Steven Pinker summarises modern pro-choice thinking in a paragraph

I have been reading psychologist Steven Pinker’s latest book The Better Angels of our Natures, (Allen lane 2011) in which he argues from hundreds of studies that violence between humans has lessened massively. He addresses the issue of abortion in the quote below. It seemed to me to accurately describe the thinking (with added science) of most people who support legal access to abortion. It also illustrates, to me, who so much pro-life argument fails to make progress: it is addressed to ideas that people do not have, such as that ‘it’s ok to kill children’.

Opponents of abortion may see the decline of every form of violence but the killing of fetuses as a stunning case of moral hypocrisy. But there is another explanation for the discrepancy. Modern sensibilities have increasingly conceived moral worth in terms of *consciousness, *particularly the ability to suffer and flourish, and have identified consciousness with the activity of the brain. The change is part of the turning away from religion and custom and towards science and secular philosophy as a source of moral illumination. Just as the legally recognized end of life is now defined by the cessation of brain activity rather than the cessation of a heartbeat, the beginning of life is sensed to depend on the first stirrings of consciousness in the fetus. The current understanding of the neural basis of consciousness ties it to reverberating neural activity between the thalamus and cerebral cortex, which begins at around twenty-six weeks of gestational age. More to the point, people *conceive *of fetuses as less than fully conscious: the psychologists Heather Gray, Kurt Gray, and Daniel Wegner have shown that people think of fetuses as more capable of experience than robots or corpses, but less capable than animals, babies, children and adults. The vast majority of abortions are carried out well before the milestone of having a functioning brain, and thus are safely conceptualized, according to this understanding of the worth of human life, as fundamentally different from infanticide and other forms of violence.

I believe this author did not take into account the large number of premature births that occurred as early as 21 weeks. I wonder if he has actual scientific evidence of the brain activity of a fetus rather than the ‘mere speculation’ of 24 weeks which evidence clearly
shows is wrong. For me though, I believe life begins at conception. Peace be with you.

Steven Pinker? The same Steven Pinker who wrote this garbage?

No, thanks. You can keep him.

P.S. Anyone who hasn’t read the article linked above should do so. He seems to think the morality of killing neonates/infants is up for debate.

I just read the articel at your link prodigalson2011

And it is ****!:mad:

Just to be clear: Steven Pinker does not agree with Catholic teaching on morality. You should not be surprised that most pro-choice people do not. I posted the thoughful statement by Steven Pinker as an excellent illustrative summary of what many people who do not agree with the Church think. Responses along the Pinker = bad line illustrate why the pro-life causes continues to lose its arguments. When your opponent gives you a thoughtful, clear summary of their position, it deserves consideration and considered responses. Remember that only about 10% of Americans (and probably less in most other countries) support the Catholic position on abortion. It is the opinion of a tiny minority, and when it comes to actual decisions, Catholics appear to abort in the same proportion as others. Understanding the varied positions of the 90% is important.

You’re calling a 22-paragraph essay “garbage” without susbstantiating that characterization.
We shouldn’t expect the morality of neonaticide/infanticide to be debated by the laity, especially not in civilized western democratic nations. There shouldn’t however, be a reason to scoff at the idea of philosophers debating it (including philosophers with pre-conceived moral conclusions) because philosophers are devoted to getting into the nitty gritty of whys and whats concerning moral theories and propositions.

Anyways, he gives me the impression of being sympathetic to the biological human life vs biographical human life distinction, as the basis for conferring personhood, and in turn, for conferring the right to life upon persons (I presume he does not consider the right to life as being intrinsic to human beings, but as being externally granted, by other humans).

Anyways, careful. The topic of the OP was not the article you linked to. Don’t dismiss the OP quotation because of who it comes from. Genetic fallacy …

That’s a novel thought “Most pro-choice people do not agree with Catholic teaching on morality”

Of course.

They don’t agree, because if they did the definition of life would not be so arbitrary.

Organism has beating heart, but not enough sophisticated brain activity, so it isn’t alive? Or it isn’t human? Or it is’t a person? Or it depends on if the organism’s existance burdens us, annoys us, bothers us, is unwanted.

I think I liked it better when pro-choice people believed it was a blob of cells, instead of being perhaps human, perhaps more special than maybe a potato, but not significant enough to protect because lack of brain activity.

In 40 years since R v W, the pro-choice has changed the reason why it should be a “choice” countless times. It’s not alive, it’s a blob of cells, women could die, it’s a privacy issue.

It cannot be a “choice” because it is a human. A 1 day old zygote carried by a human mother is a human — it is not any other entitity.

Phrases such as, “If everyone jumped off a cliff…” spring immediately to mind. I understand the opposition’s argument perfectly well, but I happen to think its hogwash. Steven Pinker, on the other hand, doesn’t just disagree with Catholic morality, he challenges the morality of, I’d be willing to bet, 99 percent of the civilized world. We should reconsider whether young babies are really people?
And while many may not fully agree with the Catholic position, the fact is that over 50 percent of Americans currently identify as pro-life, so your assertion that Pinker speaks for 90 percent of them is grossly deceptive.

The first half of the article, which is based on Pinker’s belief in evolutionary psychology, I find interesting. Of course, this means we are not merely enslaved by our personal unconscious mind, but more significantly, by the biological natural selection process of our ancestors, without even realizing it. The second half of the article, in which Pinker cites moral philosophers’ views on neonaticide, I find lacking. What Pinker, despite his fame as a Harvard psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist, leaves out is any mention of religious moral philosophy and theology, except one, which he gets wrong with respect to defining full personhood. The one reference he makes to the ritual of the Jewish bris (as well as that of christening), he suggests is needed to reinforce the notion of personhood. This is patently false based on Jewish Law, which confers full and unequivocal personhood from the moment of birth. Given that Pinker regards himself as a cultural Jew at best, it is not very surprising he omits any religious views on the issue.

