A Critique of Mary Anne Warren’s On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, Part II
In part one of this examination, I showed that the pro-life position is not logically incoherent in considering the unborn to be human beings, both in the genetic sense and the moral sense. In this article, I’ll examine Warren’s criteria for personhood and show how the unborn certainly qualify.
2. Defining the moral community.
Warren says that it can’t be established that genetic humanity is sufficient for moral humanity. I believe that she is partially correct — what makes someone part of the moral community is not simply the species they belong to. But human beings are much more than their genetics. Being genetically human means that we, the preborn included, have a certain nature. We have an inherent nature as rational, moral agents. It is this inherent nature that makes us a part of the moral community. So it’s not by virtue of their biological species, but the inherent nature of the species they belong to, that makes them part of the moral community.
The problem with this section is that Warren makes absolutely no argument for her position. She claims that it’s self-evident that the unborn are not persons because they don’t perform the functions as persons, but as atheist philosopher Quentin Smith wrote, “A principle p is self-evident if and only if everybody who understands p believes p.” It is not self-evident that the unborn are not persons because not everyone agrees with that position. As another famous atheist, Christopher Hitchens, has noted, “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” If this principle holds true, then we have grounds for dismissing Warren’s entire argument.
Warren concedes that she is not going to give an exhaustive view of what a person is, but believes she has come up with five basic criteria that a person should satisfy. She argues that we have no right to assume that genetic humanity is necessary for personhood. This is true, of course, but since all humans are persons, due to their inherent nature, this does mean that genetic humanity is a sufficient condition for personhood. She asks us to imagine a space traveller who encounters an alien race and wants to know if he should act morally toward them and asks what qualities we should look for. But the pro-life position works here, too — if the alien species is an intelligent species with the same inherent nature as rational, moral agents that we are — Klingons or Vulcans of Star Trek lore, for example, then we should act morally toward them and not treat them as a source of food. Looking at the adults of that species will give us an idea of their inherent nature, but we shouldn’t just assume that only those of the alien species who are old enough to exhibit personal qualities are the only ones it would be wrong to kill.
So what are the criteria she suggests a person must fulfill? They are as follows:
1) Consciousness (of objects and events external and/or internal to the being), and in particular the capacity to feel pain;
2) Reasoning (the developed capacity to solve new and relatively complex problems);
3) Self-motivated activity (activity which is relatively independent of either genetic or direct external control);
4) The capacity to communicate, by whatever means, messages of an indefinite variety of types, that is, not just with an indefinite number of possible contents, but on infinitely many possible topics);
5) The presence of self-concepts, and self-awareness, either individual or racial, or both.
An immediate problem should hit us like a bullet train — if these criteria are necessary, then that would also justify infanticide. Warren recognizes this and subsequently tries to weasel out of it in a postscript added sometime after her essay was published, but we’ll get to that in the last part of this series.
Now I don’t know why she was being so wishy-washy about establishing necessary criteria. She first says that certainly all five don’t need to be present for someone to be a person. (1) and (2) may be sufficient for personhood, or (1) through (3). But another problem presents itself — if you don’t know how many someone would necessarily have to satisfy to be considered a person, how do you know a person must satisfy any of them? Why couldn’t something that doesn’t satisfy any of the criteria be rightly considered a person? Also, if not all of them are necessary, then that means that a being that doesn’t satisfy those conditions can rightly be considered a person for other reasons.
It gets better. She writes, “All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of (1)-(5) is certainly not a person. I consider this claim to be so obvious that I think anyone who denied it, and claimed that a being which satisfied none of (1)-(5) was a person all the same, would thereby demonstrate that he had no notion at all of what a person is — perhaps because he had confused the concept of a person with genetic humanity.” This is sheer intellectual laziness. First, I have already demonstrated why Warren’s claim is not self-evident. Second, rather than actually argue for her claims (what sort of philosopher doesn’t believe she has to support her claims?), she just says “anyone who disagrees with me clearly doesn’t even know what a person is.” This is an attitude that should be relegated to an elementary school playground, not rigorous intellectual discussion.
