The wobbly appeal to ‘potential’ personhood

PZ Myers was quoted as saying:

The alleged right of individuals (such as fetuses and newborns) to develop their potentiality, which someone defends, is over-ridden by the interests of actual people (parents, family, society) to pursue their own well-being because, as we have just argued, merely potential people cannot be harmed by not being brought into existence. Actual people’s well-being could be threatened by the new (even if healthy) child requiring energy, money and care which the family might happen to be in short supply of. Sometimes this situation can be prevented through an abortion, but in some other cases this is not possible.

While Bill Vallicella was speaking about Bill O’Reilly, his comment could just as well be applied to Myers:

The other night Bill O’Reilly said that a fetus is a potential human life. Not so! A fetus is an actual human life.

Consider a third-trimester human fetus, alive and well, developing in the normal way in the mother. It is potentially many things: a neonate, a two-year-old, a speaker of some language, an adolescent, an adult, a corpse. And let’s be clear that a potential X is not an X. A potential oak tree is not an oak tree. A potential neonate is not a neonate. A potential speaker of Turkish is not a Turkish speaker. But an acorn, though only potentially an oak tree, is an actual acorn, not a potential acorn. And its potentialities are actually possessed by it, not potentially possessed by it.

The typical human fetus is an actual, living, human biological individual that actually possesses various potentialities. So if you accept that there is a general, albeit not exceptionless, prohibition against the taking of innocent human life, then you need to explain why you think a third-trimester fetus does not fall under this prohibition. You need to find a morally relevant difference—not just any old difference, but a difference that makes a moral difference—between the fetus and any born human individual.


My two cents

Some time ago I came across the preborn/unborn child being (mis)conceptualised as a ‘potential’ human being. That kind of sounds reasonable on a superficial level, but when one digs deeper, it’s not really the case.

When I think of PZ Myers, I guess I think of Ray Comfort’s Evolution Vs. God documentary, where Myers was asked if bananas are our cousins, to which he said yes.

I suppose an (evolutionist) biologist could answer questions on descent and family relations with degree of confidence and stability. But when reaching out towards philosophy and ethics, it was more like overextending and falling over.

There ought to be a label for the logical and/or philosophical fallacies embodied in the first quote. It seems that RationalWiki is keen on cataloging and hurling logical fallacy labels—though not in this case. I therefore need to find a Latin scholar who can advise of the correct translation for the appeal to potential personhood: argumentum ad [insert Latin here]?

Quote sources

  1. Myers, P.Z. cited in Sarfati, J. (2012). Abortion ‘after birth’? Medical ‘ethicists’ promote infanticide. Available http://creation.com/abortion-after-birth. Last accessed 25th Jan 2014.
  2. Vallicella, B. (2012). Bill O’Reilly’s Abortion Mistake. Available:  http://maverickphilosopher.typepad.com/maverick_philosopher/2012/11/oreillys-abortion-mistake.html. Last Accessed 25th Jan 2014.
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