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Personhood and Value

Part 7 in Arc’s series on abortion

Eugene von Guerard, “Bush fire between Mount Elephant and Timboon” (1857)

Yesterday was, among other things, a tale of two commenters.

One of them, a nasty troll with nothing of value to add, tried her hardest to derail the discussion and to report me to my university. The other one, Andrés Ruiz, spent considerable time and energy leaving insightful and thoughtful comments to a number of our posts.

I want to honor Ruiz’ contributions to the debate by giving him a post of his own. So here’s a collection of his comments and the responses I left to some of them.

Notice that Ruiz is critical of my position, and yet I’m taking time to platform his comments and to hold them up as examples of intellectually serious engagement. This desire to promote intelligent commentary, no matter where it falls on the ideological spectrum, is a hallmark of Arc — you might even call it a hallmarc (I’ll show myself out).

Commenting on Part 1 in this series, Ruiz writes:

This is a wonderfully written post. I disagree with the conclusion, but that does not detract from how clear and concise and careful your writing was as well as your ability to accurately reflect the views of the philosophers in question (something many opponents of Thompson often fail to do).

My disagreement mainly stems from Marquis’s identifying the deprivation of a future of value as the wrong making property of abortion. For two reasons:

It is equally plausible that the wrong making property of killing someone is thwarting their desires. An individual who desires a long life is wronged because killing him or her thwarted that desire. And this is plausible because it’s intuitively something many of us already hold: killing someone against their wishes is worse than killing someone who desires to die. Hence why many of us are proponents of euthanasia for terminally ill patients who face a future of suffering followed by death.

The deprivation of a future view has counterintuitive results: if an individual is terminally ill, and it is clear that he has, say, a few hours to live, it would still be wrong to kill him or her if they want to let nature take its course. Under Marquis’s view, extremely senile persons with no future of value would not be as morally wrong to kill, because you’re not depriving them of a future they otherwise would have had. But on myview, killing someone is wrong because you’re doing something against their will, because you’re ignoring their desire to die a certain way. In this view, killing the terminally ill against their wishes is wrong regardless of how long they have to live. In Marquis’s view, it becomes far more difficult to provide a plausible account of killing the terminally ill if they’re likely to die extremely soon anyway.

But besides my objections, this piece was excellent!

In Part 2, I wrote:

If Marquis is right that what makes killing you or I wrong is the same thing that makes killing a fetus wrong, then there is nothing that can trump this consideration on the hierarchy of moral values.

To which Ruiz replied:

Actually, there would be. Even if Marquis is right, Thompson’s violinist argument would establish that in cases of rape and childhood incest (another type of rape), the killing of that fetus would be justified.

Although I was referring to normal cases, I’ll comment here just to say that I disagree that Thomson has “established” anything of the sort. She certainly thinks her violinist thought experiment justifies abortion in these cases, and she thinks many people would agree with her, but I am not convinced.

Ruiz goes on:

Marquis can at most provide us with a reason to doubt the moral permissibility of abortion under normal circumstances where there is no concern about saving the life of the mother or when the mother has been raped and become pregnant as a result.

So the conservative needs to be extremely careful here because Marquis’s argument does nothing to show that all abortion is impermissible, because in many cases there are moral considerations about the safety of the mother or her right to bodily autonomy in the presence of a forced pregnancy that are overriding moral reasons that supplant the considerations raised by Marquis.

Even if this is right — which in my piece I was more or less sidestepping since reasonable people from the “pro-life” camp can and do disagree about whether to allow “exceptions” to abortion’s impermissibility — the result would be a resounding success. If all Marquis’ argument establishes is the impermissibility of abortion in most cases, this would represent a spectacular victory for the “pro-life” side.

Again in Part 2, I wrote:

It’s not like someone can plausibly say: “Yes, I killed that adult unjustly (or child), but should the state punish me for it?” This question wouldn’t really make sense to us.

