Pro-Life Talk Lecture Notes

Preface

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

Rashad Rehman

Lecture Notes

Structure of the talk:

Introduction

Let’s begin.

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).

i.e.,

-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).

Thank you.

Pro-Life, Pro-Choice and “Freedom of Speech”

The pro-life community, in its efforts to protect the lives of the unborn, attempt to give a case—both intellectually and visually—for the immorality of abortion. I have come across, though, an interesting article critiquing Western University students’ pro-life endeavors to save the lives of the unborn through “post carding.” I think that many things can be learned from this article; however, I think the article is (i) not correct in many of its premises and (ii) at any rate begs the question in favor of a pro-choice stance. Thus, in this small post, I will re-print the entire article (it is relatively small) [1], and share why I think it is, philosophically, mistaken. My method, then, will be taking each paragraph and critiquing its crucial premises and showing why they fail under thorough scrutiny.

“Freedom of speech. It’s a fundamental freedom as per section two of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. But in a case where one person’s free speech impacts another person’s right to security in their own homes, where does a distinction get made? In a world where there are currently about 40-50 million abortions a year, it’s easy to see why pro-life supporters — those who are opposed to abortion and believes in a right for an unborn fetus to be carried to term — feel so passionate about changing that number.”

So far so good. Freedom of speech is a great good (whether or not the “law” says it is) and the pro-life attempt to end abortion, if justified, is obviously a warranted pursuit (it is stopping, literally, a genocide).

“Let’s get this straight: it is okay to have an opinion. It is okay to also voice that opinion, especially on a topic that has been subject to heavily controversial debates and discussions.

What is not okay, however, is hanging signs with graphic illustrations of aborted fetuses on student’s doors.”

Here I think that there is confusion. Consider the following: Suppose that in Nazi Germany during World War 2, the Germans in your neighborhood did not realize the injustice of the extermination and horrendous treatment of Jewish persons. Suppose that in all your efforts, nothing came of it and the hearts of the Nazi’s remained patriotic and stern in their pursuit to create a full-blown German race. Is it appropriate to show the Germans, visually, what their lack of care and moral judgement causes? I think so. Thus, if the pro-life message is true, the two cases are one and the same (asides minor, peculiar differences). It might be not to your liking (and the pro-lifer is certainly disgusted with the graphic images too), but it is a method by which the truth can be revealed about the immorality of abortion.

“The signs, which state, “Consider, though: will abortion make a poor woman rich? Will it unrape a rape victim? Will it turn a woman’s frog of a boyfriend into a prince?,” do not help facilitate a productive and healthy discussion about the benefits of pro-life. They instead turn the conversation, and in their attempts to create a new and ‘creative’ argument to the pro-life side, end up being flat out offensive.”

There are four comments to make. First, just because it does not “facilitate a productive and healthy discussion about the benefits of pro-life”, does not falsify the pro-life claim, any more than a healthy conversation about dieting will make you better off (even though through the content of the situation you might be able to make a change). The function of the post carding is to get people to think, and not live in ignorance of, the mass murder of the unborn. Second, post carding is not an argument (that is incoherent)—it is a method. If a Jehovah’s Witness advocate left a letter in my mail, I would not respond “wow, what a well-thought out argument” or “I disagree with your argument.” Clearly, the Jehovah’s Witness just wants me to remember that they were there (to inspire thought, perhaps). Thirdly, just because something is “flat out offensive”, does not falsify the pro-life message. Consider the following example. Suppose you had cancer, and in refusing to receive treatment, the doctor tells you that you are terminally ill and must, of necessity, get treatment. Of course this might be unlikable, perhaps even the doctor was rude in his or her way of expressing it, but that does not do anything to suggest that “therefore, you do not have cancer.” (As you can see, this is an invalid inference). Forth, consider something also interesting and peculiar about this paragraph–there is no argument, at all, against what was written on the pamphlet (which, to my mind, is alarming for the pro-choice perspective).

“They emphasize the helplessness of a woman as to why she should just submit to her circumstances, thereby taking away the idea that she should even have the right to choose.”

