Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for the ‘Abortion’ Category

Thomson’s Violinist

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 26, 2009

The following is a fascinating thought experiment proposed by moral philosopher Judith Thomson:

You wake up in the morning and find yourself back to back in bed with an unconscious violinist. A famous unconscious violinist. He has been found to have a fatal kidney ailment, and the Society of Music Lovers has canvassed all the available medical records and found that you alone have the right blood type to help. They have therefore kidnapped you, and last night the violinist’s circulatory system was plugged into yours, so that your kidneys can be used to extract poisons from his blood as well as your own. The director of the hospital now tells you, “Look, we’re sorry the Society of Music Lovers did this to you–we would never have permitted it if we had known. But still, they did it, and the violinist is now plugged into you. To unplug you would be to kill him. But never mind, it’s only for nine months. By then he will have recovered from his ailment, and can safely be unplugged from you.” Is it morally incumbent on you to accede to this situation?

The question then is, are you morally obligated to keep yourself plugged in? It is clear enough that, according to my own moral beliefs, staying plugged in is the morally right thing to do. But are you obligated? This is a question of individual rights: do you have a right to practice autonomy by unplugging yourself, but killing the violinist? Thomson says that the claim that you are obligated is “outrageous”; but why?

Let’s look at this from a more Utilitarian perspective. Will it be better for the world if you are obligated to remain attached? Perhaps there will be some benefit to the world, but there will also be detriment to your personal happiness.

Let’s revisit an old post of mine on assessing blame. This is similar to assessing moral responsibility. I assert that the one who is morally responsible for an event is the one who was most able to change the outcome. This involves some subtleties, but it is a pretty good general idea. In the case of this thought experiment, you are the only one capable of saving or condemning the violinist. I think it is clear enough that you are responsible for whether the violinist lives or dies. But are you therefore obligated to allow the violinist to live?

This dilemma can be looked at as a question of freedom. Are you morally obligated to restrict your own freedom? I would like to think that this is never the case, but it frequently is. Although personal liberty is one of my (and society’s) most important values, it is not unlimited. You do not always have the freedom to restrict the freedom of another. By unplugging yourself, you are killing the violinist and thus causing the ultimate restriction of freedom. The question then becomes, are you obligated to give up your nine months of freedom in exchange for the violinist’s however-many years of freedom? It is the right thing to do, but are you obligated?

So far, it seems as though we keep being led sideways. We are accumulating more and more information, but the information is only raising more questions. Or, perhaps, the same question is just being raised in many different ways.

So what do we do? I open up the question to the comments. I will continue to think about this problem, and will possibly write another post in the future. Until then, what do you think?

Here are some resources that I found useful.

A Defense of Abortion: the essay in which this dilemma was originally proposed. It was meant as an analogy to abortion; I have not yet treated it as such, but I may later on.

Killing and Letting Die: an essay on the difference between killing someone and letting someone die. I did not use this directly, but it gave me something to think about.

Rule Consequentialism: A Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on a branch of Consequentialism.

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 3 Comments »

The Fertilization Argument

Posted by Michael Dickens on December 23, 2009

Some opponents of abortion (most, actually) argue that life begins at conception. But why conception? Why doesn’t life begin as soon as the egg is fully formed? proponents ask. Anti-abortionists respond, it is because an egg only has a half-set of DNA, and so doesn’t really count. So the question is, is this assertion a sound one?

The soundness of the assertion depends on where the opponent’s argument is coming from: what are his axioms? The opponent seems to be assuming that human life has intrinsic value, while non-human life does not. Is there any basis for this assumption? I think not. Although humans can cooperate with each other more effectively than with other animals, and we all happen to be human, there is nothing inherently special about human DNA. What makes humans special is their ability to reason and to think creatively; humans are better at this than any other animal. Just-fertilized eggs and unfertilized eggs, however, are both equally bad at reasoning and creative thinking. So the only real difference is in the DNA. Is the opponent of abortion then arguing that DNA is what defines human rights? This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. So, in effect, the division is arbitrary.

What about an egg’s “potential”? A fertilized egg has the potential to grow into a human being. It will grow into a fully formed baby after just nine months. Fertilized eggs certainly have potential to become fully human. They just need warmth, nourishment, and protection from the elements. Actually, that’s quite a lot. But anyway, let’s look at unfertilized eggs. What kind of potential do they have? They may only have half a set of DNA, but the difference between a fertilized egg and an unfertilized egg is a fairly simple one. The egg just needs to be fertilized. Fertilizing an egg is certainly a lot less work than raising one into a baby. An unfertilized egg has nearly as much “potential” as a fertilized egg does. So that argument is bogus.

Given these observations, what then is the difference between a fertilized egg and an unfertilized egg? Apparently, DNA is the only real difference. So can the opponent prove that DNA matters? To do so, he must prove that human DNA is superior to non-human DNA, and that this superiority is the most important factor. I have many times seen it implicitly asserted that human DNA is superior, but have never heard a legitimate reason why. Sure, I’ve heard “because God made humans to be special”, but never a reason that didn’t rely on assuming the existence of a deity that no one has ever seen.

