Wednesday Philosophical Query #2


Are there objective criteria for determining if and when nascent life becomes a person whose life is worthy of respect?

If so or if not, how do we know this?

Please discuss.

With civility.

Kyle Cupp

Kyle Cupp is a freelance writer who blogs about culture, philosophy, politics, postmodernism, and religion. He is a contributor to the group Catholic blog Vox Nova. Kyle lives with his wife, son, and daughter in North Texas. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

You may also like...

37 Responses

  1. Ryan Noonan says:

    Well, stating objective criteria is easy. Conception and birth are fairly objective. I have a friend who has said he’d even be more or less philosophically okay with setting the bar at 1 year old (or something). All perfectly objective. We can all determine when they occur (with some small error bars).

    But are they true? It seems to me that, if there is a true right answer, it’s totally unknowable. For starters, we don’t even really have a great definition of personhood. Or at least one we all agree on. We could pick one and then discuss when a child gets to that point, but that’s begging the question.

    This is why I’ve always been kind of a squish on abortion politics. It enrages my liberal fellow-travelers to no end, but I think we should probably have a radically more democratic approach to setting abortion policy. These questions are basically unanswerable, and that leads me to support the only real decision-making apparatus we have: voting.

    (NB: I can also see how my argument would lead to a radical pro-choice position that, in the absence of an answer, we have to let people choose for themselves. Or a pro-life position that, in the absence of an answer, we should err on the side of extreme caution.)

    • Kyle Cupp says:

      In asking about objective criteria that determines personhood, I would say I’m implying “true” criteria. In either case, I suspect you are right: that such true criteria are unknowable without a solid definition of personhood, which, in practice, we don’t really have. Personally, I think the abortion debate is plagued with too much metaphysical certainty.

      • James Hanley says:

        If we need a solid definition of personhood, then we are really just kicking the can down the road, because we would need objectively true criteria for that. There may be such objectively true criteria, but we have no objectively verifiable means of determining them. Or it may be that there are no such objectively true criteria because the concept of personhood is more social construct than either biological or metaphysical reality.

        • CK MacLeod says:

          Mr. Hanley is, I’m afraid, correct that personhood is “more” a social construct. I actually think “more” is better here than the simple assertion that personhood is entirely a social construct, since the application of the legalistic term “person,” though a social decision, is still made in relation to biological facts and metaphysical beliefs that are, or are held to be, independent of social-political facts or positions. Still, the practical advantage of looking at personhood as a purely social or legal construct is that social or legal constructs, since they are artificial, can be made as objective as we care to make them. We can say “after the first trimester, anything goes,” and seek to apply the rule consistently, it being a perfectly objective procedure to determine whether three months, as defined to whatever degree of practical exactitude, have passed since conception (presuming we know). Or we can choose some other objective enough standard – heart beats, brain activity, whatever.

          Wherever such lines are drawn, however, there will always and inherently be valid arguments for why they could have been drawn somewhere else – a bit further to the right or left on the timeline, way over somewhere else, or with consideration of x, y, or z possible exceptions.

          What the shape the discussion demonstrates, aside from the fact that some substantial number of people are always going to be unhappy with the social-political decision, as with all social-political decisions, is that the very notion of the “objective” runs directly contrary to notions of the “fully free, infinitely worthy living being.” “Personhood” stands here for the intersection of that which stands beyond values and that which can be objectively evaluated. Answering the question once and for all of the actuality of personhood in this sense requires us to unite the terms of the primary insoluble antinomy of Western thought without remainder and without conflict. It does not appear to be accomplishable in thought, but must continually be accomplished in life anyway – which is another way that freedom is determined to be the evasion of determination.

          • James Hanley says:

            Mr. Hanley is, I’m afraid, correct

            The whole world trembles when that happens.

            I actually think “more” is better here than the simple assertion that personhood is entirely a social construct, since the application of the legalistic term “person,” though a social decision, is still made in relation to biological facts

            Very much in agreement.

    • Glyph says:

      Ryan, I agree with everything you have said here, I only had one question: when you say ‘voting’, would it be necessary that the ‘vote’ happen at the national level, or would state/local levels be fine? Because if ‘red’ states/counties disallow while ‘blue’ ones allow, people are going to claim unequal treatment as ‘Americans’, right? I realize this takes the question even further from the realm of the philosophical and into the political, and that maybe isn’t the intent of the post.

