Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Secular Case for Life-Preliminaries

I am reproducing the arguments from bd-from-kg, which are available in their entirety here. This is a post in a discussion forum that refers to other participants, whose comments are of course available at the link I provided.

To all:

I’m coming into this thread pretty late, but I have read the whole thing. It’s good to see an abortion debate that is focused on the real issue: the status of the fetus – that is, whether it is appropriate to accord it “rights”, and specifically the right to live. This has been formulated as a question of whether a fetus is a “person”, which is OK as long as we understand that being a “person” in this context means that one has certain unalienable rights, and that among these is the right to life.

I am not going to talk about the current law on abortion. We are talking about what the law should be; the current law is irrelevant to this question.

I am also not going to talk about whether a fetus is a human being, or whether it is a different human being from its mother. Obviously the fetus is biologically an individual organism, distinct from its mother, of species homo sapiens. I will simply refer to such a distinct biologically organism as an “individual” with the understanding that this means an individual of our species.

So basically I want to look at the question of what criterion or criteria must be satisfied in order for an individual to be considered a “person” – i.e., before it has a right to life.

Now let’s look at some things that apparently are controversial.

It is often claimed that an individual is not a “person” unless it can live on is own, or at least until it is not dependent on a specific person to live. Rhea, for example, has taken this position explicitly, and the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade supported this idea by distinguishing between viable and nonviable fetuses. But Rhea proceeded to refute her own position immediately by pointing out:

This means that science will advance the timing of personhood as it acquires the skills to intervene.

That is, whether an individual is a person depends on the current state of technology. I suspect that there are very few people in our society who would agree with this proposition if it is put to them directly, even though many of them take a position on abortion that logically implies it.

The case of the conjoined twins Mary and Jodie discussed by Jack the Bodiless may help to illuminate this issue. The thing that makes this case interesting, and relevant to the abortion controversy, is that Mary was dependent on Jodie’s blood supply. In the actual case both twins would have died if they had not been separated (thereby killing Mary). But one can easily imagine a similar case in which this is not true: one such twin is dependant on the other in this way, yet both can survive indefinitely if they are not separated. The question in this case would be whether is would be justifiable to separate them, thereby killing one of them, on the grounds that the dependent twin was not a “person” because of her physical dependence on the other. The answer here seems too obvious to me to warrant further discussion. (In fact, I suspect that there are many such cases, but they have not received the publicity that the Mary/Jodie case received because the decision in such cases is a no-brainer.) Unless you are willing to argue that killing the dependent twin would be justified in this case, the claim that physical independence from another specific individual is a prerequisite for “personhood” must be abandoned. And that means that the distinction made in Roe v. Wade between viable and nonviable fetuses is irrelevant.

Moreover, “separateness” is not a reasonable criterion; it is simply irrelevant. And how much of a normal human body an individual has is also irrelevant; as several people have pointed out, “personhood” is intimately connected with consciousness, which is associated with the brain and not any other organ.

But just what is the relationship between consciousness and “personhood”? Some like SingleDad, have argued that the correspondence is one to one:

We are arguing for a definition of personhood based on the physical presence of a cognitive brain...

A fetus, a finger, an ancephalic infant, a brain-dead body, none of those are a physical brain capable of cognition.

Sophie21/ Delilah reflected the same sentiment:

The fetus has *never* thought or felt, so it isn't a person.

Several others, like Valmorian and Jack the Bodiless, have made it clear that they share this view.

Others, such as Epitome, have argued that this criterion is unreasonable and ad hoc:

You prefer your definition of a human to only include the beings whose brains have begun to function.

Wouldn't another pro-choice person prefer a definition of a person as being someone who has a certain level of function higher than the one you've described ...

And earlier:

IMO, thinking and feeling is not a reasonable definition of person, but moving towards this place is.

Epitome clearly believes that the potential to think, feel, and do the other things that normal adult humans can do is what makes an individual a person. Jon Curry agreed, saying:

For instance, my 16-month-old boy lacks the ability to communicate. But he is still a human person because he is the sort of being that has the capacity to develop the ability to communicate and all the other functions that are necessary for us to completely function as persons.

