VIDEO: Chomsky and Singer Discuss Abortion

There’s nothing like a couple of the twentieth century’s greatest minds discussing the issue of abortion to bring the debate back down to the basic questions, such as how to negotiate conflicting values, and what makes a human, a human.

In a video posted yesterday on Milk and Cookies featuring clips from the 2006 Tony Kaye documentary "Lake of Fire," Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer discuss the ethics of the abortion debate.
Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne, made a particularly interesting point, and brought the discussion to the most basic level—why is killing a human being wrong? The failure of the public to be able to tackle this ancient philosophical question, he says, is part of the reason that the abortion debate has been so stunted. Instead, we’ve focused on whether or not the fetus is a human being, without looking at the underlying questions of what makes killing a human being wrong. In one sense, Singer says, the fact that the fetus is a member of our species and alive makes it a human being.

“But what are the characteristics that make it particularly wrong to kill a human being? Why do we think that killing a human being is normally wrong? I think if you start asking those questions, you get to see that it’s not just being a member of the species homo sapiens that makes killing wrong, it’s rather the fact that us, you and me and anyone else listening here, is a being that has got certain capacities. Can think… is aware of the fact that he or she is living and wants to go on living, and all of those things contribute to why we think that for someone, say, just randomly to shoot people in the street is a terrible thing. But none of that applies to the fetus—when most abortions are performed the fetus is not even conscious, and it’s certainly never a being that can think, ‘I want to go on living.’”

Certainly a difficult discussion to have, but nonetheless an important one. What makes death in some instances reasonable, and in others devastating? Chomsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that this is an instance of conflicting values. On one hand, there’s the value of the preservation of life and on the other, there’s the value of letting a woman control her body and her future.

“The values that we hold are not absolute. They are always contingent. They conflict. And life is made up of decisions and complicated situations and cases of conflicting values…. Choice is legitimate. Preserving life is legitimate. And sometimes they run into conflict.”

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  • progo35

    You know, I thought that some people here might actually CARE about discrimination toward the handicapped in our society. I thought that being pro choice meant honoring individual diversity and autonomy for all people, including the handicapped. But, at least in the case of this website, I guess I was wrong. Only a day after someone made a comment about infanticide of disabled infants and I and others pointed out Peter Singer’s ableist bias toward the handicapped, RH features a video giving credence to his philosophies. This proves my point in my discussion with anon-people DO take Peter Singer’s words seriously, as evidenced by this post. I am very disappointed that RH would choose to honor an abelist, anti-disability person in this manner.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • emily-douglas

    Progo35, by discussing a conversation Peter Singer had about abortion, we are not honoring him or accepting his point of view wholesale — or at all. His argument is another side to the conversation about abortion and life, and worth covering.

  • progo35

    Okay, Emily, than I would like to see you feature a positively framed article about Pat Robertson’s opinion on abortion. No? Could it be that RH is disgusted by his POV? Yes. But not Peter Singer’s. To you, his POV is “worth covering.” Like I said, this confirms my feelings that Peter Singer is listened to “as one of the 20th centuries greatest minds” and that his ableist, bigoted views continue to contribute to the oppression of disabled people in a very real way. If you really care about the rights of anyone, than you would not feature the rhetoric of one of the most ableist, bigoted men ever to walk the earth in the last sixty years.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • invalid-0

    I agree with you, Progo35, that Singer’s opinions on the non-able bodied people. And I’m glad that you made a point about that because people ought to remember that. But…

    1) Just because he is wrong on something things does not know he’s wrong about this. Discrediting the person does not discredit the idea, and this article is about abortion and that’s it.

    2) He can be one of the 20th century’s greatest minds and be wrong about some things, as well. In fact, as I’m sure you are aware, his opinions on non-able bodied people derive out of something much higher minded then where it comes from in most people: that its inconvenient to worry about and supports their privilege not to. That doesn’t mean he’s not wrong, and exasperatingly and unforgivably wrong, but he’s a philosopher, not a politician.

    if we didn’t allow anyone to talk who was wrong about something, no one would talk. shutting things down is not the solution, but speaking up, like you did, is.

  • progo35

    I’m not sure what you mean by this quote:
    “In fact, as I’m sure you are aware, his opinions on non-able bodied people derive out of something much higher minded then where it comes from in most people: that its inconvenient to worry about and supports their privilege not to.”

    Perhaps you could clarify what in this view is “high minded.” It doesn’t seem any different than the common variety view that you cite, that handicapped people are burdensome, etc. As I think you understand, that view is not “high minded,” it is simplistic, misinformed, and bigoted.

    My point is that RH would (rightfully) not feature an article written by David Duke about abortion, because he is an affirmed bigot, if not a college-employed one. That Singer is a recognized philosopher does not change the fact that he is a bigot. It is willful oversights of this bigotry that make me question whether the people concerned truly value diversity or if they only do so because that is the fashionable position to take where race, gender and religion are concerned. If such individuals cannot respect the diversity inherent in disability and, moreover, give credence to one of the greatest ableist bigots of our time, than they do not truly value human diversity and/or are extremely ignorant, both of which are unacceptable in this day and age. The only way to stop this kind of bigotry is to call it out and not support it by giving credence to those who do. RH has not done this. Instead, it has chosen to feature the self-aggrandizing, selfish, cruel rantings of a egg-headed, socially endorsed, but pernicious bigot. I think that as propogators of a philosophy that is supposed to favor respect for the individual and social justice, RH should be ashamed.

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • progo35

    Peter Singer favors equating the human fetus with the human infant. In his view, the human infant ought to have the same rights as the fetus in terms of whether he or she will be terminated. Thus, abortion rights advocates should not support him because he takes the same view that pro life people do-that the moral worth of the fetus and the infant are one and the same. Why do you give credence to the views of a man who takes this position, when it actually serves to give credence to the pro life argument that abortion endangers children?

    "Well behaved women seldom make history."-Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

  • colleen

    Hell, I watched this because I was interested in what Noam Chomsky had to say.

    The only difference between the American anti-abortion movement and the Taliban is about 8,000 miles.

    Dr Warren Hern, MD

  • invalid-0

    Same here! I kept expecting Chomsky to launch into some diatribe like “Abortion is just another strategem of Israel to oppress the Palestinian people” :-)

    Surprising to hear him speak so softly on this topic, which while controversial, is outside of both his main areas of interest (linguistics and left-wing sociopolitical commentary).

    Singer’s views were pretty interesting too. Not that the two were on opposite corners of the ring or anything, but it was refreshing to see the abortion debate play out as collegiate philosophy, for a change.

  • snowflake

    Emily, for heaven’s sake–the article calls Peter Singer one of "the twentieth century’s greatest minds."


    If that’s not RHRealitycheck singling Peter Singer out for honor in spite of his views of on infanticide, I don’t know what is.


    If a man was a learned professor and prochoice, but also thought wife beating was acceptable behavior for men, would you feature him in a reality check article and call him one of "the twentieth century’s greatest minds?"

    I think you’d find a different person to quote, right?  

  • invalid-0

    As an earnest question, is there a philosophical difference between infanticide (or any “-cide”) and euthanasia?

  • invalid-0

    Chomsky has no moral weight in any way!