Some reposts from my "attic":


(JBH) I'm bewildered by this argument. (That this argument happens at all.)

The crucial word is "person". It is not "life", it is not even "human


The sperm and the egg are alive, the fertilized egg is alive, so are the

farm animals we kill by the millions for food. So is the grass we mow

for the sake of appearance.

"Human life" is less obvious, but consider the organs we remove-

tonsils, kidneys, foreskins, appendices, and so forth. All living human


Consider "anencephalic children", those who by tragic turn are born

without a brain, having only the brain stem and a skull filled with

fluid. They breathe, their hearts beat, they flinch from a pinprick,

they've even been known to smile. They are not, and will never be,

conscious. Some "prolife" women have even been known to adopt such

babies. In my humble opinion, such babies should be used for medical


"Personhood" can be defined in many ways, most of which would involve

the ability to learn to talk. At a minimum, it would certainly involve


Many years ago I developed a "short argument" re. abortion. No one has

ever answered it without asserting that fertilized eggs have souls. It

goes like this:

(1) A potential person is not a person yet.

(2) Before a living being can be a person, it must have a cerebral cortex.

(3) Before we object to someone killing that being, purely for their own

convenience, it should have a cerebral cortex larger than those of the

beings we regularly kill for food.

If it is legal to kill cows for food, it should be legal to abort human

fetuses, at least up to the time their brains grow as large as the brain

of a cow.

I support having an "adopted honorary person" clause in the social

contract, whereby a person may adopt an animal or a "pre-person" as a

member of their own family, taking responsibility for its care and

training and the control of its behavior. Those animals or "pre-persons"

adopted should be granted certain rights. A presumption of adoption may

be given for human fetuses carried to term. Thus newborns, who probably

are not yet developed enough to count as "persons", may routinely be

protected as "adopted honorary persons".


> Person = A Human Being



(JBH) Dictionaries report current (and sometimes archaic) usage, they

are descriptive, not prescriptive.

If Dolphins were discovered to have a complex language, one that worked

very differently from human languages but was equally rich (e.g. one

that made use of sonar "holograms", analogous to humans being able to

create visual images in the air), would we deny them personhood? If

extraterrestrial aliens landed, with technology galore, would we debate

for a second whether they were persons?


(JBH) Personhood is the issue, not "life" or even "human life".

Assume, somewhere on this planet or another planet, we discovered a new

form of animal life. What criteria would we use to decide if it was a

person or not? Could we morally kill it for food, or not, and why?

I submit, that if a lifeform is intelligent enough to learn to use

language, it is a person; if not, then not. Personhood develops AFTER

birth; I'm not an expert on when young children first begin to talk, but

until then they are still "potential" persons, "developing" persons, not

full persons yet.

"Rights", and morality generally, are human institutions, not something

written into the fabric of the Universe. Morality generally is a

FUNCTIONAL institution; it serves the function of maintaining peaceful

and cooperative relations among members of a social species, a species

that survives by cooperating in groups. "Rights" are not an

all-or-nothing thing; historically rights were first claimed and

defended by the strong, i.e. by males of fighting age and ability. This

was back in the days when humans lived in small tribes who lived by

hunting and gathering, on territories that they defended by constant

warfare against other tribes. Rights have been gradually extended out

from that core, as we have developed societies that lived in other ways;

rights were extended because those who wished them extended gained

sufficient influence in the society to persuade enough of the powerful

that they should be extended.

The "natural" standard of morality ("natural" because it is favored by

natural selection) is that a "good" person is a desirable neighbor from

the point of view of people who wish to live in peace and raise

families. We should consider this standard because we can predict that

it will be widely popular across all human cultures, because it is the

standard bred into us by natural selection.

There are many different ways that a peaceful and cooperative society

might function; the "natural" standard gives minimal guidance as to

which society would be "better", saying only that a better society would

be one that would be "healthier" for ourselves and our posterity to live

in. ("Health" being defined as "the ability to survive".)

