I wrote this review in 2010. I couldn't find anyone interested in publishing it, but someone recently read it and found it valuable so I'm reposting it here. The arguments here extend to abortion and, of course, many arguments against abortion extend to embryo experimentation.Human Embryos, Personhood and Death: A Critical Study of Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life
In Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008), Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (hereafter ‘G & T’) argue that human embryo-destructive experimentation is morally wrong and should not be supported with state funds.
Although both authors are Catholic, and the New York Times describes George as the “most influential conservative Christian thinker”1 in the United States, their arguments are entirely secular: they do not appeal to any theological, scriptural, ecclesiastical, or otherwise religiously-oriented concerns in making their case.2 Their arguments, however, are ones that many people, especially people of with “conservative” religious commitments, find appealing; furthermore, their case might influence social policy; indeed, perhaps it does.3 For these reasons, in addition to purely philosophy and moral interest, their arguments are worthy of careful examination.
Embryo experimentation is often defended by appealing to the medical benefits for children and adults that might come from it. G & T argue, however, that such benefits would not justify embryo experimentation: appeals to “the greater good” would not justify terminal experimentation on mentally retarded infants, and appeals to benefits do not justify embryo experimentation either (pp. 5-6).
Thus, they argue that embryos ought not to be used, to invoke Kantian terminology, as “mere means” towards others’ ends: they have a moral right to life that trumps potential benefits for others. To state their position simply, they argue that embryos have this moral status because they are human beings, because they are this “kind” of being.
Here I summarize their case (which implies that abortion is immoral as well). While G & T admirably explain why many arguments in favor of embryo experimentation fail,4 I argue that their arguments against embryo experimentation are unsuccessful. Thus, they do not give good reasons to believe that embryo experimentation is wrong and should be legally prohibited.
2. BIOLOGY & METAPHYSICS
Much of G & T’s discussion defends two non-moral claims. First, that we – people like you and I – were embryos, that each of us is numerically identical to the embryo that was us at an earlier stage of our development. Second, that human embryos are “human beings.”
This second claim strikes me as obviously true, given even a relatively unsophisticated biological understanding of embryos and their development.5 On any plausible suggestions or analyses of what it is to be a “being,” embryos seem to be beings: what else would they be? And human embryos obviously are biologically human: they are not feline or bovine. So human embryos are “human beings,” in one clear sense of the term.6
The first claim, that we are numerically identical to embryos, is dubious, but innocuous, I will argue.
The book opens with a story of “Noah,” a boy who developed from an embryo “rescued” from Hurricane Katrina (pp. 1-3). It is said that his life, he, was saved from the Hurricane and so he is numerically identical to that embryo.
Of course, each of us, given actual biological reality, is related to an embryo, in that had that it been destroyed or never come into being in the first place we would not exist.7 But that needn’t mean that any of us are numerically identical to past fetuses, despite our bodies being spatiotemporally continuous with them. About Noah, we could say that some of the physical materials that were necessary for his existence were saved from the Hurricane, but that he emerged later, perhaps when consciousness emerged, so he is not numerically identical to that embryo. Similar claims can be made about any normal child or adult: we came to exist after our biological organisms came to exist.
Indeed, such an account is preferable. One reason (beyond the simpler Lockean “Prince and the Pauper” case or Disney’s “Freaky Friday” case) comes from Noah’s stepping into a Parfit-inspired malfunctioning “Teletransporter” and two (or more!) individuals emerging on the Moon and Mars who, until that point, shared a psychology. To many people, it seems that these individuals would be related to Noah in all morally and prudentially relevant ways, yet not identical to him (since if they were, then they’d be identical to each other, which is impossible given their different locations). These theories hypothesize that psychological continuity, not bodily continuity, is what makes for what’s ordinarily called “personal identity” (or another close relation). These theories imply that we – essentially psychological beings – are not numerically identical to embryos, given their lack of psychologies: we were never pre-conscious embryos.
