Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fetuses and capacity

One of the abortion debates is between those, like Mary Anne Warren, who think that personhood requires a "developed" capacity for distinctively personal functioning (including all or many of features like: self-awareness, general communication, freedom, problem-solving, etc.), or at least that such a developed capacity is needed for the prohibition on killing to apply, and those who think an undeveloped capacity is sufficient, either for personhood or the prohibition on killing or both. Of course, normal fetuses have an undeveloped capacity for distinctively personal functioning.

Here is a line of thought. Imagine an alien species that suffers through a boiling hot season every ten earth years ("The Boiling"). Most species on that planet die off at that time, leaving some hardy spores or seeds. But one species, the cysters, evolved intelligence and an ability to gather experience over a period of time longer than ten earth years. A biological cycle triggered by increased temperatures records one's memories and character traits in a hardy storage module that can survive The Boiling, and the body entirely sheds its brain and other soft tissues, becoming a kind of cyst. When The Boiling passes, the brain and other soft tissues regrow based on the genetic code, in the same way that they grew in the first place, and memories and traits from the storage module are written back into the regrown brain.

We would expect the cysters to have strong prohibitions against destroying normal fellow cysters once they have gone into the cyst stage (say, with a time bomb). And it is intuitively very plausible that these prohibitions would be correct: killing normal cysters in the cyst stage is wrong. Furthermore, it is plausible that a cyster in the cyst stage is still a person, though I am not insisting on this.

But notice that in cyst stage, the cysters do not have a developed capacity for distinctively personal activity. They have no brains! Granted, they have a module that holds memories and character traits. But they no more have developed capacities for distinctively personal activity than an embryonic gecko has a developed capacity for eating insects. The embryonic gecko presumably has genetic information sufficient to produce a vertebrate brain that will guide its eating of insects. All the information is there, just as in the cyster's memory module. But the presence of the information is insufficient for a developed capacity.

Moreover, imagine that Sam is a cyster who has acquired a capacity for distinctively personal activity an hour earlier, and has since had an hour of experiences. Moreover, suppose Sam does not remember anything prior to the acquiring of that capacity and Sam's character's non-genetic development only started when Sam acquired that capacity. And now the signs of The Boiling show up, and Sam goes to cyst. Clearly it's wrong to kill Sam. But it would be weird to think that the hour of experience makes the crucial difference here.

So it is false that the prohibition on killing requires developed capacities for distinctively personal functioning. And it is likely also false that such capacities are required for personhood.


Mike Almeida said...

Alex, I really like this line of argument. Clearly the intuition is that it would be seriously wrong to destroy the cysts. What is intriguing is that I can't really explain why. One natural move is to go 4D + eternalist and say that this is just a stage in the life of a bieng that was and will be rational, etc. But you can also go 4D + eternalist in the case of the fetus, and it does not seem to have quite the same force. The cyst stage seems more analogous to the temporarily unconscious rational adult than does the fetus. But I can't see why that should be tue, either.

Paul Symington said...

Alex, your science fiction story is not implausible. Have you heard of the turritopsis nutricula (a species of jellyfish) that cycle from a mature adult stage to an immature polyp stage and back again." When I came across this, I had a similar idea to the one express in your blogpost.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Here's a potential problem for my argument.

Imagine a species of beings, rezzes, that over the course of two-hundred-year lifetime, every decade they die and are later resurrected twelve months later, without existing in the interim. They are resurrected in whatever way they need to be resurrected in order to secure identity (maybe memories are restored, maybe the body is re-made out of the old parts, in the old arrangement, and non-coincidentally so, the way a watch is re-assembled, or maybe the numerically same soul is re-created). If you think temporally gappy existence is impossible, just imagine you didn't have that intuition. Suppose, further, that there is a method by which one could prevent the resurrection of a particular rez once the rez is dead. Maybe a button can be pressed or a magical spell can be said.

It seems it would be wrong to make use of that method, even though doing so would not be a killing, since one cannot kill the dead.

So, maybe, the pro-choice thinker can say that the cysters in their dormant phase are morally like the corpses of the rezzes. It is not that the individual possesses any rights at that time, but it is wrong to prevent its coming back into existence.

I think this response to my argument only works if one separates personhood from sameness of organism. The cysters in the dormant phase are the same organism as in the active phase, but one would have to say that the person does not exist during the dormant phase. This is problematic, but many pro-choice philosophers will be OK with it.

Maybe an interesting way to tweak the example is to suppose that in dormant phase the cysters have intellectual functioning of, say, a dog (assuming one doesn't think dogs are persons). It would be hard, I think, to suppose that the person ceases to exist during the dog-like time. After all, we don't cease to exist when asleep or drunk.

Jarrett Cooper said...

Prof. Pruss,

Lately I've been reading and concerning myself with the abortion issue, and I'm curious about your take on one issue.

There are those who dislike the use of the potential verbiage that is used for pro-life arguments. Namely, to ground the moral worth of fetuses in that they have the potential (albeit undeveloped) to become beings with consciousnesses, intellect, language, etc. They argue that the word "potential" has a very broad scope and therefore defending the use of potential with regards to fetuses becomes arbitrary.

What I gather is that their concern is there are many things have potential to be such and such. After all, it is said that we are star dust, but yet we don't view exploding stars nor the mere star dust remnants themselves as human beings. This is because even if we are just star dust, there's a whole bunch of processes that have to occur to get a human being.

Take another example to further clarify the point. An ovum can be said to have the potential to become a human being. Even though the ovum has to rely on external processes (namely, the sperm somehow [through yet another process] entering the egg) to become a human being. Yet we don't think of a woman’s menstruation as the killing of a human being, even though the egg has the potential to become a human being. Using this same line of reasoning can also, presumably, be used with the case of the fetus. The fetus is relying on external processes (namely, nourishment and proper environmental conditions for further growth) for it to reach those capacities that we deem to give it its moral worth.

