Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Responding to the Responsibility Objection: Part 2

I've recently come into contact with a pro-life blogger named Clinton Wilcox, who runs a blog called Pro-life Philosophy.  He has written some well thought out objections to the bodily rights defense of abortion that I advocate.  I'd like to take the time to respond.
I used two thought experiments in my response to the responsibility objection, the first involves a driver who accidently runs over a kid.  Clinton responded with this counter-argument.
“This thought experiment actually ignores two key factors: First, where is the responsibility located? Why was this kid just playing around the street without his parents supervising him? It seems to me that in this case, the parents are responsible for letting their kid play around the street and possibly getting hit. The man who hit the kid would probably feel horrible, but it doesn't seem to me that the situation would be his fault unless, of course, he was driving recklessly (and the point of this thought experiment is that the driver is being "safe").”

Alright, it seems like he is saying that because you're not responsible for hitting the kid you should not be forced to donate your kidney.  He says that the parents are responsible for your hitting their kid.  Okay, so let’s say Clinton is right and the parents are responsible.  Does this undermine the thought experiment?  To find out let's just change the analogy so that it is taking place from the point of view of the parents. 

Imagine you and your wife are watching your three year old adopted child from the window.  He is playing with a ball in the back yard.  You both turn away for about 10 seconds to load the dishwasher.  During that time, the ball your child was playing with rolls into the street.  He runs after it and gets hit by a car.  He now needs a kidney transplant.  You are the only match.  Are you morally or legally obligated to donate to your adopted child? 
It seems to me at least, that you would be a bad person if you refused to donate.  However, does it follow that you should be legally obligated?  Should you be charged with some form of homicide for refusing to donate?  I still don’t think so, even though you should be considered legally responsible for the child’s neediness, it seems you should not be legally obligated to provide this kind of extensive bodily compensation.  Other forms of compensation seem plausible, but not bodily compensation, at least bodily compensation that requires significant, long-term sacrifice.    

“Second, there is a distinction between driving and having sex. Driving a car is not an act that leads to running over people as the act of sex leads to pregnancy. No one should be hit by cars if all people are acting responsibly and being safe on the road, but sex is an act that intrinsically (that is, by the very nature of the act) leads to pregnancy”.

Is sex something that leads to pregnancy by its very nature?  I guess that would depend on what you mean by “its very nature”.  “Nature” is kind of a vague term that can mean a lot of different things, especially in ethics.  So, I guess in order to really be sure I am responding to his actual objection and not attacking a straw man I need Clinton to clarify what he means by “nature” in this case.  That being said, I have some responses to a few different interpretations of the word "natural".    

One way of interpreting that sex in its very nature leads to pregnancy could mean that sex is necessary or sufficient for pregnancy.  If this is what he means then I think he is wrong, sex is not necessary or sufficient for pregnancy.  Sterile couples can have unprotected sex perpetually, forever and that would never result in a pregnancy.  Therefore sex is not sufficient for pregnancy; there are other biological and environmental factors that must be at play in order for a pregnancy to occur.  Pregnancy can also result from IVF.  IVF does not require sex at all.  Therefore, sex is not necessary for pregnancy.  So although sex CAN lead to pregnancy, it is not need to.  Driving is similar in this respect.  Driving a car is not something that necessarily or sufficient for injury or death.

Another thing he might mean is that the purpose of sex is to procreate.  If this is what he means, he is correct that this is a disanalogy (a purpose of sex is for procreation, but the purpose of driving is transportation not hurting kidneys).  However, is this a morally relevant disanalogy?  To find out lets use another analogy that involves someone getting injured while using an item whose purpose is injury and death.

Imagine you are teaching your young daughter how to shoot a gun.  One of the purposes of a gun is to kill.  You are using all the safety precautions you can, but an accident occurs and your daughter is shot in a way that requires her to need a kidney transplant.  Should you be legally obligated to give her your kidney? 

I still don’t think so.  Again, I think you would be doing something wrong if you refused to donate, but I don't think it should be illegal for you to refuse.  So, this disanalogy does not seem to undermine the argument.

