Thursday, January 22, 2009

A well-meaning but errant approach to abortion

Many Catholics have been sending around this great Pro-Life video regarding Barack Hussein Obama and his Pro-Abortion policies. If you have not yet seen it, please take a look:

While I applaud the makers of this video for their desire to promote life, I have to say that this is not the best or strongest argument against abortion, the fact that a child from a broken family can grow up to be president despite overwhelming odds. In college Ethics class, I recall this was addressed as the “Beethoven Argument” against abortion, an argument which while seeking to give a good Pro-Life argument on the one hand actually ends up damaging the Pro-Life position through the back door.

The essence of the Beethoven Argument is this:

Maj. Premise: Any child could grow up to be the next Beethoven (or find a cure for cancer, or whatever).

Min. Premise: If we kill that child, we may deprive the world of its next great genius or leader.

Conclusion: Therefore, abortion is wrong.

While this argument (logically at least) is true, it is based on a false premise: that the most important determining factor in whether or not to terminate a pregnancy is the potential of that child in the world. It is a utilitarian argument, because it backhandedly seems to say that only the possibility of a child growing up to be successful is relevant to whether they should live or die.

But what about those who are not Beethoven? What about the crippled, the blind or the just average? The problem comes with the minor premise, that killing the child may deprive the world of its next great genius. While it may be true, a better principle would be to say killing a child will deprive the world of its next child. This argument seems to suggest that the child only has value if he/she turns out to “be somebody.”

I know the makers of this video do not believe that. I know they are well intentioned. But the fact of the matter is, if we ever argue against abortion based on utilitarian factors like what a child could potentially do for society, we are arguing from a foundation of sand that fails to take into account that the dignity of the person comes from who they are not what they do.


Anonymous said...

Here is one of my arguments against abortion.....

How could any Catholic (or anyone) with a well-formed conscience ever justify electing one who is openly and aggressively pro-death.

God have mercy on America.


Anonymous said...

The argument doesn't strictly presuppose that the potential value of a child is the most important factor. I.e., it doesn't use this principle as a premise. However, if one makes this argument alone, or relies greatly upon it, that seems to show that one believes it to be the best argument.

There are two ways in which one could believe it to be the best argument: simply speaking, or in itself; or in relation to the principles accepted as valid by another person. If one holds this argument to be the best argument simply, that implies one holds the potential utility of a child to be foremost in any decision regarding it. But if one holds this argument to be the best argument for addressing other persons, it implies only that one believes that those persons hold potential utility to be the supreme principle.

Sometimes we have to recognize that our opponents don't accept what we take as principles, and then argue with them on the basis of principles held in common, or on the basis of their own principles. Indeed, I think in most cases pro-lifers take up this argument not because they think it's the best, but because their opponents are frequently utilitarians, and they take expediency as the most important determining factor.

There are still two problems with this: first, there is the danger that we will ourselves begin to accept the utilitarian principle (or at least become less sensitive to intrinsic goods), or will be perceived as doing so (scandal); secondly, the argument is not strictly valid, since it is not always wrong to exclude the mere possibility of a great good. Only if the good were infinite would it always be wrong to exclude the possibility of attaining it. Concretely, the argument from utility doesn't have an adequate response to the counterargument: "If we kill that child, we may deprive the world of its next great leader... but if we don't kill it, we are even more likely to deprive the world of a great leader, because the mother won't be able to care for so many children, and so its siblings will be deprived of a proper environment for their formation."

Boniface said...


Thanks for this great analysis!


Anonymous said...

I don ot agree with you. We have always to think the best of the possibilities. Any child may be a great human being. And we are to hope for the best, that does not exclude anybody, if we seek life we will do our utmost to defend life. When we use that type of argument we are trying to convince killers, utilitarians therefore, it is more than correct.

Boniface said...

Look, I'm not saying it is not a valid argument. Though you are right in that we should "hope for the best," the fact is that 99% of babies will not grow up to be the next President or benefactor of the human race. And this argument really only deals with that one percent.

The argument presented in the video is a good thing to ponder and factor in, but it is not anything to built a comprehensive position on.

Kylin said...

I agree that it's not a very strong argument. If any child could potentially grow up to be a great contributor to humanity, but it's also possible that any child could grow up to be a great detriment to humanity. Of course, it's not something that anyone wants, but we do have our share of serial killers, just as an example. In this case the Min. Premise, where if we kill the child, we may deprive the world of its next monster, might look favourable.

John Cassian said...

It's possible the Beethoven argument could be deployed in the way you suggest, and it's likely that many pro-lifers do accept its deployment uncritically.

Still, I think your critique is off a little. In my mind, you do not properly formulate the Beethoven argument - in fact your formulation is not, strictly speaking an argument at all, since the conclusions do not follow from the premises.

In my view, the Beethoven argument is better used as a counter-argument to the utilitarian / scientific aspect of the abortion argument:

(1) it is possible to identify socially useful persons
(2) society can permit the destruction of non-useful persons
(3) abortion destroys non-useful persons
(4) society can permit abortion

I would suggest that the Beethoven argument defeats the foundational premise (1) upon which the entire logic rests.

Yes, pro-lifers should also be aware that (2) is morally unacceptable, and should not accidentally sneak it in the back door. But that doesn't mean the Beethoven argument does no useful work. If our goal, as you suggest, is to build a "comprehensive position," surely that requires addressing all premises of the argument, including (1).

Excellent post.

Bobby Bambino said...

I agree with your analysis of the video, but I think the purpose of the argument is an attempt to appeal to something that pro-choicers would agree with. We know that a good 90% of the arguments in favor of abortion-choice beg the question, and one you often hear from them is that the child will grow up poor, struggling, etc. So I think this is just a way to answer a question-begging argument with another question-begging argument.

Anonymous said...

When I received the email, was seeking donations to run the clip during the Super Bowl, Perhaps their market is the diaspora with all manner of logical and illogical thinking. And their intent is to simply market a single, powerful pro-life message - one among many. It might strike a chord - with black Americans in particular. As a shrinking minority due to a proportionally high number of abortions, the seed for behavior change might be planted. This message needs watering - even if it isn't the fundamental message.

Dymphna said...

The Beethoven argument is flawed. I once had a professor argue that if abortion was pushed harder in the black community crime woudl go down. Argue that abortion in itself is foul, not that some great person could be lost.