Utilities Competition: Tell Us More

One of REASON's important attributes is that, more than any other publication I read, it resists the impulse to exaggerate. As a result, one tends to accept what it says as being unquestionably true. The value to you, and the reader, of this attribute is beyond measure. It should be rigorously guarded.

In Jan Bellamy's very interesting article on competition between utilities (Oct.) she borrows from Gregg Jarrell an unwarranted conclusion that, had it been left out, would have left her article stronger. In the first column of page 26 appears this sentence: "After five years of state regulation, he discovered, the utilities' prices and profits had both increased, while electricity output fell." That Jarrell could have found dates bounding a five-year period during which output for selected utilities fell, I do not doubt; I do doubt that regulation had more than a trivial influence on that outcome. Maybe his period began when the United States was busy supplying the World War I exhibition of waste and terminated in the subsequent soft economy.

As a matter of policy, I suggest that when you make use of the results of a statistical study you specify not only the length of the period over which change is measured but the dates bounding it. Your mission is education; you can leave the exhortation to others.

Edgar R. Jones
Englewood, FL

The Moral Majority And All the Schools

Murray Rothbard's "The Moral Majority and the Public Schools" (Viewpoint, Sept.) misses the main point of the attack on secular humanism by the Moral Majority. Rothbard is concerned with whether there should be public schools, and he argues the libertarian position that the State should be out of education entirely.

But what the Moral Majority is objecting to is all secular education, whether in the public or private schools. They are objecting to the teaching of science, moral education, modern literature, etc. The bête noir of the Moral Majority is a straw man. For there is no conspiracy by a group of secular humanists to take over and dominate the schools.

Libertarians should be as concerned as secular humanists with the assault on freedom by those who claim to believe in it but would impose an authoritative system of values on the entire society. Actually, the target of the Moral Majority is libertarianism as well as secular humanism. They are opposed to an ethics based on reason and independent judgment. They are the enemies of freedom. Secular humanists share with libertarians the values of individual freedom and autonomy of choice.

Paul Kurtz, Editor
Free Inquiry
Buffalo, NY


Your September issue must be one of the best yet; many thanks for some excellent articles.

Top honors belong, in my view, to Roger Bissell's piece on abortion. It is easily the most constructive and calmly reasoned approach to that question that I've read.

A. J. Davies
Ridgefield, CT

I commend you on publishing the extraordinary article "A Calm Look at Abortion Arguments," by Roger Bissell (Sept.). It is one of the best articles on any subject that I have ever seen, and by far the best contribution to that particular debate.

Dave Fafarman
El Sobrante, CA

And Puzzles

Roger Bissell contends that a pre-28-week human fetus is only a potential human being, not an actual human being, because it does not have the actual faculty for rational thought. If one accepts this assertion, then one must also accept that a person who is unconscious, asleep, or intoxicated would not be an actual human being by the fact that he or she does not have the actual faculty, but the latent ability or potential for rational thought. It would be more appropriate in each of these cases to say that these are human beings with potential, instead of potential human beings.…

Gregory B. Verive
Glendale Heights, IL

Roger Bissell's article is well written, nicely packaged, and objective…until he interjects his own views on the matter. His position that fetal life is not human life before the 28th week when the brain begins to function on a perceptual level is almost as capricious as any proabortion argument I've heard, although it does sound nicer. If human life develops only after the 28th week, then what do we have during the first 27 weeks? It is almost as if we are waiting for the 28th week to find out what it will turn out to be, as if it could possibly be anything other than human.…

Barry A. Kunz
West Covina, CA

Roger Bissell's examination of the abortion question (Sept.) was excellent but stopped short of the crucial question: If brain activity is the criterion for determining what is human, and therefore what is murder, then how do we deal with the killing of animals? An adult chimpanzee is considerably more intelligent than a newborn infant. A cow, sheep, dog, or cat is considerably more intelligent than a 28-week-old fetus. Is the killing of these animals murder? I am very, very reluctantly being dragged to the conclusion that it is. Can anyone explain why it is not?

Rick Maybury
Roseville, CA

Roger Bissell's article on abortion presents a facile case for establishing "humanity" of the fetus at the 28th week of term. Unfortunately, his reasoning does not proceed logically and he neglects to consider the context in which the issue of humanity and civil rights arises.

Initially, Bissell adopts Ayn Rand's definition of "human" as that which demonstrates a conceptual-rational mentality—in other words, a level of cognition higher than the perceptual mentality typical of mere animals. He then makes the observation that the Randian definition requires or subsumes the power of perception as part of cognition. From this correct observation, Bissell then leaps to the completely illogical conclusion that the power of perception alone is sufficient to define "humanity." The power of perception is indeed necessary, but it is not sufficient—as Rand's definition intends to demonstrate.…

Bissell then takes as his premise the notion that EEG signals (alpha, delta, and theta rhythm patterns) are bona fide indicators of perceptual activity. The interpretation of electrical brain signals has not advanced to the point where such a premise can be accepted, and Bissell is overstepping available evidence. Even if such an association were to be accepted, the evidence so far indicates that EEG traces and perception are related only in this way: during concentration of a subject on a stimulus, certain rhythms are suppressed and others are enhanced. The implication of this with regard to Bissell's information about prenatal EEG signals is that the detection of such perceptive responses would be possible only after the 32nd week of term, when the brain rhythms are continuously available for interpretation. Therefore, the very most that could be logically inferred from Bissell's arguments is that a perceptual mentality might be present in the fetus at the 32nd week of term.…

Rand's definition of humanity has been incorrectly cited far too often in this discussion. Rather than rationality or conceptual cognition being the definitive attribute (as people have tried to argue), the true determinant of human identity is the manifestation of volitional consciousness: the ability to communicate and voluntarily interact in a social context. The only way that such a characteristic can be identified as being present is by observation of its behavior. Jose Delgado, the world's foremost researcher of electrical stimulation of the brain, put it succinctly: "Without behavior, the mind cannot be recognized."

