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Why Pro-Lifers Need Philosophy (Part 1)

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It’s pro-life week on the Counsel of Trent podcast, so Trent is dedicating two episodes to defending the pro-life view against clever thought experiments and powerful objections from the world’s best pro-choice philosophers.

Welcome to the Counsel of Trent podcast, a production of Catholic Answers.

This week marks the commemoration of the evil, Roe versus Wade decision. It’s also the inauguration of the Biden/Harris administration, which is not going to be great for pro-life legislation, but take heart, God is with us no matter what is thrown at us, we have a duty to stand firm and defend the truth, defend the unborn. That’s what we’re going to talk about this week on the podcast because it’s pro-life week.

Welcome to the Counsel of Trent podcast, I’m your host Catholic Answers apologist and speaker, Trent Horn. On this week, we have a two-part episode. We’re going to talk about why pro-lifers need philosophy, why we need the tools of philosophy to put forward the best pro-life arguments and to avoid pro-life arguments that are not as strong, and how to use philosophy to refute the most sophisticated pro-choice arguments. To help us do that is John DeRosa from the Classical Theism podcast.

John had me on his show recently because he does a lot on metaphysics, philosophy of religion, how to show that God exists, how to explain things like the Trinity. Classical Theism podcast is one of my favorites, you don’t want to miss it. John gets the smartest people on there, and he’s really good at breaking things down with his guests to equip you to defend our faith against the toughest atheist objections out there. So John invited me to come on, and I noticed on his show he had a lot on metaphysics, on God, on atheism, not as much on ethics, and he agreed. So we decided to do an in-depth show on pro-life philosophy.

So today will be part one, Thursday is going to be part two. In part one, we’re going to talk about tough pro-choice arguments that we need to rebut, but also talk about the different pro-life arguments that are out there. Some that maybe we should avoid and others that are much stronger and how we can use them to put forward the pro-life view, and not just the pro-life view, when you put forward a really good pro-life argument to an atheist, it starts to even make them question atheism itself.

So, we’re going to talk about all that in part one, and some of that I think carries over into part two as well. We’ll talk about that in part one. Part two, we’ll cover even more sophisticated pro-choice arguments, and where I disagree with some pro-lifers about how to answer them. That’s part one and two this week, you’re not going to want to miss it. Also, while you have time this week, be sure to go to trenthornpodcast.com, check out our bonus content there. If you’re a silver level subscriber or higher, you get a fancy Counsel of Trent mug, you can also make an annual one-time donation. So you can make a one-time donation to cover a 12 month membership to get access to the bonus content.

If you do that, I think you get something like 10 or 15% off the membership donation that you make. So, all that and more checkout at trenthornpodcast.com or consider leaving a review at iTunes or Google Play, that’s always a big help. I really enjoy reading the kind words that people share as well as constructive criticism people share in the reviews as well. Go to iTunes, Google Play, leave a review, I’d love to see it. Now without further ado, here is my interview with John DeRosa on why pro-lifers need philosophy.

So, we’re diving into the main topic today, which is something you have a lot of expertise in, you’ve studied for a long time, pro-life philosophy. Some people have said that abortion really is just a simple issue, and we don’t need to bother with a philosophical approach. I’m curious, what do you think about that?

I remember one time, John, I was out to lunch with a mentor of mine. So this was someone who had been involved in the pro-life movement for 30, 40 years longer than I had. He was showing me the ropes, and I was going through these philosophical arguments. He tells me, “Just keep it simple. It’s a human being, abortion kills babies, all this philosophical stuff, it just distracts from the issue.” There is a little bit of truth to that, that I think the issue of abortion is one of those moral issues that many people evade the argument rather than answer it. They defend abortion primarily on pragmatic grounds that we need it for reason X, Y, and Z, and they just sidestep the question of what are the unborn.

So often what I do as a pro-life apologist is I get people back to that question, what are the unborn, and I think in a lot of cases, people don’t have a persuasive response. However, that’s also just because a lot of people just don’t think deeply about many moral issues or many issues at all. Among philosophers, the issue of abortion touches on very deep questions in the fields of bioethics and metaphysics, questions like, what am I? What is a human being? How are we to treat one another? Is there a difference between killing someone and letting someone die? Does someone have a right to use my body without my consent? Abortion raises a lot of these questions and there is sophisticated literature on both sides of the issue.