Pro-life philosopher Stephen Schwartz, in his book The Moral Question of Abortion (Loyola University Press, Chicago, Il., 1990) explains that Warren is confusing being a person with functioning as a person. As Schwartz explains, “Imagine a person in a deep, dreamless sleep. She is not concious, she cannot reason, etc.; she lacks all five of these traits. She is not functioning as a person; that is what being asleep means. But of course she is a person, she retains fully her status of being a person, and killing her while asleep is just as wrong as killing her while she is awake and functioning as a person. Functioning as a person refers to all the activities proper to persons as persons, to thinking in the broadest sense. It includes reasoning, deciding, imagining, talking, experiencing love and beauty, remembering, intending, and much more.”
Schwartz gives an analogy. Imagine two children. One is born comatose and will emerge from his coma after nine years. The second child is born healthy, but as soon as she gains the ability to see herself as a continuing self, she, too, lapses into a coma and will emerge after nine years. If Warren is consistent she would have to say it’s okay to kill the first child for any reason and not the second. But this is absurd. Clearly not being able to function as a person does not disqualify someone from personhood.
Warren ends this section with a discussion of certain humans she does not believe to be persons besides simple healthy fetuses. The entities in question are a man or woman who has had her consciousness permanently obliterated but remains alive, and defective human beings, such as an anencephalic human. However, I believe she is mistaken about this. These two entities are clearly still persons, or at least they differ in relevant ways to healthy fetuses.
First, the man or woman whose consciousness is permanently obliterated. Even if this person is no longer a person, he/she differs from the fetus in a morally relevant way. The fetus does not exhibit personal qualities yet because he is still at the beginning of his life, developing his capacities. The human fetus is more comparable to a person in a reversible coma than to a brain-dead human. So as Schwartz would again argue, the reason we consider brain death the death of the person is because the potentiality to function as a person is irreversibly lost. In the case of the embryo or fetus, the potentiality to function as a person will come.
Second, the severely deformed human. Warren is not clear on what she means by a “defective” human being, but if we’re talking about a child with a disability, then that clearly doesn’t disqualify that child from personhood. But what about the case of a severely deformed human, such as an anencephalic fetus, which is a case in which the brain doesn’t develop fully or at all, and the child will die shortly after birth, if not die in utero? This is a very difficult case for all involved. However, as difficult as this situation is, the fact that someone will live only a short time does not justify killing them. Christopher Kaczor, in The Ethics of Abortion (Routledge, New York, NY, 2011) argues that it is immoral to kill a death row inmate a few days before his date of execution. Since the severely deformed human still has the same intrinsic nature as the rest of us (they just tragically won’t actualize these potentialities), they are still a part of the moral community and we are not permitted to intentionally kill them.
Warren has not even attempted to argue her position. We are now finished with the second section and the pro-life position stands firm. The unborn certainly qualify as persons. In the next section, Warren will try to determine when it can be said that we actually have a right to life.
Being genetically human means that we, the preborn included, have a certain nature. We have an inherent nature as rational, moral agents. It is this inherent nature that makes us a part of the moral community.
To quote your own blog, "The problem with this section is that [it] makes absolutely no argument for [its] position."
Later on, you say "First, I have already demonstrated why Warren's claim is not self-evident," seemingly referring to your "inherent nature" claim. But you in no way "demonstrated" your claim, you merely asserted it.
You say all human beings share "an inherent nature as rational, moral agents," but it's not self-evident that we do. Some humans are irrational; some act in ways that most consider immoral. A significant proportion of preborn humans will (even without abortion) never develop any capacity for thought, due to natural miscarriage. Infants are not rational or moral.
Especially since your argument leans heavily on this point, you probably should address it better.
An immediate problem should hit us like a bullet train — if these criteria are necessary, then that would also justify infanticide.
Warren argued "All we need to claim, to demonstrate that a fetus is not a person, is that any being which satisfies none of (1)-(5) is certainly not a person."
I think Warren somewhat drops the ball on this point when she responds to the infanticide argument. While the overwhelming majority of abortions are of preborns which satisfy none of (1)-(5), the same is not true of infants. Even a newborn infant easily satisfies (1), and older infants satisfy the other points. (The mind boggles that so many people don't realize that infants satisfy (1). Are they all non-parents?)
"A significant proportion of preborn humans will (even without abortion) never develop any capacity for thought"
You're mistaking "nature" for the actual realization of that "nature". As an early embryo, i had a natural capacity for language. If I would have died before gaining the immediate capacity for language that wouldn't change the fact that I, as an embryo, had a capacity for language.
