Sunday, September 10, 2006

Religion and Philosophy in Pro-Life Arguments

[By Jeremy Pierce]

John of Skeptic's Heaven said something in a comment on my Moral Pollution post that I thought deserved its own post in response, since it was really irrelevant to the post he was commenting on. What was irrelevant to the post but an important and common claim that I think ought to be addressed was the following:

I don't feel that embryos are "persons" at all, in fact the only reasons I've seen to be against stem-cell research are religious ones. I admit, I haven't comprehensively studied the issue, but from what I have read, that seems to be the case.


You don't need to know much of the abortion literature to know that this is wrong. All you need to do is pick up any of a number of standard applied ethics anthologies to know the most common argument for embryonic personhood. Most of them contain John Noonan's paper defending the traditional pro-life view, and that is indeed a philosophical argument, no matter how bad you might think the argument is.

The first premise is that a newborn is a person and has full moral status. The second premise is that personhood or the kind of moral status persons have is not the sort of thing that can admit of vagueness. But then there's no good place to draw a line between embryos and newborns that is not vague, and thus embryos must have the same moral status as newborns. You may disagree with the argument, and there are all sorts of ways to do so (but none that I know of that aren't question-begging). Even so, I don't know how anyone can deny that it's a philosophical argument.

I know lots of pro-life people who aren't exactly the philosophical type, and pretty much all of them will put forth something like this when questioned about why they think an embryo has full human rights, though they will do it without the philosophical sophistication of John Noonan's version (or especially of any more argument one that would be necessary given the literature that came after Noonan's). If anyone is going to stick with quoting scripture, it would be these largely unphilosophical people, and yet they're well aware of the philosophical argument that stands behind most versions of the pro-life view. I don't see anything in the argument that quotes scripture or gives a dictate from a religious authority of any other sort. [For a more detailed presentation of my own view on what I think the arguments on both sides can establish (or at least what I thought two years ago, since I may have changed a little on some points), you can see this post.]

I don't mean to suggest that religion can't provide anything that might help flesh out a pro-life view. I think the opposite is true, actually. I think religion can provide an account of exactly what the difference between humans and other animals are, a difference that gives humans what might be called deontological rights and animals what utilitarians might call rights (i.e. trumpable or rule-of-thumb rights). I explore that here, but I don't think my account of that is by any means the dominant one. It's just the one that makes the most sense to me consistent with what I do think reason can tell us and what I think the Christian scriptures teach. But I don't consider this to be an argument for the pro-life view, just an account of how to make sense of one of its views.

[cross-posted at Parableman]

24 comments:

  1. I disagree. I don't think that an argument needs to use the word God within it to qualify as a religious argument. As long as it can only stand on a religious basis, it is a religious argument.

    Look at the premises you have set out: That a newborn is a person with full moral status is an article of faith that can only be justified either by resort to God or by drawing personhood law enough that some animals will be included.

    More damningly, the second premise that personhood cannot be vague explicitly rejects the idea of personhood according to faculties (because faculties undoubtedly do exist on a 'vague' gradient scale). Without that, we are left with two options. Either potential for full human faculties is the determining factor (but potentiality never seems to be consistently applied elsewhere, only in this context) or God gets to decide.

    So I suppose you could maintain these two premises without resort to God if, and only if you accepted some animals as person and you consistently applied potentiality, morally treating beings as they could be. Since this seems pretty much never to be the case, the argument seems religious to me.

    By the way, the idea that there is no line between newborns and embryos which is not vague is patently false: Birth is not vague. It is also not morally irrelevant - it symbolises the end of dependence on the host body and the return to her of a large degree of bodily autonomy.

    Finally, I would disagree that religious arguments cannot also be philosophical arguments. I do not believe that there is a strict dichotomy here.

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  2. Look at the premises you have set out: That a newborn is a person with full moral status is an article of faith that can only be justified either by resort to God or by drawing personhood law enough that some animals will be included.

    This seems to me to be a very dubious claim. The premises in Jeremy's summary of Noonan's argument are, basically:

    (1) A newborn is morally a person.
    (2) There is no gray area between moral personhood and moral nonpersonhood.
    (3) There is no way to distinguish a newborn and an embryo that does not require positing a gray area between moral personhood and moral nonpersonhood.

