[Source: Oliver Tolmein: Wann ist der Mensch ein Mensch? Ethik auf Abwegen. (When is a human being a human being? Ethics gone astray.) Munich/Vienna 1993, pp. 57-76.]

The Case of Peter Singer

A liberal theorist of "euthanasia" and National Socialism

by Oliver Tolmein (translation from German: Alain Kessi)

"Should the baby live?" is the question Peter Singer and Helga Kuhse ask when they discuss children with disabilities - and they discuss the reasons those children should not live, in detail and rigorously developing the argument to its consequence. The book with the title quoted above was published in 1985 by the British publisher Oxford University Press, and the second sentence of the introduction already establishes the program the authors will follow: "We think that some infants with severe disabilities should be killed." [1] In 1992 the Rowohlt publishing house decided to bring out this book, [2] which for good reasons has not so far been published in Germany. The publishing house received harsh criticism from medical doctors, handicapped people, women's groups, but also from philosophers and booksellers and dropped the plan after months of contention, "for private reasons", as executive manager Michael Naumann wrote to the counseling center "Autonom Leben" (To Live Autonomously) in Hamburg. [3]

In the German debate on "euthanasia" the theses and opinions of the Australian philosopher of ethics Peter Singer have taken a key position in the past few years. At first sight it seems difficult to find an adequate explanation for this: Singer's "main work", "Practical Ethics", barely received any attention at all when it published in Germany (1987 by Reclam). Neither in philosophical seminars nor in the political debate did the considerations of the committed animal rights fighter and vegetarian - who favors a far-reaching deregulation in the field of genetic and reproductive technologies [4] - have a substantial influence. Even his commitment to "euthanasia" has not, in Germany, become this explosive a topic in and of it self, but only in relation with the later development of the debate.

In post-war Germany "euthanasia" has always been an ambivalent topic - it had been made taboo after the "euthanasia" mass murders of National Socialist times, but the resentment in which the life of handicapped people appears as "not worthwhile living" had persisted. Even the very extermination activities of the National Socialists were punished with great leniency and forbearance, if at all. In one example the Land court of Tübingen certified that the "euthanasia" doctor professor Falthauser who was accused of having participated in the murder of 10'000 handicapped people in Grafeneck had acted out of "compassion, one of the most noble human motivations of human action". [5] The Federal Court confirmed in several court cases the acquittal of "euthanasia" doctors, as in the case of the SS Obersturmführer (high-ranking officer) Dr. Borm, who had been a member of the "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler" (lifeguard unit Adolf Hitler) and whose participation in the murder of at least 6652 people had been proven. In the opinion explaining the reasons for the acquittal the Federal Court emphasized the testimony of the defendant and regarded it as credible: "The people designated for killing were completely feeble-minded, degenerate beings in a pitiful state; ... he [the defendant, O.T.] did not know that the killing was dictated primarily by arguments of usefulness but believed in a 'real euthanasia'." [6]

In Germany the assertion that National Socialist crimes of "euthanasia" have nothing in common with a "real euthanasia" but the name has for a long time structured the debate about "euthanasia", which has only hesitatingly been put forward, though not for reasons of wisdom. At the end of the eighties, when an understanding of National Socialism was imposed which refuses to see its unique crimes and insists on seeing it as just a dictatorial regime the like of which several have existed in this century, the public debate about Singer's opinions allowed to extend this relativization to the discussion of "euthanasia". Singer's origin, often mentioned by his supporters and disciples, plays a non-negligible role in this attempt to again attain historical soundness - the theorist teaches in Australia, and his grandparents of Austrian origin were murdered in a concentration camp by the National Socialists because they were Jewish.

The debate about the ideas of a less-than-original thinker has taken on an exemplary character because a number of completely different interests and feelings can be lumped together like under a burning-glass - the interests in redefining the National Socialist past, the intensification of the debate on lowering costs in the public health sector, the continuing resentment of handicapped people and the fear of one's own death which grows in proportion to the technical possibilities of medicine. Groups coming primarily from the handicapped movement have tried (often successfully) to prevent presentations by Singer and in some isolated cases also seminars in which his works were to serve as a basis for the "euthanasia" debate. [7] Primarily left-liberal lecturers who had views similar to Singer's went on to the offensive, bewailed the dangers to the freedom of research and teaching and welcomed the fact that through Singer's work the "ethical obliviousness" concerning "certain real-existing borderline problems of life and just as real-existing attempts at solving those" could be brought to an end. [8]

Now which real-existing borderline problems does Singer describe, and what does he propose to solve them? Some insight can be gained especially from the positions developed in "Should the baby live?".

Singer opens his discourse with the detailed description of two case studies. Baby Doe is born in the USA in 1982 and has a Down syndrome [9]; baby John Pearson, also with Down syndrome, is born in England. Neither of the two newborn survive: John Pearson, who is to die at his parents' wish, receives excessive doses of a pain-relieving drug, just a basic medical care and ends up dying of an untreated pneumonia; baby Doe, whose gullet should have been operated, cannot absorb any food and is not, again at his parents' wish, treated nor artificially nourished and dies as the attorney general's office attempts to impose artificial nourishment through a temporary injunction by the Supreme Court.

