Following his human rights debate on The Big Conversation, Esther O’Reilly says even fellow atheists baulk at the implications of Singer’s philosophy
“The chimpanzee and the human share about 99.5% of their evolutionary history, yet most human thinkers regard the chimp as a malformed, irrelevant oddity while seeing themselves as stepping-stones to the Almighty. To the evolutionist this cannot be so. There exists no objective basis on which to elevate one species over another.”
So writes eminent evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers, in the first sentences of his foreward to Richard Dawkins’ classic The Selfish Gene. Normally, one would not expect a work of science to name-check God on page one. Yet there He is: the Almighty Himself.
It is, admittedly, a cameo appearance. But it’s a memorable one. You might say it’s His last bow. Trivers invites us to take a good last look, at which point the Almighty is unceremoniously escorted off the stage. Only then can the real play begin.
Created From Animals
Since Robert Ryder first coined the term “speciesism” in 1970, perhaps no philosopher has done more to popularize it than Peter Singer. Indeed, “speciesist” is his frequent insult of choice. Not even secular humanists are immune, as viewers discovered when Justin Brierley asked Singer to comment on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in his recent debate with Andy Bannister. It’s all right for ordinary people, he supposes, but if we’re going to be philosophers here, this business of saying “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” doesn’t cut the philosophical mustard. In fact, it’s rather bigoted when we get right down to it.
Take an anencephalic infant, for extreme example: born without most of its brain, unconscious from birth. On what grounds do we assign this inert human organism that nebulous thing called “dignity,” while withholding the same from a chimp, a dolphin, or a horse? (Pick your favorite mammal, I’m partial to horses myself.) Evolutionarily speaking, where is the logic in this choice?
Singer’s answer: There is none. Human exceptionalism is a vestige of Christian dogma that has long overstayed its welcome. As animal rights philosopher James Rachels put it, it’s “the moral effluvium of a discredited metaphysics.” The title of Rachels’ book is taken from Charles Darwin’s notebook, where he writes that ''Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy the interposition of a deity. More humble and I believe true to consider him created from animals.''
Singer makes a similar critique of Humanist Manifesto III in his 2004 article “Taking Humanism Beyond Speciesism,” explaining why he wouldn’t sign that document when asked. The man is nothing if not consistent. Nevertheless, he is right to point out the cognitive dissonance baked into the Manifesto itself, as it asserts that human welfare and dignity ground our values while also asserting that man, like all other animals, is the product of unguided chance. We all “know” that the origins of man qua species are not special, hence any explicitly speciesist case for human exceptionalism is doomed from the beginning.
It’s a logical argument. Further, it’s an argument against which theistic evolutionists who take for granted the common descent of homo sapiens with our ape cousins fare little better than secular humanists. Even if they maintain that God “ensouled” members of homo sapiens with uniquely human minds and spirits at some point in time, they have admitted that there was some point in time when physically human beings walked the earth as merely one more brute primate among brute primates.
Of course, Singer would have us know he is greatly concerned about the fate of primates as well. But as G. K. Chesterton once noted, where animals are worshipped, humans tend to be sacrificed. And indeed, within a framework of moral individualism, some animals must logically be elevated above some humans. As Robert Wright notes in his review of Rachels’ Created From Animals, when once we have removed the “solid moral barrier” between man and animal, logically we must “either grant absolute rights to all sentient beings, or grant them to none.” Peter Singer is only too happy to bite the bullet.
Not all atheists like the taste. The late great Christopher Hitchens was something less than thrilled with Singer's logic. In debate with John Lennox, a thought experiment comes up where Singer compared his daughter with his pet rat. Hitchens remarks that he had two thoughts when he read this: First, that he wouldn’t want to be Singer’s daughter, and second, that he wouldn’t much like to be his pet rat either. For once, Christopher Hitchens and I are in agreement.
The Measure of Man
In Singer’s view, it is not human nature that confers value on the human person. Rather, the qualities of “personhood”—self-awareness, rationality, etc.—constitute that value. But absent the qualities of “personhood,” what are we left with? We are left with a purely material organism, a disposable accident of carbon and water.
It is, of course, the height of irony that materialists scoff at the notion of an immaterial soul, yet build their entire system of ethics around an immaterial repository of value. But let us play along, for the moment: When, precisely, does this piece of human tissue graduate to being a “person?” Singer may begin with the anencephalic infant for shock value, but anyone passingly familiar with his work knows he does not end there. When once we make our capacity for navel-gazing the standard of personhood, even a perfectly healthy three-year-old becomes “a gray area.”
There is also the question of when this privileged status can be lost. Singer places great importance on consciousness. Yet doubtless he would prefer to be considered a “person” even under deep anesthesia. What, then, of the injured, comatose individual? Is her case different? If so, how?
Consider Terri Schiavo, the woman who suffered cardiac arrest at age 26 and remained in a comatose state for the rest of her life. Her husband insisted that she be withdrawn from basic care, ostensibly according to her own wishes. After years spent fighting her family in grueling court battles, he had his way, and her food and water were removed. Police were stationed in her room for the duration of her roughly two-week dying process, to make sure nobody slipped through with so much as an ice chip for her tongue. (Thankfully, Wikipedia assures us, “studies have shown” that comatose patients who are deprived of food and water “usually have a peaceful death.”)
