Unsanctifying Human Life – Peter Singer

It is common to hear people claim that “life is sacred.” In this article, Peter Singer means to analyze this claim, and to strongly criticize the sentiment that it most commonly expresses. Singer believes that what is meant by the phrase is not that all life is sacred, but that human life is sacred. People who make this claim seem to be asserting that there is something unique about human life which confers on it a special moral status not belonging to the lives of nonhuman animals. It is just that position that Singer believes is false.

Singer first attempts to point out that the notion that human life is uniquely important is a deeply held and pervasive one. He notes that although the medical profession goes to great lengths to preserve the lives of human individuals who are likely to experience lives largely consisting of suffering, that same profession also conducts experiments with no great utility that cause extreme pain and death to nonhuman animals like chimpanzees. Singer wants to know what could possibly justify such behavior. One possible explanation is simply to say that human infants are members of our biological species, while nonhuman animals are not. Singer argues that this could only justify our common behavior if it were the case that mere species membership were relevantly important, but that it is not. Because some members of our species, like severely retarded infants, do not possess any traits that animals like monkeys and pigs do, there is no non-arbitrary reason to treat members of the former group differently than members of the latter. To do, Singer argues, would be to so do something analogous to treating members of one race differently than another, although it is obvious that the members of one race possess no morally relevant differences than members of the other.

Singer argues that if it is to be maintained that human life is sacred, we cannot use “human” to refer to a certain biological species. Rather, it must be that refers to a set of characteristics or features that we think are paradigmatically human. But if that it is the case, then some members of our species will fail to be human, while some members of other species will most likely qualify. In light of these considerations, Singer maintains, we have three options. First, we might continue to experiment on and kill members of other species, while also condoning experimentation on and the killing of those members of our own species that lack the relevant characteristics. Secondly, we might continue to disallow the taking of any human life, even in extreme cases wherein the life will be one filled with suffering, and also disallow such behavior with respect to members of other species. Or lastly, we might modify our behavior toward both members and nonmembers of our species, such that our treatment toward one is consistent with our treatment toward the other. Singer concludes by giving some considerations in favor of preferring the third of these options.