Episode 029: Is Abortion Immoral, and Should it be Illegal?

Ethics podcast Social Issues

This episode is a recording of a talk I gave last week at the University of Canterbury on abortion.

As promised in the episode, here’s a summary of some questions and answers that followed.

Q: What would you say about cases like rape or incest, where the women is going to give birth to a reminder of what was done to her?

A: That’s the hardest type of scenario I think. There are a few kinds of answers I’d give. Firstly, one thing to bear in mind is that even if I said that I thought that rape was a good enough ground for an abortion, that still only allows a very small number of abortions. The proportion of all abortions in New Zealand where the pregnancy is alleged to have resulted from rape is very small.

Secondly, what would we say to a woman with a two year old son who was born because she was raped, if she said that she was going to kill her son because he reminded her of the rape? Although we might feel sorry for her and want to help her in some way, we wouldn’t think it was alright to kill the child. So it seems to me that the idea that it’s alright to kill the unborn child in these cases is trading on the fact that we have a tendency not to be as aware of the status of the unborn child, or the moral factors that I’ve discussed when I gave reasons for deeming abortion immoral. Because the unborn child is , so to speak “out of sight, out of mind,” on a psychological and emotional level we don’t form the same attachment to it, so it’s easy for us to see why killing the two year old is wrong but to at least partly overlook or not notice that wrongness in the case of abortion.

Sometimes when wrong things are done to a person (like rape), there’s no defensible way out of it, even when that involves suffering. That may sound a little harsh, but let me put it this way: Let’s not punish the son for the sins committed by the father. The fact that something terrible was done to you doesn’t give you right to do absolutely whatever it takes to get out of that situation, like by deflecting that harm so that someone else bears the brunt of it, which is what happens when we kill the unborn to alleviate the emotional pain inflicted on the woman.

Q: In your talk you refer to a fetus. Would you go further? Would your argument also apply to an embryo?

It would, yes. There’s no logical reason for it not to. I am numerically identical with an embryo that once lived. The only reason that I refer to a fetus in this talk is that most abortions in New Zealand take place from 8 to 12 weeks’ gestation, which just happens to be in the fetal stage.

Q:You say that abortion should be illegal. Do you think people who carry out abortion should be punished for murder, in the same way a murderer would be?

I don’t know. Saying that it should be illegal is not, of course, to say that it should be deemed murder. The law already treats, for example, infanticide as a distinct crime, not because we don’t think it’s wrong, but I guess it’s out of recognition of the psychological factors that might come into play. I think that’s really a technical legal question. There are epistemological questions involved of what the people involved could be expected to know and so forth. So I don’t make any firm claim there. For now I leave that to the lawyers.

ADDENDUM: Although to be clear, I want to say that I lean on the firm rather than lenient side of how serious the repercussions should be.

Q: Some have said that prior to legalisation there were a number of police officers who were willing to accept bribes to look the other way and ignore illegal abortion. So if we make abortion illegal it will increase corruption in the police force. What would you say to that?

A: I think that corruption in the police force is wrong in its own right and needs to be addressed in its own right. This is a consequentialist argument like the following one: If, in some Muslim countries women were not very restrictively required to wear the burqa, it might increase the risk of them being raped. Therefore they should all be required to wear it. I don’t buy that, and it seems morally similar. It really says “there’s this rampant injustice going on, but if we prevent it, then another injustice will rear its head.” My answer is that we then address the second injustice. We become very harsh on police who take bribes.

Q: I don’t know if it works to appeal to laws written in the past and then to apply them to the abortion issue now. When law is written it might be written for a certain purpose, but a lot of law is made by precedent, the way the courts interpret it.

A: Yes that’s true, the law does work that way. Take for example the US constitution, which guarantees all persons the kinds of protection I was talking about before. People now say that since the courts have decided that the unborn doesn’t count as a person in the sense the constitution used that word, they don’t have the same protections. The way I reply to that is by noting that I have actually argued that the unborn should be regarded as having a status making it wrong to kill, and that the factors that make depriving me of basic protection also make it wrong to do it to the unborn. In this way I am prepared to argue that the courts get it wrong when it comes to abortion.


Q: Some proponents of abortion would agree with your first argument about the prima facie duty. Yes, the baby is the same identity as the fetus, but over time the value changes.

A: Agreed. All I claim to have done with the first argument is to place the burden of proof onto the advocate for abortion rights. If it’s the same entity as a human person, then it is up to those people to provide reasons for seeing abortion as an exception to our normal duty. They offer things like rationality or self awareness, but then I think they allow far too much – more than most of them would be happy with, for example very late term abortion or the killing of young children after birth.

