Intelligent Design

Backgrounder on ID-friendly law prof: Tenure still hangs in balance

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Recall Frank Beckwith, that gifted prof at Baylor, who specializes in church-state issues, who was mysteriously denied tenure recently?

Beckwith appealed, was turned down again* – by a narrower margin, it is said – and a decision is expected shortly. What’s come out since the first denial is that his former department chair, who is believed to have undermined Beckwith’s tenure chances, recently resigned amid allegations that he plagiarized the work of Ronald Numbers , a well-known American scholar, best known for his studies of creationism.

As World‘s Mark Bergin notes,

Beckwith is among academia’s foremost pro-life advocates and has written articles supporting the constitutionality of teaching intelligent design. The tenure committee accused him of inappropriately focusing on such areas of expertise in his courses on church-state relations. In his appeal of tenure denial, Beckwith responded that “because these ethical issues are central to the most important and disputed questions in church-state studies today, it seems to me to be not only permissible, but obligatory, for a professor in this area of study to address these issues.”

Well, um, yes. Anyone in the news business knows that stories about abortion or intelligent design lead over the mast. Should Beckwith have asked students to wade through tomes on interstate trucking rules instead? How about “Proper venting for turnips in transit – a federal or state responsibility?” or “Bovine-produced methane gas in re current environment regulations”?

The tenure committee further charged Beckwith with assigning only his published works for a class on religion and society. In fact, Beckwith’s writings amounted to only 15 percent of the course’s required reading.

Given that Beckwith has authored a fair whack of stuff on the subjects in question, it’s surprising he didn’t assign more of his own.

Bergin also notes that the chair was friends with the Dawsons, a powerful Texas clan. Seems the church-state center at Baylor, where Beckwith worked as associate director, was named after granddaddy Dawson, and the clan notables think that grandaddy would not have seen eye to eye with Beckwith. As a result, a whole heap of Dawsons has been campaigning against Beckwith for years, making Baylor sound like Hayseed U.

The whole story leaves me wondering why Beckwith even wants tenure at Baylor. But maybe if he gets it, he can help them recover the original vision to be a “Protestant Notre Dame.”

Some have wondered whether Beckwith’s association with the Discovery Institute and with ID mathematician Bill Dembski, whose ill-fated Michael Polanyi Center at Baylor, was holding conferences on intelligent design issues a few years ago, cooked his goose. Beckwith has defended the constitutionality of teaching about intelligent design in publicly funded schools (but that’s not the same thing as thinking it is a good idea). But sources I trusted said no, it was mainly because he is pro life.

More generally, controversy has dogged Beckwith throughout his career, not because he is especially flamboyant but principally because he is a talented cultural conservative. Baylor is a Baptist university desperately seeking acceptance in a liberal environment; the last thing it needs is a prof who comes up with good arguments for cultural conservatism.

When the decision to deny tenure was first announced in March, a Baylor student lamented:

When I first heard the news I experienced for the first time what is known as cognitive dissonance. I couldn’t hold the two ideas in my mind. Professor Beckwith. Denied tenure. It was impossible to believe. There were people who told me it could happen, but I discounted the notion. After all, even political enemies have consciences, right? They have some commitment to integrity, don’t they?

No clear reason that makes any sense ever emerged for denying Beckwith tenure, though a lack of “collegiality” was mooted. The “collegiality” claim has become notorious, actually, as a way of getting rid of people who do not march in lockstep.

(Studying Beckwith’s case, I get the impression that it’s okay at Baylor to yay-hoo for Jesus as long as you make a fool of yourself and no one takes you seriously. Well, we’ll see.)

*Beckwith has written me to say, “The University Tenure Committee only recommends to the Provost. So, technically, I was not “turned down again.”

64 Replies to “Backgrounder on ID-friendly law prof: Tenure still hangs in balance

  1. 1
    DaveScot says:

    Well, now that the Hitler thread is dying down… I haven’t been in a good abortion dust-up in quite a while. Two words guaranteed to cause blogsteria are Hitler and abortion. Never fails.

    I don’t believe I’ve had liberal biologists in the audience before so this should be a treat. Maybe we can at least agree on some basic givens that the usual human physiology illiterates can’t or won’t acknowledge:

    1) the life cycle of an individual human begins at conception

    2) the fertilized egg is a demonstrably unique human

    Calling all biology PhDs. Is there a problem with either of the above?

    Once the above biological truths are accepted by all we move along to political/legal givens:

    3) at some in a human’s life cycle between conception and death he or she becomes entitled to a legal right to life

    4) in most times and places the legal right to life is acquired at birth

    Now, as a thought exercise, I want the baby killers (no inflammatory language there, right? 😉 ) out there to count backward minute by minute from birth to conception and tell me exactly where and why (logically & scientifically) the human in question should lose its legal right to life.

    Back when I was in the baby killer camp (15+ years ago) someone asked me this very same question. I was unable to give a precise point at which a human ceases being human enough to have a right to life. Since that day I have not been able to support abortion-on-demand. I was persuaded. That’s a very rare thing in my experience – changing someone’s mind on abortion. In point of fact I’ve never observed a person (other than me) being persuaded to change their mind.

    I do believe in so-called choice, however. A person can choose whether or not to engage in the act which is well known to sometimes result in pregnancy. After that, provided it is a conscious decision made by adults, they are complicit and if a pregnancy results are personally responsible for that new human and may not erase responsibility by an arbitrary decision to kill it. (That only one of the parents gets a say in the matter is fodder for a related discussion). The parents, through their own volition, put the new human in harm’s way and are thus obligated to protect it until it can protect itself or someone else volunteers to take over the task (adoption).

    Any other manner of dealing with this situation is, pure and simple, killing in order to establish a secure right to care-free sexual intercourse. No ethical/legal scaffolding I can support can trade in death this way. Death for sex. No way. Especially when there are so many ways to have sex that don’t result in pregnancy. Abortion on demand is morally bankrupt.

  2. 2
    tribune7 says:

    Hitler was pro abortion

    (Really put the hammer down) 🙂

  3. 3
    Carlos says:

    Hmm. Am I wise enough to stay out of this dust-up? Probably not — I haven’t been in the past, so why should I start now? We’ll see.

  4. 4
    DaveScot says:

    tribune7

    re Hitler the abortionist. Can’t say that I’ve heard that before. In the interest of an enduring emotional commentary that gets exactly nowhere I say we suspend Godwin’s Law for the nonce.

  5. 5
    DaveScot says:

    “(L)iberals don’t think a majority of Americans support abortion — otherwise they would welcome the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which would do nothing more than put abortion to a vote. As their theatrics on Roe demonstrate, the last thing they want is a vote. Once Americans were allowed to vote on abortion. Then Roe came along and overturned the democratically enacted laws of forty-eight states.” — Ann Coulter, Slander, P. 201

  6. 6
    O'Leary says:

    from moderator Denyse: It’s great to see that we can discuss abortion here while keeping it civil. (?) That’s more fun for readers, especially when people like Dave have put a lot of thought into the topic.

    I’m not sure that Hitler is strictly relevant, whatever his views, and even mentioning his name causes some to blow a gasket.

  7. 7
    Carlos says:

    That’s a very rare thing in my experience – changing someone’s mind on abortion. In point of fact I’ve never observed a person (other than me) being persuaded to change their mind.

    I used to annoy the heck out of my “pro-choice” students. They’d write papers from a pro-choice perspective, and they’d always bring up the “rape or incest” argument. Then I’d point out that it doesn’t follow, from the thought that abortion is morally permissible in this one kind of situation, that it’s morally permissible in all situations (i.e. “on demand”). They didn’t like this being pointed out to them, as you might well imagine. (I also pushed my pro-life students to the wall on their views, just be fair about it.)

    I looked at Beckwith’s article on the pro-life view. It seems decent. I usually stay away from teaching abortion in my ethics class because the pro-life stuff is not very good. (Neither is the pro-choice stuff; Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “Talented Violinist” is usually taught, but it rests on such a bleak view of human relationships that most people who read it, if they have any human sympathy, become pro-life. The ones who don’t become libertarians.) I’d only known of John Noonan’s article. But Beckwith’s seems to get somewhere.

  8. 8
    jpark320 says:

    Oh man,

    If a conservative can’t get tenure at Baylor whats that say for other institutions? I love how ppl say they are open minded except to the other side 🙂

    I wouldn’t say i’m fully “open minded,” but i wouldn’t deny tenure to someone based purely on the fact that they are a pro-choice Darwinian.

  9. 9
    Carlos says:

    As someone who’s been in academia for a few years now, I can tell you that tenure decisions are a viper’s nest of pettiness and egotism.

    Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Refusal to compromise isn’t going to start a war, so people are at liberty to let their egos run amok. Combine that with the fact that most academics don’t take any time off between high school and a tenure-track job, and you’ve got a recipe for permanent immaturity.

  10. 10
    russ says:

    “Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Refusal to compromise isn’t going to start a war, so people are at liberty to let their egos run amok. Combine that with the fact that most academics don’t take any time off between high school and a tenure-track job, and you’ve got a recipe for permanent immaturity.”

    Carlos, since professors hold so much power over students, and since young people tend to hold their teachers in awe, I don’t think most professors are accustomed to being challenged on a regular basis. Do you suppose this contributes to inflated egos and an unwillingness to consider other views?

  11. 11
    tribune7 says:

    Dave — absolutely!! Godwin’s law is suspended!

