Thursday, May 7, 2015

The meaning of sex

Whenever I discuss Judith Thomson's defense of abortion with students the discussion always comes around to the question of the meaning of sex. Someone always wants to claim that simply by having sex people (especially women) are asking for, or consenting to, pregnancy. (Usually they try to argue from here that abortion is wrong, but that's not the part that interests me right now.) A version of this argument has been put forward by Laura Wadell Ekstrom. She presented her ideas at the Virginia Philosophical Association in 2002 and I responded. I'm going to put my response below, for what it's worth, although I don't agree with it all any more (which might simply be a matter of how I would express myself now, but might be deeper than that). I was reminded of it by this essay of Michael Pollan's.

Pollan talks about natural law and the naturalistic fallacy in ways that strike me as not quite right. Although I'm basically on his side, I think he is too dismissive of the natural law view of sex. The idea is not that whatever happens in nature is necessarily "moral and ethical," so that if we find animals engaging in polygamy or rape then those things must be OK for us to engage in. It's more that there is some sort of potential coherence in human life that we ought to try to find and live by. It's probably easier to believe that this coherence is there to be found if you believe that God created human life, but the attempt to live coherently seems worthwhile to me independent of the question of God's existence. And, it seems to me, this attempt involves working out or getting clear about the meaning of, for instance, sex, where by 'meaning' I mean the proper place it has in our lives.

The word 'proper' might well sound puritanical, but I mean the place that belongs to it, the most consistent part it can play in our lives. I disagree with the Catholic Church's conclusions about what is and is not OK, but at least it asks good questions. If we celebrate life as a miracle, what sense does it make to use contraception? If we regard all rape as a terrible crime, how can we not regard sex as a big deal? These probably sound like rhetorical questions inviting the kind of answer a Catholic might give, but that's not my point. My thought is more that if we want to reject the traditional Catholic answers (as, to repeat, I do) then we ought to work out better answers than are widely circulated at the moment. The prevailing liberal view seems to be that individual choice is all, so that, roughly, everything consensual is fine and everything non-consensual is bad. But this seems pretty weak to me. Admittedly I am not up-to-date on the philosophy of sex, but I suspect there is work to be done in this area. The discussion here suggests that this is the case.

Anyway, here's my response to Ekstrom:

Making Sex Inviting: A Reply to Laura Waddell Ekstrom

Judith Thomson's aim in her famous defense of abortion is not to defend abortion from all attacks or criticism but to defend it from a specific charge of being unjust.  This I think she does well, meaning that opponents of abortion should try to find other grounds on which to attack it.  They might follow Thomson's own admission that abortion can be selfish, indecent, or callous, and that these charges are no less grave than the charge of injustice.  Professor Ekstrom, though, focuses on the question of justice, arguing that abortion is wrong because it is unjust and that it is unjust because it violates the rights of the fetus.  The right in question is the right to the use of the pregnant woman's body, which the fetus supposedly has because it was granted by the woman's conscious and willing act of heterosexual sexual intercourse (with or without contraception or a desire to become pregnant).  This act of sex, Professor Ekstrom argues, constitutes an invitation to the fetus to occupy the woman's body and use it as it needs.

I have three main objections to this line of argument.  The first concerns the invitation, the second concerns the sexual act, and the third concerns the fetus.  Ekstrom rightly points out that "Lack of invitation to a particular fetus does not entail lack of invitation."  Invitations to yard sales and office hours can be quite open and still are invitations.  But they are invitations made to the general public, which consists of actually existing people.  Ekstrom's invitation is made to something that has only potential existence.  Perhaps my fear of metaphysical murk is irrational, but I would hesitate to class potential existence as a kind of existence.  And an invitation to something that does not exist is no invitation in my book.  Especially when the invitation in question is neither written nor verbal but supposedly implicit.

Secondly there is Ekstrom's insistence that engaging in heterosexual genital sex is inviting a potential fetus into being.  I would insist here that everything is what it is and not another thing.  Sex is sex.  It can be thought of as invitation, but it can equally be thought of as hosting a mixer.  If a partnership arises as a result of a mixer that I threw, do I therefore have a special obligation to refrain from breaking up that partnership?  Not particularly, surely.  It all depends on the nature of the partnership.  If it is a criminal conspiracy then I should break it up.  If it is a true love match then I should not.  My role in bringing it into being is neither here nor there. 

Ekstrom says that the pregnant woman and her partner "caused [the fetus] to be present inside the woman's body, and they caused it to be dependent upon her for its continued life."  The first part of this claim is true but the second is false.  It is nature that caused fetuses in wombs to be dependent on the women whose wombs these are for their continued life. 

In Ekstrom's view the following argument "has a great deal of plausibility":

"(1) If one person depends on the continued use of another person's body in order to survive, and (2) if the second person acted in a manner that brought about this state of affairs, (3) then the second person has thereby granted the right to the use of his or her body to the dependent person and would be wrong to deny the dependent person that use." 

So imagine a plane crash on an icy mountain.  The only food available to the passenger is the body of the pilot, who is still alive.  Condition 1 is met and so is condition 2 if we assume that the crash was a result of pilot error.  Is it plausible that it would be wrong for the pilot to object, perhaps on religious grounds, to being cannibalized?  Surely not.  One might argue that the pilot did not bring about the iciness of the mountain, but then the woman did not bring about the inability of fetuses to survive without maternal sustenance.  I think this argument is in fact not plausible at all.

But of course there is much more to Ekstrom's argument than this.  She agues that sex is an invitation to a fetus because pregnancy is a result of sex that is possible, non-negligible, natural, and foreseeable.  By 'natural' I take it she means 'not requiring artificial help' rather than 'according to God's plan' or anything like that.  All this boils down to the fact that pregnancy is a foreseeable result of heterosexual genital sex (which I will simply call sex from now on) just as getting wet is a foreseeable result of going out in the rain.  Indeed this is the only natural way to get wet with rain water.  Does this mean somehow that one is inviting rain-wetness if one goes out in the rain?  Yes of course, but only in a metaphorical sense.  And of course it is not thereby wrong to remove the unwanted water upon coming back inside.

