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.


Anonymous said...

When looking at an explanation for life being an obligation, what about Kant's Categorical Imperative? How does his argument play in terms of willing your action to be a universal law?

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