Thursday, November 10, 2005

Family Supervalues

An anonymous commenter writes the following:
"[Unborn entities in the early stages of pregnancy] are not persons under any definition of personhood apart from patently religious ones."

What is the earliest that any definition of personhood claims that an unborn entity ceases to be an unborn entity and is instead a person? I don't intend this question to have any rhetorical implications, I'm simply asking because you have a much better grounding in such matters than I do.
Well, since I finally received a comment that wasn't an anonymous flame, I'm giving my response its own post.

Incidentally, anonymous picked up on one of the phrases that somebody "edited" behind my back. The original sentence said "precissification of personhood," not "definition"--"precissification" is a technical term from vagueness theory that doesn't really have synonyms.

Now, here's what I'm getting at. Personhood, like, as it turns out, many if not most predicates, is vague; "x is a person" can have indeterminate truth value, as I think is the case with the unborn. One of the ways of dealing with vague predicates is supervaluationism. Let's take "x is bald," since that's not fraught with the sort of controversy that any talk about abortion involves. A precissification is any coherent rule for assigning determinate truth values to vague terms. One precissification of baldness is that "x is bald" is true just in case x has 450 or fewer hairs, otherwise false. Another precissification is "x is bald" is true just in case x has 451 or fewer hairs, otherwise false. Dig?

So for a vague term like baldness, "x is bald" is super-true if it's true under all precissifications of baldness, super-false if it's false under all precissifications of baldness, and indeterminate (or super-indeterminate) if it's true under some precissifications and false under others.

Here's the controversial bit. My understanding of opposition to abortion is that opponents want (at least eventually) to prohibit all abortions, not just late-term abortions (which I might agree with, incidentally). The problem is, I submit, that "an unconscious aggregation of multiplying cells is a person" is super-false if we ignore religious precissifications of personhood, which courts must do if they are to respect the establishment clause.

As I said in the YDN piece, there are two planks to Roe: 1) a reaffirmation of the privacy rights holding of Griswold; 2) the finding that a fetus is not a legal person. Now, if you wanted to overturn Roe, attacking (2) could achieve at best mixed results, assuming my supervaluation of personhood is correct. No secular tribunal could ever precissify personhood in such a way as to find that every entity pro-lifers would like to protect under statutes banning abortion is indeed a person entitled to rights. If your goal is to ban all abortions, arguing for the personhood of the unborn is a losing strategy. That's why, not so surprisingly, abortion opponents have focused on attacking the idea of unenumerated rights in general and privacy rights in particular---and that's also why, when senators ask judicial nominees whether they believe in a right to privacy, they're asking in code about the nominee's views on abortion.

Okay, now I can get to anonymous's actual question:
What is the earliest that any definition of personhood claims that an unborn entity ceases to be an unborn entity and is instead a person?
I don't think "any definition" is what anonymous is asking about---if it is, the answer is uninteresting. I don't think there are any restrictions on what counts as a precissification of a vague term aside from logical consistency. Clearly, therefore, there is a precissification under which personhood begins at conception. Maybe individual sperm count as persons under some precissification. There probably won't be anybody surprised to learn that I don't find these precissifications compelling, and indeed, I can't imagine a non-religious metaphysic according to which they are correct.

My answer to the question is whenever consciousness arises. This answer solves some problems and creates a few as well. Pre-conscious fetuses don't count, conscious fetuses do. But there are going to be borderline cases, and there remains an issue of vagueness.

How do we deal with cases in which supervaluation doesn't give us a super-truth value to the sentence "x is a person"? The best I can do here is outline a few alternatives. Your strategy for dealing with these cases is going to depend on what you think the phenomenon of vagueness is, and on that point, there are basically three competing schools: 1) Linguistic indeterminacy: if a predicate is vague, then linguistic convention has failed to establish sufficient truth-conditions for the term---vagueness resides in the language; 2) Ontological indeterminacy: vagueness is a metaphysically "deep" phenomenon---when a sentence is super-indeterminate, that's because the qualitative profile of the subject of the sentence is in some way indeterminate, so "x is bald" is indeterminate when x is is neither bald nor not-bald; 3) Epistemicism: the appearance of vagueness is a function of the limits of our knowledge, not anything to do with either the terms of the sentence or their referents---there is a determinate fact of the matter about whether a man with 450 hairs is bald, a man with 451, a man with 452, etc. If we're unable to arrive at a determinate value, then the answer to whether x is bald might be unknowable, but it exists.

I should mention that, along with virtually every other philosopher, I reject (2) out of hand. It's a notion about as popular in modern philosophy as platonic degrees of existence. The real divide is between those who think vagueness is linguistic indeterminacy or an epistemic phenomenon.

My own view, which in the conversations I've had about it strikes some people as incredibly intuitive and others as completely unintuitive, is that some instances of vagueness are epistemic and others are linguistic. Sounds milquetoast, huh? Actually, it's very controversial. My view entails rejecting vagueness as a unitary phenomenon, which I doubt many philosophers are willing to do. Nevertheless, I maintain that vagueness merely appears to be a unitary, multiply instantiated phenomenon because every instance of apparent vagueness is superficially similar to every other; the appearance of vagueness is the product of difficulty in assigning a truth value to a sentence, but that is not reason to believe that the underlying cause of that difficulty is or has to be the same in all cases. Indeed, the fact that we refer to all instances of apparent indeterminacy as "vague" is a case of linguistic confusion, whereas anytime it is vague as to whether or not a particular instance of vagueness is linguistic or epistemic, that second order vagueness is undoubtedly epistemic: there is, surely, a fact of the matter as to whether or not an indeterminacy is the result of imprecision in language or our inability to know a determinate fact that nevertheless exists.

