Friday, December 29, 2023

On Substack

The blog of this page is now imperfectly mirrored at Substack, although newer posts aren't getting reposted there (yet):

Tuesday, November 14, 2023

If you think abortions don't involve killing, why is that?

If you think abortions don't involve killing, why is that?

@nathan.nobis If you think abortions usually don't involve "killing," why is that? Please fully explain your answer. #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #philosophytiktok ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

Some follow up videos:


@nathan.nobis Replying to @nathan.nobis "Yes, abortions involve killing, but that doesn't mean they are wrong..." #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #philosophytiktok ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

@nathan.nobis Replying to @bs_intolerant No, C-sections aren't abortions even though they end a pregnancy. Not all ends or "terminations" of pregnancies are abortions. On "termination" versus "killing," since killing often isn't wrong. #abortion #prochoice #prolife ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis
@nathan.nobis Replying to @xaospet False claims and bad arguments from pro-choice people probably don't help anything, so let's avoid them! More at off the LinkTree. #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #criticalthinking #justice #badargument #badarguments ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

"Embryos & metaphysical personhood: both biology & philosophy support the pro-life case." A Response

I was asked to "respond" to this blog post here on Secular Pro Life's page by . For a more efficient response, I will respond in text in blue and then offer up some quick general thoughts. 

I recommend anyone read the article first and then read my commentary. 

Embryos & metaphysical personhood: both biology & philosophy support the pro-life case.

Photo credit NeONBRAND with Unsplash

[Esta publicación está disponible en español aquí.]

Today’s guest blog post is by Kristina Artuković

Anyone who is in any way involved in the debate on prenatal justice knows that it usually involves tiring discussions about the meaning of terms like humanpersonpersonhood or potentiality.

NN: whether these discussions are "tiring" depends on the person. But these are all words for which their meanings are unclear, in part because they are often ambiguous, and so, yes, to think carefully about the issues, we have to think carefully about the meanings of these words and evaluate different definitions and the arguments that result from these definitions. For people interested in critical thinking, this is not "tiring." For those not interested in critical thinking, it might be. 

More versed pro-choice advocates insist that the meaning of human is at least twofold: it encompasses biologically human and socially human. The situation is similar with the term person, as they often object that prenatal biological humans do not possess personhood, because they do not have consciousness or ability to feel pain up to a certain age, etc.

NN: good, although unfortunately there isn't really a standard term for what she calls "socially human": that's described in a number of different ways in the literature and common thought. And at least most philosophers think there are important differences between early "prenatal biological humans" and far later fetuses. 

On the other hand, pro-life advocates often lean on science, which establishes the premise of biological humanity, but they also strive to undermine the concept of personhood, claiming that this concept has always been ideologically corrupt and oppressive. 

NN: no, "personhood" or "person" has not "always been ideologically corrupt and oppressive." Saying "My friend is a person" is not corrupt. Saying, "Women and non-white people weren't considered to be persons, or full persons, but they were and are people, and should be recognized as people, since, again, they are people--they have personhood" is not corrupt and oppressive: it's the opposite.

The term human probably has an even worse record, yet pro-lifers rarely question it, perhaps because we have all become accustomed to scientific reduction.

NN: no, there is no "reduction" in this term. "Human" has a biological meaning, and it also has the "socially human" meaning she mentions also. But the term doesn't "reduce" to either of these, since it has these two broad meanings. Mary Anne Warren observed this long ago, as does common thought with things like, "His body remains alive but the person we knew is gone." 

There is significant confusion regarding the term personhood, because it can have two or even three separate but closely connected meanings, none of which is absolutely interchangeable with human:

  1. Metaphysical personhood: An entity’s ontological status related to certain faculties like consciousness, reason, language. Although the term might be a bit off-putting, this concept is actually closest to the intuitive meaning of the word person.
  2. Moral Personhood: An entity’s moral status. When an entity has moral status, that means it is a subject of moral consideration and has certain moral rights — most notably, right to life.
  3. Legal personhood: An entity’s legal status as a subject of law.

NN: ok, although (1) might be more simply put as "Psychological" personhood, since it points to the types of psychological characteristics of personhood. It's often thought that necessarily, if a being has psychological personhood, then it has moral personhood (and many think that a being has moral personhood only if it has psychological personhood.) But some understand "moral personhood" just in terms of "a being that has basic rights" and don't relate it to psychological personhood: whether a being has or doesn't have psychological personhood is not relevant to its moral personhood. 

