The utter primacy of H. sapiens in all the theistic religions is one of the things that bothers me most deeply about them. I believe we are unique and unusually important amongst life on earth (as were the first oxygenic photosynthesizers, and the first eukaryotic organisms, and the first macroscopic multicellular life forms), but I don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value. Diminished, certainly, but still a precious place. By the same token, I think that we diminish the value of the earth by causing the extinction of other species.
I think this may actually be somewhat related to the abortion question, and the difficulty of coming to any kind of common ground on it. I don’t consider non-viable fetuses human, but to me that doesn’t mean they are without value, or undeserving of any kind of legal protections. I just don’t think those protections should be as extensive as our protections of humans. People are resistant to the idea that “humanity” is a continuum. Some might even say repelled by it, but it seems inescapable to me. I also believe that severely mentally disabled people are “less” human, and that a brain-dead human is, for all intents and purposes, a cell culture with no more moral value than a side of beef. This might seem like something we had better not talk about, since it starts off all kinds of slippery slopes to horrible places, but I think eventually, we will have no choice, because some time in the next few decades, or at most the next few centuries, we will be confronted with positive deviations as well as negative.
What will it mean to be human, when there exist super-humans? When some portion of the population is genetically or cybernetically enhanced, will they have super-human rights, privledges, and responsibilities, or will they simply be more powerful through extra-legal means?
A person, even a politician, can stand up for human rights while condoning abortion if they do not consider the fetus human. The core of the abortion argument is what does it mean to be human? Is it a discrete, or continuous classification? Unless we can come to some consensus on these questions, the abortion issue, and many others, will remain vexing indefinitely.
12 thoughts on “What is Human”
You write that you “don’t think that the earth without humans would be without value”. But I ask, value to who? Or do you mean an intrinsic value, independent of the existence or beliefs of any human (or other sufficiently intelligent life form)?
Why don’t you consider fetuses human? Are they not new members of H. sapiens?
Regarding the continuum of humanity, am I less human while I sleep, or when I’m depressed? Should my legal protections correspondingly oscillate diurnally, for example?
One issue regarding the classification of individuals along the continuum will be: who decides? In the cases you mention above, it seems like the individual does not decide, someone else does. Which concerns me that it may bring us back to Dred Scott.
A humanless earth has value to me. People frequently leave wills and judgments and other intentions that persist in their absence, and I’d like to imagine it would have value to other intelligent beings, if they’re out there somewhere with an eye turned this way, now or in the future (or the past). Practically though, I’m talking about us. I want to believe that we are able to choose to behave as if the non-human earthlings have value. I think it’s our responsibility to decide, because we are the only things making anything that resembles decisions. Given that power, why can’t we be stewards instead of despots? Why do we choose to be self-absorbed? I also happen to think that it’s probably in our own long-term self interest to be more concerned with the other earthlings, and our overall impact on our surroundings, even if we don’t attach moral value to them per se.
With regards to the humanity of a fetus, the basic reason I think it’s okay to kill them is that they can’t support themselves. This is the “non-viability” argument. But I agree that that by itself isn’t convincing. There are all kinds of examples, like newborns, of compltely dependent humans who have legal protections. In my mind, the key difference between a fetus and a newborn is who is capable of rendering the support that they require. With a newborn, if for some reason the mother does not want to take care of the baby, other people (“society”) can choose to do so. Similarly for someone in a coma, or the mentally disabled. In the case of a fetus, there is only one person who has the power to care for it – the mother. I think society should have a “right of refusal” on caretaking. Before someone helpless is abandoned to die on their own, society should get a chance to step in and say we will support them. But by “society” here, I mean only to include those who could actually render that support. Society cannot support a 4 month old fetus if the mother doesn’t want to. It can support a newborn. Because it can’t support the fetus, I don’t think it should have a role in deciding whether or not it is supported.
As far as who decides where an individual lies along the continuum of humanity – I absolutely agree that it brings up memories of repellant decisions like Dred Scott, though I think it’s likely to be more similar to the “negative eugenics” cases of the early 20th century, such as Buck v. Bell (“three generations of imbeciles is enough”). The point I’m trying to make is that we are going to decide, one way or another, where to place people along the continuum, and I think it would be better if we talked about it out in the open, rather than letting it happen in unofficial, extra-judicial ways. If you haven’t seen Gattaca already, now is the time. By the time your children are in college, genome sequencing will be essentially free (see this story in Nature), and when they have children, it’s not unlikely that they will have the option of germ-line alteration.
