Archive for ‘Uncategorized’

March, 2014

Starting a Conversation about Imperfect Cognitions. Lisa Bortolotti


This week, Ema and I have been writing about some of the issues we are working on as part of the Epistemic Innocence project.

One of the goals of the project is to start a conversation about imperfect cognitions, among academics from different backgrounds, and involving also the general public. In this spirit, Ema and I created and are still developing a network of researchers (psychologists, philosophers, psychiatrists) interested in discussing the potential pragmatic and epistemic benefits of inaccurate beliefs and memories. The result is a lively blog, called Imperfect Cognitions, where people regularly post news about their research, submit relevant conference announcements and reports, and present new books in the field. We hope to further expand the network in the near future, and we are very proud that so far it includes researchers at different stages of their academic career, from graduate students to professors, and from different geographical areas.

Our first project-related event was a public engagement activity which Kengo Miyazono organised during the Arts & Science Festival at the University of Birmingham. On 17th March, we invited Dr Matthew Broome (Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford) to talk to a general audience about his experience of the relationship between psychiatric diagnosis and responsibility for criminal action. He described an interesting case of a man attacking his neighbour as a result of suffering from delusions and hallucinations, and kicked off a lively discussion. The presentation was followed by discussion groups on the Anders Breivik case in Norway and other high profile cases of people whose accountability for criminal action has been assessed on the basis of the nature of their psychiatric symptoms or diagnoses. Additional information about the event and some follow-up resources have been made available to participants on the event website.

Another initiative we have promoted is an online reading group in the philosophy of mind and psychology hosted by the Philosophy Department blog at the University of Birmingham. Currently, we are reading an exciting new book by Jakob Hohwy (philosopher and cognitive scientist at Monash University in Melbourne, and member of the Imperfect Cognitions network). The book is entitled The Predictive Mind (OUP, 2013) and explores and defends the theory that the brain is essentially a hypothesis-testing mechanism, attempting to minimise the error of its predictions about the sensory input it receives from the world.


And this is just the beginning… In October 2014, I shall start a new five-year project, funded by the European Research Council, and called PERFECT (Pragmatic and Epistemic Role of Factually Erroneous Cognitions and Thoughts), where the notion of epistemic innocence will be developed in collaboration with a team of postdoctoral researchers and PhD students. As part of PERFECT, I shall organise three academic workshops and three meetings with clinicians and service users, as well as a final two-day conference to explore all the implications of the notion of epistemic innocence for philosophy of mind and epistemology, psychological research into normal and abnormal cognition, and clinical interventions in mental health.

March, 2014

Saving Humans from Implicit Bias. Ema Sullivan-Bissett


This week Lisa and I have been writing about our research on the Epistemic Innocence Project. This is the fourth in a series of five posts. I will be briefly discussing implicit bias, why it is harmful, and why investigating the epistemic status of implicit bias might be important when we are thinking about how to tackle it.

By implicit bias I will follow Jules Holroyd in meaning something like the following:

An individual harbors an implicit bias against some stigmatized group (G), when she has automatic cognitive or affective associations between (her concept of) G and some negative property (P) or stereotypic trait (T), which are accessible and can be operative in influencing judgment and behaviour without the conscious awareness of the agent. (Holroyd 2012: 275)

Worryingly, empirical work has shown that such biases are held by ‘most people’, even those people who avow egalitarian positions, or are members of the targeted group (Steinpreis et al. 1999). You can discover your own implicit biases by taking the tests here (warning: results may be very disconcerting!)

Implicit biases can affect decisions and actions, often negatively. For example, it is well documented that a female CV is rated less well than a male CV (even when those CVs are otherwise identical) (Steinpreis et al. 1999), and that when asked whether they saw a hand tool or a gun, participants who previously saw a black face instead of a white face are more likely to respond that they saw a gun (Payne 2006). The implications of this should be obvious: implicit biases put stigmatized groups at a distinct disadvantage.

In our project, one of the things we are interested in is the epistemic status of beliefs based on implicit biases. I think that at least some of these beliefs are what we are calling epistemically innocent. A belief is epistemically innocent if it meets the following two conditions:

1. Epistemic Benefit: The belief delivers some significant epistemic benefit to an agent at a time (e.g., it contributes to the acquisition, retention or good use of true beliefs of importance to that agent).

2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative beliefs that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to the agent at that time.

I suggest some reasons for thinking some beliefs based on implicit bias meet these conditions, in my post on our project blog.

Let’s assume that I’m right about the epistemic status of beliefs based on implicit bias; that they are at least sometimes epistemically innocent. Why does this matter? I am interested in the following question: if beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, does this have implications for how we ought to tackle implicit biases? I think the answer to this question is yes, which is why it is really important to work out whether beliefs based on implicit bias are, as I suspect, epistemically innocent. If they are, we need to rid them of this status, we need to make it the case that beliefs based on implicit bias are not epistemically innocent, and we should do this by making alternative beliefs available (that is, we should stop beliefs based on implicit bias from meeting the No Relevant Alternatives condition).

We should seek to make people aware of their biases, and more ambitiously, make it the case that they do not have them in the first place. One way to do this is to expose people to counter-stereotypes, studies have shown that expose to counterstereotypical exemplars (women, black people) can reduce implicit bias or the manifestations thereof (Saul 2012: 259) (examples of counterstereotypes include the photo of Martin Luther King above, and Marie Curie below).