Thus from the start Singer's book does not deal with "borderline problems" of human life, but with the treatment, non-treatment and killing of children with handicaps. Besides Down syndrome Singer deals at length with Spina bifida [10], and in "Practical Ethics" he mentions in the same context also hemophilia. Although Singer draws a limit to his discourse by claiming he is speaking of severe and extremely severe handicaps, he precisely does not explain what handicaps are severe or what distinguishes a severe from an extremely severe handicap. This would indeed be a difficult undertaking since there are no objective criteria - and such objective criteria cannot exist - as the debate among medical experts [...] shows. "Severe" or even "extremely severe" are relative notions, and the assessment is done "from the outside".

This however is precisely what Singer does not want. His considerations about killing handicapped newborns or letting them die, he claims, are based on the interests of those babies affected. Their life is, he writes, often not "worthwhile living" (the [Nazi] term "lebenswert" is used in the German edition of Peter Singer's "Practical Ethics" published in 1987). The evidence he provides for this is scanty. In the chapter "Deciding when life is worthwhile" he describes - based on the British debate of the end of the sixties/beginning of the seventies about letting newborns with Spina bifida die, i.e., based on a state of knowledge that is outdated - how many and which operations may be necessary in order to save the life of infants with such handicaps. Even in "Practical Ethics", which was written later, his considerations on whether the lives of handicapped people is "worthwhile" is always linked to medical diagnosis and the assessment of medical doctors: "Some medical doctors who treat children suffering of severe Spina bifida think that the life of such children is so miserable that it would be wrong to proceed to an operation in order to keep them alive. This means that their life is not worthwhile. Publications describing the lives of these children support this judgement." [11] Now making abstraction of the fact that what in the first sentence is rendered as the opinion of some medical doctors is suddenly upgraded to an objective assertion in the second sentence - this perspective is rather narrow. Back in "Should the baby live?" Singer at least mentioned that people with Spina bifida do not in any way see their lives as "not worthwhile living", but immediately questions this through the assertion of a medical doctor, John Lorber, according to whom some Spina bifida patients, if they had children with the same handicap, would not have them treated. "There are thus assertions from both sides," Singer himself summarizes. [12] An insight that is - to put it mildly - banal and remarkably weakly substantiated empirically and in its arguments if we take into account the far-reaching consequences to be drawn from it. [13]

For Singer however the alleged of real interests of the handicapped child do not have a much of a bearing anyway. His reference point is, and this fact is often suppressed by his supporters, by no means only the alleged "inside perspective of the people affected". In his view the interests of others play an important role - the interests of the family, the interests of the "next child" and also the interests of society. For all of them handicapped people - if one follows Singer's line of argument - represent a substantial burden that could be avoided by killing them or letting them die.

What is characteristic for Singer's philosophy is the way it adapts itself to the existing situation. In the introduction to "Should the baby live?" it says: "We think that rich nations should spend much more money for helping handicapped people to live worthwhile lives than they do now." But in the discussion of reports that is rendered in the following the focus is always strictly on the functional status of the handicapped people and the alleged and real disadvantages ensuing for others. In order to graphically describe how much the existence of a child with Down syndrome changes the everyday life of a family to its disadvantage Singer quotes excerpts of interviews with parents of handicapped children. "One father who has an exhausting working day says: 'At the end of the week I often feel quite burned out intellectually, and on Mondays I sometimes have the feeling that the weekend, from my own personal perspective, has brought nothing. This is because the relations at home have been very tense, be it because we woke up during the night, be it because he once again was insufferable." [14] The situation in which the husband, tired from his work, cannot reproduce his labor force completely over the weekend because the child does not behave, wakes up its parents during the night or pees into his bed is also quite common in marriages with non-handicapped children - but there the recrimination is not as simple to achieve. Even if Singer does not go into this there are more specific problems that parents with handicapped children are faced with: the massive social ostracizing are part of them, as are the difficulty of finding an adequate kindergarten or organizing a sufficiently good ambulant care. This does not mean that the handicap of the children is the real reason for these difficulties - it is rather an instance in which the conflicts underlying the parent-child-society relation break out.

Singer is not so interested in what could be other reasons for this and other problems described. The fact that the handicapped child maybe has to serve as a scapegoat for a wrecked marriage or for a failed career planning does not occur to him. He does not ask whether and what could or should be changed in order to achieve more relaxed relations within the family. Is it not be possible for instance that a personal assistance for the child, which takes the load of the care itself off the parents could substantially ease the family-internal tension? [15] Is it not possible that misdirected expectations and the pressure of having to present a "respectable child" to the outside world are a central reason for the father's irritated perception of his son? And what about the "exhausting working-day reality"? The philosopher, who at least takes the tense situation at home as an argument for saying that it would be better to kill the child as a newborn, accepts the everyday exhaustion as inalterable. It is possible that the job is extremely well paid and that for this reason the man does not see a way of escaping this routine; it might be that despite everything he takes great pleasure in his job and he does not actually want to change the stress - for an analysis of a "practical ethics" it seems necessary to know more and that more precisely. But Singer is precisely not interested in these details which would turn a case into a story which does not unroll in a seemingly inescapable development but is made up of a multitude of decisions to each of which there are alternatives. He knows only the either-or.