If Marquis’ argument succeeds, then you can plug “fetus” into that sentence and you should get the exact same result.

Ruiz replied:

Not quite. If Marquis succeeds then what makes it bad to kill a fetus is because you’re depriving it of a future of value.

But then the question arises as to whether or not it is ever justified to deprive a person or a fetus of a future. And many of us seem to think that there areseveral instances in which killing others may be justified (certain kinds of war, self defense, defending another innocent person, etc.)

And it is here where Thompson type considerations come into play. Depriving the violinist of a valuable future might be bad, but forcing the person attached to him to carry him to term against her will for 9 months is alsobad. And in cases of mutually bad options, the question becomes which option we ought to proceed with.

So Marquis is a starting point, not the finish line.

If you’re assuming (a) the truth of Marquis’ theory of what it is that makes killing an innocent human being wrong and (b) that it is no different for a fetus, then, via the overridingness of the wrongness of killing an innocent human being, no other non-life-or-death consideration, such as, say, bodily autonomy, can plausibly trump the wrongness of killing a fetus.

If the above is an accurate reading of what you’re accepting, in your response, then Marquis is the finish line, not the starting point.

Toward the end of Part 2, I wrote:

Kaine calls himself a “devout Catholic,” yet the Catholic Church takes abortion to be murder. Does Kaine think it’s possibly justifiable to say: “I’m personally against murder, but okay with it legally”?

Ruiz replied:

I think there’s one way: if you recognize that the position of the church regarding abortion is based on very specific theological commitments about souls that are not and cannot be expected to be universally held by others living in your nation.

Analogously one can belong to a specific sect of Hinduism that considers certain animals sacred and the killing of them to be extremely immoral, yet nevertheless recognize that said beliefs are not universally held by those in one’s nation, and that said beliefs can only be defended on theological grounds, not on the basis of public reasons, so this individual can be justified in holding to the immorality of killing said animals while upholding that our democracy is better off when it does not take itself to be the enforcer of theological beliefs that cannot be reasonably expected to be held by all or most of its citizens on the basis of reasons accessible and available to all.

This, conceptually, is in the same neighborhood as my position on why I take abortion to be murder yet don’t prescribe the same set of legal consequences for its occurrence. With garden-variety murder, we should toss everyone who was involved in prison, with the worst actors even getting the guillotine. Not so much when it comes to abortion. In a future post I’ll spell out my position more fully.

But there is a danger to this position, and the danger has to do with the enlightenment deficit, as it were, between a notion that I’ll call ideal public reasonableness and the unreasonableness of the masses. That sentence is not so easy to grasp, so I’ll untangle it a bit. By “enlightenment deficit” I mean the intellectual gap, the reasonableness gap, between an ideal reasoner and the folks who actually populate our societies.

Take Nazi Germany as a preliminary example. Let’s say that the belief that Jews are sub-human is held by a majority of the population. This is obviously an abhorrent position to take. Whether through genuine racism or through being misled (i.e. via propaganda), the majority takes a Jew to not amount to a person, and, concomitantly, to not be in possession of human rights. The “public reasons” that are “accessible and available to all” within this society are such that there is great controversy over whether Jews are persons.

But we would think it’s a very strange position — deeply immoral, even — to take Jews as being persons, with human rights, but to also think it should be legally permissible to exterminate them.

The problem here is the enlightenment gap between what people on the ground believe and what people as ideal reasoners would believe. If we could ensure the latter, then this formula for finessing personal/legal distinctions would be plausible. Because only the more defensible set of reasons would form the set of public reasons.

The problem is we can’t ensure this. So how confident should a Christian be that the public reasons in his or her society are the right ones (right as in “defensible” or “reasonable” — not as in “accurate”)? What if the entire society is just missing it so very badly? This is the sentiment Christians take toward the abortion debate. It is clear to us, for theological and philosophical reasons, that abortion is a great wrong. A corresponding sentiment is that the public reasons deployed to argue against this view are so very badly mistaken.