This criterion has been strongly attacked. For example, SingleDad said:

Why should we protect "potential"? ... "Potential" means "you aren't worth a damn yet."...

Do you really want to protect the potential to grow a brain? Why cut it off before conception? Before ejaculation?

Several of the others posting here agree. This question seems to be the heart of the matter, so let’s take a close look at it.

Consider Smith, who has had a bit too much to drink and has passed out. Is he “capable of cognition”? Well, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, “cognition” is “the mental process or faculty of knowing, including aspects such as awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment”. Is Smith capable of these things? Let’s see: let’s try to awaken him. Nope, no luck. He is clearly not capable of “awareness, perception, reasoning, and judgment”. So it would seem to follow, according to SingleDad and those who agree with him, that Smith is not a “person”.

But, you say, he clearly has a brain which is capable of these things. But that’s the point: he doesn’t. His brain’s ability to “function cognitively” has been disabled by alcohol. As long as it remains in this state it will not be capable of cognition. To be sure, we know that his body (like the body of a fetus) is working hard to change this situation. But until the rest of the body has done its job, Smith is unequivocally lacking a cognitive brain.

But, you say, his brain is close to being in a cognitive state. So what? This is not horseshoes; “close” doesn’t count. If his brain were permanently in this state, we would obviously not count him as a person according to the “capable of cognition” criterion. This is not a technicality. This criterion is designed and intended to exclude such individuals from “personhood”.

But, you say, his brain has in the past been capable of cognition. So what? So has a dead man’s. At any rate the “capable of cognition” criterion is inherently forward-looking: it looks at functionality. The point of choosing functionality as a criterion is that it is related to what an individual can do in the future. Looking at the past is completely contrary to the spirit of the “capable of cognition” criterion.

Finally, you may argue that his brain will soon be capable of cognition. So what? When he is capable of cognition, he will then be a “person”. Not until. In the meantime he does not have a right to life; it would not be wrong to kill him. That’s the criterion, and that’s what it means. To talk about what Smith’s condition will soon be is to talk about his potential to eventually be capable of cognition, which is precisely the criterion rejected by the pro-choicers, because a fetus also has this potential.

In effect, this argument replaces the criterion “capable of cognition” with the quite different criterion “will soon be capable of cognition”. But this is totally ad hoc. What is the “soon” doing there, other than to exclude fetuses? And what exactly does it mean? “Soon” can mean in a few months, or a few years, or a few centuries, or even a few millennia. Which definition of “soon” is appropriate here, and why?

Besides, it is difficult to see what an individual’s “soon-to-be” condition could have to do with whether he is a person now. To see the problem here, imagine another case. Suppose that a patient is in a coma from which he has no chance whatsoever of recovering without radical medical intervention. However, an operation is scheduled in a few hours which (it is hoped) will allow him to recover consciousness, and eventually full cognitive function. Does this make him a person now? Would he then not be a person if no such operation were scheduled? How can the possibility of such an operation in the future have anything to do with whether he is a person now? To put a finer point on this, suppose that the operation will consist of replacing part of his brain with someone else’s? Would you say in this case that he is a person now? (To my knowledge no such operation is possible with current technology, but it is very likely to become so before long.)

It really looks very much as though, in order to avoid absurdity, you are going to have to say that what makes Smith a person is that he has the potential to be capable of cognition. And what we mean by having the potential is that he is moving naturally and foreseeably towards having this capability. This is beginning to sound an awful lot like the criterion that Epitome proposed.

Nevertheless one might feel that it is somehow relevant that Smith is not only moving naturally and foreseeably toward being capable of cognition, but will reach this point soon. As noted earlier, this does not seem to be based on any ethical principle, but let us now see whether it is tenable at all.

