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“Potential Persons” in the “After-Birth Abortion” Article Print E-mail
By Francis J. Beckwith   
Friday, 16 March 2012

As readers of The Catholic Thing are well aware, the Journal of Medical Ethics, a periodical to which I have contributed, recently published the controversial article, “After-Birth Abortion: Why Should the Baby Live?”, written by the philosophers Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva.

Throughout the article, the authors refer to fetuses and newborns as “potential persons,” which, I am sure, sounds like an odd neologism for those uninitiated in contemporary moral philosophy. It is, however, a phrase that has been used in the bioethics literature for over four decades.

According to Giubilini and Minerva, “fetuses and newborns. . .are potential persons because they can develop, thanks to their own biological mechanisms, those properties which will make them ‘persons’ in the sense of ‘subjects of a moral right to life’: that is, the point at which they will be able to make aims and appreciate their own life.”

This is why, argue the authors, it is morally permissible to kill fetuses and newborns. They are only potential persons, not actual persons.

The authors “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.” So a fetus is not a person, because it is not mature enough to appreciate its own interests. But that is precisely what a fetus is. Thus, a fetus is not a person because it is a fetus. That is an airtight argument, precisely because it has the virtue of being perfectly circular.

Although “potential person” is a stock label in the world of academic bioethics, the two terms, “potential” and “person,” have a long and rich philosophical pedigree that very few in professional bioethics, including Giubilini and Minerva, seem to appreciate.

For example, the oak tree in my back yard is a potential desk, which is to say that a carpenter can build a desk with the parts that were once my oak tree. When the oak tree is killed before the carpenter works on its parts, it literally ceases to be. There is nothing in the nature of the oak tree by which it is ordered toward “deskness,” neither when it was an acorn nor when it was ordered toward becoming a mature version of itself.

So when the authors say that the fetus is a “potential person,” they do not mean this sort of potential, for they maintain that the fetus remains the same being before and after it “becomes” a person.

Perhaps they mean “potential” in the sense that I am a “potential Amherst College faculty member.” But I don’t think that’s right. For such a potential is the potential to acquire an accidental property unessential to my nature. That is, if I remain at Baylor, I am still me. Whether I am 192 lbs or 202 lbs, a plumber, a professor, a baker, or a candlestick maker, makes no difference to the sort of being I am.

But, as we have seen, Giubilini and Minerva claim that all fetuses have the same nature, “because they can develop, thanks to their own biological mechanisms, those properties which will make them ‘persons.’”

To summarize, according to Giubilini and Minerva, you are the same being as your fetal self, and your potential to exercise certain personal powers – including the potential to exercise the abilities to “make aims and appreciate [your] own life” – are not accidental to your nature. Thus, the fetus is not a potential person in the sense that it “becomes” something else – as the oak tree “becomes” the desk. And it is not a potential person in the sense that acquiring personal powers is accidental to its nature – as when my weight changes from 202 lbs. to 192 lbs. 

This means that the capacity to exercise these personal powers is essential to the fetus’ nature, a nature it retains before and after it is capable of exercising these personal powers.

The fetus, then, is not a potential person. It is what it is: a being with a personal nature, and for that reason, it has essential properties that include capacities for personal expression, rational thought, and moral agency. The maturation of these capacities are perfections of its nature, and thus, contrary to what Giubilini and Minerva claim, the human fetus can be wronged even before it can know it has been wronged. 

Imagine, for example, that a scientist brings several embryos into being through in vitro fertilization. He then implants them in artificial wombs, and while they develop he obstructs their neural tubes so that they may never acquire higher brain functions, and thus they cannot become what Giubilini and Minerva consider “persons.” It is because the scientist wants to harvest the organs of these fetuses that he is engaging in this experiment.

Suppose, upon hearing of this scientist’s grisly undertaking, a group of prolife radicals breaks into his laboratory and transports all the artificial wombs (with all the embryos intact) to another laboratory located in the basement of the Vatican. While there, several prolife scientists inject the embryos with a drug that heals their neural tubes and allows for their brains to develop normally. After nine months, the former fetuses, now infants, are adopted by loving families.

If you think what the prolife scientists did was not only good, but an act that justice requires, it seems that you must believe that embryos are beings of a personal nature ordered toward certain perfections that when obstructed results in a wrong. But in that case, embryos are not potential persons. They are just persons with potential.

 
Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University. He is the author of over one dozen books including Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University, 2007).
 
 
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Comments (22)Add Comment
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written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, March 16, 2012
It is, perhaps, worth pointing out that Catholics, who should have known better, have often been under the spell of the Cartesian philosophy and have accepted the idea of the soul (which they identify with the “Mind” or “Self,”) as a sort of “ghost in a machine,” to use the hackneyed, but expressive phrase.

