Animalism and the Unborn Human Being
Tollefsen (Christopher)
Source: Medicine and Metaphysics Conference, University of Buffalo, November, 2004
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Recent work in the metaphysics of identity seems indebted to a revival of the Aristotelian distinction between substance and accident, a revival possibly to be attributed to David Wiggins’ "Wiggins (David) - Sameness and Substance", p. 15. As Wiggins points out, everything that exists is a “this such,” and it is the concept under which a thing falls as a this such, rather than concepts that indicate what it is doing, or what color it is, and so on, that tells us what the thing is. For at least some things that we ordinarily characterize as particulars, the concept under which they fall as particulars will be their substance concept1. It is this concept that tells us what the thing in question most truly is, and, as Eric Olson writes2, it is this concept that “determines persistence conditions that necessarily apply to all (and perhaps only) things of that kind.”
  2. The language of substance may not be equally amenable to all, but everyone involved in the abortion debate at a philosophical level has an interest in understanding what you and I and things of our sort are most fundamentally, because this understanding will determine when we come to be, as well as when we cease to be. And, as Patrick Lee has pointed out, what most defenders of abortion have held, implicitly or explicitly, until recently, is that you and I are essentially persons. “Person” was then understood in a quasi-Lockean way to involve such properties as psychological continuity or connectedness, and from this it was inferred that no person existed prior to the presence of such psychological properties. It was an easy step from this to the conclusion that embryos and fetuses, lacking the relevant psychological properties, were not persons, and thus were not entitled to the respect ordinarily due persons.
  3. Problems with the view that you and I are essentially persons have been apparent for quite some time; for one thing, this would mean that you and I were the same kind of substance as intelligent Martians, angels, and perhaps members of the Trinity; but why think we have their persistence conditions? But Eric Olson has raised perhaps the most damning objection. Olson points out that on the received view, you and I were never, for example, fetuses, for you and I are essentially persons, and substances of the person sort do not come to exist until the onset of psychological traits. But fetuses themselves seem to belong to a substance class – they are particulars of the substance sort “human animal.” And this raises problems for the view that you and I are essentially persons. What, for example, has happened to that other substance, the human animal? Does it continue to exist in the same space as the human person? Did it cease to exist with the coming to be of the human person? If the former, how can it not share exactly all of the person’s properties, and if so, why is it not also a person? If the latter, is there now no longer a human animal in the space that I occupy? None of the options seems metaphysically palatable3.
  4. The solution is that you and I are essentially human animals; thus you and I were once fetuses, and, at least plausibly, embryos as well. But if you and I are not essentially persons, but animals, what sort of concept is the concept “person”, and when and how do we become persons? Olson’s answer might seem to be the only possible option here: “person” is a phased sortal, like “teacher” or “ambulator.” Human animals move into a stage of personhood, and possibly out of it, while remaining the same substance, just as a baby’s substance does not change when she learns to walk.
  5. This move from the metaphysics of identity has been appropriated in the ethics of abortion. It is no longer metaphysically plausible to hold that you and I are essentially persons which come to be late in the career of an animal; so personhood should, like “ambulator” be viewed as an achievement, rather than a status; and human animals, like other animals, may be killed when they are not persons.


See Tollefsen - Animalism and the Unborn Human Being.

In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1:
  • Although the sortal concepts under which particular artifacts fall are analogous to substance concepts, I do not think artifacts are substances in a proper sense, as I will argue below.
Footnote 2: Footnote 3:

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