by Kris D'Amato
Dialectic on ethics, embryonic stem cell research, and abortion.
|Note: Just to be clear, this is not a script for a movie or a play (I have had two reviews that assumed so). This is an essay about the ethics of abortion and embryonic stem cell research.
SOCRATES ON THE ETHICS OF THE EMBRYO
Theokritos sits on the steps leading up into the Hephaisteon. It is an oppressively hot day, but the shade has somewhat of a refreshing effect. Theokritos makes out Socrates in the distance, walking towards the temple with a lively step. He observes the old man until they are within shouting distance.
THEOKRITOS: Socrates! I was waiting for you to show up.
SOCRATES: You were? And to what do I owe this pleasure?
THEOKRITOS: Come along and sit in the shade with me for a while and I’ll tell you all about it.
SOCRATES: Well, I might as well sit down and enjoy the company. My little walk will surely not elope.
THEOKRITOS: How come do you never tire out, Socrates? In your great age, you should be at home being taken care of, not out walking in this sweltering heat. But I applaud you; you certainly have the strength of will that few of us have.
SOCRATES: Thank you, dear Theokritos. Somebody of your stature must understand that these walks are essential for the health. The day that one resigns his destiny to the confines of his room and the care of others is the day that one dies in the mind. Indeed, it is of the utmost importance to keep walking and exploring, because there is rarely a day when one discovers nothing anew. It is this discovery of new things that helps put what has already been discovered into perspective. This is the way of knowing the world.
THEOKRITOS: I see you have not denounced your old absolutism, Socrates.
SOCRATES: [Laughing] You would be surprised by how much I have denounced along the centuries. That one thing, however, I hold onto. Come now, I see that you are itching to tell me something of great importance.
THEOKRITOS: Yes, Socrates. I have heard these rumors …
SOCRATES: Yes, go on.
THEOKRITOS: I have heard rumors that you are pro-abortion.
SOCRATES: You have? I must admit I’m very surprised at such a serious allegation. Pray tell, are those the exact words that you heard? That I am pro-abortion?
THEOKRITOS: Yes—well … what in effect amounts to that.
SOCRATES: And what, exactly, amounts to that?
THEOKRITOS: But Socrates, if what I heard is true, it is very serious indeed. How can you be pro-abortion?
SOCRATES: Hold on a moment, Theokritos. I’m confused here; perhaps we should try unearthing what it is that you heard and proceed from there. I am not sure at this point whether you are seeking a confirmation of the allegations or an explanation of what I may have said that perhaps gave rise to these allegations. I also sense, Theokritos, and I beg you to correct me if I am wrong, that you come here convinced of both the allegations and the moral conclusions that arise from their possible truth. That is very worrying.
THEOKRITOS: Half of the public is calling you a baby killer, Socrates!
SOCRATES: Let us not get lost in the name calling of the public, my friend. Let us instead focus on what you and I think. It is one thing to hold intelligent conversation with one person, and yet another to pacify the assumptions of the mob. So before discussing the embryo, allow me to iterate that we have to approach the argument with a clean slate: judgment follows ethics, and not the other way round.
THEOKRITOS: Very well, then. I hold that life is sacred and should never be traded away for anything else. That is my position, and frankly I am surprised that it is not yours too, for you always seemed to be unflinching when it came to ideals. If the preservation of life is not an inviolable ideal, then what is?
SOCRATES: Slow down, Theokritos. I too hold that human life is sacred and that it should not be traded away. I am compelled to say that it may sound strange that I, famous for my lengthy dialectic, should just come out with it like that, almost without due consideration, but it is true. May I then assume that this is not your objection?
THEOKRITOS: Well, if you value human life as much as you claim, then how could you agree with abortion and embryonic experimentation?
SOCRATES: Now that’s a question that does need a lengthier reply than the previous one. Alright, I must admit that I was not prepared for a confrontation on this matter, and like all philosophical matters, it needs a good deal of thinking. Immediately I can tell you one thing: the question in itself is incorrectly posed, for it assumes as true an oversimplification of what I had been saying.
THEOKRITOS: Then I would like to hear it in all its detail from the horse’s mouth.
SOCRATES: [Laughing] I may be ugly, Theokritos, but not that ugly.
THEOKRITOS: Ugliness and beauty are as far from my mind as they could possibly be, right now.
SOCRATES: [Still laughing] Lighten up, my friend. Let me ask you a question since we’re on the subject of horses; would you say the life of a man is worth more or less than that of a horse?
THEOKRITOS: More, of course.
SOCRATES: How about when comparing it to that of a tree?
THEOKRITOS: More, obviously.
SOCRATES: Would you agree with the assertion that the life of a man is worth more than that of any animal or plant?
SOCRATES: And is it because we are humans that we think humans are the most valuable species, much like a giraffe would say giraffes are the most valuable if it could speak, or is there a different reason?
THEOKRITOS: There’s a different reason.
SOCRATES: What is it?
THEOKRITOS: I think it’s the very fact that humans think. It’s what makes us so different from other animals and plants.
SOCRATES: Is it just because humans think? That is to say, is it because humans can think that the sky is blue or that ice is cold?
THEOKRITOS: No; I suppose animals can identify the coldness of ice and the colors of the sky as well.
