Sunday, April 11, 2021

Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking

Why the case against abortion is weak, ethically speaking


Many medical procedures are ethically similar to abortion — but without the outcry. Why?

By NATHAN NOBIS - JONATHAN DUDLEY

APRIL 11, 2021 


The article really is about more than what the title suggests. Here's an important paragraph:
Enabling more people to more productively engage the many ethical arguments about abortion won't, by itself, solve any social or political problems: no single strategy would. But ethics education is an essential part of any successful comprehensive strategy to ensure abortion rights and access, and so pro-choice advocates should engage in it. More generally, our 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.
Some critical responses that we've see are here:
What does anyone think of these responses? Please share any thoughts in the comments!

Here is an explanation of the argument, or one interpretation of the argument:
  1. Organ donation procedures and the treatment of anencephalic newborns are morally permissible.
  2. If organ donation procedures and the treatment of anencephalic newborns are morally permissible, then it’s permissible to end the lives of biologically human organisms without functioning, consciousness-making brains.
  3. If it’s permissible to end the lives of biologically human organisms without functioning, consciousness-making brains, then early abortions, of fetuses without functioning, consciousness-making brains are morally permissible.
  4. Therefore, early abortions, of fetuses without functioning, consciousness-making brains are morally permissible.
To respond, here’s what one could do, regarding each premise:
  1. Argue that organ donation procedures and the treatment of anencephalic newborns are not morally permissible, for whatever reason(s): e.g., these are human, these are human organisms, these are human beings; there is always some chance of recovery, etc.
  2. Argue that a different generalization, or none, at all, is suggested by the cases in (1). Explain why that's a better generalization to draw than what we propose. 
  3. Identify a relevant difference such that (3) is false and justify the relevance of that difference: e.g., clearly, fetuses and the organ donation and anencephalic newborn cases are different: fetuses typically have a type of “potential” that the other cases don’t; fetuses, if “left alone,” so to speak will continue living, etc., but how is that relevant? Why would that make killing them wrong? Real, developed answers are needed, and the answer that “because they are human organisms” isn’t going to cut it, at least not for those who accept (1).

Two errors in "Thinking Critically About Abortion"

No book is perfect and there are at least two errors in Thinking Critically About Abortion. Well, maybe they aren't full-on errors, but they are things that I wish we had put in more careful ways.

First, when we argue that "all abortion should be legal," we do not mean to say that literally every possible abortion should be legal or that there should be no regulations at all about abortion. Rather, we meant to be saying that (US) law should stay roughly as it is and, at least, not keep some abortions legal (say those that involve pregnancies that result from rape, and when necessary to save the pregnant person's life, and others) and most other abortions illegal: they all should be legal. So I wish we had clarified that more.

Second, there's this paragraph in the Preface:

Furthermore, since the right to life is not the right to someone else’s body, fetuses might not have the right to the pregnant woman’s body—which she has the right to—and so she has the right to not allow the fetus use of her body. This further justifies abortion, at least until technology allows for the removal of fetuses to other wombs. Since morally permissible actions should be legal, abortions should be legal: it is an injustice to criminalize actions that are not wrong.

The bolded line is about what's called ectogenesis and our remarks about it are too cavalier. 

First, removing fetuses to other wombs will be an invasive medical procedure (unless we learn how to make teletransporters, like from Star Trek, and that's not gonna happen for a long time, if ever) and so at least forcing someone to endure such a procedure is, and would be, problematic. And there are challenges in thinking that anyone would be morally obligated to do that also. 

Perhaps more importantly, however, a proposal like "Look, if you want an abortion, here's a better solution: ectogenesis" doesn't engage the full reality of having a child, or someone, "out there" who is genetically related to you. It's like this: suppose someone stole your egg(s) or sperm(s) (although you don't know that they did this) and used it (or them) to create a person, who is now born and "out there." Question: how do you feel about this? Is this a big deal to you or not? To most people, this is going to be a big deal, and so a "No big deal, we'll just move the fetus to an artificial womb and go from there" would also be a big deal: it's a big deal to have a child even if you didn't gestate or birth that child (as men know). Now what should and shouldn't be allowed here, and what would or wouldn't be wrong here, I'm not going to comment on here. I merely want to observe that the issues are much more complex and challenging than what our quick comments suggest.

Reports of other errors are welcome! Thank you!

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

The Animal Rights, "Domination" and "Comatose Newborn Baby" Objections to an Argument for Abortion

One type of argument in general defense of abortionan argument that abortion usually isn't wrongdepends on the fact that early fetuses are not conscious, aware, or feeling at all, since their brains and nervous systems aren't developed enough to support any type of mental life. 

Combine these emprical claims with the moral observation that consciousness and awareness are what ultimately make our lives have value and fundamentally what gives us, say, the right to life, and we can conclude that at least abortions of pre-conscious fetuses are typically not wrong. Since most abortions are of fetuses like this, we can conclude that most abortions aren't wrong. 

The argument involves a moral principle like this:

  • If a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being. 
This type of principle relates to personhoodsince any being like this wouldn't be a personand harm: to harm someone is make someone worse off compared to how they were, and that can't happen to a being like this. 

Really understanding the argument require thinking through a number of challenging issues: it's not a soundbite or bumper sticker argument. This type of argument is developed in Thinking Critically About Abortion and this earlier chapterThere are many objections to the argument though, and I will review three of them here.  

1. Babies and Animals

First, some seem to assume that the "consciousness" referred to in this argument is some kind of what I'll call "fancy consciousness"—thinking about calculus, baba ganoush and reflecting on how to live your best life—and so think this argument implies that babies don't have rights. 

