The Illuminating Effect of the “Intelligence Ladder” on Everything from Understanding Continuity of Identity and Self Awareness to Determining Personhood and Abortion Rights Based on the Recognition of Crucial Embryo Versus Post-Born Human Differences
The impetus for the following essay, and the theories from which it sprang, is based on late night, semiconscious reflections of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, and to some extent, Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs.” But Maslow’s theories seem to be rooted in psychological progression, and my “Ten Rungs” theory is concerned with how progressive human moral development mirrors the limited development in the animal kingdom. Humans, from the moment of conception, climb the “rungs of the intelligence development ladder” as they develop and learn. Animals, on the other hand, are often fated to be stuck on a certain “rung” for life, or to only climb so high, due to psychological or anatomical limitations. Mary Ann Warren’s “Levels of Personhood” also factored into my motivation to write this. However, I never really understood how someone could possess only a “part” of personhood. For the longest time, I thought if a being qualified as a person, then that being had a right to live and the intentional killing of that being was therefore murder. Now I realize that personhood may be less of a permanent attribute than I once believed, and it might be more akin to a privilege that one must earn, and then continue to maintain, for the rest of one’s life. But still it’s problematic for me to conceive of it the way Warren wants me to. Instead, I think the analysis of various living entities’ psychological and physical capabilities could prove useful in another way, but perhaps in a way not unsympathetic to Warren’s ultimate point.
To wit, as was a part of Warren’s need to address personhood, in the United States, a little over half of the voting population believes that a microscopic dividing cluster of cells formed from two individual reproductive cells has just as much of a right to live as the mother harboring it. And, for the most part, the supposed intuitive nature of this contention is largely accepted by over half of the U.S. population. And if you, as a rational, free-thinking individual, fail to see the alleged obviousness of this notion, you could easily find yourself at the receiving end of a haughty scoff as you’re told that “Every human on Earth started out as an embryo, so it just makes sense that we’d all share the same rights.”
But the truth is, while we all started out as embryos, equating a human embryo’s rights with that of even an infant’s, let alone a human adult, overlooks the fact that it is crucial to maintaining all of our “innate human rights” to perceive embryos as fundamentally different from developed human persons (beings who posses a right to live), despite all of our shared humble beginnings. And, not to put too fine a point on it, but claiming “the world’s most important right” (although, autonomy probably should trump life in importance, since the right to life is derived from the right to autonomy) belongs as much to embryos as it does to full grown adults is actually pretty insulting! (More on why this is an insult later.) But truth be told, it is difficult to find a pro-life advocate who truly, upon logical reflection and when pressed with counter-examples, can seriously maintain that he sees absolutely no difference between an embryo’s right to live and a newborn infant’s or an adult’s right to live. To determine this, simply conduct the following “thought experiment.” If you ever need to test this theory, ask the pro-life advocate in question what he (or she) would choose if hypothetically forced to select between the options of dropping a petri dish containing a human embryo in his right hand or dropping a newborn infant held in his left. If, say, an insane, gun-wielding psychopath literally forced your pro-life supporter to drop one or the other, and dropping meant death, which would he choose? Much, much more often than not, the choice will be made in favor of dropping the embryo and retaining the infant. (And even if, amongst the choices to either drop the embryo or the infant, you provide the pro-lifer with the option of the gunman shooting him as opposed to dropping either, he’ll most likely choose to preserve his own life rather than save a microscopic embryo.) And I think this is because most pro-lifers intuitively understand the obvious truth- that although they may want embryos to possess the same life rights and personhood status as infants, embryos and infants are obviously very different.
In the past, I’ve heard various comedians, Bill Maher among them, even make jokes about the insanity of comparing embryos to infants. For example, one can, under the right conditions, freeze an embryo and then thaw it out, and it will still live and develop into a fetus (Think, IVF). However, one cannot freeze a baby and then bring it back to life. (As in, “We’re going out to dinner later. Should we hire a sitter or just stick the baby in the freezer again?”) It’s also possible to separate the inner cells of a blastocyst from the outer cells in order to harvest stem cells. Do this to a baby, and you will end up skinning the infant alive, and harvest no stem cells in the process. Embryos can survive in fluid. Babies drown. Embryos can be prompted to grow through electro-stimulation. Electrocuting a baby will most likely kill it. (Hopefully, I needn’t be obligated at this point to add a disclaimer warning readers, “Don’t try this at home in the interest of proving me wrong.”) I think it’s fitting to contemplate these crucial distinctions every time a pro-life website or advocacy group makes use of the emotionally-laden term “unborn child” instead of the accurate and scientifically descriptive terms, “embryo, blastocyst, or zygote.” Children and embryos, and adults and embryos, are very different. Don’t make the inadvertent mistake of insulting a child or yourself by equating them.
