Saturday, November 05, 2005

Abortion (and infanticide): Part II

Yesterday, I presented a general discussion on the moral issue of abortion. Today, I would like to go through some more specific issues. I will not repeat the main core of my argument, and ask the reader to review yesterday’s entry for a review. Here, I will give some implications.

Should a wife be required to notify her husband before having an abortion?

Answer: Not by law. She should discuss it with him and, if they had a healthy relationship, she would do so. However, a just law would not require it of her. The fetus has not yet developed to the point where it has a brain, and thus has interests, then the woman does not need the father's permission or even to inform the father before having an abortion. I am not denying that the father has interests at stake in whether the abortion takes place. However, the father’s interests entail no right to the use of the mother’s body, without her consent, to advance those interests.

If, however, the fetus has a brain and thus has interests, then notifying the father would still not change the moral status of the abortion. The father still has no right to advance his interests by demanding the use of the mother’s body without her consent. More importantly, any interests the father does have are quite insignificant compared to those of the fetus which now has a brain and has interests of its own.

Does the father have any rights regarding a pregnancy at all?

Answer: No. No man has a right to the use of a woman's body without her consent to advance any interests of his own. Denying this is to treat women as property, whose purpose (like any property) is to serve as a tool for people to use in advancing their own interests. A man has no right to treat a woman like a chain saw or a hammer that he may use to obtain his own ends.

Should there be a waiting period before having an abortion?

Answer: No. If the fetus has not yet developed to the point where it has a brain, and thus has interests, then there is no right or duty to permit the use of a woman's body without her consent for one moment longer than she is willing to have it used. Imagine a rapist, using a woman's body without her consent, telling her, "You must endure this for at least a few minutes to decide whether or not you really like it before you are allowed to say no." It is her body. She has no obligation to wait.

If, however, the fetus has a brain and thus has interests, then waiting will not make the abortion any more morally permissible.

What happens if the mother does not have the opportunity to deny consent before the fetus develops a brain?

This question asks us to consider a situation such as one in which a woman was held under duress or forced against her will to continue a pregnancy past the point where the fetus develops a brain and thus has interests. At this point, would abortion be wrong?

Answer: No. If the woman had no opportunity to deny consent, then she has a decision to make the instant she finds herself in a position to give or withhold consent. If she decides against abortion at that moment, then she is bound by that decision until birth unless her life is in danger or some other extraordinary circumstance develops. However, she has the “first right of refusal” to the use of her body by another person.

What is a person?

I think that debates about the moral permissibility of abortion generally go nowhere largely because they focus on disputes over what counts as a "person." That dispute, in turn, is founded on a false assumption. That false assumption infects every conclusion that anybody might want to defend, making all conclusion indefensible.

Let me explain what I mean by this.

The "personhood" debate assumes that as soon as an entity acquires a particular set of properties (intelligence, human DNA, blue eyes) that it acquires a corresponding moral property of "personhood" as well. Personhood is said to "supervene" on these physical properties.

The task, then, is to discover just which set of physical properties entails this moral property. So far, nobody has been able to come up with a clear answer. There are problems with every proposal.

Some people may try to analyze this problem by saying that "personhood" is like "game". Try to give me a precise set of attributes where anything that fits into this description is properly called "a game", while, at the same time, it does not end up including things that are not commonly thought of as games. You will certainly fail.

I do not think that this analysis works. The reason that we have no precise definition of "game" -- the reason that the term is vague -- is because we have no use for a precise definition. Giving a term a precise definition and promulgating that definition is a lot of work, which is only worthwhile if we can gain a corresponding benefit from the more precise communication this allows. Science does this, because science recognizes a substantial benefit from doing so. Mathematics does this as well. For "game", there are insufficient benefits to compensate for these costs.

For "personhood," there is value in having a precise definition, but we cannot seem to find one that works.

