More Equal Than Others

Among Christianity’s many influences on Western civilization is the concept that “all men are created equal.” The idea that human beings are equally valuable simply by virtue of being human is common even among those who otherwise reject religious teachings. What was once solely a religious principle has become almost universally accepted as a humanist principle. Two people might differ in their race, gender, intellectual abilities, age, or level of wealth, but both are equally deserving of respect, fair treatment, and equality under the law.

Call this “Belief A”.

Most people who support abortion argue that the fetus gradually acquires human rights as his/her nervous system develops in utero. According to polling done by Gallup, 61% of Americans believe that abortion should be legal during the first trimester of pregnancy. That figure drops to 27% during the second trimester, and to 14% during the third trimester. Since human life biologically begins at conception, this means that roughly half of Americans believe that some human organisms (third trimester fetuses) should have a legal right to life, while other human organisms (first trimester fetuses) may be legally dismembered with metal clamps and vacuum hoses.

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In other words, these individuals believe that human worth is not derived “simply by virtue of being human,” but rather by possessing certain physical qualities. Thus, all humans are equal, but some humans are more equal than others. Call this “Belief B”.

A person cannot rationally hold both Belief A and Belief B. If “social justice” extends to some groups of humans – but not to others – then it isn’t really social justice.

The Drowning Stranger: A Problem for Secular Humanists

Here’s a thought experiment.

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Imagine that you’re a healthy, athletic, 20-year-old male. It’s the morning after a thunderstorm, and you’re standing on the banks of a flooded, violently churning river.

You notice an object floating downstream.

whitewater

As it moves closer, you suddenly realize that this object is a person. The head breaks the surface, and you see a panic-stricken elderly woman gasping for air. You’ve never met her before, but vaguely recognize her as an impoverished widow from a neighboring village.

You look around for help, but there’s no one in sight. You have only seconds to decide whether or not to jump in after her – recognizing that doing so will put your own life in significant peril.

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Is it rational for you to risk your life to save this stranger? Is it morally good to do so?

For the Christian, both of these questions can be answered with an emphatic “yes”.

The Christian is called to emulate the example set forth by Jesus, who not only risked, but sacrificed his life for the sake of others. The Christian believes that the soul is eternal, and that one’s existence doesn’t come to an abrupt end with death.  Additionally, he can point to the examples of countless Christian martyrs who have willingly sacrificed their own lives.

For the secular humanist, the answers to these questions are much more subjective. When I previously asked 23 self-identifying atheists, “Is it rational for you to risk your life to save a stranger?” only 4 of them responded with an unqualified “yes”.

Biologically speaking, the young man in our scenario has nothing to gain by jumping after the drowning woman. Since she’s poor and elderly, there are no conceivable financial or reproductive advantages involved. Evolutionary biologists often speak of “benefit to the tribe” as a motivation for self-sacrifice…yet the young man’s community would certainly place greater practical value on his life than that of a widow from a neighboring village.

Secular humanists argue that people are capable of making ethical decisions without any deity to serve as Moral Lawgiver. On a day-to-day basis, this is undeniably true. We all have non-religious friends and neighbors who live extremely moral and admirable lives.

In the scenario above, however, secular ethics break down. The secular humanist might recognize, intuitively, that diving into the river is a morally good action. But he has no rational basis for saying so. The young man’s decision is between empathy for a stranger (on the one hand) and utilitarian self-interest & community-interest (on the other).

In the end, there can be no binding moral imperatives in the absence of a Moral Lawgiver. If the young man decides to sit back and watch the woman drown, the secular humanist cannot criticize him. He’s only acting rationally.

Twelve Questions to Ask Your Pro-Choice Friends

These questions are meant to provoke reflection and conversation. Some are intended to gauge the pro-choice individual’s commitments and presuppositions. Others are designed to poke holes in the philosophical justification for “abortion rights”. Responses are welcome, and encouraged.

1. In terms of biology, the human life cycle begins at conception and ends at death. At what point in this life cycle do you believe human life becomes “valuable”? Is the value of a human life an “all-or-nothing” attribute, or are some human lives more valuable than others?

