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TER 1
Wat Is Morality. I

\\·e are discussing nd-sm~ll matter, but how we ought to live.


SOCRATES, AS REPORTED BY PLATO IN THE REPUBliC (CA. 390 B.C.)

1.1. The Problem of Definition


Moral philosophy is the attempt to achieve a systematic under­
standing of the nature of morality and what it requires of us­
in Socrates's words, of "how we ought to live,r and why. :It would
be helpful, therefore, if we could begin with a simple, uncon­
!roversial defiuition of what lIJ,Qrality is. But that tums out to be
impossible. There are many rival theories, each expounding a
different conception of what it means to live morally, and any
definition that goes beyoud Socrates's simple formulation is
bound to offend one or another of them.
This should make us cautious, but it need not paralyze us.
In this chapter I will describe what I call the "minimum con­
ception" of morality. As the name suggests, the minimum con­
ception is a core that every moral theory should accept, at least
as a starting point. We will begin by examining some recent
moral controversies. The features of the minimum conception
will emerge from our consideration of these examples.

1.2. An Infant with No Prospects: Baby Theresa


Theresa Ann Campo Pearson, an anencephalic infant known to
the public as "Baby Theresa," was bom in Florida in 1992. Anen­

cephaly is amoll'g the worst cong~nital disorders. Anencephalic

infants are sometimes referred to as "babies without brains," and

. dlls gives roughly the rig'ht picture, but it is not quite accurate.

Important parts of the brain-the cerebrum and cerebellum­


are missing. as well as the top of the skull. There is, however, a
I
~ TIff £LnlE~,S OF ~IORAL PHILOSOPHY

~tem. and so autonomic functions such as breathing and


heartbeat are possible. In the United States, most cases of anen­
cephah' are detected dming pregnancy and aborted.' Of those
DOl aboned, half are stillborn. About 300 each year are born
ali...,. and they usually die within a few days.
Babv Theresa's story would not be remarkable except for an
unusual ~equest made by her parents. Knowing that their baby
could not live long and that, even if she could, she would never
have a conscious life, Baby Theresa's parents volunteered her or­
gans for rransplan t. They thought her kidneys, liver, heart, lungs,
and eYes should go to otper children who could benefit from
them.\ The physicians agreed that this wa, a good idea. At least
2,000 infants need transplants each year, and there are never
enough organs available. But the organs were not taken, because
Florida law does not allow the removal of organs until the donor
is dead, and by the time Baby Theresa had died, nine days later,
i[ ""3.5 too late for the other children-her organs could not be
rransplanted because they had deteriorated too much.
The newspaper stories about Baby Theresa prompteg a
gceat deal of public discussion. Would it have been right to re­
moye the infant's organs, thereby causing her immediate death,
[0 help other children? A number of professional "ethicists"­
people employed by universities, hospitals, and law schools,
whose job it is to think about such matters-were caUed on \)y
the press to comment. Surprisingly few of them agreed with the
parents and physicians. Instead they appealed to time-honored
philosophical principles to oppose taking the organs. "It just
seems too horrifYing to use people as means to other people's
ends," said one such expert. Another explained, "It is unethi­
cal to kill in order to save. It's unethical to kill person A to save
person B.". And a third added: "What the parents are really ask­
ing for is: Kill this dying baby so that its organs may be used for
someone else. Well, that's reaUy a horrendous proposition."
Was it really horrendous? These commentators thought
so. while the parents and doctors did not. But we are interested
in more than what people happen to think. We want to know
the truth of the matter. In fact, were the parents right or wrong
to yolunteer the baby's organs for transplant? If we want to dis­
coyer the truth, we have to ask what reasons, or argunlents, can
be gi\"~n for each side. What can be said to justify the parents'
request, or to justifY thinking they were wrong?
WHAT ]S MORALITY? 3

The Benefits Argument. The parents' suggestion was based on the


idea that, because Theresa was going to die soon anyway, her or­
gans were doing her no good. The other children, however. could
benefit from them. Thus. their reasoning seems to have been:
(l} If.~ecan benefit someone, without harming anyone
else, we ought to do so.
(%) Transplanting the ocgans would benefit the other chil­
dren without harming Baby Theresa.
(3) Therefore, we ought to transplant the organs.
Is this a sound argument? It may be objected that removing the
organs would harm Theresa. because without them she would
die. But that seems like a very superficial view of the maUer. Be­
ing alive is a benefit only if it enables one to canyon activities
and have thoughts, feelings, and relations with other people. In
the absence of such things, mere biological existence is worth­
less. Therefore, even though Theresa might remain alive foe a
few more days, it would do her no good. (We might imagine cir­
cumstances in which other people would gain from keeping her
alive, but that is not the same as her benefiting.) But suppose
we were to concede, for the sake of argument, that keeping
Theresa alive would benefit hee Even if this were tcue, it would
do her only a little'good, while transplanting the organs would
do so much more good for the other children that, evelything
considered, it still might be best to perform the transplants.
Therefore, the Benefits Argument provides a powerhd r~a­
son for transplanting the organs. What are the arguments on
the other side?

