Thursday, February 3, 2011

Re: Desires Determine Rights? [Scott]

In a previous post, I challenged the claim that the right to life turns on having an immediately exercisable capacity for desires--namely, a desire to go on living. (Michael Tooley and Peter Singer more or less affirm the desire thesis.)

Christopher Kaczor adds a delightful example to support to my own position:
If Buddhists are right that the Buddha as well as other spiritual masters have reached a state of Nirvana--no longer desiring anything whatsoever and even extinguishing the capacity for desire--then either such mystics are no longer persons or having desires is no longer necessary for personhood.


  1. The Buddhist example only shows that those who reach Nirvana are not persons, which Buddhist would be glad to point out as the end objective - becoming one with the universal, transcendent, impersonal being.

    I don't see how this undermine's the desire-personhood-thesis. Unless I'm missing something, if the criteria is "immediately executable desire" then anyone who is sedated or under anesthesia ceases to be a person. If the retort is that someone who is sedated went in fully expecting to recover and their sedation/anesthesia itself is necessary only to prolong or increase the quality of living in the long term, then one can give an example of someone who is under a temporary coma from an accident.

    Such a person, it can be argued, will be imminently capable of expressing the desire as soon as they are out of the coma. Well, the same is the case with the fetus. Given adequate time to develop into a toddler, the fetus can also express the desire.

    Of course, the biggest objection against the desire-personhood hypothesis is that it is arbitrary and crafted to meet the objective of moralizing abortion. If Singer agrees that it is indeed arbitrary, then Singer should also be open to any other definition of personhood that is also equally arbitrary. One such definition could for example specifically exclude Singer from personhood. I wonder if he would object to such a definition? If he does, he really isn't open to any arbitrary definition, only such that suits his interests while ignoring the fetus's interests.

  2. kpolo,
    Your first sentence is exactly the point I think Kaczor was making--that is, that either the Nirvana subject is not a person or the personhood criteria is not adequate to ground rights. Whether the Narvana man wants to escape his personal nature is irrelevant.

    I agree that by itself the above example won't persuade everyone. I further agree that the arbitrary nature of personhood claims makes them suspect to all but those who wish to disqualify a particular class of humans.

    Nevertheless, I do think Kaczor's example is humorous and does, along with the other things you point out, contribute toward a cumulative case against personhood theory.


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