Ethical Question I

A few months back, I was intrigued to read an article in Discover Magazine which purported to have an atheist explaining the universality of ethics. Not too surprisingly, it turned out the atheist really did no such thing (even the most universal ethic against murder is relativized culture by culture). But the article included a few neat ethical puzzles that made me think, so I thought I’d slap them up here and spark some discussion. I’ll start with the easy puzzle (which is at the end of the article):

Here’s an example that comes from MIT philosopher Judy Thomson. She was interested in a question of whether the fetus has an obligatory right to the mother’s body. So she gives an incredibly apocryphal, crazy example: A woman is lying in bed one morning, and she wakes up to find a man lying in bed unconscious next to her. Another gentleman walks up to her and says: “I’m terribly sorry, but this man right next to you is a world-famous violinist, and he’s unconscious and in terrible health. He’s in kidney failure, and I hope you don’t mind, but we’ve plugged him into your kidney. And if he stays plugged in for the next nine months, you will save him.”

You ask people, “Is that morally permissible?” They’re like: “No, it’s insane. Of course not.” Well, that makes [Thomson’s] point exquisitely. It would be nice if she said, “Sure, I love this guy’s playing; plug him in.” But she’s not obligated to do so. Now let me make it like the abortion case. She says, “Yes, I love this guy’s violin playing!” Two months into it, she goes: “You know what? This really is a drag,” and she unplugs. Now people all of a sudden have a sense that’s less permissible than the first case. But here, people who are pro-choice or pro-life do not differ. So the point is, if you take people away from the familiar and you capture some of the critical underlying psychological issues that play into the real-world cases, then you find that the religious effects are minimal.

So what do you think? Is this a slam-dunk argument for why abortion is ethical?

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22 Responses

  1. It’s a slam-dunk argument for why pro-choicers are idiots.

    among the many problems are…
    A) An unborn child isn’t involuntarily woken up to.
    B) The child’s value isn’t in what he or she may or may not become but in the fact that he or she is.
    C) The analogy compares pregnancy to having to lie in bed with a grown stranger for 9 months. That’s silly. What if the analogy was having to carry a 20 pound back pack for 9 months in order to save a persons life? I think it would be universally reprehensible for someone to say “I am unwilling to do that”.
    D) The analogy fails to take into account that a persons child isn’t merely some stranger but is in fact a part of, or a piece of the parent. Is it morally permissible to cut off your foot because you don’t like wearing shoes, or because your choice to not have a foot would make you more pirate like?
    E) Even if you think you have the right so cut off your own foot you certainly wouldn’t assume you have the right to cut off someone else’s foot. But yet you think you have the right to take someone else’s life?

    I could go on but I think it’s quite obvious that MIT is giving away it’s philosophy degree’s.

  2. Why anybody who could get into MIT would want a philosophy degree anyways is beyond me!

  3. You ask people, “Is that morally permissible?” They’re like: “No, it’s insane. Of course not.”

    I’m all, you know, just, you know just totally, way surprised that a Valley Girl can, like, you know, get published in any magazine.

    Aside from the fact that these analogies are a joke, (and the abortion analogies do make it hard to see what is being asserted here) you have to look what he is doing to get to his assertion – as he calls it, “his point”

    So the point is, if you take people away from the familiar and you capture some of the critical underlying psychological issues that play into the real-world cases, then you find that the religious effects are minimal.

    I think he gets to his assertion by demonstrating that it is less permissible to unplug the violinist (implying that this will kill him) than it is to violate a person by hooking him up to said violinist against that person’s will. I am not sure why an atheist would expect his audience to see it this way. Even as a Christian, I tend to hate my neighbor, preferring my own comfort and freedom every time. It seems to me that an atheist would value his own freedom over another’s life as well. Yet he seems to inconsistently argue for the one being worse than the other, as well as being inconsistent in the very act of positing a moral scale. I’m curious just how well developed his scale of “less permissible” has become.

