Immanuel Kant: A Philosopher’s Perspective on Terry Schiavo

Plato, a renowned Greek philosopher claimed “the brain was the seat of the soul” while Aristotle philosophized later that the rational soul was the “conscious and intellectual soul that is peculiar to man” (Leeds, 1). Kant interprets the rational being also as ‘peculiar to man’ (Kant, LA, 7, 127). With the crystallized words of the Greek philosophers in mind, Kant would not have considered Terri Schiavo, a brain damage patient for over fifteen years, to be a rational being. It is the intention of this paper to provide conclusory evidence that Kant would not condone perpetuating Schiavo’s life based on her medical state, nor would he have condoned Schiavo’s parent’s insistence on perpetuating her life against her wishes to avoid an artificial means of life.

For purposes of this paper, a brief case history and clarification of Kant’s philosophy is vital. In regards to Schiavo, some case facts are evidentiary-such as CAT Scan *1 results, and spousal and parental stances on the matter, while other facts can be assumed to be evidentiary, according to the court rulings and publicly available data.

Schiavo, a 26 year old female, collapsed in cardiac arrest from a potassium deficiency due to an ongoing eating disorder, known as Bulimia *2, in 1990. She went without oxygen for approximately five to ten minutes, and was pronounced clinically dead at the scene. Her husband Michael Schiavo has been in control of her wishes for the fifteen years, as well as her final fate due to the marital legalities since the collapse, while the Schindler’s (Terri Schiavo’s parents), have disagreed on her care and have tried to assume guardianship from about three years after the collapse. Additionally, the Schindlers and Michael Schiavo have waged volatile battles with each other over remedies or refusal to remedy, her possible rehabilitation, and life support systems. Lastly, familial, legal, and media-loaded frenzy has consumed the nation, and the world, sparking heated, emotional debate amongst US citizens, politicians, and biased extremes in saturation coverage by the media (Kirkland, *3 31 March 2005).

According to Kant, who would have considered the Schiavo case ethically so as to determine whether she was a rational being, we must identify his perspective on the matter: “…every rational being, exists as an end in himself and not merely as a means to be arbitrarily used by this or that will…Beings whose existence depends not on our will but on nature have, nevertheless, if they are not rational beings, only a relative value as means and are therefore called things. On the other hand, rational beings are called persons inasmuch as their nature already marks them out as ends in themselves.” (Kant, Foundations, 428)

In other words, Kant considers the human being to be rational. Kant does not consider animals to be rational beings. To differentiate the human from the animal, we must address this from medical and psychological perspectives. The medical and psychology fields draw a clear distinction between the human species and the animal species by the presence, or lack of higher cortex operations in the brain. While humans are inherently equipped with the functions of a higher cortex, animals are not, and their only innate function is egotistical for survival and reproductive purposes. Furthermore animals are not capable of forming logic and reason-both of which rely on the higher cortex, thus defining the physiological differentiation between human and animal. Korsgaard translates this to, “A lower animal’s attention is fixed on the world. Its perceptions are its beliefs and its desires are its will. It is engaged in conscious activities, but it is not conscious of them. That is, they are not the objects of its attention. But we human animals turn our attention on to our perceptions and desires themselves, on to our own mental activities, and we are conscious of them. That is why we can think about them… And this sets us a problem that no other animal has. It is the problem of the normative *4… The reflective mind cannot settle for perception and desire, not just as such. It needs a reason” (Korsgaard, 93).

Schiavo was once a rational being, however the 1990 event left her severely brain damaged. According to CAT Scans Schiavo’s brain had no higher cortex, and the majority of her brain, had also atrophied. Her brain was nothing more than a mere halo of fluid, essentially eliminating the higher cortex functions, while she survived solely on the autonomous functions of the brain stem (medulla), itself for regulatory breathing and heartbeat. Lastly, she was devoid of any awareness or coherency, which Kant would also interpret as her rendering from a rational being to that of an animal.

With the documented lack of higher cortex function in Schiavo’s brain and leveling her “person” to that of “animal” on the higher cortex basis, Kant’s consideration of her as a rational being, would have been based on the “I.” “The fact that the human being can have the representation “I” raises him infinitely above all the other beings on earth. By this he is a person….that is, a being altogether different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with which one may deal and dispose at one’s discretion” (Kant, LA, 7, 127). Passage 127 and the lack of a higher cortex clearly reflect Kant’s stance; had he been present to ponder the Schiavo case, he would classify her as an animal, and not a human. This is a given by Kant’s own philosphies expressed previously in this paper, and based on her medical state before her demise and moreso, for the past fifteen years in that same medical state. Kant would summarily disagree about the status of her rationality.

In keeping the context of the previous qualifier in support of Kant’s potential to condone the removal of life support systems, the following statement fully quantifies the interpretation that Kant would in fact condone the final fate of Schiavo… “If a man shoots his dog because the animal is no longer capable of service, he does not fail in his duty to the dog, for the dog cannot judge, but his act is inhuman and damages in himself that humanity which it is his duty to show towards mankind. If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men” (Kant, LE, 240). In other words, man does not fail in his obligation or moral duty to his dog by alleviating it of it’s misery, but if he were cruel to his dog and killed it for any other reason than to be humane, he would essentially treat all of mankind in the same way, which would be morally incorrect.

Schiavo, being on the same physiological level as a dog, would fall under this same principle, as noted previously, “a being altogether different in rank and dignity from things, such as irrational animals, with which one may deal and dispose at one’s discretion” (Kant, LA, 7, 127).” “Though Kant believed that animals were mere things it appears he did not genuinely believe we could dispose of them any way we wanted. In the Lectures on Ethics he makes it clear that we have indirect duties to animals, duties that are not toward them, but in regard to them insofar as our treatment of them can affect our duties to persons” (Gruen, 1).

In addressing the respect issues of the Schiavo case from Kant’s perspective, we look to her parents, whose unwavering love, hope, and faith for their daughter appears noble and commendable on an emotional level. But is it really? Kant would have expressed this to be a clear indicator of disrespect, as he felt it was a moral duty to preserve rational life, not to perpetuate the shell of a once rational being (Kant, LE, 240).

Schiavo’s parents have persisted through the local, state, and federal courts against forty judges (Long, AP, 01 April 2005) to argue that their daughter was a rational being, however the evidence sided with Schiavo’s husband, Michael. Educated assumptions may be inferred from court rulings on behalf of Michael Schiavo, that it was in fact, her wish to not be kept on life supporting systems, while in a non-rehabilitative, and persistent, vegetative state. Kant would agree, based on his philosophy of respect, that this act by the Schindlers is disrespectfully an act vehemently against the wishes of Schiavo, further perpetuating her undesired life as a non-rational being.

In conclusion, the facts in this paper are reflective of how Kant would respond to Schiavo’s situation. Kant would conclude that she was no longer a rational being, and that she was lacking a higher cortex, essentially without a rational soul, and no awareness. Finally, Kant would have equated her being to that of an animal, whereby the humane disposal of her being would be morally acceptable under these circumstances, and in respectful accordance of her desires to not live via artificial means. According to Kant’s philosophy, the facts are indicative of a moral decision by Schiavo’s spouse, based on philosophical, physical, legal, and psychological evidence from known case facts, and educated assumptions of fact.

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