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Greetings from Amsterdam!

How are you all doing?

As I promised last month, I am sending out another E-zine which continues the one from February. In the previous E-zine, we covered Peter Singer's challenge to Socrates' legacy. Below we describe the response from Robert Spaemann to Singer in his book "Persons". In future newsletters we will also see how Leonardo Polo's thought can be used to complement Spaemann's response. I hope you enjoy the exercise.

On the 25th of March, I will give an online talk via Zoom on "Anthropology and Personal Growth". It carries the subtitle "Entering into, accepting, and redemption of our fragility as a road to personal development. Leonardo Polo meets La Vie". In this talk I will explain how my intellectual and personal journey has led me to a fruitful encounter between Leonardo Polo and La Vie. The zoom link for the talk on Saturday, March 25th is the same for the English version at 15:00 and for the Spanish version at 16:30: Feel invited to join! You can find more description below.

I wish you happy reading!

Daniel Bernardus

What's in This Issue?

1) An Idea: Spaemann responds to Singer's Challenge
2) An Experience: World Youth Days
3) An Anecdote: How I met La Vie, and its connection to Leonardo Polo
4) What’s coming up

1) An Idea: Spaemann responds to Singer's Challenge

This is an abstract of what we saw in the last newsletter.

Peter Singer has attacked the thought tradition that arguably springs from Socrates for being responsible for enslaving animals. He has specifically attacked what he calls the “sanctity of life” stance, the view that it is always wrong intentionally to take an innocent human life. From his preference utilitarian perspective, any rational self-conscious being with future preference should be included in ethical deliberation, which leads him to attribute personhood to certain animals, and not to human beings who do not display rationality and self-consciousness. According to Singer, attributing personhood exclusively to humans and to all humans is speciesism, discrimination on the sole basis of biological species.

Singer’s position has been criticized from different angles, and he has answered many of these critiques. We will examine Singer’s answers to the challenge from potentiality, to the charge of dualism, and to the question what happens to his argument if Socrates’ legacy is not speciesist.

In this newsletter we will examine a critique of Singer's position from the thought of Robert Spaemann, in his book "Persons".

Spaemann’s view of personhood

In his book ‘Persons’ Spaemann[1]  takes issue with the notion of personhood as presented by Singer and Parfit[2]. Spaemann classifies Singer’s position as ‘nominalist’. That means that Singer is putting the label ‘person’ on a reality with certain properties (rational and self-conscious) without further reflecting about the underlying reality and the lived experience of personhood. Spaemann’s book ‘Persons’ contains exactly this: a detailed description of many aspects of lived personhood and a deeper reflection on the underlying reality. This deeper reflection on the underlying reality is necessary exactly to make sense of our lived experience.

At the end of his book, Spaemann gives several arguments to counter Singer’s position. Many of these arguments start from the lived experience of personhood. One core observation is that all persons are above all living beings, and we recognize them through their lived corporality. If we see a photograph of ourselves as a baby, we say: That’s me! Not: that’s a being from which I come. Spaemann says

The person does not begin its existence after the human being, nor does it end its existence before the human being. It takes quite a time before a human being starts to say 'I'. But what does he or she mean by 'I'? Not 'an I, but simply the selfsame human being who says 'I'. So we say, 'I was born on such and such a date', or even, 'I was conceived on such and such a date, though the being that was conceived or on that date did not say 'I' at the time. That is no reason for saying, 'On such and such a date there was born some thing from which I later developed.' I was this creature that was born. Personality is not the result of development, but its framework. Since persons are not totally accounted for by their present condition, they can understand their own as that of a unified 'self' over time. This unified self is the 'person'. [3]

In practice, we treat babies as persons, and that is also essential for their development as persons. Spaemann says

There is no graduated transition from a 'something' to 'someone. It is only because we treat human beings from the start as someone, not as something, that the majority of human beings actually develop the properties that then justify the way we have treated them.[4]

Persons are therefore not solitary, but part of a community. And recognizing someone as a person has an impact on someone’s role in a community, which is compromised if we go only by external properties. Spaemann says

To acknowledge personal existence is to acknowledge an unconditional demand. This unconditional demand could only be an illusion if in practice it could materialize only on certain empirical conditions, which might or might not be fulfilled.[5]

How compromising this unconditional demand comes across to disabled people is vividly illustrated by the start of the disability activist Harriet McBryde Johnson’s reaction to Singer’s stance

He insists he doesn't want to kill me. He simply thinks it would have been better, all things considered, to have given my parents the option of killing the baby I once was, and to let other parents kill similar babies and thereby avoid the suffering that comes with lives like mine and satisfy the reasonable preferences of parents for a different kind of child. It has nothing to do with me. I should not feel threatened.[6]

