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Valuing Life.

John Kleinig's Valuing Life is a worthy addition to Marshall Cohen's distinguished series--Studies in Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy --for Princeton University Press. Kleinig's thoughtful reflections on the questions underlying some of the most vexing disputes in contemporary politics constitute a genuine intellectual contribution.

Since it is impossible to tackle every question relevant to any complex philosophical problem at once, every philosopher must operate with some assumptions. Taken together, these assumptions constitute a perspective; and one's philosophical perspective inevitably shapes the way in which one approaches the problem and frames the questions that must be answered if progress is to be made toward solving it. Although Kleinig's perspective--the familiar one of the secular, liberal moral and political philosopher--is not one I share, I learned much from this book. Kleinig is no liberal dogmatist; indeed, not all of his conclusions are likely to comfort those who do share the secular, liberal perspective.

Although Kleinig explicitly declines to resolve the moral and legal questions of abortion, euthanasia, genetic engineering, capital punishment, and animal rights, he explores various of the assumptions made and arguments advanced by the competing sides on these issues with a detachment and fairmindedness that can only be described as refreshing. He often succeeds in demonstrating that partisans of each side on any particular issue have a stronger case than partisans of the other side imagine, and a weaker case than they themselves suppose. His fairmindedness in laying out and evaluating the work of other writers is exemplary.

Kleinig's book is divided into eight chapters: Valuing Life; Valuing Life; Organismic Life; Plant Life; Animal Life; Human Life; Towards a Morality of Life; and Some Applications. In each chapter he identifies with precision a set of relevant questions that must be answered by anyone who proposes to take a position on the general problem and explores critically the answers that have been advanced by thinkers of various stripes. To say that Kleinig's analyses raise more questions than they answer is hardly a criticism. In working through the book I frequently found myself wishing that Professor Kleinig were present so that I could raise an objection, propose an alternative argument, or simply discuss in greater detail a point that he necessarily left less than fully explored.

For example, Kleinig considers the proposition that human life is intrinsically and self-evidently valuable as that claim has been advanced and defended by Edward Shils. Since this proposition is one that I myself affirm, I was disappointed that Kleinig chose Shils as a spokesman for it. It is not merely that Shils conflates an axiological claim about the self-evident value of life with the moral (or quasi-moral or moral-religious) claim about its self-evident sacredness, it is also, and more importantly, that Shils relies on an unsophisticated understanding of "self-evidence" (the sacredness of life "is the most primordial of experiences") that leaves his proposition entirely vulnerable to Kleinig's charge, namely, that appeals to self-evidence "display . . . the limits of our own understanding posing as the limits of reason."

A more sophisticated version of the appeal to self-evidence proposes that human bodily life provides a reason for action that requires no further or deeper reason (or subrational motivation) for its intelligibility as a human end or purpose. Such ultimate or "basic" reasons for action (which, I would contend, are provided by goods such as friendship, knowledge, and beauty, as well as by human life) can only be provided by things that are understood to be intrinsically valuable. But intrinsic human goods (if there are any) and the reasons for action they provide must be self-evident in the sense that qua basic, they cannot be derived through a middle term.

To claim that the good of human life (or any other putatively intrinsic human good) is "self-evident" in this sense is to advance a thesis not about the cognitive response of knowers to the proposition that human life is intrinsically valuable, but rather about the character and status of that proposition. To advance such a claim is most emphatically not to suppose that everyone will grasp the intrinsic value of human life, or, a fortiori, its status as "self-evident." Anyone can fail to grasp a self-evident proposition, just as anyone can fail to grasp a valid deduction. At the same time, of course, it is entirely possible to be mistaken in claiming that something is self-evidently true (or valuable), or, indeed, true (or valuable) at all.

What is to be done, then, when people disagree about a practical proposition such as the claim that human life is intrinsically (and therefore self-evidently) valuable? Often, dialectical arguments can be advanced either for or against putatively self-evident propositions. Philosophers employ such arguments to support or cast doubt upon propositions that cannot be proved or disproved directly. They do so by relating the proposition to other knowledge to highlight the rational unacceptability of affirming or, as the case may be, denying it.

Germain Grisez, Joseph Boyle, and John Finnis, separately and together, have developed such a dialectical argument in support of the proposition that human life is intrinsically valuable. Their argument seeks to show that the denial of the intrinsic value of human life entails an unacceptable person/body dualism. It seems to me that it is this argument, and not Shils's, that Kleinig and others who deny the intrinsic value of human life must meet.

The attention I have been giving to the question of whether, or in what sense, human life is intrinsically and self-evidently valuable should not mislead the reader to suppose that this question is the central one in Valuing Life. It is merely the question on which this reviewer (given his perspective) would engage the author. Other philosophers would join the issue with Kleinig on other points.

It is, however, entirely appropriate, I think, to review Kleinig's book by engaging him on particular points. This approach closely parallels the method of argumentation that Kleinig himself skillfully employs in Valuing Life. He identifies an issue on which a particular thinker has taken a position and developed an argument and proceeds to engage that thinker dialectically. For example, on the question of valuing fetal life, Kleinig proceeds by way of an analysis and critique of Stanley Benn's dismissal, in some of his early work, of the value of the human fetus as merely "potential." Benn's position relied, Kleinig observers, on a misunderstanding of "potentially" as mere "possibility." Once one adopts (as Benn since has) a stronger and more plausible understanding of potentiality, "the potentiality of the zygote is not, in general, significantly different from that of the neonate." And the value of fetal life is not so easily dismissed.

From there, Kleinig takes us on a fascinating exploration of the idea of human potential as it bears on the value of the human zygote, embryo, fetus, and neonate, considering, along the way, important arguments that have been advanced by Joel Feinberg and Michael Lockwood as well as Stanley Benn. Characteristically, Kleinig concludes his analysis, not by proposing an answer to the question of whether the value of fetal life precludes most (or any) abortions, but rather with a set of questions whose sharpness is the product of a truly rigorous analysis of the moral signficance of the potentiality of unborn and newborn human beings.

On issue after issue--from practical questions such as whether the lives of people in comas are of value or whether capital punishment or various types of genetic engineering can be morally justified to theoretical questions about the nature of valuing as a human activity or the identification of different types of value--Kleinig fruitfully deploys this method. It makes for a rather lengthy "Index of Names" at the end of the book, but Kleinig is no mere philosophical name-dropper. He is arguing every step of the way. Whether one judges him to have won or lost the argument on any particular point, one cannot help but learn from his analysis.

[Robert P. George is associate professor, department of politics, Princeton University, Princeton, N.J.]
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Author:George, Robert P.
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
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