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When Is A Person A Person?


Harry
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There is an ongoing effort among “Right to Life” advocates to end abortion forever. The Roe vs. Wade decision by the US Supreme Court in 1973 determined that a woman’s right to privacy is a higher good than the life of a zygote, embryo or fetus. The court did not determine when life, fertilized in the womb or laboratory, becomes a human person.

 

November 8th the people of Mississippi rejected a constitutional amendment to define the beginning of human life as the moment of fertilization. The war on women is not yet over and we can expect more attempts by the religious right to overturn Roe v. Wade. Such amendments are a threat to women’s health and their right to a safe, legal abortion currently protected by the “Due Process Clause” of the 14th Amendment.

 

Mississippi Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant said, “if the initiative fails Satan wins”. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, which heavily funded the Mississippi effort, warned that the country would face God’s judgment if the amendment initiative lost and urged voters to “choose life lest the flickering flame of our liberty be extinguished forever.” What about the liberty of women to choose? They comprise more than 50% of the population.

 

Defining human life as beginning at fertilization is arbitrary and intended to give a single cell zygote legal personhood. This “person” will then be covered by the “Equal Protection Clause” of the 14th Amendment thus superseding the woman’s right to privacy granted under the “Due Process Clause” of the same amendment.

 

The same kind of manipulative irrational sophistry that gave corporations natural personhood is now being used to justify bill of rights protections for a single cell organism containing human DNA. By sophistry I mean that somewhere within the argument an assumption is made that is not supported by facts. This assumption then becomes the argument’s foundation. In the first argument the term “person” was assumed to mean “natural born person” and in this argument the term “life” is assumed to mean “a human person’s life”. Life is energy, it isn’t created or destroyed; it changes its expression in stages from cellular life to human life during the development process. Life already existed in the ###### cell and the egg before they joined.

 

This arbitrary definition of when human life begins is based on ideological religious belief and not on sound logical reasoning. Its only purpose is to make it unlawful to end a microscopic cell’s ability to multiply; to make abortion illegal.

 

This false definition of personhood only adds to legal personhood absurdity by giving the same constitutional rights granted natural living human beings to zygotes; as though they are equivalent in capacity. Wasn’t corporate personhood bizarre enough? This definition, if accepted, would make a single cell equivalent to General Electric under the 14th amendment. This is simple logic, if A=B and B=C then A=C.

 

When does life first manifest in human form or when does a person become a person? This is the question we need to answer; but before we can answer that we need to define what a human is.

 

Human beings are unique among living organisms and human life’s uniqueness comes from a combination of attributes like the ability to reason, self consciousness and emotional and sensual capability. Until an individual organism has exhibited at least some minimal combination of these characteristics it cannot be identified as human; DNA alone is not enough.

 

To resolve this question we should rely on knowledgeable scientists, philosophers and legal experts to thoughtfully and rationally define what characteristics combine to make a human person and when this occurs. Knowledge and understanding must be the basis for such important decisions not religious belief and ideology.

 

I have struggled for years to come to terms with this issue and have argued both sides at different times.

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"Human beings are unique among living organisms and human life’s uniqueness comes from a combination of attributes like the ability to reason, self consciousness and emotional and sensual capability. Until an individual organism has exhibited at least some minimal combination of these characteristics it cannot be identified as human; DNA alone is not enough." George

 

Good topic, I agree and can add that corporations are not people. They are run by people only.

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I have struggled for years to come to terms with this issue and have argued both sides at different times.

 

Me, too!

 

I find it interesting that although our more conservative brothers and sisters argue that life (or personhood) begins at conception, the whole of the scriptures say that personhood begins at birth when the first breath is drawn. For instance, the creation story in the book of Genesis says that Adam did not become a living soul until God breathed the breath of life into him i.e. until Adam drew his first breath. Children were not named until they were born. Causing a woman to miscarry was not considered murder. Even the Church was not considered to be valid until Jesus breathed on the disciples or the Spirit breathed on them at Pentecost. The typology of being "born again" (not conceived again) was tied directly to the work of the Spirit (pnuema-breath). Even our culture, which is based upon the Western Judeo-Christian context, dates us as human beings, not from when we were conceived, but from when we were born. Generally, it is birth, not conception, that both the Judeo-Christian scriptures and our culture point to.

