restricted access Chapter Six: Persons with Potential

From: Potentiality

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Chapter six Persons with Potential Jason T. Eberl 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 material.”1 The argument from potential, as it is often termed, is typically formulated as follows: (1) Persons possess a high, perhaps infinite, degree of moral value; (2) persons thereby possess certain basic rights, including a right to life; (3) human embryos and fetuses2 typically possess the potential to develop into persons; (4) having the potential to develop into a person suffices for something to possess the moral value of a person; (5) hence, embryos and fetuses also typically possess a high, perhaps infinite, degree of moral value and thereby the same basic rights. This conclusion is open to a standard counterargument that the rights possessed by an actual entity are not transferable to a potential forerunner. For example, when President Barack Obama was growing up in Hawaii, he did not possess the right, as a potential commanderin -chief, to order U.S. troops into Afghanistan (Feinberg 1986, 267; Benn 1984, 143). Despite the merits or demerits of this and other counterarguments, the search is motivated for a stronger foundation to assert that embryos and fetuses have a moral status sufficiently equivalent to that of mature human persons to bear the same basic right to life. The most direct argumentative route is to establish that embryos and fetuses are not potential, but actual persons, and thus bypass the above counterargument .3 Of course, embryos and fetuses do not yet engage in any of the activities typically understood to define the essence of personhood;4 however, they arguably possess the intrinsic potentiality to develop themselves—with the assistance of a protective, nutritive environment (something upon which all organisms, including mature human persons, are dependent as well)—into beings who can immediately engage in the definitive activities of persons. The crucial premise here is the claim that possessing the intrinsic potentiality to develop oneself into a fully actualized person5 suffices for an organism to be, both ontologically and morally, a person 98 Jason T. Eberl already (Gómez-Lobo 2004, 205; Schwarz 1998, 271). If this premise holds, an embryo or fetus is not a “potential person” but a “person with potential” (Finnis 2006, 18; Lee 2004, 262; Oderberg 1997, 263), specifically, the potential to develop oneself, while preserving one’s numerical identity,6 into an entity that actually thinks in a self-conscious rational fashion (Ford 1988, 85). Concept of Potentiality7 Aristotle provides a well-developed definition of potentiality—later adopted and further elaborated upon by Thomas Aquinas—which is distinguished into two types: active and passive. Something has an active potentiality if it has within itself everything necessary, given its proper design environment, to actualize itself in the relevant manner.8 The locus of a substance’s set of active potentialities is its substantial form.9 By contrast, something has a passive potentiality if it can be the subject of externally directed change such that it can become what it is not already (Perrett 2000, 192; Reichlin 1997, 13–17; Lee 1996, 24–26; Larmer 1995, 243–44). Furthermore, active potentiality comes in two varieties. The first is what Robert Pasnau (2002, 115) refers to as a “capacity in hand” to perform an operation, which means that no further development or significant change is required for the potentiality to be actualized. For example, a person may have a capacity in hand to speak Spanish if, for example, she majored in it in college; but it may be the case at any one moment that she is not using this capacity and so it is not in actual operation, which it would be if she were speaking Spanish at that moment. The second is what Norman Kretzmann (1999, 39) refers to as a substance’s “natural potentiality” to develop a capacity in hand to perform an operation. For example, before having learned Spanish and thus developed a capacity to do so, a person would have a natural potentiality to develop this capacity, as opposed to a dog or a plant that lacks such a natural potentiality. Any human person is born with an innate cognitive architecture that allows her to acquire a language, Spanish or otherwise (Chomsky 1968...


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