Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Words and Argumentation: Abortion

Mark and I have a longstanding argument about abortion over at his place. It generally starts like this:
Mark: Abortion is wrong because fetuses are humans and it's wrong to kill humans.
Me: You're just begging the question by overloading the word "humans." When we say "fetuses are humans," we mean it in a biological sense. When we say "it's wrong to kill humans," we are no longer talking about the biological sense, but a moral one.

Today, I came across a great post at Overcoming Bias that might be helpful. Excerpt:

In the game Taboo (by Hasbro), the objective is for a player to have their partner guess a word written on a card, without using that word or five additional words listed on the card. For example, you might have to get your partner to say "baseball" without using the words "sport", "bat", "hit", "pitch", "base" or of course "baseball"...

But then, by the time I discovered the game, I'd already been practicing it for years - albeit with a different purpose.

Yesterday we saw how replacing terms with definitions could reveal the empirical unproductivity of the classical Aristotelian syllogism:

All [mortal, ~feathers, biped] are mortal;
Socrates is a [mortal, ~feathers, biped];
Therefore Socrates is mortal.

But the principle applies much more broadly:

Albert: "A tree falling in a deserted forest makes a sound."
Barry: "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not make a sound."

Clearly, since one says "sound" and one says "~sound", we must have a contradiction, right? But suppose that they both dereference their pointers before speaking:

Albert: "A tree falling in a deserted forest matches [membership test: this event generates acoustic vibrations]."
Barry: "A tree falling in a deserted forest does not match [membership test: this event generates auditory experiences]."

Now there is no longer an apparent collision - all they had to do was prohibit themselves from using the word sound. If "acoustic vibrations" came into dispute, we would just play Taboo again and say "pressure waves in a material medium"; if necessary we would play Taboo again on the word "wave" and replace it with the wave equation. (Play Taboo on "auditory experience" and you get "That form of sensory processing, within the human brain, which takes as input a linear time series of frequency mixes.")

...

The illusion of unity across religions can be dispelled by making the term "God" taboo, and asking them to say what it is they believe in; or making the word "faith" taboo, and asking them why they believe it. Though mostly they won't be able to answer at all, because it is mostly profession in the first place, and you cannot cognitively zoom in on an audio recording.

When you find yourself in philosophical difficulties, the first line of defense is not to define your problematic terms, but to see whether you can think without using those terms at all. Or any of their short synonyms. And be careful not to let yourself invent a new word to use instead. Describe outward observables and interior mechanisms; don't use a single handle, whatever that handle may be.

I think that's brilliant. Let's revisit Mark's argument, replacing "human" with membership criteria. The original argument:

Mark: Abortion is wrong because fetuses are humans and it's wrong to kill humans.

I'll let Mark respond for himself, but my guess is that he'd replace the first "humans" with something like [membership test: contains a certain subset of DNA or carries the potential of becoming the animal homo sapiens if carried to term.] When we get to the second "humans," though, it's clear there is a problem. Why should it be a priori wrong to kill [membership test: contains a certain subset of DNA or carries the potential of becoming the animal homo sapiens if carried to term?] Since when do we base morality on that sort of thing?

When I think "killing humans is wrong," I mean that "killing [membership test: is an animal that has consciousness and feelings and self-awareness] is wrong." (Obviously, there are exceptions even to that, like self-defense, but that's tangential to this post.) So the question then becomes, does a fetus pass that test? My answer is no. (It's also interesting to note that animals who are not biologically homo sapiens may pass that test, like intelligent aliens or possibly apes and dolphins. Mark would have to use a separate argument for why it's wrong to kill those creatures if in fact he thinks it is wrong.)

Now Mark has rightly pointed out that people in comas also don't have consciousness, feelings, or self-awareness, but we still think it's wrong to kill them (at least while there's hope of recovery.) That just gets into what we mean by "having" consciousness, feelings, and self-awareness. Coma patients have had it, and may have it again, so we treat them as "having" it, as far as the question of killing goes. Fetuses have never had it, although they may have it in the future.

It's perfectly rational then, to argue that "killing [membership test: is an animal that has consciousness and feelings and self-awareness or will have them]" is wrong as well, but then one would have to justify that claim, rather than relying on the humans-humans argument. I'm not trying to prove that abortion is okay in this post, just that the humans-humans argument is sophistry.

