Saturday, December 19, 2009

Vocab Malone on abortion and personhood, part 5

Vocab has put up the fifth and final part of his essay on abortion and personhood up at his blog, devoted to Thomson's violinist argument. I don't really have much to say about it--we didn't coordinate our posts in advance, and I've already discussed Thomson's argument myself in my response to part 4. I disagree with Vocab's claim that Thomson's argument proves too much and would allow infanticide--her argument only addresses a physically dependent fetus. And, as I already pointed out in my prior response, the argument doesn't prove as much as it purports to. The violinist case isn't exactly analogous to pregnancy and abortion in a number of ways, and Vocab is right to point out the differences. I agree that if a pregnancy is allowed to go to term (as well as to some earlier point at which there is plausible evidence for personhood on my standard), then that entails at least tacit consent and a moral duty of care. I would still argue, however, that abortion would be legitimate beyond that point for medically justifiable reasons (e.g., endangered health and life of the mother). This position--like the current position of the courts, which I think is approximately correct despite being based on viability--points out that there are more than two polar opposite positions in this debate.

In Vocab's final part, he talks a bit about the work that he and his wife do in caring for foster children. I commend him for that work, which is all-too-rare among opponents of abortion.

Thanks, Vocab, for the debate--and I still would like to hear a response from you in the comments on some of the issues that have been left hanging (e.g., in the comments on part 3).

UPDATE: It would probably be better to end this discussion with a summary that I already made in the comments on part 3:
We don't disagree that there is continuity of organism (just as there is continuity of a population of organisms over time)--all life on this planet is connected in that way. But just as we don't count every species as human, even in our own genetic lineage, we don't count every life stage of individual human organisms as persons. There's a sense in which "I" was once a zygote that had my same DNA, but at that stage there was no "me" there yet--there was nothing that it was like to be a zygote, to use Thomas Nagel's expression. In that same sense that "I" was a zygote, "I" will be a dead body in the future, even though there will at that point be nothing that it is like to be me, and the person that I am will be gone from the world though my body will briefly remain.

I think we understand each other's positions. You think that being a human organism is the same thing as to be a person, while I think personhood is a feature that comes into existence and persists for a subset of the life of an organism, that requires capacities of sentience or self-awareness.

But I think I can give reasons to support why my view makes moral, legal, and practical sense, and why human cultures and practices are more consistent with my view than yours. I don't think you can give such reasons, other than the brute assertion that human organisms are persons from start to finish. Your view has no need of the notion of person, yet it seems to me that there are all sorts of practical, moral, and legal reasons why we do need and use such a notion.

20 comments:

Alan said...

Jim,

Your arguments are great, but the last sentence of the update, "Your view has no need of the notion of person, yet it seems to me that there are all sorts of practical, moral, and legal reasons why we do need and use such a notion," really hits the core problem in this abortion debate. Vocab's entire argument seems to be predicated on a point he makes irrelevant (his notion of person), and yet he fails to support even that point very well.

Great debate! Thanks.

-- Alan

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Wrong. I believe in the notion of the person but not separated from the notion of what it means to be human. They are one in the same. To justify abortion, both of you are forced to draw an artificial distinction. My beliefs do not paint me into the same philosophical corner, as it were.

My view of the person is very high.
In fact, I would say when it comes to the metaphysics of my anthropology, my view of the person is much more grandiose than either of yours.

How can I say this? Because I find the ultimate grounding for the human person in the person of God and believe we are stamped with His indelible image.

This was not part of the conversation proper but anyone following should be able to detect the contrast in our metanarratives and understand the source of difference.

vM!

Jim Lippard said...

Alan: Thanks, glad you enjoyed it and thanks for your contributed comments.

Vocab:

There's a sense in which the notion of personhood I'm using is artificial, but no more so than yours. While I restrict it to entities with certain capacities, regardless of their underlying structure, you restrict it to organisms with a particular DNA structure. Your notion is not supported by any religious tradition or text that I'm familiar with. Do you really think that God has human DNA, and developed from a zygote? If not, then what is the nature of the analogy or argument from resemblance that you are drawing? Are you sure it doesn't better support *my* notion of personhood? Surely the significance of the claim that humans were created in God's image was not a reference to biology but to capacities of the human mind.

