Embryos, Four-Dimensionalism and Moral Status
Hershenov (David)
Source: Persons, Moral Worth and Embryos: A Critical Analysis of Pro-Choice Arguments from Philosophy, Law and Science ed. Steve Napier. Philadelphia: National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2011, 125-144
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Philosophy journals have been full of discussions of Four-Dimensionalism in recent years. The rich resources of the Four-Dimensional metaphysics have been brought to bear upon many traditional philosophical problems. Alas, the implications of Four-Dimensionalism for bioethics have gone largely unexplored. Hud Hudson (1999, 2001) is the rare exception. Relying upon a Four-Dimensional metaphysics, he argues that there is little reason to identify the human embryonic1 animal and human person. He makes the intriguing claim that if abortion2 is wrong, then it isn’t because the human animal3 within its mother’s womb is a person. This he rightly claims “is a very significant result” for “an overwhelming amount of the literature on abortion4 and infanticide (as well as much of the public debate on these topics) seems to turn on the question of whether or not the human fetus5 is a person” (2001, p. 153).
  2. Hudson admits that if he were convinced of the truth of Three-Dimensionalism, then he would find it more compelling to identify human persons and human animals6 than accept that they are distinct entities though composed of the same atoms (2001, p. 130). Such an identification would lead him to claim that the human person is an animal with biological persistence conditions7, coming into existence with the onset of life and going out of existence when life is extinguished. So if Hudson were an advocate of Three-Dimensionalism, then he might very well agree with such staunch defenders of human embryonic8 life as Tollefsen and George who argue that mindless embryos9 shouldn’t be aborted10 because they are persons (George and Tollefsen, 2008). But if Hudson’s favored Four-Dimensionalist metaphysics is true, as well as his claim that the approach removes the reasons to identify the person and animal, then perhaps it is George and Tollefsen who should drop their opposition to abortion11 for they acknowledge that the exalted moral status of embryos12 depends upon their identity with persons.
      …embryos13 clearly cannot yet think, choose and speak. Nor are they (yet) self-conscious or even sentient. Were this to mean that embryos14 were not the same kind of beings as the readers and authors of this book, that they were not persons, then it would be difficult to see why they should be accorded the same moral respect that we authors and readers believe we are entitled to. There would be no obvious reason why they should not be destroyed for the sake of beings who really are persons (George and Tollefsen, 2008, p. 61).
  3. However, I’m going to argue that opponents of abortion15 like George and Tollefsen can accept Hudson’s metaphysics without having to abandon their belief that human animals16 are persons. One doesn’t have to deny the truth of the FourDimensionalist metaphysics to consider mindless embryonic17 human animals18 to be persons. If this claim is correct, it would be good news for the pro-life movement since Four-Dimensionalism is likely to attract many followers given its very able defenders.
  4. The first half of the paper will be a response to Hudson’s claim that human persons can’t be identified with the animals who are mindless for part of their existence. Hudson argues that if having later thinking stages were sufficient for being a person, then there would be countless entities that are persons. This assumes unrestricted composition, a principle that I will accept for the sake of argument. Hudson understands unrestricted composition to mean that necessarily for any collection of objects, the xs, there exists one and only object, y, such that the xs compose y. So there’s even an object that is composed of Stonehenge and the reader.
  5. I’ll argue for person/animal identity by distinguishing the kinds of entities that have mindless and thinking stages. The causal relationship between the stages of entities that belong to a natural kind19 will serve to distinguish the embryonic20 human animal21 and person from other Four-Dimensional objects that likewise are mindless at one time but later think. This will leave us with two good candidates for the title “human person” – the human animal22 that’s initially mindless and then later self-conscious, and the entity favored by Hudson that’s capable of self-conscious reflection at every stage of its existence.
  6. With which of the two candidates are we to be identified? I’ll argue that our intuitions about the persistence of persons are best explained by appeal to a biological (or animalist)23 account of personal identity. Our intuitions that we would survive certain hypothetical changes as indicated by what appears to be prudential concern for the resulting individual can’t be accounted for in terms of the persistence of a capacity for self-conscious reflection or ties of psychological connections and continuity. My contention is that only an appeal to a criterion that identifies us with a future thinker in virtue of sharing the same biological life can make sense of such responses. So it will be argued that of the countless Four-Dimensional entities that have thinking temporal parts, we’re to be identified with the living human animal24. Moreover, if any beings warrant the label of ‘person’, we do. Then by helping ourselves to Hudson’s maximality principle which rules out the existence of a person embedded within another person, we can thus judge any entity within the typical human animal25 that consists solely of self-conscious temporal parts to be not a person but a proper part of the human person.


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