Abortion Defies Common Sense

The Apple Argument Against Abortion

I doubt there are many readers of this magazine who are pro-choice. Why, then, do I write an argument against abortion for its readers? Why preach to the choir?

Preaching to the choir is a legitimate enterprise. Scripture calls it “edification,” or “building up.” It is what priests, ministers, rabbis, and mullahs try to do once every week. We all need to clean and improve our apologetic weapons periodically; and this argument is the most effective one I know for actual use in dialogue with intelligent pro-choicers. I will be as upfront as possible.

I will try to prove the simple, common-sensical reasonableness of the pro-life case by a sort of Socratic logic. My conclusion is that Roe v. Wade must be overturned, and my fundamental reason for this is not only because of what abortion is but because we all know what abortion is.

This is obviously a controversial conclusion, and initially unacceptable to all pro-choicers. So, my starting point must be noncontroversial. It is this: We know what an apple is. I will try to persuade you that if we know what an apple is, Roe v. Wade must be overthrown, and that if you want to defend Roe, you will probably want to deny that we know what an apple is.

1. We Know What an Apple Is

Our first principle should be as undeniable as possible, for arguments usually go back to their first principles. If we find our first premise to be a stone wall that cannot be knocked down when we back up against it, our argument will be strong. Tradition states and common sense dictates our premise that we know what an apple is. Almost no one doubted this, until quite recently. Even now, only philosophers, scholars, “experts,” media mavens, professors, journalists, and mind-molders dare to claim that we do not know what an apple is.

2. We Really Know What an Apple Really Is

From the premise that “we know what an apple is,” I move to a second principle that is only an explication of the meaning of the first: that we really know what an apple really is. If this is denied, our first principle is refuted. It becomes, “We know, but not really, what an apple is, but not really.” Step 2 says only, “Let us not ‘nuance’ Step 1 out of existence!”

3. We Really Know What Some Things Really Are

From Step 2, I deduce the third principle, also as an immediate logical corollary, that we really know what some things (other things than apples) really are. This follows if we only add the minor premise that an apple is another thing.

This third principle, of course, is the repudiation of skepticism. The secret has been out since Socrates that skepticism is logically self-contradictory. To say “I do not know” is to say “I know I do not know.” Socrates’s wisdom was not skepticism. He was not the only man in the world who knew that he did not know. He had knowledge; he did not claim to have wisdom. He knew he was not wise. That is a wholly different affair and is not self-contradictory. All forms of skepticism are logically self-contradictory, nuance as we will.

All talk about rights, about right and wrong, about justice, presupposes this principle that we really know what some things really are. We cannot argue about anything at all — anything real, as distinct from arguing about arguing, and about words, and attitudes — unless we accept this principle. We can talk about feelings without it, but we cannot talk about justice. We can have a reign of feelings — or a reign of terror — without it, but we cannot have a reign of law.

4. We Know What Human Beings Are

Our fourth principle is that we know what we are. If we know what an apple is, surely we know what a human being is. For we aren’t apples; we don’t live as apples, we don’t feel what apples feel (if anything). We don’t experience the existence or growth or life of apples, yet we know what apples are. A fortiori, we know what we are, for we have “inside information,” privileged information, more and better information.

We obviously do not have total, or even adequate, knowledge of ourselves, or of apples, or (if we listen to Aquinas) of even a flea. There is obviously more mystery in a human than in an apple, but there is also more knowledge. I repeat this point because I know it is often not understood: To claim that “we know what we are” is not to claim that we know all that we are, or even that we know adequately or completely or with full understanding anything at all of what we are. We are a living mystery, but we also know much of this mystery. Knowledge and mystery are no more incompatible than eating and hungering for more.

5. We Have Human Rights Because We Are Human

The fifth principle is the indispensable, common-sensical basis for human rights: We have human rights because we are human beings.

We have not yet said what human beings are (e.g., do we have souls?), or what human rights are (e.g., do we have the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”?), only the simple point that we have whatever human rights we have because we are whatever it is that makes us human.

This certainly sounds innocent enough, but it implies a general principle. Let’s call that our sixth principle.

6. Morality Is Based on Metaphysics

Metaphysics means simply philosophizing about reality. The sixth principle means that rights depend on reality, and our knowledge of rights depends on our knowledge of reality.