Let us take a closer look at how these terms relate to each other and to the term human.

Metaphysical personhood. This is best described through certain capabilities. Although these have a long tradition in Western philosophy, the following set of five capabilities is considered to be a classic in the abortion debate: consciousness, reasoning, self-motivated activity, communication and self-awareness. A class of self-aware AIs, an alien species, perhaps some other terrestrial species, angels, gods can be said to take part in metaphysical personhood if they meet some (not necessarily all) of these criteria. Taking part in metaphysical personhood also establishes an entity’s moral status, although metaphysical personhood isn’t the only grounds for special moral consideration we might grant to other entities.

NN: good on the final claim: sometimes people think that something must be a person to have, say, the right to life, but that's false, or it might be false. 

Legal personhood. Law recognizes two kinds of legal subjects: legal persons and natural personsLegal persons like companies and states obtain legal personhood by means of their interests and sovereign will within the legal universe. Natural persons (living entities, humans) obtain legal personhood via a political consensus on their moral status. We confer legal personhood through either historical precedent or moral reasoning and various means of advocacy and pressure.

Why is all this important?

Science is indispensable and has enormous value in the debate on prenatal justice, because it provides functional concepts of natural kinds (species in biology) and gives us an indisputable starting point: abortion kills humans developing in utero.

NN: if by "humans" you mean biologically human organisms, then yes, of course: what else would it be doing? But if you mean, about all abortions, "metaphysical" or psychological or moral persons, then, well, that's what the issue is: does it (ever) kill beings like that?

But in order to explain why abortion is morally impermissible and should be legally impermissible, we will have to (a) address the relation that members of our natural kind [emphasis added], including preborn humans, must have towards metaphysical personhood, which should (b) establish the proof of their moral status, which would then (c) provide a substantial reason for giving them protection via legal personhood

NN: so here are some harder issues: what "kind" are we? We are many kinds, so what kind is the relevant one here? What "natural" kind are we? We are many natural kinds, so what kind is the relevant one here? 

It seems like the answer assumed here is that our natural kind is our species. But why think that's the relevant one? There are other options here: in particular, our "kind" could be understand as "minded being" or "minded being characterized by various rational-emotive capacities." Nobody must think that an embryo is of this "kind." 

And there seems to be a suggestion like this: 

if a being is of kind K, and beings of Kind K are characterized by having properties P, and having properties P results in other properties R, then all beings of kind K have properties R

But this is very speculative, and dubious, and no reason is given to believe this, and principles like these appear to be false anyway. I have written on this theme for over 20 years: see my responses to Carl Cohen, Beckwith, Tollefsen and George, and Tollefsen, at least. This is even addressed in the 1000-Word Philosophy article. 

In the end, we would have to address the conflict of two rights: prenatal right to life and mother’s bodily autonomy. I will primarily focus on personhood here, which provides the conditions necessary for the conflict-of-rights discussion to make sense.

The nature of metaphysical personhood is not political. It’s not subjective. And it certainly is not oppressive. It is ontological, as it comprises essential properties of a specific category of natural kinds. In the context of human life, metaphysical personhood logically refers to an abstract human in their prime

NN: what's "their prime"? How is that determined? Interestingly, it seems like common answers here assume "ableism," typically the thought that having various advanced rational capacities makes one in their "prime." OK, maybe, but really, why? 

All beings of the same kind necessarily take part in the essential properties of that kind which designate them through the entirety of their existence. In modern philosophy, these essential properties are called ultimate sortals.

NN: yes, OK, but there are options on what the relevant "kind" is here, or what the relevant "essential properties" are. Some see them as related to their bodies, or bodies, whereas others see them as dependent on their minds. (Compare "animalism" versus psychological theories of personal identity--but compare them on all the relevant considerations: a relevant thinker here who argues for the latter is Jeff McMahan). 

It would be very, very easy to say: all humans take part in metaphysical [psychological?] personhood, therefore all of them have moral status. However, we would fail to address how exactly humans take part in metaphysical personhood and deal with those gray areas of “human non-personhood.”

