Mind Matters

In the seventh chapter of his new book, The Party of Death: The Democrats, the Media, the Courts, and the Disregard for Human Life, Ramesh Ponnuru draws a distinction:

There is a radical difference that separates both an adult human being and a human embryo from a kitten and a sperm cell. The first two are complete, living human organisms and the second two are not. Yet the party of death ignores that basic difference while making a difference of degree -- the adult's greater age and development of his capacities -- the basis of a radical difference in treatment. To draw distinctions in this way is to violate the most basic canons of justice.

I think that killing the kitten would be worse than killing the embryo. If you agree, dear reader, you stand beside me in the party of death. We don't think the lives of all human organisms have equal value. For my part, I hold that moral status depends on the nature of a creature's mind. This means that the lives of creatures that can think and feel -- regardless of their species -- are of greater value than the lives of creatures that cannot.

Ponnuru's book is mostly a history of the public debate and political events surrounding abortion and related moral issues. He devotes only a small space to philosophical arguments against abortion. But these arguments are used to justify the evaluative judgments he makes throughout the book. They're worth responding to -- and the pro-choice position on the basic philosophical question is worth re-articulating.

According to liberals and other ordinary people, the moral status of something depends on what mental capacities it has. Do as you please with a baseball -- it has no mind, and thus no moral status. It's wrong, however, to beat a dog, because he can feel pain. But since dogs lack the understanding to participate in politics, they have no right to vote. Young humans can't vote until they've reached an age where we can expect mental qualities like maturity, rationality, and political awareness from them. Then they achieve a moral status such that denying them the vote, and many other rights, would be an injustice.

Frodo, Spock, Yoda, and many other fictional nonhumans have minds like ours so their moral status is like that of humans. When we encounter them in fiction, we regard them like we'd regard human beings. It's wrong to injure, deceive, or kill Frodo, and we wish the best for him. He's a moral subject -- in philosophical jargon, a “person.” If you want a similar example from our universe, consider that there are probably intelligent aliens somewhere out there in the vastness of space. I hope that if we meet them, we'll treat them in an ethical way rather than stupidly killing them. If you hope so too, it's probably because you appreciate that their minds make them persons.

Not all human organisms have minds -- zygotes certainly don't. According to recent research in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the neural circuitry required for feeling pain -- among the most rudimentary of mental capacities -- doesn't begin forming until the 23rd week of pregnancy, and pain perception is probably not possible until the 29th week. Even for some time afterwards, the mental capacities of the fetus will be below those of many animals whom it is not a crime to euthanize.

Ordinary people (and great philosophers) disagree about which mental qualities are morally relevant, and what kind of moral status arises from them. But nearly everyone agrees that minds matter. Moreover, mental qualities like the capacity for happiness, suffering, and desire are what guide are moral feelings. To act out of sympathy for a creature that cannot feel, or to protect the interests of a creature incapable of wanting anything, is a mistake. If you know that the creature has no mind, it's simply irrational.

Ponnuru doesn't fully flesh out the widely held understanding of morality that he's arguing against, and that's why I've had to do it here. The closest he comes is in arguing that the capacity for abstract mental functioning isn't the source of moral status. His argument is not successful.

Ponnuru first argues against regarding “human organisms” and “persons” as two separate but overlapping categories. In doing this, he says, the liberal position “assumes that a distinction can be made between a person and the body that person merely ‘inhabits.' The ‘person' is an aware, conscious ‘self' that floats above the body, as a sort of ghost in the machine.” As Ponnuru says, this is indeed a bad theory of how bodies and minds relate to each other.

But drawing a distinction between biological humanity and personhood doesn't commit anyone to this theory. There's also a distinction between being biologically human and liking celery. Many nonhumans like celery, and many humans don't. I'm a human who likes celery. The fact that these are separate but overlapping categories doesn't mean that my liking celery floats above my body, as a sort of ghost in the machine. Rather, my liking celery is integrated physically into my brain, as is my mind, and so my personhood.

Ponnuru then presents a pair of arguments based on how “the capacity for abstract mental functioning varies continuously.” Certainly, some humans are more intelligent than others, and this quality varies on a continuous scale, as many other mental qualities do. According to Ponnuru, this makes it “impossible to identify, without arbitrariness, the minimum level one must have to enjoy rights.”

But we often base rights on continuously variable mental qualities. Two-year-olds don't have the right to vote because they lack the required rationality, maturity, and political awareness. All of these mental qualities increase on a continuous scale. Testing everyone for these qualities before letting them vote is impractical and open to abuse, so we let people vote when their age allows us to assume that they have these qualities. Determining the beginning of the right to life may be weightier than determining the beginning of the right to vote, but there's no obvious reason to do it in a radically different way. Birth provides a clear and natural line for the inception of a right to life. It also fits into our general scheme of rights nicely, marking the point when any fetal right to life and a woman's privacy rights over her body are disentangled. (I'm always baffled by the conservative claim -- echoed by Ponnuru -- that a woman's privacy rights aren't violated when the government forces her to continue growing a fetus inside her uterus. In comparison, the privacy rights a person has over what happens in his home seem trivial and derivative.)

The last of Ponnuru's arguments against grounding personhood in the mind is the one with which I began -- that the difference of degree between a human embryo and an adult human is less significant than the difference in kind between an adult human and a kitten. But the difference of kind that Ponnuru points to is not one on which moral status -- including the right to life -- could depend. To ground moral status in biological humanity is to shrug at the enslavement of hobbits, the slaughter of kittens, and the destruction of all life beyond earth.

Neil Sinhababu is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin.

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