Also, when in the next report the father of a handicapped child complains that his eight-year-old son, after having peed into his bed, has the nerve to try to change himself and "with this turns the bed into a mess", Singer does not ask: Why is the father especially bothered by the fact that the child tries to do something itself, namely to change itself? Do not the obviously unnerved reactions of the father (it is striking that Singer quotes predominantly fathers even though the education and care also and especially of handicapped children is done mostly by mothers) when faced with the child's bed-wetting create the stress that will get the child to pee in its bed again? Also, the fact that the father does not even dare to look for a babysitter for the child is not seen by Singer as a sign of insufficient self-esteem, of social ostracizing and the resulting fitting in - he sees it as yet another proof of how awful it is to have a handicapped child.

This seems all the worse to him given that he assumes families with handicapped children are less likely to choose to have another child than other families. He sees in this a competition between the existing handicapped newborn with allegedly bad prospects for a happy life and the nonexistent "next child" which, imagined as a non-handicapped child, is supposed to have substantially better prospects for a happy life. Besides the fact that the reference to a single study in which 160 mothers were interviewed is not a very strong basis for his thesis, Singer here again emphasizes the functional status. He also avoids considerations encompassing more than his superficial and sloppy quantification of "happiness" - e.g., considerations about what it would mean for the family, if his proposals were realized, if the child were killed in order to place a new, "better" one into this world. But it seems especially absurd that Singer, who has committed himself to explaining that infants do not fundamentally have a right to live since they have neither self-conscience nor any notion of the future, suddenly makes himself the advocate of the rights of as yet nonexistent beings. The fact that the ethicist who a few pages before has given a lively show on as a radical proponent of abortion and "euthanasia" should now seek success as a sort of super-pro-life-agent exemplifies how it is not so much the consistency of his position but its consequence that matters to him: He wants to find reasons for eliminating handicapped children.

This search for insight leaves a clear mark also in the basic considerations of his "euthanasia" philosophy. In order to overcome the intuitive moral that has people back away from killing a human being, Singer makes a detour in his line of argument. He notes that the killing of animals does not present as many problems to people. In the next step he denies that the life of all people is of the same value since some people, e.g., newborns, handicapped people or very ill old people, are not self-conscious beings with a notion of their future. "The capacity to imagine one's own future [is] the necessary condition for calling one's own the right to live," [16] Singer further asserts. This life with the notion of one's own future he also labels "conscious life"; those who live such a life he calls "persons". "Persons" do not necessarily need to be human: apes, dogs, pigs and cats he all considers to be self-conscious. He concedes: "Admittedly, this is all speculative. It is obviously difficult to find out whether another being is self-conscious." But since Singer has decided to make the granting of the right to live dependent on the decision of whether a being is a person or a non-person, he determines an easy way out of this dilemma: "Assuming it is wrong to kill a person when we can avoid it and there is a serious doubt as to whether a being one intends to kill is a person, we should let the doubt speak up in favor of this living being." [17] Strangely enough, the ethicist has serious doubts only in the case of non-human living beings - mentally handicapped people and newborns appear to him to be non-persons beyond any doubt.

Why Singer attributes self-consciousness to a pig but not to an infant remains unclear. Also, the link he makes between the debate about the killing of animals and "euthanasia" does not seem exactly compelling. Why must someone you want to convince of the right to live of a chicken at the same time be motivated to kill human infants? Even the notions "self-consciousness", "distinctive entities", "rational" that Singer chooses as selection criteria remain vague and are not defined. The philosopher thus moves in a no man's land between vernacular meanings and technical terminology. On this terrain however he appears all the bolder - and demands not only that it be theoretically allowed to kill a substantial part of those human beings who do not correspond to his arbitrary rather than compelling criteria of personality, but that they should quite practically be killed.

Singer's distinction between human beings and persons [18] is not a procedure which gives any insight about what it means to be human, which helps to solve ontological questions [ontology: the branch of metaphysics concerned with the essence of things; A.K.]. It is subordinated to one aim - it is meant to legitimize the killing of human beings who are unwanted for completely different reasons. For it is not the characteristics indicated by Singer that ultimately is the reason for his proposing to kill handicapped infants but their handicap and the allegedly ensuing consequences - consequences that however come to bear at a moment at which even the distinction between human being and person that Singer makes arbitrarily [19] does not apply to most of them. [20]

Singer's considerations on the difference between being human and being a person do not aim at further developing the notion of the human being, to persevere in its social and cultural emancipation from biology. On the contrary - they make decisions about its life dependent on the individual biological premises, on the fulfillment of certain norms. The personality concept is a means to organize the collision of the interests of handicapped and non-handicapped people, which Singer sees as in contradiction to each other. [21] Singer's notion of what a person is supposed to be also has juridical rather than philosophical consequences - and is in this sense fundamentally different from other personality concepts, e.g., that of Kant.

