Defence of Abortion

Judith Thomson published an essay named ‘A Defense of Abortion‘ in 1971 where she uses a house and invaders as an analogy to defend the right to abortion. Her defence resonates with David Guignion, and David’s approach to summarising philosophy resonates with me.

Disclaimer: I listen to most of David’s work, which should be a testament to the interest I have in the material he covers as well as the accord I have for his positions—content and vehicle. In this case, he feels that Thomson employs a solid argument in defence of abortion, but I’m not sure I agree. I also freely admit that—given I feel that all morality is socially constructed—I am not likely among the intended cohort for this nuanced argument.

Firstly, I’m no misanthrope, but I don’t feel humans deserve some privileged position over other lifeforms simply because they have some limited sense of awareness.

Secondly, I’m not a strong anti-natalist, I feel this is a defensible position to adopt, so I could rely on this position to defend abortion.

Thirdly, I don’t believe that bodily autonomy is anything more than a social construct. Foreshadowing David’s line of argumentation, It’s not a matter of Liberal autonomy over dictatorial oppression. I feel that this is first a false dichotomy and second a competition between social constructs.

Whilst I do understand that Thomson’s position is intended to counter Americans who do subscribe to the myths of autonomy, sovereignty, agency, rights, and property, this is also why I feel the entire argument depends on rhetoric and emotion. Perhaps, the rest of us aren’t going to be anti-abortion in the first place, so why expend energy trying to formulate a deeper argument to convince us.

I had previously heard of the model Thomson employed that drew an analogy between an accomplished violinist and a fetus. I hadn’t read the source essay and didn’t know that Thomson had authored it. I wasn’t familiar with her extended arguments either.

I had originally planned to regard each proposed scenario separately, but I’m going to exercise the principle of least effort and just share some general observations, leaving the door open to revisit these when time and interest align. In general, I don’t feel that Thomson makes a strong logical argument. Her approach relies on emotion and rhetorical tactics.

Thomson frames a Consequentialist argument and colours it with a dash of Virtue ethics. By establishing the accomplished musician, she establishes a frame that taps into elitism. She takes a high art versus low art approach, an approach often adopted by virtue ethicists. For me, this always triggers a red flag.

Next, she triggers the home invasion reflex for people who believe in private property as an extension of bodily autonomy, so she is relying on fear as legerdemain, even if unintentionally.

In each case, the autonomous actor is given a privileged position in the story. In the first case, the tethered musician is unconscious and has no voice—like a fetus or a pet. She is generous enough to afford the musician full human status and bodily autonomy, yet without agency.

Thomson creates a false dichotomy that she expects one to adopt uncritically. Is she a reliable narrator? Are there no intermediate options available? Let’s ignore this, as she hopes one does. It’s you or the musician in a zero-sum game of life and death. In a scenario where the musician or fetus has no agency, it’s easy to take the self-righteous high road and claim decision authority.

Allow me to take a detour for a moment. Let’s say that you and the musician were both tethered without consent and that each of you came to and your inextricable plights were conveyed to you. In this case, each of you may wish to exercise autonomy and in this deathmatch, only one would prevail; the other would die. Given this elitist setup, you are the underdog—some shlub versus Paganini in his prime. Even a fetus might have this privilege. Perhaps you are carrying the proto-progeny of Einstein or a king with no heirs? Handmaid’s Tale, yes. But I digress.

The next sleight of hand is introducing an emotional self-defence trope. The setup is that given the choice of the other person being an existential threat, who wouldn’t agree that you have a right to defend yourself?—not delving into the fiction of rights.

David jumps right onto Thomson’s bandwagon, which was her intent, but it is not obvious that self-defence is some inalienable right. In practice, the right is abridged by the state often. This is true in the United States as well as Canada. I’m imagining David overloading the meter on a connected galvanic skin testing device. Pure emotion.

I fully sympathise with David’s position, but this doesn’t change the fact whether a person has autonomy or not is an arbitrary decision. Many cultures now and even Western cultures in the past had little notion of personal autonomy. Trepidation aside, there is little reason to presume this will continue to persist.

EDITORIAL NOTE: I was writing this near the end of April 2022 when I got distracted by my anti-agency interest. This was left unfinished, but I feel it’s complete enough to post. I am not sure where my mind was headed at the time.

Geuss Who?

A mate in an online forum turned me onto Raymond Geuss, who’s got just the perspective I’ve been looking for. I’ve felt that the concepts of rights and justice are weak on etymological grounds, but Geuss’ critique is even more fundamental. In his Philosophy and Real Politics, Geuss undercuts the positions of both Nozick and Rawls. I’ve never been a fan of Nozick, but I do consider (have considered) myself to be a bit of a Rawlsian.

Nozick is a key figure underneath Libertarianism, as this movement is very centred on rights. Opting for rights as his starting place as his preface to Anarchy, State, and Utopia:

Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights).” — Robert Nozick

As Geuss points out, Nozick ‘allows that bald statement to lie flapping and gasping for breath like a large, moribund fish on the deck of a trawler, with no further analysis or discussion, and proceeds to draw consequences from it’. In other words, Nozick leads with an unsubstantiated claim that ‘individuals have rights’, and then ‘advances’ his position tautologically.

