Sentience, the Image of God, and Human and Animal Souls

Not to steal Jerry Risser’s topic, but I think a further response to his last two posts on sentience warrant a separate post, not just a comment…

To start:  I heartily endorse Jerry’s analysis, and I agree with him that human moral agency seems to be a fruitful approach to addressing the moral status of animals.  As Dr. John Kilner suggested in his comment last week, one may be concerned that the AAHA’s statement cloaks an agenda, in which the uniqueness of human status in creation is obscured by a sort of mirage in which the raising of animals’ status serves, in part, to pull human status down, creating, as it were, a blurred “horizon line” between man and beast.  But the issue is one of metaphysics, if you will, not just ends and means.

Jerry’s key point is that anthropology is the correct starting point.    This means asking what is the essential nature of humans, not “just” what is their standing in creation.   Here, I believe that reflection on the soul, such has been done by J.P. Moreland, may help.  Recall that Moreland takes a “Thomist” view of the soul, understanding it to be the “substantial, unified reality” that informs an individual’s entire being, grounds all of that individual’s ultimate capacities, is capable of existing in different states, and possesses different faculties.  Also, if I understand Moreland (and Scott Rae) correctly, we should distinguish between a being’s ultimate capacities—what it is capable of when fully developed and functioning—and its “capabilities,” which are “realized” or actualized capacities that can be actualized to greater or lesser degrees at different points in an individual’s existence.  It seems to me that this distinction between capacities and capabilities is real.  We are on shaky ground indeed when we attempt to ground moral status on capabilities (realized capacities), which are degreed properties.

Now, Moreland—and, if I am correct, Aristotle and Thomas before him, and, in contemporary days, Leon Kass—holds that animals do indeed have souls.  Indeed, Moreland says, so teaches the Bible.  But Moreland identifies several human capacities that do not characterize animals’ souls (for what follows, see Moreland’s booklet “What is the Soul?”, especially chapter 4):

  • Libertarian freedom of the will—and therefore, moral agency (as Jerry pointed out)
  • Ability to distinguish between desire and duty
  • Ability to entertain abstract thoughts
  • Ability to distinguish true universal judgments from mere generalizations
  • Awareness of themselves as selves, which envelopes [animals’ lack of] “desires to have desires, beliefs about their beliefs, choices to work on their choices, thinking about their thinking, and awareness of their awareness”
  • Finally, Moreland does not accept that animals possess language, which he argues requires symbols and not just signs.

Note that none of these bullet points is necessarily theistic in origin and none comes from a straightforward exegesis of Scripture.  But the implication, Moreland says, is that animals have souls and value before God, but not the intrinsic human dignity people, who are made in God’s image, have.  Humans “do not have duties to animals, [but] duties with respect to animals.”

This is all a longer way of endorsing Jerry’s “moral agency” approach.  But I must also add this: to get there, whatever one concludes about a narrow exegesis of the term “image of God” in scripture, one must allow that being in the image of God means something about the essence of man and woman—about what kind of beings we are.  I think that point is an indispensable starting point of a biblical approach to bioethics, and I find what I understand to be a more minimalist reading that the image of God is “a status and a standard” to be deeply, deeply unsatisfying.  I also think—forgive me, Dr. Kilner, for casting all humility aside here—that “the conclusion that animals matter much less than people because they are not God’s image” is NOT fallacious.  If you really believe that position is fallacious, then I submit you need to be prepared to negotiate with Jerry’s grizzly bear.

PS: Jerry’s emphasis on “responsible stewardship” echoes the current Presidential Commission on the Study of Bioethical Issues, which proposed “responsible stewardship” as a guiding principle in its statement on synthetic biology a couple of years ago.

