Thursday, December 10, 2009

Discussion on abortion and personhood w/Vocab Malone

Local Christian hip-hop artist and slam poet Vocab Malone, who I've interacted with online and met when Daniel Dennett spoke at ASU early this year, asked me in January for my thoughts on abortion and personhood. He's now written a paper on the subject which he's asked me to critique, and we thought it would be interesting to see how it would work out to do it in a public manner via our respective blogs. The plan is that he will post successive sections of his paper on his blog, and I'll respond here, with cross-links to share some traffic and discussion. Both of us allow blog comments; it probably makes the most sense to post your comments at the blog for the person you'd like to see a response from.

Vocab has posted an introduction and the comments that I originally sent to him on the subject at his blog, Backpack Apologetics. He's taking a position that I think is very difficult to justify, that full personhood and human rights are acquired at the moment of conception--we'll have to see which definition of conception he chooses, fertilization or implantation.

Just to throw out a little issue I raised this semester in one of my classes--some have argued that climate change raises the ethical issue of a duty to future generations. If we can have moral duties now to people who don't exist at all yet, what does that imply about duties to embryos?

11 comments:

Brad said...

Thought Vocab would have flipped world-view by now!

Re your last statement, it doesn't seem like being steward of the earth is equivalent to forcing women to carry a child.

Where taking of the earth is a long term continuous activity, the goal is to promote feasability of life.

Forcing women to have babies takes only a brief commitment and doesn't seem to entail concern for the potential human's well-being.

Where these two do cross is that we can dissolve the social and medical issues that necessitate abortion in the first place, and that will require continuous effort,

Jim Lippard said...

Brad: The issue my question is meant to raise is that it's often argued that we have no duties to embryos because they are merely potential, rather than actual persons. But future generations are even less actual than embryos--so how can we have a duty to them?

One possible way out might be to argue that the duty to future generations is not a duty to any particular individuals, though I'm not exactly sure how that should be parsed out. Population is itself a huge factor in CO2 emissions, that enormously complicates any ethical evaluation of climate change--which leads to the consequence that failing to actualize possible future people (e.g., by not reproducing) is a way of improving the lot of other possible future people.

Of course, in the really long-term, life on earth is certain to come to an end, which leads to questions about the relative values of maximizing species duration vs. quality of lives.

Brad said...

Well, if the issue is going to rest on determining an objective duty, I can see a lot of potential complication due to the fact that Vocab's duty is received from an insubstantial postulated authority while your duty may come from a need to self actualize and/or altruistic feelings.

Both "person-hood" and "duty" are terms loaded with variable content depending on the context.

"Is it a person? Well, we know where people come from, they start as blastocysts, so how does a person come from a non-person?" I can picture Vocab heating up his rhetoric engine.

In the end if ethical answers for you lead to the well-being of the most people" and his lead to "not violating the supernatural scheme of things"- Do you intend to solve something, or generate ideas?

Jim Lippard said...

Both would be nice, we'll see what happens. Although Vocab and I obviously come from different perspectives, I will be aiming to offer a critique that uses shared premises to the greatest extent possible.

I don't think he's going to start his argument from an appeal to the divine command theory of morality, though he may appeal to it at some point. The Bible doesn't place much of a premium on the value of fetuses.

Alan said...

Jim, you are quoted on Vocab saying, "I suspect that it is quite possible that the conditions of personhood are met by fetuses at some point of pre-natal development (but not necessarily--the 'mirror test' of self awareness is not passed by human beings until 18 mo to 2 years of age)..." A bioethics professor I had (37 years ago, I can't recall his name) taught that self awareness was the best point to identify personhood. He also added that the rights of personhood should be grantable by proxy. That is, a mother's love of an infant should be sufficient for purposes of law to confer full status of personhood to a pre-self aware fetus all the way back to conception. Conversely, lack of being wanted by the mother is sufficient reason to allow abortion. The big problem this raises is whether infanticide of a, say, six month old by both parents should be treated equivalent of first degree murder, while it can answer such questions as whether the murder of a pregnant woman should be treated as a double murder.

Eamon Knight said...

Just to throw out a little issue I raised this semester in one of my classes--some have argued that climate change raises the ethical issue of a duty to future generations. If we can have moral duties now to people who don't exist at all yet, what does that imply about duties to embryos?

I'll take stab at it: I suggest that we have no duty to ensure that future, potential persons will ever come to existence, but given that we do intend to produce real persons, we have a duty of care for their welfare.

Thus, if a woman is pregnant, she can have an abortion. But if she intends to carry the pregnancy to term, she assumes a duty to maintain her own health, obtain good nutrition, abstain from substance abuse, retain medical help, make provision for infant care (or adoption if she intends to give it up), etc.

Similary, it would be ethical to collectively decide to forego all further reproduction (as advocated by the VHEM). But given we wish the human species to continue beyond the lifespan of those now alive, we have a duty to ensure some reasonably liveable environment.

Jim Lippard said...

Eamon: What would that imply about the duties of those of us who have chosen not to reproduce--a decision which reduces the future emissions and consumption of our descendants to zero?

Eamon Knight said...

Jim: Do you mean whether you still have a duty to future generations? If you wish the human species to continue, then yes. Anyone who wishes there to be future generations has a corresponding duty to contribute in some way (at the least, by not making it impossible for them to survive and flourish). Personal reproduction is only one way of contributing to the continuation of the species.

But thanks for making things a little easier for my grandkids ;-).

Or have I completely misunderstood your question?

Mike said...

Eamon,

Maybe we shouldn't wish for our species to continue. If all discussion of the "big" questions died, even if life continued on, would that be OK? Life on its own terms... I like it!! The future could be bighter (or not). Now that would be a class that would be cool. :)

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Brad ...

In one of your comments you said "I can picture Vocab heating up his rhetoric engine."

This is interesting since in another post you wrote this: "Forcing women to have babies takes only a brief commitment and doesn't seem to entail concern for the potential human's well-being."

First, if equating the pro-life position to "forcing women to have babies" is not heated rhetoric, I don't know what is.

Secondly, this is not a "brief commitment." I have put in many hours reading up on this, talking to people about it and then writing these posts. Even if you disagree with my posts, it should be obvious they required some in-depth research.

Thirdly, when you wrote my position "doesn't seem to entail concern for the potential human's well-being," you were begging the question: if it is a human life in the mom's womb, then my position entails concern by default!

Maybe a convo that took place on Jim's Facebook will help clarify:
=====
Claudia Sawyer: I assume he can't get knocked up? Fri at 11:11pm

Jim Lippard: Correct, but he and his wife are foster parents and adopters, so he's not just pro-life pre-birth. Yesterday at 8:54am

Claudia Sawyer: Good for him, very few do. Yesterday at 9:15am
=====

Lastly, even if "very few do" their perceived lack of concern has no bearing the truthfulness of the propositions I am putting forth. There is simply no relationship.

vM!

Brad said...

Mike said: "If all discussion of the "big" questions died, even if life continued on, would that be OK? Life on its own terms... I like it!! The future could be bighter (or not)."

I think the big questions are what occupy our mind when we idle, as well as giving us a star to shoot for. The process of trying to answer the big questions is what expands the mind (as long as you are committed to keep expanding it). We've got to keep our world view a tentative theory lest we become stale.

But I digest.