Thursday, September 24, 2020

Moral Arguments and the Bible

Some people appeal to the Bible in giving reasons to support their views on ethical issues.

So, they might say things like this:

  • "The Bible says doing this is wrong, so it's wrong."
  • "The Bible says doing this is not wrong, so it's not wrong."
  • "The Bible says we must do this, so we are must do this: it's an obligation."
Sometimes there are disagreement about what the Bible says or "really says": e.g., some might say that Bible clearly says this or that about slavery, or homosexuality, or eating meat, or the role of women, or polygamy, or capitalism, or being rich, or capital punishment, or war, or violence, or anything else, and you can find other people who deny that, arguing that "the Bible clearly says" the opposite. 

This is true also about the topic of abortion: while some people think, or assume, the Bible says that abortion is wrong, there are others who argue that the Bible says no such thing and that, in fact, the Bible suggests that it's not wrong. 

But beyond that, these arguments, however, are all always missing essential premises: some logical "filling in" is necessary to make them logically validor make such that the premises lead to the conclusion. These premises are these:
  • If the Bible says that doing something - X - is wrong, then doing X is wrong.
  • If the Bible says that doing something - Y - is not wrong, then doing Y is not wrong.
  • If the Bible says that we must something - Z, then doing Z is an obligation: we must do Z.
The problem, however, is that these premises appear to be false, and that nobody really believes these premises are literally true anyway. This is because it seems that there are counterexamples from the Bible to show that they are false. 

There are many lists of Bible verses that make this point: various wrong actions are called not wrong; various permissible actions are called wrong, and we are said to be obligated to do things that we are not obligated to do. (What are good verses that illustrate this point?)

What's the upshot? It's that just because the Bible says an action is wrong, that doesn't mean it is. And just because the Bible says an action is permissible, that doesn't mean it is. And just because the Bible says we must do something, that might not be so. 

Sometimes, however, the Bible does give very good, indeed excellent, moral advice: e.g., to love your neighbor as yourself

This is good advice, but the second upshot of the discussion above is that this is good advice not just because the Bible says so. 

Like everything else, there must be good reasons why something is the case. 

Given that, what are the good reasons why we should love our neighbors as ourselves?

And what are other moral guidelines - particular verses and general themes - from the Bible, and anywhere else, that we have good reasons to accept, and which do we have good reasons to reject? Why?

(What's above was originally posted here; what's said here is applied to abortion in greater detail here in Thinking Critically About Abortion at “The Bible says abortion is wrong.” )

Friday, September 18, 2020

"Force birther"-ism and Virtue Signaling

There's seems to be an increasingly popular "move" online of calling people who think abortion is wrong and should be illegal "force birthers." 

The thought is that these are people who want to, and would, force women to give birth because they would force women to not have abortions if they could and that's their goal. 

Here I want to observe that calling someone a "forced birther" is just silly. Here's the dialogue:

A. "You're a 'forced birther'!"

B. "Why's that?"

A. "You would force women to not have abortions, and so force them to have birth!"

B. "Yes, I think abortion is wrong and should be illegal."

A. "So you are "forced birther"!"

B. "Well, yes, I think abortion is wrong and should be illegal. So, yeah, you are observing that I do indeed believe what you are accusing me of believing: that's what people who think abortion is wrong and should be illegal think: do you have any reason to think this position is mistaken?"

So, what's happening is that the pro-choice finds someone who they (correctly or incorrectly) believes abortion is wrong and should be illegal. They then angrily call them a "forced birther" which basically amounts to saying "They think abortion should be wrong and should be illegal!!" 

Now, isn't it just obvious to everyone that this person thinks abortion is wrong and should be illegal? 

Of course.

Is telling something who thinks that abortion is wrong and should be illegal that "You think abortion is wrong and should be illegal!!" giving them any new information or arguments to think about it? Might it in any way going to change their minds (for the better)? Does telling anyone this give them any reason to think that they are perhaps mistaken in their views?

No, not at all. 

So then why do people say things like this, since it's obviously not going to persuade anyone, give them any kind of reasons to consider that might lead to their changing their mind, or "shore up" any pro-choice persons' views on the issues?

Seems like the answer is this: saying this (and things like it) amounts to "virtue signaling," which is this:

vur-choo sig-nl-ing ]

noun Sometimes Disparaging.

the sharing of one's point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not:The virtue signaling of solidarity with the victims can be a comforting affirmation of community.Their outraged virtue signaling comes across as contrived.

Why do people say things like this and other soundbites

On the theory of virtue signaling, they say this to try to fit in with their crowd. To try to show that they are true believers. To be part of a . . cult?

While there's maybe a time and a place for that, it's surely worth asking if this move is helpful in any way. 

Surely it isn't. 

And it isn't because it does nothing to engage any arguments or concerns of people who oppose abortion. All it says is "You oppose abortion! Boo to that!" which is not productive in any way. 

What would be productive, for pro-choice people and organizations?

One suggestion - beyond voting and engaging in relevant lawsuits - is to see all the types of things that anti-abortion people and organizations do, in terms of trainings and "educational" activities and think tanks, and matching those activities. 

