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Why That Princeton Prof’s Argument For Early Abortion Isn’t Entirely Stupid


Last week, the conservative Internet stumbled over a video of Princeton philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman describing her understanding of abortion.

Mockery ensued. Memes were created. Conservatives instantly won the culture war. Best of all, every armchair philosopher got to pretend for one very happy moment that we were smarter than an Ivy League prof. I mean, even James Franco wasn’t buying it. EVEN JAMES FRANCO.

Only everyone was wrong. Including Jimmy F.

Now, I’m going to try to articulate what Harman thinks, which is either the most ludicrous form of mansplaining ever or a form of philososplaining. Let’s go with the latter. Harman is always free to explain herself, but she probably doesn’t read The Federalist and me and all her critics do. So, here we are. Just add the qualifier “As I understand it” to every substantive claim, and we’ll get on fine.

Yes, I Get You’re Already Annoyed

But first, some throat clearing: I am going to try to defend Harman against the teeming masses of conservatives as someone who deeply disagrees with her view. I think it’s wrong. Really wrong. I mean, I’ve defended a narrow understanding of a “pro-life” view at The Other Place, so it’s not like I’m uncommitted on the question.

Yet I don’t think her view is absurd, nor do I think it deserves the heaping barrels of burning scorn conservatives have dumped on it. It even counts as “interesting” in certain respects, and raises real issues that if we thought about for a hot minute might provide new avenues and arguments for a pro-life view.

Having now confessed my unpopular opinion, I have to say Perplexed James Franco is my new favorite Internet meme. See, something good can come out of Princeton! As I’ve said my entire life the past 24 hours, if you can’t persuade The Franco, who on God’s green earth is ever going to listen to you again?

Let’s take our bearings, though, from one of Harman’s strongest and most intelligent critics: My Dear Friend Joe Carter. My DFJ modestly described Harman’s argument as “likely…the worst defense of abortion ever made by a reputable philosopher,” and “one of the “most jaw-droppingly incoherent cases for abortion you’ll ever hear.” Hugs, Joe! You and I may need one when we’re through.

What Harman’s View Is Not

Harman’s “very liberal view” of abortion is that the decision to abort an “early fetus” can be a trivial one, and in most cases is a trivial one. It is far less significant a decision than the decision to give birth to a child, as the latter choice means there’s going to be a little human being terrorizing you indefinitely while the former choice means: nothing. Nothing happens. No person comes into existence, and so it doesn’t matter.

Harman arrives at her view in part—the qualification is, in this case, essential—by suggesting that the moral status of the “early fetus” is determined by his or her actual future. So, if an “early fetus” will become a later fetus and then a large boy, it has moral status. If it won’t, either because it miscarries or is (ahem) killed, then it doesn’t have moral status. Neat trick, right?

This she dubs the “Actual Future Principle,” and in her paper on the matter she applies it pretty narrowly to “early fetuses.” As she does in repeatedly in the video as well, so viewers are without excuse.

What sort of thing is such a monstrous alien? The “early fetus” is a “fetus before it has any intrinsic properties that themselves confer moral status on the fetus.” Whatever it is that makes human beings the awesomest creatures and deserving of rights, the early fetus ain’t got it.

Now, it’s important to be clear on precisely what she isn’t saying: She is not in fact making an argument for abortion. In her published work on the matter, Harman is explicit about what she is and is not doing: “No argument is provided to bring someone from a conservative view about abortion” to the view that the Actual Future Principle is the correct view. Instead, she makes a number of assumptions friendly to a “moderate liberal” view of abortion then tries to argue ‘em into her camp.

Her question is not whether abortion is permissible. It’s whether abortion even matters. And not just “abortion” as a general class, either. Early abortion. That’s the setting.

Now, her arguments for her purpose might still be no good. They still might be incoherent or circular. But to determine whether that’s the case, we have to first grasp what they are arguments for. And contra my Dear Friend Joe (DFJ), they are not arguments designed for him. (And probably not for Franco, either, but for different reasons.)

So Our Decisions Determine Morality?

Much of the conservative outrage toward Harman was aimed at her claim that the moral status of the early fetus is contingent upon it having a future, and on the decision of its mother. If a mother decides to abort, the early fetus has no moral status. If the mother decides not to abort, moral status magically appears.

Harman doesn’t think that moral status is wholly contingent upon his parents’ decisions.

Now, I’m not going to outline all of Harman’s answers to every critique. My philososplaining has its limits. But it’s worth pointing out that Harman doesn’t think that moral status is wholly contingent upon his parents’ decisions. Note that her description of the “early fetus” is that it is an entity that lacks the relevant properties that give something moral status (like sentience, or consciousness, or really great abs). Remember, she’s not arguing for the permissibility of abortion, even of the early fetus. She’s arguing that we don’t need to have an argument about that. And that’s a different matter.

Again, that view could be wrong. In fact, I think it is. But it’s still a different claim than the idea that Aunt Suzy’s moral status in the cancer ward is contingent upon Uncle Bob’s decision not to plunge a knife in her heart. And I know that this is Harman’s account because she says so in the video. Seriously. Watch until the end. Please.

Grasping this would have saved conservatives a great deal of outrage (and deprived them of a good number of jokes). It also would have been a sliiiiiggghhhtllly more charitable response to Harman than we all gave her.

Consider, if I may, DFJ’s approach, which seems unfair. DFJ begins his analysis of Harman’s view by teasing out the purported implications of the “Actual Future Principle” by setting up a thought experiment of two children in a hospital being treated for an illness. One is gonna live and the other won’t. “According to Harman,” he writes, the one that has the future has moral status, but the one that lives won’t. He calls this conclusion “strange,” and an example where death comes naturally “bizarre.”

