Taken as a whole, the discussions revealed several salient points. It was instructive to witness the ease with which various speakers could embrace infanticide or dehumanize unborn life—recall (philosopher Elizabeth) Harman’s argument that unborn children “really are a lot like plants.” But even more instructive was how unalarmed many in the Princeton audience seemed to be by any of this. I had forgotten that, for more than a few in the academic elite, this is just par for the course.
It was gratifying to see that all of the panelists agreed that the pro-life argument did not rest on illicit theological beliefs (something the Princeton biologist Lee Silver absurdly charges), though it was frustrating to see that, while pro-choice philosophers feel they have to take the pro-life argument seriously, they frequently respond to caricatured versions of it. ... Nonetheless, most anyone present would agree that Lee, George, Haldane, and Marquis showed that the pro-life argument was every bit as intellectually sophisticated as the pro-choice alternatives—indeed, from my perspective it is more coherent and more plausible, since it does not entail bizarre premises (“I was never an embryo” claimed by Rutgers professor Jeff McMahan) or repulsive conclusions (such as the moral legitimacy of infanticide, argued by Peter Singer)....
When it comes to bioethics, much is at stake for the foundations of our political life. At the end of the panel, one questioner expressed this well. If we redefine our founding principle so as to exclude those without consciousness or rationality from an inalienable right to life, he asked, what is to keep others from redefining it again to exclude those who aren’t morally upright (as he thought the “radical right” might do) or who aren’t religiously upright (as he thought radical Islam would dictate)? At this time in our national and world history, he wondered, shouldn’t we be uniting around the principle of the Declaration of Independence?
Peter Singer responded by pointing out that we don’t agree on who counts now, and we seem to get along just fine without agreeing on it. To unify around fair “civil procedures,” not around any particular value, is all we need to survive. Pat Lee, agreeing with the questioner, stressed the importance of the self-evident truths of the Declaration, reminding us of the role they played for Lincoln in his Gettysburg’s Address. Lee added that, while we are not equal in most respects, we do have a fundamental moral equality founded in our dignity as equally human—and we mustn’t forget this truth. Picking up this point, Robert George stressed how, in the history of the world, only America has been built on the principle of the “profound, inherent, and equal dignity of all human beings.” When you stop to think about it, he went on, “I think it’s a remarkable thing.” Given all the profound and manifest inequalities, it is remarkable that we’ve come to see this conclusion as self-evident.
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