Pro-choice people being more informed on the issues, and so better able to engage other people on these issues by not relying on unpersuasive slogans based on bad arguments, would be very good, indeed a true virtue. Given the urgency of these issues, that's what's needed, not virtue signaling. 

P.S. People who think abortion is wrong and should be illegal get called called "forced birthers," but sometimes people who observe that some reasons given to think abortion is not wrong and should be legal are bad arguments that will convince nobody also get called "force birthers." Anyone critical about any arguments in favor of abortion can get called this, even if they think abortions are generally not wrong, should be legal and even write books arguing that! (How do I know this??)

P.P.S. Sometimes observations of virtue signaling are themselves virtue signaling. Is that relevant to this post? If so, how? How is the group who shares the view expressed here best described?

Saturday, September 12, 2020

I recently learned of this great webpage,, where arguments about abortion are rigorously and thoughtfully evaluated. Check it out!

Friday, September 11, 2020

Is the "bodily autonomy" argument for abortion *that* simple?

Some claim that the abortion issue is simple: the right to bodily autonomy justifies the (legal and moral) right to abortion, and that's all that needed to justify abortion: it's as simple as that. 

Maybe "nobody has a right to use anyone else's body without their consent" will do it. Maybe. 

But it might not be so simple. 

At least, more than a few people don't think it's that simple. And this should motivate thoughtful people to understand why it might not be so simple. This will at least help people better engage the people who don't find it so simple, right?

Let's think about it a bit.


To begin, the backstory here comes from, or can come from, philosopher Judith Thompson. She's got a famous example, a thought experiment, involving a famous violinist who needs to use your kidneys for a while to stay alive: if you don't help him, he'll die.

Now, the violinist is a person, with the right to life as much as you or me. But does the violinist have a right to use your kidneys? If you don't let him, do you violate his rights? 

Most say "no" and "no." (However, they could be mistaken, right?).

The upshot is this: the right to life does not include the right to anyone else's body, even if that body is needed for someone's life to continue

So, at least, the very common, yet simplistic claim that if fetuses are persons with the right to life, then it immediately follows that abortion is wrong, is mistaken. For this argument to succeed, fetuses would have to have a right to the woman's body, which they don't have, since nobody has the right to anyone else's body

That's the point, which is often misunderstood. The point isn't a comparison of fetuses to violinists, since the situations are, in some ways, importantly different: the point isn't any analogy. Again, the violinist case is used to show that the right to life does not include the right to anyone else's body, and that insight then is applied to abortion. 


So what are some concerns here that make the issues not as simple as it might seem?

A first is this: not all moral or legal obligations are due to rights. 

You are morally obligated to be kind and respectful to everyone you meet: if you are rude and mean, you have probably done wrong. But did you violate people's rights by being rude and mean? I'd say not. 

This is just one example, among many, to make the point that not all moral obligations are because of rights. Some moral theories or systems outright deny the existence of rights, so they think that no obligations depend on rights, and so all moral obligations are based on something else.

The same message seems to be true of the law: you can be legally required or legally obligated to do something, even though it's a stretch to say that anyone has a right that you'd be violating by not doing that thing.

So the point is this: just because the violinist doesn't have a right to use the person's body, that person could still be morally obligated to help him, using their body. Rights aren't the whole of morality, and other moral concerns could create a serious moral obligation here. As for the law, perhaps there could be laws that compel behavior to benefit others (in fact, there are not: "Good Samaritan" laws typically only protect people who have tried to help others from forms of retaliation for providing that assistance) so there could be legal obligations here also, and ones that don't really depend on rights, strictly speaking. 

Now, maybe there aren't any such non-rights-based obligations here, but there could be. And that contributes to the issue being not so simple.


A further concern is this: maybe people sometimes have rights to other people's bodies. Maybe, contrary to what seems to follow from Thompson's insights, the right to life does include the right to anyone else's body when that body is needed for someone's life to continue. 

This idea can be motivated by a simple case that's been around for a while:

There's a child drowning in a fountain, who you could easily and safely easily save from death. However, to save the child, you will have to either: 

(a) use your body, e.g., your hand, to hit a button to drain the fountain and save the child, 

(b) quickly sell some of your blood, from your body, to get $1 to put into a machine to gain access to that button (say there's a cover that will come off if you put $1 in it) or 

(c) you must cut off some of your own skin, from your body, to put into that machine to get access to that button (say there's a cover that will come off if you put some skin in in it): that will hurt, but the skin will grow back. 

Now here you are morally obligated to save the child, right? It would be wrong to let the child drown here. And some would say the child has a right to be saved: do they? 

Either way, you are morally obligated to use your body to save the child; and if the child has a right to be saved, then the child has a right to the use of your body. If the child drowns, at least someone is gonna say that it should be a crime to let that happen. And maybe they're right about that?