By this point in our argument, some are probably feeling impatient. These impatient ones are common-sensical people, uncorrupted by the chattering classes. They will say, “Of course. We know all this. Get on with it. Get to the controversial stuff.” Ah, but I suspect we began with the controversial stuff. For not all are impatient; others are uneasy. “Too simplistic,” “not nuanced,” “a complex issue” — do these phrases leap to mind as shields to protect you from the spear that you know is coming at the end of the argument?

The principle that morality depends on metaphysics means that rights depend on reality, or what is right depends on what is. Even if you say you are skeptical of metaphysics, we all do use the principle in moral or legal arguments. For instance, in the current debate about “animal rights,” some of us think that animals do have rights and some of us think they don’t, but we all agree that if they do have rights, they have animal rights, not human rights or plant rights, because they are animals, not humans or plants. For instance, a dog doesn’t have the right to vote, as humans do, because dogs are not rational, as humans are. But a dog probably does have a right not to be tortured. Why? Because of what a dog is, and because we really know a little bit about what a dog really is: We really know that a dog feels pain and a tree doesn’t. Dogs have feelings, unlike trees, and dogs don’t have reason, like humans; that’s why it’s wrong to break a limb off a dog but it’s not wrong to break a limb off a tree, and that’s also why dogs don’t have the right to vote but humans do.

7. Moral Arguments Presuppose Metaphysical Principles

The main reason people deny that morality must (or even can) be based on metaphysics is that they say we don’t really know what reality is, we only have opinions. They point out, correctly, that we are less agreed about morality than science or everyday practical facts. We don’t differ about whether the sun is a planet or whether we need to eat to live, but we do differ about things like abortion, capital punishment, and animal rights.

But the very fact that we argue about it—a fact the skeptic points to as a reason for skepticism — is a refutation of skepticism. We don’t argue about how we feel, about subjective things. You never hear an argument like this: “I feel great.” “No, I feel terrible.”

For instance, both pro-lifers and pro-choicers usually agree that it’s wrong to kill innocent persons against their will and it’s not wrong to kill parts of persons, like cancer cells. And both the proponents and opponents of capital punishment usually agree that human life is of great value; that’s why the proponent wants to protect the life of the innocent by executing murderers and why the opponent wants to protect the life even of the murderer. They radically disagree about how to apply the principle that human life is valuable, but they both assume and appeal to that same principle.

8. Might Making Right

All these examples so far are controversial. How to apply moral principles to these issues is controversial. What is not controversial, I hope, is the principle itself that human rights are possessed by human beings because of what they are, because of their being — and not because some other human beings have the power to enforce their will. That would be, literally, “might makes right.” Instead of putting might into the hands of right, that would be pinning the label of “right” on the face of might: justifying force instead of fortifying justice. But that is the only alternative, no matter what the political power structure, no matter who or how many hold the power, whether a single tyrant, or an aristocracy, or a majority of the freely voting public, or the vague sentiment of what Rousseau called “the general will.” The political form does not change the principle. A constitutional monarchy, in which the king and the people are subject to the same law, is a rule of law, not of power; a lawless democracy, in which the will of the majority is unchecked, is a rule of power, not of law.

9. Either All Have Rights or Only Some Have Rights

The reason all human beings have human rights is that all human beings are human. Only two philosophies of human rights are logically possible. Either all human beings have rights, or only some human beings have rights. There is no third possibility. But the reason for believing either one of these two possibilities is even more important than which one you believe.

Suppose you believe that all human beings have rights. Do you believe that all human beings have rights because they are human beings? Do you dare to do metaphysics? Are human rights “inalienable” because they are inherent in human nature, in the human essence, in the human being, in what humans, in fact, are? Or do you believe that all human beings have rights because some human beings say so — because some human wills have declared that all human beings have rights? If it’s the first reason, you are secure against tyranny and usurpation of rights. If it’s the second reason, you are not. For human nature doesn’t change, but human wills do. The same human wills that say today that all humans have rights may well say tomorrow that only some have rights.

10. Why Abortion Is Wrong

Some people want to be killed. I won’t address the morality of voluntary euthanasia here. But clearly, involuntary euthanasia is wrong; clearly, there is a difference between imposing power on another and freely making a contract with another. The contract may still be a bad one, a contract to do a wrong thing, and the mere fact that the parties to the contract entered it freely does not automatically justify doing the thing they contract to do. But harming or killing another against his will, not by free contract, is clearly wrong; if that isn’t wrong, what is?

