Saturday, December 11, 2010

An Essay On The Argument

This article is a post copied in it's entirety from The Aristophrenium Blog. My reasons for doing this are two fold: (a)I hope it will be help to others, (b), it is an article that I know I will reference again in the future. The second of those is the main reason. I will know just where to find it when I need it.

An Essay In Strong Arguments

For some of our readers and most of our staff, this argument is not exactly new. It was an argument I had formulated back in May of this year, in support of an article Adam had written against “pro-choice” rhetoric on abortion (Morgan, 2010). After having evaluated this argument from different angles and subjecting it to several tests from critical opponents, it appears that the argument is unassailable. Thus I want to use it as an illustration of what a strong argument is and what goes into it.

The anatomy of an argument

First, a few words about arguments, starting with what they actually are. Most people think of arguments as being a quarrel between two people, such as spouses or siblings, in which heated words are exchanged, voices raised, doors slammed and so forth. While that is the colloquial or informal sense, it is not how the term is used here, which is the formal sense of being a set of propositions intended to establish a conclusion. (A hat tip must be given to Michael Palin for this definition, which he expresses in the comedy sketch “Argument Clinic” in Monty Python’s Flying Circus [Cleese, 1972]. Sure it was comedy, but his definition of an argument was spot on). So to give an argument is to demonstrate the reasoning by which some belief is reached, where the belief functions as the conclusion that is then established by supporting reasoning.

Now there are two tests an argument must satisfy in order to be persuasive: it must be valid and it must be sound. Validity is the primary or most important test because the truth of the premises must logically guarantee the truth of the conclusion, otherwise the truth of the premises is made irrelevant (by failing to justify the conclusion). That is why the other test, soundness, is predicated on validity and thus secondary. In other words: (a) an argument is ‘valid’ if and only if the truth of the premises guarantees the truth of the conclusion; (b) it is ‘sound’ if and only if the argument is both valid and the premises actually are true. Consequently, an argument that is valid and sound should be persuasive. [1] (It is worth pointing out that only arguments can be valid or invalid, not propositions, and only propositions can be true or false, not arguments.)

An example of a strong argument

Having said that, I would like to present what appears to be a sound argument; i.e., it is logically valid and the premises are actually true. In the face of critical evaluation by myself and several opponents, the argument holds firm. Even though the conclusion is highly controversial, neither premise can be easily denied.

  1. The deliberate killing of innocent humans is morally wrong.
  2. Elective abortion is the deliberate killing of an innocent human.
  3. Therefore, elective abortion is morally wrong.

It is of critical importance that the propositions and the terms employed are carefully calculated and chosen, so as to garner acceptance by the broadest audience possible. It is easy for people to reject an insular argument; it is considerably more difficult for them to reject one that coheres and is consistent with their view and values. With the argument above, I have framed the propositions and chosen the terms with great care and precision so that the conclusion follows logically from premises whose truth could not be easily denied by most sensible people.

For example, I chose the word “deliberate” to convey the sense of intentionality, that is, killing as a conscious and informed act, premeditated (cf. accidental killing may be argued as not morally wrong); “killing” obviously means to cause death, deprive of life, put to death; [2] “innocent” was chosen to distinguish from cases where the deliberate killing of humans might not be morally wrong, for example, soldiers on the battlefield (enemy combatants), the death penalty (convicted felons), shooting someone who breaks into your house (mortal threats) and so forth; “human” obviously should not be controversial, simply indicating any member of the species Homo sapiens; “elective” is used to indicate abortions that are not medically necessary yet performed by the choice of the mother, distinguished from those abortions that are medically necessary, such as an ectopic pregnancy. [3]

Why this argument is strong

The argument is perfectly valid; i.e., if the premises are true then it is impossible for the conclusion to not be. [4]So the question is, “Are the premises actually true?” The second premise is a concrete matter of fact, semantically and genetically. One would have to be scientifically illiterate to think that a fetus is not human; every relevant biology source one can check, whether textbook or online, describes the biological life cycle ofHomo sapiens as beginning with the fertilized egg or zygote (Saladin, 2001; Browder, 1991; Moore, 1982; see also “Human” in Wikipedia, specifically the biology section describing the human life cycle). And clearly a fetus is innocent, both legally and morally, being categorically unable to violate any law or ethic. And by definition elective abortions are deliberate, given what “elective” means.

That leaves us with the truth-value of the first premise. Is it true that the deliberate killing of innocent humans is morally wrong? Since the range of people to whom this argument can be presented is so broad—from Christians to Secular Humanists, from Wiccans to Muslims, from Scientologists to Hindus and so on—it is almost certain that nearly everyone will bring a unique moral theory to the table (meta-ethics). [5] As a result, I designed the first premise to be self-evidently true (which I do not mean in either an analytic or epistemic sense); that is, I am relying on people simply having a morality and accepting the premise as true in light of their morality. Whether Hindu or Secular Humanist and so forth, given their morality they will concede that the first premise is true, allowing for relevant exceptions. In other words, I expect only Nihilists and psychopaths to reject it and assert that the deliberate killing of innocent humans is “not morally wrong.” Most everyone else would agree that it is wrong, minus certain relevant exceptions.