The reason for this is because “personhood” is a moral term. That is to say, it is an “ought” term. To say, “X is a person” is to say that certain things ought not to be done to X and that one has obligations to treat X in particular ways. At the same time, all of the physical properties that this ‘ought’ term is supposed to supervene on are “descriptive” physical properties. The tell us what is true of the entity – that it has distinct human DNA, that it has a brain with desires, that it has blue eyes, or whatever different people use in claiming that it is a “person”.

The 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume warned us in one of the most famous passages in moral theory of the difficulties in deriving ‘ought’ from ‘is.’ The difficulties of this derivation are what stands in the way of defining a set of physical properties on which moral value supervenes. In short, this inference cannot be made.

Those who know my writing know that I deny that no set of "is" statements entails an "ought". I hold that "is such as to fulfill the desires in question" entails an "ought." I know that many would dispute this. However, for the purpose of this issue, it is not important. The supervenience of personhood on some set of natural properties raises exactly the types of problems that Hume was warning us about.

For the most part, the is/ought problem tells us that the standard “personhood” debate is a waste of time. We have to look elsewhere to find answers to the questions.

Debates on personhood are never going to go anywhere.

This inevitable failure applies as well to anybody who says that the moral property of “personhood” supervenes on an entity having desires. This is not my argument. The section, “Children and Animals”, in the previous post addresses this issue.

Yet, I still suspect, that the bulk of the objections that will be raised against this view will come from the false assumption that it attributes intrinsic moral worth to an entity in virtue of the fact that it has desires or preferences. This is a position I reject, though I do not have the space to detail those objections here.

Those who want a more detailed account these aspects of my view should visit my web site for a more detailed account of the moral foundation that I apply in writing these articles.


Anonymous said...

Your argument seems to fall into the same trap of many abortion arguments, secular or religious, in that you insist on drawing a bright line and then try to rationalize why that line should be drawn. You say that when the fetus has a brain is when abortion shouldn't take place, and you rationalize this by saying that an entity with a brain has interests and can feel pain. Realizing that someone may argue agains this by saying a dog or a hamster has a brain and can feel pain, you then say that humans have the potential to have more complex feelings and thoughts than animals. But if you're going to resort to potentiality arguments, you may as well draw your bright line at the embryo stage. If you're going to resort to brain-development arguments, you have to wait until the fetus/baby has a more complex brain than a cow or a pig - animals that are killed on a regular basis - or make the argument that it is unethical to kill any animal with a brain. But the brain-development argument and the potentiality argument are not complimentary, at least not how you framed them, so it has to be one or the other but not both.

Anonymous said...

In the post above, "against" not "agains", "complementary" not "complimentary" ... darnn tipos

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Freddy: As I said, the one argument I reject is one that says that a physical property (personhood) can supervene on a physical property (brain development, potentiality). This violates the is/ought distinction. That is why both of these arguments fail.

My argument is based on the "tendency to fulfill other desires" argument.

One desire that tends to fulfill other desires is an aversion to doing harm. One cannot harm (in a morally relevant sense -- recall the example with chopping down a tree) an entity that lacks desires. Therefore, the aversion to doing harm does not argue against aborting a fetus that has no desires. Yet, it argues against harming a fetus that has developed to the point that it does have desires.

We can expect that, in general, by the time a fetus reaches the point that it has a brain, that others have made a decision to keep the child, they want it, and a large number of additional desires are now in the mix. Those desires can be thwarted. In general, killing a child will, in fact, tend to thwart more and stronger desires than killing an animal. It is this that makes the killing of the child wrong -- the fact that others, with an interest in this child, will suffer the thwarting of their desires if harm is done, more so than would be done with animals.

So, your objection still involves the "moral (person) properties can supervene on nonmoral (development, DNA) properties" that I reject. In rejecting the assumption, I can reject all objections that are grounded on that assumption.

Anonymous said...

