The Right to Life is not an Achievement


English: Personhood NOW banner flies in front ...

English: Personhood NOW banner flies in front of the United States Supreme Court during the 2009 March for Life (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I saw another cartoon defending women’s so-called “reproductive rights,” asserting that they concern a woman’s own body and no one else. Besides being based on a radically individualistic premise, the claim begs the question regarding the status of the fetus (“fetus” is used here as shorthand to refer to any stage between conception and birth). Slogans–on both sides of the abortion camp–hide the real issue of the personhood status of the fetus. Moral rights apply to persons. Thus, removing a human being from the category of human personhood serves to deny it the moral right to life. With no moral right to life, there need be little or no protection for the human being who lacks personhood.

The problem with such views of personhood derived from Locke’s view that human personhood supervenes over the human being is that these positions are based on the notion that a human being accrues personhood as the result of an achievement of some kind. Some deny personhood to the fetus until the possibility of twinning and other divisions of the fertilized egg into multiple organisms. Bonnie Steinbock believes that personhood supervenes on the human being when the nervous system reaches the level of sophistication to allow sentient experience in the fetus. Justice Harry Blackmun in Roe v. Wade placed the point of personhood at viability, when the fetus can survive outside its mother’s womb. Judge John Noonan considers the fertilized egg to be only a potential person, but with such a high degree of probability of becoming a person that it deserves legal protection. Mary Anne Warren believes that some ability to reason is essential before a human being can be labeled a “person.” Peter Singer and Michael Tooley hold that personhood only begins after the child is born and has lived a few years.

It is interesting that those who propose an achievement view of human personhood disagree so radically with one another on the nature of the person-granting achievement. Despite over forty years of debate, this issue remains unresolved. The answer given depends on what the philosopher him/herself values as being important in human life. For Singer and Tooley, the ability to reason and consider alternative courses of actions is what makes a person a person. Steinbock, following Bentham, holds that sentience, the ability to feel pleasure or pain, is what is essential to personhood. How can those positions be reconciled? How much achievement is necessary before a human being becomes a human person? Given such radical disagreement, would it not be safer to follow the most conservative position possible in order to avoid the chance of killing a human person?

It is also important to point out that the achievement view can be applied at any point in life, since a person can be injured and lose the ability to reason or the ability to have sentient experience (though it is difficult to know when these properties have been lost given our ignorance of the subjective conscious experience of the injured individual–some would argue it is practically impossible to determine level of consciousness, sentience, or reasoning ability, especially since some individuals have normal cognition with only a small amount of brain tissue [see the link at Thus if a person loses the ability to reason, then on a Singer/Tooley/Warren account, the individual loses personhood as well. But then we are thrown back to the intractable debate over which achievement is the person-granting one–and taking the most conservative position possible is best to avoid killing someone who may well be a human person.

Now if the person is constituted by a formed, functioning organic body, as Aristotle and Aquinas believed (note that both matter and form–form being the “soul” of a living thing, are essential, and the organism is a soul-body unity), then human personhood begins from the first moment of a formed organic body. That takes place at conception in which a new genetic code is formed and a new organism comes to be. Growth and development are filling in the patterns already found in the form through protein coding by genes. If someone argues that there is not a true organic body until a short time after conception, it is still best to take the most conservative position possible and affirm that human personhood begins at conception and that killing a zygote is as much murder as killing an innocent adult. If that is the case, then a fetus is not merely a part of a woman’s body, and the rhetorical argument based on the woman’s rights to her own body fails.


