Vittorio Possenti

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Home Bioetica Normativity of Life – Normativity of Reason? Eichstaett, April 10-12, 2014

Normativity of Life – Normativity of Reason? Eichstaett, April 10-12, 2014

Normativity of Life – Normativity of Reason?


Implications for Bioethics


Eichstaett, April 10-12, 2014

in corso di stampa in Germania.


Reasons in favor of normativity of life/nature


by Vittorio Possenti (University of Venice)


Outline of the paper:

1) Reflections on life, nature and reason. The notion of personalistic Bioethics and the proper or distinctive good of the human person;

2) Determination of three fundamental meanings of the term ‘nature’;

3) On the exclusion of teleology and the is-ought dualism: a digression;

4) Is the concept of human nature normative?

5) Bioethical implications of the idea of ​​human nature (and of human person): the status of the human embryo; human enhancement;

6) Conclusions



The notions of life and (human) nature will be at the centre of my paper, and the main position defended is in favour of their normativity. Anyway the approach will not be neither a naturalistic one if for naturalism we mean the attempt to trace all back to physis, nor a non-cognitivistic one, for the classical concepts of life and nature are grounded in being. In this sense goodness is not a ‘non-natural property’1.

I wish to show that normativity of life and normativity of reason find a point of contact in the idea of ​​human nature endowed with logos and life: according to Aristotle, nature is the principle of life and movement of the subject to which it is inherent2.


1. Is normativity internal to life? The problem stated in the general title asks whether there is a normativity internal to life (and nature), or whether the normativity proceeds from assessments of human reason, understood as a ruling or normans reason. The question needs a few preliminary clarifications. First, although it may seem obvious, it is necessary to add that the life which we are talking about is human life, so the question becomes whether a normativity internal to human life exists. Personally I would speak of human nature’s internal normativity rather than of normativity of life, for the concept of life is central but perhaps too broad 3. With this option we shift to the question concerning 'normativity of nature/human essence', with the consequence of having to deepen the notions of human nature and of the human person, and to consider a personalistic bioethics based on these notions.

As the anthropological horizon is primary in bioethical issues, we have to reinsert anthropology and ontology into bioethics, which in my opinion cannot move forward only on moral grounds, leaving away other premises. For this reason, I will refer to the substantial character of the human being, and to the Boethian - Thomistic determination of person, considered more finished and determined than that of Kant4. Kant’s position in favour of human dignity stands as a moral or axiological assumption: but the most difficult and dilemmatic bioethical problems arise in border situations (conception, death, terminal ill patients, vegetative states of unconsciousness) where the only moral determination of person is unable to manage them, because – in order to answer adequately - we need to state objectively whether, in the border situations just alluded to, a human person is present or not. This implies that the notion of moral status, understood in strict sense, does not seem sufficient to handle the problem of the human embryo, and it needs to be expanded to include an explicit reference to its ontological status and of course to an ontological determination of person5. In other terms in border situations subjects can be protected by the principle of human dignity if and only if we have sufficient reasons to consider them persons with full rights.


2. Nature: three basic meanings. In order to examine the notion of nature and the question whether it is normative, we need to consider nature’s fundamental meanings, which are multiple and different. Reduced to a cultural construct produced by interconnection of experiences and languages ​​of philosophical, scientific, literary, religious kinds, it seems that nature is merely a cultural artifice: no idea would be more cultural than that of nature. But what nature? In the absence of any attempt to determine the concept in its basic meanings, the term ‘nature’ is abandoned to uncontrolled oscillations: in turn it can mean nature as physis or cosmos as we know it, or - which is quite different - the human nature or essence. If we write "nature" but we think of "human nature”, it is inevitable that contradictions and confusion will be multiplied, and the investigation will fail even before you start.

To set the ideas clearly it is necessary to introduce three basic meanings of nature:

a. nature as physis, as a cosmos subject to evolution and structured according to a wide variety of laws (mechanical, chemical, electrical, electronic, biological-genetic), whom sciences are dealing with. Such primary idea of ​​nature as universe includes both the area of life and that of inanimate bodies. The laws of nature - those that govern the physical nature in all its manifold manifestations - are discovered and explored by physics and biology, and often expressed in a mathematical language. We are in an area where modern sciences have made ​​enormous progress;

b. nature as a synonym of essence, so that "human nature" and "human essence" can be considered as equivalent terms. These two concepts relate to everything that is distinctively their own, or indeed essential, to a species and defines it.