2. At what point in this life cycle do you believe humans should acquire legal rights? Why?

3. Pro-choice philosophers typically define the value of a human life in terms of utility (development of brainwaves, consciousness, etc.). If this is true, then why is it morally acceptable to sacrifice pigs and dogs for the purpose of medical/scientific research, but not human infants? Neurologically speaking, it’s not at all controversial to say that pigs and dogs are in many ways “more advanced” than human infants. Yet society only accepts sacrificing the former for experimental purposes. Do you? If so, why?

4. Do you support paternal child support laws? (Consider this quote from Dr. Michael Pakaluk: “[Suppose] that the reason the woman has sole right to decide to have an abortion is that the status of the fetus somehow depends upon how she chooses to regard it: thus, the fetus is not a child until the mother decides that it is, say, at some point later in pregnancy. But then a consequence of this is that the man, through having intercourse with the woman, does not conceive a child. Rather, he conceives only a fetus, and the fetus at some later point becomes a child, only because of the woman’s deciding that it is. But then the man’s role in intercourse is not a cause of a child. He brought into existence only a fetus, and it was the woman’s decision to ‘continue the pregnancy through term’ that made it a child. But if so, it is not clear why the man should have any responsibility for the child. How could the woman bring a claim for paternity support against him? After all, he could rightly reply: ‘You decided to regard the fetus as a child; so the child is your responsibility.'”)

5. Numerous state and federal laws allow for criminals to be prosecuted if an assault on a pregnant women results in injury or death to the fetus. Do you support fetal homicide laws? Why or why not?

6. Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of “abortion rights” is the pregnant woman’s right to autonomy (read more here). This is especially relevant to abortion cases involving rape. Consider the following thought experiment: Suppose that a woman lives alone in a remote location. One day a man breaks into her home, assaults her, robs her, and before leaving, deposits his infant son on the woman’s kitchen table. Clearly it will require the sacrifice of both autonomy and valuable resources to care for the child until help arrives. Furthermore, it’s likely that the very sight of the infant brings back traumatic memories for the woman. Considering these challenges, is she morally justified in killing the infant, or allowing him to die of exposure? Does she have any legal (or moral) obligation to attend to the survival needs of the child?

7. What is your position on “two-minus-one” abortions? Are they ethical? Should they be legal?

8. Many of those who identify as “pro-choice” are particularly concerned with issues of inequality and discrimination. Are discriminatory abortions (such as sex-selective abortions) legally or morally defensible? Suppose that scientists developed a prenatal test to determine whether or not one’s child will be homosexual. Would you support a woman’s legal right to abort her fetus solely because of his homosexuality?

9. In the United States, many pro-choice activists believe that it violates women’s rights to ban abortions after 20 weeks (even when these restrictions include exceptions for maternal health). Suppose that two women get pregnant at the same time. At 23 weeks, the first woman decides to legally obtain an abortion. On the same day, the second woman delivers a premature infant. Several hours after the delivery, she decides she doesn’t want to “keep” the infant and smothers him to death. Should the second woman be held legally accountable for her action? Why or why not?

10. It is often claimed that a fetus cannot have legal rights if she isn’t “viable” (that is to say, capable of living independently outside of the womb). Interestingly, this fetus is capable of living and thriving within one environment (the womb) but not another (Earth’s atmosphere). You and I are capable of living and thriving in Earth’s atmosphere, but not underwater or on Jupiter. Does an individual’s ability to survive within a specific environment have any bearing on his or her moral worth?

11. Suppose you have a friend, daughter, or sister who excitedly begins informing people that she’s pregnant. Do you believe that it’s ethically consistent to simultaneously celebrate the new life growing within her, and deny the personhood and legal status of that new life? How would you respond if, after giving birth, she was reluctant to let pro-choice individuals near her child (knowing that they had, only recently, denied her child human rights and legal equality)?

12. What argument (or arguments) convinced you to identify as pro-choice? What did you find persuasive about these arguments? What objections to these arguments would you anticipate from pro-lifers, and how would you address these objections?

Genetics and Bioethics: Enhancement or Therapy?