    Margaret Sanger liked Nazis

  12. 12
    jpark320 says:

    *** As someone who’s been in academia for a few years now, I can tell you that tenure decisions are a viper’s nest of pettiness and egotism.

    Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Refusal to compromise isn’t going to start a war, so people are at liberty to let their egos run amok. Combine that with the fact that most academics don’t take any time off between high school and a tenure-track job, and you’ve got a recipe for permanent immaturity. ***

    Thanks for the insight Carlos 🙂
    Any specific (dare I say juicy) non-incriminating examples?

  13. 13
    SChen24 says:

    I don’t believe Beckwith was denied a second time following his appeal. If so, this information is new and has not yet reached me (a student at Baylor, very much in tuned to this tenure issue). I believe a decision is coming soon, a decision that will help decide in which direction Baylor will move as a university. If you support Dr. Beckwith’s tenure, please email Baylor University President John Lilley at John_Lilley@baylor.edu and express your concerns.

  14. 14
    tribune7 says:

    Carlos —Combine that with the fact that most academics don’t take any time off between high school and a tenure-track job, and you’ve got a recipe for permanent immaturity.

    Very cool, Carlos. Dittos.

  15. 15
    Carlos says:

    Carlos, since professors hold so much power over students, and since young people tend to hold their teachers in awe, I don’t think most professors are accustomed to being challenged on a regular basis. Do you suppose this contributes to inflated egos and an unwillingness to consider other views?

    It might, but I’m not sure. I was the sort of student who tried to show off in class by challenging the teacher as much as possible, and my favorite professors were the ones who appreciated that attitude. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I still like the students who challenge me.

    But there is something ego-inflating about standing in front of dozens of people, talking about such-and-such, and then realizing — they are actually writing down what I’m saying as if it’s important!

    On the other hand, I think that the unwillingness to consider other views arises from the structure of the discipline itself, and not from the student-professor relationship.

    Having gone from the sciences (as an undergrad) to the humanities (as a grad and now a newly-minted prof), I’ll add this. In the sciences, there are well-defined criteria for what counts as an innovation or discovery. There are still arguments and disagreements, but even then, it’s not too hard to figure out where the common ground is, what’s accepted by both sides, what’s at stake in the debate. In the humanities, it’s all much fuzzier — what’s contentious, what’s accepted, who is talking past whom. There’s much more ambiguity, and much less agreeement, as to what’s going to count as a right answer to a question, or even what the right questions are.

    Interestingly, this also means that in the sciences, objective criteria of quality are much easier to articulate and maintain. Consequently there’s somewhat less grade inflation. My impression, at any rate, is that grade inflation is much more prevalent in the humanities than in the sciences.

    Any specific (dare I say juicy) non-incriminating examples?

    Neither I’m inclined to share. “What happens in academia, stays in academia.” I mean, if non-academics realized that academics can be just as petty and shitty to each other as the rest of you, our fantasy of being a secular priesthood would be out the window.

    And believe me, that fantasy counts for a lot more than most non-academics realize. No one goes into academia for the money or the hours — although some do like it for the flexibility (i.e. one can work any sixty-hour week one wants to. If you do your best work between 11 pm and 3 am, then that’s what it takes). It’s the status, and the collegiality (sometimes!) which serve as the draw — plus the thought of spending one’s life playing with some really cool ideas and, maybe, contributing the advancement of human knowledge and learning.

  16. 16
    Michaels7 says:

    Carlos, what would be a good rational argument for you? What would convince you from a pro-life view?

    “In a landmark 1998 paper, researchers at the Medical College of Georgia, in Augusta, USA, found that the mammalian embryo (they worked with mice) produces a special enzyme, called indoleamine 2,3-dioxygenase, or ‘IDO’, which suppresses the mother’s T cell reaction and allows pregnancy to proceed.2 Follow-up work in humans revealed the same effect, and it was also demonstrated that the IDO was produced on the embryo side of the placental membrane (which separates mother from child) and not on the mother’s side.4”

    “And the most recent work in humans has established beyond doubt that IDO is a specific mechanism at the mother–child interface for preventing the mother’s immune system from rejecting her child.”

    “At conception, the new person’s genetic instructions come together for the first time—in a single cell called the zygote. But it is not until day 6 that IDO production kicks in.6 Why day 6? Well, day 6 is a preparation for day 7, when the new embryo first attaches itself to its mother’s womb so that it can draw nutrients from its mother’s bloodstream.8 This is exactly the time when the mother’s killer T cells would normally begin to attack and reject it—if not for the amazing protection already provided by the baby’s IDO production on the previous day.”

    see ref. Abortion argument unravels, Alexander Williams, B.Sc. M.Sc.(Hons): http://www.creationontheweb.com/content/view/4633/

    Dave,
    As an aside, in recognition of suspension of Godwin’s Law. Muslims compare Pope to Hitler, “Benedict, the author of such unfortunate and insolent remarks, is going down in history for his words,” Kapusuz added. “He is going down in history in the same category as leaders such as Hitler and Mussolini.”
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/200.....pe_muslims

    In other news, Islamic followers “attack” 5 churches in Palestine, demand apology from Pope for calling Islam “violent”.

    Just an observation and question. How many more violent attacks will it take for the world to admit Islam is not violent? Scratching head….

    and a little satire:
    Latest “word of intelligence” from The View, Rosie says, “See, I toldya. Its those ‘radical Christians’ faults”

    Back to Beckwith, I hope things get cleared up for him soon. He has more ammo today with which to fight for pro-life.

    And pro-id: Rodent’s bizarre traits deepen mystery of genetics, evolution.
    evolutionhttp://news.uns.purdue.edu/UNS/html4ever/2006/060914DeWoodyVole.html

    hattip: CreationSafaris.com.

    This article about voles and their genetic differentiation is fascinating for a topic on genetics.

  17. 17
    Carlos says:

    Carlos, what would be a good rational argument for you? What would convince you from a pro-life view?

    Meaning, what would convince me that pro-life is correct?

    Let me go back and say what I think has and hasn’t been established by contemporary biology and by ethical theory, then see how that connects up to legal issues.

    First, I don’t think that any argument from biology that goes directly to ethics is going to work. It is an undeniable fact that a zygote is a genetically unique member of Homo sapiens from the moment of conception. Pro-choicers attempt to deny this, but by now it’s clear that their arguments don’t work. On the other hand, it’s not clear what this undeniable fact means, ethically speaking. If there’s a direct connection, then HeLa cells are persons, and that just seems a little bit wacky.

    So there’s no direct inference from genetics to personhood. How about an indirect one?

    The philosopher Tom Regan distinguishes between “moral agents” and “moral patients.” Moral agents are capable of recognizing their duties and acting on the basis of that recognition. Moral patients are not capable of doing so, but nevertheless are capable of suffering, of being harmed or hurt. Moral agents have duties and rights; moral patients only have rights.

    Regan uses this distinction to defend a strong view of animal rights, but the same distinction could be used in service of a pro-life position. A “Reganite” pro-life argument could then maintain that, just as infants as moral patients, so too are fetuses and embryos. But on what basis?

    On the basis that, over the course of embryological development, the human being develops its capacities for sensing changes in its environment, including responses to pleasure and pain. That’s not enough for moral agency, but it might be enough for moral patience.

    Now, when we turn to capacities, the metaphysical issues get trickier. (Here’s one way of seeing the problem: consider a caterpillar. Most of us what would to say that a caterpillar is a potential butterfly. But is it — or is potential bird food?) Morever, capacities themselves aren’t one-off things. A tree has the capacity to convert light energy into chemical energy — but it’s not doing so at night. (Technically, the “dark reaction” part of photosynthesis doesn’t need light — this is where simple molecules are converted into sugars.) So does a zygote have the capacity for responsiveness to pleasure and pain? Or the capacity for developing that capacity?

    If the problems with capacities and potentials can be sorted out, then there’s a case to be made for ascribing moral patience to zygotes. But I won’t hold my breath.

    Barring that, I do think that moral patience can be ascribed to many phases of embryonic development — from the moment that the embryo shows responsiveness to stimuli (e.g. mother’s heartbeat), at least.

    One might attribute equivalent degrees of moral patience — and so of rights — to human beings across ontogeny and to different species of comparable levels of biological complexity. E.g. zygote amoeba, one-month-old embryo fish, etc. This might be viable approach, if worked out in sufficient detail, but it seems dicey, some how.

    Still, it seems clear to me that fetuses must be considered moral patients, if babies are, and babies are if animals are. The fact that development is a gradual process with no cut-and-dried, objective divisions does make it trickier. In cases like this I find it hard not to rely on some very crude moral intuitions — if it has a face, it’s a moral patient — so, gastrulas, no; end of first trimester, yes.

    In any event, that’s only the moral side of the problem. There’s still the legal side. Myself, I think that the best position has been staked out by Sen. Clinton:

    Abortion is “a sad, even tragic choice to many, many women,” said Clinton. Then she went further: “There is no reason why government cannot do more to educate and inform and provide assistance so that the choice guaranteed under our constitution either does not ever have to be exercised or only in very rare circumstances.”

    Does not ever have to be exercised. I searched Google and Nexis for parts of that sentence tonight and got no hits. Is the press corps asleep? Hillary Clinton just endorsed a goal I’ve never heard a pro-choice leader endorse. Not safe, legal, and rare. Safe, legal, and never.

