Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Respecting Life

On the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision cementing abortion rights into our nation's law, I decided to compose a somewhat comprehensive statement on respecting life. My goal is defend a set of principles explaining the meaning and value of human life, and how it ought to be treated. These principles not only form the basis for the "pro-life" position on bioethics, but also may be used as guiding principles on all political issues.

First let me make a few comments by way of introduction. The pro-life movement, since the Roe v Wade decision in 1973, has been essentially a political movement dedicated to making abortion once again illegal in the countries where it has been made legal. Along the way, it seems that the movement has stumbled upon a broader sense of its purpose: to defend human life against the onslaught of all kinds of practices, from abortion to euthanasia to human cloning. It is now thankfully common for people in the pro-life movement to realize that it takes more than politics to do this.

Yet few in the pro-life movement realize just how important it is to form any sort of a broadly intellectual character. The typical pro-life activist's model of social change is clearly the "hearts and minds" model which James Hunter so thoroughly refutes in the first essay of To Change the World. Pro-lifers should perhaps familiarize themselves with this essay, since it could very easily be aimed directly at them. Essentially, the mistake we make is thinking that culture changes one person at a time--if enough people have a heart conversion, then public opinion about abortion will change. The only problem with this idea is that it isn't true. Of course every individual change of heart is important; but this doesn't mean we should delude ourselves into thinking that this is a long-term strategy for change.

By focusing almost solely on activism, we run the risk of sacrificing the end game in favor of small, short-term victories. This is what we're doing not only every time we set our hopes on politicians to pass new regulations, but also every time we invest our hope in new stories such as a former Planned Parenthood director defecting to the pro-life movement, former abortionists speaking out against abortion, or women who have been hurt by abortion telling their stories, or even when we put our trust in sidewalk counselors at abortion facilities to "battle on the front lines" against abortion. Every human being saved by sidewalk counseling is a miraculous victory and very much worth the effort. Nevertheless, every such victory is only a temporary one. No long-term cultural change has ever come about merely as a sum of personal moral victories.

If the pro-life movement is serious about its long-term goal, we need to be ready not just to deal with the practical but also the theoretical. Most people appear to have little patience for the theoretical. Why would we waste our time, they say, on abstract principles which are removed from reality? But abstract principles really are not removed from reality. For better or for worse, the theories of intellectuals make their way into the public consciousness and shape the culture we live in. The reason is not so difficult to understand. People are often quite fond of general ideas, especially when they seem fashionable, because through general ideas they can evaluate a whole host of issues. It is impossible to have the relevant practical information on every important issue. Having some general principles to work with helps a person form an opinion on something which everyone may be talking about, and which may be rapidly changing the world around us.

To give an important example, let us remember how abortion rights have gained their standing in society through the women's rights movement. No one was convinced that abortion was a good idea on its own merits; rather, they were convinced that abortion rights are inseparable from equal rights for women. Only when something is made a necessary part of a larger movement of ideas can it really become embedded in a people's consciousness. "A woman's right to choose" has power because we accept that without it, women cannot be free. Unfortunately many in the pro-life movement have simply lashed out at feminism, thus confirming the common image of the pro-life movement as merely reactionary. What many in the movement have failed to realize is that such reactions are not a long-term strategy. I have no faith in "winning back" the culture. We must forward if we want to make a difference.

When I suggest that the pro-life movement should develop a broadly intellectual character of its own, I am saying we should advance principles which exist not merely to defend against such practices as abortion and euthanasia but to defend life general. It is both narrow-minded and strategically flawed to think that we can take on the abortion issue in isolation from all other issues. In the long run we would have much more success talking about general ideas that relate to all political and economic issues, much the way feminism and other movements have done. This does not mean we abandon all practical efforts to change hearts and minds and concentrate on abstract theory instead. It simply means we start thinking ahead, so that we're not constantly 20 years behind the intellectual arguments in favor of abortion.

Perhaps the most important point for the pro-life movement is that our position depends on abstract principles, due to the nature of the issues we face. The civil rights movement was largely run by those who experienced first-hand the evils of bigotry and oppression. It is not so with issues such as abortion, where the victims will never have the chance to speak up for themselves. Even those who have survived an abortion procedure (extremely rare and almost completely unknown to the public) cannot say that they had any relationships with other victims. As a result, there is relatively little concrete experience, except perhaps the regret many women express after having abortions, to reinforce the beliefs we hold. While it may be possible to use images to convey the horrors of which we speak, even these images can be dismissed if we have no common principles on which to base our opinions. The abstract principle that a fetus is not a person has been quite successful in keeping people "pro-choice" even in the face of horrifying images. We should not be surprised at this. Ideas do matter.

One last introductory comment will address the possibility of the pro-life movement being a movement of Christian values. Many have tried to put abortion and euthanasia in with a host of other issues, from pornography to homosexuality to public prayer, in hopes of promoting a "Christian worldview." This is not the approach I will take. There are many reasons for this, but I will give two. The first is simply that we shouldn't burn bridges. Organizations like Secular Pro Life, PLAGAL, and others exist for a reason. The second is that I simply don't know what "Christian worldview" means. Is it supposed to mean that I use the Bible as my final authority on matters of political principle? If so, then the reader will be sorely disappointed, because I make no reference to the Bible here, and I confess that I think calling my principles "biblical" would contribute nothing to their merit.