The pro-life argument is not “a woman is helpless, therefore she should not have an abortion.” (If that was the argument, no wonder one thinks the pro-life case to be intellectually inferior!). Rather, the correct interpretation is that once we realize the humanity, personhood and independent nature of the unborn in the womb, the circumstances surrounding pregnancy do not change the situation, horrendous and wrongful they may be—slaughtering the unborn in the womb is immoral.

“The issue here isn’t the cause. Many pro-lifers manage to make their point without being condescending. What these pamphlets seem to do is discredit a woman’s ability to make choices for herself. They fail to recognize that choosing to get an abortion can be one of the hardest decisions a woman can make. It’s a decision that comes with heavy thought and consideration, and to simplify this choice into a few simple and belittling sentences suggests that this group of pro-lifers come from a place of ignorance.”

This is staunchly begging the question in favor of a pro-choice standpoint. Consider it this way. If pro-lifers are right, there is a genocide occurring in Canada. If the pro-choice side is correct, Canada facilitates what is helpful to women who do not want their children. Now, realize this paragraph’s understanding of the issue: The pro-life message is “condescending”, “simpli[stic]”, “[using] belittling sentences” and “ignoran[t]”; even if these were all true—and I reject this—how does that falsify what is going on in Canada? If the pro-lifers are right, a genocide is occurring and while it may be hard to think about and difficult to come to agreement upon—the facts don’t change. One more comment though. Notice the following sentence carefully: “What these pamphlets seem to do is discredit a woman’s ability to make choices for herself.”  A parallel argument is the following: “What these pamphlets, of, say, drunk driving, seem to do is discredit a drunk driver’s ability to drink and drive.” You might be in favor of autonomy, but autonomy does not involve being able to absolutely anything you want (unless you are willing to say that for the sake of autonomy, rape is not immoral (which is absurd)). I see no good argument here at all.

“The recent campaign in the student neighbourhoods also fails to recognize that oftentimes women suffer trauma and are in need of support and counselling after making this decision. For women who have made this choice, seeing pamphlets like these can cause them to think retrospectively in a way that can trigger the same trauma — especially those who may have had abortions due to sexual assault, since it’s one of the key points that they attack.”

Consider the following example: If these post cards were pictures of drunk drivers and a horrendous vision of a daughter, looking at a destroyed car with her mother and father inside of it ripped to pieces, all because of a drunk driver, how would many people have responded? They might suggest it is graphic, but worth it posting; they might agree with it completely because of how severe the consequences are and how important it is to stop the issue, et cetera. Flip to the post cards that the pro-lifers gave. This response is begging the question in favor of pro-choice; if the unborn is not a human being, then it follows that the post carding is plainly wrong (since a woman should have the choice); however, if he pro-lifers are correct, then they are doing exactly what the hypothetical drunk driving post carder is doing—raising awareness and provoking action.

“Perhaps the worst thing to me in all of this is that they had the audacity to trespass into people’s safe spaces, their homes, and leave these pamphlets behind. These pamphlets are not for getting your lawn mowed or garbage picked up. This is a pamphlet with extremely graphic imagery and an extremely controversial viewpoint.”

Two comments. First, to save millions of unborn children, I do not see why leaving the post cards is wrongful. This presupposes that many values are not hierarchical (when this is false). Let me put it this way: What is more important, having no one (including the mailman) on your property at all times, or protecting the lives of unborn children? I would assume the latter, and it is only when she makes the shift to “extremely graphic imagery and an extremely controversial viewpoint” that I think she is fully mistaken. One cannot falsify a message because of its effects; even if controversial, this does nothing to prevent justified efforts to help the unborn in their need.

“At the end of the day, free speech should not invade the safe spaces of others. Free speech does not give the right for hate speech. And although we cannot help that some views are more ignorant than others, freedom of speech becomes an issue when it begins to harm the safety and mental health of other individuals.”

Since I have responded to the first part, let me continue to the next. The message of pro-lifers is not hate speech. Pro-lifers are loving the unborn, and in doing so they devote their time, effort and money to do so. If one interprets saving the lives of millions through provoking thought i.e., leaving graphic images to display the reality and immorality of abortion, the pro-life message is one of concern and love. Concern, for those who turn away from the matter and have cold hearts towards the unborn children; love, because the unborn in the womb is a human person, intrinsically valuable and deserving of basic human rights. Even if the “mental health of other individuals” is compromised (and there are no facts or statistics cited here), it does nothing to show that the pro-life endeavor to save the lives of the unborn is without justification. As William Wilberforce puts it, “Let it not be said that I was silent when they needed me.” In sum, I think the pro-life message is on its way nicely; if the goal of the post cards was provoking thought at this fundamentally important issue, it is surely working.

