Function, Essence, and Roe v. Wade

There is a difference between how we should define certain things. Some things are defined functionally and some things are defined essentially. To define something functionally is to say that this thing is what it does. For example, consider what a spoon “is.” Strictly speaking, a spoon is what it does. A spoon “is” a thing that spoons. Artifacts are this way. They are only what they do. They do not have essences. In contradistinction, consider a human being. A human being is not merely what a human being does. Humans cannot be defined functionally. Instead, a human being has an essence. Philosophers might call it “human nature” or “human-ness.” Theologians call it the “soul.” The confusion of whether a human being ought to be defined functionally or essentially is part of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Many pro-choicers insist on defining humans functionally. They say things like, “It isn’t a human being (or person) until it has self-consciousness.” or “It’s not human until it has a level of moral awareness.” or any number of other functions. This is wrong. A human being is a thing that possesses a human nature. It possesses that nature irrespective of whether it has particular functions or not. To be sure, functions may be flags at to what the nature of a thing is. We might be able to tell whether something is a human because of certain functions. But it is not the functions that give rise to the nature. Rather, it is the nature that gives rise to the functions. This is true of all things that have natures. This is certainly true of human beings. Today is the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. Abortion is the killing of innocent human beings. Abortion is immoral. This Supreme Court decision needs to be overturned. The laws need to change to protect the unborn. They are human beings.

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4 comments on “Function, Essence, and Roe v. Wade

  1. Scott says:

    Good post. I would suggest, however, checking out the more nuanced positions that are coming out of this debate, such as the view by John Lizza. Lizza holds to a consciousness-related substance view in which the real capacity for consciousness must be present in order for us to say that the entity in question is a human person. Lizza suggests that the consciousness-related substantive account finds consistency with the thinking of Aristotle and Aquinas in their notion of “delayed hominization” which views the infusion of the rational soul as occurring at some point in the body’s process of development other than at conception.

    I think there are good responses to these views.

  2. Scott says:

    Good post, Richard. Although, I’ve found that pro-abortion philosophers today rarely invoke a simplistic funtionalist view anymore. More nuanced substantive models of personhood, such as the view advocated by John Lizza, are more common.

  3. Scott says:

    Sorry, didn’t mean to post twice. Didn’t think the first one was accepted.

  4. I’m not familiar with Lizza. But even here he seems to be opting for some type of substance (nature, essence) accounting over function. Only a substance can have a “real capacity” for something. This is the language of act/potency (unless I’m reading too much into this term). Then the debate might be over exactly when the thing becomes a human. But if he suggests that it occurs sometimes after the thing comes into existence (i.e., after conception) he has to account for exactly what the thing is up to that point (i.e, he as to say what form it possesses before it possesses the form (soul) of a human. It would seem that this task would he harder, viz., trying to say exactly what the thing is from conception until it is ensouled. Even looking at it from a material/biological perspective, the conceptus already has all the genetic information that constitutes a human (again, looking at it from a merely biological perspective). This genetic information already means that it possesses all the “capacities” that will later be actualized. Just some thoughts off the top of my head.

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