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Human Embodiment

So far, I have suggested that reflection on the nature of person archetypes steers us towards the view that the core constitutive features of personhood are developed psychological and emotional capacities. But not every individual who qualifies for personhood need exhibit all such characteristics to their greatest extent. If person- hood is the sort of cluster concept which Warren describes, then it should suffice to qualify if an individual displays enough of the salient characteristics to the requisite degree. Someone who is only barely rational and communicative could still comfortably fit our common concept of a person without fully realizing all of the personhood-making capacities.

To tarry a moment on this last point, a big issue in discussion about the moral status of the radically cognitively impaired concerns the charge, no doubt justified, that those of us who have little close experience with such people can be profoundly unaware of the many ways in which they are able to share in quintessentially personal, human life, notwithstanding their disabilities. One lesson from these sorts of critiques is that the cognitively impaired human being who cannot relate to others on levels higher than that of an ape might very rarely, if ever, be a reality. Thus it is that writers about cognitive disability such as Eva Kittay, whose own daughter suffers from severe mental disabilities, are often eager to enlighten us on the minutiae of everyday life with such persons and the myriad ways in which they can and do interact with other human beings on an interpersonal plane far above that which is possible for non-human animals.[1]

In reality, then, there may be hardly any mentally disabled human beings whose cognitive abilities fall below the threshold which characterizes persons on the standard developmental account (with the obvious exception of the unconscious—a different kind of case). There are surely some, though. ‘Nature-of-the-kind’ accounts of moral status have the appealing implication that even a human being whose cognitive abilities do not surpass those of the typical chimp are nonetheless entitled to the same level of moral respect as normal human beings, simply by virtue of being related to them in the right way. But when the nature of that relation is understood as pure human species membership, it appears to confer the moral status of persons on embryos and zygotes as well.

As we have seen, much of the thinking behind nature-of-the-kind arguments concerns the idea that we ought to accord elevated moral status to creatures that could have been persons or who share our ‘flourishing’ in the sense that their failure to act like persons is a result of misfortunes to which we might have fallen prey. I argued that pre-born human beings do not seem to qualify for derivative moral status on this basis, since it does not seem true of them to say that they share our forms of flourishing. It is incoherent to think of a zygote or an embryo as something that could have been a person and is in some way failing to flourish by not being one. But let us think further about why this is the case. Why does the idea that fetues are creatures that ‘could have been’ persons (or ‘modal persons’, if using Kagan’s terminology) lack intelligibility?

One suggestion as to why embryos and fetuses are disqualified from the category of modal persons is that they lack the embodied form that archetypal persons belonging to their person-species take. The developed, embodied form of mature human beings is a clear pre-requisite for everything that is valuable and distinctive about human life. The idea that human embodiment, as opposed to human species membership, is salient to the ‘nature-of-the-kind’ intuition and ‘modal personism’ is therefore worth considering. If so, it may help to vindicate the basic gradualist (in sense 2) intuition that pre-born human beings are owed increasing moral respect as they develop in utero. All fetuses may be individual, genetically complete human organisms, but later fetuses possess far more human embodiment than do earlier ones—that is, they share more of the human form. If there is anything of moral import attaching to the acquisition of embodied humanity, then, this could reveal at least one reason for regarding earlier and later developed fetuses differently.

Some philosophers have sought to elucidate the significance of specifically human embodiment by appealing to the idea of what it is to be a ‘fellow creature’ of fully developed human beings. Stephen Mulhall, for example, attempts to illustrate the ways in which human embodiment is crucial to distinctive human life by engaging with a theoretical example of Jeff McMahan’s concerning a dog with human levels of intelligence.[2] McMahan’s problem, simply put, is why the dog ought not to be treated with the same moral considerability as human beings with equal cognitive abilities, unless our criterion of moral standing is plain speciesist. However, although the ‘Superdog’ possesses the psychological capacities of a typical human being, Mulhall worries that the thought-experiment fails to account for the numerous ways in which the dog’s different embodiment would preclude human beings from treating him as a person, and regarding him the same way they regard each other.

