Saturday, November 21, 2020

Judith Jarvis Thomson (1929-2020) on abortion

The absolutely brilliant philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson has sadly passed away. She was an extremely creative and insightful thinker who made important contributions to many areas of philosophy, especially ethics.

Her 1971 article "A Defense of Abortion" is one of the most famous articles of the 20th Century, in part because of the clever, imaginative examples that she develops to illustrate the nature of the right to life. These examples include the Famous Violinist, People Seeds, the Rapidly Expanding Child, and more. 

These examples all support the claim (the observation?) that the right to life is not the right to anyone else's body, even if that body is needed for that someone to stay alive. 

Her article is the basis for what is sometimes called a "bodily autonomy argument for abortion" but her arguments and insights are not as simple or simplistic as both critics and defenders sometimes make them out to be. Likewise, her article is, in some ways, a foundation for the "my body, my choice" slogan but, again, people who say that typically are unaware of the subtlety and nuance and caution that Thomson gave the issues. Everyone should read and study her brilliant article for themselves

The Wikipedia summary and discussion of the article is good, and here are links to find works that discuss her arguments in PhilPapers and Google Scholar.

Please read the moving remembrances of her and grateful appreciations of her as a teacher and, well, just a person; some are being posted online

And here is our brief summary of her arguments from Thinking Critically About Abortion:

5.2.3 The right to life & the right to someone else’s body 

5.2.3 The right to life & the right to someone else’s body

Finally, suppose much of the above is mistaken and that fetuses indeed are persons with the right to life. Some think that this clearly makes abortion wrong. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson famously argued in 1971 that this isn’t so.[17] She observes that people often have a naive understanding of what the right to life is a right to. She makes her case with a number of clever examples, most famously, the “famous violinist”:

You wake up in a hospital, “plugged in” to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, he will die. But it’s only for nine months.

Does the violinist have a right to your kidneys? Do you violate his right to life if you unplug, and he dies? Most would say “no,” which suggests that the right to life is not a right to anyone else’s body, even if that body is necessary for your life to continue.

This suggests that, even if fetuses were persons with the right to life, they would not have a right to the pregnant woman’s body: only the woman herself has that right. So until there is a way to remove fetuses and place them in other wombs, abortion would be permissible, given women’s rights to their own bodies and related rights to autonomy and self-determination, especially about matters concerning reproduction, among other relevant rights. This discussion also suggests another definition of abortion:

       Definition 4: Abortion is the intentional withholding of what a fetus needs to live, to end a pregnancy.

Thomson’s insights are not without controversy, however. Some respond the violinist case is somewhat like a pregnancy that results from rape, since there’s no consent involved, but claim that pregnancies that don’t result from rape do give fetuses the right to the woman’s body because, they argue, the woman has done something that she knows might result in someone existing who is dependent on her.

Thomson, however, had other cases that partially address this type of concern: e.g., if someone falls in your house because you opened a window, they don’t have the right to be there, even though you did something that contributed to their being there; and, more imaginatively, if people sprouted from “people seeds” floating in the air, and you tried to keep them out of your house but one managed to get in and became dependent on your carpet for its gestation, that resulting person would not have a right to be there, despite your having done something that led to that person’s existence.

We should also notice that the claim that doing something that results in the existence of something uniquely dependent on you grants that something rights to your assistance might be question-begging. Compare doing something that results in the existence of a new plant or dish or random cells that is dependent on you: you wouldn’t be obligated to provide for that plant or cells. To assume that things are different with fetuses is, well, to assume what can’t be merely assumed, especially if we don’t already believe that early fetuses are persons with the right to life. Thomson assumed fetal personhood for the sake of argument to illustrate her claims about the right to life, but the facts of the matter—that early fetuses arguably aren’t persons or have characteristics that make them have a right to life—is surely relevant to assessing this type of claim when applied to actual cases of pregnancy.

It should be made clear though that even if the fetus doesn’t have a right to the pregnant woman’s body, there could be other rights or other obligations that could make abortion wrong nevertheless: e.g., if pregnancy were just 9 hours perhaps women would be obligated to be Good Samaritans towards them, even if fetuses didn’t have a right to the woman’s resources and assistance: ethics isn’t just about not violating rights. What’s important here is that rights to life and personhood are not the “slam dunk” against abortion, so to speak, that people often think they are: things are more complicated than that. 

