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Posts Tagged ‘respect’

Empathy for “Entities”?

July 29th, 2010 3 comments

The controversy continues, as it must. I recently explored the issue of late-term abortions through a sort of thought experiment, asking whether anencephalics were “human” in any meaningful sense. A couple of posts later, and after a discussion about the point here at home and an internet-mediated exchange with Andrew Sullivan (see here, here, here, and here), I answered my own question — they are human and entitled to respect.

My readers mostly disagreed. Here are some of their responses to my rethinking:

“I think your initial comment was correct, and that you are silly to back down to Andrew Sullivan’s emotional bleating. What makes us human is our brain. A “baby” with no brain isn’t human in any real or significant sense of the term.

“Aborting such an entity raises none of the moral questions raised by aborting a fetus that already has the cognitive equipment of a human, or which will have such cognitive equipment in the near future.

“Yeah, the entities look vaguely human, but they have no brain, dude. They’re not entitled to any respect or empathy, because there’s nothing there to empathize with. You might as well have empathy for your desk lamp.”

This next reader agreed, eloquently:

“[I]…disagree with Sullivan. It’s important to distinguish between empathy, which requires something similar enough that we can imagine what it is like to be that other, from the emotional response to something that is physically similar to us. People cry at funerals, but that corpse is not another person. People sometimes imagine what it is like to be dead and in a coffin, but that of course is a pretense. The fact that our animal brains are cued by a corpse’s appearance to the person who once was doesn’t change that fact. Nor is a brain-dead corpse a person, even if the heart and lung are kept beating by modern medical technology. For all it might look like the person who once was, it isn’t. Nor is an anencephalic infant a person. In all three cases, the appearance of another human organism can tug at our heartstrings and cause us to imagine there is someone there. But there isn’t.”

Finally, this reader, who expressed disappointment in my change of heart:

“I found your original post refreshing and rational….”

“[I]t seems like you’re backing down now. All I can say is I wish you wouldn’t. You shouldn’t have to back down from asking a thoughtful question.”

Thanks to these readers and to others for their comments. Just a few additional thoughts seem in order.

I’d like to think I didn’t “back down,” which suggests some kind of intimidation. (Is anyone really intimidated, short of a threat of litigation or violence, on the internet?) No, I had a change of heart, upon reflection. My earlier position was lifted, more or less intact, from my days as a philosophy student. But I’m no longer than person, and —  when pushed — I discovered that my views had changed, probably without my realizing it. I will confess that when I originally wrote that anencephalics weren’t human in the sense that mattered to me, it didn’t feel…right. There’s a difference in making a logically sound argument and believing it in your bones.

Nor did I — or do I — apologize for asking the question. Just because I ended up answering it differently than I or my readers expected doesn’t mean it was wrong to ask it. Judging from the intellectual firestorm this issue has generated, it seems that my raising it was a great thing.

Of course, I’ve gone back to read my “change of heart post” with Talmudic scrutiny. And I find that I never said that I had “empathy” for anencephalics; the readers’ comments suggest why that term isn’t descriptive. I did say that they are entitled to respect, and I’d say that whether or not I thought they were “human.” As I also stated in that later post (and with apology for quoting myself):

“[P]art of the problem is that we generally afford so little respect to other species that when babies without cognitive capacities appear, thinking of them as similar to other animals with lower cognition can lead to a cold place. For me, then, this conversation is a reminder that humans are part of a larger, teeming universe, and that we mostly do a terrible job of remembering and respecting that.”

Finally, I want to bring this conversation back to the women carrying these unfortunate offspring. I think we can agree that they are entitled to respect and empathy. (Here’s Sullivan’s collection of the stories, current as of about a week ago, just in case you need an empathy boost.) Their view of an anencephalic is entitled to respect, and to our deepest empathy: Can any of us really know how we’d feel (or act) in such a situation? And how might we want our own decisions treated in such a case?

As an staunch member of the pro-choice community, it’s important to keep in mind that some have made moving decisions not to abort, even in these cases. Most seem to do so for religious reasons, but…whatever. There should be enough respect go to around.

