What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet

What to Do When the Utilitarian Bites the Bullet

Helping someone change their mind about something often comes down to presenting them with a choice: change your mind or bite a bullet. In other words, demonstrate that their position requires them to accept a conclusion they really don’t want to accept. This is why a good thought-experiment can be so effective.

People are loathe to change their minds, so the more difficult the bullet is to bite, the better. I like to say that I want someone to have to bite an explosive round, something they can’t just tolerate and act like they don’t mind it.

Earlier this year I wrote about how I respond when people attempt to defend the pro-choice position by appealing to utilitarianism. I start by responding with a straightforward thought-experiment:

Suppose a given person has a healthy heart, lung, kidneys, bone marrow, and blood. By kidnapping him, we could save five people or even more by distributing those body parts to other people that need them. Should we do it? Or what if it’s just one person that we can save, but it’s a more important person? Should we kill a homeless person if it means we can save, say, an important scientist?

This is a tough bullet to bite, but sadly, for some, it isn’t tough enough. Some people struggle to think clearly about murder. I suspect this is because when it comes to killing people, there are exceptions. You can kill in self-defense, most people believe you can kill in war, and while it’s more controversial, many believe you can kill in capital punishment. My colleague Rachel Crawford has also pointed out to me how deeply confused people are about revenge. Revenge stories are popular in books and film because we’re sympathetic to the avenger. It feels just for the wrongdoer to be punished in an act of vengeance. All of these problems make any thought-experiment about murder a little less effective.

But there are other actions that virtually everyone think have no exceptions, such as rape. Most people think rape is wrong, not just generally, but every single time. Utilitarians find it much harder to bite the bullet on rape. Here’s the thought-experiment I use after they bite the organ-theft bullet:

When Is Abortion Fetal Euthanasia In Disguise?

Image: Euthanasia needle and gavel

Bioethics is a broad and expanding field of ethical inquiry into questions concerning human life, its beginning and end, and its interaction with medicine and other technologies. When I began my formal study of bioethics, I noticed that many issues were interrelated, and the issue which had perhaps the most implications for the resolution of any other was the question of abortion. For example, a pro-life disability ethic is able to recognize that ableism begins prenatally, which prompts measures to protect fetal humans from discrimination on the basis of disability. It occurred to me only recently that, in at least some cases of abortion, the parents believe that they are aborting the child for its own good. That is to say, while abortion is the method by which the fetus is killed, the parents are really looking at the question through the lens of euthanasia.

There are many reasons why parents (or society) may believe that it would be better for a child if he or she wasn’t born. Often, the reason is a medical condition. There are cases in which a child will not survive birth, or in which the child will have a very brief and painful postnatal life. Another issue is that of prenatal diagnosis of disabilities, in which people argue that the child’s quality of life would be so low that it is hardly worth living.[1] At times, economic factors may come into play. At least in conversations on college campuses, the possibility of hardship by way of the foster system is a concern. A lot of these concerns are understandable; people want their children to avoid pain, on the whole, and to have happy lives. But the desire to avoid pain and promote happiness is a questionable justification for depriving someone of life.

These concerns about the quality of a fetal human’s life after birth animate two different lines of argument. I want to distinguish between how each argument functions and give a response to the primary issue underlying each one. In each case, I’m going to assume a scenario in which a child has a disease which lowers the chances of surviving through hospital discharge and which would likely cause the child to have some amount of pain for the rest of its life.

Why Viability Is the Least Plausible Definition of Personhood

Pictured: 20-week fetus near the age of viability. Image used with permission from Life Issues Institute.

20-week fetus. Image used with permission from Life Issues Institute.

When we make the Equal Rights Argument, pro-choice people tend to respond with an alternative definition of personhood, usually an attribute that they believe humans must have in order to be considered valuable persons, such as sentience, brain activity, self-awareness, or the ability to feel pain. Typically we respond to these alternative explanations with Timothy Brahm’s Zoo Shooting thought experiment, pointing out that these definitions make at least one of two mistakes: they either allow too many organisms into the equal rights community, like squirrels, or they allow too few humans into the equal rights community, like newborns.

But there’s one pro-choice explanation of personhood that is so arbitrary and ad-hoc that I tend to use a different approach, and that is “viability,” meaning the ability to survive outside of a uterus.