The very presence of widespread disagreement is not enough to justify, for us, the personal/legal distinction the way Kaine has used it. Just as the disagreement within Nazi Germany would not have justified the distinction there, either.

We get results such as: “My religion says we should wear red hats on Saturdays but since I get that others don’t share these theological beliefs I won’t pursue enforced compliance.”

But what happens when the nature of the belief — whether theological, philosophical, or whatever (one shortcoming of your characterization is it specifically targeted ‘theological’ beliefs, when a better formulation would’ve generalized it further as ‘beliefs stemming from one’s conception of the good’ — a formulation that doesn’t target religious conceptions but includes any kind of comprehensive picture of the world) — is not held to be a theological article, or a theological distinctive, but constitutive of reality?

Souls, certainly, are a theological article (despite the fact that the people who believe in them outnumber the people who don’t), but the theologically-driven anti-abortion position doesn’t depend on the theological framework even though that’s how a church might profess the matter when giving its self-presentation. In other words, the position that abortion is wrong is the kind of belief that, even if it has a theological formulation, also has a public-reason-backed version as well.

Just like it would be off to say: “I’m against killing Jews, but since I get that your conception of the good includes seeing Jews as subhuman, I’m all right with you doing it legally,” so too should it be off to say: “I’m against killing babies, but since I get that your conception of the good includes seeing them as a clump of cells, I’m all right with you doing it legally.”

Staying with the same quote from Part 2, in which I wrote:

Kaine calls himself a “devout Catholic,” yet the Catholic Church takes abortion to be murder. Does Kaine think it’s possibly justifiable to say: “I’m personally against murder, but okay with it legally”?

Ruiz writes:

There are also overriding utilitarian considerations. You cannot simply assume that recriminalizing abortion would reduce the number of abortions performed.

Not only is this claim empirically obvious, but even if it did we must take into consideration the reality of black market abortions that are significantly more dangerous to the lives of the women who undergo them, and it is undeniable that the real world consequences of driving abortion underground and the harms and deaths it will lead to for those women mustbe taken into moral consideration. Even if you think abortion is murder, there are plenty of open moral considerations that can easily sway you to accept that despite its immorality, its illegality would cause more harm and suffering in the world than at present, and so all else being equal its continued legal status is morally justified.

This is too fast.

I think what should be said is that if you’re operating within a utilitarian framework the empirical question of whether recriminalizing abortion would lead to more net harm overall is a salient consideration. But if, say, you’re operating under a deontological framework it’s not at all clear, and in fact it’s not very likely, that this consideration should matter.

Under a deontological scheme, murder is overridingly bad, even if outlawing it introduces more harm into the world than allowing it.

But, yes, if utilitarianism seems right to you then this would absolutely be a relevant, and even significant, consideration.

In Part 4, I wrote:

Does Grossman think it’s coherent to say “Killing an innocent person is immoral but should be legal”? No, because there’s no consideration that we think is capable of overriding the wrongness of murder. It’s a trump card, as it were.

Ruiz responds:

Philando Castile’s killing is a counter example. The law does allow killing of innocent people in many circumstances. Collateral damage in the military, and the killing of an innocent person like Philando Castile at the hands of a police officer on the grounds that “he feared for his life”, despite there not being any real reason to have been fearful in that context.

The entire point of the black lives matter movement was to raise awareness of how ridiculously common it is for police officers to be acquitted after killing innocent civilians on grounds as flimsy as “fearing for their lives”, regardless of whether there actually was a real threat to the officer in question.

If you agree that this is a problem then you must concede the legal reality and so accept that the law already takes there to be cases in which killing of innocents is justified.

If you don’t think there’s a problem with police officers routinely being acquitted after killing innocent civilians then presumably you agree with the legal and moral reasoning that fearing for your life is an overriding moral justification for killing an innocent civilian, so you must grant that there areoverriding reasons that can tip the scales in favor of morally justifying killing an innocent person at least sometimes.

