The Long View 2006-10-03: Religious Studies; Humans versus Homo Sapiens

St. Thomas Aquinas – An altarpiece in  Ascoli Piceno , Italy, by  Carlo Crivelli  (15th century)  By Carlo Crivelli - Via The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149804

St. Thomas Aquinas – An altarpiece in Ascoli Piceno, Italy, by Carlo Crivelli (15th century)

By Carlo Crivelli - Via The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM), distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH. ISBN: 3936122202., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=149804

This is perhaps the most profound thing John J. Reilly ever said:

Human, homo sapiens, and person are not just different things, but different kinds of things. A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences, then you don't believe in humans; maybe that's Peter Singer's problem); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. (As for the converse, C.S. Lewis occasionally toyed with the possibility that not every homo sapiens need be human; so have I, though I'd rather not pursue the matter.) As for "person," I think this kind of argument conflates the primary meaning of "person," which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," with the notion of "person" as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

I ponder this all the time, and the critical distinction he makes here just gets better with age. Clear terms enable clear thinking. 


Religious Studies; Humans versus Homo Sapiens

 

Your degree in Religious Studies is not useless, if we consider the Jobs for the Boys implicit in this assessment by that Spengler at Asia Times:

Theological illiteracy is epidemic in the neo-conservative camp. The American Enterprise Institute's Iran expert, former US Central Intelligence Agency officer Reuel Marc Gerecht, thinks that "Islam is akin to biblical Judaism in accentuating the unnuanced, transcendent awe of God". Gerecht is ge-wrong. Worst of all is Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine, who insists that Islam takes even a stricter approach to idolatry than Judaism....These are the blunders of secular intellectuals who approach religion from the outside. Because the neo-conservatives propose to democratize the Middle East, they also must insist that Islam can be twisted into the pretzel that they prefer.

In fact, the foreign policy establishment was trying to get up to speed on religious issues even before 911. This effort requires academic expertise, however, and "Religious Studies" is too often an exercise in stultifying multiculturalism; or worse, a scarcely disguised form of Tradition. Many of the people who are already in the religion consultancy business are part of the problem: don't even ask what Spengler thinks of Juan Cole.

One of Mark Steyn's suggestions for combatting the ideological dimension of the jihad (as I note in this excessively long review of America Alone) is the creation of a "civil corps" to refute Islamist ideas and propose alternatives. Might I suggest that the only reality such a measure could have would be something like Christians praying for Muslims during Ramadan:

DALLAS, September 29 (UPI) — A global coalition of evangelical Christians is urging prayer for Muslims during their holy month of Ramadan.

But the idea has met some resistance from Muslims — and even some Christians, Associated Baptist Press reported Friday.

I am not altogether happy with the idea of evangelization as a national security strategy, but it could come to that.

* * *

Speaking of religion and politics, and particularly with regard to the Democratic Party's religion deficit, Robert P. George raises these objections at First Things:

Over at the Mirror of Justice website, law professor Eduardo Peñalver keeps reasserting his arguments for why Catholics and other pro-lifers can and should support Democrats—even those who uphold abortion. But Professor Peñalver’s arguments do not improve with age or repetition....But let us get to the heart of the matter in dispute. Either Eduardo Peñalver believes that human embryos are human beings or he does not....the answer to [that] it is clear. The evidence, attested to unanimously by the major embryological texts used in contemporary anatomy and medicine, is overwhelming. From the zygote stage forward there is a complete, distinct, individual member of the species Homo sapiens ...

[I]s dignity something we possess only by virtue of our acquisition or realization of certain qualities (immediately exercisable capacities) that human beings in certain stages and conditions possess (or exhibit) and others do not, and that some possess in greater measure than others, e.g., self-awareness, consciousness, rationality? If the latter, then not all human beings are “persons” with rights....

I and many others have advanced philosophical arguments against the idea that some human beings are “nonpersons.” I will not repeat the arguments here. I will say only that among the weakest arguments for denying that embryonic human beings are persons is the one that seems to have impressed Professor Peñalver: namely, the argument that purports to infer from the high rate of natural embryo loss (including failure to implant) that human embryos lack the dignity and rights of human beings at later developmental stages. No one knows what the rate actually is, in part because what is lost in some cases is, due to failures of fertilization, not actually an embryo. But the rate doesn’t matter. For nothing follows from natural death rates about the moral status of the human individuals who die.

I'm prolife, too, but I think George's arguments are glitchy. Human, homo sapiens, and person are not just different things, but different kinds of things. A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences, then you don't believe in humans; maybe that's Peter Singer's problem); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. (As for the converse, C.S. Lewis occasionally toyed with the possibility that not every homo sapiens need be human; so have I, though I'd rather not pursue the matter.) As for "person," I think this kind of argument conflates the primary meaning of "person," which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," with the notion of "person" as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

And actually, the conjecture that most concepti might be duds does bear on the matter. If, say, 75% of humans are organisms of a dozen cells that live for just a few days, that fact might not affect their dignity, but it does affect the dignity of the small minority of humans who survive to become adults. Do we really want to define humanness is such a way that intelligence, percipience, or compassion become irrelevant? Then there is also this: if those certainly human concepti could be rescued, won't we be morally obligated to try?

Let me suggest that a human is a little like a quantum particle that strikes a target behind more than one aperture: you can tell where it has been only after it has arrived. Certainly every adult alive today was once a conceptus, and then an embryo, and so on: every stage of this development shared the same essence, and so had the same dignity. That's quite different from saying that every conceptus is a human being; the most we can say is that every conceptus might be. That is quite enough reason not to interfere with it.

A final point on this matter: the human-life question will turn out to be epiphenomenal to the end of the abortion era. Contraception, abortion, and homosexuality were all features of a human-rights package that was designed, at least in part, to lower the birthrate. The intellectual and cultural climate on this issue is changing very rapidly. The interesting thing is that, whereas the courts that created these rights tended to avoid the suggestion that they were really implementing a population-control program, the courts now seem open to explicitly pro-natalist arguments.

You need an argument for your appellate brief that does not smack of theology or natural law? Here you have it.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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