When I was an undergraduate, a number of what struck me as mutually supporting factors prompted me to convert to 'Popery,' as most of the American Founders, alas, would have called it - and as many, double-alas, would have denounced it. Two of these factors, both of which seemed to me somehow to be particularly deeply connected, were especially compelling.
The first such factor was that I seemed always to see humbly dressed folk in faded bluejeans and plaid shirts delivering boxes of donated items to the food & clothing pantry operated by St. John's Catholic Parish in Lawrence, KS, whose parking lot lay across the street from my window. The same humbly dressed folk, still humbly dressed, could then be found at Sunday mass, which I attended a few times as a curious onlooker, then as a guest. I was struck by how, in a sense, these humble yet generously giving people seemed to treat Sundays and other days as being in a sense continuous - as being of a piece - and in so doing appeared to be treating their liturgical lives and their giving lives as both being of this selfsame piece. The parishoners, in other words, did not doll up on Sundays and strike worshipful postures, then dress down on other days and forget about those Sundays. They dressed the same, and in a certain crucial sense acted the same, on all days - worshipping throughout the week, in effect, with the shape taken by their worship just slightly differing between Sundays and other days. 'Just slightly' in view of the second factor that somehow moved me...
The second factor was that there was always a corpse represented on the cross in these peoples' church. Corpse, corpor, corporeal. A dead body. For some reason that really hit me. It seemed important. The dude these people worshipped and wept for had a body. He was a body. Somehow that made the whole thing more 'real' to this perhaps primitive, over-tactile,post-adolescent in a way that empty crosses at other kinds of churches I'd visited by that point did not. (I might have mentioned something about this in my very first post here some several years back.) I know that the empty cross at these other places is said to represent a triumph - 'He is risen!' - and all of that; and sure, I buy that. But for some reason I still needed the body. (Habeus corpus!) And, what was more, that broken body seemed somehow connected to the broken people on whose behalves the congregants during the week were dropping off all of those boxes of supplies. And both that body and the broken people whom it seemed connected to seemed also to serve as reminders of some sort that we're all broken in various ways. It was in this sense, then, in addition to the sense made manifest in the non-changing mode of their dress, that these people's Sunday and weekday forms of worship seemed to me continuous - minor variations on one major theme.
And so I converted.
Now it seems to me, believe it or not, that all of this bears quite directly upon - and is born quite as directly upon by - several subjects that have figured importantly in discussions here at our site and at Mirror of Justice of late.
One such subject, to which I will confine myself for now, is the matter of 'post-birth abortion' as advocated by two strange (Swiftian?) authors whose recent peer-reviewed article Robert George has recently shared over at Mirror. I gather, from an admittedly cursory reading, that the authors advocate allowance of this form of homicide on the same ground that many advocate allowance of more conventionally understood abortion - essentially, on grounds that it is 'persons,' understood in a particular sense to which I shall attend in a moment, whom legal and moral rights aim to protect, while foetuses and newborns are not yet persons in the requisite sense.
As our own Patrick O'Donnell will recall from a disucussion at Dorf on Law to which he and I both contributed about two and a half years ago, for some reason I have never been quite able to find any force in the argument from 'personhood.' This has been so ever since first I encountered a rendition of it in (the often wonderful) Professor Dworkin's book of 1993. (Life's Dominion, if I recall correctly, which might better have been titled Personhood's Dominion?) For what I now suspect is the very same reason, I have never been able to find any force in cognate arguments offered by some other philosophers, notably David Velleman, to the effect that cows' and other animals' lives lack value. Somehow all such arguments always struck me as what I was tempted, for some reason that I couldn't then and perhaps still can't articulate, to label 'thin,' 'watery,' 'non-viscous,' even 'airy' or 'vaporous.' An impression of a sort of 'unbearable lightness of nonbeing' seemed to accompany my reading them. They were 'insubstantial' relative to what they purported to be about - life, be it human or other animal life - even if 'deep' or insightful relative to what they were actually about - personhood, understood as something that is in fact categorically distinct from life even if dependent on life as its essentially intermingled substrate when 'embodied.'
