I have previously given my views on abortion (and contraception) in a great deal of detail, and some of that will be repeated here.
This post is specifically in response to Peter Kreeft’s article of the same title. He literally asks for people to show where he has gone wrong, so I intend to do my best. As usual, I’ll be pulling out some quotes, but this might make more sense if you read his article first.
Here’s his first few premises:
1. We know what an apple is
2. We really know what an apple really is
3. We really know what some things really are
4. We know what human beings are
Although there are many problems in his explanations of these principles, such as a complete misunderstanding of what skepticism is and a tone of total condescension, I generally agree with them.
I’m going to sidetrack a moment here. Philosophically, there is no answer to solipsism, which says we can’t know anything beyond “I think therefore I am”. Practically, however, we must assume that what appears to be reality actually is reality in order to function in life, as even sitting in a chair implies that you expect your butt and your chair to exist and continue existing. Apparently, solipsism is the position that Peter Kreeft thinks skepticism is:
This third principle, of course, is the repudiation of skepticism. The secret has been out since Socrates that skepticism is logically self-contradictory. To say “I do not know” is to say “I know I do not know.” Socrates’s wisdom was not skepticism. He was not the only man in the world who knew that he did not know. He had knowledge; he did not claim to have wisdom. He knew he was not wise. That is a wholly different affair and is not self-contradictory. All forms of skepticism are logically self-contradictory, nuance as we will.
Is the form of skepticism that says “I am unconvinced of your claim, please provide evidence” truly self-contradictory? If you claim that, you must throw out the entire American legal system, which assumes innocence (null hypothesis) until proven guilt (burden of proof), or is anyway founded on that principle. Further, there is no contradiction between “I do not know” and “I know I do not know”! For instance, if you do not know the capital of France, and someone asks what it is, “I know I do not know” is the exact same answer as “I do not know”. As for Socrates, he became convinced he had some wisdom when he realized someone else was claiming knowledge who didn’t have it, whereas he was not claiming knowledge he didn’t have. That is skepticism: not denying all knowledge, but not pretending to have knowledge until a position is well-supported.
To continue with the abortion argument, here’s the next premise:
5. We have human rights because we are human
I think this is where the confusion starts. “Human rights” may actually be a bad term, semantically; really, what these are are “person rights”, we just say “human rights” because humans are the only persons we know exist. So, if the premise were worded “We have person rights because we are persons”, I would agree. However, this would require additional premises that we know what a person is, and those premises have not been presented, so this is the first place the argument really begins to break down. As you see, he is conflating humans and persons for a large part of this argument, although he eventually starts to call attention to the fact that these might not be synonyms.
6. Morality is based on metaphysics
Here is the first serious disagreement, although it might boil down to his semantics for this premise. Morality comes from empathy, which we evolved as a social species. Social species cannot survive without at least rudimentary morality.
The principle that morality depends on metaphysics means that rights depend on reality, or what is right depends on what is.
I do agree that rights depend on reality, I just don’t see what metaphysics has to do with that. He does say “Metaphysics means simply philosophizing about reality.” but that’s just how I would describe philosophy.
7. Moral arguments presuppose metaphysical principles
Again, I’m not sure I buy this premise on the face of it.
The main reason people deny that morality must (or even can) be based on metaphysics is that they say we don’t really know what reality is, we only have opinions. They point out, correctly, that we are less agreed about morality than science or everyday practical facts. We don’t differ about whether the sun is a planet or whether we need to eat to live, but we do differ about things like abortion, capital punishment, and animal rights.
My morality is based on the general principle “Suffering is bad” and the obvious corollaries that follow from it. I know this first principle because I know what suffering is and I know I’m not the only one apparently capable of experiencing it. If you insist on saying that is metaphysics, fine, but I don’t know why it would be.
One reason I choose to use the word “suffering” is that what consists of suffering is extremely subjective. Some people enjoy pain, at least in some circumstances; others hate it under any and all circumstances. We can argue forever about whether a certain instance or other of suffering should be allowed or condemned, or even over whether a certain thing is suffering. As each of us experiences suffering differently, it’s still subjective. I’m skeptical that a fetus of a few weeks is capable of suffering, and therefore I’m skeptical that morality is an issue for early term abortion. So, my reasons for skepticism are scientific, not “metaphysical”.
But the very fact that we argue about it — a fact the skeptic points to as a reason for skepticism — is a refutation of skepticism. We don’t argue about how we feel, about subjective things. You never hear an argument like this: “I feel great.” “No, I feel terrible.”
No, that is not a refutation of skepticism, for skepticism says we don’t know the answer yet. If we are arguing about it, that is a confirmation of skepticism. Skepticism doesn’t say we can never know the answer; that’s solipsism again.
For instance, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers usually agree that it’s wrong to kill innocent persons against their will and it’s not wrong to kill parts of persons, like cancer cells. And both the proponents and opponents of capital punishment usually agree that human life is of great value; that’s why the proponent wants to protect the life of the innocent by executing murderers and why the opponent wants to protect the life even of the murderer. They radically disagree about how to apply the principle that human life is valuable, but they both assume and appeal to that same principle.
