Saturday, August 21, 2021

"Letter" Conversation on Abortion with Luke Krell

On Abortion & Ethics

27 Letters
6 Subscribers
656 Reads
Updated 25 Feb '20
Started 28 Dec '19
Letter 1
Created 28 Dec '19


I am very glad to accept your invitation to join with you in this conversation. Abortion is a highly controversial subject that our society has not yet laid to rest, and I appreciate your willingness to correspond with me on the topic. I think that most thinking people, regardless of their actual stance on Abortion, agree that Abortion is an important issue and that there are very grave consequences in getting it wrong.

I will give you a little background information about myself, not because it is necessary to this conversation, but because it may help us to get acquainted and to communicate better in general. I am a young man, in my early 30’s. I have a wonderful wife, and am the father of five lovely children on this earth. I place a very high value on the Judeo-Christian concept of family.

I am a Christian, and a member of the Church of the Nazarene, where my father is the pastor, and my grandfather was before him. I currently work in construction, in the modular housing industry, where I landed a couple of years after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Business.

Like so many people, I do find myself drawn to the studies of theology, philosophy, politics, and ethics which I find to be inescapably interwoven. Though I possess little formal education in these fields, I have enjoyed making the ongoing attempt to educate myself in these areas. Despite my attempts, I certainly have much to learn in virtually every discipline, and I trust this conversation will be instructive and thought provoking for me.

I myself, have very deeply held, strong beliefs on the subject of Abortion. I will make no attempt to hide them from you, but will make every effort to be both cordial and articulate in our discussion. Our strongest beliefs, we ought to be able to defend with reasoned arguments, and I believe I am able to do so. While ethical topics should arouse strong feelings in us, it should be with reason, and charity, that we should defend those beliefs.

I have had the advantage of having read some of your thoughts on the subject before entering this conversation, but as far as I know, you are not familiar with my beliefs or chain of reasoning. Realizing that I we will be backtracking a little at first, I will try to start at the beginning, at a foundational level, in my articulation of Abortion ethics.

My Claims:

1. Murder is the intentional killing of an (actually)innocent human being.

2. Murder is always morally wrong.

3. Murder should always be illegal.

4. Abortion is the intentional killing of a human being, prior to birth.

5. The Abortion of an (actually)innocent human being is murder.

6. Therefore, any Abortion which is murder, is always morally wrong and should always be illegal.

7. It is these Abortions, being a form of murder, which are the ongoing subjects of controversy, and over which political turmoil rages.

I do realize that there is a lot to parse out here, for the technically minded philosopher: What do I mean by actual innocence? What do I mean by illegal?

But I thought I would start here with a basic outline to my argument to facilitate the discussion.

I look forward to hearing from you.



Letter 2
Created 29 Dec '19

Dear Luke,

I appreciate your insistence that "our strongest beliefs, we ought to be able to defend with reasoned arguments" and that "it should be with reason, and charity, that we should defend those beliefs," not any other unreasonable, vicious, disrespectful or otherwise irresponsible ways of engaging others.

Thank you for setting out your claims clearly and explicitly. You seem to be presenting a chain of reasoning, or steps that build on each other. I will comment on these and their relations, although not in the order you present them.

"2. Murder is always morally wrong" and "3. Murder should always be illegal."

Murder is wrong by definition: it wouldn’t make sense say that a killing was a murder, but that it wasn’t wrong since “murder” means “wrongful killing.” And surely murder should be illegal, if anything should.

"1. Murder is the intentional killing of an (actually) innocent human being."

It is true that intentional killings of innocent human beings are often murders, but I don't think that this the best definition of "murder." Definitions are supposed to cover all cases, and not just actual cases, but possible cases. So, in this case, this (1) would be a good definition if, and only if, these were true:
(A) If there's an intentional killing of an innocent human being, then there's a murder.
(B) If there's a murder, then there's an intentional killing of an innocent human being.

Both of these aren’t quite right.

About (A), some people due to very bad, very painful medical conditions want to be killed to get out of their misery. This is “active euthanasia,” and although these are intentional killings of innocent human beings, they are arguably not murders, since the people want to be killed since their present and future quality of life is very bad or considered very bad by them. So (A) mischaracterizes these killings.

About (B), consider Star Wars and other science fiction films. There are often characters, people, in these stories who are not human beings, they aren’t biologically human, yet they are or can be murdered: they are wrongfully killed, even though they aren’t human beings. (B) says these aren’t murders, but they are.

Whether a killing is a wrongful killing or a murder depends on the psychological features of the victim, not their species or their biological category. (For this reason, perhaps many wrongful killings of animals should be considered murders.)

“4. Abortion is the intentional killing of a human being, prior to birth.”

Some deny this, arguing that abortions don’t don’t affect human beings, and don’t involve intentional killing.

I think most philosophers, however, agree that human embryos and fetuses are “human beings” in the sense that they are beings, since they are organisms, and that these are beings that are biologically human.

When people say that (human) fetuses are not human beings, they often say this is because fetuses aren’t rational or conscious or communicative and have other psychological features. These observations suggest a meaning of “human being,” one that is probably better expressed with the phrase “human person.” Nevertheless, (human) fetuses are biologically human organisms - human beings in that sense - even when they lack psychological features.

It also seems clear that abortions involve killing, by design. This is “intentional” killing, in the sense that it’s done on purpose, for a purpose: it’s not an accident. Whether the intent is to kill fetus, or whether the typical intent is for the woman or girl to no longer be pregnant (and so the death of the fetus is an unintended consequence of an abortion) might be unclear: it’s sometimes hard to tell intentions.

Nevertheless, I think this is a good definition of abortion, better than many other common definitions.

“5. The Abortion of an (actually) innocent human being is murder.”

Of course, many killings of innocent human beings are murders: they are wrongful killing that should be illegal. The question, however, is, “Why? What makes these human beings wrong to kill? What is it about them that makes them wrong to kill?”

We can try to see which answers here are better and which are worse, and then see what the better ones suggest for all biologically human beings or organisms, including those without psychologies, like embryos and early fetuses.

I argue that killing us is wrong ultimately because we are psychological beings: we are conscious, aware, have beliefs and feelings, and so on. This enables us to be harmed, or be made worse off, compared to how we were.

Some “end of life” - biographical life, not biological life - considerations, such as letting permanently comatose individuals die, suggest that when someone’s mental life is completely gone, the individual is gone, and so there’s nobody that would be harmed by the death of the body. These concerns can be extended to pre-biographical life beings: fetuses don’t become conscious or aware or feeling until later in pregnancy, beyond when most abortions occur.

So, although abortion involves killing human beings, these are human organisms that haven’t developed the qualities that make killing someone wrong.

I also think embryos and early fetuses are not innocent, nor are they “guilty,” since those concepts only apply to beings capable of doing wrong. Fetuses are not like an innocent person charged with theft since that person could have stolen: fetuses can’t do anything so they can’t be guilty or innocent.

6. “Therefore, any Abortion[,] which is murder, is always morally wrong and should always be illegal.”

Beyond the fetus-focused concerns above, there is the further fact that women and girls have rights to their bodies. Since it does not seem that anyone has a right to anyone else’s body, fetuses wouldn’t seem to have rights to the pregnant woman’s body. These concerns would have to be addressed also to really support (6).

Great start! Thanks!

Letter 3
Created 02 Jan '20


Thank you for your timely, thoughtful response.

As much as I generally desire to “get to the meat” and avoid the nitty gritty of definitions, I do think it is wise for us to nail down a definition of “murder”. Some of my definition, you may genuinely disagree with, and some we may simply be miscommunicating on.

This is intended to be a definition; Murder is the intentional killing of an (actually) innocent human being, and it is one I will defend. You seem to have in mind another definition, but I won’t try and guess it, allowing you to express it and parse it out with me if you so desire.

What do I mean by (actual) innocence? Well I would like to make the distinction between actual innocence and moral innocence. I am coining the phrase actual innocence for this discussion, so there may indeed be a better term out there that would communicate what I am trying to say.

A being is morally innocent, until they act with the intention of doing wrong: that is they are morally innocent until they have acted so as to intentionally achieve something immoral. To be innocent, is to exist in the state of having never done wrong. The default state, therefore of existence, is innocence.

In regards to murder, this is a relative innocence we are talking about. The victim of murder need not be morally perfect, but they must be morally free from having committed an act meriting their own death, in relation to the murderer.

In other words, if I am going down the street and I find a man, I kill him and steal his wallet for no other reason than to steal, it does not matter how innocent or guilty the man is in his own life. In his relationship to me(the killer) he is morally and actually innocent, therefor I have committed murder.

