Another attempt to bring out the two most critical points in the abortion debate

A month or two ago Ireland made a stride towards legal abortion, and the US made a stride in the opposite direction. Abortion is always on the political table though. I imagine a perfect pregnancy-prevention mechanism would cool the flames quite a bit, but even then, people can change their minds, and the question will emerge of whether that should be allowed. But as usual, this most recent flare-up of abortion debates involved a lot of people talking past each other other. I think, though, there is ultimately one argument for the prohibition of abortion that is good if it works. There are plenty of reasons one might want to prohibit abortion, such as controlling women, liking the appearance of pregnancy, and any other number of bad reasons, but they’re all pretty bad. So, here’s the one possibly good argument:

  1. Killing people ought to be illegal.
  2. Unborn humans are people.
  3. So, killing unborn humans ought to be illegal.

This seems to be the most intuitive and defensible argument for making abortion illegal. A lot of people seem to endorse it, sometimes implicitly. There’s a need in the popular discourse, though, to be more explicit about the two premises in play, because oftentimes people will defend 2 against an attack on 1, or vice-versa.

Getting a little more clear on the premises

Neither premise is super clear, as is the cost of making them short. The first, the killing people ought to be illegal, has plenty of exceptions. Asking why killing people ought to be illegal seems a little strange. Being wrong to kill seems like it might just be a feature of being a person rather than some other kind of thing. So wrong, in fact, that any code of law that doesn’t forbid killing people seems fundamentally broken. So, to spare us a lengthy dive into a theory of moral personhood, I will assume that there’s an agreement that in general people’s lives should be protected by law.

The generality rather than universality of the statement is important, though. There are exceptional cases in which we defend the legal killing of persons. Self-defense is the most obvious. If someone is threatening your life, you’re allowed to kill the person threatening your life. There are perhaps other crimes that might make killing someone defensible. If someone is threatening the lives of others, if someone is severely assaulting you, and so on. War and law enforcement create further situations. Sometimes there is no choice but to kill some set of people, and the choice is merely which set. Accidents that aren’t the result of negligence also usually land on the legal side. My point here is just that we ought to have many legal exceptions for killing people. This is of course an opening that someone defending the legality of abortion against this argument can and often does use.

In the phrasing of the second premise I use “people” in a possibly technical way. While we might have been able to dodge questions of moral personhood for the first premise, they are the heart of the second premise. By “person” (and derivatively, “people”), I just mean a being with moral personhood. That still sounds a bit circular, but getting a technical definition down is a whole subsubfield of philosophy on its own. Examples can give us a good enough idea, though! Normal adult humans are the archetype of people. If a theory of personhood excludes them, it’s probably defective. Inanimate objects are not people. You can violate the autonomy of a rock all you want, and nothing wrong is being done. Then there are edge cases. Is C-3PO from Star Wars a person? Maybe. Are higher apes, or maybe dolphins people? Again, maybe. Within the realm of humanity, we can ask the same of fetuses and maybe infants, too. Once we pin down what gives adult humans their moral worth as people, we can turn to the unborn and ask if they are people.

Arguments pointing to the human DNA and beating heart of the unborn are usually along these lines. They are implicitly placing the bar for personhood at humanity. Nobody defending abortion thinks that the unborn humans are not living beings, and nobody denies that they are human beings. They very obviously are. What one might deny is whether they are persons. Often someone backing this sort of argument against abortion takes for free that all humans are morally relevant persons and then goes in to prove the much easier point that unborn humans are human. But this is just the root of much misunderstanding.

The common arguments against each premise and setting up the right questions

With the first premise, that killing people ought to be illegal, usually the premise is not denied outright so much as the line pushed. Almost nobody thinks every case of killing a person ought to be illegal, so the argument here is on where to draw the line. So, let us take up the case of whether the line ought to be before or after abortion. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that personhood begins at conception. Given this, can someone kill a person inside them?

A well-treaded argument asks us to consider waking up in the hospital attached to a famous violinist. He brings a lot of happiness to the world with his playing, but is sick in such a way that he requires using your body for life support for awhile. Let’s say he’ll be hindering you for about nine months. If you pull the plug, he dies. The defender of abortion here draws on the intuition that you ought to have the legal right to pull the plug anyway.