As pro-lifers, if we ignore the sophisticated literature, we really do a disservice because there’s other people who are picking up on that literature, especially on the internet, people who get really involved in this issue. It’s similar to atheism, you’ve got the village atheist, but then you have people who read the sophisticated literature and they’ll come back at you with a sophisticated objection you may not be sure how to answer. I’ve read people who have put a lot of thought into these issues and it’s not as easy to rebut, but I want to give people the tools to be able to do that.

One reason I want to give people the tools to be able to do that is I have noticed that the pro-life issue can be a stepping stone towards the gospel and towards believing Jesus Christ. It’s very interesting. Patrick Madrid actually has an anthology on this called Surprised by Life. Patrick did several books called Surprised by Truth. They’re anthologies about conversions to Catholicism. Surprised by Life is a really neat one because it’s about people who were not Catholic, but became Catholic by getting involved in the pro-life movement.

When I talked to atheistic pro-choice advocates, a lot of times we talk about abortion, but then we get to deeper issues like, “Well, why do human beings matter? Why do you have value just because you’re a human being?” Is that not speciesism? You’re arbitrarily picking one species over another? Well, maybe there’s a reason the human species matters more than other species. Maybe it’s made in the image and likeness of a perfectly good infinite creator like God. So, if we ignore these sophisticated arguments, we really do so at our own peril. That’s why I really encourage pro-life advocates to learn the philosophy, not just the science, a lot of people say, “Oh, I know the science, life begins at conception.”

True science tells us what things are, but philosophy tells us what we ought to do, how we ought to think about these issues. So we really need to learn this philosophy and learn how to answer these higher level objections to the pro-life worldview.

No, I think that’s a great point you had there at the end because we’re pointing out all the time that scientism is false, because science is not the only thing that can give us truth about reality. One great place to point, one great discipline is ethics, and ethics, you need a philosophical approach and you really got to get in there, and yes, scientific information can inform the arguments, but the overall approach also needs to be informed by right thinking and good philosophy. So I’m bringing you on today Trent to help train us from those basics up to advance [crosstalk 00:07:30]

That’s right, because it’s interesting, we often accuse atheists who say, “Oh, well, we can prove this scientifically related to the existence of God.” We’ll rightly say, “Well, God is not a scientific question, you’re using the wrong tool.” I think it’s Greg Coco, who said, “You’re trying to weigh a chicken with a yardstick, you’re using the wrong tool here.” But I’ve noticed pro-lifers sometimes say, “Oh, well, the issue of abortion is easy because science …” I’ve seen this online sometimes, John, they’ll say science proves abortion is wrong. No, science can’t prove anything is right or wrong. Science can give us a very important fact in the abortion debate, which is that the unborn are individual members of the human species. But then you need philosophy to say, “Okay, what do we do at that fact to move the argument forward?”

I love it. Well, let’s do that today. We’re going to start with the more basic and more commonly known arguments, and then we’re going to be working our way through a bunch of these different arguments. Some of which I know you’ve studied, but I am not familiar with. So I’m excited to get into the details. But why don’t we start here? I know there’s some slogans and there’s the worst arguments. What are some of the worst arguments on each side of the debate, and why aren’t they good?

Well, the worst arguments on each side of the abortion debate, whether you’re a pro-life or a pro-choice. Some people fault me, “Why do you say pro-choice instead of pro-abortion?” I just use the term that the other side prefers to use. This also happens with atheism. Like I’ll talk to an atheist and I’ll say, “You’re not really an atheist or an agnostic.” But to at least have a conversation, I’ll say, “Okay, I’ll grant for this conversation, you’re an atheist.” So we can keep the conversation moving forward.

So when it comes to pro-choice, pro-life, I just use the terms each side wants to use for itself. So when it comes to the pro-choice side, both sides really, the weakest arguments are those that sidestep the question, “What are the unborn?” They try to argue abortion is wrong for reasons beyond the humanity of the unborn. Pro-choice advocates do this all the time. They’ll say, “Well, we need legal abortion to deal with overpopulation, or for women who are in poverty and can’t take care of their children, or children who are unwanted and will be abused or where there’s a right to choose.” Or just this, the ad hominem, “You’re a man, what can you say about this?” With all these arguments have wrong with them, is they don’t answer the question what are the unborn.

That’s why when I’m on Catholic Radio or in debates, I use a tool developed by my mentor, Scott Klusendorf, Trot out a Toddler. I’ll say, “Look, imagine I have a two year old here. I agree with you, some women are really poor, they can’t take care of a child, but imagine I had a two-year-old here, his mother lost her job, her husband’s left her and she’s poor, should she be able to kill this child?” People will say, “Well, no.” “Well, why not?” “Well, because it’s a human being.” Okay. So that’s the issue then, we don’t kill born humans just because of the issue of choice or overpopulation, whatever the case may be. So we shouldn’t do that to the unborn as well if they’re equally human.

