Lesson 5: How We Value Humans

Since we know that science has established that the pre-born are human beings, the question we must now ask is a philosophical one: Do we value each other by virtue of our existence as humans or by virtue of our features and abilities?

The term "person" is generally ascribed to those individuals we value as our equals, but there is a debate about who exactly falls into the category of person.

The pro-life viewpoint is simple: since the pre-born are human beings, they are persons. In other words, personhood is based on existence in our species (something we can determine objectively). But some abortion supporters argue that personhood should be based on a being’s features or abilities, such as self-awareness. They claim that since the pre-born cannot think or behave like those who are born, abortion is acceptable because it merely kills non-persons.

But to deny the pre-born personhood status because they cannot do what we can is just age discrimination.

Consider this: All differences between the pre-born and toddlers fall into one of these four categories:

Likewise, all differences between toddlers and adults fall File 343into those categories. Why can’t the pre-born think and reason like we can? For the same reason why toddlers cannot: they are less developed. And why are they less developed? Because they are younger.

Why do the pre-born need someone to care for them? For the same reason why toddlers do: they are less developed and therefore more dependent. And why are they less developed and more dependent? Because they are younger.

To define personhood based on criteria such as sentience, viability, or life experience is to define it based on one’s level of development. And an individual’s development generally corresponds with her age: The older one gets, the more developed she becomes. The younger she is, the less time has passed for her to develop the structures necessary to perform various functions.

So the question we must consider is this: Do those of us who are older have a right to kill those who are younger? Clearly, to select age-related criteria for personhood is arbitrary and discriminatory. It pits older humans against younger ones.

Now some abortion advocates may argue they aren’t discriminating based on age, pointing out that some older humans never develop as they should (and should be classified as "non-persons"), and some younger humans develop more rapidly than normal (and should be classified as "persons").

The question, they may ask, is not, "How old is she?" but instead, "How well does she function?" Even here, though, one identifies discrimination: ability-based discrimination. Why should the able-bodied be allowed to hurt the less capable? And who determines to which degree one is "able" versus "disabled"?

Furthermore, aside from conditions and disabilities which impede normal development, how one functions is usually related to how old someone is: The human species follows a general growth trend where at certain age ranges, a function begins (e.g., a heartbeat begins at 3 weeks following fertilization2). So to select a criteria for personhood which someone simply cannot attain because of her age (a day-old embryo is too young to have a heartbeat) is unfair.

Take another level of development, self-awareness: whether that ability has not yet been reached because someone is functioning normally but is simply too young, or because someone has a disability, that does not change the nature of that individual; she is still a human being. If that human individual is alive, she is worthy of respect like everyone else.

Besides age and ability-based discrimination, there is environment-based discrimination. Consider a 26-week premature baby in an incubator, compared to a 26-week pre-born child. The former are considered persons whereas the latter are not. What is the difference? Simply the external surroundings: one is ex-utero and one is in-utero. Why should those in one environment be allowed to kill those in another?

Age, development, and environment are a few of several features which describe something about us, but which do not define us. Since they are qualities which differ from one individual to the next, they are a poor standard for determining one’s personhood, for determining one’s right to life.

On the contrary, to select existence-based criteria is to pick the one and only feature we have in common—human nature—and is something we can determine objectively through science. With the former standards, someone is always excluded. But with this latter standard, all are included.

Personhood Throughout History

While today the term personhood is often used to describe someone as "self-aware" or "rational," historically other criteria were used. Personhood has been defined using sex, skin colour, ethnicity and other arbitrary distinctions.

What we see is that when personood is defined by factors like these, as something other than existence as a human, inevitably someone gets hurt. Consider these examples:

File 346"In the eyes of the law... the slave is not a person." –Virginia Supreme Court decision, 1858
File 349"An Indian is not a person within the meaning of the Constitution." –George Canfield, American Law Review, 1881
File 352"The statutory word ‘person’ did not in these circumstances include women." –British Voting Rights case, 1909
File 355"The Reichsgericht itself refused to recognize Jews... as ‘persons’ in the legal sense." –German Supreme Court decision, 1936
File 358"The law of Canada does not recognize the unborn child as a legal person possessing rights." –Canadian Supreme Court, Winnipeg Child and Family Services Case, 19971

And so, in some sense, the term "personhood" tells us less about what someone is, and more about what kind of society we are: Are we inclusive or exclusive? Selfless or selfish? Tolerant or intolerant?

Speciesism

Abortion supporters like Peter Singer classify a view that places a higher value on human life as opposed to animal life as "speciesist," because, he argues, that it unfairly discriminates against non-human persons.

He writes:

...those I would call ‘speciesists’ give greater weight to the interests of members of their own species when there is a clash between their interests and the interests of those of other species.

