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Talks on metaphysics of pregnancy, harm after death highlight UB philosophy conference

Release Date: July 22, 2016

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David Hershenov

“We’re all friends, but we also disagree all the time.”
David Hershenov, professor of philosophy
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – If life is a closed system, with no afterlife offering the possibility of either misery or bliss, then death should be the ultimate protection from harm.

But David Boonin a professor of philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder and director of its Center for Values and Social Policy thinks otherwise, and he will explain his views on posthumous harm as part of the University at Buffalo’s fourth annual PANTC conference, a free three-day exploration on bioethics and the philosophy of medicine to be presented by the university’s Department of Philosophy, July 28-30.

Boonin, author of “A Defense of Abortion” and “The Problem of Punishment,” delivers the first of PANTC’s two keynote addresses on July 29 at 4:30 p.m.

The following day, July 30, at 3:15 p.m. Elselijn Kingma, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Southampton, England, will present the event’s second keynote on the metaphysics of pregnancy.

Kingma is the principal investigator on five-year project funded by the European Research Council to develop a philosophically sophisticated account of human pregnancy and birth, based on an empirical understanding of human reproduction.

“There will also be talks on abortion, euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, transgender issues and when human beings come into and go out of existence,” says David Hershenov, a professor in UB’s Department of Philosophy.

All the conference’s talks are open to the public and will take place in 280 Park Hall on the University at Buffalo North Campus. A complete schedule is available online.

PANTC is a reading group that began in 2012, bringing together philosophy professors and graduate students from UB, Canisius College, Fredonia and Niagara University.

Named as a symbolic satellite of Plato’s famous Academy, PANTC – or Plato’s Academy North Tonawanda Campus – has held monthly meetings and presented an annual conference on bioethics and the philosophy of medicine.

“This is an event that is certainly for people in the medical field, but it’s also for anyone interested in public policy,” says Hershenov.  “These are the hot-button issues that are being covered in the news.”

PANTC has inspired loyal and noteworthy followers since it was first organized.

Christopher Boorse, whose contributions to the theory of disease have established what is now one of the most respected paradigms within the sphere of the philosophy of medicine, has twice delivered PANTC keynotes, even inviting himself back for the second lecture, according to Hershenov.

“Boorse recommended that we invite Elselijn Kingma this year,” says Hershenov.  “He praises her work and Boorse doesn’t give praise easily.”

Kingma’s research on the metaphysics of pregnancy in part probes the relationship between the fetus and the mother. Her views are quite critical of SUNY Distinguished Professor and PANTC member Barry Smith, who will deliver his response immediately following Kingma’s talk.

“Smith believes that the relationship between the fetus and mother is not that of a part to a whole,” says Hershenov. “But rather that of occupant to a niche.  Just as you are an occupant and not part of the bedroom that you sleep in, Smith argues that the fetus is an occupant within the mother’s womb, but not literally a part of the mother.”

Kingma on the other hand views the fetus as part of the pregnant woman. For her, this presents a dilemma implying that either one human being can be a part of another human being or that the fetus doesn’t become a human being until separated from the mother.

She favors the latter view which has dramatic implications for reproductive ethics.

“Kingma’s presentation is the philosophy of medicine part of the conference,” says Hershenov. “David Boonin will speak in the bioethics section.”

Hershenov calls Boonin, who is writing a book on posthumous harm, one of the nation’s leading applied ethicists.

The idea of posthumous harm asks how, from a secular humanist outlook, anyone could be harmed after death.

“Harm implies a drop in well-being,” says Hershenov. “In death, harm does not seem to exist because it has no subject.”

But Boonin’s approach sees the subject of harm as the living person who is harmed by the future. When certain things do not occur as a person desired, such as a sullied reputation, an improperly executed will or the collapse of lifelong plans, they’re harmed in the present, according to Boonin, by what happens later on.

“An analogy might be the person who doesn’t know they’re in a relationship with an unfaithful spouse,” says Hershenov. “Would people say that unknowing person has been harmed? Have the person’s desires been frustrated even though they don’t know it?”

Hershenov says each year, the PANTC conference is a good show with good debates.

“We’re all friends, but we also disagree all the time,” says Hershenov.

“It’s always lively.”

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