Trying to make sense of those impressions now, what I seem to come up with is something like this: What these arguments all appear to have in common is two theses, the first of which just doesn't seem to register with me, at least relative to the argumentative purpose for which it is deployed. This first thesis is sometimes labeled 'value-internalism,' and has it that what is valuable in connection with some creature is only what can be valued, per some form of consciousness how ever rudimentary, by that creature. The second thesis is sometimes labeled 'wholism' but might be better labeled 'narrativalism,' and has it that a life - a full, temporally extended life - can be ('internally') valued by the creature living that life only insofar as the creature in question possesses a conception, or, in a more Kantian idiom, a 'representation' of that life. Put these two theses together and you reach the unsurprising conclusion that 'the life,' qua life, of a creature lacking in consciousness of its own life as a temporally extended, narratival whole is ... valueless.
I think that those who argue that cows' and other creatures' lives are devoid of value, on the one hand - people like Velleman - and those who argue that unborn and newborn humans' lives are devoid of value, on the other hand - people like Dworkin circa 1993? - are all in essence making the same argument. And somehow I find it ultimately unsatisfactory in both cases - largely, I think, for reasons given here, in an argument that I offered in defense of animal rights against Vellemanians in the aforementioned discussion at Dorf on Law to which Patrick and I both contributed. (How do you like that? I'm defending animal rights, as Singer has notably done, on the basis of an argument - more on which in a moment - that if correct means that Singer is wrong about infanticide.) The argument is titled What's the Harm?
So, what's the harm? And what's unsatisfactory about 'internalism'? Well, the short-playing version to which I confine myself here is that I think that it appeals to the wrong 'level' of internality, so to speak. Harm to a particular kind of creature - a creature that exemplifies a particular life form - it seems to me, can only be understood by reference to characteristics that are internal to that creature's form of life, rather than internal to its form, if any, of consciousness. Such forms of consciousness, how ever rudimentary or sophisticated, are surely internal to the forms of life with which they are associated, but they don't exhaust those forms; and waxing or waning, flourishing or withering, pertain to all characteristics, not just the consciousness characteristics, that are internal to the form. For they pertain to the form, not just to features of the form.
So, cows wax and flourish under some conditions, while they wane and wither under other conditions. Likewise for all other forms of life - all of these remarkable, beautiful, gorgeous, miraculous forms! - the particular conditions varying with the particular forms. To impose conditions upon cows, cats, crows, or other critters that prompt their waning or withering rather than their waxing and flourishing, in turn, seems to me to be always prima facie wrongful unless there is some compelling reason to do so - reason that itself sounds in life, and reason that does not needlessly or gratuitously or cavalierly subordinate some lives to other lives.
Human beings, of course, wax and flourish under different conditions than do other creatures, though of course there is significant and growing overlap between the sets of conditions as we proceed from forms of life that bear less, to forms that bear more, in common with human life. And of course the same goes for waning and withering. And narratival consciousness is of course a particularly prominent characteristic among all of those characteristics that jointly constitute the human form of life, which of course renders it not all that surprising that some might find themselves tempted simply to equate, in effect, human life to that characteristic, or to equate value in connection with that life to value in connection with the living human being's self-conscious conception or self-representation of that life. But the fact is that it is but one of the many constitutive characteristics of a human life, and there seems no reason what ever to interpret 'value' solely by reference to that characteristic rather than by reference to the whole lifeform of which it is but one constitutive characteristic.
It also seems to me, on essentially the same grounds as seem to me to underlie what I just said, that early, late, and intervening 'stages' of a life within some form, rather like the 'organic' or constitutive characteristics of that form, have to be understood as resting in deep unity with one another. All such stages, just like all of those characteristics, are jointly constitutive of the form of life in relation to which they represent or amount to stages. If this is right, then it is no more permissible to inflict unjustified harm - harm as, again, understood relative to the life form in question - on a particular creature in its 'early' or 'late' life than it is to inflict such harm on that creature in its 'middle' life. For harm is done the creature - the creature as a representative of the life form - not to the 'creature-phase' as representative of ... what?, that phase alone?
