Sunday, November 30, 2014

Wondering about an argument against abortion

There are many arguments for the conclusion that abortion is immoral, but some are more compelling than others.  In today’s blog post, John Grandits (a Bethel graduate who recently earned his MA in philosophy from the U of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) considers one common argument and makes the case that most of us don’t in fact believe its central premise . . .

Consider the following argument against abortion:

1)      It is prima facie wrong to deliberately kill an innocent person.

2)      Human embryos are innocent persons.

3)      Therefore, abortion, which is the deliberate killing of a human embryo, is prima facie wrong.

Although not always stated in this exact form, this is a common argument made against the permissibility of abortion. Let me go over each premise. Premise (1) states that deliberately killing an innocent person is wrong. I include "prima facie" here because I want to leave open the possibility that there may be circumstances in which, all things considered, the deliberate killing of an innocent person is justified. However, I will take it as uncontroversial that the deliberate killing of an innocent person is wrong in the absence of overriding reasons.

Premise (2) states that all human embryos are persons, a claim that is usually taken to be entailed by the more common claim that life, or more appropriately personhood, begins at conception. Here, "persons" and "personhood" are moral terms that are meant to suggest something with "full moral status," i.e. the moral status that we normally take adult human beings to have. Specifically, if we believe that human embryos have full moral status, that means we believe they should be given the same weight in our ethical decisions as adult persons. For example, if we have moral obligations to protect an adult person from being killed or to prevent them from dying in a certain situation, the same obligations hold for a human embryo in those situations.

As premise (2) is commonly defended by political conservatives (at least in the United States), let's call this the conservative claim. The conclusion, then, is that abortion is prima facie wrong - wrong in the same way the deliberate killing of an innocent adult person is wrong (hence the common saying, "abortion is murder").

Proponents of abortion can respond in different ways to this argument. They can concede (1)-(3) but argue that, in some or all cases of abortion, overriding reasons to premise (1) are present. This would include those who argue that the rights of the mother trump those of the embryo. Another way to respond would be to argue that premise (2), the conservative claim, is false; that is, they can argue that embryos are not persons and, as a result, don't have the sort of moral status necessary to protect them from being deliberately killed. A third way to respond--and one that in some ways I find most interesting--is to attempt to show that very few people, if any, actually believe the conservative claim. This is the argument I will present below.

If you're familiar with abortion debates, you've probably heard about burning-building thought experiments. These thought experiments usually ask you to imagine a scenario in which two buildings are on fire, one of which has a living human baby, the other of which has a container filled with lots and lots of human embryos. The question is posed: assuming you only have time to save one, do you save the baby or the container? Most of us respond by choosing the baby.

In an article entitled, "The Scourge: moral implications of natural embryo loss," Toby Ord updates this thought-experiment by showing empirical data that something like the burning-building is happening everyday on a massive scale: spontaneous abortion. According to various sources of medical data, roughly 50 percent of all embryos two weeks old or younger are spontaneously aborted each year. To use some raw numbers, it is estimated that roughly 200 million spontaneous abortions occur each year.

These numbers may not carry much argumentative weight by themselves, but if they are combined with the conservative claim that embryos are persons with full moral status, it logically follows that roughly 50 percent of all human persons conceived each year die within two weeks of conception. Or, that more than 200 million persons die each year from spontaneous abortion alone. This is a remarkable result of accepting the conservative claim, so remarkable that it should lead us to ask why, if we accept the conservative claim, are we not advocating to combat this great loss of life, what Ord calls "The Scourge"?

I'm not sure all of what this shows us about our moral beliefs, but one thing it seems to show is that we don't believe that human embryos and adult human persons have the same moral status. If we did, we should expect to see many individuals and organizations attempting to eliminate the occurrence of spontaneous abortion with as much or more effort and resources as current attempts to eliminate cancer and various other deadly diseases. As no disease, natural disaster, war, or human rights catastrophe has ever killed so many persons as spontaneous abortion, we should expect that solving this problem would be our top priority. But it isn't. When compared to the likes of cancer or war, spontaneous abortion isn't even on our moral radar.

