“We should resolve our national debate over embryo-destructive research on the basis of the best scientific evidence as to when the life of a new human being begins, and the most careful philosophic reasoning at what is owed to a human being at any stage of development.”
Robert P. George Embryo Ethics Daedalus Winter 2008
In an effort to dissect this sentence without feeling forced to leave common sense and keeping an eye toward accessibility, we have already addressed the following in previous posts:
A – There is a right answer between two opposing and distinct views that are difficult to harmonize. We either OUGHT to experiment on human embryos to advance medicine for us all, or we OUGHT to protect human embryos as nascent human life.
B – An honest evaluation of the best scientific evidence identifies human embryos as human beings in a very early stage of development.
C – Empirical science can inform us about the identity of the embryo as a human being, but it can not inform us on the value of that life. For that we must go to philosophy.
D – In general, three different claims can be made addressing the inherent moral nature of the human embryos and our obligations to them.
The first of those was this:
1 – Embryos are human beings, but not persons and therefore we are not morally obligated in our behavior toward them.
As we assess this claim we must remember that it grants the humanity of embryos. What this claim does is introduce a new identification into the discussion that is seen as separate from mere humanity, because being genetically human is not morally an impressive or empowering characteristic in its own right. This would lead to specieism (gasp), the archaic belief that our humanity differentiates us in value from the rest of the animal kingdom. So it is not being human that makes us important, but being persons. Persons have rights. Mere human life is occasionally valueless based on the missing quality of personhood.
There are two things that irk me about this position. First, this means that all of us have been and continue to be two different things. We are certainly and inarguably human beings (morally irrelevant fact), but we are also persons (morally relevant fact). While we will always be human, we once became persons and our personhood hangs in the balance at all times until we die. This bothers me mostly because the people who champion this position have a heck of a time agreeing on what makes me a person and who qualifies as a person, which is unfortunately the only morally relevant quality we have. As a result, we allow embryonic humans to be destroyed for research. We allow fetal humans to be cut into pieces and vacuumed out of their mother’s womb for any of several unpardonable sins such as being inconvenient, expensive, being a female, or (horror of all horrors) having Downs syndrome. We allow severely mentally impaired humans to be dehydrated to death and call it mercy as we put them out of “their misery.” All of these practices are considered perfectly legal & ethical because some people are convinced that humans and persons are not necessarily the same thing.
This leads me to my second issue. This position ultimately degrades the term person so as to be effectively meaningless. Embryonic humans, fetal humans, and severely impaired humans are not persons, but guess what? Chimpanzees, dogs, dolphins, and elephants are persons! How is that so? Well, being a human being offers no special qualification for being a person so not being a human offers no special exclusion. Any animal can be a person! How do we judge? I guess we look for that special sparkle of thought in the eyes of our animal friends and go from there. Mind you, the animals themselves have never petitioned for personhood, such an action is obviously beyond their capacities. This does not stop people from taking this seemingly simple distinction between persons and humans and running amok and even violently pursuing recognition of animal rights while remaining unmoved at the widespread and unnecessary destruction of innocent human life.
Personhood does not clearly and obviously exist as a distinct quality from mere humanity. Before we start killing human beings and petitioning for lowland gorilla voting rights we ought to have more than a clever argument. Every person reading this post was once an embryonic human being. You did not later magically become a human person. Some people just needed a rationalization as to why they ought to be allowed to do a bad thing. Since then, the slippery slope of that argument has led us to a world where Peter Singer may no longer seem obviously crazy (see John Jalsevac post)and even William Saletan seems a bit alarmed at how comfortable we are getting making grisly choices.
(An unpublished Scott Klusendorf post is the source of the John Jalsevac link related to Peter Singer. The William Saletan link was first seen through JivinJehoshaphat)