Jeremy Williams: Paper as provided for discussion

The paper by Jeremy Williams on anti-abortion violence was provided, July 26, 2021, for blog discussion by fellows.


Stephen Kershnar July 27, 2021 at 10:46 AM


[Parts of these comments come from Does the Pro-Life Worldview Make Sense? soon to be released in theaters starring Edward Norton and Natalie Portman.]

Consider this case.

Case #1: Zyklon B

A Nazi worker drives his truck to his job at the death camp, Treblinka. His job is to drop Zyklon B into the shower-like rooms that are used to kill Jews. A Jewish resistance group kills the worker with a .50 caliber sniper rifle when he is a half a mile away from the camp. They do so in order to save Jewish lives. Under German law, assassinating death camp workers is illegal and punishable by death.

It intuitively seems the resistance group can permissibly assassinate the worker. This is true even if doing so is illegal and will bring about widespread reprisals of ten innocents killed for every Nazi killed.

On a strong pro-life position, the Nazi worker is analogous to an abortion-doctor, the Jews who would otherwise be killed by the worker are analogous to fetuses, and the Jewish resistance is analogous to the pro-life resistance.

The strong pro-life position holds that killing a fetus is (usually or, perhaps, always) as wrong as killing an infant and that this is very wrong.

Here are the similar features.

1. Act (assassination)

2. Actor (resistance group)

3. Endangered Group (innocent person)

4. Justification (defense of others)

5. Legal Status (illegal)

6. Location (target driving to work)

7. Method (.50 caliber sniper rifle)

8. Motivation (defense of others)

Jeremy Williams’ notes two possible differences in terms of excuses, although he does not think they make a difference. Nazis are forced to work there. Abortion doctors do not know that they are doing is wrong.

Note that innocence does not prevent forfeiture. Consider the following George Fletcher case.

Case #1: Psychotic Aggressor

A woman’s companion in an elevator goes berserk and attacks her with a knife. There is no escape: the only way for her to avoid serious bodily harm or even death is to kill him with her gun. The assailant acts purposely in the sense that he means to further his aggressive end. He does act in a frenzy or in a fit, yet it is clear that his conduct is non-responsible. If he were brought to trial for his attack, he would have a valid defense of insanity.

Intuitively, it seems that such defense is permissible even though the psychotic attacker is not morally responsible. If someone is not morally responsible, then he is not blameworthy for his act.

If this is true for self-defense, then it is likely true for defense of others.

Stephen Kershnar July 27, 2021 at 10:48 AM


A Hershenov-and-Reed objection is than an abortion-doctor has a partial justification and so while fetus-defenders may use violence, lethal self-defense is disproportionate and therefore wrong.

The objector claims that because the fetus is wrongfully trespassing on the woman’s body, the trespass lessens the violence that is permitted on the fetus’ behalf. The objector argues that the abortion-doctor inherits some of the moral leeway the pregnant woman when acting as her agent. Of course, the moral leeway is not strong enough to permit lethal defense, otherwise this would contradict the pro-life position.

Partial justification does not undermine the case for lethal self-defense. It is unclear if this is because the justification is not lessened or lessened but still sufficient to justify such defensive violence. To see this, consider the following case.

Case #2: Star Chamber

There are a bunch of vigilantes who go about killing serial batterers and rapists following star-chamber rulings finding them guilty. The star-chamber rulings are done in secret by eminent judges who look at batterers and rapists found not guilty due to technicalities (for example, probative facts are excluded for policy reasons). Consider, for example, Fourth Amendment exclusionary rules and the prohibition on introducing evidence regarding past convictions. Assume that battery and rape do not warrant the death penalty. A self-appointed defender of batterers and rapists uses lethal force to defend them against Star-Chamber-hired vigilantes because this is the only way to save their lives.

Let us assume that the vigilantes’ partial justification is in fact equal to that of an abortion-doctor.

While the case is complex, it intuitively seems that such force is permissible even though the star-chamber team has a partial justification for killing its targets.

It is unclear whether the permissibility of doing so is as strong when the vigilantes target wrongdoers as when they accidentally target innocents, but in either case defense of others allows for lethal defense even when the others have done things to make their rights less stringent.

Stephen Kershnar July 27, 2021 at 10:50 AM


The objector might respond that the difference is that the vigilante does not have the same partial justification as the abortion-doctor because the vigilantes are

(a) in a worse epistemic position (and thus have less of an excuse),

(b) takes the law into their own hands, and

(c) are not the agents of the intended victim.

If condition (a) and (c) are less true of the vigilante, then the case can be tweaked to eliminate these differences.

Condition (b) is not enough to make the difference between permissible and wrongful killing as can be seen in that the legality of the Nazi worker’s job is of minor importance.

It might also be argued that the doctor’s violence is defensive, whereas the vigilantes’ violence is punitive, and that the former is a stronger moral factor. This might be so, but for the doctor’s liability to be different from the vigilante, there would have to be a big difference in the right-making aspect of what is done. This seems to come perilously close to making abortion morally permissible.

In addition, we can imagine that the vigilantes only target those who are extraordinarily likely to commit more severe violence so that there is a defensive aspect to what they do.

Stephen Kershnar July 27, 2021 at 11:23 AM


David Hershenov and Phil Reed’s argument suggests that sub-lethal violence can be used against abortion-doctors and women who hire them.

How much violence may be performed?

(1) Pinch

(2) Slap

(3) Punch

(4) Leg breaking

(5) Mutilation

Here is an attempt to answer this via an equation.

(A) Right-stringency difference = (stringency of abortion wrong-making right) – (stringency of body-invasion wrong-making right)

(B) Permitted violence → right-stringency difference

The arrow means ‘is a function of’. Right-stringency difference determines the ceiling of permissible violence. Consider, for example, (1), (2), (3), etc.

Here are a few theoretical problems with the equation.

(a) Rape. Intuitively, it is permissible for a woman to use lethal force to prevent a rape. Hence, it is unclear that this metric that works in a straightforward way in self-defense.

(b) Metric. If the metric were to be put in terms of interest, then the issue would arise whether injustice is distinct from harm. If the metric were to be put in terms of autonomy, then an issue would arise with regard to partial and complete incompetents.

(c) Variables. Standard problems with proportionality arise. Do the variables in (A) depend on the particular individuals involve or a population? How does one identify the relevant counterfactual?

Note the debate between Neil Feit and me as to whether there is a single, true counterfactual with regard to an instance of harm.

Phil Reed July 30, 2021 at 1:46 PM


Small point, but the renaming of the pro-life position as “restrictivism” is distracting and not well-justified. The move assumes his view is correct (they can’t be “pro-life” if they’re committed to AAV!). If we regularly renamed our opponent’s position on the basis of what we argued they were logically committed to (even as they explicitly disavow being committed to that thing), this would needlessly muddy the philosophical discourse.

But even his view is correct, it still doesn’t make sense to withdraw the term “pro-life.” The objection to the pro-life label is a common talking point among political pundits: e.g. “If you’re so ‘pro-life’, why don’t you support the welfare state and universal health care?” This just confuses what it means to be pro-life in this context, viz. opposition to abortion. “Pro-life” does not mean we should do everything possible to keep every living human creature alive. It does not mean opposition to capital punishment or war. It does not mean one should never resort to violence. Williams’s disavowal of the pro-life label because of the (debatable) possibility of AAV makes a similar error.

(Pro-lifers tend not to mirror-image this error: “If you’re so ‘pro-choice,’ why do you support mask mandates?” and the like.)

David H August 2, 2021 at 4:04 PM

Reply to Phil

I agree with the (small)l point on naming. It is also very tendentious as it assumes his view is correct. He should, AT MOST, have said if his view is persuasive, then the pro life view is really best renamed Restrictivist. Even then, assuming his argument works, I would deny that it is the appropriate. There is nothing oxymoronic about calling someone “a violent pro-lifer.” I think renaming is wrong as the scope of the “pro-life” term is probably just unborn babies, and maybe comparable recently born babies. Being pro-life is usually taken to mean pro-FETAL life and doesn’t commit one to being opposed to other violence like capital punishment and war. “Pro-life” doesn’t mean pro-pacificism or quasi-pacifism. Certainly many pro-lifers are willing to allow violence against those committing infanticide. And as Phil later points out, they would accept violence against illegal abortion. So if those instances of violence don’t force a name change away from pro-life, then why should the (debatable) possibility of violence against abortionists mean pro-lifers aren’t pro-lifers? It ends up no more convincing to say that “pro-life” is the wrong name for abortion foes than it is to say that they are just pro-birth and not pro-life because (some) they don’t advocate all sorts of welfare state spending on the health of the born. Pro-life doesn’t mean keeping every living human creature alive because human life is sacred or of such great value that it can never be taken. If anything in the name “pro-life” means extending protection beyond fetuses, it is because “pro-life” is then short for “pro-innocent life.” So even on that more expanded interpretation of pro-life as pro-innocent life that extends protection from fetuses to others, it is to those who are INNOCENT lives.

David H August 3, 2021 at 1:39 PM


I get your point about not renaming opponents' position. But I have always found "Planned Parenthood" an absurd if not ironic misnomer and thus would be tempted to sarcastically refer to them, at least parenthetically, by a more accurate nickname like "Planning the End of Parenthood." But I would stop short of rebaptizing them and not using "Planned Parenthood" in an official critique or debate or paper. If their major business was contraception and contraception was never an abortifacient, then it makes sense. But I imagine that providing contraception is not their core business. Was it once? Well, then it might make sense to keep the name. Perhaps if they want contraception to be so widespread and effective that it puts them out of the abortion business, then the name makes sense. But most of us just associate abortion with planned parenthood. Women who abort are already parents so there is no "planning of parenthood", only planning to end being the parent of a particular innocent son or daughter.

Phil Reed July 30, 2021 at 1:46 PM


Williams claims that the pro-life position retains an implicit commitment to AAV as a matter of consistency. He acknowledges that this depends on a theory of defensive violence, which he does not provide. It’s not satisfying to me to say that a set of propositions are inconsistent by relying simply on an analogy. There is no formal inconsistency in saying that one can intervene to save children in death camps and one ought not to commit AAV.

Williams writes “much may depend on complex interactions between our account of moral status and theory of defensive harm” (44). This seems to me like an understatement that plagues much of the argument. For example, Williams accuses the assimilation argument of “fixating on one morally-relevant feature of abortion to the exclusion of others” (34). Why is it that Williams is not fixating on the abortion being (closer to) a killing when he thinks about it in terms of defensive violence? And what if the one morally relevant feature of abortion that the assimilation argument “fixates” on is the one relevant to appropriate defensive violence? Pro-lifers may be willing to take on some levels of AAV in certain situations that fall short of killing, for example, using violence to prevent illegal abortions. When AAV is construed broadly to include different kinds of non-lethal force, it starts to look less “fanatical.”

Williams says that the assimilation view only offers an act of abortion as intermediate between a paradigmatic killing and a failure to save. But then, without offering a theory of defensive violence or principles of defensive violence, he says this intermediate position will allow non-lethal harms incompatible with the NVC. This all seems very messy. He allows that defensive violence used to prevent a wrongful letting die falls below the threshold of the NVC and insists that a more culpable intermediate level letting die falls above it (35). But much depends on complex interactions between our account of moral status and theory of defensive harm. If your theory of defensive violence has a high bar for intervention (maybe only making it permissible for cases of paradigmatic killings), then there would be no inconsistency. It is not obvious to me, as it is to Williams, that a person can be subjected to significant harm to prevent a wrongful letting die (or--it depends on how significant the harm is).

And, while I’m not a pacifist, it is frustrating for Williams to insist on consistency and, once consistency is clearly achieved via pacifism, simultaneously announce (24) that the defensive theory in question is not acceptable because it simply allows too much death.

Stephen Kershnar July 30, 2021 at 5:01 PM


Phil and David:

I think Phil's points here are excellent.

"Williams says that the assimilation view only offers an act of abortion as intermediate between a paradigmatic killing and a failure to save. But then, without offering a theory of defensive violence or principles of defensive violence, he says this intermediate position will allow non-lethal harms incompatible with the NVC. This all seems very messy."

I wonder how either of you would answer these questions.

1. What distinguishes killing and letting die?

2. Why isn't abortion - specifically, suction curettage, D&C, or D&X - a paradigmatic killing?

As a first pass, a killing is an act that involves either a commission (rather than an omission) or a causing (or, perhaps, a non-causal bringing about that is similar to causation) of a result.

Suction curettage involves a commission and a causing. If it were done to an adult, then it would be a killing. So, by analogy, it seems like a paradigmatic killing.

Whether a killing is justified is distinct from whether an act - whether commission or omission - is a killing.

On a side note, I do not think omissions cause something to happen. Neil Feit argues to the contrary, but I think this gets us too far away from a plausible model of causation.

There is an interesting issue as to whether the best model of causation is mechanistic.

The abortion pill might be messier, but I want to think in terms of suction curettage, D&C, and D&X here.


Steve K

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:58 PM

Reply to Phil: Multiple Intuitions, Mathematical Rigor, and NNV:

Williams’s claim that the defense of fetuses falls between omissions and paradigmatic killings but will allow defensive violence that causes the serious harm that violates NVC which JW explains “By ‘serious harm’ I have in mind in addition to death, such things as penetrating gunshot wounds, broken limbs, and life altering burns and scars.” (p. 26) I found that one claim of his the most dubious reliance on intuitions of the whole paper. It is a big leap from weighing up a bunch of intuitions about five different factors on pp 36-37 to a pseudo mathematical rigor that it will fall above the Non-violence condition.

