A recent episode of Philosophy Time—a YouTube series starring actor James Franco and philosophy professor Eliot Michaelson—has been making the social media rounds. The reason? Recent guest and Princeton University philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman shared a synopsis of her moral theory supporting what she calls “early abortions.” And it was nonsensical.
Here’s her thesis in short:
In some of my work I defend a liberal position about early abortion. I defend the view that there is nothing morally bad about early abortion. . . .And I think if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious, it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage actually nothing morally bad happens….But, what I think is actually among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings. So, James, when you were an early fetus, and Eliot, when you were an early fetus, all of us I think we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. In virtue of the fact that we were the beginning stages of persons.But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.
In other words: There is nothing “morally bad” about an early abortion because, since the fetus is aborted, it never becomes a person. But this is not the well-worn “the fetus is not a person and thus has no moral worth” argument. Rather, Harman contends fetuses who are not aborted and thus grow into persons possess moral worth while still fetuses. Fetuses who will end up aborted, on the other hand, do not.
Confused? You should be. But I promise you it is not my lack of clarity (or charity) or deceptive or selective quoting. Her argument truly is that asinine. You can judge for yourself by reading more excerpts in the Free Beacon article discussing the segment. Or better yet, just watch the brief five-minute YouTube video yourself.
Actually, This Idea Has Been Around for a While
As many have commented on Twitter, Franco’s facial expressions alone are worth the view; although watching Michaelson’s amazing nonplussed restraint in the presence of such twaddle coming from a peer might lead one to question who is the better actor. If you watch the video, you’ll also notice around the three-minute mark an added graphic of two arrows chasing each other in a circle. It’s visual clue to the philosophical neophytes tuning in that yes, her entire theory is circular: Aborting an early fetus is morally licit because the early fetus has no moral status; and he has no moral status since he will be aborted.
Is Harman’s proffered moral justification for abortion merely the latest innovation in pro-choice rhetoric? Have others already picked up this line of argument? Will we soon be inundated with this line of attack, along the lines of the gaining momentum of a “post-birth abortion” justification for infanticide?
A quick Google Yahoo search revealed the answer: Harman’s thesis isn’t the newest wave in the abortion rights movement. Rather, in this discussion she merely rehashed for the camera a theory she devised back in 1999 and published under the title of “Creation Ethics: The Moral Status of Early Fetuses and the Ethics of Abortion,” for the peer-reviewed (emphasis and outrage added) journal Philosophy and Public Affairs.
A quick read of Harman’s article reveals several additional flaws in her theory, which she christened the Actual Future Principle. First, she cordoned off the most obvious deficiencies her argument—its question-begging and unbounded breadth. For instance, she defines an “early fetus” as “a fetus before it has any intrinsic properties that themselves confer moral status on the fetus,” thus begging the more difficult question of whether, when, and why any human being lacks moral status.
She then further “assume[d] that there is a nonnegligible period of time in which fetuses are early fetuses in my sense; it may be as short as a few weeks or as long as several months, depending on which intrinsic properties can themselves confer moral status.” But she doesn’t attempt to define those supposed “intrinsic properties,” although she posits one plausible view is “that an early fetus is a fetus before it has any conscious experience and before it can properly be described as the subject of experience.”
Harman also adds: “Someone might believe that up until the moment of birth, or for some time after, an individual has no intrinsic properties that themselves confer moral status on it. While the arguments I make about early fetuses might be put forward about fetuses at any stage of development or about young babies, they are not written with such application in mind.”
We’ll Just Sideline All My Argument’s Weaknesses
Equally as revealing is the one deficiency Harman does not sidestep but instead embraces: her reasoning’s circularity. Here she summarizes this criticism as follows: “According to the Actual Future Principle, you just can’t lose! If you abort, then it turns out that the fetus you aborted was the kind of thing it’s okay to abort. If you don’t abort, then it turns out that the fetus was the kind of thing it’s not okay to abort.”
In her paper, Harman expands: “The objector is right that ‘you just can’t lose’ if you have an abortion. As I have argued, the Actual Future Principle implies the very liberal view on abortion. Therefore, according to the Actual Future Principle, no moral justification is required for an early abortion.”
But if “no moral justification is required for an early abortion,” which is Harman’s position and which she acknowledges could include “abortions” “at any stage of development” and even “young babies,” than why does Harman even bother to formulate a theory? The answer is clear: To assuage the cognitive dissonance of the pro-choice community, personified in her peer-reviewed article as the hypothetical Katherine:
Katherine contemplates the early fetuses that die in early abortions. She has the intuition that these early fetuses have no moral status; their deaths simply do not matter morally. She thinks that nothing morally significant happens in an early abortion, and that no moral justification whatsoever is required for an early abortion. However, then Katherine goes on to contemplate the early fetuses that are carried to term and that become persons. She thinks of a couple who want to have a baby. A woman in the couple becomes pregnant, and the couple decides that she will carry the pregnancy to term. Very quickly, the couple starts to care about and to love the fetus, while it is still an early fetus. Katherine believes that such an early fetus is the appropriate object of love. This very thing, the early fetus, is the beginning stage of the child of this couple. Because it is itself the beginning of their child, their love for it seems appropriate. Because this early fetus is the kind of thing it is appropriate to love, Katherine believes that it has some moral status. Katherine appears torn by two conflicting views of the moral status of early fetuses. She has the intuition that early fetuses that die in early abortions lack moral status; she generalizes to the view that all early fetuses lack moral status. She has the intuition that early fetuses that will become persons have some moral status; she generalizes to the view that all early fetuses have some moral status. It seems that Katherine must give up one of her intuitions.
But rather than force Katherine and pro-choice adherents to abandon their faulty premise—that “early fetuses” lack moral status—Harman offers a philosophical salve in the form of the Actual Future Principle: She invents a moral paradigm to justify holding two incongruent dogmas. This may make “Katherine” feel better for a while, but only because it’s burying rather than resolving the incoherence of her positions.