“But at any rate, again, you are not obligated to give up your kidney. Putting up a sign is a nice warning, but you are not responsible for the patron's slipping and falling. Presumably he can see the water on the ground, and presumably he knows that water makes things slippery. Suing for a kidney in this case would be about as frivolous a lawsuit as they come.”

The reason businesses have slippery when wet signs is because they have been sued when people slip and fall.  People can and do succeed at making frivolous law suits.  But setting the frivolousness of the lawsuit aside the point of the analogy was to show that if we give people a legal obligation to give bodily compensation people would be able to sue others for their organs.  I think this is a huge problem with the responsibility objection regardless of whether or not people are suing each other frivolously.  Imagine a scenario where someone sues you for a good reason, would that make suing you for your kidney any less problematic?  I still don't think so.




  1. I think what he means by the word "nature" is that the primary purpose that sex has is to procreate. That is, morally, the persons have to have sex for the primary purpose of procreation. This is more a sexual ethics question than a biological question and this is generally what is dealt with when debating certain pro-lifers (so long as their name isn't Pat Robertson).

    1. Wrong. Nowhere in Clinton's writings does he suggest that.

      He's simply talking about consequences. The reasonable consequence of sex is procreation.

    2. I totally agree that what Clinton means by "nature" is that the primary purpose of sex is to procreate.

      However, I don't think that he is saying that people should only have sex to procreate. He may believe that, but I don't think that is implied in this particular article of his.

  2. "You both turn away for about 10 seconds to load the dishwasher. ...Are you morally or legally obligated to donate to your adopted child? "

    The driver is not responsible. The parents are. If you don't have a fence up and you turn away for 10 seconds, you're responsible when the kid get hit. And if the kid dies because of the accident, the parents are guilty of homicide.

    1. It sounds like your view is that because the parents are responsible they should be legally obligated to donate, is that correct? I find that very counterintuitive, but I respect that it is consistent.

  3. "You are using all the safety precautions you can, but an accident occurs and your daughter is shot in a way that requires her to need a kidney transplant. "

    If no one is responsible, then no one is at fault. But this isn't a good comparison to pregnancy. The parents chose to engage in something, the consequences of which will create a new human being. That's the nature of sex. It leads to pregnancy. Teaching someone to shoot doesn't lead to someone getting shot. While that can happen, it's not designed into the process.

    1. I agree that human beings getting shot is not designed into the process of teaching someone to shoot a gun. You're right, I think this disanalogy causes this thought experiment to fail. However, I think I could modify it so that it is like pregnancy.

      The principle function of a gun, I believe, is to cause injury and death and I think we both agree the principle function of sex is to create new human life. Someone can engage in sex and not intend to get pregnant and someone can shoot a gun and not intend to shoot someone, but the principle function of those activities are pregnancy and injury/death. So it seems to me, and I could be wrong, that if someone were to unintentionally shoot someone else while they were at the shooting range I think this would be analogous to someone getting pregnant as a result of having consensual sex.

      I also think that if I were to go to the shooting range and shoot someone accidentally despite the fact that I was using all the available safety precautions so that it was very unlikely (though still possible) that I would shoot someone and I did unintentionally shoot someone that that would be both analogous to pregnancy as a result of protected, consensual sex and I should not be legally obligated to give my kidney to the victim.

      What do you think?


    The pro life state of Texas doesn't seem to think that the shooter should have to give up a kidney let alone do any jail time. But if you are a pregnant woman, according to pro lifers, you have done something far far worse than this man by choosing to have sex. And that you deserve to lose your bodily rights to a single celled organism.

    The entire pro life brigade seeks to subjugate women to non persons, and treat them worse than criminals. Special pleading - for the all mighty zygote

    1. Thank you for showing me that story. I really like "the raw story" and I read a lot of their articles, so I'm not sure how I missed it.

      The article definitely raises some questions and possible inconsistencies in people's world view. Those who advocate against abortion and defend the responsibility objection would seem to not only have to side with the mother, but also add a kidney to the jail time.

