Saturday, January 6, 2007

My On-line Exchange With "Daniel" [SK]

...over at Justin Taylor's blog covers topics like:

1. How do embryos differ from bodily cells?
2. Does the Bible's silence justify abortion?
3. Are humans valuable by nature or function?
4. What is the pro-life argument?
5. Are pro-life advocates inconsistent? If so, does it matter?

(Scroll down about half-way through the comments on JT's blog to see where I jump in.)


  1. Scott,

    Thanks for all the interaction brother. I see from the looks of this blog that one might call you a 'pro' at this. :-)
    Let me see what responses I may be able to summon up.

    First, concerning Scriture: my own view is that the abortion question (or perhaps more pertinently, the morning-after pill question) isn't one that the authors of Scripture were confronted with. This isn't particularly troubling, since new ethical situations arise from time to time which Scripture does not address. Thankfully God in his grace equips us with brains to think through such matters. :-)

    To say that Scripture, by extension, condemns the killing of conceptuses is, in my opinion, to beg the question of whether conceptuses are human persons in the fullest moral sense possible. That question is not addressed in Scripture. You argue that such a distinction (between a human person and a biologically human non-person) does not exist. I do. We both do so outside of the biblical text.

    You also say that science 'confirms' that fetuses are human beings. If the question is whether or not fetuses have a genetic code and a developmental process which is distinct from their mother, then yes, of course, fetuses are human beings. But that is not what I would seek to deny.

    There are obviously many differences between human embryos and (for example) my fingernails. The question I was raising was whether there were any moral differences. Being human in the biological sense doesn't guarantee instantaneous membership in the moral community of human persons.

    By equivocating biology and morality you have misunderstood (or at least misrepresented to the kind folks at JT's blog) my position.
    As for my use of the term 'fertilized egg', I am not naive. I simply meant an egg after it has been fertilized by sperm. I am fully aware that once it is fertilized, it's genetic code now makes it a separate human organism (though it could split into two or three such organisms depending on the circumstances). I may not have a PhD in biology, but I know the basics of reproduction. And again: I do not deny the humanity (biologically speaking) of human embryos. To assert that I do is misleading.

    Your objection to my using consciousness (not self-consciousness mind you--and the distinction is very important) as a criterion for personhood is that I don't say why it 'gives humans value'. But let me point out that the only thing that you've said gives humans value is their being biologically human (supposedly because they thus bear the image of God). But this means that under a (granted, very hypothetical) scenario where a separate species were to exhibit sophisticated neurological functioning (e.g. consciousness and self-consciousness)--be it another mammalian species, an extraterrestrial species, or even an 'enlightened' robot race (have you seen "I, Robot"?)--you would have absolutely no moral qualms whatsoever enslaving or eliminating such a race (again, I know this is a hypothetical, but bear with me). Your only 'moral ingredients' as it were, are biological (assuming I have properly understood you). So I return the question to you, why do merely biological facts matter from a moral perspective?

    To conclude, I would be interested in hearing what you have to say to my conjoined twins scenario. A single embryo at some point splits, but not completely enough to have it become a separate organism (or at least, not permanently). It then develops into identical twins who are (say) conjoined at the hips (they share the same pair of legs). If our only 'moral ingredients' are biological, then this is only one human being. From my perspective however, since personhood depends on relevant neural structure, I would say we have two human beings (in the moral sense--one in the biological sense) since there are two brains. So as I understand your perspective, destroying said twins before birth and cell splitting would be one murder, and destroying said twins after birth would be two murders (but why two if your only criterion is biologically human genetic code?). My perspective is simply that destroying a conscious human entity seems to provider a better benchmark for being able to tell what's murder and what's not (though this needs to be more fully fleshed out, of course).
    Do you see my point? I'd be intereted to hear your thoughts about this. I can still be convinced that I'm wrong, if in fact I'm wrong. :-)

    Oh, and do I get the prize for longest post ever? ;-)

    I wish you the best.

