Monday, December 28, 2020

"When does 'life' begin? Well, when does 'life' end?"

A common question that people ask in discussing abortion is this:

"When does life begin?" 

A common answer is something like this:

"At conception or soon after: after all, a living egg and a living spermlife—unite to create new life." 

This type of answer is especially common with people who oppose abortion. Sometimes they think that pro-choice people deny this answer and sometimes even think that pro-choice people must deny this answer. 

People who oppose abortion also sometimes think this answer is "scientific" and that it makes their views on the ethics of abortion "scientific."

Unfortunately, much of this is in error, based on understandable misunderstandings. 

First, moral issues are never decided by science: moral views aren't scientific. Scientific information is often essential to figure out what to think about a moral issue, but it's never enough. Moral principles or other distinctly philosophical premises are always needed to reason from any scientific claims to any moral conclusions. So if anyone ever calls any moral view a "scientific" view, that's a mistake, and it's a mistake that happens on a lot of issues, from lots of "sides" on the issues.

Second, to think about when human life begins, it's very useful to think about when human life ends

Ordinarily, death occurs with the death of the body, the whole body. 

But sometimes the brain dies, but the body doesn't. 

So when does someone's life end? 

Many people believe, and argue, that someone's life ends when their brain dies (which often happens concurrently with the death of the body but, again, not always). 

And so we have the concept of "brain death": when someone's brain dies, they die, even though their body—or the body that they used to be "in"might remain alive. 

If this is correct (and it is, right?), then when does "human life" begin?

If it ends at brain death, then it begins at "brain birth."

Brain death is, roughly, when consciousness is permanently lost due to the state of the structure of the brain. So brain birth is when consciousness emerges due to developments in the structure of the brain. (And not just emerges in the sense of some kind of flickers and sparks of consciousness, but enough such that there's a real continuity of consciousness). 

When does that happen? At the earliest, around half-way through pregnancy. More likely, perhaps two-thirds of the way through. Maybe even later. This is a scientific question, and so the scientific research would need to be consulted.

What's important though is that it's not early in pregnancy: it's not when that biologically alive egg is fertilized by that biologically alive sperm. It's later. That is when our lives begin, not when our bodies (or what will become our bodies) begin. And this type of life is sometimes called biographical life, in contrast to (mere) biological life

This answer is more abstract of course than the common one. (It is, however, and perhaps ironically, an answer that many people who are religious [who, of course, sometimes oppose abortion] are more inclined to accept, instead of a view that identifies them with their body).

Why don't more people know of this view about when life begins and its merits?

I suspect it's simply that many people's views on this issue are not developed on the basis of "fair and balanced" education on the issues: they don't learn about the many options for belief here and decide their views on the basis of their informed understanding. Rather, people often come to these issues by way of what religious and political groups they are members of and then form their views on "groupthink" which, again, doesn't allow for a fair and balanced understanding of the various views and arguments. 

What can be done about this?

As I see it, the best options are honestly observing the situation for what it is, and then education and discussion done in good faith and with open-minds, meaning minds open to learning more and critically evaluating any and all proposals, including those anyone currently accepts. Of course, this attitude and approach would be helpful for many, maybe all, issues, so we might as well give it a try.

Might anything else help?

If you have any ideas, please post them in the comments. Thanks!

Especially related posts:

All blog posts are here!

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Moral Extremism and Abortion: On Pro-Choice "Extremists"

There are "extremists" about many issues: big, important issues and even small, trivial issues. 

About abortion, the "extremists" most of us are familiar with are "pro-life extremists" who have sometimes used, or encourage, lethal violence against abortion providers. And there are, of course, many less extreme anti-abortion extremists.

But there are pro-choice extremists also. Knowing what their extremism is like, and why it's a problem, would be good to know about. This short post explains the issues and offers some suggestions for how to address their extremism. 


The common rhetoric of "extremism" is that it's bad to be an extremist, and that seems correct: at least sometimes it's bad to be an extremist. 

Philosopher Spencer Case has a recent blog post "What is Moral Extremism and Why Should We Care About It?" His post gives an overview of his recent academic article on moral extremism from the Journal of Applied Philosophy

So, what is an extremist, according to Case? 

"Roughly, a person is an extremist just in case an intense moral conviction blinds her to competing moral considerations, or else makes her unwilling to qualify her beliefs when she should" (emphasis added).

Case doesn't discuss abortion in the blog post, but, given his definition, it seems clear that some pro-choice people are extremists about abortion. 

Why's that? Because some of them not-infrequently say things like this:

  1. "We shouldn't have to discuss this issue."
  2. "Abortion isn't up for debate."
  3. "Anti-abortion people, especially men, want to control women with this issue." 
  4. "There's no way to change the minds of people who oppose abortion."
  5. "Every possible abortion must be legal, and no abortion could ever be wrong." 
These are all things that people would say when, as Case puts it, "intense moral conviction blinds [them] to competing moral considerations.


So claims 1 and 2 suggest that the person thinks that there's just nothing semi-plausible to say against abortions and so immediate, complete dismissal of any objection, and even questions, is appropriate.

Now, while I argue that abortions are usually permissible and should be legal, I do not think that many of the considerations and concerns raised against abortion are just absurd or ridiculous, as pro-choice extremists seem to think. I think that the concerns of abortion critics are usually based on misunderstanding the issues, misinformation, and a generally inadequate understanding of how moral arguments work (which is not surprising, since [unfortunately!] most people are not very interested in learning how to better think about complex philosophy, ethical and scientific issues.) Also, this is an issue that people are especially inclined to "make up their mind" on—for initially adequate reasons—and then seek out rationalizations of those beliefs. 

