Wingnut metaphysics revisited
A few weeks ago I wrote a post on what anti-choice blogger Scott Klusendorf called "pro-life metaphysics." (I'm assuming it was Klusendorf who wrote the post in question; it's his site, and it doesn't say anything about any other bloggers. Somebody please correct me if I'm wrong about this.) I'd never heard the term before, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that there is, in fact, a more or less specifiable metaphysic that anti-choicers tend to share. Not surprisingly, I did not find this metaphysic persuasive.
Klusendorf has posted an in-depth rejoinder to my post, which deserves a somewhat detailed response.
More on the flip, if you're interested.
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This is the relevant portion of the post I was originally responding to:
Problem is, many GOP leaders act like they don’t have a worldview. Or maybe they do and simply can’t argue for it. (Have you seen Bill Frist’s lovely claim that he’s “pro-life” and believes “that life begins at conception,” but now supports killing embryos for research? Try squaring that gem with pro-life metaphysics.) Either way, true conservatives are not well served by a party that plays politics when it should be playing hardball at the idea level.I responded:
... the anti-abortion ideology really does rest upon the assumption of a very specific - and, incidentally, very specious - metaphysic.I then took issue with premises 1 and 2, especially #2:
The heart of the anti-abortion movement is a very simple argument:
1. Killing people is always wrong (and should be illegal)
2. A fetus is a person
3. Abortion kills a fetus
4. Therefore abortion kills a person
5. Therefore abortion is wrong (and should be illegal)
... it relies on a certain metaphysical view. Namely, anti-choicers tend to believe (a) that there exists a general ontological kind or type or category "person" and (b) that a fetus is a genuine token or instantiation of that kind/type not because it shares certain characteristics with the other members, but because of some (usually vaguely defined) metaphysical property. This is the only way to reasonably believe that this -OK, now for Klusendorf's response to me. He writes (referring to me as 'DH'):
- is a person, since it obviously demonstrates none of the typical characteristics associated with personhood. It can be a person only by possessing some inner essence of personhood.
Of course, they've given us no reason why we should accept this metaphysic; like most metaphysics, it is basically a mixture of nonsensical and unsupported claims.
...So what the anti-choice movement is trying to do is to impose the normative implications of their pet metaphysical theory (highly influenced by their pet religious ideology) on the rest of society, without giving us any reason to believe that their theory is, you know, true. It is as if I were to decide that teddy bears are actually conscious, highly emotional beings who hate to be left alone, and then trying to pass laws that would make it illegal to neglect your teddy bear. The only difference would be that this form of insanity would be utterly idiosyncratic, while the insanity of believing that a three-celled embryo is a 'person' is one that is shared by a significant segment of society, and endorsed by some of the world's most popular religious institutions, which garners it a level of perceived legitimacy that is wholly unearned.
Right away there are problems, as DH attacks an argument I nowhere make.I should probably clear this up: I didn't exactly mean to imply that he specifically made this argument. Rather, I was articulating what I take to be the basic anti-abortion argument, not an argument specific to any one person, and perhaps not an argument explicitly stated by anyone. Apologies for any confusion; I should have been clearer.
Consider premise #1 above. Pro-life advocates like myself do not argue that it’s always wrong to take human life (a position only a strict pacifist would hold)Well, okay ... I suppose I was a bit sloppy. Anti-choicers aren't, of course, committed to the view that taking human life is always wrong (at least, I don't know of any reason to think they are). Instead, it's probably more accurate to articulate the first premise as something like: "Killing a person is prima facie wrong, and in the absence of any special justification (e.g., self-defense, just war) it should be illegal." Not as catchy, but more accurate. (What I was trying to capture with my original articulation of the first premise was the fact that even if it is established that a fetus is a person, it doesn't automatically follow that abortion is wrong - i.e., because abortion might be a type of justified taking of the life of a person. But that's probably a debate best left for another time anyway, as it doesn't seem to ride on any particular metaphysical view.)