Note: This cross-post was written by J.W. Wartick, and was originally published HERE. I really encourage you to check out his site. 

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Bioethics is an expanding field with direct implications for our lives. Here, we’ll reflect on the possibility and implications of gene therapy and enhancement. While I was at the Evangelical Philosophical/Theological Society Conference in 2012, I had the pleasure of sitting in on a talk about this very topic, and that will be the focus of this post. Unfortunately, the speaker had been switched around and was not listed in the booklet that I have. Furthermore, I never caught the speaker’s actual name (I tried to write it down when he was introduced, and got Gary Alkins, though I have tried searching online for that and haven’t come up with it), so if someone knows what it is, please let me know. I’ll reference the speaker as “speaker” throughout this post.

The central relevant moral question under discussion was: “Should genetic technology be used to not only heal but also to enhance the human condition?”

A Vital Distinction

The most important aspect of this discussion is the distinction between gene enhancement and therapy. Gene therapy is the use of genetic research and information to cure illness. Speaking very hypothetically, suppose that we were able to discover the exact genetic code for illnesses like sickle cell anemia, isolate it, and replace it with a non-anemic code before a person was even born; that would be gene therapy. Genetic enhancement takes this a step further. It allows for modifying people genetically to enhance certain features such as physical strength, endurance, mental aptitude, and the like. It would, in a sense, create “super humans.”

Therapy

Using our knowledge of genetics for therapy, the speaker argued, is perfectly justified. We are called by Christ’s example to treat illnesses, and gene therapy can be seen as an extension of this. There was little time spent defending the moral permissiveness of gene therapy, as the primary question was whether genetic enhancement is morally permissible.

Enhancement

There are several arguments for genetic enhancement. These include:

1) The “natural lottery” argument: if we have the capacity to genetically enhance humans but do not, that means we are, effectively, just playing a genetic lottery to see if our children turn out well. Parents have a moral duty to act against the natural lottery.

2) We encourage environmental enhancement (i.e. seeking better education, putting children in brain-stimulating environments, encouraging sports for their physical well-being, etc.), why is genetic enhancement any different?

3) We already manipulate chemicals (caffeine, vitamins, etc.) for our well-being, why not genetics? In the end, what matters is human well being.

4) Genetic enhancement is simply the next logical step for humanity. If we agree that therapy is good because it stops genetic defects, should we not also hold that enhancement is good because it pushes people to fill their greatest potential.

Against these arguments, the speaker argued:

A) Genetic enhancement could never match the ideal outlined in these arguments, wherein every human being is enhanced on a number of levels. Instead, it would very likely increase the split between the haves and have-nots by allowing those who have much to increase their dominance over society. The haves could afford to continue enhancing and remain a kind of super-human society while the have-nots would never be able to catch up.

However, a possible counter-argument to this reasoning would be to note that there will always be people who are advantaged and people who are disadvantaged. It’s unclear as to how this should serve to undermine the moral base for genetic enhancement.

B) There is a great good in letting humans accomplish things which stretch their skill set. Think about the steroids controversy in sports. We intuitively know that those who used performance enhancing drugs had an unfair advantage over those who did not. Similarly, those who would be genetically enhanced would have an unfair advantage over those who were not enhanced in almost any conceivable area of human achievement.

C) What of bodily autonomy? Who’s to say that it is a good for parents to meddle with their children’s genes. What if a child does not want to be extremely strong, or what of their parents choose to give them giftedness in music, but they simply don’t like to do music? What if the children hate what their parents chose for them: hair color, eye color, etc.? Unlike the “natural lottery,” such attributes related to enhancement actually do have blame to assign to someone. Is there no bodily autonomy involved?

Enhancement and Theology

There are numerous theological issues involved in the debate over genetic enhancement. First, humans were initially created perfect. The fall has caused them to lose that perfection, but God’s plan is perfect and doesn’t require us to try to evolve back into perfection.

