Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cheetah Cubs, Human Development, and Moral Status

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park(Where I currently work) had a new member added to the family recently: A baby cheetah. While she is small, the animal care staff at the Park have jokingly stated that she is pretty much already in charge of the facility that she is currently living in.

(source: ZOONOOZ)

When I saw her the other day, a thought had occurred to me, regarding the issue of current potential and fundamental status: Though our capacity, physical characteristics, or our inherent potentials may change, we do in fact remain the same kind of being over time(ie "the substance view of personhood"). Given that many arguments in favor of abortion attribute a potential for personhood(or, more loosely, humanity itself), I think this little cub can help us think through how to assess the moral status of a being before birth, as well as afterwards.

For example, given that the cheetah cub in question has not fully developed yet, she is currently unable to do what cheetahs are most famous for: Running at 60-70mph while engaged in the pursuit of prey. I have seen these "Cheetah Runs", and they are over in just a few seconds. Yes, it's true, this is something that is unique to a certain kind of being: cheetah beings. However, can a cheetah not possess this ability, and still be understood as a cheetah?

Chris Kaczor gives a good illustration of this concept in his book The Ethics of Abortion in which he points out that a cat that is unable to purr is still a cat, though that cat has not completely lived up to his full potential as a member of a particular species. However, that being in question is still a cat, even though "felineness" is currently unable to be fully realized at this moment.

Back to our cheetah cub, while she may not be able to run at extremely fast speeds, she has the potential to do that one day, which is rooted to the kind of thing she is, not some characteristic that may be accidentally gained or lost(such as the number of hair follicles in her fur coat). Even if she never developed the ability to run, she is still the same kind of being, but is merely lacking the current capacity to live up to her full potential. To(loosely) paraphrase Dr. Frank Beckwith, she isn't a potential cheetah, she is a cheetah with potential. It would be absurd to say that she is merely a mammal, and won't become an actual cheetah until she is able to run.

How does this relate to the debate over abortion? One of the most popular arguments heard on the street level, and articulated more formally within the academy, is that the early embryonic being or fetal being is merely a "potential" human being or person. The reasons for thinking that the being in question is merely a potential human can vary from cognitive functioning, to appearance, to the presence of bodily functions. And yet, for all these qualities that must be achieved in order to gain status as a human being, they miss an important point: Human beings the only kinds of being that can develop these attributes, and do so merely with time. If someone hands me a license to operate a type of vehicle, I have attained the status of being licensed; however, no one had to hand me a pair of eyes with which to proofread this post: I attained that attribute(reading and comprehension) over time based on the kind of being that I am, a human being. One has to be a human being first in order to develop, from within, the characteristics that human beings inherently possess.

And even if I lost many of those attributes, I am still human, though I would be tragically lacking in the things I need to realize my humanity fully. It could also be the case that a human being currently lacks the ability to realize or achieve every capacity they hold, due to age. That doesn't mean they are of a different order of things separate from human beings; it means they simply belong to the category of younger human beings. And if the capabilities that are realized due to age are not what determines the kind of being one is, it seems then that this extends all the way to when one began to exist, which is obviously in the time before birth(and according to embryology, at the moment of conception, did one gain all the capacities that had yet to be realized and matured)

It seems odd to say that our current, temporary lack of a capability is what defines whether or not we are entitled to the most basic right anyone could have: the right to exist, and to be able to recognize those full potentials that we may have. Indeed, it seems even more tragic to permanently and violently deprive someone of the goods of life whenever it suits our preferences.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thanks for a wonderful share. Your article has proved your hard work and experience you have got in this field. Brilliant .i love it reading.


All comments are moderated. We reject all comments containing obscenity. We reserve the right to reject any and all comments that are considered inappropriate or off-topic without explanation.