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Human Exceptionalism

Life and dignity with Wesley J. Smith.

Right to Life Only For “Thinkers?”



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Many bioethicists want to destroy what remains of the sanctity/equality of human life ethic. Two areas of current push in this regard are the drive to permit infanticide and to harvest organs from living cognitively devastated patients.

But there’s an impediment: If human beings have equal moral value simply because they are human, we can’t treat them in such a crass and objectifying manner. But if our moral value is entirely subjective–depending on our capacities moment, by moment, by moment–why harvesting, killing, and experimenting on humans become defensible and doable against those denigrated as being members of a lower value caste. Arguments around infanticide are intended, in part, to attaining consensus on how to define the caste of lesser humans.

I bring this up (again) because the Journal of Medical Ethics has an issue out dedicated to debating the pros and cons of permitting infanticide. (I have already discussed one article here that went after yours truly. The entire issue is temporarily available for reading here.) I want to focus today on the “editor’s choice” article. Most of it deals with the role of philosophy in these kinds of discussions. But the article also proposes a concept for subjectively defining a “person” that I had not seen before and uses an advocacy technique toward getting us to accept that end that I think worth highlighting. 

Like many others of his ilk, University of Philosopher professor Michael Tooley claims that full protection comes from attaining the moral status of being a “neo-Lockean person,” essentially derived from being a the ability to think. From, “Philosophy, critical thinking and ‘after-birth abortion: why should the baby live?’”:

The serious view here is this: Only neo-Lockean persons have a right to continued existence. What is a neo-Lockean person? The answer is that a neo-Lockean person is an entity that has conscious states at different times, and that are psychologically connected by such things as memories, desires and intentions.

That being so, the key question is the present mental capacity of the individual being judged–whether human or otherwise:

But what could the more general principle be that underlies both the principle concerning the right to life of members of our own biological species, and the principle concerning the right to life of members of the ET [extra terrestrial] biological species? Presumably, it will have to focus on something that would be common to members of the two species, but that is not shared, for instance, by carrots, and that is also a morally relevant property. What could such a property be? The answer, surely, must involve some sort of reference to the type of mental life that both Homo sapiens and members of the ET species, are capable of.

Note the persuasive technique Tooley employs: “The answer, surely, must involve some sort of referent to the type of mental life…” That stacks the deck and precludes other relevant issues from the discussion, doesn’t it?

But present mental capacity should be irrelevant as it relates to the value of a human being. I would instead compare the differing inherent natures of the organisms or entities being judged. Humans, and only we in the known universe are–by nature–moral beings (among other moral attributes, such as our rational and creative capacities that also undergird human exceptionalism). That is, whether we are embryos, fetuses, babies, children, or old people dying of Alzheimer’s, we all have the natures of moral agents–unless inhibited from expressing those attributes due to immaturity or injury. But the current ability to fully express our human nature isn’t the point. Rather, the nature of the life in question is what should matter. Otherwise, none of us is safe–since our respective moral value depends absolutely on our capacities of the moment–and universal human rights becomes impossible to sustain intellectually. Person today, harvestable tomorrow.

Tooley argues that since fetuses and newborns can’t think, they essentially have a lower moral status than a “normal adult human being:”

The crucial issue here, it seems to me, is at what point a developing human acquires the capacity for thought, and many years ago I attempted to survey the relevant scientific literature, including studies of the growth of neurons, studies of electrical activity in the developing brain, and studies of the behaviour exhibited by humans at various points. The results are set out in chapter 11 of my 1983 book, on pages 347-412, and my conclusion at that time was that it was likely that a capacity for thought episodes emerged only some time after birth.

Until the baby could actually think–he or she would be killable. (He says more research into mental capacities of newborns is needed. But his principle of personhood is the problem, not the place the line is drawn.)

Please understand, this kind of discussion isn’t aimed at being deemed clever or scoring debating points. It seeks directly to change the morality of society and the public policies that flow therefrom. That’s what happened with eugenics, abortion, and license to dehydrate the cognitively impaired.  If we are to prevent this next step–infanticide, and treating so-called human “non-persons” as natural resources–notice must be taken. Resistance is not futile!



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