      "But if you are a pregnant woman, according to pro lifers, you have done something far far worse than this man by choosing to have sex. And that you deserve to lose your bodily rights to a single celled organism."

      Maybe some pro-life people think that, but I know quite a few and none of them have that position. None of the PL people I know thinks that women should be punished for having sex and they don't think anyone should lose their bodily rights to anyone. They just don't think bodily rights can justify abortion.

      "The entire pro life brigade seeks to subjugate women to non persons, and treat them worse than criminals"

      It seems to me that the only view that can be applied to all pro-lifers is that the unborn as persons and that abortion violates their right to life. So, in my view everything else can very from person to person so it's a generalization to say more.

    2. Well the pro life people that I know believe that the right to life only trumps bodily autonomy in the case of unintended pregnancy. Then they add some points about how women should stop spreading their legs. And yes, many do view it ad a punishment - since they will compare the woman's actions to a criminally negligent action such as dangerous shooting or driving while intoxicated. They don't say that the woman is at ' no fault' - they say she is * guilty* of putting a needy person in harms way. And of course they would not support mandatory organ donation from criminals - yet they will force it on women. They are content with making an exception for pregnancy.

    3. I think there's a danger with making generalizations about all pro-life people. PL people are PL for a variety of reasons and certainly some can be jerks, but I can be just as certain that not all of them are. Here's a blog my PL friend Josh writes. He's a good guy. You should check it out if you ever want to read something by a nice PL person.

      "And yes, many do view it ad a punishment - since they will compare the woman's actions to a criminally negligent action such as dangerous shooting or driving while intoxicated."

      It's certainly true that some PL people make that argument. And I agree it does seem like punishment for sex, which is why I think it's a poor argument. I'll probably write a blog post on it sometime. However, I know some people who make that argument don't actually view pregnancy as punishment for sex. I just think that makes them inconsistent

  5. I think you made the wrong type of argument entirely, and Mr. Wilcox rightly nailed you for it. Changing responsibility for the child being injured does nothing to address Mr. Wilcox's response. The key point of that response is that a legitimate case could be made for requiring the responsible party to donate their kidney in this case.

    For the sake of argument, I'm going to make that case. A basic premise of ethics is that if you harm someone, you have the obligation to make it right. That is the premise which drives the tort law system. In a case where you caused harm enough to require a kidney transplant, and assuming you are a match and can donate the kidney, then you have the obligation to do it. Legally requiring it would simply be an extension of already existing ethical and legal principles.

    I am not suggesting that we actually should make it a legal requirement to donate. But that legitimate argument for doing so can so easily be made suggests that you have failed to grasp the "responsibility objection." The "responsibility objection" already accepts that people generally have the right to bodily autonomy. In general, the right to life in and of itself does not establish a claim to someone else's body (parts). However, when you are responsible for creating the need, you have given that person such a claim.

    Thomson herself recognized this and dealt with the argument. She didn't do it by posing an analogy that plays right into the hand of the "responsibility objection." She simply pointed out "there are cases and cases, and the details make a difference." As her first example, she pointed out that voluntarily opening a window in the knowledge that there are burglars out there still does not give the burglar the right to climb in. Indeed, in order to avoid the "responsibility objection," one would have to take courses of action that are completely absurd. The point is that we all voluntarily take risks, but that does not mean we should be left without remedy if something does go wrong. The onus is on the anti-choice people to make the case that woman cannot make use of the remedy of abortion should she become involuntarily pregnant.

    On the nature argument, there is no need to figure out precisely what Mr. Wilcox meant by "nature." Nature is irrelevant. Human beings already manipulate nature in such a way that we can have and enjoy mutually agreed upon rights, one of which is the right for individuals to decide what happens in and to their own bodies. If he wants to deny the right to bodily autonomy to pregnant women, and only to pregnant women, then it is up to him to make a compelling justification for it. "Nature," however he wants to define, doesn't cut it.

    1. Hi Timothy, thank you for commenting. There's a lot to respond to here. Would it be okay if I take a little while to respond?

    2. That will be fine.