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Books and Culture

Peter Lawler
A Human Person, Actually
A powerful philosophical case for protecting embryos
18 April 2008

Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, by Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen (Doubleday, 256 pp., $23.95)

In their bold new book, Embryo, philosophers Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen defend the proposition that the embryo—the organism that comes into being as the result of fertilization, the union of sperm with oocyte—is in fact a human being. And that means that an embryo has “absolute rights.” An embryo should never be used as a means to pursue someone else’s ends, however laudable or life-saving, they say. Certainly, embryos shouldn’t be killed to assist frustrated parents attempting in vitro fertilization (IVF), or even to further pathbreaking medical research. The authors stop well short of recommending all of the potential changes in law that would necessarily follow from their argument. All they ask is that scientific research that involves the killing of embryos be outlawed—or, at the very least, that it be denied public funding, and that future IVF procedures be practiced in such a way that they do not produce surplus embryos that are ultimately discarded. The authors oppose what they see as brutality motivated in part by good intentions—brutality they hope to correct with moral reasoning based in scientific knowledge. Open-minded readers should find their case powerful.

The embryo, George and Tollefsen argue, is a whole being, possessing the integrated capability to go through all the phases of human development. An embryo has what it takes to be a free, rational, deliberating, and choosing being; it is naturally fitted to develop into a being who can be an “uncaused cause,” a genuinely free agent. Some will object, of course, that the embryo is only potentially human. The more precise version of this objection is that the embryo is human—not a fish or a member of some other species—but not yet a person. A person, in this view, is conscious enough to be a free chooser right now. Rights don’t belong to members of our species but to persons, beings free enough from natural determination to be able to exercise their rights. How could someone have rights if he doesn’t even know that he has them?

George and Tollefsen argue that the distinction between human being and person depends upon a contemporary philosophical prejudice that has no basis in reality. This “dualism” originated with Immanuel Kant, who held that free persons aren’t determined by inhuman or merely animal nature. Kant’s unempirical view is that there’s nothing natural about our freedom—and so there’s nothing natural about our rights, either. But contrary to Kant, we are, by our natures, the animals given the capabilities for personal freedom; we are, so to speak, hardwired as social animals, given the responsibility to live and act well in light of the truth. Human nature isn’t an oxymoron.

The authors praise Kant, reasonably enough, for wanting to defend our absolute freedom, but they criticize him for being hopelessly vague about that freedom’s foundation. The attempt to detach the moral category “person” from the natural category “human being” produces arbitrary, rationally indefensible results. Kant’s dualistic way of thinking would deny personhood not only to, say, people with fairly advanced Alzheimer’s, but also to newborn babies, who are less self-aware than dogs.

George and Tollefsen also explain that their defense of the embryo has nothing to do with “ensoulment.” For Aristotle, “soul” refers to the form that human thought and activity take; evidence of the soul is found in the behavior of the human organism as a whole. The radical or characteristically modern distinction between body and soul—like the one between animal nature and human freedom—is another dualism that doesn’t correspond to observable natural reality. The identification of the embryo as a human being actually depends on what we can know about its integrated functioning and not, in other words, on some religious speculation about when, precisely, ensoulment occurs.

Still, when scientists today criticize the view that the human animal is qualitatively distinct from other animals, they too often mock the concept of ensoulment. For them, it’s obvious that all animal behavior can be explained according to the same homogeneous and materialistic principles. The ideas of human rights and human dignity are, at best, illusions that might be worth defending, but only for their beneficial results. Scientists characteristically wouldn’t extend such linguistic protection to embryos, because that might stand in the way of the beneficial progress of science. Human animals, many of our scientists believe, need most of all to be relieved of their misery, and it’s counterproductive to think of dignity in any way that impedes misery’s relief.

