The first step in determining the morality of abortion is determining what the fetus is. Is it a part of the mother’s body, or is it a distinct human being? To answer this we first must answer two logically prior questions: (1) what is it to be a human person? and (2) when does a human person begin? I’ll tackle these questions in the next few weeks.
An Analogy: Two Things on My Roof
To illustrate why this first question is so important, consider an analogy. Suppose we are having a cup of coffee together and I mention that I recently purchased a small drone that I enjoy flying. Unfortunately, last weekend I was flying it in the backyard and it crashed on my roof. However, I had a busy weekend, so I couldn’t get it down for a few days. Then—wouldn’t you know—when I finally did get it down my dog grabbed it and chewed it up even more! It’s now completely ruined.
As I tell you this story, it is clear that I am disappointed that my new drone was destroyed. However, I am not morally troubled by this series of events. You don’t find my reaction odd, because these things happen. I can always buy another drone.
However, what if the story is not about my new drone, but my new son. I say, “I recently had a baby boy and named him Ryan, who I enjoy. Unfortunately, last weekend I was playing with Ryan in the backyard and inadvertently threw him on my roof. However, I had a busy weekend, so I couldn’t get him down for a few days. And then—wouldn’t you know—when I finally did get him down my dog grabbed him and chewed him up even more. He’s now completely incapacitated.”
Again, as I tell this story, it is clear that I am disappointed that my new son was harmed. However, I am not morally troubled by this series of events. You would undoubtedly find my reaction more than odd. My attitude and actions toward my son would be morally reprehensible. The authorities ought to arrest me for child endangerment and abuse.
How the Drone and Ryan are Different
What makes these scenarios so different? Ryan and the drone differ in many ways. How are they different in ways that matter?
They are different in size—Ryan is larger than the drone. Is that the relevant difference? No—I could have purchased a drone with a wingspan of twelve feet, in which case it would be much larger than Ryan. But it would still be acceptable to abandon it on the roof for a few days, but not acceptable to leave Ryan on the roof.
They are different in capacities. The drone can fly and go for months without fuel, but Ryan can’t. Ryan can show emotions and communicate, while the drone can’t. Still, this isn’t what constitutes the moral difference either. For instance, if the drone’s propeller broke, it could no longer fly. But it would still be fine to leave it on the roof for a few days. On the other hand, even if Ryan were not able to communicate, it would still be wrong to leave him on the roof.
They are different in their locations of origin. The drone was produced in a factory. Ryan was born in a hospital. Again, this is not what entails the moral difference between the two. Ryan could have been born in the drone factory, and a drone assembly line could have been set up in a hospital. However, this would not make it morally acceptable to leave Ryan on the roof, nor morally require me to rescue the drone immediately.
The Essential Difference
The essential difference, which makes the moral difference, is that the drone is essentially an inanimate object. “Animate” comes from the Greek word “anima,” the word Aristotle used in his book De Anima (On The Soul). So “inanimate” objections are objects without souls. They are matter structured in certain ways to accomplish defined functions—flying, in the case of my drone. On the other hand, Ryan is not an inanimate object, but an “animate” object—a soul. That he has a soul is what we mean when we say he is a person, not a thing. He is more than just matter structured to function in a certain way.
Due to this essential difference, we treat persons like Ryan differently than we treat inanimate objects like drones. Inanimate objects have no intrinsic worth or value. Their only value is “instrumental”—whether they meet our needs. Therefore we treat them as means to further ends. For instance, if I want something for play or work that involves small hovering aircraft, then I buy a drone to meet this need. Furthermore, inanimate objects have no rights. I can choose to do whatever I want with my drone (as long as I don’t hurt another person) because I own it. It is my property. It belongs to me.
In contrast, because they have souls people are not means to further ends—they are ends in themselves. Their worth is intrinsic and not dependent on their how they can help me reach my goals. They have rights that are “inalienable”—based on their inherent worth. Therefore, people are not (or at least should not) be the property of others, to do with whatever the owner wishes.
