October 02, 2008

Acorns and oak trees...and abortion


APOLOGIA
By Hendrik van der Breggen
(The Carillon, October 2, 2008)

Acorns and oak trees…and abortion
Because abortionist Dr. Henry Morgentaler has been awarded the Order of Canada, and because I (and many other Canadians) think that in this case the award is a huge mistake, I wish to dismantle another abortion argument, to help show why the award is a mistake.

An oft-heard argument in favor of abortion is the acorn-oak-tree analogy: An acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal.

Should we be persuaded by this argument? Answer: No.

To compare an acorn to a fetus and an oak tree to a human being and then conclude that a fetus is not a human being is to draw a false conclusion from a faulty analogy.

The unstated premise consists of the following comparison: acorns are to oak trees as fetuses are to human beings. But this is problematic.

To call an acorn an oak tree is, on a more accurately construed analogy, like calling a fetus an adult. Consequently, to say that a fetus is not a human being on the basis of an acorn not being an oak tree is to say a fetus is not a human being on the basis of a fetus not being an adult. This, of course, is absurd.

In other words, the acorn-oak tree analogy confuses the concepts of kind and developmental stage. Yes, an acorn isn’t an oak tree, that is, a seed isn’t a grown tree. But we need to ask: What kind of seed is the acorn? Answer: Oak.

The acorn is the first developmental stage of the oak. Subsequent developmental stages include sprout, sapling, and tree. Significantly, all the stages are oaks—i.e., oak entities, oak beings.

Now consider the fetus. What kind of fetus are we talking about? Answer: Human.

The fetus is an early developmental stage of the human. The first stage is the zygote (fertilized egg) and subsequent stages include the embryo, fetus, infant, toddler, teen, and adult. Significantly, all the stages are human—i.e., human entities, human beings.

An acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being, so abortion is no big deal? The logic of this argument is just plain nutty. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the attempt at humor.)

Is it a mistake to call a fetus a human being? No. What is a mistake is to think that only adults are human beings, which is what the faulty acorn-oak-tree analogy would lead us to believe.

(Hendrik van der Breggen, PhD, is assistant professor of philosophy at Providence College, located in Otterburne, Manitoba, Canada.)

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

thank you for putting this up such a really great site. Stimulating me to read much more.

Piper
www.trendone.net

Unknown said...

Thank you. To me this is helpful; well reasoned and presented.

Unknown soldier said...

Thank you very much for this simple and clear explanation. This argument bugged me for some time, since I had a "feeling" that it's faulty, yet I couldn't explain it.

Jesse Shows said...

No one claims that a fetus isn't a human being. A fetus is not a person. There is a difference.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

“No one claims that a fetus isn’t a human being.” This claim is false. One of my former colleagues justified her abortion because, she said, it was basically the same as “removing a wart.” Over the years, I have read and heard others say that the embryo and fetus are merely potential human beings (not actual human beings with potential). Canada’s famous abortionist Henry Morgentaler has even said that what’s aborted isn’t a human being (he used a faulty brick-isn’t-a-whole-house analogy, which I have addressed elsewhere in this blog). I have heard students on numerous occasions use the acorn-isn’t-an-oak-tree analogy as an objection to the unborn’s status as human beings.

Even Harvard University philosopher Michael J. Sandel denies that the unborn are human beings on the basis of the faulty acorn-isn’t-an-oak-tree analogy. See Michael J. Sandel, “Embryo Ethics: The Moral Logic of Stem-Cell Research,” New England Journal of Medicine 351 (July 15, 2004): 207-209. Sandel writes: “Although every oak tree was once an acorn, it does not follow that acorns are oak trees, or that I should treat the loss of an acorn eaten by a squirrel in my front yard as the same kind of loss as the death of an oak tree felled by a storm. Despite their developmental continuity, acorns and oak trees are different kinds of things.” But, we should note, to assert that they are different kinds of things is to conflate developmental stage and ontology (i.e., kind of substance or being). For a detailed criticism of Sandel’s argument, see Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen, Embryo: A Defense of Life, 2nd edition (Princeton, New Jersey: Witherspoon Institute, 2011), 175-183.

