Tuesday, September 29, 2020

College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You, Second Edition

College Ethics: A Reader on Moral Issues that Affect You
, Second Edition, edited by Bob Fischer, is out and contains our chapter "Defining 'Abortion' and Critiquing Common Arguments about Abortion." This chapter is very similar to what's in Thinking Critically About Abortion.

I suppose something interesting here is this: some pro-choice people seem to think that these issues shouldn't even be discussed (in classes, or anywhere else): they say things like "this issue isn't up for debate," "we shouldn't be discussing this" and the like. So I suppose these people would be offended by the Marquis readings, maybe parts of the Hursthouse, and maybe even some of what Thompson says. 

Two questions: is a view like this correct? Is a view like this smart or wise? I do agree that some issues, many issues, are indeed "off the table" (or they should be!) and should not be debated since such debate mistakenly and wrongly might suggest that there is reasonable debate when there is not: there aren't "good people on both sides" of all issues. But is abortion one of those issues? Why or why not? 

PART II. Abortion

* 9. Kristina Grob and Nathan Nobis, Defining "Abortion" and Critiquing Common Arguments about Abortion

* 10. Judith Jarvis Thomson, A Defense of Abortion

* 11. Don Marquis, Why Abortion Is Immoral

12. Rosalind Hursthouse, Virtue Theory and Abortion

Monday, September 28, 2020

On an Abstract "Metaphysical" Argument Against Abortion

There are more simple, and simplistic, arguments against abortion and less simple and simplistic arguments against abortion that all appeal to the idea of fetuses being human. Here are some arguments, too briefly stated and not at all explained, ordered from more simple to less simple:

Abortion is wrong because:

  1. Fetuses are biologically human.
  2. Each fetus is a human; fetuses are humans
  3. Fetuses are biologically human beings.
  4. Fetuses are biologically human organisms.
  5. Fetuses are a "kind" of being that's a rational being: fetuses' "essence" is that of a rational being. 
This last claim is a way of describing (or attempting to describe) a difference between the biologically human fetus here and the other fetuses: the circled being is a "kind" of being that's a rational being; its "essence" is that of a rational being: 

While we discuss all these versions of these arguments in Thinking Critically About Abortion, and explain how they might build on each other (meaning, someone who says (1 or 2) might then appeal to (3) and (4), and then appeal to (5) to try to justify what they claim about (3) and (4), below is a different brief engagement with an abstract, "metaphysical" argument like (5). 

Reply to Christopher Tollefsen on Abortion, in Bob Fischer, ed., Ethics, Left and Right: The Moral Issues That Divide Us (Oxford University Press, 2019).

Abstract: Are you the same thing as your body? Did you begin at conception? Do you have a rational and free “nature” or “essence”? Some answer ‘yes’ to all and argue that this means that abortion is wrong: 
your "essence" is that of a free and rational being; that essence *makes* it wrong to kill you; you have always existed whenever your body existed; your body began at conception; and so you existed at conception and were wrong to kill; and the same is true for all other human fetuses. 
This argument is discussed here. 

Below is a response to Christopher Tollefsen’s essay on abortion, which is a perspective from “the Right.” Please see my contribution from a perspective from “the Left,” “Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law.”

Word count: 999

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Moral Arguments and the Bible

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

So, they might say things like this:

  • "The Bible says doing this is wrong, so it's wrong."
  • "The Bible says doing this is not wrong, so it's not wrong."
  • "The Bible says we must do this, so we are must do this: it's an obligation."
What should we think about arguments like these? 

Sometimes there are disagreements about what the Bible says or "really says": e.g., some might say that Bible clearly says this or that about slavery, or homosexuality, or abortion, or eating meat, or the role of women, or polygamy, or capitalism, or being rich, or capital punishment, or war, or violence, or anything else, and you can find other people who deny that, arguing that "the Bible clearly says" the opposite. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, September 18, 2020

"Force birther"-ism and Virtue Signaling

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

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

Here I want to observe that calling someone a "forced birther" is just silly.

So, here's the dialogue:

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

B. "Why's that?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course.

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

No, not at all. 

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

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

vur-choo sig-nl-ing ]

noun Sometimes Disparaging.

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

Why do people say things like this and other soundbites

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

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

Surely it isn't. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other blog posts are available here: here are some of them:

Saturday, September 12, 2020


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


Another educational project is the Respect People Foundation, at RespectPeople.org. Also at https://twitter.com/_Respect_People

All other blog posts are available here

Friday, September 11, 2020

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

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

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

But it might not be so simple. 

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

Let's think about it a bit. 


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

So the more accurate thoughts here seem to be this:

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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