Now, the real question is can one use potential in a way that’s not arbitrary. I think we can. However, I don’t know the precise language to articulate the view (if there even is one). Couldn’t one say there are such things as direct and indirect potential, and that the fetus counts a direct potential (with regards to consciousness, intellect, language, etc.); whereas, the remnants of star dust and an ovum have indirect potential (to become a human being)? Though I’m thinking this will have to rely on natural ends (though maybe this is not necessary?) The natural end of a fetus is to continue to develop and to become a conscious being with language, etc. The natural end of remnant star dust and an ovum isn’t necessarily to produce a human being. (One purpose of menstruation, after all, is to shed the body of the old egg and make way for a newer and fresher egg.)

Apologies for the long post.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I've responded in a separate post.

Enenennx said...

Jarrett Cooper, thanks for contributing some thoughts which help me think about these issues.

You comment: "The natural end of a fetus is to continue to develop and to become a conscious being with language, etc."

Why do you say this? Why is the natural end of a fetus to continue to develop into a conscious being? We know the natural end of many many embryos are fetuses is to not to become conscious beings. With only 30-50% of conceptions progressing past the first trimester, how do decide that progression of a conceptus to a fetus to a conscious being is the "natural" course. Perhaps some of these miscarried conceptuses and fetuses serve to keep the maternal entity in some unknown (or known, I don't know the science here) healthy, and then can't one say that these conceptuses or fetuses natural course is not to become a conscious entity?

Do we fall prey to the naturalistic fallacy either way?

Alexander R Pruss said...

One could equally wonder in a time with greater child mortality whether a child's natural end is to grow up into an adult. But plainly it is. :-)

Jarrett Cooper said...

Hello Enenennx,

Those are good questions! The route I'd try to argue would be along these lines: I'd argue that the reason many of the fetuses don't make it to term doesn't have anything innately to do with the fetus itself, but rather there are some external factor(s) that make the fetuses not make it to term. These factors could range from injury the mother sustained, improper nourishment by the mother (this could be from the mother not eating, or from a structural defect the umbilical cord has, etc.), certain medications can cause the baby severe harm (anti-depressants give babies certain diseases, for example), cancer (which you might argue is innate to the mother, but I'd argue is a thwarting of a natural end), a virus could have entered the mother and then into the fetus causing severe illness to the fetus, so forth and so on.

I don't think there is anything internal (e.g., innately) to the fetus that says I should stop dividing cells and therefore to stop further development.

Now, you also brought up a good point about it being "natural" that the mother's own body could miscarry the fetus, because this could be in the benefit of the mother. Now, I agree with you that very well is an natural end that's innate to mother to miscarry the child. However, I'd argue for her to be in the state to to cause the miscarraige of the baby is not natural. I also don't see anything wrong with saying there are two natural ends in conflict with one another. The mother's continual growth and the baby's continual growth. It could very well be natural that a malnourished mother gets first priority over any of the food she does eat and the result is the death of the baby. However, this, I believe, doesn't hurt my point. Being malnourished is an external factor that is not a natural state of a pregnant woman.

When it comes to natural ends, with all things being equal, it is natural for the pregnant woman and her child to make it to term. From there is is natural for the fetus to continue to develop into a being that possesses consciousness, intellect, language, etc. It it only through some external factor that thwarts (deprives) the fetus from reaching its potential.

With regards to all of this committing the natural fallacy: getting an ought from an is. I don't think so. This is what's done in the medical sciences. We know, for example, what the heart is and how it's suppose to function. From that knowledge (from the "is") allows doctors to prescribe a fix for the heart (when it's not working the way it "ought" to) to make the heart function the way it should naturally function. So, doctors do arrive at an ought from an is.

Jarrett Cooper said...

I apologize for my grammatical errors: typos, double words, and some missing words. I need an editor!

Enenennx said...

AP you say "One could equally wonder in a time with greater child mortality whether a child's natural end is to grow up into an adult. But plainly it is."

Again, I am having difficulty. It is not plain to me what a "natural end" is. It seems you are arbitrarily choosing what you feel is best, or most fulfilled, or "what I'm used to", as the child's "natural end". The natural end of 30-50% of fetuses is spontaneous abortion, and then have it's materials contribute again to the biomass for other organisms. The child who dies in a period of higher child mortality has a natural end of becoming biomass for other organisms (one can even imagine a population where that child's natural demise then serves as food for the mother to feed her next developing fetus, that dead child being the only food source in times of food shortage.)

Enenennx said...

Jarret, perhaps you could describe for me what exactly are the "internal forces" which a fetus has.

When cancer thwarts a natural end, in your words, it doesn't thwart the natural end of the cancer. When a parasite thwarts a child and causes it's death, it is natural for that parasite. It is always and only natural ends competing with each other. Dividing outcomes into "natural" and "unnatural" ends, seems to always be arbitrary. Cheers.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"It is not plain to me what a 'natural end' is."

Since the concept of a natural end is not reducible to other concepts, all I can do is give examples and give non-definitory truths such as "The natural ends of the human body are those ends that it is the physician's job, as such, to promote."

If you don't see the fact that human eyes are at least in part for seeing or that it is a defect if an adult dog cannot smell anything or if an adult pig has three legs, there is little I can do beyond pointing out some of the unhappy consequences of abandoning such concepts:
1. You lose the concept of health.
2. It becomes very hard to figure out the task of the physician.
3. Bioethics becomes very problematic.
4. Environmental ethics becomes very problematic.
5. All sorts of other obvious ethical truths become questionable, such as that decreasing child mortality is worth doing.

"When a parasite thwarts a child and causes it's death, it is natural for that parasite."

Could be, but the question isn't what the natural end of the parasite is, but what the natural end of the child is. The same event can be natural for the parasite and unnatural for the child.

Jarrett Cooper said...


There is nothing internal/innate to the fetus that says I should be miscarried, completely stop dividing cells, and to therefore stop developing. I'd argue whenever the fetus succumbs to miscarriage is that there is some factor not innate to the fetus that has gone awry.

