I was scrolling through twitter and came across a conversation about abortion. NO surprise there, but what surprised me was seeing a classic bad argument telegraphed by someone I wouldn’t have expected it from. Here’s the relevant bit:
@yeselson to @jneeley78: A fetus does not have the same qualities as a 10 month old infant. There is a sharp break.
@DouthatNYT to @yeselson and @jneely78: A fetus does not have the same qualities but there is *not* a sharp break. That’s the entire problem.
@DouthatNYT to @yeselson and @jneely78: The 1-day old infant is indistinguishable from the negative-1-day-old fetus, etc.
It wouldn’t be fair to Ross Douthat to suppose I could figure out his his detailed view about abortion from two tweets. But whatever the view may be (I know he’s against it, in any case), the “no bright line” argument has been used to make the case against abortion, and it’s a bad argument. It’s bad no matter what the best view of abortion may be.
One reason is related to Richard Yeselson’s tweet. Douthat is right: there’s no sharp break between fetus and 10 month old infant. There’s no point along the path from fetus to 10-month-old where we find a sudden, dramatic change. Nonetheless, I suspect what Yeselson really meant was something else: there’s a dramatic difference between a fetus and a 10-month-old. The difference is even more dramatic as we move back from fetus to embryo to conceptus. Suppose someone thinks that the qualities a 10-month old has make it wrong to kill the child. Suppose the same person thinks that a two-week-old embryo doesn’t have any of the relevant characteristics. That view may be right or wrong, defensible or indefensible, but the argument will turn on what characteristics are and aren’t relevant; not on whether there’s a bright line between creatures that have them and creatures that don’t.
The logic of the point is even clearer if we turn the argument around. Someone might think it’s not wrong to abort a two-week-old embryo because the embryo doesn’t have any of the features a creature needs to be given moral consideration. For example: the two-week-old embryo can’t feel pain; it doesn’t have a mind in any interesting sense of the word “mind”; it has no emotions, attachments, personality, concerns about its future. You may think there are other reasons why it would be wrong to abort it; for all I’m saying, you may be right. But whether you’re right or not, the following argument is just plain crazy:
- Premise: It’s not wrong to kill a 2-week-old embryo.
Premise There’s a continuous developmental path from 2-week-old embryo to adult human being, with no sharp breaks or discontinuities.
Therefore, it’s not wrong to kill an adult human being.
Even if you accept the premises, you don’t have the slightest reason to accept the conclusion. Furthermore, adding extra premises won’t help. The conclusion is false. Any collection of premises that imply a false conclusion can’t all be true. But if the continuity argument worked in one direction, it would have to work in the other.
In fact, it works in neither. In fact, the whole business of missing bright lines is irrelevant. Suppose human development was a matter of stutters and saltations. Suppose that instead of continuity, there were sharp leaps across large gulfs. All of a sudden a fetus can feel pain just as you or I can, when 24 hours earlier, it couldn’t feel at all. All of a sudden, the fetus can process complex information, when just the day before, it had no more mind than a mollusk. If someone thought that abortion was wrong, would large gaps like this be a reason for them to change their mind? I can’t see why. After all, if someone had thought abortion was not wrong, would sharp breaks in development give them a reason to change their mind?
Discontinuity might matter psychologically: it would make distinctions stand out. That might focus the mind, but it wouldn’t settle the question. If you think it’s only wrong to kill creatures with the right cluster of characteristics, discontinuity might help you write clear rules. But if you think, for example, that it’s wrong to kill a creature who will eventually come to have those characteristics, the fact that the path calls for leaping across chasms wouldn’t change the argument.
Blurry borders are more the rule than the exception. A normal adult is responsible for her decisions. A 9-month old isn’t. There’s no bright line in between and yet some people really are responsible and others really aren’t.
Continuities can make for practical problems. Laws and policies have to be clear to be applied fairly. But that kind of problem is a routine part of lawmaking. It doesn’t get us anywhere in trying to decide when abortion should be permitted, if ever. After all, slippery slope arguments are called fallacies for a reason.