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.

Other blog posts: 

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

Other blog posts: 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Sunday, May 10, 2020

A Law School Syllabus on Abortion

Abortion: A Syllabus A low-key reading group on a controversial topic.
Reposted from 
This past year, my wife Amanda Schwoerke and I co-taught a reading group on "Abortion: Law, Policy, Ethics." We taught the course primarily to learn the subject ourselves. Abortion may be central to Supreme Court politics, but it's outside our academic specialties, and usually too sensitive a topic for the faculty lounge. So, except with family or close friends, we hadn't had many serious conversations about the ethics of abortion since college.

Law schools generally cover abortion in one of two ways. First, everyone has a few awkward and uncomfortable days on the topic in an introductory Con Law class, where the only people willing to talk about it are those who already have strong views. Neither of us were inclined to discuss the issue much in our own 1L class (where we happened to sit next to each other, something I remind my students whenever they fill out the seating charts). Second, there may be upper-level classes on Reproductive Rights, which often tend—at least from the syllabi we reviewed—to focus on policy and implementation rather than first principles.

This is a problem. Abortion poses important and difficult ethical questions, which lawyers (and others!) should be ready to think through seriously. And with the Court's membership changing, it's not enough to just assume the existing doctrinal framework. So we decided to put together our own course—and, below, to share our syllabus and some advice.
The class was intended as a lesson in "how the other half thinks." We have our own views, of course; but we wanted the students to wrestle with each other's views. So we taught the course pass/fail, so there wouldn't be any incentive to agree with us.
To keep the temperature low, class was mostly held in our living room, with coffee and dessert. We tried to balance the readings between pro-choice and pro-life perspectives. The students were roughly even (say, 60-40 pro-choice), helped by informal recruitment efforts on their part. This helped avoid some of the dogpiling one might see in an 80-20 or 90-10 class.
As to how well we did, we'll have to wait for the student evaluations! Two quick reactions:
  • At the end of the class, a substantial number of students, though not all, found "the personhood question" inescapable. There's an affectation in modern abortion discourse that we can somehow transcend the hard ethical questions by focusing on policy questions instead. This turned out not to be true, at least for a large group of our students.
  • Covering the constitutional law of abortion is very difficult. As you can see on the syllabus, there's not enough space to cover everything relevant. Whatever one thinks of Griswold or Roe or Casey on their own terms, there are also deep questions to be asked about Fourteenth Amendment fundamental-rights jurisprudence—about the Slaughterhouse Cases, privileges and immunities, incorporation of the bill of rights, etc. It's hard for any subject-specific seminar to address all of these at once.
In any case, here's the syllabus (also available as a pdf). Comments and questions welcome!
The questions raised by abortion are both highly abstract and deeply personal. While they are the subject of intense and heartfelt commitment on both sides, this course is offered in the belief that they are also a proper subject for intellectual inquiry. We will insist that discussions be conducted in a civil and respectful manner, and that you address and listen to your fellow students, whatever their views, with an open mind. Within each unit, the assigned readings are roughly balanced as to viewpoint; they take deeply conflicting positions, and you will certainly disagree with some of them. The course is offered on a credit/no-credit basis partly to ensure that you are neither penalized nor rewarded for sharing the views of either of the instructors.
Two-page response papers are due 24 hours before each meeting. They may be uploaded to the 'Forum' section of the course website, so that you can read your classmates' papers in advance. Response papers should address some issue raised in your mind by that session's readings; they needn't discuss every reading, and they should respond to the readings rather than summarize them. Each student is expected to participate fully in the discussions.
There is one required text, What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said (Jack M. Balkin ed., 2005). Other required readings are available online or in the coursepack. (Because the course focuses on basic principles rather than the details of current doctrine, it leaves out such decisions as Gonzales v. CarhartWhole Woman's Health v. Hellerstedt, or Azar v. Garza, as well as a number of important cases in state or circuit courts.)
  1. Persons
    1. Guttmacher Institute, Fact Sheet: Induced Abortion in the United States (Jan. 2018)
    2. John T. Noonan, Jr., An Almost An Almost Absolute Value in History, in The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives 51, 51–59 (John T. Noonan ed. 1970)
    3. Mary Anne Warren, On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion, 57 Monist 43 (1973)
    4. Peter Singer, Germ of a New Debate on the Ethics of Life, The Australian (Canberra), Dec. 23, 2005, at 10
    5. Patrick Lee & Robert P. George, Human-Embryo Liberation, Nat'l Rev. (Jan. 25, 2006 1:29 p.m.)
    6. Sherry F. Colb & Michael C. Dorf, Beating Hearts: Abortion and Animal Rights 13–44 (2016)
  2. Futures
    1. Don Marquis, Why Abortion Is Immoral, 86 J. Phil. 183 (1989)
    2. Colb & Dorf, Beating Hearts 96–115
    3. J Savulescu, Abortion, Embryo Destruction and the Future of Value Argument, 28 J. Med. Ethics 133 (2002)
    4. D Marquis, Savulescu's Objections to the Future of Value Argument, 31 J. Med. Ethics 119 (2005)
  3. Autonomy
    1. Judith Jarvis Thomson, A Defense of Abortion, 1 Phil. & Pub. Aff. 47 (1971)
    2. John Finnis, The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion: A Reply to Judith Thomson, 2 Phil. & Pub. Aff. 117 (1973)
    3. Don Marquis, Manninen's Defense of Abortion Rights Is Unsuccessful, 10 Am. J. Bioethics 56 (2010)
    4. Judith Jarvis Thomson, Rights and Deaths, 2 Phil. & Pub. Aff. 146 (1973)
    5. I. Glenn Cohen, Artificial Wombs and Abortion Rights, Hastings Ctr. Rep., July 1, 2017
  4. Equality
    1. Lawrence B. Finer et al., Reasons U.S. Women Have Abortions, 37 Persp. on Sexual & Reprod. Health 110 (2005)
    2. Rachel K. Jones & Jenna Jerman, Population Group Abortion Rates and Lifetime Incidence of Abortion: United States, 2008–2014, 107 Am. J. Pub. Health 1904 (2017)
    3. Sally Markowitz, Abortion and Feminism, in The Problem of Abortion 194 (Susan Dwyer & Joel Feinberg eds., 3d ed. 1997)
    4. Reva B. Siegel, Abortion as a Sex Equality Right, in Mothers in Law (Martha Albertson Fineman & Isabel Karpin eds., 1995)
    5. Robin West, Liberalism and Abortion, 87 Geo. L.J. 2117 (1999)
    6. George A. Akerlof, Janet L. Yellen & Michael L. Katz, An Analysis of Out-of-Wedlock Childbearing in the United States, 109 Q.J. Econ. 277 (1996)
  5. Society
    1. Gallup, Abortion: Gallup Historical Trends (viewed July 25, 2019) (skim)
    2. Judith Jarvis Thomson & Peter de Marneffe, Abortion: Whose Right?, Boston Review, Summer–Fall 1995 (12)
    3. The Pollitt-Douthat Debate (12345)
    4. Michelle Alexander, My Rapist Apologized, N.Y. Times, May 26, 2019, at SR1
    5. Ariana Eunjung Cha, Babies with Down Syndrome Are Put on Center Stage in the U.S. Abortion Fight, Wash. Post, March 4, 2018
  6. Roe
    1. Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925)
    2. Buck v. Bell, 274 U.S. 200 (1927)
    3. Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479 (1965)
    4. Eisenstadt v. Baird, 405 U.S. 438 (1972)
    5. Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973)
  7. Responses
    1. John Hart Ely, The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade, 82 Yale L.J. 920 (1973)
    2. What Roe v. Wade Should Have Said: The Nation's Top Legal Experts Rewrite America's Most Controversial Decision (Jack M. Balkin ed., 2005) (read as much as seems relevant)
  8. Casey
    1. Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992)
    2. Michael Stokes Paulsen, The Worst Constitutional Decision of All Time, 78 Notre Dame L. Rev. 995 (2003)
    3. Neal Devins, How Planned Parenthood v. Casey (Pretty Much) Settled the Abortion Wars, 118 Yale L.J. 1318 (2009)

