“Wasps have a nervous system, but most of us don’t have qualms about stepping on them”

—I don't know that this is true. I dislike animals in general and in particular have no love for wasps, but I wouldn't kill one for no reason. And this wrong argument is especially tricky because it is one of the only moments where you address the primary alternative to your enforced rigid binary: that “rights” (whatever they are) inhere in proportion to personhood, where personhood is a scalar property that amoebas have not at all and fully conscious humans have in full. As the embryo grows from effectively an amoeba to a fully conscious human, at some point the “right to not be killed” (ceteris paribus) is acquired. Maybe it is sometime in early childhood, but maybe it's pre-natal.

We can't know exactly, but that doesn't mean we must throw our hands up and flee to one extreme or the other. Many definitional questions, especially in the humanities, have a fuzzy border. When exactly did “the Roman Empire” fall? You could pick one of many answers, it's unclear—but that doesn't mean the Roman Empire never existed, nor that only the most extreme answers are valid. Exactly what counts as a heap of sand is another example in the philosophical literature. A single grain of sand isn't a heap. Most would argue that two grains, one on top of the other, aren't either. But a thousand grains of sand all together clearly are a heap. Our uncertainty about exactly where the cut-off lies in our definition doesn't mean we can't talk about heaps of sand, nor that we must pick an extreme answer. We can pick our cut-off for heaps of sand where it's beneficial to society to do so, and we can pick our cut-off for when personhood “rights” are acquired based on what's beneficial for society too.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023·edited Apr 19, 2023Liked by Aporia

Yeah, I generally like Noah's writing, but it's just bizarre for him to claim that it's not "logically coherent" to consider personhood a continuum across fetal development, just as the moral status of animal species likely forms a continuum.

Expand full comment

I think the point about the moral status of animal species is key. Here's something I wrote elsewhere:

“What is a person? The question is always framed in a binary way: is x a person or not? Person or beast? Angel or ape? The question has many practical ramifications, and so it is inevitable that it would get reduced down to this sort of binary decision, because binary on-off states are the easiest way for laws to be written clearly and unambiguously. But just because it is convenient for the law to simplify the situation into a simple binary does not mean that the real underlying situation is binary. To the extent that personhood refers to a real distinction, it must be scalar.

“That this is true can be demonstrated by looking at different classes of animals. Higher mammals, such as dolphins, behave far more like established persons than do, say, geckos. And those geckos in turn behave more like persons than do jellyfish. Most species can be assigned to a range on the personhood scale in this manner. Whatever exactly it is that personhood is measuring, with “person” as the supposed perfect state, it is clear that there are scalar differences between different categories of life-form.

“Yet there is no reason to think that this spectrum is properly ordinal by species, even if there are significant threshold effects between species, as ordinality is not a phenomenon of nature but of our modelling of nature. There will be jellyfish who exhibit higher degrees of personhood than other jellyfish, geckos who are more person than other geckos, dolphins who are more person than other dolphins. It would be illogical then if this variance was not also observable at the highest end of the scale: that some humans exhibit higher degrees of personhood than other humans. We must ask, not “Is x a person?”, but “How much of a person is x?”. We may still set a threshold above and below which we are happy to refer to “persons”, and this threshold may be variable in different contexts, as we are comfortable with doing for other more obviously scalar words like “tall”. A tall man in ancient Rome would not count as a tall man today; likewise a person in one context may not count as a person in another.”


Expand full comment

Spare me your bioethics. I hate to be this guy, but you do realize where this line of thinking ends, right?


For the sake of our sanity, we cannot apply such gradations to humans. Simply cannot. A human is a human and a human is a person. Anything else is an invitation to mass murder or slavery. It's not necessarily the case that only humans may be people, but I do not accept that any other species currently extant exhibits the traits necessary for any degree of personhood. Intuitively, I'd say this requires the ability to use tools and speak in a language with words. Obviously, some humans are incapable of this. But because they are human, they are still people. If another species developed these abilities, and they may well, I'd take their claim to personhood seriously, and then (again for the sake of our own sanity) would need to apply broadly to their species (AI is a bit different, in that humans are in a literal sense its god, but I haven't thought deeply about it yet).

Several months ago, I said this beneath an ACX post about backlash:

"I cannot express the breadth or depth of my indifference to the reaction against Dobbs. To be clear, I'm an atheist, but very anti-abortion; if that's confusing to you, it shouldn't be. Atheists don't believe in god, they believe in humanity (or at least I do).

