Internet atheist celebrity and biologist PZ Myers has recently gone on a podcast called Issues, Etc. to talk about abortion. Pro-life philosopher and advocate Scott Klusendorf later appeared on that same podcast to talk about Myers' arguments and give a response to them. I haven't heard much from Myers on abortion, except when he spoke up during a Q&A section during a debate between my friend Kristine Kruzelnicki and another internet atheist celebrity, Matt Dillahunty, in which he chided Kristine for her argument that embryologists are in agreement that human life begins at fertilization (at about 1:07:00 in the linked video). The problem is Myers is wrong and Kristine is correct. Embryologists are in agreement. Myers is just one in a long line of scientists who conflate scientific claims and philosophical claims, and don't seem to realize there is a difference between the two. The experts agree on when human life begins biologically. Where they disagree is at what point does the unborn human being become one that possesses inherent rights and value. In other words, basic rights like a right to life.
I don't know how Myers does in the field of biology, but he's simply not a philosopher. I would like to take the time to respond to an article in which Myers responds to Scott's podcast appearance. I understand that Myers is not here to personally defend himself. I would be happy to debate this with him in person someday, if he's interested. Or he can just reply to me on his blog in absentia after complaining that I replied to him in absentia. I'll place the ball in his court on this one. Also, mild language warning, though the offending word has been censored.
Myers begins by committing a fallacy called poisoning the well, not once, but twice. First, by calling pro-life people "anti-choice." We're not anti-choice, we just believe that some choices are wrong. I would hope that Myers would also be anti-choice about rape or murder (though I think an honest perusal of his article will reveal that he's not, as I'll explain below). The second is by calling Scott "some Christian" who "pretends to be a better authority on developmental biology" than he is. The implication here is that Myers is some fancy-pants biologist with a degree in biology so we should listen to him and not Scott. The problem with this is that one, Scott does hold a Masters degree from Biola University (thought not in biology), but two, since Myers' objections are philosophical in nature and not biological (despite his inability to recognize this), his degree in biology doesn't add any weight to his arguments. So that makes his second fallacy, a fallacious appeal to authority.
Myers apparently holds to a view that society is what determines morality. He may not like that a culture would establish personhood at five years old and so kill four year old and younger children for any reason they like, but if that's what their society establishes, then that's moral for that culture. This is why I say I don't think he would be anti-choice about rape or murder. This is because moral relativism entails that there is no right or wrong. Rape and murder are not right or wrong in themselves, just right or wrong in a prospective culture. So while Myers may oppose raping here because our culture says it's wrong, he could not (although he dislikes those acts, personally) say that it's wrong for someone to rape or murder in a culture that decides those acts are moral.
The problem is that morality is not a preference claim. Preference claims vary from person to person. It would be silly for me to claim that mint chocolate chip is objectively the best flavor of ice cream. The best ice cream flavor is a preference claim. But morality is not about our preference; morality is about what's right or wrong, for all people and at all times. It would be objectively wrong to rape or murder, even in a culture that says those acts are okay. Myers can't escape that certain acts like rape, murder, and torturing children for fun are moral acts if performed in a culture that approves of those activities, under his conception of morality.
So the argument that because societies differ on their moral norms means that there are no moral norms is another fallacious argument, the is-ought fallacy. You cannot derive a moral prescription from the description of the way things are. Just because societies have differed on areas of morality doesn't mean that there is no right answer, or that right or wrong are derived from the interests of society. It's simply nonsensical to claim, for example, that slavery was once moral in America but now it is immoral, because now we've decided that we shouldn't enslave people. Morality is not so schizophrenic. Slavery was wrong in America, even when it was legal.
Myers is incorrect when he claims there is no objective standard to say when an organism is a person. There is an objective line, at fertilization, once the individual comes into existence. There is a continuity of human existence from fertilization to natural death. You are the same entity as a human embryo as you are now as an older human being. Your development begins at fertilization, but it does not end at birth, or the infant stage, or even at puberty. Your entire life is marked by development into an older and more mature version of yourself. So it seems to me that the only non-arbitrary point at which to draw the personhood line is at fertilization.
Now Myers asserts that pro-life people lie. Considering how he keeps using inflammatory terms that aren't true, and considering how bad his arguments against the pro-life position and Christianity are, I don't think he has grounds on which to accuse pro-life people of lying. As Scott pointed out in his interview, pro-life people could be mistaken. But that doesn't mean they are lying. To lie is to intend to deceive. I'll even add that one may misunderstand your argument. If that's the case, then that is still not a lie. There's a rule in philosophy that you give people who disagree with you the benefit of the doubt.