However, contemplating, considering, and illustrating the differences between human embryos and “post-born” humans has actually caused me to stumble upon more philosophically-oriented questions and concepts than pondering personhood theory alone. In reflecting upon “life rights” and what qualities are integral for a being to possess the right (or privilege) to live, I inevitably contemplated the qualities of all living things and then began categorizing them in a hierarchal “ladder” according to intelligence, skill, and moral reasoning ability. I numbered the categories “one through ten” and stipulated that each category, or level, or rung (whatever), also contains all of the qualities from the previous lower numbered rungs. So for example, the entities that meet the parameters of “rung four” also possess all of the qualities illustrated on rung three, two, and one. Also, the provided examples are simply that- examples. It is possible that many more entities qualify under each particular level heading.
Level One: Life & Growth
All entities in this category possess the qualities of life (in that they are alive as opposed to dead) and growth (in that they grow).
Examples Include: (Any entity that possesses these two traits as a part of a larger collection of traits, or these two traits alone) Plants, like flowers and trees, and human embryos, or any dividing/developing embryo, for that matter.
Level Two: Mobility
All entities in this category are able to self-propel, either intentionally or involuntarily, or move, either consciously or unconsciously, or as a reactive responsive to stimuli, regardless of whether the entity is aware of the stimuli. And, of course, all entities in this category can also live & grow, since each Category includes Qualities listed in the lower numbered Categories.
Examples Include: plankton, krill, sea monkeys, shrimp, underdeveloped human and/or vertebrate fetuses early in gestation, and earthworms, etc….
Level Three: Simple Sentience & Instinct
All entities in this category are capable of perceiving, processing, and interpreting pain as a result of rudimentary consciousness, and some are also able to act in accord with involuntary instinct, such as fight or flight responses. (And these entities can also move, live, and grow, of course.)
Examples Include: jellyfish, frogs, various insects, arachnids, and crabs and lobsters… (And maybe worms and caterpillars… except it’s difficult to tell if they possess involuntary instinct like fleeing from predators, because they are so slow. If you try to chase a worm, you probably think, “Is it running away? I’m not sure….” (Haha.))
Level Four: Maintaining a Social Hierarchy
Entities in this category are cooperative, but without the ability to truly comprehend the possible benefits of cooperation and without being motivated by reciprocal altruism, due to the lack of a more sophisticated brain. Animals of a higher numbered category will possess the ability to voluntarily organize into a hierarchy, but surpass this level, due to the ability to “overcome” or “out-think” their instinctual programming. In other words, higher-number-rung animals may have free will.
Examples Include: bees, colony ants, many rodent species perhaps….
Level Five: Simple Obedience and Trainability
Entities in this category may exemplify a characteristic that resembles obedience due to the desire to illicit positive reinforcement tactics from “trainers.” They possess complex sentience- the ability to feel both pleasure and pain. They may have a very simple understanding of social hierarchy and where they fall in the social order.
Examples Include: rabbits, ferrets, birds of a ‘lower’ intelligence level, rats
Level Six: Complicated, but not Complex, Language
Entities of this category possess an ability to communicate that is essential to maintaining a complicated social order. They are often highly trainable, possess an understanding of where and how they fit into their group’s social order, and can solve problems in order to attain benefits.
Examples Include: Intelligent birds like some parrots and ravens, wolves, many breeds of domesticated dogs, cats, otters, octopi, etc.
Level Seven: Social Cooperation
For these animals, the social “pecking order” is often very well established, understood, and relies heavily upon reciprocal altruism, and even empathy, for stability. Entities in this category can be highly intelligent and highly trainable, and can even be taught alternative means of communication.
Examples include: lower primates, very intelligent and empathetic dogs- like Newfoundlands and poodles and others, and specific kinds of parrots, human toddlers
Level Eight: Self Awareness, Creativity, and Altruism
Entities of this category include those that are able to solve complex problems and utilize inventions, as well as create original works from their imaginations. They have excellent memories and utilize complex language. Reciprocal altruism, empathy (and even mourning and “respect” for the dead) are proof of intelligence and key to maintaining the social order. Altruistic acts (like rescuing) may also occur. Having a good memory is essential for members of this level, since memories “imprint” and influence future actions and embody what is perceived and interpreted as one’s unique personality.
