PBA305H: Peter Singer: Speciesism and Functionalism

FIXME too much cross-over content with PBA205H: Personhood and Human Rights, need to streamline and edit

There are four main ways in which abortion advocates will argue:

  1. Abortion can be justifiable due to the circumstances of a crisis pregnancy
  2. Abortion is justifiable because the pre-born are not human
  3. Abortion is justifiable because the pre-born are not persons
  4. Abortion is justifiable even if the pre-born are persons, because of bodily autonomy

Peter Singer's influential defence of abortion argues that (1) it doesn't matter if the pre-born are human, because species membership is not relevant for moral consideration, and (2) even though the pre-born are human, they are not persons1), and therefore don't have moral status.

He argues that the moral question for abortion should be based on a utilitarian calculation which compares the preferences of a woman against the preferences of the fetus – and does not consider a fetus or newborn of having many, if any, serious interests.2) He agrees with pro-lifers that birth is not relevant, so he bites the bullet and says that infanticide isn't intrinsically wrong either – the same argument used against the sanctity of pre-born human life applies against the sanctity of newborn human life.

Against Speciesism and the Sanctity of Human Life

Rejecting Other Pro-Choice Arguments

Three primary texts:

  1. Singer, Peter. Practical Ethics (Third Edition). New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.3)
      • Chapter 6, Taking Life: The Embryo and the Fetus
        • The conservative position, and inadequate liberal responses (p. 138-149)
          • Liberal arguments against the second premise, that the fetus is a human being
            • Birth (p.138-139): “the location of a being – inside or outside the womb – should not make that much difference to the wrongness of killing it”
            • Viability: he rejects this based on the state of medical technology, or even unequal access to medical technology globally; he rejects the dependency argument too, “we do not hold that total dependence on another person means that person may decide whether one lives or dies” (p. 140)
            • Quickening: he rejects this as outdated superstition, as inaccurate (movement happens before it's felt), and irrelevant: “the capacity for physical motion… has nothing to do with the seriousness of one's claim for continued life” (p. 141)
            • Consciousness (“the capacity to feel pleasure or pain”): relevant for later, but
              “The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the newborn baby and the fetus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right, in a way that clearly shows fetuses to be in the latter category at the stage of development when most abortions take place. The conservative is on solid ground insisting that the development from the embryo to the infant is a gradual process.” (p. 142-3)
          • Other Liberal Arguments he rejects:
            • The Consequences of Restrictive Laws (p. 143-144): This is an argument about abortion law, not about the ethics of abortion – important distinction and powerful argument, but it fails to meet the conservative claim that abortion is in the same ethical category as murder
            • Not the Law's Business? “The fallacy involved in numbering abortion among the victimless crimes should be obvious. The dispute about abortion is, largely, a dispute about whether or not abortion does have a 'victim.'”
            • A Feminist Argument (without denying the fetus is an innocent human body, claiming a woman has a right to choose what happens with her own body, e.g. Judith Jarvis Thompson):
              • Singer rejects the theory of rights behind it (p. 148), because as a utilitarian, consequences matter whereas Thompson considers rights independent of their consequences: “Therefore if the life of the fetus is given the same weight as the life of a normal person, the utilitarian would say that it would be wrong to refuse to carry the fetus until it can survive outside the womb.” (p. 148)
              • But he believes the argument is valid, and could be defended if her theory of rights can be defended

Personhood Argument

  • Singer's central preference utilitarian argument for abortion, p. 149-152
    • All (most?) of the liberal arguments accepted the sanctity of human life, but Singer rejects that (. 150)
      • “The weakness of the first premise of the conservative argument is that it relies on our acceptance of the special status of human life. We have seen that 'human' is a term that straddles two distinct notions:
        • being a member of the species Homo sapiens
        • and being a person.
      • Once the term is dissected in this way, the weakness of the conservative's first premise becomes apparent.
        • If 'human' is taken as equivalent to 'person', the second premise of the argument, which asserts that the fetus is a human being, is clearly false; for one cannot plausibly argue that a fetus is either rational or self-conscious.
        • If, on the other hand, 'human' is taken to mean no more than 'member of the species Homo sapiens', then the conservative defence of the life of the fetus is based on a characteristic lacking moral significance and so the first premise is false. The point should by now be familiar: whether a being is or is not a member of our species is, in itself no more relevant to the wrongness of killing it than whether it is or is not a member of our race. The belief that mere membership of our species, irrespective of other characteristics, makes a great difference to the wrongness of killing a being is a legacy of religious doctrines that even those opposed to abortion hesitate to bring into the debate.
      • Recognising this simple point transforms the abortion issue. We can now look at the fetus for what it is - the actual characteristics it possesses - and can value its life on the same scale as the lives of beings with similar characteristics who are not members of our species.
        • those who protest against abortion but dine regularly on the bodies of chickens, pigs and calves, show only a biased concern for the lives of members of our own species. For on any fair comparison of morally relevant characteristics, like rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, autonomy, pleasure and pain, and so on, the calf, the pig and the much derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy - while if we make the comparison with a fetus of less than three months, a fish would show more signs of consciousness.
      • FIXME the rest of 152
  • Addressing an argument of potential human personhood, p. 152-156
    • He considers the wrongness of killing potential human beings, but his focus is on potential, not capacities…
    • acorn/oak; Princes Charles is not King Charles; etc. – rejects that A is a potential to X means that A has the rights of X
    • FIXME all the rest of this section…
  • The status of the embryo in the labratory (p. 156-162)
  • Making use of the fetus (p. 163-169)
  • Biting the bullet on abortion and infanticide, p. 169-174
  • addresses euthanasia for disabled infants, p. 181-191
  1. Singer, Peter. Rethinking Life & Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995. FIXME pages
  2. Singer, Peter. Animal liberation: a new ethics for our treatment of animals. New York: New York review, 1975.

