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Honest Question: Are Fingernail and Hair Living?

The NYT today carries an editorial that confuses me on several scriptural points, but mostly confounds my knowledge of biology:

Some, deprived of the Onan text, say that abortion is forbidden by the scriptural commandment "Thou shalt not kill." But that commandment does not cover all human life. My hair and fingernails, while growing, are alive with my own human life. Semen and ova have human life even before their juncture. They continue to have it after mingling — for example, the fertilized ovum that does not lodge itself in the wall of the womb. Yet no attempt is made to retrieve such "dead" detritus and give it decent burial.

Ignore the obvious problems with the statement: a fertilized ovum that doesn't lodge itself in the wall of the uterus hasn't been killed in any but the most strained of senses. The article's filled with rather curious assertions. But my understanding was that hair and fingernails were actually not alive: that they were dead tissue. Am I wrong here? (Biology is not my strong suit.)


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so if semen and ova "have human life" before they've mingled into making a baby, then is the life-giving lining of the uterus alive as well? the nutrients it provides are pretty important to growing a baby, too. if it is alive, women's bodies kill it every month. how does that fit in?
My roommate is a biologist. I asked him and he said that the bases of hair and fingernails are alive and generate the cells that make up the rest of it. So the hair on top of your head isn't alive, but the root in your scalp is.
Monica: no idea. As I said, his argument isn't very refined. Antonio: thank you. That was my understanding. Which is why, unless he's pulling his hair out by the roots or ripping off his nails, I'm still pretty confused.
Tony, The number of fallacies contained in Will's argument would make a nice question on a Freshman philosophy exam. Gary must have been reading the New York Review of Books when logic was being taught him by the Jesuits, as a friend of mine who teaches phil at ND quipped. The overarching flaw in all such arguments as this is that they replace bad old church arguments about "ensoulment" (an odd metaphyisical speculation) with bad, new, secular arguments about a magical-metaphysical thing called "personhood"--that magic moment before which one is disposable and after which one has one's own substantive due process rights. Oh, crim grades are up, too. W
Ignore the obvious problems with the statement: a fertilized ovum that doesn't lodge itself in the wall of the uterus hasn't been killed in any but the most strained of senses. Surely the substantive point the article is making is that just because a foetus is living human tissue that will one day become a human child, doesn't mean it is human, and therefore murderable. Even the most extreme position on abortion must surely deny that sperm and eggs are covered by the "don't kill" clause of the commandments. It is therefore clear that any anti-abortion argument cannot simply say "a foetus has the potential to be a human being, therefore destroying it is murder"; this argument would apply to sperm and eggs too. Therefore the question becomes, when does a human being come into existence? So, in response to Fr. Bill: I don't see why the "personhood" argument is bad. It is surely the only one available. Hopefully nobody seriously believes in a magic moment, as you put it, but (assuming you want some kinds of abortion to be illegal), there must be an agreed time before which abortion is legal and after which, illegal.
Card: The problem with the statement is that it's colliding the concepts of 'to die' and 'to be murdered.' (This puts aside the idea of whether, after commingling, the ova and semen are still a plural they which can both have life, which--given the way you then characterize the problem--is simply the author begging the question.) Nonetheless, murder requires both an intent to kill and the death of a human being. (This is true, in general, both legally and from the Catholic context, although Fr. Bill can correct me here if I'm wrong.) My understanding is that the sin is generally interpreted as 'Do not commit murder,' as opposed to 'do not kill' itself. (Again, I may be wrong here on the Catholic thought.) If true, though, that would explain much of the confusion that the author seems to be having. You may object to abortion on the grounds that it's murder, and violative of the commandment. You may not bury the 'deceased' tissue of a fertilized ovum because it's simply not customary--I don't know about Catholic teaching on burial, though so I'm not at all sure here. But in any event, lacking intent it wouldn't be murder. And the 'nails and hair' thing, even if they were living tissue, wouldn't be murder anyway, simply because it's not an individual. Simply put, in order for his argument to make sense, you have to believe that (a) you can 'kill' a fingernail--odd under any definition of 'kill' or 'murder', and (b) that if something that was living has died, it must be buried. I somehow doubt that Catholic doctrine is so facile as to fall to such unsubtle arguments based on fragile premises. Again, that's not to say that Catholic doctrine is necessarily right, but that the author is wildly off the mark in trying to make it sound inconsistent. And the 'nail and hair' thing--the original subject of the post, mind you--seems to indicate that either he's incorporating an idea of 'personhood' into life that means something other than biologically alive, or his biology is worse than mine. As for this: "It is therefore clear that any anti-abortion argument cannot simply say "a foetus has the potential to be a human being, therefore destroying it is murder"; this argument would apply to sperm and eggs too. Therefore the question becomes, when does a human being come into existence?" Certainly, but I doubt anyone is saying that. They'd probably point out that it is the combination of two different individuals, and thus something new--which would differentiate it. Though again, I couldn't speak as to Catholic doctrine, it would seem that anyone making the point above is simply disputing an argument which isn't being made. My guess is that he's trying to imply that if it's attached to his person, it's 'living' within that scope of personhood, and that thus a fertilized ovum is like a fingernail. I don't think he's trying to make a biological argument. Again, though I could merely be confused as to what he's saying: he seems all over the shop.
