Friday, February 8, 2008

The Glue Man

So I was talking to one of my TA's the other day about the ethics of abortion. To be honest, I really don't like this issue, because it forces me to acknowledge things like "I'm honestly not sure I can give you any good reason that killing extremely young babies is wrong; if you were from a culture that thought it acceptable to do it, I don't think I could give you any reason to think that you were wrong. I mean, none of the things that I think are morally relevant apply to babies, and if you pointed that out to me and called me irrational, I don't know how I could respond." But in the class which sparked this discussion, we've been making a really interesting assumption (because the authors we're reading grant it): we've taken as given that fetuses are persons. The question, then, is whether abortion would be permissible if we assumed this.

I won't get into the entire discussion, because we've been talking about it for about a week. But one interesting example is Judith Thomson's "violinist," in her essay, "A Defense of Abortion." In this example, a very important violinist has kidney failure, and the only way to save him is to hook him up to a person with the same blood type, so that his blood can be filtered by their kidneys. Unfortunately, his blood type is extremely rare, and you're the only one who has it. In order to save the violinist, a group of music lovers kidnaps you in the middle of the night, while you're asleep, and hooks you up to the violinist. The question is whether, when you wake up, it would be unjust for you to unhook the violinist, resulting in his death. Thomson thinks that the answer is clearly yes; though it would be nice of you to allow the violinist to use your kidneys, you are under no obligation to let him do so, and it would be perfectly justified of you to unplug yourself.

Obviously, the violinist example isn't such a good analogy for abortion in most cases. We might think that it lines up well with a case in which a woman is raped, but it certainly has critical differences regarding a case in which a woman voluntarily has sex and gets pregnant. So as I said, I was talking about this with my TA, trying to figure out a way to repair the thought experiment in order to properly get a handle on the issue at hand. The product was as follows (if you're wondering, I'm posting this because he asked me to write it up for him, and I figured I might as well put it on here while I'm at it).

Imagine that a man, Clarence, has a very large, dark room in his house. Somewhere inside it, completely motionless and undetectable, there stands an unconscious, unliving human-shaped object. Essentially, the object is completely human, except it is not actually alive, and therefore can't be considered to be a person. Its skin is completely soaked in a very strong glue, which has penetrated deep into its skin. The object also has very thin blood, like a hemopheliac, and so if something were stuck to the glue on the object's skin, and then pulled free, the human-shaped object would bleed dry (however, the glue will wear off after some time, so something that gets stuck to the object is not permenantly attached). But if something strikes the object, it will suddenly come alive, achieving the status of full personhood.

So to recap the critical features of this object: Initially, it is not a person. If something strikes it, then it will come to life, becoming a person. But if the thing that struck it is subsequently torn off, it will bleed to death.

Now imagine there's a woman, Linda, who wants to use Clarence's room so that she can spin around in circles with her arms held out parallel to the ground, moving aimlessly about the room in a state of sheer euphoria. Linda knows that the human shaped object is in the room (or should know), and knows what will happen if she accidentally strikes it, but she spins anyway. Suddenly, her hand catches onto the object, and it comes to life. Linda can't believe her bad fortune; here she is with this person now stuck to her hand until the glue wears off.

Would Linda be justified in tearing her hand away, causing the person to bleed to death? Keep in mind, I'm not arguing that this case is analogous to abortion. What I will say is that if we grant fetuses personhood, then this case does seem to be pretty analogous. It needs to be modified somewhat to describe rape, sex with contraceptives, etc. But as far as voluntary, unprotected sex is concerned, it seems like this is pretty much the same kind of case. And to be honest, I'm feeling like Linda would be acting unjustly if she pulled her hand away.

[Read the second part of this conversation here]


.fairytale said...

I just read your post on "The Glue Man".
I have to say that I really like your analogy of a fetus and The Glue Man. I think that your idea fits pretty well and it gives you an other side of the vision that you have when you talk about abortion.
I never have (and probably never will) know if it's right or not, like you said in your introduction.
But I think The Glue Man can help to consider a new point of view.
At least, that's what it was in my case.
My compliment!

Danny Shahar said...

Thanks, Fairytale! There was actually a followup post to this one, which you can find here. Check it out if you're interested; I'd love to hear what you think! Anyway, I'm really glad you enjoyed the post; thanks so much for your comment!

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