Identity or Equality?

Which pro-abortion thinkers are right? Is it those who say we are biologically human but don’t exist as a self until brain function is present or those who assert that we are identical to our embryonic selfs but don’t have the same right to life then as we do now.


Auto-generated Transcript

 Hello everyone. Scott Klusendorf, president of Life Training Institute, and welcome to the Case for Life Podcast. You know, I keep thinking the fervor over this alleged debate will die down, and it hasn’t. I’m referencing a debate that two pro-life leaders had with a host named Destiny on a podcast called whatever, and I’m tempted to say that’s the perfect name for this particular podcast because.

It’s really not a debate that you see happening there. You just see whatever comes into the host’s mind that he throws out at the two pro-life leaders that are there. And the the substance of the view though, I think would be worth taking a look at because I think it’s easy to get lost in all the other stuff people want to talk about.

How did our side look? How did we come off? Did we interrupt too much? None of that really is what I want to focus on today. Trent Horn has a great. Summary of that debate going into the arguments that were advanced and just his analysis of it, and we’ll put a link to that in the show notes here on the website.

But for now, what I want you to know is that we’re gonna take a different look. We’re gonna look at what are the deeper ideas behind this idea that personhood doesn’t come into existence until. You have self-consciousness awareness over time, yada, yada, yada. The list is just endless. Who are the thinkers advancing this and how can you get behind the arguments to simplify them and make more sense of them?

And that’s what I’m gonna look at today. I’m not going to analyze the debate, per se, except to say that the host kept coming back to this idea which he asserted again and again and again, that there’s no. Person there until you have consciousness over time till you can value yourself over time till you see yourself existing over time.

And short of having an actual immediately exer exercisable capacity for self-consciousness, there’s no person present, therefore, abortion’s. Okay? At the earlier stages in particular. Because the embryo does not have the brain hardware yet to have self-awareness over time. That’s what I wanna look at. And again, Trent Horn does a good job about looking through these arguments in more detail than I’m going to do here.

I want to get to the thinkers who started people thinking this way, who are the academic hotshots that propose these kinds of ideas. And, uh, we’ll look at that and, and see what they have to say in this session. And I’m not going to go deep dive into it, but I do want to give you a working paradigm for working through these kinds of arguments that come up from time to time again.

I mean, how many times have we heard people say to us, the unborn are human, but they’re not persons, and they assert that is if it’s something that is beyond even arguing. And the host certainly did that here. In fact, it was frustrating because he never really took a deep conversational dive. Into the concepts he was tossing out.

He would toss out a concept and jump to another one. And it was more of a gotcha interview than it was a deep thought experiment, which I’m disappointed in, but that’s the reality of our culture today. So let’s review what we talked about last session. Just briefly. We talked about the substance view of human persons, and here’s what the substance view says.

You are identical to yourself through all stages of development. Living things, in other words, are substances that maintain identity through time and change. They’re not part like things like the little desk you see behind my shoulder here rather. Unlike that desk that is merely a sum total of its parts, living things have inner natures that ground their identity through time and change such that if you gain or lose a physical part, you don’t stop being you.

You remain yourself through all of those changes and how that applies to the pro-life view is simply like this. If you are intrinsically valuable today, you are intrinsically valuable at every stage of your existence because you’re identical to yourself. As long as you’re in that living period of life.

In other words, you are identical to the embryo you once were. Meaning if you’re intrinsically valuable, now you were intrinsically valuable, then that’s the substance view. But that gets challenged by those who hold, as we talked about last time, to what we call the performance view of human value, and that performance view of human value says, Being human means nothing.

Your inner nature, even if you have one, which they would dispute, some of them that you even do, but their view is what matters is not what you are by nature. A substance that maintains identity through time and change rather, you are simply. Valued based on your performance, your immediate capacity for self-awareness or having desires or whatever trait they arbitrarily pick out.

So that view is in, in, in a rival relationship to the View Pro-Lifers Hold, which says Your identical and valuable at every stage of existence. Nothing changes substantially from one change of development to another. You remain yourself. The way to make sense of the opposing view, though, those that say the substance view doesn’t hold up, is to recognize that the arguments come in two forms.

First, there are those who challenge the substance view by saying, You are not identical to the embryo you once were, that was a different entity back then. Sure. At conception there’s a biological being that comes into existence, but that being was not you. You did not exist until you had what they would refer to loosely as.

Mental continuity until you could see yourself existing over time and you have memory connected through experience where you value your existence over time. The whole idea being that there’s no you there until you have mental continuity. The real you is not a body. The real you is thoughts, cognitive processes.