I think the author is trying to communicate a couple of things. First, that this idea that all abortion is wrong is silly, because a foetus is no more like a person than fingernails, hair, eggs and sperm are. The whole burying unattached foetuses and clipped nails thing is an attempted reductio ad absurdam but should be treated more like an analogy: We don't treat these things like humans so why should we treat another non-sentient bundle of cells like humans? The second thing is that (as you imply) you can't murder a cell, only a human being. So the question of whether abortion is murder is about whether a foetus is a human being. This then ties in with the above strand, which suggests that it is a bit silly to treat a foetus as a human being (for certain values of "foetus").
Except, of course, that he's not arguing that abortion is right or wrong--although his opinion on that is relatively easy to surmise--but that the Church's opinion is inconsistent enough that abortion should not be a matter of doctrine, but one of conscience. Further, he's arguing that doctrine is inconsistent. The argument he's trying to make is that you can't get from 'thou shalt not kill' to abortion because it's not killing. But you can't kill hair or nails, because they're already dead, even if they were considered to be somehow individuated from the person in question. And unless you include in the definition of 'kill' completely unintentional killings, the unimplanted fertilized ovum doesn't fall afoul of that prohibition, whilst, assuming you accept the church's definition of the issues you're questioning--where life begins--it does. In other words, he's saying that 'that commandment does not cover all human life,' he's implying that nails and hair are somehow 'human life'--more to the point, that they're human individuals and alive. (Otherwise he's arguing for the heretofore unheard of concept of killing a part of a human being, which would be both religious and, to my knowledge, legally unique.) If he wanted to make that point, he'd be better off pointing out that the New Testament at least metaphorically mandates the taking of human life as he understands it: 'If thy right eye offends thee' etc. Nonetheless, I can't see how church doctrine on 'killing' is somehow supposed to extend beyond the religious definition of killing into some possibly biological or holistic realm. Similarly, for his argument to make any sense, he must postulate that church doctrine on life is incoherent because a fertilized ovum--which I presume he concedes the Church would consider a human life--would not be buried, and that Church doctrine requires that any individual life conceived must be buried. If you don't postulate the second, then the argument makes no sense at all. So the question would then become is this in fact Church doctrine, or is it merely that all things born must be buried? (This would also put paid to his idea of women who have abortions being punished as murdresses, or the need to baptise and bury fetuses on consecrated ground.) What you're mentioning, Card, would be a good argument against believing that abortion is murder in and of itself, but would hardly warrant an editorial in the Fading Lady, even if she were desperate for articles--it's just the 'where does life begin' question. What he's trying to do is place the debate outside matters scriptural and theological, as mentioned in his last paragraph, and to do that he's trying to prove doctrine inconsistent. My problem is that because he's eliding distintions that are incontravertably true (an fertilized ovum is distinct from either of its two progenitors) or factually curious (nails and hair are 'alive' and can be 'killed') he's failing in his case. The trouble is, while you can consider it an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, such arguments must maintain all their salient logical characteristics after they are reduced. The real characterization of the argument above--so long as you'll confirm my prior belief that nails and hair are dead tissue--is simply that it's absurd.
I don't agree that the author is trying to prove church doctrine inconsistent. In fact, his last paragraph makes clear that he's merely trying to show that there is no theological case for or against abortion. In that sense, most of his article is redundant, and only the first couple of paragraphs are necessary to his argument. The rest seems to be ad hominem, and following the reasoning outlined above*. Though I agree, its not an article I would print. Still, if magazines and newspapers didn't fill their pages with unimportant chaff, they wouldn't be able fill their pages at all! *Accepting the point about hair and nails being dead, we still have sperm and eggs which aren't mourned for. The bible doesn't say you have to, but traditionally you do, mourn for dead humans - which is why its ad hominem. Incidentally, wouldn't having teeth removed to prevent a crowded mouth happily substitute for the hair? But I digress; I don't seriously believe teeth are human life.
