The Life You Can Save
As progressives go, Patrick S. Tomlinson isn’t the worst kind of progressive, but it’s difficult to overly like him. He’s not a bad guy, but his approach to online interactions — even when his sparring partners are polite — makes you wish a comet would graze his house.
Big on sneering; kinda ignorant; a well-meaning-but-zealoted practitioner of social justice, who publicly lambasts and shames people for “not understanding science” all the while misunderstanding every point he’s trying to make. He uses erroneous philosophical reasoning to prove you “wrong,” and then — when you don’t concede his point — he’ll call you out as someone of bad faith: a liar.
In short: he’s a good guy, but a bit of a fool at times. A species of Dunning-Kruger; made flesh. And the tell-tale trait? They’re ignorant, but don’t know they’re ignorant; by definition. For that’s how ignorance rolls, and keeps rolling.
I don’t want him to change his mind on abortion — I just want him to change his mind about pro-lifers. And whilst he is right that the pro-life movement have their moments of 100% intellectual dearth, I’m not sure Patrick is up to the challenge either?!
Why? We’ll see.
Warning: whilst I see abortion as a necessary evil, this whole ‘thought experiment’ amounts to little more than a great, steaming handful of fetid dung, smeared on a toilet wall in child-like glee. Basically: It doesn’t make any sense. But, when you award yourself pre-hoc bragging rights, and you’re the subject of such admiration — 56,000 likes and 26,000 retweets at my last count — why feel the need to make sense?!
On October 17th, 2017, Patrick posted a ten tweet thread, posing a logical question over the moral nature of abortion: are viable human embryos morally equivalent to actual human beings?
His purpose was to draw the pro-lifers out of hiding and force them to concede that, in a life-&-death choice between a baby and 1000 embryo’s, they would choose the baby; every time.
Instinctively, this feels like a fairly obvious position.
I’ve written the tweets out below, numbered 1–10, but — for the sake of transparency — you can find the original thread here. Read away, and then we’ll crack on with why he didn’t actually “destroy” anything.
1. Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the “Life begins at Conception” crowd. In ten tears, no one has EVER answered it honestly.
2. It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question.
3. Here it is. You’re in a fertility clinic. “Why” Isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As your run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help.
4. They’re in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embyos.” The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one.
5. Do you A) save the child, or B) save the embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will.
6. They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.” A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically.
7. This question absolutely evicerates their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true. No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child. That person does not exist. They are lying to you.
8. They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency. No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who claim to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women.
9. Don’t let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don’t, slap that big ol’ Scarlett P of the Patriarchy on them. The end.
10. Because a lot of people are missing the point, it is not being argued the embryos are not alive. Nor is it being argued they are without value. All that is being demonstrated is their value is not equal to that of a human child. That’s it. That’s the point.
Sounds reasonable right?
On the surface, yeah.
Once you think about it for three seconds, no.
“They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.”
First off: Patrick is begging the question.
And no, begging the question does not mean posing one question in order to ask a secondary, more pertinent, question.
“he said he didn’t steal the money, which begs the question: who did?”
No. ‘Begging the Question’ actually means…
To assume the conclusion in order to defend the conclusion.
It’s a logical fallacy; similar to circular reasoning. A good example of this might be…
“Jesus’ existence as the son of God is best evidenced by his place in that wonderful book, the word of God itself, The Bible”
The speaker is having to assume The Bible itself has supreme veracity in order to assert that Jesus — a fixture of The Bible — has veracity too. He is assuming the position before the authenticity of the position can been argued as coherent. He is begging the question.
At numerous points, Patrick says things like…
In ten tears, no one has EVER answered it honestly… The correct answer destroys their argument… There IS a correct answer… we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.”
I could go on like this infinitely — in truth, it might save time to just copy and paste Patrick’s entire screed. He assumes that his POV is correct by definition of it’s existence. He’s not interested in an argument, in a debate, in reasons, or in anything that might change his world-view.
