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Presenting the pro-life case to libertarians, and the libertarian case to pro-lifers

Power and Act Notes Towards Engaging in a Discussion of One of the Underlying Questions in the Abortion Debate

In listening to the debate over abortion, I have frequently found that those on the two sides are using are two quite different ways of thinking. To some extent, this is a matter of “values”, of “worldview”. To that extent, those on both sides who see abortion as a religious issue will find the existence of such different perspectives as confirmation of their view.

In some respects, however, the dichotomy does not seem to require such a global perspective. In some respects, at least, it seems to manifest itself as a fairly narrow, relatively definable difference in modes of thought. Just above, I used the term “ways of thinking” — but this usually means simply that people disagree on some topic. Rather, people here seem to be using different structures of thought — in brief, the two sides have two different ways of engaging in the activity of defining.

Frankly, I have not heard very much discussion, on either side, of these two “mechanisms of thought”. Frankly, also, I rather doubt that I shall hear much of it in the future. Nonetheless, I hope this little paper will spark some discussion.

I take for granted that the points made here, and whatever points are made in response, have been made elsewhere, and many times before. But I suspect that most people who are concerned with public affairs will find the points terribly abstract — and only peripherally useful, at best, in understanding the debate over abortion. The points, I’m afraid, may well remain locked securely in whatever books and papers in which they now reside.

So, in writing this paper, I have tried to keep things as open as possible so that readers aware of one book or article or another will not feel constrained to silence because I was “really discussing something slightly different”.

If readers on either side of the debate are aware of books, or articles, or writers who have confronted the dichotomy, I hope they will let me know about them. Regardless of the larger debate over abortion, this paper will have been a success to the extent I find others who have similarly tried to explore the dichotomy that I see underlying at least part of the abortion controversy.

Two perspectives

At the foundation of the debate over abortion is the debate over prenatal personhood. Pro-lifers generally affirm that the preborn are persons from the moment of conception, from fertilization. Those who believe abortion should be legal generally deny prenatal personhood. (If they agree that the preborn are persons after, say, three months or six, they also usually agree that abortion can be restricted after that point.)

Listening to the debate, two general perspectives emerge, two ways of justifying one’s conclusion on this question.

First, there are those who hold the preborn are persons from conception. They hold that to be a person is a matter of what “kind” of being we are; they refer to our “capacity”, “power”, or “potential” for reason and choice — and point to even the zygote as having such a capacity. The preborn are argued to have the potential because, given time and sustenance, they will eventually manifest it. (Pro-lifers also describe the preborn in terms we may call “internal” — the fetus senses heat or light at such and such a time, hears sounds at such and such a time.) They insist the zygote is the same kind of being as the adult, differing only in degree. And being the same kind — however the issue is phrased — means they are persons.

Next, there are all the others — and here, there can be a wide variety. Some may assert personhood relatively early — say, with the onset of brainwaves. Others may deny it until well after birth.

It may seem unkind or inaccurate to lump together all these apparently disparate groups. And listening to defenders of abortion, one frequently hears them distancing themselves from one another.

But their differences arise out of their similarity. They all seem to be couching their position in terms that are alien to the pro-lifers. Some use terms like the “manifestation” of rationality; some insist upon some particular level of development before one can be called a person. Others wish to see a particular kind of behavior. Most look for things that can be observed from the outside.

They are all using a language of act, of demonstration, of behavior.

Some may phrase their position in terms of “machinery” — the presence of the cerebral cortex, say. But this, too, seems more a matter of act or degree — development — than of potential or kind. (For a bit more on treating it as power or potential, see below, “The machinery”.)

Seeing such a underlying dichotomy may seem simplistic to many of you. For the moment, you may wish to see the dichotomy as obtaining in its “pure” form only between the pro-lifers and those who concede personhood only near or after birth. Alternatively, you may wish to see it as obtaining only between the pro-lifers, on the one side, and those on the other side who disagree among themselves over relatively fine points in development as the point at which we become persons.

But I would point out that the logic underlying this dichotomy seems to apply equally well to discussing all the gradations in between conception and even advanced levels of maturity. (The mere fact that those supporting abortion do indeed take positions that are graded along time and development leads one to suspect that the notion of degree is applicable.)

Many formulations

Underlying the debate over prenatal personhood, then, there seem to be two different ways of “defining” what it means to be a person. Usually, I’ll refer to the dichotomy as power versus act. But, as I’ve noted, there a variety of formulations possible to describe the underlying dichotomy. Among them: power and act, kind and degree, capacity and demonstration, nature and behavior, potential and manifestation, etc., etc., etc.

I don’t think it’s necessary to try to decide which would be the best formulation of the dichotomy. Were we to do so, there might well be significant implications of each one that would be important in certain contexts. But relative to abortion, the dichotomy between the two sides is so great that the differences among those on one side can be set aside for this discussion. (Personally, I think the different formulations are merely stating different aspects of the same thing; but that’s neither here nor there.)

Two formulations I’d reject

Two pitfalls in formulation merit attention, though.

By “potential”, I don’t mean “possible”.

