About the Alleged Human/Human Being Distinction

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.

Jonathan MS Pearce is a writer for Patheos who calls himself the Tippling Philosopher. To be honest, I am unfamiliar with his work so I did a quick Google search. Turns out he is a teacher and holds a Master’s degree. He has published some books which appear to fall into the philosophy of religion category. The article I came across on Patheos is called “Abortion: The Human/Human Being Distinction”. He’s a philosopher but he seems to hold the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) as an authoritative resource. I like the SEP just fine, but it should be treated like Wikipedia: informative but not the authoritative last word on any matter. There are experts who write for it but it’s usually more geared toward summarizing debates in philosophy rather than defending a specific view (at least from what I’ve read of it).

A quick word about the “human/human being distinction”. Pro-choice people tend to use terms imprecisely. When a pro-choice person says “human being”, often what they mean is “person”. If this is the case, then you can argue there is a distinction. Even pro-life people can concede that there are possible non-human persons, such as intelligent aliens, if they exist, and supernatural beings. However, I also often encounter pro-choice people who use “human being” to simply mean human. And if that’s what’s intended, then “human” and “human being” is just a distinction without a difference. If they just mean “person”, then it would help for clarity’s sake if they would stop using the term “human being” (which just means a human that exists, which certainly encompasses the unborn) and use the more specific term “person”. At least then better headway can be made in discussions.

Pearce points to an entry in the SEP, in which they state “Just how much intercellular coordination must exist for a group of cells to constitute a human organism cannot be resolved by scientific facts about the embryo, but is instead an open metaphysical question”. This is only partially true. It’s true that one needs a philosophical definition of “organism” in order to determine whether or not a human embryo meets it. But the question of what makes an organism an organism has been decided on long ago. It’s even right there in the name: organism. An organism is “an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a living being”. [1] Even well-known pro-choice philosophers concede the biological humanity of the embryo. There is no doubt that embryos are biological organisms. So again, if you take “human being” to mean “a biological organism”, then this is a distinction without a difference. Only if you take it to mean “person” is there a meaningful distinction one could make.

Now there’s a debate going on that Pearce is highlighting between one Mark Bradshaw and another user whom I’ll call Enigma, based on his handle. I don’t intend to weigh in on that debate. I’m merely commenting on the alleged distinction between “human” and “human being”. Enigma seems aware of the “human” and “person” definitions of the term “human being”, but then falls into his own confusion when he talks about an alien being granted “human” rights. Aliens are not humans and so do not have the same rights as humans do. However, if this alien belonged to a species with a rational nature, then we would extend rights to that individual. But they could not properly be called “human” rights because the alien would not be human. A different term would be required, something like “fundamental” rights or “basic” rights, to illustrate that all members of that alien’s species, whether born or unborn, are deserving of rights and dignity, provided they also abide by the duties that these rights carry with them. Enigma then asserts that “human” is a synonym for “person” in the term “human rights”. But this can’t be so. When a pro-choice advocate talks about personhood, they don’t mean “human”. They mean something else — consciousness, self-awareness, sentience, etc. So they can’t talk of “human rights” because they don’t believe that all humans are deserving of rights. Only those humans relevantly “like me” are deserving of rights. So pro-choice people can’t consistently speak of human rights — they have to speak of self-awareness rights or sentience rights. Calling them “human rights” is misleading and only confuses the matter.

So in the debate, Enigma is accusing Bradshaw of conflating “human” with “person”, but based on the quoted portions, it seems that Enigma is actually confusing the concept of “human organism” with “person”. A human organism is scientific — we can look at something and determine whether or not it is a human organism. Personhood is philosophical. But Enigma is accusing Bradshaw of confusing the concepts of human and person based on Bradshaw’s statements that a human embryo is genetically human and a human organism, and Pearce (who is quoting the debate) doesn’t seem to pick up on what is going on here. In fact, Pearce seems to make the same confusion as Enigma about the terms.

So I agree with Pearce when he says there’s a lot of confusion going on, but I disagree with him about the source of the confusion. It is Enigma who seems to be confused, not Bradshaw (although I don’t agree with absolutely everything that Bradshaw said, but I commend him for defending the rights of the unborn). Pearce goes on to say, “…[Mark Bradshaw] is doing what many pro-lifers do, which is to use terms in a way that confer characteristics onto, say, a blastocyst that we would normally consider for, say, an adult human being.” There is some truth to this, but pro-choice people are also guilty of the exact opposite — using terms in a way that downplay or downright ignore the similarities between a blastocyst and the adult it will one day become, similarities such as its genetic humanity, its underlying human nature, and its biological continuance of identity. As I said above, pro-choice people tend to talk in terms of “human rights” when they don’t really mean “human rights”. They deny these rights to some humans (embryos and fetuses), instead conferring them not because of their genetics or their nature but because of some function they are presently able to perform. This is just as misleading as the pro-lifers Pearce is replying to.

