February 3, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Friday, February 3, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
Should we live with contradiction? Peter Singer's immoral, incoherent worldview
Eric Kaplan is both writer and executive producer on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” He also holds an undergraduate degree in philosophy from Harvard College; presumably that’s at least in part why the New York Times ran an article by him on a deeply philosophical issue. The headline is this,
“Can We Live With Contradiction?”Show Full Transcript
Now that’s an interesting question, and it gets to the coherence of worldview and our faithfulness in worldview. Because one of our responsibilities as Christians is not only to recognize that we have a worldview and to seek to make certain that that worldview is based upon Christian truth, it’s also to make certain that our worldview is consistent with that truth. One of the tests of a worldview is whether or not it is consistently held. Do we think as Christians on issues that are economic and political as well as say military and relational? Our worldview requires us to be consistent across all issues. Now, given our human fallibility and the reality of sin, we’re going to find in others, and if were honest quite regularly in ourselves, contradictory modes of thinking, inconsistencies that we need to correct. But the point being made by Eric Kaplan is that sometimes perhaps we shouldn’t resolve the contradictions. Now if you think that’s a problem, I assure you it really is, and the way Kaplan makes his points actually affirms this very, very clearly. He writes,
“The philosopher Peter Singer was once attacked for contradicting himself. Singer advanced an ethical theory in which the most worthwhile thing was complex conscious life and feeling, and did not shy away from the logical consequence that the life of a severely mentally impaired human was worth less than that of a chicken. Journalists then discovered that Singer’s mother had Alzheimer’s and that he chose to spend his money taking care of her rather than helping chickens.”
A writer in The New Republic said that Singer is then a hypocrite and that was joined by other voices.
“The New Republic even ran a cover with a picture of an addled old woman,” says the writer. “with a walker and the headline ‘Other People’s Mothers.’”
Then Kaplan asked,
“So, how bad is contradicting yourself?”
He points to the fact that when people on the street are asked if it’s wrong to live with the contradiction, they will almost immediately say yes. But the point Kaplan is making is that many of us are jumbles of contradictions. Now here’s the problem from a Christian worldview. Kaplan’s absolutely right to understand that often we hold contradictory or inconsistent positions, but the Christian worldview reminds us that truth is paramount and so is our Christian responsibility as thinkers. That is to say, we’re not to live with the contradictions, we are to correct them. We are to seek to move towards an ever more mature and faithful Christian worldview in which we correct those inconsistencies that we find. But it’s the opening illustration in this article that’s actually far more important than the article itself when Kaplan points to Peter Singer.
I’ve often mentioned Peter Singer, who is now a professor of bioethics at Princeton University, because he is by any sane Christian estimation one of the most dangerous thinkers in the world today. You should’ve noted that already with the fact that Kaplan describes the fact that Singer holds to the idea that what is valuable is complex conscious life and feeling, and thus a human being who is no longer capable or perhaps was even never capable of what he defines as complex conscious life thus has a dignity and a sanctity of life that is less than that of a chicken. He makes that argument openly.
In other writings, Peter Singer has made very clear that there are some highly intelligent pigs that have a greater right to live than some as he defines it as less intelligent human beings, in particular, children who might have severe mental deficiencies. He argues that it would be more moral to save the life of the pig than the life of the child under that circumstance.
As you might expect, Peter Singer is celebrated as one of the founders of the modern animal rights movement and in an article that the New Yorker published back in 1999 by Michael Specter, it was revealed to many Americans who had previously not known of Peter Singer that he held to such radical ideas. The reason for the article back in 1999 was the fact that Princeton University had hired Singer as the first holder of its endowed chair in bioethics. Specter wrote about Singer,
“Singer has written with great severity on subjects ranging from what people should put on their dinner plates each night to how they should spend their money or assess the value of human life. He’s always relevant,” says Specter, “but what he has to say often seems outrageous.”
That’s an understatement. He goes on to say,
“Singer believes, for example, that a humans life is not necessarily more sacred than a dogs and that it might be more compassionate to carry out medical experiments on hopelessly disabled unconscious orphans than on perfectly healthy rats.”
Now perhaps now you understand why I say the illustration in Kaplan’s article is far more important and far more alarming than Kaplan’s article itself. What we’re looking at here is the outrage that someone like Peter Singer would teach in any university, much less holding a chair of bioethics at Princeton University. And of course, there is a deeper story here that has roots all the way back in the Fall but has a particular sinister root in the 20th century, and about that we will say more in just a moment.
