This is the second post in my critique of Christopher Kaczor's book, The Ethics of Abortion. I've duplicated the introduction text from my first post below.
I'm in the process of reading The Ethics of Abortion: Women's Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice by Christopher Kaczor (Philosophy, Loyola Marymount). I picked up the book off a recommendation at Mirror of Justice, and so far I've been enjoying the experience.
I'm trying to approach Kaczor's arguments with an open mind. At the same time, it's a dense book, and doing it justice as a critical reader requires responding to problems as they arise. (And, unfortunately, problems seem to be arising often.)
For that reason, I'll be posting my thoughts on the book as I read it, rather than trying to do an overall review when I finish. Before each critique I'll note how far I've currently read in the book, in case there's material beyond that point relevant to what I'm talking about.
Unless otherwise noted, all citations are to Kaczor, Christopher. The Ethics of Abortion. Routledge: New York. 2011.
------- (Review written 8/21/11, currently at page 78) -------
One question that hovers throughout Kaczor's book is, "why can't we kill?" What is it, exactly, that makes killing wrong? Though he doesn't address the question, Kaczor assumes that the answer is found in the right to life. That is, we cannot kill (or attempt to kill) because the victim has a right to life.
I don't think that's right. Or, at least, not entirely right. As I argued in my first post, the "right to life" itself is a questionable moral construct. But even if we have a right to life, the way we criminalize murder in modern America suggests that we find killing wrong for more reasons than simply because it denies the victim the right to life.
In our current legal system, individual rights are generally defended through civil actions, where people bring claims to vindicate their own rights. This is a product of the individualist streak in our history: no one cares more about my rights than me, we think, so I should be the one to defend them in court.
Crimes, on the other hand, are prosecuted by the government. While many states have "victims' bills of rights," no jurisdiction that I'm aware of allows private citizens to compel a prosecutor to bring charges. We recognize that criminal prosecution may be against the public interest, even if the alleged victim wants to press charges, and so we guarantee prosecutorial discretion. The government prosecutes crimes because they are offenses against society, not against an individual. That's why in many jurisdictions, criminal prosecutions are styled "The People v. ___".
Death, of course, is an interesting case. The victim, the harmed party, is no longer there to defend his or her interests. As a detective character on TV put it, "We speak for the dead, because they can't speak for themselves. We owe them that much." But on the other hand, prosecutors are still supposed to think about the public interest. We send murderers to jail not because they violated someone's rights, but because they've committed a crime against the public. We let their families sue for wrongful death because they've violated someone's rights.
Kaczor seems to hold a different belief. He writes:
Even if killing is wrong because it eliminates future experiences that we have a present dispositional desire to preserve, and even if this is the best account of why killing is wrong, the conscious desires account of personhood requires that this be the only reason why killing is wrong. But this is unreasonable. An act is often wrong for a number of reasons at once...There are myriad possible reasons to believe killing is wrong. For instance, killing takes away your present good, the good of life. Killing undermines your bodily well-being. Killing takes away your freedom. If killing is wrong for one of these reasons, or if killing is wrong for any other reason unconnected with my or your (present, dispositional, ideal) desires (e.g., divine command, societal cohesion, rule-utilitarianism, Rawls's maximin principle, contractarianism), then the suggested criterion for establishing the right to life fails...The conscious desires account of personhood requires that killing is wrong only for this reason. In other words, for the conscious desires argument to work, it is also necessary that all other actual and possible accounts of the impermissibility of killing unrelated to desire are mistaken. (62-63, emphasis mine)The unstated assumption is that killing is wrong only because it violates someone's right to life. That's the necessary connected step between Kaczor's premise (killing is wrong for reasons other than that it undermines desires) to his conclusion (the right to life cannot be founded on the possession of desires).
Even if you don't accept my legal argument above, it should be clear that things can be wrong (morally impermissible) for many reasons other than that they violate someone's rights. It's a strained rights theory that argues that drug use violates rights, but many people think it is impermissible. Someone may consider it morally impermissible to commit sacrilege, even though that sacrilege may not violate anyone's rights. It's wrong to lie, even if the person you're speaking to has no right to be told the truth. And so on.
This same assumption underlies another of Kaczor's arguments rebutting the same (desire centric) criterion for personhood.
Consider alien, angelic, or divine persons who, given their vast differences from our fragile human physiology, have nothing that corresponds to what we experience as desire. Nor is it difficult to imagine alien, angelic, or divine persons whose experiences of time are so different from our own that they do not experience past, present, and future as we do and so have no present dispositional desires for a future like ours. Even among human persons, there are those such as Buddhists who believe that the extinguishing of all desire is possible. If a human being achieved this goal, then this human being would have achieved Nirvana from a Buddhist perspective, but from Boonin's perspective would thereby no longer have a right to life, since such a human being, the Buddhist Master, would not have a desire for the future.Kaczor seems to be relying on the reader's instinctive reaction: of course it would be wrong to kill a Buddhist master, or a desire-less, time-less angel! But the hidden assumption, once again, is that killing is wrong only because it violates the right to life. There are a myriad of reasons to think that killing such an individual would be wrong even if they don't have a right to life (such as their immense value to society). Once we recognize that, it becomes less ridiculous to suggest that they may no longer have a right to life.
The problem here is similar, though not identical, to that I identified in my first post. Kaczor leans too heavily on the "right to life." Even if we accept that such a thing can exist, it cannot and should not play all of the roles he suggests that it does.