Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 3

Vocab Malone has posted the third part of his argument against abortion at his blog, focusing on what he calls "the argument from size." As I don't think there's any plausibility to this argument, I won't spend any time with it, but there are still a few things in his post that I think demand response. The first is the assertion Vocab quotes from "prolific pro-life trainer and speaker Scott Klusendorf" that he always encounters this argument when he speaks at Christian schools. I find this assertion very difficult to believe--I don't think I've ever encountered this argument anywhere, and I suspect that Klusendorf is either intentionally or unintentionally misconstruing some other argument as this argument. (Would he consider Randy Newman's song, "Short People," to be an instance of the argument, given its lyric, "short people got no reason to live"?)

The instance of the argument Vocab suggests is nothing of the sort, though at least he admits that it is an argument about another subject. Here's the quote as Vocab presents it:
From the other end of things, a recent New York Times article featured a similar argument (although his piece was on a broader topic than abortion):
Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else? … We do not see cells, simple or complex – we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. [2]
The quote is from a New York Times editorial by neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga about the difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning. Here's the quotation in context; it's the ending of the piece:

In his State of the Union speech, President Bush went on to observe that "human life is a gift from our creator — and that gift should never be discarded, devalued or put up for sale." Putting aside the belief in a "creator," the vast majority of the world's population takes a similar stance on valuing human life. What is at issue, rather, is how we are to define "human life." Look around you. Look at your loved ones. Do you see a hunk of cells or do you see something else?

Most humans practice a kind of dualism, seeing a distinction between mind and body. We all automatically confer a higher order to a developed biological entity like a human brain. We do not see cells, simple or complex — we see people, human life. That thing in a petri dish is something else. It doesn't yet have the memories and loves and hopes that accumulate over the years. Until this is understood by our politicians, the gallant efforts of so many biomedical scientists, as good as they are, will remain only stopgap measures.

Vocab has removed a critical piece of what Gazzaniga wrote--he's not making anything like an argument from size, but rather an argument much more like my position, as seen in what Vocab omitted with his ellipsis and immediately following what he quoted. The piece as a whole is taking issue with the conflation of reproductive and therapeutic cloning, with the idea that the latter involves creating cloned people, and Gazzaniga's position seems to be that this confusion occurs because people are thinking of and talking about undifferentiated cells as though they are people--the same thing that is occuring in this very debate. (BTW, the president's Council on Bioethics, of which Gazzaniga was a member, argued that therapeutic, but not reproductive cloning should be permissible. My view is that while there are currently issues of knowledge and technology that could result in harm to cloned people, in the long run I don't see any ethical difference between reproductive cloning and natural reproduction, so long as the products of each get equal treatment on the same standard of personhood.)

Vocab suggests it would have been better to call this the "just a bunch of cells" argument, but that's really not an argument based on size, but rather an argument based on structure, function, and capacity--which is a good argument! I suspect that this is, in fact, the sort of argument that Klusendorf is misconstruing.

Next Vocab gives an argument from essences:

can any living being become anything else besides what it already is? How can something become a person unless its essence is already personhood? If the color blue is only blue and not the color red in the same way at the same time, its very essence – its fundamental property – must be blue and not red. Another example is that of the tadpole and frog. The tadpole is simply a name for a specific stage during a frog’s development. If one were to terminate a certain tadpole, then a certain frog would be terminated and no longer exist. This means you did not come from a fetus you once were a fetus.

The answer to the first question is clearly yes--there are all kinds of metamorphoses that occur in living things while they are alive, including changes of shape, color, size, and sex. And when they die, they can become parts of other things--just as other things become part of them when they come into existence, develop, and change. The second question is, I think, flawed. First, I don't think it's correct to regard personhood as a fixed, unchanging property. Douglas Hofstadter's book, I Am A Strange Loop, argues that self concepts not only develop over time, but can be shared across persons. Second, the question implies that anything that is a person is always and eternally a person and cannot be constructed out of something else. But on everybody's views, human beings are biological organisms, which come into and go out of existence in virtue of the states of their underlying components. Both the view Vocab has been defending and mine say that there are biological components which are not persons, which through some change of state subsequently become persons. If Vocab wants to hold a view by which personhood is an essential property of a simple substance, then he can do that by holding a dualistic view of an eternal soul which is a person that attaches at some point to a human as a biological animal. But if that's his view, then that's the argument we should be having, rather than one in which Vocab is defending a view like animalism.

Vocab makes a subsequent statement that I think vividly illustrates the error in his view:
One way to think about the idea of probability (or potentiality) is that every adult was once an unborn person, just as every oak tree was once an acorn. An acorn is simply a mini-oak tree, just as a microscopic person is a mini-human.
But that last sentence is just false. Acorns are not miniature oak trees and zygotes are not miniature people. That's precisely the error that Gazzaniga is warning against in his article.

