Photo Credit: Austin Distel on Unsplash
This debate was a three-ring circus in terms of complexity. The viewer needs to keep his or her eye on at least three discussions at once. The discussions that I will number 2 and 3 here tend to fade out and get revived periodically over the course of the three-hour debate. Number 1 begins at 0:06:40 and ends prematurely at 0:10:10. But having not been fully addressed, it lingers as the “circus elephant in the room”, or, say, “elephant under the circus tent”, occupying one of the rings.
Perhaps Trent Horn and Destiny were only literally focused on one topic at a time, but the viewer needs to continuously remember the status of discussion on each topic in order to keep each present topic in perspective.
1. The Elephant in the Room: The Future Like Ours
Destiny does not employ bodily-rights arguments, or any argument for abortion rights, other than his claim of a lack of moral status, and thus of personhood, for zygotes, embryos, and pre-20-week fetuses, since they lack “human conscious experience”. But as Trent Horn points out, the harm in killing does not in fact depend on any present qualities of an organism. The harm is that it deprives an organism of its likely future experience, which in the case of unborn humans is precisely human conscious experience. Therefore Trent Horn has already won the debate between 0:06:40 and 0:10:10, where he explains all this and says, “Well, human embryos and human fetuses, they do have [a future like ours] . . . even if you’re not consciously aware of it”. “You can even sidestep the personhood question,” and killing is harmful “even if you don’t have the personhood element there.” So he and the pro-life side have already won the debate, if Destiny has no good response to that argument.
How in fact does Destiny respond at that moment? “That future experience might be horrible enough that it could actually justify an abortion.” Therefore, he says, TH’s argument is “conditional on a positive future experience.” Isn’t it true, Destiny asks, that the likelihood of horrible future experience could “justify the pro-choice argument of ‘You should abort people who might end up in horrible circumstances’?”
But that counter of Destiny’s explicitly relates only to zygotes, embryos, and fetuses likely to end up in horrible circumstances, so it at best defeats TH’s argument in some cases. TH’s argument prevails in the rest of the cases, if Destiny has no good response for those cases. The next three hours make it clear that that future-like-ours argument hasn’t bumped Destiny out of his pro-choice position, so he must feel that he does have some counter-argument for all those other cases; but by 0:10:10 Destiny and TH have gotten diverted into 2 and 3 below, so we never learn what that counter-argument might be. (The most promising candidate in my opinion, though it’s not highly promising, would be an identity argument.) So that likely clincher by TH (for typical cases of proposed abortion, at least) lingers as an elephant in the room for the rest of the debate.
2. Destiny’s Unspoken Premise: The Uniqueness of Human Consciousness Is Morally Relevant
I agree with Destiny that consciousness is that which is valuable. I would agree that pre-conscious in utero human beings would not be valuable if they were certain to remain just like that. And for my part, I would propose simply that the more consciousness, the more valuable. I would state that proposition in a philosophical way – that is, philosophically I don’t feel that “human” is of special importance, or that the life of a minimally conscious human is more valuable than that of a chimpanzee with greater consciousness. But the typical human will (in its future if not at present) have far more consciousness than any other animal; and it would create irresolvable discord and fear in human society if we embarked on rankings of everybody based on their levels of consciousness or projected future levels of consciousness; so we inflexibly need a convention that says that all human lives should be treated like the typical human life in terms of consciousness, and therefore all are of equal value. For pragmatic reasons, not purely philosophical reasons, a human being who is expected never to be as conscious as an average chimpanzee will have to be given this special consideration.
That having been said, I would not think we should devote big resources to keeping a human body alive if it were certain that there could never be any glimmer of consciousness at all. It is only because of the uncertainty that I would normally go to great lengths to keep a human body alive which basically appeared to have no chance of consciousness, and even then I wouldn’t devote a huge amount of resources to it if that meant depriving other people of resources needed for a minimum standard of health and comfort.
So I think Destiny nails it about the importance of consciousness per se, but I take issue with his ignoring the moral importance of future consciousness, and with his “human” criterion and how he defends it. Let’s listen to some of the dialogue.
But before doing that, for reference: at 0:10:34 (an hour-and-a-half before the part we’ll mainly listen to), Destiny had said,
. . . the human conscious experience is significantly altered or different than the animal conscious experience. . . . [There’s an argument] ‘a 2-year-old dog might have more of a conscious experience than a 6-month-old or 6-week-old child.’ My understanding is human development doesn’t happen that way. I don’t think that we at like 6 months in the womb that we have like a lizard consciousness, and then we’re born and we have like a horse consciousness. . . . My assumption is once all the parts are in place, you have to gather these qualities, these experiences in life . . . but the development is done, now it’s just the acquisition of experience and kind of like the connecting of neurons. . . . I don’t think that our conscious experience significantly changes such that it’s evolving from like one animal to the next. I think these are all probably stages of like human conscious experience.
