A philosopher has gone viral. In a short YouTube video, Professor Elizabeth Harman of Princeton University defends a striking and original view of when the unborn have moral status—when it might be wrong to harm them. At over 650,000 views and counting, the video has exploded on social media as conservatives have ridiculed her argument and some progressives have pointedly disavowed it, often mischaracterizing it in the process. Some have even made unfortunately gendered—and obviously utterly irrelevant—stylistic criticisms.
Conservatives owe Professor Harman better. The discipline of philosophy and the ideal of reasoned public debate also deserve better. And so does the pro-life cause, which is driven by respect for every human being and best served by facing rival arguments head on.
Though ad hominem argument tempts us all, some strands of progressivism have made a habit of denouncing opponents as fools, bigots, or both—in debates over abortion, religious liberty, the nature of marriage, gender dysphoria, healthcare policy, the appropriate response to climate change, and much more. As an advocate of the conjugal view of marriage, I know firsthand the value of intellectual diversity, having seen the anti-intellectual effects of name-calling and reflexive charges of stupidity and degeneracy. I know how debilitating they are to healthy academic inquiry, and how corrosive they are to our political debates. Pro-lifers should take pains to avoid complicity in this ugly dismantling of the foundations of intellectual exchange and coexistence.
In this case, doing so is also illuminating. Though Harman’s view has struck many casual observers on the Left and Right as impossible to believe, its most basic mistake is one common to all views that would depersonalize the unborn. By giving her view the strongest presentation and defense, I can show its link to more popular theories on which unborn lives don’t matter—and show why they fail.
Professor Harman’s Career and Work
As a full professor of Philosophy at Princeton, where she also has an appointment in the Center for Human Values, Professor Harman is well known to her colleagues, and so is her scholarship. But wider audiences might benefit from a brief introduction.
Harman earned her bachelor’s degree summa cum laude from Harvard and her PhD from MIT. From there, she landed a position in NYU’s philosophy department, perhaps the strongest in the English-speaking world, and then at Princeton. Though she is still early in her career, she has already published nearly two dozen articles, many in the most influential journals, and has given over 150 conference presentations, lectures, and keynotes. Her work ranges over several areas of moral philosophy, including the ethics of creating and taking human life.
Of course, we should judge arguments quite apart from credentials, and credentialed people have made awful arguments. But these highlights of Harman’s career put us on notice that her work is unlikely to be incoherent, as many reactions to her interview suggest. Her accomplishments and standing also reinforce the need for pro-life advocates to respond in intellectually credible terms.
A note of disclosure informative in its own right: Though I am now a PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton, I was also an undergraduate there. When I was a senior, Professor Harman was a “second reader” on my thesis, which framed and defended a moral principle against instrumentalizing people. Besides developing an absolutist argument against torture and an objection to Cartesian dualism, my thesis defended the moral norm against premarital sex. With my main advisor, Gideon Rosen, Professor Harman offered guidance as the thesis progressed, grilled me (or so it felt to a senior) during an oral defense, and decided my grade. While rejecting my conclusions on sex ethics, she and Professor Rosen treated me fairly at every step and even got their colleagues to recognize the thesis with the department’s prizes for best thesis in ethics and best in philosophy overall. That’s telling.
An Openness to Public Engagement
Besides contributing to academic conversations, Harman is committed to ensuring that applied ethics has something useful to say about real-life moral and policy debates. Her interview on the moral status of the unborn is part of that commendable effort to bring academic insights into the public square.
In the series in which her video appears, “Philosophy Time,” Eliot Michaelson of King’s College London joins the actor James Franco (yes, that James Franco) to interview philosophers on work of wider interest. The videos are brief and engaging, and production value is high. In a political climate high on rhetoric and rage and low on substance, we should be grateful for the willingness of philosophers like Harman to repackage arguments for the public, opening themselves up to ridicule in the process. It’s uncomfortable enough to take criticism when it’s thoughtful, but at least thoughtful objections bring one closer to the truth. Unthinking hostility doesn’t have that (or anything) to recommend it. We shouldn’t ourselves punish thoughtful interventions with ridicule or contempt.
I care about avoiding that especially as a student and hopeful academic in philosophy and law, which thrive only when people can hear out arguments they fiercely oppose. As soon as philosophy loses its capacity to tolerate hated views on heated issues, it collapses as a discipline and social enterprise.
Of course, we should be happy warriors, ready to dismantle poor or pernicious arguments with confidence, verve, and good cheer. Truth and justice demand as much. But if it’s civil, honest scholars will count even critical engagement as a compliment, for it joins their search for understanding.
A Partial Defense
Before offering my own response to Harman’s argument, I will summarize and clarify it against misconceptions that seem to have taken hold, so as not to attack a straw man.
