Ethical Discussions on the Beginning of Life

With a background in both Philosophy and Biology, Theresa has always been interested in bioethical discussions. Particularly due to her fascination with embryology and her own research activities in this field, she was seeking to complement her biology laboratory work with philosophical and ethical discussion centered on the beginning of life.

A seminar given by Josef Quitterer introduced Theresa to the potentiality principle (PP), an argument that was widely discussed particularly when bioethical discussion on abortion rights were in full swing. As phrased by Jim Stone, a famous proponent of this argument, the PP states that “fetuses have a right to life in virtue of the fact that they are potential adult human beings” (Jim Stone, 1987, Why Potentiality Matters). In this article Stone argues for an identity relation between an embryo or fetus (even if it might at its current developmental stage not be self-aware and not consciuosly feel the will to live on) and an actual person into which the embryo has the potential to develop to. He argues that

1. “if the developmental path determined by a creature’s genetic constitution leads to a conscious good for her, the creature has an actual interest in growing up” (Jim Stone, 1987, Why Potentiality Matters).

Together with the widely accepted premise,

2. that having an actual interest in staying alive gives the owner of this interest a serious right to life,

this leads to the conclusion that

having the genetic constitution to develop to an entity which has an actual interest in staying alive gives an entity a serious right to life.

My critique about this argument could be formulated in two different ways.

Even if I would be fully conviced avout the validity of this argument, I have serious doubts about its soundness, i.e. I have strong doubts about premise #1 being legit.

I am not conviced that actual interest is a term that should be attributed to a non-self-aware entity that is arguably not capable of experiencing phenomena and sentients that we assume persons experience. Thus, I do believe that what Stone does here is a formal fallacy that could be categorized as a “fallacy of four terms” (quaternio terminorum). Even though he uses the same term “actual interest” in both his premises #1 and #2, it is not sound to assume that they reference the same thing since “actual ineterst” can sensibly only be attributed to self-aware conscious beings. More specifically, the wrongful assignement of “actual interst” to non-conscious entities should be considered a “Metábasis eis állo génos” or a “category-mistake”.

The extend of uncostumary effects that would come from a habit of assigning states, interests or rights of an entitiy which exists in the future but to which an entity today has the strong inherent potential to develop into (by following “the developmental path determined by a creature’s genetic constitution”), was nicely illustrated by British bioethicist John Harris:

“We are all potentially dead, but no one supposes that this fact constitutes a reason for treating us as if we are already dead.”

John Harris. Wonderwoman and Superman: the Ethics of Human Biotechnology, Oxford U.P., 1992. p. 34.