[extropy-chat] The Language of Euphamism versus Life of my Son

Emlyn emlynoregan at gmail.com
Fri May 20 05:26:33 UTC 2005

On 19/05/05, John-C-Wright at sff.net <John-C-Wright at sff.net> wrote:
> I am afraid the gulf of disagreement here is rather large, and this may not be
> the best forum to bridge that gulf. But honesty requires me to admit mistake:
> The first dictionary I consulted (Merriam Webster) defined 'child' as:
> 1 a : an unborn or recently born person b dialect : a female infant
> 2 a : a young person especially between infancy and youth b : a childlike or
> childish person c : a person not yet of age
> 3 archaic : a youth of noble birth
> 4 a : a son or daughter of human parents b : descendant
> 5 : one strongly influenced by another or by a place or state of affairs
> 6 : product, result
> In other words, my use was correct and unexceptional. I mean the word in
> meanings 1a, 4a, and 6 (unborn person; a son or daughter of human parents;
> product or result).
> In law, we call this a "remainder interest"; that is, an interest which someone
> not in current possession, but who stands to come into possession of it, has
> vested in the property. Even those who use the awkward terminology of saying the
> unborn infant is not "alive at the moment" would have to admit the infant has a
> legal interest in the life into which it will come into possession, in the same
> way an remainderman has rights against a life tenant.
> If there are further objections to the use of the word "child" once it has been
> shown to be correct by the dictionary, I fear I have not the patience to answer:
> because then we are merely discussing emotion.

Not necessarily. In the definitions you have chosen above, "Product,
Result" is clearly an abstract usage meant for other uses of child not
relating to literal parents and children, while the other two
(salient) definitions are defined in terms of more unclear words such
as person, son and daughter.

That definition of child in terms of person is the main dispute that
others have answered already. When does a newly formed embryo become a
person? But others have addressed this already, enough said. I'm more
interested in the concepts that arise further down in your post,
around duty vs right. I'll discuss these inline below.

> It is not inflammatory to use plain words if the topic is one that is inflames
> the passions when spoken of in plain words: for then the cause lies with the
> topic, not the words.

It *is* inflamatory if the plain words do not accurately describe
complex content, ignoring technical knowledge (in this case regarding
the details of gestation) which is necessary to rational discussion of
the topic. It is *especially* inflamatory if the topic is emotive, as
is anything regarding children. But you know this.

> The reason why "child" is a word that causes delight, is that this is the
> natural and proper emotion to have toward one's child. The reason why the word
> "kill" is a word that causes aversion, is that this is the natural and proper
> emotion to have toward killing.

Delight is the proper emotion to have in respect toward children in
general; that's how evolution built us, and it happens to also work
morally (for most reasonable systems). However, is delight natural in
terms of an embryo? What if it was plonked down on a table in front of
the mythical reasonable englishman? Would the reaction be delight or
disgust (at that lump of something awfully putrid)? Left in vivo to
develop, delight at the thought of an embryo might be in regards to
its *potential* to develop into a person (indeed, into one's son or
daughter), or at the miracle of the process of pregnancy itself, but
the living tissue that is the embryo, out of the context of its
potential for development? Unlikely.

> Now, there are those who suppose that emotions are arbitrary, and that we may
> select any emotion we like and direct it toward any object we like. It is beyond
> the scope of this letter to address that weighty topic: suffice it to say that
> this is another arm of subjectivist theory experience betrays as unpersuasive.
> The abortion advocate faces the daunting task of misdirecting our natural
> emotions so that what is unnatural seems normal: hence the vehemence of their
> anger against someone who uses words in their normal fashion. It is not a
> coincidence that, in abortion clinics, the mothers are not permitted to see the
> ultrasound pictures of their babies in their wombs. The technician during a scan
> carefully turns the screen away, so that the mother will not have a fit of
> natural emotion that comes when mother sees child. The mother is carefully not
> told that babies can feel pain in the womb; and excruciating pain when they are
> killed. The misuse of speech is merely one of several ways the abnormal is made
> to seem normal.

