The following are the notes used for a presentation I gave for the Pro-Life Club at Western (Lifeline); roughly speaking, the topic was the foundations of bioethics construed philosophically. Since I have been working on many papers (and so the posts are inevitably less), I think it would be fruitful–and good for some reflection–to post the lecture notes since they are, to be sure, almost like an essay.
Theism, Atheism and Peter Singer: Exploring the Foundations of Bioethics Philosophically
Structure of the talk:
Nietzsche: “Every philosophy is a foreground philosophy—that is a hermit’s judgement: “There is something arbitrary in his stopping here to look back and look around, in his not digging deeper here but laying his spade aside; there is also something suspicious about it.” Every philosophy also conceals a philosophy; every opinion is also a hideout, every word also a mask.”
Again and again we encounter this: “I am pro-women’s rights and so I am pro-choice and that is that.” “The unborn is a blob of valueless cells and that is that.” “I hate pro-lifers, they are ignorant, wrong and uneducated.”
Pieper (and Aristotle) quote: Science (knowledge (Scientia), not “hard sciences”) is most free when it is broken free from practicality and when its aim is understanding. So, much of this talk is not ‘apologetic’, but philosophical and more “groundwork-like”. So here we might agree with Immanuel Kant: “For the convenience of a principle in use and its apparent adequacy do not constitute a secure proof of its correctness.” (pg. 194). My goal of the presentation is not to make everyone expert philosophers, as if I myself am even close to something like that, but rather to be aware of what is going on in contemporary philosophy and realizing its relevance to so many problems we encounter. So rather than saying “how am I going to win an argument with what I have learned?” I think what one can take is more of an appreciation of the complexity of some of the topics and their relevance in some areas which one might have thought irrelevant.
- Introduce some philosophical dimensions of the debate.
- Peter Singer and some of his arguments.
- What can we learn from this presentation?
Consider some philosophical dimensions of the abortion debate (which will appear foggy at first, but will I hope become clearer eventually).
-Logic (axioms/presuppositions & deductive closure principle). If S knows P, and P->Q, S knows Q. What do we assume as pro-lifers? Some sort of intrinsic moral worth, I imagine. There are trivial examples of this. i.e., If I know that coffee will keep me awake while I read, and reading the material for a class will ensure my getting a good grade, I reason thus: I know P, and P->Q, therefore, Q. (This is just an example—we use it more rigorously though in mathematics and logic).
-Truth: Two things to say here.
Denial of truth (relativism): (i) self-contradictory and (ii) even Nietzsche thought there was objective truth: “Something might be true while being harmful and dangerous in the highest degree.” (BGE 1886, Part II, Sec. 39, pg. 239).
-Love: Kierkegaard: “wherever love is, there is something infinitely profound.” (Works of Love). Indeed, because “God is love.” (John 4:8), and so when we look at the unborn, we can say the familiar German phrase Grus Dich (umlaut over the ‘u’ and large S). (trans. Greetings God—you see God in the other, even at the unborn phase). I think often we have that intuition, that even though it is a moral debate, it springs for a love of the unborn.
-Philosophy of Mind: Functionalism def. “The mind is certain functions of a complex system: a brain or a brain plus other systems.” (Stainton’s def.). (Robert Stainton’s recent book and two counter-replies ex. Swinburne, Moreland and Alvin Plantinga). Are human’s merely mechanistic beings? Highly unlikely: intentional states of consciousness, consciousness itself, basic properties about myself i.e., possibly disembodiable, aesthetic/moral intuitions/experiences, desire for real—not merely survival increasing—love, et cetera, all call towards some other aspect of ourselves. (As a funny example: A brain state cannot be true or false (incoherent), but a thought can be). More philosophically put, a correct model of human persons must make reference to all the facts—not just some (which is what most functionalists want to do). Even atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel has written an entire book on this denouncing the attempt by atheists to champion this view. He thinks consciousness, value and cognition are all evidence that the standard “materialist picture” of human beings must be given up. Let me make one more remark: On functionalism, what a ‘person’ is comes after some functions of some sorts. But that implies that there can be degrees of ‘personhood.’ (If this is rejected, it becomes fundamentally arbitrary at what point a ‘person’ arises). So are there degrees? Presumably not. Think about it. What does it mean to have 1/3 of a person? If you say “1/3 of the brain”, let me give two quick wonderful examples why this is wrong: Judi losing half her brain (hemispherectomy)—is she 50% of a person? More remarkably: Dandy Walker’s syndrome is a syndrome where some people are born with 10% of their brain (you basically only have the outer sheath of the brain and fluid inside). They function 75-80% normally. Are they 10% persons? To my mind, that is an incoherent concept. More appropriately we are persons who gain and lose functions over time.