    None of these requires resort to God. (1), I hope, is believed by everyone; nothing about (2) is inconsistent with an atheist's believing it; and whether (3) is true or false is a matter of fact that would be discovered simply by looking into the question of whether it really is necessary to posit a vague area in order to distinguish the embryo and the newborn according to moral personhood. As to the other horn of your dilemma (that some nonhuman animals would have to count as persons), this doesn't appear to require any resort to religious principles, either. (It also isn't clear how it follows from (1)-(3). It doesn't follow from (1), (2), or the conjunction of the two. It could only come in at all as one of the things we might discover if we were to inquire into (3). But even if it were discovered, this would only be a problem for the argument if it showed that (3) required the falsehood of (2), which ex hypothesi it wouldn't.) So your reasoning doesn't appear to support your claim (i.e., that the suggested argument can only stand on a religious basis).

    The claim, in fact, seems wholly arbitrary. Talk about an argument's only standing on a religious basis glosses over the basic point that what arguments really stand on are validity or plausibility of inference (depending on the type of argument) and the reasons for believing that the premises are true. To say that an argument can only stand on a religious basis, therefore, we would have to show that no possible reasons could be given for the premises that are not religious. We would be hardpressed to argue that any of the premises (a common moral principle, a claim about the non-vagueness of the distinction between personhood and nonpersonhood, and a claim about a lack of criterion for distinguishing two cases) are intrinsically religious, for the reasons noted above. If the premises are not intrinsically religious, however, and are based simply on common moral understanding (1), conceptual analysis of the terms in (2), and the results of inquiry into the distinction between two cases that leads someone to posit (3), there are no grounds for claiming that the only basis for the argument is religious. Indeed, we've already found a non-religious basis for the argument: appeal to moral intuition for (1), conceptual analysis for (2), elimination of plausible ways of drawing the distinction sharply between the two cases for (3). The argument may be unsound; but there is no reasonable sense in which the argument requires religious principles for its basis.

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  3. Pejar, your first point seems to me to assume that I said something about religion having to do with God. I did not. I was distinguishing between arguments based on religious revelation (e.g. the Bible or a religious experience) and philosophical arguments based on philosophical premises. That distinction actually holds up regardless of whether God is mentioned. Thomas Aquinas' arguments for the existence of God are pretty indisputably philosophical and not religious. He makes the distinction between religious sources of information like the Bible and philosophical ones based on reason. The very existence of deism in the 17th century or so relies on exactly that distinction, since they accepted philosophical arguments of God but not religious ones. It's not the presence or absence in God in a view or argument that makes something religious. It's the source of revelation.

    That a newborn is a person with full moral status is an article of faith that can only be justified either by resort to God or by drawing personhood law enough that some animals will be included.

    You give two options here. One involves God, but that is not a religious argument unless it relies on special revelation. The other involves nothing religious whatsoever. The view that there is a sharp line between human rights and the rights of animals is firmly supported by many who are not religious in any way. Take a look at the animal rights literature, in particular those coming from the Kantian tradition, where humans have Kantian rights and animals have utilitarian rights. There's nothing religious about that.

    More damningly, the second premise that personhood cannot be vague explicitly rejects the idea of personhood according to faculties (because faculties undoubtedly do exist on a 'vague' gradient scale). Without that, we are left with two options. Either potential for full human faculties is the determining factor (but potentiality never seems to be consistently applied elsewhere, only in this context) or God gets to decide.

    I'm not sure why you think potentiality isn't consistently applied. Maybe you're thinking of Warren's strange argument that assumes skin cells count as organisms with their own DNA and thus potential in a very weak sense, not at all the same full sense that's true of an embryo, which is indeed an organism with its own DNA. But straw men aside, I don't know about any inconsistency in application, and I certainly no of no necessity of inconsistency with potentiality views.

    Those aren't the only two options either. There's dualism, for one, where animals don't have the kinds of souls that bear moral rights of the sort humans have. Since dualism is a long-standing philosophical view that isn't fairly presented as merely revealed through some scripture, I don't see how you can rule that out as a non-philosophical account. Even if the classic arguments for dualism don't convince materialists, it seems patently unfair to rule dualism out as not a philosophical view. This is especially so since the major problems with those arguments are that the opponents don't accept the conclusions, which makes them question-begging in the sense that the opponents don't accept the conclusion. That's consistent even with the arguments being fully sound, with true premises and a valid argument structure.