[1] Jenny Jay, “Free speech is not a valid excuse for targeted, graphic pamphlets” http://www.westerngazette.ca/opinion/free-speech-is-not-a-valid-excuse-for-targeted-graphic/article_53e574f0-7b5d-11e6-958a-bfbf29965c5f.html: Accessed September 23rd, 2016.

Thomas Nagel’s Natural Theological Argument?

Since I should be studying right now and not writing philosophy, I want to make this a very quick post. This is astonishing, in my view, as I think I have found atheist Thomas Nagel making a natural theological argument (or, less provocatively (and more accurately) supporting a natural theological argument) in his book The Last Word (1997).

Consider the following argument:

1. It is more probable than not that on theism than naturalism consciousness (mind) exists, that is, whre “Pr” is “The probability that”, “G” God exists, “N” “naturalism” and C “Consciousness existing” Pr (C|G) > .5 and Pr (C|N) < .5.

J.P Moreland’s two arguments in support of this: (1) Scientific theory virtues apply here and make theism more probable: (i) Naturalness, (ii) Ontological Basicality and (iii) Simplicity and (2) naturalism’s “Grand Story” or “History of the Universe” is necessarily and radically materialistic (which precludes mind at all—only Nagel would perhaps deny this with his teleological account of natural laws (which is still vague and purely speculative (and in this respect ad hoc))).

2. Consciousness exists.

William Lane Craig has pointed out that denying this self-contradictory i.e., an illusion of consciousness (intentional state) is to be in a conscious (intentional) state (basically).

3. Therefore, theism is true.

Thomas Nagel furthers this argument from reducing the problem of “actuality” (of mind/consciousness) to “possibility”: “Since it [ourselves (which includes reason, consciousness and mind] did happen [was actualized], it must have been possible”.[1]

So, here are some new premises:

4. If theism is true, there is an account of the actuality and possibility of consciousness.

(Here are a few stories the theist could tell: (1) There is a set of all possible worlds in the mind of God (on theistic platonism) and God actualizes one that will eventually result in consciousness, (2) God chooses one possible world, makes it actual and eventually performs special intervention in the natural order to bestow consciousness on human persons, (3) God, from eternity past, knows He will create a world and that world will include consciousness (so there is no “set” of all possible worlds, there is just one world God will create from eternity past). These are all accounts of God’s actualizing consciousness/mind on finite creatures; for an account of possibility, this is rather simple: God could withhold creating anything at all and timelessly (or infinitely throughout time) does not create but could, counterfactually, bring a universe (with human persons who have consciousness/mind) into being at will–there is no contradiction in this and therefore this is at least possible).

5. If naturalism were true, it must account for the actuality and possibility of consciousness.

(Suppose it could not explain possibility and actuality but only actuality; theism would be preferable because it is a more complete explanation—and much simpler, to my mind ref. Moreland’s “Simplicity” requirement).

6. Naturalism cannot explain the actuality of consciousness. (From (1)-(3)).

7. Suppose that naturalism could explain the actuality of consciousness (through probabilities).

8. The possibility of the actuality of consciousness has to be explained.

(What Van Inwagen calls a “metaphysical axiom” that “what is actual is minimally possible” And Nagel agrees ref. above quote).

9. If it is not possible on naturalism that consciousness exists (there is a contradiction i.e., matter -> mind), then naturalism cannot explain the possibility of consciousness.

10. If naturalism cannot explain the possibility of consciousness, naturalism is false or must leave out something to be explained.

11. It would be ad hoc to deny the ontology of something because it falsifies one’s worldview.

12. Naturalism cannot explain the possibility of consciousness.

(There is a contradiction: matter only creates matter, not mind (Moreland’s argument that out of matter only matter comes; if mind came, it is logically equivalent to getting something from nothing—Locke agrees to the former half)).

