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Thursday, August 29, 2013

It's the Equality, Stupid

[Today's guest post by Barry Garrett is part of our paid blogging program.]

Marriage equality. Racial equality. Gender equality. Everywhere there's equality. It's hard to go about even one day in life without hearing a story in which one member (or class) of our species is accusing another member (or class) of our species of unequal treatment.

So allow me to throw my hat in the ring and argue for existential equality. By existential equality, I don't mean to imply anything spiritual as the term seems to imply in a quick Google search. I simply mean to state my belief that in the same way that one strives for the realization of equality between LGBT persons and heterosexuals, blacks and whites, and males and females, so too should we strive to realize the equality of existence. To put it in simplified form, equality of existence is allowing something that already exists to continue to exist in order to maintain a more general principle of equality.

Equality of existence obviously comes into direct conflict with the practice of abortion. Abortion, after all, is the practice of terminating a life that already exists. So my conclusion is that if the equality of existence is true, then it follows that abortion cannot be a matter of individual choice.

My argument that the principle of equality of existence is true relies on the following premise: that equality of existence is required for any subsequent claims of equality or rights. A brief illustrative example: In America, we generally recognize two rights (these obviously aren't the only two): the right to life and the right to vote. Do these rights stand independently? Or would violation of one affect the other? The right to vote begins at the age of 18. Imagine that every person's life is subject to review on their 17th birthday by another individual person. If they are deemed worthy, they may go on their way, if they are not, they are killed. Does this violation of the right to life affect your right to vote? If your family member is killed, your first thought wouldn't be concern over the fact that your loved one won't be able to vote in subsequent election cycles. So the best way to consider this question is to ask, do the individuals who survive their 17th birthday have a right to vote? It's plainly true (in this scenario) that this choice is arbitrary in the sense that this person is allowed to make the choice for any reason that suits his or her fancy. It's also plainly true that a survivor's right to vote is wholly dependent on another's choice to let them live. Because of this dependence, it follows that if your life was upheld arbitrarily, then your right to vote, even if exercised perfectly freely thereafter, is also arbitrary. If the right to vote is arbitrary, then it is not, in fact, a right. Thus, the right to life is a pre-requisite for the right to vote. If there is no right to life, there is no right to vote.

Now, for the purposes of abortion, let's define the right to life as beginning when personhood begins in the most pro-choice sense of the word (consciousness, self-awareness etc.) so that a fetus does not have a right to life and would only attain it at some future date. Does this right require a prior right to shield it from the arbitrariness that infects the above example? Again, the question to ask is do survivors of abortion have a right to life? Again, here it is plainly true that this choice is arbitrary in the sense that the mother is allowed to make the choice for any reason (this is not, in any sense, a claim that mothers generally make this choice lightly). Again, here it is also plainly true that the survivor's right to life was wholly dependent on the mother's choice to let them live. So it also follows that since this choice was arbitrary, the right to life (that kicks in at consciousness), even if exercised perfectly freely at that point is equally arbitrary. If the right to life is arbitrary then it is not, in fact, a right. Thus, equality of existence is a pre-requisite for the right to life. Equality of existence is true. Therefore, abortion should not be a matter of individual choice.  

Equality and rights are temporal processes. The flawed assumption on which every pro-choice argument must rest is on the idea that you can introduce arbitrariness at the very beginning of the process and that this has no consequences for those that survive such arbitrariness. On the contrary, introducing arbitrariness at such an early stage renders equality and rights thereafter meaningless. On what basis can you claim rights and equality when your very existence is dependent on the choice of another person? You can't. Your existence is a privilege, not a right. And consequently, everything else you enjoy thereafter are privileges.

So to all who can read this, congratulations on your membership to life's country club. I hear the pool is really big.

44 comments:

Matt Dillahunty said...

Were you not paying attention to the fact that personhood isn't relevant?

We could grant personhood and equality to a fetus - and just like any other person with rights, they still don't have a right to use another person's body. A 5-year old has personhood and rights, but cannot force its mother to serve as a living dialysis machine.

Although you seem to be arguing against yourself here: "On what basis can you claim rights and equality when your very existence is dependent on the choice of another person? You can't. Your existence is a privilege, not a right."

Clinton said...

Due to the fact that in the vast majority of pregnancies, sex was consensual, the unborn does, in fact, have a prima facie right to the woman's body. (Of course, this objection doesn't hold in the case of rape, by that's why I use the term "prima facie.")

Clinton said...