The case of consciousness in fetuses, I think, is a case of epistemic vagueness. This is bad news for setting a policy on abortion. Unless science figures out a test for whether or not something is conscious -- and the prospects for that don't look good -- then the indeterminacy over whether borderline cases are conscious or unconscious is intractable. The silver lining is that, by dint of supervaluation, a blastocyst is not a person, so (assuming Griswold is correct) the private autonomy of a woman with respect to her own body dictates that she is free to abort a blastocyst without interference from the state; likewise, an independently viable fetus is a person, and by virtue of its rights it is not within the privacy rights of its mother to terminate its life.

Note that if the borderline cases of consciousness are cases of linguistic indeterminacy, then by giving a determination to all borderline cases ex machina through positive law or something, we would thereby establish precisely what is and what is not a conscious entity. The implausibility of that scenario is what leads me to believe that borderline cases of consciousness are cases of epistemic vagueness.

Just to throw a bone, in closing, to those who don't dig philosophical analysis: Epistemicism is antonymous with literary deconstruction. Discuss.


At 8:24 AM, Anonymous Ashish George said...

To most conservatives such talk is just egghead mental masturbation. Pro-lifers are going to view the invocation of personhood as irrelevant to the abortion debate. At the end of the day, most of them oppose abortion not because of any principles that are part of a deeper theoretical scheme, but rather because of a very deeply ingrained intuition that all human life is sacred. To them words like "epistemic" and "intederminacy" are just so many more ingredients in the witch`s brew of secular reasoning.

At 10:51 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Flame" is your way of being dishonest with yourself about the fact that you are condescending and disrespectful towards the majority of your fellow students.

At 12:36 PM, Blogger jeremy said...

i thought this post was very effective in demonstrating the rational parameters of the abortion argument, even if those parameters aren't the ones "most conservatives" follow. It is really striking if you think about it to see "belief" become the major barometer of discourse today. But perhaps this is overly unpragmatic . . . anyway, Fin, no i don't think epistemicism is antonymous with "literary deconstruction" though i would argue that that phrase is historically invalid. In fact i would argue that the intuitive attachment of linguistic indeterminacy to decon is actually somewhat suspect, and that what decon does is point up polysemous readings of predicates not "indeterminate" ones, and therefore if you were to enforce your categories of indeterminacy, decon would locate indeterminacy in epistemic problems. As Paul De Man laid out rather rigorously, what's going on in "literary decon" (if that exists at all it's in De Man) is the paradoxical negotiation of epistemology and rhetoric, judgement versus power, in the attempt to fully trace a reference.

At 12:53 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Ashish, I have no doubt that many if not most pro-lifers would read this post in exactly the way you describe, but the proportion among them that are interested in a cogent legal strategy for overturning Roe are going to have to engage with these kinds of arguments.

For the rest, I believe dialectic runs something like this:

Smith: Tell me this egghead--if we evolved from monkeys, why are monkeys still around?

Jones: We didn't evolve from modern species of monkey, we share common ancestors whose descent divided between primates and lower simians millions of years ago.

Smith: Faggot.

At 3:50 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

I notice anonymous is engaged in yet more armchair telepathic psychoanalysis. Nice contribution. If you believed any of the things you say about me, what on earth are doing spending so much time on my shit.

At 3:24 PM, Anonymous Ashish George said...

Daniel, I think you are giving way too much credit here to the level of public debate in this country. A mistake you rarely seem to make...

At 4:16 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you, an enlightening post.

Ashish, If it makes you feel any better, I am a conservative pro-lifer who believes that life is sacred, but I find words like "epistemic" and "indeterminacy" to be the key to making good abortion policy and laws, since they are necessary to understand where personhood (is life the same as personhood?) begins. I don't know how many more there are like me, but we do exist.

At 2:17 AM, Blogger jeremy said...

let me just say that i don't really think this issue of "how your argument sounds to ideologues, dogmatists, politicos, or simpletons" is really an issue. I'm not sure Fin's post should be read as suggesting that his rhetoric is the best political strategy. Rather, i think positing such argumentation helps people who do appreciate such language to better come to grips with the issue. Anyone who just says "I'm pro-life" or whatever and doesn't even find the questions of consciousness, life-definition, autonomy, etc. etc. interesting is not a very thinking person. So I appreciate the language not for its political pragmatics but for the way it helpfully sets out an issue for anyone willing to plug into its verbal system.

That said, i think fin is right that at some level, the parameters he sets out will have to manifest themselves in at least legal briefs, whether or not rational argument is the dominant factor in court cases, which, i sort of suspect, it rarely is.

At 2:18 AM, Blogger jeremy said...

oops -- i actually meant to say "pro-choice" not "pro-life" -- interesting Freudian slip. My point was that such a discussion should be intrinsically interesting, as i do not at all think these issues are resolved on a philosophical level, even for those advocates, like me, of a "pro-choice" position.


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