September 14, 2005

Reading blogging -- Aristotle, Physics I.7

In book one, chapter seven of the Physics, Aristotle begins his analysis of the metaphysics of change. When philosophers think about change, usually the case study is fairly rapid, or even instantaneous, change: painting a wall or chopping off Descartes' hand (no-one said this wasn't a gory occupation). Aristotle, however, looks at a very different sort of change: "The man becomes musical." The process of becoming musical takes ten or twenty years: the early lessons, plinking out Chopsticks, then years of practice, learning music theory and history, finally culminating in, say, a MFA. Before the first lesson, the man is clearly unmusical; and, with his MFA, he's clearly musical. But what's his status in between? Well, kind of musical, kind of not; you certainly can't point to any one moment and say that HERE is where the change occurs.

Arguing with abortion opponents at other blogs lately, I've seen the following argument numerous times:
  1. Any line we draw distinguishing the definitely-alive newborn baby and the questionably-alive freshly fertilized human egg is going to be artificial.
  2. Hence, there is no real distinction between a newborn baby and a freshly human egg.
  3. Hence, we have the same duties to both a newborn baby and a freshly fertilized human egg.
  4. So abortion cannot be distinguished from infanticide; and since the latter is clearly wrong, the former must be as well.

How is the inference from (1) to (2) supposed to go? There seems to be an assumption here, that real distinctions require sharply-drawn categories. But Aristotle's case study provides us with an excellent counterexample: the distinction between musical and unmusical is certainly a real distinction, but there is no moment at which the change actually takes place. This change actually parallels pregnancy quite well: we start with some things that clearly don't amount to a new person (a sperm and an egg), and nine months later end up with something that clearly is a new person (a newborn baby); and we needn't point to one single instant where personhood suddenly appears on the scene to recognize the reality of the change over time.

Going further, I would argue that personhood (and here I mean rational agency) and life, like musicality, are not metaphysically simple, and hence all three can serve as paridigm cases of gradual change with a fuzzy period of transition. For life, consider suspended animation: the yeast at the supermarket, for example, is not metabolising, but nor is it dead; it's in the transition phase between the two, and giving it warm water and food will bring it back fully. For rational agency, consider a dog. My mom's dog, Buddy, in particular. Buddy is smart enough to figure out how to unlock gates, unless they're secured using a lock that needs an opposable thumb to open; but at the same time, he clearly doesn't use language or undertake long-term projects or engage in any other sort of abstract thought. I think one could argue that a dog has a certain amount of rational agency -- he's able to choose to undertake projects to achieve his desires -- but not as much as a human or other ape -- we can use language and reason abstractly.


Drew said...

Personally, I reject the whole premise that abortion can only be countenanced where it can be argued that the fetus in question is not human life. The pro-choicer frequently argues that, because there is a massive distinction between freshly-fertilized egg and human infant, the only question is where to place the arbitrary line. This argument isn't a bad one, but I'm perfectly willing to accept that a freshly fertilized egg constitutes "human life".

It doesn't follow that we therefore owe it the same protection we extend to other forms of human life.

Besides, bestowing some kind of legal personhood on a fetus, such that it has a legally protectable right to its own life, creates rather than resolves a conflict. A pregnant woman obviously has a protectable legal right to her own life. It is impossible to recognize a fetus without de-recognizing the pregnant woman.

Therefore, if you want to make a rights-based argument against abortion (which is where the fetus vs. human argument is normally directed), you have to explain why the rights of the fetus should cancel out the rights of the pregnant woman. said...

This can't work in fact, that is exactly what I consider.