What is meant by what is innate to the fetus just means what the fetus is suppose to do with all thing being equal. Unfortunately, things are not equal and these unequal factors are just the external factors that makes the fetus succumb to miscarriage.

Yes, natural ends run into conflict and when things do we make value judgement. We do this in every day life. For example, your wife (who is pregnant) is about to leave to house and she wants you to cook supper and you tell her you will. However, she goes into labor and is rushed to the hospital. Now the question is should you rush to the hospital to see your wife through labor or should you cook the supper you told her you would cook? The answer is obvious because you would rush to the hospital because seeing your wife through labor is of a higher value then cooking the supper you said you would do. Now, with all this said, I'd argue that the fetus' natural end is more important than the parasites, virus, and the cancers. Though cancer, to me, doesn't fit as well as having a natural end as does the parasite and virus. Cancer is more of a dysfunction of cells that have gone awry. When you get cancer your body isn't work the way it's suppose to (we know this because of natural ends).

The above line of thought--with regards to things having higher value--is based off of Aristotle. Aristotle recognized things in nature have degrees of higher capacities and the fetus outweighs the virus and parasite.

Enenennx said...

Thanks Jarrett for your thoughts.

What is a tree "supposed" to do? What is a parasite "supposed" to do? What is a cancer cell "supposed" to do? [In your view can a cancer cell have something which it is "supposed to" do, or do only certain entities garner the right to have something it is supposed to do?] What is a conceptus "supposed" to do? How do you define "supposed to"? Again you seem to chose one outcome (from among many) and say that that outcome is the one that is due to an entity's "internal forces". When in fact that outcome is as dependent on external forces as the outcomes you wish to say are "not supposed to" be, or are "not natural".

Let me illustrate. A conceptus, according to you, is supposed to become a fetus because of it's "innate forces". What grants greater value to a force that brings purines to the conceptus so that other forces can use that purine to construct another copy of DNA, as compared to a force that brings a chemically altered purine to the same conceptus and the same other forces using that altered purine to commence a process that leads to a genetically untenable fetus that becomes spontaneously aborted?

That you don't see that a cancer cell has a natural end (and that that end involves growth, and that growth involves destruction of healthy cells and that that cancer is naturally part the entity from which it arises) is part of the difficulty, I believe.

Your "natural" and "supposed to" and "innate" definitions seem circular; i.e. that which is natural for an entity is that which it is supposed to be which is determined by what is innate to it.

Additionally you would admit that a parasite would value (if it could, in this sense) itself over a human fetus. Value is inherent to the entity asserting the value.

And for an entirely different thought experiment, which I have no idea whether or not it adds value here, consider the following. Whatever the entity "you" are, the definition of this "you" is complicated. "You" are your cells and their components, at a basic level, but what allows "you" to exist are trillions of bacterial organisms (they outnumber "your" cells by 10 to 1) on your skin and digestive tract. Remove them and you are likely to die. Are these bacterial organisms in any way "you". Removing them and you don't exist, just as if you removed your brain or other vital organ.

Even if "natural ends" can be determined, can it be explained why those natural ends have moral value? (This may have been explained by AP, but it was clear to me, which I only hold myself responsible for because of what I've read of AP blog is typically seems quite concise and clear.)

If I've misrepresented anybody's thoughts in any way, my apologies. Just trying to figure things out. Cheers.

Jarrett Cooper said...


The tree, parasite, and cancer cell will have to be accounted for separately. Also, accordingly, we have to note the different kinds of trees, parasites, and cancers that we're talking about.

If we are talking about an orange tree, then that kind of tree is suppose to grow into a tree that is "suppose" to produce oranges. If it doesn't produce oranges, then it's not functioning properly.

If we're talking about a parasite that depends on some type of symbiotic relationship to survive, then if that parasite attaches to another host that it was not meant to form a symbiotic relationship with, then that parasite isn't functioning properly to its natural end.

Now, with regards to cancer cells, as I said previously, I don't think the cancer is said to have to same kind of natural end that we can attribute to a parasite. Cancer just is a cell gone awry. The cell has improperly mutated or undergone improper copying during the interphase (S phase), which is a mistake and not natural for the cell itself, and also not natural for the animal for any cell to divide so rapidly that it kills the being! It's not natural for cells to divide so fast in and around the kidneys thereby thereby depriving the kidneys' natural function--filtering the blood (which just is one of the functions of the kidney).

Again, your examples actually illustrate the point I'm making. It's external factors that are not innate to the fetus that makes it not reach its proper potential which, with all things being equal, is suppose to reach. The DNA in the cell requires (innately) certain purines to carry about its functions properly. When given an altered purine thereby makes the DNA not carry out what it is naturally suppose to. When you put a cell into a cup of Clorox bleach, yes, it will naturally burst, but the cell and the contents within it were not designed to be placed into Clorox bleach.

Yes, I see that a cancer cell has a natural end, but what causes a cancer cell in the first place isn't a natural end for the being! (See above.)

Jarrett Cooper said...


I don't think it's circular in any fallacious sense (maybe Prof. Pruss can chime in on this). I'm saying what is natural for an entity just is what it was designed to do (which is innate to the being to do). An eyeball is meant for vision, which just is (its very purpose, which is innate to it) what an eyeball is suppose to do. It's unnatural for an eyeball to produce new blood cells (that's one function on the bone marrow) or anything contrary to the use of vision.

Yes, I think those bacterial cells are part of me, if our body was design to have a benefit or mutual benefit with the bacteria. If our body cells or the bacteria themselves ever changed to disrupt this symbiotic relationship would thereby be unnatural.

I'm not sure that natural ends in themselves have moral value. It's that we place on some natural ends to be of moral worth. For example, we value consciousness, intellect, language, emotion, etc. Things that give rise to those characterless we deem to be worth protecting/defending.

Jarrett Cooper said...

For my very last sentence. It shouldn't read characterless, but instead characteristics.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Fundamental concepts, in science, philosophy and elsewhere, cannot be defined, but must be introduced in some other way, say by giving examples and hoping that people can generalize from them.