Thursday, November 19, 2020

Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make

"Abortion and Soundbites: Why Pro-Choice Arguments Are Harder to Make" at Areo Magazine

An "elevator speech" defense of abortion

Simplifying complex issues is often problematic. One problem is that simplications is that they sometimes lead to mere slogans and soundbites that are totally unpersuasive to anyone who doesn't already agree with the point of view of the slogan. Simplifications also sometimes don't contribute to any greater understanding of the issues, even an understanding of why their current understanding might be missing something. 

With that in mind, here's a simplification adapted from the Preface of Thinking Critically About Abortion

Why is abortion not wrong and should be legal? 
Let's begin with less morally-controversial claims: adults, children and babies are wrong to kill and wrong to kill, fundamentally, because they, we, are conscious, aware and have feelings. But since early fetuses entirely lack these characteristics, they are not inherently wrong to kill and so most abortions are not morally wrong, since most abortions are done early in pregnancy, before consciousness and feeling develop in the fetus.

And since the right to life is not the right to someone else’s body, fetuses might not have the right to the pregnant woman’s body—which she has the right to—and so she has the right to not allow the fetus use of her body.

Such an extended soundbite or "elevator speech" is not perfect, but it has the advantages of raising the questions of why anyone or anything is wrong to kill and the question of what the right to life is a right to

How would people respond to this elevator speech? What might work better and best? 

Here are some ideas from the Respect People Foundation


Saturday, November 14, 2020

Abortion blog archive

 A continually updated archive of the blog posts written after the publication of Thinking Critically About Abortion is now available here. Many of these posts are inspired by observations about how people often engage the issues, other posts discuss further arguments, and other posts recommend other readings and resources. 

Friday, November 13, 2020

Fetal Alcohol Syndrome & Abortion: On The Impairment Argument

There's an argument against abortion that says this:

  • since would be (and is) wrong to harm a fetus, say by a pregnant woman smoking (too much) or using certain drugs or drinking far too much alcohol (leading to fetal alcohol syndrome) or otherwise acting in ways that are dangerous to the fetus, abortion is also wrong; or,
  • if it's wrong to do things that are damaging to a fetus (and it is), it's also wrong to damage a fetus by aborting it, especially since abortion is a greater "damage." 

This argument has been dubbed the "impairment argument" against abortion and has gotten some development and defense in philosophical journals.

While the argument might be new and might seem clever (maybe another "zinger"?), it at least seems that the argument just isn't good, for pretty simple and obvious reasons. 

Simply put, why is causing, say, fetal alcohol syndrome wrong? Why is someone knowingly and avoidably causing something like this blameworthy?

The most obvious and straightforward answer is this:

  • causing fetal alcohol syndrome (and other similar conditions) is wrong because it leads to a future person having a worse quality of life, a more difficult life, than they would have had if they had not had fetal alcohol syndrome: life would have been better for them if their mother did not do what she did.  
Even more simply put, why avoid fetal alcohol syndrome? So your future child doesn't have medical problems and life difficulties that they wouldn't have, if they hadn't had fetal alcohol syndrome. It would be interesting to review what's medical professionals say for why fetal alcohol syndrome is bad and should be avoided: I'd bet what they say is very similar to this common-sense explanation.  

Now, does this explanation suggest anything about abortion? Does it suggest that abortion is wrong?

No, not at all. It doesn't apply, sinceby designabortion results in there not being some future person, much less a future person with a lower quality of life than they would have had. 

So the basic reason to be concerned about fetal alcohol syndrome just doesn't apply to abortion. So the argument doesn't appear to work, again, for pretty simple and obvious reasons. (This discussion here, however, does again suggest that "bodily autonomy" arguments for abortion have limits, since bodily autonomy wouldn't, say, justify knowingly doing what will lead to someone having fetal alcohol syndrome). 

Of course, that doesn't mean that the conclusion is false or that there aren't better arguments for the same conclusion. 

But maybe the objection above is mistaken? Maybe the argument really is a good one? If so, how and why is that?