But that’s what abortion is. Blessed Mother Teresa argued, simply, “If abortion is not wrong, nothing is wrong.” The fetus doesn’t want to be killed; it seeks to escape. Did you dare to watch The Silent Scream? Did the media dare to allow it to be shown? No, they will censor nothing except the most common operation in America.

11. The Argument From the Nonexistence of Nonpersons

Are persons a subclass of humans, or are humans a subclass of persons? The issue of distinguishing humans and persons comes up only for two reasons: the possibility that there are nonhuman persons, like extraterrestrials, elves, angels, gods, God, or the Persons of the Trinity, or the possibility that there are some nonpersonal humans, unpersons, humans without rights.

Traditional common sense and morality say all humans are persons and have rights. Modern moral relativism says that only some humans are persons, for only those who are given rights by others (i.e., those in power) have rights. Thus, if we have power, we can “depersonalize” any group we want: blacks, slaves, Jews, political enemies, liberals, fundamentalists — or unborn babies.

A common way to state this philosophy is the claim that membership in a biological species confers no rights. I have heard it argued that we do not treat any other species in the traditional way — that is, we do not assign equal rights to all mice. Some we kill (those that get into our houses and prove to be pests); others we take good care of and preserve (those that we find useful in laboratory experiments or those we adopt as pets); still others we simply ignore (mice in the wild). The argument concludes that therefore, it is only sentiment or tradition (the two are often confused, as if nothing rational could be passed down by tradition) that assigns rights to all members of our own species.

12. Three Pro-Life Premises and Three Pro-Choice Alternatives

We have been assuming three premises, and they are the three fundamental assumptions of the pro-life argument. Any one of them can be denied. To be pro-choice, you must deny at least one of them, because taken together they logically entail the pro-life conclusion. But there are three different kinds of pro-choice positions, depending on which of the three pro-life premises is denied.

The first premise is scientific, the second is moral, and the third is legal. The scientific premise is that the life of the individual member of every animal species begins at conception. (This truism was taught by all biology textbooks before Roe and by none after Roe; yet Roe did not discover or appeal to any new scientific discoveries.) In other words, all humans are human, whether embryonic, fetal, infantile, young, mature, old, or dying.

The moral premise is that all humans have the right to life because all humans are human. It is a deduction from the most obvious of all moral rules, the Golden Rule, or justice, or equality. If you would not be killed, do not kill. It’s just not just, not fair. All humans have the human essence and, therefore, are essentially equal.

The legal premise is that the law must protect the most basic human rights. If all humans are human, and if all humans have a right to life, and if the law must protect human rights, then the law must protect the right to life of all humans.

If all three premises are true, the pro-life conclusion follows. From the pro-life point of view, there are only three reasons for being pro-choice: scientific ignorance — appalling ignorance of a scientific fact so basic that nearly everyone in the world knows it; moral ignorance — appalling ignorance of the most basic of all moral rules; or legal ignorance — appalling ignorance of one of the most basic of all the functions of law. But there are significant differences among these different kinds of ignorance.

Scientific ignorance, if it is not ignoring, or deliberate denial or dishonesty, is perhaps pitiable but not morally blame-worthy. You don’t have to be wicked to be stupid. If you believe an unborn baby is only “potential life” or a “group of cells,” then you do not believe you are killing a human being when you abort and might have no qualms of conscience about it. (But why, then, do most mothers who abort feel such terrible pangs of conscience, often for a lifetime?)

Most pro-choice arguments, during the first two decades after Roe, disputed the scientific premise of the pro-life argument. It might be that this was almost always dishonest rather than honest ignorance, but perhaps not, and at least it didn’t directly deny the essential second premise, the moral principle. But pro-choice arguments today increasingly do.

Perhaps pro-choicers perceive that they have no choice but to do this, for they have no other recourse if they are to argue at all. Scientific facts are just too clear to deny, and it makes no legal sense to deny the legal principle, for if the law is not supposed to defend the right to life, what is it supposed to do? So they have to deny the moral principle that leads to the pro-life conclusion. This, I suspect, is a vast and major sea change. The camel has gotten not just his nose, but his torso under the tent. I think most people refuse to think or argue about abortion because they see that the only way to remain pro-choice is to abort their reason first. Or, since many pro-choicers insist that abortion is about sex, not about babies, the only way to justify their scorn of virginity is a scorn of intellectual virginity. The only way to justify their loss of moral innocence is to lose their intellectual innocence.