Ekstrom's final attempt to make sex inviting (i.e. to recast the act of sex as an act of invitation) involves an analogy with starting a race by waving a flag.  In the case of the race, though, there is a social convention that makes flag-waving race-starting.  There is no such convention in the case of sex.  For one thing, the fetus does not even exist yet and so is not part of society.  For another, the only consensus about sex is that it is sex.  Pro-life people might share an intuition that sex is fetal-invitation, but this intuition is not universal and cannot ground a pro-life position.

Finally I said I would say something about the fetus itself.  Let us grant Ekstrom's contention that a fetal invitation has been issued.  Do invitees just as such have a right to whatever they were invited to?  Even Ekstrom admits that they do not.  It all depends on what is at stake.  So the whole argument for sex as invitation starts to look like a red herring.  The real issue is whether the life of the fetus is enough to make abortion (withdrawing the invitation) unjust.  Here Ekstrom relies on a well-known argument from Don Marquis.

Marquis tries to analyze what it is that makes killing people in general wrong.  His conclusion is that it is primarily the fact that such killing deprives people of the future they would otherwise have enjoyed.  Since fetuses have such a future, the argument goes, abortion is wrong too.

There has been some debate about whether fetuses really do have a future like ours in this respect.  I contend that no one does.  Again we are in the realm of metaphysics, but I would say that the future does not exist.  There is no such set as the set of events that are going to take place, or that would happen if x (or if not x).  I don't think I need to appeal to quantum indeterminacy in order to make my case, but I will do if necessary.  Given that my future is not some thing that I now have, what it means to deprive me of it is something that needs some analysis.  I suspect that "depriving someone of his or her future" is in fact simply a partial euphemism for killing someone.  It will not, if I am right, do as an explanation of why killing people is wrong.  Even if I am wrong about this, no such consequentialist consideration can capture the injustice of murder.  Murder is not all right if the victim in fact has no future.  And abortion (or miscarriage) is not much worse than the murder (or sudden death) of an adult human being, even though the fetus might be expected to have more future ahead of it than the adult.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is out of step with common intuitions. So I think that Marquis's argument is not a good one to fall back on.

Finally let me make one last small argument that is rather more radically feminist than I would expect from myself.  Holly Smith has argued that if sex means giving up one's right to the exclusive use of one's body then women are effectively coerced into doing so since the cost of abstinence is extreme.  Ekstrom responds that it is not highly costly.  I can't define what is extreme or high in this matter, but I would say that the cost of sexual abstinence is high.  A government that gave the right to vote only to celibates and those prepared to have and raise more children would be rightly considered coercive in my book.  But I can't say how much cost there must be for something to count as coercion.  Suffice to say my sympathies lie more with Holly Smith on this point.            


  1. " attempt to live coherently seems worthwhile to me independent of the question of God's existence" don't see any reason (via evolution or just human neuro-phenomenology why there should be 'coherence' to life beyond what our bodies pull together in ways that generally (when all is working well) lead us to feel as if we have a 'self', let alone why our invented categories (loosely speaking) like sex should somehow cut existence at its nonexistent joints.

    1. Right, there's no reason why there should be. It still makes sense, it seems to me, to try to make as much as sense as possible of our lives, to live as consistently as we can with the various values that we have.

    2. not sure that we have values (as in something like rules to follow) in a way that we can so easily decide things in advance of any particular context, seems that what is sex or theft (is private property theft? etc) and so likely that these are always cases of something akin to ongoing negotiations, finding/making our ways thru the particulars.

    3. Yes, something akin to ongoing negotiations but when it comes to issues like whether abortion or same-sex marriage should be legal we have to be more black and white than that. And if we're deciding how to respond to a sexual assault then I don't think we can (or should) decide what to do solely on the basis of the particular context, even though this should surely be taken into account. Maybe it seems as though I'm cheating by moving from ethics to questions of law and punishment, but the two are related. And most of us, I think, haven't really thought things through in the kind of way that philosophers pride themselves on doing.

      That might not be such a bad thing if philosophical thinking pushes us towards extremes for the sake of being consistent, but I would think that good philosophical thinking (or just good thinking) wouldn't necessarily do that. In a way all I'm saying is that this is an area of life that we tend not to think about very rigorously, and that that's not ideal. (And by 'we' I mean me and, as far as I can tell, most other people.)

    4. I'm all for rigorous just foregrounding the context(s), as for something like same-sex marriage being legal or not may be relatively cut and dry but as for what marriage is (or even gender for that question) and such I don't think we can say in general, in the abstract, still not convinced that coherence is what we want as much as good outcomes.

    5. The point about coherence versus good outcomes is an important one. The trouble with good outcomes, of course, is what counts as good? Do we concern ourselves only with pleasure and pain, or do also care about rights or human dignity or agency or...?

      The trouble with coherence is that consistent badness might be a possibility, as is the foolish consistency of little minds. And it's always possible to generate some rule that any pattern of belief/attitudes/behavior whatever would be consistent with.

      On the other hand, the good thing about consistency is that it's possible to argue in terms of it without getting into questions of what is good. I can accept someone else's terms, if only for the sake of argument, and still accuse them of inconsistency. (Although it's really more my own potential inconsistency that I'm primarily interested in.)

  2. About the invitation point. you say inviting non-existent people is not really an invitation. i think i see what you mean. but you then later talk about invitation in a metaphorical sense--i guess in the sense that taking an unnecessary risk "invites" trouble.

    I'm wondering, however, if it really matters to Ekstrom's case that she is using the literal sense of invitation and not the metaphorical one. Or at least, could she have a version of her argument that is as strong and only depends on a metaphorical use of 'invitation.'

