Potential and Actual Persons

Alberto Giubilini and Francesca Minerva's paper, After-birth Abortion: why should the baby live? is, as the title suggests, confronting. The authors suggest that the grounds for killing newborns should be no different than the grounds required for an abortion. They form their argument in the following way:

  1. A fetus and a newly born baby are biologically no different.
  2. While a fetus and newborn are potentially persons (a person is one who is "able to make aims and appreciate their own life") they are not actual persons.
  3. Only actual persons have moral status.
  4. Therefore, fetuses and newborns are not "subjects of a moral right to life". Only the rights and interests of actual persons should be given consideration.

It is, on many levels, an objectionable argument, one that has provoked responses from many different avenues. I will restrict my response to a discussion on the terms, 'potential' and 'actual' by situating them within the philosophical context in which they derive their meaning. But first, it may help to situate Giubilini and Minerva's argument within the context of differing ethical theories. This may help us to understand how they come to put forward an argument that most people will find abhorrent.

Ethical theory

There are three principal approaches to ethics:

  • Utilitarian Ethics considers consequences and asks what the outcome of an action will be. Will it bring about the greatest good, the most happiness? From this standpoint a person will need to be proficient at weighing up what the best course of action will be by imagining future possibilities.
  • A Kantian approach will take into account moral rules (laws) and hold that a person is bound to act in accordance with these rules. A person coming from this standpoint is first required to recognize that a rule needs to be applied and then consider how the rule should be applied.
  • A third approach – Virtue Ethics – highlights the importance of being a person of virtue. A person who favours this standpoint will ask themselves what a virtuous person would do in this situation.

In short, the emphasis will be on the end result, or on the action itself, or on the person who performs the action. In practice, most ethicists who maintain one approach will also admit that the themes of the alternate approaches cannot be ignored. Thus, a Kantian ethicist will also explain how certain ends are significant and that virtue does have a place and a Virtue ethicist will explain that there needs to be an element of rule-following etc. Giubilini and Minerva put forward a rigid Utilitarian argument, one that lacks nuance. As such, virtue is trumped by adult interests and the occasion of the action itself is stripped of moral significance. When consequences and future possibilities are all that is considered in ethical decision-making, then terms like 'potential' and 'actual' and 'person' will lose much of their moral force.

Disconnecting the notion of 'potential' from the notion of 'actual'

The terms 'potential' and 'actual' have their origin in an ancient and complex philosophical theory about the nature of living beings. It is a theory that originated in the writings of Aristotle and was later adopted and developed by Thomas Aquinas. Aristotle recognised that every being capable of change (trees, cats, human beings etc.) must be composed of two distinct but mutually interrelated principles, what he calls potentiality and actuality.

All of nature, Aristotle realised, is in process – living beings change and there is something about them that enables that change to occur. Living beings advance – by their own power – toward higher levels of potential. A newborn, for example, has a more developed capacity for life than an 8-week-old fetus. Potency, as such, constantly unfolds and also does not cease once something actual comes into being. 'Potential' and 'actual' are not static or unrelated concepts. Rather, all living beings possess, at all stages of growth and change, potency and act.

When Aquinas and Aristotle argue that an entity has 'potency' they recognize that the capacity to become what it will be in the future is already present. The emphasis is not on a future possibility but on a present reality. A fetus, for example, already possesses the potential needed to become an adult human being. It is not as though it could become something else. What is 'potential' and what is 'actual' are necessarily associated. This is particularly important to the present discussion – there must be something about the nature of the dynamic, growing, changing fetus/newborn that makes possible some future actuality of being a person who makes decisions and forms aims.

Giubilini and Minerva accept that fetuses and newborns have potentiality. They do not doubt that a newborn infant is potentially capable of one day making decisions, forming aims and appreciating her own life. They even point out that a baby may potentially live a very happy, healthy and fulfilled life. However, despite the potential a newborn has to become a fulfilled adult, Giubilini and Minerva argue that this should have no bearing on our moral decisions. Only an actual person, already at the stage of making aims and forming decisions has a right to be valued and protected.

To argue in this way Giubilini and Minerva need to mark a sharp distinction between what is potential and what is actual. In doing so, they use the terms, 'potential' and 'actual' in a way that is inconsistent with Aristotle's logic. They ignore the causal link that exists in the transformation that occurs when a fetus becomes a newborn and then becomes an adult capable of making choices. Their description of human life, as such, is fragmented, as if the stages of change and growth were disconnected. They choose to ignore the continual process that is potency and act. As noted, a living being cannot have potential unless it is already an actual something, nor can it reach a point of actuality such that all potency ceases. Potentiality is forever unfolding as long as a living being is said to exist.

Giubilini and Minerva further misrepresent the notion of potential by implying that it is a capacity that lies dormant and inactive in a fetus or newborn infant. In Aristotle's logic potential is in process, so living beings constantly change and evolve toward what is actual. The terms 'potency' and 'act', as such, express a dynamic reality that can be lost when using the equivalent terms, 'potential' and 'actual'. This seems to be a mistake that Giubilini and Minerva make. Their argument can leave the reader with the impression that once actuality is attained, potentiality ceases, as if 'potency' and 'act' are independent, disconnected realities.

Disconnecting the notion of 'human being' from the notion of 'person'

Some of the confusion that arises in this debate occurs because of the narrow definition given to the notion of 'person'. Just as Giubilini and Minerva describe 'potential' and 'actual' as though they were independent and disconnected realities, so too, they discuss what a 'human being' and 'person' are as if they were disconnected entities. It is indeed significant to the moral status of human beings that, unlike other living beings, there comes a point where we are able to form aims and act in response to decisions we make, and to do so under our own volition. In the exercise of freedom, potency and act take on a new and remarkable form. When this occurs human beings are not restrained by mere biological necessity (the rhythms of potency and act as occur in nature), but are able to act in independence from this reality. However, this level of consciousness does not disassociate the human person from her biological nature – the person who can make decisions and act on them is still the same being who is subject to biological change and growth. A person is a human being. When this point is lost – as it is in Giubilini and Minerva's paper – a disembodied capacity to act (called 'person') is affirmed and credited with moral status while the physical, biologically evolving human being is denied moral status.


Giubilini and Minerva's argument is flawed on many levels. I highlight here how it is flawed because they disconnect the notion of 'potential' from the notion of what is 'actual' and make the same mistake in distinguishing between a person and a human being. I have focused on the discussion from a philosophical standpoint. Otago University Ethicist, Grant Gillett sums up well the senselessness of such a stance: "Human potential looks out at us from the eyes of a child. And the ability to recognize and acknowledge the moral demand of human potential fuels education and the healing professions, and it marks the difference between a self-serving society and one that celebrates the human spirit in all its guises." (See Otago Daily Times, 23 March, 2012).

Rev Dr Gerard Aynsley is a parish priest in the diocese of Dunedin. He recently completed his PhD in philosophy at Monash University in Australia.