Parsimonious Ethics on Abortion
The study of ethics attempts to grant us with the ability to justify our actions. Labeling them as moral or immoral, ethical or unethical, legal or illegal, right or wrong. We attempt to justify our actions through various logical functions. There exists a small handful of these systems of ethics that the vast majority of people subscribe to, sometimes knowingly, sometimes not. The utilitarian adds up all the positive and negative effects an action has, and attempts to justify it thusly. 19th Century philosopher Immanual Kant suggests we hold respect for persons of the utmost importance, and that persons never be treated merely as the means to an end. The philosopher John Rawls suggests ethical justifications be made from behind a veil of ignorance. Many people also follow solely religious precepts to justify something ethically. In this paper I will attempt to present a competing theory of ethics, and apply it to a particular question of vital importance to ethicians today, and then utilize it as a justification for a legal resolution to that issue.
This system of ethics will be what I consider an approach to a wholly objective concept of ethics, that is, one that is not subjected to interpretations or bias. Without getting into an ontological debate, this system will attempt as a goal to approach an objective basis for ethics. As we are not omniscient and can never know absolutely that our concept is factual, we can attempt to show beyond a reasonable doubt that a particular concept is objective, just as in the Justice system of the United States. No one person knows for a fact whether or not somebody committed a murder, with the exception of the person who committed the crime. Thus, when U.S. court systems 'prove' that a defendant is guilty, they have only proven that beyond a reasonable doubt this person has committed this crime. This analogy to the U.S. court system is, however, slightly faulted. The court systems are still subjected to interpretations, that of the lawyers, the judges, and the jurors. Thus, we will not rely on a similar notion to attempt to ascertain an objective basis for a system of ethics. What I will propose using is the one thing that exists solely to verify its own objectivity, and continually progress toward on objective goal, and has safeguards and mechanisms already in place to prevent deviation. That something being the Scientific Methodology.
There can be considered to be two major sets of competing belief structures,
that of Science, or the scientific methodology, and that of Faith. There can
effectively be considered only one major paradigm in the system of science,
that being what is popular considered as 'science' but more accurately defined
as a set of knowledge acquired through the rigorous logical and empirical filters
collectively known as the scientific methodology, or the philosophy of science.
Systems that are classified under the set of Faith can be identified by the
lack of validity granted to observation, experimentation, and simplification.
Most of the worlds religions can certainly be classified under this set of belief
structures. I will deal with only three for the purpose of brevity
The Merriam Webster Online dictionary references a few meanings of the word
'Faith' Some of which revolve around fidelity to ones promises or complete trust,
one of which refers simply to a belief with strong conviction. The remaining
definition is the one of interest, as it applies to the topic of this paper.
Merriam Websters third definition is 'Firm belief in something for which there
is no proof' This is of prime concern to the validity of arguments against abortion,
as many are based on faith, or as the definition tells us, belief without proof.
Some subscribers to these particular beliefs will argue that it makes no difference
that no evidence exists to support their assertions, instead they base the validity
solely on their strength of their convictions. The problem with this tenet however
is that many different systems of belief which can be classified under faith
can have contradictory implications. The obvious question arises then, how is
one to determine which is the correct one.
An important distinction must first be made however when discussing some of the faith based religions. When examining any work of literature, one must first decide if the points being made in that work are of a literal nature or of an interpretative nature. This must be an all or none proposition, either the entire work is to be accepted as literal, or then entire work is figurative. The reason for this is based on the premise that if a work was meant to be literal, it must be accepted as literal, if even one component in it is figurative, then all the corresponding components become suspect as well. In which case one has to interpret to merely determine if something was meant as literal or not. There are of course groups of people who accept religious documentation as only literal, it has however become increasingly difficult for many of these groups to maintain this allegiance with ever increasing pressure and possibly contradictory evidence presented to them in the modern world. If a work is accepted as partially figurative, making it entirely subject to interpretation, the obvious fault is that we are not able to determine which interpretation is the correct one.
Belief structures based on faith, especially the world's major religions,
are inherently flawed in this respect. Never being able to know for sure what
was actually intended by a statement reduces the validity of that statement
to, at best, an allegorical one. Modern Christianity and its subsets are based
primarily upon the writings in The Bible. The writings in the bible are known
to be interpretations of events and retelling of oral stories passed on for
generations as well, further damaging their credibility. Islam holds it fundamental
tenets on parts of the bible, specifically, the Old Testament, and a later book
by a prophet named Mohammed. The Old Testament and its reliance in Islam is
subjected to the same questions of validity and interpretation as it is in Christianity.
Hinduism is one of the world's major religions that pre-dates written language.