Williams writes: “In sum, then, we have seen that wrongful abortion, when the fetus is a person, displays two features that militate against imposing harsh enforcement costs upon the woman: (1) the fact that, in being killed, the fetus loses only what it could have had with the woman’s efforts, and (2) the fact that, to avoid defensive harm, the woman would have to endure the considerable burden of completing an unwanted pregnancy. But there are also other features present that suggest that the justifiable costs of enforcement will nonetheless be substantial, to wit: (3) the fact that the woman crosses the boundary between separate persons, in directly killing the fetus, thereby becoming the original cause of its death; (4) the fact that she has an opportunity to avoid defensive harm by incurring only costs that she owes it to the fetus to bear; and (5) the fact that the costs with which she unjustly threatens the fetus are much greater than those she seeks to avoid. If we tally up these considerations without giving arbitrary preeminence to any, what again seems to emerge is, as suggested above, the view that the harm that may be imposed, in the ex ante enforcement of the woman’s duty not to abort, is intermediate between the levels of defensive harm that are justifiable in paradigmatic cases of killing and omitting to save respectively.37 That implies that the woman may not be killed, but may be subject to non-lethal harms incompatible with the NVC. And that, recall, is in line with the conclusion reached regarding defensive harms to women under Restrictivism in section II.

How does he know that it will be in the limb breaking, cutting and burning stage? That was awfully quick and contentious and assumes, as Phil says, that we can do a lot of harm to make people save others. I am surprised by the confidence when considering the intuitive significance of the other principles like killing separate people, initiating a harm, and then weighing them against mitigating features of avoiding bodily burdens involved in a wrongful letting die case and concluding it is above the NVC and so closer to defensive violence in paradigm cases of killing than what is permissible to do to keep people from omitting to save. I am surprised at his confidence in the mathematizing of his intuitions. I suspect that this is just speculation and pseudo rigor where intuitions do not admit of being fine grained and widely shared

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:58 PM

Reply to Phil: Multiple Intuitions, Mathematical Rigor, and NNV - Part II:

I don’t share JW’s intuitions. Consider variations on my baby and adult thrown up on rooftop by a hurricane that was damaged by the same storm winds and will soon give way due to the premature newborn’s wiggling. If the guy beneath the newborn does nothing, he falls and suffers pregnancy like discomforts. If he partially rotates, he lets the baby fall to its death and he lands safely a few feet away. If he rotates fully, the baby falls to the ground and the adult lands on him causing his death. My intuition in the second case is that the man shouldn’t rotate and allow the baby to die. If he asks for my help, I will not help him rotate partially out of harm’s way. But if he does rotate away on his own, I am reluctant to force him back under the baby or initially otherwise threaten him with force so as not to extricate himself. Now imagine that instead of partially rotating and letting the baby then die from the fall, he rotates fully and so lands on the baby when the roof gives way and kills the baby. I think what he did was slightly worse than rotating partially and letting the baby die. But I am reluctant to do much more in this case than in the partial rotation case where he extricates himself and lets the baby die. Do others have the intuition that I can use above the NVC force like causing non-lethal gunshot wounds limb breaking and life altering scars and burns to keep him from choosing a full rotation rather than a partial rotation. The partial rotation is akin to detaching a nonviable fetus (and lets assume, letting the fetus die). The full rotation is like aborting the fetus. So when a case is made concrete that is analogous to the weighting of factors that JW speculated about, it doesn’t seem to me to cross the NVC. I suspect others will agree or not know what to say, but lack JW’s confidence that the NVC has been transgressed

David H August 3, 2021 at 2:14 PM

Distinguishing Killing from Letting Die Part I

It is an error to look to the nature of causation to distinguish killing from letting die. Causation will not be sufficient to distinguish killing from letting die. First of all, there are causal theories that render even omissions to be killings. This is true of Humean reliability accounts. If certain omissions are regularly followed by deaths, then those omissions cause the death. Likewise, for the counterfactual account of causation in which events c and e—the cause and its effect—both occur, but had c not occurred, e would not have occurred either. So, without the person’s omission c, the effect e would not have occurred.

If omissions are causes, yet omissions are instances of letting someone die, then the presence or absence of causation will not be decisive for distinguishing killing from letting die. Now many philosophers prefer metaphysical accounts in which omissions are not causes (Beebe). I happen to believe that metaphysicians should pursue a causal theory that involves causes having some “oomph” to use the technical word for the physical connection.

It is widely believed that Humean causation as regularities projected by the mind is wrong for causation requires a physical connection from cause to effect, such as an energy flow or some other “persistence” of properties found in the model of colliding billiard balls. But Schaffer (2000) dissents and provides counterexamples of causation by disconnection that poses problems for the physical connection research program. Disconnections, like omissions, rely upon absences. It won’t work to deny that disconnections are causes as they are pervasive and present in paradigm cases of causality like fatal shootings. Bullets to the heart disconnect blood flow from the heart to brain and thus don’t cause death by energy flows from the heart to the brain but by an absence of blood. Even pulling a trigger disconnects the sear holding the spring back which then impinges on the striker causing the explosion that propels the bullet. The sear was preventing the spring and its absence sends the bullet on its way. So, withdrawing life support doesn’t involve a billiard ball-like energy transfer from pulling the plug to brain death but will involve absences. Once disconnections undermine the physical connection model based upon persistence, there is more room for omissions to be considered causes.

David H August 3, 2021 at 2:15 PM


Perhaps the best theory of causation will rule out omissions, but I suspect that it will not distinguish withdrawals where different people pull out a tube, some killing, some letting die. (Schaffer provides intriguing qualifications about how a hybrid theory of connections like transfers of force and disconnections with absences might be constructed if we are to avoid a Humean regularity theory that can easily accommodate disconnections as causes.) It is best not to let the debate hinge on contentious accounts of causation and so we should try to characterize killing and letting die without trying to settle or rely upon other controversial theories of causation. We should engage in the process of reflective equilibrium and claim that one account makes better sense of our intuitive responses to cases (McMahan 1993). McMahan offers a virtuoso investigation of case after case in which people are in different stages of providing aid and they or others then withdraw it. 1) If a lifeguard is in the water rescuing a drowning person whose struggles then threaten the rescuer, the lifeguard’s release of that person is not a killing but a death allowing. But it would be a killing if someone else uninvolved in the rescue pushed the man off the lifeguard and back into the water. 2) If fatigue causes the Dutch boy to remove his finger in the dike holding back the flood, he does not kill the villagers but lets them die. However, if the boy’s angry father pulls his son away from the dike, the father unleashes the flood and kills its victims. 3) If the fireman holding a net under a jumper hurtling towards the ground realizes the net can save two nearby airborne jumpers, he has not killed the first jumper but lets him die. But if someone uninvolved with fire-fighting force removes the net, it is a killing. If the reader disconnects the violinist, that is a case of letting someone die. 4) McMahan observes that if a patient’s enemy removes him from life support that is a killing. I would add that if a member of the hospital team operating and maintaining the machinery sustaining the violinist removes that support, it would be a case of letting die, though certainly an unjustified act if the reader and violinist didn’t seek the disconnection.

The first of each of McMahan’s pairs are all actions of withdrawing aid that cause death but appear to be appropriately classified as cases of letting some die. What they have in common is that the assistance withdrawn is being provided at the time by the person who withdraws it. If readers are persuaded by McMahan’s analysis of cases, as I mostly am, we will understand letting die as roughly not providing the support needed to keep someone alive, which will include both omissions and withdrawals. It doesn’t matter for our purposes whether omissions are properly construed as involving causation or not. Nor is it important that there doesn’t seem to be a causal difference between withdrawals that kill and let die. What does matter is that only those providing the aid can be said to cease preventing a death or discontinuing life support even though their hand movements are identical to those of interlopers who withdraw support they didn’t provide.

David H August 3, 2021 at 2:17 PM


Fine Tuning an Account of Killing

While not exhaustive, killing and letting die are exclusive. An event is not both a case of killing and letting die. I have claimed that the rough idea of X letting Y die is that Y doesn’t receive from X life sustaining support. ( More Chisholming will be needed as the man withdrawing the aid mustn’t have created the original need for aid) Now the rough idea of X killing Y is X is physically imposing a fatal pathology in Y. The words “physically imposing” are added to rule out omissions which make a difference but don’t physically transmit force. I am not claiming that a transfer of energy is necessary or sufficient for causation. As I mentioned above, my strategy is to avoid making the killing/letting distinction depend upon the conclusion of the philosophical debate about causation. I am just suggesting that the method of reflective equilibrium will reveal that killings involve the imposition of a fatal pathology. (I understand imposing to include acts such as putting something lethal into a person, pushing someone into the lethal object, or withdrawing what was preventing the lethal entity. Just as reintroducing or reinitiating a threat is introducing or initiating a threat, the same is true for the mposition relation.) This first approximation of what it is for X to kill Y means that withdrawing aid physically (re)imposes a lethal pathology upon Y, just as destroying a dam might reimpose a threat of flooding. So, withdrawing aid would be killing Y. But given my account of letting die as Y loses out on additional life that X’s support could provide, then X’s withdrawing his life support of Y would also qualify as a case of letting die. So, the same withdrawal event would be both a killing and letting die. That is very peculiar. Even worse would be claiming that the withdrawal is actually two simultaneous events that overdetermine the patient’s death. Therefore, if we don’t want to modify our account of letting die, which seems the more intuitive, we should modify the account of killing. Given that killing and letting must be exclusive, then the above idea of X killing Y should be fine-tuned as “X originally imposes a fatal pathology or X reimposes a fatal threat that X did not originate but had been preventing.”

David H August 3, 2021 at 2:23 PM



IN regards to your second question, abortion is not a paradigmatic killing because a woman aborting herself kills a life that she was saving. Her act of killing thus contains contains a feature essential to letting die. Paradigmatic cases of killing don’t involve the features essential to letting die. One paradigmatically kills someone that the killer was not saving. What is essential to all the killings is not a feature essential to all cases of letting die. Only certain killings involve the latter.

Stephen Kershnar August 7, 2021 at 9:51 AM



Here is what you say about omissions as causes, “If omissions are causes, yet omissions are instances of letting someone die, then the presence or absence of causation will not be decisive for distinguishing killing from letting die. Now many philosophers prefer metaphysical accounts in which omissions are not causes (Beebe). I happen to believe that metaphysicians should pursue a causal theory that involves causes having some “oomph” to use the technical word for the physical connection.”

Here is what you say about the methodology of picking out the distinction between killing and letting die, “It is best not to let the debate hinge on contentious accounts of causation and so we should try to characterize killing and letting die without trying to settle or rely upon other controversial theories of causation. We should engage in the process of reflective equilibrium and claim that one account makes better sense of our intuitive responses to cases (McMahan 1993).”

Here is my account. It is taken from Larry Lombard’s outstanding work on the topic.

(1) If one person kills a second, then the first performs a commission and causes someone’s death.

There is an interesting issue as to whether a commission must be necessary, sufficient, or an important contributor to someone’s death to be a killing. However, when the cause is necessary and sufficient for death, this is enough to establish a killing.

Here are the reasons for it.

(2) If something is a killing, then it causes death.

(3) If one thing causes a second, then it is an event.

(4) An omission not an event.

An event is a change in an object over time. An omission – which can be intentional or unintentional – is not a change of an event over time (leaving aside Cambridge changes).

Your methodological note is beside the point. Whether something is a killing should not depend on contentious moral accounts of the bad, blameworthy, or wrong. Instead, we should focus on a metaphysical reflective equilibrium.

The Dutch Boy examples in your second case show that you are focusing on morality, not on the killing/Letting Die distinction because the boy and father do the same thing, albeit for different reasons.

In short, abortion is a killing. This is true regardless of whether there is a partial justification for it.


Steve K

Stephen Kershnar August 7, 2021 at 9:51 AM



Great point. Here is what you say, “[A]bortion is not a paradigmatic killing because a woman aborting herself kills a life that she was saving. Her act of killing thus contains a feature essential to letting die. Paradigmatic cases of killing don’t involve the features essential to letting die. One paradigmatically kills someone that the killer was not saving. What is essential to all the killings is not a feature essential to all cases of letting die. Only certain killings involve the latter.”

This confuses the morality and metaphysics of paradigmatic killing.

Consider Judith Jarvis Thomson’s case the victim who has been involuntarily hooked up to the violinist. Victim takes a longsword and cuts off the violinist’s head.

Here is what we know.

(1) The victim committed a paradigmatic killing.

(2) The victim was saving the violinists.

Previously acting as a saver, does not prevent one from being a killer especially in cases of paradigmatic kinetic violence involving longswords and suction curettage.


Steve K

David H August 7, 2021 at 1:01 PM

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David H August 7, 2021 at 1:02 PM

The Irrelevance of the correct metaphysical account of causation to Killing/Letting die distinction


The cases of withdrawing aid that are letting die rather than killing show that the metaphysics of causality is irrelevant. The person who is providing aid that he withdraws is doing the same thing at a certain causal level of description as the person who withdraws the aid that he wasn’t providing. But intuitively one is a killing and the other a letting die. So causation will not be decisive to the taxonomy. McMahan’s cases show that what matters if one is causing the withdrawal of aid that one was not providing.

I once tried to tell a different causal story about the process of removing an obstacle/support that one was providing to keep death at bay and contrast that at removing an obstacle/support keeping death at bay to make a causal difference but couldn’t pull it off.

The lesson from the father is not that I have mistakenly made morality relevant. If the father is drowning innocents (immoral) or drowning Nazis (moral), the taxonomy is the same – he kills. His motives and reasons are irrelevant. They only affect the adjective as unjust killing or defensible killing. He was removing life saving aid that he didn’t provide so he kills (regardless of the morality of doing so). The son was removing life saving aid that he was providing , so he lets die (regardless of the morality of doing so.

