Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Frank Beckwith rebuts Thomson

Not the original Thomson article, but the new one that BDK linked to.

This is a redated post, which contains a version of what I have been calling the deer hunter argument. 


Blue Devil Knight said...

I like her original violinist article as it is the most conciliatory (from the pro-choice perspective, anyway). By granting a key assumption of the pro-lifers it takes away one of the most obtrusive stumbling blocks to reasonable discussion of what should be legal (notice I said 'discussion of what should be legal', not what is or isn't moral--I find this is another way to make the discussion more reasonable and less emotional--when you start talking about what is moral (rather than what the law should be), for some reason people's IQs tend to drop about 20 points as evidenced by the thread I linked to in the previous discussion).

Blue Devil Knight said...

Note also, after discussing it here, I discuss the issue a bit too much here. I like what I said there a lot, and I also like what Obama said that I quoted.

It's in those posts that I think I articulated accurately why I am pro-choice especially for early-term abortion. As for later-term abortions, things get a bit more tricky and I am probably a tad conservative.

Clayton Littlejohn said...

That second thread is where Illion and Jim Jordan pulled a Kenneth: I don't do hypotheticals, it's like lying to your brain.

I'd forgotten about that one. Good times.

Martin said...

I don't see how the Violinist argument works. You are not morally bound to put your life at risk to save the violinist but if you are the only person in the whole world who can save the Violinist and your complaint is pain and inconvenience, yes you are bound to save him. The point is that another person's life is more valuable than mere inconvenience in mine.

The second reason it fails is the difference between being a proximate cause and a distant cause of the violinist's death. Even if you were connected by the cord and "it's you or me" -one of you has to die. You are allowed to cut the cord, that is to save yourself with the indirect cause being his death but you are not allowed to pull out a 357 and shoot the bugger in the head. That is murder-you are the proximate cause of his death.

Mark said...

Martin, the point of the violinist example is to illustrate the difference between rights and moral obligations. Even if I'm morally obligated not to cut the cord and thereby kill the violinist, most people would agree that I'm nevertheless within my rights to cut the cord. That's because my body belongs to me, and I have the right to deny other people's non-consensual usage of it even if they can't live without it.

kmisho said...

If this is a good representation of "sophisticated" abortion arguments, for or against, then the whole field is in a pretty sad state.

At the end, I was left with a distinct impression that the main reason Beckwith was picking on Thomson was because Thomson made an easy target.

TD Hinkle said...

As I have mentioned before, I am pro-life, but I still think that Thompson and Boonin's argument is more powerful than many on our side are willing to concede.

On your first point, even if it would be morally good to endure pain and inconvientience to save a person whose life is dependant on you, it does not follow that it is a moral or legal obligation. There are all kinds of morally good actions that are not themselves moral obligations. It is morally good to become a doctor, but it is not a moral obligation to become a doctor.

On your second point, I don't think this ultimately presents a good enough argument against abortion. There do exist abortion procedures that involve surgically removing the fetus from the mother and letting it die, rather than the surgeon actively destroying the fetus. If your argument is that abortion is impermissible only because it involves the direct killing of another human being, then it won't cover these other types of procedures. As a pro-life advocate, I don't think there is all that big a moral difference in these types of procedures, and consequently I am not entitled to use the type of argument you advanced against abortion.

Blue Devil Knight said...

I am not familiar with Thomson's second paper, when did I cite it? Perhaps I did it by accident. I like her original violinist paper.

Martin said...

...Ok, i'm following better now. Thompsons argument is supposed to show that it can be legal/permitted to kill an innocent person in some circumstances. A quick scan of the Wikipedia article on her argument quotes, "Foote" refuting it. Again, I think the argument fails badly...perhaps if I read more I would appreciate its challanges.

BTW: I was failing to explain "double effect" as a reason how sometimes you can indirectly cause the death of someone and not be the "cause"


Martin said...

Let me try one last time. The law cannot be silent when a person is killed, your rights cannot override this. If the third party can be brought to justice so much the better.

Victor Reppert said...

"The law cannot be silent when a person is killed." Sounds plausible at first, but suppose someone asks "Why?"

There is no logical contradiction in saying the following:

Abortion is murder. But a woman has a right to do as she pleases with her own body, EVEN IF THAT INVOLVES COMMITTING MURDER WITHIN THAT BODY.

Murder should sometimes be legal. Why assume that the right to life trumps all other rights?

Refuting this position strikes me as a missing step in the pro-life arguments. It is simply assumed. And as a philosopher, it would be nice to see how that step in the argument would be filled.

Notice that the Seventh Commandment doesn't involve criminal penalties for adulterers (although the OT law did provide them).

Martin said...

Murder should sometimes be legal. Why assume that the right to life trumps all other rights?

My first answer would be that, like the law of non-contradiction, some things are so basically true they cannot be "proved". Is this not true of any philosophical system? But as I reflect and note how many people I know who seem to be able to hold two contradictory ideas at the same time maybe even "1+1=2" needs proof. Certainly the euthanasia movement is on the forefront of challenging this basic premise.

Francis Beckwith said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Francis Beckwith said...


Thank you for drawing attention to my work. I am honored.

In a 2006 piece in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy ( http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/Boonin.pdf ) as well as in my 2007 book Defending Life (Cambridge University Press), I argue that in fact Thomson does not actually grant the prolife view of the unborn's personhood. Here's what I write in the JMP article:

Given my critique, I think one may rightly conclude that it is a mistake to believe that Thomson and Boonin are in fact conceding for the sake of argument what prolifers believe about the fetus, even though they are claiming that they are doing just that. What Thomson and Boonin are granting is not the pro-life view of personhood, but a view of personhood consistent with the pro-life position only insofar as it is aligned with their own liberal and minimalist understanding of autonomy and choice. For the success of their case depends on assuming a view of the person that isolates the individual from other persons except as those relationships arise from the individual’s explicit choice. It is, in the words of Michael Sandel, the “image of the self as free and independent, unencumbered by aims and attachments it did not choose for itself . . .”(Sandel, 1996, p. 12). But if this is their understanding of personhood, as it seems to be, then it is that understanding they are stipulating when they grant to the abortion opponent for the sake of argument that the fetus is a person (or has a future-like-ours).

But that is not the pro-life view of personhood. The pro-life view is that human beings are persons-in-community and have certain natural obligations as members of their community that arise from their roles as mother, father, citizen, child, etc. Therefore, the success of Boonin’s and Thomson’s cases depends on begging questions of philosophical anthropology that are derived from an understanding of personhood that is necessary in order to arrive at the conclusion that abortion is a fundamental right even if the fetus is that sort of person. Thus, Thomson and Boonin smuggle into their cases a philosophical anthropology—a metaphysical view of the human person— that is no less controversial than the fetus’s personhood they are apparently conceding for the sake of argument.

(Deleted the previous comment because I found typos. Dumb me)