The argument can be strengthened or weakened. Someone not yet convinced might think that the state should totally use someone as life support if they aren’t doing much with their lives but the person in need of support is. This person might also think mandatory blood donations are a good idea. In that case, we can reduce the status of the violinist until he contributes as much to society as the unborn do: nothing.

On the other hand, someone arguing against abortion might not be satisfied yet. Usually the first next objection is that the aborter usually has something to do with the creation of the unborn person, so while normally you have a right to not let someone use you as life support, you do if you willingly engaged in an act with the potential to create that situation. (We might note that this makes the argument against the legality of abortion no longer work against cases of rape.) So let’s alter the example to fit this. How far we want to push it is another question. Perhaps the right analog is someone who you accidentally hit with your car. You weren’t trying to, but a danger of getting behind the wheel is hitting someone. If they require the surrender of your bodily autonomy, ought the law demand it? (Ideally, this case uses you as life support for nine months. If you don’t have enough imagination, maybe ask what the law should demand if they need blood. Or a kidney.) Alternatively, perhaps the right analog is someone who you aimed your car at and hit. You knew the likely consequences of your actions. But the fun of smashing someone with your car seemed worth it. Are you bound to use your body to aid the person you hit?

I’m not sure yet where to move from there, but those seem to be the two questions at hand, in addition to the question of which one pregnancy is more like. For the argument presented for the prohibition of abortion to work, whichever one abortion turns out to be like has to also be answered that, yes, the government should step in and force you to surrender your bodily autonomy. You cannot pull the plug on/deny an organ donation to someone you hit with your car.

Onto the second premise, then. Are unborn humans people? If they’re not, then the door is open to killing them. They might still have some rights. Dogs aren’t people, but you can’t torture them. Nonetheless, their being people is pretty significant to this argument.

Now, we don’t need perfectly refined necessary and sufficient conditions of personhood to answer this question. All we need is something sufficient that unborn humans have or something necessary that they do not. So, someone making the argument against abortion will try to put forward a condition that anything that fulfills the conditions is a person. And someone defending abortion will put forward a condition that is required to qualify as a person.

On the arguing against the legality of abortion side, being alive tends to come up far more than it should. Lots of things are alive. The fly I just swatted was alive, but it was not a person. Next up is human. From here we see all sorts of conditions thrown around, like a beating heart or looking like a human in ultrasounds, or just being alive while having human DNA. Being alive while having human DNA isn’t enough since removed limbs are not people. Okay, so being alive, having human DNA, and either being able to survive independently or on a path of development toward independent survival. That seems to be the stable position, but then the question emerges: Why is that the line for moral personhood? What about having human DNA and either being biologically independent or on the path to such makes someone morally relevant as a person? This is what the person arguing against abortion needs to be more clear about.

Cue the defender of legal abortion. There are some conditions thrown out that turn out to be rather silly. “It’s just a clump of cells” is common, but it doesn’t work. As noted in the previous paragraph, the clump of cells is special in that it can develop. Given the right resources, it will develop into a human. Now if you want to push for the absurdity of allowing speculation into the future with some resources just assumed, you might argue that an egg or sperm will develop into a person given the right resources. But clearly eggs and sperm are not people, so that line cannot work. There’s room to go back and forth on this, but I think looking for a biological answer to personhood is a mistake.

Remember when giving examples of possible persons, beings like C-3PO came up. When we ask why someone is morally relevant as a person, the features that really matter are not a certain biology, but certain capacities or abilities. The ability to enter into interpersonal relationships, intelligence, language or concept use, moral understanding. These are all possible criteria. Unborn humans seem to fail all of them. Of course, each of these also has some dangers. If an adult human is incapable of being in an interpersonal relationship, is she not a person? Is sufficiently low intelligence grounds for denying personhood? Is someone completely amoral not a person? Perhaps. Is any of these things are the things that really matter to personhood and some humans fail to meet the condition(s), then maybe some exceptional humans are not persons.