That’s the mental continuity view. Now, there’s another view that denies the personhood of the unborn that is a little different, and that view says you are identical to the embryo you once were, but you don’t have the same rights. Then as you do now, those rights come as you develop desires. You develop organized cortical brain function.

As David Boin will argue as we’ll see in a minute. I. In other words, there’s really two rival views within the pro-abortion view of personhood that are competing with each other. One advanced by Peter Singer, Michael Tooley, Giulini Minerva, for example, that says you didn’t exist as an embryo. That was a different subject of being back then.

You did not exist until you had. Thoughts, memories, self-consciousness. And those two views are actually fighting it out within the pro-abortion side to see which one will actually take ascendancy. And I don’t know at this point which one will, but it’s important you recognize the thinkers behind these views.

So let’s talk first about the men mental continuity view. Again, that is the view. That says you don’t have rights, you don’t have identity even until you are a conscious being with memory connected through thought over time. That’s the mental continuity view, and that was the view that this destiny host held.

And he was trying to tell the pro-life advocates. He was debating that, uh, there’s no fetus that’s a person because it doesn’t yet have. Continuity of memory, continuity of thoughts, self-awareness, consciousness. That’s the mental continuity view. He didn’t defend that view. He just kept asserting it. And let me give you some thinkers who hold to this view because again, it’s gonna help you to know who originated these thoughts.

And let’s start with the first one, Michael Tooley. He’s the most famous. He wrote an essay in. In defending abortion and infanticide. He, he said both of them are permissible, and I like his consistency, though of course, I find his conclusion barbaric. And just to summarize some of what Tulley argues here is his main.

Point. He basically argues that until you have a continuing sense of self that gives rise to desires, there’s no you present and there’s no right to life. Being biologically human doesn’t mean squat. In fact, species membership doesn’t mean anything. What matters is having desires that rise from seeing your sense.

Yourself exist over time and until then, you’re not a you and you certainly don’t have any rights. Now what Thule goes on to argue that is important to keep in mind, he argues that certainly you were a potential rational being when you were a fetus or embryo, but you weren’t an actual one. In fact, you’re not an actual one until you can immediately exercise.

This continuity over time that we just spoke about. Fetuses are actual, uh, biological entities, but they’re not actual persons. They’re only potential persons. And then tulle makes this argument, I. We do not give rights to potential persons, only actual ones, and he goes on to argue that we have no obligation to turn potential rational agents into actual ones that really we can interrupt that process or not begin it.

If we want, and he gives the example of a kitten serum, and this is kind of creative on his part. I don’t think it holds as, I’ll show you in a minute, but it certainly is interesting. Let’s give him credit for. Uh, coming up with some creative ideas to justify his position. He says, imagine we come up with a kitten serum that basically allows you to inject a kitten, and this injection will turn the kitten from a potentially rational being to an actual one.

And what he argues is if we were to give the kitten the shot, the the serum, the. Potential or the rationality serum, we’ll call it. Forgive me, I’m getting this a little bit crazy here. I’m trying to make it as clear as I can without losing you in all the details. But the idea, imagine we had this serum and you have the ability to inject the kitten with it.

Turning the kitten from a mere kitten to a rational being. Thule then asks two questions. First, are you obligated to give the kitten the serum just because it’s a potential rational agent? And he of course, answers no because the kitten as is, is merely a potential rational agent with no continuity of memory, no continuity of thought, and therefore not a person.

Therefore, if you deny the kit in the serum, You haven’t wronged the kitten. And then he asks the second question, if it’s not wrong to give the kitten. To not give the kitten the serum in the first place if it’s, if it’s not wrong, to refrain from turning the kitten into a rational being, why is it wrong to interrupt that process once it’s begun?

And he argues that abortion and infanticide are legitimate and morally permissible ways to interrupt the process of turning a potential rational agent into an actual one. So that’s too Lee’s. Uh, basic argument there. And, uh, he, he just goes on to argue that whether it’s a newborn or a fetus, you are simply preventing.

The emergence of a rational being if you practice infanticide or abortion. Alright, that’s tulley. Uh, what could we say about this? Well, I think there’s a lot of things we might say about Thule’s argument that, that make it problematic. First, I think we can really challenge the premise that species membership doesn’t matter.

This is a, a very weak problem, I think in the mental continuity view. It’s, I should say it’s a strong objection to it. You can’t just assert that species membership doesn’t matter. We have very strong intuitions That species membership does matter. Let me give you a few, uh, for example, a dog that can’t read a.

