Friday, October 24, 2008

Sophie's Choice

Charlie said...

Jim, here's a thought experiment for you.

You're trapped in a burning house, with little time to escape. To the left of you lies a 1yr old baby, Eddy. Eddy is drenched in smoke, barely able to breath, and sqealing in fear of the flames. He will be burnt alive in just a few seconds. But to the right of you rests a suitcase, inside of which are 50 embryos. They too will be burnt in a few seconds.

Your goal is to save as many persons as possible. You only have time to take one item with you when you escape: either Eddy or the suitcase.

Which would you take?

http://dangerousidea.blogspot.com/2008/10/one-issue.html#c6934775922614912457

I assume the purpose of this hypothetical is to create a wedge to then justify abortion. If the prolifer admits that he’d save Eddy instead of the suitcase, then Charlie will exclaim that prolifers really don’t believe that human embryos are persons or human beings. So how should a prolifer answer this question? And what would such a “concession” amount to?

1. It’s easy to come up with ethical dilemmas which make us squirm. All that means is that we can dream up scenarios in which there is no good choice. Every choice is a bad choice. Not necessarily a wrong choice, but a bad choice.

2. Suppose we save Eddy instead of the suitcase. What does that prove?

A prolifer might save Eddy, not because he thinks that Eddy is more human or more valuable, but because a one-year old baby has more capacity for pain than an embryo (with its underdeveloped nervous system). He might save Eddy because that’s a more merciful choice.

3. Or take a different scenario. We have two patients with liver failure. One is a 14-year-old boy, the other is a middle-aged alcoholic. Who do we give the donated liver to?

We give the liver to the 14-year-old boy. Why? Is that because we value his life over the life of the middle-aged alcoholic? Is that because we think the 14-year-old boy is more human than the middle-aged alcoholic?

No. Our reasoning is more like this: we figure the 14-year-old boy has more of a life ahead of him. We also figure that the middle-aged man is culpable for the situation he finds himself in. He was born with a perfectly good liver. He abused it. He blew his chance.

If we had two donated livers to spare, we’d give one to each. But since we don’t, the 14-year-old gets the transplant.

4. Or take a Sophie’s Choice dilemma. If she gives up one child to save another, does that mean she values one more than another? That she regards one as more human than another?

No. It may be a purely arbitrary choice.

BTW, if I were in her situation, I wouldn’t choose one child over the other. I’d tell the Nazi guard that if he forces me to choose, then he might as well shoot all three of us.

5. Or take another scenario. On the one hand, a kindergarten is on fire. I hear kids screaming inside. On the other hand, I see a 2-year-old walking over to a rattlesnake. Do I save the 2-year old, or do I try to rescue some of the kindergartners?

Logically, I’d sacrifice the 2-year-old. But, in reality, I might save him instead.

Why? Because there’s a natural tendency to save the person we can see, not the person we can’t.

I can see him. The trusting eyes. The pleading eyes. The gut-wrenching contrast between my sense of his danger and his childish obliviousness to his own peril. I’m close to him. A few feet away. All this triggers my protective, paternal instincts.

It may not be logical, but if I save him instead, that’s not because I value him more than the kids inside the kindergarten. It’s not because I think he’s more human.

It’s simply a natural human response. That’s how our empathy is wired.

6. We also place more value on our own children than on other children. This doesn’t mean we think they’re more intrinsically valuable. Or more human. But they mean more to us. We love them more. And we have a greater duty to them.

7. There’s also a difference between an embryo inside the womb and an embryo outside the womb. Both are human, but we can predict the fate of an embryo inside the womb with more confidence than the fate of an embryo outside the womb.

Even if I save the suitcase, I still don’t know what will become of them in the long-run. Will they survive? Will they ever be implanted? Ever be born?

8. To take a comparison: suppose there’s a fire at the hospital. Do you save the comatose patient or the lucid patient beside him?

You save the lucid patient because you don’t know if the comatose patient will ever come out of his coma.

This doesn’t mean he’s subhuman. And it doesn’t mean that you kill him.

It just means that if you’re forced to choose between the two, quality of life can be a consideration.

Likewise, would you save the terminal cancer patient or the patient who’s recovering from an appendectomy?

As a rule, you’d sacrifice the cancer patient.

An exception might be if he’s your father or brother.

As a rule, there is a difference between taking life and saving life. There are situations where quality of life is relevant to saving life, but not to taking life.