As we all know, there have been many cases much like Smith’s, but with the difference that the time required for the brain to become “capable of cognition” is much longer. That is, it sometimes happens that an individual becomes comatose (or loses cognitive function) as a result of disease or injury, but has a good chance to recover eventually. Here “eventually” can mean days, weeks, months, or even years. Yet few would suggest that such people are not “persons” – that they do not have a right to live. Unless one is prepared to argue that such individuals are not persons, the “soon” in the criterion of “will soon be capable of cognition” must be abandoned.

Moreover, just as in the case of the conjoined twins, the mere fact that such an individual may be in need of some outside help to maintain his bodily functions would not disqualify him as a person. If he had to be given oxygen, or even be hooked up to a respirator, while he recovered, no one would say that this means that he is not a person until the external aid is no longer needed. In fact, removing the oxygen or respirator would be considered murder.

Finally, the fact that it is not certain that he will recover cognitive function is not considered by anyone to make him a non-person. The idea that it is all right to kill someone because he is not certain, or even likely, to recover, is barbaric. It hardly needs to be pointed out that there is no generally accepted moral principle (to put it mildly) that can be used to support this idea. And yet it has been advanced by several pro-choice advocates on this thread. I would like to know their reasoning here. This looks to me like a desperate ad hoc reason for rejecting the personhood of a fetus which they would never dream of applying in any other context.

To be sure, almost everyone would agree on reflection that the chances that an individual will actually be capable of cognition eventually are relevant to whether he has a “right to life” if they are low enough. If the odds of this are less than, say one in a million, most people would agree that there is no obligation to keep him alive, and perhaps even no reason to punish someone for killing him. There is no well-defined probability of recovery below which an individual is no longer considered to have a “right to life”, but few people would argue (in any context but abortion) that an individual with, say a 5%, or even a 1%, chance of becoming capable of cognition, does not have the right to be allowed to have that chance, or that denying him that chance by killing him is not murder.

Now let us return to the “capable of cognition” or “will soon be capable of cognition” criteria for personhood. So far I have not discussed the most obvious and important reason why no such criterion is acceptable, namely the fact that it excludes babies from being persons. Remember, we are using the word “person” to mean someone who has an unalienable right to life, so in excluding babies we are saying the they do not have this right.

At one time I considered the fact that criteria such as these obviously excluded babies was a completely decisive and unanswerable argument against them, since no reasonable person would deny that babies have a right to life. However, the fact that Peter Singer, who most emphatically does deny this, has been appointed to the prestigious position of Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at the University Center for Human Values at Princeton University, is a clear indication that this is no longer true. The comments on the thread Peter Singer's moral viewpoints regarding abortion made it clear that many of the people posting to this forum agree with Singer’s views, or at least have no serious problem with them in principle. So it seems that one cannot simply take it for granted that readers here will agree that babies are persons.

It must be clearly understood that anyone who does not consider a baby a person is committing himself to saying that it is sometimes all right, and generally not a serious offense, to kill a completely healthy baby. To be sure, such a person can give reasons why it would usually be wrong to kill a baby, but the reasons that can be offered do not apply to all babies, and fail to show that it is seriously wrong even in cases where they do apply. For example, the most obvious such reason would be that it would upset the parents. But even when this is true, the same could be said of killing a pet. Many people are very attached to their pets, and killing them would be just as upsetting to them as killing a baby would be to most mothers. Yet few would argue that killing a pet is anywhere near as serious an offense as killing a baby. And if the parents do not want the baby, it would seem to be difficult (once we have denied its personhood) to offer any convincing reason at all why it should be illegal for them to kill it.

At any rate, it is obvious that the vast majority of people in our society do consider babies to be people – that is, they believe that they have a right to life. Discussion of an ethical question can only proceed on the basis of shared values – that is, on moral premises that the parties agree on. There is no way to choose premises that everyone agrees on, but one must start somewhere. The most natural thing is to start from premises that the great majority of people in the society agree with. In our society, the principle that a baby has an unalienable right to life is such a premise.