What is completely obscured by Singer - who concentrates on the intellectual capacities and the biological make-up - is the communicative and social character of being human that plays a central role in important theorists of movements as different from each other as analytical philosophy or the philosophy of existence. "The human body is the best image of the human soul," writes Wittgenstein in the "Philosophical Inquiries" and thus links what Singer believes can be seen separately from each other - the human mind and the human body. The communication through speech, facial expressions, gestures, sounds or body contact that develops when non-handicapped adult human beings and handicapped or non-handicapped infants or also adult human beings in a coma are together is much more complex than Singer's concept of personality would have us believe. The social relations that develop in these situations also belie Singer's assumption that for instance handicapped newborn - whom he sees as mere deficient beings and not as individuals - can be replaced simply and without a loss.

Sartre in his analysis sees the being of the human being as in opposition to the being-in-itself of a thing. The being of humans, in search of the possible, is on the one hand imbued by the lack, it is itself deficient - on the other it constitutes itself in its ongoing relation to the "other". The encounters on the street, the meeting at the café, taking care of a person each create a completely new reality that also serves for a self-ascertainment. Moreover, in "Saint Genet" Sartre defines being human based on the extreme of the person excluded from society, the life-long imprisoned criminal who combines everything repulsive in himself: "Because one has to choose: If each human being is a complete human being, then this misfit is either a pebble or me."

Singer demands that we "cast aside feelings whose basis is the little, helpless and - sometimes - cute appearance of human infants". [22] This abstraction of a crucial characteristic of human being, the feelings, at the service of an "insight" paves the way towards a society which although it is immanently logically structured is in reality inhumane. Here lies the reason for the accusation that Singer is spreading ideas which are comparable to the National Socialist ideas. To this even some philosophical critics of Singer object: "The Nazis' intention was not to weigh up interests in the sense Singer does it, not to put themselves into the position of the most severely damaged or most severely handicapped newborn, not to take into account the interests of the parents ... In addition they did not in any way restrict themselves to newborn ... The only thing that mattered to them was that handicapped children did not fit into the fantasy of an 'Arian' race being superior to other 'races'." [23]

Even Singer does not at all, as is often claimed, restrict his proposals for "euthanasia" to "newborn", not even, as the subtitle of "Should the baby live?" suggests, to infants. [24] In "Practical Ethics" it says unambiguously under the title "Justification of a non-voluntary euthanasia": "For the sake of simplicity I will concentrate on infants here, but everything I say about them can also be applied to older children or adults who have remained on the mental stage of development of an infant." [25] In what follows Singer writes - to make the confusion complete - about "deformed infants", among which ironically enough he also counts the "hemophilic". To summarize it should be noted that the circle of people potentially affected by measures of "euthanasia" is obviously extensible and by no means narrowly defined.

What about the allegedly completely different weighing up of interests that according to some come to bear in his plea for "euthanasia"? The National-Socialist "euthanasia" murderers were by no means an original invention of the National Socialists. The path from the first thoughts until T-4 action [26] and hence to the "wild euthanasia" has a marked reference in the 1920 polemical treatise "Allowing the annihilation of lives not worthwhile living" by the professor of criminal law Karl Binding and the neuro-pathologist Alfred E. Hoche. Binding and Hoche - who were anything but scientific outcasts but on the contrary were eminent authorities in their respective fields of study - by no means argued, as the legend would have it, without taking into account the individual interests of their potential victims. They wrote on the contrary that the point must be to examine whether there are "human lives that have lost so much of the characteristics of the object protected by law that their continued existence had lost all value both for the life carrier and for society [emphasis by O.T.]." [27] Binding explicitly mentions the "free compassion with the ill" as the driving force of his considerations. Among medical doctors the opinion of Binding/Hoche were predominantly rejected [28] - unlike the considerations about eugenics which led to the first draft laws and then, after the NSDAP came to power, to the "Law on preventing genetically diseased offspring". This law, whose critics were polemically asked why they did not "turn in protest against the 'butchering of animals'" [29], for the first time systematically questioned the physical integrity of handicapped people. "The pattern that came out of this should be defined as 'de-moralization' by making things highly scientific and professional", the author group Weingart, Kroll, Bayertz that is not specially critical towards science sums up in its seminal work "History of eugenics and racial hygiene in Germany". [30]

In the following years a debate about "euthanasia" developed, which distinguished itself from comparable debates in other countries in that the National Socialist state seemed prepared to put into practice the demands by politicians and medical doctors. It is therefore not quite correct if the professor of philosophy in Berlin, Ursula Wolf, writes: "The Nazis have precisely not had public discussions about their practice or invited critical discussion." [31] - What would be correct is to note that they have in fact allowed a public "debate" until the beginning of the "euthanasia" murders; after those had begun public statements in support of "euthanasia" were still welcome, and only the murderous practice in the institutions could not be discussed.