Here, you are talking about the legacy of evolution, the impressions
left on us by its heavy hand. Our millions of years of genetic
evolution and our tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution
leave us unprepared for the complex technical realities of modern
life. Our instincts drive us often to irrational ends and with a brute
lack of finesse that is as frustrating as it is bewildering, while our
common language and the bulk of our meme pool isn't of sufficient
complexity and subtlety to deal with concepts like the difference
between potential and actual people, or the difference between an
embryo and a delivered child. Whether or not the situations you put
forward above are factual (I don't know enough about it to comment),
they are plausible (aside from the idea of an entity without a brain
feeling pain) and understandable in this context.

> If you think I am exaggerating, consider the parallel cases. This misuse of
> speech is not present there.
> Consider if we were discussing the morality of ending the life of Lee Malvo or
> Terri Schiavo. We would still properly call them "human beings." A reasonable
> man could give an argument as to why our laws might not protect their lives.
> The general argument in the case of abortion is that the mother's duty of care
> and protection does not obtain until and unless the infant develops to a certain
> stage, or has certain recognizable human characteristics, such as, for example,
> brain action. It is an argument about when killing a human being is allowable.
> In this respect, it is no different from the argument about euthanasia or the
> death penalty for minors.

I beg to differ on a technical point; it is an argument about when a
potential person becomes an actual person; a potential person has no
rights, no duty of care obtains, but an actual person does.

However, interestingly, it seems that once personhood does take hold,
once the critical threshold is passed (however sharp or fuzzy it is),
the duty of care to the now real person extends back retrospectively
to before the point of personhood. This is pertinent to your points

> The three arguments would be something like this: 1. Lee Malvo is a human being
> who should die, despite his youth, because he slew (killed wantonly in great
> number) his fellow human beings. His right is forfeit. 
> 2. Terri Schiavo is a
> human being who should die because she lacks the brain action necessary for the
> enjoyment and exercise of human life. The right has lapsed due to laches
> (nonuse). 
> 3. The son or daughter of "Sue" should die because the brain action
> necessary for the enjoyment and exercise of human life has not yet developed (an
> argument parallel to that of Mrs. Schiavo). The right does not yet obtain.
> The death penalty advocate or the euthanasia advocate do not flinch at saying
> the first two sentences. But this third sentence is something from which the
> abortion advocate recoils as the pious recoil from blasphemy.

Actually that third statement seems pretty dead on, except that "son
or daughter" is misleading, because it implies person, when personhood
has not yet been reached (and so rights do not obtain, as you have
pointed out). Also, I would say "can" rather than "should"; no one
believes that we should terminate all embryos!

> Consider the linguistic difficulty of adopting the euphemisms of the abortion
> advocate. They must strain to make their language unclear. But since reality is
> coherent, they are forced, step by step, to become increasingly vague in speech
> on related topics, in order to maintain that first euphemism.
> They will say the child is not alive because it is not yet born, and yet they
> cannot say it is dead either: so it is neither alive nor not-alive. They must
> employ a circumlocution like saying "end the pregnancy." They cannot call it a
> child, but must use some more neutral term, like "mass of cells." Or they might
> use a word that refers to a stage of the child's development, like "embryo" or
> "fetus", but they can not admit what entity is in that stage of development, or
> even that there is a development going on, because this would admit the
> developing object is alive.

I can't speak for your generic abortion advocate. Clearly the embryo
or later entity is alive. Mass of cells is a fine way to describe it,
although it does underplay the potential of future development of a
child. But it is clearly alive.

> This particular euphemism, referring to a stage of development while dying the
> existence of the thing being developed, is about as honest as the time, when I
> was a kid, my Mom told me I could no longer play in the Higginson's house. When
> I was caught disobeying, I explained that I wasn't in their house, I had been in
> their attic. A fetus is an undeveloped child, not an undeveloped
> not-quite-anything. The Higginson's attic does not hang unsupported two stories
> above the street.
> Likewise, they cannot call the pregnant person a "mother" because that would
> raise the embarrassing question as to how this strange creature, a reverse of
> the Virgin Mary, can be a mother without having a child.

That's just a problem with language, not a problem with the position.
Missing clean words for complex concepts in language is not unusual.