But the argument doesn't require any such higher-level, "fancy" thinking—all it requires is awareness, feelings, and a perspective: there's a way it is to be that being, for that being.

Some then are concerned that if this type of consciousness is enough for a right to life, then that means that raising and killing animals to eat them would often be wrong. They then react that that's a good reason to reject the reasoning. 

This is a curious response though. Almost anyone who gives that objection doesn't have to eat animals: they could eat plant-based foods. And, of course, raising and killing animals is very bad for those animals. 

So, on initial appearances, the reaction—"this argument suggests it's wrong to kill animals and so it must be flawed"seems to be a selfish reaction: "This reasoning means that I need to change my views in ways I don't want and, more importantly, do something that I don't want to do, all for the benefit of someone else that I find to be not very much like me, namely animals." This is selfishness. 

Now, what's interesting is that many critics of abortion claim that women who have abortions, and abortion advocates generally, are selfish, because they—critics claim—just want to live their own lives and do what they want to do, but without any concern for fetuses and by rejecting their obligations. "It's just selfishness," they sometimes really say. 

Now, isn't this objection to this argument—in light of its implications for animals—just selfish also? 

If it is, let's recognize that: most people who call themselves "pro-life" are selfish in that they are not concerned about the lives, and brutal deaths, of conscious, feeling, living beings who aren't human: at least, they are not concerned enough to do anything about it. Now, that's true of most pro-choice people too, and that should be recognized: an honest assessment of the situation is needed to begin making some progress in thinking and doing. 

Now, if people, especially "pro-life" people, are not selfish in lacking any serious concern for sentient animal life, we need to hear why: let's see the strong moral reasoning to show that, in circumstances like our's, it's actually generally OK to raise animals to eat them. That's gonna be hard

If someone shows that they lack the skills and attitudes to responsibly and productively engage ethics and animals issues, we might reasonably doubt that they lack the abilities to responsibly engage the issue of abortion and so doubt the reliability of their judgments on that topic: vice in thinking about one topic tends to spill over to vice in thinking about other topics, since it's the same thinker.  

2. Domination

A second objection to the argument above goes something like this: 

If having moral rights ultimately depends on being conscious, or having been conscious, as many theories of rights propose, then beings that are more conscious have more or stronger rights than being that a less conscious. Alternatively, those who have a higher "degree" or level of consciousness have stronger rights than those with a lower level or degree, and so the "higher" are entitled to dominate those who are "lower" or at least have moral priority.

This type of objection, however, is very weak, since there is just no reason to believe the suggested implication. 

Advocates of the argument above propose that if a being is conscious at all, especially in a way that those conscious experiences are connected and inter-related, then that being has a right to life, or is otherwise typically wrong to kill, in a manner that's equal to anyone else who has that right. They don't claim or suggest anything along the lines of super-smart humans are entitled to dominate simple-minded humans.

So their view is comparable to this: you can pass usually a class with a 70% overall grade, and you can also pass with any higher grade. But any passing grade is equally a passing grade: it's not like a 89% is "more" of a passing grade than a 71% or "A" grades have some claim over "C" students in terms of whether they've passed or not. So whether someone pass a class is determined by a variable characteristic (grades), but anyone who passes a class "equally" passes the class. So, something similar applies with a mind-based theory of rights: if you meet the minimal threshold, you are "in the club," so to speak, and fully and equally in the club.  

Finally, the objection's claim that some individuals are "more" or "less" conscious than others is doubtful. A baby is not conscious of some things that we are conscious of, and babies are conscious of things that we are not conscious of (and the same is true of, e.g., dogs and other animals), but neither is "more conscious": we are both conscious and equally conscious, although conscious of different things. 

Overall, this objection is not well developed and is just implausible on its face. If it were rigorously developed and defended, there'd be more to say about it.

3. The "Comatose Newborn Baby" Objection

Finally, there's an objection that is based on a case like this:

A baby is born, in a coma. That baby has never been conscious. But that baby will become conscious . . eventually. 

The argument then is that if the "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is true, then it's not wrong to end the life of this baby. But since, they say, it would be wrong to end the life of this baby, the "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is false and so the original argument just isn't a good argument in defense of abortion.

I don't think this objection succeeds. 

First, the case is basically a unique baby that, for all practical purposes, is just like a beginning fetuses in all its relevant features: the claim is basically, "Killing fetuses that have never had minds is wrong because killing a born baby that has never had a mind would be wrong also" and so the reasoning is close to circular. In that way, the argument is question-begging, or assumes that the principle it is trying to argue against is false in making a case that it's false, if the reasoning amounts to something like this:

This "if a being is not conscious, and has never been conscious, then it's typically permissible to kill that being" principle is false because there could be this comotose "baby" and even though that baby is not conscious, and has never been conscious, that "baby" would be wrong to kill. 

If this is the reaction, it basically amounts to just assuming the principle is false.  

Next, the reactions to the case that it would be wrong to led this never-been-conscious baby die, or kill this baby, are, I think, emotion-driven: people picture in their minds a more normal babywho would be wrong to kill, since that baby is conscious, aware and has feelingsand those feelings transfer to this "baby," which is nothing like a normal baby, even though they really shouldn't transfer. And this emotional distortion can lead people to overlook these important questions:

  • Would anyone be harmed if the "baby" were killed? 
    • No, there is no conscious individual here who would be made worse off, compared to how they were, if this body were killed: this case is very different from killing a normal baby since, again, this baby is just like an early fetus, just bigger and born.  
  • Would any person be killed if the "baby" were killed? 
    • No, there is no conscious individual here who would be killed, although killing this body would prevent the emergence of a future person. 
So, again, the case does not provide a good reason to reject this type of pro-choice argument: it seems to just assume that what it's arguing against is false, instead of giving a reason that the principle is false (and a reason which doesn't just assume it's false).   