Now, pro-life advocates can make a similar error when they argue abortion is wrong without talking about the humanity of the unborn. Some of these arguments include, what about adoption? Abortion’s wrong because there’s adoption. It’s interesting, in the previous example I gave you, a pro-choice advocate could say that, the woman who lost her job, abortion’s wrong because she could place her child for adoption. Well, no, if you couldn’t … let’s say you lived in an impoverished country and you couldn’t place your child for adoption or no one wanted to adopt your child. Maybe they’re a special needs child. It wouldn’t follow it’d be okay to kill them born or unborn.

So we should point out adoption exists, but that’s not the reason abortion is wrong. Another one would be, well, you shouldn’t have an abortion because you might be aborting the next Beethoven. Yeah, but you also might be aborting the next Ted Bundy. That’s not a persuasive argument. Our value does not rely on the ethical behavior we’re engaging in the future, it relies on what is our identity now. If we’re human now, we should be treated humanely. Finally-

I think-

Oh, go ahead.

Oh, go ahead. Yeah.

Then I would say the other one is, people will say abortion is wrong because abortion should be illegal because abortion hurts women. I’ve been invited to retreats for men and women who have procured abortions. It’s very tragic, and it is a pain you endure for, many cases, decades, your whole life. But that in and of itself does not prove abortion is wrong. People are allowed to do many things that can have negative health consequences for them. Smoking, drinking, frequent runs to fast food restaurants. We don’t make it illegal to do things that have health risks or even psychological risks. People are allowed to enlist in the military even though you could get post-traumatic stress disorder.

What I would say is that, the fact that abortion hurts women is not an argument against abortion, but it’s a clue there’s something seriously wrong with abortion. It would be like arguing that killing innocent civilians in war is wrong because it causes PTSD among soldiers. That’s not why killing civilians is wrong, but it’s a clue that you’re killing innocent human beings and you ought not do that. So, to summarize with these arguments, we make a mistake when we shift away from the question, what are the unborn? The best pro-life arguments and the best pro-choice arguments answer that question, what are the unborn and how should we treat them?

I think that’s a great way to summarize some of the bad arguments and also to cut to the heart of the issue. So, for the remainder of the time, we’re going to talk through a few of these different arguments, some are advanced than others, but why don’t we start out with this? What is the human being parsimony argument and how can it work in conversation?

Well, this is the argument I alluded to earlier when I said that my mentor … he took me out for lunch, we were talking about arguing abortion, and he was advancing what some like the philosopher, David Boonin, who we’ll certainly discuss later, has called the parsimony argument or the simplest argument against abortion. I say this is the simplest argument, but the simplest reason we can find to identify why it is wrong to kill unborn children, why would it be wrong to kill them? You might say, and this is what David Boonin says in his book, a Defense of Abortion. It’s funny when people say the unborn are not human. You hear this as a very bad argument. Or they’re not human, they’re not human beings.

Usually when people say that they mean philosophically, like in a philosophical sense you’re not a person, or you don’t have rights, because it’s patently obvious the unborn are human beings. Boonin himself admits in the book. He says that the most straightforward relation between you and me on the one hand and every human fetus on the other is this, both are individual members of the species, Homo sapiens. So you might say, “Okay, well, it’s wrong to kill fetuses if fetuses are individual members of the species, Homo sapiens, and you and I are individual members of the species, Homo sapiens. If it’s wrong to kill us, then it must be wrong to kill them.”

For a lot of people, this argument will suffice. But the problem is philosophers will raise some heavy objections. If your argument is, “Well, it’s wrong to have an abortion because the unborn is a member of the human species.” If that’s the only reason, it’s liable to two objections. Number one, some pro-choice philosophers will say, “Well, it doesn’t seem like it’s always wrong to kill human beings.” They may try to bring up examples in just war or things like that, though you could probably argue, we don’t intend to kill people in war, we use double effect, we intend to stop them, just like we don’t directly kill POW’s for example.


But another case they might bring up is, and this is what I’ve seen in the literature is they’ll say, “Well, what about someone who is on a heart-lung machine, who their upper brain has been … not even their upper brain, they’re essentially brain dead, but they’re being kept alive with different devices, and they’ll never regain consciousness, would it be murder to take that person off life support? So, what some pro-choice philosophers have argued is they’ll say, “Well, we have intuitions that in that case, you could kill an innocent human being.”

