Saturday, January 15, 2011

Guns, babies, and life

With the recent tragedy in Arizona there has been much discussion around guns and gun control.  The other day while watching the news, I noticed a congresswoman saying that gun control should be seriously looked at because guns can take innocent lives.  Everyone realizes exactly what she means, but it made me question what I think is the most important part of her statement - lives.  What is considered to be valued life?  I think, no one would deny that life is precious and needs to protected, but who is a person or at what point does one become a person?

According to ethicist/philosopher Peter Singer a baby does not become a person until some 30 days after birth.  For this reason on Singer's view, the destruction of life prior to this point is not morally wrong.  Singer states, "Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” [1]  There are others that share similar beliefs to Singer, such as Michael Tooley.  Tooley agrees with Singer that personhood cannot be established unless that life form is conscious of its own awareness.  Because of this definition of personhood, they "possess[es] a serious right to life only if it possesses the concept of a self as a continuing subject of experiences and other mental states, and believes that it is itself such a continuing entity.” [2]  Again, on this view the taking of life is justified up until that creature becomes aware of itself.  Philosopher Jeffrey Reiman echos this belief in personhood by saying, "there will be permissible exceptions to the rule against killing infants that will not apply to the rule against killing adults and children." [3]  Clearly, each philosopher believes that in order for a moral crime to take place, personhood must first be reached.  The two questions that need to be addressed are, what is a person, and is the question of life irrelevant when compared to personhood?

Inconsistencies surface when examining the definition of personhood of the three  aforementioned philosophers.  First, adulthood is considered a person, because one has a sense of self-awareness.  What about individuals in a comatose state or having amnesia, are we justified in killing them because they no longer are self-aware?  Some would argue that they had self-awareness and therefore should be spared.  But, isn't there argument saying that life does not matter unless someone is self aware?  Don't all human beings have the potential of self-awareness at conception?  Singer and the others are disingenuous when they claim that life is unimportant because a creature lacks self-awareness, because the potential for self-awareness happens at conception.  Conception is the origin of life development and personhood.  Second, Singer's view is self refuting because of his belief in animal rights.  At what point do animals become self-aware on Singer's view?  Why should animals have rights in the first place?  If Singer is a proponent of animal rights, where do these rights derive from?  Singer's views are inconsistent and indefensible when addressing the question of life.

The congresswoman who expressed concern over gun control protecting life needs to address the life question first, as opposed to focusing on guns.  When does life start and why is it important?  Our founding fathers stated that all Americans have the right to life, but what exactly does this mean?  If life starts at conception, then abortion is the killing of innocent life.  Roe Vs. Wade gave the right for women to choose abortion, but it did not address the question of when life starts.  Gun control doesn't matter until the question of life is addressed first.  Are we interested in life or choice?  Until, our culture addresses the question of when life occurs, we will continue to destroy the potential personhood of the aborted fetuses.

[1]  Singer, Peter, Practical Ethics, p. 122-123
[2]  Tooley, Michael, Abortion and Infanticide in Rights and Wrongs of Abortion, p. 57
[3]  Reiman, Jeffrey, Critical Moral Liberalism, p. 121

  • A good article about Peter Singer's ethical stance.


Unknown said...

Singer does not favor (animal) rights from a stricly philosophical point of view.

He's a utilitarian. If you think he's inconsistent you probably don't understand him.

Shelby Cade said...

Singer favors animal rights over the rights of the unborn. He may be utilitarian, but this is a worldview (his philosophical point of view). No matter what you say or how you package your language, Singer is inconsistent. What do you need to understand about Singer to proclaim his position as consistent and morally justified?

Unknown said...

you do not seem to understand utilitarianism then. Tom Regan favors animal rights, Singer does not. In any case, the main point here is always speciesism. Singer doesn't see these things as black-or-white, as many of his accusers would like to think, but his reasoning is always very consistent, and he applies it over the whole spectrum of life forms.

Being or not part of this family protected by inviolable rights must be an issue of fundamental importance for you. The individual that belongs to it has all kind of rights while the one that does not can be (for example) killed because his flesh tastes good.

Since you seem so sure about these things, can you please give me NECESSARY conditions for an individual to be part of this family? It's always easy to give SUFFICIENT conditions, but those won't tell you who doesn't belong to the family. For that you need necessary conditions.

Shelby Cade said...

Hi K,

Thanks for your comments. I'm not interested in Singer's utilitarian views, I'm interested in his definition of life. Many doctor's/biologist recognize that life starts at conception. If that is the case, then abortion equals murder. I also believe Singer needs to justify his belief in speciesism, which I don't think he can. Another issue deals with the question of rights; where do these rights derive from?

As far as the necessary conditions of these rights, they come from God who created man in his image. That is why there is a moral law in existence. If you do not believe in God, then obviously you would not see it this way. But again, if God exists and man is created in his image, then the taking of live is morally wrong. A final question might be, where does the moral law come from, if not from God?

Shelby Cade said...

If anyone is looking for a response from K, it has been deleted. The primary reason for deleting his response was due to the fallacy of a red herring. K refused to deal with the subject of the blog, and that is the question of life.

He may be correct in not understanding Singer completely, but the fact remains that Singer endorses infanticide/abortion and gives preference or at least equal recognition (speciesism) to animals.

I would be happy to post K's comments if he deals with the original intent of the blog, which is the question of life. I am not interested in the euthyphro dilemma or or a complete philosophic understanding of Singer. If K is willing to defend abortion/speciesism and provide an argument to when life originates in the human species, I would be more than willing to post his comments.

Unknown said...

you said "where does the moral law come from, if not from God?", so Euthypro was more than appropriate, but it's ok, you want to reatreat to a field where you feel more confortable. Fair enough, I'll remind you of that when you question how Singer grounds his moral views.

