“An Almost Absolute Value in History”

Over the next few days I will outline two famous pro-life and two famous pro-choice articles. For the record, a strong majority of professional philosophers support the pro-choice view. My own views can be found here. Also, one issue to get out-of-the-way before we start, as it is so commonly misunderstood:

“…research on human reproduction shows that the ‘moment of conception’ is not a moment at all. Sometimes several sperm penetrate the outer membrane of the egg and it takes time for the egg to eject the extra chromosomes … but even when a single sperm enters, its genes remain separate from those of the egg for a day or more, and it takes yet another day or so for the newly merged genome to control the cell. So the ‘moment of conception’ is in fact a span of twenty-four to forty-eight hours.” – Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.

“An Almost Absolute Value in History” – John T. Noonan

A fundamental question: How do you determine humanity? In Christian theology, this is the question of “ensoulment,” but Noonan (N) does not defend this idea arguing instead that: “If you are conceived by human parents you are human.” He also quickly attacks other criteria of humanity like:

  1. Viability – the idea that one becomes human when one can live without, and is not absolutely dependent upon, the mother. N counters: 1) viability depends on the current state of technology hence is not a good guide; and 2) even when viable, fetuses and young children are dependent suggesting that the lessening of dependence does not confer humanity.
  2. Experience – humanity depends on the formation of experience and memories. N counters: 1) fetuses have experiences from about 8 weeks; 2) even if all memories and experience is lost, say in total amnesia, humanity is not lost; and 3) it is not clear why experiences make one human since many humans fail to have important experiences.
  3. Less sentiment – We suffer more grief at the loss of a child compared to a fetus. N counters: 1) feelings toward others is not a good guide to their humanity; and ) the ability to sense a thing is not a good guide to its humanity.
  4. Social visibility – fetuses do not communicate with other persons so they are not members of society. N counters: 1) humanity does not depend on social recognition and when it does grave consequences follow for human beings.

N acknowledges that many philosophers may hold that humanity is not an objective concept that can be discovered. N argues briefly that morality demands we assume an objective sense of humanity in order to answer moral questions. [This is hugely debatable; moreover objective conceptions of humanity have led to monstrous results.]

Now N considers the following. The chance of a sperm becoming a person is about 1 in 200,000,000; the chance of eggs becoming human nearly 1,000,000 to 1. But the chance of a fertile egg becoming human is about 80%. (The actual probability is much less— “between 2/3 & 3/4 of the fertilized eggs never attach to the uterine wall.” Steven Pinker The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. So it seems that nature, or god if you will, is a great abortionist.) This dramatic change in probabilities does not definitively establish humanity but does suggest a non-arbitrary point at which we might assume it. We would hold you responsible for shooting something that was probably a human, but not for shooting something that was almost certainly not human. What this argument shows is that conception is the most plausible marker of humanity. Destroying a sperm is a lot different than destroying a fetus. In addition, after conception there is a human genetic code.

Still none of this means that abortion is never justified, only that the rights of the fetus are important and need to be balanced with other’s rights. So abortion is justified to save the life of the mother, since this is a case of self-defense.

“Plain Sex”

Here is an outline of Alan Goldman’s influential article, “Plain Sex.”

Two Lessons about Ethical Thinking

(1) Many ethical disagreements hinge upon disagreements about facts, not about moral principles.

(2) Being a moral objectivist needn’t mean being morally conservative.

Both lessons help limit the appeal of moral relativism. Let us consider each in turn.

1) Many ethical disagreements hinge upon disagreements about facts, not about moral principles.

Goldman claims that views about immoral sexual behaviour are rooted in our definition of sexual behaviour & desire.

Goldman criticizes ‘Means-End’ Analyses

i. The end (i.e., purpose) of sex is reproduction.
ii. The end is the expression of love
iii. The end is communication
iv. The end is interpersonal awareness.

Why?  Should we reject these analyses?

Goldman’s reason for rejecting those analyses:

Theory (i) mistakes nature’s ‘purpose’ for reproduction for our own.  First of all, why should we think that nature really has any purposes at all?  Only conscious things can have purposes, but nature isn’t a conscious thing.  Secondly, even if nature does have purposes, why should consider them our purposes?  For example, if nature has purposes then probably the purpose of eating (from nature’s point of view) is nutrition, but we often think of eating differently.  To us, the purpose is not just nutrition but also enjoyment.

