Is Tooley Playing with Words? – A Challenge for PY111 Students


Hello All

Many thanks to everyone who contributed to today’s class – I thinnk Tooley’s paper is a provocative piece and so makes for a good discussion.  Those of you who gave Tooly a rough ride in class had some interesting ideas that are well worth pursuing…you might be on to something…

Next week is a reading week (in the philosophy department only) so on the back of today’s class here’s something to get your teeth into.

Is Tooley Playing with Words? The Dubious “Capability” Defence

Summary of the problem:

(1) Tooley argues against the potentiality thesis ( i.e. against the idea that as a ‘potential’ person the fetus has a right to life)

(2) Given that the right to life for Tooley rests on personhood, and that personhood amounts to having a conception of oneself as a continuing existing subject, Tooly faces a problem: what about people who are temporarily unconscious?

(3) In order to hold on to the idea that individuals in that condition still have personhood in the way in which he describes it – and therefore a right to life – Tooley invokes his “capability defence”.

(4)The worry is that ‘capability’ sounds very much like ‘potentiality’ and if the former protects the person in the coma, why doesn’t the latter protect the fetus?

(5) Behind this worry is the suspicion that Tooley is just playing with words and that ‘capability’ and ‘potentiality’ are basically doing the same work – he’s just shuffled the same deck of cards. 

(6) If (5) is right, then there are problems for either (1) or (3)


The Challenge for PY111 Students

(a) One of the skills of doing philosophy is close textual reading. So the first thing to ask yourself is: Have I  (Steve) given a fair summary of Tooley’s position? I may have intentionally simplified his position or missed out crucial aspects of the argument not only to bolster the case (you will be surprised how often this happens in academic debates) but to see if you are really reading.

(b) If you think there is a problem for Tooley, then lay out the charge in all its devastating detail (or as I heard someone once say – “release the hounds!”. Actually I don’t recommend going in for a vicious mauling – not very charitable – but certainly make him uncomfortable)

(c) Can anyone come to Tooley’s defence or vindicate his position and thereby put an end to this unjust presentation of his position?

See Tooly ‘Abortion and Infanticide’. Its on the CMR (pp 44-49 are where the crux of the issue lies)

Enjoy reading week – Steve


One Response to “Is Tooley Playing with Words? – A Challenge for PY111 Students”

  1. Sorry, I was not in this class, nor am I anywhere near Essex. I just happened to recently see this blog and have just read this post.

    I have not read Tooley’s paper, but I am familiar with the argument he puts forward. I think it’s a fairly common one that comes up when trying to define who has rights, especially within the context of the born and unborn. I do not like Tooley’s definition because an unconscious person does not have the capability to have “a conception of oneself as a continuing existing subject,” nor do I believe young babies have this capability. The typical response is that this unconscious person may sometime in the future regain consciousness and therefore should not have his rights revoked. Of course, as it’s been pointed out, fetuses will also sometime in the future obtain the ability to have a conception of himself as a continuing existing subject. So what differentiates the fetus from the unconscious person? Perhaps it’s the fact the unconscious person had a conception of himself as a continuing existing subject prior to becoming unconscious. Again, however, I question the idea that a young infant posses these abilities. Does the young infant therefore lack basic human rights, like the right to exist? That would be a seriously strenuous argument.

    I think a more reasonable argument is to first of all say the fetus lacks individual rights because it is not yet an individual. It is wholly physiologically and physically dependent on its host, the mother. It is neither autonomous or biologically discreet. This is how we define an individual. A zygote, embryo, or fetus is not a human being. The distinction must be made because human beings can have human rights. So long as the fetus (etc.) is physiologically and physically dependent on the mother, it is not an actual human being.

    Further, even if we are to say the fetus is a human being, it does not have the right to exist inside the mother. It is there by her permission. There exists no right to live inside another. There exists no right to live by the efforts of others–i.e. the right to enslave. A mother who aborts her pregnancy is violating no one’s right, but is in fact exercising her own.

    We must give precedent to the living (the born) rather than to the unborn. A potential human being is not the same thing as a human being. An acorn is a potential oak tree, but no one argues that an acorn is an oak tree. As such, only the actual being posses rights, not the potential. For so-called “pro lifers” to deny a woman her right to abortion is to ignore the actual life involved: the mother’s.

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