    1. I'd have to re-read her paper to be sure, but I think the answer is No, she couldn't have a version of her argument that is as strong but only depends on a metaphorical use of 'invitation.' If I (literally) invite someone into my house and then kick them out this is, it seems to me, significantly different from a case in which I only metaphorically invite them in and then kick them out. Let's say in the first case I invite you into my house and then, after just five minutes, I tell you I'm tired and insist that you leave. This would not be unjust of me (as least as Thomson understands injustice) but you might reasonably complain that it was rude and possibly selfish. On the other hand, if I merely take an unnecessary risk (say, by leaving my door wide open) and then ask someone to leave who has entered my house then I don't think there is anything rude or selfish about this. It would depend on the details, of course.

      All this seems very remote from the ethics of abortion though. Perhaps in this sense it makes no difference to the strength of Ekstrom's argument. But then that would be only because the argument was so weak to begin with, so far from the issue it is supposed to be about.

      What she wants to argue (I'm relying on memory here) is that having sex is not simply risky as far as pregnancy goes but is actually inviting pregnancy. So if the invitation is only the metaphorical kind involved in risky behavior then her argument, or at least a key part of it, falls apart.

    2. i think i agree.

      But let me see if i see clearly. there is one question about being rude or selfish. and i think you are right that leaving the door open is not that. but there is another question about my responsibility for the consequences of my actions. and in this case, there might be a point: the insurance company may refuse to pay me b/c i left the door open, which doesn't sound crazy. - does that affect the argument?

      Also, to what extent is this a discussion about the concepts that we already have and know how to apply, and to what extent is this a discussion that requires us to apply our familiar concepts in a new contexts? - To the extent that it is the latter, perhaps it is possible to take Ekstrom's argument as this kind of argument--one that explores possible ways of applying concepts in new contexts? -- It's probably a stretch. Maybe its not worth exploring this.

    3. The idea of asking for trouble is a difficult one. There have been cases where a woman was sexually assaulted and the judge has ruled that she was 'asking for it' because of the way she was dressed. I reject that kind of reasoning completely. But I might be skewing my thinking by focusing on that example. So let's take people who climb mountains in bad weather and get stuck. I don't think they should be left to die just because they were asking for trouble, but I do think they bear some responsibility and should not simply expect others to save them. So risky behavior can bring responsibilities with it. It doesn't straightforwardly follow that abortion is wrong though, partly because getting an abortion could be regarded as equivalent to getting oneself off the mountain. I agree that pregnancy is not like a virus that one passively gets and that this ought to be part of our understanding of what pregnancy is (or means), but it doesn't seem to be very relevant as far as the ethics of abortion goes. Many people want to say that if sex was voluntary then any resulting pregnancy has been accepted and may not be terminated. If there is a decent pro-life argument in there then it is buried pretty deep, it seems to me, and I suspect that the real argument lies elsewhere.

      Your second point about what Ekstrom might be doing with concepts is interesting, I think. I'm not sure that she thought of herself as doing anything as adventurous as this, but if she did, or if her argument could be taken in that direction, it would be worth exploring more.

    4. one good point you implicitly make: telling people they can't have an abortion is sometimes somewhat like telling mountaineers who got stuck on a mountain that they'll have to spend the rest of their days there.

      I guess pro-lifers tend to have in the back of their mind other comparisons--e.g. to a parent that decides not to pay their child's medical bills, because it is inconvenient, and they want to use the money for other things.

      in each of those comparisons the relevant words take on different meanings--commitment, promise, duty, fault, taking a risk... And sometimes in these debates it is as if we are trying to go by what those words mean as if there are no such differences of meaning.

      it is hard to know to which kind of case to compare abortions. the kind of comparison people make reveals the kind of aspect they see. And the fact that we naturally look for comparisons is why i tend to think that the issue is worth dealing with as one of not being sure (b/c it is not settled) how to apply concepts in a certain context.

    5. Yes. Thanks. I think it's true that we tend to see, and focus on, different aspects of abortion and that we are not sure how to think about it. On the other hand, I think there is quite a lot of agreement about it nevertheless. This consensus might not be right, I suppose, but I think very many people, some "pro-life" and some "pro-choice", think that abortion is basically a bad thing that can sometimes be justified. How to specify this view, though, and how to translate it into legislation, is hard. It's almost as if we (most people) know what we think but don't know how to say it, although I suppose that means that we don't really know what we think. At least not very clearly.

    6. thanks.

      your point about the agreement that there is about abortion is important. it is not something that is mentioned often enough.

      The discussion rather often seems to be a discussion that has no real common ground. There is a disagreement what the basis of the discussion should be. Pro-lifers take the common ground to have to be that life is sacred. Pro-choicers take the common ground to have to be that people are free to do what they want with and to their bodies. And what you mention shows that this is not entirely the case: There might yet be some common ground.

      Perhaps it would be worthwhile to write something that summarizes the points of agreement and the points of disagreement--just to organize the discussion.

      How would prochoicers justify the sense that they have (if you are right) that abortions are not a good thing? - Perhaps that's another thing that should be written.

    7. I'm not sure whether you're inviting me to write these things here, and I'm not sure that I'm in any position to do so, but fro what it's worth here's a tentative start:

      Points of (widespread but not universal) agreement:

      Abortion is a solemn business, something grim, not to be undertaken lightly.
      Abortion is justifiable in cases of rape, incest, when the mother's life is at stake, and possibly in cases of extremely serious (life-threatening) disability.
      Abortion is not as bad as murder and, if it should be punished at all, should not be punished the same way murder is.
      Very early abortions are not as bad as very late ones.

      Points of disagreement:

      What counts as the kind of threat to the fetus or the mother that would justify abortion?
      Is abortion always regarded with due seriousness?
      Should abortion be regarded as a religious issue or as a health issue? If both, which should come first?
      Should our focus be more on the woman or on the fetus if it cannot equally be on both?

      Does that sounds about right?

      As for how prochoicers would justify their sense that abortions are not good, I'm sure this varies. Some would speak entirely, or almost entirely, about the difficulty involved for women in getting an abortion. They might have to travel long distances, and face financial and emotional costs. Others would add that the fetus, though not a baby, is not nothing, is a kind of pre-baby. Not something to be killed lightly, but not something that absolutely may not be killed in the way that a baby may not be killed.

