Is human life sacred?
No, according to Peter Singer, an Australian-born professor of bioethics at Princeton University. Singer's thought is worth taking seriously, since his ideas represent an increasingly acceptable way of thinking about ethical issues in our modern Western societies.
Let's begin by considering some of Singer's key premises.
First, he denies that there are important distinctions between animals and humans. To think that a human life is intrinsically more valuable than an animal's is simply speciesism, a form of racism.
Secondly, Singer argues that we must distinguish between humans in a biological sense (i.e., members of the species Homo sapiens) and humans who are persons (i.e., humans who are rational and self-conscious).
By that definition, higher functioning animals (such as chimpanzees or apes) are persons because they can learn sign language and show some level of self-awareness, but infants and severely mentally disabled humans are not. The life of an adult chimpanzee, therefore, is intrinsically more valuable than the life of an infant.
Singer then draws practical conclusions from his premises. He finds, for example, that the abortion of a fetus is ethically justifiable because the fetus is not a person. Singer thus concurs with the Roe v. Wade decision that defines a fetus before viability as only a potential person.
But using the same premises, Singer concludes that the killing of a newborn baby is equally justifiable, since the newborn is no more a person (defined as a rational and self-conscious being) than is a fetus. For example, if one is ethically allowed to abort a fetus with Down syndrome in order to prevent future suffering, then there is no logically sound reason to deny the right of infanticide to the parent of a newborn who has that same disability.
Singer's conclusions strike many people as horrifying.
Yet given his premises, he is only being logically consistent, whereas those favoring abortion rights and opposing the right to infanticide are inconsistent.
In fact we can see that it is only a matter of time before our culture follows Singer's logical implications. We are already seeing the trend in countries like the Netherlands, where infanticide in cases of infants born with diseases such as spina bifida is allowed.
But don't many people in our society still believe that every human life is sacred? Singer rightly points out that this still pervasive (but increasingly endangered) belief is in fact based on Christian beliefs in the transcendent, eternal nature of the human made in God's image.
As our thinking on ethical issues becomes increasingly separated from its Judeo-Christian foundation, we may well find ourselves traveling down the road marked out by thinkers such as Singer.
Singer's view of ethics is a practical, functional one. Any life is valuable only insofar as it increases pleasure or avoids pain. The Christian view, in contrast, is that every human life is worthwhile in itself, simply because it is a human life. It thus rejects Singer's distinction between Homo sapiens and persons: All humans are persons made in God's image.
We live in a world of competing ideas regarding human worth, and each of us must decide which ideas we accept. Ideas are theoretical, but they have very real consequences.
Martin Albl teaches religious studies at Presentation College. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.