Michael Tooley’s “package deal”

Further to the May 2013 JME discussion of infanticide was a fairly gymnastic article by Michael Tooley that was in essence given central prominence in the issue.  I say “gymnastic” because, partly by his own admission, Tooley tried to cover, albeit superficially, a lot of ground in a brief essay.  But given that there is so much written, and so much information out there, that one cannot review it all in detail—Tooley himself admits as much vis-à-vis his position—one is often forced to perform similar gymnastics to form a provisional judgment of a series of claims.  And thus do I take to the trapeze for a brief discussion of Tooley’s essay.

Tooley writes that he wants to replace emotional claims with critical thinking, and yet I could not help be irritated by his tone: “pedantic” seems too strong a word, but “tendentious” and “condescending” might fit.  After lecturing non-philosophers on how they ignore critical thinking and eschew calm, dispassionate argument, and in essence telling doctors that they should defer to the wise judgment of professional philosophers (who really are the only ones who have thought long and hard about things) on ethical matters, he urges the reader to accept the “Socratic challenge” that all held beliefs are potentially suspect, and that resistance to some ideas betrays commitment to a “package deal” that includes some basic belief that one is determined to hold despite the evidence.  Of course, opposition to abortion is one such package deal because Tooley apparently has found that all abortion opponents cling to the notion that there is a God.  (He does, in passing, also say that some feminists include abortion support in their own package deal but he does not say anything further about them.)

More substantively, Tooley briefly addresses two strategies supporting “the extreme antiabortion view according to which abortion is always, at the very least, prima facie seriously wrong,” as he puts it:

  • Membership in the biologically defined species Homo sapiens is a suspect ground of moral status because, were we confronted with a lovable extraterrestrial creature that is rational, we would ascribe similar privileged moral status to that being.  We wouldn’t approve of serving him up a la Kentucky Fried Chicken, for example.  (Or, if you prefer, think of the horror of the Narnian visitors eating talking animals in Lewis’s The Silver Chair.)  So, the ground of moral status would be something like possession of “an immaterial, rational soul,” and membership in the species would not be a basic ground for a life to right (the rational soul would be a more basic ground).   But it seems to me that Tooley misses the point here. Humans are the sort of beings which have the ultimate capacity for not just thought but moral judgment, self-awareness, awareness of self-awareness, and so on.  And they are unique within the creation, or the biosphere if you will, as we encounter it.  Were Tooley’s ET to visit us, perhaps we would have another example of the sort of being with ultimate capacities such that it ought to be accorded privileged moral status simply by virtue of being one of that sort of being—a member of that “kind,” or species.  Christopher Kaczor, for one, has defended this position rather more substantially than Tooley seems to be willing to allow.
  • Possession of an immaterial, rational mind or soul is not just suspect, but patently false, for Tooley, because he thinks science has established that the mind and the brain are one and the same.  He calls out Moreland, Beckwith, and Scott Rae (among others) by name—Thomistic substance dualists all.   He may correctly identify their view but he makes it too Cartesian by identifying soul with mind, and he fails to engage the dualist argument with more than a list of science-writer level examples.  Also, in my (limited, to be sure) reading of philosophy of mind, I don’t see people considering Tooley a significant contributor.  So I take his claims against substance dualism as little more than rhetoric.  And substance dualism appears to me to be rather robust in philosophy than Tooley will allow.

Instead, Tooley asserts that “[o]nly neo-Lockean persons have a right to continued existence.”  The “neo-Lockean” person is “an entity that has conscious states at different times, and that are psychologically connected by such things as memories, desires or intentions.”  These are the states that “make for personal identity.”  They persist through temporary losses of consciousness, and so get around one objection (which Tooley considers a “straw man”) about approaches to personhood as consciousness.  And, for him, a right to life is grounded not in an essential characteristic of a being, but in something that is acquired at some point in development.

But it’s not clear why actual rather than anticipatable acquisition of capacities should ground moral status.  If we take care of a baby properly, he or she will quite predictably become Tooley’s neo-Lockean person.  In cases when that is not going to happen, we can still argue, at a minimum, that respect for the sort of beings humans are ought to stay our hand against active killing.  Yet that is not where Tooley is headed.  Because we are talking not just about abortion here, we are talking about infanticide.  And returning to the latter point, Tooley closes by mentioning that, while he thinks human fetuses and neonates “probably” have the same moral status, he seems to be questioning his earlier position that humans acquire capacity for thought episodes only some time after birth.  He says that he doubts that most philosophers are conversant in the relevant science, and that he has not been able to catch up with it.  And so the “crucial underlying scientific premise” that would support killing healthy newborn humans on purpose—viz., that neonates lack the capacity for thought—“has not yet been scientifically, firmly established.”

Well.  And if it is “scientifically, firmly established” that neonates DO have the capacity for thought—as I bet most new mothers would claim, and as I think we ought to assume for the purposes of our moral reasoning—then how established is it that there is NO capacity for thought late term in utero?  And how do we distinguish the unborn healthy 30-weeker from the post-natal 30-week preemie?  And if there is anything whatsoever to the notion that our thoughts have a private character, accessible only to us, how confident ought we to be of our ability to measure the onset of that actualized capacity in tiny humans?  The potential for pseudoscience seems substantial.

And this, finally, underscores Tooley’s own “package deal”—skepticism about the moral status of newborns comes with a firm commitment to naturalism and a physicalist approach to the philosophy of mind, at all costs.  We all start with basic beliefs that we change very slowly, if at all.  And so, rather than think that every belief ought to be held with radical skepticism, we ought to beware lines of reasoning that wind up contradicting the deepest human intuitions and experience—kind of like questioning our work when the answer to a math problem doesn’t make sense.  (I should add that Tooley’s arguments reinforce my conviction—or, in our pluralistic, secular society, should I say “despair”—that naturalism can ground any stable sense of moral obligation.)

In the meantime, while you are catching up with all that Tooley and others have written, I recommend that, rather than abandoning your most basic beliefs, you resist his reading of the Socratic challenge.  Tooley’s approach sounds less like a search for truth than a demolition job.

I wonder whether Socrates would approve.

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Mark McQuain
Mark McQuain

On one of his comedy albums in the 1970’s, George Carlin described his youthful torments of the priest who taught his junior high school catechism class. His favorite example was when he asked, “Father, can God make a rock so big that He Himself can’t lift it?” In my early teens, I used to think that was a great question. That was until someone pointed out to me that the question is logically invalid: one cannot talk about God as the ultimate force in the universe and then, in the same breath, define a competing rock with larger force. Tooley’s… Read more »

Jon Holmlund
Jon Holmlund

Sure, but I think we can give Tooley a bit more credit than that. If we DID encounter “ET,” we probably would afford him a higher moral status than the animals, and we would be talking about why. I think that it would be because we had found a new example of a kind of being–a species–that, like man, warrants special moral privilege for its members by virtue of membership in that species. I think we do this already for animals–we treat mice, dogs, and monkeys differently, for example, although all with moral respect–for valid reasons that are inseparable from… Read more »