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Short Story

Herm & Matozoon

Peter Cave eavesdrops on a dialogue between a couple of the billions of little non-persons in Soho, London.

HERM: You know, I’ve been thinking...

MATOZOON: Come, come, Herm, you are but a sperm and so of no right sort for thought.

H: I swim corrected, but I am at least of sort for potential thought.

M: True enough. So potential thought wrought upon what? O Herm, O sperm!

H: Upon killing and beliefs – showing numberist, spacist and texturist character traits...

M: Whatever do you mean? Sorry, I mean ‘potentially mean’.

H: Being but sperm yourself, Matt, you potentially mean, ‘potentially mean’ – but that’s by the by and let us assume such ‘potential’ qualifications read, when speak we of our musings, wonderments and the like. Well, many people believe abortion to be, in some serious way, bad. Even pro-abortionists usually regret both abortionist need and deed. Yet these many, many people possess no serious concern for humble sperms. Some people maintain preparedness to die to protect foetus, embryo and even recently fertilized egg – but a sperm or unfertilized egg...? Well, aside from odd religious scruples on seed spilling wrongs – and aside from rare instances of partners saving sperm of men at death’s door or even beyond – no one really cares for our lives.

M: But those who see glows and sparkles in human lives would greatly despair if all sperms were badly to fare. That would bring premature end to humanity – and that would undoubtedly many offend.

H: That’s a general concern. I raise the issue of particular individuals – concern for me, for you, for those over there. Any individual foetus, embryo or even recently fertilized egg, generates concern directed towards that particular foetus, embryo or recently fertilized egg, yet such concern, odd cases apart, is typically lacking for any individual sperm or egg unfertilised. If loss of a foetus is morally undesirable, then such undesirability should apply to us billions. Yet unwept, we remain.

M: Herm, don’t race; keep your emotions in place. Inconsistency there is not. After all, the fertilized egg – embryo, foetus – is a potential person. In exceptional cases, the sperm is valued solely as instrument necessary for generating fertilisation and hence potential person; but potential people, we humble sperms ourselves are not: we need eggs to get us person-bound – as well you know.

H: ’Tis true – for even now I look for welcoming egg on distant horizon, but why should my eggish need explain such significant difference in attitudes towards – on the one tail – me now and alone and – on the other tail (if other I had) – the fertilized egg resulting from egg and I having mutually egged. After all, fertilized eggs – embryos, foetuses – also need much from outside to develop, yet that undermines not at all people’s protective embrace with their insistence on abortion’s wrongness.

M: Ah, but fertilized eggs contain all the genetic material required to develop into people – but not so you, you sorry sperm. As said, you need egg.

H: Consider me and egg Eggwina towards whom now I head. She’s some centimetres away, a long way maybe, especially with the rough and tumble from my competitors’ puff and fumble. Still, we can speak of that entity composed of this particular egg and me. Let’s call it ‘Hermegg’. Hermegg possesses all that which the egg once fertilized possesses.

M: Despite single name, Hermegg is really two items. Hermegg consists of you, Herm, right here – and Eggwina some way away. There is no individual yet in existence whose potentiality is being thwarted or who is being denied a valuable future; and it is that that is essential for moral concern here.

H: You numberist, Matt! You are prejudiced in favour of one over two, at least when it comes to this issue and its issue. No awareness of inconsistency? A human being has parts, yet you still find yourself able to treat it as one. Fertilized egg in first few days may develop into two people – and throughout it remains divisible. Hermegg is an entity, albeit currently a bit spatially spread.

M: But ignoring divisibility (which if realized may destroy items divided) a human being’s parts are conjoined. You and egg are not; you are apart, well apart, if I may say so, Herm, given Eggwina’s sullen look as she sees your approach.

H: Texturist, spacist you! You show prejudice against space in individuals. Hermegg possesses spatial gap between one part and another, between egg and sperm bits; but so what? After all, an unkindness of ravens has gaps in between as does a flock of sheep and, dare I say, a murmuration of starlings – as, indeed, do the Crown Jewels, the University of Cambridge and every individual composed of atoms. And I may easily conceive, if that word I may use, of a species of individuals, human-like in all respects, save for gaps between, say, trunk and limbs.

M: ’Tis no matter of mere space. A human being – or, indeed, fertilized egg – is a unity whereas sperm and egg some distance apart are not. How to handle unkindnesses of ravens, nations and curious creatures dreamt up by you is another problem; but by stressing unity I manifest prejudice in favour of neither one over two, nor matter over space nor closely woven cotton shirts over string vests. I insist merely that what makes something into an entity true is that there should be, as that Leibnizian fertilized egg would unfoldingly claim, a principle of unity. And this is what, with due respect, Eggwina and you lack.

H: What is this principle?