David H August 9, 2021 at 10:35 AM

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David H August 9, 2021 at 10:38 AM


Perhaps our differences over paradigmatic killings are semantic. What is essential to killing is found both in cases where one kills an independent person and when one kills someone dependent upon your body or assistance. But letting die requires bringing about the death of someone who needed your help to stay alive. Bringing about the death of those who need our help to remain alive is an essential feature of LD and not an essential feature of killing. Killings don’t typically have that feature. It is not an essential feature of killing nor is it found in our typical (paradigm) cases of someone killing someone who is separate from oneself, living their independent life Our paradigm case is killing someone who would have been fine if you hadn’t come onto the scene and took their life. That is not the case when you kill those dependent upon your body. If you hadn’t “come on the scene“ and been doing what you were doing, they would be dead or not exist. That is all that I am saying. Surely, the paradigmatic, or exemplar or typical or prototypical killing is the shooting or knifing or hitting or blowing up or running down of someone separate from you. It then turns out that is a morally significant difference between killing those dependent upon you for more life and killing those not dependent upon you for more life

Phil Reed July 30, 2021 at 1:47 PM


Williams claims at the beginning of the article to be operating by reflective equilibrium. He then goes on to argue that nearly all mainstream positions in abortion ethics suffer from an implicit commitment to AAV. Rather than indicate what ethical position on abortion that he holds that avoids the problem, he seems to abandon reflective equilibrium by the end of the article and gesture toward moral nihilism (or anti-realism or whatever) (44). If one is a moral nihilist, then there is no inconsistency problem here. But if one is not a moral nihilist, Williams doesn’t show a way forward to achieve reflective equilibrium for any position in abortion ethics. Is the idea that the solution is forthcoming in another article? That is fine, but it seems to undercut the significance of the article if the target ends up being “all mainstream views on abortion.”

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:37 PM

Great Paper Choice:

Whichever Romanell fellow chose this month’s blog article deserves a pat on the back and should jump the queue rather than wait nearly a year to choose another article to blog about. The paper is terrific and topical. I especially liked the author’s extending the threat of violence to pro-choice views that allow the fetus to become a person sometimes during the pregnancy, as I had not thought of that problem before. I also liked the challenge of showing why if abortion is roughly assimilated to the less severe wrong of letting someone die who should be supported, these small wrongs don’t add up to great wrongs and thus justify a violent response as the number of abortions by a very active abortionist or clinic. The choice of this paper shows much more thought and a better eye for philosophical talent, bioethical significance, and a sense of what makes for a good blog discussion than the recent blog paper choices of Steve Kershnar, Harvey Berman, Jack Freer, Jim Delaney, Neil Feit and Phil Reed. Bravo!

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:38 PM

Why Restrictivists Should Not Worry as their Views don’t Imply Anti-Abortion Violence:

Well, maybe I should have entitled the post the humbler and more charitable “Why Restrictivists Shouldn’t Worry Too Much….” I suppose that Williams believes that the pro-lifer’s disavowal of violence against abortion providers and the women who abort puts pressure on the restrictivists to maintain the fetus has the value/moral status of you and I. He writes “Indeed, if we aim to reconcile the common-sense objections of both pacificism and anti-abortion violence, then, as we will see by the paper’s end, there is reason to foresee the substantial disagreement over the moral status of the human fetus will be effectively precluded, and hence the abortion debate will be more less settled by indirect means.” (p.2) and the“pro-life” view that “I instead refer to …as Restrictivism…is, I contend, dramatically undermined by its conduciveness towards the justification of anti-abortion violence.” (p. 3) and “There is, in short, a danger that the non-violence constraint will drive the moral status of early human life down so low as to generate significant intuitive problems of its own.” (p. 5). In that way, his strategy is similar to that of pro-life opponents who appeal to embryo rescue cases (a comparison JW explicitly makes on p. 23 which I will comment upon later), why pro-lifers not spending more money on preventing the scourge of miscarriage, and the punishments for abortion not being as severe as for other cases of unjust killings. These are all as taken as showing that pro-lifers don’t, deep down, really believe that fetuses have the same value as you and I as they are not committed to acting as if they did

The reason that it is not worrisome and more akin to a moral version of normal science project (is that the correct Kuhnian phrase of working in a paradigm?) is that nearly everyone, not just pro-lifers (Restrictivists), believes one can shoot someone committing infanticide. Since a newborn is not different in any intrinsic morally significant way from a fetus (“If Abortion then Infanticide”), then the difference with anti-abortion violence must lie in the fetus being in and a burden upon the woman’s body. Surely, it is more plausible that we can shoot those committing infanticide (the mother or father, their agent or someone else) because of the newborn’s high moral status than our reluctance to use violence against the pregnant mother and her abortionist agent shows the fetus has less value than restrictivists claim. A related (perhaps less obvious) claim that is more plausible than the fetus has less moral status than say Jewish newborns gassed or burned by Nazis is that we don’t shoot abortionists but do shoot Nazis because there is a liberal defense of the violence of aborting backed by liberal ideas of autonomy, bodily integrity, self-ownership, liberty etc. but only an illiberal defense of Nazi violence against very young Jewish kids. Thus, there is no lesson here from opposition to legal violence that will embarrass Restrictivists and their claims of high fetal moral status. The just mentioned claims are part of a far more plausible strategy than defending violence against newborns on the basis of their lower moral status. So, it seems we just have to work out how protected the mother and her agent are since they can’t be killed and then why assimilating the harms and wrongs of abortion to (approximately) the letting die, they don’t add up so to justify killing the abortionist who is very active in his lethal business.

Jonathan Vajda August 6, 2021 at 3:15 PM

It might be more than the burden to the mother.

This is probable the case because some 'non-restrictivists' could still have intuitions in favor of the permissibility of very late-term abortions while still believing that the infanticide is incredibly immoral. They might even hold this view even when the fetus is viable and c-section delivery is approximating the burden on the mother as would that of abortion. I myself think such intuitions about the permissibility of such late-term abortion would be in gross error. But in this case, I am not sure their defense would be along the lines of asymmetric burden compared to infanticide.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:39 PM

Public Reason, Illiberal and Liberal Violence:

Phil and I brought up Rawlsian Public Reason when responding to Steve Kershnar’ s example of Nazi and Stalinist violence. We did so to illuminate the distinction between liberal and illiberal violence. Our point is that there is a liberal sort of violence (one defended in liberal terms such as autonomy, self-ownership, bodily integrity, self-defense and the like) which is different from an illiberal violence of say the Nazi (defended on the grounds of illiberal racism, anti-Semitism, eugenics, Aryan myths, national purity etc.). Our view is that liberal societies should tolerate liberal violence and use the ballot box rather than the gun to remove it. But illiberal violence has no place in a liberal society and so is permissibly a target of righteous violence of private individuals. This distinction between violence based on liberal ideas that liberal societies should peacefully tolerate vs. violence based upon illiberal ideas that liberal societies should not tolerate, reminded us of Rawls public reason distinction between illiberal ideas that are inappropriate for the public realm in liberal regimes and ideas not fit for public discourse in a liberal regime. It seemed to be the type of idea that would receive support from Rawlsian public reason. So, we appealed to Rawls well-known ideas to explicate this distinction. But we don’t need to appeal to the specifics of Rawlsian public reason to defend the distinction between illiberal violence and liberal violence. Thus, we don’t believe we had to defend public reason in all its major variants and respond to its major criticisms. Williams took us to task for not doing so. Perhaps we were asking for such criticism since we appealed to Rawlsian ideas to illuminate our distinction between violence that can be met with violence and violence that shouldn’t be met with violence. So maybe we are to be blamed for that and it thus warrant, if Rawlsian pubic reason is really in bad shape, Williams witty riposte that this is like trying to keeping afloat a sinking boat filling up with water by boring another hole in its hull to let the water out. But we don’t want to commit ourselves to defending Rawls’s entire package or its Gaussian variants which JW rightly says we did not do or even acknowledge (p. 14).

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:39 PM

I am curious whether JW thinks the distinction between liberal and illiberal violence can’t be made independently of Rawlsian public reason? Isn’t there clearly a liberal form of defending abortion on the basis of liberal sounding notions such as individual rights, autonomy, bodily control, bodily integrity self-ownership etc. that is lacking in the cases of violence that he and Kershnar mentions involving Nazis? So doesn’t our distinction stand up independently of Rawls’s framework even if it would also seem to follow or draw supported by Rawls’s pubic reason. This distinction between liberal and illiberal violence and the obligation to tolerate the former until one can change it by the ballot box but not the latter makes good sense of why we react differently to violence against abortion providers and violence against Nazis?

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:44 PM

Personal Qualms about Pubic Reason Bioethics:

Admittedly, we dressed up our claim in terms of pubic reason. But as someone who applies his primary research project in personal identity to bioethics, I am a bit skeptical of the prospects of talking about individuals on the margins of life (McMahan’s phrase) in a way that doesn’t involve a commitment to a contentious metaphysic. I am far more skeptical than Rawls about the detrimental effects of leaving certain ideas out of political discussion. But I am no expert on public reason, having just read Rawls’s two famous papers on the topic before co-authoring the piece with Phil Reed and have since then read only one critical piece, my colleague Ryan Muldoon’s book, which I perused rather quickly when writing an internal promotion letter for him. I found plausible many of Muldoon’s claims and believe that they could be applied to pro-life bioethics critique of public reason Although Muldoon doesn’t mention abortion, his critique of Rawlsian public reason provides a theoretical defense of the concerns I will broach in the next two paragraphs. Muldoon stresses that understanding between groups is lessened, resentments build, and the “strains of commitment” to the contractual results are intensified.

I think restrictions on public discourse can be seen as unfair to groups like pro-lifers; and it does both sides a disservice when it leaves them misunderstanding and mistrusting each other. Both sides may find unrevealing the anemic public reason expressions of their opponents. They may even suspect that their adherence to the public reason principles in which such views must be expressed to be halfhearted. At its worse, the resulting ignorance may even play a role in pro-choicers dismissing abortion opponents as just “pro-birth” and misogynistic, while pro-lifers may in their own partiality derisively view women who abort as selfish baby killers.

The overlapping consensus that Rawls seeks may benefit group A far more than group B as the beliefs most important to group A may be shared by group B who, alas, also hold dearly many other fundamental beliefs not shared by group A. Thus, a portion of B’s fundamental beliefs cannot be brought to the table. The constraints of public reason are very evident in the abortion debate that takes place at the intersection of metaphysics and bioethics. The pro-lifer and the pro-choicer may very well agree that late term fetuses are persons or at least valuable enough to be legally protected. So they have an overlapping consensus that those individuals have interests that the state could promote. Late term fetuses that are conscious are physically and cognitively akin to newborns whom the US Supreme Court has recognized as legal persons. If public debate about abortion is limited to shared values, then the pro-choicer gets everything she wants, but the abortion opponent is left unable to politically defend the early mindless fetus that they think are persons as well.

However, if the tenets of public reason will prevent citizens from voting for candidates and referendums or expressing their support for public policies on the basis of their metaphysic where fetuses are ensouled or valuable because of their kind membership, then their pro-life views will not get much of a hearing in the public sphere. Likewise, if public reason prevents pro-life lawmakers and judges from making and adjudicating laws on the basis of a metaphysic which recognizes fetuses as having interests and well-being of which they are not conscious.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:45 PM

Jeremy Williams, Don Marquis, and Rawlsian Public Reason:

I hope to read JW’s “Public Reason and Moral Status” paper before this blog closes and may be able to comment more later or know what he would say about Marquis. I have conditionally tried to defend Marquis as in the spirit of Rawlsian public Reason. That is, if one accepts the public reason framework, Marquis’s pro-life position passes the test as well if Cardinal Bernadin does, as Rawls claims. In My paper “Is it Coherent to be Merely Politically Opposed to Abortion” (NCBQ) I attempt to push Marquis as meeting the Rawlsian standard if Bernadin-like Seamless Garment arguments do. My argument is conditional against an opponent who claims that it is not inconsistent to be personally opposed to abortion but tolerant of others on the basis of Rawlsian Public Reason constraints. My paper’s thesis was that it is incoherent for most defenders of a right to abort to be personally opposed to abortion.) If my opponent is not entitled to appeal to Rawlsian public reason because it fails for reasons that Williams and other critics says, that is fine with me. My use of public reason in the NCBQ article is just to say that there are pubic reason arguments against abortion and so public reason won’t be available to the person only personally opposed to abortion but not political/legally/morally opposed to others’ aborting.