The other side to this is the developmental disjunct. Maybe an unborn human is unable to enter a relationship, well below whatever an intelligence criterion might be, and amoral. But, the likelihood of developing into such a being is high, given adequate resources. And we can assume some level of resources because if you starve anyone, they will degrade and likely lose these conditions. There might be something question-begging about saying only the present individual counts, unless some further reason is given. One might look to people who are comatose or asleep. They fail the conditions, except maybe being in relationships. Yet going to sleep doesn’t make you not a person. But the defender of abortion can appeal to someone sleeping having a personal history. Though maybe going into a permanent coma does deprive one of personhood. Or dying. Are dead people still people? If they are, then being alive isn’t even a requirement. It doesn’t seem entirely absurd, though, to say that dead people are people. In which case maybe the personal history requirement is just the crucial requirement for personhood that captures all the cases we would otherwise want but excludes the unborn.

The problem here is just that now we’re stuck asking what a personal history is. My working hypothesis for a condition for personhood is something like personal history, and I take the lines to be drawn not by strict logical requirements, but rather by a general understanding of what a story of someone’s life looks like. Now, maybe “I know it when I see it” isn’t all that helpful in figuring out whether unborn humans are people. It may just leave us right where we started. But, as I said, just finding a necessary condition for personhood is enough, even if it’s not the most restrictive true necessary condition. That is, maybe the real bar is higher, but if we find a bar that’s not too high but the unborn still cannot meet, then the case against the second premise is made. So maybe a condition like this: someone is a person only if she is able to engage in interpersonal relationships or can use language or can use concepts or is intelligent or has moral understanding. Surely that’s too low a bar for personhood, but it doesn’t seem too high in any important regard, and unborn humans don’t clear it.

To summarize:

  • The best argument to make abortion illegal has two premises, each of which must be argued separately.
  • The first question  is whether, even if unborn humans are people, abortion is one of the exceptions in which we think killing people ought to be legal. The argument against the legality of abortion demands that abortion is not justifiable.
  • The second question  is whether unborn humans are people. While a complete definition of personhood is not needed, the argument against the legality of abortion demands that unborn humans do fall within the boundaries of personhood.

Even if the Bible is not the law, it is the document a lot of Americans look to for values

In the US, a lot of people are Christian. Christianity is a big enough force in the country that the “Religious Right” is a thing. While not all Republicans are concerned with religion, it’s at least a staple of the party, and any conservative politician will at least pay lip service to it. The Trump administration is no exception, and it has indeed tried to justify itself with the Bible.

In response to this and the absolutely infernal acts the administration is propagating, some others have pointed out that a good reading of the Bible will lead one to find condemnations of categories of things that include treating immigrants and refugees horribly.

In response to this response, some have stepped back and tried to deny any authority to the Bible either way:


In some sense, yes, this is right. Though the second paragraph makes a subtle shift. Most people who are talking about the application of Jesus’s words to tearing kids from their parents are not trying to make a legal argument. I would be very surprised to find someone saying that tearing kids from their parents is illegal. Plenty of people are saying that it’s wrong, or that people should not tear kids from their parents, but that’s not the same as saying it’s illegal.

There are Constitutional provisions in the US restricting how laws can interact with religion. Though there’s an under-appreciated distinction between policies and the reasons behind policies. This comes up when people talk about the political compass too. Someone could be, say, authoritarian-left for a variety of different, even contrary reasons. But if you’re just trying to measure the concrete policies people support, then the motivations are abstracted away.

Likewise, people have all sorts of motivations for voting the way that they do. Many people, citizens and legislators, look to religion for guidance on which ways to vote. And if it’s something like what to set the income tax rates at or whether usury ought to be legal, then that’s a thing people can do. (There is some slippery room with legislators openly voting based on religious beliefs for policies without religious content, but even then, most people will let their values or morality tell them how to vote, and many people get those values from religion. You’re just one step removed.)

So in the sense of whether the Bible is the document that the agents of the state are supposed to consult in governing the country, no, of course not. You look to the laws and the will of the people. However, most of the people behind the laws and will are Christians. You might not like that. I’m not arguing whether that’s a thing worth trying to change, but for now, it is the case, and it will almost certainly be the case for at least several more years. So even if you think a long-term strategy of diminishing Christianity or religion in general is good, short-term solutions to urgent problems are also needed.

