“Potential” People

I was reading the comments at one of PZ’s posts when I thought of this:

1. Anti-abortionists often ask the rhetorical question, “What if your parents had chosen to abort you?” to implicitly assert that abortion is wrong because a hypothetical past abortion would result in the non-existence of a fully sentient person in the present.

2. Many people are the product of premarital sex.

3. If the parents of these people had chosen premarital abstinence instead of having sex, they would not exist, therefore hypothetical past abstinence would result in the non-existence of a fully sentient person in the present.

4. Therefore, by the same logic, abstinence before marriage is immoral. And yet, belief that abortion is immoral quite often coincides with a belief that premarital abstinence is a moral obligation.

Of course, the “logic” is absurd and relies on a variation of the Historian’s Fallacy, viewing past decisions as if the participants had the same hindsight a person from the present does, instead of judging the decisions based on the information available to the people at the time they made their decisions. We do not have the luxury of being able to see into the future to see which sex acts will result in the next generation. This is the real world, not Star Trek: we don’t have people from the future popping in to inform us which decisions are the “right” ones.

All I know for sure is that the past and present contain real people. The people of the future are on much shakier ground. If the future’s fixed, the question is moot, since there’s nothing that will prevent them from becoming real. If it isn’t fixed, why should one possible future person have superior rights to another possible future person?

If the future isn’t fixed, every decision, not just abortion or contraception, has an impact on which future is realized. This would mean that if abortion is “murder” because it prevents a future person from developing, so would seemingly inconsequential decisions that end up doing the same thing. Staying home on a Saturday instead of going out and unintentionally meeting the woman of my dreams and thus potentially raise a family would have the same sort of consequences for potential people as aborting them. Even if you enter explicit intention into it, it gets into the problem in the opening of this post: Abstinence would be “murder” because it’s an act that would obviously prevent the development of potential persons.

Of course, a big part of the main debate is about whether zygotes/fetuses/embryos are “persons” or not, or about when in development they become persons, but that’s a different argument for a different post. This one’s specifically about the fallacious rhetorical value of the “potential person” argument.

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8 responses to ““Potential” People

  1. For the most part, I agree with what you say here. Being against abortion myself, I would argue that abortion is killing an actual person, not simply a potential person.

    Have you read the recently-published article in the Journal of Medical Ethics about how ‘after-birth abortions’ (killing the infant soon after birth) are morally equivalent to pre-birth abortions? Would you agree with that?

    • My general view is that if you’re going to do an abortion, it should be done very soon, when it’s much clearer that the fetus hasn’t developed to the point of personhood. I’d prefer late term abortions be done for reasons like dangers to the mother’s life or to prevent suffering in the case of crippling conditions for the fetus/baby, and to my knowledge, that’s generally how they happen. Of course, these late term abortions are generally rare and I think they should be. Medical research should help with detecting or preventing some problems sooner so that if there’s a reason to abort, the decision can be made earlier.

      As for newborns, they’re further along in their neurological development. The progression to personhood doesn’t have clear lines, but birth or late into pregnancy seems like a decent place for “padding” out the line to play it safe. Another important distinction about birth is that a baby is no longer specifically dependent on the mother: A baby can be adopted and cared for by someone else. As medical technology is right now, we can’t exactly pull a Bashir and transfer a late term fetus into a new mother.

      It may be ugly to call it that, but a fetus is effectively a parasite until birth, and the mother should have a say over how her body is used. All too often, anti-abortionists forget that there’s a mother involved and effectively try to control how she’s allowed to live. The worst will speak as if the fetus is her punishment for daring to enjoy sex, or assert that women exist solely to be incubators, not autonomous human beings with rights and lives of their own.

      What’s really nasty politically, is that a lot of politicians these days are putting pressure on contraception and sex education, often blatantly lying about what those entail, like calling it “slutty” for women to want to enjoy sex responsibly, even if it’s with a husband. Whether they know it or not, they’re in a campaign against sex and women in general, as well as an effort to gain control over all our lives. Once you’ve got control of a person’s bedroom activities, that’s a precedent for controlling anything else about their lives.

      • Thanks for the response, you make some interesting points.

        You’d have to admit that your decisions regarding when to abort are simply your opinion. If my opinion was that parents may dispose of their children until the age of 5, why is your opinion better than mine?

        I definitely agree that some very nasty arguments are made in the political realm. I’m also greatly in favour of women’s rights; however, the rights of both a mother and father end where the rights of their child (born or unborn) begin.

  2. It’s not “simply opinion.” It’s a matter of the presence or absence of certain attributes that produce consciousness. That is a question of objective truth. The only vagueness is a level of scientific uncertainty of when they all show up, and the “padding” I mention is to play it safe with the margins of error. There’s no room for postmodernist ideas or equivocation between fact and opinion.

    That a charitable interpretation of your meaning. The uncharitable one is for me to wonder if you value consciousness at all and if you judge the worth of a human by their DNA, not their consciousness.

    Another topic to speculate about is the popular religious idea of souls. Without empirical evidence that souls exist, it gets rather easy to selectively deny them to certain groups. Unlike souls, however, the existence of consciousness is testable. The only uncertainty is about precision and probability, hence a need to pad error bars.

    As for your “opinion” that 5-year olds can be killed, that’s morally reprehensible for reasons that shouldn’t need clarification. They’re sentient beings with emotions, desires, and consciousness. That affords them rights, and to favor your “right” to kill them would be completely arbitrary. A fetus without the necessary brain features to produce emotions, desires, and consciousness can’t have rights.

    I’m curious, what basis do you assert for morality?

    • It’s still your opinion that consciousness has worth…unless you would agree with me that there is a common and binding morality that exists whether we agree with it or not.

      This morality is more than just the opinions of the majority or of the individual. Not sure what kind of background you come from, but I don’t see how a naturalistic worldview allows for this.

      • It’s common and binding because it’s based on very consistent human desires, informed by objective scientific truths. It sounds to me that you’re arguing that comparatively rare cases of heartless psychopaths completely negates the widespread nature of that value and morality’s ability to form safer, freer, happier societies.

        If you’re proposing an objective morality, how does even work? To me, objective morality would negate any possibility of moral reasoning. It wouldn’t be about finding effective strategies to balance real desires, just arbitrary obedience to random, baseless, purposeless factoids floating in the ether, beyond our ability to detect them.

        How would you measure these allegedly objective values? What would be binding about them?

        If you’d like to bring in Anubis, the Feather of Ma’at, and a scale composed of reishi so you could empirically weigh my soul against the feather, you might have a discernible point. It’d at least provide me with something unfamiliar to think and talk about and shake me out of a routine. Somehow, I doubt you’d be able to do anything along those lines.

  3. Pingback: A Touch of Moral Philosophy | The Bronze Blog

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