What is ethical?
Rights, justice and what is good
In this post I talk about ethics and rights. It will cover
What is ‘bioethics’?
Peter Singer and ‘personhood’
Four types of moral reasoning
The arithmetic of good and evil
Moral foundations theory
Justice as fairness
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Ethical is a word we often hear in connection to consumer choices such as the source of your coffee or the murder of your offspring. It is a common term, and as with other grand sounding buzzwords (such as justice, equality, equity, freedom, democracy) is seldom if ever explained.
This post is about the ethics which underpin the arguments around the right to life and the wider jurisprudential framework of contemporary ideas of The Good.
It will examine the alternatives to the system of valuing which lies behind our bioethics and our idea of justice. I will provide a brief reading and reference list in case you would like to look further into this matter.
Bioethics - Moral judgements about life and death
What happens at the beginning and end of life has become a matter of legal and cultural controversy as a direct result of technological advancement.
What we call medical science has made possible the procedures to terminate and to prolong life, bringing novel questions with these new options. The site of these innovations in the practice of ending and sustaining life is the hospital, and so we see them fall under the remit of medicine. In the media, we hear of ‘health care’ decisions when what is meant is abortion. The second term, ‘reproductive rights’, refers to an argument about justice which is independent from but not entirely unrelated to the technological developments which made of death and life a consumer option.
The Ethics of Living and Dying
Following the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster in Sheffield a controversy arose over the legality of switching off the life support machine of a man called Anthony Bland. He had suffered severe brain damage as a result of hypoxia and the legal dispute was over whether, without any higher cortical function, he could be said to be truly alive. He could breathe with mechanical assistance, and his heart was functioning. Yet without the machine he would die, and it was deemed impossible that he would ever recover consciousness.
Dr Peter Singer, accepted since that time as one of the world’s leading bioethicists, advances the concept of ‘personhood’. In “Rethinking Life and Death” he broadly argues that where personhood is absent, so are human rights. He pointed out that there was no logical objection to the removal of vital organs from the living who are brain dead - if we consider this as death. Of course, he admits, no one does this - since according to Singer we do not think the brain dead are dead - merely that they should be.
There was no person left in the body of Anthony Bland, and so the law was satisfied that the machine could be switched off. Peter Singer describes brain death as “an ethical choice masquerading as a medical fact”. His approach to bioethics, to the value of life and to the moral system he has adopted exemplifies a very specific view of existence whose foundations are extremely limited.
The beginnings of Personhood
It is hard to disagree that life begins at the moment of conception. Yet few would argue that a zygote is a person in the same sense as they are. Perhaps you would argue it is a person in potential - but then, so was Anthony Bland.
For Singer, personhood is not coextensive with life. Personhood begins long after life, and may end long beforehand. According to Peter Singer, children do not achieve personhood until the age of five.
This allows for the destruction of the child, the zygote, the unperson in the womb. Incidentally, it does not allow for the destruction of pigs, whose claim to personhood Singer deems superior to that of any child under five.
Peter Singer is credited with the popularisation of animal rights, following the publication of his 1970s book ‘Animal Liberation’. Singer sees humans as other animals - though obviously different - his arguments rest on the notion of ‘Speciesism’ - the discrimination against some animals by others.
Singer suggests we consider the rights of animals based on their capacity to feel pain, rather than that for higher consciousness.
Four types of moral reasoning
There are roughly four types of ethical systems.
Divine command (the word of God)
Virtue ethics (Aristotle, etc)
Duty ethics or deontology (Kant)
Utilitarianism (majority preference)
The first system is obvious.
The second, best expounded in the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle is a list of virtues along with their descriptions and opposites which ought to be cultivated as the chief pursuit of life through the dedication to arete (excellence), phronesis (practical wisdom) and eudaimonia (flourishing). These virtues include magnanimity (becoming ‘great-souled’), patience, courage, proper ambition and what we would call generosity.
The third sounds simple but is an idea of duty derived from the application of a formula known as the categorical imperative. This means that whenever you consider an action you must imagine it becoming a universal law for all time. It requires a command of abstraction and disciplined, fastidious thought which is unlikely to become habitual for anyone other than Immanuel Kant, its inventor, who incidentally hated lying.
The fourth is the one which concerns us. Utilitarianism is the arithmetic of the Good. It has been remembered in the maxim of Jeremy Bentham as
“The greatest happiness of the greatest number that is the measure of right and wrong.”
The measure of happiness is a matter of personal preference, as is -for the utilitarian - the matter of right and wrong. There are other forms of consequentialism (the moral judgement of acts as a result of their effects) but the one relevant today is that of Peter Singer.
The arithmetic of pleasure
This was formerly termed ‘preference utilitarianism’ - the idea that we can decide what is morally good from wants. Later this was modified to pleasure and pain - ‘hedonistic utilitarianism’ being the system which judges the moral good on the maximisation of pleasure and the minimisation of suffering.
