A Reply to Ken

The readers of Reason, Ken, Megan McArdle are asked to ponder the importance of their votes, to argue convincingly. Ken’s stance was the least cynical, the most objective. It seemed a grown up complaint. Still, I was heartened by his comment, which led me to think that his stance was rhetorically effective but, fortunately, a bit empty. (And I do mean that in the best of all possible ways – interesting to read, eye-catching, but, in the end, reaching a complex resolution himself.) Still, here is a response.

Okay, Ken. My ignorance in this area is quite complete – despite the fact that my colleague, “Scotus”, has brought a series of lecturers (some of them nationally known) to our parochial campus. (His Thomism, of course, means these have not always taken your view.) My mind remains a dark abyss with no light that orders thought. So, I’m quite willing to let lie your argument that this is a terrible position that Bush has taken. (Even Kofi Annan – like a stopped clock – may be right every once in a while.) However, like Lex, I have some problem with the humanity=sentience thing

And I’ve come to realize I’d rather stand with (or at least not against) those who are against abortions, have problems with cloning, have reservations about the death penalty, doubt that euthanasia should be a ready option. I probably will never be an advocate – indeed, like Kerry, I see these questions as treacherous and full of nuance. But, my sympathies are closer to those who pray outside our local abortion clinic than to those who argue that baby is a parasite, an inconvenience. Of course, I know it is not for I have known life growing within me–those three beautiful (and unique) girls were not parasites. I’m not sure when they became those unique selves, but it seemed long before birth. And I will accept that cloning may prove useful and not diminish our sense of the specialness of each separate self. And, indeed, these other difficult choices may sometimes be best resolved with death. Indeed, at 43 with my last child, the doctor insisted on amniocentesis. We recognize that we might well have to face choices in which all the consequences were likely to hurt someone other than ourselves. We were lucky; but I have not forgotten we waited for the results with fear.

A society that sees such choices as easy, as rote (whether the euthanasia of Holland or the executions of Saudi Arabia, whether the millions of abortions in the United States or casual cloning in a lab) has in important ways alienated itself from the tragic, from what both life and death mean. Like so many of the mysteries of life, this is a paradox: we can not properly value life unless we have understood its proportions, what is greater.

You see, Ken, I believe that Bush’s position, one you find abhorrent, derives from a vision that is more likely to treasure what you want treasured. The founders (many of whom were only loosely religious but even the most casual sensed a Providential Order) believed that the rights we have come to treasure so greatly are “natural rights” – given by God and not by governments. While I have neither the religious sensibility nor philosophical training to make this argument, I do know what experience has taught me. Policy made with this assumption in mind will value the ends of independence and freedom, will lead to resilience and responsibility. It is this vision that respects (as Whitman would put it) the divinity in each of us, our individuality. It is this trust in the individual, in our rationality and common sense, our objectivity and honesty that promotes free elections in Afghanistan and Iraq and trusts us to handle (privatize) some of our retirement funds; that opens up the candidates to our scrutiny and accepts the grand marketplace of ideas, of religions, of goods. Other politicians of other sensibilities may have no problem with cloning, but that may be because of a more reductive rather than a more generous sensibility.

Yes, our sympathy for others leads us (a compassionate society) to weave a safety net, but our respect for each other encourages us all to risk that awesome highwire act that is the independent, the responsible, the “chosen” life. This vision works in a myriad of ways – and I suspect most of them are ones with which you agree. Another paradox, of course, is that in terms of cloning you are valuing life – but because others also value life they question the consequences of cloning.

Ken, I suspect this is not convincing, but then you recognize, already, your values are not those of Kerry.

9 thoughts on “A Reply to Ken”

  1. The entire argument about abortion, cloning, stem cell research, murder of fetuses, use of condoms and birth control pills revolve about the issue of when a person should be admitted to the tribe. All human societies, even the most primitive, have
    baptism or some similar rite which is performed on selected infants. This rite grants a right to life to the infant and acceptance into the tribe. Historically, infants who have been denied acceptance have been left on hillsides or outside the city gates. Usually these infants die, but a few have been raised by wolves, others memorialized in Dickens novels. Indeed, one could observe that a child left at the city gate today would have a better channce at being adopted than it would if handed over to an adoption agency.

    Our society is remarkably cruel because unlike past generations it kills unwanted fetuses rather than bringing them to term and giving them a chance at being claimed by some one or even raised by wolves.

    I suggest a new born is not human until it is baptised or given a social security number. This gives society a fair chance to determine if an infant is a keeper – especially if any one who wants it can have it simply by doing a baptism or applying for a SS number and agreeing to support andcare for the child until adulthood.

