Non-Persons Yesterday and Today

Non-Persons Yesterday and Today

The other day I asked,

Can you identify the context of this passage?

To have a persona [to be a person] was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity. For [your turn–fill in the blanks here], legal personality did not exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms…. [Fill in the blank again] was [someone]… “not having a persona,” or even, “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense.

Of whom might this author might be speaking? Does this represent an injustice? If so, on what basis, and what could be (or might have been, if this was in the past) be done about it? I’ll let you know later today or tomorrow.

Someone guessed slavery. Someone else thought it was entirely believable that it had to do with unborn babies.

Here is the (nearly) entire quote, from David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions.

Even Christianity’s most implacable modern critics should be willing to acknowledge that, in these texts and others like them, we see something beginning to emerge from darkness into full visibility, arguably for the first time in our history: the human person as such, invested with an intrinsic and inviolable dignity, and possessed of an infinite value. It would not even be implausible to argue that our very ability to speak of “persons” as we do is a consequence of the revolution in moral sensibility that Christianity brought about. We, after all, employ this word with a splendidly indiscriminate generosity, applying it without hesitation to everyone, regardless of social station, race, or sex; but originally, at least in some of the most cricuial contexts, it had a much more limited application. Specifically, in Roman legal usage, one’s person was one’s status before the law, which was certainly not something invariable from one individual to the next. The original and primary meaning of the Latin word persona was “mask”….

To have a persona was to have a face before the law—which is to say, to be recognized as one possessing rights and privileges before a court, or as being able to give testimony upon the strength of one’s own word, or simply as owning a respectable social identity. For those of the lowest stations, however—slaves, base-born non-citizens and criminals, the utterly destitute, and criminals—legal personality did not exist, or existed in only the most tenuous of forms…. A slave was so entirely devoid of any “personal” dignity that, when called to testify before a duly appointed court, torture might be applied as a matter of course. For the slave was a man or woman not habens personam: literally, “not having a persona,” or even, “not having a face.” Before the law, he or she was not a person in the fullest and most proper sense.

Today, as Hart reminds us in the surrounding context, such a thing is unthinkable, outrageous. This change in Western attitudes toward human persons is directly traceable to New Testament Christianity, the “texts” he referred to in the first sentence of the above quote.

Isn’t it fascinating how well the language that applied to slaves in ancient times fits abortion-supporters’ view of unborn babies today? Someday, maybe, our culture will wake up and recognize that human beings are persons, whether they have been enslaved, live in poverty, lack citizenship—or haven’t quite been born yet.

28 thoughts on “Non-Persons Yesterday and Today

  1. As I perviously hinted, the appeal might also easily be applied to non-human animals as well.

    So I think the illustration in and of itself, isn’t very all that informative with regards to abortion or animals – we have to examine reasons why an entity should or should not have a “face before law”.

    I think we all agree that there are little or few good reasons why one should assign legal status based on social station, race, or sex. (And hey, one might add sexual orientation to that list, too)

    But I think there are good reasons why animals don’t get to enjoy the same legal status as a human person.

    I also think there are good reasons why human beings (prior to the development of the brain) don’t get to enjoy the same legal status as a human being with a brain.

    Isn’t it the nature of all those particular reasons, that will really make the parallel an accurate one or not?

  2. Robert Wright claims that the “universal” personhood is simply a function of the “non zero-sumness” of life. Optimism, indeed. Hart’s thesis is more credible.

    With respect to abortion, if we can conclude that an undeveloped human individual is less of a person, how do we avoid the “logic” that an aged, or injured, or comatose, or even sleeping individual is less of a person?

  3. Doug:

    I don’t think there is an easy answer… each position will come with its own set of complications. The best answer I can give with respect to the sleeping, comatose or injured, is that they do actually have minds and brains, in the same way that a person still has a leg, even if its broken for the time being, and it cannot be used.

    So if the mind/brain is the center of our moral concern, we’d still have the same obligations to an unconscious or injured person that we have to a conscious person.

    The situation where a brain/mind no longer exists or has yet to exist, seems different.

