Tuesday, February 28, 2012
On Being a Body / On Partaking of a Life Form / and On the Giving of Life of this Form for the Sake of Lives of This and Other Forms
When I was an undergraduate, a number of what struck me as mutually supporting factors prompted me to convert to 'Popery,' as most of the American Founders, alas, would have called it - and as many, double-alas, would have denounced it. Two of these factors, both of which seemed to me somehow to be especially deeply connected, were also especially compelling.
The first such factor was that I seemed always to see humbly dressed folk in faded bluejeans and plaid shirts delivering boxes of donated items to the food & clothing pantry operated by St. John's Catholic Parish in Lawrence, Kansas, whose parking lot lay across the street from my window. The same humbly dressed folk, still humbly dressed, could then be found at Sunday mass, which I attended a few times as a curious onlooker, then as a guest. I was struck by how these humble yet generously giving people seemed to treat Sundays and other days as being in a sense continuous - as being of a piece - and in so doing seemed to treat their liturgical lives and their giving lives as being both of this selfsame piece. The parishoners, in other words, did not doll up on Sundays and strike worshipful postures, then dress down on other days and forget about Sundays. They dressed the same, and in a certain crucial sense acted the same, on all days - worshipping throughout the week, in effect, with the shape taken by their worship just slightly differing between Sundays and other days. 'Just slightly' in view of the second factor that somehow moved me...
The second factor was that there was always a corpse represented on the cross in these peoples' church. Corpse, corpor, corporeal. A dead body. For some reason that really hit me. It seemed important. The fellow whom these people worshipped and wept for had a body. He was a body. Somehow that made the whole thing more 'real' to this perhaps primitive, over-tactile, just-post-adolescent in a way empty crosses at other churches I'd visited by this point did not. (I might have mentioned something about this in my very first post here some several years back.) I know that the empty cross at these other places is said to represent a triumph - 'He is risen!' - and all of that; and sure, I buy it. But for some reason I still needed the body. (Habeus corpus!) And, what was more, that broken body seemed somehow connected to the broken people for the sake of whom the congregants throughout the week were dropping off all of those boxes of supplies. And both that body and the broken people whom it seemed connected to seemed also to work as reminders that we all are broken in our ways, just as surely as we're beautiful and God-partaking. It was in this sense, then, in addition to the sense made manifest in the non-changing mode of their dress throughout the week, that these people's Sunday and weekday forms of worship seemed to me continuous - always variations on one unifying theme.
And so I converted.
(Just, as it happened, before going off to Oxford, where I (a) quickly joined Michael Dummett's 'other parish' (St. Aloysius, on Woodstock just past St. Giles, then parish of the then-long-since laid-off Leyland laborers and now rather more opulent home of the Oxford Oratory, where the Prof and I often bumped into each other when we weren't at Blackfriars (more on all of which some other time)), and (b) first met our Tom (who kindly welcomed me by knocking at my door the very day I arrived).)
Now it seems to me, believe it or not, that all of this bears quite directly upon - and is born quite as directly upon by - several subjects that have figured importantly in discussions here at our site in the past several days.
One such subject, to which I will confine myself for now, is of course this matter of 'post-birth abortion' as advocated by these two strange (Swiftian?) authors whose recent peer-reviewed article Robby has shared with us. I gather, from an admittedly cursory reading, that the authors advocate allowance of this form of homicide on the same ground that many advocate allowance of more conventionally understood abortion - essentially, on grounds that it is 'persons,' understood in a particular sense to which I shall attend in a moment, whom legal and moral rights aim to protect, while foetuses and newborns are not yet persons in the requisite sense.
For some reason - a reason I'll hope now I might come to understand better by writing - I have never quite managed to find force in the argument from 'personhood.' And really, I've tried. This has been so ever since first I encountered what I think was a rendition of the argument in (the often wonderful) Professor Dworkin's book of 1993. (Life's Dominion, if I recall correctly, which might better have been titled Personhood's Dominion?) Moreover, for what I now suspect might be the very same reason, I have never been able to find force in what seem to me cognate arguments offered by some other philosophers, notably David Velleman, to the effect that cows' and other animals' lives lack value. Somehow all such arguments always have struck me as what I have often been tempted, for reasons I could not in the past and perhaps still cannot satisfactorily articulate, to think of as 'thin,' 'insufficiently dense,' 'non-viscous,' even 'desert airy' or altogether 'vacuous.' An impression of a sort of 'unbearable lightness of nonbeing' seemed to accompany my reading them. They seemed 'conjuring-trick-like' or 'insubstantial' relative to what they purported to be about - life, be it human or other animal life - even if 'deep' or insightful relative to what they were actually about - personhood, understood as something that is in fact categorically distinct from life even if dependent upon life as its essentially comingled substrate when 'embodied.' Something just seemed to be missing or left out of account.
