Why Francis Beckwith’s Case Against Abortion Fails

(and Metaphysics Remains Irrelevant to Abortion)


In Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice (Cambridge University Press, 2007) Francis Beckwith argues that fetuses are such that, from conception, they are prima facie wrong to kill. He thinks abortion is almost never permissible beyond rare cases where, unless the fetus is killed, both the pregnant woman and the fetus will die. He defends his view not from religiously-justified premises but by appealing to “a particular metaphysics of the human person” that he calls “The Substance View.” I will argue that such metaphysics is irrelevant to the morality of abortion. Beckwith’s metaphysics thereby neither supports, nor detracts from, his abortion ethic. Moral, not metaphysical, assumptions drive the argument, and Beckwith inadequately defends these assumptions. Indeed, they are often false, and his main argument is unsound.  (130 words)


Keywords: abortion, ethics, metaphysics, personal identity, mental, mind

Word count: 6943 words; 24 pages with notes and references

Shortened version of title for running head (42 characters): Why Beckwith’s Case Against Abortion Fails


I.        Introduction


In Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice,[1] Francis Beckwith argues that fetuses are such that, from conception, they are prima facie wrong to kill. He thinks abortion is almost never morally permissible beyond rare cases where, unless the fetus is killed, both the pregnant woman and the fetus will die.

Beckwith defends his view not from religiously-justified premises but by appealing to “a particular metaphysics of the human person” (p. 47) that he calls “The Substance View” (p. 132). I will argue, supporting a theme developed by Earl Conee (1999, 2000), that such metaphysics is irrelevant to the morality of abortion.[2] Beckwith’s metaphysics thereby neither supports, nor detracts from, his abortion ethic. Moral, not metaphysical, assumptions drive the argument, and Beckwith inadequately defends these assumptions. Indeed, they are often false, and his main argument is unsound.

There is much that is admirable about Beckwith’s book: e.g., two chapters forcefully critique common “popular” but question-begging and otherwise disengaged responses to the issues, and another chapter provides some scientific information about fetal development and methods of abortion, although it is significantly incomplete since research on fetal consciousness and sentience is ignored.[3] Nevertheless, if the success of his argument depends on his claims about the moral properties held by embryos and fetuses at all stages of development, then Beckwith does not adequately defend what he calls the “pro-life” view on abortion. [4],[5]


II.     The Argument


Beckwith’s fundamental premise, his claim about fetuses (the term I will use, contrary to medical convention, to refer to all unborn biologically human entities, from conception, including zygotes and embryos), is that “the unborn entity is a full-fledged member of the human community (or fully human for short)” (p. xii, emphasis in original). What this might mean is explicated using a variety of different concepts: legal and moral rights, personhood, a moral community of persons, humanity, humanness and other ‘human’-based concepts, intrinsic value, and being a “moral subject.”

The relations among all these concepts are not explained: pairs or triads of them are often presented sequentially, separated by ‘that is’ clauses or ‘or’s, suggesting that each is an elaboration of, and equivalent to, the other. So it’s not clear what Beckwith would make of a claim that some moral right-holders are not persons and the question of whether any non-humans (e.g., animals, extra-terrestrials, and/or spiritual beings) could be members of a human moral community. It’s not said which, if any, moral notions here are more fundamental (personhood, rights, value?) and which, if any, are derivative.

Nevertheless, adding these explications to Beckwith’s statement of his argument yields this expanded argument (p. xii; p. 57; p. 226; original text is quoted, added explications italicized):

(1')        “The unborn entity, from the moment of conception, is a full-fledged member of the human community,” i.e., has basic moral rights, is a person, is a moral subject, and is intrinsically valuable, morally.

(2')        “It is prima facie morally wrong to kill any member of that community, i.e., any being who has basic moral rights, is a person, is a moral subject, and is intrinsically valuable, morally.

(3')        “Every successful abortion kills an unborn entity, a full-fledged member of the human community,” i.e., a being who has basic moral rights, is a person, is a moral subject, and is intrinsically valuable, morally.

(4')        “Therefore, every successful abortion is prima facie morally wrong.”

Premise (2') is uncontroversially true or justified. The rationale for (3') largely depends on (1'), so the argument’s success depends on (1'). To evaluate both Beckwith’s reasons for (1') and general case that (1') is false, we must first better understand the premise.


Legal and Moral Rights


First, rights: according to Beckwith, to say that “the unborn entity is a full-fledged member of the human community (or fully human for short)” is to say that the entity is “as much a bearer of rights” as any normal human adult (p. xii).

Beckwith discusses both moral and legal rights, but my focus is on moral rights. This is because if at least some fetuses lack moral rights, then one motivation for granting legal rights to those fetuses is undercut. Furthermore, morality and law are different issues, and my interest is in morality.

Which moral rights do fetuses have, according to Beckwith? He says the unborn entity is “entitled to all the rights which free and equal persons are entitled to” (xii, emphasis added) but he is surely exaggerating.[6] Normal adults have all sorts of moral (and legal) rights that depend on sophisticated cognitive abilities (e.g., those involving autonomous action, freedom of expression, association, contracts, non-moral choices, and so on) that fetuses, as fetuses, presumably do not have since they lack these mental abilities.[7] Presumably then the moral rights in question are more basic and fundamental, e.g., to life, to bodily integrity and so forth, the rights which would most obviously be violated by abortion. He claims that fetuses have these rights from conception.

