Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Discovery Institute Straw Mans Peter Singer

One of the major challenges in identifying and recognizing many fallacies is that they often depend on a degree of ignorance in the reader. That is, the fallacy works because the reader is ignorant of the truth. This is often the case in false dilemmas where one may not be aware of other options, and it is particularly problematic in the case of Straw Men. A Straw Man is a deliberate misrepresentation of an opponent's view, and this misrepresentation can be difficult to recognize unless one is familiar with the view being distorted. A good example of this comes from a recent article by Wesley J. Smith posted on the Discovery Institute website. This article is critical of a recent award given to the philosopher and ethicist Peter Singer by the Australian government. In developing this criticism of the award Smith attacks the views of Peter Singer, enumerating the many flaws he sees with the ethical positions Singer adopts. One such criticism is the following:
• Singer supports using the disabled in medical experiments: In 2006, Singer enraged animal rights activists over the use of monkeys in researching cures for Parkinson’s disease. But he would have said the same thing about using human “non-persons.” In fact, he often has. For example, when asked by Psychology Today about the benefits that chimps provided in developing the hepatitis vaccine, Singer said that disabled humans should be used in such research instead.
Now I happen to be fairly familiar with Singer's work having first encountered it when I was a TA in graduate school (h/t to Lara Denis), so I immediately recognized this as a Straw Man of Singer's actual position. Fortunately, Smith provides a source for his claim, so we can look at what Singer actually said:
PT: Let's take a specific case. Research on chimpanzees led to the hepatitis B vaccine, which has saved many human lives. Let's pretend it's the moment before that research is to begin. Would you stop it?
PS: I'm not comfortable with any invasive research on chimps. I would ask, Is there no other way? And I think there are other ways. I would say, What about getting the consent of relatives of people in vegetative states?
PT: That would cause a riot!
PS: Well, if you could really confidently determine that this person will never recover consciousness, it's a lot better to use them than a chimp. I agree, it doesn't go over well, and people throw up their hands in shock and horror. But I'd like them to explain why it's better to lock a fully-conscious, self-aware chimp in a seven-foot cage in solitary confinement than to experiment with someone lying unconscious in a hospital ward.
Now Singer's views are certainly provocative, but in this passage he doesn't actually advocate the use of disabled humans for scientific research. Firstly, his claim is limited to people in a persistent vegetative state, not disabled people generally, such as someone with MS or who uses a wheelchair. Secondly, he only suggests that these individuals be used under certain very limited conditions (no chance of recovery, full consent of the family). Lastly, he is not actually advocating this position, but merely posing it as a challenge to those who advocate the use of animal research. If we think research on a chimpanzee is moral, then why do we not also think it is more moral to use humans in a persistent vegetative state? It is certainly a provocative and challenging argument, but it is an argument, and the proper way to respond is to evaluate the premises and the inferences to the conclusion. The tactic of Smith, by contrast, is to simply Straw Man the position so that it looks completely ridiculous.

The take away from all this is that when one is reading or listening to comments critical of someone else's viewpoint it is always a good idea to take a look at the position being criticized to ensure that the reconstruction and criticism of it is accurate.

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