So our most confident scientists think about human beings in a way that denies dignity to us all. They let their dogmas blind them to what—or who—we really are. George and Tollefsen are perfectly correct that the tradition of “natural law” is much more empirical than most of our scientists in contending that the natural capabilities given to members of our species alone—most of all, the capability to acquire and develop infinitely complex language—provide the real foundation of our dignity. Our natural gift of being able to break into the daylight of language or speech is at the core of all our personal qualities. This is why only human beings can be physicists, poets, patriots, political leaders, priests, preachers, and philosophers. Not only do so many of our scientists deny us our true dignity, but they also do it for no good reason. Our physicists, for example, can seemingly explain everything in the cosmos—everything, that is, but the strange, perverse, and genuinely wonderful behavior of the physicist.

The authors are probably wrong, however, to think about our natural kind as a “what” and not a “who.” Augustine and Thomas Aquinas discovered that each human being naturally exhibits uniquely or singularly free and rational personal behavior. So each person can’t be understood as merely a part of some political community or part of a species; we exist by nature for ourselves. That’s why the God of nature can’t be a “what,” as Aristotle thought, but a “who,” and that distinction makes sense even without faith in the actual existence of a personal God. Particular leaves and cows can be thought of as “whats,” or examples of species-specific characteristics. But that way of thinking doesn’t do justice to “whos” with absolute personal significance—and thus absolute rights. Even Aristotle didn’t do justice to our freedom, because he characteristically thought (and spoke) of each of us as being more of a “what” than a “who.”

Is the embryo a “who”? It’s true enough that we usually don’t bond with embryos or grieve when they die. Doubtless, that’s partly because of our misperception of who or what an embryo is. But it’s also because we have no personal or loving contact with them. We tend to think of persons as beings with brains and hearts; an embryo has neither. But personal significance can’t be limited to those we happen to know and love ourselves; my powers of knowing and loving other persons are quite limited, and given to the distortions of prejudice. Whether an embryo is by nature a “who” can be determined only by philosophical reflection about what we really know.

The evidence that George and Tollefsen present suggests that there are only two non-arbitrary ways to consider when a “what” naturally becomes a “who.” Either the embryo is incapable of being anything but a “who”; from the moment he or she comes to be, he or she is a unique and particular being capable of exhibiting all the personal attributes associated with knowing, loving, and choosing. Or a human being doesn’t become a “who” until he or she actually acquires the gift of language and starts displaying distinctively personal qualities. Any point in between these two extremes—such as the point at which a fetus starts to look like a human animal or when the baby is removed from the mother’s womb—is perfectly arbitrary. From a purely rational or scientific view, the price of being unable to regard embryos as “whos” is being unable to regard newborn babies as “whos”—that is, as beings with absolute rights. Everyone knows that being pro-choice when it comes to killing or experimenting on actual live babies is monstrous. There is no constituency, outside a few Princeton classrooms, for some kind of pro-choice-until-age-two policy.

The authors’ arguments don’t necessarily have to be right beyond all reasonable doubt for us to endorse their policy prescriptions. When in doubt, shouldn’t we then choose life—meaning the being of “whos” or persons? That conclusion alone would be more than enough to deny federal funding to destructive research on embryos and to support the tough regulation of IVF. Science, moreover, does not stand still. As this book appeared, new studies suggested that we may soon possess a variety of ways to acquire pluripotent stem cells that do not require killing embryos. And so the tough choice between saving the lives of persons we really know and love and not killing embryos is not as likely to confront us in the future.

If George and Tollefsen are at all convincing, then decisions concerning laws that protect the unborn should be up to our legislatures. The possibility that the authors’ arguments contain some truth would be more than enough to turn “life” questions back to the people for moral deliberation. Moral reasoning by the people will then be indispensable, and it surely couldn’t be based on a religious worldview that most Americans don’t regard as self-evident.

This stunningly able and very important book, I predict, will grow in influence.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College in Georgia and a member of the President’s Council on Bioethics. His most recent book is Homeless and at Home in America.

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