If the above paragraph offends you, I challenge you to calmly and honestly ask your own conscience and reason whether, where, and why it is false.

13. The Argument from Skepticism

The most likely response to this will be the charge of dogmatism. How dare I pontificate with infallible certainty, and call all who disagree either mentally or morally challenged! All right, here is an argument even for the metaphysical skeptic, who would not even agree with my very first and simplest premise, that we really do know what some things really are, such as what an apple is. (It’s only after you are pinned against the wall and have to justify something like abortion that you become a skeptic and deny such a self-evident principle.)

Roe used such skepticism to justify a pro-choice position. Since we don’t know when human life begins, the argument went, we cannot impose restrictions. (Why it is more restrictive to give life than to take it, I cannot figure out.) So here is my refutation of Roe on its own premises, its skeptical premises: Suppose that not a single principle of this essay is true, beginning with the first one. Suppose that we do not even know what an apple is. Even then abortion is unjustifiable.

Let’s assume not a dogmatic skepticism (which is self-contradictory) but a skeptical skepticism. Let us also assume that we do not know whether a fetus is a person or not. In objective fact, of course, either it is or it isn’t (unless the Court has revoked the Law of Noncontradiction while we were on vacation), but in our subjective minds, we may not know what the fetus is in objective fact. We do know, however, that either it is or isn’t by formal logic alone.

A second thing we know by formal logic alone is that either we do or do not know what a fetus is. Either there is “out there,” in objective fact, independent of our minds, a human life, or there is not; and either there is knowledge in our minds of this objective fact, or there is not.

So, there are four possibilities:

  1. The fetus is a person, and we know that;
  2. The fetus is a person, but we don’t know that;
  3. The fetus isn’t a person, but we don’t know that;
  4. The fetus isn’t a person, and we know that.

What is abortion in each of these four cases?

In Case 1, where the fetus is a person and you know that, abortion is murder. First-degree murder, in fact. You deliberately kill an innocent human being.

In Case 2, where the fetus is a person and you don’t know that, abortion is manslaughter. It’s like driving over a man-shaped overcoat in the street at night or shooting toxic chemicals into a building that you’re not sure is fully evacuated. You’re not sure there is a person there, but you’re not sure there isn’t either, and it just so happens that there is a person there, and you kill him. You cannot plead ignorance. True, you didn’t know there was a person there, but you didn’t know there wasn’t either, so your act was literally the height of irresponsibility. This is the act Roe allowed.

In Case 3, the fetus isn’t a person, but you don’t know that. So abortion is just as irresponsible as it is in the previous case. You ran over the overcoat or fumigated the building without knowing that there were no persons there. You were lucky; there weren’t. But you didn’t care; you didn’t take care; you were just as irresponsible. You cannot legally be charged with manslaughter, since no man was slaughtered, but you can and should be charged with criminal negligence.

Only in Case 4 is abortion a reasonable, permissible, and responsible choice. But note: What makes Case 4 permissible is not merely the fact that the fetus is not a person but also your knowledge that it is not, your overcoming of skepticism. So skepticism counts not for abortion but against it. Only if you are not a skeptic, only if you are a dogmatist, only if you are certain that there is no person in the fetus, no man in the coat, or no person in the building, may you abort, drive, or fumigate.

This undercuts even our weakest, least honest escape: to pretend that we don’t even know what an apple is, just so we have an excuse for pleading that we don’t know what an abortion is.

One Last Plea

I hope a reader can show me where I’ve gone astray in the sequence of 13 steps that constitute this argument. I honestly wish a pro-choicer would someday show me one argument that proved that fetuses are not persons. It would save me and other pro-lifers enormous grief, time, effort, worry, prayers, and money. But until that time, I will keep arguing, because it’s what I do as a philosopher. It is my weak and wimpy version of a mother’s shouting that something terrible is happening: Babies are being slaughtered. I will do this because, as Edmund Burke declared, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”


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About the Author

Peter Kreeft, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and also at the King's College (Empire State Building), in New York City. He is a regular contributor to several Christian publications, is in wide demand as a speaker at conferences, and is the author of over 55 books including: Back to Virtue; The God Who Loves You; Heaven, The Heart's Deepest Longing; Everything You wanted to Know About Heaven; Your Questions - God's Answers; How To Win The Culture War; The Journey; Before I Go - Letters to Our Children About What Really Matters; and Jesus Shock.

