Abortion, Tomlinson, and Moral Midgets

A few days ago, an author by the name of Patrick S Tomlinson, posed a trolley problem, which, in a huge bout of Dunning-Krueger, he claimed eviscerates the pro-life argument.

You can read his argument in full here, but the basic gist is: if given a choice between saving a thousand frozen embryos or a 5-year-old from afire, every pro-lifer will either equivocate or choose to save the 5-year-old. Of course, many pro-lifers then responded that they would save the embryos, invalidating his point, and he showed his intellectual maturity by calling them monsters, thinking that was a reasonable argument. I personally tweeted that I would save just 1 embryo before I would save Mr. Tomlinson, thereby proving, by his own logic, that he was worth less than an embryo and should be killed, to which he reacted predictably. I tweeted some other stuff he didn’t respond to because they showed his argument to be foolish.

That was the end of it until tonight, when one Heidi asked one Lauren if she had a response. She responded, that tagged me in saying much smarter people such as myself could answer better. Being a sucker for flattery (thank you for the compliment, Lauren), I couldn’t resist responding, but decided it would be easier to do so by blog than by Twitter. So here we go.

Ben Shapiro already responded, and his response was okay. Tomlinson then proved the full heft of his intellectual integrity and honesty by then refusing to engage the argument, then blocking Shapiro. He further displayed his overwhelming philosophical openness by whining about people who pointed out flaws in his little puzzle I don’t expect this to have any impact on Tomlinson (though I plan to tweet it at him), or those ideologically blinded, morally retarded, or just plain stupid enough to agree with his little trolley trap but hopefully it will help those questioning.

Before I begin, these kinds of puzzles are often given by those with good verbal abilities to trap people. It can be hard to see the trap because their high verbal abilities conceal things; leading you into thinking incorrectly based on their hidden presuppositions. Never concede the presuppositions until you have figured out what they are. A good way to do this is to switch to equivalent terms. In this case I did so:

We can see when we replace the terms that there’s something wrong with the argument. Almost everybody would save their own child over 1000 strangers (and most people would look askance at someone who too readily agreed to part with their own child) or a healthy child over 1000 dying elderly people.

We can see that Tomlinson himself would rather spend money on plants and Mustang’s than on saving Africans from Malaria or starvation. By his own logic, Tomlinson himself values the life of a plant more than the life of an African. He values slightly higher acceleration over Africans. Tomlinson is a very cold, ruthless person is her not?

No, because everybody does these kinds of things. Those who don’t are a cut above and end up sainted.

So what are the problems:

Action vs. Theory

The first trick the question plays is to set up an elaborate story of a burning building and a crying child. YOU CAN ONLY SAVE ONE! This story is meant to play on your emotions, to get you thinking like you are actually there. Quick, you see a crying, frightened child and a metal box, which do you save? A crying child about to die provokes a strong emotional response. Nobody in that situation would stand still for a minute and carefully ponder the ethical ramifications of saving a child or embryos, they’d just grab wailing kid that’s hogging their attention and run. He’s trying to force you into immediate emotional response, then acting like this applies to a moral-philosophical question. There is no basis for claiming a split-second decision is equivalent to a well thought-out moral philosophy of life.

Remove the story, remove the immediacy and the loaded wording and the question suddenly becomes: either one 5-year-old child or 1000 unborn children will perish. Which would it be more ethical to let die? Now the answer’s not so obvious and requires thought. I’d bet pro-life folks would be a lot more split on this.

Concentric Circles of Morality

This then touches on another matter Tomlinson has artfully concealed: Moral distance. Interpersonal morality is different the closer the person in question is to you. Anybody who neglects to feed their own child is a moral monster and almost everyone agrees they should be jailed. If a neighbour child was going without food most everyone would feed him, and we’d probably look down on or criticize someone who didn’t, but we wouldn’t call them a monster and certainly wouldn’t demand they be jailed. You can feed a child in Africa for less than your own child or your neighbour, yet most don’t give to World Vision. (Sponsor a child). Many of you won’t even click that link. This is normal, we wouldn’t even look askance at someone who doesn’t give to World Vision, let alone actively try to punish them.

This is because your moral responsibility is greater to those near you than to those farther from you (by whatever metric that distance is measured).