> In reality, the child is either male (XY) or female (XX). In reality, any child
> organism is a member of the species of both its parents: such as, ducklings of
> ducks, foxcubs of foxes. Now, the unborn infant has a sex, but, according to our
> abortion advocate terminology, it is not a human being and is not alive. But if
> it cannot be a human, and it cannot be an infant, then it cannot be a boy (an
> infant male human).

A "mass of cells" with the potential to become an infant boy is not an
infant boy. But it definitely has the potential, which is important.

> The awkward terminology requires us to say that the creature is male, but we
> cannot admit he is a boy. We are required to say creature has a species (for it
> is the outcome of sexual reproduction), but it is neither a fox nor a duck nor
> any other species; yet we cannot admit he is a human.

"Male human embryo", "Male human fetus", etc, are all clear and correct.

> I can understand how one could make the argument that an organism can be simple
> at one stage and develop the outer characteristics typical of its species later.
> I cannot understand, logically, how one can make the argument that an organism
> can be not a member of its own species at one stage and develop membership in
> its species later. Membership in a species is itself the quality that directs
> the stages of development; it is not a developed characteristic.

No one is suggesting that an embryo is not part of the human species
(are we still homo sapiens sapiens, or just homo sapiens?). But this
has no reflection on personhood.

> All this verbal and intellectual confusion leads our poor abortion advocate into
> to a broader inability to see the chain of cause and effect that lead to and
> from the pregnancy under discussion. For them, the pregnancy "just happens."
> In the world of the abortion advocate, the interests of the father in saving his
> son or daughter from "termination" cannot be raised nor addressed. Fathers—blank
> out—there is no such entity. Pregnancies "just happen."
> Since it is a world without duty and without responsibility, the role of
> fatherhood itself must be blanked out, made unmentionable, like an un-person of
> 1984. Pregnancies arise out of nothing and happening for no reason, imposing no
> duties on anyone, and raising no serious moral questions: you may keep or kill
> the child as your whim takes you, like preferring white wine to red. The risk of
> sterilization from abortion is not mentioned. The haunting regret in later years
> of having killed a child are not mentioned.

The twists and turns of language, positions of belief, and accepted
norms in moral positions that become subcultures (such as the
right-to-life and right-to-choose movements) are often irrational and
nonsensical when you stand back from them. But that's more to do with
the iterated results of political opposition than the original moral

> Ah! It must be pleasant indeed to live in the land of the Lotus-eaters!
> I expect those of you who think morality is a matter of maximizing survival
> chances to jump in here on my side at any minute. Abortion, as a way of life, is
> not an inheritable characteristic, is it? It wipes out a segment of the next
> generation. Population levels are already below replacement in societies that
> practice it. It is a self-eliminating meme.

If it's self eliminating, it shouldn't be an issue.

Maximizing survival, an issue close to the heart of most
transhumanists, must be defined in terms of actual persons. Potential
persons never have the same moral weight as actual persons, otherwise
how could we ever take any action (or inaction) for fear of its
consequences on future potential persons in the non-linear dynamics of
future history?

