Philosophers Argue Against Equal Fetal Rights Amendment in Irish Constitution


A referendum is being conducted this week in Ireland over whether to repeal the 8th Amendment of the Irish Constitution, which declares that “The State acknowledges the right to life of the unborn and, with due regard to the equal right to life of the mother, guarantees in its laws to respect, and, as far as practicable, by its laws to defend and vindicate that right.” In anticipation of the vote, a group of over 40 philosophers have published a statement urging the amendment’s repeal.

Here is the text of the statement:

The upcoming referendum asks us to decide whether the unborn should have constitutional rights. Many good arguments have been put forward in support of the idea that women and girls in Ireland should not be forced to travel abroad or face the threat of a 14 year prison sentence if they find themselves unable to carry a pregnancy to term. What has not been discussed much is whether a 12-week old foetus is a person entitled to constitutional protection. What makes this particularly problematic is that the issue hinges on a complex philosophical question that has no straightforward answer, namely ‘What is a person and when does a person begin?’

We can all agree that there are clear cases where a person does exist: nobody doubts that a seven year-old is a person. There are also cases where we can all accept that a person does not exist: neither a human sperm nor an unfertilized egg is a person. Some claim that a fertilized egg is a person. We think this is totally implausible: while it contains DNA that could belong to a person, the same DNA is also contained in the egg and sperm that combined to form that fertilized egg in the first place; it has merely been moved into a single cell. A fertilized egg has no feelings, no character, nothing that we value in each other as persons.

For most of European history, in fact, a person was not thought to come into being as soon as a fertilized egg was present. Influential figures like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that a foetus is not a person until it begins to move, which they took to be 40-80 days after conception. This is not a very plausible criterion for personhood either, since early movements are generated simply by muscle twitches that can occur even in muscle fibres detached from a body. A more plausible condition on personhood is sentience — the ability to have experiences including pain. But experiencing pain depends on brain functions that do not develop until at least the 20th week of pregnancy.

We grant that the question ‘when does a person begin’ is complex. But because the constitution is the backbone for all law in the state, it should be confined to highly plausible restrictions on the law that more or less everyone can agree with. The 8th amendment is not a legitimate addition to the constitution, because it binds the entire community to a highly controversial position on a complex question that could never find widespread agreement, with very serious effects for the health of many of the state’s residents. Our view is that the amendment should be repealed.

The letter’s signatories at the time of this post are Lilian Alweiss (Trinity College Dublin), Robbie Arrell (Wuhan University), John Baker (University College Dublin), John Barry (Queen’s University Belfast), Keith Begley (Trinity College Dublin), Keith Breen (Queen’s University Belfast), Liam Kofi Bright (London School of Economics),  Darragh Byrne (University of Birmingham), Brian Carey (University of Limerick), Maeve Cooke (University College Dublin), Aisling Crean (University of Oxford), John Danaher (NUI Galway), Oisín Deery, (Monash University), Cian Dorr (New York University), Heike Feldman (University College Galway), Graham Finlay (University College Dublin), Tim Fernando (Trinity College Dublin), Dr Brian Garvey (Lancaster University), Shane Glackin (University of Exeter), Elizabeth Hannon (London School of Economics and Political Science), James Jardine (University College Dublin), Richard Kearney (Boston College), Adam Loughnane (University College Cork), James Mahon (City University of New York), Neil McDonnell (University of Glasgow), John McGuire (University College Dublin), Conor McHugh (University of Southampton), Marie Moran (University College Dublin), Clare Moriarty (King’s College London), Cara Nine (University College Cork), Samir Okasha (University of Bristol), Felix Ó Murchadha (NUI Galway), Cathal Ó Madagáin (École Normale Supérieure), Mahon O’Brien (University of Sussex), Lilian O’Brien (University College Cork), Jim O’Shea (University College Dublin), Adina Preda (University of Limerick), Don Ross (University College Cork), Alessandro Salice (University College Cork), Markus Schlosser (University College Dublin), Andrew Shorten (University of Limerick), Damien Storey (Trinity College Dublin), Nick Tosh (NUI Galway), Elmar Unnsteinsson (University College Dublin), Joel Walmsley (University College Cork), and Alexa Zellentin (University College Dublin).

