Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Rethinking Life and Death"

Peter Singer. For most or many of you, this name rings a bell. Peter Singer is a highly recognized Australian philosopher of the modern day. Singer is an interesting man who has had concentrations in several highly debated topics and written several books that concentrate on those various topics. It is not uncommon to find Peter Singer’s works in a college class and especially on a college campus. Peter Singer’s philosophic viewpoints are both challenging and fascinating to think about especially in comparison to other older philosophers, as well as ones own perspectives. My freshman year at Rhodes College, I was enrolled in Professor Shade’s “Medical Ethics” course and we were assigned to read Peter Singer’s Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics. Now the reason I am sharing this fact is that Peter Singer’s book is a challenge to a common ideal of what we tend to consider rights on human life. Peter Singer presents several old school commandments and flips them to fit our new technology dependant society.

Singer’s book has several incredibly important parts but one of the most shocking parts are the “New Commandments,” which is where, as described previously, Singer takes an old ethical view on life and death and completely revamps the entire system in order to more appropriately fit the situations that are more fitting for a technology dependant world of 2011. The first commandment Singer challenges is, “treat all human life as of equal worth.” Singer changes this old commandment into the new, “recognize that the worth of human life varies.” The second old commandment is, “never intentionally take innocent human life,” and is turned into, “take responsibility for the consequences of your decisions.” The third commandment is, “never take your own life, and always try to prevent others taking theirs,” which is thus turned into, “respect a person’s desire to live or die.” The fourth commandment is, “be fruitful and multiply,” which is changed into, “bring children into the world only if they are wanted.” The final commandment is, “treat all human life as always more precious than any nonhuman life,” which is changed into, “do not discriminate on the basis of species.”

Although this may seem like a really tedious long list of commandment changes, for this post I only want to focus on one, the third new commandment, which is “respect a person’s desire to live or die.” Do you think that people have a right to live or die?

A highly controversial topic in recent years is the “right to die.” The “right to die” is so notorious because it deals with each individual’s wants and desires and then an individual’s quality of life. Singer believes that each individual has a differing quality in his/her life and depending on their quality of life, the individuals should be able to decide their own demise if they so choose. For example, Singer describes individuals who are in a permanent vegetative state (pvs) as having a very low quality of life. Singer believes that people in this state may not even have the desire to live and he then brings in another philosopher to back up his statement. Singer describes how John Locke believes that a person is a being with reason and those who are in a pvs cannot be assumed to be beings with reason. Singer attempts to challenge any and all who would argue that his new commandment “respect a person’s desire to live or die” is not a right that should be observed by all. Do you think that this is a right that should be observed? In our technology-obsessed world do you think we need to have our old ethical medical commandments challenged to fit the rights of our current world?

On a side note, I’m still looking for a match with a group for the project, that is if anyone is still looking for one more person please let me know!


  1. First of all, it is interesting that Singer uses the terminology of commandments. It seems to reference the commandments of the Jewish and Christian faiths. It is also interesting that he continues to utilize that language instead of changing it to ‘principles’ or ‘concepts’.
    You mention Locke’s definition of personhood. The problem someone in a vegetative state is that while he or she may have a low quality of life, he or she cannot tell you whether they wish to live or die. They might not even have the capacity for any kind of desire. Does the fact that someone has a low quality of life allow us to make decisions for him or her?

  2. Liz, firstly, I want to do my video project on the right to die and euthanasia. I have not found anybody yet! So if you're interested, let me know. :)

    I cannot help but be reminded of Dr. Jack Kavorkian. I absolutely agree with Ben in his comment above, that a person in a vegetative state, while he or she may have an awful quality of life, unless that person has prior noted that it is not his or her wish to live life like this, it's an unknown. It is touchy ground, most definitely, but it's hard to know. Kavorkian only euthanized willing individuals possessing a terminal disease. And he turned down many patients, including those in a vegetative state whose family had contacted him, simply due to the fact that it was unknown to him whether or not the person wished to die.

    While the desire for death can and should observed, there are those for whom it's still touchy. While Singer may argue that it's a right, what about for those conflicted teenagers who want to die, when they may be otherwise healthy? Where is the line here? (I'm looking to explore this in my project/paper).

  3. At risk to harp on the same depressing subject as I have brought up multiple times in class, I must offer that I believe that people absolutely have the right to decide whether they THEMSELVES live or die. I think that to tell someone otherwise is useless. You cannot tell someone that they must live, for if you did so, they could just commit suicide. It is indeed their ultimate act of freedom and as far as the individual is free, they have the ability and right to take away their own physical existence.

  4. Just to play devil's advocate Colin, wouldn't committing suicide also be a negation of your freedom insofar as you can no longer act as a free being? You are ending the possibility of freedom.


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