Adventures in Ethics and Science

Making good ethical choices in the real world is hard, in large part because it requires us to find the best balance in responding to interested parties whose legitimate interests pull in different directions. The situation is further complicated by the fact that as we are trying to make the best ethical decision we can, or evaluating the ethical decision-making of others, we can’t help but notice that there is not universal agreement about who counts as a party with legitimate interests that ought to be taken into account, let alone about how to weight the competing interests in the ethical calculus.

We’ve talked about these difficulties before, especially in the context of the ethics of research with animals. In these discussions, we’ve noticed that some folks oppose such research across the board (at least if the research includes anything beyond purely observational studies in the field) on the basis that non-human animals’ capacity to feel pain creates a situation where it is unethical for humans to use them in any manner that might cause them pain (or discomfort, or distress, or boredom), no matter what benefit such use might bring to humans. Here, at least one set of people doing the ethical calculus assert that non-human animals need to be counted as an interested party, and that their interests ought not to be sacrificed in favor of those of any other interested party.

Of course, arguments about the ethical status of animal research are not the only place such ethical claims arise. I refer you to the new law signed this week by the Governor of Nebraska. As The New York Times reports:

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska signed a law on Tuesday banning most abortions 20 weeks after conception or later on the theory that a fetus, by that stage in pregnancy, has the capacity to feel pain. The law, which appears nearly certain to set off legal and scientific debates, is the first in the nation to restrict abortions on the basis of fetal pain.

What’s interesting to me about this legal strategy is that it seems to draw exactly the same ethical line favored by many supporters of animal rights or animal liberation — that we have ethical obligations to anything with the capacity to feel pain* — this despite the fact that at least some supporters of animal rights or animal liberation also support a woman’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.

Indeed, those who argue that women have such a right to choose include a good number of people who will recognize a fetus as an interested party, just one whose interests count for less in the ethical calculus than those of the woman in whose body it resides. Unlike those who assert that women have no right to terminate a pregnancy, they do not see the interests of the fetus as trumping all others.

And, for what it’s worth, as restrictive as the new Nebraska law is, not even this law holds the interests of the fetus as trumping all others. Again, from The New York Times:

The new law grants exceptions only in cases of medical emergency, the pregnant woman’s imminent death, or a serious risk of “substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function,” a provision experts interpreted as an effort to exclude an exception based on a woman’s mental health.

Here, there is some recognition of a limited set of circumstances where it is acceptable to sacrifice the interests of the fetus in favor of the interests of the woman carrying that fetus. There is not an assertion that the purported rights of the fetus may not be violated under any circumstances.

Which is to say, as troubling as this new law is for those who weight a woman’s interest in her mental and emotional health and bodily autonomy more heavily than they weight a fetus’s interests (in being born, or in not feeling pain), the new law at least implicitly recognizes that ethics require us to balance the competing interests of various parties.

The larger question then becomes how, as a society, we should deal with our disagreements about who has a legitimate interest in a given arena of ethical decision-making (or public policy) and about how we assign relative weight to those interests.

In real life, there are plenty of situations where we cannot deliver everything a given interested party wants or needs from us without also falling short in fulfilling our obligations to another interested party. Good ethical decision making requires more from us than just identifying hard lines that must never be crossed. Often, we are required to judge which obligations and which needs win the tug-of-war, and then to do the very best we can for the interests that lose the tug of war.

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*Let’s acknowledge up front that the claim that a fetus at 20 weeks or later past conception can feel pain is scientifically controversial. You can imagine how, if even some of the scientific evidence supports this claim, those inclined to identify capacity to feel pain as ethically crucial might want to err on the side of caution.

Comments

  1. #1 Dan Hicks
    April 15, 2010

    I’m sympathetic to this (broadly pragmatist) view of ethics. Do you promote it in your `Ethics in science’ class? I see you have standard Aristotle-Kant-Mill-relativism readings on your syllabus — readings that tend to be presented as (conflicting) absolutes, not different factors that need to be balanced.

