25. The Sorites Paradox, Personhood and Abortion [QP]

In the media, abortion has played a rather curious role. Republicans demonize women who have abortions and most of the progressive world accepts that women should at least possess the choice without any moral condemnations. This issue is still somewhat of an ethical morass, we don’t really understand the nature of a human foetus and what it really means to be human. Being a citizen of almost any country, requires you to enter some social contract between you and the state, and murdering another human is always a legal transgression. Is abortion murder? We must understand the Sorites Paradox first.

Let’s imagine you have a friend who at some point in the future will go bald. If he loses one hair, you wouldn’t really say he’s bald. If we keep repeating this processeventually we’ll find that with one hair left on his head it would not make sense to say that he is not bald. Such is the Sorites Paradox. With things that progress in a continuous fashion, when do they make the transition between what they once were and what they currently are? One can see that this question is particularly relevant when discussing the Issue of Personhood – when can we call a foetus a person, and what exact criteria do we use to ascribe the ‘name’ person to something?,

The contemporary philosopher Peter Singer (1946) suggests the following:

“We cannot simply invoke a woman’s ‘right to choose’ in order to avoid the ethical issue of the moral status of the foetus. If the fetus really did have the moral status of any other human being, it would be difficult to argue that a pregnant woman’s right to choose includes the right to bring about the death of the fetus, except perhaps when the woman’s life is at stake.” – Peter Singer.

Singer clearly removes politics from ethics, and, quite frankly, why the government of a country should be concerned with one woman’s body defies logic and practicality. This still does not answer the questions we set out to answer: Is abortion murder? When does personhood begin? Singer’s criteria for personhood are the following: rationality, autonomy and self-consciousness. A foetus does not possess any of these criteria, it is not conscious of life, why would killing it be the same as killing a person. They are distinct entities, according to Singer. Abortion is not murder and killing is only as wrong as it is against the will of the person being killed. Foetuses appear not to possess such a will and thus killing them should not be a matter of controversy.

This is certainly a most baffling issue, one with which we should definitely wrestle. Singer’s preference utilitarianism is the most common approach to these sorts of ethical issues, but it says something quite disconcerting about morality: the source of morality is subjective preference. His arguments are contingent upon a disputed definition of personhood, which we should not deem adequate until a natural consensus has been formed. We may not all agree when personhood actually begins, but for the sake of human dignity, we owe it to ourselves to continue the debate.


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