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March 13, 2009

Comments

Somebody needs to write a book called "The Confusing World of Barak Obama." Personally, I would like to know what is REALLY going through his head. Is he knowingly dishonest, or just grossly mistaken? If he is just playing politics, what is his REAL motivation? What does he REALLY believe? If he were held to the fire and forced to be consistent, what would he say then? Things that make you go hmm.

I was reading "The God Delusion" last night, and Richard Dawkins was writing about how atheists are so marginalized that nobody could boldly admit to being an atheist and still get elected to political office. It made me wonder about Obama. I guess we can never really know, but I do get the impression from Obama (and most politicians) that expedience matters more than honesty.

Krauthammer says,

do not believe that personhood is conferred upon conception. But I also do not believe that a human embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail and deserves no more respect than an appendix.

Surely he's not suggesting that these are the only two possibilities?

He also speaks of the "clear violation of the categorical imperative not to make a human life (even if only a potential human life) a means rather than an end."

Since when is the "categorical imperative" understood in terms of "human life"? And is he confused when he suggests that embryos are merely "potential human life"? Surely embryos are as alive--and as human--as living human skin cells.

"Surely embryos are as alive--and as human--as living human skin cells."

Try again. Embryos are as alive--and as human--as you and i.

Drew points out that "alive and human" designates a broad class which includes me, Drew, embryos and many skin cells.

Where do we go from here?

I've been noticing that President Obama uses a formula when talking about his support for those laws and policies with which conservatives disagree.

He will say that he understands the other side; and then, without explaining the other side, so as to prove that he indeed understands it, he will say something about compromise or sacrifice, and then decide to do things the way he was going to do them, anyway.

I want to know *why* President Obama thinks the abortion debate is above his paygrade. The abortion debate has moral implications, and Science makes no claim to "oughts"; so, why does President Obama think the abortion debate is within the Scientist's paygrade?

Hey occasional reader,
I think Drew is saying "alive and human" is you, Drew and embryos, not you Drew and human skin cells.

Human skin cells are not a human being. The component is not the same as the entity it is a part of. However, the embryo is just not a collection of cells, it is a self-directed, self-sustaining, imminently self-aware organism.

kpolo, notice that I'm just pointing out that "human life" doesn't pick out the right sort of thing for the categorical imperative. We might even wonder if "alive human being" picks out the right category. As for your clarification, it's also far from obvious that self-direction, self-sustaining, and self-aware are sufficient conditions for sort of status Krauthammer is after.

I am genuinely, genuinely frightened by our president. For the reasons stated in the first post. Like, what is he up to? What does he think about at night?

Agilius

"I want to know *why* President Obama thinks the abortion debate is above his paygrade. "

This was the one time that I can point to that he was actually honest. Anyone who doesn't know that the car was invented in France in 1769, doesn't know that the people he appoints to positions in his cabinet have IRS problems, can't follow the oath of office, doesn't understand that socialism is not going to work any better in fixing the economy than it has in half a dozen socialist states in the past. He doesn't seem to remember things in his past very well...such as where and if he saw a picture of a black man who had tried to peel off his skin...although at first he was certain it was in Life magazine. The existence of this issue was denied by the Chicago Tribune. He quickly backpedaled when he was called on it that it might have been in another publication.

Considering this observed pattern of ignorance, it is hardly surprising that the "abortion debate" is above his pay grade. I agree with him on this point. It sure is. That's why we should have elected someone with the proper pay grade credentials for the job of President of United States.

>Anyone who doesn't know that the
>car was invented in France in
>1769...

