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Sanctity of life becoming outmoded [Nov. 28th, 2005|10:24 am]
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Link via chrissie:

The Sanctity of Life: Here Today, Gone Tomorrow
by Peter Singer

During the next 35 years, the traditional view of the sanctity of human life will collapse under pressure from scientific, technological, and demographic developments. By 2040, it may be that only a rump of hard-core, know-nothing religious fundamentalists will defend the view that every human life, from conception to death, is sacrosanct.

In retrospect, 2005 may be seen as the year in which that position became untenable. American conservatives have for several years been in the awkward position of defending a federal funding ban on creating new embryos for research that prevents U.S. scientists from leading an area of biomedical research that could revolutionize the treatment of many common diseases. When they are honest, conservatives acknowledge that giving up some medical advances is simply the price to be paid for doing the right thing.

This year, however, that view became much more uncomfortable. South Korean researchers showed that human stem cells can be cloned by replacing the nucleus of an unfertilized human egg with the nucleus of an ordinary cell. The South Korean breakthrough poses a stark challenge to the conservative position. The possibility of cloning from the nucleus of an ordinary cell undermines the idea that embryos are precious because they have the potential to become human beings. Once it becomes clear that every human cell contains the genetic information to create a new human being, the old arguments for preserving “unique” human embryos fade away.

The year 2005 is also significant, at least in the United States, for ratcheting up the debate about the care of patients in a persistent vegetative state. The long legal battle over the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube led President George W. Bush and the U.S. Congress to intervene, both seeking to keep her alive. Yet the American public surprised many pundits by refusing to support this intervention, and the case produced a surge in the number of people declaring they did not wish to be kept alive in a situation such as Schiavo’s.

Technology will drive this debate. As the sophistication of techniques for producing images of soft tissue increases, we will be able to determine with a high degree of certainty that some living, breathing human beings have suffered such severe brain damage that they will never regain consciousness. In these cases, with the hope of recovery gone, families and loved ones will usually understand that even if the human organism is still alive, the person they loved has ceased to exist. Hence, a decision to remove the feeding tube will be less controversial, for it will be a decision to end the life of a human body, but not of a person.

As we approach 2040, the Netherlands and Belgium will have had decades of experience with legalized euthanasia, and other jurisdictions will also have permitted either voluntary euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide for varying lengths of time. This experience will puncture exaggerated fears that the legalization of these practices would be a first step toward a new holocaust. By then, an increasing proportion of the population in developed countries will be more than 75 years old and thinking about how their lives will end. The political pressure for allowing terminally or chronically ill patients to choose when to die will be irresistible.

When the traditional ethic of the sanctity of human life is proven indefensible at both the beginning and end of life, a new ethic will replace it. It will recognize that the concept of a person is distinct from that of a member of the species Homo sapiens, and that it is personhood, not species membership, that is most significant in determining when it is wrong to end a life. We will understand that even if the life of a human organism begins at conception, the life of a person—that is, at a minimum, a being with some level of self-awareness—does not begin so early. And we will respect the right of autonomous, competent people to choose when to live and when to die.

Peter Singer is professor at Princeton University and the University of Melbourne. His books include Practical Ethics (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979) and Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of Our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995).

I've read enough of Singer to know that he's not the Prince of Darkness, as some Catholic journalists want to say, but I think he definitely has his finger on the pulse of the culture of death. His idea of what constitutes personhood is the most popular one right now, and perhaps the most intuitive for people in 21st century North America. This brand of personhood is based not on relationship (N is still my father or my brother even if he can't move or speak) but on action -- what can the person do, or say or think?

As much as I dislike speculative hyperventilating, I think Singer's exactly right: pro-life attitudes (and, by extension, Catholic personalism) are on their way out of the mainstream, if they were ever in.

[User Picture]From: loveneverfails
2005-11-28 04:10 pm (UTC)
I disagree. I think that people are rebelling against fundamentalist Protestant attitudes that are technically pro-life but have the tendency to really redound to just wanting to impose things on people. I don't think many people have really discovered Catholic personalism. It's a far more subtle position and one that respects the individual. I've heard too many statements, particularly concerning abortion, that are downright insulting to me. This idea that pregnancy is a punishment that you bring upon yourself by having sex really grates on me and I can certainly understand why mainstream America is rebelling against it. There are too many bad arguments going around for good positions.

I disagree that it's most intuitive for many modern people to use a utilitarian perspective for personhood. There is no way on earth that the average person would say it's ok, for example, to have sex with a corpse but unless you have some fundamental dignity and respect due to the person who has died you really can't argue against it any more than you could argue against someone using any other sex toy. I believe that the majority of people are very uncomfortable with but they don't have the right arguments that are reasonable and defensible in order to tell a woman that she can't have an abortion or a terminal patient that he/she can't be euthanized.

There is something very unsatisfying about the culture out there that allows these evils. I don't think that very many people are happy with allowing these evils but when philosophy is essentially a dead language most people will just go along with whatever propaganda seems to make the most sense.
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[User Picture]From: waterstrider
2005-11-28 10:14 pm (UTC)
Humanism vs. personalism might be an interesting fight, if we ever got to see it really play out. Secular humanism and utilitarianism can indeed be attractive and hard to argue against, but personalism is being swamped by fundamentalism and traditionalism. [At least in my experience. For some reason, most of the youth at my church who are regular attendees are fire-breathing traditionalists in chapel veils.]

So yeah, I don't think personalism is really a player in the debate yet (unfortunately). The churches seem happy enough to preach the fundamentalist, authoritarian position, and you don't see anything else unless you go looking for it. Which most people won't do.

Maybe if we suddenly saw a flowering of books and scholars and eloquent people who would go on Charlie Rose, the tide would turn a bit. But utilitarianism promises maximal happiness for the maximum number of people, and self-determination, and when you're afraid of suffering and don't trust others to care for you, that looks pretty good.
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[User Picture]From: goreism
2005-11-30 03:23 am (UTC)
Not all utilitarians are Millian hedonists. Singer is a preference utilitarian, and certain forms of preference utilitarianism can easily duck the "sex with corpses" or "rescuing 10 people at the expense of your child" or "spreading rumors about someone if she never finds out" objections.
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[User Picture]From: goreism
2005-11-30 03:08 am (UTC)
I disagree that there is such a thing as a utilitarian theory of personhood. Singer's position that the capacity for suffering or happiness is the morally salient consideration doesn't follow from his preference utilitarianism the way that his position that people who live in first-world countries are obligated to donate large portions of our income to those in developing countries (arguably) does. It stems from more a sort of moral naturalism. (A lot of Catholic philosophers have been moral naturalists, too, so it's not like it's some inevitable consequence of that position.)
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[User Picture]From: goreism
2005-11-30 03:17 am (UTC)
Oh, right, I forgot the last part. Given that Singer is absolutely not an intuitionist, he advocates a lot of things that are pretty counter-intuitive. (Permissibility of infanticide, anyone?) So Catholic attitudes may be losing ground, but I don't think they're being replaced by Singer-devotees.
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