For additional arguments defending the fact that the unborn are human beings and persons, see my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments.

-wewantutopia- said...

False analogy. An acorn is not a tree and a human fetus is not a person.

As soon as the acorn sprouts with a root/cotyledons it is a tree same as when a fetus is born it is a person.

CeeCee said...

In criticizing the analogy that an acorn is not a tree, you admit that an acorn is not a sapling. Likewise, an embryo is not a person. It is a human embryo, but it is not a human "being." The embryo is not sentient, does not have thoughts or feelings. Stopping its development at that stage is no more cruel than if its existence had been prevented by successful contraception. When it develops to a stage with a functioning brain and nervous system, that's a different discussion.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Objection from Jesse Shows (again): “No one claims that a fetus isn't a human being.”

Hendrik’s reply: Again, Jesse Shows’ assertion is false, as I pointed out in my earlier reply to Jesse Shows (see above). Also, please notice this: Subsection 223.1 of the Criminal Code of Canada presently states that an unborn child isn’t a human being until after it’s completely born. No one claims that a fetus isn’t a human being? Yeah, right.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Objection from wewantutopia: “False analogy. An acorn is not a tree and a human fetus is not a person. As soon as the acorn sprouts with a root/cotyledons it is a tree same as when a fetus is born it is a person.”

Hendrik’s reply: This objection misunderstands the goings-on of my article. I’m pointing out that the analogy assumed in this argument—i.e., an acorn isn’t an oak tree, so the fetus isn’t a human being—is problematic. Why? Because the analogy confuses an early developmental stage for a later developmental stage and thereby confuses the concepts of kind and developmental stage. It confuses the categories of developmental stage (a step in growth or maturation of an organism) and ontology (what the organism is in its essential nature or being).Yes, an acorn isn’t an oak tree, that is, a seed isn’t a grown tree, that is, an early state isn’t the later stage. But we need to ask: What kind of seed is the acorn? What sort of thing is it? What is it? What is its substance? Answer: Oak. What is a mistake is to think only full grown oak trees are oaks, and that only adults are human beings, which is what the faulty acorn-oak-tree analogy would lead us to believe.

“As soon as the acorn sprouts with a root/cotyledons it is a tree same as when a fetus is born it is a person.” No, as soon as the acorn sprouts with a root or cotyledons, it’s a later stage of the oak substance. Wewantutopia’s claim mistakenly assumes that only later stages of oaks are oaks. And so this assumes that only later stages of human development are persons. But why think that only later stages of human development are persons? No arguments are provided by wewantutopia. It’s merely asserted. This view implies that children who are missing limbs are less than persons (e.g., thalidomide babies), which makes the view problematic. This view also implies that one day before birth the baby isn’t a person, which is also problematic for this view.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Re: Objection from CeeCee: “In criticizing the analogy that an acorn is not a tree, you admit that an acorn is not a sapling. Likewise, an embryo is not a person. It is a human embryo, but it is not a human ‘being.’ The embryo is not sentient, does not have thoughts or feelings. Stopping its development at that stage is no more cruel than if its existence had been prevented by successful contraception. When it develops to a stage with a functioning brain and nervous system, that's a different discussion.”

Hendrik’s reply: No, a human embryo is a human being. This is what science tells us. It’s simply the first stage of being a human being, which occurs when the sperm and egg unite (which contraception attempts to prevent).

Contemporary science—embryology, fetology, and biology—tells us that the human fetus is in fact a human being. It's a genetically distinct, self-governing, whole living organism/ entity that belongs to the human species. It's not feline or canine; it's human. It's not a cat or a dog; it's a human being. It's not a kitten or a puppy; it's a child, albeit an unborn child. (The word “fetus” is Latin for unborn offspring or little one.)

Significantly, 95% of academic biologists in a recent global survey hold that individual human life begins at fertilization. Medical textbooks and peer-reviewed scientific literature substantiate this. (For references, see page 7 my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments: Critical Thinking about Abortion.)

