Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Morality and Being Human

“Human” is not a morally relevant category. By this I mean that nothing of moral consequence necessarily hinges on whether or not a person is or is not human.

Recently, I have seen it mentioned in a few places that the fact that an entity is ‘human’ has profound moral consequences. For example, in Lee Silver’s presentation at Beyond Belief 2, he quoted a source that said that science had proved that abortion was wrong because science had proved that a human life starts at conception.

Richard, in a comment to yesterday’s blog, asked me to clarify whether my claim, the moral quality of an action does not depend on the agent’s reasons for performing it by asking, Do you mean a *human* action, or any action?

Plus there is a line in the Star Trek movie, “The Undiscovered Country,” where Chekov says, “Everybody is entitled to basic human rights,” and a Klingon responds, “Human rights. The very name is racist.”

In fact, the fact that ‘human’ is not a moral category can be most easily demonstrated by appeal to science fiction, where humans encounter a wide variety of non-human life forms, all of which have moral worth. The statement in Star Trek IV was, in fact, racist. There is no such thing as human rights. There are only rights.

So, in my answer to Richard’s question, I do not mean *human* action in the sense that the fact that an action was performed by a human has special moral significance. The actions that I am speaking about are intentional actions – actions motivated by beliefs and, more importantly, (malleable) desires, regardless of the species of the agent that performed them.

Wherever desires are malleable we have reason to lend our support to a project of promoting desires that tend to fulfill the desires of others, and inhibiting desires that tend to thwart the desires of others. It does not matter whether we find those desires in a human, a Vulcan, a pet (the phrase ‘bad dog’ is, in fact, a moral statement), or a god.

Value consists in relationships between states of affairs and desires. Moral value consists in relationships between malleable desires and other desires. It has to do with desires that people generally have reason to promote (because they tend to fulfill other desires) and desires that people generally have reason to inhibit (because they tend to thwart other desires). The genetic composition of the agent is not a part of the formula. Does the agent have desires (reasons for action)? Does the agent have the capacity to figure out that certain malleable desires in others will tend to either promote or inhibit the fulfillment of his own desires). If so, we have all we need for moralit – without once mentioning the biological family of the agent.

If a being has no desires, then it has no reasons for action. It has no reason to promote certain desires in others or to inhibit other desires. It has no reason to do anything. That which has no desires cannot be harmed in any morally relevant way by the actions of another. Abortion does not harm the interests of a fetus that does not yet have desires.

In the vast majority of cases, it does not thwart the desires of those who are opposed to abortion either. Those who are opposed to abortion have this position because they think that something of intrinsic merit is being destroyed. Yet, this belief that something of intrinsic merit is being destroyed is false. The desire on the part of those who oppose abortion to preserve something of intrinsic merit cannot be fulfilled. Even if abortion were made illegal, a desire to protect a state of intrinsic merit can never be fulfilled, because no ‘state of intrinsic merit’ exists. Only a false belief in a state of intrinsic merit exists. False beliefs are poor justification for real-world laws.

It may thwart the desires of other people who have an aversion to abortion. However, The issue also goes the other way. The fact that an individual is a ‘human’ does not automatically grant it moral rights. In order to have rights, an individual has to have interests. In order to have interests, an individual has to have desires – has to have the capacity to wish that something were the case, before those interests can be violated, and the individual can be wronged.

So, the concept of ‘human’ is both too broad and too narrow to encompass the realm of moral concerns. It is too narrow in that non-human things with desires also have interests, and desires to fulfill or thwart other interests will necessarily imply desires that fulfill or thwart the interests of non-human entities. It is too broad in that there are humans without desires, and thus humans without interests, and thus humans that cannot be wronged.