Bioethics News

Peter Singer under fire, again

In an edition of the Journal of Applied Philosophy released this week, several academics discussed Peter Singer’s influential theory of “speciesism” – the view that human beings are inherently prejudiced toward their own species over others.

The target article of the discussion, the transcript of a lecture given by Yale philosopher Shelly Kagan, offers what Kagan says is a refutation of Singer’s notion of speciesism. Kagan, both an ethicist and metaphysician, considers in particular the moral ontology underpinning Singer’s theory, and argues that Singer provides insufficient evidence to show that sentience is the morally relevant property that one should consider when evaluating the importance of different species’ interests.

“…when a speciesist claims that it is more important to avoid human pain than it is to avoid animal pain — even pains of equal duration and intensity — Singer insists that this is mere prejudice: ‘pain is pain’ he tells us (Animal Liberation, p. 20). But what is the argument for this last step?…”

“…I do think we have to recognize that one would be hard pressed to think of anything other than intuition to support the claim that the line between sentience and nonsentience is a morally significant one…”

Kagan argues for a form of what he calls modal personalism – the view that what makes an entity morally more important is the modal property of “potential personhood” (i.e. the ability to become a person).

In a reply to Kagan, George Washington University bioethicist David De Grazia challenges the claim that potential personhood is grounds for giving moral status to an entity.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.