If beliefs based on implicit bias are epistemically innocent, such that alternative beliefs are not available, this suggests that we need to raise awareness of implicit bias, which might help us understand the phenomenon better and work towards controlling the influence it has over our beliefs, and present us with alternative epistemically more worthy, beliefs.

March, 2014

Distorted Memories and the Self. Lisa Bortolotti


A distorted memory is a report of a past event where the past event is misrepresented in some key respect, for instance incorrectly located in place or time. There is no awareness of the distortion and, thus, no intention to deceive. Consider the following case. A woman with Alzheimer’s disease has a vivid recollection of walking on the beach with her parents. She believes the trip occurred that very morning, when actually the trip occurred sixty years earlier, when she was a girl. Such a memory is inaccurate and engenders a number of false beliefs (e.g., that the woman’s parents are still alive, and that she is still young). Thus, it has obvious epistemic costs. However, in a context in which access to autobiographical memories is limited and declining, as in dementia, one such vivid recollection may help the woman connect with important aspects of her personal history in the absence of other reliable information. Her distorted memory may be instrumental to her retaining some important information about herself, despite the gaps and the inconsistencies.

The book Contented Dementia by Oliver James argues that it is possible to enhance wellbeing in people with Alzheimer’s disease by not challenging and often actively encouraging the person to revisit memories and form beliefs that can be partially inaccurate. For instance, the person with dementia may present herself as “the able gardener” or “the good bridge player”, remembering her past achievements and erroneously believing that the relevant skills have been preserved. The proposed method requires that the caregiver be supportive of the person’s distorted memories and delusional beliefs in order to minimize stress, increase wellbeing, and build a working interpersonal relationship that is likely to bring mutual contentment. But the method is predictably controversial. Even if it were successful in achieving its goal, that is, making the life of people with Alzheimer’s disease more pleasant, the concern is that the whole life of the person with dementia may end up following a carefully worded script, involving many repetitions and deceptions. Many feel uneasy about this, because they sense that there is a trade-off: the person with Alzheimer’s disease attains happiness at the expense of knowledge, and her life lacks authenticity.

This is a well-rehearsed problem in psychology: Ulric Neisser argued that memory plays a double function, aiming at the same time at veracity and utility. As he and many others after him have observed, these two aims can conflict. We can feel better about a past event by putting a positive spin on that event, but the ensuing memory may not represent reality faithfully. The point we want to make in the Epistemic Innocence project is that the trade-off view of the relationship between pragmatic and epistemic benefits of distorted memories may be too simplistic. What if distorted memories played an important role in the retention of true beliefs about the self? This line of thought does not amount to a vindication of any specific approach to dementia care. It does not necessarily follow from this that distorted memories should go unchallenged, or that caregivers should live in the often delusional world of the people with dementia. Rather, the suggestion is that we should reconsider the role of memory distortions in the overall cognitive economy of the clinical population and of the individual, and make sure that interventions and interpersonal regulation are informed by what we discover about the epistemic features of distorted memories.

If you want to know more about how the Epistemic Innocence project addresses the issue of distorted memories, you can read relevant posts on the Brains blog and the Imperfect Cognitions blog.


March, 2014

Saving Humans with Delusions. Ema Sullivan-Bissett

This is the second in a series of five posts Lisa and I are writing on our Epistemic Innocence Project.


In this post I will write about delusional beliefs, whether they might be epistemically innocent, and why this matters.

Here is where we have got to with what we mean by epistemic innocence. A cognition is epistemically innocent if it meets the following two conditions:

1. Epistemic Benefit: The cognition delivers some significant epistemic benefit to an agent at a time (e.g., it contributes to the acquisition, retention or good use of true beliefs of importance to that agent).

2. No Relevant Alternatives. Alternative cognitions that would deliver the same epistemic benefit are unavailable to the agent at that time.

The fifth addition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders defines delusions as ‘Fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence […]’ (DSM-V). Examples of delusion include: thought insertion (these thoughts are not my own), Capgras (my husband has been replaced by an imposter), Cotard (I am dead), Somatoparephrenia (this is not my arm but my mother’s), erotomania (George Clooney is in love with me), perceptual bicephaly disorder (I have two heads). One of our network members, Richard Dub, has designed some great icons representing common delusions, which can be viewed here.

Delusional beliefs have a bad reputation when it comes to their complying with epistemic standards. They are usually false, lacking in empirical support, and are inconsistent with the subjects’ other beliefs and behaviour. With respect to the first inconsistency, during one interview, a subject with delusions claimed that her husband was a patient in the hospital where she was a patient, and that her husband had died four years ago and was cremated (Breen et al. 2000). With respect to the second inconsistency, that between the delusional belief and the subject’s behaviour, subjects with the Capgras delusion—the delusion that their loved one has been replaced by an imposter—may worry that their loved one has disappeared, but they may also act in a cooperative way with the alleged imposter (see Lucchelli and Spinnler 2007). Delusional beliefs may also be unresponsive to counterevidence. It is part of the DSM-V definition of delusions that they are ‘not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence’ (DSM-V).

In the project we are interested in whether or not delusional beliefs meet the conditions on epistemic innocence. I think that they do, and suggest some reasons for thinking so in my post on the project blog.