Will Durant has a great quote about freedom and equality:
I think he will become only more right over time, as the disparity in ability increases. If we don’t work hard to come up with an equitable system for dealing with large variances in ability, we will come up with an inequitable, and possibly unstable system.
“In my mind, the key difference between a fetus and a newborn is who is capable of rendering the support that they require.”
That seems completely arbitrary. I wonder why you would go to such lengths to rule out the fetus as a human being with rights. In other words, what is it about the idea of protecting them that bothers you even though that is the simplest and most logical position (because it avoids arbitrary lines)?
In other words (again), why don’t you just as easily draw an arbitrary line at conception?
I think Durant is right if he is talking about equality of wealth, wrong if he is talking about equality of rights or intrinsic value.
I’m glad that you brought up disabled and brain-dead people because that is something most people are timid to bring up. I sometimes ask myself the same question.
I agree that where we draw the line is arbitrary, but I disagree that conception is the only simple and logical position. The moment of birth is just as simple and logical, but as Shane pointed out recently, many people aren’t comfortable with that line either, despite supporting abortion rights to some degree. Simple answers aren’t necessarily correct you know, in physics or in ethics. There’s just something wrong to me about society forcing someone to have the baby if she doesn’t want to, and I think it’s more wrong than killing the fetus, especially very early in the pregnancy. The longer the pregnancy goes on, the more dubious it gets, until the baby is born and pretty much everyone can agree that at that point, it gets legal protections as a human being. I refuse to categorize it into a binary right or wrong on some particular date. It’s a continuum. It strikes me as analogous to an unfunded mandate in government. If we made it absolutely illegal to pull the plug on life support in hospitals, and required medical professionals to intervene as aggressively as possible to keep every comatose/terminally ill/brain dead person alive for as long as humanly possible, who would pay for that? The hospitals? The insurance companies? Everyone. That’s who. In the case of a pregnancy, there’s only one person who can pay the biological and sociological costs: the mother. I also feel like the strict anti-abortion human-from-conception viewpoint is at least in part a way to moralize about sex. To say, “Well, if you didn’t want to have a kid, you shouldn’t have had sex in the first place”, especially when coupled with advocacy of abstinence-only sex education, and that bugs me.
Historically it’s not an uncommon practice to refrain from naming the kid until they’re at least a year old, and only then admitting them fully. When infant mortality is very high, infants are often regarded as less than fully human. Infanticide still isn’t that uncommon in places where male children are much more highly valued than females. I don’t agree with that practice obviously — I’m just saying that the range of norms on this is pretty wide if you look across cultures and through history.
I don’t think you, or most of the rest of the Christian polity in the US, are advocating for “natalist” policies like Ceauşescu’s Romania, but I think that what happened there is one horrific end member of the abortion spectrum, and understanding it is worthwhile. The Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days is a very personal depiction of what some women went through in that regime, and I think it’s the kind of thing abortion rights activists imagine as a kind of apocalypse to avoid. Russia had the opposite experience, with the highest abortion rate in the world. After Stalin died, it was used essentially as a form of birth control. In 1988, with fewer than 75 million women, there were 4.6 million abortions. Most women had at least one, some had more than a dozen. Nobody wants that outcome either.
Wealth is the most easily measured way in which equality diverges under liberty, but I think in reality, being rich gets you more rights, and better protection under the law. I think most people agree that that isn’t actually the way we want it to be, but how do you fix it?
What I’m saying is that because the variance in actual ability has been relatively small, and the large variability has been in the negative direction, we’ve been able to get away with idealizing the system to assume that “all men are created equal”, even when we know it’s not quite true. Epsilon-minus sub-morons don’t have much political clout. When the power that people can wield isn’t just a function of their wealth, but also of their personal augmentation (genetic or otherwise), do they have additional rights and commensurate additional responsibilities? Or only additional power?