All other blog posts are available here

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Section 5.1.3 of "Thinking Critically About Abortion," "Fetuses are persons"

 From Thinking Critically About Abortion:

5.1.3 Fetuses are persons

Finally, we get to what some see as the core issue here, namely whether fetuses are persons, and an argument like this:

Fetuses are persons, perhaps from conception.
Persons have the right to life and are wrong to kill.
So, abortion is wrong, as it involves killing persons.

The second premise seems very plausible, but there are some important complications about it that will be discussed later. So let’s focus on the idea of personhood and whether any fetuses are persons. What is it to be a person? One answer that everyone can agree on is that persons are beings with rights and value. That’s a fine answer, but it takes us back to the initial question: OK, who or what has the rights and value of persons? What makes someone or something a person?

Answers here are often merely asserted, but these answers need to be tested: definitions can be judged in terms of whether they fit how a word is used. We might begin by thinking about what makes us persons. Consider this:

We are persons now. Either we will always be persons or we will cease being persons. If we will cease to be persons, what can end our personhood? If we will always be persons, how could that be?

Both options yield insight into personhood. Many people think that their personhood ends at death or if they were to go into a permanent coma: their body is (biologically) alive but the person is gone: that is why other people are sad. And if we continue to exist after the death of our bodies, as some religions maintain, what continues to exist? The person, perhaps even without a body, some think! Both responses suggest that personhood is defined by a rough and vague set of psychological or mental, rational and emotional characteristics: consciousness, knowledge, memories, and ways of communicating, all psychologically unified by a unique personality.

A second activity supports this understanding:

Make a list of things that are definitely not persons. Make a list of individuals who definitely are persons. Make a list of imaginary or fictional personified beings which, if existed, would be persons: these beings that fit or display the concept of person, even if they don’t exist. What explains the patterns of the lists?

Rocks, carrots, cups and dead gnats are clearly not persons. We are persons. Science fiction gives us ideas of personified beings: to give something the traits of a person is to indicate what the traits of persons are, so personified beings give insights into what it is to be a person. Even though the non-human characters from, say, Star Wars don’t exist, they fit the concept of person: we could befriend them, work with them, and so on, and we could only do that with persons. A common idea of God is that of an immaterial person who has exceptional power, knowledge, and goodness: you couldn’t pray to a rock and hope that rock would respond: you could only pray to a person. Are conscious and feeling animals, like chimpanzees, dolphins, cats, dogs, chickens, pigs, and cows more relevantly like us, as persons, or are they more like rocks and cabbages, non-persons? Conscious and feeling animals seem to be closer to persons than not.[13] So, this classificatory and explanatory activity further supports a psychological understanding of personhood: persons are, at root, conscious, aware and feeling beings.

Concerning abortion, early fetuses would not be persons on this account: they are not yet conscious or aware since their brains and nervous systems are either non-existent or insufficiently developed. Consciousness emerges in fetuses much later in pregnancy, likely after the first trimester or a bit beyond. This is after when most abortions occur. Most abortions, then, do not involve killing a person, since the fetus has not developed the characteristics for personhood. We will briefly discuss later abortions, that potentially affect fetuses who are persons or close to it, below.

It is perhaps worthwhile to notice though that if someone believed that fetuses are persons and thought this makes abortion wrong, it’s unclear how they could coherently believe that a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest could permissibly be ended by an abortion. Some who oppose abortion argue that, since you are a person, it would be wrong to kill you now even if you were conceived because of a rape, and so it’s wrong to kill any fetus who is a person, even if they exist because of a rape: whether someone is a person or not doesn’t depend on their origins: it would make no sense to think that, for two otherwise identical fetuses, one is a person but the other isn’t, because that one was conceived by rape. Therefore, those who accept a “personhood argument” against abortion, yet think that abortions in cases of rape are acceptable, seem to have an inconsistent view.

13. For a discussion of the nature of personhood, written by thirteen philosophers, see Kristen Andrews, et al, Chimpanzee Rights: The Philosophers’ Brief  (Routledge, 2018). This book addresses the general question of what persons are and applies plausible answers to the question of whether any chimpanzees are persons, and its discussion is applicable to questions about fetal personhood. This book grew out of an amicus brief, written for judges to help them better understand the issues. For discussion of the relations between arguments about the “moral status” of non-human animals and the “moral status” of human fetuses, see Nathan Nobis’s (July 16, 2016) Abortion and Animal Rights: Does Either Topic Lead to the Other?” at the University of Colorado’s Center for Values and Social Policy blog What’s Wrong?  