For Christians, the ultimate fulfillment of God’s plan comes in the New Creation. The notion that humanity needs a genetic upgrade reflects the worldview of naturalism. Christians do not hope in their own ingenuity but rather in God’s plan for creation. That does not mean we cannot get actively involved in healing, but it does mean that we do not need to violate persons’ humanity by enhancement. The assumption involved in enhancement is that our bodies are not good enough and that we need to improve them, but that is not a Christian notion. Although we are fallen creatures, that does not imply that we are creatures capable of getting out of our own fallenness. Furthermore, the notion that our bodies are not good enough is a type of gnosticism in which we devalue the material world that God created for us.

Evaluation

It seems to me that the arguments against enhancement are sound. In particular, the argument about the haves and have-nots seems effective. The argument from bodily autonomy also carries a great deal of weight. It seems to weigh against every argument that was brought to bear in favor of genetic enhancement.

It seems that if parents select for certain attributes, then parents can be held morally culpable for the genes their children develop. Thus, if the child dislikes an attribute, they could feasibly hold their parents responsible for that selected attribute. Interestingly, this may work both ways too: a child could hold their parents responsible for not changing an attribute. Yet this latter argument seems to make a mockery of parenthood, holding parents responsible for nature.

In the theological sphere, one may wonder whether someone could just as easily argue that because we were created initially perfect, a pursuit of bodily perfection could be viewed as a fight against the Fall and the curse. I tried to ask this as a question, but there wasn’t time at the end to get to all the questions. The speaker did an excellent job noting possible counter-arguments to their points, and I thought gave a very fair presentation overall. It seems that the best argument against genetic enhancement may be the bodily autonomy argument, but there are others besides that.

I’d like to know what your thoughts are on this topic: Do you think enhancement is moral? Why or why not?

Links

I have written on a number of other talks I went to at the ETS/EPS Conference. I discuss every single session I attended in my post on the ETS/EPS Conference 2012. I also discuss a panel discussion on Caring for Creation, and a debate between a young earth and old earth proponent.

Apostasy, Virtue, Uselessness, and Morality

It turns out I have a bad habit of surfing the Christian blogosphere when I should be paying attention during lecture.

This means I have some catching up to do – academically speaking – before I resume my regularly scheduled blogging activities. It also means I have some really fascinating stuff to pass along:

1. The Problem with Ex-Christians (Sententias)
“Earlier today I was listening to Dan Barker talk about how he knew that he was a born again Christian. He went to all these church events and was heavily involved with evangelism–all the Christian things Christians do. Well, Dan Barker no longer describes himself as a Christian. He, and many people like him, are very emphatic when they say that they were once Christians and they actually were saved or born again. However, if anyone is going to claim to be an Ex-Christian they’re going to have to say that they never were saved to begin with…(continue reading).”

2. Sneering at Virtue and Beauty (the Ink Slinger)
“[We must] instill in our students the easy habit of sneering at virtue and beauty. I say it is an easy habit, because a little veneer of intelligence will usually suffice to persuade one that all the people in the world who lived before one’s time – say, all the people who lived before two in the afternoon on July 2, 1965 – were knaves an fools. They all believed the world was flat; they kept slaves; they burned witches; they smoked cigarettes; whatever easy stupidity or immorality can be pinned on them, we pin it. They cannot answer the charges themselves, and students ignorant of history can’t answer them either. So we talk glibly about traditional manhood and traditional womanhood, with a knowing wink – meaning brutality and idiocy. That such men and women, possessed of virtues we ignore, tamed a continent, is not to be considered…(continue reading).”

3. Humans are Useless (Bad Catholic)
“Beauty begets love. A flutter and twitch of female lashes can crush a man’s heart like a Bud Light can under a steamroller. A father who spends the day immersed in the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley returns by night with hugs for his children and a softer touch for his wife. Beauty begets love, as sunlight wakens sleepers, and I hope this an obvious experience, if not an obvious phrase…(continue reading).”

4. Jerry Sandusky and Ultimate Right and Wrong (ACWords)
“…in the ancient Greco-Roman world, homosexual relations between an older man and a boy (between 12 and 17) were completely acceptable. This was the age range that Sandusky happened to target. In other words, if Sandusky had done what he did 2000 years ago, no one would have thought much of it and we wouldn’t have found him guilty of anything. The rise of Christianity, with its Judeo-Christian sexual ethics, according to Wilker, was the main thing that ended up instilling a new morality so that most of us now view such acts with disgust….(continue reading).”