The “full-fledged” clause suggests that, compared to normal adults, are not some kind of second-class right-holders, their rights of an inferior and subservient quality or strength. He claims that fetuses’ rights are as strong as a normal child’s or adult’s rights: to permissibly violate fetal rights we would need a justification as strong as what would be required to permissibly violate a ten year old child’s rights (p. xii).


“Moral Subjects” and Persons 


Fetuses are also said to be “moral subjects” (p. 130) who are “persons,” “moral persons,” possess “moral personhood” and have, or are of, a “personal nature.” Beckwith denies that they are potential persons, claiming they are current, actual persons from conception (p. 163).

Beckwith does not offer an analysis of personhood. He acknowledges that early fetuses lack mental lives so he rejects common analyses of persons that appeal to any cognitive criteria (e.g., consciousness, sentience, rationality, sense of self, etc.) or any family resemblance set of these capacities. But he offers no deep understanding of personhood beyond suggesting that moral rights are entailed by personhood. Whether he thinks that personhood is necessary for moral rights, or whether to be a person just is to be a rights-holder is not clear.


Intrinsic and Extrinsic Moral Value


Being a “member of the human community” and “fully human” are also explicated in terms of “intrinsic value” (p. 131). Fetuses, from conception, are said to be intrinsically valuable, morally, and their value is “equal” to the value of normal adults.

The claim that adults, and fetuses, are morally valuable is understandable. But it is not clear that Beckwith needs to claim that fetus’s value is intrinsic. On many views, to be intrinsically valuable is to be necessarily valuable, i.e., valuable in all possible worlds. But if there were possible worlds where human beings were like zombies or had mental lives comparable to insects’, then perhaps those beings – if they would be human beings or should be called that[8] – arguably lack moral value, intrinsic or otherwise. So perhaps human beings, as biological organisms, are not intrinsically valuable.

The controversial claim that fetuses’ value is intrinsic can also be avoided since their value can be less controversially explained as extrinsic. A critic of abortion could argue that fetuses are valuable insofar as they are physically necessary to bring about normal, conscious persons or as conduits for souls or are valuable for a number of other reasons. These proposals attribute value to fetuses, but deny that they are valuable “for their own sake” or “in and of themselves,” as intrinsic value is often explained.

Thus, Beckwith could have avoided some needless controversy by stating that he thinks that fetuses are very valuable, morally, and that this high level of value contributes to making abortion prima facie wrong.


Biological Humanity


Finally, what is fortunately not at issue is whether human fetuses are biologically or genetically human, are beings of the species Homo sapiens, have human DNA, and are “human beings” in the sense that they are beings that are biologically human. Fetuses in pregnant women are not feline, bovine or canine: they are biologically human, from conception. Resistance to accepting these perhaps scientific facts (what it is for something to be a being might not be a scientific question) is based on misunderstanding and bad arguments, as Beckwith shows (pp. 65-83).

Some abortion choice advocates deny that fetuses are “human beings.” Beckwith quotes a US Senate report expressing a suspicion that since these people do “not wish to accord . . . worth to the lives of [the] unborn . . , they refuse to call them ‘human beings,’ regardless of the scientific evidence” (p. 69). They reserve the term ‘human being’ only for (biologically human) beings that they believe are valuable and deserve protection. This verbal evasion is unfortunate: these people should recognize that human fetuses are biologically human organisms, i.e., are “human beings” in that sense, but explain why they think that beings like that are prima facie morally permissible to kill, or whatever their exact views are.

Due to the persistent biological and moral ambiguities of ‘human’-based terminology, it would have been fortunate had Beckwith not concerned himself with trying to establish biologically human fetuses’ “full” (as opposed to partial- or semi-?) “humanity,” “humanness” and the like. Focusing on genetically-neutral moral properties and, if need be, their relations to an underlying biology, can help avoid misunderstanding. Beckwith’s terminology is often ‘human’-based, but I will avoid it when his case can be (and is) presented in non-biological terms.


III. The Opposition: “Anti-Equality Advocates” or Mentalists


Before examining Beckwith’s defense of his moral claims about fetuses, premise (1'), we should briefly present a general position that would justify thinking that (1') is false and Beckwith argues is false.

He calls defenders of this position “anti-equality advocates” (p. 130) since they argue that not all biologically human organisms are morally “equal.” Since that label is rhetorically loaded,[9] I will call such thinkers Mentalists, for they argue that “a human being is [morally valuable, perhaps intrinsically] if and only if she presently possesses certain properties and/or is able to exercise certain functions” (p. 130) and that the relevant properties or functions are, or depend on, mental ones, e.g., consciousness, sentience, sensation, subjectivity, awareness and so on, i.e., having a mind of some kind, even if simple and unsophisticated. Dispositional and counterfactual mental properties can also be “presently possessed,” according to many versions of Mentalism.

Beckwith thinks it is very important to observe that Mentalists think that morally-relevant properties are had by biologically human organisms not “essentially,” but “accidentally,” since they do not have minds at all times of their existence: indeed, some never have minds and others cannot, it can be true to say.

Mentalism’s implications for abortion thus largely depend on the mental development of fetuses and which fetuses are aborted.