All other blog posts are available here

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Abortion "Zingers": What About That??

It's not uncommon for people to offer what could be called "zingers" about abortion. 

These often amount to rhetorical questions that, unfortunately, the person asking the question doesn't wait around for an answer to. 

This is unfortunate because oftentimes these questions do have answers, good answers. 

So the "zinger" attempt is to ask a question that's assumed to be a really hard question that can't be answeredand so get a "gotcha!" momentexcept the question can be answered and answered effectively

Using "zingers" then reveals that either the person just doesn't know as much about the topic as they think they do, or that they lack integrity in engaging other people, or both (and more!). 

So, pro-choice people sometimes ask this whatabout "zinger":

What if there was a burning building with human embryos and a child in it? Would you save the embryos or a child???!

The charge is that if someone says that they would save the child, the "zinger" is the accusation that that must mean they think that embryos aren't valuable, or aren't people, and that, ultimately, their view can't support thinking that abortion isn't wrong. 

This, however, is just silly. To see this, change the question:

What if there was a burning building with strangers and your beloved spouse? Would you save the strangers or your beloved spouse???!

Most people would save their beloved spouse. 

Does that mean that the strangers are not valuable, or aren't people, and that it would be OK to push these strangers into a burning building? 

Not at all.

The zinger fails.  

Consider a whatabout "zinger" from some who oppose abortion:

Whatabout laws that make murdering pregnant women an especially heinous crime

Here the thought is that if murdering pregnant women is an especially awful crime (as it is) and should be classified a double-murder or murder-homicide, then fetuses must be persons and abortion must be wrong. 

This might be the case, but a little thinking gives reasons to doubt this conclusion.

First, it appears that the murder of pregnant women is, fortunately, rather rare. One source reports this: "the overall pregnancy-associated homicide ratio was 1.7 deaths per 100,000 live births." Another reports: "The pregnancy-associated homicide rate in Maryland was found to be 10.5 per 100000 live births." Whatever the numbers, that's always too many, but it still rather rare. So these cases get special attention, as they should. 

Second, although even though around half of pregnancies are not intended, many women who are pregnant do (or eventually do) want to have that baby. Even if they have mixed emotions, they and their families are usually excited for the baby to be born and for their future with that child. 

So, what happens when a pregnant woman, who usually wants to have a baby, is that she is murdered and her future with that baby and her family's hopes and dreams for the future for her and that child are wrongly taken away. That's profoundly wrong, what some would consider an even greater loss when there's a murder of a single person. (In this way, this is related to responses to questions about miscarriages). 

If we want to make this type of wrong, however, a special crime, we'll have to have a law that makes this a special crime. And it's not going to work to have a law that says murdering pregnant women who want to have a baby is a specially bad crime but murdering pregnant women who do not want to have a baby is not an especially bad crime. For one, in many cases (of the few cases like these) we won't know what category the crime is, since we won't know how the woman feels about being pregnant and what her plans for the future are. Viable laws have to be workable laws. 

So if we are going to have a law, it's going to have to be a general law, applicable to murdering any pregnant woman. And, again, most pregnant women ultimately want to have a baby and their families are profoundly looking forward to that future also, and laws often have to be made to cover the majority of cases. 

Does this mean that fetuses are persons? 

No. The above explanation had nothing to do with whether fetuses are persons. (I will note that, as far as I can find so far, we don't have data on what percentage of murdered pregnant women are murdered late in pregnancy, when the fetus is conscious and feeling; that would be relevant to the status of the crime [see 5.2.4 “What ifs”: rape and later-term abortions]). 

Does this mean abortion is wrong?

No. Nothing in the explanation above suggests that abortion is generally wrong. 

Is this issue more complicated than many people think it is?


Do "zingers" often fail in making good arguments? Should people seek to understand the complex details of a complex issue? Should people seek thoughtful answers to their questions, instead of assuming that there are no answers and that they have scored a "point"?

