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.