 

I am not at all saying that this is right or correct. I agree with you, Harry, that we have both medical and psychological work to do in this area. But I think conservative Christians err when they claim that the Bible teaches personhood from the moment of conception.

 

ws

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The aspect of this legislation that most concerns many is the implication that a "potential person" is granted full status of a "person" before a "person" actually exists. Including hormonal types of birth control that prevent implantation and further development of the fertilized ovum (egg) because that fertilized ovum contains 'life', which is equated to a 'person', teeters precariously on the brink of the slippery slope toward once widely accepted and still held by some, that every fertile human ovum, every egg, produced in women's bodies, is also a "potential person", and that ANY form of birth control that prevents joining of that ovum with a male reproductive cell (both of which also contain 'life') during intercourse is an act of aborting a potential person.

 

Jenell

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I think the term "potential human being or person" is misunderstood and then misused. An egg and a spermatozoon have only the potential, which is joining to become a zygote; a zygote is a potential embryo; an embryo is a potential fetus and a fetus is a potential baby. I think there is only the potential for the next step in development not for future steps. One plus one has only the potential of becoming two. Two times two has the potential of becoming four. As cells develop and multiply new potentials are presented one micro step at a time. A zygote has no potential of becoming a human person in one step so it is illogical to call it a potential human let alone a complete human person.

 

An embryo in a petri dish has no potential of becoming a fetus until it is implanted in a womb. It is a potential source for stem cell harvesting but there is no personhood in that dish.

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I am not at all saying that this is right or correct. I agree with you, Harry, that we have both medical and psychological work to do in this area. But I think conservative Christians err when they claim that the Bible teaches personhood from the moment of conception.

 

We may not know what it is but we know what it isn't.

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When does life first manifest in human form or when does a person become a person? This is the question we need to answer; but before we can answer that we need to define what a human is.

The fetus becomes a person when someone commits to care for it as long as is needed. Not "care about" which is useless (I haven't thought that out) but "care for".

 

Dutch

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I can only agree with you Harry. But, I have another question - when is a person no longer a person?

 

My mother died in a nursing home, very alone. I visited as often as I could (given my own rather serious health isues), but she basically ceased to exist to her grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and the communiy she (almost literally) took care if of for 70+ years..She was lonely, in pain, and terribly depressed. I am not suggesting anything here - only asking the question.

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Harry, excellent points about 'potentials.' Although I doubt those that would promote a bill like this recent one would agree with you.

 

Yvonne, excellent point, this question of what/whom is a 'person' arises not only in connection to the beginning of a human life, but also at the end, as well, for many.

 

In having cared for my mother the last several years of her life, well into the state of dementia in which she was "no longer my mother," I share understanding of that with you, as I think only those that have experienced that can. For the stength of those last years' memories, I find I must struggle my way through them, of that 'person that was not my mother', to get to those memories inwhich she WAS my mother. That has been the hardest, lingering effect on me.

 

On the other hand, with my Dad, my younger sister, and an aunt that was laid to rest just this week, I've also seen those who's minds remained intact, but who sufferred long in broken, debilitated, and pain-racked bodies. And I don't know which is harder.

 

In both, I have seen them come to the point of crying out for it to end, to be taken from this life. That, too, can be hard to understand for those that have not experienced it up close and personal.

 

I remember when in my Dad's final hospitalization, that I can only refer to as "the 9 weeks I watched my Dad die", I and several others that prayed for a quick and merciful release from his torment were actually rebuked by several other family members that were very fundamentalist, who expresses shock and disgust that we could actually be praying, asking God to end his life soon.

