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.  

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:

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Is Herbie 'The Love Bug' a Person?

Recently I have watched a few of the old "Herbie the Love Bug" films. They are fun movies, and we can learn something from them about personhood, which is fun too.

So Herbie is a personified car: he (how is Herbie a "he"?) is a car that is given the traits of a person.

If something is given the traits of a person that, of course, tells us something about what persons are or what it is to be a person.

(That Herbie doesn't exist or is a fiction doesn't matter to this: whether something actually exists or not is not relevant to whether a concept or idea describes, or would describe, that thing: e.g., a fictional or made-up house still exemplifies the concept of "house" even though it doesn't really exist).

So why is Herbie a person, or what personifies Herbie?

It seems like the more immediate answers are along these lines: Herbie is personified because he is aware of things (he knows where things and people are), he has beliefs, he has desires, he has preferences, he has emotions, he has a memory, he has goals and the like: in "Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo" he even has romantic interests! In short, this car is personified in having a mind.

This seems to be a good explanation of why Herbie is a person and so what personhood is. We discuss this explanatory theory of personhood here.

A different answer to what personifies Herbie is this: Herbie is personified in that Herbie is presented as having a rational nature or essence.

Here I am not going to discuss this proposal, but instead just ask three questions about it:
  1. how is saying that "Herbie has a rational nature or essence" different from saying "Herbie is rational"?
  2. how is saying that "Herbie has a rational nature or essence" related to Herbie being rational?
  3. most importantly, is the explanation that Herbie is personified because of his rational nature or essence better or worse than the explanation that Herbie is personified because he is conscious, aware, has thoughts, feelings, beliefs, preferences, and so on? Whatever one's answer, why? And how does one decide these issues?
If you'd like, feel free to answer the questions below as a comment!

Some discussion relevant to evaluating the "rational nature or essence" proposal for personhood is here and here.

As a reminder, why are we talking about Herbie? Because thinking about Herbie (and other examples, especially ones from real life) can help us better understand what persons are, and what persons are is surely relevant to evaluating many arguments about abortion and other important ethical issues.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Definitions of "Murder" and Anything Else

I recently had a discussion with someone who insisted this: when and where abortion is legal, it cannot be "murder" because murder only has a legal definition, 'illegal killing.' 

I responded that "murder" also has a moral definition, at least "wrongful killing" or the "wrongful killing of a person."

This person denied this definition, insisting that anyone who understood "murder" this way is just mistaken.

How can this dispute be resolved? In general, how can disputes about definitions be resolved?

One response involves thinking about what definitions are, or how to define "definition."

In many cases, definitions report on how people use a term: if people use some words to express an idea, they are defining that idea, at least in one way (since terms sometimes have multiple definitions).

So then how do you find out how people define a word? You can do a survey! So that's what I did:
So, at least many people are willing to define "murder" as wrongful killing.

If they are mistaken, how exactly could that be shown, if it could?

First, you could read an encyclopedia entry on definitions also. And you could check our discussion of attempts to define, say, human embryos as "babies" or "children", or watch this video on definitions below.

Definitions define a topic, of course, and definitions often dictate what we need to argue about and what we can let go, sometimes for the sake of argument. So the more you know about definitions, the better you can engage the issues that define the topic. If you'd like more sources on how to evaluate definitions, especially for terms related to ethical issues, let me know!

Other blog posts: 

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Are you part of a cult about abortion, or anything else?

How people engage the issue of abortion can be indicative of general patterns of inquiry, thinking and communicating about controversial and challenging issues. Some of these patterns of response are good but others are bad.

One bad response to issues like these is to engage in what can be called "cult-like" thinking and behavior. To be part of a cult is similar to being part of an "echo chamber" or - a newer related term - an "epistemic bubble."

