Argumentum ad Italicum


I meant to say something about this National Review column by Patrick Lee and Robert P. George, which takes our very own Ron Bailey as one of its foils, when it first appeared a few weeks ago, but there's a truly impressive amount of silliness to slog through. The piece attempts to respond to an argument in the debate over the moral status of embryos—a reductio of the hard "from the moment of conception" position—that I've offered myself from time to time: As cloning technology advances, every cell in the human body, placed in the right sort of environment, will be a potential human being. If not just embryos with semi-developed nervous systems but blastocysts a few days after conception are supposed to be treated as persons (the argument runs), then aren't we pushed to the absurd conclusion that every human cell must be treated in the same way?

Lee and George begin by burning quite a few pixels emphasizing that they don't regard embryos as "potential" persons, but rather as already persons at an early stage of development. But that doesn't actually get you anywhere: Insofar as "potential" still plays a role in the argument, because it's still the rational nature of human beings (which is to say, the kind of thing the blastocyst typically turns into) that distinguishes them morally, you've got the parallel question of why that loose skin cell isn't also an actual human being "at an early stage of development."

So the meat of the argument has to do with distinguishing that blastocyst from any other somatic cell…and the argument appears to consist in the copious use of italics. That is, the authors seem to think that if they point out that a blastocyst develops into an infant through a self-directed process, they can make that self-directed an interesting or morally relevant fact by sheer force of typeface. Even granting the notion that the embryo has an "active disposition" to become a grown person that the somatic cell lacks, it's never made clear why anything is supposed to hang on that distinction. Presumably it's got something to do with their claim that dropping the somatic cell's genetic information (which, unlike that in a gamete, is the full set required to make a new person) into an enucleated ovum creates a "new and distinct substantial entity." But this is just question begging and table pounding. While George and Lee manage to resist what must be the ever-present temptation to fall back on medieval talk of quiddities, there's no way to make sense of this argument without some rather queer metaphysical view about how the shift from a "passive" to an "active" potentiality (as accomplished by somatic cell nuclear transfer) creates a distinct entity with a distinct essence in some way that no other step in the maturation process does.

Actually, this is all too charitable so far: It's not even clear that this active/passive distinction can be cashed out in any terribly interesting way. Obviously, an ordinary somatic cell is going to require significant human assistance to turn into a little Timmy or Suzy. But that's also true of the embryo: If it's created in vitro, you've got to deposit it in a suitable environment (that is, a natural or artificial womb), and once it's there, you've got to keep a steady flow of nutrients and other building materials coming in order for the process to unfold. It's not at all obvious that the difference between a "passive" and an "active" disposition can really be specified intelligibly.

Finally, the authors whip out the italics again to argue that the radical moral difference between entities that have rights and entities that don't must correlate with some kind of radical ontological difference, in this case having some kind of special nature or essence, rather than "accidental" traits like rationality or self-consciousness, which exist along a gradient. But this is wrong at both ends. First, the moral status of different sorts of entities is also in many ways a matter of degree: Children and the severely mentally retarded have rights, but not all the same rights we afford more fully rational adult humans. And while most people don't regard non-human animals as having "rights" per se, most people will probably agree that there's at least something morally wrong with, say, torturing a chimpanzee or a dog for no good reason. Second, it's not obvious that there's some bright line, either-or property (unless we go hunting for those quiddities) that corresponds to "having the nature of a rational human being." There's about a 2 percent difference between human and chimp DNA; if we tweak one base pair at a time along the path from the former to the latter, what's the magic point at which some kind of embryonic transubstantiation imbues the cells we're tweaking with a human essence? Biologists, of course, use ability to reproduce as the criteria for distinct species populations, but that obviously won't do for any particular organism, which might for any number of reasons be unable to reproduce without calling into question its species membership.

NEXT: Alaska Aims to Make Pork Kosher

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  1. The “embryo is a person” argument means that IVF is inherently immoral, because it generates more embryos than are used. There is no moral justification for killing one innocent person to save another.

    I thought this argument was settled 25 years ago. If people understood this, we could move on to more productive discussions. Instead, the pro-embryo crowd works very hard to ignore this point.

  2. Lee and George may not have made the best argument concerning embroys, but an argument similar to theirs CAN be made. As ANYBODY who’s read a WEB FORUM can tell you, the BEST ARGUMENTS are made in ALL CAPS.

