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Author Topic: When is it human?  (Read 3991 times)

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Offline AndyZTopic starter

When is it human?
« on: March 15, 2012, 05:04:36 AM »
This thread is dedicated to the question: when is it a human life?  Conception?  Sometime during pregnancy?  The moment of birth?  Self-actualization?  (By which I mean, once a person is able to come up with cogito ergo sum without actually having read Descartes.  I think I was around seven.)

We can get into abortion, and people can maneuver outside the topic so long as things can be easily traced back to the primary question of when human life begins.

The way I'm seeing it right now, it's a human once it has DNA.  It may continue to grow, but we all continue to grow and change at various points, but our DNA is the static factor.  Other possibilities are welcome.

Offline vtboy

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #1 on: March 15, 2012, 07:49:31 AM »
The question is a little vague. I'm not sure what you mean by "human," but assume you are trying to get at something beyond the rather easily answered question of whether a thing has human DNA.

Are you asking at what point the thing with human DNA should be recognized as possessing legal rights (e.g, the right not to have its life terminated without due process)?   

Offline AndyZTopic starter

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #2 on: March 15, 2012, 08:08:51 AM »
I really don't know how to make the question any clearer.  Possessing legal rights would be a consequence of being human, and something could be seen as possessing human rights even if it's not human.  I've heard about people trying to petition to get human rights to animals (although I'm not sure if that's actually happened, and lappy is acting up too much for me to give it a proper check).

If we can agree that something cannot have human rights without actually being human, it would certainly fit as a method for determining whether something is human.

Offline Avis habilis

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #3 on: March 15, 2012, 08:19:29 AM »
The way I'm seeing it right now, it's a human once it has DNA.

Unfertilized eggs have DNA. Spit has DNA. Fingernail parings have DNA. I'm thinking the requirement ought to be a little more stringent.

Offline AndyZTopic starter

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #4 on: March 15, 2012, 08:21:28 AM »
Unfertilized eggs have DNA. Spit has DNA. Fingernail parings have DNA. I'm thinking the requirement ought to be a little more stringent.

Good point.  Well made.  Thank you.

Do you have any recommendations as to a qualification?

Offline Avis habilis

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #5 on: March 15, 2012, 08:31:40 AM »
I suppose it would depend on stage of development. Where exactly that is I can't say for sure, beyond "16-celled zygote isn't it".

Offline vtboy

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #6 on: March 15, 2012, 09:35:39 AM »
I really don't know how to make the question any clearer.  Possessing legal rights would be a consequence of being human, and something could be seen as possessing human rights even if it's not human.  I've heard about people trying to petition to get human rights to animals (although I'm not sure if that's actually happened, and lappy is acting up too much for me to give it a proper check).

If we can agree that something cannot have human rights without actually being human, it would certainly fit as a method for determining whether something is human.

Perhaps my question was insufficiently clear. What I was getting at, perhaps inarticulately, was this: what significance do you propose to attach to labeling a thing as human? If the definition is without ramfications for how we deal with the thing, the exercise is one only of semantics, and any number of definitions may be appropriate. If, on the other hand, the "human" label creates limitations on the way a thing may be treated, the choice of a definition takes on much greater significance. For example,  it may soon become very difficult to distinguish between the thinking of machines and that of biologically driven (forgive the circularity here) humans. Thus, if legal protections against forced termination flow from defining a thing as "human," we may want to consider whether that definition should turn on capacity for thought, lest we be forced to forego the on/off switches on our computers.   

Offline AndyZTopic starter

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #7 on: March 15, 2012, 09:49:51 AM »
I'm actually reminded of the Star Trek TNG ep where they have to have a trial over whether Data is a lifeform.

Admittedly, much of the question is quite philosophical.  The original reason for coming up with the question was abortion, but I'm perfectly alright with bringing the question towards other matters.  If we can isolate just what separates a human life from nonhuman, and such a thing is created by other humans (cloning, Frankenstein (if Frankenstein's monster fits the criteria), etc.) then such a being would have the rights associated with humanity.

If we accept the premise for the time being that a zygote does not fit the definition of human life, then none of the things which a zygote possesses are considered necessary to the definition of what a human is.  I have a number of hypotheses on the matter, but cannot back them up with any specific criteria.  DNA was my attempt and was refuted.

If thinking is the criteria, then infants do not fit the criteria and it's acceptable to kill infants.  If we argue that babies are capable of growing into being capable of thinking, and expand the definition into something which is capable of growing into being capable of thinking, then zygotes fit that definition.

People who are clinically brain dead are not capable of thinking either, but most would agree that they are still human.

Now, the religious would claim that it's the soul, but science has not proven the existence of the soul, and I'm hoping to find a logical, scientific criteria for human.

Offline Avis habilis

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #8 on: March 15, 2012, 10:51:07 AM »
If thinking is the criteria, then infants do not fit the criteria and it's acceptable to kill infants.

Except infants do think. Nothing very complicated, or very deep, but if they weren't thinking they would never, say, acquire language.

Offline AndyZTopic starter

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #9 on: March 15, 2012, 11:06:44 AM »
I was under the impression that infant was the word for within the first few months of life.  I just double-checked this and was incorrect.  Allow me to clarify:

If thinking is the criteria, then infants only a few months old do not fit the criteria, nor do people who are clinically brain dead.

We should probably also put in a qualifier as to what is considered thought, since even insects have a degree of cognition but lack self-awareness.

Offline vtboy

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #10 on: March 15, 2012, 11:09:46 AM »
I'm actually reminded of the Star Trek TNG ep where they have to have a trial over whether Data is a lifeform.

Admittedly, much of the question is quite philosophical.  The original reason for coming up with the question was abortion, but I'm perfectly alright with bringing the question towards other matters.  If we can isolate just what separates a human life from nonhuman, and such a thing is created by other humans (cloning, Frankenstein (if Frankenstein's monster fits the criteria), etc.) then such a being would have the rights associated with humanity.

If we accept the premise for the time being that a zygote does not fit the definition of human life, then none of the things which a zygote possesses are considered necessary to the definition of what a human is.  I have a number of hypotheses on the matter, but cannot back them up with any specific criteria.  DNA was my attempt and was refuted.

If thinking is the criteria, then infants do not fit the criteria and it's acceptable to kill infants.  If we argue that babies are capable of growing into being capable of thinking, and expand the definition into something which is capable of growing into being capable of thinking, then zygotes fit that definition.

People who are clinically brain dead are not capable of thinking either, but most would agree that they are still human.

Now, the religious would claim that it's the soul, but science has not proven the existence of the soul, and I'm hoping to find a logical, scientific criteria for human.

I guess I approach this subject the other way around, by which I mean I prefer to focus on the question of whether and under what circumstances we want to accord a thing legal rights, rather than deciding to give a thing legal rights because we've defined it as human.

In Roe v. Wade, the Supremes' entirely avoided the question of whether a zygote/embryo/fetus has, or should have, legal rights. Instead, the Court limited its focus to balancing the mother's constitutionally protected right to privacy (I prefer to think of the right as one of personal autonomy) against the state's interest in the contents of her womb. The weight of the state's interest in the stuff, according to Roe, grew during gestation with the improvement of the fetus's chances of surviving outside of mom's body. The closer to extra-utero viability came the fetus, the greater the state's interest in it and the more extensive its right to regulate mom's reproductive choice. Thus, without actually saying so, Roe permitted each state to decide whether and to what extent to accord a fetus legal rights after viability. One might describe this as allowing the states to accord "personhood" or citizenship or humanity to a fetus at the point of viability.

I suppose the Court's analysis is philosophically unsatisfying, and there can be no doubt it is deeply troubling to the faithful. And, since viability turns in large measure on the state of medical technology, Roe also placed the balance beam for determining "fetal rights" on a movable fulcrum.  Yet, despite its faults, I admire the analysis, not only because it is entirely secular (as I think it must be under the 1st Amendment), but also because it is practical, rather than ideological.

I do not mean to suggest that Roe provided any meaningful answer to the question of what is "human." However, in limiting its efforts to resolution of the the tension between knowable, competing interests, I think the Court provided a workable template in Roe for how to treat things which we think are, or might become, like us. 

Online Valerian

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #11 on: March 15, 2012, 11:19:11 AM »
I was under the impression that infant was the word for within the first few months of life.  I just double-checked this and was incorrect.  Allow me to clarify:

If thinking is the criteria, then infants only a few months old do not fit the criteria, nor do people who are clinically brain dead.

We should probably also put in a qualifier as to what is considered thought, since even insects have a degree of cognition but lack self-awareness.
What's your definition of thought, then?

An EEG reading taken of a newborn will show brain activity.  Heck, an EEG taken of an unborn child will show brain activity, at least after the 30th week or so, I believe.

Even the youngest infants have certain basic reasoning powers.  They cry, they get attention, for instance.  It isn't complicated, as Avis said, but it's still thought, whether you're defining that as awareness of cause and effect or simply by an active EEG reading.  If you're looking for more complex reasoning ability such as object permanence, then 'thought', in your opinion, might not happen until a child is two years old.

Offline AndyZTopic starter

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #12 on: March 15, 2012, 01:04:53 PM »
I guess I approach this subject the other way around, by which I mean I prefer to focus on the question of whether and under what circumstances we want to accord a thing legal rights, rather than deciding to give a thing legal rights because we've defined it as human.

I can understand the logic but do not agree with the results.  By my understanding, the only fair way to determine if something should get human rights would be to see if it is human.  If we simply assign some things the rights of humans and not others, without confirming their status as human, it becomes a matter of convenience and picking and choosing.

If something is human, then it certainly deserves all the rights of a human, even if such is not convenient.  If we don't have any way of agreeing what even is and is not human, however, then the best we can do is pick and choose.

Quote
In Roe v. Wade, the Supremes' entirely avoided the question of whether a zygote/embryo/fetus has, or should have, legal rights. Instead, the Court limited its focus to balancing the mother's constitutionally protected right to privacy (I prefer to think of the right as one of personal autonomy) against the state's interest in the contents of her womb. The weight of the state's interest in the stuff, according to Roe, grew during gestation with the improvement of the fetus's chances of surviving outside of mom's body. The closer to extra-utero viability came the fetus, the greater the state's interest in it and the more extensive its right to regulate mom's reproductive choice. Thus, without actually saying so, Roe permitted each state to decide whether and to what extent to accord a fetus legal rights after viability. One might describe this as allowing the states to accord "personhood" or citizenship or humanity to a fetus at the point of viability.

I suppose the Court's analysis is philosophically unsatisfying, and there can be no doubt it is deeply troubling to the faithful. And, since viability turns in large measure on the state of medical technology, Roe also placed the balance beam for determining "fetal rights" on a movable fulcrum.  Yet, despite its faults, I admire the analysis, not only because it is entirely secular (as I think it must be under the 1st Amendment), but also because it is practical, rather than ideological.

I do not mean to suggest that Roe provided any meaningful answer to the question of what is "human." However, in limiting its efforts to resolution of the the tension between knowable, competing interests, I think the Court provided a workable template in Roe for how to treat things which we think are, or might become, like us.

Whether a human can survive without being individually cared for is not a measure of humanity because a baby cannot survive without being cared for by someone.  I'm not really sure that we can place the question of whether it's viable extra-utero simply because we cannot pull the fetus out of one mother during the stages of development and implant it into another.  If a child could only be taken care of by one person lest that child die, I would imagine that that person would be required by law to take care of the child.

Many would agree as well that removing someone from life support is killing them.  Is the womb a kind of life support for the fetus as it grows?  If we develop the technology that allows the fetus to continue to grow and allow it to mature into an infant, should it be required that aborted fetuses be so taken care of?  If so, if the only way for fetuses to be correctly taken care of is to leave them in the womb, is it wrong to remove them?  Should we be freezing them until such time as they can be artificially grown?

I don't believe such questions can be satisfactorily answered unless we agree upon a set of criteria to establish humanity.  At best, we are picking and choosing based upon gut instincts, not logic or even consensus.

What's your definition of thought, then?

An EEG reading taken of a newborn will show brain activity.  Heck, an EEG taken of an unborn child will show brain activity, at least after the 30th week or so, I believe.

Even the youngest infants have certain basic reasoning powers.  They cry, they get attention, for instance.  It isn't complicated, as Avis said, but it's still thought, whether you're defining that as awareness of cause and effect or simply by an active EEG reading.  If you're looking for more complex reasoning ability such as object permanence, then 'thought', in your opinion, might not happen until a child is two years old.

I wouldn't really consider thought to be the criteria, both because some nonhumans (in this case, animals and insects) are capable of some degree of thought, and some humans who are clinically brain-dead are incapable of thought.



The more I think about this, it may not be possible to reach a consensus on what makes a human.  Those who want abortion will want a criteria which does not include fetuses and those do not will want a criteria which does.  Perhaps this was your original point, vtboy?

I'd like to leave this open, though, in case someone is able to suggest a staggering case for the instant of humanity.  It may not be possible, but I don't think you can prove that it isn't possible, only that it is possible and only then by doing it.

Offline kylie

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Re: When is it human?
« Reply #13 on: March 15, 2012, 01:31:32 PM »
     Culturally, the debate has shifted with the technology.  The more detection and categorization methods we have for anything to do with conception, the more the anti-abortion camp has tended to press for earlier and earlier recognition of a little person in there. 

     I don't follow those arguments closely, so I don't have fine-grained opinions about whether they are particularly helpful ones.  I have the impression it's quite possible that one person will see humanity where another sees a lump of indeterminate (if organic) matter, perhaps say, just another part of the mother.  Seems like plenty of room for a downright logical impasse to me.

Offline kylie

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Re: When is it human?
« Reply #14 on: March 15, 2012, 01:39:31 PM »
Quote
The original reason for coming up with the question was abortion, but I'm perfectly alright with bringing the question towards other matters.  If we can isolate just what separates a human life from nonhuman, and such a thing is created by other humans (cloning, Frankenstein (if Frankenstein's monster fits the criteria), etc.) then such a being would have the rights associated with humanity.

     Trying to catch up here a bit...  I missed this part upon hopping through.

     Logically, you can argue that I guess.  In terms of implementation, I'm not sure that is how American culture (Western culture? more?) actually operates.  I suspect that more often, the law may inlcude something like "human rights" and make references to living beings along with that.  However, it doesn't necessarily follow that human rights are gained simply by virtue of having sentient thought. 

     When it comes down to a courtroom, some people will argue that the spirit of those laws has been conventionally interpreted to apply only to certain types of being.  If "manufactured beings" or "constructs" for example, are not within the original intent of the law or its historical application, then those categories might be excluded. 

     (Hmm, this sounds rather like some of these games on E about androids, etc. that are treated as slaves...)  ::)

     
« Last Edit: March 15, 2012, 01:41:26 PM by kylie »

Offline vtboy

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #15 on: March 15, 2012, 01:47:49 PM »
The more I think about this, it may not be possible to reach a consensus on what makes a human.  Those who want abortion will want a criteria which does not include fetuses and those do not will want a criteria which does.  Perhaps this was your original point, vtboy?

More or less. In my view, to the extent legal rights depend on a thing's carrying the "human" label, the question of what is "human" will always be a political one.

If given the opportunity, both my wife and my son would vote to include cats in the definition.

