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.
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Some media is better than other media

This article is excellent. I don’t agree with everything in it, but I think it has two very good and important points:
 
1. If you give up on things like value judgements and expertise, you lose almost all ground you have to say much with oomph. Some things are better than some other things. Aesthetically as well as politically. Media created with nuance and skill is better than kitsch and propaganda. People who spend a lot of time studying a thing do tend to know better than most about that thing. “Elitism” has become such a bad word that we’ve forgotten that it is better to be better.
 
2. Texts (and other works, but usually texts) that are difficult and slow, but rewarding, to work through have benefits over fast and easy media. Simple messages are easy to use as rallying cries. For good or bad causes. If something takes no thought to consume, then it usually won’t get much thought in its consumption. This isn’t to say that writing in such a way that is needlessly difficult to understand is a good thing, but works that reward reading slowly and rereading and analysizing are better.
 
 

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.”

 

Whether to accelerate is not so much a question of values

To oversimplify, but catch the essence of, the case for acceleration versus putting a band aid on the status quo, the agreed seems to be that:
Right now x=h people are dying/being substantially harmed/bad thing per year.
Accelerating would increase that to an average of h=x+a for y years, but then decreasing it to h=x-b for z years.
The band aid Bernie would decrease it to h=x-c for w years.

If you think b*z-a*y>c*w, you accelerate. If not, you put a band aid on things. But of course since the latter option is closer to the status quo, we conveniently ignore the magnitude of x in the first place. People endorsing such an option point to the damage done to a and c while sweeping under the rug the damage done to b.

I think b is massive. The group b also includes at least intensively defined pretty much the entire sets of a and c. So the question is less of values (unless an extreme focus on short terms gains is a value in play) and more an empirical difference.

A new answer to the trolley problem, plus follow-up on likely outcomes

The problem: A train is going down some tracks, as trains do. I am standing many yards away. I can see the train, but I cannot get any nearer to it. The track the train is on will soon have it run over and kill five people, because they are tied to the tracks. But! I have a lever that will make the train go down a different track. However, that track has one person tied to it. What am I, a moral agent, to do?

The solution: I close my eyes and rapidly pull the lever back and forth. This takes my agency out of the question and leaves it to God. Since God is perfectly good, they will make the morally best decision.

The follow-up: My friend who knows a bit more about track-based transportation than I do pointed out to me that this answer leads to multi-track drifting. The front of the train will go down one set of tracks. The rear will go down another. Thus, this solution kills all six people.

If the tracks are too far apart, then the train will derail. Then the surrounding environment will determine what happens. If the tracks are in a secluded area, then nothing of further note will happen. If there are things on the train’s new, freer path, then the train will hit them.

Regardless, the train is unlikely to be usable again, thereby solving the problem once and for all.

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.)

I’m all out of charity for the GOP politicians

A more…eloquent(?) way of putting what I’ve said before: Try as I might, there’s no charitable reading of the current GOP plan. There’s no understanding them as doing good with some different values or set of knowledge. I could see why a good-hearted person would vote for things I find abhorrent (anti-abortion bills, anti-gay bills, pro-trickle down bills, etc.)

The only explanation for this is a mix of
1. Abandoning any idea of good for people and just using the law to attack political opposition and
2. Abandoning explaining away pro-wealthy and pro-ownership class policies as good for everyone and just ignoring almost all of the population entirely.

Conservative defenses welcome. (A conservative defense of raising income taxes would be interesting.)