Monthly Archives: December 2017

Short Article: 10 Christian Philosophers on Evil

I thought I’d do a quick fire article on what we can learn from 10 different Christian philosophers about the problem of evil. I’ll summarise the gist of each philosopher’s work, or a single key idea from their work, in a sentence or two. This obviously has limitations, so if you’re tempted to respond to any of these philosophers I suggest getting more familiar with their work than provided in these summaries!

From each of these thinkers, we learn a number of things.

(1) Alvin Plantinga: Argues that the existence of evil is, in fact, logically compatible with the existence of God since it’s possible that God create free beings who choose to do evil things.

(2) Stephen Wykstra: Points out that God’s intellect is exceedingly greater than ours, such that if He has a purpose in evil there’s no reason to suppose we would be aware of it.

(3) William Alston: From Alston we learn that the hope of establishing negative existential claims such as “There are (probably) no morally sufficient reasons for many of the evils we are confronted with in the world” are far from promising, and thus all such arguments face a massive uphill battle.

(4) Peter Van Inwagen: Whilst most theists deny that there are gratuitous evils (and implicitly assume the atheist is right that such evils are incompatible with God’s existence), Van Inwagen claims that due to the Fall we now live in a world which contains gratuitous evils, and thus there is no tension between the existence of God and the existence even of such gratuitous evils.

(5) Richard Swinburne: Argues that natural evils are necessary in a world in which humans can have morally significant free will.

(6) John Hick: Tells us that the evils of our world are part of the necessary environment for humans to grow towards a God-centred life through developing certain character traits that they could not otherwise develop.

(7) Eleonore Stump: Reminds us that many other Christian beliefs are relevant to the proper Christian response to evil, and that the world we live in – with the evils it contains – is the necessary environment for God to fix our wills and make us fit for eternity of union with God.

(8) William Lane Craig: Tells us that the highest good is not happiness or earthly pleasure, but rather the knowledge of God, which is an incommensurable good.

(9) MB Ahern: Reminds us that our knowledge of the goods and evils in the world and the interconnections between things and events is very limited.

(10) William Fitzpatrick: Points out that our grasp of the divine nature and purposes is riddled with enormous deficiencies.

Whether you agree with these authors or not, each of them is worth reading in more detail by anyone interested in arguments from evil.

Stephen J. Graham

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Short Article: Fetuses, Lemons, and Survivability

The Author Jennifer Wright has been sounding off a fair bit about abortion lately, and most of it is ill-conceived nonsense. Take one of her recent tweetings:

For fucks sakes, fetuses aren’t babies. Pretending they are is wishful thinking. They’re the size of lemons and can’t survive on their own. You don’t know any humans who are lemon sized.”

Now, granted Wright isn’t an ethicist or an academic, so why then do I target her? Simply because her tweetings beautifully illustrate much that is wrong with the abortion debate at the popular level. It’s so full of misconceptions and poor reasoning that it’s difficult to know where to begin. The debate seems so poisoned by ill-conceived ramblings that one is tempted to despair at the chances of the quality of conversation rising above bar-room brawl level.

Let’s say no more about the stroppy start to the tweet, and focus on three assumptions or claims that Wright makes.

(1)    Wright opens with the observation that “fetuses aren’t babies,” as if she’s establishing some sort of crucial point. She is, of course, completely correct. Humans develop through various stages, and whilst these aren’t always easy to clearly demarcate, we do tend to distinguish between: zygote, fetus, baby, toddler, child, teenager, adult, etc. However, Wright’s observation is trivial and utterly irrelevant. The issue of abortion has nothing to do with whether or not fetuses are babies. Teenagers, pensions, and the middle-aged aren’t babies either. The issue is whether a fetus is a human organism deserving of the same kind of protections enjoyed by other human organisms. Of course, Wright appears to deny that fetuses are human organisms at all, which brings us to her second point.

(2)    Her second point is that fetuses are only the size of lemons. Now, this is rather perplexing. What exactly is the relevance of being lemon-sized? Wright appears to be arguing thus:

(i)                 Whatever is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being.

