Just An Animal -- From Prothesis

I have been so busy lately with a project at the office that I have had little time to visit many of my favorite blogs. Today, however, I took a break and visited the blog of Macht over at Prothesis. Always interesting and insightful, I found an entry from September 3, 2006 entitled "Just An Animal" which I wanted to set forth in its entiretly here. (I would directly link to the article, but I don't think Prothesis has direct links to any of its blog entries.)

I've seen an objection to the pro-life position going around lately and it relies mostly on a misunderstanding of what (I think) most pro-lifers believe (although I think the arguments that many pro-lifers use don't often make their positions clear). The objection goes something like this:

"Pro-lifers arguments rest on the fact that a human life begins at conception. This is a biological definition and, as such, pro-lifers are advocating that we get our rights based on the type of DNA we have. Humanity, then, becomes nothing more than having the correct number of chromosomes or the right genome."
Now, I do find it ironic that this objection often comes from physicalists and others who would be quick to point out that man is just an animal. It isn't clear to me why their preferred property - consciousness or viability or whatever - should be preferred, but that's a different topic.

I think this objection mainly comes about because pro-life people tend to talk a lot about when life begins. Given that it is highly uncontroversial that (biologically speaking) individual human lives being at conception, it isn't suprising that pro-life people go back to this point a lot. But the question then becomes "If pro-life people spend a lot of time pointing out that the biological begininning of human life begins at conception, does that mean that pro-lifers are saying that humans have moral worth based on biology alone?" The answer is clearly "no." Virtually all pro-life positions state that the reason a fetus has moral worth is because of the kind of thing it is (a human being) and not because of any property it has (including biological properties). I think pro-lifers should be read as saying that biology can tell us when a new human life begins. They shouldn't be read as saying that what is of moral worth is having the right kind of biology. What is of moral worth is a new human being. It is a human being who isn't conscious yet and who hasn't yet developed the the biological structures that making thinking possible, but it is a human being nevertheless.

In the abortion debates, there is very often a distinction made between a human and a person. A human is the biological organism and a person is the thing that has moral (or perhaps legal) worth. I think this is another reason why pro-choicers often misunderstand the pro-life position. They see the pro-life position as saying that all humans are persons and therefore the biological organism is the same thing as the thing that has moral worth. Now, I can't speak for every pro-lifer, but I don't hold to the idea all humans are persons. The reason is that I don't think the distinction is a good one. I don't like to use terms that assume there is a distinction between a biological human and a moral human and then declare that they are the same thing. All humans have a moral dimension to them and all humans have a biological dimension to them, but to talk about a moral person or a biological human is to reduce a human being to something it is not.

(After writing that last paragraph, I realized that I was using the term "human" in two different senses - in a biological sense and in a fuller, non-reductionist sense. For the most part, I think I qualified the former with the term "biological" but if not, I hope you can tell the difference from the context.)



Macht said…
Thanks for the kind words. The direct link is here. To get to my direct links, you have to click on the link that says "Permalink" which is located in between the time and the comment link at the bottom of each post.

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