Fetal Minds


Concerning fetal minds, Jeff McMahan reports that, “Most neurologists accept that the earliest point at which consciousness is possible is around the twentieth week of pregnancy. . . . The onset of the fundamental core of brain function . . . can be identified within the limits of about 20 to 28 weeks” (2002, p. 257). Beyond consciousness, neurologist Michael Benatar and philosopher David Benatar claim that the data tend to support the view that “fetuses of around 28 to 30 weeks of gestation are capable of feeling pain” (2001, pp. 57, 63, 75). David DeGrazia claims that, “Neurological evidence suggests that a fetus becomes sentient at some time between five and seven months gestation” (2005, p. 279). More conservatively, Peter Singer argues that, “[W]e should disregard the uncertain evidence about wakefulness [‘The fetus begins to “wake up” at a gestational age of around 30 weeks’] and take as a more definitive line the time at which the brain is physically capable of receiving signals necessary for awareness . . at 18 weeks of gestation” (1993, pp. 164-5).

Beckwith presents some information about fetal development (pp. 65-83, 90-91), making, but not explaining, the implausible claim that the nervous system is “well developed” at seven weeks (p. 90). But he says nothing direct about the emergence of fetal minds. He mentions some fetal movements and responses to stimuli, but does not engage the research on when this should be interpreted as evidence of mind. He seems to think that facts about fetal minds are morally irrelevant.


Which Fetuses Are Aborted


Concerning when abortions occur, McMahan reports that, “Approximately 99 percent of all abortions in the United States are performed prior to twenty weeks” (2002, p. 268). And DeGrazia reports that, “[T]he vast majority of abortions – about 99 percent in the United States – occur before five months,” with “only 1 percentage of abortions . . performed after the twenty-first week or later in . .  1998” (2005, p. 279, in text and footnote 64). Beckwith agrees with these statistics (pp. 90-91).

These facts suggest that most abortions in the United States kill beings – call them early fetuses – that are yet to have minds.[10] On many versions of Mentalism, beings that have never had mental lives or have lost their minds fully and permanently lack moral rights, are not persons, are not moral subjects, and/or are not morally valuable in their own right. (Mentalists can think, however, that abortions affecting later, minded fetuses are prima facie immoral).


Mentalism’s Metaphysics and Epistemology


Concerning the epistemological status of Mentalism, it needn’t be justified by mere intuitions, as Beckwith might think it is.[11] It gains support by its power to explain cases, among other sources. Beckwith mentions someone whose “head is blown off by a gunshot” (pp. 103-104) yet whose body remains alive, anencephalic newborns, and truly “hopeless” coma patients (p. 137).

In cases like these, it is arguably permissible to let such individuals die, if not “actively” kill them, because they wholly and irreversibly lack minds. Since this is so, their lives are of no value to them, they cannot be harmed (and so cannot have a right to not be harmed), they cannot experience any (further) loss, they wholly lack interests, desires and preferences (and cannot have them, it can be true to say), the persona, personality or character who anyone might have known is gone and so on. Our lack of obligations towards, as opposed to concerning, human corpses[12] provide other cases to confirm that the lack of the mental plausibly, and simply, helps explain what’s morally permissible.

If the “metaphysics” of early fetuses must be addressed, Mentalists might either think there is no one there in such cases, including abortions affecting early fetuses, and so no one is killed, or that there is someone there, but someone who has never been phenomenally conscious, and so is prima facie permissible to kill. Mentalism, as a moral view, is compatible with a range of metaphysical views on human or personal identity: none entail or are entailed by Mentalism and neither provides any obvious epistemic support for the other.

Mentalists must argue that potential mindfulness, in its various senses, is morally irrelevant, as is the fact that a future dependent on the existence of the aborted fetus is prevented, and respond to other arguments for indirect duties toward fetuses. And they must explain our duties to and concerning minded beings when they are or might be called “mindless,” e.g., when sleeping, under anesthesia, in shorter-term comas, and so on.

I will assume that Mentalists can respond to these concerns (perhaps by appealing to extrinsic values, standing and dispositional interests, indirect duties, and other resources) and focus on Beckwith’s unique arguments against them since, if Mentalism is true, then his (1') and (3') are false.


IV. Mentalism versus The Substance View of Persons


Beckwith argues that Mentalism has false moral implications and so is false, that his “Substance View of Persons” is true, in part, because it justifies justifiable moral judgments that Mentalism cannot,[13] and that it makes his moral claims about fetuses reasonable. I will argue that all these claims are false.


Understanding the Substance View


Four moral claims or cases invite us to understand the Substance View. First:


[I]f Christopher Reeve was identical to his embryonic self, then we were no more justified in killing an embryo to acquire its stem cells so Mr. Reeve might walk again than we would be in stealing Mr. Reeve’s eyes so that Stevie Wonder might see again (p. xii).




If it is wrong to kill a 10-year old as a result of taking his kidneys and giving them to . . scientific geniuses . . curing cancer or AIDS . . , it is wrong to kill a 20-week-old fetal-clone [by] taking his kidneys and giving them to his genetic progenitor, a scientific genius, who needs them to survive so that he may continue his work on cures for cancer and AIDS (p. xii-xiii).