      I think the most common kind of pro-life view is probably similar to that, actually, but there is disagreement about how good a reason you need to justify an abortion. I think a lot of pro-life people are also concerned about solemnity, which might be a reason, even the reason, for sadistic-seeming laws requiring women to be confronted with thoughts and pictures of the fetus before they have an abortion. Perhaps such laws are simply motivated by misogynistic sadism, but I think there really is some outrage at the thought of people having abortions casually. So that what bothers pro-life people is not simply abortion itself but the way they imagine it is regarded by some people.

    8. thanks Duncan. i only meant that i would like to see these kind of discussions. really, i'm just trying to figure out what i need (my "real need")

      two notes:

      1. i think it might be easier to say what people agree about than what they don't. in the case of the agreements, there seems at least to be a certain sort of shared sense of the issues. people seem to have an easier time agreeing that they agree about certain things. When it comes to the disagreements, however, it seems as though there is less agreement. people don't only disagree, they tend to disagree about what the disagreement is about.

      2. about the prochoice justification for the idea that abortions are not a good thing. Surely, the fact that people need to travel long distance doesn't make abortions intrinsically bad. The reason why i raised that issue is that i think the prochoice rhetoric is such that it often traps itself in a mindset from which the intrinsic badness of abortions is invisible. something about the rhetoric prevents the prochoicers from being alive to certain moral dimensions. you don't put it this way, but i think that your point about the fact that Catholics ask important questions that some prochoicers don't at least pulls in the same direction. my question is basically whether a prochoice position can be formulated that is alive to those moral dimensions.

    9. I agree. Some pro-choice people would want to deny, I think, that abortion is intrinsically bad. Most, though, I think would accept that it is. And I think that a pro-choice position, i.e. one according to which abortion ought to be a legal option, can be formulated that is alive to the intrinsic badness of abortion. If by 'pro-choice' you mean something less legal and more ethical then I don't know.

    10. to deny that abortions are intrinsically bad would be a crazy position. It would suggest that some people might actually like it, or enjoy it. abortion as recreation.

      And you are probably right that most prochoicers don't want to go that far. but the trajectory (I've been overusing this word) of the prochoice position is in this direction. And that's b/c the emphasis there tends to be on freedom. And when the emphasis is on freedom, nothing except freedom has intrinsic value--or this is the tendency. Whatever people want is of value b/c they want it--b/c their desires are (if they are) free of any per-determination. and there is no way of telling people that wanting certain things is bad.

      so there at least tends to be this tension in the prochoice position: on the one hand it wants to be able to say that abortions are intrinsically bad, and on the other it tends to make assumptions that go against saying that.

      therefore my question again: What would a prochoice position be that accepts--not merely as an appendage, or afterthought--that abortion is intrinsically bad? What is the conception of value that would allow saying both that abortion is intrinsically bad AND permissible?

    11. I don't know, but I would think you would want or need to acknowledge different values, including the value of freedom and the value of (human) life. Quite possibly other values too.

      I haven't exactly specified any particular position, but that's the beginning of a sketch.

  3. Another issue:

    I very much agree with you when you say that there are important questions in this debate that the Catholics at least ask and others just ignore. Although you don't use this term here, I think I have a similar sense that people in this conversation are a bit philosophy-blind--at least to some extent.

    And I also agree about the importance of the question about the meaning of sex. When i used to teach the Thomson paper, the question about the meaning of sex used to come up--or at least a version of it--in the context of the discussion of the pollen-people example. the class would at this point tend to say that sex is the act of making babies (even if none come out of the act), and so the baby makers should take responsibility for their action. i used to respond by saying that mostly people have teenage-sex in the forefront of their mind when they think about this issues, but Thomson argument also applies to married-sex. and I suggested that married life normally involves having sex, and not for procreation purposes--which seemed to have struck a cord with most people in the class. I would then pose the question to the class: is sex always also an 'act of making babies' or can it sometimes be just an 'act of marriage'--which I guess is a simple version of your question about the meaning of sex.

    What i always felt about Thomson's argument is that she seems to know the answer to this question and related questions. I mean, the question about the meaning of sex doesn't seem to her to be a REAL problem--a real question. So she thinks it is a question alright, but for her it is a question that already has a solution. She fails to allow that it might be a riddle--or at least an unsolved question: a question that we need to answer as a moral society, and haven't yet.

    (I think this comes out in the clean separation she makes b/w the moral and the legal issue, when she says for instance that it would be a good and charitable thing to save the violinist, but this does not entail that there should be a legal duty to do so. I think she is thereby failing to see how moral questions keep haunting legal issues, and taint and muddy the legal issues. I think what she misses in this case is exactly how the moral issue about sex (the question about the meaning of sex) haunts the legal discussion.)

    My hunch is that Thomson thinks this way, and wants to separate morality from law in this way, at least partly, because there is something difficult--psychologically--about unresolved questions like this: questions about meaning, and about moral significance. And I suspect that her argument is so successful with people partly because we--at least her intended audience--also tend to have this kind of aversion to open questions. So much so, that it might actually make us philosophy blind.

    1. I think I agree with all of this, although Thomson doesn't seem to think that sex has a meaning, does she? It's just a thing that someone might want to do that carries with it certain risks. The idea that it has a role in either pregnancy or in human relationships is one that she either ignores or denies. That is, I don't think she talks about sex being something that involves more than one person (and sometimes offspring), and I don't think she sees this as problematic at all. And it is part of her argument that the chance of pregnancy resulting from sex is contingent, not an essential feature that goes with the territory. There is no territory, only a sort of point. That might be a possible conception of what sex is, an act that has so few (essential) connections to anything else that we can understand it without having to attend to where it fits in our lives. If so then I suppose that is a kind of idea of the meaning of sex. But it's so divorced from questions of context, role, etc. that it seems almost like no meaning at all.

