Sunday, October 3, 2021

Short videos on "fetuses are alive" and "fetuses are human" and personhood

A short Youtube video on the often-heard, very simple arguments that "fetuses are alive" and "fetuses are biologically human" and so therefore abortion is usually wrong (also on TikTok):

And another short video on personhood (also here on TikTok):

Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Revisiting an Argument from Potential: Is the Right to Life Like the Right to be Fed, if Starving?

"An argument from potentially" is often reviewed in discussions of abortion: 
1. People have the right to life.
2. Fetuses are potential people.
C. Therefore, fetuses have the right to life.

At least, when pro-choice people review the arguments, they include this one even though, in fact, probably few actual critics of abortion accept or offer it. Why's that? Because they usually claim that fetuses are "persons with potential," not "potential persons." So they deny premise 2. 

Nonetheless, the argument gets some attention, because it's a bad argument. You can see it's a bad argument if you complete the reasoning, or state the argument in logically valid form. 

So, to get from 1 and 2 to 3, you need to claim this:

3. Potential people have the rights of actual people. 

The next question is: "Why think that?" After all, this general principle is false:

4. For anything X, potential X's have the rights of actual X's. 

Potential presidents, doctors, lawyers, judges, spouses, parents, autonomous beings, senior citizens, and on and on don't have the rights of actual ones: these are, of course, the rights uniquely associated with being an X: not universal rights. (Note: this point is stronger when we focus on cases that involve natural or moral rights, not any legal rights anyone has by convention, especially arbitrary convention [e.g., driving age minimums are somewhat arbitrary: if it's 16, it could have been 17, or 15.5]). 

So, the generalization (4) is false. That doesn't entail that 3 is false, but it does show that 3 is an instance of an at least often false pattern. We definitely should not believe the argument to be sound; to reasonably believe it's unsound, though, we'd need a great reason to think 3 is false, not just unmotivated or unjustified, and I'm not sure we have that. 

So anyone advocating for (3) is at least, running against the grain, so to speak. They are saying (3) an exception to the rule against thinking that potential things have the rights of actual things. Of course, the question is, as usual, "Why think that?"


A recent answer I've seen amounts to this: many rights we have "in potential," such as the right to health care or, to use a perhaps less controversial example, the right to food if we are starving to death. (That food we can see as a type of healthcare too, if we want).  

Let's assume, at least for the sake of argument, that if you are starving to death, and someone has a (spare) sandwich that would literally save your life, they are morally obligated to give you that sandwich (and so save your life) because you have a right to that sandwich, given your right to available food when you are starving. 

Now, here are the claims: you have that right now, even though you are not currently starving. You have that right now because you have the potential to starve: you could be a starving person and, if you were, your right to food (if there were food you could have) would obligate someone to give you that food. 

So, your potential for starving is what gives you the right now to be fed if you were starving. That's the proposal. 


The question though is whether this proposal can support thinking that potential people have the rights of actual people. Does the reasoning behind "your potential for starving is what gives you the right now to be fed if you were starving" support thinking "something's potential for being a person gives that something the rights of persons now"?

The claim was this: 

Non-starving (potentially starving) people currently have the right to be fed if they were starving, in virtue of their potential for being a starving person: if and when they are starving, they must be fed, and that's true of them now, even when they are not starving. 

Can a parallel be made with fetuses? Does something like this work? Recall, of course, that we are assuming here that fetuses are potential persons:

Fetuses (as potential persons) currently have the right to life, in virtue of their potential for being persons: if and when these [fetuses] are persons, they must be treated as persons: that's true of fetuses now, even when they are potential persons. 


So what's going on here?

One thing is that we never explicitly asked what the right to be fed if we are eventually starving is. 

A quick observation is that this is a right about how we must be treated if we change in important ways: if we reach the state where we starving, that's when someone must act. If we are not starving, nobody needs to do anything for us (at least regarding this). 

The suggested parallel then is that if a fetus has the right to life in virtue of it's potential for being a person, it would have to be treated like a person when it becomes an actual person. At least, that's what's suggested by the suggestion that the right to life here is or would be analogous to the right to be fed: with the latter, nobody has to do anything for you until you are actually starving, and with the former nobody has to do anything until the fetus is an actual person. And so that doesn't seem to imply anything for when the fetus is not a person, or is just a potential person. So the suggested analogy or parallel doesn't seem to work out. 

These are some quick thoughts on this matter. In short, yes, your potential for starving is partly why, if you were starving, someone would be obligated to feed you, but that doesn't seem to support thinking that if something is a potential person, it must be treated like an actual person.

This, of course, doesn't even bring in objections-to-Marquis-type concerns that a fetus cannot literally become person, since a never-minded thing can't be identical to an essentially minded thing--but that's another more complex matter. 

Please let me know if I've made any mistakes and, more likely, if there are better ways to think about these issues and rights that depend on potentials versus those that don't. 

Note: the above updates in red are some corrections I made in light of some comments that I think I put in the 'comments below'. 

All blog posts are here

Sunday, September 19, 2021

Why "Pro-Life" is Misleading and Inaccurate and so 'Anti-Abortion' is Better: A Dialogue

Suppose someone was really ignorant of political and ethical debates about abortion. They know what abortion is, but just don't know anything about "the controversies" on the issue, including the names of the main "sides." What would such a person think of the label "pro-life"? 

Let's listen in on a conversation, a little "play," with someone knowledgeable about these issues, played by "A", and this person, as "B".

Act 1:

A: What do you think of those "pro-life" people?

B: Who are they? I've never heard of them.

A: Who do they sound like?

B: Um, people who are really pro - life? Like, they are really "into" life and supportive of life? Like those radical environmentalists, who say that all living things matter, including plants and insects? I think they are even concerned with "life" more broadly, like ecosystems too? 

Maybe Jains? But I'm not sure if they are concerned about plants: I do know they are concerned about animals, including bugs. 

Are either of these who "pro-life" people are?

A: No, um, not at all! Guess again!