Next, the case is very different from abortion, so one could agree that it'd be wrong to let the "baby" die but deny that anything follows about abortion.  

For one, the comatose newborn "baby" is no longer dependent on anyone in particular, and anyone's body in particular: anyone could take care of this baby. So, one could plausibly think that, all things considered, this matters and makes a difference: yes, someone, or someones, has to take care of this "baby," given the situation, but pregnant women are not obligated to "take care of" pre-conscious fetuses that are in their bodies and so only they can take care of them: that's too much of a burden which they don't have to take on if they don't want to. 

It is a fair question, however, to ask about details about the case: in particular, how long would it take for the baby to become conscious? What if it's 50 years? 80 years? Does that matter? Inquiring minds would want to know. Maybe there'd be a point where people would concede that the time is too much and so the lack of harm here really does matter and so it'd also matter with a shorter time period too. 

Next, I think it's important to observe that this "baby" is quite different from a beginning fetus in that it is, as the case is intended, very close to being conscious. And maybe that's an important difference. It's like this:

Suppose I've been studying to get into law school, and I'm doing well, but this is very much because of your help in keeping me on track, encouraging me, quizzing me, and more: I literally couldn't do it without you. You've been helping me for years now, and I've almost made it, since the LSAT (test to get into law school) is in a month and I will do well if, but only if, you keep helping me. 

Now, it's within your rights to stop helping me, even if I lose out on my dream of going to law school. But shouldn't you keep helping me, unless there's some real good reason why you shouldn't (like I become mean or ungrateful or ..)? I mean, we've come this far; let's finish this! If you had backed out on all this years ago, that'd be one thing, but we're almost to the end here! Let's finish this so I can make my dream come true!

If this case has a moral or a point (and maybe it doesn't!) then it might transfer to the comatose baby—since that baby body is almost conscious and so maybe there is some obligation at this point to make that happen. That intuition, however, won't transfer to a beginning fetus. 

So, all and all, the "comatose newborn baby" objection is not a good one, given the differences and the similarities between this "baby" and beginning fetuses and pregnant women. 

4. Conclusion

Here I've briefly presented a particular type of argument in defense of abortion and three objections focussed on that specific argument. These objections appear to be weak, so they don't provide good reason to reject the argument. If there are better objections, we'll want to find them. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Abortion: Arguments, not Circumstances

People sometimes begin discussing abortion by asking questions about abortion in particular circumstances: “What if it’s needed to save the mother’s life?” “What if the pregnancy is from rape?” “What if there are severe fetal abnormalities?” and so on. Or they begin by stating circumstances where they think abortion is wrong or not: “It’s wrong if used for ‘birth control’,” “It’s not wrong if the woman is too young to be an effective mother,” and so on.

These starting points are fine, if – but only if – these statements are supported, or questions answered, with reasons. Our concern is arguments, the reasons given for and against specific conclusions about abortion, such as that:

Abortion is:
       (nearly) always morally wrong.
       (nearly) always morally permissible, or not wrong.

       wrong, except in these circumstances: ____.
       permissible, except in these circumstances: ____.

       sometimes morally obligatory, or wrong to not have, such as in these circumstances: ____.

People sometimes offer moral claims about abortion “in general,” without being precise about which abortions they have in mind. But the details matter: depending on the stage of fetal development and the woman’s circumstances, different moral conclusions may be appropriate.

Some people also want to focus on important, but comparatively rare, abortions: for example, of pregnancies from rape (perhaps 1% of abortions) or incest.[5] Our initial focus will be on more common circumstances where for a variety of other reasons, a woman is pregnant but does not want to have a child (or another child, now). After this we will discuss other important, but less common, circumstances.


We can immediately set aside circumstances though where the woman would die if her pregnancy continues, and so the fetus will die also, or we must choose between the mother and fetus. Even people who generally oppose abortion typically argue that we should save one life instead of losing two lives and prioritize the mother, not the fetus. Their view then is not that abortion is always wrong, but that it is wrong in most circumstances, or prima facie wrong.


Whether this specific conclusion, and any other, can be supported with good arguments is {or should be!] our concern. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

No, Being Pro-choice is Not Ablest: Abortion and Ableism

I've recently seen some abortion critics call a certain type of argument in defense of abortionones that appeal to the total lack of minds or consciousness in zygotes, embryos, and at least beginning fetusesablest. Arguments that deny that fetuses are persons tend to be arguments like this, since they usually understand "persons" in terms of psychological characteristics or having a mind.

The claim is that these arguments assume a type of unjustified, wrongful discrimination, ableism, and so people who give this type of argument for abortion are, well, advocating for wrongful discrimination, which is wrong. 

This objection, however, is a bad objection. This type of argument in defense of abortion is not ableist, and I bet this charge is an offensive comparison to people who are genuinely affected by ableism.  

To begin, here are a few definitions of ableism:

  • Ableism is the discrimination of and social prejudice against people with disabilities based on the belief that typical abilities are superior;
  • Ableism . . is discrimination and social prejudice against people with disabilities and/or people who are perceived to be disabled. Ableism characterizes people who are defined by their disabilities as inferior to the non-disabled;
  • Ableism is discrimination or prejudice against individuals with disabilities.
So ableism is discrimination against people, against individuals, who are judged negatively because of their abilities, or because they lack certain abilities. 

Once we review the definitions of ableism, we readily see that embryos and early fetuses cannot be victims of it. This is not because of what abilities they have or lack, however; it's because they are completely without abilities: there is no individual or person there who has or lacks any abilities.

