Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Abortion Redux

Recently Vincent Torley (of Uncommon Descent: Serving the Intelligent Design Community) asked the 25 Most Influential Living Atheists what their underlying views were on the issue of abortion and human rights. As I unexpectedly made that list, I received his questionnaire. It was well-formulated and honest (he allows for qualifications, for instance). I found it well worthy of an answer. He didn't ask specifically what our views were on abortion, but on the liminal status of babies.


This all began when P.Z. Myers remarked that he doesn't think babies are persons. This prompted Torley to reply and develop his idea of a questionnaire to nail down just what on earth it is that we atheists do believe (see "Newborn Babies: Not Persons, and Not Fully Human – P. Z. Myers"). His five questions were (and don't mistake him for being coy, he acknowledges the ambiguities):

  • (a) Do you believe that a newborn baby is fully human?
     
  • (b) Do you believe that a newborn baby is a person?
     
  • (c) Do you believe that a newborn baby has a right to life?
     
  • (d) Do you believe that every human person has a duty towards newborn babies, to refrain from killing them?
     
  • (e) Do you believe that killing a newborn baby is just as wrong as killing an adult?

I answered yes to all but (e), but with abundant explanations and qualifications of the underlying semantics, ethics, and metaethics in respect to all five. For those interested in my complete answers you can jump straight to Comment 29: Richard Carrier. I did not engage with any subsequent comments there, and won't (I have neither time nor interest). But if Torley constructs another thoughtful blog post asking targeted follow-up questions, I will be pleased to contribute again, and will announce any such development here.

I have discussed abortion and related issues before. Not just in my book Sense and Goodness without God (see the index for any related terms: abortion, person, etc.), where I also present the underlying objective reality of my moral views (contrary to some commentators who claim we have none), but also in my oft-mentioned debate with atheist "pro-lifer" Jennifer Roth (Is There A Secular Case Against Abortion? The Carrier-Roth Debate), which was badly distorted in a lousy print edit by a textbook company (see my previous blog on The Abortion Controversy). Also pertinent (though more peripherally) is my related blog on Birth Control & Abortion. I have also discussed these issues as the atheist correspondent for The God Contention (see my comments there on abortion, vegetarianism, cannibalism, animal rights, and human nature).

You may be curious what the other "top 25" said. Few have answered Torley's email. James Randi refused. But Peter Atkins and Michael Shermer replied. Receiving no reply from anyone else as yet, Torley inferred in some cases what their answers might be from what they had previously written on the subject. In the case of Peter Singer he's probably correct, but only Singer could say for sure. Likewise Richard Dawkins (whose remarks on this point I personally find unclear) and Christopher Hitchens (who is more "pro-life" than Torley expected). 

But Torley's inferences for Steven Pinker are a bit questionable, since Torley seems to confuse Pinker's description of other people's views as declarations of his own views. And in the case of Daniel Dennett, Torley mistakes criteria of identifying a person for criteria of being a person, thus creating the amusing impression that Dennett was claiming a paralyzed mute is not a person, when in fact what he said was that we can't know whether a paralyzed mute is a person because we can't communicate with them to ascertain this (which is actually not true anyway, since brain-scan technology is now sufficiently advanced that conscious states can be "read" by a third party without any communication required).

Nevertheless, Dennett does appear to define a person qua person as a rational being, so it seems correct to infer that Dennet considers toddlers and the clinically insane not to be persons. Although I suspect that upon pointing this out Dennett would rethink his definition against the actual use of the word "person" in conventional English (which simply denotes any living humanoid personality). But to Torley I would also point out that where one draws the line on defining a "person" does not entail that all nonpersons are then considered morally equivalent (Singer's views on this make a good case in point). Just because some living thing isn't a person doesn't entail killing it is moral (indeed, destroying even nonliving things can be immoral, e.g. burning a library of last surviving editions of important historical writings). 

That's why I find semantics to be a dubious battleground for establishing moral opinions. We can arbitrarily define "person" any way we want. Moral conclusions don't follow from the definition. They follow from the facts. That's why defining a Jew as "not a person" does no work toward making it morally acceptable to kill Jews, any more than defining a carrot as a "person" would make it morally wrong to eat carrots.

But I don't think Torley would disagree with me on this point. We nevertheless have to start a conversation somewhere, and defining terms is always where that start has to be made. So kudos to starting with that.

17 comments:

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

I found the comparison between views interesting. It would be neat to have a much more developed argument map displaying which particular issues need to be resolved for all 25 to be on the same page. I may set aside some time to work on that, but it looks like there's not enough solid information on the views to have a valid starting point.