Determining whether delusional beliefs are epistemically innocent might have ramifications for treatment in the clinical domain. Clinical interventions may be justified by the claim that they enhance the wellbeing of the patient, but whether this is true may well depend in part on the epistemic status of delusional beliefs. For instance, Daniel Freeman and colleagues suggest that ‘[c]hallenging or evaluating delusional explanations should be done only in the context of an alternative explanation that the patient finds acceptable’ (Freeman et al 2004: 679). If the patient with a delusion does not have an alternative belief available to explain the experiences she is having (No Relevant Alternatives condition), and further, if the delusional belief bestows some epistemic benefit she would not otherwise have (Epistemic Benefit condition), challenging the delusion may not be good for her wellbeing. It is in this sense that reflecting on epistemic innocence may inform clinical decisions.

March, 2014

The Stigma Associated with Mental Illness. Lisa Bortolotti


In January 2014 in the UK a new parliamentary enquiry was launched into mental health equality. Mental health charities (Rethink Mental Illness and Mind) and the Royal College of Psychiatrists urged Parliament to investigate how the Government can give mental health equal priority to physical health and improve the quality of life of people living with mental illness. One issue affecting quality of life in general, and health services in particular, is the stigma associated with mental illness. What philosophers can do is to provide cogent arguments to undermine some of the widespread but inaccurate claims that contribute to the stigmatisation of people with mental illness, and inform both psychological research into psychiatric disorders and clinical interventions.

A commonly held view about mental illness is that those who suffer from it are different from the “normal” population in quite radical ways. It is controversial what the difference is. Those attracted to a strong medical model of mental illness tend to believe that people suffering from it are damaged and diseased, due to genetic predisposition or trauma and abuse. Those attracted to a forensic model of mental illness tend to believe that people suffering with mental illness are irrational, weak-willed and prone to other character failures. The radical difference view is that damage, weakness, or a combination of the two compromises the autonomous decision making of people with mental illness, and prevents them from making a valuable contribution to society.


In the Epistemic Innocence project (funded by an AHRC fellowship awarded to me in September 2013, and featuring Ema as a research fellow), we aim to dispel some of the myths surrounding mental illness by arguing that the cognitions featuring as symptoms of psychiatric disorders (delusional beliefs, distorted memories, confabulated narratives) are on a continuum with cognitions we all experience on an everyday basis. They are “imperfect” as they can be inaccurate, they are not well-supported by the available evidence, and they are often not shared by others. But they may also have benefits of a pragmatic and an epistemic nature. It is widely recognised that, say, an inflated conception of myself will increase my confidence and make me feel better about myself (thus having some pragmatic benefits). But if such a conception of myself is false, it will lead to further false beliefs and inaccurate predictions, and the idea that it might contribute to the acquisition and retention of true beliefs (and thus have epistemic benefits) sounds implausible.

In the next four posts this week Ema and I will attempt to make this idea more plausible by describing how some imperfect cognitions have epistemic benefits and gain a sort of epistemic innocence. Our argument will apply to the beliefs, memories and narratives that are symptoms of mental disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia, but also to everyday beliefs, memories and narratives in the non-clinical population. Distortions of reality are a common feature of human cognition, not the exception to the rule, and any theory of the mind or account of mental illness that does not acknowledge this idealises the capacities of human agents and fails to meet the criteria for psychological realism.

The themes of the Epistemic Innocence project will be further explored in a workshop hosted by the University of Birmingham. It is entitled “Costs and Benefits of Imperfect Cognitions”, and will be held on 8th and 9th May 2014. The workshop will promote exchange between philosophers and psychologists on the potential pragmatic and epistemic benefits and costs of beliefs, memories, implicit biases, and explanations. It is funded by an AHRC Fellowship awarded to myself. The Analysis Trust provided bursaries to the graduate students attending. There may still be some places are available should you be interested (just contact Ema by March 27th at the latest). Speakers include Katerina Fotopoulou (Senior Lecturer, Psychoanalysis Unit, Psychology and Language Sciences Division, University College London), Martin Conway (Professor and Head of the Department of Psychology, City University London), Ryan McKay (Senior Lecturer, Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway) and Maarten Boudry (Post-doctoral Researcher, Philosophy, University of Ghent), Miranda Fricker (Professor of Philosophy, University of Sheffield), Jules Holroyd (Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Nottingham), Petter Johansson and Lars Hall (members of the Choice Blindness Group, Philosophy and Cognitive Science, University of Lund).

Our plan for the week is as follows. Ema will talk about epistemic status of delusional beliefs on Tuesday (tomorrow), I shall address the potential benefits of distorted memories on Wednesday, and Ema will come back on Thursday to discuss beliefs based on implicit bias. On Friday, I shall tell you about what else we are doing to engage junior and senior researchers from different disciplinary backgrounds and the general public in the themes of the project.

March, 2014

Next week’s bloggers of the week. Ema Sullivan-Bissett and Lisa Bortolotti


Lisa Bortolotti (right hand avatar) is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham. Ema Sullivan-Bissett is a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of York and Research Fellow in the Philosophy Department at the University of Birmingham. Lisa and Ema work in Philosophy of Mind and Epistemology, and are especially interested in beliefs and delusions. They are currently working on the Epistemic Innocence project, funded by an AHRC Fellowship awarded to Lisa last September. Next week they will be blogging about the project and its wider societal implications.