Ableism involves seeing someone and thinking they are less valuable or worthy of respect because of their physical, cognitive or emotional abilities. But with embryos and early fetuses, there is no someone, no conscious individual, who has or lacks any abilities. Ableism requires that there be a someone who is judged negatively, but there is no "someone" when there is an embryo or beginning fetus, so the charge of ableism makes no sense. 

To further make the point, imagine you ask me what my friends Mary and John are like. Suppose I respond with this: 

"Mary is a is a good listener who enjoys ice-skating, watching old movies, crossword puzzles and rock climbing. And she's a person."

"John likes ice cream, is often rather quiet, is really good at math, and likes to read. And he's a conscious, thinking and feeling being." 

It's weird to add on "and she's a person" and "and she's a conscious, thinking, feeling being," because I've already said this by telling you what they are like in these other ways. Only persons and conscious beings have these interests and abilities so it's redundant to point out that these friends are persons and conscious beings: indeed, we were probably even told by that by the word "friend." 

Similarly, only persons or conscious beings have and lack abilities, so when some kind of entity is not a person or conscious being, accusing someone of being ableistic towards that entity makes no sense: again, there's no individual or person to be ableistic towards or about. 

So, arguing that abortion is not wrong because embryos and beginning fetuses are entirely without consciousness or minds is not ableist. The accusation just doesn't fit when there is no subject or person or conscious being: if there's no one like that, there isn't anyone who has or lacks abilities and so the charge of ableism doesn't make sense. 

I suspect that many people who are genuinely affected by ableism would find the suggestion that their experience with ablemism is comparable to the "experience" of fetuses offensive. Here's some important discussion:

Who is Affected by Ableism? Ableism can affect almost anyone whom society stereotypes as not being part of the mainstream. WHO? The hearing impaired; the visually impaired; those who use mobility equipment; those with congenital anomalies; those with speech or motor impairments; those with diabetes, depression, asthma, arthritis, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, migraines, epilepsy, AIDS, hemophilia, etc.

Ableism affects the lived experience of these people: it affects their experienced world, for the worse; it diminishes their self-conception and sense of self-worth; it negatively affects their quality of life. 

The suggestion that embryos and early fetuses are "like" these human beings, in that they both victims of ableism, is not just false, I'd say it's offensive. To compare the experience of someone affected by ableism to the non-experience of a being that's never been conscious or had any experiences is, well, disrespectful to people who are genuinely affected by and experience ableism. To say to someone who experiences ableism something like, for example, "Embryos used in embryo experimentation are discriminated against because of their lack of abilities and that is similar to how you are discriminated against because of your abilities" is not just a false comparison, it's an offensive comparison: it just fails to understand ableism and why it's wrong.

In sum, the appeal to "ableism" in arguing against abortion, is similar to the appeals to "equality," "anti-discrimination" and "human rights" in arguing against abortion and attempts to make opposition to abortion sound like opposition to racism and sexism. These are all attempts to make opposition to abortion sound "progressive" and present concern for embryos and fetuses as part of the "expanding circle" of moral concern. But these "liberal" concerns simply don't apply to pre-conscious beings like embryos and early fetuses and so these attempts fail and mislead. The more people willing to take the time and energy to reflect, notice and understand this, the better. 


All blog posts are here!

Some especially relevant posts:

Saturday, February 20, 2021

When does human life begin? Would around 70% of people deny that "human life begins at conception"?

It's common for people who oppose abortion to enthusiastically affirm that "life begins at conception." Speaking more precisely, they claim that "human life begins at conception."

To support their claims, they observe that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses are surely alive, biologically: they came from living eggs and sperm and so are "life." And they are surely biologically human: they have human DNA and are of the human species; these aren't feline or canine fetuses at issue. 

So what they say seems obviously correct to them, and this sometimes leads them to mock people who deny that human life begins at conception, asking things like this:

"How could these pro-choice people deny basic facts from biology and science, that fetuses are engaged in the processes of life and that fetuses are biologically human, that they are not some other species?!

This rhetorical question (which is, unfortunately, usually left unanswered) sometimes leads to insults, name-calling, and worse. 

Now, perhaps these types of responses are developed on the basis of interacting with people who claim that "human life does not begin at conception" but give uninformed, naive, or absurd reasons why they think that. Many people don't know much about biology, and so—if they say something to address what the abortion critic saysthey just might not know or understand the evidence that the abortion critic appeals to in arguing that what they are calling "human life" does begin at conception. About these people, if they need to learn more about biology, then they really should. (What these abortion critics need to learn, however, will be addressed below). 

But another possibility though is that the person who says "human life does not begin at conception" just has a different idea of what "human life" is or are using a different meaning of that term. So what they aren't thinking about is whether a biologically human organism is engaged in the biological processes of life, but something else. 

What could this something else be? To better understand what they might be thinking or have in mind, we can ask the related question, "When does human life end?" This question will help reveal what they mean by "human life" and what they are thinking when they use this phrase.

I recently did a casual, informal Twitter survey (of random, unknown people) to ask about this. Here was the survey and the results (I ran the same survey on Facebook and got nearly identical results):



This informal survey suggests that at least around 70% of people understand "human life" to be something different from merely biologically human life. A human body can be alive, yet that "human life" has ended. 

So when does "human life" end? This survey suggests that many people might be willing to say this:

"Human life" ends when consciousness permanently ends: when the ability to feel, be aware, think, and have any types of experiences ends, "human life" ends. And that can happen prior to the death of the body, or the death of "human life" in that sense. 

This answer at least suggests a view on when "human life" begins

Human life begins when consciousness begins: when the ability to feel, be aware, think, and have any types of experiences begins, "human life" begins. And that happens after the beginning of the body. 