> In the world with no responsibility, among those whose "moral code" consists of
> denying that the idea of duty exists, there still somehow seems to be one duty:
> the commandment to obey the speech code. To pretend a child is not a child is
> simply a false statement: a lie. Their one commandment reads: Thou Shalt Indeed
> Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor.
> My code consists of identifying what I ought to do, whether I'd like it or not.
> Their code consists of identifying what you'd like to do, whether you ought or not.
> But if I do not like to obey their speech code, on what ground do they say I ought?
> I admit that Epicureanism is nobler than Hedonism: to be an Epicurean, you have
> to correctly identify your long-term self interests, and delay your
> gratifications. If you were as rigorous in your logic as Hobbes or Ayn Rand, you
> could end up displaying at least the degree of self-command that their systems
> require: and the majority of the cases, your moral code would give you
> serviceable answers. You would live as befits a man who fears more than anything
> else violent death at the hands of others, or as befits a rational and
> productive hero. Your system has self-interest only, not duty: and the only cost
> is that you will end up supporting tyranny in the first case, and callous
> selfishness in the second.
> If an Epicurean can show me it is in my rational self-interest to lie, I might
> be curious about the cleverness with which such and argument is fitted together
> with axiom and conclusion. But my rational self-interest is not the paramount
> value in my moral code: honesty is. A philosopher must make something like the
> heroic choice of Achilles, in this case, to prefer an honest life to a long one.
> To the Hedonist I make a briefer answer: it is certainly not my pleasure to put
> your lie in my mouth. If that is the price of admission to a discussion on the
> topic, I humbly decline.
> Those of you who dismiss the concept of duty from your moral calculations,
> please note that duty is merely the obverse of right. If you have a right to
> free speech, for example, then I have a duty to tolerate it, like it or no. But
> if my toleration is merely a matter of my pleasure or my self-interest, in cases
> where it does not please me to allow you speak, or is not serviceable to me in
> the long term, then I can silence you with impunity.
> The reason why I speak of duty rather than right in this case is that the
> so-called right of the unborn to live seems to me to be a highly abstract and
> doubtful argument, and it is not clear when that right vests. No baby has the
> visible characteristics of the human race, speech, upright stance, use of fire,
> use of tools. As for brain activity, my cat is smarter than my newborn, and so
> if rights were based on brainpower, my cat would have a better claim than my son.
> My duty as a father to care for my son, however, clearly vests from the moment
> my son exists, developed or not, human or not. To care for my son means to see
> to it that he makes it safely to adulthood, armed and ready to march into the
> battle of life. If it is my job to see to it that he is physically strong,
> mentally awake, and morally straight by Friday, then I cannot kill him on Monday
> even if his brain activity does not develop until Tuesday.

For me, this is the most interesting point that you raise in this
post; the conflict of duty with right. As you point out, basing
thinking on duties instead of rights leads to very different outcomes.

As someone who also tends to think in terms of duty, who has children,
and who supports the right to abortion, let me propose another way of
looking at this.

Lets pick an arbitrary point of personhood, say mid 2nd trimester. It
could be conception, it could be birth, but both of those are
inflamatory, so I'm taking the average. I'm not saying this actually
is the dividing line, or that there is a clear dividing line and that
this is a black and white debate. I just want to start there to start

As you point out below, guided only by rights, you might easily end up
saying that parents are burdened with responsibility only at the point
of person hood, so that before hand they can abort, and can also wound
or harm the potential person. It's the wounding or harming part that
seems outrageous, rightly so.

Guided by duty only, OTOH, you might see a duty to care for a
potential person whenever that potential is apparent. Likely this
starts from birth (anywhere that the parents' behaviour effects the
outcome for the eventual person is part of this duty). But you can go
further. Sperm and eggs are potential people too, because they can
potentially become part of an actual person. So does duty obtain
there? I am reminded of the Monty Python song "Every sperm is sacred".
As technology progresses, we may one day find that any human cell can
be turned into a stem cell which can be grown into an actual person.
So does every cell in every body now create a duty of care in any
person who might eventually have a duty of care for the actual person,
should the potential be realised? In fact, does that duty obtain
*now*, given the potential for the technology to be developed in our

Clearly there needs to be a middle way. I would propose it as follows:

- A viable fertilised egg is a potential person, not an actual person.
It does not become an actual person until some realistic point of it
surviving without the mother is reached, and this is a graded
transition, rather than clear cut, which changes over time due to
technological shifts.

- Rights obtain to actual people, not to potential people. But a very
special right to consideration of one's welfare by caregivers obtains
in retrospect for the time leading up to personhood.

- Thus, aborting a potential person is ok (because no actual
retrospective right can ever obtain), but permanently maiming is not;
any permanent effects on the developing entity will be subject to this
right at the time the entity obtains personhood. Whether or not an
intervention (such as a smoking mother, a medical intervention, or a
genetic modification) violates this right at that later date may be
difficult to determine in advance, but that's the essence of

- Parents (or other guardians) must make a decision to abort or
proceed when the pregnancy is known about, in the pre-personhood
stage. If parents decide to proceed, the duty of care must obtain from
conception (or before that if it has effect!) forward, even
retrospectively. So your observation that your duty commenced
immediately on finding out about the pregnancy (my experience also) is
supported by this point. The duty of care for the potential person, if
you are going to try to bring that potential person to actual
personhood, derives backward from the possible duty of care for the
possible actual person in the future, and the corresponding
retrospective rights of that person. ie: If you are going to have the
baby, and you would want in the future not to have violated its
retrospective right (and neglected your restrospective duty of care)
your only way forward is to respect that duty from the first day.