Let's talk about life then. Do you have specific questions to ask me? I'll be happy to answer in the next post.

I will not defend speciesism. I am against it, as I am against racism. You seem to be the one who has to defend it.

You again deleted my question: given an individual, how do you know if he doesn't belongs to this group of individual to which you guarantee rigths. That is, what are the necessary conditions the individual must possess?

Shelby Cade said...

Hello K,

Again, the blog was centered on the question of life. When does life start? It is my view along with many in the medical community that life starts at conception. This was the essence of the blog and if life starts at conception then abortion equals murder.

If I understand your necessary conditions question correctly, I would say that the necessary condition(s) would be any human oocyte that has been fertilized by a male sperm. In other words, life begins at conception.

I disagree with Singer and others, who say otherwise, because I see their views as morally absurd and indefensible. Because if, on my view life starts at conception, then you have no argument to the contrary. If you believe that life is a gradual process (like Singer), then you need to explain yourself. The point of the blog was to say that if life does start at conception then Singer cannot justify abortion. I would also say on Singer's view, the life question is arbitrary, which is not a good moral leg on which to stand.

If you care to explain when life starts, you are welcome to address this question. This was the original focus of the blog.

Unknown said...

Good. Yes, I believe life is a gradual process. It is gradual in its phylogenesis and ontogeny. So for me "when does life begin" is an empty question (as Derek Parfit would maybe say). It is as interesting as asking "how tall do you have to be in order to be tall?". Being "tall" or not is a matter of definition, a question of language, while the facts concern your physical height. Once you know your height you know everything there is to know. Deriving strong discountinuos moral consequences from this "tall" attribute is simply a bad idea.

You make many mistakes, and try to jump to the is-ought divide in the worst possible way, linking continuous physical processes to discountinuous moral values.

So I have a little thought experiment for you: evil scientists have created an hybrid individual, mixing human and animal DNA. How do you decide what rights to grant to this individual? Remember that for you it cannot be a gradual change depending on some characteristic of the individual (e.g. self-awareness), it must be an all-or-nothing decision. When (necessary and/or sufficient conditions) would this individual have a soul? How would you test to see the difference?

What percentage of his DNA is sufficient (or necessary?) to grant him moral residency in the human family? Is anything short of 100% still human (your necessary condition)? What if the altered individual had better cognitive capacities than a normal human being, the sensibility of a great poet and the mind of the greatest scientists? Why would the DNA have any value compared to the actual capacities expressed by the individual?

Shelby Cade said...

Hello K,

Thanks so much for your comment. I think you did a great job in clarifying your position. I will make this my last comment (i think) and give you the last word if you choose to respond.

I will just respond in two ways to your last comment. First, I don't believe anyone would compare tallness with the issue of life. One is a point of physical appearance/attributes and the other is dealing with an ethical issue (What constitutes life, specifically - human life). You clearly believe that life is gradual, and I respect that, though I disagree.

You second point I will not address directly because it is a hypothetical that in no way could be considered reality. I'm of the opinion that the soul is in existence at the time of conception. There is obviously no way for me to prove this scientifically, but Psalm 139 seems to indicate that person hood is established within the womb. Many scientist believe that life starts at conception, and the only point I would make again is, if they are correct then abortion is the taking of innocent life. I wonder if you believe that the potential for human life takes place at conception? Also, if you care to respond, you mentioned the evil scientist; what do you mean by evil?

Again, thanks for your last post in clarifying your position.

Unknown said...

I see that you do not even think my questions are legitimate. The DNA mix is an actual possibility. From my point of view you admitted that you cannot adress my questions. I don't care about changing your mind, but you should be clear about that.

I think the idea of "potential" is full of metaphysical assumptions. It's more a problem of imperfect information. When I flip a coin I might think there is a potential of both head and tail, each with 50% probability. But if I really knew the exact initial conditions the probabilities would be different, maybe even 100% head 0% tail.

So yes, a fertilized egg might have the potential of being a person (or maybe not). But it is clear that it is not a person. You fail to see the distinction, but that's your problem, and I won't try to change your mind. You are drawing arbitrary boundaries and assigning discountinuous moral value to continuous physical processes.

"Conception" is a big word. It's made of millions of molecular bonds over a certain period of time. Please tell me, since there is a big discontinuity there, when does it precisely happen? You must think there are two physical systems, one at time t, the other at time t - tP (Plank time), which are identical except for a tiny difference in the electical bonds between the atoms that compose the organic molecules. But strangely enough, one is a person, with exactly the same rights of a 30 year old adult, the other is just a blob of organic matter. It just makes no sense.

It's obvious that you have no valid arguments so I'll stop here.

Shelby Cade said...


You failed to grasp what the original question and point of the blog. We are not talking about mixed DNA, that is a moot point. The question you fail to address is the beginning of life. I say conception, but you say the beginning is arbitrary (you don't know when a person is a person). Who decides on your view? What if someone decides differently? You run into all kinds of ethical problems on your arbitrary definition of life.

As far as potential of life from conception, it is 100% potential. Maybe you should look up the word potential. Again, if you don't understand the word conception then we are truly talking past one another.

One final point, I believe you are disingenuous trying to insert a moral question (the use of the word evil) and then do everything to try and avoid the moral implications of when life starts.

Unknown said...

the "evil scientist" was just a joke, and a common device used by the relevant literature in ethics, where thought experiments test our understanding or the various dilemmas. You missed it.

I think, honestly, you should just use the standard unfalsifiable religious arguments, instead of trying to reach the conclusion you want while pretending you are not hiding any metaphysics. I am not sure you get that point, so I will not borrow your "disingenuous". I am convinced you are in good faith.