Examples Include: Chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, young human children, and even some adult humans
Level Nine: Moral Reasoning
Entities of this category include those who are able to look at a problem and solve it on the basis that the outcome is morally right as opposed to directly and personally beneficial. Intentional, and possibly detrimental, self-sacrifice may be exemplified by members of this category in order to commit to an ethical action as opposed to, and as an alternative to, a self-sustaining action. Members of this group have the ability to act contrary to their own self-interest in order to preserve what’s seen as a “larger,” more important ideology. It can certainly be argued that elephants (as was the case in the highly publicized (“YouTube”) example of a mother elephant attempting to rescue a baby rhino that was stuck in the mud), dogs, and dolphins are capable of altruism. But “Level Nine” members possess an ability that is a bit more complicated than altruism or what we may interpret as “charity.” They possess moral reasoning. They have the ability to act “on principle” and also understand the essential and innate morality of the principle and why it exists. They do not rely on dogmatic reasoning however, because acting out or believing something derived from an authoritarian source is simply and example of blind obedience, which is exemplified by and designated to members of rungs six and seven.
Examples Include: “non-sociopathic,” moral, adult, educated, or “enlightened” humans
Level Ten: Logical Reasoning and Proof Recognition
Entities in this category include only certain human individuals (no non-human animals have demonstrated an ability to do this yet) who, through experience, education, inherited traits, or enlightened epiphany, have learned to recognize the difference between actual proof (proof that is arrived at via the scientific method, empirical data-collection, or rational reflection) and “perceived/convenient” proof. These individuals are able, often with ease, to resist believing there is truth in correlative “data,” theories, and conclusions that confirm their beliefs, if the data or conclusions fail to meet a certain standard of validity, credibility, rational scrutiny, and logical justifiability. Individuals who are incapable of logical scrutiny and skepticism tend to accept any sort of justification or support that validates or confirms what they want to be true. (The ability to scrutinize is a lot rarer than humans wish to believe- which is why it deserves it’s own category!) It may be expertly argued, and even true, that members of this category are not necessarily pre-designated to embody the characteristics of Level Nine, but true expert logicians see the inherent moral worth of ethical objectivism, as opposed to the arbitrary nature of moral relativism, the “every-man-for-himself” nature of subjectivism, and the defeatist mentality required for moral nihilism. Because of this, they are more likely to bear the qualities of “Level Nine,” at least more often than not, if only in regards to those they love- which is often the case in which “Level Nine” traits are exemplified anyway. Humans who reside on rung ten can distinguish between actual proof that, say, “God exists,” instead of instantly believing that God must exist because the grill marks on one’s steak resemble the facial features of Jesus Christ. So pretty much all of the people who post “Proof that God Exists” videos on YouTube, in which clouds look like crosses and water stains on a concrete building resemble the Virgin Mary, are presently stuck sitting on rung nine, while the rest of us “keep climbing upward,” or in other words, keep developing.
Examples Include: only certain, logical and critical humans
As you can see, certain animals, like bees for example, are fated to remain at Level Four throughout their entire lives and development, but humans (and likely only humans) are capable of climbing the rungs of the “intelligence ladder” as they grow older, more experienced, and more educated. However, some humans may go their whole lives without climbing to Rung Ten… or even Nine!
All of this aside, one of the main points of this hierarchical explanation and intellectual endeavor is to demonstrate the inane (and derogatory) nature of claiming that embryos have as much of a right to live as adult humans, infants, or children. Embryos are “Level One entities,” distanced eight to nine rungs away from adult humans. So claiming that an embryo has a right to live is virtually identical to claiming humans and jellyfish, or humans and dandelions, possess an equal right to live! One might as well claim that one would have a difficult time if forced to choose between executing you, the reader, or plucking a flower from the ground… or consuming calamari!