  4. d,

    we have to examine reasons why an entity should or should not have a “face before law”.

    Isn’t it the nature of all those particular reasons, that will really make the parallel an accurate one or not?

    You need reasons, but they are not sufficient to get you to “therefore you should have a face before the law”. In order to do that the reasons must be justified by some reality that isn’t grounded in your personal opinion and/or emotional desires.

    It’s really the same is/ought problem that atheism and relativism cannot solve. Under those worldviews, there are no reasons other than the ones grounded in personal opinion and emotions – and carried out by those with sufficient power.

  5. Isn’t it fascinating how well the language that applied to slaves in ancient times fits abortion-supporters’ view of unborn babies today?

    And, unfortunately, it also fits the view of justborn babies. Tragic.

  6. SteveK,

    I do believe the is/ought barrier is pretty easily traversed by atheists and theists – and the way its done is essentially the same; by appealing to values. Values provide the only rational reasons why one ought to do one thing over another.

    Now the theist may have some advantage here, by claiming that certain values are endowed and necessarily built into human nature by God, and can therefore claim there are rational reasons why one ought to do X, instead of ~X, that apply to everybody.

    But just imagine a hypothetical person who values, above all else, an eternal existence in Hell and disobedience to God. Imagine that this person would truly be better off in Hell. How could you convince this person that he ought to obey God? Well, you really can’t. A theist can certainly claim that such a person cannot exist, but that’s not really relevant. If such a person did exist, you could give him no rational reason why he ought to obey God.

    So in a sense you are right. There’s no way tell anybody what they ought to do in a way that isnt ultimately grounded in personal emotions or facts about their nature. But it holds true for both theism and atheism.

    And likewise, the atheist can also perhaps claim that certain values are essentially fixed by facts of human nature – and perhaps even some are fixed by facts about the nature of sentient, living creatures – human or non-human. And if that’s the case, then the atheist can also appeal to those values, and give *EVERYBODY* rational reasons they ought to do something, over something else.

    Now its debatable whether such values, fixed by facts about the nature of sentient things, exist… but if they do, we’re pretty much on the same footing.

    So I just don’t see this whole is/ought thing to be a very challenging problem.

  7. d,

    The problem with asking why not unborn children is that someone might ask, why not you?

    Yes, you can say that the baby doesn’t have a brain (though that’s only true for a brief period of time), but when is the brain really good enough to count? I mean, crayfish have brains. What makes yours good enough?

    Philip K Dick wrote a story in the 70s called “The Pre-Persons” depicting a society that said a brain developed enough to do complex math was required — making “abortion” legal up to the age of 12 years. And how can you say that’s wrong?

    If every human isn’t special and worth protecting, you have no defense against the guy who wonders what makes you worth protecting.

  8. d,

    There’s no way tell anybody what they ought to do in a way that isnt ultimately grounded in personal emotions or facts about their nature. But it holds true for both theism and atheism.

    Now you’re starting to catching on – sort of…..

    And likewise, the atheist can also perhaps claim that certain values are essentially fixed by facts of human nature – and perhaps even some are fixed by facts about the nature of sentient, living creatures – human or non-human.

    They are ‘jumping the shark’ if they do claim this – and many do. The atheist still has not managed to traverse the is/ought gap.

    You can start with the fact that humans have a certain nature (that’s the ‘is’), but it does not follow that humans *ought* to live according to that nature, or not live according to it. If a person’s nature is such that he values being selfish above all, *ought* he always be selfish or are there times when he ought *not* be selfish?

    In order to answer that definitively, without grounding the reasons in personal emotion/opinion, you need a rule (an ought) that transcends the nature of individual humans. Atheism has no such transcendent reality in it’s worldview.

  9. SteveK:

    We probably think of “ought” differently. When one says “you ought to do X”, I unpack that to mean:

    You have a rational reason to do X, above all else.

    Sure, in some ultimate sense there’s no reason anybody *must* act on those rational reasons, or obey the law of non-contradiction, or agree that 2+2=4, but there are rational reasons too. And that’s about the highest bar anybody can reach when it comes to this problem.

