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Clash of the Intellectual Titans: Singer vs Fisher

Imogen Grant relays the key moments from last week’s Euthanasia Debate, held among 2000 people at Sydney’s Town Hall.

Imogen Grant relays the key moments from last week’s Euthanasia Debate, held among 2000 people at Sydney’s Town Hall.

Euthanasia in Australia remains an unresolved moral conundrum, which the public, especially the legislators, are yet to make up their minds on. On August 13, the University of Sydney Catholic Society held what will probably be their magnum opus—a debate between the renowned utilitarian philosopher Professor Peter Singer, and the current Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher.

The debate, “Should voluntary euthanasia be legalised?” was spearheaded by the affirmative Singer, who made the simple distinction between voluntary euthanasia and murder. He asked the audience “why do we normally consider killing an innocent person wrong and a crime?” Primarily, he argued, because it is a violation of their autonomy and deprives them of future good experiences. This is separate to voluntary euthanasia, which is about respecting the educated and autonomous choice of a terminally ill patient.

Conversely, Archbishop Fisher predictably argued that voluntary euthanasia “creates two classes of people: those whose lives we value and those whose lives we don’t.” He said that comforting the terminally ill requires more from us and, therefore, places a higher value on human life.

Clearly a believer in the certainty of death and taxes, Fisher warned about the “bracket creep” of euthanasia. This slippery slope argument suggests that it might only be terminally ill patients now, but next it will be any “love-struck teenager”.

Singer strongly rejected this claim. In the Netherlands, the 5,000 incidents of voluntary euthanasia in a year only account for 3% of total deaths. Moreover, the patients were disproportionately white, under the age of 65, and with above average levels of education. Therefore, discounting Fisher’s view that it is the vulnerable and elderly most at risk.

Moreover, physicians frequently euthanise patients. Legalising voluntary euthanasia would allow for its regulation and provide safeguards to prevent its abuse.

The questions from the audience reflected the strong Catholic presence at the debate. Nearly all of the questions were antagonistic towards Singer. One questioner, who obviously hadn’t read his work, even asked, “who are you to decide when some lives are worth more than others?” Did she really think that Singer was an atheist boogieman out to kill all terminally ill patients?

Singer became increasingly irritated and repeatedly requested that questions be kept within the parameter of the debate—voluntary euthanasia—which automatically excludes those, such as children, who are unable to consent.

Fundamentally, it appeared that the two speakers were engaging in separate debates. Singer spoke exclusively about voluntary euthanasia, whereas Fisher directed the debate towards a broader discussion concerning the intrinsic value of human life.

With little overlap in the speakers’ arguments, there was no clear winner. With nothing resolved, the debate ended with a chance for audience members to have a book signed by their chosen hero and inflict them to an awkward selfie.