Religion and Philosophy in Pro-Life Arguments

| | Comments (16) | TrackBacks (1)

A commenter on the Philosophy et cetera cross-posting of my Moral Pollution post says the following:

I don't feel that embryos are "persons" at all, in fact the only reasons I've seen to be against stem-cell research are religious ones. I admit, I haven't comprehensively studied the issue, but from what I have read, that seems to be the case.

I decided that my response was worthy of a post, which I've cross-posted at Philosophy et cetera. You don't need to know much of the abortion literature to know that this is wrong. All you need to do is pick up any of a number of standard applied ethics anthologies to know the most common argument for embryonic personhood. Most of them contain John Noonan's paper defending the traditional pro-life view, and that is indeed a philosophical argument, no matter how bad you might think the argument is.

The first premise is that a newborn is a person and has full moral status. The second premise is that personhood or the kind of moral status persons have is not the sort of thing that can admit of vagueness. But then there's no good place to draw a line between embryos and newborns that is not vague, and thus embryos must have the same moral status as newborns. You may disagree with the argument, and there are all sorts of ways to do so (but none that I know of that aren't question-begging). Even so, I don't know how anyone can deny that it's a philosophical argument.

I know lots of pro-life people who aren't exactly the philosophical type, and pretty much all of them will put forth something like this when questioned about why they think an embryo has full human rights, though they will do it without the philosophical sophistication of John Noonan's version. If anyone is going to stick with quoting scripture, it would be these people, and yet they're well aware of the philosophical argument that stands behind most versions of the pro-life view. I don't see anything in the argument that quotes scripture or gives a dictate from a religious authority of any other sort. For a more detailed presentation of my own view on what I think the arguments on both sides can establish (or at least what I thought two years ago, since I may have changed a little on some points), you can see this post.

I don't mean to suggest that religion can't provide anything that might help flesh out a pro-life view. I think the opposite is true, actually. I think religion can provide an account of exactly what the difference between humans and other animals are, a difference that gives humans what might be called deontological rights and animals what utilitarians might call rights (i.e. trumpable or rule-of-thumb rights). I explore that here, but I don't think my account of that is by any means the dominant one. It's just the one that makes the most sense to me consistent with what I do think reason can tell us and what I think the Christian scriptures teach. But I don't consider this to be an argument for the pro-life view, just an account of how to make sense of one of its views.

1 TrackBacks

Listed below are links to blogs that reference this entry: Religion and Philosophy in Pro-Life Arguments.

TrackBack URL for this entry:

The conversations we find on the internet cover the same ground we live in our lives off-line, the difference being the medium and the opportunity it gi...

Read More


My philosophical argument of choice is "Why Abortion is Immoral" by Don Marquis - it is no longer available online but seems to be widely used in ethics curriculums around the country.

Yes, I'm very familiar with Marquis' article. It's in most of the main applied ethics anthologies, and I've used it in my teaching on occasion. He presents a fairly reasonable argument against abortion without even assuming that a fetus is a person. His primary reason for not killing a human being in general is that it robs someone of a future, and abortion does that even if a fetus doesn't yet have the capabilities that (on the standard pro-choice view) count as giving something personhood.

I don't see this as my primary reason for thinking killing is wrong, but I do think it's a feature of killing that counts against it, and thus it does count against abortion as well. I have stronger reasons for thinking abortion is almost always wrong, as I indicated in the posts I linked to above. But I do think Marquis' argument is pretty good for what it does. I also think it's interesting that Marquis' argument seems to apply to embryos as well, without assuming their personhood.

Leaving abortion aside for the moment, do you think it is legitimate for christians to segregate a "philosophical" answer to something from a "religious" one?

In other words, I don't think the original question is a legitimate one in that it implies a strict separation of "religous" truths from "philosophical" ones.

The implication of the quoted commenter's point seems to be that philosophical arguments may very well appeal to everyone in some neutral way while religious arguments would not. In ethics in particular I don't think you'll get too far that way, at least if Alasdair MacIntyre is anywhere close to being right.

What I mean by calling something a philosophical argument is simply the kind of thing philosophers do all the time. What I mean by a religious argument is something based on a religious authority that isn't supposed to be known in any other way. There are plenty of arguments that are not in the second category that people have given for pro-life views. They are not all Christians, and some who are Christians may have other reasons as well, but I think the distinction is perfectly legitimate.

