Does Potential Confer The Right To Life?

Over at his website The Maverick Philosopher, Dr. William Vallicella has been puting together a philosophical defense of the pro-life position based on an argument from the potential personhood of the conceptus. His argument runs as follows:

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. [This principle of potentiality] should be applied consistently to all like cases.


4. We should ascribe the right to life to fetuses on the basis of their potentialities.

This is a coherent and possibly persuasive argument, but I think it must overcome two objections that I hope to put forward in the next few days (as time permits). Meanwhile, please have a look; I am curious to know what you all think.

Related content from Sphere


  1. JK says

    1. We ascribe the right to life to neonates and young children on the basis of their potentialities.

    A. I (as a potentiatly) have the right to irrevocably harm and even destroy the the potentiality of the vessel that I am potentially capable of issuing from. Absent the knowledge and/or the consciousness that I may or may not obtain, I unreservedly demand the right to obtain same.

    2. There is no morally relevant difference between neonates and young children and fetuses.

    A. I (as both a potentiate as well as a neonate) demand that Society in general recognize my Right to Potentiality as well as the benefits and Rights derived therefrom. Therefore:any expenditures which might affect my potentiality, be they monetary, societal,economic etc to the greater good must not be denied. I demand, upon my issuance, full medical attention, membership to the board of Goldman-Sachs and a pretty good interest rate on any mortgage that I might consider. I also would like my Corvette to be painted lime-green.

    3. [This principle of potentiality] should be applied consistently to all like cases.

    A. Admitting that at present I exist potentially as the result of a gang-rape in some far distant future-the victim being my human mother and the perpetrators, three blind lab mice (genetically engineered) nonetheless demand that as a potentiality, I still have the Right as described to sit on the board of Goldman-Sachs, my Corvette to be painted lime green, to be accepted into my choice of either the Republican or Democratic hierarchy-and to, in some other distant future, insist that all blind mice intent on malice aforethought-bring condoms to the scene of the uncommited crime.

    And to legislate that all future mice attend an “abstinence only” class. Further-to legislate, failure to attend that class be a Capital Offense. The only exceptions to be granted would be based strictly on “potentialities.”

    Posted October 24, 2008 at 12:47 am | Permalink
  2. I would also put forward a reverse question: What is the precise moment, and the exact biological condition, in the chain of life that begins with conception and ends with death, at which it is morally acceptable to break the chain? The answer is critical because it marks the division between disposing of a bundle of cells, and killing a human being. If it is impossible to pinpoint this point in time, or define exactly a condition, then surely we should play safe.

    Posted October 24, 2008 at 4:35 am | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Well, not necessarily, David, when we are playing safe by imposing an enormous restriction of a woman’s freedom, and compelling her to provide support against her will.

    The question is how to weigh the woman’s rights against those of the developing conceptus, which I feel may reasonably be considered to change over time.

    Posted October 24, 2008 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm, I think we can set aside pregnancy by rape, and health dangers to a carrying women, they are generally accepted as special cases. What we are discussing are healthy women who conceived in the normal course of events. In which case, no-one forced the woman to have intercourse, and as everyone is responsible for their own actions (as women are the first to point out in rape charges against men!), what ‘rights’ does a woman have in such a circumstance over an innocent ‘being’ – I choose that neutral word with care? She cannot, in logic, insist on the viability of her own body because she has already consented to one invasion, and by insisting on a termination, she is asking for another.

    My question above, as to exactly what constitutes a bundle of cells and what a human being remains unanswered because it is, of course, unanswerable. A second question then arises which is similar to the one I raise in debates on capital punishment – would you (meaning ‘you’ in general) throw the switch to kill a murderer (I would), or, in this context, would you be prepared to pull the foetus out of the womb and dump it in the waste-bin?

    These are difficult questions and also I have put them rather personally. I think, given the all too human tendency to wrap unpleasant consequences in abstractions, it is a necessary exercise – to paraphrase the good Doctor: ‘like a hanging in the morning, it concentrates the mind wonderfully!’

