On Embryos In Burning Buildings


Are Abortion Arguments Rationally Indeterminable?

twitter rant by Patrick L. Tomlinson last fall on the moral status of embryos has evoked a significant amount of discourse on social media and even from some venerable scholars. Robert P. George and Christopher O. Tollefson found the internet kerfuffle worthy of response.

The debate is a case of academic ethics spilling over into popular culture. And, as George and Tollefson suggest, such spills usually create a bit of a mess. This is certainly the case in Tomlinson’s tweetstorm. He is dismissive of all who might disagree with him. He treats ethical argument as an opportunity to beat one’s opponent over the head rather than an opportunity to engage in productive dialogue.

That said, George and Tollefson’s initial suggestion that Tomlinson’s is just one of the “bad arguments that abound on Twitter” and their suggestion that the force of the argument is merely rhetorical is also overly dismissive, even if George and Tollefson’s argumentation is significantly more refined.

At the root of Tomlinson’s twitter rant is a thought experiment that has been used by George Annas and Michael Sandel. It is certainly a case worth considering if anyone is interested in the moral status of embryos. Here I will use the statement of the case by George and Tollefson:

Sandel asks us to imagine that a building is on fire and Jones, who is trying to escape, can save ten frozen embryos or one five-year-old girl, but not both … it seems plausible that most reasonable people, among whom we will include Jones, would save the five-year-old girl.

Tomlinson believes that anti-abortion activists will agree with this conclusion, and because of this he believes that they are obligated to abandon their claim that embryos are equal in intrinsic value with children who have developed outside the womb.

Not so fast, say George and Tollefson. We can grant the moral intuition to save the five-year-old and continue to hold that embryos are equal in intrinsic value (worth and dignity), thus the argument fails. This is because there may be extrinsic conditions that lead to the moral intuition that we should save the child. So, for instance, we may feel like we should save the child because she is aware of her own plight, or because we know that a family has raised her and will grieve her loss.

If George and Tollefson are right, then we ought to be able to find cases in which we accept the equal inherent value of two goods and yet similar extrinsic conditions lead our intuitions to favor saving one over multiple of the other. George and Tollefson offer exactly such an option.

Many people who disagree with us about the moral status of embryos agree that comatose persons are human beings entitled to full moral respect. Yet no doubt many of these same people would opt to save the girl rather than the three individuals in comas.

Here, then, is a case where we might coherently choose to save one instead of five while simultaneously claiming that all of the lives in question are equally intrinsically valuable.

Further, George and Tollefson suggest, these extrinsic concerns lose their power when we move from questions of “allowing to die” to “killing.” While we would save the one girl and allow the three comatose victims to die, we would not kill even one comatose victim in order to harvest her organs to save a girl who was in mortal need of an organ transplant.

Thus Tomlinson’s tweeted argument fails. He has used a case that is disanagous to the case of killing embryos (much less abortion), and has made an invalid inference to his conclusion about the intrinsic value of embryos.

Allow me to intervene at this point. I would diverge from George and Tollefson’s arguments on several issues, but let me bracket those divergences and grant that they have defeated Tomlinson’s argument. Yet, it seems to me that it’s not hard to correct for the kinds of problems that Tomlinson’s argument falls to, and to get a related conclusion.

Let’s first fix the thought experiment to shift it to a case of killing.

Imagine a scenario in which the five-year-old child is trapped in a building on fire. You could put out the fire by hitting the button for the sprinkler system in the building. But, a malevolent agent has affixed five (or ten) embryos to the button in a way that prevents their removal before the girl dies. So, to push the button, you will have to crush the embryos, thus killing them. Should you allow the five-year-old to die or hit the button?

To be clear, unlike Tomlinson, I am not trying to use this case as a “gotcha” in a game of abortion argument whack-a-mole. But my moral intuitions still sit on the side of saving the five-year-old. I think the moral thing to do is to hit the button. And I believe I would think there was something morally off about a person who chose otherwise.

By this, I don’t mean to suggest that our moral intuitions ought only to be on one side of the case. We (especially Christians) can acknowledge the reality of tragedies. In the context of a sin-stained world, there are values that conflict with one another. That we are sometimes forced to choose between weighty and intrinsic values is a sad reality of this world. But it is a reality. Thus, claiming that I would think there is something morally off about a person who chose otherwise need deny the value of the embryos, or the perception of that value. It just means that the conclusion to the case seems clear enough to me that I would think it odd if someone’s intuitions conflicted with mine.

If you share my intuitions, does this mean that you have to give up belief in embryos having equal intrinsic value with young children? Well, I think that the case should be enough to make you think about the claim. But ultimately, nothing about the case rationally necessitates abandoning that position. As George and Tollefson have argued, our moral intuitions in favor of choosing to save the child might be driven by extrinsic conditions.

But, it does seem that if your moral intuitions agree with my own that you will probably have trouble justifying an absolute opposition to killing embryos. This is because, in order to accept pushing the button, you have to accept either than embryos are of intrinsically lesser value than young children or that extrinsic moral concerns are sometimes significant enough to offset the intrinsic value of the embryos to the point that allows justifiable killing.

In fact, since this version of the argument is not based on claims about intrinsic value, it allows us to be free in expanding upon the extrinsic conditions to see at what point they might influence our moral intuitions, if at all. Would it make a difference if the five-year-old will die slowly? If the five-year-old were begging for her life? At some point, it seems to me that this would present most people with a strong case for having a moral intuition that pushing the button (and thus killing the embryos) is the moral way to go.

Are their ways out of this conclusion? Sure. You might have different moral intuitions than I do. (I certainly disagree with some of George and Tollefson’s conclusions despite their claiming that their conclusions are “Clearly the answer.”) Or you might end up concluding that your moral intuitions are just wrong, at least in this case. Or, you might try to argue that there is some relevant moral distinction between the kind of killing that happens when you hit the button and other forms of killing embryos (Though I don’t know what such a distinction might be).

I personally think that moral conclusions about abortion are rationally underdetermined. But that doesn’t mean that cases like these cannot help us think more clearly about the issues involved.

*Thanks to Tobias Winright, Peter Jones, and Kyle Roberts for reading and commenting on an earlier draft of this post with them.

Kevin Carnahan is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Methodist University.  A former president of the Niebuhr Society, he is the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Ramsey (Lexington Books, 2010).

2 thoughts on “On Embryos In Burning Buildings

  1. “you have to accept either than embryos are of intrinsically lesser value than young children or that extrinsic moral concerns are sometimes significant enough to offset the intrinsic value of the embryos to the point that allows justifiable killing.” That would include value judgements such as saving the life of the mother, which the rabib anti-choice right gives no quarter. They’d be fine with both the mother and bady dying in an effort to make their point, so they clearly place a high value on embyos.

  2. Great post Kevin. What would you say if we added another thought experiment to the one you offer and someone would give a different response.

    Scenario #1: YOUR thought experiment: 5-year old child is trapped, you could put out the fire if you hit the button, but in doing so you’d crush the 5-10 embryos affixed to the button.

    Scenario #2: An ALTERNATIVE thought experiment: 5-year old child is trapped, you could put out the fire if you hit the button, but in doing so you’d release a torrent of water causing 5-10 5-year old children trapped in another room to drown (thus killing them).

    My guess is that most folks would say push the button in scenario #1 (for the reasons you named) but wouldn’t in scenario #2, even if the number of entities saved/killed would be the same. So wouldn’t the difference in intuitive responses in both scenarios suggest that something MORE than “extrinsic conditions” are making the difference (perhaps in ways of Annas/Sandel, though I wasn’t aware of their original argument so might be missing some important pieces of it)?

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