I have given what I think are conclusive reasons for rejecting the “capable of cognition” and “will soon be capable of cognition” criteria for personhood, but beyond that I do not intend to offer a comprehensive argument on this thread as to why babies should considered persons. If someone does not agree with this they are discussing the wrong question. Rather than asking “How can you define ‘person’ to include a 12-week-old fetus?” they should be asking “How can you define ‘person’ to include a newborn baby?” I would be happy to participate in a thread devoted to this question, but I think that it would be inappropriate to debate it here. Anyone who does not consider a baby to be a person will obviously not consider a fetus to be a person; case closed.

At any rate, anyone who favors legalized abortion but understands that it can only be defended by denying that babies are persons has a duty to say this plainly. I believe that there are a great many people who support legalized abortion who do not understand that a principled defense of it necessarily involves denying that babies have a right to life – that is, that they are entitled by virtue of being babies to legal protection against being killed, whether anyone “wants” them or not. I think that many of these people, if they understood that their position logically requires them to deny that babies are persons – that they must choose between saying that abortion is wrong-in-itself or saying that baby-killing is not wrong-in-itself, would reverse their position on abortion. Intellectual integrity compels us to make it clear what being “pro-choice” really entails.

When I first came to understand that Roe v. Wade was logically incompatible with the idea that babies had a right to life, I feared that if this decision were to stand it would eventually lead to the erosion, if not the complete abandonment, of the idea on which this country was founded, that “all men are created equal, with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. Or as a Christian would put it, that it would destroy the concept of the “sanctity of life”. As Richard Weaver said, ideas have consequences. It would seem that my fears have been tragically borne out. It is now necessary to argue, almost on a case-by-case basis, for respecting human rights that have heretofore been taken for granted. The progress of the last two millennia in this area are now being reversed. We seem to be plunging headlong back into barbarism, ignoring the hard-won wisdom embedded in the moral understandings developed over many centuries of human experience. Everything must be learned anew; we must start with a blank slate and work out everything for ourselves with no regard for what has come before. This is madness. If we persist in this arrogance it can only lead to our destruction.


HispanicPundit said...

Great post! Thanks for posting it Jon.

Joshua said...

I don't feel you addressed the comments of Sophie21 in your blog entry. I will repeat them here:

The fetus has never thought nor felt, so isn't a person

Mr Smith, even being totally drunk with only a chance of recovery, has thought and felt. He has formed memories, has hopes and dreams etc

Murder, in my opinion, is wrong because you are interrupting the ongoing consciousness of a person. Therefore, when the person has never been conscious (as is the case with the foetus), OR never will again be conscious (as is the case with brain-damaged individuals such as Terri Schiavo), then the death is not wrong.

I don't mean to enter in to an argument with you, just to point out an area in which you may want to elaborate your point of view.

Jon said...

Joshua, it looks like that was addressed. Here is what is said in response to that. If you think that isn't satisfactory you can tell me why, but if you'd rather not discuss that's fine.

"But, you say, his brain has in the past been capable of cognition. So what? So has a dead man’s. At any rate the “capable of cognition” criterion is inherently forward-looking: it looks at functionality. The point of choosing functionality as a criterion is that it is related to what an individual can do in the future. Looking at the past is completely contrary to the spirit of the “capable of cognition” criterion."

Joshua said...

Yes, I don't think that accurately addresses the issue.

I think it looks at each characteristic in isolation. I think that one has to look at the interruption of a personality - a consciousness - without consent. Essentially the preservation of conscious life.

Therefore, I feel that one must look at both the past and the future. Preservation implies there was something there of importance in the first place and that it can in fact continue into the future.

Jon said...

So Joshua is it fair to say that your view is that a living thing should be given protections of the law if it has been capable of cognition in the past and can be reasonably expected to be capable of cognition in the future?

Joshua said...

Sorry for the delay between comments.

Yes, I'd say that is a fair summary of my view on this issue.

Jon said...

Would infants qualify?

Joshua said...

Whether infants qualify or not does depend on the definition of cognition or consciousness. Currently neuroscientists are having problems understanding what parts of the brain need to be going to give rise to consciousness.