Whether this initial 70% would agree that their answers on when "human life" ends suggest these answers on when "human life" begins, I don't know. Whether the 30% would disagree with this, I don't know. Again I haven't done a rigorous study on these matters. 

What matters here is that nearly everyone is familiar with the ambiguity in "human life," despite what any critics of abortion say about this: they tend to think it's just simple and obvious what "human life" is. Philosophers, ethicists, and medical professionals (especially those who engage "end of life" issues) are familiar with the ambiguity of "human life"—meaning, that that phrase can be used to mean different things, or refer to different things—but, really, everyone is aware of this ambiguity: to better notice it though they sometimes have to be asked about it in the right way. 

When the issue is raised with an end of life question, it's clear that there's a distinction between "human life" in the sense of a living biologically human body and "human life" in the sense of someone who is conscious, feeling, aware, and so on. And at least 70% or so of people might affirm that "human life" in the sense that really matters when thinking about ethical issues is that latter sense. Many people are familiar with the concept of "brain death" and how brain death ends a "human life"—even if the body is still alive—but more people need to become familiar with the related concept of "brain birth" and its relevance to abortion.

These people in the 70% group might also affirm that "human life" begins far later in pregnancy (when consciousness begins), or even at birth (if they happen to believe, probably implausibly, that is when consciousness starts), since by "human life" they mean someone who is conscious, feeling, aware, and so on

Of course, there's been a living biologically human organism all along, but that's not what they mean by "human life," since, in their view, that's not what's ethically significant: that's not what they really care about. And, they are apt to think that just because something is biologically human, or even a (merely) biologically human organism, that doesn't make it wrong to let it die or even kill it, which obviously has implications for abortion, especially early abortions (and so most abortions). 

Earlier I mentioned that some people need to learn more biology. But people who think that the scientific facts that embryos and fetuses are alive, biologically human and even biologically human organisms and that pretty much means that abortion is wrong "need" to learn some literal logic and ethics (specifically focussing on questions about what makes killing wrong, when it's wrong) to understand that, no, these scientific facts do not entail that abortion is wrong: there are controversial assumptions that are part of that argument that need to be articulated and defended. So their simple "scientific" argument is persuasive to some, but it is a very poor argument, in terms of providing reasons to accept the conclusion, and that fact will likely catch up to this argument's advocates eventually. If they don't care about the fact that they are trying to persuade people with bad arguments, then I guess they don't "need" to rethink this; but if they wish to offer genuinely sound or cogent arguments, rethinking this all is a need. 

So, in conclusion, when people are hostile to folks who deny that human life begins at conception, what's probably going on is this: they simply haven't asked that person what they mean by "human life" and/or they haven't found someone who is knowledgable about these issues to explain what they mean. The insults and ill-will result from people failing to attempt to understand each other. It's a predictable result of not making the effort to find out what people are thinking when they seem to disagree. 

It's also a result of, honestly, people not knowing as much about complex issues as they think they do (and so acting like a "know it all" when you're a "don't know much") and being part of a mob or cult about an issue, as opposed to being someone (and parts of groups) who is willing and able to try to think about issues in, honestly, more fair and balanced ways. About abortion, almost nobody takes classes on these topics; almost nobody reads broadly on these issues; honestly, why would the typical person really know much about the issues—from all sidesso they can explain things accurately? That type of understanding is simply discouraged by most groups and people who are enthusiastic about the issues. 

These are all common problems, about many issues, and they are especially problematic here. What can be done? A lot, but as a start, a good practice is always asking this:

What would people who disagree with me on this issue say about this? How would they explain what they think about this disagreement? Am I representing their views correctly?

And here the goal is to find the best person who disagrees with you: the most informed, the most thoughtful, not someone who knows little but thinks they know a lot. Doing this—and not being a "drive-by critic" or someone, or part of a mob, that offers potshots from a distance, would do a lot of good for contributing to positive discussions, about this issue and many others. Daniel Dennett has other good suggestions for positive engagement. 

How's this sound? And what are other good ideas to improve discussions of controversial issues?

Sunday, February 14, 2021

Abortion, Personhood and Space Aliens

The topic of abortion often brings up the question of what it is to be a "person." And discussions of the concept of "personhood" can lead to a discussion of space aliens, believe it or not! Here I explain what the point of discussing space aliens is. 

(TL;DR: the point is that that the example of space aliens shows that the concept or idea of "person" is not same as "human being": it's a psychological concept; it's not to suggest that space aliens actually exist). 

First, many people who think that abortion is wrong believe that embryos and fetuses are persons, and argue that since they are persons, they are typically wrong to kill and so abortion is typically wrong. 

There are problems, however, with this simple reasoning. 

A first, somewhat abstract problem is that just because something (or someone) is a person, that doesn't mean they have a right to everything they need to live. So, about abortion, even if fetuses were persons that wouldn't automatically mean they would have a right to their mother's body. This is Judith Thomson's point: the simple argument fails because the right to life isn't as simple as people often assume it is.

The second problem is that embryos and at least beginning fetuses just aren't persons, many thoughtful people argue. Why's that? Well, you need to figure out what persons are, or what it is to be a person.

Folks who haven't studied these issues, or have only interacted with people who they agree with on these issues and so have learned about these topics in contexts that encourage groupthink, often respond this way:

Persons are human beings.

Or, more carefully:

Persons are biologically human organisms. 

And maybe even more carefully, as an attempt at stating necessary and sufficient conditions for being a person:

All persons are biologically human organisms and any possible person would be a biologically human organism: so if something is a biologically human organism, then it's a person, and if something were a person, it'd be a biologically human organism. 