Now let me offer a list of principles which I believe might be beneficial toward cultivating a true respect for life. I can't imagine this list will truly be complete, but it is an attempt at formulating bioethical principles, that is, the principles of the ethics of life--not merely when life begins or ends, but what life is, why it should be appreciated, and how we ought to treat it as a result.

1. Life is potential. Living things are always adapting to constantly changing surroundings. Of all living things, humans have the most extraordinary ability to learn and evolve. As a result, human life is valuable not for what it currently is, nor even for what it can be expected to become, but rather for what we cannot even foresee. In our limited imagination, we wonder whether a child coming into the world will become a doctor, a teacher, or the president of the United States--anything which would make us proud. Her true contribution, however, will be to see the world in her own unique way and to seize the opportunities she sees in ways that no one else can. In our rapidly changing economy, it is likely that her future occupation does not even exist now. This does not mean every person will appear extraordinary to us. It only means that our potential cannot be described by what we currently know, and that the unique contributions of every human being add up to something far greater than what a single individual could have conceived on her own.

A few considerations must follow from this. First, many of the most perilous ideas today come from an unrestrained pursuit of perfection in human existence. It is, of course, painful to watch our loved ones suffer from diseases and disorders when scientific research could, in theory, soon be able to alleviate this suffering. Yet at what cost? Human cloning and embryonic stem cell research are both proposed as paths to curing diseases, prolonging our lifespan, and improving our present quality of life. What is too often overlooked by scientists proposing such research is the destruction of human life involved. The presumption at work here is that once we attain a certain level of knowledge, then full happiness will finally be ours for the taking. I am convinced this is simply not true and never will be. What we have to contend with is the notion that if we can just reach a certain level of perfection, then life will have reached the end for which it exists. I say, to the contrary, that life exists always for the sake of growth and discovery. We will never be satisfied if we attempt to steer this process of discovery toward some mythical state of human perfection.

It is natural that as we progress in our ability to enjoy life, we would grow accustomed to certain standards of living. Anything less than these standards comes to be viewed as undignified. This tendency in our thinking can lead to many disasters, one of which is the belief in killing the victim. Because it is deemed unworthy to live in certain states, we begin to feel that it is not only acceptable but even necessary to commit abortion or euthanasia. Some children would be better off if they had never been born, we say; some adults would be better off dead than living in a "vegetative" or otherwise undignified state. Our presumption here is both dangerous and immoral. It is dangerous because we cannot expect to see life achieve its fullest potential if we are in the habit of destroying life when it doesn't seem to be growing in the direction we have desired. That it is immoral, on the other hand, ought to be self-evident: what gives us the right to decide that a human life is not worth living?

On the abortion issue, we often hear such thoughts as "a fetus is just a potential human being." Yet applying this principle which we have just set forward, we see that all human beings are potential human beings. It is the nature of living things to change, grow, evolve. If we were born as finished products in any reasonable sense, this pro-abortion argument might have considerable merit. But life is never a finished product. Human beings do not earn their right to be protected by law. Rather, the primary purpose of the law should be to protect human life and foster conditions in which it has the potential to grow.

I will add one note by way of application to economic policy. The fact that life is never-ending process of growing and learning is one of the main justifications for a system of free enterprise. Because each individual can use her own particular knowledge and imagination to contribute something new (and even the slightest contribution is significant) we are better off if we leave the process of discovering new ways to use the earth's resources to the dynamic process of the market, rather than the particular aims of politicians and bureaucrats. I have no intention of defending every aspect of our current free enterprise system. However, I do believe that the best method of political progress we have is to work on continually reforming the free enterprise system so that it better accommodates opportunities for all people. I will not say more on economics here, but it is an issue which I believe is intimately connected to the task of defending life.

2. All humans are persons. One of the biggest obstacles to defending human life in all of its forms is the belief that there is something that makes humans into persons, apart from what they are naturally. Thus it is argued that a fetus, or perhaps even someone in a vegetative state, is a human, but not a person. It is easy to think this way, but it is wrong. We tend to think of "personhood" as the collection of those abilities which seem to make us "sentient," such as language, feelings, beliefs, and especially "self-awareness." I will attempt to argue that none of these things are special qualifications which make humans into persons.

It is largely because we have failed to think rigorously about this quite abstract concept of personhood that the pro-life movement has lost so much ground intellectually. Yet this is precisely what many intellectuals appeal to when discussing the issues we care about. Anyone who paid attention in middle school knows that life begins at conception; but "personhood" is another story, one which lies hidden in philosophical darkness created by our own faulty presuppositions.