His argument seems to be (paraphrasing):
Because everyone chooses the baby over the embroys, everytime, we can prove — through natural human inclination — that a baby has greater moral value.
Setting aside the fact that this is literally analogous to C.S. Lewis’ argument for the existence of God (that natural law is true in as much as it is manifestly true, universally) there are a number of logical sleight-of-hand’s going on.
In the following sections I’m going to try and illuminate some.
Not all. Just some.
“All that is being demonstrated is their value is not equal to that of a human child.”
Patrick neglects the fact that choosing the baby isn’t a ‘moral action’ but merely an emotional preference: we see the baby, we feel compelled to save it, so we save it. But this doesn’t prove anything, other than we are emotionally moved when we see a baby.
A couple of initial objections:
- We might all feel the same compulsion, yes. But unless you think morals are mandated from heaven, you can’t use behaviour as “proof” of anything.
- I’m emotionally moved when I see my mother — does this mean other people’s mothers have less value than mine? No: It just means I value mine over yours, and I would definitely save her from a burning building before I saved yours.
- What if, like a lot of pseudo-intellectuals, I think life has no inherent value? I’m not a psychopath, or a sociopath, I’m just someone who’s read too much Marx, hates ecological destruction (“Ermagherd! I hate people! Aren’t animals just SO much better?!”), voted Remain (“fucking Brexiters need to die! HUMANS ARE STUPID!!!”) and regularly adopts a ‘snarky Bill Hicks voice’: “we’re just a virus with shoes.”
What do these conclusions mean? What do they say, ultimately, about moral choices?
Tell you what, let’s try a different one:
- Same fire, same baby, same 1000 embryos. This time, it’s a guy who is motivated by money. If he saves the baby: adoration. If he saves the embryos: potential cash reward. It’s not that he doesn’t care about the baby, he just values money more. And who hasn’t done things they disliked for money?
“Yeah, but Ali, seriously, who would ever do that?
Some people would.
Yeah, I know you wouldn’t. Don’t worry, silly: your chastity is intact. Some people might not save either: they would just stand and watch the building burn. Would you risk your life to save someone you didn’t know?
I can already hear you:
Alistair, the thought experiment clearly states that you have to make a decision.
Wow, what a stroke of luck: Patrick has thought up an experiment with exactly the right variables, in which I have to choose one of the two things Patrick has chosen for me, when, if it were in real life, I — or anyone — might make a completely different choice.
What a coincidence!
When the terms and conditions of a thought experiment have been ratcheted this tight, then your “choice” is hardly a choice at all.
And again: in terms of “moral value,” ultimately, what does any of this mean?!
He does, however, try to resolve this issue by asserting there is (to Patrick, at least) an obvious ‘hierarchy of legitimacy’ to the spectrum of human life.
To Patrick, it’s not that embryo’s have zero value; they just have less. But, again, this is dishonest to the point of being an out-and-out lie.
To designate something as having ‘less value,’ and then use that ‘lesser value’ as a justification for it’s obliteration it is to declare it valueless. And in matters of life & death, the capacity to even be considered means everything.
(Note for the following section: Let me be crystal: Patrick is not racist. I’ve never seen him make a racist statement, neither has he — or would he — endorse one. In fact, his mode of politics (heavy progressive) pushes in the exact opposite direction. Ultimately, his arguments take the form of a decent intention with an erroneous conclusion)
Let’s look at the following statement:
I’m not saying black people have no value, I’m just saying they have less value. That is why they are illegitimate in negotiating the terms and conditions of their being enslaved.
If the above sentiment is abhorrent to you (and I hope it is) you will notice the way in which the utterance seeks to cover it’s own dishonesty with an air of intellectual rigour. It defines the problem away. The speaker isn’t denying the agency of people of colour. They’re just denying it plays a part in the debate over how they should be treated: they’re people, sure, but not enough to be taken in real consideration.