Now, my rebuttal to that is, well, you’re not killing them, you’re just refusing to use disproportionate means to keep them alive. You have a duty to not directly kill an innocent person, but you don’t have an obligation to use every kind of life sustaining measure possible. I’ve seen that, I don’t think it’s a very good objection, but I’ve seen it among critics of pro-life philosophers, they’ve brought this up. The stronger objection, John, would be this one, is people will say, “Okay, if abortion’s wrong, if it’s wrong to kill a fetus just because it’s a member of the human species, what do we do if we come across someone we would call a person who is not a member of the human species?”

So like we have this intuition that it’s wrong for Lex Luthor to kill Superman, even though Superman is not a member of the human species. He’s Kryptonian, but we say that he’s a villain, it’s wrong for him to do that. Then the pro-choice philosopher will say, “Well, why is it wrong? Superman is not a member of the human species, but we all recognize that he is a person.” Now, the pro-lifer could object. “Well, Superman’s not real, he’s fictional, it doesn’t count.” But what if we discovered an extra terrestrial species like us, like the Vulcans, for example, from Star Trek? Would it be wrong to kill them? Well, we don’t know if they’re extra terrestrials, you could keep raising objections.

As a Christian though, you have a big problem. We do have a concrete example of a person that is not a human being, and those would be angels. The catechism says, it’s the truth of the faith, angels are persons but they’re not members of the human species. We also say God is a Trinity of persons. So, it seems like the pro-choice philosopher is onto something when he says there can be persons that are not human beings, that the term human being and person are not synonymous, they’re not just identical to each other. They may have the same reference sometimes, but there could be persons that are not human.

So the pro-choice philosopher will tell you, “Hey, wait a minute, it doesn’t matter about being a human being, what matters is being a person.” So you’ll get philosophers like Marianne Warren who say, “Oh, well, what makes you a person is being able to talk and think and do all of these things.” That’s why we know Superman’s a person and angels are persons. The fetuses can’t do talking and rational thinking.” So they start us down that path from a very solid objection. Well, what I would say, John, is this, this doesn’t disprove the pro-life position, it just shows we got to advance beyond this human species parsimony argument to put forward our best pro-life argument.

No, I think those are some great points. So, I think that’s typically where I’ve started my own conversations on this topic is with something like an argument that, it’s always wrong to kill innocent human beings, the unborn are innocent human beings, therefore it’s wrong to kill them. But it is liable to these objections which will push things further, but for some people, I think that could be enough [crosstalk 00:18:55]


For them to chew on, which is good. I’m gland you [crosstalk 00:18:57]

Absolutely, and for many people, because you could say, “Well, I’m not going to settle the personhood question. I’m just going to say you agree it’s wrong to directly kill innocent human beings. You already agree with that point.” If the unborn fall under that class to be consistent, you’d have to include them. So, I think it’s a great argument. The pro-choice advocate just may have to change it to say, “Well, no, I don’t think it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings, I think it’s wrong to kill innocent persons.” Then we’ve got to be able to meet them on this if they change the field.

Okay. Very good. Well, let’s turn to this because I think that’s going to be directly relevant. There’s what’s called the rational nature argument. So, what does this mean and how does the argument run?

Right. So this would be an argument against abortion. It would be an argument for the pro-life position saying that the unborn are not just … they are human beings, but what makes it wrong to kill them is that they are persons, they are human persons. It puts forward a particular definition of what a person is. Now, there’s different ways of cashing out this argument, it’s sometimes called the substance view of the human person. I like the rational nature argument. It’s very popular, especially among Catholic pro-life philosophers. So, Francis Beckwith has defended this argument, Patrick Lee, Robert George. There’s a variant of it by Alexander Pruss that deals with identity over time that, if it’s wrong to kill you now and you existed at the moment of conception, it was wrong to kill you then.

So, Pruss runs at it more from a personal identity angle, but it’s pretty similar that what makes it wrong to kill someone is that they have a rational nature. So, what is a person? Some pro-choice advocates will just define a person as, “A person is a thing that can function in a personal way, fetuses can’t function in a personal way, they’re not persons.” The pro-life advocate will say, “No, personhood is not based on your functional ability, it’s based on what you are.” So one of the earliest articulations of the substance view, the idea that a substance is something that endures over time and maintains its identity, it’s not like an accident.