Marquis’s position is in even better shape than he recognizes in that he doesn’t even need to defend a controversial animalist (though true) metaphysics that we originate as early embryos. We could emerge much later say with minds, but as long as there is something there, an organism, then it too will have a valuable future. (See my “Morally Relevant Potential.”) So, Marquis doesn’t even have to make the metaphysical claim that we are animals than persons of some type (constitution, embodied mind, Lockean continuity etc. Marquis also eschews claims about personhood, it is the fetus’s valuable future, not its present personhood that matters. Moreover, Marquis avoids claiming what makes a life valuable. His valuable future doesn’t distinguish between rival accounts of well-being as long as they make the normal life a valuable one. And he appeals to the wrongness of killing you and I, not making a special account to cover the mindless. I wonder what JW would say about Marquis Future-Like-Ours argument passing a Public Reason test.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:45 PM

Doubts about Rawls’s Public Defense of Abortion:

Rawls once suggested that political values endorsed by public reason such as (1) due respect for human life, (2) the ordered reproduction of political society over time, including the family in some form, and finally (3) the equality of women as equal citizens, would, “on any reasonable balance of these three values give the woman a duly qualified right to decide whether or not to end her pregnancy during the first trimester…any comprehensive doctrine that leads to a balance of political values excluding that duly qualified right in the first trimester is to that extant unreasonable…” (Rawls: 243 nt. 32). I doubt that obtaining equality is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for abortion. Proponents of abortion would not abandon their position if men could get pregnant, or were compelled to provide the child care that women routinely do, equalizing the loss of opportunities. Nor is it anywhere else accepted that one can kill an innocent in order to overcome inequalities. One couldn’t even justify escaping slavery by killing an innocent in the attempt. Regarding the reproduction of society considerations, they don’t require an abortion ban unless the species was dying out. So, the question is whether it is fair that in the reproduction of society that some human beings are aborted. My worry is that everyone in the debate is too old to be aborted so they might be failing to imagine their attitudes if they could die from another’s refusal to provide bodily aid. I also suspect that considerations of probabilities are distorting people’s views about the fairness of abortion. Similarly, in Thomson’s famous thought experiment where the reader is asked to imagine that she is supporting the violinist, readers do not imagine that they will each once be in the violinist’s situation. But everyone also needed to be gestated to survive the first months of their existence. To offset our above suspicions, it is best to imagine that all of us will in the future suffer Thomson-like kidney failures. We then would likely not be as sympathetic to the right to refuse to sustain the violinist. Likewise, if we all needed nine months of bodily support from say our mothers or from some other uniquely situated contributor in the future, then we would be less inclined to recognize a right of refusal. So, when considering the issue of the fairness in the reproduction of society, we need to avoid inequities and biases by contemplating scenarios of universal future needs for life giving bodily support.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:46 PM

Aggregating Evils and Immunity against Violence - Part I:

Williams writes “Assume, notwithstanding what I have said I, that a person cannot be subjected to significant defensive harm to prevent a single letting die. The amount of harm that can be brought for to bear for the sake of multiple victims ought to nonetheless be higher. Indeed, there presumably must be some number of victims who whose sake a wrongful non rescuer may be subjected to harms that violate the Non Violence Constraint.” I think this is a fascinating point. So even if fetuses have less value than the reader, or can suffer less wrong from their deaths, the wrongs to them add up and justify violence against those who abort many. However, my contention is that while the wrongs add up, what you can do to stop them do not add up, that is, it is not true that the more the more abortions a doctor or clinic carries out, the greater harms you can inflict upon those aborting (or facilitating abortion) to stop them. I will first explain this point in terms of the pregnant woman who constantly aborts, perhaps using abortion like others use birth control. Then I will extend this to the abortionist who works overtime killing babies in clinics. First, imagine a woman does all the reproducing for her county, carrying multiple babies at the same time. Also, imagine that abortion is only allowed for six months of a pregnancy to give a woman a grace period, but then given the considerable value of the fetus, she must support the fetus for three months. But if she has twins, we don’t say she must in such cases support the fetus for six months against her will instead of three because the harm and value lost is twice as large. Likewise, if she has quadruplets, her duty to support isn’t reduced to one and a half months. No, she still gets the six months for a grace period and only the three required months of support. Likewise, if she carries dozens of fetuses at the same times.

Stephen Kershnar August 2, 2021 at 4:29 PM



Here is what you say, “However, my contention is that while the wrongs add up, what you can do to stop them do not add up, that is, it is not true that the more the more abortions a doctor or clinic carries out, the greater harms you can inflict upon those aborting (or facilitating abortion) to stop them.”

Note the structure of your position.

Body-Based Partial-Justification Argument. The partial justification of abortion reduces the amount of force that may be used against an abortion-doctor as opposed to someone killing an infant. This is because abortion is less wrong than killing an infant.

Number-Based Partial-Justification Argument. The number of abortions does not increase the amount of force that may be used against an abortion-doctor. This is true even though – on the pro-life theory – the aggregation of more abortions is far more wrong than fewer abortions.

I am not following your reasoning. Here is an equation.

(1) Injustice prevented = ceiling defensive violence

(2) Injustice prevented x n > [(Injustice prevented) x 1]

Even if you think that additional injustices prevented permit more violence in a way that promotes a limit or that is discounted with a greater number of victims – neither of which is attractive – this still suggests that more violence can be used to prevent an abortion-doctor from killing quintuplets than a single fetus.

Consider the ceiling on violence permitted to prevent the following crimes.

(a) One act of theft

(b) Three acts of theft

(c) Ten acts of theft

Intuitively, the amount of violence permitted to prevent (c) exceeds that of (a)?

Consider the ceiling on violence permitted to prevent the following.

(d) One act of theft and one battery

Assume that one act of significant battery is as wrong as nine acts of theft.

Here, then, is my argument against your position.

(1) More violence can be used to prevent (d) than (a).

(2) The violence used to prevent (d) is equal to the violence that can be used to prevent (c).

(3) If (1) and (2), then the violence used to prevent (c) is greater than that used to prevent (a).

David - You seem to have three options.

I. The violence permitted for (d) is no greater than the violence permitted for (a).

II. The violence permitted for additional injustice gets discounted by the number or types committed (perhaps it approaches a limit).

III. The violence permitted aggregates in an additive manner.

What say you?


Steve K

David H August 3, 2021 at 1:22 PM

Aggregating Wrongs without and Response Thresholds -Part I:

My first response won't convince you as I believe you have defended torture in print or in conversation with me. But I will put it out there for the other 2 or 3 people who may read this obscure, unduly neglected blog. Imagine the son of a terrorist knows where his father has buried a small bomb that will detonate when stepped on. It is believed that the bomb's explosiveness is sufficient only to kill the person who steps on it, not anyone walking beside him. It is wrong for the son to be loyal to his Dad and not inform the authorities where the bomb is buried. But we (or most of us) wont' torture him for the information. Now imagine we find out the buried bomb has sufficient force to kill the person nearby the individual who steps on it. So the harm and wrong will be more than we had first thought. Nonetheless, we (most of us) won't now consider that we can torture the terrorist's son who wrongly allows two people to likely die. And so on as the numbers of victims increase, there is still a limit of what we are going to do the wrongdoer who doesn't reveal the whereabouts of the bomb.

Since I think you accept torture of terrorists and their protectors, let me try a different example. Imagine someone wrongly didn't warn a swimmer that she was entering shark infested waters. Maybe he was apathetic or perhaps just perversely curious, it is possible that he was tired, or his throat extremely hoarse and it hurt to yell warnings, maybe he thought the major responsibility to warn belonged to someone else like a lifeguard . I don't know if it will matter to the point that I want to make which wrongdoing he is guilty of. And that point is we can't take the wrongdoer who failed to warn and cut his arm and throw him into the water to distract the sharks attacking the innocent swimmer. I think we can't throw him in the water with a cut to attract the sharks even when he failed to warn two swimmers and so one. His wrongs increase as the number of swimmers he didn't save increases, but it doesn't seem as if the physical violence we can afflict upon him increases.

So if we are not going to use force on the pregnant woman to ensure she doesn't abort a singleton, we won't use more force if she is planning on aborting twins because we don't want to harm those who are killing to avoid taking on huge bodily burdens of keeping another alive that resemble a case of wrongfully letting someone die. The upper limit doesn't change with the number of lives that could be saved.

Although I do think we should make women stay pregnant for nine months against their will, if I thought the burden imposed should be less, say three months against their will for the sake of the fetus and a six months grace period to avoid the burdens and unwanted parenthood and make a a life changing decision, I wouldn't think she should have less of a grace period and take on greater burdens for twins or sextuplets. she is already at the maximum we want to make her undergo and at the minimum for a grace period. Again, I am not defending a grace period, just assuming for the sake of argument that is was correct, and showing how it was impervious to the increase in wrong.

David H August 3, 2021 at 1:23 PM

Aggregating Wrongs without and Response Thresholds - Part II

Perhaps my intuitions are misguided and the burdens one can put on woman increase with the # of lives they will wrongfully fail to save or kill. That doesn't undermine my intuition that they won't add up to where one could permissibly cut off the woman's limbs or kill her and carry out a C section saving the baby. And that is what we are ultimately interested in - lethal or debilitating violence against those who abort. So even if you try to press me on a deontological threshold where the harms are so great (genocide), pregnancy doesn't come close to where I intuitively feel the pull of a deontological threshold where one harms the innocent or unfairly treats the guilty

Regarding the abortionist whose level of harms can aggregate to heights not reached by the most fertile woman, if immunity can be transferred from each woman he aborts, that will protect him despite his wrongs increasing

Stephen Kershnar August 7, 2021 at 9:14 AM



Interesting point.

Here is what you say, “So if we are not going to use force on the pregnant woman to ensure she doesn't abort a singleton, we won't use more force if she is planning on aborting twins because we don't want to harm those who are killing to avoid taking on huge bodily burdens of keeping another alive that resemble a case of wrongfully letting someone die. The upper limit doesn't change with the number of lives that could be saved.”

This is not true for punishment. A person who severely beats multiple people should get more punishment than someone who beats only one.

This is not true for compensation. A person who severely beats multiple people should have to pay more compensation than someone who beats only one.

Given that punishment, compensation, and defensive violence are permitted because of right-forfeiture and such forfeiture increases with the attacker’s amount of violence in the first two cases, it will increase in the third.

In addition, if a person, A, separately tries to unjustly beat B and C, each may use a proportional amount of violence to defend herself. B may punch A in the face (-10 utils) and C may punch A in the face (-10 utils). Hence, defensive violence aggregates.

Thus, defensive violence aggregates.

Do you deny this?

If D is acting on B and C’s behalf, then D can punch A in the face twice to defend B and C. Again, defensive violence aggregates.

Given that defensive violence aggregates, I am not seeing why it cannot aggregate in intensity rather than frequency.

The issue of torture side-tracks us because some people think that there are side-constraints against it.


Steve K

Stephen Kershnar August 7, 2021 at 9:26 AM



Great point.

Here is what you say, “Perhaps my intuitions are misguided and the burdens one can put on woman increase with the # of lives they will wrongfully fail to save or kill. That doesn't undermine my intuition that they won't add up to where one could permissibly cut off the woman's limbs or kill her and carry out a C section saving the baby. And that is what we are ultimately interested in - lethal or debilitating violence against those who abort. So even if you try to press me on a deontological threshold where the harms are so great (genocide), pregnancy doesn't come close to where I intuitively feel the pull of a deontological threshold where one harms the innocent or unfairly treats the guilty.”

Let us concede the following.

(1) Permitted defensive violence aggregates.

(2) The aggregation permits the defender trading off frequency and intensity of defensive violence.

Your response to (1) and (2) is that the increased permission to engage in defensive violence approaches a limit.

This intuition is unjustified.

As argued above, a defender’s permission to use defensive violence in the case of a defender defending two women against severe beatings doubles. There is no limit.

Similarly, just punishment for two severe beatings doubles. Again, there is no limit.

A similar thing is true for compensation.

Imagine there is just slavery – some nutjob argued for this earlier in his career - and that the master, M, justly owns three women. They get pregnant due to voluntary sex and M goes to kill their fetuses. Even though he has the same bodily rights as any one woman, assuming the pro-life position is true, he may be killed to prevent any one feticide. The violence increases without a limit for multiple feticides. In short, our intuitions in this area are unreliable because they are sneaking in pro-choice thoughts.

Hence, we must conclude the following is true.

(3) Aggregate permitted violence does not approach a limit.

Hence, assuming the pro-life position, the following is true.

(4) The violence permitted against a woman who tries to abort multiple fetuses is much greater than against a woman who tries to abort one fetus.


Steve K

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:46 PM

Aggregating Evils and Immunity against Violence - Part II.

Let’s leave aside science fiction aside and consider normal pregnancies and the abortionists who is quite busy in his grisly work. So consider normal pregnancies carried out by many women. The abortionist who ends the pregnancies of many of these women we could say he inherits the immunity of each woman that he aborts. She can transform her immunity to him just as she can use an unowned tool or robot that she found to abort herself. Abortion opponents can’t destroy the device she just found because she is using it for an abortion. Its immunity, so to speak, even when it is not her property or anyone else’s – is akin to the abortionist’s immunity, received by a transfer or extension of her immunity. So, while harms increase with an increase of death by abortion, the harms one can bestow upon the abortionist doesn’t grow larger with each abortion because each time he acquires the immunity of the woman he aborts. So, it doesn’t follow that even if abortion is no worse than letting die and that isn’t bad enough to justify much, if any, violence to prevent it, enough abortions will justify lethal defensive interference. Thus, I reject Williams claim that “to deny that point requires posting not merely a moral asymmetry between doing and allowing harm, but an infinite or near-infinite chasm between the two.” (p. 41) Likewise, I deny his concluding point on the penultimate page of the paper “This creates the danger that, however, that even if the mora status of the fetus is considerably lower than yours or mine, or that of a young child, the aggregated badness of many fetal deaths could nonetheless justify the infliction of serious defensive harms. The only clear way of avoiding that outcome that I can see…is to set the badness of fetal deaths, at all stages of pregnancy, at a sufficiently low level as to be below what McMahan calls the threshold of additivity (p. 43).

Stephen Kershnar August 2, 2021 at 4:43 PM



You say the following.

