Sorites in the Senate

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I just said that I'd continue my discussion of Ochuk in my next post, but as I was writing that next post I decided that it would be better to post this first. I posted this at OrangePhilosophy already, but I figured I'd do a version that explains the philosophical terms more carefully for most of the readers of this blog who aren't as schooled in philosophy as most of the readers of OrangePhilosophy are.

The Rough Woodsman presents a battle between Senator Rick Santorum and Senator Barbara Boxer over partial birth abortion. What struck me as hilarious in this exchange was that it's a classic example of a sorites series from one party with the usual resistance to engage in the discussion from the other.

A sorites series is an argument regarding some vague term, making one step at a time from a reasonable claim to a nonsensical one while only changing the terms a little bit each time. I could put on grain of sand on a table and ask if it's a heap. I could keep adding a grain, asking if it's a heap each time. For a little while, you'd be pretty reluctant to say it's a heap. After many of sand, you would want to say it's a heap, but it's not as if one grain of sand makes the difference. You can do the same thing with baldness and numbers of hairs, with redness and wavelengths of light, or with tallness and centimeters of height. I won't get into the deep philosophical problems raised by vagueness. I just wanted to make the observation that, generally speaking, people will start refusing to answer once you reach the unclear segment of the series. Senator Boxer quite humorously exemplifies this tendency.

Here's the transcript (with some analysis following):

Sen. Santorum: Once the baby is born, is completely separated from the mother, you will support that that baby has, in fact, the right to life and cannot be killed? You accept that; right?

Sen. Boxer: I don't believe in killing any human being. That is absolutely correct. Nor do you, I am sure.

Sen. Santorum: So you would accept the fact that once the baby is separated from the mother, that baby cannot be killed?

Sen. Boxer: I support the right -- and I will repeat this, again, because I saw you ask the same question to another senator--

Sen. Santorum: All the person has to do is give me a straight answer, and then it will be very clear to everybody.

Sen. Boxer: And what defines "separation"? Define "separation." You answer that question. You define it.

Sen. Santorum: Well, let's define that. Okay, let's say the baby is completely separated. In other words, no part of the baby is inside of the mother.

Sen. Boxer: You mean the baby has been birthed and is now in its mother's arms? That baby is a human being.

Sen. Santorum: Well, I don't know if it's necessarily in its mother's arms. Let's say in the obstetrician's hands.

Sen. Boxer: It takes a second, it takes a minute. I had two babies, and within seconds of their birth--

Sen. Santorum: We've had six.

Sen. Boxer: Well, you didn't have any.

Sen. Santorum: My wife and I had babies together. That's the way we do things in our family.

Sen. Boxer: Your wife gave birth. I gave birth. I can tell you, I know when the baby was born.

Sen. Santorum: Good! All I am asking you is, once the baby leaves the mother's birth canal and is through the vaginal orifice and is in the hands of the obstetrician, you would agree that you cannot abort, kill the baby?

Sen. Boxer: I would say when the baby is born, the baby is born, and would then have every right of every other human being living in this country. And I don't know why this would even be a question, to be honest with you.

Sen. Santorum: Because we are talking about a situation here where the baby is almost born. So I ask the question of the senator from California, if the baby was born except for the baby's foot, if the baby's foot was inside the mother but the rest of the baby was outside, could that baby be killed?

Sen. Boxer: The baby is born when the baby is born. That is the answer to the question.

Sen. Santorum: I am asking you to define for me what that is.

Sen. Boxer: I don't think anybody but the senator from Pennsylvania has a question with it. I have never been troubled by this question. You give birth to a baby. The baby is there, and it is born. That is my answer to the question.

Sen. Santorum: What we are talking about here with partial birth, as the senator from California knows, is a baby is in the process of being born--

Sen. Boxer: "The process of being born." This is why this conversation makes no sense, because to me it is obvious when a baby is born. To you it isn't obvious.

Sen. Santorum: Maybe you can make it obvious to me. So what you are suggesting is if the baby's foot is still inside of the mother, that baby can then still be killed.

Sen. Boxer: No, I am not suggesting that in any way!

Sen. Santorum: I am asking.

Sen. Boxer: I am absolutely not suggesting that. You asked me a question, in essence, when the baby is born.

Sen. Santorum: I am asking you again. Can you answer that?

Sen. Boxer: I will answer the question when the baby is born. The baby is born when the baby is outside the mother's body. The baby is born.

Sen. Santorum: I am not going to put words in your mouth.

Sen. Boxer: I hope not.

Sen. Santorum: But, again, what you are suggesting is if the baby's toe is inside the mother, you can, in fact, kill that baby.

Sen. Boxer: Absolutely not.

Sen. Santorum: OK. So if the baby's toe is in, you can't kill the baby. How about if the baby's foot is in?

Sen. Boxer: You are the one who is making these statements.

Sen. Santorum: We are trying to draw a line here.

Sen. Boxer: I am not answering these questions! I am not answering these questions!

Both senators reveal some simple-mindedness in this debate. Boxer's position is a fairly bad version of a pro-choice view. She thinks a fetus isn't a human being immediately before birth and then immediately upon birth is, with no acknowledgement of a process of birth that takes time and is in between those points. The partial-birth abortion procedure, of course, takes place during that process. She also doesn't seem aware of the distinction pro-choice philosophers invented in the 1970s between being a human being and being a person, the first of which is a biological category (involving simply being a human organism) and the second a psychological category (having to do with consciousness, sentience, moral abilities, etc.).

Santorum, on the other hand, doesn't seem to show any awareness of more sophisticated positions that could, if their holder were smarter than Boxer, avoid his argument. I admit that they involve premises she doesn't seem to want to grant, e.g. that a newborn isn't a person either, that whether it's ok to kill something isn't dependent on personhood alone, etc., so I'm not sure he's making a dialectical mistake in avoiding views she doesn't hold. Still, he should be aware that he's not just arguing with her but a much more sophisticated view that needs a lot more to be said if he's to argue against it. He needs to argue that a newborn is a person. He needs to argue that birth can't make the difference between personhood and non-personhood. He needs to argue that personhood is a good enough reason to guard against almost all killings. I think all these things are true, but he hasn't argued for them, and as a result he'll comes off looking fairly simplistic to a pro-choice person.

These are basic points, almost all of them from Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous paper "A Defense of Abortion" (which is a defense of abortion only in the context of abortion's being illegal in every circumstance; her view is actually fairly moderate, since the cases she says are still morally wrong include most abortions that take place today). It was published in 1972, before Roe v. Wade. I'm fairly sure it's the most anthologized philosophy paper ever, and it's required reading for almost every philosophy class that covers abortion. How can someone be in the United States Senate as long as these two have and be as unfamiliar such basic arguments in the abortion debate as these?

2 Comments

Jeremy - can you post some links to some good discussion/analysis on sorites? I want to understand the issues involved better. Also, why is it called "sorites"?

I believe it's the Greek word for heap. It was called the paradox of the heap for many years. It may be the name of a philosopher who came up with it. I'm not sure. I'm not home right now, so I'll have to check on links about this another time. This problem of vagueness is one of the big problems in philosophy right now and will probably have a huge bearing on my dissertation, whatever I turn out to do. Maybe I could just do a post on the problems of vagueness. It threatens standard logic in extremely disconcerting ways, and the only view that fully gets out of that is the totally wacky one that says one hair makes the difference between being bald and being not bald.

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