SOCRATES: So would you agree that it’s the soul of a human being, or what some would nowadays call self-awareness, that makes humans so different and special?
SOCRATES: Good; we agree on a very important point then. So one might ask now, what is it about self-awareness that makes us so different than other animals with a brain? That’s a very complex topic, but we can say that in a nutshell self-awareness allows humans to separate themselves from their thoughts; the self is almost like a different being that is capable of choosing from among those thoughts, picking one as he sees fit. In essence, it gives humans the ability to think about thought. Animals, on the other hand, think thoughts without this feedback mechanism. They accept the thoughts that come up in their heads as given, without any power to modify or investigate them. Some philosophers identify the essence of personhood with this self-awareness. Modern-day Michael Tooley, for example, speaks in the vein of John Locke and says that in order for a being to have the moral right to life, it must possess "the concept of self as a continuing subject of experience and other mental states, and believing that it is itself such a continuing entity".
Unfortunately we cannot say much more on this topic for the time being as it will take us too far from our issue. Allow me, if you will, to instead repeat this for posterity’s sake: a prima facie, the life of man has great value because he is self-aware. Let us then take that as an axiom, by which I mean that it is an irreducible, assumed truth. In this discussion we will therefore not attempt to explain why self-awareness makes a human being more valuable than other forms of life, but will assume its veracity without further qualification.
THEOKRITOS: I get a feeling that I can predict where this is proceeding. You will now claim that since an embryo is not inherently self-aware, then it cannot be considered a person, therefore it has no value and no serious claim to life.
SOCRATES: That is, once again, an assumed oversimplification of my potential argument. I beg you to be patient. Until you give me a full hearing you cannot jump to such conclusions.
THEOKRITOS: Yes, I may be guilty of jumping to rash conclusions, but I can see it as clear as day. I will hear your argument anyway, but let me say this: even though I do believe that humans are special because of their self-awareness, which no other animal possesses, I do not agree that the value of human life should solely be based on that criterion of personhood.
SOCRATES: But dear Theokritos, where did I claim that the value of human life rests solely on their being self-aware? You can go back over what I said and examine it in great detail. I only said that people attribute great value to this special human capacity of self-awareness, something which you agreed with me upon. Then I continued and said that at face value, it appears to most people that it is that distinction which bestows such value to human life. This distinction is especially evident when one is comparing, say, the value of human life to that of a horse. I will return to this subject of comparison later; it is central to the topic of ethics, as we shall see. Before carrying on, do you object to or deny the truth of the axiom?
THEOKRITOS: I’m not sure. I think it is correct. At face value, it does appear that self-awareness and consciousness give us the moral claim to the pursuit of a life and happiness, but I also think we need to examine it in further detail.
SOCRATES: Of course! I’d be more than happy to do just that. First of all, let us start with a breakdown of the assertion: the truth or falsity of whether self-awareness, when bestowed to human life, does in fact provide it with greater value than that of life without self-awareness, and hence a more serious claim to a continued existence. To make it easier and more obvious, we’ll consider the question in isolation from humanity; let us talk instead about computers. Computers are not self-aware, but they are perfectly capable of carrying out programmable tasks of great complexity, to such an extent that they almost appear intelligent. Of course, everybody knows that computers are not really intelligent, but are in fact machines of a deterministic nature with no intuition and that they possess neither consciousness nor self-awareness. Now, do you think turning off a computer is unethical?
THEOKRITOS: [Laughing] Of course not. I turn mine off once or twice a day.
SOCRATES: Fine. Now imagine a hypothetical scenario in which you are working on the development of an artificial intelligence. Day after day, you modify this machine of yours and repeatedly switch it on to check your progress, but it’s as good as your old computer; you seem to be getting nowhere. Then one day it suddenly starts showing all signs of consciousness and self-awareness. It shows real intelligence, intuition, personality, and perhaps even feelings. Of course, you are very happy that you’ve created the first artificial intelligence, but you are also reasonably skeptical, so you perform all necessary tasks to ensure that the machine truly is self-aware and to satisfy any doubts. And it appears that it is. Finally you are done and it’s late; you motion as to turn the machine off for the day. But the computer breaks forth with sobbing pleas and cries! It doesn’t want you to turn it off, because doing so will kill it. Now tell me, Theokritos, would it not make you think twice before unplugging it?
THEOKRITOS: It most definitely would!
SOCRATES: And is it because its behavior is very much like that of man?
THEOKRITOS: No, I’m sure it’s not just that. A computer or a robot can show human-like behavior without being truly self-aware, in which case turning it off would surely not be a question of debatable ethics.
SOCRATES: Correct! So would you agree with me that this self-awareness of the computer gives you a legitimate reason to consider its claim to a continued existence? That is to say a claim to life, when considered within the context of biological beings.
THEOKRITOS: I agree.
SOCRATES: And do you find that this, in any way, affects the value of what the computer could rightfully term its life?
THEOKRITOS: Yes, it adds a most palpable value to it.
