Monday, November 15, 2010

Does Vocab Malone understand the implications of his own position?

Vocab Malone, with whom I had a blog debate about abortion and personhood last year, recently came across this comment of mine on the Point of Inquiry podcast with Jen Roth, an atheist who argues for the immorality of abortion:
Was Jen Roth ultimately arguing that personhood is something that a human organism has for its entire lifecycle? At what starting point? Conception, implantation, or something else?

I find it completely implausible that an organism at a life stage with no capacity for perception, let alone reason, counts as a person. Nor that a particular genetic code is either necessary or sufficient for personhood.

I think every point that she made was brought up in a debate I had with a Christian blogger on the topic of abortion, who similarly argued for an equation between personhood and human organism. I wonder if she has any better rejoinders. Does she think that IVF and therapeutic cloning are immoral? IUDs?
Vocab claimed that my argument was a "Chewbacca argument," a smoke screen, or a slippery slope argument, but in fact it is none of these.  I posted the following comment in response to him:
The argument I made is not a slippery slope argument, it's a reductio ad absurdum.  Your position is that the human organism is a person and has a right to life from fertilization to death (and presumably beyond), so you've already gone down the "slippery slope" and must of necessity say that IVF, therapeutic cloning, and IUDs are immoral because they result in the destruction and death of fertilized ova.  My position is that it is absurd to think that these things are immoral, and if you were to avoid the slippery slope by agreeing with me, you would have contradicted a logical consequence of your own position--thus, a reductio ad absurdum by being committed to a proposition and its negation.
A slippery slope argument is an argument that says your position is committed to some consequence because there is no criterion that you can use to draw a line to avoid.  For example, if I argued that your position committed you to giving a right to life to all animals, and required you to be a vegetarian, or that it required you to give a right to life to every organism with DNA, and required you to hold a position like the Jain religion that all killing is wrong.
As it happens, you never did supply an account of just what it is about the human organism that gives it a right to life or personhood--you offered no constitutive account of what properties entail a right to life or personhood, other than a genetic one.  I made the case near the end of our debate that you are probably implicitly assuming that personhood comes from a soul, and that souls are connected to human organisms at the point of fertilization, but there's clearly no evidence for that position, scientific, philosophical, or theological.
BTW, my argument is also clearly not a Chewbacca argument or smoke screen, which is a simple non sequitur.  To think that, you would have to fail to understand that the items I identified all result in the destruction of fertilized human ova.
It's important to note that not all slippery slope arguments are fallacious--if there really is no criterion to stop the fall down the slope, the argument is valid.  As Vocab never did explain what it is about human organisms that make them rights-bearers, I think he does face the slippery slope argument I presented unless he can offer some criterion for distinguishing human organisms from other organisms with respect to having a right to life.


M! said...

Let me be concise and clear: I do think *most* forms of IVF (there's a way to do it that hypothetically would be ethical), therapeutic cloning, and IUD's (they act as abortifacients) are unethical.

This is the only logically consistent position to take if one understands that the ontology of the human being is such that all humans are persons and all persons have inherent and inalienable rights, the foremost of which is the right to life.

Lastly, I don't believe it is quite accurate to call a zygote merely a "fertilized human ova", for the egg has ceased to exist and a new entity has emerged - namely, a very small human being.


Lippard said...

We've previously established that your account of personhood is "being a human being" (thus excluding other animals anywhere in the universe, regardless of capacity for sentience, as well as machine intelligence or genetically engineered intelligence). It also appears that your account is an "animalism" account like Paul Snowdon's.

But what is the explanation for why moral rights including a right to life attach solely to persons, on this account? What is it about persons that gives them this value? What is so special about fertilization? Is it just an irreducible brute fact about human beings that has no explanation? (FYI, Chris Tollefsen argues in support of a position like yours, in an argument which seems to me to depend upon magical distinctions that are being completely obliterated by synthetic biology.)

I take it from your absolute statement that the right to life is inherent and inalienable that you also oppose the death penalty.

BTW, I'm unaware of any form of IVF that doesn't generate excess embryos. Is it ethical to freeze a person into permanent stasis without their consent?

Lippard said...

Also, if you did agree that most IVF, therapeutic cloning, and IUDs are unethical, you should have recognized my argument at the Point of Inquiry forums as either a modus tollens or reductio ad absurdum argument, and not a "smoke screen." But I am glad that you have been explicit in recognizing the implications of your position, which it seemed to me you were trying to avoid with your "smoke screen" charge.

M! said...


in what way does saying that "human being=person" not allow for aliens and AI beings to have personhood? I never said that's the *ONLY* being worthy of personhood.

Remember, I'm the one w/a more liberal view of personhood in that I widen the circle, you're the one w/the position that narrows the circle (which historically has been the wrong way to go). If anyone was gonna deny these other entities (wherever they are!) the rights of a person, it would more than likely be you, not me.

Still, I just don't understand your persistent running to hypotheticals and potential but-as-of-yet-non-existent situations/entities to try to weaken my case and strengthen yours.

I'm leaving Amarillo right now, so I gotta jam, but please clarify this questions you asked: "What is so special about fertilization?"


Lippard said...

"in what way does saying that "human being=person" not allow for aliens and AI beings to have personhood? I never said that's the *ONLY* being worthy of personhood"

Then you haven't got a definition, you've got a sufficiency condition without a necessity condition. Worse yet, your sufficiency condition is one which gives no guidance about how to recognize other sufficiency conditions. What is it about being a human being that explains why a human being is a person at all stages of life that we could identify in other beings that would also make them persons?

We keep coming back to the same point, and that's why I asked the question about what's special about fertilization--what is your *explanation* for what grounds personhood or a right to life? Why does a zygote have it, and an unfertilized ovum and a sperm about to fertilize it do not (either individually or collectively)? Why does a zygote have it, and a dolphin, whale, or chimpanzee does not?

M! said...

Jim, on the right to life question, you asked me , "Why does a zygote have it, and an unfertilized ovum and a sperm about to fertilize it do not (either individually or collectively)?"

Do you not recognize the vast biological and genetic gulf between a sperm and a zygote? Or do you think there is some kind of equivalency?

You also asked, "Why does a zygote have it, and a dolphin, whale, or chimpanzee does not?"

This is what I would like to ask you! My hunch is that Peter Singer would like to ask both this question as well ... I'm not sure on what grounds you would answer in order to remain consistent.

I admit I am not directly answering all your questions here because I honestly feel they were adequately addressed in our initial posts to each other.