Abortion kills humans. Whatever you think of the debate about when life begins or when that life is human or any of those, I don't think they matter. A human fetus or embryo will, in almost all cases, mature into a human and be born. This includes the fact that miscarriages and natural abortions are reasonably common (if you try to lawyer me on this point, I will ignore you. You will not convince me). It is not tenable to claim that, by intervening at any particular point in this process where we have decided no morality attaches, we also free ourselves of the moral burden of preventing what comes next, which is to say, the birth of a human.

We live in a society that can barely bring itself to put to death multiple murderers, rape-murderers, and the like. And yet a significant fraction are okay with annihilating the most helpless and innocent people? It's close to the definition of insanity, as far as I'm concerned.

Roe v. Wade is one of the most abominable decisions of any court. It offends my morality (as just described), and it offends my professionalism as an attorney. No one, not a single commentator, attorney, or jurist, seriously defends the reasoning of Roe v. Wade, because it has none. It was made up from whole cloth. The concept of the trimester was literally invented by Blackmun.

Just on this basis alone, Dobbs is worthwhile and correct. Egregiously wrong decisions should not stand if there is any opportunity to overturn them. The second-worst decision ever, Korematsu v. United States, remains good law and will remain good law unless and until someone tries interning Americans again. This is in the nature of our appellate system.

Even if Dobbs leads to more abortion rather than less, which I sincerely doubt, it will have been worthwhile. Now, the people and their representatives will decide. Not every right needs to be constitutional. If the people's decision is contrary to my morality, I have means of fighting back. By contrast, there is no gainsaying the Supreme Court.

Last and certainly least, the conservative legal movement was founded to oppose Roe. If the Court had blinked this time, after so much work and so many disappointments like Casey, it would have discredited the entire movement. I don't agree with every or probably even most conservative legal thinkers, but I do think the movement has done real good for real people, and is a valuable force that has corrected the lawlessness of the post-war legal profession and courts."

This is correct.

Expand full comment
Apr 18, 2023·edited Apr 18, 2023Liked by Aporia

Louis CK has a bit about this, where it's either a simple operation or murder and can't be anything in between. +1 for comedians being the most honest. Tried to find the clip to link here, the first link on google is Vogue's take: Why Louis C.K.'s Abortion Jokes Fall Flat. Jesters not allowed in politics.

Do wonder how much we should want/expect consistency from laws? Whole idea of democracy is a set of compromises. If the underlying issue is irreconcilable then you either have to break the country up over it, or come to some non-logical but mutually palatable solution. Doubt this issue is the dealbreaker

Expand full comment

I also think that the premise that these are not reconcilable is false, because the study cited is specifically showing that the majority of conservatives and liberals agree that it should be legal in some cases, but not all.

The article seems to be skewing liberal arguments more radical in favor of divisions, while also pushing the conservative argument further radical so that there is no longer agreement on the topic.

Expand full comment
Apr 19, 2023Liked by Aporia

I think when the mother life is in danger is a tough one and I lean towards more pro-life. I have to admit there's is more overall suffering if the mother dies in this case, her family...etc, then the child in the womb. I would still lean pro-life with at least exception for health issues. I think we should at least encourage pro-life and not abortions just whenever

Expand full comment

I'm pro-life and I want a rape exception, I admit it's morally inexcusable but it's a political necessity IMO.

Expand full comment

Another striking example of dishonesty would be philosophers' embrace of Judith Jarvis Thomson's A Defense of Abortion, which if you were to take seriously it would imply a very extreme form of Libertarianism (not necessarily Ancap as this is contingent on property rights), after all if the right to life (which she grants) doesn't imply the right to use someone's body, then good luck justifying any sort of welfare etc. in a way that is clearly not ad hoc, if anything the case is stronger since cutting large parts of state spending typically doesn't lead to small humans dying. Yet from what I can tell the only philospher to realize this is Michael Huemer.

Expand full comment

Similarly, there is no meaningful difference in how dangerous it is to drive 49 mph and 51 mph, so all advocates of speed limits are really dishonest. The only consistent position is to ban driving or abolish all speed limits.

In reality, common sentiment recognises that a baby (at least after a few months) is a full human being and that a embryo immediately after conception is not a human. In the intervening period, the fetus becomes more and more a human being until, at some point we can't agree on, it is is fully human. However, laws have to have a cut off point, which is inevitably arbitary.

A more serious criticism of most people in the pro life side is that they are not serious in their position because they disclaim any desire to punish women who have abortions. This clearly shows they don't believe abortion is murder, since, if so, the woman is at least an accessory to murder. The normie belief, namely that babies are partially human, allows for a more flexible and reasonable approach. As someone who is moderately-strongly pro life, I think prison sentences of one year per month after conception is about right.