Bradshaw essentially argues that a human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens, and this is genetically and organismically defined. This is, of course, correct. But Pearce takes issue with it, for a number of reasons, some of which I will address below and the rest I’ll address in my next article, as this article is becoming lengthy enough.

  1. A blastocyst cannot be called innocent. It is no more innocent than a rock, because without consciousness or volition it can’t meaningfully be described as innocent. It is true that the early embryo lacks volition, but this is irrelevant. When pro-life people say an embryo is an innocent human being, what we are essentially saying is that this human being has done nothing to warrant being killed. Most people agree that it is wrong to kill human beings except in exceptional circumstances (the only people who would disagree are strict pacifists, who think it’s always wrong to kill a human being). As embryos are human beings, they are innocent, for the same reason that infants and the severely mentally handicapped are innocent. They are incapable of doing anything morally wrong, and they have not committed any act that would warrant capital punishment. Comparing a human blastocyst to a rock means that Pearce has committed the category error fallacy. The fetus is not non-conscious, like a rock. It is pre-conscious. Pearce is attributing a false category to the embryo.
  2. Bradshaw’s use of “human being” is superfluous, since he just means a member of the species Homo sapiens. There are a number of things to take issue with here. There is a difference between “human” and “a human” — the former is a noun and the latter is an adjective, as Pearce points out. However, despite Pearce’s claims to preferring “accuracy of language”, he continues to use terms in ways other than they are intended. For example, he claims that human is an adjective, a human is an instantiation of the species human, and human being is something subtly different, implying personhood or specific human characteristics. Pearce is mistaken when he says the blastocyst doesn’t have human characteristics. Blastocysts are biologically human, in every sense of the scientific term. Again, even pro-choice philosophers affirm this. Calling a “person” a “human being” instead of reserving that term for humans (since if you “be”, that just means you exist — so a human being is just a human which exists, and that certainly includes blastocysts, which are humans at a very early stage in their development). Pearce asserts that blastocysts are none of these (without ever providing any evidence or reason to think it is not). He asserts that blastocyst is a developmental stage of a human organism, but it is not “a human”. But this is doublespeak. If “blastocyst” is a stage of development of a human, then a blastocyst is a human. Or to be even more precise, “blastocyst” is one stage in the development of an embryo, but it is the same embryo at the zygote stage and at the blastocyst stage, and beyond. Pearce may as well argue that infants are not human, as “infant” is just a stage of development of a human organism. To claim otherwise doesn’t make any sense.
  3. Language is important. An egg is not a chicken nor is an acorn an oak tree. Pearce isn’t the first philosopher to make the acorn:oak tree as the fetus:human comparison. Judith Jarvis Thomson, in fact, makes this same comparison early in her famous essay defending abortion. [2] The issue here is that Pearce, like Thomson, is making a mistake in describing the reality of these three entities (the chicken egg, the acorn, and the embryo). A chicken is not an egg, because the egg is a different substance than the chicken. But the chicken embryo inside the chicken egg absolutely is a chicken, and it is the same adult chicken it will eventually grow into. An acorn is not a mature oak tree, but it is an oak at a very early stage in its development. The acorn will develop into a mature oak tree, but it is the same oak at every point in its life. In the same fashion, the embryo (in this case, the blastocyst) will develop into a mature human being because it is an immature human being. So Pearce is simply making a false analogy here. The analogy isn’t acorn:oak tree as embryo:human, it’s actually acorn:oak tree as embryo:adult. This helps clarify the comparison.
  4. I have nothing to add here. See above for why I would say Pearce is mistaken on this point.
  5. “Blastocyst” doesn’t meet the dictionary definition of “human being”. But neither does “infant”, so by Pearce’s own definition, an infant is not a human. Although, Pearce glosses over the part about how a human being is a child of the species Homo sapiens, focusing on the part about how humans differ from other animals and arguing blastocysts are not humans because they don’t meet the specific requirements about how humans differ from other animals.

I’m going to go ahead and end it here, as the article is already becoming pretty lengthy. I’ll pick up where I left off next time. As I have argued, Pearce’s arguments rely on confusions of their own, including confusions of language and development.

[1] Samuel B. Condic and Maureen L. Condic, Human Embryos, Human Beings: A Scientific and Philosophical Approach, (The Catholic University of America Press, Washington, D.C., 2018) p.267

[2] Judith Jarvis Thomson, “A Defense of Abortion”, Philosophy & Public Affairs, Vol. 1, no. 1, Fall 1971.