Thursday, 6 December 2012

The Fire Triangle (or Triangle of Humanity)

The following is adapted from comments made on Josh the Searcher’s blog, in response to articles touching on the abortion issue.


Abortion is a difficult topic.  It is much polarised, in part because it evokes strong emotional responses, in part because many of those arguing against the pro-choice stance do so because of theological notions and in part because there is still some confusion and uncertainty as to the precise meaning of “human”.

I should clarify up-front that while I am intellectually pro-choice, I would not be happy with having a (potential) child of my own aborted.  You could say that I am pro-choice in principle but pro-life in practice.

On a practical level, there is something that I find particularly unconvincing in the abortion debate, that being the idea that there is any benefit to be gained by involving yourself, and your personal ideology, in another person’s decision regarding such any issue as emotive as abortion.  I doubt that many people faced with the heart-wrenching decision to terminate a pregnancy take that decision lightly.  Those who do take such a decision lightly are highly unlikely to care one iota what you, or anybody else thinks about it.  They are also unlikely to be suitable parents to an unwanted child.

For me the important discussion when it comes to abortion revolves around three aspects:

·         is it ever ok to kill a living thing, be it “human”, “potential human” or any other living thing?

·         when does transition between “potential human” and “human” take place?

·         how should we go about developing social policy on an issue like this?

Is it ever ok to kill a living thing?

This is a tricky ethical question.  The obvious answer is “yes”, because if we never kill a living thing then we will die, in effect killing ourselves.  Our bodies are constantly killing bacteria, with antibacterial agents in saliva and white blood cells (these also destroy fungi, parasites, viruses, tumours and tiny submarines in science fiction movies).

As we move up in physical scale, begin to consider species that are more like humans and apply “cuteness” as a factor, the answer becomes less obvious.  It’s apparently less ok to kill a cute kitten than it is to kill a rat: the idea that a kitten drowned in the recent flood in New York is more affecting than the idea that a young rat died.  There’s a good reason that the World Wildlife Fund has a panda as its emblem instead of, say, a cockroach.  We’re happy to eat dolphin if it’s a type of fish, but less so if it’s a mammal (I’ve eaten dolphin, it’s quite nice) – unless we are Japanese or Faroese and not worried about consuming high levels of mercury.

Since humans are up towards the carnivorous end of the omnivore category (particularly if the endurance running hypothesis is true), killing larger animals is part of our natural heritage.  So, I’d argue that it is ok.

If we restrict our considerations to humans, it’s still a bit tricky.  There are still many exceptions to the “do not kill” rule.  Killing in the line of duty is ok, as a soldier or law enforcement agent.  Killing in self-defence is ok.  Killing as justice is sometimes ok. Note that not all countries have the death penalty – those that do are places like China, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the United States, Yemen, North Korea, Somalia, (North) Sudan, Bangladesh, Vietnam and South Sudan.  (The death penalty nations are listed in decreasing order of executions for 2011, so long as they executed 5 or more.  If you include those who executed fewer or have the death penalty on the books but didn’t get around to executing anyone in 2011 you add such notables as Afghanistan, the Palestine Authority, Belarus, Botswana, Mongolia, Cuba and Syria).

Fortunately none of these are among the most modern and developed nations so we can hope that this list becomes shorter as more and more nations are encouraged to modernise.

Anyway, without a very good reason, killing a human is generally not considered to be ok.  Hopefully this is not a particularly contentious claim for most readers.  We turn now to the question of what it is to be human.

When does the transition between “potential human” and “human” take place?

One way of thinking about the question of what makes you human is in terms similar to that of the fire triangle.  A fire requires fuel, oxygen and heat and all three are required to support continued combustion.

The “triangle of humanity” would be:

·         human DNA

·         independent actualised potential

·         experience

Without all three of these elements, you aren't fully human. A zygote in a petri dish may have the DNA required to become a human, but it has no actualised potential because the petri dish will not support further development. And a zygote, not having a brain, won't accumulate experiences.

