Jan 172012
 

In a recent discussion among fellow opponents of “personhood,” someone raised the question of how to effectively counter the claim made by “personhood” advocates that “science establishes that life begins at conception [i.e. fertilization].” Here’s how I answered… and yes, I did write more than I intended!

Here’s my take on these issues:

The discussion of “when human life begins” just isn’t relevant to the question of rights in pregnancy or “personhood” for zygotes. Biologically speaking, a zygote is a new human life… but that doesn’t imply that the zygote has any rights. The crucial question is philosophical: When does the embryo/fetus become an individual, meaning a person in its own right, such that rights apply to it?

Those questions can (and should) be answered based on a fact-based theory about rights. So to say “God imbues the zygote with the light to life” — as “personhood” advocates do — will not suffice. People are entitled to hold that view as a matter of personal faith and practice it in their own lives. Yet for them to attempt to impose it on others by force of law is a violation of our rights, as well as a violation of the proper separation of church and state.

To answer questions about rights in pregnancy, we must first understand the nature and purpose of rights. Rights are not part of our DNA; they’re not some kind of organ that develops at some point in fetal gestation. Instead, rights are moral principles that establish boundaries for our social interactions: they permit people to interact only by mutual consent, so that no one is robbed, enslaved, theatened, murdered, and otherwise brutalized by others. Right are — or should be — the basic moral principles governing society: by demanding that every person respect the life and autonomy of others, they enable people to live peacefully and happily together.

On that understanding, rights only apply to autonomous beings in society — meaning to biologically separate individuals. That’s why Ari Armstrong and I argue that rights begin at birth — because only then do you have autonomous individual. The infant is a person, entitled to the full protection of rights. The embryo or fetus is not: it’s wholly encased in and hence a part of the pregnant woman. The pregant woman has rights, and her rights protect the embryo or fetus from assault and other harms if she wishes to bring the pregnancy to term — or permit her to abort, if she doesn’t. Any attempt to grant rights to the fetus (even at the point of viability) denies rights to the pregnant woman, including the right to make her own decisions about medical care, giving birth, etc.

Whether you agree with that analysis or not, I’d recommend explicitly rejecting the debate about “when human life begins.” That’s not the relevant question, and the “personhood” advocates will gain the upper hand by framing the debate in those terms.

Instead, remind them that they’re not proposing to write biological textbooks, but to fundamentally change our laws by granting rights to embryos. Insist that they defend that. If they attempt to say — as they usually do — that every human life has rights, then you’ll have to ask them whether kidneys or lungs have rights. Why not? Because they’re not individuals, but just parts of a person. That gets you to the question of what qualifies as a person — and that’s the critical question. Or, you might remind them that all rights are individual rights — and demand that they explain how the zygote can be an individual when wholly encased in and depending on the pregnant woman.

More generally, remember that our opponents have the burden of proof here. It’s clear that infants and onward are persons. We might debate whether viable fetuses are persons. Advocates of “personhood” are making the extraordinary claim that embryos are persons — before any awareness, before any movement, before the development of functional organs, and even before pregnancy begins at implantation. Such an extraordinary claim requires an extraordinary proof — meaning a compelling and detailed argument about the nature and source of rights — not glib assertions about “the tiniest boys and girls.” If they fail to provide that proof, then you’re entitled to reject their view, even if you’re not quite certain of your own.

Moreover, you’re entitled to reject “personhood” on the grounds that granting legal rights to embryos would violate the known rights of known persons, such as the right to birth control and in vitro fertilization. (Rights can’t conflict — if they do, then you’re not talking about rights but something else like interests or desires.) Hence, to establish that granting rights to embryos would violate the rights of women is to proof enough that “personhood” is wrong.

Whew! I wrote more than expected… but I hope that’s helpful!

For further exploration of these issues, I recommend Ari Armstrong’s and my recent paper for The Objective Standard: The Assault on Abortion Rights Undermines All Our Liberties, as well as our much longer 2010 policy paper, The ‘Personhood’ Movement Is Anti-Life.

Mar 202002
 

Cathy Young has an article entitled Sound Judgment on the opposition to cochlear implants and other cures for deafness by advocates for deafness. As wonderful as deaf culture may be, surely being unable to hear and unwilling to learn to speak seriously limits a person’s opportunities. For parents to force such a life on their children is barbaric.