13. Therefore, naturalism is false.

This is a very interesting argument (and I think this 13 line long argument is really three arguments: (1) consciousness is more probable on theism than naturalism, (2) naturalism must explain the actuality and possibility of consciousness and (3) naturalism cannot explain the actuality and possibility of consciousness and therefore naturalism is false). I wonder what people make of this—to me this is deeply problematic for the naturalist.

[1] Thomas Nagel’s The Last Word (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 138.

What is the Counterpart of Bioethical Ignorance?

Many know about contemporary debates concerning euthanasia (or at least one side of the debate, as is most often what happens). While on this blog I try to make my posts as philosophically analytic as possible, I think there is a peculiar moral intuition that is often captured not merely by arguments, but by real world events which “hit the heart”, so to speak, of human beings on a deep, phenomenological and existential level. Today I received an email from my former philosophy teacher Paul Coates entitled “Another Euthanasia First”; the contents, however, were much to my surprise and distress. It is to this end that I want to display the email contents in full and make a few comments on what exactly is being said.

Here is the post by Michael Cook in full from BioEdge:

“Today is a landmark, of sorts. It marks the first time that a child has been euthanised under contemporary euthanasia laws. Of course, euthanising infants is relatively common, but not children who are old enough to be asked if they really want to die. The death occurred last week in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, although it was announced today by Belgium’s euthanasia supremo, Wim Distelmans. His words were very sober and solemn, as befits the occasion, but I suspect that he and his colleagues are quietly happy to see the boundaries of euthanasia spread even further.

Ultimately this is a triumph for out-and-out nihilism, not just Belgium’s inventive euthanasia lobby. Nihilism is a philosophical fad which seems to catching on. Below we feature a report on three American bioethicists who argue the case for population control to fight climate change and a defense of infanticide by a Finnish bioethicist. I’ve also just discovered a new book by South African philosopher David Benatar. In it he argues that procreation is morally wrong because life’s a bitch and then you die (I am over-simplifying, of course.) He concludes his book with these cheerful thoughts:

Every birth is a future death. Between the birth and the death there is bound to be plenty of unpleasantness … Inflicting serious harm—or even the risk of it—on one person, without his or her consent, in order to benefit others, is presumptively wrong.

If I’m right, euthanising a child is not an terminus for Belgian euthanasia, but just a bus stop en route to pure nihilism. What its supporters are trying to eliminate is not just pain, but life itself. What do you think?”[1]

There is a lot to be unpacked here. So, let me make three entry ways as follows:

(1) The relationship between bioethical conceptualization and action

(2) Socio-phenomenological apathy

(3) Nihilism, Moral Nihilism and Bioethical Nihilism

I think that (1)-(3) are ways in which we might approach this post. Indeed, I suspect that these are the most appropriate entry points if the real content of the post is to be interacted with and fully understood. So, let me begin with (1).

The relationship between bioethical conceptualization and action is manifestly easy to detect. If one thought that life is ultimately valueless, one might make no prescriptive moral judgements on oneself or others, and conclude that any action—no matter what socio-political laws might be in place—is inherently amoral, that is, without any moral quality whatsoever. This person might conclude with Dostoevsky with the death of God results in everything being permissible, with Sartre that without God there is absurdity and facticity, with Camus that life is absurd, with Beckkett that “life as meaningful” might be no more than a good joke, with Freud that aggression is the preferable state of human beings for happiness, with Nietzsche that without God the foundation of all goodness and wrongness is thrown into the abyss.[2] One can see that moral prescriptions like “love thy neighbor” on this view is not even wrong—but inherently meaningless. On the other hand, if one sees persons as ends-in-themselves, enriched and infused with intrinsic moral worth, then the way we treat them is valuable as it might—as Christians, for instance—think that moral actions are necessary reflections of God’s holy and loving nature. Clearly, on the former view anything goes. It is here that we bring to mind central passages of the post: “In it [David Benatar’s book] he argues that procreation is morally wrong because life’s a bitch and then you die (I am over-simplifying, of course.)”. It is rather interesting that the following argument is made:

(1) Life is hard.

(2) Therefore, having children is bad. (1).