"Personhood" is, after all gloss has been removed, just another label used to separate those deserving of protection from those undeserving. At all times in human history we have come up with various abstract justifications for our heinous crimes toward one another. When one tribe conquered another, it was considered justifiable that the conquered should be enslaved by the conquerors. In relatively recent American history, it was considered justifiable that the color of a human being's skin should disqualify her from basic civil rights. It should not be surprising, then, that human beings continue to come up with boundaries by which they excuse themselves from treating all other humans justly. What is especially problematic about the label "person" is that it seems so essential, so that anyone lacking it isn't really a "someone," but can be treated like "a mere blob of tissue". I confess I have a hard time seeing why it's so hard for people to admit that we are all blobs of tissue, and that this physical fact about ourselves in no way diminishes our value.

All forms of racism, class-ism, etc. are justified by myths. The modern day myth of "personhood" is that there is a transcendent function of the human mind which qualifies a human to be called a "person," and that only those who meet this qualification deserve just treatment under the law. It is further asserted that this transcendent function is present neither in unborn children nor in "vegetative" adults. Such a transcendent function simply does not exist. All these things which we associate with being sentient creatures, whether language, feelings, beliefs, or self-awareness, are processes learned by that miraculous and incomprehensibly complex organ known as the brain. We far too often think of ourselves in the manner of Descartes, believing that our thoughts exist beyond our physical existence. If that were true, then it might not seem quite so important to defend human life, after all. In modern times we have substituted the functions of the brain for the rational soul. Yet the functions of the brain are not fixed in advance; they are acquired through a process of growth which, while it does operate according to certain rules, is in principle free to result in any number of functions which it is impossible to predict.

Self-awareness is a particularly shadowy concept in relation to this whole discussion. What does it mean to be self-aware? I have an image of myself as an individual; I can imagine what effects certain events might have on me, personally; I can evaluate things according to my own tastes and experiences; I can think, invent, and create. Yet there is none of these things which is not learned through a process of growth which I myself neither initiated nor controlled. It would be an interesting thought experiment to consider a child who was never taught the words "I" and "you," who was never taught her own name or anyone else's. Would she really be aware of herself as an individual? Probably not in the way we are. Yet there is no reason to believe that she could not be a happy and productive person; in a culture that did not use names or "I" or "you," she could still learn to interact socially, albeit in a way that would seem a little unfamiliar to us.

Even the experience of such feelings as pain seems, upon close consideration, to be a false token of "personhood." The experience of pain is in itself "bad," yet the fact that we experience pain is good. A person who did not experience pain would be much more vulnerable to harm, because she would have no way to measure the harm being done to her. For this reason those who cannot experience pain ought to be pitied, not mercilessly eradicated. This is particularly relevant in the context of abortion, where it is argued that if a fetus cannot feel pain, we are free to kill her. Is this not similar to arguing that we can drop a nuclear bomb on any city so long as the people in it have no idea what is about to happen to them? If killing a person is wrong, the reason has nothing to do with whether that person can feel pain or any other kind of emotion, since once the killing is over, we can be guaranteed that there will be no pain whatsoever.

Let me finish this section by making a couple of remarks with respect to Christianity and the concept of personhood. First, it should be clear from what I have said that there is no reason to bring in the concept of a "soul" to defend human life. That a person has her own physical existence, with a unique DNA signature resulting in her own unique potential, should be sufficient to consider her worthy of protection from harm. Indeed, it seems painfully ironic to me that the Christians, who are apt to speak in otherworldly terms about souls going to heaven when we die, should be so adamant about defending an unborn fetus, while secularists who have no such hopes in life beyond this physical existence should promote the slaughter of innocents. I am thankful that Christians have supported the pro-life cause, but it ought to be clear that Christian belief in the soul is far from necessary, and may even be detrimental to my argument.

Second, there is considerable concern over how the theory of biological evolution affects the value of human life. If humans are simply the result of evolution through natural processes over millions of years, is there really any value in human life? I have to confess I don't understand this point of view at all. The fact that everything we are came about through a process of spontaneous growth which we could in no way have engineered ourselves should give us a great sense of appreciation for where we have come from, as well as a sense for how we ought to proceed. Life came about in the robust form in which we see it today not because of the intentional design of a human-like mind, which could not possibly have foreseen all the possible outcomes of nature's complex processes, but rather because of spontaneous and undirected growth. The propensity toward "social engineering" and eugenics is decidedly anti-evolutionary, implicitly based on the supposition that a human could design life better than it evolved. Do we really expect that our limited minds can predict the outcome of our experimentation with life? Evolutionary theory gives us principles that govern the growth of life; it does not give us the ability to predict the outcomes. It is our astonishing hubris which leads us to think otherwise.

It could be argued that since all life evolved through the same natural processes, we ought to have respect for all living things and kill none of them. Or perhaps, kill some of them, including some human fetuses and/or comatose patients, possibly others as well. How we draw the line is not clear. Let me say that there is certainly nothing wrong with extending the range of our respect for life to an ever greater extent. We already do have many laws against inhumane treatment of animals, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. I do not know whether it is somehow "species-ist" to believe that all humans should be legally protected, even while we kill animals for food. If it has come to the point where we no longer recognize the difference between a human unborn child and a chicken, then maybe it is time to become vegetarians.

