Sunday, July 16, 2006

Life, Death, Abortion and Animals

In this post I explained how the sanctity of life ethic behind the idea that human life and only human life is sacred from conception stems from the idea that ethics is about upholding God's property rights over all creation. I insisted that this was an abhorrent ethic, permitting people to be treated solely as property in a way rejected at the end of slavery.

However, that leaves us to develop a theory of ethics based on interests and centred around the idea that it is inherently wrong to violate these interests. Way back here I linked this with empathy, as empathy allows us to understand the importance of these interests and go about creating an ethic which does justice to them.

Creating this new ethic is a task which Peter Singer approaches with gusto, and I think he makes great strides. However, he is widely disliked and discredited for one very unpopular conclusion which he reaches. This is that it can be morally acceptable to kill some newborn babies. I will describe his reasoning and then attempt to explain why I think he goes wrong, building a more defensible ethic as I go along.

Singer's starting premise is that biological humanity is not in itself morally significant. I have said much independently to the same effect, so I will merely summarise the argument. On an interest-based approach, morally relevant faculties must have some relationship with these interests. So self-awareness, ability to feel pain etc can be morally relevant as they influence the interests that we have. However, there are no such faculties which tie to all and only biological humans. In the early stages, embryos have absolutely no interests, and while they gain more towards the end of pregnancy, they only gain certain crucial faculties after birth. Indeed, many animals have vastly superior faculties than newly born babies and some severely mentally disabled people.

Now, there is a lot of debate in ethics over what is necessary to meet the requirements to be a 'person,' and this is often treated as someone who must be treated ethically. It is usually drawn at the same place as to make 'persons' of those we can expect to be ethically responsible, and while I agree with this, there is no necessary reason why the line for moral agent and moral object should be the same. In any case, clearly going by faculties and interests we cannot draw the line so as to include all humans and exclude all animals. Hence the problem. Singer seems to embrace the same solution I favour: A graded scale of interests. Rather than personhood putting someone in or out of ethical consideration, we have to look at the level of perception and interests in order to decide how to treat someone. I hit upon a similar idea with appreciative empathy - treating others as we would like to be treated if we had their faculties and preferences. So Singer would agree without hesitation that it is wrong to torture animals, while there is no obligation to educate them - they do not have the faculties to appreciate the latter. Personhood can be seen as the top of the gradient, above which we can assume that 'people' have all the faculties we are used to, and so treat them as such.

The problem arises when it comes to killing (at least, where there is no pain involved). Singer considers the wrong of killing from a number of perspectives, and concludes that a right to life is far more persuasive when the being is self-aware or has a sense of existing over time. In this way its preferences can be thwarted. Preference utilitarianism therefore speaks in favour if it living. Clearly this does not apply to many animals, foetuses or (crucially) the new born. So what is wrong with killing these? Singer argues classical utilitarianism, so that to do so would overall decrease pleasure. This allows that if living a life is so unpleasant as to bring negative pleasure, then there is no obligation to maintain that life - the argument for euthanasia in a nutshell.

But Singer says that even where a non-person's life is worth living, it can still be okay to end it. In the case of new born babies, they are not yet people and so if unwanted, can justifiably be killed. However, for the most part this is not true as there are many people willing to adopt. For disabled babies, however, he worries that their lives will not be happy. Crucially, he argues that we can compare their happiness to that of babies who will be born if the disabled babies are killed, as replacements for them. It is here that I think he goes horribly wrong, and I think the reason is his commitment to utilitarianism.

Classical utilitarianism considers the total resulting pleasure from any choice in order to decide what is right. While maintaining that interests are the basis of morality, I still assert that this is overly simplistic and wrong-headed. To take a simplistic example, even if a gang rape will lead to greater pleasure for the perpetrators than pain for the victim, it is still wrong. The current case is another example. I think that while we can consider the total pleasure / pain of an individual (which will almost always still be positive), it is wrongheaded to simplistically compare it to that of others. Moreover, I think Singer is wrong to believe that we can even consider the interests of a being which may not be conceived.