Destiny seems to be referring here to (and rejecting) a theory of brain development now perhaps out of fashion, a part of a broader ontogeny-recapitulates-phylogeny theory. The theory is that the development of the human brain recapitulates animal evolution, so that the first step in human brain development, the development of the brain stem, is the development of a structure similar to that of the fully-formed brain of a lizard. Destiny may be quite right to reject that theory, but he seems to feel that if that theory is defeated, then no event in human conscious experience can match any event in a lizard’s experience. This does not completely follow. But I’m more concerned, even if it’s true that there are no exact matches, with the question of how morally relevant that lack of matching would be. So let’s listen to some of the key later dialogue:
At 1:37:20 TH brings up Destiny’s grounding his argument on consciousness – “but only”, TH points out, “for humans who are conscious. . . . Can you describe what a human conscious experience is like? . . . Why do human conscious experiences matter [more] than other conscious experiences?”
D: Because we have a more sophisticated form of sapience that is different than the kind of experience that every other animal on the planet has.
. . .
TH: How do you know that?
D: . . . Because we can do cognitive testing, we can test for types of socialization, we utilize language in ways that animals don’t, we utilize tools, we have abstract concepts . . .
TH: Your consciousness matters more than the consciousness of a pig because you can do things pigs can’t . . .
Here D has replied in terms of somewhat developed born humans, whereas the contention on which D bases his 20-week legal cut-off is that human conscious experience from 20 weeks on (or possibly a maximum of 28) is somehow already more valuable than the conscious experience that any other animal can ever acquire. TH does not bring up this problem right here, but will bring it up later. First – here – TH replies to D on the terms D himself is using at this point in the discussion: “cognitive [level], . . . socialization, . . . language . . ., . . . tools, . . . abstract concepts”. TH here tries to understand more exactly what it is that makes human consciousness, even granted a developed stage of it, more valuable. He is looking for identifiable criteria that might occur to us as carrying greater value. Above he asks whether skills is one of those. And soon he will refer to “animals that are very conscious and aware, can do tricks, have memories”.
TH seems slow to understand (or reluctant to believe) that D is actually proposing that human consciousness, even at its most primitive stage (which is, in any way we can actually identify, a sub-adult-pig, sub-adult-dog, stage), is somehow unique in a way that is morally relevant, that confers greater moral value – even though you wouldn’t know it in terms of performance.
D’s best available answer to this seems to have been given above: “My assumption is once all the parts are in place, you have to gather these qualities, these experiences in life . . . but the development is done, now it’s just the acquisition of experience and kind of like the connecting of neurons. . . . I don’t think that our conscious experience significantly changes . . .” Is D proposing a scientific theory that the brain at that point does not require any further development of its structures except that caused by meeting one life experience after another? If so, does he have any scientific evidence for that?
And more importantly, wouldn’t that be a future-like-ours argument conceptually no different from what TH argued between 0:06:40 and 0:10:10? D will say at 1:44:52 “A fully formed conscious experience of any animal doesn’t reach the level of sapience or sophistication of a human conscious experience.” The context here happens to be the conscious experience of newborns, but for the sake of his argument, D would have to claim this for his 20-28-week-old fetus also. How could this make sense unless D is referring to potential?
Then at 1:43:30 there comes this exchange:
TH: When a human speaks, do they always utter human speech? . . . What makes human speech unique would be grammar, abstract concepts, idea, language. . . . A human could utter all different kinds of sounds . . .
D: But it’s always going to be a human speaking.
“But it’s always going to be a human speaking” is very telling. Since Destiny is arguing in this debate that human consciousness is not only unique but also of exceptional moral value (regardless of the magnitude of it, that is, how primitive the stage of it, at early stages starting at 20 weeks), he is clearly claiming here that if a human makes animal-like sounds (which we can imagine it might when engaged in animal-like sensory pleasure or displeasure), those sounds indicate greater moral value than that of an animal making similar sounds – greater moral value merely because it’s a human who is making them. That is, the sounds a human makes are an expression of human conscious experience (which is of greater value), while the sounds an animal makes are an expression of animal conscious experience (which is of less value).
