Court Jesters & the Culture of Death: Exposing the Vacuous Thought Experiment of Paul Tomlinson

Court JestersIn this recent Salon article, Paul Rosenberg advances a thought experiment introduced by writer Paul Tomlinson, that both believe to be utterly devastating to the pro-life position. According to Rosenberg, not only does Tomlinson refute the pro-life position, he also exposes the entire movement for being made up of hypocritical liars motivated by a desire to “control women like slaves.” To the contrary of his claims, however, what is really exposed are the depths of murky obfuscation pro-abortion advocates will plunge themselves in order to advance the culture of death. Even a cursory examination of the thought experiment reveals how intellectually shallow and puerile it truly is.

To make claims as strong as this, Rosenberg must wield an argument that is not only original, but also creatively ingenious, given the fact that the philosophical dispute over what constitutes a human person has been raging for several decades with no end in sight. Unfortunately for Rosenberg, the argument he’s celebrating is neither original nor creative.

Here is the scenario posed by Tomlinson to those who are pro-life:

Would you save one 5-year old from a burning building or 1,000 embryos? That is it. This simple question supposedly puts the entire debate to rest and exposes the morally defective nature of those who argue that personhood begins at conception.

According to Tomlinson’s testimony and Rosenberg’s excitement, nobody has ever said that they would save the 1,000 embryos and leave the 5-year old to a brutally painful death. In Tomlinson’s view, this thought experiment, and the answers that follow, presses the point that nobody actually believes embryos are the same as “living” children. It follows from this, so it is claimed, that the pro-life movement is basically lying about their actual beliefs in order to gain political leverage against women and treat them like cattle.

But is this thought experiment as successful as Tomlinson suggests? Is this unoriginal rehash of the trolley dilemma typically presented to freshmen in a philosophy 101 course a knock down defeater to the pro-life position that life begins at conception?

No. Not even close.

The first problem with this thought experiment is that it does not even touch the philosophical issue of when personal identity comes into existence, what constitutes personhood, or what the necessary and sufficient conditions are to track personhood over time t-1 to time t-N. It fallaciously assumes that making a choice in this situation settles the issue of personhood when it fails to even consider it. Let’s say that a person does choose the embryos over the 5-year old child. Would it follow that this choice denies the personhood of the child? Neither choice presented in the dilemma even merits a serious examination of what constitutes personhood, but yet for some reason progressives are barking and clapping like seals at what this silly depiction even offers. The thought experiment is doing nothing other than participating in the long tradition of pro-abortion advocates begging the most important question regarding personhood.

Let’s alter Tomlinson’s scenario a bit. Let’s say that instead of a fertility clinic, you’re in a nursing home. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down a hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child trapped under a fallen shelf, crying for help. At the same time, in the room across the hall, you spot ten elderly residents in wheelchairs. They’re already totally unconscious from lack of oxygen, but they could still be saved from their impending demise. The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can save the elderly or the child, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one.

The vast majority of people would likely choose to rescue the terrified, crying child in this case. It’s a pretty natural instinct. But does that mean that the unconscious, elderly people aren’t really fully human? Of course it doesn’t. It means that we have a natural inclination to come to the assistance of little children who are suffering and afraid.

If Tomlinson were honestly trying to determine whether we believed embryos are human, he’d be asking people whether they’d risk their own lives to rescue them from a fire. But he doesn’t do this, because pro-lifers would be much more likely to answer that question in the affirmative, which would make it a lot more difficult for him to accuse all of us of dishonesty and emotional manipulation.

It’s more than a bit ironic that Tomlinson can’t see that he in fact is the one who’s being dishonest. Among the numerous lies contained in his Salon interview is his statement is that “Nobody is pro-abortion. People are just pro-‘Hey maybe since I don’t have a vagina, I shouldn’t really have a whole lot of say in what people do with theirs.’”

The last time I checked, a vagina is something different than an embryo or a fetus. While it’s possible that Tomlinson simply needs a remedial biology class, I think it’s more likely that he’s engaging in pure sophistry. But what else would we expect from the pro-abortion crowd? If they were look at the issue in an honest and reasonable way, they’d be in danger of recognizing the gravity of the crimes they are committing against the unborn.


– Lucas G. Westman & Nicholas Kaminsky


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