A Tale of Two Australians E-mail
2010 Fall
Written by Mark S. Latkovic   


A Tale of Two Australians: John Finnis & Peter Singer Debate the “Moral Status” of the “Fetus”

Both men are Australian by birth. Both are married with children; they are close in age, John Finnis being 70 and Peter Singer 64. Both taught at Oxford University as colleagues in the 1970s (Finnis is still there). Both are world-renowned philosophers: Finnis, who is also a legal scholar at the University of Notre Dame, is a Catholic convert and sometime collaborator with moral theologian Germain Grisez (the world’s leading natural-law thinker); Singer, an atheist, is one of the fathers of the animal-liberation movement and the most widely known utilitarian bioethicist in the world.

But here’s where the two part company: Finnis argues that there are moral absolutes, i.e., actions that we must never do regardless of our situation, intention, and end. Singer thinks that there are no moral absolutes. Singer also believes that some non-human animals (e.g., apes and dolphins) actually have more value and are therefore entitled to more respect than some human beings—unborn and newborn babies, for example, as well as those individuals in a so-called permanent vegetative state and the physically and mentally handicapped. In a word, Singer denies, and radically so, human equality.

 On a late Friday afternoon, October 15, 2010, at a two-day conference on abortion at Princeton University, whose chief purpose it was to foster dialogue between the two sides in the abortion debate, Singer and Finnis (along with a third philosopher, Professor Maggie Little of Georgetown University) squared off quite civilly during a session devoted to the “moral status of the fetus” (a title that Finnis thought, quite rightly, to be unfair and prejudicial to the unborn baby; he called it the other “F-word”). To see these two famous philosophers together was quite remarkable. Singer is often said to represent the view of the “culture of death”; Finnis, that of the “culture of life.” No two thinkers could be further apart on the philosophical spectrum: from their moral methodologies to their moral conclusions.

For two fascinating hours via a streaming live video feed (the marvels of modern technology!), I watched and listened to these three scholars present their views, and question and respond to each other and to the audience. But clearly the “main attraction” was “Finnis vs. Singer.” When either of these two held the floor, it was electrifying—at least as electrifying as you can get in a highly philosophical discussion.

The moderator, the well-known secular bioethicist Arthur Caplan (University of Pennsylvania), got things moving by asking four questions that he hoped the speakers would address in some fashion (e.g., what is the moral status of those fetuses/embryos who are in some way severely damaged, such as the anencephalic baby?).

Finnis was the first up and he used his allotted 15 minutes to emphasize the point that we were all once embryos, i.e., that we are the same beings today, just older, that we were at the one-celled stage of our beginnings. At no point in what is a continuum from conception do we cease to be other than what we are: living, human beings of a rational nature who, if left to develop unimpeded with the nourishment and support provided by our mothers, will grow into the next stage of human development until death. At our conception we are already persons with potential, not potential persons. A “gradualist” view, although common, does not do justice to the kinds of beings that we are by nature—beings of a rational nature—from conception until death. Although in our initial stages of development we are not yet capable of exercising our wonderful capacities for reasoning and free choice, we have, argued Finnis, the “radical capacity” (not simply the “potentiality” that Singer and Little would later speak of) to engage in these specifically human activities.

As Finnis noted in a fascinating Q & A period with the audience, this “radical capacity” is open to “actual capacity,” and this in turn, with further growth allowed, is open to “further actuation.” Finnis would have nothing of the philosophical talk which says that we can’t know the kind of being that we are talking about—an unborn child. By observing what we do, we can work our way back to understand what kind of being we are, what kind of nature we have. And this substantial nature is built into our individual genomes, and thus is more than a “blueprint,” as is commonly thought. Rather, the one-celled organism or zygote is a dynamically active and self-directing being that has everything it needs—Finnis spoke of its “epigenetic primordia”—to mature into the adult it will eventually become, the “you” and “me,” if left unimpeded to develop so. (If it could be shown that an extra-terrestrial such as E.T. was a being of a rational nature, then, on this view, argued Finnis, we would have to include it in the circle of those we recognize and protect as having fundamental dignity and rights.)

According to Finnis, moral status is a matter not of “choice or grant or convention, but of recognition.” Thus, talk about conferring moral status is deeply confused about the nature of morality and moral status. The very idea of human rights and status, argues Finnis, “is of someone who matters whether we like it or not, and even when no one is thinking about them; and matters, whether we like it or not, as at bottom an equal, because like us in nature as a substantial kind of being.”

After Professor Finnis gave his paper, Little, without using a text, presented her “gradualist” view—i.e., the embryo acquires an expanding list of rights over time as it becomes more and more human, more and more capable of consciousness, and so on. She spoke of being comfortable in the “grey” area, not in the “black and white” positions of either Singer or Finnis, instructive though they may be for her. Her view, which in many ways attempted to combine the strengths of both the traditional natural-law anthropology of Finnis and the gradualist anthropology of Singer, seemed more confused philosophically than anything else to this observer.

Following Little, Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton, came to the podium. Although mild-mannered, he was never boring. Speaking from a text, he began by joking about his reputation as, in so many words, the philosopher of death. He then went on to list three positions that he said he was in agreement on with the other side in the abortion debate: (1) The human embryo is a human life; (2) Abortion takes a human life; and (3) The rights of a woman over her own body are not absolute.