If this is all correct, then, again, the bodily autonomy argument is not so simple. Contrary to what the "my body, my choice!" chant, there can be situations where you are obligated to use your body in certain ways, and maybe others even have a right to your using your body in ways that benefit them, which seems to be a right to your body. And maybe this should even be a legal obligation, maybe

Now, of course, pregnancy and childbirth make very different bodily demands than the case above. (Some important differences: saving a drowning child is usually a one-time-thing, whereas pregnancy is 24-7 for 9 months; pregnancy obviously affects the woman's health and overall sense of well- or ill-being; pregnancy happens in and with her body and her life and changes her whole world and future: it is identity-changing; pregnancy can't be "outsourced" to someone else, whereas someone else can save the child; a woman can't take a break from pregnancy, whereas any drowning-child-savers can; childbirth is much harder than saving any drowning child, and much more!). And the violinist case is very different from the case above also. But if the case above refutes the simplistic understanding or presentation of the issues, then the details matter, which is my point. 


Are these situations similar to what's found in cases of abortion though?

Not at all. The clearest cases where someone might have a right to someone else's body are cases where a person needs the use of your body. 

To personify something is to give it person-like traits which include consciousness, awareness, feelings, beliefs, memories and the like: in short, a mind. 

The drowning child was a person in this clear sense of the term.

An early fetus, however, is not a person in this sense since they aren't developed enough for any kind of mental life necessary for personhood:

And most abortions are of early fetuses that lack any kind of consciousness or awareness, and haven't yet had anything like that. They aren't persons and so they are not like the best cases to motivate the thought that we sometimes have rights to others' bodies or, at least, others are obligated to use their bodies to help us.

So the more accurate thoughts here seem to be this:

  • if a person needs your body to live, you can be obligated to use your body in certain ways, and maybe others have a right to your using your body in ways that benefit them, which seems to be a right to your body;
  • if something that is not a person needs your body to live, you are not obligated to use your body in certain ways, and that non-person does not have a right to your using your body, which seems to be a right to your body.
About the first principle, we'd have to address the details: when can you have such an obligation? When is asking too much? Again, the details matter; things aren't so simple. But, this suggests that someone, if they want to appeal to any arguments for bodily autonomy to justify abortion, they might wind up having to discuss the idea of personhood, so they should be prepared for that. 

A lot of these discussions and debates (at least with philosophers) involve assuming, for the sake of argument, that beginning fetuses are persons. While there's a time and a place for that, there's also a time and a place - like here and now - for not making that assumption and thinking about what's actually true regarding the personhood of embryos and early fetuses. Again, the more people are prepared to thoughtfully engage these discussions, the better. 


To some, this might seem all quite obvious. Maybe they would say that they meant all this in saying things like "My body, my choice" and "Nobody has a right to anyone else's body." 

While I doubt they meant this, I am sure that almost nobody - especially any critics of abortion - heard them this way. They, and others, hear these phrases and perhaps think they would justify callous indifference to the needs of others; perhaps they imagine people appealing to these phrases to "justify" their not saving that drowning child. (An ad hominem question: don't these same people usually routinely fail to help the many "drowning children" of the world and systematically encourage policies designed to not help such needy people? Hmm.) This is also important since what abortion critics often picture in their minds about abortions is likely not accurate to most abortions: they picture far more developed fetuses than, at least, what fetuses are like in most typical abortions, and these pictures don't convey any complex information about whether and which fetuses feel anything or are conscious. 

Recognizing that things are not so simple here and why the "My body, my choice" and "Nobody has a right to anyone else's body" slogans would not justify letting children drown but can justify abortion, given the relevant differences between early fetuses and born children, is important. Acknowledging complexity is often better than appealing to inaccurate and misleading simplicity, especially when those simple appeals are not working. So let's hope that happens since it can only help.

P.S. David Boonin has an excellent newish book on these issues: Beyond Roe: Why Abortion Should be Legal--Even if the Fetus is a Person

P.P.S. It's also worth pointing out that some claim that the fetus has a right to the woman's body because she did something that contributed to its existence and its "need" for her body. ("Need" is in quotes because it's unclear how this need should be understood: you and a plant both need water, but the needs of conscious, feeling beings are different from the needs of non-conscious entities). 

In response, it's a fair observation that almost nobody who says this tries to plausibly explains how or why this might be so: they just assert this, without explanation or defense. 

On one way of thinking it through, the claim appears question begging or circular: the fetus has a right to her body because she did something that lead to the existence of a fetus that has a right to her body

Some suggest that there's something like a "contract" that gives this right, although nothing resembling any contract or agreement is in place here: nobody can make an agreement with non-existent person and the fact that whether an egg is fertilized and a women becomes and stays pregnant is out of anyone's control is surely relevant also. In short, this "contract" would resemble no known valid contract that we are aware of.

Finally, there's the suggestion that since born children have rights to assistance (and so rights to someone's body?), early fetuses do also. An important difference here, however, is that born children are persons - conscious and feeling and more - whereas early fetuses are not.  

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Abortion and Animal Rights: Does Either Topic Lead to the Other?

"Should people who believe in animal rights think that abortion is wrong? Should pro-lifers accept animal rights? If you think it’s wrong to kill fetuses to end pregnancies, should you also think it’s wrong to kill animals to, say, eat them? If you, say, oppose animal research, should you also oppose abortion?

Some argue ‘yes’ and others argue ‘no’ to either or both sets of questions. The correct answer, however, seems to be, ‘it depends’: it depends on why someone accepts animal rights, and why someone thinks abortion is wrong: it depends on their reasons. . ."