From all these, they can argue that since biologically human fetuses are biologically human, they are persons. 

Now, here's the question we need to ask people who say things like this:

We know that things that are biologically human are biologically human, but what makes them persons? What makes biologically human organisms persons?

Here's an answer:

Biologically human organisms are persons because persons are biologically human organisms. 

This answer though is entirely uninformative: we want to know why a type of thing is or would be a person, what makes (or would make) that type of thing a person, and we are just told that it's that type of thing. We aren't told what makes biologically human organisms are persons or why they are persons. 

This is a fair question though. To engage it, it can be helpful to reflect on our own personhood and think about why we are persons or what makes us persons. And this can lead to an understanding of personhood that implies that at least early fetuses, although biologically human organisms, are not persons. Briefly, this concept of personhood sees persons as psychological beingsbeings with minds who are conscious and feeling and the likeand early fetuses are not like that. 

At this point though, critics will want to challenge this assumption also, mentioned above:

if something were a person, it'd be a biologically human organism.

They will point out there there could be friendly, intelligent space aliens who are, in all relevant ways, are just like usthey are personseven though they aren't biologically human. Again, why would they be persons? Because they are like us in having minds and being conscious and feeling and the like.

Now, in saying there "could be" such space aliens, nobody is saying that such aliens actually exist or are even likely. They are just saying that the concept of being a person is one that isn't confined to human beings: personhood is a concept that's based on psychological or mental characteristics, and so if there were non-human space aliens who were mentally and emotionally like us, they would be persons: e.g., ET was a fictional "personified" being, meaning he had the traits of a person: he was a person. 

Nothing in the concept of "person" prevents this possibility. That we recognize that such beings could beif they were to exist—our friends and co-workers shows (again) that we recognize that the concept of "person" is the not the same as "human being." 

That's the point of thinking about space aliens in the context of abortion. 

All blog posts are here!

Monday, February 1, 2021

Abortion and "Slaying the Dragons"

There's a common move made in discussions of abortion, and this type of thing happens with other controversial issues, that goes like this:

"Those evil, stupid pro-choice people don't even understand that _____. If they did, they'd realize that abortion is wrong!"

"Those anti-choice morons are so dumb that don't even realize that _____. If they did, they'd agree that abortion is wrong!"

The picture that comes to mind for me is that these people think they are "slaying the dragons" in pointing out what they think are obvious facts that people who disagree with them are missing: "Those idiots! How could they be so dumb??"


Now, the problem with this is often that things are more complicated than the "dragon slayer" thinks they are.

Let's begin with a pro-choice example:

"Those anti-choice morons are so dumb that don't even realize that women have a right to their own bodies. If they did, they'd agree that abortion is wrong!"

But, like it or not, there are some complications here:

  • Is this right a legal right or a moral right, or both?
  • Does this right have any limits, ever?
  • Is there any way anyone could wind up with any "right" to someone's body, ever? 
  • Even if women have these rights, could there be other (legal or moral) obligations that are not based on rights that would make abortion wrong? 
Some of these questions aren't super-easy to answer: they really require some careful thought. So no "dragon" was "slayed": things are more complicated than the would-be-slayer, and any of their mob, thinks they are.

An example about people who oppose abortion:
"Those evil, stupid pro-choice people don't even understand that fetuses are alive, that fetuses are biologically human, that fetuses are alive and biologically human, and that fetuses are living biologically human organisms. If they did, they'd realize that abortion is wrong!"
Like it or not, thoughtful pro-choice people realize that fetuses are alive, that fetuses are biologically human, that fetuses are alive and biologically human, and that fetuses are living biologically human organisms. Surely some pro-choice don't realize this, and too bad for them: their misunderstandings need to be corrected. (Do they think fetuses are dead, and that dead fetuses are aborted? Do they think fetuses in human beings are dogs or cats or some other species?!)

The problem though is that more developed pro-choice arguments (see here for an introduction to these) accept that fetuses are alive, that fetuses are biologically human, that fetuses are alive and biologically human, and that fetuses are living biologically human organisms. 

Pro-choice thinkers acknowledge all that; they typically just argue that despite all this, at least some fetuses don't have the characteristics that make something have rights or wrong to kill, and/or they argue that having these characteristics does not impose obligations on others: e.g., the right to life is not a right to someone else's body, and that even voluntarily sexual relations don't grant anyone that right. 

So no dragons slayed, again. 

(If a person though thought the initial argument or claim would "slay" the idea, they are apt to try it again, although this time they are responding to a more abstract idea that is new to them, so the chances for a "slaying" from their initial reactions is even less likely now.)

What's the upshot? 

It's a common theme here: it's that abortion, like many issues, is complicated: there's a lot to learn about it and simplistic arguments and simplistic objections likely don't get at the heart of that matter. 

It might be fun for some people to "score points" with people who agree with them by "slaying dragons" like this, but that's not the route to any kind of progress on any issues. 

What's needed is some real understanding and some serious, honest engagement with the issues and arguments, based on the recognition that we might have missed something important in our understandings. "Dragonslayers" need to lay down their swords if they want to be part of that, and they should. 

The Ambiguities of "Life" and "Human": Responding to Steve Jacobs at "Secular Pro-Life"

Steve Jacobs responded at "Secular Pro-Life" to this post of mine that was critical of his dissertation project, and I think his response misses the main issues.



So the issue here is that the question "When does life begin?" is ambiguous: it can mean different things. (The question "When does human life begin? is likewise ambiguous too, as we'll see). 

First, there's biological life, something being engaged in the biological processes that define life in a biological sense.