    But notice that this means that the immorality of abortion, if it is immoral, doesn’t mean that it must be illegal. There could be situations in which it is the least or lesser evil. And I don’t think it is the role of the government to decide what those situations are, precisely because the decision to carry a child to term — let alone raise it! — is too personal, is of too great existential importance, to be left to the crude and clumsy devices of the law.

    In order to generate a successful pro-life argument, it would not only be necessary to show that a zygote has the capacity to form capacities — which is a metaphysical sticky wicket, if you begin to look at the academic literature on counterfactuals — but also that it is such a great evil that it can never be the least or less evil, or — alternatively — that the law must step in and prevent it from ever happening, or least that the law is the right tool with which to regulate the situations under which it does happen.

    Anyway, that’s a long-winded answer to a short and sweet question. My apologies to those I’ve bored to tears.

  18. 18
    Karl Pfluger says:

    DaveScot wrote:

    Now, as a thought exercise, I want the baby killers (no inflammatory language there, right? ) out there to count backward minute by minute from birth to conception and tell me exactly where and why (logically & scientifically) the human in question should lose its legal right to life.

    Dave,

    As a thought experiment, I want you to imagine that you’ve let your beard grow out (assuming you don’t already have one). Now I want you to imagine that once a minute, you select a hair at random and pluck it out of your beard.

    Tell me exactly when your beard ceases to be a beard, and why.

  19. 19
    jerry says:

    This is one of the rare times I agree with Carlos. I spent several years in academia and can vouch for the large egos and small issues. The minutiae that took up faculty meetings was incredible.

    Grade inflation is everywhere and especially in night school where I taught my last course. This was after I left teaching to start a business and did an old teaching friend a favor and taught a course. All the students were working and nearly all were being reimbursed by employers. One catch, they didn’t get reimbursed if they got less than a B. When several didn’t make the cut, they went in mass to the dean to get me to change the grades.

    Michael 7 (just an observation and question. How many more violent attacks will it take for the world to admit Islam is not violent? Scratching head),

    when we stop using gasoline to fuel our cars. Unless we make nice to the Muslims they could shut down our economy in a heart beat. What is Bush or anyone else going to do. Act macho with Saudi Arabia and some others over there and the unemployment rate will be above 10% in a few months and the ones who follow those now in power will make the current regime look very moderate. They are not rational people and we wouldn’t care a rat’s rear end about them except for the oil. So we do a dance but it is you and I and all the rest of us who put us in that bind. We all want to drive even at $3.40 a gallon which is where it got to in some places recently.

  20. 20
    filmGrain says:

    Carlos wrote:

    “As someone who’s been in academia for a few years now, I can tell you that tenure decisions are a viper’s nest of pettiness and egotism.

    Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small. Refusal to compromise isn’t going to start a war, so people are at liberty to let their egos run amok. Combine that with the fact that most academics don’t take any time off between high school and a tenure-track job, and you’ve got a recipe for permanent immaturity.”

    I’ve just used SnagIt to screencapture that gem! I shall print it out, tape it to my refrigerator, and recite it every day as an affirmation (or perhaps, a disaffirmation). Just brilliant!

  21. 21
    Carlos says:

    In response to (14), (19), and (20): just so my own position (and conscience) is clear, please note that I enjoy being an academic, and that for the time being I can’t even imagine doing something else with my life, despite what I say in (9). I love teaching, and I love research. It’s the rest of it — the political stuff — that I don’t like. but which I’m learning to accept as part of the gig.

  22. 22
    russ says:

    #18: “Dave,

    As a thought experiment, I want you to imagine that you’ve let your beard grow out (assuming you don’t already have one). Now I want you to imagine that once a minute, you select a hair at random and pluck it out of your beard.

    Tell me exactly when your beard ceases to be a beard, and why.”

    Comment by Karl Pfluger — September 16, 2006 @ 8:23 pm

    Karl, I disagree with your experiment because it’s inconsequential if Dave’s beard is no longer a beard after removing 1 or 10,000 wiskers. In both cases (beards and abortions) their may be difficulty drawing a line. But if you get it wrong in the first case, it matters to no one. In the second case, a human life is at stake, so one could argue it’s presumptious to attempt to draw a line after the obvious one—conception.

  23. 23
    Carlos says:

    The “beard argument” only shows that the impossibility of drawing a precise division between two categories doesn’t mean that there isn’t some distinction between the categories. There’s a continuum between having a beard and not having one, so that it’s hard to tell just where the Rubicon is crossed — but that doesn’t mean that having a beard is the same as not having one. Useful distinctions can be made without having to be precise.

    Likewise, the impossibility of drawing a precise line between a bona fide moral agent and a sack of cells isn’t going to show that a sack of cells is a bona fide moral agent.

    So, if you want to show that the distinction between a person and a cell cluster shouldn’t be drawn, I think you’ll need a different argument than the argument from imprecision.

  24. 24
    tinabrewer says:

    The category we are talking about here is “life”. Where in life, as a broad category, is there anything BUT developmental unfolding from immature to mature states? It is a property of nearly every organism at nearly every time. Developmental unfolding, being intrinsic to the life process, defies artificial divisions. Life IS PROCESS, and this is no less so for the fetus. I think the question of abortion should center, rather, on the choice/responsibility continuum as Dave points out. Every act has a consequence. It is a frank rebellion against this clear natural law to desire a world in which cause and effect become unhinged from one another. To desire this disconnect so badly that the life of another human being could be considered as cheaply as it is in the act of abortion, is a disastrous development.

  25. 25
    Carlos says:

    It strikes me that “life” is precisely the category that we should not be talking about. To do so would sanctify all life, qua life. Is then immoral to take antibiotics? Or to eat vegetables?

    Well, maybe the Jain or the PETA folks are right, and that is the right way to go.

    But it seems to me, in light of the synthesis of Greco-Roman law and Judeo-Christian ethics that makes up the Western cultural heritage, that the relevant category is not bare life — which belongs to the E. coli in my intestines no less than it belongs to me — but personhood.

  26. 26
    tinabrewer says:

    Carlos: persons are one form of “life”. For the person, the developmental unfoldment begins at conception and ends at death in a perfectly smoothe, uninterrupted continuum. Period. If we choose to break this perfect continuum up into discreet periods for our own disposal and convenience, that is our choice. It is not, however an organic designation, but an artificial imposition.

    I would never make the claim that taking of any form of life at any time is unethical. This standard is preposterous. Every time I walk across the grass I take life. The distinction is not at all so difficult with regard to abortion, because in this case you have an organism whose very existence was brought about by the free-willing choices of two consenting adults.

    When I refer to the disastrous consequences of the desire to live without consequences, I think of the paragraph I read in a prominent pro-choice book (the title of which screed now eludes me) which went something like this (in paraphrase): ‘People who oppose reproductive choice don’t like sex’ And then the author went on to make a sincere effort to connect the dislike of sex with the belief that one should be responsible for the consequences of sex. Ellen Goodman, an editorial writer, very recently wrote an editorial in which she lamented the horror that the new “morning-after pill” would become available with strings attached; namely that women 18 and under would need parental consent to use it. To this mild restriction she responded ‘now we are sending our young women the message that motherhood is their punishment for enjoying sex.’ Help.

  27. 27
    DaveScot says:

    So Carlos, count backwards for me from birth, minute by minute, and demarcate the precise point where a person is not a person. Explain why they are no longer a person. This is of course if you consider a newborn to be a person. If not, pick any arbitrary stage of life where you’re sure a human is a person then go backwards in time from there.

  28. 28
    DaveScot says:

    Carlos

    The definition of person you gave me exludes newborns, people in comas, etcetera, because it includes ability to reason and self-consciousness.

    The real working defintion is a human with the future POTENTIAL to reason, be self-conscious, and have a continuing identity. Thus newborns and people in comas who have a chance of waking up have a right to life. A person who is “brain dead” does not.

    Of course there’s one more requirement. You have to have been born. A person by the really important metrics of being human and possessing the potential to reason, be self-concious, and have a continuing identity isn’t quite enough and by that failure to have escaped from the womb the otherwise person can have an arbitrary sentence of death passed on him or her by the whim of a single individual. The means of death too would be considered cruel and unusual in any other circumstance.

  29. 29
    Karl Pfluger says:

    russ wrote:

    Karl, I disagree with your experiment because it’s inconsequential if Dave’s beard is no longer a beard after removing 1 or 10,000 wiskers. In both cases (beards and abortions) their may be difficulty drawing a line. But if you get it wrong in the first case, it matters to no one. In the second case, a human life is at stake, so one could argue it’s presumptious to attempt to draw a line after the obvious one—conception.

    Russ,

    Logic is logic, regardless of the stakes. If A implies B, then A implies B, whether B is important or trivial. Indeed, I would argue that it is especially important to apply logic carefully and correctly to moral questions, precisely because the stakes are so high. We don’t want to get it wrong, and changing our logic is not the way to get it right.

    I do think it is presumptuous to draw the line at conception. First of all, when exactly? The moment the sperm touches the egg? The moment the egg’s membrane is penetrated? The moment the sperm and egg membranes merge? The moment the nuclei merge? At any one of those moments you can ask, “Why now, and not the moment before?”