    Additionally, there's the view that it's not based on God's mere decision or some potential for a contingent faculty admitting of vagueness but simply on an all-or-nothing property that humans have that other animals don't. Kant clearly thought this way about humans, and Aristotle and the Stoics seem to me to have done so as well. In none of their cases did they base their argument on a source that we would today call religion.

    I think the biggest problem with your response, though, is that it confuses the following two things:

    1. a premise that you disagree with and thus find unmotivated
    2. a premise derived from religion

    I just don't see how a view's being unsupported means it's religious. Logical positivism was based on all manner of philosophically unmotivated claims, and it certainly wasn't religious. Given that many pro-life people are religious, you might think that in some of their cases there is a religious motivation. But given that enough pro-life people are anything but religious, this simply will not do to explain every case.

    By the way, the idea that there is no line between newborns and embryos which is not vague is patently false: Birth is not vague. It is also not morally irrelevant - it symbolises the end of dependence on the host body and the return to her of a large degree of bodily autonomy.

    If a newborn is the sort of thing in itself that can have rights independent of the fact that it is dependent on someone else, then so can a fetus just prior to birth. There's nothing intrinsic to the fetus/newborn that explains this, and thus it can't be a matter of the moral status of the fetus itself. The argument focuses on the moral status of the fetus, not the status of a woman's right to control her body and every human organism within it. The issue of a woman's rights to kill a human organism living within her is a separate issue. I haven't been discussing the moral status of the act of abortion. Those issues would indeed arise in that sort of discussion. I'm just discussing the moral status of the fetus, which doesn't seem to me to be easily affected by extrinsic factors like where it happens to be living and what the source of its nutrition is.

    Finally, I would disagree that religious arguments cannot also be philosophical arguments. I do not believe that there is a strict dichotomy here.

    I was responding to a particular comment that dismissed a certain view on the moral status of an embryo as a religious view, one that is therefore not philosophical. If these aren't an absolute dichotomy then something can be both religious and philosophical, and all I'm trying to do is distinguish between (1) something that is religious and not philosophical and (2) something that is philosophical, whether you call it religious or not. I was working with the categories presented to me, and thus I was conceding a sense of 'religious' as describing mere revelation as opposed to more philosophical arguments. If you want to use 'religion' more expansively, I have no problem with that, but then it becomes clear that something can be both philosophical and religious. Those arguments, then would not be the ones that are merely religious and not philosophical. If I don't have to prove a non-religious source to show that an argument is philosophical, doesn't that just make my case easier?

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  4. I have set out my argument against three potential non-religious pro-life arguments here: That killing any life is wrong, that we can look at the potential of the being and that humans have souls. The gist is that all of them either require a religious foundation or are not even prima facie applied consistently by any significant slice of pro-lifers.

    In essence, pretty much no pro-lifer treats all life (fruit, veg...) as inviolable. None of them take potentiality seriously outside of this one issue, and it makes no sense anyway. And the only non-religious evidence for a soul relies on faculties which embryos don't have.

    Most importantly, I think that your explanation of what is a religious versus a non-religious argument is faulty. By its logic, an argument could be non-religious despite relying on the existence of God as a given premise, as long as it did not rely on revelation. I don't think this can qualify as 'non-religious'. It seems to me that the only way an argument can be non-religious is if its premises can be tracked back to facts about the world without reqiring God. This just cannot work for newly conceived embryos having souls because the only plausible evidence for souls is faculties these embryos don't have.

    I just don't see how a view's being unsupported means it's religious.

    Surely if it is unsupportable by anything other than religion then it is a religious argument? Otherwise absolutely anything can be a non-religious argument! Your definition of a religious argument appears absurdly narrow, beyond what anyone would expect.

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  5. It seems to me that the only way an argument can be non-religious is if its premises can be tracked back to facts about the world without reqiring God. This just cannot work for newly conceived embryos having souls because the only plausible evidence for souls is faculties these embryos don't have.


    I don't understand this line of reasoning. Where does the argument Jeremy mentioned say anything about souls?

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  6. > The gist is that all of them either require a religious foundation or are not even prima facie applied consistently by any significant slice of pro-lifers.

    Almost no one applies their moral theories consistently. Atheists also face a similar dilema to theists ie "if I am valuable why isn't everything else?"
    One could argue that there is no non religious argument for morality at all the direction you seem to be heading.

