Thursday, November 25, 2010


I posted this on a facebook group a while ago. It's what I think about the moral status of abortion.

I think the issue isn't whether or not a fetus is a human; they clearly are in the biological sense. The issue is whether or not they are persons and have the requisite rights and obligations accorded to such moral beings. Being human and a person is the distinction that is crucial to separate and which people from both sides of the debate often confuse.

Many humans do not have obligations and rights accorded to persons. Consider those who are brain dead but whose bodies are kept alive by artificial means. The persons once inhabiting their human bodies are dead in the legal and philosophical sense because they have no higher brain activity but their human bodies are kept alive. It is the higher brain activity that distinguishes a brain-dead individual whose body (human organism) is kept alive, and a fully functional person. A human kept alive in such a way will breath, have a pulse, fight infections, grow hair and nails, regulate body temperature, etc using the function of their lower and mid brains. But since these structures have nothing to do with consciousness, the individual has ceased to be with us. They have permanently lost the structures responsible for consciousness and an inner life.

We can also think of thought experiments with brain transplants. It seems that the brain is where the seat of the soul lies and once a brain (more specifically, upper brain or cerebrum) is transplanted to a new body, the individual person becomes transplanted to a new body as well. That seems to be our intuition regarding persons. Our soul is not situated in the rest of the body but in the brain.

If the seat of the soul is in the functional cerebrum, then an individual person does not exist until a functional cerebrum exists. This occurs after the 16th week of gestation (actually of fertilization between egg and sperm more specifically which is slightly different meaning but hardly relevant). > 95% of all abortions in the developed world occurs before this point. It is only then that there is sufficient neuro-eletrical activity begins in the cerebrum. Some developmental neuroscientists say that it occurs later at around the 18-20th week (>98% of all abortions occur before the 20th week) but we may want to be cautious and give the earlier date.

Some neuroscientists say that even more specifically, the seat of consciousness is the neocortex structure which is the outer layer of the cerebrum but this is recently invalidated 9at least for some individuals) by the existence of some people such as some in "vegetative" states (though most in these states are unconscious) do not have such structures and yet seem to be (by brain imaging experiments) fully responsive and conscious persons "locked in". That is, they respond to verbal and tactile stimuli but cannot respond physically but their brains behave in ways indicative of conscious responses to said stimuli.

Some say that what matters is consciousness itself and we only become conscious not after we have a functional cerebrum alone but after integration of the functional cerebrum with the rest of the central nervous system which occurs at around the 22-26th week of gestation. However, even if this is so, I still prefer the functional cerebrum criterion since I think we may have rights qua persons even before we become conscious much as unconscious people in comas seem to have rights only accorded to persons. That is, I believe that we should take the existence of a physically functional *entity* or physical structure responsible for consciousness rather than the consciousness itself as the criterion for the existence of that person. For technical reasons, I do not believe that a person actually is (i.e., identical) with their cerebrum but they do coincide (are coincident objects) together. I think persons are phase sortals (or phase objects) rather than substance sortals (or objects) of their functional brains.

Think of it like this. If you were to run your biological development backwards and started to get younger and younger eventually turning into a fetus etc, at what point in time would you have stopped being you? I think most people would not identify with a fetus that lacks a cerebrum but only relatively simple brain structures that regulate heart rate, breathing, body temp, etc. In fact, I think most people wouldn't even identify with someone in the very advanced stages of alzheimer's when they have nearly completely lost all long term memory and ability to learn. though they may be barely conscious in the sense that they can respond to simple verbal cues and have retain some reflexes, etc, the person they once were seem to be gone in very advanced stages.

However, even if we say that a person exists after the 16th week as I think the evidence suggests, that still doesn't mean some cases (though not all) of abortion after that time shouldn't be performed. Rape is a good example because even though the fetus is a person, the person made to carry that person is not obligated to do so. The rapist though, may be argued to be obligated to prevent from dying or killing to that fetus OTOH. that raised additionally interesting problems in its own right. It is supererogatory and very nice of her if she chooses to carry through terms but she may not be morally obligated to do so if she chooses not to.

Informative and entertaining debate between Singer and Slote

Here's the debate. Peter Singer wrote a famous article about 40 years ago titled "Famine, Affluence, and Morality" (Philosophy and Public Affairs, vol. 1, no. 1 (Spring 1972), pp. 229-243).

The basic conclusion is that we are under the same moral obligations to donate as much money, time and effort to relieve the world's desperately needy as we are in saving a drowning child in a shallow pond we happen to come across on a stroll through the park. We will ruin our nice cloths in pulling the child out of the water but will obviously not incur any further harm to ourselves as the pond is shallow. To not do the saving is a gross moral wrong. Singer argues that not donating all we can possibly afford in saving the needy of the world from starvation and preventable disease is a comparable wrong.

Slote, I think, hit it right on the head when he basically argued that evaluations of actions must take into account motivations and character traits. There is no way around that. This is (partly) why our legal system takes into consideration malice or other intentions in choosing the appropriate the kinds of crime to classify an act which violates the law and the severity of punishment in punishing that act. In no way is a person who refuses to donate money displaying as bad a character trait or motivation as someone who refuses to save a drowning child at minimal cost to himself. The later is almost certainly displaying monstrously evil motives and has a very bad character and hence, worse from a moral evaluative perspective. The moral badness comparison gives much of the original argument Singer uses much of its oomph.

OTOH, I thought Singer gave devastating arguments to Slote's reduction of the problem to the trait of empathy. Slote argues that we are justified to blame those who refuse to save the drowning child more than those who refuse to donate (which does fall into more accord with our intuitions) because the former shows a greater lack of empathy. So while I agree with Slote that motives and character evaluation must come into play here and elsewhere in moral evaluations of action, it can't possibly come down to just an evaluation of empathy. Singer's argument here is similar to the one I gave in my critical review of Slote's book, "The Ethics of Care and Empathy."