Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bachmann does bioethics

Pictured: a human whose dignity is highly questionable
Said Michele Bachmann to members of Personhood USA on Tuesday night:
I want everyone to know that I recognize and respect the dignity of every human life from conception until natural death. This is not a check the box thing for me; this is the core of my conviction, this is what I would literally die for. We have a moral obligation to defend other people and the reason for that is because each human being is made in the image of likeness of a holy God.
Dignity, I think we can agree, is a state of being which makes an entity deserving of respect and ethical treatment. For Bachmann, this affordance is based on a fundamental belief about our relationship with and similarity to God. Every human was made by God and is in some way very like God, therefore it is wrong to end the life of one.

But...God created other creatures, and we end their lives all of the time. Yes, but those creatures were not "made in the image of likeness of a holy God."

But...Bachmann is opposed to gay marriage, and telling people that they cannot marry the consenting adult of their choice denies their dignity, as surely does indefinite detention and torture. Yes, but defending the dignity of humans does not extend to protecting them from the consequences of immoral acts.

This is because for Bachmann, dignity is not a state that individual humans reach. It is something they are all afforded-- whether they want it or not-- by virtue of being members of a race specifically created by God to carry out his will. Killing people as punishment or in war is one thing, but in general the ending of a human life either in the womb or on the physician's table is violating the will of God. It's a violation of a covenant held with him, not with other humans. A human's conduct can render it permissible to put him to death and subject to God's judgment, but it cannot justify dignity-- that comes from the fact of being God's creation.

When the word "dignity" is invoked in conservative politics, you can bet the underlying message is a concern about messing with God's product. This can take many manifestations, including abortion and euthanasia, but also stem cell research, cloning, and contraception. It has been a particular sticking point for former chair of the President's Council on Bioethics Leon Kass, who famously cited sheer repugnance as an appropriate foundation for moral opposition to such things. In "Ew, gross! The prissy bioethics of Leon Kass," Garance Franke-Ruta writes:
Man, to use Kass's favored term, possesses a fundamental and irreducible dignity based on "the godlikeness of human beings" It is from this, he argues, that "the sanctity of human life" derives.  
But it is the impact of the "dehumanizing challenges of the brave new biology" and technology on "ways of life" that concerns Kass, rather than the impact on living individuals: "We need to understand that there is more at stake in the biological revolution than just saving life or avoiding death and suffering. We must also strive to protect and preserve human dignity and the ideas and practices that keep us human," he writes. The goal of bioethics should not simply be to solve technical problems involving specific procedures via the issuance of rules, but "concern for the moral health of our entire community." Consequently, it is humane ideals, not just human individuals, that must be protected and defended "[i]n a world whose once-given natural boundaries are blurred by technological change and whose moral boundaries are seemingly up for grabs."  
Those boundaries have, he argues, been damaged by three decades' worth of advocacy by feminists, relativists, liberals (and liberationists and libertarians of all stripes), and gays and lesbians. Abortion, the sexual revolution, contraception, and "the extramarital use of the Pill"--all these changes have threatened our ability to understand natural relationships, and hence have led to the easy acceptance of technological interventions, particularly in the reproductive sphere, that make us increasingly unnatural, "post-human" beings. 
When humankind takes control of its biological destiny in a way that gives someone like Bachmann or Kass moral qualms, you can count on the accusation of "playing God" to come up. As a rather heavily modified person myself (extensive dental work, LASIK surgery, a fervent dedication to birth control), I find this to be a head-scratcher. Would they prefer that we go without, for example, vaccines? In the case of the HPV vaccine almost certainly yes, because like the "extramarital use of the Pill" (I guess marital use of it is okay) it's a means of manipulating the body to protect it from deleterious health effects resulting from immoral conduct, and hence undignified. Presumably people getting the MMR or shingles vaccine need not worry too much about being unnatural and post-human.