Myers claims that he didn't go into detail because it was a short interview, but that's a cop-out. He had plenty of time to give an example. After all, if you're going to make a claim, you bear the burden of supporting it. He says that one of our "lies" is that we claim life begins at conception, and that's nonsense no matter how you look at it. Really? Is this the part where I assert that PZ Myers is lying? All embryology textbooks that I'm aware of claim that an individual human being's life begins at fertilization/conception. Are they all lying, too? So if you look at it biologically, human life begins at conception. I came into existence at fertilization.
Myers makes the simply outlandish argument that there has been a continuity of life for about four billion years. That's an interesing fact, but how does that refute the claim that an individual human life begins at fertilization? What was I before that point? Where was I, if I existed before my own conception? That's just philosophically bankrupt. One cannot precede ones own conception. That's just logically incoherent. Yes, human life comes from living gametes. Again, that's an interesting fact, but it says nothing about me as a living, human organism. The gametes, as Scott argues, are parts of a larger organism, the mother and father. But once they fuse, they cease to exist and I, a new human organism, come into existence. Myers argues that the zygote cannot be legitimately called a "person," but this is incorrect. He could argue that we shouldn't call it a person, but there's nothing that says it's illegitimate to call it a person. No, it is not conscious, but Myers, again, doesn't support his claim. I, however, have responded to the consciousness argument elsewhere. I have also dealt with the gradualism argument in another article.
Myers seems to make a claim that many pro-choice people make: "it's a fetus, not a baby." But this is simply a nonsensical argument. First, calling it "not a baby" doesn't tell me anything about its value. I am not a baby, nor is Myers, but it is equally wrong to kill both of us. Pro-choice people tend to think of the human fetus as an alien species that suddenly becomes human after it is born. But zygote/embryo/fetus are just stages of development of the same human organism, just like newborn, infant, adolescent, teenager, adult, elderly. It's the same human entity just at an earlier stage of development. Just because she hasn't reached the "baby" stage yet doesn't mean it's not wrong to kill her.
Sure, development is a continuous process of change. But it doesn't follow from this that personhood is also a process of change (this makes his fourth fallacy, the non sequitur). Persons are the kinds of entities that can perform personal acts, just like humans are the kinds of things that can perform human acts. One is a human being even before you develop your parts (you were human before you develop limbs, a heart, a brain, etc.). Just as a person is a person before they develop personal qualities (consciousness, self-awareness, etc.). As pro-life philosopher Trent Horn argues, you're either a person or not, personhood is not something that comes in degrees. So personhood can't be tied into your gradual development.
Myers claims that we likely have a pathological need to slice everything into absolutely rigid boundaries and are incapable of comprehending a gradual process (when do I get to accuse him of lying?). Pro-life people comprehend a gradual process, we are simply arguing that it's irrelevant to one's status as a person, just like it's irrelevant to one's status as a biological human being. Yes, there is an extended dependency on the parent, but that doesn't stop at birth. Newborns have an extended dependency on the parent (especially if the mother breastfeeds). That doesn't say anything about a person's value. The unborn develops itself from within, but the mother's body helps keep the unborn alive by providing nutrients and a proper environment, something we all need to survive and thrive.
Personhood is not culturally determined, and Myers is the only person I've ever heard make this argument. Our culture once declared that women and blacks are not persons. This must be acceptable to Myers, since he argues that personhood is culturally determined. That also means that society can define someone out of personhood at their whim (as they did in 1973 when the unborn were declared non-persons, when before they were considered persons legally protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution). Society is not an expert on personhood. Personhood is established by philosophical reflection, not by allowing society to declare who they want to be persons and who they don't.
Also, the Bible considers human beings valuable from fertilization. Nothing in the Bible declares otherwise.
Myers goes on to completely misunderstand Scott's argument (another lie about Scott?) regarding personhood and development. Scott is talking about logical consistency. If you argue that a blastula is not a fully developed human being, it can be used to legitimize killing people who also lack that relevant characteristic. For example, if your argument is that we can kill embryos because they are not conscious, then your argument works equally well to kill people who are asleep, in reversible comas, or under general anesthesia for any reason. There is nothing insulting about this argument, it's just simple logic. There is also nothing racist about this logic, Myers just fails to see the logical inconsistency of his own view.
Myers goes on to talk about the "greater good," but he has no grounds on which to stand. Who's to say what the greater good is? Hitler thought he was acting toward the "greater good" when he was trying to eliminate Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, etc. As Scott pointed out, he commits another logical fallacy, begging the question. He first begs the question by assuming that there is a greater good when having no ontological grounding for it, but second, as Scott pointed out, by assuming that the unborn are not human beings. How is intentionally killing innocent human beings part of the greater good?
Myers is simply incorrect when he argues that there are no "unborn women," that they are only a fantasy. Human fetuses have a gender, either male or female. In fact, the zygote has a gender, even if it hasn't become visible yet, because a person's gender is written in to their DNA code. If something went awry and they failed to develop genitalia, they would still belong to a gender by virtue of their genetic code.