I am a human substance, there’s things [inaudible 00:21:19] might change, I can get a haircut. I might get a tan if I go out to California, but those are accidents. I am a substance that endures over time. When I die, I undergo a substantial change. My soul leaves my body, the human substance, I, as a person no longer exist. I’m a soul and a corpse. So, the idea behind the person definition should be this. Boethius, an early medieval philosopher said, “A person is an individual substance with a rational nature.” Okay? An individual substance or a thing that endures over time that has a rational nature. It doesn’t have to be rational, it just has to be the kind of thing that can be rational according to its kind. You see, I might say, a person is a being that belongs to a rational kind.

In order to understand this, we have to make a difference between first-order capacities and second-order capacities. So, you are a person if you have the first-order capacity to be rational. So, you and I right now, we’re having a conversation, right? Where we both have the immediate capacity to be rational. But when you and I are sleeping or in a coma, we don’t have that capacity, but we could have it later. We have the capacity to have a capacity. That’s what makes you a person. So, like a cockroach has neither a first-order nor second-order capacity to be rational.

One example I gave, I had a dialogue a while ago with an atheist YouTuber named Shannon Q, and I was trying to get her to wrap her head around this, and she just couldn’t break from the idea of what second-order capacities were. Your listeners could listen to it to see. It was a little [inaudible 00:23:00] she is very polite woman, was a great conversation. But you [crosstalk 00:23:03]

I’ll definitely link to that in the show notes, that’s interesting.

Yeah, because we talked a lot about this. I said, “Look, you and I, I have the first-order capacity to speak English. I don’t have the capacity to speak Mandarin, but I have the capacity to have the capacity to speak Mandarin. I’m the kind of being that can speak Mandarin if I just put in enough time on Duolingo.” All right? So, the unborn human embryo, human fetus, it does not have the first-order capacity to be rational, but what makes it a person is it has the capacity to have that capacity in virtue of its kind. Now, even in extraordinary, there may be extraordinary cases where that capacity gets cut off really early because of some kind of brain defect or something like that. Just like we may lose that capacity through a brain injury. But what makes you special and worthy of value is belonging to this kind.

Now, the objections I’ve heard from this … Nathan Nobis is a pro-choice philosopher. I hope to engage him soon on this issue. He’s just very skeptical of this. He says, “Why does this rational nature, it’s very ethereal concept, why does it matter what your nature is? Why does that matter?” Peter Singer and others might make this objection. My response to them would be this, your nature matters because that’s a criteria we use to determine if a being is flourishing. So for example, I am not capable of flight under my own power, but we wouldn’t say that I am not flourishing. A bird is not capable, like a parrot might be able to talk but it can’t read, but we don’t say that the parrot is not flourishing.

But we would say a flightless parrot or an illiterate man are not flourishing. Why? Well, they have a certain nature, the man is the kind of being who should be reading and the bird is the kind of being that should be flying. So, if we dispense with natures and this kind of end goal for a being, we really lose the ability to determine value and make this kind of value judgment. So, I’m not convinced of this kind of skepticism towards the rational nature argument.

No, I think it’s a good argument. I think where people are going to go next is just to, like you said, be skeptical of the definition, deny the definition, or put forth their own definition. So, I think I’ve heard you talk about this on the radio, and some people say, “Oh, they just don’t accept that definition.” I just have one example here that you brought to my attention. Apparently there’s a philosopher, Jeff McMahon who has an embodied mind view, who says that persons are not the same as human beings but just the rational parts of a human being. So I guess the thought would be that, if you kill an unborn human being, you’re not actually killing a person because they don’t yet have that rational part, can you tell us more about that and how would you respond?

Yeah. So, Jeff McMahon, like I would say the best defenders of the pro-choice worldview would be like David Boonin, Jeff McMahon, Nathan Nobis does a good job. They’re well read, and they understand the arguments, but I do believe ultimately their positions are unsound. But they put forward interesting things for us to think about. So, McMahon’s view, which is also part of Derek Parfit’s view of what it means to be human person. Parfit wrote an article a while back called We Are Not Human Beings. Because there’s an argument among philosophers, because like I said, abortion is an interesting subject, it is simple on one level, but it’s like philosophy of religion in general. Like philosophy of religion, you’ve probably noticed this in your own podcast, it opens the door to all other complex elements of philosophy.

You talk about Kalam, now you’re getting to the philosophy of infinity. You talk about other kinds of metaphysics. You get into these other deep elements, and that’s what happens with abortion, especially with personal identity. So there’s a debate among philosophers about, what are you? Are you just a mind that we should be the mentalist view? Similar to McMahon’s view, the embodied mind view. We are a mind and a body, or what’s called the animalist view, which is you, your identity, you are a body, you are a human being, you are an organism. That is what you are.

