should probably make sure you have the information you need to know if your assumptions are correct.
Another quote from the obit:
I tried to persuade Johnson that her attribution of rights to humans with severe intellectual disabilities had implications for how we should think about animals too, since they could enjoy their lives as much as, or more than, the people whose right to life she was defending.I wonder how he knows this. Is there research comparing the life enjoyment of, say, nondisabled chickens to intellectually disabled humans? Or is his assumption, that the nondisabled chicken enjoys life more, based on his own prejudices?
Singer is interesting to me because he makes so reasonable such a horrifying proposition: Murdering people is acceptable as long as you possess the knowledge of whether their lives are worth living. Looking at his ideas in a broader context, as the radical outgrowth of the medical model that has for so long been so damaging to people with disabilities, I can see their evolution. It’s Eugenics, and though it always seems like a cheap shot, it’s the same idea that supported the Nazis’ Final Solution: Some people have valued lives and some do not, and the people in power get to make that determination.
How can the baby you once were be separated from the adult you are now? For the individual, it can’t. The person you were then grew in a distinct and unpredictable environment, with distinct and unpredictable experiences into the person you are now. But for the person objectifying you, that continuum doesn’t really exist. After all, he didn’t observe it. Singer’s economic, positivist, cognitively dissonant, dispassionate, clinical, eugenic (pick your adjective, I can’t decide) dictum reveals his world view: He is a scientist who does not accept the uncertainty principle, a humanitarian who only recognizes some people’s humanity. He has faith that his unexamined tenets allow him to know what’s best for others, and he doesn’t even need to ask them. It’s the definition of ableism.
Johnson, H. (2005). Too late to die young: Nearly true tales from a life. New York: Henry Holt and Co.
Singer, P. (2008, December 28). HARRIET MCBRYDE JOHNSON | B. 1957 Happy Nevertheless. New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2015.