The substance view of human value
Human beings maintain identity through time and change. That means you the adult are identical to the embryo you once were. Hence if you are valuable today, you were valuable at the two cell stage.
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 Welcome everyone to the Case for Life podcast. I’m Scott Klusendorf, president of Life Training Institute, and uh, today we’re gonna talk about something that often gets neglected in discussions on abortion, and that has to do with what is your fundamental view of the human person. A lot of times people want to talk about what persons can and can’t do without ever asking the question, what does it fundamentally mean?

To be a person, to be human. And today we’re gonna look at that because I think it’s important for having discussions with people who bring all kinds of assumptions to the table when they discuss abortion, but they never really defend them. One of the common objections pro-lifers get goes like this, well, it’s just your religious view that the unborn are human and outside of religion, you can’t prove that they are persons with rights.

Well, my first question is this. Can you say why anything has value in a right to life in a universe that came from nothing and was caused by nothing? I mean, if human beings are cosmic accidents, they’re cosmic accidents at every stage of development, and at least people like Peter Singer are honest about that.

But a lot of the people you might be talking to, Don’t realize that they are assuming things about human value that they haven’t argued for, and sometimes it’s very helpful if you can help them see that they’re making these assumptions and present to them a better view of the human person that actually can account for equality and value at every stage of development.

So when pro-lifers argue that the unborn are human beings with a right to life, We are relying on a philosophical view of the human person that can be argued for even in secular terms. And it’s a view known as the substance view of human persons and the substance view goes like this. Living things have inner natures that determine the kind of things they are, and they are identical to themselves through time and change.

So the substance view, for example, says that you are identical to the embryo. You once were. You didn’t come from an embryo. You once were an embryo, and you are the same being through every stage of development from. The beginning of your life until death, you’re the same being through all of those changes.

So if you are the same being through all of those changes, it follows that if you’re intrinsically valuable, now you are intrinsically valuable at every stage of your development, including the embryonic stage. That’s the substance view. Living things maintain identity through time and change, for example.

Your cat that never learns to meow is still a cat by nature. Even though it never functions at, its its full capacity as a a being that can meow. A dog that is missing a leg is still a dog by nature, even though it may never run as fast as your. You’re Greyhound at the local track, but it doesn’t follow, it stops being a dog just because it can’t function at the same capacity as other dogs in the same way, you as an embryo will not have the same immediately sizable capacities you will have when you’re later in life.

For example, as an embryo, you’re not gonna have the immediate capacity to think abstractly. To solve complex problems, to engage in language, to engage in community with other human beings. But it doesn’t follow that because you lack that immediate capacity for those things, that you’re not the same being at that stage of development as you are at a more mature stage.

No, the substance view says you’re the same v being. You just can’t function the same way you will as you get more mature. Now, let’s contrast a substance thing like a human being or a dog or a cat with a part like thing or artifact. Like the car in my garage downstairs, from where I’m seated now, there are a couple of cars.

For one, there’s a 66 Ford Mustang. That’s kind of my hobby car. Alright, that 66 Ford Mustang is technically not the same car that rolled off the assembly line in 1965, in the fall of 1965 because after all, a lot of its parts have been changed. The tires have been changed, the brake pads and cylinders have been changed.

I’ve tuned up the cooling system. I’ve changed the carburetor. I’ve changed the valve covers, I have changed the transmission. I’ve rebuilt the transmission. There’s a lot of different parts on that car that weren’t there when it was initially put together on the assembly line. And this is a distinction a lot of people failed to make.

They view human embryos as part, like things like my car. But they don’t see them as nature things. Things that evolve according to their inner natures. They don’t become more of what they are, rather, they unfold as what they are. So for example, if somebody says to you, well, how can you claim that embryo as a human being?

If you were to put two parts together on a car, you wouldn’t call it a car, would you? Well, no, we wouldn’t suppose. Right now we go to Bowling Green, Kentucky and we go to the Corvette factory that’s there, and we watch a Corvette being put together part by part, which you can do if you visit the Corvette factory in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

I. If you go there, you can follow the process of a Corvette being put together piece by piece. Now, nobody would say, if we were watching the design of a Corvette, that we have a Corvette. When the first two parts are put together, we wouldn’t say, oh yeah, there’s your Corvette. Enjoy it. Uh, no we wouldn’t because those parts that are put together might actually be used for something else.

The Corvette does not have an inner nature or substance that allows it to maintain identity through time and change the same way that a human being does. If we looked at a Corvette, when the fiberglass body is put onto the frame of the car, some of us might say, okay, we got a Corvette then. But a lot of us might say, no, not yet.

There’s no powertrain there. How can you claim that’s a Corvette? When the V eight engine isn’t there, we still don’t have 400 horses under the hood. All we’ve got is a shell. Others of you might say, okay, once the power train’s added, we’ve got a Corvette. And some of you skeptics, I know you, you’re gonna hold out until the tires hit.

At the, the floor of the production plant. Until then, you’re not going to accept that a Corvette is there, but it really doesn’t matter whatever stage you decide a Corvette is there. One thing is, sure, we do not think that there’s a Corvette, right? When you put the first two parts together, we recognize that that does not equal the sum total of a car, but human beings are not part like things like a Corvette.

