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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.