Bioethics and Philosophy

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The interesting thing about science today is that is progresses at a rate which leaves many human minds behind. It is not unusual for biotech scientists to come up with a new scientific advancement that radically questions our understandings of life and humanity, only for them to then call for philosophers to have an ethical debate to decide if such technology is actually good for humanity, and in our interests, or if it is technology that too fundamentally alters or questions the foundations of our understandings of life. Similarly, it is not unusual for scientists who are at the very cutting edge of physics to collaborate with philosophers to act as a sort of vanguard of science, to come up with theories and conjectures that might conceptualise what the missing areas of the Standard Model might look like.

This blog post is primarily about bioethics. Philosophers have for many years been involved in debates about abortion, embryonic research, and the sciences of life, to try and come up with sensible rule of thumb ideas about what is moral and ethical, and what kind of research might be immoral. By no means are bioethical debates done and dusted, with vociferous debate on both the pro-life and pro-choice shades of opinion to give but one example. It is strange where the logic of bioethics leads people, when the concept of humanity and the rights of the human are logically analysed. One philosopher, Peter Singer, caused controversy a couple of years ago when he suggested that if it was generally considered acceptable to abort an unborn baby at 20 weeks gestation, that it was also rationally acceptable to be able to kill newborn viable babies as an act of birth control. There was a storm of media controversy when he made this remark; however his position was based on a sort of reductio ad absurdum that the logic of which, whilst stoking tempers, was never quite refuted.

In this blog post I would like to make a contribution to the debate which might help rationalise the language used in bioethics.

We accept that humans have human rights. But do unborn babies have human rights? Are they not human beings? Or should we classify them as not humans, but ’embryos’ or ‘foetuses’ instead? But even they have rights, as there is the concept of an illegal act of killing an unborn baby, which would carry with it a jail sentence. If we are going to give rights to unborn children, where do we draw the line? Should those rights not reach back up to the point where the sperm fertilises the egg? In some ways, if we want to be completely clinical, we have to accept that the point when a sperm fertilises the egg is the point where a human life, and its attendant human rights, begin. But this would suggest morning after pills and abortions are murder. It is no wonder that to many people the current system of law in the UK seems inconsistent and unsatisfactory to many people. Either no termination should be legal after conception, in which case abortion and the morning after pill are murder. Or any and all terminations should be legal after conception; in which case why shouldn’t you should be able to abort a baby at 39 weeks?

Part of the problem is the concept of human rights. In the final analysis, “Human” is a word, and is subject to the laws of linguistics. A word cannot always be defined using a mathematical equation, or by reference to some empirical measurement. When they describe concepts, the meaning of words have to be intuited rather than measured. How people intuit the meaning or words is a subjective consideration.

There is something in philosophy called the heap argument. Let us say that there is a large heap of sand on a table top. I take one grain of sand away. Is the heap of sand still a heap? Of course it is. Then I take away another grain of sand, and another, one by one, checking each time that the heap is still a heap. Eventually there are only five grains of sand left. Is that a heap? No. most certainly not. But … at what point did the heap stop being a heap? Can anyone tell?

This argument demonstrates a difficulty, not with physics, but linguistics.  The word ‘heap’ can only be defined diaphanously. It is quite possible that the word ‘human’, similarly, can only be defined in quite diaphanous terms. Because of this a lot of ethical debate on life science, and pro-choice or pro-rights debate, is wasted hot air, because the debaters are using terms and concepts like ‘human’ which cannot easily be defined anyway, and they are using them like absolute references whilst being ignorant of the ambiguity.

Probably the only completely foolproof philosophical position, which cannot be falsified or refuted, is for the concept of human life and human rights to begin at the point of fertilisation of the egg. All abortions and morning after pills should be viewed as unlawful.  If it is any consolation, there are many previous societies in the history of the human race that have practised infanticide, and understood it exactly as murdering and infant and robbing it of its life. Whether that would be a palatable observation to make of modern British society to many of its citizens is another matter.