torsdag 24. oktober 2013

The Importance of Being Human.

"A capacity for feeling pleasure and pain is a prerequisite for having interests," Peter Singer writes in Animal Liberation (I am translating back from the Norwegian edition, so the wording may not be accurate), and that, I think, is true. Unless you are using the word in a very peculiar way, ascribing interests to dead things sounds nonsensical. However, it doesn't follow, as Singer has it, that it therefore is just as nonsensical to treat non-conscious entities as moral objects. Singer never questions the assumption that whatever lacks interests, lacks moral status too. That is what I intend to do.

"What is it, exactly, that prevents me from putting that man's eyes out if I am allowed to do so and if it takes my fancy?," Simone Weil asks in her essay called "Human Personality". (I will return to her answer shortly, but in brief it is this: my respect for the whole Human being. She is not denying that the suffering I thereby avoid inflicting is my reason: Weil simply points out that I refuse to harm human beings because I care about human beings in the first place. (Compare: "Of course animals suffer too, but they are only animals after all!")) In order to challenge Singer, let us assume that the man in question has suffered serious head trauma, thus having his mental abilities reduced to those of vegetables. Does this imply that he morally is lowered to their level too? Singer, it seems, is forced by his theory to say so. Some readers might take comfort in the fact that at this point in the argument, the interests of other people are often introduced to the utilitarian equation. This man will have relatives, some will argue -- and they (his relatives) still have interests, among which we must assume an interest in not having their relative, whom they care about, treated as a mere vegetable. So, we would be wronging their interests by doing such a thing. But this argument doesn't help us very much, it simply pushes the question one step up. Why, after all, should they care? He himself literarily cannot care what happens to him anymore. What, then, is there left for them to care about? If the object of their concern (namely, their vegetating relative) has ceased to be of moral importance because he no longer has any interests, then it seems to follow that their "interest" in having him treated with care isn't a genuine interest either, but rather a confused reaction produced by sentimentality gone haywire -- and, then, the question is: Ought imagined interests carry this kind of moral weight? Rather than indulging these relatives in their confused thinking, the best thing to do, morally speaking, would perhaps be to make them see the truth and realise that this is really nothing to be concerned about? And what (to modify the example a little) would Singer say if the man in question had no relatives or acquaintances at all --? Or to put even more pressure on it: Say that his last living relative begged Singer to do it and offered him money for putting that man's eyes out, how could Singer (while remaining true to his theoretical toolkit) possibly not take the assignment?

Of course, by doing so he would cause massive public revulsion (should people hear about it). But having tied moral status so firmly to certain (mental) capacities, many modern moral philosophies have a hard time making sense of this. Why would our stomachs turn (as most people's stomachs certainly would) if we were approached with such an offer? Squeamishness is possibly a part of it. But if that were all, most of us should have little to no problem accepting the money if we could only close our eyes while doing it [or at least it implies that it would be quite all right for us if we, in order to be able to do such things, did our best to stymie our emotional objections]. Restricting moral philosophy to thinking in terms of capacities and corresponding interests, and the rational calculation with these, we see no (morally) significant difference between the dismembering of vegetative human beings and, say, the pealing of a carrot. If the aim is to help us understand our moral lives, then moral philosophy must be permeated by the rich moral language with which these lives are normally lived.

Insofar as having interests is dependent on certain capabilities, and these capabilities are dependent on having a functioning brain (which is what Singer claims), it follows that people in a permanent vegetative state no longer have interests that may be violated. But this is not, except for within a certain philosophical parlance, equivalent to saying that they are no longer morally significant. Experiences and interests, after all, do not exhaust our moral vocabulary. Who counts morally, and in what way, is not simply a question of what (mental) capabilities they possess. This theory simply is too, well, simple. (We do not measure things against one universal moral standard all the time. In fact, that would be (morally) wrong of us. Here's just one obvious example. Were I to start treating everyone -- friends and strangers -- equal, this would, in most people's eyes, mean that I had ceased being a true friend. This isn't a function of "objective" differences between friends and strangers. Different relationships simply ask different things of us.) The more fundamental question is what morally pertinent concepts we can apply where. While "interest" (or "rationality") clearly has no use when talking about seriously brain damaged people, other morally weighty concepts like "dignity" and "honor" do. Losing ones love for -- or, to couch the claim in moral language: failing to keep loving -- someone who's life has been reduced to bodily functions, seems possible too.