I believe psychology-based theories of identity, which can be supported with additional arguments,8 are the more plausible views and so that G & T are mistaken on the metaphysics of what “we” are: we are not functioning biologically human organisms essentially.
But this is metaphysics and thereby deeply controversial. However, nothing is immediately lost or gained by the foe or friend of embryo experimentation by granting this metaphysics or denying it: it is morally inert.9
To see why, suppose it is true. One might think that, since we are persons now with various moral rights, if we are identical to embryos, then they also were persons (and current embryos are persons) with such rights as well. But this does not immediately follow since it is not true that all properties, or all moral properties, possessed by adults are also had by children, or by embryos.10 Thus, even if embryos and children and adults are numerically identical, this does not, in itself, show that embryos have the moral status G & T claim they do.
Suppose, however, that we are not identical to embryos, as I argued. Some might see this as a theoretical loss for the critic of embryo experimentation, but it needn’t be. Non-identity does not preclude embryos from perhaps having some other property(s) that makes them seriously wrong to destroy, e.g., as having valuable futures, as being potential persons, as material to bring about future possible persons, and other possibilities. So denying identity doesn’t make profound criticism of embryo experimentation impossible.11
3. “MORAL DUALISM” VERSUS MORAL MONISM
Nevertheless, I propose that we accept, at least for the sake of argument, that we are identical to embryos, that we once were embryos, since, at least, G & T think (erroneously, in my view) that this is important. But why then is embryo experimentation wrong?
G & T’s main claims, repeated throughout the book, is that this is because embryos are biologically human organisms, human beings, with “basic natural capacities for characteristically human functions,” “radical” capacities for such “mental acts,” that, if all goes well, develop by their “nature” through a “self directed process” until these capacities become “immediately accessible” (pp. 79-80). Embryos are wrong to destroy because they are this “kind” of being, members of the “natural kind” the human species, which has these characteristics, including a “rational nature” (p. 112). Because of all this they claim there is “little mystery” that embryos are persons (p. 80) and worthy of “full moral respect” (p. 82).
There is mystery here. Someone can recognize that embryos have all the non-moral, biological properties that G & T observe that they have, including that they are beings that are human or human beings, but reasonably deny their view about what might be called embryos’ “moral status,” including whether they are persons.
G & T repeatedly emphasize what embryos are, what kind of beings they are, and claim that the relevant description is like what’s given above. But embryos are of many other kinds also, e.g., the kind “pre-conscious and never-been-conscious being.” One can argue that since this is (among other true descriptions) what embryos are, what kind they are, that they are not persons, not valuable in a way that contributes to their being wrong to kill and so not prima facie impermissible to destroy.
G & T label views that offer this kind of response “Moral Dualisms.” I prefer to call them versions of “Mentalism” because they hold that what makes a life valuable is its mental qualities, e.g., consciousness, sentience, an inner life, subjective states of well-being, and so forth. On such a view, beings prior and post mental lives lack properties that make them prima facie wrong to destroy since, in part, such beings cannot be harmed yet or any more, i.e., be made worse off than they are: regarding embryos, they lack a baseline consciousness to be made worse off from and so destroying them does not harm them.
G & T presumably call such views “Dualisms” because they distinguish the biologically human organism, the properties that can make such organisms morally valuable, persons, and/or due obligations and recognize the possibility and common actuality of the former physical states without the latter moral states (pp. 112-116). Although they do not call their own view a “Moral Monism,” their main, but not sole, support for it seems to come from arguments against Dualisms. I will argue that their main arguments against Moral Dualism are weak: at least some Dualists, Mentalists, have plausible replies.
Arguments from End of Life – Beginning of Life Asymmetry
A first argument from G & T against Mentalism is that arguments that might be developed from its judgments about end of life cases have false implications for beginning of life cases.
