Wednesday, October 11, 2023

"Embryos & metaphysical personhood: both biology & philosophy support the pro-life case." A Response

I was asked to "respond" to this blog post here on Secular Pro Life's page by . For a more efficient response, I will respond in text in blue and then offer up some quick general thoughts. 

I recommend anyone read the article first and then read my commentary. 

Embryos & metaphysical personhood: both biology & philosophy support the pro-life case.

Photo credit NeONBRAND with Unsplash

[Esta publicación está disponible en español aquí.]

Today’s guest blog post is by Kristina Artuković

Anyone who is in any way involved in the debate on prenatal justice knows that it usually involves tiring discussions about the meaning of terms like humanpersonpersonhood or potentiality.

NN: whether these discussions are "tiring" depends on the person. But these are all words for which their meanings are unclear, in part because they are often ambiguous, and so, yes, to think carefully about the issues, we have to think carefully about the meanings of these words and evaluate different definitions and the arguments that result from these definitions. For people interested in critical thinking, this is not "tiring." For those not interested in critical thinking, it might be. 

More versed pro-choice advocates insist that the meaning of human is at least twofold: it encompasses biologically human and socially human. The situation is similar with the term person, as they often object that prenatal biological humans do not possess personhood, because they do not have consciousness or ability to feel pain up to a certain age, etc.

NN: good, although unfortunately there isn't really a standard term for what she calls "socially human": that's described in a number of different ways in the literature and common thought. And at least most philosophers think there are important differences between early "prenatal biological humans" and far later fetuses. 

On the other hand, pro-life advocates often lean on science, which establishes the premise of biological humanity, but they also strive to undermine the concept of personhood, claiming that this concept has always been ideologically corrupt and oppressive. 

NN: no, "personhood" or "person" has not "always been ideologically corrupt and oppressive." Saying "My friend is a person" is not corrupt. Saying, "Women and non-white people weren't considered to be persons, or full persons, but they were and are people, and should be recognized as people, since, again, they are people--they have personhood" is not corrupt and oppressive: it's the opposite.

The term human probably has an even worse record, yet pro-lifers rarely question it, perhaps because we have all become accustomed to scientific reduction.

NN: no, there is no "reduction" in this term. "Human" has a biological meaning, and it also has the "socially human" meaning she mentions also. But the term doesn't "reduce" to either of these, since it has these two broad meanings. Mary Anne Warren observed this long ago, as does common thought with things like, "His body remains alive but the person we knew is gone." 

There is significant confusion regarding the term personhood, because it can have two or even three separate but closely connected meanings, none of which is absolutely interchangeable with human:

  1. Metaphysical personhood: An entity’s ontological status related to certain faculties like consciousness, reason, language. Although the term might be a bit off-putting, this concept is actually closest to the intuitive meaning of the word person.
  2. Moral Personhood: An entity’s moral status. When an entity has moral status, that means it is a subject of moral consideration and has certain moral rights — most notably, right to life.
  3. Legal personhood: An entity’s legal status as a subject of law.

NN: ok, although (1) might be more simply put as "Psychological" personhood, since it points to the types of psychological characteristics of personhood. It's often thought that necessarily, if a being has psychological personhood, then it has moral personhood (and many think that a being has moral personhood only if it has psychological personhood.) But some understand "moral personhood" just in terms of "a being that has basic rights" and don't relate it to psychological personhood: whether a being has or doesn't have psychological personhood is not relevant to its moral personhood. 

Let us take a closer look at how these terms relate to each other and to the term human.

Metaphysical personhood. This is best described through certain capabilities. Although these have a long tradition in Western philosophy, the following set of five capabilities is considered to be a classic in the abortion debate: consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, communication and self-awareness. A class of self-aware AIs, an alien species, perhaps some other terrestrial species, angels, gods can be said to take part in metaphysical personhood if they meet some (not necessarily all) of these criteria. Taking part in metaphysical personhood also establishes an entity’s moral status, although metaphysical personhood isn’t the only grounds for special moral consideration we might grant to other entities.

NN: good on the final claim: sometimes people think that something must be a person to have, say, the right to life, but that's false, or it might be false. 

