Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Pro-life Arguments and the Sorites Paradox

The following was written as a reply to a blog entry by Jay Whip on his blog Pro-Life Apologetics at  

Jay says, “If you add one hundred zeroes together, your sum will still be zero. In the same way if sentience, brain waves, and conscious desires by themselves do not have any bearing on personhood, putting them together does not help.”

It’s true that a hundred zeroes still sum to zero. But what about a hundred ones?

It strikes me that what may be going on here resembles what philosophers call the “sorites paradox”. (Pronounced suh-righties, derived from the Greek for 'heap'.) The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy describes it this way:

“The sorites paradox is the name given to a class of paradoxical arguments, also known as little-by-little arguments, which arise as a result of the indeterminacy surrounding limits of application of the predicates involved. For example, the concept of a heap appears to lack sharp boundaries and, as a consequence of the subsequent indeterminacy surrounding the extension of the predicate ‘is a heap’, no one grain of wheat can be identified as making the difference between being a heap and not being a heap. Given then that one grain of wheat does not make a heap, it would seem to follow that two do not, thus three do not, and so on. In the end it would appear that no amount of wheat can make a heap. We are faced with paradox since from apparently true premises by seemingly uncontroversial reasoning we arrive at an apparently false conclusion.”
Of course the sorites paradox can be run in the other direction too. If you start with a heap, and take away a grain at a time, you can end up proving that any amount of wheat, even a single grain, is a heap. 

Here’s an excellent strategy for exploiting the sorites paradox: argue, along with Kaczor, that “each standard ... is an ‘independent operator’ that stands or falls alone and is in competition with the other proposed standards. As such, they must each be considered in turn.”

If the transition from a single-celled organism (the fertilized egg, which is prima facie not a person) to a toddler involves a myriad of changes, both small and large, any one of which is not sufficient to qualify something as a person, then it would not be surprising if people were stumped when challenged to name the essential difference. In the ‘heap’ argument, if someone offers a dividing line, say one hundred grains, and Jay scoffs at the difference between 100 and 101, and ridicules his opponents for offering such flimsy arguments, it does not follow that, as Jay says, “adding it to others does not help.”

The difference between an infant and a human zygote is as great, and as multifarious, as the difference between the members of any two species. Take a dog and an ant. I think we all agree that it is wrong, at least without extenuating circumstances, to crush or poison a dog. It is much less clear when, if ever, it is wrong to crush or poison an ant. I challenge you to name the one essential criterion that differentiates the two and is responsible for this moral difference. If you ask a hundred people you might get a hundred different answers. It might be the case that none of these would hold up to probing analysis. Does it follow that we must not step on ants? Or does it prove, by process of elimination, the existence of an arbitrary, authority-based rule that accords the species ‘dog’ special moral status? Would this really explain anything?

Imagine we discovered a species whose members, early in development, were exactly like ants, but which matured into creatures exactly like dogs. Would we think it morally incumbent on us to treat dog-becoming ants as if they were dogs, while we continued to disregard the interests of ant-ants? I suppose that your philosophy would force you to do this. Would your moral intuitions agree? Both my philosophy and my intuitions tell me that currently ant-like things are different from currently dog-like things, and their current natures would demand different treatment even if it were impossible, during development, to draw a clear boundary between ants and dogs, and even if I could not articulate exactly which properties justified dogs’ special moral status. The natures of creatures (unlike their species) can and do change. The current natures of fertilized eggs, regardless of species, resemble each other far more than they do those of the mature organisms they may develop into.

Jay accuses pro-choice advocates of invariably producing only “an arbitrary rule with the justification of abortion in mind.” If the question is one of boundary lines in a sorites kind of situation, with two clear poles and a continuum of complex changes intervening, arbitrary rules may be all that's available. Besides, isn’t the criterion of membership in the human species without regard for stage of development or mental status an equally or even-more arbitrary rule, invented to justify the moral intuitions of pro-lifers? And is this rule really true to their honest intuitions in concrete circumstances? Is one grain really a heap?

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