When investigating the hypothesis that our concern for -- the dignity, the honor, the human value (but obviously not the well-being) of -- permanently unconscious people may be nothing but sentimentality and self-indulgence, it is instructive to ask: What would it be for a grieving wife, say, to realise that this hypothesis was true in her case? This surely is possible. What I am questioning though, is that this is always the case. Self-pity, I am guessing, is one source of any wife's tears under such circumstances -- she has after all suffered great loss -- but feeling sorry for herself is hardly all everyone is capable of. I have no problems imagining this realisation shattering a wife's self-image and recasting her understanding of her marriage. ("Am I really this shallow! Am I just self-indulgent? Don't I love him? Have I ever?") Such accusations, of course, only make sense if she ought to be feeling for and thinking of her husband too.

"We don't treat someone as a vegetable merely because he mentally happens to be on their level!" This expresses an understanding of what it means for a human being to lose all mental capacities: Human beings may lose their limbs, their wits or their minds; but their humanity -- their moral significance -- cannot be lost in the same sense. (This, I believe, is a central feature of our modern understanding of ourselves. We are all fundamentally equal. Human dignity is supposed to be unconditioned, that it is entirely independent of personal capabilities and characteristics.) Hence, that human body is not simply a body (understood as a "biological material" or "meat"), but remains human, in some crucial sense. "A human body," some might say, a remark which might be an important reminder in some circumstances: Refusing to accept, as mourning relatives sometimes do, that significant changes have taken place in their loved one, means closing ones eyes to reality. However, in order not to mystify our moral instincts, one must keep emphasising the other word in that sentence: What lies in that hospital bed is (not a mere body, but) a human body.

To some this smacks of word-play. But that, I think, is because they mistakenly take "human being" primarily to be a descriptive term, denoting (specimens of) a biological species. "What lies in that bed is not merely a body, but the body of one Homo sapiens," would indeed be nothing but word-play. But only someone with a tin ear for nuances would hear this as a serious attempt at say the same thing with different words. In reality this could only be some kind of crude joke. (In philosophy one sometimes unwittingly tell such jokes.) What makes it a joke, is the fact that "human being" in many circumstances, as in this one, is a morally laden term -- permeated through and through by other terms like value, honor, dignity, etc -- which cannot be substituted this way; but, rather, if it should be replaced, must be replaced, as Simone Weil sometimes does, by terms like "precious" and "sacred".

But isn't this sidestepping a difficulty? What reasons do we have for revering human beings so? What reasons do we have for claiming human equality, when what we see plainly are differences? The philosophical instinct here might be to investigate whether these claims can be substantiated. This instinct is misleading, I believe. Are we to understand these expressions, we are better advised to investigate where and how we learn the meaning of such them, and where and how they are expressed, than to look for a justification. (This reveals me as a Wittgensteinian. Human sanctity/equality is in no need of a metaphysical justification. First, attempting to justify it risks undermining precisely what one hopes to secure, namely its unconditionality. Second, attempting to ground this abstract idea (or ideal) in something firmer is to misunderstand what role this idea plays in our thinking. Human equality is not something we have discovered, or might discover sometime soon, hidden underneath all human differences; it is rather a concept with which we regard and accept these differences: This concept is held fast by everything that surrounds it, by our practices.)

So, then, where should we look? Among other places, to the kinds of cases I have been discussing in this post. Being horrified by the proposal with which I started, is one instance of it. The self-accusations of the self-pitying wife might be another. Through such reactions, our own and others', we see what it can mean to say that a human being, no matter how afflicted by suffering or reduced by illness or injury it is, is still a human being and our equal. "There is something sacred in every man," Simone Weil writes. That is not his rationality, not his ability to suffer, nor is it his interests or his personality: "It is he. The whole of him. The arms, the eyes, the thoughts, everything...It is this man; no more, no less...Not without infinite scruple would I touch anything of this." Such formulations both express and give shape our idea of human value.

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