Irreligious Bioethics

There’s a fascinating article in the December issue of the American Journal of Bioethics entitled, “In Defense of Irreligious Bioethics,” available free here. In the article, philosopher Timothy Murphy argues that the stance of bioethics towards religion should be not just neutral, but actively skeptical, even adversarial. The gold standard for bioethics should be secular moral reasoning, by which he means reasoning “based solely on regard to the well-being of mankind in the present life, to the exclusion of all considerations drawn from the belief in God or in a future state.” (footnote 2, p. 4) Such an approach, he avers, will “have a particular benefit in tamping down ideological effects.” (p. 6) He also asserts that irreligious bioethics can expose “indefensible approaches and standards” in bioethics, and provides as an example the “conceptually confused and epistemologically uncertain” notion of intercessory prayer. He concludes that “the most valuable approach to religion is to repudiate in all its manifestations the idea that there is a transcendent reality to which the immanent world is beholden.” (p. 8)

A few points: Murphy appears not to understand the nature and purpose of intercessory prayer, making the portion of his article dealing with prayer quite muddled. And secularity is certainly no defense against the excesses of ideology, as the history of the twentieth century with its almost countless victims of secular ideologies shows us. But more fundamentally, Murphy appears to believe that the secular approach to bioethics will somehow be more objective and normative, less tainted by subjective presuppositions, than bioethics practiced from a religious worldview. However, a secular or skeptical methodology is as fraught with unproven premises as any other, religious or otherwise. Even Murphy’s definition of secularity relies upon unproven assumptions and judgments of value to make any sense: for instance, in his phrase, “the well-being of mankind,” how do we define what well-being is? That definition will ultimately rest on a basic assumption that must be accepted without proof (see C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man for an explanation of why this is true). Or, Who does “mankind” include? Are embryos included? One’s answer to that question will be based at least in part on preconceptions that will likely be assumed, not proven.

Murphy writes, “for bioethics the limiting factor is that religions ultimately rely on assumptions and claims that evade secular evaluation because they are typically unfalsifiable, infinitely mutable in the face of objections, rooted in personal experiences that defy independent analysis, or rooted in the murk of human history.” (p. 8)  I do not agree that this statement is entirely true; but to the extent that it is, this same description could be used for the assumptions and claims supporting any underlying worldview, even the secular and skeptical one that Murphy advocates.

(Along with the article is free access to several open peer commentaries from the same journal. I have not had the chance to read through all of them yet, so I apologize if what I wrote her inadvertently echoed some of their points.)

Christmas and bioethics: 2012

This advent season our church has been reflecting on Jesus coming into the world as the light of the world. We rejoice in the coming of Jesus to this world as God revealing himself to us and showing us the way that we can be reconciled to our Father. However, even though shepherds rejoiced, not every one was pleased to have the light of God come into the world. Herod tried to kill the newborn king in a massacre of innocent children, and eventually the light of the world was crucified and the sun became dark at mid-day.

John reminded us that not everyone desires the light when he wrote “Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3: 19-20 NIV)

The light of truth that Jesus brought gives us a solid foundation for bioethics. We have a place to turn to help us resolve the difficult moral decisions we face today. But we should not be surprised that there are many who would rather leave the light of Jesus out of bioethics. We should remember that the first thing his light does is to show us all where we fall short. We all like to think that we are good people or at least “good enough”. The light that came into the world showed us that we are not good. None of us likes that. None of us wants to humble ourselves before our God. Until we do and we find that the God of light is also the God of love who sent his son into the world so that we could live eternally with him (see a few verses earlier in John).

Living in the light of God will mean that some of the things we need to say will not be accepted by many people who have avoided God’s light. May God help us to be gentle in how we express the truth revealed by his light, understanding how we were first hesitant to step into the light. May we be as gentle as the light of the world who came to earth as a baby born in a stable.

Being honest with ourselves

I recently finished reading the book The (Honest) Truth about Dishonestly: How We Lie to Everyone – Especially Ourselves by Dan Ariely. It had been recommended to me by a business executive who is the compliance officer for a large financial firm as we were talking about the Center for Ethics that I am helping to develop at Taylor University. Ariely is a behavioral economist who researches how irrational factors impact human behavior. The idea that he writes about as the conclusion from his research is that human dishonesty or cheating is not the result of a rational decision that weighs the beneficial and harmful consequences of such behavior. Instead he has found that we lie or cheat when we can benefit by doing so while still maintaining an image of ourselves as a good person. Since how we think about ourselves is not fully rational our decisions are also irrational.

