Monday, April 30, 2012

[PL 431] Lake of Fire

In Lake of Fire, a graphic documentary about the abortion debate, Noam Chomsky accuses opponents of abortion of being inconsistent. If they are truly pro-life, Chomsky says, then they should care about all human life, wherever it is (both inside and outside the womb). For example, if they are really pro-life, Chomsky argues, opponents of abortion should also be against capital punishment.

For example, Paul Jennings Hill used to argue as follows:
  1. Murderers should be executed.
  2. Abortionists are murderers.
  3. Therefore, abortionists should be executed.
If Chomsky is right, then Jennings Hill cannot accept premise (1) without contradicting himself, since he is pro-life.

Do you agree with Chomsky? Is it logically inconsistent to be pro-life and then argue that abortion is murder, and that abortion providers should be executed? If so, is there any way opponents of abortion can make sense of this inconsistency?


  1. Just a thought (because I always found this argument strange):

    From the sole perspective of questioning the argument you attribute to Chomsky, he has a hidden premise: i.e. “the _only_ relevant question about both abortion and the death penalty is how seriously we treat human life (how sacred it is)”. But this is not a premise an anti-abortion advocate would necessarily assent to. The anti-abortion advocate could consistently make the distinction between innocent human life and guilty human life and assert that fetuses are innocent human life (and hence sacred enough to preserve) and convicted murderers are guilty human life (hence not sacred enough to preserve). (The same can hold true for enemies in war or whatever.)

    Similarly, a civil libertarian can consistently assert that everyone deserves freedom, and simultaneously advocate for the imprisonment of certain criminals. Innocent humans deserve to be free, guilty ones deserve to be unfree. Being human is not the only consideration for freedom.

    Assuming, for a second, that Chomsky believed that fetuses are cases of human life, he ought to have a hard time reconciling being pro-abortion and anti-war (though the cases are not entirely symmetric). After all, if society can allow the death of fetuses for simply not being wanted, there is no serious reason to get so self-righteous about the loss of human life in war. After all, does the mother have some special privilege to kill someone that a government does not?

    So Chomsky must make use of a “hidden premise” too, namely that fetuses are not human life.

    I would then think an opponent of abortion could argue that that it is not inconsistent or even absurd to say that allowing the distinction between a fetus being a human and not being a human is as legitimate as the distinction between being guilty and innocent. Both seem socially constructed to favor given legal statuses, and neither are indicative of real biological differences. Moreover, the distinction between being a zygote and a toddler is a sorites case, and the abortion proponent has to explain away the evilness of murder and the permissibly of abortion. (And if Chomsky is known for one thing outside of linguistics, is that he thinks that there have been plenty of illegitimate murders.) The abortion opponent merely has to convince his adversary that there is a distinction between guilt and innocence. (And again, Chomsky is known for his views about who is and who is not guilty.)

    What do you think?

  2. Interesting points, M.

    I am not sure I fully grasp the relevance of the innocent-guilty human life distinction. According to this distinction, committing a crime nullifies a human’s right to life. But I am not sure that’s right. I thought that a human being has a right to life by virtue of being human, not by virtue of being an innocent human being.

    Even if this is correct, of course, it doesn’t mean that there cannot be other reasons in support of capital punishment (or against abortion, for that matter). It does mean, however, that capital punishment cannot be justified by saying that a human being forfeits her right to life by committing a crime, since one might reasonably think that even criminals have rights (because they are human beings, after all).

  3. The innocent/guilty distinction allows abortion opponents to stay consistent. Should they argue that humans have an absolute irrefragable right to life in virtue of being human and there can be no overriding factors that remove that right, then (trivially) they would also have to oppose war, the death penalty, killing in self-defense, etc. But they don't, so a principle of charity dictates that we make a distinction that preserves consistency. The innocent/guilty is a reasonable distinction, as most theorists of punishment and most legal systems (and I would assume most people too) assume that being convicted of a crime allows the society to nullify a human's right to something (eg, liberty, property). The inability of guilt to allow for the removal of a right to life would seem to beg the question about there not being any overriding factors that could interfere with a right to life (unless another distinction is made). So the assumption I take it that abortion opponents make is the distinction between being human and being human with some factor that overides rights, such as enemy status, guilt, or threat.

    1. I suppose I can see how committing a crime can perhaps nullify a legal right. But the right to life is not supposed to be a legal right. Rather, it is supposed to be a natural or human right. If that’s the case, then it is not clear how a criminal act can nullify a natural right.

  4. Although both sides of the story can plausibly be "right," it is not credible to claim that "abortionists are murderers." When a potential mother aborts the growing seed/fetus inside her, it is not safe to say that that is the equivalent of lets say killing a grown man. This is due to the fact that the baby's brain is barely developed while existing inside the womb. A human plays a much more active role in society once it leaves the womb, and thus the life of an existent person is not the same as that of a growing fetus. The child has not yet been born, and therefore, it does not make sense to be on trial for killing something that has not yet been born nor contributed to society in anyway.