While McMahan exhorts us to ‘put aside’ the contingent problems that the dog would be a freak in human society, unable to find a suitable partner, or to integrate into the lives of other persons, Mulhall does not find these considerations so easy to stipulate away. Without the possibility of sharing in the common life distinctive of human beings—of assimilating into a community, or having personal relationships—he questions what sense there would be in considering the dog a person. He writes:

Would a human being, deprived of any acceptable mate and regarded as a freak by his fellows, be faced with merely contingent problems that would leave his capacity to conceive of himself as a person essentially unaffected? What interpersonal relations (of friendship, family, gossip, common hobbies and interests) would be conceivable for our Superdog? And in their absence, what would the sense be of calling it a person nonetheless? I don’t say that there could be no sense in doing so. I say only that the sense it would have is not the sense it has when human beings acknowledge one another as persons.[3] [4]

While the Superdog may be more on the level with us cognitively than some impaired human beings, Mulhall believes his canine embodiment would exclude him in many ways from sharing in the common life distinctive of human beings, and that this matters for our moral relations. Conversely, even human beings that are radically cognitively defective are able to engage in many aspects of that ‘distinctive form of common life’ from which the Superdog is barred. Their human form opens up many ways for them to be brought into fellowship with the rest of us, notwithstanding their limited capacities. As Mulhall sees it, ‘the embodied common life open to distinctively human creatures’ provides the necessary context for our concept of personhood. He continues:

To see another as a human being is to see her as a fellow-creature — another being whose embodiment embeds her in a distinctive form of common life with language and culture, and whose existence constitutes a particular kind of claim on us. We do not strive (when we do strive) to treat human infants and children, the senile and the severely disabled as fully human because we mistakenly attribute capacities to them which they lack, or because we are blind to the merely biological significance of a species boundary. We do it (when we do) because they are fellow human beings, embodied creatures who will come to share, or have already shared, in our common life, or whose inability to do so is a result of the shocks and ills to which all human flesh and blood is heir — because there but for the grace of God go I.42

Mulhall notes that the inability of the severely mentally handicapped to reflect, communicate, and so on, owes only to the ‘shocks and ills’ that can blight any human life. Put otherwise, there is a sense in which we might be them (an important aspect of Kagan’s modal personism) in a way that is presumably not true of the Superdog. Their fortunes and misfortunes reflect those of our own, and they are our ‘fellow creatures’ in being subject to the same ‘uncanny fate’ that characterizes human flourishing or floundering.43

In a similar vein, Cora Diamond has sought to draw attention in her work to the various ways in which our practices and intuitions lend support to the view that the morally appropriate treatment of individuals (including by those unrelated to them) is coloured by far more than their particular psychological capacities or interests.44 As a prime example, she points out that eating human corpses is almost universally (and cross-culturally) considered morally perverse, despite the fact that dead human bodies clearly have no interests or moral rights. As she writes, ‘We do not eat our dead, even when they have died in automobile accidents or been struck by lightning, and their flesh might be first class.’ Neither, she notes, do we eat amputated limbs, even though doing so would not harm anyone. Diamond moreover points out that the fact that we perform funeral services for newborn babies but not for puppies has nothing to do with the superior psychological capacities of the babies. And we do not refrain from eating our pets only because we recognize that they have some interest in not being so treated (interests which animals that are on the dinner table can share), but because we recognize that a pet is not something to eat. She writes: ‘There is not a class of beings, pets, whose nature, whose capacities, are such that we owe it to them to treat them in these ways’.45 As with pets, she says, it is not respect for the interests of human beings, rooted in their psychological capacities, which explains why we do not eat human corpses. These attitudes and practices would be unreasonable if the morality of our treatment of other creatures were governed solely by their individual psychological capacities.[5] [6] [7]

Mulhall and Diamond’s accounts seek to explicate, among other things, the importance of simply being human for the morally proper treatment of others. The responses will likely come thick and fast that such accounts ultimately boil down to a rather weak defence of speciesism. Among a roster of objections to Mulhall and Diamond specifically, McMahan points out that some non-human animals such as dogs can be ‘fellow creatures’ of ours to a considerable degree, and are even capable of sharing in our distinctive common life to a greater extent than some radically cognitively defective human beings.47 (For example, he says, there is a ‘widespread practice within our common life involving cohabitation and mutual devotion between human beings and their pets’.)4® Humans with radical cognitive deficiencies may still be capable of ‘minimal forms of participation’ in our common life, but then so too are some highly developed animals. And psychopathic human beings, incapable of empathy, may be less able to enter into emotional intimacy with other humans than some animals can. Some human animals share our common life not only by engaging in personal relations but also by performing some function in human society, such as guide dogs. McMahan asks why Mulhall’s framework does not entail that animals which participate in our common life in such ways ‘assert a stronger claim on us’ than some human beings ‘whose participation is necessarily more modest’.49 In essence, the question for McMahan is still whether human embodiment per se is a morally relevant feature.