Q: The idea of numerical identity is confusing. What you really need is an argument about the continuity of the life or soul of the baby. I mean, there’s numerical identity between a human being and a piece of your hair.

A: No, there isn’t.

Q: Yes, they are numerically one. If you take that word in the normal mathematical sense, that has to be true.

A: No, that’s not numerical identity. If I have one of me, and then over there is a piece of my hair, how many things is that? That’s two things.

Q: But you said A = A

A: Yes. Let A = Glenn Peoples and H = a piece of my hair. Just because I think A = A doesn’t mean I think A = H.

Q: But numerically they are one. A human being and a fetus are both one. One and one, so they are identical. have you taken maths?

[I’ll stop recording this conversation here. It has prompted me to make my next “nuts and bolts” episode on the subject of “what is identity?”]

Q: You talk about taking away a future. But you can take away the future of a dog or a blade of grass. What’s the difference. You talk about taking away a “future like mine”? What does that mean? What’s the moral basis? This is just relativism.

What the argument does is it appeals to moral beliefs that I think my audience or opponent will recognise as true. Of course, I couldn’t appeal to any such truth if I thought that relativism were correct. So the argument’s not an instance of relativism. I’ve appealed to a belief that we take to be correct, which we couldn’t do if we were relativists.

Q (OK, not really a question, a comment): Well I think it really smacks of relativism. We need to get to the issue of the soul of the person. I think that demolishes your argument.

Q: We talk about protecting the unborn child. Good abortion law protects the child and the mother. I’ve seen plenty of women going into Lyndhurst [local abortion clinic]…. [This person later told me that he was talking about women being taken in by their male partners, who pressured them into the abortion.]

Yes, if abortion somehow harms women, perhaps it undermines their bodily or psychological integrity, then sure, that might count as a reason to regard abortion as wrong. I think the reasons I have given are more than sufficient, and I think they are the main reasons, but I don’t deny that there may be other reasons.

Glenn Peoples

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  • Concerned cynic August 7, 2009, 3:16 pm

    Abortion following on rape is not much of an issue in practice. (1) Sexual assault is not very common in New Zealand. (2) If you have been assaulted, you can immediately go to a hospital ER and get a D and C. This makes it impossible for any fertilized egg to implant itself in the uterine wall.

  • Kenny August 11, 2009, 7:53 am

    I think that the trackback argument has a lot to be said for it. But I did have a couple reservations about how you presented it.

    First, I would not say that I am numerically identical to a fetus (because I’m not one – this just gets back, though, to the dispute we were having earlier about whether numerical identity entails qualitative identity). I would say, rather, that I am numerically identical to something that *was* a fetus.

    Second, the premise that I am identical to something that was a fetus is not enough to establish that when I was a fetus I was a person. Compare: I am identical to a husband. I am identical to something that was once a fetus. Therefore, when I was a fetus I was a husband. Obviously something has gone wrong.

    I think what’s needed here is a premise to the effect that anything that is a person is essentially a person. That’s a premise that, I think, a lot of abortion proponents would deny. But it strikes me as a plausible one, nonetheless.

    BTW, I’d be interested in seeing you do a blog post or podcast on Thompson’s “Defense of Abortion” article (where she lays out her famous violinist example). Her article did not convince me that abortion is in general permissible. But it did convince me that abortion is permissible (or at least should not be illegal) in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape.

  • Glenn August 11, 2009, 2:24 pm

    Kenny, you know what I think about saying that I\’m numerically identical to something in the past. 🙂

    And as I said int he debate and the Q and A, all the trackback argument really does is places the burden of proof on the proponent of abortion rights. If something is numerically identical with me, then there needs to be some appeal to other criteria that absolve us of our prima facie duty not to kill it.

    And yes, I must say something about Thompson\’s argument. It doesn\’t even convince me that abortion is permissible in cases of rape.

  • Kenny August 12, 2009, 11:11 am

    Fair enough point about the traceback argument. I do think that something like it does show the burden of proof is on those who deny the moral status of the fetus.

    Also, given what you have said I would be really interested to hear your thoughts on Thompson’s article some time. If her argument does fail to show even that abortion is permissible in rape cases, then (obviously) the rest of her case crumbles. But I also think that one can resist the rest of her case even if one grants that her argument shows that abortion is permissible in rape cases.

  • John Heller May 13, 2010, 10:33 pm

    I was really impressed that you, as a Conservative Christian, went beyond soley including humans in your defense of why killing is wrong and included some non-human animals. It can get frustrating reading anti-abortion arguments that in the end boil down to saying abortion is wrong since the fetus is a member of the species homo sapiens. Sounds pretty similar to racism to me (and Peter Singer).