As for whether you can get far this way, it depends on what kind of standard you have when it comes to unsupported premises. Since every argument eventually traces back to unsupported premises, those who have no tolerance for unsupported premises will get nowhere, not just not very far. They may pretend they have no unsupported premises, but they do. Once you begin to tolerate unsupported premises, you can get pretty far, and the only question is whether someone else will share your premises. The answer will usually be that some will and some won't. But that's the nature of philosophical reasoning, and most philosophers today acknowledge that.

Before we get any further in this (and I'm happy to save this for another time) are you familiar with MacIntyre's After Virtue?

My worry here is that you are giving credence (perhaps unintentionally) to the notion that specific ethical arguments can exist apart from a larger, fuller system of thought. While I can certainly hope that non-christians will be able to benefit from christian ethics, I hope that never gives us (christians) the temptation to "do ethics" in a way such that God does not matter.

Perhaps I should have begun by saying that by "religious", in my first comment, I meant arguments which makes reference (explicitly or otherwise) to God. Thus one argument against abortion for christians is that God expects parents to love and care for their children, and that killing them would violate this. This argument makes no reference to "persons", simply relying on the relationship of the parents/mothers to their as yet unborn children.

I think there is much more we could discuss about religion vs.(?) philosophy, but I'm not in any hurry to do so.

It's hard to do a Ph.D. in philosophy and not know something about MacIntyre, but I can't say I know his work well.

I don't think I do ethics in a way that God does not matter. But doing ethics and trying to convince others of ethical truths that I accept are not the same thing, and what I'm doing here is largely the latter. I sometimes do both side-by-side and indicate which bits I think Christians will go along with but others won't (e.g. my series on slavery was very much like that), but here I'm largely speaking to those who want arguments secular or non-Christian religious people can accept, and I think there are some available for pro-life views. My primary interest is in showing that pro-life views should not be unacceptable from the outset in the political domain among those who think religious arguments are not allowed.

Well, perhaps I've hinted enough at the sort of temptation I worry about (that is, worry in general, not specifically about you unless the shoe fits, etc.). Do read MacIntyre when you get a chance.

Totally off-topic, but I've been enjoying this week Henri De Lubac's The Drama of Atheist Humanism, and wish to commend it to you if you think it might be useful. Lubac sketches the origins of modern western atheism in 19th century continental philosophy, focussing on Feuerbach, Comte, Nietsche and Marx (the first two of whom I was pretty ignorant) and also, on the pro-christian side, Kierkegaard and Dostoevski. Lubac'a knowledge of these people (and related thinkers like Hegel and Heidegger and various lesser knowns like Maurras and Jundzill) is rather thorough. My knowledge of pretty much and period of philosophy is pretty weak, so I'm always grateful for a good book by someone who seems to know what he's about.

Similarly, Owen Barfield has quite a lot to say (and provoled quite a bit of thought on my part) on scholastic philosophy in Saving the Appearances. Barfield is the person C S Lewis referred to as "the most important of my unofficial teachers."

I wonder if the religious view can give us an argument that isn't question begging. A common argument would rest on the soul, such that things with souls have rights that can't be trumped. But what does that mean? It would seem that a soul is just that which gives people their uniquely human dignity. So it seems that this approach just defines rights into humanity, and assumes what it tries to prove.

JPE, that's a pretty creative definition of a soul. I'm not sure it's ever appeared in the history of philosophy, but I'm pretty sure if it has then it hasn't been among those who actually believe in a soul.


I've always been puzzled by the particular argument you mention in the post:

The first premise is that a newborn is a person and has full moral status. The second premise is that personhood or the kind of moral status persons have is not the sort of thing that can admit of vagueness. But then there's no good place to draw a line between embryos and newborns that is not vague, and thus embryos must have the same moral status as newborns.

I'm not sure what you have in mind when you say that the objections you know of beg the question against the arg (I would have thought it was the original, positive arg's job not to beg questions), but this particular argument, insofar as I've ever been able to understand it, seems to demand something that its own candidate -- "the moment of conception," as it's often optimistically called -- can't deliver. The logic of the argument seems to require an instantaneous change in natural properties significant enough to plausibly underwrite a jump from 0 to 1 (the only available values) in degrees of personhood. Since it's being driven by the supposed "all or nothing" view of personhood, I take it it's not just asking for a relatively brief span of time in which something relatively important happens. It really seems to be asking opponents to draw a line, and not just pick out a stretched-out period of time, however brief. But conception doesn't happen instantaneously. The combination of genetic materials (which seems to be the focus of many who point to conception as the key moment) does happen impressively quickly, but it is still a process that takes time and happens gradually. Start from a time at which both parties to the dispute would agree that conception has not occurred, and then start running the film very slowly -- 1/1,000 of a second at a time. There won't be two consecutive frames of this film that differ significantly enough from one another to be a plausible "straddle pair." As with other points in the process of fetal development, if you're asked to point to a "straddle pair" for conception, your choice will seem arbitrary. If you manage to pick a pair, well, then, we'll break the process down, say, 10 times more finely and ask in terms of TEN-thousandths of seconds which of the 10 of our new options correctly pick out that magic moment at which conception has occurred. Hopeless. Or so it seems. If the response is that, though it certainly seems that there is no particular magic moment, but that one is inclined to have faith against all appearances that there must be one, that seems a move equally open to those who would point to times much later in the process of development.

