Medical Ethics

TAMUCC Medical Ethics Don Berkich
Philosophy Robertson's First Argument Notes

Argument I: The "Personhood" Argument.
  1 Only persons have a right to ordinary but necessary medical care.  
  2 No severely deformed infant is a person.  
3 No severely deformed infant has a right to ordinary but necessary medical care. 1&2

Let us be very clear: Robertson is not putting this forward as an argument he thinks is sound. Just the opposite: Robertson is putting forward this argument so as to show why it is unsound.

Robertson's strategy is to show that premise (2) has unacceptable consequences and so ought to be rejected (for most cases).

Robertson's criticism: Let R = If x is conceived and born of human parents, then x is a person.

  1 No severely deformed infant is a person.  
  2 If no severely deformed infant is a person, then R is false.  
3 R is false. 1&2

So here we have it that premise (2) of the Personhood Argumentimplies that R is false. But why should that be a problem? Because if history is any guide the idea that being born of human parents is not enough to make one a person leads to astonishing abuses. Thus,

  1 If allowing exceptions to a rule is subject to significant abuse, then exceptions may not be allowed to that rule unless they can be justified beyond reasonable doubt.  
  2 Allowing exceptions to rule R is subject to significant abuse.  
3 Exceptions may not be allowed to rule R unless they can be justified beyond reasonable doubt. 1&2
  4 If exceptions may not be allowed to rule R unless they can be justified beyond reasonable doubt, then it is not the case that no severely deformed infant is a person.  
5 It is not the case that no severely deformed infant is a person. 3&4

Since premise (2) is false, the Personhood Argument is unsound. The question, however, is whether or not there are any exceptions to rule R. Are there any exceptions which can be established beyond a reasonable doubt? Robertson thinks so, but only very few:

  1. "Those suffering from malformations... that do not affect mental capacities would not fit the class of nonpersons."
  2. "Frequently even the most severe cases of mental retardation cannot be reliably determined until a much later period."
  3. "The only group of defective newborns who would clearly qualify as nonpersons is anencephalics, who altogether lack a brain, or those so severely brain-damaged that it is immediately clear that a sense of self can never develop."