Universal Terms and Reality

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The problem of universals is one of the oldest problems in philosophy. From Plato and Aristotle to Boethus, Abelard, and the other medievals to the modern and contemporary periods philosophers have discussed whether universal words such as “man,” “dog,” “oak tree” or “water” exist in themselves, are mere labels for objects we group together for our convenience, or do not refer to things, but to objective similarities between things. Extreme realism, such as held by Plato, holds that universal terms such as “dog” refer to the Form “Dog” that exists in a spaceless, timeless world separate from the empirical world, and which is known by reason, not by sense experience. The opposite view, extreme nominalism, associated with Foucault and Derrida (although whether this is their actual position can be debated) holds that “dog” refers to what any society labels particular animals they wish to group together as “dogs.” There is no essence of dogness, no set of necessary and sufficient conditions for dogness to which the term “dog” refers. Finally, moderate realism (the position of Abelard (perhaps–I think so), St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Blessed Duns Scotus, asserts that universal terms refer to objective similarities between natural kinds of the same type, to a set of, say, necessary and sufficient conditions that make a dog a “dog.” The trend since William of Occam has been toward conceptualism, such as Occam’s notion of universals as labels that refer to similarities between entities that have some basis in extramental reality. He sounds like a moderate realist; some interpreters call him a “realistic conceptualist.” In his own day he was interpreted as a nominalist, and whatever his position may have been, philosophers after Occam gravitated toward nominalism. This trend accelerated the split between faith and reason that ended the Medieval synthesis. The end stage of this process is found in Nietzsche’s work, which supported nominalism in the sense that all meanings are culturally constructed and do not have an objective basis in extramental reality. Contemporary English Departments at many universities, especially in the United States, tend toward a radical nominalism and linguistic constructivism in which universal words refer to whatever fits a particular society’s interest. Even though I agree with the notion that meaning is flexible, since I accept the medieval four-fold model of meaning in Biblical interpretation, there remain limits to the scope of meanings that a word can have. Meaning occurs in context, and a particular context may both increase the number of possible meanings of a term, but it can also lower or eliminate the possibilities of other meanings. “I am going to the bank” makes sense if the person saying that also adds “to go fishing.” If he says, “I am going to the bank to withdraw money,” that eliminates the the other meaning of “bank” as “bank of a river.” Natural kind terms clearly refer to entities that are objectively similar. Sure, a beagle does not look like a Rottweiler, but they are both carnivores, they both bark, they can interbreed, and they have similar genetic codes and similar causal powers. There is no need to posit the existence of “Dogness” in any transcendent world independently of actual dogs. “Dogness” might exist in individual dogs in the sense that it refers to the set of necessary and jointly sufficient conditions to make a dog fall under the universal term “Dog” (or another term, such as Canis, used in another language. Thus my own sympathies are with Aristotle’s and Aquinas’ moderate realism: universal terms refer to objective similarities between things that are necessary and jointly sufficient for an entity to be the kind of thing it is. Universal terms may also hint at universal ideas or patterns in the mind of God through which He created the universe and the things in it. This view, dating back to Augustine, was picked up by the Medieval philosphers such as Aquinas, and did not fade until William of Occam denied it in the fourteenth century. Moderate realism evades the problem of arbitrariness found in postmodernism as well as the over-transcendence of Plato’s world of the Forms. I am hopeful that it will be adopted by philosophers outside the Thomist school, since as Richard Weaver pointed out in his fine book, Ideas Have Consequences, nominalism helped lead to the idea that nature, including human nature, is infinitely malleable by human ingenuity. Realism, whether ultra or moderate, helps to form a stable society in which human nature and nonhuman nature are both respected. Moderate realism avoids the problems of Plato’s doctrine of participation by placing the entity to which a universal term refers “in” the individual substance. Now substance, I believe, following Fr. Norris Clarke, is “substance-as-relation,” so that the intellectual content of the object observed would “seek” (metaphorically speaking) to communicate itself as far as possible–and the observer would strive to communicate was much as possible. Through such joining of information the mind becomes “intentionally one” with the object perceived, and thereby knows it, not exhaustively–but the actual information he receives is accurate to a degree. If this is the way communication between being and mind takes place, there is no need for transcendent Forms, but there is a need for “forms” with a small “f” to guarantee stable behavior patterns among natural kinds.

Does Thomism Really Avoid the Lockean Epistemological Gap between Idea and Thing?

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Portrait of John Locke, by Sir Godfrey Kneller...

