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Friday, December 03, 2010


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Just a small comment, here. While I myself am not convinced by either the Potentiality or the Species Principle, it doesn't seem to me that it would be plausible for an opponent of the latter to accuse it of speciesism. The reason is that, just as the Potentiality Principle holds that potentialities are sufficient but not necessary for having a right to life, the Species Principle seems to hold that membership in the species homo sapiens is sufficient but not necessary for having a right to life.

You more or less end up with this position by modifying the Species Principle. And it may very well be that your Modified Species Principle - or your Species Potentiality Principle - provides both necessary and sufficient conditions for having a right to life. But the objection that the Species Principle is speciesist seems to me misguided. Saying that membership in a species is sufficient but not necessary for having a right to life doesn't look like you're illicitly privileging homo sapiens over members of other species. Such illicit privileging, it seems to me, would have required claiming that membership was also necessary. Perhaps I'm wrong about this, though. Either way, it seems a minor point since you end up with a stronger principle that you believe to be both necessary and sufficient.

Very good comment, thanks. I think you are right. To illicitly privilege the human species one would have to say that membership in it is both sufficient and necessary for having a right to life.

Wait, so 5-year olds aren't (except potentially) persons?

The Potentiality Argument and Perma-Liquid Abortions,

In the present post I will present an argument against Bill’s Potentiality Argument (PA), one which I have not presented in our previous round on the subject. Bill’s original PA argument is the following:

I. The Original PA:

1) All potential persons have a right to life;
2) The fetus is a potential person;
3) Intentionally (and w/o ample justification) terminating the life of a being that is protected by the right to life is immoral;
4) Abortion is intentionally terminating (and in many cases w/o ample justification) the life of the fetus;
5) Abortion (in many cases) is immoral.

II. The Perma-Liquid Counterexample:

Imagine that in some future time two incredible technological advances are made. The first such advance is called *perma-liquid*. Perma-liquid is a substance with the following two properties: first, perma-liquid inhibits any further development of an organism that is placed in it for as long as that organism remains in perma-liquid; yet, second, perma-liquid preserves the organism that is placed in it in the very state in which it was immediately prior to being placed in perma-liquid for as long as the organism remains in the perma-liquid. Thus, an organism that is placed in perma-liquid stops developing; however, it is not thereby dead because if it were transferred from the perma-liquid and placed in conditions suitable for its normal development, then it will so develop. Under such transfer conditions the organism’s development continues as if it were never placed in perma-liquid. The second technological development is the *artificial mother*. The artificial mother is a device that can house fetuses that were for whatever reason aborted while still alive and provides suitable conditions for its development until it is ready to be independently viable.

Now, with the advent of these two developments old style abortions are no longer necessary. Instead of the old-style abortions we now have *perma-liquid abortions*. Perma-liquid abortions abort the fetus and immediately place it in perma-liquid only to be stored indefinitely in perma-liquid storage facilities. Notice that perma-liquid fetuses are alive and they retain all their potentialities. Moreover, at any time perma-liquid fetuses can be transferred into an artificial-mother and continue their development as if they were never placed in perma-liquid and just as they would develop if they remained in their natural mother. Although such a transfer is always possible, in the world I am describing no such transfers actually take place.

Notice that the original PA as formulated above does not rule out perma-liquid abortions as immoral, even if we grant that it succeeds to render old-style abortions immoral. The reason is that perma-liquid abortions do not violate the right to life of fetuses because such abortions do not deprive fetuses of their life nor do such abortions deprive fetuses of any of their potential which they might have enjoyed prior to perma-liquid abortions. Perma-liquid abortions simply prevent their further development without depriving them of the potential of such development. Therefore, perma-liquid abortions do not violate any of the premises of the original PA.

