Jonathan MS Pearce on Human, Human Being, and Abortion

I read — and probably should comment more — “A Tippling Philosopher”, and give him some credit for doing more philosophical posts than most Internet atheists, and being better informed about philosophy than most as well. That, of course, doesn’t mean that I don’t disagree with him on most topics, but most of them aren’t really important enough or what I consider wrong enough to bother with. However, Pearce here continues his trend of pulling up the comments of commenters and taking them on, with a decided bias towards commenters and arguments that he considers utterly and ridiculously wrong, turning it into one huge mocking session. Does he pick on these comments because his overflowing comments section leaves him short of more intelligent commenters, or because he often really does want to mock with what at least seem like fully reasoned arguments? I don’t know, but I do know that this comment isn’t as bad as he presents it in order to mock it.

The comment is from someone tagged Mark Bradshaw, and while Pearce’s comment threads are too overstuffed and full of mockers to read through the various threads, my understanding from Pearce’s posts and arguments is that Mark’s argument is this: instead of relying on the various arguments about personhood to determine if a foetus has rights that need to be protected, all we need is to rely on the idea that human rights are actually granted to us based on us being human beings. Thus, any human being would get human rights protections, including the right to life, and thus the foetus gets the right to life if it is a human being. We can determine if something is a human being — or a human — if it is genetically human and is a distinct individual. From conception, that describes the foetus, and so it should get human rights including the right to life. As will be important later, there’s at least a strong implication that one of the reasons to prefer this notion is that it bases rights on biology rather than on the rather ambiguous notions of sentience and the like that we commonly use for personhood.

Pearce gives a reply from (((J_Enigma32))) that in my opinion is not that great — it mostly asserts that it’s all about personhood and not about biology — except for a thought experiment about whether sentient aliens would get human rights if we discovered them. I don’t want to talk much about that comment, but just want to note that part. I’ll move on to the long list of objections Pearce makes against the idea.

Let me first start by saying that there is a difference between everyday casual language and language that is more technical and required in conversations that are nuanced, conversations of a philosophical nature, such as this one. MB is using the former whilst attempting to join in on the latter and is, therefore, committing the fallacy of equivocation: Using an ambiguous term in more than one sense, thus making an argument misleading.

From just the quoted text, this isn’t true. Bradshaw is clear about his definition and his definition, if his arguments work, would have the implication that he takes from it. Equivocation requires it to be the case that only with the confusion over definitions will the argument work, and I don’t see that as being the case here. Pearce et al assert that the argument only works because “human being” always also contains the personhood ideas, whereas if we went with “a human” that left it out and didn’t consider the terms equivalentthe argument wouldn’t hold. But that’s an argument that they need to make. It’s perfectly reasonable to consider the terms equivalent and it isn’t clear that a true technical sense would exclude that. After all, Pearce himself says:

It is not that people don’t use the terms he uses in the way he uses them, it’s just that in forums like these, and in contexts like these, it is vitally important to be as accurate and as technical as possible, and his reeks of serious mission creep.

Indeed, there are even some philosophical writers who use “human being” quite loosely to cover a multitude of sins.

It’s certainly more important to use the terms accurately and technically in philosophy than in the comment section of a forum, especially since it is clear what Bradshaw means by the terms and the argument can indeed be waged around the idea that being a human individual is sufficient to get human rights. All we have is Pearce’s assertion that the writers are using it “loosely”, as opposed to in a perfectly accurate way, although expanded from what Pearce would like to see. Since Pearce has a vested interest in the term being narrow — so as to preclude arguments like Bradshaw’s — we really shouldn’t take his assertion that Bradshaw is using it invalidly just on his word. And my response really does end up being that we can understand his argument well enough without quibbling over whether it really counts as “a human being”, so arguing over that really does seem like semantic wrangling. Even if it gives the wrong impression on first blush, we know that it can be translated into a full argument accurately describing his meaning and so really should proceed from there.

But when discussing ideas of, particularly, abortion and human embryonic development, I think it is hugely important to to be as picky as possible with the terminology used. For a good discussion of the nuances of the term “human being”, see “Cognitive Disability and Moral Status” in the SEP. MB seems to think this debate is answered by biology. Alas, no, as seen in the initial SEP quote.

If Bradshaw’s argument is correct, then it is settled by biology. No one need to care what the SEP says about the debate here when we can interact with the actual arguments. If Bradshaw is missing something, Pearce simply needs to point that out, not reference another work to try to refute him by proxy. And Pearce spends a lot of time going after the argument, so it makes me wonder what the point of that reference was.