A side argument is that just as an acorn is not an oak tree, a zygote is not a human.  I’m not sure that this is a valid argument per se, given that it seems to be based on semantics (and a misunderstanding, an acorn is equivalent to an embryo rather than to a zygote).  Given the opportunity, an acorn will become shoot which will, in turn, become an oak tree just as a frog’s egg will become a tadpole which will, in turn, become a frog and a (human) zygote will become a human.  It is true enough that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to visually distinguish the human zygote from a chimpanzee zygote and that this difficulty remains until a relatively short time before birth.  It is true that a human embryo looks like a fish for a while and a canine embryo looks like a proto-human for a while.

Nevertheless, a human zygote fulfils one of the requirements for being human in a way that a chimpanzee does not.  (As another aside, taking us almost into another room, the chimpanzee almost fulfils the requirements of being a human by means of DNA, falling short by less than 5%.  Not being a geneticist, I am not completely sure why there seem to be two figures floating around “we share 99% of our genes” and “the difference between the human and chimpanzee genome is about 4%”.  I do note that there is a difference between our genes and our genome and that there are also alleles which are variants of genes.  It could be that the chimpanzee has all the basic parts that we have, so the genes are largely the same, but the chimpanzee plays with a different set of alleles which means the genome exhibits a greater variance from human than the selection of genes does.  I’m not sure how one should interpret another apparent fact, that the variation between genes of a human and the genes of a chimpanzee is ten times that of the variation between genes of individual humans.)

Common to a zygote, a morula (strictly speaking a zygote is a single cell), a blastocyst, and an embryo (for a human, the embryo becomes a foetus at 10 weeks) is the lack of a functional brain. 

If one uses the “triangle of humanity” concept, until the brain develops beyond a certain stage a foetus could be said to not be fully human, because it's unable to accumulate any experience of any kind. Also, while the foetus is entirely dependent on the mother for survival (up until about 20 weeks) it has no independent actualised potential.

Therefore, I would say that you could argue that terminating an embryo or a foetus could be justified up until somewhere between 7 and 14 weeks, 16 weeks at most. It's a bit fuzzy because of how the brain develops.  Development of the brain really kicks off in the embryo at about 7 weeks. The foetus starts breathing practice at about 14 weeks and at about 16 weeks it starts manipulating its environment (like pulling on the umbilical cord).

Sometime in that period of time, a normal foetus reaches a level of development which is consistent with being human under the “triangle of humanity” concept.

Note that miscarriage can happen up until about 20 weeks, but that's basically a legal definition.  A "miscarriage" after that time is called a stillbirth. The youngest surviving premature birth was at 21 weeks.  Advances in medical science may allow us to save some prematurely delivered infants at closer to 20 weeks, but not much earlier than that because a foetus is simply not sufficiently well developed by that time.

In the absence of extreme circumstances, I do not support the idea of the form of late-term abortion which is, really, an induced premature delivery followed by killing of the infant.  (Normalising early abortion, and those who seek one, will go some way to reducing the number of late term abortions.)

None of these arguments about when an embryo or a foetus becomes human such that abortion is no longer justified (except in extremis) has any bearing if your argument against abortion is theological in nature.  If your god says “Thou shalt not abort, at all, ever” then you should not abort.  However, if your god is a bit vague about it saying “Thou shalt not kill, but there are plenty of exceptions and I cause spontaneous abortions at a much higher rate than humans cause abortions and I am a paragon of goodness, so read between the lines”, then you have a bit of wriggle room.  In either case, this is your god speaking to you.  In order for your god’s view on abortion to have any influence over another person you have to first prove that your god exists, which unfortunately you are unlikely to be able to do, and then prove that your god’s injunctions apply to people who are not his followers.  I’ve no real problem with anyone refusing to carry out an abortion on the grounds of their personal convictions.  But these are personal convictions and I cannot see why one’s personal convictions should be applied to another person who has their own personal convictions.