B: OK, was I too broad? I don't suppose that type of environmentalism is really all that popular anyway. So are "pro-life" people "pro" not just anything that's alive, but "pro" sentient life? Are they the animal rights people? Animal rights people are human rights people too, of course.

A: Again, no. But your strategy of narrowing things here is a good one. Keep on narrowing it. 

B: Well, I actually know something about animal rights or animal welfare people, and I don't think they call themselves "pro-life." So are "pro-life" people then just human rights advocates? Like Amnesty International?

A: Close, maybe! But not really! "Pro-life" people are people who oppose abortion! So I suppose they are kinda like human rights advocates, but theyunlike typical human rights folks, who generally don't oppose abortionthey claim that human fetuses also have human rights or that abortions are otherwise wrong, really wrong, and that abortion should be outlawed. At least that's what they say.

B: Oh, OK. But that's kinda confusing. Why don't think they just call themselves "people who oppose abortion"? Or "critics of abortion"? Or "anti-abortion"? Or "defenders of fetal life," to get the "life" back in?

A: I really don't know. But I agree that would be better since it'd be clear what their view is actually about. "Life" is so broad that it could be almost anything! Well, anything alive. 

B: Right.

Act 2:

B: So, these people who oppose abortion, I have a question about them, or their views.

A. Ok.

B. So, they are opposed to abortion. That means they don't want people to have abortions. But how do they do that? Is the idea just to try to prevent abortionslike trying to stop people from having abortionsor is it to try to make it such that there is less "demand" or want or "need" for abortions in the first place? Does that make sense? I suppose they could do both too. 

A: Yeah, sure. I understand what you are getting at. 

I suspect that people who really oppose abortion are divided on this. Some of them are really just concerned about there being fewer or no abortionssince they typically see most abortions as involving the intentional killing of a human person, or something like thatand so their focus is on trying to stop people from having abortions.

Others though I suspect are more, I'd say, thoughtful and realistic, and so they recognize that abortions happen for reasons, and so sometimes those reasons can be addressed and so the woman or girl would decide to not have an abortion. 

So it's kinda like there are, on the one hand, people who fight criminals to reduce crime, and then there are folks who are like, "Let's change things so there's less crime in the first place." At least about crime, both are needed, but the second group is more "big picture" in their approach to reducing crime. 

B: Hmm. Is either type of abortion critic more common? 

A: I'd say definitely the first kind is more common and vocal. They are the type that lead pro-choice people, and even just people who really don't have enthusiastic views on the issues, to often say things like that "so-called 'pro-life' people only care about people until they are born," that "they are just 'pro-birth' not genuinely pro-life," and the like. They think "pro-life" sounds like a lot more than just being "anti-abortion," since that really is what you'd expect from that label.

The other sidethat might have a more comprehensive strategy for trying to reduce abortionsdoesn't get much notice, as far as I can tell.

B: Why's that?

A: I don't know. Maybe they'd say it's due to some media conspiracy, but I don't know about that: if they really were proposing big-picture changes to help pregnant women, especially in systematic and profound ways, you'd think that'd get more notice. But maybe not.  

Maybe they'd also say that pro-choice people just want to be willfully ignorant of all their hopes and plans to make things easier for women to be pregnant and have children. But I don't know about that either.

Maybe the oppositionthe other people who oppose abortionjust have more influence because they think it's just far more important to try to actively prevent real-world abortions that would happen than to help anyone out in other ways: maybe they think that getting that type of help is less important than trying to prevent abortions. 

Maybe that makes sense, if you think abortion is a super horrible evil thing: maybe you'd think it's more important to try to actively prevent intentional killings than to, well, do other things that would ultimately lead to fewer intentional killings. Honestly though, that probably doesn't make sense. 

I suspect though that this type of "let's help babies and pregnant women and families" doesn't fit very well with the typical "politics" of the most vocal and influential anti-abortion advocates. These people, of course, tend to claim that abortion is just horrible, but they also seem to think that universal health care would also be horriblethey tend to oppose the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacareand tend to call any government efforts to help people "welfare" and "socialism": they are suspicious of "Big Government" and advocate for so-called "personal responsibility." 

But more readily available healthcare and, say, some kind of Universal Basic Income, for some times' in people's lives, surely would reduce the number of abortions! Yet states where there are these new abortion bans and  attempts restrictions seem to be very hostile to actually supporting people in ways that would reduce abortions

B: So the whole "Let's help pregnant women so they don't feel like they 'need' to have abortions" doesn't really fit with their other political agenda?

A: Seems like it. I'm sure there are exceptions, but they aren't well known. 

Maybe they want churches to help people in these ways, but it's not like a church can provide people with healthcare and adequate income to have a baby with, and a family: it's hard enough to get all that even with just a normal job (and there are typically pretty big out of pocket costs for having a baby too: it's not like it's just "free" if you have health insurance). Maybe I'm listening in the wrong places, but at least I never hear about anti-abortion people like that. 

B: That's interesting, especially since these people often claim to be religious, right? So much for the whole "love your neighbor" bit here, even if loving your neighbor would reduce the number of abortions!

A: Yeah, it's odd. The mainstream view seems to be like, "We're against killing fetuses, but we're not really in favor of helping anyone else." Kinda libertarian-ish, I guess. It is, however, not an inconsistent view, although the part about "Well, we just want to stop people from killing fetuses, yet we don't think there's an obligation for society to do things that would lessen that killing" does seem hard to understand.

B. Huh. Yeah, I agree. Whatever their views are though, "pro-life" doesn't seem to be an accurate label!

A. Agreed.  

Act 3:

B: Oh, another thing that I wanted to say earlier, along the lines of the "if people would were really 'pro-life' they would do this and that to try to reduce abortions" is that there's these claims that if anti-abortion people really believed what they say they do, they would be trying to prevent IVF, in vitro fertilization practicessince that results in the death of embryosand that they'd be lobbying to try to find ways to reduce or prevent miscarriages, since those result in the death of many, many embryos and fetuses. 