Myers next resorts to a false analogy. He claims that calling an unborn human an "unborn woman" is like calling a tree an "unbuilt house" or calling a cow an "uncooked hamburger." This is just a nonsensical argument. I have responded to this type of argument before, but it's a false analogy because Myers is confusing construction with development. Human beings develop themselves from within into a more mature version of themselves. They have the active potential to develop properties that are in their nature to possess. A human zygote can rightly be called a human being because everything it needs is present from the beginning, it just has to develop it. But houses and hamburgers are not developed like human beings are. Cow and tree development is similar because they are living entities, but hamburgers are not. Hamburgers and houses are not organisms that develop themselves from within, they are constructed. A tree can not rightly be called a house, nor can a cow be called a hamburger, because they only have passive potentialities. A tree could go into making anything, be it a house, a desk, etc, or nothing at all (if allowed to live and die naturally). And cows could be made into steaks, or no food at all (if allowed to live and die naturally).
Myers says he wants to live in a society that defends blacks, women, children, etc., because that is a society that will defend him. But the problem is that Myers presents no reason why he should be protected. A pro-life society, that respects all life from fertilization to natural death, is one in which Myers would be safe. But in a society that views "personhood" as nothing but a societal contruct is a society in which no one is safe, as our own society has shown.
So it seems obvious that Myers' accusation of pro-lifers lying is just not true. The reality is that Myers is just ignorant of basic philosophy and doesn't understand the implications of his own arguments. Myers is also being inconsistent. On the one hand, he claims that societies are the ones who can determine right from wrong and defer personhood. But then he argues that societies that wouldn't grant personhood to entities that Myers believes are persons are unhealthy. But Myers has no grounds on which to make this claim if societies are the ones who establish morality. Myers can't have it both ways. Either infanticide is objectively wrong or he can't make the claim that a society would be wrong to kill infants, even if he finds the act detestable.
So Myers says that he was assuming the interviewer and the audience would share his personal views about kids. Of course we do. But the problem is you have to have a reason to value them. And if your reason for valuing them as human beings are shared by the unborn, then you have no grounds on which to support abortion, or infanticide. If you're going to talk about abortion, you have to find some morally relevant difference between unborn human beings and born human beings that would justify killing one group but not the other. Myers doesn't seem to understand this and just asserts that abortion is prima facie moral, or at least not immoral, as a brute fact. I have news for Myers. Infanticide is not "brutal" just because we have a psychological attachment to our own kids. Infanticide is brutal (and societies that kill older children) because they are innocent human beings, who had their whole lives ahead of them, just like the unborn.
Myers asserts (correctly, I think) that you can't get intrinsic human rights from an atheist view. If we're all just cosmic accidents, then I don't see how you can argue that humans are any more valuable than the lower animals (even though I do know atheists who do, and I do agree with them that humans are uniquely valuable). But Myers just asserts, he doesn't argue for, how you can derive value as emergent properties of communities of people. Why should we believe this? Why shouldn't we believe that each individual should come up with his own ethical code, even if we disagree with it? Myers doesn't even attempt to justify his position.
Myers admits that atheism does not ground a woman's right to an abortion. What he fails to understand is that atheism doesn't ground any rights. He has no grounds on which to say we're wrong for saying that abortion should be illegal. He has no grounds on which to say someone is wrong for disagreeing with him. What if someone doesn't like humanism and instead believes that Hitler's society is the way to go? You have no grounds on which to tell them they're wrong, other than "I don't like your society."
Myers resorts to another cop-out, that he wasn't able to go into the entirety of his view in the brief wide-ranging interview. But if he is going to make a claim, such as that pro-lifers lie, or that abortion is entirely the woman's decision, he needs to back those statements up. The interviewer may then choose to pursue that line of questioning or move on.
Myers finishes his argument with a pretty strong statement regarding Scott's arguments against bodily rights (such as his argument from Thalidomide): "Yeah, you're d*** right I have no argument against that. Because they're the bizarre hypotheticals of a bigoted ideologue who's incapable of recognizing women as conscious moral agents on their own, and is reduced to fighting against nonexistent, imaginary women who do random freakish things during their pregnancy for no reason at all."
Dismissing an argument as bizarre is no way to do philosophy. If the situation is analogous in morally relevant ways to what you're arguing against, they are relevant. If we could dismiss an argument as bizarre, that would mean that the violinist would flee out the window. If Myers has no argument, then it's time he comes clean and admits that he can't justify the pro-choice position.
PZ Myers is a biologist, but as I said earlier he is certainly not a philosopher. It is obvious that he has given absolutely no philosophical reflection to his views. Like Sam Harris, he makes the incorrect assumption that science can tell you all you need to know about morality. But science can only inform morality, it can't tell you what's moral or immoral. Science can tell us who counts as a human, but not who counts as a person. Myers simply has no coherent argument to support his position.
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