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  7. No pro-lifer considers all life sacred except perhaps Hindus who refuse to kill mosquitoes. In natural language we often speak with restricted quantifiers. The domain of discourse on abortion-related issues is already restricted to the class of life that is specifically human. Pro-life views that see life as sacred do not take cows' lives to be sacred, never mind the potential lives of plant seed. This is one of the most ridiculous straw man mischaracterizations I've ever seen. It's simply missing the point to pretend that pro-lifers are speaking of mere potentiality of life when the examples they discuss do not do so. It's uncharitable, and since a much more careful view has been carefully presented over and over again I don't see the need to absolve you of the responsibility of actually reading contemporary pro-life philosophical work. You seem to think that if potentiality is important then only potentiality is important, as if it can't be a factor at all without being the only factor. That's nonsense.

    Most of what might count as evidence for a soul is silent on when a soul comes into existence. I'm not sure what evidence you have in mind anyway, but it seems to me that if souls exist there has to be some reasonable place to determine when they come into existence. That certainly would not be birth, but I can think of only one place before birth besides conception that could explain the coming into existence of a soul if a soul is an all-or-nothing thing, and even that seems somewhat arbitrary to me. But whether a slippery slope argument is appropriate for the beginning of ensoulment (given a belief in souls) seems to me to have nothing to do with religion. It's a philosophical argument that does not derive from religious views or any sort.

    You seem to think a premise with God in it is inherently religious. If that's so, then all philosophical views and arguments that even mention God are religious, and my point remains that there's nothing unphilosophical about religious premises. So pointing out that something is religious actually says nothing about its status or role in an argument. It is no objection whatsoever to call something religious if it can be both philosophical and religious. It's extremely easy to see that plenty of arguments for the existence of God appear in the history of philosophy, so if a premise of an ethical argument mentions God then it might just depend on one of those arguments, which are not religious in any objectional way if they are philosophical arguments. Perhaps you again just insist that these premises aren't supported in a way that convinces you, but that's a pretty arbitrary way of defining whether something is out of bounds in a philosophical discussion. The arguments clearly convince some people, and enough of the people they convince are not practicing religious people that it would take a conspiracy theory to generate an assumption that in every case the arguments aren't doing the convincing but something else.

    I fail to see how your strong opposition to these premises doesn't apply to pretty much any moral premise or even most philosophical premises. I'm not trying to assert that there's evidence all will agree on for these premises. All I'm saying is that the premises of a pro-life argument on this issue need not be any more philosophically suspect than pretty much any philosophical argument. Why prefer three-dimensionalism to four-dimensionalism (or vice versa)? Why consider consequences the only morally evaluable feature of our actions (or why think more than consequences should be involved)? Is human freedom compatible with determinism? What sort of evidence can you present to me on that issue that doesn't assume something that different people may take differently? The fact is that any philosophical premise can be questioned, and the business of supporting a premise with an argument will eventually peter out. You will end up with some difference of opinion over whether a premise is true, and that difference of opinion will not be resolvable by evidence. This is the case with every philosophical argument, ultimately, even if some of our disagreements are more easily solved because of an empirical premises (e.g. to what extenet affirmative action helps or harms the people it's intended to help, whether abortion ends the life of a human organism with its own DNA, or whether presentism is consistent with what we learn about space-time in physics).

    You have arbitrarily singled out the premises that are not empirically verifiable that you want to call religious, while ignoring the ones you don't want to call religious. If you really took this seriously and applied it consistently, you would be a positivist. But then the very principle you're relying on is not knowable because of evidence, which was one of the biggest problems with positivism to begin with. The position you're working with isn't just arbitrarily singling out certain kinds of premises that are undefended but intuitively compelling (for some people) but wouldn't be acceptable by its own criteria even if you did apply it consistently.

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  8. Someone in the comments on my cross-posting of this post reminded me of Don Marquis' famous pro-life defense that doesn't assume the personhood of the fetus but rather relies on the wrongness of killing based on its robbing something of "a future like ours". Interestingly, this argument applies to embryos without assuming that embryos are persons. If Marquis is right, then it's wrong to kill an embryos, because it deprives it of a future like ours. At the same time, Marquis makes it clear how his argument does not apply to non-humans or to non-organisms. I think this is an absolutely clear case of a pro-life argument against destroying embryos that has absolutely no religious premises, explicit or implicit.