Unlike most pro-choicers, Harman doesn’t think that you and I began without moral status and then gained it when we became conscious. She agrees that consciousness is the deciding factor, but she thinks each human either has moral status all along, or never does. On her view, you’ve always mattered if you’ve ever been conscious. Otherwise, you never mattered and never will. So if you’re an unborn child, your current status depends on your future—on whether you’ll ever be conscious. Thus:
1. Unborn human beings that will some day become conscious now have moral status.
2. Those that will never become conscious now lack moral status.
In other words, Harman rejects an assumption common to almost everyone in the abortion debate: that moral status always turns on a being’s current traits. Because it’s unique, her view has been especially susceptible to misinterpretations, of which I’ll dispel four.
The most common mistake I’ve seen supposes that Harman thinks a woman’s intentions determine her unborn child’s moral status: that (a) if the mother plans to abort, her child lacks moral status, while (b) the child has moral status if she plans to keep her. This makes it seem as if Harman thinks moral status could change from minute to minute. Not so. She thinks the key question is whether the child has consciousness anywhere in her future. In the end, there will be only one answer to that question, no matter how many times the mother has switched plans in the meantime. And thus the child’s moral status won’t have flipped back and forth.
Second, Harman’s view isn’t viciously circular or incoherent. She doesn’t think choosing to abort in itself justifies that very choice, as if any choice could be directly self-justifying. Rather, she thinks the choice to abort causes a separate fact—a lifelong lack of consciousness—that in turn makes that choice to abort morally harmless. Counterintuitive? Sure, but not incoherent. Here’s an analogy: Suppose it’s a crime for bartenders to serve you 100-proof whiskey if you’re about to drive. Now imagine a bartender serves you a glass of Rittenhouse Straight Rye, but because it’s been a long night, that last drink knocks you out before you even get to your car. In that case, the bartender’s act made itself legal, in a funny but perfectly coherent sense: his act prevented you from driving, which in turn prevented his act from being a crime. That’s parallel to the way that Harman thinks the act of aborting a child “makes itself” morally harmless: it prevents the child from attaining consciousness, which in turn keeps the act itself from being morally problematic.
Third, Harman’s view doesn’t involve some magical backward causation simply because it says that what comes after a choice can affect its moral status. Some qualities of our actions do depend on what happens afterward, in totally un-mysterious ways. If on Halloween you predict we’ll have a white Christmas, perhaps your prediction won’t become true or false until months after it’s made. If you decide to marry someone and a freak accident kills him a week later, your decision to marry becomes tragic after the fact. So the truth value of our statements and the narrative quality of our choices can turn on later facts. Just so, Harman would say, the moral quality of our actions toward the unborn turns on what happens later—on how soon the babies die.
Fourth and finally, Harman’s view isn’t spooky or unscientific in any other sense either. In fact, she agrees with pro-life views on several key points. First, she doesn’t think that we are mental substances just inhabiting our associated human organisms, which organisms might predate or survive us. She admits that “what we are is biological living organisms” who come to be when other mammals do: presumably, at conception. She thus concedes that killing the embryo in your mother’s womb would have killed you. It’s just that on her view, whether you count morally depends on whether you’re ever conscious.
On the positive side, as Harman shows in a journal article, her view has the advantage over most “liberal” alternatives of explaining the attitudes many parents take toward unborn children when they don’t plan to abort. Thus, she can make sense of parents’ caring for a welcome unborn child as if he were a person, and believing that harm to him would wrong him now. Why? Because for all the parents know, an unborn child they welcome will go on to become conscious, and thus will have had moral status all along. In this way, Harman’s view tries to explain how it could be both rational for a woman to love deeply her unborn child and completely unproblematic for her to have him killed.
In short, the problem with Harman’s argument is not that it is viciously circular, incoherent, or unscientific. The problem is that it’s unsound.
Harman’s sole positive defense of her argument—that it can justify care for the unborn that other liberal accounts render irrational—is actually quite feeble. That problem will turn out to be decisive in the absence of other arguments for her view, given its many implausible results.
Harman hopes to make sense of the very common parental experience of mourning a miscarriage—of seeing it (in Harman’s own words) “as the same kind of thing as the death of a person, something that is bad because it is bad for the subject who died.” But her view actually makes this reaction to miscarriage irrational. After all, according to Harman, if the child dies before birth, he never had moral status. So a clearheaded parent would see that the child’s death was not in any sense the “death of a person,” and not in the least “bad for the subject who died.”
Harman also thinks she does a better job than other liberal theorists of explaining why a woman might reasonably regret aborting a being if it never had moral status. In Harman’s telling, it makes sense for the mother to “regret a lost possibility for her own life: the chance to become the woman she would have become if she had had a child at that time.” But this response is actually available to all pro-choice views, and it’s weak. You can regret not becoming a parent even when you just contracept or avoid a sexual relationship entirely. But if Harman is right to think regret over abortions poses a special challenge for pro-choice views, that regret must surely be more acute than the generic regret you might feel about, say, deciding to wait another year to start a family.
The fact that Harman’s view doesn’t explain what she says it can explain is devastating because she offers no other positive defense of it—not in her 1999 article on the topic, nor in a 2008 panel presentation, nor in the 2017 interview now going viral. And I can’t imagine what positive defense she could offer. Some think a certain kind of rational potential is what grounds moral status. Others say actual (not just potential) consciousness is what matters, because it determines whether killing will in fact cause someone pain or thwart desires or goals or preferences she’s had the self-awareness to form. Harman can’t rely on these explanations of why actual consciousness is key, since she thinks being actually conscious down the road gives you moral status now, before you’ve ever felt or desired a single thing. But in that case, why insist that the consciousness must become actual at all, rather than embracing the view that mental potential is enough to ground moral status in every case?
From this arbitrary root, bewildering implications sprout, left and right. Say an abortion doctor begins to dismember an unborn child. Has he already done that child morally significant harm? It depends on whether he finishes the job. If he does, then the child will never have reached consciousness, so the harm of that first cut will have been completely unproblematic. But if the doctor messes up—if the child becomes one of the increasingly vocal survivors of botched abortions—then that first cut will have been as morally harmful as maiming. To avoid this morally heinous result, presumably a mother who starts to feel regret once an abortion has begun will be morally obliged to press on.
A second strange result of Harman’s view is that an unborn child’s moral status can never guide your choice whether to kill him, since his moral status depends on which choice you finally make.
The Moral Equality of Human Beings
These problems are rooted in Harman’s astonishing view that among unborn children, there are “two significantly different kinds of” beings, distinguished by their futures. This assumes, first, that there’s always a fact of the matter as to whether any given child will later attain consciousness. If there isn’t—if not every child’s future is metaphysically determined—then among unborn children there might actually be just one category (those of indeterminate moral status), or maybe three (those who already have moral status, those who already lack it, and those whose moral value is TBD—“to be determined”).
Second, and more important, your “kind” at any given time—in the most basic sense—turns on your features then and there, as every other pro-choice thinker concedes. In that sense, you’ll find among unborn children only one “kind”: the human kind, to which you and I and Harman also belong. Achieving awareness doesn’t change our nature, which is that of humans: rational animals.
And this points to the most basic problem with Harman’s view, a problem shared by other “liberal” views of our moral status. That’s the idea that we have moral status not in virtue of what we are (animals of a rational nature), but in virtue of having acquired or developed a certain trait to a certain degree. As Robert P. George and Christopher Tollefsen show in Embryo: A Defense of Human Life, any viable instance of the acquired-mental-ability view will (1) leave too many people out, and either (2) make nonsense of the idea that all people matter equally or else (3) unjustly base a radical difference in kind (of proper treatment) on a mere difference in degree (of mental development).
Harman’s article never defines “consciousness” and even allows that having “experiences” in some broad sense could suffice. But either way, she thinks moral status turns on the development of an immediately exercisable capacity for awareness. As spelled out by other philosophers, this claim might allow killing late-term fetuses, newborns, and even the cognitively disabled. Some—like Princeton philosopher Peter Singer—embrace these conclusions as requirements for any clearheaded pro-choice (acquired-mental-ability) view. Others will see them for what they are: a refutation.
Second, acquired-mental-ability views have trouble explaining the principle that all persons are moral equals. Any mental ability will come in degrees. Presumably, the people who have more of whichever mental trait gives us moral worth must count for more—in morality and under any just law—than those in whom that trait is less developed. We could justly subordinate the interests of the mentally weak to those of the strong. In fact, full sensitivity to the moral facts might require doing so.
Of course, one might simply draw a bright line and declare that all beings above it on the spectrum in question have equal status. But wouldn’t that be unjust? If what really grounds moral value comes in degrees, shouldn’t corresponding moral rights come in degrees? Whatever intrinsic reason we have to draw the line here, won’t it be a stronger intrinsic reason to recognize not a line but a graded scale?
Third, just picking a place to draw a line would make a deep difference in kinds of treatment (respecting someone as having basic rights, or not) turn on a mere difference in degree (of her mental development). That is arbitrary; and in the realm of basic human rights, arbitrariness is injustice.
So the acquired-ability view is arbitrary and unjust. We matter because of what we are. After all, whichever mental ability Harman or others might pick, each is just a more or less advanced development of root capacities we all have in virtue of being human: animals of a rational nature. In this respect, there’s only a difference of degree between a ten-week-old fetus and a ten-year-old kid: each has the (more or less actualized) capacity to develop herself—given adequate resources, barring accident or disease—to the point of awakening to herself as subject and to the world as object, or adopting or deferring a goal, or solving a calculus problem, or forming a friendship, or falling in love.
Or, indeed, to the point of devising and airing a philosophical argument that—however flimsy or even harmful—calls for nothing less than an honest hearing and a reasoned rebuttal.
Sherif Girgis is a Yale Law School graduate and a PhD candidate in philosophy at Princeton.