Friday, December 23, 2005

Neolithic Metaphysics Revisited

Brent Howard, of Rydalmere, writes in El Pais de Murdoch:

David van Gend (Letters, 21/2) rails agaisnt the deliberate creation and killing of human embryos but offers no arguments. This process does not harm the embryos. Obviously, being created and then living, without consciousness, for a short period cannot be worse for an embryo than never existing at all. Even if we focus on embryos after their creation, they are not harmed by death. As eminent philosophers such as Michael Tooley and Derek Parfit have explained, unconscious embryos that have never had any desires or aspirations have no interest in ongoing life. The mere physical potential of the embryo does not impose any obligations upon others. We can uproot a sapling if we don’t want a tree, and John Howard’s potential to win another election doesn’t mean we must vote for him. We have no duties to embryos. Banning embryonic research that could help sick people is wrong.

If we have no duties to embryos- simply because all their capacity for suffering and joy, creation and destruction, lies in the future- than how can the potential existence of future generations impose any moral obligations on us?
It cannot. The particular comes before the general, and is the only reality. If the philosophers reject the moral obligation imposed by the embryo, which is actual in its potential, how much more must they reject the moral obligation imposed by those who are only potentially potential? It does not matter if we exhaust all fossil fuel resources: those future humans who might need them are only potential. It does not matter if we exterminate the last of the Surinamese swamp weasels. Their deaths are no more painful than their natural deaths would have been, and those future generations of swamp weasels were only potential: we have no duties to them.
These are only a few of the implications of the sophistry of those two philosophical gentleman. To reverence only the actual, and not the potential, is a religion for barbarians. It is appropriate for those who have no care for the past or the future, who are confident that each new day will bring a fresh hamlet to pillage to provide for all their needs. There is not only the moment. There is what a thing was, and what a thing will be, and these things should also inform our moral judgments.
One might argue: ‘Your fossil fuels, your Surinamese swamp weasels, those are things that are the common heritage of all humanity. I would not be so presumptuous as to judge that the rest of you should be deprived of their potential. But this embryo is mine, it belongs to me; its fate is mine to decide.’ This is a very old voice speaking. This is the voice of the Roman paterfamilias, with the acknowledged power of life and death over his children and his slaves.
But I say, no, that embryo is also part of the common heritage of all humanity. It does not belong to you, any more than the Surinamese swamp weasel belongs to the good burghers of Surinam. I will be diminished if I stand by while they clearfell the last stand of weasel swamp. I will be diminished if I stand by while that embryo is destroyed. I value it as a potential PhD student, as the potential drummer in the gurnge revival band responsible for the enigmatic concept album ‘Erklarungun der Kroten’, as the potential shopgirl who will smile- or scowl- at me at the checkout at Bi-Lo in 2025, even as the potential criminal whose wanton acts in a distant city will give me a momentary glow of Schadenfreude when I am a crusty old codger.
Destroying embryos that could grow up into any of those things, even if it could help sick people, is wrong.

[Editor’s note: The blogger had been re-reading Borges at the time this post was composed, which accounts for its almost unbearable pretentiousness. The previous post has no such excuses.]


Andrew Shellshear said...

So, um, you're not saying that we have a limited supply of babies, right? And that once we use them all up we'll never get any more ever again?

On an unrelated note, I used to enjoy the mental gymnastics of realising that there would be a definite fixed number of times that I will say the word "the" in my lifetime, and that by saying it, I would be one "the" closer to death (if I was religious, I'd be tempted into a terrible pun at this point). But I think the "They Might Be Giants" song "Older" catches it better:

You're older than you've ever been and now you're even older; and now you're even older; and now you're even older; you're older than you've ever been and now you're even older; and now you're older still."

Despite all that: have a Happy Chris-mas and a Merry Amanda-year!

Dr. Clam said...

And a Merry Chrisness to you and yours! You mustn't look upon it as getting older, you must look at it as becoming more able to get away with crusty old codger behaviour, something I have always looked forward to!

I'm saying that when you break down most statements of the form 'We will run out of Adamantium', the 'we' is meaningless unless it includes people who don't actually exist.
In a similar way, your statement about babies is perfectly true unless 'we' is understood to mean people who don't exist now- you and I, and any 'we' composed of coimbinations of people currrently existing, will certainly reach a point where we have run out of babies and will never get any more ever again.

Marco said...

Is there a philosophy that states that before an entity can think and feel, one is equivalent to another? In other words, if you don't have to consider suffering, or parental "rights" on the embryo, if they can be generated at will, there is essentially only a moral obligation on the embryos past that stage. In other words, If one has a miscarriage very early on, but gets pregnant the next cycle, one must not mourn the former but consider the latter to be an adequate equivalent. One would have not had the second had the first one survived, therefore the first embryo potentially denied the possible existence of the second. I don't see the distinction between ones body denying a new life subconsciously or automatically, and denying it consciously (where matters of suffering and parental desires are not an issue ie. the embryo is not killed against the parents will). Perhaps we don't know enough about the causes of miscarriage, but my theory is that in most cases, it is that the body decides to abort due to emotional reasons, rather than a quality control mechanism that is more commonly cited by science.

That is not to say that I think creating life just to destroy it is ethical, best practice or moral - but this aspect of philosophy is gaining ground, and most people are more concerned with avoiding suffering and prosecuting the destruction of embryos against the biological parents will, rather than any consistent definition and protection of "life rights"

Ok - lets just generate a few more embryos to make up for the ones we destroyed, and no-one will notice. Perhaps illegal, but hard to enforce.