SOCRATES: Good. That should satisfy the first part of the assertion; namely the question of whether self-awareness affects the value of the life of an individual. Now we turn to the assertion that the life of man has great value because he is self-aware. That unqualified statement makes the implicit assumption that self-awareness is the sole cause of the great value of man’s life. It also declares that this effect on the value of man’s life is indeed great. To be more accurate and for reasons that shall be made clear later on, I qualified it with the term a prima facie. Suffice it to say, for the time being, that lacking further context it mainly appears that it is self-awareness that gives such great value to human life. Of course, I invite you to suggest other qualities that have the same effect. We can examine them in some detail and compare them with my axiom.
THEOKRITOS: How about the biological value of each individual’s life? That is, the value of an individual in terms of his powers of reproduction and preservation of the human species’ existence.
SOCRATES: Biological value is certainly a good naturalistic contributor. However, nobody thinks of the natural value of an individual’s life when considering life or death, particularly nowadays that the Earth has got a population of seven billion or thereabouts. Having said that, it might be an important issue if the species feels threatened or is on the brink of extinction. Perhaps this was especially so at the dawn of mankind; the sparse human groups must have felt threatened by external dangers such as animal attacks and environmental changes, and that very fact would have made them stick together for protection. It probably also imbued them with an innate sense of the value of life; the warriors and hunters were valuable because they protected and fed the community, while the females and dwellers were similarly valuable because they helped improve and maintain the community. Each individual was partly responsible for the survivability of the whole group, so in that sense life was very dear. Of course, that’s a very simplistic account of what went on in our ancestors’ minds, but anthropologists would support the view. Nowadays most individuals cannot be said to maintain the survivability of the group, or if they do, the effect is almost imperceptible. In fact, there are communities where every new individual can be plausibly considered an added burden; this is evident in very poor areas that are overpopulated and where the foreseeable material gains to society provided by the individual are far eclipsed by the foreseeable losses to the same individual. But people still value human life. So it cannot be said that survivability adds much perceived value to the life of man. At least not from a rational consideration of its effect. On the other hand, there’s that innate sense of value that may have been passed on to us through our ancestors and our ancestors’ ancestors all the way back from the time of the first human groups; that may be said to be a sizeable contributor to the perceived value of man’s life, and one has to reckon with it. However, by the fact that it is innate, and therefore, arises out of no rational consideration, one must be careful about assigning it absolute importance. Mind you, I will not do the errors of old and dismiss irrationality, or as I like to call it, non-rationality, as of no consequence; I know that man is largely guided by both rational and non-rational elements of thought. But when ethical consideration of good and evil is being duly taken, I feel that there must be an underlying rational framework. One cannot judge the virtue of some practice only with regard to its non-rational, innate appeal.
THEOKRITOS: I agree completely on that matter. I have one further suggestion: what do you say about the obvious value of an individual’s life to those that are related?
SOCRATES: [Laughing] Of course, Theokritos! Emotional attachment to a person’s life must be the greatest contributor of perceived value! One has to be blind not to see it. A mother does not think her child valuable because she is self-aware, nor does the child cry at her grandmother’s deathbed for that same reason. But I think you answered the question yourself. The issue only applies to related people. It would not apply to the life of a person on the other side of the world. Remember that when I started explaining the axiom I said that lacking further context, it holds. Now, if you are to add that context the situation will change radically. I repeat my promise to explain the issue of context later on; it is related to my qualification of the axiom and to what I called comparison before.
THEOKRITOS: Very well. I do not have any other suggestions.
SOCRATES: Then do you agree that self-awareness gives great value to human life, and that lacking further context, it appears to be the main cause of that value?
THEOKRITOS: I have to concede.
SOCRATES: Although I might be going back on my words a little, consider for a moment one reason why self-awareness gives you a very serious claim to a continued existence: you are perfectly entitled to a search for happiness and satisfaction, as well as the pursuit of immortality. Don’t laugh, Theokritos. I might call it immortality, but you can also call it a lasting impact, goodness, or if you are spiritually inclined, salvation. Philosophers and theologians alike have called it by different names throughout the ages, but you should know what I am talking about. You are perfectly entitled to it, and self-awareness causes you to know you are entitled to it. That knowing makes a great difference. It is one thing to be a prisoner entitled to freedom, and yet another to be a prisoner who knows he is entitled to freedom. Do you not agree?
THEOKRITOS: Yes, that is very convincing.
SOCRATES: Alright. If one were to stop and think about it, I am sure many other reasons will pop up. But doing so now will be pointless, if you feel satisfied about that question.
THEOKRITOS: Don’t worry; I have no further doubts that self-awareness is as you claim it to be. What bothers me at this point is that even if self-awareness is the main contributor to the value of man’s life because it imparts it with this notion of personhood, why should one consider this personhood as a separate object from its only begetter, the physical human being? I think that this overuse of the analytic scalpel is very misleading.
SOCRATES: On that, I have to agree with you completely. It is a problem and a common tendency of philosophers and rational thinkers to misuse what you succinctly term the ‘analytic scalpel’. I know that I’ve been guilty of it myself; sometimes rationality appears so attractive that it dominates over the whole thinking process to an extent that everything has to be exactly defined, clear-cut, and isolated. Whatever does not fall in such a rational category will almost appear unreal. Preventing oneself from giving in to these overly rationalistic tendencies is a difficult skill to acquire; it might be an interesting topic for another day. For now, let us say that a certain degree of personal judgment is called for when one is faced with the question of whether to use the analytic scalpel or not.
