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Aug 23 2004
Thoughts on Singer, Johnson and Ethical Matters

In a departure from our usual meeting practice, SHL cosponsored, with several departments of the College of Charleston, a talk by the controversial ethicist Peter Singer, which he titled "Rethinking Life and Death." This was the title also of a 1996 book by him. The talk took place on April 22nd in Physicians Memorial Auditorium at the college. It was well attended, and was notable for the presence of armed security guards. Singer's views are anathema to the "pro-life" crowd, and one never knows when one of their homocide-bent fanatics will attempt something.

I was somewhat disappointed in Singer's presentation. It seemed to me that he brought nothing new to the discussion that had not been made some years ago by Michael Tooley and Singer's colleague, Helga Kuhse. For example, I wrote in the Separationist four years ago, using much older references that:

I think we are all agreed that abortion is the killing of a member of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. The question is whether or not that killing is murder or indeed is wrong per se. Not all killing is wrong; would you argue that we should only eat vegetables that died a natural death. You may say in opposition: vegetables don't have a life that is sanctified; only humans do. In this assumption/argument (commonly called the sanctity-of-life doctrine, SOL) life becomes an intrinsic good whether or not the possessor considers it of value. This is not apparent to those of us who see death as preferable to some kinds of life, a permanently comatose one, for example. More to the point though, the holder of SOL rarely believes it strictly, usually making exceptions for one or more of such circumstances as self defense, capital punishment, fetuses conceived as a result of rape, gross birth defects, etc. In other words, quality-of-life considerations enter into all their formulations.

Further, many argue that human life has sanctity simply because it is human life. This answer tells us nothing about the value of a human life; it is merely specieism. It is no different from saying the members of a particular race have greater value by virtue of their inclusion in that race.

Others argue that only human life has special value because only we are self-aware, rational, autonomous, have a sense of the future, the past, and so on. While science tells us that other species also have these but not to the same degree, there is in this argument an implicit recognition that some lives are more valuable than others based on qualitative distinctions. This has it backwards; it is the qualities that provide sanctity, not the life itself. The life of a grossly defective infant must lack sanctity; we have no qualms about letting it die when it lacks those qualities we define as the essence of being human.

The ethicist Helga Kuhse provides an analogy: Suppose we encounter people from another planet, people who do not look like us but are obviously self-aware, rational, etc. Could we justify the wanton killing of them on the grounds that they are not of our species? Or would we say that the possession of certain qualities, the kind of life a being has, its capacities, all argue against the legitimacy of such killing. Again, it is the qualities that give value to a life, not its `mere' humanness.

The philosopher Michael Tooley has provided detailed, rigorous arguments as to the foundation of a `right to life.' For him, the ability to see oneself as existing over time is a necessary condition for the possession of this right or for the direct wrongness of killing. Tooley argues that the wrongness of an action is related to the extent the action prevents some interests, desires, or preferences from being fulfilled. That is why it is wrong to inflict pain and to wantonly kill a person who desires to go on living. He suggests that the word `person' be reserved for those beings capable of understanding that they are continuing selves. In this analysis, neither fetuses nor infants nor humans with severe brain damage are persons, so it is not wrong to take their life per se. There may well be, on sometimes rare, sometimes frequent occasions, other reasons for not doing so of course. On the other hand, chimps and perhaps other non-humans as well may qualify for personhood. I would argue as Tooley and Kuh

I think there is not much there that Singer would disagree with; he even used Kuhse's analogy in his talk. Yet, at the time I wrote it I did not know the views of Singer, other than that he was somehow identified with the animal rights movement.

I brought this up with my friend, Gordon Haist, who is chairman of the philosophy department at USC Beaufort. He thought that Singer was not really presenting a new theory of life and death. Rather, he has a gift for publicizing, in a confrontational way, a set of controversial values that he happens to believe in. This is not a bad thing, but neither is it original thinking, which is what I expected to hear.

The question and answer session was interesting, being in large part a dialogue between Singer and Harriet McBryde Johnson, a disabled person who is well known around town as a political activist, attorney, and champion of the rights of the disabled. She gave, as you will recall, a very eloquent talk to SHL in September of '99 on the latter subject which included her opposition to euthanasia and the killing of infants born with severe disabilities such as spina bifida, her condition, and Down Syndrome.

