Hartshorne, Metaphysics and The Law of Moderation

by Daniel Dombrowski

Daniel Dombrowski teaches in the Philosophy Department of Seattle University. He is the author of six books, the latest of which are Christian Pacifism (Temple University, 1991) and St. John of the Cross (SUNY, 1992), and numerous articles.

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 152-165, Vol. 21, Number 3, Fall, 1992. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


Dr. Dombrowski examines Hartshorne’s views in three areas: 1. The features of virtue ethics; 2. Moderation as a feature of virtue ethics; 3. Abortion.

A. Introduction

In this article I would like to accomplish three things. First, I will examine both the features of virtue ethics relevant to an understanding of Hartshorne and several of the features of Hartshorne’s thought relevant to an understanding of virtue ethics. In this effort I hope to show that Hartshorne’s thought is an improvement with respect to some of the weaker features of virtue ethics as it has been defended by some recent philosophers, in particular regarding the allegation made by virtue ethnicians that deontology and utilitarianism are defective because they depend on abstract rules. As is well known, Hartshorne is a critic of universals when these are seen as abstractions devoid of any real connection to concrete events in process.

Second, I will examine one Hartshornian virtue in particular. moderation, a virtue which is as central to his thought as it was to that of the Greeks. This examination will include a treatment of moderation both in his metaphysics and in his applied ethics. My hope is that a strong connection can be made between these two sorts of moderation. In fact, I claim that Hartshorne’s most important contribution to contemporary ethics is his ability to show the relevance of metaphysical moderation to (moderation in) ethics.

Third, I will treat in detail the Hartshornian stance regarding abortion, a stance with which I agree, both to illustrate the aforementioned connection between moderation in metaphysics and moderation in ethics as well as to combat the charge that virtue ethics, because it focuses more on the character of agents than on their acts, is incapable of treating the really difficult issues in applied ethics.

B. The Virtues

The last two decades have witnessed a rebirth of interest in the virtues, an interest which, at a minimum, acts as a supplement to the familiar alternatives of deontology and utilitarianism, and, at a maximum, acts as a substitute for deontology and utilitarianism.1 1 will not be defending the maximal thesis in this article, as some in the virtue ethics "movement" have done (e.g., Alasdair MacIntyre and Philippa Foot2). James Wallace is instructive here. Whereas he started out with the extreme view that we could dispose with the idea of moral rules or laws, he eventually realized that this is a vain hope. Hartshorne, as well, speaks forcefully in favor of duties (or rights) as limits which no virtuous person can violate.3 Further, it should be noted that a defender of the maximal view would also seem to be committed to the stance that in society there should not be many conflicting communities, each fostering different virtues, and this because in the maximal view there is no clear rule for adjudicating disputes among the values found in different communities. Here again Hartshorne adopts the minimal view in that his liberalism -- whether classical or contemporary4 -- commits him to the likelihood that there will in fact be conflicting communities fostering different virtues. Each segment in our society is not only likely to have its own interests but also its own virtues. Hence it is at least understandable why contemporary ethics is somewhat legalistic. By way of contrast, Aristotle dealt with a small face-to-face community where the potential phronimoi were well known in that they usually came from the well-respected families.

The fact that MacIntyre’s defense of virtue ethics is extreme, however, should not prevent us from admitting that he points out some severe defects in Kantian ethics, defects which, I think, Hartshorne can handle better than MacIntyre. For example, MacIntyre argues that: (1) The categorical imperative is detached from contingent events in Kant such that, as part of a strictly transcendental or formal ethics, it can be given almost any content. In Hartshorne’s terms, there is a defect in Kantian ethics because the categorical imperative is a detached universal, detached, that is, from concrete instances of becoming. And (2), this remoteness associated with Kant’s metaphysics of morals helped to prop up an emergent anthropology of self-interest in that concrete individuals had no alternative, on Kantian grounds, but to see themselves as sovereign. This defect is noticed both by MacIntyre and Hartshorne, although Hartshorne does not use his critique of self-interest as leverage with which to critique liberalism, as does MacIntyre. Bernard Williams puts the point as follows:

. . .moral philosophy’s habit, particularly in its Kantian forms, of treating persons in abstraction from character is not so much a legitimate device for dealing with one aspect of thought, but is rather a misrepresentation.5

There are other difficulties with MacIntyre’s approach (in addition to the fact that he is premature in wishing to do away altogether with moral rules) from a Hartshornian point of view. For example, because of his theory of time as asymmetrical, Hartshorne believes we always face a future which is at least partially indeterminate, hence it is even more difficult than MacIntyre admits to determine the narrative order to our lives. Narrative order seems to presuppose some knowledge in the present regarding how future contingencies will be actualized. In this regard Hartshorne’s attachment to the virtue tradition is closer to that of G. H. Von Wright, who was insistent that the path to virtue is never laid out in advance, and to that of Lester Hunt, who claims that thought and emotions are fused in virtues rather than thought controlling emotion as an alien, recalcitrant subject matter.6 In the terms of Hartshorne’s process philosophy, and of his Peirceian pragmatism7, a person’s principles are seen in his actions just as in Hartshorne’s metaphysics universals are embedded in the world of becoming, as Aristotle and Plato (correctly read, according to Hartshorne) have also indicated. This is not to say that passion never conflicts with principle, but rather that such conflict need not he exaggerated to the point where we are encouraged to engage in (Kantian) dualistic orgies. Hartshorne, like Jonathan Bennett, is willing to hold that just as good moral principles can check bad desires, so also sympathy can check bad principles.8 Sympathy is not brute and non-moral (or immoral), as Kant thought, but an important component of the moral life which should be in reflective equilibrium with our moral principles.