    We must abandon these “scientific” arguments about when an it becomes a he or she and realize that what are really arguing about is totally arbitrary by its very nature. The question is “how shall we decide who gets to be a member of our tribe and get full tribal rights”.

  2. There are two seperate questions that continually get conflated in discussions of this issue, which Mr. Vason above points out (in an unconventional way). There is the philosophical/biological issue of “what constitutes a human?” and there is the legal issue of “what criteria must be satisfied for a being to have rights?”. (NB: I don’t subscribe to any of that metaphysical “natural rights” hokum, but I am libertarian-ish. The two needn’t be joined at the hip.)

    It’s the second question that’s at issue here. My position is that in order to have the all the full rights that you or I enjoy, a being should be self-aware and capable of being held responsible for its own decisions. Human adults with all their faculties in order (and sentient AI programs!) would be on this top tier. I also think it makes sense to have a lower tier of fewer rights for children and those with some sort of mental disability; they’re self-aware and can make decisions, but not as well as you or I can.

    Because it’s not entirely clear when a being can be considered capable of self-awareness, it’s reasonable to err on the side of caution. This is why I am against partial-birth abortions. However, in light of the fact that brain waves aren’t even detectable in a fetus until after the first month, I have absolutely no qualms about abortions in that early period. Experimenting with embryos is likewise A-OK, from this standpoint.

    So Ginny: what are your criteria for a being to be considered to have rights? (NB: making reference to anything supernatural is not allowed.)

  3. Ginny, thanks. All good.

    “…whether the euthanasia of Holland…”

    One thing on this. A physician friend was recently telling me about some discussions with some visiting Dutch doctors. They were telling him that an unintended side effect of the euthanasia in Holland is that way more old people are dying at home. Euthanasia is dished out so freely now in Holland that a really old person in a hospital or nursing home spend their days in abject terror, and end up imploring their families to get them out of there. The basic deal is if you get old enough and sick enough to present an inconvenience to the staff, it’s over. You can count on it, the guy in the lab coat with a needle is gonna be Doctor Dood (that’s Doctor Death in Dutch. I looked it up.)

    The unintended benefit is that people are happier and die with more comfort and dignity among their relatives at home anyway. But what a way to get there.

  4. I’m not sure how it misses the forest either.

    Either the embryo is a person, in which case it is wrong to destroy it, or it is not a person, in which case it is wrong to prevent it from being used as a means to save the lives of people. We dont “decide” which of these is the case – it is up to us to discover which of these is the case, and when the issue is preventing a murder on the one hand or preventing a cure on the other hand, it is morally obligatory to use all of our knowledge and powers of reason to discover what, in reality, we are dealing with and what our moral obligations are with respect to it.

    Once we did not have much of an obligation to investigate fully – we could play it safe, declare that any given embryo might be a person and thus shouldn’t be destroyed, and get on with our lives, knowing that if we were wrong, at least all we were doing was requiring people to carry a baby to term and give it up for adoption when they might have destroyed the embryo early instead without committing murder. Not an ideal situation, but certainly better than taking a chance on allowing murder.

    But now there is more at stake, and our obligation to investigate and get the question right increases. We can not blindly say that it might be a person from conception and escape committing moral wrong, since it is also dreadfully wrong to prevent people from using what ought to be permissible means to attempt to save their own lives or the lives of others. This is the moral obligation that I feel Mr. Bush and others have failed to fulfill – I cannot read anyone’s mind, but under the circumstances a confident declaration that the embryo is a person ought to have more in the way of supporting evidence, if such is possible. And in the presence of what seems clear refuting evidence, the obligation to support that proposition or abandon it becomes greater, at least in my eyes.

    So the circumstances demand that all who wish to do right answer do their utmost to answer correctly the question “what is a person”, and support a policy that respects the rights of all persons.

  5. Thanks, Ken, for the framing. I think your emphasis on “discover” helps me put things into perspective. Essence is a universal truth we may have trouble discovering but that is, nonetheless, real.

    I have always been suspicious of the blanket definition: for instance, the doctor who wouldn’t prescribe an IUD because its action is abortive. (Not that there weren’t other good reasons not to prescribe them.)

    Needless to say, in this political season, I find Kerry’s willingness to say both that life starts at conception and that partial birth abortions should be legal to indicate (surprise) a totally non-serious approach to this question. Unfortunately, I suspect that it is not just such politicians who lack seriousness – most of us (including me) would rather not try to puzzle this out. We’d like a scientist or a priest to give us an answer. But I doubt that either (at least without the other) is capable of giving us a convincing answer.

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