Adopting a “triangle of humanity” concept could also have application in later life.

Many people, me included, consider that continued animation of their body beyond the effective death of their brain does not constitute a continuation of their self in any meaningful way.  By “effective” death of the brain I mean either literal brain death (as in total and irreversible lack of higher level neural activity) or the dissolution of self that neurological degeneration brings.  I certainly don’t have any wish whatsoever for my body to be kept alive beyond the time when the sense of being me is manifesting in it.  If I’ve lost my experiences and the ability to develop new experiences, or my actualised potential is gone (for example if disconnecting me from a machine will lead to my death), then please let me go.

How should we go about developing social policy on issues like abortion and euthanasia?

I need to make perfectly clear that by euthanasia, I really mean assisted suicide of a person who is suffering physically or disintegrating intellectually.  I’m only talking about voluntary euthanasia.  I’m not recommending that we start killing old people because they are inconvenient but rather suggesting that if someone has written a living will which includes an instruction to let them die with dignity, then their wishes should be respected.  Involuntary euthanasia of a human is murder.  I recognise that there is a grey area for people who have disintegrated intellectually and are thus unable to request euthanasia but are also unable to express an unwillingness to die.

My opinion expressed above, that I’d prefer not to have my body kept alive once the experience of being in it is no longer generated (or if I am totally dependent on machinery to continue breathing), relates only to me.  I’m not advocating that the bodies of other people, once their intellect is extinguished or their ability to survive unassisted is gone, should necessarily be treated the way I’d prefer mine to be treated.

When I pondered the issues of abortion and euthanasia, it struck me that these are not just ethical or moral issues, but also very emotive issues.  I have had the emotional aspect of certain decisions and considerations highlighted to me, while being criticised for appearing too Darwinian (for example in relation to an early draft of Morality Behind the Wheel, which I subsequently edited).

I don’t think that I was totally ignoring emotional dimensions – what I think I was doing was not letting them dominate the entire consideration.

It is true that emotion is involved when humans make decisions and we should certainly not ignore their influence.

However, the importance of emotion in decision making applies to decisions made by individual humans.  The fact that we, as individuals, are swayed by emotion does not mean that we, as a society, should be swayed by emotion – and certainly not by the emotions of a noisy minority.

If you yourself are unwillingly pregnant, then as an individual you should certainly engage your emotions when deciding whether to terminate the pregnancy.  You need to be aware of both the fact that your emotions will affect the decision you make and the fact that the decision you make (or don’t make) will affect your emotional state in the future.

However, if you are responsible for drafting legislation as to whether an option to safely terminate pregnancies should be available, you should not be engaging your personal emotions or indulging your personal convictions.  If a totally rational, non-emotive discussion of the issue of abortion arrives at a conclusion that it is so harmful that it should be banned, then ban it.  But if your argument is based on little more than the fact that, if you were pregnant, you yourself would not want to go through with an abortion or your personal theology tells you that you are not to abort your child, then you do not have grounds to ban the availability of safe abortions to others.

The same applies to questions of euthanasia and, perhaps less controversially, the recognition of same-sex civil union (and marriage – but only if a church is happy with conducting a same-sex marriage.  Don’t go forcing a reluctant church which has a theological objection to the whole homosexual thing to carry out gay weddings simply because you personally think they are a good idea).

You might be opposed to the idea of euthanasia and gay weddings, but no-one is suggesting that you should be euthanized against your will.  Not even the most fervent supporter of same-sex union plans to force you to become gay and get married, or even to attend a gay wedding. 

I personally think that Turkish vomit is disgusting (some people humorously and incorrectly refer to it as “Turkish delight”) but I accept that, bizarre as it sounds, some people actually like eating it.  Certainly, until someone can produce a rational, evidence-based argument showing that eating Turkish vomit represents a significant risk to society, I have no grounds for seeking a comprehensive ban of what I consider to be an affront to all that is pure, wholesome and good.