[I]f you are an intrinsically valuable human person now, then you were an intrinsically valuable human person at every moment in your past including when you were in your mother’s womb, for you are identical to yourself throughout the changes you undergo from the moment you come into existence (p. 51, emphasis in original).


And from the book’s final paragraph:


[I]f we are, as even the supporters of abortion must assume, bearers of moral rights by nature (including “the right to choose”), then there can be no right to abortion, for the one who has the “right to choose” is identical to her prenatal self (p. 229).


Stealing Reeve’s eyes and killing the 10-year old would be wrong, we should agree. Mentalism provides an explanation of why this is so, by appealing to our mental “nature” and so not disagreeing that we are “bearers of moral rights by nature.” But it and other views deny that killing the embryo and the fetal-clone is prima facie wrong (especially if the fetus were far less developed than 20 weeks). They argue that, despite the similarities of the beings (e.g., species), there are morally-relevant differences between them that justify significantly different consideration and treatment.

            Beckwith thinks there are no such relevant differences and so such killing would be wrong. Beckwith claims that fetuses have the moral properties that (1') attributes to them – personhood, moral rights, etc. – because of some metaphysical claims stated in this “Substance View”:

[T]he human being remains th[e] sort of thing [it is] as long as it exists. What sort of thing is it? The human being is a particular type of substance – a rational moral agent – that remains identical to itself as long as it exists, even if it is not presently exhibiting the functions, behaving in ways, or currently able to immediately exercise these activities that we typically attribute to active and mature rational moral agents (p. 132).

In addition to a theory of identity, the View asserts that human substances have “basic,” “ultimate,” “real,” and “intrinsic” capacities and “active potentials” to realize their “nature” or “essence” (pp. 132-134), but these concepts are not analyzed or explained. This is especially unfortunate for understanding what human substances’ “capacities” might be, since these are determined by possibilities and we aren’t told which are relevant. Why our essence or nature is identified with mid-life mental stages, not early- and end-life stages characterized by a-rationality, moral patienthood and bodily dependency, or anything else true of us, is not explained. 

This seems to be the core of the Substance View. The Substance View is presumably a metaphysical theory, although, it is not defended by comparison to rival metaphysical theories developed to explain the same phenomena: indeed, no such theories are explained or critiqued in detail. Its defense, Beckwith claims, is instead based on moral phenomena. Beckwith’s remarks elaborating the view suggest that if the Substance View has moral content itself, it does not exceed what is stated in (1') so does not justify (1').


Rejecting the Substance View: No Implications for Abortion


Nevertheless, much of the Substance View seems metaphysically innocuous. Many metaphysics accept that things are self-identical, that we retain identity (or some similar relation) throughout change and, as a scientific view, that organisms have innate biological capacities, dispositions and potentials.

Some, however, disagree with what Beckwith seems to think “we” are, arguing, e.g., that we are essentially minded beings and so did not exist as early fetuses: we began, say, as consciousness began. Such views accept that biologically human organisms are spatio-temporally continuous and retain identity throughout change, they are the “same being” over time (p. 131), yet deny that such organisms and “us” are identical.  Such a view interprets claims like, “I was once a fetus,” as false, potentially harmless, shorthand for something more cumbersome like, “I am intimately related to that fetus, as it is part of my causal ancestry, yet am not identical to it, strictly speaking.”

Mentalists might argue for such a view by considering non-moral and moral cases and a sense of “what matters” for personal identity or survival. They might appeal to it in argument for abortion, assuming that abortion is prima facie permissible only if fetuses are not one of “us,” in some moral sense. But nothing prevents accepting such a metaphysic but arguing that abortion is wrong by, e.g., appealing to the instrumental value of fetuses for realizing valuable future possible people: fetuses are not “us,” yet are prima facie wrong to kill nevertheless. So denying the metaphysics of the Substance View needn’t incline anyone to any one view on abortion ethics.


Accepting the Substance View: No Implications for Abortion


But suppose we agree with Beckwith that pre-minded fetuses and normal human adults are numerically identical, i.e., the same organism over time, as the Reeve case emphasizes.

Normal adults, rational moral agents, are members of the moral community, have basic moral rights, are persons, are moral subjects, and are morally valuable. But why should one think that fetuses also have these moral properties or be like this? If it were true that any two numerically identical beings, or stages of beings, share all the same properties, or even all the same moral properties, then that would follow. But adults have all sorts of physical, cognitive and moral properties (e.g., those that presuppose autonomy) that fetuses lack. So just because normal adults are wrong to kill, it doesn’t immediately follow that the fetuses they were would have been prima facie wrong to kill, even if there is numerical identity, i.e., “one and the same being” (p. 131).

One could assert that at all times and stages biologically human organisms are wrong to kill or that they “essentially” are prima facie wrong to kill or have the properties that make them that, e.g., they are always or essentially persons. But these claims are very similar to premise (1') that early fetuses have rights, are persons, are moral subjects, and are valuable. We are seeking a reason to accept that and the Substance View, as a metaphysic of the identity of human organisms, doesn’t provide that. If the Substance View is intended to (also) be a theory of personal identity, and asserts that we are numerically identical to early fetuses which are persons, then that latter claim needs defense. The Substance View seems to just assume or stipulate it.