Another example of the discrete v. continuous designation of humanity is the great apes. Chimps are pretty smart. They have complex social interactions and some degree of self awareness. They are very close to us genetically. What makes it self-evident that they should have no rights of any kind? Why shouldn’t they be on par legally with a severe Down syndrome human: incompetent to stand trial, but not just a cow to be slaughtered at will.
Responding to Oct 20 at 1:19pm post
I think I understand. You want us to make proper decisions for all life (since we’re basically the only decision makers), meaning, make decisions as good stewards of the planet we find ourselves on. I suppose one could extend this to all planets and moons we may find ourselves on as well.
You realize this isn’t a convincing argument (for others or yourself), so I would think it’s fair to assume it must not be the real reason why you think it’s okay to kill them.
This used to be at 5 mos, or 6 mos, or 7 mos. Medical technology has improved to the point where a 22 week old (from conception) human can survive outside the mother, but it wasn’t always that way. Are you saying that the level of medical technology should determine who gets to be classified as a human person? Before insulin was used to treat diabetes, was it okay to kill diabetics with impunity?
Or, if your reasoning is that only the ones able to give care should decide who’s a person, should we allow the medical establishment to decide who gets full legal protection and who doesn’t? After all, they are the only ones who are capable of giving many of us the drugs and treatments we need to survive.
I’m am definitely in favor of making it a public discussion and decision rather than something decided in some smoked-filled room somewhere (like Washington, New York, or Brussels).
I saw Gattaca in the past year–and I agree that new biomedical technologies regarding genetics will require some careful thinking as these technologies develop. And we need to consider that America won’t be the only one doing this–this is a global issue and there will be many different perspectives on what’s the right way to proceed.
I think I’ve seen some books recently regarding the emerging post-human age, and I think they’re about all the possibilities of altering humanity in the future (biologically, and/or merging with machines/computers).
Responding to October 20, 2008 at 10:22 pm post
There’s a difference between the difficulty of knowing the truth and the difficulty of applying the truth. Once we know the truth regarding an ethical issue, it’s often hard to apply it, especially when it might cost us something. The abortion question might not be as complex as it’s made out to be; the complexity and difficulty might lay in applying the answer. (Such could be said about other issues too. Slavery or equal rights for women come to mind.)
So once this cost to the mother is removed by improved medical technology, you would be in favor of granting legal status to the unborn child that is now a ward of the state?
What’s wrong with the government moralizing about sex, per se? Is the government not moralizing about sex when they make incest, or child molestation, a crime?
Some diversity here in the US too. Peter Singer of Princeton thinks, among other things, that new parents should have up to a month to decide if they want to keep the newborn–before that, the infant should have no rights. http://www.observer.com/node/40796
Why not? If the unborn are not innocent human beings, I don’t see the problem with this. Abortion as birth control would be fine. That’s why settling the question of what the unborn are seems central to me.
And the Spanish parliament agrees. Perhaps it’s related, but Spain has been pretty tough on abortion; they only decriminalized abortion in 1985.
Last I checked, my dog had some rights. I don’t think I can do whatever I want with her. And she sometimes acts pretty dumb.
Given what I know about genetics (admittedly little), genetic distance between species doesn’t convince me of much except that there are similar useful proteins. I think we’re very close to amphibians and daffodils as well.
Yes, to some degree, that is what I’m saying. Medical technology has always had a huge influence who lives and who dies. Before insulin we didn’t have to kill diabetics: diabetes did. With impunity. Once multiply drug resistant tuberculosis takes over in the wild, it too will kill with impunity until and unless we figure out some way to deal with it. Not only technology, but access to it, and the funds to pay for it. Plenty of people die from amoebic dysentery and malaria every year, despite there being no technological barrier to their survival. That’s not a legal distinction — we don’t execute them because they don’t have access to clean drinking water and mosquito nets — it’s a causal distinction. Similarly with a fetus. If pro-life groups wanted to pay the (enormous) costs associated with delivering a 22 week old fetus alive, and keeping it alive, and all of the increased medical costs associated with the resulting human being that arise as a consequence of their extremely premature birth, then I would be reluctant to deny them that opportunity, should someone decide they want to terminate their pregnancy at 22 weeks. If there’s nobody willing and able to step up and offer the support that 22 week old fetus needs ex-utero, then it dies. Just like the children dying of amoebic dysentery and malaria that absolutely everyone can agree are fully fledged humans, and that we all choose to allow to die preventable deaths anyway. I don’t understand how abortion has become a more serious and divisive moral and political issue than the many public health disasters around the world. They are no less the products of human choices. Maybe it’s because there’s no single person that’s easy to point at, like there is with abortion? Or because we each, individually, feel that it’s impossible for us to have a meaningful impact (despite how easy it is to donate to one of the many NGOs that deal with public health). But I’m getting distracted here. I also don’t agree with the “Duty to Rescue” good Samaritan laws, I think for similar reasons. I think legally compelling someone to care for a helpless being is a worse violation than allowing the helpless being to die. I think preventing someone from caring for a helpless being would be much worse, which is why I would never advocate anything forcing someone to abort a Down syndrome baby, or any kind of state mandated “culling of the herd”.
