Philosophy as black comedy
Was I naïve? In the early 1980s, I mounted an argument against abortion that I thought no one could refute. In a brief to government, I asked: if the unborn do not have rights from the first moment of their existence, on the grounds of their being human, how can we be sure that they acquire rights later on, and on what grounds might they rest? From the standpoint of humanity and human rights, I declared, there are no grounds for distinguishing between the unborn and the newly born.
To my delight, no one who received the brief refuted the argument. To my dismay, everyone ignored it.
Recently, though, a couple of philosophers writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics revisited the argument. To my delight, they didn’t refute it either. To my dismay, they turned it upside down.
My point was that if the newly born have a right to life, so do the unborn. Consequently, we should not be allowed to abort the unborn for the same reasons we’re not permitted to kill the newly born. The philosophers’ point is that if the unborn don’t have a right to life, neither do the newly born. Consequently, we should be allowed to kill the newly born for the same reasons we’re permitted to abort the unborn.
When I advanced the argument, I assumed that almost everyone recognized the right to life of newborns. Three decades deeper into the culture of death, and this, apparently, is no longer a safe assumption. But the question, slightly altered, remains: if neither the unborn nor the newly born have rights grounded in their humanity, in what are the rights of the rest of us grounded?
The answer, according to the philosophers, is in our aims. That is, we don’t have a right to life until we start having expectations.
And I thought I was naïve.
Rather than infanticide or euthanasia, the philosophers prefer to call the killing they propose after-birth abortion. How long after? They’re not sure. Although they suggest more than a few weeks, they leave it to neurologists and psychologists to assess when we begin having aims. Apparently, neurologists and psychologists can read minds.
Despite advances in medicine, the lives of many newborns still hang by a thread. If the philosophers win the argument, the lives of all newborns will hang by a thought.
So might the lives of the rest of us, if the evolution of philosophy is any indication. Maybe all who are aimless, even temporarily, should embrace targeted thinking. They could begin by targeting the decline of philosophy.
The issue is not whether persons have a right to life. The philosophers say they do. The issue is whether newborns are persons. The philosophers say they’re not. We don’t become persons, they contend, until we have developed mentally to the level at which we are minimally self-aware, can appreciate our lives and are able to make aims.
In other words, they say that personhood depends on the subjective reality of our values and aspirations. I, on the other hand, say that it depends on the objective reality of our human constitution. Subjective reality is inside the mind. Objective reality is outside. Not only do the philosophers turn the argument upside down. They turn it inside out.
Some might infer, as the philosophers apparently do, that through age, illness or injury, we can regress into human non-persons, and lose the right to life. Others might infer, as the philosophers definitely do, that animals can develop into non-human persons, and gain it.
The philosophers acknowledge that it is wrong to do harm. They also recognize that to be harmed is to suffer loss. But they go on to point out that you can’t lose what you don’t have. Consequently, they say, for us to kill the unborn or newly born is not harmful. Why? Because they can’t form any aims that we prevent them from accomplishing. As they’re incapable of valuing life, being deprived of it does not represent a loss to them.
However, being subjected to pain does represent a loss, the philosophers say. Why? Because newborns and perhaps the unborn can experience pain. So, although it is not wrong to kill them, it is wrong to hurt them.
Not only do the philosophers turn the argument upside down and inside out. They turn it into a joke. They base it on premises which lead to the awkward conclusion that pain is worse than death. Or, if you like, that comfort is better than life.
What began as tragedy ends in farce.