Instead, I would argue that the better view is one where interests are violated wherever the capacity for them is lost. In killing any conscious being, we are robbing it of its faculties, and so violating its interests. This is more wrong the more developed these faculties are, but it is wrong (barring justifications) with any conscious being. This actually solves the old problem of what is wrong with killing a person in their sleep. It is not just that their preferences have been thwarted, but that their faculties have been destroyed. Their memories, plans, preferences and personality have been ended, and that is the great wrong of killing.

This actually allows a lot of other issues to slot into place. Abortion is still acceptable because even once the foetus has become conscious, its interests do not trump the dignity and autonomy of the mother, as explained here. It is wrong to kill the severely mentally disabled and new borns, because although not conscious, killing them would still rob them of those faculties they do have. At the same time, it is also wrong to kill animals because it robs them of their faculties, again unless there was a justification.

So once the baby is born and its interests are no longer competing with those of a pregnant woman, as long is its life is not so unpleasant that death would be a welcome release, and barring other justification, I do not think that we can allow it to be killed. We cannot compare it to babies who might be born otherwise, as they have no interests to lose. Although it is not yet a person by most people's standards, it still has interests which must be respected.

Abortion Debate

I am in the middle of an interesting discussion about abortion which is taking place across two left-wing, pro-choice blogs I frequent. It started out with this post:

Sufficient Scruples - Keeping It Real

The author, KTK argued that there really is no rational way to argue the pro-life position and that the only issue is women's autonomy. I was unconvinced that it was that simple. The next post was this:

Lean Left - How Not To Debate Abortion

Tgirsch argued that KTK's post was unnecessarily dismissive of pro-lifers and defended them as often motivated by genuine ethical concerns. In the comments which followed, I used my own ethical logic to try to deal with points which came up like the difficulty of Peter Singer's approach to newborn babies (which I will deal with in my next post) and the question of mental disabilities taking one outside of personhood. Now, KTK has made a new post:

Sufficient Scruples - Obligations To The Foetus

Here, he deals with what I consider to be a very interesting problem - pregnant women behaving such as to cause birth defects. He asserts that since the foetus is not a person, these acts are not immoral. I completely disagree with him, and use the example of a trap set before the intended victim's birth which kills them later to show that what is important is when the effects are felt, rather than when the acts are done.

I invite anyone who reads this blog to join in, either on these blogs or the comments section here. To my mind, one important thing that this shows is that abortion ethics are much more complicated than simply 'yes' or 'no'.


Here are some more blog posts on both sides of the issue, and some which branch out to further issues. I have commented on a number of them.

Philosophy, et cetera - Obligations Beyond the Fetus

Richard is of the same opinion as me that abortion is permissible while causing birth defects while pregnant is not.

Philosophy, et cetera - The Temporal Acrobatics of Harm

On the other hand, Richard believes that we can harm a person after they die, because if a person ever exists, then it has interests not bound by time. Personally, I cannot see any merit in this as it strikes me as ignoring how interests are tied to existing, conscious beings. Since beings are mortal, so are their interests. So we cannot harm anyone after they die.

LTI Blog - Do No Harm (Except For That Killing Thing)

LTI Blog - "Harming" a Living Human Being Non-Person Fetus Thing

LTI Blog - A Moral Obligation to Kill

In these three posts, responding to KTK and Richard, pro-life Serge argues that the issues of abortion and causing birth defects are tied up so that they stand and fall together. I have come out against this on grounds hopefully adequately summarised in one comment I made (although I may soon expand it to to a full posts once I am done with Singer!):

An early term foetus has no interests, and I maintain that a late term foetus has some but fewer than a full person, which are overridden by the mother’s rights to dignity and autonomy. However, once she makes the choice to continue the pregnancy, I don’t see anything wrong with that imposing new moral constraints on her. This does not violate her autonomy as she still has the opt-out clause of abortion.

So why should these obligations arise? Because the effect of the actions very much will be felt by a person, albeit later on. It is like kicking someone such that internal damage only causes pain and death a year on. The delay does not matter. A person quite foreseeably felt the effects, so it is wrong. The fact that in the birth defects case the ‘victim’ was not yet a person does not matter. The effects will harm a person, albeit with delayed action.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

The Sanctity of Life

This will be my first post in response to what I have read of Peter Singer's work. I was not expecting to agree with all of his work, despite him being in broadly the same camp as me in terms of ethical views (pro-choice, anti-animal testing etc). I'm glad that reading a volume summarising his main views, (Writings On An Ethical Life, Peter Singer, 2002 Fourth Estate), has allowed me to find some major points of disagreement, while understanding and respecting his main points.