We're not arguing about a woman who wants her baby, we're talking about a woman who wants to abort her baby, so I'm not quite sure what you're saying here:

We can expect that, in general, by the time a fetus reaches the point that it has a brain, that others have made a decision to keep the child, they want it, and a large number of additional desires are now in the mix.

If the others you're talking about are, for example, the father of the baby or other interested parties, then their interests in the matter are no different after the fetus develops a brain as before. I confess I don't understand your is/ought argument, but as far as desires go, if you're saying that it is wrong to abort a fetus with a brain because the fetus feels pain and wants to live, then I think my argument that a cow or a pig, both of which have superior brain development to a fetus, should have the same rights has to be accounted for. Otherwise, you're arguing from potentiality, at which point there's no need to bring in brain development, since an embryo is no less a potential person than a fetus with a brain.

Anonymous said...

An opinion, an observation and a question:

First the KEY question: What meaning do you give to the word "supervene". Apparently you mean something much more specific than what I find at, which is vague but gives the impression that this word applies to surprises or unpredictable things.

Second the observation: It seems that Freddy makes more sense than you. Either the actual mental capacity makes a difference, in which case it seems inappropriate to rate the fetus (or a person in a coma) above a dog or cat; or the potential capacity is the key, in which case the one-celled zygote qualifies. But perhaps your position will make more sense after I try to find the relevant "account of [your] moral foundation" on your website. (Any hints would be appreciated.)

Finally the opinion: I am not convinced that mental capacity (actual, potential, or otherwise) is the key factor here. And given the desirability of attaining a legal compromise which is reasonably comfortable to the maximum number of people, we may have to give up on being completely consistent at that level. (But such compromises should be built upon clear-headed and consistent thinking by all sides beforehand.)

- GordonB

Anonymous said...

I am most certainly pro-life and very proud of it. I know you don't believe in God or Heaven and I'm assuming you wouldn't believe in Satan or Hell but trust me friend "just because you don't believe in the existance of such things doesn't make them any less real." I am currently a non-practicing Christian because I am stubborn and rebellious against authority. I consider myself to be open-minded and to listen to peoples viewpoints without passion or prejudice so that I can try and understand where they are coming from. I've even tried to adopt the philosophy of atheism or agnosticism to try and better understand its potential benefits if there are any but I find it virtually impossible to do so. Once you've been given proof/evidence of His existence or even if it is just perceived proof (because perception IS an individuals reality) it is damn near impossible to deny it. Not only that but I don't see any benefit in not believing in God. If indeed there is a Heaven then its sounds like a pretty good alternative to Hell. If I believe in God and the Bible and then die and find out that none of it was true, oh well so what. I haven't lost a thing. Even non-Christians can benefit from implementing Christian concepts, values and philosophies into there own lives. You don't have to believe in God to know that there is some Pretty Good Stuff in the Bible. But anyway getting back to the abortion issue. The only reason people try to justify that it is not morally or ethically wrong to do this is because they are trying to eradicate their own guilt for killing another human being. Everyone knows that it is potentially possible to get pregnant when you have sex. Abortionist are just people who do not want to take responsibility for thier own actions. I know you will not agree with this and I respect your right to have your own opinion. In a way it might even be best for the child not to be born and grow up with people who think that abortion is ok. I would ask such people why they wouldn't just go thru with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption. But these type of hedonistic individuals are not on the side of life, nature, or God so they wouldn't get any instant gratification (which is all they seek) from making another family happy.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


> The only reason people try to justify that it is not morally or ethically wrong to do this is because they are trying to eradicate their own guilt for killing another human being.

Your argument depicts another moral crime that I write about often -- that of intellectual recklessness. In short, you show a tendency to make up reasons to believe what you do. Instead of basing your beliefs on the evidence, you decide on what to believe, and then make up the evidence.

Nobody that I know of has ever had an abortion.

Even if this were not the case, your thinking exhibits the fallacious reasoning of argumentum ad hominem. Rather than address the arguments, you attack the person making the arguments, making accusations against him. Your accusations, even if true, would not defeat my argument.

If I believe in God and the Bible and then die and find out that none of it was true, oh well so what.

If your actions only affected you, then I would agree.

However, if you believe in God and the Bible, and because of that belief you live your life bringing harm to others (because the Bible tells you so), and there is no God, the harm you have done is still real. You have victimized real-world people for no real-world reason.

There are many people using religion as an excuse for spreading misery in the real world today. They harm a pregnant women -- treating them as property of the state. They harm homosexuals by denying them happiness. They promote sickness, disease, and death by standing in the way of the medical advances that would fight these diseases.

These harms are very real. People suffer and die because of this, and that is not a trivial concern.

There are religious people who think that God commands them to do good and to help others. They bring happiness to others, treat illnessess, and fight poverty. These are truly good people.

The people I complain about are those who harm to others -- by banning abortion, outlawing homosexual marriage, blocking stem-cell medical research; promoting suffering, disease, and death.

This harm would still have been real, even if your reasons for doing harm are not.

Anonymous said...

While the question of personhood may be a difficult one, I don't think it's one any ethical discussion can avoid. Most of our ethical system is about how we treat other persons, with much different care given to non-person organisms and non-living things.

How about using a Turing Test to determine personhood? We already informally use Turing Tests to determine personhood on a regular basis. It's how I determined that you, the author of this essay, was a person. It's how I determined that the automated voice system I called to get help on a technical problem wasn't a person. Your comment system uses a graphical test, inspired by the Turing Test, to attempt distinguish between persons and rigid, stupid program.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


I do not hold that the question of personhood is "difficult", I hold that it is "impossible" because the question itself only makes sense if one begins with a false assumption -- that intrinsic values exist.

The question of personhood is the question of what properties an entity must have in order to acquire the property of intrinsic value. Since intrinsic value does not exist, then there can be no set of properties on which "personhood" can supervene.

This is not to say that a moral objection cannot be made against killing a fetus. It says that the argument must be based on those types of values that do exist, as opposed to making the case on the basis of those types of values that do not exist.

amomluvsu said...

"entail no right to the use of the mother’s body, without her consent, to advance those interests."

I disagree.

The consent happened when she had consensual ( notice we are in context of marriage)sex with her spouse and created a life that consisted of not only her DNA - but his too. There is no reason to assume a father's regard for his offspring, born or not- is of less value or importance than the mother. Just because she is the carrier, is no reason to think the fathers input is of no importance. After all, half the genetic material belongs to him. If married , there is reason to assume he will be at least partially responsible for supplying resources.

Or what if it is just the mother ... What makes the abortion of the unborn child - who is dependent on her for resources and survival ... different from a child in the crib who is the same? Is it justifiable to then kill that child too based on the fact the child has no right to make use of the mothers body without her consent? I can withdraw my consent? Can the same be said for the baby - that the mother has no right to make use of its body without its consent...????

The brain clause you threw in was a shiner too.

What about intrinsic value versus extrinsic value of human life - other animals aside. As an atheist I have heard many times, other atheists referring to Gods extrinsic valuing of life and how repugnant that concept is. What makes it less so if a human is doing that to her own unborn child? Does the unborn human life possess value itself? Or is that value determined by the mother? If we believe in intrinsic value - who can take away that value - of unborn, and say it's then ok to kill that life? If no one but ourselves can take away our value, by choices made - then what of a mother killing an unborn child who has yet to make choices?

Sorry if not well put ... I'm eating oatmeal cookies with my 2 year old ... we both have consent.

amomluvsu said...

"The question of personhood is the question of what properties an entity must have in order to acquire the property of intrinsic value. Since intrinsic value does not exist, then there can be no set of properties on which "person hood" can supervene"

Did I miss the evidence or the part where we proved intrinsic value doesn't exist?