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When Ethicists Fail: Some Thoughts on Abortion, Infanticide, and Personhood (Part 2)


What makes you a person?  Is it your current ability to perform a specific function?  Or does being human automatically make you a person?  As abstract as these questions may sound, they're actually quite practical.  How we answer them affects how we treat other humans.  I'd say that makes them pretty relevant questions, wouldn't you?  If not, listen to what two ethicists recently


on the matter, "[A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life."  They go on to argue that it is okay to kill healthy newborn babies, because they're not actual persons yet.  Still think these are irrelevant questions?

In my last


, I critiqued the logic of the ethicists'


(hereafter ‘the authors’).  I'd encourage you to read my previous


first, if you haven't already.  In this post I will critique their view of personhood, and draw out some implications.  To give the authors' statements better context, I must quote them at length:

...‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is, including cases where the newborn is not disabled... Both a fetus and newborn certainly are human beings and potential persons, but neither is a ‘person’ in the sense of ‘subject of a moral right to life.’  We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her… [A]ll the individuals who are not in a condition of attributing any value to their own existence are not persons.  Merely being human is not in itself a reason for ascribing someone a right to life.

Notice the authors fully admit the fact that fetuses and newborns are human beings, but still deny they are persons.  That's because they hold to a


view of personhood.  The authors believe that humans are only persons (i.e. have inherent value and a right to life) when they are in a condition to perform a certain function - namely, valuing their own existence.  This means that a human could have the inherent


to value her own existence, but if she's not presently in the condition to


that capacity - if she is in a coma, for instance - then she is not a person and therefore has no right to life, according to the authors definition.

I don't know about you, but I find that view of personhood unsettling.  I don't like the idea that my right to life depends on what others deem a suitable "condition."  What disturbs me even more, however, is the idea that the most innocent and vulnerable human beings - fetuses, newborns, and those who lack full cognitive function - lose their value and worth simply because they can't


.  Talk about a cold-hearted, dehumanizing way to view people!  And most disconcerting of all, the authors cite medical practices in

The Netherlands

where similar views are already being applied to newborns.

I prefer what is called the


view of personhood.  According to this view, humans are automatically persons by their nature.  All living organisms have, from the moment of conception, an inherent nature that determines the kind of thing they are as well as their ultimate capacities.  To illustrate, a dog is, by its nature, a


at the moment of its conception.  And its inherent dog-nature determines its ultimate capacities - barking, wagging its tail, chasing the mail carrier, etc..  A dog that never learned to bark, because of some injury or developmental problem, is still a dog.  Its the dog's


that determines the kind of thing it is, not its ability to immediately exercise its capacities.[1]

Similarly, a human is (by nature) a


from the moment of conception.  This is not simply a philosophical opinion, it is a biological fact.  From the moment of conception, a human fetus has a distinct,


genetic code (different from its mother's or father's) that determines its ultimate capacities for distinctly


things - things like imagination, reason, language, religious belief, math, etc..  A human that hasn't yet learned to read, speak, or value her own existence is still a human, and therefore a person,

by nature

.  Having a human nature means having ultimate capacities that meet the necessary criteria for personhood (e.g. the capacity to value one's own existence), whether the individual is ever in a condition to exercise those capacities or not.  Thus, on the substance view, fetuses and newborns (and comatose individuals) are all truly persons - by their nature they have the ultimate capacity to value their own existence; they just aren't in the condition to immediately


(or perform) that capacity.  But the capacities are nonetheless there. 

I believe the substance view is superior to the functionalist view for many reasons intellectually.[2]  But when I look at the above picture of my daughter (then just a week old), smiling in contentment from her mother's touch, the substance view is also confirmed for me existentially.  True, she cannot presently talk or reason, but those capacities are already in her by nature.  She's simply not able to perform them yet.  Even still, with such a look of peace and happiness on her face, I find it hard to believe that she doesn't already value her existence in some fundamental way.

So what does this all mean?  Well, a number of things.  First, I think most of you reading this would agree that it is morally wrong to kill an innocent person for convenience.  According to the substance view, newborns are persons.  Thus, it is wrong to kill them.  According to the functionalist view, newborns are


persons, so it is okay to kill them.  Choose which view makes the most sense.  But remember, as I pointed out in my last


(and as the authors argue), newborns and fetuses are morally equivalent.  If it's wrong to kill a newborn, then it's wrong to kill a fetus.  Those who are deeply committed to the belief that it is okay to kill fetuses (if the mother so chooses), but also want to believe it is wrong to kill newborns, will experience some

cognitive dissonance

with this argument.  Logically speaking, you can't have it both ways.

In my next and final post in this series, I will do something ironic.  I will evaluate how


it was for our two ethicists to publish their argument.

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Read part 3


1.   Credit goes to

Scott Klusendorf

for the dog illustration, and for much of my application of the substance view to this issue.

2.  I believe the substance view of personhood is superior to the functionalist view for a variety of reasons: (1) There are clear counterexamples to functionalism.  For instance, a comatose woman is not in a condition to attribute value to her own existence, but that does not mean she temporarily lost her personhood and right to life.  (2) Our moral intuitions regularly presuppose the substance view, as the comatose example proves.  Intuitively, we want to say that the comatose woman is still a person with a right to life.  But that can only be the case if she is a person based on the kind of thing she is (i.e. a human being), which assumes the substance view.  (3)  The substance view better explains other moral facts, like human equality.  If personhood is based on mental development, which comes in degrees, then the right to life must also come in degrees.  But we Americans believe it is a fact that all humans are created equal.  That's only true, however, if humans have a right to life simply by virtue of being human.  The substance view can explain why.  The functionalist view can't.