“Sleeping Giant” of Student Protests Awakes in VA — McDonnell (Sort of) Backs Down

March 10th, 2010 No comments

As regular readers of this blog know, I’ve been following the story of how the Virginia Governor, Bob McDonnell, and his Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, have been working overtime to set the clock back on anti-gay discrimination. First, McDonnell issued an Executive Order that conspicuously omitted “sexual orientation” from the list of classes that the Executive Branch wouldn’t discriminate against (the former two governors had expressly included the category). Then Cuccinelli took the unprecedented step of writing a needless letter to the state’s universities, informing them that their policies against sexual orientation discrimination were in violation of state law. I responded to the first story here, and the second here.)

I’ve been quite gratified by the response over the past couple of days. Yesterday, Taylor Reveley, the President of William and Mary (my alma mater), issued a pitch-perfect letter in response. After noting that the process of reviewing the AG’s letter had just begun, he went into high dudgeon:

For now, let’s be clear that William & Mary neither discriminates against people nor tolerates discrimination on our campus.  Those of us at W&M insist that members of our campus community be people of integrity who have both the capacity to meet their responsibilities to the university and the willingness to engage others with civility and respect.  We do not insist, however, that members of our community possess any other particular characteristics, whether denominated in race, religion, nationality, sex, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or any other of the myriad personal characteristics that differentiate human beings.  We certainly do not discriminate against people on such grounds, or tolerate discrimination against them.  This is the way we live our lives together at William & Mary, because we believe this is the way we should live our lives together. This is not going to change (emphasis added).

Then, today’s Richmond Times-Dispatch reported on the protest against these changes by about 1,000 students at Virginia Commonwealth University. (Here’s a link to the accompanying video, which for some evil reason won’t embed.) I’ll confess that I felt somewhat vindicated after I’d gotten into an argument with another W&M alum over at the school newspaper’s website over whether people would actually care enough to protest. (As Marge Simpson once said when seeking confirmation that gloating was wrong: “See?”) Go, VCU!

McDonnell is now channeling one of those cartoon characters that retreats in a panic by running through a succession of doors, leaving cut-out imprints of himself in each ex-door. Just a few hours ago, he issued something called an “Executive Directive” — not the same thing as an “Executive Order”, although the differences between the two are obscure. But the Directive is pretty good, even if it seems to have opened up a fissure between McDonnell and Cuccinelli. From the Directive:

Employment discrimination of any kind will not be tolerated by this Administration. The Virginia Human Rights Act recognizes the unlawfulness of conduct that violates any Virginia or federal statute or regulation governing discrimination against certain enumerated classes of persons. The Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution prohibits discrimination without a rational basis against any class of persons. Discrimination based on factors such as one’s sexual orientation or parental status violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution. Therefore, discrimination against enumerated classes of persons set forth in the Virginia Human Rights Act or discrimination against any class of persons without a rational basis is prohibited.

Consistent with state and federal law, and the Virginia and United States Constitutions, I hereby direct that the hiring, promotion, compensation, treatment, discipline, and termination of state employees shall be based on an individual’s job qualifications, merit and performance…. Any cabinet member, agency head, manager, supervisor or employee who discriminates against a state employee or prospective employee in violation of the law or this standard of conduct shall be subject to appropriate disciplinary action, ranging from reprimand to termination.

[C]ivility, fair treatment, and mutual respect shall be the standard of conduct expected in state employment.

McDonnell went as far as he could being true to his long-standing, social conservative convictions; convictions that he downplayed during his campaign. But when Cuccinelli’s letter caused people to take to the streets, the President of one of the state’s flagship schools to write a letter in opposition, and a Board member from another (George Mason) to declare the actions “reprehensible,” McDonnell realizes that what he’d unleashed might stand in the way of his political future, which is commonly thought to be extremely bright (and ambitious). So he’s backed down, bailed out, and run.

And really, I don’t care much about his reasons for doing so. I’m just warmed by the political heat that made this go away — at least for now. If the universities are wise, they’ll issue some generic statement in support of McDonnell’s Directive, declare that their anti-discrimination policies are in conformance with it, and essentially ignore Cuccinelli. And then figure out how to survive in a state that doesn’t financially support what they’re doing.