Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Importance of Distinctions [Clinton Wilcox]

Yesterday I was having a discussion with a rather vocal pro-life advocate. He was arguing with a vegetarian, and finally he told this vegetarian that she is confused and should keep her mouth shut. Now, I am not a vegetarian and I agree with the pro-life person's point of view. However, I also believe in civil discourse and this pro-life person was not being civil. It turns out this pro-life person believes that the right to freedom of speech does not entail that people who are wrong have the right to express their views. He argued for this by saying that no one has a right to have their views respected. I agreed with him on this last point and tried to show him that a right to have your views respected and a right to express your views, even if I disagree with them, are two different things. I tried several times to explain this distinction, but he seemed incapable of grasping it.

The reality is that the First Amendment gives us the freedom not just to hold unpopular views but the freedom to express them, as well, even if I disagree with them. And the way that rights work is if I want my rights to be respected, I have an obligation to respect the rights of others, as well. There's an idea that's going around Facebook that a right to free speech doesn't entail freedom from the consequences of your views. But this is only partially right. A right to free speech does entail a freedom from being jailed for my views, or from being shouted down, or otherwise disrespected for trying to express my views. If I don't have the right to talk about my views, then speech really isn't free. However, there may be natural consequences to holding an unpopular view, such as no one listening to me.

There are many important distinctions that need to be made in the abortion issue that are often overlooked. I don't know how our culture got to a point in which people are generally incapable of making basic distinctions, but it seems we've gotten to this point. Making distinctions is absolutely critical to clear thinking. Aside from the distinction I mentioned earlier, here are two more that need to be kept in mind in our discussions about abortion:

The distinction between types of potentiality. One popular pro-choice mantra is that the unborn are not humans, they are "potential humans." The problem is this confuses active potentiality with passive potentiality. A sapling is a potential mature tree. It is also a potential desk. But these are two different kinds of potential. A sapling has the active potential to develop into a fully mature tree because it is on a self-directed path of development. It develops itself from within because its essence is treeness. However, its potential to become a desk is a passive potential. It will not become a desk on its own. It must be cut down, undergoing a substantial change, and made into a desk by an outside builder. This is a critical distinction because active potentiality is identity-preserving, and passive potentiality is not. The unborn are not "potential humans", they are actual humans with potential.

The distinction between different senses of "human". Like most words, the term "human" can have multiple definitions. The two that are usually seen as important for the abortion debate is human in a genetic sense, that the unborn are biological members of species Homo sapiens, and human in a moral sense, that the unborn are persons (i.e. members of the moral community so that it is wrong to mistreat them or take their life). I still do encounter people who don't believe that the unborn are biological members of our species, but usually when someone denies that the unborn are human, what they really mean is they are not persons. It's up to the individual to clearly present their own arguments, but if we hope to change people's minds, it helps for us to be aware of the way in which people conflate two different ideas, usually without even realizing it. If someone denies the unborn are human, usually a clarifying question is in order: "Do you mean they are not biologically human, or do you mean they are not human beings with a right to life?" This helps to avoid attacking strawmen unwittingly.

There are many more distinctions that need to be made for clarity of thought in the abortion issue. But this should help as a basic primer in how to think more clearly in the abortion issue. If we don't keep these distinctions in mind, the argument starts to get muddled and we won't be able to reliably come to the truth of the matter.

Edited the fourth paragraph for clarity.


  1. Let me disagree slightly on the way some of this is expressed. It really is not accurate to state that a sapling is a "potential tree" because a sapling is a tree - just a young, immature one. Granted, a sapling is a potential "adult tree," but it is already a tree.

    Similarly as you correctly point out later in that paragraph, a zygote is not a "potential human." A zygote is already a full fledged member of the human species, and thus is as much of a human as you or me. This single celled human being is a potential "adult human," but not a potential human.

    In fact as I often point out, there is no such thing as a "potential human," because there is no known substance which has within itself the potential to become a human - not even a sperm or egg can rightly be classified a "potential human" because neither have within themselves separately the potential to become a human.

    (Note that by "a human" I am referring exclusively here to a member of the human species - a "human being.")

    In case you're interested, we also defend the right to life position here:

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks. You're correct about the tree example. Chalk it up to not being careful enough with my wording. By "tree" I meant "mature tree" (I'm not sure what the terminology would be for a mature tree as opposed to an immature tree, the sapling). Although, regarding potential humans, I would argue that the sperm and the ovum are potential humans, but it's a passive potential, not active potential (as a tree is a potential desk).


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