Vocab subsequently makes a point about skulls being crushed in an abortion procedure, and on that point he's correct--embryos do develop into fetuses, they do develop identifiable distinct parts and functions, and at some point they do become miniature people, but they don't pop into existence as such.

Continue to part four.

15 comments:

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim -

To clarify about the NY Times piece, I did mention the exact context WAS NOT abortion. Here's how I led up to my quotation:

"From the other end of things, a recent New York Times article featured a similar argument (although his piece was on a broader topic than abortion)"

I used the word "similar" to qualify and I gave the exact source so anyone can see the whole article for themselves. I am not trying to hide what the man was saying.

Also, I have a question from a statement you made:
"I don't think it's correct to regard personhood as a fixed, unchanging property."

Does this mean you think once someone is a person that they have the ability while they are still living to lose their personhood?

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

Vocab: I both noted and quoted that you mentioned that--but you *did* remove a critical portion of the quote that was necessary to understand his point.

Do I think that people have the ability to lose their personhood while still living? Yes. First, I think people have the ability to cease to be the person they once were, to lose their identity, without losing their personhood--this can happen as a result of causes like brain trauma or disease, like Alzheimer's. The person who was once there is gone, even though there may still be a person who remains. Second, it's possible to completely lose personhood while remaining alive, in cases where brain function is so severely damaged that a person is in a permanent persistent vegetative state, just shy of brain death. The body can live and engage in certain kinds of reflexive actions (like the Lazarus sign) when there's nobody home.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

You know what, Jim? You are right about this.*

I just added the full context of the quote and changed some of the wording leading up to it so as not to mislead. I also added the URL in the notes.

I put an update in the bottom so people could see I have made changes.

I am still learning here ...

vM!

::vOcab::

*right about the critical context of the NY Times quote, not about personhood fluctuating =)

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim –

Let me respond to this quote, too:

"If Vocab wants to hold a view by which personhood is an essential property of a simple substance, then he can do that by holding a dualistic view of an eternal soul which is a person that attaches at some point to a human as a biological animal. But if that's his view, then that's the argument we should be having, rather than one in which Vocab is defending a view like animalism."

Actually, it seems your position is dualism of a certain order, as you have drawn a body/person distinction by postulating there can be a human body in a certain stage of development yet no person, no “self”. Georgetown’s Robert P. George comments on this:

"Body-self dualists look only at the properties essential to human life, such as mental functioning and self-consciousness, as they exist at the height of their development. But where could such properties have come from if they were not already rooted in the nature of the being that possessed them?" - Embryo, Random House, p 98.

I am just curious as to how you (or others) would respond …

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

Drawing distinctions doesn't necessarily imply dualism. A house is a building with certain structure and function that can be built out of a variety of different materials, but my making that observation doesn't make me a building materials/house dualist. Houses are reducible to their physical components.

Similarly, I think that personhood is reducible to physical components structured in a certain functional way. Persons are embodied and are reducible to the physical components in a particular causal framework.

Personhood is an emergent property of underlying functional components.

George's question strikes me as being analogous to suggesting that you should be able to run Microsoft Word on a computer before it is assembled, plugged in, powered on, and has an operating system installed on it, or that you should be able to build a tree swing on an acorn.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

The problem with the argument as you articulate it is that it confuses parts with the whole.

Embryos are NOT constructed piece by piece from an external source but they develop themselves from within. No blueprint of a house has the ability to actually become the house it portrays; therefore, when the house is done being built one could dispose of the blueprint because it is not an essential component of the structure. This is most certainly NOT the case w/the embryo.

This is because living things DEFINE themselves and they even FORM themselves. A car is not a car until it rolls off the assembly line complete. It is not a car when the first door is attached to the frame.

There is no comparison with the embryo b/c it is complete from the jump, it is not built little by little until one more piece is added and then 'voila', we have a human.

Lastly, when you said, "George's question strikes me as being analogous to suggesting ... that you should be able to build a tree swing on an acorn," it shows you misunderstand the pro-life position. No one is claiming the embryo is an ADULT human just as the acorn is not a MATURE oak tree. Nonetheless, the embryo belongs in no other category than complete human being and should be valued as such.

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

Vocab: I gave the acorn example because I thought you might try to argue that way, but I don't think it makes a bit of difference how a person comes into existence--a human being genetically engineered from nonliving parts would still be a person.

If I'm wanting to build a tree swing, an acorn doesn't meet the conditions of treehood, even though it has the potential to become a tree that meets those conditions.