This outlook, however, is not that we should not discuss or debate the issues: it's that we should, since if we do this in good will, we might come to better understand each other and our minds and hearts might change, for the better: we will learn that at least some of our arguments are bad, and we might find some good arguments, and we might recognize this and change our views. For anyone who has never tried this, they might not know that this is possible; and, of course, some people might try this without much insight into how to do this more productively and effectively and so come to think that positive outcomes are impossible to very unlikely. So that takes us to saying 4 above and the false, inadequately supported general assumption that minds can't be changed on the issues: they can, and they often are, and people can learn how to better do that.

Saying 3 suggests something like a conspiracy by men to control women on this issue. So it assumes that it just couldn't be that people at least believe (even mistakenly or falsely) they have a good reason to oppose abortion. (Also, why would men seek to control women on this issue but not many others?). Again, intense moral conviction blinds people to potential competing moral considerations. It also seems to blind people to just the basic facts that many women oppose abortion (and many men are pro-choice!), an observation that is sometimes met with the charge that these women are brainwashed against their own interests (which appears to be disrespectful to these women: they might be mistaken, but surely they can genuinely think for themselves). Again, another possibility is just that these women believe they have good reasons to think abortion is wrong, which the pro-choice extremist dismisses, without reason or engagement. 

Finally, saying 5 suggests that no "compromise" is ever warranted on these issues: abortion is either always OK or not; there's nothing ever "grey" about any of it. Of course, "politically" there are concerns that if you give in one area, you'll wind up giving away everything. But, isn't it just true that very late abortions, if they were to affect a fetus that can feel pain, would raise some serious moral concerns? Causing pain is bad for anyone (or anything) who can feel pain, so that would make later abortions potentially troubling (which isn't to say that or when they would be wrong or not; if pain is caused, that pain could be justified by other concerns: acknowledging a serious concern doesn't mean it trumps everything). But pro-choice extremists often dismiss fetal pain as not even potentially morally relevant, just as extremists against abortion dismiss everything said in defense of even very early abortions. Both forms of unwillingness to "compromise" or concede that the "other side" has a potentially good case are problematic: both are dogmatic and unresponsive to the facts and moral arguments. 


So why is extremism problematic? 

Ultimately, because extremists refuse to engage in giving reasons and seeking productive discussions on important issues when the issues are complex and so there are plausible concerns on contrary sides of the issues

Extremism in this sense is always a problem, and at least in the case of many pro-choice people, extremism is often contrary to their valuesfor science, for scientific thinking (and systematic thinking about ethical issues is part of that), for diversity, for respectful dialoguewhich are often expressed on signs like this one below. 

For these reasons, and to better seek pro-choice goals, pro-choice extremism should be recognized and reformed into positive and productive forms of engagement, communication, and education. Doing this would more effectively address anti-abortion extremism than any current responses.  

P.S. Another question is when and whether people are blameworthy for their extremism. It's possible that some people are not blameworthy for being extremists: e.g., perhaps they've had traumatic experiences with an issue that prevents them from being anything other than extremists. If so, perhaps these people should not be involved in (much, or certain types of) public engagement on the issues. Also, if some people are even blamelessly extremist doesn't mean that extremism is ever good or part of an overall effective strategy for making or keeping social change. 

All blog posts are here!

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Richard Swinburne and abortion

Here's an interesting passage about when "we" begin from the famous Christian philosopher Richard Swinburne:

Interesting, despite what he says here, Swinburne argues that abortion is wrong basically because although there is no person "in" an early fetus--nobody is there, so to speak--that body is necessary for there to be a person and it's on its way to a person inhabiting it, and so it's wrong to kill that body. 

Now, is that a good argument? 

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Is "Don't Like Abortions? Don't Have One!" as bad as it seems?

A not uncommon pro-choice saying is this: "Don't like abortions? Don't have one!" Indeed, it's the stuff that bumper stickers are made of. 

Now, a bumper sticker probably never convinced anyone of anything important. And at first glance, it seems like this one shouldn't.

Why's that? Because thoughtful peoplecritical thinkerswill think about the general pattern of the slogan, what seems to be the pattern behind the "reasoning," and think about structurally parallel slogans:
  • "Don't like arson? Don't burn anything down!"
  • "Don't like child abuse? Don't abuse children!"
  • "Don't like car theft? Don't steal any cars!"
Since these slogans are absurd, many people will conclude that the initial slogan about abortion is absurd also. They might also claim that the slogan just assumes that abortion isn't wrong and so is question-begging

This conclusion, though, is premature. Consider these other slogans:

  • "Don't like strawberries? Don't eat them!"
  • "Don't like high heels? Don't wear them!"
  • "Don't like math? Don't be a math major!"
With actions that are not wrong or are morally indifferent, the slogan or "reasoning" works: it's fine! 

So, what's the deal?

People who think that abortion is wrong will see "Don't like abortions? Don't have one!" as problematic: "We wouldn't say that about many other wrong things, so we shouldn't say that about abortion!" 

But people who think that abortion is generally not wrong might find the slogan to be OK, thinking something like, "Look abortions aren't wrong, but if you find them problematic, just don't have one!" 

So is the slogan OK or not? 

Well, if abortion is wrong, then it's problematic. But if abortion is not wrong, it's not problematic. (At least it's not "logically" problematic, although it may be unpersuasive and counterproductive, given how people are apt to react to it.) 

So is abortion wrong (or usually wrong) or not? This is the question that needs to be answered. So we need to carefully work through the arguments on all sides to evaluate the slogan. 

All blog posts are here!

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

"Abortion and Ben Shapiro" | Philosophy Tube

This episode of Philosophy Tube, "Abortion & Ben Shapiro" is just brilliant. It basically presents, in a very vivid way, a version of Judith Thomson's arguments on abortion. Watch it! You'll be surprised, especially if you've never seen any of his videos!