Just try to define what it means for something to be reasonable. (Yes, philosophers have tried. But I think all the non-trivial definitions fail.) Or what a wavefunction is (assuming one is working with a physics on which wavefunction is the fundamental concept; one can have a physics where wavefunction is a derivative concept).

So I am unphased by the fact that we can't non-circularly explain what it means for something to be the normal function of something else. Though some people have tried. There are failed attempts to explain normal function in terms of what contributes in the right way to genetic fitness, and there are attempts--also, I think, failed--to explain normal function in terms of the function that God intends for something. Jarrett may disagree with the latter--his invocation of design suggests that he wants to identify function with design intention.

One likewise can't non-circularly explain what it is for one thing to cause something else, for a person to believe something, for something to be probable, etc. Yet these concepts are central to much of our thinking.

"'You' are your cells and their components."

Not at all. If x has property P and y lacks property P, then x is not the same as y. Let x be me. Let y be my cells. Let P be the property of being 38-years-old. Then x has P and y does not have P. Hence x is not the same as y.

At best, my cells *constitute* me, but they are not identical with me.

Enenennx said...

So if a fetus turns out good (actualizes it potentiality), it is because it is harnessing its internal forces to achieve some sort of teleological goal?

But if a fetus turns out bad (e.g. is spontaneously aborted) it is because external forces have had their way with it?

That is how I read you, Jarrett. A conceptus becomes a human being only by internal forces. If it becomes in any way less than a human being, it is because external forces intervened. That sounds odd.

I know this can't be correct, or even what you are trying to say.

[The phrase "all things being equal" makes no sense to me the way you use it. You seem to want it to mean one specific environment among many.]

Jarrett Cooper said...

That's close to what I'm saying, but not exactly.

I acknowledged that the fetus, like the acorn, does rely on external factors--proper nourishment and environment. However, for me, what is absolutely crucial is that the fetus, and also the acorn, is structured (innately by its very design) to expect an environment that allows it to reach its potential. A fetus turns out "good" not just because of its internal characteristics, but also that of the external environmental in which the fetus expects because of its very design. (An acorn is innately designed to expect some type of soil, water and sunlight for development. One couldn't complain that an acorn didn't turn into a tree if the sun went away.)

I wouldn't say what you wrote, "But if a fetus turns out bad (e.g. is spontaneously aborted) it is because external forces have had their way with it?" Rather, if a fetus turn out "bad" is because what's innate to the fetus is structured/designed/programmed to expect a certain environment that allows it to reach its potential.

And that just is what I mean by all things being equal. However, as I noted, unfortunately things are not equal. Sometimes a mother gets injured, takes harmful medication, a disease has entered the body, mother has come into contact with poison, so forth and so on.

You and I expect, just like the acorn and fetus, a kind of environment that will allow us to naturally do what we was functioned to do. If an asteroid came and swept up so much dust as to wash away the sun and thereby killing all the plants that rely on photosynthesis. Sooner or later you and I will not have oxygen to breath. Our bodies are not built to live in such an environment. That type of environmental is not natural for us.

Enenennx said...

Not to be pedantic, but now you use the term "proper" when referring to the environment that is required for a conceptus to develop into a human being. Why is it that that specific environment gets to be called "proper" while the environments that cause 20-50 percent of conceptuses to be spontaneously aborted are then implicitly termed "improper"? Does "proper" (in the phrase "the proper environment for a conceptus") just mean "allowing for continuation" of the conceptus?

If a conceptus has a proper environment, does the egg that becomes that conceptus have a "proper" environment prior to becoming the conceptus? Would it be wrong to squash that specific egg prior to it becoming a conceptus?

We don't know everything that causes spontaneous abortions. When science teases out all the specific reasons that contribute to the 30-50 percent of fetuses that result in spontaneous abortion, will all those reasons just fall into the unnatural and improper category of environments.

You speak of things as if they only have one potential which is proper and natural. A womb has a function to support a fetus, but it also functions to shed unfertilized (and sometimes fertilized) eggs once a month. Which of these functions (which of these actualized potentialities) is it's one proper and natural function?

A conceptus has a function to eventually become a human being. It also has a function to be shed and have it's components recycled through the biosphere. Why is one of these options the "proper" and "natural" function that is "supposed" to happen, and the other not?

How does any thing EXPECT a certain (specific) environment. If it is specifically going to become something it NEEDS a certain environment, but it certainly doesn't expect it. A thing can only expect to exist probabilistically in a certain environment. A fetus can expect a 50-50 chance of existing in an environment in which it is not spontaneously aborted. A human being can expect TO HAVE existed in a certain environment as a fetus (i.e. the environment that allows for a human being to form from a fetus), but a fetus can only expect to exist in an environment as a function of a probability based on what environments are available, all of them natural (there is no such thing as a supernatural magical environment).

We can only expect to be in an environment if we know the future. If I know I exist in the future, then I know that up until that point I have only been in environments which allowed for the continuing of my existence. But as it is as natural for my body to be ravaged by disease, or to be struck by lightening, or for a myriad of calamities to occur, I can only expect that I will either be in those environments or not, and I can only reasonably make predictions based on the probabilities of those environments existing.

Additionally there are internal reasons that conceptusus don't develop into human beings that aren't reliant on external forces. To be spontaneously aborted certain conceptuses rely only on their own internal chromosomal differences to be unable to implant into a womb. Ought that embryo have expected a different environment to continue it's existence?

I'm enjoying the back and forth. Like I said, I'm hoping to learn. When I reread some of my comments they can sometimes seem like I am asserting a certainty which I certainly don't have. I hope it appears as though I'm just thinking out loud. Thanks.

Jarrett Cooper said...

No problem, Enenennx:

One gets to be called proper because of what's innate to the entity which we are talking about. It's, at least to me, obvious that it's not proper for an acorn to exist if sunlight or soil doesn't exist. What you would need to show me is that those 20-50 percent of fetuses that succumb to miscarriage is innate to the fetus itself to undergo (I'd argue that it is not).

Proper, in this context, means what's expected innately to the entity at hand to carry about it's functions.