    Ron Bailey should stop going after strawmen and instead try to debunk MORE WORTHY ADVERSARIES.

  3. Someone at the National Review has been reading too much Aristotle.

  4. I blame Des Cartes for this, personally.

  5. When you see ongoing, apparently intractable, problems where reasonable people disagree, often at the top of their lungs, you need to check the ground structure of the conflict.
    I would claim that most if not all of the heat of the argument lies in framing it over questions of whether the embryo is alive, and from there to whether there is some sense in which it can count as a person.
    I would then claim that the issue is not whether the embryo is alive (it is, just as tonsils and tumors are) but whether, and crucially, when, it is individuated.
    EVEN IF there is a person at some point in embryonic development pre-partum, there is not an individual person, as such, until quite near, if not at the moment of, parturition.

    Shirley Knott

  6. The over/under for crimethink’s first post on this thread is 11.

  7. Almost loathe to even dip my toe into these waters, but philosophically speaking couldn’t the argument be that

    without any intervention, if processes continue at the status quote, an embryo becomes an individual

    as opposed to a skin cell, which never will, given the status quo of physical human processes?

    How is this not an argument worth considering? Especially if the alternative is declaring life is 1) at birth or 2) at conception or 3) at some point of parturition or independent viability?

  8. status quote.

    That was cute. I like that typo. 🙂

  9. Phil,


  10. Every dandruff is sacred!


  12. Thoreau: hand me a sponge that I might clean the cola off of my monitor.

  13. Linguist:
    The argument isn’t worth taking seriously because,
    (1) The “status quo” thing clearly isn’t true for an embryo in vitro, which these guys want to consider a person, and in any event there is no “status quo”: The mother even in the case of ordinary natural reproduction has to take actions throughout (get adequate nutrition, etc.) to keep the process going.
    (2) Even if you could cash this out intelligibly… so what? What about this distinction makes it a morally interesting one? It’s so self-evident to the authors that they never bother explaining it to the rest of us.

  14. Can’t we just say that abortion is Morally Wrong but it’s a Moral Wrong that the government should keep its nose out of?

    Kinda like what we say with prostitution or heroin use or not allowing Irish people into one’s diner?

  15. “Biologists, of course, use ability to reproduce as the criteria for distinct species populations…”

    biologists don’t use the ability to reproduce as “the” criteria for distinguishing species, although it is a criteria.

  16. What consitutes a “morally interesting” distinction, and why? Is there such a thing as a human being? Is there such a thing as something that isn’t a human being that will become one? How does this happen? And how can we tell? And what is “morally interesting” about human beings, if anything, and why?

  17. Whatever happened to the ol’ reliable “kill it and see if anybody mourns or throws a funeral” test?

    I think we need to get back to some basics. I’d like to see the answers to Aristotle P. Jones’ questions, especially the definition of such terms as “morally interesting” and why the state of being “interesting” to external entities is so critical to another entity’s humanity.

  18. By “interesting” I mean that, for instance, you could point out that one difference between people and rocks is taht rocks are typically grey and hard, but this is not (on face) a particularly plausible candidate for why they’re morally different. George and Lee have picked out a (purported) difference between somatic cells and embryos, but without saying anything adequate about why it’s a difference we’re supposed to believe is important.

  19. Parturition (i.e. birth) seems to me a useless way of deciding when “individuat”ion occurs, because babies can be born over a span of months plus or minus the normal gestation length. The suggestion that an overdue baby who’s been in the womb 9.5 months is less individuated than a premature baby born months early is worse than dubious: the overdue, unborn fetus’s mental status and general physiological independence could exceed the premature baby that is surviving in an incubator-ventilator. Perhaps I’m not totally clear on what individuation really is, but if it’s something akin to personhood, which I think is what we’re basically concerned with here, the event of birth does not really correspond to attainment of personhood in my view.

    As Julian points out in the main post, the breakpoint between two different categories of life is (ridiculously) hard to find (or, alternatively, it could not actually exist in the sense we’re expecting). His example, and a general favorite of mine, is the DNA example. If you slowly undo the genetic differences* between us and chimps, when do we hit the border? Is there one, and would it then just be arbitrary?

