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Monday, August 26, 2013

Stretton Debunked: A Response to Dean Stretton on Peter Kreeft

This will be the first in a two-part series in which I respond to pro-choice philosopher Dean Stretton. Stretton wrote two essays responding to articles by pro-life philosophers Peter Kreeft and Frank Beckwith. I will respond to Stretton's argument against Kreeft in this article, then respond to Stretton's argument against Beckwith in the next part. Dean Stretton is actually the philosopher that I referenced when responding to the pro-choice thought experiment of the Burning IVF Facility.

Stretton begins by responding to Peter Kreeft's essay Human Personhood Begins at Conception. He has conveniently laid out his points, so I will respond point-by-point. Please read Kreeft's essay, then Stretton's, then mine to get a full picture of what is being discussed here, since I don't usually respond by Fisking (and therefore you might not get a full picture of what I'm responding to). I tend to only quote from the source material if it's important to read something the person says in his/her own words.

1. Persons and human beings. I think Stretton has a fair point here. It seems that Kreeft is using a taxonomy, but I don't think pro-choice people are committed to a taxonomy of the larger over-arching human, then a narrower subset of humans that are "persons." If other beings, like intelligent extra-terrestrials, fit their definition of "person," then there is no reason why they would not also classify as "persons," unless you want to make "person" a narrower subset of all species that fit the criteria.

2. Defining personhood. I think that Kreeft's definition of person as one with a natural, inherent capacity for performing personal acts is correct. After all, this accounts for why we don't lose personhood when we lose the present ability to perform these acts (such as when we fall asleep, or if we enter a reversible coma). As Kreeft said in his essay, "One grows into the ability to perform personal acts only because one already is the kind of thing that grows into the ability to perform personal acts, i.e., a person."

Stretton is, of course, not convinced. He argues that if this were the case, then not all humans would be persons. I disagree though. Aside from that, Stretton gives a thought experiment, as laid out by Jeff McMahan: "A being might perform personal acts, and thus be a person, even though it lacks a 'natural, inherent capacity' (NIC) for performing personal acts. Take dogs, for instance: as Kreeft would grant, they do not have an NIC for performing personal acts. Suppose, however, that certain puppies can be subjected to "cognitive therapy": an intensive regime of accelerated learning, occupying nearly every waking hour of the puppy's life, combined with drugs to enhance the neural connections in the puppy's brain. After a few years of therapy, the puppies gain the cognitive and emotional capacities of a five-year-old child. Plainly any being that has such capacities is a person. So these dogs, after undergoing the therapy, would have a right to life. Yet their capacity for performing personal acts is not 'natural' or 'inherent': it is not based in their genetic code, but on intensive human intervention, and thus is both unnatural and extrinsic. Since some persons -- these dogs -- lack an NIC for performing personal acts, 'person' cannot be defined as 'one with a natural, inherent capacity for performing personal acts.'"

I wholeheartedly disagree with Stretton. This also highlights why I think the discussion of personhood is not altogether helpful. I think the unborn certainly qualify as persons, due to their inherent nature as rational, moral agents. But even if the unborn were not persons, that would not prove that we can kill them for whatever reason we want, whenever we want. It is conceivable to me that there are non-persons who it would be wrong to kill. If these dogs, turned into persons by artificial means, attained rationality, there is no reason to consider them persons, since they do not have an inherent nature as rational, moral agents. But considering that they have attained personal qualities, that would make it wrong to kill them. Or another route we could go is simply to consider the inherent nature of rational, moral agents as a sufficient condition, not a necessary one, in which the unborn would still qualify. But there is clearly no logical reason to disqualify the unborn from personhood, as they share the same thing in common with born human beings that makes us valuable -- our common human nature.

Stretton anticipated this, but waves it away with a flick of his wrist by simply stating that Kreeft gives no guidance on why having that inherent nature would grant someone a right to life. That position has been defended elsewhere, by myself and other pro-life philosophers, so the fact that Kreeft doesn't give a reason why in this essay is wholly unconvincing. To say nothing of the fact that Stretton gives no positive reason as to why, if it's not a necessary condition, it should not simply be a sufficient condition to grant someone a right to life. I think it's safe to reject Stretton's definition of personhood, unless he can offer a compelling reason why the inherent personal nature is not, at least, sufficient for granting personhood.