    The fool in this discussion thinks that there are some “religious effects” operating in the real world abortion debate but that there are no “religious effects” operating in the violinist’s quandary. I think this is where he shows just how stupid he is. Having to go without his definition of a “religious effect” I would have to assert that the presence or absence of “religious effects” is the same in both the abortion case and the violinist case.

    The real question is why we know this tendency (this bent to hate our neighbor) to be wrong. The answer is found in the fact that general revelation includes the law. And consequently, the debate about the killing that is done in an abortion is not a religious issue. You don’t have to be a Christian (or be religious) to know that it is wrong.

    Wacky has gone down this road and come out on top with these debates numerous times on Triablogue.

  4. An anti-abortion crusader challenged me a few years ago to march, protest and “get up in society’s face” with this analogy:

    You are eating at a restaurant and minding your own business when an attractive woman comes in with a hammer, some pincers and a huge vacuum. She pinces the head of the man at the next table, then proceeds to smash his skull to bits with the hammer, then sucks all the parts up with the giant vacuum. Would you continue eating your dinner? What if the man was her child? Would you get up and hit her or subdue her? Would you stand up for her rights or his rights? Would you demand that the police step in?

    Just another analogy.

  5. It is not a slam dunk at all. This argument was “invented” by Judith Jarvis Thomson. Randy Alcorn offers 6 arguments against it:

    1. Over 99% of all pregnencies are the result of sexual relations in which both partners have willingly participated. (i.e., a person is rarely coerced into conceiving a child. This argument makes it sound like out of the blue a woman wakes up pregnant.)

    2. Pregnancy is a much different experience than the analogy depicts. (Pregnancy is portrayed as a horrid, degrading and debilitating situation that keeps the woman locked up for 9 months straight. Most women continue to work, socialise, travel and excercise for most of the pregnancy.)

    3. Even when pregnancy is unwanted of difficult it is a temporary situation. (As well, those who do have abortions normally only have a time difference of 3-7 months and not the whole nine months)

    4. In this scenario mother and child are pitted against each other as enemies. (The precious bond between mother and baby normally experienced is completely missed in this analogy)

    5. The child’s presence during pregnancy is rarely more inconvenient than his presence after birth. (i.e., if convenience is key, then what of the mother of the 2 year old that is inconvenienced? Can she just kill her child?)

    6. Even when there is no felt obligation, there is sometimes real obligation. (i.e., even if we do not feel like we should do the right thing, we still should.)

    Sorry this is so long, but I think Alcorn counters this argument comprehensively.

  6. The analogy might work if they woke up the woman and said “We just happened to be passing by and we implanted this embryo in you.”

  7. You’re in a restaurant, and eating a roast chicken.
    Came in an animal activist guy, and he yelled at you:
    “Shame on you for eating that !”.

    What would you do?

    Yet another analogy.

  8. “among the many problems are…”

    Apparently you don’t get the concept of using an analogy. If poitning out differences were all that was necessary to refute an analogy or thought experiment, then no analogy would be useful. The point is to examine the core issue, not to bring up a raft of transitory differences and exceptions.

    It’s also worth noting that this argument is actually commonly used to refute the “it’s my body, so I can do what I want” argument in certain contexts (like utilitarianism), which is hardly something comforting to “pro-choice” people, for whom that is a major pillar of their argument.

  9. And consequently, the debate about the killing that is done in an abortion is not a religious issue.

    Well, insofar as the dogmatic idea that a fetus is morally important right from conception (which is a modern idea, by the way: discovered by science no less) relies on the idea of souls, and even a very particular theological belief about when the new soul enters, it is pretty religious.

    The whole issue rests on the question of whether and at what point there is something there with moral interests or not. The “it’s my body” claim is an attempt to dodge that issue. And so is the “it’s just about killing” claim.

  10. If pointing out differences were all that was necessary to refute an analogy or thought experiment, then no analogy would be useful.

    Except when the argument the analogy is trying to make depends on the differences, not the commonalities.

    The whole issue rests on the question of whether and at what point there is something there with moral interests or not. The “it’s my body” claim is an attempt to dodge that issue. And so is the “it’s just about killing” claim.

