"To Be or Not To Be"
After reading the article more thoroughly, it seems to be making the exact same point I made in my article; it simply uses a different approach, is not as focused, and isn't as technical. But the fundamental objection is the same. I think you might consider reading my article (past the distinctions of section I) to see what I mean.

Here is the second version of the article (which I have already written) that I mentioned earlier. It is very similar, but more focused than the other version. Version 1 of my argument (unknowingly) focuses on the exact same analogy that the article you provided focuses on. Version 2 makes the point much clearer and focuses on a different analogy.

(Sorry for the large-numbered footnotes.)

“To Be or Not to Be”1

Abortion, one of the most hotly-debated issues of the 20th century, refers to the “termination of a pregnancy by the removal or expulsion from the uterus of a fetus or embryo, resulting in or caused by its death”2  (referring specifically to a member of the species, Homo sapiens). The ethical issue of abortion has raised important emotional, psychological, biological, sociological, legal, and philosophical questions. As section I of this paper illustrates, a superficial consideration of this ethical issue appears to yield a conclusion supporting the morality of abortion. However, as section II will demonstrate, a more thorough analysis of this popular philosophical question exposes, what appears to be, a small oversight by many influential philosophers, including Peter Singer and Mary Anne Warren, yet one with serious moral significance. Considering that abortion denotes an action taken rather than an action not taken, the scope of this analysis is to examine only the moral significances of positive actions, rather than negative actions.3  Hence, I shall speak only of what we should not do to any presently existent being. After examining this question, we will find in section III that the objections raised in section II sufficiently refute the notion presented in section I that it is morally permissible to terminate the life of the unborn.

Section I

In the section titled The Fetus as Potential Life of Peter Singer’s book, Practical Ethics, Singer reviews a popular argument against abortion. This argument goes something like this:

     First premise: It is wrong to kill a potential human being.
     Second premise: A human fetus is a potential human being.
     Conclusion: Therefore it is wrong to kill a human fetus.

After refuting a few standard claims made by proponents of this model, Singer then examines the argument a little more seriously. He seems to accept the second premise, but rejects the first. If the first premise can be defended, however, he acknowledges that the conclusion logically follows. Ergo, Singer begins by considering the soundness of the first premise: It is wrong to kill a potential human being. Bearing in mind that potentiality is not actuality, he counters the first premise by objecting that the argument ‘A is a potential X; therefore, A has the rights of an X’ is an erroneous claim. Singer then states on p. 155, “Is there any other significance in the fact that the fetus is a potential person? If there is I have no idea what it could be.” It is in this step that we find and exploit Singer’s error – an oversight present in his own admitted ignorance of the nature of potentiality.

Section II

In order to understand the full moral implications afforded by potentiality, we must understand its complete nature. If we intend to understand its complete nature, we must first acknowledge the distinction between two separate modes of potentiality. The first mode is that potential which denotes existence in possibility – a capability of development into actuality – before the application of an external accelerant initiates the expectancy of the potential’s actualization. By this I mean that the potential is static and non-moving; it exists before a positive action necessary for its fulfillment has taken place. For the purposes of clarity, I shall refer to this mode as passive potentiality. 

The second kind of potentiality is that which denotes existence in possibility – a capability of development into actuality – after the application of an external accelerant has initiated the expectancy of the potential’s pending actualization. By this I mean that the potential is progressive and moving; it exists after a positive action necessary for its fulfillment has taken place. This potential is distinguished by a latent capacity that will advance toward manifestation in time, provided that no other positive action frustrates its actualization. For the sake of clarity, I will refer to this mode as active potentiality. 

Having now distinguished between the two modes of potentiality, I will turn my focus to a more concrete distinction – that between what Singer calls members of the species Homo sapiens and persons. On p. 85, Singer describes the biological membership of the species as “…determined scientifically by an examination of the nature of the chromosomes in the cells of living organisms.” On p. 87, he distinguishes this membership from persons, which he describes as “rational and self-conscious being[ s ].”4 If being a member of a species with the capacity for personhood is a necessary condition of being a person, and if the species Homo sapiens is distinguished by that capacity, then membership of this species is sufficient for the first necessary condition: having the capacity for personhood. Furthermore, if being a person is necessary for receiving moral rights, then we must consider whether there are any other conditions in addition to the first that might be necessary for the acquisition of these rights.

In order to determine what other condition might be necessary, we must consider what prerequisites are needed for self-consciousness and rationality. It is given that in order for any being to possess the faculties of self-consciousness and rationality, the being must first exist. Since existence itself is a prerequisite for having the capacity for personhood, we must first examine the implications of the potentiality of personhood in an existent being.