While she makes a very good case for better treatment of the disabled, her stand on euthanasia and the killing of disabled infants is logically flawed. This results from generalizing her own personal experience to include everyone. For example, she puts herself forth as an example of why an infant born with spina bifida should be allowed to live: she is having the time of her life, her experiences are rich and full, and she would have missed that if she had been killed at birth. Well, yes. But if her parents had let her die, she would not have known what she had missed. Johnson is an atheist, so the idea of an afterlife in which she contemplates her former life is not a consideration. She also does not consider the plight of the disabled person who would rather be dead, no matter how loving and supportive the people around him might be. Any theory needs to address the hard cases, the exceptions that need to be explained. I asked Johnson back in '99 what you do about the small percentage of people with ch

I have since learned, from an excellent article in the March-April 2001 issue of American Scientist by Jay Yang and Christopher L. Wu -- two researchers into pain and its relief, that there are three kinds of pain: Nociceptive -- resulting from damage to tissue or organs from injury or disease; Neuropathic -- resulting from direct damage to the nervous system or spinal cord; and Psychogenic -- having no discernible physical cause and assumed to be psychological in origin. Opiates and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories are reasonably effective against nociceptive pain but not against neuropathic pain.

Tricyclic anti-depressants and anti-convulsants are effective against neuropathic pain. Unfortunately, they are slow to work and their side effects -- a decrease in the number of white blood cells, sedation, anemia, and liver dysfunction -- can be severe. For many people, neuropathic chronic pain is a never ending nightmare that in one form or the other will not go away. The same can be said, I'm sure, for some sufferers from psychopathic pain although Yang and Wu do not specifically address that issue.

Given this, I fail to see how one can argue from any point of view other than a religious one -- not playing God, it will be all right in -- -- the hereafter, etc. -- that in each and every case it is wrong to end a life. And this is what I think Singer is saying, though he seemingly did not want to pick a fight with Johnson, sitting there in her wheelchair. Upon leaving the hall, an elderly women handed me a flier comparing Singer to Hitler. Aside from the bad taste and faulty reasoning, the flier struck me as irresponsible for being anonymous. Are these zealots ashamed of having their names associated with such calumny? Whether Singer is right or wrong, he presents serious viewpoints that deserve a serious rebuttal if such is available. Ugly personal attacks only reflect upon the assailant.

Oct 9 2005
a father of two daughters responds to abortion allegations

Abortion is not murder unless there is evil intent upon the part of the mother or is performed upon her without consent.

Abortion ( sponteneous, therapeutic or elective all ) is resulting in the same end, expulsion or removal of embryonic/fetal tissue, placenta, amniotic fluid and umbilicus, if present.

If you include unimplanted first lunar month zygotes & blastocytes, menses & delayed menses are not routinely examined for the presence of human life. Billions of such "human beings" wind up in commodes, sewers, tampons, pads & landfills each year.

The claim that abortion is killing is self serving towards a religious or debate objective. Such claims induce guilt in planned pregnancies which fail. Women will wonder if they failed to eat right, sleep right, exercise right or abate exercise right, guard against falls, swimming pools, intercourse, not drinking enough pure water or too much....get the picture?

And any mandatory pregnancy law is viiolative of Constitutional and local laws prohibiting chattel slavery. The government does not own all ova, ovaries, fallopian tubes, ectoptic pregnancy tissue or any uterus and vagina.

Calling a womans endocrinology subject to criminal investigation is the height of theocracy. It is not evil intent for a woman to abort the future progeny of a less than desireable mate or a rapists impregnation.

It is therapeutic for a woman to abort during toxemia and high risk pregnancies. And to abort sex linked disease/conditions like Huntingtons is euthanasia, not murder..

To compel a woman to carry such a tragic fetus to term is the true crime & I wonder how ethical it is for people to breed who have foreknowledge of such horrific sex linked diseases or conditions?

All in all, debate upon such intimate and private matters is haunting if not threatening of one religious or theocratic spectre or another towards women and parents. I hope that greater understanding be the goal rather than winning a "controversy." Every child a wanted child.