To understand, suppose that you were smashed by a bus, your higher brain irreparably destroyed (and so rendered “brain dead” in any relevant sense of the term), but that your body remains alive with a heart-beat, breathing and whatnot. Would it be permissible to eventually “let your body die” once, say, it is certain enough that there is no hope of recovery, your friends and relatives have visited and so on? Many people would say, “Yes.” Could it be permissible to “actively” kill your body? Many, although perhaps fewer, people would also say, “Yes.” Many people would support these judgments by claiming that there no longer is a person here: the person is permanently gone, which is why others are (hopefully) sad about our death. There is only a “vegetable,” an irreversibly unconscious being now and, while there can be obligations concerning vegetables, there are none towards them.
According to G & T, this lack of personhood-based explanation would be mistaken.12 They suggest that it is permissible to end bodies’ lives like these not because they’re not persons, but because such damage has “destroy[ed] the capacity for self-directed integral organic functioning of human beings who have matured to the stage at which the brain performs the key role in integrating [and unifying] the organism” (p. 133).
Which explanation, if any, is correct? It seems to me that G & T’s complex explanation supports thinking that there is no person, but although they might deny this: they neither assert nor deny that such a being is a person. But they report that someone who judges that there is no person here might reason this way: “if a human being is no longer a person with rights once the brain has irreversibly ceased functioning, then surely a human being in not a person prior to the development of the brain” (p. 133). A Mentalist who thinks human lives are morally valuable because of their mental states would think something like this and so conclude that embryos are not persons.
G & T think that Mentalisms’s implications here are mistaken and so Mentalism is false. But their reasoning is not very forceful because they do not offer convincing reasons that embryos are persons: they point out that there are differences between end of life and beginning of life cases: e.g., embryos have various potentials, capacities, are biologically alive, are not physically damaged and so forth, whereas beings with destroyed brains and corpses do not have these characteristics. While this is all true, it is not clear how this supports thinking that embryos are persons, since, in general, potential X’s are not actual X’s, things with the capacity to Y needn’t actually Y, living things needn’t be persons and so forth. So their discussion here does not help refute Dualism or Mentalism.
Arguments from Sleeping and Comatose Individuals
A second argument against Mentalism is based on G & T’s observation that everyone must be able to explain why killing sleeping and reversibly comatose individuals is wrong (p. 177). They claim that such beings are persons13 and are wrong to kill because of their “capacities” or “potentials” for mental functions (p. 118). They argue that if potentials make these beings persons, then potentials make embryos persons as well: Mentalisms deny this, so Mentalisms are false.
G & T categorize sleeping individuals as having an “immediate” or “proximate” capacity for consciousness, comatose individuals’ capacities less immediate, and embryos’ capacities as “radical,” but as “basic,” “natural” capacities nevertheless (p. 118). For Mentalists, these unavoidably vague classifications of capacities might suggest these principles:
If a being has been conscious and has some “immediate”-enough capacity for consciousness, then that being is prima facie wrong to kill.
If a being has not been conscious, then that being is not prima facie wrong to kill.
These principles undercut some opposition to embryo experimentation: the second implies that “radical” and “basic” capacities, even if “natural,” are morally irrelevant if they have never been exercised. This is true of embryos, and so the principle implies that embryos are prima facie permissible to destroy.
G & T object to the proposal that “immediate” capacities (of previously conscious but currently not conscious beings, such as the sleeping and temporarily comatose) are morally relevant whereas non-immediate capacities (of never been but potentially conscious beings, such as embryos) are not. Their objections are weak.
First, they claim that Mentalists require sophisticated mental capacities to serve as the morally relevant “immediate” capacities (p. 119). They argue that since infants and children don’t have these capacities, such theories cannot protect infants and children, so they are false. But Mentalisms that emphasize more basic capacities, e.g., consciousness and sentience, have no such implications. So this objection is weak since it hits implausible versions of Mentalism.
The second objection (pp. 119-121) is more complex and, to my mind, cryptic. First, G & T claim that capacities and potentials are on a “continuum.” This seems plausible, insofar as there is actually having some property and potentially having it in more and less immediate ways, e.g., for most of us, our potential for hopping on one foot is more immediate and easily actualizable than our potential for visiting Antarctica or, more so, the moon. So perhaps this can be seen as a continuum ranging from actually having a property to having it only in potentiality, in stronger and (unlimitedly?) weaker potential.
