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Monday, September 29, 2008

"Above my pay grade"

It's old news but when Rick Warren had this year's two presidential candidates over to church for a little Q & A introduction to the evangelicals, he asked the Hon. Mr. Obama when he thought human life began. To this Mr. Obama replied that the question was "above his pay grade", suggesting that he did not have the capacity to make a judgment about the answer. The further suggestion was that no human being has the capacity to judge when a human being begins to live and that people who think otherwise (most everyone in the room at the time, I expect) are being presumptuous for whatever motive. This seemed to involve a serious disconnect between Mr. Obama and a good share of the audience in that he certainly must of thought that he was displaying an appropriate humility where that audience perceived arrogance. One recalls that that the character of mainline liberal theology made it a fashion to posture itself as awash in a sea of moral uncertainty, except when it came to certain romantic policies. ("I don't know about the arms race but I do care about the human race!" says a mainline pastor in an old political ad.) Evangelicals are especially sensitive to this as evidence of a rejection of theistic realism.

Someone in the democratic commentariat gave his own analysis of this disconnect as a case of the audience expecting to hear a saintly answer but getting a "head of state" type of answer. I think this shows how much evangelicals a almost perfectly misunderstood. Rather, I don't think evangelicals were expecting a Jesus but they hoped to find was a half-way decent Socrates. Mr. Obama's answer had a certain "hipness" to it continuing to reflect the defects of of old school university ethics education and not the recent developments of applied ethics classes. The old approach highlighted the difficulties of moral deliberation unnecessarily, relying on pedantic trolley and lifeboat examples that only focused on desperate situations. These courses were influenced by prevailing skepticism on moral judgments fueled by positivism about science. This pedagogy came under increased attack as the demand for moral guidance in opening fields of business, medicine, and technology were pressing new cases that required a determination from the moral point of view. Fresh writing from these fields brought new life to ethics. As someone who teaches courses in applied ethics myself, we still focus on practical reasoning and moral dilemmas but with a view that they are actually rare and typically resolvable, thus leading to an optimism about applying ethics to real life. If anything, the "above my pay grade" remark is woefully out of fashion and hearkens back to a deleterious point of view.

Is the question of when human life begins below everyone's pay grade? It seems not because most people don't think so. In answering, let me make three points.

(1) If it is human life we are talking about, clearly the question is when do humans begin to exist and the answer for humans is the same as for any other plant or animal -- at conception. The basis for saying this is as evident for biologists as it is for farmers or anyone else. Our experience with any birth triggers basic intuitions about the beginning of existence of an enduring living substance which can only be threatened by very sophisticated forms of skepticism, which can at least be rebutted. The judgment that human life begins at conception is certainly available to anyone and not above their pay grade.

(2) Of course, having said that, the real question then is not so much when does human being begin to exist but rather when does it become a person. Whatever a person is, it is seen to be the bearer of human rights and duties, a creature of moral standing. However, being a person also has something to do with displaying the attributes of an agent; self-consciousness, rationality, choice, etc. The concept of person is the concept of a natural kind and not just a set of attributes and yet it is also a moral concept. It is a concept that applies on both sides of the fact/value distinction and its the same concept in each case. If we assume that there is a time when the human becomes a person and that some humans may not be persons, this means that personhood is an accidental feature of humanity. But this seems straightforwardly false since the moral dignity of personhood seems to be an objectively intrinsic dignity of that which is a person which could not be the case if personhood were accidental. Our primary evidence for this is in our encounter with another person in the 'second person' -- as a 'you' which we say in face to face contact with the other. It might be suggested that this is an illusion but if so the mechanism of illusion has to be described to include the perception of personhood which is more complex that simply explaining it as a veridical insight. So the simplest explanation is that being a person is co-essential with being a human. It may be easy for people to believe in illusions but it is often harder to believe from a rational point of view that something is best described as an illusion. Certainly, choosing to think that humans are necessarily also persons (with moral dignity) as the most straightforward account is not above anyone's pay grade.

(3) Finally, whatever lingering doubt a person may have about the metaphysics of personhood, one is certainly entitled to think that we would all be better off as people if we choose to promote a culture of life rather than a culture of death. The importance of having an ethical culture is impressed on everyone when we witness the impact of culture on the morals of Southerners and Germans during slavery and the Holocaust. We continue to discover the impact of culture in institutions and governments. The attitude toward persons must be a a crucial factor in a leader. Certainly, to adopt the view that personhood is accidental to human beings is to look at human life as a whole as a case like a lifeboat example, in which people are saved or thrown over depending on whether they are a brain surgeon or a hobo. To be certain that we are better off thinking that humans are persons even though not metaphysically certain that humans are persons is a rational approach. To be neutral on this is just as good as to deny essential personhood to humans and to choose against incorrigible human dignity. The moral rationality of gambling on human dignity is certainly not above anyone's pay grade.

