Peter Singer, utilitarianism and the problem with after-birth abortion

Peter Singer has long been known as a leading philosopher advocating utilitarianism. Here, Sally Phillips speaks with Frank Skinner about a documentary in which Singer features. Specifically, his views on the disabled are under scrutiny (Phillips has a downs syndrome son and has been a vociferous campaigner for disability rights).

She notes that Singer believes there is no moral difference between an embryo and a child at the age of three. He argues that nobody has the right to life and, if we can terminate children in the womb, to end the life of a three year old who does not have sufficient self-awareness is perfectly acceptable. In fact, Singer deems those without adequate self-awareness as non-persons who are of less value and worth than animals with, in his view, a great self-awareness. Sadly, none of this is especially new (see here).

Let me start with where Singer is absolutely correct (around 3:10 on the video). He is quite right that the sanctity of life is a religious idea that has ‘no defensibility outside of religious views’. On the Atheistic/Agnostic/Humanist views, there really is no reason why anyone ought to be able to live or otherwise. One person’s views, opinions and principles are just as valid as another’s. There is nothing to ground our morality – it is, at best, cultural but, more likely, simply subjective. We may offer subjective reasons, or utilitarian principles (which are ultimately subjective – who is the arbiter of the greatest good?), but there is no ultimate reason why any view or belief is right or wrong, including the right to life.

The Judeo-Christian view uniquely offers the concept of the imago dei. The right to life is not a matter of God’s simply saying so, as in many other religious worldviews, it is a matter of God’s very design. He created human beings in his own image and thus imbues them with something that inherently distinguishes them from animals, whether severely disabled or not. The reason why those in the Judeo-Christian tradition can defend the sanctity of life is not simply because God says life is sacred (though he does and so it is). It is because every human being reflects something of God himself. God specifically links the seriousness of taking life to the concept of imago dei in Gen 9:6.

At the end of the discussion, both Phillips and Skinner agree that Singer’s ‘cold, calm logic’ is ‘hard to fault’. Certainly there is a logic to the view that says the termination of children in the womb is of little difference to the killing of children up to the age of three. There is an even straighter line from the ability to terminate disabled children in the womb up to birth  and the view that disabled children can be killed after birth (non-disabled children cannot be terminated after 28 weeks forcing us to draw the only conclusion possible, the disabled are not viewed equally or equally valued in the eyes of society). So there is a certain, almost consistent, logic here.

But here is where the logic begins to fail. If it is true that persons are determined by their self-awareness and their value determined by the greater good (leaving aside the thorny issue of who determines what ‘greater good’ actually is), then to limit termination to disabled people up to the age of 3 is entirely inconsistent. In this country we say the age of criminal responsibility is 10 (we are considered draconian by the rest of Europe). If that is true, then we have determined that those under the age of 10 lack the self-awareness to understand the implications of their moral decisions. So, to be consistent, Singer really ought to advocate the ability to kill anyone – disabled or otherwise – up to the age of 10.

However, consistency pushes us further. We have determined as a society that there are many aspects of life that are unsuitable for children. We have established that they lack the moral ability and self-awareness to able to handle all sorts of things. This means consistency really ought to permit the ability to kill anybody under the age of 18 as they are not fully self-aware. If they lack full self-awareness, and they are of limited value to wider society, should all under-18s not be bumped off unceremoniously too?

But things must surely go further. If value and self-awareness are the primary concerns, how self-aware and valuable must we be to avoid being deemed surplus to requirements and immediately snuffed out? Should the brash and gauche be killed for lacking full self-awareness? What about the intellectually inferior? Each group we remove en masse means we create a new bottom caste who immediately become the new ‘least valuable’ group. Before long, are we not left with only one person who is simultaneously both most and least valuable?

The reason why most people baulk at even the softer end of utilitarianism is because, as a society built on Judeo-Christian values, there are a whole range of values we take for granted as correct and consider self-evident (see Tom Holland on this very issue here). These were not formed in a vacuum but over centuries of Christianity as the dominant cultural force. The problem much of Western Europe now faces is, as a society that has broadly rejected the Judeo-Christian framework but wishes to uphold many of its values, what basis have they got upon which to enforce them?


  1. Think I read somewhere the euphemism 4th term abortion to describe this. Obviously too ashamed to call a spade a spade and say infanticide.

    1. Yes, it’s either fourth term abortion, after-birth abortion or postpartum termination. It all amounts to euphemism that seeks to dress up what s actually going on. Singer is absolutely right though, without a biblical underpinning for sanctity of life, there really is no great argument against his view.

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