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Nobis, Beckwith & Abortion

Feb 17, 2012 / By: Michael Spielman
Category: Responses to Readers

Six months ago, Abort73 received an email directing us to a paper written by Nathan Nobis, who teaches in the Department of Philosophy & Religion at Morehouse College. Nobis did his undergrad work at Wheaton College and received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Rochester. The paper in question is a rather harsh critique of Francis Beckwith’s book, Defending Life, and was published in the Oxford Journal of Medicine & Philosophy last May. The sender of the email is a self-described “seeker of truth,” who says that Nobis’ “sophisticated argument against fetal personhood” is “a source of concern for me and perhaps should be of concern to you as well.”

Though I try to respond to emails in a timely fashion (ie in less than six months time), this was a difficult assignment. Nobis’ paper is not exactly a quick or easy read. Nor is the more abstract philosophy of academia a field I particularly enjoy. Too often, philosophy of this sort just clouds the central issue and serves to confuse the thinking of heretofore rational people. It can easily become a tool for justifying behavior that would otherwise be easily recognized as condemnable.

The central premise of Nobis’ paper is that Beckwith fails in his attempt to establish a metaphysical defense of fetal personhood and fails to demonstrate the inherent injustice or inequality of the utilitarian view he opposes. Nobis’ chief criticism is that Beckwith injects unsupported, moral arguments into his metaphysical defense, and he complains that Beckwith’s proofs are more complicated and controversial than the position he’s actually trying to establish. Though I haven’t read Beckwith’s book, I suspect it was largely written to combat those in the academic community who scoff at the assertion that abortion is wrong for the simple fact that it kills a human being. If so, isn’t it a bit ironic that in offering a more philosophic critique of abortion, Beckwith would be criticized for being too abstract?

Either way, it’s never quite fair to argue with a book since a book can’t answer back. No doubt Nobis and Bechwith would have a more fruitful debate face to face, though it’s unlikely that such a meeting would shift either man’s position in the slightest. And I suspect that were such a debate to take place, those in the audience who were already committed to the “pro-choice” position would leave with the notion that Nobis had won, while those already committed to the “pro-life” position would leave with the notion that Beckwith had won. I say that not because I think all public debates end in a draw, but because both of these men are unquestionably intelligent and articulate, and both have invested significant thought into their respective positions. It’s unlikely that either would hear something they hadn’t already considered and mentally answered for. The real question in such debates is this. What are the people in the uncommitted middle left thinking? This is where actual movement takes place. With that group of people in mind, I’ll take a turn at responding to ideas that can’t argue back – which is a particularly advantageous forum for someone like me, who likely falls a bit further down the IQ food-chain than Nathan Nobis or Francis Beckwith.

The main point of contention between these two men is the basis upon which human rights are assigned. Francis Beckwith defends what is called, “The Substance View,” which Nobis defines as follows (and it’s a definition I have no problems with):

The Substance View has both moral and metaphysical aspects. Metaphysically, it includes the claim that fetuses and adults are the same “type” of being, the same “substance,” and so fetuses and adults are numerically identical. Morally, it includes a claim that every individual of this substance or sort always has at least some of the moral properties it has when it is a rational moral agent, even when it is not an actual rational moral agent, because of what kind, sort, or type of being it is.

Said differently, the Substance View believes that human embryos, fetuses, newborns, infants, children and adults are all alike in their humanity and believes that membership in the human species should be the basis for assigning human rights. The competing view is one Nobis labels, “Mentalism,” and though he never makes a positive defense of abortion or defines himself as a mentalist, this is the view that Nobis implicitly defends. He writes:

Mentalists argue that beings that have never had mental lives or have lost their minds fully and permanently lack moral rights, are not persons, are not moral subjects, and/or are not morally valuable in their own right.

In other words, it’s not humanity which makes someone morally significant, it’s their mental capacity – specifically “consciousness, sentience, and autonomy.” The reason Nobis believes Beckwith’s Substance View is inferior to Mentalism is because, according to Nobis, Beckwith fails to demonstrate why mere membership in the human race is morally significant. He says Beckwith presupposes the intrinsic value of human life, which is the very thing he is supposed to be proving. In his own more eloquent words:

One could assert that at all times and stages biologically human organisms are prima facie wrong to kill… But these claims are very similar to premise (1) and we are seeking a reason to accept it. The Substance View does not provide such a reason since it appears that it just is that view. So although we might accept, even just for the sake of argument, the metaphysical components of the Substance View concerning identity… the Substance View’s moral components need defense.

