Case Study: Abortion.
Abortion is a tough issue. Just the fact that it occurs many, many times a day emphasizes the importance of the problem. What are the first order arguments for and against abortion?
The straightforward anti-abortion argument is: 1, It is always wrong to kill innocent persons; 2, The fetus is an innocent person; 3, Abortion kills fetuses; 4, Conclusion, therefore abortion is morally wrong.
The premises of the argument seem clear and the argument makes sense. Who would think that killing innocent persons could be right? Who would deny that the fetus is innocent, or at least, not consulted about his life? Who can deny that abortion kills fetuses? The conclusion that abortion is morally wrong looks to follow with ease.
However, there are logical problems with the form of the above argument. The second premise, the fetus is an innocent person, is probably begged or assumed. The truth of that premise needs demonstration before the argument can work. Remember that an argument is not sound unless the premises are true. The truth of the above argument depends upon the truth of the second premise. But, if that truth is begged, then the argument is fallacious.
What remains to be seen is whether the premise that the fetus is a person is true or not. If the fetus is a person, then there is a strong case that it has certain rights and other persons have moral duties to it. Exactly what those rights and duties are is a problem that also remains to be determined. But, the important point at hand for the above anti-abortion argument is to show that the fetus is a person. How can this be done?
The fetus is a person because there is no way to determine that it is not a person. One method to show that the fetus is a person is to work backwards, as it were. We know that a fetus is either a person or it is not a person. If it can be shown to be false that the fetus is not a person, then the conclusion must be that the fetus is a person.
Consider that you are an anti-abortionist and wish to use the above method to demonstrate that abortion is morally wrong. I, a pro-abortionist, attack the premise that the fetus is a person. My claim is that you and I are persons, but the fetus, which is so unlike you and me, is not. I claim that you cannot give a definition of "person" which would show that you are a person and so is a fetus. The crux of my attack is to claim that you cannot give a definition of "person" which includes both you and me, and fetuses. They are entities that fall outside of any definition of "person."
To prove my point I ask you whether or not you are a person. You reply that, "Of course, I am a person." I then ask you, "How do you know?" Your reply is, "Well, I just do. I know that I am a person and I can give an ostensive definition of 'person' simply by pointing out examples of the thing to be defined. See John over there, he is a person. Mary in the green chair is a person also. So is Mark standing by the door. Spot, the dog on the sofa, is not a person. You see what I refer to by 'person' now, don't you? They are entities just like you, me, John, Mary, Mark, but not Spot. I do not have to give you any 'defining characteristics' or 'necessary conditions,' for my ostensive definition is sufficient."
Let's talk about necessary and sufficient conditions for a second before we continue. A necessary condition is a condition that must be present if the thing in question is to be present; that is, a necessary condition is a defining characteristic of a thing such that if it is missing, the thing will not occur. For example, a necessary condition of a thing's being a square is that it have four equal sides. Anything that has sides of a number greater or less than four cannot be a square. Another necessary condition is that the interior angles all are 90-degree angles. So, were we to give the necessary conditions of a thing's being a square, we would say that it would have to have four equal sides and interior angles each of which was a ninety degree angle. Interesting, this notion of a set of necessary conditions leads us to the concept of a sufficient condition. A sufficient condition is all that is needed to explain the thing in question. The two necessary conditions of a square are sufficient to give us an adequate explanation of a square. No more is needed than these two conditions.
Back to the argument.
Note that your tactic is not to give any necessary conditions for a thing's being a person (which is what I wanted you to do), conditions to which I could find counter-examples. For example, you may have said that a person is an entity which must be viable; it must be able to live on its own. But, I would immediately have replied that, "There are many things which are not viable, but which are clearly persons. A patient on a kidney-dialysis machine is not viable -he would die were it not for the machine-but is clearly a person. A diabetic is not viable without a pharmaceutical company, but is still a person." Or, you may have said that a necessary of a thing's being a person is for it to be conscious, especially self-conscious. But, I would have replied, "Are you a person when you are asleep? Yes, of course you are a person --a sleeping person. But, clearly, there is no consciousness or self-consciousness during some of the times when you are asleep." Your ostensive definition tends to avoid this problem of counter-examples to necessary conditions. Once you get me to admit that I know that I, you, John and Mary are persons simply by pointing out examples of what we know are persons, that is all that you need to continue your argument.
You continue your argument by focusing on my knowledge of myself being a person.
You ask me, "There is no question in your mind that you are now a person?"
I reply, "No question. I know that I am a person."
Your next question is, "Did you become a person when you turned eighteen and gained a right to vote?"
"Of course not," I say.
"Well," you continue, "did you become a person when you entered the first grade? Surely there is a big difference between the first-grader and yourself now?"