Patrick Lee and Robert P. George (the latter of which served on the President's Council on Bioethics with Kass) presented a slightly more nuanced view of things in their essay The Nature and Basis of Human Dignity, while still relying on "nature" as their justification:
The dignity of a person is that whereby a person excels other beings, especially other animals, and merits respect or consideration from other persons. We will argue that what distinguishes human beings from other animals, what makes human beings persons rather than things, is their rational nature. Human beings are rational creatures by virtue of possessing natural capacities for conceptual thought, deliberation, and free choice, that is, the natural capacity to shape their own lives. 
These basic, natural capacities to reason and make free choices are possessed by every human being, even those who cannot immediately exercise them. Being a person thus derives from the kind of substantial entity one is, a substantial entity with a rational nature—and this is the ground for dignity in the most important sense. Because personhood is based on the kind of being one is—a substantial entity whose nature is a rational nature—one cannot lose one’s fundamental personal dignity as long as one exists as a human being.
So, what makes one worthy of dignity is rationality, and humans (and humans alone) have dignity because they are the kind of beings whose nature is rational, even if the specific human in question is not rational at all either permanently or at the time of consideration. He/she belongs to the rational community by virtue of being of the right species, and that's good enough. This consideration, as Lee and George later note in their essay, is to make clear that it can't become permissible to abuse the dignity of the mentally disabled, which is admirable enough. They clarify that
While membership in the species Homo sapiens is sufficient for full moral worth, it is not in any direct sense the criterion for moral worth. If we discovered extra-terrestrial beings of a rational nature, or learned that some terrestrial species have a rational nature, then we would owe such beings full moral respect. Still, all members of the human species do have full moral worth because all of them do have a rational nature, though many of them are not able immediately to exercise basic capacities.
So if one of us should happen upon a rational chicken one day, it apparently renders the entire species dignified because that would show that it is the "nature" of chickens to be rational, even if many of them (i.e., every single other chicken) are not able immediately to exercise basic capacities. Goodbye, KFC.

That's not a very realistic consideration, however. What's more realistic is that humans, like every other species we have encountered, are closer to a "rational nature" at some points of their lives than others. That is, they are differently capable depending on the point in their ontogeny, their development. Lee and George are prepared to declare that this period of a human's life decides humanity's "nature," and therefore its dignity. But why? Are we any less human at those points in life when we have not yet become rational, or when we've left rationality behind, or if we never really were in the first place? How can something be your "nature" if it's not even a trait that can accurately be attributed to you? Even traits that will eventually apply to every single one of us sound frankly bizarre to describe as our nature-- we all will, for example, die. Is it then our nature to be dead? They reply:
I have understood that the one nature, subject to death, is entailed by the other nature, composite living being, and from that knowledge I then advert to the thought of the individuals which possess those natures.
Then would it not be more fitting to describe the nature of humans regarding reason as subject to being rational? It sounds a lot more tenuous that way, but it's certainly more truthful.

Lee and George use all of the buzz words and rhetoric one would employ if one wanted to argue that there is something essential to humans which separates them from other species as deserving moral consideration, regardless of what kind of human a specific individual is-- a soul. A soul which, again, does not really belong to us but is actually on loan from God, which explains why the intentional death of a fetus which has not developed the cognitive capacity to understand what "dignity" is, and the intentional death of a human in a mentally vegetative state who has long since permanently lost the capacity to understand the same are both nevertheless affronts to their dignity, whereas the natural death of either is not. This also explains why although a rational nature (whether you are actually rational, or not) makes one a person and therefore in possession of full moral worth and dignity, exerting that rational nature in order to decide to end one's own life is not permissible. That just wouldn't be dignified.

Do I think that Michele Bachmann has actually read Lee and George, or Kass, or anyone like them, in order to form the foundation of her unshakable defense of the inherent dignity of human life? Nah. But she's read the Cliff's Notes and pulled all of the relevant talking points, and while seeking the office of president but not having served on the President's Council on Bioethics, she comes right out and says it's because we're made in the image of God. In that regard she is not making an argument palpably different from Lee and George or Kass, but one that is a lot less subtle and most likely a good deal more honest.

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