    Is/Ought is only a problem for some hypothetical sentience which genuinely has no values in its nature.

  10. The fact is that there are plenty of philosophers who claim that we genuinely have no values in our nature.

    Further, the difficulty is getting from “you have a rational reason to do X” to “you have a rational reason to do X above all else” … because there is almost always a competing “rational reason to do ~X [not-X]” — on what rational grounds do we mediate between conflicting actions? And if anyone thinks they have an answer to that question, on what grounds do you think that it will be accepted by anyone but yourself?

  11. d,

    You have a rational reason to do X, above all else.

    You’ve said this before using other words and I’ve given you reasons to think there are problems with that.

    Sure, in some ultimate sense there’s no reason anybody *must* act on those rational reasons, or obey the law of non-contradiction, or agree that 2+2=4, but there are rational reasons too.

    Huh? There are no ultimate reasons, but there are reasons which you later conclude are ultimate (see ‘highest bar’ below). Nice work, d.

    There are either transcendent prescritive realities, or there are none. You seem happy to conclude there are none (even though your experience says otherwise). And because there are none, there can be no reasons behind an argument that attempts to justify a reality that fails to exist. There’s literally no reason for peodophiles to stop acting as they do. Let that soak in for a minute.

    And that’s about the highest bar anybody can reach when it comes to this problem.

    No, there’s one higher that explains why we perceive transcendent prescriptive oughts in the first place. One that doesn’t conclude that this perception points to a reality that doesn’t exist.

  12. d,

    I find myself quite in agreement on this:

    I think we all agree that there are little or few good reasons why one should assign legal status based on social station, race, or sex. (And hey, one might add sexual orientation to that list, too)

    There should be no hindrance to any person marrying based on his or her sexual orientation. A gay man can marry. A lesbian can marry. Since has never been any legal hindrance to that, however, I don’t know why you would bring that up.

    I also think there are good reasons why human beings (prior to the development of the brain) don’t get to enjoy the same legal status as a human being with a brain.

    When is the brain developed? Was Philip K. Dick’s version right, as ChrisB alluded to? Why not? How do we know?

    So if the mind/brain is the center of our moral concern, we’d still have the same obligations to an unconscious or injured person that we have to a conscious person.

    If. That’s a big if, isn’t it? I don’t buy it, and I haven’t seen any good reason to buy it.

    I do believe the is/ought barrier is pretty easily traversed by atheists and theists – and the way its done is essentially the same; by appealing to values. Values provide the only rational reasons why one ought to do one thing over another.

    What you’re saying is that the is-ought barrier can be crossed by appealing to oughts in the form of values, in which case there is no barrier-crossing going on at all; and the question is just backed up a step: from where do the oughts in these values come?

    But just imagine a hypothetical person who values, above all else, an eternal existence in Hell and disobedience to God. Imagine that this person would truly be better off in Hell. How could you convince this person that he ought to obey God? Well, you really can’t.

    So true, that last sentence is. That doesn’t make hell good. And it doesn’t make that person’s belief that Hell is good a true belief. (Your suggestion, “imagine that this person would truly be better off in Hell,” is logically equivalent to, “Imagine that A is not A.” Hell is by definition a place where persons are not better off.) All this hypothetical person’s belief does is demonstrate that values may be very, very false guides. You undermine your own position with this.

    So in a sense you are right. There’s no way tell anybody what they ought to do in a way that isnt ultimately grounded in personal emotions or facts about their nature. But it holds true for both theism and atheism.

    Theism and atheism both share difficulty in persuading agreement concerning what they regard as right. Granted. Why is that the question, though? Could not something be right even if some persons are not easily persuaded that it is?

    And likewise, the atheist can also perhaps claim that certain values are essentially fixed by facts of human nature

    “Can also perhaps”? Could you offer an example, please? Thank you.

    We probably think of “ought” differently. When one says “you ought to do X”, I unpack that to mean:

    You have a rational reason to do X, above all else.

    Why ought I believe this new and idiosyncratic definition of “ought?” And why does having a rational reason to do something make it morally right? The consensus of historians, in case you didn’t know, is that Hitler was quite rational in pursuing his goals and in following his own ethic. Does that mean he ought to have done what he did?

