If You Could Only Save One, Would You Save a Child or a Thousand Embryos?

October 23, 2017Categories: Logically Fallacious,

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Recently, science-fiction writer Patrick S. Tomlinson posted a question on his Twitter feed that he said he has been asking the "Life begins at Conception crowd" for decades. Ben Shapiro, American conservative political commentator, columnist, author, radio talk show host, and a lawyer, along with thousands of keyboard warriors around the world, offered their opinion on the "argument." Let's make that "thousands" and one. I will not be offering a pro-choice or pro-life defense of Tomlinson or Shapiro, respectively; I will be looking at their arguments for fallacious reasoning.

I do want to be clear about a couple of things. First, I am not aware of the entirety of what they said after what appears to be their initial public thoughts on this topic. For example, if they said stupid things initially, or said brilliant things stupidly, then made later public corrections, these corrections are not part of this analysis. My sources are Tomlinson and Shapiro's own words. Tomlinson's from his Twitter feed (a total of 9 Tweets) that can be found here, and Shapiro's published response that can be found here. Second, I am not going to be quoting the entirety of their arguments; I am going to be focusing on only what I feel is relevant to their argument. Again, you can view their full arguments from the sources I have linked. Feel free to comment if you think I left any relevant information out.

Tomlinson's Argument

For the purpose of this discussion, let's use the more general understanding of the word "argument." I am usually picky about this one because claims, assertions, questions, dilemmas, and similar rhetorical devices are not arguments but they could have implied arguments. A true argument is clear—it has a conclusion and one or more reasons (often stated as premises). What we have with Tomlinson's nine Tweets is a series of claims, implied arguments, and one solid hypothetical ethical dilemma. So let's break it down.

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I've been asking for ten years now of the "Life begins at Conception" crowd.

He is directly stating that this argument is for those who believe life begins at conception. From this, we can anticipate an argument supporting the claim that life doesn't begin at conception. Let's see.

You're in a fertility clinic. Why isn't important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. They're in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled "1000 Viable Human Embryos." The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one.

Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no "C." "C" means you all die.

This is the hypothetical ethical dilemma posed. Pro-life people: this is not the time to get defensive and start complaining about an imagined fallacious conclusion that might be drawn from your answer. It is not the time to try to avoid answering by pointing out some technicality, like the fact that if the embryos are removed from the freezing unit, they will die. Pro-choice people: this is not the time to start celebrating with "we got'em!" The answer to this question is useless until we logically and reasonably connect this answer to a greater point. And here comes the greater point.

A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million.

Let's assume the "life begins at conception" person did answer "A," that is, they said they would choose to save the child. Tomlinson has been asking this question to the wrong crowd for ten years. He should have been asking this question to the "an embryo is just as valuable as a child" crowd. We can assume that Tomlinson meant "human life begins at conception" because cells, including sperm, are alive. When human life begins is a very different argument from the value human life has (i.e., "worth") at different stages. In other words, someone who believes that human life begins at conception can still think that a five-year-old child is worth saving over a 98-year-old cancer patient who is minutes from death. But is "worth saving" the same as "having more moral worth"? We'll get to that.

What, exactly, is the implied argument here? The argument can be stated as follows:

P1. If forced to choose between saving a five-year-old child over a thousand embryos, you would choose the five-year-old child.

P2. Your choice indicates which has more worth to you.

C. Therefore, A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million.

No matter how pro-choice you are, I would hope that you can spot the flaws in this argument. Let's go through them one at a time. Before we do, a word about the first premise. Again, because we are dealing with a hypothetical, we must accept the first premise. This is not "false dilemma" or a "false equivalency" or a false anything; it is simply a hypothetical indicated by the word "If." Thought experiments are a valuable part of critical thinking and do require a little creative thinking. If I asked you, "If pigs could fly, would they be birds?" and you simply answered "Pigs can't fly! That's impossible!" then you would be missing the point. Perhaps the point would be for you to do a little research and realize that no bird gives birth to live young, so pigs cannot be birds. Anyway...

  1. In premise #2, we are using the word "worth," which is not clearly defined. One can also argue that the definition or worth is implied within the argument itself. That is, "worth," in this context, refers to "moral value." If this is the case, then premise #2 can be rejected based on the fact that what this really represents is something more like "emotional value," and it is an example of equivocation.
  2. The conclusion is missing two very important words... "to you." Therefore, a human child is worth more than a thousand embryos to you is the proper conclusion, as long as we understand "worth" as emotional value. In fairness to Tomlinson, this could be just sloppy wording rather than an attempt to generalize an objective truth from an opinion.
  3. We can't also conclude that the person would make the same decision for ten thousand or a million embryos. It's not unreasonable to suggest they would, we just simply can't conclude it—the premises don't support it. This part of the conclusion is just an unsubstantiated claim at this point. Again, in Tomlinson's defense, this might just be shorthand for making the same argument three times, or explaining in greater detail using Twitter.

Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically.

Now Tomlinson branched off into a different argument based on the acceptance of the conclusion of his first argument. The argument could be stated as

P1. A human child has more moral worth than a thousand embryos.

P2. A human child has more ethical worth than a thousand embryos.

P3. A human child has more biological worth than a thousand embryos.

C. Therefore, they [a human child and a thousand embryos] are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically.

The problem is, that even if we accepted the conclusion of the last argument, that a human child is worth more than a thousand embryos, then we are equivocating again the idea of what "worth" represented in the first argument (emotional value) with moral value, ethical value, and biological value. I'll point out my own ignorance here—I don't know the difference between "moral" value and "ethical" value, and I have no idea what "biological value" means in this context.

No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child.

Tomlinson is clearly using hyperbole here. He can't know this, but it does shed some light on the intent of his argument - equivalence. But is this even necessary? A five-year-old child is not the same thing as an embryo. There are clear biological, physical differences. Tomlinson knows this, as do most humans with a modicum of intelligence. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume, especially, based on his previous argument, that he is referring to something non-material here. This non-material thing is the value we place on the five-year-old child and the embryos that leads us to choose one over the other. In this sense, he is correct. But here we witness rationality being shadowed by a strong, ideological position:

No one believes life begins at conception.

A clear non-sequitur and an obviously false statement.

No one believes embryos are babies, or children.

Again, a clear non-sequitur and an obviously false statement. What this thought-experiment does show is that people value a five-year-old child over a thousand embryos. They can simply value a five-year-old child over a thousand "babies" in the embryonic state.

Those who cliam [sic] to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women.

Any credibility he built with an attempt at a reasonable argument was lost here with this wildly unsupported claim.

Shapiro's Response

Pro-life people: don't start cheering yet. Shapiro's response has its own problems.

  1. Moral Instinct Does Not Always Mean Correct Moral Decision Making. He is correct. But he repeatedly presents a strawman argument in his examples by implying Tomlinson was making the claim that the embryos had no value. Tomlinson's thought experiment demonstrates how little value people place on (frozen) embryos compared to a five-year-old child. Even if Tomlinson doesn't consider embryos "human life," this doesn't mean he thinks they have no value. Also, the fact that moral instinct does not always lead to correct moral decision making does not mean that this is one of those times when it doesn't. I don't think Shapiro implied this, but it was worth stating.
  2. Tomlinson’s Thought Experiment Does Not Reveal The Value Of Embryonic Life. Again, Shapiro seems to be focusing on an argument Tomlinson didn't make—that a human embryo has no value.
  3. Most Pro-Lifers Freely Admit The Supreme Value of Already-Born Human Life, But That Doesn’t Make Prenatal Life Valueless. Really? Again?
  4. The Hypothetical Isn’t Reality. And here is where we witness Shapiro's rationality being shadowed by a strong, ideological position. He writes, "Which means that using such a hypothetical to justify a doctor killing thousands of fetuses out of pure convenience is simply ridiculous." This is another strawman. Tomlinson never said such a thought experiment justifies anything, let alone these hypothetical psychopathic doctors killing fetuses out of "convenience."

It is possible that Shapiro was using not just Tomlinson's argument, but the claims of the supporters of Tomlinson's argument in his response. However, this is something that would need to be made clear in fairness to Tomlinson. Otherwise, Shapiro is simply making strawman claims.

My Conclusion

Both Tomlinson and Shapiro make several logical mistakes. While it is possible they are aware of the flaws in what they wrote yet their ideological viewpoint is more important to them than making a well-reasoned argument, it is more likely that a series of cognitive biases simply interfered with their reasoning process due to their strong emotional investments in their stances on abortion.

What conclusion can we draw from Tomlinson's thought experiment, assuming virtually everyone would save a five-year-old child over a thousand embryos? We can conclude that virtually everyone would save a five-year-old child over a thousand embryos—not much else. Pro-life people argue for an infinite "moral value" inherent in all human life and argue that embryos are human life. Mathematically speaking, infinity plus infinity is still infinity. From a purely moralistic value perspective, the life of a five-year-old child and the lives of a thousand embryos are equal. Separate from moral value is emotional or practical value that is not infinite but on a spectrum. It is clear that a five-year-old child has more emotional value than a test tube of embryos. So the rational choice for one who believes that a) embryos as well as humans out of the womb have infinite moral value and b) a five-year-old has more emotional value is to save the five-year-old child since the infinite moral values cancel each other out. This happens to be the emotional choice, as well.

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