M: The fertilized egg will naturally develop into – by its nature, with laws of nature operating, it will become – a person or persons, assuming no external interference; and this is morally significant.

H: You’re forgetting, Matt, that I and Eggwina will also naturally develop into...

M: Now, now, Herm, modesty should forbid. How do you know that Eggwina and your good self will develop together? I may reach her first and, if so, we should be discussing Mattegg – or maybe we are discussing no potential person because Eggwina rejects all.

H: “ility” is my middle name. I acknowledge my swimming may end in defeat and in detail with my Hermility’s humility; but the problem you raise is epistemic – to do with knowing which sperm, if any, will fertilize a particular egg. One day, there may be knowing ways; but even when ignorant as now, Eggwina, if fertilized, became so via a sperm’s success. How did that happen? Well, some time before, some centimetres away, the nature of that sperm with its winning ways and of Eggwina together determined fertilized outcome...

M: Plus external conditions; but following some persons philosophical, I insist that fertilized eggs are potential persons because they become persons of their own accord, with nothing external intervening, unlike us.

H: A baffling comment. Fertilized eggs only develop into persons, given lots of external nutritional interventions. Perhaps the story is that persons are the outcome, if no interferences upset developments natural to species’ members. But this applies also to Eggwina and me.

M: So, where does all this lead if all this I heed?

H: If fertilized egg destruction is morally wrong because it stops natural development into a person, then the same holds of the curtailment of sperm and egg get-together prospects. There is natural development involved in both cases – though, I’m bewildered why development’s naturalness is morally significant. Many natural developments, we rightly feel, merit prevention; and much that is artificial deserves promotion.

M: Ignoring that...

H: You see contraception, sexual abstinence and certain masturbatory activities are morally on abortion’s par – if what is wrong with abortion is the prevention of the actualization of persons who would otherwise have naturally developed: there’s a loss of those individuals’ valuable futures. Note too the consequences for pregnancy; that also prevents yet other individuals coming into existence.

M: Hey, all too fast! First, even if I accept that a sperm of many sperm once ejaculated close to egg has natural tendencies towards egg fertilization, this has no consequences regarding abstinence or masturbation. They involve human free choices and not solely spermatic eggward speedings. Secondly, various contraceptive practices destroy nothing; they merely prevent sperm and egg combining – something hugely different from destroying foetuses.

H: ‘Prevention or destruction’ has no moral significance, when the objection against abortion is the loss of the person who would otherwise have existed; though, in everyday contexts, those who delight in the destruction of valuable items might well be possessed of morally dubious characters.

M: But morality is not inspired solely by consequences. Destroying potential people is morally different from preventing the creation of such.

H: Matt, you forget that sperm and egg – Hermegg, for example – even if not yet joined still constitute a potential person, according to me. Preventing Hermegg’s parts from combining is destroying a potential person.

M: How about the intentions involved and free choices made?

H: Sigh! I doubt whether I can face the role of free will in generating a Hermegg. But already you have acknowledged far more than many anti-abortionists would dare – namely that barrier contraceptives, IUDs and similar possess a wrongness akin to abortion’s, if abortion is indeed a wrong due to lack of future person. Free will is of doubtful assistance in marking a relevant difference between a foetus and a Hermegg, when neither Herm nor egg is yet a-travelling. You are over impressed by distance, geographically and developmentally, between, say, pregnancy and a couple at glancing stage or even well before such glancing; I should tell you one day the tales of the Glancers.

M: Are you not hiding one key difference between fertilized egg and yourself plus Eggwina, namely Hermegg? Prior to conjunction, you might find yourself with another egg – and Eggwina with a different sperm; the result would be individuals different from Hermegg. Things are not yet fixed. This contrasts with eggs fertilized.

H: But whichever fertilized egg (if any) comes into existence, prior to fertilization that egg and relevant sperm existed and would develop in that way, whatever complex tales of hormone levels, lusts and glances. That uncombined combination possessed the requisite potential to become resultant fertilized egg and more.

M: Okay, if I accept neither ‘potential’ nor ‘natural’ helps mark moral distinctions, abortions’ wrongness might be to do with the investment made in the possible future person. Maybe the anti-abortion principle is: waste not investments.

H: A mercantile philosophy, as I see it, Matt, espoused by a Professor Dworkin in Life’s Dominion. Seeker after truth (and not just Eggwina) that I am, but no mercantile hermosopher I, I can I suppose identify some morally relevant differences between Hermegg and foetuses – but not the ones so far given. The earlier along the creation line, the less likely an adult person comes into existence; there are more and more possibilities which would lead to that future person’s failing to be. As we retreat from foetus to embryo to newly fertilized egg, there is more scope for things to go wrong. Swathes of possible failure regarding person production reduce as we draw nearer to the actual person.

M: Is not this the epistemic issue which you scorned?