March, 2014

Drawing Lines: The Ethics of Abortion, Part V Jeremy Williams

My blog series this week has introduced readers to a few notable aspects of the philosophical debate over the ethics of abortion, and the ways in which some writers have hoped that we might be able to go beyond the bitter deadlock that characterises the public controversy. Abortion is more salient to the theme of ‘saving humans’ than one might initially suppose, I have suggested, insofar as the ethics of killing and saving are closely bound up with each other. But it is also pertinent to the idea of saving humans in another respect – namely, that it focuses our attention on the question of which humans it matters morally that we save, or not kill. Some political rhetoric is suggestive of the view that all members of the human species matter equally, from a moral point of view, but this is not, on further examination, what most of us in fact believe. Moreover, as we saw in the previous post, the view that all human lives, from the earliest embryo onwards, do indeed share equally in the high moral status and rights that you and I possess carries a number of strongly counter-intuitive implications, which it is questionable that even most committed opponents of abortion would accept.

Aside from its implications, the view that all human lives, from conception onward, have the same exalted moral status, falls foul of the fact that there is no morally relevant characteristic that one can point to that we can agree all members of the human species possess, and that could account for this being so. Simply being, on a genetic level, a member of the species homo sapiens cannot, as many philosophers have emphasised, be the sought-after characteristic, since it seems an arbitrary fact about us, like skin or eye colour. And the familiar claim that all human beings are endowed at conception with a soul is unintelligible to many, and not, from a secular liberal point of view, an appropriate grounds of public policy.

In any case, rather more commonly held than the view that humans acquire the moral status of a person at conception is the view that, at some point later in pregnancy, a line is to be drawn, separating abortions that are not an especially morally serious matter from those that are. That line, however, might be drawn in any number of points in the development of the fetus. The question, then, is which point in its development marks a truly morally significant change.

Within the confines of a blog post, I can do no more than scratch the surface of an enormously rich and complex philosophical debate. Suffice it to say that there are two principal candidate answers to the question of when prenatal human life acquires a sufficient degree of moral status to render abortion a morally problematic practice, and begin to constrain the range of circumstances under which it is justifiable. The first of these, and probably the one that is most regularly cited in real-world political debate, is viability – that is, the point at which it becomes possible for the fetus to survive outside the womb, either on its own, or with mechanical aid. The second, meanwhile, is sentience – that is, the point at which the fetus becomes capable of sensory experience. These changes in the fetus occur at roughly the same time – roughly around the end of the second trimester, with 20 weeks being the most conservative estimate. But that doesn’t mean that it does not matter which line we take to be the truly significant one from a moral point of view.

Now, consider viability. The point at which the fetus becomes viable depends on the state of medical technology. Thus, advances in neonatal medicine, which allow doctors to save younger and more premature infants, are generally accompanied by calls to restrict the abortion of fetuses of the same gestational age, who now count as viable. Yet, as philosophers sometimes point out, it is highly unclear why the viability line has any moral significance. For consider: scientists are currently in the process of developing artificial uteruses, which could incubate an embryo for the full nine months until birth.  Once that technology has been perfected, all embryos and fetuses will be viable, in that however undeveloped they are, they could survive outside of a woman’s body, by being transplanted into an artificial uterus, just as premature infants are currently transferred to an incubator. But this would then mean that, as a result of a merely technological change, all embryos and fetuses, from conception onwards, would now have a moral status that they previously lacked (and thus that many abortions that had previously been entirely morally unobjectionable would now be problematic, and perhaps impermissible). This is rather difficult to believe (though for a dissenting voice, see Boonin, 2003, p. 129ff).

This suggests, as many philosophers believe, that what matters for fetal moral status is not viability but sentience. The reasons to believe that sentience matters, moreover, are not confined to the negative one that the main competing account has strange implications. It is independently plausible to suppose that it matters morally how we treat beings that are capable of experience, because we can affect them in a way that we cannot affect beings that are entirely unfeeling. If a being is capable of experience, it has a life that can go better or worse for it, from the inside, and whose continuation would be good for it. But to end the life of a being that has never acquired that capacity for consciousness seems indistinguishable, in its effects on that being, from its never having been created at all – it has not yet begun a life, in any meaningful sense, of which it is now being deprived. For that reason, it seems plausible to suppose that abortion performed prior to the onset of fetal sentience is morally on a par with contraception.

Suppose we accept what is the most conservative plausible estimate as to when the fetus acquires a rudimentary degree of consciousness – namely 20 weeks. And suppose it was also thought that abortion would always be impermissible after that point. Nonetheless, we would have succeeded in justifying the overwhelming majority of terminations that are in fact performed. In the UK, for instance, in 2011, 91% of abortions were carried out before 13 weeks.

It is important to emphasise, however, that the view that sentience matters, and marks the point of onset of a degree of human moral status, does not yet commit us to the conclusion that all abortions performed after that point would be impermissible, or even especially difficult to justify. For it is consistent with this view to hold that, while the fact that a fetus is sentient, and would benefit to a degree from continued life, gives us a reason not to cause its death, that reason is at least initially quite weak, and often outweighed by other considerations – primarily those pertaining to the needs of the pregnant woman. One grounds for thinking this (for which see especially McMahan, 2002, or, e.g., DeGrazia, 2012), which I find attractive, appeals to the fact that a fetus that has just become conscious is unaware of, and only dimly psychologically related to, the life it will have in the future if not aborted. For this reason, that future life is, from the point of view of the fetus, rather like someone else’s life rather than its own. Thus, while a fetus that has just become sentient can be said to be harmed somewhat by death, it is not harmed greatly, and certainly not to the same significant degree as you or I, given how closely psychologically related to our future selves we are. The harm to the fetus of death may, however, increase over the remainder of pregnancy, as it becomes a more robust psychological presence, as it were, in its own life. If an explanation like this is correct, it would be consistent to think that, even if the fetus starts to become conscious at, say, 20 weeks (and it is questionable that it does), abortion is often justifiable at 24 weeks, or later, and therefore the law in the UK, for example, which includes a 24 week cut-off for most abortions, ought to stay as it is.