I think I may not have been clear, because that response doesn't answer the primary objection to his argument. I don't agree that the author is trying to prove church doctrine inconsistent. In fact, his last paragraph makes clear that he's merely trying to show that there is no theological case for or against abortion. But of course, he's trying to prove that there is no theological case for or against abortion by proving that church doctrine is inconsistent: that if (a) 'Thou shalt not kill' did imply a rejection of abortion, then (b) it must therefore ban the cutting of fingernails and mandate the burial of non-implanted fertilized ova. The rest of the argument is basically modus tolens, or since Not B, Not A. The trouble is the reasoning for Not B. In order for Not B to apply by his logic, you have to somehow get 'Thou shalt not kill' to apply to nail and hair and unimplanted ova. This just doesn't fly: (a) For nails and hair, you can't kill them anyway, under any theologically reasonable definition. I'd assume--you can tell me I'm wrong--that there is a biological sense of 'to kill' that might apply to individual human cells: "After you're done with the experiment, kill the cheek cells by putting alcohol in the petri dish." But theologically speaking, I can't see this washing--elsewise, as mentioned above, 'If they right eye offends thee' becomes an injunction to murder. So the only possible way to make that paragraph to make sense is to say there's no theologically consistent or justifiable reason under a biological definition of 'to kill.' Certainly you can't advocate that? Ditto for sperm and unfertilized ova, one suspects. I doubt that any injunction against masturbation would be based on an idea of murder. (Again, happy to be proven wrong here.) (b) For the fertilized ova that doesn't implant, the argument just makes no sense at all, because it has nothing to do with 'killing.' Here, of course, we have something that might be considered to have died, in a way that nails, hair, sperm, or ova haven't. But 'kill' in the theological sense would generally imply 'murder' (Matt 19:18, "He saith unto him, Which? Jesus said, Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness..."), which implies an act and some kind of intentional state. So what this has to do with 'thou shalt not kill' is dubious anyway. It might be trying to state that because the unimplanted egg is searched for and buried, the Church clearly doesn't consider it alive, but that's an argument that would need far more than an ad hominem, as it's hardly obvious. Clearly that would require some Church doctrine requiring all things that have ever been alive and individual to be buried, something that would be worth stating and I'm relatively certain isn't true. He's trying to have it both ways, using an argument where you can't do an action to 'kill' something that isn't individual and alive, and one where you can't 'kill' something that is because there's not an action, in order to say that there's no theological argument for stating that you can 'kill' murder something through an act against that held to be both individual and alive. But certainly you'll agree that this does not hold water. The rest is merely a reason for why theological arguments shouldn't be made in for political goals, which is fair enough if you're a secularist. Given the fact that few priests are secularists, though, it's hardly a stunning argument for priests to consider in staying out of politics, or not chastising politicians who stray from church teaching, is it?
The problem with "personhood" as a concept is that it is not biological and so it requires a "magical moment" where there is enough of something: "potential," "sentience," or the like. At some times in recent history, it required "whiteness" or "maleness." It is, in short, a political construct, not a natural kind. My problem with that it is reduces human rights qua human to human rights qua some debatable set of properties that we supposedly honor by refusing to kill, enslave, torture, and so forth. Now, NOBODY can make a claim in modern biology that sperm or egg would qualify. I was never a sperm and never an egg. I WAS once a fertilized ovum. The "I" that I am today has a continuous traceable trajectory back to conception, and not before (sperm and egg). At that moment, and since then, I have been alive, not my mother's body, not my father's body, and not merely "potential life." I would contend that since then I have been human. There is an interesting debate about the "primitive streak" and recombination of DNA in the first week or two after conception, but that confuses only the precise meaning of "I" and until we can clarify what's at work there, better to assume rights than not, in my view. Better, that is, to err on the side of life.