If this is the type of thing the premise means, then I agree with it. Although, this paragraph does tend to conflate “person” and “human”.
8. Might making right
All these examples so far are controversial. How to apply moral principles to these issues is controversial. What is not controversial, I hope, is the principle itself that human rights are possessed by human beings because of what they are, because of their being — and not because some other human beings have the power to enforce their will. That would be, literally, “might makes right.” Instead of putting might into the hands of right, that would be pinning the label of “right” on the face of might: justifying force instead of fortifying justice. But that is the only alternative, no matter what the political power structure, no matter who or how many hold the power, whether a single tyrant, or an aristocracy, or a majority of the freely voting public, or the vague sentiment of what Rousseau called “the general will.” The political form does not change the principle. A constitutional monarchy, in which the king and the people are subject to the same law, is a rule of law, not of power; a lawless democracy, in which the will of the majority is unchecked, is a rule of power, not of law.
I think this is mostly a restating of step 5, although it is mainly trying to reinforce this notion that morality can’t be subjective. I must disagree, because the exact same action can be moral in one circumstance but immoral in another, possibly even amoral in a third. For instance, if capital punishment is moral, that means ending a life is moral under one circumstance but immoral when the criminal did the same thing.
9. Either all have rights or only some have rights
The reason all human beings have human rights is that all human beings are human. Only two philosophies of human rights are logically possible. Either all human beings have rights, or only some human beings have rights. There is no third possibility.
This premise is pretty obvious. However, the issue I pointed out earlier of conflating persons with humans is apparent here, too.
10. Why abortion is wrong
Some people want to be killed. I won’t address the morality of voluntary euthanasia here. But clearly, involuntary euthanasia is wrong; clearly, there is a difference between imposing power on another and freely making a contract with another. The contract may still be a bad one, a contract to do a wrong thing, and the mere fact that the parties to the contract entered it freely does not automatically justify doing the thing they contract to do. But harming or killing another against his will, not by free contract, is clearly wrong; if that isn’t wrong, what is?
But that’s what abortion is. Mother Teresa argued, simply, “If abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” The fetus doesn’t want to be killed; it seeks to escape. Did you dare to watch The Silent Scream? Did the media dare to allow it to be shown? No, they will censor nothing except the most common operation in America.
My contention is that a fetus, at least until a certain stage of development, is not a person. Therefore, they do not have the same right to not be killed that a person does. The argument contained in this step, however, applies equally well to insects. Insects seek to escape death or harm. Does this mean it is morally wrong to kill cockroaches? This is the crux of the issue. By any reasonable definition, an adult pig is more of a person than an embryo (first 8 weeks of development), unless you insist on defining “person” in a very species-centric manner. Therefore, if bacon is not wrong, (early term) abortion is not wrong.
11. The argument from the nonexistence of nonpersons
Are persons a subclass of humans, or are humans a subclass of persons? The issue of distinguishing humans and persons comes up only for two reasons: the possibility that there are nonhuman persons, like extraterrestrials, elves, angels, gods, God, or the Persons of the Trinity, or the possibility that there are some nonpersonal humans, unpersons, humans without rights.
Traditional common sense and morality say all humans are persons and have rights. Modern moral relativism says that only some humans are persons, for only those who are given rights by others (i.e., those in power) have rights. Thus, if we have power, we can “depersonalize” any group we want: blacks, slaves, Jews, political enemies, liberals, fundamentalists — or unborn babies.
A common way to state this philosophy is the claim that membership in a biological species confers no rights. I have heard it argued that we do not treat any other species in the traditional way — that is, we do not assign equal rights to all mice. Some we kill (those that get into our houses and prove to be pests); others we take good care of and preserve (those that we find useful in laboratory experiments or those we adopt as pets); still others we simply ignore (mice in the wild). The argument concludes that therefore, it is only sentiment or tradition (the two are often confused, as if nothing rational could be passed down by tradition) that assigns rights to all members of our own species.
I like how there is no attempt to refute that last argument. I already said that I don’t accept some humans are persons, specifically a fetus until a certain stage of development (probably somewhere in the second trimester). This does not mean I can “depersonalize” any group I want, because I’m going by science here, and all humans share essentially the same biology. Also, I think that first question there is a false dichotomy. There could be nonhuman persons.
12. Three pro-life premises and three pro-choice alternatives
We have been assuming three premises, and they are the three fundamental assumptions of the pro-life argument. Any one of them can be denied. To be pro-choice, you must deny at least one of them, because taken together they logically entail the pro-life conclusion. But there are three different kinds of pro-choice positions, depending on which of the three pro-life premises is denied.
The first premise is scientific, the second is moral, and the third is legal. The scientific premise is that the life of the individual member of every animal species begins at conception. (This truism was taught by all biology textbooks before Roe and by none after Roe; yet Roe did not discover or appeal to any new scientific discoveries.) In other words, all humans are human, whether embryonic, fetal, infantile, young, mature, old, or dying.
I agree with that premise.