Sadly, given the constraints of this format, I lack the space to consider the view of fetal moral status that I have been canvasing here in any further detail, or its rivals. What I hope to have shown in this series is that those whose interest is in ethical questions of saving humans have abundant reasons to be interested in the philosophical dimensions of abortion. And, of course, abortion is not merely fascinating, at a philosophical level, but also an urgent need for the many women whom it saves.


David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

David DeGrazia, Creation Ethics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).

March, 2014

Can Philosophy Resolve the Abortion Wars? The Ethics of Abortion, Part IV Jeremy Williams


In many countries, much of the time, the public debate over abortion is both fractious and fruitless, revolving primarily around the unreflective exchange of slogans between two highly polarised rival campaigning groups, who display an almost tribal mutual aversion, and largely shout past rather than really speaking to each other. Understandably, this tends to make onlookers who are concerned with civility in democratic discourse despair – particularly in the United States, where tensions over abortion run particularly high. As the great legal philosopher Ronald Dworkin memorably described the situation there:

The war between anti-abortion groups and their opponents is America’s new version of the terrible seventeenth-century European wars of religion. Opposing armies march down streets or pack themselves into abortion clinics, courthouses, and the White House, screaming at and spitting on and loathing one another. Abortion is tearing America apart (Dworkin, 1993, p. 4).

That the abortion dispute is unusually highly charged may not seem surprising, given what the protagonists on both sides claim to be at stake (preventing the wrongful killing of innocent persons on the one hand, and preventing the wrongful imposition of pregnancy and parenthood on the other). Yet it might not be inevitable that the abortion controversy must be played out as a war, and philosophers have sometimes considered how they might be able to contribute to drawing the poison out of it. One key method by which some of them have hoped to do so involves interrogating and unpicking the rhetoric used by partisans in the public dispute. In some cases, it is suggested, the rhetoric on display does not accurately encapsulate what the protagonists really believe, or does not vindicate the conclusions that those who utter it assume that it does, or has further, unnoticed implications at which they would balk, were they made aware of them. Perhaps, if the belligerents could be shown that their slogans are defective in these ways, the familiar battle lines could in time be dismantled.

Judith Thomson’s defense of abortion, discussed earlier in this series, is an excellent example of this sort of argumentative strategy in action. According to Thomson, as we have seen, opponents of abortion are mistaken if they think that their hallmark claim – that fetuses are persons from conception onwards, with full rights to life – is on its own enough to show that terminating a pregnancy is impermissible. Another prime example of the same approach at work, meanwhile, comes from Dworkin. Like Thomson, Dworkin’s focus is (primarily, though not exclusively) on the avowed commitments of pro-life advocates. Those people claim to believe that fetuses are persons, with all the rights that that status entails. But Dworkin argues, strikingly, that it can be demonstrated that they don’t really believe this at all. For most of them do not think that abortion is without exception morally prohibited. Rather, they tend to believe that there ought to be some significant exceptions to a general ban on terminating pregnancies, at least in the earlier stages of pregnancy. In particular, they tend to hold that there should be such exceptions in cases where conception was a result of rape, or incest, as well as cases in which the fetus has been found to have some devastating illness or disability. Allowing abortion in such cases, however, seems incompatible with the view that fetuses are, at all stages of their gestation, persons. For if they were, they would presumably have rights not to be treated less favourably on grounds of arbitrary factors like the circumstances of their origins, or their health and native capabilities. Nobody, after all, thinks that the right to life of a person after birth is weaker and more easily overridden just because she is, say, a product of incest, or has a serious disability.

Thus, according to Dworkin, pro-lifers have powerful reasons of consistency to moderate their opposition to abortion. Indeed, he argues, provocatively, that when pro-lifers claim that even embryos and early fetuses are persons, what they actually mean is something rather less radical – namely that early prenatal life is intrinsically valuable, in a similar way to, say, a great work of art, or a rare plant. When a thing has intrinsic value, destroying it is a sort of cosmic waste, and difficult to justify. But it is not a wrongdoing on the scale of murder, and can be permissible in cases where killing a person would not be. If the real underlying view of pro-lifers is, as Dworkin claims, not that early fetuses are persons, but rather that they are intrinsically valuable, such that destroying them is a great waste, then they can, he says, consistently believe that there are exceptions to the general rule that abortion is wrong. However, Dworkin continues, once pro-lifers accept this explanation for their pattern of beliefs, they should also accept that women have a right to choose at least an early abortion. This is because the question of what things in the universe possess intrinsic value is deeply personal – an ‘essentially religious’ matter, as Dworkin puts it – and answers to it ought not to be imposed on those who conscientiously disagree. Thus, in Dworkin’s view, the right to choose an early abortion is of a piece with the rights to freedom of conscience and religious exercise, and should be endorsed by all who endorse the latter, core commitments of liberal democracy – however sincerely they might hold, as a matter of their own personal religious or philosophical doctrine, that the waste of prenatal human life is intrinsically bad.

