One Question Quiz
L-R: Red Nicholson, Grace Stratton and Dr. Huhana Hickey
L-R: Red Nicholson, Grace Stratton and Dr. Huhana Hickey

SocietyFebruary 19, 2020

Disabled voices on Peter Singer: ‘Who’s actually listening to this guy?’

L-R: Red Nicholson, Grace Stratton and Dr. Huhana Hickey
L-R: Red Nicholson, Grace Stratton and Dr. Huhana Hickey

Controversial Australian philosopher Peter Singer is coming to New Zealand in June. While he believes in reducing suffering for all humans and animals, his views on disability have sparked widespread alarm and condemnation.

Update: ThinkInc, promoters of the live event ‘An Evening with Peter Singer’, have announced that Auckland venue Skycity has cancelled their contract, fearing “reputational damage.” ThinkInc spokesperson Suzi Jamil released a statement on Wednesday morning saying they are currently looking for an alternative venue.

Utilitarian and moral philosopher Peter Singer is best known by many for the parable of the drowning child, a thought experiment which equates ignoring a drowning child to not spending your disposable income on reducing poverty, thereby saving the same theoretical life. It’s a greatest hit from his public speaking repertoire that he compares to The Rolling Stones having to play ‘Satisfaction’ night after night.

In the disabled community, Singer is most famous for believing that parents should be allowed to kill disabled newborn babies.

Singer will be speaking in Auckland in June, one of four Australasian dates being promoted by ThinkInc, an “intellectual touring company” based in Australia.

An Evening with Peter Singer will cost you between $60 and $160 with all profits going to Room to Read, a literacy programme for girls. According to the Humanitix website, a $160 ticket gets you a “post-event professional photo op with Peter Singer, reception with drinks and canapés.”

Singer is the Ira W DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and a Laureate Professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at the University of Melbourne, and he has been a contentious figure for a very long time.

After his appointment to Princeton in 1999 was met with an outcry from the disabled community, one New York Times piece noted “Mr Singer is not easily categorised.” He has advocated for veganism and animal rights since the 1970s, and for people giving away as much income as possible to poverty relief agencies (Singer and his wife donate 40% of their income). He founded The Life You Can Save, a foundation which identifies the most effective charities for poverty relief, and the Great Ape Project which seeks to confer the same legal rights of humans on chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans.

He believes we are duty-bound to relieve suffering. This beneficent logic extends to involuntary euthanasia for both cognitively impaired adults and disabled infants.

In 1979’s Practical Ethics, Singer wrote that the value of a life should be based on “rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness”:

“Defective infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”

And then: “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons [therefore] the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.”

He doesn’t draw the line at severe cognitive impairments, he also includes those with diagnoses such as Down syndrome, spina bifida and haemophilia.

Singer then argues that if parents can replace the baby with a non-disabled one then a ‘net good’ has been achieved, as the ‘healthy child’ would be happier than a disabled one.

Where the argument falls down, according to disability advocates and his many critics, is that definitions of ‘good’ and ‘happy’ are subjective and that Singer is woefully under informed about the lived reality of disabled people’s lives.

In a now-famous piece for New York Times Magazine, writer, activist and attorney Harriet McBryde Johnson wrote about being invited by Singer to speak at Princeton University. Johnson, who passed away in 2008, was a wheelchair user with neuromuscular disease.

She noted: “We take constraints that no one would choose and build rich and satisfying lives within them. We enjoy pleasures other people enjoy, and pleasures peculiarly our own. We have something the world needs.”

Singer and Johnson formed a complicated relationship, and after finding that she liked Singer despite being “a proponent of genocide”, she concluded:

“To justify my hopes that Singer’s theoretical world – and its entirely logical extensions – won’t become real, I’ll invoke the muck and mess and undeniable reality of disabled lives well lived. That’s the best I can do.”

Attorney and activist Harriet McBryde Johnson wrote a powerful piece for New York Times magazine in 2003, titled Unspeakable Conversations, about her encounter with Singer after he invited her to speak at Princeton.

Red Nicholson, an Auckland educator, writer and podcaster, agrees visibility of the lived disabled experience is the way to fight stereotypes such as those being espoused by Peter Singer. “Part of my approach to combating narratives like this is to tell different and better stories.”

When faced with the prospect of speaking out against Singer, he says he finds it hard to navigate the tension between giving too much oxygen to those with harmful ideas, and letting people get away with it.

“I don’t know what it is about pseudo-intellectual old men but I just don’t take them very seriously, so when I heard about [Singer] I thought ‘Oh god, who really cares. Who’s actually listening to this guy?’. But it turns out quite a few people are. That’s probably the thing that woke me up and made me feel like I should get involved in this kaupapa a little bit.

“We certainly run the risk, if we make a big song and dance about it, that we get the Jordan Williams’s and David Seymours on our case and all of a sudden Peter Singer becomes the hero of the free speech brigade. But at the same time, if we let a guy come to New Zealand and speak about how we should kill disabled babies, and we sit there and go ‘oh well, maybe no one will listen to him’, that feels naïve.”