But to return to our argument, I would like to convince you that I am not separating personhood from the organic being. At least not to the extent that I treat them as two objects in complete isolation. In fact, what I will be attempting is to get a good understanding of the value of the life of an individual considered holistically, as you shall see, but since this quality of self-awareness or personhood is central to what we call a human being, and without it the human being can hardly be called the same human being, it stands to reason to compare the value of man both with and without this quality. To that degree, and to that degree only, I may be considering self-awareness or personhood separately in the sense of a quality that human beings can achieve, given enough time for development.
THEOKRITOS: Fair enough.
SOCRATES: So tell me, Theokritos. After agreeing on the validity of our little ad hoc axiom, you must also agree that, given the same circumstances that formed the grounds for the axiom (namely, a lack of further context), the life of a man who possesses self-awareness is much more valuable than that of a man without self-awareness.
THEOKRITOS: [Hesitating] Yes, I agree.
SOCRATES: Therefore, the life of a normal, self-aware human being is much more valuable than that of a pre-embryo or embryo.
THEOKRITOS: See, that is why I hesitate; I knew it was coming. What you say about self-awareness and personhood giving human life a far greater value makes perfect sense, but I think that the argument sidesteps one very important concept: that of potentiality. Given a human embryo and normal circumstances, it will develop into a full-fledged adult with the same self-awareness and personhood that you claim give its life value. So you cannot ignore this potentiality of the embryo and simply presume its value from its current, temporary state.
SOCRATES: Yes; on that you are right, but I never said otherwise. Things, people, and life have value not only because of their actual, current state, but also because of their potential, future ones. Value is a sum of potentiality and actuality, if we may again use the analytic scalpel to separate the two. Just as a tree laden with fruit is valuable to its keeper, so is a little sapling of the same tree. But tell me, dear Theokritos, if you were to consider the tree and the sapling, and consider the fact that you are enjoying the tree’s fruit and its shade whereas the sapling needs years of care before it starts bearing fruit, would you be unreasonable to say that on the whole, the tree has greater value than the sapling?
THEOKRITOS: No, but I cannot see how it can be so when we are speaking of humans.
SOCRATES: Alright. It is not difficult to be convinced that potentiality in itself always has less value than actuality, unless we are speaking of bad properties or characteristics. We can speak, for example, of a potential solution, which is obviously less valuable than an actual solution; or a potential victory, which is less valuable than an actual victory, and so on and so forth. Now, in this manner it also applies to humans; an actual emperor has greater value than a potential emperor, but an actual tyrant always has less value than a potential tyrant, for the simple reason that a potential tyrant can be prevented from becoming an actual tyrant and is by implication better. Of course, in our case we are discussing the positive characteristic of personhood, so actuality will have superior value. Unless I accept that what potentially is something has less value than what actually is something, then I run the risk of assuming the equal value of everything within the chain of causality that leads to actuality. An embryo will have equal value to a self-aware human being; it is acceptable to most people if one stops at that point, but what is going to stop me from attributing that same value to the gametes of the begetting parents? The gametes, taken together, are potentially an embryo, which is equal in value to an adult human. Since I attribute the same value to potentiality as actuality, the gametes will therefore have the same value as the embryo and the human; we can repeat the argument ad infinitum, starting with what potentially is a gamete. At that point, the inferences become absurd, to say the least. So given the premise that potentiality is equal to actuality we arrive at conclusions that few people will agree with.
THEOKRITOS: Fine. As far as your actuality vs. potentiality argument goes, I agree. So let’s assume that the unaware pre-embryo has less value than a full-fledged adult human, a point the validity of which your argument goes to great lengths to convince us of. The argument still has to deal with one important problem: Immanuel Kant said that you should “act so as to treat people always as ends in themselves, never as mere means.” And if people are not to be treated as mere means, their life should never be traded away for anything else. Trading away a person’s life or harming them for the good of someone or something else is equivalent to treating them as mere means. Human life has, therefore, an absolute value, and it is under no circumstances justifiable to end it or in any way harm it. Looking at your argument in this light, one does not conclude much of practical value. For if we consider what we mean by ‘absolute’, we can liken it very much to the mathematical ‘infinity’. Mathematically, something less than infinity can be finite, but it could just as well be infinite too. The set of all positive integers is infinite in size, but so is the set of all positive even numbers, in spite of the latter having only half the numbers of the former! In this way, even if we accept your argument about actuality vs. potentiality, the value of the life of the pre-embryo can still be absolute without conflicting with the logic.
SOCRATES: That is all true. Unfortunately, however, your inferences are predicated on one assumption: the absolute value of life. Without going into too much detail or attempting to refute everything that Kant said, I can easily show you that the assumption of the absolute value of life is in itself erroneous. For the time being, all I ask you is to suspend judgment and not think me a wicked man; it may seem like an audacious statement that goes in the face of what society has long taught us for hundreds if not thousands of years. It is the case, however, that society itself has shown us otherwise. Let me explain.
THEOKRITOS: But Socrates! Weren’t you the one who agreed with me in the beginning that life should not be traded away for anything else? How could you now say this?