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  9. My evil twin has also been known to defend the pro-life position on non-religious grounds -- see here.

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  10. Material life, as we know it, is beset by waves of death that proceed life. Nature has chosen the act of killing as a part of life. Killing proliferates life, since life is a good thing, killing too, is a good thing.

    Material human life, as we know it, is beset by waves of choice that modify the experience of life. Nature has given mankind freedom of thought, and with that, freedom of choice.

    There may come a time when killing is the choice, therefore choose without restriction beyond the conditioning of self, or you thwart the gift of choice.

    Two quotes I'd like you to consider:

    "The argumentative defense of any proposition is inversely proportional to the truth contained."

    "The weak indulge in resolutions, but the strong act. Life is but a day's work--do it well. The act is ours; the consequences God's."

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  11. Wow! I think I just got my ass handed to me! I don't think it's such a good idea for me to comment on posts that I don't know much about. I think I'll stick to topics that I know. BTW, for those of you that may have been to my blog, it is a work-in-progress as I only started it a few months ago. I hope it will one day do sites like these justice. Thanks for the criticism, it's much aprreciated. :)

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  12. *shrug*, I think a willingness to explore new topics (in an open-minded fashion) is a generally admirable trait...

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  13. Richard, would you do me the honor of commenting on my post. I know it is a bit odd, but since I am an admirer of Philosophy, I would love to hear from someone with some knowledge in the area. Please find holes or shortcomings in my presentation and point them out to me. I am an amature at this stuff. Thanks

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  14. Xobe, I'm not sure where to start. Perhaps I'm misinterpreting, but your comment reads a bit like a defence of murder, genocide, etc. But surely we can all recognize that such intentional killing is not "a good thing"! Perhaps ageing and mortality generally do serve to clear room for new life -- this was discussed a bit in previous posts -- but even if death can be a good thing (in the grand scheme of things), it doesn't follow that people should intentionally bring it about. Not without some further, controversial and crudely consequentialist assumptions, at least.

    At the other extreme, your final quote appears to imply that we may act without due care for the consequences at all! I really disagree quite strongly with that. (I don't think we can rely on a deity to make sure things turn out well. The responsibility is ours.)

    Perhaps it would help if you could clarify exactly what conclusions you aim to be arguing for, since that wasn't clear from your comment. (You're not really recommending reckless action and disregard for others' lives, are you?) As a general rule, others can't know what to do with your remarks until they figure out what you were trying to do with them.

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  15. Xobe, I have to agree with Richard. I can't really figure out what your exact conclusion is supposed to be. Are you just trying to argue that killing is sometimes ok? If so, I think you've way overstated your case in a way that seems really implausible. Are you trying to argue that killing is actually a good thing? Then it seems more that you've not given good enough reasons to think so, since the fact that sometimes good comes from killing doesn't make killing itself good. Or is your conclusion something else entirely?

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  16. Richard, Jeremy, thanks to you; now we’re talkin...regarding my being a bit more specific: Please be patient because my thoughts may not be put in exact order.
    Anyhow, killing is a good thing, for carnivorous, it is survival. For modern man it is choice in food, and for some of mankind, it is the prevention of sickness and disease (some people have need of meat to keep them from getting ill, certain scientists are just now discovering this). However, whether it is an animal or a plant life, it is killed (its life is retired at some point to become food).
    Now, I make this point because this aspect of killing is taken for granted and assumed to be a good thing--without question. Modern mankind now questions the killing of other men due to our advance in evolution and many fronts; mental, social, emotional, moral, spiritual (religious), and so on. Earlier man did not question such killing, in fact if you wandered outside your tribe, you were to be killed (on the spot). It is a propensity for earlier man to love to hunt, and along with that, to love to fight (kill).
    My point is spiritual. A God of love does not fault his offspring for doing that which is a part of his being (“His” meaning both man and God). A God of love does not fault man for killing when killing is his nature.
    Our natures change as we evolve. When our natures change, so too do our mores. Culture changes. Modern man; moral, sophisticated, intellectual, spiritually evolved man, no longer loves to kill other men, rather, the opposite.
    Man has always loved to survive, it is only different now because modern men of moral code discovered that it is a good thing to allow another the same privilege of survival.
    Therefore we cannot say that killing is evil, nor can we say that killing is not good. What we can say is that certain killing (killing of Humankind) is no longer our choice based on our higher understanding.
    Regarding the pro-life issue. My take on it is; when does the homo sapien become a being? I say, not at the embryo stage. If it is killed, is it immoral? Those who argue that the embryo is a person, possess guilt prior to killing it. More on this later...

