Contemporary Moral Issues
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Contemporary Moral Issues

Diversity and Consensus

Lawrence M. Hinman

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eBook - ePub

Contemporary Moral Issues

Diversity and Consensus

Lawrence M. Hinman

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Contemporary Moral Issues is an anthology that provides a selection of readings on contemporary social issues revolving around three general themes: Matters of Life and Death, Matters of Equality and Diversity, and Expanding the Circle, which includes duties beyond borders, living together with animals, and environmental ethics. The text contains a number of distinctive, high-profile readings and powerful narratives, including Jonathan Foer's "Eating Animals, " Eva Feder Kittay's "On the Ethics of Selective Abortion for Disability, " and Susan M. Wolf's "Confronting Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia: My Father's Death." Each set of readings is accompanied by an extensive introduction, a bibliographical essay, pre-reading questions, and discussion questions.

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The Value of Life
The 9/11 Settlement and the Value of a Life
Kant on Human Life as Priceless
Agency and the Good Will
Kant, Respect, and Not Using Persona as a Mere Means
The Sanctity of Life and Cardinal Bernardin
Innocent Human Life
Deontological and Consequentialist Approaches
Stem Cell Research: Consequentialism vs. Deontology
Consequentialist Considerations about End-of-Life Care
Killing and Letting Die
The Principle of Double Effect
Kant and Consequences
The Problem of “Dirty Hands”
The Destruction of Human Embryos. Abortion. Euthanasia. Capital Punishment. War. All involve killing, sometimes in huge numbers, sometimes on a much smaller scale. When are we justified in killing? When can killing be done in our name? How do we respond when others kill? In the following five chapters, we address these and other questions of life and death. In abortion, cloning, euthanasia, the death penalty, and war, we are faced time after time with decisions in which lives hang in the balance. Before looking at any of these specific issues, it is helpful to look at the general background issue in all these chapters —the question of the value of life—and the tension between deontological and consequentialist moral theories.


In the following remarks, we will examine a range of positions relating to the question of whether we can put a value on human life.


Ken Feinberg knows the value of a human life. In fact, he knows the value of 2,819 lives, the number of people killed in the 9/11 attacks. Feinberg is an attorney who specializes in mediation and dispute resolution, and he was the Special Master of the September 11 th Victim Compensation Fund, a program passed by the United States Congress to compensate the families of victims of the 9/11 attacks in exchange for their agreement not to sue the airlines for damages resulting from the 9/11 attacks. The bill was called the Air Transportation Safety and System Stabilization Act (49 USC 40101), and its explicit purpose was to shelter the airlines and their insurance companies from possible bankruptcy if they were sued by the families of victims. A few families refused to accept compensation and forgo law suits, either believing the proffered settlements were too low or wanting to uncover more details about anti-terrorist screening prior to the attacks. Feinberg worked tirelessly (and pro bono, without pay, it is worth noting) for almost three years with the families of victims, trying to negotiate settlements to everyone’s satisfaction. Faced with a difficult and unenviable task of establishing the value of each individual life lost in the attacks, Feinberg developed some general rules based on the potential earning power of each individual who was killed in the attacks, dispensing over $7 billion to victims’ families, with an average compensation of $1.8 million per family. The families of those who were younger and had greater earning power received higher compensations, and the families of older victims with less future potential earning power received proportionately lower compensation.
What is a human life worth? Is it worth less as we get older? Is the life of a hedge fund manager worth more than that of a janitor? Many of us want to recoil at the very question, unwilling to place a price tag on human beings. Others may say that we do this all the time, and insurance is just one of the many ways in which this happens. Yet others may point to the 9/11 settlements and deny that the Victims’ Compensation Fund puts a value on human life; instead, it places a value on the loss that the families experience, a loss that has a financial dimension as a part of a much larger picture.