Yes, I think the egg prior to fertilization does have a proper environment. For example, the uterus is suppose to have a balanced pH level and certainly there should be no toxins in the womb, and etc. I think it would be wrong if one were just to destroy an egg without some justification (in my view, right and wrong are not black and white issues. There are degrees of wrongness. To lie is not a wrong as to murder, for example.)

If science were to tell us that there is something innate to the fetus that says it should be aborted, then yes that would put my argument into a corner that would make it hard to defend. However, I just don't see that being the case (that a fetus has innately programmed to kill itself.)

I hope I don't speak as if things only have one potential. I fully recognize things can have more than one potential (better yet function). The male penis, for example, has two functions that come to mind. One is to excrete urine out of the body. The other function is used for intercourse. So, with regards to your question about the female womb, both of your cases are natural functions of the womb. When the egg is not yet fertilized then the womb is the proper environment for the egg until fertilization. Once the egg is fertilized then the womb's natural function is the help support with fetal development.

Jarrett Cooper said...


Yes, there is a range in which a fetus expects. It surely doesn't expect temperatures being minus 200 degrees below zero nor does it expect temperatures of 200 degrees above zero. Also, the human body expects oxygen. Now, the concentration of oxygen can vary in it's range, but nonetheless the human body needs and expects oxygen.

No, only an outside observer can expect the fetus to have a 50/50 chance of not making it. What's internal to the fetus itself says I expect x, y, and z (even with x, y, and z being varied in range).

I agree there is no "supernatural magical environment." However, there is an enviroment which the fetus expects and which it needs to allow it to reach it's potential and this isn't arbitrary! It's not arbitrary that an acorn expects sunlight, soil and water.

I disagree with this statement of yours, "We can only expect to be in an environment if we know the future." No, an entity can expect the future by being designed in such as way to be prepared and to thrive off of that particular environment it expects. It is no wonder that certian bacteria thrive around oceanic volcanic vents. That's because they are designed to live in such high pressures and hot water conditions. Those bacteria expect those conditions. It's not designed to expect frigid low pressure conditions.

I don't think that the human body is meant (designed/structured) to be struck by lightening to stricken by deadly diseases, and etc. Just because those things can happen doesn't mean it's natural for the human body. That's like saying it's natural for a computer program to be infected by a worm, just becuase this is commonnly done. Well, the computer program isn't designed to have a worm in it.

It could very well be the case that one woman's body doesn't react positively to the sperm and her body naturally miscarries (however, we don't know if this is a defect or if the sperm contains some toxin that the egg isn't natural suppose to respond to, etc.). Also, many fertilized eggs don't get implanted and are flushed out. Thing is this doesn't undermine that the fetus is meant to develop (innately) into an adult.

Jarrett Cooper said...

Some of those it's should be its, among some other grammatical mistakes. Apologies for the typos.

I don't mind the back and forth. Though I do have have a certification to be studying for. :(

Enenennx said...
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Enenennx said...
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Enenennx said...

[I deleted my previous comment because I was unhappy about some typos, which I'm sure there are still more I have overlooked. I also noticed a paragraph or two out of place, and tried to fix that.]

JC you say: "What you would need to show me is that those 20-50 percent of fetuses that succumb to miscarriage is innate to the fetus itself to undergo (I'd argue that it is not)."

From Wikipedia: "The most common cause of spontaneous abortion during the first trimester is chromosomal abnormalities of the embryo/fetus,[9][15] accounting for at least 50% of sampled early pregnancy losses."

Are the chromosomal abnormalities of these fetuses innate to the fetus? Could one argue that external forces are responsible for these chromosomal abnormalities? Yes, but they would be both wrong and they would also have to forfeit the functions of beneficial mutations that they themselves have been the beneficiaries of. Chromosomal abnormalities are the result of natural and innate and functions of DNA replication. Something didn't "go wrong", something progressed along a separate natural path. Choosing one outcome and labeling it as "proper", is arbitrary, yes?

The DNA molecule has built in mutation rates. These mutations are responsible for such things as triploidy, which will certainly (and mercifully) result in a spontaneous abortion. These same forces of mutation are responsible for the gradual increase in size of the cerebral cortex. Multiploidy of the same DNA in plant DNA is quite valuable; in humans not so much. Given the identical mechanisms of mutation, I can see choosing to call the outcome of one "bad" and another outcome "good", but do we have any ground to say one is "proper" and "natural" and they other outcome is "improper" and "unnatural"? Are you going to say that the mutations that result in "good" outcomes are merely the result of innate properties of the conceptuses's DNA; whereas the mutations that result in "bad" outcomes are merely the result of forces "external" to the conceptus's DNA? Are the mutations that lead to your eyesight are innate but those that lead to a sixth digit are not?

If external forces are required to cause DNA variation, then it is these same forces that are required to cause the variation that result in what you call a "proper" human being. It's like flipping a coin. I heads I win, and tails you win, you are saying the only proper flips of the coin are the one's that turn up heads. But both heads and tails are a proper outcome of a coin flip. Both spontaneous abortion and birth are proper outcomes of the natural process of conception.

I think many don't grasp this because the biomass of spontaneous abortions is not seen by very many. Out of sight, out of mind. If you say one spontaneous abortion per one person throughout the course of your day, then spontaneous abortions would seen quite "natural" to you.


Enenennx said...


You JC say: "Proper, in this context, means what's expected innately to the entity at hand to carry out it's functions. " In doing so you are admitting a bias. The biomass of aborted fetuses have function, they are recycled through the biosphere. This is admittedly a less obvious function, but I doubt anyone will deny it, once thought about. [This of course depends on when one says a "you" exists or begins to exist. That which is a necessary component of you (your biomass) will have the function of returning to the biosphere after it stops functioning. Is this not proper or natural?]