The Argument That We Should Not Use People as Means. The


commentatocs who opposed the transplants offered two argu­
ments. The first went like this:
(I) It is wrong to use people as means to other people's
ends.
(2) Taking Baby Theresa's organs would be using her as a
means to other people's ends (specifically, as a means
to benefiting the other infants).
(3) Therefore, taking Baby Theresa's organs would be
wrong.
4 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

Is this a sound argument? The idea that we should not "use"


people is obviously appealing, but it is vague and needs to be
sharpened. "Using people" typically involves violating their au­
tonomy-their ability to decide for themselves how to live their
own lives, according to their own desires and values. A person's
autonomy may be violated through manipulation, trickerj, or
deceit-for example, I may pretend to be your friend, when I
am only interested in meeting your sister; or I may lie to you in
order to get a loan; or I may try to convince you that you will en­
joy attending a concert in another city, when I only want you to
go so that I can ride with you. Autonomy is also violated when
people are forced to do things against their will. This explains
why using people is wrong; it is wrong because deception, trick.­
ery, and coercion are wrong. But nothing like this is involved in
the case of Baby Theresa.
WoukLtr<msplantingBahyIheIeBa's orgaQS-be-"using her"
jn_;ln}'Jlloral~importantsense? We would, of course, be mak­
ing use of her organs for someone else's benefit. But there is
nothing wrong with that; we do that every time we perform a
transplant. In this case, however, we would be doing it without
her permission. Would that make it wrong? If we were doing it
against her wishes, that might be reason for objecting. It would
be a violation of her autonomy. But Baby Theresa is not an au­
tonomous being: she has no wishes and is unable to make any
decisions for herself. ,There are some guidelines that might be
adopted when someone is incapable of forming a preference of
her own. We could ask what would be in her own best interests,
or we could ask what she would decide if she were capable of
making a rational choice. In either instance, it is reasonable to
think that transplanting the organs would be acceptable.

The Argument from the Wrongness of Killing. A second argu­


...m em suggested by the commentators was this:
(1) It is wrong to kill one person to save another.
(2) Taking Baby Theresa's organs would be killing her to
save olhers.
(3) Therefore, taking Baby Theresa's organs would be
wrong.
Is this argument sound? The prohibition on killing is certainly
among the most important moral rules. ~evertheless, few peo­
WHAT IS MORALITY' 5

pie believe it is always wrong to kill-most people believe tbat


exceptions are sometimes justified. The question is whether
taking Baby Theresa's organs should be regarded as ajustified
exception to tbe rule. There are many reasons in favor of this,
the most important being that she is going to die soon anyway,
no matter what is done, while taking her organs would at least
do some good for tbe otber babies; and lacking a brain, her life
is of no use to her anyway. Anyone who accepts tbis will regard
tbe first premise of this argument as false. Usually it is wrong to
kill one person to save anotber, but not always.
But there is another possibility. Perhaps tbe best way of un­
derstanding tbe whole situation would be to regard Baby
Theresa as already dead. If tbis sounds crazy, remember that
"brain deatb" is now widely accepted as a criterion for pro­
nouncing people legally dead. ]Nhen tbe brain-deatb standard
was first proposed, it was resisted on tbe grounds that someone
can be brain dead while a lot is still going on inside them-with
mechanical assistance, their heart could continue to beat, they
could breatbe, and so on. But eventually brain death was ac­
cepted, and people became accustomed to regarding it as "real"
deatb. This was reasonable because when the brain ceases to
function there is no longer any hope for conscious life.
Anencephalics do not meet tbe technical requirements for
brain deatb as it is currently defined; but perhaps tbe definition
should be rewritten to include them. After all, they also lack any
hope for conscious life, for the even profounder reason tbat
tbey have no cerebrum or cerebellum. If the definition of brain
deatb were reformulated to include anencephalics, we would
soon become accustomed to the idea that tbese unfortunate in­
fants are born dead, and so we would not regard taking their or­
gans as killing them. The Argument from the Wrongness of
Killing would then be moot.
On the whole, then, it looks like the argument in favor of / "
rransplanting Baby Theresa's organs is stronger than either of ~
tbese arguments against it.