If I kill a man to steal his wallet, and it turns out that the victim of my murder is himself a serial killer who deserves death, I am still guilty of murder. He was innocent relative to my knowledge and interaction with him, therefore I have committed murder.

Now actual innocence, as I am using the term, is stronger than moral innocence. There are some rare circumstances where a person, without ill intention, may not have control over their own body, such as a person severely mentally ill. It is at least conceivable, that a hallucinating, or mentally ill person, who has no control over their own intellect and thereby over their own body, enters a school and starts shooting children.

In such a case, where there is no ill intention, there is no moral guilt, a being may not be actually innocent, because their body is behaving as a violator of human rights. Actual innocence requires both that the person be free from moral guilt, and free from immoral behavior. To kill such a person, with the intention of stopping their attack(in this case a school shooting), is not murder.

As this pertains to abortion, in the case of a tubal or ectopic pregnancy: the baby, a beautiful human being endowed fully with human rights, may not be in control of its own body. The body of the unborn child, though morally innocent, may actually be attacking the body of the mother. In such a case, the baby would be morally innocent, but would not be actually innocent.

You seem to be indicating that my definition of murder is in some respects too inclusive, and in other respects too exclusive; so I will try and clarify your objection scenarios.

Objection 1, Suicide: You seem to be indicating that according to my definition of murder, suicide(or assisted suicide) would be murder. We could talk about the ethics of suicide, but for the purposes of defining murder, I see no conflict with my definition. As a willing participant in his own death, the person committing suicide would no longer fall under the category of actually innocent; so there is no difficulty here.

Objection 2, Fantasy Conscious Beings: While I may agree that theoretically there could exist beings, which we currently do not know, whom it would be wrong to kill. This speculation is irrelevant to my definition of murder.

Objection 3, Non-Human Biological Organisms: While I do agree that at least some times, the killing of non-Human biological organisms is immoral, this too is irrelevant to my definition of murder. It may have been immoral to shoot Old Yeller, but it was not murder. It may have been immoral for George Washington to chop down his father’s cherry tree, but it was not murder.

It seems I am nearing the limit for a single letter, so I will have to continue in another part.

Letter 4
Created 02 Jan '20

Part 2

Turning back towards Abortion, it seems to me that you are willing to accept the claim that human embryos, or fetuses, or unborn babies(whichever you would like to describe them) are indeed human organisms. All human organisms are beings which are human, aka human beings. You seem to accept this line of reasoning. If I understand you correctly, you seem to accept that the term “human being” is traditionally not only a biological statement, but is also a statement of value. You are accepting the term in its biological sense, but rejecting it as a statement of value.

It seems that in at least three places you reject the value of humanity, here perhaps being the clearest. “Whether a killing is a wrongful killing or a murder depends on the psychological features of the victim, not their species or their biological category.”

This, dear Nathan, is an open rejection of the ideal of Human Rights, and as such is close to the true heart of our disagreement. The denial of Human Rights, is the hallmark of genocide. It really makes little difference, what your system replaces Human Rights with. The Nazi’s replaced Human Rights with Arian rights, the Slave Owners replaced Human Rights with White Landowner Rights, the Bolshevik’s replaced Human Rights with Proletariat Rights, in Rwanda, Human Rights were replaced with Hutu Rights. The rejection of Human Rights, hopelessly bankrupts any ethical system. In your case, you seem to be substituting something like Consciousness Rights in place of Human Rights.

I hold it to be self evident, that all humans are created equal and are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

As you perceive the term human being is traditionally more than a statement about biology, it is a statement of value. The English language, at least in this respect, shows a historical belief in Human Rights. It is no mistake that we have organizations like The United Nations Commission on Human Rights.

My friend, the rejection of Human Rights places your proposed ethical system on par with the genocidal regimes listed above. I pray that you will come to reconsider your beliefs in this matter.

As I said earlier, it really does not matter what you intend to replace Human Rights with, as to the validity of the ethical system. However, let us examine “Consciousness Rights” and try to test this concept and apply it to reality.

Consciousness, is a transcendental property, a spiritual property. We cannot prove by the empiricism of the so called, natural sciences, that any such thing exists. You cannot prove that you are a conscious being. Likewise you can do nothing to prove that a pebble on the beach is not a conscious being. Consciousness is a transcendental property. Therefore, it fails the test of being a scientifically objective marker for ethics.

We have to have some way of knowing what is conscious and what is not conscious. But how do we do this? Many persons have taken upon themselves the belief that electrical impulses occurring within the brain indicate consciousness, and that a lack of these impulses indicates non-consciousness. I would like to point out to you, that this hypothesis is in and of itself non-scientific. This is a purely transcendental, spiritual or religious hypothesis.

Someone, somewhere, has set the religious bar for mandating minimum electrical brain activity. This bar is, and must be, purely arbitrary from a scientific point of view. This amperage bar, is simply a religious presupposition, with no basis in the natural sciences.

The end result then, for many who claim to believe in Consciousness Rights, is what may be more appropriately termed Amperage Rights.

When we take this view and use it to justify killing human beings, we are in every way justifying the killing of human beings on the basis of our own religion. This puts us squarely inline with the ethics of the genocidal regimes mentioned earlier. These murder-justifying, religious ethics, are supposed to be from a bygone day, but somehow they live on in our “Secular Era”.

As this letter has become a little lengthy, I will save the question: “Even if the unborn children have human rights, is there not some greater human right of the mother which trumps the rights of the child?” for another letter. I think the “bodily autonomy” argument to be the most sophisticated argument in the Pro-Abortion repertoire, though I think it too unravels quickly when faced by examination.

Respectfully Yours,


Letter 5
Created 04 Jan '20


Two letters is a lot to respond to. Thanks!

First, my observation about definitions is that they are supposed to cover all cases, including all possible cases. But since I agree that, except in perhaps very bizarre, unlikely circumstances, an intentionally killing of an innocent human being is a murder, I'll just say that's fine. But it's just not a great definition of murder, since it doesn't cover all possible cases and it implies that some killings are murders when they are not. But this can be set aside.

Second, concerning moral innocence and "actual innocence" - the term you say you developed - my concern, again, is just that these concepts don't apply to beings that cannot make any decisions, especially wrong decisions. So, imagine these two cases:
A. A 50-year-old person has lived their life and really has never done anything all that bad or wrong.
B. There was a human being who never developed consciousness, was born, and has been in a coma for 50 years: this human being, of course, has never done anything bad or wrong.

Are these human beings both “innocent”? If so, are they equally innocent, or innocent in the same way?

I would call the person in case (A) "innocent" since although they could have done wrong, they haven’t. About case (B) I wouldn't call the coma individual "innocent" since they never had the opportunity to do anything wrong. They are unlike case (A) since that person could have done wrong, but didn't.

A necessary condition for someone being “innocent” is that that someone could be not-innocent, or “guilty.” You state: "Actual innocence requires both that the person be free from moral guilt, and free from immoral behavior." I add that someone is free from moral guilt and immoral behavior only if that someone can do those things. This is all relevant to arguing that embryos aren’t “innocent” since they are neither innocent nor not, given their inability to be “guilty.” But this can be set aside also, since there are deeper issues to address.

Third, it's most important to ask why human beings have rights or what makes human beings have rights. I, along with many others, argue that human beings have rights ultimately because we are conscious, minded beings. So one theory along these lines is from Tom Regan who argues that we have rights because we are "subjects of lives":
[W]e are each of us the experiencing subject of a life, a conscious creature having an individual welfare that has importance to us whatever our usefulness to others. We want and prefer things, believe and feel things, recall and expect things. And all these dimensions of our life, including our pleasure and pain, our enjoyment and suffering, our satisfaction and frustration, our continued existence or our untimely death - all make a difference to the quality of our life as lived, as experienced, by us as individuals.

This is not an "open rejection of the ideal of Human Rights," as you put it: it's an attempt at identifying the foundation of rights. It is an attempt to explain why the various major wrongs you mention were wrong: e.g., on one general explanation, the genocides you mention are wrong because conscious, feeling, reasoning, emotional and social beings were treated with profound disrespect. That’s a deeper explanation than “this was wrong because they were human beings,” since it identifies what it is about these humans than made them wrong to treat these ways.

So this remark here shows a naïve understanding of the different ways one can plausibly explain major wrongs and injustices: “. . the rejection of Human Rights places your proposed ethical system on par with the genocidal regimes listed above.” There are many plausible theories that focus on more fundamental bases of (human) rights, and even moral theories that don’t appeal to (or reject!) the idea of rights, and none of them justify genocide.