    If only you could apply this level of thinking to your climate change thinking!

  • Glenn May 13, 2010, 11:33 pm

    John, I actually do think that there’s something prima facie wrong with killing homo sapiens – and saying that merely having a unique regard for human beings is like racism is rhetorically useful but logically useless. There’s certainly nothing wrong with considering humanity a sufficient condition for making killing wrong.

    After all, just making a discrimination between categories is normal and morally healthy, and we do it all the time without any suspicion of wrongdoing.

    I didn’t use that claim here because there are other claims that are just as good against abortion and which have a broader appeal.

  • John Heller May 14, 2010, 4:22 pm

    In the future when we will have to deal with zombies will it be wrong to kill them/deny them a future (ummm similar to ours)?

  • Glenn May 14, 2010, 6:14 pm

    No. Firstly, they don’t have a future like ours. Secondly, I think our duty not to kill human beings is only a prima facie duty.

  • John Heller May 14, 2010, 6:30 pm

    What about a half human half cat creature?

  • Colin August 23, 2011, 5:24 am

    If I take the pen in my hand, separate the ink, melt down the plastic, construct two pen shaped objects from the molten plastic, and then pour the ink into those two objects, I now have two pens.

    Consider a test tube which contains an unfertilized human ovum, and a single sperm, which is about to fertilize the said ovum. This could be said to be a single object which is numerically identical to the zygote it becomes, and also which has a ‘future like mine’. Would your arguments then apply? If not why not?

  • Glenn August 23, 2011, 6:41 pm

    Colin, there would need to be a fairly interesting argument made that an unfertilised ovum and a sperm that has not fertilised the ovum are in fact one object and not two. You’ve described them as two objects, it’s prima facie implausible to think that they are one object, so the case would need to be made.

    Of course I would grant that two these things, under the right conditions, will form an object that is numerically identical with a human being.

  • Colin August 24, 2011, 5:23 am

    “a fairly interesting argument”
    I don’t think the argument would need to be that interesting. If I held up a single test tube of goop, and asked how many things I have, most people would say one. Now, if I got out my microscope, and my biology textbook, maybe I could struggle to arrive at a different conclusion but that’s hardly prima-facie. And even then, in my description the sperm was about to fertilize the ovum, so it has probably already breached the ovum wall, and just not yet done its dna magic, So obviously two objects? Not really.

    “You’ve described them as two objects”
    Well to be fair, I described it as one object and mentioned three parts of it (the test tube, the ovum and the sperm). You have somewhat distinct parts even now that I could mention, but that doesn’t make you any less ‘one’ in the sense you’re using the term.

    “Of course I would grant that two these things, under the right conditions, will form an object that is numerically identical with a human being.”
    Right, so the only reason you say I can’t use your arguments is that you arbitrarily consider my object to be two objects, and your zygote to be one.

    It seems to me like this numerical identity doesn’t work so well when you’re so close to the time (or period of time) when the number of objects changes. Take the pool of pen & ink from your podcast. You say it is still one pen, but you don’t realize I’m about to make two pens out of it. It is no more numerically identical to the one pen that it was, than it is to the two pens that it will be.

  • Glenn August 24, 2011, 12:47 pm

    “Now, if I got out my microscope, and my biology textbook, maybe I could struggle to arrive at a different conclusion but that’s hardly prima-facie.”

    Struggle? Why, because the objects are really small? Well that’s true, but in a clearly trivial way. If I was holding two microscopic apples then you’d struggle to realise that there were two objects as well, but it’s still plainly prima facie obvious that there are two objects and not one.

    So there would still need to be an argument given for why we should regard a sperm and an ova as not being two objects.

  • colin August 24, 2011, 2:10 pm

    No, the smallness is only a ‘small’ part of my argument.

    The point is that the concept of a single numerical object is pretty nebulous, especially on the verge of it coming into existence.

    Why you persist in looking at a test tube of goop and singling out two cells for ‘object’ status, is beyond me.

  • Glenn August 24, 2011, 7:02 pm

    OK Colin, so can you clearly spell out an argument for thinking that an unfertilised ovum and a sperm are actually one object? Use parallels if that helps. For example, if you’ve got two people in a swimming pool, do they become one object?

    As a follow up question: Do you think that more than one object exists? (i.e. in all of reality)

  • colin August 25, 2011, 12:56 am

    “so can you clearly spell out an argument for thinking that an unfertilised ovum and a sperm are actually one object?”
    It’s all in how you ask the question. Can you clearly spell out an argument for thinking that your brain and your liver are actually one object?

