Archive for April, 2012

In this week’s Chance, Purpose and Progress in Evolution and Religion, we discussed personhood. Historically, the concept of personhood has been a topic of interest to a wide range of fields, such as philosophy and law. Consequently, many attempts have been made over the years to define what a person is. One can easily imagine how the definition of person can be of vital importance to a field such as law, where specific laws may protect persons, but not afford non-persons the same protection.

In the landmark decision of Roe V. Wade, the United States Supreme Court weighed the rights of the mother to have an abortion against the rights of the state to protect prenatal life and protect the health of the mother. The question of personhood was relevant in that if the fetus could be considered a person, it should be protected by the same rights as the mother. In the end, the Court explicitly rejected a fetal “right to life” argument and determined that the mother has the right to abort prior to fetal “viability”. In this case, “viability” was defined as “potentially able to live outside the mother’s womb, albeit with artificial aid”, which is typically placed at about seven months (or 28 weeks) but may occur earlier. Interestingly, the recent “personhood” law proposed in Oklahoma challenges the Supreme Court opinion rejecting the fetal “right to life” argument and seeks to grant personhood status to fetuses, thus granting them full protection as people.

The origin of the word person is the Latin <i>persona</i>, which originally meant “character in a drama, mask”, but is today thought of more as meaning “human being”. Though Christianity was the first philosophical system to use person in this modern sense, the concept of personhood had been present by the time of Aristotle. Over the years, its meaning has changed and evolved. In early Christianity, person was a technical theological term referring to the three persons of the Trinity.

By early 5th century, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, writes in <i>On exodus</i> that “hominization” takes place forty days after conception and that early abortion cannot be regarded as homicide because “there cannot be a living soul in a body that lacks sensation due to its not being fully formed”. Near to a century later, Boethius refines the meaning of the word to “that which possesses an intellect and a will”.

Sometime around 1264, Thomas Aquinas writes the<i>Summa contra Gentilles</i> (On the Truth of the Catholic Faith) in which he states that”The vegetative soul, which comes first, when the embryo lives the life of a plant, is corrupted, and is succeeded by a more perfect soul, which is both nutritive and sensitive, and then the embryo lives an animal life; and when this is corrupted, it is succeeded by the rational soul introduced from without (i.e., by God).” The view of “delayed hominization” was confirmed as Catholic dogma by the Council of Vienne in 1312 and has never been officially repudiated by the Vatican. Aquinas also discusses the idea of “potential persons” who are on the path to actualization.Though the view of “delayed hominization” has yet to be repudiated by the Roman Catholic Church, Lucas informs us that the Church’s modern definition of personhood includes all conception with a full genetic component.

Although we unfortunately did not cover this extensively, other religions also have put much thought into the question of personhood. Buddhists, for example, think of persons as being sentient beings who must suffer from outer discomforts (giving birth, growing old, physical illness and the process of dying), attachment aversion and rebirth. Daniel Charbonneau suggests that it would have been interesting to discuss the views of Hinduism which does not have a centralized leadership and so a variety of views existor those of Islam, whose shares its origin with Judaism and Christianity.

Moving away from theological views on personhood, we discussed Kant’s view of persons being moral agents which are rational beings whose rationality can be demonstrated by conscience and autonomy. Specifically, this means that rational beings are capable of making sense of things, establishing and verifying facts, and to change or justify practices and beliefs accordingly. As for Peter Singer, author of the assigned readingfor this week’s discussion (Chapter 6 of “Practical ethics”), he defines a person as  a rational and self-aware being, or following Locke, as “a thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing, in different times and places”.This is contrasted with the view of a person in a biological sense where all individuals of the species Homo sapiens should be considered persons.

An interesting side note: Anna Dornhaus suggested that all of these definitions were in fact post hoc attempts to get a handle on what exactly it means to be a person and, as such, were likely to be somewhat fuzzy. She suggests that perhaps sticking to a fuzzy term to start with, such as beings with souls, might be the best definition that we can hope to achieve exactly because it is undefinable. 