Thus, while we might accept that human organisms begin at conception and are spatio-temporally continuous, the same being over time despite change, and are even the “sort” of being that is a rational moral agent, we have not been presented with good reasons to think that, from conception, human organisms are persons, have moral rights and so on. Arguments intended to support these claims might emerge from arguments against Mentalism. Beckwith claims the Substance View justifies moral judgments that Mentalism cannot and so is the better view. I will argue that these arguments are weak, beginning with Beckwith’s minor arguments and then addressing those that get the most development.


Mentalism and Inequality


First, Beckwith claims that Mentalism justifies inequality, i.e., the exploitation of beings with simple(r) mental lives by those with more complex mental lives (pp. 138-139). This argument is prima facie implausible since virtually nobody seriously argues, e.g., that geniuses are morally entitled to, say, enslave the feeble-minded. Almost everyone strongly denies this, including Mentalists. If their theory has this surprising implication that either they haven’t noticed or have outright denied (and argued against), strong arguments are needed to show this. This argument, however, gets less than one page of development.

The fact that leading Mentalist theories have been developed in the context of animal ethics to demonstrate the wrongness of exploiting non-human animals gives further good reason to reject it. It has been repeatedly argued that the view that the mentally complex can permissibly harm the mentally simple does not follow from thinking that a being’s mentality yields moral obligations to that being, but Beckwith does not engage this literature.[14] 

Beckwith says that such inequality can be avoided only by thinking that, “human beings are intrinsically valuable because they are rational moral agents by nature from the moment they come into existence,” i.e., the Substance View is true (p. 139, emphasis in original). In his conclusion, he claims that denying this comes at the “price of abandoning natural rights and replacing them with the will to power” (p. 229). But this is false, since there are plausible justifications for moral equality and basic rights, as recent and past social-political-ethical philosophy shows. Furthermore, an argument is needed to get from Beckwith’s claim about value to a Kantian “no one should be used as a mere means”-type view. An assessment of value does not, in itself, impose deontic constraints on how that value can permissibly be used (although a claim to rights might, which Beckwith assumes, without defense, follows from a claim about value).[15]

Finally, it still isn’t explained why being a sort or kind of being, a rational moral agent, by nature (if this is a sort or kind of being all human organisms are) gives them rights, personhood, and so on. There is no clear connection from the numerical identity of individuals over time to moral egalitarianism. The metaphysical to moral relations are not explained or defended.

Thus, this objection to Mentalism fails and the Substance View does not explain what Beckwith says it does.


Mentalism and Mindless Human Organisms


Second, Beckwith repeatedly observes that Mentalism need not condemn creating human organisms without brains (and heads), and so without the capacity for minds, to harvest the organs for transplant (pp. 139-40, 148-49, 158-9). He claims that doing this would be wrong, so Mentalism is false.

            With this argument Beckwith seems to be trying to resolve one controversy by appealing to another. But there might not be much controversy here. Beckwith mentions the “moral repugnance one feels when one first” considers this (p. 140, emphasis added), yet recognizes that feelings can be unreliable (p. 153) and first impressions mistaken. Indeed, many people would think that, once any gruesome imagery and motives falsely associated with this proposal are overcome, doing this would not be wrong for the simple reasons that there are medical benefits to be gained and nobody would be harmed or treated disrespectfully to achieve them.

            Beckwith’s reply is that human organisms, including the unborn, are “entitled” to higher brain functions and that, “it is prima facie wrong to destroy the physical structure necessary for the realization of a human being’s basic, natural capacity for the exercisability of a function that is a perfection of its nature (p. 140; cf. p. 159).[16]

It’s important to notice that these are moral claims, not metaphysical ones. They reference some metaphysical items, but there is nothing distinctly metaphysical about them, just as claims like, e.g., “persons have moral rights” and “beating hearts are wrong to stop,” are neither metaphysical, medical or biological claims. And Beckwith does not defend these moral claims, which many people would regard as false. And they are not supported by the metaphysics of the Substance view: there is no obvious connection from it to them and we are given no argument to reveal the relation.

Thus, this second objection to Mentalism also fails and the Substance View does not justify what is perhaps an unjustifiable moral judgment. Furthermore, we see that this moral issue is one that can be resolved while remaining neutral on the metaphysics of personal identity.


Arguments from Controversial and Disanalogous Cases: The Jeds and Herb


Beckwith’s main arguments for the Substance View and against Mentalism, David Boonin’s (2002) version of Mentalism in particular, emerge from cases involving adult coma patients. Here are the cases:


Jed 0: He is in a coma for two years, “in precisely the same [cognitive] position as the standard fetus.” He wakes up pretty much normal with his pre-coma memories, the same personality, interests, knowledge, abilities, and so on (p. 135).


Jed 1: He is in a coma for two years. He wakes up with none of the memories, beliefs or knowledge from before the coma. Yet he has the “basic capacities” to develop into someone who has absolutely no psychological connections to the pre-coma individual. This can happen “over the years following his recovery through the normal process of learning and development” (p. 135).


Herb: He is initially like Jed 1, awaking with none of his previous mental life, but he will regain his memories, abilities, and faculties. This will take as long as it takes Jed 1 to develop new memories and abilities (p. 138).


Jed 2: He is in a “hopeless” coma for the rest of his life, say 70 years, and this irreversibility is known with certainty (p. 137).