    Maybe the swimming pool scenrio would be counted as one object to a person who was having a discussion about swimming pools at a swimming pool repairman convention.

    My point is that the concept of what constitutes an object is nebulous and vague and depends heavily on the context. So unless you want to insist that our context here is something very specific (but hitherto unmentioned) your position is no more tenable than mine.

    I gave a parallell above about pens, to show that the number of objects isn’t an obvious question, especially during processes of change. I’m sure you see the relevance.

  • colin August 25, 2011, 12:59 am

    “As a follow up question: Do you think that more than one object exists? (i.e. in all of reality)”

    Sure, depending on the context. If I was arguing with hawking about the multiverse theory I might say “No no no, there’s only one (universe object)” But in most contexts, sure.

  • Glenn August 25, 2011, 5:28 pm

    “Maybe the swimming pool scenrio would be counted as one object to a person who was having a discussion about swimming pools at a swimming pool repairman convention.”

    Sure, they’d look and say “yup, there’s only one swimming pool.” But I don’t really see how relevant this is. Your much stronger claim is like saying that if there are any people or other objects in the pool, they are all one object.

    As for this business of trying to push perfectly sensible claims into the realm of unclear, nebulous, vague etc, I think that amounts to a radical scepticism that is frankly untenable. Prima facie a sperm and an egg can’t sensibly be construed to be only one object, pending a good argument. Prima facie, they are two, and it’s simply false that the denial of this is just as plausible as its acceptance. Just stating this again doesn’t give any reason for believing it.

    It’s anything but clear how your pen example helps here. You talk about physically breaking up the pen into parts and then making two new pens. OK fine, and I suppose we could break a person in two and make two people as well. But it would be nonsense to say that there were two pens (or people) all along! At most we could say that there had been potentially two.

    So thus far there’s just no good reason to believe that a sperm and an egg are numerically identical to one single future object. It’s prima facie implausible.

    I’ve waited a few comments for a good argument, and there just hasn’t been one. I’ve assumed that there just aren’t any such arguments. So now I’m going to give reasons for denying this strange – even though there’s nothing in favour of it.

    If a sperm and ovum – physically separate and without fusion – were the same one individual object that a human being is, then there’s no principled reason to deny that any sperm/egg pair in the inventory of the universe is an individual human being, however many molecules might be between them (whether “goop” molecules, water molecules, air molecules, or even just background radiation, not made of molecules at all). This would mean that just if there’s a sperm in Africa and an ovum at the bottom of the Tasman sea, these constitute a human individual. But this, I wager, is implausible by your standards. Or if it’s not, it is only by changing what we mean by a human being to something like “the ingredients necessary to kickstart the life of a human being,” in which case the claim is not relevant.

    Here’s argument #2: Human beings are a species, Homo Sapiens. This is a species that can be identified genetically. While a sperm is genetic material, and an ovum is genetic material, sitting side by side they do not provide any genetic material that could identify an individual human being. Human beings are objects, and hence if there’s no human being here, then there cannot be an object that is the same individual object that an embryo is.

    So not only is the claim simply unreasonable, it’s not supported by science.

    So not only have there been no arguments that a separate sperm and egg are actually one object, there are pretty sensible reasons for denying it too.

  • colin August 26, 2011, 1:34 am

    “if there are any people or other objects in the pool, they are all one object.”
    Or to be more precise, my claim is that just because there are other things in the pool, doesn’t necessarily mean that in some contexts they would all be considered one object. Why are you just counting the people and not the mitochondria? It is because of your preloaded context

    “Prima facie a sperm and an egg can’t sensibly be construed to be only one object”
    You’re pre-loading your context again. In certain contexts you’re absolutely right. In others, not so much. If I hold up five test tubes, containing various stuff, and ask you ‘how many objects do I have’, without any prior context, you would say five. You wouldn’t say “hold on, do any of those contain sperm, if so how many?”

    “It’s anything but clear how your pen example helps here.”
    Here’s the points of the pen example.
    First: Philosophy of numerical identity fails to identify the point in time at which the number of objects changes.
    Second: two people can look at the same situation, and legitimately count a different number of objects, depending on the person’s context.

    “I’ve waited a few comments for a good argument, and there just hasn’t been one.”
    That’s because I have deliberately not accepted that your position is the obvious default one from which an argument must be made.