As for Rawls, justice is his centrepiece. In his A Theory of Justice, the opening line is “Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought”. He merely starts from this emotional place and advances his theory based on this basis of justice, yet nowhere does he explain of defend why this should be the foundation. As with Nozick, Rawls simply conjures this out of thin air.

Justice is the first virtue of social institutions, as truth is of systems of thought.” — John Rawls

On top of this, Geuss comments on the shaky etymologic foundation of both justice and rights. Harkening back to the Latin origin of justice,

As Geuss writes, ‘To begin with the question of the concept of “justice,” it is striking how unclear this concept is in ordinary language and to what extent conceptions of justice differ from one context to another and in different human societies at different times. Thus at the beginning of one of the standard treatises of Roman law, the codification made for the emperor Justinian — one of the most influential texts in European history — we find that the very first sentence gives us a definition of “justice”: “iustitia est constans et perpetua voluntas ius suum cuique tribuens.” That is, justice is “the constant and unflagging will to give each person what is due to him.”

What have the Romans ever done for us?” – Monty Python

Then he goes on to clarify that “what is due to him” is radically different dependant on being a citizen, an alien, a slave, a woman, a minor, and so on. To simplify this, we are stuck in a tautological loop: one is due what one is due, as determined somewhat exogenously.

Rights don’t fare any better, being even more ambiguous, so I don’t feel so bad about pursuing the irrelevance of these virtue concepts on etymological grounds.

Is Taxation Theft?

Philip Goff presents a strong argument published on Aeon as to why taxation is not theft, primarily because it is based on false assumptions about the morality of property ownership.

I have written a lot of short pieces addressing this question (the answer is always no). But this piece for Aeon magazine is the most extensive thing I’ve written so far, and goes into much more detail about the nature of ownership. I’m always amazed at how much this stuff angers people. I’ve been enjoying […]

via Is Taxation Theft? (and why the answer matters..) — Conscience and Consciousness


Property Rights — Possession

Who else loses sleep over how property rights can be derived legitimately?

I don’t need to argue the existence of God or gods or goddesses—not here anyway—, but I am willing to posit that if there were these deities, no human in privy to their word or desires in a sort of biblical way. Therefore any basis for scriptural law is illegitimate.

In the beginning…

I think it is useful to distinguish between the concepts of possession and property, so I’ll begin there. In the beginning, there was the earth—the land—; and there were people. (I’m taking liberties here, and skipping leaps and bounds.)

In the beginning, there was the earth—the land—; and there were people. (I’m taking liberties here, and skipping leaps and bounds.)  Nature, which is to say ‘bounties of the earth’, ‘produces’ natural resources, raw materials:  rocks, trees, chemicals, what have you. These belong to the earth and are inherently social goods.

The first people sustained themselves with these goods. Taking, say, a stick, I might fashion a makeshift club, and I might then possess this club. I have no inherent right to keep this stick. I may discard it of my own volition (or lose it) or it may be taken from me.

I understand the desire to claim ownership. Territorial animals lay claim to, well, territory; but this claim is defended through violence or the threat thereof and, to some extent, agency, for other allied animals to defend the claim (for myriad reasons). And territorial claims extend only to what one can actively monitor, so if I am a lion, I might possess a territory on the Savannah, but I do not coincidently also possess territory in London. Property rights attempt to extend this relationship, to possess something at arm’s length.

What is missing is the right to possess something. We can go back to Locke and—ignoring that nature and other living entities cannot participate in this system—enter into an accord, a social contract, one where if I possess a good not otherwise claimed by another, it’s mine to possess. As all potential parties have no say, one could argue that there is no legitimate manner to transfer from nature to person. The only defence is one of violence, as noted previously. We can define this transfer as legitimate, but simply saying something does not make it necessarily so. Nonetheless, let’s go from here, from a Hobbesian state of nature, where I can defend myself and possessions through a mechanism described by Rousseau: a social compact: I found it first—and it is useful and potentially this use or utility may be desired by others—, so I get to keep it—in exchange to ceding this privilege to others in my group. To extend this privilege is to extend the accord to other groups.

This is all well and good, but if one’s ability to maintain use of an item is limited by, say, distance or quantity, do I still have a right to possess it? If I possess 20 clubs and my clan has none, what is my claim? The claim of primacy—that I was there first—is weak. It would likely be in my interest (if not in communal interest) to share and give up possession, but having not established a right to that possession as property, how do I lay claim to these? Should I be able to? Should it be a right?

Let’s use a less simple example: a plot of land to farm. I’ve cleared the land, tilled the soil, sowed and tended seeds, and I plan to harvest the fruits of my labour. Many people might say that I am entitled to the fruits. This is debatable, but what if I possess more land than I can cultivate? Do I have a right to let the land lay fallow or otherwise uncultivated?

So current paradigms contest that, having applied labour to modify this natural good, I can hold it, possess it. Presuming that no one else has claimed ownership—a concept not yet introduced—, how does one extend possession? This should also address whether one can possess something at arm’s length.

Bedtime. Posting an incomplete, unedited draft with no citations or links…because it’s past 4 AM. Updates and extensions to follow. Hopefully, I’ll fall asleep and get some rest.

Fais dodo.