About the Alleged Human/Human Being Distinction, Part 2

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  • April 20, 2020

Edit: Pearce has read my articles and responded to them. However, he pointed out that I wasn’t “overly kind” in my responses. Reading back, I can see that was a bit of an understatement. I was pretty rude toward him in the original published draft of this article. I have left him a comment on his blog to apologize and have revised this article to soften my tone and take out the unkind comments. In the work of defending the humanity of the unborn, it can be easy to forget that the people we are responding to are still valuable people who deserve to be treated with respect, and I gave in to that temptation here. So I have revised these two articles to be more gracious in my responses.

In my last article, I responded to an article written by Jonathan MS Pearce, called “Abortion: The Human/Human Being Distinction“, about the alleged distinction between “human” and “human being”. I argued that Pearce’s arguments didn’t support his overall point. You can read my response here. When I left off last time, I was responding to his 20 points at the end where he was attempting to respond to Mark Bradshaw’s contention that a human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens, and this is genetically and organismally defined. I’ll pick up at point number six, where I left off last time.

6. Pearce is mistaken when he says that there is no such thing as species. There are markers in DNA which identify a specific species as what it is. A scientist who checks human DNA will know, based on the markers, that the DNA is human and not another type of animal. So I would argue the fuzzy logic belongs to Pearce. He is actually committing the continuum fallacy here by trying to claim that just because there is a “spectrum” among species’ that you cannot tell one species from another. It’s no different than arguing that because we can’t mark the one inch of length where you go from stubble to a beard that we can’t tell the difference between a bearded face and a clean-shaven one.

7. For this part, Pearce is simply confusing parts with wholes. “Genetically human” simply means a biological member of species Homo sapiens. A clump of cheek cells are not “genetically human” in the same sense that human embryos are.

8. Pearce seems to think “form” means “appearance”. This is an easy error to make because of the way language changes, but philosophically “form” means the “essence” of the thing, what makes a thing what it is. If we were talking about “human appearance”, then sure, it can be hard to pin down, although it is the case that humans simply look different at different stages of their lives, and while a human blastocyst looks different from a human adult, a human blastocyst looks exactly like all human beings do at that stage in their development. In this case, “essence” is more akin to what “form” means. There is a human nature, and all human beings have it. Our human nature is that of rational animal, and is what sets our species apart from other animal species. And while our young are not currently able to exercise their rationality, by virtue of being human and having a human nature, they are oriented toward being able to exercise rationality. To hold their lack of rationality against them is simply to discriminate against them based on their age. They are no less human than the rest of us; we were all once blastocysts.

9. I don’t really have a lot to say here. Transitional species don’t negate the fact that there are human beings, and there is something of which it can be said it is like to be human. Pearce says Bradshaw must establish essentialism in order for his case to work but doesn’t rebut essentialism in his own article. Pearce must establish essentialism is false in order to make his case, which he doesn’t do. At any rate, one way we can know essentialism is true is it accounts for the regularity of nature. If things did not have natures, then we could not make meaningful statements about them, nor could we count on their regularity. So science could not be done if essentialism was false. David Oderberg goes into more detail regarding essentialism with respect to the evolution of species in his book Real Essentialism. And for a much more in-depth and sophisticated defense of essentialism than I have given here (which was a very brief defense of it), I would refer you to both Oderberg’s book and Scholastic Metaphysics by Ed Feser.

10. Much has been written on transhumanism. I recently finished Humans 2.0 by Fazale Rana and Kenneth Samples, which I’ll be writing up a review for soon. Basically, it says that technology can be used to help humans restore lost function, but as to whether or not it can be used merely for the purpose of enhancement is much more complicated. Things like some people may not be able to afford it and will therefore be discriminated against must be taken into consideration regarding whether or not enhancement is permissible. There are a host of ethical issues which must be considered, and I’m not entirely sure what relevance transhumanism has to Pearce’s overall case. And his statement that conjoining humans and technology is “presently doable” is only partially true, as far as I can tell. We are still a long way from attaining many of the transhumanists’ goals, such as uploading a human consciousness into a machine to achieve immortality, if that is even possible. It’s not clear it will ever be possible to do that.