Second, there is the claim that are only differences in “degree” (and not “kind”) between beings that have only “radical” capacities compared to beings with “immediate” capacities.
It is not clear what to make of this claim about kinds: while a human being that could or would become conscious in nine months is the same kind of being as a human being who will become conscious in nine minutes, it is a different kind of being also. So while embryos and adults are the same kind of beings, they are different kinds too: this is true of just about everything insofar as each thing is similar and different to anything else. Since embryos and conscious human beings are of a same kind – the kind “human being” – their remarks here are presumably most relevant (p. 120):
“[T]he difference between a being that deserves full moral respect and a being that does not (and can therefore legitimately be disposed of . .) cannot consist only in the fact that, while both have some feature [e.g., ‘the development of a basic natural capacity’], one has more of it than another.”
“A mere quantitative difference (having more or less of the same feature, such as the development of a basic natural capacity) cannot by itself be a justificatory basis for treating different entities in radically different ways.”
“[B]etween the embryonic human being and the same human being at any later stage of its maturation, there is only a difference of degree [of ‘the development of a basic natural capacity’]” that is morally irrelevant.
Mentalists mistakenly focus on “a mere quantitative difference,” an accidental characteristic between conscious humans and embryos.
It is not clear why we should think any of the claims above are true: applied to the context of this debate, the first claims appear to assert an assumption that potentials are morally relevant, but that is what is at issue: since, in general, potential X’s do not have the (moral or legal) rights of actual X’s and we are not obligated to treat potential X’s as actual X’s (e.g., presidents, graduates, criminals, parents, etc.), it seems that potentials are not morally relevant.14 G & T do not explain why (and when) they are morally relevant.
G & T seem to argue that if principles like these above were true, then racism would be justified: racists argue that “differences of degree” in skin color (assuming this makes sense) are morally relevant, but since racism is wrong, differences “of degree” are – G & T seem to argue – generally morally irrelevant. But this does not follow: just because some kind of properties are sometimes irrelevant doesn’t mean they always are or must be. But since actually possessed skin colors are very different from properties related to potentials and capacities for consciousness, any analogies here are quite uncertain.
Thus, it is hard to find clear reasons in G & T’s discussion here to reject Mentalism: at least, more explanation and defense is needed. But if they think that anyone who thinks it’s wrong to kill sleeping and comatose individuals must think that it’s wrong to kill embryos as well – there are no plausibly relevant difference to appeal to, such as previously possessed consciousness and personhood – they appear to be mistaken.
Arguments from Exploitation and Inequality
A final argument against Dualism or Mentalism from G & T is this: they claim that if moral status is determined by properties that come in “degrees,” e.g., consciousness or sentience (if these properties come in degrees), then “no account could be given of why basic rights are not possessed by human beings in varying degrees” (p. 121, emphasis mine), and so claims to human equality are “lies” and so mental sophisticates would be entitled to exploit mental simpletons.
This is mistaken. Accounts can easily be given, and have been given, that explain the wrongness of such exploitation: e.g., one is if an individual has the morally relevant property (or properties) at all, e.g., is conscious, is sentient, then that individual has an equal right to respectful treatment, a right to not be used as a mere means for others’ ends. Such egalitarian views are well-developed and defended in, at least, the Ethics and Animals literature, which G & T do not discuss.15
And these views can accept the language that they are fond of: that beings have their moral status “by virtue of the kind of being they are” (p. 121) “what they are” (p. 122), and the like: they just disagree about the relevant kinds, properties and descriptions for the individuals in question. G & T claim that “the nature of a being entity – the kind of thing it is – is established by its characteristic actions and reactions and regular properties” (p. 183). Mentalists needn’t disagree.
