Lovely Mess (Photo: Ambrose Volkofsky)

Looking for quiet and stillness, I walk along a back street. The sun on my shoulders is warm. Nice: almost as good as the sun on the back step where our dog sleeps. I relax and let my mind and soul wander.

This alleyway is a new one to me. I expected something more desolate. Instead it’s rows of cars, parked not long ago by workers who have all walked through the rear entrances of grey and brown buildings. Exhaust fumes are in the air.

Yes, it’s quiet, but more like the ambience of expectant energy. The air hums. If you were a film director this would be a good place to have a killing scene: lots of metallic energy but not a soul in sight. The bitumen is clean and well used, ready to brutally stop the fall of a human body. This is a place of youth, of energy and of death—young death to my mind.

Lots of workers come here every day—park their cars and walk inside—not having a clue about why they live, why they work or why they have this urge to keep busy. They ‘love to work’ they say and joke about doing it to fund their weekend hobbies. That one sounds hollower every time you hear it, especially from the tribal elders
of Big Business Inc. I wonder if those kids working in there know what their tribal elders are really thinking. They suspect it, I suspect.

I turn a corner, walking past an office for the unemployed. This is where I feel an affinity. These are my people these days. We emerge from our homes later in the day than the rest of the town. If someone is having a heart attack or getting executed, it won’t be one of us. We drink our coffee and enjoy the sunshine while the other half work and keep the bitumen fresh: just right for that film director.

I turn another corner and stroll along the main, past the old man who’s always there in his motorised chair: drinking coffee in the sun, catching up with his mates and keeping a stern eye on the noisy kids that should be at school. I smile at him as I walk past.

Finally, I make it to the appointed coffee shop. They laugh when they see me. They know why I’m here. I tell them I’ve got a publisher. They smile and look at me with excited disbelief.

There’s no way I’m writing a blog in a place like this. Coffee shops deserve something with much more chemistry: a thriller for example. But then, blogs can be like a thriller, especially when you’ve just read someone saying the following …

‘We can try to deal one at a time with the problems of the sanctity of life ethic. But the overall result will be a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces of which have to be forced into place, until the whole picture is under so much pressure that it buckles and breaks apart. I think there is a better way. There is a larger picture in which all the pieces fit together. Whatever issue of the moment may concern us; in the long run we all need to see this larger picture. It will offer practical solutions to problems we now find insoluble, and allow us to act compassionately and humanely, where our ethic now leads us to outcomes that nobody wants. I want to paint that larger picture.’41

This statement is filled with the language of our age: words like ‘ethic’, ‘a larger picture in which all the pieces fit together’, ‘practical solutions’, ‘paint that larger picture’. It’s the language of pragmatism (making things work) and what is known as ‘reductionism’: ‘the practice of analysing and describing a complex phenomenon in terms of its simple or fundamental constituents, especially when this is said to provide a sufficient explanation.’

In other words, the compassion (and anxiety) that drives such a reductionist’s thinking will mostly be about his or her own beliefs on the origin and meaning of life. Their talk of what is morally right and wrong won’t have much at all to do with intuition or soul, it will mostly be about logic and common sense. Interestingly, Peter Singer describes himself as an altruist, which means ‘someone who has a disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others.’ It raises the question of what is meant by ‘disinterested’, ‘well-being’ and ‘others’.

Peter Singer, for example, has openly stated (the italics are mine), ‘We have seen that the basic reason for taking this view derives from what it is to be a person, a being with awareness of her or his own existence over time, and the capacity to have wants and plans for the future. There is also a powerful social and political reason for protecting the lives of those who are capable of fearing their own death.

‘Universal acceptance and secure protection of the right to life of every person is the most important good that a society can bestow upon its members. …. Only a being able to see herself as existing over time can fear death and can know that, if people may be killed with impunity, her own life could be in jeopardy.

Neither infants nor those non-human animals incapable of seeing themselves as existing over time can fear their own deaths (although they may be frightened by threatening or unfamiliar circumstances, as a fish in a net may be frightened). This provides another reason for recognising that another person has a right to life, or in other words that it is a greater wrong to take the life of a person than to take the life of any other being…

‘Since neither a newborn infant nor a fish is person, the wrongness of killing such beings is not as great as killing a person. But this does not mean that we should disregard the needs of an infant to be fed, and kept warm and comfortable and free of pain, for as long as it lives.’42

According to Nancy Pearcey, ‘Personhood theory,’ tells us that, “Just being part of the human race is not morally relevant. Individuals must earn the status of personhood by meeting an additional set of criteria: the ability to make decisions, self-awareness and so on … many ethicists have argued that non-persons may be used for utilitarian purposes such as research and harvesting organs. Wesley Smith43 describes this as a proposal for ‘human strip-mining.’”44

So, is Peter Singer some kind of complete ‘bad guy’, period? Not at all. He genuinely cares and wants to help us deal with some of the awful dilemmas being created by advances in medical technology. To his credit, he is actually attempting to make us all think about things that many of us would rather ignore. In ‘Lovely Mess V’ (my next blog) we will wrestle with one of his case studies.

41 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life & Death (The Text Publishing Company Australia, 1994) 6

42 Peter Singer, Rethinking Life & Death (The Text Publishing Company Australia, 1994) 218-220

43 Culture of Death, W Smith, referred to in Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey, 58

44 Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey quoting W Smith, 58