Friday, November 11, 2016

Response to Joshua Stein's critique of Christopher Kaczor [Clinton Wilcox]

If you haven't yet read The Ethics of Abortion by Christopher Kaczor, you should definitely consider reading it. However, I was asked to give my thoughts on a critical review written by Joshua Stein about Kaczor's book. Ordinarily, reading over this review, I wouldn't have given it a second thought. It doesn't present any serious challenges to Kaczor's book, and he mainly complains about the methodology of the book rather than actually responding to any of Kaczor's arguments. But since I was asked, I'll respond to Stein's claims below.

I've interacted with Stein some on Facebook. From what I've gathered, he's a philosophy professor but to my knowledge, hasn't done any work in the field of philosophy, itself. Other than that I don't know much about him, but you can read his critique on Goodreads here.

The first thing I noticed is Stein's complete lack of engagement with Kaczor's book. He doesn't provide any page numbers so you can see if he's correctly understanding Kaczor's arguments, and he doesn't even seriously engage with any of them. Compare Stein's critique with one of my critical critiques on Amazon.

Stein begins his critique by stating that Kaczor's book is not "good" or "interesting", whereas his own views are based on "good" and "interesting" philosophy. Of course, this is mistaken, as while many pro-choice thinkers are careful thinkers, the philosophy that undergirds the pro-abortion-choice position is not good (and Stein doesn't begin to tell us what he means by "interesting"). The pro-abortion-choice position is grounded in ideas that are highly counterintuitive and easily refutable. If you come at the pro-choice position from a position of bodily rights, the only way this succeeds is if (as Thomson argues) parents have no natural obligations to their offspring. This is clearly absurd. If you arrive at your pro-choice views from a position of functionalism (i.e. the unborn must be able to perform some function before it is considered a person), then your argument is grounded in the same idea that led to human atrocities like the Holocaust and chattel slavery. You are grounding human value in arbitrary criteria to justify being able to kill them.

So what are the alleged problems with Kaczor's book that leads to Stein dismissing it as "not...a very good piece of professional philosophy"? He gives us four major reasons.

1) Stein's first point is Kaczor's Aristotelian assumptions. Now, Stein says that Kaczor's assumptions insert themselves in weird ways into the discussion. Then he tells us that it's perfectly fine to do this in professional philosophy, given that you acknowledge these biases. Then he tells us that Kaczor does this! So Stein's point here is really a non-argument. He's just complaining about Aristotelianism and offers no reason why we should reject it. As someone who also holds to Aristotelianism, Stein's argument from incredulity is not a serious charge against Kaczor's book.

2) Stein's next complaint is that Kaczor switches methods throughout the book. However, he gives us no examples of this. He says there's nothing incoherent in doing this, but he personally finds it annoying. So again, this is a non-argument. He's just complaining about the changing methodology in Kaczor's book while not giving us any examples to make his case. Even if Kaczor does do this, a likely reason is since Kaczor is responding to numerous pro-abortion-choice arguments from a number of different pro-choice thinkers (and not all of them philosophers), Kaczor needs different methods to respond to them because the arguments he is responding to do not all come from the same methodological procedure.

3) Next, Stein says that Kaczor's case is philosophically weak but, again, he provides no evidence of this. He simply says that Kaczor's case isn't sufficiently developed to give a rigorous criticism to. This is clearly false. In the acknowledgements, Kaczor thanks none other than Peter Singer, Jeff McMahan, Michael Tooley, and David Boonin for looking over his manuscript. In fact, Kaczor writes, "David Boonin...also deserves special recognition and gratitude. David read through the entire manuscript twice, the second time providing me with 23 single-spaced pages of comments, questions, objections, and challenges. I am especially indebted to him for this great service." (Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion, 2nd ed., Routledge, New York, NY, 2015.) (This is the first time I've ever actually quoted the acknowledgements section from a book.) Considering the caliber of pro-choice thinkers who were reviewing the manuscript and providing helpful comments, I think it much more likely that Stein either did not understand the case Kaczor made, or he did not care enough to give the book a fair read.