Two good books on that. Patrick Lee and Robert George wrote a great book on that awhile ago, called Body-Self Dualism, arguing, we are human beings. I don’t pilot my body to give my son a kiss on the forehead. I don’t kiss my son with my body, I kiss my son on the forehead. I give my wife a kiss on the lips before she goes to bed at night. I do that because I am my body. In fact, as Christians, you would say, at death, you don’t exist anymore per se, all that exists, as I said earlier, is a corpse, you’re corpse, you’re body and you’re soul, because the human person is a composite of body and soul. That is why we look forward to the resurrection.

There’s a new book that deals with this a little bit, it was just brought to my attention today, and so I’m eager to read it. The author of the Notre Dame Law School, Carter Snead. It’s a book called What It Means to Be Human: The case for the Body in Public Bioethics.

That’s so funny. I was just listening to him on a podcast at UT Austin. It sounds like an incredible book.

Yes. That’s one of the hard things with doing philosophy. I mean, it’s like any field, you understand this stuff, you always got to be on the horizon for new additions to the field, new ways of looking at these arguments. So I’m really excited to read that book. Now, back to McMahon’s argument. Well, how would McMahon argue that we’re not human beings? Why would he say we’re an embodied mind? And usually he and Parfit and others will give these thought experiments to make you doubt that you’re an organism. They’ll say, “Well, no, you’re just this mind that happens to be attached to a certain part of the body. That’s what you are.”

One of the thought experiments … it’s not even a thought experiment, he cites the example of dysaphoric twins. So these are twins … there’s two girls up in Minnesota who are like this, who are conjoined twins. You think about the very first conjoined twins were these Asian gentlemen who were conjoined at the hip. I believe that is the source of the term Siamese twins. Don’t say Siamese twins, that’s not politically correct, that’s not correct. You say conjoined twins. So, you could be conjoined as a twin in different areas. Some are conjoined at the hip or on the trunk. The dicephalic twins are conjoined at the neck, so they share its two heads.

So, McMahon describes it as two heads sit a top one body. So what my man says is, “Look, we got one body here, but we always say there’s two people, because really what makes you a person is not having a human body, it’s having a human brain that your mind is embodied in.” I would say that that McMahon’s example from the dicephalic twins fails because he is trading on the term body when he should be using the term trunk. I would say in the case of dicephalic twins, you have two bodies that share one trunk. It’s two bodies that just happened to share 90% of the same organs, but we have two different organisms here.

Now, the more complex rebuttals that are offered, usually involve brain transplants into corpses. So, people will say like, “Look, let’s say someone took my brain out of my body and put it into a corpse.” Let’s say you had a fresh corpse, Guy’s dead, Fred is dead, you take Jones’s brain out of Jones’s head, let’s say Jones is dying, we can keep his brain alive, and then we put it into Fred’s body. Because Jones has … his body’s wasting away but his brain is fine. Then Jones wakes up, looks in the mirror and he sees Fred’s body. What do we conclude? McMahon says, “Well, Fred body is alive and moving again, but we wouldn’t say Fred is alive, Fred is dead. We say Fred died when his brain died. You’re a mind, you’re not your body.”

But these examples, I would say once again, we are not describing correctly what’s happening in the situation. It’s not the case that Fred’s body came back to life with Jones’s brain. We can’t look at it that way. It’s not like Fred got a new brain, it was Jones who got a new body. That’s all it is, and that’s not controversial. Because what if we just change the scenario where it’s like the ship of Theseus’ paradox, part by part, you change something. So what if every week we change 5% of Jones’s body, we transplant Fred’s feet, then his calves, then his knees, then his thighs, and we do this over and over again, and then all that’s left is the brain. We would just say that Jones had a very large transplant scenario, but he’s still there.

So my response to McMahon and Parfit and others would be to say, a person is an individual member of a rational kind. But the human brain after several weeks of development, tends to be our indispensable organ, because it’s what provides bodily unity. You destroy the brain, you destroy the organism. So, the brain is important, but the brain itself is not what you are.

I think that’s a strong response to McMahon’s argument and shows how the rational nature argument can hold up. But I’m guessing other people put forth other definitions of persons and personhood. So I want to ask you maybe for like a catch … maybe not a catch or rebuttal, but like a strong response we can give. What do you see as a major problem with nearly all of these pro-choice personhood arguments?