Sure, the human embryo doesn’t have thoughts or feelings. But thoughts and feelings are had only by human beings in their later developmental stages, when there is a functioning brain and nervous system. But, and significantly, the human embryo and fetus have the capacity for this. As I argue in my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments (see pages 33-43), the capacity to give rise to consciousness (i.e., have thoughts, feelings, etc.) is a necessary and sufficient condition of personhood, to be distinguished with merely sufficient conditions (to which CeeCee points and mistakenly thinks also are necessary conditions). The capacity to give rise to consciousness is what grounds the personhood of, say, sleeping people and people in reversible comas. They are not potential persons, they are actual persons. Why? Because they have the capacity to give rise to consciousness, which is what the embryo and fetus also have. (Again, take a look at pages 33-43 of my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments.)

Unknown said...

In your opinion, if a miscarriage occurs, should there be an investigation completed to determine if a criminal charge is warranted? Since we are talking about human being.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

In my opinion, no. If a miscarriage occurs, the woman’s medical doctor should attend to the woman to ensure her physical health is good. Maybe (probably) grief counselling would be appropriate, too.

For additional thought, see my book’s chapter 33: “It is inconsistent of pro-life groups not to wish punishment for women who have abortions.” My answer is no.

Also see my book’s chapter 32 in which I discuss abortion law for Canada (in Canada there is no law on abortion; the pre-natal human being is not even recognized as such). I recommend the view of Canadian lawyer Leslyn Lewis, PhD (who is presently a candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada). Her fourfold platform on abortion could easily be supported by people of all political stripes: (1) ban the misogynistic practice of sex-selective abortion (since many girls are aborted just because they are girls), (2) protect women from coerced abortion (who wouldn’t want that?), (3) support pregnant women via government support for pregnancy care centers (which help both mother and child), plus (4) direct foreign aid away from abortion providers and instead to those groups who promote overall health care (which is supportable by all, surely).

Such a law/laws could save the lives of many children and help desperate women, plus provide political space—political common ground—to encourage thoughtful, democratic discussion about creating even better, more life-affirming laws and ways to help desperate women facing crisis pregnancies.

Let’s find and encourage common ground—and actually help desperate women and their children—before getting divided and polarized over whether or not miscarriages should be investigated for criminal charges.

Douglas Forasté said...

Wow! By your analysis, every zygote is a human being because it has the developmental potential of becoming (or being!) a human. Then isn't every human egg and sperm a potential human being given the right environment? Should spermicidal contraception then not be banned? Or Plan B? I think you've misunderstood Aristotle's acorn analogy (and you should credit him since most Thomistic, therefore Western Christian, theology is recycled Aristotle) of dynamis (potential) and energeia (actuality). Something can both have the potential of being and yet not be. It's not the difference between adult and potential but being and not being. When an acorn starts to germinate but is still in the ground, is it yet a sapling? It depends on what the meaning of "is" (being) is, as one of our Presidents famously said, doesn't it? But your claim is that potential equals actuality. Not by any common logic and certainly not by Aristotle's.

My religious point of view is that the potential human should have increasing and developing rights at the every developmental stage. But conflicting rights are always a problematic judgment call. Some are unalienable. Some conflict with others' and have to be balanced.

A perhaps better abortion analogy is this: Someone kidnaps you because s/he has diabetes and hooks you up so that his/her blood runs through your kidneys; the kidnapper will not stay alive unless you agree to remain hooked up to filter its blood. Are you morally obligated to continue to keep the kidnapper alive with your kidneys? All analogies limp, including this one, but you've done a disservice to Aristotle's acorn.--Douglas

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hi Douglas,

Thanks for your comment. Here are my thoughts in reply.

Yes, by my analysis, every zygote is a human being. Why? Because the zygote is a genetically distinct, self-governing, whole living organism/ entity that belongs to the human species. Biologically and developmentally, the zygote is the first stage of human being. I’m pretty sure this is Biology 101.