Rather, we are substance things that. Emerge according to our inner natures. And by emerge I don’t mean we become more of what we are. I mean, we’re able to function at greater ability because of what we are a human being does something. No constructed thing like a Corvette ever did. No Corvette just shows up on the assembly line and drives its own development forward.

But when you were an embryo, you were already. Driving your own development. It was your inner nature that was driving your development and growth toward maturity. It wasn’t that you’re put together part by part, by an outside being like the Corvette is rather you emerged and became what you were based on your inner nature.

That’s the substance view. Of human persons, and that is the philosophical grounding for the pro-life view. We are not constructed things like Corvettes. We are substance things that are defined by our inner natures, not the number of parts we might have or functions we can perform. That’s the philosophical view that can account for human equality because it grounds human equality in our inner natures that give us identity through time and change.

Not the number of parts or the number of things we can do at a performance level giving us value. If you grounded in those things, obviously those with more of those traits have greater rights than those with less, as we talked about last time. Now, of course, not everybody agrees with a substance view of human value.

A lot of people say no. You’re not all there until you can do certain things or you grow to a certain level. And let me give you some of the common street level arguments you might hear. Somebody might come along and say, how can you say that embryo is a living substance when it doesn’t even have a brain yet?

How can you claim that’s a human being with a right to life when there’s no brain there? Let me ask a question. Does an embryo need a brain to live? Do you need a brain to live? The answer is yes. You do need a brain to live, but does an embryo need a brain to live? No. An embryo does not need a brain to live because something else coordinates.

Its bodily system so it can function as a substance, as a living, being through time and change. Where you need a brain, the embryo doesn’t. Something else is giving it its identity through time and change, and we would argue it’s its inner nature that was there from the very beginning. Unlike a car that isn’t there, from the time you put the two parts together, you were there from the very beginning.

You just had to grow and develop. That’s the substance view. Other people will come along and they’ll say things like this, well, We don’t allow a 16 year old to vote, and we don’t allow a 13 year old to drive a car, at least in most cases. So therefore, we should not be bothered by accrediting rights to people at various stages of their development.

We already do that in the way we treat voting laws. And in the way we treat driving laws, for example, you can’t drive till you’re 16. You can’t vote till you’re 18. Nobody seems to have a problem with that. So what’s wrong with saying that embryos don’t have the same right to life that they do when they’re older?

Here’s the problem with that. It is confusing natural rights. With merely government or what we call positive rights. So for example, I love going to England. If you haven’t figured that out yet, you will soon enough. I love going to to London. It’s my favorite city in the world. However, though I love going to the UK and love visiting the United Kingdom, I do not have a right to vote in the next UK election, and that’s very obvious why I don’t, I’m not a British citizen.

I’m an American. Just because I don’t have a right to vote in the next UK election does not mean I don’t have a right not to be gunned down in the streets of London. Anytime I visit Trafalgar Square, I have a natural right not to be unjustly harmed. That flows from my nature as a human being and is not dependent on what government says I have or don’t have.

My right to vote is based on citizenship. My right not to be unjustly killed is based on the fact that I’m a particular kind of being with a particular kind of nature, and humans by nature should not be unjustly killed, whatever their nationality or citizenry. So, That distinction between embryo and voting rights, for example, does not hold water because we’re talking about two different kinds of things when we claim the unborn have a natural right to life, here’s what we’re arguing.

We are arguing. They are a particular kind of living thing. A substance that has value based on its nature, not based on what government says or what it can do at a performance level. Rather you have your rights based on the kind of thing you are by nature. That’s the idea behind the substance view, and of course, all the performance views that we talked about earlier.

Don’t believe this. They think your value is based strictly on things you can do, like having enough maturity to see yourself existing over time or whatever. And we’ll talk about some of these in our, in a subsequent session, but you get the idea, it’s only the substance view. Grounds your value in your nature, and it’s only your nature that can determine your value through time and change.

If I were to ask you, when was your birthday, you’d give me a date and I’m going to assume for the sake of argument that you’re over the age of 18. If I asked you, do you have the same body now? That you had when you were conceived 18 years ago, or even born 18 years ago, forget conception, take birth. Do you have the same body today as you do now, or did then when you were born at age 18?

And the obvious answer is no. Every cell in your body’s been changed if you don’t have an inner nature that grounds your identity through time and change. In what sense then, are you the same being today as you were then when you were born 18 or more years ago? And the answer is, if you don’t have an inner nature that grounds your identity through time and change, we really can’t say you’re the same being, because if all you are is physical and your physical parts have changed over time, you’re not the same being today as you were then.

When we say the unborn are substances with a right to life, we’re saying that if you are equal and valuable today and you are identical to the embryo, you once were. There’s been no substantial change to your nature that would disqualify you from having a right to life. Then as you do now, that’s the substance view and that view can account for human equality.

Other views that base it on traits that come and go cannot. We’ll get into more of this next time, but for now, here’s the key takeaway. Living things like human embryos are not part, like things like a Corvette or a Mustang rather. Embryos are substances that maintain their identities through time and change.

They are the same. Being at a later stage of development and maturity as they were when they first began. They did not evolve into human beings from embryos. They were human from the beginning because embryos are identical to the mature adults. They were later, they will later become. That’s the key philosophical foundation for the pro-life view.

It’s good to keep that in mind and we’ll say more about this and challenges to it in our next episode.