The Roots of the Abortion Debate

Pro-life and pro-choice advocates both seem to genuinely believe they are acting ethically. How can this be?

I believe the question really boils down to how an individual views human life. Before I explain this, however, let me first dispel the common misconception that we somehow “don’t know exactly when life begins”. This is an outright falsehood. Any honest, thinking person who defends abortion will immediately concede that life begins at conception. Science answered that question a long time ago (for confirmation, just open any embryology textbook). Those who claim that a fetus is “only a clump of cells” overlook the fact that ALL of us are really just clumps of cells.

So let’s consider first the viewpoint of the pro-choice activist championing the cause of “women’s rights”. These defenders of abortion must concede – as a matter of established scientific fact – that the procedure involves the termination of a living human organism. They will argue, however, that abortion can nevertheless be ethically justified. The question isn’t “When does life begin?” but rather, “When does life become valuable?”

Does value come with a heartbeat? Measurable brainwaves? Extra-uterine viability? Birth? Ability to talk? Ability to walk?

In order to rationally justify the practice of abortion, a person must first accept the existentialist notion that human life is devoid of objective meaning (meaning derived from a Higher Source – not to be confused with subjective meaning derived from oneself). This philosophy then makes it possible for a person to embrace utilitarianism – a brand of ethics that seeks to maximize the overall level of “happiness” in the world.

Following utilitarianism to its logical conclusion, one can then successfully argue that abortion is ethically justifiable. The aborted child doesn’t enter the world to experience happiness or unhappiness, and the life of the woman with the pregnancy is made more “happy” (just for the sake of argument here) by not having to raise or support an unwanted child.

When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the hemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.” -Peter Singer

On the other hand, those who do believe in things like objective meaning and universal truth will naturally see the issue quite differently. If one believes in a loving, all-powerful God with a perfect sense of justice, then our sense of right and wrong must account for more than just what makes people “feel happy”.

This is why those of us on the pro-life side of the argument often speak in terms of the sanctity of human life rather than the happiness of human life. What does this mean? It means that we view all human life as having God-given value and certain inalienable rights – from the moment of conception to the moment of death. A life is valuable because it is created in the image of God – not because it possesses certain physical, mental, or emotional abilities…and not because it enjoys more total “happiness” than “unhappiness”.

Incidentally, our disagreements over the value of human life spill over into a number of other pressing social issues, from assisted suicide to infanticide to the animal rights movement. But I’ll leave those topics for another day.

When it really comes down to it, both the pro-life and pro-choice crowds ARE acting “ethically” – at least within the framework of what they believe to be true. Both are following their “starting point” to the natural, logical conclusion. The difference lies in that “starting point” – the presumptions one holds about God and the value of human life.

I’ve written before about the horrors wrought by “Social Darwinism” during the 20th century. Only a handful of decades ago, it was commonplace in western countries for the physically and mentally disabled to be forcibly sterilized (and in extreme cases, systematically murdered). Ideologically speaking, this practice was justified using the same philosophical framework that’s currently employed to justify abortion. And in the end, eugenics only fell out of fashion because of the stigma of being associated with the Holocaust. The human race, it seems, has a tendency to follow an idea to its logical conclusion…at least until people become sufficiently horrified.

In conclusion, I want to ask you to honestly compare the two alternatives I’ve described. Should we view the abortion debate through a utilitarian lens that seeks only to maximize our subjective feeling of happiness? Or should we accept the Christian claim that God has made us in His image, and that all human life, regardless of age, gender, race, or physical/mental ability, is valuable and deserving of legal protection?

Which world would you rather live in? Which world would you rather leave for your children?

Also Recommended

Why I am Pro-life: A Short, Nonsectarian Argument (Douglas Groothuis)

What we learn before we’re born (Annie Murphy Paul, TED Talk)

Eugenics, Past and Future (Ross Douthat, New York Times)