Immanuel Kant, one of the most influential moral philosophers of modern times, said in his Groundwork of a Metaphysics of Morals that human life is priceless. It is important to understand precisely what Kant means by this claim and why he believes what he does. Then we will turn to the question of whether Kant’s position can be defended in a way that is independent of accepting his overall philosophical position.
In saying that human life is priceless, Kant is drawing a contrast between things that have a price and that which has dignity. Kant’s universe is divided (from a moral point of view) into two classes of entities. The first of these are things that can properly be bought and sold. A car, a book, a piece of land, an airline ticket—all of these are objects that can be bought and sold. This is what it means to have a price. Some translate Kant’s claim as “to have a market price.” The market price is the amount of money that an object fetches on the open market.
Before turning to a discussion of human beings, Kant notes that some objects have a different kind of price. Consider objects to which we have an emotional attachment. For example, a couple may have exchanged wedding rings when they got married. Prior to the ceremony, they purchased the rings from a jeweler, paying the market price. Imagine them twenty-five years later. The rings still have a market price, equivalent to what they would cost on the open market. Yet in addition to this, they have what Kant calls an affective price, that is, they are objects to which we have an emotional attachment. In contrast to the market price, the affective price is specific to the individuals involved. A jeweler will purchase the rings from them at the market price, but no one except the couple has an affective connection to these rings and thus they have an affective price only to the persons involved. That affective price is, however, one that does not easily translate into market price, even for insurance purposes.
Let me add a distinction to Kant’s discussion that may be helpful. Lawyers and others draw a distinction between things which are fungible and things which are not. An object that is fungible is one that can be replaced by another object of equal value and nothing is lost. A dollar bill is a perfect example of a fungible object: one dollar bill can be replaced by any other dollar bill, and nothing is lost (or gained, for that matter). We live in a world in which there are many fungible objects, things that can be exchanged one for another without any loss. We might have a bunch of cheap ballpoint pens, each identical to the others. They are fungible.
Human beings are not fungible. They cannot be exchanged, one for another. They are not mere objects which have a price. People such as Feinberg may compensate family members for the loss of a loved one, but they are not gaining a replacement. Nothing can replace the deceased person because human beings are not replaceable. This is Kant’s key insight. Human beings are not the kind of thing that can be replaced, exchanged one for the other. They are not fungible. To put a price tag on them is to make a category mistake, to attempt to apply a characteristic that is simply inapplicable.
Consider this analogy in order to understand what we mean by a category mistake. Take a painting such as Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” There are many things we can say about the painting that describe Van Gogh’s use of color, the brush strokes, etc. But we cannot say that the painting is noisy. Why? Certainly not because it is silent; rather, it is because that spectrum of possible predicates—“noisy,” “loud,” “quiet,” “silent,” etc.—does not apply to painting. To try to make them apply, except in a metaphorical sense, is to commit a category mistake. Human beings are “priceless” in the sense that they are outside the spectrum of things to which the language of prices properly applies.
Why, according to Kant, are people priceless? Let me try to answer this question in a language less technical than what Kant uses and more accessible to most of us. (My apologies to Kant scholars everywhere.) Human beings, Kant suggests, are the authors of their own lives in a way that no other kind of being is. Actions originate from us in a way that is not true of any other kind of being on earth. (It should be noted that Kant, in keeping with the views of his day in Prussia, did not have a very sophisticated view of animals, their cognitive abilities or their moral status.) For all other kinds of beings, their output can be reduced to their input. The motion of a billiard ball on a pool table is nothing more than the sum of the impacts it receives from other balls and the cue. Nothing comes from the ball itself that is not already input to the ball from external sources. The billiard ball does not originate motion. It is not a source of action. It is not an agent.
Human beings, on the other hand, are agents. They are the authors of their own actions, the authors of their own lives, in a way that is not true of other kinds of beings. They cannot be reduced to the sum of the forces that act upon them. They are primordial sources of agency in the world. In ways that we cannot explore here, they are outside the chain of cause and effect that governs the rest of the natural world.


It is precisely this sense of agency that is awe-inspiring to Kant, for it is like nothing else in the universe. It arises out of the network of natural cause and effect as a surd, a radical element that is irreducible to the factors that contributed to it. It is uniquely human and almost divine—certainly there is nothing else like it in the natural world. It is closer to God’s creative activity in making the universe than it is to the causally determined motion of billiard balls. It is radically other than the natural world.
This agency is not chaotic or formless in Kant’s eyes. In fact, what Kant respects in human beings is not the mere fact that they are the authors of their own lives, but that they can be a particular kind of author: they are capable of writing the story of their own lives in accord with the moral law. They are uniquely capable of giving the moral law to themselves, of both articulating their moral obligations and imposing them on themselves. Thus human beings are not only authors of their own lives, they are also the authors of their own morality.
It is important at this juncture to avoid a possible misunderstanding when we see a phrase such as “authors of their own morality.” For many, that might imply some kind of moral relativism, suggesting that each of us can write the laws of morality in the ways that suit us best. Nothing could be further from the truth in Kant’s eyes. We all—and this is the crucially Kantian point—have to write the moral law in the same way. In other words, we have to write the moral law in such a way that it applies equally to all rational beings, to all human beings. Human beings, to use another of Kant’s formulations, are self-legislators, that is, they give the law to themselves. Far from being something external to them, the moral law comes from within.


It is precisely this capacity for agency, the ability to give the moral law to oneself and then to follow that law, which both makes human beings unique in the world and which Kant says ought to be the object of our respect and even awe. Just as we might stand in awe of some tremendous natural phenomenon such as Niagara Falls or the beauty of the stars in the desert on a cloudless night (or those depicted in Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”!), so too we stand in awe or reverence toward the human will, of its authorship of actions that sets it apart from everything else on the planet. It is this free will that gives human beings their moral status, which is the foundation of human autonomy. Indeed, the etymology of the word “autonomy” captures perfectly this Kantian insight. “Autonomy” comes from the Greek words for “self ” and “law,” and it refers to the uniquely human ability to give the moral law to oneself. Human beings are not merely free in the negative sense of not being determined by causal forces in the natural world; they are free in a more profound sense, in the sense that they are able to give the moral law to themselves. In other words, they are autonomous.
Because human beings possess this unique ability to give the moral law to themselves, we must treat human beings in a unique way, in a way that is different from how we treat everything else in the world. Our treatment of human beings must be appropriate to the kind of beings they are, to the fact that they are authors of their own lives. We cannot treat human beings as mere things, as objects to be manipulated. Thus one version of Kant’s fundamental law of morality: never treat human beings merely as a means, but always also as ends in themselves. Recognize and respect their authorship of their own lives.
Kant’s imperative about respect constrains the ways in which we are permitted to treat other persons, and this has important implications for the topics discussed in the following five chapters. Consider, for example, the issue of punishment. Kant is what is generally called a retributivist, that is, he sees punishment as justified primarily as a “paying back” or retribution for the offense committed. We are never, Kant argues, entitled to punish an innocent person in order to make an example of the person to deter others. Punishment may also have a deterrent effect, but it cannot be administered solely on the promise of deterrence. This is in accord with Kant’s general stance: it is morally permissible to use people in part as a means, but never solely as a means. Thus, for example, we might become friends with someone who can also help us in our career, and this is morally permissible for Kant as long as we also independently value the person’s friendship. If, however, we are becoming friends solely in order to advance up the corporate ladder, then this violates Kant’s imperative about not using other persons as a mere means.
Kant’s position forbids using other people as a mere means, and this principle has important implications in the area of bioethics. In the United States, the government conducted research for decades on black men in the South who had syphilis...

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