Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A dignity argument against most abortions

  1. (Premise) If x has dignity, it is wrong to intentionally kill x primarily for the sake of a benefit to someone other than x.
  2. (Premise) Elderly people whose minds are functioning very poorly have dignity.
  3. (Premise) If elderly people whose minds are functioning very poorly have dignity, fetal humans have dignity.
  4. Therefore, it is wrong to kill a fetal human primarily for the sake of a benefit to someone other than the fetus.

I think something broader than (1) is true—it's also wrong to kill an innocent for the sake of a benefit to x. But (1) will be less controversial. I think (3) is probably the most controversial premise. One argument for (3) is this:

  1. (Premise) Dignity is either had by all humans or only by those who satisfy achievement-type conditions for personhood, such as being able to solve relatively sophisticated problems or communicate on a large variety of topics.
  2. (Premise) Fetal humans are humans.
  3. (Premise) If dignity is only had by those who satisfy achievement-type conditions for personhood, then elderly people whose minds are functioning very poorly do not have dignity.
  4. Therefore, if elderly people whose minds are functioning very poorly have dignity, then dignity is had by all humans, and hence by fetal humans as well.

Alas, premise (2) may be somewhat controversial. Here is an argument for it.

  1. (Premise) x can only suffer an indignity if x has dignity.
  2. (Premise) Elderly people whose minds are functioning very poorly can suffer indignities (and often do).
  3. Therefore, elderly people whose minds are functioning very poorly have dignity.

4 comments:

David said...

Very interesting. Two observations that I had as I read this (excellent) post:

1. What constitutes "dignity" and upon what basis is "dignity" founded? In other words, what does the term mean and why should anyone accept that meaning? I think it's safe to say that there are, unfortunately, some who would reject that premise altogether.

2. I think a similar argument could be constructed along the lines of the value/right of the life of the fetus versus the value/right of the convenience of the parent. I'm not sure how I would state that, though, especially without sounding terribly utilitarian.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I really haven't a good account of what constitutes dignity, but that doesn't distinguish dignity from other concepts that I feel quite free to use, such as probability or law of nature or wrongness. Often all we can do is give ostensive definitions. So we can ostend to dignity as the property such that:
- all fully-functioning adult humans uncontroversially have it
- it grounds various "Kantian" facts about us, such as that it's wrong to kill us for the convenience of others, that it's wrong to use us as if we were tools, etc.
- harms and benefits to a being with this property are much more significant morally than harms and benefits to a being that lacks this property
- this property calls for one to respect and show respect for those who have it; it is what grounds the fittingness of having honorific forms of address for fellow humans (the modern use of honorifics like "Mr" for persons of all races and classes is a recognition that the property in question is not limited by race or class)
- this property is a necessary condition for the appropriateness of reception of honor in some strong sense; to honor a being that lacks this property is some sort of parody or satire, like Caligula's making a horse into a senator

Maybe more needs to be said. Perhaps we want to ostend to the most natural or most fundamental property that satisfies the above.

Andrew said...

I like your defense of premise 2.

One possible worry someone might raise is whether this shows other things we might not want to give dignity to, in fact have it. Also, for it to fully make sense, do you think you need an analysis on what the necessary/sufficient conditions are for having dignity sense it looks like we are dealing with what many will consider boarderline cases?

Alexander R Pruss said...

Andrew:

You mean, like that we can treat a dolphin in an undignified manner, and that shows that it has dignity?

I am not sure we can treat a dolphin in an undignified manner. We certainly can treat a dolphin in an inhumane manner, but that's not the same as treating it in an undignified manner.

Consider, for instance, the way that one shows respect for people--one calls them "Mr" or "Ms" or some other honorific. One treats people as non-fungible. To one's best ability, one calls them by names, not by numbers or by "Hey, you, there", and a failure to do so when one reasonably could is often an imposition of indignity. Various familiarities in the context of a relationship that does not permit such familiarity, such as interviewing job candidates in a room with an unmade bed (a female colleague once told me she was interviewed by an all-male committee in such a room) or going to a Department meeting in one's pajamas, are a form of disrespect and make others feel lacking in dignity.

Note that these indignities can be imposed even if their victim lacks the discernment to notice them. There is an evil art of insulting people in such wise that they do not know they have been insulted.

(For a very interesting example, notice the way that respect should be shown to people even when one is imposing serious harm on them. Suppose we have one of those very rare cases where the death penalty is morally justifiable. Except in really weird exceptional circumstances, it would be wrong to execute the person with a butcher's knife that had just been used to slaughter a goat and that had not even been wiped.)

But this sort of thing just does not seem applicable in the case of one's relationships with mere animals, even smart ones like dolphins and dogs.

If I am a vet and I have some animals in residence, I impose no indignity on my patients by visiting them in a state of undress (though I may be failing in hygiene and hence falling short of professional duty). Etc.