Peter Singer Rejects Inalienable Human Rights

Author Amy K. Hall Published on 03/19/2009

An article by Dinesh D’Souza posted on Christianity Today directly addresses many of the conversations we’ve had in the blog comments recently about the foundation for human rights and whether or not rights can continue indefinitely in a post-Christian culture.  D’Souza explains:

Nietzsche’s argument [that the values of the West will not continue if their foundation is understood to be mythical] is illustrated in considering two of the central principles of Western civilization: “All men are created equal” and “Human life is precious.” Nietzsche attributes both ideas to Christianity. It is because we are created equal and in the image of God that our lives have moral worth and that we share the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Nietzsche’s warning was that none of these values makes sense without the background moral framework against which they were formulated.

Without the understanding that every human is, by nature, of the kind of being that is intrinsically valuable and worthy of rights, one must come up with some other standard of abilities or characteristics that each human being (or any creature, for that matter) must meet in order to be considered a “person” worthy of rights.  In an atheist worldview, rights aren’t real things that we must recognize, they’re subjective privileges given and taken away by those who are in power, according to their current preferences for certain characteristics.

In Peter Singer’s case, he prefers rationality and consciousness as the standard for granting rights to creatures.  After defining rights according to his idea of “personhood,” here’s what he reasons should follow: 

Singer writes, “My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others.” Singer argues that even pigs, chickens, and fish have more signs of consciousness and rationality—and, consequently, a greater claim to rights—than do fetuses, newborn infants, and people with mental disabilities. “Rats are indisputably more aware of their surroundings, and more able to respond in purposeful and complex ways to things they like or dislike, than a fetus at 10- or even 32-weeks gestation.... The calf, the pig, and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy.”

D’Souza says that Peter Singer is one of the few atheists intellectually honest enough not to continue to pretend that all human beings are equal merely because they’re human: 

[Singer] argues that we are not creations of God but rather mere Darwinian primates. We exist on an unbroken continuum with animals.  Christianity, he says, arbitrarily separated man and animal, placing human life on a pedestal.... Now, Singer says, we must remove Homo sapiens from this privileged position and restore the natural order.... There is a grim consistency in Singer’s call to extend rights to the apes while removing traditional protections for unwanted children, people with mental disabilities, and the noncontributing elderly.

We commonly see arguments for a standard of “personhood” for rights when it comes to stem cell research and abortion, but few are willing to go on to consistently and logically embrace the full implications of an atheist worldview in the area of rights as Singer has above.  The horrific implications don’t in themselves prove the worldview false, but when one is unable to be consistent, that should raise questions.  Which more closely resonates with your knowledge of real truth, beauty, and goodness—that we should care for the weak, the disabled, and the elderly, or that we should kill them?  Peter Singer, or Mother Teresa?

D’Souza notes that most of the new atheists distance themselves from Singer, and he suspects this is because “they fear that his unpalatable views will discredit the cause of atheism.”  After all, the new atheists often argue that we don’t need Christianity to uphold a moral society because an atheist can be just as moral as a Christian.  But unfortunately (and embarrassingly for the new atheists), as Singer demonstrates, an atheist can only be as moral as a Christian if he still believes in the same morality.

(HT: Justin Taylor)