At first glance, this isn’t even an argument (or at any rate it is just a really bad argument). It simply doesn’t follow that just because life is hard, bringing children into this world is wrong. As my pro-life friends like to point out, when asked “who is your favorite role model?”, a pro-choicer will most often say someone who has struggled and conquered their obstacles and trials. It makes that person a good, hard-working, stoic and archetypal person. Analogously, just because pain is hard to go through, does not mean it is always bad (sometimes we have great lessons to learn from painful experiences). A rather disturbing literary example of this exact point is to be found in the wonderful novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Clearly this argument does not work.

Consider a sub-point: “euthanising infants is relatively common, but not children who are old enough to be asked if they really want to die.” There might be a host of questions to this: What is a non-arbitrary minimum age requirement for a person to consent to their death by lethal injection which is constructed in a framework capturing our moral intuitions? Why is euthanasia so widely accepted, based on obvious, more productive and moral alternatives i.e., palliative care? Why should we think that a child (or even fully grown adult) has the moral ability to choose when they want to die? Does this not presuppose subjectivism, a self-referentially incoherent standpoint? These questions, I think, are not even half-addressed in policy making concerning these issues. Obviously policy makers are not bioethicists, but a good Platonic question is manifest to come out here—should they be?

I have always defined “socio-phenomenological apathy” as an orientation in the world which is apathetic to valuable and meaningful questions i.e., God’s existence. It is rather unsurprising then that this should come up in the context of bioethics because unlike in philosophy of religion, even if one’s arguments are bad, socio-phenomenological apathy is so pertinent to Western culture’s “autonomous” lifestyle, that bioethical questions are of second-order importance and ultimately without conclusive answers. While I regard this is mistaken, many do not agree and think that “science has shown that the unborn aren’t people” or that “life does not have meaning”. While both these claims are false (and the latter metaphysically impossible), it is important to see here the consequences of apathy generally. Apathy requires one to give up their presuppositions and regard any presupposition or proposition as without value. It is not valuable, says the apathetic, to go on in the world worrying about trivial questions i.e., bioethical questions. While this is, of course, problematic (morally and existentially), the consequences are felt when death is the result. Instead of inquiring into the meaning of life, one says “who cares”, and policy makers make policies which allow children to die. Not merely to suffer, but to cease to exist on earth. There is no way to put this philosophically—one must have, genuinely, a cold heart to turn their eyes away from this injustice. But this apathy has a deeper root, namely, nihilism.

Nihilism, moral nihilism and bioethical nihilism all need defining. Nihilism is view that life has no objective and subjective meaning, moral nihilism the view that there are no moral truths and bioethical nihilism is the conjunction of nihilism and moral nihilism (life and morality being worthless). Obviously nihilism is part in parcel of atheistic and naturalistic worldviews—or from their propositions, not always proponents. Since we life in a secular culture, it is no surprise that this is the dominant philosophy of the West. In one form or another, the void of meaning people experience is a reflection of their inner inability to come to terms with reality, that is, the objective reality of value, meaning, morality and so on. Take the following passage, for instance: “What its supporters are trying to eliminate is not just pain, but life itself.” This is an admission of the fact that on atheistic and naturalistic worldviews, since there are no values, pleasure is the best method of achieving a well-lived life (one can see Benthamian and Millian roots here); and, therefore, once pain is all there is left, life is meaningless. This is, I suggest, a reason why bioethical questions have been disregarded, and consequently dying by choice is now legally permissible. It is because our inability to conceptualize deeply into the nature of human persons, their intrinsic value and so on, that we have turned our attention away to those who will now pay the price of our ignorance.

If, like me, one is disturbed by the story given, it is not enough to write and conceptualize—one must put their conceptualizations into action; it is not merely intellectually rewarding, but life saving.

[1] Accessed September 17th, 2016: http://www.bioedge.org/tools/newsletter2013/

[2] All references (in full) can be provided upon request. But to be brief: Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov, Nietzsche, The Gay Science; Sartre, Existentialism is a Humanism; Beckett, Endgame; Freud, Civilization and its Discontents; Camus, Myth of Sisyphus.