On this point, Nobis’ complaint is a reasonable one, but notice that he’s essentially criticizing Beckwith for doing what virtually everyone else does too – namely for presupposing that human beings have a unique value that is over and above other life forms. Beckwith does his best to follow secular protocol, but trying to demonstrate the voracity of the Substance View without reference to a Creator God is largely an exercise in futility. What Nobis doesn’t seem to recognize is that this “weakness” plagues Mentalists as well. They may think they’ve solved the dilemma by making mankind’s superior understanding and intellect the basis of our moral superiority, but this does nothing to establish the doctrine of human equality. If superior reasoning ability makes human beings morally superior to other animals, then why doesn’t superior reasoning ability make one human being morally superior to another? Nobis complains that such suggestions are unfair since no Mentalists actually make such claims, but that doesn’t change the implications of their position. At the end of the day, their belief that all persons should be treated fairly and equally is just as rooted in Christian tradition as Beckwith’s. There is no “functional” reason for equality, and the fact that they value this doctrine so highly is strong evidence that their presuppositions are very much in sync with Beckwith’s.

Princeton ethicist, Peter Singer, notes this phenomenon and rails against it in his book, Practical Ethics. In making a moral defense of infanticide, he argues that the only reason infanticide is so off-putting to the western mind is because we haven’t been able to throw off our tired and unaccountable allegiance to the Christian worldview. He writes:

During the centuries of Christian domination of European thought the ethical attitudes based on these doctrines became part of the unquestioned moral orthodoxy of European civilisation. Today the doctrines are no longer generally accepted, but the ethical attitudes to which they gave rise fit in with the deep-seated Western belief in the uniqueness and special privileges of our species, and have survived… If these conclusions (in support of infanticide) seem too shocking to take seriously, it may be worth remembering that our present absolute protection of the lives of infants is a distinctively Christian attitude rather than a universal ethical value… The change in Western attitudes to infanticide since Roman times is, like the doctrine of the sanctity of human life of which it is a part, a product of Christianity… If this world had been created by some divine being with a particular goal in mind, it could be said to have a meaning… (but) when we reject belief in a god we must give up the idea that life on this planet has some preordained meaning. Life as a whole has no meaning.

I doubt Nathan Nobis would go so far as Peter Singer. Few do. But Singer is at least consistent in his application of the Mentalist principle. If you’re going to say that an active mental life is the basis for assigning rights of personhood, you must concede that the active mental life of a newborn is not materially different than the active mental life of a preborn. If Mentalism justifies abortion, then it also justifies infanticide. But Nobis is careful to focus his defense of Mentalism on a comparison between unborn fetuses and normally-functioning adults, not between fetuses and newborns or fetuses and mentally-handicapped adults. He asks:

Of course, normal adults, actual “rational moral agents,” are members of the moral community, have basic moral rights, are persons, are moral subjects, and are morally valuable. But why should one think that fetuses also have these moral properties and are like this?

Nobis goes on to argue:

If it were true that any two numerically identical beings, or stages of beings, share all the same moral properties, then that would follow (that they should be equally protected under the law). But adults and children have all sorts of physical, cognitive, and moral properties that fetuses lack.

Though he introduces children into the equation, he still leaves newborns out. Why? Because you simply can’t say that newborns have “all sorts of physical, cognitive, and moral properties that fetuses lack” – which is why Peter Singer says you can’t morally separate abortion from infanticide. If you accept one, by implication, you accept the other.

Even more perplexing is the fact that Nobis sees no ethical dangers with the position he’s carved out and repeatedly denies Beckwith’s claim that it opens the door to serious abuse. His response to such concerns turn a blind eye to history. For instance, he writes that Beckwith’s concern that “Mentalism justifies… the exploitation of beings with simple(r) mental lives by those with more complex mental lives” is a silly one since “virtually nobody argues, for example, that geniuses are morally entitled to, say, enslave the feeble-minded.” While it’s largely true that no one in America is making this claim today, the supposed mental and moral superiority of whites is precisely the argument that was used to justify the enslavement of blacks at our country’s outset. And the supposed mental superiority of men is the very notion that denied suffrage to women for so long – just as the supposed moral superiority of Europeans was the basis for ignoring the claims of Native-Americans. Call it want you want, but you’ll find Mentalism at the heart of history’s most egregious tragedies. Nobis claims that no Mentalist would dare suggest mistreating the “feeble-minded,” apparently forgetting that the “feeble-minded” were explicitly named and targeted by Hitler’s eugenics program.