Does water rolling down a hill have a proper course? I would say no. Is merely the path of least resistance the "proper" course? No. And it is not the only option available to the water. The same forces of friction and mass and gravity are working on the water no matter which course it takes, and it will course down the hill overcoming resistances that might be greater than some other path that would have offered less resistance but the water with its momentum found this larger resistance over-come-able and so said "screw it" and continued down the hill without seeking the exact path of least resistance.

The idea of choosing a specific outcome that is "innate" or "natural" to an entity and labeling it as "proper" is arbitrary, and vacuous, or so it appears to me. Consider this, what is the sun's innate, natural, proper function? Or what is the "proper" function of a stick that has fallen from a tree? These things simply do things based on what they are composed of and what environment they are in. To claim that a conceptus has a purpose because it has value or moral properties, when the sun or stick do not have proper functions is presuming what you are trying to argue (i.e. you are asserting something has value because it has a purpose, but then saying that thing has purpose because we have decided to value it [see your Aristotle reference]).

Good luck on your certification.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That the fetus has value should not be particularly controversial. All life, human and not, has value. The question under debate here is whether the human fetus has the kind of moral status that the typical human adult has.

Nor is it necessary to hold that everything has proper function to hold that some things do. It is plain that teeth are for biting and are not for hanging around one's neck in a necklace (to use an example from a paper by Levin that I otherwise would not endorse).

Now, we can ask two separate questions.

First there is the metaphysical question: What is it that makes claims of the form "x has F as its proper function" be true. That's a tough question, but one must at least admit of the possibility that proper function is fundamental and hence cannot be explained any further.

Second there is the epistemological question: How do we know what is x's proper function?

Here, I think we can say a few things. As in other cases, we try to come up with the best explanatory theory that coheres with the facts. In this case, the facts include value facts, such as that it is better for a human to see than to be blind, or that it is better to have two legs than one.

Enenennx said...

Forgive me if my points and questions are stupid here.

First, about teeth. Teeth can also function in mate attraction. Teeth can also function in articulation. Affricitives and sibilants would not be possible without teeth. So everything has a range of functions, and to just chose one or a just a range of them, is arbitrary, yes? To explore the idea of teeth in mate attraction consider what if the wearing of a teeth necklace serves to display in a particular tribal culture one's greater worth than another member, and increases the chances that the teeth-necklace wearing tribesman will reproduce more children (and more teeth)? So you would likely admit that things have a range of function, but you don't offer any way, yet, to distinguish proper functions from improper functions.

Prof AP says: "First there is the metaphysical question: What is it that makes claims of the form "x has F as its proper function" be true. That's a tough question, but one must at least admit of the possibility that proper function is fundamental and hence cannot be explained any further. "

This metaphysical question is asking only which function is an entity's proper function. It assumes both 1) that an entity has a proper function and also 2) that that function is unique (one in number). Whether or not an entity has a proper function is what I'd like to see demonstrated or see an argument for. Why is the question ["what" makes the statement "x has F as its proper function" true], and not ["is" the statement "x has a proper function" true]?

Prof AP also says: "Second there is the epistemological question: How do we know what is x's proper function?"

What is the proper function of a stick? If it has none, what things have a proper function and which things do not. If it is that only those things which have value can have function, what comes first, value, or function? Do you value something which has a function, or does something with a function have value. I am slow, but this seems circular.

Is not the first question, do entities have proper functions? If some entities do have proper functions and some entities do not have proper functions, what is the criteria that distinguishes between entities which do have proper function and entities which do not, and what makes those criteria valid?

Possibilities, potentialities, and proper functions, oh, my.

Jarrett Cooper said...


I don't think labeling one proper and the other one as not to be arbitrary. With regards to the majority of miscarriages arising because of of chromosomal abnormalities. That's just my point! Abnormalities, defects, mistakes, etc (things have gone awry for the entity). These abnormalities could result in from the fact the case that the body was lacking a hormone(s), or some free radical came into contact with the DNA and resulted in a genetic mutation, etc. Point being these things are not innate to the entity to carry its functions it was designed for.

One labels one proper and the other not-proper, by the fact of what's innate to the entity and what is was designed to do. It wouldn't be proper for a new genetic mutation to result if it doesn't help add to (more modestly thwart) the function of the entity at hand. So, there can be both "good" and "bad" mutations, but what actually makes them good or bad is do they either thwart or advance (or at least maintain) a particular function of the entity at hand. This is what's crucial for the distinction.

Another thing to keep in mind is what's innate to the sperm and egg, individually. The sperm and egg are both expecting (innately, as the were built) the other half to fall within a particular range as to allow for proper fetal development.

We always need to be concerned and focused about what's innate to the entity at hand and what is their function to carry out as they were designed for. Just because it's natural (given the laws of physics) for free radicals to exist and for it to "grab" an electron from the DNA and therefore causes a genetic mutation that could result in cancer, chromosomal abnormalities, etc. doesn't mean it's natural for the entity at hand. Because what's innate to the entity isn't designed for those things to occur for it to carry about its function.

I don't believe I'm having a bias. Yes, we can attribute functions for all sort of things (One could attribute a function to the sun when it becomes a red giant and evaporates all the inner planets. However, that doesn't mean the entities on those planets are meant to be evaporated! Even though this will naturally occur one day). But, again, what matters is what's innate to the entity at hand and what it's suppose to carry out as it was designed for. A fetus has innately built into it to develop into a being of consciousness, intellect, and language (also the fetus is innately built as a sexual being, which can keep the circle of life alive).

Enenennx said...

But we just call them "abnormalities" that doesn't mean they are not natural.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I make no assumption that each thing has only one proper function. It's quite possible for an item to have many proper functions.

There might be vagueness around the edges, too. Thus, it is clear that it is a function of the eyes to see and it is not a function of the eyes to be pulled out by their possessor to be eaten. There may be borderline cases that are unclear. That doesn't challenge the distinction between proper function and not proper function.

In any given case, we need to ask what value and normalcy facts are to be explained and whether we need to posit proper function to explain them. Thus, it is normal for a human to have two eyes and abnormal to have only one. This fact can be explained by positing three-dimensional sight as a proper function of the human visual system, and noting that having two eyes is very important to this proper function.