Mentalists must explain why killing Jed 0 would be wrong. Beckwith thinks they must explain why coma patients are intrinsically valuable, but Mentalists think that keeping these bodies alive is instrumentally valuable towards the intrinsic goods that will be realized by the return of their minds.

            Mentalists might argue that killing Jed 0 would be wrong for this reason: even though he presently lacks mental capacities that are “immediately exercisable” (which needn’t preclude him having that and other capacities that are not immediately exercisable) this principle is true: if (and perhaps only if) someone had such capacities before and if that someone will, or can, have them again (and they will be psychologically continuous with the earlier mind) then it is wrong to kill that individual.[17] Contrary to some of Beckwith’s remarks, mentalists need not think that beings are prima facie wrong to destroy now only if they are conscious now, although they must defend their views on the relevant temporal, dispositional and counterfactual relations to an actual mental life.

This principle, if it asserts that a necessary condition for the wrongfulness of killing an individual is past mindfulness, implies that killing early fetuses is prima facie permissible because there is no such past mental life. The Jed 1 case is supposed to show that this position is false, because the individual emerging from the coma has no psychological past either. Beckwith claims that since it would be wrong to kill this individual, yet he lacks connection to a psychological past, it follows that such a past (and a current mental life) is not necessary for, say, a moral right to life and so this defense of abortion fails.

Jed 1 is intended to be a clear case, but it isn’t. First, we must ask what kind of life this individual is going to have. Since Jed was an adult when he went into the coma, and the individual emerges with no memories, beliefs or knowledge, he might be like a newborn baby but in an adult’s body. Since he’s too heavy to be carried around, will he be bedridden or stuck in a large crib (perhaps like a jail cell) for much of his early life? If he hits the “terrible two’s” and has tantrums and fits, complete with hitting and biting, how will someone of his size and power be restrained? Will he grow up in a straightjacket? And how will he be stopped from running into the street? How will he be disciplined?

Details like these matter, if this individual is supposed to be analogous to a fetus. Beckwith claims that this individual will undergo a “normal process of learning and development,” but there is nothing normal about this case. Indeed, since it is so different from ordinary human development, we might realistically suspect, given our knowledge of parenting, that this individual is headed for a very troubled life, perhaps one that would be better to not start, and maybe be even wrong to start. Thus, there are questions and controversies here, and so this is not an ideal case to appeal to in arguing for a controversial issue. Size (contingently) matters here, and if Beckwith changes the case to address these concerns to make the emerging individual more fetus-like, the argument becomes only more question begging.

            A second reason to deny Beckwith’s arguments from this case is that common theories of personal identity suggest that a new person will emerge from Jed 1. If Jed 1’s personality was very much like George W. Bush’s and the new personality will be a lot like Hillary Clinton’s, then they are not identical according to psychological continuity theories of personal identity. From many bodily continuity theories of personal identity, a new person will emerge also. Although Beckwith’s suggests otherwise, they can deny that “same human being” (p. 136) exists before and after the coma. The new individual has much of Jed 1’s body, but assuming the coma was brought on by a physical change in the brain, those changes might be so great that the theory recognizes the loss of Jed 1 and the emergence of someone new. Thus, if Jed 1 is gone, nothing about him grounds any possible obligations to the new individual. And it’s not clear how the Substance View, as a metaphysics of personal identity, does so either.

So would killing Jed 1 (or the body that used to realize Jed 1’s personality) while in the coma be wrong? Doing so wouldn’t harm Jed 1, only prevent the emergence of a new person, or (for those who might consider this mindless body to be a person) prevent consciousness, a persona, or however it might be described as developing in this body. And we are back to the basic controversies raised by abortion, and again this is not an ideal case to argue from in support of a position on abortion. Moreover, intuitions about living, breathing, adult human bodies in hospital beds might be based on features of the case that are absent in cases involving (often) microscopic, undeveloped fetuses in women’s uteruses: if so, then the cases are morally disanalogous.

The Herb case is like the Jed 1 case, but with a longer time gap and any developmental disasters avoided. Mentalists can presumably deal with this case, although they must address whether and how time makes a moral difference. It seems that obligations to, or concerning, individuals who we know will emerge from a coma in six days are stronger than those we (somehow) know will, or can, emerge in six decades. Whether time can contribute to making it such that, all things considered, it is permissible to let someone die would need to be addressed.

Finally, Jed 2 is in a truly “hopeless” coma and we know that there is no chance he will re-emerge. Beckwith comments that it’s a “legitimate, though disputed” question whether treatment should end (p. 137). This suggests that Beckwith is open to the permissibility of Jed 2’s being allowed to die: at least, he does not condemn this. This response is curious, given what Beckwith says a few pages earlier:


[A] human being, at every stage of her development is never a potential person; she is always a person with potential even if that potential is never actualized due to premature death or the result of the absence or deformity of a physical state necessary to actualize that potential. For example, a human being without vocal cords in a society where there are no artificial or transplant vocal cords never loses the potential to speak, but she will in fact never speak because she lacks a physical state necessary to actualize that potential (p. 134, emphasis in original).