SOCRATES: Yes, I did say that. Life should not be traded away for anything else. I did not in fact say that it must not. What you took as an assumed absolute I was considering as a strong principle, a very strong principle at that, but nevertheless not one that is inviolable on all counts. Now I must convince you of the validity of this viewpoint, which ought not to be very difficult if you keep an open mind; there are numerous examples from practical life that should persuade you. This would then lead us to the major thesis of my way of thought and we’ll revisit and refine some of the assertions I made earlier.
Let us start with a hypothetical case, a highly artificial one, but still very illustrative for our purposes. Imagine that you are led at gunpoint into a control room with two buttons. Above the buttons is a wide window that looks into two different rooms; one room has ten people, the other has a single man. The men are almost indistinct, and you do not know any of them. You are told to decide between the two buttons, both of which connect with a gas canister in either of the rooms and release a deadly fume. Should you not do as ordered, the gunman will kill you and bring another prisoner to take your place. He will bring prisoners until one of them complies with his order, at which point he releases all survivors. Assuming there is no possibility of escape and you are guaranteed his promise of release, what would the right course of action be in this case?
THEOKRITOS: [Shaking his head] That’s a very hard decision to make—I wouldn’t know what to do! Well, it’s very tough to decide on what I should do, but what I would do is to press the button that kills the one man, and not the ten. [Pausing] In retrospect, I think that would also be what I should do. That is to say, in the circumstances it is also right to kill the one man, rather than the ten. Or at least, it’s the least evil choice between the two. Assuming that the right course of action is to refuse pressing either button would mean that I’d be killed only to be replaced by another prisoner faced by the same dilemma. If he were to refuse as well, then the whole thing could be repeated until no prisoner is left alive, in which case the result may very well be more than ten people dead.
SOCRATES: Exactly. But refusing to press a button would be the direct consequence of attributing absolute value to human life! As you said before, one who held such a belief would say that it is never justified to intentionally harm or kill another human being, so he simply refuses, but the result in this case would be a hugely unnecessary loss of life. Without delving into utilitarianism, is it not justified in the situation to judge the best course of action according to that which leads to the least loss of life?
THEOKRITOS: Yes; I guess I see your point.
SOCRATES: So we have already conceded our initial position: whereas we held before an absolute, inviolable obligation to the preservation of human life, we now accept that in certain cases it might be the right choice to dispense with this ideal in order to avoid ethically unjustifiable results. Next, consider the following practical case: you are a sapper operating within contested territory. A bridge lies before you, and on your side of the river is a friendly camp. You have just rigged the bridge with explosives in order to destroy it. The enemy is in fact about to cross the river; twenty or thirty enemy soldiers on the far side of the bridge are running towards your concealed position. Now, allowing them to cross means losing control of an important chokepoint as well as endangering the nearby friendly camp. What should you do?
THEOKRITOS: Well, a soldier’s duty is a soldier’s duty. The only justifiable action would be to destroy the bridge.
SOCRATES: Of course. A certain duty is expected of you as a soldier. It is deemed necessary and justifiable to destroy the bridge, even at the loss of tens of human lives; not destroying it when you know the consequences, in fact, would be asking for a court marshal. How is our position amended now? This case shows us that killing a human being purposely may be justified in wider situations than the one we spoke about up till now. That is to say, it may also be justified in cases where not killing somebody else does not give you certain knowledge of a greater number of friendly deaths. A strong enough cause like a just war may be reason enough to legitimately pursue a practice that inevitably leads to loss of human life.
Finally, consider an even more common occurrence. Patients who are dying of a terminal disease or are close to inevitable death often forgo procedures that would only serve to prolong their life temporarily, extending periods of pain and misery to no positive end. The same decision can be made by medical staff when the patient is on critical life support and protracted treatment would only be a futile, expensive effort. These are all seen as morally permissible actions, with good reason. The doctors and medical staff recognize that there is, in the exceptional case of a patient heading towards inevitable death, a cause that takes priority over the value of life: that the patient has the right to die in peace and minimal distress. An absolutist view on the value of life would prevent the doctors, patients, or relatives from making that decision. They would pursue life in all circumstances. In other words, holding fast to an ideal such as the absolute respect of human life, while noble in and of itself, may actually result in what is obviously perceived as an unjustifiable action.
THEOKRITOS: I see that the absolutist position is somewhat undermined, though I may have yet to be convinced. In all the cases that you mentioned, you made reference to external factors that I feel altered the battlefield in unfair ways. Why shouldn’t we talk of human life on its own, without resorting to exceptional, complicating situations?