"Sure, there is a big difference, but not in a moral sense of being or not being a person. I was just as much a person then as I am now." I can't seem to see where you are going with your argument, I think to myself.
"Were you not a person when you were a year-old infant?" you ask. "Is there any clearly identifiable property or condition which you had as a first-grader that you do not have as an infant?"
"No. Nothing that I can identify. But, I was a person as an infant," I mutter, trying to think where you are going with this inquiry.
"At the moment of your birth, did that make you a person?" you ask.
"Well, it certainly changed things," I reply. "Yes, as a matter of fact, birth made me a person. I became detached from my mother. I became viable."
"But, wait a minute," you say. "We have already established that viability is not a necessary condition of personhood. There are plenty of persons in the world who are not viable. Remember the discussion about persons who are diabetic or on kidney dialysis machines. Besides, a newborn infant is not viable. Left alone it will die. Matter of fact, if you were taken into the woods and left on your own to survive without help from others, you would probably die. Birth and viability are not necessary conditions for personhood. Besides, tell me this, one-hour before you were born, were you any less a person than one hour after you were born? What essential difference can you point out that can identify you as a person when you were an infant but not a person as a fetus?"
I reply, "Well, there is no essential difference that can be pointed out."
"OK," you say. "So, we know that in terms of personhood, there is no way to tell that a fetus one hour before birth is any less of a person than a baby after birth. Right?"
"Yeah, I'll admit that," I say hesitatingly, because I begin to see the direction of the argument.
You continue. "Can you determine with clarity when exactly a fetus becomes a person? The reason for the demand for clarity or certainty is important. Here's the reason. Killing something requires a good reason. Killing something that may be a person requires a very good reason. Anyone who wishes to kill had better have the reason clear and certain, for they cannot afford to make a mistake. Killing is a one way transaction. The item killed cannot be brought back. So, unless you are absolutely certain the fetus is not a person, then you had better not run the risk of murder. For that's what intentionally killing a person for no good reason is. Abortion is, thus, not a morally permissible action. If you plan on killing by abortion, the burden of proof is on you to show that what you are killing is NOT a person. The anti-abortionist does not have such a terrible burden. Abortion is too risky and uncertain to risk, for it could be murder. If your are not absolutely certain that the fetus is not a person (and I have shown you that you cannot be absolutely certain), then abortion should not be allowed. "
But, you are not finished.
There is a second argument which you wish to bring up, one developed by Don Marquis (See in this text Marquis) and R.M. Hare. Fetuses are in the same moral category as we are when it comes to killing. The argument goes as follows.
Let's presume that the argument above works, but is not entirely satisfactory. It doesn't bring the fetus close enough to you to feel the weight of abortion as it would apply to you. What the next argument does is to show that the fetus has the same moral standing as any of us when it comes to our livelihood.
The first premise of the primary anti-abortion argument is straightforward and needs repeating here. It says that it is always wrong to kill an innocent person. What makes that premise true? Why is killing an innocent person wrong?
Let's talk about wrong actions which we can get a handle on quickly, crime. Let's start with a lessor crime, petty theft. If someone were to steal your coat, that would be troublesome, but not a big deal. You can always get another coat. But, what if someone were to steal a ring that your grandparents had left to you. No that would hurt. However, your life would still go on and there would be other things in it which you would value. Now suppose someone could steal everything that you now own and value. Ouch! That would be extremely painful. However, you could make a comeback by rebuilding and attempting to replace the things stolen. Your life would not be a disaster, but there is no question that the thief truly caused bad changes in your life.
What would be the ultimate robbery? Suppose someone could steal from you everything that is and could ever be of value to you. How could someone do this to you? Simple. He/she could kill you. You would forever lose everything of value to you. The horror of losing everything of value to us forever backs us to the wall. That's what makes us loath and fear killing so much. If it happened to us, we would lose everything forever --not a fate worse than death, but the horrible fate of death itself. Murder or the killing of an innocent person is, thus, at the top of our list of actions that are to be prohibited. It could happen to us, and it's the one thing from which there is no recovery.
When a fetus is aborted, it is killed. It has the same status as we with respect to what is important, our future which holds everything of value in it. To lose one's future is to lose everything forever. If we fear so much losing our future that the strongest laws we have are against murder, and if abortion removes the future from a being that will be just like us, then abortion is wrong. I am glad I was not aborted. I suspect that you feel the same way. It is only proper that we respect our own feelings and how they indicate to us that we should reciprocate the action to entities who will be just like us --persons who too will be glad they were not aborted.
The argument puts the ball squarely before us. If we value our futures, if the fetus is an entity with a future just-like-ours, then we must respect the fetuses right to a future just as we hope that others respect our right to our futures and do not kill us. Fetuses, then, because they have futures just-like-ours, are in the same moral category as we. Since we do not murder each other, we should not murder a fetus.
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