Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Abortion and the Deer Hunter Argument

Versions of this argument are found in Beckwith quite frequently. What do you think?

If you were out hunting, and you saw something move, and you didn't know whether it was a deer or a human person, would you fire, or refrain? If we are in doubt as to whether or not fetuses are persons, doesn't moral prudence dictate that we refrain from abortions until we get it figured out?


Blue Devil Knight said...

"If we are in doubt as to whether or not fetuses are persons, doesn't moral prudence dictate that we refrain from abortions until we get it figured out?"

Not if you buy Thomson's arguments.

Doctor Logic said...

I'm not in doubt as to whether or not fetuses are persons. For the same reason I'm not in doubt as to whether or not ants or human T cells are persons.

Anonymous said...

The cases are different. If the hunter gets it wrong, he may kill a conscious, self-aware human being with feelings, purposes and a network of relationships and dependents. A very young fetus has none of those, not even a nervous system capable of registering pain.

Tom Gilson said...

Here is another version, originally found here.

If a full-term baby is a person, then at some point during development the child in the womb attains the status of personhood. Before it has that status, presumably it would not be murder to kill it, but after it acquires personhood, abortion would be murder. When does that happen? I would say that it's at conception. This thought experiment is for those who say they really don't know.

Suppose you were at a shooting range with a gun, and in front of you was a large cardboard panel with a target painted on it to look realistically like a small girl (though obviously not one). You have nine minutes in which you may fire the gun, or you can choose not to fire it at all. You’re told that at some unknown time during that nine minutes a real little girl is going to step behind the target and stand there, until the cardboard panel drops and reveals her at the end of the nine minutes; or that she might already be there when the timer starts. You don’t know when she'll be there.

When do you fire? If you guess it’s safe to fire in the first three seconds, but the girl was already there, and you kill her, are you free of culpability?

Here’s the real question: why fire at all?

If we don't know when the child in the womb acquires personhood status, then we don't know who or what we're destroying. Can one be free of blame for treating the question as if it didn't matter?

Anonymous said...

Tom Gilson: is it possible that a fertilized egg (a single cell) is a person? What would such a statement mean, and how would one test it?

If it's true, then God must choose (via the 10%-50% rate of spontaneous abortion) to kill millions of persons per year. Is he harming them by doing so? Or do they get a free pass to Heaven?

Tom Gilson said...

I certainly think it's possible a fertilized human egg is a person. What would the statement mean, and how would it be tested? On naturalism, I don't know, but I don't buy naturalism. On theism it would mean that God views that very young human as a person of infinite worth, the same as any vitally functioning adult, any desperately brain-injured adult, or any very young baby who suffered loss of oxygen at birth and has limited brain abilities.

I don't have to know the answer to your question about naturally failed pregnancies to hold that. There are multiple possible answers, and besides, the point of my target analogy is really to show that where there is any non-zero possibility that the developing child in the womb is a person, the abortion decision might be a murder decision, so how could we have any confidence that would be an innocent act?

Tom Gilson said...

The question Victor and I have asked: our own innocence in killing developing babies in the womb, who have a non-zero possibility of being persons--is independent of what God may be doing with naturally failed pregnancies. I can think of several possible answers to your question, but since the question diverts us from the topic Victor started with in the first place, I'll leave it at that.

Tom Gilson said...

Let me add a follow-on to that last comment, which occurred to me just after I posted it.

My argument, and the original deer-hunter argument, are both based on there being a non-zero probability that the developing fetus is a person.

Anonymous's argument applies to the question at hand if (and only if) it contributes to refuting that view: if it lends support to the possibility that there is at some point a zero probability that the fetus is a person.

It succeeds in that if it disproves theism. That really isn't a serious argument against theism; or if it is, there are serious answers that we don't need to go into since it wasn't stated all that seriously, so we can simply respond that there is still a non-zero probability that the theistic view is correct. In that case the deer-hunter/cardboard target analogies are still operative.

Or it succeeds in it if it somehow shows that the fact a human can die is evidence that the human is not a person. That's too obviously wrong to bother refuting.

Doctor Logic said...


It's not just a question of there being some small, non-zero probability that an embryo is a person. An abortion decision is weighed against other factors. For example, a mother (and her other children, etc.) is known with certainty to be a person, so her interests are weighed.