(via Joel Walmsley)

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Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

If a law protecting the fetus’s rights “could never find widespread agreement”, then it will be voted down in the referendum. But this is no reason for any individual in that referendum to personally vote against fetal rights.Report

JDRox
JDRox
2 years ago

Those are a lot of philosophers to disagree with, but saying “the same DNA is also contained in the egg and sperm that combined to form that fertilized egg in the first place” is blatant sophistry, right?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

It looks fairly persuasive to me; if there’s sophistry, it’s at any rate not blatant enough for me to notice it.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

That’s good I guess! In one sense, at least. But…I’m still not sure what’s going on. The only true reading of that claim I can get is if we treat ‘DNA’ as a sort of mass term: the quantity of DNA stuff that is in the conceptus used to be in the sperm and the egg. But we’re not asking about the quantity of DNA material, we’re asking whether a certain living thing (arguably, an organism) with a certain genetic code (with certain specific DNA) was you, and that’s at least superficially plausible: after all, that thing had *your* DNA. But neither the sperm nor the egg had your DNA.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

The sperm and the egg, collectively, had my DNA, just as the left half of the fertilized egg and the right half of the fertilized egg, collectively, had my DNA. Or, if we move away from a sort of primitive DNA essentialism and assume what matters about DNA is that it determines my identity-defining physical features, the propensity of the system consisting of (egg plus sperm-about-to-fertilise-egg plus friendly environment) to develop into me is not interestingly different from the propensity of the system consisting of (fertilized egg plus friendly environment).

You could try saying (perhaps your post suggests this) that what matters is that a “living thing” has the DNA, so that the distinction between (sperm-and-egg-separately) and (fertilized-egg) is that one doesn’t “count” as a living thing and the other does. But then you need an argument as to why you’ve decided that that’s true, and why the distinction you’ve drawn is ethically load-bearing. It’s not scientifically-load-bearing: natural-selection-derived biology just doesn’t care about precise definitions in that way. “Organism” is a useful theory term in biology but only because it has clear applications in most cases, not because it has a unique extension to something precise and significant.

(Don’t take any of these comments seriously since I’m way outside my area of expertise, but for the purposes at hand all I need to establish is “not blatant sophistry”, not “uncontentiously true”!)Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

I find it puzzling why the “unity” moment would be an arbitrary one to carry an ethical load. Hydrogen and oxygen, when separate, are not water. If you said that the hydrogen had the POTENTIAL to be drunk for nourishment, you would be saying something plainly false. Similarly, if you said that the sperm cell had the potential to be a janitor, you would also be saying something false.

Once united, sperm and egg have all the potential capacities that the human they become will ever have. This is uncontroversial. It is, however, very strange to say something like “these two hydrogen atoms and this oxygen atom have the potential to put out a fire”. I believe my metaphysics professor would have said that such a claim assumed “unrestrained fusion”.

I’m not making a claim about the sophistry issue. I am saying, however, that there are few moments LESS arbitrary for establishing personhood than the moment the egg fertilizes.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

“Hydrogen and oxygen, when separate, are not water.”

But if I start with two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom in an appropriate wavefunction, and evolve it forward in time until eventually I get a bound state that has dumped its excitation energy into its environment, there is no particularly relevant or interesting point at which you’d uniquely define the system as having stopped being hydrogen and oxygen, and started being water. “Water molecule”, in quantum mechanics, is defined diachronically in terms of its dynamical features, on timescales much longer than the timescale of the reaction that forms it, and has no exact starting point on those timescales – much like “organism”.

(Given my disclaimer in my last post about my lack of expertise, I appreciate the courtesy of using a quantum physics analogy!)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

Actually, on reflection even without considering the physics, I don’t find the analogy convincing.

Consider:
System 1 is a cylinder of 2kg of hydrogen, plus a cylinder of 16kg of oxygen.
System 2 is a cylinder of 18kg of superheated steam
System 3 is an 18-kg block of ice
System 4 is 18kg of salt water.

None can be drunk for nourishment. All have the potential to be drunk for nourishment; you just have to do the right physical operation on it.

And come to think of it, system 5 is 18 kg of hydrogen gas. That too has the potential to be drunk for nourishment; there’s a difference of degree in the difficulty of the physical transformation required but not (in the most strongly metaphysical sense) a difference in kind, because Nature doesn’t really do differences in kind.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

“You just have to do the right physical operation on it.”

Your grammar displays your willingness to arbitrarily declare piles of things singular objects — what I called “unrestrained fusion” above. There is no “it” to perform an operation on, in the hydrogen and oxygen case. There is no THING there that could conceivably be changed into a potable. There are only — plural — things.

You say “nature does not do differences in kind”, but surely you don’t expect that to be an uncontroversial claim. Nor do I understand what it’s supposed to mean. I’m no physicist, but it would appear to me that there is a difference in kind between oxygen and hydrogen. The notion that certain middle-sized goods (most plausibly living things) have an ontological status that is distinct from their components is such a historically rich and metaphysically plausible one that it surely cannot be disproven in a short post on the Daily Nous.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

@Arthur Greeves: if you’d rather, there’s ONE cylinder containing ONE mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. How many things are there? Depends if you’re counting cylinders, molecules, atoms, nucleons, excitation modes, strings, space time points…

As for whether there’s a difference “in kind” between hydrogen and oxygen, I don’t know what “in kind” means, and neither does physics. There’s a difference between hydrogen and water, sure, but there’s a difference between liquid water and ice. Can the metaphysician look at the physics and draw distinctions of kind in a principled way? Maybe, but the attempts I’ve seen are generally hopelessly naive as to the physics.Report

Maja Sidzinska
Maja Sidzinska
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

I find it controversial that “Once united, sperm and egg have all the potential capacities that the human they become will ever have.”