> Enough with debating. Instead, let me tell you a story.
> Once upon a time, my beloved and darling wife, the most beautiful woman in the
> world, was pregnant with my first child.
> At this time, I was not a Christian. I was a Stoic, a follower of Marcus
> Aurelius and Epictetus. (I mention this only because if any of you are tempted
> to substitute sneering at my faith for answering the questions I raise, such
> behavior, never relevant, would be even more irrelevant now.)
> The doctors advised me to abort him because their test showed he would be born
> with severe birth defects, perhaps brain-dead at birth.
> During the pregnancy, my wife took steps to see to it that his health would be
> looked after: without going into details, I will report only that these steps
> were tedious and painful to her. In other words, when he was a "mere mass of
> cells" she treated my son with care and love.
> Like most parents, we named the child before he was born. Like most mothers,
> friends and even strangers wanted to touch her belly, the share the joy of the
> miracle taking place then. Oddly enough, not even one person asked to touch her
> belly to feel the "fetus" kick.
> At one point during the birth, the child posed a direct threat to the life and
> health of the mother. My wife instructed me to tell the doctors that, should the
> choice come down to it, I was to kill her and save the child.
> Fortunately, the skill of the doctors delivered the boy after a
> caesarian-section: he was rushed to the intensive care ward, where he stayed for
> several days.
> He lived. I named him after his father. He is a perfectly healthy six year old
> at the time of this writing. Yesterday he and his brothers ran with me in
> circles on our lawn, under the sunshine, until we collapsed with laughter.
> He lived. He is in perfect health.

Congratulations! Children are wonderful, my kids bring me immeasurable
joy, and make the fulfillment of my duty toward them enjoyable, not a
burden at all (although maybe I'll revise that in a few years when
they are teenagers, I don't know :-) )

I am fortunate enough to have never faced the choice that you faced.
Much kudos on you for navigating those murky waters, and the
subsequent excellent outcome.

I do know people who have chosen abortion, however, and very fairly in
my opinion. Especially, I think that for young people who become
pregnant accidentally, the requirement to have a child would be a
terrible shame when they are not ready, and consider that they may end
up eventually having as many or more children with a better life and
as better parents after an abortion, than having a child too young,
maybe being a bad parent, and having a very difficult life.

(btw, in no way am I implying that young people make bad parents, I
was a relatively young parent myself. But if people feel this way
about themselves, then that subjective judgement is relevant).

> Please note the several moral choices which I actually faced, which are here
> being discussed with so little honesty and seriousness.
> At no point did I allow sentimentality or self-interest to make my decision: I
> did what I did because it is a father's duty to protect his son. In situations
> where there was a conflict of duty, such as a threat to the life of my beloved
> wife (whom I love more than life itself) honor required me to ceded to her
> wishes, a sacrifice she was prepared to make, but from which fate spared her.
> I tell this story only to emphasize one point: if the mother's duty to care for
> and protect her child only obtains after birth, then all pre-natal care is not a
> requirement.
> Let me emphasize this again. The sacrifices and risks my beloved wife took for
> my beloved son began before his birth, and he would have died had she not
> suffered those sacrifices and those risks.
> Your code says mommy should only love and care for baby at birth, not before.
> Therefore, by your code, not only is my wife allowed to neglect her child before
> birth, she can wound and even kill him, and this killing is protected by you and
> yours as a matter of sacred right.
> Your code says my child had no right to live. Your code says my wife had no duty
> to care for him before his birth. No law protected him: even up to the moment
> his head cleared the cervix, he could be killed with impunity in this land, at
> this time, thanks to your code.
> His skull could be punctured with scissors, his brains vacuumed out, his wee
> little legs and arms clipped from his still-warm body, and the dismembered bits
> of flesh and bone pulled from his mommy's womb by forceps. This is what your
> code and your laws allow.
> My baby lived. If the golden days of joy I have had with him were emeralds, my
> treasure would rise as high as Everest, and all the wealth of El Dorado would be
> the pauper's mite to me. Had I heeded arguments like yours, all that would have
> been lost. All that and more.
> My code won, at least that once. Despite your code, despite whatever sick thrill
> you loyal partisans of death get out of promoting the death of babies as a way
> of life, mine did not die. He lived.
> I am content with that.