Hartshorne would disagree with the claim that the virtuousness of a trait is derivative from some relationship it displays to what is antecedently specified as right action. But it should be noted that within an ethics of virtue it is possible to have a teleological dimension (pace Von Wright, Foot, and Hare) as well as a non-teleological dimension (as in G. E. M. Anscombe, Wallace, Peter Geach, MacIntyre, and even Aristotle, who has a prominent place for deontos in his ethics9). One of the defects in deontological ethics as usually conceived is that it ultimately requires an unchanging, eternal deity to deliver the command to obey the moral ought, a fact pointed out by Anscombe to contemporary Kantians who have forgotten that Kant himself would have readily granted this point. Hartshorne, however, has spent a lifetime criticizing the unchanging, eternal deity believed in by classical theists like Kant and Anscombe. By believing in such a deity one can move too easily, it seems, to either the metaphysical abstractness of deontology or to something close to religious fundamentalism in a virtue ethics heavily dominated by divine command theory (as in Anscombe and Geach).

When one realizes how different Hartshorne’s ethics is from that found in deontology as usually conceived, and when one notices his numerous and repeated criticisms of utilitarianism,10 one is then in a position to see how he culls insights from both of these in the effort to develop his own virtue ethics centered around the law of moderation. These cullings at times make it hard to distinguish Hartshorne from utilitarians like Von Wright who have a far richer conception of the good than, say, Hare, or from Kantians who have been heavily influenced by Kant’s Lectures on Ethics and other of his writings more conducive to virtue ethics than the Grundlegung. But regarding the metaphysics of morals there is absolutely no mistaking Hartshorne for a deontologist or a utilitarian. Deontological and utilitarian theories can be seen as different versions of an ethics of duty wherein one is supposed to have a disposition to choose for the sake of what is antecedently established as right. According to Gregory Trianosky, this is true in an attenuated sense even for a Kantian like Rawls who, although not particularly interested in metaphysics, and who at least initially seems to place all of his attention on developing a decision-making procedure, nonetheless commits himself to doing what is right as such. Specifying this "as such" from a metaphysical point of view is difficult to do if one wants to avoid the sort of eternalism criticized by Hartshorne.

It must be admitted that there are certain potential vices to virtue ethics even in its minimalist mode, i.e., even when it does not try to crowd out the legitimate insights of deontologists and utilitarians (e.g., from the deontological side, that there are limits -- deontoi -- regarding what any virtuous person can be permitted to do, and, from the utilitarian side, that there are calculations which are relevant regarding many moral decisions the virtuous person must make). For example, one of the possible vices of virtue ethics is what Robert Louden calls a "somewhat misty antiquarian air" (APQ 21) to much that goes on in virtue ethics (say in MacIntyre, Geach, and Anscombe), which is not found in Hartshorne, even if he is personally something of a latter-day Victorian figure. As we will see later in this article, his Peirceian and Whiteheadian principles make it possible for him to look forward to the resolution of contemporary ethical problems, say that regarding abortion. Another potential vice is conceptual reductionism. Whereas virtue ethicians often criticize deontologists and utilitarians for starting with a priori concepts (in the pejorative sense of a priori) of the good state of affairs, the same sort of criticism could be made of virtue ethics if virtue ethicians begin with a root conception of, a procrustean bed provided by, the morally good person. But Hartshorne’s conceptual reductionism, if there is such, consists not in an unquestioning acceptance of the good person, but in a commitment to a metaphysical principle of moderation which provides the basis for his belief in asymmetrical temporal relations.

One of the standard criticisms of virtue ethics is that it is weak when dealing with issues in applied ethics, in contrast to deontology or utilitarianism, and this because virtue theorists focus on good or bad agents rather than right or wrong acts. As Louden puts the point:

We can say, a la Aristotle, that the virtuous agent acts for the sake of the noble (tou kalou heneka), that he will not do what is base or depraved, etc. But it seems to me that we cannot intelligently say things like: "The virtuous person (who acts for the sake of the noble) is also one who recognizes that all mentally deficient eight-month-old fetuses should (or should not) be aborted." (APQ 21:230)