The capabilities of metaphysical personhood are not distributed equally among humans, right? Some humans, like infants or people with severe cognitive impairment, possess these capabilities in smaller degrees while for some, like zygotes and braindead humans, this degree probably amounts to zero. However, every living entity has to have an inherent and active relation with its ultimate sortal. Therefore, all living humans must have an inherent  and active relation to metaphysical personhood.

NN: question: is this true in general? "all living humans [meaning biologically human organisms] must have an inherent and active relation to [metaphysical] X"? Meaning, does this type of relation hold with anything else, in particular where we then must treat that being as if they have X, or think they have the other characteristics that result from X ? Or is this an ad hoc proposal that's not seen about anything else? In other words, why believe this?

 Logic allows for only three active relations towards metaphysical personhood:

  1. Attainment
  2. Retainment
  3. Restoration

Attainment of metaphysical personhood is why zygotes, embryos, fetuses and newborns necessarily have moral status. As individual members of our species, they are always in an active, inherent, self-initiated and self-governed relation of attaining the capabilities we all share radically, as members of the same rational type of natural kinds. Every increment of the human developmental process, from conception to the end of our life, is part of the physical and metaphysical chain that sustains or enables the capabilities that comprise metaphysical personhood. 

NN: sure, embryos can be characterized as being of a particular kind, and that kind is characterized by having various features (F), and those features result in other properties (P), at least when the being has those features (F). But, again, why anything more than just that being is of the kind, and the kind is like this ..., but that doesn't mean the individual yet has F? Again, this is a very abstract type of principle that's highly dubious and appears subject to counterexamples, some of which are mentioned in the readings above. AND here it's assumed that the relevant kind is a biological one, but we need not accept that. 

This is a nice example of how science without philosophy cannot tell us what human means, and how philosophy without science cannot explain human in a relevant way.

Cognitively impaired humans are in this active relation, too: they are continuously attempting to attain or restore these capabilities against other factors like damage, disease, age-related difficulties, or even genetic predispositions. If cognitively impaired humans had certain obstacles removed — for example, decalcification in a brain damaged by Alzheimer’s — they would carry on with attainment (of completely new capabilities) or restoration (of lost capabilities). These two processes aren’t stopped by negative factors, but instead are organically overshadowed. As humans, we are always in this active relationship with our metaphysical ultimate sortal. It is just that some of us constantly lose ground, or zig-zag between restoration and attainment. This is intuitively true to anyone who’s ever had contact with a severely cognitively impaired person or a person who has late-stage Alzeheimer’s disease.

NN: for what it's worth, either we stay of this "kind" if brain dead or permanently comatose or not. If not, then this isn't the relevant kind. If so, then being of this "kind" doesn't entail we have basic rights, on the assumption that it can be OK to end the lives of such human organisms. This is discussed in our first Salon article. In short, the above does not fit well with common views about end-of-life issues. 

Braindead people (often used as an example of human non-persons alongside with prenatal humans) fit perfectly into this: if there were some probability of a restorative activity taking place, there would be no grounds to renounce their full moral status due to the lack of active relation to metaphysical personhood and thus no grounds to pronounce them dead

NN: if they were like this, then they aren't braindead.

However, after this relation becomes absolutely passive, these humans nonetheless retain a remnant of their moral status through their corporeality, echoing in the legal universe, since we generally find it morally and sometimes even legally binding to respect their explicit will regarding the integrity of their body and regarding the transfer of their property, all within the framework of common good. This also serves as a reminder that there is no sharp distinction between the body and metaphysical personhood — they are infused into each other from the moment of conception.

NN: for what it's worth, some--maybe many--people who are inclined to agree with the above also seem to think that we can survive death, in an afterlife, without our bodies or without our current bodies. So it appears that they deny that "there's a sharp distinction between the body and metaphysical personhood — they are infused into each other from the moment of conception" since they think you can have people without bodies, and think that they will one day be one of those. 

This active relation to personhood, provided both by the physical and the metaphysical, is far from mere “potentiality.” Attainment, retainment, and restoration are actual, not potential. So the moral issue of prenatal justice is actually about what we are stopping by killing prenatal humans. It may be one thing to kill something alive but essentially non-sentient, but it is a fundamentally different thing to kill an entity that is actively involved, with the entirety of its corporeality, in the finite and foreseeable process of attaining consciousness and reason. And how do we prove that? In the case of prenatal humans — easily, because they are bound by the developmental rules of our kind.

