Correcting Bad Writing

The following letter was sent to my friend, Vitalij Keis, who was teaching a composition course in English at Rutgers (Newark), and had asked students to write a composition in response to some of my pieces on abortion to the editor of Scranton Times (c. 1980ies). He sent me one of these student essays, and asked for my response. Here is the response which I sent him. [I have no date — but it must have been in the 80ies.]

This essay, written in the form of a response to a student composition, is intended for a general audience — it is not intended to be a private correspondence.

My good friend Vitalij sent me your composition essay requesting that I respond. Your own essay is, I assume, a response to a series of "letters to the editor" which I had written several years ago [about abortions]. My views are no longer exactly the same when I wrote those pieces — but they are close enough to warrant a defense. [See my “Concepts of Persons and Morality” (1992).]


Let me start with an observation about attitudes toward polemical writing.

(1) As I see it, in engaging in polemical writing one may have victory as a goal — by whatever means. And the easiest way to achieve such "victory" is by misrepresenting the opponent’s thesis or arguments. This can be done in different ways.

(a) A common way is the straw man tactic — simply attribute to your opponent a thesis or arguments which he does not in fact hold, and then destroy the thesis or arguments.

(b) Another one is the red herring tactic. Pick on some irrelevant side issue, draw out its bad consequences, and then claim that you have discredited the main thesis.

(2) A different attitude, the one I prefer, is to try to understand your opponent’s position — even improve it — and then try to find faults with it or agree with it. This attitude expresses an interest in a dialectical search for truth — rather than some kind of "victory" over the opponent.

Writing with the first attitude is a bad policy for two reasons. The first is that it expresses a narrowness or meanness of character. The second is that it is ineffective, except to those who are prejudiced to the conclusion in the first place. The better policy is to work under the assumption that readers are sophisticated enough to see wool pulled over their eyes. And it is for these sophisticated readers that one should write.


Let me try to follow my own advice and try to be critically fair to your essay.

In writing polemically, I assume that whoever is reading my piece is not familiar with my (opponet’s piece; so, my very first task is to quickly tell the reader what was claimed by my opponent and what I think of the claim.

Your thesis, despite what you have written under the heading "thesis," is that most (all?) abortions should be illegal; and the argument that is implicit in your essay can be reconstructed in some such way as follows:

  1. The legal policy on abortions should be guided by morality.
  2. Whatever is immoral should be illegal.
  3. Morality is a matter of following "conscience."
  4. The "conscience" of the Supreme Court has ruled that many abortions are legal.
  5. Some decisions ("conscience") of the Supreme Court have in the past been immoral.
  6. The Supreme Court is, therefore, fallible.
  7. Never follow the dictates of a fallible source.
  8. My conscience is infallible.
  9. My conscience tells me that most (all?) abortions are immoral.
  10. Therefore, most (all?) abortions should be illegal.

I don’t know if you would agree with this reconstruction of a possible argument for your position, but it does contain the kinds of premises which have to be considered if the argument is going to be valid. As it stands, the argument, unfortunately, is not sound because it contains several false premises. I will point out some of these false premises in section IV. (A sound argument is a valid argument containing only true premises.)


Your thesis — the point you are arguing for — is not really the claim labeled ‘thesis’, which you formulate as:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should restrict itself to following the terms of personhood set forth by a potentially fallible court.

This sentence neither clearly expresses your (polished) thought nor does it express your thesis (which is that most (all?) abortions should be illegal). Let me point out some difficulties with your formulation. The word ‘potentially’ is redundant. And the word ‘restrict’ seems to be doing no work in this context. A neater formulation would be:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the terms of personhood set forth by a fallible court.

The trouble with this formulation is that I am not clear about the word ‘terms’ in the phrase ‘terms of personhood’. What you meant, I take it, is something like ‘judgment about personhood’. Anyway, that is a better formulation. So, an improved version of your thesis is:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the judgment about personhood set forth by a fallible court.

Now comes a problem with ambiguity. The Supreme Court can make

(i) judgments about what is true or false,
and it can make
(ii) judgments about which rules (laws) to enact.

And these two types of judgments should be distinguished. Conflating them can cause nothing but confusion — as it did in your essay.

The court is, as everyone is, fallible about judgments of fact. However, as concerns the enactment of rules, it is improper to speak of "fallibility" in the same sense. Perhaps some other valuative term could be used for this purpose — like "bad", "imprudent," "unwise," "infelicitous." For illustration, think of the Supreme Court (or the legislature) enacting a rule to the effect that cars will drive on the right side of the road on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday; and on the left side on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. Would you say that the rule is "mistaken", and that the court made a mistake in fact? No, the better comment is to say that the court enacted a bad — even a dangerous — rule. The court made a prudential mistake, an unwise decision — not a mistake as to fact. Let us mark this distinction in kinds of mistakes by talking about ‘fallibility-f and ‘fallibility-r’, respectively for ‘factual fallibility’ and ‘rule fallibility’.

