Thursday, April 12, 2007

The patchwork garment

In his latest post on stem cell research the Deacon mentions Bernardin's "consistent ethic of life", more colorfully known as the "seamless garment", which purports to hold human life as the highest value, from conception to natural death.

But how "seamless" is this garment in reality?

Holding as I do meta-ethical subjective relativism, I believe there is of course nothing intrinsically wrong with valuing to the lives of embryos, terminally ill people, murder-bent attackers, convicted murderers or enemy soldiers—all of whom (with the exception of terminally ill people) it is presently legal to kill—a value greater than the relief of suffering or other benefits their deaths would entail. The fundamental ethical values one holds are simply facts about that person; our reason must, as always, fit itself to the facts of reality.

But those who hold the "seamless garment" ethic claim that they must support it because it is seamless, because it is consistent, and most importantly, because it is simplest: It does not (supposedly) admit to any arbitrary exceptions, an admittedly important meta-ethical consideration.

But is this really the case? I say it is not: The "seamless garment" is really a patchwork of arbitrary limits and subtle inconsistencies; furthermore, it must be a patchwork if we are to live normal lives.

The "seamless garment" is held to encompass human life from conception to "brain death". But even these supposedly simple limitations are themselves arbitrary.

First, the garment encompass only human life, but this speciesist limitation is just as arbitrary as any other. Why not animal life? Science makes it abundantly clear that we humans differ only in degree—indeed in many cases the smallest of degrees—from all other life on the planet. Even the most rigorous vegan's division into animal and plant life is arbitrary.

Second, the starting and ending points, conception and brain death, are themselves arbitrary. The Catholic Church pushes the beginning even further back, to the act of sexual intercourse: Once the penis enters the vagina, it is a sin to interfere with the "natural" progression to a new human life. Why not push it back even farther? Make it a sin to not have as many children as humanly possible? Why not assert that every sperm is sacred?

There is no single property which marks a fertilzed egg, blastocyst or embryo from other supposedly not-human entities. Human genetics will not do, else a severed finger is just as human as any entity. Genetic distinctiveness will not do: else we would consider a pair of identical twins to be one person. Separability will not do: a blastocyst is in no way separate from the mother.

The natural potential to become a thinking human being—the potential to become human without human artifice—is taken to be a distinguishing property, but even this fails as a single criterion. Pregnancy entails no small few demands on the artifice of the mother. Many births require a Cesarian section, a sophisticated artifice indeed. It is preposterous to insist that an entity is human by virtue of its natural potential and then demand artifice to fulfill that potential.

To decide on the fertilized egg as the beginning of "humanity" is to mark out an arbitrary—and controversial—collection of properties. This end of the "seamless garment" is ragged indeed.

The other end, of "natural" death, is equally problematic. Natural death is held to occur at brain death, but why there? No brain is necessary under the "seamless garment" to define the beginning of life, why should it define the end of life? When a person undergoes brain death, most of his body is still actually alive; even his brain is mostly alive, it has merely ceased functioning in a particular way. Why not preserve as much as the body as possible, for as long as possible, to extend the "seamless garment" to its logical conclusion?

There's also the issue of terminally ill people, those in great suffering with no foreseeable end to their suffering but death. It is permissible, according to most accounts of the "seamless garment", to palliate their suffering even at the cost of hastening death, but impermissible to simply cause their death. Outright suicide is impermissible, but one may refuse life-extending treatment. In other words, it's just dandy to kill yourself or kill another, so long as you do it slowly.

Again, the denial of artifice is inconsistent: If I have no duty to extend the life of a brainless body by artifice, if I have no duty to insist on extending life itself, regardless of its quality, by artifice, then by what principle must ever have a duty to extend and preserve life by artifice? Why is it a moral duty to grab a guy about to jump off a bridge or throw a life preserver to a drowning child, but it is not a moral duty to extend the life of a cancer victim for even a single day by the artifice of chemotherapy?

The other end of this supposedly "seamless garment" is in considerable disarray.

And what about its warp and weft of this garment?

By what virtue do we allow people to ever risk their lives? Why should we permit people to smoke cigarettes, drive motorcycles, jump out of perfectly good airplanes, put out fires, arrest criminals, build skyscrapers? All of these activities entail a non-trivial risk of death. If the preservation of life is truly our highest value—outweighing even the unbearable suffering of the terminally ill—then why should we not do everything in our power to always preserve life, regardless of the other consequences?

If life is truly the highest value, why do we not have a duty and legal obligation to utterly sacrifice the quality of our entire life to preserving the life of even a single other person? By what principle can we justify taking for ourselves any more than the minimum plainest food necessary to survive, sleeping naked and out of doors, when the life of even one person could be saved by foregoing all but the barest of necessities?

If ordinary life weakens the warp of our seamless garment, the doctrine of double effect—used to justify most of the practical exceptions to the "seamless garment"—utterly unravels the weft. The doctrine of double effect, which states that an action is morally permissible if it intended in the service of good, even if it has bad consequences, is the third biggest line of bullshit (after the existence of God and the privilege of the priesthood) ever sold by Christianity. For anything can be justified by this doctrine: I didn't intend to kill the embryo, it's just an unfortunate consequence of relieving the suffering of the mother's pregnancy. I didn't intend to hasten the death of my patient, I just wanted to relieve his suffering. I didn't intend to kill my spouse, I just wanted the insurance. I didn't intend to kill six million Jews, I just wanted to unify Germany. This doctrine is utterly preposterous.

The "seamless garment" is anything but: It is woven of gossamer and bullshit, cut by a blind man with dull shears, and stitched by a Parkinson's patient with a knitting needle.

There is nothing wrong per se with arbitrary ethical beliefs: All ethical beliefs are arbitrary.

If you're opposed to abortion, though, have the decency to look a fourteen year old girl in the eye and say, "I won't allow you to get an abortion, just because I care more about a hundred cells in your womb than I do about your suffering." Have the guts to look Michael J. Fox in the eye and say, "I won't allow research into a cure for your disease, just because I care more about a brainless embryo than the quality of your life." You might sound like an asshole, but that's better than being a hypocritical asshole, hiding your indifference to their suffering behind a ragged, threadbare cloak of bullshit "principle".


  1. Even the most rigorous vegan's division into animal and plant life is arbitrary.

    I like Stevan Harnad's "Turing Test for vegetarians": he won't eat anything that has, or has ever had, a mental state. If you prefer your arguments old-school, doesn't Bentham's "can they suffer?" make a non-arbitrary distinction between animals and plants?

  2. What is always arbitrary about moral distinctions is the arbitrary attachment of a good/bad distinction to some objective distinction.

    There is no more "reason" to decide that eating things without mental states is good than there is to decide that eating people named Bob is good.


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