A reader comments:
In an earlier post, Why We Should Accept the Potentiality Principle (24 October 2009), you suggest that we should apply the potentiality principle -- All potential persons have a right to life -- to the unborn to be consistent, as we already apply it to children. What troubles me is this: how do you say that we value children primarily for their potentiality without disenfranchising people who are permanently stuck with childlike capacities? Shall we bite the bullet and say these people are not to be valued or at least valued much, much less? Or will we squirm out of the dilemma by throwing in some ad hoc principle, say membership in the human family, to save our bacon? Maybe the best move for avoiding the repugnant conclusion is to make the unassailable religious retreat to the conclusion that all human beings will not reach their actuality in this life but the next. However, I’m not sure how that could be used to ground a theory of the wrongness of killing. None of these options seems incredibly promising to me. What say you?
Here, in summary, is the argument I gave:
1. We ascribe the right to life to neonates and young children on the basis of their potentialities.
2. There is no morally relevant difference between neonates and young children and fetuses.
3. Principles -- in this case PP -- should be applied consistently to all like cases.
4. We should ascribe the right to life to fetuses on the basis of their potentialities.
What I was arguing was that we already do accept PP and that we ought to be consistent in its application. To refuse to apply PP to the pre-natal cases is to fail to apply the principle consistently.
I concede to the reader that there are severely damaged fetuses and infants the termination of which would be considered immoral, and that such cases are not covered by the principle (PP) according to which all potential persons have a right to life in virtue of the potential of genetically human individuals to develop in the normal course of events into beings that actually possess such rights-conferring properties as rationality. The severely retarded fetuses and infants (as well as irreversibly comatose adults) lack even the potentiality to function as descriptive persons. But note that if PP is one source of the right to life, it doesn't follow that it is the only source. If all potential persons have the right to life it doesn't follow that only potential persons have the right to life.
So, to improve my earlier argument, I will now substitute for (1)
1*. We ascribe the right to life to neonates and young children on the basis of their potentialities, though not only on that basis.
So we should explore the option that the right to life has multiple sources. Perhaps it has a dual source: in PP but also in the Species Principle (SP) according to which whatever is genetically human has the right to life just in virtue of being genetically human. Equivalently, what SP says is that every member of the species homo sapiens, qua member, has the right to life of any member, and therefore every member falls within the purview of the prohibition against homicide.
Subscription to SP would solve the reader's problem, for then a severely damaged infant would have a right to life just in virtue of being genetically human regardless of its potential for development. Some will object that SP is involved in species chauvinism or 'speciesism,' the abitrary and therefore illicit privileging of the species one happens to belong to over other species. The objection might proceed along the following lines. "It is easy to conceive of an extraterrestrial possessing all of the capacities (for self-awareness, moral choice, rationality, etc) that we regard in ourselves as constituting descriptive personhood. Surely we would not want to exclude them from the prohibition against killing the innocent just because they are not made of human genetic material." To deal with this objection, a Modified Species Principle could be adopted:
MSP: Every member of an intelligent species, just insofar as it is a member of that species, has a right to life and therefore falls within the purview of the prohibition against the killing of innocents.
The two principles working in tandem would seem to explain most of our moral intuitions in this matter. And now it occurs to me that PP and MSP can be wedded in one comprehensive principle, which we can call the Species Potentiality Principle:
SPP: Every member of any biological species whose normal members are actual or potential descriptive persons, just insofar as it is a member of that species, possesses a right to life and therefore falls within the purview of the prohibition against the killing of innocents.
Note that I didn't bring any religious notions into this discussion. It is a bad mistake to suppose that opposition to the moral acceptability of abortion can only be religiously motivated. And if our aim is to persuade secularists, then of course we cannot invoke religious doctrines.
REFERENCE: Philip E. Devine, The Ethics of Homicide (Cornell UP, 1978).