The Measure of a Disabled Person: Part 2.

Empty blue wheelchairs in a row.

Part 1 is available here.

By Michael Everritt (Dax’s Husband).

Trigger Warning: Abortion, Euthanasia.

Last week, we sought to demonstrate why medical ethics is never a case of dealing in absolute certainties, and thus we ought to remain epistemically humble. By his own admission, Singer wants to “take the point of view of the universe”[i] which, as ambitions go, is beautiful, noble, magnificent and so utterly misguided that scores of philosophers are turning in their graves. Chief among them would be Nietzsche, who argues that “Perspectival seeing is the only kind of seeing there is, perspectival ‘knowing’ the only kind of ‘knowing’.”[ii] It makes no sense to say that something is seen without establishing where it is seen from, since the very concept of seeing implies a seer. Likewise, the very concept of knowing implies a knower who by necessity must be located in space and time, consequently having a perspective on what is known.

Contrary to the way it may seem sometimes, no one can think without a brain anymore than they can breathe without lungs. For Singer’s Utilitarianism to work it must be impartial, but impartiality is as meaningless as talking about absolute sight. Singer may only ever see through his own eyes and he may only ever know through his own brain. Jollimore recognises that “personal projects and/or the ability to pursue personal projects are important, and since agents who were required to be completely impartial in every aspect of life would be unable to pursue such projects, we should allow that people are not required to be absolutely impartial in every aspect of life.”[iii]

We cannot possibly know, from our own perspective, what personal projects an infant, disabled or otherwise, will pursue across their lifetime, let alone how to value those projects. It is entirely possible, as in Dax’s case, that subjecting the family cat to toy veterinary kits would eventually lead to career in clinical trials research. Wright observes that there “may well be value in the life and “life projects” of a disabled person that is unlikely to be recognised, let alone properly weighted and assessed, by the Utilitarian decision maker.”[iv] This observation in concert with the Perspectivism of Nietzsche and Hume’s Problem of induction makes it epistemically absurd that Singer could ever know the wellbeing of anyone other than Singer. Yes, an omniscient deity could be argued to be an exception to these rules but the Euthyphro dilemma, consideration of which lies beyond the scope of this article, challenges bringing God into ethics.

It has been remarked that “Nietzsche frequently criticises “dogmatic” philosophers for ignoring the perspectival limitations of their theorising”[v] and Singer is nothing if not dogmatic. To return to Singer’s demand that a difference be demonstrated between a foetus and an infant, we may say that the latter has a perspective, however rudimentary, while the former does not. This has been established by Lagercruntz & Changeux who write that “the foetus is almost continuously asleep and unconscious partially due to endogenous sedation. Conversely, the newborn infant can awake…and process memorised mental representations.”[vi] Even if the weight of scientific evidence on this matter were to change, as seems unlikely, that ought to extend more rights to foetuses, rather than to detract from those of an infant. 

Aristotle argued that ethics is not an exact science since “demanding logical demonstrations from a teachers of rhetoric is clearly about as reasonable as accepting mere plausibility from a mathematician.”[vii] It seems as if his intent was to warn us, all those centuries beforehand, about Singer and his efforts to take the human element out of ethics. A similar warning comes to us, inevitably, from an episode of Star Trek: The Measure of a Man. In that seminal episode Picard is charged with proving that Data is sentient and, finding himself unable to do so, instead established that his opponent cannot prove beyond all possible doubt that Picard himself is sentient.[viii] Each of us knows only the content of our own mind, if we even know that much, and can at best guess what value another might place upon their own projects. To that end, infanticide would rob a disabled person of the chance to give us their perspective. That is not just morally wrong, it is epistemically wrong.

Or, in Dax’s own, less academic words, Peter Singer can get in a bin.


[i] H. McBryde Johnson. ‘Unspeakable Conversations’ in Disability Visibility, edited by A. Wong. Vintage Books, 2020, p. 23

[ii] F. Nietzsche. On the Genealogy of Morals. Oxford University Press, 1996, p. 98.

[iii] T. Jollimore. ‘Impartiality’ in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2020/entries/impartiality/

[iv] R.G. Wright. ‘Michael Perry, Peter Singer, and Quasimodo: Persons with Disabilities and the Nature of Rights’. Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1999-2000, pp. 113-159.

[v] R.L. Anderson. ‘Friedrich Nietzsche’ in Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Accessed 10/09/2021, https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/nietzsche/

[vi] J. Changeux & H. Lagercrantz. ‘The Emergence of Human Conciousness: From Fetal to Neonatal Life.’ Pediatric Research, Vol. 1, No.65, 2008, pp.255-260.  

[vii] Aristotle. Ethics. Penguin Books, 1955, p. 65.

[viii] LegalEagle. Real Lawyer Reacts to Star Trek TNG Measure of a Man (Picard Defends Data’s Humanity) . Accessed 10/09/2021, https://youtu.be/XVjeYW6S8Mo

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