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Having returned from the turn of the Fourth Century B.C. to the turn of the Twenty-First A.D., Socrates has eagerly signed on as a Philosophy Now columnist so that he may continue to carry out his divinely-inspired dialogic mission.
I have a problem. Let me explain. I hold that existence and essence can only be separated in thought and not in reality. For example, the essence of my noble dog Odysseus and his very existence as a dog are so joined that you can never have one without the other. There is no break in this relationship, for there is no change in kind throughout his life: He is always a dog. Changes in location and physical development do not alter this basic fact. So I see that his essence or doggyness and his existence as a dog began together at his conception and continue (even in his wily ways) until he is no longer.
Now to my problem: Why is humanness not like dogness? That is, why is a person not a person upon conception? The new being is not a part of its mother, for it has its unique DNA. It grows and develops according to its own plan, so that it may have brown eyes where the mother’s are blue, and so forth; thus, we cannot even say that it is her cells. Furthermore, no one would say that the mother ‘with child’ has four legs and two brains. Clearly, then, it is not a part of the mother, like an appendage, is it?
Yet some say this very thing. “Let the mother do what she wants; after all, it is her body.” By the dog of Egypt, Socrates, will they only see with their eyes and not with their mind? I know that the newly conceived human does not look much like a human. But it is not a question of what it looks like; it is a question of kind. And if it is not human, what is it? It is not mere cells, for human cells are always someone’s cells. But they are not the mother’s cells, so whose are they?
Some say, “The embryo is only a potential human, but not a human being, not a person.” But while it is being potentially human, what is it actually? I do not wish to burden society with unnecessary metaphysical truths, but the problem seems to me a most pressing one. If the embryo is a person, and its essence is present with its existence, then I see many crimes in the news; and if the embryo is not a person, then people are not persons either, and I see many more crimes in the future. Either way, I feel quite prophetic in saying that the chains of injustice have been broken and the beast of self-deception set free. I seek justice for the human person. I seek reality, not what merely appears to be real. Please guide me, dear Socrates: How do I teach the blind to see past their wishful definition?
I am moved by your heartfelt inquiry. The issue to which you allude – whether abortion is ever justified – could not be more central to philosophy or to human life. I am also gratified that you treat the question with argumentation rather than passion only. The latter shows that you care, so we are not just wasting our time debating abstract matters; but the former gives us a rational basis for possibly making some progress on the problem.
You invoke several concepts of a metaphysical nature in your brief: ‘essence,’ ‘existence,’ ‘person,’ ‘human,’ etc. I must point out that ambiguities lurk among them. For example, to be canine, or to be human, is not necessarily the same as to be a dog, or a human. You may think that your equation of existence with essence denies my suggestion, but I disagree. It may be quite true that anything which is, that is, which exists, must be something, that is, have an essence. But this makes it of a kind, as you point out, not necessarily a particular being of a kind.
Take my snout. What is its kind? Well, it is of the kind ‘snout,’ I suppose; but also it is human, is it not? Were you to compare it to Odysseus’s (the dog, that is), I hope mine would prove the smaller, prominent though it may be (and though I may be as wily as he). But clearly you could distinguish the one as human, the other canine. Yet my snout is not a human, is it? Gogol wrote about a walking nose, but mine, while sometimes running, has not yet been seen stalking the agora on its own. So while I take your very interesting point that an embryo’s cells and even the zygote have a different composition from the mother’s cells, does it follow that they belong to some other human being? Only if to be human implies that one is a human.
Look at it this way. What if I had six toes on one foot and you had only four? I might, in a fit of generosity, agree to a transplant to even (or, actually, odd) things out. But once the operation had been concluded, whose toe would it be then? The fifth toe on your foot would presumably, at least at first, have all of my DNA and none of yours. But if somebody stepped on it, wouldn’t you, rightly, protest that they had stepped on your toe?
Referring to the person who is harboring the foetus as the ‘mother’ is perhaps another example of jumping ahead of anything your argument has demonstrated. Of course, to refute another’s argument is not to have proven its conclusion false. So, given your convictions and the weightiness of the matter, I encourage you to continue to seek sound argumentation for your position. You may even be able to refute my refutation, or else, accepting it, tweak your own argument into better shape.
Let me end by remarking that this is precisely why I myself have never sought to be a prophet: The really important issues bear endless thinking about before one can ever be certain. I don’t say not to take a stand; on the contrary, I think that is essential. But let us at the same time recognize that our ‘opponents’ might be on to something as well.
Yours as ever,
Readers who would like to engage Socrates in dialogue are welcome to write to Dear Socrates, c/o Philosophy Now, or even to email him at: email@example.com Socrates will select which letters to answer and reserves the right to excerpt or otherwise edit them. Please indicate if you wish your name to be withheld.