Legal personhood. Law recognizes two kinds of legal subjects: legal persons and natural personsLegal persons like companies and states obtain legal personhood by means of their interests and sovereign will within the legal universe. Natural persons (living entities, humans) obtain legal personhood via a political consensus on their moral status. We confer legal personhood through either historical precedent or moral reasoning and various means of advocacy and pressure.

Why is all this important?

Science is indispensable and has enormous value in the debate on prenatal justice, because it provides functional concepts of natural kinds (species in biology) and gives us an indisputable starting point: abortion kills humans developing in utero.

NN: if by "humans" you mean biologically human organisms, then yes, of course: what else would it be doing? But if you mean, about all abortions, "metaphysical" or psychological or moral persons, then, well, that's what the issue is: does it (ever) kill beings like that?

But in order to explain why abortion is morally impermissible and should be legally impermissible, we will have to (a) address the relation that members of our natural kind [emphasis added], including preborn humans, must have towards metaphysical personhood, which should (b) establish the proof of their moral status, which would then (c) provide a substantial reason for giving them protection via legal personhood

NN: so here are some harder issues: what "kind" are we? We are many kinds, so what kind is the relevant one here? What "natural" kind are we? We are many natural kinds, so what kind is the relevant one here? 

It seems like the answer assumed here is that our natural kind is our species. But why think that's the relevant one? There are other options here: in particular, our "kind" could be understand as "minded being" or "minded being characterized by various rational-emotive capacities." Nobody must think that an embryo is of this "kind." 

And there seems to be a suggestion like this: 

if a being is of kind K, and beings of Kind K are characterized by having properties P, and having properties P results in other properties R, then all beings of kind K have properties R

But this is very speculative, and dubious, and no reason is given to believe this, and principles like these appear to be false anyway. I have written on this theme for over 20 years: see my responses to Carl Cohen, Beckwith, Tollefsen and George, and Tollefsen, at least. This is even addressed in the 1000-Word Philosophy article. 

In the end, we would have to address the conflict of two rights: prenatal right to life and mother’s bodily autonomy. I will primarily focus on personhood here, which provides the conditions necessary for the conflict-of-rights discussion to make sense.

The nature of metaphysical personhood is not political. It’s not subjective. And it certainly is not oppressive. It is ontological, as it comprises essential properties of a specific category of natural kinds. In the context of human life, metaphysical personhood logically refers to an abstract human in their prime

NN: what's "their prime"? How is that determined? Interestingly, it seems like common answers here assume "ableism," typically the thought that having various advanced rational capacities makes one in their "prime." OK, maybe, but really, why? 

All beings of the same kind necessarily take part in the essential properties of that kind which designate them through the entirety of their existence. In modern philosophy, these essential properties are called ultimate sortals.

NN: yes, OK, but there are options on what the relevant "kind" is here, or what the relevant "essential properties" are. Some see them as related to their bodies, or bodies, whereas others see them as dependent on their minds. (Compare "animalism" versus psychological theories of personal identity--but compare them on all the relevant considerations: a relevant thinker here who argues for the latter is Jeff McMahan). 

It would be very, very easy to say: all humans take part in metaphysical [psychological?] personhood, therefore all of them have moral status. However, we would fail to address how exactly humans take part in metaphysical personhood and deal with those gray areas of “human non-personhood.”

The capabilities of metaphysical personhood are not distributed equally among humans, right? Some humans, like infants or people with severe cognitive impairment, possess these capabilities in smaller degrees while for some, like zygotes and braindead humans, this degree probably amounts to zero. However, every living entity has to have an inherent and active relation with its ultimate sortal. Therefore, all living humans must have an inherent  and active relation to metaphysical personhood.

NN: question: is this true in general? "all living humans [meaning biologically human organisms] must have an inherent and active relation to [metaphysical] X"? Meaning, does this type of relation hold with anything else, in particular where we then must treat that being as if they have X, or think they have the other characteristics that result from X ? Or is this an ad hoc proposal that's not seen about anything else? In other words, why believe this?

