Peter Singer and Eugenics

Peter Singer is an Australian philosopher who is best known for his book Animal Liberation. His work on ethics is respected within the academy and he has had an impact on public opinion unmatched by almost any other professional philosopher. He is the world’s foremost proponent of utilitarianism, one of the two major doctrines within mainstream western ethics. Singer was recently appointed to a prestigious chair at Princeton University, a top US school. That appointment has brought to these shores a heated controversy about various of Singer’s views that has been raging in much of Europe for the past decade. This article will only address Singer’s views on selective infanticide, one of his most controversial positions.

Singer advocates the killing of certain newborn infants at the discretion of their parents. The criteria he proposes for deciding which infants may be killed center on a wide range of hereditary physical conditions which Singer considers “disabilities”. He has been forthright and consistent in his advocacy of this position for many years. The second sentence of his 1985 book Should the Baby Live? (co-authored with his close colleague Helga Kuhse) reads: “We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed.” The reason that Singer supports infanticide in such cases is not, as one might expect from a utilitarian, to put an end to the newborn’s suffering; as Singer himself repeatedly points out, in many of the cases in which he favors infanticide there is no physical pain or suffering of any kind involved. His stated reason, rather, is that such children have diminished prospects of eventually enjoying an adequate “quality of life”, in his words, and to allow them to live would take away resources from what Singer calls “normal” children. He therefore advocates killing “disabled” infants, if the parents so choose, and replacing them with “normal” ones. The terminology of “replacement” is Singer’s own; his philosophy “treats infants as replaceable”, in his words (Practical Ethics p. 186).

What counts as a “severe disability” for Singer? He intentionally leaves the term vague to allow for a broad range of parental discretion, but he has discussed a number of specific examples, both hypothetical as well as actual cases. The conditions he has explicitly named as sufficient justification for active infanticide include Down syndrome, spina bifida, and hemophilia. Here is Singer’s reasoning on the latter condition, taken from his popular textbook Practical Ethics (P. 186): “Suppose a woman planning to have two children has one normal child, then gives birth to a haemophiliac child. The burden of caring for that child may make it impossible for her to cope with a third child; but if the disabled child were to die, she would have another. . . . When the death of a 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. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

Like hemophilia, spina bifida is a congenital condition. It covers a very broad range of symptoms, many of them quite minor. Singer considers any one of the following conditions to constitute, in conjunction with a diagnosis of spina bifida, a “severe physical handicap”: “chronic urinary infections; kidney disease; paraplegia requiring the use of calipers, crutches, or wheelchairs; severe spinal deformities; precariously controlled hydrocephalus; blindness, fits, or other less common defects.” (Should the Baby Live? p. 61) This list of “severe” handicaps comes in the same book that begins, “We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed.”

Down syndrome, once again a genetically based condition, gets the most attention in Singer’s recent work. His 1994 book Rethinking Life & Death, whose aim is to articulate “a social ethic where some human lives are valued and others are not” (p. 112), recapitulates the arguments in favor of selective infanticide outlined above. There he endorses the view that “it is ethical that a child suffering from Down’s syndrome…should not survive” (p. 123) because “the quality of life of someone with Down syndrome [is] below the standard at which medical treatment to sustain the life of an infant becomes obligatory” (p. 111; in Singer’s terms “treatment to sustain life” doesn’t refer merely to surgical intervention but to simple feeding as well). This “quality of life” reasoning is sometimes cast in more colorful terms; in Should the Baby Live? Singer quotes, entirely approvingly, the grandmother of a Down syndrome child: “Had the poor little mongol been allowed to die, as he so easily could, my daughter might have had one or two healthy children in his place” (p. 66). Singer goes on to suggest lethal injection “in the case of a Down syndrome baby with no other defect” (p. 73).

This contrast between “mongols” and “healthy” people – a crucial dichotomy for Singer – is entirely spurious (we might also note that Singer fails to question or challenge the term “mongol”, an obsolete and pejorative designation for people with Down syndrome). There is nothing “unhealthy” about people with Down syndrome. They do not walk around with constantly running noses or malfunctioning bladders. They do not require ongoing medical attention. The contrast is even more ludicrous in the case of hemophiliacs, who are physically indistinguishable from non-hemophiliacs. Such judgements are doubly suspect when applied to newborn infants. In this context, “healthy” and “normal” cannot refer to an individual’s physiological constitution, which has yet to be fully formed. They can only refer to genetic factors.