Ord takes this argument to be a sort of reductio of the conservative claim because, while it doesn't show us that the conservative claim logically entails a contradiction, it does show us that the conservative claim logically entails a conclusion that we don't believe - that, for instance, more than 200 million persons die each year from spontaneous abortion and that we should be putting in immense effort to eliminate its occurrence. If we don't believe that--which seems likely given our actions (or lack thereof) and attitudes about spontaneous abortion--then it seems likely that we don't believe the conservative claim upon which it rests. To the extent that we do believe the conservative claim, this argument reveals a morally egregious inconsistency between our actions and what we avow.  

Assuming that this is right, where does this leave us with the abortion debate? It certainly doesn't settle it, but Ord's argument raises doubts about a fundamental premise often used in arguments against the permissibility of abortion - the claim that human embryos are persons or the related claim that personhood begins at conception. It raises doubts, not by showing that these claims are false, but by showing that very few of us, if any, actually believe them to be true.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Runaway Trains and Moral Intuitions

In this week's post, Bethel philosophy alumnus Michael Hands considers two puzzles about runaway trains, and talks about where our moral intuitions surrounding these puzzles might come from.

A runaway train hurtles towards 5 people tied to a track. A railroad switch sits just a few feet from you. Flipping the switch diverts the train to another track. A single person is tied to this other track.

Do you flip the switch?

If you're like most people, you do. Surveys show that around 90% of respondents say they'd flip the switch. Their reason? Better to save 5 at the expense of 1.

Now imagine the same scenario: A train is bearing down on 5 people tied to a track. Only this time you're standing on a footbridge above the track. Next to you stands a fat man. If pushed, the fat man will fall to his death, blocking the train and saving the 5 people behind him.

Do you push him?

Most people—75% to 90%, depending on which surveys you believe—don't push the fat man.

But what happened to the logic of saving 5 at the expense of 1? What changed?

Some argue the salient difference between the two cases is emotional. In the abstract, you're okay with killing someone by pulling a lever, but you don't like pushing anybody. Not only wouldn't you push someone, you also think it's wrong for someone else to push the fat man.

In both cases, you've made a moral judgment or an evaluation of the rightness or wrongness of a given action. Our life is full of moral judgments, though fortunately most don't involve locomotive catastrophe.

The field of moral psychology asks how we make moral judgments.  On this question, there are two competing views: rationalism and sentimentalism.

As the name suggests, rationalists believe that individual reason plays the primary role in forming moral judgments. According to rationalism, moral dilemmas engage our reasoning process. We call to mind the facts of the situation and reflect on the relevant principles. When our internal dialectic ends, we render moral judgment.

While rationalists exalt reason, sentimentalists are decidedly more pessimistic about its role in moral decision-making. According to sentimentalists, reason is like a puppet show with emotions pulling the strings. Or, as psychologist Jonathan Haidt puts it, emotion is the "dog wagging its rationalist tail.” He offers an alternative to the rationalist model of moral decision-making: the Social Intuitionist Model (SIM). 

Like all sentimentalists, Haidt believes that the majority of our moral judgments are driven by emotional intuitions or instincts, not reasoned deliberation. However, he introduces a new dimension to the discussion: social vs. private decision-making.

According to Haidt, our moral intuitions are rarely formed in a vacuum of private reflection. Instead they are formed interpersonally. As social creatures, we look to each other for clues about what to believe or how to act. A kind of finger in the air. We are so adept at this that we often don't realize we are aggregating and internalizing our neighbors’ beliefs. Once our social intuition is formed, reason acts like a “press secretary,” assuming the podium only to justify our intuitions to others. This is the basic insight of the Social Intuitionist Model: that social forces shape the emotions that determine our moral judgments.

This is a brief sketch of two competing positions in the field of moral psychology: rationalism and sentimentalism. Which do you find more compelling? Would you flip the switch but not push the fat man? Why or why not?

