Saturday, December 3, 2011

On 'Embryo: A Defense of Human Life' (Pt. 4)

[...continued from here]

To review, I readily accepted the biological claim that human embryos are distinct, whole human organisms. Then I challenged George and Tollefsen's (G&T's) metaphysical claims about substance kind and personal identity. In this final post, I will be challenging the basis of this book's ethical claims against killing embryos.

Before I do any more criticizing, however, I want pro-choice readers to feel the force of Embryo's ethical argument. It's not one to be brushed off lightly because it's an appeal to the way many people reason ethically who support legal abortion and destructive research. In other words, there's a good chance you'll have to — at least — change the way you express and argue for your ethical views.

It's a matter of human rights:
When it is a matter of race or ethnicity, color or gender, origin or outlook, our culture resolutely and rightly holds that what matters is the fact of humanity, and not any other property shared by some but not others. But, by the same token, in considering the status of embryonic humans, what should matter is the fact of their humanity. They should not be regarded as inferior to other members of the human family based on age, size, location, stage of development, or condition of dependency.1
If being a human is really the criterion for having human rights, then the biological claim alone is sufficient for admitting that embryos have human rights. How many pro-choicers are prepared to say that human rights apply to some humans but not others? It would be convenient to classify embryos (and fetuses) as not being "distinct, whole human organisms," but then you run into the troublesome fact that human embryology textbooks routinely state otherwise. (I visited a science library after starting this blog series and skimmed every such volume written since 1990 to confirm.)

And if human rights only apply to some humans, how can we say one way of distinguishing between rights-bearing and non-rights-bearing humans is justified, but another way of drawing that distinction is unjustified? Wouldn't our choice of criteria be arbitrary? How can we tell another society which uses another set of criteria to recognize human rights that they're mistaken?

On the other hand, we might wonder why these rights only apply to humans.

The Clear, Bright Line of Substance Kind

The solution given in Embryo is that human rights apply to all beings with an essence of human organism, as opposed to only some beings with this essence or beings with a different essence. Besides a being's essence (or "substance kind"), all other qualities are accidental properties which don't change what kind of being it is. So being dark skinned, or being a sailor, or being conscious are not the sort of qualities that make an essential difference in kind, but being a dog or being a pine tree would constitute such a difference.

Setting aside the nature of rights, I don't think G&T's answer draws a uniquely justifiable line because — as I argued in part 2 of this series — there is no principled, biologically motivated way to determine that my substance kind is human rather than mammal, or human rather than male. A racist could use these ideas of substance kind and root-form attributes to argue that a zygote is essentially light or dark skinned to justify treating them differently. An animal rights activist could go the other direction and argue that cows and humans are essentially mammals and that it's unjustifiable to treat them as if they possess different rights for merely accidental differences.

Let's look at how G&T address this issue:
A racist picks out shade of skin as a more important characteristic than common humanity in deciding the worth of human beings. Now, between human beings and all other nonhuman animals, there is a radical difference in kind: human beings, unlike every other animal species, have the basic natural capacity for reason and freedom. But between any two human beings, the difference in color will always be only a difference of degree, a difference that makes no difference to the sorts of beings that each is.2
What's interesting here is that being human is not the fundamental criterion for having what we call "human rights." Instead, having the basic natural capacity for reason and freedom are the criteria...which humans happen to uniquely possess among the animals.

Reason and Freedom

To be clear, G&T are not asserting that only beings which can immediately exercise reason and freedom count as rights-bearing humans. It's that humans are the only organisms with these capacities programmed, so to speak, into their genetic plan of development. This is the difference that makes a difference between a dog embryo and human embryo.

By "reason" and "freedom," the authors mean that humans are the only animals with any capacity at all for considering and judging (reason), and then acting as an "uncaused causing" (freedom). These qualities distinguish persons from non-personal beings which think and act on sheer instinct.3

But is it true that (1) humans have these special qualities and (2) no other animals have them to any degree?

We do have the capacity for rational thought, but this is a trivial observation since we use "rational thought" to refer to a type (or maybe several types) of thinking we already know humans exercise. It's harder to determine whether any other animals exercise rational thought to some degree. Heck, I recently heard a claim that humans lacked rational thought before we developed written language; how do you disprove that without a written record? The claim that reason is 100% exclusively a human trait is at least questionable, given common descent and the early state of non-human psychology.

