Saturday, April 25, 2020

"If abortion is not wrong, then it's OK to kill sleeping people??!"


I (Nathan) am going to try to start a blog post series where I post responses to people's questions about abortion and ethics that I receive (with their permission, of course). So if you have any questions you'd like discussed, feel free to email or message them to me! 

Here's a start:
Hello Dr. Nobis, 
I was alerted to the existence of your book "Thinking Critically About Abortion" via the Crusade Against Ignorance YouTube channel. When I found out that the book is free online, I instantly set out to read it, and I am very thankful that I did.
Prior to this book, I would have considered myself strongly pro-life but now I realize the topic is much more complex than I previously imagined. For that I am very grateful. Since we are in a collective pursuit of truth, it does us no good to characterize opposing beliefs incorrectly. 
After finishing the book, I still have a question about the abortion debate:
Many pro-life activists frequently resort to a reductio ad absurdum argument to address the consciousness standard similar to the one laid out in your book. For instance, one might say "if it is the case that it is not unethical to kill an unconscious fetus, would it be morally acceptable to kill other humans who lack consciousness (e.g. someone in a coma)?"
What is your reaction to these popular reductio arguments?

Thanks in advance!
Here is my response:
Thanks for reading and for your kind words.
In too quick reply, while pre-conscious fetuses and unconscious people (sleepers, individuals in comas who eventually wake-up from those comas, etc.) both are not conscious, the latter have been conscious and, when they awake, there will be a psychological connection to that past consciousness: there will be memories to the past, and the beliefs, knowledge and relations from the past will extend into that present and future.
That is relevant to concerns about harm and personhood, at least. To harm someone is to make them worse off compared to how they were. If a sleeping person or someone in a temporary coma were killed, that would make them worse off compared to how they were.
What's key is that they were: they existed as a conscious being and so any and all of their desires, plans, expectations, hopes and connections are twarted if they are killed, which is bad for them (and usually others too).
Beings that have never been conscious don't have any of that and so things cannot go worse for them, since there really is no "them" yet, since there is no person who experiences anything, and so there's no person that things could take a turn for the worse for. This was discussed in the section "5.2.2 Early fetuses aren’t conscious & feeling: personhood and harm," if you'd like to review that also.
So that's my quick response to the question. I want to observe that I have seen this objection or argument before, and from people who really should know better because they teach philosophy courses and know two of the rules from Philosophy 101:
  • Consider objections: present and respond to objections to your views.
  • Don't "strawperson" anyone: present views in their strongest form possible, especially when you might disagree with those views: don't "strawman" or "straw person" views. (The person who emailed me rightly characterized this goal this way: characterize opposing beliefs correctly.)
So, to seriously argue that "If abortion is not wrong, then it's OK to kill sleeping people" or that "If abortion were not wrong because fetuses are not conscious, then it would also be OK to kill sleeping people and people in comas" is to violate these rules.

This fails to consider and engage obvious and well-known responses to this sort of claim, such as the above. (Of course, there's more to say about the above too, but it's not like nobody has thought about, "Wow, is it really true that arguments in support of abortion are also arguments in support of killing people who take naps??" and so this is some sort of new-found refutation of any thoughtful arguments in defense of abortion).

And it fails to consider whether the strongest version of this argument would be subject to this sort of objection anyway: e.g., compare these arguments:
  • "early abortions aren't wrong because fetuses aren't conscious now
versus
  • "early abortions aren't wrong because fetuses aren't conscious now and have never been conscious.
So what's considered is a straw person, not the best or better version of the argument. 

So to seriously present this sort of argument, in the manner I have seen it presented, is intellectually and morally irresponsible: it's simply just sophistry and a dishonest attempt to persuade using bad arguments. And that's always bad, I hope everyone would agree and urge doing better. Let's do it!

Update: in light of some discussion of this post, I want to add these cases and questions for further discussion:
  1. Imagine there's a sperm and an egg that, when united, a full-grown, pretty typical human person (or even a baby) would immediately "emerge" from the fusion. (Be imaginative, this type of thing is seen on TV quite often!). Questions: would it be wrong to not unite that sperm and egg? Is anyone obligated to unite this sperm and egg? Who, if anyone, is harmed if the egg and sperm are not brought together? What do answers here suggest for early abortions or the "moral status" of embryos and early fetuses?
  2. Imagine there's a normal kitten which, if given an injection, would immediately transform into a cat who has the mental life (understanding, intelligence, knowledge, communication abilities, etc.) of a full-grown, fairly typical human person. (Again, be imaginative, this type of thing is seen on TV quite often!). Questions: would it be wrong to not give the kitten the injection? Is anyone obligated to give the injection? What do answers here suggest, if anything, for early abortions or the "moral status" of embryos and early fetuses?
  3. Imagine a baby is born who is totally unconscious and has never been conscious: no feelings or awareness at all. An easy procedure could be done, however, so that baby becomes conscious like a typical baby is. Questions: would it be wrong to not give that injection? Is anyone obligated to give the injection? Who, if anyone, is harmed if the injection is not given? What do answers here suggest for early abortions or the "moral status" of embryos and early fetuses, and the issue of abortion more generally? (Note: of course, parents, of course, generally want babies who are conscious, so that might impact the questions; and we might try to answer the questions as if this wasn't a concern.)
Feel free to email or message any other questions!

"When does life begin?" and "Are fetuses human?": Two bad 'scientific' questions to ask about abortion


A U Chicago PhD student, Steven Andrew Jacobs, did a dissertation on the topic of abortion that involved asking biology professors about "when life begins."

A report on his research and experiences is here: "I Asked Thousands of Biologists When Life Begins. The Answer Wasn’t Popular."

He shares many angry and hostile responses to his question. He proposed three possible motivations for these reactions:
  • "Motivated Reasoning: Respondents experience cognitive dissonance when they recognize that their view of a fetus as a human [note: human ≠ life!] complicates their political convictions in regard to abortion policy.
  • Cultural Cognition: Respondents fear that public recognition of the scientific views they are expressing could lead to other people supporting abortion restrictions.
  • Identity-Protective Cognition: Respondents fear that expressing their views may serve to estrange them from pro-choice liberals, on whom they might rely for social, emotional, or financial support."
I think there's a far simpler way to explain these angry reactions:

He was asking a bad question!

Some might even call it a "dumb question," but since some say that there are no dumb questions, if asked sincerely, I won't say that.

The question a bad one for two reasons.

First, are eggs alive? Are sperm alive? Generally "yes" to both. When they come together, and a sperm fertilizes an egg, is there a living thing? Is it alive, is it life?

Yes, yes and yes: the fertilized egg isn't dead and it's not neither dead nor alive. It's life. And you don't need to be a biologist to know that!

Second, is this argument a good argument?
1. Anything alive, or life, or living is wrong to kill. 
2. Human embryos and early fetuses are alive, life, or living. 
C. Therefore, human embryos and early fetuses are wrong to kill.
Put this way, premise 1 is obviously false: uncontroversial examples (mold, bacteria, plants, and more) confirm that. These things aren't even "prima facie" wrong to kill, meaning "you need a really good reason to kill these things."

So this is obviously a bad argument, even if premise 2 is true (and it is!).

However, most people don't seem to realize this: they are obsessed with whether fetuses are alive or not; whether they are life, and "when life begins."

They shouldn't be though, given that premise 2 is false, and obviously so. We see this just by defining the word.

Jacobs said he "led discussions between pro-choice and pro-life law students. Little progress was made because both sides were caught up with the factual question of when life begins." If they were caught up with this question, it's because they didn't define their terms and notice that at least if you mean "biological life," the question is very easy.  

Given this, it makes sense for biologists to be annoyed at the question they were asked, to say the least. This is because, given the widespread belief that the above argument is a good argument, when it's really a bad argument (and it is easy to see that this is so), their answers would be used for the bad purpose of making a bad argument seem good. People should be annoyed about that, whatever conclusions they hold on this topic.

This is why they were annoyed; if it wasn't, it should have been.

They might have also been annoyed with the common question of whether fetuses are "human." If you mean biologically human, then of course fetuses are human! They aren't cats or dogs or anything else.

But, taken very literally, this also doesn't mean that abortion is wrong, as we explain in our book on abortion: arguments against abortion that begin with the observations that fetuses are biologically human, or biologically human organisms or even "human beings" aren't as simple as people often assume they are.

I do want to observe that there is confusion about these words because they have multiple plausible meanings, and people just don't often notice this or make the effort to clarify what they mean.