Down syndrome is usually characterized by short stature, distinctive facial features, and, as my dictionary puts it, “mild to moderate mental retardation”. Singer himself describes the condition as involving “some physical abnormalities” as well as “mild to moderate intellectual disability” (Rethinking Life & Death p. 106). There is no mention here of “severe disabilities”; Singer notes that “People at the upper end of this range [of Down-related intellectual disability] can live independently with little supervision. Others need help with managing their financial affairs, and need to be supervised when shopping, cooking or travelling outside the home.” (ibid.) Unlike migraines or arthritis, Down syndrome is not a painful condition, and people who have it do not “suffer” from it in any conventional sense.

Why, then, does Singer argue that infants born with this condition can justly be killed? Because they are “abnormal” and do not have “good prospects” (Rethinking p. 214). This notion of “prospects” runs like a mantra through Singer’s discussion of Down syndrome children: “the future prospects of life may be so bleak” (211), “the prospects are clouded” (213), and so forth. But what sort of prospects does he have in mind? On p. 213 of Rethinking he lists several activities which a person with Down syndrome will supposedly never be capable of: “to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.” This list reads like a parody of bourgeois myths of achievement, success, and respectability. To Singer, however, these are legitimate reasons for killing a newborn. After all, if you can’t do your own financial planning, why should you be allowed to live?

Thus we find that in Singer’s view, “severe disabilities” – and also sometimes merely “mild to moderate” ones – are acceptable grounds for parents to decide to have their babies killed. He stands by this view even in some cases where other families offer to adopt the child (Should the Baby Live?, p. 13). At no point does he entertain the possibility that parents who make such a decision on the basis of these criteria are capitulating to a groundless social prejudice exactly analogous to sexism, racism, or homophobia. Indeed he embraces such criteria as ethically proper and vociferously promotes their widespread application.

This is a eugenicist position. It endorses selection according to desirable and undesirable genetic traits, and favors the elimination of the latter. Singer’s argument sorts people into two categories, “normal” and “abnormal”, and declares the ostensibly abnormal ones fair game at birth. He doesn’t even bother to try to provide “objective” grounds on which to classify some human physical or mental conditions as “defective” (a term he used in earlier editions of Practical Ethics) and contrast them with “healthy” ones. Instead he simply welcomes whatever arbitrary social norms happen to prevail, thus turning his argument into a vehicle for prejudice. But of course there is no perfect, flawless version of the human form against which putatively “inferior” specimens could be measured.

Singer’s stance is understandably distressing to those disabled adults who think they’re quite capable of leading full human lives even if they don’t fulfill some mythical and arbitrary definition of perfect humanness. In Germany his public pronouncements have generated vigorous opposition, much of it galvanized by disability rights activists as well as radical political ecologists around the group “Ecological Left”. In North America, however, Singer’s eugenicist views have been commended by some on the left, especially as the controversy surrounding his Princeton appointment has lead to predictable condemnations of Singer by the traditional “right to life” right. Singer’s arguments have resurrected the troubling tradition of “progressive” support for eugenic programs, the tradition of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger and many others who should have known better. This tradition is an attempt to erase the fundamental contingency of sexual reproduction and to create an “improved”, “healthy” race, cleansed of deficiencies and deformities.

Those of us who believe that people can’t be divided into “fit” and “unfit” categories reject Singer’s pernicious logic. We resist the re-emergence of eugenicist thinking in a “progressive” guise. We insist that any ethical system which condones such invidious distinctions among people is morally bankrupt and has no place on the left. In the era of The Bell Curve, resurgent sociobiology, and modernized Social Darwinism, we cannot afford to be complacent on this question.

9 Replies to “Peter Singer and Eugenics”

  1. Would Peter Singer be world-renowned or appointed to Princeton if he did not maintain these types of opinions? Of course not. In a field that is held as socially-obscure as Ethics, the only way to gain notoriety and status (and sell lots of books) is to maintain the controversial view. Unfortunately it means a huge backwards step for those of us advocating for those that cannot defend themselves.

