In politics and popular culture the term ‘philosophy of death’ is sometimes used as a weapon in the grim battle over abortion and end-of-life policy. Some in the ‘pro-life’ camp say that its opponents hold a ‘philosophy of death’ that favors the demise of living things (for some examples of this use of ‘philosophy of death,’ google the combination ‘philosophy of death’ and ‘pro-life’). Of course, the other political camp refuses to be maligned in this way, and rejects the label ‘anti-life’. It calls itself ‘pro-choice;’ but employs similar nefarious tactics, as its self-description lends itself to the impression that its opponents are ‘anti-choice’—that they are against freedom.
The two camps are utterly deadlocked; they cannot reason with each other; all too often they instead use bullying, mud-slinging, and scare tactics. But political choices that are not based on clear reason are unstable. We need to try to reach a rational consensus if we can, or else acknowledge that we just don’t know what to say, and take our ignorance into account in creating policy.
The philosophy of death is the study of the nature and significance of death, and the philosophy of life is the study of the nature and significance of life
Unfortunately, a set of really tough and confusing philosophical issues lies at the heart of the debate. These issues are being investigated in two growing areas of research: the philosophy of death, which is the study of the nature and significance of death, and the philosophy of life, which is the study of the nature and significance of life. The book Cambridge Companion to Life and Death, which will appear later this year, offers a selection of new work in these areas. In what follows I will describe one of the issues in play, and point out some of the ways in which it bears on the debate.
The issue is this: what are we?
A simple and straightforward answer is that we are human animals—each of us is identical to an animal that is a member of the species Homo sapiens. Ironically, most of the people who call themselves ‘pro-life’ would reject this claim, even though it readily lends itself to the ‘pro-life’ opposition to abortion, given that the existence of a human animal begins at or soon after conception. If that is when human animals come to exist, and we are animals, then to kill such a being is to kill one of us. Since killing creatures like us would be hard to justify, abortion, too, would be difficult to defend. Many in the ‘pro-life’ camp would also oppose hastening the death of a victim of persistent vegetation, brought on by the death of the cerebrum (the higher brain), as in the cases of Karen Ann Quinlan and Terry Schiavo. Once again, the view that we are animals lends support to their opposition, for an animal in a persistent vegetative state is still a living animal.
If we are not human animals, what are we? Many philosophers say we are ‘Lockean persons.’ They follow John Locke, a 17th Century philosopher who understood a person to be something that is essentially self-aware. To say that something is essentially self-aware is to say that it cannot possibly exist without being self-aware. An updated version of Locke’s view is that persons are creatures for whom the capacity for self-awareness is essential. According to modern-day Lockeans, I am a person in this sense, and so are you.
Isn’t this the position taken by people in the ‘pro-life’ camp? One might have thought so, as a great many of them would say that we are wholly mental beings—beings whose essential attributes are limited to mental properties, such as the capacity for self-awareness. But theorists who say that we are Lockean persons usually note that the capacity for self-awareness is not acquired until after birth (around the age of two years), and is destroyed at the death of the cerebrum. This suggests that Lockean persons do not come into existence until after birth. So they do not die when fetuses are aborted. Nor are they harmed when the death of a human being in a persistent vegetative state is hastened. Hence modern-day Lockeans are rarely found in the ‘pro-life’ camp.
A difficulty confronting Lockeans is clarifying what sort of mental beings we are supposed to be, and how these beings are related to human animals. It is about as clear as can be that human animals exist, and also quite evident that, at a certain point in their lives, typical human animals develop a brain which, in time, begins to function. Can’t they use their brains to think? If so, why not say that these animals are the beings that are self-aware? Why posit the existence of some sort of mental being whose self-awareness is essential to it?
However, saying we are animals makes it harder to defend the ‘pro-choice’ position and the view that it is unobjectionable to hasten death in end-of-life cases. The claim can no longer be that our existence begins after birth and is ended by the death of the higher brain. Neither side, it seems—pro-life or pro-choice—wants to say that we are human animals.