I think it also bears mentioning that it may not actually be possible to turn an animal that doesn't have a natural inherent capacity for personal qualities into a person. So the analogy may, in fact, be simply nonsensical.

3. Human beings and souls. Stretton, again, waves this argument away. Now of course, an atheist can just deny the existence of a soul in order to rebut this argument, but they are not correct by denying the existence of the soul, anymore than a Christian is incorrect by affirming it. In either case, an argument must be made for why the soul does, or does not, exist. Kreeft does, in fact, state what a soul is, and the Christian concept of a soul should be pretty clear. It's possible he may not have been very clear -- perhaps he was writing more for a Christian audience than a secular one, one that already assumed the existence of the soul. Fetuses have souls because they, like us, are made in the image of God with the inherent nature as rational, moral agents. To reiterate, this point amounts to just hand-waving by Stretton.

4. Fully-programmed individuality. I agree that the analogy Kreeft uses of the tuliphood of the tulip bulb is a false analogy regarding the personhood of a person, since tulip is a biological category. It would be analogous to human development, not necessarily personal development. However, Stretton doesn't actually argue against Kreeft's position here, he just saw fit to nit-pick Kreeft's analogy. Kreeft's argument stands.

5. Personhood cannot develop gradually. Stretton is correct that someone can hold that personhood develops gradually, and then once the fetus crosses a certain threshold it gains a right to life. However, Stretton seems to indicate that this is correct based on his word alone. He gives no argument for it. The problem with threshold arguments is that they include too many (like animals) or not enough (like infants). Granted, this is not a problem if you believe infanticide to be morally permissible, but for most of us this is a big problem. I've responded to the threshold claim, as well as arguments about whether or not killing them seriously harms the preborn, which Stretton did mention, elsewhere.

6. There are no potential persons. Kreeft did continue to make a fundamental mistake in his original essay. He continually conflated biological humanity with morally-relevant humanity; that is, he was conflating the concept of humanity with the concept of personhood. Now, I do agree that all humans are persons. But comparing persons to apes is a category error. However, I do agree with Kreeft that there are no potential persons. Stretton mentioned the puppies that he talked about earlier as a counterexample, but it's not clear whether they can really be considered potential persons. It may not, in fact, be possible to increase the cognitive abilities of entities without an inherent nature for rationality to make them rational. It is certainly not possible now. So the more reasonable position is that there really are no potential persons. Even if there are, it doesn't follow that the unborn are only potential persons. They are potential adults, potential philosophers (as Kreeft would say), but actual persons, just as they are actual humans.

7. Pro-Choice makes personhood unclear. I think Kreeft makes a strong point here. If you ask a pro-life person when personhood begins (or when the unborn has a right to life), you'll receive one answer -- at fertilization. Ask a pro-choice person, and you won't receive the same answer from any two people. Some will say "after viability," some, "after birth," David Boonin would say that you don't have a right to life unless you consciously desire to continue living or have reached the point that you would have desired to continue living if you are not currently able to (such as if you're asleep), Peter Singer would say that infants do not have a right to life, and so on. The pro-life case is all-inclusive, whereas the pro-choice position excludes those they wish to justify killing by abortion.

Stretton actually raises an interesting question -- whether the pro-life advocate has it any better than the pro-choice advocate? What if someone has an NIC for many things, but not for speech, or not for loving? To Stretton's claim, I would simply respond that the capacity for rationality is the important factor (also recognized by many pro-choice philosophers). What the pro-life position claims is that it's more reasonable that the natural inherent capacity for rationality is necessary, not the presently-exercisable capacity for it. But the capacity for rationality is the important thing. That's why many pro-life people don't believe it's wrong to pull the plug on a brain-dead human, because the capacity for rationality is irreversibly lost, whereas to an embryo it will come because the embryo is still at the beginning of his/her life.

So Stretton's objection, while interesting, is not truly a problem for the pro-life position.

8. The "quadrilemma." Stretton tries to argue against the quadrilemma but fails pretty miserably. He misunderstands the gravity of the situation. It is because killing an innocent human being is so heinous that it should not be done unless you are certain no one is being harmed. So Stretton's examples about the art gallery and spotting his sister which may just be her long-lost twin are just silly. You are losing nothing if you are wrong, so you can happily proceed, even if you are mistaken.