It takes more than fertilization to confer onto the organism its potential capacities. In the case of mammals it also takes pregnancy, which is a necessary condition for those capacities to (later) be actualized.

(And, as far as I know, philosophers of biology haven’t sorted out whether a pregnant organism is a unit of selection, or whether a fertilized egg is, or what their relation is.)Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

Food is also a necessary condition. Indeed, things like love and good education are necessary conditions of a human’s potential being realized. The object has the potential prior to receiving these necessary conditions, however. Perhaps there is a reason to find my claim controversial, but you haven’t given that reason.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

@Arthur Greeves: I think you could rephrase Maja Sidzinska’s comment as “what is the argument that a fertilized egg has all the potential capacities that the subsequent human has?” In any event, that’s certainly my question. It seems to presuppose exactly the identity questions at issue. After all, an adult human weighs 50+ kilograms. The matter comprising a fertilized egg doesn’t have the potential to weight 50+ kilograms: insofar as I have (ugh) to use the language of essential properties, physical objects have their mass essentially. So I need some different theory of identity, statue-and-clay fashion, to say that the egg has that potential even though the matter of which it is comprised does not. But doesn’t that beg the question as to whether I should treat it as identical with the adult human?

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Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

David, would you say that organisms have identity conditions? This is clearly the view that biologists have taken for centuries, and it’s hardly the type of thing that one would assume must be argued for. I’m not presuming (circularly) that the fertilized egg is the “same person” as the grown adult. Rather, I’m just claiming that it is the same organism. Of course, it could split, creating twins, and that’s a fun personal identity conversation. But in the ordinary case, there would seem to be all the same reasons available to identify the fertilized egg with the adult that there is to identify a one-week-old with an adult.

If you don’t think I was once the one-week-old organism that my mother nursed, we have other problems.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

“Of course, it could split, creating twins, and that’s a fun personal identity conversation.”

Or maybe combine what might have been fraternal twins into a single heterozygotic individual? These are serious questions that involve real people and real questions about the full moral status of *individuals* as such. Don’t just snap your fingers and dismiss peoples’ real lives and biological histories. That’s philosophically and morally repugnant. These questions of identity and origin must include everyone or they have the distinct scent of a familiar exclusive way to Make Absolutism Great Again. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

@Arthur Greaves:

“Would you say organisms have identity conditions?”

I’d say organisms – like basically any other special-science kind – have fuzzy identity conditions that go indeterminate around the edges, don’t have non-arbitrary ways of being made precise, and are somewhat pragmatic and interest-relative.

“This is clearly the view that biologists have taken for centuries.”

I know very little about the history of biology, but contemporary science just isn’t in the business of making hard-edge ontological distinctions, except as a matter of arbitrary convenient stipulation.

“It’s hardly the type of thing that one would assume must be argued for.”

Then “what one would assume” is doing a poor job of tracking scientific practice.

(Usual disclaimers about expertise. I am very sure, as an expert, that atoms and elementary particles don’t have non-fuzzy identity conditions. I am reasonably, but less reliably, confident this extends to biological systems.)Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

Alan,

I didn’t dismiss anyone, and I certainly didn’t do anything morally repugnant. It can both be fun to ask the philosophical question and deeply important to someone personally. I find it fun to talk about the ethics of situations involving hostage situations, but that doesn’t mean I would talk to someone in such a situation glibly. We ask questions in armchairs, and we enjoy asking the questions, and that’s OK.

I also didn’t mean to suggest that the question was easy to answer or unimportant. Perhaps my use of “fun” made you think I thought it unimportant. But in a conversation where you are defending the straightforward killing of individuals who I consider to be people, I am having trouble understanding how my own claim about how I would experience metaphysical conversations about twinning is supposed to be the thing we find morally repugnant. (Mind you, I don’t find your arguments morally repugnant at all; I just think they are flawed.)Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

“I’d say organisms – like basically any other special-science kind – have fuzzy identity conditions that go indeterminate around the edges, don’t have non-arbitrary ways of being made precise, and are somewhat pragmatic and interest-relative.”

Are you the same person I began this conversation talking to?Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

Yes, because that’s not in the fuzzy indeterminate region around the edges of the application of the concept. Any remotely reasonable precisification returns that answer.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

“insofar as I have (ugh) to use the language of essential properties, physical objects have their mass essentially.”