 

It seems to me both those that grant full personhood to a zygote, as to an adult wracked in pain as their broken bodies just refuse to give out to give blessed releif, have a terrible fear, in themselves, of death, or a state of non-exisitence after this life. For others to pray their death soon, to those it seems 'just trying to get it over with, for their own comfort and conveneince, which seems wrong to them in the same was birth control or abotion seems wrong too. As if it is a matter, from beginning to end, of trying to

hold onto every second that life remains in that body, or xygote, as precious as any in between. But I cannot accept that what/who I am is defined within, bound within, those every seconds in which bio-electrical activity is present in my body. It seems to me THEY are the ones thinking it so important to hold onto, not the one at either of those thresholds, at entry into life, or exit.

 

Hope this isn't too incoherent, I've taken my meds to get ready for bed,and doing good to get through it,lol!

 

G'nite ya'll!

 

Jenell

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I think we all agree there is some point at which personhood should be recognized and legally protected. But, I don't think there is any definitive, objective measure of exactly when it occurs. I also think that most Americans feel that the closer the fetus gets to birth, the more attributes of 'life' it acquires. Although some cultures permit infanticide, I guess I have a problem with that. But, my problem is, I am sure, due to cultural conditioning, not some objective measure.

 

Given the lack of consensus in our society over this issue (except for infanticide), I do have a problem with one point of view being imposed on all others. As a result, I support 'choice.' If someone wants to refrain from abortion, whatever their reason, I would grant them this choice. If they wish to abort a fetus, I would grant this choice. I think there is a consensus against infanticide, therefore I would support legally prohibiting that.

 

George

Edited by GeorgeW
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Just a couple more rambling thoughts that came to me as I mused over this topic:

 

Even when I was a conservative with its notions that life was sacred, I was never comfortable with the way "life as existence" was to be preserved over and above "life as quality." I felt as though the only "right to life" that those churches cared about was life before the child was born, and a general apathy afterward. After all, if all life is sacred, why not be much more concerned about the hungry, the sick, the elderly, the environmental condition of our planet, the debt that we leave to our children?

 

Personally, I don't think the Bible itself helps us much with this question of when is a person a person. It just isn't written to address that issue. What I do think it addresses, especially in the teachings of Jesus, is that every person's life should be the best that it can be i.e. life to the full. I don't believe, however, that there is a direct correlation between this and the length of life.

 

Our universe, if it is in an sense designed by a Creator, seems to have no problem with the cycle of life and death. Though the Bible often portrays death as the enemy, death is just a natural part of the way things are. Death is the way that our planet replenishes itself, even if we don't like it. Nevertheless, I try to live my life in such a way that I don't needlessly bring what I would call premature death to anything (except my lawn, of course). So I am not one of those who would never step on an ant out of respect for "life", but neither would I go looking for ants to step on.

 

Lastly, and perhaps most oddly, I have often seen more "personality" in my pets than I have in some of my relatives. I have had dogs that have shown me agape love more than any "church people" do. They have loved me just as I am. They have filled my life with joy and pleasure just from the relationship, even though these creatures were not, in the strict sense, "persons." Though I would certainly not put the life of an animal above that of a human, this leaves me at a loss for what *I* would define as personhood. In a way, I hope that all dogs go to heaven. :)

 

So, for me, I suspect these things are best dealt with on a case by case basis, according to the best wisdom and knowledge that we have. While the point or state of death can be medically determined, personhood is much more slippery. We don't yet know if "personhood" extends beyond death, though we have many legends and myths and claimed experiences. So I think we should be careful and wise as to how we handle it.

 

ws

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I agree, WS, it does seem there is more attention to quantity vs quality, mere existence of life to be 'protected' at any cost...as if there is something so terrible about 'non-existance' that even the possiblity of it must be denied...death, the end of existence, at any point in that 'existence' so unthinkable that belief in an "afterlife" continuation of this existance, even if in a state of eternal torment, is preferred over the possiblity of non-existence, 'nothingness.'