In conclusion, I have reviewed what seem to be G & T’s main claims for what it is about human embryos that would make them wrong to destroy. I have argued that their arguments don’t succeed: they seem to describe the biology of embryos and then assert that they are persons with a right to life and so forth because of their potentials. They seem to suggest that denying this, by accepting a version of Dualism or Mentalism, must lead to repugnant conclusions for less controversial ethical issues, but this is not the case.
Their main positive argument in favor of their Monism might be an argument from the best moral explanation: that that property of “being a human being” is a part of the best moral explanation why various actions are wrong. They argue that racism, sexism and other clear cases of human exploitation are wrong because of the victim’s “humanity”: they write, “What matters is the fact of humanity and not any other property” (p. 114). This seems false, and would seem more obviously false if we encountered friendly, intelligent, harm-able space aliens: they would not be human beings, but exploiting them would be wrong. The same is true of many non-human animals. In these cases, “humanity” is irrelevant since absent and other species- and biologically neutral properties relevant are, e.g., mental properties relevant to harm and benefit, as Mentalisms hold.
If this is all so, then G & T lack adequate support when they claim that the right to life “belongs to a human being at all times that he or she exists, not just during certain stages of his or her existence . . by virtue of additional, accidental properties” (p. 117).16 They do not give convincing reasons to deny, as Mentalists argue, that organisms, including human beings, are valuable when and because they have such accidental properties and not valuable when they have not had them. Thus, their arguments against embryo experimentation are unsuccessful.17
1. David D. Kirkpatrick, “The Conservative-Christian Big Thinker,” NY Times, December 16, 2009, p. MM24. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/20/magazine/20george-t.html
2. Ever since Euthyphro this strategy has been wise since any moral judgments said to be justified by theological, scriptural, ecclesiastical, etc. authorities will be either ultimately supported by good reasons or not: if not, then the judgment is groundless, but if there are such good reasons, then these reasons are what justifies the appeal, not the authority. For criticisms of this reasoning and a defense of theistic ethics, however, see Matthew Carey Jordan’s “Theistic Ethics,” Philo, 2009, Volume 12, Number 1.
3. Francis Beckwith’s arguments in his Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion (Cambridge University Press, 2007) are similar to George and Tollefsen’s. For a critical review of these arguments, see my “Abortion, Metaphysics and Morality: A Review of Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice.” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 36.3 (2011): 261-273. Beckwith is well known as a Catholic philosopher: see his Return to Rome: Confessions of an Evangelical Catholic (Brazos, 2008) and Politics for Christians: Statecraft as Soulcraft (Intervarsity Press, 2010). I emphasize that my point here is not an “ad hominem” attack on Catholics, “conservative” Christians or anybody else; it is simply that, for whatever reasons, members of these groups tend to find certain moral positions and arguments attractive, seemingly more so than people who are not members of these religious groups, and so their arguments are worthy of consideration, especially insofar as they might influence social policy.
4. For examples, G & T refute what they call the “Attribution View,” that what makes someone is a person is the “decision” of others (pp. 124-132). While they don’t argue in this way, any such decision will be made on the basis of reasons or not: if there are no reasons, then anything could be a person, which is false; if a decision is made for reasons, then those reasons, i.e., the properties of the being in question, determine whether something is a person, not anyone’s decisions, and so the Attribution View is false. G & T also show that none of these considerations show that embryos are permissible to kill:
· that few people grieve over the loss of embryos (pp. 135-136) since few people grieve the deaths of people in absolute poverty (or, we should add, animals brutally killed for pleasure) but they are wrong to kill;
· that embryos are often “naturally” lost (pp. 136-138) since what happens “naturally” is often impermissible for us to intentionally bring about;
· that many would save born persons from death instead of embryos in a forced choice scenario, e.g., a burning building, since analogous forced choices between friends and strangers don’t justify killing strangers in safe contexts (pp. 138-142).
5. G & T report that twenty years ago few philosophers and scientists denied that embryos were human beings, although some argued that they are not persons (p. 174). They suggest that tendencies to deny this coincide with interests in embryo experimentation, suggesting that, for some, a moral agenda influences the perception of the scientific facts. The question of whether embryos are “human beings” is non-scientific, however, to the extent that what is and can be a “being” is a non-scientific, philosophical issue.