Expand full comment

I’d argue that even that still reveals that you don’t consider “murder” of the fetus to be on par with murder of an adult individual, which is being attempted in some cases in the US.

Expand full comment

I don't think it's tantamount to murder of an adult, but I still think it should be a criminal offense.

Expand full comment

Opening paragraph voids the entire essay. There are clearly not only two logically coherent positions. If you are pro-life but despise rape and rapists and don't want to incentiveise rape in society, it makes perfect sense to allow abortion in the case of rape. Same applies for understanding the unique horror a women may feel having to bring her attackers offspring into the world. The trauma this could induce clearly warrants consideration. If we force birth in the case of rape, more genes of those with a propensity to rape are passed on. It is logically coherent to not want this and to account for it in your view of the issue. If you believe that abortion is immoral, it makes sense to want to reduce the number of abortions. It doesn't mean you need to be autistically entranced with the idea of elliminating all abortion without consideration. Nuance is allowed. You are making the same mistake that utilitarians make when they autistically cling to a rigid framework. Harmonising more than one viewpoint is the goal not logically incoherent. We live in a society of opposing values. Embracing tradeoffs and having the humility to compromise is not logically incoherent, it is a strength necessary for a flourishing society, especially in the case of such divisive issues.

Expand full comment

In arguing that “either it should be allowed universally including the weeks after birth, or banned universally full stop” because the fetus is not technically “functional” until a few weeks after birth, you’ve created an imbalanced equivalent of the

That would be the dividing line for your argument, but is not what most would argue. I don’t know of any group or person arguing for abortion post-birth other than anti-natalists who usually carry radical nihilistic views which are often deliberately inflammatory or trolling. If a group does/did hold that position, they aren’t a mainstream view, and I’m sure most would disagree.

The more important point here is that most agree on the premise that Abortion should be legal in some cases, and illegal in others. That’s how the law works. Even if we took Abortion to the radical conclusion, murder is also given conditional excuses, as we don’t convict people for acting in self defense. This is something your framing removes from abortion by stating that it “The only case it makes sense to allow abortion is when both the mother and the child would die without one”, which in it’s framing already adopts the idea that the fetus is a child before it is born.

You reveal your conservative lean, and what I’m guessing is a rhetoric to dissuade otherwise agreeing parties away from Abortion here. Utilizing an implied premise (it’s not a child yet), and injecting the idea that liberals should be in favor of murdering a newborn, when the study and all arguments circling abortion make no mention of it at all. Even the studies you’ve cited do not bring up this premise. If anything, the Pew research you’ve shown here only further vindicates that the majority of Americans (61%) agree it should be legal in most or all cases). Further than that, the same data shows that of those who say it should be illegal in most/all cases (37%), nearly half believes it should be allowed when the mother’s health is at risk (46% agree, 27% say it depends, and 27% say it should still be illegal).

I’m drawing that your article has two original arguments, not just the one (that both political sides are subject to moral dumbfounding and aren’t arguing honestly). I bring this up, because i want to ensure we are also arguing clearly, and that I’m giving you the same due diligence I’d expect in return. The first and more important argument is “if abortion is to be determined on the developmental state of the fetus, then it should extend to the weeks after birth”. That idea is separate from your second argument that “abortion should only be legal if the mother and fetus would die without one”, which is actually a regression of the issue.

The abortion conversation has already argued the point that abortion cannot simply depend on both fetus and mother dying. If we did pursue abortion only if both fetus and mother would die, it would mean that a mother should carry a dying fetus to term despite it being a miscarriage, or that the mother should be kept alive until the fetus is born akin to an artificial womb. The former is detrimental to the mother’s health with nothing gained, while the latter is requiring the mother to sacrifice herself in order for her child to live.

I want to ensure I further the conversation here and get your argument right, because i don’t want to misrepresent you. If I’m correct in stating that you’ve argued “abortion should only be allowed if both mother and fetus will die” and “if development determines it’s status change from “fetus” to “child”, then it should be extended to the weeks after birth”, then I would want to ask the following:

When do you think “child” is defined? [Would you argue that the fetus is a child after a specific developmental milestone has been reached in utero (as has been argued in the case of premature births where a child becomes viable with sufficient medical attention)]

Why do you think “fetus”/“child” should be defined weeks after the birth, when development is the defining factor? (I ask because this is new to me, and I’ve never heard anyone on either side of the argument say this)

I ask these because I can’t help but feel the point of this article is to divide people that otherwise agree on a topic (which is a GOOD thing, politically speaking, given how divided and divisive out politics are).