I would certainly advocate that full rights ("equal rights and equal

opportunity") should be granted to all adult persons, and SOME rights at

least be granted to immature persons. Further, beyond the range of

personhood, I would advocate granting some rights to former persons.

(This I call the "insurance clause" of the social contract... we are all

at risk of becoming former persons, so we all have reason to want

certain rights of former persons to be protected.) I would also advocate

having an "adopted honorary person" clause, whereby if any person wishes

to adopt an animal or a "pre-person" as a member of their own family,

taking responsibility for its care, training, and behavior, then the

society should grant the adoptee certain rights.

Would a "good" person ever abort their own pregnancy, or help another

person who wishes to abort their own pregnancy? I think it's obvious

that any person wishing to abort their own pregnancy is probably facing

hard circumstances. Do the rest of us have enough interest in the

potential child that we are willing to adopt it? If not, I see no

grounds for overruling the wishes of the pregnant person. If so, perhaps

then we might argue that a "good" person would bring the pregnancy to

term and surrender the baby for adoption.


(JBH) So, I repeat in blunt summary the theory I offfered before. Rights

come from peace treaties, i.e. the "social contract". They were

originally granted to anyone who could/would fight to defend them. As

the benefits of peaceful social living grew, the level of tolerance for

conflict fell, and so rights were granted, extended, to more types of

entities, basically any entities who had persons who would assert and

defend rights for them, who if denied would threaten conflict of a type

that the rest of society whould rather avoid. So, in this way, rights

were extended to those of lesser combat ability, and eventually to "all

persons" (all who are smart enough to use language), and even beyond

that, (to a lesser and limited degree) to former persons, to some kinds

of "pre-persons", and to "adopted honorary persons". Animals have rights

if they have enough animal-rights-defenders, that the rest of society

would rather grant the rights than fight over it. Fetuses likewise.

Some compassionate folk would grant a "right to life" to anything that

runs away, enforcing vegetarianism (with perhaps the exception of clams

and oysters?" Some would carry the logic further, to "anything that

tries to defend its own life by any means", which would imply

"fruitarianism", where "fruit" is defined as "anything that eventually

drops off the plant." (I.E. allowable food would include beans, seeds,

nuts, grains, cucumbers, and so forth, as well as classical fruit. I'm

not sure what they think about eggs; beans and grains are embryonic

plants, why not embryonic animals also? I've heard some allow

"unfertilized eggs" only, but the distinction seems to be religiously



James Huber wrote:

And still, none of you have explained how 20 seconds later when the

fetus has become a baby it suddenly develops a level of brain activity

sufficient to experience torture. The closest anyone has come is to

suggest that the newborn isn't a person, but when I pointed out that

would mean that we could torture them at will, they backpedal.

(JBH) In the making and revising of the social contract, and in the

consequent allocation of rights, some things may have rights to be free

of cruelty before they gain a "right to life". For example, some states

have passed laws prohibitng inhumane treatments of farm animals. I read

about a farmer (I think in West Virginia) who was prosecuted for letting

a few hundred pigs starve to death.

(James Huber):

It's entirely possible that killing a few babies here and there is a

reasonable price to pay for personal freedom. But I think we should be

aware that's we we're doing.

(JBH) In some cultures, at some times, this has been done; I read that

in Japan, perhaps in past times and in poorer strata of society, the

birth of a baby was not announced until the family had decided to keep

it; there was a traditional period of three days for the family to make

that decision.

(James Huber):

The same could be said about mother's leave their infants in a dumpster.

Shall we decriminalize that? By the way, I'm going to keep asking

stuff like that at least until someone gives me an answer.

(JBH) Actually decriminalization is a way being tried; I've heard of

several jurisdictions enacting "free surrender" laws, whereby a newborn

could be given to a hospital or other authorized place, no questions

asked. Similar to my suggestion earlier, that the rest of society gains

legitimacy to object to late-term abortion if said society is willing to

adopt the resulting baby.


(James Huber):

I have no problem with the idea that something can have partial rights.