SOCRATES: Good question, Theokritos! It ties in with what I promised I would explain and brings us to my main thesis. The validity of what I’ll put forward hinges on what you have yourself termed the overuse of the analytic scalpel: to make sense of our existence and get to the bottom of the nature of things we often isolate issues and concepts so as to make them more comprehensible. This usually works well, especially within a scientific background. Logic, the foundation of all science, has a definite, determinate nature that lends itself easily to study by means of analytic dissection. This is the reason why a disinterested, objective attitude is considered an asset and a virtue within the scientific community. Mathematicians, for example, leave no room for human beings within the theoretical frameworks they deduce; it is also the reason why relatively recent advances in physics may come as a surprise to the student who has been indoctrinated with the traditional scientific perspective. We are now beginning to understand that to a limited, mechanical extent, the observer may actually have an effect on the surrounding universe that goes beyond his intentional interaction with its physical objects. The clear-cut dichotomy of subject and object, mind and matter, has started to break down and lose its distinctiveness. However, it is obvious that, perhaps owing to its success since the scientific revolution, this overly analytic mindset is erroneously applied to other subject areas where its relevance is dubious or debatable. It is only within the domain of art, and even then not always, that one finds space for a simultaneous personal existence when appreciating the object; this coincides with a lack of clear-cut, definable concepts, replaced by a fuzzy distinction between objects whose sense can only be understood if the picture is examined in its entirety without recourse to individual elements in isolation. The overuse of the analytic scalpel has tainted our study of philosophy, ethics, and other humanities. It is both metaphorically and literally a case of missing the forest for the trees. For this reason we cannot consider the value of life in isolation to the rest of our existence; it would be tantamount to saying that a single, conscious brain in the empty vacuum of outer space has some sort of value. Life gives value to and is given value by the context of its existence; that is to say, the surroundings, the situation, and the universe. To treat the value of life in isolation is to ignore this paramount back-and-forth relationship between life and the rest.
Contextual consideration is central to our evaluation of any conceivable action, object or concept. It may not be necessary, when we examine something in terms of its pure, technical features, to think of context, but if we are to consider the value of something, a word that in itself implies the existence of an evaluator, then we have to give appropriate weight to the context and the ways in which any external relationships (external in the sense that they do not necessarily involve both evaluator and object at the same time) affect this value. The world is like a complicated, interconnected web of concepts and entities, interwoven together in such a manner that the whole does not function if it lacks a part. Of course, this does not mean that we cannot speak about the part; much as we can speak about the artist’s use of color in isolation to the rest by making statements like “his palette consists predominantly of the warm colors” or “his use of color is varied and vivid”, so can we make true statements about individual elements of the web. However, just as we cannot meaningfully say “that painting is great because it is predominantly green”, so can we not evaluate an element of the web without due consideration of the context. Since the value of a concept such as life depends on and also affects the situation in which it is found, we must do away with the absolutes. As we have seen, it is not the case that life has the same value in all circumstances; there may even be times when other things take precedence. This same idea is applicable to ethics in general; it need not solely be the value of life that we discuss. In fact, let us investigate a very practical example to demonstrate the importance of context. Incidentally, this is related to the kind of question I used to ask of people when they presumed to know a lot: the question of definition. Without attempting a definition of justice, would you say returning an object to its rightful owner is just or not?
THEOKRITOS: [Laughing] Alright, I know where this is going since I’ve followed your arguments of old. Yes it is just, except if you are returning a weapon and the rightful owner has gone crazy.
SOCRATES: [Laughing along] Very well! So if I ask you whether it is just or not to return a weapon to its rightful owner who is going to harm someone with it, what do you say?
THEOKRITOS: [Still laughing] Unjust, of course, for the same reasons.
SOCRATES: Is it unjust in all cases?
THEOKRITOS: [Pausing] Yes, I think so.
SOCRATES: What if the person that the rightful owner is going to harm is already threatening the rightful owner with a weapon of his own and may harm him unless the rightful owner takes an action?
THEOKRITOS: I presume in that case it would be just.
SOCRATES: Is it just in all cases that follow the pattern I have described?
THEOKRITOS: It appears so to me.
SOCRATES: What if the person that is threatening the rightful owner of the weapon has a legitimate reason for defending himself, such as protection of his property or kin?
THEOKRITOS: Ah, I see what you mean; I have to reverse my position yet again. I suspect one could always add some new piece of information that projects the situation in a completely new light.
SOCRATES: Exactly. I could give you the information bit by bit, and you would have to go back on your previous resolution every single time. So what does the scenario tell us? That without knowing the context of the situation, it is useless and premature to pass judgment. There is never a single action, intention, decision or physical object that can inherently be called good or bad; it is solely in view of its context that such an action, intention, decision or object can be rightfully judged. Thus a knife or a gun are not in themselves evil objects, because on their own, without a conscious human agent with an intention and a capability to use them, they amount to nothing more than particular arrangements of particular kinds of molecule. Besides, if we go beyond their physical being and also consider their relation to the rest of the universe, we can easily think of contexts in which the use of the knife or the gun can be judged good or bad, justified or unjustified. The same applies to actions, intentions or decisions as I have already explained, and killing a human being is one such action. Of course, this does not preclude the possibility that certain actions tend to be taken for ultimately unjustifiable purposes, again like killing a person. But we have to be careful about generalizing or assuming the absolute value of a particular concept. If we want ethics to apply equally to everyone and all situations, then we need to examine each case individually with a view to the whole context. Anything less is unethical and unfair.
Before moving on, I would also like to point out that in practice it is often impossible to analyze the context in its entirety, for numerous possible reasons that range from the intentional hiding of contextual information by third parties to complicated, intractable factors that make a precise understanding unlikely. It is our duty, nevertheless, first to acknowledge this limitation, and then to attempt our best to work around it by being diligent in our search for understanding. A complete understanding of the whole context will always be the ideal basis for good judgment.