His research on cheating has shown some interesting things. One is that people (usually college students in his research) do not cheat as much as they could get away with, but the large majority of people do cheat some. In experiments designed so that cheating can be detected as a group but their individual actions are not recorded, people given the opportunity to report higher scores on a task and thus receive higher compensation do not report the highest possible score even when there would be no way to detect that they had done so, but do report scores a predictable percentage above the scores of an objectively measured control group. His research also shows that the amount that a group of people inflates their scores is impacted by numerous things such as being reminded that they ought to be honest just before doing the task, being exposed to someone else cheating, and whether their cheating benefits someone other than themselves.

A significant part of ethics (and bioethics in particular) is understanding what is right and wrong in our complex world. Ariely’s research reminds us that another large part of ethics is living by what we already know is right. He suggests that if we can justify to ourselves that we can do something that we know is wrong but still be a good person then we are likely to do it. He has shown that we human beings have an amazing ability to rationalize our actions. That is not new to the human race. I seem to recall King Saul rationalizing that he had spared the best livestock for sacrificing to God when Samuel asked why he could hear sheep bleating and oxen lowing when Saul had been told to destroy them all (1 Samuel 15).

Christian discipleship includes effective ways to address our human (fallen) tendency to rationalize our actions. Those include regular study and meditation on scripture, confession, and accountability within the body of Christ. Ultimately it is our transformation by God’s spirit working in our lives that enables us to become like him in character so that we live what we believe and do not deceive ourselves.

On the Boundaries of Moral Complicity

Last week’s lively exchange about the moral legacy of “the father of space medicine” invokes the broader issue of how to decide when one is being complicit in an immoral act.  (Please note that I am NOT attempting to weigh in further on the individual discussed last week—whose name I will not write here, in hopes that I can protect this post from further exchange about him personally.)

We all agree that what the Nazis did in the name of “human subject research” was evil.  At least, I think we all agree.  But would it be evil to use an anatomy text whose illustrations had been derived from the Nazis’ efforts?  Or, to be more contemporary about it, would it be unethical to take a new drug whose development included laboratory tests using stem cells from embryos specifically created or destroyed for use in those tests?   The Nazis are easy targets, but not a shield from more thorny issues that might strike closer to home.

Dr. Robert Orr addressed the issue of moral complicity at length in an article posted in 2003 on the website of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity.  In it, he posed several scenarios of moral complicity, and argued that they are not ethically equivalent.  To distinguish among them, he proposed five criteria:

1)      Timing—Association with a future immoral act is worse than association with one that is past.

2)      Proximity or remoteness—The more closely one is involved, the worse it is.

3)      Degree of certitude—how surely are the facts of the case known?  If not known, does one need to steer clear to avoid the possibility of appearing complicit?

4)      Degree of knowledge of the facts—Knowing them makes one more responsible than not knowing them (although I suppose we should be concerned about hiding behind a sort of “ignorance is bliss” argument).

5)      Intent—or, to be more exact, whether the intent of the person performing the immoral act and of a potentially complicit person are the same or different.

Dr. Orr explicitly rejected the possibility of “hand washing” in an attempt to absolve oneself from complicity (see: Pilate), and he counseled humility in judging the complicity of others.  Finally, he pointed out that hard and fast rules will be elusive, and that sensitivity to issues of the heart is paramount.

Read the whole thing.

The Whitewashed Tombs of the Right

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness.”– Matthew 23:27

I received several comments on last week’s post about Hubertus Strughold, so I thought I’d follow up with another post.  The fact that Strughold has been well-respected in American medical circles despite his leadership in medical experimentation in Nazi Germany may shed light on deep-seated philosophical problems that undergird America’s healthcare crisis.  It is no secret that the Allies marveled at the technological and scientific capabilities of the Germans as they marched through that country in the final days of World War II.  Though it used the scientists of the Third Reich to the ultimate success of putting a man on the moon, American medicine may also have adopted harmful philosophical ideas that cripple U.S. medicine to this day.  The technological and scientific accomplishments of American medicine may be the whitewash that hides the philosophical problems that are the dead people’s bones that affect patient care and make us incapable of solving systemic healthcare problems.