With reference to nature or essence we introduce a concept central and irreplaceable in philosophical tradition. When we say that the rising of the sun, earthquakes, and tides are natural phenomena, we employ "natural" in the first sense. When we speak of nature or human essence as something proper to human beings, we employ it in the second meaning: then we are carrying out a philosophical research on the specific characters of human nature, employing the knowledge acquired by science and experience, but without limiting ourselves only to them.

c. the third meaning is nature as life, as internal principle of self construction or autopoiesis, which expresses itself in growth and decline typical of a living being. This third concept is linked to the second, and concerns the scope or range of the living beings, human and nonhuman. Nature comes from nasci, and it means the internal principle of life and immanent action, that is the activities that originate and end within the agent. Where there is nature as internal principle of change, there is immanent action. The change does not come from outside but from within6. About this matter, particularly modern and suitable is nature’s determination suggested by Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas who understand nature as internal principle of life and motion. Thomas Aquinas adopts in his commentary the concept of nature developed by Aristotle in Physics, “Natura nihil aliud est quam principium motus et quietis in eo in quo est primo et per se et non secundum accidens”7.

It is obvious that we will start off on the wrong foot, if we do not provide as a first step a conceptual cleaning, which rarely happens, for not so many do care to distinguish at least between the first and the second meaning of nature. The issue becomes much more complicated when in opposition to the "natural" is introduced the artificial, as in today's life there is an inextricable mix of natural and artificial. The observation is correct if referred to the first meaning of natural, but this is often played wrongly implying that artificial interventions can change the nature/essence understood according to the second meaning, which is impossible8.

The elimination of the concept of nature as immanent activity, autopoiesis and telos internal to living beings is what mechanism, materialism and positivism operate. From this it is easy to assess the threat posed by the ideology of scientism, which proceeds to a radical objectification of the world, reduced to a mechanism devoid of any purpose.


3. On the exclusion of teleology and the is-ought dualism: a digression. Empiricism and positivism support a radically afinalistic vision of reality and promote the end of any internal teleology of nature/physis, which conversely is particularly striking in living beings. It is intrinsic to the phenomenon of life to move towards, and to aspire to some end. In order to understand a living being it is first necessary to understand that towards which it tends. With materialism and mechanism the fundamental triad esse-vivere-intelligere reduces to the polarity being-consciousness, that is to the object-subject polarity with the disappearance of the concept of life and of the teleology internal to life. But if for the living beings 'to exist is to live' (Aristotle)9​​, in order to understand them we must understand what is their life.

Materialism and mechanism think of nature just as mere passive matter on which a manipulation imposed by man is exerted. When we talk about the normativity of nature/life, we must overcome the dichotomy is-ought in which being is understood as a mere positive fact, and recover the link between ontology and ethics as suggested by Jonas among others. Jonas considers the facts - values ​​dichotomy as a postulate placed in the premise or as the result of a decision, not of an argument: “The ontology as a foundation of ethics was the original point of view of philosophy. The separation of the two, which is the separation of the kingdom 'objective’ from the 'subjective‘ one, is the modern destiny. Their rejoining, even if supposed possible, can be operated ​​only starting from the 'objective' side, that is, through a revision of the idea of ​​nature. And it is nature in becoming rather than the static one to provide such a perspective. "10


4. Is human nature normative?


Human nature reveals to ourselves by virtue of its inclinations and tendencies, its intimate teleological constitution hosting in itself a requirement of compliance and therefore of a normativity understood not only as a mere spontaneity. Reason/logos is the form of human nature, where nature in a general sense (physis) comes to itself and to consciousness. To behave according to human nature means to behave morally good toward oneself and others, being able to achieve human flourishing.