Anyway, Scott continues:
Throughout his post, DH chides pro-lifers for not establishing that the human fetus is a person. “They’ve given us no reason why we should accept this metaphysic; like most metaphysics, it is basically a mixture of nonsensical and unsupported claims.”I don't consider my views about personhood to have anything to do with metaphysics. What I'm arguing is that 'person' is just a word, defined conventionally, as opposed to deriving its meaning by somehow rigidly designating some ontological type/natural kind of 'personhood'. The word 'person' is like the word 'tall'; convention, guided, as always, but the objective facts of the matter, determines when its use is appropriate.
Like his own unsupported claims? Notice that nowhere in his essay does DH defend his metaphysical assumption that there can be such a thing as a human being that is not a person. Why should anyone believe that? Nor does he defend his claim that personhood is an accidental property rather than something intrinsic to the human subject. I wonder: Other than the embryos and fetuses he’d like to arbitrarily exclude, has he ever met a human non-person?
Have I ever met a human non-person? I'm not sure. Maybe. But I'm pretty certain there are members of the human species who probably wouldn't meet the criteria for personhood (criteria which are, again, rooted in convention). E.g., someone like Terri Schiavo before she died.
The thing is, there almost has to be some kind of daylight between the concept of 'human' and that of 'person'; otherwise, they are just synonyms. Which is fine, if that's the way you want to use the word, but in that case the personhood of the fetus wouldn't really get you anywhere - even pro-choicers, after all, acknowledge that a fetus is a member, in some sense, of the human species. If the claim that the fetus is a person is supposed to add some additional force to the anti-abortion argument, it has to mean something above and beyond the uncontroversial claim that the fetus is a human.
there is no way to avoid the metaphysics involved in the dispute, though DH would like you to think he’s above it all. Yet even his claim that most metaphysical claims are “nonsensical” is itself a metaphysical claim.This passage is a puzzling one. I totally disagree that to label metaphysical claims as nonsense is itself a metaphysical claim. I see no reason why that would be so, and no argument is given. So all I can say is that the 'nonsense' epithet is properly characterized as a semantic or linguistic claim ... I'm talking not about the subject of metaphysics but rather about metaphysical language. Suppose I said: "All poetry is nonsense." Is that claim a line of poetry?
Plus, I should add that I didn't say all metaphysical claims are nonsense. My remark was that "most metaphysics [is] a mixture of nonsensical and unsupported claims."
the nature of the abortion debate is such that all positions on abortion presuppose a metaphysical view of human value, and for this reason, the pro-choice position is not entitled to a privileged philosophical standing in our legal framework. At issue is not which view of abortion has metaphysical underpinnings and which does not, but which metaphysical view of human value is correct, pro-life or abortion-choice?Even if it were true that "all positions on abortion presuppose a metaphysical view of human value" - which it's not, for many reasons, including the fact that the assigning or denying of value is not necessarily a metaphysical endeavor, unless SK is making the bizarre claim that metaphysics somehow permeates all aspects of human activity, in which case, I'd like to hear the argument - even if that were true, it wouldn't necessarily follow that the pro-choice position wouldn't enjoy a privileged standing. The burden of proof has to lie somewhere; in my opinion, it should be relatively uncontroversial that the anti-choice folks would have the responsibility to demonstrate that a fetus is deserving of protection against abortion. After all, the anti-choicers are the ones who want to barge into operating rooms and tell women and doctors that they can't abort. That alone doesn't mean this interference isn't justified, but given that it is a limitation on individual freedom, it would seem that fundamental principles of liberalism (as in classical liberalism) dictate that individual liberty be given the benefit of the doubt, and that it is the one who wishes to infringe upon that liberty who bears the burden of explaining why he is justified in doing so.
An analogy: suppose I decide that oysters are sentient beings who deserve the right to live. I therefore begin a campaign to outlaw the eating of oysters.
Now, there is a sense in which I can say, a la Klusendorf, that the nature of the oyster debate is such that all positions on oyster personhood presuppose a metaphysical view of oyster value, and for this reason, the pro-eating-oysters position is not entitled to a privileged philosophical standing in our legal framework. But this is clearly absurd, no? Surely if I want to infringe upon the liberty of others by telling them they can't eat oysters, it is up to me to prove that this is justified.