Stein asserts that Kaczor "basically draws the assumption that [his positive case for development at conception based on the concept of identity] is most plausible based on the failure of psychological theories of identity." This, of course, leads me to wonder if Stein actually read the book, since Kaczor has an entire chapter titled "Does Personhood Begin at Conception?" and defends what he calls the Endowment view. Kaczor writes, "The endowment account holds that each human being has inherent, moral worth simply by virtue of the kind of being it is." (See chapter six in Kaczor's book.) He then spends the rest of the chapter comparing the endowment view with the performance view of personhood (what I referred to as functionalism, above). Stein is simply being unfair to Kaczor in his critique of Kaczor's book. If his critique is that Kaczor didn't spend enough time defending the endowment view, he can certainly look elsewhere for a fuller treatment of the issue (e.g. Ed Feser's Scholastic Metaphysics or David Oderberg's Real Essentialism).

4) Finally, Stein asserts that Kaczor does not have a sufficient or proficient enough grasp on the positions of his pro-choice interlocutors to be able to comment on them. He asserts that the cases of pro-choice thinkers are not presented passably. He specifically mentions Mary Anne Warren and Peter Singer. But considering I already mentioned that Singer read Kaczor's manuscript, this objection is just silly. If Kaczor didn't understand Singer's arguments, Singer certainly would have set him straight on the arguments. Saying that Kaczor didn't have a good enough grasp on Singer's arguments when Singer reviewed the manuscript is just a lack of awareness of what he, himself, is trying to critique. Considering all the other pro-choice thinkers who also reviewed the manuscript, I think Stein is the one who needs further education on these arguments.

In fact, David Boonin, who I mentioned above, had this to say about Kaczor's book (from the back flap): "This is one of the very best book-length defenses of the claim that abortion is morally impermissible. It is clear, thorough, thoughtful and carefully argued. I would strongly encourage anyone who is interested in the subject to read it and study it." David Boonin teaches ethics at University of Colorado, Boulder, and does do work in philosophy (specifically the abortion issue; Boonin's book on abortion, A Defense of Abortion, is a book I encourage anyone wanting to educate themselves on pro-choice arguments to read). Boonin would not encourage anyone to read and study this book if he did not have confidence in it. Considering the high praise Boonin has for the book, I would take his word over Stein's regarding the usefulness of it.


  1. I must have read a different book than he was.

  2. I also happen to like your like the line in your review: "It's worse than Katha Pollitt's recent book, Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights." I haven't had the misfortune of reading the book you review their, but I did have the misfortune of reading Pollitt's book.

    Having had the misfortune of reading Pollitt's book, I wonder if you noticed what I noticed. When I read her chapter on personhood, in addition to misrepresenting the position in "Embryo", it seems that her own criteria for personhood, largely consciousness and social space, don't seem to exclude human embryos (or almost any other animal) from being persons, which seems to be quite an oversight for a book of its "renown." My question is: have I read her correctly?

    If I recall her criteria is largely based on two personal features: consciousness and social standing. In regard to the former, she writes that if she was in an irreversible coma, she would still be a person. (Not obvious to many pro-choicers, so I was a bit surprised. But, I suppose that this shows the weakness of that criteria, since to say that she has social standing is to assume that she is a person, so how can her supposedly having social standing in that situation be useful to show that she is a person? Further, it seems easy enough for many to give social standing to embryos, at least if they are their own, so how does this justify abortion?)

    In regard to the latter, social standing, she writes that she could be isolated on some desert island, yet, if conscious, be a person. Each one by itself seems to merely be sufficient, not neccesary to have to be a person. I don't see her making any argument that, while which one you possess is irrelevant, you must possess one to be a person; at least, this is not clearly laid out. It seems that she might hint at this when she says, 'If I lack both - say, I', on a desert island and unconscious - I won't be a person for much longer.' But it sounds as if she's saying that she'd still be a person if she lacked both attributes, but cease to be a person when she dies from exposure due to her lacking those qualities.

    Well, then, why isn't a human embryo a person? Or for that matter, why not a cat or a dog or a bacterium? She doesn't say. At best, to me anyway, it seems to be 'personhood is complicated and the features one must have to possess it are vague, yet the embryo doesn't have it.' Well if that doesn't convince you, nothing else she says will.


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