6. Some common attempts to deny this (which are often made about human fetuses as well), e.g., by observing that they aren’t able to reason, don’t communicate, don’t contribute to society, and so forth, overlook that there can be human beings who or that do none of these things.
7. This seems perhaps incorrect, very strictly speaking: could I exist had a different embryo been fertilized or fertilized by a different sperm? (Could I exist had I come to exist without an embryo at all?) Answers here depend on what ‘I’ refers to: it could refer to that particular embryo and sperm combination, or some fertilized egg or other, or various other possibilities, some of which will entail that particular embryo is essential to that organism’s identity and others for which it is not.
8. See Ted Sider’s chapter “Personal Identity” in his and Earl Conee’s Riddles of Existence (Oxford, 2005).
9. For additional support-providing discussion, see Earl Conee’s “Metaphysics and the Morality of Abortion,” Mind, October 1999, pp. 619-646: “Conclusions about the morality of abortion have been thought to receive some support from metaphysical doctrines about persons. The paper studies four instances in which philosophers have sought to draw such morals from metaphysics. It argues that in each instance the metaphysics makes no moral difference, and the manner of failure seems indicative of a general epistemic irrelevance of metaphysics to the moral issue.” See also David Shoemaker’s Personal Identity and Ethics: A Brief Introduction (Broadview, 2008).
10. This appears to be Judith Thompson’s point (quoted on p. 116), that adults and children (and fetuses and embryos) can have different rights and sometimes do, so even if adults and embryos are numerically identical that needn’t entail that embryos are persons. G & T seem to misinterpret this, however, as an assertion that fetuses and embryos do not have a moral right to life, which does not follow from this observation.
11. G & T deny this in claiming that if embryos are not persons or the same “kind” of being we are, then “it would be difficult to see why they should be accorded the same moral respect that we, authors and readers, believe we are entitled to,” because there would be no “obvious reason” why embryos should be protected (p. 61). While such reasons might not be obvious, there are candidates.
12. G & T claim that “prevailing law and medical practice” agree with their explanation (and deny the lack-of-personhood-based explanation), but provide no evidence of this (p. 133). I asked a number of bioethicists and physicians if they thought there was one standard, widely accepted moral explanation for these judgments and they all denied that there is, citing a variety of possibly morally relevant features of severely brain damaged or brain dead individuals.
13. Perhaps this can be denied: these bodies could be wrong to kill even if there is no current person there; facts about related past or future persons closely related to that body could make these non-conscious bodies wrong to kill
14. For arguments that potentials are morally relevant, see Bertha Manninen’s “Revisiting the argument of fetal potential,” Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine Philosophy, 2.1 (2007).
15. See, e.g., Tom Regan’s The Case for Animal Rights (University of California Press, 1983). His Ch. 7, “Justice and Equality,” critiques “perfectionism,” an inegalitarian view similar to what G & T falsely claim is justified by Dualism/Mentalism.
16. Similarly, they write “Since human beings are intrinsically valuable and deserving of full moral respect by virtue of what they are, it follows that they are intrinsically valuable from the point at which they come into being” (p. 123).
All other blog posts are available here: here are some of them:
Is abortion "healthcare"?
"Fetuses are human beings; all human beings are equal in dignity & worth; so abortion is wrong." Good or bad argument?
Pro-life virtues and vices? Pro-choice virtues and vices? On sex/gender and arguments
"Force birther"-ism and Virtue Signaling
Is the "bodily autonomy" argument for abortion *that* simple?
Are you part of a cult about abortion, or anything else?
Trent Horn on "The Problem of Personhood"
'Yes, "a person is a person, no matter how small," but . .'
"If abortion is not wrong, then it's OK to kill sleeping people??!"
"When does life begin?' and 'Are fetuses human?': Two bad questions to ask about abortion"
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