But this criticism does not really apply to Hartshorne in that in his virtue ethics he is not so much concerned with agents as with the principles that (albeit at a high level of abstraction) guide one in determining which actions are logically possible and which, when chosen by some agent or other, are consistent with what must be the case in metaphysics. That is, Hartshorne’s virtue ethics offers an alternative from "above" to most contemporary ethics in that he sees an essential role for metaphysics in ethics, even in applied ethics, whereas most virtue ethicians offer an alternative to contemporary ethics from "below," from a perspective which emphasizes the sorts of community and habit that are conducive to the development of an ethos. Virtue theorists in general tend to emphasize "being" as opposed to "doing," a distinction which is usually seen as equivalent to the distinction between agent and act. But the particular feature of the being of the agent with which Hartshorne is concerned is his or her ability to relate moderate metaphysical principles to moderate ethical ones, an activity which reaches fruition in a sort of doing, as we will see. We cannot entirely assess the ethical value of a person’s action or of a person’s character without also assessing the abstract claims to which the person is committed, explicitly or implicitly.

Because virtue ethicists tend to trace their lineage back to Aristotle, when they discuss the connection between ethics and metaphysics they also tend to do so in Aristotelian terms, specifically in terms of a natural teleology that tries to determine which functional properties are essential for a full human life. As is well known, Aristotle agrees that some natural processes have final as well as material and efficient causes, but the events in a person’s life are not goal-directed merely because they achieve some result that might have been their goal: rain may spoil the crops on the threshing floor, but that was not necessarily the goal of the rain. Future results can be relevant in explaining why certain previous events may have happened without actually having been the causes (in the sense of sufficient conditions) of those events. This point is crucial in the effort to show the continuity between Aristotle and Hartshorne regarding the metaphysical basis for virtue ethics. If Aristotle were alive today the last thing he would be is an Aristotelian if what it means to bean Aristotelian is to defend what I will call a symmetrical theory of internal relations.

T. H. Irwin has carefully explicated the metaphysical basis for Aristotle’s ethics wherein, it must be admitted, the desire for the final good is part of the human pattern of activity (EAF). But Aristotle equivocates between a psychological description of what everyone desires and ethical advice regarding what everyone should, but only some do, desire. Those who do develop a conception of the final good, of the good to be achieved in a life as a whole, often avoid mistakes in practical reasoning and choice, but not even they are immune from disaster striking or from unforeseen future contingencies forcing them to radically alter their plans. Clear, explicit plans for the future are only marginally more successful than the rough, implicit ones developed by most people. We are easily misled here by the following sort of reasoning: "If x can do A, B, and C, and nothing else can do C, but other things can do A and B, we might describe x’s peculiar function either as ‘doing A, B, and C’ or as ‘doing C"’ (EAE 49). That is, only human beings, it is claimed, can attempt to plan for the future and only they can try to develop a theory regarding their telos, abilities which lull some individuals into thinking that they can in fact perform these tasks unerringly. A more accurate view would be that all human beings characteristically guide their actions by practical reason; the point is not that we should aim at a maximum possible distance from other creatures regarding our ability to imagine how future contingencies will eventually be actualized.

C. Moderation in Metaphysics

Thus far I have made several general remarks about virtue ethics, in particular, and about the relationship between virtue ethics and metaphysics, in general. At this point I would like to draw attention to Hartshorne’s resolution of one serious problem in metaphysics itself, the problem of temporal relations. His resolution consists, I allege, in a moderate view between two extremes. That is, the law of moderation is operative not only in Hartshorne’s ethics but also in his metaphysics. In fact, it is helpful as a heuristic device to use Hartshorne’s moderation in metaphysics to deal in a moderate way with problems in applied ethics. My hope is that the patient reader will be rewarded by Hartshorne’s insightful treatment of philosophical issues surrounding abortion, a treatment which rests four square on his attempt to defend a moderate view of temporal relations. The two extreme views of temporal relations which he criticizes are both symmetrical views whereby human identity can be attributed to a being whether it is viewed in its transition from past to present or if it is viewed in its transition from present to future. These extreme views are, respectively, (1) the Leibnizian one, where all events in a person’s life are internally related to all the others, and (2) the view of Hume and Russell that, strictly speaking, there is no personal identity because each event in "a person’s life" is externally related to the others.

Let us consider the defects in the Leibnizian view first. "If I was already ‘myself’ in childhood, still that self did not have and never can have my adult knowledge" (WM 18-19). That is, in its memories the adult has its childhood, but no child can have its adulthood. There is a partial but not a complete identity between a child and any adult. Leibniz’s unqualified identity fails to take into consideration these implications of temporal becoming for human identity. Do young persons really identify themselves with the elderly persons they may eventually become? Hardly.

If one supposes that a person is simply one reality from before birth until death (or after), then one is in effect denying that with each change in life we have a partly new concrete reality; one would be implying that there is a strictly identical reality with merely new qualities. But, contra the Leibnizian view, to say that Mary is "the same person" day after day and year after year is primarily to say that she does not become a geranium or anything other than a human person, and that she does not become Jane. This leaves open the possibility that Mary on Friday and Mary on Monday are somewhat different realities, both quantitatively (one is older than the other) and qualitatively (Mary on Monday has actually had experiences over the weekend which Mary on Friday could only imagine) (OOTM 104-5). The "identity" between the two Marys is real, but it is an abstract reality rather than any concretely lived experience. That is, genetic identity is a nonstrict identity, as opposed to Leibniz’s (and the opponent to abortion’s) theory of strict identity.