Expand full comment
deletedApr 27, 2023·edited Apr 27, 2023
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

I appreciate you filling me in hahah. I’m more curious in the sense that i always try to give people an out when they’re caught doing this. Like i mentioned, i can’t see anything here other than forcing a division where there isn’t one, but on the off-chance i misread and he’s trying to have a conversation then I’d like to know what he means.

Expand full comment

Perhaps a good chunk of the “contradiction” in each side’s position is due to the political nature of the question. The question “Do you think abortion should be illegal?” is similar to, but distinct from “Do you believe abortion is morally wrong?” In theory, the answers should both be the same, but the real world is messy.

From a pro-life perspective, advocating for some politically feasible limitations on abortion is still a morally coherent choice. (See the abolitionist debates prior to the Civil War as an example.)

Expand full comment

I'm not certain where the post-partum abortion argument comes from. Pro-choice (at least in my neck of the woods) is about women having sovereignty over their own body. In fact, even the most ardent pro-choice person I know would claim that the preservation of the fetus has *some* value, just not nearly enough to trade off against the loss of bodily sovereignty.

Once the child is born, bodily sovereignty is no longer an issue and the child's value (which starts small and increases over time, if our court judgements are any guide) means their preservation is worth legal sanctions of some sort. I don't see any incoherency in that position.

Expand full comment

The burdens that an unborn baby places on the woman bearing it are far smaller than the burdens a newborn baby does. If 'bodily sovereignty' means anything, it means the right not to spend upwards of 12 hours a day doing nothing but tend to the inscrutable whims of someone else.

The real reason that liberals make a division between pre and post partum, is that, well, look at those eyes.

Expand full comment

"... even fewer liberals who’re willing to say it should be allowed in all cases – including after birth."

There is at least one libertarian who philosophically defends both abortion and infanticide: https://jclester.substack.com/p/abortion-and-infanticide

Expand full comment

"Should you be able to kill an innocent child if your life is threatened? Obviously not."

Obviously yes. Suppose a child with a diagnosed mental illness is threatening to shoot you. The kid is "innocent" in the sense that he is not morally responsible for his actions, which are the result of his mental illness. But you should still be able to shoot him dead to protect your own life.

"A few liberals argue that birth is the morally relevant cut-off. But why? There’s no morally relevant sense in which a neonate differs from a pre-term fetus. A child does not acquire any new capacities simply by leaving their mother’s womb. Rather, it develops them gradually over the first few weeks of life. Exactly when the child acquires “personhood” is a matter of debate, but it’s certainly not before birth."

There's no reason to allow "post-birth abortion" in the current environment when many families are eager to adopt infants. In past eras, that was not the case, and many societies have thus permitted infanticide.

Expand full comment

No no no. You misunderstand the case against abortion. Abortion is wrong because killing an innocent human is wrong. HOWEVER one innocent human being killed is less bad than two innocent humans being killed. So if mother has a problem where pregnancy will certainly kill her and the unborn baby will die as well as a consequence, then forbidding that abortion will cause the deaths of 2 innocent human beings , whereas allowing that abortion will only cause 1. And if the mother has a certain probability of dying during pregnancy , then you just do the expected value calculation to make the decision.

Try and show the inconsistency in this! I dare you.

However you are right that to be against abortion but allow it in the case of pregnancy from rape is very twisted and requires you to consider emotions about rape more important than murdering an innocent human being.

Expand full comment

I've often thought roughly the same thing. Both sides are illogical and don't carry out their positions to the logical end, because those ends are absurd. But here Carl is oblivious to biology: the dependency of the fetus on the mother. The proper analogy for abortion to save the woman's life is if the five year old needed the mother's heart to survive. She is not morally obligated to sacrifice her life to save the innocent child. Abortion to save the mothers life is prefectly logical even if you think the fetus has the moral status of a human being. As for action versus inaction. If the five year old somehow attached itself and remaining attached is the only way it could survive but doing so would literally suck the life of of the mother (or anyone), she is entitled to take steps to remove it to save her life.

Expand full comment

Abortion in the woman's death is likely scenario is more like stopping a blood transfusion that is essential to saving a baby's life, knowing that if it continues it will kill the mother, and having the basic decency to euthanize the baby beforehand instead of forcing it to suffer the pain of a heart-attack (abortion is not just forced birth it's active killing). Now people are squeamish, and try to pretend their squeamishness has moral significance. In order to maintain this pathetic illusion there might be someone somewhere who would call a person who mercy-killed someone burning in a fire a murderer, in order to justify their own willingness to watch passively as the horror unfolded.

Expand full comment