It’s noteworthy that most statements of human rights, theorists of human rights, and human rights organizations, do not include, say, human embryos and early fetuses. This is probably because most of this thinking is about conscious and feeling human beings and their rights, but this isn't often noticed or emphasized. I do think it’s useful to press human rights advocates on why they think human beings have rights, since they often don't address that (why would they?). That will lead to deeper thinking about what properties make human beings have rights, which will be relevant to discussions of abortion and other ethical topics. Thoughtful human rights advocates can find morally-relevant differences between born, conscious and sentient human beings and, say, early fetuses, so they can have good reasons to reject a suggestion along the lines of ‘if you believe in human rights, you must think that abortion is nearly always wrong.’

Finally, I’m not sure what to say about your skepticism about minds. Anyone reading this can tell that they are conscious and have a mind: the most important lessons from Descartes come from this insight. And there is the well-known “problem of other minds,” to which philosophers typically respond that somehow we know that there are other people who have minds, even if we might not have great arguments to think that. And there’s a lot of cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy related to figuring out what minds are like, including scientific attempts to figure out when fetuses’ minds develop. There’s nothing "transcendental, spiritual or religious" about any of this.

In sum, for this topic, it’s important to ask why (innocent) human beings are typically wrong to kill or why we have rights. We can then see what better answers - better explanations for why we are typically wrong to kill or why we have rights - suggest for the ethics of any abortions.



Letter 6
Created 09 Jan '20


I am afraid I suffer from longwindedness 😊.

I will try and lay this definition thing to rest.

I agree that a good definition should cover all cases, and should not include any false cases.

I am claiming that my definition of Murder does indeed fit that requirement. You may not agree with it, but this is how I define Murder, 100%. Its ok if we disagree on definitions, just so long as you understand what I mean when I say Murder. The intentional killing of an (actually)innocent human being, is what I mean when I say murder. This is what I mean. I mean it to be a technical definition.

Innocent, means to be in the state of never having done something wrong. It is the lack of evil doing that makes something innocent. Based on this definition, technically the pebbles in my driveway are innocent. I mean the word innocent in this technical sense.

Typically, when we use the term innocent, we are praising the character of an individual. We are praising someone for choosing to remain free of evil, praising someone for being willfully innocent. So, the most common use of the term innocent, is in application to an able being, a being that has chosen to remain innocent. This is quite true and the point I think you were trying to make. But this common use of the term does not nullify the term for technical use. We can have it both ways, and that is how I have been using it.

Since all things are innocent by default, until they do evil, all human organisms would be innocent by definition, unless or until they do something evil. This is important for a proper understanding of human rights. Human beings, by nature, by default, by essence, have rights, such as the right not to be murdered; and human rights can only be forfeited by the act of that human being. Until a human being ceases to be actually innocent, that human being possesses human rights in their fullness.

I will try to clarify the claim that you are rejecting human rights.

You reject the claim that all human beings have rights, and you insist that there must be a greater moral claim that grounds human rights. You insist that there must be something else, some other trait, that is the true hallmark of rights. You aren’t satisfied with the moral claim that human beings have rights. Your claim appears to be: “No it is not the trait of being human which correlates perfectly with rights, there must be some other trait which most humans happen to possess which is the true designator of rights”.

This position, my friend, is a denial of human rights. You claim that simply being human is not enough. You demand some other trait be present. You have disassociated humanness from rights.

Genocide is the deliberate killing of a large group of human beings. You deny the claim that all human beings have rights, which is the justification many abortionists use to endorse this genocide.

You appear to claim that there are a lot of plausible theories that do not endorse human rights. Yet you also say that no ethical system that tries to justify genocide can be plausible. Abortion has deliberately killed a large group of human beings. Therefor to support Abortion is to support the killing of a large group of human beings, this is the textbook definition of genocide. Therefor, on this basis, no ethical system which endorses Abortion can be plausible.

You have noted that many people reject the unborn as unhuman, in defense of abortion. You don’t appear to be making a strong, stand alone, appeal to authority so I won’t go all out in attacking your authority. I will however note that a majority of Colonial Americans rejected persons of color as less than human; 3/5ths human was the party line if I recall correctly. The truth is that human society does not have a good record on ethics. So, an appeal to human society does not make a good standalone defense of abortion.

I think that there are a couple of important points regarding the existence of other minds that are really important in regards to your proposed alternative to human rights.

You seem to accept the claim that the existence of other minds is not something we can prove. Yet you claim that we know that other minds exist. This is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly I agree with you, we cannot prove the existence of other minds yet we know that other minds exist. That means that it must be possible to know a truth without having proof.

You seem well enough versed in philosophy to recognize this truth. “There are things we know that we cannot prove, therefor knowledge does not rest solely upon proof.” This does not seem that controversial to most of my philosopher friends, but it does to many of my friends who would see themselves as part of the “New Atheists” movement. This is what I mean when I say a truth is transcendental; a transcendental truth is any truth we know which we cannot prove. I would further add faith is defined, as a belief in something which is not proven. Which would mean that all transcendental knowledge is the result of faith.

The existence of other minds is a transcendental truth.

Now sometimes I equivocate on terms like transcendental, spiritual or religious. Generally speaking when I use the term spiritual truth or religious truth, I use those terms to mean any transcendental truth which also implies a value statement. So then in my vocabulary all religious truths are transcendental, but not all transcendental truths are religious.

“Other minds exist” is a transcendental truth.

“Other minds have value” is a religious truth.

…To be continued. Sorry I still haven't covered a lot of your thoughts.


Letter 7
Created 10 Jan '20


Thanks for this response.

It is interesting that you write, “You seem well enough versed in philosophy to recognize this truth[:] “There are things we know that we cannot prove, therefore knowledge does not rest solely upon proof.”’

To be a bit sarcastic, I am glad that I seem that “well-enough versed in philosophy” to recognize this! I do have a PhD, an MA and a BA in philosophy. I have taught philosophy at the college level for over 20 years and have published many dozens of articles and book chapters and a few books on a many philosophical topics. So, I would hope and expect that I would know one of the most important, and most basic, claim from Descartes’ Meditations, a key text in the history of philosophy, which is that if certainty or proof is required for knowledge, we know very little. The typical contemporary response to this is insight is, “Well, we do know quite a bit, so certainty or proof isn’t required for knowledge: we should be fallibilists about knowledge.”

So, philosophers these days are not so much concerned about proof or are worried that most beliefs cannot be held with absolute certainty. But they are concerned with having evidence, good evidence for beliefs, even though that evidence is rarely “proof.” They also often ask, “Why?” to seek reasons and evidence.

One area they ask “why?” about is why human beings have rights. You seem to be opposed to asking this question or opposed to certain answers beyond “because humans are human” or “because humans are human beings.”

I will observe, however, that this is a “live” question in philosophy or ethics: philosophers generally do not find the claim “human beings have rights because they are human beings” to not much of an explanation, since they can ask, “OK, but why do human beings have rights? What is it about human beings that makes them have rights?”

To most philosophers, this is a fair question. There is a review of a number of answers to this question in this section of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on human rights, in the section “Normative Justifications for Human Rights.” The question is described as what “grounds” rights: there are many different proposals and, interesting, none of those are that we have rights merely because human or a human being. It is, however, mentioned that “Grounding human rights in human agency and autonomy has had strong advocates in recent decades.”

A potential problem with trying to “ground” human rights in being “human” is that this might suggest that random human cells have rights. But since, say, random skin cells don’t rights, this grounding can’t be what does it.

A better attempt says that it’s not being merely biologically human, but being a “human being” or a human organism. This might be better, but people wonder about human organisms in, say permanent comas. Morally, they can be treated quite different from conscious and feeling human organisms (e.g., it could be OK to let such a body in coma die, but it would be prima facie wrong to let you die: this is a difference that has to be explained somehow, despite your both being human beings or human organisms). And then there are human corpses that are human organisms (albeit dead!) and they can be treated differently from you and I and other human beings. So, it doesn’t appear that it it’s as simple as “all human organisms or beings have rights and that’s because they are human organisms or beings,” and so we are back to the philosophers’ question of why human beings have rights.

I have argued that the best answer here relates to human beings being conscious and having minds and thus a perspective on the world that can go better or worse for us. So, while we are similar in some ways to permanently comatose individuals, and human embryos and even human corpses, we are also different in relevant ways, in terms of us being conscious, aware, feeling and so on.

You have mentioned various human victims of major wrongdoing. I argue it’s because they are conscious, aware, feeling and so on that it was possible to treat these human beings wrongly: it’s because they are like that that all these things were so horrific for them and disrespectful towards them. I reject the “agency and autonomy” theory above since there are many human beings are not agents or autonomous, yet they are feeling and aware and so things can go worse for them, from their own point of view.

