Responding to Wilcox #2: “An Embryo Is an Innocent Human Being”

Responding to Wilcox #2: “An Embryo Is an Innocent Human Being” May 6, 2020

To continue the rejoinder to Clinton Wilcox over at the Life Training Institute, who took issue with one of my posts looking at the pro-life/pro-choice debate concerning abortion. I responded to the initial part of his first piece here. Today, I will look at his comments with regard to points 1-5 from my original post that formed the body of his riposte. Today, I have time for only the first point.

1. A blastocyst cannot be called innocent. It is no more innocent than a rock, because without consciousness or volition it can’t meaningfully be described as innocent. It is true that the early embryo lacks volition, but this is irrelevant. When pro-life people say an embryo is an innocent human being, what we are essentially saying is that this human being has done nothing to warrant being killed. Most people agree that it is wrong to kill human beings except in exceptional circumstances (the only people who would disagree are strict pacifists, who think it’s always wrong to kill a human being). As embryos are human beings, they are innocent, for the same reason that infants and the severely mentally handicapped are innocent. They are incapable of doing anything morally wrong, and they have not committed any act that would warrant capital punishment. Comparing a human blastocyst to a rock means that Pearce is guilty of committing the category error fallacy. The fetus is not non-conscious, like a rock. It is pre-conscious. Pearce is attributing a false category to the embryo.

Right, where to start. Okay, this looks to be about classic essentialism and thus potentiality and actuality; a foetus is potentially a human adult, so therefore we should treat it in the same way as a human adult. A rock is potentially a sculpture, or a seed is potentially a great oak, so we should treat a seed or rock in the same way we should a great oak or sculpture.

Except no. Full points for asserting that embryos are human beings, though.

Let me start with this glaringly obvious point, so obvious that Sophotroph had to point it out in the comments below:

For an “innocent embryo” to be a meaningful concept, the opposite must be equally meaningful. It can’t be “innocent” if it can’t, even in theory, be “guilty”.

That could be the end of the post, but I’ve written all this…

Blastocysts as innocent

His claim about children and the mentally disabled (always interesting to note word choices, eh!) is worthy of some thought. I would say someone who is without rational thought in terms of being severely mentally disabled or a very young child is neither innocent or not innocent, but is amoral (i.e., without morality) because they lack the understanding. This is why these people are treated differently by the legal system. Due to this being on a sliding scale, a continuum, we deal out arbitrary demarcations that differ over time and geography, as I have discussed elsewhere. See What Is Personhood? Setting the Scene. This then creates problematic scenarios, based on Sorites Paradox issues, that come about from having to draw such lines of categorisations for needs of pragmatism. There will be people who are categorised digitally and this can be seen as unfair, given everyone exists on a continuum: a digital judgement for a continuum of behaviour.

In England and Wales, children as young as 10 can be found to be criminally responsible. The UN wants this raised to 12. And these two sentences show the subjective and arguably arbitrary (a caveat use of the word) demarcation that these things end up being. In other words, what we experience in the world around us evidences my position and not an essentialist such as Wilcox, who argues for absolute rules and demarcations. This is all down to intellectual maturity (or capability).

As The Conversation points out:

What is the age of criminal responsibility?

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, requires states to set a minimum age “below which children shall be presumed not to have the capacity to infringe penal law”. The convention does not actually indicate what age level should be set as a minimum.

But in fixing a minimum age, the commentary on the United Nation’s Beijing Rules notes that: “The modern approach would be to consider whether a child can live up to the moral and psychological components of criminal responsibility; that is, whether a child … can be held responsible for essentially antisocial behaviour.”

In this regard all Australian criminal jurisdictions have a modern approach, with two age levels of criminal responsibility: a lower one under which a child is always presumed too young to ever be capable of guilt and can, therefore, never be dealt with in criminal proceedings (currently under the age of 10); and a higher one where the presumption that a child is incapable of crime (termed the presumption of doli incapax) is conditional.

Children in the higher age group, between 10 and 14 years old, can be convicted of criminal offences only if the prosecution can refute the presumption of doli incapax. This can be done by proving the child understood that what he or she had done was wrong according to the ordinary standards of reasonable adults. This requires more than a simple understanding that the behaviour was disapproved of by adults.

Changing views

The presumption that children lack capacity is not new. Its roots can be traced back at least to the time of King Edward III. But in recent years many have questioned it, mainly due to the perceived escalation in youth crime and the changes made to the criminal justice system for dealing with the young.

Indeed, criticism was so strong in England and Wales that doli incapax was abolished for 10- to 14-year-olds in 1998, following the outcry over the James Bulger case. This concerned the abduction, torture and killing of three-year-old James Bulger by two ten-year-old boys.

Now in England and Wales, as soon as a child reaches the age of ten, he or she can be convicted of criminal offences without any examination of his or her capacity to understand whether their behaviour is wrong.

This leaves England and Wales with one of the lowest age levels of criminal responsibility in the world and subject to ongoing criticism by the international community.

Wilcox argues: “As embryos are human beings, they are innocent, for the same reason that infants and the severely mentally handicapped are innocent. They are incapable of doing anything morally wrong, and they have not committed any act that would warrant capital punishment.”

The fact that children are not seen as universally innocent (particularly throughout their whole childhood – after all, what is his definition of a “child”?), and it depends what country you are in, undoes Wilcox’s argument. As a parent, I know that moral culpability grows from toddlers upwards – it is not digital in the way he erroneously suggests. Hence the arguments that abound as above. They are capable of doing things morally wrong to a differing degree, and one twelve-year-old may have a different level of brain mechanics and experiences that means they are more culpable than another twelve-year-old outside of legal definitions in any given place.

The legal definition of “innocent” is simply not applicable to a blastocyst:

Innocent typically refers to a finding that a criminal defendant is not guilty of the charges, but may also refer to a finding that a civil defendant isn’t liable for the accusations of the plaintiff, such as being found not negligent in a personal injury case. It is synonymous with acquit, which means to find a defendant in a criminal case not guilty. The decision to exonerate the defendant may be made either by a jury or a judge after trial.

So Wilcox fails here.

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it also as:

(of a person) not guilty of a particular crime

This then requires personhood. Exactly the debate we should be having. But he merely asserts that a blastocyst is a human being in order to, I assume, claim it has personhood so that it can be innocent is circular. So, a failure here, unless he is begging the question.

Cambridge add:

having no knowledge of the unpleasant and evil things in life:
She has such an innocent face that I find it hard to believe anything bad of her.
This is either the personhood argument again, or you can apply it to a rock, too. In which case, the claim of innocence is meaningless.

Infants not children

Perhaps Wilcox extricates himself from this problem by using the term “infant” as opposed to “child”, but we get the same demarcation problem here over the boundaries. When we are talking about a mentally disabled adult, at what point do we draw the line? Who gets to decide this? Again, the same problem exists.

I just get the sense that Wilcox hasn’t remotely thought this through. He is terribly naive, at least on what is scant justification here.

If he is arguing a blastocyst should be afforded the same rights as an adult human, then this should arguably apply to other scenarios. If killing an adult is murder in the same way as “killing” a blastocyst is (i.e., abortion is murder), a child or infant should then be equally as culpable as an adult, and then his blastocyst can be seen as meaningfully innocent in the way that an adult and child can be equally as guilty. But then, if a blastocyst or embryo causes the death of a mother in utero, we can have them up in court for manslaughter or something… We can then backwards apply all sorts of thing to children, infants and blastocysts that we do adults.

The simple fact is that we treat infants and children completely differently to adults in almost all aspects of society.

Blastocysts are meaningfully different to adult human beings. Therefore, to merely assert that a blastocyst is a human being is a pole vault of a mental jump that is not supported.

This is a whole quagmire of confusion on Wilcox’s part that is in no way explained or justified – it is, as ever, merely asserted.


Wilcox merely asserts blastocysts are human beings, and thus brings into play personhood arguments. But personhood is a tremendously complex idea that no one appears settled on. Perhaps Wilcox takes another position, one that I have seen some Catholics do – that this is not an argument over personhood because that is admittedly a properly problematic argument. Thus, it becomes an essentialist one: that blastocysts are born with the essence of being human. That’s a whole can of worms to open, but probably what underwrites his approach. The problem is, he didn’t employ it here.

See Natural Law, Essentialism and Nominalism, or Criticising the Idea of Potential and Actuality in Natural Law Philosophy, or Natural Law Theory, Morality and Rational Beings. I’ve had this argument a number of times.


Just to cap things off, let’s look at his final claim:

Comparing a human blastocyst to a rock means that Pearce is guilty of committing the category error fallacy. The fetus is not non-conscious, like a rock. It is pre-conscious. Pearce is attributing a false category to the embryo.

Obviously rocks and blastocysts are not synonymous, but analogous as far as is adequate for the example. Here, he claims a blastocyst is pre-conscious.

This is a typical claim.

Sure, in the right scenario, and with the right inputs from an external agency (the mother, or an artificial womb), a blastocyst can become conscious after it has developed as a result of those consistent inputs.

Like a rock can become a sculpture with consistent external inputs.

Of course, the blastocyst might also die naturally before development (most do) or after development (all others do), or become a psychopathic murderer (some do). Does that mean we should treat it like it is dead already, or like it is a psychopathic murderer already? What special pleading this is that Wilcox chooses one convenient characteristic to claim it is “pre-” so that he can apply the same treatment to the post- as to the pre-? There is a whole host of wrong here. See Criticising the Idea of Potential and Actuality in Natural Law Philosophy, or Act & Potency: Responding to a Critic, or Pro-Life Argument from a Zygote’s Internal Self-Organisation.

To have the gall to then insult my arguments is quite an affront when we have this type of philosophical naivety.

Because Wilcox ends his piece:

This entire article by Jonathan Pearce is just incredibly bad, relying on bad definitions, false claims of wanting to be precise in his language, and a poor understanding of human development.

I have to laugh at this excellent implicit instantiation of Danth’s Law with its own terrible grasp of the ideas about which he is merely asserting. This all comes down to ideas I am constantly banging in about: the ontology of abstracta. Not much more I should say about this other than Wilcox needs to go back to the drawing board.

EDIT: Clinton very, magnanimously commented on one of the threads that he was not being gracious, and has since edited his pieces. I thank him publicly for that. I will no longer refer to these initial more personal comments.

No doubt he is relying on an awful lot more philosophy in his claims, to be charitable. As was I, in my original piece. But if this is how he seeks to show my “incredibly bad” arguments, he has singularly failed in his intentions.

I’ll continue my answering in future posts.

Stay in touch! Like A Tippling Philosopher on Facebook:

A Tippling Philosopher

You can also buy me a cuppa. Please… It justifies me continuing to do this!

"You are entertaining indeed. Don't you realise that Michelson's experiment was entirely redundant? If you ..."

“Why Science and Atheism Don’t Mix”. ..."
"Which god are you talking about? Santa?"

The Theological Roots of White Supremacy
"You are funny. Have you ever heard of the Egyptian priest Moses who conveyed Echnaton's ..."

“Why Science and Atheism Don’t Mix”. ..."

Browse Our Archives