Given this ambiguity in making a "judgment" about personhood, did the court make a judgment of fact or did it enact a rule? This can also be put the following way: In providing a definition are we involved in a judgment of fact or in enacting a rule?

To get a better grip on this question, we need to distinguish a lexical definition from a stipulative definition. A lexical definition is a factual report about linguistic usage, and it is the business of (fallible) dictionary writers to discover them. A stipulative definition is one that is made by decree, as in "I decree that the word ‘glaut’ will mean ‘a person who has political clout in a college’."

My approach and the Supreme Court’s is to provide a stipulative definition of personhood. Citing the Riverside Dictionary’s "lexical" definition of ‘person’ as a ‘human being’ is relevant only to a degree. The lesson of the dictionary is this: if the stipulative definition of ‘person’ is to overlap with usage, some human beings must be considered persons. In one of my letters I pointed out that some people describe God as a person, and that it may also be a good policy to describe rational extra-terrestrials as persons. (Did you forget this? Or was this omission a polemical ploy?) On the ground, then, that some people think of God as a person and would consider rational extra-terrestrials to be persons there is reason to depart from the lexical definition of a person and provide a stipulative one instead.

Stipulative definitions — which are a matter of decision — come in degrees of goodness or badness relative to some goal. And you yourself cite some examples of bad decisions which were made by the Supreme Court in the past. However, relative to the question of abortion, the Supreme Court’s decision to define a ‘person’ as ‘a born human being’ was, from my perspective, a favorable one.

(I am puzzled why you wrote "Would Mr. Chrucky have also agreed with that legalistic definition of personhood [in the Dred Scott decision]?" First, the Dred Scott decision was not a decision about how to define a person or a slave, it was a decision about the conditions under which a slave was to remain a slave, and in which state or territory slavery was permitted. Second, surely you don’t want to saddle me with the belief that all Supreme Court rulings are wise! The Supreme Court decisions must be judged case by case. Some decisions are good; some are bad — even terrible. The Dred Scott decision probably had a bearing on precipitating the Civil War — and in this regard alone it may have been a very bad decision.)

Anyway, in light of these considerations, your thesis is better formulated as:

Essentially, I don’t believe that America should follow the stipulative definition of ‘person’ set forth by a Supreme Court which has made unwise decisions in the past.

But this is not your final thesis. In the course of your composition you obviously are adding implicitly something like:

America should follow the dictates of my conscience which says that most (all?) abortions should be illegal.


With this we are back to the argument as I originally formulated it with modifications added about fallibility.

  1. The legal policy on abortions should be guided by morality.
  2. Whatever is immoral should be illegal.
  3. Morality is a matter of following "conscience."
  4. The "conscience" of the Supreme Court has ruled that many abortions are legal.
  5. Some decisions ("conscience") of the Supreme Court have in the past been immoral.
  6. (a) The Supreme Court is, therefore, fallible-r.
  7. (a) Never follow the dictates of a fallible-r source.
  8. (a) My conscience is infallible-r. .
  9. My conscience tells me that most (all?) abortions are immoral.
  10. Therefore, most (all?) abortions should be illegal.

Let me comment on this argument as it stands. I agree with (1), but disagree with (2). For example, some consider masturbation to be an immoral practice. I don’t think it is. But even if it is, I don’t believe it should be an illegal practice. Similarly, although I think that lying to your husband about infidelity is possibly immoral, I don’t think at any case of lying to a spouse about infidelity should be illegal. (2) obviously needs refining:

(2a) Some things which are immoral should also be illegal.

(2b) Some things which are immoral should be legal.

And you seem to favor (2a) when you write: "Morals and laws should combined to protect the human rights of fetuses." Some line should be drawn between what kinds of things should be considered immoral and illegal and what should be considered immoral and legal.

Now I really do not want to saddle you with (8a); but without (8a) your argument becomes very weak. Instead of (8a) — in modesty and humility — you need:

(8b) My conscience is fallible-r.

And combining this with (7a), yields:

(8c) My conscience should not be followed.

But now you are committed to the conclusion that neither your conscience not the Supreme Court’s should be followed. Have you missed some other infallible conscience like the dictates of the Bible, the Koran, the Upanishads, Billy Graham, the CatholicChurch?

What is a conscience anyway? Is it some external voice like Jiminny Cricket for Pinocchio? Or is it an internal voice? Maybe (3) is just false. What is the alternative then? Maybe (7a) should be discarded as well? But now the whole argument seems very insecure. And I’ll leave it at that. (It would be an interesting exercise to patch it up.)


Let me finish with some semi-random comments on some claims and sub-arguments of your main argument.

Granted that the Supreme Court is fallible-f and fallible-r. Does it follow from this alone that it made a mistake in the Roe vs Wade decision? No. If there is a mistake it has to be pointed out in this specific case.