Theories (ii) – (iv) mistake things that may, in particular cases, be associated with sex for things that are essential to sex.  For example, Goldman thinks that sex may in particular cases be a way of expressing love, but it doesn’t have to be.

Are these convincing reasons for rejecting the these analyses?

Goldman’s Analysis:  “sexual desire is desire for contact with another person’s body and for the pleasure which such contact produces; sexual activity is activity which tends to fulfill such desire of the agent.” (268)

Sex is ‘plain sex’ and nothing more.

Is this the right account?

How will the account you endorse affect your position on sexual morality?

Consider:  once you define the purpose of sex, then it seems make sense to consider sex that doesn’t serve that purpose as perverted, immoral sex.

Think about the implications of each of the above analyses of sex for what counts as immoral sex.

Notice how disagreements about something as seemingly uninteresting as the definition of sex can lead to substantial moral disagreements.

(2) Being a moral objectivist needn’t mean being morally conservative.

Goldman considers both Deontological (i.e., Kantian) & Consequentialist (i.e., Utilitarian) ways of considering sexual morality.

(a) Utilitarianism

The moral rightness and wrongness of an action is determined by how much happiness it produces in total.

Thus, the rightness or wrongness of  a sexual act is a function of how much happiness is produced by the act.

What implications does this view have for sexual morality?

(Note: Goldman seems to disapprove of utilitarianism.)

We might suggest it will lead to a fairly liberal view of sexual morality.  With some limitations, if those involved in a sex act fully consent to it, it’s likely to lead to an overall increase in happiness, so the sexual act is morally OK.

What might those limitations be?

(b) Kantian Morality

The Categorical Imperative:  “Act only according to that maxim [i.e., rule] whereby you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.”

An Alternative Formulation of the C.I.:  Always treat others as ends in themselves, not simply as the means to an end, i.e., never just use people.

What implications does this view have for sexual morality?

Again, it might be thought to lead to a liberal view of sexual morality.  With some limitations, so long as people fully consent to a sexual act no one is being treated simply as a means to an end so the act is morally OK.

What might those limitations be?

Here, the thing to notice is that both of these objective moral theories seem able to support quite liberal views about what are morally acceptable ways of behaving.  The lesson here is that one can be a moral objectivist and have liberal moral views at the same time.

“Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person”

Here is an outline of Mappes’ “Sexual Morality and the Concept of Using Another Person.”

Mappes develops an essentially Kantian sexual ethic by appealing to the idea that in our dealings with others, we ought never to treat someone as a mere means to our own ends.

Mappes defines using someone as intentionally treating them in a way that violates the requirement that our involvement with others be based on their voluntary and informed consent.

According to a fundamental Kantian principle

1) it is morally wrong for A to use B merely as a means to achieve A’s ends
2) Using someone as a means is okay, but using them merely as a means is incompatible with respect to their personhood

We use people as mere means

1) when we undermine the voluntary or informed character of their consent to interact with us in some desired way
2) Hence, using another person can arise in at least two important ways
a) coercion – which undermines voluntary consent
b) deception – which undermines informed consent

Coercion can be occurrent or dispositional

1) Occurrent coercion involves the use of physical force
2) Dispositional coercion involves the threat of harm
3) The victim of dispositional coercion does intentionally choose a certain course of action; however, one’s choice, in the face of the threat of harm, is less than fully voluntary

Deception and Sexual Morality

1) Even if a child “consents” to sexual interaction, he or she is, strictly speaking, incapable of informed consent
2) We can also visualize the case of an otherwise fully competent adult temporarily disordered by drugs or alcohol. To the extent that such a person is rightly regarded as temporarily incompetent, winning his or her “consent” to sexual interaction could culminate in the sexual using of that person

Lying is not the only form of deception

1) Under certain circumstances, the simple withholding of information can be considered a form of deception
2) Mr. A, knowing that it is very unlikely that Ms. B will consent to sexual interaction if she becomes aware of Mr. A’s involvement with her sister, decides not to disclose this information. This is deception.