Now, they will often say that nothing can be done about most miscarriages, but I don't know that they really know that, and it seems likegiven the huge number of deaths of embryosthey'd be campaigning for directing research towards that. I mean, if they think that embryos are "people," then all the "people" that die in miscarriages would seem to be a super-awful thing, worse than cancer and diabetes and many of the other problems society pours money into. 

About IVF, I don't know why they don't try to ban that, or even vocally oppose that: it's not like they picket places that do IVF. 

So it seems like if they really believe what they say they do, we'd expect them to advocate for different things than they actually do, although they might just not have thought about this, or they have some explanation why they seem to ignore it, at least for the most part.

A. Maybe you don't see much about IVF and miscarriage-prevention since that involves the death of embryos, those "life" or "lives" ending, but without killing?

B. Yeah, good point. And, again, it seems at least a bit odd to say that you are really only opposed to deaths from killing, but not deaths from other causes. 

A. Indeed and, again, that doesn't sound so "pro-life." 

B. Right. 

All blog posts are here

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Magically-Appearing 'Duplicate-Person' Case: The Ethics of Killing and Abortion

Note: after writing this I came to believe that this case or thought experiment, as originally presented, just doesn't make sense: see the final comments about that and a simplified statement of what the case really amounts to. 

Many arguments in defense of at least early abortions (abortions before the fetus is conscious or sentient) and embryo research appeal the fact that fetuses are not conscious and have not been conscious. Arguments in defense of abortion from early fetuses lacking personhood, arguments that early fetuses cannot be literally harmed (since there is no someone who is made worse off), and an important objection to Don Marquis's argument depend on these claims. 

(The "and have not been conscious" part is important but often overlooked. People ask "Whatabout sleeping people? Whatabout people in comas that they will awake from?" These questions overlook that while these individuals are not conscious now, they have been conscious and will be conscious again and those moments of consciousness will be connected as parts of the same individual over time. So sleepers and coma patients are very different from, say, embryos in that way.) 

The arguments depend on a principle like this: 

  • If a being is not conscious and has not been conscious, then it is permissible to kill that being.

Tomas Bogardus has recently proposed a counterexample to a principle like this, to try to show that the princple is false. This discussion has been on Twitter, and so the "texts" are short and it's easy to get lost in the Tweets. But here I will attempt to reconstruct the counterexample and explain why I think it's not a good one, fortunately not via Tweets. 

The case, as far as I can remember and understand it (since reviewing Twitter threads can be very tedious), is told as something like this:

Tom is a normal person, with a normal life. He goes to sleep andby cosmic fluke (electrical storm, radiation, who knows)—an exact physical and mental duplicate of him comes to exist. This duplicate, like Tom, is still asleep.

The claim about this case is that it would be wrong to kill this duplicate. 

The argument is that this case is a counterexample to the "If a being is not conscious and has not been conscious, then it is permissible to kill that being." If the duplicate is not conscious and has not been conscious yet is wrong to kill, then the principle is false.

Is it wrong to kill the duplicate though? And is it true that the duplicate is a being that is not conscious and has not been conscious? Some of this depends on how "exact" of a duplicate he (or it) is, so we'll have to discuss that too. 

1. Letting the Duplicate Die

First, before we consider the ethics of killing the duplicate, let's consider a related case: 

To awaken the duplicate, we have to hit a button. If we don't hit the button, the duplicate won't awaken and eventually will die, never having been conscious in any way. 

Is anyone obligated to hit the button to awaken the duplicate? Would it be wrong to not hit the button?

This is a contrived case all around, and people might not be imagining the case accurately and so I suspect intuitions here are often murky. But my initial sense is that no, we are not obligated to hit the button to awaken the duplicate: it's OK to let the duplicate die. The duplicate is not conscious and, it seems, has not been conscious: there is nothing going on in the mind of the sleeping duplicate: indeed, he has no mind, yet. So if you don't hit the button, it might seem like nothing really happened here, so to speak: there was a potential person right offstage, but that person was never actualized onto the stage of the present and future. (This happens all the time?!). 

2. Killing the Duplicate

If we aren't obligated to hit the button to wake the duplicate up, and so we can let him die, it seems to me, at least initially, that we can also actively kill the duplicate and that wouldn't be wrong. Again, as the story goes, the duplicate is not conscious and has not been: there is nothing going on in the mind of the sleeping duplicate: indeed, he has no mind, yet. If he's killed, no individual is worse off, even the duplicate. 

Some might respond that the duplicate does have a mind: he has a mind just like Tom's, so it Tom's mind while he is sleeping makes killing him wrong, the same is true of the duplicate. I don't see it like that: if the duplicate comes to have a mind, it will (magically!) be just like Tom's mind, but the duplicate doesn't have a mind now: there's the potential for a mind, not a mind with various potentials.  

If the claim is this the duplicate is just like sleeping Tom (who is wrong to kill), so since sleeping Tom is wrong to kill, it is also wrong to kill the duplicate, here's a suggestion: 

It'd be wrong to kill sleeping Tom's body because of the earlier person Tom: if we kill the body, then the earlier person Tom won't get psychologically connected back up to the later person Tom. This is why it's wrong to kill Tom's body, and this past-and-future-based explanation doesn't apply to duplicate. 

On this explanation, sleeping Tom's current mind, or lack thereof, seems to have little to do with why it's wrong to kill sleeping Tom: it's wrong to kill Tom's body because of those, Tom's, past mental states and their relations to various possible futures. 

As our story is told, the duplicate is said to not have a past person associated with him (or it? The duplicate is a male body, but has no actual psychological characteristics yet: is this a "he" yet?). The duplicate is unlike Tom and, again, it initially seems to me like killing the duplicate wouldn't be wrong.

(An aside: is it [logically or metaphysically or conceptually] essential to killing or being dead that it's permanent? Seems like no, given Jesus. What if instead of sleeping, we were temporarily dead? Being temporarily dead could be OK, if we could come back to life and our our living, conscious moments still be connected: indeed, our experience of "sleeping" would be the same if we were dead while sleeping , so to speak, and then awaking was coming tback to life.)