Another thing that SK says is also puzzling:
Fact is, both sides in the abortion debate make moral claims. Both want their side to win politically and in the court of public opinion. And both want their position legislated in law. In short, both views–pro-life and abortion-choice–are asking the exact same question: What makes humans valuable in the first place? Metaphysical neutrality on that question is not a workable option.I don't deny that both sides make moral claims. What I would deny - or at least, what needs to be argued for - is that moral claims are metaphysical claims. There are some, I imagine, who hold such a view, but it hardly just goes without saying.
Dadahead’s own abortion-choice view is that humans have value (and hence, rights) not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, but only because of an acquired property such as self- consciousness or emotional awareness. Because the early fetus lacks the immediate capacity to exercise these properties, it is not a person with rights. Notice that DH is doing the abstract work of metaphysics. That is, he is using philosophical reflection to advance a disputed view of human persons–namely, that humans are valuable by function not nature.I don't necessarily agree with this characterization of my view. But even if it were correct, it's not clear that properties such as self-consciousness and emotional awareness are metaphysical properties. Many would argue that these are scientifically discoverable characteristics that some organisms possess and some do not, with only empirical investigation, and not metaphysical speculation, needed to determine which is which.
Another claim which I think can be dealt with without too much difficulty is that the "pro-life metaphysic" is the only or the best way to "explain human dignity and equality":
I don’t think abortion advocates like DH can account for basic human equality ... If humans have value only because of some acquired property like consciousness or self-awareness and not in virtue of the kind of thing they are, then it follows that since these acquired properties come in varying degrees, basic human rights come in varying degrees. Do we really want to say that those with more self-consciousness are more human (and more valuable) than those with less?The inference made in the bolded sentence (my emphasis) is faulty. I'll go ahead and adopt, for the sake of argument, the view that consciousness is the property that grants rights or value or whatever to human beings, and that consciousness is an acquired property. First of all, it's by no means obvious that consciousness comes "in degrees," at least until more is said about what that would mean. One could plausibly say that consciousness is like pregnancy - you either are or you aren't.
But let's grant, again for the sake of argument, that consciousness does, indeed, come in varying degrees. It still wouldn't follow that the more conscious one was, the more valuable one would be. For instance, I could argue that there is a certain threshold of consciousness such that once one reaches this threshold, one is accorded full human dignity, equality, value, whatever. Below the threshold, no, above it, yes. If X hasn't crossed the threshold, X doesn't have the kind of value we are talking about. If X has crossed it, then X does have this value - and X has as much as he ever will. It doesn't matter how much 'more conscious' (?) X gets, he will never acquire more value. It's an either/or proposition.
An analogy: suppose I am a believer in the death penalty for Kantian/retributivist type reasons - that is, I think murderers should be put to death because they deserve to die for the evil they have done.
I am not committed to the view that the more people one murders, the more deserving he is of the death penalty. Rather, it is perfectly consistent for me to say that all murderers are evil, and deserving of death, plain and simple. It doesn't matter if you kill one person or a thousand: you are evil and I want you to die.
I'm not arguing for this, mind you. I'm just noting that even though some property P can come in varying degrees - whether P is consciousness, or number of murders, or whatever - it doesn't follow that any value judgments we make relating to the absence or presence of P also have to come in varying degrees.
Toward the end of his post, DH finally burps out what’s really bugging him: "So what the anti-choice movement is trying to do is impose the normative implications of their pet metaphysical theory (highly influenced by their pet religious ideology) on the rest of society, without giving us any reason to believe that their theory is, you know, true." Question: Is DH saying it’s wrong for pro-lifers to do that? If so, who is he to impose that “pet” rule on us without first giving us reasons why it’s, you know, true? And if he’s not saying we’re wrong to impose our views, then why is he correcting us with his own metaphysical presupposition–one he nowhere defends–which essentially says religious truth claims don’t count as real knowledge? (By the way, I don’t think pro-lifers are wrongly imposing their views–a point I made in an earlier post.)I didn't mean to imply that religious claims can't count as real knowledge. However, they don't get any special exemptions because they are religious; if you are basing the anti-abortion argument on religious claims, you'd better have some evidence for those religious claims available.