It is important to make the point here (not neglected by McMahan) that accounts such as Diamond’s and Mulhall’s are not attempts to show that only human beings are morally considerable, or indeed that our harsh treatment of non-human animals is justified. In fact, both authors believe that the same considerations underpinning the significance of our common humanity also better explicate the reasons we have to treat animals better than we do. Diamond, for example, does not use her lesson about eating people in defence of omnivorism. Instead, she believes that the wrongness of killing animals for food can best be drawn out by the same kinds of reflections that show cannibalism to be so unthinkable: that like us and like our pets, non-human animals are, perhaps, not things to be eaten. Mulhall argues that there are plenty of respects in which non-human animals are also our ‘fellow creatures’, and that thinking of them as such can help to animate much of what is wrong with treating them barbarically. In many ways, he says, nonhuman animals share ‘our common fate’. ‘They too are needy, dependent, subject to birth, sexuality and death, vulnerable to pain and fear ... ’5° The very fact that they share with us so many vulnerabilities and common experiences is, for Mulhall, reason enough not to treat them brutally, regardless of their psychological capacities.

In a recent book which echoes some of these thoughts, Alice Crary has also tried to demonstrate how approaches to moral status which look solely to a creature’s individual psychological capacities—what has been termed ‘moral individualism’—can miss important aspects of the ethical treatment of animals.51 Crary uses numerous examples to illustrate the point. One example she gives is of a group of children using a brain-dead rabbit as a dart board.52 Another real life example, borrowed from Cora Diamond, is the behaviour of researchers at the University of Pennsylvania who were revealed in a secret video to have mocked and ridiculed their injured baboon subjects. As Crary asks: ‘mightn’t we say ... that these researchers exhibited a form of disrespect to the baboons that wasn’t somehow mitigated by the fact that it was lost on the baboons themselves?’53 Crary’s important point here is that an ethic of animal treatment which focuses only on individual capacities will fail to capture the ‘source of our conviction’ that such behaviours are ‘insulting and wrong’.54 Animals too, then, may merit a certain kind of respect in virtue of their form of embodiment—by merely being an animal of a certain kind. Perhaps it is morally perverse to perform the same lab experiments on a gorilla which we might permissibly perform on rats, even if this particular gorilla’s cognitive capacities are no more sophisticated than that of rats.

Crary tries to show, then, that just as the mere fact of being human can inform the morally proper treatment of an individual regardless of his or her capacities, so too can the mere fact of being a dog, or being a chimp. She develops this thesis further with the use of literary examples. One is a short story by Raymond Carver entitled ‘So Much Water So Close to Home’, about a woman who hears the

  • Mulhall (n 40) 5.
  • 51 Alice Crary, Inside Ethics: On the Demands of Moral Thought (Harvard University Press 2016).
  • 52 ibid 132 . 53 ibid. 54 ibid 134.

disturbing revelation that her husband and his friends had allowed the naked body of a recently deceased young woman to remain floating in a stream for three days so as not to cancel their fishing trip in order to inform the police.55 The protagonists dismay comes partly from the fact that she views the body of the woman not as a mere object, but as ‘the mortal remains of a person to whom things mattered’^6 Toward a similar end, Crary considers a passage in JM Coetzee’s novel Disgrace. Here, the main character is a man who spends time working at an animal clinic and is asked to dispose of the corpses of dogs that have been euthanized there77 After increasingly identifying with the dogs in their final stages of life, the man refuses to simply leave their corpses at the dump along with the rest of the garbage until they can be incinerated. Crary wants to suggest that just as an understanding of what is important in human life can determine the morally respectful treatment of a human corpse—regardless of its absent capacities—so too can sensitivity to what matters in a dog’s life inform the ethically correct attitude towards dog corpses, or indeed, mentally impaired dogs78

