On Peter Singer’s ‘Abortion’ Essay (w/ William Blake)

Peter Singer wrote in the Oxford Companion to Philosophy a diabolically smart article about abortion. to distill it: The argument against abortion is as follows:

It is wrong to kill an innocent human being.
A human foetus is an innocent human being.
Therefore it is wrong to kill a human foetus.

He says that most supporters of abortion bypass the first premise and deny the second, saying that a foetus is not really a human being. Singer argues that if you attacked the first premise, you might either (1) have more success or (2) be consistent in your ethic (he doesn’t clarify what he means by being on ‘stronger ground’). “It needs to be shown,” he claims, “why mere membership of a given biological species should be a sufficient basis for a right to life.”

Beautiful. Squarely in our modern milliue of cartesian doubt it is enough for our philosophers to simply doubt – not answer. We ask that our leaders free us from tradition and loose us into the shadowy waters of individual subjectivity (which, unfortunately for moderns, are governed by their own rules).

Singer appears to be altruistically claiming that our homo sapiens species is no special thing. But let’s look at etymology: homo sapiens means ‘wise man’ or ‘knowing man.’ A quote from Jerome Lejeune springs to mind:

At universities, I have often seen extremely intelligent people holding conferences, nodding as they considered whether their children were some sort of animals when they were very young. But at the zoo, I have yet to see a conference of chimpanzees consider whether their children would grow up to be college professors!

My small counter-argument is simple. Being a member of homo sapiens considered as a biological phenomenon is nothing special. Singer is challenging us to retrace our dignity to its origin. If I reduce humanity to a mechanical conception, like Hobbes’ automata, then Singer is right. I answer, albeit in an unorthodox manner, with William Blake.

Blake saw this problem in the empiricist philosophy. In There is no Natural Religion, Blake states the necessary conclusion when starting with a empiricist (esp. Lockean) view: “The desires and perceptions of man, untaught by anything but organs of sense, must be limited to objects of sense.” But Blake responds himself, “The desire of man being Infinite, the possession is Infinite, and himself Infinite.” To explain, if we are merely physical, we could desire nothing but physical objects. On the other hand, we do desire spiritual objects. Blake is begging the intuition, ‘therefore, we are not just physical.’

This is humorously represented in his very title of the poem: There is no Natural Religion. If man is simple natural phenomenon, then there is no natural religion. But if we look around us, there is natural religion. Ergo we are not simply natural (physical) creatures.

Singer, meet Blake.

One thought on “On Peter Singer’s ‘Abortion’ Essay (w/ William Blake)

  1. Very interesting piece, Peter. Singer, I believe, does not believe there is anything special about humanity. When we plead that human life is of value over other forms of life (say a spider), he would say, I think, that we are merely being species-specific and there is not real ground for that. Really liked the line from Jerome Lejenune. I once saw him in Florida at a conference.

    Dr. Joseph Atkinson

    theologyofthefamily.com

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