Concerning a moral identity
I continue to escalate the severity of the problems discussed in this blog — the severity, that is, as with how the topic has concerned countless philosophers, lawmakers, and the general society who are affected individually or secondarily. By moral identity, I invariably refer to what others have called personhood, autonomy, or even sanctified life itself. Of these, moral autonomy is perhaps a better descriptor of my goal, but I would like to place emphasis on the individual, whose moral identity is established by the demonstration or potential of autonomy.
In a later post it may become necessary to elaborate the difference between identity in its interpersonal, collective connotation, as in “national” identity, or “racial” identity, and the individualistic connotation. For now it suffices to say that moral identity can only by an individual phenomenon: Any concept of identity that seeks to divide people along the lines of nationality, race, or even social clique cannot be a moral qualifier by its inherent divisiveness; whereas a recognition of the individual faculties towards morality, though separating person from person (indiscriminately), directly precedes the possibility of bridging the gap between them.
You might have already predicted, even by my inclusion of “sanctified life” above, that the discussion of identity will flow through the pertinent topics abortion, where religion often loudly and violently strays onto the political scene. The questions of when a being, specifically human, is first granted moral identity is inexorably tied to the understanding of conception and development, the sanctity of life, and our generally enlightened abhorrence of ceasing or preventing human life. I suspect that anyone reading this may be on the fence — preferring no act that is is or seems like murder; but also recognizing the moral identity of the mother who may have been thrust into motherhood in anguish against her will, risks a desperate loss of life, or may be physically and/or emotionally incapable of the process.
To qualify the physiological perspectives, many who study conception and embryology, and other scientifically related fields have noted that conception is hardly a guarantee of life, especially without implantation. And yet even implantation bears risk of miscarriage. Assuming conception as a fixed point of life disregards the high amount of biochemical chance that reveals the living as only a fraction of potential offspring who were embryologically viable in the first place. Beyond that, the joining of egg and sperm is a variably complete unification, sometimes adding too much or too little generic material (which manifest as different genetic diseases), or begins to divide too much or too little (as in identical twins or absorbed twins).
Essentially, it seems, humanity is equipped with a myriad of biological mechanisms to insure it can overcome the odds against itself: From the overproduction of gametes (which in itself represents a human potential exponentially greater than the selection of the living), to the gradual construction of organ systems in the womb, to birth, to mammary nourishment, to the early development of immune resistance, and to the post-adolescent finalization of brain chemistry. Many points along this timeline have been cited as the beginning of moral identity for the embryo/infant in question, such as the appearance of the nervous system (necessitating suffering as biological definition), or the initiation of heart palpitations. All of these propositions, including conception are unsatisfiably arbitrary and occur somewhere in the middle of the larger human reproductive process. Other definitions that assign moral autonomy more gradually as the child grows seem better equipped to handle the high variability.
Perhaps the process of finding any binding definition for the beginning of human life is ultimately tenuous or misguided. Yet for many removing such a point is akin to destroying the concept of identity, especially of an individual whose soul is accountable to some higher power for a perfectly measurable existence before death. In response to this I must re-imagine that
Life is not sanctified.
To cling desperately to a singular process in the continuation of human life firstly ignores the instances and variations of that process in all other manifestations of life. To call human conception a sacred event while at the same time dismissing any notion of sanctity for other possible conceptions on Earth is grossly conceited and ignorant of the vast history of known life before humanity. Many Abrahamic philosophies restrict sanctity as exclusively human; humanity, framed as the epitome of gods’ work, is far more important to conserve compared to anything else. This backwards view places humans as the goal of every evolution of matter and life in the history of the universe rather than as a possible product (and attempts to prove the premise by reinterpreting our slowly-evolved adaptations thereto as conditions because of which the universe was designed for us).
More open-minded Abrahamic philosophy, as well as many Eastern philosophies of sanctity, do better at acknowledging all or most life. In some cases there are rituals or prayers for food that was necessarily harvested or killed to lend energy to the eater. These ideas are much more encouraging, but still diverge in practice and idealism from reality. In practice we bend life to ourselves. Most chicken ova are not conceived and instead are eaten; most “fruit and vegetable” embryos are either forcibly fertilized or consumed beforehand; in too many cases a sacred animal for one culture is a delicacy or abomination for another. After all of these cases it is not far for imagination to create a different evolution of life where our conscious species is the domesticated food source of another.
The more implausible idealism of complete sanctity falls drastically short of reality. I too would love to imagine a world where all creatures are cared for and protected by a supernatural process, or where every life force is a cog in a divine wheel. The result, however is insurmountable and ultimately incompatible with the nature of life itself: In reality, life is a collection of processes that seek to maintain an influx of energy rather than deteriorate. We do not currently know the specific means by which it initially began, but it is not difficult to conceive that a process that renews its required energy gradually shifts to better means of doing so – while the less successful processes gradually discontinue. This is not a pessimistic or cold view of life on earth, though. The means by which life has found ways to continue itself is fascinating and beautiful, even when life is bound to competition with other life. And that it has found a way in what we distinguish as humanity, ourselves, for self-perception is an amazing, but no more sacred, aspect of its evolution. In fact, this step is not an end for the process of life, but likely somewhere in the middle of an unknowable trajectory. Humanity is not a goal of the universe.
This conversation can lead far astray from any ideas of human conception, but all for a purpose. Moral identity (and necessarily human identity) cannot be based on an ability to exist or on a point when existence starts. In one sense our lives have already existed in genetic potential and will continue to support more existence in the same way. The little power we can control the continuation of life (that is, abortion, contraception, family planning) is somewhat insignificant compared to the continued potential of our species or life itself. This is not to say that discontinuing the process is not regrettable or in need of serious thought and deliberation. Yet to assume mastery or a singularly correct view over continuation is misdirected and potentially inhibitive of the way life works.
So much time and resources are spent on a battle between pro-life and pro-choice and the desire to legally define the start of life. I posit that the issue is not about who gets to determine moral integrity (for the mother or child). It is not about crying murder and restricting sexuality. Nor is it about a patriarchy controlling women (an issue for another post entirely). The beauty of humanity is in its growth, and in how it transfers knowledge between and across generations. The beauty is in how parents invest in the physical, emotional, and moral development of their children.
In the end, moral identity is determined by how one has learned and existed in relation to everything else, not in the precondition that one existed in the first place. And it is in this context that an individual can acquire autonomy or identity at all.
I think we should spend more time and resources to foster and protect the society we wish for through posterity, rather than trying to strangle the definition of posterity with our own conceit.