Which arguments play a role becomes clear from two texts in the newspaper "Reichswart" and the SS-paper "Das schwarze Korps". In "Reichswart" an author distances himself from considerations about killing the "mentally ill": "It would go against our National Socialist conception of the people to let them rot and to echo some modern patterns which say: These unfit are none of our business, may they disappear as fast as possible, it's all the same to us." In 1937 "Das schwarze Korps" on the other hand carries a report about a farmer on an ancestral estate who had shot his "mentally ill" son; shortly after this the author of a letter to the editors demanded that a law be passed to "help nature get its right. Nature would let this being that is unfit for life starve. We can be more humane and killing him painlessly for mercy's sake." [32]

The claim that "euthanasia is the best solution also for the ones murdered runs through the propaganda of the Third Reich in the lead-up and during the massive murder of handicapped people. The famous film "I accuse" that received the "Prize of the nations" at the biennial in Venice in 1941 tells the story of a woman who became ill with multiple sclerosis and is killed by her husband, a medical doctor, after much begging. The medical doctor is accused - and finally acquitted, a process about which there are animated discussions in the film:

"Locksmith Rolfs: Now tell me, if now - and I have supported handicapped people all my life by using the invalid stamps - and now I become ill one day, and they'll just kill me?

Teacher Schönbrunn: But for God's sake! ... the most important condition would still be that the patient wants it!

Locksmith Rolfs: Many a patient wants that in some moments.

Pharmacist Hummel: Yes, when someone is mentally ill, then sometimes he wants to...

Teacher Schönbrunn: Yes, when someone is nuts, or melancholic, or in some other way does not have his own free will, then the state must take over! Anyway, no medical doctor can do that at his own discretion. One would have to appoint commissions of medical doctors and jurists, complete courts - but how could we continue to watch as thousands of people who in earlier times would have long died a mild death nowadays suffer the most horrible pains for years just because the doctors manage to prolong their miserable lives artificially." [33]

The parallels to the current line of argument are obvious. The fact that the first killings were done on handicapped children whose parents had turned to the "Chancellery of the Führer" reinforces the dismal impression, as does the participation of a large part of the scientific medical elite of the time. The "euthanasia" murders in National Socialism, the "annihilation of lives not worthwhile living" did not constitute a definite rupture from the "euthanasia" debates held all over the world in the twenties and thirties, but rather their culmination, however dramatic in its consequences. [34] Specifically racial hygienic considerations played a surprisingly secondary role concerning "euthanasia". The aggression against handicapped people was, contrary to the current perception, a significant moment. Characteristic for the planners and the persons bearing the political responsibility was also the barely extricable entanglement with economical and social-planning motives recommending the reduction of the burden on the "people". For many of the perpetrators the notion that death was also a relief for the incurable "burden existences" played a non-negligible role. In the course of the murdering the attitude of those involved on the perpetrating side became perceptibly more radical. [35]

Singer and many others with him claim: "When the Nazis spoke of 'life not worthwhile living' they meant life that was 'unworthy' because it did not contribute anything to the health of this mystical racial whole, the people." This is a rough and thus misleading representation of the ideas underlying "euthanasia". Therefore also the conclusion is far from convincing: "But because our society does not believe in such a whole, nobody needs to fear that the permission to kill severely handicapped children in the context of euthanasia might lead to crimes such as those committed by the Nazis." [36] The fact that there is no need for a belief in a "mystical racial whole" and that the involvement in the "euthanasia" murders was not consistently seen as Nazi crimes even in the democratic post-war society is illustrated in an impressive way by the biography of one perpetrator, the head expert in the context of children's "euthanasia", Prof. Dr. Werner Catel [37]: After the war he became the director of the children's curatorium in Mammolsheim in the Taunus region, and in June 1947 he was de-nazified as a "representative of humanity in the Third Reich". In 1954 he took up the position of an ordinary professor for children's medicine at the university in Kiel, even though his activities as a "euthanasia" expert were known. The minister of culture of Schleswig-Holstein, Oberkirchenrat (church official) Edo Osterloh defended Catel. According to him Catel had "given his vote only in the case of beings who would never regain human consciousness." Catel himself at the time argued like this: "Completely idiotic beings are not human since they don't have a personality." In his book "Borderline situations of life" Catel pleaded with determination for children's "euthanasia". When he died in 1980 the university of Kiel honored him with a death notice according to which Catel had "contributed in many and diverse ways to the wellbeing of sick children." [38]

Alexander Mitscherlich in his analysis of "Medicine without humanity" has pointed out the "disposal of culture" as a necessary condition for mass murder. Thomas Mann in his novel "Doktor Faustus" has opposed the thesis that the "euthanasia" murders were just the consequence of people's hygienic and racial hygienic thinking since "in reality these are far deeper decisions, the rejection of all human softness that was the work of the bourgeois era - an instinctive bringing-oneself-in-shape of humankind for a painful and sinister course of events that mocks humanity." [39]

This is where the intersection between the old and new "euthanasia" discussion lies - in pealing his feelings of the human, in ordering his life in a system of ruthless rationality in which life has to prove its legitimacy, in which a human being is not naturally and without conditions perceived and respected as an individual but can be dispatched as a exchangeable specimen to its most functional use.