Landon Hedrick said...

I guess I'd be curious how the "influential atheists" line up on an issue like this, but I also tend to wonder why their views on abortion should really matter all that much. Abortion is an interesting ethical issue, and a lot of those people aren't philosophers (specifically, ethicists). Peter Singer is a notable exception. Most people probably haven't thought things out enough to really know what they're talking about. (On this topic, I don't think that group of people would include you, Richard. But probably some of the other people on that list of atheists.)

That reminds me, I watched part of a video of Bob Price giving a lecture on something Bible-related (I think at Skepticon?), and at the beginning he criticized Peter Singer's ethical view seemingly out of nowhere. What's up with that?

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Landon,

It's definitely a "pop" issue on these particular terms.

Otherwise as I'm sure you know abortion is a stand out issue between ideological divides and often one of the most sensitive places that Christians are concerned about when considering their "moral feasibility study" of unbelief. "These people don't care about their children! GASP!! I can't be like them!"

Ben

Landon Hedrick said...

Ben,

Yes, Christians are generally pretty concerned about the unborn fetuses. I'm not sure they equate "abortion" with "atheism," but if they do, then I can see how they might use this as a psychological block to giving up their religious beliefs.

The Nerd said...

To follow up on what Ben said, there's this weird idea that people who support abortion rights don't have or don't love their own children. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, it's because I've been pregnant and have a child (on purpose) that I fully understand why it must be a choice and not a result of chance.

Richard Carrier said...

WAR_ON_ERROR said... I may set aside some time to work on that, but it looks like there's not enough solid information on the views to have a valid starting point.

A hypothetical map might still be constructed (leaving a box here and there with a ? for "other options not yet guessed" perhaps). And once it was, the "top 25" might give you info to fill those boxes once they see the map (and thus see you are taking the arguments seriously and aren't just a troll, as Randi appeared to assume Torley was).

Richard Carrier said...

Landon Hedrick said...

...but I also tend to wonder why their views on abortion should really matter all that much.

They matter to Christians (hence the blog's purpose; WOE and Nerd's remarks are on point). And it matters to me that Christians have correct information about this (instead of just building straw men). Besides those two reasons, like you said, it's interesting to know things like this; and IMO naturalists ought to be resolving disagreements on these issues internally by debating and exchanging information and ideas (and I don't just mean on abortion, but all philosophical issues; even in this case there are many important philosophical questions we really ought to agree on: what is a person, why are persons valuable, what sorts of nonpersons are valuable and why, what does it mean to say something is morally wrong, etc.).

...a lot of those people aren't philosophers (specifically, ethicists). Peter Singer is a notable exception.

Nevertheless, what "naturalists" believe is as important to know as what "Christians" believe--not "Christian philosophers" but Christians, full stop. And if non-expert natural philosophers disagree with expert natural philosophers, that's something we need to know and solve, because there should not be a disconnect between experts and laymen on issues such as this (and one of the biggest failings of modern philosophy as a profession is failing to take this seriously, in a way scientists have, in promoting science literacy and the accurate communication of scientific knowledge to nonscientists).

Most people probably haven't thought things out enough to really know what they're talking about.

Which is either what they should say, or not a state they should remain in. Because these issues are vitally important to society and the state, these are precisely the kinds of things naturalists, of all people, should endeavor to be on top of (not least because they criticize Christians for voting and marching on these issues without having really thought things through or educating themselves on the actual facts; we can't criticize them for that, if we do the same, ergo we ought not do the same).

With that in mind, I think it is comforting to know these top 25 are almost uniformly in agreement (and IMO their disagreements are more semantic than actual, as I think they would discover on discussing the matter).

Richard Carrier said...

Landon Hedrick said... I watched part of a video of Bob Price giving a lecture on something Bible-related (I think at Skepticon?), and at the beginning he criticized Peter Singer's ethical view seemingly out of nowhere. What's up with that?

If you can remind me as to the details I might be able to comment.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

So you think that if I made a spiffy argument map, that I could email everyone and get the blanks filled in?

I'm liking the idea more and more.

Pikemann Urge said...

I appreciated your response and wished that more atheists had responded.

You made a good point about the relative worthiness of different types of human - something the religious, usually not with genuine reason, would be indignant about. And yet many religious persons who are against abortion do not oppose the military or the death penalty.

I also noted with slight distaste some of the responses to a hypothetical dilemma: a boat, carrying a baby and a great artist, is sinking and you can only save one of them. Most religious people are so obsessed with fetuses and babies that they firmly would choose the baby. It's apparently a badge of maximum nobility.