Conditional Probabilities, The Deductive Closure Principle and Issues in Science/Religion

Conditional Probabilities (CP) (P|A/B) and the Deductive Closure Principle (DCP) (If S knows P and P-> Q, P knows Q) are tightly knit concepts which is helpful for considering probabilities in axiomatic theories, especially in science and religion. Suppose that we evaluate the truth of some proposition P. Given axioms, say, A1…An, a person S believes P on the basis of the presumed axioms. In this case, with respect to conditional probabilities, P is probable—more probable than not, that is—given the axioms (and so S accepts P). Suppose, further, that P->Q (Q being a logical entailment of P). It is, then, appropriate to say that given the axioms, Q is more probable than not. I find that this is very significant for understanding many issues found in conceptual problems which arise in science. Here is an example from quantum physics:

  1. Jones, having reviewed the evidence for the Many Worlds Interpretation E1…En, believes that the Many Worlds Interpretation to Quantum Mechanics is true.

Jones, so far as we know, does not rely on any previous axioms in holding that the Many Worlds Interpretation is true. Indeed, Jones can be said to merely make his judgement on the evidence presented to him; however, this might become problematic when other factors come into consideration. For instance, suppose that the evidence in question was inconclusive, that is, didn’t amount to a proof and that, being persuaded by other considerations i.e., some other epistemological hypothesis, Jones decided that the epistemological hypothesis—since it was, let us say, inconsistent with the Many Worlds Interpretation—amounted to rejecting the Many Worlds Interpretation (since Jones had better grounds for thinking that the epistemological hypothesis was more probable than his evidence for the Many Worlds Interpretation. Jones has applied conditional probability in the following way: Suppose A is “Many Worlds Interpretation” and B “Epistemological Hypothesis”, it would mean that for Jones (P|A/B) = 0. Two inconsistent propositions have a 0 probability when taken conjunctively. (To see this consider the proposition “at some time T some object O exists and simultaneously does not exist”, a proposition with 0 probability since it is impossible—logically and metaphysically). So, since the evidence in favor or B is higher than A, he sees it as (P|A/B) < (P|not-A/B) (in the latter case, the probability amounts to 1. Inasmuch as Jones is not being ad hoc here (in denying A on the grounds that he does not like it (and so happens to accept B), Jones is perfectly rational in his conditional probability. Things are not much different when we consider the following case:

2. Sharon, a theist, believes that the Many Worlds Interpretation to Quantum   Mechanics is false.

In a nutshell, Jones is pro-Many Worlds, and Sharon is against Many-Worlds. Let us apply CP and DCP here to see what is at work.

For Sharon, she believes that, where A is the proposition “that God exists” and B “the relevant evidence”, that (P|A/B) > .5. She, then, claims to know A (since, on conditional probability, B is more probable than not). But, since theism—some would argue (and I shall just presume it here)—that the Many Worlds Interpretation is logically inconsistent with A, it follows that A->Q (where Q is the proposition that “the Many Worlds Interpretation is false.” So, given the conditional probability of A on B, applying the DCP, Sharon reasonably believes that A and therefore that the Many Worlds Interpretation is false. The question now arises though: What is the conceptual difference between the case of Jones and the case of Sharon? My answer: nothing at all.

Whether it is a theological hypothesis or an epistemic one, it makes no difference regarding the probability of such statements. If S accepts P on the basis that it is more probable than not that P is true given Q, it does not matter if P is theological or epistemological. Even if one accepts P on the basis that they know some other proposition P* which implies P, if P* is a theological hypothesis or historical or scientific or whatever, it has no bearing on the truth of P itself. If one denies this, it can be for no other reason than begging the question (and I suspect that this goes on all the time). [1]

[1] The latter half of this post could have been “Issues in Philosophy of Mind/Religion, Metaphysics, Logic” et cetera. I just used the quantum mechanical example as an example of a possible area that my speculations could have been relevant.

Can the Objectivity of Morality Be Grounded in Phenomenal Consciousness?

In this paper I will argue that phenomenal consciousness is not sufficient to ontologically ground morality. [1] I will make two arguments for this thesis. First, I will argue that the thesis in question is logically improbable; secondly, I will use the deductive closure principle to make a short argument against phenomenal consciousness as constitutive of objective morality, and thereafter conclude that theism, since highly probable, involves this thesis to be false.

Here is the first argument:

  1. Phenomenal consciousness involves the what-its-like of experience.
  2. Objective morality is experience-independent.
  3. There is no such thing as phenomenal consciousness independent of experience.
  4. Therefore, nothing which can ground morality can be based on experience. (2)
  5. Therefore, phenomenal consciousness cannot be constitutive of objective morality. (1)-(4).

