Monday, September 11, 2006

Non-Religious Pro-Life

In this post, Jeremy who is guest blogging at Philosophy et cetera argues that the pro-life argument is not necessarily religious. I have said before that the sanctity of life view rests on a worrying religious contention (that our value is based on being God's property). But is there any other way this view can be upheld?

I will deal purely with the abortion question here, and take pro-life to mean someone who disagrees with the killing of an embryo from the point of conception (the usual, if not only, meaning). I will accept that there are theoretical ways to be pro-life which do not rest on God, but will assert that holding these views to any degree of consistency is either ridiculous, or in no way representative of any significant part of the pro-life community.

Note: It is difficult to distinguish religious from non-religious arguments. Jeremy suggests whether an argument is based on religious revelation or not, but I believe this is insufficient. If I make an argument based on the premise that during Holy Communion the bread and wine physically becomes the body and blood of Jesus (transubstantiation) then that is still a religious argument because the premise only makes sense with a religious underpinning. However, since everything eventually must lead to some unsupported underpinnings, I will say that a non-religious argument is one whose premises can eventually be tracked back to observations about the empirical world but not the existence of God. (This last requirement is necessary because an argument for God could itself be non-religious by relying on the world rather than revelation, like the argument from design. If this was used then one could collapse the religious / non-religious distinction.) An argument involving transubstantiation relies on faith in God, and so is religious. Any premises have to be tracked back to see if they could rely on the empirical world without belief in God. Only if so can they be non-religious.

Here, therefore, are the possible non-religious foundations for the pro-life view:

It is always wrong to kill

This argument would hold that killing anything with the criteria of life is wrong. If this was held then the problems with the pro-life view disappear. However, this is a radical view. Since it is not based on faculties, it requires upholding the right to life of a cabbage to the same extent as a human. Certainly, this would justify protection of a newly created embryo. But at the same time it would make life incredibly difficult to live. It would essentially require the Fruitarian lifestyle of only eating what dies naturally. I do not believe that any realistic portion of the pro-life community is represented by this view. Moreover, I do not believe that the belief in the sacredness of all life can survive without religious underpinning. The mere facts of being able to grow and reproduce appear to have no more importance ethically than the colour of one's skin. Only by having a God who gives special value to them can life in and of itself be ethically prejudiced.

If this cannot be a consistent non-religious ethical basis, then we must find some criteria which distinguishes the newly conceived foetus from a cabbage.

We must value things based on their potential

This is the only argument here that can be based on faculties. The only other change of ethical importance which happens to the embryo is that it will become able to survive on its own without constant help. If we take this latter as the important potential point, then this would exclude from the argument any child doomed to die in its first few years. This is because although after birth a child will not be bodily dependent on the mother in the same way, it will still be unable to live without constant care for many years. I am pretty sure that no pro-lifer would argue this way, so I will assume that the key to potentiality is faculties that will naturally develop.

Potentiality basically involves treating beings as they will naturally become. I say naturally because that seems to be the only way to treat it. Clearly it makes no sense to treat beings as they could possibly be, given the right conditions. This would require treating a sperm and egg as a person, because in the right circumstances they could be. The 'naturally becoming' test is the least bizarre potentiality requirement. However, this is clearly difficult to identify. Natural cannot mean 'without outside influence' because embryos require outside influence to grow into the beings we are considering. The only way in which it seems that embryos naturally grow into children and then adults is through pure probability, which seems a very odd way to identify their moral status!

The big problem however is that no-one takes any kind of potentiality truly seriously. It is a cliche to point out that no-one treats an acorn as an oak, but it is true. No-one treats a law student as a lawyer (or at least they are foolish if they do, believe me!). But let's move on to fully moral issues. It is possible to say that certain classes of people will probably and quite naturally become criminals and commit many crimes. Potentiality would presumably therefore have us treat them as criminals. But what if a very intelligent person is in that category, with the potentil either to become a criminal or a brilliant doctor. Are we obliged to ethically treat them as both - worthy of punishment and praise? This all seems ridiculous, but this is the reality of potentiality. It is not applied consistently by, I believe, any significant slice of the pro-life community.

Humans have souls

Jeremy asserts (in the comments) that souls are not necessarily a religious creation. However, I would take issue with this. There is no direct evidence for souls in the world, as I'm sure Jeremy would admit. We cannot see, hear or touch souls. The only arguments for them come from the incidents of those who supposedly have them. They rest on certain special qualities and abilities of those with souls, like the ability to think and reason. However, by basing evidence for the soul on faculties, we deny souls to those without those faculties, and this includes newly conceived embryos.

In order to include these, many say all humans and only humans have souls. However, by doing so they concede almost all of the arguments in favour of souls: Animals live and move but apparently they do not need souls to do so. Therefore the only evidence for souls must come from religion. Alternatively, if we argue that life itself is the incident of souls, and grant souls to all living beings, we are brought back to the first heading above. If destroying souls is wrong, then it must be wrong to kill any living thing. More than that however, there is absolutely no need for a soul in our understanding of, say, a cabbage. We understand how they work much better than complicated higher animals where there may, somewhere, be room for explanation by soul. The declaration that all life has a soul therefore can only rely as evidence upon religious belief.

