June 24, 2012

A sewing machine named Peter

Simple things are easier to grasp, that’s why we use metaphors. It’s not necessarily ‘dumbing things down’ since it hopes to create a more equal understanding for those not overly familiar with a concept or situation.

When you put an acorn in the ground because you want a large tree to grow, so that it will provide shade from the sun and some degree of protection from the elements and when trimming, some wood for the fireplace, you may not necessarily nurture that budding acorn or sapling. But you might put a protective net around it just for a better feeling. After all, unless you have animals roaming your property nature pretty much takes care of its own, once life has been given a foothold.

But the reason you plant seeds is not because you will be given a tree or crop the next day like Jack’s beanstalk. You plant it because there is the potential for reward, nourishment – life-giving reward, in other words. Because we know the potential of the thing do we invest in it and such cultivation is certainly a meaningful element in human nature.

The seed is not the tree itself but its potential. And as I have said, nature, sometimes appearing rather fickle, often has a kind of built in mechanism that allows life to grow. It is its own raison de ĂȘtre.  Now with people, dealing with unborn humans the story is a little different because they fall within that sphere of nurturing that we have. More so, they need nurturing, that’s why they stay gestating in a protected environment: that’s how nature has adapted our species (and others of course) to survive the transition from potential to realization, i.e. viable, thriving life. It goes even further since we are fairly unique on this planet in that we need continued nurturing even after we pass the gestation stage in order to survive. So that added nurturing is naturally hardwired into our beings. To which degree, can be influenced by learned behavior.

Once we have established this method of survival we can wallow in the luxury of it and permit ourselves to shape and alter it, manage it in other words. Here is also where people like Peter Singer, the Australian bioethicist incumbent at Princeton University, finds a niche calling for a reassessment of how we value the potential of life for our species.

I will just comment here on one aspect which is to agree with him that an unborn human is not a person, since they have not entered that stage of development yet. But we mustn’t attach any value to a human not having reached that stage of development yet because to do so would negate the very basis of our existence which is that we are what we are in potential and too many unknowns make it impossible for us to make finalistic judgments as to the value of a human beings life, since nature, the force which gives us life, has already had its say in establishing a priori this method. Taking it a step further, let’s ask why should we attach any value judgment to the potential for life. Here, not only modern societal perspectives come in play as also in older cultures humans who were very different or who cannot function in a way which accommodates the concept of a homogenous group moving in a particular direction have been demonized. Which is all very well for a primitive society fighting for a few grubs to eat. Now we are perhaps better suited to look at our own development and remove certain unwanted elements and influence the direction we are taking instead of having it dictated by elemental design.

So where there are people trying to negate the innate respect of that potential of life to grow and exist we are being nothing more than a slave to a kind of pagan gold ageism, a throwback or at the very least trying to undermine the very ability for innovation which is at the core of our survival.

Trying to use a particular twist of human logical thinking to dictate our understanding of the method of nurturing which, through the power of adaptation has seen us survive as a species, is ludicrous. People like Singer try to whitewash our innate survival mechanism and label it utilitarian. I too am an utilitarian. It is unfortunate that someone like Singer uses his intellect to pursue and justify such a narrow perception, such a sliver of content of human beings as a utilitarian species. In a colony an ant with a broken leg will continue to do what it can and is not necessarily immediately cannibalized by others because of lost production values. And we are so much more. What utility means can be found in the dictionary, which does not mean that in order to establish value and worth of a human being we should turn to a dictionary. Utility is based on contribution and here, obviously, perception of our diverse species is an emerging one since change is apparent everywhere. Perhaps herein lies part of the motivation of some bioethicists – a reaction against change, trying to further entrench an archaic point of view. 

Here though, in our species, if we fail to realize we are still evolving and that our gain in knowledge has become a driving force in our evolution, we become completely lost in stagnation. Such is the problem of people like Singer; they are stuck in this concept of humans (us) having realized our most ultimate level of understanding, instead of understanding that our ultimate level of potential has not yet been realized. Our expanding knowledge lies in our physical abilities, our mental accomplishments as well as nurturing.  All of our accomplishments, building on what was before are increasing, developing. Thus necessarily also that of feeling, emotion, synthetic thinking – nurturing. On an evolutionary scale of course feeling, that most complex limbic mechanism will be last, but in the end necessarily greatest and most important.

We are slightly more complicated beings than ants or even chimpanzees. Therefore it does not surprise me that someone such as Singer, a very vocal proponent of putting our evolution on hold, does not have a grasp of the complexity of our development, or even recognizes that it exists.


  1. I find his beliefs confusing and a bit creepy. He certainly seems stilted emotionally.

  2. I have always held Pete Singer and Mary Anne Warren in very low regard. In fact I always hoped that he could be repatriated "down under", but I have gotten to know too many genuine people there. I guess that Princeton is tuck with him. I am happy that you are able to find some words or one word (potential) that you could salvage from the poor man. As for our being slightly more complicated than the chimps? I am not so sure...they seem to take better care of their own than we do? Could be wrong...