  2. #2 Bijan Parsia
    April 15, 2010

    Isn’t this a pretty weak segue? After all, animal rightists who argue that an animal has a right to life are relevantly analogous in their formal ethical position to anti-abortionists who argue that a fetus has a right to life. Most right-to-lifers acknowledge limitations on that right (canonically self-defense or defense of innocents in general).

    I think the interesting disanalogy is that anti-abortionists generally don’t seem to be sincere in their formal beliefs, but seem more concerned with restricting women’s behavior and/or punishing (certain classes of) women.

    The other big disanalogy is the distribution of the benefit. In the case of woman/fetus, there is a direct and intimate clash of interests (as the fetus is literally inside the woman). In the case of animal research, there is no like analogy, but more diffuse and indirect (though still significant) benefits.

    So, I might object to chopping me up even if the elixir uniquely derived from my rendered flesh would cure all extent cancers, but still acknowledge that if I were rampaging with a knife due to drug induced psychosis that other people had a right to stop me with deadly force. I certainly object to using me to test the lethality of some drug that might help manage hypertension.

    So, while there may be animalists that say silly things like “because animals feel pain it’s immediately off the table in every way to do anything that causes them the slightest discomfort”, surely they are not the interesting case?

    The interesting issue is why do we have an across the board ban on (certain classes) of research on humans, in spite of the scientific superiority and huge benefits that could bring, and not on other creatures with interests (which I trust that animals have)? Especially, since we all now acknowledge that animals deserve some consideration (e.g., humane treatment). Indeed, one consideration — their inability to give informed consent — puts humans into a more protected category (unlike animals).

  3. #3 Theodore
    April 15, 2010

    I am definitely going to agree that the essential conflict here is the definition of “personhood”. A sort of who gets into the club sort of issue. Two examples come to mind. Would plants that can respond to an external stimulus be included. Is that pain? Is that wrong? Why or why not?

    I would also add comatose individuals who are well documented to be brain dead. In almost all states a formal and clinical definition of brain death is equivalent to death death and allows for the removal of cardio-pulmonary support without other documentation such as a DNR or living will. Interestingly, and with prior consent we do allow such individuals to be organ donors ‘for the greater good’ and can use their donated bodies for research but for some reason only after it has gone cold. They certainly can’t feel pain though still have sovereign rights. I certainly am not arguing that those should be taken away, or that we should immediately start using them for grisly experiments, but I do feel it would be interesting to probe into the exact reasons why we shouldn’t.

    Again, It all relates to personhood and individuality alongside conflicting ethical compromises. Though to throw in a final jab, I don’t think the Kentucky legislation is sincerely about pain. Their argument seems to be a thinly veiled secular cover for what is a religious argument about individuality defined by the possession of a soul. I highly doubt that they would turn around and approve of abortions so long as the cancer er… fetus was properly anesthetized.

  4. #4 Erin
    April 16, 2010

    Small question, though it’s directly relevant to a friend of mine who’s gone through an abortion partly for this reason. What if you have a mental condition that requires you to take medication that would disable or kid the unborn child? If you don’t take it, you risk psychosis or suicide (or simply being unable to function as is the case with severe depression). That’s not “physical” as this law would define, but the risk to both mother AND child is severe enough to warrant the abortion of the child. Do we strap the woman down and watch her 24/7 to make sure she has the child sans medication without killing herself, or do we allow the medication and give birth to a kid with no brain/will soon die/severe retardation?

  5. #5 daedalus2u
    April 16, 2010

    Essentially all mammals will commit infanticide and cannibalism in the postpartum period under the right circumstances, when the mother experiences severe stress, metabolic or traumatic. Mammals have evolved this behavior because preserving the life of the mother in the postpartum period is the only mechanism by which the infants can possibly have reproductive success, either by surviving themselves (which they can’t do if their mother dies), or through their mother successfully having future offspring which would be the dead infants’ sibling.

