Abortion is not Immoral and Should not be Illegal
by Richard C. Carrier
It is always refreshing debating someone who is not fanatically attached to a bizarre worldview. We always come to enlightened agreement on many issues. This is one of the reasons I believe secularism is the correct view–whereas theism leads to greater dispute and fragmentation, greater diversion and opposition of values and opinion, secularism seems always to converge on a common set of values and beliefs, leaving only half-charted waters on the periphery for disputes. I suspect it is not mere accident that the secularism in Taoist and Confucian thinking produced surprisingly similar values to those arrived at by Greek philosophy. And so it is today, where Jen Roth and I agree on just about everything. Ms. Roth points out the most significant of these agreements in her second rebuttal and I won’t repeat her work here.
There is at present only one significant point of disagreement, and not much needs to be said about it that I have not already begun to say in my own second rebuttal, which Ms. Roth has only this last month been able to read and to which she is at present composing a reply. But the following should help in the future–and what we have left below is nothing more than philosophical argument–in other words, a discussion about language and meaning. However, I shall use this space to make one correction to my last rebuttal: when I wrote that an IUD is "a device that only works by forcing a conceptus to abort" I was unaware of research suggesting that it may also have spermicidal and hormonal effects. This does not substantially affect my argument, since this only puts it in the same category as the pill and other chemical birth control technologies which still do cause abortions and thus its widespread use entails an increase in unrecorded abortions. On Roth’s argument, the IUD would be immoral and illegal. Now to the main issue.
The Meaning of a Moral Definition
There is a key element of miscommunication that may perhaps be corrected by a single clarifying sentence: my argument is that an "individual human personality" is a person because that is what we especially value as a person. In other words, since we are talking about values, and any moral argument must begin with values (and then see how the facts relate to those values), the definition of "person" in any moral argument must be based on our values: that is, when we say we value persons, what do we mean? Hence, I identify the value which underlies our belief that things like murder are immoral, and then see how that value applies to the facts of abortion.
This is how it must be. There is no such thing as an objective definition. All definitions are arbitrary human inventions, and begin with subjective choices about where to draw lines, or how to assign categories. They then become universal when they are adopted as a cultural, linguistic convention. Like morals, definitions are then given the illusion of being objective by virtue of their universality. But this is a universality of subjective agreement. The only question of objective fact in a coherent definition is whether it has become a convention in any language. But the definition itself shall always have a subjective origin.
Ms. Roth "take[s] issue with [my] premise [that "prior to 20 weeks’ gestation, the cerebral cortex has not yet developed to the point that the organism can possess an ‘individual human personality’"] because developmental processes long before 20 weeks are vital to the formation of the individual personality." I addressed this misunderstanding in my second rebuttal with the analogy of a tree and a seed. The fact is that a sperm cell is also ultimately "vital to the formation of the individual personality," as is a somatic cellular genome in a brain-dead adult, especially in a society capable of cloning organs, but these things do not themselves contain an individual personality, and neither does a prenate before the completion of some sort of physical personality-architecture.
The difference is obviously arbitrary and conventional, as all matters of definition are. The question thus hinges on whether that difference is relevant to our moral argument, and since I believe our moral argument can only be based on a value we all do surely have (or can be persuaded to adopt)–that is: a value for actual individual personalities–the difference is not merely arbitrary but is crucially relevant to any moral argument. In order for Ms. Roth to counter this, she must show what universal value would make a potential (still-in-progress) person equal to an actual person for the purpose of any moral argument against murder or manslaughter. I hold the particular view that I do because I do not think such a value exists. Ms. Roth may yet prove me wrong, but only once she understands the issue, as I hope she will after having read my second rebuttal on this point.
Relevant vs. Irrelevant Criteria
Roth is correct that, among other things, "the powers of reason and moral choice are the properties which set humans apart from other animals" and these do "make human rights possible," in particular because rights are a category of moral values, produced by the ability to understand facts and values and their conjoined consequences. She argues "that reason and moral choice are less arbitrary criteria on which to base personhood," than the criterion of actually being a person (in the sense of an individual personality). This is because these two things "stem not from subjective preference, but from the nature of rights themselves." Unfortunately, rights stem in turn from subjective preferences. Without a subjective value for rights, rights would not exist at all. For rights appear "less subjective" only because the subjective values that entail a value for rights are virtually universal among human beings. This is why I would call them a moral concept, defining moral as the object of universally-shared values–as opposed to personal principles, which differ primarily in not being universal. Thus, her criteria are no less subjective than mine. However, they are just as universal as mine, thus there is nothing prima facie inferior about her proposed criteria.