Again, this is a weird and contrived case, so I suspect we'd often have a hard time thinking about it without assuming that the duplicate is more like a normal person, so to speak. We'd have a hard time with the reality that, as the story goes, this individual has no past and have a hard time remembering that this individual is quite different from Tom, or anyone else we encounter. 

3. Does the Duplicate Have a Past?

If we are morally obligated to awaken the duplicate or let the duplicate wake up on his own—and so we are obligated to not kill the duplicate—I think this is so the duplicate can get back "online" with his past plans and goals, which, if he awakes, he will now share with Tom, who he is a duplicate of. 

So it seems to me that Tom and the duplicate are a case of "branching" personal identity, which appears to be possible on psychological theories of personal identity. These branches are often thought about with "teletransporters" where one individual is "beamed" two different locations, resulting in two individuals (made of new physical matter!) off to new futures but with shared memories, personality, knowledge, and so on: their pasts overlap. Here's an illustration of this sort of view:

To return to the duplicate (who, again, is supposed to be a duplicate of Tom), let's try to see things from his point of view. Here's some reasoning:

  1. If the duplicate awakens, he will either remember things or not: it will either seem to him that he remembers things or not
  2. If he neither remembers things nor it seems to him that he remembers things, then he isn't much of a duplicate of Tom, much less an "exact" duplicate: Tom without any of his memories or sense of the past isn't Tom.
  3. If he will either remember things or it seems to him that he remembers things, then—despite being made of new matter (recall that doesn't preclude psychological continuity in teletransporter cases) he either has a past or he is psychologically connected to the past (and so he has a past in a way that matters: again, see things from the duplicate's point of view!) and so this case is not a counterexample to the principle that this discussion is about: he's wrong to kill and he's conscious and with past consciousness. 
These are my initial thoughts about these matters. I am sure genuine experts on the metaphysics of personal identity, especially psychological theories, would have useful insights and perhaps corrections here. 

Nevertheless, I do not think the duplicate case refutes the basic idea, common to many arguments in defense of early abortions, that these abortions are permissible because these fetuses are not conscious and have not been conscious. 

9/8/2021 Update: whether this "duplicate" here is actually a duplicate of anyone is not relevant to the case: Tomas Bogardus agreed. So the case can be simplified so that part isn't part of the case: this body, that a person could spring from, could be just a totally new person and not a duplicate of anyone. The "trick" is that this body is said to have the same mind as a sleeping person: what that mind is, however, is not obvious. So the case is really just something like this:
There's a never-been-conscious body that's going to immediately become a full-on person soon enough (or a person will emerge from the body in zero-to-sixty fasion). You can kill the body and prevent that. This never conscious body has the same mind (or whatever that would be) as a sleeping person though.

Near final thoughts, maybe: 
"Mulling this over, I think your case doesn't make sense. Whatever your mental states are (or whatever) when you sleep, they are caused by past events and about past events. The "duplicate" isn't like that: there's a new body with a potential mind, with potential false memories.

And by "potential false memories" I mean that if the being becomes conscious and has "memories, they will be false memories (right?) and false memories aren't real memories. So this seems like a preconscious body with the potential for many false core beliefs, unlike a sleeper.

So I guess the case is just this: "If there were a never conscious body that has the near potential for having a mind 'in it', would it'd be wrong to kill that body?" But that seems to be the issue of abortion (or early abortions) and so "why?" and "why not?" are the questions to ask."

All blog posts are here!

Especially related: 

Sunday, September 5, 2021

What if it Really is About "The Babies"? On Anti-Abortion Motivations

"It was never about 'the babies.' It's about controlling women." 

Pro-choice advocates sometimes say things like this to try to explain what motivates anti-abortion activism, including now successful efforts to make even early abortions illegal and criminalized

Their suggestion is that anti-abortion advocates are not really concerned about stopping embryos and fetuses (what they often, mistakenly, call "babies") from being killed via abortion: that's not their real motive or goal. Rather, their real goal is controlling women: men controlling women.

These suggestions, however, are, unfortunately, absurd. The sooner this is all recognized as absurd, the closer anyone fixated on this theory of the motivations of anti-abortion people will be to doing something potentially more productive for defending abortion. 

Why is this absurd?

Consider the suggestion that abortion bans are all about "controlling women." If you wanted to "control women," would you seek an abortion ban? Probably not. You'd probably attempt other things that would affect more women. You'd probably attempt things that are easier too. (I'm not going to make a list of examples lest I give anyone bad ideas!).

Why would you focus on an abortion ban unless you thought there was something especially important about abortion, like that abortion is a great evil and so a top priority in need of being "controlled"?

You wouldn't. So, ultimately, it is about "the babies," abortion itself, and their belief that abortion a great evil that, like many great evils, should be "controlled." Even if it's not all about "the babies," and some is about control, still much of it is about "the babies" themselves. 

Here's what John Seago, the legislative director of Texas Right to Life says:

There is an unethical procedure at the heart of this debate. Elective abortion is the epitome of an injustice. It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party. You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. I’ll look forward to the day when our laws reflect that we have moral obligations to the most vulnerable populations around us.
So he says their motivations are all about "the babies," or the ethics of abortion. And there are many women who agree with him: it's not like only men, or mostly men, agree with this ethical judgment about abortion. "Don't erase 'pro-life' women!" these women say. 

The argument might be that if abortion critics really believed abortion is wrong, they would do all sorts of other thingssupport pregnant women, advocate for readily accessible contraception and universal health care, and moreyet they don't. "Hypocrites!" they say.

While we might wish that anti-abortion advocates were like thismore like the Good Samaritan from the Bibleit might be that they don't really "have to": their position doesn't require it: they aren't somehow inconsistent by not advocating for any of this. Their view is just that it's wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings or people, including fetuses. 

Must they also think that they must help anyone out? I think they can honestly say that that's not their focus, even a "no comment": their focus is on (in their view) these very wrong intentional killings of fetuses. They can say that their focus is on preventing harm to fetuses, not producing benefits for anyone else. (Whether this distinction ultimately makes sense is unclear though).  