Aristotle, the philosopher of common sense, called human beings “rational animals.” There is no mystery about what a (human) person is: we all understand expressions like, “the person over there,” or “Offences against the Person.” It means a living, human body. The “mind” is not a thing, but an hypostasized abstraction.

That many soi-disant materialists adopt the same radical dualism merely shows through what strange loopholes the human mind contrives to escape, when it wishes to avoid a disagreeable inference from an admitted proposition.
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written by Dave, March 16, 2012
Thank you, Dr. Beckwith, for this short but powerful exposition of the fallacies in the now-infamous "After-Birth Abortion" article. If that article has any virtue, it is to expose abortion for what it is: murder of an innocent being. As I've argued before, the danger of the article extends to end-of-life issues as well, for when a senile geriatric loses the ability to make aims and appreciate his or her own life, why, that human being has lost personhood: except she hasn't it. So your article is immensely valuable -- precious, in the true sense of the word -- for its protection of the human person in all the stages of his/her life on earth. We are not far off from the State adjudicating on "life worthy of life," and this is chilling indeed. Your article gives needed warmth, and for that I thank you.
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written by Manfred, March 16, 2012
Some forty plus years ago, a chess friend of mine, Milton Danon, M.D., said he refused to do abortions as he knew from his training that everything was determined at the time of fertilization: the gender, the color of the eyes, projected longevity, if male when the man would begin to bald, etc. Now deceased, Dr. Danon spent the last years of his career as an abortionist. You may Google him. Fr. Beckwith, you, Dr. Arkes and the other excellent writers here can write until the end of time on this subject, but until the Church really deals with the subject with strength and commitment, your efforts, while well researched and written, are futile. Silence (or feckless response) implies consent.
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written by Howard Kainz, March 16, 2012
In traditional philosophical terminology, an acorn is a potential oak. This does not just mean that it is "possible" that it might become an oak, but that ontologically it has the essential characteristics of an oak right now. Those who talk about the fetus as a "potential person" often confuse these two senses.
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written by P.D., March 16, 2012
And yet there are people out there who argue that no one should eat chicken eggs, for instnace, because they are "potentially meat." Oy vey. We are so messed up if we'll kill babies because they're "potentially human" but defend the right to life of a not-even-fertilized chicken egg because it's "potentially meat." Disturbing, to say the least.
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 16, 2012
Their argument makes sense as long as you reject a rigid realism. All you need is a nominalist framework; that is, the recognition that things do not have an abstract essence or set of "essential qualities." As realism has become a less and less viable philosophical system due to its difficulties in accounting for things like evolution (which reveals that species are fluid continuums which flow into each other rather than pigeonholed in hard categories based upon sets of essential features) as well as insight that our language governs the content of our mental concepts, rather than vice versa as is suggested by philosophical realism.

A simple rejection of this essentialist framework as fundamentally flawed is all that is needed to render the statement, "The fetus, then, is not a potential person. It is what it is: a being with a personal nature, and for that reason, it has essential properties that include capacities for personal expression, rational thought, and moral agency," into a falsehood. It is what it is: living tissue at different stages of development, each stage of which has different characteristics: at one point, it has no neural tissue at all; at another, it cannot feel pain or have consciousness; only at a certain point is its brain developed enough to begin to function.

Thus, it is not problematic to note that something will develop into something it is not now, but is not that thing yet; unless one already has accepted a realist framework. A speck of dust floating in the atmosphere has a few water molecules condense on it; fine. It is potentially a raindrop. It is not, for that reason, now a raindrop, nor does it even have a "raindrop nature," (however we arbitrarily define such an abstraction). The fetus will develop into a person, and there is indeed a continuity of being; the addition of the faculties related to personhood do not result in a "new being," but rather represent a growth far more like someone being at one time a child, at another a teenager, and at another an old man: I can say that I am not an old man, that I am potentially one, but I will still be the same being (at least, in the rather strained sense of bearing a identity by means of a materially history). So too I was once an embryo that was unable to perceive, had no consciousness, and had indeed none of the faculties generally associated with personhood.
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written by Other Joe, March 17, 2012
Dear Mr. Ellis once again misses the point, because it would seem that his world view eclipses the point. One might wonder why he monitors a Catholic website unless his object is to sow tares. The point is that humans have a soul (by any other name). We are not a body with a soul, we are a soul embodied. Physicists have said that there are more possible neural connections in the human brain than there are particles in the universe. This order of complexity and function is by itself worthy of admiration and reflection. We, who believe that such finesse did not arise by accident, have a reverence for the sanctity of life. The reasoning of Mr. Ellis has been used quite successfully to murder masses of people. In his world view our level of consciousness condemns us, and he feels competent to decide where the thresholds are fixed. Prayers are in order.
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 17, 2012
"One might wonder why he monitors a Catholic website unless his object is to sow tares"

Are you suggesting that only people who agree with this article should read and comment?