A nonstrict identity is composed of two or more successive concrete actualities with partly identical and partly differing qualities. It makes sense to claim that a person in a later state includes that person in an earlier state, but not vice versa. For example, only I remember my past in the inward way in which I remember it, though even I remember it vaguely and partially (OOTM 104-5). The point is that I-now cannot be adequately described without mentioning my past, but (in distinction to the opponents to abortion) I-then could have been (could only have been!) adequately described without mentioning I-now.

The fact that one’s past self is in some significant sense "another" self should not be underestimated, especially when the issue of abortion is considered (CSPM 8). To claim that a "substance" is an identical entity through time containing successive accidental properties is really a misleading way of describing an individual enduring through change. Successive states are not so much "in" the identical entity as it is in them (CSPM 20). At a given moment every human being is definite, and definite in their history up until that point, but until they die their future is at least partly indefinite, even with respect to the immediate future, and perhaps largely indefinite with respect to the distant future. If it makes sense to say, as it obviously does, that this human being could have had a somewhat different career up until the present, then this individual is a partly indefinite entity. That is, a human being is not, in spite of the Leibnizian view, the same as his career. The latter is an abstraction in comparison with the concreteness of lived experience (CSPM 23).

There is a certain bias in the history of philosophy from which it has painfully tried to free itself; the favoring of one pole of conceptual contrasts at the expense of the other pole. Being has traditionally been preferred to becoming, identity at the expense of diversity, etc. (CSPM 44).11 The Leibnizian view of human identity I am here criticizing clearly exhibits this bias. The hope of defenders of this view has been that by attacking the idea of a partially changing identity one could make secure the true reality or true being of an individual. An unintended consequence of this view is that it leads to determinism. If the future is just as internally related to the present as is the past (i.e., if the present is just as much affected by the future as by the past), then what are normally called future contingencies merely refer to our ignorance of what is already in the cards (CSPM 174). It is no accident that the strict identity view is often based on the theory that God knows with absolute assurance the outcome to future contingencies, a theory which traditionally, and understandably, has run up against the objection that such absolutely certain knowledge would eliminate the possibility of future contingencies. On the theory of strict identity, all change consists in attaching predicates to a strictly identical subject (or substance) which endures throughout the succession of predicates. This seems to imply that substances are eternal in that, being changeless, they are incapable of creation or destruction unless, of course, they are created or destroyed by divine miracle, an implication actually welcomed by Leibniz and implied by some who are opposed to abortion in the miracle of God breathing a soul into a fertilized egg (CSPM 180).

The ordinary use of personal pronouns and nouns is perfectly compatible with the process, nonstrict view of identity I am defending. I am I and not any other person (CSPM 183). The series of experiences of which I have intimate memory contains no members of your series. It is not true that only defenders of strict identity can explain the persistence of character traits, whereas event pluralists who defend nonstrict identity can only give grudging recognition to these traits. Identity is not so much in dispute as its analysis or symmetrical-asymmetrical structure. Obviously I am in some sense numerically the same person I used to be, but it is equally obvious that in some sense I am a different person, even numerically different in that I have more past experiences as constituents of who I am. It is my present, however, which contrasts itself with my past, not the other way around. The old reality enjoyed or suffered no contrast with what came later; at best it vaguely anticipated what came later. "Life is cumulative, and hence asymmetrical in its relatedness" (CSPM 184). The Leibnizian view stumbles in viewing self-identity as merely numerical oneness, with at most a plurality of qualities, a single noun with many adjectives (LP 120).

Genetic identity is a special strand of the causal order of the world, and it rests on the same principle of inheritance from the past as does causality in general. Even the unconscious memories of our earliest moments form part of our individual natures. Once born, or perhaps even as a developed fetus (to be explained later), the particular events which prolong one’s existence are additions to a personal sequence (CSPM 185). By way of contrast, Leibnizian strict identity implies (but this implication is seldom noticed) that nothing a person does or that happens to that person could have been otherwise (CAP 160). I am alleging that in order to avoid the untoward implications of the Leibnizian view one needs to posit the concrete determinate actuality in the present (which in some way preserves its past) as that which "has" properties (CAP 168).

The reasonableness of the theory of nonstrict, temporally asymmetrical identity can be seen when it is contrasted to a second extreme, but equally symmetrical, view. Hume, Russell, and some Buddhists have overstated the non-strictness of genetic identity by claiming that all temporal relations are external, hence strict identity theorists can rightly fear this view (OOTM 105). But before showing what is defective in the theory of purely external relations, I would like to indicate its grain of truth. The theory of purely internal relations starts with a correct intuition regarding the need to explain the persistence of character traits, but it grossly overemphasizes the personal continuity needed to preserve these traits. Likewise, the theory of purely external relations (in Buddhism, especially) starts with the legitimate insight that the qualification of personal identity allows for at least partial identity with others. The "no soul, no substance" doctrine of the Buddhists enables us to understand the Pauline claim that we are members one of another. That is, self-love and love of others are on much the same footing and neither makes much sense without the other, (OOTM 107-8) especially when it is realized that my previous self is to some degree an other self from the one I am now.