Of course some people disagree, and not only about Turkish vomit.  They might argue that of course you should agitate for your personal views to be reflected in society because that’s how democracy works.

This is a particularly na├»ve view of democracy.  It’s also a dangerous view.

Imagine that your society decided that if a sufficient proportion of the population don’t want something then it will be banned.  They count up those in favour of safe abortions being available, those against the idea of abortion and those who don’t really care one way or the other.  Those against abortion prevail and abortion is banned.  Sounds good, right?

Say then that, after a heavy advertising campaign, Jehovah’s Witnesses obtain a majority and the issue of blood transfusions arises.  Do you really want their personal theological convictions to hold sway over you when about one in three people need a blood transfusion at some point in their life?  How about an unholy alliance between fundamentalist Pauline Christians and Muslims who demand that women not be allowed to be educated, to work or to go about in public without a veil?  Or a majority of atheists who don’t like going to church themselves and therefore instigate a ban on churches altogether? Or drivers combine in their dislike of electric cars to drive them (quietly) off the roads?

What else could we ban?  How about Persian cats, little yappy dogs, salads, expatriates, anyone under five who can ski, the pierced belly-button/muffin-top combo, misuse of the word “like”, comb-overs, Boston MA, Tampa FL, hot-dog “sausages” and old people driving while wearing a hat.  (By the way, I actually like salad.)

I doubt that any of us are particularly keen on having our freedoms curtailed by a majority of others.  If you think that way, then you should logically extend the same courtesy to others and not try to impose your preferences on them, even if those preferences are in the majority.

Personally, I think you should agree with me, but I’m not going to force you to.


  1. Great article! I enjoyed reading this. My thoughts on this subject have changed quite a bit over the past few years.

    I like your "triangle" definition for human life. Human DNA, independent actualized potential, and experience. Defining human life seems to be the key issue.

    It seems to me that human genetics plus a central nervous system are the primary biological requirements. It is fuzzy how developed the central nervous system needs to be--at the earliest stages experience probably doesn't take place--that would emerge somewhere along the long path of development.

    Could you explain what you mean by "independent actualized potential" further?


  2. Hi Josh,

    When I say "independent actualised potential", I mean to distinguish between the unactualised potential inherent in a human sperm and a human ovum that have not yet fused (because they could be considered to be, collectively, a potential human) and a child that, if removed from its mother's womb, could survive independently. In between there are a number of states, including the actualised potential of a zygote that has plenty of developing to do before it can survive independently (and before it develops a brain).

    An exception to the later discussion about euthanasia is, of course, one in which a female has a living will which asks for life support to be turned off or a more active termination under certain circumstances but overlooks a possible pregnancy. A foetus could develop in the body of a mother who is brain-dead or otherwise has an extinguished intellect, in this case a young foetus could be considered to have dependent actualised potential. This is an issue with its own ethical implications, for example the foetus could be disturbed as a consequence due to a lack of in-uterine interaction with its mother, the event leading to the brain-death of the mother may well have damaged the foetus and some argue for the mother's "right to die". Some argue along lines that would match mine, making a distinction between this "dependent actualised potential" and "independent actualised potential", suggesting that the mother should not be kept alive for the sake of a foetus under 24 weeks (about the time when a premature delivery is likely to result in survival of the infant). However, I think this should be a decision made in conjunction with the father (presuming there is one who is actively involved and not intentionally responsible for the brain death of the mother) and maybe even grandparents or siblings.

    Fortunately it's a rare occurrence, so there's little point in developing exhaustive legislation - meaning that each case can be considered on its own merits.

    Hopefully this clarifies what I meant.


Feel free to comment, but play nicely!

Sadly, the unremitting attention of a spambot means you may have to verify your humanity.