    “if there’s a sperm in Africa and an ovum at the bottom of the Tasman sea, these constitute a human individual”
    First, we weren’t talking about human individuals, we were merely talking about numerical identity. To get from one to the other is begging the question.
    Second, you’ll note that when I made my initial claim I wasn’t talking about an artbitrary sperm and ovum, but rather two that were about to form a zygote, moments before they did so.
    Third, Obviously geographic position is everything. The only thing that makes the molecules of your body part of you, that doesn’t apply to all the other molecules in the universe, is their geographic position.
    Fourth, you say “physically separate and without fusion”, but that’s not really how I set up the situation. Mine were physically very close, even intertwined, and about to fuse.

    As for your second argument, I seem to recall that you proposed that the strength of the traceback argument was that you didn’t need to understand biology to understand the argument. But now you appeal to DNA, and so on as the reason why the traceback argument works for you and not for me. So which is it? Human DNA is a biological entity. A person deserving the right to life is a philosophical entity. You assume some equivalence between these entities, without proof.

    “Human beings are objects, and hence if there’s no human being here, then there cannot be an object that is the same individual object that an embryo is.”
    Of course there can. Various objects that you claim are numerically identical (fetus, baby, old man) differ in a variety of properties. But you claim that they can not differ in the property “p has a full set of human DNA” And that’s begging the question at worst, or at least strongly preloading the context of what you mean by ‘object’.

    “So not only have there been no arguments that a separate sperm and egg are actually one object”
    Which is of course a straw man, as that wasn’t my argument. My argument is that a specific sperm and egg, that are about to fuse, could be considered to be one object in the general numerical identity sense of the word.

  • colin August 26, 2011, 1:45 am

    Sorry, first paragraph should read
    in some contexts they [wouldn’t] all be considered

  • Glenn August 26, 2011, 9:49 pm

    Peter, I think you’ve now said something that deserves full attention: “Second, you’ll note that when I made my initial claim I wasn’t talking about an artbitrary sperm and ovum, but rather two that were about to form a zygote, moments before they did so.”

    I think you concede much, much more than you realise here. Efectively, you now say that it’s not just close proximity or both being contained in the same “goop” that is doing the work of convincing you that these things are just one object – namely the same object that is the embryo, it’s the fact that these two objects are about to form one thing, a zygote.

    In other words, yours turns out to be an argument from potential for things that haven’t yet happened, whereas mine turns out to be an argument from what now exists. But being about to form one thing definitely doesn’t imply that two things are numerically identical with one future thing. And yet it’s clear that you take yourself to have argued just this: “Which is of course a straw man, as that wasn’t my argument. My argument is that a specific sperm and egg, that are about to fuse, could be considered to be one object in the general numerical identity sense of the word.”

    But you haven’t argued this. You’ve said that it’s true. And now when pressed further, you’ve conceded that really you’re only saying this about a sperm and an ovum that have a particular potential. Of course, they may have the potential to become one thing (the zygote), but they also have the potential to not become one thing, which is the same object as that zygote. Ergo, they are certainly not numerically identical to that zygote.

    So I think right there you make your position even less plausible than having no argument (which is what it was before). That said, I think arguments from potential are not without merit altogether. But there’s more than one kind of potential. There’s the potential that something has to develop, and there’s the potential for a thing to come into existence. Yours now turns out to be an argument from potential of the latter sort, whereas I find the former much more compelling.

    Mopping up the lingering claim that you keep making about “context” (as this has really been the only other point you seem to be making), I’d note that your example with five test tubes is really not relevant here. The context of our argument is one that you yourself have initially accepted: The context has to do with the object that I was talking about developing in the uterus – the embryo. True, the whole universe can be considered as one thing. So can the solar system (and so on). But essentially you’re insisting that I adopt a nominalist view of objects – namely that there aren’t really any individual objects, there are just things arranged in object-like ways and we can broaden or narrow our scope and legitimately call whatever happens to fall within that scope “an object.” So whether anything is an object, and whether any objects exist at all, is just a matter of what we believe. Thus, you describe a situation where there’s a discernable thing called a sperm and another called an ovum, and you say that just if we bracket off a set of things that includes these two (and provided they have a certain potential), it’s one object if we just choose to draw the boundary lines that way.

    Now I suppose there’s nothing stopping you thinking of objects this way, but of course if you do, then it’s equivocation to compare this claim to my claim about the numerical identity of the embryo, since I’m plainly not using “object” in this nominalist sense. All you seem to be really saying is that a little patch of the universe in which the sperm, ovum, and later the embryo, continues to exist and you’re bracketing that patch off and calling it an object. Well sure, go ahead. But if this is the “context” in which you’re using that term, your comments have no implications at all for my argument.