This argument is derived from the welfarism inspired by Jeremy Bentham, which views wellbeing as the ultimate good and therefore prime pursuit of mankind.
Pleasure, pain and personhood
The moral justification for abortion cannot rely solely on the hedonistic utilitarian principle of pleasure versus pain. There is an obvious conflict which arises - even before we consider measuring or caring to observe the pain of the unborn during destruction - and this conflict is between the pleasure and suffering of the mother and that of the unborn.
This conflict can be - and is - dissolved as readily as the life of the unborn by the introduction of the concept of personhood. This concept divides life into meaningful and meaningless categories - with rights, and without.
This is the ethical argument for the justification of abortion. It does not rest upon ‘A woman’s right to choose’ as no one may legitimately and without compulsion exercise the choice to kill another person. It relies on the depersonalisation of the contents of the womb - a concept which extends by the same logic well into childhood.
Moral Foundations Theory
Jonathan Haidt published a book called The Righteous Mind - Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion. Drink would be fair answer in my experience.
He draws a picture of moral reasoning which demonstrates the different bases upon which different types of moral judgement rest. These types roughly correspond to the American dichotomy of ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’.
Leaving aside the disastrous effects of these two doomed ideologies we can see how one is narrow, the other broad. Here are the foundations, divided into two categories.
The individualising values (self oriented)
The binding values (group oriented)
If we refer the ethics of Peter Singer to this explanation, we can see his system satisfies the appetite for care and for fairness (insofar as we accept his reasoning).
There is no concern for loyalty, authority nor sanctity.
This is one way of explaining the heated tribal antagonisms of what have been termed the ‘Culture Wars’. These disputes are not about culture. They are about a broad - or narrow - basis for moral reasoning.
Justice as Fairness
We will close with a word on the concept of justice. This word is often heard amidst fiery (if peaceful) protests and is invoked as a condition of the cessation of lawlessness. ‘No justice - no peace’. In fact, these situations usually guarantee there is neither, as they are concerned with an idea of justice inspired by a fantasy world.
In his book A Theory of Justice, John Rawls gave us the idea of justice as the maximisation of liberty to all individuals. It advances the concept of rights as claims - not duties - people being endowed with rights by virtue of their being.
In his later essay Justice as Fairness he refined these ideas. They compete with and do not match the welfarist refinements of Singer’s utilitarianism, as Rawls attempted to replace this with a practical framework for a society which would treat all its members equally, and guarantee them the now famous ‘equality of opportunity’.
Rawls’ basis for this is his rights derived from a thought experiment. We are all imagined to be behind a veil of ignorance, and imagine ourselves with no attributes (of age, sex, race, ability). From this position we are imagined to select values which will be of benefit to all of us regardless of who we are.
No justice, no peace
It is a curious thing that an experiment based in the removal of identity to guarantee personal liberty has contributed to the destruction of liberties precisely due to the extreme individualism to which it gave life.
Aside from this, the cry for ‘justice’ can be summarised as the blunt instrument of imagined fairness. This in the popular imagination is something of a conflation of Rawls and Singer - ‘fairness’ is a just demand, and ‘fairness’ is what we mean by justice.
Respect for rights is demanded - at the expense of the destruction of those of others. What is usually meant by ‘fairness’ is ‘what I want’, which in a crowd of outraged selves becomes a ‘we’. I would strongly assert that this is an example of the lonely crowd - not united behind a cause - but an instance of individuals standing together to make demands they refer exclusively to themselves, and to their own feelings.
The pronouns of moral reasoning
The pronouns of moral reasoning - what is right, what is just, what is fair and who deserves to live - are “I” and “We”.
The argument for ‘choice’ is an argument for ‘I’. It rests on the narrow moral foundation of personal pleasure or the avoidance of suffering. It is ‘self care’ and is ‘fair’ to the rights of the woman - to choose.
It does not concern itself with the sanctity of life.
The demand for ‘justice’ is rooted in the idea of rights as claims’ There are other ways of viewing rights, such as natural rights, or the rights-as-duties of Burke.
The mentality fostered by an assumed sense of the undeniable rights of the individual, maximised by assertion and even the legitimised use of criminal force, is one of automatic entitlement regardless of conduct or of merit. This, too, is a mentality which demands ‘fair’ treatment for the self (the satisfaction of desires) and will accuse those of being ‘uncaring’ who fail to appease them.
The loyalty on display here is to “I”. The role of authority is to act as a wish dispenser, like some malfunctioning vending machine requiring a kick to drop out some treats.
In this system, informed by the desire to maximise pleasure, minimise suffering, and liberate the individual completely there is nothing sacred but the self. These days, it is always me time, and the values which divide our days are the values of the machine.
The Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle
The Enchiridion Epictetus
The Righteous Mind Jonathan Haidt
Justice Michael Sandel
A Theory of Justice John Rawls
Rethinking Living and Dying Peter Singer
Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life William E May