Does Sentience Give Us Value?

Alan explains whether our value is derived from being sentient creatures.

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How do you respond to a pro-choice person who believes that sentience is what gives human beings value and therefore, abortion should be justified on those grounds? This is the question I got recently, and it's a common question that is asked in various ways. Here's my general answer.

I would claim that the person who argues in that manner is guilty of a form of unjust discrimination. Let me explain to you why that's the case. Many abortion-choice advocates argue in a similar fashion. They basically are saying that being a human being is not enough to give you value. You have to be a human being to have value, but additional requirements are necessary. There are additional factors and qualities that need to be added to you as a human being in order to justify you being a valuable human being, a person like you and me.

They might say you have to be aware of your own existence over time. You have to be human plus be aware of your own existence over time. Or, you have to be a human being plus you have to be aware of moral categories. Or, you have to be a human being plus you have to be sentient or conscious. Or, you have to be a human being plus you have to be able to have hopes and dreams. So, it doesn't matter what's on the list. They have this thing where being a human being is not enough, and additional requirements are needed in order to make you a valuable human being.

The problem with this approach is that, first of all, it is subjective and arbitrary. These people are simply determining, on a personal whim, what characteristics they deem to be relevant to the question of human value. The second problem with this approach is that these characteristics are all self-serving. The big and the strong that are born and are already out here get to determine which characteristics we're going to use to disqualify the unborn, the weak, the small, the vulnerable, and the defenseless.

History is crowded with many examples where these kinds of lists were created and used in a form of unjust discrimination to disqualify human beings from being valuable. In fact, if you look in our own country, African-Americans were discriminated against in this manner. Notice that they were a class of human beings that was disqualified from being valuable based on an arbitrary characteristic. What characteristic? Their skin color. Why? So they could be abducted, and enslaved, and used as forced labor.

Jews in World War II were also discriminated against. Notice also, they were a class of human beings that was disqualified from being valuable based on an arbitrary characteristic. What characteristic? Their ethnicity. Why? So they could be experimented on. So they could be exterminated. 

Today, unborn children are also being discriminated against in the same way. Notice, they are also considered to be a class of human beings, but they're being disqualified based on an arbitrary characteristic. In this case, sentience. Why? So they can be aborted. So they can be taken out of the picture and moved out of the way of certain people's lives.

So this is why I say the abortion-choice advocates who argue that sentience is the key factor that gives you human value are simply engaging in an unjust form of discrimination. The abortion-choice view, ironically, is the exclusive view. It's the view that disqualifies other people and that discriminates against some human beings. The pro-life is inclusive. We don't discriminate. We think all human beings are valuable and therefore, deserving of protection.

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Alan Shlemon

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