As an aside, what we know as the automobile was invented by Benz, whose company later joined Gottlieb Daimler's company and created Mercedes-Benz. And some of us think we're pretty cool driving a car named after a physically handicapped little girl. =)

In short. The Obama policy seems to be: Can do=Should do. History is littered with the carcases of that ideology. I know the philosophy of pragmatism means to do whatever works. The problem with the philosophy of pragmatism is that it doesn't work. It cannot or will not see far enough ahead. So I'm thinking of starting a business called ACME Pragmatic Solutions: 'Todays pragmatic solutions for the consequences of yesterdays pragmatic solutions" I'll be trillionaire. :-)))))))

Chris
while there is considerable debate as to when the first car was invented, there is no dispute that Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot (1725-1804)Built the first self propelled road vehicle (military tractor(1796)) for the French army: three wheeled, 2.5 mph. had to stop every 15 minutes to build up enough steam to keep going. He was also the first to be involved in a vehicular accident in 1771 when he drove one of his contraptions into a wall. Benz came later in 1885/86 and therefore was not the originator of the car. At least a case can be made for this view that is reasonably cogent.
Benz was not the first and I think that usually means he is not the inventor.
To quote Adrien Monk, "I could be wrong, but I'm not." :)

Damian

I think I agree with your point with a qualification. I don't think that can do=should do is really a pragmatic approach. I think that the formula should be more like this: can do + should do = go ahead and do. That, in my view is the correct pragmatic formula. Each of the components on the left side of the equal sign should be carefully examined to make certain they qualify as variables in this equation.

Can we stay on topic here and forget cars!?!Obama claims to be a man of faith. But what faith is it?? What faith tradition loves death. To create life then destroy it to save anothers life is morally insane. What makes it even more outrageous,heinous,cruel(pick your adjective) is to federally fund it.That is our tax dollars paying for it. Once again gov't makes us all complicit in the slaughter of innocents. Why isn't every Pastor,Priest,theologian,Christian,Catholic,every lover of life marching on Washington?

Victoria

" Once again gov't makes us all complicit in the slaughter of innocents. Why isn't every Pastor,Priest,theologian,Christian,Catholic,every lover of life marching on Washington?"

I agree that this is a very important issue and we should work to convince others around us of the reasonable nature of the pro-life position. It is only by doing this kind of work that we can restore some sanity to Washington next time we go to the voting booths.
As to why everyone is not marching...I suspect they are too busy trying to find jobs so they can support their families or working hard to keep the ones they have.
Don't be too disheartened, there are plenty of good people who are working to reverse some of the trends we see in this bloodbath of killing the unborn.

OR -

"Surely embryos are as alive--and as human--as living human skin cells."

Surely you know there is a fundamental difference between an embryo and a skin cell.

Sure, but the "fundamental difference" isn't capture by "human life". Thus, it can't be human life (much less "potential human life) that's so important here. It's not clear that Krauthammer knows what he is talking about when he cites the categorical imperative. And this is only one of the problem with his statement of it.

What do you think of Krauthammer suggestion that embryos may only be "potential human life"?

Do you think that the human embryo is either the "moral equivalent" of a person or the moral equivalent of a hangnail?

Occasional- I think he's meaning to suggest that those are NOT the only two alternatives. I think he's attributing that dichotomy to Obama and those who think like him, and rejecting that, suggesting something in the middle. Not fully a person, but not something trivial to be treated as we wish.

Also- I think your issue goes away with simple changes to the sentence, for instance "a potential human life" or "a potential human being". I think the idea that he is going for is obvious. As far as how he's able to justify that, I'm not sure. The rest of the analysis is what is relevant, though, and it's not affected by that statement, so I don't think there's a large issue. He's simply stating he's not coming from a religious perspective so that people don't simply write him off.

Hi Dennis, just to follow up: it's not clear at all that Obama is treating these as the only two alternatives. One might accord a moral status, or a dignity, to a embryo above that of hangnail but below that of persons. While it is permissible to cut a hangnail and flush it down the toilet, there are many things which, though they lack the full moral status of persons, should not be cut and flushed down the toilet. Kittens and human corpses would be plausible candidates. So also, human embryos.

As far as the categorical imperative, it obviously does not apply to "human life" as such. But it's also not obvious that it applies to "potential human beings" or even actual human beings--especially if we count human zygotes as human beings.

