Doing Justice to Moral Intuition

by Ramesh Ponnuru

Kay Hymowitz had a very deft review in the New York Times of Robert P. George’s new essay collection Conscience and Its Enemies. One observation of hers, I thought, deserved some comment: “In the case of abortion…many people surely believe, as George does, that reason affirms the equal dignity and value of all human life from conception on. Yet though women often grieve a miscarriage, there is no human society where people mourn a fetus twelve weeks after conception to the same degree they do a stillbirth at seven months or (especially) the death of a one-year-old. In George’s schema, these distinctions have no moral validity. But moral intuition senses they do.”

George’s point, however, is not that it is immoral to mourn the death of a fetus at twelve weeks differently than the death of a one-year-old toddler.  As he has pointed out in various writings, people can mourn different deaths differently for all sorts of reasons without treating anyone immorally or unjustly. Every day people die friendless and unmourned. What George is saying is that the right not to be deliberately killed does not depend on how anyone feels about you. The right does not cease to exist even in those cases where everyone else would be happier (or their lives would be easier or better) if you were no longer around.

But that’s not all. The view that all human beings, equally, have a right not to be deliberately killed does not imply that we cannot make morally valid distinctions among violations of that principle. The deliberate killing of a one-year-old child will often be morally worse, in an important respect, than the deliberate killing of a seven-month-old fetus. The killer will generally have more reason to know what he is doing is wrong (especially in our culture), the victim may experience more pain, the harm to social order may be greater, and so on. These facts don’t mean that either victim had more or less of a right not to be killed, or that the government should have allowed either to be killed, but they rightly affect our full assessment of the act (and in some circumstances the quantum of punishment). And I imagine Professor George agrees.

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