Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Physicalism and abortion

A stock argument for abortion is that the "fetus" is cognitively undeveloped compared to a child or adult. Indeed, this argument is increasingly extended to infants, to justify "afterbirth abortion."

This argument generally presupposes physicalism. Personhood is tied to brain development. 

Therefore, the mother has rights which the fetus does not. Indeed, the fetus has no rights.

But there's a catch. Physicalism is inconsistent with consciousness. Many secular philosopher admit this. It's the hard problem of consciousness. 

Some secular philosophers simply accept the dilemma. They think physicalism is true and consciousness is real. They despair of resolving the problem. 

However, some philosophers relieve the dilemma by reaffirming physicalism, but rejecting consciousness:

For them, there is no dilemma. Many secular philosophers reject eliminative materialism because they think consciousness is undeniable and elimitative materialism is self-contradictory.

Given their presuppositions, both sides are half-right. It's true that consciousness is undeniable. To deny consciousness is absurd and incoherent.

However, that's because eliminative materialism is a reductio ad absurdum of physicalism. Given physicalism, that's a logical consequence of physicalism. Valid, but absurd. Taking a false premise to a logical extreme. Physicalism commits them to that conclusion, even if its self-refuting. 

The only proper way to relieve the dilemma is to reject the other horn of the dilemma: physicalism. 

But this also poses a dilemma for defending abortion on the grounds of physicalism. Because it proves too much.

It's true that according to physicalism, the fetus is not a person. Problem is, according to physicalism, the mother is not a person either. Just as the fetus lacks consciousness, so does the mother. That's consistent physicalism. 

If rights are indexed to personhood or consciousness, then not only does the fetus have no rights, the mother has no rights. 

If no one has rights, then raw power is the broker. And in that scenario, men dominate. Women have power to the degree that men defer to women. 


  1. Can you explain why the fetus in physicalist terms is not a person? It's not explicitly explained in your article.

    1. I think Steve briefly addressed it in his post when he said:

      "This argument generally presupposes physicalism. Personhood is tied to brain development...the fetus lacks consciousness..."