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Are Nonpersonal ‘Substances’ Valuable? An Argument for Protective Parity

 

The adjective “innocent,” which frequently occurs in pro-life discussions about “innocent human beings,” does no justificatory work, except to identify those subjects who cannot defend themselves against the more powerful. So used, it can apply equally to “innocent mammals” who cannot defend themselves against poachers or abusive owners. If Greg Koukl’s appeal to “transcendent human value”1 works to ground human rights (as an assumption, not a conclusion), then an appeal to “transcendent animal value” can work equally well as an assumption to ground compassion for sentient animals—unless, of course, one begs the question by tacitly asserting the arbitrary premise “All and only human beings have value,” a premise that is hardly biblical.

     In fact, that humanistic premise is precisely what seems to lurk behind arguments by J. P. Moreland and Francis Beckwith for the “substance” view of personhood in the latter’s new book, DEFENDING LIFE: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. In Chapter 6, entitled “The Nature of Humanness and Whether the Unborn Is a Moral Subject,” Beckwith (following Moreland) argues that “each kind of living organism or substance, including the human being, maintains identity through change as well as possessing a nature or essence that makes certain activities and functions possible.”2 Beckwith explains:

According to the substance view, a human being is intrinsically valuable because of the sort of thing it is and the human being remains that sort of thing as long as it exists. What sort of thing is it? The human being is a particular type of substance—a rational moral agent—that remains identical to itself as long as it exists, even if it is not presently exhibiting the functions, behaving in ways, or currently able to immediately exercise these activities that we typically attribute to active and mature rational moral agents.

… Another way to put it is to say that organisms, including human beings, are ontologically prior to their parts, which means that the organism as a whole maintains absolute identity through time while it grows, develops, and undergoes numerous changes, largely as a result of the organism’s nature that directs and informs these changes and their limits.3 

     Now, even though talk of “substances” or “essences” may be superfluous when it comes to generating moral obligations, we can grant, for the sake of his argument against killing the human conceptus, that “organisms remain the same thing over time” and have intrinsic value (i.e., are moral subjects) in virtue of what they are, not simply how or when they function. Nevertheless, Beckwith ought to have called his book “Defending Human Life,” because that is the only form of life it defends and Beckwith fails to offer a cogent rebuttal to the charge of speciesism among some pro-lifers, which he dismisses by calling it a “red herring.”4 Except for his somewhat tautologous claim that human beings [persons] have a “personal nature,” Beckwith offers no reason why we shouldn’t conclude that nonhuman organisms have intrinsic value (i.e., are moral subjects) in virtue of what they are, not simply how or when they function. In fact, according to Beckwith’s own example, a domestic feline also has a particular nature or essence as long as it exists. So even if it is legitimate to infer that an organism has value (i.e., moral subjecthood) from its having an identity through time (an inference which itself might be challenged5), by Beckwith’s own definition of “substance” this inference would also apply to felines and similar mammals. 

     In clarifying the nature of substances, properties, and events, Moreland defined a substance as “an entity like an acorn, a dog or an angel” that (1) is a particular, individual thing, (2) has a continual identity through changes over time, and (3) is a basic, fundamental existent or possessor of properties, like “the dog Fido.”6 In his defense of substance dualism and “The Immaterial Soul,” Moreland proffers the arguments from human self-awareness and the unity of the first-person perspective, as evidenced by the use of indexicals: 

‘I’ is the most basic indexical, and it refers to one’s own self that one knows by acquaintance with one’s own self in acts of self-awareness. I am immediately aware of my own self, and I know to whom ‘I’ refers when I use it: It refers to me as the self-conscious, self-reflexive owner of my body and mental states.7

It is at least doubtful whether nonhuman animals are self-aware or self-reflexive in the way that humans are, which may be why Moreland doesn’t argue for the “immaterial soul” of animals. However, since a dog qualifies as a “substance” on Moreland’s own definition, on what grounds (or by what criteria) would he deny its intrinsic value? 

     In passing, it is worth noting that pro-life apologists who argue for “human exceptionalism” appear to employ a kind of double standard. On the one hand, they appeal to ontological (non-functional) arguments for ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ when defending the “sanctity of human life” in contrast to the lives of any “lower” animals. On the other hand, they appeal to functional differences between humans and nonhumans as reasons for denying “sanctity” to the latter. Logically, this seems unfair—like wanting to have it both ways—in effect, to assert that ‘functional capacities don’t matter’ when it comes to affirming the value of prenatal human life, yet claim that ‘functional capacities do matter’ when it comes to denying the value of animal life (whether prenatal or postnatal).

     Since Beckwith and Moreland make no move to attribute value or moral subjecthood to animals (nonpersonal “substances”), it is hard to see how they can avoid the charge of speciesism. They appear to hold that any conceptus worthy of protection against abortion must have the potential for being “active and mature rational moral agents,” because that is what constitutes personhood in their view.8

     But why should the potential for ‘mature rationality’ and ‘moral agency’ be requirements for protection from harm? In other words, must a ‘moral subject’ be a personal subject? Beckwith and Koukl seem to assume that it must, and, if I understand them correctly, the following argument fairly represents their view:

1. only personal subjects can be moral subjects.

2. nonhuman animals are not personal subjects.

3. therefore, nonhuman animals cannot be moral subjects. 

But Beckwith offers no justification for this first premise. Hence, his implicit claim that only personal lives (i.e., human “substances”) are worth defending simply begs the question. Furthermore, Beckwith endorses (as I do) Don Marquis’ argument that aborting the human fetus is wrong because it deprives the latter of “a future like ours.”9 If that argument is sound, then the argument against killing any fetus is sound because it deprives the latter of “a future like its kind.”