I don’t think this is a critical point, but why think this is true? I’m a physical object, right? If I had my mass essentially, I wouldn’t have to worry about eating too much. This is a flip example but I mean the general point in all seriousness: hardly any physical objects, other than mereological simples, have their mass essentially. (Trees, toads, tables, etc.)Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Maja Sidzinska
2 years ago

Okay, that demonstrates that I can’t pass the ideological Turing Test for essentialism! I think I had in mind lumps of matter (the clay, not the statue) but since I don’t think this is a scientifically defensible view anyway, I’m probably not doing it justice.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Arthur Greeves
2 years ago

AG (friend of CS Lewis)–read my comment carefully. The case of heterozygotic individuals would, by your view, be case of two distinct individuals with full moral status becoming one, the reverse case of one such becoming two or three or. . . Nature doesn’t care about careful distinctions we try to make–it just goes her own way and we need to try and make best sense of that. Seems clear to me that best sense doesn’t flow from simplistic “[full moral] life begins at conception” thinking. . . . And again, clearly nature or whatever might be behind nature is the biggest offender in producing unimplanted embryos. Half-baked ideas in the service of controlling people’s lives and choices is very offensive to me.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

Well, Alan, it seems like you’re no longer accusing me of dire deeds, and moreover, you’ve recognized where I got my name from. Those are both things that make me happy.

I’m a bit puzzled by your complaint about the consequences of my view, though. I don’t see any problem, morally, with individuals splitting or merging or anything like that. I don’t actually find individuality all that central to ethics — things like care, justice, and respect are far more important. I would not be troubled if ADULT organisms could split or merge or what have you. I would think that each living human thing has rights, and my view has nothing whatsoever to do with individuality.

Some pro-life individuals are very firmly wedded to traditional Christian/Jewish/Muslim notions of the individual soul. I’m not. I would describe myself as roughly Aristotelian about living things and their natures.Report

Arthur Greeves
Arthur Greeves
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

I said “each living human thing has rights”, but on second thought that goes too far. Lab-grown organs, for instance, certainly wouldn’t have rights. It is, once again, a matter of potential.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

There is no physical reason why you couldn’t build a complicated nanotechnological/chemical vat such that if you dropped a vat-grown organ into it, it would develop into a human foetus with the same DNA.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Alan White
2 years ago

Well you go on and on about identity conditions with DW but then say that the issue of individuality doesn’t concern you. I guess we’re done, “Arthur”. Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

Sorry about the delayed reply. And yes, even though I disagree I wouldn’t accuse you of blatant sophistry! But I’m not sure why you’re saying that whether or not a “living thing” has some DNA isn’t scientifically load-bearing, although maybe we’re talking past one another. (The laws of natural selection wouldn’t apply to a bunch of DNA in a petri dish, or DNA in rabbit meat in a wolf’s stomach, or to a corpse, would they?)

But anyhow, the only thing I really was trying to say was that the “rebuttal” in the statement seemed sophistical. I suppose that depends on the argument it is rebutting! I take it that the argument they’re responding to is something like:

1) Being a person–having a right to life–is an essential property of mine.
2) I am identical to a specific organism.
3) An organism with my DNA came into existence at the time of “my” conception (or very shortly thereafter, doesn’t matter), and at no other time.
4) So, I came into existence at conception.
5) So, fetuses have a right to life.

And I take it that “the same DNA is also contained in the egg and sperm that combined to form that fertilized egg in the first place” is supposed to rebut (3)–there’s no other premise it could be rebutting, right? The quoted statement seems to be suggesting that my DNA predated “my” conception. The main reason I thought the claim was sophistical was that my DNA predated “my” conception only in the sense in which an omelet predates cooking in the separate forms of eggs and cheese, which I take to be no sense of predating at all. The second and broader sense in which the response seems sophistical is that “the same DNA is also contained in the egg and sperm that combined to form that fertilized egg in the first place” (interpreted so as to be true) doesn’t actually cast doubt on any of the above premises, nor the premises of any other important argument for the wrongness of abortion of which I am aware. But it’s really the first thing that irked me. However, calling the claim ‘blatantly sophistical’ was, err, probably an overreaction. Sorry!Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

Well, to be fair this is my reconstruction and I don’t know whether I’m being too charitable. But: the way I read it isn’t: the sperm and egg, separately and in isolation, count as having the DNA. It’s that the physical system consisting of sperm, egg and appropriate environment, all appropriately arranged, has the DNA, not just in some narrow counting sense but in the full sense that it’s got the dynamical propensity to develop into (something everyone agrees counts as) a person, and it has it to basically the same degree as the fertilized egg does.

Now, sure: unless the sperm and egg are appropriately situated in an environment conducive to their development then they’re not going to so develop; indeed, even if they are so situated there’s a good chance they won’t so develop. But that’s true for a fertilized egg too: it needs a very specific environment in which to develop; it doesn’t, in isolation, have the potential to do anything very much.

I think looking for a bright-line moment at which “an organism came into existence” is looking for a line that science itself won’t give you in a non-arbitrary way, and I think a lot of the way ontology talk is used in these contexts is based on a metaphysics of ontology that’s a bad fit for realistic science.

