Sunday, April 25, 2004

Karen Hughes Brings Philosoraptor Out of Semi-Retirement
You Know, I Just Don't Like That Woman

The folks over at d-Kos bust Karen Hughes for the following bit of sophistry:

"I think that after September 11, the American people are valuing life more and we need policies to value the dignity and worth of every life," she said. "President Bush has worked to say, let's be reasonable, let's work to value life, let's reduce the number of abortions, let's increase adoptions. And I think those are the kinds of policies the American people can support, particularly at a time when we're facing an enemy and, really, the fundamental issue between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life."

I think—and I think that most of us who study philosophy think—that the abortion question is harder than most activists (right and left) think it is. This is one of the controversies I tend to avoid because both sides can get so irrational so quickly. But this quote from Karen Hughes does annoy me—perhaps mostly because Karen Hughes annoys me so much. Self-doubting liberal that I am, I worry that I’ve let liberals get away with saying equally slippery things about the issue without calling them on it. But I’m going to call her on this anyway.

Now, one could say what Hughes says here with perfect sincerity. I do not agree that aborting a fetus is equivalent to murdering a human being, but many intelligent people do think this of course. I expect you realize that I’m not going to try to settle that controversy here. Now, I assert that Hughes is not sincere about this claim, though that, of course, is not what's primarily wrong with it. It’s clear that it is wrong for terrorists to murder innocent people; it is not clear, however, whether it is wrong to abort a fetus. Consequently the analogy is a contentious one at best, intended to pretend that a complex and unclear moral issue is relevantly similar to a simple and clear one. (That's what "moral clarity" seems to amount to in this administration, after all...)

The difference between us and the terrorists is, of course, not that they hold abortions to be morally permissible and we do not. On the contrary, most of us hold at least some abortions to be morally permissible, whereas I imagine that bin Laden and his ilk are inclined to disagree—a position much closer to Mr. Bush’s and Ms. Hughes’s. But I’m going to end this line of inquiry right now lest my own argument become as sophistical as Hughes’s.

What really ticks me off about Hughes’s central claim is that it is ambiguous in just the way necessary to blur the important issues. She claims that “the fundamental issue between us and the terror network we fight is that we value every life.” Now this might mean that (a) we value the life of every biologically human thing, or it might mean that (b) we value the life of every person. (Theoretically it could mean that we value the life of every living thing, including plants and animals, but it’s obvious that that isn’t what she means, since I’m sure she has no sympathy for such a position.) But (a) and (b) are inequivalent as I’m sure you realize. Not every biologically human thing is a person, and it is fairly certain that not every person is a biologically human thing. It’s not completely clear what it is to be a person, but ordinarily persons are thought of as sentient, self-conscious, rational and autonomous beings. God and intelligent aliens, if they exist, are persons though they are not biologically human things. Persons (I assert, blatantly ignoring well-known alternative positions) have intrinsic value. Although excuses might theoretically be made for both of them, Hitler and bin Laden do not seem to understand this. But no one thinks that every living biologically human thing is intrinsically valuable. My most recently-produced red blood cell, for example, is a living, biologically human thing, but it isn’t intrinsically valuable (though it is instrumentally valuable in virtue of its role in keeping me alive). And were I, Heaven forbid, to slip into an irreversible vegetative state, my life, such as it would be, would no longer be valuable. What is valuable about me is my personhood—my sentience, autonomy, rationality, etc.--not my biological life, nor my human life biologically construed. Not, that is, my respiring and metabolizing.

But Ms. Hughes intentionally blurs this distinction. Many of us—on perfectly defensible grounds—do not believe that very early-term fetuses are persons, and, consequently, we do not believe that their lives are intrinsically valuable. We believe the life of every person is valuable, but we do not believe that, say, eight-cell fetuses are persons. Bin Laden presumably recognizes the personhood of his victims and elects to kill them anyway. Hughes’s claim is true only if by ‘life’ she means the life of a person—that is, if she means that the difference between us and the terrorists is that we (theoretically, at any rate) believe that the life of every person is intrinsically valuable. But her attempt to analogize terrorism to abortion can only succeed if by ‘life’ she means something like brute biological life—metabolizing and respiring even without sentience etc. So her terrorism-abortion analogy only works if she is asserting that the difference between us and the terrorists is that (i) we hold metabolizing and respiring to be valuable even when they are unrelated to sustaining a mind, whereas (ii) the terrorists disagree. Almost none of us think any such thing, however. Which is good since, if we did, the terrorists would already have won. This particular philosophical argument, anyway.


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