“Let’s leave aside science fiction aside and consider normal pregnancies and the abortionists who is quite busy in his grisly work. So, consider normal pregnancies carried out by many women. The abortionist who ends the pregnancies of many of these women we could say he inherits the immunity of each woman that he aborts. She can transform her immunity to him just as she can use an unowned tool or robot that she found to abort herself. Abortion opponents can’t destroy the device she just found because she is using it for an abortion. Its immunity, so to speak, even when it is not her property or anyone else’s – is akin to the abortionist’s immunity, received by a transfer or extension of her immunity.”

Let us assume that the device is a suction-curettage device. She announces that she plans to use it to commit an abortion and she never lies. Why is her property right immune if – as pro-lifers assert – abortion is a wrongful failure to save? By analogy, we can destroy someone’s toaster as a way of getting her to satisfy her duty to save.

If the violation of the duty to save is such an incredibly weak wrong, then abortion should be legal. This is not something that a robust pro-lifer (for example, Beckwith, Hershenov, and Marquis) can accept.

This leads to the following argument.

(1) Abortion-opponents can threaten or destroy a woman’s toaster to make her satisfy her duty to save.

(2) If (1), then opponents can threaten or destroy a woman’s suction-curettage device to make her satisfy her duty to save.

(3) Hence, opponents can threaten or destroy a woman’s suction-curettage device to make her satisfy her duty to save.

(4) If (3), then opponents can threaten or destroy a doctor’s suction-curettage device to make him satisfy his duty to save.

(5) Hence, opponents can threaten or destroy a doctor’s suction-curettage device to make him satisfy his duty to save.

The amount of property-destruction permitted increases if abortion is a greater wrong than refraining from saving.


Steve K

David HAugust 3, 2021 at 12:32 PM

Bodies, Tools, Prostheses, and Transferring Immnunity:


I was assuming the aborting woman's immunity from violence and interference was not at stake. I was just exploring the logic of immunity transfers. The argument for immunity was given earlier in these blogs posts and paper co-authored with Reed. The idea was that the justification for the violence of abortion appeals to liberal principles like bodily autonomy, body ownership, bodily integrity, self-defense, etc. and those sorts of arguments should be legally tolerated in a liberal regime unlike illiberal justifications of violence (Nazis). There was another argument in Phil and my "How Not to Defend the Unborn" paper that compared the arguments for abortion to those for the death penalty that can be recognized by a philosophically idealized setting as rather plausible. We don't shoot those shooting or injecting death row inmates even when we think that capital punishment is wrong.

So without arguing in the recent post for the immunity of the woman aborting, I assumed that we wouldn't engage in violence like crushing her hands so she not take the abortion pill that she is holding. (Assume, for the sake of argument, that this would be effective.) If it turned out her hands were prosthetics, we would not think that we could destroy her hands as she was immune to violent intervention. Then my reasoning in the blog was that if the woman found a tool or robot (unowned by others or her) her immunity against interference extend to "violence" or destruction of the tool. I then thought that if her immunity was extended from her body to her prosthesis to a tool, then it could be extended to the abortionist who was not bearing the bodily burden that she was.

So this post was not about whether one could destroy property to save someone but the logic of extending immunity from oneself to one's tools to others. Sure, you can break into someone's hunting lodge to save someone dying from exposure. And sure, you can break the toaster or I-phone of the life guard who is not saving the drowning person. But these are not cases of where there might be a liberal defense of the wrongful failure to rescue or not kill that requires one to make a liberal response through the courts and ballot box.

Now it is interesting if there is no liberal recourse. Say, one exists in an illiberal society but the defense is liberal style arguments. Perhaps since it is a liberal defense, and that one should live in a liberal society and thus act as much as possible as if one did, then maybe one should respond to abortion violence as if one was in a liberal state and tolerate until one can stop it in a liberal manner. Now that may bring an incredulous stare. Nevertheless, the idealized philosophical community can recognize the reaonableness of the bodily defense of abortion and may tolerate it for that reason even if a liberal outlet for change was not available. Or at least that is my off the cuff thought.

Stephen Kershnar August 7, 2021 at 9:03 AM



Interesting thread.

Here is what you say, “Perhaps since it is a liberal defense, and that one should live in a liberal society and thus act as much as possible as if one did, then maybe one should respond to abortion violence as if one was in a liberal state and tolerate until one can stop it in a liberal manner. Now that may bring an incredulous stare. Nevertheless, the idealized philosophical community can recognize the reasonableness of the bodily defense of abortion and may tolerate it for that reason even if a liberal outlet for change was not available. Or at least that is my off the cuff thought.”

I do not understand this point.

If abortion is the slaughter of a million innocent a year, then we do not live in an innocent society. What is the point of pretending otherwise?

Even is such widespread slaughter were consistent with liberalism – and I do not see how – liberalism permits defense-of-others violence. Consider, for example, the Model Penal Code.

As a result, the toaster argument still succeeds.


Steve K

David H August 7, 2021 at 12:47 PM

Liberal and Illiberal Violence, Adding Small Increases in Wrongs


feel I just repeating myself. Millions of innocents are being killed. Sounds like a Nazi holocaust. We must stop the slaughter. But each one of those innocents is using someone else’s body for nine months, causing burdens, health problems, limiting actions, diet, sleep etc. So the wrongs of killing the innocent are offset considerably. It is really millions of violinists using others bodies for nine months who instead of being disconnected and allowed to die are giving a lethal injection before disconnections for the injection is safer for the support system. This is a death in line with liberal ideas and “slaughter talk” doesn’t capture it

Switching to multiple in a pregnancy, if they aggregate in a singe pregnancy, they are not significant additions. Imagine there are three people on the roof about to give way, two on top of a third that will cushion the other two but suffer pregnancy like burdens, and the impact is like the birth pains. If the third rotates partially, the other two are allowed to die. I don’t think I can shoot or maim him. If he rotates fully, the lands on the other two killing them, instead of letting them die. I think that is worse, but still I am reluctant to violently constrain him. He could have rotated partially and allowed them to die. Killing is worse than letting die but in this case, not that worse. There may be a threshold of burdens that we make someone take to prevent death, if not, the additional wrongs don’t make that much of a difference intuitively

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:47 PM

Why Does Williams Consider Kaczor a Restrictivist?

A Restrictivist, according to JW, holds three claims (pp. 2-3), To say that fetuses are persons, as understood here, is to say three things: (1) that they are, generally speaking, full and equal subjects of justice, owed equal concern and respect; (2) that they ordinarily have rights to life that are of equal (or at least comparable) strength to those typically possessed by children and adults; and (3) that their deaths are ordinarily equal (or at least comparable) evils to ours in what Derek Parfit (2011, 38) calls the ‘reason-implying sense’. With that conception of prenatal moral status in hand, the view under discussion avers that, outside at most rare cases, pregnant women lack a moral prerogative or right to prioritize themselves over the fetuses they carry, either by removing them prematurely, so that they die, or, a fortiori, by killing them, as do the most commonly-employed abortion techniques. Those who hold the forgoing combination of beliefs generally refer to themselves as ‘pro-life’. But if my argument succeeds that label is highly inapposite. I instead refer to the relevant position as Restrictivism.” So, the third condition is the evils of killing fetuses are comparable to the killing of us. But Kaczor says that their deaths may be less harmful as they aren’t tied to the futures they lose out on, don’t deserve those futures etc. JW writes of Kaczor (p. 9) “Restrictivists might think have a degree of bearing on the moral status of abortion — to wit: that while fetuses (a) are deprived of the good of (practically) an entire life, they also (b) have yet to make much if any investment in their lives, or develop meaningful, autonomous projects and pursuits which death would prematurely thwart, and furthermore (c) have no significant personal relationships, of a kind that might be taken to give an individual more to live for once acquired. At least one Restrictivist of whom I am aware (Kaczor) seems to allow that the death of a fetus is somewhat less bad than that of, say, a healthy twenty-year-old, due to the off-setting effects of (b) and (c), relative to (a). Does JW still consider him a Restrictivist because Kaczor doesn’t claim wrongness tracks harm? Kaczor, like all the rational substance theorists – Frances Beckwith, Pat Lee, Jason Eberl, Mathew Lu etc. – thinks that moral status comes from one kind membership and that doesn’t come in degrees as does the manifestation of reason and freedom. Perhaps Williams means by “evils” in condition #3 something more akin to “wrongs” than “harms.” Kaczor certainly believes the harms aren’t as great. If evils mean something like harms, then I, too, am not a Restrictivist.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:47 PM

Why I am not a Restrictivist Part I:

Although Williams couldn’t have known this from the Reed/Hershenov article “How not to Defend the Unborn,” I am not a Restrictivist. In my “Health, Harm and a Moderate Speciesism” I argue that it doesn’t matter if one takes a scalar account (rejecting Williams’s condition 2) in which moral status depends upon the degree of benefits and harms that can be reached or a threshold account in which everyone above it have equal moral status even if they differ in the degree of well-being that can be reached. I don’t care if the fetus doesn’t have the value of you and I, as long as it has the value of an infant. My typical strategy is to argue that pro-choice arguments entail infanticide, infanticide is impermissible, then, modus tolens, so is infanticide. My Romanell Center (RC) colleagues may recall from my earlier presentation (a couple of years ago when Marquis was in town) that had a section on Modifying McMahan’s Time- Relative-Interests Account (TRIA) and will see more clearly when I present my new paper “Harming the Mindless and Minimally Minded: Modifying the Time-Relative-Interests-Account” at our September 11 RC workshop. (Perhaps this will also come up in our August blog on a paper that Neil picked by one-time UB undergrad Tim Campbell critiquing his Rutgers dissertation adviser, Jeff McMahan’s TRIA.) Williams’s condition #3 states that their deaths are equal evils to ours. I advocate a revised time-relative-interests account that would prohibit abortion, infanticide and making individuals permanently mindless or minimally mindless and using them as sources of organs or to experiment upon and test drugs etc., all which McMahan must allow since for him harm depends upon consciousness and the extent of the mental ties to the future that one is deprived of. The mindless can’t be harmed and the minimally minded can hardly be harmed and their interests outweighed like those of minimally minded animals by the interests of persons. I advocate that even mindless human beings have interests that should be factored into a modified TRIA. These are interests in healthy functioning and development. Human beings always have them, they are just “filled in” to a greater degree as the young human being’s mind emerges and the heathy exercise of its cognitive and affective functions become more determinate, increasingly linking the individual to a valuable human future. Since healthy human minds are capable of incredibly high and valuable levels of well-being, mindless human beings can be greatly harmed by premature death or the infliction of mental disabilities that frustrates their interests in sophisticated cognitive and emotional development.

Jonathan Vajda August 6, 2021 at 3:30 PM

I imagine that "infanticide is impermissible, modus tolens, so is infanticide" should read as "modus tollens, so is abortion."

That said, since the TRIA allows a scalar, wouldn't this run into threshold problem? Also, wouldn't this run into the question of "additivity" in the aggregate, per the end of the paper?

David H August 7, 2021 at 12:59 PM


Right, thanks for the correction "modus tollens, so is abortion"

I don't think during a pregnancy that the increase of wrongs is much because the additional conscious ties are so minimal. If one believes wrongs track harms, then wrongs do increase but I think even the earliest abortion frustrates much well-being because of the interest in healthy development. Egalitarians can help themselves to a threshold where wrongs don't increase with harms. It is just as wrong to kill the elderly than the middle age, though the latter loses out on more well-being and thus is harmed more. This is McMahan's view and it is compatible with his TRIA of harm. He just denies a TRIA of wrongness. So egalitarians won't think harms to the same individual who is a above the personhood threshold will add wrongs and thus will not justify more defensive violence. But the other worry that wrongs to more than one person will aggregate and justify more defensive violence. My response to that is active abortionist just inherits each woman's immunity. My response to the woman pregnant with multiples, is that the additonal wrongs are not sufficient enough to warrant considerable defensive violence. See my response to Steve where the person on the roof kills rather than allows two people to die

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:48 PM

Why I am not a Restrictivist Part II:

It might help readers appreciate the value and well-being resulting from the activities that healthy human mental development makes possible if they consider the absence of health in those mentally disordered individuals suffering impairments in love, empathy, conscience, desire, self-restraint, prudence, reason, learning, memory, or judgment. A look at the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) will reveal cognitive and emotional disorders involving dysfunction that will virtually guarantee lower well-being than that found in the mentally healthy. Wakefield writes “Very roughly, psychotic disorders involve failures of thought processes to work as designed, anxiety disorders involved failures of anxiety- and fear-generating mechanisms to work as designed, depressive disorders involve failures of sadness and loss-response regulating mechanisms, disruptive behavior disorders of children involve failures of socialization processes and processes underlying conscience and social cooperation, sleep disorders involve failure of sleep processes to function properly, sexual dysfunctions involve failures of various mechanism involved in sexual motivation and response, eating disorders involve failures of appetitive mechanisms, and so on.”

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:49 PM

Why I am Not a Restrictivist Part III: An example of Modified Time-Relative-Interests:

Perhaps an example will help: Pre-natal human beings will later acquire contingent interests as well as fill out the necessary interests in healthy development. The more they are filled out, the greater the ties to the future, and the greater the loss if those interests are thwarted and those individuals deprived of that future.

For instance, every healthy human being has some interests in emotional attachment and are likely mentally ill if they are utterly incapable of loving relationships. But it will be worse, all other things being equal, to always have unrequited love for Chris than never fall in love while wanting to, which is still worse than always being uninterested in love (like a psychopath is alleged to be), or uninterest because one is just a toddler and too young to care about romantic love. This is true despite the fact in all four scenarios one is not in a loving relationship with Chris, which we will assume one would have been is the nearby possible world in which one is in a loving relationship.