J~ An Infant with Uncertain Prospects:


~' Baby Jane Doe '--­
In 1983 a much mOre intense controversy arose over an infant
known as B.."by Jane Doe. This unfortunate baby, born in New
.,--­
6 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

York State, suffered from multiple defects including spina bifida


r~ken and protruding spine), hydrocephaly (excess fluid on
the brain), and perhaps worst of all, microcephaly (an abnor­
many SOlan head, suggesting that part of the brain was missing).
Surgery was needed for the spina bifida; however, the doctors
who examined the baby disagreed about whether the operation
should be performed. Dr. George Newman believed that surgery
would be pointless because the baby could never have a mean­
ingful human life. Another physician, Dr. Arjen Keuskamp, did
not think the baby's condition was hopeless and advised immedi­
ate surgery. (Both were pediatric neurologists.) Caught between
conflicting medical opinions, the parents decided to accept Dr.
Newman's recommendation and refused pennission for surgery.
Dr. Keuskamp then withdrew from the case.
Such decisions have become relativelv common in recent
years, as parents and doctors have incre~ingly chosen not to
treat hopelessly defective newborns. As medical technology has
advanced, we have developed methods of "saving" babies that in
earlier times would have died, and this has raised the question
of whether such methods should always be used. One doctor,
Anthony Shaw, writing in the New EnglandJournal ofMedicine in
1973, expressed his worry like this:
Each year it becomes possible to remove yet another type
of malformation from the "unsalvageable" category. All pe­
diatJic surgeons, including myself, have ..triumphs"-in­
fants who, if they had been born 25 or even five years ago,
would not have been salvageable ... But how about the in­
fant whose gastrointestinal tract has been removed after
volvulus and infarction? Although none of us regard the in­
sertion of a central venous catheter as a "heroic" proce­
dure, is it right to insert a "lifeline" to feed this baby in the
light of our present technology, which can support him,
tethered to an infusion pump, for a maximum of one year
and some months?
Dr. Shaw believed that this would be more a misuse than a use
of the new technology. Similarly, the parents of Baby Jane Doe
felt that aggressive treatment for their child would be pointless.
Because such cases have become common, the plight of
BabyJane Doe would not have received much attention had it
not been for the intervention of third parties. Shortly after the
parents made their decision, Lawrence Washburn, a lawyer as­
sociated with some conservative right-ta-life groups, petitioned
the courts to set aside the parents' wishes and order that the
surgery be performed. The New York State Supreme Court
granted that request, but a higher court quickly overturned the
order, calling Washburn's suit "offensive." That court was im­
pressed by Dr. Newman's testimony: He told the court,
The decision made by the parents is that it would be un­
kind to have surgery performed on this child ... on the ba­
sis of the combination of malformations that are present in
this child, she is not likely to ever achieve any meaningful
interaction with her environment, nor ever achieve any in­
terpersonal relat.ionships, the very qualities which we con­
sider human.
After Mr. Washburn's suit was dismissed, the federal govern­
ment got into the act. The Department ofJustice filed suit de­
manding access to the hospital's records in order to determine
whether a "handicapped person"-the infant-was being dis­
criminated against. This suit was also dismissed, with the judge
declaring that the parents' decision "was a reasonable one
based on due' consideration of the medical options available
and on a genuine concern for the best interests of the child."
• The parents did eventually agree to the use of a shunt to
remove the excess fluid from the child's brain. But the major
surgery for the spina bifida, was not. performed.
Was this decision correct? There are three main lines of
reasoning to consider.

~Benefits AgaiJv Baby Jane Doe's parents made two assump­


tions, one about morality and one about the facts. The moral
assumption was that they should do whatever is best for the
baby-the decision should be made on that basis. The factual
assumption was that the baby's condition was so hopeless that
the operation would do her no good.
For their understanding of the facts, they relied on Dr.
~ewman, who had told them that even with the best possible
medical care the child would have extremely poor prospects.
With surgery, she would have a 50-50 chance of surviving into
her 20s, but she would be severely mentally retarded, paralyzed,
epileptic, unable to leave her bed, without control of her blad­
der or bowels, and unusually vulnerable to such further diseases
8 THE ELE\lEXTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