It is thought that many of the concepts and traditions in Hinduism originated
in the nomad Aryan tribes of southern Asia around 2,000 to 3,000 years ago.
These traditions were the fruit of generations of story telling and oral tradition,
so it is impossible to know their origination and the true intent.
Science could certainly be considered a belief structure. It is, after all,
a set of ideas that a number of people believe. Science, however, has one major
thing different then most belief structures, especially faith based ones. Science
actually makes an effort to validate itself in the world around it, in fact,
science is an attempt to explain things that happen in the world around us.
If a group of people should have a disagreement about what is inside of a locked
box, they may quarrel and argue and fuss. One may have more money, one may have
more 'believers' on their side, one may know more influential people. None of
these things however have any effect on what is actually inside the box. And,
simply put, the best way to determine what exactly is inside that box, is, obviously,
to open it up.
This simple example portrays a lot more then it may superficially seem. First,
part of the scientific methodology is to hypothesize. That is, to guess. To
make educated assumptions about a problem. In this example, the problem is a
closed box. The onlookers may know the size of the box, they may weigh it, they
may test its overall density, they may do a number of things to see if they
can have any rough idea of what may be inside that box before opening it. If
they were to shake it, does it rattle? Is it a lot of rapid noises or a few
thuds? These are the kinds of things one may do to attempt to make an educated
guess, for based on the outcome of these tests, one may come to a closer understanding
or a better guess of what is actually inside the box.
Once that guess has been made, the next important step is to test that guess.
If someone guessed that the box contained water, does it feel like water when
it is shaken around? If someone guessed that the box contained small pebbles,
does it rattle when shaken? Does it behave as if any of these things are inside
of it? This absolutely fundamental step in science is the experiment. The actual
test against nature to find out if we are clever enough to solve her little
This is what brings us to the third step in determining something with the
scientific methodology. Modification of our hypothesis. If we were under the
assumption, or had guessed, that the box contained water, and it rattled when
we shook it, there is most certainly something amiss. Thus we modify our guess
to include this new information. In addition to whatever else we may have known
about the box, we now know that it rattles, and is therefore probably not water.
We now modify our guess to say that there is something inside that box that
is probably small, probably hard. Perhaps some pebbles or some marbles. At this
point, it is very difficult to get any farther without opening the box, or peeking
We then decide to open the box up. Inside we find a dozen red marbles. This
finding certainly seems consistent with our hypothesis. But, how do we know
that those marbles were red all along, maybe they were blue before, or striped.
Maybe the box did not contain marbles before, and actually contained small pebbles,
and something, say a small invisible entity, switched them right as we opened
the box. This is what brings us to the fourth and one of the most important
aspects of the scientific methodology, that of Occam's Razor. In its original
form, it says 'Entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity' more specifically,
if you can explain an issue without supposing the existence of some entity,
then do so. This is not merely a suggestion, it is more of a law of the scientific
methodology. When given a set of problems, or issues, the simplest explanation
that encompasses them is considered to be the correct one. This may indeed sound
like an arbitrary decision, but it is not: it is the way the universe works.
Without Occam's Razor, we could potentially generate an infinite number of theories
of progressively increasing complexity to explain any given phenomenon. Once
any arbitrary entity is added, that is, entities which have no evidence supporting
them, then where is one to stop. If we assume that the marbles were not there,
and were placed there by a mischievous spirit, why not assume that another mischievous
spirit coaxed that one into it. Or that marbles and pebbles do not actually
exist inside closed boxes, they only appear to exist. None of these explanations
have any available evidence to support them, and until they do, it is futile
to attempt to make use of them.
This concept of simplification can also be referred to as parsimony. This is of vital importance when dealing with ethical issues. Many concepts of ethics are indeed based on arbitrary entities, entities which by definition have no evidence supporting their claim to existence. The majority of the faith based belief structures have just such a quality, and therefore can not be relied upon to base important ethical decisions on. This parsimonious aspect of the scientific methodology is a primary dividing factor between it and faith based belief systems, which I why I chose to name this system of ethics after it.
What does it mean to be human?
The primary issue of abortion is rather or not aborting a fetus is murder. An important distinction must be made as to the definition of murder. We can superficially and readily define murder as the killing of a human. But this is not always necessarily true, for example, pulling the plug on the life support equipment of a brain dead person is killing a human, but it is not usually considered murder. So the definition of murder must be refined somewhat. What then, is the difference between killing a brain dead person and killing a perfectly healthy person? To figure this out, we must look at the difference between the two. Both are physiological functioning human machines, they can and do perform all the processes of being a living human being, breathing, eating, even being capable of reproduction. Obviously, the primary difference is that of the human mind. In the brain dead person, the body still functions, but the brain does not. So what is it about the brain that killing a person with a functioning one and killing a person without a functioning one should distinguish murder from killing. It is a function of the human mind that it acts as a computer, calculating behaviors and responses to stimuli, instructing a machine, the body, what to do and how to do it. This is a quality of all organs we consider brains throughout the animal kingdom. A function specific however to that of the human brain is being aware of this process. Human minds are aware of their own existence. This quality, sometimes called self awareness, sentience, or consciousness squared, is the important distinction between murder of a human and not murdering a brain dead person, but killing them. Even the idea of killing them has lost some merit, since some may consider 'them', that is, their personality, who they are, already dead. This can be agreed upon to be of primary importance in defining a human being.