A human being has a rational nature even if he never realizes that rational nature. Consider a rock. If a rock never thinks rationally, we don't consider the rock defective. That's because rocks, by nature, are not rational beings. If a human being fails to realize his rational nature, we immediately recognize that he is defective. This is because a rational nature is inherent in human beings, including the pitiable fellow who never realizes his rational nature.
I think that 'rational' in this sense merely means having the capacity to reason – whether sensibly or not! And moral agency means the ability to make moral or immoral decisions, which every human being does. Preborns have this *inherent* capacity, as it *will* come as they develop.
"Later on, you say "First, I have already demonstrated why Warren's claim is not self-evident," seemingly referring to your "inherent nature" claim. But you in no way "demonstrated" your claim, you merely asserted it."
This refers to demonstrating that Warren's claim is not self-evident. You'll recall that in this case principle p was Warren's claim that "the unborn are not persons because they don't perform the functions as persons." To show this is not self-evident, Clinton cited a definition of "self-evident," which was, "A principle p is self-evident if and only if everybody who understands p believes p." Then he pointed out that there are examples of those who understand Warren's claim but don't believe it (indeed, using any given pro-lifer as an example). QED
As for Clinton's claim that human beings have "an inherent nature as rational, moral agents," I agree that "inherent nature" can be a little difficult to work with. And I for one agree that Clinton needs to do more work to argue for this idea if he intends to keep it. But please don't misunderstand the claim: "inherent nature" here doesn't mean we all behave similarly, but rather that we have similar capacities: the capacity to think, make decisions (right or wrong), develop personal and communal ties, etc. I see a lot of weaknesses in the "inherent nature" claim, but I don't think it's as flimsy as you make it out to be.
"A significant proportion of preborn humans will (even without abortion)
never develop any capacity for thought, due to natural miscarriage."
No, but this is because their life is interrupted by natural miscarriage, et cetera. If their life was not interrupted, then they would eventually develop these traits (thought, et cetera).
"I think Warren somewhat drops the ball on this point when she responds
to the infanticide argument. While the overwhelming majority of
abortions are of preborns which satisfy none of (1)-(5), the same is not
true of infants. Even a newborn infant easily satisfies (1), and older
infants satisfy the other points. (The mind boggles that so many people
don't realize that infants satisfy (1). Are they all non-parents?)"
Yes, and so do many/most non-human animals. Should we consider all of these non-human animals to be persons as well? Also, some postnatal (already born) human beings cannot feel pain due to genetic disorders.
"An immediate problem should hit us like a bullet train — if these
criteria are necessary, then that would also justify infanticide."
This is only a problem if one views it as a problem.
True, but most pro-choice people are not willing to take the leap that if we justify abortion, we have no grounds on which to prevent infanticide (unless you approach it from a bodily rights perspective, as certain people like Warren, Singer, and Tooley do not).
Perhaps after I finish with the examination of Warren's essay, I'll write something defining and defending the position of an "inherent nature." I think the argument is a strong one, even if I haven't always been specific enough as to what it actually entails. My point here is simply that the argument that the unborn are persons because they share the same inherent nature that we do, so abortion is immoral, is much stronger than the argument that the unborn are not persons because they don't currently perform the same functions that the rest of us do (especially since infants also don't perform the higher functions we think of when we think of persons).
I agree wholeheartedly. Thanks for the clarification (I'll take the time to respond to Ampersand persnally, as well).
Thanks, Emily. To be honest, I'm starting to think that the phrase "rational, moral agents" is actually redundant, since part of being rational is being able to recognize right from wrong and make ethical decisions (since one must be rational to do so). But I continue to use it for the sake of simple clarity.
What about the argument that someone else can adopt these infants immediately? Of course, this would still probably justify infanticide in the event of a shortage of prospective adoptive parents, but this would probably be easier for these pro-choicers to swallow than a total support of infanticide.
Also, I have been thinking about this and decided that if I accepted certain pro-choice positions when it comes to personhood, then I would need to support euthanizing infants (infanticide) in at least certain cases, and that despite this position being unfortunate, I would prefer to embrace what is actually "right" from a moral perspective than to try proving myself right.
Also, in regards to a bodily rights perspective, one of the arguments that I see with it (other than the responsibility argument) is that I don't see why it's not okay to violate bodily rights but it's okay to violate one's rights to one's income (and frankly, I consider losing $100,000 or $200,000 to be a greater sacrifice than having my bodily autonomy violated in certain cases).
