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Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Response to Richard Chappell's "Pro-Life Pro Zombie"

Thialias has asked me to respond to “Pro-Life Pro Zombie” written by kiwi ex-pat philosopher Richard Chappell, the author of Philosophy et cetera. In this post Richard, as I understand it, set up a thought experiment where he asked readers to imagine a world where beings exist that are physically identical to us in every respect but are not conscious. These beings are identified as Zombies. Richard says he has reasons for thinking such a scenario is metaphysically possible. I have my doubts, but given modal logic is Richard’s speciality, whereas mine is ethics, I’ll concede this for the sake of argument.

Richard constructs the following argument. First, he puts forward the position he wishes to critique. In his post he states,

[1] “Many pro-lifers hold that an individual has moral status in virtue of its biological kind (being "human") rather than its particular cognitive qualities (being a self-aware "person").”
[2] Zombies are “physically identical to us,” and hence, “As far as biologists are concerned, they are "individual human lives" the same as you and me.”

it follows, then, that,
[3] “the bio-focused pro-lifer would seem committed to the view that non-conscious zombies have moral status.”

Richard claims that it is absurd that Zombies would have moral status; hence the pro-life position entails an absurdity and so is false.

What does one say in response to this argument? Well one obvious point I would make is that, as far as I know, no pro-lifer actually holds that human beings have moral status merely in terms of their biological kind, independent of psychological traits.

This position is often attributed to opponents of abortion. It is not uncommon, in articles on both sides of the debate, to refer to this position as “the conservative position” and then critique it to provide a better model. What is more difficult is to find a defender of this “conservative position”, someone who actually advances it. Certainly leading opponents of abortion, such as Frank Beckwith, Philip Devine, Don Marquis and Baruch Brody do not hold this position. Neither do I.
Richard I think realises this to some extent because he himself suggests that the opponent of abortion can avoid the argument by denying the position articulated in [1]. Richard states,

“The upshot is that sophisticated pro-lifers shouldn't be focused on mere biology. It isn't really mere "life", in the third-personal scientific sense, that matters. Rather, it's a special kind of life -- or, rather, the lives of a special kind of being, namely: sentient rational animals. If we understand the kind 'human' in this psychologically loaded sense, then zombies don't qualify as fully human. But embryos - immature members of our kind - do qualify. Sure, they may not yet be sentient or rational themselves. But they are members of a kind with these traits. Intuitively: their acquisition of these traits will occur through natural development (in which they remain the same kind of thing that they already are), rather than radical transformation into a fundamentally different category or kind of thing.

Here Richard points out that “the kind ‘human’” need not refer merely to a biological category. There is a long tradition, going back at least to Aristotle, which defines a human being as a rational animal.

The phrase rational animal is understood in a manner analogous to the way a person might define a mammal as a creature that suckles its young. Male humans are mammals, as are female humans under age nine yet neither strictly speaking suckles their young. Nevertheless, they are each members of a kind that does do this.

Human beings are rational animals in this sense. While it is not true that every individual human being, such as fetuses, infants and the temporarily comatose, posses rationality, nevertheless they are of a kind that does and typically, if they mature properly and are not deformed or malfunctioning members of their kind, they will do these things. Now if the pro-lifer understands human kind in this sense, Richard is quite right, they can avoid his Zombie refutation.

Interestingly this is precisely the position many opponents of abortion take. Notable examples would include, Norman Ford,[1] Frank Beckwith,[2] and Alan Donagan;[3] it is also fairly common amongst Thomists who, unsurprisingly, accept the Aristotelian tradition. Given this, all these writers can and do avoid the kind of rebuttal Richard offers. Richard refers to this position as “the evil twin argument’ named after a post where Richard posted under the name “Richard’s evil twin Ricardo” which endorsed the line of argument.

It seems, then, and I think he would probably agree with me here, that Richard’s Zombie argument is not really a rebuttal of opposition to feticide but rather a rebuttal of one particular way of articulating this opposition, a way that few, if any, of the defenders of this position, actually adopt. What the point is of offering an argument against a position almost no-one adopts remains somewhat unclear to me.

