Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A Minor Quibble

Timothy Jackson has an excellent column at The Federalist in which he argues cogently against the inhumanity and moral bankruptcy of the abortion regime in this country. I urge VP readers interested in a philosophical, rather than a theological, argument against abortion to check it out. Nevertheless, I want to nit-pick.

At one point in his piece Jackson says this:
In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I am a Christian and I believe that abortion, properly defined, is unjust. Even though I believe that coming to know God through Christ Jesus is the greatest good in life, I don’t believe affirming the Christian message, or any religious message, is required to see that abortion is wrong. All we need to see that abortion is unjust are our moral intuitions, the best scientific evidence, and logic.

Each of these criteria is summed up in the following syllogism:
  1. All innocent human beings should be afforded protections under the law.
  2. The unborn is an innocent human being.
  3. Therefore, the unborn should be afforded protections under the law.
Premise one is a moral intuition, premise two is application of the best scientific evidence, and the conclusion is what logically follows if premises one and two are true.

When I say “moral intuition,” I am speaking of a cognitive faculty that allows us to immediately recognize injustice when it is witnessed. Contemporary philosophers call this category of belief a “properly basic belief.” These are foundational beliefs concerning the nature of reality. They are not beliefs that we infer from evidences or arguments, but immediately recognize and take for granted. To say a belief is “properly basic” is to say that the given belief is reasonable to take for granted. A common example is the properly basic belief that the physical world is real and our physical senses are reliable.

Philosophers will tell you there is no way to prove that you are not in the Matrix right now. There is no way to get outside of your physical senses to show that your physical senses are reliable. You just assume the world is really there and it is reasonable to believe so. We could not give a successful argument to prove the world is not an illusion. Yet we would rightly call someone who claimed we were living in the Matrix crazy, short of them providing us with a red pill, of course.
I agree with everything Jackson says here, but I'd quibble with his application of properly basic beliefs. Proper basicality only provides warrant for one's own beliefs, it cannot compel belief in others. My strong conviction that premise 1. is true only justifies my believing it, and then only insofar as there are no compelling arguments (defeaters) against my belief.

Thus, Jackson, in order to persuade others that abortion is wrong, has to appeal to similar intuitions in them, and to the extent they agree with him about premise 1. his argument is successful (he defends premise 2. further along in the article), but here's my concern:

A pro-choicer could deny that premise 1. is properly basic for her, or that she has a defeater for it. She could argue, for example, that inherent rights are fictions based upon the additional fiction that humans are created in the image of God, and that no one has any inherent, God-given right to be protected under the law at all, since there is no God to grant such a right. Thus, if a politically powerful segment of the population decides not to grant the unborn such protection they're not transgressing some abstract obligation to protect innocent human beings because there are no such obligations.

So, I judge Jackson's argument to be sound, but only because I'm a theist and believe that all human beings do have a right, endowed by their Creator, to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In other words, I'm not convinced that Jackson is correct in saying that one can make the argument against abortion completely independently of one's theological worldview.

In any case, his argument should certainly make most pro-choicers squirm because most of them, even some who are atheists, would reflexively want to affirm premise 1., and though they'd probably like to deny premise 2. they'd be hard-pressed to do so. Read the rest of Jackson's essay at the link. It's good.