Dachau, notorious for its human experimentation

Several writers on this blog have commented on the failures of the “business model” of medicine.  Joe Gibes has written several posts on the subject (see his “Black Friday” post), and Steve Phillips has recently mentioned the “manufacturing efficiency” that has been brought to human reproduction.  It is well-known that many Americans sided with the National Socialists in Germany in the 1920s and 30s because they saw them as a bulwark against the tide of communism that seemed to be sweeping over Europe (Russia fell to the Communists in 1917).  In the culture wars in America the last two decades, it appears the right-wing has propelled the “business model” of medicine to the fore as a bulwark against the Left’s move to bring government-run healthcare to America.  It is a classic case of the end justifies the means.  Why Christians allied themselves with the right-wing to form the “Religious Right” in the 1980s I’ll never know.  But it looks like a deal with the Devil.

Is emergency contraception abortion?

Emergency contraception (EC) — the “morning-after pill” — is taken by a woman after an episode of unprotected intercourse in order to try to prevent pregnancy.  It contains a hormone that acts to prevent pregnancy by preventing ovulation (the release of an egg from the ovary). However, theoretically, if ovulation has already occurred, EC might prevent pregnancy by preventing implantation, the attaching of an already-fertilized egg to the lining of the uterus. This second, conjectural mechanism raises ethical problems for those of us who consider that life begins at the moment of conception, since preventing the implantation of a fertilized egg could be viewed as inducing an abortion. Should we oppose EC because it might in theory cause an abortion?

The authors of a review article in the Fall 2012 issue of Ethics & Medicine address just this question. They review the best available scientific evidence and conclude that  there is “sufficient motivation” to believe that EC does not prevent implantation, and therefore does not cause abortion. (p. 116)

Good ethics begins with good facts. But our understanding of scientific facts is constantly changing; so even though we use the same moral reasoning (“It is wrong to deliberately take a human life, so one should not use a medication to cause an abortion”), our ethical conclusions may change as our understanding of the facts progresses  (i.e., if the facts indicate that EC causes abortion, we should not advocate its use; on the other hand, if the best data indicates that EC does not cause abortion, it may be ethically justifiable to use in certain circumstances ).

In a fallen world, our knowledge of the truth will always be imperfect; but it is the best we have to work with. Given the current state of knowledge, it appears that EC is not tantamount to abortion, and that I should not use “It might cause an abortion” as a reason not to prescribe it in certain circumstances (such as rape). I am open to changing this stance as knowledge grows and changes; what I am not willing to change is my commitment to not deliberately take a human life.

(See my post here for more on this topic.)

The U.S.’s Hubertus Strughold Award

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on the controversy surrounding the Hubertus Strughold Award given by the American Space Medicine Association.  Strughold was head of the Luftwaffe’s prominent Aeromedical Research Institute during World War II and likely oversaw experimentation on prisoners at Dachau.  This probably included the notorious hypothermia or “cold experiments,” which may have laid the foundation for his work in space medicine for the U.S. government.  Strughold was one of many scientists who were part of the “intellectual reparations” paid to the U.S. following the war, a program known as Operation Paperclip (for information on Paperclip, link here for the Jewish Virtual Library article).  Strughold would go on to become the “Father of Space Medicine” and have an award named in his honor in 1963.

Among the reports filed by the Nuremberg Trials, there is both a numbering of Strughold among those involved in experimentation at Dachau and a record of his denial of involvement on “grounds of medical ethics.”  So, there is still some debate on his legacy as a medical researcher.  However, the story of Hubertus Strughold, with its origin in Germany and its meanderings in the United States, may offer us useful lessons in ethics.  This case may bring to light something that could be the Achilles heel of American culture and, in turn, American medicine.  There often seems to be a tendency among us to partition our lives in such a way as to avoid culpability.  Strughold never had any political involvement in the U.S. during his lifetime and was probably viewed simply as an “intellectual asset,” a source of data much like a laptop.  It’s the data were after in the long run, so as long as there is a consent form on file with a signature at the bottom, we move ahead.  Of course, that’s not the case at all.  Ethics involves human beings; and not only the human being that is the patient but the human being that is the researcher or the physician.