So the folks at the meeting were well within they rights to be miffed by Mr. Obama's remark. They need not be construed as hoping for a perfect saint, but rather as expecting that someone running for executive office would display some sufficient modicum of moral courage. Further, an option open to Mr. Obama would have been to say that while humans as persons begin to be at conception, there are various factors that may make it legitimate to not let them live, such as, at least, the case where they would threaten the mother's life. That is certainly not above anyone's pay grade either even though one might expect that many evangelicals would not like to hear it. But it is conspicuous that Mr. Obama did not take that approach.


david h said...

Actually, I think the Obama/Biden campaign is surprisingly subtle on this issue. Biden himself did emphatically express his view on the issue of when life begins: According to him, this is at conception. He also says openly that his Catholic faith led him to this position.

Nonetheless, both men maintain consistently that the government has no right to ban abortion. I think it's fair to attribute to both of them the following view: The debate about the beginning of life does not settle the debate about whether governments have the right to ban abortion. Since Obama thinks that the metaphysical question is above his pay grade, but the abortion question isn't, he clearly sees that one need not answer the former question in order to answer the latter.

There are two plausible options they have for maintaining this combination of views. The less plausible option goes along the lines of the Roe v. Wade decision: The state would violate a fundamental right to privacy if it legislated demands about what someone does with their own body. There are important problems with this view, and I want to pass over them to consider the more plausible view, which is along the lines of "A Defense of Abortion" by Judith Jarvis Thomson.

That argument goes as follows: Let's grant that abortion is morally wrong, since letting a person die for reasons of convenience is wrong. Still, letting a person die for reasons of convenience is something that no lawful government has a right to forbid. Many lives in the world are allowed to expire because we find it inconvenient to save them. Imagine a government that forbade this (doubtlessly immoral) idleness. Suppose they mandated good Samaritanism, and sent the cops on anyone who failed to prevent predictable and preventable loss of life. Such a law would be absurdly totalitarian.

The effect regarding abortion would be this: Such a law would mandate that a every pregnant woman must remain pregnant, regardless of her preferences. Since a pill like RU 486 blocks the sharing of nutrients between a mother and the fetus-person, which would predictable lead to the death of the latter, the law would mandate this sharing. And that would be unprecedented. No American ever has the mandated, uncancellable duty to care for another. Parents may surrender custody of children, for example, and end all responsibilities towards them. In no situation does the state demand uncancellable suffering and involuntary hardship for the sake of another individual. [I can think of one interesting exception in the case of post-divorce alimony and child-support payments. Still, there are many disanalogies, and those burdens are monetary only. Can you imagine the state mandating, for reasons other than punishment, an ordeal as physically harrowing as a full pregnancy and birth?]

It's not clear to me that Obama/Biden subscribe to the sort of argument I outlined, but the expressed views of both candidates pretty much require a similar view in order to be consistent. I wish they would openly express this view, and perhaps they will when asked to reconcile their metaphysical views with their voting record.

Jeremy Pierce said...

John, Warren got it right in the question. He asked when moral rights begin. Obama botched it in his answer when he started talking about the much more obvious question of when life begins.

Dave, I don't see how a legal requirement not to kill someone is equivalent to expecting someone to do everything possible to save someone's life. There's a complicating factor of not being able to rid oneself of the fetus being cared for involuntarily. But no one's talking about expecting pregnant women to do everything possible to maintain the life of the fetus, only the view that it would be wrong to kill the fetus. We happen not to have the technology to allow for the possibility that she not kill but not care for the fetus at all either, so not killing will at it happens lead to some involuntary care, but involuntary care isn't the proposed requirement. Not killing is. I think your argument assumes that contingent entailments of moral requirements are themselves the moral principle behind the moral requirement, and that's not so. Abortion isn't mere separation of the woman and the fetus. If it were, maybe there would be a convincing argument for a right to it given the moral right to life of the fetus, since the fetus would survive it. But Thomson's argument fails precisely because that contingent connection isn't a conceptual connection.