The Measure of a Disabled Person: Part 1.

Empty blue wheelchairs in a row.

By Michael Everritt (Dax’s husband).

Trigger Warning: abortion, euthanasia.

Peter Singer, an Australian academic most famous for their work with PETA, identifies no longer as a philosopher but as a “professor of bioethics with a background in philosophy.”[i] From this you are free to make your own inferences as to exactly how well regarded he is within academic Philosophy. For example, it is as a consequence of his bioethical views that he contends it is morally right for parents to be permitted to kill disabled infants. The crux of his argument is that people “who think it is OK for women to have an abortion need to show why there’s such an important difference between the foetus before birth and the newborn infant after birth.”[ii] The implication is that in the absence of any difference infants may be, so to speak, aborted.

Singer is a champion of Utilitarianism, here understood as “the family of ethical theories on which the rightness of actions…depends on, and only on, the sum total of wellbeing they produce.”[iii] If it were the case that disability necessarily diminishes the future wellbeing of a disabled infant, it would follow that infanticide will increase the overall wellbeing of a society. There are obviously moral objections to be made against this argument but none so far have swayed Singer since “many Utilitarians are happy to reject common moral intuitions.”[iv] It is the contention of Utilitarians that they have successfully systemised ethics, such that you might just as well level moral arguments against a mathematician.

This article will instead take a meta-ethical line of attack, targeting Singer’s epistemological presuppositions and demonstrating that, like the much sung about Foolish Man, he has built his house upon the sand. Singer’s Utilitarianism is “teleological, maximising, impartial and relativistic”[v] with the intent of this article being to arugula that ethical value judgements cannot ever be impartial. It shall be demonstrated, on epistemic grounds, that Singer cannot ever know what degree of wellbeing a disabled person had. Only the disabled person themselves can have any idea on that matter, and it is consequently impossible to assume on behalf of an infant what ideas they will hold as an infant.

The attack on Singer begins with the Enlightenment thinker David Hume and his notorious Problem of Induction. Hume argued that no one encountering an object “ever discovers by the qualities which appear to the senses, either the cause which produced it, or the effects which will arise from it; nor can our reason, unassisted by experience, ever draw any inference concerning real existence and matter of fact.”[vi] To translate Hume’s distinctly eighteenth century parlance into a pop culture reference: we might all be in the Matrix. Imagine, as Hume often did, a game of billiards (pool if you prefer) in which the cue ball strikes the eight ball sending it hurtling towards the pocket. We have only the evidence of our senses to tell us the eight ball moved because of the cue ball and not of its own accord. Each repeated observation of cue balls striking eight balls might strengthen the argument that the former causes the latter to move but we can always “conceive of a situation in where the unobserved case does not follow the regularity so far observed.”[vii] Even though last time things went as expected we can never know with absolute certainty that next time the eight ball will not behave differently by, for example, refusing to budge. If we were in the Matrix all our observations about billiard balls would be worthless since, in actuality, there is no cue ball or eight anymore than there is a spoon.

The history of bioethics has no shortage of examples of moral wrongs committed because someone acted with certainty despite actually being horribly mistaken. The so called ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’ believed, based on what he thought he had observed, that black people felt pain differently from white people. For this reason he saw nothing ethically wrong with experimenting on black women without the use of anaesthesia.[viii] In Dax’s opinion, it is no wonder that modern gynaecology is a hotbed of gaslighting and ignoring patients, when it’s very foundation is based on such abominable acts.

With this in mind, it becomes apparent that it is always possible that even the most seemingly heinous acts are tragically “misguided”. We must remain epistemically humble and never lose sight, as Singer seemingly has, that ethical judgements are never beyond doubt. Furthermore, how can Singer possibly judge the value of any life other than his own, including the lives of disabled people? Deeper consideration is warranted.

Part 2 is available here.


[i] P. Singer, ‘Peter Singer’ in petersinger.info. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://petersinger.info/

[ii] D.A. Gross, ‘Peter Singer is Committed to Controversial Ideas’ in New York Times. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/the-new-yorker-interview/peter-singer-is-committed-to-controversial-ideas

[iii] R.Y. Chappell, W. MacAskill & D. Meissner, ‘Introduction to Utilitarianism’ in Utilitarianism.net. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://www.utilitarianism.net/introduction-to-utilitarianism#explaining-what-utilitarianism-is

[iv] W. Sinnott-Armstrong, ‘Consequentialism’ in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/consequentialism/

[v] M. Dimmock & Andrew Fisher, Ethics for A-Level. Open Book Publishers, 2017, p. 25. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1wc7r6j.5.

[vi] D. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 20.

[vii] L. Henderson, ‘The Problem of Induction’ in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2020/entries/induction-problem/

[viii] B. Holland, ‘The ‘Father of Modern Gynaecology’ Performed Shocking Experiments of Enslaved Women’ in Sky History. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://www.history.com/news/the-father-of-modern-gynecology-performed-shocking-experiments-on-slaves

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