It is obvious that the traditional opponents of abortion would object to perma-liquid abortions just as vehemently as they have been all along objecting to old-style abortions. And the reason for this is clear. Prior to the advent of perma-liquid that made perma-liquid abortions available the right to life provided sufficient protection to the fetus. However, once perma-liquid abortions were made available, the right to life no longer offers to the fetus the kind of protection that the opponent of abortion have all along been really concerned about. What kind of protection is that? Well, the opponents of abortion were interested all along to protect the fetus against any intentional action that would deprive it from the opportunity to develop in the normal course of things into a viable person. The right to life was sufficient to achieve this protection prior to the advent of perma-liquid abortions. However, perma-liquid abortions circumvent the protection that previously was provided by the right to life, since perma-liquid abortions do not violate the right to life of the fetus, yet they do deprive it from developing into a viable person in the normal course of things. Therefore, the original PA is not sufficiently general so as to capture these concerns of the opponents of abortion.

III. A Revised version of PA.

In order to account for the possibility of perma-liquid abortions the original PA needs to be expanded. The following revision may be proposed:

1*) All potential persons have a right to develop into a viable person with a meaningful life;
2*) The fetus is a potential person;
3*) Intentionally (and w/o ample justification) inhibiting the development of a being that is protected by the right to develop into a viable person with a meaningful life is immoral;
4*) Perma-Liquid abortion is intentionally inhibiting (and in many cases w/o ample justification) the development of the fetus into a viable person with a meaningful life;
5*) Perma-Liquid abortions are immoral.

While the above revision (or something along these lines) has the advantage of blocking the perma-liquid abortion cases, it may just be too liberal. For notice that the first premise may be so interpreted that it provides all potential persons, including the fetus, with an indefinite range of positive rights that are required in order to develop into a viable person with a meaningful life. These rights may include not only the right to life, but also such rights as the right to be provided with sufficient nutrition, health-care, and other necessities that facilitate development into a person with a meaningful life. And if the fetus enjoys these and other similar rights, then who has the duty to provide them: the parents; the community; the society as a whole; all of humanity?

The problem is this. While the opponents of abortion are willing to offer the fetus the negative right to life, it is not clear that all of them are willing to go as far as offering the fetus positive rights such as the right to nutrition, health care, etc., particularly when in many cases the society as a whole will end up bearing the burden of securing such rights. Yet the possibility of perma-liquid abortions makes clear that the right to life is insufficient to carry the burden of the kind of protection the opponents of abortion wish to provide fetuses. It is unclear to me whether there is a middle ground which is sufficiently robust to block the possibility of perma-liquid abortions, yet not robust enough to offer the fetus and other potential persons an unspecified and ever expanding range of positive rights. In short, while the original PA is not general enough so as to block the possibility of perma-liquid abortions, the revised version is too general. Is there a middle ground? I do not currently have a solid opinion about this question, although I tend to think that such a middle ground may be vulnerable to objections of both kinds.

Peter, very nice post.

You say premise 1 of the revised argument "may be so interpreted" to provide positive rights for all potential persons. But I don't see why it must be interpreted that way. It does not seem to entail positive rights. Why can't it be read simply to say that "all potential persons have a [negative] right to develop into a viable person with a meaningful life?" They have a right not to have others permanently suspend their actuality, just as actual persons have a right to life only in the sense that they have a right not to be killed, though not a right to food and shelter.

Say there was some natural disease or condition that sometimes put a zygote into a state of permanent suspension in the mother's body, but there was also a procedure to reanimate it. If the conservative argued that reanimating the zygote is morally obligatory, only then it seems, would he be committed to positive rights.


Thanks for your comment. Actually, since I posted this I modified my position from the "may be" to "must be" so interpreted. So your comment is very apt.

Here is one way of thinking about this. The perma-liquid case shows that any narrowly tailored protection against specific *means* that prevent the fetus from developing into a viable person will not cover all cases. The original potentiality argument is deficient insofar as it focuses on the means rather than the end.

Premise (1*), by contrast, is designed to provide a broader shield by protecting the *end*: namely, the end of developing into a viable person against any adverse conditions that are liable to threaten this development. This includes regular abortions, perma-liquid abortions, as well as malnutrition, poor health care, etc. Thus, even if you were to rephrase (1*) as an explicit negative right; say "the fetus has a right against preventing its development into a viable person", this will still entail the positive rights enumerated above. And the reason is that the right in question covers *any* condition that deprives its development. You cannot pick and choose your favorite ones. Either the right covers them all of them or it covers none. For they all have in common the outcome of preventing the fetus from developing into a viable person. This is the advantage of the enhanced version of the potentiality argument and it is for this reason that is is successful to block the perma-liquid cases.