So if someone engages in cult-like thinking, or is part of an echo chamber or an epistemic bubble about abortion, what's likely true of that person?
  1. they tend to enthusiastically affirm just about anything and anyone that agrees with their own position, without asking whether that source of potential support is a good one or not; 
  2. they generally don't engage with people they disagree with on the issue, and these people are often "demonized": they are called stupid, or dumb, or evil or worse, although not in any kind of direct engagement that might wind up being productive;
  3. if they engage with people who they disagree with, it's from a distance and doesn't involve an attempt to reach out in good-will to increase understanding and have productive engagement: they are "drive-by critics";
  4. they don't really engage the materials (writings, videos, etc.) that people who disagree with them produce;
  5. they are unaware of questions and objections that other people have about their own views: that is, they are unaware of what their critics say, much less whether their critic's objections have any merit;
  6. sometimes their engagement of the issue is mediated through someone that they view as an expert or "prophet" on the issues: they agree with this person's conclusions on the issues, but aren't really up on the support for those conclusions, and so they leave it to this person to do that thinking and engagement for them;
  7. in that way, their position on the issue is driven by the conclusions they antecedently accept, not so much their own reasoning towards that conclusion that starts from a place of neutrality or lack of bias (or at an attempt at seeing things from this neutral starting point, as best they can). This relates to the "If you agree with me (on the correct conclusion on this issue), then I agree with you, no matter what!" attitude mentioned above. 
  8. they consider themselves very knowledgable on the issue, despite not having read widely on the issues, taken classes on the issues, or engaged with a variety of potential experts on the issues: so they think they are experts when they are not; they do not know that there is a lot they do not know about the topic;
  9. they think the issues are simple, when the experts know that there are genuine complications, challenges, and subtleties to be addressed;
  10. they do not wonder about whether there is any "common ground" between them and the people they disagree with to use to make progress on the issues; 
  11. there is often an unwillingness to "compromise" on anything, even when that compromise is reasonable. So this involves "black and white" thinking: it's either "all this" or "all that." Now, sometimes this response is appropriate - there are many things we shouldn't compromise on and there are not legitimate different perspectives on! - but compromises are sometimes reasonable and justified; 
  12. people in cults and echo-chambers don't allow any member of their own insider group to question any aspect of the group's beliefs or ideology: you are either all for it or not and, if not, well, you aren't "one of us": self-critique isn't allowed. This is related to the phenomena of "groupthink."
This is just an incomplete and quickly-made list of some common features of this type of engagement. (What is missing?)

Looking at this list, do these seem to be good ways of engaging issues, or not? Are many issues engaged this way? Why is this?

Finally, do many people exhibit these tendencies in how they engage the topic of abortion, both people who are pro-choice and people who are critical of abortion?

If so, why is this? And, more importantly, what can be done about it, on this issue and any other? 

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Trent Horn on "The Problem of Personhood"

Dear Mr. Horn,

Someone kindly alerted me to the fact that you discussed some of the arguments I have reviewed on the topic of abortion on your apologetics podcast. Thanks for that discussion there!

I hope you watched those videos that I made for classes, read our book Thinking Critically About Abortion, and have reviewed some of my other materials that are especially relevant to what you said, such as my reply to Christopher Tollefsen on what might (and might not) follow, morally, from our having “rational natures,” and my review of Francis Beckwith’s book.

I’ve taught logic, philosophy, and ethics at the college (and, occasionally, medical school) level for 20 years or so, and I’ve published a fair amount on this issue and many others.

My main motivation for engaging these issues is just that I believe many academic philosophers know a lot about them and so should share their knowledge to help improve the quality of engagement on these issues (and, of course, people who honestly don’t know much about these topics should learn about them from experts). Given that, I want to briefly respond to some of the things you say about personhood, at least in the transcript that I read.

First, although I’m not sure you are endorsing this reasoning, you mention that some people seem to argue this way:
1. Some people have been wrongly not recognized as people; some people have been wrongfully considered non-persons.
2. Therefore, there is something bad or problematic about the concept of person.
This is a bad argument. The problem is that it depends on this false premise: 
3. If a concept can be or has been misapplied, then it is a bad or problematic concept.
The problem with misapplying a concept is the concept is misapplied. If someone calls a brick a person, or a person a brick, the problem isn’t with any concepts of “person” or “brick”: the problem is the person’s misuse of the concepts.