Dr. Kreeft is a convert to the Catholic Church from reformed Protestantism. He earned an A.B. degree from Calvin College, an M.A. and Ph.D. from Fordham University, followed by post-doctoral work at Yale University. He has received several honors for achievements in the field of philosophy, including the Woodrow Wilson Award, Yale-Sterling Fellowship, Newman Alumni Scholarship, Danforth Asian Religions Fellowship, and a Weathersfield Homeland Foundation Fellowship.

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15 Comments

  1. 1) We know what an apple is

    This is a nice piece of sophistry. It is one of those statements that if you deny, you are made to look like an idiot: “what do you mean, you don’t know what an apple is? How can we listen to a man like that!” Of course, I know what is meant by “apple,” and to my knowledge have never had trouble identifying one. Yet it is a sledgehammer of a statement that denies the complexity of the situation. Apples are fairly uncontroversial: that is, there is very little doubt about what is meant by that name. The term is fairly well defined and has not faced serious social challenges.

    But this “first principle” is extraordinarily weak because it confuses widespread social agreement about a term with certain knowledge. Yes, likely everyone reading this post would agree with Kreeft’s understanding of what an apple is. We share a common understanding of that name, which is well-defined and quite uncontroversial. We might, however, be in more trouble if we started attempting to agree on more controversial taxonomies, such as the placement of the platypus or the status of Pluto. “I know what a planet is” twenty years ago meant Pluto was in; redefinition following controversy meant “I know what a planet is” now excludes Pluto. Names – and our associated mental concepts – are not static entities, but dynamic – a fact the crude realist epistemology more or less assumed by this piece attempts to sidestep.

    Personhood, human person, and so forth are, unfortunately, not clear-cut terms like “apple,” and the argument begins to crumple from its first step out of the gate. Without a clear sense of what is meant by “we really know what an apple is” (really? Is that a technical term? As opposed to just plain old knowing what an apple is?), I’m afraid the argument is already unpersuasive.

  2. scottylellis,

    I think you are falling precisely into the contradictions Kreeft is talking about. His first and second premises (that we know what an apple is, and that we in fact do know this) have absolutely nothing to do with the fact that “apples are fairly uncontroversial” (though I would have thought they were “totally” uncontroversial!). Kreeft’s argument in no way “confuses widespread social agreement about a term with certain knowledge”, as you say. In fact, it is stating something like exactly the opposite of this.

    Note that Kreeft nowhere bases his first premises on the fact that there is widespread agreement regarding what apples are. He never mentions this. Rather, he is simply asserting that we in fact do know what apples are. The point he is trying to make is not that we can only say this about “uncontroversial” things like apples, but the much more important philosophical argument that it is possible for us to attain true knowledge about what things really are (step 3). In other words, he is saying: “since it is indisputable that we know what apples are, we can extrapolate this to conclude that we can KNOW what other things are too.” (This is where his “really know” comes in—it’s emphasizing that the knowledge we have is not illusory or opinion, it is true knowledge, in the strongest sense of the term.)

    Kreeft is making a point about our capacity to know things (not about whether something is generally accepted in society). The fact that people disagree about something does not mean that it is not possible to know what that thing is. If Pluto is no longer considered a planet, that does not mean that we don’t know what planets are—surely you would agree that regardless of whether or not Pluto is a planet, a chair or the continent of Asia are not planets. Same thing with the platypus. This is not a question of names, but of knowledge of reality. If we cease to call Pluto a planet and call it a “dwarf planet” that does not alter what it really is, it refines our knowledge of it, but if we started calling it a chair we would just be fooling ourselves (or we would be disingenuous). So, it’s not about names and how dynamic they can be, but about whether or not we can know reality.

    So, he then goes on to state the rest of the argument: We know what humans are. Humans have the right to life because they are human. A human life begins at conception. Ergo, a human has the right to life from the moment he or she is a human—that is, from the moment of conception.

  3. >Yet it is a sledgehammer of a statement that denies the complexity of the situation. Apples are fairly uncontroversial: that is, there is very little doubt about what is meant by that name. The term is fairly well defined and has not faced serious social challenges.

    The complexity of what? This is philosophy, math with words. Something is or isn’t, not both at the same time.

    >“I know what a planet is” twenty years ago meant Pluto was in; redefinition following controversy meant “I know what a planet is” now excludes Pluto.