The major problem when pro-choice advocates … because there’s two different ways and we’ll talk about this here later in the interview, there’s two different ways you could defend abortion from a pro-choice perspective. You could argue … I mean, everybody agrees abortion kills the human fetus or human embryo. So you could argue that what is being killed is not a human person, is not a person, so it’s not wrong. So the killing is not wrong. Or you could argue that it is a human person, but it’s not killing. Or at the very least it’s not an unlawful or illicit kind of killing that you’re doing.

So, the first route would be to say, “Well, you are killing, but you’re not killing a person.” But in order to do that, we should always press people when they say, “Well, it’s not a person.” Press them and say, “Okay, what is a person?” Because if you’re so confident you know the unborn are not persons, you have to have your own definition. It’s like if I say I’m sitting here at my desk, I can confidently say my desk is not a circle. How do I know that? Some desks are circles. There’s that great one on Parks and Rec, Ron Swanson gets a circular desk and he just keeps turning away from people because he doesn’t want to bother them. I have your traditional square desk.

I know it’s not a circle because I know a circle is a shape that has one side and one 360 degree angle. My desk is squared, has four 90 degree right angles. To know that it’s not a circle I have to know what a circle is. So, the pro-choice advocates, if they’re so confident the unborn is not a person, they have to know what a person is in order to exclude them, in order to know that. But the problem is, and we’ll see this even in the more sophisticated arguments, any attempt to construct a definition of personhood that excludes unborn humans but only includes born humans, is going to fail for one of three reasons. It’s either going to set the bar too high, set the bar too low, or it’s going to be totally arbitrary.

So for example, if you say, “Okay, to be a person you have to be able to think rationally, at the level that you and I can think, or at least something beyond what animals can do.” You’re right, fetuses won’t be persons under that definition, but infants won’t be either. That’s why one of the toughest pro-choice positions to refute is Michael Tooley and Peter singer’s arguments, which say that infanticide is not wrong. That makes their arguments a lot stronger. If you want a good breakdown of how to philosophically rebut infanticide, Chris Kaczor’s book, The Ethics of Abortion, has a great rundown on that. Though I like Robert George in first things, he did an essay once, they did a symposium on infanticide, and Robert George basically said, “It’s just wrong, I don’t have to say anymore, you shouldn’t kill babies.” I got to give-

He is right.

It’s like, “Oh, I see a little bit of merit to that.” But Kaczor does a really good job with it as well. So you might say, “Okay, fine, fine, fine. You don’t have to think rationally, you just have to be able to think at all.” You just have to be able to think or feel, and fetuses can’t do that. If you can think or feel, feel anything at all, you’re a person. The very least a first trimester embryo fetus, no way they can do that. I would say, well, here’s the problem now, number one, it will still exclude some born people. People who are in comas, asleep or the irreversibly comatose. Now, some of these pro-choice advocates will say, “Yeah, the irreversibly comatose are not persons either.”

I would say, what about a newborn who is born comatose but we know is going to wake up? I mean, most people would say that is a person, but under this view they would not be. So it’s still excludes some people. The big problem is, it includes a lot of beings we don’t think are persons. So, feeling pain makes you a person than fumigating a barn, and as fixating rats would be mass murder. I mean, I’ve tried to see projects [inaudible 00:37:06] and some of them bite the bullet and say, “Well, you should be kind to animals, we shouldn’t kill them.” Like, “Okay, so you’re saying we should just let rats run rampant?”

I mean, if you have squatters in your home, you can’t gas your home to get rid of the squatters. If you have people paying rent, renters who stopped paying rent, and you say, “I’m getting rid of these guys, I’m going to gas the house.” That’s murder. But if rats can also feel pain, getting rid of them would be murder too. So, it just doesn’t work [inaudible 00:37:37] too low. Or if you say, “Well, a person is someone who can feel pain and is also a human being.” Now you’re just being arbitrary.

If you pick feeling pain first and being human doesn’t matter, why are you including it now in the definition? You’re doing it to save it because you’re not making definition of personhood, you’re just trying to get away to exclude the unborn. It’s the same as every other arbitrary ad hoc definition of personhood throughout history that tried to exclude women minorities. It’s dubious, that is dubious, it’s insidious.

I really liked the three categories you lay out there, because it can be a roadmap and a framework we have in our minds here when having these conversations, if they do say no, the unborn are persons, you got to ask them, “What do you mean by person?” They’re either going to set the bar too low, they’re going to set the bar too high, or it’s just going to be totally arbitrary, and then we can offer our rational nature definition in its place. So, I think that’s a very good layout, Trent, you’ve given us here. Do you want to add one more point?