For beings that are not like that and haven’t been like that, that is, beings that are not conscious and have not been conscious, this type of explanation doesn’t apply. And embryo research and early abortions are just these sorts of cases, and such that better, deeper explanations for when and why killing something is murder do not appear to apply and so, unless there is a good alternative explanation why they are wrong to kill, or why they have characteristics that make them wrong to kill, we shouldn't think that they are.

But, of course, even if they do have the right to life, there is still the challenge that the right to life does not seem to include the right to anyone else's body. Perhaps we should move on to address that argument?

Thanks! Nathan

Letter 8
Created 10 Jan '20


You are so much very more prompt in your response to me than I have been able to be to you. Thank you for that.

I have just finished part two and I see you already responded to part one of my last letter, which I uploaded last evening. I don’t want to scrap it and leave the other unfinished, so I will post it anyway, though it is now in some respects outdated.

So thinking about what you said earlier.

We know that there are these transcendent truths that exist and are essential for experience, knowledge, science, ethics and so on.

If I understand you correctly, you value minds because minds are able to experience both pleasure and suffering. I gather you are operating from an axiom something like this:

1. It is good to experience pleasure and bad to experience suffering. 2. Therefore, ethical behavior is that behavior which maximizes pleasure and minimizes suffering. 3. Consciousness is so important, because it is only conscious beings that can experience either pleasure or suffering.

I think this is the argument you are putting forward, in regards to consciousness. I think that this is a good argument, its only problem is that it falls short when it stands alone.

In order to understand this axiom, we need to define pleasure and suffering, good and evil.

Pleasure is a tangible awareness of the existence of something good.

Suffering is a tangible awareness of the existence of something evil.

Goodness is the state of being how things are supposed to be. Evil is the contradiction of good. Evil is the state of being which is opposed to the way things are supposed to be. Good and Evil are opposites as are Pleasure and Suffering. Goodness presupposes the existence of an ultimate purpose, a telos, a design of how things are supposed to be.

So we get to this definition of Pleasure: a tangible awareness that something is how it is supposed to be. Also, we can derive a definition of Suffering: a tangible awareness that something is not how it is supposed to be.

So when we parse it all out, axiom 1 ends up like this.

1. It is the way that it is supposed to be when someone is tangibly aware that something is the way it is supposed to be; and it is not the way that it supposed to be when someone is tangibly aware that something is not the way it is supposed to be.

Now this axiom, as we have created it is quite true, but as it stands alone gives us no pragmatic incite. You see the concepts of pleasure and suffering, which I have attached to consciousness, presuppose the existence of other good and evil things in the universe. For the terms pleasure or suffering to mean anything, there must be states of being which are inherently desirable. There has to be things which are as they are supposed to be, if a conscious being is going to come along and be aware of them.

So if there is such a thing as pleasure or suffering, it must be true that there are other moral axioms, that there is a purpose that extends beyond merely consciousness. There must be inherently good modes of being, which minds can be aware of.

So, Nathan, as you ask me to provide some greater moral truth to uphold human rights, I feel that I could respond one of two ways. You could be asking, “How does there come to be any purpose to existence? What kind of mind has the authority to create moral axioms?” These would be deep metaphysical questions, and ultimately, they would be theological questions. But this is not what I think you are asking.

I think you are asking this, “Which practical axioms are you relying on to uphold the concept of Human Rights? What are the true, good modes of being, which we are seeking to achieve through the defense of Human Rights?”

To those questions, my friend, I would answer that the upholding of Human Rights is itself desirable. It is in keeping with the purpose of existence, that Human Rights be upheld. Human Rights are rock bottom pragmatic moral axioms. There is no more basic moral axiom I am trying to uphold in defending Human Rights. Human Rights are good in and of themselves.

Sincerely Yours,


Letter 9
Created 11 Jan '20


You respond that "you ask me to provide some greater moral truth to uphold human rights." What is being asked is what makes human beings have rights or why human beings have rights.

Let me illustrate what is being asked by giving a bad answer to the question.

Suppose someone says that human beings have rights because we can wear hats: human rights depend on our ability to wear hats.

This is an absurd answer because, although we can wear hats, that is of no relevance to why we have rights: we don't have rights because of this. So the question is what our rights do depend on, what makes us have rights. I have reviewed some answers to these questions above.

The question is similar in that it's the same type of answer as what makes killing human beings typically wrong? Philosopher Don Marquis famously reviewed many answers to this question in his famous article "Why Abortion is Immoral" ( The Journal of Philosophy, vol. 86, no. 4, 1989, pp. 183–202.). I think you would enjoy his discussion, although I suspect you might disagree with his argument for why abortion is wrong: so, you might agree with his conclusion, but reject his reasons. Take a look!

But to make an observation about the big picture of the issue, what I think we are trying to do here is to think about why human beings have rights or what makes human beings typically (or prima facie, as philosophers sometimes say) wrong to kill and then see if that explanation applies to human embryos and fetuses or not, given similarities and differences between, say, us and early fetuses.


Letter 10
Created 16 Jan '20


I did scan through your recommended article. It would seem, at quick glance, that we disagree entirely on the basic axioms, but that the author comes to a similar conclusion to what I am claiming. Thank you. I may take time to read it more thoroughly to discuss with you in an upcoming letter. It would seem that his argument comes from a consequentialist viewpoint, where mine is a deontological argument.

I apologize that this letter is so long. I am not sure what to do, but it seems I have to take more time than prescribed to cover so deep a topic.

Lets talk about axioms, science, proof and evidence. I am going to go over some basic stuff here, not to be patronizing, but to make sure I am clear. Misunderstandings often arise from subtle differences in basic definitions.

Every time we reason morally, or try to discuss ethics, we are reasoning on the basis of a chain of thought, or a list of moral reasons. What you are asking me to do is to reason back beyond my claim. Many people do not take the time to look for the end of their reasoning chain, yet unless we are going to rely on infinite regression, every system of ethical thought has an end. At the end of this chain we must always come up against a truth(or multiple truths) which we claim to be self-evident, or known a priori. These self-evident, a priori truths are also known as axioms.

We already spoke and defined transcendental truths in an earlier letter. A transcendental truth claim is any truth which we know, but which we cannot prove.

To prove a truth, is to deduce logically one truth from a set of already agreed upon, more basic truth statements. To prove something is to work from accepted premises to a valid conclusion.

So an axiom is any truth which we are unable to deduce from a set of already agreed upon premises.

Being a philosopher, you are used to hearing the term “science” used in the more classical sense to mean “any knowledge”. In modern jargon however, “science” might be better defined as any valid deduction drawn from the following transcendental truths 1. The 5 basic human senses exist and tell us about reality. 2. Causality exists and can be discovered by extreme correlation. So when we talk about science, we are talking about proving something from a set of standardized transcendental truths; transcendental truths involving the physical universe.

Evidence would be anything available to one of the 5 basic human senses, which appears to support the proving of a scientific fact.

Now to try and wrap it all together. Every ethical system relies on axioms. Every axiom is a transcendental truth. Science cannot prove any transcendental truth, neither is it rationally possible to provide evidence that a transcendental truth claim is correct.

For this reason, science will never prove either that 1. Other minds exist 2. Other minds have value. There will never be any neuroscience, or cognitive science that proves or even provides evidence that other minds exist, or that fetuses do not have fully developed minds. This, as we have noted, does not rationally imply that other minds do not exist. I wanted to clarify this point, since at one point it appeared to me that you accepted this chain of reasoning and rejected it at another.

Not only do all ethical systems require axioms, but all ethical systems require what I will call pragmatic axioms. A pragmatic axiom, as I am using the term, is any axiom which bridges the is-ought gap. A pragmatic axiom then would take a physical object, or state of being and attach a value judgement to it. A pragmatic axiom bridges value claims with our physical universe.

One such pragmatic axiom, I have been claiming, is that “Human beings have rights(a value statement).” Another would be “It is always wrong to intentionally kill an (actually) innocent human being”. These are my axioms which are bridges between value and the physically observable universe.

All ethical systems rely on axioms. All ethical systems rely on axioms to bridge the is-ought gap. Therefor it cannot count against any ethical system, that it relies on axioms to bridge the is-ought gap. It cannot count against my ethical system that I have an axiom that bridges the is-ought gap.

Now we can have ought-ought axioms like “it is always wrong to do the wrong thing”, but the salient claims of an ethical system are its pragmatic axioms. I would like to hear your pragmatic axioms. I suggested one may be something like “it is always wrong to kill an actually innocent being who has x number of amps/hour electrical activity in its brain”.

You see its not very clarifying to take the is-ought axioms from one ethical system and compare them to the ought-ought axioms of another system.

Human rights and objections.

You have offered a few possible counterexamples which may be a problem for some human rights theorists and I wanted show you why I don’t see them as difficulties. The problem is that many people have irrational, self-contradicting concepts of human rights.