If you happen to go see the films "District 9" or "Avatar," its a consequence of your view that the aliens are not persons and don't merit treatment as such. A view of personhood based on genetics or biology strikes me as a far more dangerous view than mine, based on how such views have been abused in the past to justify slavery and racism.

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

Jim said...
"Do you really think that God has human DNA, and developed from a zygote?"

You are correct, it is not a reference to biology. I do not think God is an exalted man (a la LDS theology).

Jim said...
"If you happen to go see the films 'District 9' or 'Avatar,' its a consequence of your view that the aliens are not persons and don't merit treatment as such."

False. I specifically made the point in my first post that a non-person, such as an animal, does not mean the being has NO rights and we can just treat them any ol' way.

Jim, I do not understand why you are so concerned with the possible treatment of hypothetical as-of-yet undiscovered beings on other planets. Perhaps it behooves us to do more reflection on our treatment of human beings (both born and unborn) on this planet.

vM!

PS - as far eugenics goes, it seems the evidence points to the contrary of your fear, e.g., Sanger & Planned Parenthood.

Jim Lippard said...

Vocab:

A notion of personhood should accurately capture the features that are the reasons why we recognize moral rights, including plausible cases like other intelligent nonhuman beings.

You say "False" about what I said, but what you go on to say doesn't contradict what I said. You and I both agree that we have a moral duty to treat animals humanely independently of their personhood--but this includes circumstances under which we can legitimately restrict their freedom, use them as domestic servants, force them to do things against their will, and even kill them in certain circumstances. Those are things we cannot legitimately do to persons.

I said that "it's a consequence of your view that the aliens are not persons and don't merit treatment as such." Why do you say that's false? Aliens aren't humans, and your view says that personhood is identical with being a human organism, therefore your view has exactly the consequence that I said.

Sanger was an advocate of contraception and eugenics, but, except for a short time during her editorship of _Woman Rebel_, she opposed legalizing abortion (as did Adolf Hitler, by the way, to bring Godwin's Law into effect), though she thought some cases of abortion were justifiable. She hoped and argued that contraception would eliminate abortion, often repeating the story of Sadie Sachs, a woman who allegedly died during an illegal abortion after being refused contraceptive information by her doctor. (There is apparently doubt whether this was a true story, as Sanger was apparently quite an embellisher.) (My source on Sanger: Ann Hibner Koblitz, "The Dead Woman on the Table: Forensic Medicine and Criminal Abortion in Western Europe and the United States, 1860-1930" a paper I read in one of my classes this semester which may be part of her book project, _Sex and Herbs and Birth Control_. She cites two of Sanger's own autobiographical books, _My Fight for Birth Control_ and _An Autobiography_, Lawrence Lader's _The Margaret Sanger Story and the Fight for Birth Control_, and Ellen Chesler's _Woman of Valor: Margaret Sanger and the Birth Control Movement in America_.)

Alan said...

vocab says in is justification of personhood beginning with conception: "I find the ultimate grounding for the human person in the person of God and believe we are stamped with His indelible image."

I find and accept this as a religious view. It is contrary to other religious views, as well as some non-religious views. Does this mean that you have no moral justification for restricting abortion by means of law, which, in the US, is restricted from favoring one religion over another? Or, do you take issue with the constitutional prohibition on government to favor religious views? Or, do you have other arguments not found in this debate that justify prohibiting all abortion by law?

-- Alan

R. Test said...

I just stumbled across your discussion of abortion yesterday. I have followed the issue for some years and this seems to be the most prolonged, thoughtful, and civil discussion of abortion that I have seen on the web. Congratulations to both of you.

My own views are nearly identical to Jim Lippard’s views and I think you do great job of bringing out the salient points. Good work.

Vocab Malone writes:

“I believe in the notion of the person but not separated from the notion of what it means to be human. They are one in the same. To justify abortion, both of you are forced to draw an artificial distinction. My beliefs do not paint me into the same philosophical corner, as it were.”