The article back in 1999 in the New Yorker made very clear that Peter Singer was considered scandalous at the time because of the arguments he was making—not so scandalous, we should note, that Princeton University did not hire him. But scandalous still in the sense that even the liberal readers of the New Yorker would presumably not go so far as to suggest that it might be more moral to do medical experiments on mentally disabled orphans rather than on healthy rats.
Specter is also right back in 1999 when he pointed to the underlying worldview that produces a Peter Singer, that worldview is described as utilitarianism and that too has philosophical roots. Utilitarianism basically says that the moral choice that is right is the one that will lead to the greatest result for the greatest number of people. We should simply note that all kinds of horrifying things have been done throughout human history by the very people who said they were doing these things in the name of utilitarianism or a similar kind of argument. Those were the very kind of arguments used to supposedly justify the horrors of the Soviet Union and of the Third Reich in Germany. Let me now quote Peter Singer himself,
“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,” he writes, “if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others it would according to the total view be right to kill him.”
Now notice this language is written right out in candid English so that we can by no means misunderstand it. Peter Singer is arguing that there are human lives that simply aren’t worth living and therefore the right thing to do, according to his worldview, would be to kill those people to increase the happiness of those who would remain. The same worldview also leads Peter Singer to privilege animals over human life when in his judgment the animal experiences a greater happiness than the human being. He has argued for the morality not only of abortion, but also of infanticide, arguing that if the mother has not had time to develop a relationship with the child and if the child has not developed the capacity for relating in consciousness, including the sense of memory, then it is not actually murder to kill even a child, suggesting that that child could be as old as about two years old.
Thankfully the pushback to Peter Singer has often been very forceful and very clear. Diane Coleman, an activist for the disabled and the group “Not Dead Yet,” told the New Yorker that Singer “was a public advocate of genocide and the most dangerous man on earth.”
Now, if it sounds unusual to call a professor at an Ivy League university the most dangerous man on earth, just consider what we’re looking at here. This man has now taught for well over a decade at one of America’s most influential and powerful institutions of higher learning. He has had the opportunity to use that platform for the dissemination of this kind of ideology and worldview. And the other thing we need to note is that even though Peter Singer’s appointment in 1999 was quite controversial, the fact that he is there today has largely escaped all public notice. That’s what makes Eric Kaplan’s article in the New York Times so interesting when he uses Peter Singer as his opening illustration about the potential of intellectual contradiction. And he points to the fact that it’s actually quite real and was pointed out years ago that Peter Singer has violated his own worldview by paying for the medical care that kept his mother with Alzheimer’s alive. That’s only one of the many contradictions of Peter Singer’s worldview and actual life practice; another has to do with the use of his funds for other purposes. But the important thing here to note is that Peter Singer apparently is very glad to teach his students that other people’s mothers should be killed, but not his own.
"The writing is on the wall for people like me": Disabled British lawmaker decries selective abortion
Next along similar lines we shift from the United States and Princeton University to the House of Lords in the British Parliament. The Federalist reports that in a recent debate in the House of Lords, Lord Kevin Shinkwin “spoke out against a legal loophole that allows selective abortions based on disability in the United Kingdom.”
The article is by Bre Payton. Lord Shinkwin went on to say,
“I can see from the trends in abortion on grounds of disability that the writing is on the wall for people like me.”
Lord Shinkwin, we need to understand, is himself disabled. He went on to say,
“People with congenital disabilities are facing extinction. If we were animals, perhaps we might qualify for protection as an endangered species. But we are only human beings with disabilities, so we do not.”
Now the background to this is really, really important. British law on the issue of later term abortion allows those abortions right up until the moment of birth if the baby is defined and diagnosed as having disabilities or even the likelihood of that kind of disability. It is a search and destroy mission in the womb. As Lord Shinkwin makes very clear, the law does not allow for the abortion of a healthy infant at that point, but only for a disabled infant. And Lord Shinkwin is exactly right. This is effectively a weeding out of the human garden. That’s language that goes back to the Third Reich. Hear it again: the weeding out of the human garden. And now with the advent of so many advanced diagnostic tools that are available for those who are carrying babies, it is now possible for that search and destroy mission to be very much expanded when it comes to the knowledge of potential or actual disabilities for the inhabitant of the womb.