To continue reading this 2016 essay, click here for the "What's wrong?" blog of the University of Colorado Center for Values and Social Policy. 

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Are Pro-Choicers Irrational (for Only Encouraging Voting)?

What can people do to help ensure that women have the legal right to abortion and that abortion access is available?

By and large, the only suggestion that pro-choice organizations and people offer is this: vote!

Voting surely is a good idea and is a necessary part of an effective strategy, but it surely is not sufficient: it's not enough. 

Yet, pro-choice people tend to offer nothing else beyond voting to try to help advance their cause. Why is that?

I think it's this: pro-choice people tend to be irrational

Let me explain.

There are a variety of ways that people can be irrational. 

One way is to use ineffective means toward your ends: e.g., if you rent a car to take a trip across the ocean, you are irrational

Another way is to have false beliefs that you would recognize as false if you thought about them carefully enough

Both of these are relevant here. 

First, I think pro-choicers often accept an assumption like this, at least as it relates to abortion: 

  • if things have been a certain way, they will and must stay that way. 

This motivates thinking that since abortion has been legal it will remain legal, that since abortion has been broadly socially accepted it will remain so, and that if people have had access to abortion they will continue to have access, and so on. (In some ways, these assumptions can be seen as related to "status quo bias.")

But the general assumption - that things won't and can't change - is false. That's obvious. 

People and organizations who oppose abortion have recognized that change is possible and have been working hard to try to make it happen, from the ground up: they've got "educational" campaigns of many types, all kinds of "trainings" to get people involved and help them better engage the issues and advocate for their point of view, books and webpages geared towards general audiences, "think tanks" to advance their goals and influence policy, and more. They are working for change. 

Pro-choice advocates, however, seem to have been mostly "asleep at the wheel," assuming that things won't and can't change on these issues and making almost no efforts to prevent that change or lessen its chances. So:

All and all, it seems like very little has been done to try to prevent where we are at or headed now. This is all despite the fact that there are really good ethical and legal arguments for a broadly pro-choice perspective. 

That's not smart, not effective, and not working.

I'll add that a related assumption that may be motivating this do-nothing or do-nothing-effective approach is this:

  • if you've got the dominant view, you'll always have it. 

In general, people with dominant views don't go out to defend their views or shore them up: they just take them for granted and assume the status quo will remain. Think about, say, meat-eaters: thinking there's nothing wrong with eating meat (and so eating meat) is the dominant view: the NY Times had to run a contest for people to try to come up with anything like a decent argument for the ethical acceptability of eating meat, given all the ethical arguments against it. People who hold socially-dominant views don't defend their views unless and until the time comes and they really have to, and then they are often caught off guard. And pro-choice people and organizations are indeed off guard, or so it seems. 

So, what can be done about this?

My general suggestions relate to education-related activities and outreach, although surely there are other responses. Knowledge is some power, so at least recognizing this deficiency in knowledge and understanding is a start. Pro-choicers should, at least, learn what types of educational activities critics of abortion offer, and seek to meet and match those activities.

Pro-choicers should increase their own knowledge and understand of the issues. IMHO, one of the best lines of our book is this:

. . people who believe that abortion is generally not morally wrong and should be legal are correct, [but] they sometimes don’t offer very good reasons to think this.

Too many pro-choice people give bad arguments for their views: what they say shows that their understanding is, well, not very deep: they rely on slogans and memes and foot-stomping, which won't do. Knowing more about the issues and arguments, especially the details and dialectic of the arguments, would help pro-choice advocates better engage other people - many of whom are, contrary to false assumptions, good-willed, interested to learn, and persuadable - and become more persuasive. 

Pro-choice advocates might not much engage people they disagree with in part because they don't know how to productively do that: they just don't know enough about the details of the issues, and they don't really know what people who disagree with them really think and how to engage in fruitful dialogue on the issues. But they can learn, and they really should: they need to better learn to get beyond their bubble. They should also recognize the potential for some plausible and reasonable compromises: those who oppose abortion do have some reasonable concerns that pro-choicers really should recognize. 

Pro-choice advocates not much engage people who disagree with them also contributes to a kind of groupthink among pro-choice advocates, which does no good: for one, it results in what few attempts at persuasion there are being acceptable only to those who are already pro-choice. It also contributes to a cult-like mentality, that anyone must agree with everything some person or organization says in order to be a broadly pro-choice person (and/or somehow agree with what each and every woman says on these issues, as if women don't sometimes disagree on some of the details): this doesn't allow for much, if any, diversity in viewpoints, which is bad. 

Engaging these few suggestions here would help increase the rationality of pro-choice advocates. They'd better identifying their goals and a range of potentially effective means to work towards those goals. Reflecting on their assumptions would reveal beliefs that they'd want to revise to improve their own understanding and to improve their abilities to positively engage with other people. It'd result in their understanding the issues in deeper ways, and so hold their views in more reasonable or rational ways, which would improve communication and persuasion. 