Just as an acorn doesn't meet the conditions of treehood for the purposes of building a tree swing, a zygote doesn't meet the moral or legal conditions of personhood.

We don't disagree that there is continuity of organism (just as there is continuity of a population of organisms over time)--all life on this planet is connected in that way. But just as we don't count every species as persons, even in our own genetic lineage, we don't count every life stage of individual human organisms as persons. There's a sense in which "I" was once a zygote that had my same DNA, but at that stage there was no "me" there yet--there was nothing that it was like to be a zygote, to use Thomas Nagel's expression. In that same sense that "I" was a zygote, "I" will be a dead body in the future, even though there will at that point be nothing that it is like to be me, and the person that I am will be gone from the world though my body will briefly remain.

I think we understand each other's positions. You think that being a human organism is the same thing as to be a person, while I think personhood is a feature that comes into existence and persists for a subset of the life of an organism, that requires capacities of sentience or self-awareness.

But I think I can give reasons to support why my view makes moral, legal, and practical sense, and why human cultures and practices are more consistent with my view than yours. I don't think you can give such reasons, other than the brute assertion that human organisms are persons from start to finish. Your view has no need of the notion of person, yet it seems to me that there are all sorts of practical, moral, and legal reasons why we do need and use such a notion.

Jim Lippard said...

I wrote: "But just as we don't count every species as persons, even in our own genetic lineage, we don't count every life stage of individual human organisms as persons."

While that's still a correct statement, for the point of the analogy replace the first instance of "persons" with "humans."

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim -

I guess that's as good as place as any to sorta wind down our discussion. I will try to post once more on the Thomson argument if I can ...

I do disagree 100% that all I did was offer a "brute assertion that human organisms are persons from start to finish."

Many of my posts gave such reasons! Part of the logic of my position is that it argues from the impossibility to the contrary; that is, the human/non-person distinction has no genuine scientific or philosophical merit.

You also said, "Your view has no need of the notion of person, yet it seems to me that there are all sorts of practical, moral, and legal reasons why we do need and use such a notion."

This is incorrect. My view has the "notion of the person" but it is one that is tied up with the human species to the point of there being no separation between the two. Just because I do not hold to degrees of personhood does not mean I do not think personhood is a valid notion. The difference between us is I would only contrast human persons with non-human non-persons, whereas you allow human non-persons.

Herein is our fundamental difference. Thank you for all the great dialogue, I hope we can continue it in the comments every now and then and also if you opt to write one more review if I fidn the time to do that last post we talked about.

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

I'd like to see you address the intelligent alien example. From what you say, there is nothing immoral about treating intelligent aliens as nonpersons--taking them as slaves or using them for food.

Also, does your view suggest that we should celebrate conception days rather than birthdays, count pregnancies in the census and for tax deductions, record certificates of conception rather than live birth and keep statistics on conception rather than birth, hold funerals for miscarriages, and ban in vitro fertilization?

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

"[D]oes your view suggest that we should celebrate conception days rather than birthdays, count pregnancies in the census and for tax deductions, record certificates of conception rather than live birth and keep statistics on conception rather than birth, hold funerals for miscarriages, and ban in vitro fertilization?"

Jim, surely you realize these questions border on sophistry. What do cultural practices have to do with whether the unborn are people or not?

Many Asian cultures DO keep track of age from their conception date, not their birthday: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Asian_age_reckoning
Does this mean Asian embryos are people but American ones are not?

Also, some people DO have funerals for miscarriages. Some hospitals even offer official certificates.
http://www.miscarriageassociation.org.uk/ma2006/information/hospital.htm

Pregnancy loss is a very serious issue to deal with, so much so, that even women who had abortions often need counseling to deal with the grief.

This last point is something most pro-choicers do not seem too concerned about, despite their claim to be interested in the well-being of the woman.

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

Those Asian systems actually start the count *before* conception, since they count starting with 1 at birth.

My argument wasn't that we should base our position on the cultural system, rather the reverse--and asking whether you advocated that.

The hospital link you post is interesting in that it mentions a legal distinction at 24 weeks.

You're of course correct that there is often an emotional response to miscarriage as well as abortion.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

In a way, an abortion is simply a FORCED miscarriage, no?

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

I'm not sure "forced" is the best adjective to distinguish human-caused vs. naturally-caused effects. It seems to suggest a voluntary/involuntary distinction which is not accurate here. We both agree that women should not be forced to have abortions, and that women do not choose to miscarry. The fetus has no choice in either case (or outcome).

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim said -

“The fetus has no choice in either case (or outcome).”

Yep, and that’s why abortion advocates are not truly pro-choice but rather pro-abortion.

v