In Tomlinson’s story, he artfully forces the moral closeness of the crying child right in front of you compared to the sterile farness of embryos in a cold metal box. The question suddenly changes if you change the moral closeness. Would you spend $3340 to save the unborn child you’ve been trying to conceive for years, your only chance at a child, from a miscarriage, or donate $3340 to World Vision? I’m sure most pro-abortion people would suddenly find themselves valuing embryos more than 5-year-olds in that situation.

Situational, Relative, and Absolute Moral Worth

The next trick he pulls is to apply to confuse absolute, relative, and situational moral worth. He assumes into the question and the follow-up that because you would save a child about to burn to death over a thousand embryos that that is a guide to the absolute moral worth of an individual.

My little joke earlier illustrates the problem nicely: I dislike Tomlinson for being intellectually dishonest and for supporting the murder of children by the millions, so I’d save an embryo over him. Does that mean I think the embryo has some absolute moral worth more than Tomlinson? No, I just think he’s a evil dick and like embryos more than him.

There’s absolute moral worth: all lives are equally valuable before God (or before Athe if you don’t believe in God).

Then there’s relative moral worth: Anybody with a soul and an ounce of moral character would think to themselves: “my child is my child and is therefore worth more to me than an indeterminate, but very high amount of other people’s children.”  Yet that doesn’t mean that in absolute sense one child is worth more than another.

Then there’s situational moral worth: Most people, including many elderly cancer patients would think to themselves: “these elderly cancer patients have lived long lives and will die soon. This healthy child will live for decades to come. We’ll save the child.” That doesn’t mean that the child is somehow absolutely more morally worthy than dying old people. It’s just the current circumstances dictate who we save.

Change the relative and situational moral worth and the question and answers change: do you save a 1000 embryos, including your dozens of you own, your only hope for children, or do you save the cruel little brat who’s laughing as he set the clinic on fire while trying to kill those embryos for fun?

Moral Worth and Killing

There is an unspoken argument Tomlinson denies making and doesn’t come right out and say, but implies heavily and is trying to make you emotionally feel without having to come out and say it because, at some, level, even Tomlinson has to know that it is utterly ridiculous. This argument, the argument that the pro-abortion argument rests on, is that if there is a difference in value between a child and a embryo, then it is alright to kill the unborn. Tomlinson, and most other abortion supporters, won’t make is that an unborn child is without value, because anybody with a shred of humanity knows there is at least some value in the unborn.

Instead, they say it is of lesser worth, then leap from lesser worth to morally acceptable to kill with impunity, and hope you won’t catch the leap, maybe not even catching it themselves. Tomlinson denies making this, saying he’s against abortion, but his argument right from the go is that pro-life people (ie. those wanting to restrict abortion) don’t care about the unborn but only desire to control woman (for some vague unprovided reason). His whole argument, unstated but very clear, is that the only reason to be against murdering the unborn is that you hate women and desire power over them for some unknown reason. Contra his objections, this does not seem to be imputing any value to the unborn.

Even if it is ceded that an unborn child is of lesser absolute moral value than a born child, (something I won’t cede, but that Shapiro weakly did) that does not in itself make abortion morally acceptable. If the elderly cancer patient is of lesser moral worth than the healthy child, that may morally allow me to save the child instead of the cancer patient, it does not morally allow me to shoot the old cancer patient.

To make abortion morally acceptable you have to show that it has no value (which Tomlinson rejects) or show that the difference in value is great enough that killing an unborn child for convenience is permissible while killing a born child is not. Tomlinson does not even attempt to do so, he just accuses his opponents of bad faith and hopes the emotional correlations he builds will carry this implicit argument without him having to make it.

Action vs Inaction

Following from the above: abortion is the killing of the unborn. In his story, the embryos are dying. There is a moral difference between allowing someone to die, particularly if you can’t save them or have to choose, and killing something. Allowing embryos to die makes zero logical impact on whether killing them is justified.


All the above can be linked to one major moral flaw, the philosophical hobgoblin that eats the minds of morally stunted rationalists: Utilitarianism. Look past the fancy language and big words and utilitarianism is essentially stripping away man’s humanity and reducing him to units of pleasure and pain (perfect for our inhuman modern society), then doing cold calculations on how various actions allocate units of pleasure and pain, then deciding to take the action that gives the most overall plaeasure. You can see this inhuman calculation most readily when they start talking about animals and meat-eating, and making mathematical conversions of animal pain to human pain.

Trolley problems are usually interesting because they bring up deep philosophical problems. The classic brings up the relative weight of killing the fat man by action versus allowing 5 others to die by inaction. Are people as morally responsible for inaction as for action? If not, how much difference is there? It’s these deeper issues that really get you to think. Strip away the deeper issues and a trolley problems becomes a utilitarian calculus of do you save one replaceable human unit or five replaceable human units. Five is more than one so you obviously do what is most efficient with your replaceable human units. This interchangeability is the crux upon which Tomlinson’s argument rests, yet he cloaks it behind an emotional story to prevent you from seeing it.

Tomlinson’s argument rests on the implicit assumption of utilitarian interchangeability. He assumes that if you value one life in a particular circumstance over a thousand lives in another particular circumstance, you therefore assign an objectively higher moral value to the former over the latter. If you value both embryos and children as lives worth preserving and protecting, you must therefore view them as morally exchangeable sacs of utilitarian units. One embryo for one child. One fat guy for one guy tied to a railroad track. One unit of utility for one other unit of utility. All are interchangeable.  If they are not interchangeable, you must value one less than the other, they must not think them morally equivalent.

This stripping away of humanity if what Tomlinson’s argument, and many modern moral arguments, rest upon. This child is not a crying child in need of rescue from a fire pulling at your virtue, he is one unit of 70 life-years to be saved. If you do not act exactly the same to an embryo as to this unit of 70 life-years, you must place lesser absolute value on the embryo. The circumstances of the life-unit, your relation to the life-unit, your own virtue, your own emotions, none of it matters, this is the cold calculus of comparing life units.

Morality can not be removed from its circumstances. This is why Tomlinson made up that whole story to put the argument in specific moral context and circumstances to best elicit the moral response that bolstered his argument. Once he elicited that moral response, he then strips the moral context away and introduces a cold utilitarian calculus. You did not save the embryos, therefore they must be of less value.

Nobody sees this magic trick because he pulled it off deftly and we’ve been conditioned through countless abstract moral problems involving switches, trolleys, and lying to axe murderers to view morality as inhuman, contextless, calculations of utilitarian value.

Human morality can not be compared as numbers on a spreadsheet. It exists in context. After a moral decision has been placed in a specific context, it can not then be removed from that context to suddenly become an abstract, absolute, objective arbiter of moral value.


  1. Excellent post.

    I also enjoyed the response MPC’s PLEASUREMAN gave:

    “I would save them both… and there’s nothing this skinnyfat nerd could do to stop me”

  2. One word: triage. You save the human who can breathe unassisted before saving the humans who will probably never have a chance to breathe anyway.

    This fool cannot tell the difference between “we cannot help them” and “they don’t deserve to live”.

  3. These people say all life came from a single celled organism but won’t admit a “fetus” is a baby. Is it stupidity? No. No one could possibly be this stupid. Its not hypocrisy either, cause that requires morality or some kind of standard. They are all, “BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY”. Their worldview is a Mao Mau-Mau Chinese Buffet of rich chipotle bacillus and less objectivity than a roomful of lawyers denying the jury the evidence necessary to convict.

  4. Great article. His tweetseries is full of lies anyways, for instance, “No one believes life begins at conception.” Leaps and leaps of logic.

  5. Same scenario except instead of 1,000 embryos, it’s another child who’s black. Which one would Thomlinson save?

    It’s a trick question, no matter which one he saves, it makes him a racist.

  6. Neither of your answers negate the fact that the embryo is inherently far less valuable than the infant. Unlike the cancer patients, it isn’t going to die in a few days, if you save it. Nor is their any family relationship as in the ‘your own child vs the 100 jews’. You are doing exactly what Tomlinson predicted, and wheeling and spinning and evading the intent of the question, which is to make a judgement based on value.

  7. One of the scenario specific errors that Tomlinson makes, related to situational moral worth, is treating frozen embryos as if they were implanted embryos. A child will undoubtedly continue to develop so long as they are still living. A frozen embryo has no such guarantee. They may be fully human in a biological sense, but they are frozen-in-development and require external forces to change that status. They are life, but they are not living life, and preserving them won’t change that.

    It’s a subtle fallacious equivocation on what is meant by “saving”. To fully save frozen embryos, they not only have to exist, but they need to be implanted. If they are not to be implanted, then they are already dead, they just don’t know it yet.

    The whole scenario implicitly presupposes the lesser worth of the embryo because, in real life, embryos are frozen without a guarantee that they will ever be used.

    If those hypothetical 1,000 embryos were scheduled for implantation, then it would be a different moral discussion.

Leave a Reply