    Regarding my quotes, comment on the first if you will, I am anxious to hear your observations and opinions. The second quote is where we do, in fact, disagree. This dilemma of responsibility is The great inhibitor of mankind. It inhibits action, and action is what creates experience, experience is what creates wisdom. Wisdom is what creates greatness.
    A great many atrocities have been committed in our past, all in the name of one’s creator. Yet all acts, vile or righteous, are ours to live out and learn from. Failure is the greatest teacher, not success.
    The quote displays a fundamental difference in understanding of life, from the perspectives of the believer (spiritual person) and the disbeliever (atheist). But more so, the quote is a display of wisdom the spiritual person cannot gain without certain deep understandings of the intents of one’s maker.

    As you may have observed in life, many people of religion are hardly religious (truly loving and forgiving). But the rule of life is imperfection. Each person on their own path.

    A spiritual seeker eventually comes to the understanding that what is important is what you are becoming, not what you are now. Where you are is far less important than where you are headed.

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  17. Brandon:

    Jeremy says "There's dualism, for one, where animals don't have the kinds of souls that bear moral rights of the sort humans have." That is where he talks about souls.


    Jeremy:

    It's simply missing the point to pretend that pro-lifers are speaking of mere potentiality of life when the examples they discuss do not do so.

    Would you mind actually making an argument here rather than asserting that the argument has been made? Actually, I didn't assert that they talk of potentiality of life. I say in my blog post "I will assume that the key to potentiality is faculties that will naturally develop." So I disagree with who is making the straw man here. In any case, we do not morally treat people as they will 'naturally' become - look at potential criminals.

    if souls exist there has to be some reasonable place to determine when they come into existence.

    No there doesn't. Plenty happens in the development of a foetus that may happen at any time around a rough estimate. There is no reason a soul should arrive at some obvious moment. It could appear at any point or evolve over time. My point was that the only (non-religious) evidence for souls come from the specific faculties and abilities of the living, those which are lacking in a new zygote. As such the only way to assert a soul from conception is birth.

    You seem to think a premise with God in it is inherently religious.

    Uh, yeah...

    my point remains that there's nothing unphilosophical about religious premises.

    And I never said there was. In fact I said in my first response here "Finally, I would disagree that religious arguments cannot also be philosophical arguments. I do not believe that there is a strict dichotomy here.

    If you want to define religious arguments as non-philosophical, then that is your prerogative. However, you do not state as such in your post, giving the impression that you are suggesting that pro-life arguments can stand up without God. I am also not convinced that the person you quote intended it to mean what you say.

    It is no objection whatsoever to call something religious if it can be both philosophical and religious.

    Um, well it is if you don't believe in God or if you believe that belief in God should not be the only thing to jusify a law...

    You have arbitrarily singled out the premises that are not empirically verifiable that you want to call religious, while ignoring the ones you don't want to call religious.

    I don't think it is arbitrary to single out premises which require God to be coherent and call them 'religious'... In fact, I would call this common sense.

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  18. Jeremy says "There's dualism, for one, where animals don't have the kinds of souls that bear moral rights of the sort humans have." That is where he talks about souls.


    Thanks for clarifying; it sounded in your comment like you were saying something about the original argument, rather than simply addressing one of several positions mentioned by Jeremy that didn't fit into your dichotomy of "potential for full human faculties or God decides".

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  19. "But then there's no good place to draw a line between embryos and newborns that is not vague, and thus embryos must have the same moral status as newborns. You may disagree with the argument, and there are all sorts of ways to do so (but none that I know of that aren't question-begging)".

    It's an argument. But it's a pretty bad argument. There is also no precise point at which an acorn becomes an oak tree. Are you prepared to conclude that acorns are therefore oak trees? The fact that there is no precise point at which an acorn becomes an oak tree might entail that there is no point at which an acorn becomes an oak tree. But it does not entail that there is no point at which an indefinite acorn becomes an indefinite oak tree and an indefinite oak tree and indefinite definite oak tree and so on. Of course this will happen at a very high (perhaps infinitely high) level of vagueness and blend downward. Similarly for non-persons to persons.
    On the positive side, there is every reason to conclude that personhood is not such an important moral category. Infants and toddlers are not person's either. But it seems evident that we can't harvest organs from them for the greater good of persons. Of course some (Tooley, for instance) have been moved to conclude that infanticide isn't as morally bad as it seems. But if intuition counts for anything, infanticide is at least as bad as killing any definite person. But then so much the worse for personhood.