"The point is that humans have a soul (by any other name). We are not a body with a soul, we are a soul embodied."

While this is a fine statement of the content of Catholic doctrine, it hardly qualifies as a self-evident or observable truth. You would have to defend this assertion before using it as a basis for an argument.

"Physicists have said that there are more possible neural connections in the human brain than there are particles in the universe. This order of complexity and function is by itself worthy of admiration and reflection."

Other animals also share large brain capacities with countless connections. Are you suggesting that the brain is an indicator of a soul? What exactly is the argument here?

"We, who believe that such finesse did not arise by accident, have a reverence for the sanctity of life."

You have a reverence for the sanctity of life insofar as it meets certain criteria, unless you are a vegan, perhaps? In any case, you have criteria that determines which living things you will treat with reverence and which will become your next meal. Others have a similar "reverence for life" with a differing criteria of what living things are to be counted; many of them, not sharing your belief in an incorporeal, unobservable soul, may not include things which you include. Incidentally, your belief in accidental/intelligent design is only accidentally related to your belief in this matter: one can be a pro-life atheist just as there are pro-choice Christians.

"The reasoning of Mr. Ellis has been used quite successfully to murder masses of people."

I agree that my argument could be used for such nefarious purposes, purposes which I would condemn. I also agree that this same argument could be used against the Catholic Church, which has misused the Faith to instigate bloody crusades, which has impelled people to burn other people alive inside castles, led to unwarranted executions, and so forth. Now, clearly, this is a misuse of Christianity; it can also be the case that other doctrines or beliefs can be similarly misused.

"In his world view our level of consciousness condemns us, and he feels competent to decide where the thresholds are fixed."

I have not shared "my worldview" with you. I simply pointed out that the strength of this article's argument is dependent entirely on someone's assumption of a realist epistemology, and that realism has been revealed as a bit weak in its ability to account for the complexities and ambiguities of the world. Nothing I have said in any way indicates that I myself believe one thing versus another. The fact that I do not believe that fetuses of a certain development are people does not mean that I endorse abortion. I happen to be broadly pro-life except in certain situations, because I believe that there are far better philosophical arguments against abortions than the one posted here.
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written by Other Joe, March 17, 2012
A few quick points - it would take a long book to make them compelling because starting from a particular premise (world view) everything lines up nicely given a modicum of logic. One must then demolish the premise and neither is there time (space) nor is this the proper forum. None of the answers to the "big" questions - the ones that are the foundation for any world view are self evident and/or empirically verifiable. They may be probed with faith and reason and bounded by revelation (only discernable by means of faith and reason) but the transcendental can not be reduced to empirical evidence. One world view (based on faith and reason) states that because the transcendental can not be tested empirically, it can not exist. Given that starting point, there is little possible dialogue that can take place with someone who thinks differently since the meaning of words is out of agreement. There is no point (other than the possible entertainment value) of attempting to engage the sophistry of brain equals soul or that the sanctity of life applies to a striped bass in the same quality as to a child. These seem to be paradoxical in the same way that one might ask "can God make a rock too big for Him to lift?" Mr. Ellis, you have shared your world view with us and you continue to do so.
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written by Achilles, March 17, 2012
What Scotty, are you suggesting that people should not read your comments and refute them?

We understand revealed truth as much higher truth than your empirical, observable, self-serving logical contortions. We recognize the “cogito ergo sum” as upside down. We know that man is not the measure of all things.

Animals are not humans. And quantifiable brain size has nothing to do with souls. Peter singer is a clever fool.
Your arguments are as absurd as your historical sense because both are reductions of reality to the level of your own mental capability. I suspect that on The Catholic Thing that you alone are impressed with your articulation, logical gymnastics, and splitting of hairs.
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 17, 2012
"None of the answers to the "big" questions - the ones that are the foundation for any world view are self evident and/or empirically verifiable."

I agree entirely. However, the implications of those answers very often are empirically verifiable or falsifiable. Furthermore, those answers must be expressed in terms of concepts, many of which are subject to empirical verification. So although you are correct that empirical data has no direct implications for these ideas, it is still indirectly relevant.

"One world view (based on faith and reason) states that because the transcendental can not be tested empirically, it can not exist."

There are those who share this view, which is generally labelled "scientism." I do not, because it is illogical to assume that because something cannot be tested empirically, it cannot exist. However, it is logical to express ignorance on such matters, because without evidence of some sort or another we have no positive reason to believe in such beings, except as conjectures.

"Given that starting point, there is little possible dialogue that can take place with someone who thinks differently since the meaning of words is out of agreement."