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 1 Comment »


Posted by Michael Dickens on September 27, 2009

Yep. You know what else are lives? These:

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RE: Ten Arguments For Abortion and Against Abortion

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 27, 2009

This is a response to the page on abortion. In a somewhat less traditional fashion, I will be responding to ALL arguments, not just the anti-abortion ones.

The Pro-Life arguments come first.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 5 Comments »

The Coma Argument

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 13, 2009

One argument that I have frequently heard in the abortion debate, in response to the argument that fetuses are not sentient, is this:

A person in a coma is not sentient, and yet it is wrong to kill a comatose person.

This raises an important question: Why is it wrong to kill a comatose person? Is it even wrong?

It is wrong to kill a comatose person because it is robbing that person of future experiences. But does the same not apply for a fetus? Actually, the same applies for every single sperm, but trillions of sperm die every day. So the logic must break down at some point. Where, though?

Perhaps this rationale is wrong. Perhaps we do not kill comatose people because we know that if we were in a coma, we would not want to be killed. So it is, in a sense, a selfish altruism. The same logic cannot be applied to fetuses, since we are only a fetus once.

But I think not. If we look at an absolute moral standard, this idea no longer applies. The most intuitive explanation to me is this:

A single sperm has not developed a sense of self. A sperm has no life, no experiences. Someone who has already spent years developing a sense of identity has more to hold on to. So while it would be wrong to rob a comatose person of his or her identity, there is no such problem with sperm.

Given this foundation, it follows that fetuses do not deserve the same rights as adults, even comatose adults.

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 6 Comments »

The Axioms of Abortion

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 5, 2009

Disclaimer: The two definitions of personhood described below are based on my own opinion. Not every anti-abortion person is anti-abortion for the reason I disclose; likewise, not every pro-abortion person is pro-abortion for the same reason either.

Axiom: a maxim widely accepted on its intrinsic merit
Person: an entity deserving of basic rights such as the right to life

In the end, what does the abortion debate come down to? If we ignore all of the side arguments about monetary costs, etc., there is one central issue here: at what point does a fetus become a person? Though there are many possible answers, it really comes down to two possibilities.

Perspective 1: According to most anti-abortion people, all humans are persons.
Perspective 2: According to most pro-abortion people, humans only become persons at a certain point. This point is typically when the human becomes capable of rationality and self-awareness, the things that truly make us human.

So the real question in the great abortion debate is, which of these axioms about the definition of personhood is correct? As we shall soon see, these axioms are not axioms after all: axioms are by definition at the lowest level and cannot be proven, but these statements are not yet at the lowest level. They can be supported by evidence.

On the surface, from either an evolutionary, biblical or spiritual perspective, the first definition is the correct one. All humans share a great deal of genetic material; humans alone were made in the image of God; humans alone have souls. From each of these it can be concluded that all humans are also persons.

The second definition takes a different perspective. There is nothing inherently special about humans; instead, what makes humans special is their rationality. A core foundation of the second definition is this: do not do harm unto others. This may seem counterintuitive: are the pro-abortion people not advocating that we do harm to living beings? As a matter of fact, they are not. From the perspective of the second definition, the fetus is not being harmed, because to truly be harmed requires that one is self-aware. A being incapable of emotion is incapable of being harmed. A being incapable of self-awareness is incapable of being truly aware of harm: an emotional being such as a mammal or bird is capable of pain, but only a self-aware being can think about the true ramifications of pain, and only a self-aware being can speculate about the meaning of death.

Since in every situation the first perspective seems to be the correct one, why does anyone hold the second at all? It comes from human rationality. If we were to follow the guidance of evolution, we would accept the first perspective. But differences arise when we escape the direct guidance of evolution; only rational beings are capable of this. When we take a broader and less selfish perspective, we can become more understanding of others and their needs. This is what we do when we adopt the second moral perspective.

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 1 Comment »

Why I Enjoy Discussing Abortion

Posted by Michael Dickens on August 3, 2009

Abortion is a popular topic in politics these days. But unlike many other political topics, it is surprisingly deep. It involves detailed philosophy and ethics. Abortion even gets down to the very roots of what makes us human. Discussions on abortion can go in so many different directions.

Why am I talking about how much I love to talk about abortion? Well, I promised myself that I would post once every day for the month of August. I’m working on another post about abortion right now, but it probably won’t be out until tomorrow.

The only thing missing from the abortion discussion is math. Hmm. . . .

Posted in Abortion | 1 Comment »

RE: 10 Arguments Against Abortion

Posted by Michael Dickens on July 26, 2009

I found yet another anti-abortion site. Once again, there are 10 arguments. And once again, there are 0 valid arguments.

1. Cost of Abortions
This is no reason to ban abortion. The solution for this is private healthcare, not banning abortion. I can make the exact same argument to advocate for shutting down all hospitals and fire stations. And that will save a LOT more money.

2. Backstreet Abortions Increase
I fail to see how making abortion illegal will REDUCE backstreet abortions. If a woman decides to go to some unqualified guy to get an abortion instead of a doctor, that’s her fault.