Okay, to be clear: 1) I don't think he's arguing that theological doctrine is logically inconsistent. Nowhere does he say this, in fact he says that theological doctrine does not mention abortion at all: "Modern "right to life" issues ... are nowhere mentioned in [Scripture]... [some] say that abortion is forbidden by the scriptural commandment "Thou shalt not kill... the issue in abortion is this: When does the fetus become a person? The answer to that is not given by church teaching." The closest he comes to this is a single paragraph, starting "Church authorities have not acted on their own claims." This is fairly clearly an ad hominem, contrasting as it does the church saying that abortion is murder with their failure to demand prosecution for those who abort. AFAICT he isn't saying that this is logically inconsistent. However I concede that he has not proved that scripture is inconsistent. 2) Most of what you say about sperm, eggs, hair and so on I broadly agree with. But I don't think it is as clear cut as you make out. Foetuses do not develop lungs, a heart, and a brain immediately, so cannot "die" in the human sense* - they are therefore closer to sperm and eggs according to your argument. What you say about masturbation begs the question, since in fact my argument against an absolutist pro-life stance on abortion is primarily that there is not qualitative difference between sperm and eggs and the early stages of foetal development. But in any case, these arguments form one paragraph in the article, which as stated above was an ad hominem aside to the main thrust, which was that there *is* no theological position which could be identified as inconsistent. Lest you doubt all of this, the author says abortion is a matter for individual conscience. If abortion/not-abortion were inconsistent with the church position, he would surely be arguing differently on this point.
And another point. Wills says that if people believed all of this, then we'd want foeti buried in consecrated ground and so forth. This shows further why his is unqualified to opine as an expert on all things Catholic. I have sat with couples after they had an abortion who wanted a funeral, who had named their child. They were not confused about what had happened, though they were out of step with Church teaching (as to abortion, not as to the funeral--on that they were correct). I also have a number of friends who have indeed had their miscarried children buried in cemeteries, who were prepared to accommodate the request (as it is not unique or even all that rare). But why should a NYTimes columnist let real life complicate his view of abortion. Finally, what can it mean to say there is no theological position here? If by theological he means biblical, that's fine--but it ain't catholic. If by theological he means--deducible from the creed, that's a rather narrow definition of theology. He may hold the view that all moral positions are "extra theological" and that the category "moral theologian" is somehow a mistake. But again, that would just be Wills own idiosyncratic locution. I guess what he ultimately means is that the teaching is not infallible: fair enough. But it is, in the case of abortion, a teaching that has never wavered, even when debates over "ensoulment" were going on. Wills, notice, does not contest this. Rather, he offers a shell game of confusion--at once accusing the Church of changing its mind too much, and then of not changing it enough. Which is fair, as the church is human. But noting that the Church is human and fallible and that this is a complicated issue is hardly newsworthy. It is far from the point of the Kerry debate. The best critique of those FEW bishops who wish to exclude from communion pro-choice politicians can be found here: http://www.americamagazine.org/articles/Beal-communion.cfm Now, why is the NY Times obsessed with attacking a minority view in a Church they don't seem to respect anyway? Much ado about nothing...
Fr. Bill: I think the question of your identity with a fertilised ovum is a bit more complex than you make out. The question of human identity is one which has dogged philosophers for (at the very least) centuries. You're welcome to assert that the fertilised ovum is the first historical instance of "you" - but I can't say I agree, and I don't think the assertion can be proved. Your argument seems to be that because there is no precise definition of personhood, it counts as magical. There is however an exact moment when in your opinion, the biological matter in question becomes one indivisible object as opposed to two separate objects. Now, it is pretty clear to me that a fertilised ovum is not a person, while a full-grown human being is a person: The fact that I cannot identify a moment when this ceases to be true is beside the point. Your contention that this is a political construct is an interesting one; I would argue that it is a social construct, which is slightly different. Ethics is a social construct, as is morality, at least as much as personhood. As such I don't see the problem with mentioning personhood in the context of ethics/morality.
Finally, what can it mean to say there is no theological position here? This is a fair point - I don't think that the position of the church should wholly depend on stuff that is written down in the bible. However... But noting that the Church is human and fallible and that this is a complicated issue is hardly newsworthy. Of course it is! People are considering legislating against abortion (correct me if I'm wrong, but some people already have). The question of whether the issue is a straightforward, black-and-white issue is of the most fundamental importance. Similarly, its worth pointing this stuff out to individual catholics, because there are plenty who are under the misconception (!) that there is no greyness in this issue.
