Potentiality Argument

The potentiality argument refers to the capacity of a human embryo to develop into a subject. The argument states that even unborn or unconscious people who are currently not capable of conscious acts, still remain potentially acting subjects and are therefore to be accorded the dignity due to a subject. According to this argument, early embryos already represent potential persons. Thus, the production and destruction of human embryos for research purposes is morally unjustifiable.

Further information:

Illies, Christian (2003): The so-called potentiality argument, using the example of therapeutic cloning. In: Zeitschrift für Philosophische Forschung 57(2), 233–256. (German)

Wolbert, Werner (2000): The Potentiality Argument in the Debate relating to the Beginning of Personhood. In: Human Reproduction & Genetic Ethics 6(2), 19–26. Online Version

Stier, Marco (2018): Potentiality in Bioethics. In: Engelhard, Kristina / Qunate, Michael (eds.): Handbook of Potentiality. Dordrecht: Springer, 327–350.

In addition to the standard objections that confront the argument with demarcation and explication problems, recent research results with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells) give reason to rethink the potentiality argument. By using the procedure of tetraploid embryonic complementation scientists have shown that iPS cells are theoretically able to develop into a complete organism. In the animal model, viable offspring was already produced this way (see the module Tetraploid embryonic complementation). According to the potentiality argument, these iPS cells and thus all somatic cells that can be reprogrammed into iPS cells should also have the moral status of a person. In this context, the potentiality argument appears to be implausible without further normative assumptions.

Schoene-Seifert, Bettina / Stier, Marco (2013): The Argument from Potentiality in the Embryo Protection Debate: Finally "Depotentialized"? In: American Journal of Bioethics 13(1), 19–27. doi: 10.1080/15265161.2012.743619 Online Version

Dufner, Annette (2013): Potentiality Arguments and the Definition of “Human Organism”. In: The American Journal of Bioethics 13(1), 33–34. Online Version 

Stier, Marco (2014): Tetraploid complementation of iPS cells: implications for the potentiality argument. In: Ethik in der Medizin 26, 181–194. doi: 10.1007/s00481-013-0254-8 Online Version (German)

McGee, Andrew (2014): The Potentiality of the Embryo and the Somatic Cell. In: Metaphilosophy 45(4-5), 689–706. Online Version

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