Pro-choicers object: "But then they should then also be concerned about IVF, which involves at least the deaths of embryos! They should be concerned about learning how to prevent miscarriages!!" 

Maybe, but maybe not: neither of these involve intentional killing. And they might argue that abortion is worse than these, since it can be, in rare, far-later abortions of fetuses that might feel things. They might also have no clear idea how to respond to these other issues: they might sometimes not even really know about them, and they might even be genuinely hypocritical or irrational or even dumb. 

But that doesn't seem to be a great objection to their claim that it's wrong to intentionally kill innocent human beings or people, including fetuses. None of this shows that they don't really believe that and that isn't their motivation. 

Now, what's important is that they are incorrect about their various core claims and moral claims:

  • calling embryos and beginning fetuses "babies" is highly controversial: there are many reasons to think they should not be called "babies" and little defense is provided to think that using that term is literally accurate: if a pregnant woman or her family wish to say or think she has a baby, however, that is harmless; if laws are made on this belief, that's problematic;
  • anti-abortion advocates are fixated on "heartbeats" [update: that some pro-choice advocates falsely claim {?} aren't really even real heartbeats anyway: see here for illustrations suggesting a 2mm heart], but whether something has or doesn't have a heartbeat is morally irrelevant: most vividly, there is nothing inherently wrong with stopping a heart: what's around the heart is what matters, not the heart or heartbeat itself or lack thereof;
  • anti-abortion advocates often suggest that the mere fact that embryos and fetuses are biologically alive is of great moral significance, yet it isn't: plants and microorganisms are alive, yet they aren't wrong to kill or destroy;
  • anti-abortion advocates often suggest that the mere fact that embryos and fetuses are biologically human is of great moral significance, yet it isn't: human skin cells and tissues, say, are alive, yet they aren't wrong to kill.
  • anti-abortion advocates mean to say something like fetuses are biologically human organisms and are the kind of beings that are rational moral agents and that's why they have rights: explaining this argument and really defending it is a complex affair, and they usually don't do that: should they?  

Beyond these simple arguments, there's a whole more sophisticated discussion about what makes human beings have rights (such as the right to life) and whether fetuses have those characteristics, what the right to life really involves (is it a right to assistance, such as a right to the type of benefits a woman or girl provides to a fetus?), what we are, in our essenceare we our minds, or our bodies, or both?and more. Abortion is a complex moral issue, but most enthusiastic anti-abortion advocates are not much interested in this complexity. 

But addressing, first, the common and simple but demonstrably bad arguments against abortion and, next, the more complex arguments about abortion is part of the key to defending abortion: slogans, groupthink, and "virtue signaling" (saying what sounds good to people who agree with you) are not. Pro-choicers denying that anti-abortion advocates are motivated by ethical concerns and not engaging and critiquing those ethical claims and arguments certainly is decidedly not contributing to progress on this issue. Pro-choicers recognizing that, ultimately, the abortion debate is very much about the ethical status of fetuses and responding accordingly might do some good: it's definitely worth trying

So, to return to the quote above, here's what we should say:

There is an unethical procedure at the heart of this debate. [No, it's at least usually not unethical and here's why . . ] Elective abortion is the epitome of an injustice. [No, it's at least usually not unjust and here's why . . ] It is a larger, stronger group using violent force to take the life of a smaller, weaker party. [No, this is misleading: this type of language would fit only if beginning fetuses were much different from what they are actually like, e.g., the were conscious and sentient.] You don’t have to have a religious background or be motivated by faith to realize that’s not the kind of society we want to live in. I’ll look forward to the day when our laws reflect that we have moral obligations to the most vulnerable populations around us [No, this too is misleading: this type of language would fit only if beginning fetuses were much different from what they are actually like, e.g., the were conscious and sentient.

Since what is said here is false and unreasonable, more pro-choice advocates understanding and explaining why that is so, to wide and diverse audiences, might do some good. Responding "You just want to control people!" and other speculations about motives and intentions do not engage, much less refute, what is said above. We might say that motive-questioning responses like these have been proven unsuccessful, so we can and should try something new and better, like giving arguments for our views and critiquing the arguments of those whose views we think are mistaken and harmful. What have we got to lose?

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Monday, August 9, 2021

"Pro-Choice People Are So Dumb!!" On the Vice of Misunderstanding

If you read posts on abortion critics' organizations' social media pages, it is very common to see posts and comments much like these:

  • Don't pro-choice people know that fetuses are alive, or are life??! 
  • Don't pro-choice people know that "life begins at conception"??!
  • Don't people know what science says about what fetuses are?
  • Don't people know that fetuses, and even embryos, have hearts and heartbeats?
  • Don't pro-choice people know that fetuses are human
  • Don't they know that abortion kills humans
  • Don't they know that abortion kills human organisms
  • Don't they know that abortion kills human beings?
  • Why are pro-choice people so dumb?!?

The belief is that pro-choice people are missing out on some obvious facts and truths, and that if these errors were corrected, they would, or should, see that abortion is wrong, and obviously wrong. That this all is allegedly so obvious is why there's this attitude that pro-choice people are just stupid, ill-motivated, and worse. 

Now, I agree that many pro-choice people misunderstand many things about abortion. They sometimes, indeed often, say silly, misinformed things in defense of their views, and their objections and responses to contrary views are weak. 

This is all unfortunate since there are good arguments for their views: they could be more informed and engage the issues and the people they disagree with in more productive ways (and so the message of this post is for them too!). That is one of the most important themes of the Thinking Critically About Abortion book, which was not any kind of "tract" or cheerleading for the typical pro-choicers' understanding of the issues: just because their broad conclusion on the issue is correct, that doesn't mean their reasons are good. 

The problem though is that the abortion critic here is also seriously misinformed: they say silly things too, although often about more abstract, controversial issues than what the pro-choice person says silly things about. 