as meningitis. The mental retardation would be so severe that


she would never even be able to recognize her parents. Then,
perhaps sometime in her 20s, she would die. Without surgery,
the baby would die sooner, probably within one or two years.
The conclusion suggested by this prognosis is that it would
not serve the infant's own interests to prolong her life-sadly, it
would do her no good. In addition, it is obvious that no one
else's interests would be served by the surgery. Certainly it
would not benefit Lhe parents, who could look forward only to
years of pointless labor, caring for a child who was deriving lit­
tle advantage from it. And so, since no one would have bene­
fited from the surgery, there is no reason Why it should have
been performed. Thus we have another version of the Benefits
Argument:
(I) If no one would benefit from a medical treatment,
then the treatment would be pointless and it need not
be perfonned.
(2) In the case of BabyJane Doe no one, not even the baby
herself, would have benefited from surgery.
(3) Therefore, the surgery need not have been per­
fonned.
This was the principal reasoning in support of the parents' de­
cision.
Was Lhis a sound argument? That depends in part on
whether the pessimistic estimate of the child's prospects was
correct. Who was right abont the baby's chances-Dr. Newman
or Dr. Keuskamp? It is important to notice that Lhis kind of ar­
gument can go either way. If Dr. Newman was right, then this
argument supports the conclusion that the operation need not
have been performed. But if Dr. Keuskamp was right, then the
very same sort of reasoning-reasoning about what would ben­
efit the baby-would lead to tht> opposite conclusion. It all de­
pends on what the facts turn out to be.
The right-to-life activists who opposed the parents' deci­
sion believed that Dr. Newman was wrong; they trusted Dr.
Keuskamp instead. But they did not oppose the parents' deci­
sion only for that reason. They also saw the struggle over Baby
.' Jane Doe as part of a larger campaign involving more funda­
mental moral principles.
.

'
WHAT IS MORALITY? 9

The Argument from the Sanctity of Human Life. One of those


principles was the idea that "every human life is precious," All
human life is valuable, they said, regardless of age or handicap,
Thus Baby Jane Doe should have been given the surgery she
needed simply for that reason,
This was the position taken by the executive branch of the
federal government (although it was not shared by the judi­
ciary), The Surgeon General, Dr, C, Everett Koop, who had
been appointed to his position by Ronald Reagan because of his
conservative moral views, was one of the leaders of the fight to
force surgery, Speaking on television. he said: "This is a fight
for a principle of this country that every life is individually and
uoiquely sacred," Thus we found this argument being ad­
\-anced:
(1) Every human life is individually and uniquely sacred,
(2) Therefore, every individual. regardless of age or hand­
icap, should be given whatever medical treatment is
Jeeded to preserve his or her life,
(3) Therefore, the surgery on Baby Jane Doe should have
been performed,
This is very different from the Benefits Argument. The Benefits
Argument implicitly admits the possibility that some kinds of
lives may be so devoid of human qualities that preserving them
is pointless-the "life" of a sick, paralyzed, bedridden person,
for example, who has so little cognitive capacity that she cannot
recognize members of her own family, This argument, in con­
traSt, invokes a principle according to which all human life has
value, regardless of its quality.
Is the principle to which this argument appeals a good
one? It certainly sounds very high-minded, But on examination
it turns out to be troublesome, The trouble is that the principle
seems to imply that ''Very human being should be kept alive as long
as possible, and that is a proposition few thoughtful people would
accept. There are many cases in which everyone (or almost
everyone) would agree that keeping people alive is pointless.
For example, it is widely agreed that in hopeless cases of irre­
versible coma, people who are being artificially maintained by
the use of machines may be allowed to die by "pulling the plug." ~~
Or, to take an example closer to that of Baby Jane Doe, what

10 THE ELDIENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

about anencephalic babies? Not even Dr. Koop believes that the
m'es of such babies should be prolonged. While testifying in
coun. he said:
\lben you talk about" b"bybom without a brain, I suspect
you mean an anencephalic child and we would not attempt
to inteTfel"e with anyone dealing with that child. We think
it should be given loving attention and would expect it to
expire in a shon time.
Thus not even Dr. Roop would accept the principle, once its im­
plications are made clear.

The Argument from the Wrongness of Discriminating against


the Handicapped. There is an additional argument that was
used by those who disagreed with the parents' decision. From
a legal point of view, the government's intrusion into the case
was based on the idea that Baby Jane Doe was a handicapped
person and that failure to provide surgery was unacceptable dis­
crimination against the handicapped. In seeking access to the
hospital records, government lawyers cited Section 504 of the
Rehabilitation Act ofl973, which states that "no otherwise qual­
ified handicapped individual shall, solely by reason of handi­
cap, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits
of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or ac­
ti\ity receiving federal financial assistance." Since virtually
every hospital in the United States receives federal financial as­
sistance, this rule applies to them. In his public defense of the
government's intervention, Dr. Roap emphasized the impor­
tance of this point: He said repeatedly that the child should not
be denied medical treatment merely because she is handi­
capped. Thus he suggested this line of reasoning:
(1) It is wrong to discriminate against handicapped peo­
ple.
(2) There is no doubt that Baby Jane Doe was terribly
handicapped and that her parents, with the support of
Dr. Newman, were denying her treatment precisely be­
cause of her handicaps; if she had been a "normal"
child needing surgery, it would surely have been pro­
,ided.
WHAT IS MORALITI? ]1

(3) Therefore. the parents' decision was wrong. The


surgery should have been perfonned.
Is this a sound argument?
Discrimination against the handicapped is, of course, ob­
jectionable, for the very same reason that discrimination against
any group is objectionable. Suppose a blind person is refused a
job simply because the employer doesn't like the idea of em­
ploying someone who can't see. This is no better than refusing
to employ people because they are black orJewish. To point up
the offensiveness of this, we may ask why this person is being
treated differently. Is he less able to do the job? Is he more Stll­
pid or less industlious? Does he somehow deserve thc job less?
Is he less able to benefit from employment? If there is no good
reason for excluding him, then it is simply arbitrary to treat him
in this way.
At the same time, there are some circumstances in which
treating the handicapped differently may be justified. For ex­
ample, no one would argue seriously that a blind person should
be employed as an air traffiC controller. Because we can easily
explain why this is not desirable, the "discrimination" is not ar­
bitrary, and it is not a violation of the handicapped person's
rights.
The question to be asked about Baby Jane Doe, then, is
whether a good reason can be given why, considering her
"handicap," the surgery should not have been performed. And
Ihis brings us back to the matter of the infant's prospect'. Dr.
Newman testified that "on the basis of the combination of mal­
fOlmations that are present in this child, she is not likely to ever
achieve any meaningful interaction with her environment. nor
ever achieve any interpersonal relationships, the very qualities
which we consider human." If this were so, it would not be "dis­
criminating against her" not to perform the surgery, hecause
there would be no good reason to do it. There is nothing arbi­
trary about the denial of a treatment that would do the patient
no good.

Conclusion. So what are we to conclude about Baby Jane Doe?


Should the surgery have been performed?
The Benefits Argument, which takes the question of
whether the baby would benefit to be the central issue, seems to
· 12 : DIE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

~~

be on the right track. The other arguments turn out on analy­


sis to be less impressive. The principle of the sanctity of life, al­
though it has a noble sound, looks like a red herring. When the
implications of that principle are made clear, it seems unac­
ceptable. And the argument that refusing surgery is "discrimi­
nating against the handicapped" only collapses back into the
question of whether the surgery would actually be helpful. Our
overall conclusion, then, is that whether the surgery should
have been performed depends solely on whether it really would
have helped the baby. It is the Benefits Argument that identi­
fies the relevant issue.
But if this is the relevant issue, we must return finally to
the question of who was right about the infant's prospects-Dr.
Newman or Dr. Keuskamp? The parents accepted Dr. New­
man's bleak estimate of the baby's future. At the time they had
to make their decision, they could not know for cenain
whether he was right. But now some years have passed and we
can, with the benefit of hindsight, answer this question more
definitively. As it rums out, Dr. Keuskamp was right. Although
the surgery for spina bifida was not performed, Baby Jane Doe
did not die. She went home with her parents and five years
later she was talking, attending a school for the handicapped
(using a wheelchair), and generally doing much better than
was expected.
The parents' decision was, therefore, incorrect. Their
method of reasoning was sound, but the "fact'" on which they
relied turned out to be mistaken. However, we should be
careful not to infer too much from this. In the first place, this
does not mean that the parents were irresponsible or that they
are to be blamed. At the time they made their decision, they
did not have the benefit of knowing what we know now. They
were in a common predicament: often we have to make
decisions when all the facts cannot be known with certainty.
In such cases we have no choice but to rely on the best
infolmation we have, and when we are DOt experts ourselves,
this means deciding which experts to trust. Moreover, this
does not mean that other parents, in other circumstances,
would be wrong to make the' same decision. Other cases
might have a less happy ending. Unfortunately, pessimistic
assessments are sometimes correct.
WHATIS MORAUTY? 13