You object to the Supreme Court’s stipulated definition of ‘person’. You apparently hold that the specific decree of the Supreme Court that a person be defined as a born human being is a bad decree. Why? Your only objection is in the form of a question: "would it mean that babies removed by Cesarean section are [not] people because they weren’t actually born?" This is a good point. It shows the need for a further stipulated (decreed) definition of "birth." "Birth" could be stipulatively defined as a natural or artificial removal of a viable fetus from the mother. By this stipulated definition a baby removed through Cesarean section would be a born human being.

You add rhetorically: "May mothers exterminate these non-people because they are property under the law?" Answering this is complicated. You are evidently assuming the following:

Non-people have no rights.

This is false. Non-people, such as dogs, are, at least in principle, protected by law from cruel treatment — in this sense they have a right not to be treated cruelly.

You are also wrong about the legal status of fetuses. The Supreme Court decreed that States may have an interest in protecting the life of a fetus after the first trimester. This is to say that States may legislate (decree) rights to the fetus — even though it is a non-person. Here are the words of Roe vs Wade:

With respect to the State’s important and legitimate interest in potential life, the "compelling" point is at viability. This is so because the fetus then presumably has the capability of meaningful life outside the mother’s womb. State regulations protective of fetal life after viability thus has both logical and biological justification. If the State is interested in protecting fetal life after viability, it may go so far as to proscribe abortion during that period except when it is necessary to preserve the life or health of the mother.

Furthermore, I do not think that the law regards fetuses as "property."

You go on to dismiss the problem of definitions, and flatly assert your counter thesis: "Regardless of word meanings, it was wrong then to treat humans as disposable property and it is wrong now."

If you dismiss word meanings from discussion, then you are presupposing them (i.e. assuming them without argument). By this tactic, I take it, you are assuming that:

A. An unborn fetus is a human being,

A2. Some human beings were treated as disposable property.

A3. | Some human beings are treated as disposable property.

A4 lt is wrong to treat any human being as disposable property.

I agree with (A) and (A4). However, (A2) and (A3) are ambiguous through ellipsis:

Some human beings are (were) treated by ______ as disposable property.

If this blank is filled with ‘some other human beings’, then these are no doubt true statements. But if they are filled by ‘treated by the Supreme Court’, then, I believe, you are mistaken. You may be misrepresenting the status of negroes under the law as "disposable property." You are correct that negroes were decreed to be property, and if you mean by "disposable" the fact that they could be sold — you are again correct. But if you think that negroes were legally allowed to be treated cruelly or killed arbitrarily by their masters in the United States c. 1850 (though they were in fact), then you are incorrect.

You quickly dismiss abortions following rape, and focus on voluntary or accidental pregnancies. And you seem to ascribe to me the position that, in the case of voluntary pregnancies, I view the fetus as an "intruding embryo". I do not. I talked about an "intruding embryo" only with the case of rape. In fact all my discussions concerned rape and incest cases, and no others. I was silent about voluntary pregnancies and consequent abortions.

You write: "Morals and laws should be combined to protect the human rights of fetuses." This can be reformulated as an argument: since (i) fetuses are human beings; and (ii) all human beings have rights; therefore,

(iii) fetuses have rights.

This argument is too abstract to serve any useful purpose. The specific rights of specific human beings have to be mentioned. Not all human beings have the same rights. This depends on age, sex, residency, health, position, and such. You are seeking some universal rights such as "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." All these rights are contextually defined. There is after all also talk about the "forfeiture of rights" which again is contextually defined.

In the case of abortion, we have to decide which rights of which parties take or should take precedence. We have to have procedures for deciding cases of conflict of rights. When does a mother’s right to life take precedence over the fetus’s? That there are such rights of these parties was evidently expressed by Roe vs Wade:

… the State does have an important and legitimate interest in preserving and protecting the health of the pregnant woman . . . and that it has still another important and legitimate interest in protecting the potentiality of human life. These interests are separate and distinct. Each grows in substantiality as the woman approaches term and, at a point during pregnancy, each becomes "compelling."

Does a young girl’s (13 years) right to freedom from motherhood take precedence over an accidental pregnancy? What about the rights of the father? Of grandparents? What about the right of the fetus not to be born a chronic sufferer of pain? Obviously we need to specify rights, whose rights, and in what circumstances they take precedence — but that is an issue I did not discuss in my letters except for the case of incest and rape.

I take note of your observations that most pregnancies occur through voluntary sexual activity, and therefore the parties involved are responsible. I agree. But this brings with it the question of degree of responsibility. And it is clear to me that some cases of abortion may very well be immoral. But should it ever be the case that an immoral abortion should also be an illegal abortion?

I will conclude with a passage from Roe vs Wade:

"organized groups that have taken a formal position on the abortion issue have generally regarded abortion as a matter for the conscience of the individual and her family."

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