Sunday, April 29, 2012

Abortion and killing living things

I'm in the midst of grading papers and final exams.  A number of essays I've read over the last few days have had to do with abortion.  A surprising number of my students advanced something like the following argument:

(1) A fetus is a living thing.
(2) It is wrong to kill a living thing.
(3) If one has an abortion, then one has killed a living thing.
(4) Therefore, it's wrong to have an abortion.

In class, we discussed a number of reasons for thinking that this kind of argument is unsound.  I thought we had reached a consensus that this challenge to abortion is unsound.  Alas...

I think (2) is obviously false  Bacteria, mice, oregano, and the fungus that causes athlete's foot are all alive, but it's easy to come up with reasons why it can be moral to kill such things.  Further, there are some cases of killing human beings that are deemed morally permissible (e.g., in self-defense).  My point is that one cannot simply rely on the premise that a thing is alive to conclude that it's wrong to kill it.  We do not afford all living things a right to life.  But if this is such an obvious flaw in the argument, why is it that so many people put it forward as if it's a stellar piece of reasoning?  Why do fairly smart people advance it?  Why do some of my students rely on it in their exams/papers even after we've discussed various objections to it?  I'm befuddled.

I think that there are some fascinating arguments against abortion and I admire some of the philosophers that have spent countless hours developing them. It's a shame that the above kind of argument passes as powerful/convincing in many circles.


Anonymous said...

What if you replace (2) with "It is wrong to kill a helpless living human being"? I think this is what most people actually want to say when they use argument (2).

Also, can you give some examples of the more convincing arguments against abortion that you mentioned?

Jacob Shepherd said...

Jesse, you sound indignant. For the most part, I probably don't blame you.

But I think that premise (2) should be modified also. Perhaps we should say something like "It is wrong to kill a living organism that poses no harm to others". Fetuses pose no harm to others (except, perhaps, financial and possibly emotional harm [or stress] to the mother -- but there is such a thing as infertile couples who are eager to adopt a child). It seems also as if there often is a lot of psychological harm that can happen to the mother if she has an abortion. Not having an abortion and adopting out an unwanted (if such is the right word to use) child would seem to be the best approach.

Yes, we kill a lot of living organisms. But there are at least two known concepts that prevent humans from having any qualms about killing them in the first place. The organisms killed are either not nearly as sophisticated (and perhaps not even as sentient) as human beings (as in the case of bacteria, plants, fungi, etc.), or the killed organisms in question are harming the (seemingly) most sentient beings of all -- that is, humans. It's alright to kill E. coli, for instance, because E. coli satisfies these two requirements.

Judging from some abortion reports I've heard, though, the fetus tends to be sentient. Really, I don't think it poses harm to others, either, but that's another paragraph (or paper). As the tongs move in to destroy it (assuming it is in the third trimester), I've heard that it deliberately tries to get away from the it because the tongs pose harm to it. Of course, this idea makes me sick to my stomach, as it should make anyone who isn't an absolute sociopath. I don't know how common third-trimester abortions are, though.

I think that killing living things that satisfy my two qualifications cited above counts as murder. And, as we all should be intuitively aware, murder is objectively wrong. If a killing is committed in self-defense, then being that was killed posed a threat to a greater number of individuals.

Jesse Steinberg said...

Thanks for the comments.

Regarding arguments against the moral permissibility of abortion, I had in mind those of Don Marquis and some utilitarian arguments. I'm not ultimately convinced by what these, but they're fascinating and aren't obviously unsound (unlike the argument in this post).

I agree with both of you that (2) can be changed and rendered more plausible. But my rant was directed at the argument as it appears in the post. This argument is what many folks provide as their main reasons for thinking that abortions are immoral. This is how many of my students put it in their papers/final exams. And I was asking them to be as precise as they could be. If one has in mind some alternative (more plausible) argument, then she needs to state THAT argument.

What I find frustrating is that these alternatives to (2) are more plausible than (2) itself, and yet folks seem to be perfectly content to simply rely on (2) as if it does the trick. This strikes me as objectionably imprecise at best. So, I am a bit indignant. Leaders of the movement against abortion and students that have taken my class shouldn't find the argument mentioned in this post convincing, they shouldn't offer it up as their main reason for their position, etc. Alas....