Professor Peter Singer, celebrity philosopher and Princeton’s professor of bioethics, has a knack for following through on his arguments. His approach in the second round of our debate – this time, focused on the sharp question “Is it ever wrong to take innocent human life?'” – was to seek to establish his critique of the sanctity-of-life position by showing that it is being abandoned in practice in such matters as the definition of death (“brain-death”) and the treatment of patients in coma and PVS. So, he said, we need a fresh way to look at how we handle human life.
His answer, of course, is that to be “human” is not special at all, or need not be. To be a “person” is the point, and some animals have a good claim on personhood while newborns do not as they are not self-aware and have limited functions.
My response, at various points during the evening, was along these lines: hard cases make bad law! We know there are problem areas, grey areas, difficult cases where medicine lies at the interface of life and death. There are cases where conscientious physicans and ethicists may disagree about how to treat patients. But that is no reason to abandon our conviction that it’s only on the basis of the sanctity of life that we can make any sense of these cases – and maintain the central significance of the dignity of the individual.
To that end, I grounded my comments in the commitment of our culture to human dignity, and the fact that in areas as diverse as slavery, human rights, the dignity of women, disabled persons, and those with psychological problems, our culture has slowly (in some respects, much too slowly) been coming to grips with the need to embrace all human beings and treat them with an equal respect.
The alternative, of course – offered so logically in Professor Singer’s thinking – is instead to focus on what we can do, what capacities and functions we have. If we lack rationality and self-awareness, then we are may be human beings, but we are not persons.
This theory is scary, because it puts upside down the idea that has been growing in our culture that we have a special responsibility to care for those who lack these and other normal, healthy, mature capacities. It redraws the circle of human dignity around the mature and the healthy. It divides the human race into two.
I don’t know what you will make of the debate. I hope you will watch it on DVD, perhaps use it as a discussion starter with friends, and that it will encourage you to read Singer’s books. Perhaps use it along with the PLAYING GOD kit (with video and other materials from Chuck Colson and me). Singer is a clear and provocative writer, and his way of looking at things reminds us all of how bad things will be if once we abandon our central conviction that every human being, every member of our species, is unique with a life that is sacred.
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