    I think the principle behind the chimp-human example extends well to, among other quandaries, the nonhuman-human problem before us. For me, personally, the following are self-evident: 1) individual cells or collections of a few cells are not humans (in a moral sense, though they can be biologically), 2) the beings I speak to every day are sentient humans, and 3) somehow (“at some point”) the former becomes the latter.

    I think that the difficulty in finding the breakpoint between nonhuman and human is one reason it’s appealing to label all “potential” humans as human. I just don’t think this can be defended. For example, if a blastocyst comes into existence but is destroyed, does any sentience experience the biological life and death of those cells? It seems unlikely, and if it turns out to be true, then we’d better rethink our notion of the self-awareness of seaweed (unless religious or other beliefs give one a certain understanding of humans as distinct from other organisms). All this notwithstanding, blastocysts do eventually become people, and as far as I’m concerned this usually occurs significantly before birth. Since I clearly fail to provide an easy way to decide if an organism has personhood, I am content to let people decide for themselves on this issue.

    At the same time, it’s thoroughly unreasonable to expect anyone who considers abortion to be murder to simply relax and let other people do it if they want to. The reason is simply that, to the anti-abortioner, it’s not a matter of individual liberty since it infringes on the unborn’s right to life. Unfortunately, this conclusion leaves no obvious avenue for resolving clashes within our society over abortion, stem cells, cloning, etc.

    * It may be worth pointing out, for those who don’t know, that the genetic differences between chimps and humans is not just a matter of 2% of the basepairs being different. Larger-scale reorganizations within the genome also differentiate chimps and humans (for example, humans have one fewer chromosome pairs). To a probably-significant degree, this type of genetic variation is underappreciated and not well understood, but important in the function and development of organisms.

  20. OK, Julian, thanks for the clarification.

    How about this:

    Even granting the notion that the embryo has an “active disposition” to become a grown person that the somatic cell lacks, it’s never made clear why anything is supposed to hang on that distinction.

    Granting that “active disposition,” then this means you have to take positive action to terminate the growth of the embryo into a grown person. This does not apply to an ordinary somatic cell, however (if I’m correctly understanding the term and the way you’re using it). In fact, you have to take positive action to take a somatic cell and apply cloning technology to make it grow into a full-grown person.

    This is morally parallel to the difference between having sex (which causes the beginning of an organism’s life) and killing (which ends it). Generally speaking, even though the result is the same (one less human being will exist), there is a moral difference between not having sex, and killing.

  21. Stevo-
    Not a bad direction to take it in, but you’re hitting the wrong question. The act/ommission distinction makes sense as a dividing line between two kinds of actions when the moral status of the other party is known. But the question of the morality of the action is parasitic on the question about the status of the organism, which is conceptually distinct.

    And anyway, you can cross apply what I said earlier in response to the “status quo” argument: First, you need to take some action to start an in vitro embryo developing, and they want to call that a person; Second, it’s not true that mothers don’t have to take any positive action for the embryo to develop: If they fail to eat an adequate diet (which would be an omission), they’re far more likely to miscarry.

  22. Mr. Sanchez, you write:

    [I]t’s still the rational nature of human beings … that distinguishes them morally….”

    And, as it happens, I agree. However, insofar as that doesn’t beg any of the interesting metaphysical and moral questions, does it follow that present capacity for rationality is a requisite to consider an individual organism and, as such, member of our species a moral being?

    Also, while it is true that we might condemn the expectant, well, mother for failing to care for her own and her pre-born’s health, we do make moral distinctions all the time between negligent or even intentional nonfeasance or misfeasance and intentional malfeasance. That is to say, even in such cases we understand the moral difference between failing to act, intentionally or not, in a manner more likely to be beneficial and acting in a manner more likely to be harmful.

  23. By Julian’s logic, if you leave a sunflower seed on a dry surface in a dark room, it’s not a seed anymore, since under those conditions it will not develop into a sunflower.

    Zygotes don’t just magically appear in test tubes. They are conceived using oocytes removed from their natural abode in a woman’s reproductive system. Such a zygote, therefore, has been removed by artificial means from the place where it can develop into a human being.

    The situation is analogous to a pregnant scuba diver giving birth at a depth of 100m. There is no way that the newborn will survive, and develop into a rational human being, without outside intervention, but does that mean that another scuba diver is free to harpoon the baby?