Yes, yes, and yes! Always yes!

** Are there other "Zingers" you'd like discussed? Let me know! **

All other blog posts are available here

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Respect People Foundation

Here's something new that someone told me about, the Respect People Foundation, at Also at

For another educational project, see, where arguments about abortion are rigorously and thoughtfully evaluated.

All other blog posts are available here

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Is abortion "up for debate"? Clearly, it is! That's why 'ethical literacy' is needed.

A lot of people declare that abortion is "not up for debate."

Saying this is absurd. 

Clearly, abortion is up for debate: what do people think is going on?

Maybe it should not be up for debate, but it is. Again, what do people think is going on?

So why is abortion up for debate? And why shouldn't it be?

Abortion is up for debate because too few people know why it shouldn't be up for debate. Too few people understand why abortion is generally not wrong and should be legal. And so it's up for debate. 

Abortion is also up for debate just because too few people know how to "debate"

By "debate" I don't mean to try to convince others of your point of view, by any means necessary, even if your view is unreasonable: that's sophistry or manipulation or "public relations" and that's bad. 

By "debate" I mean present and examine reasons given for and against various points of view, with the goal of finding which point of view is best supported by evidence. 

"Debate" in this good sense requires skills in defining terms and evaluating definitions, carefully stating arguments, and assessing the evidence. Debate also requires virtues, such as patience, a willingness to seek to understand, fairness, honestly, and more. 

Most importantly, the best form of debate requires the virtue of being willing to admit that, about some things, you might be wrong and other people might be right: you might need to change your views, just as they might need to change also. 

Why do too few people lack "debate" skills like these?

There are many factors here, but one is just this: inadequate education, especially inadequate ethical education. 

People just have inadequate skills at determining whether actions are wrong or not: they lack the relevant concepts and techniques needed to productively think about complex ethical issues like abortion. 

This lack of skills contributes to many people mistakenly thinking no skills are needed to effectively think about these issues and that the issues are simple when they are really complex. 

Why do people lack these skills? 

Well, where would they get them? Where would anyone develop skills in thinking about ethical issues taught, especially at higher levels of education?

Really, only philosophy courses. And few people take philosophy courses. Few people take courses to learn how to better think about challenging issues.

So, few people have any training or education on how to think about abortion, since they have no training in thinking about complex ethical issues in general. 

That's not good for thinking about abortion, or thinking about most things that are complex and important. 

This lack of understanding leads to many people thinking that the "big questions" here are these:

These questions are not the deep questions here, and anyone who had a decent class that covered these debates would know that. They would know that the issues aren't as simple as these questions suggest, and that you can't get a strong argument against abortion from answers to these questions. 

Likewise, anyone who had a decent class on these topics would realize that common pro-choice slogans like these are bad "arguments" (or that they are suggestive of bad arguments, if we don't think slogans don't rise to the level of arguments):

  • "No uterus, no opinion."
  • "My body, my choice."
  • "Don't like abortion, don't have one!"
  • "Pro-lifers are forced birthers!"

A more reflective person would also realize that arguments often have a persuasive function and that slogans like these are totally unpersuasive. These slogans don't change minds and they shouldn't. 

So, what's the "solution" here? 

Again, the problem is multifaceted, but one thing is clearly needed: education, specifically ethics education, philosophical education, and education in critical thinking and reasoning

We need ethical literacy. And since a lot of ethical issues depend on science, we need scientific literacy also. (Since scientists are not overwhelmingly positive to ethics education, that's an obstacle here). 

Who needs to develop these types of literacy? 

Everyone, but - especially - people who are pro-choice. That they haven't effectively made their case - they too often rely on slogans and bad arguments, when they don't need to, since there are good arguments they can appeal to - contributes to abortion's being up for debate. Thoughtful, reflective, and systematic attempts to make their case - which would be more persuasive to many - would make the ethics of most abortions not up for debate, as it should be. 

P.S. Two educational projects, beyond this one, include Defending Feminism and the Respect People project. These are great projects run by motivated individuals, but the big question is why major pro-choice organizations don't embrace any educational efforts: anti-abortion strategists engage in "educational outreach" and it is foolish for pro-choice organizations to not do the same. 

