Friday, September 5, 2008

Debating Life (JM)

So I wanted to pull out a comment that regular reader and commenter "g thomas" had on my piece about the media and empiricism. He engages me on the issue of whether we can discuss life and abortion empirically in a political setting without reference to values or first premises. He thinks we can, in a well-thoughout line of argumentation, but one I will quarrel a bit with after his comments:

I agree with all of your analysis and conclusions, and feel similarly enraged by the Republican's egregious attempt to disconnect the folk from reality. What's most enraging to me and maybe to all of us is that it works. Like Dennis, i deliberately avoided watching the RNC, but inadvertantly caught a snippet of Palin, which succeeded in zero time to piss me off.

My only issue is with your point that we can't debate whether life begins at conception or not. I believe we can debate this issue, but it requires a more sophisticated set of argumentative tools than those available for public debate and a knowledge of neuroscience to do so.

In a practical sense only, I agree that that argument is not something that could possibly take place in a political forum, but an argument exists, if only in my head at the moment.

The basic structure of the argument is that life ought to measured not only in terms of alive versus dead, and some philosophers of science have pointed out that "life" isn't even well defined still, but also in terms of degrees of consciousness.

I think we all implicitly act on the belief, empirically based, that consciousness increases with experience. For example, male infants are routinely circumsized without asking if this is okay with them, while an adult would never be subjected to such an involuntary procedure in most societies. One could argue that this is because the infant can't answer meaningfully, but I think the reason we think it's okay lies more in the sense that infantile amnesia will remove the consciousness of the deed within a short time.

Since there's almost no possibility that an embryo has consciousness of self, there is a far smaller degree of the aspects of life that we value in any being, which renders it less alive than a newborn or an adult. The lack of any meaningful mental life or awareness I believe is the heart of the issue.

For example, we sympathize with dolphins and find their capture along with tuna to be abhorrent. Why?

Of course, there's a slippery slope here, but then "slippery slope" is the name of a type of fallacy, not that of a valid argument.

There are some gaps in the argument, of course, as I don't want to go on all day about this, and it's somewhat repellent to frame things this way, but life happens and I think most of the objections only stand up if we suppose that we're able to obtain an ideal transcendence of the realities of life at this very moment.

Also, if there isn't some valid argument that makes, say, the morning after pill okay, then we'd all have to agree with the most rabid right-to-lifers, at least implicitly.

Of course, you also say that we can't make the empirical argument, and I admit that would require my additional premise, a more refined definition of life, including degrees of consciousness, to make adequately.

I think the problem here is actually specified in your final paragraph when you mention a "more refined definition of life". I agree completely that as cognitive science gets better we will be able to codify consciousness and awareness to a much more accurate degree. But even as we do, this still leaves us with the Peter Singer problem; the role of the brain-dead or mentally handicapped. Does human life become less valuable because of cognitive capacity? I think intuitive we all feel, to some greater or lesser degree that it doesn't, at least not completely. There is probably no normative reason why this is the case (no more than there is a normative reason for most things). We have a value system where our identities as human has been fundamental to our place in the ecosystem. Even when we criticize our role in the Earth's environment all but the fringiest of activists still couch the problem in terms of future generations of humans. And that's probably alright (though I have a hard time seen the distinction between humanocentrism and ethnocentrism, at least completely).

The point of all of this is that our valuation of life is based entirely on the groups of which we are a part and the values derived from such groups. Thus, no matter how specific our categorizations get, that definition of life will always be debatable. Life is an emergent reality, a social concept, rather than an actual category. Even if science moved to specify its definition, the concept itself has become so socialized and politicized that it would face far more rabid opposition than even evolution or global warming. We live in fascinating times, we have come to the point where we problematize and question what we once considered objective knowledge. And that is great. However, it comes with a deep downside, because now everything can be politicized and idealized, and structures of knowledge become arenas for contestations of power. So now, more than ever, it is important to have empiricism and facts on our side, but merely asserting these things as factually true will never win the day or prove the point. This is where many of our political battles will be fought in the future and it's a ground we have not yet started to defend.

1 comment:

g thomas said...

As usual, I agree with the essence of your message. It's consistent with your point about an evolving social consensus that we don't throw mentally retarded infants off of cliffs, and we certainly shouldn't, but it doesn't mean that the Greeks or Romans (whichever it was, I don't recall) were more primitive than we were.

That would presuppose the idea of social progress, which, I think, neither of us buys into, as it would require accepting the premise that certain social realities are in some way objectively better than others and that "reality" as we perceive it is an immutable thing.

Your point about an evolving social consciousness is really also my point, that we haven't come to explicitly recognize why our reaction to an embryo is significantly different than our reaction to and feelings about a healthy newborn, though it is, if only as evidenced by the fact that a significant portion of the population can view an embryo as expendable.

Only within a highly idealistic frame of mind, and one that's most often learned rather than innate (though that doesn't show anything in particular), can one imagine that two cells are as valuable as a healthy baby or adult.

I only disagree with your intuition about people's feelings toward, say, the brain dead.

What of the anencephalic, for example? A creature born without a brain is not human, in my opinion. Yet there have been cases of people who have allowed perhaps millions of dollars to be spent on life support for a thing that has no chance of experiencing its life.

This, in a country where nearly half of us don't have health insurance, clearly takes resources away from those who can benefit from it more, since they can experience their lives.

I don't think most people are as sympathetic as you imagine, just that they're not allowed to say so.

This possibility also fits nicely with your point about emergent social realities, among which being PC is highly valued (though I know your sentiments to be genuine).