  2. Very good piece. Thanks for orienting me to the horror that is Peter Singer’s philosophy. My only caveat: is “eugenics” really the right word for his views? Hasn’t eugenics historically justified itself in terms of allegedly improving the human breed, rather than in terms of reallocating resources in the here-and-now? Singer does not — at least as quoted here — seem to base his infanticidal views on a doctrine of racial genetic improvement. That would be what I call a “eugenic” view. Or does he also indeed claim that there is a need to improve or preserve the breeding stock? I’m not clear on this question, from your otherwise excellent piece. Can you clarify? Would it be more accurate to call Singer an infanticidist, rather than a eugenicist? (If you post a response, could you also e-mail it to me? It’s hard to go about checking these comment strings for replies — one loses track. Thank you very much. — Larry – lnpgilman{at} , blogging on religion and science at )

  3. Hi Larry,

    I apologize for replying to your comment over a year later; I wasn’t aware that there were any responses to my article at the ISE website, and was only informed of them today. You asked an excellent question, and I think I may have only a mediocre answer to offer at the moment. Historically speaking, eugenics has traditionally justified itself both in terms of allegedly improving the human breed, and in terms of reallocating resources in the here-and-now; both sides of the equation were important to promoters of eugenics in earlier eras. It is certainly true that Singer does not base his infanticidal views on a doctrine of racial genetic improvement, but eugenics as such has never been a necessarily racial endeavor, though several of its more notorious versions have been explicitly racialized. In my view, it could be accurate to call Singer an infanticidist, but leaving it at that would miss the eugenicist justification he provides for his stance. There are any number of possible reasons for supporting infanticide, and only some of them are of a eugenic character. If I advocated killing infants based on birth weight or astrological sign or day of the week on which they were born, for example, these would not be eugenicist positions, since they are not centered on hereditary factors.

    I wrote the article more than ten years ago, and there has been a proliferation of good literature on the topic since then, from defenders as well as critics of Singer’s arguments. Most significantly, Singer himself published his booklet “A Darwinian Left” shortly after I wrote the article; the text amounts to a succinct compendium of virtually everything I think is wrong with contemporary left thinking on biological, ecological, and evolutionary questions (my article itself grew out of a series of replies to left supporters of sociobiology). Thankfully, there are also a variety of detailed left critiques of such approaches, though I naturally have various disagreements with some of their arguments. Three noteworthy titles are Nancy Ordover, American Eugenics: Race, Queer Anatomy, and the Science of Nationalism (University of Minnesota Press, 2003); Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (University of California Press, 2005); and David Stack, The First Darwinian Left: Socialism and Darwinism 1859-1914 (New Clarion Press, 2003); see the last work in particular for both excellent history and incisive passages on Singer. Aside from those, I highly recommend the discussion of eugenics in Peter Bowler, Evolution: The History of an Idea (University of California Press, 2003), as well as the classic study by Daniel Kevles, In the Name of Eugenics: Genetics and the Uses of Human Heredity (Harvard University Press, 1995).

    One ongoing difficulty with such discussions is a widespread historical naïveté regarding eugenics; many people instinctively associate eugenics primarily with Nazism, and some appear to believe that the Nazi invented eugenics. In reality, many of the most prominent supporters of eugenics before 1933 (and after), in Germany, North America, and elsewhere, were progressives, socialists, and radicals of various stripes; a lot of leftists today have yet to come to terms with this aspect of our own history and thus misunderstand what is at stake in contemporary debates on related topics. I think this is especially true in ecological politics (keep in mind Singer’s own background in the Australian Greens), where figures like Garret Hardin continue to be celebrated, oblivious to the political contexts and connotations of his views. In addition to the book by David Stack I cited above, a useful source for historical background on this complex of themes is the research of Diane Paul; my own perspective is very different from hers, but her work is important for setting current debates into context. See for example Diane Paul, Controlling Human Heredity: 1865 to the Present (Humanities Press, 1995); Diane Paul, The Politics of Heredity: Essays on Eugenics, Biomedicine, and the Nature-Nurture Debate (State University of New York Press, 1998); and her essay “Darwin, Social Darwinism, and Eugenics” in the Cambridge Companion to Darwin (Cambridge University Press, 2009). Of particular interest is Diane Paul, “Eugenics and the Left” Journal of the History of Ideas 45 (1984), 567-90, reprinted in The Politics of Heredity.

    For a more recent statement from Singer himself, see here:–.htm

    And for a full-length argument from a champion of Singer’s views see Nicholas Agar, Liberal Eugenics: In Defence of Human Enhancement (Blackwell, 2004). Note that Agar himself unabashedly uses the term “eugenics” to characterize the position I reject. I think that similarly eugenicist beliefs are a good deal more widespread among progressively minded people today than is usually recognized, and in that sense Singer is simply making explicit what a lot of others are more reluctant to express openly. In my judgement, this means that we need much more discussion and debate of the underlying ethical, historical, and political issues.

