Dualism, Substantial Identity, and the Precautionary Principle

What Would Make Punctualism True?

In the last chapter, I suggested that there is good reason to favour the gradualist view of personhood’s emergence at the beginning of life over the punctualist one. I did not claim, however, that punctualism is incoherent or impossible. It could conceivably be true that the beginning of personhood in an early human being is like an ‘existential pop’. It is only that what this commits us to holding in the personhood continuums makes it difficult to believe.

But perhaps there is nevertheless a basis for accepting the punctualist thesis. It is worth asking what, if anything, would make punctualism true. More specifically, I want to consider whether any particular view about the nature of personhood and the sort of quality it is might lead to the punctualist thesis, and whether there is any good reason to accept those further commitments.

As part of their rejection of all ‘developmental’ (or, post-conception) theories about the beginning of personhood, Robert P George and Christopher Tollefsen argue that such accounts rely on an incoherent and erroneous conception of the kind of fact personhood is.1 They first reiterate their claim that all post-conception thresholds make arbitrary determinations (ones which they do not believe the conception threshold has to make) between degrees of maturation which cannot be morally distinguished. Consequently, they think it an implicit claim of developmental views that what makes a human being a person is ultimately a decision or stipulation by an individual or society as a whole that personhood obtains at a particular point—a point deemed pragmatically desirable or appropriate.

The authors call this the ‘Attribution View’.2 They attack the Attribution View for being hopelessly relativistic on the question of when and if personhood ever obtains, making it possible that two people holding contradictory views on the question could both be right. They say:

But any view that holds, in regard to some type of claim or other, that there are no facts, no ‘right answers,’ but that answers, knowledge or truth are merely a matter of decision,

  • 1 Robert P George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday 2008).
  • 2 ibid 124.

Arguments about Abortion: Personhood, Morality, and Law. First Edition. Kate Greasley. © K. Greasley 2017. Published 2017 by Oxford University Press.

radically removes the possibility of error by making virtually every answer the right one. And this, in turn, radically eliminates, it seems to us, any possible motivation for studying biology or any other area of science.[1]

The suggestion that the Attribution View relativizes science is both odd and telling, for up to that point in their discussion the authors are considering conflicting accounts of the beginning of philosophical personhood, or of ‘human being’ in the morally meaningful sense, not of biological facts. It is therefore difficult to know what they have in mind when they refer to personhood as a biological or scientific category here. Of course, even some scientific categorizations must ultimately be decided by stipulation, such as the determination of whether Pluto is a planet or a large asteroid. No one thinks that the need for stipulation at the outer limits of astrological classifications means that the classification ‘planet’ is not a scientific one, that it is ungoverned by rules, or relativistic. Yet George and Tollefsen appear to believe that any need to stipulate a precise beginning of personhood within a certain margin has precisely these implications.

What would make their suggestion that the need for stipulation ‘radically removes the possibility of error’ about the beginning of personhood intelligible? Again, the claim here seems to assume the punctualist thesis is true, so far as it presupposes that there is a non-arbitrarily distinguishable ‘moment’ when persons begin. But it also seems to imply a very particular view about what kind of property personhood is—a view which, in turn, could help make the punctualist thesis explicable.

Consider the question: ‘Is this fetus a person?’ What is the answer to that question like? One view might conceive of the answer as being like one contained in a sealed envelope. When discussants attempt to give an answer, they are really guessing, albeit making reasoned guesses, at what is contained in the envelope. Moreover, each guess will be determinately right or wrong even if the answer inside the envelope can never be revealed—even if it remains permanently sealed with indissoluble super glue. On this view, the personhood status of a fetus is a completely independently existing fact. It is not a moral quality which simply supervenes on one or more physical or psychological properties, like human species membership, or consciousness, or rationality. It is a quality that has, in a sense, an autonomous kind of existence, completely set apart from all other facts about creatures which possess personhood status.

What I have described is a kind of non-reductionist view of personhood. The view suggests that the property of personhood is not reducible to other facts about human beings, but is instead separate from and further to them. The easiest route to this kind of belief about personhood is the claim that personhood consists in something supernatural (in the sense of being beyond and outside of the physical world, not in the sense of being spooky), like my body being possessed by a soul or some other ‘immaterial substance’, such as a Cartesian pure ego. Philosophers know this belief as dualism, famously described by Gilbert Ryle as the ‘ghost in the machine’ idea. On the dualist picture, persons are immaterial substances that inhabit human bodies but are not reducible to or identical with those bodies. They may be operating the bodies—pulling the levers, so to speak—but they are, in the most basic way, something set apart from them.

The dualist view of persons and the kind of non-reductionism about person- hood that it entails seem to fit well with the punctualist thesis. Firstly, if person- hood consists in this kind of a fact, the fact about whether an immaterial substance is yet inhabiting a human body, it would suggest that the question ‘is X a person yet?’ is in every case like the answer in the sealed envelope: separate and independently existing. If personhood consists in the possession of a soul or some other immaterial substance, irreducible to and non-identical with our human bodies, it also seems to follow that persons begin absolutely and completely, even if there is insurmountable uncertainty about exactly when they begin. It is easy to see why someone committed to dualism might embrace the punctualist thesis about how persons begin. Immaterial person substances like souls or Cartesian egos are not thought to obtain in degrees. On the dualist view, personhood seems to be all or nothing and immediately occurring. Consequently, for any given moment in the development of a new human, it is always either determinately true or false that a person has come into being: has the existential pop happened yet or not? It is possible to see why someone committed to dualism would be minded to look for a sharp threshold with which to identify the beginning of personhood, and to eschew any threshold that fails to pick out a non-arbitrarily distinguishable ‘point’ of moral import. If persons are separately existing immaterial substances, we will presumably want to know, and know with some degree of certainty, when those substances come to exist in human organisms. The absence of a good explanation for why a person substance has not begun to exist shortly before a putative threshold of personhood will be deeply disconcerting, especially where that threshold is used as a cut-off point for abortion. In summation then, this non-reductionist view of personhood suggests that there is no vagueness surrounding the beginning of persons, except of the epistemic kind.

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