There are different formulations of human rights, but I will use the one I find to be most basic and most easily clarified.

I will use the three human rights outlined in the American Declaration of Independence: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. The difficulty I think people have, is they think of human rights as something human beings have the right to receive as opposed to something which human beings are protected from.

... continued in part 2

Letter 11
Created 16 Jan '20

Part 2 Continued

Life: all human beings have the natural right not to be murdered and can only lose this right by violating the rights of others.

Liberty: all human beings have the natural right not to be enslaved and can only lose this right by violating the rights of others.

The Pursuit of Happiness: all human beings have the natural right not to be kept from doing what they perceive to be good, unless they violate the rights of others.

You see human rights are not about receiving something, they are about not depriving human beings of something they have by nature. I will also note on the side that human rights, are not an exhaustive guide to ethical living. There are immoral acts that fall outside of human rights violations and there are moral duties that go beyond human rights claims. I do claim however, that human rights are an exhaustive guide to ethical government.

Objection 1: Dead Human Bodies. As you can see there is no problem of dead human body rights, because human rights are by definition only applicable to the living. A dead human can’t be murdered, can’t be enslaved and cannot be denied the pursuit of happiness by any other human being.

Objection 2: Comatose Patients. While I can agree that there are often other good reasons to keep a human being alive, humans do not possess the natural right to be kept alive. What they possess is the right not to be murdered. Not saving a human being is not ethically the same thing as murder, when no contractual obligations exist between the parties.

Is Abortion a Human Right?

Ok, so I will finally get to the question, “Is there some greater human right that mothers possess which trump the right to life that an unborn child has?” Sorry I had to lay so much groundwork to get here, but here we go.

Abortionist Argument:

A pregnancy forces a mother to labor. Being forced to labor against your will is enslavement. If all human beings have the right not be enslaved, then all human beings have the right to not be pregnant. Additionally, since it is the fetus that is forcing the mother to labor, the fetus is in violation of the mother’s human rights and therefore forfeits its right to life. On the basis of human rights, as you have defined them, abortion is not immoral and should not be illegal.

My Answer:

Let us first consider this claim, pregnancy is a form of enslavement. In order to do so I think we need to understand the distinction between a natural right and a contractual right. Natural rights, are rights which exist by default, as part of the nature of being human in this case.

One of the human rights we experience is the Right to Pursue Happiness. One of the primary ways, human beings pursue happiness is through the free exchange of contractual rights. This occurs where two parties freely choose to exchange portions of their rights to liberty and pursuit of happiness.

A simple example would be this, The Pizza Boy has no natural right to receive my money, neither does he have a duty to provide me with Pizza. I have no natural right to receive Pizza, neither is it my duty to pay him money. We can however come together, by mutual consent and agree to exchange Pizza for Money. In this exchange we both have contractual rights where no natural rights existed. The right to make a binding contract, is by definition, implicit within the Right to Pursue Happiness.

Continued in part 3...

Letter 12
Created 16 Jan '20

...Part 3 Continued

Lets look at another practical application…

Consider Dr. Joe, a heart surgeon by trade. Dr. Joe is the only heart surgeon at his particular hospital and Dr. Joe is out golfing on a fine Saturday afternoon. Now consider that there is a man named Jim who has a massive heart attack Saturday afternoon. Jim is rushed to the hospital and it is found that Jim must have immediate heart surgery if he is going to live. The hospital staff call Dr. Joe on the golf course and ask him to come in to perform heart surgery.

Dr. Joe refuses. It’s a beautiful day and he loves his golf game. Patient Jim dies in the hospital.

Has Dr. Joe violated Jim’s right to life?

The answer to this question is no. Now perhaps Dr. Joe is heartless and less than perfectly moral, but no Dr. Joe has not violated Jim’s rights; because human beings, by nature, have the right not to be enslaved. We cannot demand that Dr. Joe give up his right to liberty, even to save a life.

Now let us consider another scenario…

Dr. Joe is a heart surgeon at his local hospital. There is a patient, Jim, who is in need of heart surgery. Jim meets with Dr. Joe and they both agree to schedule a surgery. They enter into a contract through a free exchange. Jim will pay money and Dr. Joe will provide surgery.

The day of the surgery comes. Jim is put under. Dr. Joe cuts open Jim’s chest. They he looks up to see the sun shining through the window of the hospital surgery. Dr. Joe sees that it is a beautiful day, ideal for golf. He also remembers that his friends are going to be golfing this afternoon. Dr. Jim therefore leaves the surgery, and heads out to the golf course. Jim dies on the surgery table.

Has Dr. Joe violated Jim’s right to life?

The answer is yes. When two human beings enter into a contract, the violation of that contract is in fact a form of enslavement. When a contract is intentionally violated and this intentional violation is known to endanger or end the life of the victim, this violation not only is a form of enslavement, but is also one of murder. In this second scenario, Dr. Joe has murdered Jim. He is just as guilty of murder as if he shot a stranger in the street.

Dr. Joe could not be forced to enter into a contract with Jim, but once he chose to do so his liberty was bounded by his own choices in pursuit of happiness. Dr. Joe did not have to contract to do the surgery, but once he did, he no longer had the option of refusing.

The enforcement of a contract is not enslavement, but is rather the upholding of the right to pursue happiness. Any successful attempt to shirk a contractual obligation to maintain the life of one of the victims is a form of murder.

So how does this apply to abortion?

When two consenting parties enter into a sexual union, they are in fact entering a contract, not only between themselves but also with the potential third party on the basis of implied consent. When two parents produce a child, they are contractually bound to that child.

This is the foundational ethical assumption behind both child support and child neglect laws. We have a duty to our children, and this duty comes from our free will contractual agreement made at the time of sexual intercourse. Any failure to meet these parental contractual obligations are at a minimum a form of enslavement, and quite possibly a form of murder. This contract is binding on both the father and the mother.

Therefore any pregnancy, which is the result of voluntary sexual activity, is not a form of enslavement, but is rather a part of the contractual obligation of parenthood. Both father and mother are parties to the contract and are bound to that child by the highest of moral obligations.

The abortion of an innocent human being, conceived in consensual sex, is not only NOT A MOTHER’S RIGHT, it is most certainly one of the vilest forms of murder.

So in the case of pregnancy resulting from consensual sex, the Abortionist argument fails for these reasons.

To this point, I have not covered the case of pregnancy by rape, where no such contractual obligation exists between mother and child. I will have to get to that in another letter.

Sincerely Yours,


Letter 13
Created 16 Jan '20

Hi Luke,

Thanks for your response, which is again quite long!

1. For what it's worth, Don Marquis's arguments are what most professional philosophers and ethicists consider the best arguments against abortion: his arguments receive the most attention.

It's interesting that his argument, however, appears to have little notice or impact among anti-abortion advocates. Interestingly, Marquis argues that their arguments (e.g., what are sometimes called the “substance view” or “substantial identity arguments”) don't succeed: here's a book review by Marquis that addresses that.

This at least helps make the case that philosophers somewhat uniquely tend to be interested in the reasons or premises given for conclusion, not the conclusions themselves, in contrast to other people who are often just concerned about whether people agree with their conclusions or not. So philosophers tend to have the attitude, “Look, I might agree with you about X, but I want to know why you think X: that’s my main interest.” This attitude might not be better or worse than others, but it’s perhaps different.

2. Concerning the idea that there are "self-evident, a priori truths," especially concerning ethics, this is a highly common and respectable view (although it's uncommon for philosophers to call these axioms these days): it's often called intuitionism.

But I want to observe that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's entry on human rights, cited above, does not consider claims about human rights (in particular, that we have them) an "intuition."

Part of the reason for this is that the claim is complex: there are different ideas about what rights are, there are different rights, and there are different theories for what rights depend on. Given this complexity, nobody “intuits” that we have rights.

Part of the complexity is that why we have rights or what makes us have rights (such as rights to life, rights to our bodies, right to autonomy, etc.) is a somewhat open question. I discussed this above and suggested that I think Tom Regan’s “subject of a life” criterion for rights is a good one because it plausibly identifies the morally relevant characteristics that rights protect, and so make us have rights: if you are a conscious, feeling being with a perspective that can go better and worse for you, rights protect that.

For beings like us, this is related to “electrical activity” in the brain, that’s not an essential connection: there could be subjects of lives whose consciousness is not a result of “electrical activity.” (BTW here is a great article by a very skilled philosopher that does relate abortion to electrical activity in fetuses: K. E. Himma, "A dualist analysis of abortion: personhood and the concept of self qua experiential subject, " Journal of Medical Ethics 31 (1):48-55 (2005); I agree with his basic position.)