But let’s take some smell, and the appreciation thereof, as an example of conscious experience. My common sense tells me that if an adult pig has a greater appreciation of the smell of a baked potato than a human infant does (not to mention the experience a 20- to 28-week fetus would have), then the pig’s experience is more valuable, regardless of the fact that the infant’s (lesser) appreciation is uniquely human.
Why does Destiny nevertheless choose to argue as he does? Let’s remember that if he were to advocate protection only of children whose consciousness is greater than that of any animal, then he would have to permit infanticide, which would make his whole argument (which permits most abortions) unappealing. Whereas if he were to advocate protection of all beings whose consciousness exceeds that of a 20-week human fetus, then he would not only have to advocate quite strict veganism, he would have to provide protection for all kinds of vermin, for birds that get killed by planes, etc. – also making his whole argument unappealing. Thus while he alone knows why he argues that human consciousness is unique in a way that is morally relevant, we can see how much he needs that argument.
That argument is not incoherent, but it seems arbitrary and therefore weak. It could easily come across to many as being an ad hoc argument.
In the middle of the above discussion, D responds to TH’s mention of the tricks and memories that some animals are capable of, and this is the exchange:
D at 1:40:39: But they don’t have a sapient conscious experience like a human does, none of them do, not even remotely close. To shortcut all this, if you came with this argument, you wanted to fight really hard and you actually just dominated and thrashed this part of the argument, the only thing you would do is you would get me to move the abortion age later and later and later. It would become . . .
TH: . . . Peter Singer, infanticide.
TH: That’s exactly what I’m doing.
“That’s exactly what I’m doing.” TH is driving Destiny and the viewers to see that without the questionable premise that the human consciousness is unique in a way that is morally relevant, regardless of how primitive the stage of it, Destiny’s “consciousness” cut-off point leads him into advocacy either of legal infanticide, or of excessive legal protectiveness of animals.
Some more points are worth making about that key six minutes of dialogue, but I will make them elsewhere.
3. The Treatment of Embryos Outside Abortion: A Crack in Trent Horn’s Claim about Embryo Value?
At 1:28:26 TH asks, “Whose view on abortion leads to more unusual cases of killing or exploiting beings?,” and proceeds to reiterate the cases that Destiny’s view leads to. Then TH invites Destiny to list all the “weird cases of killing or exploiting” that TH’s view leads to:
D: . . . I would argue that the exploitation is forcing women to gestate and give birth to things that aren’t even persons yet. . . . I also think we’re placing a very high burden on our medical system, where we now have an obligation to care for every single zygote up to the moment metabolism terminates. So if a woman feels like she might be having a miscarriage, that woman can’t go to the bathroom and miscarry. She needs to go to a hospital immediately. Even if it’s 6 weeks old, even if it’s 10 weeks old, that miscarriage needs to be dealt with the same way that you would operate on any living human being. You need to extract it. You need to put it in a dish, and you need to feed that and keep it alive for as long as the metabolic functions will carry on for it. . . . in your world, there’s hospitals and hospitals and hospitals dedicated to keeping alive, potentially, these 64-, 128-cell organisms that may never even develop into people. . . And I don’t like the one where a woman who has an abortion of a whatever-that-was . . . might be charged with 1st-degree murder. . . . you would agree that every single miscarriage should probably demand an investigation for a potential homicide . . .we need to check for blood alcohol content, we could send somebody to the house to check for . . . any sort of evidence of foul play, it could be hangers . . . so you would subject every single woman that’s having a miscarriage to a full-on police investigation the same way we would . . . for a one-year-old child we get an autopsy. I think that would be a harm that would exist in your world . . .
His points about “forcing women to gestate” and “a woman might be charged,” since they beg a question by containing derogatory references to the unborn, won’t be found valid by pro-lifers.
But his remarks about a woman’s required response when miscarrying do make a valid point. Destiny’s express and ostensible purpose is to identify harms – “weird cases of . . . exploiting” – that TH’s view would cause if taken to its logical conclusion, and what he says about a woman’s required response does possibly identify one of the unfortunate consequences of that view (which must be weighed in the balance with its major fortunate consequence – saving unborn lives).
But the remarks also incidentally point to the fact that pro-lifers do not, in practice, urge going to the logical conclusion; they opt not to demand that a woman in that situation do everything that they would demand if her toddler were in a life-threatening situation.
Destiny goes on to remark that Child Protective Services does an investigation for foul play whenever a one-year-old dies, and says that under TH’s view, it would have to do the same for every miscarriage – a very unfortunate consequence for innocent and sometimes distraught women.