"Life" can mean biological life, but it also can mean something else. For example, suppose a 20-something was in a car crash 20 years ago, had been in a coma ever since, but her body finally died yesterday.

When did her life end? We might want to say that her biological life ended yesterday, but that her biographical life ended 20 years ago. So what kind of "life" are we thinking about when asking "when does life begin?"

Likewise, when people say that fetuses aren't "human," they don't mean that fetuses aren't biologically human (since they are!). Rather they mean that they don't have what are often considered "human" traits, like understanding and feeling and reason and the like.

Now, describing these as "human" traits isn't the best way to put it (since animals have some of these traits, in some ways, and friendly space aliens would also probably have them, if they exist, and some people believe that spiritual beings have these traits too), but that's roughly what some people mean by "human" here, at least.

In sum, the philosophical activities of clarifying the meanings of words and stating arguments in logically valid form (the above argument in the pattern 'syllogism' which Aristotle identified) is very helpful for avoiding confusion, gaining understanding and even avoiding angry emails!

Nathan

P.S. Jacob's dissertation is here: https://knowledge.uchicago.edu/record/1883?ln=en

Also, here is an earlier document - "Biologists' Consensus on 'When Life Begins'" - which suggests this:
"these findings [from surveys with biologists, based on the view that 'scientists that can use their biological expertise to determine when a human's life begins'] can help Americans move past the factual dispute on when life begins and focus on the operative question of when a fetus deserves legal consideration." 
This suggestion, however, appears to be forgotten for the overall project, which doesn't seem to involve clarifying the meaning of these words and seeing what impact that has on debates about the issues: that is, that the "descriptive" fact, as he puts it, of fetuses being biologically alive or human doesn't settle the legal or moral issues. Science and ethics are different, and, as this discussion shows, people sometimes believe that ethical conclusions follow from scientific facts, when they don't. We need to attentive to that for all ethical issues (e.g., see this with the topics of drugs and animal research, at least), not just abortion. 

PPS. This podcast apparently discusses this blog post, although I don't yet know what is said in it. If there's a transcript or something in text, please let me know. NN

Originally posted 12/12/2019 at another place on this webpage; moved here 4/25/2020.

Other blog posts: 

Public Philosophy on Abortion

Some public philosophy on abortion and related issues:


Bertha Alvarez Manninen and Jack Mulder Jr on Philosophy TV, September 10th, 2014

Marianne Le Nabat, "Is Abortion Candy? Abortion is not a vice and every attempt to legislate it is a failure," Public Seminar, November 30, 2016


Suki Finn, "Bun or bump? Does the mother contain the foetus or is it a part of her? On the metaphysics of pregnancy, and its ethical implications" Aeon, 27th July 2017


Bertha Alvarez Manninen, "Shared Values in the Abortion Debate," Philosophy Bakes Bread radio show, 2017


Laurie Shrage, "How to Talk About Abortion," NY Times, The Stone, March 19, 2018


Martin O'Reilly, "Should we repeal the Eighth Amendment?" 2018

Bertha Alvarez Manninen and Jack Mulder Jr., "The Philosophy of Conversation: We Owe It to Our Students to Teach Them How to Disagree," Association of American Colleges & Universities, 2019

Neera K. Badhwar and E. M. Dadlez, “The Inhumanity of the ‘Pro-Life’ Movement,” the What's Wrong? blog, May 2019

Daily Nous, "The Philosophy and Politics of Early Abortion in the U.S.," May 2019


Daily Nous, "Philosophers On the Ethics and Politics of Abortion," June 2019


Mike Austin, Ethics and Abortion: Two Opposing Arguments on the Morality of Abortion, June 2019.

Please let us know of additional resources!

And of course, there's this book and our related materials:


Thank-you notes!

Philipp Schulz has a blog post on "Practicing Academic Kindness in the Classroom" that offers the great suggestion of having students write "thank you" notes to authors of writings they read in class that the students appreciated: perhaps the reading changed their mind, helped them articulate a belief, presented an opposing view in an interesting light or anything else the student found valuable.

A philosophy professor friend of mine, or his TA, had students do this in their class and some students kindly wrote about how they appreciated my "Early and Later Abortions" and "Reply to Tollefsen" in Bob Fischer, ed., Ethics, Left and Right: The Moral Issues That Divide Us (Oxford University Press, 2019). (This chapter led to another chapter, which led to the Thinking Critically About Abortion book). 