There are some extreme cases where quality of life is also relevant to the taking of life. On 9/11 we saw some victims jump from burning skyscrapers.

9. Of course, one doesn’t base public policy on the most extreme examples imaginable. Exceptional cases are just that.

10.Finally, the prolifer might opt to save the suitcase instead of Eddy. I’m just making that point that even if he didn’t, this doesn’t prove what the abortionist is trying to prove.

19 comments:

  1. Hmm, a sensitivity to the nuances of morally complex situations. I'm impressed: I was expecting simplistic moral platitudes given the black/white theological universe you seem to reside in.

    However, you stated: "There are some extreme cases where quality of life is also relevant to the taking of life. On 9/11 we saw some victims jump from burning skyscrapers."

    Are you saying that jumping might be not only understandable but morally acceptable?

    Just wondering.

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  2. Victor Reppert [from the "Is Abortion a Big Deal" thread]: "I am afraid you don't know what I'm trying to do here. The question I was posing was this: Is the abortion issue sufficiently transcendent to all other matters that even people who disagree with the Republicans in other matters ought to vote for them anyway because of the abortion issue. Truth Unites seems a little clearer on this than you are, Steve.

    The reason I focus on abortion is because it is the hardest issue for me as a Democrat, the issue on which I find myself holding my nose when I support Democratic candidates. I am not trying to downplay the other issues myself; but sometimes people say that even for those who oppose the Republicans on issues like Iraq should still vote for McCain because of abortion.

    If you are a conservative, try this thought experiment. Suppose we had a pro-life Democrat like Casey running against a pro-choice Republican like Giuliani. Now how do you vote?"

    Victor, you pose a reasonable question. You have seen the repeated claims that abortion is a morally transcendant issue. Now you want to see (and test) whether that claim still holds true... above and beyond party affiliation. Otherwise, you would suspect, as would I, that claims that abortion is a morally transcendent issue is a specious claim made by pro-lifers.

    As a side tangent, Steve is my intellectual superior. I have no problems admitting that. Although I must admit that I did get a chuckle that you used me to get in a sideways swipe at Steve.

    Next, in the general case of a pro-life Democrat versus a pro-abortion Republican running for President, I would look to see what statements both candidates made in terms of what kind of judges they would nominate to SCOTUS. If the pro-life Democrat promised to nominate strict, originalist constructionists to the bench, then s/he has sealed my vote. Further sealing my vote for the pro-life Democrat would be promises to veto pro-abortion legislation and promises to reform the pro-abortion DNC platform.

    In short, the abortion issue trumps, by far, party affiliation.

    In the specific case of Casey vs. Giulani, I would have to see if Casey would make the same type of strict constructionist appointments that Giulani promised to make to SCOTUS. If Casey wouldn't, then there's a large possibility that I would vote for pro-abortion Giulani over pro-life Casey because I put a higher premium on the make-up of SCOTUS as the primary determinant in the macro-legislative fight against Roe v. Wade and abortion.

    Honest question. Honest answer.

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  3. Or, what about this:

    You run into a burning building and you have the option to save *your* 10 yr. old child or 5 newborn babies, what do you do?

    Me? I save my own son. That's my higher moral obligation.

    Most atheists would reason the same..,or at least woudl *do* the same in that situation.

    Would this mean that they don't believe *infants* are humans? Or that they don't have the *same* right to life as *other* humans? No, of coruse not.

    Also, what we have here, and what is all-to-common in these debates, is that we have a pro-choicer using *accidental* features to determine human rights, or, the right to not be murdered.

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  4. James, all that shows is that your conception of thinking Christians don't match up to the reality.

    In fact, almost all of us have been on record here as advocating much in John Frame's latest tome on ethics....the situation and complexity of things is always given weighty considerations.

    Or, one might try and read Carson's How Long Oh Lord, another book the staff here recommends, to get a glimpse of how sentitive to issues thinking Christians actually are. In fact, they are much more sensitive than atheists.

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  5. "Are you saying that jumping might be not only understandable but morally acceptable?"

    Sure, why not?

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  6. 1.) I think I would agree that Christians live in a black/white moral universe. But only in the sense that there always is an option that is definitely right to do, if we had the knowledge & wisdom of God.

    "Shades of gray" do exist for us--not because the situation is actually a mix of black & white, but because it can be extraordinarily difficult & complex to discern how all the competing moral considerations interact. (Note: There can also be situations where two options would both be "white".)

    I think that's how I would characterize it.