Interestingly, Nobis says that if we just focus on the “clear-cut uncontroversial cases of exploitation” like “slavery” and “child abuse,” Mentalism provides a perfectly adequate framework for demonstrating their injustice. It is only the “controversial” areas of equality, like the “pro-life view of abortion,” that Mentalism cannot support. To this claim, it must be pointed out that slavery was every bit as controversial in its day as abortion is now. A worldview that is only willing to condemn uncontroversial injustices is a fairly useless one. Inequality always begins as a subject of controversy, until one position sufficiently demonstrates the injustice of the other. And even though slavery is no longer controversial in terms of public policy, that doesn’t mean it’s gone away. Most believe that there are more slaves in the world today than at any time in history.

Today’s slave traders no longer try to justify their behavior publicly, but the same ideology is still in play. Those with more knowledge and more power have the ability to enslave those with less knowledge and less power. That’s the practical reality, and the same is true for child abuse, which continues to increase, despite the fact that no one justifies it in theory. The inequalities of nature and environment make these injustices possible and the only ideologically consistent way to oppose such behavior is the implementation of a moral framework that views a person’s rights on the basis of something more foundational than their functional abilities.

Despite all of Nobis’ claims to the contrary, the functional distinctions at the heart of Mentalism have been the driving force behind all manner of historic abuses. And yet, Nobis’ final assessment of the Substance View is that it “does not seem to do much to justify egalitarianism.” I can understand the claim that The Substance View is too egalitarian (for wanting to grant equality to preborn human beings), but I have no idea what to do with this assessment. It seems completely illogical. Nobis condemns Beckwith for not adequately demonstrating the injustice of abortion and yet he never offers a positive defense of abortion. He never demonstrates why it is morally reasonable for human beings “with no mental history” to be killed with impunity. To me, this is entirely backwards. The burden of proof should fall on those wanting to justify abortion, not vice versa. The pro-life position is the far more natural and intuitive one. I say this for two reasons. First, when a child sees a picture of an aborted embryo or fetus, their most common reaction is, “what happened to the baby?” We’re born into the pro-life position. We must be “educated” into accepting the “pro-choice” position. Second, if you trace the arc of abortion history, you’ll see that until the last few decades, abortion was unequivocally scorned and condemned by the medical community. And even today, abortionists are dubiously regarded by most physicians. Why? Because abortion is a complete departure from normal, medical ethics, and the justification for such a departure has never been adequately demonstrated.

Nathan Nobis states that 99% of abortions are performed on “mindless” embryos and fetuses. He further says that they are “often microscopic.” At best, these statements are misleading. At worst, they are downright falsehoods. The forebrain, midbrain, and hindbrain begin to develop three weeks after fertilization. Primitive brain waves have been recorded  as early as six weeks and 2 days after fertilization – which is about the earliest that surgical abortions can be performed. Medical abortions may take place before this, but unless the abortion is induced by emergency contraception or the birth control pill, the embryos being aborted are not microscopic. Nobis implies a less-developed victim-class to make the strength of his moral argument seem stronger. This is disingenuous.

The strength of the Substance View is that it’s concrete, measurable, and inclusive. The “weakness” of the Substance View is that mandates the embrace of a politically incorrect position. By contrast, the weakness of Mentalism is that it’s intrinsically subjective, is open to immense interpretation, and has historically excluded the most vulnerable members of the human community.  The “strength” of the Mentalism, if you want to call it that, is that it provides a philosophical justification for removing, enslaving, or destroying the “unwanted” human beings who get in your way.


Michael Spielman is the founder and director of Abort73.com. His book, Love the Least (A Lot), is available as a free download. You can also find him on Facebook and Google+. Abort73 is part of Loxafamosity Ministries, a 501c3, Christian education corporation. If you have been helped by the information available at Abort73.com, please consider making a donation.

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