Sic et non. I would agree with you on this matter as it applies to the faith: St. Thomas Aquinas notes that if someone will not assent to the first principles of faith it is impossible to persuade them of the truth of its content (although objections should still be answerable). However, I disagree with you on a more general level: any amount of agreement can provide a starting point for fruitful dialogue, and it is quite difficult to not share some common starting point, even if it is simply similarity of phenomena (i.e., I see something there and so do you).

"There is no point (other than the possible entertainment value) of attempting to engage the sophistry of brain equals soul or that the sanctity of life applies to a striped bass in the same quality as to a child."

I am sorry you feel this way. Anyone who actually believes that we have an invisible and incorporeal soul should be interested in what it is, and thus determining what such a soul does versus what the brain does should be of interest. Someone who believes in the soul should also have a an answer to the question "why," some reasoning to explain why the brain and body is not sufficient to explain the phenomena of consciousness. As for your criteria of what fits into the category of "morally protected life," there is no doubt that you have rationale for this as well; my question would only be, how consistent is it, and how well does it stand up to scrutiny? I believe that this particular article does not stand up to the scrutiny of someone who rejects realism, and what is more I believe we have compelling reason to reject realism.
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 17, 2012
"What Scotty, are you suggesting that people should not read your comments and refute them?"

You are free to present whatever arguments you have, which I will read with charity and accept if valid and sound.

"We understand revealed truth as much higher truth than your empirical, observable, self-serving logical contortions."

No doubt you do. However, I would only like to note that you would be tough pressed to actually defend that said revelation is indeed divine in origin, since the only evidence that this is the case is itself part of that revelation.

"We recognize the “cogito ergo sum” as upside down."

I recognize it as being fundamentally flawed at a level of language, as is Descartes' entire project of methodological doubt. It is impossible to escape from one's assumptions, especially the assumptions and prejudices of the language we use.

"Animals are not humans. And quantifiable brain size has nothing to do with souls."

All true, and all irrelevant as I made no statements to the contrary. However, humans are animals, and the brain does have something to do with the phenomena of consciousness.

"Your arguments are as absurd as your historical sense because both are reductions of reality to the level of your own mental capability."

Naturally, everyone's understanding is limited by their mental capacity - even those who accept the content of Catholic revelation. Would you mind sharing specifically which arguments of mine you believe are absurd?

"I suspect that on The Catholic Thing that you alone are impressed with your articulation, logical gymnastics, and splitting of hairs."

I am interested in the truth of things, nothing more, which is what I hope everyone on this site is interested in. I happen to believe that the specific argument in this article is flawed because it requires assent to realism, which most of the argument's opponents would not grant. I further believe that realism has been revealed as faulty. If you disagree, that's fine; I'd very much like to hear a defense of this argument that either A) demonstrates that it is valid within a nominalist framework or B) demonstrates why it would be better to accept a realist framework for this discussion.
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written by Achilles, March 19, 2012
Dear Scotty Ellis,

Little brother, we do not speak the same language.

It would be easier to tell you which ideas of your ideas I don’t find absurd, I think there was one you mentioned from St. Augustine about there being only one teacher.

Whether or not anyone assents to “realism”, as you seem to be quite caught up on, has no bearing on the Truth, because Truth is not contingent upon our understanding, but on whether or not a proposition converges with reality. (JPII) If you can’t seem to understand how abortion is murder and a moral crime you must not hinge your lack of understanding on a lack of assent to “realism” that appears absurd.

You appear to have a high IQ and all but do you not know what St. Paul tells us: “But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong.” (Corinthian 1:27)

I would take 12 country bumpkin fisherman armed with the Truth over 100 legions of modern philosophy students completing their PhDs. These are very dark times Scotty and all your empirical evidence would say the opposite. Things are always as we try to make them appear.
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written by Achilles, March 19, 2012
Oopps, of course i meant to say "things aren't always..."
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 19, 2012
"Whether or not anyone assents to “realism”, as you seem to be quite caught up on, has no bearing on the Truth, because Truth is not contingent upon our understanding, but on whether or not a proposition converges with reality."

Inasmuch as neither you nor I have an unmediated, immediate, and uninterpreted view of reality, the judgment of whether or not a proposition converges with reality is continent upon our understanding of the proposition itself, what counts as valid logic and reasoning, and our understanding of what constitutes reality. It is therefore vital to disclose, explain, and defend these understandings; realism's viability is therefore of great importance to an argument that proceeds from realist premises.

"If you can’t seem to understand how abortion is murder and a moral crime you must not hinge your lack of understanding on a lack of assent to “realism” that appears absurd."