What I'm having trouble understanding is what you think it is about

being shoved head first through a vagina that causes such sudden massive

change in the mental capacity (or whatever) that it causes something to

go from having absolutely no rights at all to having full moral standing

as a human.


We have that where I live (San Francisco East Bay). I think the

parallel you draw is fitting, but I also think that if I believed that a

late term fetus had no rights that I would see the government

interference in the process as unjustified: The government has no right

to interfere with a woman's body *unless* they're doing so to protect

someone else's rights.

(JBH) I think a lot of your difficulty comes from regarding rights as

something "out there", independent of human choices and institutions. By

the social-contract approach to ethics, rights come from peace treaties;

the broad nature of the treaty comes from the human condition, that we

are social animals who survive by cooperating in groups. The fine

details of the treaty can vary; there are many possible ways that a

peaceful and cooperative society could function. The boundaries of

"personhood" can vary and has varied in history. The rights granted to

persons, nonpersons, post-persons, pre-persons, have varied.

That developing babies gain rights suddenly upon birth is no more

puzzling than that developing adults gain rights suddenly upon reaching

their (21rst, 18th, 16th) birthday. Rights are human institutions. They

are what we make them. Thre are reasons why we make them, they serve

important purposes, but they don't exist "by themselves".

The question is not what rights they "have", but what rights we want

them to have, to make a society that is a desirable place for ourselves

and our posterity to live in.


> I don't see that your definition does any better. It seems like it more or

less define person as "Any thing that can through actual

force, >threat of force or pure cuteness make us call them a person."

That has >the advantage of being self-implementing and pretty easy to

understand, >but it's also pretty much like saying "A criminal is anyone

currently >in jail or wanted by the police."

(JBH) Not really; you're thinking of rights, not personhood. A person,

by the SC appraoch, would be anything that was able to learn and follow

the rules for living within the society. Anything able but not willing

to do so would be a person but not part of the "peace treaty", i.e. an

outlaw or enemy. Anything not able to learn and follow the rules, but

otherwise peaceable, would have to be sponsored by society members for

some lesser restricted status, as domestic animals or mental patients or

zoo animals, or whatever.


> Able to learn, or has actually learned? We don't expect children to have

actually learned all the rules, that's why they get special treatment under the

law. Are you saying that children aren't people, or are you saying they are

people because they have the capacity to learn even if they haven't learned yet?

(JBH) Able to learn. Again, developing immature humans gain ability

gradually. there probably isn't any exact moment that they cease being

"pre-persons" and become persons, we just have to estimate an age by

which most children have gained sufficient ability that we begin to

regard them as morally responsible.

>> Anything able but not willing to do so would be a person but not

part >>of the "peace treaty", i.e. an outlaw or enemy.

> That doesn't leave much room for things like ending slavery. If the

"peace treaty" says anyone with dark skin is property then any people

with dark skin who wish to be free are, by virtue of their unwillingness

to remain property, violating the treaty and therefore, under your terms,

legitimately denied rights. As long as they lack

the >power to force a renegotiation of the treaty they have no moral

basis >to challenge their continued slavery under your system.

(JBH) The terms of the peace treaty are constantly being renegotiated.

If you have a theory of justice, you can argue for what would be the

best terms for the SC by that theory. Since the point of the treaty is

to facilitate peaceful and cooperative relations between members of

society, one could argue that the best sort of treaty, by its OWN logic,

would be one that nobody was seething to change, one with which all

parties were reasonably satisfied. "Equal Rights and equal opportunity"

would clearly offer the fewest grounds for anyone to complain.

>> Anything not able to learn and follow the rules, but otherwise

peaceable, would have to be sponsored by society members for some

lesser restricted status, as domestic animals or mental patients or zoo

animals, or whatever.

> I don't think that criminals, mental patients, etc lose rights,

there's >just no way to allow them to exercise those rights without

undue risk >that other's will lose their rights.

(JBH) Somehow that seems a distinction without a difference. If you

cannot exercise your rights, how does that differ from losing them?


(end of reiteration.)

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