Now, it’s highly likely that a pro-life advocate may point out that since human beings are somewhat unique in their ability to climb all ten rungs of the ladder within their lifetime, they should be given the opportunity to do so instead of being “cut down” while residing at Level One. But this argument is simply a repackaging of the potentiality argument, that “If ‘x’ will one day possess all of the qualities of ‘y,’ that make ‘y’ qualify as ‘z,’ then ‘x’ is equal to ‘z’ and should therefore be treated like ‘y.’” (x -> y & y = z; x = z) In other words, if an embryo will one day become an adult human, and adult humans are persons, then an embryo is a person and should be treated like a person. While this equation seems tempting and valid, imagine the implications of thinking in this way! As Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote almost 40 years ago, “An acorn is not an oak tree,” and we’d therefore look pretty stupid attempting to fasten a tire swing to an acorn or trying to climb one. Also, even though all living humans will eventually become corpses, that does not mean we should treat all humans like corpses (throwing dirt on them, embalming them, burying them six feet under the ground, putting bouquets of flowers on their chests and talking to them as if they’re unable to respond, etc.). Nor are all living humans corpses now. So even though some embryos are capable of climbing the rungs of the development ladder, given the right, ideal conditions, we ought not treat them as if they’ve already done so. Doing this undermines the accomplishments of those who have managed to reach higher rungs and, given that entities on different rungs of the ladder possess different rights, and therefore different treatment requirements, it would be illogical to stipulate specific treatment for all entities on a particular rung, unless those entires happen to be human embryos.
For example, since entities at Level Three are capable of feeling pain, it may be morally obligatory not to purposely hurt them. After all, many ethicists stipulate that what makes causing pain wrong is simply that pain hurts and is therefore universally unwanted.
For more on the moral implications and designation of rights of the Ten Levels, read the article “What Separates Us,” by ella moore on morellaty.com. This essay contends that, based on the designated rights for each level or “rung,” humans who do not reach Level Nine are doomed to have the same rights and treatment of non-human animals. So just as we’d readily euthanize a rabid dog or “killer” bear, so too should we “put down” humans with so little empathy and compassion that they ritualistically rape, torture, and/or murder rights-having individuals.
Level Eight and above members must possess a good memory. Memories directly impact our personality and, in fact, make us who we are. If someone hit you with a duplicating ray, copying your physical body and brain, containing all your memories, from the moment your duplicated, “cloned” self endured his or her first experience, most likely being the recognition of occupying a different spatial location and of a man holding a ray gun, you and your clone are two different people. And your clone would “feel different” separated from you, and possess his or her own will to live. But if the duplicating gun cloned you, and your cloned self came into being while unconscious, that changes everything. He or she could then be killed without any attained self awareness interfering with a desire not to die. He or she wouldn’t ever “know what hit him,” or or even that he or she existed at all. Your cloned self, without any “separate” experiences, would never become differentiated from you, even though he or she exists independently and in a separate location. Therefore, without conscious awareness, your clone never truly “existed” at all, at least not in any way that would matter to him or her. He or she, upon destruction, would be unaware of his or her existence, so what, exactly, got destroyed? This is exactly why picking a flower is indisputably morally permissible. You are not destroying a conscious, aware entity when you kill a flower. It is the ability to consciously interpret or process experience that makes us who we are- that gives us personhood- not our unique, corporal, physical selves.
This as the case, it’s difficult to argue that genetic uniqueness makes us who we are. It’s the unique way we process experience and incorporate the memory of experience into our personalities that makes us who we are. So where does this fit into abortion ethics and the larger scheme of things on the development ladder? Quite simply, no brain function to interpret experience equals “no person.” No person equals “no personhood.” This may mean or imply that the ability to incorporate experiences into our “memory database” gives personhood to anything that has the means to do so. It’s a necessary condition for personhood.
The pro-life camp’s desire to perceive embryos and young fetuses as ‘on par’ with full grown, post-born humans illustrates an emotional, as opposed to logical, component of the debate on reproductive rights, a component upon which the pro-life “side” is too heavily reliant. The slippery slope, intuitive ‘linking‘ of embryos and fetuses to babies, babies to children, and children to adults is a thought process on which the pro-choice “side” is forgivingly lenient. It’s as if pro-choice pundits think, “Oh, they think cell clusters are babies! That’s so cute!” And then we give them a pass for being “simple” and imagine patting them on the head before we give them a lollipop for at least trying to logically reason.