11. This chimera would likely be some different kind of species. Again, it’s not clear that anything living could ever come from the creation of human/animal hybrids. But if you did inject human cells into an animal brain such that it was more human-like, it would be neither human nor the original species that you injected the human cells into.

12. Pearce returns to the “an embryo is not an egg or an acorn” argument. An egg is not a chicken, but the chicken embryo inside the egg is a chicken. An acorn is not a mature oak tree but it is an immature oak tree. I could not make a bench out of an acorn because it is too immature. There is not enough raw material there to make a bench from it.

13. Ovum and sperm are not developmental stages of a human being. Placing the beginning of life at fertilization is not placing it at an arbitrarily chosen point. Fertilization is the only point in the life cycle of the human where you go from two non-human entities (again, human in the organism sense of the term), the sperm and the ovum, to a human entity, the embryo. It is really the only non-arbitrary point to place the beginning of human life, and that’s why all embryology textbooks since the mid-1800s have agreed that life begins at fertilization. You can try to argue personhood, or that it doesn’t have rights, but there is no question scientifically that human life begins at fertilization.

14. Here Pearce confuses the concept of intrinsic value with instrumental value. An acorn is not of much value, other than the fact that it will one day grow into a mature oak tree. A mature oak tree has greater instrumental value in that it can provide us shade, we can make furniture out of it, etc. However, I’m not sure I understand Pearce’s point about not being able to chop down an oak tree. If you went onto government land and tried to uproot an acorn they’d just planted, I’m sure you’d still get in some kind of trouble because the acorn isn’t yours to do with as you please. And same with a chicken. In fact, I would argue animals, at any stage of development, don’t have rights. We can’t just treat them in any way we want, but that’s not because animals have rights. It’s because as humans, we believe in being compassionate (for the most part) to things that can suffer. If we truly believe in human equality and human rights, then we can’t deny those human rights to any human beings, even ones which are incredibly young and at the beginning of their life. A human embryo is just as human as an adult and just as deserving of having his rights respected.

15. As I explained in my previous post here, intelligent alien species’ will have the same rights as we do. This is because human rights are not based on being genetically human, they are based on having a rational nature. But we call them human rights because every human being has them. If you don’t believe every human has rights (say, because you think self-awareness is what grounds rights), then saying you believe in human rights is confusing.

16. I have nothing really to say here. I disagree with Bradshaw’s ultimate conception of rights regarding how we ground them. These questions are directed more at Bradshaw’s conception than mine.

17. Pearce seems to imply the existence of criticisms means Bradshaw’s position is wrong. This, of course, doesn’t follow. There have been many thinkers in academia who have defended the proposition that rights inhere in us by nature. In fact, the United States grounds the existence of inalienable rights in that way. Posting a number of articles and saying that Bradshaw must refute the arguments in those articles is an unfair standard. I can post a number of articles and books that refute Pearce’s idea of rights, but that’s hardly conducive to a good discussion on the topic.

18. Many thinkers have responded to the “embryo rescue case” thought experiment, myself included (see my article here for a thorough examination of it). A brief response to the thought experiment is just to show that the thought experiment doesn’t do what pro-choice people argue it does. It examines who we should rescue, but abortion is about who we may kill. It doesn’t follow that because I might save person X over person Y in an emergency that I think person Y is not a person or is any less valuable than person X. There are mitigating considerations that might cause me to rescue one person over another (or over a group of people). Read my article for a more thorough examination.

19. I agree with this comment. But that doesn’t negate the fact that science has shown human life begins at fertilization.

20. I would argue there are a few confusions going on here. Pearce is equivocating on the term “potential”. So let’s dig in to this point.