In his reply to Johnson, Singer shares reflections on the quality of life of disabled people and says that in many cases it is possible that they have a rich and full life. In more extreme cases, though, their views differ. Singer writes

Johnson describes an exchange we had about the case of a totally unconscious person who we can be sure will never recover consciousness. (…) Johnson says that continuing to take care of such an individual could be beautiful. Perhaps it could. Since a totally unconscious person cannot suffer, I don't really object to it, if that is what people want to do, and if they use their own resources to do it. But when I suggested to Johnson that keeping such people alive imposes a burden on the caregiver, usually a woman who is then unable to have a life of her own, her reply was that society should pay workers to provide that care in the home. I would give priority to meeting the needs of conscious beings like the billion people currently living in extreme poverty before spending our limited resources on those who cannot experience any benefit at all from the care they receive. [7]

To this argument, Spaemann has the following to say

Friendship and erotic love develop mainly in response to the beloved's individual personal properties. A disabled person may lack such properties, and it is by lacking them that they constitute the paradigm for a human community of recognizing selves, rather than simply valuing useful or attractive properties. They evoke the best in human beings; they evoke the true ground of human self-respect. So what they give to humanity in this way by the demands they make upon it is more than what they receive.[8]

Therefore, the “unconditional demand” that personhood makes on other persons in the human community comes to life especially in our dealings with the disabled. And responding to this demand is valuable in and of itself, because it evokes the true ground of human self-respect, according to Spaemann.

Finally, Spaemann argues that experience illustrates how recognizing intentionality in others is certainly possible, but we cannot reach the same certainty about its absence.

We can attain unqualified certainty about the presence of intentionality; we do so constantly, whenever we engage in immediate personal communication. But we cannot reach the same certainty about its absence. (…) It may happen in fact that someone acts intentionally without this being recognizable to observers.[9]

Spaemann goes on to give the example of Malvolio, who sets out to woo Olivia with entirely false assumptions about what will make her admire him. An observer cannot know what he hopes to achieve with his strange way of dressing, but that does not mean Malvolio cannot be acting intentionally.

Therefore in Spaemann’s view the lived experience of personhood shows that there is no point at which someone “starts to be a person”, that being treated as a person from the start is important for our development in a community, and that acknowledging personhood is an unconditional demand which becomes an illusion if only met on certain empirical conditions. Finally, to say that intentionality is absent is very difficult in practice and should therefore not be claimed too easily.

While this last argument is cautionary, Spaemann also says that if we reflect on our lived experience, there are reasons to think that intentionality expands beyond what can be directly observed. What, for example, follows from that we say that it was “me” that was born?

What this separation of the biological from the personal fails to grasp, is that personhood is situated in the life of human beings. Fundamental biological functions and relations are not apersonal; they are specifically personal performances and interactions.[10]

That personhood is situated in the life of human beings, has consequences for the notions of “potential personhood” that Singer also criticizes. Spaemann says:

There are, in fact, no potential persons. (…) The person is not the result of modification; it simply 'presents itself', like substance in Aristotle. The person is substance, because the person is the mode in which a human being exists.
 (…) Persons are, or they are not. If they are, they are actual, semper in actu. They are like Aristotelian 'substance, the protē energeia or first reality, which contains in itself the possibility of a multitude of further actualizations. So although it makes good sense to speak of intentionality as 'possible' or 'actual', since intentional acts emerge from the stream of consciousness and gradually assume a propositional structure to become distinct and separate items, when we speak of 'potential intentionality' we presume the existence of real persons as its subjects.[11]

Spaemann’s reply to Singer

At this point, we can see how Spaemann’s reflections reply to Singer’s earlier answers to the objections against his position (related in the previous newsletter).

To Singer’s answer to the defense from potentiality, Spaemann would answer that this defense is a strawman. “Potential persons” do not exist, for personhood always actual. To Singer’s defense against the charge of dualism, Spaemann would say that by not wanting to engage in ontology, Singer is closed up in his preference utilitarianist system, and thereby does not do justice to the lived experience of personhood. Making sense of the lived experience of personhood requires ontological reflection.

Singer’s third reply in case the “sanctity of life” view were not speciesist, as well as the charge of speciesism itself, is more problematic for Spaemann’s position. Spaemann does speak to Singer’s argument that human life has equal value, because he argues that recognizing someone as a person makes an “unconditional demand” on the community in which that person is present. However, Spaemann’s argument is also applicable to animals, he even ends his book with the remark

The rights of persons are human rights. Yet if there exist within the universe other natural species of living beings possessing an inner life of sentience, whose adult members usually command rationality and self-awareness, we would have to acknowledge not only those instances but all instances of that species to be persons. All porpoises, for example.[12]

To this Singer would in all likelihood say: why then does the sanctity of life view deny personhood to other species? Why would we not call porpoises persons? In “animal liberation” Singer states

I think we should conclude, on the basis of the evidence just summarized, that some nonhuman animals are persons, as we have defined the term.[13]

Spaemann’s argument therefore does not counter the charge of speciesism that Singer makes to the view that it is always wrong to innocently take a human life.