Whenever I speak of the “killing of an innocent person” I’m referring to publicly agreed-upon cases of unjustified killings. This isn’t begging the question because the entire point of Marquis’ argument is to begin with cases that everyone agrees constitute unjustified killings. That’s the common ground starting point. He’s in essence saying: “See that activity that you and I and everyone else thinks is super wrong? Abortion is like that.”

That’s precisely the force of the argument. Otherwise, the argument would be bizarre: “See that action whose morality we disagree about? Abortion is like that.”

What follows from what I’m saying here? That if you give me an instance of killing which does not have this agreed-upon wrongness, it obviously doesn’t apply to what we’re talking about.

Marquis would say that for the same reasons we take killing an adult wrong (in cases which we agree), we should take killing Philando Castile wrong, or killing non-combatants wrong. He could, in essence, deploy an argument in the same way toward the very cases you’re bringing up. So I don’t see how this is supposed to problematize Marquis or the concept of murder’s overridingness.

Yes, people often get this wrong or fail to apply murder’s overridingness, but that doesn’t mean there’s something off about the principle.

In Part 4, I characterized Grossman as being guilty of evading Marquis:

Notice what has happened here. Marquis offered an argument without recourse to the notion of personhood, but Grossman brought it back in, and by doing so, avoided grappling with Marquis’ argument altogether!

Ruiz disagreed:

But he didn’t do that at all. “As far as morality is concerned, it’s a person” just means something along the lines of “for the sake of our moral calculation, it doesn’t matter if it’s a person or not, because its value is just the same”.

The follow up argument he presents after this doesn’t hinge on a fetus being a person at all, so nothing is lost on this alleged verbal slip. Because what matters is that the value of a fetus and a person is the same from the point of view of morality if we accept Marquis’s premises. So they might as well both be persons.

Had his follow up argument relied on the assumption that a fetus is a full blown person then this would be a good objection, but it doesn’t, so this objection misses the mark.

I don’t know what you’re taking his follow-up argument to be, but this is a crucial claim in Grossman’s follow-up as I understand it: “A fetus has moral value, but less moral value than a person.”

By construing Marquis as essentially relying on “personhood,” Grossman’s counterargument crucially introduced a continuum on value based on the “measure” of personhood a being possesses.

If we strip Grossman of his ability to couch this in terms of personhood, what does he have? A claim that “a fetus has moral value, but less moral value than a human adult.” But then how does this in any way respond to Marquis’ argument, which is a case for taking there to be no moral difference between an adult’s and a fetus’ “moral value” (to use Grossman’s term)?

In Part 6 of this series, Grossman writes:

An entity that is entirely inside of a person is different from an entity that is not. Their presents are different, and the latter has greater value.

Most people accept this intuitively, which is why they consider a child that dies in an accident a greater tragedy than a miscarriage.

Without challenging the notion that a fetus’ future of value is the same as an adult’s, Grossman seems to be introducing a separate difference maker. Whereas the fetus is “entirely inside of a person,” an adult is not.

I’m not clear if the succeeding claim, “their presents are different,” is an additional point or if it’s the factor that makes the “entirely inside of a person”/“outside of a person” a relevant consideration. I’m not sure how the state of being inside of another person would lessen the embedded being’s “moral value.”

Typically, when a consideration of this kind is made, it doesn’t result in a diminishing of the value of the embedded being, but a justification for killing it, given that it activates considerations of bodily autonomy. In Thomson’s violinist example, she didn’t assume that the violinist had some kind of lesser status for being entirely dependent on the host; rather, the violinist’s needs were seen (by Thomson) to not be strong enough to create an obligation on the part of the host to stay connected. But at no point in her piece did she make an objective distinction between the moral value of the violinist and the moral value of any other adult.

It’s true that most people consider the death of a young child to be more tragic than a miscarriage. I’ll leave this point untouched for the moment, but it would be interesting to explore at greater length why this is.

