Philosophers debate, but many don’t appreciate it much.

By | July 22, 2015
Juan Bernal
I  recall a debate sponsored by the philosophy department of a local university back in the late 1960s on the issue of abortion. It was open to the public, and some attendees were from the community; but most were philosophy faculty and students.  Two members of the faculty were the debaters.  One argued for the pro-choice (PC)  position; the other debater argued the pro-life (PL) position.
PC:   He presented a novel argument for the pro-choice on abortion, one based on our ordinary language regarding personhood and the status of fetus.  He argued that we don’t speak of ourselves as persons present in the world until after birth as infants.  We don’t speak of ourselves as being in places that our mother may have occupied when she pregnant with us (as a fetus).  We don’t claim to have been present when significant events took place while we were a fetus in the uterus.   In short, in our ordinary ways of talking and thinking we do not intuitively regard the fetus as having a status of a person.  This beings so, it follows that the act of aborting the fetus cannot be classified as an act of killing a person.  Abortion should not be prohibited or restricted on that account.
PL:  He argued mainly on basis of the potential that an unborn person, the fetus, represents.  Even if abortion is not an act of killing a person, it is an act of destroying a human fetus with potential for becoming a person.  The fetus has great value not only because of its status as a human fetus but also because of its potential.  Aborting the fetus cannot be compared to a medical procedure of removing unwanted tissue or organ.  Aborting the fetus is a case of destroying a developing human life, one which has great value.   For those reasons, abortion of the fetus should be greatly restricted, if not prohibited altogether.
I thought both debaters did a good job of presenting their side of the issue; but I was more impressed by the debater who argued the pro-choice position, thinking that he carried the day.  But the faculty member arguing the pro-life position also had his supporters.  The discussion that followed was dominated by the usual topics on the abortion issue:  the status of the fetus, the rights of the mother, the justification (or not) of destruction of life, the stage at which the fetus is aborted (viability, capability of feeling pain. development of the nervous system) and so on.
But soon one person from the community (a non-philosopher) spoke up.  He introduced himself as someone outside of academia.  He was a lawyer who represented women’s clinics that provided abortion services and defended and counseled the clients of such clinics.   He stated his great disappointment with the debate, telling us that he came expecting to find some philosophical guidance and direction for people who deal with the practice of abortion in the real world, but found nothing in  what either debater offered to be of any use.  Working with women’s clinics and their clients was very challenging and stressful (for all concerned) , and academic discussions on abortion such as the one he had just witnessed were pretty much useless , he claimed.
Nobody really offered any reply to the man or tried defend the ‘work’ of philosophers on issues like abortion.  Maybe this was because he spoke up when it was late and people were tired.  But I remember thinking that the man had not understood the philosophical aspects of the issue and his rejection of the relevance of such debates was just indicative of a non-philosopher’s ignorance of the philosophical problem.  After all, I was a student of philosophy and philosophy surely was more relevant and important than this man indicated.
That was 1969-70 when I was young and pretty much philosophically undeveloped.   Today I know better.  Today I’m more inclined to think that the lawyer made a telling point.  Much of our philosophical discussion on social and political issues such as abortion is really not of much help to those directly dealing with those problems in the world outside of the philosophical halls and coffee shops.  Much of our philosophical discussions are mostly abstract and theoretical, so much so that only the academic specialists can truly appreciate them.  And, with a few exceptions, such discussions and debates are not too relevant to the real problems that individuals like those working for family planning clinics and their clients face everyday.
Yes, those of us in philosophy (both officially and unofficially) insist that philosophers provide the grounds for practical action and choice (with regard to a host of social, political issues, such as abortion).  Yes, that’s what we like to think.  But is it true?


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