The case must be decided by asking which set of criteria are relevant to those actual values that would be involved in categorizing abortion as something like murder. In this I do not see any relevance in Roth’s criteria, but every relevance in mine, which is why I adopt my criterion. The problem with Roth’s criteria are twofold: first, as she herself admits, "the prenate is not yet able to exercise reason or moral choice," so that these criteria in themselves fail to identify a prenate as a person and thus do not support Roth’s case; second, many individual personalities whom we do value lack the ability to reason and make moral choices (children, for example) and thus would not be people on Roth’s criteria, which I think even she would admit is not correct. Consequently, I hold that it is not "reason and moral choice" that we value as a person, but the person herself–her individual personality. Though we do value reason and moral choice, and thus hold greater value for people who possess those abilities, we do not think of only such people as persons. When we think "murder is wrong" we think this not because it destroys a reasoning, moral-minded entity, but because it involves the destruction of an individual personality–so that we still think murder is wrong even when no actual reasoning, moral-minded entity is destroyed, but an actual individual personality is.
Body and Self
Ms. Roth says I argue "that the personality…must be present and functioning on some level in order for the organism to be considered a person." But apart from the criterion "personality," this is not something I argue, this is something that is necessary a priori. By definition, in order to be an X something must be an X. There is no avoiding that simple fact. Thus, whatever criteria we employ to identify the object of our moral value for persons must be actually met in order for anything to be a person in such a sense. This is why "reason and moral choice" fail as criteria for personhood.
Yet Ms. Roth does appear to understand this in identifying a key difference between us: to me, "the biological organism is not the person at all–the personality is"; but to Roth, "the biological organism is the person." Not only does this effectively, though perhaps unintentionally, abandon her previous criteria of "reason and moral choice," but I do not see how this new criterion is relevant to our moral values in this debate. We do not value bodies in the same sense as personalities. If it were possible for a person to leave their body and continue existing without it (whether in a computer or a supernatural soul), our value would not remain with the body, but transfer to the personality–the mind would be the person, the body would be mere flesh–at best it would be the property of the person, but not identical to them. That is why a brain-dead patient is no longer a person, and to carve them up for organ transplants is not considered torture or murder.
Ms. Roth seems hung up on the assumption that I am arguing for some sort of metaphysical dualism, that the body and personality are completely separated. This is not what I am saying. The body does produce and sustain a personality (just as a computer produces and sustains a spreadsheet program), though not all bodies do so (just as not all computers run spreadsheet programs), and the body is not exactly the same thing as the personality it generates and stores (just as a spreadsheet program, though inert without an actual computer to run on, is not exactly the same thing as that computer). It is theoretically possible to program a person’s mind into a computer and arrange the program and inputs so as to exactly replicate all the functions and format of the previous body and mind, just as it is theoretically possible to transplant someone’s brain into another body. We would not say in either case that the person was destroyed by having lost their body–to the contrary, they continue to exist in a new housing. Even if their subsequent life was then changed, they would still answer by the same name, have all the same memories and character traits and desires, and so on. Like a program, a person is a state of affairs, a process, that can in theory be transferred from one body to another. The body is little more than functional scaffolding. And this is easily tested: ask anyone whether they would object if we were to give them a completely new but superior body, but keep every part of their personality intact. Who would object? No one. Ergo, no one equates their body with their self.
Faults in Jen Roth’s Arguments for Organismic Personhood
Once the above is taken into account, Roth’s own arguments become moot. She first argues that "the organism is identical (in the mathematical sense) over the course of his/her entire lifetime." But this is mere circumstance. There is no reason why the organism must be identical over the course of a person’s lifetime–thinking hypothetically, if a person suddenly switched bodies, they would not think they were a different person, but the same person in a different body. This thought-experiment is another clue to what ordinary people actually think a person is–and this is not dependent on any supernatural or dualistic assumptions, any more than the dichotomy "running is not identical to legs" is dependent on such things. For material and process are not the same.