I wonder whether the refusal of such defect-fixing medical treatment (presuming affordability) constitutes a violation of a child’s rights at any point. If a fifteen year old wants the cochlear implants and a rich aunt is willing to pay for them, are the parents violating the child’s right by refusing? I’m inclined to grant children a fair amount of authority in their own medical decisions because such decisions may greatly impact the child later in life as an adult. (Yes, I know there is lots of complexity here that I am ignoring. Another time…)

Honesty Under Coercion

 Posted by on 11 March 2002 at 10:30 am  Coercion, Ethics, Favorites, Honesty, Rights
Mar 112002
 

In preparing for my talk on honesty to TOC’s 2002 Summer Seminar, I have been exploring the limits of the virtue of honesty. The standard Objectivist position is that honesty is not required when force has been initiated against us. Why not? Because the virtue of honesty is formed in the context of trading relationships. Because our virtues ought not be used against us in the service of evil. Because we can avoid irrational people, but people initiating force. In Basic Principles of Objectivism, Nathaniel Branden says that someone who has initiated force has “suspended morality” with respect to himself. Anything that the victim chooses to do in self-defense against the initiator of force is morally right. But of course, although honesty is not required where coercion is present, neither is dishonesty. Morality has been “suspended,” not inverted.

My thinking about this issue lead to me to the question: In situations where force is being initiated against us, when is it in our self-interest to lie and when is it in our self-interest to tell the truth? Given the prevalence of coercion in human history and even in a country as free as the US is today, some general principles would certainly seem to help us make better decisions.

I posed this very question to FROG (Front Range Objectivist Group) Saturday night in my presentation on honesty. I was completely surprised by the resounding and near-unanimous answer: There are no principles. Whatever people do is moral. People have their own unique breaking points. People have their own goals. So no general principles can be constructed. We make decisions based on the particulars of the context.

The primary problem with this account is that it seems to leave us with little guidance in dealing with coercion. How am I to decide what to do if there are no principles involved? Aren’t there any moral considerations at all?

Rand doesn’t have much to say on the subject, but I did find an interesting comment at the end of her essay “The Wreckage Of The Consensus” from Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. She writes:

Once in a while, I receive letters from young men asking me for personal advice on problems connected with the draft. Morally, no one can give advice in any issue where choices and decisions are not voluntary: “Morality ends where a gun begins.” As to the practical alternatives available, the best thing to do is to consult a good lawyer.

There is, however, one moral aspect of the issue that needs clarification. Some young men seem to labor under the misapprehension that since the draft is a violation of their rights, compliance with the draft law would constitute a moral sanction of that violation. This is a serious error. A forced compliance is not a sanction. All of us are forced to comply with many laws that violate our rights, but so long as we advocate the repeal of such laws, our compliance does not constitute a sanction. Unjust laws have to be fought ideologically; they cannot be fought or corrected by means of mere disobedience and futile martyrdom. (CUI 325)

Rand seems to be drawing a distinction here between “moral” and “practical” advice. Such words seem ill-chosen, given the Objectivist rejection of a moral-practical dichotomy. Perhaps a better way of putting it would be that there are prudential concerns even when force has been initiated against us. Whatever goals and values we have in life, there are better and worse ways of achieving those values, even when our freedoms are curtailed. In the quote from CUI, Rand is arguing precisely along those lines: If you wish to fight unjust laws, then fight them “ideologically” rather than through “mere disobedience” or “futile martyrdom.”

So, perhaps the only universal principle when making decisions in the face of coercion is: Act as best you can according to your hierarchy of values. Act to preserve what is more important to you before you act to preserve what is less important. Be willing to give up lesser values to preserve greater ones. To put it bluntly: save your spouse before you save your TV. To the extent that your hierarchy of values is rational, you will be acting in your own self-interest.

That’s not much of a moral principle, but it’s a good start.

Re-reading Ayn

 Posted by on 4 March 2002 at 11:26 pm  Children, Ethics, Honesty, Objectivism, Parenting, Rights
Mar 042002
 

I’ve been re-reading Ayn Rand’s fiction and philosophical essays in preparation for teaching the six-lecture Objectivism 101 course at the 2002 Summer Seminar of The Objectivist Center. It’s been a while since I’ve read Ayn Rand’s writings in full. Usually I’m just looking up particular paragraphs here or there to find a quote.

So it’s been particularly delightful to re-acquaint myself with her work. I particularly enjoyed reading The Fountainhead again after so many years. It has a light touch, giving it much more psychological realism than found in Atlas Shrugged. But perhaps AS is simply more direct, more blunt than The Fountainhead. Given what I regularly hear on talk radio and read in advice columns, people’s thinking is often so much worse than we tend to charitably assume.

For example, check out the second letter in this Ann Landers’ column. The woman is feeling guilty over modest punishment for her son’s stealing and wondering whether to return the stolen property. That’s silly enough already. But then Ann Landers’ suggests fixing the problem by lying, by telling the store manager that her son “took the cards by mistake.” (The phrase “to take something by mistake” indicates confusion about whether you were in possession of an object or had paid for it, not stealing!)

Call me crazy, but lying just doesn’t seem to be a good remedy for the problem of theft! Confused thinking indeed!

Update: Due to serious philosophic and moral objections, I am no longer associated with The Objectivist Center in any way, shape, or form. My reasons why can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.

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