Of course, this only works if one thinks that values are objective.

But of course if values aren't objective, there is little point to discussing abortion or any other moral matter.

Jarrett Cooper said...


I agree. It's completely natural (given the laws of physics) that those things occur.

Just like it's completely natural for our sun--once it reaches the end of its life cycle--to expand and literally evaporate the inner planets. However, it is not natural for those entities on those planets to be evaporated. That's the crux of the matter! The entities on earth are not designed (at least not yet) to withstand such extreme temperatures.

Another example: It's natural (given the laws of physics) if I were to put my hand into hydrochloric acid that it would dissolve. However, it's not natural that my hand should ever be placed into hydrochloric acid!

Enenennx said...

Calling certain arrangements of DNA that arise innately "abnormalities" is an artifact of our biases. Would it be better if we called them "natural chromosomal variances" because that is what they are! The point is the same mutagenic forces that cause variance X which leads to spontaneous abortion are the same mutagenic causes which cause variance Y which leads to you developing the ability to fly (or the ability to have just slightly better night vision through a proliferation of corneal rods, whatever.)

Transcription errors are built into the functioning of DNA as they are preserved over history as they have contributed a survival benefit. Such mutations are not determined by external forces. They are innate to the properties of the chromosomes themselves. Such a mechanism necessarily produces "good" and "bad" mutations, it is a mindless process. Because environments change, only organisms which have the capacity to change are going to be the organisms in existence. Hence both good and bad mutations are innate.

Things aren't "designed" to do anything. Based on their genetic history entities come to exist in an environment that supports its continued existence or one that doesn't, or one a variety in between, there is no "proper" relationship here between an entity and a certain environment because the entity is a manifestation of the environment.

Does each sperm expect an egg and each egg expect a sperm? This is just not biological truth. Your argument is forcing you to make nonsense statements in my opinion. Is an egg which fails to meet its expectations of finding a sperm improper and unnatural. If this is the case the majority of the history of life on this earth across all species is improper and unnatural - it is amazing the biosphere exists while functioning so unnaturally the great majority of the time!

JC you say: "Just because it's natural (given the laws of physics) for free radicals to exist and for it to "grab" an electron from the DNA and therefore causes a genetic mutation that could result in cancer, chromosomal abnormalities, etc. doesn't mean it's natural for the entity at hand. Because what's innate to the entity isn't designed for those things to occur for it to carry about its function."


Enenennx said...


Yes it is natural for DNA to be mutated by free radicals. Imagine this leading to a mutation which then protects an individual from free radical damage (or making free radical damage of benefit) and this mutation has the additional advantage of slowing telomere degradation and apoptosis thus extending an organism's life span by decades. If this is not natural, what is it? Supernatural? It may not be what you desire, but mutation is certainly what is to be expected when free radicals intermingle with DNA. Let me repeat, it is to be expected, that is what occurs. Your argument is boiling down to arguing just that you want something, and that your want is "natural" and "proper" and "innate". But you are trying to couch this assertion in more intellectual sounding terms like innate properties, or what something should expect. Every biologist and physicist will tell you to expect DNA damage when it is exposed to certain radiation.

You have progressed from "potential" to "innate" to "proper" to "good". These are all highly subjective terms, I was hoping for something concrete. It obviously doesn't just boil down to that which is "innate" to an entity, as you claim. "Bad" mutations are innate to DNA. The ability to be subject to the mutagenic effects of radiation is innate to chromosomes. Failure for a gamete to hook up with what you feel it is designed to hook up is innate to the grand majority of gametes across all oraganisms. Lack of continued existence is innate to 30-50% of fetuses.

I wish I could understand where your argument is coming from. I certainly don't feel as if I have the right answers here, I'm just not swayed by your handling of innate and potential and proper arguments.

Enenennx said...
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Enenennx said...

Is the function of the male head of a praying mantis to help that insect navigate his environment, or is it's function to be eaten so as to provide sustenance to the mother and larvae of the mother praying mantis who is serving to propagate his genetic material? Is the function of a bee's stinger to sting and tear of it's owner's abdomen? I agree the function of an entity is blurry around the edges, often described by the entity using the thing in question.

Is it normal for conceptuses to be spontaneously aborted? Is it normal for a male praying mantis's head to be eaten?

If vales are subjective don't we still have an interest in discussing moral mattes? It may be the case that moral matters have additional attributes which contribute to human suffering and satisfaction, and as such discussing ways to maximize satisfaction and minimizing suffering seems likely to still be beneficial.

Alexander R Pruss said...

"You have progressed from 'potential' to 'innate' to 'proper' to 'good'. These are all highly subjective terms, I was hoping for something concrete"

I think the good is about as objective a term as there is. :-)

In any case, serious discussion of abortion should presuppose objective truth in ethics.

"Is it normal for a male praying mantis's head to be eaten?"

Probably. It fulfills the organism's organic destiny by providing for the children.

"It may be the case that moral matters have additional attributes which contribute to human suffering and satisfaction, and as such discussing ways to maximize satisfaction and minimizing suffering seems likely to still be beneficial."

If there is no objective value, why should I care about satisfaction and suffering?

Alexander R Pruss said...

I think this discussion, interesting and challenging as it's been, is reaching the end of its usefulness.

Enenennx said...

Prof AP: "I think this discussion, interesting and challenging as it's been, is reaching the end of its usefulness."

Thanks for your thoughts and time Prof AP.

Prof AP asks: "If there is no objective value, why should I care about satisfaction and suffering?"

You are an individual that experiences numerous stimuli, some of which you are going to enjoy more that others, therefore a discussion of them has benefit, regardless if morality is objective. "should" you engage in this discussion? That is a different question as to whether or not such discussions have the possibility to produce benefit, and is not contingent on whether morality is objective. But if you're feeling apathetic and have no predilections whatsoever, feel free to sit this one out. Cheers.

It the organic destiny of some conceptuses to perish?

Jarrett Cooper said...