 

Even more so, it is the continued existence of the 'person' any are in this here and now, this life on Earth, that seems of so great import, the natural identity, ego self, which is entirely made of and arising out of this carnal body in this natural world, that must be protected against the possibility of non-existence. The mere return of the energy, the spirit, the life force, of any person, to the generic cosmos, is insufficient. And this seems such a basic element of human thought. Consideration of afterlife myths and funerary rituals focused on the continued existance of the person in an afterlife, or even as a literal carnal ressurrection into this world, throughout cultures and over time, is testimony to human aversion to death as the end of a person.

 

A greatly significant factor that I think is little recognized and considered in how people in the past, as recorded in the bible or elsewhere, viewed death and continued existence of the person as compared to our perspectives today is that of how much more secure any person's 'hold' on life, continued existence in this world as a person, is today. Modern advances in so many ways, from understanding of nutrition and causes of disease and death and the means of intervention in what was once the natural death process, improved means of communication, cooperation, and distribution of basic neccessities of life, have impacted what were common rates of 50% or more infant mortality rates, and higher death rates at all all ages that resulted in lower overall average lifespans.

 

Here we are haggling over the precise point at which a human conception becomes a "person" with all rights society grants to "persons" while in the past, in many cultures and societies, infants were commonly not even considered "persons" at all until they had attained to a certain age, ranging from 2 yrs to 5 yrs to even adolescence. Children were commonly not even given their own names until such an age-mark, for how tenous their hold on life was in those early years. Likewise at the other end of the spectrum, we quibble over the "right to life" of people so brain-damaged as to be in a permanent vegetative state, and the right of those suffering in terminal diseases to choose a humane and dignified death when it becomes more than they would choose to bear.

 

It seems the more "secure" we have made any person's hold on life in this world, the more insecure about the reality of it we are,

the more we fear the reality of it's end. Is this not the insatiablity of human nature, the more we have, the less satisfied we are with it, and the more we want?

 

Jenell

Edited by JenellYB
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I don't think the Bible itself helps us much with this question of when is a person a person. It just isn't written to address that issue.

 

WS,

 

The only passage in the Bible, of which I am aware, that might address this suggests that the fetus is the property of the parents, not a person, and certainly not a person protected by Jewish law. In any event, were there clear biblical direction on this, I would not consider it controlling just as I don't consider the explicit, death-penalty prescription for sassy children controlling (or anyone else for that matter).

 

George

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Here we are haggling over the precise point at which a human conception becomes a "person" with all rights society grants to "persons" while in the past, in many cultures and societies, infants were commonly not even considered "persons" at all until they had attained to a certain age, ranging from 2 yrs to 5 yrs to even adolescence. Children were commonly not even given their own names until such an age-mark, for how tenous their hold on life was in those early years. Likewise at the other end of the spectrum, we quibble over the "right to life" of people so brain-damaged as to be in a permanent vegetative state, and the right of those suffering in terminal diseases to choose a humane and dignified death when it becomes more than they would choose to bear.

Jenell

Jenell,

 

I think most of us would agree that certain categories of persons are entitled to life and should be protected by law. An example would be a healthy thirty-year old mother of two children with a strong desire for life. The ambiguity, or variation in values, comes on the fringes; the beginning of life, the ending, the level of suffering, the wishes of the person. It is in these fuzzy areas that I think we, as a society, should be cautious about imposing our personal views on others and allow the individual desires of the participants to be considered, if not determinative.

 

George

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Jenell,

 

I think most of us would agree that certain categories of persons are entitled to life and should be protected by law. An example would be a healthy thirty-year old mother of two children with a strong desire for life. The ambiguity, or variation in values, comes on the fringes; the beginning of life, the ending, the level of suffering, the wishes of the person. It is in these fuzzy areas that I think we, as a society, should be cautious about imposing our personal views on others and allow the individual desires of the participants to be considered, if not determinative.