(Interestingly from a debating perspective here, TH brings up the fact that an autopsy can be done on a one-year-old, and then points out the difficulty of doing an autopsy on an embryo, saying, “We don’t do those investigations” – italics added to show that he is specifying autopsies – “because we don’t have the technology.” And Destiny responds “You absolutely can do those investigations!” – then offers as support other kinds of investigation for which we do have the technology. If TH detects this trickery, he doesn’t call it out.)
The policies of CPS and such agencies probably vary from state to state; in any states where pro-lifers would support the policy Destiny describes, would he have a point? It would take a lot of research into miscarriage (including its prevalence compared to the prevalence of deaths of young children) and into law enforcement to say whether he would; let’s remember that investigating miscarriage would require a huge amount of resources, and we would know in advance that a big proportion of the resources would be wasted harassing innocent and distraught people. But I don’t rule out that he has a point.
As TH responds at 1:34:28, “now in cases [states] where [abortion] is illegal, we don’t do those things. Most people don’t share that intuition that we need to do that in order to protect unborn human beings.”
Destiny replies, “But you should want that, though, shouldn’t you?”
Here he means that we should want to prosecute women for what are indisputably abortions. So in that way, as well as in relation to miscarriages, we seem not to be doing everything that we should do if we really believe what we say about the moral status of embryos.
There may be some pro-life thinker out there who has great answers to these questions. In the debate, TH struggles with them. For myself, having had chances, both before and after the debate, to think about these things in calmer situations than in a debate, I would say the following:
We seem not to be doing everything that we should do. However, I think pro-lifers really do believe what we say about the moral status of embryos. I have written elsewhere to show how the seeming discrepancy can be reconciled. In that writing I discuss, for instance, the roles of triage and of bodily rights.
Triage: If two organisms with the same moral status are dealt with differently because care for the one would strain society’s resources more than the same care for the other, that does not necessarily reflect different beliefs about the moral status of each. TH could have made this point when Destiny brought up “hospitals and hospitals and hospitals”.
Bodily rights: Any proposed abortion is a situation of two conflicting legitimate rights – the unborn child’s right to life, and the woman’s bodily rights. So if a woman with a child in her body gets an abortion, though I think abortion should be criminalized, it is not exactly the same thing as if she killed a child of hers that was outside her body. Similarly, official scrutiny into how a woman is dealing with a miscarriage is constrained to some extent by her bodily rights, whereas scrutiny into the death of a born infant is not.
Later in the debate, at 2:16:30, TH brings up a possible futuristic “case of killing or exploiting beings” that D’s argument leads to (TH labels the permissibility of that action “counter-intuitive”) At that point TH refers to the “thousands of frozen embryos in cryo-tanks”. Destiny replies only to remind TH of something TH had said earlier – Destiny remarks “sometimes we can have incorrect intuitions.” But Destiny could have come back with the fact that TH’s view would lead to pro-lifers making desperate efforts to rescue all those embryos and somehow gestate them – efforts that would run counter to many people’s intuitions. However, I would say that people would not find such efforts to be counter-intuitive if they once granted the correctness of TH’s view of the moral status of embryos, and if they thought it all through thoroughly.
I haven’t previously written about extra IVF embryos, usually meaning frozen embryos. It seems to me that pro-lifers are in fact remiss in how they approach such embryos and the severe abuse of those embryos’ human rights that is presently going on (as well as in how pro-lifers approach all the naturally-caused threats that exist to possibly-wanted embryos in women’s bodies). The fact of remissness is yet one more of the factors that explain the inconsistencies Destiny has exposed – it is not any falsity in pro-lifers’ ontological claims about embryos. (Not always walking your talk is understandable – it doesn’t prove that your talk is wrong.) But one more thought is this: If frozen embryos are being discarded (killed) before their natural death, that fact is little known. (Natural death: one IVF firm says that they themselves have not done successful implantations with embryos frozen for more than ten years, but that such an implantation once occurred with an embryo frozen for twenty-seven years.) Thus pro-lifers are unaware of frozen embryos being threatened with an act of violence – unlike in a proposed abortion – and may feel less disturbed for that reason. (Though at least they should feel more disturbed than they presently are about extra embryos being created in the first place.)
* * *
There are several more points from the debate, both related to the philosophical substance and related to debate and communications dynamics ( for instance, the missed opportunities by both of them), that would be worth discussing, but it’s time to end.
Last but not least: we should thank Destiny for advocating against the abortion of babies after 20 weeks.