Public opinion and outcry does seem to have some effect on what the US government does. (Just yesterday Trump signed an order to keep families together. This may have been the Republican plan all along, but nonetheless, the plan at least had to incorporate public reactions.) So, to get good outcomes, we should include persuading the public to support the right policies. To do this requires appealing to the values people have. (We should also try to instill better values, but, again, that’s a long-term move.) In this case, adherence to the values of Christianity is a value a lot of people already have, and Jesus is pretty clear on this topic. So even if you or I think the Bible is not the document to look at for guidance in organizing society, plenty of people do, and they’re going to act as such. So we may as well point out that Jesus said to be good to people, as well as other things condemning pretty much everything ICE and company do.

Now, one might argue that if the majority religion were some other religion that supported these atrocities, then we would want people to steer away from what it says. Sure. We rarely appeal to every value anyway. In that case we would not look to adherence to religious teachings as a value and pick other values to appeal to. We can see this here, anyway. Most people probably take the obtaining of wealth as a value. Taking in refugees does not clearly serve that end. But for our purposes, that just means we don’t appeal to the value of money on this topic.

“People can still kill without guns” is a stupid argument against gun control

Some people argue against gun control on the basis of other methods to kill existing. To put their argument in a valid form:

  1. We should control guns only if no other methods to kill people exist.
  2. Other methods to kill people exist.
  3. So, we should not control guns.

They state 2, which is obviously true. The problem is that 1 is obviously false. The generalization, “We should control X only if no other method to do what X does exists,” entails not controlling almost anything. Now perhaps someone wants to go in on that, but the only way I see that happening is if they are just anti-control in general. But then 2 is irrelevant.

Killing people is also just one feature of guns. Guns can also do other things. Guns also kill people differently from how other things kill people. On the second point, guns are different from knives in how efficiently they can be used for killing. On the first point, the uses of guns and knives are very different. So, consider a refined argument for gun control:

  1. If something is a particularly efficient tool for killing people and also is not much better than alternatives at some good function, then access to it should be restricted.
  2. Guns are a particularly efficient tool for killing people and also are not much better than alternatives at any good function.
  3. So, access to guns should be restricted.

To this, the objection that other methods of killing exist does not apply. Any of the following would be applicable objections:

  • Guns are not particularly efficient tools for killing people.
  • Guns are much better than alternatives for some good function.
  • Something is a particularly efficient tool for killing people and also is not much better than alternatives at some good function, and access to it should not be restricted.

The first option is just silly. Guns are great for killing people. That’s most of the appeal.

Some people do go in for the second option (they point to hunting, collecting, etc.), though that those are sufficiently good functions is very unclear.

I think the third option is right. I will not dive into it in this post, but an objection of that form needs to find one or more examples of things that are good for killing, not great for anything else, but should not be restricted. Of course, to just say guns fit the description would be to beg the question. Some other example, like bombs, needs to be given, and an argument for that made.

What does it say that people have no idea how to argue for caring about other people?

Certain debates prompt a certain article from the Huffington Post to make the rounds again. Sometimes it’s gun control; sometimes it’s health care. At this point people have mostly given up on linking to the article, preferring to state the headline and move on:

See the source image

Usually this comes from liberal spheres. On the occasion a leftist voice can be heard, sometimes a leftist will deal with the bad taste of Huffington Post long enough to repeat the line. That both of these types tend to respect expertise (or at least pay lip service to it) makes their lack of turning to the relevant experts rather odd. There are, after all, plenty of people who do know how to explain why you should care about other people. (Or, at least they claim to. I don’t think they succeed. But I’d certainly turn to at least a few moral philosophers before declaring the project impossible.)

Perhaps there’s really two problems one of these people might be having. The first is a lack of understanding why they should care about other people themselves. They find it basically aesthetically pleasing when people show care for other people, but their taste is fundamental. They cannot explain it to someone else because they have no explanation besides claiming it as a brute fact.