      There's a kind of squeezing of the problem going on here, it seems to me. The concept of justice is squeezed so that its obscurity is pushed out and into the concept of rights, which Thomson then (at least in this paper) doesn't examine. And the idea of sex is reduced to a kind of point, an act so minimal that it can be compared to either a kidnapping or the opening of a window. Perhaps people do this because they don't like open questions. But perhaps also they think its the point of philosophy to squeeze these questions shut.

      Your point about sex in marriage also brings up the question of the meaning of marriage, which of course is a big part of the debate about same-sex marriage. There doesn't seem to be the same tendency to avoid that question.

  4. Good grief! Elkstrom's argument is just hopeless. You can't grant a right without meaning to or knowing that you're doing it. You can inadvertently cause a situation in which rights are involved, but that doesn't mean you have granted those rights - even if you subsequently have to act in accordance with them.

    And even if you do grant a right, that doesn't automatically mean it's an act of injustice to rescind it at a later date. That depends on the circumstances. My landlord has granted me the right to live in this property on condition that I pay the rent. But if he now decides to sell the property then, so long as he gives me the requisite notice, he's not acting unjustly even though it would impact very badly on me.

    Elkstrom's line strikes me as an attempt to shore up the debatable notion of foetus rights by conjuring up an act of granting out of thin air. The foetus "must" have rights, because the couple granted them. But that's just ridiculous.

    btw, I don't think your "you can't invite non-existent people" line quite works. If I establish a free museum so that future generations will be able to enjoy works of art no matter how rich or poor they are (etc), then it seems to me I'm doing something that's at least very like inviting non-existent people. But I don't think you need that line in any case.

    1. I should also add that I think the whole tendency to discuss relationships to a foetus or unborn child in quasi-legalistic terms such as "rights", "duties" etc is a pretty wretched distortion of what's involved. As if getting pregnant was like hiring an intern.

    2. not sure that hiring an intern is really much less complicated/nuanced tho likely much less weighty (pardon the pun)

    3. I think her argument seemed hopeless to me at the time. (I haven't yet actually read the published version, which responds to some of my objections. So it's probably better.) But now I think it's more interesting than I did then, if only because it brings up this question of meaning.

    4. Does sex have an intrinsic meaning? It's very often a significant act, but the nature of its significance varies hugely from case to case. Does a barren woman have meaningless sex? Sometimes, yes - if she wants a child the act might seem hollow to her. But it doesn't seem necessarily true at all.

    5. Not an intrinsic meaning necessarily, but a meaning in the sense of having a particular role or place in our lives. It might have more than one such role, and/or an enormously complicated one, but I think it has some kind of meaning. That is, it is something that generally matters to us and that has a non-trivial connection to other things in our lives. It has a kind of value, and it seems potentially worthwhile both to try to understand this value and to think about what would be involved in respecting it to the right degree (not too much, not too little) and in the right way. For example, if I think that prostitution is wrong is this just a bourgeois hangup that I should get over or something deeper than that? If I oppose prostitution but enjoy pornography am I a hypocrite or is there really a significant difference? Does it make sense to accept active sex before marriage for men but not for women? Is marriage an institution that has positive value? And so on. Partly it's a question of avoiding hypocrisy and identifying just laws and social standards. But it's also a matter of understanding ourselves and just getting a clear view of what our values are.

    6. Sex means pleasure and enjoyment for those who engage in it, greater with some people than with others, perhaps, and greater for some than for others. Its implications are whatever they lead to with the other person -- and with what happens as a consequence of the activity of course. For heterosexual couples (married or not) who are capable of it, it means children some of the time, otherwise not. And children introduce an ongoing complexity to the act, itself. Having children may be the biological purpose of sexual activity (what those creatures who have sex have it for) but its purpose for any individual engaging in it will be whatever he or she is after, whether merely the moment's pleasure or the enduring pleasure of an ongoing relationship or something in between. I think Philip is right. I don't see why we should think sex has any intrinsic meaning over and above what we want and take from it when engaging in it. In fact, I'm not even sure what it means to ask whether sex has meaning. In fact my own partner has long maintained that I haven't a romantic bone in my body. Maybe that's the kind of meaning you mean?

    7. I'm not sure I understand, but let's try dropping the word 'meaning'. What I'm suggesting is something like this. There are various debates going on that, while different, strike me (and others) as being related. There is a debate about whether same-sex marriage should be legal. Another about whether polyamory should be legally recognized. Another about whether marriage is something that gay couples, or anybody else, should want. Another about whether rape should be treated as worse than non-consensual kissing (I'm expressing that clumsily, but never mind for now). Another about the ethics of abortion. And so on. The Catholic Church has views on most of these issues, and these views are more or less coherent (i.e. consistent with each other). Other people have very different views, also more or less coherent. But I think that most people, including me, are somewhere in the middle of the political spectrum and have never really thought about whether, or in what way, our views are coherent. This means that we risk failing to understand our own thoughts about sex and sexual ethics, that we risk hypocrisy, and that we risk supporting unjust laws, policies, and attitudes. I am suggesting that we aim at something like reflective equilibrium.

    8. Yes, a number of issues touching on various aspects of human sexuality. I'm probably where you are on most of the things you've named: somewhere in the middle. My libertarian instincts always prompted me to support unfettered abortion rights, for instance, but my wife feels strongly that abortion is wrong and we've had many debates and these days I'm not so sure such an extreme libertarian view is right, certainly not since having become a parent and now a grandparent. On gay marriage i'm more conservative. I like marriage the way it's historically been in our culture though I see nothing wrong with gay folks living together and pledging their commitment to one another. I just wouldn't call it marriage though they might. I worry about government sanctioning such a private arrangement officially though and there my wife says I'm just being a bigot! In the end, of course, marriage is just what people say it is, so what I'm comfortable with is hardly definitive. I guess my view, in the end, is we ought to take each issue on a case by case basis and not make so much of these things. Sex has no meaning per se though we can certainly look up "sex" in a dictionary if we're not sure of the word! But I think speaking of its meaning in any other sense is misleading. Perhaps my confusion lies in your idea of "reflective equilibrium." From our discussions I take it that this is an important concept in your approach to moral explication and judgment but I don't have a feel for this. I must be missing your point because I can't see how this can help us to distinguish between right and wrong, better or worse, just or unjust things to do. How, for instance might it help resolve the two disagreements my wife and I have over the issues named or any of the others you've raised? Or how, in fact, any moral issue which has fuzzy edges like these can be resolved?

