Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cheetah Cubs, Human Development, and Moral Status

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park(Where I currently work) had a new member added to the family recently: A baby cheetah. While she is small, the animal care staff at the Park have jokingly stated that she is pretty much already in charge of the facility that she is currently living in.

(source: ZOONOOZ)

When I saw her the other day, a thought had occurred to me, regarding the issue of current potential and fundamental status: Though our capacity, physical characteristics, or our inherent potentials may change, we do in fact remain the same kind of being over time(ie "the substance view of personhood"). Given that many arguments in favor of abortion attribute a potential for personhood(or, more loosely, humanity itself), I think this little cub can help us think through how to assess the moral status of a being before birth, as well as afterwards.

For example, given that the cheetah cub in question has not fully developed yet, she is currently unable to do what cheetahs are most famous for: Running at 60-70mph while engaged in the pursuit of prey. I have seen these "Cheetah Runs", and they are over in just a few seconds. Yes, it's true, this is something that is unique to a certain kind of being: cheetah beings. However, can a cheetah not possess this ability, and still be understood as a cheetah?

Chris Kaczor gives a good illustration of this concept in his book The Ethics of Abortion in which he points out that a cat that is unable to purr is still a cat, though that cat has not completely lived up to his full potential as a member of a particular species. However, that being in question is still a cat, even though "felineness" is currently unable to be fully realized at this moment.

Back to our cheetah cub, while she may not be able to run at extremely fast speeds, she has the potential to do that one day, which is rooted to the kind of thing she is, not some characteristic that may be accidentally gained or lost(such as the number of hair follicles in her fur coat). Even if she never developed the ability to run, she is still the same kind of being, but is merely lacking the current capacity to live up to her full potential. To(loosely) paraphrase Dr. Frank Beckwith, she isn't a potential cheetah, she is a cheetah with potential. It would be absurd to say that she is merely a mammal, and won't become an actual cheetah until she is able to run.

How does this relate to the debate over abortion? One of the most popular arguments heard on the street level, and articulated more formally within the academy, is that the early embryonic being or fetal being is merely a "potential" human being or person. The reasons for thinking that the being in question is merely a potential human can vary from cognitive functioning, to appearance, to the presence of bodily functions. And yet, for all these qualities that must be achieved in order to gain status as a human being, they miss an important point: Human beings the only kinds of being that can develop these attributes, and do so merely with time. If someone hands me a license to operate a type of vehicle, I have attained the status of being licensed; however, no one had to hand me a pair of eyes with which to proofread this post: I attained that attribute(reading and comprehension) over time based on the kind of being that I am, a human being. One has to be a human being first in order to develop, from within, the characteristics that human beings inherently possess.

And even if I lost many of those attributes, I am still human, though I would be tragically lacking in the things I need to realize my humanity fully. It could also be the case that a human being currently lacks the ability to realize or achieve every capacity they hold, due to age. That doesn't mean they are of a different order of things separate from human beings; it means they simply belong to the category of younger human beings. And if the capabilities that are realized due to age are not what determines the kind of being one is, it seems then that this extends all the way to when one began to exist, which is obviously in the time before birth(and according to embryology, at the moment of conception, did one gain all the capacities that had yet to be realized and matured)

It seems odd to say that our current, temporary lack of a capability is what defines whether or not we are entitled to the most basic right anyone could have: the right to exist, and to be able to recognize those full potentials that we may have. Indeed, it seems even more tragic to permanently and violently deprive someone of the goods of life whenever it suits our preferences.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Book Review: A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide

Just yesterday I was able to finish this short book by pro-life activist and apologists Jonathon Van Maren and Blaise Alleyne. For those who are not familiar with the two, they are directors at the well known Canadian Center for Bio-Ethical Reform, and Jonathon is the host of the radio-show/podcast The Bridgehead, which hosts activists, intellectuals, and authors on a variety of subjects in the ongoing "culture wars" in the modern day West. Subjects covered include sexual ethics, pornography, abortion, human trafficking, pro-life history, religious liberty, and other hot topics.

The book A Guide to Discussing Assisted Suicide is a great expansion of the role that The Bridgehead plays in training pro-life advocates to successfully and persuasively communicate their views in the public square. The book is short(about 90 pages) and can be read through in a single sitting. In the introduction, the authors point out that many people who hold pro-life views on the issue of assisted suicide have been left challenged and frustrated when it comes to communicating a pro-life ethic on the issue, which the books hopes to alleviate. Personally, I have found myself in this category, without much understanding of assisted suicide and what the underlying philosophies and arguments are. With the culture gradually becoming more accepting of the practice, Christians and pro-life advocates need to be able to graciously engage on the topic, while acknowledging common ground with those who disagree.

This short work accomplishes just that. Van Maren and Alleyne do a good job of framing the issue of assisted suicide, by pointing out early on that the key issues aren't choice, autonomy, or dignity, but is instead the issue of suicide itself. They break down the views on the issue into three areas: The Split Position, the Total Choice Position, and the Pro-life Position.

Starting with the Split Position, they point out that many of those who hold that assisted suicide is a morally acceptable and even preferable response to human suffering will in fact support limits on the ability to choose to commit suicide. They come up with a handy tactic to highlight this hesitation, called "Trotting out the teenager", an expansion of the trotting out the toddler tactic used in the abortion debate. By pointing out that many people would NOT encourage a teenager who was suffering depression to engage in suicide, the issue then isn't choice or autonomy, but instead whether or not there are people we should protect and offer help to, instead of letting them engage in self-harm.

This leads to a "reduction ad absurdum" by the authors, who point out that if we would stop one person(say, a teenager) from choosing suicide, but not someone else, then we are engaging in a form of arbitrary discrimination, by assuming that some lives have more value, and are therefore more worthy of our care and attention. When this is pointed out, many begin to see the radical implications of a "right to suicide" ethic. Personally, I had never considered this angle before, and it was a great way to get myself thinking on the issue.

The second view, "Total Choice", is a bit more radical, in that it assumes that any person, at any time, may choose suicide for any reason whatsoever. While relatively few hold this view, some do, and the authors give a way to respond to this. One way is to, again, take the view to it's logical conclusion, and show that many will try to prevent suicide in one group pf people(say, a broken-hearted teenager) but will allow or encourage suicide in another group(the terminally ill). They highlight that many, even Peter Singer, who has advocated for "involuntary suicide" will make sacrifices to aid an ailing family member or loved one.

Before presenting the pro-life ethic as the preferred ethic on the issue, the book gives a brief but shocking look at the incidents and escalation of the acceptance of suicide in countries that have endorsed the practice. From horrifying stories out of Europe, to the gradual acceptance by the elderly of thinking they have a "duty" to their children to kill themselves, so as to prevent future burdens, Jonathon and Blaise highlight the dangers of a cultural acceptance of assisted suicide, or suicide in general.

Lastly, the authors present the pro-life ethic on suicide, in that suicide should not be endorsed or presented as a valid option, but instead both compassion and loving care are the obligations we owe to the suffering. The authors highlight several medical institutions to aid those who are suffering, such as palliative care, dignity therapy, and other methods of healing from suffering.

Overall, the book is a handy resource for anyone who wants an introduction to the issue of suicide and assisted suicide, and in learning how to communicate their views on the issue. I'd say the book can easily be considered the "Case for Life" of the anti-suicide pro-life movement, and should be recommended reading for pro-life ethics courses. The emphasis on tactics and common ground is especially important; with methods, stories, and thought-provoking scenarios taught through the book.