    The argument also applies before the egg and sperm meet. After all, what’s so special about two cells touching? If they are a human being when touching, how can you assert that they aren’t human the moment before, merely because they are not in contact? And in that case, isn’t it immoral to use birth control to prevent egg and sperm from uniting? Isn’t it immoral to use coitus interruptus? Isn’t it immoral for a woman to say “Not tonight, honey, I have a headache”? She may, after all, be denying a future to a human being.

    Carlos wrote:

    The “beard argument” only shows that the impossibility of drawing a precise division between two categories doesn’t mean that there isn’t some distinction between the categories. There’s a continuum between having a beard and not having one, so that it’s hard to tell just where the Rubicon is crossed — but that doesn’t mean that having a beard is the same as not having one. Useful distinctions can be made without having to be precise.

    Exactly right. The human mind loves to draw neat divisions between categories, even when those divisions are arbitrary and empirically unsupportable. We grant teens the right to drive on a certain birthday, but does anyone really believe that they are not ready to drive on the previous day? Or that all teens are equally mature at the same age? Of course not.

    Carlos:

    Likewise, the impossibility of drawing a precise line between a bona fide moral agent and a sack of cells isn’t going to show that a sack of cells is a bona fide moral agent.

    Well put.

    Tina:

    It is a frank rebellion against this clear natural law to desire a world in which cause and effect become unhinged from one another.

    Is it “rebellion” to desire a world where heart failure is “unhinged” from death, via defibrillators? Or where famine is “unhinged” from widespread starvation by the shipment of food on airplanes?

    Tina:

    To desire this disconnect so badly that the life of another human being could be considered as cheaply as it is in the act of abortion, is a disastrous development.

    We agree that it is a disaster when the life of a human being is devalued. Where we differ is in deciding what exactly constitutes a human being.

  30. 30
    Karl Pfluger says:

    Moderators,

    I believe I have a comment in the spam queue, probably because I used a word that means “male gametes”. Could you fish it out for me?

    Thanks,
    Karl Pfluger

  31. 31
    Karl Pfluger says:

    DaveScot wrote:

    So Carlos, count backwards for me from birth, minute by minute, and demarcate the precise point where a person is not a person. Explain why they are no longer a person. This is of course if you consider a newborn to be a person. If not, pick any arbitrary stage of life where you’re sure a human is a person then go backwards in time from there.

    Dave,

    Start at the time two gametes are mature, but in separate bodies, male and female. Now count forward, minute by minute, and demarcate the precise point where the two gametes become a person. Explain why they are suddenly a person. This is of course if you believe that two separate gametes are not a person. Otherwise, pick an earlier stage where you’re sure they’re not a person and go forward in time from there.

    To make the same point using my driving age analogy:

    In our society, we agree that nineteen-year-olds have the right to drive (barring disability or previous convictions), and that ten-year-olds do not.

    Start with a ten-year-old and go forward in time, minute by minute, to the precise point where the child deserves the right to drive. Explain why.

    Now start with a nineteen-year-old and go backward in time, minute by minute, to the precise point where he or she no longer deserves the right to drive. Explain why.

    In both cases, there is no sensible way to draw a precise line between the two categories. If I apply the logic of your argument to this situation, I get two contradictory answers:

    1. If I start with the ten-year-old, I conclude that nineteen-year-olds don’t deserve the right to drive, because after all, there is no point at which I can say “One minute ago you didn’t deserve the right to drive, but now you do.”

    2. If I start with the nineteen-year-old, I conclude that ten-year-olds deserve the right to drive. After all, there is no point where I can say “You don’t deserve the right to drive now, but one minute from now you will.”

    If a method of reasoning leads to contradictory answers while starting from the same premises, you can be sure that either the premises are contradictory or the reasoning is faulty.

  32. 32
    Carlos says:

    26 contains an important metaphysical insight, but the ethical and legal implications of this insight are difficult to track. For example: we don’t allow people under 18 to vote. Why not? There’s a right that under the law that adults have which children don’t have. Etc. We allow different stages of the human life-cycle to different kinds of legal representation, and sure it’s arbitary, but do you really want five year olds to vote? (Incidentally, it probably wouldn’t make any difference.)

    I know it’s a silly example, but it points to the fact that under the existing legal culture, we do make distinctions as to which rights someone has at a certain time in their development. And, granting this, it needs to be shown that the “right to life” is not a right like that.

    I can easily see why, given the Western cultural heritage, a right to life attaches to all persons. (If someone isn’t convinced of this, we can just tell her to read Hobbes and Locke. No biggie.) But personhood is a metaphysical state.

    So Carlos, count backwards for me from birth, minute by minute, and demarcate the precise point where a person is not a person. Explain why they are no longer a person. This is of course if you consider a newborn to be a person. If not, pick any arbitrary stage of life where you’re sure a human is a person then go backwards in time from there.

    Uh-uh; momma didn’t raise no fool. As I said in 23, the impossibility of drawing a strict line between two categories doesn’t show that there’s no point in making a distinction at all. (As an analogy, consider ring species.)

    It seems to me that, if we’re going to make the pro-life argument work, we’re going to need an argument to the effect that the distinction between persons and cell clusters cannot be drawn in a non-arbitary way. (For it can be drawn, after all — but the burden of proof can be put on the pro-choicers to show that the distinctions are not arbitrary.) For only if one can show that that the distinction cannot be drawn in a non-arbitrary way, does it follow that the path of prudence requires us to regard zygotes as persons.

    The definition of person you gave me exludes newborns, people in comas, etcetera, because it includes ability to reason and self-consciousness.

    The real working defintion is a human with the future POTENTIAL to reason, be self-conscious, and have a continuing identity. Thus newborns and people in comas who have a chance of waking up have a right to life. A person who is “brain dead” does not.

    Well, here’s where things do get dicey. A consistent ethics that justifies certain kinds of abortion, on the grounds that the zygote or embryo is not yet a person, may also justify certain kinds of nonvoluntary euthanasia, on the grounds that the comatose or vegetative individual is no longer a person. That might be a bullet worth biting, or least worth coming back to.

    For now, a word of warning about “potential.” Consider again: is the caterpillar a potential butterfly, or potential bird-food? You might think you can get out of this one by stipulating “potential” in terms of “x is a potential y if the majority of xs become ys.” But even that’s not going to work, is it? Not for caterpillars, and not for human embryos, either. How about, “x is a potential y if, under normal conditions, enough xs become ys so as to insure the production of future xs?” A butterfly is just a caterpillar’s way of making another caterpillar, right? But how do we know what “normal conditions” are? And now the notion has been watered down so much that it’s hard to see how we’re going to squeeze the ethical requirements out of it.

    Another problem with potential: every person who was born in the United States is a potential President. But none of them have the rights or abilities of the President, except for the one who is. This shows that there’s no general argument for “an x is a potential y, therefore it has the rights of a y.” Substitute x for embryo and y for person, and you see the problem. Given that there’s no general argument of this form, we need to know why the “embryos have the rights of persons” schema is a valid exception.

    Now, I presented above (in 17) an argument for getting around this problem by introducing the notion of a moral patient. If all and only persons are moral agents, we can use the notion of a moral patient to show that babies and animals have rights, even without duties. And if babies are moral patients, then so too are fetuses and perhaps also embryos.

    Importantly, the status of moral patients is intrinsic. It doesn’t depend on whether they will become moral agents or not. Some moral patients do become moral agents (most human babies), and some don’t (mentally retarded humans, animals). But they all have rights, just the same, and that could include a right to life. Of course, this means that, if this line of argument works, pro-lifers will have to become vegetarians, but that’s OK.

    But when we get down to zygotes and the first two weeks or so of development, it gets tricky again, because these organisms don’t even exhibit the sort of responsiveness to stimuli that qualify moral patients. At best one could say that they are potential moral patients. And now all the problems of the metaphysics of potentiality come back to haunt us again.

  33. 33
    StephenA says:

    The thing is if ‘personhood’ (whether or not we are people) determines whether we have rights, how do we measure it and determine those rights? Obviously, we cannot measure ‘personhood’ directly, so we must look for a measurable attribute that corresponds to ‘personhood’. The thing is, the only attribute that can really be said to correspond to ‘personhood’ is life itself, which is binary (you either have it or you don’t) and begins at conception. There are many other proposed ‘measuring sticks’ for ‘personhood’, but these all have problems. I’ll run through as many as I can in the time I have, starting with the most rediculous and working my way up.

    Location: “If it hasn’t been born it isn’t a person.” The only difference between an unborn child and a newborn is where it happens to be. This barely deserves a refutation, but it is so commonly used that I thought I’d better mention it.

    Size: This is generally phrased along the lines of, “How can you say something the size of a speck of dust is a person?!”. The problem with this is that a newborn is smaller than a five year old. Does that make the five year old more of a person with more rights than the newborn? What rights should the newborn have? It’s the same size as it was just before it was born, should the mother be allowed to kill it? What do we do when we get to adults? If you are bigger than someone else, does that mean you are more of a person and therefore entitled to more rights? I would hate to live in a society that followed through on this.

    Viablility: “It’s not really a person until it can survive outside it’s mother.” Viablility, however, isn’t really an attribute of the baby, but rather a measurment of our level of technology. Premature babies that could not have survived a hundred years ago are now able to make it to adulthood with few problems. Nor is it inconcievable that in the future we might develop the technology to grow a child outside the womb. Not only that, but viability depends on your enviroment. An astronought in space is not viable outside his protective atrificial environment. I am not viable in the middle of the ocean. Does that mean that I am not a person in that situation?