So, abortion critics often* seem to think pro-choice people are really dumb but that's because those abortion critics simply haven't sought to understand what the pro-choicers might be thinking (by asking them, "Why do you think that?" and "What do you mean by this word?") and so they misunderstand the issues. They don't understand that there's a complexity inherent to the topic that they don't know about, and so they don't know that they don't know.  

How can this be corrected? 

In short, people can learn about the issues in genuinely "fair and balanced" ways! How do you do that? Here are some quick ideas:

  • Don't believe everything you are told! 
  • If some objection is raised against some view, ask how people who advocate for that view would respond: is their view stated accurately? 
  • Would they agree with how their view has been presented, or would think they think it's been misrepresented, created by people who are in their own "bubble" or "echo chamber"
  • Is the objection based on misunderstandings? Is the objection a "strawman" or a "strawperson"
  • Does the objection overlook important information or claims? 
  • Do advocates of the view objected against have responses to the objection? Are the responses effective?
  • Given that, is the objection really as strong as its advocates claim it is?

In short, people need to really better understand the issues and understand each other. They need to talk to people, listen, and seek to understandMisunderstanding is a vice, but it can be overcome. 

So, to return to the initial "gotcha" questions:

  • Yes, fetuses are alive, or are life, in a biological sense, but just because something is biologically alive or life doesn't mean it's wrong to kill it. (What are uncontroversial examples to make that point?)
  • Yes, biological "life begins at conception" but that might not be the type of "life" that really matters. (What else could "life" mean, or be?)
  • No, science does not, in itself, answer moral questions: knowing the relevant science is essential, but there are always distinctly moral concerns that need to be engaged when thinking about ethical issues. 
  • While anti-abortion advocates are fixated on "heartbeats" (that some pro-choice people falsely [?] claim aren't really even real heartbeats: see here for illustrations suggesting a 2mm heart), but whether something has or doesn't have a heartbeat is morally irrelevant: most vividly, there is nothing inherently wrong with stopping a heart: what's around the heart is what matters, not the heart or heartbeat itself or lack thereof;
  • Yes, fetuses are biologically human, but just because something is biologically human doesn't mean it's wrong to kill it. (What are uncontroversial examples to make that point?)
  • Yes, abortion kills humans, in the sense of beings that are biologically human. But whether and why they are, or would be, typically wrong to kill is the issue: do they have what makes biologically human beings wrong to kill? That requires reviewing proposals for what makes us wrong to kill and seeing if they apply to all or any fetuses.
  • Yes, abortion kills biologically human organisms? But whether and why they are, or would be, typically wrong to kill is the issue: do they have what makes biologically human organisms wrong to kill? That requires reviewing proposals for what makes us wrong to kill and seeing if they apply to all or any fetuses.
  • Yes, abortion kills human beings, in the sense of beings that are biologically human. Whether fetuses are "human beings" in the ways that people often have in mind when they deny that fetuses are human beings is unclear though. (When people deny that fetuses are "human beings" what do they mean by "human being"? They should know fetuses are biologically human; they know they are "beings" in some sense; they should even agree that they are organisms. So what do they mean by "human being"?). 
All these concerns (and more) are reviewed in the book and the many blog posts here. 

While some pro-choice people may be "dumb," some of them are not: they sometimes simply have more complex views that don't readily translate to soundbites. It's these views that their critics first need to really understand, since understanding is a virtue and understanding is necessary for any effective critiques. And sometimes, understanding a view leads to understanding that it has merits too. Maybe even the pro-choice folks are right, at least about a few things, if not more.

* To be clear, I am certainly not claiming all abortion critics think or respond in ways that are described above. But it is common. The only anti-abortion organization that I know of that intentionally at least tries to avoid these problematic ways of engaging these issues and other people, and encourages others to do the same, is the Equal Rights Institute.  

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Thursday, June 24, 2021

Miscarriage & Abortion: Responding with Support, Responding with Philosophy, or Both?

When people have miscarriages, it's a major understatement to say that that they are typically upset: indeed, for them, it is often a life-changing tragedy.

Why is it a tragedy for them? Why are they grieving?

Asking these questions might seem tacky since answers might seem so obvious, but if you wish to be supportive of anyone who has had a miscarriage and is grieving, here's the answer: 

any answer is a great answer: any reasons people give for grieving a miscarriage are great reasons.

That is the basis of any supportive, caring person's responses. Caring people here are understanding and supportive of anything grieving people here have to say: they recognize that all their feelings about the miscarriage are "valid" and should be validated.

In contexts like these, however, some people sometimes want to be "philosophers," and, with the grieving person, critically evaluate what is said for why they are grieving: do they have a good argument in support of their grief?

Both pro-choice and anti-abortion people do this, sometimes. 

How often this happens, I suppose nobody really knows. But it's usually bad whenever anyone does it. 

For example, a person grieving a miscarriage might say that they are grieving because they are upset, for their child, about their child losing their life. 

Apparently, it is reported that some people want to "argue" with such a grieving person, arguing that the fetus isn't a "child" or that a fetus cannot really lose their life, for some abstract reasons (e.g., for something to be your life, you have to be aware of it, or aware of something). 

So they apparently try to convince the person that their grief can entirely be explained by factors other than the fetus itself, for its own sake: e.g., the loss of that expected future with that child. 

Again, I have no idea how often this happens, but my bet is that almost always such "philosophizing" is unwelcome: it doesn't make anyone feel any better or provide any kind of emotional comfort or support in a time of acute grief. 

And whether their arguments are good or not is irrelevant since now is just not the time or place for this type of philosophizing. (Similarly, a religious person telling someone with a loved one who died that they are now "in a better place"heavenis entirely unwelcome, inappropriate, and not comforting, even if that claim happens to be true [and perhaps it is not]). 

As another example, pro-choice people sometimes also have miscarriages, or a newborn baby dies, and they grieve their loss. 

Some people take this an opportunity to "philosophize" and argue that their grief makes no sense, given their pro-choice views, or that if they are grieving now, they should also think that abortion is wrong.   

