Monday, November 24, 2008

Teaching Personhood and Abortion

This isn't exactly a teaching question, although it seems that just about any philosophy question can be turned into one by adding, "And how would you teach this?" My question is what the best arguments for thinking that (early) fetuses are persons, or what's the best way to present this point of view. I think I may be too close to some of these issues, in terms of some research interests, to step back and see things from a more helpful perspective for classes.

Here's a bit of background. To avoid it, skip to *** below.

My general strategy for teaching the abortion issue is to first distinguish a number of conclusions that one could hold on the topic, e.g., that it's always wrong, always permissible, sometimes wrong (in what circumstances?), sometimes permissible (in what circumstances?) and even perhaps sometimes obligatory (in what circumstances?). My goal here is to encourage them to become more precise in their conclusions, avoid slogan-mongering and make it clear that more complex views on abortion are possible, such that some are (or could be) wrong because of some reasons, whereas others could be permissible because of some reasons, etc. (I use this nice page from Fred Feldman to help with this).

Once more precise conclusions are distinguished, I tell them we are going to overlook some of this precision for a bit (!!) and have them break up into groups to develop lists of as many reasons as they have ever heard anyone give in favor of thinking that most abortions are wrong or abortions tend to be wrong, as well as a view that most abortions are permissible or they typically are. I then focus on the arguments for views that abortion is wrong.

Students tend to initially give lots of responses that are "question-begging" or close to it: it's wrong because it's murder, because it's a bad choice, because there are better options (like adoption), and because it's irresponsible and because it's wrong to end pregnancies. They have some better arguments as well, but I tend to have to provide them with the kinds of arguments that philosophers tend to focus on.


Eventually we get to personhood arguments. I am not at all impressed when folks just say "Here's what persons really are" and then give some Locke-inspired definition (I believe Mary Anne Warren just "suggests" her view on personhood), since someone can easily respond, "Well, I just don't accept your definition." So what I do is some kind of "inference to the best explanation" type exercise where we identify some clear cases of non-persons, some clear(er) cases of persons (including fictional and otherwise possible but perhaps not actual persons) and then try to figure out - from these clearer cases - what makes persons persons and why non-persons are non-persons. We then arrive at something like Warren's view, but with some reasoning behind it, instead of a mere suggestion.

The problem, if it is a problem, is that on this view early fetuses are clearly not persons. However, obviously some people do claim that fetuses are persons and so I am wondering what, if anything, can be said in favor of this (or, at least, what anyone says to one's students in favor of this!). One thing I try to point out is although many people think that -- if fetuses are not persons, then abortion is permissible -- this is not true because abortion could be wrong even if fetuses are not persons; they could be non-persons for whom there could be excellent moral reasons to not kill. I think my fixation on this fact has given me some mental block to seeing why people might think that early fetuses are persons.

Folks will say, "Yes, these fetuses are not concious, sentient, rational, communicative, etc. beings, yet they are persons nevertheless," so clearly they reject the Lockean view (or at least deny that meeting its criteria is necessary for personhood). I don't like to think that these people are saying something that is analytically false; I think they just have a different view on what persons are.

They then might propose that all living human organisms are persons, that if something is a living human organism then it is a person. This is a view, although what would be of interest would be the reasons that could be given in favor of it.

My speculation is that, for many people, "a person" just means something like "a being with high moral value," "a being that is wrong to kill," or whatnot, some purely moral definition, perhaps with no psychological component built into it. Is this what many people (including students) often mean by person? Is this definition false?!

Sorry for this long post. Perhaps someone out there has had similar bewilderment about personhood, how the term is often used, how you might figure out what persons "really" are, and so on and can help me out. Thanks!


  1. Nathan,
    Good question. I haven't found a particular argument that argues for fetal personhood along these lines, but I've constructed one from a few places as I searched for one to use in my courses. It assumes the Warren-type definition of a person, but argues that she misses a distinction between latent and actualized capacities.

    I have the actualized capacity to speak English. However, I don't have the actualized capacity to speak Russian. I do have the latent capacity to do so. If I studied Russian, lived in Moscow for a year, and the like, then I'd develop the actualized capacity for speaking Russian.
    What pro-life philosophers argue who make personhood arguments re. abortion are claiming, as far as I can tell, is that early fetuses possess all of the capacities of personhood, in their latent form, and that this is sufficient for moral status. On this view, fetuses aren't potential persons, but rather persons with potential. Whether or not it is successful is a separate issue, but I think it does get at the heart of the personhood issue.

    Here's the argument:
    (1) Fetuses have all of the essential capacities of persons, in latent form.
    (2) If an entity possesses all of the essential capacities of persons, that entity is a person.
    (3) Fetuses are persons.
    (4) Persons have the right to life.
    (5) The right to life usually trumps other rights.
    (C) Abortion is usually immoral.

  2. Stephen Schwarz offers the "basic inherent capacity" argument that Mike Austin outlines in the above comment. Excerpts from his book are available in some ethics textbooks.

    Warren's and Schwarz's competing conceptions of personhood do help clarify the conflict between a fetus's right to life (if it has one) and a pregnant woman's various rights to obtain an abortion in different scenarios. How strongly someone values a fetus's right to life is often related to how relevant one sees the potential to eventually function morally. Schwarz says it matters a lot, while Warren says it matters very little.

    Also, it becomes easier to see how more complex views are defensible. You could value a current person's rights more than--though not that much more than--a potential person's rights. Hence, perhaps a fetus's right to life outweighs a woman's right to an abortion in some situations, but is outweighed by a woman's right to an abortion in other cases.