Here is a second argument:

  1. Theism is highly probable. [2]
  2. If theism is highly probable, phenomenal consciousness does not constitute the objectivity of morality (God does).
  3. Deductive closure principle: if S knows P and P->Q, then S knows Q.
  4. Therefore, if theism is true, and theism entails phenomenal consciousness as insufficient to ground the objectivity of morality, it follows that phenomenal consciousness is insufficient to ground the objectivity of morality. (1)-(4).

These are just two reasons I regard this attempt to save the objectivity of morality on naturalism to be unpromising. (Consider as a side argument the following: phenomenal consciousness is more probable on theism than naturalism; theism entails God as constitutive of objective morality, not phenomenal consciousness; therefore, phenomenal consciousness points towards its own inability to be constitutive of objective morality and the truth of theism).

[1] Arguing for phenomenal consciousness as constitutive of objective morality is usually an attempt to save objective morality on naturalism i.e., those denying a reductive ontology. (This is rather strange, though, as most naturalists reject, ontologically, morality).

[2] This second argument is tailored for the person who accepts theism (whereas the first is universal); I do this to reach both audiences (secular and non-secular alike).

Rape is Wrong, Therefore Abortion is Wrong

The following is an argument for the following subjunctive conditional: if rape is wrong, abortion is also wrong. Now, abortion is not wrong if and only if rape is wrong, since the entailment would be too strong. (One can think of a multitude of reasons why abortion is morally wrong). All that I claim is that if rape is wrong on a particular ground i.e., that human beings are ends-in-themselves, then abortion, for a particular reason i.e., financial difficulty, is necessarily wrong. On Monday, January 25th 2016, during a Lifeline (Western’s pro-life club) meeting, I thought of this argument and so sent it to an executive member of the club afterwards that evening. ( “[x] is someone’s name, made hidden by me). Here is what I thought of:

Hey,

So during our meeting today I thought of a neat little philosophical argument worth exploring (whether or not it is a good one I am sure you will be able to detect). If you would like you can send it to i.e., [], if you think it worth exploring. It is a way in which one can move from the proposition:
1. Rape is wrong.
to
2. Therefore, abortion is wrong.
Here is the argument (constructed as a thought experiment):
Suppose that you encounter a person who argues that abortion is right if and only if rape is the reason for pregnancy.
You can concede the point (that rape is wrong) and argue as follows:
1. Rape is wrong.
2. Rape is wrong because 1) it violates a woman’s autonomy, 2) does not reflect the correct moral responsibility towards her and 3) uses her as a means to an end.
The last reason (3) might be an area that the pro-lifer and objector might agree on; namely, that human persons are ends-in-themselves. (Philosopher Kant and Karol Wojtyla (Pope John Paul II) argue this point). Now, if the objector concedes the proposition:
4. Human persons are ends-in-themselves
then it follows that
5. Rape is wrong
However, it also follows that
6. Any action whatsoever which uses a person as a means to some desired end is wrong
and given that aborting a fetus because he/she is inconvenient i.e., financially, mentally et cetera, is inconsistent with (4), it follows that the person who says ‘it is morally permissible to abort an unborn child if and only if the child was conceived from rape (rape, being wrong because it is using the woman as a means to an end)’ must also concede that aborting the unborn child is itself using a person as a means to an end (i.e., killing the child for selfish reasons i.e., an easier life). Therefore, if rape is wrong so is abortion. (This might only apply to a person who accepts 1) humans are ends-in-themselves, 2) rape is wrong, 3) murdering the unborn is morally acceptable if and only if it was from rape and 4) the unborn is a person–since it seems normal to assume that (3) and (4) are inconsistent, the argument above might serve as a way in which this inconsistency can lead a person from ‘rape is wrong, therefore abortion is wrong.’
Something I thought of.
Feel free to let me know what you think,
Rashad.
Post-Script
To my mind, this argument is sound and valid. However, I am aware that many will reject one or more of my premises and therefore will not see the argument as sound (validity I think is on the safe side). So, this argument, if used in pro-life apologetics, must be understood restrictively since, while it works, only works for people who will accept certain premises i.e., the ones outlined in the aforementioned paper.