Saturday, May 25, 2013

Book Review: Embryo—A Defense of Human Life

In the wake of the Kermit Gosnell trial, it is safe to say that the elite Western culture no longer recognises the unborn human being as a life worthy of protection. It does not even seem to be worth our sympathy. The killing of a newborn child is now, in journalistic newspeak, merely “inducing labour and terminating a viable fetus”. Such a termination might be tasteless and a tad barbaric, but it is not murder. After all, if we concede that decapitating a 24 week old human being outside the womb is wrong, we might have to wonder why it is right to dismember it in the womb. Pro-life arguments might begin to seem a little too rational for comfort. Better to flush those conservative thoughts away, and ignore the issue altogether.

Once we acknowledge the humanity of a viable unborn child, other questions become unavoidable. A child has a recognizable human form long before 24 weeks. By the eighth and ninth week the child is unmistakably human. The heart begins to beat around the sixth week. How do we decide the point at which a human life truly begins? Hence the importance of  Embryo: a Defence of Human Life Robert P George and Christopher Tollefson conclude that human life begins at conception. The core of their argument is that:
Modern embryology and human developmental biology establish beyond any doubt that human embryos are wholes and not mere parts, that they are indeed determinate individuals; and that they are organisms that endure throughout the developmental process, that is, both during gestation and after birth.
We should immediately note two important points. First, there is no appeal to theological categories. All of the premises in George and Tollefson’s argument could (in principle) be adopted by a secular mind. Second, the argument of Embryo is open to scientific falsification. An individual is a unity, with all its functions aimed at its development and survival. If it could be shown that the early embryo is merely a group of cells which do not co-ordinate their actions towards a common goal, and are merely held together by an external force, then George and Tollefson would modify their position. However, a detailed survey of the scientific evidence leaves the authors with no doubt that conception is the morally significant point at which a human life begins.

Tollefson and George argue that rights attach to humans because of the kind of beings that humans are. Every human is born with a capacity to become self-aware, rational, conscious, creative and moral. These qualities make us “god-like” or “the image of god.” A humanist could agree that our minds are unique in the natural realm, and place a gulf between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. This potential means that each individual human life is worthy of protection and nurture. Some moral philosophers and scientists reject this view, arguing that we do not have rights until our potential is actualised. That is to say, we do not have rights until we become conscious and self-aware, or until we begin to think in a rational way.

Others suggest that we obtain our rights once other humans gain an emotional attachment to us. But these views have absurd consequences. A new born child is less rational than a dog or a pig; are we to infer that it has less moral value? Can we seriously suggest that a newborn child only obtains human dignity once it is accepted by its family? Furthermore, the doctrine of equal human worth is called into question if our rights depend on how far our capacities have developed. Some of us are more reflective and rational than others. Now, if our rights depend on the degree of rationality or self-awareness that we have obtained, it would seem that some of us have a greater claim to fundamental human rights than others.

We must clarify what is meant by the word “potential”. A pile of bricks is, potentially, a wall. But a pile of bricks does not fulfil its potential by becoming a wall! There is no inherent purpose to a pile of bricks – it does not have a destiny. The human embryo, however, is laden with information that drives it on to a final destination. All other things being equal, with nurture and time, it cannot fail to become a sentient human life. The human embryo is not a “potential life” or a“potential human”. It is a human life with the awesome potential to choose, know, love and be loved. As such it enjoys a right to life.

I find George and Tollefson’s central arguments convincing. Consider this thought experiment. Imagine a strange and exotic virus ravages a human’s nervous system, paralysing the limbs and leaving the subject with no conscious awareness. Cells in the higher brain cease to function properly; there is no response to external stimuli. Only those brain functions essential for life (respiration, heat-beat) continue. However, further suppose this disease only lasts for a few hours. With nothing more than nine hour’s bed rest, the patient usually heals and makes a full recovery.

Presumably, no-one would deny that a human suffering the effects of this disease would lose their right to life. They would lose all conscious awareness and their capacity for rational thought, but not their human dignity. With a little patience and care, the potential of the human being will manifest itself once more. The person is on a path to full consciousness; they have all the capacities that give a human being inherent value. Now, change the thought experiment a little, and imagine the time it takes for recovery is nine weeks or nine months. Again, it seems we could not kill a human being simply because he is not conscious.

