There’s nothing like a couple of the twentieth century’s greatest minds discussing the issue of abortion to bring the debate back down to the basic questions, such as how to negotiate conflicting values, and what makes a human, a human.
In a video posted yesterday on Milk and Cookies featuring clips from the 2006 Tony Kaye documentary "Lake of Fire," Noam Chomsky and Peter Singer discuss the ethics of the abortion debate.
Singer, the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, and laureate professor at the Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics (CAPPE), University of Melbourne, made a particularly interesting point, and brought the discussion to the most basic level—why is killing a human being wrong? The failure of the public to be able to tackle this ancient philosophical question, he says, is part of the reason that the abortion debate has been so stunted. Instead, we’ve focused on whether or not the fetus is a human being, without looking at the underlying questions of what makes killing a human being wrong. In one sense, Singer says, the fact that the fetus is a member of our species and alive makes it a human being.
“But what are the characteristics that make it particularly wrong to kill a human being? Why do we think that killing a human being is normally wrong? I think if you start asking those questions, you get to see that it’s not just being a member of the species homo sapiens that makes killing wrong, it’s rather the fact that us, you and me and anyone else listening here, is a being that has got certain capacities. Can think… is aware of the fact that he or she is living and wants to go on living, and all of those things contribute to why we think that for someone, say, just randomly to shoot people in the street is a terrible thing. But none of that applies to the fetus—when most abortions are performed the fetus is not even conscious, and it’s certainly never a being that can think, ‘I want to go on living.’”
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Certainly a difficult discussion to have, but nonetheless an important one. What makes death in some instances reasonable, and in others devastating? Chomsky, a professor emeritus of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), believes that this is an instance of conflicting values. On one hand, there’s the value of the preservation of life and on the other, there’s the value of letting a woman control her body and her future.
“The values that we hold are not absolute. They are always contingent. They conflict. And life is made up of decisions and complicated situations and cases of conflicting values…. Choice is legitimate. Preserving life is legitimate. And sometimes they run into conflict.”