    9. Having slept on my response above, I think there's a better way of putting this, at least for me. I would draw a distinction between what seem to me cultural issues, reflecting the particular coventions any of us embrace or are comfortable with and what I take to be a deeper question of how we should treat, or relate to others, as persons, as humans. I grant that there's certainly overlap. How we treat others IS partly a reflection of the conventions we learn in our cultures, and some seemingly cultural questions have an obviously deeper question embedded in them (abortion, for instance is also about snuffing out life, even if not obviously the sort of life or snuffing that usually counts as that in most human interactions -- and how we count these, or what we think they count as, is to some extent culturally determined) but I guess I think the only moral questions worth troubling over in a genuinely moral sense are those with somewhat universal implications, which transcend our cultural milieus. Purely cultural questions, like who you cohabit with, just don't seem to me to rise to that level.

    10. I don't think there is a method for solving moral problems exactly, but there are things we can do that might help. So in the case of your views on gay marriage and the question of whether you're a bigot or not I would think something like the following might be a good idea. First, I'd drop the question of whether you're a bigot as being probably irrelevant. (Although if you wanted to find the answer I would suggest a sort of family resemblance test. Collect various examples of bigots and bigotry and consider your own case alongside them. Are you relieved to see the clear difference? Or disturbed by the similarity?) Assuming we're leaving that question aside, I would think about the following: what is it that you like about marriage as it has historically been in our culture?, what is it about gay committed relationships that makes them seem fine to you when they don't to some other people (are those people bigots?)?, why wouldn't you call these relationships marriage?, why do you think the people in them might?, what bothers you about the government sanctioning these private arrangements but not superficially similar ones between people of different sexes? If you're anything like me (not so much on this issue in particular but in general) then some of your answers will be along the lines of, "I don't know, it just feels wrong to support/oppose this." But then you have to examine that feeling. Is it a firm conviction that you want to hold onto, or does it feel flimsier, more dispensable than that? If your overall position is more consistent, more satisfying, with some of these flimsier attitudes (feelings/beliefs) removed, then try to remove them. I don't know how easy this kind of thing is to do. Perhaps it's only after a belief has been discarded that you can see how flimsy it was. And perhaps beliefs get discarded more through experience (the gay couple next door obviously do/do not have a real marriage after all, for instance) than through thinking. But I like to think that thinking can make some difference.

      Of course there are no guarantees that this subjective weighing of attitudes will lead to any particular result or to a good result. But if you already have mostly good values then there is hope for it.

      As for cultural versus moral questions, I think I see the distinction but both seem worth thinking about. There really are same-sex couples, after all, and there really are people who oppose them. It matters which side you take.

    11. Reading this over it sounds a little as though I might be implying that you are a bigot. That's not my intention!

    12. Ah, I hadn't read it that way, but okay. Since my problem in that dispute with my wife wasn't really about bigotry (she tends to hyperbole!), I mentioned it here more as a bit of humor than as a report of a real problem. After all, I don't really care who sleeps with whom, lives with whom, etc. My issue on marriage really is about what I happen to feel about a particular way of understanding and using a certain social institution, namely the one we call "marriage."

      Of course, that's a matter for cultures (i.e., for their members) to decide in the course of acting. So one could say my position on gay marriage is one that has little to do with gayness and simply favors a traditional usage of "marriage" as I understand the term, a use that falls within the norms I've operated within all my life. But I don't see that as a particularly moral issue.

      I know some folks think of it as "moral," though, for instance because they morally condemn same sex partnering, but that, to my way of thinking anyway, is mainly a matter of convention. Aside from certain religious prohibitions, what really makes any kind of case against it? If two consenting individuals want a certain kind of relationship who else is harmed? (I know the argument for social harm so it's not a clear cut case but maybe nothing, or very little, ever really is.)

      It's also true that to some extent the "moral" is also a matter of convention but the real moral issue, at least as I see it, is what's right, no matter what convention is followed. To be worth arguing about at a significant level, the issue has to be about something where there is a basis for drawing some extra-conventional bottom line. Although the word "moral" comes from a Latin word ( ) for minding one's manners (etiquette for personal interactions that go beyond how we hold knives and forks at dinner), many things we use "moral" for do stand on the invocation of conventions and their justifications. But I've come to think the only the moral questions worth troubling over are how we treat others regardless of particular conventions. Some cultures' conventions may be more in keeping with what we take to be right treatment of others than, say, the conventions of other cultures, but unless there's some transcultural standard or reason to do something or not do it, no cultural standard alone can ever be enough.

      I take some of what you said above to be an explication of how you think coherence works to give us moral guidance. That's helpful for me in getting a better grasp on your approach. I'm not sure, though, that coherence in one's beliefs, actions or arguments is ever enough. Can't a Nazi live coherently as long as he or she makes certain distinctions, for instance that some people aren't the same as others, that humanity is divided into classes of, more and less human, beings? And includes the claim that being sub-human is to forfeit certain expectations such a creature might have, e.g., to be treated the same as the actual humans?

      Perhaps in actual life incoherence might be realized if a Nazi, say, suddenly found himself with a beloved child with serious disabilities or discovered a beloved relation was really a Jew. Then the Nazi might be faced with paradigm shattering contradictions. But such contradictions are contingencies and don't constitute reasons for those not faced with them.

      It seems to me that to say Nazis are wrong in what they do, one has to have more than a cultural predisposition to abhor what they do and more than certain familial or other personal relationships which put them in conflict with other things they think and do.