Ultimately, the medical establishment does decide within some bounds who lives and who dies. Who can be helped, and who is helpless. Hopefully they will remain benevolent. If your doctor wants you dead, you don’t have a chance (just ask the Roman emperors…). Ironically, the Bush administration has done a great deal to ensure that doctors have the right to deny whatever treatment they like with impunity. See this very broadly worded rule allowing any health care professional (not just doctors) to refuse to perform, or assist in the performance, of any procedure that they feel is morally objectionable, without any kind of retribution from their employer, or that employer loses any federal funding. It was inspired by abortion, but is so explicitly broad and without oversight, that it could be used for anything, like the prescription of contraceptives to a young or unmarried woman, or on the other side, what if you had a doctor with a Spartan philosophy, who wanted to refuse medical support to any child under one year old, in order to weed out the weak… I’m not saying I disagree with the rule (I disagree more with the use of federal funds as a back door legislative mechanism much more emphatically) but I do think it’s at least a little bit ironic.
As a thought experiment, if some day in the future we should develop a rejuvenating treatment of some kind, that’s terribly expensive, and has to be administered on an ongoing basis, but essentially allows recipients to live indefinitely, how would we decide who gets it? How should we?
Also, just for future reference, almost any time I say “we”, I mean the Humans. The Earthlings. I think nation states are a lousy way to organize things at this point (and probably for the rest of our history), but I don’t know what it’ll take to jar us out of that way of thinking.
I prefer to keep my government moralizing as little as possible. I realize others have different views on that. I think non-reproductive incest between consenting adults should be absolutely legal. Maybe even reproductive incest if they’re willing to take on the slightly increased responsibility of dealing with the resulting offspring. Genetically human incest isn’t nearly as dangerous as it’s often made out to be. You start having problems if you do it generation after generation, but I think that’s pretty unlikely these days. The wrong in incest or sexual molestation involving a child in my mind isn’t about the sex, it’s about causing harm to a child, and I think it should be in the same category as beating the child. I think the extremity of penalties that we mete out to “sex offenders” relative to regular old drunken abusive parents is outrageous.
The combination of those two positions from Peter Singer is interesting. However, having read a little bit of his writing, though not the book in question, Practical Ethics, which is an introductory ethics textbook, I suspect that those quotes about the inherent rights and humanity of infants are being taken partly out of context. I would hope that that kind of idea to at least be explored in an ethics textbook, but exploration is very different from being an active proponent, which I know he has been with the Great Ape Project. Again, I could be wrong, I haven’t read the book. But I wouldn’t base my opinion of him or the book on negative reviews from conservative sources, or the reactions from formerly Fascist nations.
I think it’s fine ethically, but a lousy option for the women involved. Abortions are physically and psychologically traumatic, and having several of them, especially later ones, is not good for your reproductive health. They’re also much more expensive than using contraception.
We’re closer to daffodils than we are to most Earthlings (which are Eubacteria and Archaea), but within the macroscopic eukaryotes, daffodils are about as far away as you can get. If you aren’t convinced that all Earhtlings descend from a single common ancestor, then no measure of “closeness” that I could offer will be meaningful, and you should really take it upon yourself to do some reading about phylogenetics. I would suggest Richard Dawkins’ recent book The Ancestor’s Tale. Unfortunately, he could not resist the temptation to pepper it with tangential commentary that you will almost certainly find offensive, and which has nothing to do with the real point of the book, which I think is a serious failure on his part, because otherwise, it is a beautiful exposition of our evolutionary story as revealed through fossils and phylogenetics over a couple of billion years.