    Posted October 25, 2008 at 5:00 am | Permalink
  5. The vegan or Buddhist would ask the same moral questions of us when we take animal life for food.

    On a karmic level we each just make the choices that we see fit. Some would say that knowingly bringing a baby with Down-syndrome into this world is cruel and of no use to our society.

    I mention this because there have been and are many cultures that have left their old and inferm to die in caves rathert han have the extra mouth to feed. These are each moral questions that ask what the greater good would be – not that the act itself isn’t a sad/hard morally twinging aspect of life…

    Hell – some Germans once thought it for the greater good to exterminate millions of folks for various reasons…Such weighing of value has no end…

    If we meditate deep within us we may find answers that unsettle our self worth and repremand our past choices. It is surely hard to “do the right thing” by some universal standard… because there seems to be none.

    Posted October 25, 2008 at 2:08 pm | Permalink
  6. bob koepp says

    “She cannot, in logic, insist on the viability of her own body because she has already consented to one invasion, and by insisting on a termination, she is asking for another.”

    I assume you meant “inviolability of her own body”. Then, moving to the substance of the matter, note how consent functions… as a qualification creating a certain space where what would otherwise be “invasive violations” of her body are actually invited interactions. Consent; choice; logic.

    Posted October 25, 2008 at 2:10 pm | Permalink
  7. Bob, I am tempted to say ‘bugger’ but of course I wouldn’t do that on a nicely brought up blog like this! Anyway, as punsihment I have given myself a hundred lines writing out “viability is not inviolability”. In mitigation I can only quote the late, great Ogden Nash:

    “And to tell you the truth,
    It’s not the Vermouth –
    I think that perhaps it’s the gin.”

    And alas, it’s not just my writing that is dim, so is my reading, for I have read and reread your final paragraph and I am still unclear as to its meaning. Perhaps you could elucidate.

    Posted October 26, 2008 at 8:03 am | Permalink
  8. bob koepp says

    David – My point was simply that, contrary to your statement, having consented to one invasion and asking for another is perfectly compatible (logically speaking) with not consenting to another invasion. It’s the presence of consent in the former cases and its absence in the latter that makes the difference.

    Posted October 26, 2008 at 11:00 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    A fine example of use vs. mention, David.

    Posted October 26, 2008 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  10. JK says

    The cases of “rape” and “health dangers” have been brought out. And of course “consent.” But things fog up where “consent” to the one thing leads to a conclusion that consent to the second necessarily follows.

    If a woman who consents to the one invasion but insists that the invader (in the first instance) “You must wear a condom, not because I fear an itch but rather because I wish to avoid becoming pregnant.” Through some unforeseen circumstance however things turn out complicated.

    Personally, I find the thing distasteful and in the best of all worlds, these things wouldn’t come up. (No David, that’s not an invitation, it was the gin.)

    I am the first to acknowledge that I really am not a fit or the most able to participate in these sorts of discussions-but I enjoy the ride.

    Posted October 26, 2008 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  11. Oh dear! Sloppy English followed by sloppy logic – mea gulpa another martini! Let me rephrase it.

    If a woman consents to intercourse in the knowledge that it might create a ‘being’, is she entitled to insist that the body of the ‘being’ is invaded terminally via her body on the grounds that the being is, so to speak, an invasion? I think not, unless someone can demonstrate the exact point in the life development process at which the ‘being’ ceases to be one thing of little value, and then becomes something else of very precious value.

    You will gather, even from my sloppy English, that I do not think that such a point can be demonstrated and therefore abortion should not be permitted apart from the exceptions already granted. It’s a pointless debate, of course, because nobody’s mind is ever changed but I do find it odd that so many people who should know better still put forward the argument, in effect, that with ‘x’ number of cells a foetus is not human, but with ‘y’ number of cells it is, or, at 24 weeks it is not human but at 25 it is!

