My onetime colleague T. V. Smith once wrote a book called
Beyond Conscience, in which he waxed eloquent in
showing "the harm that good men do." To live
according to one's conscience may be a fine thing, but
what if A's conscience leads A to try to compel B and
C to live, not according to B's or C's conscience, but
according to A's? That is what many opponents of abortion
are trying to do. To propose a constitutional amendment
to this effect is one of the most outrageous attempts
to tyrannize over others that I can recall in my long
lifetime as an American citizen. Proponents of the antiabortion
amendment make their case, if possible, even worse when
they defend themselves with the contention "It isn't
my conscience onlyit is a commandment of religion."
For now one particular form of religion (certainly not
the only form) is being used in an attempt to tyrannize
over other forms of religious or philosophical belief.
The separation of church and state evidently means little
to such people.
In What Sense 'Human'?
Ours is a country that has many diverse religious groups,
and many people who cannot find truth in any organized
religious body. It is a country that has great difficulty
in effectively opposing forms of killing that everyone
admits to be wrong. Those who would saddle the legal system
with matters about which consciences sincerely and strongly
differ show a disregard of the country's primary needs.
(The same is to be said about crusades to make things
difficult for homosexuals.) There can be little freedom
if we lose sight of the vital distinction between moral
questions and legal ones. The law compels and coerces,
with the implicit threat of violence; morals seek to persuade.
It is a poor society that forgets this difference.
What is the moral question regarding abortion? We are
told that the fetus is alive and that therefore killing
it is wrong. Since mosquitoes, bacteria, apes and whales
are also alive, the argument is less than clear.
Even plants are alive. I am not impressed by the rebuttal
"But plants, mosquitoes, bacteria and whales are
not human, and the fetus is." For the issue now becomes,
in what sense is the fetus human? No one denies that its
origin is human, as is its possible destiny. But the same
is true of every unfertilized egg in the body of a nun.
Is it wrong that some such eggs are not made or allowed
to become human individuals?
Granted that a fetus is human in origin and possible destiny,
in what further sense is it human? The entire problem
lies here. If there are pro-life activists who have thrown
much light on this question, I do not know their names.
One theologian who writes on the subjectPaul Ramseythinks
that a human egg cell becomes a human individual with
a moral claim to survive if it has been fertilized. Yet
this egg cell has none of the qualities that we have in
mind when we proclaim our superior worth to the chimpanzees
or dolphins. It cannot speak, reason or judge between
right and wrong. It cannot have personal relations, without
which a person is not functionally a person at all, until
monthsand not, except minimally, until yearshave
passed. And even then, it will not be a person in the
normal sense unless some who are already fully persons
have taken pains to help it become a human being in the
full value sense, functioning as such. The antiabortionist
is commanding some person or persons to undertake this
effort. For without it, the fetus will never be human
in the relevant sense. It will be human only in origin,
but otherwise a subhuman animal.
The fertilized egg is an individual egg, but not an individual
human being. For such a being is, in its body, a multicellular
organism, a metozoanto use the scientific Greekand
the egg is a single cell. The first thing the egg cell
does is to begin dividing into many cells. For some weeks
the fetus is not a single individual at all, but a colony
of cells. During its first weeks there seems to be no
ground for regarding the fetus as comparable to an individual
animal. Only in possible or probable destiny is it an
individual. Otherwise it is an organized society of single-celled
A possible individual person is one thing; an actual person
is another. If this difference is not important, what
is? There is in the long run no room in the solar system,
or even in the known universe, for all human eggseven
all fertilized eggs, as things now standto become
human persons. Indeed, it is mathematically demonstrable
that the present rate of population growth must be lowered
somehow. It is not a moral imperative that all possibilities
of human persons become actual persons.
Of course, some may say that the fertilized egg already
has a human soul, but on what evidence? The evidence of
soul in the relevant sense is the capacity to reason,
judge right and wrong, and the like.
The Rights Of Persons
February 1998 Hartshorne was featured in a U.S.
News and World Report article titled "A hundred
years of thinking about God: A philosopher soon to
Ramsey argues (as does William Buckley in a letter to
me) that if a fetus is not fully human, then neither is
an infant. Of course an infant is not fully human. No
one thinks it can, while an infant, be taught to speak,
reason or judge right and wrong. But it is much closer
to that stage than is a three-month fetus. It is beginning
to have primitive social relations not open to a fetus;
and since there is no sharp line anywhere between an infant
and a child able to speak a few words, or between the
latter and a child able to speak very many words, we have
to regard the infant as significantly different from a
three-month or four-month fetus. Nevertheless, I have
little sympathy with the idea that infanticide is just
another form of murder. Persons who are already functionally
persons in the full sense have more important rights even
than infants. Infanticide can be wrong without being fully
comparable to the killing of persons in the full sense.
Does this distinction apply to the killing of a hopelessly
senile person (or one in a permanent coma)? For me it
does. I hope that no one will think that if, God forbid,
I ever reach that stage, it must be for my sake that I
should be treated with the respect due to normal human
beings. Rather, it is for the sake of others that such
respect may be imperative. Symbolically, one who has been
a person may have to be treated as a person. There are
difficulties and hazards in not so treating such individuals.