For Singer, though, the fact that a human embryo is a member of the species homo sapiens does not confer an ounce of moral status on that being—none at all. That would be “speciesism,” according to Singer, or a favoring of one species (that would be us, human beings) over another (other animals). Thus, ever consistent and right to the point, he said: “Being a member of the human species does not confer a right to life.” The reason certain beings have moral worth and are valuable, for Singer, is that they have certain properties or characteristics—such as “self-awareness,” an understanding of “desires,” the capacity to “envisage the future,” and the capacity to feel pain. Of course, the unborn child has none of these properties—not even the ability to feel pain, Singer has written, until 18 weeks’ gestation. Even the newborn infant does not have the same rights as he or she will have later on in life. Again, “being human in the biological sense,” Singer maintains, is of no “intrinsic human significance.” Hence, he has consistently concluded, to kill an unborn child or a newborn child, for example, is not to kill a human person, in his eyes.

So, for Singer, allowing abortion implies allowing infanticide—just as pro-lifers have always argued. You’ve got to admire Singer’s consistency and his candor. Against the pro-abortion crowd, Singer is saying that you cannot draw a moral bright line between “before birth” (when abortion is morally okay) and “after birth” (when infanticide is morally wrong). It just won’t work. If the former is morally good, then so is the latter. And so they are, Singer argues. (Finnis, early on in his presentation and later in a posted article on Public Discourse titled “The Other F-Word,” showed how very much alike are the views of Singer and those of the liberal political philosopher Jeffrey Reiman, who holds that the child does not acquire the moral status that requires equal rights for several years after birth. During the debate that followed, Singer said his current view is in the same ballpark with Reiman’s, no longer the one-month-after-birth position he had held for years in his published writings.)

During the debate that followed the speakers’ formal remarks (and even during the Q & A with the audience), Finnis was by far the central figure—fielding what seemed to be a majority of the questions from the crowd and his fellow panelists. Although the three presentations were all noteworthy, I found the exchanges among the four philosophers after the presentations to be the most intellectually absorbing.

To give but one example: Finnis asked his audience during the debate to engage in a “thought experiment” concerning personal identity (he borrows it from the philosopher Patrick Lee). Imagine, he said, a man, such as himself, who needed to be treated for a rare and lethal brain tumor. The problem, in this case, is that the surgical treatment would involve removing the part of the brain involved in storing all our various memories, wiping them out for good, while allowing him, however, to retain the capacity, “after nine months of unconsciousness following the operation,” to establish a “new stock of memories” of one’s life, abilities, language, emotions, and so on. Would having no memories of one’s past after the operation imply then that one had lost one’s personal identity, in the sense that John Finnis would no longer be John Finnis? Put another way, as Finnis phrased it himself, “would not my moral status or, more relevantly, my reality as a person, be essentially that of the newborn baby and indeed of the early embryo?”

While none of the panelists answered the question, the chairman of the panel, Caplan, intervened to say that he thought that Finnis would clearly no longer be Finnis (seemingly taking for granted, I surmise, the great importance attached to having a sense of one’s continued existence over time). Finnis responded that one’s personal identity would be maintained, despite having lost this significant and characteristic aspect of personhood—one’s memories. “I would be JMF [John Mitchell Finnis] before, during, and after the operation, someone who suffered grievous loss in and as a result of the operation, but retained like the embryo and newborn baby the radical capacity for continued life as the one and only person I already am.” This disagreement alone would have been enough to reveal quite starkly the radical differences between Finnis and his fellow panelists and the difficulties of trying to find “common ground” on the identity of the “fetus” and its “moral value.”

Because one’s understanding of the nature of the fetus almost always determines one’s approach to whether abortion is morally good or bad (Singer is an exception)—and significantly for Finnis this is a biological or scientific question, not primarily a philosophical one, nor one having anything to do with membership (privileged or not) in the human species, contra Singer—the lack of consensus on the personhood of the embryo at the Princeton conference did not bode well for the attempt to find some level of agreement on the abortion issue.

Singer once wrote—in an article titled “Sanctity of Life or Quality of Life,” in the July 1983 issue of Pediatrics (the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics)—the following:

If we compare a severely defective human infant with a non-human animal, a dog or pig, for example, we will often find the non-human to have superior capacities, both actual and potential, for rationality, self-consciousness, communication, and anything else that can plausibly be considered morally significant. . . . Is the erosion of the sanctity-of-life view really so alarming? . . . Once the religious mumbo-jumbo surrounding the term “human” has been stripped away . . . we will not regard as sacrosanct the life of each and every member of our species. . . . [Instead], we may start to look at human life as it really is: at the quality of life that each human being has or can achieve.

For the last 27 years, Singer has not really budged from these essential convictions. Is there hope, then, that we can find common ground with Singer and those who agree with him? Short of a religious conversion, I don’t really think that is possible. The more fundamental question is: Even if we could find common ground, would we want to? What would it look like? The paradox in this discussion is that the Jewish Singer lost his paternal grandparents to the Nazis and yet he argues in his articles and books that both abortion and euthanasia are morally justified at any stage and for any reason, as long as they contribute to the “greater good.”

There are some gaps that are—by the human mind, at least—unbridgeable.

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Mark S. Latkovic is Professor of Moral Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. A different version of this article was originally posted on his Facebook blog on October 17, 2010.