As a final remark on Spaemann’s position, it is also good to note that he himself does not intend to defend Socrates’ legacy. He says

These reflections are prompted by a challenge our cultural tradition and its developed understanding of humanity and human rights. But it does not follow that they should be understood as a defense of that tradition. For the tradition itself has developed the potential for its own destruction, not least by separating and isolating consciousness and subjectivity from the concept of life.[14]

Spaemann’s reflections therefore criticize Singer’s nominalism and show that a deeper reflection on the lived experience of personhood is necessary to realize that personhood cannot just be stuck on someone as a label, but is rather constitutional to someone’s life. The reflection on lived experience of personhood leads to a reflection on the ontology of the person. Still, this reflection does not counter Singer’s charge of speciesism, nor does it fully defend Socrates’ legacy. For those points I would like to turn to some points from Socrates’ legacy as presented and developed by a different philosopher called Leonardo Polo. These will be presented in the next E-zine.
[1] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017., pp 2-3.
[2] PARFIT, D. Reasons and Persons. Oxford, 1985.
[3] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017, p 245.
[4] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017, p 242.
[5] Idem., p 246.
[6] SCHALER, J.A. Peter Singer Under Fire, Chicago and La Salle, 2009, p195
[7] SCHALER, J.A. Peter Singer Under Fire, Chicago and La Salle, 2009, p208
[8] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017, p 244.
[9] Idem., p 242.
[10] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017, p239.
[11] Idem., p 245.
[12] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017, p 248.
[13] SINGER, P.A.D. Practical Ethics, Cambridge, 2011, p100
[14] SPAEMANN, R. Persons. Oxford, 2017, p4. The quote continues: “Life is not an attribute or property which may or may not pertain to a given existent. Life is, as Aristotle wrote, 'the being of living things." Persons are living things. Their being and the conditions of their identity are the same as those of living creatures of any species. Yet they are grouped not in a species or a genus, but in community, open in principle to those of other species, a community where each member occupies a unique and distinctive position entirely his or her own. To occupy such a position is what it is to be 'someone' rather than 'something.”

2. An Experience: The World Youth Days

I am actually quite amazed that, at least in the Netherlands, many people have never heard of the World Youth Days. It is one of the biggest youth events in the world and is held at many different locations. This summer, it will be held in Lisbon, Portugal. I am now officially too old to go, but I cherish great memories, and hope many young people will be able to go. 

Even if you are not a catholic, this is a cultural phenomenon that I think you should know at least something about.
A short trailer for the World Youth Days 2023 in Lisbon.

4) An Anecdote: How I met La Vie, and its connection to Leonardo Polo

La Vie is a small Catholic institution located in Zeewolde, The Netherlands, which has received a charism of healing recognized by the Church. The charism leads to an intimate purification that helps us to get to know more deeply the person that we are, our divine filiation.

I got to know Rolanda, who works at La Vie, at an encounter of our diocese some time ago. I found that interesting, but for several years I did not follow up on this contact. That changed when a good friend of mine needed more help than the current mental health system could give him. I thought back to La Vie, and also became interested in their charism, because I thought it would be relevant for my PhD in philosophy, which also concerns some spiritual aspects of health. 

When I got to know more about the charism, I found that Leonardo Polo's philosophy, which I was studying for my PhD, is very helpful in understanding that charism. Even more, the charism points to some directions along which Polo's thought could be continued.

I have decided to host an online zoom conference, in which I will explain how my intellectual and personal journey has led me to a fruitful encounter between Leonardo Polo and La Vie. 

If you are interested, the zoom link for the talk on Saturday, March 25th is the same for the English version at 15:00 and for the Spanish version at 16:30:


5) What’s coming up?

The Canyons and Stars Dutch language podcast I told you about previously will get started in the coming month. For the Dutch speakers I'll repeat the audio and video links, watch the space over the coming month!


I would like to thank Juan-Pablo Puy-Segura for co-authoring the article on Singer, Spaemann and Polo with me, and José Ignacio Murillo for his useful comments to an earlier version of the manuscript. Juan-Pablo also came up with the idea for the online zoom talk on La Vie and Polo, thanks for that as well!

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Daniel Bernardus
Publisher, Relax, Relate, Reflect about Big Questions E-zine

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