The way which I think about being "rational" (perhaps for simplicity's sake) that someone (such as Hitler) can make extremely bad decisions about what is right and wrong, but he can still think about the concepts of right and wrong in his mind and to try applying them in the way which he considers appropriate.
Hello, Ampersand, and thank you for your reply.
First, regarding my comment about Warren's claim not being self-evident, as Jameson explained, I showed why it is not self-evident in the third paragraph of the article. A claim p is self-evident if and only if everyone who understands p believes p. Since there are a lot of people who don't believe one must currently perform personal functions (or at least to be able to currently perform personal functions) in order to be a person, the claim is clearly not self-evident.
Next, you said
"You say all human beings share "an inherent nature as rational, moral agents," but it's not self-evident that we do. Some humans are irrational; some act in ways that most consider immoral. A significant proportion of preborn humans will (even without abortion) never develop any capacity for thought, due to natural miscarriage. Infants are not rational or moral."
My response is that I never made the claim that it is self-evident, for one. But I think it can be shown that it is, indeed, self-evident. I'm not aware of any philosophers who deny that the unborn have these inherent capacities — they just argue that the inherent capacities are irrelevant to establishing whether or not someone is a person since someone's potential is not what makes them valuable (and I'll be going into more detail on this point in part four).
Your point here has been responded to already, but the failure to realize an inherent capacity does not mean that the inherent capacity doesn't exist. I have the inherent capacity (sometimes called a second-order capacity) to speak Russian, but unless I go out and learn it it will never become a presently-exercisable capacity (sometimes called a first-order capacity). All human beings, even anencephalic ones, by virtue of belonging to a rational species have an inherently rational nature.
Regarding your final point, even Warren herself (as she indicated in the postscript added later) that infants are disqualified based on her conception of consciousness. As I indicated, she tries to weasel out of it. And besides, if you're going to take the most basic definition of consciousness such as that infants satisfy it, as Coyote mentioned that would also mean that we should consider certain animals to be persons, and we should also consider late-term fetuses to be persons (since they are clearly aware of some minimal things, such as recognizing their mother's voice, sucking their thumb in the womb, and they can even feel pain).
I've never really found the argument that a parent can just give their child to another couple very convincing. First, the same can be said about a pregnant woman. She should give birth to the child and gift the child to a loving couple for adoption, rather than have the child killed. But second, it's actually irrelevant. Just because a parent *could* give their child to another couple would not obligate them to do so, if they were morally justified in killing their child because he/she is a non-person.
I also agree with you that we need to be morally consistent. In fact, there's a type of argument for just this occasion called reductio ad absurdum. If you assume their view is correct, take it to the logical conclusion an it results in an absurdity, the original position is wrong. If a pro-choice person who prefers to argue about personhood is unwilling to support infanticide, then they are inconsistent. They are only trying to save their views, which a simple reductio shows is wrong.
There are many reasons I'm pro-life, but one of the most important is that not only do I believe we have obligations to our own offspring that are not necessarily chosen, but the pro-choice position often results in many absurdities which I would never be able to justify in my mind.
Minor point. Warren wrote her original paper in 1973, which was before Schwarz wrote his 1990 book. So it is understandable that she did not engage his work.
I think you're confusing Mary Anne Warren with Judith Jarvis Thomson, who wrote her essay A Defense of Abortion in 1972. The copy of Warren's essay that I have says that it appeared in Biomedical Ethics, 4th ed. in 1996.
Hmm, it appears you may be right. It must have been a reprint in 1996 (though there's nothing indicating that it appeared earlier). I'll make the appropriate changes.
Hi. Sorry it took me so long to respond; I got busy, and then I sort of forgot about this forum altogether.
Regarding "inherent capability," you seem to be using the word "inherent" as if it were the same as "potential." But they are not the same.
A zygote (for example) is, by its own nature, absolutely incapable of thought, or speech, or of playing soccer. In all of human history, not one zygote has ever done any of these things, and for a zygote to do any of them would literally be miraculous (the opposite of natural).
The only way a zygote can gain these capacities is by becoming not a zygote. To say that a zygote has an "inherent nature" of being able to think, when in fact zygotes only become capable of thought by ceasing to be zygotes, is nonsensical.
Caterpillars do not inherently have a capacity for flight; they have the potential to fly someday, but only by becoming something other than a caterpillar.
