Peter Singer and The Mystique of Bioethics, Part 1

In recent years, philosophers have increasingly engaged with each other in impassioned discussions about academic freedom in the discipline and profession of philosophy and across academia more broadly, as well as participated in heated debates with members of the broader public about freedom of speech in society more generally. The topics around which the most notably controversial of these discussions and debates have revolved include: the philosophical legitimacy of so-called gender critical feminism; the publication of articles about innate differences between allegedly natural races; and the extension to philosophers Peter Singer and Kathleen Stock of invitations to present their work in light of the former philosopher’s remarks about the permissibility of infanticide of disabled infants and the latter philosopher’s renown as the most prominent advocate of gender critical feminism and it claims about the immutability of binary sex.

With few exceptions, left-leaning philosophers denounce the transphobia that motivates gender critical feminism, repudiate the scientific racism that underlies views about innate racial differences, and condemn the claims about infanticide and disability that Singer has made. Yet the ableism that produced Singer’s claims remains largely intact; that is, the almost singular condemnation of Singer’s arguments has effectually obscured and deflected attention away from comparatively pernicious claims that other bioethicists make. Indeed, the singularity that philosophers have conferred upon Singer’s arguments has enabled the claims of other bioethicists to remain systematically unchallenged and to proliferate, especially insofar as these claims are routinely taught in introductory university and college bioethics classes, classes that are regarded as standard “service” courses and hence a lucrative and vital part of philosophy department curricula and infrastructure; that is to say, most philosophers treat bioethics as an innocuous “applied” subfield of the discipline that can be largely ignored.

In short, although most philosophers denounce the bioethical claims of Singer, they deem the subfield of bioethics itself—in which the value of disabled people’s lives is candidly adjudicated and the ontological status of disability is routinely taken for granted—to be relatively insignificant or at least inconsequential philosophically and politically, to be apolitical, and even politically neutral. By contrast, many feminist and so-called disability bioethicists paradoxically insist that although the claims of Singer are morally reprehensible, the field of bioethics itself is a noble and progressive enterprise within which one can selectively adopt a neutral stance on certain “bioethical issues” (Scully 2021). These variously tendentious constructions of the subfield of bioethics as a philosophically inconsequential, politically neutral, unmotivated, innocent, and progressive field of inquiry are part and parcel of what I call “the mystique of bioethics.”

The aim of my recent and current work is to explode this mystique by articulating a compelling argument according to which bioethics is an instrument and mechanism of neoliberal eugenics, an insidious enterprise of colonial power. I want to underscore that Peter Singer did not create bioethics; rather, bioethics created Peter Singer. As an instrument and mechanism of neoliberalism, bioethics, I maintain, increasingly facilitates the normalization of subjects and populations in ways that make them governable, manageable, and cost effective, that is, bioethics produces techniques and mechanisms that homogenize subjects and populations to maximize their productivity and efficiency, both as individuals and aggregates of individuals.

One way in which I motivate my argument that bioethics is a technology of neoliberal eugenics is by introducing the term disaster ableism to refer to strategies and practices that produce, exploit, and aggravate perceived and actual economic, political, environmental, and social disasters and crises in order to advance eugenic goals. As I shall continue to elaborate, the strategies and practices of disaster ableism in which various Canadian bioethicists, law professors, and politicians have engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic have thrown into stark relief the ways that the neoliberal eugenics agenda, which is at the heart of bioethics, is an integral component of colonialism.

Find Peter Singer and the Mystique of Bioethics, Part 2 here.

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