Oct 10 2005
not so clear to me


Despite the fact that I'm going to disagree with you (and the vast majority of my colleagues in the SHL), I want you to know that I am very grateful to you for having written in with your thoughts on this (and so many other topics) on our message board.

I am an atheist and do not resort to any supernatural claims when arguing moral questions. Moreover, I am generally -- though not always-- on the liberal side of things in political questions. So, it is strange that I do not seem to be in agreement with most of my fellow non-religious liberals when it comes to the question of abortion.

Simply put, I think the question of abortion is a VERY HARD one, and that both sides over simplify it in trying to present their case. I do not believe that abortion is a sin, is never justified, or should be made illegal. On the other hand, neither do I agree that it is just a medical procedure like having a cyst removed that is only the business of the pregnant woman. Whether it is fair or not, the fact is that the fetus really IS another person.

Yes, you're right that it is a very tiny person who is not yet capable of living on their own. Yes, also, it is true that many of these fetuses die without any intentional involvement of people. But, it seems to me that we go too far when we claim either that it is a person and therefore equal in rights and expectations to any adult OR that it is not at all a person and no more deserving of rights than my fingernail. The truth lies somewhere in between.

I am not a big fan of "slippery slope" arguments, but I have trouble seeing where the arguments that the fetus has no rights ENDS. That is, I hope we're all in agreement that killing a ten year old child WOULD be murder. I think we also probably also agree that killing a one month old baby is murder. There seems to be very little difference (other than the location) one month BEFORE birth. Similarly, though things are definitely different five months before birth, I don't see a sudden change, a clear line before which abortion is okay and after which it must be wrong.

Atheists often frame the abortion question as one of theology: only a religious person would claim that abortion is wrong. I see it the opposite way: only a religious person would think that there is some sudden change in the fetus after which it is a person and before which it is nothing. I don't believe in souls or anything supernatural. To me, the difference between the fetus and the baby is only a matter of time.

Being a freethinker SHOULD mean facing the facts, telling the truth (pretty or not), and making decisions based on reason. The TRUTH is unpleasant. Nearly every conception results in a fetus that could (under the right circumstances) grow into an adult person. The truth is that if we ignore it, sometimes that will happen and sometimes it won't. The truth is that our actions can also have some effect on the outcome. The truth is that there are sometimes reasonable arguments for having an abortion based on health of the mother, the circumstances in which the child would grow up, etc. but that even an atheist like me can consider it (at best) a lesser of two evils and certainly not equivalent to other medical treatments involving only one individual. Ignoring or sugar coating these truths does not seem any more reasonable to me than labeling all abortion "sinful".


Oct 10 2005
Alex to Larry re pregancy "law"

Alex, thank you for your thoughtful sharings. I assume we are both parents and share many views on wanted children, sacredness of life, sanctity of a freemind, protecting our progeny, etc etc.

I would first draw a fine point on comparing a baby one month old; post partum & a likely viable fetus aborted one month before a due date.

Very very few women choose such abortions & very very few gynecologists would perform the proceedure, but it is the subject of most recent laws & gruesomely/falsely called partial birth abortion, the necessity of this therapy is to save the life of a mother, toxemia, other massive infections that might lead to both fetal as well as maternal death if merely treated with massive penicillin or whatever, thus a fetus is killed to save a mother & I am sure some such decisions include a mongoloid fetus with a huge skull that indicates either a contraindicated caesarian or very dangerous vaginal birth.

If a mother to be chooses to risk her life for a healthy birth, that is one choice and if the baby is healthy at one month of life, then all of such facts could be discussed in one breath, but 60 days is more than enough time for a birth defect to result in mortality and 6 hours is long enough for a woman to die of an infection when the abortion could be completed in 2 hours.

And all of your remarks do not address the chattle slavery aspect of mandatory pregnancy laws.

Consider that my second child was a high risk pregnancy. 11 years ago doctors & nurses both tried to talk us into an abortion "because you are Atheists!"

So religious presumptions cut both ways & to assume religious people do not abort while only Atheists abort is insane but common

in the current zeitgeist.

I share with you a similar contradiction with our peers: I'm open minded & seek scientific testing of human personalitysurvival/ low wave energy transmission both as "prayer" as well as post mortem "messages."