Lord Shinkwin spoke with great passion as he addressed his fellow members of the House of Lords when he said,
“Our Paralympians represented their country in Rio with pride. What was the essential qualification for them competing at Rio? It was their disability. The country which applauded their success is the same country whose law regards that essential qualification for going to Rio—disability—as a reason they should die.”
He then asked the question,
“How is that fair, right or logical? It is none of those things, which is why today I reflect on the remarkable impact that laws passed by your Lordships’ House have had on my life as a disabled person. It is why I ask myself: how could I not have faith in our common humanity? How could I not have faith in the truth that there is more that unites than divides us? And how could I not believe that your Lordships’ House will be true to itself and continue its noble fight for disability equality by passing this bill?”
And then The Federalist tells us,
“Current U.K. law allows women in Wales and England to abort their disabled babies up to the moment before birth, whereas healthy babies can only be aborted legally within the first 24 weeks of their lives in utero…
“Babies with Down’s syndrome,” we are told, “are facing extinction in the United Kingdom”—we simply need to add, also in the United States of America.
The Federalist reports that,
“In 2014, 693 babies were aborted specifically because they were diagnosed with the genetic condition.” That is, as they note, “a 34 percent jump since 2011.”
Now that means it’s not so much now a shift in the technology of diagnosis, this must reflect a shift in the morality and worldview of the populace. We also read with similar alarm that,
“In 2015, an estimated 3,213 U.K. babies were aborted because they were diagnosed with a disability in utero — a 68 percent increase in 10 years.”
Now as we look to the United States let’s ask the question, do we have similar numbers here? And would those numbers be similarly alarming, even appalling? The answer is, the numbers would be equally appalling if we knew them, but we really don’t know them, because in the United States of America, we do not even have laws as restrictive as those found in the United Kingdom. Effectively, right now, women at points far beyond 24 weeks of pregnancy in the United States can get an abortion in most states for any reason or for no reason at all. As Lord Shinkwin rightly warns, we’re looking at that weeding of the human garden beginning with those who are least capable of defending themselves, including the disabled. And once again, we should recognize this is a moral logic that isn’t new to the 21st century. It is hauntingly a reminder of what happened in the horrors of the 20th century.
"Life unworthy of life": Germany solemnly remembers the victims of Nazi eugenics
And next, almost just as if time for release just at the same time as these controversies comes an article from the French press agency datelined from Berlin. The headline,
“Germany remembers Nazis’ ‘euthanasia’ victims.”
As the press agency says,
“Germany [last] Friday marked International Holocaust Remembrance Day with a tribute to the 300,000 ill and disabled people killed under the Nazis’ ‘euthanasia’ programme, who are often seen as forgotten victims of that era.”
They go on to report,
“In a solemn ceremony at the German Bundestag, parliament speaker Norbert Lammert said the programme was the first to use gas to murder those considered ‘unworthy of living’ and served as a ‘trial run for the Holocaust.’”
Now here we need to remind ourselves that as murderous as the Nazi regime was, the ideology upon which it fed came from the previous era in German politics; it was the government known as the Weimar Republic. It was a liberal experiment, especially during the 1920s in Germany, and during that time German doctors developed the theory of racial superiority and the superiority of those defined as healthy on behalf of the German folk and they defined others as, here’s the German term, “Lebensunwertes Leben.” That is, life unworthy of life. And those who were deemed to be living, though unworthy of life, were exterminated.
And it was for this that last Friday the German Bundestag finally again apologized and included this in the remembrances of the Holocaust Remembrance Day. Again, Parliament Speaker Norbert Lammer said,
“It became the model for the mass murder that would follow in the Nazi extermination camps.
“Adolf Hitler’s euphemistically named euthanasia programme,” says the press agency, “in which doctors and scientists actively participated, sought to exterminate the sick, the physically and mentally disabled, those with learning disabilities and those considered social ‘misfits.’”
Now just consider how relatively close that list of designated persons is to the very conversation having to do with Peter Singer’s teachings at Princeton University right now. The French article goes on to say,
“Between January 1940 and August 1941, doctors systematically gassed more than 70,000 people at six sites in German-controlled territory, until public outrage forced them to end the overt killing.”