Trying to make sense of those impressions now, what I seem to come up with is something like this: What the arguments all appear to have in common is two theses, the second of which builds upon the first but the first of which doesn't seem quite to register with me, at least relative to the argumentative purpose for which it is deployed. This first thesis is sometimes labeled 'value-internalism,' and has it that what is valuable in connection with some creature is only what can be valued, per some form of consciousness how ever rudimentary, by that creature. The second thesis is sometimes labeled 'wholism' but might better be labeled 'narrativalism,' and has it that a life - a full, temporally extended life - can be ('internally') valued by the creature living that life only insofar as the creature in question possesses a conception, or, in a more Kantian idiom, a 'representation,' of that life. Put these two theses together and you reach the unsurprising conclusion that 'the life,' qua life, of a creature lacking in consciousness of its own life as a temporally extended, narratival whole is ... valueless.
Now as suggested, I think that those who argue that cows' and other creatures' lives are devoid of value along these lines, on the one hand - people like Velleman - and those who argue that unborn and newborn humans' lives are devoid of value along such lines, on the other hand - people like Dworkin circa 1993? - are all in essence making the same argument. And somehow I find it ultimately unpersuasive in both cases - largely, I think, for reasons given here, in an argument that I offered in defense of animal rights against Vellemanians just around the time that I first joined this site. (How do you like that? I'm defending animal rights, as Singer has notably done, on the basis of an argument - more on which in a moment - that if correct means that Singer is wrong about infanticide.) The argument is titled What's the Harm?
So, what's the harm? And what's unsatisfactory about 'internalism' as characterized above? Well, the short-playing version to which I confine myself here is that I think it appeals to the wrong 'kind' or 'level' of internality, so to speak. Harm to a particular kind of creature - a creature that exemplifies a particular life form - it seems to me, can only be understood by reference to characteristics that are internal to (characteristic of) that creature's form of life, rather than by reference to experiences that are internal to (registering on) its form, how ever rudimentary or minimal, of consciousness. Such forms of consciousness, how ever rudimentary or sophisticated, are surely internal to (characteristic of) the forms of life with which they are associated, but they don't exhaust those forms; and waxing or waning, flourishing or withering, pertain to all characteristics, not just the consciousness characteristics, that are internal to the form. Indeed they pertain not only to all such characteristics, but to all of those characteristics as ordered in relation to one another in the manner constitutive of the form. 'All characteristics ensemble,' we might say. And that is ultimately because waxing and waning, flourishing and withering all pertain to the form itself, not just to individual or heaped up but unordered features of the form.
Hence it is cows as whole lives organically constituted by all of those integrated characteristics that are integratedly characteristic of cows that wax and flourish under some conditions, and wane and wither under other conditions. And the same goes for all other forms of life - all of these remarkable, beautiful, gorgeous, miraculous forms! - the particular conditions of waxing or waning varying with the particular forms. And to impose conditions upon cows, cats, crows, or other critters that prompt their waning or withering rather than their waxing and flourishing - always understood in this full, organic, 'qua cow' or 'qua crow' sense - in turn, seems to me to be always prima facie wrongful unless there is some quite compelling reason to do so - reason that itself sounds in life, and reason that does not needlessly or gratuitously or cavalierly subordinate some lives to other lives.
Now human beings, of course, wax and flourish under different conditions than do other creatures, though of course there is significant and growing overlap between the sets of conditions as we proceed from forms of life that bear less, to forms that bear more, in common with human life. And of course the same goes for waning and withering. And narratival consciousness, like deliberative rationality and conscience and a host of other oft-described 'higher' human functions, is of course a particularly prominent characteristic among all of those countless characteristics that jointly constitute the human form of life. That of course renders it not altogether surprising that some might find themselves sometimes becoming a bit absent-minded about some of our characteristic features and then finding themselves tempted in effect simply to equate human life to that one characteristic of human life that is narratival self-representation, or to equate value in connection with that life to value in connection with the living human human being's self-conscious 'internal' representation of that life. But the fact is that this form of consciousness is, still, only one of the many all-internally-ordered, organically constitutive characteristics of a human life, and there seems no reason what ever to interpret 'value' solely by reference to that characteristic alone rather than by reference to the whole lifeform of which it is only one critical characteristic.