Crary’s reflections on these literary and real-life anecdotes are offered up as a challenge to moral individualism, which, on her description, is the ‘proposal to ground human moral standing in individual attributes’.59 Moral individualism, on Crary’s view, is liable to lead us astray not just when it comes to the appropriate treatment of human beings, but also of non-human animals. She writes:

If we are disturbed by the idea that human beings only merit moral consideration insofar as they have such-and-such individual characteristics, then we may equally well be disturbed by the idea that animals only merit moral consideration insofar as they have such-and-such individual characteristics.60

Insofar as her reflections are intended to be ammunition against the view that moral standing is rooted in cognitive capacities, one can imagine the nature of the reply along similar lines to McMahan’s reply to Mulhall. The account, it might be charged, still appears speciesist if it isolates species membership alone as the most morally significant characteristic of an individual creature. It seems to follow from [8] [9] [10] [11] [12]

60 ibid 131.

her analysis that all humans are to be treated in a way appropriate for typically functioning humans, dogs in a way appropriate for typically functioning dogs, and so on, regardless of their individual degrees of awareness and cognitive capabilities. The obvious reply will press further as to what it is precisely about human species membership that warrants a particular level of moral status. If the further explanation cites a quality or capability which is usually facilitated by human embodiment (like common fellowship with the rest of us), the reply will be that it is not in fact human species membership which is status-conferring, but something else, and that the something else can, in principle, vary across species (to wit: some dogs can enter into more fellowship with us than can some humans). If, on the other hand, no further quality or capacity linked to human embodiment is cited, the argument will just appear to reflect species-based prejudice.

This persistent defence of moral individualism is difficult to answer. However, perhaps we do not need to accept reflections such as Crary’s and Diamond’s as a refutation of capacities-based theories of moral status in order to draw out of them some important conclusions about the moral significance of human embodiment. Let us grant that such arguments do not show human embodiment per se to be status-conferring. There is good reason to be sceptical of this if we cannot resist the notion that the core constitutive features of moral status are emotional and psychological, which, I have suggested, is indeed difficult to reject. Nevertheless, the discussions above might still expound a number of ways in which the possession of human embodiment can rightly inform the attitudes we hold towards individual human beings.

We can consider again Cora Diamond’s observation about our treatment of dead human bodies. Diamond’s suggestion there was not that dead human bodies are persons, but that the way we regard them bears out the belief that some moral significance attaches to the human form, such would make eating human corpses morally perverse in a way that eating the bodies of non-human animals is not, even if omnivorism is not justified. As these observations can be used to show, individual moral status is not the only thing relevant to questions about the morally appropriate treatment of creatures, living or dead. If the moral imperative to treat dead human bodies with respect has nothing to do with their psychological capacities or inviolable rights, this opens up the possibility that there are many ways in which a human being’s form of embodiment partly determines her morally proper treatment. These sorts of considerations sometimes rise to the surface in discussions about harmless wrongdoing, such as the rape of patients in permanently vegetative states, with no damaging after-effects or possibility of discovery. Our revulsion at such behaviour has nothing to do with the victim’s subjective experience of pain or humiliation as a result of the violation, but far more to do with the moral indignity to which she is nevertheless subjected given that she is a human being, and not a mere thing.

Even, then, if we cannot escape the conclusion that the core constitutive features of personhood are cognitive and emotional, the possession of human embodiment seems to retain some moral importance in the proper treatment of others. Much of this may well have to do with the centrality of human embodiment for our own personal life. Perhaps it is simply impossible for us to treat the human body itself as a valueless shell whilst demonstrating the right kind of moral consideration for all human beings. But another important dimension, central to the accounts considered above, may be the moral aberration involved in failing to see in a creature everything that she can and should have been, and what, given her form of embodiment, would constitute a life going well. As many of our practices and attitudes suggest, demonstrating the right kind of sensitivity to these features can require us to treat individuals in ways which go beyond responding to their capacities and interests alone. The disrespectful treatment of the human form, even when completely bereft of any interests or conscious experience (as when the victors in war dance on the bodies of their enemies), is distressing to a large degree because it seems so incompatible with appreciating everything that is valuable in a good human life.