    Peter Staudenmaier

  4. Hello Peter,

    after having just read “Rethinking Life and Death” I was looking for some different views and found your article (at the new compass, but that doesn’t have comments). I think it is one of the better criticisms of Singer (he tends to draw a lot of shouting from people who have not even read him, I guess).
    Also I appreciate your reply here and the reading-suggestions it contains which I will try to seek out.

    But I think that one step might be missing from your critique. (Everything I write now should be prefixed by something like “I think it is true that”, because it is of course only my current opinion.)
    You say:

    “Why, then, does Singer argue that infants born with this condition can justly be killed? Because they are “abnormal” and do not have “good prospects” (Rethinking p. 214).”

    The way I understood him he argues that any infant can justly be killed for any valid reason, because the newborn infant “is clearly not a person in the ethically relevant sense” (p.217). If one does not accept Singers argument, that the infant has no claim to a right to life in general, then of course killing it for the reasons you name is not justified. But if one does, then any parental preference (that has any merit in itself) would suffice to allow the infant to be killed. The severe (or not so severe!) disabilities are then merely the reason (or explanation) for the preference that the parents have and Singer uses them to show that the actual common practice, if not the theory, agrees with his claim that infants are not persons with a right to life.

    To say that Singer “declares the ostensibly abnormal ones fair game at birth” seems to be like saying that he sometimes advocates the killing of female infants. He sure does, but the reason why the female infants may be killed is not that they are female, but because they are not persons, as it applies to all infants. Of course the parents then usually select against the “abnormal” ones, or, in China, against the girls.

    So, while it is true that Singers ethic allows for eugenic considerations by establishing that the young infant has no right to life at all I think it should be noted that, in his view, that really applies to all infants. He would probably not object to killing a genetically “perfect” infant for the sole reason that its parents just don’t love it and don’t want it. I think this should be included in a discussion about Singers view on infanticide.

    Maybe he explains that in more depth in his other books, which I have not read. And I might have not understood him completely because my view is one of philanthropic antinatalism which makes it hard to follow some of his arguments. For example I reject his “replacement”-theory, because the quality of life of the genetically “superior” replacement-child is also not good enough to justify creating it IMHO. So, much of what Singer says makes no sense for me personally.

    Oh, it also seems worth noting that Singer himself doesn’t claim that his proposed ethic is flawless or finished, but rather that it is better and more coherent than the prevalent sanctity-of-life-ethic. It would be interesting, though maybe not logically necessary, to say, what alternatives one prefers when rejecting Singers ideas. The questions he raises, and that make him predict the “collapse of our traditional ethics”, are not answered simply by saying that Singers position “is morally bankrupt”, so to speak. Rejecting Singers answers just leaves his questions without an answer again.

    Let me close by saying that I mean no disrespect by criticising your article and if it sounds like I do that is probably due to my imperfect mastery of the english language 🙂

    All the best,

  5. Hi Rob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I agree that Singer’s underlying claim is that infants have no claim to a right to life in general, regardless of any particular putative traits they may display. My argument addresses his own chosen examples of infants with various conditions and ‘disabilities’; I do not substantively address the prior principle that infanticide as such is morally unobjectionable, because I consider it irrelevant to the specific argument at issue. Let’s stipulate that Singer’s basic premise enabling infanticide is ethically sound; its application in specific instances of ostensible disability would still raise the very same questions about eugenicist justifications for choosing which infants live and which die. It is those particular justifications which are my central concern in the article. Best,

    Peter Staudenmaier

  6. Everyone has “defects” or shortcomings and this would apply to Singer himself as a dangerous, narcissistic, eugenicist with a bit of a God complex.
    It has to be remembered that the first victims of the holocaust were not the jews but the disabled and those deemed to be unfit members of the master race. From this base they were able to also target along with jews, homosexuals, gypsies, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists, socialists, etc.
    When you make an argument that society benefits by the removal of a segement of society and that removal is acomplished by institutionalised killing you also swing wide the door in a way that may have impacts that are unpredictable and truely abhorent.
    Is it right to kill say a baby that is blind but not a murderer or a convicted criminal that is arguably just as big a drain on society?
    You go then to old people, the poor, the tired, the huddled masses…possibly philosophers…

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