    That’s an interesting point. And yet I think it could equally be said that the two responses are not attempts to dodge the issue, but diametrically opposed solutions to the issue (“it’s my body” = the point at which the something there has moral interests is at birth, “it’s murder”=moral interest begins at conception). One of those proposed solutions could be right, or as you suggest, moral interest could begin at a time between conception and birth. But drawing a threshold somewhere in the middle is even more arbitrary than drawing it at birth!

  11. Well, insofar as the dogmatic idea that a fetus is morally important right from conception (which is a modern idea, by the way: discovered by science no less) relies on the idea of souls

    I’ve never heard a pro-abortion argument based on the presence of the soul in the baby. There is no way they can start talking about that because it’s a far too slippery slope… sliding all the way back to conception, not to mention a tacit recognition of super-naturalism, which science can’t abide.

    In our modern times, it seems the argument among “moderate” pro-choicers is around viability. When would the child be able to survive if outside the womb. Of course, that’s a slippery slope too because what 1-day old could survive outside the womb without being sustained by direct intervention of another human being. The umbilical cord is just a more direct method.

    Of course, hard-core pro-abortionists would say it’s birth that makes it murder. As Rube pointed out, though, that is exceedingly arbitrary.. especially if viability and the presence of the soul are not the primary factors.

    So my question is, what does birth mean to a child with respect to personhood?? How is a human being a person after exiting the birth canal, but not one millisecond before?

    The ethical, not to mention logical dilemmas are much more pressing for the pro-abortion crowd. In order to be consistent, they would need to affirm and support euthanasia, infanticide, and, yes, murder (so long as “social good” was upheld). That is the only consistent position available to them.

  12. I see that I misread the original counter-argument. You weren’t affirming the presence of the soul. However, in the same vein, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard pro-choicers talking about when a human being starts to possess moral interests. …

    It’s just a watered-down, non-supernatural attempt at the notion of the soul – the thing which makes a being a Person. That’s why animals aren’t persons.. They do not have souls. However, I believe they do possess “moral interests”. I think it’s immoral to treat animals cruelly, or to kill them wantonly, or without regard to their preservation as a species.

  13. But drawing a threshold somewhere in the middle is even more arbitrary than drawing it at birth!

    Not necessarily. The lack of a simple bright line does not imply that we can’t definitively declare areas to be black and the other white when they are far enough on either side. That would be like claiming that since there is no exact moment when night turns into day and vice-versa as measured by light from the sun, that no one can identify when it is daytime and when it is nighttime.

  14. There is no way they can start talking about that because it’s a far too slippery slope… sliding all the way back to conception

    Of course, if you “slide” back that far, then you are facing the sticky problem that post-conception an embryo can divide into two or more embryos: do they each have only half a soul? (Of course, we can’t even begin to really sensibly talk about what the answer to that is, since “soul” is not just non-scientific, but a complete non-concept entirely that explains nothing and has no intelligible logic to it)

    So my question is, what does birth mean to a child with respect to personhood??

    Since I would agree that birth/pre-birth is a meaningless distinction morally, I have no answer to that question. The best anyone can argue is that since the line is fuzzy, birth seems like a good place to draw the line, since legally the line has to be drawn somewhere (just like legal ages for voting and drinking, which do not become especially more viable the second after one turns 18). It isn’t where I would draw the line, though.

    The ethical, not to mention logical dilemmas are much more pressing for the pro-abortion crowd. In order to be consistent, they would need to affirm and support euthanasia, infanticide, and, yes, murder (so long as “social good” was upheld). That is the only consistent position available to them.

    I confess that I don’t really see how that makes any sense. Of course, you can always insist that your opponents must take positions worse than they do so as to make them look worse, but unless you actually understand their thinking, such attempts are more mean spirited than informative.

    I don’t believe I’ve ever heard pro-choicers talking about when a human being starts to possess moral interests. …

    Then you aren’t familiar with most of the philosophical literature and debate on this issue, where such concepts are central.

    It’s just a watered-down, non-supernatural attempt at the notion of the soul – the thing which makes a being a Person. That’s why animals aren’t persons.. They do not have souls.