    Consciousness: “It’s not aware of anything, how can it be a person?” The first problem is how we determine when a child first becomes conscious. When it first starts kicking? But it could have been conscious before that and not acted. The second is that if we use consciousness to determine ‘personhood’, does that mean I am less of a person when I am asleep? What of those in comas, should they be given fewer rights?

    Development: “Only a nut would think of a bunch of cells as a person.” This suffers from similar problems to using size as our ‘personhood’ metric. Why give the child the right to life at birth? Why not five years later? What about those people who never properly develop, or grow malformed? Should they be given a lower status, on the basis of having less ‘personhood’?

    Brain Activity: “We use brain activity to determine the end of life, so why shouldn’t we use it to determine the beginning?” The cases, however, are not really comparable. The fetus is capable of developing to a state where brain activity is measurable, if allowed to. A more accurate comparasin would be to someone with a temporally flat EEG. Let us say that at some stage in the future some poor indivdual has an accident and is sent to hospital but is found to be in a coma with no measurable brain activity. Let’s suppose these doctors, however, are familiar with this condition, and know that he will recover in time, even though he will have to remain on life support for nine months and will require a lot of care when he awakes because he will have to relearn how to walk, talk, and even feed himself. Would denying him life support, knowing that he could recover, be murder? How is his condition different from that of the unborn child? Some euthenasia advocates might say he should be allowed to die, but I think they would have a hard time arguing that anyone else (even his mother) should be allowed to make the choice for him.

    BTW, it’s intersting how many of the pro-choice arguments blur into pro-eugenics arguments.

    Can’t think of any more ‘personhood’ measuring sticks at the moment. Tell me if you think I’ve missed any.

  34. 34
    DaveScot says:

    A person is a person when, in the normal course of events, he/she is identifiable as a unique human being (unfertilized gametes need not apply) and when he/she has or can be reasonably presumed to have in the future the ability to reason, be self-conscious, and continue to have a unique identity. In other words, a human’s future, if it has a reasonable chance of a future, should not be taken away.

    In this definition a brain-dead person is no longer a person nor is a person in a coma from which there is statistically little chance of ever waking. Newborns are also protected. Unless we add further arbitrary considerations as to age since conception this covers all humans from the beginning of their life which is of course the moment of conception. Adding arbitrary additional considerations is purely and solely in order to provide the opportunity for care-free, responsibility-free vaginal intercourse. I cannot approve trading in death for care-free sex and will continue to vote accordingly and support the appointments of federal judges that will acknowledge the right of the American people to establish laws that reflect their moral values.

  35. 35
    tribune7 says:

    Ellen Goodman, an editorial writer, very recently wrote an editorial in which she lamented the horror that the new “morning-after pill” would become available with strings attached; namely that women 18 and under would need parental consent to use it. To this mild restriction she responded ‘now we are sending our young women the message that motherhood is their punishment for enjoying sex.’ Help.

    It’s a pity nobody relived Ms. Goodman’ angst by pointing out that their 18-year-old and up boyfriends could buy the pill for them. (I think 18 years olds girls or boys can buy the pill)

  36. 36
    tribune7 says:

    In our society, we agree that nineteen-year-olds have the right to drive

    Nobody in our society has a right ot drive. It’s considered a “privilege”. If you don’t pass your test you can’t get a license.

  37. 37
    mike1962 says:

    DaveScot: “Now, as a thought exercise, I want the baby killers (no inflammatory language there, right? 😉 ) out there to count backward minute by minute from birth to conception and tell me exactly where and why (logically & scientifically) the human in question should lose its legal right to life.”

    How at the point where brainwaves begin? At about 40 days as I recall.

  38. 38
    tinabrewer says:

    I think what is not being taken into account here are the metaphysical consequences of intent. We are responsible not only for our acts, but for our thoughts and deepest inner urges as well. All of this haggling over the definition of personhood obscures the fact that a woman should view her capacity to bring forth new life as a profound responsibility. The very costliness of this responsibility is why, in a natural state, human beings are gifted with a sense of modesty. It protects from the potentially disastrous consequences of pursuing sex for pleasure alone, unhinged from the demands of the should-be-leading spirit: namely genuine love.

    Karl: your example about heart-disease is just stupid, and reveals the depth to which some are willing to sink to repudiate responsibility for life: helping someone with heart disease is a LIFE-AFFIRMING act, an act of love and help. I have no interest in making arguments that a zygote is a full-fledged human being. THe real humanity of the human is contained in the spirit. Who knows when the spirit joins the body, or for that matter when it leaves again at death? However, I have a great interest in the progressive brutalization of humanity under the influence of the dark urge for irresponsible pleasure. Karl, I dare you to make the argument to me that humanity in general, and femininity in particular, is in any way elevated or helped by having unlimited access to abortion. To be completely honest, the politics of it is uninteresting to me. I think you could have it entirely legal, and in a good society, it would (almost) never happen. Most people make reasonable exception for the unique circumstances in which the mother’s life is threatened or in which the free will of one party is absent (rape, incest). If this were truly the use made of abortion, we wouldn’t have a controversy.

  39. 39
    David Bergan says:

    Now, as a thought exercise, I want the baby killers (no inflammatory language there, right? 😉 ) out there to count backward minute by minute from birth to conception and tell me exactly where and why (logically & scientifically) the human in question should lose its legal right to life. –DaveScot

    This is a great example of the fallacy of the continuum. Compare: “100 degrees Fahrenheit is a hot day. Count downward by subtracting only 1 degree Farenheight, and tell me exactly where and why (logically & scientifically) the day is no longer hot.”

    There is a necessity to make arbitrary cut-offs in laws. The minute you turn 16 years old doesn’t mean that you suddenly sprouted the maturity to drive a car… but in order to keep immature drivers off the road, you have to set a legal driving age.

    Personally, I am 100% anti-casual-abortions, but the reason is not because of arbitrary definitions of “human life” and how that applies to a mass of cells in the womb. I am 100% anti-casual-abortions because casual abortions are irresponsible behavior and laws are enacted to ensure people act responsibly. This is the prima facie case against abortion… you don’t have to get into the spiderweb of trying to define human life, or handcuff yourself to a certain policy on stem-cells. When my senator (then Democratic Senate minority leader… probably the highest-ranking pro-choice politician on the planet at the time) Tom Daschle came to town a few years back, I even had him agree with me that casual abortions are irresponsible. Of course he wasn’t willing to change his political stance, but he recognized that it’s an air-tight case… and dismissed himself from our conversation as quickly as possible. (He turned away and his bodyguard stepped in between us.)

  40. 40
    DaveScot says:

    David Bergan

    Okay, I’ll concede to the continuum fallacy. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that we must somehow define stark cutoff points in order to form a law governing abortion. Start off at any point in the life cycle of a human where you consider said human has a right to life (explain your chosen point not in legal terms but logically, scientifically, and/or philosophically) and take steps as large as you like backwards in time to a point where there is no right to life and explain that point in the same manner.

    The object isn’t to box you into a minute by minute account but rather to force you to define where there should be a right to life and where there is not in a manner that makes sense. The consequence of your decision is that a living, growing human being who will, if nature is allowed to take its natural course, be deprived of an average of 75 years of living, laughing, crying, loving, learning, having children and grandchildren, all those things and more – you must justify taking all that away and giving the unobstructed right to take it all away to a single individual.

    Mike1962

    Why when brainwaves begin? Has the potential for a living a full life become significantly enhanced at that point and if so by how much is it enhanced? Or is it merely that there won’t be any physical pain inflicted? If the capacity to feel pain is the defining point we can certainly use modern medicine to painlessly destroy a human at any point in its life cycle. There won’t even be any emotional distress so long as the act is done without the recipient having any foreknowledge of what’s going to happen. Please elaborate.

    Carlos

    We don’t allow 5 year olds to vote but we don’t take away their potential to vote in the future when and if they meet the legal criteria. Similarly, while all persons born in the U.S. will not in fact become presidents, they all have the potential and we give them all the right to succeed or fail at realizing that potential. We don’t know ahead of time who will and who won’t so fair play demands they all get a chance to try. I don’t believe in equality of outcome but I do believe in equality of opportunity.

  41. 41
    Charlie says:

    Only peripherally-related, but an interesting ingredient nonetheless:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/story/0,,1867596,00.html

    A 23-year-old woman who has been in a vegetative state since suffering devastating brain damage in a traffic accident has stunned doctors by performing mental tasks for them. Brain scans revealed that the woman, who has shown no outward signs of awareness since the accident in July last year, could understand people talking to her and was able to imagine playing tennis or walking around her home when asked to by doctors.


    Although she had emerged from a coma, she was diagnosed as being in a vegetative state, in which patients enter a cycle of sleeping and waking and even open their eyes, but are completely unresponsive.

    Persistent vegetative state was first described in 1972 by Scottish and American neurologists and only came to medical attention because of extraordinary advances in keeping severely brain-damaged patients alive for longer.

    Neurologically, the condition is a slight improvement on a coma. Patients diagnosed as PVS show no signs of consciousness or awareness, but unlike those in a coma, have periods of sleep and wakefulness and periodically open their eyes.

  42. 42
    Carlos says:

    An embryo is not a possible person. An embryo is a virtual person. The distinction between possibility and virtuality was first made by Henri Bergson, developed significantly by Gilles Deleuze, and my use of it here is based on Manuel De Landa.