Many have scratched their head over how the Declaration of Independence could have declared all men equal, but somehow walk hand-in-hand with slavery for so long? The answer: you create a taxonomy of ‘man’ — a caste system of sapiens— and use it to write POC out of the constitution by declaring them less-than-fully-human. North Korea use a similar linguistic trick when it comes to adressing the question of concentration camps in the DPRK: they don’t use the term ‘concentration camp.’ Therefore, they don’t have any.
The embryo has value, but it’s not like ours, so theirs doesn’t matter.
The conclusion of this line-of-thinking is that anyone with an intellectual capacity — perceived or otherwise — that falls below the declared standard (a standard decided by people other than the group effected, no less) should be written out of the human race altogether: the indolent, the feeble, the weak, the disabled, the mentally impaired.
What to do with these people? That’s not up to them — it’s up to us — and it has no barometer other than that which we choose to agree on.
You can already see where this is going, can’t you?
There is now an argument to be made that anyone who is severely brain-damaged and under the care of the state (a ward, if you like) should be thrown into the grinder and turned into soylent green/red/yellow/whatever colour is your favourite — we make all kinds here! Take this road and, within minutes, you enter a land where no lights mark the horizon and your conclusions are completely coherent.
When firmly placed in the context of life & death — to say an embryo has less value is to say it has zero value. And, if we extend this principle, any decision you make within this thought experiment — within any version of this thought experiment — will declare the neglected party an ‘unworthy quantity.’
Babies over embryos; this feeling over that feeling, and let’s hear no more about it.
Fuck your mum.
“their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true”
Their refusal to answer confirms you have placed them in a philosophical bind that they don’t know how to work through. Either because they don’t have the capacity to deal with the question — most people don’t spend their days thinking at this level (this includes you, Patrick.) Or because they find choosing A over B, or B over A, an unanswerable prospect.
I recently had a conversation with a pro-abortion friend over eugenics and social darwinism. They declared both of them acts of evil (I agree.) But when I pointed out that, through abortion, Iceland has virtually eradicated any instance of Downs Syndrome from their societies, she declared she didn’t want to talk about it anymore and promptly changed the subject.
My friend isn’t a coward, neither was she “wrong” about abortion. But there is a limit to the logic of our moral choices. And when you drill down on them, our morals— and by extension, those who hold them — hit the wall, and they hit it pretty fucking quick. Like a whale, brazen in it’s natural habit, they forget to watch for shore, and, before you know it, they’ve beached.
The people Patrick is antagonising with his “high-brow” moral questioning aren’t cowards: they’re either genuinely torn, or can’t find a meaningful answer to give.
To Patrick, of course, they’re not “torn,” because obvious answers are obvious, and the answer is always his — funny that! Their reticence belies an internal contradiction; that they’re cowering from the fervour of his intellectual poise.
This particular brand of dick-headed-ness is what occurs when you conclude your answer is the “right” answer before you even enter into the discussion. It also, quite neatly, seals you off from other POV’s that might alter your way of thinking.
(If we were talking a 1:1 choice, what would the moral value of the ‘left behind’ be?)
“I don’t need to conceive their argument, because I know I’m right and unless they answer the way I want them to answer it means they’re either lying or scared”
Patrick might do well to remember that in a situation as described, you would probably have to make agonising decisions over not just babies and embryos, but babies over other babies; people over other people.
Leaving someone behind doesn’t mean they have less value — it just means you had to make a decision. It doesn’t matter if you make the same choice, over and over and over again — it still says nothing about the subjects of your choice.
How do we know this?
During WWII, Jews in Germany were forced to make agonising decisions over the fate of family members. A real life “baby in the burning building” scenario. The most famous example was encapsulated in the novel Sophie’s Choice.
Question: does the fact Sophie chooses to hand her daughter over to the Nazi’s — in order to keep her son — implicitly mean her daughter has less value? And now the daughters value is explicitly lessened, does this mean she deserves to be experiemented on, cut up, and then killed?