I think the article does all the substantiating for me.

And I’ll gladly commit that genetic fallacy any day.
If everything were decided by philosophical discourse, nothing would ever be decided.

You either believe human life has inherent dignity or you don’t.
Clearly, Pinker does not, and neither do pro-choicers.
I referenced his article just to emphasize how disturbingly far he takes his “logic.”
One can reason himself into accepting anything.

Any chance of returning to discussion on the original post?

Yes, I think Pinker is tapping into the current ethos of secular humanism. The subtext of his main argument that consciousness is the defining concept of life seems to be the relation between science and secular philosophy, which have combined to form a new morality. Pinker describes this relation as a turning away from the traditional religious beliefs, values, and customs. Although this change in perspective may exist, I don’t see why it has to. True, science and religion have had a turbulent history, but the two disciplines have also converged at times, and still do within the field of psychology. Regarding Pinker’s discussion of consciousness, we’re only at the beginning of understanding the meaning and process. It’s a huge topic in psychology (and not only in cognitive neuroscience), as well as in philosophy, physics, and theology.

My apologies for letting my personal distaste for Mr. Pinker disrupt the flow of conversation.

Now, as to his argument in this particular case, it seems to me to be dressed with a lot of misleading valuations. I disagree that life can be defined as beginning with brain activity. I suppose, in that case, plants are never alive? Not much brain activity going on there.
Personhood itself is a valuation that is beyond scientific description, so resorting to science for ethical judgments is a doomed enterprise.

Sooner or later, we must take a stand on some transcendent principle. The deciding factor is whether we believe that principle to be something greater than or subservient to ourselves. Interestingly, there are a fair number of atheists even who rank the dignity of human life (and a fetus is, by all scientific definitions, a human life) above their individual life. So Pinker’s assertion that pro-life views are simply the product of superstitious religious thinking whereas the pro-choice mentality is the inevitable result of scientific advancement is entirely unfounded. What it is is the misappropriation of material science to the realm of moral philosophy.

Furthermore, abortion has been widely practiced throughout history. It’s not as though it just appeared after Roe v. Wade. He seems to be arguing that widespread acceptance of abortion is a new phenomenon. It is not.

P.S. I also notice I overlooked the word “varied positions” in relation the “other 90%.” My apologies for that oversight as well.

I do not think there is any way you can accurately measure how many Catholics have abortion, and Catholic teaching on the intrinsic evil on abortion remains no matter how many Catholics deviate from that teaching.

The youth are the most pro generation, on an issue like this you would probably think it would be the older generation that would be the most pro life, it is the opposite. Many polls, Gallup, Cnn have found the majority of people who call themselves ‘‘pro choice’’ want restrictions on abortion, like many pro lifers do. You say that the Catholic position on abortion is supported by a minority of Americans, that may be true, I am not sure about your 10% number, but it is also true that unrestricted, unlimited abortion access is also only supported by a minority of Americans. I believe most think abortion should be limited to cases of rape, incest or if the mother’s life is in danger. These only count for 2% of abortions according to the Guttmacher Institute (research arm of Planned Parenthood).


People have rationalized supporting evil since Cain killed Abel. Nothing new here.

   I think you're onto something here- they do believe that killing a human being is wrong, but they don't agree that the embryo *is *a human being. That is why we have all those frozen embryos- they truly aren't perceived as actual human beings. This is why Terri Schiavo was killed. This horrifies me- how do we convince these people that human beings are being killed? They *just don't understand.* I truly don't know what to do about this mindset except to pray, pray, pray.

The vast majority of abortions are carried out well before the milestone of having a functioning brain …

This reference to a “milestone of having a functioning brain” is quite a concept. Sure sounds matter-of-fact, doesn’t it? But isn’t brain development a gradual thing? Where exactly is this milestone? And as it is gradual, someone gets to decide quite arbitrarily where to put it, no?

And isn’t that really the point, that all of this “scientific” talk about a “milestone” is just distraction, a smokescreen, to provide cover for the much more important agenda, which is to clear the path for establishing the authority … *the authority (!!) *… to decide criteria for fitness for life. Establishing this authority, this power, is primary; they do not really care where the milestone is actually set, or whether there is a milestone at all.

Don’t kid yourself. It’s happening. The greatest evils to which the world could be subjected are yet to come.


Excellently said, and sadly true!

The problem with his ramblings is that suffering and torture of others is still going on en masse, of course, not in the majority of Western nations, but in enough countries that his point falls flat… China, Africa, places in the Middle East, people are suffering terribly, and to say those people causing the suffering aren’t aware of their victims humanity via consciousness is assinine at best.

The other point, that I see a lot of, both from pro-lifers and abortion supporters, this idea that life beginning at conception is some kind of “belief”, its not a “belief” its a cold stone, scientific fact. People can grumble about brain function all they want happening at x weeks in gestation, but really, its a slipperly slope indeed whne people determine life as starting at some form of consciousness or awareness, kids aren’t fully aware of self until about 2 years, and even then its debatable. Some people never develop full awareness. Should we kill them also?

The pro-abortion stance is an illogical and quite frankly, stupid one.

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