    Possibility refers to a fully-formed individual which is non-actual. (Consider Quine’s question from his essay “On What There Is”: how many possible men are standing in the doorway? One? Three? Nineteen?)
    DaveScot wrote:

    a living, growing human being who will, if nature is allowed to take its natural course, be deprived of an average of 75 years of living, laughing, crying, loving, learning, having children and grandchildren, all those things and more – you must justify taking all that away and giving the unobstructed right to take it all away to a single individual.

    In this example, we’re supposed to treat this single individual as somehow already existing — but only as a possibility. Developement is then a process of realization, of making the possible into the real.

    This is the point at which the pro-choicer retorts, “ho do you know that the person you’re preventing from coming into existence isn’t a sadistic psychopath?”

    Possibility, to repeat, concerns well-defined, determinate individuals or structures which simply lack existence. Virtuality, on the other hand, concerns an absence of determination, undifferentiated. The differentiated structures that makes us unique simply do not yet exist.

    “Potential” here can now be cashed out as the capacity to assume many different determinations. Which determination is actualized depends on genetic, epigenetic, and environmental factors during gestation, and on all those plus family life, socio-economic status, etc. during early childhood.

    Distinguishing between possibility and virtuality won’t solve all the problems with the metaphysics of potential, but it’s a good start.

    And just in case anyone here is curious about my personal views: In an ideal world, every pregnancy is intended and results in a child who will be loved. But in the absence of that ideal, I think that abortion can be a necessary evil. Although it is an evil, I can be a lesser evil than bringing up an unwanted child or throwing it into the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of child care and adoption agencies. In any event, I do not think that it’s up to the law to weigh the relevant evils and decide which is the lesser. There aren’t many issues where my libertarian side comes out — but sex, drugs, and guns are the big ones.

    On the other hand, I support complete reproductive freedom — what consenting adults decide to do on a rainy day should be entirely up to them, as is the decision whether or not to reproduce, and if so, when, how many, etc.

    I think, or would like to think, that pro-choicers and pro-lifers can agree that the ideal world is one in which every pregnancy is intended and results in a child who will be loved. That said, the rest is all about strategy: how do we get from here to there?

    The problem is that most pro-choicers think that support of reproductive freedom requires them to support abortion on demand, and that most pro-lifers think that opposing abortion means opposing sex education, contraceptives, etc.

  43. 43
    Carlos says:

    41. The interesting ethical question is, could she indicate to the doctors whether or not she wanted to live?

  44. 44
    tinabrewer says:

    I’m not willing to concede the continuum fallacy. While it is true that in certain instances we must make arbitrary divisions within a continuum, does it follow that we must do this for all continuums? (I have no idea how to make continuum plural.) Certainly continuum phenomena exist, and the life of a human being is one of these. It is not necessary to do the “go backwards a minute at a time” game in order to see the point it is correctly demonstrating, namely that there IS no one given point at which the thing in question (in this case personhood) magically pops into being, AND SO THEREFORE, in the interests of making certain we do no harm, we refuse to make an artificial division on this continuum. It is also not analogous to the driver’s liscence example, because we don’t just go “okay, you are 16. You are mature enough to drive now.” We pick 16 as the earliest legal point at which someone who has taken the necessary prerequisite educational steps may begin driving. Actually, it seems to me that perhaps those who argue FOR such arbitrary designations are guilty of a continuum fallacy of their own. Lets designate it the “there is nothing sacred about a continuum fallacy”. It might not make the books, but oh well.

  45. 45
    Charlie says:

    Tina:

    Actually, it seems to me that perhaps those who argue FOR such arbitrary designations are guilty of a continuum fallacy of their own.

    I agree with this statement.
    So much so, in fact, that I find it impossible, from the discussion of arbitrary divisions of the continuum, to tell which side of the debate those mentioning it were trying to support.

  46. 46
    Carlos says:

    I’m not really interested in trying to support either side. Above, I was asked (in 16are moral patients, full stop, because they behave as other moral patients behave.

    On the other hand, once we get into the first two months or so, we’re back in potentiality-land, and things once again get murky. For example:

    While it is true that in certain instances we must make arbitrary divisions within a continuum, does it follow that we must do this for all continuums? (I have no idea how to make continuum plural.) Certainly continuum phenomena exist, and the life of a human being is one of these.

    If the life of a human being is one, then so is the life of a tree. Does it follow that we should not distinguish between acorns and oaks? Now, you might want to resist the analogy between humans and trees, but you can’t — because you put life on the table as the ethically salient criterion, and trees are just as alive as humans are.

    By the way, the technically correct plural of “continuum” is “continua,” although “continuums” has entered common usage.

  47. 47
    Carlos says:

    Could a system admin please erase my (45)? I didn’t enter the HTML right and it got garbled. I’ll repost when it’s gone. Thanks!

  48. 48
    kvwells says:

    Let’s reformulate the question?

    How old should a child be before the mother is allowed to kill it?

    Now replace the technical jargon and see if it invalidates the meaning of any of the terms in the above question.

    I agree with Davescott and tinabrewer et al. The subject and object of the act are the thing. But with materialist philosophy holding sway, where is the concept of intrinsic value in the courts?

  49. 49
    tinabrewer says:

    Carlos: I don’t dispute the tree analogy at all. in fact it is a perfect example. I would say that an acorn is an early stage in the unfoldment of an oak tree. How this relates to the question of abortion eludes me. I never intended to place the broad category “life” on the table in the sense that “because all of life is a developmental continuum, we can never end any form of life ever at any stage” I tried to make this clear by my example “whenever I walk across the grass I take life”. What we are discussing here is a much narrower ethical problem, namely the taking of a HUMAN life. Creatures die in the natural course of events, by accident or disease or whatever. But of course creatures also strive to live. The human zygote/embryo/fetus strives to live. The mother must make accomodation for this striving, and this accomodation is risky and expensive. That is why all of the weight and force of restrictions around the fetal life should (and really quite easily could) come into play in the time BEFORE conception takes place. If humans would focus a fraction of the energy they waste arguing about their rights on taking responsibility for their sexual behavior, this whole raging debate would end with a whimper overnight. But of course they won’t.

  50. 50
    David Bergan says:

    Okay, I’ll concede to the continuum fallacy. But that doesn’t eliminate the fact that we must somehow define stark cutoff points in order to form a law governing abortion. Start off at any point in the life cycle of a human where you consider said human has a right to life (explain your chosen point not in legal terms but logically, scientifically, and/or philosophically) and take steps as large as you like backwards in time to a point where there is no right to life and explain that point in the same manner.

    The object isn’t to box you into a minute by minute account but rather to force you to define where there should be a right to life and where there is not in a manner that makes sense. The consequence of your decision is that a living, growing human being who will, if nature is allowed to take its natural course, be deprived of an average of 75 years of living, laughing, crying, loving, learning, having children and grandchildren, all those things and more – you must justify taking all that away and giving the unobstructed right to take it all away to a single individual. –DaveScot

    I want to iterate that I, like you, am against casual abortions (ie abortions that don’t involve rape, incest, or the life of the mother). But I don’t think that the reasoning is legit to try to declare a fetus at the point of conception a full-fledged human, just because it has the capability of becoming a human. First of all I don’t really think that a collection of cells with human DNA is necessarily a human in the sense that you and I are. Yes, it has the potential for becoming human, but that doesn’t mean it is human five minutes after conception. We all know that not only does the egg have to be fertilized, but also cling to the wall of the womb… and receive proper nutrition, and not be subject to violent blows to the mother’s subject, and not be born prematurely, etc. All these things have to happen in order for this mass of cells to achieve status as an independent human being… it’s not just act of sex.

    And even as a baby, he won’t become a full independent human being, without his parents food, love, protection, etc. So it’s not like the child is conceived and then inexorably continues on to humanhood. There are so many other things that can stop the process, that conception is but one small part among many. Moreover, why stop this reasoning at conception? Why not argue that the sperm and eggs are “potential human beings” and therefore deserve full human rights status? They have individual DNA, and under the right conditions (sex, turkey baster, or in vitro fertilization) will become a baby… just like the fetus has individual DNA, and under the right conditions will become a baby.

    So why invest in such a sloppy case, when there is a very clear prima facie argument that can be made if you make the issue responsibility rather than life? Sex has consequences… one of which is procreation. To engage in sex and damn the consequences is selfish irresponsibility… no one will argue against that. It’s like buying a dog and then thinking that you don’t have to clean up its poop. Law after law after law is passed to ensure responsibility in citizens… if people just started seeing abortion along this line, it could be a law within 5 years. But instead pro-lifers stay with the dubious, arbitrary claim that a fetus is a human… and a sharp opponent will make a fool of them within 2 minutes.