3. Life is not a possession. That is, "my life" is not really mine, to give or to receive. "My life" is simply synonymous with my existence. This might seem like merely a semantic argument, but I believe it is of great importance in protecting life. The main issue in which this importance can clearly be seen, though certainly not the only issue, is euthanasia. If life is a possession, then logically its owner may do with it what she wills, at least insofar as she does not affect other people. We will not get very far arguing that taking one's own life affects everyone else; this is clearly not so in the way that we would need for it to have any moral (or legal) weight. The proper response is that a person's life is not something to be disposed of according to that person's desires; it is the person. Though we may use such expressions as "to take one's own life," this is somewhat falsely worded. A person who commits suicide destroys herself, and that is the only way we can rationally think of it. Suicide makes all future choices impossible; it destroys that potential for which life is to be so highly regarded.

We must here recall our first principle, that life is potential. The reason we should allow an individual to make her own choices in life is because her life is precious, that is, her potential is precious. If we sought to control her every action, we would be guilty of destroying that potential and forcing her to pursue a predetermined ideal. At the same time, there are some behaviors which we must seek to forbid, because they tend to destroy life. Without such morals, we would have to treat people as individuals lost at sea, with no basis for making any choice in life other than the fact that they are on their own.

This brings to mind a very critical point in both euthanasia and abortion debates, namely the importance of choice. Personal choice is a good thing, and all human beings are entitled to exercise it to the largest extent possible without breaking basic laws of justice. However, our goal in allowing people the freedom of choice is not to simply leave them alone to act as individuals totally unguided by other people around them. The goal, instead, is to affirm the value and, recalling our first principle, the potential of each and every individual life. Choice follows life in order of importance; only a living person can choose.

A person does not make choices solely for the sake of preserving her own life or the lives of others, but for the sake of satisfying some of the many desires which she constantly must try to make sense of. This process of attempting to satisfy our desires is a daily struggle. It is made rather difficult by the fact that our desires compete with one another, by the scarcity of resources available to satisfy our desires, and by our lack of knowledge how to achieve our goals or even which goals are worth pursuing. The one desire a person cannot satisfy is the desire to avoid this struggle. Suicide is certainly not a "way out." Life is always a struggle, but there is no alternative. The worst idea to which we could lend credence is the idea that death can bring freedom from pain or suffering. Death is not freedom; death is absence. Thus death, so far from being the solution to the problem of suffering, is an anti-solution. It simply destroys all hope.

Dr. Kevorkian has argued that the Ninth Amendment implies that everyone has the right to a physician-assisted suicide. But we ought to think very carefully before we defend the "right to die" in the name of personal liberty. As we have just seen, the desire for death comes from the desire to escape the struggle to make sense of our many desires in this life, particularly when pain is involved. While this desire is understandable, we cannot afford to promote or indulge it. The unrestrained desire to escape the struggle between our various desires gradually leads to the loss of freedom. As the late 19th and early 20th century experiments in socialism have taught us, it is all too easy for "gentle tyrants" to promise satisfactory fulfillment of all our needs, and thus to gradually take away all of our freedom. If only someone will take care of the problem of competing desires, the problem of scarcity, and the problem of knowledge, then, we tell ourselves, we can finally be happy. Death is the ultimate tyrant; he promises an escape from all struggles, yet submitting to him is the absolute end of all freedom.

Euthanasia today is justified mainly on the grounds that a person may wish to escape extreme pain at the end of life, but this is not its only use. It is now being used also by family members of incapacitated people to be rid of the heartache of watching their loved one barely surviving. It is being used in some instances for people to end their own lives simply because they feel they are done living. While we ought to wrestle very seriously with the concerns of people faced with difficult end-of-life situations, we cannot accept these uses of euthanasia as justified. If we truly respect people's liberty, then there are certain "liberties" which we must try to limit, for the sake of affirming the value of their very lives.

4. Life is interdependent. In the quest for freedom, it has become far too common to refer to "autonomy" as that which makes us free. My ability to walk and talk and think on my own, where and when and however I choose, is often taken to be the sign of my freedom. Yet anyone who considers life as it really is must sense that there is something illusory about this autonomy. My ability to walk, talk, and even think were all taught to me by someone else, and I learned by imitation. Is my perceived autonomy really nothing more than a copy of someone else? Even if my choices all seem to be in accord with my desires, where did those desires come from? Would I have even thought to start blogging had I not seen others do so? Would I have ever chosen to become a graduate student if I hadn't been influenced by the culture I live in? Would I dress and act and speak the way I do if it weren't for other people dressing and acting and speaking in similar ways?

The answer to all of these questions is both yes and no, but here I want to emphasize how much the answer really is "no." The reason is not to suggest that our freedom is an illusion; that is the opposite of my intention. The reason is to suggest that personal freedom does not exist, and in fact cannot be of any value, in the context of pure autonomy. A person living alone on a deserted would certainly be free, there being no one to coerce him; yet he would derive no benefit from that freedom. In a free society such as ours, the benefit we derive from freedom is the amazing amount of cooperation between people of all sorts. Almost all of us get our food, our clothing, our housing, and everything we own from others. Yet we would be naive to think that we did not also receive our values, morals, and beliefs from others. Indirectly, other people are constantly shaping who we are. No one except a life-long hermit is "free" in the sense of being truly self-made; such a thing is really impossible. In fact, even a life-long hermit could not have survived without an initial degree of dependence which will be very important in the discussion that follows: the dependence of a child on her parents.