You add ”Jim, I do not understand why you are so concerned with the possible treatment of hypothetical as-of-yet undiscovered beings on other planets. Perhaps it behooves us to do more reflection on our treatment of human beings (both born and unborn) on this planet.”

This shows serious confusion about the role of concepts in our cognitive activities.

We have the concepts of ‘the morning star’ and ‘the evening star’. These are different concept – the one means the first star we see in the evening sky and the other one means the last star we see in the morning sky. ‘Morning’ is one concept and ‘evening’ is a different concept. Thus ‘morning star’ and ‘evening star’ are different concepts. But, both these “stars” are in fact the planet Venus. The morning star is the same object in the sky as the evening star. But these are two different concepts.

The heart – it pumps blood throughout the body – is a different organ from the lungs. Thus, the expression ‘being with a heart’ and ‘being with lungs’ are different in meaning and thus different concepts. You and are both beings with a heart and with lungs. But still, ‘being with a heart’ does not mean the same thing as ‘being with lungs’.

In both cases, viz., ‘evening star’-‘morning star’ and ‘being with a heart’ – being with lungs’, both pair may refer to the same objects but the meanings of expressions are different. This is difference between denotation and connotation.

Venus is not always the morning star or the evening star. Sometimes of the year, one planet it the morning star and another planet is the evening star. In some cases, ‘being with a heart’ may not refer to a ‘being with lungs’. A fish has a heart but no lungs.

I have no real interest and I suspect that Mr. Lippard has no interest in hypothetical beings. My interest is in keeping the meaning of terms straight. You can use any term any way you want. If you have any interest in communication you will warn your listener or reader that you are using a term differently from the way it is usually used.

The term ‘human being’ has several different meanings. Mr. Lippard referred to that fact early in the discussion. I don’t care which meaning you want to use – just make it clear which one it is so the rest of us can follow the argument.

The term ‘person’ has several different meaning. Again, use any meaning you want just make it clear which one you are using.

Is the human zygote a human being? Is the human zygote a person? Yes, to both questions if you mean one thing by ‘human being’ and ‘person’. No, to both if you mean another thing by ‘human being’ and ‘person’.

There is no requirement to use these different terms. But whatever term is used the meaning should be made clear.

Mr. Lippard isn't committed to using the term 'person'. But it is clear that we must not rule out a priori the possibility that members of another species might have rights including the right to life. We have a concept of a being with a right to life -- Mr. Lippard wants to use the term 'person' to refer to those beings. I suggest he be given your permission to use that term given he clearly stipulates its meaning.

Robert Test
Columbus, Oh

vocab malone/jm rieser said...

R. Test said...

"I just stumbled across your discussion of abortion yesterday. I have followed the issue for some years and this seems to be the most prolonged, thoughtful, and civil discussion of abortion that I have seen on the web. Congratulations to both of you."

Thank you very much. I am glad b/c this is what I was hoping for. Props to Jim for keepin' it chill like that!

vM!

PS - OH - IO

Paul said...

Forgive me inserting myself into this discussion; admittedly I have not read the previous threads so if the issue I raise was already addressed, please do point me in that direction.

Lippard states:
"if a pregnancy is allowed to go to term..., then that entails at least tacit consent and a moral duty of care."

Why? From whence comes this moral duty (I see no relevance to whether moral duties are tacit or explicit; degrees of culpability may be of issue but duties are duties, not "guidelines" or "best practices")? Surely it cannot come from society at large nor from the mother, since if the biological mother or society-at-large consents to stuff the full-term child just born into a dumpster and leave it to die, then that would be morally acceptable, given morality is grounded in the individual or society. Of course, if we go the way of Kant and purport morality to be based on/in reason, then we suffer other (tautological) concerns, viz., "from whence comes reason?", at which point Kant's moral basis is finally groundless?

Jim Lippard said...

Paul: Our discussion hasn't touched on meta-ethics, which is the question you raise; we're both relying on ordinary ethical intuitions without regard to how they are grounded. As such, every possible meta-ethical framework is an option open to either of us, except that as an atheist the divine command theory is not available to me.