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Time and Regret: Why God is Outside Time

One debate in philosophical theology is over whether God is inside or outside of time.  (There are many debates “inside” that one, too, including over the nature of time.  I’ll just sidestep those for now on the grounds that you can’t solve every problem in a blog post.)  I want to present a sketch of an argument for the conclusion that God is outside of time.

Think of your own experience in time.  I think in particular of regret about its passage.  Now you might regret the passage of time because you made a bad decision, you are swept up in the consequences, and you wish you could go back in time and change it.  I suppose we all have that.  But note that if God is in time, that’s not a problem for God because God doesn’t make any regrettable decisions.  (Unless Open Theism is true and God doesn’t know the future.  But let’s pretend Open Theism is not true.  I’m inclined to think that most problems in philosophical theology get worse rather than better with Open Theism . . .)

OK, think for a moment about the past, about a memory that involves something wonderful that you cannot have back.  In my case, I think of my children when they were very young.  Years ago I lived in Kentucky, across the street from a dairy farm.  I would regularly carry my infant son over there to watch the cows.  For me that was a slice of heaven that I can never have back, because I don’t live there anymore and, most notably, because my son is too old to be carried like that.  I regret that.  Those days are gone, and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.  When I ponder this I feel trapped, swept along.  I am a prisoner of time.

But if God is in time, isn’t God trapped in exactly the same way?  If God took joy in the childhood of my kids, God can’t get back to it any more than I can.  (Of course, God remembers it better than I do, but even perfect memory of an event is not the same as living it.)  Or think about the glory of the Resurrection:  a good day on God’s calendar, for sure, but also gone, irretrievably gone, sweeping farther into the past with every passing day.  And God, on this score, is just like me.  God has reason for regretting that what is past is gone.  God lacks control over the passage of time just like I do.

If this is a weakness in me – if I have regret in virtue of being trapped in time, a prisoner to it – then I suggest that the same is true of God, if God is in time.  But it would be unbecoming for God to experience regret in virtue of being trapped by anything.  That wouldn’t be appropriate for the greatest possible being!  I suggest, then, that these considerations about regret and the passage of time give us some reason to think that God is in fact outside time, that God is not bound in time but somehow transcends it.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Forgiveness and Repentance

In this post, senior philosophy major Daniel Thweatt makes the case that forgiveness does not require repentance.  A common view of forgiveness in the philosophical literature claims that in order for genuine forgiveness to occur, the offending party must recognize and repent of the offense; but Daniel argues that this is not so.

Daniel's topic brings to mind a song about forgiveness by Don Henley called "Heart of the Matter," and so, as a bonus, I include here a video of Henley performing that song live with the Eagles.  Daniel's essay follows below.

Background Note

I will be assuming the view of forgiveness that philosopher Jeffrie Murphy holds, where forgiveness is “the overcoming, on moral grounds, of what I will call the vindictive passions -- the passions of anger, resentment, and even hatred that are often occasioned when one has been deeply wronged by another.”

Forgiveness and Repentance: Some Thoughts

Murphy and Charles Griswold see a close connection between forgiveness and repentance. Murphy thinks it is reasonable to condition forgiveness on the wrongdoer’s repentance, while Griswold takes it that the notion of forgiveness is conceptually tied to repentance such that if there is no repentance (or at least the willingness to repent) by the wrongdoer, there is no forgiveness.

Murphy claims that making forgiveness depend on the wrongdoer’s repentance can guard against “sacrificing our self-respect or our respect for the moral order -- a respect that is often evinced in resentment and other vindictive passions.” According to him, “hastily forgiving” the wrongdoer may condone his or her action(s) and the degrading message conveyed by it. Withholding forgiveness until repentance can not only guard one against the harm of not showing self-respect, it can also give the wrongdoer an incentive for “moral rebirth.”  Likewise, Griswold warns that unconditional forgiveness may condone or encourage wrongdoing, as well as damage victims’ self-respect.

