The Last Superstition: Black and White Morality

Cover of "The Last Superstition"

Chapter 4: Reference: My ass, personal communication

For the most part, Feser’s opinions are private, harmless affairs: whether he thinks that all things have final causes, or only some; or whether he thinks things have “essences” “neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”, as a famous person once said. But then he uses these opinions to advocate policies that cause unnecessary suffering:

Again, the soul is just the form of the human organism, so it is necessarily there as long as the living organism is. Hence it “leaves” only when the organism dies; and that means death, not severe brain damage, and not a person’s lapsing into a “persistent vegetative state.” […] abortion necessarily counts as murder at any point from conception onward, and whatever the circumstances of the conception, including rape and incest […] if you do agree that every innocent human being has a right to life, then you cannot consistently fail to take a “pro-life” position and thus favor outlawing all abortions (and all forms of euthanasia too) just as you’d favor outlawing any other form of murder. [p. 130]

The reason he mentions “persistent vegetative state” is Terry Schiavo, whom he mentions several times in the book. He argues that both she and a fertilized egg have “rational souls”: neither one is rational in the sense of being able to think or speak, but both have the potential to do so: ova by developing into adult humans, and Terry Schiavo by, presumably, recuperating.

This, of course, makes a mockery of the word “potential”: Schiavo had massive brain damage, and couldn’t possibly have recuperated without the sort of miracle that, elsewhere (p. 128, if you’re curious), Feser rules out in considerations of what “potential” means.

So in practice, when Feser says that X has a “rational soul”, this means little more than “X has human DNA”. And to the extent that he does this, he weakens the argument that the presence of a rational soul, by itself, makes it immoral to kill a being. Is it really murder to terminate an ectopic pregnancy? Or to help someone suffering an incurable disease to end their suffering?

We can all agree that it’s wrong to kill people. We all want to enjoy life, and to have more of it; and by the same logic, we can see that everyone else does, and we’ll all be happier if we don’t go around killing each other, and stop people from killing others. But as we consider cases further and further away from this simple, ordinary case, we can run into cases where the assumptions that led to the initial conclusion no longer hold, and thus the conclusion may no longer be the same. But it looks as though Feser wants a world of black and white morality.

Well, it’s nice that he wants that. And people in Hell want ice water, as a friend of mine used to say.

Series: The Last Superstition

5 thoughts on “The Last Superstition: Black and White Morality”

  1. This month, the science news reported that chimpanzees create more sophisticated tools than the public had originally credited to them. They create fishing rods out of sticks. They have social groups and bonds that are human-like in their orientation (or maybe humans are primate-like should be the way that is phrased). Most of the great apes do have some level of self-awareness –they pass the mirror test.

    We don’t call them human, of course, but perhaps we should grant them a different status than the animals that are raised and eaten as food. Certain orangutans likely have a higher IQ than some of our voting public. Apes have rules of fairness and can engage in deception. Some of them go to war with other ape tribes. They exhibit almost all of the traits of humans with the exception of speech. Self-control and a future view of their world may be missing from apes, or may possibly be present. We humans aren’t actually sure.

    In a black and white morality, apes are animals and humans are in a category of their own called “human.” But, if you spend any time with great apes, the edges of that moral stance begin to get soft and fuzzy.

    Embryos are also soft and fuzzy –and gelatinous and delicate. They are potential, but following that argument so are sperm and eggs themselves. So, we shouldn’t get oophorectomies or orchidectomies? Of course not. But, at what point in the pregnancy does an embryo become a potential human? Because an abortion at conception and an abortion while undergoing 9-month birth pangs are two very different states. Despite my very strong pro-life leanings, I don’t have a problem with abortion at conception nor abortion before the heartbeat at 6-7 weeks. After that, things get fuzzy until week 19-20 when a fetus can survive with aid outside of a body. It’s the 12 week period between the two states that is gray and unclear. An 8 month abortion is horrific.

    And because I believe in life, the Terry Schiavo case was particularly troubling. One side determined to terminate and the other side determined to keep her breathing. We could not save her under prior medical art. But medical art does change over time. If we brought her back to a conscious yet not functional state, would that be Terry? Would there be so much brain damage that Terry vanishes? Quite likely. She would be a potential human of a sort, but likely less human than a great ape.

    So, there are limits. And like any human, I live and examine my limits all the time. At least, all people should examine their limits or we end up in a category of human that is labelled mentally ill.


    1. We don’t call them human, of course, but perhaps we should grant them a different status than the animals that are raised and eaten as food.