Again in Part 4, I wrote:

From a subjective standpoint, we value our lives.

Ruiz defended Grossman on this point:

Right. And this is what he was saying. Again, his argument doesn’t hinge on the idea that the fetus has a potential future of value but that we both have a present future of value and a potential one, his argument rests on what you just described, that a fetus has a future of value, but that we have a future of value and a present we value. The fetus does not have a present it values because fetuses and other certain types of undeveloped creatures aren’t the kinds of things that can presently value anything at all, because a certain kind of cognitive capacity and capability is a necessary condition for valuing anything at all.

The reason a fetus’s moral worth is not the same as an adult human, in this context, is that an adult and a human both have a future of value but only the human has a present he himself values, and killing the human is depriving him of his future of value and his presently valued life. The fetus doesn’t have a present it values, so you are depriving the adult of one thing that you cannot deprive the fetus of, its continued valuing of his present life.

It’s possible you and Grossman have a different reading of the “present value” that he’s bringing into the discussion. You’re conceiving of it as an inner sense, whereas Grossman told me has something like an objective difference in mind, one stemming from a distinction between dependent-existence (entirely inside another’s body) and independent-existence.

The way you’ve put it the two-tiered valuing — present and future — seems vulnerable to a counterexample of this kind: Imagine a comatose patient whom doctors assure is not presently valuing anything but whom doctors assure will emerge out of the coma in one day to go on and enjoy his or her life.

Would it be any less wrong to kill this patient than it would to kill anybody else? I don’t think any of us would think so.

And that’s because, intuitively, it’s the loss of the future of value, not the loss of the present valuing, that is doing all the wrongmaking work.

And here are some of Ruiz’ comments to which I’ve offered no reply.

In response to this claim:

The argument rides on a fetus having a future like ours, an ongoing life in pursuit of, and toward enjoyment of, hobbies, interests, relationships, thoughts, experiences, etc.

Ruiz writes:

I agree. Marquis isn’t smuggling in personhood to make his argument work.

But neither is your opponent here doing that. The strength of the argument doesn’t hinge on smuggling in personhood from either author.

In response to this claim from me:

In other words, let’s take a case that you and I agree represents a wrongful killing. Marquis is saying that killing a fetus is a case just like that. You are free to disagree with Marquis, but the burden rests on you to show how the two cases are not the same.

Ruiz writes:

Right, but Marquis’s conclusion cannot be that all abortion is wrong, only certain kinds of it. This needs emphasizing. Because just as not all killing is wrong, not all abortion is wrong because there can and are other moral considerations at play that will determine whether the killing was justified or unjustified. Marquis’s argument therefore needs to carefully be restricted as an argument for the immorality of certain types of abortion.

In response to this comment from me:

There could be health-related reasons why a being is unable to derive value from life (e.g. dysthymia), or it could be for environmental reasons (e.g. a life of unremitting torture), but we wouldn’t be able to tell at the fetal level.

Ruiz writes:

This undermines your argument.

If there are conditions that we know of that deprive human beings of deriving value from their lives, then necessarily every human being and every fetus only potentially has a future of value, because there is a possibility that said adult or fetus will develop those conditions, and since it’s a live possibility, it cannot be said that all fetuses have a future of value, because as you said, we can’t tell that early on, so we must conclude that they all have potential futures of value.

Here is the series in full.

Part 1: Abortion Is Wrong Even If The Fetus Is Not A Person by Berny Belvedere

Part 2: On Legality and Morality by Berny Belvedere

Part 3: The Legality and Morality of Abortion by Nicholas Grossman

Part 4: Misunderstanding Marquis by Berny Belvedere

Part 5: Abortion, Legality, and “Moral Value” by Ryan Huber

Part 6: What’s the Moral Value of a Fetus? by Nicholas Grossman

Part 7: Personhood and Value by Berny Belvedere




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Berny Belvedere

Editor in Chief of Arc Digital

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