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Descartes would be proud

by Aaron Earls [+/-] show/hide

Rene Descartes gave us the famous philosophical statement: "I think therefore I am." Today he would be very proud of himself and how ingrained his work has become.

When asked in a debate about the personhood of Terri Schiavo, Florida bioethicist Bill Allen flatly stated that she is not a person.
I think having awareness is an essential criterion for personhood. Even minimal awareness would support some criterion of personhood, but I don't think complete absence of awareness does.

Allen's opponent in the debate, Wesley J. Smith, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute, wrote for National Review about how that statement is no longer news.

In his column "Human Non-person," Smith looks at the implications of a view of life that does not accord each life any intrinsic worth, but rather people must basically earn personhood. You must meet certain qualifications in order to become an actual person. There are also levels of personhood that one can attain.

Allen allowed that "minimal awareness would some some criterion of personhood," but apparently it does not meet enough to be classified as a full person.

We see this all around us today. Embryos and fetuses are "human non-persons." We have to view them as "humans" since they can be no other type of organism, but we can refuse to allow them the status of personhood. Some bioethicists also refuse to place newborn infants in full personhood. Of course, as we have seen in the Schiavo case, those who have extensive cognitive disabilities or impairments can also be grouped into this new class of humans.

This would allow those of us human persons able to kill any and all human non-persons and use them for harvesting organs. Does this sound a bit scary to you yet? I am sure many will argue that this is simply another slippery slope argument from another "Christian wacko," but quotes from prominent bioethicists support this extreme view of life.

John Harris, a bioethics professor at the University of Manchester, England, has argued for the harvestability of "non-persons." "Non-persons or potential persons [embryos, fetuses, possible infants] cannot be wronged" by being killed "because death does not deprive them of something they can value. If they cannot wish to live, they cannot have that wish frustrated by being killed."

This is not fringe thinking in the world of bioethics. Smith quotes Tom Beauchamp of Georgetown University as saying that "because many humans lack properties of personhood or are less than full persons, they...might be aggressively used as human research subjects or sources of organs. Allen basically said the same thing in his debate with Smith.

This is not to even venture into the world of Joe Carter's favorite bioethicist Peter Singer, who argues for doing medical research on orphans and mentally handicapped babies instead of animals.

In one of his diatribes on Singer, Joe expanded Singer and his fellow pro-death bioethicists' thought process to its conclusion.

Take, for example, his criterion for "personhood." According to Singer's definition, a "person" refers to a being that is capable of anticipating the future, of having wants and desires for the future. The problem with this definition is that a human being ceases to be a "person" when they are unconscious, temporarily comatose, or even just asleep. This leads to the absurd conclusion that a human stops being a "person" when they go to bed at night and yet wake in the morning with their status as a person fully renewed.

Instead of explaining why anyone should accept such a silly notion, Singer simply skips ahead to explain the practical application. But this leads to another absurd conclusion. What if Singer were in a funk over losing his girlfriend and lay on his couch to take a nap. While drifting off to sleep he whines that he "wished he'd never been born" and "wishes he could just die." Imagine also that a grad student walks by and overhears these mutterings. According to Singer's view, the student would be justified in killing the ethicist in his sleep since (a) by falling asleep he had ceased to be a person and (b) he had expressed a desire to not exist. The grad student may not be able to convince a jury, but he would certainly be consistently applying Singer's practical ethics.

I'm not sure, I would tend to doubt, that Descartes extended his definition for being to the inverse statement for not being. But the philosopher should have been able to evaluate the consequences of his thoughts. If they are so important that with them they bring the essence of personhood, should they not be guarded so as not to be used to deny someone else that same personhood?

The logical conclusion of "I think therefore, I am" must be "I do not think, therefore I am not." Why place these arbitrary lines around the state of being, of personhood? It brings so many more unanswerable questions to the table than if we just assume all humans are persons.

Have we not learned from our past mistakes? I do not intend to call anyone in the current debate[s] the equivalent to Nazis and slave masters, but has I use it as an illustration of what the end results are when we allow ourselves to be the judge of personhood.

We like to think if we had been in Nazi Germany of the Pre-Civil War South that we would have done something different. We would not have stood by, while these "non-persons" were treated as such. What about today, are we continually making the same mistakes only with different people groups?

Descartes would be proud. His philosophy is so entrenched into our culture that not only do we accept his theory; we accept it so blindly that we are willing to kill for it.

Hat Tip: World Mag Blog


  • One obfuscation, and perhaps straw man in these arguments is the false assumption that our definitions of personhood must be *the same* for both beginning, middle, and end of the lifecycle.

    There are some differences between a zygote and a comatose patient - in future potential, in physical development and differentiation, etc.

    Rather than opt for an overly simplistic model for life, I think we should develop two models - they may share items, but to make them as one dumbs down the conversation, and makes consistent logic impossible.

    For example, some right-to-lifers consider the fertilized egg a human because it has a unique set of chromosomes. But by that criteria alone, I couldn't even get my hair cut. They would then argue that this single cell has the potential to become a person. So does any other cell that we can clone. Does potential alone make one a person?

    And at the the other end of the spectrum, most pro-lifers already support a person's right to refuse treatment. So how is that not suicide, since it is a willful act? And if I can choose not to be treated, then what is wrong with overdosing myself on pain pills if I am terminal? And then why can't i get a physcian's help so that I can do it safely? I am not saying I agree or disagree with these questions, only that we need to make sure that our logic applies, and we should not force a one-size-fits-all logic on personhood - the unborn are not the same as the born, and we need two related but nuanced positions, not one clumsy one.

    I agree that we must be vigorous in defending the sanctity of life and personhood, especially for the unborn. But we need to be more exacting in our definitions or risk having our arguments dismissed.

    By Blogger papa, at 3/30/2005 1:43 PM  

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