From this insight, however, defenders of external relations like Russell show no more hesitation than Leibnizians regarding the acceptance of symmetrical relations. If events in nature are mutually independent, then nature is analogous to a chaos of mutually independent propositions (CSPM 83). The defender of asymmetry (who views a present person as internally related to his past but as externally related to his future) finds it comical to see Russell attacking rationalists like Bradley and Hegel because they had little or no use for anything but internal relations. And it is equally comical to see partisans of purely internal relations like Bradley or Blanshard trying to refute Hume, James, or Russell (CSPM 96).

One defect in the theory of purely external relations is that we do in fact usually talk as though events depend on what happens before but not on what happens afterwards; we do talk as though asymmetry is the case. This in itself does not refute a Hume or a Russell, but it should lead defenders of purely external relations to wonder if believing in events as dependent both ways (i.e., present dependent on past and present dependent on future) is necessarily worse than believing in events as independent both ways (CSPM 147, 213). There is also the familiar difficulty of preserving moral responsibility for one’s past actions if one is not internally related in some way to those actions.

Consider the following clever and, I think, devastating example from Hartshorne:

One may parody the prejudice of symmetry as follows: Suppose a carpenter were to insist that if hinges on one side of a door are good, hinges on both sides would be better. So he hangs a door by hinging it on both sides, and it then appears that the hinges cannot function, so that the door is not a door but a wall. "We’ll fix that," says another carpenter, and removes all the hinges. So now the door is again not a door, but a board lying on the floor. This is how I see the famous controversy about internal and external relations. The first carpenter is Spinoza, Bradley, Royce, or Blanshard; the second carpenter is Hume, Russell, Von Wright, Ayer, or R. B. Perry. (CSPM 216)

More complications set in when it is realized that a symmetrical theory of purely internal relations leads, as Hegel and Bradley realized, to monism, whereas a symmetrical theory of purely external relations leads, as Russell realized, to a radical pluralism. Russell’s mistake was in assuming that one had to be either an absolute monist or an absolute pluralist and that one could not benefit from the strengths of internal and external relations (CSPM 216). Defense of purely internal relations leads to the erroneous conclusion that we can only expect what laws governing the internal relations will allow, and the view which emphasized purely external relations should lead to the conclusion that at each moment anything could conceivably happen next (LP 174). Speaking of Perry, James, and Russell, the following astute observation is made by Hartshorne:

The combination of extreme causal determinism and extreme pluralism (lack of any internal relations connecting the constituents of reality) repeated the most bizarre feature of Hume’s philosophy. The combination violently connects and violently disconnects the constituents of reality. (CAP 156)

D. Implications Regarding Abortion

By now the implications of a theory of human identity based on a theory of asymmetrical temporal relations have been stated at least implicitly. The purpose of this section is to make these implications explicit, an effort which is facilitated by noting the defects in the two theories of symmetrical relations. I will make these implications explicit by noting the texts where Hartshorne himself explicitly refers to abortion or to fetal development.

Most who use the contemporary slogan "respect for life" seem unaware of the vast gulf in quality between experiences open to a fetus compared to experiences possible for a walking, talking child, not to mention the mother of the fetus. The question should be, respect for life on what level? A single human egg cell is alive, but it has no experiences like those of an adult, or a child, or even of an animal with a central nervous system. 12 Augustine did well by comparing the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy (before the development of the central nervous system, which, as we now know, makes sentiency possible) to a plant. No egg cell, fertilized or not, can simply turn itself into a truly human individual (with sentience as a necessary condition for the truly human). Only years of attention can do that. Just as we need a mean between extremes regarding temporal relations -- avoiding both mystical monism, where all things are interdependent, and the antimetaphysical pluralism of the early Wittgenstein and of Russell, where all things are mutually independent -- we also need a mean between injudicious extremes regarding respect for life (WM 4-5).

If to be a person in the fullest sense is to be conscious, rational, and have a moral sense, then a fetus is, at best, a probability of a person, hence those who equate abortion with murder are engaging in demagoguery. A probability of something is not that something, especially when the probability can only be realized with considerable effort and sacrifice on the part of others (WM 59-60). I am potentially the president of the United States, but I do not insist that "Hail to the Chief" be played when I enter the room. I will probably be a grandfather some day, yet at thirty-nine and with more than a few gray hairs appearing, I nonetheless think it is premature to call me "Grandpa" and to remind me to take my Geritol.