Classical liberalism has showed us how free people can work together by voluntarily obligating themselves to each other in the form of contracts. But this is insufficient to speak in general about how and why people support one another. The primary motivation for humans supporting other humans is love, the belief that another person is valuable and the desire to see that person flourish. The goal of a free society really should be to provide the circumstances under which love is most likely to grow. Perhaps most political theorists refrain from such talk because it is somewhat embarrassing--does a serious intellectual talk about love as a political virtue? Yet both common sense and our highest ideals ought to confirm this. Free people are free because they act out of different levels of love; love for their family and friends, respect and admiration for coworkers and acquaintances and personal heroes, and civility toward their enemies. Love is not coerced, but neither is it autonomous. The one who loves is very much influenced by what he loves, just as the one who is coerced is influenced by the one who coerces him, yet not at all in the same way. Love helps bring human potential to fruition, whereas coercion puts further restraint on human potential. Love lets humans live, whereas coercion slowly kills.

It is a basic fact of life that no child could ever survive without being loved, since there are so many things a child needs which she cannot provide for herself. If a child has survived infancy, someone somewhere must have fed her, clothed her, cleaned her, provided her with a place to sleep--someone somewhere must have shown love to her. Perhaps these actions were only the result of coercion, as in a mother being forced by the state to provide for her child, or perhaps they were the result of someone being hired to do them. Nevertheless, in an indirect way, this child is the recipient of love, because someone somewhere decided that even though she had nothing to give in return, she was worth the effort spent on her. Thus even though there are many "unwanted children," those who survive have been, even if to a sadly small degree, loved.

Ideally, we would like to see love flourish, and not coercion. This is what makes the abortion issue so difficult and inevitably very sad. Who would not agree with the Planned Parenthood slogan, "Every child a wanted child"? Yet the solution proposed is to destroy human life that is not wanted. This we cannot accept. We are stuck in a quandary unless we think how best to affirm both the life of a mother and the life of her child to whom she may not wish to have any obligation. It will not do any good to denounce the mother for not wanting her own child. The simple fact is, it happens. The relationship on which we have depended for all of human history to provide for the continued survival of our species is, quite often, a broken one. Deciding what to do about it may be the great problem of society. It is tragic to me that more people don't take it more seriously.

I would not wish for any woman to be forced to undergo a pregnancy. Many pro-choice arguments focus on the fact that a woman should not be coerced into using her body as a vessel for an unborn child. Yet this seems rather harsh to me, considering the unborn child has little choice in the matter. All of us without exception had to begin our journey in the womb. Perhaps future technology will enable us to build artificial wombs; then the procedures used for surgical abortions now could perhaps be used for transplanting unborn children from their mother's womb into an artificial one. I find it generally agreeable that a woman should not be coerced into using her body to help someone else. However, as long as we lack the means to offer an alternative, the best we can do, perhaps, is to find some way to compensate her for her troubles.

While in theory the role of the woman's body during pregnancy has a lot to do with the defense of abortion, the reality is a little different. The real issues usually leading to abortion are related to what happens after pregnancy. Is there any support for the woman to raise the child? Does she have a stable career? Does she feel old enough or emotionally prepared to handle a child? Here is where we desperately need to seek guidance from people like Frederica Mathewes-Green and Feminists for Life, who have been searching for years to come up with practical ways to deal with these basic problems. Yet something more than practical knowledge is needed. If there is any hope of living once more in a society that does not use abortion to solve these problems, we will have to develop new principles to guide us.

There are certain principles which once guided us but now have largely been shed from society. One of those principles had to do with gender roles: we simply expected to women to be mothers, and we usually did not expect them to have careers. But just as significant, if not more so, was the principle that everyone in the community had a responsibility to raise children. A TV show from the 1950s could show an adult punishing someone else's child, and no one would have objected. That era is long forgotten, and parenting has become a much more private matter. One cannot help but feel the sting of irony upon realizing that the same culture which tolerates the most liberal abortions laws also looks down on women for every possible "mistake" they could make during pregnancy. Yet it is not so illogical if one looks at children as possessions. Everyone wants the best paying job, the nicest house, the nicest car, and, oh yes, the nicest children. One so often hears of people waiting for years to have children, and it seems to have a lot to do with wanting to provide the perfect childhood for them out of the wealth accumulated over those years. This is a rather distorted view of what it really means to raise children.

Other changes have also seriously affected the discussion of child bearing. Divorce is far more common than it once was, and marriage is not considered a reliable institution. This is extremely important, as studies have consistently shown that children are better off growing up with two parents in the home. Another factor is the shift in sexual ethics, which has been accompanied by new innovations in birth control methods. This has made it less likely for people to see sexual contact as necessarily implying personal responsibility for the pregnancy that might occur.