Whenever you hear a pro-choice person make this argument, you should start by clarifying that they actually mean what you think they mean. Pro-choice rhetoric can often be vague, so asking lots of clarification questions is important. As we’ve explained before, most pro-choice people are very concerned about stopping the government from restricting what people can and can’t do with their bodies. Sometimes when pro-choice people talk about how dependent the unborn is on the woman’s body, they’re not actually making a statement about whether or not the unborn has moral status; they’re arguing that a woman should be able to do whatever she wants with anything inside of her body, or at least refuse another person the right to use her body for life support. So start by asking a clarification question, like:

I want to make sure I understand you correctly. Are you arguing that the unborn isn’t a person because it’s dependent on her body, or are you trying to say that it doesn’t matter if the unborn is a person because women shouldn’t be forced to have their bodies used as life support?

If the pro-choice person responds that they were making the bodily rights argument, then I’ll be glad I asked and will then clarify whether they’re making a Sovereign Zone argument or a Right to Refuse argument and go from there. Go to EqualRightsInstitute.com/BodilyRights for links to all of our resources on responding to bodily rights arguments.

It’s less common, but occasionally when a pro-choice person brings up viability, they’re actually intending to make a biological argument that the unborn isn’t an organism. This confusion comes from a misunderstanding of the word “independent” in some definitions of organism.

However, if the pro-choice person clarifies that they were indeed arguing that the unborn isn’t a person because it isn’t viable, I’ll often explain the problem of squirrels and other animals that are viable, and then I’ll explain why viability in particular is the least plausible standard for personhood, despite how often it comes up.

I’ll illustrate my approach with a story of a dialogue I had with a man I’ll call “Luke,” with whom I spoke at Davidson Community College last year. Luke made the viability argument, although he added an unusually ad-hoc twist that I hadn’t heard before, so in this article I’ll explain Luke’s argument, how I responded, and what else I would have said if he didn’t have to abruptly leave for class.

Am I a Father?

What does it mean to be a father? What does the tragedy of miscarriage tell us about the unborn? And does this give us insight about abortion?

Father holding son

This question — am I a father? — is one whose answer matters a great deal to me, especially as Father’s Day draws near on the calendar. Of course, I already know the answer to the question; I’m not asking it because I have any doubt as to the fact that I am a father. Instead, I’m asking because I think that many people would try to have it both ways. If their philosophy was one which denied the personhood of the unborn, and they gave an answer consistent with that philosophy, then they would deny my fatherhood; but if they answered according to what they instinctively believe to be true, they would say I am a father.

Let me explain. On one hand, my wife is currently pregnant (about which we are both thrilled and nervous). There is a genetically unique child within her, and I am partially responsible (a little under 50 percent responsible, by gene count) for the genesis of that child. Therefore, unless one contests the premise that what is inside my wife is a child, I am a father, and can celebrate Father’s Day. If the four-odd month-old fetus inside my wife is not a child, then no change of import has happened to me; I am, at best, a potential father, a future father.

Perhaps it would change some people’s reactions if I told them that my wife is pregnant not with our first but our second child. Generally, people wish a happy Father’s Day to guys who already have a kid running around, because few people seriously doubt the status of a child who has been born. My situation is a bit different, though, because my wife and I lost our first child by miscarriage. And here the same question as above begins to arise: was what we lost a child? Should I have celebrated Father’s Day last year, since my child did not survive until a full-term birth? Or, in a twisted bit of logic, did I become a father only when my child was dead, since it was located in my wife’s womb beforehand but was outside afterward?

Thanos Would Be Pro-Choice

My wife and I love the Marvel movies. They’re always charming and fun, even if they aren’t profound. But the latest one, Avengers: Infinity War, was an exception. Don’t get me wrong, it was charming and fun. But it was also profound. It was possibly the most effective anti-utilitarian movie I have ever seen.

Avengers Infinity War with Thanos logo

Spoiler warning: Plot summary ahead.

Avengers: Infinity War revolves around the character of Thanos and his personal quest to reduce the population of the universe by 50%. His adopted daughter Gamora describes this as a goal he has had for as long as she can remember. The film even shows a flashback scene where Thanos meets Gamora as a little girl and takes her in. His army invaded her city and divided the survivors randomly into two groups. While Thanos bonds with a young Gamora, his soldiers opened fire on one of the groups. The reason he pursues the incredibly powerful infinity stones is that if he gets all six of them, he can wipe out half of the universe with just a snap of his fingers.

Why would someone want to murder billions? Thanos explains his motives very clearly: There are too many people. The universe has limited resources. If we don’t kill some, it will be worse for all.

Gee, why does that sound so familiar?