You write: "Surely it cannot come from society at large nor from the mother, since if the biological mother or society-at-large consents to stuff the full-term child just born into a dumpster and leave it to die, then that would be morally acceptable, given morality is grounded in the individual or society."

Your conclusion is faulty--society at large does not, in fact, consent to permit full-term children to be born into dumpsters and left to die. All that you can conclude via such an argument is that *if* morality is based on cultural relativism *and* a culture thought that such an action was acceptable, *then* it would be acceptable.

That argument is equivalent to saying that *if* the divine command theory grounds morality, and *if* God says that random killing of children is acceptable, *then* obeying God's commands and performing such killing is morally acceptable. Since the Bible does, in fact, contain purported cases of commands from God to kill pregnant women and children, then one who holds such a theory is committed to the view that there are morally acceptable instances of child-killing. I reject that conclusion even if I were to grant the existence of God--I think the divine command theory is a bad meta-ethical theory for that reason.

Jim Lippard said...

Paul: You also write: "Of course, if we go the way of Kant and purport morality to be based on/in reason, then we suffer other (tautological) concerns, viz., "from whence comes reason?", at which point Kant's moral basis is finally groundless?"

I don't follow your reasoning.

It seems to me that reality places constraints on both morality and reason, and we use reason to understand morality, but I don't think it's quite right to say that morality is grounded in reason. But if we did, the mere fact that we can ask questions about the origins and nature of reason doesn't result in a conclusion that morality is groundless.

I lean towards a view that basic values are subjective/inter-subjective, yet grounded in/fixed by our biology and psychology in virtue of biological and cultural evolution; instrumental values, by contrast, are objective, contingent upon the reality of the physical, social, and cultural environment we find ourselves in.

Paul said...

Jim:
Thanks for first your response. I'm not finding the answer to my original question here; only a rejection of my "faulty" conclusion. On/In what do you conclude that a mother has moral obligation to care for a child carried to full term?

RE: my "faulty" conclusion....
There have been societies in the past that reject a child upon birth if the gender was not the preferred one. Nevertheless, even if there were no such societies, how is the conclusion faulty when put in the hypothetical? Logic is not limited to actual states of affairs.

Paul said...

Jim,
RE: your 2nd response. I hear leanings in the direction of G.E. Moore here. Am I close?

You say: "the mere fact that we can ask questions about the origins and nature of reason doesn't result in a conclusion that morality is groundless." Good swipe; I would agree.

"instrumental values...are objective...contingent upon.." Can you give a for instance here? I believe I know where you're going but would prefer an illustration to clarify.

Jim Lippard said...

Paul: It seems to me that there's a plausible moral principle to the effect that if you give tacit or explicit consent to pregnancy by allowing gestation to a point where there's a prima facie case for personhood, you've thereby consented to carry it to term. That's a rebuttable presumption in a case of rights conflict between persons, e.g., if bringing the child to term endangers the health of the mother.

If your question is why does personhood itself entail a duty not to kill, I think there are lots of possible grounds for that. I am somewhat agnostic about meta-ethical frameworks, but I think that many/most/nearly all of them produce that same result--rule utilitarianism, contractarianism, cultural relativism, emotivism, etc.

I thought I already answered you about the hypothetical. To be more explicit--the strongest case you can generate is that *if* the foundation of morality is culturally relative *and* the culture endorses the permissibility of some instances of infanticide, *then* it would indeed be permissible. But our culture is not one that endorses the permissibility of infanticide *and* there are lots of available meta-ethical frameworks that endorse moral realism or objectivity, under which it's not permissible. That is, both conjuncts of the antecedent of the conditional are subject to rebuttal.

You didn't respond to the rejoinder I raised for divine command theory. The Bible endorses the moral permissibility of at least some cases of infanticide, what is your view on that? Were at least some past cases of infanticide morally permissible, on your view? I tend to agree with Miranda Fricker (hear her discussion on the Ethics Bites podcast) that the right thing to say about such past cases is that they are wrong, but the participants may not have been blameworthy.

