A Potential Disagreement

Sorry for the dead air yesterday; I’ve gone and got myself involved in another wrangle over at Bill Vallicella’s, and spent too long over there to have time for a post here. The topic is the morality of abortion, which as everyone knows by now is a great sucking vortex of infinite confusion and intractable debate; the particular aspect of the discussion in which I have become bogged down, like a hapless mastodon in a peat bog, is the question of potential: does an embryo’s potential to become a fully developed child in the future entitle it to moral consideration now?

This would be difficult enough, but in order even to consider this question some agreement must be reached on the notion of potential itself, and this is the shoal upon which the discussion has run aground. In my view the potential for postnatal life increases over time; an unfertilized ovum has very little, and a full-term fetus has a great deal. In Bill’s view the potential is either there or not there, with no sense of degree; what varies is the likelihood of its realization. This may seem like the sort of angels-dancing-on-the-head-of-a-pin arcana that philosophers are often mocked for, but it is important in this discussion, because if we grant that a conceptus has the potential for life in full measure from the moment of conception, then we have allowed, perhaps, the establishment of an important moral beach-head.

For my reluctance to accept Bill’s assertion that potential comes not in degrees, but is rather an entirely binary property, I am once again being castigated as a dunderhead, and am likely about to be shown the door. I should probably know better by now than to get involved over there, as we often end up at loggerheads, but my problem is that I actually want to make progress on this question, and Bill, though stubborn, is a very scholarly and adept philosopher, with whom I actually agree about a great many things — and he has quite a few intelligent commenters as well.

If you are interested, have a look here and here.


  1. Charles says

    I could be wrong, but isn’t the definition of potential “all of the things that could possibly happen in the future, whether they end up happening or not”? I wonder if the terms is not being confused with “probability.” That is, a just-fertilized ovum (note the change from your “unfertilized ovum,” since the debate usually deals with everything after conception) has a far lower probability of developing into a full-fledged human being than a full-term fetus. But they both have the same potential.

    Then again, I’m a pretty splendid dunderhead myself, so who knows?

    (Forgive me if I don’t get into the discussion over there–I’m afraid I’d be lost all too soon.)

    Posted September 20, 2008 at 8:59 am | Permalink
  2. Addofio says

    I too should probably know better than to get into this–but what the heck. I need a distraction from grading papers.

    I think Charles is making a good distinction, but I’m not sure his conclusion quite works. Using his definition for “potential”, the just-fertilized ovum and the full term fetus don’t in fact have “the same potential”. Included in the set of possibilities for the ovum is the possibility of miscarriage; this is no longer in the set of possibilities for the full-term fetus, who whould just be getting born a few days ahead of schedule.

    Even if we finish the sentence “. . . the same potential for becoming a full-fledged human being”, somehow it doesn’t seem quite right to me. True, they both presumably include a possibility of becoming a FFHB in their set of potentialities–but somehow the probabilities still matter, it seems to me. After all, any egg or healthy sperm presumably also has some possibility of developing into a FFHB (with the help of their complement), or else none ever would; since some do, the possibility must have been there. So while an important threshold is crossed when the egg is fertilized, it hardly can be an all-or-nothing threshold. Similarly, there seems to be an important difference in potentiality for the just-fertilized ovum and the full-term fetus, though not an all-or-nothing difference.

    Sorry, I’m not helping, I can tell. I’ll stop now.

    Posted September 20, 2008 at 2:58 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Thanks to you both for joining in.

    … a just-fertilized ovum (note the change from your “unfertilized ovum,” since the debate usually deals with everything after conception) has a far lower probability of developing into a full-fledged human being than a full-term fetus. But they both have the same potential.

    Charles, you would find that Bill Vallicella is quite in agreement with you; in fact he has made precisely that point in several recent posts and threads.

    Addofio, the point you are making is the one I have been trying to drive home at Bill’s.

    Posted September 20, 2008 at 6:54 pm | Permalink
  4. JK says


    I’d offer thanks to (Cran or others) Whatever-for your wording inclusion of “binary” into the mix.

    However: I’ve been recently admonished (I think) to clean up my act-not to be confused with the Biblical Book of Acts.

    I don’t have time for this either (or my obvious lack of the erudite intellectualism) except to offer a personal anecdote which I consider may be applicable. I am the odd duck here. I admit to my “dunderheadedness” not merely what others may read as such.

    When my eldest daughter became “aware” sometime prior incidentally, to my custodial time period, I took her to the doctor and had a subcutaneous insert of a contraceptive, implanted. Her Mom, strictly Catholic strenuously objected. Accordingly, upon our daughters’ return to her Moms’ care, had the insert removed and she became with child. The daughter-not the Mom.

    Mom then called me and demanded that I arrange for a “procedure.” Ironically Mom was adamantly Pro-Life (Wichita, Kansas), myself ambivalent, leaning Pro-Choice. Fortunately (then & now) the custodial agreement was “shared.” My feeling then was to let my (our) daughter decide. The daughter and I discussed it and she decided she wanted to bring the binary to term. I subsequently removed our daughter from Kansas (the Home of Creationism Education).

    (Admittedly, I did make a phonecall to the father’s parents and gave them the scoop. I did make a less than legally adviseable remark about how I felt and was met by the authorities at the Kansas state line-but that is another story.) I will admit, looking back on it-it was both interesting and kinda funny.

    But my point is: whatever the decision of the prospective mother, no matter what anyone else unrelated to the matter at hand has to say, should, in my opinion, feel free to petition the government as they see fit. But they ought also remember the words and admonitions of that man, no great founder of American ideals said, “The King of England shall not enter here.”

    In case you’re not old enough for Sam Ervin at the Watergate hearings, William Pitt.

    I now have two teenaged grandkids. My ex-wife never mentions, well…

    Posted September 20, 2008 at 10:39 pm | Permalink

Post a Comment

Your email is never shared. Required fields are marked *