Thanks for your comments. I never try to paint as black and white that which isn't. Neither, of course, do I think the issue of legislating against abortion should turn on certainty. On your "social vs. political" point, I don't think there's any reason to differ. I choose political construct when it comes to "rights talk" but I take political construct to be a subset of social constructs. The problems with fixing personhood as the sine qua non for being rights-bearing are several: it does not comport with our rhetoric about "human rights:" the concepts involved in having rights have not emerged from any "ground-up" analysis, and we have largely fought just to expand the club to include blacks, women, etc.--without a "properties test"; the magic moment problem is a problem--why is infanticide so wrong and abortion so acceptable--this is only "not a problem" if incoherence is untroubling in matters of fundamental rights; "personhood" doesn't seem to add anything to "humanity" other than placing restrictions that place the rights of the senile, the demented, the profoundly retarded in doubt, by going beyond a natural kind to a political kind--why add restrictions? Finally, it's not clear to me in what sense I'm supposed to prove that "I" existed from the time of my conception. You are asserting some magical moment in addition to the bioligical one--I've been a continuos, single, identifiable creature of the human species since conception and not a moment before. According to you, there is an additional moment where me the person "supervened" (or choose your own more or less mysterious word) on me the continuous bioligical entity, OH, and with it brought along a bundle of rights. Its not clear why the burden is on me to "disprove" that moment, or to "prove" my assertion of when I began. I take it you don't dispute my biological account, but you want to reserve judgment about when my rights kicked in. It's also not clear why we shouldn't be bothered by such a conception of rights. That many philosophers are or claimed to be dogged by this concept doesn't lower the bar for their defending that confusion. Some still claim (as they have for centuries) to be dogged by the notion of free will, but it's hard to behave as if our philosophical uncertainty about that permits or requires us to suspend such concepts as accountability, punishment, and so forth. Finally, I use a sarcastic tone here to tease out concepts, not to attack you personally. I take it that we exchange here in charity!
Finally (REALLY) here's a nice dissection of the Wills piece by the dean of villanova's law school: http://www.mirrorofjustice.com/ W
Well, I don't take personhood to be substantially different from humanity. In some kind of technical sense, a foetus is a human, in that it is a human foetus, but that's about as far as it goes for me. But I don't worry about the concerns you mention wrt senile/demented/retarded/brain-damaged individuals, because I take it as a given that we aren't going to be making their murder legal anytime soon. Further, the carers of these individuals could if they wished stop looking after them if they wanted to. The same isn't true of the mother of a foetus, who without aborting cannot legally avoid her duty of care. This aside, the proof or otherwise of whether a foetus is you is very important to the debate. Clearly I don't want to advocate that I be allowed to kill *you*, at any point in your history. However, I am certainly happy to say that preventing your conception is ok. Now, this is the important step I take, that I am allowed to prevent you becoming a person, or if you prefer, becoming "you", by aborting the foetus that will become you. Whether the onus is on you to prove it or me to disprove... well, I suppose its on both of us. Its no good just asserting either way, since nobody is likely to be impressed by assertion. The arguments about your identity with the ovum *are* complex. I don't dispute that in common language you and the ovum might be said to be one and the same. I don't think even this is clear-cut, though I don't dispute that one could, say, stick a flag in the ovum and provided nobody removed it we'd find it lodged in you at a later date. But I'm not sure this bears on your rights (as you correctly surmise), or who "you" are. When you die, your corpse will, under this definition, turn out to be you - yet I don't accord the corpse rights. Granted, this is oversimplification, since clearly the corpse is dead, but it shows that identity doesn't come down to being able to draw a nice historical line. Getting back to it: I don't assert the existence of any "moment" of personhood. Quite the opposite, if I pursue thinking about it for long enough I am likely to conclude that personhood is not all-or-none. But let's be clear: You and I are people, the just-fertilised-five-minutes-ago ovum isn't. One is all, the other is none. In between, the ovum is becoming a person in some sense. During that time, we have trouble deciding whether to accord the foetus human rights or not. Legally it might be convenient to adopt some arbitrary line after which abortion is prohibited: Perhaps this will be when the neocortex starts to develop, or when the brain reaches a certain size, or I-don't-know-what. In reality things aren't this clear cut. I don't think this amounts to incoherence on human rights. I would think it obvious that human rights are a social construct as well as personhood, morality and the rest. From an absolutist perspective I suppose I am therefore saying there is no good or evil. For the purposes of human beings making decisions, there is and must be, and sometimes these must be based on fuzzy criteria. Last thing to say is that I'm sorry about the rambliness of this - I wanted to try and answer your points but at the same time needed to approach it in a particular order, and I think its wound up a bit cobbled together!