It changes the whole quality of life to learn that there are murderers about, but the embryo is not bothered by, nor is it even conscious of, the fact that there are abortionists about. "The human value of the embryo is essentially potential and future, not actual and present" (WM 125). The functioning which it does actually exhibit is nothing especially exalted when compared to other beings, even a great many nonhuman beings. Of course even the potentiality of a fetus has some value, but this value (even plants have some value) is nothing absolute and should be weighed against the values of those -- especially the mother -- actually functioning at a much higher level (i.e., at the level of sentiency, at the very least, if not at the level of rationality). Indeed, as some "pro-lifers" notice, the aborted fetus could have turned out to be a genius, but this is not the same as actually being a genius. The aborted fetus could also have turned out to be a murderer. It is unclear, to say the least, how one can make the status of a pre-sentient cluster of cells more or less exalted by considering what it might eventually be (WM 126).13

The fetus is obviously alive, as is grass, and it is obviously human in the sense that it has human parents and has a human genetic structure. But if what I have said regarding asymmetrical relations and human identity is correct, the primary moral question becomes: When does an individual human life become as valuable as the life of an animal? And the secondary question becomes: When does an individual human life become more valuable than that of a "mere" animal? My response to the first question is: around the fourteenth week of pregnancy, when a central nervous system, and hence sentiency, develops. A response to the second question is much more difficult to make (OOTM 99-101). Not even an infant reasons in any sense equal to or beyond the capacity of dogs, apes, or porpoises, (WM 33) although even the infant is enormously superior to a fertilized egg in many morally relevant respects: levels of sentiency, consciousness, fear, etc. (OOTM 55). From the fact of infant inferiority, however, we should not be driven in a Michael Tooley-like direction14 toward the moral permissibility of infanticide, but rather toward the protection of the lives of animals. They are actually sentient and it is, as Kai Nielson notes,15 a fundamental moral axiom to claim that no being that can suffer ought to be forced to suffer unnecessarily.16

The point I am trying to make here is not only that a fetus is not B moral agent, but also that it must go through a certain period of development to reach the threshold of moral patiency, i.e., sentiency. Only after sentience is acquired can we even begin to compare fetuses to other beings who are not moral agents but who are moral patients: the comatose, nonhuman animals, etc. It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how we could consistently generalize the claim that nonsentient beings have rights. For example, if such (vegetative) beings have rights, then human beings would likely starve in that they would have little, if anything, to eat. The equal value of the possible and the actual "is not an axiom that anybody lives by or could live by" (OOTM 101). Even on strictly anthropocentric grounds it is not an axiom with any pragmatic value.

Although not in itself an argument against the opponent to abortion, nor an argument in favor of infanticide, the following consideration by Hartshorne indicates the counter intuitiveness of the theory of strict identity:

In nearly every society until recent centuries it was taken for granted that killing of human adults is a vastly more serious matter than even infanticide (if the latter is done by the parent or parents). This is enough to show that the idea of a fetus as a person in the full sense is not so plainly true that it can be used as a non-controversial premise for political or moral conclusions. (OOTM 101)

Equally problematic is the adjective "innocent" used of fetuses, a term which has at least two senses. It may very well be the case that we ought not to kill the innocent not because they are guiltless but because they are not harming us at this time; that is, there are such things as "innocent threats." Thus, if a fetus poses no harm to the pregnant woman it is innocent in this sense of the term. However, the usual sense of the term contrasts with "guilty" or "culpable." Only if those who saw abortion as morally permissible had ever claimed that fetuses were wicked and ought to be punished could the innocence of the fetus, in this second sense of the term, be a moral consideration (OOTM 102). In this second sense of the term, the "innocence" of the fetus is like that of the animals: an incapacity to distinguish right from wrong but a capacity to experience pain. Here fetal innocence deserves consideration once it has achieved this capacity but not before (OOTM 102-3).

A classic case of human beings becoming entangled in their own language is exhibited when opponents to abortion ask: How would you have liked it if your mother had aborted you? An adequate response would presuppose a responsible use of pronouns. I would neither have liked nor disliked the abortion because before the development of sentiency there would have been no "I" at all, and for some time after the development of sentiency there would have been fetal "innocence" but only a tenuous selfhood at work (OOTM 103).17 Once again, an understanding of the theory of asymmetrical relations is what enables us to see that:

The "pro-life" literature is mostly a string of verbally implied identifications of fertilized egg cell with fetus, of fetus with infant, infant with child, child with youth, yotith with adult. I repeat, any cause is suspect which ignores or denies distinctions so great.... I have respect for the fetus as...a wondrous creation.. it is capable of eventually, with much help from relatively adult persons, becoming first an infant (and then a child).... We are all human individuals long before we are persons in the value sense of actually thinking and reasoning in the human fashion, Even in dreamless sleep as adults, we are not actually functioning as persons; but this does not abolish the obviously crucial difference between a fetus whose potentiality for rational personhood requires at least many months of help by actual persons to be actualized even slightly, and a sleeping adult who has already functioned as a person for many years and who has made many plans for what it will do in its waking moments, perhaps for years to come. (OOTM 112, 116-17)

During the first weeks of pregnancy an embryo is but a colony of cells, "itself" as a whole not an individual at all. Those who are offended by the claim that horses or chimps or whales (OFD; also see OOTM 13, WM 49) deserve more respect than the fetus in the early stages of pregnancy usually resort to a type of question-begging which Peter Singer calls "speciesism": the human fetus in the early stages of pregnancy deserves moral respect just because it is human. To avoid begging the question as to why the embryo deserves moral respect, the opponent to abortion usually resorts to something like what I have called the theory of strict identity based on a symmetrical theory of temporal relations. And if, as I have tried to show, this latter theory (and other symmetrical theories) has more defects than its asymmetrical alternative, then opposition to abortion is, at the very least, questionable.