Yeah. I’ll add one more point. The rational nature argument also has something else going for it, is that, we believe that human beings are persons, but we’re also committed to human equality. So we would say that all human beings have equal rights. So, we don’t say, for example, “Well, it’s wrong to kill this person, but it’s not as wrong to kill this person.” I guess, maybe the way I could phrase it is, we agree in the past, when African-Americans were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census in the Antebellum South, there is no three-fifths of a person. You either are a person or you’re not a person.

Imagine if we said anyone with an IQ over a 100 or 110 or whatever the genius have like you, I guess I’m not a genius. So, I feel like people who say I’m a genius because I took an IQ test. I’m like, “I think the real geniuses don’t take IQ tests and don’t tell other people their IQs.” If you get a certain IQ, you get two votes or three votes in elections. We say, no, each person should be treated equally, but why? What’s equal about us? If our personhood is tied to our functional ability, your personhood is the ability to be rational, act in a personal way. Well then, there’s no grounds for human equality.

In fact, Jeff McMahon, in one article I read of his, he talks about this being a disturbing implication of his view that you lose human equality if you ground our value in a quality that fluctuates so much like personal ability. But we all equally possess a rational nature, so that can ground our equal rights better than the pro-choice feel.

I think that’s really cool. I’m actually just going to note to myself here for a moment because Christopher Thomas Shefsky is doing a doctoral dissertation where he’s defending different arguments for the immateriality of the soul, or just talking about the soul and various different aspects. But one of his arguments, just to motivate the idea of thinking that we have a soul, our embodied souls, is this equality argument. He goes into it in some length, because if you don’t believe in anything, any sort of rational nature, anything like a soul, it does become increasingly more difficult. Just a pure materialism to say, “Well, what exactly is the equality and have human equality, what is equal?” They don’t look equal, they don’t sound equal. There’s different ways of going about this. So I’m just going to [inaudible 00:41:09] an interesting dissertation [crosstalk 00:41:10]

No, and that’s good. What’s nice about it is because the soul is hard for people to wrap their heads around, and I’m sure you’ve covered this a lot on your podcast. But a lot of people think of the soul as just the ghostly form of you that even wears clothes like Patrick Swayze and Ghost. The soul is the ghostly version of you, there’s the real you, but that’s not the case. The soul is a very incomplete part of you. I think Ed Feser said, “If I were just the soul, it would be like being a dog who had his legs and tail and ears and eyes cut off.” It is just this … it’s still be a dog, but it’d be a quite incomplete dog. We are incomplete there.

So, if we talk about our rational nature, it gives us something beyond our material bodies, it gives us equality, it gives us a value, then that’s a stepping stone to the next step, which is that our rational nature … it doesn’t just give us value, it’s an organizing principle that whatever this nature is, and not only gives us value, it’s what gives us the structure that makes us this kind of living beings. So, the value argument might even be a nice stepping stone to help people understand what the soul does according … Sorry, fancy jargon here, to mystic hylomorphist view. For anyone who wants deeper on that, I’m sure John’s got a bunch of episodes to help you break it down.

Well, honestly, I got to have some people out to discuss it because we haven’t done it specifically, but we have mentioned it in passing and you’re absolutely right. I like that definition of organizing life principle. That’s what the soul is, it’s that immaterial life principle. But nonetheless, because the culture would be so confused with soul talk, I would say in this context of a discussion, definitely don’t start in an argument saying, “Abortion is wrong because they have a soul.” People are just going to not know [crosstalk 00:42:59]

Yeah, you could say rational nature, and people say, “What’s the nature?” You could say, “Well, nature’s just what you do.”


A nature is just a way of saying, you’re the kind of thing that does X, and you can point to all kinds of things have natures, and we know what a nature is because we feel … There was an old web video about the kiwi that can’t fly and it puts all the trees in the cliff side to pretend like it’s flying. It’s actually a really sad video, but when you think about … we shouldn’t be sad about kiwis not being able to fly because it’s not in their nature or ostriches, but like an eagle that can’t fly, that sad, because eagles have a flying nature as their being, so yeah, rational nature.

Some people though, and this may come up in another question you have, have a hard time wrapping their heads around why this matters because they only think that killing is wrong because you don’t like to be killed, and if you’re not aware, you’re not going to care. If you’re not aware, you’re not going to care. Thank you guys so much for listening, be sure to stay tuned for part two this week, where we go over even tougher pro-choice arguments and how to respond to them. Thank you all so much. Check out John’s Classical Theism podcast and check out trenthornpodcast.com if you have time. Thank you guys so much. I hope you have a very blessed day.

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