  2. kenB says:

    If we want to take an analytical approach, the first question to answer is why we’re sure that human life in general is worthy of respect (by which I suppose we mean that it’s privileged over any other sort of life). Once we’ve answered that question, then we can discuss to what extent the features that justify it for grown humans are also properties of nascent humans.

    But since we’re talking about values, there’s not going to be anything like an “objective” answer — values are fundamentally subjective. There are no values without humans to hold them.

  3. Serena says:

    Have we narrowed down when in utero consciousness develops?

  4. CK MacLeod says:

    For your readers, for yourself, and, most of all, for the children you need to change the very first word in your post to “Are,” feel no need to tell anyone you’ve done it, then further feel free to delete this comment, the matter never to be mentioned again. (You already know I’m right, as your proper usage in sentence 2 of your comment at demonstrates.)

  5. Fnord says:

    Are there objective criteria by which can state precisely when the transition happens? No. In fact, I doubt there’s even one specific point where things go from “nascent life of no intrinsic value” to “person worthy of respect and protection”.

    But there are definitely objective criteria whereby we can determine if an entity is in one of those categories, even if those criteria are not exhaustive. I think everyone can agree that, before fertilization, there is no person. Objectively, fertilization is necessary, though not necessarily sufficient.

  6. CK MacLeod says:

    btw, do any of you know of someone who has usefully framed the issue as a conflict of rights between the pregnant woman and the in vitro entity?

    • CK MacLeod says:

      oops, too much coffee on my part this time: I meant “in utero” obviously, not “in vitro.”

    • James Hanley says:

      There are those who do, but of course it requires the assumption of whether in in utero entity has rights, which–usually–leads us back to the question of personhood.

      • CK MacLeod says:

        I meant something more like what I believe b-psycho is indicating below: The woman has a right of self-defense, to be exercised entirely within her own volition, against the non compis mentos aggressor within, until and unless some other means of restraining it harmlessly (i.e., via viability) presents itself to her.

    • GordonHide says:

      The extension of some level of human rights or recognition of limited moral agent status to a foetus is probably the only instance where according such rights or status would have a major negative impact on the rights and moral agent status of half the human race, that is the women.

    • I’m not sure my framing is “useful” for anyone save for myself, but that’s how I approach the issue to explain my personal stance on abortion (pro-choice) and to help explain my political stance on abortion (more robustly pro-choice than my personal views). I would concede as a possibility that the unborn is a rights-bearing person, but I see the woman as possessing a special prerogative over life and death when she is carrying the unborn.

      (I do not grant the same prerogatives to would-be parents who wish to pursue some forms of in vitro fertilization that involve creating several embryos and freezing most of them; nor would I grant the same prerogatives to scientists who wish to use those embryos for research purposes.)

      I’m not sure how to justify my position, but that is the one I take.

  7. GordonHide says:

    It’s probably a good thing for most of us that “when nascent life becomes a person whose life is worthy of respect” is not judged by ability to make useful contributions in answer to this post.

  8. Chris says:

    For a long time I’ve approached this from the concept of death, the idea being that if some criterion or set of criteria leads us to classify a person as dead, and therefore has ceased to be a moral agent, or indeed a person, then it should do a pretty good job of helping us to determine when personhood begins. This is not simple, of course, because there are several conceptions of death, the most relevant of which are, I think, higher and lower brain death, so it’s not like there won’t still be a great deal of debate. Since I personally favor higher brain death as the criteria for death, I want to see organized higher brain functions before I’d be willing to call a fetus a person. This places personhood somewhere in the neighborhood of 23-26 weeks.

    Unfortunately, even this doesn’t solve other problems, like any conflicts between the interests of the mother and the interests of the fetus once it has achieved personhood under a definition like this.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      This is pretty much where I am. Prior to 20 weeks, certainly, you’re not discussing an actualized individual. One with potential, which is a tricky widget differentiating the about-to-be-born from the about-to-die, though.