      (Sorry about the removed messages. It seems that when I reply on my tablet, sometimes it shows up multiple times here! Very frustrating.)

    13. Yes, it would be neat (perhaps too neat) if concerns about consistency alone were enough to show that the Nazis were wrong. I see no reason to presuppose that this can be done. (Although I also think that the attempt might well be worthwhile.) But I think that as far as rational argument goes coherence might be about as much as we can hope to achieve. If we then find different coherent views or lifestyles getting along peacefully, so be it. If they don't get along then we might have to fight, or at least resort to some means of persuasion other than rational argument.

  5. It depends, I think, on what we expect of "rational argument." In our culture, or at least in the culture of academic philosophy, we seem to expect "rational argument" to yield logically inarguable conclusions, i.e., that no rational creature, seeing the premises and how they stand in the argument can possibly dispute the conclusions they yield. But every conclusion is itself a premise and every premise must either be the conclusion of some other premises or known directly (if there are any that can ever be known that way -- and I'm inclined to think there are not). The conclusions we accept as "true" rest on premises (whatever they may be) which are themselves either true for either logical or evidentiary reasons (i.e., inductively reliable). For any conclusion to be true, and thus worthy of being accepted and acted on, it must be an outcome which no sensible person can dispute on logical grounds. But I think the notion of argument offers us other paradigms, including cases where conclusions stand on premises we simply accept by a kind of decision to see things one way rather than another.

    That is, if there's a further argument about some premise within the argument that says 'this is true if you choose to make it so' and you have only a non-logically binding reason to make it so, i.e., one that rests on a kind of deep-seated preference, then this can support reliable conclusions, too, even though it's a support we choose rather than one we are compelled to accept.

    All that's required is a reason for one to choose to make something true (i.e., to act on it as if it were true). I think we operate like this a lot of the time anyway and that the idea of rationally inarguable conclusions is an artificial and highly limited case. We often choose to treat something as true for pragmatic reasons, i.e., we discover that the statements that embody the belief in question work for us (maybe all reasons for treating a thing as true actually work this way, at some level, as the pragmatists would have it).

    Certainly empirical claims are true because they compel our belief in a sense (you don't step into oncoming traffic, even if you think the world is all in your mind) and in this way they work for us (since believing the oncoming truck will leave you unharmed isn't likely to work for you if you're intent is to get across the road in one piece). Much that we think of as empirical is way too complex, however, to compel us in any simple way. What we believe about the traffic in the road is not just the sight of the truck barreling down upon us, after all, but a whole host of other things which, if asked about, would elicit a very complex set of statements from us to the extent we could articulate them all, some of which we may have direct evidence for but a lot we may not. As William James would have put it, those other statements rest on a structure of many other statements where it's unlikely that the whole bunch of them could all be empirically ascertainable at any given moment -- and maybe some may never be ascertainable by us in that way.So one could argue, I'd say, that holding a statement to be true is nothing more than making it true (for some reason) and that this applies as much to the idea that being subjective creatures, such as we are, gives us reason to act with regard for, as well as awareness of, others' subjectivity.

    Here, I think, embracing this sort of premise can underwrite conclusions which have moral implications, even if the particular reason for embracing it in this case isn't one we are compelled to act on in order to get safely across that road. It's somewhere else in the complex system of claims and beliefs we hold and which stand on our experiences of the world, experience that is only partly realized through our senses.

    1. It depends, I think, on what we expect of "rational argument." In our culture, or at least in the culture of academic philosophy, we seem to expect "rational argument" to yield logically inarguable conclusions, i.e., that no rational creature, seeing the premises and how they stand in the argument can possibly dispute the conclusions they yield.

      Yes. I don't think that kind of argument is going to get us very far in ethics. Others have their limits too.

    2. That's why I think the paradigm in the moral case is one of realization, of seeing it, rather than of syllogisms.

      Certainly syllogisms have a role. There really are some things that logically imply other things -- and these include logical implications for how we ought to act if and when we already endorse certain premises. But since moral argument hinges on underlying standards, premises as it were, the moral question is what counts as a standard for us and why. For philosophers the question is different though. It's how do our standards come to count as such and what does counting as a moral standard mean?

      I've argued elsewhere that all argumentation, even the syllogistic, finally comes down to realization, to getting it. Some things we get pretty quickly and some more slowly or only with effort (e.g., complex arguments combining multiple syllogisms). But someone who doesn't get logical implication at all is lost, just as a blind man can't see colors.

      But given a certain cognitive capacity, we can all get the logic of syllogisms and with even less cognitive capacity (though some is clearly required) we get what it means to be a subject in the world. (It takes some thinking to reach a point where this is gotten though.) Not everyone is up to thinking about things in this way though I would argue that most of us do so at least implicitly, whether we can explicate it or not.

      You don't have to be a philosopher to be moral -- if you did, the world would be in big trouble -- and the point of moral philosophy isn't to do morality but philosophy, i.e., to articulate what doing morality is because morality is something we all do whether we're philosophers or not. Doing morality, thinking about what's right or best to do in different cases, happens at a gut level because it reflects various feelings we have.

      Here moral argument becomes a matter of articulating the feelings that underlie various possible behaviors before us, pointing out why and how some ways of feeling are better than others. But if we don't feel a certain way, then what?

      I think a deeper level of argument underpins the one that involves citing right and wrong ways to act because of consistency or inconsistency with some feelings we have. This deeper level is where we try to say what we ought to feel about things. Here we offer reasons, too, though not with syllogistic force. Here we want to say to the other "look and see."

      What we're directing our interlocutors to is not a visual image but a conception, a way of thinking about ourselves, about themselves. Here we say 'you are such and such kind of creature and being that kind you have certain capacities including the capacity to see others who are like yourself as like yourself.

      Seeing them in this way doesn't mean just noticing or recognizing them as animate beings in a shared inanimate world but as also having subjective existence, a mental life that animates their actions as it animates ours.