This final suggestion would also help in engaging with and revealing the irrationality of most opposition to most abortions. Our Thinking Critically About Abortion focuses on the common and philosophical arguments against abortion and, at least, makes a strong initial case that those arguments do not succeed: indeed many of them clearly and obviously fail (as many common pro-choice arguments fail also). Critics of abortion tend toward a more profound irrationality insofar as they accept bad arguments and hold their views for reasons that are just not good (and, unlike pro-choicers, there just aren't great arguments against most abortions): for one, too many of them are naively focused on "when life begins" and whether fetuses are "human." It would be rational for pro-choice advocates to be better able to show this and educate people on this: surely that would benefit their cause. 

In sum, current efforts aren't enough: they aren't working, given broadly pro-choice goals. People can do better - and they can do more than just vote on the issues - and they should: that's the rational response to these challenges. Will they? When and how, since people will want to get involved? If not, why not?

Finally, the themes here are relevant to many social movements that are seeking good change or seeking to preserve good progress. Groups and advocates can reflectively and thoughtfully try to seek their goals or not--or they can do that more or less--and surely the "not" and "less" options aren't the best and so they should do better. 

P.S. Another not uncommon response to these issues from some pro-choice people is to "stick their heads in the sand," so to speak, and declare things like "Abortion is not up for debate!" "Women's rights are not up for debate!" "There will be no compromise!" "We don't debate slavery and so we don't debate abortion!" and the like. 

There are some interesting things to think about concerning these sorts of responses: for example, are anti-abortion arguments really as bad as arguments for slavery? Arguments for slavery aren't taught in classes as "live arguments" potentially worthy of belief, but it is very common to review arguments against abortion, on the thought that there is at least something plausible about them and so they are worthy of review: is this mistaken? (For many reasons, I don't think so). 

But the big question about these head in the sand responses is this: how's this working? Is saying things like this making the issue go away? Does saying things like this help protect legal rights when they are under attack?

Clearly not. 

Does any other "progressive" movement think that it can "win" with these kinds of "we won't engage the issues" approaches? 


So, again, why do people say things like this? I develop an answer here.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Regret ≠ Wrongdoing or Illegal Behavior

There's some discussion of what's called "abortion regret" which is, obviously, about some women regretting that they had an abortion. 

There is a book on the topic (which I have not yet read) called Abortion Regret: The New Attack on Reproductive Freedom. There's a recent study that shows that most women do not regret having abortions. 

This type of information is importantsince we should know the facts, whatever they are—but it's fair to wonder why there's been so much focus figuring out these facts and, for some, that the facts are that most women don't regret having abortions. After all, these claims are both obviously true:

  • Just because someone regrets doing something does not mean they have done something morally wrong
  • Just because someone regrets doing something does not mean they have done something that should be illegal
  • Just because someone regrets doing something does not mean they have done something that should be criminalized

These points are just so obvious that I won't give examples to "prove" them since it's so easy for anyone to come up with examples on their own. (It's also true, however, that just because someone does not regret doing something doesn't mean they did something that's not wrong or should not be illegal or criminalized, but that point isn't relevant to much, since nobody is trying to make laws or shame anyone on its basis.) We do, however, discuss some arguments like these in our book in the section on question-begging arguments

So the questions are this: 

  • since it's just so obvious that someone's regretting doing something doesn't mean that what they have done is wrong or should be illegal or criminalized, what's the basis for the focus on this issue? 
  • is there any good reason for the obsession on this issue? 
  • why wasn't this concern just widely-dismissed as irrelevant when it arose? 
  • was it dismissed for the reasons but this obvious critique here somehow fallen from how most people respond to this concern? 

If anyone has any good answers, please share them in the comments. 

(I will also note that this is another example that illustrates the importance of having skills at seeing the structure of arguments and knowing some [literal] logic. If you see the italicized premises above and see that they are just clearly false, then you see that there really isn't a pressing need to find the details on the facts about the matter either since, even if more women regretted abortions, that wouldn't, at least not in itself, show anything interesting about abortions, morally or legally. And you don't have to be a libertarian or a great critic of paternalism to realize this!)

Tuesday, August 11, 2020

Abortion & Philosophy: A Beginners Guide

Here's a really nice presentation, "Abortion & Philosophy: A Beginners Guide," that gives an overview of our book:

Thanks to the Crusade Against Ignorance page for presenting this!

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Teaching the topic of Abortion

Someone asked for some tips of teaching the topic of abortion using our Thinking Critically About Abortion book. Here are some, quickly developed. 

In teaching the topic of abortion, it's important for the instructor to understand how the students understand the issues, to best "meet them where they are at." This is true for all issues, but it's especially important for abortion, given some complexities and complications with the issues that aren't as common in other issues, e.g.:
  • (a) most 'applied' ethical issues depend on knowing or understanding the facts, but here the facts about fetuses are hidden [in women] and although there is scientific research on the development of fetuses, most people don't know much about it: many people's empirical understanding is based on images of later fetuses and abortions that aren't representative of most abortions; 
  • (b) there is at least the potential for the application of conflicting moral principles here, and most people have little experience carefully engaging or applying any moral principles even when there are no potential conflicts like this;
  • (c) the topic is often seen as intertwined with religion (although it needn't be), which often leads to responses that don't contribute to positive engagement on the issues; 
  • (d) there is the "political" element, which doesn't contribute careful, reasoned arguments;
  • (e) people are just more defensive on this topic than many others, for a variety of (bad) reasons.
So, given that, here are some tips to have more engaging discussions or lecture-discussions:

1. Begin by observing that the topic is abortion, and then ask students to define "abortion" or "having an abortion." Get their definitions out and work through them. Some definitions will be question-begging, at least. Others will be uninformative. Find a better definition and show students why it's better. 