Coercion and Sexual Morality

1) Rape that employs dispositional coercion is surely just as wrong as rape that employs occurrent coercion
2) With dispositional coercion, the victim’s consent is not bypassed; it is coerced
3) There are numerous ways in which one person can effectively harm, and thus effectively, threaten, another

Consider four cases

1) Mr. Supervisor makes sexual overtures to Ms. Employee, which are rejected. Eventually, Mr. Supervisor makes it clear that sexual favors is a condition of employment

2) Ms. Debtor borrowed a substantial sum of money from Mr. Creditor. Ms. Debtor is sexually attracted to Mr. Creditor, but he doesn’t share her interest. When the debt comes due, she says she’ll pay if he consents to sex

3) Mr. Theatergoer has two tickets to the most talked about play. He finds a woman sexually attractive, and who would love to see the play. Mr. Theatergoer offers to take her to the play on condition she have sex with him

4) Ms. Jetsetter is planning a trip to Europe. She would like to have sex with a man whom she knows would love to go to Europe. Ms. Jetsetter proposes that he accompany her, all expenses paid, understanding that sex is expected

Cases 1 and 2 involve attempts to sexually use

1) another person, whereas cases 3 and 4 do not
2) We need to distinguish threats from offers
3) Threat: If you do not do what I am proposing you do, I will bring about an undesirable consequence for you
4) Offer: If you do what I am proposing you do, I will bring about a desirable consequence for you

The person who makes a threat attempts to coerce consent

1) The person who makes an offer attempts not to coerce but to induce consent
2) It is not uncommon for threats to be advanced in the language of offers

If it’s unclear whether a proposal is a threat or an offer

1) ask this question: Does the proposal have the effect of making a person worse off upon noncompliance?
2) The recipient of an offer, upon noncompliance, is not worse off than he or she was before the offer. In contrast, the recipient of a threat, upon noncompliance, is worse off than he or she was before the threat

A person can be effectively coerced by being threatened

1) with the withholding of something (a benefit) to which the person is entitled
2) Consider an example: B says I’ll help you, A, out of the quicksand if you pay me $1 Million”

This is a threat

1) because B is morally obligated to help A when such help involves no significant sacrifice of time, or risk, or resources. Before B’s proposal, A legitimately expected assistance from B “no strings attached.” In attaching a very unwelcome string, B’s proposal effectively renders A worse off
2) B threatens A with the withholding of something (assistance) that A is entitled to have from B

Cases 1 and 2 involve threats; 3 and 4, offers

1) Consider cases 5 and 6 in which Prof. Highstatus is sexually attracted to a student. Ms. Student, confused and unsettled, has begun to practice avoidance behavior

Case 5

1) Prof. Highstatus tells Ms. Student, though she deserves a B, she will be assigned a D unless she agrees to sex

Case 6

1) Prof. Highstatus tells Ms. Student, though she deserves a B, she will be assigned an A if she agrees to sex

It is clear that case 5 involves an attempt to use Ms. Student

1) Case 6, at least at face value, does not. In this case, Prof. Highstatus is undoubtedly acting in a morally reprehensible way. He is abusing his institutional authority.
2) There is however a suspicion that case 6 might involve a threat. Might not Ms. Student feel threatened? Is he not likely to retaliate should she turn him down?

Is Prof. Highstatus naïve to the threat

1) that Ms. Student may find implicit in the situation? Perhaps. In such a case, if she reluctantly agrees to sex, we may be inclined to say that he has unwittingly used her.
2) More likely, Prof. Highstatus is well aware of the way in which Ms. Student will perceive his proposal. Indeed, it may even be the case that he exploits his underground reputation for retaliation
3) To the extent, then, that he intends to convey a threat, he is attempting coercion

The Idea of a Coercive Offer – Case 7

1) Ms. Starlet, a glamorous and wealthy model, wants to be a movie superstar. Mr. Moviemogul invites her for a screen test in his office. After the test, he tells her he’ll make her a star on condition she agree to sex. She’s not at all attracted to him. With great reluctance, she agrees

Mr. Moviemogul has not used Ms. Starlet

1) She accepted his offer. The situation would be different if it were plausible to believe that, before accepting the proposal, she was entitled to his efforts to make her a star

The more general claim at issue is that offers are coercive

1) precisely inasmuch as they are extremely enticing or seductive
2) Though there is an important reality associated with this claim, we must not agree that an offer is coercive merely because it is extremely enticing or seductive

(It should not surprise readers to know that Mappes is a Christian thinker.)

