Wednesday, November 14, 2007

There's Sentience and There's Sentience

Earlier tonight, I had an interesting discussion with a guy who was standing out on the corner, just north of the Harold Washington Library. He was handing out nicely printed brochures advocating a vegan lifestyle and talking about the horrible injustices and cruelties allegedly inflicted on animals by the meat industry. I remembered that brochure, because I'd received a copy a few years ago from another activist who was doing volunteer work on Chicago Avenue.

The guy I spoke with tonight was named Wayne Hsiung. He told me that he was an attorney, and his father was a scientist. He handed me a business card, bearing the slogan "big ears, bigger mouth". The slogan was apt.

To his credit, Wayne did listen to me, and he seemed to be a guy who thought for himself to some extent. Even though he was handing out vegan pamphlets, he wasn't afraid to admit that he sometimes disagreed strongly with other vegan philosophers and leaders about particular issues.

However, he also made it clear to me that he was an atheist who regarded all religions with suspicion and distrust, believing them to be unscientific, irrational and oppressive. So when I tried to explain that I believed that there were fundamental differences between people and animals, due to my belief that people were uniquely created in the image of God (as stated in the book of Genesis), Wayne made it clear that he thought that I was the victim of what a scientist named Richard Dawkins recently described as "the God delusion".

Wayne and I talked about the abortion issue as it related to the issue of animal rights. I brought up the subject of abortion, because philosophies espoused by Peter Singer had led to the perception that it was "speciesist" to suggest that there was anything unique or special about the race of homo sapiens.

Peter Singer is an animal rights leader and Princeton philosophy professor whose name was mentioned in the vegan brochure Wayne was distributing. Professor Singer had infamously concluded that there were times when it would be morally wrong to kill a pig, and times when it would be morally acceptable to kill a human infant --- and, of course, a human unborn child as well. So it seemed to me that the connection between abortion and the vegan lifestyle was worthy of discussion.

Given the fact that nearly 50 million or more unborn children had been legally killed in U.S. abortion clinics subsequent to Roe v. Wade, I couldn't help thinking that worrying about what happened to cows and pigs was a case of misplaced priorities, to put things mildly.

To me, it's common sense to conclude that there's a huge gap between the societal value of a human being and the societal value of a cow, a pig or a chicken. If you're driving down the road and you see a dead animal on the road (commonly known as "road kill"), it's likely that you call animal control (if you're in a town or city) or ignore the sight altogether (if you're on a major highway). If on the other hand it's a human baby that you see, you are likely to exhibit an altogether different response. Hopefully, you will call the police as soon as you can find a phone with which to do so. I would also like to think that you would stop, get out of the car, and attempt to save the person's life (if such a thing is possible) or, at the very least, stay with the body until the authorities arrive, even if the body has been dead for many days.

Peter Singer might call me a "speciesist," but personally, I think it's a good thing that we value human beings more highly than we value animals. I love animals, but I am not stupid enough to think that they are the moral equivalents of people.

When talking with Wayne, he was willing to acknowledge that it might be wrong to kill an unborn child in the second or third trimester. (In acknowledging that to be the case, he was willing to contradict Peter Singer.) But Wayne said that he thought that abortion in the first trimester was acceptable, because an unborn child had no sentience and no capacity to conceive of life outside of the womb (or of life in any form at all).

Interestingly, those are pretty similar to the criteria cited by Michael Tooley in his paper entitled "In Defense of Abortion and Infanticide," except that Tooley defined "sentience" in such a way that it enabled him to push the envelope much further than Wayne was willing to push it. Tooley was a Stanford professor whose views were very similar to Peter Singer's views. And I think that's worthy of some serious contemplation, because the arguments made by many people in defense of legal abortion are very similar to the arguments which a considerably smaller number of people have made in defense of the legalization of infanticide. So before we accept the legitimacy of the premises on which people have based their arguments in favor of legal abortion, we need to ask ourselves where those premises would likely lead us if we followed them to their logical conclusions. Do we really want to live in a society in which infanticide is considered to be an acceptable option? I think that most people now living would answer that they do not want to live in such a society.

When considering that there are people who argue in favor of the legalization of infanticide, you might be tempted to dismiss that fact as unimportant, given the fact that such people are so rare that they are highly unlikely to prevail politically in this country in the near or foreseeable future. But history teaches us that political climates can change quickly. In times of turmoil, people often look for scapegoats, which helps to explain some of the most heinous pogroms of the 20th Century.