There is of course an alternative like that suggested at the beginning of this section - the idea that there are different levels of soul according to faculties. However since an embryo has no more faculties than a skin cell, it cannot demand a soul on this arguement.

I have argued therefore, that there are three key ways to argue from a pro-life perspective without being explicitly religious: The wrong-to-kill argument, the potentiality argument and the souls argument. In all three cases, the arguments either require resort to religious backing or require massive changes to ethical systems in a way completely unrepresentative of any significant slice of the population as a whole, let alone pro-lifers. It is possible to consistently be pro-life for non-religious reasons, but I confidently believe that almost no-one is.


Jeremy Pierce said...

If you're going to expand what counts as religious to things that don't have their basis in some body of revelation, then I have no problem calling philosophical claims of that sort religious. But then I don't see your objection to seeing them as philosophical. Your objection seems to me to be something very different from how you're spinning it. You seem to be objecting simply that you don't have any reason to believe the philosophical presuppositions of pro-life views. But that seems to me to be something very different from presenting reasons to call it religious.

I contend that I have no good evidence for tying moral rights to how human beings happen to use the word 'person', not any good evidence for moral status or moral claims to begin with. The only evidence we have for morality is that people happen to believe in it. But that's not non-religious evidence of the sort you're calling for. I thus conclude that there is no non-religious reason the way you mean for the claim that it is wrong to forbid someone to have an abortion.

The kind of standard you are using in this issue just seems to me to be way beyond the standard you use in moral reasoning yourself. Why is it wrong to harm someone who has certain kinds of faculties? Someone who says that more complex and advanced thinkers have more moral status has no evidence that this is wrong, just evidence that the people in question have more complexity. It must be religious in your sense to add the view that it is wrong to do what the evidence shows people being opposed to doing. But that's as far as evidence is going to go. All we can then do is describe people's moral views. But once that's all you can do without being religious, I can't see how you can claim that it's wrong to do anything, including to pass laws restricting the use of embryos for research.

Pejar said...

Apologies for not responding sooner.

Jeremy, the dichotomy between religious and philosophical was your idea. The person you responded to originally just said that the arguments were religious arguments, not that they were not philosophical. I would say in any popular understanding of the term, an argument would be religious if it requires the existence of God in order to be coherent and fit in with the set of values argued for. This does not necessarily require it to rest on revelation, an example being where one of the premises relied upon only makes sense with the existence of God. I am arguing that this is one such time.

I know perfectly well that there is a difference between remaining unconvinced and claiming an argument is religious. However, I have not seen any vaguely coherent and consistent way it can be non-religious, and that is the challenge you must face here.

I agree that the concept of a person is overrated. However, tying right and wrong into faculties and interests is not. I contend that it is only through our interaction with that which pains us, reduces our faculties and damages our interests and the empathy to transplant this onto others that we can feel any kind of moral sense. Morality is built on harm, whether harm to me, you or God.

The problem with your test is that it eliminates religious arguments. If you cannot look behind the premises of an argument, then an argument that you cannot get germs from a communion cup based on the premise of transubstantiation would not be religious! If you accept that we can look behind the premises then you must accept that if nothing supports them other than religion, they are religious. As such, I am arguing that this is true of pro-life claims that human life is sacred from conception.

Anonymous said...


First up, though i'm trying not to make this post sount hostile, it might still seem threatening which I don't want it to (I think). Please bear with me and my limited linguistic skills. (This is the reason I've not put my name to the post. If I could word it in a better way I would).

I'm not being funny, but why do you care so much about abortion? Why do you think it's important or a good use of your time to write at such considerable length about something so personal to individuals. Do you not think that people who chose to undergoe abortions think the matter out for themselves rationally and need your pontifications on the matter?

I don't really see why it is such a big concern for you. You clearly spend hours thinking about it.

I guess I just wondered why. It seems a very odd thing for a 20 year old male student to the best of my knowledge not currently facing an unwanted pregnancy to pursue at such length.

Obviously I'm not saying everyone should have the same intrests. I just wondered what made you want to write this blog.

GrannyGrump said...

Non-religous rationales for rejecting abortion:

1. The basic ethics every kid on a playground knows: Pick on somebody your own size!

2. It's wrong to declare a group of people disposable based on any form of discrimination, to include size, age, abilities, location, etc. (In fact, isn't this a basic tenet of secular humanism that is just jettisoned when it comes to abortion because so many secular humanists just happen to want to have the option of killing the very young and small?)

3. The Golden Rule. Unless you, yourself, would have no problem with somebody deciding to have you put to death because you're hindering their personal goals, you have no right to snuff somebody else just because they're hindering your personal goals.

GrannyGrump said...

anon, Camus said it well: "We know nothing until we know if we have the right to kill our fellow human beings, or to let them be killed." (The Rebel)

Alexander said...