Applying these remarks to the Jed 2 case first suggests that despite the irreversible coma, Jed has surprisingly not lost the “potential” to talk, walk, think, and feel. On Beckwith’s understanding of “potential,” apparently a physician could say that although there is no chance whatsoever that Jed will do any of these things, it’s medically impossible, yet truthfully say that Jed has the potential to do so. This is a dubious understanding of potential.

The second, more important, suggested implication is that, due to the coma-indicative absence or deformity of a physical state necessary to actualize that potential, Jed 2 is a “person with potential.” If persons with potential are persons, then Beckwith apparently is open to allowing a(n innocent) person die, which seems inconsistent with much of his book’s general argument. If he claims that persons who lack mental lives and any relevant potential or chance for a mental life are not wrong to let die, then he appears to lapse into Mentalism, at least for this case. If Mentalism is true about this case, perhaps it’s true about some abortion cases.

Beckwith might also have to reject the justifications he offers for his judgments about the other cases. Jed 0 was supposedly wrong to let die because he “is identical to himself throughout all the changes he undergoes and that self, by nature, has certain basic capacities” (p. 135). And Jed 1’s “basic capacities as a human substance” made him valuable and precluded letting him die (p. 136). But Jed 2 is also, presumably, self-identical, a human substance, and – if a person who cannot ever speak somehow still has the “potential” to speak, as Beckwith says – perhaps Jed 2 even still has “basic capacities.” If meeting these conditions is sufficient for making it wrong to let Jed 0 and 1 die, this also seems to be true about Jed 2, unless his lack of a mental state makes a moral difference, as Mentalists argue and Beckwith claims to reject. Thus, Jed 2 is a troublesome case for Beckwith.

In summary, Mentalism explains what Beckwith claims it can’t, some of what he says needs to be explained needn’t be, and it’s still unclear how the Substance View helps us understanding anything, morally.


V. Conclusions: Morality, Metaphysics and Politics


In conclusion, Beckwith makes many moral judgments and offers some moral principles. And he advocates the Substance View, a metaphysical theory either of human organism identity or (more controversially) of personal identity. I have argued that Beckwith does not give good reason to believe that his metaphysics gives any support for his morals. Even if the Substance View is true (and I haven’t argued it is not), it does not seem to support thinking that early fetuses are persons, have basic moral rights and so on.

Perhaps these moral claims just are part of the propositions that are the Substance View. If they are, however, then his arguments fail because he does not adequately support them. In general, he does not convincingly explain why, even if human organisms are numerically identical over time, they also always and essentially have the properties that make them prima facie wrong to kill and are persons with moral rights. Thus, Beckwith’s case against abortion choice fails. Perhaps it is “question begging.”

His framing of the debate is distracting also. He claims that “all positions on abortion presuppose some metaphysical point of view” (p. 43). But this seems false. First, one can think morally about abortion but be agnostic on the metaphysics of personhood or human identity. Second, since one can plausibly conjoin any moral conclusion about abortion with any metaphysics of human identity, provided that metaphysics is not morally loaded, the metaphysical nature of human organisms’ identity over time seems to make no moral difference. Earl Conee has developed this claim in detail; my discussion supports it.

While the morality of abortion does depend on the “nature” of the unborn (p. 45), so does much else: structural engineering depends on the nature of building materials, medicine depends on the nature of human biology, and cooking depends on the nature of foods. But none are metaphysics. The moral nature of fetuses matters, if that just refers to the properties that determine how they can be treated, morally, but not their metaphysical nature. Calling moral assumptions “metaphysical” might make them sound loftier (but also more intractable, since moral philosophy’s progress has surely been greater than metaphysics’), but that does not help them do the moral work that metaphysics, as metaphysics, does not.

            Finally, the inadequacy of Beckwith’s arguments deflates his rhetoric. He compares social movements motivated by the view that nearly all abortions are seriously immoral to movements to abolish slavery and establish civil rights (p. xi). He urges “moral progress toward the elimination of unjust discrimination to include those who are the most vulnerable in the human family, the unborn” (p. xv). Even in early abortions he says that, “the powerful unjustly poison, burn, suffocate and/or dismember the powerless” and exercise “absolute power over a small fragile, helpless victim” (p. 228).

These suggested images and associations are evocative, but deceptive since poisoning, burning, suffocating and dismembering does not hurt early fetuses that are incapable of feeling anything. If there are any harms here, since they not felt or experienced, they are exceedingly abstract and extremely unlike the disrespect and maltreatment (to put it as a gross understatement) experienced by victims of slavery and racism. If killing mindless, often microscopic, fetuses is comparable to the Middle Passage, slavery, lynchings and segregation, stronger arguments are needed to show that, since Beckwith’s do not.



[1] Some of Beckwith’s arguments were presented in Beckwith (2006).

[2] Conee (1999, p. 619): “Conclusions about the morality of abortion have been thought to receive some support from metaphysical doctrines about persons. The paper studies four instances in which philosophers have sought to draw such morals from metaphysics. It argues that in each instance the metaphysics makes no moral difference, and the manner of failure seems indicative of a general epistemic irrelevance of metaphysics to the moral issue.”

[3] Chapter 1, “Abortion and Moral Argument,” Chapter 5, “Popular Arguments: Pity, Tolerance and Ad Hominem,” and Chapter 4, “Science, the Unborn and Abortion Methods.”

