...Not the kind of wheel you fall asleep at...

The Sanctity of Life

Last night, the beautiful Ms. Mo and I went to see Peter Singer speak, thanks to The Vegetarian Advocates and their diligent emails about upcoming events. For those of you unfamiliar with the man, he is the author of the widely-influential book Animal Liberation* and is considered one of the most controversial philosophers of our time, enough so that he had police supervision when he presented last night because inevitably there are surly members of the audience and protesters. One may very completely disagree with him, but it is hard to deny that he is a brilliant and lucid man, especially after hearing him speak.

I was unsure of whether or not his talk would focus on the issue of animal rights (of which he is clearly a huge proponent), given that the topic was "Our Changing Ethics of Life and Death." Much to my pleasure, it did, but in a wonderfully round-about and slyly pointed kind of way.

The nature of his talk revolved around the notion of "the sanctity of life" and how this notion is frequently used to defend many moral issues today (particulary, in his talk, euthanasia and the debates around brain death, life support, and patients in a persistent vegetative state). He was impressively coherent and organized in his thoughts as he took on these various different topics and then wove them all back together in an attempt to demonstrate a) the far-reaching implications of the notion of "the sanctity of life" and b) the inconsistencies inherent within this notion--how its most hard-core proponents conveniently overlook and fail to take into account the various other stances that this notion of "the sanctity of life" requires them to take, specifically in terms of animal rights issues and foreign policy/funding issues. He discussed how we treat the notion as a view specific to humans only, but how our logic surrounding it compels us to take animals into account as well (if "personhood" is the most important concept in arguing for the "sanctity of human life," and personhood is defined by consciousness which is in turn defined by sentience, then animals fall into this category as well and need to be given moral consideration in order to consistently uphold this notion of "the sanctity of life").

(Please excuse my vagueness in discussing some aspects of his speech, but I fear that I might misrepresent him as he discussed a LOT of stuff last night and I am not quite so adept at making all the connections with the ease that he does.)

Essentially his point was that the notion of "the sanctity of life" is an untenable one where it stands now in its most flimsiest of forms (as an entity that is founded on inconsistencies and which is poked full of holes) and that our actions in this time in history are continuing to add a weight to it that it will not be able to sustain and which will inevitably lead to its collapse...

He is a brilliant fellow. I don't necessarily agree with him on everything (especially since I have qualms about the whole utilitarian notion--I think it is a logical viewpoint and a good one, but only up to a point), but I recommend going to see him if you ever have the opportunity as he is a *powerful* speaker. Until then, I provide you with a vast wealth of links so that you can read him instead.

"When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die." (from Foreign Policy)

*Offers a utilitarian argument for why it is that we should not exploit animals for food:

He argues not about the wrongness of killing but about the wrongness of inflicting pain and suffering on beings when the pain and suffering could easily be avoided by a change in our actions...

"If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that its suffering be counted equally with the like suffering - in so far as rough comparisons can be made - of any other being. If a being is not capable of suffering, or of experiencing enjoyment or happiness, there is nothing to be taken into account. So the limit of sentience (using the term as a convenient if not strictly accurate shorthand for the capacity to suffer and/or experience enjoyment) is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some other characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary manner. Why not choose some other characteristic, like skin color?

The racist violates the principle of equality by giving greater weight to the interests of members of his own race when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of another race The sexist violates the principle of equality by favoring the interests of his own sex. Similarly the speciesist allows the interests of his own species to over ride the greater interests of members of other species. The pattern is identical in each case.

The people who profit by exploiting large numbers of animals do not need our approval. They need our money. The purchase of the corpses of the animals they rear is the only support the factory farmers ask from the public. They will use intensive methods as long as they continue to receive this support; they will have the resources needed to fight reform politically; and they will be able to defend thcmselvcs against criticism with the reply that they are only providing the public with what it wants

Hence the need for each one of us to stop buying the produce of modern animal farming - even if we are not convinced that it would be wrong to eat animals that have lived pleasantly and died painlessly. Vegetarianism is a form of boycott. For most vegetarians the boycott is a permanent one, since once they have broken away from flesh-eating habits they can no longer approve of slaughtering animals in order to satisfy the trivial desires of their palates. But the moral obligation to boycott the meat available in butcher shops and supermarkets is just as inescapable for those who disapprove only of inflicting suffering, and not of killing. In recent years Americans have boycotted lettuce and grapes because the system under which those particular lettuces and grapes had been produced exploited farm laborers, not because lettuce and grapes can never be produced without exploitation. The same line of reasoning leads to boycotting meat. Until we boycott meat we are, each one of us, contributing to the continued existence, prosperity, and growth of factory farming and all the other cruel practices used in rearing animals for food.

"The question is not, can they reason? nor,
can they talk? but, can they suffer?"
Jeremy Bentham"

(Read more


Is Our Changing Definition of Death for the Better?

The Sanctity of Life

A brief FAQ detailing his more major philosophical concerns.)



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