The moral premise is that all humans have the right to life because all humans are human. It is a deduction from the most obvious of all moral rules, the Golden Rule, or justice, or equality. If you would not be killed, do not kill. It’s just not just, not fair. All humans have the human essence and, therefore, are essentially equal.
The legal premise is that the law must protect the most basic human rights. If all humans are human, and if all humans have a right to life, and if the law must protect human rights, then the law must protect the right to life of all humans.
I actually at least partially disagree with both of these. For the legal premise, I would agree with “the law must protect legal rights, and should protect person rights”. That’s not what Kreeft says. The larger disagreement is with the moral premise, obviously, as I have already explained that I don’t really agree with the idea of human rights, although I accept person rights, so because I don’t think a fetus is a person until a certain stage of development, I don’t agree that all humans are persons, so I don’t agree that they all have the right to life.
A couple choice quotes from this section:
(But why, then, do most mothers who abort feel such terrible pangs of conscience, often for a lifetime?)
Probably because people like you keep telling them they should.
I think most people refuse to think or argue about abortion because they see that the only way to remain pro-choice is to abort their reason first. Or, since many pro-choicers insist that abortion is about sex, not about babies, the only way to justify their scorn of virginity is a scorn of intellectual virginity. The only way to justify their loss of moral innocence is to lose their intellectual innocence.
Given that I have, I think, given a reasoned argument for the legality of abortion, I do find this offensive. However, I pulled this out because it claims pro-choicers have a “scorn of virginity”. Really? The pro-choice individuals I know don’t scorn virginity; they just don’t elevate it. That’s what you do. The fact that this was phrased this way makes me think you think abortion is about sex. I really don’t.
Notice that there is absolutely no attempt to defend any actual position of a pro-choice individual disagreeing with the moral premise. Instead, there is an immediate resort to an ad hominem attack.
13. The argument from skepticism
The most likely response to this will be the charge of dogmatism. How dare I pontificate with infallible certainty, and call all who disagree either mentally or morally challenged!
How dare you, indeed, but not because of dogmatism, but because you haven’t answered any opposing position and haven’t sufficiently supported your own.
I haven’t denied any of the first premises offered, and I don’t need to.
So, there are four possibilities:
- The fetus is a person, and we know that;
- The fetus is a person, but we don’t know that;
- The fetus isn’t a person, but we don’t know that;
- The fetus isn’t a person, and we know that.
What is abortion in each of these four cases?
I’m firmly standing behind the fourth case, and I’m going to ignore the other three, as he’s mostly right.
Only in Case 4 is abortion a reasonable, permissible, and responsible choice. But note: What makes Case 4 permissible is not merely the fact that the fetus is not a person but also your knowledge that it is not, your overcoming of skepticism. So skepticism counts not for abortion but against it. Only if you are not a skeptic, only if you are a dogmatist, only if you are certain that there is no person in the fetus, no man in the coat, or no person in the building, may you abort, drive, or fumigate.
I suppose by some definitions (read: Peter Kreeft’s bad one), I have overcome my skepticism with regards to abortion. However, I’m not a dogmatist. I accept that I could be wrong, and am willing to be shown that I am wrong. This argument has not done so, and I haven’t had to deny that I know what an apple is, which Peter Kreeft seems to think is the only way out. Will he listen to my response? Almost certainly not.
There’s an even bigger problem with this argument, though. Even if one accepts all of Kreeft’s premises, abortion is still a situation wherein rights of one human are conflicting with the rights of another. Does the mother also have a right to life? That is inescapable from Kreeft’s own argument, and therefore there must be legal abortion for those situations wherein the mother’s life is in danger.
It could be argued that the right to life triumphs other rights, but it is often in one way or another the mother’s right to life which is being infringed upon by the fetus. Most obviously, there are the extreme cases of rape or a diseased fetus; some of those situations require an abortion for the mother’s sake. Many abortions are sought due to poverty; in many of those cases, the mother already has an older child, and that child’s life might be in danger if she does not abort. This apple argument simply cannot address such cases.
My thought is, as I’ve said before, that abortion is super ugly. I hate it. And I don’t think every pregnant woman really has the moral right to choose abortion, but legally speaking, the option has to exist for everyone so those in extreme cases can utilize it.
I don’t think it is right for a woman who is financially and emotionally capable of caring for a child and in a stable relationship to abort a healthy fetus at 25 weeks. There is no reason, in this scenario, why aborting is a better option than putting the child up for adoption. “I don’t wanna be uncomfortable another two months so I’m gonna kill my child” is not a moral position. My point is, a woman who is pregnant and about halfway through the pregnancy (or a little more), and completely capable of having and caring for a child by every standard, should not have a right to have an abortion just because “I don’t wanna”; in that situation, the fetus living would not infringe any of her human rights – but, and this is a huge but, in order for rape victims to have the care they need, this situation pretty much has to be allowed legally.
Two final notes.
Finland has the most liberal abortion laws and the lowest abortion rates. Based on that, perhaps we should reconsider making abortion illegal as a preventative method.
Let’s keep abortion safe, legal, and rare.