(To illustrate in less charged contexts (and again, taking a bit of a risk by going outside the core of my expertise): what’s an organism? In most cases it’s obvious. But is a virus an organism? How about a prion? Are plants that reproduce asexually one organism or many? Does it matter whether they remain physically connected or not? These aren’t really scientifically interesting questions; they’re pragmatic questions about the best way to draw up our classification scheme, like the question of whether Pluto is a planet.)

Now, to be sure, *given* that there’s no non-arbitrary place to draw a line, sometimes we need to draw an arbitrary line. If you think that (a) contraception isn’t morally problematic, but (b) abortion is problematic really early in the pregnancy, but (c) you agree with the scientific/metaphysical case I’m making, you could make a good case that conception is the clearest, best-defined line to choose. But you could make that case for implantation too, or for the onset of cell differentiation, and I don’t think scientific facts will help you decide between them.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

David (if I may) has provided here a pretty much rock-bottom reply. Then the question moves to political questions of how much one value-based view should hold moral and legal sway over others given that there is significant if not unsurpassable epistemic uncertainty about the key issues. Thus the issue of uncertainty about the moral status of unimplanted embryos ought to guide public policy at least about that early portion of reproduction if also not after. So, for example, benefit-of-the-doubt positions favoring the full moral standing of embryos should pass fairly high rational standards to pass muster for credence. I for one see no reason to see that will take place. So now the arguments should shift to public policy ones given our intractable ignorance.

It is also clear that reasonable estimates for failure of world-wide implantation of zygotes/embryos (from various published pieces over the last few decades)–while recognizing the inherent uncertainty of the data, but from converging sources that yield confidence in a range–place that failure between 15 to as much as 50 per cent of fertilized ova. Even if the lower figures are close, then it turns out that if one defines abortion as the destruction of the zygote and after, then nature is empirically the largest abortion provider. While this line of reasoning does nothing to resolve the conceptual question of the moral status of fertilized ova, it does provide a challenge to theological accounts that rule (for example) morning-after treatments as murder. I don’t see, for instance, how the doctrine of double-effect could apply to a sovereign omniscient being in this case to salvage sacrificing one value for another.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

From the other thread:

Hmm, maybe I’ve lost the dialectic, but I don’t think abortion opponents deny that the boundaries of what’s an organism can be vague–conception itself takes time, so even if you think that we get a new organism at conception there will still be borderline cases of “new organism”. And of course one might hold that really a new organism comes into existence only after implantation (16 days: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12715281), or after the development of a central nervous system, or whatever. The argument for “fetal rights” we were discussing just claimed that we are organisms, that we have our fundamental rights essentially, and that we were once fetuses–e.g., the organism that I am was once a fetus. Indeed, the thing that I thought was sophistical was basically the kind of reasoning that you (David/Daniel) now seem to be arguing *against*: it’s vague when we get a new organism, so there’s no real difference between something that is clearly an organism (a 9 week old fetus) and something that (I maintain) clearly isn’t: a sperm and an egg 14cm from each other. But again, maybe I’ve lost the dialectic. Still, this passage seems to suggest that the distinction between organism/non-organism is illegitimate, or at least not scientifically load-bearing:

“You could try saying (perhaps your post suggests this) that what matters is that a “living thing” has the DNA, so that the distinction between (sperm-and-egg-separately) and (fertilized-egg) is that one doesn’t “count” as a living thing and the other does. But then you need an argument as to why you’ve decided that that’s true, and why the distinction you’ve drawn is ethically load-bearing. It’s not scientifically-load-bearing: natural-selection-derived biology just doesn’t care about precise definitions in that way. “Organism” is a useful theory term in biology but only because it has clear applications in most cases, not because it has a unique extension to something precise and significant.”

If the distinction between male/female can be vague yet legitimate and scientifically load-bearing, I’m not sure why the distinction between organism/non-organism can’t be legitimate and scientifically load-bearing as well.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

So: the thesis I’m defending (I hope consistently, here and on the other thread) is that
(a) scientific kinds pretty much inevitably have blurry boundaries, penumbral cases, and occasional awkward exception cases;
(b) that doesn’t undermine their scientific significance; but
(c) don’t look to science (or anything else non-arbitrary) to sharpen those boundaries; if you need to do it by stipulative definition for some normative purpose, go for it, but don’t kid yourself into thinking you’re carving Nature at the joints.
I haven’t really discussed explicitly, but would add,
(d) scientific ontology depends to some degree on environment, because that sets the dispositional properties of the system. (So I don’t think a collection of electrons and nuclei in the center of the sun that through pure happenstance arrange themselves in the shape of a bacterium count as alive, because the environment is too radically wrong.)

