Thursday, May 10, 2012

Singer, Newborns, & Jean Valjean [JayWatts]

I am surprised how often university students argue that human life deserves no ethical consideration until it obtains consciousness. It is a testament to the success of ethicists like Peter Singer that students who don't fully understand the position they are arguing absolutely believe these utilitarian views superior to more traditional views of human value. Some of them sound as if they just put down Practical Ethics a few minutes before we talked as they express some form of Singer's defense of his position as making minimal commitments. They never express it as well as he does so in fairness to him we will quote directly from his book what they are trying to say:

The utilitarian position is a minimal one, a first base that we reach by universalizing self-interested decision making. We cannot, if we are to think ethically, refuse to take this step. If we are to be persuaded that we should go beyond utilitarianism and accept non-utilitarian moral rules or ideals, we need to be provided with good reasons for taking this further step. Until such reasons are produced, we have some grounds for remaining utilitarians.

Like a young man I talked to at UNC, many students see this statement as fair and have become suspicious that arguments that move beyond this point are “religious” in nature. He rejected anything that smelled like a religious justification. The irony that he saw the idea of God as moral law giver more objectionable than accepting a position that claims there is nothing wrong - in and of itself - in killing a newborn was utterly lost on him. He was at point one and would not move till I offered reasons to do so.

Consenting for the sake of argument that Mr Singer's minimal position is what he claims it to be, I told the student we have sufficient reasons to move on beyond utilitarianism as Singer describes it. “What are we to make of our moral intuitions? For example, I have never met any individual that didn't admit that it appears a great moral offense to torture and murder a newborn little girl for fun.” The immediate reaction to this statement is moral disgust. In fact, audiences recoil in horror at the very mention of such an idea. Expressing it out loud recently silenced a group so completely that I wondered if they were still breathing after their initial gasp of revulsion. “Are these intuitions evidence of a deeper knowledge of right and wrong? If so, can they be accounted for in the mere considerations of individual and community interests and flourishing?” In short, does utilitarianism fail to fully explain morality because it cannot tell us what the “good” is?

Intuitions are tricky to argue because we must be careful in expressing what they commit us to on their own merits. As many philosophers have said before, we are not arguing the infallibility of intuitions. We are arguing that they are a starting point for deeper moral reflections. They demand an explanation not a dismissal. Some people argue that quantum physics have demonstrated that our intuitions about reality are radically flawed in that - at the quantum level - nothing behaves as we would expect or intuit from what we know about the macro world around us. In such cases – the peculiarities of particle/wave dynamics or quantum fluctuations for example – science has provided evidence to undermine certain specific intuitions, but that doesn't mean that all intuitions are flawed. It just means we now have good reason to reevaluate how we understand certain aspects of the physical world.

Christopher Kazcor gives an analogy about our different responses to accidentally hitting a newborn with our car versus some other animal that has the consciousness required for ethical consideration whether at a very rudimentary level (insect) or slightly more complex (squirrel). Stephanie Grey of Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform used an analogy highlighting the difference between crushing the head of a newborn and a the head of a porcelain doll in a debate last year. In deference to those luminaries and others I developed my Jean Valjean analogy.

I love the novel Les Miserables. The epic scope of the tale and the intensive character development move me anew every time I read it, but the emotional anchor of the story is Jean Valjean. He always seeks the best that he can do given the situations that occur and inevitably sacrifices his own happiness for others. His commitment to doing the right thing makes him one of the most enduring literary character of all time. For the purposes of using the Les Miserables characters I radically altered some details of the story to serve the point of the analogy, but I just felt our familiarity with these characters lent itself to making this point.

Imagine Monsieur la Maire Jean Valjean walking the streets of Montreal-sur-Mer, the beloved mayor whose generosity and kindness is known far beyond the borders of this town. A young girl is crying to her parents -whom he knows and respects - so he stops to ask her why. It turns out she lost her beloved doll as she was playing in an alley and her parents are in a hurry to an urgent appointment out of town and cannot stop to go back for it. The parents are heartbroken they can't help their daughter, so Valjean assures the little girl and her parents he will go look for her doll and get it back to her before they leave.

As he runs deep into the alley in question he finds the doll but also sees a young woman on the ground holding a newborn child. It is Fantine and she holds Cosette. In this story Fantine's life is drawing to an end. She begs Valjean to take Cosette who is unconscious and in urgent need of care. Fantine dies and Valjean holds Cosette in his arms. She has no family or friends to love her, and she is currently unaware of her own existence. No one but Valjean knows she exists. He considers her and then looks at the doll on the ground. The doll is greatly missed by a child that will be heartbroken if Valjean fails to return it to her. Cosette, meanwhile, lacks consciousness and therefore has no interests to frustrate. The doll is strongly tied to the interests of the little girl and to the parents who want their child to be happy.

As long as Valjean himself feels no emotion over Cosette one way or another, it seems that in Singer's utilitarian approach that it is acceptable to strike Cosette's head against the brick wall, mercifully ending her life, dropping her corpse in the arms of her dead mom, and quickly returning the doll to the girl before they leave town. Minimally, he could just leave her in the alley to die as he retrieves the doll. There will be no interests subverted and the happiness and flourishing of conscious beings will be served. But wouldn't such an action change our evaluation of Valjean? It is hard to imagine the literary paradigm of generosity and self-sacrifice acting in such a way. Normal intuitions tell us that he ought to save Cosette and that the little girl and her family will just have to deal with the disappointment of losing the doll.

Further, the idea of smashing a newborn's head against a wall is not intuitionally understood as neutral. I have read stories about people that have done exactly that, but they are stories of the worst human rights abuses in history (Nazi's at Auschwitz) or of the chaos filled brutality of hate fueled wars (the Yogoslav wars). If Valjean were to take that action, he would be aligning himself in behavior with the opposite paradigms of history. Those who remind us how wrong human behavior can be. In other words, he would no longer be the Valjean that inspired countless theatrical productions and films.

Our intuitions tell us that there is more to consider here than interests and the immediate flourishing of conscious beings. That even though Cosette has no one on earth that loves or cares for her, Valjean should love her. At minimum he should save her – ought to save her – so that she can love and be loved by another.

If these intuitions are illusory then someone needs to explain why they drive us to celebrate qualities like mercy, love, courage, sacrifice, and endurance; the very qualities that bring out the best in us. Why are selfishness, thoughtlessness, and pitiless ambition intuitively reviled? At least we seem to grasp that they ought to be reviled and that when they are widely accepted or embraced something has gone terribly wrong. Our intuitions tell us that the very qualities that exclude newborns - and also the preborn - from the family of human life worthy of moral consideration are the very traits that obligate us to protect them. They are helpless in a way that more developed human life is not. As Christopher Kaczor says in The Ethics of Abortion, if we have finally found another human life that we are truly justified in destroying and using as a means to satisfy our ends it will be the first time in history that this happened. Every other time we have used others as a resource or cast them as less important than the rest of us we ultimately were forced to recognize we were wrong.

These intuitions give us a good reason to move on from Singer's point one. They point us in the direction of universal human rights, objective moral duties, and greater obligations to our fellow man and the world around us. Especially those who need our help the most.

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