So I don't really know whether infants are conscious or not, but am certain that a fetus/embryo without a functioning brain cannot be.

Jon said...

I'm not sure consciousness is the issue. Whether they are conscious or not is irrelevant, because animals are conscious and this doesn't mean they deserve the protections of law. This is why I think cognition is the real issue.

So getting back to Sophie21's point, maybe a fuller answer would emphasize that if the criterion were about having been cognitive in the past, then it seems pretty obvious to me that an infant would not qualify. There's no good reason to think that an infant reasons, so there's no good reason to think that it deserves the protections of the law under this criterion. I hope you would agree that a criterion that excludes infants would have to be inadequate.

Joshua said...

Actually, I do think that some animals (for example gorillas and chimps) do deserve some basic rights, such as the right to life. The level of rights should correlate to the level of consciousness.

Also, I'm not confidant that infanticide can be assumed a priori to be wrong.

Mike said...

Hi! It's probably rude to drop in with a comment so long after a piece was posted, but I just stumbled across your blog (a serendipitous chain of googling lead me to your piece on Bogdanor, and I was intrigued, so kept reading).

This post piqued my interest for two, connected, reasons. Firstly, you expressed your admiration for the logical clairty of bd-from-kg's argument. This surprised me somewhat, given that it seemed to me that, after some clever slicing and dicing of the term "personhood", bd revealed his hand when he fell back on a slippery-slope argument in his concluding paragraph. Basically, logic or no logic, he's just worried that things are going to hell in a handbasket, and that Roe v Wade is unravelling some kind of social compact that previously existed. But this is not a logical point at all. This is a historical / sociological point - does the evidence about US policy, attitudes or behaviour support bd's fear that things are getting worse after Roe v Wade? I would suggest that a logician is not well suited to answering that question. (I would also suggest that the evidence doesn't show any such consequences - bd mistakenly conflates the idea of logical and sociological consequence, and there is no evidence for any sociological consequences of Roe v Wade - but that's another discussion!)

The second reason for my interest follows from the first - bd's post seems to illustrate a little bugbear I have about the role of logic in philosophy. I would argue that formal logic is rarely an adequate tool for reasoning about things that actually matter - and that it is often actually an inappropriate tool. Formal logic as we now know it emerged from the foundational crisis in mathematics in the 19th century, and requires the ability to pin down the terms it works with with absolute precision - something that, as even Aristotle recognized, is unlikely to be possible when you move from the abstract realm of mathematics to the concrete realm of human activities (or even the concrete world of physics, for that matter). This means that the question of how we interpret arguments, and the emotional values that underpin those interpretations, are usually far more important than the precise definitions we propose, or the chain of reasoning we follow. I think that bd's argument illustrates this quite well, as illustrated by his need to fall back on a slippery slope based on his fear of moral chaos.

The reason that I think that formal logic can be a positively inappropriate tool is that the rigor and precision of logic can provide a false sense of the strength of an argument. It's hard to argue with someone who has studied formal logic - the jargon alone is almost impossible for the outsider to penetrate - but it all seems so impressive. We often have the feeling that when something is presented in such a rigorous form it must be true. But this is not the case. An argument can be entirely consistent internally, and yet have absolutely no connection to anything outside itself at all. Or, even worse, it can have the appearance of a connection to something outside of itself, but no substantive salience on closer examination. But who can subject the work of a professional logician to closer examination? It's pretty daunting!

So what we end up with is often a situation just like we do in many religious settings - the guy with the bigger words wins.

If you're interested, this is a line of thinking that was pursued by the British philosopher Stephen Toulmin, who argued that we should take a more "legal" approach to argument, recognising the inability to formalise most of what matters to us. It has also been developed in the field of political science by a number of scholars who have picked up on Aristotle's argument in his Rhetoric that political arguments cannot be the same as logical ones.

Anyway, sorry if I've missed a lot of important discussion on this issue in subsequent posts!