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.

    Friday, January 15, 2021

    Quiz on Arguments Against Abortion

    If people argue passionately for a position on a controversial issue, they really should "know what they are talking about," so to speak, even if they aren't an expert. (If they don't have this understanding, they might approach the issue as if they are member of a cult). To check to see if someone, including you, understands some of the main ethical arguments about abortion, this quiz below could be useful. There are many arguments below. The quiz is this:

    1. For each premise of each argument, first explain why someone might think that the premise is true and then why someone would think it is false: what would their reasons be for both? 
    2. For each premise, then explain whether it really is true or false; also explain what misunderstanding or lack of understanding might lead someone to mistakenly think the premise is true (when it is false) or false (when it is really true). 

    Here's the quiz, covering some arguments against abortion:

    Abortion is typically (or prima facie) wrong because:

    1. Fetuses are alive: “life” begins at conception. All living things are typically wrong to kill. (What do you mean by “life”?)
    2. Fetuses are biologically alive: biological “life” begins at conception. All biologically living things are typically wrong to kill.
    3. Fetuses are human. All things that are human are wrong to kill. (What do you mean by “human”?)
    4. Fetuses are biologically human. All things that are biologically human are wrong to kill. 
    5. Fetuses are “cognitively human”: they can think, feel and reason in “human” ways. All things that are cognitively human can think, feel and reason in “human” ways are prima facie or typically wrong to kill. 
    6. Fetuses are biologically human organisms. All biologically human organisms are prima facie or typically wrong to kill.
    7. Fetuses are persons. (What are “persons?) All persons are prima facie wrong to kill. 
    8. Fetuses have valuable futures. If something has a valuable future, then it’s prima facie wrong to kill it and prevent it from experiencing that valuable future. 
    9. Fetuses have the right to life. The right to life includes the right to someone else’s body, if you need that body to live. 
    10. Abortions cause pain and suffering in the fetus. All actions that cause unwanted pain and suffering are typically wrong.

    Friday, January 1, 2021

    Response to replies to review of van der Breggen's 'Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments'

    I thank Professor van der Breggen for his response to my brief review of his book, which is itself partially a response to our book. So this response here is a response to a response which is a response. 

    This all results in the potential for any response being very tedious and hard for any reader to follow if they haven't carefully waded through everything said so far.  

    Given that, my response will be brief and, I hope, helpful for anyone interested in debates about abortion in general and interested in evaluating van der Breggen's Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments or our open-access Thinking Critically About Abortion


    The "point" of Judith Thomson's violinist example is not to serve as an "analogy" to fetuses: the proposal isn't that fetuses are "like" violinists (although they are in some ways, and are not in other ways: for a discussion of the nature and function of analogies in reasoning, see Richard Feldman's Reason and Argument). 

    Its point is to motivate and justify the insight that the right to life is not a right to everything you need for your life to continue if that requires using someone else's body: your right to life is not a right to someone else's body, even if you need that body to live. 

    She has another example to support that insight also: 
    you are sick, about to die, but you will be healed if your favorite celebrity touches your fevered brow. 
    Do you have a right to that touch? Would the celebrity violate your right to life if he or she doesn't touch you? Many people say "no." (And the suggestion here is not that fetuses are analogous to the sick person here [although in some ways they are and in other ways they are not]: again, the case motivates the principle that the right to life does not extend as far as some assume it does). 

    Since people often assume that if fetuses are persons with the right to life, then all or nearly all abortions are wrong and it's as simple as that, Thomson's insights show that things are more complicated, since even if fetuses have the right to life, that doesn't mean they have a right to the woman's body. 

    Does that mean abortion must be not wrong? Some people think it does, but it doesn't, since one complication is that the woman could be morally obligated to provide for the fetus, even though the fetus does not have a right to that assistance: not all obligations are due to rights. That's an issue that needs to be considered.


    So do fetuses have a right to the woman's body and assistance or is she otherwise morally obligated to provide that assistance?

    van der Breggen thinks they do. In his response, he writes:

    pregnancy (in non-rape cases) is like freely giving your kidney (which you can live without) to another person (a vulnerable, dependent person whom you’ve created) so the other person can live, whereas abortion is like tearing out from that person the kidney you’ve donated to him/her—and thereby kills that other person—because you’ve changed your mind about your previously-freely-made decision to donate it.

    So persons indeed do have a moral right to what was someone else's kidney, if they need that kidney to live AND if one has already, in a fully-informed manner, engaged in freely giving/ donating one’s kidney to the person in question (and the donation isn’t a physical threat to the life of the donor). Ditto for fetuses—which we and Thomson concede are persons—and the biological systems gifted/donated to them also freely and in a fully-informed manner.

