In an episode that aired recently of his new YouTube series “Philosophy Time” (video below), actor James Franco and co-host Eliot Michaelson interviewed Princeton philosophy professor Elizabeth Harman on her sophisticated argument defending early-term abortions. But judging from Franco’s questions and facial expressions, the actor appears to have heard more sophistry than sophistication, at one point stating her convoluted rationale in terms plain enough to show just how nonsensical it really is.
There are two different kinds of fetuses, Harman explains, ones with a future and ones without. The “moral status” of an early stage fetus, she says, depends entirely on whether it has a “future.” No future, no moral status. In other words, if the fetus never grows up to feel and experience, killing it has zero moral implications.
In his coverage of Harman’s “perplexing” attempt to excuse early-term abortion by cleansing it of any moral implications, The Washington Free Beacon‘s Andrew Kugle provided a transcript of the exchange, which I’m borrowing heavily from below. Here’s Professor Harman’s first stab at explaining her philosophical defense of the “liberal position about early abortion”:
HARMAN: In some of my work I defend a liberal position about early abortion. I defend the view that there is nothing morally bad about early abortion. So, a lot of people think, “Well it’s permissible to have an abortion, but something bad happens when the fetus dies.” And I think if a fetus hasn’t ever been conscious, it hasn’t ever had any experiences, and we aborted it at that stage actually nothing morally bad happens. And this view might seem unattractive because it might seem that it dictates a cold attitude towards all early fetuses.
But, what I think is actually among early fetuses there are two very different kinds of beings. So, James, when you were an early fetus, and Eliot, when you were an early fetus, all of us I think we already did have moral status then. But we had moral status in virtue of our futures. And future of fact that we were beginning stages of persons. But some early fetuses will die in early pregnancy due to abortion or miscarriage. And in my view that is a very different kind of entity. That’s something that doesn’t have a future as a person and it doesn’t have moral status.
Michaelson, a philosophy professor himself, pushes back on the premise, asking plainly, “Why would we think that what’s actually going to happen to a fetus in the future is going to make this big difference between having some moral status and not?”
Franco — whose facial expressions during Harman’s explanations only get more hilarious — adds, “Can’t you only judge that in hindsight?”
So Harman tries again, with even less success:
HARMAN: There is a real question of, how could we know? Well, often we do know. So often, if we know that a woman is planning to get an abortion, and we know that abortion is available to her, then we know that fetus is going to die—that it’s not the kind of thing like the fetuses that became us. It’s not something with moral status, in my view. Often we have reason to believe that a fetus is the beginning stage of a person. So, if we know that it’s that a woman is planning to continue her pregnancy, then we good reason to that her fetus is something with moral status something with this future as a person.
At this point, Franco asks the question that highlights the indefensible nature of her premise:
FRANCO: If a woman decides to have an abortion with an early fetus, just that act or that intention negates the “moral status” of that early fetus just because if she goes out and has an abortion, it’s pretty certain that it’s not going to become a person?
Harman’s third attempt to explain her “moral status” argument becomes even more convoluted than the first two. The major stumbling block, as her explanation highlights, is how “moral status” can be attributed or negated after the fact. Despite her best attempts to argue otherwise, she appears to just be attempting to rationalize abortion by claiming that a woman’s choice to abort eliminates any moral implications:
HARMAN: Right, so it might look like on my view abortion is permissible because you had the abortion but that abortion wouldn’t have been permissible if you didn’t have the abortion. That’s not quite the view, for I think two different reasons. So one reason is that, um, even you have moral status — and in my view back when you were in early fetus you had moral status — but it’s not that aborting you would have been wrong because if your mother had chosen to abort her pregnancy, then it wouldn’t have been the case that you would have had moral status because you would have died as an early fetus, so she would have been aborting something that didn’t have moral status.
So it’s not — My view isn’t that if you do abort, abortion is OK but if you don’t abort, abortion would have been wrong. But what it turns out is that it’s a contingent matter that you have moral status you actually have moral status but you might not have counted morally at all if you had been aborted. You would have existed but you just would have had this really very short existence in which you wouldn’t have mattered morally.
Harman goes on to underscore that abortion doesn’t “take away” the moral status of the fetus, because the aborted fetus didn’t have one in the first place because it didn’t ever have a future, or something:
HARMAN: Another thing that you were bringing up was the idea that, in my view, in aborting we’re taking away the moral status that the fetus would have had moral status, but by aborting we take it away, and I think that’s the wrong way to look at it. I think the right way to look at it is that just given the current state of the fetus you know it’s not having any experiences. There’s nothing about its current state that would make it a member of the moral community. It’s derivative of its future that it gets to have moral status. So it’s really the future and endows moral status on it and if we allow it to have this future and then we’re allowing it to be the kind of thing that now would have moral status so in aborting it I don’t think you’re depriving it of something that it independently has.
Got it? From the looks of it, Franco probably wasn’t buying it either.
For more on Harman, here’s a list of her classes and her bio, which offers some context for her moral status argument, including her study of “morally permissible moral mistakes” which are “behaviors that one should not engage in, all things considered, for moral reasons, but that are not morally wrong.”
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