Thursday, August 4, 2011

Beckwith on Thomson on Abortion

Quick update: This is Thomson's 1995 article:

I'm in Boulder for RoME 2011. Prior to the official conference, the Boulder philosophy department held a panel to discuss Judith Thomson's classic paper on abortion. (Happy 40th!) Francis Beckwith was the first speaker and I thought I'd offer a few points on her behalf. His remarks seemed to follow some remarks he made earlier in a piece in the American Journal of Jurisprudence:
If it is true that no one position on the fetus's moral status wins the day, this is an excellent reason not to permit abortion, because an abortion may result in the death of a human entity who has a full right to life. If one kills another being without knowing whether that being is an entity with protected moral status, and if one has reasonable grounds (as Thomson admits) to believe that the being in question has that status, such an action would constitute a willful and
reckless disregard for others, even if one later discovered that the being was not a person.

Thomson is apparently saying that the different positions on the fetus's moral status all have able defenders, persuasive arguments, and passionate advocates, but none really wins the day. To put it another way, the issue of fetal personhood is up for grabs; all positions are in some sense equal, none is better than any other. In fact,
Thomson writes that "while I know of no conclusive reason for denying that fertilized eggs have a right to life, I also know of no conclusive reason for asserting that they do have a right to life." n37 But if this is the case, then it is safe to say that the odds of the fetus being a human person are roughly 50/50 (if we wanted to put a number on a "not unreasonable" position held be a sizeable number of well-informed and educated adults in the world). Given these odds, it would seem that society has a moral obligation to err on the side of life, and therefore, to legally prohibit virtually all abortions.

Imagine the police are able to identify someone as a murderer with only one piece of evidence: his DNA matches the DNA of the genetic material found on the victim. The police subsequently arrest him, and he is convicted and sentenced to death. Suppose, however, that it is discovered several months later that the murderer has an identical twin brother who was also at the scene of the crime and obviously has the same DNA as his brother on death row. This means that there is a 50/50 chance that the man on death row is the murderer. Would the state be justified in executing this man? Surely not, for there is a 50/50 chance of executing an innocent person. Consequently, if it is wrong to kill the man on death row, it is then wrong to kill the fetus when the arguments for its full humanity are just as reasonable as the arguments against it.

Two points before bed. First, Thomson does _not_ say that none of the views concerning the moral status of the fetus wins the day. She concedes that she knows of no conclusive reason to reject the views that prolifers have concerning the moral status of the fetus but nevertheless thinks she can give plausible arguments that the view is wrong. I don't have conclusive reason to reject lots of things that are nevertheless quite implausible. It certainly doesn't follow that a lack of a conclusive reason makes all views equally reasonable. It certainly doesn't follow from the fact that I lack conclusive reason for rejecting your view that your view is at all reasonable. Thomson concedes that the prolifer might not be flatly unreasonable in rejecting her arguments against this view, but this concession is certainly not the same thing as Thomson suggesting that she and the prolifer are epistemic peers.

Second, the cases differ in an important way. In the case of the possibly wrongly convicted convict we suffer from non-normative ignorance or uncertainty, not normative ignorance or uncertainty. In the case of abortion, we're alleged to suffer from normative ignorance or uncertainty. There are moral views that say that these differences carry no moral weight, but I think these views are deeply flawed. Suppose someone thought that the arguments for the prolife view and the opposition view were equally good and thought that there's a 50/50 chance that one of these views is right. Suppose also that they own a revolver. Which would be worse for them, that they have an abortion (which, given normative uncertainty) has a 50% chance (in some sense of 'chance') or that they play Russian roulette with a sleeping child that has only about 17% chance (in some sense of 'chance') of killing the child. I take it that the answer is obvious. Francis needs to distinguish expected from expectable value.


Eric said...

To add something to your first point: Thomson says that she thinks that 'the prospects for 'drawing a line' in the development of the fetus look dim'.

That doesn't entail the equality of the positions espoused by either side, but merely means we do not (and maybe CANNOT) know the answer. Relativism doesn't follow from uncertainty.

When Beckwith says "But if this is the case, then it is safe to say that the odds of the fetus being a human person are roughly 50/50" he seems to miss her point completely. When she makes her argument, assuming the fetus IS a person from conception, she makes careful distinctions about which cases killing would be justified under. It's not a 50/50's 100% certain that you are killing a human person. But that killing is justified based on merely moral status (or lack thereof) but by the relation of the fetus to mother (as threat to her life in the 'rapidly growing baby in the tiny house case' or unwanted presence in the body in the 'people-seed' and 'famous violinist' case).

Nick said...

Perhaps I missed how Beckwith's remarks seemed to reflect the passage of the article you quote. I only recall his major points being that: (1) Thomson does not grant the type of personhood to fetuses (in her paper) that a pro-lifer does and (2) that none of her analogies adequately accommodate the responsibility for pregnancy among sexually active folks (i.e. they all seem to illustrate an image of sex that treats the possibility of pregnancy as shocking and almost unforeseeable -- and something for which neither party should be responsible.

I think these two points are quite important (and correct). Out of curiosity, do you have any thoughts on these?

Clayton said...

Hi Nick,

I agree that Beckwith also made the points that you mentioned, but he also made claims about Thomson's 1995 piece in Boston Review that were quite clearly false and briefly discussed the shooting range analogy that he hasn't defended (i.e., one that takes obligation to depend not just on the agent's non-normative evidence, but also her normative evidence) and that has rather shocking implications.