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John Locke thought of himself as a realist (not in the Medieval sense of accepting the reality of universals, but in the modern sense of believing in a mind-independent world). Yet it seems that his philosophy leaves no room for any knowledge of that alleged world, as Berkeley and Hume pointed out. Locke believed that all knowledge comes by means of sense experience (thus he is an empiricist, as opposed to being a rationalist such as Descartes–it is ironic that in his hierarchical classification of knowledge Locke lists intuitive knowledge as first, demonstrative knowledge as second, and sensory knowledge as the lowest form of knowledge, barely to be called knowledge). Locke believes that knowledge arises by means of ideas in the mind. Whether these ideas are images or something else remains a subject of debate among Lockean scholars. In any case, Locke believes that that a quality is the power to produce an idea in the mind. Primary qualities are actually in the thing-in-itself, and our ideas of primary qualities are isomorphic with the actual structure of the physical substance we perceive. Primary qualities are measurable, and include size, shape, and mass. Secondary qualities are not in the thing itself; our ideas of secondary qualities are not isomorphic with the actual structure of the material substance. However, the primary qualities interact with human sensory organs and with the human brain to produce ideas of particular colors, odors, sounds, and tastes. Thus, secondary qualities have a partial basis in the thing-in-itself despite the lack of isomorphism between idea and thing.

The classic problem with this view is that Locke claims that we are only aware of our own ideas. We do not have any direct access to the material substance, to the thing-in-itself. In fact, substance is just that which underlies the qualities, a “something-I-know-not-what.” But if we lack access to the thing-in-itself, there is no way to compare our ideas to the actual object allegedly causing those ideas to determine which qualities are primary and which ones are secondary. Access to knowledge of extramental reality seems impossible, and a trip down the phenomenalist brick road of Berkeley, Hume, and the sense data theorists of the early twentieth century. Such an idealistic journey is not what Locke wanted to make. Idealism has serious difficulties; the source of the ideas (our own minds? the mind of God) remains a mystery, and the orderly nature of the phenomena we experience is left unexplained unless a person takes the Berkeleian route of positing God to explain natural laws. Direct realism is another option; the label of “naive realism” is a pejorative and is a blatant attempt to beg the question regarding the truth or falsity of direct realism. As for the straw men critics of direct realism try to knock down, no direct realist has denied the possibility of illusion. It is Berkeley and Hume’s phenomenalism that cannot distinguish between illusion and reality except by taking Hume’s route of more vivid ideas (which he calls impressions) being the most “real.”

Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas were both direct realists. Aquinas accepted the idea that knowledge comes through the “phantasm,” or sensory image, from which the mind extracts the intelligible content from a material substance. Thomists today often say that the difference from Locke’s view is that Locke believed we have access to ideas, not the thing in itself–it is the ideas that we know. In contrast, Aquinas believes that it is through the phantasm that a person gains some knowledge, albeit limited, of the thing-in-itself. But does this really avoid Locke’s problem or does it evade it by a kind of word game?

After reading more of how contemporary Thomists deal with the epistemological gap, I must back away from my earlier position that Thomism does not avoid an epistemological gap between mind and thing. Contemporary Thomists believe that humans have evolved as part of their environment, not as creatures separate from their environment. Even thought knowledge is of “external” things, there is a communication of intelligible content from object to subject–agent causation is not limited to human agents. The phantasm contains the information that human beings extract to help them to live in the environment in which they are embedded, to the point that the person becomes “intentionally one” with the thing-in-itself. While Duns Scotus posited intuitive knowledge of an object as existing in addition to a rather traditional Aristotelian account of knowledge, I am not sure that such an intuitive knowledge is necessary for human beings to get by in the world. If such intuitive knowledge exists (perhaps in the form of psi), such knowledge could speed up our apprehension of a thing and determine whether or not it is dangerous. But if the mind is not considered a container, but as one way of an organism’s acting in the world, that seems to eliminate the Lockean gap between idea and thing. The phantasm becomes that “by which” a person apprehends some aspects of the being of a thing.


The Tragic Shooting in Tuscon

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Gabrielle Giffords, Democratic nominee and gen...