It's not a particular ramble, and at the end you clear things up in a macro sense quite well: if I were a "beyond good and evil" type when it came to the universe, I'd be quite as happy as you with a muddled, incoherent, indeterminate view of what constituted a rights bearing entity. I'm not. Politically, most people are not. If "pro choice" people (and in my mind, yours is ultimately the most coherent and rational route to that) would be as honest as you have been in laying out the view, I'd be delighted. As a practical matter, I think the laws would change to be much more in line with my own views, but that's an empirical prediction. I'm amused by the notion that contraception (preventing a me or an anyone from coming-to-be) strikes you as importantly related to what my rights would be "having come to be." But, again, since "rights" for you don't pick out any moral truth, beyond good and evil and so forth, then your views of rights are nothing like mine anyway. I think, as I say, that's a reasonable perspective to take. Michael Perry, formerly of Northwestern, and now at Wake Forest, I believe, lays out claims similar to mine in his Oxford Press monograph "The Idea of Human Rights." There, he claims rather matter of factly that the only coherent conceptions of human rights are, in some sense, religious ones. I think he's right. This is a very challenging claim though, for many secular liberals who want to claim to be very absolutist about rights as a moral issue, but at the same time cling to incoherent notions of rights. Since you claim no moral interest, I won't urge you to clear up the incoherence. Finally, I think your post shows that I've met my burden of showing the me-ness of my zygote back in 1972. You have shifted the question now to whether the me back then was sufficiently cogent to have rights, not whether it was me. As to the ambiguity you attempt to introduce with thecorpse, well, that would be my dead body, right? I'd let you kill that, and surrender other rights it might have in my name. I think you can see the point here. My view is coherent, biologically sound, and sensible: as long as there is a continuous biological entity living and identifiable with me, it has rights--backwards and forwards, analytically speaking. It has no rights before it comes to be--no right to be conceived, as it were--how could it/I? Similarly, it has no rights when it's no longer a living thing. Rights belong to living, human beings. I wasn't that before conception, I won't be that after death. I'm glad you have such confidence in our society's compassion toward the elderly, toward the profoundly retarded, and so forth. You might want to familiarize yourself with the literature on the so-called "right to die" debate to see whether that is very well founded. I do not share your sanguine outlook myself. My own prolife attitude is that of Gandalf's in Fellowship of the Ring, talking to Frodo about the "pity" that stayed Bilbo's hand from killing Gollum when he had the chance, and when Gollum deserved it: "Many live who deserve to die. Many who are dead deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be so quick to deal death in judgment." Thanks for the frank exchange. W
Oh, one other thing, I love the precious use of "technical" as in a foetus (I also like my precious commitment to the British spelling) is in some "technical" sense human. What would the non-technical sense that is implicitly more appealing to you be? A metaphorical sense? Metaphorically, then a foetus is not a human, though "technically" it is--and apparenlty the former fact is more interesting than the latter? I take it that, technically, human being picks out a biological category, which person does not. Notice I did not say that it is incontrovertible that foeti are persons--I'm not sure there are persons at all! But I know there are humans, I know that I am one, and I know a zygote is too. As to these things called "persons," that strikes me as a sort of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that delineates those human beings some of us want to let into the Rights Club and excludes those we don't. Sounds downright mystical to me...but here I repeat myself... Cheers!