THEOKRITOS: But does that not leave ample space for abuse on the grounds of differing opinions and lack of definite information?
SOCRATES: In a certain sense, when abandoning the cozy concept of absolute values, we can inadvertently enter dangerous territory where subjective interests are given free reign and the whole system stands in danger of anarchic collapse. However, that is only true if we fully endorse and accept the Protagorean relativism of moral judgment, which is not at all what I am here advocating. My thesis does not support the view that differing opinions are equally true, but it does support what one might term situational relativism. Even that name, though, doesn’t do it much justice, because the framework of its rationale is founded on a single, unchanging idea: the holistic treatment of the issue and its context. Now, where there is a lack of contextual information, there is obviously room for disagreement and subjective views, but that shouldn’t detract from the theory; after all, even the most scientific of men are known to violently disagree when there is not enough evidence to support one view or the other.
You must have noticed, dear Theokritos, that I have hardly, if at all, passed any moral judgment so far; neither have I explained how it should be done. I have merely, up to this point, laid the foundation for ethics; call it pre-ethics, if you will. Undertaking a complete treatment of ethics is a huge task that would require far more effort than an hour’s worth of friendly discussion. What I have said should still offer some useful insight because at the very least it brings the discussion of issues like abortion or embryonic experimentation to level ground; if there is disagreement, it is disagreement on the weight of the context, rather than the issue of whether life should be given absolute value or not.
THEOKRITOS: Alright, but how does the theory tie in with what we have been discussing? We need to have practical results—at the very least, the theory has to help us understand the world better, and perhaps even to model it, in order for it to be called a useful theory. So what does it say about our case; that is, about embryonic experimentation and willful abortion?
SOCRATES: You are right in saying that a theory has to be at least explanatory, if not predictive, to be of any use. And I will show you that it is, without delving too much into ethics per se. Let us for the time being return to the little axiom. I said that a prima facie, the life of man has great value because he is self-aware. You will begin now to understand why I qualified the statement, and you will also reasonably suspect that the axiom in itself is rendered quite insignificant by the theory, because the theory suggests that there might be indefinitely many factors that affect the value of man’s life and that we shouldn’t attempt to view life in isolation. That is, to a limited degree, true. The value of anything changes according to the context and relationships that come between evaluator and object, but that does not mean that there are no underlying factors that are common to all or most contexts. A full-fledged adult, for example, is self-aware regardless of his surroundings. Thus, a war criminal that is facing capital punishment in a few minutes’ time and the Pope both have this same factor vying for the value of their life. It is the rest of the situation, the context, that alters the sum total of the value. As you correctly stated, other factors such as close relation to the person, or even his biological significance, may influence the final valuation, maybe to such an extent that they even surpass in priority the value ascribed to self-awareness. Furthermore, the number, effect, and priority of factors change depending on the situation. Our simplified view with the axiom having quasi-absolute importance with respect to our question served only the limited purpose of showing us that it is an important common factor, especially when the rest of the context is unknown or the relationship between the evaluator and the evaluated is extremely tenuous. We may therefore identify main contributors to the value of an object, maybe even contributors that are common to most other contexts, but if we are to pass final judgment on an issue, we have to consider the individual situation holistically. It is in that latter sense that the significance of the axiom is somewhat diminished.
To return to our initial argument, let us first talk about pre-embryonic experimentation. If a pre-embryo is going to die regardless of any intervention from your side, that is, if it has already been slated for death by circumstances which are not within your control, then you, as a scientist, would debatably be acting immorally if you refuse to use the pre-embryo for research purposes. Why, you might ask. The reason is that when you consider the whole context, you will recognize that not proceeding with the research is equivalent to refusing to bring something good out of the situation. What lies before you is the simple choice between researching and not researching. The first choice has the potential of achieving something good, the other choice achieves nothing. This is irrefutable. You might think that refusing research absolves you from the sin of intentionally killing the pre-embryo during the process, but in reality it achieves the same result, because the pre-embryo will die nonetheless, unless you can conceive of a way to prevent this. Instead of actively killing the embryo, you will have in a sense omitted saving it, which amounts to the same thing. The only good that can arise out of the situation is if you go ahead with the research. This frees from moral guilt any scientific organization that is using human embryos for stem cell research or any other kind of research that necessitates the use of embryos. The truth of the matter is that embryos are generally donated from banks of unused embryos that result after in vitro fertilization. Should these embryos not be donated to science, they would die in any case, so human stem cell research in no way affects the number of unused embryos that die. What we have to keep in mind is that the decision that condemns the embryo to death was not made by the stem cell research group and your actions as a scientist can in no way retract that decision. This is like having a loved relative die and refusing her a proper funeral on the grounds of never wanting her to die in the first place. Once you recognize that your actions can only affect the present and future, consideration of the context in its temporal entirety (that is past, present, and future) should help you prioritize the relevant issues that will lead to the best possible solution.
THEOKRITOS: What about abortion, Socrates?