Nicholson fears it’s not the immediate reaction to the talk but the seed it might plant that has the most potential for harm.

“I don’t think there are many people who would hear ‘we should kill disabled babies and replace them with non-disabled ones’ and go, that sounds reasonable. I don’t think there are many people that would be on board with that.

“All that would need to happen is for there to be a financial meltdown and all of a sudden government finances are stretched and it comes out that disabled people cost the taxpayer this many millions of dollars and we become targets for the next round of beneficiary bashing. It wouldn’t take much for more people to jump on that bandwagon.

“That’s what I worry about – less about the impact tomorrow but the potential for kōrero like this to live freely in the world to fuel fires later.”

On the subject of what happiness looks like for the disabled community, Nicholson is unequivocal that Singer is ignorant.

“No one that I know who is disabled wishes they never lived. If you look at conventional framings of disability it’s all like, suffering, hardship and pity and charity. But no one I know with a disability feels that way about themselves… My disabled friends are the most kickass, fun, ambitious, exciting, exuberant bunch of people I know. Some able-bodied people I know are way more miserable about the most mundane stuff.”

Grace Stratton, founder of the All Is For All fashion and media empire says that she and other disabled people she knows experience happiness in the same way as non-disabled people. “Is happiness a constant state? No. Some days are better than others, and the reasons I might be unhappy often have nothing to do with my disability. I might have just had a bad day.”

She says the times she gets most frustrated have nothing to with her diagnosis. “There are days when I think, it would be a lot easier to do this activity if I could walk, but the fact that I’m having a difficult time has to do with how we’ve made that activity inaccessible. Most of the difficulties I face as a disabled person aren’t because of my diagnosis, they’re because we don’t consider disabled people when we design systems and programmes or build cities. That makes my life harder, not the fact I have cerebral palsy.

“It’s the social model. If we designed better we’d all be able to lead better, happier, less frustrated lives and contribute equally.”

Suzi Jamil is the owner and director of ThinkInc, who are touring Singer. She declined to comment for this story, saying she had nothing further to add to her comments to Newshub in which she said that “without reading the length and breadth of his work I don’t think it’s fair for people to be judgmental of out of context comments”.

Aden Miles, director of communications for the Cerebral Palsy Society New Zealand, thinks the problem with saying that his most widely shared, and clearly unambiguous, quotes are out of context implies that there is a good context in which to place them.

“One of the biggest issues that we have with Professor Singer’s comments is that he doesn’t give them context himself. Since the 70s, he’s had the tendency to offer his opinions on disability-related issues whether they’d be issues of life quality or consent. It is true that I haven’t read every single word he’s written on the topic, but his quotes and underlying belief structures are powerful and destructive on their own.

“The problem is that he doesn’t fully flesh out his views on disability at all. He uses our community as an example of his wider belief systems around happiness and quality of life. I would be more inclined to believe we were taking things out of context if he ever bothered to actually give a context to his disability statements. Bizarrely, he doesn’t seem to understand the power he wields in this circumstance.”

Disability advocate Dr Huhana Hickey (Ngāti Tahinga, Tainui, Ngai Tai) says that Jamil’s comments imply that disabled people haven’t read Singer’s work extensively.

“I have, as have others, as he has been spouting this same message for over 40 years, influencing morals and ethics. Professor Shelley Lynn Tremain is a disabled philosopher and one who can answer in the discipline he speaks from better than I can. She has challenged him over the years as well. I remember his appointment to Princeton in 1999, where disabled protested against him globally.”

Even though Singer’s logic has echoes of ideas heard in Nazi eugenics and the WWII T4 programme that killed and experimented on disabled people, Singer, who lost three grandparents to Hitler’s concentration camps, rejects the comparison, and says his logic cannot be applied to race or gender. In his conversation with Harriet McBryde Johnsnn he told her preferences based on race are unreasonable. Preferences based on ability are not because disability makes a person “worse off”.

Hickey believes that Singer’s arguments also fall short on matters of cultural context and preference.

“Some cultures view disabled as a gift, others find their own fears and misunderstandings drive their own concepts, so one can’t apply a one shoe size fits all. For instance, Singer has a real issue with intellectually disabled and sees them as valueless, yet here in New Zealand we have the first Sir with an intellectual disability – Sir Robert Martin– who has proven his value and worth and earned the honour due to that work. He is far from valueless.”

Come June, there will be pushback to Singer’s appearance in Auckland. Red Nicholson says that plans are already underway for a disruption of some kind and that able-bodied allies are encouraged to join. “We have to be good allies for each other. I hope other communities that can relate to or feel empathy for this kind of kōrero get behind the movement too.”

Grace Stratton, like Nicholson and Hickey, won’t advocate for ‘banning’ Singer – but she says those who are interested in attending should think before they buy tickets. “It’s a similar realm to Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneaux in that it’s about a ‘supreme race’, in this case able-bodied people are framed as superior. From a human rights and free speech perspective of course he should be able to come. It’s not my place as an individual to infringe on someone’s right to free speech.

“That’s the technical answer I suppose. My personal feeling though is that if people are going to buy tickets, I would say there are so many other causes and people who you could spend your money on.”

Keep going!