The Space Medicine Association has no page for the Hubertus Strughold Award on its website, but it does have a page with an interesting quote by Wernher von Braun: “Man is not made for space.  But with the help of biologists and medical doctors, he can be prepared and accommodated.”




A Theology of Technology

with Chris Ralston, PhD

In our last post we noted that Baylor’s Technology and Human Flourishing conference underscored the need for, as we put it, a “robust theology of technology.” We thought we’d follow up with some reflections on what such a theology might look like.

In chapter three of their book entitled Bioethics: A Christian Approach in a Pluralistic Age,[1]Scott B. Rae and Paul M. Cox develop a helpful framework for thinking about “Medical Technology in Theological Perspective.” The following is a very brief synopsis of their discussion.

The golden leaves of the pecan in autumn in central Texas.

The starting point for thinking about medical technology in theological perspective is the creation narrative as recorded in Genesis 1 and 2—specifically, with what has been termed the “dominion mandate” and with the doctrines of general revelation and common grace. At the creation humankind was charged with a mandate to “subdue the earth and be its master” (p. 94). The fulfillment of this task was, however, complicated by the entrance of sin into the world. Consequently, the post-Fall mandate includes “working toward improving the creation, or reversing the effects of the entrance of sin” into the created order, a significant aspect of which is dealing with death and disease (p. 95). Importantly, the dominion mandate is constrained by our role as stewards of rather than masters over creation: “At creation, human beings were charged with both dominion and stewardship. Creation was theirs to use for their benefit, but it ultimately belonged to God and they were responsible to him for its proper care” (p. 95).

According to the doctrine of general revelation, God provides both the “natural resources” and the “human ingenuity and wisdom” requisite for human beings to fulfill the dominion mandate (pp. 95-96). The doctrine of common grace affirms the notion that “God’s grace… is bestowed commonly, or on all humankind, irrespective of one’s membership in the community of God’s people” (p. 97). (Consider, for example, the rain that God sends, which falls on the “just” and the “unjust” alike; cf. Acts 14:17.)

Taken together, God’s general revelation and common grace provide human beings with “the knowledge and skill that are necessary to develop the kinds of technologies that enable humankind to subdue the creation” (p. 97). This is no less true of medical technology than of other forms of technology.

Crucially, however, medical technology can achieve only a “partial and temporary” victory over death and disease—it can never conquer them entirely. Moreover, given the sinful nature of humanity, technology can be put both to good and evil uses, in service of both virtuous and vicious ends (pp. 98-99). Consequently, “[w]e must distinguish between the use of any particular medical technology per se and its intended or actual use in practice. That is, it is possible to see virtually any medical technology as a part of God’s common grace to humankind. But that does not exempt it from moral assessment of its uses” (p. 99).

Engaging in such “moral assessment” of technology—whether medical technology specifically or other forms of technology more generally—was one of the key tasks to which Baylor’s IFL conference was devoted.

In this vein, I (Cody) sensed that most of the attendees were wrestling honestly with how to use technology wisely and still be authentic in their Christian faith.  On several occasions people mentioned the desire to avoid a “Luddite” dismissal of technology altogether, as if separating from electronic gadgets offered a particular kind of spiritual purity.  Most understood that spiritual health is essentially a matter of the heart, and the external aspect of using technology may or may not indicate the status of the soul.  Instead, many Christians opt for a view of technology that stresses the fact that we use technology and technology should not “use” us.  When technology is no longer useful or, even worse, when it begins to sets us back or harm us as Christian people, we lay it aside.  Or as the Reformers might have put it, “Let us do all Soli Deo Gloria, For the Glory of God Alone.”