By your argument, you should never drive a car because there's a finite probability that someone will accidentally step in front of it. For that matter, there's a finite probability that a deer is a person. Obviously, in these cases, we're willing to take a risk to obtain predictable rewards.

The issue is the definition of personhood. The naturalist's definition is material and verifiable. The theist's definition is 95% moral, 5% material. For example, the theist believes that pregnancy and the creation of a new human individual is not essentially a material process, and that it requires a special spark given directly by God. For the theist, abortion is wrong because it is an insult to God, not because it's an injury to a human person. Oh, and the idea that God thinks we have infinite value is laughable.

Anonymous said...

doctor logic-

your car argument is flawed, because people do not naturally walk in front of cars, a embryo however does naturally develop into a person at some point.
this is not a finite possible, but a biological fact.
the question at hand is at what point personhood is achieved, not the possibility of it.
if you told me it was a natural process that at some point persons would jump in front of my car, indeed i would be a fit man. because i would choose to run and walk everywhere.

Anonymous said...

if a women discards her newly birthed infant over the side of a bridge, is she guilty of murder.
i would say yes because the infant was a conscious human, despite not having a network of relationships and dependents.
lets say next that underneath the bridge was a doctor fishing in the stream, he retrieves the infant from the water and there is no pulse and no breathing it is dead.
should he value that dead infant despite knowing it is know longer self aware or conscious
should he give those dead and dying human cells the chance to embody personhood?
and if yes, why not give a living and developing human embryo the same chance?

Aaron said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Aaron said...

Doctor Logic,

Hi there, could you clarify a couple things for me?

Why is it that a mother is a person, and fetuses, ants or human T cells are not?

What is the naturalist's definition of "person," and how was this definition arrived at? Could you give me a source?

You wrote:

"For the theist, abortion is wrong because it is an insult to God, not because it's an injury to a human person."

This is false because it wrongly assumes that the theist's only arguments against abortion are on religious grounds. The theist could assert that abortion is immoral because it is the intentional killing of an innocent human person, where "person" is defined as an "intelligent and free subject." No reference to God is necessary.

Thanks for the clarification.

Doctor Logic said...


I would agree that it's a false dichotomy, but only if the definition of person is allowed to float freely over to the Christian view.

A naturalist might define a person as someone capable of thinking, emoting and communicating. Fetuses, brain-damaged ex-persons, and dead ex-persons are not persons by this definition. Neither are pets. Nonetheless, we typically prefer to extend rights to non-persons.

Theists muddy the water by defining a person as whatever contains a supernatural personhood spark from God. Alternatively, define personhood as whatever we give rights to, as if there must be a 1:1 correspondence between rights and personhood.

While we can say that we think persons should have rights, it's not true that everything that has rights is a person. Our society agrees that killing one's cat is a crime (for the cat's sake), but we don't generally think the cat is a person who has been murdered. On the other hand, killing one's livestock pig is acceptable, but killing one's pet pig is not.

The issue here has to do with a person's relationship to the non-person. My relationship with my dog or cat is such that I refuse to live in a society in which my pet lacks some personhood rights. On the other hand, farmer Bill probably would refuse to live in a society where he was not permitted to kill his pigs whenever he sees fit.

Similarly, not all mothers have the same relationship with their embryos. Embryos and fetuses are non-persons that get their rights through a fuzzy social compromise. It's not socially acceptable to kill a fetus at a late stage of development. If you don't want the pregnancy, you don't have a relationship with the non-person, and you have a have a right to kill it, but you also have a duty to the rest of society to kill it early.

To argue that abortion is murder is like arguing that killing livestock is murder. It sounds like the nutty PETA claim that meat is murder. Moral decisions aren't made on such theoretical grounds, and they never have been.

Tom Gilson said...

Doctor Logic,

Let me preface this by acknowledging that (contrary to my usual practice) what I have to say includes no pretense of an argument. It's just a statement, it's emotional, and yet I also think it's obvious. Let me note also that what you've said contains hardly any more argument than this. That's the preface.

Here's the statement: You are amazingly, stunningly, immorally wrong, especially in your closing two paragraphs.

Anonymous said...

doctor logic

"fuzzy social compromises"

that is atrocious logic!!!