Monday, August 16, 2004

Ethical Implications: Abortion and Animal Rights

In past posts I’ve presented my argument that subjective experience is a fundamental, irreducible and ubiquitous part of the natural world. I have also thought about implications of this worldview for ethics. I’m tentative about addressing such a difficult topic, and I am less well-read on the subject. However, let me introduce the idea that this worldview can indeed inform one’s ethical system, and to illustrate I’ll begin by sketching what it implies in the cases of animal rights and abortion.

The key concept I’m introducing is that the intrinsic, qualitative richness of subjective experience is a good. The greater the number of subjective experiences in the world, the better. Further, more complex and intricate experiences are an increasingly higher good, since they represent a concentration and focusing of the essential quality. Harming or killing something which is a subject of experience is wrong, and is generally a greater wrong the greater the robustness and complexity of that experience.

Now, clearly there are caveats and exceptions to any simple statement of an ethical imperative. In particular, the idea of trying to assess the relative value of different experiences is fraught with difficulty. Another issue that springs immediately to mind is that one should also consider the potential for higher-level experience on the part of a given subject in the future (as in an embryo for example). I’m sure readers can offer many more suggestions and criticisms of what I present here: I would appreciate them.

Animal rights:
Some kind of proto-experience exists in the inorganic world, but it is living things which have the most elevated experience we are familiar with. There is something special about the way a cell “leverages” the potential for experience in the world, and an organism leverages it further. The increasing complexity of nervous systems which evolved in the animal kingdom can be thought of as concentrating further the inherent experiential quality of the universe in a single being. The human being is indeed the pinnacle of the animal kingdom in this respect, and by a large order of magnitude.

While humans have the greatest weight in our ethical system, we must also value animals. And our intuition that animals which have more highly evolved brains and nervous system are of greater value is correct.

Now given our evolutionary heritage, it is natural to propose that it is not per se immoral to kill animals for food and shelter. For the vast majority of our history, it was imperative. However, as we develop the means to survive without resort to animal products, our treatment of animals must change. I am not a vegetarian and I have struggled with this issue. At times the idea that we kill animals just for the convenience and culinary pleasure of it seems repugnant. Other times, the fact that I realistically place a much higher value on human experience than on that of animals ameliorates the vigor of my feelings. I do believe we must at a minimum steadily reduce the proportion of animals used; and we should focus greatest attention on the mammals first. Also, I strongly believe animals have feelings which are similar to ours, if less complex, and therefore an emphasis on reducing suffering in the slaughtering process is right.

For my view, what is important is that an embryo has steadily more human-like experience as it develops (there is no one moment where a fully-formed soul suddenly appears). Interestingly, I believe the intuitions of many Americans on abortion track fairly closely the perspective drawn from my emphasis on subjective experience. Most people intuit that abortion is wrong, but believe it is less wrong than murder. While the case is made difficult by the issue of “potential” mentioned above, a greater value should be placed on the human experience over that of the unborn, all else equal. I would note that even people who are vigorously against abortion rights make an exception if the life of the mother is in danger. Also, a large majority of people feel a late-term abortion is more wrong than an early-term abortion – and many would say a “morning-after” abortion may not be wrong at all. The further along the unborn child is in development, the greater its experience. The Supreme Court made a crude gesture in this area with its distinctions among trimesters, but the idea of putting proportionally greater emphasis on reducing late-term abortions is right.

This lateness-of-term dimension has traditionally gotten less attention in the public debate. This is perhaps because advocates of abortion rights worry about the “slippery slope” potential and feel (I think rightly) that they fare better when abortion is an “all or nothing” argument. But while I can’t quantify the relative reduction of harm which comes from reducing the average term of abortions vs. reducing the number, I feel that it has been underappreciated.

On this issue, as on animal rights, I am not an abolitionist. And my perspective shows this is not a black and white issue. But it is an imperative to steadily reduce the number of and, importantly, the lateness of abortions.

This post only just scratches the surface of a couple of moral issues. While I think the perspective given here is helpful, the balancing of competing ethical interests is not made simple. But as I continue to spend more time on “big” questions about reality, I hope to develop further thoughts on the ethical implications.

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