NN: OK, but, again, what's our kind? Why think our kind is determined by our species? And why think that being of a kind entails having various other characteristics of that kind?

General comment: what's proposed here is a very abstract view that I have never seen developed in a satisfactory way. What I think would be very helpful for the world would be if someone were to state this as an argument in "standard form" and carefully explain and justify each premise, since I have never seen that done, and I've been looking for that for quite a while! 

Saturday, October 7, 2023

Some TikTok videos on abortion and ethics

Here are some of my TikTok videos on abortion-related issues. Many of them amount to observing that: 

anti-abortion people tend to be unable or unwilling to think about how various important words and cognate words (such as "alive," "life," "living" and "human") have multiple meanings, which result in different arguments for each meaning;

pro-choice people often think that a mere appeal to bodily autonomy just "settles" the issue and "proves" their point of view: no, it really doesn't and them getting out of this bubble would be good and useful;

anti-abortion extremists tend to think that they have some simple "gotcha" response that shows that there are not good objections to their view and that they have good arguments for their views: no, they don't. 

So here are some videos on those themes and more.

Some of them observe some of the errors with what Monica Snyder of "Secular Pro Life" says; other videos observe the same with Emily Albrecht of the "Equal Rights Institute." 
@nathan.nobis "Ambiguity denial": on denying that "alive" and "human" and related terms have multiple meanings, in bioethics, especially in discussions of abortion and end of life cases. #abortion #prochoice #prolife #bioethics #ethics #philosophy #ambiguity #listening #communication ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

More soon!

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The "Substance View" of Persons

The view that #persons are "individual substances of a rational nature" -- a so-called "substance view of personhood," often associated with Boethius -- need not be an anti-abortion view.
(This is an abstract view that doesn't get talked about much by "activists" but some of them do mention it.)
This is because substances might be mental substances, or mind+body substances, or even "soul"+body substances.
One needn't think mere bodies are of this "substance." And so on need not agree that embryos and beginning fetuses are persons, even on this theory of personhood!

This theory can also help respond to "pro-life" reflective advocates of cruelty to animals: if they think that "being a conscious, sentient being that exists over time [that is, doesn't have a mere moment-to-moment existence]" is a poor theory of personhood since it suggests that many animals are persons (and so wrong to kill and eat for the fun of it), this theory can explain why newborn human babies are persons but with no implications for animals.
In general, all "metaphysical" sounding anti-abortion claims can be accepted by pro-choice folks, but with different metaphysics, all of which deny that we are our bodies, or that we are identical to our bodies.

P.S. This can all be stated with "kind" language: what "kind" of beings are we? What "kinds" of beings are rational beings? In denying that a mere body is the relevant "kind" of being, one can propose that we are of the kind "mental substance," or "mind+body substances," or even '"soul"+body' substances. So pro-choice folks can accept and use this type of metaphysical-sounding language too.

P.P.P.S. Peter Markie has an article that appeals to this idea, but there's no useful abstract of the article online.


@nathan.nobis On the "substance" view of persons & abortion. #abortion #persons #personhood #prochoice #prolife #ethics #philosophy #metaphysics #bioethics ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

"When does life end?" can be a religious question: so can "When does life begin?"

Here I want to quickly explain (again!) why "When does life begin?" can be a religious question, since it seems like some people don't understand why that is. I suspect too many pro-choice people don't do a good job explaining this, which doesn't help anything. 

The key, or a key, to understanding this is reflecting on the less controversial observation that "When does life end?" can be a religious question. If we see why this is so, we can see how the issues are similar (not identical or exactly the same!) with beginning-of-life issues. 

To begin, here's a little survey I ran the other day:

The deal is this: the biological life of human organisms very clearly and obviously begins very early in pregnancy (and we might even want to say before pregnancy): a biologically alive egg is fertilized by a biologically living sperm, and soon there's a new biologically alive thing. There are some disputes here about when exactly there's a new thing, but all answers agree on this: very early. 

(Some say there isn't a living thing because it's dependent, but that's just foolish: there can be and are living dependent things: they are alive and their being alive is dependent on something or someone else.) 