    2.) Another thought experiment: Suppose you're in a burning hospital--and you have the option to save four people who are probably going to die in a month, or one healthy infant. Or twenty terminal patients, versus one healthy mother of three kids.

    Frozen embryos have a high mortality rate, and that's a factor to consider.

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  7. If the goal is really to save as many persons as possible, of course the consistent prolifer would choose the embryos.

    Any reason to save the baby rather than the embryos are external to the goal of this hypothetical scenario. In a real life situation there are a host of factors outside of maximizing the persons saved.

    What if you changed the plot so that you must murder the baby or the embryos. The goal is to kill as many people as you can.

    Not quite as powerful in that case, is it?

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  8. DAVID SAID:

    “If the goal is really to save as many persons as possible, of course the consistent prolifer would choose the embryos.__Any reason to save the baby rather than the embryos are external to the goal of this hypothetical scenario.”

    Wrong. If you’re going to pose a hypothetical case for a prolifer, then you have to frame that according to a prolifer’s presuppositions. You can’t get to dictate the goal.

    You are trying to make the hypothetical as simplistic as possible to generate a false dilemma.

    Prolifers don’t take the position that we are dutybound to save as many lives as possible *at any cost*. That’s why we oppose embryonic stem cell research. Even if it did save a lot of lives, that doesn’t justify the destruction of life in the process.

    There are also situations in which an exceptional, higher obligation supersedes a lower, general obligation.

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  9. steve:

    I'm a prolifer as well, and I agree the goal is not in line with what prolifers, or even most people, would do in an actual situation like that.

    I was responding to this:
    Your goal is to save as many persons as possible. You only have time to take one item with you when you escape: either Eddy or the suitcase.

    My point is if the prolifer responded to that scenario in accordance with its own stated goals, it seems like a simple choice.

    In a hypothetical world where the goal is to save as many persons as possible, the prolifer should save the embryos. Perhaps I'm missing something?

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  10. You’re missing various qualifications which I introduced into my post, as well as my initial response to you. The hypothetical is ambiguous. It trades on a number of unspoken assumptions, and different unspoken assumptions might underpin the hypothetical.

    As I’ve said before, the prolife position is not that we save as many lives as possible *at any cost*. That is not the goal.

    If that were the goal, then we’d support eugenics if that saved more lives at the expense of taking some lives in the process.

    You’ve assigned a general goal to the hypothetical which is inconsistent with prolife presuppositions.

    Likewise, is the Eddy my own baby or someone else’s? If he’s mine, then I have a prior obligation to save him even of others would die in the process (but not die by my own hand).

    Likewise, is the operating assumption that all 50 embryos will someday be implanted and go through the complete gestation process?

    If so, that assumption falls outside of the hypothetical parameters of the thought-experiment since I wouldn’t be in a position to know that future outcome at the time I had to choose between Eddy and the suitcase.

    The thought-experiment must limit itself to knowledge available to the chooser within the hypothetical scenario, and not smuggle in assumptions available to someone outside the scenario, like the omniscient narrator.

    BTW, I don’t object to a prolifer answering that the chooser should save the suitcase rather than the baby. But Charlie is setting up a deceptively simple scenario that isn’t actually that simple even on hypothetical grounds.

    And even if the hypothetical were unambiguous, Charlie doesn’t get to dictate to prolifers what their goals are. If he’s going to pose a moral dilemma for prolifers, then the dilemma must be generated by conflicting prolife presuppositions, and not to a hypothetical which artificially restricts or even denies relevant prolife presuppositions.

    It’s only a dilemma for prolifers if it’s internal to our set of prolife presuppositions—and not in accordance with its own stated goals irrespective of whether or not its goals coincide with prolife goals.

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  11. Paul writes: "Sure, why not?"

    Well, terminating one's life is considered by the Christian community to be a sin, worthy of eternal condemnation. In the situation of those in the Twin Towers, they were faced with two possibilities: allowing themselves to burn alive or be proactive and jump to their deaths. In each case, death was imminent.

    At the same time, physician-assisted suicide is generally condemned, even for those who are clearly in their last days of life and for whom palliative care is no longer effective.

    This seems inconsistent to me. Why is it acceptable to wish to avoid suffering in one case but not the other? Is it the degree of suffering?

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  12. James said:

    "Well, terminating one's life is considered by the Christian community to be a sin, worthy of eternal condemnation."

    1. What the Christian community considers sin is not necessarily what the Bible considers sin.

    2. Who are we talking about here? The Christian believer or unbeliever?

    If the unbeliever, then of course even the slightest sin is "worthy of eternal condemnation."