The gaze that National Socialists have turned on people and the gaze characteristic of the proponents of "euthanasia" today has a comparably assessing character. It records people in a fixed conceptual framework. The characteristic of reference may have changed - the focus is not any more on worrying about the health of the "people" but rather on the "unit cell of the state", the family; what has not changed, however, is the core of the "euthanasia" thinking - the will to define what a human being has to be like, and thus the readiness to select. The fact that both can in specific conditions radicalize themselves and turn into terrorist crimes is an experience from National Socialism that changes everything, even if an exact repetition of National Socialism is unlikely. Because of this the reports by Singer in "Should the baby live?" about infanticides among the !Kung in the Kalahari and the Tikopia in Polynesia or the historical Japanese society are of little use for the current debate.

With his arguments and demands about "euthanasia" the Australian utilitarian Peter Singer in many ways comes into dubious vicinity of the "euthanasia" ideology which made the National Socialist policy of annihilation towards handicapped people. Thus is seems all the more odd that in the German philosophical debate more efforts are spent on polemics about the supposed restrictions on Singer's freedom of opinion and of speech than on a critical reading of his ethics. Indeed several events which Peter Singer wanted to pull off in Germany in 1989/1990 have been disturbed by groups from the movement of handicapped people, and some of them even prevented. There was also contentions about Singer seminars offered by philosophy lecturers in Bremen and Duisburg. The Rowohlt publishing house decided as a consequence of a controversy in its own editorial department and after energetic protests by medical doctors, parents and handicapped people to stop its project to publish "Should the baby live?" in German. This has little to do with censorship or even the destruction of fundamental rights. It is part of a political contention in which use is made of symbolic actions like occupations, and of quite usual means such as collections of signatures. Most of the people involved in this are part of a group marginalized in society and subject to discrimination. They do not call the political police, the feds (German: Verfassungsschutz - authorities for the protection of the constitution) or the attorney general. They cannot impose anything by decree or through repressive means. On the contrary - at their actions they are again and again themselves in a danger of police intervention, arrest or court cases because what they do is civil disobedience trying to call the attention to a line that should not be crossed. The acknowledgement of the right to live of a however restricted group of people lies beyond what should be discussed as an accepted opinion in Germany. The fact that Singer repeatedly points out that he would not want to have the people who stand in his way killed (which is true) only serves to clarify the outrageous nature of his attitude - this minimal level of respect, come to think of it, does not go without saying in the context of his thinking.

It does not come as a surprise that those who do not today - but quite really would have in their childhood - fall victim to Singer's considerations cannot just quietly lean back and let whatever shall happen happen but fight with sympathy for those to whom they feel close. Just as it didn't come as a surprise that the Jewish community in Frankfurt, led by its then-chairman Ignatz Bubis, prevented the première of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's anti-Semitic play "Der Müll, die Stadt und der Tod" (Garbage, the city and death) in Frankfurt in 1985 through protest actions and finally by occupying the stage. Just like today with Singer, the German the arts editorialists and theater people were very quick with accusations of censorship instead of pondering whether every line drawn after National Socialism really needs to be crossed. Or instead of reflecting on how indecent it seems and why it is wrong when the offspring of the National Socialist murderers demand of the groups which fell victim to the NS regime that they exercise restraint in their choice of arms for fighting against the continuing existence and the revival of the old resentment that presses for action.

The intention of the protest against Singer, who unlike his opponents has a platform in the weekly "Die Zeit" or in books of the "Suhrkamp" or "Reclam" publishing house, is thus not censorship but the drawing of lines not to be crossed. A brutalization of thinking, the establishment of discrimination and of the resentment are taking on menacing dimensions. The discussion about this line, its reasons, its significance, all the practical consequences of this "Practical Ethics", needs to be at the center of our attention.


1 Peter Singer, Helga Kuhse, "Should the baby live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants", Oxford-New York-Toronto, 1985. The "Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary of current English" defines "infant" as "child during the first few years of its life".

2 Under the following, carefully chosen but misleadingly translated title that reinforces Peter Singer's intentions: "Muss das Kind am Leben bleiben?" - "Must the child live?" (Letter of the lector Hermann Gieselbusch on 8 January 1993) - while "should" in the English title at least calls the attention to the fact that there are reasons outside of the feelings and ideas of the child that will decide on its life, the word "must"  suggests that life is but the forcible result of a constraint.