    Well, I would say that “soul” in this context is just an incredibly sloppy, arbitrary, and confused way of talking about moral interests, so I guess we’re even. :)

  15. Wow, I’m not sure I really want to enter this debate, but here goes.

    If a baby doesn’t have a soul in the womb, then when does it have it, and what reason could there be for such a belief? If there are no such things as souls, then what makes a human being valuable in some way, so that it’s wrong to kill?

    Furthermore, let’s ask some why questions. Why does it have to be a famous violinist? Because the author is presupposing that you are the one who is supposed to judge whether or not the person is valuable to humanity. The author of the analogy is making a statement by saying this. You are the one who can judge whether or not this person is worth being kept alive. I find the hidden premise here reprehensible.

    I believe in God, as all men really do if they’re honest, and I see God as being the one who demands we see human beings as having a right to live, because we are made in his image.

    Ok, but what about an atheist? What if there is no God? Fine. Let’s assume for one silly little moment that there is no God. Who gives you the right to take God’s authority to yourself and decide who is worth saving and who isn’t?

    If you don’t want to give of yourself to save someone else’s life, fine, but on what grounds do you say that this person either is or is not WORTH saving? You are free to recognize someone’s right to life and then decide not to save them. THAT very narrowly defined thing is your right, because you have autonomy over your own body and may do with it what you please. But what gives you the judicial right to judge other people based on merit, such as being a famous violinist?

    This notion is based on utilitarianism. The man is supposed to be seen by us as valuable to the world because he’s a violinist. But this only means that he makes a lot of people happy. This kind of thing can only be based on the INHERENT value of human beings. Why should I CARE if the world is happy or not? Why should I care if a violinist dies if I don’t appreciate his music? I don’t care if he has 50 platinum records: why does this mean I should judge him as more valuable than other human beings? This is so inconsistent it’s funny, because utilitarianism is based on doing actions that promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, which itself is based on a blind equality in value of all people!

    This is why no respectable philosopher is a utilitarian. Utilitarianism is something young philosophy majors chew on to teach them how to refute arguments, precisely because there are so many inconsistencies.

    The only reason why a philosopher would be a utilitarian today is if he can find an argument for it that looks good enough to be published so he can get his tenure and have some job security. Sometimes it’s nice to be unique. But none of them actually believe any of it. Everyone looks at it like a bit of a joke.

    Most philosophers are either Virtue ethicists or Kantians.

    Under any of these philosophies, the puzzle is ridiculous.

    The virtue guy would tell you to strive to be the hero, whereas Kant would tell you that killing babies would lead to the destruction of the human race if everyone did it, so it’s wrong.

    it is only when the analogy tries to get you to think like a utilitarian that it becomes confusing. It truly is a ridiculous and untenable position. And if you don’t know what utilitarianism is, you fall right into the trap of thinking that you must decide if this person is worth the effort required.

    With a mother who has become pregnant, there are two options and two options only that she can do. She can either do nothing and let the baby live, because it’ll grow all on its own, or she can kill it.

    Those are the only two options. Live and let live or kill.

    Now I will indulge the value based argument. How is she to decide if this baby will be the next Bach, bringing happiness to millions, or the next Hitler, bringing much sorrow? (Remember, this argument is stupid, because if you’re shooting to maximize happiness for simply the greater number of people, then all people are equal and therefore you have no right to kill this baby any more so than anyone else.)

    She can either be an atheist or a theist. If she is a theist, then the baby is God’s creation and she has no right to kill it. It is made by God in his image, and so to kill the baby for her own convenience just signifies nothing more glamorous than hatred toward God.

    If she is an atheist, how does she have any gauge by which to judge the value of the baby? What is the objective standard for what makes a person valuable or not. You can’t just say everyone knows people are valuable, you have to have an atheistic reason. Absent any consistent reason to value one person over another that is consistent with atheism (no such reason exists that is logically consistent), then you have to value all people equally. If that is the case, then you still can’t end the baby’s life by killing it. It’s murder just as much as killing anyone else.