If you are convinced that we all descend from a common ancestor, then the “closeness” between humans and the great apes is extreme.
If your dog has rights where you live, you live in an unusual place (Boulder, CO is another one of those places, where there are no dog “owners”, only “guardians”). Where I studied Spanish in Guatemala, once a year they had a dog shooting day. Everyone would go out, and shoot every stray dog they came across to keep the population manageable. Really we do a very similar thing in the US, we just prefer to use lethal injection, to do it out of sight (out of mind), and at least give a few of the cute ones a chance to be adopted.
Again, what I’m saying is that “humanity”, or whatever you want to call the dimension of being that confers “rights”, is a continuum. The way the law is often written, it generally breaks down into all the rights, or none, even though the way we apply the law often does fall along a continuum. I’m not saying fetuses should have no rights, I’m saying they shouldn’t have full human rights. Should dogs have no rights at all? We do have a special relationship with them. What about rights at the species instead of individual level? We’ve conferred this in some sense with the Endangered Species Act. What about humans from other parts of the Earth? We’ve supposedly signed onto the UN Convention on Refugees, but in practice, we make it virtually impossible for anyone to claim refugee status in the US, as does just about every other nation that ratified it, because nobody actually wants a tsunami of poor, hungry, unhealthy, uneducated, people flooding across their borders, even though it sounds like the right thing to do on paper.
I do appreciate your point that “simple” and “easy” are not actually synonymous. The solutions to climate change are simple, but nothing about them is easy. The two ideas are too often confused.
But I disagree in this case. I think that whether something is simple ethically is often only apparent in retrospect, after society has come to a strong consensus on the matter. The ethics of owning slaves was simple in ancient Rome. Simple in the other direction. The ethics of universal suffrage is simple now. I might even say too simple! The notion of “independence” that the founding fathers had in mind when they wrote our constitution is subtle, and well reasoned, and somewhat different from our own, and underlies their decisions about who was to be given the right to vote. This talk by Lawrence Lessig does a good job of getting it across (very worth the time spent watching it).
More and more when I see us as a nation getting hung up on moral and cultural issues, and our commitments to one side or the other standing in the way of any substantive progress in our real governance problems (“one issue” voters are just too easy to manipulate), I think that these kinds of issues, as a whole, should just be devolved to the states, and our national consensus on them deferred until another day.
Unfortunately, nobody seems interested in devolving power.
To clarify, I do not mean that the abortion issue is not complex, as in psychologically complex. I think it is. Women who get pregnant at a young age struggle to decide what to do. Few people think abortion is the ideal. And many are concerned about women’s liberty and privacy. Many babies will likely be abused and neglected, or their mothers will struggle to make enough money to provide for them. The abortion issue is psychologically complex.
But is it morally/ethically complex? I don’t think so. I could be wrong, but I think the main question is, What is the unborn human? (Or, What was I when I was not yet born?) Abortion kills something. And whether it’s right to kill any living thing depends on what it is–e.g., we gas termites, not people. Humans have different stages of development (zygote, embryo, fetus, newborn, infant, toddler, child, teenager, adult, elderly). I see it as inconsistent that the current law of the land assigns a discrete jump in value (from zero to complete) at the fetus/newborn boundary, a change in location of a few inches. For political expediency, I would agree to a continuum in value (which I think you’re promoting) if it extended value to the unborn in some measure.
Looking at what we’ve written, I wonder if some of our disagreements boil down to a disagreement about the nature of morality. I think morals are objective, universal, independent of consensus among the public or experts, independent of what anyone may believe about them; independent of geographical location, culture, and era, like the laws of physics. So it was just as immoral to own slaves in ancient Rome as it was in the 19th century world. The fact that some of these issues seem obvious to us now might be deceptive (perhaps what you mean by “too simple!”)–it may be we’re living off the moral capital of earlier generations, having just absorbed it from our culture without really thinking through why slavery is wrong. It’s a good exercise to remind ourselves why things are wrong so we don’t repeat them. I would hope humanity is “growing up” through the generations, discovering through reflection, and sometimes trial and error, what is and is not moral.