All other blog posts are available here: here are some of them:

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Engaged Philosophy interview

 I was interviewed for the "Engaged Philosophy" project! The interview is here and pasted below also. Among other things, I discuss Thinking Critically About Abortion and its goals and motivations.

Nathan Nobis is an associate professor of philosophy at Morehouse College, treasurer of the Public Philosophy Network and is a member of the APA’s Public Philosophy committee. He works to make philosophy publicly accessible in content, writing style, and cost.


Much of my public philosophy is motivated by the goals of demonstrating clear, easy-to-read, yet rigorous philosophy and teaching people how to better think about philosophical and ethical issues. 

I teach philosophy at a college, and I also have a small position doing some bioethics activities at a medical school. I also help run 1000-Word Philosophy: An Introductory Anthology, which creates highly accessible, top-quality introductory readings in philosophy. Currently, we have about 115 essays. 

Another thing I have done is created two open-access introductory books, Animals & Ethics 101: Thinking Critically About Animal Rights and, more recently, with my co-author Kristina Grob, Thinking Critically About Abortion: Why Most Abortions Aren’t Wrong & Why All Abortions Should Be Legal.


All these projects have been very successful! 

Readers like students appreciate the essays at 1000-Word Philosophy since the essays are direct, to the point, and free! They can really engage the issues through these materials, and so they learn more and have more fun.

Instructors appreciate them since they are useful for many teaching purposes and, most importantly, students can read and understand them, unlike many readings that are, honestly, just too hard for many readers (and that’s often not the readers’ fault; many historical and contemporary academic writings are just not written with general readers in mind). 

1000-Word Philosophy is on its way to getting about half a million views each year, and we suspect that most of the viewers are students or interested general readers from the public looking to learn more about philosophy. There’s a strong public interest in philosophy, so it’s a matter of having good materials and helping people find those materials: Making this connection is, of course, easier said than done. 

My and Kristina’s abortion book, which grew out of two chapters written for an open-access textbook, has also been very successful, in terms of the numbers of people productively engaging with the book and its spin-off content. The book has a lot of great reviews, including some people claiming it’s the best introductory book on the subject. 

Abortion is, obviously, an exceedingly important issue and it’s one that, honestly, philosophers know a lot about. In particular, they know and, I’ll boldly say, can prove or demonstrate that many common arguments given on the issues, on all sides, are bad arguments. If we can get more people interested in learning why this is so (and many people are interested, although some people—on all sides of the issue—seem unfortunately just not interested in finding good arguments and seeing why bad arguments are bad), we can elevate the discussion and at least move on to the more complex issues: Again, philosophers have a lot to teach here, if people are willing to learn, and so we’ve tried to create a great “unit” on abortion that anyone can learn from. 

And the book’s web page gets a few hundred views every day, in part because I share the book and new, related content online quite often. Much of this new content is inspired by themes I observe in engaging people on these issues: What are common deficiencies in terms of how people conceptualize the issues, the arguments they accept and offer and how they respond to other people (especially when they disagree), and how can people do better in engaging the issues, if the goals are better arguments and reasonable and respectful persuasion? Social media is a good “lab” to make discoveries here, and that can happen in productive, friendly ways: Philosophers can and should rise above the typical unproductive ways of engaging controversies. 


Something unique about these educational materials is that they are all very reader-centric in that they very much begin with how ordinary people tend to see things and try to “meet them where they are at.” 

So the 1000-Word Philosophy essays often begin with some kind of example or observation from daily life, and use that to motivate a more abstract discussion. We try to make things “relevant,” as some say, which just makes everything more interesting and inviting. We do a lot to think about what would more effectively reach people, based on our interacting with them. 

The abortion book begins—indeed most of the book is about—issues that most philosophical discussions skip past: Defining abortion, question-begging arguments, and simple arguments that if you’ve had one just lesson about evaluating arguments you can identify as bad arguments. 

So I think philosophers should do more to listen to non-philosophers and see how they understand issues. What we do and the ways we engage and communicate should be motivated by empathy. We do know a lot, but we aren’t know-it-alls, and we shouldn’t seem like that. That’s not true and that’s not helpful, for anyone. 