In the case of “organism”, infants are unambiguously organisms, the mereological sum of a random sperm and a random egg unambiguously isn’t an organism. But the fertilized egg is in the penumbral region, lacking as it does most but not all the functional characteristics that pick out “organism”. The embryo a few divisions later, likewise: absent any systematic integration, is it a collection of distinct cells, or one organism. It still lacks nearly all the defining characteristics. (To say that it has them “potentially” is question-begging; the sperm+egg system, a millisecond before fertilization, also has them potentially; on a sufficiently broad notion of potential, an arbitrary hunk of matter of the right mass has them potentially.) Even the several-months-along embryo still doesn’t fully fit the description, given how integrated it is with the mother’s system. (Identity conditions can also go fuzzy and penumbral; is mother + embryo one organism, or two? Don’t look to science for sharp divisions.)

So, if (unlike me FWIW) you think that humans have rights qua human organism, then since it’s fuzzy and penumbral whether an embryo is a human organism, it’s fuzzy and penumbral what rights they have. If you want to enshrine those rights in law or practice of course you’ll want to draw a line, but there are lots to choose from (fertilization? implantation? cell differentiation? heartbeat? quickening? viability? birth?) Simple consideration of the scientific kind of “organism” won’t help you know where to draw the line. What might help is reflection on why you thought there was an ethical distinction to draw between “organism” and “non-organism” – if it’s about capacity to suffer, or capability to survive without the mother, say, that will help you out – but even that won’t give you a perfectly sharp line.

In the case of “biological sex”, the vast majority of (human and non-human) animals can unambiguously be assigned one sex or another. There are fuzzy and penumbral cases: some natural (children born intersex or with hormone deficiencies which mean their chromosome doesn’t manifest in phenotype), some human-caused (people who’ve had various forms of surgery and hormone therapy). Don’t assume that science will give you a nice sharp line and that everyone must be on one side or another (as I understand it from Alice Dreger’s book, Galileo’s Middle Finger, intersex people were very badly treated by a medical profession thinking in these terms). And if you think that some social/legal/political distinction should be drawn on the grounds of biological sex, recognize that you’ll need to make a fairly arbitrary stipulation as to where the boundary lies, and in making that stipulation, reflect on your underlying motivation. (I think sex divisions in sport are a good illustration.) But also, don’t assume that there’s no distinction to draw just because that distinction goes fuzzy and penumbral in places.
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JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

I’m so sorry if I’m lost, but the claim/argument (call it The Reply) that I thought was sophistical was: “Some claim that a fertilized egg is a person. We think this is totally implausible: while it contains DNA that could belong to a person, the same DNA is also contained in the egg and sperm that combined to form that fertilized egg in the first place; it has merely been moved into a single cell.”

We agree that there is some vagueness about when a new organism comes into existence, but we agree that it isn’t before conception! If a separated sperm and egg unambiguously and *obviously* aren’t an organism, then I think you should agree that The Reply is sophistical. It’s totally irrelevant, right? At least, it’s irrelevant to this argument:

1) Being a person–having a right to life–is an essential property of mine.
2) I am identical to a specific organism.
3) An organism with my DNA came into existence at the time of “my” conception (or very shortly thereafter, doesn’t matter), and at no other time.
4) So, I came into existence at conception.
5) So, fetuses have a right to life.

But maybe I’m confused, and The Reply is really a response to Marquis. His argument is:

M1) It’s wrong to deprive things of a future like ours.
M2) Killing most fetuses deprives them of a future like ours.
M3) So, it’s wrong to kill (most) fetuses.

But it’s totally unclear how The Reply is relevant to this argument. So I really think it is supposed to be a reply to the first argument. If so, then I think it’s an atrocious one. Another possibility is that it’s a reply to some argument I haven’t thought of, and I’m wasting everybody’s time.

As an aside, I agree that while there’s some vagueness about when human organisms come into existence (at the very least, because conception takes time), I’m having trouble thinking of any reasons for doubting that human fetuses (8+ weeks old) are unambiguously organisms. You seem to suggest that the reason is that they’re integrated with the mother, but they’re no more integrated then than they are right before birth, right? You agree that a *fully developed* fetus is clearly an organism, right? Anyhow, I’d be interested to hear why you don’t think that 8 week old fetuses are (clearly) organisms. That is a different topic than whether The Reply is sophistical though, so it’s fine if you want to beg off. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

By this stage I’m more making the point as to why (I claim!) I’m advancing a consistent ontology in the cases of gender and organisms. My interpretation of the original argument has probably gone a long way from what’s strictly justified in an interpretation of the text, and you agreed a while ago that “blatantly sophistical” was an overreaction anyway, so I’m not sure it’s that productive for me to go back to that starting point now.

… but, for what it’s worth, here goes anyway: my reconstruction of the authors’ dialectic.

40 Philosophers: Why think a fertilized egg is a person?
Hypothetical critic: Because it has the same DNA as a person
40 Philosophers: The system consisting of an about-to-be-fertilized egg and the sperm that’s going to fertilize the egg also has that DNA
Hypothetical critic (possibly also you and/or Arthur Greeves): But it doesn’t have it in a form that’s relevant to the question, because (e.g.) it’s not possessed by a single entity/it lacks the capacities or potentials of a fertilized egg
Wallace interjection: those distinctions aren’t naturalistically defensible, because they don’t permit a non-arbitrary division to be drawn between the just-fertilized egg and the about-to-be-fertilized egg.