Some of Richard’s other comments suggest the purpose is more clarificatory, an attempt to find out what others think. Richard explains,

The purpose of this post is simply to work out what the most plausible version of a pro-life view would be. I'm especially interested to hear from any actual pro-lifers, whether they are pro-zombie and if not why not -- especially, whether they endorse my evil twin's conception of the pro-life view.

In response to this comment, as far as I can tell, in the literature no opponent of abortion opposes it merely on the ground that a embryo is biologically human. Many do endorse Richard’s “evil twin argument,” such as the people mentioned above but what is even more noteworthy is that there are many important critiques of abortion which do not rely on either position. Here I will provide two significant examples; there are others in the literature.[4]

The first, and rather obvious example, would be the series of articles by Don Marquis.[5] Marquis contends that “the best explanation for the wrongness of killing is that killing deprives us of our futures of value;”[6] a future of value consists “of all of the goods of life we would have experienced had we not been killed.”[7] He explains further,

On the future of value account the wrongness of killing is based on the harm of killing. A present action cannot affect one’s past. Strictly speaking, a present act of harming does not make another worse off in the present either, for the present is instantaneous and harm, involving, as it does, causation, requires at least a small temporal interval for its effect to occur. A present act of harm affects the victim’s future. It makes someone worse off in the future. To make someone worse off is to reduce that person’s welfare, to reduce the quantity or quality of the goods in his future that she would otherwise have possessed. On the future of value account killing is wrong because it harms a victim.[8]

Marquis argues that his account of the wrongness of killing has the implication that feticide is homicide. “Fetuses have futures like ours, for their futures contain all that ours contain and more. Therefore, (given some defensible assumptions and qualifications) abortion is seriously wrong on almost all occasions.”[9]

Marquis’ argument is extremely interesting. What is important in this context, however, is simply the observation that his critique of abortion does not rely on the assumption that “an individual has moral status in virtue of its biological kind” nor is it based on the Aristotelian notion of a rational kind of creature. It is, rather, an attempt to base the status of the fetus on the kind of future conscious life it will have if it is not killed.

My second example is Philip Devine’s argument which in some respects is a precursor to Marquis’s position. Devine, like Marquis, suggests it is the future psychological abilities the organism will gain that are relevant to whether or not killing it constitutes homicide. Devine’s argument, put succinctly, is as follows,

I assume here that infants are protected by the moral rule against homicide. From this assumption it seems to follow immediately that fetuses, and other instances of human life from conception onward, are also protected, so that, unless justified or mitigated, abortion is murder. For there seem to be only two possible grounds for asserting the humanity of the infant: (1) The infant is a member of the human species … (2) The infant will, in due course, think, talk, love, and have a sense of justice … And both (1) and (2) are true of fetuses, embryos, and zygotes as well as of infants.[10]

Devine’s argument is based on three claims. First the intuition that killing a new-born infant is homicide, something he takes for granted. The second is to observe, as David Boonin has, that “by any plausible measure dogs, and cats, cows and pigs, chickens and ducks or more intellectually developed than a new born infant.”[11]

In other words, in terms of actual current psychological traits infants are on par with cows or pigs the only difference between an infant and cow or pig is in terms of the traits they will acquire if not destroyed. Hence, the only plausible way one can make sense of the prohibition on infanticide is either to appeal to the natural kind argument or to ground the wrongness of killing infants on the psychological traits they will acquire if not killed. But either option entails that feticide is homicide. Again, this argument does not rely on either the claim that fetuses are merely biologically human nor does it rely on the “evil twin argument;” it merely cites it as one disjunctive possibility.

I could multiply examples but I think the point is clear. If one examines the literature on the subject and looks at what the leading critics of abortion have argued, it is clear that their position is immune from the Zombie argument, further, many do not appeal to the “evil twin argument” either. As a final note, I would add that my own argument in Is Historic Christian Opposition to Feticide Defensible in the 21st Century? avoids both approaches as well but spelling out all the details of this would require another post in its own right, so I might save that for a later date.