Speaking of empathy, another thing I sometimes do is philosophical counseling and consulting. I am certified in something called “Logic Based Therapy,” which basically amounts to helping people figure out the arguments they are accepting that’s leading them to feel how they feel, especially when they are feeling down in various ways. So I help people figure out the literal premises they are accepting that’s leading them to how they are feeling, critique those premises (they often involve a false belief about what “must” be the case) and then find better premises and strategies to integrate those better beliefs. This also often involves helping people think through ethical challenges they encounter in their jobs and family life. Philosophy is often said to be personally relevant and this is one activity that proves that: I encourage more philosophers to look into it since, again, we have a lot to offer, even in using reason to help people feel better.


So my general thought here is inspired by a quote from Howard Thurman: 

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

I do, however, want to correct him: we should ask what the world needs. And what the world needs is, in part, philosophy, or good philosophy. Philosophy is a partial cause of many of our problems and it’s also part of the solution. 

Almost every current issue is relevant to philosophy. So, to better figure out what to do about COVID, we need to remind ourselves—as we do when teaching utilitarianism—that all consequences of our alternative possible ways of responding “count” in deciding what we should do. In engaging the “blue lives matter” crowd, they need to be reminded that nobody is perfect and everyone makes mistakes, a basic presumption of ethics and a well-justified belief about human nature. About climate change, the looming crisis that most of us are too distracted to think about, we need to recall that knowledge and expertise matters: Wishful thinking based on made-up “facts” is bad. The too many people who seem to deny that Black lives matter should be taught about John Rawls’ veil of ignorance and reminded of the Golden Rule. And everyone needs to be reminded that honesty is good and name-calling is bad: That’s kindergarten philosophy, but too many people have forgotten. 

So in being part of public philosophy, which includes teaching, we demonstrate fair, honest, and rigorous philosophical thinking in engaging other people and ourselves. If we do that, including online, we are part of the solution. Philosophy matters.

How should we do this? Here I go back to Thurman: Do what makes you come alive! There are so many ways to engage the public that are fun and allow people to use and express their own unique talents. So be creative, experiment, and try something new! If you think something would be cool and help people think better about important issues, give it a try! And, better, find some like-minded people and give it a try together. The world needs philosophy, and since we are part of that world, we need it too.

Nathan Nobis with Stephane Dunn, film studies professor at Morehouse, and Issac Wright, Jr., whose story of a wrongful conviction and prison sentencing is the subject of the ABC drama “For Life” and who spoke to Nathan’s class about his experience.

EngagedPhilosophy readers: If you’d like to nominate yourself or someone else for an interview, email us at

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All other blog posts are available here

Friday, October 23, 2020

What are rights? What's the "right" to abortion?

Many people are concerned about the right to abortion. Some people and lawmakers want to take it away, but others declare "They can't take that right away!"

Can that right be taken away? In general, can we lose rights?

It depends on what you mean by "rights." What do you mean, "rights"?  

There are at least two types of rights: 

  • legal rights.
  • moral or natural rights.
Legal rights are, roughly, what the law allows: you can't get arrested or sent to prison for doing what you have a legal right to do. 

So, to say that there's a legal right to abortion is to say that the law allows abortion: abortion is not a crime. (Other legal rights aren't merely about allowing actions, but impose requirements).

Legal rights, however, can come and go, depending on what the government does. For example, in the US (and many other parts of the world) some people had the legal right to enslave other people, to have full and complete control over them. And many people lacked the legal right to vote. 

The laws, however, changed and these legal rights (to own other people, to prevent people from voting) were thankfully lost. 

What if these laws had never changed though? Would slavery and denying the vote to most people still be wrong? Would people's rights still be violated if slavery was legal?

Yes, because this would violate people's moral or natural rights

People have a moral or natural right to not be enslaved. They have a moral or natural right to freedom. And at least in societies where people vote, every person has the moral or natural right to vote. 

(These rights would often be considered "negative rights": it's a right to be allowed to do something, to not be interfered with. "Positive rights," on the other hand, are rights to some kind of benefit to some kind of assistance: e.g., the right to health care would impose an obligation that others provide health care services for other people. So, there are the concepts of both negative and positive moral rights, and negative and positive legal rights. The initial legal examples above were of negative legal rights.)  