3 In public a connection was made between the withdrawal of the book project and alleged plans for "terrorist actions" against the publishing house (cf. the weekly newspaper Die Zeit 23, 1993). Another weekly, "Die Woche" made the link between the protest actions against the publishing of the discriminatory book and the burning of books by the National Socialists, and the daily "Frankfurter Rundschau complained that the opponents of Singer were led by a "remarkable distrust in society". Probably encouraged by this historically rather oblivious protest against the protest, a different publishing house that was completely unknown until then published the controversial book at the beginning of July 1993. Cf. also Udo Sierck, "Neue Behindertenfeindlichkeit?" (New hostility towards handicapped people?), in: GID - Informationen zu Gen- und Fortpflanzungstechnologien (Informations on genetic and reproduction technologies), No. 86, May 1993, and Oliver Tolmein, "Liberale Reflexe" (Liberal Reflexes), in: Konkret 7, 1993.

4 An in-depth discussion of Singer's considerations on racism, feminism and the study of intelligence can be found in Oliver Tolmein, "Geschätztes Leben" (Dear Life), Hamburg 1990, pp. 61 ff.

5 As quoted in Theresia Degener, "Tödliches Mitleid schützt vor Strafe" (Deadly compassion keeps one from being punished), pp. 119 ff. All my explanations about the juridical discussion around "euthanasia" are based on this in-depth work analyzing the entire German juridical literature on the topic.

6 Ibid., pp. 125 ff.

7 There is no complete account of these contentions, which took place primarily in 1989/90. Presentations by Peter Singer were prevented in Marburg and Dortmund, while he could speak at the university of Saarbrücken. An exemplary contention about a university seminar took place in 1989/1990 at the Gesamthochschule Duisburg (General University Duisburg). Professor Hartmut Kliemt was having a seminar about "Practical Ethics": "Since Mr. Kliemt neither distances himself from Singer's theories nor included the historical and political dimension in his seminar, ... after several unfruitful discussions we found ourselves forced to prevent the seminar." (Leaflet of the anti-euthanasia working group Duisburg). Kliemt himself comments on the conflict in a manuscript titled "Statement and report on the 'Singer' seminar": "Of course, criticism means that you also accept arguments which appear to be convincing. In this sense it cannot in any way be excluded, but on the contrary is quite probable, that some theses of Singer's will find support in my seminar." Following these contentions the opponents of the seminar organized several discussions, this time not about "euthanasia" but about "euthanasia propaganda" and published a brochure ("Behinderte, Philosophie, Gnadentod" - "Handicapped people, philosophy, mercy killing", Duisburg 1989); the university initiated a cycle of lectures which did take place. There were also considerable controversies at the FU Berlin (Free University), the university of Hamburg and the university of Bremen. Details in: Oliver Tolmein, loc. cit., pp. 59 ff.

8 Cf. Christoph Anstötz in: Zur Debatte über Euthanasie (On the debate on euthanasia), Frankfurt a.M., 1991, pp. 298 ff.

9 A genetically caused handicap also known under the discriminatory name of "Mongolism".

10 "Open Spine": The spinal marrow remains unprotected by the partly open spine. The consequence is often paralysis of the legs, the so-called "hydrocephalus" and lack of control over bladder and intestines.

11 Practical Ethics, p. 180 (German edition).

12 Should the baby live?, p. 145

13 Who would be convinced of an argument in favor of the death penalty claiming that there are people sentenced to life imprisonment who would prefer to be executed rather than spend 20 or more years behind bars?

14 Should the baby live?, pp. 147 ff.

15 The funding of such care which would take the load off families would of course need to be organized - in Germany for instance social security would bear the cost in many cases. What is crucial however is that suddenly solutions are assessed in terms of how they can secure the care, and no longer in terms of eliminating "troublesome handicapped people".

16 Practical Ethics, p. 115 (German edition).

17 Practical Ethics, p. 136 (German edition).

18 In this he can refer to other theorists such as Michael Tooley or R. M. Hare.

19 The fact that, as reviewers of my book "Geschätztes Leben" (Dear Life) have objected (e.g., in the daily newspaper taz/tageszeitung, 3 March 1992), many utilitarist philosophers make a difference between human beings and persons does not make this distinction less arbitrary.

20 My point is not to refine the selection - my intention is thus not to select a more precisely defined group for killing than that proposed by Singer, but to show the inner contradiction of Singer's approach.

21 The fact that Singer "only" advocates the killing of handicapped newborns cannot obscure the fact that his theory can also legitimize the killing of older handicapped people. No more than Singer's restriction of his considerations to "severe handicapped infants" could "protect" other handicapped people, since this formulation, as demonstrated repeatedly by Singer, is vague and can therefore be interpreted at will.

22 Practical Ethics, p. 170 (German edition).

23 Roland Wittmann, Metaethische Überlegungen zu dem ethischen Diskurs über P. Singers "Praktische Ethik" (Metaethical considerations on the ethical discourse about P. Singer's "Practical Ethics"), in: "Zur Debatte über Euthanasie" (On the debate on euthanasia), loc. cit., pp. 169 ff.