According to Ph. Foot "natural goodness, which is attributable only to living things themselves and to their parts, characteristics and operations, is intrinsic or ‘autonomous’ goodness in that it depends directly on the relation of an individual to the ‘life form’ of its species" (p. 26s.), and this life form for mankind is to live according to logos11. Thus, there is a peculiar good internal to human life, and it is the activity of the soul in accordance with virtue. Living according to nature is for human being to live according to its rational nature, exercising the ergon proper to the human being. Moreover it is legitimate to maintain that not only the notion of human nature is relevant for some kind of normativity, but also that of human person. According to A. Rosmini, “ the human person is the subsistens law (jus subsistens, diritto sussistente), and then the essence of law (jus)” 12. The fundamental basis and origin of (natural) law (jus) is the person.

The concept of human nature, introducing a normativity intrinsic to human being, reveals that it is not pure freedom, according to the opposition between nature and freedom that is present in many notable moments of modern thought. Consequently man is no nature but infinite freedom with which he proceeds to build himself. Opposition between nature and freedom which was strongly marked by Kant who is dependent on a univocal and perhaps 'physical' understanding of nature, and much more underlined by libertarians according to whom freedom would be expressed only by destroying human nature. Libertarian spiritualism, believing that human nature is exclusively freedom, reduces the normative nature of the human being to the imperative 'be free‘.

On the other side naturalism thinks that the unique normativity is inscribed in those natural necessities, which do not pertain to the ethical field. But if the nature/physis cannot form the basis of an ethics and moral constraints, human nature can it. In fact, we see that there are many goods that attract us, and we find that some are for the human being more important and fundamental than others. We understand that some of these are essential for the continuation of physical life and other important for our conduct as human subjects, as persons. We understand that there are purposes better than others (it is better looking for the knowledge than spending your life doing nothing), and finally that in human nature are inscribed some purposes fundamental for it.



5. Two cases: the question of human embryo, and that of human enhancement


5.1. Embryo. In this context, the theme of the human embryo - its ontological status and its right to life and non-manipulation - takes on an emblematic value. It is one of the most decisive themes for our future, and among the most intensely debated since several decades. In the serious case of human embryo coincide its non-appearance, its reduction to something quantitatively and dimensionally minimum, and the fact that it constitutes a vital crossroads, because it influences the understanding of man and life.

The embryo’s question is universal and applies to all, at least for the fact that each of us was an embryo, so that in the embryo is at stake the most basic and public of rights: the right to life. In addition, the theme of the embryo should be regulated as part of an argument that can be recognized by all and based on a close intertwining of science and philosophy. Ultimately, the question regards whether the central concepts of person and human dignity (the latter is constitutionally protected in several countries as well as by the Universal Declaration of 1948) are to be (or not to be) applied to the human embryo, so protecting it from destruction that can come from scientific or therapeutic intent, and from the practice of prolonged freezing which denies flatly the embryo’s natural right to develop and grow. In such a case we are in front of human beings 'suspended' in freezers.

Ultimately the question is whether human embryo is holder of an unconditional right to life by virtue of his personal character and the dignity that belongs to him. The problem must be assessed in its anthropological and ontological status, for the resultant normativity is a normativity derived from an assessment of reality: what is the ontological-real status of the human embryo? If we have good reasons to believe that such a statute is personal, from this follows the ethical judgment ruling his unconditional respect.

I hold that all human beings are equal in dignity, and ought not be harmed or considered to be less than human on the basis of age or size or stage of development or condition of dependency. Since fertilization we possess the entire genetic material needed to inform (forma, morphé) and organize our growth. Human embryo development, after the substantial discontinuity represented by conception, is a continuous process, in which no phase or stage is more important than others. At the very moment of conception takes place a substantial transformation, and no other subsequent substantial transformations are apparent and visible13. Then embryo is not a potential human person, but a person at the beginning, a person with a huge amount of potentiality to develop and to become an adult.

In the book Il Nuovo Principio Persona I have developed arguments to show that the human embryo is a human being in its own right, and thus a person, deserving of unconditional respect. The central arguments can be summarized as follows: 1) at the time of conception a substantial transformation occurs with the formation, starting from the two gametes, of a new substantial reality, with its own individual genetic code, distinctive of the human species; 2) from then on do not appear further substantial transformations, capable of changing the nature/essence of the new substance, but only accidental transformations: accidental, however, does not mean secondary14. The only real discontinuity is therefore the conception; 3) therefore it must be inferred that from the moment of conception a personal human subject is present; 4) the argument does not use the concept of soul and its infusion, but that of substantial transformation as a central concept in the philosophy of nature; 5 ) in the overall process an important aspect is played by formal causality, represented by genetic inheritance as informing cause of the body development. The causality of the genome is not merely efficient but also formal; 6) a mention deserves the category of relation: for some positions the embryo begins to become person only after implantation in the woman's body: this would be the first formation of a relation. But relationship is not the principle or cause of person’s existence, but is a perfective mode of the subject. Relation does not constitute the person ontologically but establishes it operationally.

In general, the argument claims that to become person is an act and not a process, and that between a gradualist and non-gradualist conception of becoming person it is necessary to opt for the latter15. This depends on the Boethian-Thomistic determination of person, which is substantial and non-functional. By functional definition of person I mean a determination which binds the existence of person to the verifiable possession of certain functions, often empirically ascertainable, and not to the primary act of being (actus essendi) of a new substance. The gradualist conception of the person includes a gradualist conception of the rights of the embryo, so that the embryo does not have the same amplitude of the rights of the new born. This is ruled out if we resort to the language of substantial transformation.

5. 2. The argument proposed, according to which the moment of fundamental discontinuity in the formation of the human being is the conception, when the only substantial transformation ascertainable happens, may well also apply when we perform a journey back, starting from that human existing being that I am, and looking for a non-arbitrary point where I can recognize the beginning of my personal being. This point is fertilization where begins a human life that is not that of the father or mother, but that of a new human being with his own growth (autopoiesis ) in a coordinated and continuous manner, after the ontological jump represented by the substantial transformation occurred at conception.


Annotation on substantial transformation and mechanism. According to the general doctrine there are four types of transformations: substantial change (conception and death, generation and corruption; function of nutrition); qualitative change as an alteration (eg. the color of a leaf alters and changes); quantitative change (increase and decrease), local change (motion or movement). The last three are classified as accidental changes.

Now the idea of the mechanism is that all changes are reduced only to local changes. As it is assumed that only moving particles (atoms or similar) exist, all the immense variety of the universe is nothing but the outcome of accidental transformations (aggregation and disaggregation of parts), so that there would be no substantial change in the real sense. But the phenomenon of life and generation rebels openly to mechanism. Therefore the idea of ​​substantial transformation and conception as substantial transformation should find allies in biologists. The opposite happens precisely in mechanism and in Cartesianism, by which it becomes impossible to understand the conception and appearance of something that is radically new, for in mechanism the changing spatial arrangements of individual parts have exclusive relief. These changing aggregations do not have a true or real substantiality. In short, mechanism is disastrously inadequate to understand the phenomena of generation and procreation, and in general of life.


5. 3. The right to life of embryo. The fundamental right to life of the human embryo requires the minimal care necessary for a human being at every stage of its development: to be supported in this process and not to be destroyed. Ethically, this should entail, at least, that embryos should not be created for research and experimental purposes, and should not be frozen, because freezing denies the fundamental natural right to growth and development. The ontological personalism claims the identity without residues between homo and person, being homo any member of the human species in its genetic makeup, and whatever its degree of development. Consequently are removed the categories of non-person (the fetus), of quasi-person (the newborn), of semi-person (the old severely declining), of no-more-person (the patient in a vegetative state), that are categories-fiction, whose real referents are incorporated into that of person. One thing is personalism, another 'personism': I call personism those doctrines for which there are human beings 'not yet person' and ‘no more person', as claimed by some contemporary authors including H. T. Engelhardt, D. Parfit, P. Singer, etc.


5 . 4. Embryo and scrap culture. The civil laws on the human embryo are varied according to the States, but generally they do not express an adequate level of protection. In several countries the embryo can be frozen indefinitely, destroyed in order to obtain stem cells, used in scientific research, manipulated in various ways, created ad hoc for various purposes, subject therefore to the principle of utility. For several instances it seems that embryo is part of the culture of waste or scrap: an embryo as a mere clump of cells is a waste product, and you can dispose of it freely. In general, the culture of waste does not include the recovery and preservation of scraps, including human scraps as embryos 16. The match is being played between the normativity of moral reason and the culture of waste, of rejection, of reification, which involves enormous ecological costs.


5. 5. Human Enhancement and mainly cognitive Enhancement. Having in mind the culture of waste, we now take a look at the topic of human enhancement. There is a clear implication between culture of enhancement and culture of scrap: the enhancement strengthens the culture of scrap because the normal is not enough, but it must be put aside and discarded to achieve the ‘more than normal' level, the potentiated level. So in a hypertechnological society, afflicted by a severe humanistic crisis, the race for the enhancement and improvement is also a race to increase waste and to raise the threshold below which there are scraps.

Human enhancement can occur through genetics, neuroscience, pharmacology, nanotechnology, and it concerns the life of the body as much as the psychic level. In a way, the central problem of enhancement regards the issue whether the human enhancement can change the human essence, going to a posthuman subject, as it is sometimes said today. I will not deal here with such a complex theme, already mentioned in note 8 and developed in the book La rivoluzione biopolitica. La fatale alleanza tra materialismo e tecnica (Lindau, Turin 2013), but I will turn to some aspects of cognitive enhancement for healthy subjects, a topic that has given rise to an opinion of the Italian National Bioethics Committee: Neurosciences and Pharmacological Cognitive Enhancement: Bioethical Profiles (February 2013). Without summarizing the document, I would now like to touch certain nuclei less present in the opinion.

The cognitive enhancement relates to the use of drugs by people who do not have overt deficits to be recovered, but wish to raise their performance having in view sometimes a playful end, but more often a performant aim: better memory, more stable and acute attention, better learning ability, and so on. Although the question appears more projected into the future than in the present, nonetheless the issue is beginning to be a subject of debate within the public and especially among experts for anthropological, moral, social and medical problems that it conveys.

Among the main factors to consider for a comprehensive evaluation, some are easier to manage, such as safety (the cognitive enhancers should not harm or create dependency), the non-coercion (no one should be forced to take them), the allocation of resources in the sense that those for cognitive enhancement should not come at the expense of resources intended to cure (therapy) and prevent (prophylaxis) illnesses. Other factors, necessary for a moral evaluation, present greater difficulties. Among these three are worthy to be considered: a) the understanding that the subject forms of himself and of others, and the influence of cognitive enhancers on the moral landscape of society; b) their impact on quality of life; c) the question whether their use violates the criteria of fairness and merit.

a) Relevant is the question whether the cognitive enhancers favor a change of self-understanding and of social relationship. Where the use of the enhancers is only on an individual basis, the mere difference ‘lawful/unlawful’ seems insufficient to provide an adequate criterion, since it is plausible that the users of enhancers orient themselves to think about themselves and those who do not take these products as different categories. A real risk in enhancing healthy subjects is that they could easily manifest a tendency to do by themselves, and to compete rather than to cooperate. Certain forms of enhancement may alter the relationship with the other through a practice that minimizes the principle of solidarity. Then the solidarity between advantaged and disadvantaged persons, which remains an essential core of any decent society, would fail or would be neglected. In addition, the increase of individual cognitive performances of a subject could go to the disadvantage of its relational qualities.

Then a mutual reinforcement between use of enhancers and ethical individualism is plausible: this makes it more difficult for the individual to cultivate moral sentiments of openness to others. In ethical individualism the duties of solidarity are not real duties, as they would come only after a consensus that the subject is free to give or not to give, and they would therefore possess only a consensual or contractual character. Understood on a purely individual basis, the use of enhancers houses a propensity for competition, not for solidarity.

b) With regard to the quality of life, enhancement should deal with sensitive anthropological issues, also in relation to a “humanistic canon”, which regards the activities of free fruition/enjoyment and not only of competitive performance as essential to the human being. In general it is not reasonable to assume that the increase in performance of individual capacities increases per se the quality of personal and collective life. And it is legitimate to raise doubts on the idea that a continuous increase in performance and records, similar to what happens in sports, is a valid parameter in social life. In other words, the fundamental social practices of any well-ordered society have a low similarity with those of a sport club. The risk is to understand the human subject as a set of performances, at a time when big is the social pressure to improve performances or functions rather than social cooperative practices and virtues.

c) A further problem is represented by the principle of merit, in the sense that enhancers could alter the allocation of merit. The reflection on this criterion is complex, for merit is an elastic concept that can change significantly depending on areas of society. In the field of study/school, and reasoning roughly on the basis of similar natural endowments, those who study more and achieve better outcomes have a greater relative merit. On the other hand in the study/school domain there are fewer variables than in other social sectors, such as that of work/job where the merit is subject to the conditioning of multiple factors, so it is less decisive.

In general, and not just in sport competitions, we reward the success or the result, not the commitment or capacities, although those who have greater capacities generally achieve better results. To distribute according to merit very often is tantamount to distribute according to the results that may depend on the better qualities of the subject rather than on its higher commitment. And the natural talents are not a merit but a chance. The idea that minimizes moral merit (commitment, loyalty, willpower), and watches the result cannot be made ​​absolute: you have to keep an area in which counts the moral merit, not performance but the flowering of human capacities through the refinement of physical and spiritual functions. There is a difference between bettering themselves through exercise or by potentiating drugs. It is possible that the enhancers, encouraging attention to the outcome and not on moral merit, may constitute a disincentive for auto education and a loss for the individual and for society.




The rooting of axiology in ontology and of the doctrine of action in that of being leads to detect in the concepts of life, human nature and person their internal normativity. This basic approach is important also for bioethics as it forces this discipline to pay attention to delicate ontological and anthropological issues when dealing with its major problems and in particular that of the personal status of human embryo. To this end, I offered an argument that, on the basis of the classical determination of the person and of the doctrine of substantial transformation, argues the personal status of the human embryo and consequently the unconditional respect that is due to him/her and the dignity that is proper to him/her. Different and somewhat simpler is the case of pharmacological cognitive enhancers: we have investigated some factors which are relevant to an ethical judgment on them. Anyway, if the question on human enhancement were about the possibility of upgrading the human subject towards a transhuman one, we should investigate whether the power of the technique could achieve so much.

In any case in a period in which many bioethical matters are regulated through rules, laws and jurisprudence instead of argumentations, it should be more and more necessary to revitalize doctrinal or ‘theoretical’ Bioethics, in order to avoid an impoverishment of this fundamental discipline, the victory of a positivistic and materialistic standpoint, and the equation/identity between technical feasibility and moral goodness. This issue is vital because if predominance is attributed to positive legislation and jurisprudence, then philosophical Bioethics will come very quickly to an end.


1 See Ph. Foot, Natural goodness, Clarendon Press, Oxford 2010, p. 6. In general Ph. Foot declares herself against the necessity and even the possibility of interpreting “moral language in expressivist terms”, p. 25.


2 Cf. Physics, 192 b 20ff.

3 According to H. Jonas, philosophy of life includes philosophy of the organism and philosophy of mind (see Organismo e libertà [Organismus und Freiheit], Einaudi. Turin 1999, p. 305), and this opinion can be shared. However, as the reference to a general philosophy of life would move us far enough away from the bioethical theme of our session, I prefer to pivot on the concept of normativity of human nature.


4 Boethius:persona est rationalis naturae individua substantia” (De duabus naturis et una persona Christi, III, 1-3, Contra Eutichen et Nestorium). Thomas Aquinas:persona est subsistens in rationali natura”, S. Th, I, q. 29, to. 3, cf. also Contra Gentes, l. IV, c. 35, and De Potentia, q. 9 a. 4.
Kant: "reasonable beings are called persons, because their very nature makes them already ends in themselves, that is something that cannot be used simply as a means, and this therefore limits each will (and it is object of respect)", Fondazione della metafisica dei costumi [Grundlegung zur Metaphysik der Sitten], Laterza, Rome-Bari 1980, p. 60.

According to Kant, if you are not a person, you are a thing. Many question this Kantian absolute difference which does not deserve different attention and obligations to animals, which are living beings and not things.


5 In the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the concept of moral status is defined as follows: "An entity has moral status if and only if it or its interests morally matter to some degree for the entity's own sake, such that it can be wronged... The notion of full moral status applies for the highest degree of status.”


6 On this important matter see Essere e libertà, Rubbettino, Soveria 2004, and Il Nuovo Principio Persona, Armando, Rome 2013, where more developments are offered.