People have these (negative) moral or natural rights even if the law doesn't recognize them. When laws don't recognize or disrespect moral or natural rights, those are unjust laws: granting someone the legal right to violate someone's natural rights, say the legal right to enslave someone else, is unjust. 

So, could people lose the right to abortion?

They could lose the legal right to abortion: that's for sure. 

But if people have the moral or natural right to abortion, then they couldn't lose that right: this type of rights just can't be lost. 

Do people have that moral or natural right to abortion? Why would they have that right, if they have it? Why might they not have that right, according to people who deny there is such a right?

These are important questions, and some of the most important answers are reviewed and evaluated in Thinking Critically About Abortion. If you don't know how these questions would be answered, please read it! That's your legal and moral or natural right*!

* Note: there's a lot more to say about rights; this post is a major simplification. For more, see here

All other blog posts are available here

Does "life" begin at conception? Biological versus "biographical" life

About abortion, it's often asked "when does life begin?" Are fetuses even alive?

People who oppose abortion are quick to argue that "life begins at conception": they even say "science says" that life begins at conception. 

Some pro-choice people ask if fetuses are even alive. Their question can seem silly (since abortions involve killing fetuses, and you can't kill things that aren't alive, so fetuses must be alive!), but it's really not. 

It all depends on what "being alive" means. What is life anyway? What do you mean "life"


One clear answer is that "life" is biological life. So to be alive is to be biologically alive or engaging in the processes of living things: taking things in, putting stuff out, growing, repairing, and so on. 

Fetuses clearly are biologically alive. Again, since abortion involves killing fetuses, they must be biologically alive. You don't need a scientist to tell you that. 


There's another legitimate meaning of "life" though. To see this meaning, consider this example:

Suppose a 20-something was in a car crash 20 years ago. She had been in a deep coma ever since, because her brain was extremly damaged, but her body - which breathed on its own - finally died yesterday.
When did her life end? When did she cease to be alive?

We might want to say that her biological life ended yesterday, but that her what we could all her biographical life ended 20 years ago: the "story" of her life ended at the car crash: the person she was ended then. 


So what kind of "life" are we thinking about when asking "when does life begin?" Biological life, or biographical life?

People who oppose abortion tend to assume biological life, partly because they usually aren't aware of the concept of biographical life. They assume that if fetuses are biologically alive, then abortion is often wrong. 

However, consider these assumptions, which are essential to various arguments from fetuses are biologically alive to the conclusion that abortion is typically wrong:

A. All living things are typically wrong to kill.

B. All living things that are biologically human are typically wrong to kill.

C. All living things that are biologically human organisms are typically wrong to kill. 

(A) is false: plants and mold are biologically alive, but not wrong to kill.

(B) is false: a random blob of living biologically human cheek cells wouldn't be wrong to kill.

(C) is what's at issue. 

Is a premise or assumption like (C) true? Why would someone think it's true? 

Although many people assume that this is true, one can see why it's actually probably false by thinking about why human beings are wrong to kill. Human beings can't be wrong to kill just because they are human beings: there has to be more of an explanation: what are better explanations and maybe the best explanation? Thinking through these questions (and better answers arguably appeal to consciousness, sentient, feeling or awareness) contribute to reasons to think that this premise is not true: while many human organisms are wrong to kill, not all human organisms are like that, and early fetuses are among that "not all." 

So, in sum, that biological life begins very early in pregnancy, and even that the biological life of human organisms begins very early in pregnancy, does not mean that abortion is wrong. There are hard steps to reach that conclusion. 


To return to the rough concept of "biographical life," it's worth noting that it's true that beings with biographical lives are typically wrong to kill. To be someone with a "life story," a person, does mean that they are wrong to kill, unless there's a good reason to do so. 

So if people who are wondering whether fetuses are alive, if the question is about biographical life, then the question makes sense. 

But, no, early fetuses are not biographically alive -- they would begin becoming biographically alive far later in pregnancy when they become conscious -- and so the principle against killing beings that are biographically alive does not apply to them. 


This is just a start of this discussion and these issues are discussed here in this section of Thinking Critically About Abortion and these blog posts, among other sources:

All other blog posts are available here