An interest in love is found in the mindless embryo and minimally minded infant. But the realization that renders it determinate involves all sorts of contingencies – coming to love Chris rather than someone else, finding endearing certain traits of Chris’s, wanting to share certain endeavors with Chris etc. The more those contingencies become filled out, the greater the ties to the future and thus the greater the harm of their unfulfillment. (It may help to think of this on the model of determinable and determinates). While it may be better to have loved and lost, it is better to have never loved someone than to for that love to be unrequited.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:49 PM

Why I am not a Restrictivist Part IV:

The Relevance of Revised TRIA Maternal/Fetal Conflicts and Violence Calculations: However, I will defend McMahan’s claim that a healthy adult human’s developed and determined psychology enables her to be harmed to such a degree that a fetus cannot. This is why still birth is not as bad as a later death. The harm of death, as McMahan says pace Marquis, is a bell curve as it less bad when very young and very old because one is respectively less tied to the future and has less future remaining. (See also McMahan’s thought experiment The Cure for support of TRIA.) So, when there is a deadly conflict between mother and fetus, the greater harm of death to the pregnant women provides a reason to favor the mother’s life over that of the fetus. Thus, it may be that mothers and fetuses have equal moral status but can suffer different harms. It would be like both you and I needing a scarce drug that we paid insurance for but you die without it and I only suffer nausea. You get the drug though your moral status is not greater than mine. So, when considering violence, the harms to the very young are not as great as the harms to the much older. Thus, it may not be true that fetuses lose out more from their deaths than their mothers. This may be relevant to aggregating harms and how much violence one can do to prevent death of the very young. So when a woman is wrongly killing a fetus, she does something much worse than McMahan thinks, but not as bad as someone killing you and me. When this gets factored into violence against mothers and abortionists becomes even slightly harder to justify. But violence to protect newborns is justified so it will be the bodily burdens, not TRIA, that I will mostly appeal to.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:50 PM

Ex Ante Enforcement and Ex Post Enforcement I:

Phil and I only argue against lethal violence against abortionists. Williams take us to task for an unstable distinction between ex ante and post facto enforcement. He writes “But the claim that 3 is relevant to wrongness and ex post enforcement, yet not to ex ante enforcement, is ad hoc.” [Principle 3 “is the fact that the woman crosses the boundary between separate persons, in directly, killing the fetus, theory becoming the original cause of death.” (p. 36.)] I am not sure if I understand the charge, but if I do, I doubt that it fits. We favor laws banning abortion. The enforcement of those laws will involve punishing people who abort. I take it that is ex post enforcement. But those laws also mean using state power to prevent people from aborting – closing down clinics, stopping illegal abortions before the take place, wresting lethal pills and abortion tools out of the hands of those about to engage in illegal abortions (see the next post) So does that not count as ex-ante enforcement? Admittedly, we didn’t make this point in our paper. But we didn’t exclude such preventive violence but only targeted lethal violence so I don’t know why JW charged us with the unstable combination.

Perhaps JW meant that we weren’t advocating violence before abortion was made illegal. Well, then we return to our point that there is liberal and illiberal violence, the morally relevant difference between the violence of Hitler and the violence of abortionist. One comes with liberal justifications of individual rights, bodily integrity, personhood and potential persons. The other is based on anti-Semitism, racism, Eugenics, racial purity, denials of humanity etc. Surely, there is a distinction there, however flawed Rawlsian public reason is.

I am not denying that they are against lethal violence against woman who abort (assuming the fetus will live) and their abortionist agents. But right now, there are American states where abortion is illegal after viability. If there was a clinic engaged in illegal late term abortions, surely the police could raid them, tackle them and knock them down, wrestle the tools out of the abortionist’s hands, twisting their arms, breaking their arms if need be to stop the procedure. Likewise, if an abortion pill was being taken later than was safe and legal. Even private citizens could. I expect Phil agrees with me that such ex-ante enforcement is legitimate. So, we are not against violence when abortion is illegal. And we certainly favor civil disobedience, blocking abortion clinics and the like, but that might not be the physical violence people have in mind, not letting abortionists and woman get past them

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:51 PM

Ex Ante and Ex Post Enforcement II:

I am not opposed to violence before an abortion. Obviously, as mentioned above, when abortion is illegal at a later stage as it is in many states today, the police or even a citizen can use violence to stop an illegal abortion, breaking the arm of the abortionist as he still insists upon carrying out the illegal abortion. I would even advocate violence when abortion is legal if the women didn’t want to be aborted but the abortionist insisted. But it isn’t just to protect the wishes of the pregnant, because if someone read some philosopher (Steve Kershnar?) and raped a woman whose entire life has been spent in a persistence vegetative state because Steve(?) convinced such a reader that the rape can’t harm the mindless woman, I am not sure but I wonder whether force couldn’t be used to stop the abortion. The woman can’t consent or dissent from an abortion as she has always been mindless, she obviously can’t make someone her agent but maybe she could have a proxy who did so,. and she can’t be burdened as she is mindless, so that shows ex ante violence to the abortionist is not being done for her sake but for the sake of the fetus; and its permissibility depends upon the pregnant not being burdened by a pregnancy. (Of course, this is a bit tricky, and rape distorts reactions, unlike say people seeds floating into her uterus. But it is hard to consider any case without the emotional reactions of a standard pregnancy.)

Maybe the best test case, is when mechanical artificial wombs can replace natural wombs, destroying such gestating embryos is akin to an abortion but the strongest case her can be made for violently stopping the abortion-like killing with ex ante violent enforcement as no woman’s body is being burdened. What is so informative about using artificial wombs is that it guarantees the gestating is intrinsically no different from a fetus and it removes the bodily burdens on the mother. If one accepts or thinks it is plausible that people can kill or greatly harm someone trying to kill the gestating human in an artificial womb, then that shows not only the high moral status of the comparable fetus but highlights all the work and heavy lifting being done by the mother’s body in the debate over what pro-lifer’s can do to prevent abortion. I think it vindicates the Reed/Hershenov thesis.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:52 PM

Less than Lethal Violence:

Is JW’s ex ante complaint that we didn’t discuss the lesser than lethal violence that could be used to prevent woman from aborting? Well, our concern was with killing abortion doctors. So, we gave two reasons why force couldn’t be used – (1) the abortion was near in wrongness to wrongfully letting someone die who was using someone else’s body and so such people and their agents can’t be killed, and (2) the justifications for the abortion were liberal rather than illiberal, only the latter warranting violence. If we believe lethal violence can’t be used against those giving liberal justifications about control of their body, autonomy, body ownership, what have you, then, of course, we won’t be defending ex-ante enforcement. If there is some moral room between not harming those wrongfully letting someone die and the additional wrongness of killing someone who shouldn’t be killed, then maybe there is a room for some minor force. But that assumes our first point about tolerating liberal violence (abortion, death penalty) is not relevant.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:53 PM

Is any (non-pacifist) pro-lifer really against all violence against abortion providers?

I don’t fully understand his ex ante and ex post enforcement distinction which we supposedly ignore or deny or apply in an ad hoc manner. I am not opposed to violence before an abortion. Obviously, when abortion is illegal at a later stage as it is in many states today, the police or even a citizen can use violence to stop an illegal abortion, breaking the arm of the abortionist as he still insists upon carrying out the illegal abortion. I suppose this is complicated by wrongs of lawbreaking as one refuse to desist from a crime or resist arrest for minor crimes and suffer violence as a result.

I suspect pro-lifers would even advocate violence when abortion is legal if the women didn’t want to be aborted but the abortionist insisted. But it isn’t just to protect the wishes of the pregnant, because if someone read Kershnar and raped a woman whose entire life has been spent in a persistence vegetative state because Steve convinced such a reader (hopefully due to a misinterpretation of Steve) that the rape can’t harm the mindless woman, I suspect pro-lifers will see no reason why force couldn’t be used to stop the abortion. The woman can’t consent or dissent from an abortion as she has always been mindless, and she can’t be burdened as she is mindless, so that shows ex ante violence to the abortionist is not being done for her sake but for the sake of the fetus; and its permissibility depends upon the pregnant not being burdened by a pregnancy. (Of course, this is a bit tricky, and rape distorts reactions, unlike say people seeds floating into her uterus.) Likewise, when mechanical embryos replace wombs, destroying such gestating embryos is akin to an abortion but can be stopped with ex ante enforcement as no woman’s body is being burdened. Artificial wombs are a great test case to disentangle what pro-lifers really believe about the value of the fetus and the legitimacy of the violence to protect fetuses and creatures at the equivalent stage of development and the extent of the immunity of the pregnant when wrongfully killing those dependent upon them. I think it shows a defensible commitment to the great value of the fetus and the immunity bestowed upon their mothers when they kill dependent fetuses within them but an immunity lost when they or their agents kill the equally undeveloped human being in an artificial womb.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:53 PM

Sloppiness on the Killing/Letting Distinction:

Williams points out that my example of rooftop adult who must rotate (which brings about the death of a newborn) to avoid a fall resulting in pregnancy-like burdens, actually describes a case of killing rather than letting die Fair enough. I think it is expecting too much charity to have the reader see this as a case of overdetermined death where the person is allowed to die as their support is removed and the ground causes their death and also the adult landing on top is sufficient and overdetermines the death by killing the kid. I can just retell the story (as I often do in my classes and have done in other articles) where the older person rotates away from the child and so will not cushion its landing, allowing the child to die upon the impact after the roof gives way. This is not killing but letting the baby die. I often modify the rooftop example in discussions when I want to illustrate an analogy to disconnecting the violinist (letting die) or aborting a fetus (killing) that involves either the ground or the adult causing the death. A half rotation removes the adult from shielding the youngster and thus is like letting die as the newborn hits the ground first and dies as a result of losing its protector that was preventing its death. A full rotation places the adult on top of the newborn and fatally crushing the newborn when they fall to the ground (let’s stipulate the impact in this case on ground wasn’t sufficient for death, only the adult landing on top was.) See also my discussion in “Abortions and Distortions”

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:54 PM

Dismemberment and Determining the Moral Inequivalence of Killing and Letting:

Williams uses the example of dismemberment of the violinist (pp. 33-34) to show that killing is far worse than letting die and thus cast doubt on the assimilationist claim that demands that the abortionist be treated more like the person wrongly letting someone die who was using their body. But to see how far worse killing is than letting die, everything must be kept the same but that difference. (See the methodological discussions in Kamm’s Morality/Mortality.) So, the pain and grotesqueness of the dismemberment may be distorting reactions. So, if we are going to learn anything from dismemberment about killing and letting die’s equivalence or nonequivalence of killing and letting die, then the letting die case must involve dismemberment as well. Thus, imagine that taking away support from the violinist just results in the body falling apart like a water-starved brittle twig. Then compare that case of letting die to a killing by dismemberment. I take it that the reactions to the difference won’t be as great as in JW’s example

Perhaps JW is just trying to show that we react worse to dismemberment of the born than unborn. But then my response is to ask about the dismemberment of a newborn. That is clearly impermissible, but there is no morally significant intrinsic difference between the newborn and the fetus. So, if one can dismember the fetus then one can dismember the infant. If the latter is wrong, modus tollens, the former is as well. If the latter is wrong and warrants defensive violence, then if the defensive violence is not justified against those who kill the fetus, then again the obvious explanation is that the fetus is an immense burden on its mother.

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:55 PM

The Greater Evil of Killing in Dismemberment and Skepticism of Kamm’s Response to Rachels’s Cases:

I also wonder why JW thinks dismemberment allows people to engage in violence to save the violinist but he doesn’t share Kamm’s intuition that in the Rachels case one can use less violence to stop the person Jones watching and allowing the kid to drown than to stop the wrongdoer Smith from drowning the kid JW writes “Intuitively, Jones can indeed be subjected to serious harm as a means of rescuing the child – even if, as Kamm (2007, 17) speculates, the degree of permissible harm is lower than that justified in response to Rachels Smith, who actively holds a child under water (a point of which I am unsure)” (p. 40). If the difference between killing and letting is so significant, shouldn’t the reactions to the evil death allower and evil killer be considerably different? Why is JW unsure?

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:55 PM

Harming those who Fail to Save:

JW later tries to show we can bring considerable harm to those who don’t save as in the case of Rachels’s Jones who stands-by and watches his relative drown in the tub so he can inherit. (pp. 40-41) But Jones can easily save, he is not burdened physically as with a pregnancy, and his motives are callous and venal. We probably intuitively feel we can do less harm if his motives were that he has a water phobia or doesn’t stand to gain and is just exhausted. Anyway, it sees that we can’t do anything similar to the pregnant woman than we can to Jones. Williams then suggests that we imagine Jones is the child’s guardian and he lets him die to avoid the burdens of doing so. But that still comes nowhere close to the pregnancy burdens and adoption is an option. A better example would be someone on a deserted isle breastfeeding, changing, and co-sleeping with a child that one never wanted nor had a change to give away. It isn’t clear how much harm we can impose on this woman. Perhaps far less than the Non-Violence Constraint (NVC) of killing, burning and bone breaking. Williams writes “That an account of abortion ethics not be at an undue risk of facilitating the justification of SERIOUS harm in defense of fetuses, at any stage in the latter’s gestation. Call this requirement the Non-Violence Constraint or NVC. By ‘serious harm’ I have in mind in addition to death, such things as penetrating gunshot wounds, broken limbs, and life altering burns and scars.” (pp. 25-26)

David H August 2, 2021 at 3:59 PM

The Separateness of Fetus from the Mother:

One of the features that Kamm and Williams draw upon that makes aborting a killing rather than just a death allowing is that the fetus is separate from the mother. I too thought that was the case when Phil and I wrote our article in 2014 or 2015. Since then I have been persuaded by Kingma that the fetus is a temporary part of the mother (like our baby teeth and our fetal placenta are temporary parts of us) and that my Romanell Center colleague Barry Smith is wrong to defend the “container view” that the fetus is within the mother but not a part. So that makes the killing of the fetus a fatal destruction of one of the mother’s parts, thus lessening the separation. (Of course, the fetus still has a distinct life from the mother’s life.) So that might serve to assimilate abortion and letting die even more.