The second is a pedagogical problem. Even if Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals does successfully explain why you should care about other people, whipping a copy of it at a nearby person who doesn’t care about other people is unlikely to persuade them. If any moral philosophy is right, it’s probably right in a way that’s difficult to understand. Most people are not well-equipped to impart the arguments to others. But then, that’s usually the result of not having much of an argument for it for themselves. So the problem is probably the first in most cases.

But if there’s no reason to care, then demanding anyone else abide by your arbitrary maxim is absurd. “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about the rights of grass” sounds silly. Vegans often do know how to explain to you that you should care about animals. Perhaps this is just an accident of their coming to veganism from a position of non-veganism. The arguments don’t always persuade, but they are at least better than throwing their arms up and saying “I don’t know how to explain to you that you should care about animals.”


The successes of the walking out protests

Some students walked out of school today in response to the latest shooting. Some people, primarily non-students, are very upset about this. A run-down of the bad arguments I’ve seen levied against the walkout, and why each one is ridiculous. Put together, they reveal the opposition is people digging their heels into the ground for entirely selfish reasons.

Bad argument #1: The kids are just walking out because they want to ditch class.

Why it’s ridiculous: Pretty much anyone who wants to ditch class already ditches class. Nothing about a protest magically creates the ability to leave the room. Any day of the year all one has to do is stand up and leave. Or just not even go.

Also, the walkout lasted seventeen minutes. That’s not even a full class period. I’d be surprised to see anywhere it’s even half a class period. If the goal was getting out of class, some other length of time would have made more sense. As would doing something more fun than protesting.

Bad argument #2: Teenage texting and driving is a much bigger problem than school shooters.

Why it’s ridiculous: The most obvious reason is that we can care about multiple things. There are more car crashes than homicides, yet pretty much everyone is on board with taking measures to prevent homicide. Being kidnapped off the street and tortured is worse than having your place burgled at night, but you still bother locking the door.

This bad argument reveals a truer motive, though. The people making this argument are largely not involved in schools anymore. But they are on the roads sometimes. So to them teenage texting and driving is a bigger problem than school shootings. I don’t have any argument against such grotesque selfishness, but they will have no principled objection to being robbed, so I advise anyone to take advantage of their moral permission to have their stuff.

(A subordinate problem: This argument usually relies on death toll alone. It ignores the other effects of each. For the most part, people still drive just fine despite people texting on the roads. However, education is itself thwarted when the students are too afraid of a possible attack to focus on learning. You may as well send the kids home.)

Bad argument #3: Walk UP not OUT.

Why it’s ridiculous: There are several ways this is ridiculous. The first is that it’s just a continuation of the selfishness from before. A societal problem exists, and the people making this argument want to push all of the work of fixing the problem onto the students. Nevermind whether the solution actually makes sense. But let us consider why it doesn’t make sense.

Many of the people shooting up schools are terrible people. Possibly all of them. You have bunches of people who are exemplars of pernicious sociopathy and the incel subreddit. People who demand a right to abusive relationships lest they start killing people are not the people to spend much time with. Asking someone to enter an abusive relationship with someone else for your own benefit is another level of ridiculous.

On the other side, this argument itself is harmful. There are a lot of quiet kids out there who are quite peaceful. In fact, most kids who are content to sit in the corner and read a book alone have no desire to shoot anyone. Yet the propagators of this argument are scare-mongering about them, making their lives worse. Stop it.

Bad argument #4: Those are seventeen minutes they should have spent learning.

Why it’s ridiculous: See the subordinate problem to #2. Learning requires a healthy state of mind. Nobody worrying if they’re about to die is paying attention to fractions and chlorophyll. If you care about learning, you care about having an environment in which learning can be done. This argument is just another expression of wanting to not have to deal with even the slightest discomfort over a problem that does not directly affect oneself.

A success or two: At the very least, the protests have kicked up a lot of dust. These four bad arguments, and others, have been forced into the light where they can be seen as the ridiculous selfishness that they are.

Many schools have issued punishments for the students who took part in the protests. For the most part, I see people lamenting this (or continuing to spew vitriol toward anyone who dares question any element of the status quo not directly harming themselves, but I will ignore them here), but the opposition reveals the success of the protest. If the protest had no opposition, it would be pointless as a protest. Either everyone would already be in agreement and so no protest would be needed, or the protest would fail to attract enough attention to do anything.