The bricks in a brick yard are not a “potential” house (or wall, or bridge). The most we can say is that they’re a “possible” house, etc. The acorn, shoot, or sapling, however, is a potential full-grown tree.

Both potential and possible are contingencies: to occur, they each require other things to be either present or absent. A good hurricane or earthquake can take care of both bricks and tree, and a drought alone can take care of the tree. But the tree is itself an active participant in actualizing its potential. That’s what living things do.

The zygote (and any living creature, any biological individual) is a self-assembler. The pile of bricks is not.

Also, I don’t intend a dichotomy between “potential” and “actual”.

I’m willing to go so far as a dichotomy between “potential for x” and “actualization of x”. A dichotomy between possible and actual may be valid. But as I’m using “potential” here, the potential for x is actual; the potential is currently existing, although the x is not. I am talking about a power of an existing individual.

A reply to one objection

Of course, one could say that potential means nothing more than possible; one could deny that there is any difference in reality between the bricks and the acorn.

According to that view, all we can know is that the bricks eventually wound up as a house (and that the brick masons took part), and that the acorn grew into a tree (and that rain and light, etc., took part also). Why acorns go through this so regularly, but bricks turn up in such odd associations, is not a question that makes any sense. All we can see is events. There are no why’s.

Well, the problem is that neither the universe nor the human mind seems to be congenial to that point of view. The universe is indeed relatively predictable, providing plenty of why’s to those willing to look. And the human mind is both willing to look and annoyed when no why’s are found.

The attitude that why is meaningless may be a convenient foil for discussion, but most of us are quite aware that it is a foil only, not a real question.

And to another

However, for those for whom the distinction between potential and possible is genuinely unsatisfactory, the resolution of the problem may be quite simple. I shall simply point back to the brick yard, then to the acorn. Given the different ways the two behave, what are the best words to use? Some have referred to those facts of life by the labels “potential” and “possible”. How shall we more appropriately name them?

This is the same approach I would take to those who object to formulations such as power and act or kind and degree. I am willing to accept practically any labels so long as they serve to describe the underlying fact.

I don’t mean by this to dismiss problems of formulation as mere quibbles over word play. Rather, the task is to not to let differences of formulation get needlessly in the way of dealing with the underlying facts.

Another formulation problem

One other problem of formulation is that the same words may be used by both sides to describe quite different things.

For instance, supporters of abortion may deny that the preborn have any “capacity” for reason and choice. And they may say that the “capacity” is indeed what makes us persons. Here, though, they’re using the word in a different sense than is used by the pro-lifer. For the defender of abortion, “capacity” seems to mean something that we can do pretty much as an act of will. That’s one way the word is frequently used. This “capacity” seems to be the manifestation of the “capacity” to which the pro-lifer appeals. (Again, see below, “The machinery”.)

I think we should be aware of the different uses of the same words. But I don’t think it poses any problem — the words have those different uses: the fact that the same term is used does not usually obscure the fact that it is used in different ways.

Some agreements

Before going further, I should note where I think both sides in the abortion debate agree (or where their disagreements are not material).

First, I think both sides more or less agree on the basic practical facts: the presence or absence of brainwaves, of concept formation, etc. Note: “more or less”. They obviously disagree to some extent, but I think those disagreements are immaterial to the basic point. When we’re talking about whether the zygote is a person, we don’t need to worry about what flavor of brainwaves appear at what week of gestation.

Also, I think both sides agree that reason and choice is the fundamental character that makes us persons. Again, the formulations certainly differ: reason and choice, conceptual consciousness, volitional activity, rationality, etc. The formulations may indicate significant differences about what being a person is, but I don’t think they go so far as to impinge on questions like one’s right not to be killed absent one’s initiation of any force.

Power and act

The question is how reason and choice make us persons.

Is it a matter of a power we have? (Or a potential, capacity, etc., etc.) Or is it a matter of an act in which we engage? (Or a behavior, manifestation, etc., etc.)

When they defend act, I think that its proponents would point out that they can practicably explain the data of reality without resorting to power. Even if we concede this, however, the presence of an adequate explanatory structure does not preclude the possibility that there are relatively better structures. If power can remove grey areas, then it cannot be dismissed prima facie.

By defining personhood as a matter of power, we dispense with at least most grey areas. The critical question would be whether the child is alive. We may still have fascinating questions — what are the implications of, say, a catastrophic genetic defect such as the absence of a brain? (I have to wonder whether life could be sustained in many of the sort of cases raised.) But at the minimum, we have fewer and rarer grey areas. They are, in fact, reduced to the area of abnormalities — we would not need to judge between normal stages of development.

Just above, I may have seemed to concede that one can practicably explain the data of reality without resorting to power. That, however, is debatable. We may reasonably describe the data without recourse to power, but I don’t think we can explain it (as indicated in “Two formulations I’d reject”, above).

Why does the individual that was once a zygote now discuss philosophy? (Thomas Aquinas, part of a world that believed that a homunculus was present in the “seed”, would simply deny that the same biological individual was still present; I don’t think that option is still open.)