    Posted October 27, 2008 at 1:41 pm | Permalink
  12. bob koepp says

    David – I agree that it’s futile to try to mark an exact point in the course of development where something goes from being of little value to being precious. But I don’t think it’s necessary to identify such a transition at all.

    You probably are not familiar with an argument which has come to be called the “violinist argument”. It makes the point that if even so precious a being as a master violinist was maintained in existence only in virtue of being connected to your body (or mine…), it would be morally acceptable for the “host organism” (i.e., you or me) to “disconnect” causing the violinist to die. By parity of reasoning, what’s acceptable in the case of the violinist is, presumably, acceptable in the case of a fetus.

    Posted October 27, 2008 at 2:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Bob – no, I had not come across that one before but I don’t think it is applicable here. The point about a foetus is that an adult human implicitly consented to its creation in her body and should, in my opinion, take responsibility for it – or at least, not consent to killing it. I should add that it doesn’t matter to me if the foetus is likely to be a bard or a bum, its preciousness lies in its humanity,not its talent.

    All of this is leading dangerously close to a contemplation of what exactly it is to be human, or to put it another way, where-in lies the preciousness in human life? I am increasingly coming to the view that the very notion of it is a minority view these days – perhaps, given the bloody history of Mankind, it always was. I am a ‘fundamentalist agnostic'(!) but I do think that that one of the great features of Christianity was, and is, its insistence on the preciousness of human life. The fact that Christians ignore their own scripture, of course, says more about them than their scripture.

    Posted October 27, 2008 at 5:57 pm | Permalink
  14. Malcolm says

    Hi David,

    I agree with Bob that it is futile to mark some exact moment of “personhood”. I’d say, though, that a just-conceived zygote has not much of the “person” about it: it has no mind, no feeling, no consciousness, no will, nothing we would call a body, really, even: just a little DNA inside a cell membrane. A full-term fetus, on the other hand, has all of those things; it is really a very different sort of entity.

    There is indeed no bright line, no obvious point of demarcation, I agree. But that is what the law often has to do: impose a boundary on a continuum. And we must not forget that the “rights” you are willing to grant the mindless, unicellular conceptus come at what seems to many of us a dreadful cost: the State’s restriction of the woman’s freedom and self-sovereignty. It seems reasonable, I think, to say that as the fetus becomes a person, its claim on protection increases. But a single cell doesn’t seem like much of a “person” to me.

    Posted October 27, 2008 at 6:29 pm | Permalink
  15. JK says

    The technology exists now. Humankind has within its capabilities to harvest each and every “egg” within its reach.

    David, have you contributed to your (seemingly) proposed local sperm bank? We recognize your ability and willingness to contribute your heretofore unseen largesse toward the raising up of any potentiality that you might actuate.

    Admittedly my grammar is “incorrect” but I do not speak the King’s English (or the Queen’s) but it is that one small thing potentialities, humankind can gather eggs, can gather sperm, can place the two in twain.

    Does the requirement for the one act (the evolutionary-or consensual one) require that since the “understandings and capabilities” have been met, that further legislative action must be enacted? Biblical, religious stuff aside, if the basis for exercising control over any degree of potentiality rests merely on potentiality-shouldn’t it follow that the State, having within its grasp-control of potentiality-exercise it?

    Of course that poses another sort of problem to which I admit limits, (language ability notwithstanding) shall we demand our Legislatures to enact on the sole basis of potentiality?
    If that is the case then do we not effectively neuter any attempt to achieve civil society?

    Any act by whatever governing body, regarding potentialities, is neutered by the potentialities. And of course I’ll need pay no further taxes to my local military/industrial State supported entity.

    I am glad I can recall the proper “Daniel Websterized” variant spelling, “vasectomy.”

    Please forgive my grammatical meanderings Mr. Duff.