Like Thomson, Dworkin seeks to radically remake the traditional abortion debate – in his case, by attempting to persuade pro-life advocates that the intuitive costs of the view they outwardly profess are too high, even for them. Can his strategy succeed? To be sure, when faced with Dworkin’s challenge, a committed opponent of abortion might be drawn to the conclusion that consistency on their part requires not abandoning her commitment to fetal personhood, but rather abandoning her commitment to allowing exceptions to the prohibition of abortion. That is a harsh view indeed, and deeply unappealing, even to many ardent pro-life advocates. It does, however, have its proponents.

Pro-choice philosophers have, though, adduced further powerful grounds for anti-abortionists to reconsider their belief that fetuses are persons, whose being killed is as tragic, harmful and wrongful as the killing of a normal adult human being like you or I. Significantly for the focus of this website, these return us to the theme of saving lives. In the first post in this series, I noted that philosophical defenders of abortion choice sometimes object that, to say that embryos and fetuses are, from conception, persons, is to imply, absurdly, that in a hypothetical choice between saving the life of one adult person on the one hand, and rescuing some larger number of embryos from destruction on the other, it would be permissible, if not mandatory, to do the latter. This challenge is not purely hypothetical, however, as Jeff McMahan notes (2002, pp. 165-6). A strikingly high proportion of pregnancies  – at least two thirds, in fact – end in spontaneous abortion. One would expect that those who believe that fetuses are persons would regard this phenomenon as an ongoing tragedy of epic proportions. And one would expect, as a result, that they would also be highly vocal in demanding that a much greater proportion of our social resources be devoted to researching and deploying various medical means to minimise these deaths – diverted, perhaps, from healthcare interventions that aim at preventing or curing medical conditions in adults and children, such as HIV, that claim fewer lives overall. Yet in fact they do not do so. This seems to suggest that they apprehend a difference between the loss of prenatal life and the lives of persons after all.

Thus, Dworkin and others have attempted to demonstrate to pro-lifers that they should soften their opposition to abortion, thereby taking at least some of the heat out of the ‘abortion wars’. Notice that, in doing so, they do not typically proceed by setting out to persuade people of some grand ethical theory. Rather, they proceed by attempting to show that there are glaring inconsistencies, and high intuitive costs, in the views that people already (profess to) hold.

Philosophers also adopt a similar strategy when engaging with and evaluating more moderate views, which contend that the moral status of a fetus varies according to its level of development. What aspects of the development of a fetus are relevant to its moral status? And what are the implications of fixing on one emerging characteristic of the fetus rather than another? The final post in this series turns to these questions.


Ronald Dworkin, Life’s Dominion: An Argument About Abortion, Euthanasia, and Individual Freedom (New York: Vintage, 1994).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

March, 2014

Can the Thomson Argument be Saved? The Ethics of Abortion, Part III Jeremy Williams

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To resume our discussion of the ethics of abortion where we left it yesterday, we have seen that, according to Judith Thomson (1971), terminating a pregnancy is analogous to refusing to donate the use of one’s body for purposes of saving a needy stranger. On this argument, just as one can permissibly refuse to save a stranger when the bodily efforts and harms to oneself are high, so a woman can also permissibly refuse to continue to gestate a fetus at high cost to herself – even, crucially, if the fetus has the full moral status of a person. As we have also seen, however, critics object that saving a stranger and supporting a fetus are not, in fact, as closely analogous as Thomson claims, such that we cannot read off the conditions under which a woman may permissibly terminate a pregnancy by consulting the conditions for permissible refusal to be a Good Samaritan to a stranger. Although Thomson’s analogy between saving a stranger and gestating a fetus has been claimed to fail on multiple fronts (for an impressively thorough survey of which, see Boonin, 2003, chapter 4), the most significant failures of analogy appear to be, to repeat, that whilst a person who refuses to act as a Good Samaritan to someone in life-threatening need is merely allowing a stranger to die, for whose neediness she is not responsible, abortion involves a woman killing her own child, having voluntarily performed  the act that caused the child to exist and require her aid. How damaging to Thomson’s argument are these disanalogies?

Each of these disanalogies (that abortion involves refusal to aid one’s child, that it involves refusal to meet a need in someone for which the woman is responsible [outside of rape cases], and that it involves killing) might be thought sufficient on its own to fatally undermine Thomson’s defence of abortion. Alternatively, one might think that her argument cannot bear the combined weight of the disanalogies when they are all pressed at the same time. Philosopher Jeff McMahan (2003), for instance, has argued that it is intuitively just too difficult to believe that a person could be entitled to withdraw aid from someone who (a) is her own child, (b) is in need of assistance as a result of an act which that person performed (sexual intercourse) in the knowledge of that parenthood, and fetal dependency, can be a result of it, and (c) will be killed by the procedure that ends its dependency.

Against this conclusion, someone might argue that, if each of the three disanalogies can be shown individually not to make a moral difference, they could not add up to a decisive objection either. It is perfectly possible to argue that each of the three disanalogies, taken in isolation, is morally insignificant. For instance, one can argue that the parent-child relation in the case of a woman and fetus is purely genetic, and that this bare genetic connection, when unaccompanied by, e.g., emotional ties, shared experiences, or explicitly-made commitments, cannot be the ground of a special obligation to make large sacrifices on the fetus’s behalf. One can also argue that, while the woman is indeed responsible, in one sense, for the neediness of the fetus, this fact lacks its usual significance, because without the woman’s input, the fetus would not exist at all, and thus, if she does not provide the needed aid, she will not have made the fetus any worse off (McMahan, 2003, pp. 364-72). Finally, one can argue that, if letting the fetus die would be permissible, because of the burdens involved in supporting it, and if, further, being killed as opposed to being allowed to die would not be worse for the fetus, but would be less costly for the woman, it is difficult to see why killing the fetus instead of letting it die would not also be permissible (Boonin, 2003, pp. 188-212). If, on grounds such as these, we think that the three identified disanalogies do not have any moral weight individually, we might conclude that their combined weight must also be also zero. Yet because that conclusion remains, as McMahan points out, highly counter-intuitive, many will wonder whether it can possibly be right.