  13. Well said, Tom, in your response to d.

    And, indeed, that was an interesting quote from Hart (especially with the identifiers removed). I didn’t catch your first post in time to offer a guess before you revealed the answer, but If you hadn’t included the last sentence of the quote (containing the phrase “he or she”), I might have guessed that it was referring to women in the Roman empire, since their testimony could not be accepted in court at the time.

    Speaking of which, chalk up another victory for the Kingdom of God and human dignity 🙂

  14. Thanks, Bill R.

    I should back down slightly on one thing. I am not sure historians have consensus that Hitler was rational in pursuing his own goals and his own ethic. I do know that many historians believe that, and that a good case can be made for the idea that HItler was sane and rational in the pursuit of those chosen goals and ethics. I think even in that moderated form it serves as a more than adequate counterexample to d’s definition of “ought.”

  15. Is it in the job description of historians to judge what is rational or irrational? No… except possibly from a narrow operational perspective of costs and benefits, wins and losses. What the capacity for reason is and what moral actions are… are not things studied–let alone determined–by historians.

    Speaking from the perspective of objective morality, Hitler was “rational” in the sense that his capacity for free will embraced (it could do no other) that which was presented to it as a “good” by his capacity for reason. Whether these proximate “goods” are objectively and truly good (where ever the basis for goodness lies) or whether they are ordered to a greater true good is not just an important consideration: the issue MUST be addressed.

    To say one’s reasoning is disordered is not to say that person is irrational: if one has a disordered view of reality and, for example, views others as untermeschen or homosexual acts as “natural,” or killing a child in the womb as “good,” or the moon is made of green cheese, then one will act accordingly. The cause of Hitler’s disordered reasoning is a different issue: possession (which suppresses the personhood), terrible experiences in childhood, not being taught right from wrong correctly, etc. could all be contributing factors.

    The latter is what chills me about d’s position: he brings into these discussions a disordered view of reality… and the consequences are predictable. Chesterton said, “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom.” If chaos in reasoning (= relativism) is presented to the will as a good by one’s capacity for reason, notwithstanding the self-stultifying lapse in logic, one will act in accordance with that “good.”

    The capacity for reason in humans IS a GOOD because we are created in the Image of the Logos and we are commanded to use our whole mind in loving Him, but disordered reasoning (displacing the summum bonum for a wrongly perceived or proximate good) eventually leads to the death of that good… and the person.

  16. When is the brain developed? Was Philip K. Dick’s version right, as ChrisB alluded to? Why not? How do we know?

    We don’t know for sure, but we can, with all due conservatism and caution, point to a period of time where we can be sure that a brain doesnt yet exist. Based on the science with which I am familiar, that period is roughly 20-22 weeks in. After that, things are less certain.

    And I’m willing to go where the empirical evidence does on this one… if for whatever reason we discovered that a brain/mind really appears in the first 8 weeks – well, I’d be committed to adjusting that timeframe accordingly.

    If. That’s a big if, isn’t it? I don’t buy it, and I haven’t seen any good reason to buy it.

    Well, I didnt much expect that you would!

    And for what its worth, I don’t think the mind is the end of the story – we can further dissect the mind by its properties, and ask which of those really make it an item of moral concern. That’s a tougher quesiton still, and I’m not going to pretend to have an answer. So a brain/mind may or may not be sufficient for moral concern, but I believe it is necessary.

    I don’t think humanity alone is either necessary or sufficient. Its possible for other intelligent life to exist in the universe, and its possible that this life might have values, societies, laws, ethics, and arts, etc. Could we kill them and eat them, if we found that they were the most tasty thing in the universe? At no point in their life cycle would they be a distinct member of the human species, so why not? What is it that would make it wrong?

    My answer invariably circles back to the mind.

    What you’re saying is that the is-ought barrier can be crossed by appealing to oughts in the form of values, in which case there is no barrier-crossing going on at all; and the question is just backed up a step: from where do the oughts in these values come?