That said, MB is doing what many pro-lifers do, which is to use terms in a way that confer characteristics onto, say, a blastocyst that we would normally consider for, say, an adult human being. This difference is discussed in the sections 1.1 When does a human being begin to exist? and 1.2 The moral status of human embryos in the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy entry, “The Ethics of Stem Cell Research”.

I’m not sure why that’s an objection here, since the pro-lifers would be trying to get rights for a blastocyst/embryo/foetus that at least pro-choice individuals would normally only grant to at least born human beings, and so they are going to show that they share important characteristics with them. And, again, that the SEP has sections talking about differences has no real meaning when you can interact with those arguments directly. So this is starting to come across as a long preamble that either is showing off how much Pearce has read on the subject or else an attempt to overwhelm the argument with philosophical authority. Look, this sort of thing would be valid if the whole of Pearce’s comment here was “It’s been tried, here’s where it goes wrong”, but he doesn’t do that. He never says anything like that and spends a lot of time arguing against the idea, so there’s limited use to these references.

Although he claims he isn’t, MB is using human and human being interchangeably and then claiming that the argument is not one of personhood. But in essence, it really is, as we shall see.

In reality, he is bastardising language (though you will find plenty similar around the internet, as mentioned):

A human being is genetically human (DUH) AND an individual human organism. YOU are equating that to meaning “person”, NOT me. A human being is an individual member of the species Homo sapiens

So, it appears a human being is an individual member of the species homo sapiens, and this is genetically and organismally defined.

So that’s the definition, so let’s see how Pearce tries to refute it:

1. “Innocent” can no more coherently be applied to a blastocyst as to a rock. A group of cells, irrespective of what it is, with no consciousness or volition or intention can in no meaningful way be described as innocent. He claims that it not being guilty means it is innocent. The same applies to a rock, or a chicken egg, or any other such entity.

The use of “innocent” in this case is merely used to avoid any argument of the blastocyst deserving to die. It hasn’t done anything to deserve that. Also, if Bradshaw’s argument works we can apply the term innocent to all human beings, which the blastocyst would be. Either way, at worst the “innocent” is a rhetorical flourish that should be ignored or at most noted as such and then moved on from, not made the first point when Pearce, by his own admission is trying to be concise.

2. For him, “human” means something different to “human being” in that a human being is an individual of the human species. So human = homo sapiens, and human being = a human individual. Human being is an instantiation of human. Human is genetically human. He is differentiating “human” from “a human”: I agree that the word “human” when prefaced by the letter “A” means “a human being”. The issue here is that the use of the indefinite article (a) before “human” means “human” is now a noun, rather than an adjective, and implies a singular instantiation. So, really, “a human” should utterly suffice for doing what he needs it to do – being an instantiation of homo sapiens. His use of a “human being” is thus superfluous language, with the “being” bit being redundant.

Let me provide a counter here. Because “human” can be used as an adjective, simply saying “a human” will always spawn an initial reaction of “a human what?”. Thus, to distinguish the noun form from the adjective, we append “being” to it in a way that we don’t have to for, say, a cat since that’s not the adjective form of cat. So the “a human being” usage is always superfluous, but is done for clarity. So his usage of the term is perfectly justified.

He then goes on to say this:

For people interested in accuracy of language (for philosophical and debate purposes), we have human (adjective) denoting of the homo sapiens species, a human denoting an instantiation of that species, and human being as something subtly different, implying personhood or specific human characteristics. Moreover, a blastocyst would be none of these still. A blastocyst is a developmental stage of a human, or of a homo sapiens, organism. It is a nested subset of the reference set “human” but I would contest it can be given the label “a human”. You could say “a human blasocyts” but you can’t say a blastocyst is “a human”.

Pearce would need to establish that a blastocyst doesn’t count as “a human” and that the term necessarily includes personhood. Genetics would obviously establish some sort of specific human characteristic (but not the personhood related ones that Pearce wants), so Pearce needs to prove that the issue is over it being a person and not merely being a human individual. This is his second point, but there is no reason to accept it without further argument that his take on the term is correct.

3. If he is differentiating “human” from “a human”: A blastocyst is no more a human than an egg is a chicken or an acorn is an oak tree. We need to get technical: an acorn is the seed developmental stage of the species quercus robur, for example. If I said, “Cut down this oak tree and make a bench” and handed you an acorn, you would be confused. Language is important. Chickens and a chicken, as terms, are still markedly and obviously different from a (chicken) egg. If I said, “go cuddle a human”, you would never understand this to mean you should cuddle a Petrie dish.

I commented on this briefly on the blog, but the problem is that Pearce here is relying on the fact that we have different names for adults and children and act differently with respect to them to argue that Bradshaw’s argument misses those distinctions in humans. But we can still differentiate blastocysts, children and adult humans while acknowledging that they are all human beings, just as calling the acorn a quercus robur doesn’t mean that we can’t distinguish between it an an oak tree in any way. So, to make this move. Pearce is going to have to make the full-on argument to show that the differences and the different treatment is validly related to personhood differences. The analogy, then, fails because we are talking about different levels of differentiation. The notable differences between an acorn and an oak tree can still be captured in Bradshaw’s view without damaging his argument.

4. “Human being” surely has the “being” part as the operative differentiator. In philosophy, this denotes what it means to be human, and this is where personhood usually comes in. By leaving little meaningful difference between terms, MD is ignoring the reams of philosophy devoted to this (even if you deny personhood as having ontic existence) and using his own definition; hence, the equivocation. See “What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene.” See point 6.

Pearce needs to argue that being is the operative differentiator and that that refers to personhood traits. It is perfectly reasonable to take the “being” as denoting the individual and not personhood traits. And Bradshaw is clear on his own definition here and arguing that it is the right one, so a link to some other views is not relevant here and is not an example of equivocation. A link to a debate is not going to settle the debate here because Bradshaw clearly won’t agree with it. He might not have known about it before, but that sort of philosophical debate is a little esoteric so that would be understandable, not a reason to assert equivocation.

5. A simple dictionary definition of human being is: a man, woman, or child of the species Homo sapiens, distinguished from other animals by superior mental development, power of articulate speech, and upright stance. Of course, a blastocyst has none of these qualities.

Presumably, Pearce is aware of the issues around such a simple definition, as it may leave out very young infants, the disabled, people in comas, and so on and so forth. Surely Pearce would not want to argue that people in those conditions have no right to life. Yes, there are arguments about not being able to lose it once granted, but for someone who just previously chided Bradshaw for ignoring reams of philosophy it is incredibly odd to be so blithe about opening a different can of philosophical worms.

6. This assumes an identifiable set of genes that equate to human qua homo sapiens. But there is no such thing as a species – known as the “species problem” that even Darwin recognised. As I have countlessly explained, this is an instantiation of the Sorites Paradox where demarcating categories along a developmental continuum is subjective and arbitrary at best, incoherent at worst. See “Species Do Not “Exist”: Evolution, Sand Dunes and the Sorites Paradox”. You cannot objectively state where “human” starts or ends; it is incremental and transitional. Therefore, there is no surefire scientific definition of human qua homo sapiens, only consensus definition used for pragmatic reasons of categorisation. Welcome to fuzzy logic.

First, the Sorties Paradox doesn’t work here because while that paradox points out that there isn’t a clear demarcation between when something becomes a heap and when it remains not a heap, it explicitly notes that yet we can point to clear instances where we have a heap and where we don’t. For humans, that seems to be the case, and a blastocyst, genetically, really does seem to count as a human being a fusion of the genetics of two human beings. So there is no reason to think that just as _I_ am a clear case of something that’s genetically human that the blastocyst wouldn’t be just as obvious a case of that. Second, the idea that we can’t identify a genetic make-up for humans is rather implausible. It would mean that if we took a widely diverse set of genetic samples from humans and samples from non-humans and gave them to experts in genetics they wouldn’t be able to separate the human samples and non-human samples most of the time. That … seems unlikely. Third, even if we currently cannot determine that Pearce needs that to be the case in principle, not merely in practice, to argue that Bradshaw’s move simply cannot work. That also seems incredibly unlikely. Fourth, though, from my point above it’s actually irrelevant because even if there are gray areas, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that the blastocyst, genetically, is human. It doesn’t contain a mix of, say, alien and human or alien and ape genetic material, but was produced through a process that produces genetic humans. Pearce’s argument here only works as an argument of “We can’t know what’s really human by genetics alone!”, but that not only seems unlikely, we know that the blastocyst is a human genetically anyway. So Bradshaw’s definition could be applied there despite Pearce’s argument.

7. What does “genetically human” mean? This can hide a whole range of problems. For starters, a clump of cheek cells of skin cells are genetically of the species homo sapiens, arguably. Are these humans?

Bradshaw’s argument is explicit that a human being is genetically human and a distinct individual. Skin cells are not distinct individuals, and so wouldn’t count. Blastocysts obviously are. This smacks of tossing out a standard argument that normally works and ignoring that it was already answered.