  2. It's not that the Bible is silent concerning abortion, but rather, the Bible is silent concerning the humanity of a zygote. From scripture it is clear that abortion of a fetus is murder, but it is not clear from scripture that abortion of a zygote is murder.

  3. Daniel:
    I'll address your points after I return from my trip.
    Thanks for posting,

  4. There is no "scriptural silence" on the matter of abortion. Not only does the Old Testament law specifically prohibit mourning a miscarriage as one would the death of a person, Numbers 5 11-28 describes the circumstances under which an induced miscarriage can be a sacrament delivered by a priest in a temple.

  5. Daniel,
    As Serge and I have each written elsewhere, 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."

    My disagreement with you is that nowhere in your posts do you adequately defend your metaphysical assumption that personhood is an accidental property rather than something intrinsic to the human subject. I wonder: Other than the embryos you'd like to arbitrarily exclude, have you ever met a living human that wasn’t a person? Have any of us?

    So far, all you've done is try to throw the burden of proof back on me. You claim I beg the question by saying all humans are persons in a moral sense. By that, I assume you mean we should distinguish between a person (the conscious self) and the body he merely inhabits. Problem is, human/person dualism is untenable, as it contradicts everyday experience. The same exact human being that sees a tree (a bodily action) also forms mental concepts about it (a decidely non-bodily, non-material action).

    A more plausible explanation is that humans are a deep union of body and soul who maintain their identities through time and bodily change. Thus, it's up to you to say why I should accept your version of human/person dualism in the first place.

    Remember: You and I both agree the embryos in question are members of the human species. You, however, make an additional claim--namely, that mere membership in the species homo sapien is not enough. Okay, I'm open to hearing why that's true, but first I need persuasive reasons. Throwing the burden of proof back on me won't do. Why shouldn't I think of this new category of yours as ad-hoc and arbitrary? Certainly sounds that way to me.

    At the same time, I don't think I've begged the question with my responses at all. I've presented arguments in my previous posts (over at JT's blog), three in particular. First, I argued that the differences between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today are not sufficient to justify killing you at the earlier stage of development. Second, I argued the pro-life view, rather than your own, better accounts for human dignity and human equality. Third, I argued that your view proves too much, disqualifying not only embryos and fetuses, but newborns as well. In short, I don't see how you can say I'm begging the question with any of these points.

    Ramesh Ponnuru asks a great question: If membership in the species homo sapien is not sufficient to confer value, why are we allowed to kill animals with more cognitive ability than mentally disabled humans? Once you insist mere membership in the human species is not enough, it's very difficult to resist the logical pull of Peter Singer's case for infanticide. (We can go through that exercise if you like.)

    As to the relationship between science and metaphysics and the role each plays in my reasoning, Robert George summarizes them perfectly:

    "There are three positions that can be defended without quickly falling into logical inconsistency.

    The first is that human beings are in no morally relevant way different from other creatures and therefore have no special dignity.

    The second is that human beings have an inherent and equal dignity; each and every human being possesses it simply by virtue of his or her humanity.

    The third is that some, but not all, human beings have dignity; those who have it possess it by virtue of some quality or set of qualities that they happen to possess that other human beings do not possess (or do not yet possess, or no longer possess).

    Anyone who believes that stepping on an ant is not a grave moral wrong but murdering your grandmother to prevent her spending down your inheritance is one, has already rejected the first position. Anyone who accepts the third position will, in fairly short order, find himself driven by the force of logical argumentation into the positions infamously defended by Peter Singer. Assuming one doesn't want to embrace Singerism, that leaves the second position.