So, in sum, appeals to rights, claims that we have rights, are not intuitions; they are not “axioms” as you put it. We can ask why we have them and see where better and worse answers, or better and worse theories of the basis of rights, lead.

Part of the brilliance of Marquis’s writings on the topics is that he did this when other thinkers were not. Now I think his answer for why we have rights doesn’t apply to fetuses for some sophisticated reasons (see “5.1.5 Abortion prevents fetuses from experiencing their valuable futures”), but he was definitely on the right track in asking the question.

3. In the final sections of your letters, I think you propose that there is a contract between amorous couples and any future possible fetus (or fetuses) that grants the fetus a right to the woman’s body.

A fair question here, however, is, “Why?”

You characterize “contractual rights” as “occur[ing] where two parties freely choose to exchange portions of their rights to liberty and pursuit of happiness.” Clearly there is no such free choice between couples and non-existent, merely possible beings: so no contract.

You write: “When two consenting parties enter into a sexual union, they are in fact entering a contract, not only between themselves but also with the potential third party on the basis of implied consent.” But there is no such contract, at least not on your characterization of such a contract.

Your characterizations of contracts is a good one, but it just doesn’t at all seem to apply to this type of case. Perhaps there are other ways to do it though, and that would have to be investigated.

As it stands though, most people would not describe their decisions to engage in various sexual activities as involving any type of tacit contract: what they are agreeing to is not pregnancy: they are agreeing to other things. So, at the very least, a better case to think, “Oh no, despite what you are thinking and despite how you are finding your experience, you are indeed agreeing to a contract here, although a contract very, very, very much unlike any other contract you have agreed to!” is needed.

I agree of course that we have obligations to born children. I’m not sure that’s because of a contract though since parents sometimes don’t get much (beyond heartache) for loving and taking care of their children. If a parent can’t take care of their children, they are obligated to seek someone who can: their children have that right. But born, living, subject-of-a-life children (and adults) are quite different from human embryos, so I doubt that productive analogies can be developed.

4. Finally, you reviewed some cases where someone might get a right to someone’s body (and time and talents) because of a contract. It seems there is no such contract in cases of pregnancy, so the question is whether anyone can get that right without a contract. Judith Thomson and others argue ‘no’: are her arguments faulty?


Letter 14
Created 24 Jan '20


I think we are understanding each other a little better. As I often am unaware of the academically accepted terminology, ongoing conversation helps me to communicate better.

So lets just review a couple of things quick. A priori moral knowledge(intuitions) can neither be proven nor disproven. We all believe in them in some form*. We cannot prove either that we have a moral intuition or we that do not have a moral intuition, we can only assert without proof. Still these moral intuitions are the foundation of our moral knowledge, and as such are of the most supreme importance.

To make matters worse, we as human beings are subject to what I call progressive depravity. That means that the continual denial and suppression of an a priori moral truth does actually begin to destroy that part of our mind which supplies us with these moral intuitions, the conscience. Feel free to disagree with me, but I claim that by nature human beings know that gassing people in concentration camps is wrong, because I claim that we all have an a priori moral understanding of human rights. But my belief in progressive depravity would claim that each time the Nazi’s committed these horrible acts, their ability to have proper moral intuitions was reduced. Under this theory it is quite possible that eventually, some of the Nazi’s began to feel no guilt or moral repulsion while committing these terrible acts.

Being a philosopher, you recognize that for an argument to be sound, both the logic of the argument must be valid and the premises must be true. The rejection of my a priori claim about human rights means we are not agreeing on a set of premises.

Though it is quite conceivable that even if my argument is valid, and my a priori moral knowledge claim is true, that you could fail to be convinced by my argument. You are living at a time and to some extent within a society which would give external motives for suppressing an a priori knowledge of human rights. You have incentives to suppress an a priori knowledge of human rights in regards to abortion, much like a German in the 1930s had an incentive to dehumanize the Jews. It would upset some of your friends and possibly some of your employers were you to acknowledge an a priori knowledge of human rights. You have reasons to suppress any a priori knowledge which would in fact lead you to reject abortion. It is quite conceivable, that you have been motivated to suppress your knowledge of the immorality of abortion.

What then am I trying to show by my argument? I am first of all trying to show that given the authenticity of my a priori knowledge claim, the immorality of abortion is deductively certain. I will also endeavor to show that you do indeed have an a priori knowledge of human rights, which shows itself in other areas of your ethics, even if you have suppressed it in relation to abortion. I will try to show you, “here it is popping up in other areas where society has given you no incentives to suppress it”.

Now, even if I am successful in revealing an a priori knowledge of human rights in other areas of your ethics, your natural impulse will likely be to posit an ad hoc a priori claim instead of admitting one which would forbid abortion. Alas, what can I do?

So this is my claim: Human beings have the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They possess these rights in their natural state, and only through their own action can they lose these rights. We have a knowledge of these human rights a priori.

You seem to indicate that my claim here is unconventional, on the contrary however, history has recorded this perspective in our founding document the Declaration of Independence. Likewise, a large portion of the American people make this claim today.

I made your pro-abortion argument for you, on the basis of human rights. Please feel free to offer another if you prefer.

1. It is generally true, on the basis of liberty that no person has the right to the use of another human beings body.

2. Liberty is only ever limited by the rights of another human being.

3. The only time liberty could ever be construed as a violation of another human being’s rights is if a duty exists to another being.

4. On the principle of the right to pursue happiness, we can bind ourselves in such a way as to limit our liberty.

5. When through the pursuit of happiness, a human being commits themselves to another, this is called a contract.

6. Therefor, if a duty exists, we have a contract.

Its not a very difficult argument to understand, we subconsciously accept it all the time.

1. Fathers have a duty to their children, whether they want their children or not.

2. Duty only comes from free will contracts.

3. Sexual intercourse is the causal event where a father chooses to bind himself to his children in a free will contract.

Most people I know who support abortion, see no problem forcing a father to labor 18 years to support his children. Why is that? Doesn’t that violate his liberty? Why are you supposed to pay child support for your children, and me for mine? Why not one big pot where all people work for the children equally?

You see my friend, we know why a father is responsible to his children, It is because of his choice to have sex, which created them. That is why my children are my responsibility and your children are yours. We are asking nothing more, only being consistent, when we say the same is true of mothers.

If it is not the fathers choice which binds him to his children, please offer your alternative.



Letter 15
Created 24 Jan '20


First, and most importantly, I will notice that you appear to be veering into making accusations about motives, or speculations about what might be motivating me (or anyone else) to argue this or that that is simply not appropriate.

I’m going to observe that this is in bad form, tacky, and baseless: indeed, it is a root of a certain kind of disrespectful and manipulative attitude and behavior that sometimes leads to even worse attitudes and behaviors. It is not appropriate to speculate about people’s motives and suggest they have bad motives when you have no good reason to do so. You write: “You have incentives to suppress an a priori knowledge of human rights in regards to abortion, much like a German in the 1930s had an incentive to dehumanize the Jews,” but you don’t get to absurdly compare anyone to the Nazis and call them “friend.” That's not OK.

This might become clear if someone were to say something parallel to you which you said to me, that “You have reasons to suppress any knowledge which leads you to condemn all abortions.” I will let you imagine how someone would explain their accusation to you in that regard. I suspect that if you think through the assumptions and attempts at mind reading that are involved in making such a claim, you can see why, for many reasons, that is not appropriate.

Given this, I am going to stick to arguments, not speculations and accusations about motives, as everyone should.

First though let me suggest that you drop the concern about "proof" that you often raise since that just isn't a common concern in philosophy or ethics anymore, if it ever was: it's very hard to "prove" anything, so the typical concern is simply some of reasonable, justified belief based on deep understanding of an issue or knowledge, which doesn't require "proof." That's the typical admittedly vague standard that most are seeking in philosophy, not proof.

Second, there is this lingering question about what makes human beings have rights, or the foundations of human rights. I am unsure what you make of this issue, so I will take us to this fork in this rode:
Either the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on human rights (and the many authors it cites) is correct that the question of what makes human beings have rights is a live, legitimate and reasonably asked and answered question, or you are correct and this is isn’t really an appropriate or interesting question.

Put this way, it’s very clear which route to take, concerning who is more likely to have a correct judgment on this issue.

Third, since it’s fair to ask why human beings have rights, I have stated that I think a great answer came from Tom Regan, explained above: we have rights because we are “subjects of lives,” or conscious, feeling beings whose lives can go better and worse from our own point of view. Why were and are various profound human rights violations profoundly wrong? Because these human beings, who are subjects of lives, were treated in profoundly wrong ways: it’s not just “these are human beings and it’s wrong to treat them that way,” since we can (according to philosophers who think about these topics) we can seek to find why that is so.

