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Monday, September 2, 2013

Stretton Debunked: A Response to Dean Stretton on Frank Beckwith

In part one of this series, I responded to an article by Dean Stretton responding to an article by Peter Kreeft. In this article, I'll be responding to Dean Stretton's response to a series by Frank Beckwith, called Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights. Again, it would be best to read Beckwith's articles, then Stretton's article, then my article for the full discussion. You do not have to read all of Beckwith's articles. Stretton does not use the fallacious arguments that Beckwith outlines in the first two parts, so you can skip ahead to the third part (though the first two parts are definitely worth reading).

I. Introduction. Stretton begins by saying that he believes Beckwith's critiques of the various "decisive moment" theories (e.g. that personhood begins at viability, brain waves, etc.) are sound. Stretton's view is that the unborn are not persons because they lack one or more qualities that persons possess. He quotes Michael Tooley who wrote that the unborn don't have a right to life because they don't possess the concept of a continuing self or mental substance. But like many pro-choice philosophers who try to argue that a right to life begins at any point other than fertilization, Stretton just asserts it and doesn't even try to present a case as to why having a continuing self or mental substance is a necessary condition for personhood. Why can't we make the case that the unborn are being harmed anyway, since even though they don't currently possess these capacities that is only because they are at the beginning of their life? If allowed to live and develop, they will be able to perform these capacities. So they are being harmed by being killed prematurely and not being allowed to develop these capacities (and the argument is conveniently used that the reason it is not wrong to kill them is because they didn't yet develop these capacities). That strikes me as being similar to stealing someone's steak and arguing that they had no right to it because they weren't hungry at the time they had it. Someone might claim that you have a right to your steak because you paid money for it, but the unborn have the capacity for personal qualities, they just have to develop them in order to use them. Arguing that you can kill them because they just haven't reached the age where the capacities can be performed is just patently unfair. That would be like punishing an infant because he doesn't know his multiplication tables.

2. Beckwith's critique is logically flawed. Stretton agrees that Beckwith has refuted the pro-choice position that functioning as a person is not a necessary or sufficient condition for personhood. But he says that Beckwith has not refute the "revised pro-choice position," which is that if you have functioned as a person in the past, you are a person (which is why, they would argue, someone in a reversible coma is a person while a human fetus is not). The problem is that Stretton, like many pro-choice philosophers, don't argue for their position. They merely assert it. There are pro-choice philosophers who makes arguments for their position, like David Boonin and Peter Singer, and I will respond to their arguments in the future.

Stretton's argument is simply that Beckwith has not refuted this position, therefore it succeeds. But why should we believe this in the first place? Why is it more reasonable to assume that someone who has never functioned as a person, even though they will in the future as soon as they mature enough, is not a person whereas someone who has performed as a person in past is a person? Stretton makes no attempt to show why past functioning as a person is a morally relevant feature to personhood.

But consider this example. I believe this example comes from Frank Beckwith, but I couldn't locate it. Suppose there are two human fetuses. One is born in a coma and will not come out of it in a year. Another one is born perfectly healthy, but as soon as he reaches the point where he certainly performs the functions of human beings, he suddenly lapses into a coma and will come out of it in a year. If your argument is that having the ability to function as a person in the past is morally relevant, then one would have to argue that it would be morally permissible to kill infant A for any reason at all that you want, but not permissible to kill infant B for any reason, even though they have both been born. The only difference between the two is that infant B has functioned as a person in the past and infant A has not.

Stretton has merely shifted the burden of proof onto Beckwith, but Beckwith's position is clearly the correct one.

3. Beckwith's Critique Supports the Pro-Choice Position. Stretton takes an analogy from Beckwith and claims that rather than supporting his own view, it actually supports the pro-choice position. Beckwith's analogy is as follows:

"...when the Boston Celtics' Larry Bird is kissing his wife, does he cease to be a basketball player because he is not functioning as one? Of course not. He does not become a basketball player when he functions as a basketball player, but rather, he functions as a basketball player because he is a basketball player" (emphasis in original).

Stretton argues that this analogy is a good one but that it supports the pro-choice position because Larry Bird is only a basketball player because he has previously functioned as a basketball player. He could not be considered a basketball player if there is no time at which he ever functioned as one. If Beckwith claims that personhood is analogous to being a basketball player, then it would follow that one cannot be a person unless one previously functioned as a person.