[1] Norman M. Ford The Prenatal Person. Ethics from Conception to Birth (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2002).
[2]Francis J. Beckwith Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids MI: Baker Books, 1993).
[3] Alan Donagan The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).
[4] Harry Gensler, “The Abortion and the Golden Rule,” in The Abortion Controversy 25 Years after Roe v Wade: A Reader ed. Francis Beckwith & Louis Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1998) would be another obvious example.
[5] Don Marquis “Why Abortion is Immoral” in The Abortion Controversy: 25 Years after Roe v Wade, A Reader ed. Francis Beckwith & Louis Pojman, 339-355 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998); “Why Most Abortions are Immoral” in Advances in Bioethics: Bioethics for Medical Education Vol. 5, ed. Rem B. Edwards & E. Edwards Bittar, 215-44. (Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 1999); “Abortion Revisited,” Oxford Handbook of Bioethics, ed. Bonnie Steinbock, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); “Fetuses, Futures, and Values: A Reply to Shirley” Southwest Philosophy Review 6:2 (1995) 263-265; “Life before Birth: The Moral and Legal Status of Embryos and Fetuses. Review of Life Before Birth, by Bonnie SteinbockCriminal Justice Ethics 13:1 (1994) 67-81.
[6]Don Marquis, “Abortion Revisited,” Oxford Handbook of Bioethics, ed. Bonnie Steinbock, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) 399.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Marquis, “Abortion Revisited,” 413.
[9]Ibid. 399
[10] Philip Devine “The Scope of the Moral Rule Against Killing” in The Abortion Controversy: 25 Years after Roe v Wade ed. Francis Beckwith & Louis Pojman (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1998) 241.
[11] Ibid, 121.

See our Feticide Label


  1. my own argument in Is Historic Christian Opposition to Feticide Defensible in the 21st Century?M, is it possible to access this work online? Being a pro-life medical student, I'm interested in as much of such things as I can get.

  2. Matt wants to tinker with it before publishing it. It is available as a thesis copy through the University of Otago library - not sure where you are but your library should be able to work with Otago's - and as soon as Matt gets around to it, Laidlaw College (Auckland) will also have it in their library.

    Matt does sometimes advance it via email to people doing work in the area, as long as full referencing is given to it, so if you email him and tell him a little about your research he would consider it matt_flannagan at clear dot net dot nz.

    Recent blog post: Response to Richard Chappell's "Pro-Life Pro Zombie"

  3. I should add that if you use the feticide or abortion labels in our side bar you will find articles containing chunks of it or where Matt has advanced his arguments and research further.

    If you wish to use these please, that's fine but do see our copyright policy.

    Recent blog post: Response to Richard Chappell's "Pro-Life Pro Zombie"

  4. The zombie argument seems to suggest that a fetus has similar characteristics to a zombie (ie, not self aware) therefore is effectively a zombie, and it is fine to kill a zombie. The same logic could then be used to kill people in a coma, even if there was a high probability the person would come out of the coma in say, 9 months.

    In other words, it is in itself a weak argument.

    Self awareness, or lack thereof has been taken as a justification to kill babies up to a few months old by Peter Singer, of course. It's a great philosophical argument, but morally, just sucks.

    Recent blog post: Greenie sues her parents for her life

  5. A person who is asleep is not conscious (or does that not count), yet they have moral status. A person who is under anaesthetic likewise is not conscious, yet it would be murder to harvest their organs if they were not considered brain-dead. Therefore, I consider the whole zombie-thing to be ridiculous, as moral status should not be conferred upon a person on consciousness alone.

    I didn't get very far through your post, because I keep getting stuck on this statement.

    ... no pro-lifer actually holds that human beings have moral status merely in terms of their biological kind, independent of psychological traits.Err, I hold this opinion. I became a pro-lifer because of this point, because I could not set an arbitrary line where on one side you could kill a human being, no matter how small, and other other they were supposedly protected. I also saw with absolute clarity that if you don't hold that human-beings have moral status according to their kind, independent of any other factor, then redefinition of moral status can occur, leading to such atrocities as the Holocaust.

    Recent blog post: Anti-Catholic Fear Mongering in NZ


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