If you answer ‘no’ to both, you might want to rethink the premise of this whole “thought experiment” thing.
If Patrick’s assertion is right — that it’s not a case of ‘Value Vs. No Value,’ but a hierachy of values to be given an order of preference and consideration — then choosing the baby is an explicit statement that embryos have less value. And, if that’s true, then does the choice of the son over the daughter declare, explicitly, that the daughter is like the embryo: of a lesser value, and, therefore, valueless?
We know it doesn’t.
And yet, if we take his thought experiment at face-value, we must concede it does.
“A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically.”
Imagine the following scenario:
You are a robot. You have a direct order to protect life. And you find yourself in a burning building.
As you stand in the lobby you look to your left: a room with a baby in it, screaming in fear. You look to your right: what you know to be an authentic Picasso, hanging on the wall. The fire is intense, the smoke is thick, you know you haven’t got long.
Which one do you save and why?
This will seem insane to most readers: you save the baby, obviously.
A human is a human, and a painting is canvas and paint. In terms of material value, they are incomparable.
But, in order to compell machines to make ethical and moral choices, we have to impress the value of human life upon them by force. We can’t trust the robot to “think” for itself and come to a conclusion, because – like so much of our ethical life – a moral choice isn’t actually a rational one, and cannot be framed, or found, in a rational way.
For the sake of argument, let’s take Patrick’s statement as true: a human child is, indeed, worth more than a thousand/ten-thousand/one-million embryo’s. The existence of a real life, flesh & blood human has primacy over however many mere “potentials.”
But, if we take this to be true, then we must also conclude that, under these exact conditions, there is only one moral action: save the Picasso.
Right now, Sub-Saharan Africa is home to 90% of the world’s malaria cases. Malaria has an agonisingly high mortality rate, and to give you some perspective of the long shadow of death it has cast upon mankind :
Malaria kills one child every 30 seconds, about 3000 children every day. Over one million people die from malaria each year, mostly children under five years of age, with 90 per cent of malaria cases occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 300–600 million people suffer from malaria each year. (source here)
I don’t need to tell you, but I will anyway: that’s a lot.
This collection of Picasso ceramics fetched $10,000,000 at auction. A mosquito net costs around £2.50 and will protect two people (that’s two already existing people) for 3–4 years. Just by doing some quick math we can work out that if Sotheby’s were kind enough to donate the sale money to the Against Malaria Foundation then we could save, theoretically, 8 million people for a period of at least 3–4 years. And, if you reduce the amount of people you are trying to save, you can increase the life-span of the people you can save.
If the robot in the burning building knows the Picasso is real — pre-existing knowledge, a quick scan revealing it’s legitimacy, etc. — then the only moral choice is to rescue the painting, sell it at auction, and use the proceeds to buy, and distribute, mosquito nets to people who currently alive.
When comparing millions of lives against one, there is no comparison. And Patrick, weirdly (suddenly) Utilitarian in his outlook, agrees with us.
(note: the original tweet — now deleted — asked Patrick that if it were a choice between a) one family member, and B) 1000 people, what would he choose?)
(Note: in the following, Patrick veers between saying because people do a certain thing, that demonstrates moral primacy, and saying because he chooses to do a certain thing; that, also, assigns moral primacy. He is confusing how morality is defined (notably because he thinks whatever he thinks is “good” and whatever other people think is “bad”) but, for the sake of keeping a lid on the can of worms, I’m not going to address it.)
So, quick recap:
- Patrick thinks, in a burning building, everyone instinctively chooses the baby over embryos. Conclusion: the baby, a living human child, has moral primacy. A logical inference.
- But, in a choice between a single person (a family member, no less) and one-thousand people, we should choose the one-thousand. I’m dubious that Patrick would actually do this (“fuck my living mother! I’m saving these people I’ve never met before!”), but I’m willing to accept it. A collective subcedes the individual on a moral level. This is a rational argument; not a moral one.
