Not bad for a cold Friday night in a college town.
The event was well-publicized. As I noted earlier, the event’s Facebook page numbered 95 RSVPs and over forty possibles. The archdiocese plugged the debate in the last Denver Catholic Register, and also posted a notice at its website.
Since Thursday, at least 25 people have come to this blog searching for information on the Kreeft-Boonin debates, which are a traveling show. Many of those visitors were local. The debate has certainly energized interest.
Peter Kreeft answered the debate question “Is abortion ever morally justifed?” in the negative, taking the pro-life side. He argued that for personhood is coextensive with human nature, enjoying all the rights thereof. He also argued that people cannot rationally deny the right to life of the unborn without denying the right to life of newborns.
Catholic News Agency summarizes:
He recounted how he once discussed abortion with "some very intelligent feminists," claiming that they had no argument justifying abortion that would not also justify infanticide. "After the argument they came up to me and said 'Congratulations, professor, you changed our mind. We didn't think you could do that'"
"'Oh, good,' I said, 'you're pro-life now?'"
"'No, we're pro-infanticide'," Kreeft finished, prompting surprised laughter from the audience. "So logical consistency can be a two-edged sword," he noted.
Kreeft presented a version of his argument that those who are uncertain about the personal state of the unborn child must refrain from abortion. Again, from the CNA summary:
Even someone unsure if the unborn child were a person, Kreeft argued, would in the absence of certainty have to refrain from an abortion. To kill someone without knowing if they are human is still homicide. To act in a rash manner that could kill someone, such as poisonously fumigating a room without being sure it was empty of people, would amount to criminal negligence. Barring certain knowledge that an unborn human is not a person, abortion similarly would be blameworthy even if the human fetus were not a person with the right to life.
Boonin noted that Kreeft's argument that any moral uncertainty about moral status of the unborn child meant all abortions were at minimum morally blameworthy could have radical implications if applied consistently. This "appeal to uncertainty," as he called it, could require one or more controversial stands: pacifism, since some soldiers are innocent conscripts and other innocents are killed in collateral damage in war; vegetarianism, since there can be doubt about whether killing an animal is blameworthy; opposition to capital punishment, because there was a possibility innocents would be executed; and finally it could require people to give all of their excess income to charity, since there was uncertainty whether spending money on luxuries deprived hungry or sick people from necessary resources.
I thought this was one of Boonin’s stronger points. Elsewhere he characterized some of Kreeft’s arguments as the often-fallacious slippery slope arguments. I believe he meant Kreeft’s allusions to the dehumanization of slaves or Jews in recent centuries. However, I think he dodged Kreeft’s postulate that justifying abortion also justified infanticide, which arguably is also a slippery slope argument.
Boonin himself proposed a thought experiment, a modified version of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s “violinist needs a blood transfusion” scenario: “Suppose you walked out in the park yesterday and a doctor caught you and conked you on the head and knocked you unconscious. You wake up, and the doctor has hooked you up to a bone marrow extraction device. The bone marrow is extracted from you and pumped into me. You ask 'What's going on?' The doctor says 'Don't worry, stay hooked into Professor Boonin for the next nine months, he'll be fine. Disconnect yourself now, because of a bone marrow disease, he's going to die.'”
Boonin thought most people agreed disconnecting oneself from the ill person was morally justified.
To the objection that this situation only applies to victims of rape, and that a woman consents to a pregnancy by consenting to sexual relations, Boonin modified his example: "Before you went walking in the park yesterday, you knew for a fact that my doctor was going to come looking in the park for a bone marrow donor. Your friends warn you 'Don't go in the park, lock your door! If you go into the park, there's a chance you're going to end up getting hooked up to this crazy philosopher, and you'll have to stick around for nine months." Escaping from this modified situation, Boonin thought, was similarly morally blameless.
But here I think he exposed the flaws of this thought experiment. It entails treating all pregnancies as kidnap-rescue scenarios. I don’t know about you, but no woman I know says “Bob and I are trying to force myself to carry a fetus for nine months.” Something so ordinary and universal as pregnancy, from which all men originated, cannot find a good analogy in such an extravagant hypothetical.
The thought experiment’s treatment of pregnancy as a disease, while certainly appealing to college students, also cannot form a consistent ethic. Think of the performance contradictions involved in an obstetrics ward that delivers babies, performs lifesaving surgeries in utero, and also commits abortions.
I also wonder: What would Boonin say are the duties of the father to a fetus considered parasitic?
Further, there is rhetorical manipulation latent in Boonin’s example.
In Thomson’s version of the scenario, a “famous violinist” suffers from some unspecified fatal ailment, the treatment of which requires someone to hook up to him for nine months. Boonin replaces the unspecified treatment with a bone marrow transfer, which is invasive and very uncomfortable.
Boonin also puts himself in the place of the ailing violinist. Whatever his other physical endowments, Boonin is not the handsomest of men. Further, both he and the hypothetical violinist are a few decades removed from their fetal stage.
Describe the person needing treatment as a gurgling infant, a cute four-year-old, or an ugly autistic teenager, and I think the audience reaction, and the philosopher’s intuitional response, would change depending on their sympathies with such persons. Make the ailing patient a blood relation, a pedophile, or a doctor nearly done with the cure for that bone marrow cancer from which he suffers, and our conflicted emotions cloud the argument that is meant to dissolve pro-life objections with revulsion towards imprisonment.
Boonin made some concessions to the pro-life cause, saying that if pregnancy were less burdensome an abortion could be an immoral act. I believe I heard him after the debate endorse the typical “viability” pro-choice criterion. I wished he had included this position in his public remarks, because it means that in his ethic, at the time when pregnancy is most burdensome upon the woman, it is least permissible.
Kreeft’s response to Boonin’s arguments seemed passive. A friend in attendance called his performance “understated,” which is perhaps the better word. Since I was more interested in recording the debate than in considering its truth, I initially thought Boonin did well against Kreeft. Only upon reflection, Kreeft’s position endured while Boonin’s shrank in stature.
At one point Kreeft suggested shifting the ground from “rights” to “responsibilities.” This was a bit inconsistent, since Kreeft’s arguments from the beginning used rights-language.
However, I think that shedding “rights talk” is the correct path to take. Rights-language is often antagonistic and conflict-based. Nobody talks about a right to be hugged, or a right to hug, because those actions have not been politicized. The conflict between mother(and father) and child is precisely what needs to be abated. Rights disputes suppose human equality, rather than human unity as the more important consideration.
In an egalitarian climate, the right to life must be universalized in distortive fashion. That is why Boonin can try to separate the right to life from the right to life support. While everybody can in theory live(insofar as anyone can theoretically live), the ability to sustain that life varies from person to person. Often such variety cannot be described in terms of equality.
“Rights-talk” is a political shorthand, a second-order description of the good in question. When talking about the right to life distracts from talking about life, something has gone awry.
The aftermath of the debate, and my excitement over what is happening in Boulder’s Catholic campus ministry, will have to fill another post.
For now a few references:
Update: I have published the detailed account made from my audio recording at Google Docs, it's ~2,000 words.
A recording of the debate is available on the ArchDen website
Francis Beckwith on Boonin’s book, “A Defense of Abortion,” a review excerpted at Mirror of Justice
Peter Kreeft's essay Human Personhood begins at Conception
Ivy Catholic reports a Kreeft-Boonin debate at Yale, the video of which is viewable at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute