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August 9, 2005

Reintroduction of Potentiality

In a continuation of the Corner's beginning-of-life exchange, John Hood makes what strikes me as an underlyingly dehumanizing suggestion:

It seems to me that the definition of when a person exists can only meaningfully be determined for a large number of people — that is, within a political community that does not necessarily share a particular religious faith — by inverting the clearer definition of when a human person is dead.

We generally identify death as that point when there is no longer any detectable brain activity. The cells of a corpse may still be dividing, and its bodily functions may be sustained for a time by artificial means. But if there is no functioning brain at all, there is no live person anymore.

Mr. Hood declares that his "proposal is intended simply to find a criterion that seems likely to attract a political consensus"; if it would do so, it would be only through a willful lack of consideration. We've all had it beaten into our heads, over the decades of debating abortion, that potentiality is not actuality. But does that mean that it's insignificant? As a Corner emailer argues — and Hood subsequently manages to ignore — a central selling point for accepting that life ends with brain death is its finality.

If there were a method for reviving the brain dead, it would no longer be a suitable marker for the end of life. To rephrase in terms that apply better to beginning-of-life discussion: if the brain dead would recover of their own volition and by natural processes, then that coveted political consensus would simply not exist. Indeed, most citizens would probably think it monstrous to handle such people any differently than if they were sleeping.

In a follow-up response, the emailer notes that the brain activity criterion "means that a person in a coma should be looked upon as a repository of spare parts," but it's worse than that. I suppose I could be wrong, but my sense is that our society attributes different potentiality to those in a coma and those who've not yet been born. A coma is a big question mark. Pre-birth is much more certain, and it comes with a regularly followed timetable of milestones.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 9, 2005 7:41 PM

The attitudes displayed by Pod and Hood and others merely highlight how deeply many utilitarian/secular/liberal ideas about what human beings are have penetrated our collective conscience. Even people who have solid conservative views on other matters have rather muddied thinking when it comes to beginning/end-of-life issues, as was highlighted by the Schiavo case.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 10, 2005 11:48 AM

I wonder how Mr Hood might classify bacteria or even viruses that have no discernable thought patterns.

Posted by: smmtheory at August 10, 2005 12:33 PM

Mike S. has crystallized my thoughts nicely. I could not put my finger on why so many of the postings were wrong headed, and now I can: the taint of utilitarianism is obvious, once one knows to look for it. Utilitarianism kinda sorta had some appeal for me in my teens, when I was reading a lot of science fiction and actively scorning many of my classmates, but in a few years I actually read some of the utilitarian writings and found it to be far too close to "the end justifies the means" for my tastes.

With more years under my belt, and many more examples of the fallibility of human expertise, I can safely say that utilitarianism leads to dehumanization one way or another. Maybe the extreme case of Saloth Slar's Year Zero in Cambodia, where humans were interchangeable parts in a giant organic agricultural project, maybe the extreme industrialized case of Stalin's Gulag or Mao's "great leap sideways", or maybe the soft dehumanization of the welfare state.

The dehumanization is there, because utilitarians cannot but help thinking of people as mere objects.

Posted by: notdhimmi at August 10, 2005 6:14 PM

Brain activity comes and goes, it would seem:

Suspended animation?

Posted by: Marty at August 11, 2005 3:36 PM