Suppose that we decide that Thomson’s argument can indeed survive in spite of the foregoing failures of analogy between pregnancy and Good Samaritanism. Nonetheless, the argument seems limited in other respects – it is highly unclear that it can justify the sort of abortion regime that pro-choice advocates typically press for. For instance, the justification for abortion under Thomson’s argument rests, as we have seen, on a woman’s right to refuse to accept a significantly burdensome bodily imposition, rather than on a right to resist the burdensomeness of parenthood. By implication, then, if, in the case of some woman, the burdens of pregnancy are acceptably light (as Thomson allows that they might be), but the burdens of parenthood later on would be heavy (e.g. because the fetus has a serious genetic disability) then there is no Thomsonite case here for abortion. Indeed, on Thomsonite grounds, to refuse to aid the fetus to avoid having to look after the child later (or to avoid having to undergo the psychological trauma attendant on having to give the child up for adoption), when the burdens of pregnancy themselves do not exceed those that a Minimally Decent Samaritan can be asked to accept, seems morally on a par with, say, refusing to save one’s infant child from drowning in a paddling pool, in order to avoid looking after it. But this is difficult to accept – on the standard pro-choice view, the postnatal burdens of parenthood as just as important, in making the case for abortion, as the burdens of pregnancy themselves.

A further counter-intuitive implication of the Thomson argument, noted by McMahan (2006), pertains to the moral contrast between killing the fetus in order to extract it, and non-lethally injuring it in the course of doing so. Causing the death of a person is more difficult to justify than causing a person an injury, because it represents a greater deprivation. On that basis, it seems that, according to the Thomson defence of abortion, if a woman for whom pregnancy is very costly is able to expel the fetus by either killing it or injuring it, she ought to choose to do the latter – even if the injury would have a serious impairing effect throughout the child’s later life. This conclusion, however, is seriously counter-intuitive – from a common sense point of view, causing a prenatal injury that will have serious lifelong consequences for a person seems a more serious matter than causing the death of a fetus. That we think this suggests that we implicitly accept that fetuses are not, as pro-life advocates claim, and Thomson grants for the sake of argument, morally on a par with persons in all respects. More specifically, it suggests that we implicitly think that fetuses are harmed by death to a lesser extent than persons (and thus that the harm of death for a fetus can be of less moral significance than the harm of lifelong injury to a person).

To conclude this discussion, it is worth emphasising that, while Thomson’s critics include opponents of abortion, they are not limited to them. Rather, they also include pro-choice philosophers who believe that, insofar as Thomson’s argument for the right to choose an abortion is limited, it would be unwise for defenders of abortion choice to rely on it – or at least to rely on it exclusively. It would be unwise, that is, for them to grant to their opponents that fetuses are persons, before arguing for the permissibility of abortion on grounds of a woman’s right to refuse to provide bodily aid at high cost to themselves. Of course, even if pro-choice advocates avoid making the Thomson defence central to their argumentative strategy, they might find that it has a useful subsidiary role to play in some discursive contexts. The crucial point, however, is that they will not be able to utilise it in order to escape taking a stand on the moral status of the fetus, or directly arguing against the pro-life claim that fetuses have the same rights and value as postnatal persons. This conclusion will come as something of a disappointment to supporters of abortion rights who had indeed hoped that Thomson’s argument might allow them to circumvent that thorny issue altogether (though this is not, note, a claim that Thomson makes on behalf of the argument herself). The remainder of this blog series turns the spotlight on precisely that thorny issue.


David Boonin, A Defense of Abortion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

Jeff McMahan, The Ethics of Killing (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002)

Jeff McMahan, ‘Paradoxes of Abortion and Prenatal Injury’, Ethics 116 (July 2006): 625–655.

Judith Thomson, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47-66.

Useful links:

The charitable perspective

Abortion & Human Rights

The Ontology of Abortion

A Defense of ‘A Defense of Abortion’ On the Responsibility Objection to Thomson’s Argument

Humans and Persons: A Reply to Tristram Englelhardt

Too Long in gestating

Was I ever a Fetus

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March, 2014

The Pregnant Woman as Good Samaritan: the Ethics of Abortion, Part II. Jeremy Williams


The purpose of this blog series, which began yesterday, is to introduce some notable contributions made by moral philosophers to our understanding of the ethics of abortion, while pointing out some of the links between that topic and the website’s overarching theme of ‘saving humans’. In the first post, I began to discuss Judith Thomson’s seminal paper, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, with its memorable violinist example. In this post, I set out in more detail what Thomson takes this thought experiment to show, and point to some disanalogies between using your body to support a violinist and a woman’s being pregnant that have been taken by Thomson’s critics to fatally undermine her case. The discussion of Thomson concludes tomorrow.