However, I don’t think pro-choicers should welcome the news that the fetus is a part of the mother then three arguments against abortion fail. Maternal Parts can’t trespass on the mother, nor can they violate the mother’s integrity, and insomuch as a right to lethal self defense is based on the violation of a right against trespass or bodily integrity, then the mother lacks a right of self defense against her fetal parts. For an elaboration of this and other problems with the mother appealing to a right to self defense see my “If Fetuses are Parts of their Mothers, then Three Popular Defenses of Abortion fail on Purely Conceptual Grounds.”

David H August 2, 2021 at 4:00 PM

Moralizing the Killing/Letting Die Distinction and Transferring Immunity – Part I:

Williams seems to think that whether an action is killing or letting die depends (in part) upon its morality. He offers three cases of disconnecting aid Life Support I – A is providing B superogatory support and asks C to disconnect B. JW considers that letting die, I consider it permissible moral killing. (The adjectival approach will be explained later.) Life Support II - If A is support B and B’s enemy hires D to disconnect A. That is killing. I agree, it is impermissible killing. Life Support III - A is supporting B and has no right to disconnect B, A then asks C to disconnect B. JW annexes this to Life Support II, a killing but he does this for the wrong reason. Let’s imagine a Life Support IV in which B is maintaining A’s equipment round the clock and asks C who belongs to the same medical team to disconnect A. I take it that JW would again say that since there was no right for B to do so then there is no right for C to do so. One can’t permissibly extend to others what one had no permission to do. But that just makes it a wrongful death allowing.

But it is best just to take an adjectival approach and distinguish just death allowings from unjust death allowings. See all the problems that arrive from moralizing the distinction in my forthcoming “Abortion Pill: Killing or Letting Die” The most obvious shortcoming of thinking killings involve morality is that trees and floods and lightening kills but doesn’t do so immorally. One doesn’t want to have a disjunctive account of killing – one for human beings that makes reference to the morality of what they do and another definition of killing for non moral agents like floods, fires, microbes and wild animals etc. Perhaps the need for a non-moralized account can be see if we imagine the congenitally unconscious person on the life support machinery had no view of being disconnected and no preference for or against removal. It would be a case of killing or letting die depending upon who removed it. It would then be an permissible or impermissible killing or permissible or impermissible letting die depending upon the morality of the removal. If it was morally indeterminate or unknown, the act’s status as killing or letting die would not likewise be indeterminate or unknown.This is even more obvious if the organisms on the life support was non-human one of minimal or no value – say a non-sentient plant. Not only isn’t this creature a right holder, but there is no obvious moral considerations involved; so they can’t determine whether removing life support it is a letting die or killing. Intuitively, it is still a case of killing or letting die depending upon who removes it. I explore puzzling cases for the moralizing account in my CB article where the reasons and intentions are a morally mixed bag

David H August 2, 2021 at 4:01 PM

Moralizing the Killing/Letting Die Distinction and Transferring Immunity – Part II:

The only normativity relevant is the normativity of ownership and employment and the like – whether the life support is one’s own and one had joined the team if one is the disconnecting. But the rightness or wrongness of bringing about a death NEVER determines whether it should count as killing or letting die. Roughly, one lets someone die when they lose out on more life that they could have obtained with your aid (bodily aid, resources, efforts etc.). So, if you own or work for the hospital that owns or maintains the life support, withdrawing it is letting someone die. If was unjust to disconnect – say done to obtain support for a friend of the doctor or to inherit money with the death – it is just an immoral case of letting die.

Now JW brings up his case because he wants to argue that the disconnecting agent is killing when there was no legitimate right transferred to him. The legitimacy is irrelevant but I agree that the agent is a killer because he wasn’t providing the aid. However, I thin it is moot as the relevant question is whether an agent who kills can inherit the immunity of the person whose body is being burdened. Phil and I argue that the abortionist does inherit the immunity against being killed even if abortion is wrong. That is controversial but it is a separate point from whether the abortionist is killing or allowing die. I hope the immunity claim holds, otherwise, I just have to rely upon the liberal vs. illiberal justification of killing.

What I think should have been of interest to JW is not whether A is killed or allowed to die by C, but whether C has immunity to being killed when immorally bringing about A’s death. It doesn’t matter so much whether C (an abortionist) is killing or letting die - though I think it obvious it is a killing – but whether the support system can confer immunity to destructive violence by others

David H August 2, 2021 at 4:02 PM

Embryo Rescue Analogy and the Moral Status of the Unborn Part I:

Williams claims Restricitivists are in a dialectical situation similar to pro-lifers are when confronted with embryos rescues. He writes “Restrictivism would be damaged to a degree roughly comparable to the embarrassment it suffers in the stylized thought experiment known as the “Embryo Rescue Case’, wherein an agent must choose to save an unconscious child or clutch of frozen embryos from a burning fertility clinic”. If people save the guard in a fertility clinic fire and not two or more embryos that have been frozen, that is supposed to show that pro-lifers doesn’t deep down really think the embryo has the same moral status as the born. However, Triage considerations come into play in embryo rescue cases as they do in wartime MASH units and in domestic hospitals. Pro-lifers’ claims about the equal moral status of all human beings are not undermined by accepting that we don’t have to make great efforts in the actual world to keep alive frozen embryos or anencephalic human beings. This doesn’t indicate their lower moral status any more than when the surgical team of a MASH unit chooses to operate upon the soldier that can more likely be saved indicates anything about a difference in moral status between that soldier and the more gravely wounded soldier who is not rushed into surgery because of the likely futility of the procedure. Both soldiers have the same moral status and each is as tragically harmed as the other by their deaths. It is just that doctors can’t likely save both of them. So, they give priority to the more treatable.

Triage considerations can distort our judgments as they get conflated with different considerations of moral status. It is important to make explicit that the embryo in the rescue case is frozen, may not survive thawing, and there may never be found a woman willing to gestate the embryo until delivery. More importantly, the baby will certainly survive removal from the smoke-filled area and won’t be dependent upon anyone else’s body for months of taxing, pregnancy-like support. The embryo, on the other hand, may not be viable in either of two senses. The first is that the embryo may not survive thawing. The second absence of viability is that the embryo’s need to gestate means that it cannot live without imposing immense burdens upon a woman for months.

David H August 2, 2021 at 4:03 PM

Embryo Rescue Part II.

So, if we really want to improve our chances of learning something from embryo rescue cases regarding our deepest commitments about the moral status of embryos, then we surely need to make the embryo and baby in the rescue case much more similar to remove other considerations that prevent us from focusing on any differences in moral status. The baby needs to be frozen. So, I will stipulate that in the revised thought experiment offered below that the baby is likewise frozen and in an induced coma. Thus, heat will thaw her out but she won’t become conscious unless the coma is reversed by a routine, safe, and effective procedure. This ensures that if the fire thaws her out it doesn’t cause her to regain consciousness and suffer.

I will also stipulate that the frozen baby girl on the floor of the clinic may not survive thawing. The odds that the baby in the deep freeze cannot have its life processes restarted should be the same as with cryogenically preserved embryos. That renders the baby’s prospects statistically like the frozen embryo. There will be no guarantee that either will be successfully rescued. That will partially offset the triage considerations that may be influencing different attitudes about their rescue in the original case. Furthermore, the thawed baby has a pair of failing kidneys like those found in the violinist of Judith Thomson’s famous thought experiment. Thus, someone with healthy kidneys will need to volunteer to be connected to the baby for nine months until the infant’s kidneys will have recovered and she can be safely detached. The very young child with bad kidneys is an orphan so there is no one who has in the past willingly provided support for the youngster and might be expected to do so again without any qualms. In other words, neither the baby nor the embryo has a mother available and willing to allow their bodies to be used for months in order to keep them alive. Both will perish without the kindness of strangers.

Whom would we save if both the baby and the embryo are frozen and perhaps not viable in the first sense of being capable of surviving thawing and definitely not viable in the second sense of being able to live without the bodily support of another who may never volunteer? It seems to me that here it is much less obvious that the right decision is to save the baby over the embryo(s). This suggests that the best explanation of the reactions in the original unreconstructed embryo rescue may not be the difference in moral status. Triage considerations could have been playing a crucial role.

David H August 2, 2021 at 4:03 PM

I want to hear more about Steve Kershnar’s Mistakes:

As RC fellows know, I disagree with virtually every substantive philosophical/political claim Steve K believes except that woke progressive authoritarians are ruining philosophy, academia, the culture and the country – and if they exist on other planets, are also ruining the galaxy.) So, I am interested in hearing why JW believes that SK’s analysis contains “many problems and mistakes, which I lack the space to catalogue.” We have the space in this blog to catalogue SK’s erros. I was under the impression that their belief that pro-lifers are committed to violence is pretty similar. Admittedly, my memory of Steve’s argument is dim as I read it when Phil and I were preparing to put Steve on a mock trial in front of the UB grad students that was entitled “Should Steve Kershnar be given hemlock (or exile) for Corrupting the Pro-life Young?” I am disappointed that the grad students – no doubt, all pro-choicers – opted for exile. I didn’t see in section III-B support for JW’s p. 3 claim “Kershnar argues narrowly that Restrictivists are committed to the claim that abortionists are liable to assassination (which I allow in section III-B they need not be.”

Stephen Kershnar August 2, 2021 at 6:30 PM


Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental


Thrasymachus: David and Phil, how much defensive force do you think may be used against abortion-doctors, given that you think the fetus has as much value and as stringent rights as an infant?

David: I think we can probably beat them, break some of their bones, and even give them a nasty pinch. However, the pinch may not be in the buttocks. Too sexual.

Phil: I disagree with the bone-breaking. Permitted violence includes beating, tattooing, and perhaps the use of the Medieval Pear of Anguish. But, as we learn from Saint Thomas, the violence must fall short of the bone-breaking or tearing connective tissue.

Thrasymachus: Wow. You guys are not fooling around.

Does the same apply to the woman soliciting an abortion?

David: The same punishment, especially the nasty pinch.

Thrasymachus: But you don’t think the doctors can be killed. Why?

David: Abortion is not as wrong as killing an infant. The woman has a partial justification because it is her body. After all, she owns her body. The partial justification makes abortion less wrong than killing an infant. The doctor inherits the partial justification from the woman.

Phil: I disagree with the owning-one’s-own-body nonsense. After all, if a person owns her own body, then she has a right to get a tattoo, sell sex, or use drugs.

She might even – and this really is outrageous – have a right to physician-assisted suicide. Instead, as I have shown, she has no right to cut short her cancer-ridden, degraded, and painful last month of life. She has dignity, dignity has no price, and hence she must die in pain and alone in a sterile hospital bed.

Thrasymachus: Excellent point. Still an abortion-doctor likely kills hundreds if not thousands of fetuses. Why doesn’t the wrongness add up so that the aggregation of wrong acts permits bone-breaking and, perhaps, death?

David: Defensive violence does not aggregate.

Sure, punishment aggregates. A person who commits a robbery, goes to prison for a year, gets out and commits another robbery, should go back to prison for another year.

Similarly, compensation aggregates. If a person unjustly causes 100 people to lose $10,000 each, he should have to pay $1 million in compensation.

But via the New Orleans Anti-Aggregator Principle (NOAAUP), defensive violence does not aggregate in a similar way.

Thrasymachus: If compensation, defensive violence, and punishment all work via forfeiture, why do two but not the third aggregate?

David: NOAAP, baby.

Thrasymachus: But if two people can each use n units of violence to prevent an attacker from battering them, thereby allowing 2 x n violence, why can’t a defender use 2 x n violence in order to defend two people? Why can’t one person use 2 x n violence to prevent the attacker from battering her twice?

David: NOAAP, baby.

Stephen Kershnar August 2, 2021 at 6:31 PM

Phil: Look, we’re getting off track here. The principle of defensive violence has no relation whatsoever to punishment- and compensation-principles. If Aristotle has taught us anything it is that, in ethics, there can only be as much precision as the subject matter allows.

Thrasymachus: Why can a woman use lethal force to prevent rape but not an unwanted pregnancy, especially if the pregnancy resulted from rape? Note that an unwanted fetus in a woman’s body intuitively seems to be as severe a body invasion as a rape.

Phil: Minor terminological correction. The fetus is in the body of a person who can get pregnant.

David: [Clearly annoyed at Phil’s terminological correction] I agree that

(1) the fetus has no right to be inside the woman’s body,

(2) the prevention of rape permits lethal defensive violence, and

(3) an unwanted pregnancy is as severe an invasion as that of a rape.

But the difference is the Santa Barbara Invasion-Context Principle (SBICP).

Thrasymachus: But don’t (1) to (3) tell us that abortion permits lethal defensive violence?

David: SBICP, baby.

Thrasymachus: I’m going to have to concede. I just have no answer to NOAAP, SBICP, and pinch-location arguments.

David H August 6, 2021 at 9:00 AM

Dialogue Part I: Jesus and Steve Kershnar

Jesus: Hello Steve, it is me, God. Haven’t heard from you since your Bar Mitzvah

Steve: I lost my faith at the end of my Bar Mitzvah during the Rabbi’s sermon – it was full of unsound claims about God, fairness, rights, duty, desert, and the good. Since there is no God, I don’t believe you are who you say you are. What evidence can you give me of your divinity? Anyway, it is impossible to be the son of God and God. How can you be your own Dad and also your own son? Sounds like that Willie Nelson song, “I am my own Grandfather”. I will send you the link. What is your email?