It is necessary to admit that we probably can do very little, if anything, to reverse these changes. We must look for new ways to affirm the value of human life, without relying on methods which would have worked generations ago but cannot work now. For instance, just because so many people lose their virginity by about age 16, it is probably time we stop acting so judgmental toward a high school girl who finds herself pregnant. I find that whereas two generations ago people looked down on a teenage pregnancy as a sign she was sleeping around, today people judge her for being too stupid to use birth control. This is definitely not progress.

What we need are ways to welcome more children into the world, without resorting to coercion. The best way, in my mind, is to generally promote more adoptions. This is no doubt old news to most pro-lifers, yet I am still convinced that promoting adoption would be much easier than miraculously causing men and women to suddenly be chaste. It is rather sad how many people find adoption to be a horrible thing; some apparently find it harder on women than abortion. Yet this can be remedied, I think, by trying to promote a general sense of connection and even brotherhood among all people. This is one reason open adoption seems particularly attractive. A woman need not simply give up her child and never think about her again. She become in a sense part of the family who adopts her child.

This leads me to the point which really must be a key focus of modern political thought: the evolution of family. In a society in which the institution of marriage is no longer dependable, we cannot depend solely on traditional answers to guide us. We need to think more broadly about what it means to be a family, and about how we can make it more possible for not just children but all people to find love. The worst thing our society can promote is a bunch of single adults living in loneliness, and certainly we do not want to promote single parenthood beyond what is absolutely necessary.

Of course we cannot guarantee people loving relationships. Satisfying the desire for love is always a struggle, just as satisfying any desire is a struggle. Yet it is clear that, to some degree or another, we need love. A world full of lonely people would not be a happy or prosperous world. Society has always depended and will always depend on people finding joy in one another. If we want to defend life, we must work hard to develop new institutions to fill the gap which has been left by a general decline of the traditional family. Although there is not nearly enough room here to scratch the surface of this problem, I think it is really the fundamental political question.

5. All life is sacred, but not all life can be saved. In this last section I wish to address some of the circumstances in which it is unclear how it is best to defend life. The issue of end of life care is a tricky one, but we can distinguish between euthanasia and responsible treatment. No one should have to provide "extraordinary means" in order to keep someone alive. As valuable as life is, and as much as we desire to see all the potential it has to offer, we do not have unlimited resources. We must constantly make economic decisions, even with people's lives. On the other hand, the case of Terri Schiavo has demonstrated that even feeding tubes are considered by some to be "extraordinary means." The fact is, operating a feeding tube is probably less costly than feeding someone who is in full health. This is a terrible precedent, one which runs counter to the principles we have laid out here so far. Terri Schiavo was still alive, and still had potential. We do not know, for one, what doctors might have accomplished had she been allowed to live. The general principle that all human beings have more potential than we are capable of understanding was disregarded on the day Schiavo's feeding tube was removed and she starved to death. There are many cases where it is not at all clear what to do, say, with a terminal patient. Yet as long as we hold to the principles we have stated here, we ought not to stray too far wrong.

Abortion is justified in the case when a mother's life is in danger. No one wants to be faced with the prospect of choosing which of two lives ought to be saved, but we have to, and in the case of child bearing the choice is fairly straightforward. The woman has offered her womb to her children, and if for whatever reason they pose a threat to her life, she has the right to defend herself. This is an extremely rare case, and I hardly consider it an exception the the pro-life position on abortion.

In the case of rape, things are somewhat trickier. Here the case for abortion is strong, because the woman has been coerced into bearing a child. (This is why I think rapists ought to be held to the same penalties as murderers; they have taken life into their own hands through coercion.) But on the other hand, one must at least consider that the penalty is misdirected at the child. To me, the case of rape is truly a "hard case," in the sense of being truly unsolvable. Thankfully, cases of rape also comprise very few of the abortions that take place in this country (only, I wish all the other abortions did not happen). If abortion law were amended to tolerate abortion only in the cases when a mother's life were in danger or in the case of rape, I would still consider that a truly pro-life law.

The death penalty is a hot topic in pro-life circles, and I feel I ought to weigh in on it as honestly as I can. I generally do not support the death penalty, so long as we do not need it to protect the lives of others. The main problem I have with it is the problem of knowledge. There are just too many cases (one is enough) where we have convicted the wrong person. This makes us guilty of shed blood, and we ought to take that very seriously. Life in prison may be somewhat costly to the taxpayer, but in reality, the death penalty is even more expensive. The system of appeals, which is absolutely necessary to prevent executions for people who are not guilty, means that convicts spend a long time in prison anyway, not to mention that attorney's fees are higher when the death penalty is at stake. Even the execution itself is expensive, although if we were willing to just use a gun instead of a lethal injection I suppose it would be significantly less so. All in all, the death penalty seems too costly to me, both morally and even materially, which I do not believe to be a trivial consideration.

On the other hand, I do think that in principle it would be right to kill murderers, if we had perfect knowledge. This is not contradictory, and I personally find it very strange that so many modern people sarcastically mock this idea, saying something like, "You think you can affirm life by destroying it?" Well, yes. While it is true that some ideas held for thousands of years by nearly all civilizations in the world have been wrong, this one does not seem especially illogical. As has already been mentioned, if we value life, sometimes we have to make choices between lives. One logical way to defend life is to harshly oppose those who destroy it. For this reason I do not find it immoral that the Iraqi people, for instance, hanged Saddam Hussein. Hussein was a tyrant who killed thousands of his own people. He deserved to die.