Isn’t a tragedy, but a 16 year old girl who can’t read is one. Why? Because the dog is not failing to flourish according to its nature. If it can’t read, dogs by nature do not read. 16 year old girl should know how to read, and that’s why we consider it a tragedy if the 16 year old doesn’t read, but the dog.

Or, or the dog. The 16 year old is a tragedy if she can’t read the dog. Not reading isn’t one because we recognize that by nature dogs are not failing to flourish if they can’t read. Uh, I think you could also point out that species membership does seem to matter. If we actually just look at our deepest intuition thoughts here.

A hit and run with a squirrel is not something anybody loses sleep over, but a hit and run with a newborn, even one that is mentally disabled, is going to be something that should trouble us. Or as Christopher Kayer famously points out eating a hamburger and eating a Herald Burger or. Two different things.

Eating a hamburger is morally permissible, but eating a Herold burger, even if Harold only has the mental ability of a six year old, or not even a six year old, let’s say he has only the mental ability of a cow, we still think that is a horrific injustice. And our intuition scream That’s wrong. We should not be eating Herald.

So I think we do understand that species membership does matter. It’s not something you can just wave away with a wand the way that tulle wants to do it. I think too, that tulle, very problematically confuses passive potentiality with active potentiality. Let’s look at this for a moment. If you inject the kitten, And he becomes rational.

He only becomes rational because an outside agent injected him externally with this serum. The question is, does the embryo need an outside agent to become rational? And the answer is no. It is rational by nature. The embryo is simply not rational because of its age, not because it’s not the kind of thing that has rationality if allowed to grow and mature.

There’s a real difference between the kitten that can only become a rational being if we inject him. And that embryo or fetus, that human embryo or fetus that is rational by nature, needing only to grow and mature, to be able to exercise rationality. The kitten will never be able to exercise rationality, but an embryo or fetus will if allowed to grow.

And this is a, a distinction between active and passive potentiality. That, that I think, uh, thinkers like Singer and Michael Tooley here. Here, ignore and overlook. Um, we can also challenge that. Having desires doesn’t seem to ground the right to life very well. Somebody that says, well, until you exist over time and have desires to go on living over time, you’re really not a person.

I can think of a lot of counter examples, and Thule himself, to his credit, found these problematic and later revised his theory. But a slave, for example, cannot desire, may not desire its freedom. Is is he still entitled to it in virtue of his nature as a human being? I think we would argue, yes. That a slave that doesn’t desire his freedom is somehow being thwarted from having that which is good for him, and therefore we ought to oppose slavery.

Even if the slave desires to be one. We would say that’s a disordered desire, and this gets to another point. What really matters is not. What we desire, but what is ultimately an objectively good for us? The problem with abortion is not that it deprives someone of desires, it’s that it deprives someone of an objective good life itself.

We ought to. Be thwarted from pursuing desires that are harmful. If I have a desire to drive a car off a cliff, it’s right for you to thwart that desire and stop me from doing it because it’s depriving me. If I fulfill that desire, it deprives me of something that is objectively good. And what makes abortion wrong is not that it deprives of being of desires, it deprives of being of something that is objectively good.

Here life itself. So I think Thule mixes all of this up and the host Destiny has the same problem. His view, which stems from thinkers like Thule and Singer, gets in the way of him seeing why the pro-life position actually can be unpacked to make rational sense. Now, Peter Singer is another one who holds to the mental continuity view, and he basically will argue.

That until you have self-awareness over time and value your existence over time, it’s not wrong to kill you because there’s no you there. Uh, to, to cash out his view a little further, he says that to be a person is to see yourself existing over time in different places with continuity of memory, with a capacity for desire.

So, again, similar to Tulley with a, a few fine tuning arrangements there, but we could ask Peter Singer, what do you mean by self-awareness over time? Do you mean actual self-awareness? I mean, where does that leave us? I mean, think about this for a moment. If I have to be actually self-aware to have a right to life, that would mean you can kill me if I take a power nap at two o’clock this afternoon.

It would also mean that, uh, in addition to killing me in my sleep, it would mean if I’m in a coma, you could kill me or if I’m under anesthesia. But I think we all know that’s not a very morally sound position to take. The, the, the key thing here is this. Why do I have to have actual self-awareness to have a right to life?

Again, this is something Peter Singer and the host of this debate that I’m referencing didn’t answer. Why are these traits value giving in the first place? We talked about this last time, but we’re gonna keep coming back to it. Because it’s not enough to simply assert that these traits matter. You’ve gotta give us a real argument for why they do matter.

And I don’t think that Singer and Thule and others do that, and certainly this host on the whatever podcast didn’t do it either. Destiny just kept asserting that until you have consciousness, you don’t exist. And he just dismissed the pro-life advocates that were on the show as not having any rational basis for their position that an embryo or fetus is one of us.