    So true, that last sentence is. That doesn’t make hell good. And it doesn’t make that person’s belief that Hell is good a true belief. (Your suggestion, “imagine that this person would truly be better off in Hell,” is logically equivalent to, “Imagine that A is not A.” Hell is by definition a place where persons are not better off.) All this hypothetical person’s belief does is demonstrate that values may be very, very false guides. You undermine your own position with this.

    But notice that you can only say a person would be worse off in Hell, if you have something factual to say about what this person *really* values. That’s what I mean by “appealing to values”. Its the relationship between the facts about this person’s nature, and the facts about hell from which the reality of being worse off emerges.

    Theism and atheism both share difficulty in persuading agreement concerning what they regard as right. Granted. Why is that the question, though? Could not something be right even if some persons are not easily persuaded that it is?

    Sure, something could be right even if some persons could not easily be persueded – because people often are mistaken about their own values. Again, think of a person who claims to value hell. In your view, he’s objectively wrong. He really doesnt value hell even if he thinks he does, on account of facts about his nature and facts about hell.

    “Can also perhaps”? Could you offer an example, please? Thank you.

    Well, the scientific study into the phenomenon of happiness has yeilded some pretty interesting things about human nature. There’s actually scientific support to what many mystical traditions have said for eons – that those who foster virtues within themselves, love, empathy, kindness, etc lead the happiest, most self-satisfied lives imbued with meaning and a sense of purpose, in contrast to those who seek things like wealth and power.

    So I think we’re pretty close to being able to objectively say that people who work towards those aims, will be better off than those who place emphasis on the more transient, fleeting, superficial “pleasures” in life. Facts about human nature make this true. Note the similarity between this claim, and the claim that persons will always be worse off in Hell.

    Now sure, you could ask, well why ought a person care about being happy and self-satisfied? But if you’re going to ask that, why not ask why a person ought to care about avoiding eternal torture in Hell? To paraphrase Sam Harris (which I am loathe to do b/c of his many shortcomings, but this particular line is a gem): To ask that type of thing, is to hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.

    Why ought I believe this new and idiosyncratic definition of “ought?”

    Well, you don’t have too – its just so you know what I mean. “Ought”, “moral”, “good”, “evil”, etc all have idiosyncratic meanings within the realm of theist moral philosophy too, which I do not accept. And its trivially true that its impossible for athiesm to support them, in the theistic sense.

    But what matters for this discussion, is whether it can be said that atheists can justify any objective (or at least universal) rules of conduct which others can be rationally persueded to follow, or not. And I think they can, at least to the degree that its not a problem to say, “Hey, I have a good justification for X, and I think you should be persuaded by it!”

    And why does having a rational reason to do something make it morally right? The consensus of historians, in case you didn’t know, is that Hitler was quite rational in pursuing his goals and in following his own ethic. Does that mean he ought to have done what he did?

    I’ll echo somewhat what Holo said (though obviously we’ll disagree as to whose worldview has better harmony with reality) – Hitler probably could be said to be acting rationally with respect to some particular belief. A person in the throes of a hallucination, in which they believe they are engulfed in flames, might be rational to jump off a ten story bridge, into the river below. But the belief in question was ultimately false and misguided.

    If its true that humans really do lead more fulfilling lives through love and compassion, than through committing genocidal atrocities, we can say Hitler was fundamentally irrational in doing what he did, with respect to his nature.

  17. d, you say,

    if for whatever reason we discovered that a brain/mind really appears in the first 8 weeks – well, I’d be committed to adjusting that timeframe accordingly.

    You tip your hand here. That’s problematic on many levels, including that of question-begging the issue of personhood, what it means to be human, whether the person is more than the sum of his/her parts, etc. If the mind is the brain is the mind, then all kinds of things follow; or rather, all kinds of things come concomitantly with it, especially the doctrine of physicalism. If physicalism were true, I would have no problem with abortion. But you cannot use physicalism in one manifestation (the brain is the mind is the brain) to defend physicalism in another manifestation (abortion is defensible on ground that the fetus isn’t a morally significant person). You need to defend physicalism proper in order to defend physicalism in any manifestation.