Much as I hate to stand in the way of the debate being satisfactorily resolved: Since you claim no moral interest, I won't urge you to clear up the incoherence. Au contraire. I do have a moral interest, its just that I'm not a moral absolutist. Further, I argue that there is no incoherence. Just because a concept is complex, socially constructed, and not all-or-none, doesn't invalidate it as a concept. Finally, I think your post shows that I've met my burden of showing the me-ness of my zygote back in 1972. You have shifted the question now to whether the me back then was sufficiently cogent to have rights, not whether it was me. As to the ambiguity you attempt to introduce with thecorpse, well, that would be my dead body, right? I'd let you kill that, and surrender other rights it might have in my name. I think you can see the point here. My view is coherent, biologically sound, and sensible: as long as there is a continuous biological entity living and identifiable with me, it has rights--backwards and forwards, analytically speaking. It has no rights before it comes to be--no right to be conceived, as it were--how could it/I? Similarly, it has no rights when it's no longer a living thing. Rights belong to living, human beings. I wasn't that before conception, I won't be that after death. Biologically speaking, *you* die when you stop breathing and your heart stops and your brain dies. However the cells in your body are not all dead by any stretch at this point. While a foetus, you don't even *have* a brain, lungs, or heart (well not at the start). I appreciate that your simple view of human life is attractive, but I don't agree with it for moral purposes. What would the non-technical sense that is implicitly more appealing to you be? A metaphorical sense? Perhaps I should rephrase: A foetus is a human in that common language would describe it as a human foetus. I do not say that a foetus is a human in the sense of an object of moral judgement and moral value. If you want to call this a metaphor, feel free; but I think it is more substantive than all that. I take it that, technically, human being picks out a biological category, which person does not. Very good. How about "cardinalsin"? Was my foetus cardinalsin? I say it was not. Mumbo jumbo this may be, but you don't have to get into a very complex debate before it starts to be necessary to talk about people. An interesting example of this is split-brain patients (now you see why I didn't want to get into this debate), who appear to be two separate persons in one body. Or how about siamese twins? I'm not arguing that these are complicated cases: I hope that they are not, since it seems obvious to me that in these cases we talk about two individuals/persons. Why? Because they appear to have two distinct *minds*, which is the hallmark of the person. And if you think that is mumbo jumbo, try telling it to them. "Many live who deserve to die. Many who are dead deserve life. Can you give it to them? Do not be so quick to deal death in judgment." Well, that's the pat, simplistic solution, isn't it? I'll reply by pointing out that there are consequences to witholding death as well as in dealing it out. Indeed, you allude to the fact that most people hold your view and would support a change of the law in your favour if pro-choice folk used my arguments. But I don't think these arguments are appropriate to politics, being metaphysical in nature. Rather were I a pro-choice politician, I'd be reminding people that an absolute ban on abortion would create a generation of women with unwanted babies, and children with mothers who did not want them. It would lead to an increase in poverty, a set-back for women's ability to have careers and education on a par with that of men, a break-down in the fabric of the families of these unwanted children... in short, I'd be looking at the social consequences of an abortion ban. So, don't confuse my arguments with a political creed: This is strictly metaphysics, which like religion should be kept carefully separate from legislation.
Not being a moral absolutist leaves any moral claims you make not so much as moral claims but as claims about a modus vivendi--not actually beliefs about what's "right and wrong" as most people mean the term, but practical judgments about the best course of action not rooted in any deep truths about the universe. There are plenty of smart folks who share that view. There is little to support the notion that such a view underlies our legal traditions or most people's notions of morality. Not that you have to follow either of those, but the idea of separating law and religion, for instance, quite so neatly, is very, very hard to do, and even harder to defend for those who are "absolutists" in some sense of the term. This is why I think we are at a sort of resolution--everytime you keep resurrecting the "beyond biology" notion of personhood, you are doing so not as a matter of a truth claim, moral or metaphyisical, since you don't believe in those. I don't quarrel with your right to do so, intellectually or otherwise. But it is a shifting of the ground to some other place, where I won't go, precisely because I am an absolutist when it comes to morality. I think slavery is wrong, not just inconvenient. I think murder is wrong, not just socially deplorable. Thus, I think some things are right, like totally banning all killing of innocent life, WHATEVER the consequences may be. (There are consequentialist absolutists, I am aware, but I'm not one of those either.) I respect that you are a non-absolutist consequentialist. I do contest your using the term "moral" when it would seem you mean something aesthetic, but that's perhaps an idiosyncrasy of mine, since you are engaged in "practical" reason, which is "moral reason" as the terms have been traditionally employed. It's just that they were traditionally employed by people who believed their were moral facts to be discovered, not just to be wished for or preferred, or whatever verb you prefer as a non-absolutist. I hope this clarifies where we do differ and where we don't, and where we can profitably continue to talk and not. I must say, while the split brain issue is a conundrum, it seems fairly obvious that it is rather different from the "my cells are still living after my brain and heart case to function"--and different as well from the siamese twin case. These are genuinely vexing cases, however, not for my view but for some other view (yours) which equates personhood with sentience. For me, the split brain person is one confused person. The Siamese Twins are two connected people. If you had one brain and a second body connected, so you had only one shot at a living body even under the best of separation scenarios, I'd be inclined to say you had one person with an attached deformed body, or two people, one of whom was anencephalic. But its not clear how that in any way supports, within the realm of my moral absolutism, any confusion about the rights of the person or person to live from the moment of conception forward, even if we discover over time that we want to say--hey, this is two people, or hey, we were right, it's just one. Either way, there is a clear moment in time when he/she/they came into being as (1) human and (2) differentiated from either parent biologically. That there should over time turn out to be even more people than current science allows us to predict from the moment of conception should only suggest that there is even more human life there than we thought! QED
Re: Non-absolute morality not counting as morality, I'm afraid we'll have to agree to disagree on that one. These are genuinely vexing cases, however, not for my view but for some other view (yours) which equates personhood with sentience. For me, the split brain person is one confused person. I disagree: My view doesn't find this "vexing" at all, since as stated in each case there are two separate minds present. Minds make the person, the individual, and the moral actor. Your view that the split brain patient constitutes a single individual is consistent, but hardly vexation-free. We're talking about a body with two virtually unconnected neural systems, which seem to operate independent of each other, and science tells us cannot operate as one except to the extent that they share a body. To say this is one person without further justification looks like a failure of reasoning. Since you agree that the siamese twins are two connected people, you seem to be conceding that having a single historical organism (the siamese twins) doesn't imply a single person. Incidentally I think this also shows that you do see some sensible meaning to the term "person" despite previous protestations. All this does not prove that a foetus isn't a person/human/object of moral value. It simply shows that personhood/humanity/etc are not as straightforward as they at first appear, which leads me to conclude that its all about having an individual mind, which I don't think a foetus can have.