 Logic allows for only three active relations towards metaphysical personhood:

  1. Attainment
  2. Retainment
  3. Restoration

Attainment of metaphysical personhood is why zygotes, embryos, fetuses and newborns necessarily have moral status. As individual members of our species, they are always in an active, inherent, self-initiated and self-governed relation of attaining the capabilities we all share radically, as members of the same rational type of natural kinds. Every increment of the human developmental process, from conception to the end of our life, is part of the physical and metaphysical chain that sustains or enables the capabilities that comprise metaphysical personhood. 

NN: sure, embryos can be characterized as being of a particular kind, and that kind is characterized by having various features (F), and those features result in other properties (P), at least when the being has those features (F). But, again, why anything more than just that being is of the kind, and the kind is like this ..., but that doesn't mean the individual yet has F? Again, this is a very abstract type of principle that's highly dubious and appears subject to counterexamples, some of which are mentioned in the readings above. AND here it's assumed that the relevant kind is a biological one, but we need not accept that. 

This is a nice example of how science without philosophy cannot tell us what human means, and how philosophy without science cannot explain human in a relevant way.

Cognitively impaired humans are in this active relation, too: they are continuously attempting to attain or restore these capabilities against other factors like damage, disease, age-related difficulties, or even genetic predispositions. If cognitively impaired humans had certain obstacles removed — for example, decalcification in a brain damaged by Alzheimer’s — they would carry on with attainment (of completely new capabilities) or restoration (of lost capabilities). These two processes aren’t stopped by negative factors, but instead are organically overshadowed. As humans, we are always in this active relationship with our metaphysical ultimate sortal. It is just that some of us constantly lose ground, or zig-zag between restoration and attainment. This is intuitively true to anyone who’s ever had contact with a severely cognitively impaired person or a person who has late-stage Alzeheimer’s disease.

NN: for what it's worth, either we stay of this "kind" if brain dead or permanently comatose or not. If not, then this isn't the relevant kind. If so, then being of this "kind" doesn't entail we have basic rights, on the assumption that it can be OK to end the lives of such human organisms. This is discussed in our first Salon article. In short, the above does not fit well with common views about end-of-life issues. 

Braindead people (often used as an example of human non-persons alongside with prenatal humans) fit perfectly into this: if there were some probability of a restorative activity taking place, there would be no grounds to renounce their full moral status due to the lack of active relation to metaphysical personhood and thus no grounds to pronounce them dead

NN: if they were like this, then they aren't braindead.

However, after this relation becomes absolutely passive, these humans nonetheless retain a remnant of their moral status through their corporeality, echoing in the legal universe, since we generally find it morally and sometimes even legally binding to respect their explicit will regarding the integrity of their body and regarding the transfer of their property, all within the framework of common good. This also serves as a reminder that there is no sharp distinction between the body and metaphysical personhood — they are infused into each other from the moment of conception.

NN: for what it's worth, some--maybe many--people who are inclined to agree with the above also seem to think that we can survive death, in an afterlife, without our bodies or without our current bodies. So it appears that they deny that "there's a sharp distinction between the body and metaphysical personhood — they are infused into each other from the moment of conception" since they think you can have people without bodies, and think that they will one day be one of those. 

This active relation to personhood, provided both by the physical and the metaphysical, is far from mere “potentiality.” Attainment, retainment, and restoration are actual, not potential. So the moral issue of prenatal justice is actually about what we are stopping by killing prenatal humans. It may be one thing to kill something alive but essentially non-sentient, but it is a fundamentally different thing to kill an entity that is actively involved, with the entirety of its corporeality, in the finite and foreseeable process of attaining consciousness and reason. And how do we prove that? In the case of prenatal humans — easily, because they are bound by the developmental rules of our kind.

NN: OK, but, again, what's our kind? Why think our kind is determined by our species? And why think that being of a kind entails having various other characteristics of that kind?

General comment: what's proposed here is a very abstract view that I have never seen developed in a satisfactory way. What I think would be very helpful for the world would be if someone were to state this as an argument in "standard form" and carefully explain and justify each premise, since I have never seen that done, and I've been looking for that for quite a while! 

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