    (As for the pen illustration, your most recent comments don’t add anything beyond my last comments, so there’s nothing I need to say about that. My conclusion was never challenged: “But it would be nonsense to say that there were two pens (or people) all along! At most we could say that there had been potentially two.”)

  • Kenneth August 27, 2011, 12:07 am

    Perhaps some of Peter’s confusion would disappear if we removed the potential for him to get tied up in knots over “objects” by talking about organisms. The level of confusion present in his previous comments suggests that he just might try to say that if certain things can potentially form an organism, they’re numerically identical to that future organism (!!!) but we can only hope not.

  • Sandra August 27, 2011, 12:54 am

    Now I suppose there’s nothing stopping you thinking of objects this way, but of course if you do, then it’s equivocation to compare this claim to my claim about the numerical identity of the embryo, since I’m plainly not using “object” in this nominalist sense. All you seem to be really saying is that a little patch of the universe in which the sperm, ovum, and later the embryo, continues to exist and you’re bracketing that patch off and calling it an object. Well sure, go ahead. But if this is the “context” in which you’re using that term, your comments have no implications at all for my argument.

    That nailed it, Glenn!

  • colin August 27, 2011, 1:27 am

    First, my name is not peter. I am not numerically identical with Peter.

    “yours turns out to be an argument from potential for things that haven’t yet happened, whereas mine turns out to be an argument from what now exists.”
    No, that’s not the case at all. When desribing my very specific object, the only way to effectively describe the object I’m talking about is in terms of its future, but then I don’t actually argue on the basis of it’s potential future any more than you do. Our arguments are the same, only the language with which I draw your attention to the object I’m considering is different.

    “But being about to form one thing definitely doesn’t imply that two things are numerically identical with one future thing”
    Stop begging the question. My object isn’t two things. Unless you want to give a very precise definition of thing / object. Which of course you don’t because numerical identity isn’t really that kind of concept.

    “But you haven’t argued this.”
    Yes, that’s exactly we’ve been arguing about, what the rules are for saying that something is an object in the numerical identity sense of the word.

    “you’ve conceded that really you’re only saying this about a sperm and an ovum that have a particular potential.”
    As a means to idnentify a specific object. Not to concede that it is because of its potential that it is an object.

    “There’s the potential that something has to develop, and there’s the potential for a thing to come into existence.”
    To make this distinction is totally to beg the question. Both my object, and yours exist. From a purely philosophical view there’s no different between the changes that my object is about to undergo, and any of the later changes it might experience.

    “there aren’t really any individual objects”
    Exactly. Our brain’s tendency to think of things as objects is based more in convenience of thought than in reality. Fundamentally everything is atoms, and the atoms know nothing of our object boundaries.

    “your example with five test tubes is really not relevant here”
    It is.

    “The context has to do with the object that I was talking about developing in the uterus – the embryo.”
    Yes, and I provided you an object that would, under certain circumstances develop into an embryo. It’s one of those five test tubes.

    “describe a situation where there’s a discernable thing called a sperm and another called an ovum”
    All objects contain discernable things. They’re called parts. Your embryo contains discernable parts too.”

    “it’s one object if we just choose to draw the boundary lines that way.”
    That is precisely what anyone is doing when they use the word ‘object’ in the numerical identity sense. So it’s not just me. Without appealing to biology, you’re just drawing arbitrary boundaries too.

    “since I’m plainly not using “object” in this nominalist sense.”
    And yet you introduced the concept without any qualification. If you’re using the word object in a very specific (perhaps biological) sense, then you should have said so.

    “All you seem to be really saying is that a little patch of the universe in which the sperm, ovum, and later the embryo, continues to exist and you’re bracketing that patch off and calling it an object.”
    Exactly. But I sincerely thought that that was how you were using the term as well. If you’re not then I really want to know what qualifies something as being an object by your definition?

    “But it would be nonsense to say that there were two pens all along!”
    This was never challenged because I never claimed that there were two pens all along. I stated precisely the two points I was making with the pen argument. Do you then concede those two points?

    Hey Kenneth. You guys are talking to me right? Who’s Peter? Anyways I’m not confused, but yes, I think the whole argument would be very different if Glenn used a biological term instead of a philosophical one. But logic is conservative, so surely he wouldn’t be able to get closer to proving a philosophical conclusion ‘the right to life’ by adding a biological premise?

    “The level of confusion present in his previous comments”
    I’m really not confused. Really. I have a different view than you, that doesn’t mean I’m confused. Maybe the people calling me peter are confused.