That some people fail(ed) miserably at recognizing the personhood of certain people doesn’t show any problem with the concept of personhood: the problem is (and was) these people’s mistaken misunderstanding of personhood or their ill-will in applying what they know about it or other relevant mistaken beliefs about the people they claimed aren’t (or weren’t) persons. (This point applies to almost anything: take any concept “X”: that some people misidentify things as X’s doesn’t mean that X is a problematic concept or that nothing is an X or anything like that.)

To get to the more important issues, you asked these important questions:
  • “So, how do we define persons?
  • How do we come up with a proper definition?”
I want to point out that - although perhaps I missed it - you don’t seem to directly respond to your second question, which seems to be about what methods one would use to find the correct definition of “person” (or anything else). Instead, you seem to just propose a definition, instead of first asking how one would best answer the question.

In our book, we offer some thinking-activities or discussion questions to help people reason towards definitions of persons. Here they are:
1. 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? 
2. 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?
These activities can lead someone to reasonably accept a broadly psychological explanatory theory of what persons are: persons are conscious, aware beings. Such a view has been popular ever since John Locke, although it has been modified and improved, especially in recent decades: the theory doesn’t require “rational abilities,” if this means pretty fancy thinking; it can allow for just consciousness or awareness, that there is a way it is for that individual to be, from their own point of view.

Additional support for this type of hypothesis also can come from considered judgments about the ethics of killing and allowing to die various human beings such as brain-dead human beings and anencephalic newborns: if they are persons, but persons are prima facie (meaning, usually, or unless there's a good reason) wrong kill or let die, but these human beings can permissibly be treated in ways very different from how most children and adults are treated, then something has to go: some belief here has to change. (Update: this type of view agrees with what you, Mr. Horn, say, that its "not of what you are currently able to do, but in virtue of just what you are," that makes you have, say, rights.) 

You propose that persons are “individual member[s] of a rational kind.” Maybe, but why? And how does one come to a reasonable answer on this type of question anyway?

This type of theory needs to be adequately explained: what exactly is a kind? Why is our kind the “rational” kind and not something else, since there are other options? (These questions come up in with some arguments about ethics and animals). Most importantly, however, what follows and does not follow, morally, for being of a “rational kind”? If an answer is “the right to life,” why not also a right to autonomy? Why not any rights related to responsibility? There are hard questions here about this type of proposal and at least unbiased, rational inquirers want good answers if they are to believe anything on these matters.

For better or worse, I haven’t here reviewed every, or even many, details of what you wrote or said, although I would be willing to take the time to do so.  If you are interested in a seeking-to-be-very careful, patient, honest, and, I hope, intellectually-virtuous discussion of these issues, let me know. Nobody should be a "drive-by critic" in these days of the internet since misunderstandings can so easily be corrected and positive discussion and interactions promoted. If you are interested in that, let me know! Thanks!


Nathan Nobis, Ph.D.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2020

A Not Optimally Honest Abortion Debate: A Response to Alexandra DeSanctis’s "An Honest Abortion Debate" in The National Review

Yesterday I ran across Alexandra DeSanctis’s November 14, 2019, National Review article “An Honest Abortion Debate: A response to Caitlin Flanagan’s essay in The Atlantic.”  I’m late to this discussion, but, since I found DeSanctis’s discussion to be not optimally “honest,” in a sense, I wrote up this post.   

First, DeSanctis says this:
  • no abortion method — no matter how supposedly modern, sanitary, or safe — is good for women”; 
  • no life challenges for women are ever “properly solved by extinguishing a life that has already come into being.”
It's worthwhile to notice that she doesn’t give any reasons to believe this though. I don’t suppose there’s a rule on the universe that if you say something controversial you must provide evidence, but there is a common idea that debatable claims should be supported: this is the "honest" and respectable thing to do. But maybe she just expects her readers will agree with her on these claims and so there's no need or this just isn’t the place to support these claims; I don't know.

DeSanctis’s most important discussion, however, is to a part of Flanagan’s “The Dishonesty of the Abortion Debate: Why we need to face the best arguments from the other side” where Flanagan discusses what she sees in images of 12 week (= 3 month) old fetuses: “Here is one of us; here is a baby.” 

She expresses concern about these abortions:
“. . these are human beings, the most vulnerable among us, and we have no care for them. How terrible to know that in the space of an hour, a baby could be alive—his heart beating, his kidneys creating the urine that becomes the amniotic fluid of his safe home—and then be dead, his heart stopped, his body soon to be discarded.”
She then responds to this with, among other things, the observation that abortions are going to happen anyway: “No matter what the law says, women will continue to get abortions.” 

This might not be a great reaction. In general, responding that something is going to continue happening in some way, no matter what, doesn’t much support or excuse doing that thing. A better response, from the concerns these images raise, might be to urge that abortions happen as early in pregnancy as possible, before the fetus much resembles what is seen in these images and that society is structured so this is so. 

DeSanctis concludes with this:
The chief strength of Flanagan’s essay is its nod to the power of ultrasound technology, which reveals what our abortion debate so often leaves out: These are human lives. The conflict over abortion is dishonest and unwinnable not because both sides make poor arguments, but because only one side is willing to admit that reality [that these are ‘human lives’].
As someone who teaches how to evaluate arguments and more productively debate, I have some responses.

First: thoughtful people who argue that abortion is generally not wrong do recognize that biologically human fetuses are, “human lives,” in one sense of that term (but not another, discussed below). Abortion involves taking something biologically human that’s alive and making it not alive, or killing it. To deny this is, well, I think just wrongheaded.

Second: however, it appears that most abortions occur far before 12 weeks or 3 months: around 2/3 occur before 8 weeks. So the fetal images that both DeSanctis and Flanagan focus on are not representative of most abortions. 

One could, and should, be very concerned about abortions affecting later fetuses, but the best reasons to be concerned there ‒ concerning fetal consciousness or pain (see this article by DeSanctis where she reviews some new research on this topic) ‒ just don’t apply to earlier fetuses without brains or nervous systems developed enough for any form of consciousness. It’s not “honest” to take concerns motivated by 3-month-old fetuses and extend them to all fetuses or all, or nearly all, abortions, which is what I suspect DeSanctis does (at least some people do this, and she doesn’t clarify that she’s only thinking about abortions of 3 month or older fetuses). 

Third: also, appearances can deceive: images can manipulate. Dolls can really closely resemble human babies, but dolls don’t have human rights. Fetuses, at “middle” stages, in some ways resemble babies, yet they might not have what arguably makes us have rights: consciousness, awareness, feelings, or sentience. 

So it’s not quite “honest” to overlook the possibility that these images might manipulate us away from what’s relevant. Although a lot of people don’t approach this issue this way, a core question here is what makes something have rights and whether (or when) fetuses have that something. As the doll example shows, “looking like a baby” isn’t what gives something rights: it’s something else ‒ again, consciousness and feelings ‒ which far later fetuses have, but early fetuses do not. 

Finally, there is an ambiguity in the idea of a “human life” that DeSanctis overlooks when she says of 3-month-old fetuses, “These are human lives.” It’s this: suppose someone was in a major car crash 10 years ago, they were in a coma for 10 years and today their body died. When did their “life” end? Their biological life ended today, but their biographically life ended 10 years ago. Which type of life is what matters? That question has to be answered to productively engage these issues. 

In sum, both these articles had the words ‘debate’ and ‘argument’ in their titles, but really there wasn’t much in the way of arguments or debating or supporting claims with reasons. Attention to clear and carefully-made arguments would only help future debates on this topic; hopefully, this response will contribute to that. 

Nathan Nobis

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