    But what if the baby doesn’t have a soul? Who cares? If the baby doesn’t have a soul, then how can you argue that people outside the womb do? Where is your evidence? Have you ever found a soul under the microscope and discovered when it begins to take shape? Do you have specimens of babies showing that souls don’t begin until the third trimester? Do you realize how ridiculous it sounds? Either say that there are souls or there aren’t. Don’t be ridiculous and say that the soul develops at some point after the person is already alive. If we have souls at all, they are what animate us and make us alive. If babies don’t have souls then they aren’t alive. When do they become alive?

    And let me remind you of what I learned in 8th grade science class: spontaneous generation. Tadpoles don’t come from mud, and maggots don’t come from rotting meat. That which is not alive cannot give rise to that which is alive. Spontaneous generation has been proven false, and they even teach kids this.

    If what comes out of the womb is alive, then what is in the womb is alive. If what comes out has a soul, then what is in has a soul too.

    But the woman says that it’s her body, and she declines to give her body as support to the growing baby. Well, sorry, you should have thought of that before getting pregnant. Try birth control. Have your uterus removed, then you won’t be stuck in this spot. But if anyone thinks that we have a right to put a child to death simply because we don’t want that child to share in our nutrients, something our bodies were designed to do, then I’d say that’s a value judgment. Me over my baby.

    And if you think the atheist has a reason to value one person over another, I’d love to hear it. And if you’re a theist, you have no reason there either.

    Utilitarianism is the only possible system in which one person may possibly be found to be more valuable than someone else, but this needs to presuppose all people as equally valuable in order to achieve it. It’s inconsistent, thus irrational and contra logic.

    There is no such thing as a logical argument for valuing the life of one human being over another. It’s impossible. Just try it.

  16. If a baby doesn’t have a soul in the womb, then when does it have it, and what reason could there be for such a belief? If there are no such things as souls, then what makes a human being valuable in some way, so that it’s wrong to kill?

    If you don’t already value human lives for reasons like empathy, I’m not sure how a “soul” explains anything at all about why human life is valuable. In fact, the idea is really quite amazing: somehow you don’t find the life of a person standing in front of you, with all its feelings and hopes and desires, compelling unless it possess… what exactly? Can you even define what this invisible component is or does, even in the most general sense? If not, why is that even the slightest bit relevant? It’s as if I told you that a rock has a soul… but only when I say so. It doesn’t now. Now wait, now it does! I mean, what’s the point of all that?

    I believe in God, as all men really do if they’re honest, and I see God as being the one who demands we see human beings as having a right to live, because we are made in his image.

    Is there supposed to be some sort of logic in there? A God can demand things all it wants for whatever story it wants to tell: none of that makes those demands moral. You are just arbitrarily assuming that they are.

    Let’s assume for one silly little moment that there is no God. Who gives you the right to take God’s authority to yourself and decide who is worth saving and who isn’t?

    Uh… you didn’t do a very good job of assuming that there was no God. Whether there is a God or not, you still have to make moral choices, sorry. I know its a bit of a burden, but there’s no escape from it. To believe that, say, whatever you believe to be the commands of God are themselves moral, YOU have to judge them to be so. That’s not arrogance, that’s just the position you are in even trying to think about what is moral and what isn’t. You can’t beg off that duty. Outsourcing it to holy text is still you making a decision.

    Why should I CARE if the world is happy or not?

    All I can say is that if you don’t already care, then nothing can make you care. There’s no way to convince sociopaths that they should care about other people.

    This is why no respectable philosopher is a utilitarian.

    Hellllllo True Scotsman fallacy!

    Utilitarianism is something young philosophy majors chew on to teach them how to refute arguments, precisely because there are so many inconsistencies.

    Congratulations: you’ve successfully convinced me that you don’t know much about the history of, or the present state of the academic debate over moral philosophy.

    Apparently you actually believe that there are some moral philosophies without gaping apparent inconsistencies (and, of course, responses to those inconsistencies, and responses to the responses… and so on)

    You can’t just say everyone knows people are valuable, you have to have an atheistic reason.