It also seems to me, on essentially the same grounds as seem to me to underlie all that I just said, that early, late, and intervening 'phases' or 'stages' of a life of some form, rather like the organic or constitutive characteristics of that form, all must be understood as resting in deep (and again deeply ordered) organic unity with one another. All such stages, just like all constitutive characteristics, are jointly constitutive of the form of life in relation to which they represent or amount to stages. If this is right, then it is no more permissible to inflict unjustified harm - harm, again, as understood relative to the life form in question - on a particular creature in its 'early' or 'late' life than it is to inflict such harm on that creature in its 'middle' life. For harm is always done the creature - the creature as a representative instance of the life form - not to the 'creature-phase' as a representative instance of ... what?, that phase alone? One helps or harms the creature in one of its phases, one doesn't help or harm the phase.
To think otherwise than as I've just suggested, it seems to me, is effectively to fall into a sort of category error not unlike that of those amusing late 18th Century 'empiricists' and early 20 Century 'positivists' who took themselves to be seeing 'apple-sides' and 'color patches' rather than seeing apples and colored objects, or to be tasting 'pineapple tastes' rather than pineapples. The living creature is neither merely one of its characteristics nor merely one of its stages or phases. The characteristics and stages are characteristics and stages of the creature; and it is the creature, not the characteristics or stages, that will wax or wane, flourish or wither, be accorded respect or be gratuitously and unjustifiably harmed.
Once we move, then, as I believe that we must, from 'internalism' understood by reference to consciousness alone ('internality to consciousness') to 'internalism' understood by reference to life form which might but need not bring with it some particular degree n of consciousness ('internality to form'), arguments like Velleman's against the value of bovine life, and 'Minerva's' against the value of owl ... er, human life seem to me both to show themselves for head-scratchingly arbitrary if not outright category-inapt. For once we take the conceptual step that I am describing, we see the various forms of consciousness experienced by creatures of various forms simply to be aspects of living those various life forms rather than identical to or exhaustive of those life forms, while value for its part pertains always to forms rather than to aspects of forms.
All right, so maybe you can see how this all takes us back to where we began. Why do I find the argument from personhood, and with it Vellemanian (psychological or proto-psychological) 'internalism' plus 'wholism,' somehow 'thin' and 'vaporous' - 'bloodless,' as it were? I think it is probably because in a sense it is bodyless, just like those Christless crucifixes that left me so cold. The same thing that made that body on that Cross at St. John's Parish in Lawrence somehow 'resonate' with 'me,' in other words, seems to be what prevents the argument from personhood from thus resonating. Our embodiment would seem to be essential to who and what we are; and what has value in our judgement, it would seem, must accordingly itself relate back to embodiment. And that in turn means that it must relate back to that life form which our embodiments themselves instantiate - indeed, which they incorporate.
I suspect that deep and subarticulate appreciations along such lines as these might account for why the promise of a resurrection, which we're soon again to celebrate this season, rather than less specified 'eternal life' is what matters to us. (Hmm, ... 'matter' ...) It's why the Hebraic tradition which has it that we rise on Judgment Day rather than convert to ghosthood and hover about is the tradition with which we claim continuity. And it's presumably also why Platonic metampsychosis, disembodied spirithood, being a brain in a vat, and so forth are all so nonbloody unappealing. We won't settle for being merely 'persons.' That's not what we value. We 'want it all' - human life, in all of its wondrous stages, through all of its course, with all of its many defining features, in all of their organic, gorgeous, unspeakably beautiful unity. Wholeness of the life. That is what we value, and it seems to me it is that - that at the very least - by reference to which we so much as understand value.
For the same reasons, we don't settle for regarding those whom we love, whom we care for, whom we ... yes, even defend ... as being merely 'persons,' let alone 'person-parts,' 'person-phases' or 'life-stages.' (Again, we taste apples, not 'apple-tastes.') They are lives, whole lives, partaking of life forms that we also understand as wholes - integrated, ordered, internally structured and arranged, organic wholes. And this shows up in what we give, especially when we give out of love. Those people who dropped off those items every day at St. John's Parish dropped off items usable by human beings, whole human organisms, not just persons. They brought foodstuffs, drink, clothing, blankets, and the like - things that body-beings need. Sure, there was 'food for thought' and 'food for conscious play' as well, inasmuch as they brought books and magazines and boardgames and the like. But that's just the point. They brought all of it - just as those who donate things to 'animal shelters' and the 'humane society' donate food and bedding and 'playtoys' alike - things associated with the flourishing of, hence with what is valueable to, the per se valuable recipients along all of the multiple dimensions of their living, their flourishing, their faring well.
I think, then, that we might do well in this season of Lent to remember that we are all of us bodies, partaking of a certain beautiful form of life, all the time giving of our very lives of this form for the sake of lives of both this and other forms. In that we are doing, of course, what that Fellow who was that body on that cross did over two thousand years ago, for eternity.
Again a deep restorative Lenten season to all.