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Like most people, I was shocked at the shooting spree in Tuscon that killed six people and wounded many others, including Representative Gabrielle Giffords. I pray for the families of those so brutally murdered and for the recovery of Rep. Giffords and the other people wounded. The shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, is clearly mentally ill; it is almost impossible to predict the behavior of someone so deeply disturbed, and we will probably never know what pushed him over the edge into violence and murder. There has been a great deal of concern expressed that extremes of political rhetoric may have led to this tragedy. This claim goes beyond the evidence, but political debate should be conducted in a rational matter using good arguments rather than ad hominem attacks. Both the right and the left have been guilty in this regard. However, I am not sure that in issues involving politics or religion that debate will ever be conducted without some people making personal attacks. Politics deals with the nature of government and what makes up a good society, something that affects us all. Religion deals with one’s overall view of the world. For many people, religion and politics are part of their very identity, and they feel threatened when their religious and/or political views are attacked. In addition, many people in society have been infected with the postmodern disease of not believing that reason can resolve political issues (and by “reason” I primarily mean “practical reason” in Aristotle’s sense). Distrust of reason only leaves room for emotion–and while emotion is necessary for our survival and is probably necessary for good cognition (as the work of Damasio suggests), emotion tends to go to extremes without the balance of reason. Without reason, all that remains in politics is emotional attacks that quickly degenerate into personal attacks and even into violence. Such a view ends up leading to “might makes right.” That is sophism of the kind Thrasymachus accepted as Plato portrays him in The Republic. Thrasymachus wished to attack people personally, even threatening them physically, to push forward his views. The kind of violence seen in the earlier attacks on Rep. Giffords’ office, or the vandalism of the Rutherford County, Tennessee Republican Party Headquarters (twice) is the result of such an ethic.

Concern about political rhetoric should not be used as an excuse to limit freedom of speech or to cut off debate on controversial issues. Even nasty political rhetoric, as long as it does not involve slander or libel or physical threats, is protected speech. Political debate today is nasty, but is nowhere near as nasty as it was in the nineteenth century. Yes, we should be more civil in political debate. But even those who are uncivil have the right to be uncivil. The terrible tragedy in Arizona should not obscure this fact. Sadly, the sheriff in Tuscon and many in the media have tried to politicize this tragedy or blame specific people or movements for the crime. This is the very kind of political rhetoric that is unhealthy. Ultimately, there is only one person who is guilty of the murders and assaults in Tuscon, and that is Jared Lee Loughner.

The REAL Reason Most College Students are Moral Relativists

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C. S. Lewis

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The real reason most college and university students are moral relativists is because they want to get laid–not just once, but promiscuously. They also want to get drunk–not slightly, but thoroughly and often. I could add drug use, rudeness to professors and to each other, and the other problems students have in a decaying culture.

Other than sociopaths and psychopaths, people have consciences. They do not like to feel guilt. If they convince themselves that what they feel is right is “right for them,” then that can do bad things without the guilt. In the past, this tendency of the young to rebel was controlled by strong parenting and strong community standards. Even in the government schools, students were taught that there are some actions that are right, not just for them, but for everyone else–and that some actions are wrong–not just for them, but for all people. In the 1970s, “values clarification” was used to try to teach relativism to students in K-12. Students who are that age between childhood and adulthood who wanted to “go wild” then had an excuse–there are, they were taught, no cross-culturally valid moral standards. The government schools still teach such relativist garbage (the trend began in England before it began in the U.S.; read C. S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

Part of adulthood is understanding one’s responsibilities in life and following basic standards of moral decency–avoiding excessive anger, avoiding jealously, envy, murder, theft, sexual wrongs, and other actions that are harmful to human flourishing. Moral relativism is one of many forces that have pushed the effective age of adulthood for Americans to around twenty-six.

People without a firm moral compass will literally try to do everything they desire to do. It is no surprise that even white collar people have been involved in scandal after scandal–there are other causes for their behavior than relativism–bad character, for instance, but the relativism rampant in the school system does not help matters.

Man is a social animal, and for mankind to survive, certain moral rules are essential–do not murder (take innocent human life), steal (for the notion of property rights collapses otherwise), do keep promises (this is necessary for contracts to have any meaning, as is general truthfulness), do not commit adultery (for the sake of a stable family). As far back as Aristotle these were considered to be values required to be a good human being who contributes to the community. Ancient thinkers from Aristotle to Confucius believed in a common moral code that, despite cultural differences in application, had the same general list of virtues and vices. C. S. Lewis calls this code the “Tao.” A society that rejects the Tao will end up like the children in Lord of the Flies, committing murder and hunting with a stick sharpened at both ends (I am grateful to the late Louis Pojman for this point).

Some students will grow out of their relativism, especially after having children of their own. Others do not, however, and this contributes to the decay of the fundamental institution of society, the family, and of social institutions both public and private. Hopefully parents will counteract the influences facing their children these days, as difficult as that is. I am frankly tired of hearing students saying that the evil deeds done by Lenin, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot were “right for them.” They were not right, period, and young people ought to have enough sense to recognize that.