However, the abortion debate itself would be simpler if we could just ‘edit out,’ that forgiving part of ourselves that sees faithful, fanatic, illogical, rights-squashing extremists as being somewhat equivalent to kids who still believe in Santa. But we really shouldn’t do that, because it is insulting to those who are capable of logical and rationally justifiable thought, but are unable to do so because no one ever taught them how. Instead, they were strong-armed into their beliefs under a heavy-handed threat of hell. Yes, the fanatics go to church, and that’s precious. Yes, they tend to have children, which makes them parents, and we feel the need to respect parents. Yes, they seem to be incapable of listening to and processing rational, reasonable arguments akin to 2 + 2 = 4, and that makes us want to shake our heads, give them a cookie, and move on to higher, more enlightened ground. And yes, they see us (the reasonable masses on Rung Ten) as killers, so in keeping with the dichotomy, they must be flower-giving hippies… and who doesn’t love hippies? (Seriously, I know they smell funny thanks to their love affair with petuli, but who can claim that environmental, recycling, chilling, peace-loving, non-carbon-footprint-having, two-brain-cells-left-thanks-to-all-the-weed, clown-like hippies are evil?)
The problem is that we need to come down from the high ground, and continue to hammer home the logical arguments, because, point of fact, pro-choicers are not killers. We aren’t blowing up abortion clinics. We aren’t shooting and murdering doctors. We aren’t making it impossibly torturous for responsible young women to bravely pass through clinic doors so that they can become more than just a reproduction machine in a world over-burdened by a rapidly growing population and limited resources in which one billion people are starving to death. We are not lying to desperate women at CPCs, making them feel guilty, dirty, and tainted. And we are not using the law as a weapon of mass corruption. Logic must be our weapon. And we must use it as often as we can, if anything, just to reinforce to ourselves the truth of who we are often dealing with- the irrational.
The truth of the Development Ladder is that it is only one tool of many at our disposal. It illustrates one, albeit in a very strong way, of the crucial differences between embryos an humans. We are not the same as our humble embryonic beginnings. We do not have the same rights. To see it that way is to belittle the accomplishments and progress made by all humans as they develop, grow, mature, and come to self-actualization. Yes, we all “started out” as embryos. We also all “started out” sitting in our own feces. But I think and hope we’ve recognized that we’ve moved beyond that point in development, from diapers to underwear, which is why we somehow see no need to equate ourselves with, and give rights to, dung beetles, even though we too were once fond of residing in poop when we were infants.
If our right to live comes down to merely our genetic makeup, think of the implications! We couldn’t execute capital offenders because they are human. We wouldn’t be allowed to utilize deadly force to defend ourselves if our attackers happened to be human. And if zombies take over the world tomorrow, they would have just as much of a right to live as the ‘non-infected.’ Since rights cannot be taken away no matter what we do (the contrast to this would be privileges, which must be earned and maintained in order to keep them), and if our right to live comes down to our special binomial nomenclature, then morality itself is almost rendered obsolete. Our thoughts and actions don’t matter anymore, because our most basic and most important right (life) is safe and secure and has been since the moment we were conceived by our two human parents. I don’t know about you, but I want my moral accomplishments to count for something- to matter. I want to be seen as reasonable, not just capable of recognizing another entity as human. Any twelve-month-old can do that, as evidenced by a drooling toddler squealing over the appearance of any given canine and shouting with delight, “Doggie!” as opposed to “Uncle Rupert!”
I am also sympathetic to the reasoning that goes along with feeling a certain obligation to other humans on the planet, and I don’t want to bring a child into the world that I’m not financially able to care for, and then cause others to be burdened by that child by having to pay into the welfare system or federally funding orphanages. I don’t want a child I’m not ready for to sap the Earth’s resources, either. And, as a woman, I especially don’t want my designation as a “good person” to rely solely upon whether I choose to reproduce. Since reproduction is a consequence of sex, this fact may dangerously rest my “good person status” on my sexual activity… or lack thereof. So a ’sexually inactive’ woman, even if it’s not by choice, but due to lack of opportunity, may be seen as more moral than me, based simply on what’s comparatively going on, or not going on, between our legs. (Yuck! That thought is actually viscerally frustrating… and very anti-feminist.)
The bottom line, if there ever was one, is that equating embryos to humans, rights-wise or any other way, literally and figuratively looks backward. It rests our moral worth on what we all once were, instead of who we are now, and it marches women’s rights directly backward, too. It fails to take into consideration traits that are unique to fully actualized human beings, and it tramples over the importance of memory processing, a quality that enables us to categorize other animals as evolved as us, as “better,” or at least worthy of moral consideration and treatment, while simultaneously ignoring the importance of the development of that trait within ourselves. Fetuses don’t have it. But I, the writer, and you, the reader, do. So let’s give credit where credit is due, shall we? You and I are not the same as a cluster of cells. We are above all that. Literally and figuratively.
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