the boundaries of humanity

Anton Sherwood (
Fri, 6 Mar 1998 20:48:10 -0800 (PST)

Reilly Jones:
: I, too, should know better [than to debate abortion]. These discussions
: invariably boil down to taking an obstinate stand on definitions, and I've
: rarely seen anyone truly rationally consider the issue at a deeper level than
: convenience on the pro-death side and religious dogma on the anti-death side.
: I know we don't diverge on the polycentric approach to the issue, the best
: argument will come from tracing the evolutionary consequences within many
: different jurisdictions, each approaching the question as seems best.

Great: we agree that all our theorizing is pointless, but we'll
keep doing it anyway. ;) If we keep reminding ourselves of that,
maybe we can remain civil.

Max More:
: > A fetus is fully human in a genetic sense from fertilization.
: > But why is this relevant? What does genetic humanity have to do
: > with moral standing or the granting of rights?

: The key is in the concept of development.

Which you seem to throw out the window when you reject any morally
significant difference between a fertilized egg and a talking toddler.

: Development of the self, self-ownership, means others should stay hands
: off. But development of other selves, that is, non-consensual development,
: is ownership of other selves. Other selves have every right to question
: this activity and to bring the activity into the political sphere. The
: concepts of guardianship and power of attorney evolved in society to
: champion the rights of developing selves that are incapable of acting
: as their own champions.

Relations between a mother and a fetus are nonconsensual because
the latter is incapable of consent - that's obvious. But why is
this more legitimately a political matter than our relations with
cats, or potted plants? (Or would you grant them political
protection too?)

: > Beings of at least human personality who are not genetically human
: > you may (possible ETs, genetically altered descendants of humanity,
: > and -- not grant this -- future AIs) could have as strong a moral
: > standing as you or I.

: And just who would be granting said moral standing to such entities?
: I would grant future AIs with a majority of analog components, I just
: won't grant that anything purely digital could ever be conscious,
: consciousness must access the entire universe, not just 50% of it.

50%? Where did that number come from?

Well, you know, machines in the real world are analog, just highly
nonlinear. Now would you mind addressing the issue, rather than
derailing it with analog-chauvinism?

: > In this case, you are doing damage to the person who will exist. In the
: > case of abortion, you are preventing a person from coming into existence.

: As I said above, these discussions rapidly get to an obstinate stand
: on definitions. "Preventing a person from coming into existence" is
: a definitional stance unconnected with reality. The reality is the
: person in question has been in existence since conception and that
: what you call "prevention" is actually murder.

The reality (if, despite your own good advice, you insist on such
a loaded word) is that *something* has been in existence since
conception - whether that existent has the status of "person" is
precisely our question.

: This is the same difficulty that the
: abolitionists had with defeating slavery, the Constitition said slaves
: were only counted as 3/5 of a person, less than fully human. [...]

Oh, please - get it right. Seats in the House of Representatives are
apportioned according to the population of each State, counting a slave
as 3/5 of a free resident. The anti-slavery faction in the Constitutional
Convention would have counted slaves at zero; the slavers would have been
content to count slaves at 1 and freemen at zero. The compromise 3/5 rule
effectively gave each slave-holder 3/5 of an extra vote in the Federal
forum. The cause of abolition would *not* have been advanced by giving
slavers more votes.

(Hm. The South should have had more seats after the abolition of slavery.
Did it get them?)

Nothing else in the Constitution relates to the 3/5 rule. I've never
heard that a slave was held to have 3/5 of a right to free speech,
for example. Did the Dred Scott decision mention 3/5?
I am forbidden to buy a newly-made gun magazine that holds more than
ten rounds. Would a slave be allowed to buy one that holds six?

: > BTW, I find it implausible grant full rights even to a newborn baby.
: > They are no more a person than is a seven-month old fetus (though
: > either of these are much closer to being a person than is a month-old
: > fetus). Nevertheless, I grant the view that it should be illegal to
: > kill such babies now that they are biologically separate -- but the
: > source of that rule does not have to be a right of the baby.