(ii)               A fetus is the size of a lemon.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

Wright’s logic is flawless (if the premises are true, then the conclusion follows), but sadly her argument is unsound and hardly the most cogent. Why think that something that is the size of a lemon cannot be a human being, particularly since the science of embryology tells us otherwise? Wright is wholly incorrect: the evidence that a fetus is a member of the species homo sapiens is incontrovertible, and is rarely disputed, certainly not by ethicists. Anyhow, why is being the size of a lemon relevant for considering whether some entity is human or not? Why not choose a different standard: a sesame seed, a marble, a watermelon, a pumpkin, or perhaps a golden retriever?

(3)    The final point Wright makes is an incredibly common one: that fetuses cannot survive on their own. Sadly, the rational force of this claim is utterly out of proportion to its popularity. Wright seems to argue:

(i)                 Whatever cannot survive on its own is not a human being.

(ii)               A fetus cannot survive on its own.

(iii)             Therefore, a fetus is not a human being.

As with (2) the logic is flawless, but the argument is otherwise about as successful as young earth creationist attempts at geology. In this case we have at least one false premise and a vague term. The vague term is “survive on its own.” What does it mean to be able to survive on one’s own? A 15-week-old fetus could not survive on its own, but then again neither can a full-term baby. It requires feeding, cleaning, changing, and strenuous efforts to look after it to keep it healthy and alive. Moreover, many elderly people cannot survive on their own. Some require heavy medication just to make it through the day without their heart stopping. Other people require dialysis several times a week. Even fully fit and healthy humans wouldn’t survive for long without reliance on others. I wonder, if someone took Wright and abandoned her in the middle of the Sahara just how great would her own survivability be? Moreover, as science progresses fetuses are increasingly capable of being kept alive from an earlier stage. So, in short, neither premise (1) nor (2) has much going for it.

The abortion debate is certainly a complex one, and people will make mistakes. However, if you barely understand the issues at stake, and struggle to formulate even a prima facie non-silly argument, perhaps it’s best to close your mouth and open an ethics text.

Stephen J. Graham

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Abortion and the Right to Bodily Autonomy

Most pro-choice arguments beg the question concerning the status of the unborn, and thus are only good arguments if we already assume that the unborn are not human beings. But one argument – probably the most popular one – does not make this assumption. Instead, this argument holds that even if the unborn are human beings, abortion is justifiable because a woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy. In this article I want to say why I don’t think this pro-choice argument is a good one. My attack will be double-pronged: firstly, the language of “moral rights” that appears in the argument is misleading; rights are legal constructs, not abstract moral entities, and secondly, there is no good reason to think the legal right to bodily autonomy should be absolute.

Firstly, then, what sort of thing actually is a right? The concept of rights is equivocal, and can be used with either a legal meaning or a moral one. Take the pro-choice claim that abortion is a fundamental right. What sort of language is this? There are two ways to construe the claim: (1) abortion is a legal right, or, (2) abortion is a moral right. If the pro-choice defender is talking of legal rights there would be no point in claiming abortion is a “right” in a State in which it is forbidden. That would simply be factually incorrect. Rather, what pro-choice advocates mean when they talk of “rights to bodily autonomy” or the “right to an abortion” is moral rights – things which exist independently of the State, and upon which the State should not infringe. But where does such a right come from if not from the State? Perhaps we are to take this as some sort of natural right that springs from our nature as human beings. But if so then it’s a right we possess simply in virtue of our being human, and thus from conception. This would lead to the rather odd outcome that an unborn human has a moral right to an abortion but not to life.

The idea of rights as abstract moral entities which all humans somehow naturally possess (or which somehow pop into existence once a certain level of biological complexity is reached) isn’t clearly a coherent one. Unless the right to an abortion is enshrined in law then it isn’t clearly a right at all. What the pro-choice advocate must do is to either provide and defend some plausible theory of “moral rights,” whereby humans have a right to an abortion but not to life (good luck with that!), or to present adequate reason why our law should provide such a legal right.