I experienced single sympathetic symptomologies with the death pains of both of my parents. This does not make the bible true or a Jesu/Yahweh extant, yet I do affirm competent experimentation to verify alleged paranormal claims.

Fully predicting that media & theocrats at Duke University, for example will extrapolate such efforts way far beyond rationality & efficacy, I withstand condemnation of my peers due to this boundary with fact & faiths which can be known via testing.

I do not condemn you for your resistance & discouragements to

reproductive choice. But to put it mildly, don't have an abortion if you and a mate do not want one.

Encouraging intelligent people to breed & pass on such intelligence might lure me into a pregnancy law but I am not biting on that hook.

I'm pragmatic but not inchoherent. And I vehemently declare that

ignorance is bred into billions of people world wide via religion and theocracy. Nonetheless, standing for freedom includes feminism which means no special rights for a zygote to the negation of equality for women.

To take any other stand is to declare my two daughters are incompetent and need patriarchs to rule their vaginae, uteri and ovari.

I presume you've had your share of vigorous debate.

My recommendation is to push hard on the sentimentality for choosing to birth more intelligent children while affirming each woman as a

voluntary, not mandatory breeder.

Oct 11 2005
just to be clear...


Thanks for your response. I think I understand and appreciate all of it. I just want to correct what may be a misunderstanding of my post.

If you misread my message as an argument that abortion should be illegal, I ask you to look again and note that I say no such thing. All I'm arguing is that it should not be sugar coated by claims that it is no different than having a cyst removed or oversimplified in statements such as "The claim that abortion is killing is self serving towards a religious or debate objective."

Of course abortion is killing; it is the killing of a fetus. There are various forms of killing that we accept in our society. Killing animals for food, killing enemies to protect our country, etc. To me personally, all of these forms of killing are "distasteful" to one degree or another and we should try to minimize them as much as possible...but it may not be practical to entirely eliminate their need. The same is true for abortion. I am not arguing for making it illegal because I think there are really situations in which it is the least objectionable of choices available...and because there are lots of negative consequences of making it illegal (i.e. like drug laws, it may not be effective in preventing what it seeks to eliminate but only make the situation more dangerous for everyone involved). HOWEVER, I think we need to acknowledge that we're making this sort of decision.

Let's consider war as an example. Have you ever seen the film (or read the book) "The Americanization of Emily"? I recommend it. It was written back when war movies were all about glory and honor and heroes. The main character, a soldier in WWII, is opposed to the glorification of war. It's not that he is a complete pacifist who thinks there is never any justification of war...but by "white washing" it, by making it seem glorious and wonderful and just, he argues that we actually make things worse by increasing the chances of another one. To really make a decision about whether to go to war, we need to understand what war really involves. I feel somewhat the same about abortion. Keep it legal, yes...but be honest about what it is you're doing.


Oct 18 2005

Alex, in my confusions of logging in & default logins on Sue's laptop, you naturally assumed she wrote the last post. She didn't, I did. I'm Larry Carter Center & I fully agree with your metaphor on The Americanization of Emily. I do concur that by pretending that abortion is not the end of fetal life, feminists are vulnerable to irrational attacks by zealots for zygotes who stretch beyond all relative accuracy, their claims about souls or babyhood for an embryo or fetus. But I wish to underscore that much talk this way belittles the fact that mandatory pregnancy laws achieve a chattle slavery effect upon women who otherwise desire an abortion. So the leap from words in arguement or discussion is very close to equivocations for our enemies of science, medicine & reason. Forgive any implication of mine, please, that my strong words are dis-respectful of your position. I just feel that too few men give voice for the truth that each spouse, daughter, sister, aunt or woman faces in whether any conception might become the next human family member. Our enemies will not yield on the word "whether" as they are enemies of choice or freedom. They are free not to have abortions & more rational people will

embrace all women's right to choose either wise decision for health & life bearing. If pregnancy is not a choice, then women are slaves to a single sperm that lodges in ova. I for one, will never endorse slavery but do confess my two daughters were chosen and they will always be free to choose as long as I have breath to witness for truth. Liars for theocracy care not one twit for my family, just their fictional faiths. And they can only lie or make excuses for their violent pro-abortion book, the King James Bible.