We ask, who or what was Terri Schiavo? Was she a person or not?
This is the moment when we are whisked from the Ivory Tower to the clinic and the hospice. The moment when we remember that ideas have consequences. To quote Douglas Murray, a rare honest secular humanist, “Many people believe man is sacred in God’s eyes. But our societies are trying to work out under what circumstances, at what age and for how long they are sacred in the eyes of man.”
I raised Terri’s case in my Unbelievable radio debate with secular humanist chaplain James Croft, which began as a discussion about Jordan Peterson but became a discussion about nearly everything else. Around an hour in, the conversation took a turn to humanism and human value. James affirms the same tenets of personhood theory that Peter Singer does. Self-awareness, capacity for reason, capacity for speech, etc., are the things which, in James’ words, “constitute the value of the human person.”
Having thus divorced humanity from personhood, Croft concludes that abortion and euthanasia do not necessarily end a person’s life, and hence are acceptable ways of ending a human’s life. Like Singer, he makes the comparison to euthanizing a beloved pet, whom the law rightly does not grant the same legal status as a human person.
But again, I asked James the question: Where does one draw the line? Terri Schiavo could not speak, move, or reason abstractly so far as brain scans could tell, though according to eyewitness reportage she made responsive signals to her family. Perhaps, then, we will conclude that she was not a full person, but maybe some fraction of a person. Three-fifths of a person, let us say? (Not all non-American readers will immediately catch the reference, but James certainly did.)
Either our exceptional properties constitute our value, or they evidence it. I propose the latter. There is a reason why we do not think it tragic that a tree cannot talk, yet our hearts stop when human lips struggle to form words that will not come. There is a reason why we grieve. There is a reason why we handle with care, with reverence, with awe.
There is a reason why we do not deem Charlie Gordon to be worth less than Algernon when Algernon beats him to the end of the maze, even if Algernon is a very special mouse.
There is a reason why killers dehumanize first, and kill second.
The Honest Humanist
Our conversation reached Terri Schiavo by way of the aforementioned Douglas Murray, who has made right-to-die legislation a years-long research focus—less known than his critically acclaimed work on immigration, but for him no less serious. This research is driven by his self-described “obsession” with the problem of grounding human sanctity in a post-Christian landscape.
Writing for The Spectator in 2014, Murray asks in so many words, “Would Human Life Be Sacred in an Atheist World?” He opens with a grisly ethical thought experiment come to life: the leaked news that NHS trusts had used dead fetuses for fuel. Why do even the non-religious recoil at this, he asks? After all, one could make a “perfectly good utilitarian argument” for the practice.
Peter Singer’s Big Conversation rival, Andy Bannister, used a similar intuition pump when he proposed that we could all agree there was something not quite right about frying up the anencephalic infant’s dead body in pieces on the barbecue. Behind that kind of instinct, both Murray and Bannister argue, is the inescapably Judeo-Christian foundation for the dignity of human souls and bodies. Like it or not, as Murray puts it, we are all “downstream from faith.”
In an excerpt from his 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe, Murray eloquently describes the dissonance between the Darwinian story of human origins and our innate instincts about human dignity. We know that our human nature makes us “something more” than mere primates, though we couldn’t say what that “something” is. Yet we sense, intuitively, that Darwin will not do to explain it.
Like it or not, as Murray puts it, we are all “downstream from faith"
Still, Murray runs in the same circles and attends the same dinner parties as Dawkins and the other New Atheists. Like every “intelligent person” in his world, he still renounces creationism and all its works. But when Dawkins cheerfully announces that Darwin has solved the mystery of our existence, something deep inside of him protests: “[T]he fact is that we do not feel solved. We do not live our lives and experience our existence as solved beings.”
At the Edge of the Cliff
Murray does not only speak for himself. He speaks for everyone who feels this dissonance, this unbearable tension between what is taught and untaught, between the knowledge we are handed and the knowledge that is written on our hearts.
We are not special, this we know, for our high-school textbooks and university professors told us so.
We believe in one LUCA, the accidental ancestor almighty, progenitor of bacteria and baboons and babies and horses and jellyfish, and of all organisms visible and invisible.
We believe, without a doubt, for doubting is sin.
And still, we doubt.
In his book Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis remembers the unpleasant schoolboy experience of working at a math problem, only to realize one has made a mistake. At that point, there is nothing for it but to go back and find the point where you went wrong. To go forward is impossible. As a doctoral math student who has fluffed more than my share of problems, I can attest that Lewis is right.
At the end of his Spectator article, Douglas Murray envisions the West teetering on a cliff’s edge, peering queasily into the abyss below. Our head is swimming, our mind reeling with the awful truth, the awful doubt, the voice insisting, “We have to go back. We have to go back. We’ve made a terrible mistake.”
We have reached the edge of the cliff. We have looked into the abyss. We have looked, and we have found Peter Singer waiting for us.
It is time to turn around. It is time to go back.
Watch Peter Singer and Andy Bannister debate ‘Do we need God to be good?’ at thebigconversation.show
This blog was originally published on Premier Christianity by Esther O'Reilly