      If I might make a suggestion: apes aren’t human and never will be, because species is defined by lineage. A chimp will never be the descendant of the line that led to Isaac Newton and Helen Keller, and therefore will never be human.
      But we can use the term “person” to denote an entity that is granted rights comparable to yours and mine. And yes, I’m quite willing to consider granting apes rights that we don’t grant to chickens (and to grant chickens rights that we don’t grant to earthworms or dust mites).
      In fact, we already do: there are animal cruelty laws that regulate what kinds of scientific experiments you can perform on different animals: you can cut a worm in half without anesthetic, or destroy a bacterium in a fire, but you can’t do that to a mouse or a dog.
      In the US and UK, I understand that the dividing line is vertebrates vs. invertebrates. And that by British law octopi are honorary vertebrates.


  2. You claim that Feser doesn’t understand potentiality. Why? I’m still not clear on that.

    You just seem to say ‘well embryos and people in persistent nonresponsive states can’t presently engage in rational thought, so Feser is wrongful to say they have a rational soul.’

    Now, since embryos mature themselves toward being able to presently engage in rational expression and reflection, a self-directed path of development, this indicates they have an active potential for rationality (as opposed to a merely passive potentiality to become a being with such a potentiality); that they have it in merely radical form, doesn’t change that. Feser is correct so far.

    Concerning Terri, your argument that ‘she would never have become rational again barring a miracles’ likewise is unpersausive. She still was numerically identical with the her preinjury self, right? So she still has a potentiality for rational thought, even if only radically, rooted in her nature. (Simmilarly, people in reversible comas have a blocked capacity, not no capacity, for rationality.)

    And, no, what he says about humans possessing a rational soul isn’t just ‘having human DNA.’ This seems to be the same mistake that the Katha Pollitt makes about George and Tollefsen’s animalism. Concerning the relationship of the soul and DNA, Moreland and Rae have some helpful comments in “Body and Soul.”

    Your complaint that in extreme cases – ectopic pregnancy and Euthanasia – the rule to not kill doesn’t apply is strange if you take seriously two things: you can never intend evil (not even so good can come) and what is good is determined by a things nature, or at least isn’t subjectively determined. I think these are reasonable to belive. From them you get: ‘You can never intentionally kill an innocent person.’ ‘Better to suffer evil than commit it,’ ‘let justice be done though the world perish ‘ and all that.

    Now, Regarding ectopic pregnancy, I’d recommend Kaczor’s discussion in “The Ethics of Abortion.” One should be careful to distinguish between direct abortions – always impermissible – and indirect abortions, which can be permissible if they abide by the principle of double effect.)


    1. Ah yes, the principle of double effect, which allows a pious doctor to split the hair between “direct” and “indirect” ways of terminating an ectopic pregnancy, and pretend that, in the latter case, they’re not killing the fetus just as much as in the former. The PDE may have some legitimate application (it seems to represent a natural psychological intuition that among other things explains the different responses to the Switch and Footbridge cases of the Trolley Problem), but surely enabling doctors to commit hypocrisy at the expense of their patients shouldn’t be one of them.

      (I am, of course, here setting aside the argument of whether an early-term fetus can reasonably be ascribed personhood. I think the inevitable resort to word-salad about “potential” basically concedes that it can’t).


    2. You claim that Feser doesn’t understand potentiality. Why? I’m still not clear on that.

      I don’t think I said that. I think I said that he applies the word “potential” to cases where it doesn’t belong.

      Concerning Terri, your argument that ‘she would never have become rational again barring a miracles’ likewise is unpersausive. She still was numerically identical with the her preinjury self, right? So she still has a potentiality for rational thought, even if only radically, rooted in her nature.

      At the time of her autopsy, and presumably at the time when she was in the news, half of Terry Schiavo’s brain was missing. Regardless of whether her feeding tube was left in or not, regardless of any treatment, there was no way that she would ever recover enough mental faculties to recognize people, carry on a conversation, or read a book.
      Do you dispute this? If yes, then please present some plausible way (not involving miracles) by which Schiavo could have gone from her brain-damaged self to being able to have a conversation.
      If not, then she wasn’t “potentially rational” in the sense that there’s a way to get from state A (persistent vegetative state) to state B (rational thought).
      If you want to argue that “potentially rational” means that there was some mystic essence of rationality pervading her cells or something, then a) demonstrate it, and b) that’s not how “potentially” is usually understood, so pick a term that won’t lead to as much confusion.


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