You keep ignoring the function of the entity at hand. It can be the case--following the laws of physics--that the DNA is altered in such a way as to not develop eyes. This doesn't therefore mean that what's innate to the fetus is not to grow eyes! That's the point I'm making. All I can do is keep giving examples of things that go awry which are not meant be done by the entity.

I agree it is a mindless process, but we can recognize if such a process came to make the DNA to not produce the male or female genitalia, then I think it's obvious that mutation is "bad."

Yes, I believe, that sperm and eggs are designed in such a way as to expect the other half. That's why sperm and eggs are haploid! Also the sperm expects to swim through some kind of fluid substance. That's the function of the flagellum. So, when a flagellum doesn't form then something has gone wrong. I don't think any of this forces me to make nonsense statements.

I know a biologist and physicist will tell me to expect DNA damage, but they will not tell me that the fetus should expect an environment contrary for it develop the way it was designed for. (A fetus doesn't expect to be in a womb swamped in methamphetamines or excess amounts of alcohol, or in a womb of a severely injured and sick mother, or in a completely dehydrated womb, or in an environmental in which some parasite completely eats the fetus, so forth or on.)

I agree with Prof. Pruss, that this thread has reached its course. (I was just about completed my typing before I saw it) I enjoyed all the exchanges. :)

Enenennx said...

You are right, all you can do is keep giving examples of non-ideal outcomes that fetuses can become and "say" that those outcomes are not innate to it. You have yet to offer a reason as to why those outcomes are not also innate, as I have showed many of them are. They examples of non-ideal outcomes goes on and on and on and on.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Notice, though, that you may have implicitly admitted normative vocabulary by calling these outcomes "non-ideal".

Enenennx said...

If you are still reading along.

What entities have the ability to expect and what things do not have the ability to expect? Can a pebble expect anything? Can a fetus? Can a conceptus? Can an egg? Can a purine? Can any of the molecules to end up becoming an egg and then a conceptus and then a fetus? You are arbitrarily drawing a line at what can and cannot expect things.

Consider this. I am planing an outside gathering this weekend. For it to occur ideally, it best not rain. Can I expect it not to rain. Maybe if I look at the weather I will have a probabilistic assumption about whether it will rain or not. But it would be silly to say that it not raining is the only proper or natural or innate thing that will occur. I can expect purple unicorns not to fall out of the sky, because this is not within the realm of possibilities. But from within the set of possibilities I must expect one of those possibilities to occur, but any of those possibilities are all natural and innate to the mechanisms of weather. And the guests at the picnic would think I was crazy if I apologized that the innate property of my outdoor ideal picnic did not manifest because of the rain.

Your handling of the innate argument remains unconvincing to me. Have you tried it elsewhere, or do you know anyone else trying there hand at it? Cheers.

Enenennx said...

AP you are addressing JC with your last comment I presume. I only use "non-ideal" because JC's category of that which something is supposed to be requires the creation of another category that encompasses everything else. This is what I am pointing to as being arbitrary. Thanks for confirming.

Jarrett Cooper said...
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Jarrett Cooper said...

I, unfortunately, don't have a perfect answer for your questions. (I do think for each question that they do expect something of one sort or another. I think this problem is merely epistemic.) I'd argue along the lines that an entity expects something that it's suppose/meant to encounter for it to carry about its functions based from its very design. The question I'm curious about is what all entities are actually designed and what constitutes design (Prof. Pruss, if I ever write a dissertation it should be on that question!). It could be the case that elementary particles are not designed but when you start to combine them they are.

However, what makes it impossible for you to even comes close to accepting my argument is when you wrote this, "Things aren't "designed" to do anything."

It's a non-starter for me to convince you. Do you think it's some mere accident that plant leaves contain chlorophyll? Or that humans have lungs for no reason? Or that plants have roots for no reason? Is it just some strange mishap that the spinal cord fits in the vertebral column? When you observe our world, you don't think these entities are designed to carry about any particular kind of function? Why do carnivores have sharp teeth, and why do herbivorous have dull molars? You expect me to believe that whatever the reason is, it's not because it was designed to have such characteristics.

Enenennx said...

I believe that leaves have chlorophyll and that humans have lungs, etc., because the forces of nature allow for these possibilities to exist. Just as the forces of nature allow for 30-50% of fetuses to be aborted for reasons innate to the fetus itself.

You say things are designed, and your argument is "look around". It is essentially an argument from intuition (and ignorance). And we know our intuition is easily duped. (What was your intuition designed for? And why such the poor design such that it is so easily duped?). If things are designed for something specific, what do you make of the fact that 30-50% of fetuses are spontaneously aborted. Poor design? What about the course of the vagus nerve? Greater than 95% of biologists say biological life is not designed in the way you are suggesting. Though an appeal to consensus is fallacious, it does suggest you have a large task ahead of you, and saying "look around" isn't going to cut it.

Enenennx said...

And by the way, it's not a "non-starter" to convince me regarding your ideas on design. I am open to the evidence. Don't place the onus on me. You are making the assertion that things are designed in a way to have an innate purpose that once actualized is the natural form of an entity. The non-starter might by for you in your ability to present a convincing argument backed by evidence. Cheers.

Jarrett Cooper said...


You explicitly said, "Things aren't "designed" to do anything."

If you were open to the fact that things have design you wouldn't have said what's above. Since you are making a positive assertion in that above statement does put some burden on you.

I don't simply say "look around" to make my point. Plants are designed to have roots and leaves. Roots take in nutrients from the soil. It's no surprise that plant leaves contain chlorophyll--to obtain energy via photosynthesis. We know plants are designed to live in environments that contain sunlight and soil (though the range of light and soil needed will depend on the particular plant we are discussing).

One of the things the Human Genome Project is doing is showing that our genes are designed to create specific types of proteins.

To say any of this is just a mere argument from intuition or an argument from ignorance would be a metaphorical slap in the face of the biologist.

Alexander R Pruss said...

As I said, I think the debate on proper function has reached its useful course, and I would ask that no more comments on that topic be submitted, at least for a while.