On what basis do we ordinarily care for and respect the lives of other people? We ordinarily follow an ethics of humanity. We treat others just as fellow human beings – as members of the same species as ourselves, living a human life as we do. It is this fellow humanity that distinguishes us from animals, and that dictates how we should behave towards each other – especially that we should not deliberately aim at the deaths of innocent fellow humans.
Notice that there is nothing specifically religious in this view. What matters is simply a shared biological identity – a shared humanity.
Humans who are healthy and who grow to adulthood develop abilities and skills that are beyond other species. But these abilities are very various – as various as the many different ways in which humans live and realize themselves. And till now differences in people’s abilities have never affected the fundamental right of each human to respect for their humanity and for their human life. This human dignity is not one that humans are free to give up, or sell, or give away – any more than they have the right to give up their liberty and freely enslave themselves. Each person is bound to respect their own humanity as much as they are bound to respect the humanity of others.
This ethics of humanity is now under deep threat. Most important here is the work of Peter Singer, a moral philosopher now at Princeton. For Singer, the ethics of humanity is objectionable because it amounts to what he calls ‘speciesism’. It is ‘speciesist’ because it bases ethics on something that is, in Singer’s view, of no direct moral significance at all – namely what species a living being is a member of. Instead the moral status of a being must depend on whether it has the status of a ‘person’, where ‘personhood’ is understood by Singer simply in terms of certain actual psychological characteristics – characteristics that Peter Singer has selected and decided on.
What in our very complex human psychology is to determine ‘personhood’? In Singer’s view what matters is the ability to experience pains and pleasures, self-consciousness and what he calls capacities for ‘reason’ and for ‘autonomy’, where autonomy involves some sort of capacity to choose.
So new-born human infants are not yet persons, because not yet actually rational or autonomous, any more than are new born animals. Singer infers that “simply killing an infant is never equivalent to killing a person.” That a child is a fellow human is supposed to be of no ethical significance in itself. The same would hold of adult humans who are mentally defective. They may not count as persons, and may have a moral status no different from that of certain animals.
So, instead of appealing to the immediately recognizable feature of our shared humanity, our moral status will now be explained in terms of a vague bundle of abilities, selected by academic theorists – abilities that can come in degrees, and which humans can possess more or fewer of. The right of a given human to be treated with respect ceases to be clear-cut, and becomes a matter for negotiation and debate.
Again, that someone’s life is a human life no longer puts limits on what can be done to them. The idea of a human life, which can involve happiness or unhappiness, but which must be respected equally in either case, is replaced by the more nebulous idea of ‘quality of life’. So lives of higher quality are more worth carrying on with than are those of lower quality; and some lives, because of their deficient quality, are quite rationally to be ended.
Like Singer’s ‘personhood’, quality of life is clearly something that comes in degrees. And if we are in the business of caring, not about human life, but simply about quality of life, the moral position of those whose quality of life is sufficiently low becomes, again, very debatable.
One protection might be thought to lie in respect for autonomy and choice. Adult humans are viewed by many nowadays as sovereign over their lives – with a right to determine for themselves exactly how those lives will go. And this right is sometimes even seen as absolute. If people wish to end their lives, then they must have the right to end them, and to call on the resources of the state to aid them in fulfilling their choice. On the other hand, if despite the low quality of their life they do not wish it to be ended, this choice must be respected, and their right not to be killed remains inviolable.
But once the ethics of humanity is abandoned, the alleged human right to autonomy may not long offer very much protection. For suppose a human is judged not actually competent to choose. Then their humanity may no longer protect them, since – in Singer’s terms – they may no longer be properly ‘persons’.
Moreover, how long will a right to determine for ourselves what happens to us be respected, given the almost universal academic scepticism about our possession of an actual ability or freedom to determine for ourselves what happens to us? How can there be a clear right to do something if fewer and fewer really believe in a genuine ability to do it? How long will faith in a right to autonomy survive widespread disbelief in the actual psychological reality of any freedom of choice or will?
Voters in western democracies can probably rest assured that their right to autonomy will always remain to some degree respected by the politicians that rule them – politicians who, after all, are anxious for and dependent on election. But the rights of the electorally marginal may not long resist the demands of bureaucracies anxious to secure ‘rational’ outcomes within budget constraints. And that is what is suggested by the work of John Keown of Georgetown University and formerly of Cambridge. His important book Euthanasia, Ethics and Public Policy, (Cambridge University Press 2002)* examines the practice of euthanasia within the Netherlands since its legalization. According to Keown, the evidence suggests that euthanasia is carried out within the Netherlands less on those who ‘freely’ and ‘autonomously’ choose it, and more on those whose quality of life is thought by the medical profession to warrant it.
In its key provisions, the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill exhibits this malign abandonment of an ethics of humanity. Most obviously, by permitting the creation of hybrid human-animal embryos, the Bill ignores the importance of the human-animal species divide and permits a gross assault on human nature. And it now seems that the Bill will also permit the creation of embryos using genetic material taken from humans unable to give consent, just as if those humans were no better than animals. MPs voting on this Bill should do so with a very clear understanding of the thinking that lies behind it, and the terrible directions in which this thought is moving.