Now, when anti-abortion people talk about "life" beginning at conception or soon after, they are talking about biological life. And they are correct! Biological life does begin at conception or soon after!

When (usually) pro-choice people deny this  when they claim that "life" does not begin at conception  and claim that "life" begins at birth, or that "life" begins when fetuses become conscious — far later in pregnancy  they clearly do not mean biological life. They don't think that a biologically dead thing, or something that's somehow neither biologically dead nor alive, becomes biologically alive halfway or two-thirds of the way through pregnancy or at birth. That's ridiculous. 

Someone would think that's what these pro-choice people think only if (a) they don't bother asking them to clarify what they mean and, if needed, doing a good job helping them clarify what they mean and/or (b) the person saying this just doesn't know how to explain what they mean. And (a) and (b) are common: anti-abortion people don't ask (why would they? what's in it for them to be charitable with people they want to "dunk" on?) and many pro-choice people don't successfully tell (as is suggested by the Twitter survey results). 

So pro-choice people agree that biological life begins early. So when they say that "life" begins at birth or far later in pregnancy, they don't mean biological life. 

The "life" they mean can be more readily identified by thinking about "when life ends." 

When does life end? When even does biological life end, for human beings?

Here it's pretty well-known that there are multiple answers. Here are three:

  • when someone's whole body is dead: that's when "life" ends;
  • when someone's heart isn't pumping and they aren't breathing: that's when "life ends";
  • when someone's brain is dead: that's when "life" ends.
Now, it's well-known that someone could be brain dead, but the rest of their body is still alive. So "When does life end?" in all cases? Is it the brain? Is it the whole body? Is it something else? 

Here the answer seems to be that the answer depends on our purposes, or why we are asking the question.

If we are asking the question because we want to know what we should do in these cases, ethically, then asking, "What are the person's religious beliefs?" might surely be relevant. Do they have religious or ethical beliefs such that letting their body die (or keeping it alive!) would be problematic, or contrary to their wishes? Do their religious beliefs have any bearing on what should be done here? 

Yes, of course, and that's why "When does life end?" can be a religious question: it's not a question about biological life and death--it's a question about what matters from ethical or religious points of view--with an emphasis that there are different, and often equally reasonable, ways of answering these questions

So, the same issues come up with beginning-of-life issues. Yes, of course, embryos and beginning fetuses are obviously biologically alive: when, however, do they have the type of "life," or are they "living lives" that have value and our various religious and ethical systems recognize as having value? 

Anti-abortionists claim that merely being biologically alive is what gives value here. They see this about embryos and beginning fetuses, but forget that they deny this in end-of-life cases: they forget that although a human body may be biologically alive, it may no longer be "alive" or have "a life" that matters morally or religiously anymore, and so that biological life can be ended, either by letting the body die or, potentially, actively killed. 

The same is true about embryos and beginning fetuses -- they are biologically alive, but are not "alive" or have "a life" that matters morally or religiously, from many legitimate points of view -- and so this is why "when does life begin?" is not just a scientific question, but a religious or ethical one.

This is are themes that I've written about in these various places (especially this Salon article, When does “life” begin? When it comes to abortion, it depends on what you mean by "life": Perhaps surprisingly, the word “alive” has a lot of nuance. A philosopher explains whyand perhaps this new offering will do some more good. Another important brief reading here is this: Is ‘brain birth’ the beginning of human life? Or conception? Science can’t draw the line, but only provide more evidence to ponder. People are familiar with "brain death," but are not familiar with "brain birth" and being "brain alive," but these are very helpful concepts!

Some related posts here:

@nathan.nobis When does "life" begin & end? it depends on what you mean by "life"! #abortion #prochoice #prolife #abortionrights #ethics #philosophy #philosophytiktok ♬ original sound - Philosophy 101 - Prof. Nobis

Saturday, June 17, 2023

Following All The Facts About Abortion—Scientific, Ethical, And Logical—Wherever They Lead

  New at the American Journal of Bioethics blog!

Following All The Facts About Abortion—Scientific, Ethical, And Logical—Wherever They Lead,” a response to @CCamosy in @RNS (“Faith, science and the abortion debate”) and @americamag (“it’s the pro-lifers who have science on their side”) #abortion #prochoice #prolife #ethics