John Finnis on the Moral Status of the Fetus

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 \AM\.\Wed\.

Last Friday, John Finnis, whom I and many others consider to be one of the foremost living Catholic intellectuals, debated philosophers Peter Singer and Maggie Little at the Princeton conference Open Hearts, Open Minds and Fair Minded Words (Mirror of Justice‘s own Rick Garnett discussed the constitutionality of legalized abortion on Saturday). My friend, Ryan Anderson, over at Public Discourse has published a revised version of Prof. Finnis’ opening remarks, which are well worth the read. Here are two snippets from the piece (be sure to read the whole thing at Public Discourse):

The thing about moral status is, if you believe in morality at all, that it is not a matter of choice or grant or convention, but of recognition. If you hear anyone talk about conferring or granting moral status, you know they are deeply confused about what morality and moral status are. The very idea of human rights and status is of someone who matters whether we like it or not, and even when no one is thinking about them; and matters, whether we like it or not, as at bottom an equal, because like us in nature as a substantial kind of being.

About the moral status of the fetus, it’s clear, I suggest, beyond doubt, after forty years of intense philosophical discussion, that there’s no credible halfway house between, on the one hand, acknowledging that whether we like it or not the fetus—indeed the embryonic baby from the outset—has the same radical equality of nature that we all have despite myriad differences, and on the other hand joining Peter and Jeffrey in denying two things: (1) denying that the primary question is one of fact—shared nature as beings all having or capable of developing (given only food and protection) rational characteristics and activities, and (2) denying equality or ethical or moral entitlement to rights such as life until some time after birth (and here I think Reiman’s position will prove more stably defensible than Peter’s in making that years after birth; but of course neither of them can limit their denial of human equality to conditions of infancy; the denial extends to various sorts of disablement and decay). And each of them goes wrong from the outset in making “moral status” the fundamental predicate in the discussion, instead of predicates of the form “person,” “rational nature,” “kind of being.”

Notre Dame Law School is very blessed to have both John Finnis and Rick Garnett on board.

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You Cannot Eat Rights

Monday, August 9, 2010 \PM\.\Mon\.

There was a fascinating article in yesterday’s New York Times about the current controversy in India over how best to deal with the country’s hunger problem (HT: Matt Yglesias):

Inside the drab district hospital, where dogs patter down the corridors, sniffing for food, Ratan Bhuria’s children are curled together in the malnutrition ward, hovering at the edge of starvation. His daughter, Nani, is 4 and weighs 20 pounds. His son, Jogdiya, is 2 and weighs only eight . . . And they are hardly alone: India’s eight poorest states have more people in poverty — an estimated 421 million — than Africa’s 26 poorest nations, one study recently reported.

Sonia Gandhi [leader of the ruling Congress party], is pushing to create a constitutional right to food and expand the existing entitlement so that every Indian family would qualify for a monthly 77-pound bag of grain, sugar and kerosene. Such entitlements have helped the Congress Party win votes, especially in rural areas.

To Ms. Gandhi and many left-leaning social allies, making a food a legal right would give people like Mr. Bhuria a tool to demand benefits that rightfully belong to them. Many economists and market advocates within the Congress Party agree that the poor need better tools to receive their benefits but believe existing delivering system needs to be dismantled, not expanded; they argue that handing out vouchers equivalent to the bag of grain would liberate the poor from an unwieldy government apparatus and let them buy what they please, where they please.

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Social Contract and Morality

Friday, June 11, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

Kyle Cupp has a brief post describing the dehumanizing moral effects of seeing human dignity and rights as springing entirely from a social contract (implied or explicit):

This reduction occurs when we understand and act upon our moral obligations to one another only within the framework of a social contract–when we limit our obligations to those who have entered into such contracts and consider ourselves obligated only to those who share our citizenship, have signed a treaty we have signed, or participate with us in some other contractual arrangement. I make this reduction when I don’t care about torturing terrorists because they’re not signers of the Geneva Conventions, when I wish to alienate the immigrant who enters my country against my country’s laws, when I ignore my obligations to those not yet born because the laws of the land do not recognize their personhood, or when I insist that others shouldn’t be given Constitutional rights when the rights I wish to withhold from them are basic human rights.

I think that he’s right as far as he goes, but I don’t think that his point that basic human rights and duties are inherent to humanity (rather than assumed via some sort of contract/relationship) is actually the point usually at dispute in our society. Rather, what seems often to be disputed is what the extent of basic human rights are — and which “rights” are merely agreed civic rights which we grant explicitly via the social contract.

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The Culture of Death: The Fruit of False Intellectual Ideals

Friday, January 22, 2010 \PM\.\Fri\.

In his encyclical Aeterni Patris, Pope Leo XIII sought to advance the restoration of Christian philosophy against the modern trends of secular philosophy, emerging from Enlightenment rationalism. The critique of modern intellectual errors and the way in which such false thinking manifests itself in the world has deeply shaded my personal reflection on the tragedy of legal abortion.

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Catholic Rights Talk

Tuesday, October 7, 2008 \PM\.\Tue\.

It’s become increasingly common for the Church to talk about “rights” when describing our fundamental duties to our fellow men. Reading through Faithful Citizenship, you’ll find several references to the “fundamental right” to life, echoing statements by the late Pope John Paul II in various encyclicals. However you’ll also find reference to the right to a just wage, housing, accessible health care, the choice of where to educate one’s children, etc. For instance: “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right.” (Faithful Citizenship, 80) “Parents—the first and most important educators—have a fundamental right to choose the education best suited to the needs of their children, including public, private, and religious schools.” (Faithful Citizenship, 72)

I must admit, I really wish the Church had not got into using “rights” terminology at all — in part because I think the Church is using the term “right” in a different way from the standard American usage, thus causing confusion; and in part because it seems to me that it reverses the direction of obligation in human actions.

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