Feb 22, 2012

Parfit on the morality of abortion

Karl Smith complains that the discourse around the morality of abortion lacks philosophical rigor:
Abortion seems to me to be a particularly poor example of a lack of moral resolution. From listening to the discourse from almost every corner its clear that bordering on no one takes the issue seriously and is primarily just posturing.
I have heard no mention of whether or not fetuses or infants for that matter are p-zombies and if so would that matter. I have heard no serious treatment of the difference between the duty to prevent miscarriages and the duty to prevent abortion. I have heard no mention of whether or not all potential existing persons have moral relevance. I have heard no mention of wrongful life. These are trivially basic issues underpinning all this, yet the conversation does not even try to address them. Not fail. Not wave away. They simply don’t try.
Now, it seems here Smith is talking about the mainstream conversation, not academic philosophy, but since I've been plowing through Derek Parfit's Reasons and Persons (on the recommendation of Tyler Cowen and Yglesias), I feel like hoisting a bit out of that book. It's from the section dealing with personal identity. Here "Reductionist" refers to a view saying that identity of a person is reducible to certain physical and psychological facts, which has the implication that personal identity is fluid. I may be just as much a different person compared to a nearby friend as compared to my younger self. "Non-Reductionist" means rejecting that view. (I'm probably bungling it a little, but that's pretty close.)
On the Non-Reductionist view, since my existence is all-or-nothing, there must have been a moment when I started to exist. As in my imagined Spectra, there must be a sharp borderline. It is implausible to claim that this borderline is birth; nor can any line be plausibly drawn during pregnancy. We may thus be led to the view that I started to exist at the moment of conception. We may claim that this is the moment when my life began. And, on the Non-Reductionist View, it is a deep truth that all the parts of my life are equally parts of my life. I was as much me even when my life had only just started. Killing me at this time is, straightforwardly, killing an innocent person. If this is what we believe, we shall plausibly claim that abortion is morally wrong.
On the Reductionist view, we do not believe that every moment I either do or don't exist. We can now deny that a fertilized ovum is a person or a human being. This is like the plausible denial that an acorn is an oak-tree. Given the right conditions, an acorn slowly becomes an oak-tree. This transition takes time, and is a matter of degree. There is no sharp borderline. We should claim the same about person, and human beings. We can then plausibly take a different view about the morality of abortion. We can believe that there is nothing wrong in an early abortion, but that it would be seriously wrong to abort a child near the end of the pregnancy. Such a child, if unwanted, should be born and adopted. The cases in between we can treat as matters of degree. The fertilized ovum is not a first, but slowly becomes, a human being, and a person. In the same way, the destruction of this organism is not at first but slowly becomes seriously wrong.
[Quick note here that late-term abortions are almost always for medical reasons.]

I think most liberals, seeing that argument, would probably accept it, but the underlying architecture is a bit more difficult to accept. One of Parfit's famous thought experiments involves a tele-transportation device, which destroys my body in one location and constructs an exact replica somewhere else. On Parfit's view of Reductionism, the question as to whether or not I survive this experience is empty, or devoid of meaningful information. He thinks also that the survival of my Replica is about as good as ordinary survival; or, stated differently, ordinary survival is about as bad as being destroyed in one place and rebuilt in another.

That's a tricky thing to believe, but he has about convinced me. (There are, as you might imagine, a lot more to these arguments.) It's a good book, though dense. I've had to stop a couple times and chow through a quick Terry Pratchett just for a breather.

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