     Suppose some tribe (or group of medical researchers) said they wanted to perform “partial birth abortions” on harp seals in Alaska—perhaps because preborn harp seals were especially tender and tasty, or perhaps because harp seals were eating too many fish and thus depleting the human catch.10 Should not the group be asked to provide some ‘morally sufficient reason’ for their actions beyond mere custom or economic advantage? My intuition tells me “yes.” Yet Koukl asserts, 

Only one question needs to be answered to resolve what many think is a complex moral problem. That questions is, What is it? Both abortion and ESCR kill something that is alive. In fact both destroy the same thing at different stages of development. Whether it’s right or not to take that life depends entirely on what it is we’re killing…. If the zygote or embryo or fetus [and why stop at that stage, if fertilization is the decisive moment?] is not a human being, no justification for either abortion or ESCR is necessary. However, if it is a human being, no justification for taking his or her life is adequate. This single, succinct ethic is adequate to cover contingencies on both sides of the question.11 

In other words, according to what Koukl says here, if a creature is non-human at any stage of development, no justification is needed for killing it. Now if, as Koukl and Beckwith maintain, a woman’s fertilized egg is “fully human,”12 then a fertilized harp seal egg is also “fully harp seal.” Why, then, isn’t it morally appropriate to ask whether humans are justified in aborting harp seal fetuses for food (or for any other reason) or killing harp seal babies for their fur? Obviously, Koukl’s “one-question test” for the justifiability of killing fails to cover all relevant cases of harm.

     In short, to restrictively define a ‘moral subject’ as a ‘personal subject’ ignores both common sense and anti-cruelty laws, which recognize that one need not be a moral agent in order to qualify as a moral patient, or a recipient of moral care. In my view, then, this debate over essences and functions can be circumvented simply by recognizing the asymmetry of the agent-patient distinction: all agents are patients, but not all patients are agents, as illustrated in the following Venn diagram.

It is not necessary that animals attain the status of—or function as—“rational moral agents” in order to qualify as moral patients; we can respect their experiential welfare on the minimal requirement that they are sentient and are what Tom Regan and Paul Taylor called “subjects of a life”—not mere instruments or commodities. In other words, with regard to moral agency, humans are “exceptional”; with regard to moral patienthood, they are not. When it comes to assessing moral patienthood, sentience is, so to speak, the “common denominator” for many species that are also substantially valuable and, therefore, worthy of protection. 

     Answering the single question, “Is the unborn human?” may help us conclude that killing them is wrong, but it doesn’t tell us what other sorts of living entities (if any) it may be wrong to kill. And so I must conclude that Beckwith’s exclusive pro-life focus on “personal nature” is too narrow and that Koukl’s “single, succinct ethic” is itself inadequate, because it requires no justification for killing nonhuman animals. Animal abuse may seem to pale in comparison with “ethnic cleansing” and the genocide of peoples in Rwanda or the Sudan; but as my step-father wisely used to say, “Two wrongs don’t make a right.” In short, I would suggest that the frequent reference among Christian ethicists to “the value and sanctity of human life”—often heard in anti-abortion arguments—ought to be expanded to include ”the value and sanctity of all life” (akin to Albert Schweitzer’s vision), since all creatures were and are considered ‘good’ by God, regardless of their utility for human purposes.

______________________

NOTES:

1. Greg Koukl, “Animals Are Only Human”, Solid Ground newsletter, September/October 2004, 2b.

2. Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007), 132.

3. Ibid., 132-133.

4. Ibid., 161.

5. From an empirical point of view, what distinguishes one species from another—what Koukl and Beckwith would call a substantial difference—is simply a matter of ontogeny and taxonomy; and an entity’s ontogeny or taxonomy does not necessarily give rise to predicates of value regarding that entity.

6. J.P. Moreland, “Physicalism, Naturalism and the Nature of Human Persons” in To Everyone An Answer, edited by Francis J. Beckwith, William Lane Craig, and J. P. Moreland (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 225.

7. Ibid., 233.

8. Unless we subscribe to a robust version of Platonism that is too transcendental, we must admit that the concept of a ‘person’, like that of a ‘man’, does not arise in a vacuum—that is, it only means something to us with reference to particular exemplars in our experience, which is to say the ontological concept of ‘personhood’ is never devoid of empirical content derived from our encounters with particular (and functioning) persons.

9. See Don Marquis, “Why Abortion is Immoral,” in The Abortion Controversy 25 Years after Roe v. Wade: A Reader. Second edition, edited by Louis P. Pogman and Francis J. Beckwith (Bellmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998). Originally published in Journal of Philosophy 86, no. 4 (April 1989), 183–202.

10. This scenario is ethically analogous to the actual practice of California fishermen sawing off the beaks of pelicans because they believe the pelicans are depleting their fleet’s catch, or the (government-sanctioned) aerial shooting of wolves near Yellowstone because they allegedly threaten the livestock of ranchers. Mutilation of animals in the service of human enterprise should be questioned by every Christian ethicist.

11. Greg Koukl, “Animals Are Only Human”, Solid Ground newsletter, September/October 2004.

12. Use of the modifier “fully” is really superfluous, because it adds nothing to a non-gradualistic concept of humanness that considers the moment of fertilization decisive for personhood. Pro-life advocates typically use the modifier “fully” to tacitly assert that the entity is ‘human’ not only in a genetic sense, but in a moral sense as well. However, the claim that an entity’s genetic completeness entails its moral “fullness” is debatable.

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