Monday, January 21, 2008

Robert P. George's "Embryo" [SK]

Last week, Justin Taylor interviewed me on the top 5 books every pro-life apologist should read. That was before I read Robert George's Embryo: A Defense of Human Life--which hit the shelves eight days before the Q&A with Justin. I wouldn't subtract any of those previously mentioned books, but having just finished George's book, I must insist on adding a sixth title to the list.

In a word, it's spectacular. Here is my own (brief) summary of the book's major themes:

A) In a civil society, science and philosophy work together to arrive at morally sound conclusions. With embryonic stem cell research (ESCR), science gives us the facts we need to determine the kind of thing the embryo is while philosophical reflection tells us how we ought to treat it. The science of embryology is clear that you didn't evolve from an embryo; you once were an embryo. That is to say, you are identical to the embryo you once were. At that younger stage, you were not some other kind of animal organism. Nor were you part of a larger human being or a mere clump of cells. Rather, you were a complete (though developmentally immature) whole living member of the human family, directing your own internal growth and development.

B) Thus, the ethics of destructive embryo research come down to this threshold question: Is it unjust to relegate a certain class of human beings to the status of objects that can be killed to benefit others? If, for example, researchers wanted to kill mentally disabled children to harvest their organs, no reasonable person would classify the resulting controversy as a debate between the progress of science on one hand, and the constraints of private religion on the other. Nor would anyone say the debate was about the benefits of organ transplantation, or, if you will, "therapeutic organ harvesting." In a civil society, the debate would turn on the question of killing disabled humans to benefit others. The question of who might be helped by the killings would never arise in the first place!

C) Scientific progress must be tied to objective moral principles. Just because we can do something doesn't mean we ought to do it. For example, the Tuskegee Experiments were technologically feasible, but morally indefensible.

D) It is no more a religious claim to say an embryo has value than it is to claim a Black Man does. Suppose that instead of killing embryos for research, someone were to suggest killing ethnic minorities for that same purpose. Would anyone dare to suggest that those opposing the ethnic killings were simply forcing their religious views on the rest of us? Truth be told, the "religious" objection is a cop-out, a means of avoiding the question of whether all human beings--regardless of race, gender, level of development, and location--have an equal right to life.

E) Self-body dualism, as espoused by secular critics, is indefensible. Indeed, there's a host of problems with the idea of personhood coming into existence only after some degree of bodily development. One is that you end up saying things like "I came to be after my body came to be." Or, "I inhabit a body that was once an embryo." Absurd. It's far more reasonable to say living organism (like human beings, dogs, or cats) are substances that maintain their identities over time and change. What moves a puppy to maturity or fetus to an adult is not an external collection of parts, but an internal nature or essence. Thus, as the human embryo develops, it does not become more of its kind, but matures according to its kind. It remains what it is from the moment it begins to exist even if its ultimate capacities (for example, the ability to think abstractly) are never realized. Likewise, a puppy does not become more of a dog as it matures. Nor does it cease to be a dog if it never develops the ability to bark. True, a human embryo will develop accidental properties (such as self-awareness, size, and physical structure) as it matures, but these properties are non-essential and can be changed without altering the nature of the thing itself. This is why a person can lose a body part and yet retain his personal identity through that change. Applied to the pro-life case, the substance view says that you are identical to your former embryonic self. You were the same being then as you are now, though your functional abilities have changed. From the moment you began to exist, there's been no substantial change in your essential nature. In short, humans have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are rather than because of some function they perform. You and I are identical to the embryonic human beings we once were--meaning that although you were once small as an embryo, your small size and lack of development did not change the kind of thing you were. You were the same being then as you are now.

F) Advocates of ESCR cannot account for basic human equality. As I stated in my interview with Justin (and in other posts on this blog),if humans have value only because of some acquired property like self-awareness, it follows that since this acquired property comes in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees. It's far more reasonable to argue that although humans differ immensely in their respective degrees of development, they are nonetheless equal because they share a common human nature that comes to be when they come to be.

2 comments:

  1. "In short, humans have value in virtue of the kind of thing they are rather than because of some function they perform. You and I are identical to the embryonic human beings we once were--meaning that although you were once small as an embryo, your small size and lack of development did not change the kind of thing you were. You were the same being then as you are now."
    SK,
    This is a point I made during Q and A time at my presentation in Minnesota over the weekend. I used your "dollar bill" bit for the students who were there. This point is so important for the "personhood" crowd. Just because a person is smaller than another, more dependant than another, and so on, does not change what you are. We are all, from zygotes to adults, human persons. Therefore, we have intrinsic value. End of story. Thanks for the great book review. Lori

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