So that raises the important question of exceptions. What circumstance could a person conceive as an exception, under which the deliberate killing of innocent humans is not morally wrong? Some might suggest, “Abortion, of course,” but since that is the very question it cannot be begged (petitio principii fallacy). The only serious proposal I can think of is euthanasia, where a terminal patient is suffering incurable pain or for any reason wishes to have their life end. While that is arguably a good exception, where the deliberate killing of such an innocent human could be argued as a moral good, it is not an effective undercutter to this argument for a couple of significant reasons.

First, it would admit that over 99.9 percent of all elective abortions are morally wrong since (a) a fetus suffering incurable pain has never been cited in the literature as a reason given for performing an abortion, but more importantly, (b) scientific evidence indicates that the neurological pathways that allow for the conscious perception of pain do not even function until the third trimester (Lee, 2005, pp. 947-954), and according to the Alan Guttmacher Institute only 0.08 percent of abortions occur past twenty-four weeks and ninety-two percent of abortion providers will not perform the procedure in the third trimester (Jones, 2008, pp. 6-16). So as an exception, then, it is fairly useless because it leaves the argument with a powerful punch, conceding that 99.9 percent of elective abortions are morally wrong.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, euthanasia as an exception does not include elective abortion within its fold. But in order to show that, a word must be said about euthanasia first. Let it be understood that there are three categories of euthanasia: involuntary, non-voluntary, and voluntary. Given that involuntary euthanasia is defined as ending the life of someone against their will, it is little more than a fancy term for murder (involving the intent to kill or the knowledge that one’s actions would result in death). Non-voluntary euthanasia is defined as ending the life of someone who is incapable of expressing their will; that is, it is neither according to nor against their will. And voluntary euthanasia, the one usually contemplated when discussing the issue, is defined as ending the life of someone according to their will. As an exception that elective abortion can qualify under, both voluntary and involuntary euthanasia can be dismissed since a fetus is incapable of expressing any will one way or the other about the ending of his or her life.

So that leaves only non-voluntary euthanasia. In order to have relevance to elective abortion we must suppose a scenario that involves a patient on life support who shows signs of recovery and is expected to come off life support after a few months in good health (analogous to a fetus within the womb). Thus we are presented with a question that practically answers itself: Is it morally wrong to turn off the life support system of a patient who shows signs of recovery and is expected to come off life support after a few months in good health? If it is morally wrong in that case, then it is wrong in the case of elective abortion as well. Every scenario wherein it is arguably a moral good to turn off a patient’s life support involves circumstances that do not apply to a fetus who shows signs of development and is expected to be born after a few months in good health. Ergo, euthanasia fails to define an exception that includes elective abortion within its fold.


There are four things that go into developing a strong argument. First, construct the argument concisely according to the principles of logic and rules of inference; this will allow others to more easily discern and critically evaluate your argument without the need to interpret and unpack what they think your argument might be. Plus it will go far toward teaching yourself critical thinking skills. Second, construct the premises clearly, being careful to avoid ambiguous terms and language; the more perspicuous you are with your argument, the less opportunities others will have for constructing Straw Man versions of it. Third, insofar as you are able, build your argument using terms and language that appeals to the broadest spectrum of audience possible. [6] The example argument appeals to the contentious issue of morality, but it does not depend on any one moral theory; it suffices that the reader simply has one, whatever it may happen to be. It is also heavily predicated on scientific and statistical data, meeting its burden of proof and being very difficult to deny. (For example, it forces opponents into either conceding the point or having to claim that a fetus is not of the human species until a certain point of development; i.e., that the biological life cycle of Homo sapiens does not begin at sexual reproduction, in direct contradiction to developmental biology which shows that two members of one species reproduce members of that species. From the fertilized egg onward a human develops.) And finally, a strong argument is one which produces a unique conclusion that advances our knowledge. (Contrast this with tautological arguments, which are valid and sound but have neither epistemological nor dialectal force because they do not impart any new information.) For example, the argument used here reasoned from premises most anyone can accept to a conclusion that is controversial yet logically guaranteed by the premises.

The argument is valid, that is, the truth of the premises logically guarantees the truth of the conclusion. And the argument is sound, insofar as the premises actually are true (regardless of the moral theory brought to bear). To all those who are against elective abortions, I encourage you to enjoy and use this argument. To all those who support elective abortions, I invite you to submit logically valid and rational objections to the argument; those not already addressed in this article will be published and answered by me below. The comments field to this article will be closed. All submissions must be made to me by email at

(Click here for a PDF copy of this article.)

Objections and questions

“Why does your analysis of euthanasia say that the fetus is suffering incurable pain? That is not the only reason for choosing euthanasia.”