    So then we agree on what a planet is? Pluto changed classification because new information was gathered, and, based upon objectively agreed upon requirements for “planethood”, Pluto fell from its categorization. “Originally classified as the ninth planet from the Sun, Pluto was recategorized as a dwarf planet and plutoid due to the discovery that it is only one of several large bodies within the Kuiper belt.” What a planet is didn’t change, what Pluto is changed. New information, new catorigization. If you wish to present new evidence that a fetus is not a human then please do, but with everything we know, it very much is.

    Now that we know it is, the debate has become very much centered around the “but what if it isn’t a person?” last resort. This is scary stuff, because it shows us that we are willing to alter definitions and viewpoints to justify our actions, as you so clearly demonstrate here; “Personhood, human person, and so forth are, unfortunately, not clear-cut terms like “apple,” and the argument begins to crumple from its first step out of the gate.” Holy shit dude, how is this any different than convincing a certain race of people, that another race of people aren’t in fact people, and therefore do not have the same rights as us? Haven’t we been here before? Didn’t war break out like every single time? You have to seriously see how you are running philosophy and rational thought through a grinder, don’t you? Please you tell me you do, because I seriously don’t think America can take another social uprising, not in the position we are.

  4. This is fantastic. I love clear thinking.

    One thing that is not mentioned often, and not mentioned here, is what I call “The Parasite Argument”. Even if you have Case #1 (The fetus is a person and we know that), I run across the logic that says no person has the right to use another person as a life support system unless they consent; it’s a personal choice.

    I go at it this way:
    Pregnancy is a case where two human lives are physically intertwined. When forced to decide if one life should be killed (permanently) vs. another life to be pregnant (temporarily), the reasonable course of action based on priority is to spare the life, because the right to be alive is the derivation of all other human rights and has the highest priority.

  5. pejotif:

    “Note that Kreeft nowhere bases his first premises on the fact that there is widespread agreement regarding what apples are. He never mentions this. Rather, he is simply asserting that we in fact do know what apples are.”

    One may ask why he started with point 1. Why didn’t he just start with point 4?

    He began with point 1 because if he had begun with point 4 it would have become much clearer that his argument is a form of begging the question. The question at hand in the abortion debate is precisely “What counts as a human being – or, more morally relevant, a human person? What is a human person, and are fetuses human persons?” Those questions are at the heart of the debate – that is, the terms are controversial and unclear.

    He begins with “we know what an apple is” precisely because “apple” is a stable, uncontroversial term. He didn’t start with, “we know what a planet it,” because quite frankly that term has undergone a great deal of flux. Relatively recently it was completely redefined in a way that made certain things that were once considered planets into something that is not considered planets. Names signify reality only through social convention, and that convention is not stable.

    “What does that have to do with the matter at hand?” you may ask. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Reality is unchanged by our changing names!” Very good, I concur (for the most part – there is the odd way in which our language can shape the way that we alter reality, but let’s leave that to the side). Nevertheless, we think by means of language and we understand that reality through the names we give it. Which leads us back to the problem with the first point: “We know what apples are” has all its power because we all tend to agree on that point. The name is well known, is stable – we know the part or parts of reality to which it refers. When you put something in front of just about anyone, they will agree whether it is, in fact, an apple.

    Now do this with a zygote. Put it before a random selection of U.S. citizens and ask, “is this a human being?” You will not get universal agreement. The applicability of the name is uncertain. Kreeft’s argument attempts to smuggle a kind of certainty into the argument through two methods: one, by shifting from an uncontroversial name to a controversial one (complete with more or less implying his conclusion, namely, that we know what human beings are, and that includes all zygotes, embryos, and fetuses), and two, by addressing an audience that mostly agrees with his understanding of the terms at hand and will likely not perceive that he is in fact assuming his conclusion.

    “If Pluto is no longer considered a planet, that does not mean that we don’t know what planets are—surely you would agree that regardless of whether or not Pluto is a planet, a chair or the continent of Asia are not planets.”

    Sure. No one is arguing that a chair is a human person. I agree that there are things which are universally rejected as “human persons.” But, again, you are naming uncontroversial things, clear cut examples. Take this example:

    Take a man with a full head of hair. Now, we know clearly he is not bald. Pluck a hair. He is still not bald. Continue this process, and you will reach a point of uncertainty and – although mild – even controversy. When does the person lose a sufficient number of hairs and fall under the name, “bald?” Or, take the Pluto controversy: people really were not sure whether Pluto was a planet, and the name had to be more precisely defined in order to clear up the problem. In fact, the Pluto case is an excellent parallel to the abortion debate: we should be focusing on more precise definitions of “human being.”