  24. crimethink: That is some fucked up shit. Harpooning babies born to scuba-diving women? Sounds like the plot of Saw 3 to me…

  25. So much breath wasted on the unborn and so much money wasted on the elderly…. Is there a point when the distraction of the bookends will be ignored so we can focus on everything in between?

  26. Julian, I doubt you have time to play ping-pong with a single H&R poster, and I’ve to to do some other things myself, but in the last part of your last thread, you’re not arguing anything counter to what I just said:

    And anyway, you can cross apply what I said earlier in response to the “status quo” argument: First, you need to take some action to start an in vitro embryo developing, and they want to call that a person; Second, it’s not true that mothers don’t have to take any positive action for the embryo to develop: If they fail to eat an adequate diet (which would be an omission), they’re far more likely to miscarry.

    Right — and you also need to take some action to start an in vivo embryo developing, too. Which is what I was saying above. Similarly, a mother suffering a miscarriage through failure to eat properly is a failure to act, not a positive action. (Unless the mother deliberately decides, “I’ll deliberately malnourish myself to starve the little bastard to death” — then I’d consider that a positive, deliberate act with moral consequences, same as if the kid was already born and the mother was nursing it an decided to deliberately starve the child by starving herself. [Assuming the “life begins at conception” argument.])

    My point was that after the cell starts growing and progressing itself toward becoming a grown person, then it becomes possible to positively intervene and terminate that growth, with moral consequences. I would consider this true whether the cell started as two gametes that became united, or as a somatic-cell started on this type of growth by the cloning process. Before that point, though, you just have either two gametes or a normal uncloned somatic cell, and that kind of moral/immoral action is not possible.

    I think in your original header post, you’re mistakenly confusing the issue by comparing unequal stages — i.e., an actual human being (the conceived blastocyst) with the potential-to-be-made-a-human-being (the pre-cloned somatic cell). Again, this is assuming life begins when you’ve got a full cell of human DNA that begins growing and differentiating itself into an embryo.

    (And I’m sorry, this subject does seem to provoke the use of italics.) 🙂

    As for the first part of your last post:

    The act/ommission distinction makes sense as a dividing line between two kinds of actions when the moral status of the other party is known. But the question of the morality of the action is parasitic on the question about the status of the organism, which is conceptually distinct.

    Yes. But the fact that there is a growth-to-grown-up-person process already under way (that you are able to interfere with) is itself a sign of the type and moral status of the entity — if you accept that an individual human life has a beginning point, and that its growth can only start happening after that point, which seems logical to me.

    At this point I have to confess that this is one of the most civil but convoluted and esoteric embryo-rights thread I have ever seen, so I might bow out for a bit because I literally have a headache now. It took me an hour to figure out how to phrase my previous paragraph.

    Besides, it’s about time for Tanya to show up and point out that out of 26 posts, only three are from known females (Shirley and linguist), casting the worth and legitimacy of the entire thread into doubt. 🙂

  27. In response to the J. Sanchez’s main comments, one point that I would like to make is that “in the right environment”, a turd could become a human. Clearly, no one would argue turds have rights.

    Yet Sanchez claims that “in the right environment” any human cell could become a full-blown human. While yes this is technically true, this is much closer to the turd analogy above than any modern medical technique. Just imagine what you would have to do to turn a skin cell into a fertilized egg by manipulating the environment. It would be just short of impossible! You would have to somehow, from the outside, simultaneously manipulate the concentrations of hundreds of different chemicals and enzymes in the cell interior in order to produce the correct types and numbers of cellular structures. This would be enormously difficult, time consuming, expensive, and is far beyond any technology we will have in the foreseeable future. So while there is clearly some hypothetical environment which would turn a skin cell into a fertilized egg (just as there is for a turd), the probability of this environment naturally existing are infinitesimal. Therefore, we can safely morally discount it. The same cannot be said of a fertilized egg – the environment it needs in order to become a full human is quite readily available naturally and artificial alternatives are not that far beyond our current technology.

    A cell is far more than just a sack of DNA.

  28. Bravo and thankc Mr. Sanchez for skewering the ever-pompous medevialism of Lee and George. These Catholic apologists are undoubtedly intelligent men, what a shame they must use their intelligence to spin ever more creative defenses of what they learned at their parents feet rather than honestly engaging the world and seeking for sense and truth. Their question begging is re-occurring because they of course had the answer before they started their examination…

  29. I agree with the thrust of Julian’s argument here, with two important caveats:

    1) If neither Lee and George nor Sanchez and Bailey can offer a morally relevant distinction between embryos and skin cells that doesn’t simply rest on unproven axioms or metaphysical tomfoolery, that cuts both ways, in that it opens people up to arguing that there’s no morally relevant difference between me and a skin cell, and thus no reason to treat us differently. (It would be a dumb argument, but somebody will use it.)