To think otherwise that as I've just suggested, it somehow seems to me, is to fall into a sort of category error not unlike that of those amusing late 18th Century 'empiricists' and early 20 Century 'positivists' who took themselves to be seeing 'apple-sides' and 'color patches' rather than seeing apples and colored objects, or to be tasting 'pineapple tastes' rather than pineapples. The living thing is neither but one of its characteristics nor one of its stages or phases. The characteristics and stages are characteristics and stages of the creature; and it is the creature, not the characteristics or stages, that waxes or wanes, flourishes or withers, is accorded respect or is gratuitously and unjustifiably harmed.
Once we move, then, as I believe that we must, from 'internalism' understood by reference to consciousness ('internality to consciousness') to 'internalism' understood by reference to life form ('internality to form'), arguments like Velleman's against the value of bovine life, and 'Minerva's' (one of the earlier mentioned Swiftian authors) against the value of owl ... er, human life both show themselves for puzzlingly arbitrary if not clearly category-inapt. For once we make the move that I am describing, we see the various forms of consciousness experienced by creatures of various forms simply to be aspects of living those various life forms rather than identical to or even exhaustive of those forms, while value for its part pertains always to forms rather than to aspects of forms.
To take life's value to be internal to life-consciousness - and, worse, to narratival life-consciousness, to 'personhood' - rather than to life-form, then, seems to me in the final analysis to be to engage in a species of reductionism that is not unlike triumphalism, chauvinism, parochialism... even certain forms of racism and 'imperialism.' And it is to do so not only in the form of 'speciesism' - as Singer, ironically, would once have called it - but, worse yet, in the form of 'life-stageism' within that already objectionable speciesism. For it is to treat internality to one constitutive feature of one particular life form, a feature available even to that form only at some of its stages - viz. narratival consciousness - as internality simpliciter. (Hence the use, perhaps, by those who indulge this view, of the term 'internalism' alone rather than 'human narratival consciousness internalism,' which latter name would both (a) better specify the view, and (b) manifest at once what is problematic about the view.)
All right, so this all takes us back to where we began. Why do I find the argument from personhood, and with it Vellemanian 'internalism' plus 'wholism,' somehow 'thin' and 'vaporous' - 'bloodless,' as it were? I think it's probably because I find it bodyless, just like those crosses that left me so cold. I think the same thing that made that body on that Cross at St. John's Parish in Lawrence somehow 'resonate' with 'me,' in other words, might be what prevents the argument from personhood from thus resonating. Our embodiment would seem to be essential to who and what we are; and what has value in our judgment, it would seem to me, must accordingly itself relate back to embodiment.
I suspect that this is why resurrection, which of course many Christians of various persuasions are soon again to celebrate this spring, matters to so many. It's why the Hebraic tradition which has it that we rise on Judgment Day rather than convert to ghosthood and hover about is the tradition with which many Jews, Christians, Muslims and others claim continuity. And it's presumably also why Platonic metampsychosis, disembodied spirithood, being a brain in a vat, and so forth are all so unappealing to some of us. We won't settle for being merely 'persons.' That's not what we value. We want it all - human life, in all its stages, through all its course, with all of its defining features, in all of their organic, gorgeous unity. Wholeness of the life. That is what we value, and it's that - at the very least - by reference to which we so much as understand all value.
Nor, then, will we settle for regarding those whom we love and care for as being merely 'persons,' let alone as 'person-phases' or 'life-stages.' (Again, we taste apples, not mere 'apple-tastes.') They are lives, whole lives, partaking of whole life forms. And this shows up in what we give, especially when we give out of love. Those people who dropped off those items every day at St. John's Parish dropped off items usable by whole human organisms, not just persons. They brought foodstuffs, drink, clothing, blankets, and the like - things that beings with bodies need. Sure, there was 'food for thought' and 'food for conscious play' as well, inasmuch as they brought books and magazines and boardgames and the like. But that is just the point. They brought all of it - just as those who donate things to 'animal shelters' donate food and bedding and 'playtoys' alike - things associated with the flourishing of, hence with what is valueable to, the per se valuable recipients along the multiple dimensions of their flourishing.
And what is true of giving here surely is true of defending. In giving of our lives on behalf of and in defense of other lives, we are living not merely personhood, but life, and giving to and for not just persons, but lives.
Again a deep restorative Lenten season to all who are partaking of it. And to all of our sisters and brothers of other traditions, as well as to all other creatures, to life, to life, la Kayim!
(Cross-posted in modified form at Mirror of Justice)