I think there's some good stuff here, but I don't think it would be altogether convincing to the more learned pro-choice people. For example, if you claim that one must be conscious in order to have a right to life, that's not an arbitrary position. Claiming that a right to life is established at viability would be arbitrary, since viability is constantly changing. It has nothing to do with human development and everything to do with the advancement of technology.

Matt Dillahunty said...

Consent to sex is not consent to pregnancy. Consent to pregnancy is not consent to remain pregnant.

Barry Garrett said...

Hi Matt,

Thanks for your comment. For lack of space I just laid out the argument rather than opining on how it interacts with standard pro-choice claims.

However, I don't think merely repeating the standard pro-choice claim that one entity does not have the right to use another person's body refutes the argument I laid out. If anything, I think this argument shows why this claim is not absolute. My argument is essentially that in the presence of unfettered abortion equality and rights do not exist. In it's place is privilege. If this is true and we like equality and rights, then it is true that in this circumstance an entity has the right to use the mother's body.

I also do not see where I argued against myself, but would be appreciative if you pointed it out.

Barry Garrett said...

Hi Matt,


accidentally posted my reply to Clinton, so see above. Sorry about that!

Clinton said...

Of course it's not consent to pregnancy. Pregnancy is a result of the sex act. One can consent to an act, but not to a consequence. You can consent to play the lottery but not to win the lottery. You can consent to surgery, but not to a successful surgery. The results are out of your hands. This is why people need to be responsible and be fully educated when engaging in sex. Sure, you can use contraception to try and lessen the likelihood of conception (just as you can buy multiple lottery tickets to increase your chances of winning), but you still bear a responsibility for the child's existence if you conceive even while on contraception.

Scott Klusendorf uses the analogy of a baby-making machine (yes, it's a weird analogy, but so is the violinist). Suppose you come to a wall with a button on it that says "BABY-MAKING MACHINE," and has a chute on the bottom. If you press the button, you'll receive a pleasurable experience but there's a chance that a baby will come out the chute in the bottom. Suppose a man presses the button, receives his experience, but unlucky him, a baby comes out the bottom. He now bears a responsibility for the child, however temporary. He could keep and take care of the child, or he could take the child to the police or an orphanage. But he would not be justified in leaving the child to die, or cutting up the child to avoid having to take care of him.

Clinton said...

Barry, you actually replied to my comment and not Matt's.

Barry G said...

HI Clinton, I'm not arguing the claim that one must be conscious in order to have the right to life is arbitrary (though I would argue that that claim renders equality meaningless).



The arbitrariness has to do with the actual choice. It is arbitrary that one thing that exists may be terminated as a method of birth control, while another is terminated for financial reasons, while one is allowed to live because it was fortunate enough to be conceived where a household wanted a child. This is arbitrary.

John Moriarty said...

russian roulette is a more gruesome analogy although with the same dynamic. You can play to win, play to lose, but in fact you forsake that choice when you play.

LN said...

Consent to an act is consent to the possibility of the *risks* coming to pass. If those risks affect another person, you are responsible. It doesn't make sense that someone should be able to hurt the innocent party to relinquish responsibility.

Kristin said...

Actually that's on the woman. Her right to have her uterus empty stops when she hurts or kills another body. She doesn't have a right to that other body. An abortion is on the unborn.

argent said...

Hey, hey, hold the fuck up. If you believe that a fetal human has no right to use the body of a pregnant person, I disagree with you, but it in any case would hardly blunt the impact of granting basic human rights to every human being.

See, if a spider bites me--which it has no right to--and I crush it to death in order to get it off me, no wrong has been done. A non-human like the spider doesn't possess human rights. If I were to do the same to a small child, that'd be a pretty fucking major violation of human rights.

As long as we're pretending to be a civilized society, we don't punish violations of others' rights by instant, brutal death. You may be confusing the US with some sort of prehistoric society. If you believe that an action of one person violates another person's rights, the appropriate thing to do is to make a law against it.

For example, I believe that for a doctor to perform lethal surgery on a small human incapable of giving consent or attempting to fight back, constitutes a gross violation of his or her rights. I would like there to be laws in place to prevent that. If you think that a fetal human using the body of a pregnant person against their will is a violation of human rights, go ahead and try to legislate that.

Good luck finding mens rea!

argent said...

If I find myself suddenly in Utah, something I did not consent to, and I have the power to murder a random passerby with no culpability for my current state (pun intended) to transport myself back to my home, does that make it not murder?

Clinton said...

Barry, thanks for clearing that up.

Clinton said...

