Peter Singer Cerebral Palsy Society Response

18 Feb 2020

Let’s be clear, Peter Singer has a long history of writing incendiary and insensitive things when it comes to people living with disabilities. In fact, the so called “value” of people with a disability, particularly severe disability, is one of his favourite topics. Either as “philosophical thought exercises” or as deliberately provocative statements. These include talking about the right to “produce” better valued humans at the expense of the disabled ones (justifiable infanticide or euthanasia ), and ranking animals and disabled people in a bizarre hierarchy.

Disability advocates have rightly rallied against his belief systems for decades. His latest argument and its stomach-churning headline are the most recent example of a trend. Scholars have done credible jobs of arguing against his hypothesis line by line or generally. The late activist Stella Young did a great ‘case against’ some years ago (link below). This isn’t the place for me to repeat these arguments as it presumes that he has a legitimate case with evidence (he does not). It is unfortunate that because of his high profile, these ethical and philosophical questions are given credence and wide circulation given his prestigious academic appointments, speaking engagements and publications, much done with little collective scrutiny. These positions can do genuine harm and have no place in wider public discourse around disability. He may be a brilliant philosopher and extremely articulate but he lacks crucial understanding of the matter he speaks so freely about, disabled individuals and the families who love them. There is a diversity of experience and emotion that is missing from the broad statements.

The case he is referencing in his argument is that of Anna Stubblefield, an augmented communication specialist who developed a sexual relationship with a man living with severe cerebral palsy (CP) and was prosecuted because he couldn’t give consent. This is almost irrelevant. Peter Singer is using this case to further his wider mechanisms for drawing statements and judgements about the capacity and value of people living with severe disabilities. Whether or not Anna Stubblefield had a right to present more evidence in the particular criminal case does not take away from the weakness of Singer’s argument: That a severe disability means that you don’t have the right to consent or not consent. Again, he is not arguing the specifics of the case or any individual circumstances, or at least he doesn’t stop there. He starts making sweeping and destructive statements about living with disabilities as a whole.

His latest comments essentially boil down to the fact that people living with severe disabilities do not have the “presumed” capacity to consent or not give consent. Therefore, there are circumstances where sexual experiences will be pleasurable even if the person hasn’t been able to express consent in any way the case of Anna have the responsibility to obtain consent in a verifiable way. The methods she used were controversial and inconsistent Typically, he is referring to people in long term institutional care and the people that work with them. There have been a number of disturbing cases where people in power take advantage of those in a vulnerable state.

People have every right to protest against his visiting New Zealand and being promoted as a grand intellectual with the company Think Inc. At the very least, there should be an official capacity for people to publicly argue against his positions. If we are going to let him into the country, there should be countermeasures against his sweeping assumptions. Much like there is a concerted effort against more fringe academics who argue extreme race positions e.g. position e.g. Nicholas Wade and his views on inheriting a ‘bad’ intelligence blueprint . Just because Singer is more accepted into the mainstream, doesn’t make his make his arguments any less destructive and dangerous. The Cerebral Palsy Society (CPS) in no way condones his presence here as a supposedly respected academic. He needs to be challenged and critiqued at the most publicly visible and profound level. New Zealand is in the midst of promoting a Wellbeing Budget with an emphasis on mental health and supporting all New Zealanders. Singer’s positions have no place in the New Zealand this government is working to create.

His philosophies on disability, in its current form, has no place in 21st century disability discourse without strong countermeasures and recognition of the dangers.