8. He states: However, using the term “genetically human” to mean “a human being” is semantically and factually inaccurate. They mean DIFFERENT things. Skin cells are “genetically human”, but are NOT “a human being”. “A human being” is ALSO “genetically human”. See the distinction? What this then means is that MD believes a human being = human genes + human organismal form. However, this form is very difficult to pin down: it takes on a range from a clump of cells right through to fully formed adult, and every form in between, plus, no doubt, all other forms such as dramatically mentally, cognitively or physically disabled or altered forms. Really, he is co-opting “human being” to mean “a single organism anywhere along the developmental line with the genetic blueprint of the species homo sapiens” even though there is no clear genetic blueprint of homo sapiens. He seems to think all scientists agree with this. They don’t. At all.

I’m not sure whether Bradshaw thinks that all scientists agree with this, but it doesn’t matter as long as it is a biological consequence and so follows from the science. And Pearce in this point doesn’t actually give any reason to think it unreasonable, and as I pointed out above that blastocysts are, at least, fully-genetically human seems perfectly reasonable. That their genetics will differ greatly from that of the mother and isn’t just a mutation or corruption of hers also suggests that it’s a distinct organism. That as it develops it will develop cognitive abilities suggests that we can at some point clearly consider it an individual. So the argument still does seem to have some merit.

9. Referring back to the previous transitional form problem, if human genes + form refers to a particular organismal form, and since this refers to the entire genetic range of 7 billion people, what are the necessary or essential genes? What could one human and another differ in, in terms of genes, and what genes must they have to qualify as human? What about a neanderthal? What about the transitional hominids that sit before, at and after the arbitrary demarcation line between homo sapiens and the hominid species preceding it? This debate becomes one of essentialism vs nominalism. He would need to establish some kind of Platonic realism where “human being” objectively correlates to a set of essential genes. Tough gig. See “Natural Law, Essentialism and Nominalism”.

Again, this is irrelevant, as the blastocyst is not in that gray so we don’t need to play around with the demarcation line. Pearce would have more success arguing against the “distinct individual” line instead of the “genetically human” line.

10. What does this then say about transhumanism – the futuristic, though presently doable, conjoining of humanity and technology?

Not much, one presumes, as the blastocyst is clearly genetically human and if we join a human and technology the human parts will be genetically human and the technological parts can be considered add ones. Even if this is a real philosophical issue, the blastocyst is indeed clearly genetically human so this won’t work as an objection to that, especially since the only philosophical issues will be over whether tranhumans actually count as human beings or not, and the only objection Pearce could raise here is that Bradshaw’s definition raises the question of whether transhumans are human beings.

11. What if you replaced an animal embryo’s brain mass with human brain cells – would this chimera be seen as a human being?

Why would it? The animal embryo would mostly have the genetics of the animal, except for the brain, which wouldn’t make it a human being by Bradshaw’s definition. Perhaps Pearce is after an argument that it would act human and so would have to be granted human rights as a person, but that’s not what this example in any way shows.

12. A blastocyst is no more a human than an egg is a chicken or an acorn is an oak tree. We need to get technical: an acorn is the seed developmental stage of the species quercus robur, for example. If I said, “Cut down this oak tree and make a bench” and handed you an acorn, you would be confused. Language is important.

“She always said it again. Just when she’d said it, that’s when she’d say it. How’s that again?”

For someone trying to be concise, repeating the precise same point made in 3, with the same words, adding nothing, is not the way to do that.

13. On the developmental stage from ovum or sperm to adult human being, fertilisation or totipotency is just one arbitrarily chosen stage along the natural mechanism continuum. Why does this get special treatment? See “Life starts at conception, but what about personhood? Revisited.”

Under Bradshaw’s definition, because that’s when it is a distinct individual organism from the mother. This is kinda obvious from the quoted text of Bradshaw. So, again, making a standard reply while ignoring that it’s already been addressed.

14. In the same way a chicken egg is not afforded the same animal rights as a chicken in most modern societies, and I can throw an acorn in the bin but am not allowed to chop down an oak tree, a human blastocyst does not have and should not have the same rights as an adult human.

Bradshaw’s argument gives a reason to deny that, so Pearce needs to argue for his conclusion and not merely assert it.

15. As he struggles to deal with in the thread, if other species, including alien species, are ostensibly (in terms of ideas of personhood) similar to humans, do they have the same rights? If so (and considering certain animals already have rights – not depending on their genetic blueprint per se, but their “personhood” characteristics, which themselves will supervene on genetics, admittedly), then this is not a question of human beingness being dependent on human genetic and organismal exceptionalism, but a case of personhood. And, indeed, this is really what is going on. He desperately denies this is about personhood, but every way you slice and dice it, it is about personhood. He simply cannot rationally deny it. I mean, he will deny it, but this denial is invalid.