To be fair to Matt, one of the most powerful arguments in support of abortion is that from bodily rights, namely, that the mother, while she may be morally obligated, should not be legally compelled to act as a "life support" for the unborn child. This is largely considered the best argument in support of abortion (and if it succeeded, would justify abortions for any reason whatsoever), and Matt is correct also, that if it succeeds whether or not the unborn is a human person is irrelevant. You could grant the unborn is a full human person, and still justify abortion because of bodily rights.


However, I do believe that the argument fails for a few different reasons, most powerfully of which is the responsibility objection (of which I briefly outlined in a response to Matt). So while I don't think bodily rights arguments succeed (except in the case of rape, but I believe it should still be illegal for other reasons), I think you're being way too harsh on Matt since bodily rights is considered to be a powerful argument in support of abortion.

Armando Manuel Pereira said...

Hi folks. I am a total newbie when it comes to debates about abortion. (I am pro-life though and a religious agnostic.) I also don't claim to be the most sophisticated arguer, but as I read through Barry's article, (with all due respect to him) I felt that it left open a little too much space for the choicers to argue within. My question is this. Are their any who seek to defend the unborn's life by simply appealing to the innate wrongness of abortion? Both the societal wrongness, and as a violation of the life principle? I don't mean merely an emotional appeal but as a philosophical position. Is it helpful to argue against a woman's choice, or does are real defense lay in simply under-girding the value of life? Any resources I can get my hands on that reflect these ideas? I hope I haven't made myself look like an ignorant ass.

Clinton said...

Hi, Armando. I have actually written extensively on the innate wrongness of abortion (which basically lies on the status of the unborn -- if it's a full human person, abortions are tantamount to murder, but if the unborn are not full human persons, then they are no different than a mole-removal surgery).


If you're interested, you could shoot me an e-mail and I could give you a list of some resources that would help you learn more about the abortion issue. My e-mail is: prolifephilosophy@gmail.com


You can also search this site for articles that talk about the wrongness of abortion. I have written about it here, and others have, as well.

Armando Manuel Pereira said...

Hi Clinton. Thank you. I will send you my email. I, of course, know plenty about abortion, but I am especially concerned about the whole "debating against choice" method of defense. I wonder if the cause can even be won that way. Any thoughts?

Clinton said...

Well, what do you mean debating against choice? If someone tells me that a woman should have a right to choose abortion, the way I usually respond is simply that just having the choice doesn't mean the choice is moral. I could choose to murder and rape, but that doesn't mean it would be right to do so, nor does it mean I should have the legal right to choose to do so.

Toafan said...

Okay...


You either failed to prove or failed to close the loop on your claim that equality of existence is true, however. Unfortunately leaves this almost worthless.

Toafan said...

> Although you seem to be arguing against yourself here: "On what basis
can you claim rights and equality when your very existence is dependent
on the choice of another person? You can't. Your existence is a
privilege, not a right."


Mm, not really. There's an implicit "in that case", and she is in a way constructing an argument against herself specifically to imply that such a state is logically inconsistent with how we act, utterly absurd, and morally unacceptable. It does go against her claim, which is the whole point in using it.

Barry G said...

Hi toafan,

It'd be helpful if you went into a little bit more detail about where I went wrong. I thought I demonstrated that to avoid arbitrariness from the get go, it follows that you must allow things that exist to continue to exist.

If not, I want to know where I went wrong.

Coyote said...

Consent to sex is also not consent to paying child support for 18/21 years, but us males are forced to pay anyway.

Coyote said...

@Matt Dillahunty Why should the right to bodily autonomy be absolute? For instance, if someone is hypothetically responsible for me needing a blood transfusion, and there are no other blood matches available for me right now, why shouldn't this individual be forced to donate blood to me to save my life? After all, I did nothing wrong, while his/her willing actions created a situation with a dependent individual (me).

Coyote said...

I actually think that the lack of prenatal personhood is the best argument for abortion, if one is willing to deny legal personhood to infants as well, that is.

Coyote said...

I generally agree with you, except not all people consider embryos and fetuses to be persons.

For the record, though, I think that even such pro-lifers (such as yourself) make too much of a "holy cow" in regards to the right to bodily autonomy, in comparison to one's other rights (such as the right not to be held responsible for the decisions of others and the right to one's income/money).

Coyote said...

These are generally good analogies. Also, consent to sex is often not consent to paying child support for 18/21 years, but as males are still forced to pay it.

Barry G said...

Hi Armando,

Thanks for your comment. To an extent I agree with you that there's room to argue within. After all, even if you accept the logic, the consequences I outlined (rendering equality meaningless) are conceptual consequences which, even if true, are easy to ignore. But 1) I don't think this makes the consequences any less true and 2) it kind of proves my point in that its easy to ignore these things from a perspective of privilege.