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  20. Mike, the acorn analogy actually goes the other way if it's not going to beg the question. If an acorn is fertilized, then it is the same organism as the oak tree. If you insist on using 'oak tree' as a temporary sortal term that doesn't apply for its whole life, then it's not a fair analogy for 'person', which is not like that on the pro-life view that I've been talking about. Maybe we could just call fertilized acorns oak trees, and that would make it an exact analogy, but it wouldn't make the point. The issue is whether the term 'person' is a temporary sortal or something essential to what something is. I have seen no non-question-begging argument for the former and against the latter, and the oak tree analogy is exactly the kind of question-begging argument I have seen and was protesting against.

    At least that's how I'd frame the issue for the standard debate. Your way of doing it reveals a third category of views. The standard pro-life view takes personhood to be an essential and non-temporary property and accepts the assumption of the pro-choice argument that personhood is what gives moral status. The standard pro-choice view takes personhood to be temporary and non-essential while accepting the assumptioon that personhood is what gives moral status. You accept the temporary status of personhood but refuse to connect it with moral status. I have no problem with that as such. I've just been using 'personhood' the way the primary players in the debate use it. The standard pro-choice argument has been to distinguish between biological humanity and personhood, where personhood is whatever gives moral status. Then the assumption I don't grant is that personhood, i.e. whatever gives moral status, is the same thing as this vague developmental concept of how complex an organism's mental capacities and so on are. What you've done is accept that move while denying that personhood is what grants moral status. But personhood is really just a placeholder in this discussion, connecting whatever it is that gives moral status with this mental capacity thing. I refuse to connect them, and so do you, and where we attach that to personhood is a minor issue in my mind. I'm happy to have you do it the way you're doing, since my main point is that moral status and mental capacity do not need to go hand in hand, and it's question-begging to assert to a pro-lifer that they do.

    By the way, I never said any of the pro-life arguments should be convincing in a way that those who don't already hold a pro-life position will accept. My point was really that none of these arguments will be convincing to the other side. That's just as true of the question-begging pro-choice arguments as it is of the question-begging pro-life arguments. This isn't vicious circularity, since it isn't simply putting the conclusion into a premise, but it is question-begging in the sense that someone who doesn't believe the conclusion will not generally accept the questionable premise. I wasn't trying to assert that the pro-life arguments are any better, which is why I keep saying that people are missing the point by calling these arguments bad arguments. I never said they were good in that sense. All I said is that they are philosophical arguments, and they are no worse (i.e. no more question-begging) than the standard pro-choice arguments, which to my mind have such controversial assumptions that they should convince hardly any who aren't already inclined toward the conclusion.

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  21. There is no one I've heard of who maintains that 'being a person' is an essential property of human embryos. That position is laughably circular.
    There really are two sides to this debate, each of which might be true. The question is when the fertilized egg becomes a person. And that question is genuinely open. Among the most conservative positions is the Catholic position which maintains that *we do not know* that the embryo is not a person. Since we do not know, the cautious conclusion is to assume it is a person. So not even the most vocal pro-lifers are claiming that it's a necessary truth that a few human cells constitute a person. Such a claim is just bad metaphysics.

    About the property of being an acorn and being an oak tree, I have no idea what you mean by "it goes the other way". What is plain is that the slippery slope argument that you advanced for the conclusion that the embryo is a person is a piece of bad reasoning. You can use the same reasoning to show that acorns are oak trees, or for that matter, that normal adult human beings are non-persons (just run your argument in reverse). It involves an elementary mistake in the logic of vagueness (no matter what view of vagueness you adopt), so I hope you're not trying to defend the reasoning there.

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  22. My point about acorns and oak trees is that the sorites series is only relevant if being an oak tree is a matter of vagueness. If it's not (and acorns are oak trees), then the complain is inappropriate. The pro-choice argument first has to establish that personhood is a matter of vagueness rather than being an all-or-nothing thing that whatever thing has it has since that thing has existed. I have never seen anyone even try to establish that on premises that pro-lifers would agree to.