As for (1), there were supposed to be many aspects of personhood that Thomson was said to neglect. Part had to do with intrinsic ordering of the sexual act and some with relations amongst humans. I don't see how either point would explain how it is that the fetus would come to have a claim on the woman. Thomson might have neglected those points, but they had no explanatory value. On (2), I think it's important to distinguish two goals of Thomson's paper, (i) arguing for the permissibility of abortion in a wide range of cases and (ii) arguing that the impermissibility of abortion isn't established by an appeal to fetal rights. I don't think he made much headway on (ii). On (i), I think he did a better job (although his remarks on tort liability was incredibly dodgy since he slid over important issues having to do with the use of contraceptives and whether this would shield responsibility in the way that constructing a fence around an attractive nuisance shields you from responsibility).

My general impression was that he tried to cover a lot of ground, which made it difficult to assess any particular point. His dishonesty concerning Thomson's 1995 piece was inexcusable.

Michael said...

I feel like I must be missing something in the way of context. IIRC , the point of Thomson's paper is to argue that abortion is often permissible even on the supposition that fetuses are persons. Hence the remarks of Beckwith's you quote -- which have to do with our certainty regarding the proposition that fetuses are persons -- don't seem to address her argument at all.

Furthermore, it is not as if JJT does anything in that paper to *establish* the claim that none of the various positions 'wins the day'. If I recall, this is something she just loosely implies en route to bracketing the issue. The point in itself is highly controversial, I take it, and could by no means be taken for granted if it were all relevant to her argument. For Beckwith to make such hay of it in discussing her article thus seems perverse in the extreme -- unless, again, I'm missing something in the dialectical context.

Clayton said...

Hi Michael,

Sorry, there's a lot of context missing. This was written (too hastily) after a talk in which Beckwith discussed Judith Thomson's 1995 piece. The remarks of his quoted here were about that later piece, not her 1971 piece.

Nick said...


Thank you for your reply.

I have a follow-up regarding the responsibility for a child (or potential child). Thomson says that demarcating a point at which something becomes a person would inevitably be arbitrary, even though she surely would admit that at some point between conception and adulthood (assuming a couple chooses not to abort) a person begins to exist. She circumvents this puzzle by granting fetus's personhood.

However, she takes the position that there IS a point at which a family becomes responsible for the child they conceive. She says that point is when they take it home and begin caring for it. She does not defend this. She just assumes it. It is as if she holds to some maxim that if you begin being hospitable to a person you conceive, you ought to keep it (or something like that).

Now take the fact that pregnancy is an inherent POSSIBILITY of sex. By choosing to engage in mutually consenetual sex, two people (assuming they have at least a rudimentary understanding of human biology) are fully aware of the fact their decision to have sex could result in pregnancy (that is, the possibility of being in a position to have a fetus inside the woman, a fetus which -- according to Thomson -- is a person).

If someone makes a decision knowing that the consequences of their decision could be pregnancy (even the use of contraceptives and birth control are famously known to malfunction), then I fail to see how two consenting sex partners are not responsible for any resulting pregnancy from the moment they agree to engage in intercourse.

So, if a fetus is allegedly a person and a couple engages in consensual sex knowing that a fetus could result from their decision to have sex, then I think Thomson should adjust her demarcation of resposibility: namely to the point at which a couple chooses to have sex.

I understand the shooting range analogy fails to perfectly get at this point, but I find this analogy AT LEAST as satisfying as any of Thomson's analogies, which lacked no less than one important similarity to each circumstancs at issue.

I concede that I could be overlooking something here. Perhaps you might notice what I am overlooking and enlighten me.

Anonymous said...

Clayton, as you'd probably guess, I disagree with your "Second...". First of all, it just seems obvious that "maximize expected value" is a plausible theory of what one in some senses ought to do, and that "maximize expectable value (given the correct account of morality)" is a plausible answer to what one in other senses ought to do, rather than that they are competing answers to what one ought in a univocal sense to do. Second, it seems that among the former set of senses will be those most relevant for purposes of action-guidance, praise and blame, and so forth. A sense of "ought" that is relative to probabilities over non-normative propositions only strikes me as gerrymandered, much like a sense that is relative to only those propositions that cannot be known a priori, or those that cannot be known either a priori or through introspection or visual imagination, etc. Finally, as for the example: Given what I said above, I have to interpret it as supporting a view about proper blame or punishment or something like that, rather than about what we ought (simpliciter) to do. So, going with that, it seems that its intuitive force is due to two things: 1) Our inability to take seriously the "50/50" probability assignment, at least as it regards organisms in the early stages of gestation. I'm inclined to think that it is at least epistemically permissible to have an extraordinarily low credence in the view that it's severely wrong to end the life of such an early-stage organism; and 2) The intuition that blame depends on the state of character exhibited, not simply the moral quality of the act in conjunction with the agent's beliefs or evidence regarding the nature of the act. Turning a revolver on a sleeping child exhibits a monstrous character. But even if I were to be convinced of the anti-abortion position, I would not regard abortion as exhibiting a monstrous character.

-Andrew Sepielli

indium said...

Excellent post- I think you've given an extremely reasonable response.