20 comments:

Comrade Kevin said...

I don't even bother with splitting hairs in my pro-choice reasoning. Quite frankly, I think every child deserves to be wanted and since, statistically speaking, children who are wanted are usually the most stable, productive members of society, I suppose I take a kind of utilitarian tact.

Ezzie said...

I think this post is perfect evidence of how people can twist anything to morally justify their actions.

Jewish Atheist said...

Ezzie:

What do you mean?

Ezzie said...

A friend said something along the lines of

"mental gymnastics that the Chinese would be proud of".

I'd say it's incredible what one can do with a little wordplay.

Theresa said...

If you don't think that being a human in and of itself is a special sacred thing, then abortion is perfectly justifiable. But the entire idea of having rights is based upon the idea that humans are more than just animals and should be treated with the respect due such. All of your arguments could also be applied to justifying killing newborn infants which really is the only way you can justify abortion while still making sense so at least you are being consistent.

To Comrade Kevin, it is soooo completely wrong to give a person rights and values due to the opinion others have of them and the probability that they will be successful in life. That kind of thinking taken not very much further would lead to the bombing of slums.

CyberKitten said...

theresa said: If you don't think that being a human in and of itself is a special sacred thing, then abortion is perfectly justifiable.

I think its clear that *very* few people think that human beings are special or sacred. You just have to watch the news or have even a slight knowledge of history to see that.

theresa said: That kind of thinking taken not very much further would lead to the bombing of slums.

Strangely something that happens pretty much on a daily basis....

G said...

I'm sorry...what was your point?

Jewish Atheist said...

ezzie:

I'd say it's incredible what one can do with a little wordplay.

Can you be specific as to why you're calling it "wordplay?" What exactly do you disagree about?

And I find it especially ironic that an Orthodox Jew would say that! Doesn't the Talmud use the same kind of "wordplay" a million times over? Doesn't the Talmud consider a fetus not fully "human" in the sense that abortion is not murder?


theresa:

If you don't think that being a human in and of itself is a special sacred thing, then abortion is perfectly justifiable.

But what is a "human?" Is a zygote human? What makes a "human" a special sacred thing? If there is intelligent extraterrestrial life, are we more special and sacred than them? If so, why?

wil said...

Your definition of "human" [membership test: is an animal that has consciousness and feelings and self-awareness or will have them] seems really weak, as we have no reliable, objective way of detecting consciousness/self-awareness in other animals/humans. Your definition seems to boil down to your subjective feelings on the matter.

Kylopod said...

The abortion debate--as well as the animal rights debate--centers partly on the question of how broadly or narrowly we should define the class of entities deserving moral protection, as well as the nature of that protection. This touches on the question of why people should be moral in the first place. What is the purpose of morality? More specifically, why shouldn't we harm or destroy others? Once we answer that question (probably with some form of the Golden Rule), we can try to determine what "others" includes or excludes.

But we also need to ask where the burden of proof lies. Does it lie with the pro-lifers to prove that fetuses fall in the category of entities deserving protection from fatal harm? Or does it lie with the pro-choicers to prove that fetuses fall outside that category? What if we lack the knowledge needed to answer the question with certitude? Should we err on the side of protecting the fetus? Or should we give the rights to the mother because it's undetermined?

Anonymous said...

Comrade Kevin wrote: "I don't even bother with splitting hairs in my pro-choice reasoning. Quite frankly, I think every child deserves to be wanted and since, statistically speaking, children who are wanted are usually the most stable, productive members of society, I suppose I take a kind of utilitarian tact."

To be clear about my orientation on the matter of abortion, I think it's quite complex, and there are no obvious answers. I am neither a supporter of any and all abortions nor do I oppose any and all abortions. I think JA in the original post made valid points about the unhelpfulness of certain kinds of arguments, and I think Kylopod offered intelligent analysis, too.

And I must agree with Theresa about the inappropriateness of Comrade Kevin's point quoted above.

Supposed open-mindedness and compassion and "enlightenment," if not careful, can result in benighted cruelty. How much imagination does it take to realize that it was this very "utilitarian" argument of Comrade Kevin that had the Nazis kill the handicapped, the chronically ill, and others? In fact, this argument should have us kill orphans--and most non-white foster children (because they're not generally wanted for adoption) and many others who Comrade Kevin, or other Wise and Compassionate Special Ones determine to be unwanted.

