Some reposts from my "attic":
(JBH) I'm bewildered by this argument. (That this argument happens at all.)
The crucial word is "person". It is not "life", it is not even "human
The sperm and the egg are alive, the fertilized egg is alive, so are the
farm animals we kill by the millions for food. So is the grass we mow
for the sake of appearance.
"Human life" is less obvious, but consider the organs we remove-
tonsils, kidneys, foreskins, appendices, and so forth. All living human
Consider "anencephalic children", those who by tragic turn are born
without a brain, having only the brain stem and a skull filled with
fluid. They breathe, their hearts beat, they flinch from a pinprick,
they've even been known to smile. They are not, and will never be,
conscious. Some "prolife" women have even been known to adopt such
babies. In my humble opinion, such babies should be used for medical
"Personhood" can be defined in many ways, most of which would involve
the ability to learn to talk. At a minimum, it would certainly involve
Many years ago I developed a "short argument" re. abortion. No one has
ever answered it without asserting that fertilized eggs have souls. It
goes like this:
(1) A potential person is not a person yet.
(2) Before a living being can be a person, it must have a cerebral cortex.
(3) Before we object to someone killing that being, purely for their own
convenience, it should have a cerebral cortex larger than those of the
beings we regularly kill for food.
If it is legal to kill cows for food, it should be legal to abort human
fetuses, at least up to the time their brains grow as large as the brain
of a cow.
I support having an "adopted honorary person" clause in the social
contract, whereby a person may adopt an animal or a "pre-person" as a
member of their own family, taking responsibility for its care and
training and the control of its behavior. Those animals or "pre-persons"
adopted should be granted certain rights. A presumption of adoption may
be given for human fetuses carried to term. Thus newborns, who probably
are not yet developed enough to count as "persons", may routinely be
protected as "adopted honorary persons".
> Person = A Human Being
(JBH) Dictionaries report current (and sometimes archaic) usage, they
are descriptive, not prescriptive.
If Dolphins were discovered to have a complex language, one that worked
very differently from human languages but was equally rich (e.g. one
that made use of sonar "holograms", analogous to humans being able to
create visual images in the air), would we deny them personhood? If
extraterrestrial aliens landed, with technology galore, would we debate
for a second whether they were persons?
(JBH) Personhood is the issue, not "life" or even "human life".
Assume, somewhere on this planet or another planet, we discovered a new
form of animal life. What criteria would we use to decide if it was a
person or not? Could we morally kill it for food, or not, and why?
I submit, that if a lifeform is intelligent enough to learn to use
language, it is a person; if not, then not. Personhood develops AFTER
birth; I'm not an expert on when young children first begin to talk, but
until then they are still "potential" persons, "developing" persons, not
full persons yet.
"Rights", and morality generally, are human institutions, not something
written into the fabric of the Universe. Morality generally is a
FUNCTIONAL institution; it serves the function of maintaining peaceful
and cooperative relations among members of a social species, a species
that survives by cooperating in groups. "Rights" are not an
all-or-nothing thing; historically rights were first claimed and
defended by the strong, i.e. by males of fighting age and ability. This
was back in the days when humans lived in small tribes who lived by
hunting and gathering, on territories that they defended by constant
warfare against other tribes. Rights have been gradually extended out
from that core, as we have developed societies that lived in other ways;
rights were extended because those who wished them extended gained
sufficient influence in the society to persuade enough of the powerful
that they should be extended.
The "natural" standard of morality ("natural" because it is favored by
natural selection) is that a "good" person is a desirable neighbor from
the point of view of people who wish to live in peace and raise
families. We should consider this standard because we can predict that
it will be widely popular across all human cultures, because it is the
standard bred into us by natural selection.
There are many different ways that a peaceful and cooperative society
might function; the "natural" standard gives minimal guidance as to
which society would be "better", saying only that a better society would
be one that would be "healthier" for ourselves and our posterity to live
in. ("Health" being defined as "the ability to survive".)