(Tie all of these to the abortion debate after explained one by one).
It isn’t necessary to know all of these debates and get caught up in them, but just to be aware that they happen. And realize that often questions we ask require a more sophisticated response than we often sometimes want.
Consider the following theses Singer advocates:
- Species membership is not relevant for moral consideration.
- Pre-born are human but not persons (and so abortion is morally justified) since they do not have a moral status.
- The moral question of abortion should be based on a utilitarian calculation which compares the preferences of a woman against the preferences of the fetus, and since the fetus does not have any serious interests, abortion is morally justified. The consequence of this perspective? Infanticide.
Okay let’s be more careful and analytical here. (And here we can be super-duper critical against these views).
Let’s consider (i): Is species membership relevant for moral consideration?
Well, lets be careful. What is the claim, really? Is it saying “the relationship between a species and its moral properties is contingent”, that is, could have been otherwise, then I think we would agree (maybe in another world there are humans who do not have moral properties because, maybe, God decided to endow another creature(s) with intrinsic moral worth, consciousness, aesthetic capacities and freedom of the will and who bear His image, etc). But the question is not about other possible worlds, but the actual (real) world. In the actual world, is “being human” constitutive of being able to be “morally considered”? In my view, yes. In Singer’s view, no. Why? On Singer’s view, we are just animals. (Use Moreland’s “Grand Story”/ Lennox’s question he posed in their debate). Why does he think this? Because he is an atheist. (But this is not an “insult”). It just simply is the case that on atheism, “evolution in the only game in town.” (Plantinga). There simply is no other mechanism to explain why human beings are here (although I once talked to someone who legitimately thought aliens were the reason). On evolutionary theory, selecting one species to be “morally superior” over another because one “prefers” that one, is guilty of speciesism. This view can be thought of in the following way (Draw a set of species and select one with an ‘x’ and show how it is an arbitrary assignment). But Singer imagines that selecting ‘human’ is arbitrary and as if we just pick ourselves because we happen to be human. Taken this way, Singer commits a logical fallacy called the genetic fallacy. (Explain why). What is my conclusion? In the actual world, it thus depends on whether or not God exists that human beings have intrinsic moral worth. If there is no God, intrinsic moral worth does not appear. If there is a God, then it does. (This is WLC’s thesis). This might be crappy for apologetics (since a “God debate” might take lightyears), but it is helpful for more thorough, philosophical discussions. (And, for those of you who are Christian, there are plenty of wonderful resources aimed at a “lay level” which can allow you to be, as St.Paul says, ready to give a reason for the hope that is within you.
Let’s move to (ii): Are the unborn persons? If they are, do they have intrinsic moral worth?
