I was having lunch yesterday in the university cafeteria with a priest who teaches a course on ethics. Predictably, the priest was doing what we all do, namely, complaining about his students–complaining, in particular, about their susceptibility to pro-choice propaganda. “You know,” he said in dismay, “I asked them when human life begins, and they all think it begins when the child exits the womb!” Not everybody at the table knew quite how to respond to this, but I told the priest I sympathized with his dismay. Obviously, I said, human life doesn’t begin when the child exits the womb. It begins when the child exits the house.
I somehow feel like I learned this lesson from Judith Jarvis Thomson, but I’m probably misremembering her argument.
Semi-serious response: I have often shared the priest’s bewilderment when I have dared to discuss abortion with people, and I’ve been tempted to think that what people mean when they say that human life begins when the child exits the womb, or at viability, or something like that, is just that that’s when it has independent moral status; it’s not that they’re woefully misinformed about biology, or even that their moral commitments lead them to absurd contradictions with biology, but that they use words that seem biological or at least ontological but are really just moral. It’s a bit like the response I’m inclined to have to the so-called ‘Knobe Effect’* in which people judge that a CEO indifferent to his company’s effects on the environment does intend to harm the environment when those effects are bad (and he knows it) but doesn’t intend to benefit it when those effects are good (and he knows it); what this shows, I’m inclined to think, is just that people aren’t even trying to think carefully about intentions. Admittedly, the distinction between intended and foreseen effects might be a little less clear than the biology (though in fact I’m inclined to think that it is rather more clear, since it does not depend on any empirical evidence unavailable to anyone capable of thinking about the question). But in both cases it seems plausible enough, to understate matters, that people intuitively suppose that if they accept one claim, they’ll have to accept another that they deem morally unacceptable (if human life begins before point X, abortion before point X will be morally wrong; if somebody didn’t intend a bad effect, he’s not blameworthy for bringing it about). But the real value of Thomson’s article (if there is any, about which I remain agnostic) lies in showing that we aren’t entitled to assume that abortion is morally impermissible if the fetus is a living human being. Perhaps your priest would remain dismayed if his students understood and accepted that human life begins before birth but remained pro-choice; I’d be satisfied if people just understood what they’re saying.
Yes, I’m procrastinating and grumpy and desperate for something that vaguely resembles philosophical interaction.
[* Update: I originally mistyped that as ‘Kobe Effect,’ which could only have something to do with Kobe Bryant, about whom I have no philosophical thoughts worthy of expression]
I think what most people mean is something like, “It’s biologically human before birth, but a full-fledged person only after birth, which is what matters, morally speaking.” That said, it’s probably dangerous to over-theorize comments by Felician undergraduates.
Framing the abortion issue in terms of the question, “When does human life begin?” strikes me as a tendentious first move. But I agree: once an audience hears where the questioner is going with the opening question–or infers it from his role as a priest–they head him off at the pass by countering with a pro-choice rhetorical maneuver.
I used to teach abortion for several years in my “Contemporary Moral Issues” class back when I was an adjunct at The College of New Jersey, but stopped around 2005, after I changed institutions and acquired different teaching responsibilities. I taught Thomson maybe a dozen times, always to ill-effect. Whether that was Thomson’s fault or mine I don’t know, but I don’t particularly like the article.
Abortion is one issue that I find harder to teach at a Catholic institution than at others, so I never re-introduced it here at Felician, and eventually left it behind, focusing on sexier topics like pornography, hook-ups, cat-calling, incest, perversion, and the Catholic Catechism’s commentary on the Sixth Commandment.
Hey, it could be worse. We could be on Facebook. But I hear you. I guess the paradoxical lesson here is: if you want to do philosophy, don’t go into education.