It’s played between ordinary, struggling human beings and an abstract notion of a preferred lifestyle

By Donald DeMarco
The Interim

In what many critics consider to be Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece, The Seventh Seal(1956), a disillusioned knight, returning from the Crusades, encounters Death. The two sit down to a game of chess, the stakes being the knight’s life. The scene, in which the knight, while locked in a grim battle with Death, attempts to illustrate the goodness of mankind, is both magical and spellbinding.

On the contemporary stage, we are witnessing a similar struggle. The antagonists are the “culture of life” and the “culture of death.” But it is now possible to imagine these formerly abstract categories as embodied in the rather concrete personalities of two contemporary figures: Pope John Paul II and Professor Peter Singer. “John Paul II proclaims that the widespread acceptance of abortion is a threat to the traditional moral order,” Singer writes in a 1995 article in the London Spectator, entitled “Killing Babies Isn’t Always Wrong.” “I sometimes think,” he says of the Pope, and not without some degree of hubris, “that he and I at least share the virtue of seeing clearly what is at stake.”

Peter Singer, who believes that it can be morally permissible to kill babies in the first 28 days after their birth and has won the accolade “Professor Death,” is an avowed atheist. In his book, Practical Ethics (p. 331), he makes the following statement:

When we reject belief in God we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning. Life began, as the best available theories tell us, in a chance combination of gases; it then evolved through random mutation and natural selection. All this just happened; it did not happen to any overall purpose. Now that it has resulted in the existence of beings who prefer some states of affairs to others, however, it may be possible for particular lives to be meaningful. In this sense some atheists can find meaning in life.

Life can be meaningful for an atheist when he is able to spend his life in a “preferred state.” The atheistic perspective here does not center on people, it centers on happiness. This curious preference of happiness over people engenders a rather chilling logic. It is not human life or the existing human being that is good, but the “preferred state.” Human life is not sacrosanct, but a certain kind of life can be “meaningful.” If one baby is disabled, does it not make sense to kill it and replace it with one who is not and “therefore” has a better chance for happiness? Singer writes, “When the death of the disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed.”

Singer has a point, though perhaps marginal at best, that, all other things being equal, it is better to be more happy than to be less happy. Yet this point hardly forms a basis for capital punishment for the person who has less happiness than the hypothetically conceived greater happiness of his possible replacement. It is the subject who exists who has the right to life, and that right should not be expropriated by the person who employs a happiness calculus.

Singer is obviously wandering into abstractions. He is a humanist, one might say, because he wants people to enjoy better and happier states of existence. But the more relevant point is that he is not particularly interested in the actual lives of those who are faced with states that he believes to be less than preferable. On the other hand, John Paul stresses that each human life is “inviolable, unrepeatable, and irreplaceable.” In stating this, the Holy Father is implying that our first priority should be loving human beings rather than preferring better states. The Pope and the Meister Singer are poles apart: “The day had to come,” states Singer,” when Copernicus proved that the earth is not at the center of the universe. It is ridiculous to pretend that the old ethics makes sense when plainly they do not. The notion that human life is sacred just because it’s human life is medieval.”

There are a number of things that are “plain.” One is that Copernicus did not “prove” that the earth is not at the center of the universe. He proposed a theory based on the erroneous assumption that planets travel in perfect circles and hypothesized that the sun was at the center, not of the universe, but of what we now refer to as the solar system. Another is that the sacredness of life is a Judaeo-Christian notion, not an arbitrary fabrication of the Middle Ages. Yet another is that it is unethical to kill disabled people just because they are disabled.

Professor Singer’s recent appointment to the Chair of Bioethics at Princeton University’s Center for Human Values has done much to advertise his controversial views. At his first class, in September 1999, two hundred students, disability activists, and pro-lifers were on hand to protest his presence. Steve Forbes, erstwhile presidential candidate and a Princeton University trustee, announced that he would stop contributing to his alma mater unless it removed Professor Singer. A blind colleague accused Singer of desiring her death. Police hauled away people in wheelchairs who were protesting in his classroom.

Singer’s coterie of protestors represent a broad spectrum of society because the people he has placed on his “endangered people list” represent a similarly broad spectrum of humanity. Among the “living human beings whose lives may intentionally be terminated,” Singer includes the elderly, the handicapped, and the infirm, in addition to the unborn.

Dr. David van Gend is the secretary for the World Federation of Doctors Who Respect Life. He writes in the August 1999 issue of The Courier Mail, which is published in Australia, about Singer’s “coldly cerebral approach to life.” But he wonders whether a certain tragic event in Singer’s own personal life may cause “a thaw in this icy consistency.” Cora Singer, who is Peter’s mother, has rapidly descended into Alzheimer’s dementia and can no longer recognize her son.

A purely abstract system of ethics – juggling the hypothetical happiness of some against less desirable states of others and trading in the latter for the former – is one thing; issuing an ethical death warrant for your own mother is another. Says a more reflective Singer, “I think this has made me see how the issues of someone with these kinds of problems are really difficult. Perhaps it’s more difficult than I thought before, because it is different when it is your own mother.” Moral philosophy, of course, should have a personal touch at its inception, not as a postscript written as an afterthought.

The irony here is an amalgam of pain and pathos. Cora Singer, because of the suffering she experiences in her less than desirable state, may turn out to be her son’s best teacher. Despite her pedagogical limitations, she is offering her son an education into the meaning of life that goes far beyond his category of “preferred states.” Peter may be a slow learner. He lost three grandparents in the Holocaust. Cora’s condition may prove more eloquent than anything that he himself has ever said or set to paper. Yes, there may be meaning to suffering, and countless other human beings may become beneficiaries of her disabled condition.

The grim chess game continues. It is played between ordinary, struggling, mortal human beings and an abstract notion of a preferred lifestyle. But the ultimate irony is realized when we learn that the latter’s true name is Death.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is a professor of philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.