Or, how about this: "I think every human deserves to have money. Therefore, let's kill all the poor people, and especially all their fetuses, because they are statistically more likey to be poor." Or, "I think every human deserves to be charming and good-looking. Therefore, let's kill all the introverts and plain-looking people, or especially their fetuses, because they are statistically less likely to be charming and good-looking."

Apparently, Comrade Kevin doesn't want to bother "splitting hairs," but he's quite comfortable splitting heads...all in the self-righteous arrogance of more-enlightened-and-compassionate-than-thou liberalism.


AgnosticWriter

Tigerboy said...

The point is that none of US gets to make this choice. We, as a society, pass laws. But ultimately, no matter what we say, "Mama" chooses the fate of her little one. Not us.

Across the animal kingdom, mothers make choices about whether their offspring live, or die. Their offspring, their choice.

It's "Mama's egg." She can sit on it in order to hatch it, or to crush it, as she chooses. It's under her jurisdiction. Possession, in this case, is more than 9 tenths of the law.

At what point does it become human? The better question is: At what point does it become a citizen?

It gains the rights that society affords her citizens at the point where it is born. Up until that point, it exists at the pleasure, good will, and continued good health of the mother.

If the fetus and the mother both want the birth, NO PROBLEM.

If there is a disagreement between the desires of the Mama and the presumed desires of the fetus, that is, one wants the birth and the other does not, there is our PROBLEM.

The Mama is a CITIZEN of this society. It IS in the interests of society to protect her rights, her health, her welfare. It is NOT in the interests of society to force her to gestate a child against her will.

Until that fetus is fully viable outside the womb, and some person, or group, or society is ready, willing, and able to take on the entire burden of it's care, the Mama chooses its fate.

If Mama wants to be rid of the fetus, she will find a way (possibly to the detriment of her own health and welfare). It is in society's interests to protect her health and welfare, and to protect her right to freely pursue her life, liberty, and happiness. These are the benefits of citizenship.

Extending ANY rights to the fetus tramples on the rights of the mother. She is the SINGLE and FINAL authority over what happens to HER body, and all who reside therein.

Women should be encouraged to use birth control.

Women should be encouraged to make a decision as early as possible.

Women should be encouraged to follow good pre-natal health care guidlines.

An argument can be made that women should be encouraged to consider adoption.

Women should have access to "safe harbor" places to drop-off unwanted newborns.

(Hurting a newborn is quite different from aborting a fetus. A newborn IS a citizen of the society in which it was born, and thus, a newborn's rights, health, and welfare must be protected by society, just like the rights of the Mama.)

But, like her arm, or her unfortunate tattoo, or her massive tumor, or her ruptured appendix, or her finger nails, . . . . a fetus is a part of HER body, and no one can, or should, force her to gestate it.

She may regret cutting off her own arm, but she has the right to do it. (She probably should be counseled that there are better ways to be rid of her unfortunate tattoo, but ultimately, that too is her choice.)

Any conflict between the desires of the Mama and the perceived desires of the fetus must be resolved in favor of the one who actually HAS some rights.

Anonymous said...

Tigerboy,

The question of abortion is, of course, a very emotional one, and a complex one. I won't engage in a debate about it here. But I will point out that asserting several questionable premises (such as comparing how humans should behave to what happens in the animal kingdom, or seeming to imply that a non-citizen has no rights, and comparing a fetus to an arm or tumor) does not intelligently advocate for any position--even if one shouts several of the words in all caps.

AgnosticWriter

CyberKitten said...

Has anyone figured out why humans are 'special' yet?

Also actually defining what 'human' actually means is fairly difficult, which just compounds the problem.

Tigerboy said...

AgnosticWriter:

I didn't say that a non-citizen has no rights.

A life-form that exists within, and is totally dependent upon the body of an unquestionably human being, a free agent, and one of our fellow citizens, has no rights. Extending rights to such a life-form would trample on the rights of the hostess.

Once we have the technology to gestate a blastocyst within an artificial womb, society will have to grapple with questions about whom does it serve, in an ever increasingly overpopulated world, whom does it serve to gestate unwanted fetuses?

Such technology, of course, will be a great boon to those infertile couples with the means and the desire to gestate such a fetus.