Fourth, this takes us to harder questions about beings that aren’t subjects of lives, are not sentient, and are not even conscious, like human embryos and early fetuses.

Last time you offered an understanding of contracts that just couldn’t result with a contract with fetuses.

This time you are observing that parents have duties to children, and children have rights to assistance (that are usually met by their parents, but can be met by others too). That’s fine, but this doesn’t really do much to explain how and why a contract would result with a woman and, say, an embryo or an early fetus, or how that embryo or fetus has a right to her body. There are many disanalogies between the cases, one of which is that babies and children are subjects of lives and again, we (clearly) have responsibilities towards beings that are subjects of lives but if or how that happens with being that are not that is unclear and the parent case doesn’t help clarify it. More is needed, and there is a big literature on just this topic that you could engage.


Letter 16
Created 31 Jan '20

Dear Nathan,

I seem to have insulted you with my candidness in my previous letter. I would like to apologize for any undo injury I have done to your feelings.

This topic is sensitive, though I do not feel that we can continue very much further in this conversation without the ability to be candid with each other.

We are human beings, not simply intellectual calculators. We have feelings, desires, experiences etc. which seriously shape the way we do ethics, even if we are unaware of them. I think it a serious mistake to suppose that we enter into discussions on these topics free from all motives.

My experience has led me to the conclusion that most of our motives fall short of perfect purity, and most of the people we disagree with are likely to have somewhat higher motives than at first glance we are inclined to give them credit for. Motives are typically grey, not purely black or white.

But it is a grave error to suppose, that our a priori truth claims are not, in some sense motivated by factors outside a direct love of truth.

I have called you friend, and I am also sorry if my use cheapened the term to you. I actually hesitated for a long while over that word before I typed it, seeing that we have never met, and have only corresponded a dozen or so times electronically.

So, what did I mean when I called you my friend? I found that a friend, as I defined the term would have to meet two criteria. A friend must be someone I wish well of, and with whom I share an enjoyable activity. Since, I think it is the right thing to do to wish well of everyone, this criterion is not very stringent. I do enjoy interacting with you in these areas of philosophy and politics, and if time permits, I hope to engage you more on other topics. So, with hesitation, I labeled you my friend.

And here I feel I must be candid. To the extent we have any influence, friends don’t let friends endorse genocide.

Is the question, “Why do humans have rights?” a good question? I will try to answer this as clearly as I can.

It is a good question, but it is a good question which has no answer. I am claiming that human beings have inherent value, not merely derived value.

You and I engage to some extent in philosophy. Philosophy comes from the Greek, and means the “love of wisdom”. It is a perfectly good question to ask, “why should we love wisdom”, but it is one that does not have an answer. Wisdom is a thing worthy of love. It is inherently valuable. Wisdom is not merely a means; it is an end. I have a priori knowledge that wisdom is worthy of love.

Human existence is not merely a means, it is an end, and we know human existence to be an end a priori.

I am not sure if you are rejecting my claim that there must exist things that are inherently valuable, or you are simply saying that human beings are not inherently valuable, or you are saying that we cannot know that anything is inherently valuable, or you are claiming something else entirely.

I am sure that I am mistaken, but it seems to me that you are positing the following three premises.

1. Nathan has a priori knowledge that consciousness is inherently valuable.

2. Nathan has a priori knowledge that human embryos and some fetus’ do not have consciousness.

3. Luke’s human rights beliefs are incorrect because they claim to have a priori knowledge of a moral nature.

So, it would be helpful to me, if you would clarify which, if any of these three points you are intending to put forward(if any).

As philosophers, we recognize our inability to prove anything in the strictest sense of the word, prove. But ethics, and philosophy, is largely the art of starting with a basic premise we cannot prove, but about which we both agree; then moving deductively to prove our conclusion.

In other words, our premise is not proven, but given the validity of our premises, we absolutely can prove certain conclusions. IF we accept the validity of our premises, we can prove conclusions. We might call these contingent proofs. I cannot prove that 2 exists, but if 2 exists and it is added to itself, it would produce four; this is a simple contingent proof. I think the goal of philosophy is not some nebulous, vague standard, but is to provide contingent proofs based on a priori knowledge.

We may want to more seriously discuss epistemology at some point, if we do not tire of the conversation first.

I realize that you have rejected my premise of human rights, keeping the term, but replacing the concept of human with something else. I have been, and continue to be using the term in the literal sense, which many philosophers reject. It seemed clear that even though you rejected my premise, you wanted to see a proof that my premise led deductively to the conclusion that Abortion was wrong. You indicated, that for the purpose of argument, you would assume the truth of my premise, asking me to proceed with my argument.

I have shown that GIVEN the definition of human rights which I have outlined in my previous letters, the deduction that abortion is wrong, is proven. This too is a contingent proof.

It now seems that instead of admitting the validity of my argument, you are jumping right back into the denial of my initial premise. You can do that, but the laying forth of my argument was openly predicated on your accepting my premises in good faith for argument sake. If we cannot do that, then it is not worthwhile me showing the validity of my deductions.

Continued in part 2…

Letter 17
Created 31 Jan '20

… Part 2

There are several underlying philosophical issues that may contribute largely to the sources of our disagreement. One of them is the epistemology I spoke of earlier.

One question that seems to be hinted at, is whether or not moral truths exist in reality(moral realism). You seem, perhaps to disagree with me. This is a deep issue, which necessarily is heavily entangled in theology.

You also seem to hint at some sort of appeal to authority in citing the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”. If they are any good, philosophers are able to properly draw conclusions from a priori moral truth claims better than the average human; but there is no reason to suppose that they are any more likely to be honest about their a priori truth claims than non-philosophers.

In fact, I remember reading an article summarizing some studies about the unethical behavior of ethicists.

I don’t find these kinds of appeals to authority as particularly strong, considering humanities long history of human rights atrocities.



Letter 18
Created 01 Feb '20

Hi Luke,

I wanted to share part of a recent post by philosopher Michael Huemer:
Abortion Is Difficult
There is one thing that the extreme pro- and anti-abortion people can agree upon: that the issue is intellectually trivial, the correct answer blindingly obvious. They just disagree about which position is blindingly obvious and which stupidly evil.
I disagree, though. I think the issue of abortion is difficult. In fact, if you think the issue is easy, then I would say you’re irrational. Anyway, here are some of the reasons it’s difficult.
There are two main questions: (i) Do fetuses have a right to life? (ii) If fetuses have rights, is it still okay to abort them?

He then reviews the difficulties.

I agree that abortion is difficult. If you think it is easy, Huemer calls you irrational in that belief.

One definition of irrationality is that the person doesn’t have reasons. But it’s really easy to have some reason for a belief, even if it’s “just because!” so there must be some higher (lower?) standard for irrationality. This standard might be something like you don’t have good reasons, or good enough, reasons.

What would this involve? Partially, in involves not having an inadequate understanding of the issues.

One of the relevant issues here is what makes anyone have rights, and whether the best explanations for why children and adults have rights also apply to fetuses. You have been informed that there are debates among the experts, some of the divergent theories have be explained, and pointed to reference works, written by and for these experts, that review these debates. Just this morning I saw an announcement for a conference on just these sorts of issues:
Human rights are widely thought to be held by all and only human beings. This follows naturally from the orthodox characterization of human rights as the fundamental rights held by humans in virtue of being human. This view assumes either that there are morally relevant, rights-grounding features that are shared by all and only members of the human species, or that being a member of the human species is morally relevant in itself. Both of these assumptions have undergone extensive criticism in the literature on the moral and legal status of non-human animals, but relatively little attention has been paid to this literature in the growing body of philosophical work on human rights.

These are all “live” serious questions. Your response seems to be, “Nah, I’m probably correct on all this”: human beings have rights just because they are human. (You may have updated this though: I see you mentioned “human nature” in your recent post, which might be the roots of a more sophisticated argument: here is a reply to that argument if you are suggesting it).

Now, maybe (nearly) all the informed, engaged experts are mistaken here and you, nearly alone, are correct. But that is very unlikely: it's unlikely that you are correct that these issues are easy and that really understanding them does not require engaging complex issues.

You mention feelings. But being disrespectful towards someone need not involve any hurt feelings.

You mention motives but did not seem to think through the suggestion Golden-Rule type reflection. So again: someone could say that you are writing what you are writing and responding how you are responding because you have bad motives: you are “motivated by factors outside a direct love of truth.” You can fill in the details.

What’s your reaction?

You may have feelings about the matter, but I think you should react with this:
“You really don’t know what my motives are: you have no way of telling that. Furthermore, my motives have no bearing on whether what I am saying is true or not, and whether my arguments are good or not.”

