We’ve got another awesome Sex and the State guest post! If you would like to submit a guest post, please fill out my contact form with an brief outline of what you want to write about.
Abortion is one of those issues that seems to divide libertarians right down the middle—about half are pro-life, the other half are pro-choice. To get more technical, they either don’t want State interference (at least not on the federal level) but still believe abortion is wrong. Others also do not want State interference and believe abortion is morally permissible, even a right; and by ‘right’ I mean a moral claim against others (in this context) to not interfere with a woman’s ability to control her body, i.e., abort her pregnancy.
Much of the debate centers on the concept of personhood. When people say a fetus is a ‘human life’ or a ‘person’, what they are usually saying is that it is an entity possessing certain qualities which demand respect and are even the bases of rights, i.e., the right to life. In other words, some say that human fetuses are persons while others say they are not.
The debate over personhood with respect to human fetuses often reminds me of the debate over personhood with respect to nonhuman animals. One question in regards to the latter is often what quality, or qualities, do adult humans possess that nonhuman animals lack which makes consuming non-human animals morally permissible while harming adult human beings for no good reason is impermissible? Ethical vegans/vegetarians, or animal rights activists (ARA) believe nonhuman animals (at least many of them of many different species) and humans do share qualities in common which makes them worthy of moral respect, consideration, or even rights.
As I have pondered on these similarities, it has occurred to me that if pro-lifers are truly committed to the pro-life position, should they not also be committed to ethical veganism/vegetarianism? I will attempt to answer this question. In doing so, I will define personhood, explore what this definition means for the abortion and animal rights debates, and I will also argue that pro-lifers ought to be committed vegans/vegetarians if they want to maintain their belief that human fetuses are in fact persons with certain rights, i.e., the right to life.
Humans and Persons
Defining personhood can be a tricky thing to do. The simplest and most straightforward way of defining personhood is to define it as the status, or state, of being a person; but what is a ‘person’? Most people tend to think a person is a human being. In some sense, this may be correct, but this may or may not be the case in the moral sense.
One point of clarification: ‘person’ does not necessarily mean ‘member of the species Homo sapiens’. ‘Homo sapiens’, or ‘human’/ ‘human being’, is a biological category while ‘person’ is a moral category (at least for my purposes here).
This point of clarification is needed because people need to be clear in their language (which may often be intentionally abused) in these kinds of arguments or debates. It’s important to make sure we make a reasonable effort to be on the same page with our definitions as a means for constructive debate and argumentation. ‘Human’ may be used as a moral category. However, that term as a moral category is more easily equivocated with the biological category. Hence my use of the term ‘person’ to refer to the moral category and ‘human’ to the biological.
Let’s suppose a ‘person’ is a member of the species Homo sapiens, a human, and that only Homo sapiens are persons. Right away, this definition seems to be rather arbitrary. It also appears to be guilty of speciesism (yes, I said ‘speciesism’, but don’t dismiss me just yet; I do have a point I still need to make). In other words, the personhood of an entity is entirely dependent on its being a member of a particular species—in this case, Homo sapiens. To clarify, “speciesism is a prejudice or attitude of bias toward the interests of one’s own species and against those of members of another species.”1
It appears that by saying that humans, and only humans, are persons without any morally relevant reason as justification other than humans, and only humans, are persons merely because they are humans while nonhuman animals are not is pure speciesism.
To help illustrate this point, Simon Cushing in Against “Humanism” asks his readers to consider the fictional character E.T. (Before I go on, if you don’t like the E.T. example, imagine Clark Kent, a.k.a. Superman, or some other human-like fictional character who is not technically a member of the species Homo sapiens.) E.T. is sentient, rational, and highly intelligent, but he is also not a human. Would it be wrong to kill E.T. for no good reason? It seems like it would be. E.T. possesses a lot of the same characteristics typical humans have, i.e., sentience, rationality, intelligence. If it is murder to unjustly kill a human being, wouldn’t it also be murder to do the same to E.T.? If so, then this would seem to imply that E.T. has personhood despite not being an actual human. Therefore, if this is the case species cannot be the determining factor when it comes to personhood.2
If species is out, then how else might one define personhood? Rationality appears to be the most popular candidate for denoting personhood within the field of philosophy. Rationality can mean at least two things. First, it is sometimes thought of as the capacity to thoughtfully choose between alternatives or to solve problems. Humans may arguably share this capacity with many nonhuman animals of various species. However, the second, and arguably more relevant, way of defining it is as the capacity to self-reflect and recognize reasons for why certain behaviors or actions ought or ought not to be committed and to adjust one’s conduct accordingly. This kind of rationality is often referred to as autonomy or moral agency.