Finally, I firmly believe in non-aggression in foreign policy. However, I simply cannot condone pacifism. If we aim to defend life, then we must really defend it, and not just with words. Although it's probably too easy to use this as an example, I think it would have been wrong for the Allies not to have fought against Germany in World War II. In a society as large as ours, we have the luxury of allowing some the title "conscientious objector," and to refrain from combat even in the midst of such a critical moment. Yet in principle, I am forced to say that this is wrong. All disputes should be settled if possible by diplomacy; but if the tanks are rolling and the bombs are falling, threatening to destroy lives, it is wrong to refuse to fight. I say this only because I know many Christians who defend a pacifist view because they say Jesus advocated it. Their interpretation of Jesus is a matter for theologians. What I have against them is their belief that all choices can be good ones, and that being moral means never having to get your hands dirty. Come to think of it, that does not sound like Jesus at all.

Nevertheless, it would be silly to linger too long in refuting the pacifists, since in our day the much, much greater danger is American imperialism. I admit it has taken me some time to realize the full danger of American foreign policy in the past fifty years, but it really has been a disaster, and it continues to be so. Defending life ought to be just that: defense. Mounting a "preemptive strike" is the opposite of respecting life. It is insane hubris to think that we can conquer other nations and build them up by means of our ideas. This is the same hubris that must be restrained as scientists seek to perfect human life, and also the same hubris that often threatens to away our economic freedom. If we respect life, we must in many cases be more patient than we have the desire to be. Many countries in the Middle East, for instance, are not going to develop liberal democracy based on Western models just because we say democracy is God's gift to the world. But this is not the only reason we need to be patient. We need to constantly remember that we probably think many wrong things, and that we have things to learn here even as we hope for growth in other countries. One thing is certain: destroying innocent human lives in Iraq is just as bad as destroying them here. We are guilty of bloodshed, and despite whatever we may have accomplished by it, we ought to be intensely ashamed.

I hope it is clear from all these considerations how reflecting on the principles which make life worth defending has consequences for every political issue, including but not at all limited to abortion, euthanasia,, embryonic stem cell research, human cloning, and other issues in bioethics. These issues all too often get treated as if they had no relevance to anything else. Yet my contention is that they are really the most important issues of our time, not only because of the seriousness of the issues themselves, but because our thinking on them has implications for how we treat everything else. All of politics is really a question of how humans are to treat other humans. Any political philosophy that does not start with the question, "What is a human?" is really incomplete.


  1. Good thoughts; there is quite a bit here!

    I just had a couple of questions on the philosophical side, limited to a few points you made:

    Re: intellectual thought:

    "Such a transcendent function simply does not exist. All these things which we associate with being sentient creatures, whether language, feelings, beliefs, or self-awareness, are processes learned by that miraculous and incomprehensibly complex organ known as the brain. We far too often think of ourselves in the manner of Descartes, believing that our thoughts exist beyond our physical existence. If that were true, then it might not seem quite so important to defend human life, after all. In modern times we have substituted the functions of the brain for the rational soul. Yet the functions of the brain are not fixed in advance; they are acquired through a process of growth which, while it does operate according to certain rules, is in principle free to result in any number of functions which it is impossible to predict."

    Do you mean to say that humans don't have an intellect, meaning the immaterial powers of abstraction, judgment, and reasoning? If so, how does your opinion avoid materialism/reductionism of consciousness? Just wanting to get your thoughts on that...

    Re: Act and Potency:

    "On the abortion issue, we often hear such thoughts as "a fetus is just a potential human being." Yet applying this principle which we have just set forward, we see that all human beings are potential human beings. It is the nature of living things to change, grow, evolve. If we were born as finished products in any reasonable sense, this pro-abortion argument might have considerable merit. But life is never a finished product. Human beings do not earn their right to be protected by law. Rather, the primary purpose of the law should be to protect human life and foster conditions in which it has the potential to grow."

    I'm wondering how the term "potential" is being used here. When you say "all human beings are potential human beings," are you saying "all actual human beings are potential human beings"? That I understand; I am an actual human being with various potentialities within: the potential to play a piano piece, the potential to move my arm, the potential to become some other thing after death, etc. But pure potency does not exist except in relation to some actual thing, right?

  2. Thanks for your comments, Josh. It provides further motivation to actually edit this piece, which was finished in a bit of a hurry last night (particularly the last two sections).

    Re: intellectual thought
    I would have to say I'm essentially going for a materialist view of human intellect, and although I don't think it's incompatible with Christian concepts like the soul, I also don't think it requires such a concept. Modern theory of complex systems gives us a lot of ground for seeing intelligence as grown within an evolutionary framework, and I'm very attracted to this theory. This is the meaning of saying "life is potential." We are always creatures of growth; no part of us is static.