Again, I have no idea how often this happens, but my bet is that almost always such "philosophizing" is unwelcome: it doesn't make anyone feel any better or provide any kind of emotional comfort or support in a time of acute grief. And whether their arguments are good or not (they are not) is irrelevant to this.

I suspect it is more common for pro-choice people to be on the receiving end of this type of callousness. Pro-choicers readily recognize reasons to grieve miscarriages, so they aren't surprised by any anti-abortion people grieving miscarriages. Anti-abortion people, however, think the pro-choicers are inconsistent or incoherent in their grieving, which makes it more likely they'd be the aggressors here. 

For a pro-choice person to respond badly to a grieving person who is anti-abortion, you'd either need the pro-choice person to raise the issue along the lines of "Ya know, if you are mourning here because of your beliefs about fetuses, those beliefs are mistaken" (which is unlikely, since it's just uncommon to "challenge" people when they are grieving, since it's just rude and obnoxious) or you'd need the anti-abortion person to, on their own accord, offer up their fetus-centric reasons for mourning and then the pro-choicer challenge them on that, which is again unlikely. So, again, I suspect it's more common for anti-abortion people to be callous on this issue, not pro-choice people but, again, I doubt there is any great evidence either way.

So, in general, when people are grieving anything, it's best to try to understand their feelings and validate them: don't try to argue people out of their grief or argue that they shouldn't feel how they feel.

However, things aren't so simple and this isn't an exceptionless rule. 

The reason for this is just that people can have negative emotional experiences because of false beliefs. Indeed, the major approach to psychotherapy and counselingknown as cognitive-behavioral therapyis based on this insight: people often feel negative emotions because they have false or irrational beliefs, so a goal of therapy is identifying these beliefs and correcting them, to improve emotional well-being. 

What this means is that if someone grieves a miscarriage because they believe that, say, beginning fetuses are people just like you or me, if that belief is likely false, then it might be good to address that, since that might be emotionally beneficial: improving belief should improve feeling. 

(Related, if people feel guilty for having an abortion, and they feel guilty because they think they have done something wrong—that's what guilt is a response to—then it is useful to explain to them that they didn't do anything wrong, if there are good reasons to believe that, and there are.) 

Likewise, if that belief were likely true, and there are really good reasons to believe that beginning fetuses are people just like you or me, then it could be appropriate to "confront" someone who is totally indifferent to a miscarriage (if there were such a person). While we don't often do this, it sometimes happens that we tell people, "Look, something big happened, and you seem to have no negative feelings about it, but you should!" This might not make them feel better, in the sense of having "positive" emotions, but their feelings might become more accurate to the reality of the situation, if that were the reality.

So when is it good to be a philosopher, and when is it good to be a supportive person? And when is the best emotional support to engage someone philosophically?

To answer this requires insight, wisdom, and good judgment (especially in impersonal online environments where it's unclear whether the goal is being supportive, philosophical, both, or neither!). And we all need more of that, about these issues and many others. 

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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Star Trek: "Human rights. Why, the very name is racist."

There's a scene from the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where one of the Klingon characters states, "Human rights. Why, the very name is racist." 

She says this in response to the suggestion that people on planets throughout the universe have "human rights." 

Since she is a Klingon, and so is not biologically human, she is keenly aware that claiming that she has human rights is problematic: it's like men saying that basic rights are men's rights, or the rights of men, and then acknowledging that women have them too; or a race of people defining rights in terms of their own race ("white rights"?) but then using that same terminology to describe the rights of people of other races ("black and brown people have white rights too"? No, we all have [or should have] the same rights, described in a general, non-race-specific way). 

The concept of rights is not tied to any particular biology or species. So, yes, human beings have rights, but if there were Klingons or other non-human beings like them, they too would have those rights too. Since different species could have themthat's possible, or the concept allows itthat's part of the reason why it's unhelpful to think in terms of rights as human rights. That such beings (probably) don't exist is not relevant: suppose we called rights "less than 10-foot tall person-rights": the possibility that a greater than 10-foot tall person could exist is enough to show that this wouldn't be a good description for rights: we want a description that would apply to anything that, if it existed, would have rights.  

Describing rights as "human rights" is problematic because the basis of basic rights is not tied to any particular biology or species. Why do both the human beings on Star Trek and the Klingons both have rights? What makes them have rights? It's not their species, since they are different species. The most obvious answer is that they both have rights because both these human beings and these Klingons are conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on: they have minds of a certain type. In other words, they are persons. The human beings are human persons and the Klingons are non-human persons. (This is the basic reasoning given to think that many non-human animals have basic rights and are either persons or are person-like). 

To take this discussion back to abortion, while (human) zygotes, embryos and beginning fetuses are biologically human, they are not much like the human crew on Star Trek or the Klingon crew, and they don't have the rights these crew members have. Fetuses are of the same species as the human crew, but the basis for rights isn't biology. So even though beginning fetuses are biologically human, they don't have the rights that human beings who are persons typically have, and they wouldn't have the rights that Klingons would have, if they were to exist. The language of "human rights" suggests that anything that's human has basic rights, but if we reflect on why anyone (or anything) has rights, or what makes something (or someone) have rights, we see that's naive: it's not just being of a biological category that makes something have rights. 

People often assume (correctly) that human beings have rights. But they rarely think about why human beings have rights, or what makes them have rights. Fiction, and fictional persons who have rights, can help us understand why we have rights and help us understand why some biologically human organisms—like beginning fetusesseem to lack what gives anyone rights. Thinking about actual persons, as well as possible persons—beings who, if they existed, would be persons—can help us understand personhood, and the basis of rights, which is essential for productive thinking about abortion. 

P.S. An alternative view on personhood, which many critics of abortion claim to accept, is that persons aren't just beings that are conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on (and there are ways to explain why sleeping people and people in comas remain persons even though they can't currently think, feel, etc.); it's that any kind or type of being that is conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative and so on is a person. So, advocates of this view might say that although a fertilized human egg and a fertilized fish egg (or beginning fetus, if you don't like the egg example) seem very similar, a fertilized human egg is this type or kind of being and so is a person, whereas the fish egg is not. 