Now you’ll notice that outrage led to an end of the overt killing, that was the killing that was known to the public at the time. But make no mistake, the killing continued. It was part of the Holocaust; it was part of the murderous mentality and worldview of the Third Reich. But let me ask you this while we’re thinking about contradictions beginning with the contradiction of Peter Singer taking care of his mother, after he has just made clear that human beings in that kind of mental condition are less worthy of attention and medical investment than presumably more healthy animals. Let’s ask another contradiction, how can it be right for Princeton University to serve as a platform for Peter Singer to teach what has now been openly and publicly repudiated decades after the Holocaust by the German Bundestag?
It seems to me that though Peter Singer’s contradiction when it came to his ethical theory and then the practice in terms of his own mother, it seems to me that on the great scale of morality, the far greater contradiction is between the recent use of Peter Singer as an illustration in an article in the New York Times and what happened at almost exactly the same time halfway around the world in Germany when the German Parliament officially apologized for the extermination of 300,000 persons who are considered to be life unworthy of life, “Lebensunwertes Leben.”
Crime and culpability: Secretary of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels dies at 106
But then finally, almost as if perfectly timed in order emphatically to make the point, on Tuesday of this week the New York Times ran the obituary for Brunhilde Pomsel. As the obituary headline says, she was the aide to Joseph Goebbels, the propaganda minister of Nazi Germany, and she was a witness to the fall the Nazi regime. She died just in recent days in Germany at age 106.
Robert D. McFadden, writing the obituary, says,
“Brunhilde Pomsel, the personal stenographer of the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels during the last three years of World War II and one of the last surviving members of Hitler’s retinue in his final days in a Berlin bunker, died on Friday at her home in Munich. She was 106.”
McFadden continued writing,
“A trusted Nazi Party loyalist, Ms. Pomsel was the private secretary of Goebbels from 1942 until the war’s end in 1945, taking his dictation and transcribing documents, letters, diary entries and other business of that virulently anti-Semitic propaganda chief, who rigidly controlled the news media, the arts, radio broadcasting and films in Nazi Germany.”
Joseph Goebbels, you may remember, in the final hours of the Nazi regime as he was in the bunker with Adolf Hitler, Goebbels and his wife actually murdered their own six children, believing that it would be better for those children to die than for them to live in a world without the Nazi regime and without Adolf Hitler.
Now keep in mind that Ms. Pomsel died just Friday of last week in Germany at age 106 and then hear that,
“In Berlin’s swastika-draped Sportpalast in 1943, when Goebbels gave his most famous speech, acknowledging publicly for the first time — after the Nazi defeat at Stalingrad — that the nation faced serious dangers, calling for ‘total war’ and hinting at a vast extermination of Jews that was already underway, Ms. Pomsel sat near the front, just behind her boss’s wife, Magda Goebbels.”
So this was a woman who had to know what was going on because she was taking the transcription and the dictation of none other than Joseph Goebbels, one of most evil men conceivable in the 20th century. And even as he was hinting, even publicly, at what was going on in the killing engines of the Third Reich, she sat there right beside the man’s wife and is freely available now in the photographic evidence of the Nazi regime.
Looking back decades later, she said,
“The whole country was as if under a kind of spell. I could open myself up to the accusations that I wasn’t interested in politics, but the truth is that idealism of youth might easily have led you to having your neck broken.”
In other words, she did what she was told to do, because as she explained, she had to do it. The Times then goes on to say,
“Like Hitler’s last private secretary, Traudl Junge, Ms. Pomsel insisted that she had been ignorant of Nazi atrocities during the war. She said it was not until after her return home from imprisonment that she learned of the Holocaust, which she called ‘the matter of the Jews.’”
Brunhilde Pomsel, as the documentation notes, was in the end known to be contradictory as she told her own story, even about when she joined the Nazi party. But in terms of the morality of the entire affair, she told filmmakers that had tried to document her participation that she didn’t really see herself as being guilty. She told them,
“I wouldn’t see myself as being guilty. Unless you end up blaming the entire German population for ultimately enabling that government to take control. That was all of us, including me.”
Now, by any moral measure it was abundantly clear that Brunhilde Pomsel was far more involved and far more knowledgeable than that. But that then raises a truly haunting question for the American conscience. If Brunhilde Pomsel was right that the responsibility, the moral responsibility for the Holocaust would have to be extended to the entire German people, not just to the leaders of the Third Reich, then we as Americans have to honestly ask the question, are we also complicit in the engines of death, in the culture of death, in terms of the scandal of abortion and other assaults on human dignity in this society? This much we do know, we can never say we didn’t know.