Friday, September 28, 2007

Person is not the Point [Jay]

In this post by Dr. Allen Stairs at AskPhilosophers, he responds to a question about an inconsistency between objecting to capital punishment on the grounds that you may be killing an innocent person, and affirming the right to abortion though the act may be killing an innocent person. Dr. Stair’s response hinges on pointing out that in one instance the question of the guilt or innocence of a determined person is the central question, and the other the actual determination of personhood is the question. He appears to think that this draws a clear distinction between the two issues.

His answer is a bit deceptive though. He frames the abortion issue as hinging on the identity of the fetus as a person and he develops a bit of straw man by behaving as if this was the claim of the pro-lifer in general.

"The question presumably isn't whether the fetus is biologically alive; it surely is. The question (or part of it anyway) is what this living being is. One common way of putting it is to ask whether the fetus is a person -- a being with the same moral standing as you or me."

He calls it the Ronald Reagan argument. My favorite line is where he states:

"Whether or not a fetus is a person seems to be what someone once called an essentially contested question: there may be no straightforward fact to be had."

This answer is misleading. Even if I am willing to stipulate the differentiation between the two objections; (1) Capital Punishment is morally wrong because we risk killing an innocent person. (2) Abortion is morally wrong because we risk killing an innocent person. The wrong of (1) is that we are certainly killing a person who may or may not have committed a capital offense. The wrong of (2) is that we are certainly killing an innocent life that may or may not be a person. Therefore the objections are of a different nature and do not demonstrate an inconsistency in the logic of the pro-choice capital punishment objector.

The problem in the answer is that he assumes too much. The question was framed using the word person and Dr. Stairs takes this allowance and runs with it without clarification. He is absolutely correct in stating that there may be no straightforward fact to be had on identifying a fetus as a person. That is not due to the nebulous nature of the fetus, though. It is because the term person and the qualities of personhood are themselves nebulous. The question of the humanity of the unborn is the central argument of the pro-life position. The personhood of the fetus is the retreat of the abortion rights defender since both the evidence of life and the biological humanity of the unborn are uncontested facts. What else can they claim the unborn lacks if they wish to protect the “right” to abort them? They may be alive, they may be human, but they are not human persons.

Here is the oft-repeated tricky part for those who make this claim. What then constitutes the difference between a human being and a human person? The answers are wide and range from the arbitrarily absurd (breathing air) to the well articulated and clever (certain cerebral and cognitive developmental events). There is no clear answer to the question. But it is not acceptable for the defender of this position or any trained professional to then turn around and say, “Well, it sure is hard to determine personhood so the issue is irreconcilable.” In a different post, Dr. Stairs abdicates himself and all others from any responsibility to explain the determining point at all.

"It's hard to see why we'd have to have a sharp answer to the question of when something acquires rights or becomes a person, or becomes depressed or becomes fluent in a language or for that matter becomes a tree, or becomes bald... for it to be okay to say: "It's not there yet."

Personhood is their pet argument, not ours. They developed it to defend themselves against the growing evidence that other factors were settled. The unborn are unquestionably alive and biologically human. We argue that they are human beings by nature and deserve inclusion in the natural rights of the human family as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. That others arbitrarily decided that they are not persons without any ability to clearly explain what they mean by that does not make the identity of the unborn a question mark. It only calls into question the strength of this defense.

Notice that there are two built in back-up arguments as well. In stating that the issue is in part about the personhood of the unborn he leaves open the alternative of granting the personhood of the unborn but then arguing that the bodily autonomy of the woman weighs most heavily in the moral question. He dabbles in differentiating the difference between the two as relevant to the innocent present suffering of the person facing execution and the lack of suffering of the fetus:

"Abortion holds no such horror from the fetus's point of view, because the fetus doesn't have a point of view. It has no conception of its future, let alone of itself."

This is a complete whiff. The question is on the morality of what we are doing to (a) the person being executed and (b) the unborn life being aborted. I hope that Dr. Stairs is not suggesting that if we are capable of psychologically or medically creating a cognitive condition where by the innocent person facing execution did not suffer in any way that it would change the morality of unjustly killing them. If not, I am not certain how the presence of anguish and suffering weighs on the matter as to our treatment of the unborn.

The questioner might or might not have meant to use the term person in the question. The answer hinges on a trained professional philosopher not clarifying his terms. Those of us who argue in this area are keenly aware of the importance of word choice. It is our responsibility to clarify the different terms and the impact these terms have on the arguments to those asking direct questions. We must assume them to be less familiar with the nuances of language. If we do not, we are either being sloppy or intentionally vague.

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