As we saw last time, Thomson’s argument aims to show that pro-life opposition to abortion rests on a mistake. But whereas most supporters of abortion choice focus on attempting to unseat the pro-life claim that fetuses are persons with a right to life, Thomson’s strategy is the different, and innovative one of challenging the assumption that if the fetus is a person with a right to life, then terminating a pregnancy must be morally wrong. That assumption, according to Thomson, is unwarranted, since it ignores the fact that there are limits to the sacrifices that individuals can be expected to make through the use of their bodies for the sake of others, even when the latter are full persons and rights-holders.

At the core of Thomson’s case to that effect is the violinist example. The violinist is undoubtedly a person, with a right to life. And he needs the use of your body (more specifically, your kidneys) to continue to live. Yet, as the vast majority of people find, on consulting their intuitions about the violinist case, he lacks a right to be given what he needs, given the sacrifices that you would have to bear to support him. It would not be unjust, most of us think, either for you to unplug yourself to escape the burdens involved in continuing to aid the violinist, or for a third party, acting as your agent, to do the unplugging for you. By analogy, according to Thomson, even if a fetus is a person with a right to life, as opponents of abortion insist, it is not unjust for the pregnant woman to refuse to continue to support it, if the costs to her of doing so are sufficiently great, nor for her to enlist a third party to ‘disconnect’ her by performing an abortion. To claim otherwise, Thomson avers, is to insist on self-abnegation from the pregnant woman to a degree that morality cannot require.

Notice that Thomson’s argument does not rest on the claim that individuals are under no moral duty to use their bodies to assist others, or save their lives. On the contrary, she accepts that, under some circumstances, there is such a duty. What she denies is that we are under a duty to use our bodies in the service of others where doing so comes at high cost to ourselves. Helping others is mandatory, then, only insofar as the associated costs are acceptably low. Thomson calls the duty to help others at low cost the duty of Minimally Decent Samaritanism. This contrasts, in Thomson’s terminology, with Good Samaritanism, whereby a person helps another despite high costs. Unlike Minimally Decent Samaritanism, Good Samaritanism goes above and beyond the call of duty – it is, as philosophers put it, supererogatory. That, at any rate, is what commonsense morality tells us. Relatively few of us are either extremist libertarians, who believe that we are never obligated to come to the aid of others, even when doing so would be costless, or proponents of demanding moralities, who hold that we ought to sacrifice our fundamental interests for others’ sakes. Rather, most of us believe, as Thomson claims, that helping is morally required when the costs are reasonably low, but morally optional where the burdens and risks exceed some threshold of severity. Her argument is all the stronger precisely for not presupposing some controversial account of the limits of our duties to assist others.

Thomson’s commonsense understanding of the limits of the duty to help others implies (she herself suggests) a moderate or qualified right to terminate a pregnancy, whereby a woman is entitled to refuse to continue supporting her fetus if and only if the costs of carriage exceed the threshold of burdens that can be asked of a Minimally Decent Samaritan. Where that threshold lies, precisely, she does not say (it’s an extremely difficult question, after all, as many philosophers would attest). She does, however, point to two cases which she thinks it plausible to suppose lie on opposite sides of the line (see Thomson, 1971, pp. 65-6). To wit, she argues that, even if fetuses are persons, a fourteen year old who is pregnant as a result of rape would certainly be entitled to an abortion. But a woman in the seventh month of pregnancy, and who now wants an abortion merely so that she will not have to postpone a foreign holiday, would not. For the latter woman to complete her pregnancy is within the bounds, Thomson suggests, of what can be expected of someone, as a matter of Minimally Decent Samaritan.

So much, then, for the shape of Thomson’s landmark defence of abortion. If it works, it blows apart the conventional terms of the abortion debate, under which, to recapitulate, it is standardly assumed that abortion is permissible only if the fetus lacks the right to life of a person. Does the argument work, however? Critics of Thomson have argued that it does not, because it fails to give due weight to the ways in which woman’s gestating a fetus is unlike the assistance delivered by Good or Minimally Decent Samaritans. In particular, they have pointed out that

(a)    whereas a Good or Minimally Decent Samaritan is merely a bystander who, coincidentally, is in a position to render the needed assistance, a pregnant woman (at least if she has not been raped) is responsible for the fact that the fetus exists, and needs her help;

(b)   whereas a Good or Minimally Decent Samaritan is paradigmatically a stranger to the person needing aid, a pregnant woman stands in a special relationship to the fetus – namely that of parent to child.

(c)    whereas disconnecting oneself from the violinist, or refusing, in general, to assist a needy stranger whom one stumbles upon involves only allowing him to die, abortion typically involves killing the fetus.

These disanalogies are potentially highly damaging to Thomson’s argument. This is because it seems plausible to suppose that, while persons are in general only under a duty to provide life-saving assistance to others if the costs to them of doing so are reasonable, we can be expected to incur costs on a larger scale for the sake of saving someone for whose neediness we bear responsibility, or someone to whom we are specially related, or someone whom we would have to kill to avoid assisting. Whether Thomson’s argument can itself be saved from the objection that it ignores these disanalogies is a matter for tomorrow’s post.


Judith Thomson, ‘A Defense of Abortion’, Philosophy and Public Affairs 1 (1971): 47-66.

Further useful links:

Is there a new ethics of abortion?

Contentious objection in medicine

Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming Into Existence

Drawing the line

A Critique of Judith Jarvis Thomson’s A Defense of Abortion, Part I

Selected “study questions” regarding abortion, through the lens of Judith Thomson’s “A Defense of Abortion” 

Image Source Altruistic bears:


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