Mary Anne Warren Versus John Noonan

Published 19 Apr 2017

Mary Anne Warren argued that a human being is one who is a “full-fledged member of the moral community” and not just any member of the Homo sapiens species. She continued her argument by claiming that for one to be a member of the moral community, one should first be a person. According to her, a living being should first satisfy any, several, or all of five characteristics before it could be considered a person. First, it should be conscious of incidents or objects which exist either within or outside of its being. Specifically, she insisted that said living being should be able to feel pain.

Second, it should have a reasoning power and should possess a “developed capacity” to decipher and/or explain somewhat complex or new problems. Third, its actions should not be solely dependent on the control of its genetic make-up or by external stimuli. In other words, the living being should be able to motivate itself or do something without being compelled or influenced by any external factor. Fourth, it should have the ability to communicate about different subjects, not just involving several contents about one topic. Finally, racial or individual concept of the self should be present in the living being. In other words, the living being should be aware of what it is – may it be a Caucasian, an Asian, or just a member of the species of man (Warren).

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For Warren, these traits are what make up a person. Any living being, therefore, that does not have at least any one of these five traits could not be considered a member of the community of people. She maintained that since her five characteristics determine “personhood,” it is no longer necessary to take into consideration genetic qualities before establishing whether a living being is a person or not. Simply put, one could be a person without first becoming a human being in the genetic sense (Warren).

She defended her argument by citing the fact that there are human beings who could not be considered persons or people and there are in fact people who could not qualify as human beings. For instance, she explained that a man who has permanently lost his consciousness is still a human being but is not a person anymore. In the same vein, a woman who has no mental capacity could not be considered a person, and neither is a fetus who does not yet possess any of the five traits that she had laid down. In the debate about abortion, she argued that since a fetus does not possess any of the five traits of personhood, it is therefore not a person who is entitled to any moral right in the community of people. She hinted at the possibility of having persons who are not human beings by referring to the likelihood that the day will come when robots and computers who are already “self-aware” would be invented. When the day finally arrives, she argued that such robots or computers should be considered persons for all intents and purposes (Warren).

“The criterion for humanity thus, was simple and all embracing: if you are conceived by human parents, you are human.” This was how John T. Noonan, Jr. answered the question of what makes a living being human. In his essay entitled “An Almost Absolute Value in History,” Noonan attempted to repudiate prevailing views about a living thing’s humanity and argued that even a fetus which is still inside the womb of the mother should be considered a human being. According to him, a fetus is already “experiencing” while still inside the womb because it is already responding to touch especially on its eighth week. Before the eighth week, Noonan claimed that the fetus is already reacting to its environment inside the womb. He said that since some people require that a living thing should first experience or be conscious of things other than its self before it could be considered human, a fetus in this sense, is human (Noonan).

Reacting to the argument that a fetus is not a human being because it is still dependent on the mother for existence, Noonan countered that this dependence does not make a fetus less human. He explained that even a five- or a six-year-old boy would not live long if totally abandoned by more responsible people because he could not yet fend for himself. And yet, a six-year-old boy is considered human. Dependence on others for existence, therefore, according to Noonan, should not be equated with one’s humanity (Noonan).

Some claim that a fetus is not perceived by others as a human being because it cannot yet communicate with other people and thus, still not socially visible. Therefore, it could not yet be counted among the humans and could not be considered a member of the society of people due to the simple fact that it still has not achieved due recognition from others. To this argument, Noonan said that social recognition is not a valid test for humanity. He cited as an example the slaves during the Roman Empire who were not recognized as human beings by the ruling elite and thus were stripped of their human rights. Those slaves were fully-developed beings who were capable of communicating. Another situation he mentioned was the experience of Communist China where landlords were not considered as persons by the government which was controlled by the working class and the peasantry.

Undoubtedly, landlords could communicate, and they were recognized in society before the communists took over the reins of government. Yet recognition was ultimately withdrawn simply because they were considered enemies of the people and therefore enemies of the state. Noonan therefore argued that recognition could not be used against the humanity of a fetus (Noonan).

Warren was arguing for the humanity of living beings in the moral sense while Noonan based his arguments on the genetic sense. Warren maintained that living beings should not be classified as humans simply because they possess the genetic characteristics of humans. She argued that one should first become a person before he or she could be considered for membership in the moral community of humans. Noonan, on the other hand, championed the genetic sense of being a human being. According to his arguments, the only test of humanity is for one to be conceived by a human being and thus possess the genetic make-up of one. He argued that whether the living being acquires the traits specified by Warren or not, the offspring of human parents should be regarded as human beings.

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