24 It is also wrong and sheds a light on the imprecise lecture of Singer's work by his proponents when the professor of philosophy in Duisburg, Hartmut Kliemt, lectures his colleague from Hannover, Reinhard Löw "that Singer does not want possibly politically imposed forcible killings but at best a right to die" (Zur Debatte über Euthanasie, p. 236). Singer in "Practical Ethics" indiscriminately denies "mentally disordered human beings the rights [...] that are normal for their species", and his plea for "non-voluntary euthanasia" also has nothing to do with a "right to die".

25 Practical Ethics, pp. 178 ff. (German edition; quote translated back from German for this preliminary translation, sorry!).

26 T-4 was an "official" euthanasia action named after the headquarters at Tiergartenstrasse in Berlin to which a thousand handicapped children who had until then been concentrated in so-called children's special units in homes and institutions fell victims. The T-4 action was terminated after partly fierce protests from the catholic church and parents - this was followed by the so-called "wild euthanasia" in the context of which until the end of the war, besides yet other handicapped children, also handicapped adults and so-called "mentally disordered Eastern workers" were murdered. A good overview of the development, the extent and the planning of the euthanasia murders can be found in: Hans Walter Schmuhl, "Rassenhygiene, Nationalsozialismus, Euthanasia" (Racial hygiene, National Socialism, euthanasia), Göttingen 1987.

27 Karl Binding/Alfred Hoche, Die Freigabe der Vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens (Allowing the annihilation of life not worthwhile living), Leipzig 1922, p. 27.

28 Compare also: H. W. Schmuhl, loc. cit., pp. 121 ff. Alfred E. Hoche in turn emphasized that no "co-suffering" (compassion) was possible with the "mentally dead" so that for lack of social usefulness they had to be killed.

29 Quoted in Hans Walter Schmuhl, loc. cit., p. 175.

30 Weingart, Kroll, Bayertz, Rasse, Blut und Gene - Geschichte der Eugenik und der Rassenhygiene in Deutschland (Race, blood and genes - A history of eugenics and racial hygiene in Germany). Frankfurt 1988, p. 308.

31 Ursula Wolf, in: Zur Debatte über Euthanasie, loc. cit., p. 193.

32 Quoted in Karl Heinz Roth, Filmpropaganda für die Vernichtung der Geisteskranken (Film propaganda for the annihilation of the mentally ill), in: Beiträge zur Nationalsozialistischen Gesundheists- und Sozialpolitik (Contributions on the National Socialist health and social policies), Vol. 2, Berlin 1985.

33 Script for "I accuse", quoted in: Beiträge zur nationalsozialistischen Gesundheits- und Sozialpolitik (Contributions on the National Socialist health and social policies), Vol. 2, Berlin 1985, p. 162.

34 It does therefore not shed a favorable light on the historical conscience and knowledge of such theorists as Roland Wittmann or the Jean-Améry laureate Reinhard Merkel when they persistently write about the "fantasies" of the Nazis, about their "racial mania ... for which even the term 'ideology' would be an overstatement". This ignores all the more recent research about National Socialism and the partly highly qualified elites who made use of its power to realize their technocratic projects.

35 In this context, the more recent research has called the attention on the relevance of the "euthanasia" murders, which were partly implemented by the same planners and medical doctors, for the annihilation of the European Jews.

36 Should the baby live?, p. 95.

37 Quoted in E. Klee, Was sie taten - was sie wurden (What they did - what became of them), Frankfurt 1986, pp. 139 ff.

38 Besides the argument mentioned above according to which NS-"euthanasia" and his proposals for "euthanasia" have nothing in common, Singer has another argument ready: "The Nazis have committed horrible crimes, but this does not mean that everything the Nazis did was horrible. We cannot condemn euthanasia just because the Nazis have done it, any more than we could condemn the building of new roads for the same reason. If euthanasia had for some reason inevitably led to the atrocities of the Nazis then this would be a reason to condemn euthanasia. But is not racism rather than euthanasia responsible for the mass murders of the Nazis?" (Practical Ethics, pp. 210/211, German edition). Here the impression becomes complete, since NS "euthanasia" and "euthanasia" are not distinguished any longer. Here, for all the fogginess of Singer's thinking, at least some notion of what Singer might mean becomes apparent - that a good part of NS "euthanasia", e.g., the selection of handicapped children as practiced by Catel, was absolutely defensible, but not the murder of so-called "mentally ill Eastern workers" in the course of the "wild euthanasia" later on.

39 Quoted in: Schmuhl, loc. cit., p. 11. The German original reads: weil es sich "in Wirklichkeit um weit tiefere Entschlüsse, um die Absage an alle humane Verweichlichung handeln würde, die das Werk der bürgerlichen Epoche gewesen war: um ein instinktives Sich-in-Form-Bringen der Menschheit für harte und finstere, der Humanität spottende Läufte."

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