What I meant on the question-begging issue is that any denial of these premises will only be argued for on question-begging premises. I've not denied that these premises won't be granted by the opponent, but it seems to me that both camps have equal footing on that score.

As for your more substantive point, that's something I've been thinking about for quite some time. I almost wrote a dissertation on issues related to it. I actually think this is a pretty decent reason for thinking dualism is true. There are only a couple times when I would expect ensoulment to take place if dualism is true. One is around conception, and the other is about something like a week or two later (I can't remember the name of it, but it's when cell differentiation begins in a particular way).

I guess much depends on the details of one's dualism -- what the immaterial part (soul/mind/?) does, etc. Given the kind of dualism I'd be most inclined to, I'd have taken the most likely time for ensoulment to be much later than when you seem to expect it. The closest dualist version of me would expect ensoulment to occur when the brain is sufficiently structured.

I didn't have anything about dualism in mind. It's just that those are the times when something significant happens biologically in terms of the kinds of cells that are present. One is the movement to having its own chromosomes, and therefore it's its own organism. It's when it's a human being in the biological sense. The second is when cell differentiation of a certain sort begins, and you don't just have mere potential. Those both seem much closer to the kind of thing I would say is definitive of my being me than anything about what kind of structure my brain has.

I was responding to this --

There are only a couple times when I would expect ensoulment to take place if dualism is true

-- when I said that it probably depends a lot on the details of one's dualism, and that the dualism I'd be most inclined to would lead me to think ensoulment occurs when the brain becomes sufficiently structured.

Suppose one is a dualist of roughly the sort Descartes is. (At least as I'm inclined to read him: When he sounds like he's going for a more Aristotelian/Thomistic picture, I tend to read him as just trying to "make nice" with Scholastics; his real view is interactionism.) Then the connection between mind/soul & body is one of 2-way causal interaction: for the body to be "ensouled" is for it to be in 2-way causal contact with a mind/soul. (Examples: M-->B: My deciding to raise my arm results in my arm going up; B-->M: Your tapping me on the shoulder results in my believing that something just contacted my shoulder.) Then, as Descartes realized, we have good reason to think it's not the body as a whole that's in direct causal contact with the mind, but only some of the brain; the rest of the body seems connected to the mind only indirectly, through the brain. For if we sever the nerves between the brain and the arm, my arm won't go up when I decide to raise it, and I won't feel you tapping me on the shoulder. Let the signals go through between the brain and the rest of the body, and things work. So it looks like it's the brain that the mind is in direct contact with: When I decide to raise my arm, the first physical effect of this decision is in my brain, and that eventually leads to my arm going up; when you tap me on the shoulder, the last physical event in my body in the process of perception is an event in my brain, which then produces the mental aspects of perception. Well, then, it looks like a natural time to suppose the ensoulment of the body occurs (when the body comes to be in causal contact with a soul) is when the bodily "device" for sending & receiving interaction with the soul is "installed." Before the receiver/transmitter is put in, the body is not in contact with "headquarters."

It could be that the body and soul are in causal contact but that the body isn't trained yet to respond, because the gland isn't formed enough to receive the inputs. I don't think that requires there being no connection yet.

But I think you're right on a more general point. Cartesian dualism needs to say a lot more than Platonic, Thomistic, or Leibnizian dualism to make sense of an earlier ensoulment. If you want to take Descartes seriously on everything he says, I'd imagine he wouldn't like the idea of ensoulment anyway. It's not as if he thinks of the soul as being in the body or brain anyway. It's not really anywhere. It's just that it causes things in one particular brain and no others and is affected by things in that brain and no others. But I can see how someone might think that causal relationship begins before there are brain structures that are sufficiently sensitive for the cause and effect to have much significance or organization.

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04