Skip to main content Accessibility help

‘Terrible Purity’: Peter Singer, Harriet McBryde Johnson, and the Moral Significance of the Particular



In her account of a debate held at Princeton University between herself and Peter Singer, the lawyer and disability rights activist Harriet McBryde Johnson criticizes the ‘terrible purity of Singer's vision’. Although she certainly disagrees with the substance of Singer's arguments concerning disability and infanticide, this remark is best understood as a critique of their form. In this paper, I attempt to make sense of this critique. I argue that Singer's characteristic mode of argument, with its appeal to a universal, neutral point of view, makes it impossible for McBryde Johnson to give voice to her particular experience and thus obscures her humanity. In order to clarify the positive contribution that an appeal to particular experience may make to moral reasoning, I draw a parallel with the transformative effects of the experience of beauty, arguing that McBryde Johnson's writing ought to be regarded as both morally and philosophically instructive.



Hide All
Crary, Alice. (2010) ‘Minding What Already Matters’. Philosophical Topics, 38, 1749.
Gaita, Raimond. (2002) A Common Humanity: Thinking about Love and Truth and Justice. London: Routledge.
Johnson, Harriet McBryde. (2006) Too Late to Die Young: Nearly True Tales from a Life. New York: Picador.
Kant, Immanuel. (2007) Critique of Judgement. Edited by Walker, Nicholas. Translated by Creed Meredith, James. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kittay, Eva F. (2009) ‘Rationality, Personhood, and Peter Singer on the Fate of Severely Impaired Infants’. In Miller, Geoffrey (ed.), Pediatric Bioethics (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press), 165–72.
Koch, Tom. (2004) ‘The Difference That Difference Makes: Bioethics and the Challenge of “Disability”’. Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, 29, 697716.
Lantos, John. (2003) ‘Johnson, Singer, Almodovar, and the Aesthetics of Bioethics’. American Society for Bioethics and Humanities Exchange, 6, 27.
Nehamas, Alexander. (2010) Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Plato. (2002) Five Dialogues. Edited by Cooper, John M.. Translated by Grube, G. M. A.. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett.
Savulescu, Julian. (2013) ‘Abortion, Infanticide and Allowing Babies to Die, 40 Years On’. Journal of Medical Ethics, 39, 257–59.
Singer, Peter. (2011) Practical Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


‘Terrible Purity’: Peter Singer, Harriet McBryde Johnson, and the Moral Significance of the Particular



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed