Campus News

Philosophers to discuss origins, identity at UB conference

Detail of Romanell Conference poster.

The Department of Philosophy's annual conference on bioethics and the philosophy of medicine will feature three pre-eminent philosophers who will defend their positions on when a human being comes into existence.


Published July 24, 2017 This content is archived.

Headshot of David Hershenov.
“This conference will not be a dry philosophical debate. ”
David Hershenov, professor
Department of Philosophy

Bioethical arguments related to abortion and embryonic stem cell research often depend on first answering questions of origins. When do humans come into existence? Does fertilization represent creation’s flash point? Or does existence require the glow of consciousness or perhaps separation from the birth mother?

These questions of our origins, along with discussions pertaining to personal identity, represent the dual themes of this year’s Romanell Conference (formerly the PANTC Conference) presented by the Department of Philosophy.

Three pre-eminent philosophers will visit UB to defend their positions on these issues as part of the two-day event being held from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. July 28-29 in 280 Park Hall, North Campus, a space unofficially renamed the Theresa Monacelli Conference Room in appreciation of the retired philosophy staff member’s contributions to previous conferences.

John Lizza, professor of philosophy at Kutztown University; Don Marquis, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Kansas; and Marya Schechtman, professor of philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, will each deliver a separate keynote address.

The Romanell Conference, the fifth annual event exploring bioethics and the philosophy of medicine, is free and open to the public. A complete schedule of presenters and their topics is available online.

“These issues go right to the heart of the culture wars — abortion, control over one’s body, sexual identity, personal identity, the social construction of the self and hastening death,” says David Hershenov, UB professor of philosophy who joined the keynoters on a panel about personal identity and death at the American Philosophical Association’s national meeting last year in Chicago.

“This conference will not be a dry philosophical debate.”

There is no philosophical consensus on when a human being comes into existence, Hershenov explains.

“If we persons were never early mindless embryos, then we couldn’t have been harmed by an abortion or embryonic stem cell research that destroys an embryo,” he says. “Early abortion would be more akin to contraception in that it prevents someone from coming into existence rather than killing an existing individual, preventing them from having a valuable future.”

Some philosophers think existence begins two weeks after fertilization when twinning can no longer occur.

“If we came into existence before identical twins were formed, then twinning might have involved our deaths as the embryo that we were identical with splits in two.”

Other philosophers believe persons are essentially thinking entities, so there is no existence without consciousness. Fertilization in this case can’t represent existence since the fetal brain requires 20 weeks of post-fertilization development before it can support consciousness.

“There are even some philosophers who believe we don’t come into existence until we are separated, or at least separable, from our mothers,” he says. “They don’t think we could ever have been a part of another human being. That would mean there is a larger human being composed of a smaller human being.”

Marquis, author of the seminal article “Why Abortion is Immoral,” believes existence occurs two weeks after fertilization. Schechtman, the most famous promotor of the “narrative account of personal identity,” has a more fluid belief on existence and is exploring the idea that our origins stretch across the entire pregnancy. Lizza, an expert on death and a proponent of the “constitution idea,” uses the analogy of a sculpture’s differences from that of unformed clay. He sees humans as minded beings that don’t exist until we’ve formed the capacity for thought.

“The conference will be entertaining for many reasons, including the fact that many of the participants are long-term philosophical rivals, and so quite willing to bluntly and sarcastically express their criticism of each other,” Hershenov says.

Other conference highlights include a talk on the transgender category of personal identification by Barry Smith, SUNY Distinguished Professor in the UB Department of Philosophy and director of the National Center for Ontological Research. In addition, Catherine Nolan, affiliate assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Dallas, will discuss intersex children, and Stephen Kershnar, SUNY Fredonia professor of philosophy,will discuss whether physicians deserve the high compensation they receive.

“Kershnar is a libertarian,” says Hershenov. “I suspect he will answer they are entitled to that money and should hardly be taxed.”