And, yes, the human egg and the human sperm have the potential to become a human being when they unite or fuse, but they are not, on their own, human beings. On their own, the sperm remains sperm and the egg remains an egg. So, no, spermicidal contraception should not be banned, because no actual human being is killed when the sperm is killed.

No, my claim is not that “potential equals actuality.” You misrepresent my view. So no disservice to Aristotle’s acorn occurs. Rather, my claim is that an actual living being has a beginning plus (given its appropriate environment) the potential to develop into its later developmental stages of growth. There may be blurry edges in describing when one developmental stage ends and the next begins, but the being that it is (oak, human, dog, cat) throughout its developmental stages is easily discernable.

About your abortion analogy (I’ll set it out again, for the reader’s convenience): “Someone kidnaps you because s/he has diabetes and hooks you up so that his/her blood runs through your kidneys; the kidnapper will not stay alive unless you agree to remain hooked up to filter its blood. Are you morally obligated to continue to keep the kidnapper alive with your kidneys?”

Concerning abortion, your analogy not only limps, it doesn’t even move—it’s terribly, terribly faulty. Your analogy is pretty much the same as what philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson argued years ago and which I criticize in a footnote in my book Untangling Popular Pro-Choice Arguments. So here is that footnote (from pages 83-84 of my book):

Readers familiar with the history of the abortion debate should notice that the above discussion is relevant to philosopher Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous violinist analogy from her essay “A Defense of Abortion,” Philosophy and Public Affairs, 1, No. 1 (1971): 47-66. Thomson writes: “You wake up in a hospital, ‘plugged in’ to a famous violinist, who needs to use your kidneys to stay alive. You were kidnapped for this purpose. If you unplug, he will die. But it’s only for nine months.” Thomson’s idea is that even if the unborn human being were a person, abortion is permissible morally, just as you aren’t morally obligated to remain hooked up to the violinist to sustain his life. But, as many critics have (rightly) pointed out, Thomson’s analogy is faulty—terribly faulty. Getting pregnant is (typically) not like rape. That is, getting pregnant is not like being forced to get “plugged in” to a violinist, famous or not. Also, to unplug or detach the violinist is not like hiring someone to directly kill the violinist by poisoning him, ripping off his limbs, crushing his skull, or shredding him via a suction machine, which is what abortion does. Rather, the violinist’s death is caused by the kidney ailment, not your or your doctor’s direct killing action. And keep in mind that (as mentioned in the previous footnote) “Euphemistically calling abortion the ‘withholding of support or treatment’ makes about as much sense as calling suffocating someone with a pillow the withdrawing of oxygen” (Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 133).

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Footnote concerning violinist analogy, continued:

Also, the violinist is a stranger, to whom one does not have a moral obligation to provide life-sustaining care, unlike the special moral duties parents have to care for their children. In her article Thomson attempts to address these sorts of issues by setting out other analogies, but they are terribly faulty, too. According to Thomson, if you opened a window and someone blundered or fell into your house, you don’t have a moral obligation to let them use your house, so, similarly, abortion is permissible. But, as critics (rightly) point out, it’s a different story—one more analogous to pregnancy—if by opening the window you knowingly pulled (or risked pulling) an innocent person into your house. So it would be morally outrageous to kill the innocent person you pulled into your house. Also, according to Thomson, if “people seeds” floated into your living room carpet (which is required for their gestation) and they began to sprout into persons even though you tried to keep them out (via fine-meshed screens/contraceptives), you wouldn’t be morally obligated to sustain them. But, as critics (rightly) point out, if you actually planted the people seeds by engaging in a planting activity (while knowing that screens/ contraceptives are not 100% foolproof), you would be morally obligated not to kill them.