Some people simply do not like the discomfort of possible change if the change isn’t directly benefiting them. We see it here. We saw it when people kneeled during the national anthem at football games. We see white people denying racism because they haven’t experienced it themselves. But now they are uncomfortable with the status quo. And of course their first move is to whine. Then they lash out against anyone daring to demand a better world. But, somewhere along the line, movement happens. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And hopefully the kids sitting in detention recognize that their punishment means their protest is working.

Watching the development of protest strategies has also been, in a way, pleasant. Posts have been circulating with directions on how to present the protest. Because some stubborn asses are prone to attacking the character of the protesters, they’ve designed the right way to appear in such a way that the asses have no ammunition to use. (Mostly ammunition for BA#1.)

Perhaps the biggest actual problem—and I don’t think it’s that big right now—is a lack of concrete demands. Right now the demand is to do something about gun violence in schools.  That’s great for getting the ball rolling. But if nothing concrete is figured out, it may fizzle like OWS. (Of course, concretization will also lead to new arguments. For example, if they go for gun control, all the the arguments against gun control will come out against them. Right now any time someone tries to dive into gun control, one can point out that the protests are not calling for gun control, but for something to be done. That move will stop being available.)

An inverted values argument for the importance of whether skeptical hypotheses matter

Skeptical hypothesis are nice philosophical quandries. Do we have reason to believe the world we perceive is real? Maybe we’re brains in vats or under the spell of an evil demon.  (What is this “we”, anyway? How do I know there’s any experiences besides my own?) I spend a fair bit of my thinking time on these problems. Berkeley wrote a substantial amount on why skeptics are wrong, and I also spend a fair bit of time thinking about Berkeley.

But someone might think that these questions don’t really matter. They might say the quandries are fun little puzzles, but don’t ultimately matter. I think that’s entirely wrong, and here’s one argument against it:

Let’s assume there is some value. If there isn’t, then this whole point is rather moot. Moreover, value happens at the level of reality. If anything at an imaginary or virtual level is of value, it’s only in virtue of impact on the real. For example, nothing in a video game matters in itself. But, what happens in a video game can matter for the real players.

For the sake of argument, let’s say petting kittens is good, and kicking kittens is bad. But of course we’re concerned with real kittens. Enter the skeptic. She suggests that there is a demon that inverts our perceptions of these two things. Whenever you appear to pet a kitten, in reality a kitten is kicked. But whenever you appear to kick a kitten, in reality a kitten is petted. If that were the case, then you should act to appear as though you are kicking kittens. When you see someone pet a kitten, you should condemn them.

This could be generalized to nearly any pair of values. You could also remove the pairing and just have a neutral thing correspond with a good or bad thing. Perhaps tapping your fingers on a table in appearance causes a real kitten to be kicked. Then you better not tap your fingers on a table in appearance.

(Of course, I think that hypothesis is wrong, but my point is that its being wrong is important.)

Contradiction: Democracy and business

Another contradiction I noticed (five years ago, forgot, and was reminded of today): Some people say we should run the government like a business. They often say voting for a certain person for political office is good because the person has experience in business. At the same time, many of these people will express adoration for democracy. And, no, they are not suggesting business ought to be democratized. (For leftists who want to democratize the workplace, there’s no contradiction here.)

Running the government like a business is silly enough on its own. States have many purposes. Ideally the well-being of the population is high on the list. For most people, that’s at least an ideal to aim for. Businesses aim to profit. Some have subsidiary aims, but monetary or capital gain is the primary aim. (There are some businesses, like Sears, that have been seized and abused for personal gain, but that’s even further from what we want from a state.)

Inherent silliness aside, extoling democracy (and equality) at the same time is paradoxical. Businesses are almost all run in a very hierarchical model. And in practice you usually see them ignoring democratic ideals for the sake of reverence to the structural hierarchy. (But you also see the opposite—like many of these paradoxical pairs of beliefs, usually the convenient one for the moment is the one that comes out. If the structural authorities are in their favor, the respect for structural authority comes out. If not, suddenly a need for more democratic freedom is needed. There is, at bottom, no principle.)