7 In octo libros Physicorum expositio, L. II, lectio 1, n. 145; cf. Physics, l. II, 192 b 20s.

Nomen naturae primo impositum est ad significandam generationem viventium, quae dicitur nativitas. Et quia huiusmodi generatio est a principio intrinseco, extensum est hoc nomen ad significandum principium intrinsecum cuiuscumque motus”, S. Th., I, q. 29, a. 1, ad 4m.


8 On the absolute impossibility that the power of technology can change the human essence cf. V. Possenti, Il Nuovo Principio Persona, ch. VI, and "Die Natur des Menschen ändern? Die Biotechnologien und die anthropologische Frage“, AA. VV., Normkultur Vs. Nutzenkultur, Th. S. Hoffmann und W. Schweidler (Hrsg), de Gruyter, Berlin-New York 2006, p. 471-506.


9 De Anima, II, 4, 415 b14. While in Italian there is only one word to say 'life', the Greeks possessed two terms: bíos e zoé. The term 'biology', which seems to have been introduced by Lamarck at the end of XVIII century, clearly comes from bíos, but in fact this is not the only term available to signify life. Zoé means life that occurs in all organic beings, the root of life, the mere fact of living common to all living beings: in a certain way it is the principle of life. Its opposite is non-life, not death, for those who die are individual organic entities, not the principle of life. If one refers to human life, zoé is the life by which we live (qua vivimus), bíos the life we live (quam vivimus).

10 H. Jonas, Organismo e libertà, p. 306. See also Natural Goodness, p. 8ss. According to Jonas, modern exclusion of final causes was a decision or an assumption, not a result of an investigation: "With regard to final causes it is evident that their refusal was a methodological principle that guided the investigation and not the conclusion of the results obtained from the research”, Organismo e libertà, p. 47. On these issues cf. also R. Spaemann and R. Löw, Natürliche Ziele, Klett-Cotta 2005, ital. transl. Fini naturali. Storia e riscoperta del pensiero teleologico, Ares, Milan, 2013.


11 See Nicomachean Ethics, 1098 a 17ff.


12 Filosofia del diritto, n. 49.

13 Others such as M. Sandel do not see any biologically determined moment when an embryo acquires the moral status of a person. The process is seen as gradual, and no substantial transformation is considered. The reasoning is not ontological but phenomenological, cf. The Case against perfection. Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering, M. J. Sandel 2007 (see pp. 110ff of the Italian translation, Vita e pensiero, Milan 2008.

14 Recently I came upon a report of the United States Governments' Domestic Policy Council. It admits that human embryos are human beings: the only differences between embryos and human beings, the report says, are accidental differences in levels of development; Washington DC, January 10, 2007 ( “Embryos are humans in their earliest developmental stage, writes the Council. Each of us originated as a single-celled embryo, and from that moment have developed along a continuous biological trajectory throughout our existence. To speak of ‘an embryo’ is to designate a human being at a particular stage.”  The report condemns the destruction of human embryos for the purpose of stem-cell research, and instead advocates alternative sources of stem-cells, including cells derived from amniotic fluid and adult stem-cells. “In sum,” reads the Executive Summary, “it increasingly appears that the qualities researchers value in embryonic cells may also exist in other stem cells that are easier to procure, more stable to grow, safer to use in therapies, and free of the ethical violations of embryo destruction.” Human embryos are what the embryology textbooks say they are, namely, human organisms — living individuals of the human species — at the earliest developmental stage. Read “Advancing Stem Cell Science Without Destroying Human Life” by the Domestic Policy Council: stemcell_010907.pdf.

15 In the book Dignità umana e Bioetica (Morcelliana, Brescia 2010) E. W. Böckenförde is inclined to the view that, after the substantial transformation of conception, there will be no more changes other than those due to the autopoiesis. L. Kass, while arguing that human life begins with fertilization and conception, does not believe that the blastocyst is a human being in its own right, cf. La sfida della bioetica, Lindau, Turin 2007, p. 131-133.

16 "The new ideologies, which are characterized by widespread individualism, self-centeredness and materialistic consumerism, weaken social bonds, fueling the mentality of 'waste' that leads to contempt and neglect of the weak, of those who are considered 'useless'", Fraternity. The Foundation and Pathway to peace, Message of Pope Francis for the 47th World Day of Peace.