When Somebody Else Defines Your Humanity


Via Jonah Goldberg in the Corner comes an episode of Philosophy Time, apparently a regular video series by actor James Fanco.  The guest on the program is Princeton philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman, who has theorized that fetuses cannot be human beings with rights if we know that they aren’t destined to live:

But, what I think is actually among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings. So, James, when you were an early fetus, and Eliot, when you were an early fetus, all of us I think we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. And future of fact that we were beginnings stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view, that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.

There is a real question of, how could we know? Well, often we do know. So often, if we know that a woman is planning to get an abortion, and we know that abortion is available to her, then we know that fetus is going to die—that it’s not the kind of thing like the fetuses that became us. It’s not something with moral status, in my view. Often we have reason to believe that a fetus is the beginning stage of a person. So, if we know that it’s that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we good reason to that her fetus is something with moral status something with this future as a person.

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Welcome to the gateway to a monstrous society.  Socially, this philosophy exonerates, for example, the five teens who mocked a man as he slowly drowned in Florida recently.  Governmentally, it opens the door to the denial of anybody’s rights.

The core of Harman’s philosophy is that one’s moral status can be contingent upon the judgment of another.  By this thinking, if the government determines that there is a high probability that a particular person, family, or ethnic group has a near-certain probability of dying, it can kill that person, family, ethnic group because it has no moral status.  This has clear implications for government health are and end-of-life decisions, but it also sets up a more terrifying question.  Harman invests a fetus’s mother with the power to shift its moral status; there’s no reason some authority with our collective good at heart couldn’t be granted the same power.  That is, government could decide that, since some bureaucratic process had determined that you shouldn’t live, you have no moral status.

Somebody who shares Harman’s views might suggest that this would be different, because a human being who has advanced beyond the stage at which a human being is a fetus is currently a person while a fetus is not.  That’s an obvious version of the logical fallacy of begging the question (assuming that which is argued).  The question is whether “the beginning stage of a person” is a person, with a person’s rights; the answer does not draw a distinction between a person at different stages of his or her existence.

By the way, note my use of “his or her,” there.  That construction is a deliberate stylistic decision I long ago made for my writing because I didn’t want to dehumanize people, even by the ambiguous “they.”  Things can be “they.”  Isn’t it an interesting and telling side effect of gender neutrality that it makes it more difficult to unambiguously denote an individual person?

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