fidesquaerens: (Default)
2012-02-09 23:49

Aristotle and abortion

I'm teaching an Aristotle reading tomorrow where he talks about what it means to be a good human. Before he can do that, though, he thinks he has to work through what a human is. I'll spare you the details, but asically Aristotle says that what sets us apart is that we can look at a situation and choose to go one way or the other; unlike Buridan's ass, we can move beyond our impulses. The important thing is that Aristotle defines humanity in terms of some characteristic that we actually have – not that we might have, not that we'll someday develop, not that we'll one day develop. And certainly not that we have human DNA as opposed to orangutan DNA.

This question has some obvious connections to the whole abortion debate, because a zygote or even a six-week-old fetus has very few qualities. If a human is a choosing thing, can a young fetus do this. Can a newborn baby, for that matter? Aristotle's account of humanity seems to say that a fetus's (or for that matter, a small child's) status as human depends on what it can do. If it can decide whether it wants to play with the red ball or the blue ball, then it's a human and killing it is murder; if not, then it is still alive (and so can be killed), but maybe that killing doesn't rise to the level of murder.

Preparing for class, I wanted to prepare several arguments Aristotle could give for why abortion is wrong without calling it murder, at least in some circumstances. I don't necessarily agree with them, but I thought it might be fun to discuss them anyway.

1. Potential vs. Actual Traits: Aristotle distinguishes between traits we have right now and traits we have the ability to develop. So while a fetus isn't human (since it can't make choices at this point), it has the ability to develop. Aristotle says it's important that we develop character virtues, which he sees as potential traits we should develop. (So basically, the Adrian Monks of the world should build up their courage, so they can face new and challenging situations, but they're not courageous until they've done that.) I think a story could be told here that people who have a duty to protect a particular child have a duty not to squander that potential.

(Caveats: I'm almost certain Aristotle would say actual trumps potential, so a mother has a duty to have an abortion if her life is in danger. You could also ask whether certain parents have a duty to a particular fetus. You might argue that until you accept responsibility for it, its not really your responsibility to nurture a fetus just because it's taken up residence inside you.)

2. The Duty to Care: Aristotle defines humans not just as a rational animal but also as a social animal. We develop our virtue in a community, and friendships – good kinds of friendships built on a love of virtue – are definitely to be sought after. Treating a fetus as just something getting in the way of our desires objectifies us. And to the extent that we think of it as a human or a potential human, it makes it that much harder to form genuine human relationships. This probably is more true of very young children who weren't yet able to choose, or fetuses that were old enough they were known to resemble very young humans – the concern is that by treating fetuses/infants that remind you of mature humans as things, you train yourself to think of real humans the wrong way.

(Caveats: Aristotle's perfectly clear that not only can't you have a friendship with a non-human, you can't have a true friendship unless it's between equals – knocking out the parent/child relationship even once the child is born. So this only addresses the way that treating a potential human as a thing damages the mother's ability to foster future friendships with fully-mature humans.)

3. The Practical Harm of Abortion: Aristotle doesn't define right and wrong in terms of how much pleasure or pain they generate, but he does recognize its importance. Any abortion will involve physical pain, either from surgery or from cramps and discomfort as the zygote/fetus passes. There's also the psychological pain, if a woman feels like she has had to kill a human or a potential human; the lost money that went to the abortion; and the social stigma.

(Caveats: The pain a woman suffers through an abortion may be less than the pain she'd suffer by going through a pregnancy, to say nothing of either adoption or motherhood. And Aristotle's not totally averse to some suffering, if it leads you to develop character; he seems to be more against pointless or excessive pain. I'm also not sure how an Aristotelian would count the pain the fetus went through as it died. Since it's not surviving it can't have a bad impact on the fetus's future character.)

So… three ways that an Aristotelian could say abortion is not murder but it's still wrong in most circumstances. Thinking about this, I'm reminded of Bella's pregnancy in Breaking Dawn. It seems to me that an Aristotelian would almost certainly disagree with Bella's initial decision to have a pregnancy that put her life in very real danger (she's told in no uncertain terms that this child is killing her) – but once Edward senses the child's thoughts, I think at that point an Aristotelian would have a harder time insisting on an abortion. The child is increasingly human (I'd say having actual thoughts, certainly actual desires, is a key marker of being human), and at that point the parents had formed a special attachment to it, so killing Renesme then would lead to the problems I pointed out in #2.

What do you guys think. If you think abortion is wrong, would these ideas let you condemn it strongly enough without calling abortion murder? Do these ideas put enough value on the mother's right not to have a fetus take over her body for nine months, maybe even kill her? I'd be interested in peoples' reactions.