    You speak of the collection of cells as the embryo and then say that of course that collection of cells (the mereological sum) is not essentially a person. I agree, and I don't think anyone in the debate thinks that. I don't know of anyone who writes about this issue who thinks that a person is identical with a set of cells. I don't think I'm a set of cells, and I wouldn't think that even if I were a materialist. I do say that I (who am a person) once consisted of a few cells (indeed, of one cell) and that I am essentially a person. But that doesn't mean the set of cells is essentially a person, because the set of cells is not me. That set of cells doesn't exist anymore, so why would I think that it is essentially me? There are a whole bunch of metaphysical views that can deal with this sort of thing (e.g. constitution views, dominant sortal views, Thomistic dualism, Cartesian dualism, the 4D worm view, the 4D stage view, relative identity, etc.), but I don't think any one of them would take the set of cells to have the essential property of being a person because not one of them would take the set of cells to continue to exist even as the person lives on with new cells.

    The same applies to the embryo, which is also not essentially the set of cells. It's a perfectly reasonable view to say that the thing that was the embryo is the thing that is me, just as we say that of tadpoles and frogs. Where I am disagreeing with you is that I think it's a person all along (or at least whatever placeholder term is supposed to stand for moral rights; I'm happy enough with your way of putting it if you don't want to allow the pro-choice argument to hijack that term as such a placeholder while also meaning something that doesn't necessarily amount to moral rights).

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  23. You write,
    "personhood is a matter of vagueness rather than being an all-or-nothing thing that whatever thing has it has since that thing has existed."

    This contrast is mistaken. Personhood can be both an "all or nothing thing" and a matter of vagueness. It need only be true that x is a person iff. x is a definite (or superdefinite) person. Indefinite persons do not count (morally) as persons. And some have said just that.

    You write:
    " But that doesn't mean the set of cells is essentially a person, because the set of cells is not me. That set of cells doesn't exist anymore, so why would I think that it is essentially me? "

    I never said that you were essentially a set of cells. Nor did I say that a set of cells is essentially a person. So I have no idea who you're replying to here. I said that it is not a necessary truth that a few cells *constitute* a person.

    You write:
    "There are a whole bunch of metaphysical views that can deal with this sort of thing (e.g. constitution views, dominant sortal views, Thomistic dualism, Cartesian dualism, the 4D worm view, the 4D stage view, relative identity, etc.),. . ."

    I don't know what you mean by "deal with this sort of thing". The views you list provide accounts of personal identity, but they won't provide what you want. Assuming that you are identifying yourself with your soul, the Thomistic account won't help. Nothing in Thomism entails that you exist at the moment of conception. Quite the contrary. You are ensouled at the time of 'quickening'. Basically, at the time when the fetus noticably moves. Obviously, long after conception. How about 4D accounts? Do they help? Not at all. Nothing in either 4D account entails that you now are identical to the being that exists then at conception. Obviously stages of persons are not identical to each other. Things are worse. Even if it were true that the 4D object (viz. the object identical to you) is a person, it doesn't follow every stage of the 4D object is a person. What about good old Cartesian dualism? Does that help? No, it doesn't. Not without an argument showing that you are ensouled at the moment of conception. So I don't see how any of these views helps with your current position.

    You write:
    "It's a perfectly reasonable view to say that the thing that was the embryo is the thing that is me, just as we say that of tadpoles and frogs."

    Whether it is a "perfectly reasonable" view depends on what the alternative views are. That is, it depends on what the arguments are on both sides. But that's what I've been saying all along.

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  24. Mike, I'm not sure that keeping personhood with definite persons or even superdefinite persons will end up working, for the same reason I don't think supervaluation works. There will be higher-order vagueness, and what counts as a definite person will admit of vagueness. I'm not sure it can really be done without epistemicism.

    On your second point, I may have mistakenly read constitution language as identity language. What I think I want to say in light of what you actually said is that I think there are all sorts of views according to which a certain set of cells constitutes a person without it being the case that it's a necessary truth that those cells constitute a person.

    The views I listed were not intended to be views that show my overall view here. I was just explaining that you can hold that the embryo is not essentially an embryo by means of a whole variety of metaphysical positions. That's not what you said, so I don't see the value in continuing the finer points of this unless they apply to the more general issue. I hadn't been applying them to the general issue, and I'm not sure if they are relevant to it.

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