I disagree. First, it seem to me that there are counterexamples to this view. Consider, for example, the priest who preemptively forgives Jean Valjean in Les Misérables. His act seems to me to be both legitimate forgiveness and not any less morally praiseworthy than an act of forgiveness done in response to repentance. I can also think of instances in my own life where (I take it) I have genuinely and rightly forgiven people despite their not repenting.

Second, and in continuation of this thought, there seems to me to be a variety of morally justifying grounds for forgiveness that do not require repentance.  Consider these examples:  God might command unconditional forgiveness; forgiveness might help realize various goods in the wake of wrongdoing (such as peace and the avoidance of cycles of revenge); forgiveness without repentance may be necessary for the thriving, or perhaps even the possibility, of valuable close relationships; and unconditional forgiveness could motivate moral reform in the wrongdoer (as it apparently did with Jean Valjean). I do not take this list to be exhaustive, but offer it as a selection of examples.

Moreover, it is not obvious to me that unconditional forgiveness sacrifices one’s self-respect or respect for the moral order. It seems entirely possible to conceive of oneself as having inherent value and conceive of the wrong done to one as really wrong despite unconditionally forgiving. The beliefs that “I have inherent value” and “What person X did to me was wrong” and even “I am entitled to resentment/anger towards person X for wronging me” seem compatible with the belief that “I forgive person X (for reason Y)”. Moreover, belief in one’s inherent value and respect for the moral order can be expressed in ways other than appropriate vindictiveness, such as deep sadness over what was done (which I take to be consistent with forgiveness) or verbal repudiation (unless this is an act of revenge).

In addition, Murphy himself outlines how a Christian worldview can furnish one with a conceptual framework that can guard against a loss of self-respect and respect for the moral order while unconditionally forgiving.  Consider two points he makes.  First, on the Christian view God will see to it that the moral calculus of the universe is not ultimately out of balance. This, he says, can help one to “relax a bit the clinch-fisted anger and resentment with which [one tries] to sustain [one’s] self-respect and hold [one’s] world together all alone.” Second, on the Christian view we are all loved by God and all created with inherent value as God’s image-bearers. A firm commitment to these claims can shore up one’s self-respect regardless of what is done to one.

It is also not obvious that unconditional forgiveness risks condoning or encouraging wrongs. After all, the claim that “You did something wrong and inexcusable to me” seems necessarily implicit in the assertion that “I forgive you.”  If the wrong were excusable, then it would be excused, not forgiven. As Murphy points out, excusing, unlike forgiveness, is a response to non-culpable wrongdoing.  Forgiveness, on the other hand, responds to culpable wrongdoing.  So, to communicate to someone that they have been forgiven is necessarily to communicate to that person that they did something wrong and are culpable for it.  So forgiving doesn’t condone or encourage wrongs.

Moreover, there are ways to discourage wrongdoing while at the same time unconditionally forgiving the perpetrators.  One might do so by way of verbal repudiation, or by setting an example of virtuous character.  One might also discourage wrongdoing by refusing reconciliation under certain conditions, such as when responding to a perpetually adulterous spouse, perhaps.  The act of forgiveness itself in these situations may nonetheless so move the unrepentant wrongdoer as to encourage or bring about moral reform.

All that being said, if unconditional forgiveness does risk condoning or encouraging wrongs, it is not necessarily to be faulted on that account. The pursuit or attainment of some goods often comes at the expense of other goods. For example, to choose to become a surgeon may mean forfeiting becoming a pastor. Similarly, spending more time with family can entail spending less time with friends.  If unconditionally forgiving in some circumstances likewise entails risking being seen as condoning or encouraging wrongs, I think it can be worth taking that risk.

I conclude that we can have forgiveness without repentance.  Such forgiveness can be justified for all sorts of reasons; it need not have the costs attributed to it by Murphy and Griswold; and even if it does, the benefits could outweigh those costs.