Rejects the Sanctity of Human Life

the fact that a being is human, and alive, does not in itself tell us whether it is wrong to take that being's life. Rethinking Life and Death, p. 105

Functionalist Definition of Personhood

the fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings. FIXME Practical Ethics reference
  • level of development in SLED ⇒ functionalism
  • What does normal mean? What does consciousness mean? We're dealing with arbitrary cut off points…
  • If Singer is correct that rationality and self-consciousness define the morally significant person, then why shouldn’t greater rationality make you more of a person?
  • then, why that point, why that developmental milestones?
    • Why should we go with your definition and not mine? It's arbitrary

Infanticide: Euthanasia for disabled infants


  • “When we kill a newborn, there is no person whose life has begun. When I think of myself as the person I am now, I realize that I did not come into existence until sometime after my birth.”17
    • As Scott Rae and Paul Cox point out, however, “If I do not exist until sometime after my birth, in what sense is the birth mine? The only way for ‘my birth’ to be more than a linguistic convention is to admit that ‘I’ existed before I was born, or at least at the time of my birth.”

Pro-life Responses


  • Kianna, Oriyana etc. stories: driving. Have to swerve to hit either a newborn baby human, or an adult cow / adult pig?
  • BUT we don't want to get in a worldview argument if we don't have to – the animal rights question doesn't need resolution to get some basic agreement on human rights.
  • EHP not OHP

FIXME discussions about other types of entities that may/may not deserve moral consideration–aliens, AI, animals, angels etc.

“After talking to a Ryerson student about the science of when life begins, she agreed with me that pre-born human beings also deserve human rights. Then she asked, 'What about animal rights?' She shared with me that she’s an animal rights advocate. I replied, 'I agree that that’s also an important issue, but to be honest I’ve never given much thought about it and I eat meat. Maybe dogs deserve some rights. But does giving dogs some rights mean we should give less rights to some human beings? Can’t we agree that all members of the human family deserve fundamental human rights? If we did give dogs some rights, wouldn’t we give all members of the dog family that right?' She said that it made sense and I’ve given her something to think about. Then we thanked each other before she left to eat her lunch.” - Michelle Caluag of Toronto Against Abortion
  • Stephanie Gray example: giving rights to whales –> give rights to only the strongest, smartest whales? Or to the entire species? We wouldn't discriminate, we'd value + protect the whole species. Why not do the same with humans?


FIXME definitions. Preference utilitarianism

  • But, the utilitarian ethic is antithetical to the pro-life perspective and its adequacy needs a response (e.g. the problem of gang-rape, if we're similarly measuring overall pleasure against overall pain)
    • Or Kianna's thought-experiment: Can a man sexually assault a comatose woman, as long as he leaves no physical traces or injuries? She won't remember it, wasn't “hurt” by it, and it gave him pleasure. OK or not OK?
    • Get Matthew's AAP story from when he talked with the utilitarians

Counterintuitive: protecting the vulnerable

  • His claims are counter-intuitive. Vulnerable people need MORE protection, not less.
  • Treatment of born children
    • Most people reject infanticide
    • Child abuse until self-awareness would be permissible
    • He thinks the killing of newborns should be limited to those who are severely disabled… that's inconsistent with his worldview – who cares if you kill healthy newborns? Inconsistent
  • Person in a temporary coma
    • Can we kill them?
      • FIXME involuntary euthanasia (does this belong here?)
        • Maria –> discussion at UWO, at AAP, etc.
  • Peter Singer could not apply his own worldview to his mother; he knows on a deeper, intuitive level that his worldview doesn't work
    • FIXME quote

Functionalism vs. human essentialism

  • Inherent capacities (inherent rational nature) vs. current capacities
    • ex. Embryo vs. amoeba
    • (Or Maaike: “what makes a dog a dog?”)

Functionalism vs. human equality

  • Most people believe that all born humans are equal. What makes them equal?
    • Steve Wagner:
      • “It can’t be that all of us look human, because some have been disfigured. It can’t be that all of us have functional brains, because some are in reversible comas. It can’t be one’s ability to think or feel pain, for some think better than others and some don’t feel any pain. It can’t be something we can gain or lose, or something of which we can have more or less. If something like that grounds rights, equal rights don’t exist…There is only one quality we all have equally—we’re all human.” - Steve Wagner (quote= From Scott Klusendorf’s Case for life)
    • Functionalism –> Ableism
      • Kianna's testimony
    • Functionalism –> ageism


Old Notes

FIXME Refactor this in terms of two core components to the argument: (1) speciesism, (2) personhood (self-awareness, etc. Kaczor 30-35) FIXME David Boonin's functionalism, separate seminar?

Rough Notes

FIXME mine Klusendorf's handling of this for primary source references (Lee, George, Mary Anne Warren, Jan Narveson, Peter Singer, etc.) – may warrant separate seminars. http://prolifetraining.com/Articles/Five-Bad-Ways.htm

  • Infanticide
  • Euthanasia of disabled infants, Gronigen Protocol
  • FIXME: “Useless Eaters” (paper)
  • Opening story from Paul Bloom's TED Talk
  • Mary Anne Warren, “On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion.” FIXME worth another seminar topic to address this directly?
  • “Why Libertarians Should be Pro-Choice Regarding Abortion,” Libertarian philosopher Jan Narveson FIXME here or another topic?
  • Michael Tooley?