      • Chris says:

        Patrick, I agree with your last sentence, which is why I would say that someone who is brain dead at the end of a life has no real moral status (except a cultural one in which we respect the wishes of their loved ones, who do have moral status), while fetuses do have a moral status that, at least up until they can be reasonably conceived of as persons, doesn’t trump that of the women who carry them.

        This is my general position, which can be further described this way: the moral status of the fetus is ambiguous, while the moral status of the woman is not, and therefore, when conflicts arise, the mother’s interest trump those of the fetus. I would further qualify this by pointing out that, should the mother intend to carry the fetus to term, her responsibilities to the fetus, as a potential moral agent (and therefore an agent with certain valid moral claims) are different than if she does not intend to carry it to term. For example, a woman who intends to carry a fetus to term has a moral obligation not to smoke crack, or drink alcohol excessively, or smoke 3 packs a day, and should she have access to prenatal care, then she has a moral obligation to receive it.

        • Patrick Cahalan says:

          This pretty much jibes with where I am.

          Since, in addition, we have an obligation to recognize the moral obligations of others (at least, I think we do), this explains why some people regard the murder of a pregnant woman with more moral opprobrium than perhaps the murder of a non-pregnant woman, and can push for harsher penalties for the perpetrator, while still not regarding abortion as murder itself.

  9. b-psycho says:

    Without having read anyone else’ replies yet:

    IMO, if there is, it’s when that nascent person is capable of living outside of its host if so required. Before that it is effectively a parasite.

    • Patrick Cahalan says:

      This is kind of limiting. A newborn can’t survive outside its host, either, unassisted.

      • GordonHide says:

        Yes, I agree. And who knows, perhaps in future years it may be possible to bring an embryo to full term “in vitro”.

        • James Hanley says:

          That would still require a host, even if not a sentient one.

          • Fnord says:

            Would you generalize that to consider other life-supporting medical equipment (as might be used by a sick adult) to be a “host”?

        • Patrick Cahalan says:

          This is a question I’ve sprung on a few people on both sides of the debate.

          Assuming it’s 50 years from now, and it’s possible to remove even a just-fertilized egg from a woman without any appreciable risk, and gestate that egg to maturity. Let us further assume that the artificial womb is statistically *safer* than a woman’s.

          If you are pro-choice: does this affect your idea of what sorts of abortions are permissible?

          If you are pro-life: does this affect your idea of whether or not it should be *permissible* to carry a child to term naturally?

          • Fnord says:

            I certainly think that some abortions that are presently allowable would not be if an artificial womb existed as an alternative.

            I’m not sure that it would make it impermissible in general to carry a child to term naturally. But it would certainly be possible for a pregnant woman to “lose custody” of the fetus for harmful behavior, just as it is possible for abusive or neglectful parents of children.

          • Jaybird says:

            As someone pro-choice, I think that women should be allowed to gestate fetuses if they want.

            Maybe we should make them sign something, though.

          • GordonHide says:

            I am pro-choice and my view would be unaffected by the ability to gestate children entirely “in vitro” and transfer them from natural to artificial gestation.

            I take this view because I assign virtually no recognition as a fellow human, an entity worthy of protection or citizen to an early term foetus.

          • GordonHide says:

            I correct myself:

            I take this view because I assign virtually no recognition as a fellow human, an entity worthy of protection or citizen to an early term foetus unwanted by its mother.

  10. Jaybird says:

    The Ancient Greeks didn’t start listening to people until they hit 40. (Indeed, they were pretty adamant about this to the point where they’ve dated Plato’s birthday as being 40 years prior to his earliest work based on how “the Ancient Greeks didn’t start listening to people until they hit 40).

    So let’s say “40” gives us an upper bound.

  11. Citizen says:

    Is there a obligation of society to let families make their own decisions.

    • GordonHide says:

      Society is a collection of individuals who may or may not speak with a single voice. It is hard to obligate what might be a disparate group with anything. It is probably better to think in terms of it being, (or not being), good for the general wellbeing of society to let families make their own decisions.

      Clearly families cannot make their own decisions by enlarge if they would interfere with the wellbeing or freedoms of others by doing so. But it is to society’s general advantage that no unnecessary restrictions are placed on the freedoms of the individual. A balance has to be struck between personal freedom and coercing co-operation for the general advantage of all.