The 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant believed that autonomy is what gives moral agents inherent value or moral dignity. Given this definition of personhood, it seems that human beings are the only ones who qualify as moral agents and are, therefore, the only ones who qualify as persons. After all, what nonhuman animal could be considered autonomous or a moral agent?
This looks like bad news for ethical vegans/vegetarians and ARAs since it is arguably the case that no nonhuman we know of is rational in this sense. However, there is a problem with this definition of personhood: the severely mentally handicapped, the permanently, severely brain-damaged, and very young children are not moral agents, and are, therefore, not persons—human fetuses even less so. Hence, this also seems like bad news for pro-lifers since fetuses cannot be persons if rationality is a necessary condition for personhood.
If pro-lifers wish to hold to this definition of personhood, their case for the right to life of human fetuses is severely undermined. There seems to be no way around this problem unless one is willing to consider a different definition of personhood.
Proponents of moral agency may be able to argue, then, that all moral agents are persons, but not all persons are necessarily moral agents. This move certainly seems more plausible. After all, this definition may be broadened enough so as to include the severely mentally handicapped, the permanently, severely brain-damaged, and very young children. However, if this is what pro-lifers want to do, then they must also consider including many nonhuman animals under the personhood umbrella who are arguably at least on par with members of these previously mentioned groups of people in terms of cognitive capacities. If they arbitrarily exclude animals and favor human beings for simply being human beings, then they are guilty of speciesism. If we were to broaden personhood even further in order to include human fetuses, then what kinds of nonhuman animals could not also be considered persons?
Pro-lifers may respond to this problem by claiming the reason why a human fetus is a person with a right to life while (for example) cows, chickens, and pigs are not, is because a human fetus is a potential person. To that I say a potentiality is not an actuality. In other words, a potential person is not an actual person just like an acorn is not an oak tree.3 However, let’s grant this for a moment and consider the following: the severely mentally handicapped and the severely, permanently brain-damaged are not even potential persons on this account. The argument from potentiality might be able to justify the protection human fetuses, but it doesn’t justify the protection of these other humans.
In order to better understand the implications, allow me to point out the following: most people would agree that it is wrong to harm nonhuman animals for no good reason. For example, it would be wrong to torture a cat or a dog for fun. However, most also might say we can justify using animals as means to our various ends if we have good enough reasons. For example, nonhuman animal testing/experimentation for medical/scientific purposes is justified according to this view that so many people hold. These same people would be horrified (and rightly so) if the mentally handicapped previously mentioned were used in these kinds of experiments in the same ways we use nonhuman animals.
Agents and Patients
If moral agency is not a necessary condition for personhood, then what is? When defining personhood, how does one avoid the problems previously discussed while arriving at a more acceptable (non-speciesist) definition? If one wants to avoid such problems without having to accept all living things (including plants) as persons, sentience might be a good place to start.
Sentience is the ability to have subjective, perceptual experiences. It entails consciousness, the capacity to experience pleasure and the capacity to suffer. Though sentience may not be a sufficient condition for personhood, it appears to be a good candidate for being a necessary one.
As Peter Singer argues, the capacity for experiencing suffering and enjoyment is a prerequisite for having any interests at all, and having interests such as an interest in avoiding suffering, is why it would not be wrong to arbitrarily kick a rock but would be wrong to arbitrarily kick a dog. He further argues that “sentience is the only defensible boundary of concern for the interests of others. To mark this boundary by some characteristic like intelligence or rationality would be to mark it in an arbitrary way.”4
What about human fetuses? Are they sentient entities? In a review of the relevant scientific literature published by The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists, it was reported that human fetuses have no awareness and cannot feel pain before the 24th week of gestation. 5, 6
It would seem that if sentience were a necessary condition for personhood, fetuses could not be considered persons until after the 24th week of gestation. Even after that point, it still doesn’t appear to be a clear-cut division, but a massive grey area. The pro-life position still seems to have a bit of a problem when it comes to abortions performed prior to 24 weeks of gestation. Furthermore, even if we were to grant that fetuses were sentient persons with a right to life, wouldn’t that commit pro-lifers to avoid harming other sentient beings, i.e., nonhuman animals like cows, chickens, and pigs?