For more criticisms of Thomson’s argument, see: Beckwith, Politically Correct Death, 128-135; Francis J. Beckwith, Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 172-199; Charles C. Camosy, Beyond the Abortion Wars: A Way Forward for a New Generation (Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge, U.K., 2015), 74-78; Christopher Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion: Women’s Rights, Human Life, and the Question of Justice (New York & London: Routledge, 2011), 145-176; Patrick Lee, Abortion and Unborn Human Life, 2nd edition (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2010), 108-139; Marc Newman, Contenders: A Church-Wide Strategy to Unmask Abortion, Defeat Its Advocates, Empower Christians, and Change the World (Sevierville, Tennessee: Refocus Press, 2020), 108-111; Van Manen, Stuck, 104-111.

All this to say: Thomson’s arguments are bad. Really bad. How bad are they? They’re so bad that they should be used not in ethics courses but in logic and critical thinking courses—as illustrations of the fallacy of faulty analogy. [End of note.]

Douglas, thanks again for your comment. It’s good to get clarity on the matters at hand. I hope my above thoughts are helpful.

Best regards,
Hendrik

Douglas Forasté said...

Well, we'll just have to disagree about whether a zygote is "self-governing" or has more potential to be a human being than sperm. Both require certain environmental and physical conditions to become a human and rarely vote. ;) That pregnancy is not routinely compulsory is, I see, the core of your argument against the blood exchange analogy. But moral antipathy towards "irresponsible" sex (Pleasure has consequences!) does not constitute a logical ethical argument. Whether one initially chose to be hooked up to the kidnapper (whether violinist, cellist, or murderer) is inconsequential. A free person always has autonomy and agency to leave. Nor is squeamishness regarding medical procedures of any consequence ("hiring someone to directly kill the violinist by poisoning him, ripping off his limbs, crushing his skull, or shredding him via a suction machine, which is what abortion does.") Heck, I don't like needles. But that doesn't make vaccines morally abhorrent. And, of course, I am directly causing the kidnapper's death by withdrawing my life-saving kidneys. Is not refusing a dehydrated person water active killing?

But, as Aristotle might say to Freud, sometimes an acorn is just an acorn. What it is not is an oak. It has that potential and it will, in fact, if not dug up by Chip and Dale, become an oak. But as long as it's an acorn, it is not an oak. If a moral stricture against destroying oak trees existed, no one would think a person had committed a crime by making acorn bread. Development/potentiality is a red herring. A fetus can be granted limited legal rights, and a society may even choose to protect its existence at a certain stage of development, but that does not mean it is what it is not. As Aristotle would note, something cannot both be and not be.

You need to find another, better philosophical justification for rejecting abortion as a moral and legal choice than "personhood." It's absurd. Acorn, Hendrik. But let me suggest child labor and animal protection as political analogies. We do not allow children to work in coal mines. Nor do we allow tortuous cruelty to animals. Is that because children are not but become autonomous persons at age 18? Or do animals ever get personhood? Of course not, in either case. But as a measure of ethically advancing civilization, by moral consensus, we enforce protection for weaker humans and animals of higher order sentience (poison cockroaches all you like). We choose to grant these protections, not because they're unalienable legal rights of either persons or non-persons, but because, as a democratic society, we have come to a consensus of what is morally appropriate. We do not insist upon every human's right to work in a coal mine, but we protect children from that choice as a form of decency. (I realize this assumes agency.) This is the great problem with anti-abortionists, their emphasis on power over decency. Kindness wins, Hendrik. Convince people that it is kind and generous and decent (Socrates knew innate knowledge of what is good and self-interest constitute the core of ethical behavior) to protect potential (not actual) human beings when at all possible--for the sake of kindness and generosity and decency themselves--and that it is a measure and cultivation of one's own humanity to protect potential human life. Most expectant parents already do anyway. The argument, even on the head of pin, that a zygote is a human is eye-rollingly unconvincing. Even for very, very polite people. Good luck on tenure.

Douglas Forasté said...

Oh, I didn't see your second comment. I just read the first sentence. But, really, which one was the neighbor to the man? And who does not put me under an obligation? I'll read the rest later.

I knew the kidney analogy, not the source of it. We'll just disagree on its merits.

Good luck in your academic career.