We’d like to close with a brief note about the notion of “virtual” technology.  A number of the speakers at the IFL conference dealt with this issue, from discussions of how a child’s involvement with outdoors activities or handicrafts can improve ADHD symptoms to the importance of the local gathering of believers as the body of Christ in church worship.  These ideas emphasize the importance of place, “being there” if you will.  As Kay Toombs mentioned in her talk, we can relay information about a spouse’s illness to many people via a Facebook status update, but this is very different from sharing this information in the presence of someone who can hold our hand.  And this is very directly related to our being ensouled beings, not just cerebral beings that communicate data but spiritual people who are there, in a particular place.  It’s nice that we are able to share with you some of this information over the Internet, but it might be even better if you can now go and discuss some of these heart-felt issues with a friend over a cup of coffee.

We invite further reflection on these topics from our readers.




[1] Eerdmans, 1999, pp. 91-127.

Technology and Human Flourishing, Baylor University

with Chris Ralston, PhD

I was honored to have Trinity colleague Chris Ralston come to Texas and join me for Technology and Human Flourishing, a conference of the Institute for Faith and Learning at my alma mater, Baylor University. We thought we’d give a quick run-down of some of the ideas presented.

On October 25-27, 2012, scholars, undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, and other interested individuals from across the globe gathered at Baylor University in Waco, Texas to discuss issues surrounding the relationship between technology and human flourishing. The conference featured a variety of individual paper presentations and plenary speakers, ranging across a broad spectrum of topics, from “Building Emotions into Machines” to “Interstellar Exploration and Human Flourishing.”

Many of the presentations engaged with a number of common themes, including the relationship between science and faith; epistemological questions about the sources of knowledge, in particular the question of whether or not science exhausts the domain of “knowledge”; and questions about the impact, for better or for worse, of technology on human dignity and flourishing. Some of the specific questions raised include the following: How does technology encourage us to think about ourselves? About human nature? As our capacities to manipulate the physical “stuff” of our bodily existence (DNA, genes, etc.) expand, will this encourage us increasingly to think of ourselves strictly in physicalist terms? Should we think of ourselves in such terms? And what would be the implications or consequences of so thinking about ourselves?

In addressing these and other related questions, one recurrent thought that emerged is the notion that technology should be assessed not only in terms of what it can do (what can be done with it), but also in terms of how it affects us as human beings, both individually and collectively. That is, how does technology and its various applications shape us, whether as individuals or as society? In this regard, the conference highlighted the need for a deep, robust theology of technology—one that avoids the twin dangers of Luddite rejection of technology on the one hand, and a naïve acceptance of “all things new” on the other. The challenge is to remain open to the potential blessings of technological development, while at the same time resisting what has been termed the “technological imperative”: the assumption that if it can be done, it should be done.

Ian Hutchison, a nuclear engineer at MIT, provided some excellent comments on scientism, much of it coming from his new book Monopolizing Knowledge. Hutchinson is an ardent proponent of the natural sciences, for they have been quite literally his “bread and butter” for many years. However, he made the argument that we are greatly mistaken if we think that scientific tools give us all there is to know about the universe.

At dinner, we had the honor of sitting at the same table with Dr. Hutchinson and one of my former philosophy professors, Dr. Kay Toombs, whose research and commentary on the experience of illness over the years I highly recommend. Dr. Hutchinson had concluded his lecture with a word about the counter-cultural nature of being a Christian and how simply re-discovering virtues about the wrongness of covetousness would be of great help. I made the comment over our salads that is seems strange that speaking against covetousness is thought of as a new idea, for in fact it used to a part of Preaching 101. He agreed that his ideas weren’t all that revolutionary but that we need to have the faithfulness to pursue them even in the face of opposition.

It seems fitting to have more than one MIT professor at a technology conference, and Rosalind Picard of the MIT Media Lab followed well in the footsteps of Dr. Hutchison. In the first place, her research bringing affective (emotional) components to computing and robotics is just plain fascinating, but its application to helping autistic adolescents is heart-warming as well. One could sense from her talk that she is a kind, Christian woman and that she brings a warmth and a Christian ethic to a field that is oftentimes cold circuitry.

For all you Kierkegaard fans out there, the IFL while be recognizing the bicentennial of his birth next year with a conference that includes Richard Bauckham in the line-up, and the 2014 conference on faith and film also promises to be worth the trip as well.