He presents a reductio based on what she denies, then later tells us she denies it.

The problem with this is that Harman doesn’t think those implications follow at all, as her paper’s description of what grounds “moral status” indicates and as she explicitly says in the last answer she gives in the video. I am tempted to say that DFJ’s description of Harman’s argument is likely the worst description from a professional’s argument ever made by a reputable online writer. But thanks to #googlememo we have evidence this very week to the contrary.

DFJ actually reads Harman correctly, anyway, which is better than she received from many of her other critics. Once you get past the thought experiment Harman explicitly blocks off, DFJ tells us that she…blocks off those implications. And once you get to the end of DFJ’s argument that Harman’s argument is likely the worst argument for abortion in the history of arguments, DFJ informs us “that’s not really Harman’s point.”

AND I QUOTE: “Her argument is not meant to justify abortion…” This throws the whole premise of calling it the “likely…the worst defense of abortion ever made by a reputable philosopher” into question a little bit. My DFJ doesn’t provide a reductio based on a premise Harman accepts: He presents a reductio based on what she denies, then later tells us she denies it.

It’s pretty easy to understand what happened to conservatives in their response, even smart conservatives like DFJ. It makes for more entertaining copy to lead with the bits that show someone is not only wrong but probably Just Plain Nuts, then when readers are laughing at the absurdity sneak in qualifications that show the whole reductio business doesn’t work. At least DFJ did that much. Many other conservatives did less.

But a claim like Harman’s is also shocking if one doesn’t bother to account for where she’s coming from, and while her five-minute video had all the right signals and qualifications, it’s still just a five-minute video. That snapshot confirmed every prior that conservatives have about egghead, Ivy League academics and their general uselessness. It also, no doubt, reinforced to those academics the same kind of impression. And so the world turns.

So I understand the laughter and the outrage, on one level. But in a world where everybody’s shouting “fake news” at each other all the time, I’d love to see conservatives do a little introspection about this one. Which is why I’m sitting here writing with Perplexed James Franco staring back at me from my screen. You and me, buddy, against the world.

Say Something Good about the Actual Future Principle

“Why defend Harman,” I hear myself asking on your behalf. Besides the basic good of the knowledge of truth and my principled, high-falutin’ convictions that we oughta be decent human beings and mock after we’ve made sure we understood, I find her Actual Future Principle actually interesting.

Here are a few reasons I don’t think it deserves scorn, and even merits at least some careful consideration before we all rush to enshrine ourselves as Ivy League Quality PhiloStars. In the first place, it has a lot in common with a pretty famous argument against abortion, namely, Don Marquis’s argument that killing is inherently wrong because it deprives a person of the “experiences, activities, projects, and enjoyments that would otherwise have constituted one’s future.”

I didn’t have moral status until someone made plans to bring me from the abyss of nonexistence into this happy, tumultuous earth.

Pro-lifers often meet that argument with cheers. But it’s interesting to see what happens if we change the “would” to a “will,” the alteration Harman makes (and explicitly defends in her paper). Marquis’s claim could be described as a “modal future argument.” Specifically, it indicates there is some possible world out there where the embryo grows up and beats Deep Blue at chess.

Harman’s claim is that such a possible world is morally irrelevant. It matters, in a sense, while we are deciding—but once we’ve decided, the moral landscape changes. Hence, the actual future principle: the embryo that will have a future has moral status.

Again, that’s wrong. But I think it’s harder to explain what role the modal shift (the “would have”) plays in moral reasoning than conservatives realize. I think moral status is in fact a feature of the ontology of the organism—“life begins at conception, and everyone has a right to life”—is right. In her own way, so does Harman. The early embryo doesn’t have the same intrinsic moral status as the Internet Comment Hero because it lacks the relevant properties. But none of that means the modals are irrelevant for moral analysis. In fact, if Marquis is right, they’re properly helpful.

Second, it seems to me everybody’s moral status is contingent in a very similar way to what Harman describes. I have moral status, though you may reject that if you’ve hate-read me this far. And my moral status is contingent upon the decision of my parents. My mother, thank the good Lord, did not abort me. My parents might have even decided to create someone like me (and regretted it not long thereafter, no doubt).

I didn’t have an actual future before they decided, though while they were deciding I might have had a counterfactual future (the metaphysics of “possible people” are, er, hard). But I didn’t have moral status until someone made plans to bring me from the abyss of nonexistence into this happy, tumultuous earth.

Where Harman and I part ways is her presupposition that the early embryo doesn’t have the relevant properties to make it a member of the moral community. But I point out the principle that governs creation to try to show Harman’s view is neither absurd nor necessarily even circular, if we grant her that premise (which she asks for).

If one grants Harman her premise about what the early embryo is, then the decision to abort or not is a lot closer to the decision my parents made regarding whether to create me. Yes, there are important differences in terms of the actions and intentions of the agents. One kills, most obviously, and the other does not. But if you reject the idea that the early embryo is a person, then the decision to let it gestate is a bit like passively creating a person.

Of course, we shouldn’t grant Harman that premise! Obviously. Abortion Bad, Pro-Lifers (Almost) Always Right. But conservatives also shouldn’t deny her the premise that her argument starts from, then mock her for making an incoherent argument. It might be unsound, but, well, maybe I should have started by unpacking the distinctions everyone forgot from Philosophy 101.