Intellectual primitives

Do pre-Aristotelian philosophers have a right to life?

By Gary Scarrabelotti

There is no accounting for what dumb things some philosophers will believe.

Two of them have written an article in the British Journal of Medical Ethics in which they argue that

“What we call ‘after-birth abortion’ (killing a newborn) should be permissible in all the cases where abortion is (permissible), including cases where the newborn is not disabled.”

The philosophers in question are Drs. Alberto Giubilini of Monash University and Francesca Minerva of Melbourne University.

The Sydney Morning Herald led with the Giubilini-Minerva story on March 2. It’s not often that philosophy gets a front-page guernsey.

As the Herald’s Health Editor, Julie Robotham, reported, the centre piece of the argument was that a new born baby and a foetus share the same lack of sense of their own life and aspiration and that this justified what the philosophers called “after-birth abortion” because the baby is not harmed by missing out on a life that it cannot conceptualise.

An infant, argued the learned gentlepersons, like a foetus, is only a “potential person” and potential persons, even healthy newborns whose mothers merely prefer their careers over child rearing, might legitimately be … well … terminated.

Now, Scarrablog agrees with the philosophers up to a point.

Granted the premises, their argument is perfectly reasonable. Let’s not be squeamish about this, dear readers. Just do the logic.

If we can destroy a foetus because it is only a potential person – or for any one of a number of similar reasons: because it is only a potential human being; or because it is an undeveloped human; or because it is not sufficiently developed to understand who or what it is — then “after-birth abortions” or infanticide are perfectly acceptable in cold hard reason.

The problem is with the premise that lies at the root of this kind of argument. And the hidden premise here is that potential persons – or potential human beings, or undeveloped humans, or humans who have no sense of their own existence — are not human beings at all.

Let me pose in reply what might seem, at first glance, like a paradox: a potential human being — or a potential human person — cannot be potential unless it is already human.

In other words, a potential human being cannot become a fully articulated human being unless it already has within it the power to become a more fully realised expression of that which it already contains: namely, humanity.

A human foetus can never become other than more human: it never becomes more dog-like, more whale-ish or more equine.  It always, and only, becomes a more developed example of what it already is: a human being.

Let’s imagine a child who dies at four years of age by falling down a set of stairs. Let’s also grant, for the sake of the argument, that this child had great musical gifts which had only just begun to show: another Mozart, perhaps, in the making.

That his Mozartian side, had it developed, would have been a far richer and fuller development of his humanity goes without saying.  But a new Mozart cut short at four does not mean that the little lad died unhuman: an undeveloped one, yes, but still a human being.

Or, take the child born blind. Clearly the child’s development has been blocked or interrupted at a point on the broad spectrum of human potentiality.  But does the blindness deprive him of humanity?

Obviously not. A blind child is not a blind tadpole or a blind rabbit. The blind child remains a blind human being. In other words, the failure to realise a potential does not deprive a being of any kind of its defining reality.

 The nature of any being is not defined by its fully realised state or actuality.  It is defined by its potentiality.

So we begin to see, I think, the absurdity of the argument that a newborn that cannot conceptualise its own existence, or who has no sense of its potential, is not yet human.  That the child has the potential to do so is what makes it human.

You see – and this is what our sages Giubilini and Minerva appear not to understand – the nature of any being is not defined by its fully realised state or actuality.  It is defined by its potentiality.

The embryonic chicken in the egg is a chicken, even before it can acquire beak, and feathers and wings, precisely because it has the potential (or power) to acquire them.

It is pretty obvious really. Though once it was not.  That was before Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) who was the first to explain change and development: how a thing could change while remaining essentially the same.

Before Aristotle change and development posed an insoluble problem.  Some, like Parmenides, (5th century BC) claimed there was no change: all reality was fixed and change was a mere appearance or illusion. Others, like Heraclitus, (c. 535 BC – c. 475 BC) thought that change or flux was the only reality.

The astonishing thing is that Drs. Giubilini and Minerva seem to be stuck, intellectually speaking, in a pre-Aristotelian philosophical primitivism. It raises an interesting question, doesn’t it?

Do intellectual primitives have a right to life?

On my argument they do.

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