First, my argument is specifically against this article's particular logic. Thus, I am only arguing that Dr. Beckwith's argument is weak inasmuch as it relies on a previous acceptance of realism (and a quite specific version of realism at that), and I have said nothing about whether abortion is a crime, sin, or so forth. That being said, I am uncertain about whether abortion is ethically prohibited because I am uncertain about the ethical status of fetuses - or, more specifically, of fetuses at developmental stages lacking consciousness or sensory experiences. My rejection of realism as faulty is clearly relevant to this uncertainty, because if I did not believe realism were faulty I would otherwise likely be persuaded by Dr. Beckwith's argument.

"You appear to have a high IQ and all but do you not know what St. Paul tells us: “But the foolish things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the wise; and the weak things of the world hath God chosen, that he may confound the strong.” (Corinthian 1:27)"

I appreciate the compliment but not so much the accompanying insult. If you would like to actually engage my arguments rather than simply say in so many different words that you think I am wrong, I would appreciate it even more.

"I would take 12 country bumpkin fisherman armed with the Truth over 100 legions of modern philosophy students completing their PhDs."

I am not a philosophy student completing my PhD. I am rather a country bumpkin, living in an unincorporated area, raising rabbits and growing my own greens.

"These are very dark times Scotty and all your empirical evidence would say the opposite."

I have never said anything about whether we are living in "dark times" or not, so I would appreciate your not jumping to conclusions. That being said, I am appreciative of several modern and postmodern developments, particularly a liberal secular nation state in which one's belief (or disbelief) in some particular account of the Highest Good will not lead you to execution. I also believe that such a state is potentially tyrannical in its own way, and must be carefully constituted to prevent this tyranny.

In any case, this leads away from the question at hand, which I have taken to be: is Dr. Beckwith's argument here a good one? My answer: only insofar as one accepts realism, but since I believe realism to be a weak system in itself Dr. Beckwith's argument is only as good as a defense of realism.
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written by Achilles, March 20, 2012
Dear Scotty Ellis

The complement to you about your obvious high IQ should be accompanied by “what good does it do you to gain the whole world if you lose your immortal soul?” The insult? It speaks for itself about the dangers of intellectual pride.

There is no arguing with you. First of all, as Joe pointed out, you confusion that must appear to you as erudition, is like the Gordian knot and would take books to refute and in all likely hood to no avail because the horse led to water cannot be compelled to drink.

I am a man of faith, not of intelligence. I have as my authority the words of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior first and then the Doctrine and Dogma of the Catholic Church to which I give the full assent of my will. As further authority I give assent to the Magisterium, the Saints, Church Fathers and especially the Church Doctors. Whatever your sources are Scotty, they are either better or inferior and we will have to leave it at a wager, I bet my sources are far superior to yours though my own intellect the inferior to yours.

You see Scotty, as Von Balthasar said “the Truth is symphonic.” And as Fr. Dubay pointed out “among all world views it is the Gospel alone that produced the beauty of the Saints.” Nothing in this world compares to the testimony of the Saints.

I will refute one of your arguments that appears to be consistent with your flawed thinking. A while back you made the asinine statement that monkeys and cats type and you gave some ridiculous syllogism that equated this “animal typing” with human typing. You neglected completely the symphonic nature of a human typing that includes the foundational registers of history, and human ingenuity accompanied by the harmonic melodies of grammar, syntax and semantics that crescendo with epistemology and even ontology and refrains with the universal human themes.

Instead, you gave undue weight to the single atonal note of appearances by saying you had a picture of a monkey typing. You proceeded to make a point that to you was logically consistent based on the intrinsically flawed notion that animal and human typing are equivalent. Quite simply they are not, if you still say they are, we are at an impasse and further discussion is futile.

So Scotty, because we have no common objective standard by which we can effectively compare our propositions, we have no chance of arriving at common ground. I assert that you give undue weight to relatively insignificant attributes. I assert that you miss the forest for the trees. Plato said something about intelligence being proportional to one’s ability to intelligibly understand universals. It seems to me that you have put your gift of intelligence to rather pedantic use, akin to becoming an excellent pogo stick jumper.

So I wish you well and pray that God grants us both understanding and to me a more charitable pen. I can only leave you with what Jesus said in the book of John 7:24 “24 Judge not according to the appearance, but judge just judgment.” When it comes to the miracle of life, why quibble over splitting hairs about the better argument when simple common sense would dictate that to destroy innocent life is murder. To have one’s heart broken over this murder does not require an assent to realism.
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 20, 2012
One of my teachers once told me that God was not honored by shoddy workmanship. She meant very specifically that it brings no glory to God to put forward something sub-standard and call it "good" because it is supposedly in line with what God "wants." She also meant that it does no one any good to cover up the holes in someone's logic by appealing to God.

So it is, Achilles, that rather than engaging with my arguments you have resorted to something rather painful: your faith covers up the holes in your logic. Does the circularity of faith matter to you? The fact that "I have as my authority the words of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior first and then the Doctrine and Dogma of the Catholic Church to which I give the full assent of my will" is ultimately a closed logical loop, since your assent to the authority of Christ is dependent upon your believing Christ to be authoritative, and that is dependent upon the content of the revelation that you believe on the authority of Christ? Perhaps, or perhaps not; but a Muslim has the same circular assurance that there is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet - and this he believes on the authority of Mohammed.