  3. Mike Austin's summary of the logic used is correct, excepting the ambiguity in the word "usually". The conditions under which killing is usually thought allowed (e.g., self-defense and war) are only an intersecting set with the conditions under which abortion is plead to be allowed (e.g., self-defense, rape, malformation, poor prospects).

    I did not read closely a recent blog-discussion on the subject.

    There seems to be a tradition among teachers of philosophy of tricking students into question begging or appeal to authority. As a student, I hated the smug look on the teacher's face as he pointed out that I could not tell him why it was wrong to steal, and then the even greater smugness as he dragged out the social contract in the answer.

    It made me think of him as a bully, and one who was satisfied with his own axioms while challenging others not to be.

    I think a more useful discussion starts off with the proposition put forth by Libertarians that a person owns his own body and has a right to life. It's not difficult to see the contradiction presented by the pregnant woman, obviating somewhat the discussion of personhood but replacing it with how to resolve the conflict.

    (I believe life trumps property rights, else trespassing would carry a death sentence, but that's coming dangerously close to argumentum bumpisticcerum.)

  4. My anti-abortion argument is fairly simple, and probably not as philosophically rigorous as your readers are used to. Beginning with the argument that killing another human being is generally wrong, I can usually get agreement that a fetus becomes a human at some point. This ‘becoming’ is a milestone that we do not know the location of. Likely suspects are conception and birth. All other points along the timeline are arbitrary. Most people will grant person-hood to premature births, but not to eggs and sperm, making birth another arbitrary point. (We keep pushing back the bounds of when it is possible for a prematurely born infant to survive) That leaves as the only logical point for a fetus’s humanity to form as the point when sperm and egg unite. I am not a philosopher, and this is not my field, but I have found this approach useful for clarifying what I believe, and also why I believe it. I hope it can help you with your students.

  5. Thanks for these thoughts.

    Mike, you say this argument “assumes the Warren-type definition of a person.” So let’s plug that in:

    (1*) Fetuses have all of the essential capacities of [conscious, sentient, emotional, communicative beings], in latent form.
    (2*) If an entity possesses [in latent form] all of the essential capacities of [conscious, sentient, emotional, communicative beings], that entity is a [conscious, sentient, emotional, communicative being].
    (3*) [Therefore] fetuses are [conscious, sentient, emotional, communicative beings]. (1,2)
    (4*) [Conscious, sentient, emotional, communicative beings] have the right to life.
    (5*) The right to life usually trumps other rights.
    (C*) [Therefore] Abortion is usually immoral.

    (1*) now is true in many cases, yet (2*) seems false since it basically says that potential X’s are actual X’s. So these premises are an unsound argument for (3*) which is empirically false anyway, if we are talking about early fetuses.

    This new argument above of course does not have the word ‘person’ in it. I’m not sure if this an improvement or not. I suspect some would feel that the argument is somehow worse for dropping that.

  6. An argument that has been suggested to me:

    (1) Anything that is a person is essentially a person.
    (2) I am a person.
    (3) I was once a fetus.
    (4) By (3), I could have been a fetus. (Actuality entails possibility)
    (5) By (1), (2), and (4), the fetus I could have been would have been a person.
    (6) There is nothing unique with regards to personhood about the fetus I could have been.
    (7) So fetuses are persons.

    As far as I can tell, the only obviously contestable premises of the argument are (1) and (3); you might deny that personhood is essential or that I was ever identical to a fetus; you might believe that I came into existence at some later point in time.

  7. I'll be the devil's advocate. None of these arguments work. I am going to put single quotes around 'person' to make sure we realize we are discussing something that is different from being a human being.

    Mike: Why should we accept (2) or (4)? (2) seems to beg the question and (4) is not clearly defined enough to make much sense. What does it mean to have a right to life, or for that matter a right to anything. Are rights moral or political? Also, if a fetus is a latent person why does it not have latent rights as opposed to actual rights?
    Loren: I do not see any contradiction. The fetus is part of the woman's body, and dependant upon it, so she can do with it as she pleases. In so far as only 'persons' can own their bodies and fetuses are not 'persons,' fetuses cannot own their bodies.
    'PI': There is an equivocation between 'human' and 'person' that needs to be clarified. Are all human beings 'persons?' The fact that a fetus is a human being does not entail that it is a 'person,' if by 'person' we are using (for the sake of the argument) Warren's criteria for determining personhood. We can grant that a fetus is a human being at the time of conception, but this has very little normative value as far as I can see. At least its normative value needs to be argued for.
    Anonymous: I think you are eqivocating between 'fetus' and 'person.' What is a 'person?' If it is as Warren suggests, then we become 'persons' at some point after the fact of becoming a fetus/human being. The essentiality of being a 'person' is dependant on having certain characteristics which a fetus (up to a certain point in its development) does not have. A human zygote does not have any of these characeristics.

    The upshot of this is that I do not think there is a way to tie 'personhood' to, at least, early stages of human development. Therefore, if 'personhood' is the criteria for determining the moral permissiblity of abortion then one needs to find a different avenue to argue that the fetus should not be aborted.

  8. I'm inclined to agree with you Nathan. It seems that for many people "person" is a word used primarily to signify moral worth. My hunch is that many people, and many of your students, aren't sure exactly what they mean when they use the word. When pressed, they might come up with various proposals, but I think its is the desire to give a certain being moral value that leads them to use the word person. That is what I'm guessing motivates many of your students when considering abortion.

    I think that along with this, many people believe, without much thought, that to have any moral standing/rights/etc., one must be a person. So if fetuses aren't persons, then abortion wouldn't be wrong. But, many people still think this isn't capturing reality, they think there is something of value in a fetus, or something to be considered, and I think that is why they are inclined to use the word person.


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