But the human embryo would also normally develop human capacities over nine months, so it is also must be worthy of care and protection. It is a human being with a right to life. However, it seems to me that we must consider more than the unborn child’s capacity for self-awareness and rationality. The human child can also be a source and recipient of love. It will develop a human form and face, and so call out for care and understanding. It will demand that we make sacrifices to nurture and protect it. Each new human life calls out for love, and human beings are not fulfilled in the absence of love. It follows that each new human life must be protected as sacred.

Embryo is not merely valuable for its clear articulation of the pro-life position. The authors savage utilitarian and consequentialist ethical theories, too often taken for granted by secular commentators and politicians. Broadly speaking, consequentialism evaluates actions as good if they maximise some desired state of affairs. Utilitarianism is a brand of consequentialism which aims to maximise pleasure and minimise pain. These theories all face what George and Tollefson call the “problem of incommensurability”.There is no way to directly compare and weigh the relative worth of the bewildering variety of experiences.

How do we measure and compare the pleasures of walking on the beach to enjoying a cup of coffee? Is it better to enjoy Mozart or Picasso? Dickens or a sunset? There is no common measure that we can use to compare the worth of each experience. Utilitarianism is empty of content; it cannot recommend any course of action because it cannot determine which genuinely brings most pleasure. Most contemporary consequentialists have recognised this flaw and prefer to measure the satisfaction of preference or desires. The greater the number of preferences satisfied, the better, provided these are preferences of rational agents.

But why do we prefer the goals of Gandhi to a selfish-capitalist’s? It is not obvious that the latter is less rational. Why prefer an altruist’s goals to those of a hedonist? Why should the desires of a moral saint be preferred to an amoral politician? It is absurd to put egoism on a par with sacrificial love; but it is question begging to assume that the latter is more rational than the former. The problem, in short, is that:
…there are clearly bad pleasures, there are also clearly bad preferences and desires; why should Hitler’s preferences and desires, any more than his pleasures, count equally with the preferences of a Mother Teresa or a Gandhi? Nor will it do to speak only of one’s highest or best preferences, for this will then simply smuggle moral considerations into the assessment of preferences and desires.
As an alternative to utilitarianism, the authors provide a clear introduction to, and defence of, contemporary developments in natural law theory. This does not attempt to ground values in biological facts. Rather, it discerns fundamental goods necessary for human fulfilment. These goods include play and work, community, knowledge, wisdom, and the quest for transcendence. These goods are not means to any other end. They are simply good in and of themselves. We do not need to justify our pursuit of these goals; we simply need to pursue them.

These goods provide the theoretical foundation for human rights. Insofar as we are able, we are obliged to aid others in their pursuit of these goods (because no one can achieve them on their own). Of course without life and health, it is impossible to seek any other good. So “…the right to life is in a strong and obvious sense the foundational right for persons. It is the right upon which all other rights are predicated and marks whether a being is a being of moral standing at all.” We must nurture human life whenever we can, and we must not deliberately take away an innocent life.

Despite these strengths, Embryo goes astray in a sustained but pointless critique of what it terms “dualism” – by which the authors mean any view which holds that the subjects of consciousness are non-physical, or  that "… the true self, or person, as an immaterial entity … is substantially different from the body proximate to that entity and that indeed is capable of a separate existence."

The target is the dualism of Plato, Augustine and Descartes. George and Tollefson are, however, attracted to Thomistic dualism, so their choice of terminology is confusing. Moreover, they provide no sustained defence of Thomistic dualism in the text. They argue that modern thought went astray with Descartes, then assume that Aquinas can set us straight again. This assumption leaves a hole in their overall case.

Furthermore, their critique of Cartesian dualism is very weak. Consider their appeal to Christians: “Christianity’s continued emphasis on the resurrection of the body does not seem consistent, in the end, with Platonic or Cartesian forms of dualism.” It is true that in Judaeo-Christian thought it is unnatural for a human to be disembodied. But that does not mean that a person cannot survive without a body. Platonic-Cartesian dualism seems to fit better with Christianity’s belief in the intermediate state.
George and Tollefson also argue that Cartesian dualism:
…is shown to be false by … the sorts of actions that we perform, actions like reaching for an apple or riding a bike. If a living thing performs bodily actions, then it follows that it is a physical organism. If … one of the authors of this book, is riding a bike, then what he should and does rationally say, think, and believe is, “I am riding a bike.” The subject of the action to which “I” refers is not understood…as being something other than the physical being pedalling along.
Their argument is, if persons are not bodies, then I never truly hold my child or kiss my wife. Their true selves, their souls, would be non-physical. Therefore, I could never truly come into contact with their true selves. Moreover, if I am not my physical body, I never truly sit in a chair or bit into an apple. What is non-physical cannot have contact with the physical world. But we often describe or understand ourselves as bodily beings in contact with the world. So Cartesian dualism is falsified by our common understanding of ourselves and our actions.