As for my typing argument, your reply is faulty for two reasons: first, I simply defined typing as hitting keys on a keyboard, and I did this explicitly for the purpose of creating a faulty syllogism with a true conclusion. If the word "typing" is a hangup for you, very well; just insert my working definition of typing and the faulty syllogism does exactly what I wanted to do: it shows that you can have a true conclusion from a bad argument. Second, you seem to suggest that I am unable to accept more elaborate definitions of typing, which is false. Words do not have fixed meanings; language is fluid and words gain nuanced meaning from their context and common usage, as do the mental concepts they signify. This is directly connected to my criticism of realism: realism tends to believe in fixed, universal mental concepts called "forms," and as interesting as these are speculatively, observation of reality leads us to believe that our mental concepts are fluid and are actually shaped by feedback from language (this is not even mentioning the difficulty realism has in accounting for things like evolution).

In the end, Achilles, I respect that you disagree with me. I neither attribute this to a want in intellect nor to some failure on your part to be humble or subservient or any other such trait; I attribute it, as you seem to attribute it, to a difference in initial assumptions. If you want to stop dialoguing with me, that is fine, but know that I believe we share more assumptions than you think.

I will leave you with a final thought to mirror your own:

"When it comes to the miracle of life, why quibble over splitting hairs about the better argument when simple common sense would dictate that to destroy innocent life is murder."

Common sense to whom? Are you aware of the number and diversity of cultures throughout human history that engaged in abortion and infanticide as a matter of practice (and, in some cases, considered the neglect of these acts to actually be a failure of moral duty)? You have sliced up human history, rationality, and custom to fit what you want to believe about the matter and call it "common sense." That is why these arguments cannot be left to the simplicity of "common sense." We must split hairs and quibble because this is the only way we limited intellects get at truth: slowly, with great pain, struggling, defeats, and sorrow, one little piece at a time.
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written by Brad Miner, March 20, 2012
Achilles: I believe you have the better of the argument here, simply because you — and apparently not Mr. Ellis — believe Jesus Christ is the incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. This is a mystery of faith into which one is taken by grace. Either you know it is the truth or you don't, and if you don't know it you must vigorously deny it. So, relax my brothers. Move on to a more profitable debate.
-ABM
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 20, 2012
Brad:

"I believe you have the better of the argument here, simply because you — and apparently not Mr. Ellis — believe Jesus Christ is the incarnate Second Person of the Blessed Trinity."

I haven't said anything on the matter. But let's say I don't. What has that to do with my questions? Either you can answer my objections or you cannot, and even St. Thomas Aquinas says that although you cannot give a non-believer a reason to believe you should be able to rationally answer his objections. St. Thomas Aquinas, my patron saint, was an exemplary thinker precisely because he rejected the "flight from debate" that you seem to embrace. God is not honored by shoddy workmanship.

"This is a mystery of faith into which one is taken by grace. Either you know it is the truth or you don't, and if you don't know it you must vigorously deny it."

I vigorously deny nothing. I most certainly don't deny the existence of the second person of the Trinity. I simply say - quite honestly - that I do not know the Truth of these matters, but I wish to learn.

"Move on to a more profitable debate."

I would consider this debate profitable to me, personally, if you would only actually engage charitably with my arguments rather than talking around me.
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, March 25, 2012
Scotty:

First, you're wrong about evolution and essentialism. Gilson, Feser, and Oderberg have dispatched that alleged inconsistency rather nicely. The literature on this is immense. I am surprised you did not avail yourself of it before opining about it online.

Second, you say that "all you need is a nominalist framework." But that's not an argument. That's a stipulation. In fact, your counterexample betrays this move. You write:

"Thus, it is not problematic to note that something will develop into something it is not now, but is not that thing yet; unless one already has accepted a realist framework. A speck of dust floating in the atmosphere has a few water molecules condense on it; fine. It is potentially a raindrop. It is not, for that reason, now a raindrop, nor does it even have a `raindrop nature,' (however we arbitrarily define such an abstraction)."

A speck of dust is not a substance; it is a heap, and thus has no "nature" per se. Besides, if it did, the inclusion of the water on the dust speck would count as an external cause changing the matter into something it is not intrinsically directed to become. All fetuses, on the other hand, are ordered toward the acquisition of personal powers. If anything, the speck dust is like an ovum, the water like a sperm, and what results is literally something different, if we were to accept the mistaken notion that then speck of dust is a substance.