    “if certain things can potentially form an organism, they’re numerically identical to that future organism”
    First, biology has nothing to do with the concept of numerical identity. So the fact that my specific specimen object lacks the biological property “p is an organism” offers nothing to the philosophical question of whether my object at t1 is numerically identical to the object at t2.

    “he just might try to say…”
    I’m not saying anything of the sort. I am making an argument about a very specific and precisely described specimen object. It is not ‘because of its potential’ that it is numerically identical.

  • colin August 27, 2011, 1:36 am

    Sandra, perhaps you can ‘nail it’ further by describing exactly what context Glenn is using the term ‘object’ in. Clearly you all know this secret context, which wasn’t actually provided in the original argument.

  • Glenn August 27, 2011, 1:36 am

    Sorry Colin, I was in a discussion with Peter today and confused your names. I can only assume that Kenneth followed my lead because he read and agreed with my reply to you. My apologies for that.

    “the only way to effectively describe the object I’m talking about is in terms of its future, but then I don’t actually argue on the basis of it’s potential future any more than you do. Our arguments are the same, only the language with which I draw your attention to the object I’m considering is different.”

    But you do argue on the basis of potential future more than I do. back up and see why: I pointed out that if just a sperm and ova can count as being the same object, numerically, as a future embryo, then a sperm in Africa and an ovum at the bottom of the sea (or the other way around) can count as one object. Your basis for saying that this was not so was that the sperm that you had in mind was going to fuse with an ovum in the future. So in fact this was the basis for your claim about identity. If the sperm and ovum didn’t have that potential, then by your reasoning you wouldn’t have this basis for saying they were the same one object as a future embryo.

    The rest of your post just trades on a nominalist denial of objects in general, or at least a relativist sense of that term. I take myself to be using the term in the everyday sense (which is why it’s referred to as a commonsense metaphysical outlook). Tables are objects. Rugs are objects. A sperm is an object. An embryo is an object. etc. You seem to be assuming that just any collection of anything counts as one object as long as we set our zoom at the right level. It is not I who is using a strange sense of the word “object.” I actually tackled this in my previous comment, and now you accept my criticism as “exactly” correct (your term), effectively agreeing that your criticism is not of my position at all. In short, if you take the skeptical attitude towards objects in general that you take, nothing is really numerically identical with anything, for numerical identity suggest that objects have legitimate bounds, something you seem not to believe.

  • Glenn August 27, 2011, 2:01 am

    Colin, I thought I should let you know rather than leaving you waiting if you comment further – I’m unlikely to continue this present discussion. I’ve already committed more time to it over the last couple of days than I should have committed to a discussion in blog comments. Testy though I may sound at times, I did enjoy it. 🙂

  • Colin August 27, 2011, 3:35 am

    “Sorry Colin, I was in a discussion with Peter today and confused your names.”
    No problem at all. Ironic in a discussion of personal identity though 🙂

    “Testy though I may sound at times”
    Funny that you would mention Testes. Is a testicle one object? Or many? It does contain a lot of sperm after all.

    “I did enjoy it.”
    Me too, thoroughly! And thank you for responding to a comment on a years-old podcast. I’m planning on listening to all your top ten.

    “I’m unlikely to continue this present discussion”
    That’s cool. We all have lives. I won’t try to claim your withdrawl as a surrender. But I might take the opportunity to throw some parting shots.

    “Your basis for saying that this was not so”
    To be fair, I was never asserting that it was not so for the african sperm and subaquatic ovum. I was making a very localized positive assertion about a single hypothetical object. You could call yours an object if you wanted (though probably not in the everyday sense), but it’s less obvious that your object has a ‘future like mine’ or that it participates in an unbroken traceback from a person. That’s why I chose my object.

    “a relativist sense of that term”
    Yes, the term ‘object’ in the everyday sense is very relative, and context dependent.

    “Tables are objects. Rugs are objects. A sperm is an object. An embryo is an object.”
    A nail is an object (though it may be part of a table)
    A house is an object (though it may contain a rug)
    A testicle full of sperm is an object
    A man with two testicles full of sperm is an object.
    A pregnant woman is an object

    “any collection of anything counts as one object”
    I’ll grant you, that’s not true in the every day sense (now that this is your stated context), but I think most people would see five test tubes and count five objects (in their everyday sense), without stopping to get out their microscope. My point is that there’s nothing real or tangible that defines what constitutes an object, whether it is the nail or the table, the test tube or the individual cells inside.

    “nothing is really numerically identical with anything, for numerical identity suggest that objects have legitimate bounds”
    Numerical identity is a philosophical concept for dealing with philosophical models of reality. As I said above, it is useless near to the point where the number of objects is changing, or where the number of objects (in a certain context) is questionable.

