I was having a discussion with a friend on Facebook the other day concerning rhetoric and the abortion debate. We were specifically discussing the phrase "baby killer" or "baby killers," whether there is ever a sufficient reason for using it, or whether its likely negative rhetorical effects make that always a bad idea. I won't rehearse those arguments right now. The bottom line was that I was arguing that it sometimes does make sense to use the phrase, particularly when talking about abortionists themselves, and that we are cooperating in the desensitization of society to abortion if we decide that we should never use it.
The question then arose whether, in a debate with a pro-choicer, the phrase "baby killer" is question-begging and hence philosophically wrong.
I immediately pointed out that there are many pro-choicers who admit that the unborn child is, in fact, a young human being (aka a baby) but who argue that it is not a person and is therefore legitimately killable. In the context of currently fashionable personhood theory, the question of whether to refer to abortion as baby killing even in a debate with a pro-choicer therefore often reverts to a rhetorical question rather than a logical one, since many pro-choicers aren't attempting to contest that abortion kills a living, young human being.
But suppose that that weren't the case. Would there then be a problem with question-begging?
Let's flesh the example out a bit. Suppose that you were debating the morality of abortion with a pro-abort who genuinely wished to argue that the unborn child is not only a non-person but even a non-human. Your interlocutor's position is that the unborn child should be considered a clump of cells at the earliest stages and an animal at later stages until, say, birth.
Any well-informed pro-lifer knows what arguments he is now going to bring to answer this pro-choicer--arguments from biology, chiefly. He will point out the structure of the unborn child from the earliest stages of development, the fact that the fetus is visibly a baby quite early on, the arbitrariness of the birth line, the irrationality of making the metaphysical nature of an entity depend upon its location, and so forth. Those of us who have been in the pro-life movement for any period of time know how to make these arguments.
The question, then, is what terms one should use to refer to the unborn child in the course of making these arguments. In my experience, pro-lifers who write about these topics in philosophy journals generally use "the fetus," call the unborn child "it," and/or use the phrase "the unborn," treating the adjective "unborn" as a noun. It is possible that these usages are required by editors of scholarly publications, but in my experience pro-life friends in the philosophical community use this terminology even in conversation with fellow pro-lifers, which is rather telling. They have internalized it as a norm.
To be clear, I am not saying that one must not use these terms, though I admit that the strange neologism "the unborn," full-stop, grates on me. It is so obviously invented solely for the purpose of sounding neutral in conversation. I am, however, going to say that one is not obligated to use such terms and to call the unborn child "it" in all such debates, even if they are philosophical debates.
It seems to me that the problem is that there is really no neutral way to refer to the unborn child. The problem becomes clearer if one makes an analogy to a born human being. Suppose that one were debating with a virulent racist whose position was that all black people are sub-human. He therefore objected to your using "people," "human beings," or personal pronouns for any black person. And of course this person would object all the more to your doing so in a debate over the very question. He would insist that it was question-begging for you to say, e.g., "Black people are able to think, reason, and converse," because his contention is that blacks are not "people." In that context, is one obligated to adopt the norms he insists on? Is it truly neutral to refer, in the debate, only to "blacks," to call them (e.g.) "entities" or some such phrase, and to refer to an individual black person as "it"?
Intuitively, it seems that that is not neutral and that to do so actually concedes ground to one's opponent. After all, if the very question is whether this particular "entity" is a "he" or an "it," the use of either could be said to be question-begging or a concession.
The point becomes even more obvious if we personalize the matter and imagine that we are discussing a particular individual. Suppose that your racist interlocutor (I'll call him R) and you are talking about Fred, a black acquaintance, who doesn't happen to be present at the moment. R insists that you use phrases like "the entity known as 'Fred'" or "the post-fetus" or "the humanoid" for Fred. You must also call Fred "it." If you say, "Of course Fred is a person! I just got a text message from him five minutes ago saying how disgusted he is by your views!" R will say that you are question-begging by using the name "Fred" (since this rhetorically attributes personhood to the "entity"), and by using the pronouns "he" and "him." Instead, to be neutral in asserting your position and making your argument, R says that you would have to say something like, "The entity known as 'Fred' is a person, because I just received a string of letters that appears to me to be a text message originating from it."
Now, you could choose to play that game. I'm not going to say that it would be evil to play that game, especially not if you added a sufficiently ironic tone to your use of R's preferred "neutral" phrases. But I do say that it would not be philosophically wrong for you to refuse to play that game. And I do say that, if there came to be an entire philosophical literature that solemnly and without apparent irony acquiesced in calling people like Fred "post-fetuses" and calling them "it," even in the course of arguing for their personhood, that would be troubling. It would be a kind of victory for the vile racists. It would be the kind of complacent scenario of desensitization that deserved and needed to be shaken up a bit, perhaps by someone's coming along, even (gasp) in the course of a debate on the subject, and referring to those who were deliberately killing innocent black people as "baby killers" (if the people in question were babies) or "man killers."
A philosopher finds this situation nearly intolerable, because philosophers generally think that there must always be a neutral wording for any debate. Often that is the case. If we're debating about whether induction is rational or not, it's pretty easy to find a way to frame the discussion of the problem in a way that doesn't sound like it assumes either side.
In ethics, however, things can get much more difficult, and when the question is the fundamental metaphysical status of an entity that one side says is a person and the other side says isn't, the notion of a purely neutral terminology becomes misleading. It becomes even more difficult to find genuinely neutral terminology if one side (like my imaginary pro-choicer above) even objects to species designations like "human being" when the biology on that question is unequivocal.
I fully admit that some problem of neutrality can arise in cases where I am on the other side. When I refer to a dolphin as "it" rather than "he," I am not being neutral, and someone who really thinks a dolphin is a person will understandably balk at referring to the dolphin as "it." One difference with the abortion debate, however, is that in the case of the dolphin we at least have a noun to work with that no one can object to. Both the PETA member and I agree that Flipper is a dolphin, and neither of us thinks that the consistent use of "dolphin" is even rhetorically problematic.
When the denial of personhood is based on age, however, as in the abortion debate, it gets more difficult still, since using the term "fetus" all the time, though not scientifically inaccurate, definitely has a dehumanizing effect. This is all the more true when the usage is insisted upon as the only neutral and professional one and when terms like "baby" and "human being" are ruled out of court. That very insistence comes to be problematic. Compare referring all the time, insistently, to a newborn child as a "neonate" rather than a "baby" in the course of an argument about post-birth infanticide. I would not say that calling Flipper a dolphin, or even a baby dolphin when young, is question-begging, but the pro-choicer will say that calling Junior a baby is.
To clarify, again, I am not saying that it is immoral for a pro-lifer to call the unborn child a fetus. I am, however, saying that we should question the assumption that it is argumentatively wrong (because question-begging) to call the unborn child anything else.
My own practice has generally been to refer to "the unborn child" throughout debates about abortion while occasionally using "baby," "fetus," and/or "young human" or "young human being." This mix of terminology, including the frequent use of "unborn child," stirs the pot, makes it clear that my wording is not going to be dictated by a false concept of neutrality, and also focuses on the biology and tacitly challenges the pro-choicer on that basis. Is the pro-abort really going to claim that the entity in the mother's womb is not a human child, a young member of the species homo sapiens?
In the last year or two, I have gradually become concerned about various ways in which pro-life philosophers may have unintentionally cooperated in desensitizing both themselves and others to the evil of abortion and even of post-birth infanticide. This takes the form, for example, of Robert P. George's misguided paean to academic neutrality and his consequent expressions of respect for Peter Singer, which I discussed here. The interesting question arises to what extent the very form of our academic debates over these subjects has been faux neutral, having the actual effect of tacitly telling people, "Don't be horrified, and for goodness' sake act as if this question is really up for grabs. It's the only way to be professional."
I admit that I don't have a full answer to the problem. As I believe C.S. Lewis said, good philosophy must exist because bad philosophy exists and must be answered. That is true. But when the bad philosophy consists of defending truly monstrous views, rhetorical problems arise--problems concerning what it means socially to give someone a forum at all, what it conveys socially to treat the issue as truly debatable, and what it teaches to use "neutral" terminology that isn't really rhetorically neutral. Those of us who are pro-life philosophers need to ask ourselves if we really believe that it is monstrous to tear an unborn child limb from limb, and hence monstrous to advocate the morality and/or legality of doing so. If we really do believe that, how should it influence our own actions and even our own terminology?
I submit that one way it should do so is this: We should recognize that it is not ipso facto argumentatively wrong to refer to abortion as baby killing and to abortionists as baby killers, even in the course of a discussion with a pro-choicer.