It strikes me that the recognition of act entails the recognition of power. (Of course, one may say the power is necessary, but not sufficient for personhood. As I indicated near the very beginning, though, I haven’t seen arguments that explicitly accept the presence of the power but deny its sufficiency.)

But that brings us to another formulation of the question of prenatal personhood: power is what distinguishes both adults and the zygote from the lower animals; act is what distinguishes adults from zygotes; why is the difference between zygote and adult more important than the similarity?

And the question of the lower animals seems to cause a problem for the argument from act.

The problem of the lower animals

Most who hold to act also try to set it low enough to concede the personhood of at least infants and frequently the late-term preborn. But how does that square with denying personhood to the lower animals?

On any external index of “intelligence” (problem solving, etc.), it would seem that chimpanzees and other primates “think” more than infants. (If I recall some anthropology articles correctly, it seems that even infant chimpanzees “think” at a more advanced level than do human infants — even if only for a few weeks or months.)

If act is what counts, how can we include in the category of person those who act at a lower level than others we exclude?

The machinery

I think the response would be that at some point “the machinery’s in place” — the cerebral cortex, etc. But if the machinery isn’t producing the output, then we are talking power again, not act. And talking power, one has to face the fact that the power exists before the point at which the cerebral cortex (or what not) is produced.

“The machinery’s in place” in the zygote, too — after all, the nature of this “machinery” is to grow. And even at birth, the machinery still has growing to do before the human infant will manifest any superiority to a number of the lower animals.

A response?

I think one response would be to point to the question of essence itself — that, for example, Ayn Rand holds that essence to be an epistemological, not a metaphysical notion of essence. I have presumably been holding to a “metaphysical” notion of essence, of what it is to be a person. An “epistemological” notion of essence would sidestep all difficulties.

Frankly, I can see no relation between the epistemological/metaphysical distinction and the power/act distinction. The closest I can come is to fall back to the idea that power just doesn’t exist in concrete individuals. Somehow I doubt that Rand intended to say she was silent on concrete individuals. As noted, though, I haven’t been able to find any straightforward confrontation — Randian or otherwise — with the argument from power.

Nonetheless, I don’t really see that the metaphysical/epistemological distinction makes any difference here. We are not dealing with a phenomenon that strikes us all as inexplicable. It’s not as if rosebuds were turning into philosophers or infants into oak trees. Nor are we dealing with something that requires some great leap in the knowledge of mankind — both sides agree to the data. (Pro-lifers are not asserting that the zygote is contemplating logic.)

Agreed, the personhood of the preborn would be a logical affront to the primacy of act. But what other problems would arise?

Are there any?

Or is it just that it’s intuitively obvious that the early preborn can’t be persons? Is it that we all “just plain know” that?

The unacceptable cost

In practical reasoning, we frequently appeal to the idea of “unacceptable costs”. Implicitly, I have done so here. In relying on act, we are left with no principle to distinguish between infants and at least some of the lower animals. We’re caught in a bind: recognize chimpanzees as persons — or deny infants.

Above, I only took that to apply in the abstract. Those who set personhood fairly early — the appearance of cerebral cortex, say — may feel it doesn’t apply to them. They can concede the power and demand only a very plausible degree of manifestation. After all, we can’t think without a brain, can we?

But their problem is not with someone who is going to demand they deny personhood until the child grows up and gets a Ph.D. Nor is their problem with someone who will ask them to recognize personhood at conception.

Rather, one they really have to answer is one who asks them to deny personhood for a few more days or weeks — until some other reasonable indication of the power is available, say, production of more “human-type” brainwaves.

Their problem is also with those who wish to recognize personhood just a little bit earlier.

In either case, I suspect that their response will be that they have pointed to a perfectly reasonable, plausible, perhaps even measurable indicator of the power to reason and choose. But — given that we’re looking at a living, growing being — the other conditions are also reasonable, plausible, and perhaps even measurable.

The disagreement itself is reasonable, plausible, and perhaps even measurable.

The bottom line is that the reliance on act precludes any principled grounds for saying no to those who set their conditions a bit higher or a bit lower.

It is most emphatically not that they are dishonest in their stated desire to recognize personhood at day x. It is not that they wish to see the day put off forever. It is that they have only their own sincerity and wishes to back up their position.

And it is quite telling that they get most upset when it appears that their arguments will be used to justify putting off personhood until birth or even after. After all, the logic applies equally well to dragging personhood back to day one. Is it that they themselves think their arguments are more apt to be used in the other direction?

We are dealing with the idea that something as ultimate as personhood is a matter of personal preference — a plausible choice among equally plausible alternatives — and nothing more. Ordinarily that idea would itself be an unacceptable cost.

But — although they may get upset, even angry — defenders of abortion are unwilling to back away from arguments whose logic leads to precisely that end.

For there is an unacceptable cost on the other side, too. There is an unacceptable cost to recognizing the significance of the power for reason and choice. That cost is that we would have to recognize that the preborn are persons. Recognizing that, we would have to stop the killing.


John Walker
John Walker is Research Director of Libertarians for Life; he joined the LP shortly after its formation, and is currently a member of the District of Columbia LP.