Everyone Understands This
Everyone intuitively understands this moral distinction between animate and inanimate objects, regardless of their religious commitments. The Declaration of Independence begins with “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [people] are created equal…” It is this distinction of people as intrinsically valuable and equal that lead to the abolition of slavery, as well as continuing social action and legislation to ensure we treat men and women of all ethnicities as “ends” in themselves, and not “means” to achieve someone else’s ends. It underlies the outrage we experience and express when we hear of parents abusing or neglecting their children or elderly parents to satisfy their own desires.
What Is A Soul?
So the question is when Ryan (or any other human) becomes animate (ensouled). In other words, when does someone’s soul come to be? The way we answer this question will determine when it is appropriate to treat Ryan as a human person with intrinsic worth, value and therefore rights, and not a means to someone else’s ends.
To determine when the soul begins (when an individual human begins) we must first understand what a soul is. We often speak of people having souls. We may say, “He has a good soul” or “1,503 souls were lost when the Titanic sank.” Scripture also regularly refers to us as having souls:
- Matt. 10:28 “Do not fear those who kill the body but are unable to kill the soul.”
- Matt. 16:26 “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or, what will a man give in exchange for his soul?”
- 1Cor. 15:45 “So also it is written, “The first man, Adam, became a living soul.”
So what is a soul? Simply put, a soul is an “individuated human nature.” Each of these words is important and help us understand what a soul is. Let’s look at them in reverse order.
A nature is an essential grouping of properties that make a thing what it is. A carbon atom has a nature that makes it what it is and not a gold atom or a billiard ball. All and only carbon atoms have that specific grouping of properties. (For reasons to believe natures exist, see my blog here.)
Furthermore, our nature is essentially “human.” In other words, our nature is an essential grouping of properties that all and only human beings have. For reasons to believe we are essentially a human nature (in other words, that we have a soul), see my blog here.
Our human nature consists specifically of:
- Intellectual capacities—abilities to think, including thinking abstractly, as you are now doing as you read this
- Emotional capacities—abilities to have appropriate feelings in various situations, such as joy, grief, or anticipation
- Volitional capacities—abilities to make choices in order to obtain desired goals.
- Social capacities—abilities to relate to other persons in specific ways
- Physical capacities—abilities to engage the physical world through a body to obtain desired goals
- Spiritual capacities—abilities to relate to God in appropriate ways.
We share some of these capacities with other types of things. For instance, angels have angelic natures, which share some of the same properties human souls possess. However, angelic natures do not have the same grouping of properties. For instance, an essential feature of human nature is to be related to a body. Therefore humans are embodied (except for the relatively brief time after physical death and before the final resurrection). An essential property of the angelic nature is not to be related to a body. As a second example, dogs have canine natures. Their essences have some of the same types of capacities, such as the capacity to reason (I often observe my dog try to remember where he left his toy when he wants to play). Dogs cannot do abstract reasoning. Likewise, dogs have some social abilities, but not the same social capacities as humans have.
One significant difference between those with human natures and all other types of natures is the ability to have an intimate relationship with God. Even angels do not have the capacity. Intimacy with God is an important part of humans’ sharing the “Imago Dei”—being created in the image of God. “Then God said, “Let Us make human persons in Our image, according to Our likeness.” (Gen 1:26) Due to this spiritual capacity, we alone can enter this deeply personal relationship with God, in which we may call Him “Abba” (Daddy). This is a spiritual capacity of the human nature, not shared with any other type of thing (any other nature).
Finally, our soul is an individuated human nature. You and I share the same human nature—we are both essentially human beings. At the same time, I am not you, and you are not me. We are distinct and unique human natures—individual human beings. My soul (my individuated human nature) may be better at mathematics, and your individuated human nature may be better at understanding others and being empathetic. We both share the capacity for abstract thought, but you and I express this in different (individual, unique) ways. The same is true of all other capacities, making us unique, individual persons. We are each a distinct soul—an individuated human nature.
This answers the first question: What is it to be a human person? It is to have an individuated human nature—to be a human soul. The second important question is when a human person begins to exist (when a human soul comes to be). In the next few weeks I'll discuss how to approach this question, both personally and in the "public square."
Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics by J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae.