Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (1): The presentation of Dr Helen Watt

We are pleased to welcome this guest post from Donnchadh O’Conaill, of the Department of Philosophy, History, Culture and Art Studies at the University of Helsinki. This is the first of a series of posts Donnchadh is writing on presentations of ethicists to the Citizens Assembly.

Regardless of what one thinks about the need for a Citizen’s Assembly, its deliberations have already thrown up a number of interesting approaches to thinking about ethical issues, particularly concerning abortion. What follows is a series of articles on the presentations by ethicists to the assembly, examining the arguments that they offer and their potential implications for a possible referendum to repeal the 8th Amendment.

Dr. Helen Watt presented an argument against abortion which was of interest, particularly in the context of Irish debates about abortion, in not relying (at least not explicitly) on religious doctrine. Indeed, Watt’s arguments rest on certain assumptions which are difficult or impossible to reconcile with the beliefs of many religions, for instance the belief in an immortal soul. But as with more familiar religiously-motivated discussions, Watt’s argument appeals to the nature of the foetus to justify its having a certain moral status. By the ‘nature’ of the foetus I mean not just its physical or biological features but those features which might be thought to give it moral significance in and of itself, regardless of what anyone thinks about it. This kind of moral significance is what is usually meant when ethicists speak of the ‘moral status’ of the foetus.

Watt begins by asking ‘What am I?’, and answers this question as follows:

what I am is surely a human animal a living, bodily being or organism. By saying that, I do not mean to say that human beings lack any kind of spiritual dimension. Rather, I simply want to stress the embodied nature of the unified beings we are throughout our lives: we are bodily beings, not disembodied ghosts. I am my living body and my living body is me.

In this passage Watt makes two assumptions which one might question. First, in philosophical circles the claim that I am (in the sense of being identical with, which is presumably what Watt intends) an animal, an organism or a living body is in fact rather contentious.[1] That said, Watt’s paper is not intended as a thorough discussion of the metaphysics of human beings, and it would be churlish to place too much weight on this rather technical point.

Second, Watt glosses the claim that I am an animal as the claim that we are embodied beings throughout our lives. But the claim that each of us is necessarily embodied is not the same as the claim that each of us is identical with a certain living body (for instance, there are a number of philosophical positions in which these two claims come apart).[2] And the difference between these two claims really does matter. This is because the claim that each of us is embodied is relatively uncontentious, but it is the claim that each of us is identical with a certain body which will play a crucial role in Watt’s argument. By eliding them as she does, Watt is in danger of conflating a controversial premise of her argument (that each of us is identical with a living body) with a much less controversial claim, that each of us is embodied.

Each of us, Watt continues, is

a member of one very special kind of living being: a thinking, choice-making, rational human kind of being. Because I am a human being, I should be able to think and choose when awake and mature enough to do so.

The notion of a rational kind of being requires careful consideration. Note that Watt is not saying that every human being is rational, i.e., actually has the capacity to reason (this would be a rather controversial claim, particularly with regard to a foetus). Rather, she uses the term ‘rational’ to qualify the kind of being to which human foetuses belong. To say that a foetus belongs to a rational kind of being is to say that it will be rational when it has fully developed, assuming that it develops as it should. The term ‘should’ here is best understood not in a moral but in a biological sense, the sense in which, e.g., the function of my heart is to pump blood through my body; if my heart is not pumping blood then it is not functioning as it should.

Why does Watt stress the kind of being which humans are, as opposed to the features of individual humans? The answer is revealed a little later, when Watt addresses a further question: how should I be treated?

The answer to that question depends on what I am (a special, rational, human kind of being) and also on what is good for that kind of being: my interests or what I have a stake in.

All human beings have full human status and basic human rights, in that all human beings have an important stake in their own future as beings of the special, rational kind they are. […] human beings are equal in their basic interests, and in their basic human rights and status.

The moral claim being argued for is that all humans have the same moral status; Watt suggests that this status is conferred by the fact that all humans, including human foetuses, belong to the same kind and so have the same basic interests.[3] So even though different humans have very different features – even though, for instance, some humans lack any capacity to reason – there are certain things which are good for every human, since we are al beings of the same kind.

In considering what is good for beings of a certain kind, i.e., what interests they have, it is important to note that the terms ‘good’ and ‘interests’ cannot be assumed to be always moral, in the sense of carrying any moral weight or conferring any moral status. For instance, a fountain pen may be good or bad, but a good fountain pen is not morally better than a bad one. Likewise with interests. Any living organism will have interests, e.g., it will flourish in certain conditions and not in others. But the flourishing of, say, daisies is not obviously a moral good, and the interests of daisies need not themselves weigh in our moral deliberations. (It is no moral blemish to my actions if I destroy some daisies in the course of mowing the lawn.)

Of course, a foetus is not a daisy. But the point being made here does not rest on any analogy between them. The point is simply that in order to move from the claim that something is good for a certain kind of being to the claim that beings of that kind have a certain moral status, we need some reason to think that the good or interests in question are morally significant.

Watt’s argument is that the interests of a human foetus are morally significant because they are interests of a member of a rational kind. An opponent of Watt’s may respond that the interests of a foetus, at least earlier in its development, are purely biological and not morally significant. The foetus is not itself a person or even a subject of experiences, and so its interests do not carry the same moral weight as those of a human adult or an infant. One way to put this disagreement is as follows: does membership of a rational kind make the interests of a foetus morally significant, or is it the specific interests of an entity which are, or are not, morally significant? Another, perhaps more contentious way to express the disagreement is to ask whether you were ever identical with the foetus from which you developed. As we have seen, Watt would say that you were. But one may try to resist this claim, on the grounds that it is certain mental features or capacities (e.g., the capacity to have experiences) which are definitive of the kind of being you are. Or one may argue that it is having a functioning brain or central nervous system, rather than one’s body as a whole, which determines your identity. In this way, Watt’s initial answer to the question ‘What am I?’ may become the focus of dispute.[4]

While Watt’s argument rests on claims about the nature of the foetus which may be open to question, the line I have sketched for her opponent is itself vulnerable to criticism. In particular, by linking the moral status of the foetus to its actual features (e.g., those capacities which it has or lacks), Watt’s opponent seems committed to the view that both the capacities and the moral status of a human being may wax and wane over the course of its lifetime. Many people will worry about the implications of this claim for, e.g., the moral status of infants or the senile. In contrast, Watt’s position provides a basic moral status for every human being: it straightforwardly delivers the result that certain rights are indeed human rights, in the sense that they are possessed by every human being in virtue of their being human. Whatever one may think of her position, this is a powerful rhetorical advantage.

Faced with these disputes over the nature and status of the foetus, one may well wonder whether any of this is a sound basis for the law of the land. It will be worth considering whether there are any arguments about abortion which avoid these issues.


[1] For discussion of some of these issues see Stephan Blatti ‘Animalism’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy ( ).

[2] See the views discussed in Blatti, ‘Animalism’, § 2.3

[3] By ‘interests’ Watt does not mean something a human is interested in – rather, she means something which matters to the wellbeing of that human.

[4] These disputes have given rise to a vast literature. For a brief introduction, see J. S. Blumenthal-Barby, ‘Head Transplants, Personal Identity, and Derek Parfit’ ( ). For a more thorough discussion, see Carsten Korfmacher, ‘Personal Identity’ ( ).

Reflections on the Citizens Assembly (1): The presentation of Dr Helen Watt

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