    I applaud you for, as you put it, not pretending to have an answer to the place of mind/brain in the abortion issue. Unfortunately you have not been able to keep yourself from pretending you know enough to defend abortion: “My answer invariably circles back to the mind.”

    I don’t think humanity alone is either necessary or sufficient. Its possible for other intelligent life to exist in the universe, and its possible that this life might have values, societies, laws, ethics, and arts, etc. Could we kill them and eat them, if we found that they were the most tasty thing in the universe? At no point in their life cycle would they be a distinct member of the human species, so why not? What is it that would make it wrong?

    That one’s easy. Morally significant personhood is the defining issue.

    But notice that you can only say a person would be worse off in Hell, if you have something factual to say about what this person *really* values.

    Why? What if Hell is worse than Heaven in all ways? That is, in fact, the way Hell and Heaven are understood to be. You’re just inventing something here.

    Your defense of values and being better off has been roundly and repeatedly overturned, in the form of multiple critiques of Sam Harris’s Moral Landscape. You’re smuggling morality in on top of something like “being better off.” They’re not the same thing.

    Now sure, you could ask, well why ought a person care about being happy and self-satisfied? But if you’re going to ask that, why not ask why a person ought to care about avoiding eternal torture in Hell? To paraphrase Sam Harris (which I am loathe to do b/c of his many shortcomings, but this particular line is a gem): To ask that type of thing, is to hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.

    Cute. But wrong. Sorry, Sam. The fact is that persons care about being happy, and they care about being self-satisfied (a singularly poor choice of words on your part, by the way, had you noticed? But I’ll go with what I think you meant, rather than what you said). That’s an is. Where does the ought come in? If I don’t care about being happy, does that mean I am violating some moral duty? Does it mean that the less I care about it, the more evil I am? Does it mean that I’m really a horrible, horrible person if I care more about your happiness than my own?

    But what matters for this discussion, is whether it can be said that atheists can justify any objective (or at least universal) rules of conduct which others can be rationally persueded to follow, or not. And I think they can, at least to the degree that its not a problem to say, “Hey, I have a good justification for X, and I think you should be persuaded by it!”

    Is X abortion? Then you don’t have a rule of conduct that I can be rationally persuaded to follow.

    You agree,

    Hitler probably could be said to be acting rationally with respect to some particular belief.

    Earlier you said,

    We probably think of “ought” differently. When one says “you ought to do X”, I unpack that to mean:

    You have a rational reason to do X, above all else.

    Sounds to me like you must conclude Hitler fits your description of someone who ought to have done what he did. But wait~~you admit there is such a thing as a “nature” involved! What is that nature? How is it described? What are its characteristics? Is it something common to all humans? Is it different in substantial ways from other species’ natures? From where does that nature come? What does the term “nature” mean in this context, anyway?

  18. As anyone with children can tell you, humans are inclined toward behaviors that are self-damaging while maintaining the self-deceit that those behaviors are self-building. Here’s the thing: we never entirely grow out of that form of irrationality.

  19. Much as I would love to add my two cents to the philosophical issues being discussed here, I am scheduled to defend my PhD thesis in 3 weeks, and I have to write it! Anyway, I know that Tom, Holo, and others are more than competent to the task of correcting the physicalism and other philosophical errors in d‘s reasoning.

    I will, however, take a break from my thesis to point out to d that he is seriously misinformed on the development of the fetal brain. He stated:

    We don’t know for sure, but we can, with all due conservatism and caution, point to a period of time where we can be sure that a brain doesnt yet exist. Based on the science with which I am familiar, that period is roughly 20-22 weeks in. After that, things are less certain.

    I’d like to follow Tom’s lead and play a little guessing game here. I’m going to quote a few passages from the Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy (by Roger W. Harms, M.D.)*, which gives detailed, week-by-week descriptions of fetal development. I will leave out the identifiers that tell which week is being described, because I want everyone to guess.