Offline Will

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #16 on: March 15, 2012, 01:49:00 PM »
I'd say the answer to the OP's question seems to depend entirely on one's stance regarding abortion.

That's how politics works, right?  Start with your convictions, and then order reality to suit them?

Online Valerian

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #17 on: March 15, 2012, 02:04:22 PM »
That's how politics works, right?  Start with your convictions, and then order reality to suit them?

If you're the governor of Wisconsin, yes, definitely.  :P


There are several purely scientific possibilities, objectively measurable -- the first time a fetus' heart beats, for instance, or when it becomes possible for it to survive outside the womb -- but nothing like that will ever satisfy anyone who wants to argue on any side of the abortion issue, most likely.  And even the scientists might not agree, anyway.  One might say that a heartbeat will do; another might want measurable brain activity.

Offline vtboy

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #18 on: March 15, 2012, 02:21:19 PM »
I'd say the answer to the OP's question seems to depend entirely on one's stance regarding abortion.

That's how politics works, right?  Start with your convictions, and then order reality to suit them?

No. Politicians start with convictions (well, that may be giving them too much credit), and then order them to suit reality (which, in our semi-democracy, means whatever it takes to win elections; witness Mitt Romney).

Actually, altering convictions to suit reality is not such a bad formula. If scientists didn't order their ideas to suit reality, we'd still be trying to cure fevers with leaches. It's generally the faithful who try to force reality's square pegs into dogma's round holes.

Offline Oniya

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Re: When is it human?
« Reply #19 on: March 15, 2012, 06:24:49 PM »
More or less. In my view, to the extent legal rights depend on a thing's carrying the "human" label, the question of what is "human" will always be a political one.

If given the opportunity, both my wife and my son would vote to include cats in the definition.

I'm not sure the cats would be pleased to be called human.  They much prefer the Egyptian treatment.

Offline vtboy

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #20 on: March 15, 2012, 06:47:46 PM »
I'm not sure the cats would be pleased to be called human.  They much prefer the Egyptian treatment.

Never a truer word spoken. They barely tolerate our presence in their world.

Offline DeMalachine

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #21 on: March 15, 2012, 07:10:49 PM »
I think there needs to be a point of order on the use of 'human' as a noun - as it is completely synonymous with a lifeform bearing the DNA that makes it member of the Genus Homo and species sapiens. To ask 'when does it become human' is kind of redundant, as it suggests that prior to being an embryo, being born, acquiring self-awareness (or whatever criteria one might choose), a human being must be of some other species entirely.

Offline DarklingAlice

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #22 on: March 15, 2012, 07:54:58 PM »
I'm far more interested in why humanity would matter.

Pre-supposing an importance to humanity, apart from the self-interest of belonging to that category, is a notion without basis. It is a complete failure to confront the route that has taken us to this state at this point in time (and that which will inevitably move us away from it) in favor of saying "Humans must be special because I happen to be human and I want to feel special". It's this relic of an idea that humans are somehow separate or higher. Putting a barrier up between 'humanity' and 'nature' is a persistent piece of outmoded thinking that blights our society. Legal rights are granted at the whim of social order regardless of whether or not they conform with the actual good in itself or even a principle of right action (were that the case governments would not have been granting and stripping them since time immemorial). They are nothing more.

This doesn't mean that there is not objective good or a course of right action, merely that humans need to get over themselves and realize that their feelings of special snowflake-ness have no bearing on morality.

Also, for anyone that buys that DNA argument, I have about 400 transgenic mice who will be wanting their 'human rights' please  :P

Offline Shjade

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #23 on: March 15, 2012, 08:45:48 PM »
When it can use tools.

I keep it simple.
« Last Edit: March 15, 2012, 08:46:53 PM by Shjade »

Offline DeMalachine

Re: When is it human?
« Reply #24 on: March 15, 2012, 08:54:37 PM »
^Chimps have been known to use tools. As have crows. And elephants.