Obama never does explicitly state those as the two options. Nevertheless, the general public debate is usually framed as if that were true. Obama has never given any indication of respect for unborn life by action (he may have said something, but I find him a politician through-and-through). In any case, the author is simply motivating his disagreement at that point- he need not be specifically speaking contra Obama. He's speaking in general about his position in the public debate.

His categorical imperative is not obvious, given his position. However, the idea that people should not be a means to an end is, I think we can agree, quite intuitive. Certainly it's obvious how quickly the dismissal of that idea leads down ugly paths. Perhaps it's not properly generalized to embryos. However, referencing the many other arguments made on this site (which I'll assume you're familiar with), I would expect the burden to be on the one who wants to draw the distinction between an embryo and a person. What would the difference be?

Dennis, it sounds like you are then noting a flaw in the "general public debate" which perhaps both sides should take responsibility for. Instead of supposing that a human embryo must either have the moral status of a person or the moral status of a hangnail, there are a lot of options in between. We can ascribe dignity to an embryo without supposing that this entails ascribing to it the full rights of a person. Perhaps the failure to recognize this has caused unnecessary polarization. Perhaps there is some room to meet in the middle.

What do you mean by "His categorical imperative"?

As for a distinction between an embryo and a person, here's an initial thought: a necessary condition for personhood is that the entity in question has had a thought. In other words, an entity that has never had a thought is not a person. This, I take it, would distinguish early stage embryos from persons.

reader

"As for a distinction between an embryo and a person, here's an initial thought: a necessary condition for personhood is that the entity in question has had a thought. In other words, an entity that has never had a thought is not a person. This, I take it, would distinguish early stage embryos from persons. "

Wouldn't this make my dog a person? Dog's think, don't they? At least I think they do at a certain level. They certainly have dreams and dreaming involves thinking. Is this a valid criteria for peronhood?

Louis, you've made a common mistake:

From the claim that "an entity that has never had a thought is not a person" you've tried to infer that an entity that has had a thought is a person.

reader:
1) No newborn baby has a thought - random brain signals, yes. Response to stimulus, yes. But a rational thought, possibly not.

So by your reasoning, every newboard perhaps to the age of 3 months is fair game for destruction.

2) Where do you get this arbitrary definition of personhood as someone who has had a though from? What is your basis, rationale and authority to do that from? And if someone else defined a person has someone who has a skin of a certain color tone (as has been done in the past), on what basis would you argue against their position while defending yours?

3) Even if I grant you the "had a thought" criteria, how are you going to figure out if some entity has had a thought since thought by definition is a metaphysical concept which only exists within an entity? If I have a thought but am unable to communicate the thought, does that mean I didn't have the thought? No! So there is no way for you to determine if an entity has had a thought unless you wait for the entity to develop communication skills. Per NIH, the brain begins to develop in a 3 week old fetus and by week 4 the brain has split into 5 areas and cranial nerves are visible. How do you know that the brain at this point already hasn't had some thought?
On the basis of this are you willing to outlaw the majority of abortions that happen when a fetus is more than 5 weeks old?

4) By your reckoning, those with severe brain defects and mental incapacities are not human and can be killed.

Hi kpolo,

Certainly a newborn baby's brain signals are not random. Why would you suppose that they are?

I’m not providing a definition for personhood, but merely a plausible necessary condition for personhood. There really isn’t a need to determine exactly when a given entity has its first thought. For the issue in question, it suffices that there are clear cases in which we’re dealing with something that hasn’t had a thought. Consider the very early stage embryo.

You ask, “on the basis of this are you willing to outlaw the majority of abortions that happen when a fetus is more than 5 weeks old?” This seems to be in conflict with your first point. But let’s suppose that it is not. Let’s suppose that at a certain point in its development, it because plausible to suspect that an embryo has achieved a certain amount of mental life and has thoughts. This merely means that, by this initial criterion I’ve suggested, we cannot rule out that such a later stage embryo is person.

You’re fourth point is false. The question isn’t about “humans” and it isn’t generally true that “those with severe brain defects and mental incapacities” have never had a thought.

My fourth point should have read "persons." I didn't catch it until after I posted. How do you know that "those with severe brain defects and mental incapacities" have had a thought? The point is when you base humanity and an arbitrarily defined concept of person-hood on an abstract notion like thought and allow for the destruction of an entity on the basis of the presence or absence of this abstract immeasurable concept, you are taking the judgement of who lives and who dies in your own hands.

You say "I’m not providing a definition for personhood, but merely a plausible necessary condition for personhood."
Why do you even feel the need to create a new class of human beings that are also "persons"? Only to justify the right to abortion, isn't it? And you haven't given me a single objective and morally binding reason to agree to your 'plausible necessary condition'?

And why is having had a thought at the point-in-time a necessary condition? Why not the possibility of having a thought in the future?

The embryo is a human being. This is a scientifically established fact (has a human genome, genes that are derived but distinct from mother and father, has a biological mother and father, is self-directed, and in the process of maturing towards an adult human being).

By trying to posit the idea of "person-hood" you are bringing in a philosophical concept with no basis to establish the need or necessity for such a concept other than the desire to invent the right of mothers to kill their babies and for ESCR.

And just out of curiosity, a few years from now, if the majority of the people modify the definition of person-hood such that you find yourself excluded, how would you feel?

'Morally Unserious in the Extreme' - describes the entire Obama presidency.

Hi kpolo,

You ask, “How do you know that "those with severe brain defects and mental incapacities" have had a thought?”

Under the suggested criterion, in order to exclude human beings with severe brain defects and mental incapacities from the class of persons, one must claim that such human beings have never had a thought. In many cases such a claim will be implausible or at least dubious. As far as your general claim about such human beings, it is easy to show that it is false by counterexample. All we need is one formerly healthy adult who suffered sever brain defects from a car accident.

I don’t quite understand your subsequent complaints. Are they addressed to Dennis’ original question to me: can we point to any difference between persons and embryos? Is there some difficultly with the idea of “having had a thought”?

"a necessary condition for personhood is that the entity in question has had a thought."

Now this is an interesting test for personhood that occasional reader proposes. Are we to take it that if a being passes this test, we confer on them the right to life, and likewise if a being fails this test, we are not obliged to grant the right to life?

Jesse, regarding your first question be careful to avoid the common mistake Louis K made above. On the second question, the idea is simply that the entity in question would not have the right to life on the basis of personhood.

Occasional, please be careful to avoid the mistake of thinking I believe there to be a category of humans that are not persons. As I recall, you're the one who raised the distinction.

What do you propose we use as our basis for the right to life? Mere humanity? Or shall we add to it a set of particular characteristics?

Jesse, here's how I understand the dialectic.

The central STR claim is that we've got to grant human embryos an inviolable right to life. This is disputed. The supposed justification is that embryos are human beings (which is not disputed), and that the inviolable right to life belongs to every human being (this is disputed).

The objection is simply to question why the inviolable right attaches to human beings per se. The STR response, I take it, is to say that there is no unproblematic way to divide off a subcategory of human beings to which the right to life attaches.

I test this response. In proposing that the inviolable right to life attaches to personhood, and that having had a thought is a necessary condition for personhood, I am essentially proposing that we might instead attach the inviolable right to life to human beings who have had a thought.

The STR side now has to say why this would be a problematic way of dividing off a subcategory of human beings to which the right to life really attaches.

One response is to say that the proposal is simply an ad hoc maneuver by which to remove the right to life from early stage embryos. The counter response is all too easy: we simply contend in turn that the STR claim that the right to life attaches to human beings is precisely parallel: it is just as much an ad hoc maneuver to secure the right to life for early stage embryos.

The point is that we quickly reach an impasse. The upshot is that the STR folks haven't shown that their appeal to biological membership in the human species is more than an ad hoc maneuver that at most parallels the opposing contention that the relevant category is personhood, which category is constrained by something like the necessary condition I suggested.