      But to recognize that, to recognize the mental life of another, you have to do more than say the right words. You have to behave in ways that acknowledge it. Otherwise real recognition hasn't occurred. We're still free to act as if we don't recognize the others' mental life, to treat them as objects and not subjects, only doing so impairs our own subjectness by failing to utilize the distinct thing about ourselves that comes with subjectness, i.e., the ability to see subjectness in others, too.

      But the choice not to act in such a truncated way but to fully realize one's own subjectness isn't a logically driven choice but one that arises from how we see (understand) ourselves. And that's a kind of fact, too, only its conceptual not empirically observed yet rooted in the real world in which we stand, too.

    3. Thanks. Yes, I agree with most of this.

  6. Professor Richter,

    I love your blog, and this thought provoking post is typically intruiging.

    You mentioned that you didn't agree any longer with your whole response to Laura Wadell Ekstrom. I wonder if this might be a part of it:

    "Ekstrom says that the pregnant woman and her partner 'caused [the fetus] to be present inside the woman's body, and they caused it to be dependent upon her for its continued life.' The first part of this claim is true but the second is false. It is nature that caused fetuses in wombs to be dependent on the women whose wombs these are for their continued life."

    While it's true that nature is responsible for the dependency of fetuses in wombs, do we ordinarily make this distinction? I mean, if Wile E. Coyote pushes a boulder onto the Road Runner's head (a rare victory for Coyote), we could say that Coyote was responsible only for the contact that the boulder made with Road Runner's head, but not the actual injuries, because nature then took over. But, a common knowledge of how nature works, and the results certain actions lead to, normally results in us attributing responsibility to the party dropping the boulder (the contact, the results, the injuires, the whole nine yards). So, it would be fine to say that Coyote caused Road Runner's injuries.

    I feel it's incumbant on me to say that I don't equate having sex and getting pregant with violence (fictional or otherwise), but I think the comparison I sketched applies to the quoted portion.


    1. Thanks very much.

      I agree that in your example Coyote caused Road Runner's injuries, but it still sounds wrong to me to say that anyone (other than God or nature) causes fetuses to be dependent on their mothers' bodies. It's not as if the parents could have chosen to make the fetus independent of the woman's body (although perhaps that will become a possibility).

      Maybe this analogy will be helpful. If I force someone into a cave with a very narrow exit, too narrow for them to escape, then we might say that I have not only caused them to be in the cave but also to be dependent on me for their continued life (I'm assuming that only I can now provide them food, water, etc.). In this case, though, it seems enough to say that I have somehow imprisoned them in a cave from which they cannot escape (and in which there is no food, etc.) without adding that I have caused them to be dependent on me for food. It is in doing the imprisoning that I cause this dependence, so that causing the dependence is not a separate act. I think that for this reason Ekstrom's 'and' seems wrong to me, although in the cave case saying 'and thereby' would be OK.

      This sounds like splitting hairs, but the key difference is that in the cave case I force someone to be in a cave as opposed to somewhere else whereas in the case of pregnancy there is nowhere else that the fetus was or could have been.

      Having said all that, if Ekstrom had just said that the pregnant woman and her partner 'caused [the fetus] to be present inside the woman's body, where it is dependent upon her for its continued life' then I couldn't object. And her argument might be unaffected by this change (I don't remember well enough to say). In which case my original objection (the one you are questioning here) would be irrelevant.

  7. Thanks for the reply.

    I feel compelled to clarfiy that I'm 100% pro-choice, (after thinking about Thompson's thought experiement though, it must be on different grounds than Thompson).

    With that out of the way, I also fear that this could be a trivial issue to argue over, but in the chance that it's not, I presumed that when you proposed the causal distinction, you did so because you thought it was important in delenitaing where moral responsibility begins and ends. In other words, softening the responsibility the women should be assigned by softening the causal link (not to imply that your argument in purely tacitical - just reporting how I see the structure as working).

    In your reply, in the cave example, "and thereby" would be appropriate, because there's somewhere else the captive could be. But, if I understand you correctly, "and thereby" is not appropriate in the case of pregnancy, because the fetus was nowhere before and there's nowhere else the fetus could have been.

    I'm not sure how I feel about that, but, in any case, if that's the key distinction, I wonder if we can continute the conversation within the confines of Thomson's thought experiment. What do you think? After all, the Famous Unconscious Violinist could have been somewhere else, but got chained to me. That unit (FUV) seems like a fundamental unit of the thought experiment.

    1. I think it really could be a trivial issue to argue over in the sense that I was basically just nit-picking about the causal claim. But you're right that the FUV is fundamental to Thomson's thought experiment and that he could have been somewhere else. It is not my fault if someone else attaches him to me (unless they do so at my request, but that isn't Thomson's example) and it is his condition, not any person, that causes him to depend on someone else for his continued existence. That the someone in question has become me is the fault of the Society of Music Lovers who kidnapped me and hooked me up to him, but that he cannot live without the use of someone else's body is nobody's fault.

      Is it unjust of me to detach myself, once I'm hooked up to him? I actually think it might be. Not that I would be violating his rights, but I would be treating my time (9 months of it, at most) as more valuable than his life. I'm not sure that that's reasonable, i.e. I'm not sure that the scales of justice would be well balanced in that case. It's a difficult case to decide, though, because it's so unrealistic, because the kidnappers are clearly in the wrong, and because it suggests to me that we need a richer conception of justice than Thomson is working with. I don't have a clear idea of what that would be though.

    2. I think as far as my decidedly "pro-choice" political view, my view is messy (public/private distinction, the historical importance of who has control over reproduction and how that effects the substantive freedom of women in general, a lack of conviction of the moral status of the fetus, how sensible rape or health exceptions in a "pro-life" regime might have to be guarded with creepy/paternalistic testing on women's bodies, and so on).

      But in terms of a rich conception of justice that would make my view less messy? Or even one that could inform generalities I could declare, that could be applied to particular situations? I also don't have a clear idea of what that would be.

      Thanks for the back and forth. It was interesting.

    3. It was, thanks. I share your concerns and am pro-choice for basically the same reasons, by the way.