Catholic World News

In debate on abortion, philosophers dispute basis for recognizing human rights

October 22, 2010

Bioethicist Peter Singer argued that a human baby “has no moral status because he is not self-aware,” during a debate on abortion at Princeton University.

Singer’s debate opponent, Oxford philosophy professor John Finnis, responded that human rights are not created or conferred by government or by society; they are only recognized, he said—because the rights are prior to the authority of government.

Finnis objected to the use of the term “fetus” to refer to an unborn child, saying that the use of the term is a way of disguise the human identity of the child. A pregnant woman, he pointed out, invariably speaks of her “baby.”

Singer, however, goes far beyond the familiar arguments justifying the destruction of a “fetus.” The Princeton professor argues that even a born child can be justifiably killed, because only self-awareness provides the moral status that others must recognize.

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  • Posted by: bnewman - Oct. 23, 2010 10:44 PM ET USA

    Yes. Unlike most pro-abortion proponents Singer understands the power of the argument against abortion very clearly, in terms of the syllogism. That is why he concludes that the first premise is incorrect and talks about comparative values of different species.

  • Posted by: Gregory108 - Oct. 23, 2010 9:14 PM ET USA

    Why should self-awareness trigger rights? There must be at least half a million other "benchmarks" that someone else can propose as the "magic" factor that triggers rights. And who's to say who's right? To paraphrase Paul, Thinking themselves wise, they became fools and exchanged the Truth of God for a lie! And they experienced in their owm bodies, their physical bodies, church bodies, in all of society, the consequences of that choice! Look at the world around us and tell me that's not true!

  • Posted by: enneagram - Oct. 23, 2010 9:35 AM ET USA

    Consistent with his general ethical theory, Singer holds that the right to life is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to hold preferences, which in turn is intrinsically tied to a being's capacity to feel pain and pleasure. In his view, the central argument against abortion is equivalent to the following logical syllogism: First premise: It is wrong to take innocent human life. Second premise: From conception onwards, the embryo or fetus is innocent, human and alive. Conclusion: It is wrong to take the life of the embryo or fetus.[15]

  • Posted by: bnewman - Oct. 22, 2010 10:38 PM ET USA

    Can it be said that we are self-aware when we are asleep, under anesthesia during surgery, suffer from amnesia or are in a temporary coma, I wonder? I do not think so. So Singer must think than people, while in that state, do not have any more right to life than a baby in the womb does, while it is in that state. Better be careful not to fall asleep during Singer’s lectures.