The main point of my basic/instrumental distinction is this--that once basic values are taken as given, it's a matter of contingent fact about what sorts of actions and rules are likely to produce satisfaction of those basic values, of the form "if you want to accomplish X, doing Y is more likely to achieve that result than Z is." Those rules are true in virtue of the contingent facts of the environment (including social facts). Similarly, social facts themselves display similar features--it may be a matter of convention what is counted as money, on what side of the road you drive, etc., but once the conventions are established and accepted, they provide objective constraints on what is reasonable and effective action.

I'm inclined to endorse the idea of moral progress and improved systematization of ethics based on our deepening understanding of human biology, neuro-psychology, sociology, and the actual facts about the natural world. I'm not particularly inclined to endorse G.E. Moore's ethical non-naturalism.

Paul said...

Jim:
You write:
"...It seems to me that there's a plausible moral principle to the effect that if you give tacit or explicit consent to pregnancy by allowing gestation to a point where there's a prima facie case for personhood, you've thereby consented to carry it to term."

Am I correct to understand you to say that a woman who willingly (or unwillingly) becomes impregnated is morally obligated to carry the child to term?

On what basis? Surely not simply because "it seems to you that there is a plausible moral principle." Without a solid meta-ethic (which atheism finds anathema), all one is left with are the ethics of a lion or the ethics of a lamb, but neither of which work for everyone.

Of course, there would be prima facie evidence the fetus is a person. What else would it be?

Jim Lippard said...

Paul: No, that's not what I said.

My position is if (a) the pregnancy is voluntary/consented to *and* (b) is carried sufficiently long to term that the fetus reaches a status of personhood (which may, depending upon how our understanding of consciousness and sentience ultimately cashes out in a more complete neuroscience, not actually happen during pregnancy, but could be, say, some time during the second trimester), *then* the fetus's personhood would give the mother a duty to carry to term absent a condition such as serious endangerment to her life or health.

Without *both* a prima facie case for personhood of the fetus and a consensual pregnancy, however, I don't see a good case for a duty to carry a pregnancy to term.

Paul said...

Okay. Thanks Jim for unpacking your position. Apologies for my misunderstanding.

Your 2nd condition, viz., "carried sufficiently long to term that the fetus reaches a status of personhood..." (as you might guess) raises a few flags for me.

First, is neuroscience or scientific means the only method for determining personhood? Second, would you maintain that while all persons are human, not all humans are persons? Can there be such a thing as a non-person human?

Jim Lippard said...

Paul:

I think the scientific data is indispensable for making judgments of personhood.

I would neither maintain that all humans are persons nor that all persons are humans--the conditions for what makes someone a human organism are distinct from the conditions of personhood. This is territory that Vocab and I already covered in part 2 (both post and comments) and part 3 (mainly in the comments). In this comment on part 3 is perhaps my clearest statement of the difference between Vocab's and my views.

You still haven't answered my questions to you: "You didn't respond to the rejoinder I raised for divine command theory. The Bible endorses the moral permissibility of at least some cases of infanticide, what is your view on that? Were at least some past cases of infanticide morally permissible, on your view?"

Would you care to answer this--and perhaps read parts of Vocab's and my prior dialogue--before asking more questions?

Paul said...

JIm,
Sorry my being brief here. I've much going on these days and have little time to engage further. If you are interested in my thoughts surrounding God's existence and the basis for objective moral values, see my post http://inchristus.wordpress.com/2009/04/15/gods-existence-and-right-from-wrong/ and the discussion there. The comment by Louis is especially relevant to your query and I wholeheartedly am aligned with him.

Perhaps after I get more bandwidth I can follow up here.

Jim Lippard said...

Paul: The distinction between the metaphysical and epistemology is worth making with respect to morality, but that's not really relevant to my question. My question for you is addressing the metaphysical question, not the epistemic. If you deny that the Old Testament is accurate in its reports about God's commands, then that would raise the epistemic question.

It appears that you don't have an answer--you could easily have answered it in the time you've spent here posting other things. Feel free to come back and post an answer when you find time.