Surfing the Slippery Slope of the Abortion Debate

UPDATE: The irritatingly sober Blaize Kaye, mentor and mitrailleur of all fuzzy thinking has written a brilliant post, which raises points I did not. Look there before. You probably won’t need to read mine anyway.

When people strap on boots of “moralising” and start raging through the territory of ethical debate, many things get crushed in the process. Spurned by emotion, people often overlook arguments that have refuted their own ones or, more importantly, improved on them. I’m an advocate of clarity and openness in the academic world, especially in philosophy; this is not an attempt to tell “laypeople” – for I am also a laypeople – to shut their traps about moral philosophy. Indeed, in many instances it is philosophers making boring noises about moral philosophy that should quiet down. Nevertheless, with that disclaimer out the way, I want to point to an instance where muddled-thinking, combined with the tightly worn boots of moralising, are seen in full display. Columnist Khaya Dlanga, at, has made some silly noises regarding abortion that deserves scrutiny.

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Alive or Just Breeding? – a Reply to Lord Windsor on Abortion

According to Lord Windsor, abortion is the “the single most grievous moral deficit in contemporary life”. According to a Telegraph summary of the article, Windsor claims that “abortion is a bigger threat to Europe than al-Qaeda and Islamic terrorism.” Abortion has been somewhat in the spotlight in Europe, with Ireland facing some Alice in Wonderland madness in their rulings and decisions about such cases. Russell Blackford, as always, has provided some needed insight into the cases.

Windsor is acting on the view that, somehow, unborn people are morally equal to living people. The arguments are legion, but sharper are the counter-arguments. (It is interesting to note that even among living people, arguments for equality are problematic.) The reason we have such vitriolic – and in Windsor’s case completely unjustified – claims rests primarily in the theistic view that babies and foetuses and persons are the same. How we should think of it, they imply, is to consider the mass murder of babies in their cribs. We should equate a woman having an abortion the same way we view a mother who sticks a funnel into an infant’s mouth and pours poison into the baby’s throat. Our reactions should be harsh, terrified, wrathful, reckless, fence-shaking, chair-throwing.

This is the only way we can readily engage with the regular bad arguments for abortion. Yet, this all rests on the prior instance of making the case that, in fact, foetuses and the unborn are persons.

The first and most important point: humans are not persons. A ‘human’ is simply someone who is part of our species. A ‘person’, on the other hand, is a being capable of things like: rational reflection, mobility, selfidentity, independent living. Importantly, it is also able to communicate – in some form – its own consciousness and reflection. Indeed, we face the dilemma of someone who might be conscious but immobile or incommunicable (for example, in anaesthesia awareness). Nevertheless, a foetus is none of those things. For example, in most cases, it cannot live outside the womb. This fact becomes compounded when we consider earlier stages of the foetus, earlier trimesters.

Indeed, being consistent with this views means we, as a species, are not the only ones to be treated as persons. If beings from, say, another planet, with no genetic relation to us, were to arrive, we surely would not treat them as nonhuman animals. For example, if we met genuinely friendly, communicative, reflective, beings who looked like us – but who shared nothing similar with us genetically – it is unlikely we would treat them with hostility. Of course, some of our species would – we kill each other over everything from pigment colour to bigger invisible friends. But we could argue successfully that we should not. If this is true, then we are not basing our morality on the genetic or species-relation to us.

Secondly, staying on our planet, the basis of the Great Ape Project is to incorporate other apes into the moral circle we draw to only include ourselves. Yet, as Peter Singer so regularly argues, on what basis are we judging our own species as more worthy of moral concern than gorillas or chimps?

If someone says, “It’s just because we are human beings that we deserve more moral concern than chimps” then he is justifying his morality based on the species-label of a being. But what is so special about a species-label? It is nothing that being can change willingly, nor morally relevant. There are members of our species who quite clearly do not deserve our compassion and respect, like Josef Fritzl and Joseph Stalin.

Our planet’s history is filled with atrocities committed against beings who have differed on aspects of their identity they were simply born with: their race, gender, country-of-birth, etc. Similarly, this prejudice, based on judging a being on its species-membership, is called ‘speciesism’ (a term coined by Richard Ryder). It is a prejudice no better than racism or sexism.

Furthermore this doesn’t answer the question, but simply reiterates it. When critics attempt to define what makes humans ‘special’ we enter murky waters, in which the reflections of people become jarred, broken and distorted. The pools of thought that we enter are shallow but, as Nietzsche so famously said: “They muddy the waters to make them seem deep.” (Yes, postmodernists, I am looking at you) There is no one staring back, from these waters, of any recognisable distinction when these arguments are poured out.