This is the point at which the antiabortion argument breaks down, for the fetus does not and cannot demonstrate any behavior indicative of volitional consciousness. Because civil rights are social inventions that are designed to protect the lives and livelihoods of beings that are characterized by volitional behavior, it makes no sense at all to extend civil rights to things that do not demonstrate such behavior.…

Mike Dunn
Federal Way, WA

While Roger Bissell's article clarified some points, he still misses the main point. Bissell states that the sole right of a woman to control what happens to her own body is not a fundamental issue in the abortion argument. I maintain that it is.

The issue does not rest solely on when the fetus develops the ability to "begin to develop consciousness." Even if a fetus could be proved to have a completely developed conceptual faculty, it would have no "right" to exist within its mother's body, for separateness is as much a part of what we call a human being as its conceptual faculty. For example, no separate adult human being may claim a right to the organ of another in order to survive, even if the other individual has organs to spare. Why then would a fetus be able to claim a right to sanctuary within its mother's womb simply because it has achieved a certain level of brain activity? The principle of self-ownership supersedes such a claim. However, if upon separation the baby should survive on its own, it then possesses all rights of any human being, and killing it would be murder.…

It is fallacious to equate calmness with reasonableness. Sometimes it is because we see things so clearly that we feel so deeply about them. Perhaps when men are able to calmly face their own loss of freedom to the military draft, women will be able to calmly face their loss of freedom to unwanted children.

Susan Love Brown
San Diego, CA

Mr. Bissell replies: Mr. Verive glosses over the very real and essential difference between the various creatures he lumps together. If you're asleep or intoxicated, your actual rational faculty is "out to lunch." If you're unconscious (and not permanently so), it is "temporarily out of order." In each case, you have basically workable cognitive machinery that is temporarily out of commission—machinery not possessed, however, by the pre-28-week fetus (not yet workable), the baby born without a cerebrum (no machinery), or a Karen Ann Quinlan (never again workable).

Mr. Kunz rejects my "actual perception" requirement and implicitly equivocates between human qua homo sapiens (a genetically human being) and human qua rational animal (a functionally human homo sapiens). To answer his question in this light: what we have from conception onward is a living homo sapiens that does not, however, become a rational animal with rights until about the 28th week.

Mr. Maybury misses the requirement for "potential conceptualization," not just actual perception, and ends up asserting animal's rights. No matter how wrong or immoral it may be to destroy them, no creatures without at least the potential for moral behavior can be said to have "rights" in the political-legal sense.

Mr. Dunn claims that actual perception alone isn't adequate. True enough. Like Mr. Kunz, he fails to grasp that perception for a normal fetus marks the beginning of its rational faculty's operation, because perception (for such a fetus) is and must be part of the process of reason and concept-formation! If concepts and reason are our distinctive tool for grasping reality—rather than merely manipulating percepts—then conceptual integration and the reasoning that flows from it must be thought of along with perception as parts of a unified, natural, characteristically human process: reason. The alternative is to sever concepts from reality, thus invalidating all morality and rights.

Similarly, just as reason for humans is not some faculty apart from perception of reality, neither is volition some faculty apart from the faculty for consciously directed choice we (and fetuses) make on a purely perceptual-automatic basis—and which we begin to make when our perception begins at 28 weeks.

As for "overstepping available evidence": Dr. Purpura, cited in my article, based his claims on simultaneous studies of both structural and functional aspects of brain development, correlating results of brain wave, visual, and other tests with autopsy studies of premature infants. The evidence is extensive and the implications clear-cut. (For more on Purpura's findings and other supporting research, see The Secret Life of the Unborn Child, by Thomas Verney, M.D., Summit Books, 1981.)

Ms. Brown's offer to recognize a baby's right not to be murdered "if upon separation the baby should survive on its own" is "generosity" of a particularly empty kind. What is the moral and practical difference between throwing a nonswimmer into the ocean and the additional act of holding his head under until he drowns? The right to life, for disabled rational beings (including babies and post-28-week fetuses), is the right to support from anyone who caused their predicament. In particular, a mother has no logical or moral right to regard the support of her baby (or third-trimester fetus) as "involuntary servitude" or "slavery." That support is a just claim.

Self-ownership, the "sole right to control what happens to your own body," is not an out-of-context absolute. If, in exercising your right to self-ownership you indebt yourself to another person, then reneging on that debt is a violation of that person's rights, because the goods are rightfully his. Being required by law to make good on that debt is not a violation of your self-ownership.