25 March 2005

Losing One's Humanity

I keep hearing it said, by those who oppose the removal of Terri Schiavo’s hydration and nutrition tubes, that human life is valuable. (Often they go further and say that it’s intrinsically valuable.) Let’s think about this. Plants are living organisms, but they’re unconscious, nonsentient, and nonsocial. They have no mental lives. Animals (most of them, anyway) are conscious, sentient, and social, but they lack the cognitive abilities of humans. Humans are special animals: rational, autonomous, freely choosing agents. Most of them, anyway, most of the time. Occasionally a human being loses what makes him or her distinctively human. The being devolves into an animal and is capable of living only an animal existence. That’s not nothing, of course, for animals, qua sentient beings, have moral status. Sometimes, tragically, human beings lose their consciousness, sentience, and sociality as well as their cognitive abilities, which reduces them to vegetables. Terri Schiavo, sad to say, is a vegetable. She’s not only nonrational, nonautonomous, and unfree; she’s nonsentient and nonsocial. She’s lost the capacity to suffer, think, feel, and interact with others. Those who wish to sustain her in this state would never think to sustain a plant at such cost. Why the inconsistency? There’s something deeply irrational going on, perhaps originating in fear of death.

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