Again, my view is that being a “person” on atheism, like being conscious, rational and free, for instance, are all irrelevant to being a moral agent or having intrinsic moral worth. But, on what grounds can the former assertion be made, that the unborn human beings are “persons”? What does it mean to be a person? The Greek for “person” is prosopon, and a prosopon was a mask that an Ancient Greek actor would wear in the theatre and that mask itself was called a “prosopon”. Perhaps Singer imagines something similar: the “prosopon” (personhood) is something that comes after, it is, if you will allow some philosophical jargon, derivative, and not primitive. But so what? Why think that personhood is derivative notwithstanding its interesting history? Well, if you equate “personhood” with some properties like “rationality and self-consciousness” (as Singer wants to do), then obviously it’s a tautology (explain this) why unborn humans are not ‘persons.’ Hmm. Something is up here. Let us ask Singer a couple questions: (1) So, if rationality and self-consciousness are properties constitutive of personhood, what do you mean by ‘rationality’ and ‘self-consciousness’? At any rate, some degree of rationality is needed for self-consciousness and so I think we can just say ‘self-consciousness’ for simplicities sake. (And if anyone worries about leaving ‘rationality’ out by the end, I will add it in and respond to it at the end). I have two responses. First comes from the probability calculus and recent work done on consciousness, and the second comes from Singer’s haunting presupposition of atheism (interestingly enough, I think of Dr. Jekyll here who has these sort of two sides to him, one hidden and haunted, the other completely normal—maybe Singer is being haunted by his other side, atheism?). Let me say something about the first response I would like to make (which is kind of funny). J.P Moreland has argued that the existence of consciousness is more probable on theism than atheism. (And I have defended him here and actually have a paper published on this believe it or not). If he is right, self-consciousness (which is sometimes called pre-reflexive consciousness) is more probable on theism than atheism. Interesting, remember the DCP? If S knows P, and P->Q, S knows Q. If S knows that consciousness is more probable on theism, and theism implies personhood not being based on self-consciousness, then P knows that self-consciousness is not constitutive of personhood. So, basically, if one denies consciousness (or intentional states of consciousness) then they can avoid this objection (Rosenberg). If not, any appeal to consciousness implies theism and theism falsifies their objection. (yay!). So, what is the point? If the unborn are persons, on atheism, it makes no moral difference and, despite this problem, any appeal to ‘self-consciousness’ falls into a more lethal problem, namely, the problem of their view falsifying itself. So, what is a person? On theism, it is something like being made in the image and likeness of God.
Let’s move on to the last part: (iii) Should the moral question of abortion be based on a utilitarian calculation which compares the preferences of a woman against the preferences of the fetus, and since the fetus does not have any serious interests, abortion is morally justified. Is the consequence of this perspective infanticide? (The latter question I think can be answered yes, but let’s answer the first now).
Let’s break this up. What does one mean by ‘utilitarian calculation’? Well, presumably this refers to the method of cost/benefit analysis on the normative ethical theory utilitarianism of weighing actions and their respective consequences. Why accept this? Here is a simple counter-example (and it is true, sadly): If raping a mother in front of her husband and father, and thereafter cutting her child’s head off and throwing it on her lap somehow made society flourish in all respects, should you do it? On utilitarianism, if you can prove the calculation with some degree of probability, not only is it morally permissible, but it is morally required (since the whole of society will be impacted incredibly well—in this horrible thought experiment). So I think we can reject utilitarianism “happily ever after.” BUT, for the sake of argument, lets give Singer this part and move on to his secondary part with respect to ‘interests’. Does it follow that ‘interests’ are indicative of what is and isn’t morally justified? Is it only when I have interests that I am subject to being treated as a moral agent? Not only is this arbitrary, but this is age-old 20th century French existentialism re-iterated again with the old ‘you are what you make of yourself’ and ‘your projects determine the meaning of life.’ I share distress here: Has Singer not read the devastating criticism of existentialism by Alvin Plantinga and Jacques Maritain? But wait, let’s remember: The only meaning, purpose or source of morality has to be atheistic for Singer: What such bases are there? There simply aren’t any—and so we construct them as we go along in the world and make “subjective illusions”—one thinks of Plato’s cave here. (WLC). (Clearly, this is implausible). ‘Interests’ are simply irrelevant in being a moral agent, and for discerning moral actions.
Well, we have looked at some philosophical remarks on the whole debate in general and thereafter three theses that arise out of Singer’s work. What should we conclude?
Let me briefly give some suggestions:
(1) Bioethical stances have presuppositions which are often assumed
(2) Pro-life apologetics done on a practical level needs secular arguments. While philosophical arguments (so dear to me and many others) are important, the missing element of practicality is lethal to those who are engaging with lay or secular folk who need to be mentally and spiritually stirred—not put to sleep with arguments.
(3) Pro-life apologetics done on a (more) philosophical level needs good analytic philosophy to be clear about our terms, arguments and systems through which we build our case for the unborn. (4) Given the strong philosophical foundations of the pro-life position, the goal should be to know the strongest arguments on the opposing side of the debate, and use the tools analytic philosophers have given us i.e., conceptual clarity, coherence, to advance rigorous attacks against those positions.
I will end with a quote by C.S Lewis: “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” (pg. 34, Fern-Seed and Elephants).