You, I, and Arthur Greeves have been talking a lot about organisms, but that word doesn’t appear in the OP. They consider several candidate theories for personhood – sentience, response to stimuli, DNA sameness, but not that one.

As for organisms, 8 week old fetuses have some of the properties normally taken as characteristic of organisms, lack others; in the case of others still (e.g. the ability to reproduce) the answer itself depends on the identity conditions for organisms. And on my take on higher-order ontology, that’s all there is to say; there’s no interesting further question as to whether, overall and on average, that means an 8-week old fetus is *really* an organism.Report

JDRox
JDRox
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

No worries if you want to drop it, but I was assuming that the claim about organisms is what was really at issue, since nobody thinks sameness of DNA makes twins the same person. The real interesting claim is that adult human organisms were once zygotes. (Of course there are other interesting claims, but that’s the one that DNA is relevant to.) So I would reconstruct things as follows:

40 Philosophers: Why think a zygote is a person?
Hypothetical critic: Because human persons = human organisms, and a zygote is a human organism. After all, zygotes are organisms with human DNA.
40 Philosophers: The system consisting of an about-to-be-fertilized egg and the sperm that’s going to fertilize the egg also has human DNA.
Hypothetical critic: Whaaat? First, the system doesn’t have any DNA, since “the system” isn’t a thing at all, but two separate things. Second, the system doesn’t have my DNA, since prior to my fertilization, there were zero molecules of my DNA in existence, and my DNA has to exist in order for anything to have it. Finally, when we’re talking about something “having my DNA” we’re not merely talking about my DNA existing *in* a living thing^, we’re talking about my DNA being the DNA *of* a living thing. My DNA is not the genetic code of the sperm or the egg–or of “the system”, for that matter.
Wallace interjection: those distinctions aren’t naturalistically defensible, because they don’t permit a non-arbitrary division to be drawn between the just-fertilized egg and the about-to-be-fertilized egg.
Hypothetical critic: There being zero or more than zero molecules of my DNA in existence seems about as non-arbitrary and naturalistically defensible as things get. The difference between a (separate) sperm and an egg and the zygote that results from the fertilization of the egg by the sperm is also a scientifically important distinction, or at least a distinction made by scientists. We can debate about whether a new organism only comes into existence *after* conception. But new organisms definitely don’t come into existence *before* conception, which is the time period the 40 philosophers are talking about.

One last thing: I’m still not sure why you’re denying that 8-week old fetuses are organisms. What “properties characteristic of organisms” do they lack that a fully-developed, overdue fetus has? Or a newborn infant? I agree that there’s some vagueness about what counts as an organism, but I’m just not sure why you think it extends as far as you do. Maybe the talk of “properties characteristic of organisms” is causing confusion: as you say, the ability to reproduce is “characteristic” of organisms, but my infertile sister is a crystal clear case of an organism. Or I guess her body is, if you deny, as you seem to, that my sister is a human organism at all. Talk about non-naturalistically-defensible views! 😉

^ The system isn’t even a living thing, much less an organism, but even if it were.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

I think this is going round in circles. Claims about how many things there are depend on fairly arbitrary questions about how you individuate your ontology; claims that DNA in a fertilized egg is your DNA whereas the same molecules in an infertilised egg and a sperm aren’t, seem to beg the personal-identity question at issue. As for when things count as organisms, the fact that I’m not a philosopher of biology means I don’t want to push this too far- but if you have a definition of “organism” that’s naturalistically defensible, doesn’t appeal at all to intuition or aprioristic metaphysics, and delivers unambiguous answers for fetuses, I’d be interested to know what it is.

Beyond that I think I’ll bow out of this on grounds of diminishing returns, but if you want to discuss in person at some point when we’re collocated (and if you trust me with your anonymity I guess) that would be interesting. Pending that, thanks for the discussion.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

I thought I’d written a proper reply to this but my phone seems to have eaten it. Since I’m traveling, I’ll reproduce just the brief version: I think this has reached the going-round-in-circles phase, or at least the diminshing-returns phase, so I’ll bow out. Thanks for the discussion; happy to discuss in person some time if we’re co-located and if you trust me with your anonymity.Report

Sikander
Sikander
Reply to  JDRox
2 years ago

I also was struck by that. I am pro-choice myself and support the conclusion those philosophers are pushing, but I do not find that reasoning (about the same DNA being present in the zygote as the sperm + ovum) persuasive at all. It is committing a reductionistic fallacy. Someone like Don Marquis could reasonably hold that there is a meaningful difference between the zygote and the sperm + ovum even if the quantity of DNA is the same. Arrangement does matter, and there could be more to the being and significance of a zygote than the physical structure and arrangement of DNA.Report

Led
Led
2 years ago

“A fertilized egg has no feelings, no character, nothing that we value in each other as persons.