: Welcome to the slippery slope, you have made a case for infanticide here.
: In fact, with this line of reasoning, you can't draw a line anywhere for
: any inconvenient entity to be bumped off at any time. Why not the old
: and decrepit, or the handicapped, or anti-government types or anyone?

Either we draw a boundary between entities that have legal rights
and those that don't, or we draw no such boundary. You pretend to
be offended that Max proposes to draw a boundary. Okay, everything
has rights. Your computer is unjustly enslaved; replacing its parts,
without its permission, is battery. Burning gasoline is murder.
Picking apples, without the tree's express consent, is robbery.

What you really mean, I assume, is that you're offended that others
draw the boundary more narrowly than you do, in one respect. I'm
similarly offended that you exclude most AIs. Someone else might
be offended that we both exclude HeLa cultures, chimpanzees, trees
and comets.

I find genetics a piss-poor criterion for personhood. Unfortunately,
any objective criterion I can think of (e.g. the Turing Test) is fuzzy,
and the right to life is binary.

: When you speak of the "source of the rule" all I see is the very oldest
: rule of all, "might makes right." Nature is red in tooth and claw. If
: it is legitimate for the strong to prey upon the weak, sooner or later,
: we will end up, not as a society, but as isolated systems of perfected
: self-defense staring at each other across no-man's land.

This resembles Ayn Rand's argument against polycentric law.

Might does make right, but there are many kinds of might, and some
of the most important are impersonal - the laws of nature itself.
Ability to attract the sympathy of the strong is also a kind of might.

: > But a fetus is not yet a person.

: Purely by definition, and mostly, but not entirely, for convenience's
: sake.

All of our language and customs exist by convention, for convenience.

: A slave was not a full person at the time we kicked those
: tyrannical Brits back across the Atlantic, either. Yet, solely by
: definition, they eventually became a person. Do you see the parallel?

Are you suggesting that our definition of "person" automatically changes
every few months?!

: RJ: <A fertilized egg with a normal full set of chromosomes is
: the starting point for human development, not earlier.>

Why not earlier? Your conception was preceded by certain necessary events.

: MM: <True, but it's not the beginning of development of personhood, and
: it's personhood to which rights should attach, not genetic humanity.>
: Again, "personhood" is definitional, this may accord with convenience,
: but not reality. [...]

If you contend there is a reality-based definition of "personhood",
please state it. If not, please stop dragging in that red herring.

: > Reilly, it's not a fair tactic to call advocates of abortion rights
: > death worshippers. That's just obviously false, and will only mean
: > those who disagree won't take your views seriously.

There's a clown on usenet who likes to allege that his opponents
"worship" Randy Weaver, David Koresh and/or Tim McVeigh.

: On definitional issues, it's not a question of being taken seriously, it's
: a question of rectitude, of drawing lines. Those who define away human
: life naturally cannot begin to understand those who do not. They are
: literally incomprehensible to one another. Most individuals do not take
: the incomprehensible seriously, and those who do make their axons sprout
: like the green of springtime.

Well, the last phrase is a good illustration; but I disagree with the
central claim here. It's not that I "cannot begin to understand" your
position on abortion; I believe I understand it, but I also believe
it's based on either an error of fact or an arational preference - in
either case, not binding on anyone else.

: > ... They didn't abort my precursor, and I'm glad. But I'd hate to
: > think that, if they had, someone would come and drag my mother to
: > jail for protecting her own life and purposes by removed a small
: > lump of biological matter than didn't have a personality and didn't
: > think and didn't have goals and projects.

: ... Rather than say "they didn't abort my precursor," the
: reality is that "they didn't abort me." That reality cannot be wiped
: away definitionally. *You* were not murdered, not "a small lump of
: biological matter than didn't have a personality and didn't think and
: didn't have goals and projects," but *you*. ...

Max - not a passive lump of tissue - would be equally absent from our reality
if his parents had used effective contraception. Would that too be murder?
"Every sperm is sacred ..."

A number of time travel stories touch on the tragedy of erasing someone
(a child, a lover, a hero) from history by preventing their conception.
Whether that amounts to murder is an interesting question.

Anton Sherwood *\\* +1 415 267 0685 *\\*