No doubt defenders of strict identity will conflate the asymmetrical view with the theory of purely external relations by claiming that both theories make human identity too fragile. My response to this claim is, in a strange way, a sympathetic one. In the theory of purely external relations there is no real human identity through time, and in the asymmetrical view human identity is indeed fragile. But it is not "too" fragile. The asymmetrical view leaves human beings "as fragile as they are and not a whit more" (CAP 87).18

E. Conclusion

The critique of deontological and utilitarian abstractions (as evidenced in the categorical imperative or in the exhortation to maximize happiness) offered by virtue ethicists is enhanced by Hartshorne’s own critique of metaphysical abstractions. According to this latter critique, the ideal of "moderation" is not a detached, static, pure form with a life of its own, which is then imitated by human beings in the world. Rather, moderation enters into the real world only as a constitutive element in real becoming. Once one thinks carefully about the practical implications of the two symmetrical views of temporal relations, one sees that they are both intellectually defective and pragmatically costly (as in the predestinarianism found in a theory of pure internal relations and as in the expansive exoneration promoted by disowning oneself from one’s past in a theory of pure external relations).

Hartshorne usually returns to the traditional term "universals" so as to avoid the extreme "Platonism" (not necessarily held by Plato) of Whitehead’s "eternal objects."’9 Although the most abstract metaphysical categories (like "becoming") are time independent, and hence eternal, the other universals, according to Hartshorne, are emergent and contingent, as in "different from Shakespeare," or as in the precise shade of blue in a certain iris, or as in "moderation regarding the issue of abortion." That is, ethical judgments regarding what is moderate in the abortion issue are fallible even when they are alleged to have metaphysical support. But until more support is forthcoming for the theory of pure internal relations it is the opponents to abortion who appear to be quite immoderate.



APQ 21 -- Robert Louden. "On Some Vices of Virtue Ethics." American Philosophical Quarterly 21(1984): 227-36.

CAP -- Charles Hartshorne. Creativity in American Philosophy. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

CSPM -- Charles Hartshorne. Creative Synthesis and Philosophical Method. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1970.

EAE -- T. H. Irwin. "The Metaphysical and Psychological Basis of Aristotle’s Ethics." Essays on Aristotle’s Ethics. Ed. Amelie Oksenberg Rorty. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1980.

LP -- Charles Hartshorne. The Logic of Perfection. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1962. OFD -- Charles Hartshorne. "Foundations for a Humane Ethics." On the Fifth Day. Ed. Richard Knowles Morris. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Press, 1978.

OOTM -- Charles Hartshorne. Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1984.

PCH -- Daniel Dombrowski. "Hartshorne and Plato." The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne. Library of Living Philosophers Series, Vol. XX. Ed. Lewis Edwin Hahn. La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1991.

WM -- Charles Hartshorne. Wisdom as Moderation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.



1. In this section of the article I rely heavily on Gregory Pence. "Recent Work on Virtues," American Philosophical Quarterly 21 (1984), pp. 281-97; and Gregory Trianosky, "What Is Virtue Ethics All About?,’ American Philosophical Quarter/v 27 (1990), pp. 335-44.

2. Sec Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981) and other works by MacIntyre; and Philippa Foot, Virtues and Vices (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1978).

3. See James Wallace, Virtues and Vices (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1978). For Hartshorne on rights and duties see. e.g., OFD, and "The Rights of the Subhuman World," Environmental Ethics I (1979), pp. 49-60.

4. On the tension in Hartshorne’s thought between classical and contemporary liberalism, see Randall Morris, Process Philosophy and Political Ideology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

5. Bernard Williams, Moral Luck (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1981), p. 19.

6. See G. H. Von Wright, The Varieties of Goodness (NY: Humanities Press, 1963), and Lester Hunt, "Character and Thought," American Philosophical Quarterly 15(1978), Pp. 177-86.

7. See Theodore Vitali, ‘The Peirceian Influence on Hartshorne’s Subjectivism," Process Studies 7 (1977), pp. 238-49.

8. Jonathan Bennett, "The Conscience of Huckleberry Finn," Philosophy 49 (1974), pp. 123-34.

9. Regarding R. M. Hare, see Moral Thinking (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981); also see G. E. M. Anscombe, "Modern Moral Philosophy," Philosophy 33 (1958), pp. 01-19; Peter Geach, The Virtues (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977).