We can see the two modes of potentiality defined at the beginning of this section evidenced throughout life all the way to the micro-level of nature. Consider, for instance, the chromosomes at the root of any member of the species Homo sapiens. Before a gene exists, provided that certain positive actions may take place that will bring about its existence, the non-existent gene has the potential to come into existence. At this point before the existence of the gene, the would-be phenotypes associated with the genome have a passive potential to exist. By this I mean that there is no imminent expectation that the gene will come into existence without the realization that something that would not ordinary happen of its own accord must happen first. Once that gene comes into existence, however, its pending phenotypes are expected, anticipated, and presumed to become manifest unless they are inhibited by some external force. As a result, they are qualified by a different condition, that of active potentiality.

But how does this active potentiality relate to the example used above of passive potentiality? When molecular biologists speak of genetics, they do not say that a genome doesn’t carry genetic instructions because its phenotypes have not yet been expressed. Instead, they say that a genome is a set of physical characteristics pending manifestation. If allowed to develop according to its natural design, a genome will express the genetic code it carries in the form of the observable, physiological characteristics of the host cell(s). This process will advance inevitably unless frustrated by some external, positive action.

As it concerns abortion, when considering what we should not do, this potentiality is only significant insomuch as the genome is presently in existence. There is no conditional expectation that a phenotype would exist by nature of a supposed propensity to manifest itself without supposing the necessary existence of the genotype from which it was expressed. We know this cannot happen because no person has been known to instantaneously transcend potential existence into a fully developed self-conscious and rational reality. Moreover, experience indicates that all beings come into existence via a gradual, incremental process of developmental progress. Significantly, because a moral consideration of what we should not do to nonexistent beings could never be realistically appraised, we need to consider the moral implications of active potentiality: what we should not do to beings that are already in existence. Applying this understanding to the morality of terminating the life of a developing fetus, we can see that there is an important distinction to be made between the consideration of potentiality associated with the possibility of actualization and potentiality associated with pending actualization. 

This pending actualization can only become manifest provided that no positive action – such as destroying the genome – interferes with the active potentiality of its existence. This condition requires that no external force frustrates the genome’s intrinsic propensity to express its pending phenotypes. This means that, under ordinary circumstances, the developing organism will advance toward obtaining the rights of a person unless something or someone interferes.5  This condition of uninhibited pending actualization of which I have been speaking is necessary to constitute the second condition essential for the organism’s inheritance of moral rights:  positive change over time.6  For conciseness, I shall refer to this change as progress. As it concerns the human fetus, this progress is related to its growth and development.   

We are now able to consider the nature of active potentiality in light of a developing person. Assuming that both biological parents are members of the species Homo sapiens, then their offspring are also biologically members of the same species. According to Singer, to be a person, and, subsequently, to claim moral rights, it is first necessary that a being be a member of a species which possesses, at least, the capacities for self-consciousness and rationality. Since the species Homo sapiens is distinguishable by these capacities, we know that a being that is a member of this species possesses the first condition necessary for the acquisition of moral rights. Because experience tells us that no person spontaneously comes into existence manifesting its fullest capacity as a member of the species to which it belongs, no person could have the capacity for self-consciousness and rationality without first having, as the fetus, the opportunity for uninhibited developmental progress. Hence, to posses the capacity for self-consciousness and rationality, a being must be allowed uninhibited developmental progress. As we can see, uninhibited developmental progress is necessary for the capacity for self-consciousness and rationality. For clarity’s sake, I will refer to this constituent as the “condition of developmental progress”. 

To be a person, it is necessary that a being possess the capacity for self-consciousness and rationality as well as the condition for developmental progress. It seems prima facie wrong to justify an action by first removing a condition that would make that action immoral (so as to make it moral) if all the conditions applied, but let us consider a hypothetical situation in which this intentional removal of a necessary condition for moral rights might be appraised.

Suppose, for instance, that a woman is involved in a serious car accident which places her in a state of comatose. This woman remains in this state for a significant period of time and there seems no possibility that she will emerge from her unconscious state. Brain scans indicate that, if she were to awake, she would have no memory of her past. Thus, if she were to awaken, she would start completely “anew” so to speak. Power of attorney has been granted to her husband, who does not wish to perpetuate his wife’s current state because he has another love interest. However, as he is determining to end her life, the brain scans begin to reveal an increased activity of her brain. Her condition begins to steadily improve, and recent test results prove that, because her existent body acts as a medium, provided her progress is uninhibited, she will inevitably regain her capacities of self-consciousness and rationality. The husband knows that if he permits her the necessary condition of progress by means of negative action, she will inevitably regain the rights of her personhood. But, because he places his rights as an existing person over the rights of a “potential person”, and, because he knows that killing her will prevent any opportunity of her acquiring the moral rights associated with the actualization of this potential, he justifies the denial of developmental progress to his wife, resulting in the forfeiture of whatever claim to subsequent moral rights she may have had, and subsequently kills her.

