Saturday, December 29, 2007

Beckwith on Abortion

Francis Beckwith's new book--Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press)--is perhaps the best single survey of all the philosophic arguments for the immorality of abortion. Against the claim that the pro-life position depends purely on religious belief, Beckwith tries to show that the pro-life stance is superior to the abortion choice stance on purely philosophical grounds.

He states his basic argument in four steps:
"1. The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community.
"2. It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community.
"3. Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community.
"4. Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong."

Despite the rigor of his argumentation, I am not fully persuaded because he follows the lead of people like Hadley Arkes and Robert George in adopting a Kantian rationalism that assumes that moral judgment is a matter of pure logic separated from moral emotions. As I have indicated in a previous post, the debate over the moral status of prenatal human life--like all moral debate--cannot be resolved by pure reason alone. Rather, we need a combination of reason and emotion. Thought by itself moves nothing without the motive power of emotion or desire. Normally, we don't feel the same moral concern for a human zygote, embryo, or fetus that we feel for a human infant, child, or adult.

Although Beckwith tries to present his argumentation as a pure logic of morals, he must ultimately appeal implicitly to moral emotions. Thus, for example, his reasoning about "intrinsic value" must assume some "intuition" that depends on moral emotion. For instance, he must assume that his "substance view of persons" conforms to our moral emotions of approbation and disapprobation (p. 140).

And yet he tries to reject "human sentiment" as a basis for moral judgment. He writes: "One usually feels a greater sense of loss at the sudden death of a healthy parent than one feels for the hundreds who die daily of starvation in underdeveloped countries. Does this mean that the latter are less human than one's parent? Certainly not" (p. 153). But surely Beckwith is not saying that it is immoral to feel more concern for one's parents than for strangers (even if one acknowledges their shared humanity). We can feel some concern for suffering strangers, but normally we will feel more concern for those close to us because of the nature of our moral emotions.

Consider also the following passage (pp. 169-170):

"An anonymous reviewer raises an important counterexample to my case: 'Suppose that in an IVF clinic, an earthquake cause (1) a couple of glass dishes to break resulting in ten eggs being accidentally fertilized and (2) a fire in a room in which five patients are trapped. I can either save the fertilized eggs . . . or the patients. Most of us believe that I should save the patients but it is not clear that the sort of substance dualism espoused by the author is compatible with this claim.'
"These types of stories can, of course, always be adjusted to make an entirely different point. For example, suppose the five patients are aging Nazi war criminals and the 10 embryos are one's own offspring. It's pretty clear which group one would save. However, the sort of fictional scenario offered by this referee has been responded to by a number of others. I will offer one reply put forth by Scott B. Rae, who argues that this sort of story confuses epistemology with ontology, that is, it confuses what things appear to us with what things actually are. As Rae writes: 'The surface appearance of an embryo seems too distant and impersonal. But surface appearances and the emotions they engender are, by themselves, inadequate guides for moral reflection. To a lesser degree, this same sort of 'argument' could be used to justify racism, an unjustified preference for individuals who share many of one's own surface features. Since the presence or absence of surface features may be the real basis for the intuitions in this argument, we do not consider it has the force its advocates claim it has.'"

Here we see that both reason and emotion have roles to play in moral judgment. But reason can only elicit the emotions as the ground of moral intuition. So generally we don't feel the same moral concern for human embryos that we feel for human adults, even though intellectually we might be persuaded that the embryos are equally human with the adults. But we might feel more moral concern for 10 embryos that are our own offspring than we would for the 5 Nazi war criminals. Notice that Beckwith must implicitly appeal to our moral emotions. He denigrates the appeal to "surface appearances," but he himself must acknowledge the moral relevance of those "surface appearances."

There is another problem with Beckwith's argument.  As indicated in the first comment on this post (by RBH), "full-fledged member of the human community" is a fallacious metaphor.  Birds have fledged when their feathers and wing muscles have developed to the point that they can fly, which increases the chances that they can survive on their own.  By contrast, a human zygote has no chance of surviving on its own.

I have written another post on the related issue of stem-cell research.