I found this blog just by an accident and sincerely I like it very much.
Though I am religious myself, I thought for a long time that the abortion should be treated as age discrimination and it's pleasant for me to find co-thinking persons.
I must say that besides my religious beliefs I am constantly irritated by groups who come to "Peace for Chechenia" demonstrations here in Moscow with their leaflets which include pro-abortional arguments.
Also, I was shocked by the attempt of "Amnesty International", a very respectful organization, to become pro-abortional.
It is late now and I didn't plan to write anything so excuse me for bein short and boring.
I hope to re-read this blog later.
Let me say that being good-willing often makes the religious/irreligious division unimportant. For example, I have no idea of Anna Politkovskaya' views on religion and still have no doubt that she is among the Saints now - it'not just a figure of speach. And very devoted Christians all agree with me in this point.
Hope I didn't dry you enough...

Pejar said...

Dear me, plenty of comments...


Some reasons I turn my mind to the subject:

* I am interested in ethics both on an academic level and on an immediate personal level. I have a drive to work out a rational system of right and wrong to help me guide my own life and maybe (just maybe) convince other people of some of my views.

* These are real issues which effect real people. In order to understand the best way of living and considering the world around us, I think that it is crucial to at least turn our minds to the issues. I do not believe there are many people with literally no view on abortion whatsoever.

* My moral views influence my political views and moral and political are always tightly connected in the case of abortion. I desire to come to political conclusions as well as moral ones to help guide my vote and (possibly) my professional life.

I hope that helps!


1. I realise that this was more a cheap shot than a real argument, but I feel I should give some answer. Interestingly I remember learning that as children grow up, they move from believing that it is wring to steal a loaf of bread to feed one's starving family to believing it can be right. This goes to show that a lot of growing up is about realising the complexity of ethical interactions! :-)

2. As far as secular humanism can have tenets, I suppose equality of all persons could be included, yes. One of the big issues is what we mean by a person. No one treats a blade of grass as equal to a man, so clearly some discrimination is fine. Most people do this on the basis of faculties. Species alone gives no logical distinguisher unless you take the purely religious view that God has given a special value to humans or one of the other views I debunked in my post.

3. Your argument here seems to apply much better once the foetus grows to actually have a consciousness of some sort. In my post I was arguing about sacredness from conception where the Golden Rule has no application because at that way there is no way to appreciate any events at all. You could say that from my POV now I am glad I wasn't aborted. Well yes. But I am also glad that my parents didn't use contraception that time (or decide not to have sex). That doesn't make an argument against contraception. There was no one at any level to object to the act so Golden Rule considerations are moot.

However, if we were to constrain your argument to the point after which the foetus has gained a degree of consciousness, it might have some merit. Here is a question of weighing values against each other and a religious basis is not necessary to reach an anti-abortion view (hence why I do not attempt to show this in my post).

Nevertheless as an answer to your point, I would say that there is a very big difference between hindering personal goals and massively reducing a person's autonomy. This is a difference more profound than even that between preventing someone from entering a room and preventing someone from leaving a room. It is more like the difference between refusing someone an injection they desire versus forcing an injection on them.

I explain more fully my feelings on personal autonomy here:


Unfortunately, I think you may have missed my point. I am very much pro-choice and was suggesting that there are no viable reasons fro being pro-life which do not rely on religion.

Nevertheless, I have a lot of sympathy for your view that peace and human rights organisations should try to stay out of the abortion issue. I could be persuaded either way on this but my hunch is that such groups should stick to protecting much more easily agreed human rights like protection from torture (although given the US's current attitude to torture, that may itself be becoming controversial!).

GrannyGrump said...

pejar, why do you think that Person A has the right to demand that Person B "prove" his humanity? Ought not the person who wants to do the killing have the burden on him (on, in the case of abortion, her) to prove that the human being in question is somehow "not a person" and therefore disposable?

Ought not the presumption be that everybody in the human family is entitled to be here? We don't have a poll tax that makes a person prove he's smart or resourceful or literate before we let him vote, but we're perfectly comfortable, as a society, with the idea that people have to jump through hoops and "prove" their humanity before we let them live?

The burden of proof needs to be on those who want to do the killing, not on those whose lives are at risk.

Pejar said...

I'm not *quite* sure what you're getting at. The kind of presumption you seem to be suggesting is an evidential one, while the issue of personhood is a substantive one. It's like the presumption of innocence - it doesn't change the fact of whether you have in fact committed a crime or not, just whether there is sufficient evidence to punish you for it.

But moreover, you beg the question by setting the baseline at humanity. Why should we assume that all humans are persons, even as a starting point? The best reason is that we can tell from experience that a large number of them are. But then we also know that while the dead are still biologically human, they are not persons. So clearly mere biological humanity is insufficient as a baseline and any burden of proof based on it seems flawed.

Finally, and probably most importantly, we are not guessing at an unknown. We know that early stage zygotes don't have any kind of consciousness (or at least if they do in some way not linked to material form then equally well rocks might have consciousness, completely destroying any hope of moral understanding). That is scientifically verifiable. So even if we had some kind of 'burden of proof' it can be discharged without any real problem.

Sandra said...

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