Thursday, July 09, 2009

Infanticide and Intertwined Interests

A conversation at Thinking Christian led me to draw a conclusion about intertwined interests. Let me explain.

Th conversation turned (quite naturally it seems to me) to the fate of those who die in infancy and what this might imply about the permissibility of infanticide. The consensus of the Christian voices was that all who die in infancy are heaven-bound. (This is surely wisdom.) The skeptical reply was that, if this is so, should we not say that it is in the interest of an infant to kill it before it reaches the age of accountability and thus before its salvation might be jeopardized.

The reply to this was that it could never be in anyone's interest to commit so gross a sin as to murder an infant.

I'll pick up the thread of the argument here and in a moment draw a quite extraordinary conclusion. We should distinguish, say I, the interests of the one who sins from the interest of the one on whom the sinner acts. No doubt if Mr. Z were to kill an infant, that act is not in Mr. Z's interest. Such a gross violation of God's will must result in a harm to Mr. Z.; even if he is not caught and imprisoned, the harm to his soul will be severe. But that it is not in Mr. Z's best interestto kill the infant does not imply that it is not in the infant's best interest. Their interests need not coincide, it would seem. What would undoubtably do great harm to Mr. Z would, it seems, result in great benefit to the infant.

The only way out of this that I see is to insist that everyone's ultimate interests are the same. But this seems incredible on the face of it. It would seem that my interests are me-centered and your interests are you-centered, and what benefits me need not be what benefits you.

So the world would say. But might this be moral error? Should we say instead that all of our interests are ultimately we-centered? Do we have a hint of this in, say, family life? I don't take my interests to be mine alone. I do well only when my family does well (and they do well only when I do well), so closely are our interests intertwined; for I desire so strongly that they do well (and they desire so strongly that I do well) that, if they do not do well, one of my deepest desires is thrwated and I am thereby harmed.

Is this where humanity as a whole is headed? Is this where it should be now? Do none of us do well when any of us do poorly? Perhaps this is what love of neighbor implies. Strang as it may seem, the atheist Sartre, if a recall correctly, expressed in idea like this. If anyone anywhere, he said, is not free, I too am not free. A beautiful thought, even if I could never quite get my head around it. I always thought it was more a call to action than a literal truth. But perhaps for the Christian it is (near to) the literal truth.

1 comment:

Steven Stark said...

From the Introduction to Essential Teachings by the Dalai Lama:

"What is compassion?" I asked him.

"To recognize yourself clearly in every other being and to respect each sentient being's right to happiness."

"Don't the Buddhists believe that the practice of compassion is the key to enlightenment?"

"Yes, because it breaks down all barriers of every kind and in the end destroys the notion of the separate self. But this is Buddhist business. Compassion is essential for everyone; it is the key to a happy life. A world without compassion is not a human world."