"….as Coyote mentioned that would also mean that we should consider certain animals to be persons…"
You've misunderstood Warren's argument, as has Coyote. Warren said that we can be certain that a being that fails to meet any of her list of traits, cannot be a person. Contrary to your argument, it does not logically follow from that if a being meets just one of the list of traits, it must be a person.
If I say "if a fruit does not have at least one of the characteristics A, B, C, D, and E, it cannot be a banana," it does not logically follow from that that I'm saying that all fruits with characteristic A are bananas.
"But please don't misunderstand the claim: "inherent nature" here doesn't
mean we all behave similarly, but rather that we have similar
capacities: the capacity to think, make decisions (right or wrong),
develop personal and communal ties, etc."
But I don't have similar capacities to a zygote. I have actual capacities to "think, make decisions," etc; the zygote is physically incapable of doing that. What a zygote has is potential to grow into something that is not a zygote, that has those capacities.
The claim that a zygote and I have similar capacities seems based on ignoring the difference between "potential" and "actual."
" If a rock never thinks rationally, we don't consider the rock
defective. That's because rocks, by nature, are not rational beings."
Zygotes, by nature, are not natural beings. They are physically incapable of thought (rational or otherwise).
A zygote who thinks would be the same as a rock who thinks: a miracle.
Of course, I could take a rock and process it, using the minerals in the the rock to manufacture a computer, or even (if you'll permit a bit of sci-fi) a genuinely thinking computer like Data on "Star Trek." That wouldn't be a miracle; that would merely be the rock becoming something different from the rock, something which is capable of thought.
Actually, human zygotes are by nature rational beings just as much as someone who is out cold drunk. Zygotes currently can't think but it is in their nature to think.
i don't see how you can argue with that. Perhaps, we're quibbling over the definition of words.
No worries. Thanks for your response.
I am well aware of the difference in terms between "inherent" and "potential." An inherent capacity is a capacity that one has by virtue of the kind of thing it is, even if they haven't developed the ability to presently exercise it. Because the zygote has an inherent capacity for rational thought, it has the active potential to be rational. So it has the potential for rationality by virtue of its inherent capacity for rationality. A zygote is still a human organism, just one at an earlier stage of development than the more mature versions of itself.
Your analogy comparing a zygote with a caterpillar does not argue against my position. A zygote is a human being at an earlier stage of development, that will develop into a more mature version of itself. But it doesn't have rationality added, it develops the present ability for rationality from within itself. Of course a zygote has never spoken, thought, or anything else, but that's irrelevant. It has the inherent capacity for these things by virtue of belonging to a personal species, Homo sapiens. Infants don't speak English, either, but they are still the kind of entities that can speak English (of course I am speaking of infants in English-speaking countries). A zygote is not a separate entity from an embryo; it is the same entity that has matured and developed some more. Just like an infant is not a separate entity from an adolescent, it is the same entity that just has to mature and develop.
It seems to me you don't actually understand what is meant by the term "inherent." The zygote is the same entity through all points of its existence, from fertilization to natural death. The DNA a human being possesses is the same from fertilization to natural death. Human beings are the kinds of entities that grow certain body parts (like arms and legs), and they are also the kinds of beings who can perform personal acts (like rationality and consciousness). So by virtue of having their DNA right from the very beginning, everything that zygote will develop is already present in its DNA. It just has to develop enough to express those things. A human is human before she develops arms and legs, and a person is a person before she develops rationality and consciousness.
So yes, caterpillars have an inherent capacity for flight, which they will be able to presently exercise when they become butterflies. An inherent capacity is not developed when they can presently exercise a capacity. Rather, one can presently exercise that capacity because they have the inherent capacity for it. If they did not, there would be nothing to presently exercise. So as an example, five-year-old girls have the inherent capacity to become pregnant, but they won't be able to presently-exercise it until after they go through puberty.
I don't think Coyote and I have misunderstood Warren's argument. What he and I are attempting to show is that the consciousness criteria proves too much. If she's going to use consciousness as a criteria, then on what grounds would she say that animals can't be persons (this is actually one of the arguments that Singer uses to show that animals are persons, except the morally relevant condition for him is self-awareness). I didn't go this way with my response, but I could have shown that all of her criteria either prove too much or include too little. Five bad arguments for personhood don't make one good one.