10. Regarding Hartshorne’s criticisms of utilitarianism see Thomas Nairn, "Hartshorne and Utilitarianism," Process Studies 17 (1988), pp. 170-80.

11. Also see LP 17, where the prejudice in favor of being as opposed to becoming is related to the theory of strict identity. If all events in a person’s life are real together (say in the mind of God), then the totality of events simply is, with being and not becoming as the inclusive conception.

12. See my Hartshorne and the Metaphysics of Animal Rights (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988).

13. Also see an excellent article by Randolph Feezell, "Potentiality, Death, and Abortion," Southern Journal of Philosophy 25 (1987), 39-48. Although the present article is primarily directed against strict identity theory (which is connected with what Feezell calls the conservative view of abortion), it also has implications for Feezell’s moderate view, which criticizes the casual attitude some (he calls them liberals) may have toward the fetus, which is a "soon-to-be-actual" person (47). At times Feezell is careful to refer to the fetus as a future (i.e., a possible) person, and then attempts to attribute rights to the fetus on that basis. But this attempt, I suggest, is only successful when Feezell almost imperceptibly slips into the strict identity (i.e., conservative) view. Consider his claim that "the death of the fetus is a severe misfortune for the person whose possibilities have been negated" (46 -- my emphasis; note that here Feezell does not say "future person"). He also says that "at conception a unique chromosomal combination occurs, and that is the basis for speaking of some identifiable potentiality which will be born and will develop into that person whose history we must now morally consider" (44-45 -- my emphasis). My criticisms are as follows: if the fetus is a potential (i.e., a future) person, as Feezell sometimes admits, why should we grant it rights now? To say that it should have rights now because it definitely will be born and definitely will develop into an infant is to subtly slip into the strict identity theory based on symmetrical temporal relations. That is, if Feezell had said that the fetus may eventually be born and that it will perhaps develop into a person a more accurate (from the point of view of asymmetry) description of the fetus’s mode of existence would be given, such that there would be less of a tendency to treat the fetus as a bearer of rights. Feezell is correct that fully actual persons are the subjects of misfortune (45), but I am not convinced that potential persons, because they exist in space and have a history, are also (albeit in a "weaker sense") subjects of misfortune. The question is: what sort of actuality does the historical being in question have? Rocks also occupy space and have a historical route of occasions making up their careers. Feezell is also correct in pointing out the asymmetry we are willing to adopt regarding prenatal nonexistence and posthumous nonexistence (43). We are not unhappy about the former, but it makes perfect sense to be bothered about the latter. I do not think that death simply as such is an evil, but it does make sense to grieve over a premature or ugly or violent death of a sentient being. But these types of death bother us because an actual person who was capable of receiving violence or who actually had hopes for the future (hopes which existed in the present) was cut down. In the end, however, Feezell’s moderate view (which leans toward the "conservative view") is not too much different in practical effect from my or Hartshorne’s moderate view (which leans toward the "liberal view") in that I am only delivering a carte blanche for abortion in the early stages of pregnancy and pointing out that the fetus in the later stages of pregnancy has a moral status analogous to that of an animal, a status which I think deserves considerable attention on our part.

14. Michael Tooley, "Abortion and Infanticide," Philosophy and Public Affairs 2 (Fall, 1972), 37-65. Tooley is correct in searching for a morally relevant threshold for moral patiency, but it is by no means clear why he so casually rejects (or how he could reject!) sentiency as such a criterion. Is he really willing to claim that a being which can experience suffering does not have the right not to have suffering inflicted on it unnecessarily?

15. Kai Nielson, "Persons, Morals and the Animal Kingdom," Man and World II (1978), 233.

16. See my The Philosophy of Vegetarianism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1984).

17. Also see my "Starnes on Augustine’s Theory of Infancy," Augustinian Studies 11 (1980), 125-133.

18. For a summary of some of the scientific research which supports the view that the fetus is not a prepackaged human being (e.g., even something so relatively simple as a fingerprint arises at least in part due to chance events not present in a fertilized egg) see Charles Gardner, "Is an Embryo a Person?," The Nation (Nov. 13, 1989). 1 would also like to thank T. E. McGarrity for comments on a previous version of this article.

19. Regarding Hartshorne’s and Whitehead’s relationship to Plato once again see my "Hartshorne and Plato" (PCH). Also, regarding Hartshorne and abortion, see two other pieces by Hartshorne: "Scientific and Religious Aspects of Bioethics," in Theology and Bioethics, ed. by E. E. Shelp (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1985) and ‘Concerning Abortion: An Attempt at a Rational View," The Christian Century (Jan. 21, 1981). Finally, see H. Tristram Engelhardt, "Natural Theology and Bioethics," in The Philosophy of Charles Hartshorne (La Salle, IL: Open Court, 1991). where the author emphasizes the role of the divine perspective in Hartshorne’s approach to abortion. This author can also be used to point out that Hartshorne is not always consistent in his approach to sentient beings.