- BUT, in a choice between one baby (or, even, one-thousand babies) and an authentic Picasso, we should choose the Picasso. Whilst Patrick never authenticates this position, his primacy for 1000 > 1 confirms it. The quantity of human life you can save is, in the end, everything.
I don’t think I need to explain how fucking crazy this line of thinking is.
The moral decision has nothing to do with ‘actual life’ over ‘potential life.’ It has nothing to do with weighing rational variables and processing them in a logic machine called ‘The Brain.”
In a burning building you save the baby because the baby is sitting right in front of you. It is, quite literally, the life you can save, and you have a moral responsibility to the baby being that you are in it’s presence.
You save the baby because you can save the baby.
Yeah, you could choose the Picasso and the Africans and the embryos, and I wouldn’t hold it against you if you did. But there are Africans dying right now, and I doubt Mr Tomlinson is putting his hand in his pocket. He can’t be that fussed about the so-called ‘hierarchy of life’ — he’s barely observing it himself.
I’m in the UK where, for £10 a month, I could provide twenty people with nets, every month. But I’m not. Does this mean I’m “immoral” person? Maybe it does. But, if it does, we’re going to have to re-draw the lines of moral / immoral in such a way that everyone will be drawn into disrepute.
In short: focussing on what is in front of you doesn’t make you a bad person, and it doesn’t mean you don’t give a shit about one-thousand babies, my mum, millions of Africans or the multitude of variables that are otherwise neglected.
Choosing a single baby over one-thousand embryos means you chose a baby over one-thousand embryos. It says nothing about the intrinsic value, OR the moral value or your choice.
Robocop or 27 Dresses?
What does this say about 27 Dresses?
Nothing. It just means I like Robocop.
“No one believes embryos are babies, or children”
In the UK, you can have an abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. There are still options to have an abortion after this stage, but that is at the Dr’s discretion — i.e. the mother is in medical danger, etc.
Up to the point of 24 weeks (5 months) the baby is — by definition — not a human. It can’t be. Because that would make it a murder. And we all know it’s not a murder because we use the word ‘abortion,’ and one word is not analogous to the other.
That’s how logic works, kiddo.
Now, stay with me, we’re about to go full dark; no stars…
If you were, say, four moths pregnant, and I chloroformed you, dragged you to my clinic, performed a forced-abortion on you…what crime have I committed?
It can’t be murder.
Assault and property damage? Like i’ve just punched you and smashed up your laptop? Maybe. All I’ve done is stolen something from you. Yeah, you might cry, but who gives a shit: it’s just a thing. Make another one.
Maybe it’s like I killed your pet? Maybe. But, even then it’s just an animal. Cruel? Sure. Inhuman? Be serious.
This all sounds grotesque, but facts are facts: your baby isn’t a human; and you can’t murder something that isn’t human. You can’t even accuse me of “killing your child,” because, a) It’s not a child, and b) had you wanted to, you could have walked to the clinic and had your non-human non-murdered by a clinician with a pair of really strong scissors.
If someone tells us “I was assaulted, and, as a result, I lost my baby,” our heart breaks for them — they have suffered an act of pure, malevolent evil.
If someone tells us “I had an abortion,” we tell them they had the “right” to — for it’s not a real human and it’s her body, her choice — and think nothing of it.
Schrödingers baby: it’s both human and not-human, all at once.
VIII : Conclusion
Though I’m pro-abortion, I have to confess: deep down, somewhere in the basement of my soul, I must accept the fact abortion isn’t good. Somewhere, along the path, we’ve made a wrong turn, and now we’re having to engage in an act of suffering to bring us back to centre.
