Kevin Corcoran on Francis Beckwith

I read Kevin Corcoran’s critical appraisal of Francis Beckwith’s Defending Life, (not available online) and found some of his arguments to be rather odd. However, I am not sure if I have a good counter to them, so I thought I might test them out here. Any feedback is welcome.

First, Beckwith makes the following argument:

  1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full fledged member of the human community.
  2. It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.
  3. Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full fledged member of the human community.
  4. Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong.

Corcoran draws attention to the vague referent of the locution “unborn entity.” If the human person is identical with the zygote (the fertilized egg) then this entity is “short-lived.” Eventually, this single-celled “unborn entity” divides and reproduces into a two-celled entity, then a four-celled entity, then eight, and so on. The problem: “one thing cannot be identical with many things.” He writes (call this Corcoran’s condition),

Think about it this way: if we begin with a single thing and end up with two things, then either the original is identical with one of the two things we end up with or it is identical neither of them.

Thus, a human person cannot be identical with a zygote, which is what Beckwith’s “unborn entity” amounts to in premise 1.

Corcoran’s condition seems ambiguous. What are the “things” he is talking about? Are they referring to things that have a relation to wholes and parts or no relation to wholes and parts? If they have no relation, then he has a point. But what if they do? Then I don’t think his point matters. Here’s why: if we begin with a whole, that is a human person, that has at time t1 a single part, which is one cell, and at t2 we end up with two parts (two cells), it is not the case that the whole is identical with one of the parts or neither of them. We could say that either the whole is identical with both of its parts, or it may be the case that whole exists ‘above and beyond’ its parts, though I admit this latter option is much harder to cash out. In any event, it seems possible that a human being could begin to exist at t1 and persist until t2 having only one part as a constituent. Then, at t2, the one part divides into two making a two-part whole, and so on.

Problem: There are no such things as one-part wholes. Really? Is that necessarily the case? Well, maybe it is. Granting this, I don’t think it matters either. Being a single-celled organism, the zygote is a whole made up of many parts. Call these what you like. The biochemical parts, the male parts, and the female parts. However we cash out the set of parts that makes up the zygote, we can at least say that it is constituted by more than one part. Thus, it is not implausible to imagine there being a single “unborn entity” beginning to exist at fertilization that persists (if all goes well) through its various stages as something that is born 9 months later.

Am I missing something, here?


2 thoughts on “Kevin Corcoran on Francis Beckwith

  1. Kevin is indeed correct that the term “unborn entity” is vague. But remember, my outlining of this argument is at the beginning of the book so that reader can have a clear understanding of the trajectory of my reasoning. However, in chapters 4 and 6 I defend in great detail what I mean by “unborn entity” and why the zygote, blastosmere, etc. is an individual member of the human species–a human substance, if you will.

    Think of the intro’s argument is an attorney’s opening statement in a criminal trial, and chapters 4 and 6 as the evidence and testimony that the attorney presents during the trial in order to establish the narrative offered during his opening statement.

    I’m working on response to Kevin, who respect very much as a philosopher.

  2. It seems that Corcoran assumes that the two-celled embryo is two totally distinct cells — two distinct entities — rather than a whole, integrated organism that at that stage consists of two cells (which are parts of the whole). But the evidence of embryology shows that that is wrong. So his argument fails.

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