Jesus: You want evidence? I know that you dreamt the last three nights in a row of lecturing on your philosophy at the Chautauqua Institute Nudist Colony.

Steve: Umm… A lot of people have that dream and so it is not an unreasonable guess on your part that I too dreamt it. I am still not convinced you are who you say you are.

Jesus: No one else has ever had that dream, a fortiori, three nights in a row. Alright then, I will provide more proof. You have two bad shoulders. Now they are healed. Lift them and see.

Steve: Whoa! Incredible. You are God! I am surprised how dark skinned you are

Jesus: I had a Mediterranean mother. I thought it would be good for you to encounter an omniscient person of color.

Steve: Point taken. But statistical studies of identical twins separated at birth have shown….

Jesus: And now your injuries and pain are restored.

Steve: What? Ouch! Why?

Jesus: Did you have a right to a cure? It would be kind, benevolent, loving, considerate, charitable, and merciful of me but you don’t believe that anyone is owed kindness, consideration, love, benevolent, charity, and mercy as there are rights and no other moral claims

Steve. (Sheepishly). That’s right.

Jesus: Why do insist on advocating what I prohibit? I have commanded “Thou shall not kill!”

Steve: Well, I think I am advocating the implicit or suppressed content of that commandment. Isn’t it short for you should not kill unjustly? And the mindless don’t have interests, well-being, and rights. In fact, I believe the will theory is better and only the autonomous have rights

Jesus: So, you can kill or let newborns die because they aren’t autonomous and don’t conceive and desire to take the life-saving medicine that will keep them alive into the future?

Steve: Yes.

Jesus: “What ya talkin’ bout Willis?” That’s a crazy view. You shouldn’t say that the mindless and minimally minded don’t have interests and well-being. It is false to claim that it’s just a metaphor to describe the mindless as thriving and flourishing and with an interest in health that only becomes a real, literal interest relevant to well-being when they become self-conscious Oy Vey! You once had such promise, educated at Cornell and U Penn; but then such ideas have landed you at a third-rate school in Fredonia.

Steve: Gee… Jeez, that’s awfully harsh. My mom said the same thing. I expect that from her, but not God

Jesus: She is a wise woman. Anyway, I do have a human nature which means humor is part of my nature.

Steve: Well, even if that is true, we persons are thinkers who consist just of those brain parts that produce thought so never existed before we had a functioning brain. Ergo, we never could have been aborted in the first few months of a pregnancy.

Jesus: So, you have never been seen or touched? (Jesus scoffs)

Steve: I once was operated on by beautiful neurosurgeon and she cut open my skull and saw brain- sized me and massaged me… Hey, is that an incredulous stare? I didn’t think a benevolent God would stare at someone that way.

Jesus: You’ve read too much of that Levinas nonsense about the gaze. Remember, I have a human nature which includes humor. And I have a Jewish mom and thus a Jewish sense of sarcasm.

David H August 6, 2021 at 9:12 AM

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David H August 6, 2021 at 9:21 AM

Dialogue Part II - Jesus and Steve Kershnar

Steve: Two of the most brilliant philosophers of the last fifty years, Parfit and McMahan, have argued that we are brain-size….

Jesus: Derek doesn’t believe that anymore?

Steve: How do you know?

Jesus: He is with me now. He renounced the brain-size person view. Also abandoned the reductionist quasi-Buddhist view of persons. And he dropped his infamous “identity doesn’t matter” claim. Renounced consequentialism halfway through his stay in Purgatory

Steve: But McMahan still believes the embodied mind account

Jesus: Yes, but he has been too busy to read Hershenov’s Acta Analytica paper “Thinking Brains or Thinking Animals?”

Steve: The paper has no charts, graphs, formulas or numbered premises!

Jesus: It flows well. Very clear. MY archangels love his style

Steve: But he was wrong about Hell

Jesus: He didn’t provide the complete story, but he came closer than anyone else to getting it right. He didn’t miss the boat as you did with your blasphemous Christians should abort to get their kids to heaven before they sin. And risk Hell. Why are you trying to outwit me?

Steve: But you are kind and just and merciful and all powerful so you would send the aborted to heaven

Jesus. I want them to earn Heaven. If their parents try to thwart my will, I can counter that and still make the child earn his way

Steve: What? You send the kid back into another woman's belly? That’s reincarnation. And the earliest stage of the pregnancy would be a false pregnancy as the aborted would not yet be there in the womb as they died at a much later stage of a pregnancy. That sounds like a prenatal analogue to van-Inwagen's claim that you deceive us when you snatch bodies at death before decay and replace them with simulacra. Secondly, it can’t be that you know how they would have acted for that Molinism is very flawed.

Jesus: Trust me. I can get what I want. By the way, van Inwagen's account is not deception as I don't intentionally try to keep the truth of the posthumous state of the dead human animal from anyone. It is just that many mortals are ignorant of metaphysics and I didn’t inspire the Bible to read like a philosophy graduate school seminar text. You lost that argument with Hershenov. Unfortunately, you fared so poorly in that discussion that some RC blog readers thought your performance indirectly provided evidence for atheism as a good, loving and merciful God would not allow anyone to do so poorly in a philosophical exchange.

Steve: But the counterfactual account of harm is so flawed that we can’t even know who has harmed another. As I showed in my debate with Neil Feit…

Jesus: You also lost that debate.

Steve: I did? Was it close? Did I lose on points?

Jesus: No. TKO

Steve: I’ll be damned

Jesus: Indeed. Some wrongs do aggregate and warrant an increase in punishment.

Jonathan Vajda August 6, 2021 at 2:54 PM

Perhaps a carnivore can make an argument that parallels Williams'. If the paper's argument works, it might generalize.

P1. If "Ethical vegetarians" and "Ethical vegans" were consistent, then they would sometimes be justified to commit anti-carnivore violence (ACV)

P2. ACV is outside of the Overton window of public policy (public reason, reflective equil., or whatever); i.e., ACV is deeply implausible.


C. Ethical vegans and vegetarians' views are deeply implausible.

In support of premise 1, One could make many of the same substitutions. Important might be that instead of 'person', replace with 'morally significant sufferer' or 'sentient moral patient' or what have you. It is on that level the debate is being held, instead of persons, which they often deem an arbitrary or speciesist boundary. The ethical vegan or vegetarian could enumerate the hundreds of thousands of animals killed annually for dietary consumption. And they could reasonably/in principle set aside ACV in many cases as well, since many of the vegan distinctives (that it is oppressive or otherwise immoral the products made by using animal labor and byproducts [e.g., beeswax, cheese, leather jackets, etc.].)

If I were to make this argument to a vegetarian, I would need to make sure that P2 is common ground before attempting to argue premise 1, lest I update my will.

Jonathan Vajda August 6, 2021 at 3:00 PM

Ahem, according to Google, about 50 billion chickens are killed for the sake of dietary consumption, annually. Oh, and 121 million pigs, and 29 million cows.

David H August 6, 2021 at 4:10 PM

Animals, Fetuses, and Constitutional Essentials:


I just read your intriguing and provocative paper “Public Reason and the Moral Status of the Unborn” (PRMSU) published in the Journal of Ethics that you mentioned somewhere in your PPR article “On Anti-abortion Violence” that we are blogging about. You argue in this second paper that the political conception of the person doesn’t apply to prenatal life. “…the question of prenatal moral status is entirely beyond the remit of public reason.” (PRMSU p. 30). “Abortion involves the killing of persons who while human are undoubtably not persons- at least under the pollical conception of the persons that reasonable citizens are defined as recognizing and required to presuppose in public reasoning…we think of persons as citizens – individuals with the requisite minimum psychological capacities to part in and benefit from social cooperation.” (PRMSU p. 31) and “judgments about prenatal moral status are not admissible in public reason, deliberators must give them no weight, which is equivalent in practical upshot to their assuming that, throughout gestation, a fetus has not moral status.” (PRMSU pp. 41-42)

But this devaluing of the fetus assumes that abortion is a constitutional issue. Rawls thinks it is, as do pro-choice defenders of Roe v. Wade in America. I assume some pro-lifers (John Finnis?) believe the fetus is a person that should be constitutionally protected. But many if not most pro-lifers believe that the American Supreme Court should not have ruled there was a constitutional right to abortion or that the fetus had a constitutional right to be protected from abortion. I recall a law review article by Michael Paulson to this effect, and a couple of law review articles by Steve Gilles as well. So, if abortion is not a “constitutional essential” then why not allow voters to rely upon beliefs of the comprehensive metaphysis about the nature, interests and status of the fetus as Rawls would allow with animals. “…citizens can vote their nonpolitical values and try to convince other citizens accordingly” (p. 37) It thus is not accurate to say of fetuses that “…deliberators must give them no weight, which is equivalent in practical upshot to their assuming that, throughout gestation, a fetus has not moral status.” We restrict human interests for the sake of animal welfare, limiting what can be done to them for sport, entertainment, pleasure, food, profit, and medical research etc. So why not limit women’s interests for the sake of fetal interests? Are you going to fall back on Rawls’s claim abortion is a constitutional essential or at “least borders on one” (p. 37). Much of American jurisprudence and legal history suggests otherwise.

David H August 6, 2021 at 4:12 PM

The Infantile, Impaired, Ill, Demented and Comatose


You insist that public reason must be neutral on questions of the good and so cannot appeal to the interest of the fetus in living. Now I think all organisms have an interest in healthy development and when that interest is fulfilled in a human organism, great levels of well-being are reached. This interest in healthy development is there even when unrecognized and undesired in the mindless fetus, minimally minded newborn, congenitally mentally impaired, demented elderly, comatose and vegetative patient. It is the basis of the case for why we shouldn’t abort, commit infanticide, engage in euthanasia on eugenics grounds, and why we should cure or seek cures for the brain damaged, senile and unconscious even though they are too incapacitated to desire or retain a dispositional desire for such a cure. If this interest in healthy development is the reason why we don’t commit infanticide, euthanize the impaired, and would cure the unconscious and brain damaged if we could, then it is a consideration in favor of not aborting. But if this interest in healthy development is not endorsed or recognized by public reason, does it mean that the born who are minimally minded or unconscious are not so protected? I know your view is that a Rawlsian should say that birth makes someone a political person. But does birth offer the minimally minded and mindless protections against being killed and a reason to be cured that they don’t desire? Doesn’t one have to appeal to something more than they are born and thus political persons? We don’t just keep the born alive just because they were born. And with those children who are the congenitally cognitively impaired, they are not each “someone who can be a citizen, that is a normal and fully cooperating members of society over a complete life.” (p. 34) Now wouldn’t that undesired interest appealed to in the case of the born be present in the unborn as well? Is your view that birth provides protections regardless of interests in those who can’t deliberate and reason because of immaturity or injury? That makes little sense to me. I would think a Rawlsian should allow that there is an interest in health that limits what we can do the born who are mindless or minimally minded and also explains why we should cure those who are mentally diminished or mindless. If that is the reason we protect and treat the born, then it should be a prima facie reason for protect the unborn, though it can arguably be outweighed. If public reason doesn’t allow us to appeal to the interest in health in the born who are not yet or are no longer or never were rational then that seems one more reason to think it is moral hot water, similar to the reasons (ethical, incongruous, democratic, integrity), at the end of your paper

David H August 6, 2021 at 4:18 PM

Persons before Birth


You argue on pp. 34-35 (PRMSU) that the political liberal advocates of public reason would not want to extend personhood to the unborn as that would mean it “was part and parcel of such a culture to view membership of society as acquired before birth." Secondly, "it would generate deeply unsatisfactory restrictions on public reasoning, since deliberators could not then question the personhood of the fetus on pain of becoming unreasonable, by rejecting an idea that reasonable citizens are required to accept. Revising the political conception of the person to incorporate fetuses, in short, would transform the constituency of public justification into a pro-life sect.”

Regarding the first:, generations of lawyers raised on Blackstone would have learned that human beings becomes persons at their origins, not birth. There is also a long legal tradition of assaults on pregnant women resulting in fetal deaths being tried as homicide. See Dellapenna’s book “Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History” for a correction of the historical account that made its way its way into Blackmun’s decision in Roe. And see Michael Paulsen in an Ohio law review piece “The Plausibility of Personhood.”

Regarding the second claim: A Thomsonian can consider the fetus a person with potential rather than potential person and certainly without being a member of a “pro-life sect”. Personhood would just be insufficient consideration given the woman’s right to control her body.

Surely, public reason shouldn’t mean we can’t discuss whether certain intelligent animals or enhanced animals or brain damaged or comatose humans or corpses are persons. Why would it rule out a meta-discussion upon fetuses? Can’t public reason establish who is a person?

Is there room for a quasi-person in the eyes of public reason so birth doesn’t have to be such a cut and dry and implausible threshold?

David H August 6, 2021 at 4:19 PM

Artificial Wombs and Birth


If birth is going to be a moral threshold that makes someone’s potential for reasoning into something that is politically significant in a liberal society and a basis for protecting the individual, now bestowed with personhood, then what happens when there is a future of artificial wombs where in vitro fertilization and resulting incubation means people are never gestated born of a woman? Would leaving the incubator be annexed to and treated as the equivalent of birth? Would someone become a political person when exiting the high-tech womb but lose that personhood if returned to the incubator? Once a person, always a person? None of these options seem very principled which might also cast more doubt upon the political significance of birth.