    But you didn’t have a “theistic” reason as to why anyone should care about what God values: why demand something you yourself have failed to supply?

    Don’t be ridiculous and say that the soul develops at some point after the person is already alive.

    I dunno: pretty much any application of the soul seems ridiculous and just made up on the spot. First of all, there is no time when anything is NOT alive. There is no moment of conception. And even after conception, the fertilized zygote can develop eventually into one baby, or two, or three, or twenty, or none. What’s going with souls then?

    Try birth control.

    We’d like to, but here in the US, we have a bunch of folks who have been making it as difficult as possible. The result is that we have way way way higher teen pregnancy rates and abortion rates than most other Western countries. All of which is probably the fault of those vehemently opposed to birth control and reality based sex education. But of course, those people don’t like to blame themselves, and there are so many other convenient scapegoats for the effects of their backwards policies.

    There is no such thing as a logical argument for valuing the life of one human being over another.

    Unfortunately, you don’t have much choice, again. Every single day you make choices that value the lives of some people over others: you increase risk to some and decrease it to others, and so on. In life you face tradeoffs where you have to make choices and so cannot avoid having to weigh some things against others, including some lives against others. What do you think wars involve? The death penalty? Or even every single time you get into a car, thus increasing the likelihood of you causing death to other drivers dramatically, all for the sake of your own convenience.

  17. Well, I would say that “soul” in this context is just an incredibly sloppy, arbitrary, and confused way of talking about moral interests, so I guess we’re even. :)

    The concept of “morality” is no more scientific than “soul”. Morality is WHY, and science can only address HOW. See here.

  18. Bad,

    I don’t have time for nonsense. Sorry.

    E

  19. A God can demand things all it wants for whatever story it wants to tell: none of that makes those demands moral. You are just arbitrarily assuming that they are.

    God demanding it is what makes it (defines it to be) moral. If you want, I guess you could say that God arbitrarily chose what is moral, and what is not. But (being God), he has the right to be arbitrary. Might makes right.

    There is no such thing as a logical argument for valuing the life of one human being over another.

    Unfortunately, you don’t have much choice, again. Every single day you make choices that value the lives of some people over others:

    So you agree that your means of making moral choices is not logical, but ultimately arbitrary.

  20. The concept of “morality” is no more scientific than “soul”.

    Hmmm… I guess now you should explain where I said otherwise, right?

    God demanding it is what makes it (defines it to be) moral.

    And if “wallowing in the mud” were defined as “flying” then pigs could be said to fly. But you cannot conceal your own artibitrary and circular definition as being a meaningful argument. It’s still you deciding, judging, in the end.

    If you want, I guess you could say that God arbitrarily chose what is moral, and what is not. But (being God), he has the right to be arbitrary.

    Certainly an all powerful God can do whatever it wants. But that doesn’t make anything right. How could it?

    Might makes right.

    Might makes threats, surely, but it can never make “right.” Power can force or threaten people to obey, but it can never make an amoral world moral.

    So you agree that your means of making moral choices is not logical, but ultimately arbitrary.

    My means are exactly as logical or as illogical as yours or anyones: while values like caring for other people cannot ever be justified to sociopaths of course, once possesed we can indeed apply logic to them. Values are not sensibly descriebd as being “logical” or “illogical” in any case: they are values, simple propositions of judgement and worth, and one either has them for other people or they don’t. This, I’m afraid, is an unavoidable situation, no matter what you believe.

  21. Certainly an all powerful God can do whatever it wants. But that doesn’t make anything right. How could it?

    It seems that you didn’t read my other post I linked to, or you didn’t get it — it doesn’t appear to me that you read it, understood my point, and merely disagree.

    BadIdea, if there is no God, then everything you say is perfectly correct; your conclusions are as consistent as an atheistic worldview can support. But every point you make is invalid if there is a creator God who controls, or at least influences his creation. So there’s no point continuing to argue about moral conclusions, when we have such different presuppositions. There is no possibility of meaningful dialogue about morality — the term “morality” doesn’t even carry the same meaning for us!

  22. […] Ethical Question I […]

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