Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

From: George Murphy <>
Date: Fri Mar 13 2009 - 08:26:52 EDT

1st let me deal with the issue of potentiality. I & others have suggested that that could be pushed much further than merely the claim that an embryo is a "potential person" or "potential human." But that doesn't seem to me the fundamental problem with that approach. My basic objection to it is simply that, whether or not its proponents intend it this way or not, like an attempt at a drop-dead proof that human embryonic life deserves absolute protection. For of course a human embryo in the functioning uterus of a healthy woman is a potential human person. But to argue in this way simply avoids the real question of the status of the embryo.

2d, Christine is on the right track. Biologically (Gregory, please note), a fertilized human ovum is distinctive human life. Thus (with all the qualifications about the non-punctiliar character of conception), "life begins at conception." But does human personhood begin at conception?

What does it mean to be a person? The traditional philosophical definition, going back to Boethius in the 6th century, is that a person is "an individual substance of a rational nature." One could question the appropriateness of the term "rational" for an embryo that has no brain or even nervous system - & in fact that would go along with proposals that we use a criterion of "brain birth" paralleling the criterion of "brain death" used in connection with end of life issues.

3d, that definition of "person," however, based as it is on substantialist metaphysics and the idea of unchanging "substances" and "natures," has severe limitations. It is much more appropriate today to think of the idea of "person" in relational terms - an idea that is not at all modern but goes well back in the theological tradition. (Aquinas spoke of the persons of the Trinity as "subsistent relations.") It seems to me - but Gregory will be sure to correct me if I'm wrong - that defining "person" relationally would be more in accord with the way sociologists would want to think of the question.

But what types of relationship qualifies the embryo as a person? Is it such from conception on? I am not going to pretend to give an answer to that question here. But it seems to me that that's the type of question that needs to be asked if we want a principled understanding of embryological status. Appeals to potentiality and a precautionary principle may be appropriate in political discourse, especially if we need to gain time in order to do the serious thinking and debate about the fundamental question. But in the long term we need to do that fundamental thinking.


  ----- Original Message -----
  From: Gregory Arago
  To: ; Christine Smith
  Sent: Friday, March 13, 2009 6:59 AM
  Subject: Re: [asa] scientific fact vs. ideology?

        Christine Smith wrote:
        "In the context of the debate, "human" and "person" has been used interchangeably it seems to me, but the term "person" carries with it much deeper connotations about spirituality, emotions, rationality, etc. The term "human" however, doesn't necessarily convey these additional concepts - fundamentally, it merely distinguishes us from say, a cat."

        It depends on who you ask, e.g. a zoologist or ethologist or anthropologist or psychologist. Are human beings being discussed strictly 'naturalistically,' i.e. through the methods, theories and paradigms of 'natural sciences.' Or are human-social methods, theories and paradigms freely (and actively) being involved to consider what counts as human, almost human, potentially human or not human at all?

        David O's application of legal studies and systems is a case in point.

        Even in the human-social sciences (what is in North America commonly just called 'social sciences,' distinguishing them from 'humanities') there is debate about this, for example, the Bruno Latour vs. Steve Fuller fiasco in Hong Kong 2002 ( Latour claims that 'actants' (which are not necessarily human) are part of our network society, while Fuller argues for the centrality of human uniqueness as the basis for the social scientific project. Fuller claims (2006) that all monotheistic religions accept the 'anthropic' position, while the non-monotheistic religions he describes as 'karmic,' which is driven by the neo-Darwinian worldview that distinguishes human beings from (other) animals and the rest of nature *only* by 'degree' and not 'kind.'

        Of course, using the term 'human person' would immediately solve the problem that Christine raises, while inviting in a major realm of discourse in which zoologists and ethologists are amateurs (and often dreadfully wrong). No need to consult 'society' if a person can or should be 'defined' (a objectively as possible) strictly by their genes, plus "spirituality, emotions, rationality, etc." all of which is subsumed under 'human nature.' Then again, isn't all social science necessarily ideological due to its inescapable reflexivity?


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Received on Fri Mar 13 08:27:37 2009

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