    No one doubts that an adult is a human person. There is, however, a grey area – an area in which there is not widespread agreement whether “human being” or “human person” really applies, and thus whether rights are applicable. The present argument attempts to sidestep this uncertainty entirely.

    “This is not a question of names, but of knowledge of reality.”

    We know reality through symbols, both social and physiological. This includes names. It’s just the way it is to be an embodied, social mind.

  6. SaltyPapist:

    “The complexity of what? This is philosophy, math with words. Something is or isn’t, not both at the same time.”

    That’s nice. Unfortunately, the problem is that any such statements are composed of symbols, symbols which are social constructs – names like “human beings” and “rights” and such – which are themselves subject to change and reinterpretation. Right now, there are people who say, “zygotes are not human persons” and people who say “zygotes are human persons.” The reality they are attempting to describe is, of course, whatever it is, as per your reference to the principle of non-contradiction. But our understanding of that reality – that is, our knowledge – is not indifferent to the symbols we use, and anyone with a passing familiarity with history knows that humanity redefines terms as it needs to in order to facilitate that understanding (or, indeed, for other diverse purposes).

    In the current matter, it is not clear what “human” refers to and whether, say, zygotes should be included. It is thus also unclear when such things should be treated as rights.

    “So then we agree on what a planet is? Pluto changed classification because new information was gathered, and, based upon objectively agreed upon requirements for “planethood”, Pluto fell from its categorization.”

    No. Pluto was denied planethood because of the discovery of new objects. The increasing multitude of these new objects forced the International Astronomical Union to re-examine its definition of the term “planet.” There literally was doubt amongst scientists about what should be counted as a planet. Eventually, there was consensus, and the new definition of planet excluded Pluto (much to the chagrin of those of us who had grown up with nine planets).

    Reality did not change. The symbol was redefined to serve particular scientific purposes and goals. There was nothing in reality that forced the IAU to define the term one way or another; they could have with equal intelligibility have defined the term to include Pluto and the newly discovered Trans-Neptunian Objects. They did not, again for a number of rather technical reasons. Suffice to say, it turns out that things are far more complex that “to be or not to be” when you get out of philosophy class and begin dealing with the far more complex epistemological relationship between man and reality.

    This is the case with the abortion debate: there is disagreement about terms, and in this case the consequences of how we define human person is far more important socially than the Pluto debate.

    “What a planet is didn’t change, what Pluto is changed.”

    That is patently false. The term “planet” was redefined by the IAU in 2006.

    “… dude, how is this any different than convincing a certain race of people, that another race of people aren’t in fact people, and therefore do not have the same rights as us? Haven’t we been here before?”

    You are exactly right. Similar attempts at redefining who counts as human are indeed behind a number of quite horrible atrocities (the Holocaust comes immediately to mind). As a matter of disclosure, you may want to know that I have absolutely no horse in this race. My mind isn’t made up on the matter, and I am actually practically (even if not theoretically) pro-life by reason of what I would call moral caution: where there is uncertainty, one should act with moral caution rather than moral liberty. I am simply pointing out that Kreeft’s argument is faulty. I do not support arguments simply because they happen to support my current views, I analyze them for how rigorous and persuasive they are, and this argument, by means of its sidestepping the real controversy, I doubt would persuade an informed pro-choice individual.

  7. Wonderer:

    I actually personally ascribe to an argument similar but formally different from (13) called moral caution. However, the argument in point (13) has nothing to do with my objection to other parts of the argument.

  8. Scottylellis:

    Why don’t you give us a point by point argument of your own, because it seems from what you have posted here that you are either a skeptic or a moral relativist. Forgive my ignorance if that is not accurate. All the same, I’d be interested to hear your argument for/against abortion laid out in a fashion similar (although, of course, much more refined) to Dr Kreeft’s.

  9. Spatafizzle:

    As I mention in a comment above, I have no theoretical conclusions on this matter. “The jury is still out,” as they say, primarily because both sides have shown a severe tendency (displayed in this article) to sidestep the most important ingredient in solving such a dispute: coming up with a highly specific, rigorous, and mutually agreeable definition of “human person.”