Until that time, a blastocyst must receive FAR LESS consideration, under the eyes of the law, than the the clear rights of the citizen/mother to control her own body, her own destiny, her own right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

"I won't engage in a debate about it here. But I will . . . "

I love that. I won't talk to you about abortion, but then again, that's exactly what I'll do . . . and then I'll make fun of the way you write.

By the way, I will add emphasis to my writing in ANY way that I choose.

And you may do the same, AgnosticWWWriter.

Anonymous said...

Tigerboy,

I have nothing against you personally. I don't know you. When someone writes things in a public forum, however--and especially when they advocate for one point of view and dismiss its alternative--they invite upon themselves a response that is not concerned primarily with their individual feelings, but with defending "the public square."

And of course anyone "can" write however they choose to. Manners are not about what we "can" do. They're about what well-behaved people do. You can burp in public, and go without a shower for a month--and it's not illegal. But if you did so, others would be right to call you on it.

Similarly, on an issue about which so many ethicists and philosophers and physicians and judges have agonized for years, when someone wades in and insists they have the clear-cut answer, and provide simplistic arguments--and, for good measure, throw in all-caps, the Internet equivalent of shouting--someone should tell them to shut up and sit down.

Adamance, plus a dollop of fifty-cent science words, plus another dollop of adolescent belligerence--and a second helping of all-caps words--still does not a good argument make.

I said in an earlier comment, and I repeat, that I will not debate the abortion issue here. And I won't. And if you don't see the distinction between, on the one hand, me taking a specific stand on abortion and arguing for it and, on the other hand, me simply pointing out that your premises were questonable--then you fail to see a very basic point.

On a complex issue such as abortion, glib positions presented with absolute certainty come across as immature. Do yourself a favor: Examine the intelligent arguments on the other side of the issue. You already think you know the arguments for your side (although I'm not so sure about that either).

I'll gladly let you have the last word on this--and will not reply to you further.

AgnosticWriter

Tigerboy said...

That's OK. I've said what I care to. My interest was in the topic of abortion, not blogging etiquette.

Since you prefer blogging etiquette . . . out of a post that was over 500 words long, I used all-caps on exactly 13 words. I would call that emphasis, not shouting. You may call it what you like.

As far as "advocating one point of view", I plead guilty. I am only one person. I expressed only one point of view because it happens to be my position on the subject.

Sorry you didn't care for it.

Anonymous said...

JA,

I appreciate your dispassionate examination of the subject. Before I go any further let me give my own position on abortion: It's counterproductive to try to keep women from having abortions. All that can be done is to eliminate the circumstances that make women feel that abortion is necessary.

Having said that, might I observe that your stance resembles one taken during the art vs. pornography debate.

-- It's art, therefore it okay to enjoy it.
--It's pornography, therefore it's not okay to enjoy it.

I say, it's pornography, and I enjoy it BECAUSE it's pornography.

On the topic of abortion, it breaks down like this.

-- It's human, therefore it's not okay to kill it.
-- It's not human, therefore it's okay to kill it.

So. Let us ponder the unthinkable: it's human, YET it's okay to kill it. This does sound barbaric, doesn't it? But imagine what havoc it would play against the Abortion Is Murder argument.

Rick
Austin, TX

CyberKitten said...

Rick said: So. Let us ponder the unthinkable: it's human, YET it's okay to kill it. This does sound barbaric, doesn't it?

No it doesn't. Without giving it much thought I can see at least 4 instances where it is considered OK to kill a human being:

Self-defence
War
Suicide
Capital Punishment

Killing other humans is far from unthinkable all you need to do is watch the news or read a newspaper for that idea to be demolished. What we have to decide is when it's appropriate (if ever) to take another's life. If the answer is never (including abortion) then we would not be allowed to defend ourselves against aggression nor should we wage war. Generalisations about the wrongness of taking a human life (raising again the question of why we are so special in this regard) don't really help much I'm afraid.

Anonymous said...

"When we get to the second "humans," though, it's clear there is a problem. Why should it be a priori wrong to kill [membership test: contains a certain subset of DNA or carries the potential of becoming the animal homo sapiens if carried to term?] Since when do we base morality on that sort of thing?"

since when do we value human life apart from consciousness and feelings?! Since doing otherwise devalues humanity. We dont value life of a person in a coma only because they "might" come out; we value it becaue we value human beings. Anyway, I think many would dispute your claim that fetuses have no feelings. They feel pain, they smile and play...