1.4. A Child with No Further Prospects:


Tracy Latimer
Finally, we may consider the tragic case of Tracy Latimer, a 12­
year-old girl who was killed by her father in 1993. Tracy, a vic­
tim of cerebral palsy, lived with her family On a prairie farm in
Saskatchewan, Canada. On a Sunday morning while his 'vife
and other children were at church, Robert Latimer put Tracy in
the cab of his pickup truck and piped in exhaust fumes until she
died. At the time of her death, Tracy weighed less than 40
pounds and was described as "functioning at the mental level of
a three-month-old bahy." Mrs. Latimer said that she was re­
lieved to find Tracy dead when she arrived home and added that
she "didn't have the courage" to do it herself.
Advocacy groups representing people mth disabilities
were appalled and said it was simple murder. The president of
the Saskatoon Voice of People with Disabilities, who has multi­
ple sderosis, said: "Nobody has the right to decide my life is
worth less than yours. That's the bottom line." Mr. Latimer saw
things differently. "People are saying this is a handicap issue,"
he said, "but they're wrong. This is a torture issue. It was about
mutilation and torture for Tracy." Tracy had recently under­
gone major surgery on her back, hips, and legs, and more
surgery was planned. "With the combination of a feeding tube,
rods in her back, the leg cut and flopping around and bed­
sores," said her father, "how can people say she was a happy lit­
tle girl?"
Mr. Latimer was convicted of second-degree murder, but
thejury recommended that the judge ignore the mandatory 25­
year senteuce. The judge agreed and sentenced him to one
year in prison, to be followed by a one-year confinement to his
farm.
Legal questions aside, did Mr. Latimer do the right thing?
This case involves many of the issues that we have already seen
in the other cases. The chief argument against Mr. Latimer is
that Tracy's life was morally precious, even though she was
handicapped; and so he had no right to kill her. In his defense,
it may be replied that Tracy's condition was so catastrophic that
she had no prospects of a "life" in any but a biological sense­
her existence had been reduced to nothing but pointless suf­
fering, so that killing her was an act of mercy. Considering
1-1 THE ELE:\iENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

those arguments, it appears that Mr. Latimer may have acted de­
fensibh·. There was, however, an additional point raised by Mr.
Latin1er's critics.

The Slippery Slope -Argument. We may feel sympathy for


Robert Latimer, if was said; we may even be tempted to think
that Tracy is better off dead. However, it is dangerous to
engage in this kind of thinking. If we accept any sort of mercy
killing, we will have stepped onto a "slippery slope" down
which we will inevitably slide, and in the end all life will be
held cheap. Where will we' draw the line? If Tracy Latimer's
life is not worth protecting, what about other disabled people?
What about the elderly, the infirm, and other "useless"
members of society? In Lhis connection, the Nazis, who sought
to "purify the race," are often mentioned) and the implitation
is that if we do not want to end up like them, we had better
not take the first dangerous steps:
(I) If we accept the idea that Tracy Latimer's life is "not
worth living" and say that she may be killed, we will end
up taking the same attitude toward the lives of other
handicapped people, and perhaps even other classes
of people as well.
(2) That would be monstrous.
(3) Therefore, we should not accept the idea that Tracy La­
timer may be killed.
Similar "slippery slope arguments" have been used in con­
nection with all sorts of other issues. Abortion, in vitro fertiliza­
tion (IVF), and most recently cloning have all been opposed be­
cause of what they might lead to. Because such arguments
involve speculations abouL Lhe future, they are notoriously hard
to evaluate. Son1etimes, in retrospect, it is possible to see that
the worries were unfounded. This has happened with IVF.
When Louise Brown, the first "test-tube baby," was born in 1978,
there were dire predictions about what might be in store for
her. her family, and society as a whole. But nothing bad hap­
pened and IVF became a routine procedure that has been used
to help thousands of couples to have children.
In prospect, however, it can be difficult to deterrninewhether
such an argument is sound. Otherwise reasonable people might
WHAT IS MORALITY' 15

disagree about what would rt:keiy happeN if mercy-killing in cases


like Tracy Latimer's were accepted. This makes possible a frus­
trating sort of impasse: Disagreements about the merits of the
argumen t may depend simply on the priOl' dispositions of the dis­
putants-those inclined to defend Mr. Latimer may think the pre­
dictions are unrealistic, while those predisposed to condemn his
behavior insist the predictions are sensible.
We may, however, make two general observations. First,
the Slippery Slope Argument is reallyjust a variant of the Bene­
fits Argument. The fundamental idea of the Benefits Argument
is that we should do what will make people better off; while Slip­
pery Slope arguments appeal to predictions about what will
make people better or worse off in the long run.
Second, this kind of argumen t is easy to abuse. If you are
opposed to something, but you have no good arguments against
it, you can always make a prediction about what it might lead to;
and no matter how implausible your prediction is, no one can
prove you wrong. This method can be used to oppose almost
anything. That is why such arguments should be \~ewed with
suspicion.