Although using an undefinable term to define personhood may not be practical to further our discussion, her comment does bring up an important point.  Many of the definitions discussed include some notion of soul or rationality which are somewhat fuzzy terms and can be fairly problematic when trying to determine if something is a person or not. For instance, at what point, before conception in the form of gametes, at conception, or at any point after conception to adulthood, can “human being” be considered a person? In cases where the lines are blurred, the notion of “potential persons” is often brought up and the exact boundaries of person, non-person and potential person vary according to the viewpoint espoused. For instance, while Augustine of Hippo may consider that fetuses are persons forty days after conception, Kantmight consider personhood to beginaround two years old when children are capable begin to make rational choices. Singer, who agrees more with Kant, suggests that the definition of personhood should not be constrained to humans and goes so far as to propose that a mature gorilla has more self-awareness than a human infant and, as such, should be considered more of a person than the infant.

In this week’s reading, Singer alsodescribes an interesting thought experiment:

Imagine on the one hand, a couple with good living conditions, financial security, etc., but who are on the fence about having children or not and in the end, they might choose to not have kids.

Imagine on the other hand, parents who are pregnant with a child who has been diagnosed with some sort of handicapped fetus will likelychoose to not have the child.

Both of these scenarios are fairly realistic and are interesting because they highlight the fact that it seems as though we more readily accept negative eugenics (aborting a disabled child) while we are somewhat uncomfortable with positive eugenics (somehow coercing the parents with a  good living situation to have a child). Studies have shown that humans are genetically programmed for risk avoidance and, as such, our threshold for accepting potentially unfavorable conditions is lower than our threshold for accepting potentially favorable conditions. If you are interested by this phenomenon, Daniel Charbonneau highly suggest looking up TED Talks by Dan Ariely as well as a fascinating talk by Laurie Santos.

After having gone over a range of views on personhood, the group discussed how most people think of what is a person and what is not. Lucas suggests that the way most people think of personhood similarly to the Kantian definition where rationality and autonomy somehow fit into the equation. On the other hand, Joanna suggests this isn’t the case because Kant doesn’t think that infants are persons. Rather,she suggests that most people tend to think of person according to the biological definition.

Now that we have some sense of what can/could/should/would be considered a person, the question remains: How is this relevant to eugenics? The first thing is to think about the implications of personhood. I think a common assumption is that all people should be considered equal, but is it obvious that they should be? Typically, equality is thought to be ensured by rights, both inherent and inalienable. In Practical Ethics, Singer proposes the moral principle of “equal consideration of interests” which essentially states that rights are unimportant, and we should rather focus on the consideration of individual’s interests. Specifically, he suggests that one should “include all affected interests when calculating the rightness of an action, and weigh those interests equally”.

The idea that everyone is equal is however directly in conflict with eugenics which empirically shows that in fact, people are not equal. That said, it is not clear that existence of natural variation within a population necessarily leads to there needing to be inequality in rights or consideration. Nonetheless, this dichotomy of views illustrates why arguments in favor of eugenics tend to be consequentialist arguments, while arguments against eugenics tend to be deontological. One is a more pragmatic approach based on empirical evidence, while the other is more about philosophy and moral choices (see discussion 5.2 for more on deontological vs. consequentialist arguments against and for eugenics).

The concept of dignity is also relevant topersonhood and its implication important for eugenics. Kant states that dignity is an inherent property of personhood. He states that a person can’t be treated as means unless also treated as an end as this would be an affront to their dignity. What this essentially means is that you cannot use a person without them also benefitting. In this sense, if a fetus is considered a person, abortion goes against the dignity of the fetus. Of course, if the fetus is considered a person, it would also be considered homicide. Interestingly, though in Augustine’sOn exodus he claims that early abortion cannot be considered homicide, he goes on to condemn both abortion and contraception in <i>On marriage and lust</i> because sexual intercourse without procreation is thought to be unnatural. So, according to him, before “hominization”, abortion is fine from a homicide point of view, but unacceptable because it involves having sex without procreating.

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