When Intuition Fails

A lot of abstract standards that have become intuitive tend to fail in situations too different from the one they were developed in. To see that in action, look no further than the standard of “Living human being,”* which people who believe fetuses should have more rights than adult women use to their advantage.

There are about three different ways to check if such an abstract standard fits a novel situation, of which two might be variations on a theme. The two are the scientific method, which relies on directly comparing the standard to scientific evidence, and the analogical or deductive method, which relies on looking at why the standard arose in the first place and seeing if the same situation applies. The third is a more philosophical method that’s based on seeing how the standard works in subjunctive and counterfactual situations.

And, it turns out, none of the 2.5 methods favors giving fetuses moral standards. Applying the scientific method here means looking at fetal development. At the earliest stage, that of undifferentiated cell clumps, the fetus isn’t even a real organism, but more like a pre-organism. Some pro-lifers recognize this and switch to potentiality arguments, which are mostly an act of desperation (“If my dad had gotten a scholarship to Columbia, then he wouldn’t have met my mom and I wouldn’t have existed; therefore, Columbia should be stingier with scholarships to people named Levy”).

Talking about fetuses without referencing developmental biology is less than futile. But once one talks about development, there’s any number of standards to apply to fetuses that make giving them moral status misguided. For one, there’s the oft-ignored fact that pregnancy isn’t just about the fetus.

Some people have a misconception that adult women are just fetus vessels that have no moral status of their own. Since these women are living human beings who exist in the same realm as the people that original standard applied to, we can safely ignore that misconception. Whenever there’s any fuzziness regarding the status of a fetus, abortion becomes an entirely moral act. If aborting a clearly sentient fetus is like refusing to donate a kidney to save a person’s life, then aborting a fetus whose developmental status isn’t entirely clear is like refusing to donate a kidney to save a gorilla’s life.

Beyond that, there’s the question of independence. Embryos aren’t organisms, and neither are fetuses. They have their own unique DNAs, but that’s just another standard that fails to make sense before birth; if it made sense, we wouldn’t talk of 130 million births and 50 million deaths every year, but of 850 million conceptions and 780 million miscarriages, abortions, and post-natal deaths.

And finally, there’s the question of sentience. Again, fetuses fail that by any reasonable standards. According to Visible Embryo, the first detectable brain waves, which plenty of species have, are present after 7 weeks. The brain isn’t even connected to the visual and auditory systems until week 24. It may sound like a severely retarded person, but severely retarded people can feel pain, which fetuses can’t until week 31. It’s only after birth that a human baby matches a severely retarded adult; for example, Ashley, who is about as mentally retarded as people go, is mentally a three-month-old.

The analogical method proceeds largely along the same lines, whence my comment that there are 2.5 rather than 3 different methods. The key observation here is that the standard of “living human being” developed because living human beings displayed clear signs of sentience, whereas other animals didn’t. This standard long predates any understanding of development or even pregnancy, so it’s not surprising it fails to hold for fetuses.

Once we’ve established the precise realm the standard was originally abstracted from – situations readily available to primitive tribes – we can start comparing fetuses to it. Born humans display self-awareness, which fetuses don’t. Biologically they’re independent, while fetuses are parasitic on another person.

The philosophical method works in a completely different way. The idea is to list as many subjunctives and counterfactuals to see if the standard is as universally applicable outside its original context as those who advance it say it is.

First, somewhat trivially, if we found another intelligent species – say, if dolphins were self-aware, or if we encountered an alien civilization – we’d have to include it in the list of “living ___ beings.”

Second, good science fiction recognizes the issue of AI rights. Sentient AI exists in a realm that is somewhat outside this of self-aware organisms, for reasons such as natural death and debugging. Still, the clear fact of sentience means something, even if AIs don’t really live. HAL-9000** has a personality and obviously resists disconnection, and yet the “living human being” standard would skip it entirely.

Third, standards that might make sense when talking about humans fail to hold in general. There are mite species that develop by eating their way out of their mother’s abdomen. As long as food is abundant, every female larva will die of motherhood. A self-aware species that is like that would have a different set of standards to apply to abortion from humans.

Granted, the third point doesn’t mean much if there’s any independent standard for abortion – e.g. the self-awareness test combined with a maternal rights override – but it only shows how the “living human being” standard is so fragile and in need of further justification.

The notion that fetuses have rights isn’t based on reason. It’s based on abstracting a principle to a situation that fails to apply, and then calling anyone who objects a monster. Occasionally, there’s a pseudo-scientific rant about heartbeats; presumably, by the same standard, a ten-hearted earthworm deserves the same moral status as ten people. But by and large, it’s a position based on lurid magnified photos of aborted fetuses. It might make good press, but good press isn’t necessarily good ethics.

* Actually, it’s usually “Living, breathing human being”; pro-lifers tend to elide the “breathing” part because fetuses don’t breathe.

** Yes, I know I talked of “good science fiction.” You can substitute Neuromancer if you’d like; HAL-9000 just has a more obvious personality, whereas Neuromancer is mostly a behind-the-scenes character.

7 Responses to When Intuition Fails

  1. rod. says:

    This is a bit off-topic but here’s the point:

    Human life cannot be generated from non-Human life, neither from no-life, right? Given this, if the embryo/fetus is a living thing, then so are the spermatozoid and the egg, right? Therefore, I say that in order to be consistent in their arguments, pro-lifers should ban male ejaculation and (female) menstruation. All men that ejaculate without getting a woman pregnant should be sent to jail because they have slaughtered millions of spermatozoids… women who menstruate should be sent to jail if they don’t get pregnant.

    There was life long before the spermatozoid and the egg meet and become one cell. Deciding when life begins cannot be based on religious grounds. Nature cannot be fooled.

  2. ausblog says:

    egg+sperm = human being

    At the point of conception is when life began for you. This was the start of your existence. Your own personal big bang. Three weeks after conception heart started to beat. First brain waves recorded at six weeks after conception. Seen sucking thumb at seven weeks after conception.

  3. ausblog says:

    Soon after you were conceived you were no more than a clump of cells.

    This clump of cells was you at your earliest stage, you had plenty of growing to do but this clump of cells was you none the less.

    Think about it.

    Aren’t you glad you were left unhindered…. to develope further.
    Safe inside your mother’s womb until you were born.

    Shouldn’t they all be so lucky……………

  4. Mentat says:

    Aren’t you glad you were left unhindered…. to develope further.

    I can say yes, I’m glad. I can also say that if I had not been left unhindered, I would not at all be upset about it.

  5. The notion that fetuses have rights isn’t based on reason.
    end of quote.

    Of course it is based on reason for the very reason I am here typying my keyboard. I was a fetus, I was conceived.
    Fetus is a living organism with her own DNA.
    To deny life to fetus is as weird as to claim a rock is alive.
    Why ovules and Fertilized eggs are different ? Ovules will die naturally while zygotes do grow, do turn into fetus that in turn will become human beings.
    Why should someone have the right to decide if a innocent human being does die or live?
    This is exactly what does happen in the countries abortion is a right.
    The mother believes she does have the right to choose between leaving her child die or live.
    I can hardly see how this can be progressive.
    This is worst than the romans did( They left the unwanted children to die).

  6. I am a fetus and I am much alive. Actually I was expelled from mother womb with less than 7 months. I was still a fetus. And I was alive. Since I survived it means I was alive.
    Being so makes no sense that just because I was a fetus I was not alive as you do.
    I am the very proof of the foolishness of your ideas

  7. Alon Levy says:

    Zygotes naturally die, too. If you don’t believe me, put a zygote in a glass of water without nutrients and see how long it will survive.

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