Let Them Live!

Who Count as Persons?by By John Kavanaugh, S.J.Georgetown Univ. Press. 240p $24.95 (paperback original)

In Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, Jonathan Glover made his "moral history" above all an account of the wars, international and civil, in which human beings killed one another throughout the century. The book made for interesting, appalling and enlightening reading. Yet, in reviewing it for America (1/8/01), I lamented that the philosopher Glover provided no moral theory or vision for appraising the terrible events of his narrative and the strategies for avoiding such events. Even more, he despaired of achieving any overarching theory or vision. Luckily for me, and perhaps for all of us, John Kavanaugh, S.J., has done much to fill this gap in his excellent book Who Count as Persons? Human Identity and the Ethics of Killing.

In his introduction, Kavanaugh (a professor of philosophy and theology at St. Louis University) summarizes the purpose of his book with one long infinitive phrase: to formulate a view of the human person that embraces our animal existence as well as our personal endowments; establish a theory of intrinsic value, not only of every species, but preeminently of the personalized human species; integrate an objective ethical system with our identity as ethical animals; and defend the extremely controversial position that intentionally killing a human person is never ethically permissible." The moral conclusion in the last part of the phrase is radically pro-life. More than controversial, it is also demanding of heroic restraint both personally and politically. I want to return to this conclusion, but I am most interested in the first four sub-phrases since they provide its philosophical support, something of interest perhaps mainly to the philosophers among us, but of great importance nonetheless. In a pro-life sermon at Mass years ago, my then pastor stated that we Roman Catholics opposed abortion and other attacks on innocent life because we hold by faith to the immortality of the human soul. Kavanaugh's approach is almost the diametrical opposite of my pastor's. In Who Count as Persons? he works rationally and methodically from our common human experience and particularly from our experience as organisms, as animals. We human beings are integral parts of the physical world, animals who are born, live precariously and eventually die. But we are also thinking, speaking, reflecting, deciding animals, one great part of whose thinking, speaking, reflecting and deciding is about good and bad, right and wrong. We are thus inescapably animals engaged in an ethical, or moral, enterprise. That ethical enterprise permeates the social and cultural world forming and formed by our life of the mind. We call the animals engaged in this enterprise persons.


Having come this far, Kavanaugh could have turned toward any one of a multitude of ethical questions, but the question that concerns him in this book is precisely that of killing persons, thinking and deciding animals. Just as he got his purchase on the subjective side of ethics by a consideration of organic personhood, he gains entre to the objective side through a similar consideration. Reflection on our lives as persons and with persons reveals in human life a value that we do not simply posit, but that commands our attention and respect. This life has such value that we must never intentionally take it, that is, that we must never intentionally kill human beings. Since he sees human beings as a kind of animal, Kavanaugh takes it that we must value these animals throughout their careers, from their beginnings in conception as animals until their deaths. Thus we must not kill intentionally in war or in self-defense, through abortion, through euthanasia or through the death penalty. Thus shall we live as ethical animals and value one another as persons.

Kavanaugh discusses thoughtfully and honestly the conundrums posed by his radical position. He allows that we may take all possible means of self-defense short of intentionally killing another. He acknowledges that there are ambiguities about the beginning as well as the end of human life. He points out, for example, that pro-life people might gain politically and socially by admitting the areas of ambiguity and working for the limitation of abortion within the areas of greater clarity. But he also makes clear how counterintuitive the denial of human life is after the first two weeks, and how indefensible the present situation is with respect to abortion. Who Count as Persons? would make good reading material for all of us in those disputes.

The conundrums that I would have liked Kavanaugh to address more thoroughly are those concerning national defense and war-making. I began reading the book a bit before Sept. 11, and I finished it well into the campaign in Afghanistan. The problems of conducting an ethical national defense in the real world where other people want to kill us, our friends and kin, our fellow citizens, were very much on my mind as I read. (Fortunately, Kavanaugh has had a chance to confront some of these problems in his America columns over the past few months.)

The last chapter of the book concerns "reviving personal life" and "recovering moral consciousness." Kavanaugh stresses the need for personal solitude, personal relationships, for accepting and revealing vulnerability. I liked this section, but I thought he needed to deal with our involvement in the larger social and political world as well. Again, he has his chance to make up for this disappointment in another book or in his columns. Finally, the use of endnotes to survey scholarly literature and to debate with other authors was a good move. This strategy made the body of the text read more smoothly, and through the endnotes I got a great bibliography and many valuable insights into the relevant literature.

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