Now, let's think for a moment about my acquaintance Wayne, and about his argument to the effect that "sentience" ought to be the dividing line.

It's true that animals such as cows, pigs and chickens possess some level of "sentience". Certainly, an animal is more sentient than a rock, a blade of grass or a block of wood.

But anyone who's ever spent time on or near a farm knows that there's a world of difference between the sentience of a barnyard animal and the sentience of a human being. The most mentally retarded human being on the face of the earth is still a genius compared with the average cow. Try spending an entire day standing in a field doing nothing but eating, defecating, fornicating and repeatedly saying "moo" and see how long it takes before you're bored out of your gourd. Then contemplate doing the same thing, day after day, for the rest of your life, with no ambition in life other than the desire to survive for another day so that you can do the same inane, boring thing over and over again.

Face it, people. Not withstanding the delusions of those who are Hindus, God created cows so that people (and other carnivores) would have delicious, protein-packed meat to eat. God did not create cows so that they could have intellectually stimulating conversations with one another, or so that they could build grand cathedrals in which to worship Him, or so that they could make beautiful music or paint beautiful pictures. Such activities are reserved for human beings, who alone are created in God's image.

Now, there are those, such as Wayne, who would point out that even the stupidest animal has a level of sentience which is higher than the level which is possible in a human fetus prior to the point when the human fetus has formed the neural connections which are necessary for conscious thought.

They may well be right about that. But I see a serious problem with the idea of deciding that sentience ought to be the dividing line, and it's simply this: Once we start deciding that some particular quality such as sentience ought to serve as the dividing line, we lose the sense that all human beings have intrinsic value simply because they are human beings. Once we lose that sense, we open a veritable "Pandora's Box" in which a host of rationalizations can be employed for the purpose of justifying murder.

In Nazi Germany, the Holocaust did not begin with the wholesale murder of the Jews, although that's obviously where it ended. It began with the belief that certain people --- specifically, mentally retarded people and physically handicapped people --- forfeited the right to life on account of the idea that they did not really live lives which were worth living. Somehow, I doubt that they polled the people they were killing in order to determine whether or not those people considered their own lives to be worthwhile.

Once the idea of a "life not worth living" was accepted, it was only a small step to take for the German people to conclude that other "undesirables" were likewise expendable.

What do you think would have happened if Hitler had prevailed? Do you honestly think that the Holocaust would have ended with the extermination of the Jews? Think again. Evil is self perpetuating. Having eliminated the Jews, the Nazis would have begun to look for a new class of "undesirables" to eliminate. Anyone perceived as different and alien would have become a target.

The only way to prevent that from happening is to take a strong stand on moral principle. And here's the principle: All human beings are special and created in the image of God, regardless of what you may think about the merits associated with their ethnic identities or religious beliefs or political alliances or sexual orientations or physical handicaps or mental handicaps.

As a Christian, I may abhor Communism or homosexuality or atheism, but that does not give me the right to kill people as a means of expressing my abhorrence of those things. The Declaration of Independence got it right: God has endowed all human beings, from the moment of their creation (not from the moment of birth) with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And I would add this: The right to life is logically the most important right of all, because a person cannot exercise any other right if other people are free to kill that person with impunity.

There are those who think that our nation ought to be absolutely neutral when it comes to religious ideas. I think that's a logical impossibility. To say that a human right is "inalienable," as the founders of our country did, is to make an inherently theistic statement, since such a statement acknowledges that the source of that right transcends human recognition of the existence of that right. You can live in the most oppressive nation on the face of the earth, but you still have inalienable rights, even if those rights are not recognized or respected by the people around you. If people are free to take your rights away, then they are not inalienable.

It's comforting to me to know that the source of all inalienable human rights is divine. God is a just God, and while He is merciful and longsuffering, the Bible teaches us that God will not tolerate evil forever.

I feel sorry for atheists such as Wayne Hsiung and Richard Dawkins, because they cannot state with any conviction that monsters such as Hitler will ever be adequately punished for their heinous deeds. Christians know better.
Justice may not always prevail in this life, but the Bible teaches that people eventually reap what they sow. Sometimes in this life. Sometimes in the life to come.

Like individuals, nations also reap what they sow. Think about that when you go to the polls to elect a president next November.

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