October 14, 2003

Gettin' Philosophical 

I just had a rather interesting time in my philosophy class (Ethics and Value Theory). We were discussing Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion," and we looked at several of her arguments. I don' know how many of you have read this, but it uses some incredibly flawed analogies to try and justify abortion. I don't want to take up a lot of space explaining all the points, but I'll cover a couple of the main ones and why one of them has put a lot of pressure on me. First of all, she uses an argument that fetuses are not human. I think this is a load of crap (pardon the "attacking your opponent rather than their argument" tactic, but it is a load of crap), but let's see why she thinks this is true. Apparently, in her view, an acorn can potentially become an oak tree, but it is not an oak tree yet. Therefore, she says, a fetus is not human even though it can become human. This isn't right. I actually just posted a message to the class listserv about this (which hasn't been sent to my mailbox yet for some reason), and I'll just repeat it verbatim here:

Thomson says that an acorn is not an oak tree, and therefore a fetus is not a human. I think this is a flawed analogy. I realize that an acorn isn't an oak tree, but I'm assuming that said acorn hasn't been planted yet. It has fallen from another tree, but it isn't growing. Once it's been planted and fertilized, it becomes a tree, no matter how small it is. Thomson thinks that an acorn is analogous to a fetus, but in reality, it is analogous to an unfertilized egg. The acorn can't become a tree until it is fertilized, and an egg can't become a fetus until is is fertilized. Once the egg and sperm combine, the result is a fetus, just as an acorn becomes an oak tree once it is planted. In my view, the fetus is human in any stage once the egg and sperm combine, and I'm no expert on plants, but I don't know what else you would call a tree that has started growing. That's why the analogy is flawed.

Now, that wasn't the topic of much discussion in class, because the professor decided to just accept it as true (which surprised me, because he's usually very intelligent with these things). Later, we were discussing the issue of responsibility in pregnancy and what role that plays in abortion rights. The professor gave us an example in which a couple has consensual sex with as much birth control as possible, but still conceives a child. He then asked us whether they are responsible for that child, or if it can be aborted because it was an accident (not his exact words, but definitely his point).

Before we discussed it, he gave us an analogy. In his example, he puts his son on a plane from New York to Los Angeles, taking every precaution to ensure that the child is safe and comfortable, but the plane crashes and his son dies. Then, he asked if there is a degree of moral responsibility on his part for putting his son on the plane. I have a problem with this analogy, and I actually spoke up about it in class (FYI: this class is held in an auditorium and has several hundred people in it). I said that the analogy doesn't make sense because of the intentions of the parties involved. In the professor's view, the child is an accident in the same way that a plane crash is an accident.

I'll grant that you may not want a child or a plane crash, but look at the situation. Sex is designed to produce children. There's no way around it. You can use all the birth control you want, but sex is still meant to cause pregnancy in its empirical form. On the other hand, planes are not designed to crash. Planes are designed to take you from point A to point B. Therefore, if you get to your destination, you have accomplished the purpose of flying, whereas with sex, if there is no conception, then you have not fulfilled the original purpose of the act.

If my professor's analogy were accurate, it would mean that every time a plane crashes, it has done the thing it's designed for, and when it safely reaches its destination, it does so by accident, and everything that keeps it from crashing is just to prevent it from doing what it was built to do. By his logic, the 9-11 terrorists were some of the best pilots in the world, since they figured out a way to crash the planes by themselves.

Something is wrong with that view. Pregnancy is not a plane crash. Birth control isn't meant to accomplish the real goal of sex, it just prevents one possible result. Sex that doesn't result in pregnancy isn't a plane crash either, but it certainly isn't analogous to safely reaching the airport.

Incidentally, I'm a protestant, so I think birth control is fine (within marriage, of course). I'm just saying that sex is meant to cause pregnancy, so if you fail to prevent it, you're still responsible for engaging in an act that is meant to accomplish exactly what it did.

Here's an analogy for you: imagine you're playing Russian roulette. You pull the trigger, and you don't get shot. Guess what? That was an accident! Guns are meant to shoot things, but since you got lucky and got an empty chamber, you lived. Just because something is good doesn't mean it can't be an accident. This doesn't entirely relate to my professor's analogy, I just thought I'd give another perspective.

I hope this is a valid argument, because I now have to defend it. We're going to be discussing it further in class on Thursday, as well as on the listserv. Also, it'll probably be on a quiz. If anyone has anything to add to this, please post a comment and let me know. I don't want to look like an idiot.

By the way, just because this is my blog and I can talk about myself, I think I should point out that I got a round of applause from many people in the class when I gave my "planes aren't designed to crash" argument, so apparently they thought it was good. I'm rambling, so I should stop. I'll keep you up to date on how the discussion goes, and again, please let me know if there's something I should change about my argument.

MORE INFO-To read Greg Koukl's refutation of Thomson, click on the following link: Unstringing the Violinist

Posted by CD on October 14, 2003 03:04 PM
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