But what about something a little more grave? What if you witness your best friend having an adulterous relation with his wife's sister? You are standing outside his house, and you spot him through the window having relations with a woman who looks like her sister. The next day when deciding whether you should tell his wife, you learn that his wife is actually a twin. Knowing that, would you be justified in telling his wife and possibly ruining your best friend's marriage, despite a possibility you are mistaken?

The gravity of the situation in taking innocent human life is what gives Kreeft's quadrilemma its force. It does not beg the question, as Stretton asserts. In order to avoid taking innocent loss of life, you have to be sure that the unborn are not persons, and that has not been accomplished.

Stretton may have a point that absolute knowledge that the fetus is not a person may not be necessary for the quadrilemma to fail, but we would certainly need sufficient evidence that the unborn is not a person, such as in my analogy above, if you have sufficient evidence that your best friend was having an affair then you would be justified in coming forward with the information. And since the pro-choice side can't even decide on what a person is or when personhood begins, we can't make the claim that there is sufficient evidence that fetuses are not persons.

9. Further comments on personhood. Stretton lays out two sufficient sources for a right to life: the right to autonomy, that is, does it have a developed capacity to make decisions about its own life and death? If so, then it has a right not to have such decisions forced upon it. Second is the harm of death, that is, does it have plans for its own future that would be thwarted, and would it be deprived of a valuable future?

Regarding Stretton's first point, the right to autonomy is not necessary for a right to life. Someone in a reversible coma surely does not have the capacity to make decisions about his own life, yet it would still be wrong to kill him. He may argue that it's the developed capacity that is necessary, but why is this? If a person in a coma with a good chance of coming out of it doesn't have the present capacity to make decisions about his or her own life, why is the fact that he once did sufficient for excluding the unborn from having a right to life? It's not a morally relevant feature.

Second, as I have argued in the article I linked above, one does not have to be aware of a harm in order to be harmed. You can harm a child by stealing his inheritance, and you can harm your wife by cheating on her, even if the offended party never finds out. Plus, as pro-life philosopher Don Marquis argues, human embryos and fetuses do, in fact, have a Future of Value.

Stretton tries to get around the problem of the human embryo having a future of value by arguing that one must be psychologically connected to oneself through all points of your life to have a valuable future. But he gives no reason to suppose why this is so. Why does a toddler have a Future of Value, even though he has no plans for the future and doesn't psychologically even understand the concept of a future, just because he would be psychologically connected to the adult he will one day become? I bear a biological resemblance to myself at the zygote stage. Why is it that I only seriously had a right to life once I developed the psychological capacity for higher functions? What does it even mean to say that you "come into existence" when you become conscious, rather than when the zygote who is the same as you biologically was conceived? Was Stretton some disembodied entity who came to inhabit a human shell, a fetus? And what was the fetus before that point, a living being that later became Stretton just because he wasn't yet conscious? Stretton doesn't even attempt to justify this position, he just asserts it.

The reality is you are harming the human embryo by aborting him/her because he is a living, human organism on a self-directed path of development. Stretton was still the embryo in the womb, even before he developed the capacity for higher reason. If not, then who was he? What was he doing before he became self-aware? If he only "came into existence" when the fetus became conscious, then what, exactly, was he before that point? The position that one comes into existence at any point after fertilization is simply logically incoherent.

Stretton is simply incorrect when he states that his position is based on reason. He has only asserted his position, but he has not argued for it. There is absolutely no reason why psychological connectedness should be necessary for a right to life. The human embryo still has a future of value before "psychological connectedness." That embryo will one day be the adult that will be living that future.

So clearly, Stretton's two "sufficient sources" are really not sufficient sources of a right to life. The unborn have a right to life due to the kind of thing they are, inherently valuable entities with an inherent nature as rational agents.

10. Conclusion. Contra Stretton, Kreeft's position, while containing some errors, is still the stronger position. Stretton's defense of the pro-choice position is poorly reasoned and rationally unpersuasive.

I don't consider Peter Kreeft among the best Christian philosophers, though I think he is a solid philosopher. I think his defense of the pro-life case could be much stronger, but I definitely think he makes a solid enough case. Stretton next turns to a much stronger pro-life philosopher, Frank Beckwith, which I'll examine in my next article.

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