    I have no solution in this matter.

    I do, however, have a purely practical argument for why I am pro-life; one could call it a purely procedural argument for dealing with the situation. This argument is by nature tentative; that is, it is intended only to serve so long as I have not found a sufficiently well-formed and persuasive theoretical argument. It is an argument from moral caution, and it bears many similarities to (13) on Kreeft’s argument.

    First, I assume that in any case in which there is moral uncertainty – that is, in a case in which there is no clear moral consensus about the rightness or wrongness of a set of courses of actions – that moral caution ought to be used, and that until the certainty is cleared up to a sufficient degree one should act as though the most morally restrictive possibility were true. For example, let’s say that it is my job at a factory to dispose of cardboard boxes full of trash in an incinerator. As I am picking up a box, another worker yells “my baby is in that box!” Another worker shouts, “the man is a lunatic who loves to make up stories.” What ought I do? I do not know if there is a baby in the box at that moment. According to the principle of moral caution, I should act practically as if there is indeed a baby in the box until such time as I can clear up the uncertainty. Indeed, I think that most people would recognize that I did something wrong if I callously threw the box into the fire even if there weren’t a baby in the box, simply because I ignored the uncertainty and the possible consequences of my action.

    Of course, this is just a very brief discussion of moral caution. There are nuances. For one, each situation demands a different degree of certainty for satisfaction. In the case of the baby in the box, the fact that a human life is potentially on the line means that I should carefully inspect the inside of the box and remove any shred of doubt that a baby is in there. If the man said that his ham sandwich was in the box, I might take a glance but do not need to reach the same certainty. I should also take into account the nature of the claimants involved. If the man turned out to really be a lunatic who yelled that there is a baby inside every box, then I would be morally justified in ignoring the uncertainty he is attempting to establish.

    I hope the application to the current case is evident. There is uncertainty about the moral status of zygotes, embryos, fetuses, and (in some cases) even infants. It is uncertain whether these things are the sort of things that deserve moral protection, mostly because we have not really established fully what is meant by “human person.” That is to say that there are disagreements about what sorts of qualities are necessary for a thing to be considered a human being with human rights. Inasmuch as this uncertainty has been established by a debate between two viewpoints each with more or less rigorous arguments, I believe it can be safely assumed that the uncertainty is real in nature and not simply the attempt of a madman to make us look into every box. As such, I believe that the principle of moral caution demands that until a more satisfactory conclusion can be reached about the nature of personhood and the status of zygotes, etc., we must act as though the most morally rigorous possibility is true, that is, that they are indeed persons.

    There is, however, a caveat: if a principle of moral uncertainty is stacked against a moral certainty of equal or greater concern, it is acceptable to rule in favor of the certainty. For example, the personhood of the mother is not in question by any parties. It is not a subject of uncertainty. Thus I believe it to be morally acceptable to terminate the pregnancy in cases in which the mother’s life is threatened, such as ectopic pregnancies.

    As for my own theoretical leanings: as I have said, I haven’t made up my mind. I tend towards a view of personhood of which some minimal ability to experience reality is a necessary – although I am still uncertain as to the details of this arrangement. It is clear that zygotes sufficiently early in their development do not have any of the requisite structures to experience reality at all, and thus have absolutely no ability to act as “persons” even in a completely passive sense of simply experiencing reality. Thus the theoretical situation seems a bit like the hairy to bald dilemma: there is a point at which someone is clearly hairy and a point at which they are clearly bald, but there is a continuum of uncertainty, a transitional period in which it would be almost arbitrary to assign a specific “point of no return.” Until this is cleared up, I must be practically pro-life, excepting as I mentioned the health of the mother and with less emphasis on zygotes in the very earliest stages of development.

  10. If we can retrace Scottytellis’ existence back to the point he became a distinct entity we can definitely say the beginning of Scottytellis was the moment half of his mother’s DNA and half of his father’s DNA became ONE. This entity, this being, cannot be anything but a human being. You are saying this is wrong and this is only a potential human “person”. No, it is a being, a human – a human being. Therefore it has human rights – from the beginning.

  11. Correction on the previous post – half of Scottytellis’ DNA came from his mother and half from his father to form his own unique DNA – the DNA of a distinct unique being which cannot be anything but utterly human…no splitting hairs, no relativism, no arbitrary ‘point of no return’, no “ability to experience reality”. Human from the beginning.

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