It is very, very obvious that biologically human zygotes and embryos and fetuses are biologically alive: they came from eggs and sperm which were biologically alive; they are engaged in the processes mentioned on page 1 of a biology textbook.

But this obvious fact that biologically human fetuses are biologically alive isn't very important because of this: just because something is biologically alive, that doesn't mean it's wrong to kill it. E.g., mold and plants are biologically alive, but they aren't wrong to kill. Other counterexamples make the point. (Now, the point is not that human fetuses are comparable to any living thing; the point is to engage the exact premise that completes the reasoning as given). 

So here's the problem: if someone thinks that proving the obviousthat biologically human fetuses (we aren't talking about kitten or puppy fetuses, right?) are biologically aliveproves that abortion is wrong, that is mistaken: it's a bad argument. 

Some people are really excited to "prove" that human fetuses are biologically alive, but they just shouldn't be: nothing interesting follows from that fact (or, to be more accurate, interesting moral conclusions about abortion follow from that fact only when conjoined with this false premise: 'all biologically alive things are wrong to kill' or even 'all biologically alive things are prima facie wrong to kill'.

I think this explains the negative reactions that Jacobs got: people thought, "Oh, he's going to take my answer and use it to argue for conclusions that it really doesn't support." And they were right about that. (Right?).

So what else can "When does life begin?" mean? In particular, what can "When does human life begin?" mean?

You can get at that by thinking about the question "When does a human's life end?"

Most people recognize that this is a complex question because of examples like a permanent coma or permanent vegetative states or major, major brain damage. In these cases, someone's body may be alive, but their brain is dead: so we often think that their life has ended, even though their body is biologically alive.

Why has their life ended (even though their body is biologically alive)? 

Because their consciousness has permanently ended: they exist no more: there is no individual or person there anymore, and nobody who can be harmed anymore. So, while there are different ways to put this, we’d say their “biographical lifeended even though their body remains biologically alive.

So back to the question: when does "life begin" for us, and “life” in the morally significant sense, or "biographically human life"? When consciousness begins. And this is a different answer than the biological answer, in part because it's a different question: it's not just about biology; it's about us and what we really are: although we are very much related to our bodies, we are not our bodies.

So, this problem all arises from asking an ambiguous question and not clarifying the options for what the question might mean: in other words, not engaging in a core task of critical thinking. Had that been done, the answers here, from biologists and anyone else, likely have been quite different, as would have been the tones of their reaction!

Especially related blog posts:
All blog posts are here.

Updates: 
  • Updating the question to "when does biologically human life begin?" or even "when does a biologically human organism begin?" doesn't change the discussion: the points above still apply. 
  • Further comment: Jacobs write this: 
If a fetus is not a human, then abortion restrictions stop women from having a basic, harmless medical procedure. 
If a fetus is a human, then each abortion kills a human and is a presumptively punishable crime without an affirmative legal defense.

About the second claim, each fetuses is obviously "a human" in the biological sense and abortion kills beings that are biologically human: every thoughtful pro-choice person recognizes that (any who are not are confused). What they deny is that fetuses are "human" in the sense of having what they consider human characteristics, like consciousness, feelings, awareness, and so on, and they think that those types of characteristics are what make killing someone wrong. So this statement suggests a misunderstanding of what people actually think about about these issues.

About the first claim, again, of course fetuses are biologically human, but they are not "human" in the sense of having what they consider human characteristics, like consciousness, feelings, awareness, and so on. But that doesn't automatically mean that abortion is not wrong either: e.g., the most famous and important philosophical argument against abortion, from Don Marquis, denies that fetuses are "human" in this sense. So this claim is false: even if fetuses aren't human in this sense, they could be wrong to kill nevertheless.  

  • While these issues about "what we are, in our essence" are abstract, Lynne Rudder Baker's Persons and Bodies: A Constitution View (Cambridge, 2000) is a great discussion of them. Here's part of the introduction to one of her articles on these issues:


 

Saturday, January 23, 2021

Nobis versus van der Breggen, Round 8 (?)

This is the 8th installment of exchanges between Nathan Nobis and Hendrick van der Breggen on abortion. His post provides the backstory; here's another brief response:


Professor van der Breggen, 

Thank you for your response

In very brief reply, let me respond to three things.

1. Analogies

First, is the violinist case an “analogy” to pregnancy? Is “unplugging” from the violinist analogous to abortion? Are plausible judgments about the violinist case “analogous” to what would be plausible judgments about abortion?

It depends on what is meant by an analogy.

Some people think of analogies this way: this is like that, so what’s true of this is true of that.

Another view of analogies is this: an initial case is used to develop and justify a general principle, which we can then apply to other cases.

The classic example of analogy is Paley’s watch: “The world is 'like' a watch.”

But is the world “like” a watch? In some ways, it is, in other ways, it’s not. So which ways are relevant to drawing any conclusions? Put this way, we aren’t told.

Here’s where the second approach to analogies comes in. We use the case of the watch to develop and justify this principle:
If a complex object has parts that are working together for a purpose (that is, it is a "teleological system"), then it’s probably designed.
We can then take that principle and apply it to the world to conclude that it’s probably designed too. This all works much better than the simple “the world is like a watch, so . . .” approach which, again, doesn’t tell us which ways are relevant and what conclusions we might draw.

Back to abortion and Thomson’s cases:
  • Pregnancy is “like” the violinist case, and unlike it.
  • Abortion is “like” unplugging from the violinist, and unlike it.
  • Abortion is “like” your favorite celebrity not touching your head to save your life, and unlike that.
  • Fetuses are “like” “people seeds,” and unlike people seeds.
If the violinist case is an analogy, then these other cases from Thomson are also analogies.