Whether or not there is evidence for various religious claims is beyond the scope of this post. I'll simply note that the overwhelming consensus among philosophers and scientists is that there is not nearly the kind of evidence that would require all of us, upon pain of irrationality, to accept these claims. Of course, consensus doesn't entail truth. But at the very least, it is a highly debatable proposition (i.e., that the religious claims of Christians (or any other believers) are verifiable). To cite just one quick example, I know of no argument that would persuade me to treat the Bible as the word of God. It is possible that such an argument exists, and that I just haven't seen it yet. But hey, there's only so many hours in the day, and I haven't devoted myself to a search for such an argument. If anyone knows of one, I'd love to see it.
DH is just plain wrong that pro-life advocates provide no defense for their metaphysics. Sure they do. Problem is, DH takes no time to actually engage pro-life arguments; he simply dismisses them as “religious ideology.” However, his dismissal does not constitute an argument and it ignores the sophisticated case pro-life philosophers present in support of fetal personhood. Even at the popular level, DH can’t bring himself to engage a basic pro-life argument–one based on science and philosophy. Scientifically, pro-lifers contend that from the earliest stages of development, the unborn are distinct, living, and whole human beings. True, they have yet to grow and mature, but they are whole human beings nonetheless. Leading embryology textbooks affirm this ... Philosophically, pro-lifers argue that there is no morally significant difference between the embryo you once were and the adult you are today. Differences of size, development, and location are not relevant in the way that abortion advocates need them to be. For example, everyone agrees that embryos are small—perhaps smaller than the dot at the end of this sentence. But since when do rights depend on how large we are? Men are generally larger than women, but that hardly means they deserve more rights. Size does not equal value.Again, I certainly can't claim to have unearthed every extant argument against abortion. The ones I am familiar with are wholly unconvincing, as is the one presented here. As I said above, I don't necessarily dispute that embryos are in some sense "whole human beings." (I don't necessarily endorse it either - haven't really thought about it, because my view in no way turns on the issue.)
Differences of size are irrelvant, sure. If it were a fully conscious human being in there, just a really, really tiny one, I might feel differently. But my point in showing the picture of the embryo is not to demonstrate its tiny size, but rather to demonstrate the fact that it completely consists of three cells.
Differences of development are very much relevant ... but that's basically the whole crux of the argument again. Anti-choicers seem pretty committed to the view that these differences don't matter, but a strong case can be made - one that is also beyond the scope of this post - that these differences are all that matter. Again, that's the meat of the abortion argument.
DH is correct to say that pro-life metaphysics are “endorsed by some of the world’s most popular religious institutions.” Ah, but once again, the sword cuts both ways. According to the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, the vast majority of religious denominations ... hold the exact same metaphysical view DH does concerning the status of the unborn–namely, that embryos and fetuses are not valuable human beings ... Put simply, if the pro-life view is suspect because of it’s alleged connection to the metaphysics of religion, so is the pro-abortion one.It's not so much that the anti-abortion view is suspect because it is endorsed by religions - it's that the view itself seems to be based solely, or at least heavily, on religion. I wouldn't hold it against the anti-choicers just because the Catholic Church agrees with them. That would be absurd, and self-defeating, seeing as how the Church agrees with me on other issues (e.g. the war). What I'm skeptical of is that there exists a totally non-religious argument against abortion. Various religious organizations may agree with my view, but you won't hear me invoking that as evidence for it.
Finally, regarding Judith Jarvis Thomson:
DH says he’s yet to see a good rejoinder to Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist argument. Seriously? Does he truly believe, like Thomson, that a mother has no more duty to her own child than she does a total stranger or intruder? Does he really think that we have no obligations to our own offspring unless we voluntarily assume those obligations?I can't say too much about this now - this post has gone on far too long already ... is anyone still reading this? Hello? - but suffice to say that it's begging questions all over the place. E.g., who said the fetus was "her own child"? I mean, in a certain purely scientific sense that's true, but anything purely scientific carries with it no particular moral consequences, so this must mean something else.
Plus, even if parents do have special obligations to their children, it doesn't mean Thomson's argument fails. All you have to do is stipulate that the violinist ends up being one's son or daughter. I imagine Thomson would argue that, while it would be greatly admirable of you to make this sacrifice for your child, and maybe we would even be repulsed by someone who refused, you still would have no obligation to allow the violinist - your son or daughter - to remain hooked up to you. Likewise, just because the embryo inside her is composed (in part) of her genetic material, it doesn't follow that a woman is obligated to carry it to term.