 

George

I couldn't agree more and I think that is generally the way it is at present under the law. The woman's right to choose is still held as a higher priority than the so called rights of a pre-born fetus. We have living wills which allow the choice of the person to take precedence over the wishes of a relative to resuscitate. Organ donors are kept alive as their organs are removed and put in ice chests for transport. All this is legal and in my view morally correct. When a special session of congress was called to keep Terri Shiavo alive against the wishes of her legal guardian it was done for political pandering purposes. Was she still a person with a right to life? I don't think so because she was in a persistent vegetative state with no hope for recovery. She no longer had the potential of resuming her personhood.

 

I think that people who are terminally ill and suffering from chronic pain should be given the choice of life or death. Jack Kevorkian, Dr. Death as labeled by the press, helped people die of their own choice but suicide is illegal and because he assisted them in this crime and was convicted of murder. If a person gives their life in the act of protecting another they are called a hero but if a person takes their own life to protect them self from pain why is it illegal?

 

Someone suggested to me some time back that we are all property of the government and that suicide is destroying government property.

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. In a way, I hope that all dogs go to heaven. :)

ws

 

and cats.

 

Thank for starting this thread - its been most thought-provoking for me. One of my big problems with so-called "right to lifer's" is that their concern for the child suddenly disappears after birth. Who has to rear it, feed it, provide for its health, education, and welfare? (please excuse the neuter gender, its just easier that way.) Funny how many will fight like wildcats to protect the unborn, then scream like banshees when mom and/or dad has to go on welfare.

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I can only agree with you Harry. But, I have another question - when is a person no longer a person?

 

My mother died in a nursing home, very alone. I visited as often as I could (given my own rather serious health isues), but she basically ceased to exist to her grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and the communiy she (almost literally) took care if of for 70+ years..She was lonely, in pain, and terribly depressed. I am not suggesting anything here - only asking the question.

 

This question is equally as important as the opening question. This is a question we can all relate to personally. Euthanasia could be an option under certain conditions. What is suicide but self administered euthanasia? I have not given this question much thought but I think when the qualities and attributes that must come together to make a person a person are no longer there and there is no reasonable hope that they will return there is no humane reason to keep the body alive through artificial means. This must be the choice of the legal representative. It is a certainty that we must all die the question is where, when, why and how.

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Harry, re your comment about "destroying government property" keep in mind government is created by, and informed by, the society being governed. The aversion to suicide in our western society has been much influenced and informed by Christianity, and the Church.

 

From a psychological and social-psychological perspective, it is interesting to note that suicide has been so effectively cast as a selfish, cowardly, and often even anti-social act of violence in our western culture. I specific our western culture, because this has not always been true in other cultures.

 

Nor to I believe any of that is always true of acts of suicide in our own culture and society.

 

In many cultures, and even various times/places in our own cultural history, suicide has been seen as an act of compassion, social responsiblity, and even heroism. Individuals or groups of individuals have throughout history used suicide as the last resort "victory" over would-be conquerer's and captors, whether as in the mass suicide of the population of a city under seige that can hold off the enemy no longer, or fathers and mothers that first kill their own children, then take their own lives, to avoid being taken into slavery, torture, and rape by advancing conquering armies.

 

Suicide has been honored in societies in which the infirmities and neediness of sick, wounded, and elderly no longer able to contribute to the communal good pose exceptional burden that threatens the survival of the rest of a family or community. Suicide has even been honored as a self-imposed punishment for one's own shameful actions or crimes.

 

How different from any of those motives for suicide is it when someone today, facing terminal illness, choses suicide over a brief but expensive future of medical and care expenses that will consume all the financial resources of their surviving spouse and other family members, leaving them desitute? Or that will demand of those others years of sacrfice of their own lives in order to provide extraordinary care for the incapacitated loved one?