    Week X: [The neural tube] proceeds upward and downward from [the midsection], like a double zipper. The top portion thickens to begin forming the brain. (p. 57)

    Week X+1: By [week X+1] of your pregnancy, the neural tube along your baby’s back has closed over. The brain is growing rapidly to fill the now-formed, enlarging head. Your baby’s brain is also developing distinct regions. Some cranial nerves are visible. (p. 58)

    Week X+2 In addition, your baby’s brain is continuing to become more complex. […] If you were able to get a look at it, you might see the smooth surface of your baby’s tiny, developing brain. (p. 59)

    Week X+5 Your baby’s brain is now starting to grow more quickly. THis week almost 250,000 new neurons are being produced in his or her brain every minute. (p. 72)

    I could go on, but you get the idea. So… any guesses on the value of X? d has thrown out a “conservat[ive] and caut[ious]” estimate that X can’t be less than 20 – 22. Anyone else?

    *My wife and I happen to be in the middle of an exciting, 9-month course that follows this book… best “class” I’ve ever taken 🙂

  20. Thanks for that Bill R.

    Here’s another way to look at it, which I first wrote several years ago. When does the fetus become a morally significant person? Do you know, d? What day is it? What hour?

    Imagine you’re at a shooting range with live ammo in a high-powered rifle. There is a silhouette of a person ten yards in front of you–point-blank range, really. It’s made of cardboard. You have nine minutes in which to fire your gun, and your intention is to aim for the silhouette’s heart. But before you aim, the range instructor says, “You need to know that at some unknown point during this nine minutes, a real live human is going to move behind that target and stay there. Actually, the person might already be there; I don’t know, they don’t tell us these things. Go ahead; fire when ready.”

    Would you shoot?

    Do you know there’s not a morally significant person in that womb at conception? Why is it okay to fire upon the womb, not knowing what it is you’re hitting there?

    You see, we don’t have to prove the young child is a real person in order to make a case against abortion. You have to prove the child isn’t one.

  21. Before I respond to the rest, I’ll take some time to point out with more specificity where 20-22 weeks comes from. I am aware that rudimentary brain structures are in development very early on.

    20-22 weeks is the time that the cerebral cortex forms and possible brain activity begins. We don’t know exactly whether the fetus at this point can be said to have a mind, but it marks the end of the period where we know it is mindless.

  22. the period where we know it is mindless

    I know I should be writing my thesis, but this is absolutely unbelievable! d, for the benefit of us all, how do you determine, using science, that the mind is the brain, or even that the mind requires the brain for its existence? How do you show, using science, that the mind encompasses personhood? Hint: you can’t do it. Not without making several highly dubious philosophical assumptions.

    The way you moved the goalposts from “a period of time where we can be sure that a brain doesnt yet exist” to “the time that the cerebral cortex forms” is a perfect example of how this type of thinking could be used to support slavery (just keep picking genetic markers that distinguish between races). This type of thinking will never lead you to affirm and protect universal human dignity. Thankfully, you have imported this ideal (albeit imperfectly) from your (Christian) cultural heritage.

  23. Tom Writes:

    Here’s another way to look at it, which I first wrote several years ago. When does the fetus become a morally significant person? Do you know, d? What day is it? What hour?

    No, I can’t point to the exact day or hour, or second.

    But its not even really possible with conception either. There are literally billions of chemical reactions involved in the process (over the course of several hours, if I am not mistaken). Is it a morally significant human when a sperm simply breaks the shell of the egg, and the chemical structure of the cell wall changes preventing other sperm from entering? Is it when the sperm dissolves, leaving its DNA in the cytoplasm? Or is it when the sperm’s DNA reaches the nucleus?

    If the chromosomes are one chemical reaction away from finishing the recombination process, is it still not yet a distinct human being with its own unique genetic code?

    If there were some birth control method that altered a woman’s eggs in some way so that sperm could enter but recombination could not occur, is that murder?

    None of us need commit the bald man fallacy here – we can point to stages of development at various intervals and see that properties have changed, even though its hard or impossible to pinpoint the exact moment, or even if many of those properties arise gradually.

    As for the thought experiment, no I would not shoot. But if the range instructor said there was a window in which I could be sure nobody was going to be behind the target, it would be just fine to take the shots, within that window, even though I don’t know the exact time a person will stand behind the target.