It is, of course, very rewarding for me to know that someone read and enjoyed my writings and it helped them, they believe, think better about a complex and controversial issue. With permission and pride, I'm sharing their reactions below. 

Ethics Left and Right

1. I would like to write my thank you note to Nathan Nobis, the author of “Early and later abortions: ethics and law”.

This particular essay stood out to me because I enjoyed the clarity and lack of bias present in the argument. Nobis, compared to others, seemed to give a fair and strong argument for both sides of the abortion argument but was able to show how abortion should be morally permissable as a conclusion. 

I thought in particular, his argument about what defines a person and personhood was important to the argument and not an argument that I had thought of before when it comes to this issue. Reading this essay opened up my eyes to different arguments supporting this issue and challenged how simple I used to think my stance on the issue used to be. It is probably typical for students to feel thankful to authors who changed their outlook on a certain issue they used to disagree with, but I feel most thankful to the author who showed me a different argument and a different perspective on an issue that I care about. 

I also enjoyed that Nobis argued about the ethics of abortion rather than the law because the issue of the law would be an entirely different argument which was the argument I always made for my support of choice.

2. Hi Dr. Nobis,

I’m an undergraduate [student], and I’m writing because I took a class this past semester on contemporary moral problems. One of the topics we discussed was abortion, and we read your argument on its ethics and legality, Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law. 

I just wanted to express my appreciation of your writing/arguing style and how straightforward it is to read. We read a lot of arguments and papers from different authors on different topics, and for me, yours was definitely one of the best in terms of comprehensibility and objectivity. I especially appreciated the effort you spent in your argument on describing both flawed and plausible arguments against abortion. As someone who took this class to get a better idea of the overall discussion on important issues, descriptions like this really do help in painting that picture.

I think I should add the disclaimer that this is technically an assignment to write to an author that we’ve read, but I did have the choice of who to write to and what to say. I genuinely do respect the effort you must have put in to make an argument that’s well-paced and well-rounded, and especially accessible to someone unfamiliar on the topic.

3. Dear Mr. Nobis,

I’d like to thank you for your paper “Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law” as it really helped me to understand the issue better, as well as to formulate my own opinion on the matter. 

I have always been pro-choice because I would never presume to tell another woman what she can and can’t do with her body. This reasoning is what led me to think that the government has no place outlawing abortions, yet, I have never been able to articulate why abortion is not wrong, only why it’s none of the government’s business.

Specifically, I found your objection to the “right to life” pro-choice argument very illuminating. I have a slightly harder time accepting some other parts of your argument, but what you said about how even if fetuses have a right to live, they don’t have a right to another’s (the mother’s) body was very compelling to me. 

I can now better articulate my own view: even if fetuses should otherwise be allowed to survive, the mother's right to bodily autonomy trumps that, and that is why abortions are morally permissible.

Thank you for your compelling paper!

4. Dear Nathan Nobis,

Thank you for showing me how to argue about abortion without using religion as the basis for either side's argument. Whenever I have spoken to people about abortion, religion is almost always involved and it can create a much more destructive conversation than intended. Using consciousness as the basis of the argument was something I had not thought of before. This new way to approach the topic of abortion is extremely interesting and helpful for me. Thank you for providing this new insight.

5. Dear Nathan Nobis,

I just wanted to reach out to thank you for your work "Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law." It was able to learn and think about more pro-choice arguments that I had not considered before. It also allowed me to realize that some of the arguments that I make in support of abortion either beg the question or do not apply to the more common circumstances. Thank you again for your work.

6. Dear Nathan Nobis,

Thank you for writing and sharing your piece “Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law” in my philosophy textbook. Your argument helped me explore beliefs surrounding abortion and helped me understand and solidify my own. 

Last semester I wrote one of my term papers on abortion, but my argument mostly focused on the laws surrounding abortion and how there should be national standards for free access to abortions. I have never been able to think about the actual act of abortion in the way that your piece challenged me to do. You dealt with the extreme details of the act and the morality behind it which made it possible to see both sides and choose one. Further, your argument gave me a solid foundation for my beliefs and to be able to articulate why I believe in pro-choice. 

Thank you so much for being a great philosophy role model for me.

Thank you all! Nathan Nobis