1.5. ReaSon and Impartiality


What can we learn from all this about the nature of morality? As
a start, we may note two main points: first, that moral judg­
ments must be backed by good reasons; and second, that moral­
ity requires the impartial consideration of each individual's in­
terests. ~-~~, (~-) . , "-' /L { : . .-f~6·1·';.r

Moral Reasonitlg. The cases of Baby Theresa, Baby Jane Doe,


imd Tracy Latimer, like many others to be discussed in this
book, are liable to arouse strong feelings. Such feelings ate of­
ten a sign of moral seriousness and so maybe admired. But they
can also be an impediment to discovering the truth: When we
feel strongly about an issue, it is tempting to assume that we just
know what the buth must be, without even having to consider
the arguments on the other side. Unfortunately, however, we
cannot rely on our feelings, no matter how powerful they may
be, Our feelings may be irrational: Th~)'may be nothing but
t~ products of I'rejudice, selfishness, or cultural conditionini.
(At one time, for example, people's "feelings" told them that
16 THE ELBIENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

members of other races were inferior and that slavery was God's
m\TI plan.) Moreover, different people's feelings often tell
rhem exactly opposite things: in the case of Tracy Latimer, some
people feel very strongly that her father should have been given
a long prison term, whereas others feel equally strongly that he
should never have been prosecuted. But both these feelings
cannot be correct.
Thus if we want to discover the lIuth, we must try to let our
feelings be guided as much as possible by the arg,lmenl' that
can be given for the opposing views. Morality is, first and fore­
most, a matter of consulting reason: The morally right thing to
do, in any circumstance, is determined by what there are the
best reasons for doing.
This is not a narrow point about a small range 01 moral
,iews; it is a general requirement of logic that must be accepted
by everyone regardless of their position on any particular moral
issue. The fundamental point may be stated very simply. Suppose
someone says that you ought to do thus-and",o (or that doing
thus-and-so would be wrong). You may legitimately ask why you
should do it (or why it would be wrong), and if no good reawn
can be given, you may reject the ad'ice as arbitrary or unfounded.
In this way, moral judgments are different from mere ex­
pressions of personal taste. If someone says "I like coffee," he
does not need to have a reason-he is merely stating a fact
about himself, and nothing more. There is no such thing as "ra­
tionally defending" one's like or dislike of coffee, and so there
is no arguing about it. So long as he is accurately reporting his
tastes, what he says must be true. Moreover, there is no impli­
cation that anyone .else should feel the same way; if everyone
else in the world hates coffee, it doesn't matter. On the other
hand, if someone says that something is morally wrong, he does
need reasons, and i,f his reasons <ire sound, other people must
acknowledge their force. By the same logic, if he has no good
reason for what he says, he isjust making noise and we need pay
him no attention.
Of course, not every reason that may be advanced is a good
reason. There arc bad arguments as well as good ones; and
much of the skill of moral thinking consists in discerning the
difference. But how does one tell the difference? How are we
to go about assessing arguments? The examples we have con­
sidered illustrate some of the most pertinent poinl'.
WHAT IS MORALITY' 17

The first thing is to get one's facts straight. Often this is not
as easy as it sounds. One source of difficulty is that the "facts"
are sometimes hard to ascertain-matters may be so complex
and difficult that not even the experts can agree. As we saw, in
the case of BabyJane Doe the experts disagreed, and as a result
the right thing to do was never very clear.
Another source of difficulty is human prejudice. Often we
"ill want to believe some version of the fpcts because it supports
our preconceptions. Those who disapprove of Robert Latimer's
action, for example, will want to belie* the predictions in the
Slippery Slope Argument; those who are sympathetic to him will
not wan.t to believe those predictions. The case of Baby Jane
Doe also illustrates this phenomenon. During the public con­
troversy over this case, those who were predisposed to accept a
-sanctity of life" ethic tended to accept Dr. Keuskamp's view of
the facts, while those who took a more liberal moral position
tended to believe Dr. Newman. It is possible that even the two
doctors were motivated by differing moral outlooks.
It is easy to think of other examples of the same sort: Peo­
ple who do not want to give money to charity often say that char­
itable organizations are wasteful, even when they have no very
good evidence for this; and people who dislike homosexuals say
that gay people include a disproportionate number of child mo­
lesters, despite evidence to the contrary. But the facts exist in­
dependently of our wishes, and responsible moral thinking be­
gins when we try to see things as they are.
Mter the facts have been established as well as they can be,
moral principles are brought into play. In our three examples,
a number of principles were involved: that we should not "use"
people; that we should not kiIl one person to save another; that
we should do what wiIl benefit the people affected by our ac­
tions; that "every life is individually and uniquely sacred"; and
that it is wrong to discriminate against the handicapped, Most
moral arguments consist of principles being applied to the facts
of particular cases, and so the obvious questions to be asked are
whether the principles are sound and whether they are being in­
telligentlyapplied.
It would be convenient if there were a simple recipe for
constructing good argnments and avoiding bad ones. Unfortu­
nately, there is no simple method available. Arguments can go
"'Tong in an indefinite number ofways, and one Olust always stay
18 THE ELEMENTS OF MORAL PHILOSOPHY

