Created Equal Or Equal By Function?

July 4th, 1776, one of the most important documents in human history was signed in Philadelphia, declaring the intention of American colonists to be free from British rule and to establish a new national system. We know the most famous passage of the Declaration, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” 

As is often pointed out, these words were penned at a time when Western culture was entering a debate over the future of the institution of slavery, a debate which would shape the history of the United States and culminate in the catastrophic American Civil War of the 1860s. It’s telling that in the middle of this war, President Abraham Lincoln would return focus to this passage in the Declaration of Independence, affirming in his Gettysburg Address how the American founders had created a new nation, dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 

Today, as back then, the culture is divided over the issue of abortion by two views of what it means to be human: The Endowment view, and the Performance view. 

The Endowment view, as Chris Kaczor notes, is the view that all human beings, regardless of size, level of development, environment, degree of dependency, race, class, gender, or other characteristics, have intrinsic value in virtue of their shared human nature. Intrinsic value in this sense means value simply in virtue of what you are, not what you appear as or what you can or cannot do. In other words, while the homeless bum who smokes crystal meth every day and the American Idol winner who blesses millions with her singing ability might differ in how much value we as a culture attribute to them, they are still both equally valuable in virtue of their humanity. It’s just as wrong intrinsically to kill the beach bum as it is to kill the American Idol winner because they both share the same basic human nature.

Contrast this with the Performance view. The Performance view essentially states that your value as a human being doesn’t come from merely being human, but because you are able to perform functions in a way that ultimately reflects the values we attribute to persons. As an early embryo or fetus, you may have been human, but it wouldn’t have been wrong to kill you, because you couldn’t do certain things yet. 

Most arguments for why we should be allowed to kill the unborn affirm the Performance view. In the opening to his book A Defense of Abortion, Philosopher David Boonin remarks about an ultrasound photo of his son Eli who was still in the womb at the time the photo was taken, and makes his thesis very clear: Eli was the same human being then as now, but according to Boonin, it is morally permissible to have ended his life at that point, and he spends much of his time in the book building and defending this very argument. 

Other philosophers, from Michael Tooley to Peter Singer to Jeff McMahan to Kate Greasely and a host of others, defend the notion that even though we are human, it is only something else that we possess that makes it wrong to kill us. For Boonin, it’s possessing the neural structure necessary to have a desire to go on living that makes it wrong to kill you and me. For others, it’s consciousness, or our ability to feel pain, or a combination of multiple factors that we only gain as we mature that makes it wrong to kill us. 

If the Performance view is correct, then the Declaration of Independence(as well as the Gettysburg Address, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech) is no more than an exercise in mere sentimentality. All people are not created equal, but only deserve “equal rights” once we have achieved some physical capability. As abortion defender Jeff McMahan notes, the implication of this view, that humans are not really equal, greatly disturbs him. 

Well, if the implications of a view we hold greatly disturb us, then maybe it’s time to get a new view of things. 

It turns out the Endowment view makes better sense of our desire to see all human beings treated with dignity. It also avoids the problems of the Performance view. 

Consider what the Performance view offers. Why should any definition of what you must possess in order to be a valuable human being (sentience, desires to live, consciousness, etc) be any more relevant than any other definition? While a defender of abortion might say it is consciousness or sentience that makes it wrong to mistreat us, why are we supposed to accept this explanation over, say, a racist who says it is being white that ultimately matters, or a sexist who says being male is what matters, or even a member of ISIS who says it is accepting their narrow version of Islam that matters? If each of these is an arbitrary(and ad hoc)  explanation for why we should value people, then why are other arbitrary differences like sentience, ability to feel pain, or ability to have desires any more relevant when deciding how we treat human beings? As Scott Klusendorf asks, why are consciousness, sentience, a desire to go on living, or any other factors more relevant than having a belly button that points outward rather than inward? 

There are other problems as well. Deciding who gets to be “equally” human isn’t going to work if we pick physical abilities, because not all people possess these abilities in the same way, shape, or form as everyone else. Take the ability to feel pain. An Army Ranger may have conditioned himself to have a high tolerance to pain and misery, while a pampered affluent teenager cannot tolerate the slightest inconvenience. Some people may never develop the ability to feel physical pain to begin with due to genetic disorders. 

Or, consider the idea that we must possess a desire to go on living in order to have a right to not be killed. Do we all possess this attribute equally? Consider two friends, Bob and Jim. Bob has everything going right in his life: He is married to an absolutely gorgeous wife, makes very good money, has a great retirement plan, and has beautiful, almost perfect children. His desire to go on living might be very high. Jim, on the other hand, has nothing going right for him. His wife has left him for another man, his kids have disowned him, he lost his job, and his retirement plans have dried up. His desire to continue living his life may be far less than Bob, yet it would be ghastly to suggest there is nothing really wrong with putting Jim out of his misery, because we don’t take away anything of value from him by taking his life away if he doesn’t desire it. If anything, everyone can agree we have a moral obligation to show empathy towards his situation. 

Clearly, desire to go on living is not the final arbiter in how we should treat people. 

But let’s digress. Even if the Performance view can account for reasons it is wrong to kill someone, it doesn’t follow that our functional abilities are the only reason or even the best reason it’s wrong to harm or kill someone. As Chris Kaczor notes, making a terrible caricature of a black woman is wrong for a multitude of reasons, such as being racist, sexist, in poor taste, and other reasons as well. Similarly, even if it’s wrong to kill us because we have desires that would be frustrated, it would inflict pain, etc, it doesn’t follow these are the only reasons it’s wrong to kill us. If the Endowment view is correct, it’s wrong to kill us regardless of how well we perform in these other ways. 

Lastly, the Endowment view accounts for some wrongdoings in a way that the Performance view cannot. Consider an example from Francis Beckwith: Suppose a mad scientist is able to alter the brain of a developing fetus so that the neural hardware necessary to be considered valuable under the Performance view never develops. For instance, the ability to have desires or conscious experiences never develops. Six months later, after the baby is born, they are killed in order to harvest their organs. Is this wrong? If we conclude it is, then it follows the Performance view is not doing the work to account for our understanding of this action as wrong; it’s likely the endowment view is. 

Let’s change the scenario slightly. With the advent of genetic modification technologies like CRISPR, suppose a scientist manipulates a human embryo so that they will never develop the neural hardware necessary to be considered a person with value. Instead of harvesting their organs, however, we use them for medical experiments, or we sell body parts for use as “sustainable meat” in culinary art projects, or, we market this human body as an organic sex toy for use in sexual pleasure. 

Is this wrong? Clearly it is, and yet, the Performance view cannot account for why it is wrong to modify human beings to be used however we like, so long as they don’t have the physical capacities to perform in ways we assign value to them. The Endowment view can. If we can’t use humans in this way even if they cannot function in the ways we do, it seems obvious we also can’t kill them for the same reasons when it suits our purposes. 

The American Founders weren’t perfect people; in some cases they were far from it. Yet, they hit upon an idea that proved revolutionary in more ways than they would ever have imagined, by making us stop to think about what it truly means to be human.