I would certainly advocate that full rights ("equal rights and equal
opportunity") should be granted to all adult persons, and SOME rights at
least be granted to immature persons. Further, beyond the range of
personhood, I would advocate granting some rights to former persons.
(This I call the "insurance clause" of the social contract... we are all
at risk of becoming former persons, so we all have reason to want
certain rights of former persons to be protected.) I would also advocate
having an "adopted honorary person" clause, whereby if any person wishes
to adopt an animal or a "pre-person" as a member of their own family,
taking responsibility for its care, training, and behavior, then the
society should grant the adoptee certain rights.
Would a "good" person ever abort their own pregnancy, or help another
person who wishes to abort their own pregnancy? I think it's obvious
that any person wishing to abort their own pregnancy is probably facing
hard circumstances. Do the rest of us have enough interest in the
potential child that we are willing to adopt it? If not, I see no
grounds for overruling the wishes of the pregnant person. If so, perhaps
then we might argue that a "good" person would bring the pregnancy to
term and surrender the baby for adoption.
(JBH) So, I repeat in blunt summary the theory I offfered before. Rights
come from peace treaties, i.e. the "social contract". They were
originally granted to anyone who could/would fight to defend them. As
the benefits of peaceful social living grew, the level of tolerance for
conflict fell, and so rights were granted, extended, to more types of
entities, basically any entities who had persons who would assert and
defend rights for them, who if denied would threaten conflict of a type
that the rest of society whould rather avoid. So, in this way, rights
were extended to those of lesser combat ability, and eventually to "all
persons" (all who are smart enough to use language), and even beyond
that, (to a lesser and limited degree) to former persons, to some kinds
of "pre-persons", and to "adopted honorary persons". Animals have rights
if they have enough animal-rights-defenders, that the rest of society
would rather grant the rights than fight over it. Fetuses likewise.
Some compassionate folk would grant a "right to life" to anything that
runs away, enforcing vegetarianism (with perhaps the exception of clams
and oysters?" Some would carry the logic further, to "anything that
tries to defend its own life by any means", which would imply
"fruitarianism", where "fruit" is defined as "anything that eventually
drops off the plant." (I.E. allowable food would include beans, seeds,
nuts, grains, cucumbers, and so forth, as well as classical fruit. I'm
not sure what they think about eggs; beans and grains are embryonic
plants, why not embryonic animals also? I've heard some allow
"unfertilized eggs" only, but the distinction seems to be religiously
James Huber wrote:
And still, none of you have explained how 20 seconds later when the
fetus has become a baby it suddenly develops a level of brain activity
sufficient to experience torture. The closest anyone has come is to
suggest that the newborn isn't a person, but when I pointed out that
would mean that we could torture them at will, they backpedal.
(JBH) In the making and revising of the social contract, and in the
consequent allocation of rights, some things may have rights to be free
of cruelty before they gain a "right to life". For example, some states
have passed laws prohibitng inhumane treatments of farm animals. I read
about a farmer (I think in West Virginia) who was prosecuted for letting
a few hundred pigs starve to death.
It's entirely possible that killing a few babies here and there is a
reasonable price to pay for personal freedom. But I think we should be
aware that's we we're doing.
(JBH) In some cultures, at some times, this has been done; I read that
in Japan, perhaps in past times and in poorer strata of society, the
birth of a baby was not announced until the family had decided to keep
it; there was a traditional period of three days for the family to make
The same could be said about mother's leave their infants in a dumpster.
Shall we decriminalize that? By the way, I'm going to keep asking
stuff like that at least until someone gives me an answer.
(JBH) Actually decriminalization is a way being tried; I've heard of
several jurisdictions enacting "free surrender" laws, whereby a newborn
could be given to a hospital or other authorized place, no questions
asked. Similar to my suggestion earlier, that the rest of society gains
legitimacy to object to late-term abortion if said society is willing to
adopt the resulting baby.
I have no problem with the idea that something can have partial rights.