While that is true, other possible criteria for ethical non-voluntary euthanasia do not apply to a fetus. For example, a comatose patient who, in the judgment of physicians, shows no sign of ever coming off life support could qualify for ethical non-voluntary euthanasia. However, this is inapplicable to a fetus, which is never at risk of staying inside the womb (cf. life support) indefinitely.

“What about patients who qualify for euthanasia because, despite potentially coming off life support, they suffered brain damage that diminishes their quality of life?”

That is a highly contentious and prejudicial issue which lacks any clear scientific and rational justification (Bellieni, 2006, pp. 103-105) and is thus not a credible objection to stand on. The scientific merits of the second premise outweighs the weakness of this prejudiced objection.

“Abortion rights advocates would argue that the fetus is not a human being until it is viable outside the womb.” — “A fetus is not a person.”

This ignores the fact that such terms as ‘being’ and ‘person’ were not invested in the argument; the one is a point of philosophy, the other is a point of law. The argument, however, is predicated on a point of science, that throughout fetal development the unborn belong to the species Homo sapiens.


  • Bellieni, C. (2006). ‘Quality of life’ is a misnomer: the case for neonatal euthanasia. Journal of Medicine and the Person 4(3). (N.B. Given what Bellieni’s paper argues, the title is somewhat misleading. It ought to read “the case against neonatal euthanasia.”)
  • Browder, L., Erickson, C. & Jeffery, W. (1991). Developmental Biology, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: Harcourt College Publishing.
  • Cleese, J. & Chapman, G. (Writers). (1972, November 2). Argument clinic. In MacNaughton, I. (Producer) Monty Python’s Flying Circus. United Kingdom: BBC Television.
  • Finer, L., Frohwirth, L., Dauphinee, L., Singh, S., & Moore, A. (2005). Reasons U.S. women have abortions: quantitative and qualitative perspectives. Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 37(3).
  • Jones, R., Zolna, M., Henshaw, S., & Finer, L. (2008). Abortion in the United States: Incidence and access to services.Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health 40(1).
  • Lee, S., Ralston, H, Drey, E., Partridge, J., & Rosen, M. (2005). Fetal pain: A systematic multidisciplinary review of the evidence. Journal of the American Medical Association 294.
  • Moore, K. (1982). The Developing Human, 3rd ed. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders Company.
  • Morgan, A. (2010, May 6). How to respond to empty pro-choice rhetoric. [Blog post.] The Aristophrenium. Retrieved from
  • Saladin, K. (2001). Anatomy and Physiology, 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Sihvo, S., Bajos, N., Ducot, B., & Kaminski, M. (2003). Women’s life cycle and abortion decision in unintended pregnancies.Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 57(8).
  • Torres, A. & Forrest, J. (1988). Why do women have abortions? Family Planning Perspectives 20(4).
  • Human. (n.d.). In Wikipedia. (See "Life cycle.") Retrieved 9 December 2010 from


  1. I say "should be" because an argument being persuasive does not guarantee that everyone will be persuaded by it. While a person might agree that the argument is logically valid and that the premises are indeed true, he may still reject the argument anyway. However, all that reveals is that he values something more than logic and truth, since he rejected the argument at the expense of both.
  2. "Life" is a property that distinguishes between that which has signaling and self-sustaining processes and that which does not, exhibiting such things as cellular organization, homeostasis, metabolism, growth, response to stimuli and so forth. Something does not have life when either those biological functions have ceased (death) or when it never possessed those functions in the first place (inanimate).
  3. The vast majority of abortions performed are "not medically necessary," chosen for reasons such as: not ready for a(nother) child; inadequate finances; would interfere with work or education; do not wish to be a single parent; relationship problems; not mature enough, and so forth. Only seven percent of women cite health concerns for herself or the fetus, one percent cite rape, and less than half a percent cite incest (Finer, 2005, pp. 110-118; Sihvo, 2003, pp. 601-605; Torres, 1988, pp. 169–176).
  4. The argument reduces like so:
    1. The deliberate killing of innocent humans (M) is morally wrong (P).
    2. Elective abortion (S) is the deliberate killing of an innocent human (M).
    3. Therefore, elective abortion (S) is morally wrong (P).

    This is a universal affirmatives syllogism:

    1. All M is P. (major premise)
    2. All S is M. (minor premise)
    3. All S is P. (conclusion)

  5. The term meta-ethics refers to the branch of philosophy that concerns itself with identifying and understanding the origin and meaning of ethical statements, concepts, properties, and attitudes. That is, while ethics deals with what is moral, meta-ethics deals with what morality is.
  6. However, it is not necessary to construct your argument using terms and language that appeals to the broadest spectrum of audience possible; an argument supporting some Humanist belief, for example, will obviously use terms specific to a Humanist worldview. But while that is perfectly rational, nevertheless it reduces its persuasive force. It allows others to concede the consistency of the belief but not necessarily accept it as true. (But that only matters if persuading others is your intent, which it may not be. Typically I could not care less if others accept the conclusion that my argument establishes; quite often such autobiographical detail is irrelevant.)

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