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Shorter Princeton Prof: Early Abortions Are Moral Because I Say So


Recently, a Princeton professor joined a YouTube show to discuss her argument for the morality of abortion. She says whether one aborts an unborn child or not, “you can really do no wrong.” Cue the predictable pro-life jeer track.

Yet Matthew Lee Anderson, one of my oldest and dearest friends, says that not only am I wrong about Elizabeth Harman’s argument, but so is everyone else who watched the video and found it illogical and incoherent.

I’m not smarter than an Ivy League professor (or, for that matter, than a community college professor). But I’ve made enough incoherent and illogical arguments in my life that I’ve gained an above average ability to spot them. Of course I beg to differ with Harman and Anderson, and here’s why.

This Is An Argument About What Constitutes an Argument

Matt says we need to be clear on what Harman is not saying: “She is not in fact making an argument for abortion.”

An argument is, by definition, a set of reasons given with the aim of persuading others that an action or idea is right or wrong. In the video Harman defends the “liberal position about early abortion” that there’s “nothing morally bad” about early abortions. In doing this she gives a set of reasons (albeit unsupported) why we should accept her view. She is clearly making an argument.

But is she making an argument for abortion? Well, she is making an argument that early abortions are “nothing morally bad.” If I tell you there is nothing morally bad about murder, would you assume I was not making a case for murder?

Matt seems to think that because she is not trying to convince conservatives that abortion is morally wrong that she therefore is not making an argument for abortion. He adds, “Her question is not whether abortion is permissible. It’s whether abortion even matters.”

If Harman thinks abortion doesn’t even matter, then should we assume she’d shrug if we proposed to outlaw all early abortions? Of course not. But if she’s not arguing for abortion, what it she arguing for?

There are two parts to Harman’s argument. There are the claims she makes in the video (which seem, to most of us, to be an argument in favor of abortion) and the claims she makes in the paper the video is based on (which merely assumes based on circular reasoning that early abortion is morally licit). Let’s take a closer look at her paper, “Creation Ethics: The Moral Status of Early Fetuses and the Ethics of Abortion.”

In this paper, Harman fleshes out the claims—namely the Actual Future Principle—that in the video confused even James Franco by their incoherence. Matt says, “I find her Actual Future Principle actually interesting.” I don’t. I say her Actual Future Principle is even goofier on examination than it sounds in the video. I don’t think I’ll convince Matt, but I’m hoping I can convince you.

Because I’m an Ivy League Professor!

Harman begins by noting “we all make the following assumption” that all “embryos at the same stage of development and in the same health have some moral status or neither does.” She then states this claim can be denied. Why? Because she said so. And as Matt pointed out, she’s an Ivy League professor, so she’s obviously smarter than us.

Having dismissed what most people previously believed with a wave of her hand, Harman replaces it with what she calls the Actual Future Principle: “An early fetus that will become a person has some moral status. An early fetus that will die while it is still an early fetus has no moral status.”

Where did this principle come from? She just made it up. Why would she make up such a bizarre “principle”? She doesn’t really say, although she does note it implies the following view: “The very liberal view on the ethics of abortion: Early abortion requires no moral justification whatsoever.” Well, okay then.

Here’s where her argument becomes a form of illogical circular reasoning.

  1. Harman says it is morally trivial to kill something that doesn’t have moral status.
  2. She then claims an embryo doesn’t have moral status if it dies.
  3. Since an abortion causes the embryo to die, an embryo that is aborted can’t have moral status.
  4. Abortion is therefore morally trivial since it kills something that, when killed, no longer has moral status.

Matt said that Harman wasn’t making an argument for abortion. But her argument that abortion is morally trivial relies on her argument for the Actual Future Principle that is used as the premise for her claim that there is nothing morally significant about abortion. So, yes, she is making an argument for abortion.

It’s True Because I’m Assuming It’s True

But, wait, it gets worse. Harman then jumps to a conclusion: “Conclusion 1: The Actual Future Principle is a tenable view of the moral status of early fetuses.” You might be wondering what makes the conclusion tenable. Her answer: “I take myself to have prima facie established Conclusion 1 by stating the Actual Future Principle.”

Harman claims actions in the future can also cause changes to the past.

Let’s sub in Conclusion 1 to her second sentence: “I take myself to have prima facie [i.e., accepted as correct until proved otherwise] established [the Actual Future Principle is a tenable view of the moral status of early fetuses] by stating the Actual Future Principle.”

In other words, by merely stating the principle that she made up (the AFP) she has established the principle (the AFP) is accepted as correct until proved otherwise. (Spoiler alert: She always accepts it as correct.) Neat trick. I guess you can do that if you’re an Ivy League professor.