I'll make one last attempt to say that I believe human rights attach to human beings, not to "persons". I agree with you that if I believed in "persons" (who are now "moral agents" as well) I'd share your view of split brain individuals. I don't believe in your mumbo-jumbo category of persons, and I don't believe that rights attach to "moral agents", even though I'm a moral realist and you're not. So we've pretty well exhausted and clarified the contours of our disagreement, which is satisfying to me. I find the situations vexing because they are humanly difficult to describe and get one's brain around, no pun intended. One makes the number of human beings present confusing (siamese twins, depending on the nature of the attaching, anyway) and the other the nature of identity confusing, since the one human being their seems to think he or she is two. This strikes me as vexing, not because neural networks=persons=moral agents but because if you ever see such a person, even on film, it's downright vexing. You're really not vexed? Cheers, Bill
You're really not vexed? I'm vexed in the sense that... wow, isn't it weird! That guy behaves like a perfectly normal individual all the time, then you put a screen between his eyes and its like he's two different people! Or, woah! Those two people share a body... that's vexing, man! But I don't find it philosophically vexing (perhaps because this is basically my degree topic so I've had lots of time to think about it). I think its clear from the evidence that both are cases of two people inhabiting one body. The split brain is more confusing since the two usually appear to be one, and since they used to be one- so there is some vexation wrt (say) who is responsible for the naughty immoral act the patient committed before his brain got split. But I could go on all day about this! To sign off on a similar note of disbelief: You really think the term "person" is mumbo jumbo?
Yes indeed I do, especially for non-metaphysical philosophers who use it as if it picks out something in the world. If you only mean it as a label for any instantiation of a critical mass of those properties which you think qualify the bearer as a "rights bearing being" it's still a mess. Note, you would not legally recognize two different people, I shouldn't think, in these non-vexing cases. But if you don't mean person in a "legal" sense, then what's all this business about "moral agency" and so forth. I have no problem (other than vehemently disagreeing with the judgment) with the claim that you need more than "human" biologically for the "person/moral agent/"human-in-your-usage" designation as a social category. My view of rights is such that I think they are not really social categories. Being a moral realist, I think we discover moral truths and the universe really is sliced up this way. When it comes to human rights, then, as Chesterton once said in a different context, "I'm no filthy nominalist." I do urge you to notice (and this is by no means meant to be insulting--it's a sympton of contemporary philosophy) how long it took you to recognize that we weren't using human, person, moral agent in anything like the same way yet you kept sliding back and forth among the terms as if it were obvious they should all be interchangeable. It is not obvious, and in my view, it is not to be preferred. This is worrying if it wasn't a result of haste, and it shows the degree to which Alasdair MacIntyre's thesis about the chaos of contemporary moral philosophy (and specifically moral vocabulary) is indeed correct. In particular, contemporary philosophers of mind are guilty of the worst sort of arrogance about employing their technical conceptions (as against concepts, as Rawls employs the distinction) as if they were the only available options, but then just begging out of the fundamental questions (see Owen Flanagan punt on morality at the end of his big good on souls, for instance. Or see anything by Dennett...). So, I think the problems for "person" as a concept are deep, they are unacknowledged by many, and they lead me to prefer the commonsensical view that human rights attach to human beings. This saves me from metaphysics and from the post-metaphysical philosophy that's even more mystical than the murky metaphysics it hopes to replace!

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