H: These are metaphysical possibilities, though they may contribute to epistemic matters. I scorned groundings of differences between potential persons and non-persons (differences between individuals with valuable futures and ones without) in matters epistemic; but if we focus on what morality demands of people, that does in part depend on what they reasonably should believe and that partially depends on what is metaphysically possible.

It is bereft of moral force to say that Oswald should save the child, if Oswald knows of no child to save and could not be reasonably expected to know. Although it is good for the child to be saved, Oswald is not blameworthy.

M: Blame us not for ignorance, unless from neglect.

H: And if ’tis true that foetus destruction is wrong because of loss of that likely future person, then ’tis wrong, through contraception or abstinence, to stop Eggwina and me combining, if Hermegg were then to become a person. But it might still be that someone is more to be blamed for having an abortion than for contraceptive practices.

M: Why? I’m not quite there yet.

H: Indeed not, Matt – more swimming ahead.

M: Not there yet with your reasoning, Herm.

H: Well, abortion, contraception, abstinence to one side (for we are considering the moral status of engaging in such), a foetus of 30 weeks standing is swathed by fewer possibilities of failing to develop into a person than an embryo. That foetus is more likely to achieve personhoodness than embryo, though embryo has fewer failure possibilities than zygote and zygote fewer than sperm close to ovum and that has fewer than sperm and ovum some metres apart, present in heterosexual couple, with lustful hearts, glancing across dance-floor – and as for right now the ovum nearest Alice Springs’ centre and the sperm nearest the north door of The French House, Soho, London... well, multitudinous layers of failures would need to be cut through for that uncombined combination to combine... and as for the material from which we are made, well...

M: But what have....

H: These differing thicknesses of possibilities’ swathes have a bearing on people’s differing reasonable beliefs concerning likelihoods of persons coming to be. Participants often have more and more reason to believe that a person will develop, but for interference, the more they move along the developmental line, from past to future, from glancing to copulation to early pregnancy to late.

M: Er... therefore?

H: What we morally can be reasonably expected to do depends in part on what we reasonably believe likely. Destruction of a 30 week old foetus is extremely likely to be an action preventing a new person’s existence; as such, it requires a lot of what is morally desirable to counterbalance it. (Such a destruction might be deliberate preparation for later pregnancy with outcome morally rosier.) In contrast, contraceptive practices are far less likely to be so preventative of future persons: much contraception is unnecessary; and the small likelihood of future person loss by contraception can be easily outweighed by moral concerns to do with pleasure achievement, anxiety avoidance, maybe person creation at a more convenient later date – and so on.

M: Given fit sperms radically outnumber fit eggs – in developing Hermegg into foetus, one is thereby losing Mattegg and other possible combinations resulting from this copulation and others soon to occur.

H: Yes, but I am not fallaciously arguing that because by developing Hermegg we are losing either Mattegg or other sperm and egg combinations now or over coming months, it is morally acceptable to prevent the whole lot early on. Ignoring contraception and abortion, it is still unlikely that just any sperm/egg combination will occur and develop into a person; hence, using contraception to ensure no such person does exist has a different moral value from aborting.

M: And, I see, as you said, the moral value of actions depends in part on what we might reasonably believe regarding outcome.

H: Yes. While boxing champion Boxer plays Lark Ascending on violin, indoors in remote village by sea, it is remotely possible that there and then women are being mugged outside; and because of Boxer’s playing he hears not their screams and so fails to rescue them. Morality does not demand that Boxer desists from violin-playing because of such possibilities, even though it could just happen that women die as a result, in part, of his violin predilections. Contrast with Doctor in Soho, having just heard local explosion, knowing it is pretty likely wounded people will shortly be gathering, who picks up violin and plays on.

M: So, typically, contraception is less bad (if bad at all) compared to early abortion which is less bad (if bad at all) compared to late abortion which is less bad (if bad at all) compared to infanticide. And this is so because of what we can reasonably believe about likelihoods of loss and of alternatives.

H: Right, though avoidance of relevant evidence for reasonable beliefs – indeed, projects to secure convenient beliefs – guarantee no moral safety; for praise and blame depend in part on what it would be reasonable to expect one to believe about one’s actions – not just what one does believe.

M: Okay, I’ll swim with that.

H: With this concern for what we reasonably take to be likely, we grasp that – as with many other philosophical issues – moral assessment depends in part upon what is not the case as much as upon what is the case. Mlle Gazelle provides other examples of persons not being (See ‘On Not Being’, Philosophy Now Issue 19). For myself, right now, I am doing nothing – which for a sperm is suicidal. So, let me return focus to Eggwina. See her winking? Eggwina! Me, first! Me, first!

© Peter Cave 2003

Peter Cave is associate lecturer at The Open University and visiting lecturer at City University in London. Contact: pc@petercave.com.

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