Advocates for people with disabilities do not care for utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. This is because Singer has publicly justified killing disabled newborn infants because of their disabilities. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer weighed the moral justifications for taking the lives of disabled babies. He concluded that in severe cases, such as for children with spina bifida, it might well be morally wrong not to take a baby’s life. For less serious conditions, such as hemophilia, Singer concluded that the decision as to whether or not to kill the infant should depend on whether it would make the parents happy, and whether they intended to “replace” the child with another, non-disabled one:
“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.”
Singer’s early statements on euthanizing the disabled led to protests of his talks during the 1990s, and caused controversy when he was appointed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In the years since, Singer has done little to repair his reputation among advocates for the disabled, having repeatedly given interviews containing controversial statements about the moral justifications for infanticide. And he has only dug a deeper hole by stating that he wouldn’t be willing to raise a child with Down’s Syndrome because it wouldn’t make him happy (“For me, the knowledge that my [hypothetical Down Syndrome] child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal… would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop), as well as by posing queries like the following:
“Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being?”
This kind of stuff (repeated again and again) has led some disabled people to get the not unreasonable impression that Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most prominent ethicist, would prefer it if they died. (And unfortunately, Singer’s hideous remarks have undermined the creditable efforts he has made to get people to care more about the suffering of children around the world. For a utilitarian, Singer does not seem to think much about the utility of sabotaging his credibility as an ethicist in order to make callous and inflammatory comments about disabled people.)
One might therefore have thought that Singer could not possibly alienate disabled people any further, or make himself sound like any more of a monster.
But one would be wrong. For now, Singer has co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times in which he appears to defend the morality of raping disabled people.
The actual argument Singer makes in his Times article is jaw-droppingly repulsive. But, first, it’s necessary to understand the incident he’s commenting on. At issue is the case of Anna Stubblefield, a Rutgers University philosophy professor convicted of sexually assaulting her mentally disabled pupil, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The case is, to say the least, extremely unusual. The student, D.J., was a severely impaired 30 year old man with cerebal palsy, who had never spoken a word in his life and communicated through “screams” and “chirps.” Stubblefield acted as his personal tutor, using a discredited pseudoscientific technique to elicit what she insisted were complex communications from D.J. Eventually, based on what she believed D.J. wanted, Stubblefield began engaging in sex acts with him, having become romantically attracted to him over the course of her time assisting him.
D.J.’s family were horrified to discover that Stubblefield, who had supposedly been helping D.J. produce highly intelligent messages demonstrating his complex inner feelings, was in fact committing what they regarded as abuse. Stubblefield insisted that D.J.’s disabilities were only physical, that he was mentally bright and simply needed a means of expressing himself. D.J.’s family believed his mental deficiencies were as extreme as his physical ones, and that believing he could consent to a sexual relationship was like believing a child could consent to one. On the family’s complaint, Stubblefield was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced.
Here’s where we get back to Peter Singer. Singer, along with University of Oxford professor Jeff McMahan, argues that Stubblefield’s sentence was grossly unjust, for several reasons. The judge in the case did not permit Stubblefield to present evidence that D.J.’s cognitive capacities were high enough for him to communicate and consent. The case was filled with assumptions that D.J. was a helpless victim, rather than actual proof that he was. If, as Stubblefield claimed, his abilities were being underestimated, and this could be proven using a (non-discredited) technique, then he could be asked about whether he consented to the sexual relationship. Instead, because of his inability to speak, D.J. was presumed to be voiceless.
This is a perfectly reasonable argument. In fact, as Singer and McMahan note, it’s one made by advocates for the disabled, whose position on the Stubblefield case has not necessarily been what one might intuitively expect. While the disability community is obviously concerned with protecting disabled people from being sexually assaulted, they are also wary of arguments that diminish the agency of the disabled themselves, by portraying them as necessarily childlike and incapable of reasoning or making choices. Some have argued that the prosecution actually demeaned D.J., granting him less personhood than Stubblefield did.
If Singer had stuck to the argument that Stubblefield should have been allowed to present more evidence, and that D.J.’s wishes should have been given more respect, he might actually have earned himself back some favor in the disability community. Not much favor. But perhaps a shred.
Instead, he decided to give another defense of Stubblefield, and in doing so offer one of his most outrageous arguments yet: it might actually not be bad to rape cognitively impaired people. As Singer and McMahan write:
If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether. This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist.
Consider carefully what is being said here. Here, Singer and McMahan are assuming D.J. is severely impaired. But, they say, that means he is too intellectually inhibited to understand the notion of consent. And because he doesn’t understand consent, he can’t withhold it. And because he didn’t fight back, it’s reasonable to assume he was having a good time, making it unclear why it would be harmful to perform a non-consensual sex act on him.
Again, let’s be clear on what they are saying: if someone is intellectually disabled enough, then it might be okay to rape them, so long as they don’t resist, since a lack of physical struggle justifies an assumption that someone is enjoying being raped. (Singer is also offering a variation on his own prior arguments in favor of bestiality, which work because Singer believes disabled people and animals are the same for purposes of ethical analysis.) Note that his reasoning would also justify sexually molesting infants, who are likewise incapable of understanding the notion of consent.
The New York Times therefore just published a philosophical defense of raping disabled people, and Peter Singer has—somehow—reached a new low on disability issues. (Actually, to be precise, an argument that it’s not clear what the harm is in raping disabled people, along with the implication that non-consensual sex acts against physically and mentally incapacitated people aren’t actually rape anyway if the victims do not know what consent is.)
Singer’s casual rationalization of sexual abuse actually offers a useful illustration of why nobody should subscribe to utilitarian philosophy to begin with. Utilitarians are meticulous and Spock-like in their deductions from premises, but their impeccable logic inevitably leads toward utterly horrifying or bizarre conclusions that totally conflict with people’s most basic shared moral values. Utilitarian reasoning can lead you to believe that there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad,” only “better” and “worse” (which means that genocide isn’t inherently bad, and in fact could be fine if it’s the least-worst available option in a certain set of circumstances). It can lead you to believe that it’s less morally justifiable for a couple to remain childless than it it is to murder an elderly homeless person in their sleep (because failing to create a potential happy long life is worse than taking someone’s unhappy short remaining life). It can, as Freddie deBoer has pointed out, lead you to believe that in the Jim Crow South, you should frame an innocent black man for a crime, knowing he will be lynched, if doing so would calm the resentments of the white community and thereby avoid having them perpetrate a wave of far more brutal violence. It can also lead you to be an apologist for sweatshops and factory collapses. Due to the nature of their premises, utilitarians constantly end up endorsing the moral necessity of an endless number of inhumane acts. It’s a terrible philosophy that leads to brutal and perverse conclusions, and at its worst, it turns you into Peter Singer.
I suppose that, at this point, nobody can be surprised at Singer, though it really was somewhat unfortunate that he chose to follow up an argument for granting disabled people their agency with an argument for why sexually abusing them doesn’t cause harm. But he’s made it clear over his career that he doesn’t care about the consequences of dehumanizing people. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that the New York Times either didn’t notice what was being argued, or felt that the argument made a legitimate contribution to debates about consent and disability. Either way, the continued presence of Peter Singer in national dialogue about disability shows just how far we have to go before people like D.J. will actually be granted their full humanity, by prosecutors and philosophers alike.