Finally, what bearing does all of this have on the standing of fetuses? Unlike human beings with radical cognitive deficiencies, fetuses and embryos lack much of our human embodiment. Certainly, the earlier gestated the fetus, the less it is an example of an embodied human being. Sharing only some of our human embodiment, it also seems less true to say of fetuses that they are vulnerable to the same ‘shocks and ills’ as are we. As I noted above, flourishing qua fetus is very different from flourishing qua fully matured human being. Like mature humans, fetuses may live or die, but the similarity in what their thriving consists in ends there. It is not the case that a fetus would be in possession of the capacities and characteristics distinctive of human flourishing but for some calamity or misfortune. This is no truer of human fetuses than it is of rabbits or frogs. It makes very little sense to think of a zygote: ‘there but for the grace of God go I’, the way that we are moved to think of cognitively impaired human beings. The human fetus’s radically immature embodiment precludes it from being fully the sort of creature whose good and ill reflects that of our own.

However, the gestating fetus does possess some, and increasingly more, human embodiment. At the very beginning of this chapter, I drew attention to the common intuition that a fetus accrues moral status as it develops in utero—what I called gradualism in sense 2. The main problem for this kind of gradualist theory is that of stipulating the characteristics in respect of which the fetus gains moral importance. This is a special problem for anyone who takes personhood status to supervene on cognitive capacities such as reasoning ability, communication ability, and so on. For gestating human beings do not become more rational, communicative, etc, as gestation progresses. They do not possess these characteristics at all. The question remained then as to how the gradualist scale of moral status before birth is explained.

Many writers on abortion ethics take it as granted that fetuses do gain some minimal levels of sentience throughout gestation—responsiveness to light, touch, auditory ability, and so on. As Warren pointed out, however, the degree of sentience evidenced by fetuses even in late gestation does not surpass that possessed by a whole range of non-human animals, including mice.[13] Forms of basic sentience such as these, and, indeed, even the minimal forms of consciousness of which some take late fetuses to be capable, do not appear central to our concept of a person, even if they are necessary preconditions for anything which might be a person.

But if it is correct to attach some moral significance to human embodiment in itself, the thought may provide some underpinning for the basic gradualist notion that earlier and late fetuses are dissimilar in at least one meaningful respect. Late fetuses do not bear out the constitutive features of personhood any more than embryos do, even if they are more sentient. But they do possess a great deal more of human embodiment. While a zygote possesses hardly more than the genetic coding for a human being, a late-term fetus embodies much of its actual human form. The process of attaining human embodiment is a continual and gradual process which spans the whole of gestation. Although the precursors to many parts of human anatomy are in place early on in gestation, biological structures such as organs do not come into existence all at once, one after the other. Rather, they continue to develop and gain layers of complexity all the way into the third trimester. Harold Morowitz and James Trefil described the process in the following way:

The best way to think of this type of organ development is to compare the fetus to a building under construction. Once the outer walls and roof are up, a building looks pretty much completed. In fact, there is an enormous amount of work to be done as electricians, plumbers, painters and others convert the basic outline of the building into the final product. In the same way, the final two trimesters of pregnancy involve the development of the fine structure of the internal organs of the fetus.[14] [15]

The most complex organ of all, the brain, follows the same pattern of incremental development. They write:

Building the brain, in other words, is like building a house. First, the general structure is assembled—the walls are raised, the roof completed, and so on. Only after this work has been finished do we go on to filling in the details. The brain simply does not develop so that at some point you have half a complete organ, then three fourths, and so on. The brain isn’t completed until the finishing work is doneA

The authors are at pains to point out that the two-month embryo is not a miniature human being that simply grows ‘proportionately larger’ until birth74 The embryo is more like a faint tracing that becomes gradually more elaborated with detail and substance during the rest of gestation. The kidneys, for example, need, throughout gestation, to develop the ‘one to three million tubules’ responsible for collecting waste and delivering it to the bladder. As Morowitz and Trefil write, ‘it simply takes time for all this detailed structure to form’.65

The fetus thus becomes more of an embodied human being all throughout the process of gestation. And, while that form of embodiment is not a constitutive feature of personhood status, the notion that late fetuses warrant greater moral respect,

65 ibid 88.

or that late abortion entails a more serious loss, can be made intelligible if Crary and Diamond are correct that individual capacities are not the only things which appropriately inform our attitudes to other creatures.