I disagree to the extent that I think this approach offers ammunition against standard pro-choice arguments.

Lastly, this argument, while ideally I hope to be convincing, is really a deeply held conviction of mine. While I want it to be persuasive, it's also the argument that, if demolished, would make me become pro choice. So I wanted to put it out there to see the kind of response it would get.

As I hinted at, life as it stands right now really is a country club. We may all enjoy certain protections now but that's only after our lives were deemed worthy enough to continue.

To me, this is a profound injustice.

argent said...

While I was being somewhat casual and silly above, I do think I have a point. I think the fact that the bodily autonomy argument is seen as the strongest pro-abortion argument is merely a result of the fact that people haven't really thought through the implications of pregnancy being a violation of the pregnant person's rights.


To construe pregnancy as a separate condition to which consent can be given or refused would mean seeing it in a drastically different, and I'd argue nonsensical, light.


For example, being in college, I don't want to become pregnant right now. If I were to become pregnant, my son/daughter/offspring of a non-binary gender would be using my body without my consent. My unwillingness to punish her with death can't change that. My body was used without my consent, my rights were violated, and I have as much right to justice as the next woman. If an unrestricted right to bodily autonomy even when engaging in consensual sex is legitimately a right, it would be unreasonable for any justice system to say that I waive that right simply by refusing to take a human life.


The alternative is to see the risk of pregnancy as an inherent part of some (not all) sexual activities.

argent said...

To clarify, my point was that while an unrestricted right to bodily autonomy, if it existed, could potentially still justify abortion, it would not at all negate the fact that major changes have to happen in order to respect people's equal rights at all stages of life.

Clinton said...

That's true. Whenever I bring up child support, the pro-choice person gets indignant because being forced to use your body is different than being forced into giving money. But I think a good case can be made that giving all that money for 18 years or so is a greater burden than having to carry a child inside you for nine months, especially since the female body is designed (or has been adapted) to facilitate pregnancy.

Clinton said...

It wouldn't actually be unreasonable. There are such things as "accepted risk" laws, where if you are injured performing a certain activity you can't sue the place you were injured at because you accepted the risk of being there in the first place. It's the same thing with pregnancy. No one has an unrestricted right to bodily autonomy, but you do have a right to bodily autonomy. If you engage in an act intrinsically ordered toward procreation, you assume the risk of pregnancy and therefore waive your right to bodily autonomy.

Clinton said...

I think that's a strong argument, but I wouldn't say it's the strongest for a few reasons.


First, you are correct that in order to argue that the unborn are not persons, you have to argue that infants are not persons. This is something that almost no one is willing to do (just a few philosophers that I've found, but in all my discussions with pro-choice people, I don't think I've met any who would argue that we can kill infants for any reason we want to).


Second, the reason that the violinist is so powerful is because Thomson is assuming premises that pro-life people already accept and arguing that abortion is justified anyway.


Third, the arguments against fetal personhood are much weaker than the arguments for bodily autonomy, even in pregnancy (though they ultimately fail, too). Most arguments against fetal personhood don't just disqualify infants, but also severely handicapped people, the elderly, people who are asleep or in a reversible coma, etc. Many of them also include animals, and many people don't seriously think that animals have the same value as humans, even if they think they do (to show this, you just have to ask a few simple questions).

Armando Manuel Pereira said...

Yeah, maybe a bad expression. I meant has much been accomplished by pro-lifers battling over the issue of "choice?" Is the innate rightness, moral and natural, not enough of a defense? Would it help at all to ignore their plea of "choice?"

Coyote said...

In regards to child support, some/many people need to use their body for labour in order to earn money which they will later use to pay child support. After all, (very) few of us are probably able to sustain ourselves without a job for the rest of our lives, even with welfare.

I'm not going to unequivocally state that being forced to pay child support for 18/21 years is *always* a greater sacrifice than being forced to continue a non-life threatening pregnancy. However, I strongly agree with you that one can consider being forced to pay child support for 18/21 years to be a greater sacrifice than being forced to continue a non-life threatening pregnancy. It depends on what one's priorities are--if one is not rich/not wealthy and he/she is strongly eager to save a lot of money in order to buy a house, cryogenically preserve oneself, buy anti-aging and/or rejuvenative technology (for the possibility that it becomes developed and available during his/her lifetime), or simply in order to be able to enjoy his/her life much more (after all, a couple/several hundred thousand dollars can buy a massive amount of things), then one could very well consider being forced to pay child support for 18/21 years to be a greater burden and a greater sacrifice than being forced to continue a nine month non-life threatening pregnancy. However, if one is rich/wealthy, then one might consider forced continuation of a nine month non-life threatening pregnancy to be a greater sacrifice, since being forced to pay a cumulative total of several hundred thousand dollars, or even a million or a couple of million dollars, in child support probably won't make a meaningful dent in his/her wealth. After all, there isn't much of a practical difference between having $20.0 million vs. $19.5 million, or vs. $19 million, or even vs. $18 million.