3. Parallels between Abortion & Slavery
Interesting. I can see some equivocation and false analogies coming on.

Slavery in centuries past and abortions in this century were defended and promoted by the same arguments. Consider the case in the USA: In 1857, in the Dred Scott case, the US Supreme Court decided, by a 7 to 2 majority, that according to the US Constitution, black people were not legal persons. They were the property of the owner.

Oh, a straw man! How original! My arguments for defending abortion are that a fetus is not rational and that a fetus is not self-aware. The difference is that black people are actually rational and self-aware (unless they are black fetuses). By the exact same logic as this argument is using, I can say that armchairs have rights because we treat armchairs as property.

4. Indisputable Medical Evidence – the Unborn baby is a Human Being
Straw man. Being a human does not automatically grant rights. Fetuses are not rational entities.

This argument includes a series of developmental arguments, the only significant one of which is this:

At 11-12 weeks, the baby is sensative to heat, touch, light and noise.

Ants and cockroaches are sensitive to heat, touch, light, and noise.

5. Abortion Aggravates Child Abuse
They argue “among abused children, a significantly higher percentage were ‘unwanted children’ compared to the percentage of ‘wanted children’ in society at large.” I don’t see how this supports their case.

6. Even Legal Abortions are Unsafe
They still have a relatively low chance of injuring the mother. More to the point, though, it is the mother’s choice. If her own body gets injured in a procedure that she decided to do, it’s her choice.

7. Increase in Breast Cancer
Dear God, they’re misinformed.

“Every study of induced abortions performed before the first live birth is consistent with an initial increase in risk of at least 50 percent,” reports Dr Joel Brind, professor of endocrinology at Baruch College, City University of New York, who is also a breast cancer researcher on staff at Beth Israel Hospital and Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

Notice how they don’t actually cite any studies, but only cite one guy who claims the existence of these studies. This is an appeal to authority.

Induced abortions have no overall effect on the risk of breast cancer.

8. Most South Africans Oppose Abortion
Appeal to popularity. Really. That’s four distinct fallacies already.

9. The Overpopulation Argument

The commonly accepted ideology states that this world is overpopulated, this is the reason for poverty and oppression in the world and the way to solve these problems is to control the population.

Oops. Straw man.

10. The Bible Declares the Sanctity of Human Life
This is only a sound argument if the Bible can be shown to be absolute truth. But even then, no. According to the Bible, life comes from blood. Fetuses do not develop blood until halfway through the second trimester.


Well, that’s another round of arguments down the drain. We are one step closer to a rational world.

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 8 Comments »

Are You Pro-Life?

Posted by Michael Dickens on June 12, 2009

This intriguing video asks some thought-provoking questions about what it means to be pro life. The video essentially argues that it is hypocritical to be anti-abortion and pro-capital punishment or pro-war. I disagree, and here’s why. (It also argues that “pro-life” people are not really pro-life, which I agree with, so I won’t be arguing against that point.)

Question 1: “Do you support capital punishment?”
Cdk007 argues that sometimes innocents are executed (eight confirmed times in the last 30 years). He says that it is hypocritical to support the occasional execution of innocents, but not support abortion. “Why is it okay to execute an innocent adult, but not to abort an embryo?” Though an important point, I am going to hold off on rebutting this.

Question 2: “Do you support war?”
Cdk007 says that wars are usually for self-defense, but there is never a guarantee that innocent bystanders will not be killed. “Why is it okay to kill women and children who get caught in a crossfire, but not okay to abort an embryo?”

You will now see why I have not yet rebutted them. Cdk provides a rebuttal (which is the one that I would have used), and then rebuts the rebuttal. I will rebut his rebuttal of the rebuttal.

The rebuttal: “Many of you will argue that capital punishment and war serve a greater good. Therefore the death of innocent individuals, while regrettable, is not enough to make such activities unjustified.”

The rebuttal to the rebuttal: “If you have rationalized that it is okay to take some life to save others, then why not take the embryo’s life to save the mother’s?”

Rebuttal to the rebuttal to the rebuttal: Because (in the mind of an anti-abortion person), that is a kill-one-save-one. War and capital punishment are kill-one-save-many.

So then why am I anti-capital punishment and anti-war?

Capital Punishment:
1. Even felons have a right to life.
2. Capital punishment is more expensive. (Counterintuitive, I know, but true.)
3. Sometimes innocent felons are executed. (Notice the low priority of this argument: of the 1135 people executed 1978 to 2008, only eight were found innocent.)

1. People who sign up for war are “innocent”; even though they volunteered, most of them didn’t know what they were getting into or didn’t really have any other choice (financial issues, etc). The weight of this argument increases drastically when a draft is instated.
2. War is harmful to society in many ways, and in general leads to sadness (of relatives and friends of soldiers, etc). This is somewhat counterbalanced by the potential economic benefits and revitalization capabilities of war.
3. Sometimes, innocents die.

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | Leave a Comment »

Another Abortion Post, This Time In Video Form

Posted by Michael Dickens on April 21, 2009

Check out my video. link

Posted in Abortion, Ethics | 1 Comment »

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