Just as with Crary’s examples, we might judge that the flippant or brutal treatment of recognizably embodied human beings is disquieting in large part because of the disrespect that it manifests for a creature of a certain kind, that is, assuming a certain form—our form—despite the fact that her psychological capacities are no more developed than that of a lower mammal. Callous attitudes towards partially or nearly fully formed human beings could be disturbing in much the same way as was the behaviour of the scientists who mocked their baboon subjects.

According the fetus greater moral respect on account of its growing embodiment might not, on its own, yield any obvious implications about the permissibility of abortion—including late abortion—where the strong interests of persons (pregnant women) are at stake. While Diamond and Crary underscore the moral imperative to treat even dead human bodies respectfully, neither argue that this holds at the cost of sacrificing the most significant life interests of actual persons. Thus Diamond does not condemn the cannibalism of already dead human beings in emergency situations. However, the moral importance of respecting the human form can make rational sense of the common aversion towards very late abortion, and unease about abortive procedures which proceed by violently attacking the bodily integrity of the fetus, even if such abortions can be morally permissible.

Our moral sensibilities rightly react against the treatment of developed fetuses as negligible blobs of matter not because we mistake them for persons, but because we share in the belief, expressed various ways, that the morally appropriate treatment of creatures is informed not only by their individual capacities, but also, in many cases, by their mode of embodiment. This is what I take to be the kernel of truth in the gradualist view of fetal moral status.

  • [1] cf Eva Kittay, ‘The Personal Is Philosophical Is Political: A Philosopher and Mother of aCognitively Disabled Person Sends Notes from the Battlefield’ (2009) 40 Metaphilosophy 606.
  • [2] Stephen Mulhall, ‘Fearful Thoughts’ (2002) London Review of Books, (last accessed 28 March 2014.)
  • [3] ibid 5. 42 ibid 5. 43 ibid 6.
  • [4] 44 Cora Diamond, ‘Eating Meat and Eating People’ (1978) 53 Philosophy 465.
  • [5] ibid 469.
  • [6] To be clear, it is not the claim of so-called ‘moral individualists’—who argue that it is one’s individual features rather than group memberships which determines one’s proper moral treatment—thatnothing else can bear on the reasons we have to treat a particular being one way rather than another.McMahan, for instance, readily agrees that our personal relations to a particular being can rightly affectthe duties we owe to that individual (McMahan, n 12). It is rather McMahan’s claim (and the claimof others who take the same view) that individual psychological capacities alone determine how it iscorrect for anyone to treat a creature with those capacities.
  • [7] McMahan (n 12) 363-4. 48 ibid 364. 49 ibid 365.
  • [8] ibid 146 . 56 ibid 148. 57 ibid 155-6.
  • [9] 58 It would be remiss not to mention the fact that much of the dispute philosophers like Crary havewith accounts that tie moral status to individual psychological capacities alone is a methodological one
  • [10] about the correct way to reason about such matters. Such philosophers use argument about the moralstatus of animals as a demonstration in a much broader argument about what counts as valid moralthinking and about the moral force of literature. At the crux of Mulhall’s own argument is the claimthat the moral relevance of what it means to be human is simply part of our concept of a person, without which the concept loses its meaning. As he says, ‘our concept of a person is an outgrowth or aspectof our concept of a human being’, which is not merely a biological concept, but includes everythingthat is distinctive about human life. His claim, in McMahan’s words, is that ‘failure to understand thesignificance of our common humanity . . . is a failure to understand the concept of a human being’.Since I do not wish to adjudicate on these aspects of the debate, I am sidelining them in my discussionhere (much, I fear, to the chagrin of the philosophers whose work I am discussing). It is important toemphasize, though, that a proper consideration of these views on moral status must give serious attention to the challenges they pose to moral individualists’ ‘fundamental theoretical framework’ (see Crary
  • [11] (n 51) 149, n81).
  • [12] Crary (n 51) 130.
  • [13] Warren (n 8) 50.
  • [14] Harold J Morowitz and James S Trefil, The Facts of Life: Science and the Abortion Controversy(Oxford University Press 1992) 88.
  • [15] ibid 116. 64 ibid 85.
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