Occasional, it looks like you've spent some time thinking this through. Let's suppose for the sake of moving the discussion forward that the right to life ought to attach to human beings who have had a thought.

How would you propose we test whether a human being has had a thought? If a human fails that test, would you be OK with killing it in order to free its parents from the burden of caring for this particular human?

occasional, why do you even want to attach an ad-hoc, groundless test of membership to "person-hood" in order to confer the right to life? Isn't it only for the sake of abortion and the desire to search for cures through ESCR?

Now, if you agree to the above, then explain why we shouldn't classify those with colored skin as outside "person-hood" so that we can use them as slaves and for harvesting organs? That is quite a logical extension of the argument. By allowing an ad-hoc definition of person-hood as the criteria for life, you have just confered upon any dictatorship or majority the right to change the definition as it serves them.

BTW: The STR position of embryos as having a right to life for being human is not ad-hoc. For one it is grounded in the US Constitution: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

Men and human beings are no where indicated as being different classes or having a set/super-set relationship.

"All we need is one formerly healthy adult who suffered sever brain defects from a car accident."
On the basis of this will you treat congenitaly brain impaired human beings as persons or not persons?

>>By allowing an ad-hoc definition of person-hood as the criteria for life, you have just confered upon any dictatorship or majority the right to change the definition as it serves them.

Bingo.

Jesse,

As I mentioned earlier, the idea would only be that there are clear cases in which we are dealing with something that hasn't had a thought. Consider the zygote. But, as with most important moral decisions, there will be difficult and unclear cases. This is to be expected. With regard to those clear cases, I would be OK with killing such non-persons for important benefits to persons, or to avoid significant harms to persons.

kpolo,

Let me suggest that you re-read my 10:52 post, and my 9:08 response to you. Also, pay close attention to the wording of the excerpt from the Declaration of Independence which you quote. Do you find it self-evident that zygotes are men? Are you simply suggesting that it is "self-evident" that zygotes are endowed with an inalienable right to freely pursue happiness? What would you say if most people didn't find this claim "self-evident", even after careful consideration? Might this make you reconsider its status as "self-evident"?

Occasional,
You're right, many moral decisions can be complex and difficult. So am I correct in understanding that you'd hesitate to allow killing a human in unclear cases? Even in the clear cases, why put restrictions such as "for important benefit to persons, or to avoid significant harms to persons"?

Jesse, you again read me well. In unclear cases, I would hesitate before excluding the entity in question from personhood by the criterion suggested.

In clear cases, I leave it open whether or not other restrictions should be included. As we noted earlier in this thread, just because the embryo lacks the full moral status of personhood doesn't mean that the embryo is the moral equivalent of a hangnail.

Well thanks, but I often don't read people well; that's why I ask. So may I take this one step further and ask what cutoff you would pick to be safe? In other words, what's the latest stage of development you would be certain that a developing human would not yet have acquired the capacity to think?

Let's say five weeks. I'd likely be able to extend this period if I knew more about brain development. But, for the sake of argument, five weeks probably suffices.

"Do you find it self-evident that zygotes are men?"

Occasional, let me put the question to you in a few different ways:
a) Do you find it self-evident that 'infants' are men?
b) Do you find it self-evident that 'teenagers' are men?
c) Do you find it self-evident that 'toddlers' are men?
d) Do you find it self-evident that 'neo-natals' are men?
e) Do you find it self-evident that 'prepubescent' are men?

The term zygote reflects a stage of development/maturity and is no different that infant, toddler, teenager, adolescent, etc. However, the way you use it, you imply that a zygote is something different from a human being. And because scientifically that doesn't hold water, you are bringing in an ad-hoc definition of "person-hood" into the picture.

So, yes, I find it self-evident that zygotes are men because zygotes are members proper of the homo-sapien species, just different in maturity stage from "adult" homo-sapiens.

I also find it fascinating that you are willing to arbitrarily determine a criteria ("thought") for who gets to live and then arbitrarily set a threshold ("5 weeks") while admitting to your lack of sufficient knowledge as to the reliability of the threshold.

