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.

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