Monday, May 21, 2012

A Walk with my Daughter [Jay Watts]

My kids don't know what I do for a living. Not really. When I worked at Cobb Pregnancy Services they would sometimes visit me and see the little 12 week fetus models, which anyone familiar with prenatal development knows looks like the really small human being that it is. Later when I asked them what they thought I did for a living they said, “You sell babies.”

Some people in the pro-life community raise their children with an intimate and extensive understanding of abortion, but my wife and I decided to shield our kids from the ugliness of the world for as long as the world would let us. Our view is that there is no reason to prematurely burden them with the worries of their parents, though we respect our friends who make different decisions.

Our children know that we are not huge Obama fans just as the children of the President's supporters know that their parents don't want Romney to win. From the stories my kids share with me, apparently grade schoolers have very interesting political discussions. I assume as a by-product of one of those converations, my 7 year-old daughter asked me who I voted for in the election as we walked together today. I cleared up that the general election would not be held till November, but that her mother and I would be voting for Romney. She then asked me one of those questions that remind me how much our kids are listening.

What does President Obama do that gives you more work?”

What do you mean?” I asked.

Mommy once said that he did something that made you have more work to do. What does he do?”

I explained that I travel around talking to groups about the idea that all human beings matter. That all of us deserve basic respect and basic consideration no matter our age, ability, or health. As long as we are human beings we matter by virtue of that fact alone. There are other people that believe that what we can do matters most. They use that idea to say that some human beings don't matter in the way that others do. Perhaps if they are severely injured, older and in declining health, or haven't been born yet then they don't deserve the same basic considerations as others. They believe they are different than us in value because of those types of differences, that those differences are very important. “In many other areas we differ as well, but President Obama defines valuable human life differently than your mom and dad.”

She then asked something that reminded me why I think organizations like LTI are so important. “So that is why you hate President Obama?”

We were already holding hands as we walked, but I stopped her and made sure she was listening. “We do not hate President Obama. What I do is to train people how to disagree about these important things without hating each other. How can we teach that all life is important and precious and yet hate people for disagreeing with us? We have to stand up for what we believe, but we have to do it in a way that shows people we are motivated by love. Both of those goals, arguing our case and loving our enemies, are part of our jobs as Christians. I love President Obama and wish him and his family no ill will.”

So would it be right to say that you hate some of his ideas?” she asked.

Yes. And that is why your mother and I would prefer he is not our President and will exercise our right to vote for his opponent. But if he wins, we won't freak out or act like it is the end of the world.”

She nodded, “You will just have more work to do.” She paused for a moment clearly still mulling some things over, “Maybe you can change the President's mind. If I were the President and you told me that all human beings mattered I would listen to you.” I explained that unfortunately adults aren't always open to changing our minds that way. Some people voted for him because he promised explicitly not to change his mind about what we are allowed to do to human beings that haven't been born yet.

You know one of my friend's mom had a baby that died before it was born.” She paused for a moment. “It was very sad.”

That is sad when that happens,” I told her as she squeezed my hand tightly.

I agree with you and mommy. I think that all human beings are valuable.” She quickly shifted gears discussing her future as an artist and some objections she sensed that I had to that career choice.

I know a lot of my friends feel I should have been much more explicit in telling her about abortion, but I can't help but think of the example of Caspar ten Boom, Corrie ten Boom's father, when she asked him about sex on a train ride at the age of 10 or 11. She relayed the story in The Hiding Place:

I suddenly asked, "Father, what is sex sin?"

He turned to look at me, as he always did when answering a question, but to my surprise he said nothing. At last he stood up, lifted his traveling case from the rack over our heads, and set it on the floor.

"Will you carry it off the train, Corrie?" he said.

I stood up and tugged at it. It was crammed with the watches and spare parts he had purchased that morning.

"It's too heavy," I said.

"Yes," he said. "And it would be a pretty poor father who would ask his little girl to carry such a load. It's the same way, Corrie, with knowledge. Some knowledge is too heavy for children. When you are older and stronger you can bear it. For now you must trust me to carry it for you."

That incident weighs heavily on me as a father. It is extremely gratifying to hear my little princess ask such questions and to try to help her understand what she needs to know right now. If she truly grasps that all human life matters and that we do not hate people because they believe ideas that we hate then it is a good start. For now, I am content to carry the suitcase a while longer till I am convinced they are ready to handle it on their own.

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.