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How Do We Care For Future People? Buddhist and Jain Ideas for Reproductive Ethics (Part 2)
J. Hughes   Aug 29, 2012   Ethical Technology  

My proposal is that instead of a binary approach to jiva/ajiva, or souled and soulless, the Buddhist and Jain ideas of ensoulment are open to an analog interpretation in line with neuroscience and ethology. From a Keynote Address delivered at the International Jain Conference at Claremont Lincoln University, August 24-25, 2012.

The Moral Significance of Harming a Person

I am quick to acknowledge that this next move I make in the argument is a novel and heterodox one to claim as “Buddhist,” and that it will be even more of a stretch for Jains. 

In my work on Buddhist bioethics I have adopted the stance of a Western materialist Buddhist, reflecting my Unitarian upbringing, and I selectively use Buddhist concepts and myths that I find illuminating, setting aside those that are supernatural and incompatible with science (Hughes, 1999). I presume that within Jain circles there are similar debates given the importance of the doctrine of anekāntavāda, the rejection of absolute truth, within Jain philosophy.

The proposal is that instead of a binary approach to jiva/ajiva, or souled and soulless, that Buddhist and Jain ideas of ensoulment are open to an analog interpretation in line with neuroscience and ethology. For both Buddhist and Jain psychology there are a number of constituent elements or skandhas of ensoulment, with consciousness being the most important.  The karmic significance of killing animals and embryos, or of withholding life support from the dying, would then also be a matter of karmic degree depending on their psychological states.

I believe that this is the moral logic of Buddhist societies in practice, if not in doctrine, since they have never punished butchers with the same severity as murderers, and have been generally tolerant of abortion.  This is in fact the view attributed to the Pali Buddhist canon by Paul Waldau in his 2002 The Specter of Speciesism; Buddhist and Christian Views of Animals, although it is staunchly rejected by animal rights-oriented Buddhist scholars such as Colette Sciberras.

Taking this more materialist turn would allow both Buddhist and Jain ethicists to embrace any number of the personhood positions in secular bioethics, from the pro-life emphasis on sentience, which would prohibit all abortion and animal killing, to the neo-Lockeian equation of ensoulment with the presence of higher cognitive functions, which would permit some or all abortion and distinguishes between animals that possess personhood and those that don’t. 

For instance in his book Drawing the Line Steven Wise gathers ethological evidence about the psychological attributes of animals to determine which ones should possess legal personhood, in which he includes apes, cetaceans, elephants and parrots, and which should not. Neither Buddhists nor Jains could adopt the strictest anthropocentric criteria, such as the Kantian position that only autonomous moral agents have moral standing, but with an analog approach to personhood it is possible to hold that moral agents have more moral standing than persons incapable of moral conduct.

Abortion and Buddhist Fetal Personhood

Jewish, Islamic and Christian theologians have come to many different conclusions about this timing of fetal ensoulment, ranging from conception to birth. For Jewish ethics this has meant that ensoulment plays little role in their assessment of abortion ethics. Catholic doctrine on the timing of fetal ensoulment varied until the nineteenth  century when conception became the official moment. Protestant thinking displays the variety that Ted Peters outlined, but since the emergence of the right to life movement in the 1970s many conservative Protestants have also focused on conception. Islamic scholars have generally placed fetal ensoulment between 40 and 120 days, although Islam has generally disapproves
of abortion at any point.

Hinduism has a similar internal diversity, with one Upanishad actually placing ensoulment at the seventh month. But most Hindus have placed ensoulment at conception. Jain texts suggest the idea that ensoulment occurs within 48 minutes after conception, and combined with their strict doctrine of non-violence, Jainism has generally opposed abortion as well.

Traditional Buddhist beliefs about the exact timing of the instantiation of the reincarnating being in the embryo or fetus are not doctrinal, however, but drawn from latter exegetical texts influenced by a variety the variety of  indigenous medical systems of the societies they spread through, from India to China to Japan. Damien Keown, the most prominent contemporary Buddhist bioethicists, has argued that Buddhism is consistently anti-abortion since it holds that ensoulment occurs at conception. But Michael G. Barnhart in “Buddhism and the Morality of Abortion” takes issue with Keown’s neo-Aristotleian approach for un-Buddhistically treating ensoulment as the insertion of a unitary self into the embryo body, when in fact Buddhism is adamant that the unitary self is an illusion that emerges from five necessary attributes or skandhas:

A body (rupa)

Feeling (vedana)

Cognition (samjñā)

Volition (samskāra)

Consciousness (vijñāna)

In traditional Buddhist scholarship it was assumed that these characteristics all began to develop shortly after the creation of the embryo. But modern neurophysiology would suggest that in fact that fetuses may not really wake up until birth, and that the full development of self-awareness, which is supposed to accompany their possession, certainly happens after birth.

On these grounds one could argue that abortion in at least the early stages of pregnancy may accrue no karma since an ensouled thing is not being harmed, and that abortion in later stages may accrue increasingly amounts of karma as these cognitive traits develop.

Part 3 of this talk will be published later this week

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)

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