He kept denying that a. Uh, you existed that there was actually a person there at that time and he didn’t argue for it again. He just asserted it. Uh, why do we have to have a sense of ourselves existing over time and through change and in different places? Let’s take singer’s actual comment here that you have to see yourself not only existing over time, but do so in different places and in different ways.

Kaser has a great example here. Imagine there were beings that were rational agents known as weather watchers. They never moved, but they had an intelligent intelligence level that exceeded our own. They, they just sat and watched the weather and were able to analyze it at a very deep cognitive level.

And their rational, their rational natures even exceeded our own. But they never moved. They just sat there. Stoic looking at the weather under Thule and Singer’s example, they would not be rational agents because they didn’t fulfill the obligation to see themselves over time and in different places.

These are problematic counter examples, but I think we can go even further for this and point out things that matter. Imagine a Buddha who doesn’t desire anything. He achieves nirvana. He never desires a thing and. We say he’s not a person because he doesn’t have immediately exercisable desires. I think that’s a problematic view, and I think we can see the problem with it.

A third source for this mental continuity view. Again, I’m throwing a lot of detail at you and in in the show notes will break it down a little more clearly for you. Uh, Giulini and Minerva, they wrote a piece called Afterbirth abortion several years ago that absolutely ignited the bioethics. Uh, world out there because they argued that there’s no essential difference between fetus and newborn and no argument that justifies abortion.

That wouldn’t also justify infanticide. Two points I agree with, by the way. Uh, but they went on to argue we shouldn’t be bothered by infanticide. Because to be a person or a you means that you have to actually. Experience harm. You have to be capable of feeling it and experiencing it, and you have to have a desire not to be killed.

And if you don’t have a desire not to be killed, there’s no harm in killing you. In fact, I wanna read you exactly what they said. Uh, when they were asked about this specifically in a press conference, the journalist said to them, Hey, wait a minute. What if your mother had had an abortion, wouldn’t you have been harmed?

Wouldn’t you have been deprived of something? Or we might spin it another way. Suppose the abortionist doesn’t do a complete job and he just rips the arm off the kid, but doesn’t kill the kid. Was that an example of you being harmed And here’s what they said. This is very interesting. If you ask one of us, if we would’ve been harmed had our parents decided to kill us when we were fetuses or newborns, our answer is no.

Now, listen to their re, their reason here because they would’ve harmed someone who does not yet exist. In other words, the quote, us unquote, whom you are asking the question, which means no one was harmed. And if no one was harmed. Then no harm occurred. Now get the argument. Here they are. They are saying very clearly that back then in the womb there was no identity that was identical to them as adults.

That being back there was a a human biological entity, but it wasn’t them. In other words, body and and mind or body and self are completely separate in their view. This is body self dualism, which we also mentioned last time. Uh, there’s no you there, in other words. So why, why might we wanna push back on this a little bit?

Well, here’s one reason. How, how silly is it? And I think it’s very silly to say you can’t be harmed unless you feel the hurt. If you slit my throat while I’m under anesthesia having surgery, I won’t feel it. But I have definitely been harmed. Or suppose you cheat me out of a just inheritance I have. $3 million coming to me and I never learned that I was cheated out of it.

Was I still harmed? Well, of course I was. So this idea that you must experience harm or feel it in order to be harmed, I think can be questioned pretty dramatically here. We might also push back and say, wait a minute, why do I have to, um, well, let me add it this way, if. Feeling harm is what makes abortion wrong or right or wrong.

And since the fetus they allege doesn’t feel harm, there’s no harm in killing the fetus. If I have to experience killing in order to be wronged, what would be wrong with instantaneous murder? Somebody comes up behind me, shoots me in the back of the head. I never feel a thing. I’m instantaneously killed. I think most people would say, yeah, I’ve still been wronged.

And it doesn’t make sense to say no harm happened simply because I didn’t feel it. We could also push back, I think on on this whole Giulini Minerva argument of afterbirth abortion, and ask the question, why is it so that until I desire something, I’m not deprived of anything, uh, that’s valuable. If you take it from me.

Why do I have to desire my life in order to have a right to life? And think about this for a moment. School children often do not desire an education, but we still make them go to school. Why? Because of failure to go to school would deprive them not of something they desire, but as we said a moment ago, something that’s objectively good, namely in education.

As we mentioned a moment ago, a slave may not desire freedom, but he’s still entitled to it. So these ideas, based on the mental continuity theory, I think lead to problematic views of human rights. But there’s another view that justifies abortion that goes a different route, and this would be the route that David Boin goes.