Another word about morals. Morals are obligations had between persons–so I can have an obligation to you, but I have no obligation to your vegetable garden. If you entrust the care of your garden to me, then I do it out of obligation to you, not the vegetables. Morals have a genuine “oughtness” to them; they are prescriptive, not descriptive–telling what should be the case, as opposed to what is the case.
Given the above note on morals, impunity is a moral term. Diabetes is not a person, so it cannot kill a person with impunity–but I can. Another point: letting someone die because we can’t cure them, or can’t get treatment to them in time, is morally distinct from killing them.
In the United States? I thought we were talking about law and legal protection, which would mean laws which we may have some sway over, either local, state, or national law. We’ve got nation states at the moment, so we should probably decide how we ought to order our lives together at the nation state level which we’ve inherited (or state, or local levels, if you prefer).
Back to the continuity argument: if your two-year-old gets too expensive, can you kill her? Of course not. There are laws in place to enforce obligations that parents have toward their children, such as feeding and caring for them, and not abusing them. Does society have an obligation towards its “unwanted”, even to pay the (possibly large) bills to keep them alive? I would think yes, if it’s in our power. I realize you disagree with “duty to rescue” laws, but if a homeless person needs life-saving medical attention, do you think the emergency room should turn him down for lack of funds? I don’t think so.
Because I (and I think many in the US) are talking about the laws of this country. If our laws reflect a lack of concern for our own citizens because caring for them is expensive or inconvenient, why would this same American people go to the expense and inconvenience to care for needy and dying children and adults abroad? I take your point that we need to have proper priorities regarding global health problems, and proper priorities regarding obligations to others, but I see that as a separate discussion–only tangentially related to US or state law.
Worse violation of what moral principle?
I can see why this may have seemed like a good idea, but if it’s not in in place already, I would hope that there are requirements for refusing doctors to refer the patient to another doctor willing to do the procedure. Unfortunately, this would be difficult practically in a small town or rural area where medical care options are scarce and some patients can’t travel far.
People with a good memory who we will refer to as “The Historians”. This reminds me of an article by Leon Kass on the biomedical pursuit of immortality where he asked such questions as, “Assuming that it were up to us to set the human life span, where would or should we set the limit and why?”
I didn’t mean to take a jab at evolution. I think the genetic evidence for a common ancestor is compelling. I meant that regarding ethical treatment of other organisms, my genetic relatedness to them, be they great apes or daffodils, doesn’t change my moral obligation to them.
Anyway, I thought it was a crime to mistreat pets; like neglecting them to the point of death. Can’t you be prosecuted for that, even if you don’t live in Boulder?
I think we have sense that there’s a natural ordering of priorities regarding who gets our care; spouse or partner, nuclear family, extended family, friends, local community, on up. This is probably the most efficient way that care was distributed before we (at least us Americans) started moving all over the place. And if there cases where there’s no one to render support (“widows and orphans”), then others are obligated to step in.
By the way, a Joint Pastoral Letter issued by the American and Mexican Catholic bishops in January 2003 was on a related subject of nations’ obligations in receiving those seeking a better life. The letter, entitled Strangers No Longer, acknowledged that each “sovereign state” has “the right to control its borders in furtherance of the common good” and “impose reasonable limits on immigration,” but also that persons who “cannot find employment in their country of origin . . . have a right to find work elsewhere in order to survive.” How are these two rights to be reconciled? According to the bishops, “the current condition of the world, in which global poverty and persecution are rampant,” obligates “powerful economic nations” to “accommodate migration flows” and to receive economic migrants “whenever possible.”
But aren’t the moral and cultural issues, rather than being tangential distractions, at the heart of who we are as a nation? Aristotle said that politics is about us coming together to decide how we ought to order our lives together. To paraphrase Richard John Neuhaus (editor of the journal First Things), politics is chiefly a function of culture and at the heart of culture is morality. So these issues, even if Americans cannot agree upon them, are of great importance to who we are, what we stand for, and the world we want to bring about in the near-term and long-term future.
Which would seem appropriate and doesn’t the US Constitution say as much already? Which is why I think, e.g., it would be a move in the right direction to leave the abortion questions up to the states.
Especially not the executive branch of the federal government, which seems to only increase, whether a Democrat or Republican is in office; which has me concerned about how much longer checks and balances can be effective.