Pearce needs to actually demonstrate that it is about personhood, and not merely assert it. Look, I lean towards the idea that rights are conferred not based on humanity but based on personhood, so I’m not someone desperately denying that idea in general. And yes, Bradshaw has an argument that the rights really are conferred on the basis of humanity and being a human and not due to personhood, and that in the case of aliens we may choose to grant rights to them anyway, but that they only get it by association, not by some sort of conceptual right. I don’t see Bradshaw’s denial as being any more desperate than Pearce’s assertions here, and what we ultimately need is to resolve the debate, not assert that it’s invalid just because Pearce says so.

16. So humans have inherent rights but every other entity has rights bestowed upon them by humans? Holy special pleading cow. a) Where is the evidence for this? b) How are they inherent for us but rights then become human constructions for others? There are then two different kinds of rights. c) What do rights being inherent actually mean?

The evidence for that is his argument, which can’t be blithely denied. As they are human rights, we get them inherently but are only human constructions for those that are not human (we might be able to presume that the aliens could have alien rights that they would extend to us as constructions as well). As for rights being inherent, they would be the rights that follow from our humanity. Yes, this idea can be challenged. No, it can’t be challenged with these simple questions.

17. Oh righty then. We have an issue because rights have no ontic existence. He needs to read and then refute the following: a) Human Rights Don’t Exist until We Construct and Codify Them b) KNOWING Your Rights, Locke and Other Rights Problems c) Second Amendment: Gun Rights. But What Is a Right, and Do We Have Them? Until then, he really is in a lot of philosophical trouble.

I looked at part of this, and this is Pearce’s own personal philosophical view of rights that many philosophers don’t agree with. I’m among them. So Bradshaw has no reason to have to read and refute Pearce’s personal philosophical view to have a view that can make sense and align with valid philosophical views. Pearce can declare that he won’t be convinced until Bradshaw does, but he certainly can’t insist that rights have no ontic existence as if that’s a clear problem for Bradshaw when many people would deny that rights have no ontic existence.

18. The death of a foetus is qualitatively different to the death of a grown human as seen in the burning clinic thought experiment. He would need to properly deal with this. So even if he could establish some kind of similarity or equivalence between blastocysts and a fully grown human in some sense, they still fail to intuitively and tangibly be qualitatively equivalent.

First, that could be covered by the difference between a foetus and a born child and an adult, distinctions that Bradshaw’s view allows for. Second, all Bradshaw has to do is insist that our intuitions are wrong and the problem would be dealt with.

19. As 3lemenope stated, “biology doesn’t write law and doesn’t determine morality. At best it can help define terms and describe physical facts that can be put into evidence.”

Bradshaw’s initial argument is philosophical. If that argument is accepted, then biology would determine the definitions and facts. So there’s no clash here.

MD later says: “Potential child. Not an actual child.” —– Nope. An ACTUAL child. So there is no difference between something at the beginning of the continuum and something later on or at the end… But this means a sperm cell is also, being alive, a potential child and thus an actual child (see NOTE 1). A sperm is just a living component on the continuum of natural development separated by some natural mechanism from one stage to the next. So every ejaculation is, therefore, murder of millions, right? And this means breaking a random rock in the wild is identical to breaking a statue in a museum because a potential statue (rock) is qualitatively identical to an actual one. Right. See Note 2.

No, the foetus is a distinct individual and the sperm cell isn’t. And, again, this can be dealt with by the differences that Bradshaw’s view allows for.

So Pearce hasn’t really managed to put any serious challenge to the view, despite considering that he and his commenters have been doing that throughout the entire thread. I’m not convinced the argument works — as I think that rights are indeed personhood rights — but I know that I’d need better arguments for that than Pearce gives here.

3 Responses to “Jonathan MS Pearce on Human, Human Being, and Abortion”

  1. Andrew Says:

    Assuming you are presenting the argument fairly, it seems like Pearce either assumes or asserts that “personhood” rather than “human” is the correct metric, and everything else is arguing based on that assumption – and therefore irrelevant to countering Bradshaw’s argument.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, that’s basically it. Rights are based on personhood and the term “human being” implicitly includes personhood in the descriptor, which is why Bradshaw can get away — in Pearce’s mind — with giving a foetus rights if it counts as a human being where it merely being a human wouldn’t. Hence the accusation of equivocation, using a term that implies personhood while arguing that using that term and that term only removes the requirement for personhood.

  2. Jonathan MS Pearce Says:

    I’ll see if I can get time to review this over the next week. Ta.

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