I respect that answers will be different, but don't support the reflex of always putting babies first.

Paul said...

Richard Carrier said...
Landon Hedrick said... I watched part of a video of Bob Price giving a lecture on something Bible-related (I think at Skepticon?), and at the beginning he criticized Peter Singer's ethical view seemingly out of nowhere. What's up with that?

If you can remind me as to the details I might be able to comment.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gouJ1_mYtDo
3:13-3:52
"This isn’t my topic, but I just get upset every time I hear Peter Singer and his theories mention the only guy I ever turned down as a Facebook friend. The idea that a human baby is of less importance than a freakin/friggin dog... you know I might accept this guy's views on animals if they're all like Bugs Bunny because he is, because - like Bugs Bunny - "...made a wrong turn on Albuquerque" to get to where he's got. But at any rate I guess I shouldn't hurl nasty stuff like that..." (Robert Price)

Morrison said...

Richard, you answer to "e" is truly disturbing.

You can qualify all you want, but people should remember that in the eyes of the Law killing a newborn is just as much a crime...murder...as killing an adult.

And can get you JUST AS LONG A PRISON SENTENCE.

WAR_ON_ERROR said...

Morrison,

Because all laws perfectly reflect moral truth? I doubt you believe that.

Ben

Landon Hedrick said...

Richard,

Fair enough. I agree that it is interesting to see what these people think.

I see that somebody else already posted the link to Price's comment. Now I wonder if Price has actually bothered to read what Singer actually says about animals?

You may recall that you and I discussed Singer's position on animals a little bit on your Facebook wall. And just this morning I noticed that Morrison posted a bizarre rant against Singer on my blog ("Regan on Animal Rights").

But I don't want to hijack this thread, which should be mostly about abortion.

Richard Carrier said...

Morrison said... people should remember that in the eyes of the Law killing a newborn is just as much a crime...murder...as killing an adult.

That's not true. I can only assume you don't know anything at all about how the law works in modern societies.

It depends on the circumstance. Under current U.S. and state law killing an infant can be manslaughter, not murder. And in many recognized cases (and this is black letter law) killing an infant has justification and thus brings no charges at all (but instead grants you an affirmative defense against any charges).

The most obvious case is self-defense (late term abortion to save the life of a mother). Other examples are duress (e.g. being forced at gunpoint to kill a baby), moral necessity (e.g. shooting a bullet through a baby to stop a suicide bomber who would have killed hundreds otherwise), and physical necessity (e.g. not being able to stop your car as it rolls over a baby).

Outside a contemporary U.S. context, a famous (though possibly apocryphal) case of a valid combined defense (duress and moral necessity) would be the woman who smothered her own baby to prevent it's screams from causing the death of her and several other Jews hiding inside a wall from Nazi gunmen during Krystallnacht.

And then of course there is killing that is legally classified as natural death (e.g. taking a baby off of a ventilator to allow it to undergo a natural death), which is not even a crime.

And can get you JUST AS LONG A PRISON SENTENCE.

Also false. Even apart from justified killing (which brings no sentence at all), there are different degrees of both manslaughter and murder (even of babies), and rarely a fixed sentence even within a single severity class, since circumstances are allowed to influence sentencing decisions (that's why character witnesses are allowed at sentencing hearings). I guarantee if you did a sentencing search for baby killings you would find wildly varying sentences: someone who kills a baby out of mercy, for example (e.g. because it was suffering), will typically receive a much smaller sentence (in extreme cases even a token sentence) than someone who killed it out of malice or depraved indifference.

The law reflects reality. And in reality moral decisions are far more complex than your simpleminded assertions.

Richard Carrier said...

P.S. I will also add that, as I remarked in my original reply to Torley (and as War on Error reminded you in this thread), law is different from morality.

Sentencing is a perfect example: in current U.S. law sentencing often reflects more the significance of the crime than its consequences: e.g. a vicious killer will be locked up far longer than a merely neglectful killer, even if they had killed exactly the same person. Thus the moral value of the victim is not high on the list of sentencing criteria. Because the law is designed to restrain future crime, not balance abstract losses.

In contrast, the moral weight of a crime reflects more it's consequences (and hence the value of the victim) than the probability of that act entailing future threats to society. This is notably reflected in the fact that kidnapping can carry stiffer sentences than murder, even when the victim is unharmed; and greater sentences are awarded to repeat offenders, even though the crime is identical.

So you can't just blindly use written laws as a guideline for moral value reasoning.

Richard Carrier said...

RE: Price on Singer

His remarks remain fairly unintelligible to me. It sounds like he has some straw man in mind instead of anything Singer has actually said.