Tuesday, September 21, 2004

Spectacularly Bad Argumentation


or, how having a Ph.D. and being an Eminent Scholar don't make you right.


I came across an article (Thomas A. Shannon and Allan B. Wolter, “Reflections on the Moral Status of the Pre-Embryo,” Theological Studies©51 (1990):©603–24.) that is a good example of this. Wolter has done marvelous work on John Duns Scotus, but he has fallen from his high standards here.

The argument is that the early embryo cannot be considered a person with full human dignity because it isn't an individual yet. It isn't an individual because it could still split into twins. Here's a quote:

“For, while it is correct to say that the life that is present in the newly fertilized egg is distinct from the father and mother and is in fact usually genetically unique, it is not the case that this particular zygote is fully formed and it is not a single human individual. . . . Because of the possibility of twinning, recombination, and the potency of any cell up to gastrulation to become a complete entity, this particular zygote cannot necessarily be said to be the beginning of a specific, genetically unique human individual human being. While the zygote is the beginning of genetically distinct life, it is neither an ontological individual nor necessarily the immediate precursor of one.”

This is a spectacular equivocation on individuality. There are at least two ways to understand "individual", and the quote uses both without noticing it. The first way to understand individuality is as uniqueness--having qualities that nothing else has. The second way is the so-called ontological individuality, and this refers to the transcendental quality of each being as one--everything that is, insofar as it is, is also one. It is the first that the authors deny of the early embryo, but it is the second which is morally significant. A person is an individual substance of a rational nature, as Boethius says, but that doesn't mean a unique substance. Otherwise, twins wouldn't count as persons. What it means is that the person is one, not a part of some other being.

Whether the early embryo can twin or not is of no importance for evaluating its moral worth. The fact is that it is an individual substance with a rational nature, whether or not later in its existence it gives rise to two such substances or not.

By Wolter and Shannon's reasoning, the worm is never one worm, because it has the possibility of being split into two worms.

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