Consider intelligence as a constituent of moral concern. Our critic could say: “We should care about human beings because of their intelligence.” Firstly, not all humans are (highly) intelligent. And if we were, are we to treat those of lesser intelligence differently? As philosophers have pointed out, should an IQ-test determine whether intellectual people be made into the upper-class of society, whilst those of lesser intelligence be made their slaves? This is nonsense. Secondly, consider a day-old baby. Is there any doubt that an adult gorilla – who can build nests, communicate using sign-language, convey severe amounts of compassion and sympathy, and so on – is smarter than our newborn? The gorilla would easily win a battle of wits against this child; but would people start treating the infant with less concern? Of course not.

But we can pick any aspect of human identity: intelligence, consciousness, etc. All of these are (1) lacking in some human beings, such as the severely mentally handicapped and day-old human infants and (2) there are nonhuman animals who surpass members of our species in nearly every way, especially in the groups just mentioned.

There is therefore nothing special about our species that makes us more worthy of concern absolutely than nonhuman animals. More importantly, there is nothing special about being a human that automatically licences us being morally special.

So, a human is not necessarily a person – since nonhumans could easily constitute and fill gaps we consider special or the only refuge of human moral property. Also, day-old infants and the severly-mentally handicapped, who are members of our species, would not fill any of the requirements that are fleshed out when people elaborate on why being a human being is something worth constituting moral concern.

The second major problem arises when people talk about the potential of the foetus. A critic could say: “Fine. The foetus might be a human being but it is not a person. Yet, unlike a chimpanzee or gorilla, it has the potential to become a person. Therefore, we should grant it the rights to be treated as such. And, as such, aborting this potential person (PP) is killing a defenceless person, which is murder.”

Our critic has some unimportant points: ‘murder’ is different from ‘killing’, as I have pointed out elsewhere. ‘Killing’ is a neutral term, which means bringing about the end of some biological life. Deliberate or otherwise is unimportant at this point. ‘Murder’, on the other hand, is deliberate killing of a being who does not want to die. When the pendulum attached to murder swings the other way, we have something like euthanasia or suicide. I do not think killing an innocent human being is necessarily immoral or wrong, because a great act of compassion could be to put him out of further and needless suffering. But this is not the space for that debate.

Working backwards, our critic is not even correct. Firstly, it is not automatically murder to kill an innocent human being. There are acts of compassion which means taking the life of someone who wants to die. Indeed, parents are today able to abort foetuses they know would suffer if brought to term. This is not murder but suffering prevention.

Yet, the most important element of our critic’s point is the infamous “potentiality argument”. That is, unlike chimpanzees and gorillas, the foetus has the potential to become a fully-flourishing person. Nevertheless, the argument from potentiality has another fatal flaw: how far should we take the potentiality? John Harris, for example, highlights that we all have the potential for death. Should we treat each other as corpses? Certainly not. Yet, we all definitely have the potential to become human corpses (gorillas can definitely not become human corpses). And indeed, why treat the foetus as an alive, flourishing human being – it has the potential to become a mass murderer too and a corpse one day.  The age-old Beethoven fallacy (“you might abort the next Beethoven, Chopin, Mandela, etc.”) for example makes a mockery of this, since who says you could not also be aborting Hitler or Mao?

Lord Windsor’s claim that abortion is worse than Al-Quaeda’s attack displays a profound ignorance of what is truly troubling for our times. There is nothing special about being a human being that warrants immediate moral concern; given this, treating a foetus as if it is a person, because it is a member of our species, is fallacious. Secondly, though it has the potential to become a person, it is also has the potential to become dead, a mass murderer, etc. In fact, we all have such potential. Yet morality should operate on how we are, not the millions of possibilities we could become.

We should be more fearful of living men would make others like their own ideas: dead. Muslim extremists are not some bogey-men but all too real. The most awful enemy is one unafraid to show himself because he is defended by those who should be your allies. Islam in its assumption of being special, as being the final in a line of irrational thinking about the universe and human life in general, has direct effects much like all forms of arrogant, irrational and bigoted thought. As HL Mencken said: “Religion is fundamentally opposed to everything I hold in veneration — courage, clear thinking, honesty, fairness, and, above all, love of the truth.” Yes, we can make a special case for Islamic extremists, but we need not. Any religious extremists, any ideological extremists, are worthy of our concern. And those who think such beliefs do not result in deaths, genocides and the worst forms of horror are living beneath a blanket of ignorance woven from the fibres of silent tears. A cry in the dark, a quiver in shadows, suffering in pitiless horror, still happens because people choose to continue idiocy, continue unnecessary horror. To throw off these blankets requires us to seriously focus our concerns and – today – our concerns are not the “unborn” but the “Reborn”.