RBH said...

Beckwith's first premise is The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community. (Bolding added)

That so badly stretches the meaning of "community" that it becomes a vacuous notion. A conceptus is in no way a participating ("full-fledged") member of the human community any more than the mother's egg or some randomly chosen sperm is a "full-fledged" member of that community.

The fallacious metaphor is repeated in Premise 3: Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community. (Bolding added)

Beckwith's use of "full-fledged" destroys his argument. The origin of that metaphor is chicks in a bird nest whose flight feathers have matured enough to enable them to have some chance of surviving independent of their parents. Conceptuses are in no way, shape, or form "full-fledged." If one took Beckwith's metaphor seriously, human offspring would not be "full-fledged members of the human community" until well after after birth. Infanticide is completely consistent with Beckwith's argument: new-born infants are not "full-fledged humans" by any stretch of the imagination.

Beckwith's argument is a classic example of begging the question.

John Pieret said...

"These types of stories can, of course, always be adjusted to make an entirely different point. For example, suppose the five patients are aging Nazi war criminals and the 10 embryos are one's own offspring. It's pretty clear which group one would save.

Can we hear the Nazi war criminals screaming as they are burned to death?

Even without the emotional element I'd choose to save actual human beings over sacs of protoplasm that happen to have some human DNA in them, even if it was some of my own. I wouldn't want to bring any offspring into a world where Beckwith's brand of "morality" was the norm.

Paul D. said...

Nice post. You might be interested in my little and perhaps more realistic thought experiment related to this issue.

ST said...

Dr. Arnhart -

I haven't had the pleasure of reading Frank's book, nor yours (though both are on my TODO list), so take this comment as from a somewhat unqualified observer. I think you may be missing a crucial distinction between intuition and emotion.

If moral intuition exists alongside rational intuition as a faculty of its own, I think it has a better potential to deal with moral issues than what you've presented here. That it is another faculty doesn't mean it is unconnected either from reason or from the emotions, but only that it is a source of information. Dr. Beckwith may be understood, then, as appealing to moral intuitions, not just reason alone, and not pure emotion, either. The three are meant to work in harmony, though of course that is not always the case.

Now what may happen in a given situation is that we react, say, with repugnance to some act. That initial reaction may incorporate any mixture of moral intuition and emotion. We might hold it as prima facie reliable (like our senses) unless in the presence of defeaters - situations appealing to clearer intuitions and consistency.

I think this is a better explanation than mere reason + emotion. It allows us to say things like "Yes, that is clearly and perhaps even seriously wrong, even though I have little feeling about it," or "No, that's not wrong, but I am still uncomfortable with it." I think such judgments are common to our experience, and we may find in ourselves a deficiency if feelings and intuitions are not in concord with one another. C.S. Lewis, for example, once remarked that he did not particularly enjoy the company of children (at least at one time), but if I remember correctly, saw that as a defect in his character.

Dr. Beckwith, I know, believes in objective moral values (which he has argued for elsewhere). This ontology suggests an intuition for discerning such values. It was Hume who lived in the comparatively anorexic world of reason and emotion alone, as he did not believe in such values: "Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions, and can never pretend
to any other office than to serve and obey them." Is this your suggestion, also? If there is no appeal to moral intution / objective moral values, how do you avoid this conclusion?

This is not a complete treatment of the three aspects (rational, moral, emotional) by any means. But I think the sketch above may do better justice to Dr. Beckwith's position, and it may also do better justice to the way we actually go about the process of reasoning through issues.

I look forward to your comments.

Take care,


Larry Arnhart said...


My response to your points can be found in the opening chapters of DARWINIAN NATURAL RIGHT and Chapter 2 of DARWINIAN CONSERVATISM.

ST said...

Dr. Arnhart -

Thank you for your response. I will look into those references.

I can't speak for Dr. Beckwith, of course, but if he holds a similar viewpoint to what I've expressed here, then I still think you may be misrepresenting his position -- even if you believe it doesn't hold up for various reasons.

Thanks again for pointing me to your books.

Take care,