It is chilling to hear someone say "I'd be OK with killing non-persons when it has important benefits to persons." May I remind you again, that within the last century, people of color in one case and people of a certain religious denomination were held to be non-persons with disastrous consequences.

Occasional,
So five weeks after conception is the point at which you would say a human being, in a legal sense, becomes a person, as they're likely to have had a first thought by then. Is that correct? So I take it you're opposed to abortion any time after 5 weeks, is that right?

On a side note, quite frankly, I do find it rather obvious that zygotes are men in the same way I find it obvious that acorns are oak trees, newborns are men, and a tiny little 4 week-old joey weighing less than one gram is a kangaroo.

Continuing on that thought, I suppose I would count a creature's stage of development in a separate category from what it is. Being is not contingent on expressing certain properties. It is the other way around: properties depend on being. A zygote is fully human, though it does not fully express every human property, just as a blind man is fully human even though he lacks vision, and an unconscious man is fully human even though he cannot think at the moment.

Jesse,

Be careful: the idea is not that it is "likely" that the embryo/fetus has thoughts at this point, only that I am not at this time certain that they don't have thoughts. Also recall that we're discussing merely the proposed necessary criterion for personhood--not a sufficient criterion for personhood (to conflate these is to commit Louis K's mistake).

On your side note, can you also concede that there is a sense in which it is not self-evident that acorns are oak trees and that zygotes are men? (Perhaps you have an airtight solution to the age-old question "what came first?": eggs are chickens!) Is it possible that the signers of the Declaration of Independence wouldn't recognize the inclusion of zygotes in the term "men"? If so, what does this say about kpolo's appeal to authority?

kpolo,

I don't believe that you've re-read those two comments I referred you to last time. See especially the post at March 17, 2009 at 10:52 AM, which lays out the dialectic.

Jesse, I should also say again that someone might use the proposed necessary condition on personhood to specify the relevant stage at which we will regard the human being as coming to have rights. As noted earlier, one might say that the relevant category is "human beings who have had a thought." For the sake of argument, I'll adopt this claim. Moreover, and also for the sake of argument, let's suppose that we are only certain that human beings up to 5 weeks after conception haven't had a thought. Thus, I will oppose abortion after 5 weeks.

Occasional, it's taken a while, and patience on both of our sides, but I think we've arrived at some common ground here. We both oppose abortion after 5 weeks. I think we'd also agree the only exception to this would be to terminate a tubal pregnancy, which would kill both mother and child anyway.

Granted you have adopted 5 weeks for the sake of argument. I'm sure we'd all want to do some more research before fixing that number in law. And I'm also sure that if there were uncertainty as to the developmental stage, you'd err on the side of caution.

On the side note, I wouldn't say eggs are chickens, but an egg clearly contains a chicken.

Now on to the point: why must we grant full human rights to the human zygote?

Occasional,

I'm just enjoying our moment of agreement here... 48% of abortions occur after 9 weeks; I can't find a statistic with resolution down to 5 weeks. Suffice it to say, if we agree that abortions after 5 weeks should be opposed, that's a significant improvement, in my opinion. Approximately 3700 abortions per day divided in half is 1850 human persons per day we could potentially save here. That's a significant improvement!

To answer your question, we should grant full human rights to the human zygote because the human zygote is fully human. Of course we disagree on that point. You say it's not sufficient to be human to be granted these rights, rather in addition a human must express a particular property of personality.

I'm not sure where to go from here. Do you have any suggestions?

Jesse,

You're right. We seem to very quickly reach the impasse noted at the March 17, 10:52 post.

Now the fact that reach this impasse tells us something interesting: we can find no good reason why the biological category Homo sapiens is the appropriate category when it comes to attributing the inviolable right to life. In fact, we cannot even produce a pragmatic reason for choosing the class of human beings per se rather than the class of human beings who have had a thought.

Are we still in agreement?

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