Religious people (I would so describe myself) may argue
that once a fetus starts to develop, it is for God, not
human beings, to decide whether the fetus survives and
how long it lives. This argument assumes, against all
evidence, that human life-spans are independent of human
decisions. Our medical hygiene has radically altered the
original "balance of nature." Hence the population
explosion. Our technology makes pregnancy more and more
a matter of human decision; more and more our choices
are influencing the weal and woe of the animals on this
earth. It is an awesome responsibility, but one that we
cannot avoid. And, after all, the book of Genesis essentially
predicted our dominion over terrestrial life. In addition,
no one is proposing to make abortion compulsory for those
morally opposed to it. I add that everyone who smokes
is taking a hand in deciding how long he or she will live.
Also everyone who, by failing to exercise reasonably,
allows his or her heart to lose its vigor. Our destinies
are not simply "acts of God."
I may be told that if I value my life I must be glad that
I was not aborted in the fetus state. Yes, I am glad,
but this expression does not constitute a claim to having
already had a "right," against which no other
right could prevail, to the life I have enjoyed. I feel
no indignation or horror at contemplating the idea the
world might have had to do without me. The world could
have managed, and as for what I would have missed, there
would have been no such "I" to miss it.
POTENTIAL, NOT ACTUAL
With almost everything they say, the fanatics against
abortion show that they will not, or cannot, face the
known facts of this matter. The inability of a fetus to
say "I" is not merely a lack of skill; there
is nothing there to which the pronoun could properly refer.
A fetus is not a person but a potential person. The "life"
to which "pro-life" refers is nonpersonal, by
any criterion that makes sense to some of us. It is subpersonal
animal life only. The mother, however, is a person.
I resent strongly the way many males tend to dictate to
females their behavior, even though many females encourage
them in this. Of course, the male parent of a fetus also
has certain rights, but it remains true that the female
parent is the one most directly and vitally concerned.
I share something of the disgust of hard-core opponents
of abortion that contraceptives, combined with the availability
of abortion, may deprive sexual intercourse of spiritual
meaning. For me the sacramental view of marriage has always
had appeal, and my life has been lived accordingly. Abortion
is indeed a nasty thing, but unfortunately there are in
our society many even nastier things, like the fact that
some children are growing up unwanted. This for my conscience
is a great deal nastier, and truly horrible. An overcrowded
world is also nasty, and could in a few decades become
If some who object to abortion work to diminish the number
of unwanted, inappropriate pregnancies, or to make bearing
a child for adoption by persons able to be its loving
foster parents more attractive than it now is, and do
this with a minimum of coercion, all honor to them. In
view of the population problem, the first of these remedies
should have high priority.
Above all, the coercive power of our legal system, already
stretched thin, must be used with caution and chiefly
against evils about which there is something like universal
consensus. That persons have rights is a universal belief
in our society, but that a fetus is already an actual
personabout that there is and there can be no consensus.
Coercion in such matters is tyranny. Alas for our dangerously
fragmented and alienated society if we persist in such
the Average Philosopher
HERBERT F. VETTER
Abridged from Harvard Magazine,
20 years my work as a Harvard chaplain was nourished by
the new worldview of Charles Hartshorne, the Harvard-educated
philosopher and scientist described by Encyclopaedia
Britannica as "the most influential proponent
of a 'process philosophy' which considers God a participant
in cosmic evolution." This is the year to light 100
candles to celebrate his life and thought, for he will
observe his centennial on June 5.
Volume 20 of The Library of Living Philosophers
is entitled The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne,
putting him in the company of Einstein, Russell, Sartre,
Buber, and fellow Harvardians Whitehead, Santayana, and
Quine. When I congratulated him on being selected for
the library's pantheon, he exclaimed with a smile, "The
secret of my success is longevity."
A truer secret of his success may be that he is the foremost
living exemplar of a great new tradition created by a
group I call the Harvard Square philosophers. Peirce,
James, Whitehead, William Ernest Hocking, and Hartshorne
share a unique vision of reality as social process.
The Harvard Square philosophers have created a new synthesis
of knowledge far surpassing the medieval synthesis of
Thomism and the modern synthesis of Spinoza. God is viewed
not as a supernatural force breaking abruptly into history,
but as the cosmic life of which our lives are a part.
God is both humanity's endless source of joy and the cosmic
sufferer who shares our pain. When we die, there is no
endless heaven or hell to which we are consigned: the
contribution that our lives have made continues in the
ongoing, deathless divine life. In this new cosmology,
all creatures have some measure of free choice. The future
is always, to some extent, open. Creativity is the very
essence of our well-ordered world and our everyday experience.
Hartshorne's contributions to this synthesis include what
the Britannica calls "the definitive analysis"
of panentheism (literally, "all in God"): "For
Hartshorne, God includes the world even as an organism
includes its cells, thus including the present moment
of each event. The total organism gains from its constituents,
even though the cells function with an appropriate degree
of autonomy within the larger organism."
I once asked Dorothy Hartshorne, her husband's superb
editor over the years, to summarize his philosophy. "Love,"
she said, "is the guiding principle of all life....all
living organisms have at least an infinitesimal amount
of freedom and. . . .responsibility. . . . We can consider
a human life as being like a story, with a beginning,
a middle, and an end. When we close the book, the story
does not disappear. It continues, and likewise our contribution
to others becomes a part of God's life that goes on and
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy - plato.stanford.edu/entries/hartshorne/
Click Here to view books about Charles Hartshorne on Amazon
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