 

How different from such examples given of those chosing suicide over suffering at the hands of conquerers and would be captors are those today that would chose suicide over extended periods of torment in pain and misery of incurable disease from which there is no reasonable expectation of any recovery to a quality life? How different from those that chose suicide over being continued burden and threat to survival of the rest of their families and communities are those that suffer not only themselves, but recognition of the ongoing suffering they inflict upon their family and loved ones, through significant life dysfunction due to serious and persistent mental illness? If you've not experienced or been close to a family that actually hoped that, for the best interests of both the person afflicted with such dysfunction and the best interest of family and even society around them, the dysfunctional person would commit such criminal acts as to result in long term prison confinement, you cannot imagine the suffering of all involved in such a situation. To consider prison the best and safest place for a loved one may seem unthinkable to most, but is a life reality for some.

 

Suicide has even been cast as a heroic act, when someone has voluntarily gone into a situation in which they faced certain death, a suicide mission, so as to accomplish some good that will benefit others. No one wants to look at the possiblity that "hero" may have been motivated, even at least in part, by an intent to find a way to commit suicide in a socially acceptable way, to avoid shame and guilt upon themselves or upon their famlies and loved ones.

 

Suicide is, at its core, a choice between anticipation of a future, a life ahead, that is percieved as not worth living, worse even than death. For whatever reason the person has come to it, the choice of suicide is the ultimate psychological disconnect from a life, a future, the person cannot bear to face, or endure any longer. Any attempt at suicide prevention and intervention, whether in general through social and even legal pressures, or individual level personal actions or medical/therapy/counseling approach, are ineffective to the extent this basic reality abouut suicide isn't recognized and addressed. And sometimes, there simply is no way that is even possible. There is sometimes no possible alternative that can be presented to the person that has come to that position, that point of choice in their life.

 

But likewise, sometimes, futile and indirect attempts to prevent or intervene can be personal or societal evasion of responsibility, a form of shifting blame onto the victim, Two example situations that immediately come to mind are the social, economic, and legal systems in our society today that work to create circumstances in which the terminally ill must even consider the financial ruin of their loved ones as a result of their continued care, and the reality that many suicides are the result of the person being abused by others, whether domestic violence and abuse, or social bullying, with the victim seeing no other way out of their unbearable situation. In such cases, the common platitudes gratuitously handed out to survivors around a suicice, that it wasn't their or anyone else fault, there's nothing they or anyone else could have done to prevent it, ring hollow and false in face of reality. But they serve to get everybody off the hook, so that no one has to face an ugly reality.

 

So, suicide is not nearly so simple a matter as it is often made to seem. Where does this fit into what is "personhood" and "respect of person"? I see it in the same sense as others observe, of the hypocrisy of those that would value to the Nth degree the right to life of a zygote or embryo, while denying and rejecting social and/or personal responsiblity toward well-being and care of the already born. The tendency to want to "honor" and "respect" personhood and the intrinsic value of life when it is convenient and without personal cost, but not when it asks anything real of us, anything that would inconvenience or cost us anything, to impose demands upon others, but not ourselves.

 

Jenell

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Thank you for the very thoughtful response Jenell. We must also consider the expendability of the person; we are all expendable. Think of the youth sent to war by wise old men. So much hypocricy, so little justice.

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Yes, expendability is part of the mix, too. I think that could be said on both impersonal and personal levels. Impersonally, yes, as your example of sending people into war, into harm's way, it has always seemed to me that ayn involved, from political/military leaders to a society in general, there has to be a certain level of "de-humanizing others", devaluing lives, of both the "enemy" and the soldiers, involved there. But also on the personal level, certainly how important, how much effort and expense willingly incurred, to try to iinsure the well-being of any other is directly proportional to what that person means to us. But that also really leads us away from the point of valuing a life for the sake of the value of a life, any life.

 

In a course I took "Christian Ethics", the central thesis was God's love as model for the Christian love of/for others, as an impersonal and disinterested love. As in, God causes the rain to fall on the just and unjust, and that as the perfection of God, and model to seek toward in our love for others, to love, value, every other person the same. But that does not neccessarily translate into treating every other the same, doing exactly the same for or toward all and any others, there is always a tension between disinterested love and personal-interest love in meeting social responsiblities neccessary for love-based well being of society as a whole. Ie, the responsibilty of care for/of a spouse, child, parent, etc.

 

Jenell

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