But what Stretton fails to recognize is that there is a fundamental difference between being a basketball player and being a person. A basketball player just is someone who plays basketball, whether they're skilled or not so skilled at it. It makes no sense to consider someone a police officer because he played one on television or because he played "cops and robbers" as a kid, or even because as a civilian he places someone under citizen's arrest, even though he is performing the functions of a police officer. In the same way, someone is a basketball player when they put in the practice and join a team.

There is a particular set of criteria that one must fulfill before one can play basketball professionally. But a person just is an entity that can exhibit personal qualities, like rationality, morality, consciousness, etc. The unborn from fertilization are the kind of entities that can perform personal qualities, they just have to develop the present capacity to exhibit them. Similarly, a five-year-old girl is the kind of entity who can get pregnant, but she has to go through puberty first before she can actualize that potentiality.

So all healthy human beings, if allowed to develop long enough, will exhibit personal qualities. Not all humans will grow up to be basketball players, or police officers, or musicians, etc. As I have said in part one of this series, rationality is the important factor. But the question is whether or not one has to have functioned as a person in the past to be part of the moral community, or if one just has to have the natural, inherent capacity for it. I have already shown that having functioned as a person in the past is not a morally relevant feature, so it seems quite clear that a natural, inherent capacity for rationality is the morally relevant feature for personhood.

4. There is prima-facie reason to reject the pro-life position. Stretton argues that since there are no murderers who have not murdered, thieves who have not stolen, etc., then it follows that there are no persons who have not functioned as a person. I addressed this argument in point three of this article. Basically, there are specific qualifications for each of these acts, that one must perform them in order to be considered one who does that act. Personhood is different because all humans qualify for it. And since all humans qualify for it, the question then is does one have to perform a certain function, or can one be a person based simply on the kind of thing it is, that is, an entity with the inherent capacity to fulfill these functions. As I have shown, it is the inherent capacity that is morally relevant, not the present capacity to function (think of the analogy of the child born comatose and the child who functions as a person then slips into a coma).

To add another nail to the arguments' coffin, one is a human being from fertilization. This is accepted by Stretton and all embryologists (note I am talking here in the biological sense), as well as other pro-choice philosophers like David Boonin and Peter Singer. Yet human beings are the kind of beings that have certain body parts like arms, legs, etc. One can be a human being (that is, belong to the human species) before they develop these body parts. This is because, as Frank Beckwith argues, one is ontologically prior to one's parts. You exist before your parts develop. One is not only human after they develop and perform the functions that human beings can perform. So also, one is a person before he/she develops personal qualities, not only after they function as a person.

It should be noted that Stretton has since changed his position. At the time this article was written, he believed, like Peter Singer, that infants have no moral status and that it is not inherently wrong to kill them. It would only be wrong due to the effect it has on the parents -- if the parents want the child alive, then it would be wrong to kill them. Stretton now understands this argument to be mistaken. He doesn't go into detail, but as Don Marquis has argued, what makes killing wrong is not, in fact, the effects it has on others. That would not explain why it is wrong to kill a hermit or someone who has friends who make friends easily. What makes killing someone wrong is that you are robbing them of their future of valuable experiences. This is why it is, in fact, inherently wrong to kill infants (as well as human embryos and fetuses).

Stretton now takes the position that infants do, in fact, have moral status like older humans do because they are psychologically connected to their future (which is why he would argue embryos and fetuses don't have moral status, due to their lack of being psychologically connected to it). As I mentioned in the first part of this series, Stretton doesn't argue for this. He merely asserts it. So for the purposes of this article, I think this position can be safely rejected. He does mention an article in which he defends this position, so I will respond to the article in question in the future.

5. Conclusions. Stretton is simply wrong when he argues that Beckwith has not supported his argument, or that there is prima-facie reason to reject the pro-life position. Science and philosophy provide positive support for the pro-life position, and like many pro-choice philosophers, Stretton simply refuses to provide arguments for his position. But the benefit of the doubt should go to life, not the other way around. Human beings have excluded other members of humanity from the moral community (women, blacks, Jews, etc.). Considering humanity's penchant for excluding certain classes of humans that they want to justify enslaving or killing, and their bad habit of getting it wrong in all cases, shouldn't the onus of the burden of proof be on the pro-choice side to prove that the unborn are not persons, and not the other way around?


  1. Clinton, you should know that I published a response to Dean Stretton's critical review of my book Defending Life. You can find my response here:

    1. Thanks, Dr. Beckwith! I'll read it tomorrow to see how your response compares with mine (yours is probably a much better response).