This is why addressing people’s motives is bad: it’s a logical fallacy that critical thinkers don’t engage in. It's a double fallacy to accuse someone of bad motives when you are not doing much more than merely assuming your own position, or “begging the question.” This can happen when someone thinks a complex issue is simple.

You write:
I am not sure if you are rejecting my claim that there must exist things that are inherently valuable, or you are simply saying that human beings are not inherently valuable, or you are saying that we cannot know that anything is inherently valuable, or you are claiming something else entirely.

The answers are no, not quite, definitely not and no. I have offered something like Tom Regan’s well-known theory of rights. Are such theories supported “a priori”? Well, they aren’t “a posteriori,” and they aren’t mere intuitions either: they are developed to try to best explain cases. Regan uses cases in this essay, and I have mentioned cases above and in my book.

You write that that “GIVEN the definition of human rights which I have outlined in my previous letters, the deduction that abortion is wrong, is proven.” But have you read Thomson’s famous “A Defense of Abortion”? It raises the questions of if and how someone can gain a right to anyone else’s body. You first proposed a contract that fetuses can’t make, and later suggested an analogy from (born) children, which at least would need more defense, given important dissimilarities.

Since you mention the topic, my Ph.D. dissertation (in 2005) was on defending moral realism. Here someone wrote up a summary of it. And I sometimes teach Epistemology courses.

If you’d like to continue this discussion, it might be more productive if you find pro-life arguments that you think are good and explain why you think they are and/or review objections to pro-choice arguments that you think our good. Anchoring this discussion in more well-developed arguments in print might be useful.


Letter 19
Created 05 Feb '20

Dear Nathan,

I think the distinction of simple or complex moral issue is not a very helpful one. I think trying to make such a distinction often opens one to the charge of equivocation.

The most advance mathematics are nothing more than vast application of basic mathematical principles, over and over and over again. The same is true in physics, biology, geology and so on.

The most complex ethical problems are solved by the sum total of a vast number of smaller, more basic ethical criteria.

Some could ask me, “is the morality of the holocaust a simple issue”? My reaction would be that yes, we know that the holocaust was wrong, and this is a simple moral calculation.

However someone could say… “Well what about the economic depression of Germany at the time entering the holocaust? What about the economic boom in Germany that came under Hitler’s leadership? What about the World War I treaty which had some bias against nationalist Germans? What about…

Life is complex, and it may be true that there are a lot of complex ethical situations that led to the holocaust, but in the end, the holocaust was simply wrong. Abortion is of the same nature.

I think Huemer’s definition of “irrational” here to be trivial and outside of the scope of common linguistic use. I would define the term irrational to mean any violation of the (classical) laws of logic.

It seems that in some sense you are interested in trying to overawe me with your appeal to the majority, by citing “nearly all the engaged experts”. This doesn’t hold an appeal to me. Besides the fact that defining “nearly all the engaged experts” is likely an exercise in the No True Scottsman fallacy, history tells us that “nearly all the engaged experts” throughout human history have supported things like human slavery, military conquest for glory… and so on. “Nearly all the engaged experts” holds no great distinction as a moral authority.

C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite philosophers, talks about his experience in academia, and how hard it was for him to personally shake the fallacy of chronological snobbery. For the longest period of time, he held on to a sense that his time, and his culture, and his niche were superior in general both morally and intellectually to historical mankind. It took many of his friends challenging this assumption for him to finally come out of it. This appeal to “most philosophers” strikes me as similar to the fallacy of chronological snobbery.

You seem to claim that I have been both disrespectful to you and a violator of the golden rule in questioning your motives. Whether or not I was disrespectful, I will leave to you, but I did not treat you in any way different than I myself desire to be treated. I think it is in every way relevant and appropriate when making claims about moral intuitions, or a priori moral truths, to question the motives of the claimant. I invite you to return such inquiry if you think it relevant. I cannot honestly see anything wrong in your questioning me in a similar matter. Feel free to do to me, as I have done to you.

You seem to be insinuating that I am guilty of both an ad hominem attack and of begging the question.

If you review my letter, you will find that I made no claims that you were suppressing a priori moral knowledge. I claimed that you may have reasons to suppress such knowledge, in order to ask you to do a little self-reflection.

If we had agreed upon a premise and you demonstrated that that agreed upon premise let to your deduction, and I refused to accept the deduction and instead insulted you, that would be an ad hominem attack. What we were doing was attempting to find some basic moral premises which we both agreed upon, and in doing so, self-reflection of motives is definitely appropriate.

From the outset, I have been dedicated to laying out my beliefs before you in plain English and succinct informal syllogisms. We all have a proiri moral truth claims, or intuitions, and the only reason we have for believing them, is “just because”. I have been trying to get you to respond in a similar way. Yet I get evasive answers. It seems to me that you are here flirting with a violation of the law of identity: as in “Nathan’s moral intuitions are not moral intuitions”. Please show me how I am mistaken.

You wrote “Are the theories I suggested… merely moral intuitions{no}, they are developed to try to best explain cases.” But surely “the best cases” is just a reference to those moral intuitions which seem to be universally applicable. You are relying on moral intuitions, just like everyone else, but it seems you are avoiding putting them down in black in white in plain language, instead citing lengthy papers.

Perhaps you are not intentionally doing so, but this is just how it appears to me. Now I could be mistaken about this, but it appears that the concept of rights you are supporting easily lends itself to the charge of ad hoc-ishness and as such fares poorly against Occam’s Razor. Now my suspicions may be totally unfounded, but we cannot know unless you are more forthcoming about your a priori moral intuitions.

continued in part 2...

Letter 20
Created 05 Feb '20

...part 2 continued

You rejected the claim that a contract exists between a parent and an unborn child, but you gave no argument for doing so. You simply asserted that “an unborn child cannot make a contract”.

Since you offered no argument, it is left entirely to my imagination to argue against your argument. I am hesitant to do so, for the reason that this seems insincere and likely to set us up for further guesswork in the future. However, because you listed the article from Judith Johnson, it seems I may be able to guess at your objections with a reasonable hope at accuracy.

I will respond to a hypothetical hybrid of Nathan Nobis and Judith Thomson referring to the two of you as one for the sake of simplicity in writing. I read most of the essay by Johnson, and I must say that I was generally impressed by her clarity and precisions of thought. She is really engaging with the issue. However, Thomson does unfortunately engage in several non-sequiturs, usually in the form of flawed analogies, that fatally doom her argument.

It seems that Thomson seems to make the distinctions between abortions in the case of rape, abortions in the case of medical emergency to the mother, and the abortion of a child conceived through consensual sex. These are important distinctions, and to use your earlier term, the abortion of a child conceived through consensual sex(in which there is no medical emergency regarding the mother) is the most “simple” of the cases of abortion to deal with ethically.

While the other two scenarios are certainly important to talk about, it is important to make those distinctions, and I will focus on this the main issue, the real “meat and potatoes” of the abortion argument. Thomson deals with this issue mainly in section 4, which she concludes that it may be reasonable based upon this argument to claim that some abortion is unjust killing. She admittedly leaves the argument unfinished. I will finish it for her.

Now to address the arguments of Nathan/Thomson.

Nathan’s Hypothetical Objection 1:

The unborn cannot enter to into contracts, because they have no human rights.


This is simply a rejection of the basic premise, not anything new or enlightening.

Nathan’s Hypothetical Objection 2:

The unborn cannot enter into a contract at the time of intercourse because they are unable to consent to anything.


It may be the case that I am a little more familiar with contract law than you are. This objection is simply false. Contracts sometimes come into existence without the consent of some of the parties.

When an emergency room doctor performs a surgery on a man found unconscious, a contract is established. Conscious participation, though customary, is not necessary for the formation of a contract.

Whenever human beings infringe upon the human rights of another individual, it is necessary that there be consent. There are some instances where law has commonly recognized that consent not be necessary.

Whenever a human right is infringed without consent, it has been recognized that it must be done so under the claim of implied consent.

Implied consent, only and always applies when in good faith the non-conscious participant is treated in such a manner as a reasonable person would determine to be good. Implied consent must always be used in the best interests of the non-conscious participant. We do not know everyone’s desires, but the courts have continually recognized implied consent can never be an instrument to kill someone or to rape someone.

If I found an attractive woman unconscious on the sidewalk, it would not be reasonable to assume that she would consent to me raping her. If I found a person unconscious on the sidewalk, it would not be reasonable for me to assume that they consented to my murdering them. If I found a person unconscious on the sidewalk, it would not be reasonable to suppose that they consented to me stealing their wallet.

Now it is true that the use of implied consent does not necessarily create a contract, but it is true that contracts are often established on the basis of implied consent.

continued in part 3...

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