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Yes, "a person is a person, no matter how small," but . .

It's sometimes claimed that people who think that is abortion is generally not wrong think this because of fetuses’ size, level of development, location or environment, and dependency (the “SLED” test). 

The suggestion is that pro-choice people think that anything small, dependent, and undeveloped that is located in someone else’s body is permissible to kill. 

The objection is that this principle, and related principles, are false, so this principle fails to support thinking that abortion is permissible.

The problem here is that no thoughtful abortion advocate accepts such a principle: nobody should think personhood is defeated or eliminated by SLED factors. 

Consider a case inspired by Dr. Seuss’s “Horton Hears a Who”: if there were a baby Who, that baby would be tiny, undeveloped (at least not a developed adult Who and so, in a sense, undeveloped), and dependent; and we could even imagine that Baby Who somehow in someone else’s body (imagine the baby Who is on a speck eaten by someone, but not digested). 

This Baby Who would be prima facie wrong to kill since that baby is a person or conscious being: the SLED factors are irrelevant to that.

The lesson here is that if a being is prima facie wrong to kill, then it’s size, location, dependency, and development do not matter. (This simplification ignores relevant concerns raised by Judith Thomson). 

But if a being is not wrong to kill, those factors are irrelevant. Advocates of the SLED test might merely assume then that abortion is wrong, which is begging the question [which is assuming the conclusion that one is trying to argue for, which is a fallacy, and so it appears that SLED-related objections to abortion are a distraction from any serious issues since they merely assume, without arguments for support, that beginning fetuses are persons].