2. Observe when asked "Why do some people think that abortion is wrong, and why do some people think that abortion is not wrong?" people often respond with circumstances, not reasons: e.g., "it's not wrong with pregnancies resulting from rape." Help with noticing that circumstances are not reasons: e.g., to respond to "Why is stealing wrong?" with "Stealing cars is wrong" doesn't explain why stealing is wrong. So get the to focus on giving reasons . . that might justify their views about the ethics of abortion in various circumstances (including, potentially, all or nearly all circumstances, if they think a generalization is appropriate. 

3. Observe that we can, and should, be precise in stating the circumstances: we don't have to talk about abortion in generalizations. We could offer the conclusions that it's wrong in these circumstances .. or that it's not wrong in those circumstances, etc. Asking whether they are saying "some" or "all" about what they are claiming is important. Pull up images or charts of fetal developments and observe that there are potentially relevant differences between very early and far later fetuses. Make a list of the different circumstances that women and girls seek abortions. (I often use this page by Fred Feldman near the beginning of a unit on abortion) 

4. The big question though - in response to various conclusions or views on abortion (e.g., "it's wrong in these specific circumstances . .") is WHY? Have students make a list of reasons they'd give for various relevant conclusions. Make those lists as long as possible. See what students say and then, instructors, add the types of reasons that philosophers focus on, if students don't bring them up. I have a very old handout or worksheet that's a result of this list-making activity, which I need to redo. 

5. Work through those lists, striking any question-begging arguments. Show them what those are and why they are bad.

6. After that, work through the remaining arguments, stating them in logically valid form and evaluating them as sound. Common "everyday" arguments are easy to work through, but students are better off to know how to do that before they engage more challenging philosophical arguments. Notice that we often need to define words, and work through the arguments on different definitions: e.g., "if by 'human' you mean this, then the argument works out in this way  .. but if by 'human' you mean that, it works out a different way ..." 

7. Come to whatever (tentative) conclusions you'd like, depending on how comprehensive your discussion seems to be! If you've only reviewed a few arguments, or certain types of arguments, you might only offer conclusions about those arguments. If your discussion has been pretty comprehensive, you might offer up a tentative conclusion about the broader issue. 

OK, these are some quick tips. These are all related to the book insofar as it does a lot of this "set up" work before getting to the arguments that philosophers focus on, so the book can prep students for these in class discussions or used to review and reinforce them.

What further advice would anyone give?

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Racism, Slavery and Abortion

Critics of abortion sometimes claim that their position on abortion is similar to what they claim is their position on racism and slavery: all are wrongful discrimination and so all are profoundly wrong.

The claim is also sometimes presented in terms of "equality": just as advocates of racism and slavery deny the equality of human beings, people who think abortion is not wrong also reject "equality" for human fetuses.

So the suggestion is that people who are willing to routinely allow abortions would, andif they were consistent, shouldsupport racism and slavery: anyone OK with abortions might as well be OK with racism and slavery since they are all the same type of wrongdoing, discrimination, and denial of equality, they claim. 

Here I want to briefly respond to this type of claim or argument. I don't have a whole lot to say about it other than this, which is a profound understatement: the comparison here is absurd. Here's why:

  • racism and its consequences, such as slavery, negatively affects, in profound ways, the experience of living, experiencing people; 
  • racism negatively affects people by displaying profound disrespect that impacts the victims' lived, experienced world, in many ways; 
  • racism makes people's lives and quality of life and sense of self profoundly worse, in so many ways. 

We must also recall that one of the most influential arguments in favor of the permissibility of abortion relates to bodily autonomy and the right to one's own body: racism and slavery, of course, involve denying people's rights to their lives and bodies. 

And, finally, in terms of "equality," equality is often understood in the abstract ways of as equal consideration or respect for similar interests, or equal respect of rights from harm or rights to certain benefits; these considerations clearly explain why racism is wrong, but they do not seem to apply to non-conscious fetuses, who arguably lack interests and so things can't take a turn for the worse for them, and so they can't be harmed

All this says too little and in too limited of ways. Here is a song with video footage that can help convey the evil and wrongness of racism better than my words here can:

Now, do any of the best reasons to think that racism is profoundly wrong apply to non-conscious, non-experiencing fetuses? (Most abortions affect early fetuses that are not developed enough for consciousness and feeling).


None of the good reasons to object to racism apply to early fetuses: they can't experience anything, they can't feel anything, they can't experience any kind of disrespect. There's just no relevant comparison to be made.

(For rare, later abortions of potentially conscious fetuses, there are not the kinds of negative attitudes towards and about those fetuses that are present in racism, and there are other important differences also).

Some would respond, "But they are all human beings, and so they are all the same!"

What this response fails to engage, however, is the question of why human beings are wrong to treat disrespectfully, why human beings are wrong to harm in ways like how racism harms people.