In this first post however, I will be agreeing with and developing upon one of his points. This is his identification and rejection of the monolithic 'old ethic' which is creaking with the weight of its illogic and incompatibility with modern realities. He calls this the 'sanctity of life' ethic, which holds human life inviolable and intensely superior to animal life. As well as justifying any harm to animals in the name of human wellbeing, it denies that there is ever a reason to end human life unless in the name of saving other human life. Thus suicide and euthanasia are always wrong, as is abortion from the point of conception.

There is much to be said about what is wrong with this, and Singer does so admirably. The specialness of humanity is not premised upon any faculties or abilities peculiar to humans, as otherwise it could not be extended to the seconds after conception or the most profoundly mentally disabled. Furthermore, removing the right to choose to end our lives and refusing to accept that other harms (like extreme ongoing pain or discomfort) can make it worth our while to have our lives ended makes living less a right and more an obligation. What Singer does not identify, I think, is the rationale behind this. Stripped down, I think that it exists in quite startling form. This explanation is purely religious, although it has been unthinkingly adopted even by the nonreligious for a long time.

This explanation for the old ethic is this. Normal 'interests' (to live, to be free from pain, to have dignity, etc) are not what are to be respected. If they were, then it would be impossible to include all that are included and exclude all that are not. Instead, the specialness of humanity is based on the value placed on it by God. What this means is that what is wrong about killing someone is that it offends God's value on the person's life. Moral wrongs are not against people so much as against God. Thus even if a baby and a chimpanzee had exactly the same mental development and state, harming the latter would be far worse because it would be more of a slight to God. This actually rings of familiarity with another institution we are used to. Property. The ethic treats all things purely as the property of God. We would not complain about our property's rights being violated when it is stolen or damaged. We would complain about our rights over the property. The property's value is entirely wound up in those with interests in it. This seems to be exactly what the old ethic does with people, considering them as God's property.

Thus it is worse to harm humans because God places more value on humans. Just as we would be willing to sacrifice less beloved property for more beloved, God is willing to allow animals to be sacrificed for humans. These preferences need not be rational - indeed, as both Singer and I have tried to show, there is no rational divider which neatly puts all humans on one side and all non-humans on the other. It would seem worse to us to damage property that is valuable to someone than property which they care little for, even though the valuation may be irrational to us. This is because it is the owner we care about, not the property. The sanctity of life ethic treats us like property.

For more evidence, a key teaching from Christianity should help. This is the view, inherent in the sanctity of life ethic, that only God may give or take life. This was once used as an argument against medicine (and still is in some fringe groups) and while it is now generally thought that things which kill us are generally evil rather than God's will, the second part of the dictum is widely held to still be true. We may not take life, because that is God's job. God has the right to rob us of our lives. This is entirely consistent with God owning us. A key example is the story of Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament. Abraham is routinely praised for obeying God in attempting to kill his own son. The action was right, because God said it to be so. This takes precedence over any supposed 'rights' we have. This is because we are God's to do with as He wishes. The general rules of morality are only there because He put them there, because that is how He wants His property treated. Just as how we may allow our property to be destroyed, so may God. Our interests do not come into it.

As an ethic, this posits a radically different understanding of morality from any most of us would recognise. It is no longer about interests and rights, but about God's plans for His playthings. As an explanation for why God's commands make up morality, it still suffers from the same failings as other explanations, as previously considered on this blog, but it also seems most repugnant. If God were to favour one human over another, would the lowlier be morally required to give his life and interests for the other? How is our position any different to that of slaves (who were even recognised as property), albeit with a possibly benign owner?

It is difficult to put into words just how wrong this way of looking at people seems to be. At least it is consistent, but even the most consistent ethics can be wicked. Far from all Christians or religious people would accept this basis, and they need not. God can be worshipped and respected without being owner. A counter-ethic must be advanced which puts the interests of living beings at the centre. This is an ethic towards which I strive, and Peter Singer does exactly the same. I may not agree with him in many ways, but in the search for this alternative, I concur wholeheartedly.