For example, David Boin is going to agree with pro-lifers. He’s going to say, you know what? Singer Thule, they’re wrong. You are identical to the embryo you once were. That was you back then. That wasn’t a different entity. That was you. You were the same being at the one cell stage that you are now. Today as an adult, however, says boin, and this is crucial.

You don’t have the same right to life back then as an embryo. That you do today as an adult, and in order to have a right to life according to boin, you have to have organized cortical brain function. That can only happen when you are at roughly 24 to 28 weeks gestation in the womb, and the reason you need organized.

Cortical brain function says boin is is because it’s having the immediate capacity for desires that gives you ultimately your right to life. And until you have immediately exercisable capacity for desires, you are identical to the embryo. You once were, you’re the same being, but you don’t have the same Rights.

Rights and identity are two different things. According to David Boon’s book, A Defense of Abortion, which he published in 2002. A couple of thoughts about this. Again, keep in mind the difference between the two schools of thought on the pro-abortion side when it comes to personhood. Those who say you aren’t there at all until you have mental continuity.

That would be Thule Singer, Giulini Minerva, to name a few. And then guys like David Boin who say you were there back then, that was you. But you don’t have the same rights then as you do now. So for David Boin, the issue is more equality, not identity. For the others it’s identity. So with a guy like Boin, we have to take a little different approach and we have to, we, we can ask the question as we did with Singer and Tulley.

Why are the traits you bring out as decisive value giving in the first place? It’s perfectly fine to ask that question. We can challenge his desire argument the same way we did Thule and Singer. But I think we have to be careful not to say he’s denying the identity of us back then. He’s not. He’s agreeing with, in fact, in one chilling passage in his book.

That is just unbelievable to read. He talks about having a series of pictures of his son, Eli, on his desk. The first picture shows Eli at the beach at around two years of age, and he’s sitting there in the wind, his hair is blowing, and his father is affectionately talking about how he, how the wind is blowing his hair, and then making it look interesting.

The next picture says, Boin shows him about an hour after birth, and he’s got a little. Blanket wrapped around his head to preserve his body heat. Then Boin says, I also have photos on my desk of Eli in the womb four and a half months before he was born. And there you see, he says, Boin, a hand sticking back toward the mouth with a thumb extended toward the lips, and then Boin says this, here’s the chilling passage.

There is no doubt in my mind. We are looking at the same little boy at every stage of his development. In other words, Eli, the fetus is identical to Eli, who’s sitting on the beach at age two, but then Boin says this, the thesis I will argue for in my book is that it would’ve been perfectly permissible to end Eli’s life.

At that earlier stage, and Boin isn’t going to flinch from that. He will argue that all the way through his book, Eli is identical to his former fetal self, but he didn’t have the same right to life then as he does now, because he didn’t have organized cortical function that could lead to brain development.

Anyway, those are kind of the, the, the, the scholars that have advanced these arguments. And it’s good for you to know their names. It’s good for you to know a little bit about them so you can kind of make sense of these arguments you hear at the street level. Because what you saw in that debate with the two pro-life leaders, if you decide to go look it up with that, that podcaster named Destiny, What you saw was someone throwing out all kinds of ideas that I doubt he has studied.

I don’t think he’s read Peter Singer. I don’t think he’s read Michael Tooley, because if he had, I think he would’ve made his case more thoughtfully. Andy would’ve done a better job engaging with the pro-life leaders instead of it just being who can out shout who? And again, Trent Horn has some very good thoughts on this debate.

We’ll link to it in the. The comments on social media and on the webpage. If you haven’t been to scott kozdorf.com, I invite you to go there. We’ve got our show material there. We’ll put notes and blog posts there, and we’ll have other material coming up about a course you can take where you can take an even deeper dive into these ideas we’ve been looking at at this podcast.

But for today, here’s the key distinction to keep in mind. For those pro-abortion thinkers that say, being human is not enough. You have to be a person. They come in two types and you need to remember these two types. The first deny that you are there until you have mental continuity. In other words, abortion is not wrong because there’s no you there.

If we kill you in the embryonic and fetal stages. The other group says, no, you were there. However, you didn’t have the same right to life then as you do now. So one group is gonna focus on identity and say there’s no you there. The other is gonna focus on human equality and say, you don’t have the same rights then as a fetus that you do now as a young adult or adult.

So that’s the distinction to keep in mind, and it’s helpful to keep this. In the forethought of your thinking as you’re engaging people who throw out arguments they probably haven’t researched and probably don’t know the foundation for. Look forward to seeing you next time.