alert to Ihe possibility of new kinds of error. But that is not sur­
prising. The rote application of routine methods is never a sat­
isfacton' substitute for critical intelligence, in any area. Moral
Ihinking is no exception.

The Requirement of Impartiality, Almost every important the­


on' of morality includes the idea of impartiality. The basic idea
is Ihat each individual's interests are equally important: From
..ithin the moral point of view, there are no "privileged" persons.
Therefore, each of us must acknowledge that other people's wel­
fare is just as important as our own. At the same time, Ihe re­
quirement of impartiality rules out any scheme that treats the
members of disadvantaged groups as somehow morally inferior­
as blacks, Jews, and others have at various times been treated.
The requirement of impartiality is closely connected with
the point that moral judgment' must be backed by good rea­
sons. Consider the position of a white racist who holds, for ex­
ample, that it is right for the best jobs in society to be reserved
for white people. He is happy with a situation in which Ihe ma­
jor corporation executives, government officials, and so on, are
white, while blacks are limited mostly to menial jobs, and he
supports the social arrangemen ts by which this situation is
maintained. Now we can ask for reasons; we can ask why this is
thought to be right. Is there something about white people that
makes them better fitted for the highest-paying and most pres­
tigious positions? Are they inherently brighter or more indus­
trious? Do they care more about themselves and their families?
Are they capable of benefiting more from the availability of
such positions? In each case, the answer seems to be no; and if
there is no good reason for treating people differently, discrim­
ination is unacceptably arbitrary.
Moreover, even if there were some important general dif­
ference between whites and blacks, it would still be possible that
Ihis difference did not exist in the case of individual white people
and black people. For instance, even if it were true (and I am not
saying it is true) that whites were generally smarter than blacks, it
could still be true that many individual blacks are smarter than
many individual whites, and so Ihe general difference would pro­
\ide no reason for discriminating against Ihose individuals.
The requirement of impartiality, Ihen, is at bottom nothing
more than a proscription against arbitrariness in dealing with peo­
WHATISMORALIT~ 19

pie; it is a rule that forbids us from treating one person differently


&om another 1lJhen thne is no good Jeason to do so. But if this explains
..mr is wrong with racism, it also explains why, in some special
kinds of cases, it is not racist to treat people differently. Suppose
::-. .. 6hn director were making a movie aboutthe life ofMartin Luther
J King, Jr. He would have a perfectly good reason for ruling out

-
-
Paul Newman, or any other white actor, for the starring role. Ob­
oously, such casting would make no sense. Because there would
be a good reason for it, the director's "discrimination" would not
be arbitrary and so would not be open to criticism.

l.i. The Minimum Conception of Morality


The minimum conception may now be stated very briefly: Moral­
ity is, at the very least, the effort to guide one's conduct by rea­
s;;,n=--that is, to do what there ar.e the best reasons for doing­
while giving equal weight to the interests ofeach individual who
will be affected bione's conduel.
This gives us, among other things, a picture ofwhat it means
to be a conscientious moral agent. The conscientious moral
agent is someone who is concerned impartially with the interests
of everyone affected by what he or she does; who carefully sifts
facts and examines their implications; who accepts principles of
conduct only after scrutinizing them to make sure they are
sound; who is willing to "listen to reason" even when it means that
his or her earlier convictions may have to be revised; and who, fi­
nally, is willing to act on the results of this deliberation.
Of course, as one might expect, not every important the­
ory accepts this "minimum." As we shall see, this picture of the
moral agent has been disputed in various ways. However, theo­
ries that reject the minimum conception encounter serious dif­
ficulties. Most philosophers have realized this, and so most the­
ories of morality incorporate the minimum conception, in one
form or another. They disagree not about the minimum but
about how it should be expanded, or perhaps modified, in or­
der to achieve a fully satisfying account.