  5. Matthew DeMarco PHI 2200C
    Chomsky states that Is it logically inconsistent to be pro-life and then argue that abortion is murder, and that abortion providers should be executed? In my opinion Chomsky completely ignores the factor of innocence. Many pro-life advocates oppose abortion because they find the act of killing an innocent human being wrong. Take away that innocents from the child and the topic is completely changed. People who perform abortions are not innocent. They know exactly what type of profession there in and what they are doing. For this reason, pro life activists can support the idea that those who perform abortions can be executed. in addition, pro life activists can support capital punishment to those who threaten the safety of the human population. Sometimes a mass murderer can be so crazy and psychopathic that execution is needed to protect the prison community. When killing a child there is no reason. The child is not threatening society in anyway and is completely blind to anything the world has to offer. All these reasons support why Chomsky premises and conclusions are very flawed.

  6. Yes I agree with Chomsky that it is logically inconsistent to argue that abortion is murder, and that abortion providers should be executed. If you are pro-life then I do feel that you should be pro all life. A way to make sense of this inconsistency would be to make the argument that your giving a baby a chance to live where murders already had a chance but I still feel that you say all life is precious that means ALL life.

  7. I do not agree with Chomsky because being "pro-life" on the topic of abortion, and capital punishment are very different topics and situations. "Pro-life" just means that a person believes in a fetus' right to live, which I also believe. I believe that we all have a right to life, which is one of our human rights. However, I think that there are some people who do not consider a fetus to have that right to live, just because it is dependent on another human being for survival. I think that at the point of conception, a fetus has the same rights as a fully developed human being. Chomsky points out that an individual who is opposed to abortion, should also be against capital punishment. However, he fails to recognize that capital punishment includes the wrongdoing of a human being, while in the case of abortion, a fetus does not choose whether to continue its development in the womb, or to be aborted. I would have to say that it is logically inconsistent to be pro-life and then argue that abortion is murder, and that abortion providers should be executed because although pro-life is my personal choice, there are certain cases in which abortion is necessary. Such situations would include the harm to the mother or that the child is a product of rape. Opponents of abortion can make sense of this inconsistency by explaining that abortion is not considered murder, but is rather, considered to be immoral.

  8. I believe one should be consistent with their arguments throughout. For example, if one argues for pro-life in the argument against abortion, it would not make sense to argue for capital punishment. The exact argument against abortion would contradict any argument for capital punishment

  9. I kind of disagree with Chomsky, this is because even though abortionists are pro life and pro capital punishment, they have a valid reason to do so. This is because a baby that will be born HAS potential. there is potential for anything, and that baby is not harming the society in any way. However, a criminal HAS harmed the society in a serious way, and DESERVES to be punished (in most cases). Babies should have a chance, and adults who commit horrible acts should be punished. The fetus has had no chance and is therefore innocent (thus far), while the adults who have done horrible acts , in which cases they are absolutely sure that person has done it, deserves to be punished. This same theory applies to punishing people who want to "kill" babies, it may sound hypocritical, but the reason behind is that they should be killed BECAUSE they have the intention to kill an innocent being, and after that intention the adult is no longer innocent, and should be punished.

  10. I do agree with Chomsky in that its logically inconsistent to be pro-life and then argue that abortion is murder, and that abortion providers should be executed. If you're pro-life than you should be pro to all life. The baby you're saving may just grow up to a murderer. You dont know. Saying murderers should be killed but not a baby that might grow up to be one is not a logical statement. So, if one is pro life but thinks murderers should be executed, the argument they make becomes invalid because of Chomskys premises.

  11. I do agree with Chomsky that the argument above is logically inconsistent with the values of those who are pro-life. One of the major arguments against abortion is that abortion is wrong because it is the killing of a human life. It reminds me of a meme I saw on instagram the other day: “We kill people who kill people to show people that killing is wrong”. The logic is one giant circle that contradicts itself, very similar to the motto “do as I say, not as I do”. By claiming that murders should be executed they, in a way, throw out the foundation to their beliefs, human life is so valuable we do not have the right to destroy it. Essentially he is telling us even though we value human life and should not destroy it, it’s okay to destroy/take away a life that chooses to abort a fetus.

    Although there is an inconsistency, there is a way for opponents of abortion to make sense of this paradox. They can argue that it is not necessarily that they value human life but rather they believe that every fetus has a right to have a chance and opportunity to live out their lives.

  12. I do agree with Chomsky that it is inconsistent to be truly pro-life, and supporting the execution of murderers. Being pro-life involves the protection of life in all forms, whether it is an unborn fetus or a criminal on death row. It is not right to contradict yourself in this argument. Both sides of the issue make good premises and suggest good evidence for the conclusion but in order for the conclusion to remain true, the argument must remain free of contradictions.


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