The argument is not very convincing. George and Tollefson would accept that I only see my wife smile because I see light-waves reflected off her face. I hear my daughter laugh because I hear the sound waves travelling from her vocal chords. Yet those sound and light waves bring me into contact with my wife and daughter. Now, if I truly am a non-physical subject, I am an embodied subject. Indeed, I could only think, speak and act through my body. And if sound and light waves can put me in contact with other physical objects at some distance, my body can put my non-physical self in contact with the non-physical world.

Moreover, if the soul is in some sense present in the body, then I truly come into contact with the physical world. Even Descartes (who believed that souls were not extended in space) believed that body and mind formed a union. And in contrast to Descartes, many dualists in the Platonic-Augustinian tradition (to which Cartesian dualism belongs) believe that the mind is spatially present in the body. As Goetz and Taliaferro note Augustine believed that a soul is fully present wherever it feels a sensation. It does not occupy space in the sense of filling it and excluding other things; but when something touches a soul’s body at a certain location the entire soul feels that sensation. One and the same soul fully experiences every sensation the body feels. (See A Brief History the Soul (Wiley-Blackwell: 2011, pp44-45))

Simply put, George and Tollefson do not adequately present the views of many dualists. For example, Richard Swinburne notes:
We are aware of what is happening in the world by its effect on our bodies…and we have non-inferential knowledge of what is happening in various parts of our bodies (but not of brain events which cause that awareness), and we perform movements of parts of the body other than our brains as instrumentally basic acts (without being aware of the brain events through which we cause these movements). It therefore seems natural to think of ourselves, and so our souls, the essential part of ourselves, as located in that part of the physical world of which we are most aware and which we can influence most directly. The soul of a human living on earth is located (in one sense) in that human’s brain and (in another sense) in the whole of that human’s body. (Mind, Brain and Free Will (Oxford:2013) p173)
Why do the authors take so much time to attack a metaphysical doctrine? George and Tollefson worry that dualism has damaging moral implications. If the true self is non-physical then it might not be present from conception. Therefore, we might not be killing a person when we kill an embryo. This problem becomes particularly acute when we consider that Descartes identified the soul (or mind) with thought (I think, therefore I am!)

The embryo is not conscious. Would this make the killing of embryos permissible? George and Tollefson seem to think so. Goetz and Taliaferro strongly disagree:
We do not think there are compelling grounds for claiming that souls must always be conscious, or for accepting Descartes views that consciousness is an essential property of the self. If that is the case, one may claim that the soul is present…from conception, but not conscious. On such a view the fate of the fetus may be the same as that of the soul. (A Brief History the Soul p214)
They identify the soul as a simple substance with the power to think, to experience and to act. To be a little clearer, the soul is personal (or intentional) power. Yet the soul acts through the body; so the development of the body is essential for the development of the powers of the soul. This view of the soul does not conflict with the argument in Embryo at all.

Alternatively, the Cartesian dualist can point out that, from the point of conception, the embryo contains all the information that is needed to form a brain and nervous system. So, from conception, we have an inbuilt disposition to form a large number of beliefs and desires (that is, a large number of the mental states that will make up our conscious life). As we develop, these dispositions naturally become sensations and thoughts.  Eventually we will become aware of these sensations and thoughts (that is, self-aware). This is only possible because the structure and teleology of the embryo inevitably leads to thought. In this way our souls’ are embodied from the first day of our existence.

So the Cartesian dualist can, in fact, agree with the Thomistic dualist. The embryo is not potentially a person or potentially a human life. From our first moments our souls are waiting to be made manifest in our bodies. The embryo is fully human, a personal being with a potential that can only be found in a being made in the Image of God. I can see no deep ethical conflict between Cartesian and Thomistic dualists, and it is a shame that George and Tollefson did not search for common ground with other opponents of the scientism and materialism that really have dehumanised our culture.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Graham Veale is Head of Religious Education at City of Armagh High School. With David Glass, he runs the apologetics group Saints and Sceptics. Their articles can be read at


Post a Comment

Thanks for taking the time to comment. By posting your comment you are agreeing to the comment policy.

Blog Archive