    Now, once one adopts that position, the key question in the debate over embryo-destructive research is "When does the life of a human being begin?" To answer this question is to decide whether or not human embryos are, in fact, human beings and, as such, possessors of inherent human dignity. Where do we go to find the answer? Not to the Catechism of the Catholic Church... Not to the Bible, which says nothing about human embryos. Not to the Talmud, which (like the Bible) was composed centuries before the discovery of the ovum----a time when almost nothing was known about embryogenesis. Not to the Koran. Not to our "moral intuitions." Rather, we go to the standard texts of modern human embryology and developmental biology---for example, the texts by Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud; Bruce M. Carlson; Ronan O'Rahilly and Fabiola Mueller; and William J. Larsen. When we consult these works, we find little or nothing in the way of scientific mystery or dispute. The texts tell the same story and answer the key question in the same way. Anyone who wishes to know when he or she as a distinct living member of the species Homo sapiens came into existence need only open any of these books and look up the answer." (R. George in The Corner, NRO On-Line, 8/8/05)

    Science, in other words, does not tell me the embryo is valuable. It tells me what kind of thing the embryo is. After that, it's up to philosophy and metaphysics to help me determine how we should value human beings, both inside and outside the womb.

    Serge has addressed your conjoined twins example in a seperate post you can view here:

    Best Regards,

  6. Scott, welcome back from your trip! I'm thankful you've taken the time to address my concerns. It seems as though we'll not see eye to eye on this issue, but I'll make a couple final comments.
    First, I think that saying there are only 3 viable options for how to think of human 'worth' is quite artificial. I see no a priori reason to think there could be many more.
    Have I ever met a human who was not a person? Well, no, and most people haven't because in most cases there's no need for such a distinction. However, I might argue that Nancy Cruzan, Terri Schiavo, anencephalic babies, and all day-old conceptuses fall within that category. So while I have never met such a human, that doesn't mean they don't exist.

    I have to say, I don't find your articulation of the pro-life view particularly persuasive (though this is probably because I have misunderstood it). Though this is the case, I want to make it clear that I find the 'pro-choice' position equally dubious. As a Christian, the question I ask myself is not what can I morally be allowed to do? But rather, how can I be a caretaker of the Earth. This applies to my resources, the pregnant mothers in my community, their unborn children, my relationships, and every area of my life. The political rhetoric tied to the pro-life and pro-choice views makes it very hard to remember these things, so maybe that's why I can be skeptical of their traditional formulations...

    In any case, thanks for the conversation. I wish you all the best.

  7. Daniel,
    Quoting Robert George, I said there were three positions that don't immediately collapse into contradiction, not that someone couldn't conceivably come up with others. Geroge does a great job of saying why that's true and you offer no counter argument of why it's false.

    Yes, you can assert all day long that Teri Schiavo, day-old embryos, et al, are not persons, but again, you've yet to say 1) why any of your value-giving properties are value-giving in the first place, and 2) how human-beign/human person dualism gets around the objections I've mentioned previously.

    It's fine that you don't find my arguments persuasive, but showing why they're not persuasive is another matter altogether. I guess I was hoping you could specifically show where my reasoning went wrong.

    Best regards nonethteless,

  8. Scott,
    A pebble has been planted. I think that sooner or later Daniel will have to examine what he believes and see if his positions can adequately answer your questions.

    Saying "I don't find your articulation of the pro-life view particularly persuasive" without providing substantive reasons for why you don't find the view persuasive shows me that hopefully Daniel is at least questioning the reasoning behind his personhood theory.

  9. JivinJ, I'm glad you think a pebble has been planted. I'll also be the first to confess my thinking on this issue has not cemented. I do feel quite strongly however, that the traditional pro-choice and pro-life positions (which are political views about what should be legal, which in turn make moral assumptions) are poorly framed.
    My interactions with Serge and Scott have been largely in the negative. But just because I don't write the 30 page essay it would take to flesh out my views more fully (something like personhood theory combined with communitarian ethics) doesn't mean I don't have at least some things sorted out.
    In any case, it's been fun and challenging dialoguing with you folks.
    I wish you the best (and tell Serge I'm still waiting for his response to my updated conjoined twins scenario). :-)

  10. Hi Daniel,
    Does whether someone thinks something should be legal or illegal always be a political view?

    For example, is my belief that killing toddlers should be illegal a political view?

    It certainly could have political consequences but it seems to be a moral view first which has effects in the political arena.

    Do you think the prolife view as presented by Scott and Serge is poorly framed? Or do you think the prolife view which you might have encountered in the past is poorly framed. What do you mean by poorly framed?


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