(Originally posted at LJ; please comment there.)
fidesquaerens: (narnia)
2012-01-27 15:20

RL update, part 623

Oh, hi weekend!

It's been a relatively good week, teaching-wise. My class covered the Apology and the Crito, both of which have to do with Socrates's trial. We had some great discussions about the nature of atheism, whether anyone really knows anything, and also when it was okay to disobey the law (and how). This semester for the first time I'm requiring my students to comment to our course blog before class to show they've done the reading, which means for every class at least half the class has actually done the reading and thought about it enough to give a drabble's worth of reflection. That seems to be making a real difference in the quality of discussion.

Or maybe it's just the fact that Plato's political and ethical material can be so fun. We'll see how it goes when we get to the more difficult metaphysical material next week. But I have high hopes for this group, and now that my head cold is clearing I feel more competent than I have in a long while in front of a class.

(Btw: if anyone's interested in following along, the course site is http://www.mlayton.net/ . My lecture notes are posted under the "Course Business" section.)

Research is going well, too. I haven't actually made more progress this week, but it's in a more definite, feeling-accomplished way than I've experienced in a good while. Makes me want to go into Manhattan tonight and go to a movie. Shall have to see if there's anything worth seeing - maybe Extremely Loud and Extremely Close? Though I'm reluctant to spend big screen bucks on something without the SFX and action sequences to make the most of it. Mostly, I'm happy because it's sixty degrees, not quite as wet as it was this morning, the week is over and I feel clear-headed and free for the first time in a long time.

Fun stuff I've posted over at FB:

1. From the "S**t my students write" website:

Biblical cats - In Egypt, cats used to be seen as the symbolic and sacred animal. However scholars who have read and analyse the Bible claim there is never a mention of cats throughout.


2. This cartoon. Because bunnies make everything better.

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fidesquaerens: (Tolkien)
2011-12-07 20:59

i can haz movie marathon?

I swung by Best Buy tonight and they were having a very good sale on my kind of DVDs. I picked up all three Lord of the Rings, and Troy and Invictus besides. And at $4 a DVD, it came to about what I'd spend on a Friday night in Manhattan (movie tickets, popcorn, drink at a jazz bar afterward).

We'll see if I still enjoy the theatrical releases. Five moves and four states after the last DVD came out, I've lost at least one disk of all my versions. Meaning it's been years since I've relived how well PJ screwed up Denethor, and how well he nailed Gandalf. I'm going to be a good little scholar tonight and work on De libero arbitrio so I can take the time tomorrow in good conscience. I'm still in one of those rare academic hiccoughs between mountains of course-prep and mountains of grading, and I plan on enjoying it.
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2011-11-30 15:11

thank-full

Because I didn't do this last week:

  1. I have no cavities.
  2. I have a passing GPA.
  3. "Theology and Falsification" by Anthony Flew. I'm putting my syllabus together and skimmed it to see if it would be worth including. I had forgotten how much I love working through why I disagree with this essay.
  4. This piano player:

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    Leon Russell (I assume?), where have you been all my life? Talk about ear candy...

  5. The store clerk at the local bodega asked if I was from the U.K. Made me feel all classy.
  6. I have a mild sprain in my big toe. That isn't good news, but the doc's orders to wear trainers even while teaching is.
  7. Falafel. Somehow it never gets old.
  8. As [personal profile] jay_of_lasgalen helpfully pointed out: Swordspoint now has an audiobook! Just the anticipation is something to be thankful for.
  9. Meta-humor (and the Muppets, of course):

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  10. The Muppets movie. Without it I never would have explored the old show clips on YouTube. They are hilarious, and I am truly sorry I lived my first twenty-nine years without them!
  11. Breaking Dawn, which has me thinking deep thinky thoughts about my beliefs re: abortion rights and feminism more generally.
  12. the starry sky above and the moral law within
  13. progress on my reading list (more than a theoretical possibility, for once!
  14. YOU!
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2011-11-21 19:39
Entry tags:

review: Breaking Dawn

I went to see the new Twilight today. As a movie, it was actually pretty good. Bella has pretty well evolved into the living definition of a Mary Sue (perhaps she should have had purple eyes, by movie's end?), but I can actually live with that.. Part of what makes Twilight so fun, to the extent that it is, is because it is a fantasy. A fantasy geared in many ways toward teenage girls, or the teenage girl inside those of us that are significantly older than Bella.

cut for spoilers )
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2011-10-29 00:21

Review: The Ides of March

I finally got around to seeing The Ides of March tonight. Interestingly, the movie theater was still packed. I had read a few reviews suggesting it just didn't "hang together" as a movie, but I still had high hopes. I came of age politically in the age of West Wing, and the first R-rated movie I saw was Primary Colors. I'm enough of an idealist to think that political movies can either be inspiring ot at least interesting, and I often disagree with those particular reviewers.

