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From: Potentiality

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Introduction John P. Lizza There has been a great deal of debate over the moral significance 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 associate with personhood. It is argued that in virtue of this potentiality, the fetus has value and is deserving of some respect, if not all the rights and protections that are normally accorded to persons. Potentiality has been less of an issue at the end of life, although it has figured in debate over the potential of individuals with total brain failure and those in permanent vegetative state. Because these individuals are thought to lack the potential for consciousness or any other mental function, proponents of a consciousness-related formulation of death argue that they are no longer living human beings or persons.2 Potentiality has also been an issue in discussion of the meaning of irreversibility in the definition and determination of death, particularly in the case of non-heart-beating organ donation. In this context, “potentiality” and “irreversibility” may be complementary concepts in the sense that if some functions, such as circulation and respiration , can be said to be irreversibly lost, there is no potential for those functions to resume. Proponents of non-heart-beating organ donation and its critics disagree over whether the donors in these protocols are dead, that is, whether they have irreversibly lost circulatory and respiratory function. If they have not satisfied the criterion of death, critics argue that the removal of vital organs violates the “dead-donor rule” and is tantamount to vivisection. This anthology aims to call attention to three main issues concerning consideration of potentiality in bioethical discussions in the hope that it will encourage further research. First, discussion of potentiality and its ethical significance is framed by assumptions about the nature of persons, for example, whether one adopts a substantive , qualitative, creative/transformative, or relational view of persons. Thus, the merits of arguments invoking potentiality in the bioethical context cannot be 2 John P. Lizza evaluated independent of consideration of alternative ontological views about persons . Second, recent philosophical work on the concept of dispositions needs to be taken into account in the analysis and evaluation of arguments invoking potentiality in the bioethical context. If potentialities are dispositions of a certain kind, then the work on dispositions needs to be integrated into the bioethical discussion. Indeed, the bioethical context may provide a way to test the plausibility of different accounts of dispositions or develop new theories of dispositions. Third, it is generally assumed that, if X has the potential to become Y, in some sense it must be possible for X to become Y. However, it is unclear what sense of “possibility” is being invoked in this assumption. Logical possibility seems inappropriate. However , if actual or realistic possibility is assumed, what kind of factors affect this possibility? Persons and Potentiality: The Ontological Framing Problem Contemporary arguments invoking potentiality in bioethics often rely on a concept of potentiality that has its roots in Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysics. Grounding their view in an Aristotelian metaphysics in which things that exist by nature have innate principles to develop in certain ways, theorists such as Jason Eberl hold that the human fetus has the potential to develop characteristics, such as intellect and will, by virtue of the kind of thing it is. The potential to develop is thus construed as a power to effect change within a single substantial kind, where being a member of the kind with certain potentialities is what garners the being moral standing. This account of potentiality assumes that the zygote is the same individual substantive being or entity that later develops characteristics, such as intellect and will.3 In views such as Eberl’s, person is treated as a substantial kind term and, when applied to human persons, is coextensive with the substantial kind term human being . Thus, by having the natural potential to develop personal characteristics, such as intellect and will, the fetus is an actual person at an early stage of development. In contrast to phase or qualitative sortal terms, like baker or mayor, which may apply at different times during the life history of a person, a person is a person throughout her life history. Accordingly, fetus is like child, adolescent, and adult in that all of...


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