Moreover, a corpse, even a living but brain-dead body, is also "identical (in the mathematical sense)" over the course of a person’s existence. Why, then, does someone suddenly stop being a person when they die? The body is still there. In many cases, even the brain is still there. What has happened? The synapses, whose specific arrangement is unique to each person and creates everything about them as a unique mental entity (personality, reason, memory, etc.), begin to decay, and as a result the "program" for that individual personality is lost forever. That is why some people attempt to cryogenically freeze their brains in such a state that this synaptic pattern is preserved and can be seen and hopefully regenerated, reconstructed, or reproduced in the distant future–and whether in a cloned body or an entirely new one is not of primary concern to such people, further supporting my view. Thus, the person is a construction, a pattern, of cellular arrangement. The pattern is their identity–what that pattern is made of is not entirely relevant. It just so happens that the only substrate available at present is a naturally-produced brain (which a body exists for no other purpose than to feed, carry around, and obey). But this is, as I noted above, purely circumstantial. It is not essential to identity.
This is also why Roth is in my opinion incorrect when she says "At no point does a ‘non-person’ go away, to be replaced by a ‘person’." Of course, she cannot use this as an argument without begging the very question at hand. But as a description of a position, it fails to apply to my criteria: for in my view, a particular synaptic pattern must exist in a brain that is being affected by the environment, that is entirely unique, and that possesses the actual functions of a human (as opposed to an animal) mind. Until such a structure exists, a prenate is not significantly different from a brain-dead adult (nor significantly different from any of its identical twins). It is in this structure, only possible in a complex cerebral cortex, that an individual human personality exists. And the personality is not identical with the brain, but with the structure or pattern physically impressed in that brain. In principle, the brain is not essential. The structure is. The only need for a brain is as a means to manifest that structure, but any substrate in theory could do. Thus, it is perfectly obvious on my criteria that there is indeed a point when a pure non-person ceases as such, and the organized material acquires a new feature: a person.
There is even less to say about the rest of Roth’s arguments. "Every one of us has been a prenate at the beginning of our lifespan," and every one of us was a sperm and an egg at the beginning of our conception, and every one of us will be a corpse when we are dead. What inbetween creates a person? The brain, and specifically a complex cerebral cortex. Even more specifically, the pattern or program adhering in that structure. Likewise, "The great social movements in history have been those which expanded the circle of human rights, drawing more and more human beings inside the circle. To exclude an entire class of human beings goes against the grain of progress," is an entirely question-begging argument: for this to have any merit, she must assume a priori that she is right and I am wrong about when a human being exists. And we certainly would not want to extend her argument to the next logical stage: death. After all, that is a "class…to which we [will] all belong" and if we are going to expand the scope of human rights to all human bodies, then that will have to include corpses–and that means in the near future, when we can regenerate brains, death itself would become illegal. Something is amiss.
And so, "the ability to reason is not added to the brain by some outside force once it has reached a certain level of development," ignores that my argument is that the ability to reason is added to the brain by an internal process (which is equivalent to "reaching a certain level of development"). And "a being in whose nature it is to reason and to make moral choices" = "a person" does not work, again, because this is just as true of a corpse, or even a single cell. We don’t care about a blueprint for something that can reason any more than we care about the blueprint for a house when it gets cold. A blueprint does not keep us warm, nor does a half-built house, nor does a house in the process of being built. When we say "it is good to have a house," we mean an actual house, not a potential one. Likewise, when we say "people are valuable" we mean actual people, not blueprints for them, nor people under construction. Nor in fact do we even mean their bodies per se, but their personalities, which are in principle transferrable to any physical body capable of containing the necessary pattern of mental hardware–even, in principle, transferrable to non-physical bodies, which is why the Christian belief in an immaterial soul is able to let them believe that people never die. If "person" meant "body" then this Christian belief would make no sense.
On Animals and Compassion
I have several times referred to animals, and I will briefly clarify my position on animal rights. I believe that any creature with a brain can in principle feel pain, and though it cannot perceive pain in the same sense as a self-conscious crebral cortex can, it is still uncompassionate and therefore immoral to torture them. Likewise, mammals have brains of sufficient complexity to possess personalities in a sense similar to but not the same as humans (the great apes may be an exception and ought to be in a class between human and animal). The difference is self-awareness, and growing understanding, and this is a property that is so precious to us that we abhor the thought of destroying it. There is thus no evil in killing animals, so long as it is done quickly and humanely, and they are treated kindly when alive. But then there is the practice of experimenting on animals. This in my opinion is not to be taken lightly and must be justified by need–human lives must actually be at stake–and even under this exception we should not abandon all care for the alleviation of pain in test subjects. In all cases, we ought to be conscious of what a particular animal is capable of experiencing and what it is not capable of experiencing, and have an appropriate level of care.
