Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Critique of Mary Anne Warren's On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, Part IV

In part one, I examined Warren's claim about humanity, in part two I examined Warren's qualifications for personhood and showed why the unborn qualify, and in part three I examined Warren's two questions about personhood and showed that her position fails to disqualify the unborn from personhood. In this article, I will examine her argument about potentiality.

4. Potential Personhood and the Right to Life

Warren asserts that she has shown that a fetus does not resemble a person in any way which can support the claim that it has even some of the same rights. In fact, I have shown that a fetus does exhibit the same qualities that make any of us a person -- the inherent capacity to perform personal functions. Warren has not shown what she has attempted to show, she has merely asserted it and claimed that anyone who disagrees just doesn't know what a person is.

Warren now turns to arguing about potentiality. She claims that just merely having the potential to be a person doesn't mean that the unborn has the same rights as actual persons. In this case, Warren is making two fundamental mistakes. First, she is confusing human development with construction. Human beings do not develop piece by piece, like cars on an assembly line, but they develop themselves from within. See this article for more detail. The second fundamental mistake is that Warren is confusing active potential with passive potential. Fellow pro-life advocate Daniel Rodger explains this quite well in an article he has written.

This distinction is an important one. Daniel uses the example of the ingredients in a cake, but the same argument works with Stith's example of cars. You can't look at a hunk of metal and call it a car. This is because that metal could be used for anything: a car, a boat, a house, Christmas ornaments, whatever. These items (like the flour, sugar, eggs, and milk for the cake) have the passive potential to become a car. They won't actually become a car until all the pieces are put together. Living things are different. Human beings have the active potential to develop human and personal properties. They have this potential due to their inherent capacities to develop these properties. So an argument from potential is not stating that anything with the potential to become a human being is valuable. It would be a strawman argument to claim that we're saying that sperm and eggs are persons. It is simply claiming that a person is a person by virtue of the kind of thing it is, an entity with the inherent capacity for personal properties.

Warren does argue that it may be wrong to kill a potential person when that potential person is not violating anyone's rights. Now, I don't think that there really are any potential persons, as I argued in my article responding to pro-choice philosopher Dean Stretton. Either you are a person or you're not. Warren is correct that a potential person does not have rights that would supercede an actual person. The problem is that if something is a potential person, it is only potential in the passive sense that I outlined above. Something with the active potential for personal qualities is a person already. Warren lays out her case with an analogy that actually serves to illustrate my point, and not hers. Her analogy is as follows:

"Suppose that our space explorer [from part two] falls into the hands of an alien culture, whose scientists decide to create a few hundred thousand or more human beings, by breaking his body into its component cells, and using these to create fully developed human beings, with, of course, his genetic code. We may imagine that each of these newly created men will have all of the original man's abilities, skills, knowledge, and so on, and also have an individual self-concept, in short that each of them will be a bona fide (though hardly unique) person. Imagine that the whole project will take only seconds, and that its chances of success are extremely high, and that our explorer knows all of this, and also knows that these people will be treated fairly. I maintain that in such a situation he would have every right to escape if he could, and thus to deprive all of these potential people of their potential lives; for his right to life outweighs all of theirs together, in spite of the fact that they are all genetically human, all innocent, and all have a very high probability of becoming people very soon, if only he refrains from acting."

There are actually two fatal flaws to Warren's analogy. The first is that you can't harm someone who is not in existence. Assuming that each of his cells can be considered legitimate potential human beings, there is no human being in existence to harm (whether or not you want to argue over personhood). If he refuses this procedure, he is not harming anyone, person or not. [1]

Second, the explorer's cells are only potential human beings and persons in the passive sense. That is, they are not living, human organisms, just cells that belong to the parent organism, the explorer. They are only potential persons in the same passive sense that flour is a potential cake or a hunk of metal is a potential car. They do not have the potential for personal properties in the same way that unborn human beings do.

So in short, I agree with Warren that he has a right to escape if he can, but not for the reason Warren thinks. I also agree that he has a right to escape no matter the length of his captivity, or whether he was deliberately captured or was captured due to carelessness. The problem is that this situation is not analogous to killing an unborn human being through abortion. It's a false analogy.

So to summarize, Warren's first argument fails because the pro-life position is really not fallacious, as she alleged. Warren's second point fails because she didn't provide any evidence or arguments to support her position, and I have shown that the unborn certainly do qualify as persons. Warren's third point fails because human value does not develop gradually. And Warren's fourth point fails because her argument is a false analogy and confuses active potentiality with passive potentiality.

This ends Warren's essay proper, but she later included a postscript in which she tries to justify why we should not allow the killing of infants even though they don't qualify as persons under her view. I will examine her postscript in the last part of this series.

[1] This probably needs a bit more elaboration. There are other considerations, such as the metaphysics of time, as well as what obligations, if any, we have to people who are not in existence yet but will be. It's not within the scope of this essay to go into more detail, but I do intend to go into more detail in the future at some point. Suffice it to say that I believe this point to be a valid one for the purpose of responding to Warren's thought experiment, since these "potential humans" would only be coming into existence due to an act of violence by a hostile alien race.


Jameson Graber said...

Warren's space explorer analogy is absurd on so many levels. This can't possibly be the best of pro-choice philosophical arguments.

Clinton said...

It's definitely not, but unfortunately her essay is popular among pro-choice people. Someone I debated on abortion once quoted Warren's criteria for personhood, and I see her quoted in the literature.