    I’m not willing to concede the continuum fallacy. While it is true that in certain instances we must make arbitrary divisions within a continuum, does it follow that we must do this for all continuums? (I have no idea how to make continuum plural.) Certainly continuum phenomena exist, and the life of a human being is one of these. It is not necessary to do the “go backwards a minute at a time” game in order to see the point it is correctly demonstrating, namely that there IS no one given point at which the thing in question (in this case personhood) magically pops into being, AND SO THEREFORE, in the interests of making certain we do no harm, we refuse to make an artificial division on this continuum. It is also not analogous to the driver’s liscence example, because we don’t just go “okay, you are 16. You are mature enough to drive now.” We pick 16 as the earliest legal point at which someone who has taken the necessary prerequisite educational steps may begin driving. Actually, it seems to me that perhaps those who argue FOR such arbitrary designations are guilty of a continuum fallacy of their own. Lets designate it the “there is nothing sacred about a continuum fallacy”. It might not make the books, but oh well. –tinabrewer

    Personally, I believe in the ancient definition of human as being an animal with a highly complex soul. So, along those lines the point of humanness is the point when the soul enters the body. And what point is that? Good question… could be conception, could be the first heartbeat, first brain activity, or the borning cry. I don’t think that the earliest form of the fetus has a soul… think of all those fertilized eggs that get flushed down the toilet because they don’t cling to the wall. And I faintly recall some ancient super-philosopher like Augustine, Aquinas, or Boethius saying that the “quickening” of the soul to the body was after like 5 weeks (which wouldn’t be that far from the first heartbeat).

    My whole point is that this is a messy debate… and since the link between casual abortions and irresponsibilty is undeniable, why not unite under that banner?

    If the life of a human being is one, then so is the life of a tree. Does it follow that we should not distinguish between acorns and oaks? Now, you might want to resist the analogy between humans and trees, but you can’t — because you put life on the table as the ethically salient criterion, and trees are just as alive as humans are. –Carlos

    Yup. This is exactly why I think the “When is it a human? I don’t know, so we better make it conception!” argument isn’t getting anywhere.

    Kind regards,
    David

  51. 51
    Carlos says:

    Here’s what didn’t get posted correctly from my previous:

    I’m not really interested in trying to support either side. Above, I was asked (in 16) what would a rational, pro-life argument look like, by my lights.

    I responded by drawing on the distinction between moral agents and moral patients, and saying that even though fetuses are not moral agents — i.e. they are not persons — that really doesn’t matter, because they are nevertheless moral patients, and that’s enough to justify that they have moral status. If babies have rights, and animals have rights, then so do fetuses.

    One thing I like about this argument is that it sidesteps the problems with potential, to some degree. Fetuses are not “potential moral patients” — they are moral patients, full stop, because they behave as other moral patients behave.

    On the other hand, once we get into the first two months or so, we’re back in potentiality-land, and things once again get murky, as I’ve tried — apparently without success — to show.

  52. 52
    tinabrewer says:

    David Bergan: I think we essentially agree, except that I am personally uninterested in the politics of the question, and interested only in the moral/spiritual side and its attendant consequences. From this perspective, I am willing to make a case for something even if it is politically “messy” because I think it is true. Politics is a blunt instrument, and not really much of a vehicle for truth of a more rarified type!

    Also, I think you misjudge when you say that “to engage in sex and damn the consequences is selfish irresponsibility…no one will argue against that.” In an earlier comment, I paraphrased a prominent editorial writer, Ellen Goodman (lordie I hope I got her name right!) Her attitude, that placing even modest restrictions on teenagers’ ability to get the ‘morning after pill’ was, in essence, “sending them the message that motherhood is their PUNISHMENT FOR ENJOYING SEX” (emphasis mine) hardly sounds like someone who wouldn’t argue against irresponsible sex. What she does is just call getting an abortion an act of personal responsibility. So she would say something like “if I have sex and get pregnant against my wishes then I will do the responsible thing and get an abortion.” I don’t think her views are extremist, by the way, and the group for whom she speaks isn’t about to jump into the responsibility tent.

  53. 53
    Karl Pfluger says:

    tinabrewer wrote:

    It is a frank rebellion against this clear natural law to desire a world in which cause and effect become unhinged from one another.

    I responded:

    Is it “rebellion” to desire a world where heart failure is “unhinged” from death, via defibrillators? Or where famine is “unhinged” from widespread starvation by the shipment of food on airplanes?

    Tina shot back:

    Karl: your example about heart-disease is just stupid, and reveals the depth to which some are willing to sink to repudiate responsibility for life: helping someone with heart disease is a LIFE-AFFIRMING act, an act of love and help.

    Precisely. So the “unhinging” of effect from cause is not inherently negative, contrary to your initial claim.

    In any case, this whole concept of the “unhinging of cause and effect” seems incoherent to me. Our actions do not suspend the laws of cause and effect. Suppose woman A has an abortion. The effect is an aborted pregnancy, and the cause is her decision to have the abortion. Now suppose woman B considers an abortion, but decides to give birth in the end. The effect is a living baby, and the cause is her decision not to have an abortion. Cause and effect are operating in both cases. There is no “unhinging” going on here.

  54. 54
    Karl Pfluger says:

    tinabrewer wrote:

    Certainly continuum phenomena exist, and the life of a human being is one of these. It is not necessary to do the “go backwards a minute at a time” game in order to see the point it is correctly demonstrating, namely that there IS no one given point at which the thing in question (in this case personhood) magically pops into being, AND SO THEREFORE, in the interests of making certain we do no harm, we refuse to make an artificial division on this continuum.

    Tina,

    The problem is that the continuum doesn’t end with the fertilized egg. As I pointed out earlier, it includes the point where the gametes are touching, but fertilization has not taken place. It includes the point where the gametes are an inch apart. It even includes the point where the gametes are in separate bodies.

    If you insist on treating every point on the continuum as if it represented a living human being, then all of the following would be immoral:

    1. abortion
    2. contraception of all kinds
    3. family planning
    4. abstinence

    Indeed, we would have to seize every opportunity for procreation, because otherwise we would be taking the life of a human. Married men, having impregnated their wives, would be obligated to impregnate as many single women as possible. Sure, they’d be committing adultery, but isn’t that a lesser evil than depriving other humans of life?

    Ridiculous? Of course it is. But what got us here was the error of treating each point on the continuum as being morally equivalent. They aren’t.

  55. 55
    tinabrewer says:

    Karl: I apologize for using the word stupid for your example. I think if you go deeply into the idea of “cause-effect” in the sense of RESPONSIBILITY FOR ONE’S ACTIONS, which is the sense in which I intended it, you will recognize that there is a great difference between mundane cause-effect relationships, such as kicking a ball and causing it to fly across the room, and responsibility-laden cause-effect relationships, such as kicking a ball, causing it to fly across the room and smash someone in the face! When I lament the desire of people to live “unhinged from consequences” I am referring to this type of thinking which is utterly pervasive in our society, namely that “I will not be held responsible or accountable for the effects which follow from my free-willing acts”. With regard to pregnancy, it seems clear to me that even moderately knowledgeable adults could make the causal connection between sexual activity and the resultant pregnancy and say to themselves “You know, we are really not in a position to be responsible for a new human life. THerefore, we should abstain from sex, or make DARN sure we use a virtually fail-safe form of birth-control. Furthermore, we should really only engage in sex if we are prepared to embrace the potential result of birth-control failure in a LIFE-AFFIRMING MANNER” This is, incidentally, not a high standard of behavior. It says nothing about love or caring or any kind of higher standard of treatment for the resulting child. It governs only the material sexual behavior of the consenting adults, AND YET even this very low standard would eliminate the problem of abortion completely.

    Also, I think you overextend the continuum idea in order to make what I am saying seem ridiculous. If you are doing this because I rudely called your argument stupid, then I apologize again. Human sperm and human ova die all of the time without anyone having any kind of moral concern about it. This is because of a simple and nearly universal recognition: moral right and wrong is about the human capacity to exercise free-will in making choices. We choose to have sex-which can lead to the responsibility for new life. We choose to have abortions-which is a way of disposing of potential life in order to avoid the consequences of a previous free-will choice. Contraception doesn’t violate an inexorable continuum because we know that the overwhelming majority of sperm and eggs die anyway, and furthermore that until the two gametes are joined into one, they are not, individually, potential human beings. They need to join one another, and at this point, a new continuum (lets call him Karl) is initiated.

  56. 56
    David Bergan says:

    With regard to pregnancy, it seems clear to me that even moderately knowledgeable adults could make the causal connection between sexual activity and the resultant pregnancy and say to themselves “You know, we are really not in a position to be responsible for a new human life. THerefore, we should abstain from sex, or make DARN sure we use a virtually fail-safe form of birth-control. –tinabrewer

    This is exactly the responsibility position I am advocating. I couldn’t have said it better.

    Also, I think you misjudge when you say that “to engage in sex and damn the consequences is selfish irresponsibility…no one will argue against that.” In an earlier comment, I paraphrased a prominent editorial writer, Ellen Goodman (lordie I hope I got her name right!) Her attitude, that placing even modest restrictions on teenagers’ ability to get the ‘morning after pill’ was, in essence, “sending them the message that motherhood is their PUNISHMENT FOR ENJOYING SEX” (emphasis mine) hardly sounds like someone who wouldn’t argue against irresponsible sex. What she does is just call getting an abortion an act of personal responsibility. So she would say something like “if I have sex and get pregnant against my wishes then I will do the responsible thing and get an abortion.” I don’t think her views are extremist, by the way, and the group for whom she speaks isn’t about to jump into the responsibility tent.

    CS Lewis had said something about the 3 different ways that creatures can be attached to each other: (A) maternal (B) parasitic, and (C) symbiotic… and how it would be a rotten day when women started viewing their offspring as parasites rather than children.

    You’re right that the responsibility position isn’t 100%… but it’s a lot closer than the life-begins-at-conception arguments.