    I'm just going to say that, in important ways, pregnancy and abortion don't seem to be much "like" either of the kidney cases he mentions. "Repossessing" a donated kidney from someone who then dies because of that repossession is very different from abortion. I will leave it to any readers to make lists of similarities and differences here to further evaluate whether van der Breggen indeed makes a strong case that if women voluntarily engage in sex when there is a chance of pregnancy that indeed results in the fetus having the right to their bodies or woman are otherwise prima facie obligated to provide for the fetus


    I want to offer a bit of clarification about "undoing" the consequences of something. Sometimes things happen because of other things and we can "undo" those consequences, whereas other times we cannotvan der Breggen writes this: 
    one cannot “undo” or “reverse” the fact of reproduction or pregnancy. That is, one cannot return to the previous state in which reproduction and pregnancy did not occur
    In saying what I said, I didn't suggest that abortion is like a time machine or anything like that. But, a woman can make it such that she is no longer pregnant and so return to that state of not being pregnant (even though if that state is now, unlike before, is the state of no longer pregnant but was previously pregnant). So this would be relevant to assessing van der Breggen proposed principle:

    If you consent to something, then you consent to accepting that something's not likely causal consequences, especially if you know what those consequences may be and choose to go ahead anyway, and so you must accept them because you can no longer address those consequences, meaning you can no longer do something to make it such that those consequences hadn't occurred.

    It might be worthwhile to observe here that the last few lines apply to many things, maybe everything: if something happens, you generally can't make it such that it did not happen.


    It's curious that van der Breggen doesn't outright argue that abortions of pregnancies that result from rape are wrong. He says "perhaps it’s a justification of abortion. But, as I point out, perhaps not." From his point of view and everything said, what could the "perhaps" side be? I wonder if this article "If you’re pro-life, you might already be pro-choice" would be relevant to whatever would be said. 


    About the theory that everything that's a rational substance is a person or everything with a rational human nature is a person (which is an alternative to the view that personhood is determined by having psychological characteristics), van der Breggen appeals to Francis Beckwith and Robert George, and he could also appeal to Christopher Tollefsen. I have reviews of their work on these issues which can help assess their broad proposal for what persons are; for another accessible brief critique of their general argument see here

    So I agree with van der Breggen that "To dismiss them and their views as unreasonable would be false as well as foolish." However, to confidently appeal to their authority without rigorously investigating critiques of these sorts of views would display the same vices. Nobody should do that. 


    I will note that I agree with the sentiment to err on the side of caution, which is why I argue that abortions at or near when fetuses become conscious or sentient could be wrong. Some pro-choice people want to argue or insist that no abortion could ever be wrong, but that's not my view: some could be wrong, and so we should be cautious. 


    I will clarify that "arguments from potential" ("If something is a potential X, then that something has the rights of an actual X," etc. ) are distinct from arguments from "kinds" or "essences." We discussed these in our book in different places and van der Breggen knows these are distinct. 


    We argue that the fact that (early) fetuses are not conscious and have never been conscious is highly relevant to the ethics of abortion. 

    In response, van der Breggen writes:
    the state of being of the fetus is more like a non-permanent coma or non-permanent vegetative state: the fetus will awaken/ gain consciousness—if we don’t kill him/ her. 
    But a non-permanent coma involves someone who was conscious: that's not present with most abortions. So I invite readers to investigate here more thoroughly. 


    Finally, I re-read much of van der Breggen's text and am not finding an as clear discussion of the options between thinking that we begin to exist at conception versus we begin to exist when consciousness begins as he says he provides, and explicit arguments for the latter and against the former. So I will leave it to readers to see what they find on that. 


    I say van der Breggen's book would have been overall better had he also critiqued bad pro-life arguments also since, just as there are many bad pro-choice arguments, there are also many bad pro-life arguments. He says he didn't want to do that. That's fine, but it still might be true that doing that would have made for a better book. It's fair for someone to say of an author "I wish they had discussed this ..." if discussing this would have made a positive contribution, and observing that all "sides" here have many bad arguments would help advance understanding and discussion. 

    In conclusion, again I have not addressed every topic of van der Breggen's reply. If, however, anyone reads this (and the previous materials leading up to this) and has any questions or comments, please share them here or contact me and I will engage this more. 

    In the meantime, I can only hope that this response serves to inspire more serious and thoughtful engagement on these issues. Happy new year!