Thursday, June 21, 2012

Joycelyn Elders and Begging Questions about Set Membership

Statement 1: "We really need to get over this love affair with the fetus and start worrying about children."*

The above statement - unless it be (<-- subjunctive) an expression of schizophrenia - seems to have the following form:

Statement 2: Instead of doing x, do y.

To be intelligible in the usual sense, this requires that x and y be distinct.

So, if one is to "worry about/love children" instead of "worrying about/loving fetuses", one modest requirement would seem to be that the set of "children" and the set of "fetuses" not overlap - that is, both, that the set of children does not have as a member any fetus and that the set of fetuses does not have as a member any child.

But, I take it that a burning question, and one over which persons generally divide, is the question of whether "fetuses" are distinct entities over against "children". For, on a broad construal, "child" is a common name that marks out a fairly expansive range of human developmental stages.

So, for instance, in certain contexts of use, an "infant," a "toddler," a "grade schooler," a "tween," a "teen," and a "high schooler" might all reasonably count as "children." It would sound absurd to suggest that:

Statement 3: "We really need to get over this love affair with toddlers and start worrying about children."

The reason for the absurdity is that, normally, a "toddler" is considered to be an instance of a "child." That is, in many contexts, "toddlers" are included in the category of "children."

One way of putting the question, then, is: Do "fetuses" belong on our list of entities that count as "children." Offhand, I would say that (at least a fair amount of) those who oppose abortion generally would answer "yes." And, clearly, if the answer is "yes," then Joycelyn Elders' quotation in Statement 1 really is as absurd as the the modified version in Statement 3.

But the main point here is simply to acknowledge that whether "fetuses" count as "children" (in a sufficiently broad sense) just is the question. Hence, Elders remark begs the question since it assumes (on a charitable interpretation of what she said) - without argument - that "fetuses" do not count as "children" (or, more generally, that "fetuses" do not count as the sort of entity that is as worthy of "love" or "worry" as "children").

One can imagine Joseph Goebbels chiding the "Allied Powers" by entreating:

Statement 4: "We really need to get over this love affair with Jews, Gypsies, the handicapped etc. and start worrying about human beings." 

I trust that the problem with Statement 4 is obvious to "Enlightened Americans". But, really, the prevailing story about Nazi Germany readily allows (indeed, demands) that some people did not think that statement 4 (or some statement relevant similarly and properly translated) had any problem whatsoever, let alone any obvious problem.

So, there seems to be a practical lesson.

In cases where one is tempted to admonish others to "do y instead of doing x", one had better make sure that x and y are uncontroversially exclusive sorts of things. And, if their distinctness is controversial, then one had better argue for their distinctness before delivering the admonishment.

As it stands, Elders' statement merely begs a crucial question. And one should be forgiven, I think, for expecting more than arguably logically fallacious statements from a former U.S. Surgeon General - even one who was fired.

* Cf.

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