  24. d,

    We don’t know exactly whether the fetus at this point can be said to have a mind, but it marks the end of the period where we know it is mindless.

    Who is this “we” you are talking about? Science can’t locate the mind. The brain, yes, so that rules out science.

    Try this one: *We* know the baby is an innocent human being and a person. *We* know it’s immoral to kill innocent human beings.

  25. Bill R.

    I certainly don’t want to distract you from your thesis, but I’ll take a quick moment an answer! At the moment, I’m actually procrastinating on an ethics paper. My teacher is a Roman Catholic – I wonder how he’ll like it 😉

    I know I should be writing my thesis, but this is absolutely unbelievable! d, for the benefit of us all, how do you determine, using science, that the mind is the brain, or even that the mind requires the brain for its existence? How do you show, using science, that the mind encompasses personhood? Hint: you can’t do it. Not without making several highly dubious philosophical assumptions.

    Well, we can’t do much of anything, including assert the value of human rights or morals without making some pretty dubious philosophical assumptions. You can’t even be sure other minds exis, without a relying on a large set of rather dubious epistemelogical underpinnings that many serious philosophers have major issues with. So that’s a problem for everybody. In the meantime, we still need to figure out what to do.

    Permanent cessation of brain activity is considered death. The claim that a pre-cerebral fetus has no mind is as supportable by the evidence and science just as well as the claim that a brain-dead person is mindless.

    The way you moved the goalposts from “a period of time where we can be sure that a brain doesnt yet exist” to “the time that the cerebral cortex forms”
    is a perfect example of how this type of thinking could be used to support slavery (just keep picking genetic markers that distinguish between races). This type of thinking will never lead you to affirm and protect universal human dignity. Thankfully, you have imported this ideal (albeit imperfectly) from your (Christian) cultural heritage.

    Well, once again, I’ll reaffirm that humanity is neither necessary nor sufficient for morally significant personhood. Its possible that other non-human beings, with minds, can also have personhood.

    So I’m not interested in preserving universal human dignity. I’m interested in preserving universal persons’ dignity.

  26. d, this is amazing:

    Permanent cessation of brain activity is considered death. The claim that a pre-cerebral fetus has no mind is as supportable by the evidence and science just as well as the claim that a brain-dead person is mindless.

    You have inserted so many assumptions into this I just can’t believe it; and yet you claim to be able to draw a conclusion.

    As for the thought experiment, no I would not shoot. But if the range instructor said there was a window in which I could be sure nobody was going to be behind the target, it would be just fine to take the shots, within that window, even though I don’t know the exact time a person will stand behind the target.

    Do you know that the fetus is not a morally significant person at conception? Can you demonstrate it? Do you recognize where the burden of proof lies? Are you the “range instructor”? Who is? Are you relying on some authority? If so, what gives them that authority? Are you sure they know what they’re doing? What if the “range instructor” thinks he knows but really doesn’t? What if different “range instructors” give you different answers? For different “authorities” on the fetus have different opinions, don’t they?

    Bottom line: if you’re wrong on this and you abort a child, you’ve murdered a person. If you encourage someone to abort, you are accessory to murder. Murder is as serious as it could be, especially when it’s murder of innocents, especially when it’s murder of innocents for the sake of personal convenience. If you’re wrong and you support abortion, then you are committing one of the most serious of moral horrors.

    Do you know you are wrong? No, you don’t. You offer a lot of opinion and conjecture. You support abortion even while you know it’s quite possible your doing so is a moral horror. I don’t have to prove my position on fetal personhood to show that. You have already been revealed to be a person who is willing to risk being a moral horror, a killer of innocents for the sake of personal convenience.

    It makes me sick.

  27. Permanent cessation of brain activity is considered death.

    Physical death. What about their spiritual condition?

    The claim that a pre-cerebral fetus has no mind is as supportable by the evidence and science just as well as the claim that a brain-dead person is mindless.

    This is a scientifically unsupportable claim, d. Science can’t locate the mind. You’ve been reminded of that before. If they can’t find it when someone is alive, they can’t notice its absence when someone dies.

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