Jan 30 2008

as it stands now alex and larry, i think that abortion in britain anyway, is a choise for women, its not an unconsidered choise as there are rules as to the amount of information given to the woman before it can be carried out, and im sure some women ignore the information as they have their minds made up for whatever reason they decided to abort in the first place.

but we are humans, humans are not infalible in their resoning, and no matter how we go about these things there will allways be some decisions that are made for the wrong reasons, but as humans,, we need to allow each other to have the right, to be wrong sometimes, after all its the person takeing the decision that has to live with the consequences, not the naysayers.

allso about the spinabifida woman in the original post, my sister was born that way, many years before i was born, but my mother told us, that si the rest of my siblings, about her, she was butifull, but deformed, it was such a bad degree of spinabifida that she was missing 2 vertabry and had a bubble of spinal fluid on her back and the spine stoped there, makeing here paralized below the small of thew back, they di evrything they could at that time to help her but she died aged 18 months and this was longer than the docters gave her, not all deformities are the same in degree, not all brain damage is the same, nor spinabifida, nor mongolism, so we cant make rules for these things that have a cut off point for all, just like the resons for abortion, there cant be a time that abortion is ok and then not as all pregnancies are different, im sure that woman wasnt as bad as my sister, and i have to say she iss wrong in her crusaid to stop all alowed deaths in deformed babys just because she was lucky.

Feb 11 2008

On the question about whether a fetus has the same rights as born humans -- particularly where a line would be drawn, if the discussion reached this point:

It seems to me we should be able to approach this situation completely pragmatically from the start, barring religious comment for the moment. The analogy I want to draw is with the U.S. (or really any national) voting age; certainly there are citizens under the age of 18 who are capable of making informed, wise, helpful and projective decisions about how their vote should and could be used. One justification, however, for the idea that in spite of this we do not allow them to vote in elections is that at this age, the age of majority, we can be sure that it is in their interests to vote in an informed fashion. In a way, we're hedging our bets with our declared age, for it is at this point where we have decided that we've waited long enough. Sure, it may be the case that with a voting age of 16 or 17, voters will still be far enough along in their development that their age shouldn't negatively affect their ability to vote in a rational way. But at 18 we feel more confident that those who we DO allow to vote are not the kinds of people whose youth hinders their judgment. (wow, that was long-winded)

In a similar fashion it seems we should be able to find a point at which abortion should be acceptable, AFTER acknowledging that there is no discreet point in time where we see what-it-is-okay-to-abort transitions to a-child-with-full-rights. Again, we should hedge our bets. Finding where to hedge them should be the only problem. Slippery slopes can be circumvented, but must we stay a hundred miles away from the foot of the mountain as we circle it, or will we allow ourselves to travel next to the base, and allow ourselves to save some energy, time, and dignity?

Should an unborn child have the same rights as any already born person from the "moment" of conception? Of course not, unless your God tells you so, or if you have some other arbitrary reason. At this point, the zygote is still less complicated, less capable of thought, of pain, than a rat -- than something we actively kill and despise. Is it the *potential* for human life that has value in this zygote? Many sperm and ova that don't fertilize have just as much "potential." THIS one has merely been to some extent arbitrarily selected and pushed along a path of development which any of the others could have taken. Masturbation and menstruation both should be murderous events, with such absurdity.

Presently I am quite confident that in the first 3-4 weeks of a normal pregnancy, before a zygote really has more cells than i could count in a (tedious and long) afternoon, I shouldn't consider the growing potential-human to have any rights of its own, whatsoever. No more individual rights than the extracted fat from a liposuction has. With my lack of expertise in prenatal development, that's probably where my hedging stake will have to be placed, but of course this is where/why discussion is productive.

Feb 11 2008

yes im sure schmiggen that the point you make is valid, but some ppl from a point of faith or some other non rational view, see no way to acomodate these rationalitys, so any point after this time has even less chance of acceptance, yet they dont considder any of the normal resons a responsible person may elect to abort a potential human, this is why we have medical and judicial bodies that arbitrate these matters, and why it is so important to keep religion and state separate, we would not like the state to dictate the bounds of religion nor the reverse, so we meed to keep an eye on the separation and make sure ity stays as is, its for all our benefit.

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