First, I don't think it is true that abortion opponents/conservatives generally oppose government funded nutrition, health care and even education for children in an effort to develop their potential, though of course such conservatives are less likely to support such programs for adults. So, I see no inconsistency assuming they buy your revised potentiality argument. I am a conservative, but I find both versions of the potentiality argument fishy, so I am not that invested in this personally.

Second, let me address what you say here:

"And the reason is that the right in question covers *any* condition that deprives its development."

If that is what you mean by (1*), then why couldn't an abortion opponent just reject it and accept the less general principle that the fetus has a right against someone actively preventing its development by permaliquid abortion or similar human intervention, but not a right to measures (government funded, perhaps?) to "undo" the hypothetical medical condition I mentioned before - a natural suspension of fetal development? This would be similar to arguing actively killing someone has much more moral import than not taking great efforts to prevent them from dying. It would be based on a morally relevant and important distinction(as in the active/passive euthanasia debate, etc.) and not just picking and choosing rights.

I wish to thank you once again for your comments. They help me sharpen my thoughts on the matter.

1) Who is not the target of my argument:
1.1) The present argument is not addressed to those who do not find the potentiality argument compelling either because they do not think that the notion of potentiality is clear enough, deny that there are potentialities in nature, deny that it makes sense to ascribe potential personhood to the fetus, or deny that anyone has rights.
1.2) The present argument also has no bite against those who object to abortion but welcome the sort of positive rights enumerated even if the burden to fulfill them falls on a government.
1.3) So my argument is intended only against those who find the potentiality argument in principle compelling and simultaneously object to some or all of the enumerated positive rights which impose duties on the government.

2) You propose to reject (1*) in favor of a negative right such as:

(1**) “The fetus has a right against someone actively preventing its development by permaliquid abortion or similar human intervention,…”

I suspect that this formulation is both too narrow and too broad.

2.1) First, it is too narrow because it excludes only perma-liquid abortions or “similar human intervention”. But similar to which procedure and in what respect? If the intended similarity is to perma-liquid abortions, then old-style abortions are liable not to be excluded, since they are not similar to perma-liquid abortions with respect to the means employed. However, the two abortion-methods are similar with respect to having the same consequence of preventing the fetus from developing into a viable person. So if we view (1**) as a negative right only, which I take it is your intent, then it will have the same weakness as the original premise (1): it is tailored too narrowly to the means and, thereby, fails to exclude cases that the opponents of abortion would like to exclude.

2.2) Second, (1**) is also too broad because it will prohibit cases that even the opponents of abortion would want to allow: for instance, imagine that we discover that the fetus has a disease which currently cannot be cured, but we are fairly certain that in the future medical research will find a cure. Surely we want to allow aborting the fetus into perma-liquid, if the parents so desire and are willing to bear the cost.

3) My argument can be seen as exploiting the ever present leeway that exists between means and ends: i.e., the same end can be achieved through different means and the same means can be used to different ends. So I am making three claims:

(A) Any formulation of the potentiality argument in terms of negative rights will end up narrowly tailored to exclude specific means. In so doing it will allow alternative, yet still objectionable, means to the same end or rule out using the same means for desirable ends that were not intended to be excluded or both.

(B) The best and most general solution which in my opinion avoids the above predicament is to formulate the potentiality argument in a manner that affords the fetus a moral protection to a certain desirable end: e.g., the right to develop into a viable person.

(C) Any formulation of the potentiality argument that affords the fetus moral protection to a certain end (whether it includes a negative term such as ‘against’ or not) entails certain positive rights.

Peter, after a little hiatus I just got busy again and have to finish up a couple things. I read your comment once but I need more time to read it carefully and think about it and reply if there is anything to say. I'll catch up in a couple days.


Take your time; I know how it is at the end of a term CRAZY!. I need to think about some of these matters too. Happy holidays and some day we shall ride!


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