Wednesday, March 29, 2006

The Essence of a Being

Over at Red State, a "pro-life" person named PhoenixFire is saying some very strange things:

Personhood is obviously dependent on the essence of the being and has nothing to do with external factors. Objectively, the essence of a being is determined by its DNA. So the definition of a person, which ends up the same as that of a human, should be: A person is any life form (characterized by one or more cells and the ability to grow, respond to stimuli, metabolize, and reproduce) with human DNA.
Which proves, yet again, how easy it is to solve thorny scientific and ethical problems when you drift in a Sargasso Sea of willful ignorance.

What is "human" DNA, in PhoenixFire's sense? Is it DNA that leads to a specific outcome in terms of function and structure - a functional cortex, for instance - or is it DNA that simply comes from human parents?

And what on earth is the "essence" of a human being? Self-reflexivity? Intentionality? Interpellation? Language? Compassion? The love of God? Or does one simply know it when one sees it, like pornography?

I assume PhoenixFire is presenting the ability to grow, respond to stimuli, metabolize, and reproduce as conditions that must all be met to justify a finding of humanity, and thus of personhood. But if a genetic defect leads to, say, anencephaly, there may be no response to stimuli at all. It's not reasonable to say that a child born with anencephaly isn't human. But one could reasonably argue that such a child is not a person.

Also, infertility can keep someone from being able to reproduce, without making him or her a nonperson. PhoenixFire's standards for personhood are perhaps a bit too high.

Or perhaps they're a bit too low. Human spermatazoa contain human DNA. They grow from spermatocytes. They can respond to stimuli, and metabolize. As for spermatocytes, they reproduce through both mitotic and meiotic division. By PhoenixFire's standards, then, a spermatazoan would seem to be a "person." The implications of this are troubling, to say the least.

The debate over the basic terms of bioethics will have to continue, I'm afraid. PhoenixFire's "person" is like Shakespeare's crocodile: it's shaped like itself, and the tears of it are wet.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, if you have to come up with something that sounds philosophical and backs up the conclusions you've already drawn, PhoenixFire's definition is as good as any.

That first part sounds Aristotelian:
Personhood is obviously dependent on the essence of the being and has nothing to do with external factors.

But Aristotelian ideals exist only in the sky or someone's head. So we need a good grounding word.
Objectively,

And some modern science.
the essence of a being is determined by its DNA.

Now, that's an interesting leap. From the clouds to the microscope. And it does bring up that spermatozoa question, or whether menstrual pads should be collected and reverently buried under a little tombstone. Perhaps it could be amended to say "a full complement of DNA."

CKR

Phila said...

Yeah, specifying "a full complement of DNA" would at least save us from having to extend rights to Spermatazo-Americans. Although it still raises questions about how to handle ectopic pregnancies, and fertilized eggs that fail to implant (maybe we better check those menstrual pads after all!).

There are lots of interesting questions here. PhoenixFire says that form is not what makes people human, apparently failing to realize that the DNA molecule is a form in its own right. If DNA has an "essence," it must be in its coding. Which makes one wonder what happens when that coding is wrong; the implication would seem to be that some people are less human than others. PhoenixFire has managed to get from essentialism to eugenics in seconds flat (though God knows it's not a long trip, as Plato himself demonstrated).

Anyway, the gist of the argument - such as it is - seems to be that one is owed ethical consideration on the basis of what one has the potential to become. I'm looking forward to the reconciliation of this view with capital punishment and just war theory.

Thersites said...

Personhood is obviously dependent on the essence of the being and has nothing to do with external factors.

That "obviously" is wonderful.

Anonymous said...

If DNA has an "essence," it must be in its coding.

Well, PhoenixFire says that "the essence of a being is determined by its DNA," so I don't know that we need to look at DNA's essence.

But if it is indeed in its coding, then a computer file of one's DNA could be considered a person. Cloning at the touch of a "copy" button! Scary indeed.

And I think I should have referenced Plato rather than Aristotle above. My only excuse is allergy; the junipers are involving the rest of us in their sex lives.

CKR

Phila said...

Well, PhoenixFire says that "the essence of a being is determined by its DNA," so I don't know that we need to look at DNA's essence.

I think we may as well, in order to distinguish - for the sake of argument - between the idealized, "eternal" human DNA that codes for human beings, and a specific arrangement of human DNA that codes for an individual who then fails to meet PhoenixFire's five-point test for personhood.

In order to outlaw abortion, PhoenixFire wants to treat DNA as "essentially" determinative of personhood in a blastocyst...while specifying (inadvertantly, I'm sure) that the blastocyst - or the individual it grows into - must have four contingent properties to qualify as a person. So there's an essentialism of the species and of the individual here. And they seem to me to be at odds, so that PhoenixFire runs the risk of calling a blastocyst a person, and the defective being it may become a nonperson. Which of these outcomes is "essential"?