    2) Similarly, we as libertarians are often caught out trying to convince people that there’s a morally relevant or interesting difference between “the government” doing something and private parties or “the market” doing something without relying on anything more than unproven axioms or italics. On another thread three or four clicks back, you’ve got people arguing that it’s OK for Wal-Mart to get big enough to become a price-maker but not for Medicare to do the same. Why? Because. We need to be careful about that, I think.

    It might ultimately be true that all morally interesting distinctions are based on nothing more than unproven (and unproveable) axioms, and if you and I are arguing from different ones, that isn’t going to get either of us very far.

  30. All it seems that Mr. Sanchez has proven is that it’s morally consistent to oppose equally embryonic experimentation, cloning, and fertility treatments.

    And one who opposes all of these things is called?

    A Catholic.

  31. Phil, regarding axiomism underlying viewing Medicare and Wal-Mart differently —

    I think it is possible to discriminate between government and private entities “controlling” parts of our lives based on dual distinctions, one abstract and one practical. First, in the abstract, Governments have a necessary, implied connection to all the members of a state. Free associations of individuals like Wal-Mart have no necessary connection to everyone. As a result, it is desirable to limit a government’s powers so that everyone is not dragged into its decisions about if and how to excercise those powers.

    The practical difference between government and private entities is related to the abstract difference (and, for me at least, easier). Since government is tied to all members of the state and each resident of the state is tied to exactly one government, the government has a unique type of monopoly and so for a long list of practical reasons is not the best servant of many of the public’s needs, the economic ones most especially. (I’m sure I don’t need to belabor this point here.)

    Anyway, the reason it’s OK for Wal-Mart to do things that Medicare shouldn’t do might seem self-evident in an axiomatic kind of way, but I don’t think it needs to be.

  32. This qualifies as a “skewering” of Lee and George? I think not. Sanchez does not truly engage their argument, spends a lot his post complaining about the how Lee and George choose to visibly emphasize their point, and otherwise acting dense about what that point actually is.

    Lee and George’s point is that the act of transferring the somatic cell’s nucleus to an ovum is directly comparable to a spermatazoa joining with an ovum, an act of conception which fundamentally changes the nature of the cell structures involved from parts of a whole to a whole in itself. The somatic cell’s potential is the same as that of gametes, and despite what anti-Catholic bigots would have people think, no one claims that gametes have rights. Therefore, Singer (and Sanchez’s) claim that human cloning undermines the right to life argument because it would confer some kind of right’s claim on individual somatic cells does not stand up to scrutiny. Though perhaps we will revisit the idea when human beings start reproducing by budding.

    Sanchez’s problem with Lee and George’s argument is that he fundamentally disagrees with their basic assumption: being an individual human organism makes that organism more than a mere thing, that others can do whatever they wish to.

  33. MJ-
    Did you, like, read the post? The entirety of the 3rd and 4th paragraphs are a response to the claim that “the act of transferring the somatic cell’s nucleus to an ovum is directly comparable to a spermatazoa joining with an ovum, an act of conception which fundamentally changes the nature of the cell structures involved from parts of a whole to a whole in itself.” I understand what their argument is; the argument just lacks any merit.

  34. I did read them, I read them again and I still do not see an argument that actually engaged what they were saying, just a lot of bitching about how it is “not interesting”,and “can’t be cashed out intelligibly”, whatever those phrases mean to you.

    Your equating the effort to keep an embryo fed and warm with transferring a somatic cell nucleus from its original cell to an to an ovum that has had its nucleus removed is stretching logic under the best light, utter nonsense otherwise. Maintaining the embryo’s enviroment does not require conscious and deliberate human intervention, using a somatic cell to create an embryo does. The process destroys the somatic cell and uses it parts to create something different, something new. The moment of conception or clone equivalent is not a step in the maturation process, the maturation process does not exist before it, Why you think this is unimportant I do not see much of an explanation for, except as your own version of table pounding.

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