Scotty writes:
"The fetus will develop into a person, and there is indeed a continuity of being; the addition of the faculties related to personhood do not result in a `new being,' but rather represent a growth far more like someone being at one time a child, at another a teenager, and at another an old man: I can say that I am not an old man, that I am potentially one, but I will still be the same being (at least, in the rather strained sense of bearing a identity by means of a materially history). So too I was once an embryo that was unable to perceive, had no consciousness, and had indeed none of the faculties generally associated with personhood."

You make my point rather nicely. Whatever being you are, you've always been that being. And you, correctly, conceded that point. Thus, when you acquired the ability to exercise personal powers, your essential properties came to fruition. Consequently, you did not "become" a person, since that would mean that substantial change occurred, and you concede that as well. This is because you correctly see that beings lose and gain properties, and your personal abilities are properties, accidental features that are the maturation of essential properties to exercise personal powers. So, to say that a being loses and gains powers is to say something about the nature of that being, which, again, you correctly concede.

If fetuses are not essentially persons, then they are in the same position as my oak tree. If they are not essentially persons, then what are they? To say they are "potential persons," is to talk nonsense, as I noted in my essay. To say that one can simply stipulate nominalism is no answer to the arguments offered in the essay. It is just another way to say, "I refuse to accept your argument."
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written by Scotty Ellis, March 26, 2012
Dr. Beckwith:

"First, you're wrong about evolution and essentialism. Gilson, Feser, and Oderberg have dispatched that alleged inconsistency rather nicely. The literature on this is immense. I am surprised you did not avail yourself of it before opining about it online."

I will dare to opine as I may without having read every piece of literature on a matter, as I imagine you do as well. My reading queue is quite full at the moment. That being said, I will gladly hypothetically concede this point: let us say that the literature you mentions completely and thoroughly dispenses with the problems evolution poses for realism. I still see no positive reason why I should be a realist, and as your article's logic requires an assent to realism your article is still, as I said before, only as strong as its reader's previous commitment to realism. As I would estimate that the majority of individuals who do not already share your stance on the personhood of zygotes, fetuses, and such do not share your realist model either, this makes your argument, though interesting from an insider's perspective, much less compelling to the majority of those you would likely wish to persuade.

"Second, you say that "all you need is a nominalist framework." But that's not an argument."

It merely points out the stipulations of your own argument, and the accompanying weakness of your argument to those who find realism to be a reductionistic, crude, and oversimplified model of mental concepts and reality.

"A speck of dust is not a substance; it is a heap, and thus has no "nature" per se. Besides, if it did, the inclusion of the water on the dust speck would count as an external cause changing the matter into something it is not intrinsically directed to become. All fetuses, on the other hand, are ordered toward the acquisition of personal powers. If anything, the speck dust is like an ovum, the water like a sperm, and what results is literally something different, if we were to accept the mistaken notion that then speck of dust is a substance."

This is the most puzzling paragraph of your entire response. Dust is a name for a broad variety of particulated substances. Any particular grain of dust is, in fact, a particular substance: a piece of dead skin, a tiny chunk of an oxide, a grain of pure silicon, or so forth. It has a distinct molecular structure which can be analyzed and identified. Now, we have a mental concept, "dust," that covers all these; take any of them and condense a water molecule on them, and you do not change the substance of that grain of dust. The water changes state, but does not change chemically: it is still water. During the entire process, none of the substances involved change. Yet no one would call a grain of dust with a single water molecule on it a "raindrop." There is a continuum, a vague point at which a sufficient number of water molecules condense on such a grain, at which time the entire thing - dust and water - can be called a raindrop, but one cannot retroactively apply the term "raindrop" or "raindrop nature" to the dust with a single water molecule condensed on it. I will agree we might call it a potential raindrop, but this is as much to say - indeed, it is identical to saying - that it is not a raindrop. If my cup is only potentially full, it is clearly that way because it is now actually empty.

So it is that the zygote lacks rationality. It is not a rational thing. It has no structures which allow it to think, perceive, or feel. Now, if things go a certain way (and they don't always), that zygote will develop, grow, and eventually develop into a fetus with a brain structure. There is a fuzzy transition, much like the slow and ambiguous transition from being a hairy man to a bald man, after which you now have a thing which can be called rational - or, at the very least, actually possessing the structures which allow rationality. But much like the raindrop, there is no need to retroactively apply these qualities to the zygote - unless, of course, one is a realist and arbitrarily decides that rationality is an "essential quality" and then further decides that since there is a certain kind of identity between the zygote and the fetus and, later, the born individual, there must be a unity of essential qualities. I see no reason to do this, and in fact I find it to be self-deceptive.

"If fetuses are not essentially persons, then they are in the same position as my oak tree. If they are not essentially persons, then what are they?"