The code that I've outlined above hopefully walks a middle way between
these extremes.

But I'll tell you something, which is that I'm not happy with the
whole thing. The reason that this stuff is so hard, that the
compromises are unsatisfying, and that the ground keeps shifting, is
that we have been spat up out of a process, genetic evolution via
natural selection, that was not ready for us and which was never a
preferable environment for sensitive sentient beings.

Look at the whole process of sex->conception->gestation->birth. From
evolution's point of view it's a fine construct.

Sex gives you two sets of genomes to work with (more important than
mutation in natural selection driven genetic evolution), and possibly
two involved parents. Sex brings pleasure and we are driven to it by
extremely strong hormonal urges, without any sense (especially during
the act) of the responsibilities of parenthood (except maybe if you
already have kids, in which case it can act as an abstinance-based
contraceptive). Sex and the accompanying compulsions is one of those
massive blunt instruments of evolution that indicates that we (or our
genetic predecessors) wouldn't have become parents without a lot of
encouragement (trickery!).

Gestation is mostly a zero-choice thing; it's hard for a woman to
safely abort a pregnancy without modern medical intervention. Many
hormonal urges, again, drive a woman to act in particular ways during

And we all know how compelling a new-born is. Irrationally compelling.
Evolution beats us over the head yet again.

Actually on reflection, sexual reproduction in humans looks like an
inelegant maintenance hack on a weird new species that thinks too
much. Very three-laws-of-robotics. It reminds me of RoboCop 2 (don't
lie, I know you've all watched it) where he is given hundred of
ridiculous directives that he has to obey simultaneously (and ends up
sticking his hand in an electricity substation to cold boot himself).

And that brings me to what this process is like for actual sentient
individuals; a big mess. Sex & reproduction are linked (what a
terrible combination), women have to bear the burden of a brutal
process of child birth, men don't get the same choices as women by
dint of the fact that women do the gestating, etc etc etc. This is a
facet of the larger scope of hormonal, instinctive, or otherwise built
in drives that we are bound by, including propensity for violence, an
inherent tribalism (us vs them), the various crap emotional levers
like anger, jealousy, envy, the pursuit of group (hierarchical) status
& domination. Or pain, godamn physical pain! Our genetic inheritance
seems to be fair enough for a group of barely aware plains dwelling
apes that were starting to become social, but for the complex sentient
entities that we have become in the short time since, the physical
bases of our existence are perplexing and frustrating hindrances.

To be fair, we have also inherited some wonderful things; sex (for
pleasure) is an excellent gift from evolution, as are our various
happy hormones, and the ability to love.

All these things seem to have in common a brute coercive nature,
overriding our more recently evolved brain. This is the crux of being
human. The problems of reproduction are a subset of the difficulties
we face, dragging millions of years of genetic evolution built from a
cycle of death (of incredible scope) into a newly constructed human
environment designed to support sentience and ongoing life. We fight
against mortality, against the dangers of the natural environment,
against our instincts to slay one another, against the pull of our
darker emotions.

For about 40,000 years, ever since we really started to wear our
humanity in earnest, we've been struggling against the tide, trying to
remake ourselves and our environment into something that more befits
what we can imagine that we can become. Humanity, or the physical
expression of it, has been a phase we've been striving to move through
ever since those first rudiments of culture. We are all transhumans.

So this debate about abortion, as one small piece of our larger
existential flailing, can only ever be about choosing the lesser of
evils. Really, there is no absolutely right way, and these situations
should always prompt us to ask "Why is this so? How can I change it?
What would I put in its place, and how can we begin?"


http://emlynoregan.com   * blogs * music * software *

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