My experience is that many people who oppose abortion (as well as many who support abortion) don't realize that this is a "live" and relevant question: they've never thought about why it's typically wrong to kill someone or harm someone: they haven't surveyed the range of answers here and evaluated them.

One set of answers to these "why?" questions here relate to lived experience: obligations to human beings (and anyone else) depends on their being conscious, their having feelings, and their having a subjective point of view which can go well for them, from their own point of view, or go poorly for them, from their own point of view. Someone can be disrespected also only when they have a point of view, a perspective, that can be denigrated and its value denied. Racism is, of course disrespectful, and it makes someone's life go worse, for them, which contributes to its wrongness.

In sum, to compare abortion to racism is just a bad analogy: they are not relevantly similar. The best reasons to think that racism are wrong, the best explanations why racism is wrong, just don't apply to fetuses: it's as simple as that. 

(If you know of any attempts to rigorously make the argument here that I am critiquing, instead of just throwing it out as a soundbite or an undeveloped idea [such as here or here], please let me know).

A relevant ad hominem observationthat is, an observation about the personalities and characters of the people who make these comparisons, not the comparison or argument itselfis that it seems that people who tend to enthusiastically oppose abortion tend to not vigorously oppose racism and racist social and legal practices. Of course, there are some exceptions to this rule, but, in general, it appears that most people who strongly oppose abortion do not also present themselves as committed anti-racists or are strongly supportive of anti-racist efforts and policies. If this is correct, why is that?

Update: see Imani Gandy's "Abortion Is Not Like Slavery, So Stop Comparing the Two," Nov 12, 2013. 

Other blog posts:

Monday, July 27, 2020

"Abortion Is Difficult" by Michael Huemer

If you haven't done so, you should read "Abortion Is Difficult" by Michael Huemer. It begins like this:
There is one thing that the extreme pro- and anti-abortion people can agree upon: that the issue is intellectually trivial, the correct answer blindingly obvious. They just disagree about which position is blindingly obvious and which stupidly evil.
I disagree, though. I think the issue of abortion is difficult. In fact, if you think the issue is easy, then I would say you’re irrational. Anyway, here are some of the reasons it’s difficult. . .

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Is Your Opinion on Abortion Wrong? Critical Thinking and Abortion

Kristina Grob, Philosophy, University of South Carolina Sumter, and Nathan Nobis, Philosophy, Morehouse College, Atlanta, GA.

Also posted at Science and PhilosophyMedium’s centre for scientifically-informed content. 
People with "thought bubbles" over their heads, suggestive of opinions.

For the past few years in the United States, almost daily there’s a headline about new proposed abortions restrictions. Conservatives cheer, liberals despair.

But who is right here? Should abortion be generally legal or should it be banned? Is it usually immoral or is it usually not wrong at all? These same questions, of course, are asked in other countries.

To many people, answers to these questions seem obvious, and people with different or contrary answers are, well, just wrong.

But how can we know? In particular, could anyone know that abortion is not wrong and should be legal? If so, how? And how would anyone effectively, persuasively, communicate that knowledge?

One important set of answers depends on this idea: critical thinking. Critical thinking can help people know, not merely believe or feel, that their perspectives on issues are true or correct, and it can help them persuade others to understand and accept that knowledge.

We are philosophy professors who teach courses in critical thinking and its applications to ethical, political, scientific, and legal issues. In our 2019 open-access book, Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should be Legal, we apply well-confirmed methods of critical thinking to the most discussed arguments about abortion.

"Thinking Critically About Abortion" book cover.

Critical thinking can be operationalized as skills. Three key critical thinking skills involve defining words, identifying the structures of arguments, and evaluating explanations. Understanding these and other critical thinking skills can only help improve conversations and advocacy about abortion. Let’s see them in action.


Philosophers going back as far as Plato in Ancient Greece have taught that people can think critically about a topic only if they define their terms well.

Good definitions are, first, informative.

Many pro-choice people define abortion as the “termination of a pregnancy.” But what is a “termination” and how is it achieved? This definition doesn’t explain that. Defining abortion as “killing a fetus to end a pregnancy by medical means” is better because it explains more. While some people react to this definition with the thought that it implies that abortion is wrong, critical thinking shows that it doesn’t, as we’ll see below.

Good definitions also are not biased.

Many pro-life advocates define abortion as the “murder of a fetus.” This definition is bad because “murder” often means “illegal killing,” and so where abortion is legal, it cannot be murder: that fact at least complicates many pro-life claims.

“Murder” also often means “wrongful killing,” which assumes that abortion is wrong and that you can just look up the word to know this. But nobody can responsibly just assume their position on this debated issue. And nobody can “prove” they are right with just the dictionary: arguments are needed.

Definitions can be better and worse in many ways. Critical thinking helps us understand this, which improves communication, discussion, and debate.


Everyone has reasons for their opinions, even if they are only their feelings. But critical thinkers want good arguments, so how can anyone tell whether an argument is good or bad? We care about this in science and medicine, and we should care about this here also. How can anyone tell if their beliefs are supported by good reasons?

Logic — the study of arguments — helps. Logic shows the steps in anyone’s reasoning. It reveals any assumed premises that are essential to an argument but aren’t stated outright. This is important since assumptions, like overtly stated premises, are sometimes not true.