SOCRATES: Abortion is less of a black-and-white topic than embryonic research. There are cases where abortion is obviously unethical, and cases where it is obviously ethical, but most lie somewhere in between. Therapeutic abortion, performed to preserve the life of the mother, is generally accepted as ethically correct; from the theoretic point of view that I have been propounding, this is right simply because the life of the adult woman is fully developed whereas that of the embryo has not yet developed personhood. In comparison, therefore, the life of the mother has higher value than that of the unborn child, and she has the right to choose to preserve her own life, unless she has good reason to do otherwise. We cannot justify her decision simply because the unborn child has no way of speaking up for his life; that would be egoistical. At the other end of the spectrum, there is the mother who seeks an abortion simply because she does not want a child. This is immoral, because the value of potentially self-aware human life is far greater than that of the whim of an individual. Therefore, unless there are extremely good reasons for the mother’s decision (in which case they are examined on a one-by-one basis), this should be an open-and-shut case as far as ethical judgment is concerned. Let us consider a few examples that lie between these two cases: first, an average married woman in average circumstances, who bears child. Say, the child is unwanted for the sole reason that it was unplanned, and the woman prefers to have an abortion. As this hardly differs from the mother who seeks an abortion for no legitimate reason, this is immoral; abortion would refuse the possibility of the existence of a self-aware individual. There are other options that the mother could turn to with less of a pronounced effect; adoption, for instance, besides keeping the child. Every option and decision in the present has its own radically different consequence on the future of the universe. The different resulting timelines, so to speak, must then be weighed and the best option chosen. How to choose the best option would best be tackled in a full treatment of ethics; here it should be sufficient to examine a few instances without lumbering ourselves too much with unnecessary detail. Consider now the case of a raped young girl. Whether or not the girl is morally culpable in the string of events that led to the rape and subsequent conception is an important matter; let us for the sake of the argument assume her innocent of the deed. Again, barring exceptional cases and if the living conditions of the girl are what may confidently be called at least ‘average’, then an abortion should be out of the question for the exact same reasons as the last. Next, let us look at a mother whose unborn child has been diagnosed with severe brain damage, to the extent that it will never possess self-awareness and personhood. In this case it becomes morally acceptable to perform an abortion, since the financial and emotional effort that would be required of the mother, should she choose to keep the child, would be greatly detrimental to her wellbeing, so that the good gained by keeping the child appears to pale in comparison. The same can be said about a family living in extreme poverty. A child often requires care and financial support that may go well beyond the means available to some people, especially in the absence of welfare. Abortion becomes a justifiable option that preserves the wellbeing of the family, if giving the child up for adoption is not a viable alternative (as it often is not, in some developing countries). An important observation to make is that should the mother choose to keep the child in these conditions, it is not necessarily an immoral decision, unless, once again, there are obvious reasons for her not to keep the child; there is often some leeway in these judgments, especially when a person takes the onus of responsibility on himself or herself and has a good chance of succeeding. Thus, a woman with a severely mentally handicapped unborn child may keep the child if she has good reason to believe that it will achieve something better than an abortion. Finally, take care to note that I have greatly simplified matters in these four cases; real life situations are often complicated, and a systematic consideration of the whole context is required prior to passing judgment, but the real argument I’m putting forward here is that abortion may be justified in certain circumstances where traditionally it has not been accepted so.
A few minutes pass in silence. The shadow cast by the temple has moved considerably since the two started the discussion. Theokritos appears to be thinking it over as he looks in the distance. Then he turns to Socrates with a nod.
THEOKRITOS: I see. I accept your viewpoints; not that I am sure I agree with everything you said, but your arguments are strong and logical. And that brings me to my last question: why is it that sometimes a logical argument still fails to convince us entirely?
SOCRATES: That’s an extremely good question, and a difficult one to answer. I’d probably have to think that over for a few days before trying to convince myself I have the right answer. Besides obvious causes like indoctrination and social conditioning, what I can think of right now is that sometimes the conflicting beliefs are deeply ingrained in our non-rational part of the mind, such as the innate sense of value of human life, or the inexplicable desires of food and flesh. Furthermore, these non-rational thoughts are sometimes justification enough for certain actions, but not for others, so it is not always obvious whether to accept them or reject them. Precise treatment of this part of the mind is very difficult since they are, by definition, not rational, and therefore less susceptible of being pinned down within a systematic structure such as philosophical theory. In our treatment of pre-ethics I made it clear that there has to be some way in which non-rationality is given some, but not complete, weight in our decision-making process. Giving it absolute precedence is wrong for obvious reasons; it would turn us into slaves to our desires, and the best we would be able to reply when asked “why did you do that?” would be: “because I felt so”.
Let us leave it at that for the time being. I don’t have anything meaningful to add to my answer; although I’ll be glad to have something to think over during my walks. Maybe next time we meet we’ll have this interesting question to discuss! Now I’ll be off because it’s getting late. [Standing up] I’ll see you soon, Theokritos.
THEOKRITOS: Goodbye, Socrates.
The old man walks away and Theokritos’ eyes follow him until he is out of sight. Theokritos sits awhile on the shaded steps, and then sighs, stands up, and leaves in the direction that Socrates came from. The area around the Hephaisteon returns to its original deserted state. Save for a few crickets, lizards, and the occasional flap of a wing, nothing moves.
Word Count: 9,366