There is a difference between something at the beginning and at the end of a continuum — but not all differences are equally important. A sperm cell is alive, but it is not a living organism. An embryo is a living organism. So the sperm cell does not exist on the spectrum of human development — it merely exists in one step of the process of human procreation. The sperm cell must fertilize the ovum cell in order to conceive a new human being. So here’s the confusion being made: Pearce confuses the concept of active potential with passive potential. So yes, the embryo is an actual child. It is a human being at a very early stage in development and there is biological continuity from the embryo to the adult. There is no biological continuity between the sperm/ovum and the embryo. The sperm ceases to exist when it contributes its genetic material to the embryo and the ovum undergoes a substantial change once it is fertilized, thereby ceasing to exist even though the resulting embryo inherits certain structures from the ovum (e.g. half of the embryo’s genetic code and the zona pellucida). So the embryo is an actual child with the active potential to develop into a more mature human being. It has this active potential because it is on a self-directed path of development. All of its development happens from within and it does it under its own power. By contrast, the sperm/ovum have the passive potential to become a child; they are not an actual child. For one thing, philosophically two cannot be identical to one. So the sperm/ovum cannot be identical to the embryo. For another, the sperm/ovum have this potential passively because they must be acted upon from outside (as opposed to inside, which would be an active potential) in order to exercise their potential to become an embryo. As an example, returning to the acorn/oak tree, the acorn has the active potential to become a mature oak tree, and it has the passive potential to become a desk.

Now let’s look at Pearce’s notes. His first note asks, Is a sperm cell alive? The response here is quoted in full:  “Yes, it’s certainly as alive as any other cells in a male body. Since it can have a life of its own outside the body, each sperm is really an independent single-celled organism – like a living amoeba, but differing in locomotion and lifestyle. From an evolutionary viewpoint, it’s the other cells in a male animal that are pretty much dead: only the sperm can reproduce.”

This is mistaken, however. I reached out to Maureen Condic, a neurobiologist at the University of Utah, and asked her about this. Her response was while sperm are an unusual case, since they are cells that can live outside the body in certain restricted environments, they are “alive” in the sense of other cells but they are not independent living organisms. [1] In short, they are cells, parts of a larger organism. They are not analogous to amoebae, which are single-celled organisms.

Now regarding Pierce’s second note, which talks about potency vs. act. Pearce quotes the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, but the writer of that essay also confuses the concepts of active and passive potential. I’ll respond to the points briefly:

An entity’s having the potential to exhibit rationality, if it is oriented toward obtaining that rationality, has the same status as the being it will become. That’s because it is a substance, meaning it maintains its identity through change. There is a biological continuity from the embryo to the adult, so since the adult has a rational nature, and the adult is the numerically same entity as the embryo, the embryo had this same nature. So it was always a rational individual, it just had not yet matured to the point where it can engage its rational faculties. A person in a reversible coma is still a person, despite not being able to engage his rational faculties. Not being able to engage them in one case (by being too young) is not significantly different from not being able to engage them in another (by disease or injury). So the embryo has the rights afforded to adults because it has the same rational nature as the adult it will become.

The advent of cloning technologies does not in any way present a problem for the argument from the embryo’s potential. With cloning technologies, a somatic cell is now a potential human being (i.e. a potential person). But it is only a potential human in the same sense that the sperm and ovum are — it has the passive potential to become a human because it must be acted upon from the outside, in the same way that the sperm/ovum must be acted upon from the outside to become a new human organism. This is a passive potential, a different kind of potential than the potential an embryo has to become an adult of the same species. Arguing against this view on the basis that somatic cells have the potential to become reasoning beings as the embryo does is to attack a strawman version of this view.

As I have shown, this article by Jonathan MS Pearce doesn’t really show there is a meaningful distinction to make between the concepts of “human” and “human being”. A human being just is a human, and if you intend to say embryos are not persons, then that term should be used to avoid confusion. Human and human being, again, is a distinction without a difference. All human beings are persons, even if all persons are not human beings.

[1] Maureen Condic, in personal correspondence, paraphrased.