Coyote said...

"A 5-year old has personhood and rights, but cannot force its mother to serve as a living dialysis machine."

It is very interesting that you called a 5-year-old "it" and not "him or her."

Also, just because the law says something does not necessarily mean that everyone agrees with this current law. As I said before, I have no problem with letting 5-year-olds or whomever use other people's bodies in certain specific cases.

Clinton said...

Well, I don't think we should ignore it. Even bad pro-choice arguments should be responded to because the majority of people you will encounter probably just have not really thought about the issue and are just repeating something they've heard another pro-choice person say. I think it's quite easy to show that the issue of choice is really just question-begging because it assumes, rather than argues, that the unborn are not valuable human beings.

LN said...

I said 'person' because Matt began his post granting that status. If he hadn't, I'd just say 'human being.'

Coyote said...

"First, you are correct that in order to argue that the unborn are not
persons, you have to argue that infants are not persons. This is
something that almost no one is willing to do (just a few philosophers
that I've found, but in all my discussions with pro-choice people, I
don't think I've met any who would argue that we can kill infants for
any reason we want to)."

The thing is that I am unsure that someone not being a person always allows us to kill him/her/it for any reason that we want to. For instance, do you support making it legal for someone to take his/her cat/dog with him/her on a boat trip and then to throw this cat/dog overboard after he/she does not want this cat/dog to be on his/her longer because this cat/dog is not a person? And for the record, I do have two pro-choice friends which support legalizing elective infanticide in certain specific cases.

"Second, the reason that the violinist is so powerful is because Thomson
is assuming premises that pro-life people already accept and arguing
that abortion is justified anyway."

I and many/most anti-abortion people don't accept Thomson's premise that being responsible for creating a situation with a dependent individual and then killing/causing the death of this individual is morally justifiable, and even if I and some/many other pro-lifers *did* accept Thomson's premise here, then we would also accept it in regards to opposing forcing people (especially men) to pay child support.

"Third, the arguments against fetal personhood are much weaker than the
arguments for bodily autonomy, even in pregnancy (though they ultimately
fail, too). Most arguments against fetal personhood don't just
disqualify infants, but also severely handicapped people, the elderly,
people who are asleep or in a reversible coma, etc. Many of them also
include animals, and many people don't seriously think that animals have
the same value as humans, even if they think they do (to show this, you
just have to ask a few simple questions)."

Actually, I don't think that arguments against prenatal personhood disqualify handicapped people, unless by "handicapped," you mean mentally disabled (and even in that case, I actually *do* see a case even from an anti-abortion perspective in favour of denying legal personhood to certain extremely mentally disabled human beings, such as those which are not and will never be capable of rational thought. Likewise, most elderly people would probably not and should not get denied legal personhood based on these pro-choice views of personhood (since most of them are capable of rational thought, et cetera). As for human beings who are asleep and in a reversible coma, I don't think that pro-choice views of personhood would necessarily exclude them either, since their brains (and bodies) are more similar to computers which are in suspend mode or which are shut down then computers which have not fully been built yet.

Coyote said...

Actually, I think that there probably is a limit at some point as to when human beings cannot survive without "direct bodily aid."

I do agree with you that viability is a poor criteria for determining personhood/rights, since many/most non-human animals are also viable, and yet I have not heard many pro-choicers advocating giving legal personhood to all of these animals.

Alden Smith said...

Sex has risks pregnancy and incurable STD and Virus. But wait they didn't give consent to die horrible death from incurable diseases. When you have sex you take risks and you should not use abortion as a cop out because you don't take BC or you failed to follow the instructions that come with it, or didn't heed the doctors advice about being careful when you take antibotics which can effectiveness of the pill. Or you forgot that condom's break and even if you pull out that doesn't work. UTI's can fail or worse can be attacked by the female body or grown over her body require surgery and a ER visit. Now there are two very effective methods dont have sex a

Alden Smith said...

Abortion should not be used as BC, they are plenty of families that would die to have a kid that can't have a kid and you girls aborting them like it is nothing.

SynerGenetics said...

Prochoice argument: you have a right to go full term as the same right as not to. What is so hard to understand?

Secular pro life only concern is at conception and birth, then girly your own your own.