Sentience seems to entail strong obligations for moral respect with the strength of such obligations being contingent on the interests of both nonhuman and human animals existing on a continuum of species, with even some overlap between species, “from simple capacities for enjoyment and satisfaction, or pain and suffering, to more complex ones.” 7
In other words, if it came down to choosing between the life of a dog and the life of an adult human, for example, we would have to choose to spare the entity whose loss would result in a greater harm. In this case, a utilitarian like Peter Singer would likely say that the entity whose interests are more complex (e.g., a greater capacity for suffering and enjoyment) ought to be the one who is spared. A deontologist such as Tom Regan would probably argue that both beings have equal inherent value and an equal prima facie right to not be harmed. When it comes to death, its harm “is a function of the opportunities for satisfaction it forecloses”. The loss of the human being is a prima facie greater loss than the loss of the dog. Ergo, the loss of the human is the greater harm and so she should be spared rather than the dog.8
Though sentience may be grounds for moral consideration or strong obligations, it would still appear to be the case that using non-moral agents could be justified if the benefits were to outweigh the harms. Without a sufficient moral condition for personhood, non-agents wouldn’t have an inherent right to life.
It is important to keep in mind that all moral agents are persons, but not all persons are moral agents. Tom Regan wrote about two different kinds of entities: moral agents and moral patients. He described moral agents as entities capable of bringing impartial moral principles into consideration in order to determine the rightness or wrongness of particular actions and to choose to act or not act based on those principles. Moral agents are also morally responsible for their actions (hence moral agency).
Unlike moral agents, moral patients are not morally responsible for their actions since they lack moral agency. Moral patients, like moral agents, can be on the receiving end of the right or wrong acts of moral agents. Not all moral non-agents are moral patients. According to Regan, there is a difference between conscious entities who are merely sentient and conscious entities who are sentient and possess other cognitive and volitional capacities. Moral patients are the latter. Therefore, very young children, the severely mentally handicapped, and the permanently severely brain-damaged are moral patients as are, arguably, many nonhuman animals.
Both moral agents and moral patients are what Regan would call ‘subjects-of-a-life’. An entity is a subject-of-a-life if it perceives, is sentient, is self-aware, has memory and a sense of the future including its own, and has an experiential welfare and interests regarding that welfare, and the ability to pursue its own desires and interests. Such a being has inherent value. To be a person is to be a subject-of-a-life. Another way to think about it is subjects-of-a-life are biographical and not merely biological. They are someones, not somethings.9 Many members of different species of nonhuman animals including, but not limited to, great apes, dolphins, cats, dogs, cows, pigs chickens, etc. are arguably subjects-of-a-life while human fetuses are not, and are, therefore, not persons.
I have argued that there is no non-problematic way to define personhood, i.e., commit speciesism, unless one is willing to define personhood in a way so as to allow some nonhuman animals, along with human non-agents, the moral status of person, and with it acknowledge the right to life of all of these creatures.
Also, It is apparent that human fetuses do not qualify as subjects-of-a-life and are, therefore, not persons. They don’t even develop awareness and the capacity to feel pain until after the 24th week of gestation.
This presents a serious problem for pro-lifers. If they insist on maintaining that non-sentient (or in some cases barely sentient) fetuses are persons, then they must also be committed to considering at least all other sentient beings persons complete with a right to life if they want to be consistent and not speciesist. People committed to this (rather extreme, even for me) position are vegans/vegetarians.
Chet Lake is a libertarian-feminist trying to take on the State and the patriarchy while not failing his undergraduate studies.
1. Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” In Animal Rights and Human Obligations. 2 ed. New Jersey : Prentice-Hall, 1989. 148-162.
2. Cushing, Simon. “Against “Humanism”: Speciesism, Personhood, And Preference.” Journal of Social Philosophy 34, no. 4 (2003): 556-571.
4. Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” In Animal Rights and Human Obligations. 2 ed. New Jersey : Prentice-Hall, 1989. 148-162.
5. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. “News.” RCOG. www.rcog.org.uk/news/rcog-release-rcog-updates-its-guidance (accessed July 14, 2013).
6. “Fetal Awareness: Review of Research and Recommendations for Practice.” Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 1 (2010): 1-36.
7. Singer, Peter. “All Animals Are Equal.” In Animal Rights and Human Obligations. 2 ed. New Jersey : Prentice-Hall, 1989. 148-162.
8. Regan, Tom. “Chapter 1.” In The case for animal rights. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983. 19-25.