“Voluntary Active Euthanasia”

Brock says his essay, “Voluntary Active Euthanasia,” will discuss voluntary active euthanasia in cases “where the motive of those who perform it is to respect the wishes of the patient and to provide the patient with a “good death…”

The Central Ethical Argument for Voluntary Active Euthanasia –

The values supporting voluntary active euthanasia “are individual self- determination or autonomy and individual well- being.” Self-determination refers to persons being free to make decisions about their own lives. [Rather than governments, religious organizations, political groups, strangers, etc.] And this autonomy ought to extend to the end of life when persons worry about suffering and the loss of dignity. Individual well-being refers to situations in which individuals decide that “life is no longer considered a benefit by the patient, but has now become a burden.” In other words, their well-being is best served by dying. This does not imply that physicians must perform this act against their will.

Potential Good Consequences of Permitting Euthanasia – 1) respect individual autonomy (of about 50,000 persons a year in the US in this situation; 2) give reassurance to those who may want euthanasia in the future; and 3) it will relieve vast amounts of suffering.

Potential Bad Consequences of Permitting Euthanasia – Brock list 3 arguments: 1) performing is incompatible with the “moral center” of being a physician and thus patients would fear their physicians. B replies that patients should not fear that their physicians will kill them, since E would be voluntary and the moral center of medicine should be self-determination and individual well-being not preserving life when persons have deemed they no longer want that. 2) E would weaken respect for life. (Do we respect life in our country?) Brock responds that he is skeptical because a) passive euthanasia had no such consequences; and b) euthanasia would only relevant in a small minority of deaths. 3) Legalizing voluntary euthanasia would lead down a slippery slope to involuntary euthanasia. Brock responds that this is the “last refuge of conservative defenders of the status quo.” When all your arguments against something have been defeated you simply say that this something will lead to something else.

While it is possible that doing x will lead to bad consequence y, that is not enough of a reason not to do x. [When in vitro fertilization was introduced in the 1970s, Leon Kass, later the head of President George W. Bush’s bioethics commission wrote feverishly for years that this would undermine all value for human life. Millions of persons have been born this way, some probably in this room, and nothing like that ever happened.] We don’t want to know if this is possible, but is it plausible. And no one had done this. Brocksuggests a number of safeguards to minimize the chance of abuse. However the idea that one must be terminally ill—like the law demands in Oregon and Washington in the US—does not, according to Brock, respect self-determination. As Brock suggests, OR and WA can serve as test cases for such laws. [Let’s see if society collapses.]

“Active and Passive Euthanasia” ~ James Rachels

James Rachels published one of the most salient pieces on the euthanasia (E) debate in 1975 the New England Journal of Medicine titled “Active and Passive Euthanasia.” Here is a brief outline of his argument.

The distinction between AE and PE is thought crucial. This is mistaken. Why?

  • AE is preferable to PE because it reduces suffering.

R understands saving all defective newborns, or destroying certain ones (DS with congenital defects for example), but he doesn’t understand allowing them to die slowly and painfully.

  • Given the distinction, life & death decisions are made on irrelevant grounds. For example, intestinal blockage allows us to let a DS baby die, but wo/ the blockage we would have to kill it. But the blockage is irrelevant. The issue is whether the DS baby should live. The distinction between AE and PE made this situation absurd—it led to us thinking IB was important.
  • Killing is not worse than letting die. Consider 1) Smith drowns his cousin for money; and 2) Jones lets his cousin drown for money. It doesn’t seem there is any moral difference between the 2 cases. Similarly, whether you kill or let die for a good motive—say to relieve suffering—the act is right or wrong independent of how you brought death about. In both cases the intent or motive is primarily to terminate life (and relieve suffering or costs).

We tend to think killing is worse than letting die because usually bad guys kill and physicians let die. But this doesn’t mean that there is something intrinsic to killing which is worse than letting die.

Counter argument – In PE the physician does nothing and the disease kills the patient. In AE the physician does something to kill the patient.

Response – 1) Physicians do do something—they let them die. That is a type of action. 2) It is bad to cause someone’s death because death is ordinarily thought bad for them. But if death has been deemed preferable, then bringing about death is no longer bad. 3) MDs may have to go along with the law, but the distinction cannot be defended philosophically. [This is one of the most air-tight and flawlessly reasoned pieces I ever read in the medical ethics literature. And my sense is that this argument is increasingly winning the day.]