Doug

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello again Doug,

Thanks for your additional comments. Here are a few thoughts.

You say “we'll just have to disagree about whether a zygote is ‘self-governing…’”

Perhaps the following will add some clarity (I hope) about my claim that the zygote is “self-governing.”

I’m talking about a living biological organism here. This organism has the intrinsic biological resources to grow itself (by using and directing nutrients delivered to it in the mother’s womb) into the later developmental stages of the kind of thing (physical substance) it is. This physical substance/ organism has, as discerned by science, a material composition plus behavioral properties that propel and guide its growth. Like a self-guided missile, the zygote’s material composition and behavioural properties guide it from within (though, unlike a self-guided missile, the composition and properties are not due to a human intelligence, neither its own or another’s, nor are its resources or fuel carried internally). So the zygote is in this sense “self-governing,” even though in the early stages it isn’t self-aware. That’s what I mean when I wrote that the zygote is a genetically distinct, self-governing, whole living organism that belongs to the human species—a human being.

You say “we'll just have to disagree about whether a zygote … has more potential to be a human being than sperm.” No, that’s not the issue.

My argument is that the zygote is a human being, not that it has “more potential to be a human being than sperm.” The zygote is the physical-spatial-temporal genesis of a human being. It’s the first stage of being a human being. Subsequent developmental stages are embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, school girl/boy, adolescent, adult. This is Biology 101.

Re: “Development/potentiality is a red herring.”

No, it’s not. The concepts are relevant to our discussion because they show that the acorn-oak-tree analogy breaks down as a justification for thinking that a zygote isn’t a human being. They reveal the confusion between developmental stage and ontology that the acorn-oak-tree analogy employs, as I’ve argued in my article above.

Re: “sometimes an acorn is just an acorn. What it is not is an oak. It has that potential and it will, in fact, if not dug up by Chip and Dale, become an oak. But as long as it's an acorn, it is not an oak.”

In the above sentences you display the confusion that my article attempts to untangle. You confuse ontology (what a thing is, i.e., the kind of thing it is, i.e., its substance) with developmental stage. You say an acorn is not an oak. The claim “an acorn is not an oak” is true if by “oak” we mean a later developmental stage, such as full-grown or “adult” oak tree. But the claim “an acorn is not an oak” is not true if we mean its substance (oakness or oak substance). You say that the acorn will become an oak if it isn’t dug up and that as long as it’s an acorn it’s not an oak. But the word “oak” as you use it here means subsequent developmental stage. In missing this ambiguity in your claims you fail to realize that the oak substance remains: an acorn is a substance, a kind of thing—an oak. This substance endures throughout the organism’s developmental stages.

(Comment is continued below.)

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Regarding the kidney analogy, you say “We'll just disagree on its merits.”

OK, no problem. Nevertheless, my argument remains strong. My argument is that your (and Thompson’s) blood exchange analogy is a terribly, terribly faulty analogy. I recommend another look at what I’ve written.

Re: “This is the great problem with anti-abortionists, their emphasis on power over decency. Kindness wins, Hendrik.”

I am an anti-abortionist (in most cases), so you are implying that I’m emphasizing power over decency. But, surely, that is unkind of you! Why? Because I am merely reasoning carefully and politely—i.e., decently. I am not emphasizing power over decency.

Yes, kindness is hugely important. Amen to that! I don’t think kindness and careful truth-seeking are mutually exclusive, though. I’ve been kind and respectful here, haven’t I?

Also, surely it is kind as well as decent to attempt to speak up for and protect from death those human beings who do not have a voice and whose humanity is being denied by faulty arguments.

I’ll end here (for now). I’ve got other matters to tend to. Thanks, Doug, for the discussion.

Cheers!

Hendrik

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. About kindness, perhaps my article about my wife will be of interest (it’s also a chapter in my book): "Pro-lifers aren't helping people after they're born?" (APOLOGIA, September 17, 2020).

http://apologiabyhendrikvanderbreggen.blogspot.com/2020/09/pro-lifers-arent-helping-people-after.html