If there’s no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil, why are we arguing in the first place?
If you crack the egg of a bird on the Endangered Species List, it won’t matter that the bird was a fetus or embryo. You’ve still broken Federal law. Why is the species of an (unhatched) animal so clear cut under law, but human embryos have no protection under current law? Legal follies such as this underscore our lack of seriousness and consistency when contemplating our children of tomorrow. My concern is that we are not teaching them why they should treat us kindly, much less giving them a good example.
Bioethics dilemmas and most political disputes may seem to be new problems, but they’re not. Every “new” problem is another facet of the potential to deny the existence of right and wrong or to infringe on the inalienable rights of our fellow humans. Knowledge of the basics can guide decisions and actions.
If there’s no such thing as right and wrong or good and evil, why are we arguing in the first place? These truths transcend relative social considerations and laws, including religious beliefs, ideology, or the wants and wishes of the powerful or majority. They even transcend time and space: if you take a close look at the big debates, the speakers aren’t simply talking to each other: we’re arguing with the great thinkers of the past and trying to convince people who come along after us.
The unique nature of the species Homo sapiens sapiens is the source and the definition of “human dignity,” and the reason that all members of the species and our offspring are human beings who should be valued equally, without discrimination.
And of course, we are unique, since It looks like we’re the only species having this conversation. We’re the only species that, when an individual has safety, food and sex, doesn’t just go to sleep. Our species makes art, records history, and argues about the nature of the universe. Humans seem to naturally “know” “that’s not fair,” even at 3 or 4 years old. We seek Unconditional Justice, Truth, Love, Beauty and Knowledge. And we value Unconditional Love most of all.
The Negative rights to Life, Liberty and Property are owned and endowed upon individuals; they are not the property of or gift of societies or governments. These exist in a necessary order; a hierarchy of importance and power to call on society for protection. The right not to be killed trumps the right not to be enslaved, which precedes the right not to have your property taken from you by force or fraud. If they can kill you, there are no limits on how much they can enslave you or take from you. We must be secure that others won’t take our property against our will, because earning and owning property is how we avoid enslavement to others and how we make plans and lay by the staples of life to support the lives of ourselves and our families, both immediately while we can earn, and later when we are unable to work.
Society and government must protect these “inalienable” rights of individuals, but only as far as to ensure equality of opportunity, not the equality of outcome. These are protections against the actions of others, not against words or thoughts. It is not protection or promotion of someone’s personal tastes and not the right to not be offended. We must be very, very careful when we tax and even more careful if we presume to force the actions of others.
Good politics and science cannot exist in a moral vacuum. The powerful, the majority, the surging mob. the man with the biggest gun or governments cannot do good when their actions infringe on the life, liberty or property of the individual. To claim that people must act or give up property indefinitely for the greater good – Utilitarianism – ends in domination without measurable or objective limits.
And yet, to function in society carries responsibilities. Extraordinary privileges like those given to lawmakers, doctors, and scientists to do good, may also result in extraordinary power to do evil through abuse of unequal power of weapons, tools, numbers or even knowledge and skill. This is where conscience and the first principle of “first do no harm” come in. The right of conscience is a function of the liberty of an individual not to be forced to act against his understanding of good and evil, right and wrong.
Medicine and science have held a unique position to advocate for the protection of human rights, at least since Hippocrates, who formalized the now 2500 year old oath to “heal when possible, but First, do no harm” Non-maleficence, or not acting in order to avoid harm, must precede and be incorporated in the desire to do good or beneficence.
Once again, we come back to that first point: all of our offspring, descendants deserve the same value and protection of their rights to life, liberty and property without discrimination. It’s possible that we already have offspring among us who are not of our species. Science has created human embryos with more than two biological parents and others who have been the subject of genetic manipulation. Also out there are is the Humanity+ or Transhumanism movement in all its permutations, along with more accessible enhancement of the human mind and body through technology, medicine, machines, and manipulation at the nano-level.
We must consider how our children of tomorrow will consider us. It is true that humans aren’t perfect, we will make mistakes, and some humans will purposefully infringe on the rights of others. However, what values and principles will the pattern of our governments and individual action reflect? Will it be our respect and love for one another? Will they respect and love us or will they look back in horror or disgust?
(I want to thank Robert Spitzer, who wrote “Healing the Culture,” one of the best Ethics books in existence.)
This is a March, 2011 post from LifeEthics. org. Why Ethics? | LifeEthics. Edited 5/10/13 to move to top of the list.
Overall a well written post. I thought your post was unique in the sense that your advocacy for no abortions invokes the argument, that promoting the greatest potential for life is the correct course of action. The example of the endangered bird egg illustrated that well.
However I believe the application of the argument is limited.. As it doesn’t address the contested questions such as definition of when life begins. As such your ‘hierarchy of importances’ only follows if the assumption is make that life begins at conception.
I think an issue the post doesn’t consider, is the greatest potential of the woman and man who will be caring after the child when they are born. If the child/fetus in the womb is found to be severely deformed and close to a vegetated state, which will involve a lifetime of the most basic care for their needs, it will mean the life of the carers will be such that the large part of it will have to be devoted to looking after a child that may not even comprehend who their own parents are.
I believe that taking your own argument of the greatest potential, it can be argued that the child given in the above example has less potential in having something resembling ‘life’, than the potential life/lives lost of their carers.
But the example I gave doesn’t translate to other reasons that people have abortions, which should be addressed separately.
The one celled embryo, the zygote, is unique in that the products of two cell lines, a sperm and an egg, which are at the end of their life cycle, combine to form the beginning of a new life cycle. Any argument in favor of potential is only a personal belief. One inconsistent with observable facts. We know that fertilization is a point that a technician can identify in the in vitro lab. No one implants unfertilized eggs. In fact, we can watch the changes by serial ultrasounds and blood hormone levels that result from the new embryo.
There’s no question about the “protected” species’ beginning, why would fertilization *not* be the beginning of human life?