They are organisms. They are, indeed, "potential persons," in the sense of not being actual persons, but in the sense of being things which typically, though not always, through natural processes become things that are persons. There is nothing nonsensical about this concept; it is merely a label of expectation.

"To say that one can simply stipulate nominalism is no answer to the arguments offered in the essay. It is just another way to say, "I refuse to accept your argument.""

No, it is a way of saying that your argument requires the reader to accept an assumption you do not defend. Quite on the contrary, I believe that your argument makes perfect sense from a realist perspective, and I would not critique it from within that context.

"This is because you correctly see that beings lose and gain properties, and your personal abilities are properties, accidental features that are the maturation of essential properties to exercise personal powers. So, to say that a being loses and gains powers is to say something about the nature of that being, which, again, you correctly concede."

This is a stretched argument to say the least. You are arguing that zygotes - which are not rational and do not have personal qualities - should nevertheless be afforded the status of persons because they (in your mind) have the essential property of being the sort of thing that when mature exercises personal qualities. Of course, this is not the case - plenty of zygotes grow to maturation and never display personal qualities. But let's leave aside those issues and focus on the question: if, due to the operation of deterministic forces, a thing will (likely) display a quality in the future that it does not display now, is there anything special about this state that affords that thing an quality, and if so, what? For example, an acorn may reasonably be hoped, under the proper conditions, to become a tree, to become leafy, and so forth. What, then, can we say about the acorn? Well, we can only say that the acorn is the sort of thing that, given the proper conditions, might turn into something that is leafy. I do not have to pretend that the acorn is a leafy acorn or even that it will become a leafy acorn. So too I can concede that the zygote, given the proper conditions, will turn into something that has personal qualities; I do not have to say that it is a person, or even that the zygote will become a person (the zygote will never be a person, because by the time it possesses the qualities of personhood it will have long ceased to be a zygote).

A zygote has no consciousness, no rationality; it is a human organism of only a few dozen or hundred cells. To apply the label "person" to it, whatever the apparent philosophical justification, seems like a bit of slight of hand, as if I could call an acorn "leafy."
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written by Francis J. Beckwith, March 26, 2012
Casey writes: "A zygote has no consciousness, no rationality; it is a human organism of only a few dozen or hundred cells. To apply the label "person" to it, whatever the apparent philosophical justification, seems like a bit of slight of hand, as if I could call an acorn "leafy.""

An acorn is not leafy, but it is identical to the oak tree it becomes, since it is the being, with all it essential properties, and not the accidental features that flow from the those essential properties that make it what it is. A leaf is had by an oak, and thus it is a property of a substance. The leaf leaves and another one grows, but the oak remains.

I am not denying that human beings--at some point in their developments--cannot exercise their essential properties, but that does not mean that they are not beings of a certain sort remaining identical to themselves over time.

This is why the view I defend contra the JME authors is perfectionist. That is, it sees the maturation of a human being’s ultimate capacities as perfections of its nature. So, for example, the whole human being is harmed if his brain is not allowed to develop as a consequence of ailment or assault. Thus, if the embryo’s brain development is intentionally obstructed so that it does not achieve higher brain function and thus cannot exercise his natural powers for rational thought and moral reflection, the human being has been morally harmed because a good to which he is entitled has been prevented from coming to fruition. Or, suppose a human being is brought up by his parents in such a way that they indoctrinate him to believe that he is property that is not qualitatively different than a commercial product such as a television or a microwave oven. This human being has suffered at least two harms: his parents have not fulfilled their proper roles as loving parents to which their child is entitled, and he has been taught false things about his nature that diminish in his own mind his real moral worth as a person.

Because s human being's nature is that of rational animal, its flourishing is ordered to the acquisition of goods that are perfections of its nature: distinctly human reasoning and freedom.

This is why the brainless children example taps into those intuitions rather nicely.

Now to matters of a more personal nature.

I am not, of course, suggesting that it is wrong if you have not read everything. No one has. And when it comes to reading everything I should have read, I am the worst of all sinners (to paraphrase St. Paul). What I am suggesting is that you should have at least been aware that the evolutionary objection has been addressed and not act as if your objection is such an obvious defeater that only an idiot, like me, would suggest otherwise.

It seems you are operating under a kind of 20th century American fundamentalist paradigm, something that is foreign to Catholic thought. Your quips about "complicated issues" and so forth betray a set of intellectual reflexes borne of a soul disappointed that there are no easy answers. But rather than seeing the flaw in your own intellectual and spiritual formation--that the ease of acquiring the answers is just a matter of reading some perspicuous authority, e.g., the Bible or the deliverances of scientism--you predictably gravitate to another set of black and white categories, but those more aligned with "respectable" opinion. You exchange one fundamentalism for another, like the old double-predestarian Calvinist who abandons Christianity but only to embrace deterministic materialism. replacing a sighted despot for a blind one.

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