Modal Potential and Animal Persons: Responses to More Philosophical Pro-Life Objections

A few pro-life readers responded to my earlier post refuting fetal personhood with a couple objections that I felt were important to address.

Pro-life Objection: Argument From Modal Personhood

This objection hinges on the idea that there is a critical moral difference between the potential of a gamete and the potential of a zygote, even if there are no more neurological or psychological features in the zygote than in the gamete. The justification for this claim relies on the concept of “modal potentiality” or “kind potentiality.” I restate this argument as the following:

“The zygote/embryo/fetus (ZEF) is a person with a right to life in a way a gamete is not, because the ZEF is an individual human entity of the kind that can potentially have rationality, thoughts, and other valuable mental features.”

In other words, the ZEF may not have any morally relevant mental features now, but it is “of the kind” of being that, given enough time and progression, would have those mental features. This is not true of the gamete “left alone.” You might say the ZEF has a “humanness” the gamete does not.

This argument presupposes the idea that being “of the kind” of being that might at some point have quality A grants that being the moral status it would have if it did have quality A. But feminists can immediately challenge this presupposition, because it’s obvious we don’t assign a certain status or rights to an entity based on whether the entity has the “modal potential” for a certain morally relevant quality, but rather whether or not it actually has that quality.

It’s easy to understand this point with some simple examples. For instance, we don’t desire to eat a piece of cake because the piece is “of the kind of food that at its best is delicious.” We desire to eat the slice because it is delicious; further, if the cake were not delicious, we wouldn’t want to eat it, regardless of whether cake as a “kind” is a delicious food. What matters is whether the individual piece of cake possesses the quality of deliciousness.

Similarly, consider the right to consent to sex. Children are “of the kind” of being (persons) that can at some stage in mental development consent to sex. But we don’t view that as important at all in deciding whether children ought to have some right to consent to sex. What matters is that children don’t currently have the mental capacity to make consent meaningful, not whether they are of the kind of being that would at some point have it.

With regards to abortion, the ZEF does not have any mental life, desires or dispositions; this is not true of newborns, children, or adults. The fact that the ZEF could or will develop into a being that has those mental features does not mean that the ZEF in the body of a woman who wants to get an abortion should therefore be viewed as morally equivalent to a a being tha does have those mental features. Quite the opposite, in fact: The fact the ZEF does not have those features is grounds to consider it morally different from a newborn or child.

Pro-life Objection: Animals as Persons

Occasionally, pro-life commenters have objected to my view of personhood by claiming it would give too much moral status to animals. Joshua Shephard illustrates this objection in his article where responds to philosopher Lynn Rudder Baker:

“Either she should extend personhood to all entities that possess a rudimentary first‐person perspective or she should not appeal to this perspective as importantly different from the other developmental precursors of a robust first‐person perspective. Both options carry with them what some may see as undesirable consequences. On the former, lots of non‐human animals qualify as persons. On the latter, there is little reason to say, as Baker wishes to, that personhood emerges around the time of birth (cf. DeGrazia 2002).”

Why does treating (many) animals as persons seem to Shephard to have undesirable consequences? At first blush, to this feminist, the idea that animals ought to have rights and in many cases ought to be viewed as persons is not exactly a problem. We certainly should  view it as immoral to cause animals pointless suffering precisely because animals have subjective experiences that make their existence morally important. Indeed, even most pro-life philosophers hold that causing animals to gratuitiously suffer is also wrong; an advantage of the pro-choice view is that it explains why causing this suffering is wrong without resorting to fiat pronouncements that certain “kinds” of animals are simply morally important while others are not. The fact that a full acceptance of this view of personhood could lead to radical shifts in how our society prioritizes non-human animals and the natural world is also not a problem for most feminists!

But I believe Shephard is making another assumption here that makes him believe that Baker’s view has undesirable consequences. This assumption seems to be something like: If babies are persons because of their rudimentary mental states, and cows have similar rudimentary mental states, we must have similar obligations to cows as we have babies when it comes to moral behavior. I think even a vegan environmentalist might find that idea objectionable. After all, it seems much worse to kill and eat a baby than to kill and eat a cow!

In reality, the fact that class membership and potential do not define what persons are does not imply that class membership and potential have no bearing on our obligations to different kinds of persons. A father has an obligation to care for and protect his child that he doesn’t have towards an unrelated child in a faraway country, for example, but that doesn’t mean that the child in the faraway country lacks any moral standing or is any less of a person than the father’s child. It’s simply a reflection of the fact that our obligations to other beings aren’t simply a utilitarian function of the mental states of those beings. It’s perfectly consistent to say that both dolphins and children ought to be considered persons by virtue of the mental states of both, but also to say that humans have special obligations to human children that they don’t have towards dolphins. 

Further, the potential of different types of persons absolutely should impact how those persons are treated. It could very well be that a human child is more valuable than a pig because he or she will one day significantly surpass the mental faculties of a pig, even if their mental faculties are equal at a particular moment. Some pro-life advocates may say this is a contradiction with the earlier point I made that potential is unimportant when it comes to the moral status of a fetus. But this is a confusion between the potential of a person who may come into existence and the potential of a person who has come into existence. It is perfectly reasonable to say that the potential for a fetus to become a person is irrelevant, while the potential of a child to become a rational adult is not. This is another good reason to suggest that human children are moral subjects in a way that non-human animals are not.

It’s beyond the scope of the abortion debate to determine what our obligations are to non-human animals if the pro-choice view of personhood is accepted. But it’s important to reject facile objections that imply pro-choice advocates must care equally about all animals, human or non-human. Accepting that some non-human animals are persons does not imply that our obligations to every single species would be identical.

Pro-life Objection: Argument From Other Moral Implications

Sometimes pro-life commenters have objected to my view of personhood on the grounds that, if this view were accepted, it would become morally acceptable to do things that seem immoral. This includes things like killing fetuses entirely for your own pleasure or desecrating their bodies in particularly gruesome ways. But rejecting the personhood of a fetus doesn’t mean that any act towards the fetus would therefore be morally acceptable. There are many different reasons an act can be immoral, and we routinely condemn actions even when they don’t directly harm a subject of experience. For example, we would consider mutilating a dead body for sadistic purposes a wrongful act without taking the bizarre position that a dead body is a person.

Published by KS


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