But where do we go with these analogies? What do we make of the “likenesses” here?

Many people react that we go nowhere, since pregnancy and abortion are just not “like” these cases! They respond, “These are bad analogies”!

Well, maybe they are, if you misunderstand how to think about analogies or how they work.

On the other hand, these are useful case to develop and confirm the insight that the right to life is not the right to everything someone needs to live, even if that requires the use of someone else’s body.

And that’s what’s important here.

2. The Substance View

van der Breggen appeals to a view that’s often called “The Substance View.” Rather than making a list of critics of this type of view, I’d encourage readers to read Don Marquis’s review of a book that appeals to the substance view. Marquis is, at least among professional philosophers, the most well-known and influential philosophical critic of abortion. Also, search PhilPapers and Google Scholar for the topic.

3. Risk

Finally, about arguments from risk, Robert Bass has an interesting and important chapter where he applies this approach to argue that, in most circumstances, it’s wrong to raise and kill animals to eat them, since there's a good chance they have the right to life or are otherwise seriously wrong to kill. Professor Bass is a very careful thinker and I encourage readers to check out his development of this type of argument from risk and its applications to another issue, which might reveal insights that can be applied back to this topic.

If anyone would like a more detailed response to anything in particular, please let me know.

Thank you!

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

On Saying What You Mean: the "Principle of Charity" and the "Principle of Clarity"

Sometimes people don't say what they really mean: they can, and should, use better words to express what they are thinking. Sometimes this is because the topic is complicated; sometimes this is because people lack experience in productively engaging the topic. How to better respond when this happens can be seen through the controversial topic of abortion. 

For example, people sometimes make and deny these claims when discussing abortion:

Some people who oppose abortion don't just say these things, they enthusiastically and urgently make these claims. They even argue for them, insisting they are scientific claims or supported by science.

This enthusiasm, however, doesn't make much sense due to a simple fact about arguments or logic. To use any of these claims to reach a conclusion like "Abortion is wrong," you must add a premise along the lines of this:
  • if something is "life", then it's wrong to kill; 
  • if something is "alive", then it's wrong to kill; 
  • if something is "living", then it's wrong to kill. 
But these premises are false, and it's not hard to see why using counterexamples: mold and bacteria are alive, but they aren't wrong to kill. Plants are alive, but they aren't wrong to kill. (Animals, like chickens, pigs, and cows are not good counterexamples, since there are very good reasons to believe they are wrong to raise and kill for the pleasure of eating their bodies: that's true of cats and dogs and these other animals too). 

These counterexamples work even if we weaken these general premises to that it's usually wrong to kill these things, or often wrong, or wrong unless there's a good reason do to so (that is, prima facie wrong). 

    So, although some pro-choice people urgently deny some of the initial claims, there's no need for that since, even if these claims are true (and they are!), no sound argument for abortion follows from them. 

    At this point, some people respond with this: 

    You are being uncharitable! This isn't what people mean by "life," "alive," and "living"! 

    So, the accusation is that "principle of charity" is not being used in evaluating these arguments: their advocates' words are not being put forward in the strongest way.



    This accusation, however, is misplaced. Discussions like the above are meant to help people better express what they are really thinking, what they really mean. It's an encouragement for them to better employ the "principle of clarity," and express their ideas in the clearest, most accurate, and strongest manners. This is how people learn: they learn from correction and recognizing the need to revise and improve. 

    So, instead of being hostile to observations that we aren't expressing ourselves in the best ways we can, we should be thankful. 

    Now, if someone were to respond (and people do respond these ways, unfortunately)"Those people who say abortion is wrong think that's because fetuses are alive; well, grass is alive too, so it's dumb to think that abortion is wrong!"that would be uncharitable. But explaining to people why they don't mean what they are literally saying is not uncharitable: it's helpful.

    So people who originally focused on fetuses just being "alive" might come back and say that what they really meant were claims like these:

    • "human life begins at conception"; 
    • "fetuses are human"; 
    • "each fetus is a human";
    • "fetuses are human beings".

    While these are improvements, each of these claims is ambiguous: the person saying them might mean different things, and some of these things are true (and obviously true) whereas others are, well, at least debatable and so reasons need to be given to support believing the claim. And the logical connections to conclusions about abortion—meaning the premises you must add to reach any ethical conclusions about abortionare often controversial and subject to counterexamples and basic questions about why we should and shouldn't accept them also. 

    Here some of these concerns, which are addressed more in other posts and Thinking Critically About Abortion:

    • "human life begins at conception": that depends on what is meant by "human life": when does human life end? Thinking about when life can end can help us understand when it begins
    • "fetuses are human": fetuses are surely biologically human, but a blob of random human cells wouldn't be wrong to kill. So what's meant by "human"?
    • "each fetus is a human"; what's "a human"?  
    • "fetuses are human beings". what's a "human being"? There are different answers, with different suggested implications for abortion. 

    So, again, each of the claims above would need to be clarified, explained, and defended. And, equally important, the logical connection to any conclusions about abortion addedthat essential linking premise (or premises)explained and evaluated also.

    The main theme here is this: "abortion is difficult." It's a complex issue. Understanding it well takes time and effort. 

    Denying this is an example of common problems, such thinking that people who haven't put in the work to understand issues know as much as experts who have studied an issue for years or decades; that the way to decide what to think and do about issues is to conform with our own social group or "tribe"; that, instead of clarifying what we mean and thinking carefully about arguments—including our own arguments, which might be bad, we should call people names and just shout our own views louder. 

    This is all bad. Trying our best to say what we mean and employing both the "Principle of Charity" and the "Principle of Clarity" with what we hear and say will help, with this issue and many others.