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 the example of space aliens shows that the concept or idea of "person" is not same as "human being": personhood is a psychological concept; discussing the possibility of space aliens does not 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!

Related: 

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: