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Pro-Life People: When Debating Abortion, Avoid This Embarrassingly Common Logical Mistake

Filed under: Life News |

WASHINGTON, DC, June 24, 2015 (LifeNews)– Don’t you hate it when your honest clarification question is mistaken for the start of a fallacious argument? Almost every time in the last year I’ve talked with pro-choice students at a pro-life outreach, I’ve had an exchange that goes something like this:

Pro-Choice Student: The fetus isn’t even a person.

Tim: We agreed earlier that a newborn is a person. Do you think a fetus is a person right before birth?

(Photo: LifeNews)

Pro-Choice Student: *sigh* I know where you’re going with this, you’re going to try to trap me by asking if it’s a person right before that, or right before that.

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Tim: No! I’m so glad you said that because that gives me the opportunity to clarify. The argument you’re describing is a logical fallacy, it’s one of the worst pro-life arguments I’ve ever heard, and if any pro-lifer out here makes that argument, I’ll prove them wrong on your behalf. I’m not trying to trap you, I’m just trying to figure out what your position is. What is it that makes us persons?

Unfortunately, because of how common this pro-life mistake is, the pro-choice student is expecting our conversation to go something like this:

Pro-Choice: The fetus isn’t a person.

Pro-Life: When do you think it becomes a person?

C: It isn’t a person until it can think.

L: So would you say it’s a person at birth?

C: Sure, it can think at birth.

L: Well, how about the day before it’s born?

C: I don’t know, maybe.

L: How about the day before that?

C: I think I see where this is going…

L: And how about the day before that? You just have to push back a little at a time to prove that there isn’t a difference between a newborn and a fetus. If the newborn is human, and there isn’t any big change in any day of its development, then it must have been human at the beginning.

C: Well I think there’s a big difference between the day it can think and the day before that.

L: Okay, then let’s talk about the day it can think. How about one second before that? The difference in the fetus from second to second is miniscule. So how can you say it is not human one second and human the next?

C: I don’t know how to explain it but I’m not persuaded.

While making what sounds to some pro-life ears like a very persuasive and reasonable argument, the pro-life person in this example has fallen into a logical fallacy called the Continuum Fallacy, more commonly known as the fallacy of the heap or the fallacy of the beard. This fallacy takes place when you attempt to demonstrate that two states cannot be distinct because there is a continuum of states between them.

That might be confusing. Stay with me, I’ll explain with a very easy-to-understand example.

In my opinion, the easiest way to understand why a type of reasoning is fallacious is to see that reasoning applied to something more obvious, and then see the consequences. Let’s apply the same continuum reasoning to President Lincoln’s beard:

Beard Believer: Lincoln obviously has a beard.

Beard Skeptic: Oh really?! When do you think a beard becomes a beard?

Beard Believer: I’m not sure. Certainly it’s a beard when it’s an inch long.

Beard Skeptic: Well, what if he expertly trimmed his beard down by one millimeter? Would he still be furry enough to qualify as “bearded?”

Beard Believer: Yeah, sure, I guess.

Beard Skeptic: What about one more millimeter?

Beard Believer: Yeah…

Beard Skeptic: And what about one more millimeter?

Beard Believer: I think I know where you’re going with this…

Beard Skeptic: And one more millimeter after that? What if he’s down to stubble? What if we remove the stubble and now he’s clean-shaven? Unless you can clearly delineate the exact moment Lincoln no longer has a beard, and give an argument for why that moment is not simply arbitrarily chosen, we must conclude that there is NO difference between Lincoln’s beard in this picture and a clean-shaven woman! Therefore if Lincoln has a beard, EVERYONE, MAN OR WOMAN, HAS A BEARD!!!

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