***

To give preference to the life of a being simply because it is a member of our species would put us in the same position as racists who give preference to those who are members of their race.1

Of course, the problem with racism is that it discriminates against one human compared to another based on skin colour, an arbitrary trait. But Singer’s point is that discriminating against non-humans is just as arbitrary.

Singer takes his argument further, however. He states that individuals should be valued not by their existence, but instead by their function. That is why he is willing to concede that the pre-born are biological human beings but not persons. He says,

The fetus, the grossly retarded ‘human vegetable’, even the newborn infant—all are indisputably members of the species homo sapiens, but none are self-aware, have a sense of future, or the capacity to relate to others.

Pro-lifers then, according to Singer, are speciesist because they fight for the right to life for human ‘non-persons’ but not for animals that ‘are’ persons.

But for any of Singer’s aforementioned abilities to exist, an individual must exist. For example, self-awareness doesn’t exist on its own; instead, it is a function of an individual. The individual must first exist in order for the function to exist. Depending on that individual’s age, environment, and "able-ness," the function may not have actualized, but that doesn’t change what that individual is.

Even criteria like intelligence and awareness develop differently among different humans. Therefore, we cannot arbitrarily choose one human ability to determine our value—we must choose the objective fact of our shared nature, our humanity. Otherwise, personhood will hinge on the subjective whims of people like Singer.

What constitutes the pro-life view is the fundamental idea that abortion discriminates against one human compared to another based on age, an arbitrary trait like skin colour. And just as it is morally wrong to kill born people because of arbitrary traits, it is wrong to kill pre-born people because of arbitrary traits.

Even though the pre-born cannot build buildings and fly to space, by virtue of being human, they inherently have the abilities to function in such ways (unlike animals); they simply cannot currently act in these manners.

The same is true for humans that are not adults: they have inherent abilities that aren’t yet current abilities because of their age and development. Since humans’ current abilities differ from one to the other, humans should be valued by virtue of what is constant: their human existence, not what is changing: their current behavior. After all, if we are to believe the claim that all humans are equal, we must look to the only thing we have in common, which is our human nature.

Singer, of course, is arguing that human equality does not apply to the pre-born, or even to some newborns, because of an ability they don’t yet have. But if he is able to use such an arbitrary system, how would he respond to someone who views speciesism as being worse than racism?

In other words, what would he say to someone who valued their dogs more than people from another race? That’s what some slave owners did in the American deep south—they valued their pets better than their human peers. If anyone can choose any arbitrary trait to decide which humans have value, then how can Singer say racists are wrong?

Moreover, the pro-life view is not necessarily incompatible with a view that values animal life. By stating that we ought to protect our own species because of our common identity (homo sapiens) that doesn’t mean we don’t value other species. One can be pro-life for both human beings and animal beings.

The point simply is this: if someone is going to bring another species up to the level of humans, surely he won’t drop some of his own species down. In other words, if he is going to be inclusive of other species, why be exclusive amongst his own?

Now what of those people who are inclusive amongst their own species but not others—people who do not protect animals to the extent they protect humans? Singer portrays placing more weight on being human over another species as something negative.

Yet by our very existence as humans, we end up valuing some beings more than others. People not only eat animals, they also displace creatures of all kinds. If, for example, consciousness determined personhood, then everyone who ate beef or fish should be considered mass murderers. But even by breathing or digesting, human beings destroy countless microorganisms.

Now Singer might say that we value complex animals more than those that are not. Therefore, we should value dolphins or dogs more than worms or amoeba. But couldn’t we then say the same thing about the human species?

Couldn’t those who value human life more than animals justify their "discrimination" because humans are the most advanced and educated species with incredible functional abilities (e.g., they find cures for diseases and fly to space)? This is why such individuals would not protect animals in the same way.

And unlike Singer who uses current abilities that constantly change, even within the same individual, the "speciesist" would use the most objective trait: our common humanity. Such individuals would recognize that due to a variety of factors (such as age) a human may not currently have impressive abilities, but by virtue of being human, an individual inherently has impressive abilities. For while a dog’s ability to cure disease is not ever, a human baby’s ability to cure disease is not yet.

A distinction needs to be made somewhere, and given that the only thing that people, both black and white, old and young, people have in common is their human nature, why not start there? After all, if someone observed both a baby and a cat crawl across a busy road, what person wouldn’t grab the child first?

External Link: Do Abortion-Advocates Assume Theism When They Speak of a Woman's Fundamental Right to an Abortion? Are Humans Really More Special than Animals?

This is a commentary written by Scott Klusendorf who responds to this question: "At a debate last week in my political science class, a pro-abortion speaker insisted that pro-lifers must rely on religion (specifically, theism) to make their case that abortion is morally wrong. Hence, the only true secular view is the pro-choice one. He also said that pro-life advocates assume a religious view whenever they claim that human beings have inherent dignity that animals do not. Is he right?"

  • 1. Peter Singer, Practical Ethics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 51, 76.