Freedom — by which G&T mean libertarian free will — is questionable in another way: it may be that no humans have it! In fact, I think it is conceptually impossible for humans to have libertarian free will. At any rate, it's not a popular position among philosophers.

So, in my view, we have a situation where more species than humans probably count as having some degree of "reason" and no species at all count as having "freedom."

The Myth of Rights
There are, in fact, an infinite number of degrees of the development of the basic natural capacities for self-consciousness, intelligence, or rationality. So if human beings are worthy of full moral respect (as subjects of rights) only because of such qualities, and not by virtue of the kind of being that they are, then, since such qualities come in varying degrees, no account could be given of why basic rights are not possessed by human beings in varying degrees. The proposition that all human beings are created equal would be relegated to the status of a myth—a noble (or, perhaps, not-so-noble) lie.4
To be blunt, yes. Natural rights are a noble lie. We express our deeply held values in the language of rights because it has been effective at swaying the masses and pressuring leaders, not because there's any good reason to believe rights existed before we demanded them.

Who can read the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights and see anything but a modern wishlist? And what makes less extravagant lists any different? There are probably worthwhile arguments in favor of natural rights that I'm not addressing here — which readers are welcome to point out — but I'm mainly trying to explain why I personally don't find Embryo's arguments compelling from beginning to end. I was already this skeptical of natural rights before picking up the book.

What Do We Want From Rights?

I'll make a conjecture here. What the authors of Embryo (and their intellectual forerunners) wanted from rights was a way to justify treating humans as special compared to all other animals, and not merely from self-preference or from some difference in degree. The "extraordinarily puzzling biblical teaching that man is made in the very image and likeness of God"5 seemed to provide such a justification, if its meaning could be explained. Reason and freedom appeared to be what set humankind apart from other animals, but these attributes came in degrees for individuals. The solution was to focus on membership in the kind which featured these divine attributes. From here, it follows that embryos — who share in the human kind — must also qualify for special treatment; they bear the image of God.

Rhetorically, Embryo still has bite among many who don't believe in this "image of God" distinction, because belief that humanity is objectively special is still widespread. I won't say this attitude is a result of religion, because it may well be that religion was shaped by this attitude.

It seems to me that our evolutionary history undercuts the conceit of human exceptionalism. Sure, we excel in certain areas, but other animals excel in ways we do not. We rule other species by force, not by natural right. Why do we consider it a grave moral evil to kill and eat a human but not a cow? Simply because we decided to draw the distinction, then trained generations to feel a special revulsion toward cannibalism. And why did we want to discourage cannibalism? Probably because it afforded greater security against being killed by other humans when food supplies are low. Cows weren't in a position to negotiate for inclusion in this right not to be killed for food, so beef became a staple of our diet.

While other species don't vote or organize protest marches for their rights, some folks engage in activism on their behalf. This is why animal rights have been growing in the last century. I see pro-lifers as taking a similar stand for mute, young human beings. They can succeed in extending rights to embryos by convincing society to value human embryos specifically, or by making it difficult to conceive of embryos as a distinguishable category from the adults and children we already deeply value and therefore protect. This book, Embryo, is a respectable example of the latter tactic. However, I don't find its conclusion compelling because the criteria G&T use to set humanity apart are suspect, and qualities I'm more concerned about — a conscious lifetime and the ability to suffer — are shared by mature cows but not by human embryos. I would sooner call a cow a "person" than an embryo.


1. George, R.P., Tollefsen, C. (2008). Embryo: A defense of human life. New York: Doubleday. p. 114.
2. Ibid. p. 120-121. 
3. Ibid. p. 106-107. 
4. Ibid. p. 121.
5. Ibid. p. 106.

1 comment:

  1. Well said.

    As far as I can tell, "human rights" are heuristics that help us protect each other from certain types of suffering.

    The right to liberty, for instance, is there to protect us from the suffering that inevitably occurs when our natural desire for self-expression is curtailed.

    Taken this way, it is clear that there is no sense in affording embryos these rights, since embryos have no capacity to suffer in their absence.

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