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Potentiality Arguments, 2001/08/10:17:34

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A Potential Senior Citizen.

"I'll take that social security check now."
New topic. I'll probably put more or less orderly notes for several essays here. I start it today to begin notes for an essay on abortion, inspired by Thomas Gramstad, who recently claimed to have seen an essay by me on this topic though I'm convinced that I only ever prepared lecture notes (on note cards) for classes.


Topics to cover:
Is It Alive?
Is It Human?
Is It A Person?
Does It Have Rights?
Do Pregnant Women Have Rights?
Here, I will deal only with cases of abortion in which the mother's life is not considered to be endangered by the continuation of pregnancy or the delivery of the baby. If abortion is permissible in such mother-safe cases, it's certainly permissible when the mother is endangered, and we're done.

The Potentiality Argument

Some scientifically-minded people, and some objectivists, who may or may not be the same people, find the potentiality argument against abortion to be the most convincing, or at least the most inescapable. They're not into ensoulment or divine commandments, but they are into personhood and rights, so this argument seems to carry some serious weight. I'll get this one out of the way today.

The argument goes like this:

Abortion is morally wrong. The reason is that it is wrong to kill an innocent human being (not counting situations of self-defense). If it is left alone, it has the potential to become a person with rights. As such, a fetus that is aborted is technically murdered. Murder is wrong. Thus, in virtue of its potential to become a rights-bearing person, the fetus has the right to not be killed in an abortion.

This is the strongest, clearest formulation of the potentiality argument that I can think of. People who have other formulations that they think are better are invited to send them to me for future consideration here.

Potentiality arguments are used with regard to other issues as well. For example, objectivists and libertarians have a great deal of trouble understanding how children fit into the grand scheme of egoism and a free society, so some have resorted to potentiality arguments ("Children aren't capable of rights, but they will be, so we should respect/protect them in virtue of their potential.")

I think all such potentiality arguments are self-defeating and doomed to failure.

Here's why. The argument says that the fetus has the potential to become a person with rights. If it has the potential to become a person with rights, then it isn't a person with rights now, and we need not treat it like one.

A couple of analogies may help.

An acorn has the potential to become a large oak tree. Oak trees are the kind of thing that need a huge amount of space and sunlight and water. They are the kind of thing that you can chop down and make tables from. Acorns are not like this. They only have the potential to be like this.

Similarly, a human child has the potential to get a college diploma. People get college diplomas after they have studied at college for a few years, written papers, past tests. The mere fact that an eight-year-old might one day get a college diploma does not mean that she is already qualified to enter graduate school. She may potentially graduate from college, but she hasn't yet, so her application to graduate school will be rightly ignored.

This distinction is extremely important. The reason that, in a free society, we don't kill other human beings is that they are persons who have the right to be left alone, and that includes the right to not be killed. The potentiality argument, however, says that this is exactly what the fetus isn't. It isn't a person who has the right not to be killed. That's what the word 'potential' means.

Less meticulous readers should note that this objection to the potentiality argument is not an attempt to disprove that any particular fetus has the potential to become a rights-bearing person. In fact, we actually don't know in many cases whether the fetus has that potential. The relevant point is that, once you appeal to the potential of a thing to have rights, you have already admitted that it doesn't have rights. And if it doesn't have any rights, we're done. Abortion is absolutely permissible in exactly the way that crushing rocks is permissible.

Potentiality arguments should be avoided in cases where the very feature that the entity does not yet have is the one that is needed to make the case. Children must have rights now, not potentially, to ensure their protection by the state in the absence of someone to claim them as property.

Potentiality arguments are also self-defeating where there is the potential for a different outcome than the one desired. It is sometimes argued that people ought to have children, because if they don't they'll miss the chance to give birth to the next Einstein or Mozart--wasted potential that is bordering on sin.

But this argument ignores the fact that a child also has the potential to become the next Hitler or Manson. Potential, it seems, is a dubious concept, at least where any particular sperm and egg combination is concerned. In fact, it is not even certain that any particular zygote will become a rights-bearing person if left alone. All sorts of things can go wrong, right up to and after delivery of the baby, that might incapacitate its brain. Whether any particular zygote will become a rights-bearing person is, in fact, completely unknown to us, just as all future events are unknown to us. Potential is not a certain thing. Actuality, however, is far more certain.

This last point brings to mind a strategy used to argue that abortion is morally permissible. That argument goes like this: The fetus may have potential rights. But the mother has actual rights. Actual rights beat potential rights, so the mother gets to have an abortion.
I don't think this argument should be used either. It's too much of a concession to the spurious potentiality arguments, to grant that the concept of potential rights is useful or meaningful in a political context. The only time I'd make such a concession is when I'm gearing up to soundly trounce it. It is sufficient to say that the mother has rights. I'll get to this point in a later entry.

Potentiality arguments do have a use, but in very different contexts. For example, one of my clients might look at an empty backyard and reject a house for sale because it doesn't have a garden, and the large picture windows look out onto an ugly dirt plot. I might point out to him that, given the size, soil quality, and available sunlight, it has enormous potential to host a beautiful garden which would then form the backdrop to those big windows. The potential of the backyard to host a garden is a reason to reconsider the house.

It would be false advertising, however, if the owner put an ad in the paper that said, "Fabulous, lush garden!" and attempted to charge more for it on that basis. No garden yet, no extra revenue yet. First put in the garden, and then we'll talk about raising the price.

Similarly, an employer might hire me on the basis of my demonstrated ability to learn programming languages quickly. She might even pay me the same rate as she pays someone who already knows the language she expects me to learn. But eventually, she will expect me to learn it. It wouldn't make sense for me to argue later, "But you hired me on the basis of my potential to learn the language. My potential hasn't gone away, so why are you lowering my salary?"

I didn't say the argument would make you happy. I only said it would be true. If you were depending on potentiality to make it wrong to kill or beat children, you need to find a new strategy.
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