Plus, look at the cast: George Clooney. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Paul Giamatti. Evan Rachel Wood. Even diCaprio was involved (not on screen; as executive producer), an while I hated him as a teenager, his adult acting and film projects generally have often appealed to me. This film looked like it could deliver on an interesting piece of political intrigue.

cut for spoilers + expletives in movie quotes )
fidesquaerens: (cuddly)
2011-08-27 00:59

The Help and social justice

I saw The Help again tonight, and it has me up late thinking thinky thoughts.

cut for spoilers + politics )

What really drove this point home to me, though, was a sign I saw walking home, for a college loan foundation. It had an Afro-American staring up in rapt curiosity at floating chemical symbols. And I was actually reduced to tears, because I care deeply about education. I actually think university education through the bachelors degree at a state school is basically a right, given good enough grades and work ethic and all. It really shouldn't depend on family finances. It does, of course. And loans is not always the answer. But I was moved by how much better it was, to give all families a decent way to finance an education if need be so they don't have to depend on charity. Loans, for all their imperfection, don't put someone else in charge of a decision that should be yours. Charity does. I actually teared up a bit at seeing that sign.

I really hope people will remember this when we think about politics. Because politics matters. To bring down the debt you cut back spending, and the argument seems to be that if the government does not provide things and there's less taxes collected people will give more to charity. Problem is, charity means some individual gets to decide if you get the money you need. Charity is no replacement for a society where there's an even enough distribution of resources so a hard-working couple who save up for a decade can actually afford to send a child to college. Two of them, even, because sometimes the working poor have kids. If you make reasonably good choices and still can't meet a reasonable level of expenses - well, it's not charity you need. It's justice.

I'm not saying that the government gets everything right. Far from it. But But this idea that if we just let private charity take over everything would be hunky-dory? Well, charity is great for a crunch. Charity is better than the lack thereof. But it's also more than a bit insulting, and it's no replacement for a fiar and well-regulated society. Today kind of drove that home.
fidesquaerens: (Default)
2011-08-13 21:22

fish 'n chips, jolly ol', and all that

I just booked my plane ticket to London for next month. My first reaction was: good God, when did airline fees and taxes jump so high? I don't remember them being near this high when I last crossed the pond. There needs to be a way to get those down to a reasonable level, or at least make the ticket fees more representative of the real price.

My second reaction - probably the more interesting of the two! - was giddiness. Not at buying the ticket so much, though it's really good to have hit the "confirm" button. But really, it was the little thing. Words like "tube," "heathrow," "hostel" and "return" (as opposed to round trip) - they make me miss England so much. And I was only there once, several years ago! But I find myself yearning for it, intensely.

I think a part of my reaction is coming from The Help, which just opened this weekend. Fabulous movie IMO, and I won't go into spoilers for obvious reasons, but I will say that it looked not just at racial tensions but also the drive to conform you see in the white Southern community, especially among women. I suspect this is the case in other Southern subcultures as well but I have never had access to them. Setting aside the major cities, life is much less about what you do and more bout who you do it with. I remember the jokes about people sitting on their porch making sure the 11:05 train from Atlanta was on time. Or people just sitting on the porch, talking or reading a book or just watching a thunderstorm.

It's a slower-paced life, but not without its charms. Thing is, those charms usually involve social events with other people. Having friends call, or things like church functions and dinner clubs. All of which makes it very hard to live a full life if you don't fit into the mold. The Help presents us with stories of people who don't fit into their society for lots of different reasons. Watching the movie, I couldn't stop thinking about the pain of that distance, and the cost of it for those who can fit in. There are costs to every lifestyle of course but this is the lifestyle I know. So seeing so much of that played out on screen hit home.

For me, my experience with England is all about adventure and autonomy. Everything from the individual university rooms to the train system to the hostels - you don't have to have a lot of money or connections to go out and have good experiences. Or at least I didn't. That's available elsewhere, of course, including in the South if you drive (I don't). But for me, in my personal experience, England represents all of that. I love it for its own sake, too, but I love it for the association as well. And it's good to be reminded of all that sometimes.

Speaking of the South, Jon Stewart had a fascinating interview recently, with a historian who wrote a book on Davey Crockett. It has some really fascinating stories. Much recommended.

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