    Posted October 27, 2008 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  16. Malcolm says

    Well, JK, this question — are disunited eggs and sperms “potential” persons? — has lately been the subject of a fascinating inquiry over at Bill V.’s. The consensus there seems to be that they are not, but that view is based on a view of potentiality as either present or absent, with nothing in between. As I have pointed out several times over there, without getting a good answer: if sperms and eggs have no potential to become the next generation, why do we bother to make them?

    Posted October 27, 2008 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  17. JK says

    I’ll go over there and set things right. As soon as I finish my corn dog and ice cream.

    One thing though, kinda like your “why do we bother to make them?”

    Admittedly, for me it’s been awhile, but for a time it sure seemed they at least sought to make an acquantance. But doggone it, it was like puppies and kittens, an effort at least was made to keep them apart.

    Does effort count for nothing?

    Posted October 28, 2008 at 5:14 am | Permalink
  18. Oh bugger! There, I’ve said it again – sorry – but my earlier reply appears to have been swallowed by the ether so I must do my best to regurgitate.

    I agree that it is “futile to mark some exact moment of “personhood””, but only because I think it is impossible to do. However, given that we are dealing with something that will achieve “personhood”, even if we will never be sure exactly when, it surely behoves us to exercise a ‘duty of care’. You suggest that the first divided cell cannot be described as human, but that is based on your definition of what is or is not human. I would suggest that it is just as human as the bundles of skin and bone to be found in any geriatric hospital where the humans concerned have lost most of their faculties and, even worse, have little or no future – which at least those early cells do have. Like me, I guess you have noticed that as we have become, in my eyes, more and more careless of life in the womb, this has gone hand in hand with an increasing movement to permit ever more carelessness with the lives of the aged.

    As to a “woman’s freedom and self-sovereignty”, I would suggest that she forfeits that when she consents to intercourse knowing the possible consequences – I would call that taking responsibility for your own actions.

    I have never thought of this debate in personal terms before but it has suddenly occurred to me that I do have a personal interest because I was born to a single mother. There was no such thing as legal abortion in those days so she had no choice. However, I was evacuated out of London during the war and the family I lived with became surrogate parents and it would have been very easy for my mother to leave me with them. The fact that she didn’t suggest very strongly that she would have avoided abortion, too.

    ‘JK’, no, alas, the fertility clinics will have do without my precious fluids. A donation would be, in Shakespeare’s words “The expense of spirit in a waste of shame” – and don’t ask what the spirit would be! Also, let me dispose, if I can, of the argument that sperm and eggs should be treated the same as a fertilised egg. They are not the same. Both are produced, and wasted, as part of nature’s course. However, once joined, a dynamic chain re-action occurs and I would suggest that the definition of being human is that you are part of that chain re-action – or to put it another way, it is the process, not the product, that is human.

    Posted October 28, 2008 at 12:24 pm | Permalink
  19. Malcolm says

    Well, David, I do think you are right in that the central question is: In virtue of what do we define a morally considerable person? While I must obviously agree that all of us right-possessing and morally considerable adults started out as zygotes, it does not necessarily follow that all zygotes are therefore rights-possessors. When you say such an entity “will achieve personhood”, you make the assumption that I comment upon in this post: namely that the zygote does it somehow “on its own”. It is just as reasonable, though, to say that the woman’s body makes a person out of a zygote, and if one looks at it that way, it seems reasonable to give her the option not to.

    I think that there is considerable room for reasonable disagreement about a woman’s moral responsibility (and the State’s justification in enforcing burdensome obligation) to an entity that has none of the properties — consciousness, will, sensation, etc. — that we generally view as undergirding a person’s claim to moral consideration.

    We all have our careless moments, and for the government to force upon a woman the onerous duties of pregnacy and motherhood in defense of a microscopic bundle of DNA is arguably harsh and excessive. The woman’s body will, in many or most cases, spontaneously abort a conceptus before anyone even has any inkling that she is pregnant, which is hardly seen by anyone as a tragedy; but for her to have any say in the matter is morally wrong?

    Posted October 28, 2008 at 12:57 pm | Permalink