    But if we're talking about the believer, is it possible for a Christian to be saved even if there's unrepented sin in his life at the time of his death (which would presumably include the unrepented sin of self-murder, if the suicide is immediate rather than prolonged such that it might give time for one to repent)?

    3. The taking of life is not necessarily always = murder (e.g. what about taking life in self-defense, or in war?). Is suicide always = murder (self-murder)?

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  13. James,

    "Well, terminating one's life is considered by the Christian community to be a sin, worthy of eternal condemnation."

    Not only is the term "Christian community" sufficiently vague, I'm unaware of this tradition in the Protestant "cumminity," considering we're not saved by our works, 'n all.

    " In the situation of those in the Twin Towers, they were faced with two possibilities: allowing themselves to burn alive or be proactive and jump to their deaths. In each case, death was imminent."

    Right. And?

    "At the same time, physician-assisted suicide is generally condemned, even for those who are clearly in their last days of life and for whom palliative care is no longer effective."

    Well, this debate is involved enough to avoid covering in a blog post.

    Sometimes the *intent* matters. For example, I also believe we can manage the pain. It may be that a dose of morphine sufficient to manage some terrible pain may be administered even though it may take the life of the person as an *unintended byproduct*. This kind of thing happened all the time on modern-day battle fields. Given the war-time theory of triage, one would leave the soldier with his guts hanging out, destined to die, out on the field for hours until their death. Corpsmen would administer a heavy dose of morphine that would alieve the pain but also kill the soldier. The corpsmen wanted to help their friends not have pain for their last moments.

    Secondly, there's a disanalogy between the 9/11 case and this one since now we're bringing in *another* person.

    Typically, what is objected to is not the administering of pain meds to someone going to die in a few moments, but, say, a cancer patient who (a) can manage the pain or (b) has many years to live but doesn't want to waste away.

    Anyway, I'm being brief since the discussion on this are myriad.

    "This seems inconsistent to me. Why is it acceptable to wish to avoid suffering in one case but not the other? Is it the degree of suffering?"

    It's because you're being simplistic and ignoring equivocations and subtleties. As I said, I think atheists are more "black and white" about these things. That's why we often hear the stupid remark: "You Christians say you're pro-life, but you're also for the death penalty, How inconsistent."

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  14. David,

    I also don’t agree with your interpretation of Charlie’s hypothetical. The underlying assumption of Charlie’s hypothetical is not that a consistent prolifer will, if forced to choose, save more lives rather than fewer. Rather, the underlying assumption is that a prolifer will save human life over subhuman life. The numerical contrast is intended to underscore that assumption. It’s a pressure point.

    The thrust of his hypothetical is that if a prolifer chooses to save Eddy instead 50 embryos, then, when push comes to shove, he doesn’t really think an embryo is fully human. I’m citing counterexamples to show that Charlie has oversimplified the prolifer’s motivations. In that respect, I’m still answering Charlie on his own terms.

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  15. James,

    I think you’re alluding to traditional Catholic theology according to which a suicide was denied Christian burial because he died in a state of mortal sin. There is no reason why an Evangelical theologian or bioethicist should be bond by that framework.

    i) Even in cases where suicide is a sin, not every sin is a damnable sin.

    ii) There are also cases of justifiable suicide in which someone might lay down his life to spare others, viz. a soldier on a “suicide mission.”

    Right and wrong often range along a continuum, with certain borderline cases. The existence of borderline cases doesn’t blur moral distinctions in other situations which are not borderline cases.

    The problem is why people uses borderline cases as a wedge to blur basic moral distinctions, and extrapolate from borderline cases to situations that are not analogous. The fact that we can’t always draw a clear line doesn’t mean that clear lines can never be drawn.

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  16. steve:

    Thanks for clarifying, I was indeed oversimplifying.

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  17. Good discussion. I would add this: that there are decisions where all possibilities have elements of good and bad in them. What makes a decision good or bad is not the unforeseeable outcome, but the desire on which the decision was predicated.

    In the baby versus 50 embryos, it's only a difficult decision where the one making the decision desires to save them all. There are some without the scruples to desire to save anyone. That's where things get black and white. Not what we ultimately do, but why we do it.

    One thing's for sure, one would need to be free from the dilemma of what to do by focusing more on his motives ahead of time lest he hesitate and lose all. It seems backwards, but that's where the spiritual rubber meets the world's road.

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