The Distinction between an Argument and Its Likely Effects

Amia Srinivasan

‘I envision a world in which a person with multiple disabilities can be euthanised, with an agreement from the guardians, when it is difficult for the person to carry out household and social activities.’ These are the words of Satoshi Uematsu, the 26-year-old man who killed 19 disabled men and women in a care home in a Tokyo suburb last month, in the biggest mass murder Japan has seen since the Second World War. In a letter to the speaker of Japan’s lower house of parliament in February, Uematsu explained his motives: ‘I believe there is still no answer about the way of life for individuals with multiple disabilities. The disabled can only create misery. I think now is the time to carry out a revolution and to make the inevitable but tough decision for the sake of all mankind. Let Japan take the first big step.’

Uematsu didn’t cite Peter Singer, but their reasoning isn’t totally dissimilar. In Practical Ethics (1993), Singer argues that disabled infants can be euthanised with the consent of their parents whenever doing so would increase the total sum of happiness – this applies not only to infants whose disabilities would make their lives (to use Singer’s phrase) ‘not worth living’ but also to infants with conditions that are obviously compatible with flourishing lives, such as Down’s Syndrome, but who (in Singer’s estimation) have lives ‘less worth living’ than non-disabled people. ‘Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person,’ Singer writes. ‘Very often it is not wrong at all.’

On Australian television earlier this month, Singer was asked by the disability rights activist Kath Duncan whether his philosophical advocacy for euthanising infants serves as a dog-whistle to people like Uematsu, who wish to exterminate disabled adults. ‘Not at all … What I’m doing is trying to give parents a say in questions where they’re the ones who are going to be forced to look after this child whether they want to or not,’ Singer responded. ‘It is not some crazy guy going into a unit and killing people.’

No one seriously thinks that Singer endorses what Uematsu did, at the very least because Singer rejects involuntary euthanasia for disabled people who are capable of consent. The question is whether Singer’s utilitarian treatment of disability fuels and gives cover for an already widespread hatred of disabled people.

In Practical Ethics, Singer showed more sensitivity to the distinction between an argument and its likely effects, anticipating the worry that euthanising disabled infants would lead us into the ‘abyss of … mass murder’. He reassured readers:

There is, anyway, little historical evidence to suggest that a permissive attitude towards the killing of one category of human beings leads to a breakdown of restrictions against killing other humans … All of this is not to deny that departing from the traditional sanctity-of-life ethic carries with it a very small but nevertheless finite risk of unwanted consequences.

Read more in the London Review of Books

Amia Srinivasan: The New Utilitarians · 24 September 2015

Thomas Nagel: Euthanasia · 6 October 2011

Judith Butler: The Death Penalty · 17 July 2014

Martha Nussbaum: If Oxfam ran the world · 4 September 1997


  • 17 August 2016 at 7:21am
    Graucho says:
    "There is, anyway, little historical evidence to suggest that a permissive attitude towards the killing of one category of human beings leads to a breakdown of restrictions against killing other humans". Really ? Prizes for naming all the categories of humans the Nazis had on their list. Jews, Freemasons, Jehovah's witnesses, homosexuals, communists, slavs, gypsies ...

  • 17 August 2016 at 12:43pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    As Graucho shows, Singer, while a clever rhetorician who elicits sympathy due to his own handicap, is often intellectually suspect. The most glaring phony criterion in his version of the utilitarian calculus is that old saw, "the sum total of happiness", which no one actually knows how to either define or calculate. Saying it over and over to yourself as a nonce phrase intimates just how ridiculously vague it is. Therefore Singer's "reassuring his readers" would only apply to those whose thinking is as ahistorical and myopic as his own. Of course, all of this has nothing to do with the Japanese madman -- self-appointed judge-executioners of their fellow humans really don't need instruction from philosphers; they've figured out the "correct answer" all on their own.

  • 18 August 2016 at 6:27am
    cufflink says:
    The blog narrows the ethical considerations of the severely disabled to their survival saying nothing constructive as to their care. Obviously without enough help severely disabled people would not and do not survive. The postulation of the Japanese example is regrettable to the argument for its reasoning we might say, though not uncommon, is beyond the pale that sets us in ethical place ie we do care but not sufficiently.
    We spend enormous amounts of money in defence of the realm and are quite prepared honourably to wreak havoc and create more disability in doing so. Where is the arguments rationale in this?
    It is interesting that one revived Hebrew word has come back into use to describe and supplant that of 'Holocaust' and that is Shoah. There is no specific cultural reason for this but there is legislated reason that returns caring meaning to the catastrophe, to support victims identity and give more meaningful solace.
    This shows that deeper thinking in ethical matters and not exercises in casuistic plausibility is paramnount in deciding our position on care.
    With more necessary resources the dilemma will go away.