[4] Don Marquis (1989) is the most prominent philosophical defender of the view that abortion is immoral, yet Beckwith surprisingly says absolutely nothing about his arguments, supportive or critical. Indeed Marquis is only briefly mentioned on four pages of the book (pp. 136, 137, 146, 147).

[5] Some thinkers, often following Judith Thompson’s (1971) arguments, argue that a premise like Beckwith’s, e.g., that fetuses are persons and have a right to life, can be accepted as true, sincerely or for the sake of argument, yet no such “pro-life” conclusions immediately follow or are justified. This is because a right to life does not always entail a right to what’s needed for life, i.e., a pregnant woman is not obligated to provide the fetus what’s necessary for its life to continue. Beckwith discusses arguments for views like these in his Ch. 7, “Does It Really Matter Whether the Unborn is a Moral Subject? The Case from Bodily Rights.” I do not review his discussion here, but believe that his criticisms – often true observations that Thompson’s cases and pregnancy are disanalogous in important ways – are weak because they do not directly try to explain why fetuses have a right to the woman’s body or the woman is morally obligated to provide her resources to the fetus.

[6] Beckwith recognizes this in an endnote (p. 238, note 54) but his main text does not reflect this.

[7] While someone could try to argue that week-old fetuses somehow currently have moral rights to, e.g., free speech and religious worship (perhaps dispositionally or counterfactually), Beckwith does not seem to want to claim this.

[8] On some popular theories of reference, the term ‘human being’ is a rigid designator, its referent fixed to a natural kind in the actual world. If such theories are true, then it might be false to describe such beings as ‘human beings,’ despite their similarities to actual human beings.

[9] The goodness or badness of an appeal to “equality” depends on the context and issue. In some contexts, e.g., those concerning some kinds of racism, to be “anti-equality” is bad. In others, e.g., concerning the treatment of many non-human animals, common opinion considers it to be good to be ‘anti-equality,’ i.e., one should not think that animals’ interests deserve equal consideration of their interests that are comparable to any humans’ interests or that animals have an equally strong right to respectful treatment. And in another context, e.g., in evaluating radically egalitarian “bio-centric” environmental ethics on which, e.g., all living or “natural” things are “equal,” to be “anti-equality” is considered good.

[10] Beckwith says, but gives no reason to believe, that Mentalists must think there is a “decisive moment” that a fetus gains significant moral status (pp. xiv, 130). But, like many properties, there needn’t be any such “moment” something gains them, yet we can identify more and less clear cases of things having that property. If there is such a “moment,” its location might be epistemically inaccessible due to vagueness, lack of empirical information, and so on.

[11] Beckwith identifies Baruch Brody as an advocate of Mentalism and suspects that Brody would claim that his view is based solely on “intuitions” (pp. 156-7). I suspect Brody would deny that that this is the only epistemic support for his views.

[12] While there are reasons to treat such bodies gently and with care, these duties are not towards the brain-dead or destroyed themselves, but are, arguably, indirect duties towards minded beings that are, perhaps, based on incoherent beliefs about what it’s like to be permanently mindless, without a perspective.

[13] The Substance View is said to be “the most rational and coherent [view of the human person] that is at the same time consistent with our deeply held intuitions about human equality” (p. xi) and “provides the best account of human beings and their intrinsic value from the moment they come into being” (p. 226).

[14] See Singer (1993) Ch. 2 “Equality and its Implications,” and Regan (1983). In Ch. 7 “Justice and Equality” Regan critiques “perfectionism,” an inegalitarian view similar to what Beckwith falsely claims is justified by Mentalism.

[15] Beckwith quotes Patrick Lee making claims similar to Beckwith’s (p. 47).

[16] Beckwith quotes Dan Brock reporting that creating mind organisms might be considered wrong because, “The capacity for conscious life is destroyed solely as a means to benefit another” (p. 140). The notion of destroying something “solely as a means” sounds a lot like the Kantian notion of using someone as a mere means or merely as a means. But since “capacities” aren’t someones or persons (and are not autonomous someones) it’s doubtful this kind of language applies here. Furthermore, capacities are not intrinsically valuable; their value is based on what they can do for someone and so are instrumentally valuable, i.e., their service as means. And what would the difference be between destroying a capacity “as a means” to achieve some benefits and destroying it “solely as a means”? If nothing, this gives more reason to doubt any application of Kantian moral evaluations, if this is what’s intended.

[17] Beckwith claims that a principle like this is as “controversial” as any conclusion it might be used to support (p. 138). If so, its denial is also controversial and so abortion should be seen as a controversial issue in that that it is often hard to see which arguments on the topic are sound and so epistemic humility is warranted.


Beckwith, F. 2007. Defending Life: A Moral and Legal Case Against Abortion Choice. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Beckwith, F. 2006. “Defending Abortion Philosophically: A Review of David Boonin’s A Defense of Abortion,” Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 31: 177-203.

Benatar, D. and Benatar, M. 2001. “A Pain in the Fetus: Towards Ending Confusion About Fetal Pain,” Bioethics 15: 57-76.

Boonin. 2007. A Defense of Abortion. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Conee, E. 1999. “Metaphysics and the Morality of Abortion,” Mind 108: 619-646.

Conee, E. 2000. “Reply to Timothy Chappell,” Mind 109: 281-283.

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