Thursday, November 08, 2007

Politics and Morality

In the November issue of First Things, Richard John Neuhaus has a great article on "The Politics of Bioethics." He makes a number of points that those of us advocating an objective standard of morality should keep in mind in discussing bioethical issues.

First, how should we talk about human dignity?

For that purpose, then, is the concept of human dignity useful? The better phrase is “the dignity of the human person.” “Human dignity” may suggest the collective and include efforts such as taking technological charge of the evolution of the human species. “The dignity of the human person” places the accent on the individual—although, to be sure, the individual situated in community. The dignity of the human person may entail an important, although limited, measure of autonomy. Dignity as autonomy features strongly in, for instance, arguments for “death with dignity.” Morally, however, the dignity of the human person is affirmed most significantly not in the assertion of one’s own autonomy but in the protection of others who are most subject to having their dignity violated. Therefore, in bioethics as in medicine more generally, the first rule is “Do no harm.” That first rule enjoins us to protect and maintain something that is recognized as good simply in its being.

Second, that politics is inherently a moral undertaking.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and his Politics are both discourses on morality. From them we can derive this definition of politics: Politics is free persons deliberating the question, How ought we to order our life together? The ought in that suggested definition clearly indicates that politics is (in its nature, if not always in its practice) a moral enterprise. Our political vocabulary—what is fair or unfair, what is just or unjust, what serves the common good—is inescapably a moral vocabulary. Contra David Hume and many others, it is not so obvious that an ought cannot be derived from an is. In the ordinary experience of individuals and communities, it is done with great regularity. Neither agreement nor consensus is required on all the details of “whatever it is about human beings that entitles them to basic human rights and freedoms.” People who explain the “whatever it is” in quite different ways can agree on what ought and ought not be done to human beings.

Third, that what poses as a debate is over the beginning of human life should be recognized for what it actually is: a debate over which humans the state will recognize the human rights of.

The moral question is not, as the court majority claimed, about when a human life begins. That is a biological and medical question on which there is no serious dispute. The moral question can be put this way: At what point in its existence ought we, and for what reasons ought we, to recognize that a human life should be protected in law?

On this issue, if no other, Peter Singer has it right. As the noted Princeton advocate of infanticide said in a June 20, 2005, letter to the New York Times rebuking Mario Cuomo for his confused thinking about abortion: “The crucial moral question is not when human life begins, but when human life reaches the point at which it merits protection. . . . Unless we separate these two questions—when does life begin, and when does it merit protection?—we are unlikely to achieve any clarity about the moral status of embryos.”

That moral question is also and unavoidably a political question. One might make the case that it is the most fundamental of political questions. If politics is deliberating how we ought to order our life together, there can hardly be a more basic question than this: Who belongs to the we? Although ostensibly removing it from politics, the abortion decisions forced into the political arena an issue that was thought to have been settled in the centuries of civilizational tradition of which our polity is part. Namely, that it is morally wrong and rightly made unlawful to deliberately kill unborn children.

I've only drawn out the three most outstanding points, but there's much, much more to recommend the article. The entire piece is well worth reading and is a valuable contribution to current discussions on bioethics and the right to life.

Richard John Neuhaus, "The Politics of Bioethics" First Things (November 2007), 23-28.

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