But the neatest trick of all is that, according to Harman, a woman can change the moral status of an early fetus by her future choice to have or not have an abortion. Now, you might have believed that causation only works by changing the future. But Harman has discovered a way to make causation work back in time.

In the normal course of the space-time continuum, our actions can cause changes in events in the future. But Harman claims actions in the future can also cause changes to the past. Consider, for example, “women who are genuinely unsure whether they will abort their pregnancies.” According to Harman, “Their choice is unique, because it determines a feature of their present situation. Most choices simply determine the future, but the choice whether to abort determines the present moral status of a living being.”

It’s clear that if you kill the fetus that will change its future moral status; it’s less clear how a future decision to abort will determine the present moral status. How exactly does it alter the normal course of cause and effect? Stop asking, you wouldn’t understand. As Matt might say, you’re not an Ivy League professor.

The Future Changes the Past?

What Harman leaves out is the future decision to abort must also determine the past moral status of the embryo. This is the required conclusion based on Harman’s claim that the moral status is continuous and, once determined, doesn’t change for any given individual embryo. Later in the paper she says:

Consider the case of a woman who is firmly decided on one day that she will abort her early pregnancy, but the next day is convinced by a friend’s argument to carry her pregnancy to term; she firmly holds that intention for a week, then has a discussion with another friend and the next day has an abortion. According to the Mother’s Intention Principle, the early fetus in question has no moral status on the first day, then has some moral status for a week, then for a day has no moral status again before it dies in the abortion. This is metaphysically absurd; these fluctuations in moral status do not correspond to any fluctuations in anything we might call the fetus’s nature.

She’s right. The change in the mother’s intention can’t change the “fetus’s nature.” So how, then, does the fetus’s nature change because the mother carried out her intention to have an abortion? It can’t have been the case that the action had no effect on the moral status since the decision to keep the child would have established that the embryo, per Harman, always had moral status.

How, then, did the woman’s future decision to abort or not abort change the moral status of the fetus at an early time, such as in the days after she became pregnant? How is any of that possible? Who knows? As you’ll discover if you read her paper, Harman makes a lot of assertions that she never even bothers to defend. Her statement, “I take myself to have prima facie established…” could be applied to just about every disputable claim she makes in the paper.

If you’re an academic like Matt, collegiality requires you to smile and nod and say, “Sure, I guess that’s possible . . .” But we don’t have to go along with the idea that abortion is so powerful it can go back in time and change the moral status of entities in the past.

Can We Fix Her Argument?

Matt and others might say that charity requires we try to fix Harman’s argument. If we want to improve on Harman’s argument, we could replace the Actual Future Principle with the Xenu-Determined Future Principle (XDFP). The Xenu-Determined Principle: An early fetus that will become a person has some moral status. An early fetus that will die because Xenu determined that it will die while it is still a fetus has no moral status.

By doing this we’ve strengthened the AFP because we’ve provided a cause for the conditional statement “that will die.” If the fetus dies then we can say that Xenu had determined from before the formation of the Galactic Confederacy that a particular embryo had no moral status and was destined to die. We are front-loading the cause rather than needing a future cause to perform the impossible task of working backward and determining the moral status of the embryo.

We’ll let Harman keep the AFP as her premise even though she has done nothing to show that any reasonable person should accept it as true.

What reason do we have for believing that Xenu can change the moral status of embryos? None whatsoever. But we also have no reason to believe the AFP is true. The XDFP does the exact same work and is at least more logically possible than the AFP.

We have no reason, of course, to accept the XDFP. But Harman gives no reasons for why we should support the AFP other than that since she stated it she—and hence we—should accept it as prima facie true. Why? You know why. (My friend Matt: “If you say “Cause she’s an Ivy League professor” one more time I’m going to choke you.”)

But even if we do accept the AFP, it does no real work. As philosopher Nathan Nobis has pointed out in peer-reviewed journal article, “the AFP does not seem to do any work in defending a liberal view on abortion: if the liberal view on abortion, as Harman characterizes it, is justified (and I have not argued that it is or that it is not), this is not because of any support the AFP provides.” (Nobis’s whole critique of Harman’s paper that is worth reading. He’s more polite than me but finds her claims “surprising” and “puzzling.”)

We can’t toss out the AFP as irrelevant, though, since what we’d be left with is the mere unsupported claim of the liberal view on abortion that early abortion “requires no moral justification whatsoever.” So we’ll let Harman keep the AFP as her premise even though she has done nothing to show that any reasonable person should accept it as true.

Matt says we conservatives “shouldn’t deny her the premise that her argument starts from, and then mock her for making an incoherent argument.” I agree. We should allow Harman the premise her argument starts from—and then we have plenty of reason to mock her for its incoherence.