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Metaphysical and Bioethical Dimensions

edited by John P. Lizza

Publication Year: 2014

What is the moral status of humans lacking the potential for consciousness? The concept of potentiality often tips the scales in life-and-death medical decisions. Some argue that all human embryos have the potential to develop characteristics—such as consciousness, intellect, and will—that we normally associate with personhood. Individuals with total brain failure or in a persistent vegetative state are thought to lack the potential for consciousness or any other mental function. Or do they? In Potentiality John Lizza gathers classic articles alongside newly commissioned chapters from leading thinkers who analyze the nature of potentiality in bioethics, a concept central to a number of important debates. The contributors illustrate how considerations of potentiality and potential persons complicate the analysis of the moral consideration of persons at the beginning and end of life. A number of works explicitly uncover the Aristotelian background of the concept, while others explore philosophical issues about persons, dispositions, and possibility. The common assumption that potentiality is intrinsic to whatever has the potentiality is challenged by a relational view of persons, an extrinsic account of dispositions, and attention to how extrinsic factors affect realistic possibilities. Although potentiality has figured prominently in bioethical literature, it has not received a great deal of logical, semantic, and metaphysical analysis in contemporary philosophical literature. This collection will bring these thorny philosophical issues to the fore. Incorporating cutting-edge research on the topic of potentiality, this thought-provoking collection will interest bioethicists, philosophers, health care professionals, attorneys engaged in medical and health issues, and hospital and governmental committees who advise on policy and law concerning issues at the beginning and end of life.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-iv


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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii-x

I would like to thank the staff of The Hastings Center, as inspiration for this work came while I was a visiting scholar at the Center in the summer of 2009. I have benefited greatly from my association with the Center for many years. I would also like to thank the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education for a summer research

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John P. Lizza

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pp. 1-26

There has been a great deal of debate over the moral signifi cance of the potentiality of human embryos and fetuses.1 Indeed, the standard argument against abortion and the use of human embryonic stem cells for research appeals to the potentiality that the fetus has to develop characteristics, such as intellect and will, that we normally...

Part One: The Nature of Potentiality

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Chapter One: Aristotle’s Theory of Potentiality

Mohan Matthen

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pp. 29-48

Aristotle’s theory of potentiality plays a large role in his metaphysics and philosophy of science. In some ways, it is insightful and prophetic, for it introduces a model of explanation by functional analysis, which is still standard in some of the cognitive and (arguably) life sciences. In other ways, it is outmoded, for explanation by...

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Chapter Two: Dispositions and Potentialities

Jennifer McKitrick

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pp. 49-68

Dispositions and potentialities seem importantly similar. To talk about what something has the potential or disposition to do is to make a claim about a future possibility— the “threats and promises” that fill the world (Goodman 1983, 41). In recent years, dispositions have been the subject of much conceptual analysis and metaphysical speculation...

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Chapter Three: The Paradoxes of Potentiality

Joel Feinberg

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pp. 69-71

Having conceded that rights can belong to beings in virtue of their merely potential interests, we find ourselves on a slippery slope; for it may seem at first sight that anything at all can have potential interests, or much more generally, that anything at all can be potentially almost anything else at all! Dehydrated orange powder is...

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Chapter Four: Physical Possibility and Potentiality in Ethics

Edward Covey

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pp. 72-83

In recent years, especially since Michael Tooley introduced us to his potential super-kittens,1 there has been much discussion about the role of potentiality in ethics. This discussion has unfortunately tended to revolve around the issue of abortion, where it is easy to argue that potential personhood is not a sufficient ground for a...

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Chapter Five: Abortion: Listening to the Middle

Edward Langer ak

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pp. 84-94

Says one critic of the philosophical debate on abortion: “Philosophers are not listened to because they do not listen.”1 Though I believe the charge is too strong, my own review of the literature makes it uncomfortably understandable. If there is any public consensus on abortion, as reflected in legal systems as well as in public opinion...

Part Two: Potentiality at the Beginning of Life

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Chapter Six: Persons with Potential

Jason T. Eberl

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pp. 97-119

The moral status of human embryos and fetuses is one of the most vexing questions in bioethics, and various responses often stand or fall on the answer to the more foundational, and just as vociferously debated, question of the ontological status of such entities— whether they count as “persons,” “potential persons,” or merely “human biological...

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Chapter Seven: The Moral Status of Stem Cells

Agata Sagan and Peter Singer

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pp. 129-139

Most ethical objections to the use of stem cells are directed at the use of human embryonic stem cells— in particular, at the destruction of human embryos in order to obtain these cells. In an attempt to deflect these objections, some have proposed ways of obtaining cells that have the properties of embryonic stem cells but do not...

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Chapter Eight: Potential

Jeff McMahan

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pp. 140-173

It is frequently claimed that, even though abortion is not murder, because it does not involve the killing of a person, it is nevertheless seriously objectionable because it thwarts the fetus’s potential. The focus is often on the fetus’s potential to become a person. It is, for example, often claimed that abortion is wrong because the fetus is...

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Chapter Nine: Abortion and the Margins of Personhood

Margaret Olivia Little

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pp. 174-190

When a woman is pregnant, how should we understand the moral status of the life within her? How should we understand its status as conceptus, as embryo, when an early or again matured fetus? According to some, human life in all of these forms is inviolable: early human life has a moral status equivalent to a person from the moment...

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Chapter Ten: Revisiting the Argument from Fetal Potential

Bertha Alvarez Manninen

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pp. 191-220

One of the most famous, and concurrently one of the most derided, arguments against the morality of abortion is the argument from fetal potential. This argument maintains that the fetus’ potential to become a human person and enjoy the valuable life common to human persons entails that its destruction is prima facie...

Part Three: Potentiality at the End of Life

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Chapter Eleven: Are DCD Donors Dead?

Don Marquis

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pp. 223-236

Ever since brain death came to be understood in the 1970s as death of the whole human being, organ transplantation has, for the most part, been closely linked to it. The typical donor has been somebody declared brain dead while on life support and while the heart continues to beat, thereby keeping the organs suffused with oxygen...

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Chapter Twelve: The Irreversibility of Death: Metaphysical, Physiological, Medical or Ethical?

Tom Tomlinson

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pp. 237-249

Current law in the United States, under the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, prohibits the removal of vital organs for donation before the donor has been declared dead. This requirement raises a question about so- called “Donation after Cardiac Death” (DCD) organ procurement protocols. In such protocols, ethically warranted decisions...

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Chapter Thirteen: On the Ethical Relevance of Active versus Passive Potentiality

John P. Lizza

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pp. 250-270

The distinction between “active” and “passive” potentiality is often invoked in discussions about the ethical treatment of human beings at the beginning and end of life. In this essay, I raise two questions about this distinction. The first concerns whether an individual can be said to have an “active” potentiality as opposed to a...

List of Contributors

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pp. 271-272


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pp. 273-276

E-ISBN-13: 9781421411781
E-ISBN-10: 1421411784
Print-ISBN-13: 9781421411743
Print-ISBN-10: 1421411741

Page Count: 288
Illustrations: 1 line drawing
Publication Year: 2014