For example, many argue that abortion is wrong simply because fetuses are “human.” The assumed premise is that “it is wrong to kill anything human.” But how is “human” defined? If “human” means biologically human then it would be wrong to kill human cells like skin or hair cells. But nobody thinks this is wrong.

So “human” must mean “human beings” or “humans,” not merely “biologically human,” and the premise is that “it’s wrong to kill humans or human beings,” not just anything merely human. But what are the differences among these very similar terms, and what difference does this make to the argument? (Answers: many! A lot!).

Critical thinking involves asking questions like these about the subtle meanings of terms — even those that initially seem painfully obvious — to ensure that everyone in the conversation is on the exact same issue. These questions are necessary to determine whether the premises of arguments are true or false, a core task when evaluating arguments.

Another valid pattern of reasoning involves seeing if a premise leads to a false claim: if it does, the premise is itself false.

Some pro-choice advocates sometimes are not careful and claim that “women have the right to do whatever they want with their bodies.” But if this exact premise were true, women would have the right to use their bodies to murder born people. Since women clearly lack that right, that premise can’t justify abortion. An improved, more-carefully stated premise could though, and critical thinking helps find that exact premise.

Pro-life advocates often argue that fetuses have “the right to life” and so abortion is wrong. But how is that right defined? Is it the right to everything needed for life? Does it include the right to someone else’s body, even if they don’t consent to that use?

These are questions that advocates of this argument usually don’t ask. If they are asked and answered, these answers are usually not supported with much in the way of developed reasons. But if the premise that “fetuses have the right to life” does not lead to believing that “fetuses have a right to the pregnant woman’s body,” that common argument against abortion is weak, and it’s important that this is common knowledge.

Many common arguments about abortion are mere soundbites and slogans: false and dubious claims are found on all sides of the debate. It’s nobody’s mere “opinion” that these are often bad arguments: critical thinking skills demonstrate that.

One strategy for engaging the ethics of abortion is to start with an uncontroversial moral fact — that it’s wrong to kill children and adults. Critical thinkers then try to find the best explanation why this is so and see whether that explanation applies to fetuses, making abortion wrong also.

One common explanation of why it’s wrong to kill children and adults, or why human beings have human rights, is simply that they are human beings.

A critical thinker, however, will observe that saying it’s wrong to kill human beings because we’re human beings, or we have human rights because we are human, doesn’t explain anything: these are circular, uninformative explanations. Humans know they are human; the question is why that would give humans rights.

A better explanation is that killing children and adults is wrong because it prevents them from experiencing their futures.

Does this explanation apply to fetuses? To answer, fetuses must be compared with adults and children. One difference is that adults and children are aware of their futures — at least, they have been aware of something — whereas early fetuses have never been aware of anything.

Does this mean that fetuses don’t have futures like children’s and adults’ futures? Some argue they do not and so the best explanation why it’s wrong to kill born people doesn’t apply to fetuses. However, fetuses could be wrong to kill because of different explanations than what apply to born humans: what could these be?

Engaging these discussions requires thinking critically about many challenging, complex issues. Critical thinking often isn’t quick or easy! Beyond applying skills, people have to admit that their reasons might be bad and their opinions wrong, which is often difficult.


Many responses to abortion are not based on critical thinking: they involve bad definitions, false assumptions, inadequate explanations and sometimes worse. Recognizing this is a step toward holding better-informed opinions, which in turn promotes better arguments that should persuade and make a positive impact, in many ways.

The COVID crisis has, again, made clear the need for good evidence, careful analysis, and informed communication about important issues. These standards apply to our thinking, reasoning, and arguing about everything, including vitally important ethical and legal issues like abortion, and any advocacy concerning it.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Videos on Ethics and Abortion

Many people like watching video presentations and so here are some Youtube videos that review a PowerPoint presentation on arguments about abortion that was developed for teaching purposes; those slides are below. This is basically a non-argumentative version of much of the discussion of Thinking Critically About Abortion

Introduction and Defining Abortion:

Question-Begging Arguments about Abortion

Common, "Everyday" Arguments about Abortion:

Arguments that Abortion is Prima Facie Wrong:

Arguments that Abortion is Prima Facie Permissible and Conclusions:

Much of this discussion involves stating arguments in what's called logically valid for, as syllogisms. Here's a video on how to do that:

PowerPoint slides:


Friday, June 26, 2020

Soundbites and Abortion

Someone recently alerted me to this post "Can You Explain Why You’re Pro-Life in a 30-Second Sound Bite?"

It reminded me of our article "Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make."

Here's their proposed soundbite:
I am pro-life because we know the unborn are alive, because they’re growing. We know the unborn are human because they have human parents, and I think human beings like me and you are valuable. 
In fact, I think all human beings have an equal right to live, because they all have something special in common: they’re human. That’s why racism and sexism are wrong. Racism is wrong because it focuses on a surface difference that doesn’t morally matter and ignores the thing we all have in common, which is the thing that does morally matter: that we’re human. 
And because the unborn are clearly human, they should be given an equal right to life as well.
Honestly, what - if any - are this soundbite's faults? What - if any - are its strengths? Please free free to discuss in the comments section!

Earlier posts: