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

From: Potentiality

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Chapter thirteen On the Ethical Relevance of Active versus Passive Potentiality John P. Lizza 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 “passive” potentiality apart from any arbitrary claims about the nature of a human being. The second concerns whether the distinction itself carries any moral weight. My discussion focuses mainly on potentiality at the end of life.1 Grounding their view in an Aristotelian metaphysics, in which things that exist by nature have innate principles to develop in certain ways, some bioethicists hold that the human embryo has the potential to develop characteristics, such as intellect and will, by virtue of the kind of thing it is. According to this account, as long as an individual is a member of the kind human being, its potentiality to develop in certain ways is not affected by any internal or external impediments. Moreover, in this understanding of potentiality, whether the individual has any realistic or practical probability of developing these characteristics does not affect its potential. In Human Cloning and Human Dignity, the U.S. President’s Council on Bioethics illustrates this view of potentiality at the beginning of life: An embryo is, by definition and by its nature, potentially a fully developed human person; its potential for maturation is a characteristic it actually has, and from the start. The fact that embryos have been created outside their natural environment—which is to say, outside the woman’s body—and are therefore limited in their ability to realize their natural capacities, does not affect either the potential or the moral status of the beings themselves. A bird forced to live in a cage its entire life may never learn to fly. But this does not mean that it is less of a bird, or that it lacks the immanent potentiality to fly on feathered wings. It means Active versus Passive Potentiality 251 only that a caged bird—like an in vitro human embryo—has been deprived of its proper environment. (President’s Council 2002, 175) D. Alan Shewmon (1997) expresses a similar view about potentiality at the end of life when he claims that artificially sustained human organisms with total brain failure retain the potential for intellect and will. Shewmon argues that the potential for intellect and will resides not in any organ, for example, the brain, but in the organism as a whole. Since he believes that the human organism as a whole may persist through the loss of all brain function, it retains the potential for intellect and will. He sees the loss of brain function (indeed, the destruction of the brain) as simply an impediment in the actualization of the potential for intellect and will that remains in the organism. Its loss does not affect whether the organism has the potential. He gives an analogy in support of his view: Before cataract surgery, people with cataracts still had the potential for sight. Moreover, he claims that if someone suffered enucleation of both eyes and even removal or infarction of the entire visual cortex, the person would still retain the potential for sight: As with potency for sight, the potency for these functions [human intellection and will] ultimately resides not in the organ, but in the organism. Theoretically, if brains could be reconstituted (e.g., through implanted futuristically transformed neuroblasts), a “brain-dead” person could be made to regain consciousness and other human functions, although perhaps with a clean mnemonic slate and new personality traits . . . . Thus, if “brain death” does not cause loss of somatic integrative unity (as it now seems not to), then neither does it cause a loss of essential human properties, i.e., a loss of potency for specifically human functions—potency at the most profound ontological level, at which the occurrence or note of substantial change is determined. (Shewmon 1997, 74–75; bracketed remarks added) Proponents of this understanding of potentiality appeal to a distinction between “active” and “passive” potentiality. For Aristotle (De anima, 2.1.412, a28–29), active potentiality refers to an organism’s intrinsic “power of setting itself in movement and arresting itself.” For example, features intrinsic to seeds make it possible for plants to develop in the “natural” or normal course of events; this developmental...


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