Many faith based structures refer to another concept, that of the 'soul' as
an important idea in defining what it is to be human. Most belief structures
that incorporate a soul in fact cite it as the source of the personality, and
not the human brain. But from a parsimonious point of view, if ever there were
an entity invented for human wish fulfillment, the soul is that entity. As Thomas
Hobbes pointed out, the concept of a non-substantial substance is a contradiction.
It is not possible to imagine a non-physical entity having life and perception.
Even believers in souls always imagine them as being like human shaped clouds
or fogs. It is a delusion to believe that the concept of soul is conceivable.
Yet, billions of people have believed in a non-spatial perceiver, which can
travel through space and perceive and interpret vibrations and waves in the
air without any sense organs. Following along the lines of Occam's Razor, until
some evidence exists that suggests the soul as the simplest explanation, then
it should be ignored, as there is no possible way to edify it.
This brings us to the effort of science to define what it is to be a human.
There are a few general observations that will be considered by the majority
to represent a human being. First is their physical appearance. Do they look
human? One must ask what it is then to 'look' human. Is it to have two arms,
two legs, a head, hands, feet? Bilateral symmetry? Is that all It means to be
human? What about the person missing an arm or a leg, or a few toes, is he not
human? How much does he need to be missing before considered no longer human.
Obviously our concept of what it means to be human is not based merely on physical
What then is the next step in the quest for a definition? One particular thing
that separates humans from all other animals is their genetic description, that
is, their DNA. These genetic instruction set describes exactly the physical
make up of every human body. But does merely having the DNA of a human make
the difference when deciding what is special about being a human. When asked
what is the greatest thing about being human do people answer 'Why, having the
genetic makeup of a human being of course' Is every individual that contains
the genetic makeup of a human being as much of a human as everyone else? It
is now appropriate to mention people who contain entire genetic makeup of humans,
but may not be as much of a human being as everyone else. These are people who
have succumbed to accidents leaving them in a comatose state, or even brain
dead. These people are physical entirely human, right down to their DNA. But
do they have hopes, do they have fears? Are they, in many cases, even aware
of their own existence?
This brings me to the point of this argument, that to be human, is to be both physically human, that is, species home sapiens sapiens, and to have self-awareness, consciousness. To illustrate the importance of this, lets imagine that upon physical death, the body, the machine that carries the consciousness about, is resurrected, but is given a clean slate. Would one consider this a resurrection of the actual person who it was before, the resurrected body will have no concept of what the original person's hopes and fears and dreams and interests were. It is, for all intents and purposes, a different person. To cite an even more concrete example, take identical twins. These twins share the exact same DNA, they are exactly identical at the genetic level. No one however can argue that they are the same person, merely two manifestations of one person. They are indeed two individuals, two human persons. The only thing that differs about them is their personality, yet they are considered separate individuals. Thus, for all intents and purposes, the personality, which is the essence of the person, is what defines them as an individual, as a conscious human person. Coupled with the fact that they are indeed aware of their own existence, the qualities that define them as human is the general genetic makeup, their personalities, and their self awareness.
Consciousness and the Turing Test
In 1950 mathematician Alan Turing proposed that to determine if something
was conscious, that is, self aware, all one had to do was test it. The behavioral
test he proposed has since become known as 'The Turing Test' Turing stated that
at the conclusion of the test, if the system behaved as if it were self aware,
then for all intents and purposes it actually is self aware. For there would
be no known mechanism to prove otherwise. Occam's Razor supports this idea,
in that if all aspects of a system are indistinguishable from being self aware,
then that system is actually self-aware. This again enforces the parsimonious
nature of science. Thus, to fully be considered a human person, one must also
contain the ability to act as though it were a self-aware entity, above all
This may be difficult however in entities that do not share the same faculties, for example, a person who is born without the ability to hear. It may be difficult for this individual to pass a Turing test based on verbal recognition. But the test can be modified to take this into account. Since one can never observe consciousness directly, the only test we have for consciousness is the Turing test. In instances were the mental faculties exist but the external faculties are reduced, such as in the case of Helen Keller, careful direction and consideration will still allow a Turing test to be performed, and determine whether the being is conscious or self aware. In the rare cases where NO external mechanisms exist to perform a Turing test, one must then use Occam's Razor and determine whether or not the internal mechanisms exist to pass this test. We can easily determine this by relating this being to others that have indeed passed the test. If a person is blind, deaf, mute, and paralyzed, as long as they still have all the mental faculties associated with other similar but fully physically functional human beings that can pass the test, then the simplest explanation would dictate that this person is indeed self-aware. There is no logical reason to assume otherwise. Therefore, if the internal mental facilities exist which are consistent with passing the Turing test in an entity with the appropriate external facilities, then the simplest explanation is that the entity could pass the Turing test and is therefore a human self aware person. Likewise if the internal mental facilities do not exist, then it is the simplest explanation that the entity is not self-aware and is therefore not a human person.