    Admittedly, this view doesn't avoid materialism, although the word "reductionism" presupposes that intelligence is somehow less under an evolutionary framework than it would be if it were immaterial. I'm inclined to think it's more. An immaterial consciousness, at least as I always conceived of it, would have to be singular. In the evolutionary perspective, intelligence is a complex phenomenon, essentially arising out of the cooperation of different component parts (in our case cells in the brain).

    Re: Act and Potency
    Certainly the sentence "all actual human beings are potential human beings" is true to what I've said. The main point is what I said above: that life is not static in any way.

  3. In what ways are humans different in kind from the rest of Nature?

    "Reduced" would certainly apply if one thought immaterial things, like God, concepts, etc. "higher" in Being.

    Are you a nominalist in your metaphysics? I'll submit that one cannot talk about "human nature" unless there is something in a human that is static; a common nature to all.

  4. Humans are different from other things in nature mostly in our much greater adaptability to new environments, which is to say our learning capabilities are quite robust. I'm using "environment" in a very broad sense.

    God, for me, is necessarily higher than anything else, but personally I would not say that concepts are higher than material things.

    I suppose I could be called a conceptualist--universals exist within the mind, but I'm not willing to go beyond that. I don't have much of an interest in talking about "human nature" directly, and in fact, I think it would be somewhat dangerous. We are apt to come up with all the wrong universal attributes describing human beings--for instance, consciousness, which in this essay I emphatically reject as a defining characteristic of human beings. It is fair to say that most universal concepts we use don't have a definite meaning. Try, for instance, to rigorously define the concept of "game." Despite being able to evade all sorts of reasonable definitions, the concept is still perfectly worthwhile, and it is still worth making inquiries into the nature of games to learn more about them. I think this is all the more true of "humanity."

  5. So that I'm clear...humans are different in degree only from the rest of Nature?

    How can you reject any characteristic of a human being if human nature as a universal evades definition? How can you meaningfully refer to human beings as a class in your abortion essay?

    I did not mean to say it would be easy; perhaps one can only define human nature in mostly negative terms, like we do God. Yet we must affirm the existence of shared properties in existing things in order to refer to them as a class.

    I'm curious about all these things that I keep asking about because most of your (perhaps poorly understood on my part) philosophical beliefs dovetail nicely with atheistic philosophy and directly contradict orthodox Christian philosophies. Yet I understand you are not an atheist, so I'm puzzled.

  6. It may be worth your while to read some general theory of cognition. I'm not sure where to point you for reference, but for me it started with a class I took in college on Paul Churchland, whose philosophy of mind begins with neuroscience. One general points to be made, which the modern evolutionary perspective has contributed, is that abstract concepts often (always?) arise prior to descriptive definitions. For instance, you know what "sadness" means long before you can describe it in words. And it is probably impossible to enumerate all the concrete information which the mind uses to judge that someone is sad. I think this helps clarify a problem in epistemology. In our attempts to rigorously define a concept, we often ignore the fact that the concept evolved out of a process of adaptation, and I think this should warn us not to put our current conceptual framework up on too high a pedestal. I'm not saying there's no point in trying to define our terms, only that it at least might make a difference to know where these terms come from in the first place. Here I have also been greatly influenced by some of the more philosophical writings of F. A. Hayek.

    A number of my current opinions have been influenced by writers who happen to atheists or agnostics, but also by Christian authors. I do not consider any particular view of metaphysics to uniquely Christian, and one of the more upsetting trends in classical Christian philosophy is that Plato and Aristotle get treated almost as apostles of the faith. I have no idea why those two non-Christian thinkers should be privileged any more than modern secular thinkers. All I can say is that I'm doing my best to find out what is true.

    Maybe you're right about trying to define human life apophatically, as it were. I think I have tried to do so in this essay: it is not, I believe, what most people would say it is. If I can just find some way to fully express that human life is all about possibilities and growth, and not about preconceived forms and perfection, then I feel I will have achieved a philosophical victory.

  7. Well, certainly you can rule out a metaphysics that rules out the existence of God, yes?

    I think re: Plato and Aristotle, this shows possibly an unbridgeable gap, as I don't see why the moderns should be given any more credence in cognition unless one cedes the battle to them a priori, assuming that our mind is only the brain. The perennial problem, as noted by the pre-Socratics and refined by Aristotle and Aquinas, is how to get the one out of many, and if all one has is sense data, you can only perceive the many. My fondness for common sense and plain speech in philosophy might have led me to unduly favor these thinkers and Catholic philosophy in general, but I assure you my purpose is to seek truth, not comfort.

    I understand that you don't believe in Mere Christianity, but certainly there are some things out of bounds; I would think Eliminative Materialism (Churchland) would be of that order! Are Faith and Reason not harmonized?

    All this being said, I'll leave you to your writing; no more questions.

  8. Josh, I have to say you've inspired me to write a series of more ambitious philosophical posts in the near future. There are far too many issues to iron out in the comments here. Also, mind you, I have no doubts we're both searching for truth. My approach has been greatly altered over the past few years, but there's nothing to be done about it other than keep pushing farther down the rabbit hole.


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