In view of the above analogy, it seems apparent that the removal of any condition necessary for the acquisition of moral rights for the purpose of justifying an action means that we acknowledge there is a problem with taking the life of someone in their fullest capacity. Because we realize this, it seems we are also aware that one possible way of justifying the taking of another’s life might be to prevent that person from attaining their fullest capacity.  Were we to do this, however, we would be acknowledging the personhood we would expect to exist unless we did something to stop it. If we justify the commission of an action via the preliminary removal of a condition which, if present, would make the commission of that action wrong, then the removal of one such condition is probably immoral in the same way that it would be wrong to purposely prevent a severely mentally disabled child from naturally developing, through gradual progress, the capacities of self-consciousness and rationality. If we would not justify the killing of the developing person in the form of the disabled child, then it would be inconsistent to justify the killing of a developing person in the form of fetus. As it pertains to personhood, then, to remove the condition of developmental progress is to remove a condition necessary for the being to inherit moral rights. Since, to perform an abortion is to remove the condition of developmental progress, it follows that to kill a fetus is to deny it the moral rights sufficient for this condition. Because the removal of such a condition is immoral, then the killing of a fetus is immoral for the same reason. 

Section III

So far, this analysis has treated of an oversight on the part of those who would posit that potentiality cannot suffice for the inheritance of moral rights. Some authors, namely Mary Anne Warren, have elucidated this objection by suggesting extreme, hypothetical circumstances that would, presumably, force the potentiality argument to include an obligation to bring into existence every passive potential life. One such analogous case proposed by Warren considers the moral implications of a space explorer captured by aliens whose scientists endeavor to use the cells of his body to spawn a great number of human clones. Warren objects that the explorer would be permitted to escape rather than submit himself to the whims of the alien culture that endeavors to bring into existence a significant number of human clones from the cells of his body. What Warren does not address, however, is the dual-nature of potentiality and these natures’ moral significances. As previously demonstrated, the fact of the matter remains that a potential person with no biological expectation of personhood can’t possibly lay claim to any rights that are merited by those who already possess manifest existence upon which is built the biological propensities toward personhood. Furthermore, her analogy overlooks the role that the aliens play in this situation. The potentiality of the human clones’ existences can only be actualized by the application of some external force, the absence of which would yield no reasonable expectation of existence. The aliens would have to perform some positive action in order to initiate one of the necessary conditions of personhood: developmental progress. Understanding the significance of these distinctions, it would seem impossible to accept Warren’s application of her analogy to potentiality’s significant role in the abortion issue.

Conclusively, in light of the above understanding, personhood, its necessary conditions, and the moral rights afforded to them seem to play a much larger role in the rights of active potential beings than Singer and Warren would have us believe. Consequently, it seems apparent that we should not justify the killing of an active potential person on the grounds that the removal of personhood’s necessary conditions induces an automatic forfeiture of that potential person’s moral rights. To do so would allow for the unrestricted prevention of morally significant conditions from human beings who were tending toward personhood in order to provide us with the peace of mind to kill them as we please.


1. Hamlet, Act III, Scene I, Shakespeare

2. Gynaecology for Lawyers, Trevor Dutt, Margaret P. Matthews

3. Positive action refers to the execution of any action. Negative action refers to inaction.

4. It is probable that there are other considerations that would further qualify personhood, but for the subject at hand, this analysis will treat only of Singer’s proposed distinctions.

5. Something could refer to a debilitating disease that would interfere with the life of the fetus.

6. Negative change over time would be failure to meet the condition necessary for developmental progress.

Messages In This Thread
"To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-13-2010, 09:10 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Lagrange - 05-15-2010, 10:01 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Vetus Ordo - 05-15-2010, 01:11 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-16-2010, 12:42 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Lagrange - 05-16-2010, 03:59 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-16-2010, 10:06 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-16-2010, 10:20 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-16-2010, 10:47 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Lagrange - 05-17-2010, 01:38 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-17-2010, 09:01 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-17-2010, 05:09 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Lagrange - 05-18-2010, 08:34 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-20-2010, 10:46 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Lagrange - 05-23-2010, 03:45 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-23-2010, 01:36 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-23-2010, 01:37 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Lagrange - 05-23-2010, 10:19 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-24-2010, 08:31 AM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-24-2010, 08:03 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-27-2010, 04:08 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by Historian - 05-27-2010, 05:21 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-27-2010, 05:41 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-27-2010, 05:46 PM
Re: "To Be or Not To Be" - by INPEFESS - 05-27-2010, 05:51 PM

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