Where does it come from?
Of primary concern then are what internal mechanisms are responsible for personality and self-awareness. In addressing this issue, modern technology has provided a variety of methods for studying the structure and function of the brain. Each technique yields another piece to the puzzle. The structure itself of the brain can be easily studied at all levels, but since functioning brains must be living brains, studying function is much more difficult. We do however have modern tools to help us peer into this closed box. Electroencephalographs (EEG) machines have given us access to neural activity that can be directly linked with behaviors or experiences. The magnetoencephalograph (MEG) yields more accurate less intrusive data that is more valuable to the relationship of structure to function in the brain. Both positron emission tomography (PET) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are non-invasive and relate even more valuable data. Coupled with information received from injuries to the brain, the sad process of lobotomies, and how certain drugs interact with the brain, we have come to a detailed map of what parts of the brain correspond to what functions. The research has shown that a particular region of the brain, now referred to as the Neo-cortex, is responsible for the cognitive process of self-awareness. We started with a viable parsimonious definition of a human person. And now have a viable structure in the brain responsible for that function, the Neo-cortex.
The next important question when applying parsimonious ethics to the question
of abortion is to define when it is exactly that a fetus becomes a human. Is
it at the moment of conception, as many people suggest, is it somewhere in between,
at the quickening, or at viability, or is it at the moment of birth, when the
baby takes its first breath? These are tough questions to answer, but working
on the premise of a definition of what it is to be a human person, and what
the structure is that is responsible for that function, we may be able to make
some progress when addressing this issue.
We know that the cognitive process of sentience, or self-awareness, arises
in the Neo-cortex portion of the human brain. This process is the key to what
we define as being a human person. It should follow logically then that if we
know where the source of the function is, if a human brain has this structure,
then it is capable of passing the Turing test, and is thus a person. If a human
brain does not possess this structure, then it follows logically that it would
not possess the ability to pass the Turing test, and thus could not be considered
a human person.
To relate this to abortion then we must determine when it is exactly that a human fetus possesses the internal mechanisms that would make if capable of passing the Turing test, even though it my lack the external mechanisms. Since the processes of sentience or self-awareness arises in the Neo-cortex, then a reasonable assumption would be that if no neo-cortex exists, then no self-awareness exists. If a Neo-cortex exists, and it demonstrates activity, then it logically follows that the being may be capable of self-awareness should external mechanisms exist to test such a hypothesis. Undoubtedly, there would be some variation in which the neo-cortex initiates activity between fetuses and any legal precedent based on parsimonious ethics should rationally be biased conservatively. That being said, all current scientific knowledge suggests that neo-cortical activity begins, at the earliest, after the first 12 weeks or pregnancy, or at the end of the first trimester.
I have presented a definition of a human person, one that is based on the presence of self-awareness. And that any human persons who possesses the structure that is known to be the source of the function we refer to as self-awareness, that structure being an active neo-cortex, can be considered a self-aware human person. The termination of a human life that has no functioning neo-cortex can not logically be considered the murder of a human person, but rather the killing of a shell. It is established that there is obviously a point in time in which every human being does not have and then does have an active neo-cortex. This transition point can rationally be used to determine the legal cut off point for termination of unwanted pregnancies, although no person should ever be morally obliged to perform such a procedure, this only establishes a parsimonious rational for the legal status of the terminations of unwanted pregnancies.
Merriam-Webster - http://www.miriamwebster.com/cgi-bin/dictionary
Carl Sagan. The Dragons Of Eden. New York; Ballentine Books, 1977
Ian Marshall and Danah Zohar. Who's Afraid of Schrodinger's Cat?. Marshall, I.N. William Morrow and Company
Jeffrey Olen & Vincent Barry. Applying Ethics. Albany, N.Y. Wadsworth Publishing Company
Stephen Cross. The Elements of Hinduism. Rockport, M.A. Element 1995