So I was having an online discussion with my younger brother a little more than a week ago about abortion. Being a devout and pro-life Catholic he held the opinion that life starts at conception, that it a fertilized egg is human and should be treated as human because it is a unique life different than the host parent. I have also been reading bio-ethics and many different places on the debate and they all seem to revolve around trying to justify scientifically what I can best describe as trying to answer the question, "when is an embryo tantamount to a human being?" 

     Of course, that one question gave way to the larger question, "What makes us human?" Where do we define the limits of humanity? Is it strictly in a biological sense as in form, shape, and structure? Is it in potential in the case of infants? Is it in behavior; could someone act in a way that they are no longer considered, if even for a moment, a human? Is it in ability whether physical or mental? Is humanity a transitive property; in other words, is it a label that can be taken away or does it last regardless once it has been gained? Are their varying degrees of humanity where a person could be considered "more human" than someone else?

I am very curious to hear all of your thoughts and ideas!

Tags: humanity

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I agree it's a characteristic of humans to think, but suppose an amoeba could think? Thinking involves understanding and learning and we know that parrots and other birds, dolphins and whales, and even dogs and pigs can do that. Many animals can.

No, the ability to think isn't uniquely human and so it isn't definitive.

intelligent thought that leads to reason and language to express thought....sorry I should have been more detailed in my definition of thinking.

That's not limited to humans so it isn't definitive. I'm sure some of the animal rights people here will fill you in now that I've mentioned it.

@John Major

Isn't the struggle to survive evidence that life has value? I don't think it is true at all that only humans value life. It is unparsimonious to suppose only humans value life, on what possible factual basis could such a claim be made?

Well, I've never heard the term "parsimony" or any of its derivatives used apart from wealth or money, but let's assume it means something like "generous." When people attribute human thoughts and feelings to animals I often find it's enough to ask them to imagine the animal with a cartoon balloon over its head containing the thought, as when people say salmon swim upstream in order mate and lay eggs in the pool where they were born, imagine a salmon with a cartoon balloon over its head that says "I need to get back to the pool where I was born so I can have sex and lay some eggs."

No, we can't attribute human concepts to critters despite all of those Disney movies.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Occam's_razor

@Unseen. Glad to help you fill in your knowledge gaps.

An animal's struggle for life requires no balloons. It is trying to survive. Survival is important to all species. Why think we are special? I am not arguing that other animals have the same thoughts!

You still haven't explained how a baby's life has value when it cannot attribute it to itself. Remember?
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maximum_parsimony_(phylogenetics)

This may help too.

The parsimony principle is basic to all science and tells us to choose the simplest scientific explanation that fits the evidence. In terms of tree-building, that means that, all other things being equal, the best hypothesis is the one that requires the fewest evolutionary changes.

I am not sure whether this material would be part of a philosophy degree?
...and I would of course agree that a salmon does not think like a person thinks. This arbitrary distinction you've plucked out of the air does not provide an ethical basis to do as we chose to those that are different. How should we treat unfortunates in the world who lack the cognitive capacity of a dog, cow or pig? It is the capacity to suffer that deserves consideration, not intelligence, skin colour, sex or any other hook upon which the coat of discrimination can be hung.

@John Major

Isn't the struggle to survive evidence that life has value? I don't think it is true at all that only humans value life. It is unparsimonious to suppose only humans value life, on what possible factual basis could such a claim be made?

It's only evidence that the struggle to survive has been hard wired through natural selection. As we know, evolution progresses blindy and mechanicaly and without actual thought or intention. There is no actual Mother Nature.

To believe that animals value life requires that one believe they understand mortality. No, they don't really understand death. Our psychologists estimate that even human children don't grasp death conceptually with true understanding until about age 10.

@Unseen. Whatever drives the creature to try to survive, that which is being saved must be definition be valuable? I do not accept that all animals other than humans do not consciously avoid danger or death in the struggle to survive.


You often say that you do things because, "it is in your nature." how would you distinguish then between you and the other animals who follow their natures, without Mother Nature.

You still have not explained how a baby's life can have value other than that afforded it by others. You said the value of life comes from what we humans give it, how so babies? The senile, the insane. Do their lives have value?

I accept that avoiding death and danger is valuable, but in terms of the species, and even then blindly. Values like that and the human's conscious accepting of a value AFTER EVALUATION is a horse of a different color. It's a choice. Animals can be viewed as meat automatons. Animals may do things humans can see as reckless, but I don't think anybody thinks that an animal, after due consideration, can decide that its life isn't worth the pain or trouble and decide to commit suicide. You don't see cocker spaniels on the 20th floor ledge deciding whether to jump.

A baby's value comes from others until he or she becomes old enough to give him/herself a value. The senile and insane get their value from those who have feelings for them. If nobody cared about them, they'd be left to die. But there are always the do-gooders so there isn't much chance that their lives will be totally without value.

Does a life have innate value such that even if they are brain dead? If they have friends or relatives who hold out (probably irrational) hope that the person they knew will miraculously reappear, there's that. The government can decide that offing such people is a bad thing, which gives them a kind of value through the back door.

RE: "A baby's value comes from others until he or she becomes old enough to give him/herself a value."

Not entirely true (= partially false) - I learned in my very first basic Psych course that the impulse to suckle and a fear of heights are a baby's two demonstrable natural insticts.

archaeo:

fear of heights?  I always learned the Moro response or reflex and suckling. That they are afraid of heights is interesting.  Can you explain how we know this or provide a link?

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