    This is an extremely important and significant point. In the wild, the interests of the infant killed by an infanticidal mother and the interests of the mother exactly coincide. The dead infant is better off if the mother survives and successfully reproduces in the future. If the infant were a competent and rational adult, and made a decision that optimized its reproductive success, there are circumstances where the infant’s interests are best served by being killed so that its mother can survive. If a similarly related adult were in that circumstance, where it could choose to sacrifice itself so that another similarly related adult could survive, no one could rationally fault the adult that did the sacrifice, or the adult that survived.

    A mother’s infant shares half her genes. So does a full sibling. If two siblings were in a situation where both of them would die, but by one sacrificing him/herself then the other would survive, no one could legitimately fault either of them for making the logical decision. However, there are those who would fault the survivor. I suggest that the faulting of the survivor is not based on rational ethical considerations, but rather on using the tragic circumstance as an excuse to bully and damage the survivor and to move them down in the social hierarchy while moving themselves up.

    I see the abortion issue as a mechanism for “othering” people who make different choices and so moving them down in a social hierarchy. If they are moved far enough down, then they are no longer perceived as “fully human”, and more extreme measures can be taken against them, such as killing or enslaving them which is now “ok” because they are not “fully human”. Othering people is characteristic of top-down social hierarchies where “the other” is at the bottom, and so has fewer rights than those higher up.

    I think this hypothesis of the motivation behind most anti-abortion sentiments best fits the data. The goal does not seem to be a healthy infant, or better prenatal and postnatal care would be emphasized. The goal really does seem to be bullying and weakening the pregnant woman by thwarting decisions that she feels are in her best interests while providing nothing to help her.

    Once we understand that this is the motivation behind some anti-abortion sentiments, then we understand why anti-abortion sentiments are often accompanied by pro-death penalty, pro-war, anti-education, pro-racism, anti-health care, and anti-welfare sentiments.

    I outlined a variation of these ideas as comments on Greg Laden’s blog posts about animal rights in the context of using animals for experiments. I have a discussion of “othering” in my blog post on xenophobia.

  6. #6 Robert C. Jones
    April 20, 2010

    Thanks Janet. I’d like to address just one very salient point from your post. You write:

    “What’s interesting to me about this legal strategy is that it seems to draw exactly the same ethical line favored by many supporters of animal rights or animal liberation — that we have ethical obligations to anything with the capacity to feel pain* — this despite the fact that at least some supporters of animal rights or animal liberation also support a woman’s right to choose whether to continue or terminate a pregnancy.”

    There is absolutely no tension with holding these two views, once they are properly understood. I do not think that all sentient beings’ interests are equal. On my (and Singer’s (and many other animal ethics philosophers’)) view, it is perfectly coherent and consistent to hold both that all sentient beings have interests and that some of these beings’ interests outweigh others. This is because on this view, sentience (quite broadly, the ability to suffer physically, emotionally, or psychologically) is only a necessary condition for robust moral considerablility. It does not follow that all sentient beings have equally weighted interests. This is the difference between, say, a stone and a kitten, and a kitten and a human moral agent. The cat and the human have interests in a way that the stone does not. But once we group the cat and the human in the same general moral “club”, it doesn’t follow that the cat and human have equal interests. To use your language, from the fact that “we have ethical obligations to anything with the capacity to feel pain”, it does not follow that we have equally weighted ethical obligations to all things that possess the capacity to feel pain. That just doesn’t follow. So, I would argue that if a fetus is sentient, then yes, it has interests in a way that a stone or non-sentient fetus does not, however, in my view, its interests are easily trumped by the mother’s interests (for reasons that I elaborate on elsewhere). But I see no tension or hypocrisy in holding the views that you press on here. Cheers.

  7. #7 Dario Ringach
    April 22, 2010

    I won’t disagree with Robert here. Except to note that I don’t think this is how many animal rights activists read Singer and others. I think the vast majority actually insist on the interests of all beings being weighted equally, from worms to humans. Am I wrong?

  8. #8 Cleveland
    April 23, 2010

    Classic Professor Jones, absolutely classic. Another revelation of the gobsmacking hypocrisy of the AR wackynut. Your explanation of why there is no “tension” between your arbitrary preferences makes it clear there is no genuine principle at play. Just your random and contradictory beliefs, dressed up in convenient arguments.