    For what it’s worth, I’m actually quite strongly pro-life in my beliefs. I merely think that pro-lifers weaken their position by claiming to know and be able to prove that personhood begins at conception. But that’s another argument for another day.

  • Ginny Bain Allen January 5, 2014, 7:03 am

    What you said, Peter …… oops 😉 … Colin, “I merely think that pro-lifers weaken their position by claiming to know and be able to prove that personhood begins at conception. But that’s another argument for another day.”

    Take a gander at this glorious language from a frenchman, if you will:

    ~Jerome Lejeune, M.D., Ph.D., professor of fundamental genetics on the faculty of Medicine of Paris, held the Kennedy Prize for being first to discover a disease caused by chromosomal abnormality – Down’s Syndrome, a member of a number of prestigious medical and scientific organizations said,

    “Each of us has a unique beginning, the moment of conception. As soon as our program is written on our DNA, there are twenty-three different pieces of program carried by the spermatozoa and there are twenty-three different homologous pieces carried by the ovum. As soon as the twenty-three chromosomes carried by the sperm encounter the twenty-three chromosomes carried by the ovum, the whole information necessary and sufficient to spell out all the characteristics of the new being is gathered. Inside the chromosomes is written the program and all the definitions. Chromosomes are the table of the law of life. When the information carried by the winning sperm, out of thousands vying for the special position, and by the ovum has encountered each other, then a new human being is defined because its own personal and human constitution is entirely spelled out. It is a personal constitution which is entirely typical of this very one human being which has never occurred before and will never occur again. The information which is inside this first cell obviously tells to this cell all the tricks of the trade to build herself as the individual, this cell is already, to build that particular human person we will call Peter or Colin or Glenn; it’s already there, but its so small that we cannot see it. It’s what is life, the formula is there; if you allow this formula to be expanded by itself, just giving shelter and nurture, then you have the development of the full person. A first cell knows more and is more specialized than any cell which is later in our organism. When we split at the beginning of our life, it is at the three cell stage that a message goes from one cell to the two other cells, comes back to the first one and suddenly realize we are not a population of cells. we are bound to be an individual. At the very beginning of life, the genetic information and the molecular structure of the egg, the spirit and the matter, the soul and the body must be that tightly intricated because it’s a beginning of the new marvel that we call a human. The first cell is knowing how to differentiate the progeny, the cell progeny. If we take one cell of a chimpanzee embryo, of a human embryo, of a gorilla embryo and give it to one of my students in the Certificate of Cytogenetics in Paris, and if he cannot tell you this one is a human being, this one is a chimpanzee being, this is one is a gorilla being, he would fail his exam; it’s as simple as that. The amount of information which is inside the zygote, which would if spelled out and put in a computer tell the computer how to calculate what will happen next, this amount of information is that big that nobody can measure it. You have to realize that this enormous information which makes a man is enormous compared to the information which makes a computer, because it’s a man who has made the computer; it’s not the computer which has made the man. Surely it’s much more complicated to build a human being, to determinate on one cell the wiring of his brain so that he will some day invent machine to help his own brain to understand the law of the universe. There is something peculiar to the human beings compared to others. What defines a human being is: He belongs to our species. So an early one or a late one has not changed from its species to another species. It belongs to our kin. And I would say very precisely that I have the same respect, no matter the amount of kilograms and no matter the amount of differentiation of tissues. The duty is not to kill, and that duty is universal. And I would say that if by technique I as looking at the chromosomes of this baby, and I see the chromosomes abnormal, say for example, he has a trisomy twenty-one, I would say that this is the disease. But if I look at the other forty-six chromosomes that are normal I would see the mankind of the baby, and I don’t condemn a member of my kin. If I was convinced that those early human beings are, in fact, piece of properties, well, property can be discarded, there is no interest for me as a geneticist. But if they are human beings, which they are, then they cannot be considered as property. They need custody. We know by the human observation, that there is a specialization of information carried by the sperm compared to the information carried by the ovum. And I would say I was wondering, not surprised, but wondering that we were discovering at this extraordinarily tiny level of information built into the chromosomes, that paternal duty was to build the shelter and to make the gathering of the food, to build the hut and the hunting. And that the maternal trick was household and building of the spare parts so the individual can build himself. And it’s a kind of admiration that we have for nature that since we have seen in the grown up that the man is going hunting and the mother is doing the kitchen, it is just the same deeply written inside our own chromosomes at the very beginning at the moments the first human constitution is spelled out.”

    Join me in D.C. for the 40th annual March for Life, January 22! Be there or be square!