Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Responding to Philosophical Arguments Against the Pro-Life Position, Part III [Clinton Wilcox]

This is the third part in this five part series. For part one, go here. For part two, click here.

In blogger Brandon Christen's third part of his series, he responds to an argument from rights. The argument, as he outlines is, is that all human beings have right (such as the right to life), the unborn are human beings, therefore the unborn have rights (such as the right to life).

Christen begins by reiterating his position on personhood, but as I have argued previously (see part one), his position on personhood can be rejected because he is begging the question by dismissing the soul and he has not properly argued for why personhood is grounded in brain function. And in part two, I explained that appealing to the kind of things that are not persons (e.g. grass and rocks) is a false analogy because the unborn from fertilization and the kind of things that are persons. Grass and rocks will never be sentient, yet unborn human beings will be once they develop enough.

So his discussion about the kinds of things we grant rights to is also irrelevant. He is confusing two types of value: intrinsic (or inherent) value, and instrumental value. We only value things like grass and trees instrumentally: they are valuable only insofar as we value them for their beauty, shade, production of oxygen, etc. Conversely, humans are intrinsically valuable: they are valuable in themselves and don't derive their value from anything else.

So his entire discussion of rights is off-base, because he is comparing granting rights to rocks (which are not the kinds of things that engage in personal acts) with the unborn (which are the kinds of things that engage in personal acts). In fact, his discussion at the end regarding infanticide undermines his entire article, but I'll get there at the end.

Rights, properly understood, lay out the kinds of things that we should be legally allowed to do, and also the obligations that we also must abide by. There are two different kinds of rights: legal rights, which are rights bestowed on us by the government and come about as we mature. Examples of these are the right to drive and the right to vote (this will be important later in the article). There are also natural rights, which are rights that we have by virtue of being human beings (and don't come about by maturity). Examples of these are the right to life, the right to self-defense, the right to liberty, etc. As an aside, discussions of rights actually lead to an amusing dilemma for pro-choice people. So while a tourist does not have the right to vote in a country they are not a citizen of, they do have the right not to be killed in that country because of their natural right to life.

So his discussion about granting rocks rights is useless. It is true that rocks do not desire the right to assemble; the problem is that rocks never desire the right to assemble, so there is no point in granting it to them. I had no desire to go to church last night while I was asleep. It does not follow from that that I didn't have the right to go to church last night while I was asleep. The unborn are more like people in reversible comas than they are rocks (or even brain dead people) because they do not now but will have such a desire. Besides, infants have no desire for rights yet we grant them rights. If desires were a necessary condition for having rights, infants would have no rights.

His discussion of granting mice rights is equally as useless, for the same reasons I outlined in the previous paragraph. But now it seems like Christen's position is becoming more ad hoc. After all, mice clearly have desires; they have a desire for cheese, not to die, etc. It's true that these are merely instinctual desires, but why does that matter? Here's where Christen really runs into trouble. He is clearly defining infants out of the moral community by arguing that mice, since they do not have the abstract fear of death or future suffering that we do. Peter Singer would agree with his position, except that Singer is consistent and argues that infants are not part of the moral community.

I agree with Christen's discussion of what makes us unique over the animals. What I don't agree with is Christen pushing the unborn out of the moral community just because they can't do these things yet, and Christen has yet to give us any good reason for disqualifying the unborn.

In fact, Christen actually says that killing an embryo in its early weeks is equivalent to smashing a rock in terms of how much suffering it produces: none. But this is irrelevant to the question of moral worth. There are people like Gabby Gingras, who are born with a congenital inability to feel pain. So if you're talking about suffering from a physical standpoint, you would have to say it would be moral to kill Gabby Gingras since she would not suffer. If you mean from a psychological standpoint, you are equally in trouble because now you can justify killing someone in their sleep. They will not suffer psychologically if you kill them. Christen has no leg to stand on here.

At the end of this article, Christen involves a postscript that is even more ad hoc than we've already seen. I'll bring it down point by point:

"Note: Just so we are clear, I am not saying that nothing that cannot consciously enjoy rights should not have them."

He undermines his entire article/argument with this one line alone. How can you possibly defend infants having rights, despite not being able to consciously enjoy them, and not defend the unborn as having those same rights?

"I understand that toddlers cannot enjoy, in a sort of deeply, reflective way, the right to life. However, toddlers can experience pain and fear so it is still reasonable to extend the right to life to them."

Toddlers do not experience pain and fear in the same way that we do. At the toddler stage, you experience pain and fear in the same way that the mouse, in Christen's example above, does. So Christen should argue that it is wrong to torture toddlers but not to kill them, as per the same reasoning regarding his mouse.

"However, we still understand that toddlers do not have the right to vote and we do not mind since they do not yet have the ability to formulate cogent opinions on politics or even really care to vote at all."

And here's where my discussion on different types of rights come in to play. Of course toddlers cannot vote; but sixteen year olds can certainly care to vote and form cogent opinions, yet they must still wait until they're 18. So again, desiring rights is not a necessary condition for having them. The right to vote is a legal right, not a natural right, and is granted once sufficient maturity has been gained (and this is usually arbitrary, as some sixteen-year-olds may be perfectly mature enough to vote and some twenty-five-year-olds may not be). But the right to life is a natural right, which is granted to any human being, regardless of maturity, and was even granted to the unborn prior to 1973.

"This same principle would have us extend rights to other entities that, despite being unable to fully comprehend them, could nevertheless reasonably be said to benefit from them in a meaningful way."

Except for the unborn, he means. The unborn would reasonably benefit from having their right to life protected because they would be able to grow, mature, and flourish the same way that all human beings are meant to.

"This clarification does nothing to get anti-abortionists any closer to having reasonable grounds to extend the right to life to embryos, though, since an embryo lacks even the self-awareness necessary to reasonably consider caring if it lives or dies and thus does not have a meaningful benefit conferred to it if we go out of our way to keep it in existence."

This is just an ad hoc statement from Christen, meant to try and convince us to accept his reasoning despite the fact that it completely undermines his case. I've already explained how his reasoning fails, and there is no reason to re-hash it here.

So this is strike two, with two more articles to go. Christen has not given us any reason to reject these two pro-life arguments.


  1. "Conversely, humans are intrinsically valuable"

    Is anything on earth inherently valuable besides humans? Most people in America feel that dogs have at least some inherent value. If you agree, why is it dogs are inherently valuable?

    1. I don't believe that animals are inherently valuable. My personal view is that only being that are made in God's image (that is, with the inherent nature as rational agents) are intrinsically valuable.

  2. Suppose you had a son and you took him camping, and you both are throwing rocks into a pond. All of a sudden, your son starts throwing rocks at a mother duck and her ducklings. If animals have no inherent value, and those ducks really aren't providing any value to humans, what is your argument that people should not throw rocks at the ducks?

    1. Just because an animal doesn't have inherent value, that doesn't give us carte blanche to mistreat them. They are creatures that can still suffer pain, and so we ought not mistreat them. They don't have the same right to life as we do, which means that we don't have to respect their right to live (so consuming a duck is not inherently wrong), but since they are conscious creatures that can feel pain, we shouldn't torture them or hurt them. And since ducks also don't have inherent value like humans do, if a duck and a human are in danger for their lives, it would be morally wrong to save the duck over the human. And since ducks are not inherently valuable like a human being is, killing a duck is not the same kind of crime as killing a human (so if a person kills a duck, they don't deserve to go to jail for life).


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