I’ve recently found myself having to deal more and more with the gnarly issue of souls in my work. My research focuses primarily on the relation between personal identity and ethics, but the metaphysical possibility of the existence of souls continually throws a monkey wrench into attempts to draw firm conclusions about the nature of selves, human beings, and/or persons with respect to ethical issues. Most contemporary theorists assume a materialist conception of these objects, but it’s very easy to undermine their conclusions by simply positing the existence of an immaterial substance at our core. For example, Singer and Kuhse have shown that if you believe that an embryo is a human being (with full moral status) from the moment of conception, the possibility of twinning gets you into serious trouble. But the trouble only comes if you assume a materialist conception of human beings. If, on the other hand, you maintain that what makes the embryo a human being from the moment of conception is that it houses a soul, then you can avoid the problems they cite. After all, upon twinning, one soul could migrate to one of the new organisms, while a new soul could pop into existence to be housed in the other new organism.
Because arguments about souls continually creep into public debates about this issue, I think it’s incumbent upon ethicists to deal seriously with it, rather than ignoring it or casting ad hominems upon its advocates. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Please forgive, then, the following movement into some rather straightforward metaphysics. It’s necessary, I think, to wrestle with the important ethical issues at stake in both the abortion and the stem cell research controversies.
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