What I'm having trouble understanding is what you think it is about
being shoved head first through a vagina that causes such sudden massive
change in the mental capacity (or whatever) that it causes something to
go from having absolutely no rights at all to having full moral standing
as a human.
We have that where I live (San Francisco East Bay). I think the
parallel you draw is fitting, but I also think that if I believed that a
late term fetus had no rights that I would see the government
interference in the process as unjustified: The government has no right
to interfere with a woman's body *unless* they're doing so to protect
someone else's rights.
(JBH) I think a lot of your difficulty comes from regarding rights as
something "out there", independent of human choices and institutions. By
the social-contract approach to ethics, rights come from peace treaties;
the broad nature of the treaty comes from the human condition, that we
are social animals who survive by cooperating in groups. The fine
details of the treaty can vary; there are many possible ways that a
peaceful and cooperative society could function. The boundaries of
"personhood" can vary and has varied in history. The rights granted to
persons, nonpersons, post-persons, pre-persons, have varied.
That developing babies gain rights suddenly upon birth is no more
puzzling than that developing adults gain rights suddenly upon reaching
their (21rst, 18th, 16th) birthday. Rights are human institutions. They
are what we make them. Thre are reasons why we make them, they serve
important purposes, but they don't exist "by themselves".
The question is not what rights they "have", but what rights we want
them to have, to make a society that is a desirable place for ourselves
and our posterity to live in.
> I don't see that your definition does any better. It seems like it more or
less define person as "Any thing that can through actual
force, >threat of force or pure cuteness make us call them a person."
That has >the advantage of being self-implementing and pretty easy to
understand, >but it's also pretty much like saying "A criminal is anyone
currently >in jail or wanted by the police."
(JBH) Not really; you're thinking of rights, not personhood. A person,
by the SC appraoch, would be anything that was able to learn and follow
the rules for living within the society. Anything able but not willing
to do so would be a person but not part of the "peace treaty", i.e. an
outlaw or enemy. Anything not able to learn and follow the rules, but
otherwise peaceable, would have to be sponsored by society members for
some lesser restricted status, as domestic animals or mental patients or
zoo animals, or whatever.
> Able to learn, or has actually learned? We don't expect children to have
actually learned all the rules, that's why they get special treatment under the
law. Are you saying that children aren't people, or are you saying they are
people because they have the capacity to learn even if they haven't learned yet?
(JBH) Able to learn. Again, developing immature humans gain ability
gradually. there probably isn't any exact moment that they cease being
"pre-persons" and become persons, we just have to estimate an age by
which most children have gained sufficient ability that we begin to
regard them as morally responsible.
>> Anything able but not willing to do so would be a person but not
part >>of the "peace treaty", i.e. an outlaw or enemy.
> That doesn't leave much room for things like ending slavery. If the
"peace treaty" says anyone with dark skin is property then any people
with dark skin who wish to be free are, by virtue of their unwillingness
to remain property, violating the treaty and therefore, under your terms,
legitimately denied rights. As long as they lack
the >power to force a renegotiation of the treaty they have no moral
basis >to challenge their continued slavery under your system.
(JBH) The terms of the peace treaty are constantly being renegotiated.
If you have a theory of justice, you can argue for what would be the
best terms for the SC by that theory. Since the point of the treaty is
to facilitate peaceful and cooperative relations between members of
society, one could argue that the best sort of treaty, by its OWN logic,
would be one that nobody was seething to change, one with which all
parties were reasonably satisfied. "Equal Rights and equal opportunity"
would clearly offer the fewest grounds for anyone to complain.
>> Anything not able to learn and follow the rules, but otherwise
peaceable, would have to be sponsored by society members for some
lesser restricted status, as domestic animals or mental patients or zoo
animals, or whatever.
> I don't think that criminals, mental patients, etc lose rights,
there's >just no way to allow them to exercise those rights without
undue risk >that other's will lose their rights.
(JBH) Somehow that seems a distinction without a difference. If you
cannot exercise your rights, how does that differ from losing them?
(end of reiteration.)