When a battle-hardened soldier is embroiled a righteous war with an increasingly hostile and evil enemy, the soldier will always be thinking: “I wish this wasn’t happening.” Even though, on some level he understands it’s justified, he’s not enjoying killing his enemy. The same goes for someone having an abortion. No one thinks: “I’m glad this is taking place. This is easy” No. They’re usually praying for it to be over.
That says something. It’s not my place to say what. We each need to draw our own conclusions.
If you’re a proud anti-racist and you are confronted by a card-carrying racist — cajolling you for being “too accepting of those bloody [insert racial slur here]!!!” — your reaction would be to laugh in their face; not to get all teary-eyed and say how unfair it was to try and make you reject your closely-held moral beliefs. Their world cannot touch yours.
If people truly believe that abortion has zero moral dimension, then no amount of pro-lifers, touting images of aborted foetuses, would put them off from seeking an abortion. If seeing this makes you feel bad then it’s maybe not the placard-carriers, but your psyche telling you something.
There’s a reason we say “pro-choice” and not “pro-abortion” — saying “pro-abortion” makes us uncomfortable. It reminds us of what it is.
I once had a conversation with a group of pro-life Christians — bloody foetus placards in hand — who were standing outside The Wistons Clinic, Brighton. I swaggered across the road, full of my intellectual superiority (I might as well have had a copy of The God Delusion in my back pocket — I was that obnoxious), and promptly engaged them in dishonest conversation: I asked “what are you doing?”
It was dishonest because I knew what they were doing, and I was actually looking for an oppotunity to contradict them — I was so fucking clever and was about to show it.
Three responses I remember:
We just think it’s wrong to kill babies at any stage. People deserve the right to life.
If they don’t want the baby, then they could always give birth and give it up for adoption. There are millions of people who would love to adopt.
I don’t think a life should pay for someone else’s mistake.
You’d have to take every single word in bad faith in order to dismiss these reasons out of hand. Especially the adoption one. That takes some serious soul-searching.
They weren’t patriarchal, authoritarian lunatics trying to control people through the fire, brimstone, and the yoke of motherhood. They just didn’t think abortion was…very nice? And felt the best way to convince people of this was to confront them with the reality of it.
Whilst this comes across as gross to a lot of people (fair) I have sympathies for this approach.
Many people think vegetarianism / veganism is a ridiculous position, unworthy of moral status, and deserving of scorn and ridicule. But show them a video of animals being killed in a factory farm and they’ll command you — sometimes hysterically — to turn it off. Meat tastes wonderful, but the reality can make you lose your appetite. It’s why we choose to push it away.
The reality reminds us this is life & death; that we have a responsiblity. And it’s the reason we vote for more and more government: we really don’t want responsibility. What we really want is a machine. A perfect mechanism that constructs Utopian dreams. That allows us to rewrite past choices. That builds both heaven and earth, and allows us to move them at will.
Like Tony Montana, we really do think we can have it all.
We really do think the world can be ours.
In this sense, when we understand that abortion isn’t nice, can we call it a “moral” choice? It seems strange to say ‘absolutely, yes.’
Does it have a moral dimension? Does it have practical use? You’d be lying if you said ‘absolutely, not.’
Morality and practicality aren’t opposites. They don’t even live in the same universe. Not a thread joins them. One is a principle that guides your life; the other changes depending on what way the wind is blowing. There is no right and wrong answer to this puzzle. There is just what you feel, in your gut, and that is what guides your life. You and you alone have to decide what universe you want to live in.
I know which one I want to live in, but I find it hard to justify. And dismissing people with genuine concerns as purveyors of the “big ol’ scarlett P of the Patriarchy” isn’t going to change that fact. Declaring them liars isn’t going to change that fact. Creating a bizarre thought-experiment that forces a particular outcome and declares all other values null & void isn’t going to change that fact.
But then again, what did I expect from someone who, when faced with a meaningful philosophical question — something we will struggle with until the species goes extinct — snarks-off “The Big Bang” as a retort?
Jesus, take the wheel.