Some fair questions are this: why accept this proposal for what persons are? And why reject this proposal?

One quick reason to reject this proposal is that if being the kind of being that is conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on makes anything (like an embryo) an actual person, thensince those characteristics also make someone responsible, autonomous, praise and blame-worthyso on that would also seem to make that embryo actually responsible, autonomous, and praise and blame-worthy. But embryos are none of that, so being a "kind" of being doesn't mean you have the actual characteristics that result from actually being that being: e.g., being the kind of being that's a person, and the kind of being that's responsible and so is different from being a person and being responsible. Here's some on that; more will be posted later. 

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Monday, May 17, 2021

Thank you notes, again!

My philosopher friend Dan Lowe (at U Michigan) gives his students an assignment to write a thank you note to some author they read in his Intro to Ethics class who they appreciated in some way.

THIS IS A GREAT ASSIGNMENT and more instructors who run classes where they read and discuss living and email-accessible folks (like me and the philosophy friends here) should do it.

Here are 20 notes to me, in response to my "Early and Later Abortions: Ethics and Law" from Bob Fischer's Ethics: Left and Right anthology. (This paper led to the book Thinking Critically About Abortion and other writings with Kristina Grob, the Salon article with Jonathan Dudley, and a bunch of new e-friends and some reputation as being someone who can help people engage controversial issues in productive and "polite" ways.)

There are some nice themes to them!

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Response to Katie Yoder’s “Salon Piece Says ‘Pro-Choice Ethics’ Prove Abortion Isn’t Murder.”

We thank Katie Yoder for reading our Salon article “Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking” and responding to it in her “TownHall” article, “Salon Piece Says ‘Pro-Choice Ethics’ Prove Abortion Isn’t Murder.”

As we note in our piece, the central argument against abortion made by the Catholic Church and most evangelical denominations and pro-life groups is that abortion is wrong because it is wrong to intentionally kill an innocent human being. This is also the argument made by Ms. Yoder: “the pro-life stance is a solid one: Life is precious, and abortion intentionally destroys the life of an innocent human being. 

We argue in our piece that this argument, if sound, means that widely accepted organ donation procedures are also wrong. (We also discuss the treatment of anencephalic infants, though because the argument here is less direct than the argument from organ donation, we’ll focus on the latter). 

Although Ms. Yoder identifies a number of disanalogies between these procedures and abortion (discussed below), they have no impact on our argument because these procedures both share the relevant similarity of intentionally killing an innocent human being. According to Ms. Yoder, and most pro-life organizations, that is what makes abortion wrong.  

We provide an alternative ethical framework that makes sense of the widespread belief that such organ donation procedures are not wrong: they affect human beings without brains that allow for consciousness or feeling or awareness. Yoder notes that such organ donors have given consent, but clearly this isn’t what makes the procedure permissible since few people would think it’s okay to remove all of the vital organs from (and thereby kill) a fully conscious person who has given consent (even if that person’s life was almost over anyway, another difference Ms. Yoder notes).

In a further search for disanalogies, Ms. Yoder says abortion is different from these organ donation procedures because “it’s wrong to commit an action with the sole purpose and intent to end the life of an innocent human being.”

But, clearly, the sole purpose of abortion is not to kill an innocent human being. If this was the case, then that purpose could be realized by killing any innocent human being, including an adult. The purpose of abortions to end pregnancies that, for a variety of reasons, women don’t want to continue. Killing a human being may be the sole means to that end, but it is also the sole means to the end of obtaining vital organs for transplant from permanently brain dead but still living human beings.

Finally, in attempting to rebut the relevance of consciousness for moral status, she suggests that babies aren't “consciously aware” until 12 to 15 months after birth. She suggests that our alternative ethical framework would imply babies have no moral value until that point. 

To support her suggestion that babies aren’t conscious, Yoder references a medical article that’s about a type of higher-order thought capacity (e.g., thinking about thinking, being aware that you are aware) that develops much later after infancy. But here she is simply confusing the basic concept of consciousness with a related, more complex concept, and this understanding of consciousness depends on that more basic form of consciousness that we focus on, which babies clearly have.

Rooting moral value in the possession of a brain capable of consciousness means that moral value begins when such a brain begins to exist (in the second half of pregnancy) and ends when such a brain ceases to exist. “Brain death” is a well-known and morally significant concept, but analogous concepts for the beginning of life“brain birth” or being “brain alive” are not well known, but should be. 

Yoder also claims that aborted fetuses don’t “consent” to what’s done to them, but “consent” doesn’t make sense here either: beginning fetuses cannot consent to anything—they can’t consent to abortion, they can’t consent to being born, they can’t consent to coming into existence. To demand consent here is to require what’s literally impossible and so can’t be a valid requirement. 

So, yes, there are some differences between abortion and these cases from medical ethics: the challenge though is to explain why these differences are important and to just explain why abortion, at least of beginning fetuses, would be wrong. 

While extremists on both sides insist that the truth about abortion is simple and obvious, the truth is these matters are complex—involving many hard questions such as ‘What makes us wrong to kill?’ ‘What are we, fundamentally, our minds or our bodies?” “When do our lives end, and when do our lives begin?’ and more—and arguments about it are challenging. 

We do hope that Yoder’s article encourages readers to learn more about these complex issues and work harder to really understand the claims and arguments they might disagree with. When people really understand those arguments, they often find they have merit, and when they engage people they disagree with, they come to understand that they have some good points and good intentions. And so we conclude on what was perhaps the most important line of our article:

[O]ur political culture needs genuinely fair and balanced, honest and respectful engagement of arguments and truth-seeking: more people practicing this with the complex topic of abortion would help set a better intellectual and moral tone that would enable us all to better engage the many other polarizing issues that confront our society. 

We encourage Yoder and any readers here to help make this be so. 

* * *

For further reading, see Nobis’s & Grob’s Thinking Critically About Abortion and Dudley’s Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics and “When the ‘Biblical View’ for Evangelicals was that life begins at birth.”

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