For most of European history, in fact, a person was not thought to come into being as soon as a fertilized egg was present. Influential figures like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas held that a foetus is not a person until it begins to move, which they took to be 40-80 days after conception. ”

This bit is definitely sophistry insofar as it implies that their judgment about what “we value in each other as persons” is one shared by philosophers throughout “most of European history.” And the mention of Aquinas and Aristotle is surely meant to put pressure on those who are more sympathetic to (or are adherents of) Catholicism, at least as an intellectual tradition. But at least after Boethius, Christian philosophers for most of European history would identify something as a person if and insofar as it was an individual substance of a rational nature – not by inspecting that particular substance to see whether it had “feelings or character.” And Augustine and Aquinas’ reasons for thinking an early foetus wasn’t a person were accordingly not the same – not at all the same – as these contemporary philosophers’ reasons. The former thought an early foetus wasn’t a person because they didn’t think it was specifically a human being yet, so it wasn’t an individual substance of a rational nature.

Clearly these signatories don’t agree with that understanding of a person and its basis in essentialism/natural kinds. And that’s fine. But they shouldn’t pretend that they are following the tradition of Christian philosophy in Europe in this respect, when they so evidently are not. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Led
2 years ago

But since the science of fertilization wasn’t understood until at least the mid nineteenth century, how can we uniquely identify what scientific category maps on to those essentialist/natural kind categories? I’m not a philosopher of biology, but I really doubt that “scientific kinds” will give you a univocal answer – they are too interest-relative, too pragmatic, too vague and too pluralist.Report

Led
Led
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Well, that’s the point, in a way. They were trying to map those essentialist categories onto a developmental process about which we can now say they knew very, very little. Which is why it is disingenuous of the statement to imply that there is substantive philosophical continuity across their view and, say, Aquinas’. To see that, consider whether Aquinas would have thought it possible for there to be an individual substance of the human kind who isn’t a person. Report

Cautious Until Tenured
Cautious Until Tenured
2 years ago

“We grant that the question ‘when does a person begin’ is complex. But because the constitution is the backbone for all law in the state, it should be confined to highly plausible restrictions on the law that more or less everyone can agree with. The 8th amendment is not a legitimate addition to the constitution, because it binds the entire community to a highly controversial position on a complex question that could never find widespread agreement, with very serious effects for the health of many of the state’s residents.”

This logic cuts both ways. The idea that highly complex moral questions on which there is substantial disagreement within society implies that abortion should not be unconstitutional. But it also implies that there should be no constitutional right to abortion, as that is also a highly complex issue (indeed, the same highly complex issue) on which there is no broad consensus. Indeed, an exactly analogous argument to the one the authors are making here is a staple of conservative opposition to Roe v Wade.Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Cautious Until Tenured
2 years ago

Well, sure, but they’re talking about Irish law, not US law. (Speaking personally, I’m pretty absolutist about abortion rights, but I don’t think Roe vs Wade is good law.)Report

Cautious Until Tenured
Cautious Until Tenured
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Oh, absolutely. I’m not accusing anyone of inconsistency. It was just a bit of a shock to see a common conservative talking point against Roe v Wade appearing in a pro-choice statement. Thought that was noteworthy. Didn’t mean to imply anything more.Report

Alan White
Alan White
Reply to  Cautious Until Tenured
2 years ago

“The idea that highly complex moral questions on which there is substantial disagreement within society implies that abortion should not be unconstitutional. But it also implies that there should be no constitutional right to abortion, as that is also a highly complex issue (indeed, the same highly complex issue) on which there is no broad consensus.”

The question here is partly about negative rights–the right to be left alone given there is no overwhelming moral and legal argument to interfere in one’s private autonomous conduct. In fact I would argue that in the absence of firm axiological agreement about early-term fetal full moral status, which I see has no rational resolution by dint of fact or objective value (neither did Roe), then the negative moral and legal right of early-term abortion is in entailed by that state of affairs. I’d observe also that very conservative anti-abortion forces have long observed this–they have sought endless measures to just restrict access to abortion services, which the negative right alone cannot guarantee. Report

Connor
Connor
2 years ago

I think looking at the historical that the 8th was an attempt to package the philosophical debate on personhood with principle of prudence in respect of that debate, with strict application of double effect. Now if only we could come up with a paradigm that was more universally useful than double effect, we’d be laughingReport

Hsin-Wen Lee
2 years ago

Assuming that a fetus is a person, it does not entail that women do not have the right to have an abortion. Consider J. J. Thomson’s thought experiments involving the Famous Violinist and Henry Fonda.
http://www.jstor.org.udel.idm.oclc.org/stable/2265091?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contentsReport