This belief relates to prenates in that before a prenate forms any kind of brain, it cannot even feel pain, much less perceive it, and therefore there is no logical way compassion can be a motive for preserving such a being–destroying it does not even cause pain, and does no more for the potential human than avoiding conception in the first place would have done. This is a crucial point: "we ought to let nature take its course" is an argument that would also outlaw all birth control (as well as CPR). The fact is that we regularly and rightly contradict nature every day in every area of our lives–there is thus no evil inherent in reversing natural processes. However, once a prenate has nerves and a brain of some sort, which makes feeling pain possible, it should be treated as an animal would–if it is to be killed, it should be killed as painlessly as possible, and since there is no other way to escape the risks and burdons of pregnancy and labor, such killing will at times be necessary. But once a prenate has the ability to perceive pain, possessing a cerebral cortex sufficiently complex to begin constructing a personality and integrating perceptions of the world, though not as conscious of its existence as a child or adult, it is still worthy of even greater compassion than animals on that ground alone, and is furthermore inherently more valuable for what has now gained a foothold on existence–something far from half-human, more than mere cells, but a thinking, perceiving being.
The Nature of Cross-Cultural Moral Criticism
Roth uses the argument that "societies have been wrong before in basing human rights on traits valued by those in power." But there are three things wrong with using such an argument here. First, it only entails that I "could" be wrong, or that she "could" be right, which is something already presumed by the existence of this debate itself and thus is not in need of proving. Second, what "those in power" think has never been an issue for either of us, so there is no point in bringing that up here–to the contrary, I, at least, am arguing from the position of what all people actually mean in common when they use certain concepts and their synonymns, not just those in power–and not just what certain groups mean, but those elements of what they mean that are shared by all others in using the same concepts.
Third, and most importantly, rights are objects of value. What a society values is the basis for their concept of rights. Rights are merely a conceptual application of societal values. If a society had no values of any kind that entailed any value for any rights, then rights would not exist in that society and there would be no point in arguing with that society about it–all we could do is admit we do not like such societies, and if any exist at present we will wisely fear them as potentially the very worst kind of enemies. However, this is unreal. No such society in my observation has ever actually existed, or is ever likely to. When I look closely, I always find that societies lacking a concept of rights either have the concept in some other form after all, or else contain internal self-contradictions in their value system that would be resolved by adopting a system of rights–or they contain false factual beliefs that, once corrected, would result in the adoption of something equivalent to our idea of rights.
Thus, cross-cultural criticism is possible even within my subjectivist view of ethics. It can take three forms: a critique of factual beliefs held by that culture (since facts themselves are objective, not subjective), a critique of the internal consistency of that culture’s own value system, or a critique of the (again, factual) practical utility of the modes and means with which that culture applies its values in practice. Therefore, if one wishes to argue that a past or present culture’s refusal of rights to a certain category of entities is in fact wrong, this argument must follow one of those three lines: Does that culture hold any incorrect beliefs about the facts? Are there any logical inconsistencies in that culture’s value system? Are there any practical defects in the application of those values? Before Ms. Roth can use such an argument, she must actually make it.
So far, I see numerous linguistic mistakes in Roth’s position. When I define things, I argue from the point of view of what all people mean when they say things–and when people disagree, I refer to the kernel of detail on which they nevertheless all agree, and take that as the fundamental true meaning of a term, "true meaning" in the sense that this is what all people actually mean when they use the term in a given context. When I discuss what is morally valuable, I argue from the point of view of what all people actually value–even when some people do not value a thing I consider moral, I argue that they would value it if they were aware of how the actual values they do have interact with the facts that are true. To make her case that abortion is immoral and ought to be illegal, this is also what Jen Roth must do: in the one case, she must demonstrate that everyone has a certain value for something that a prenate actually is, or certain values that entail that value (alone or in conjunction with certain facts of the world), in such a manner as to entail the belief that killing a prenate is morally wrong. To appeal to our common value for "persons" fails at this task, because what actual people mean by "person" in such statements as "persons are valuable" is, as far as I can see, not something that a prenate actually is. In the other case, to justify outlawing abortion, she must show that abortion causes some kind of harm that would justify the use of force against others to stop it, and so far I have seen no argument that such a degree of harm exists in the case of abortion–so long as there is no one to be harmed, and what there is to be harmed is no greater in moral significance than an animal, or even a brain-dead adult.