    Also, I think you overextend the continuum idea in order to make what I am saying seem ridiculous. –tinabrewer

    This remark was intended for Karl, but I also “overextended” the continuum in post 50. Our suggestion is that declaring conception as the point of human-ness is just as arbitrary as declaring the first heartbeat or first brainwaves, or the borning cry. There is potential in the individual sperm and eggs, just as there is potential in the zygote… and at neither step do we have something definitively human.

  57. 57
    Karl Pfluger says:

    tinabrewer:

    Also, I think you overextend the continuum idea in order to make what I am saying seem ridiculous.
    Tina,
    I don’t think that what you’re saying is ridiculous. I do believe that the reasoning behind what you’re saying, when applied consistently, leads to results we both would agree are ridiculous.

    If you are doing this because I rudely called your argument stupid, then I apologize again.

    Not to worry. If I were that thin-skinned, I would have abandoned UD long ago.

    Human sperm and human ova die all of the time without anyone having any kind of moral concern about it.

    True. And thus it seems ridiculous to argue that if a sperm and ovum die just before they touch, it’s no big deal, but if they die after the sperm has penetrated the ovum, it’s a human tragedy.

    …we know that the overwhelming majority of sperm and eggs die anyway, and furthermore that until the two gametes are joined into one, they are not, individually, potential human beings.

    Collectively, they are a potential human being. This is true both before and after fertilization. Kill a fertilized egg, and you’ve prevented a potential human from developing. Kill the sperm and ovum just before fertilization, and you’ve prevented that very same potential human from developing.

    It just makes no sense to draw the line at conception, or at any other fixed point on the continuum.

  58. 58
    tinabrewer says:

    Karl: It makes sense because the event of conception is directly preceeded by a taboo-laden and physiologically/emotionally extraordinary event, namely sexual intercourse, a free-willing act.

  59. 59
    Karl Pfluger says:

    Tina,

    Sperm typically survive for 2 to 3 days in the female genital tract, and ova for 12 to 24 hours. Conception commonly happens 0 to 3 days after intercourse (and in exceptional cases, as late as 5 days).

  60. 60
    tinabrewer says:

    Karl: you write that it “makes no sense to draw the line at conception, or at any other fixed point on the continuum”. I am trying to argue essentially the same thing, but from a life-affirming perspective. I am against drawing lines within the continuum of pregnancy. You still have not really expressed clearly why the free-willing act of procreation followed by conception is not a unique and practical demarcation point for responsibility. It seems obvious to me. No sex, no pregnancy. Sex, possible pregnancy. How is it in your mind that this is not an obvious place to start a new, quite natural demarcation? Especially in view of the fact that abortion is hardly a neutral birth-control device, being an invasive operation with serious potential effects on the body.

  61. 61
    David Bergan says:

    No sex, no pregnancy. Sex, possible pregnancy. –tinabrewer

    True, but that’s not the only variable. No blows to the stomach, no miscarriage. Blows to the stomach, possible miscarriage. No alcohol/alcohol. etc There are other free-will acts along the way.

    What doesn’t make sense to me is that your position seems to be that a fertilized egg is 100% human just because you want to be safe and not declare any in-between point as the point of acquiring human-ness. But if you put a fertilized egg up next to a 3 year old boy, there is a world of difference… and it seems pretty obvious (to me anyway) that the former isn’t a human, yet. Potentially human, sure. And the 3-year old boy is also a potential driver… but that doesn’t mean he gets the keys.

  62. 62
    tinabrewer says:

    David: I am not in any way saying that PHYSICALLY there isn’t a world of difference between a zygote and a three-year old child. Of course there is, and one is obviously a fully-fledged human, where the other is at such a rudimentary stage in development that it cannot have humanness in any realistic way. As I have said above (comment #38) in my view the real humanity of a person resides in the spirit or soul, or whatever you wish to call this. However, in my view, and I grant that it is a metaphysical view (which is why I am apolitical on this issue, I don’t really care which way the laws go, only the ‘higher’ law) the universe records with precision every free-will act, which the actor/actress is then bound to the consequences of. This intrinsic mechanism of justice in the universe is sometimes called karma. It seems to me that sex is a lifegiving act intrinsically, and as such our free engagement in this activity should be associated only with life-giving/affirming intent. This doesn’t mean that we always hope a child will come from every act of sex, but that at a minimum we are psychically and materially prepared to accept a new life should it come even in spite of our best and most careful efforts at contraception. If we cannot achieve this psychic and material state, then we should simply abstain from sex which includes intercourse. As I pointed out, this is a very low moral standard, really. Its really not even a moral standard, per se, but a materially practical one. It should be simple for our society to achieve this standard in modern times as a result of the cheap and ready availability of highly effective birth control. And yet, we are not even approaching this very low standard for one simple reason: people refuse to suffer constraints on the gratification of their appetites. Even the constraint of putting on a condom is often spoken of as if it were some devastating imposition. This speaks very poorly for our humanity in general, since a willingness to suffer constraints on the gratification of appetites is, in my opinion, a mark of spiritual maturity, and I’m NOT talking about aceticism here. Its funny because my entire worldview is spiritual, and yet I read the most rock-solid pro-life argument made by a woman from a strictly materialist perspective. I will now try to find that on the net and point y’all in her direction for a finish to this “dust-up”.

  63. 63
    Karl Pfluger says:

    Hi Tina,

    I agree with David’s comments, but I also want to add a couple of points.

    You wrote:
    “You still have not really expressed clearly why the free-willing act of procreation followed by conception is not a unique and practical demarcation point for responsibility. It seems obvious to me. No sex, no pregnancy. Sex, possible pregnancy. How is it in your mind that this is not an obvious place to start a new, quite natural demarcation?”

    You seem to be conflating two different points in time: the time of the sex act, which is when the partners assume responsibility for the potential pregnancy, and the time of conception, which is when you think human life truly begins. As I indicated in my previous comment, there may be two to three days between these events, so they can hardly be regarded as a “unique and practical demarcation point”.

    To cast this in sharper relief, consider the following thought experiment. Assume that through a quirk of human biology, fertilization and conception do not happen for a year after intercourse.

    Now you have two choices: a) assert that human life begins when the associated assumption of responsibility happens (i.e. during the sex act), or b) continue to assert that human life begins at conception.

    The first choice would put you in the awkward position of arguing that a separate sperm and ovum constitute a human life. It would also imply that any method of birth control applied prior to sex is moral, but anything done afterwards to prevent conception is not, since the responsibility has been assumed by that time. Post-coital contraception would amount to an “unhinging of cause and effect”, in your words, and a “rebellion against natural law”.

    On the other hand, if human life begins at conception, we now have an entire year elapsing between the assumption of responsibility (via sex) and the beginning of human life (via conception). Two widely separated points, not one.

    The upshot: The assumption of responsibility and the beginning of human life are separate events, and therefore do not constitute a suitable single point of demarcation on the continuum.

    Here’s an even better thought experiment. Imagine that I travel to a distant habitable planet. With me, I bring a supply of frozen sperm and eggs, and an incubation machine that will preserve them for a predetermined period of time, then thaw them, mix them, incubate any resulting embryos, and then raise the children until they are old enough to take care of themselves.

    I leave the machine on the planet, programmed to begin incubation in 100 years. By leaving the machine, I am clearly responsible for the lives that it will eventually produce. It would be immoral for me to leave the machine on a planet, for example, where there was no food available for the children to eat after the machine stopped taking care of them.

    In leaving the machine, I assume responsibility for the children’s lives, yet fertilization and incubation will not happen for another hundred years, by which time I will probably be dead. Two distinct points in time, separated by a hundred years. Not a unique point of demarcation.

  64. 64
    David Bergan says:

    David: I am not in any way saying that PHYSICALLY there isn’t a world of difference between a zygote and a three-year old child. Of course there is, and one is obviously a fully-fledged human, where the other is at such a rudimentary stage in development that it cannot have humanness in any realistic way. As I have said above (comment #38) in my view the real humanity of a person resides in the spirit or soul, or whatever you wish to call this. However, in my view, and I grant that it is a metaphysical view (which is why I am apolitical on this issue, I don’t really care which way the laws go, only the ‘higher’ law) the universe records with precision every free-will act, which the actor/actress is then bound to the consequences of. This intrinsic mechanism of justice in the universe is sometimes called karma. It seems to me that sex is a lifegiving act intrinsically, and as such our free engagement in this activity should be associated only with life-giving/affirming intent. –tinabrewer

    I agree completely. This is exactly the same kind of thing I say when I’m advocating my responsibility position: having the privilege of sex without accepting the consequence of a (possible) pregnancy is irresponsible. Thus, casual abortions are irresponsible. And that’s that. I see no need to say anything whatsoever about when the unborn child achieves the status of personhood. Irresponsible behavior is immoral, and casual abortions are irresponsible behavior. Case closed. That goes for both earthly and Heavenly laws.

    It’s a somewhat interesting discussion for a late night with a couple of beers to try to decide when the fetus becomes a human… and you and I seem to agree that that point is when the soul is quickened to the body. We can guess at the first heartbeat, first brainwaves, etc, but I’m pretty sure that the issue could not be solved conclusively. So, I view it as a non-issue and don’t see any good in mentioning it when I’m talking about the morality of abortion.

    Good thought experiment Karl. To me, the couple assumes responsibility for the (potential) pregnancy at the time they decide to get nasty. If you set a disarm-proof time bomb you assume responsibility at the time you set it, not the time it goes off.

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