Since the law attempts to balance competing desires, wants, and needs, legal rights are rarely absolute. What then of rights to bodily autonomy? There is already an implied legal right to bodily autonomy. You are free to choose your job, your food, your sports, and much else besides. But should such a right be absolute, such that it trumps all other rights? Consider this thought-experiment, proposed by Dr Rich Poupard. A pregnant woman suffering from a chronic sickness insists on taking thalidomide to counteract her symptoms. Her doctor tells her of the high risks of horrible birth defects but still she insists on using thalidomide because her right to bodily autonomy is absolute, and thus the foetus has no rights whilst in her body. Her doctor refuses to provide thalidomide, but she manages to acquire it nonetheless, and as a result, her child is born without arms.

Alternatively, imagine a woman has just had a baby and is leaving the hospital to go home. She doesn’t want the baby and is planning on having it adopted. It’s a long drive and the weather is very cold. It soon begins to snow heavily, and the woman finds herself driving through a forest where her car breaks down. Spotting a wooden cabin, she makes her way over to it. She finds the cabin deserted, lights the fire, and sits down to wait out the storm. However, the baby is getting hungry, and the only way to feed it is with breast milk. But the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy and therefore she has no obligation to feed the baby at all. She lets the baby cry. Soon she hears a scraping noise at the door and discovers a small kitten that has got lost in the woods. She likes this kitten and decides to help it survive. Rather than feed her baby she decides to give her breast milk to the kitten. The baby dies, but at least the kitten survives.

If human beings have an absolute right to bodily autonomy, then these women will have acted perfectly legally, and yet there seems something very wrong here in thinking their actions morally excusable to the point of being legally permissible.

Regardless, many pro-choice defenders defiantly maintain that women should not be forced to use their bodies to sustain the life of another human being. I have no right to demand the use of my neighbour’s kidney should mine fail; and likewise, the unborn should have no legal right to use the body of the woman if she chooses to withhold her support.

But is it really the case that because we have no obligation to, say, provide a kidney to a neighbour that we shouldn’t have any legal obligation or duty towards our own offspring? There’s a shaky assumption here that a parent should have no more duty towards their own offspring than they do to a neighbour. Moreover, portraying abortion as the mere cutting off of life support or the refusal to donate an organ is quite incorrect. The baby in utero is killed through either dismemberment, poisoning, or crushing. (As an aside, there is controversy concerning the perception of pain by babies in utero, with the consensus being that babies can feel pain at least by the 3rd trimester, and arguably even earlier. Abortion practices in light of this growing evidence are nothing short of monstrous). So, even if withholding support is morally justified in some cases, actively killing is something else entirely. Suppose I come across a starving man in my house who will die unless I feed him. Now, suppose also I have no obligation to feed him. Should I be permitted to bludgeon him to death with a baseball bat?

The bodily rights argument succeeds if and only if the woman has an absolute right to bodily autonomy, allowing her to do what she wants with her body regardless of the impact on the unborn child. As shown earlier, that assumption is false on two fronts: (1) There are no moral rights, and (2) The legal right to bodily autonomy cannot rightly be absolute. Whilst a woman’s claim to bodily autonomy is important, it doesn’t supersede her obligation to the unborn child, which includes – at minimum – a level of care to ensure the child’s health and survival. Parents have sometimes burdensome responsibilities and obligations towards their offspring that make demands on their personal freedom. Such obligations are ours whether we consent or not. That’s why fathers have an obligation to pay support for children even if they never consented to raise them. It’s why parents are rightly prosecuted for abandoning children even if they no longer “consent” to raise them.

The fact of the matter is that when a woman is pregnant we are now dealing with two human beings, two bodies; not one. This is why the matter isn’t, contrary to popular pro-choice opinion, merely private. The law needs to balance the well-being of two humans, and since the legal right to life is as important as any other protection, it must (in most cases) be given preference over bodily autonomy. The legal right to bodily autonomy is not more important than the right to life, and thus whilst abortion may be permissible in some cases – such as where the life of a woman is at stake – it isn’t justified in any or all cases simply out of respect for bodily autonomy.

Stephen J. Graham

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