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Frozen Embryos and the Utilitarian Gotcha

November 9, AD2017

In recent news, science-fiction author Patrick S. Tomlinson has created what I call a Utilitarian Gotcha. By “gotcha”, I mean that however you answer the question, you’re supposed to lose: “If God is all-powerful, can He make a rock that He can’t lift?” You might have already heard of Tomlinson’s question as the “frozen embryos test”. The test supposedly provides abortion advocates with the long-sought Pro-Abortion Wrecking Ball, the Ultimate Argument which “eviscerates” the core pro-life argument. And from the handsprings the pro-abortion press is doing, you’d think moral dilemmas, like the 2016 presidential election cycle, were something pro-lifers have never faced.

Web-Slingers and the Value of Human Life

Let me explain the mechanics of the Utilitarian Gotcha:

  • Define a highly contrived, implausible scenario which involves two evil outcomes and arbitrary barriers preventing your opponent from choosing anything else.
  • Bonus point: Make one of the arbitrary barriers “not enough time”.
  • Implicitly assume the chooser can carry out either choice with only sketchy information, to avoid lengthy explanations that might make the scenario credible.
  • Define a “right” outcome implying a higher moral value.

The Utilitarian Gotcha is easy to recognize because moral dilemmas are a staple of action movies. Consider Spider-Man (2002): In the climactic battle sequence, the Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe) taunts Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) with the choice of saving either his beloved Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) or a Roosevelt Island Tram car full of people. “This is why only fools are heroes!” the Goblin cackles with glee. “Because you never know when some psychopath will come along with a sadistic choice!” Often, it’s only through some extraordinary piece of luck—and hokey screenwriting—that the hero does overcome the dilemma.

The Utilitarian Gotcha in all its permutations has been around for decades. The most famous is the so-called “trolley problem”, in which you have the choice of either letting a runaway train car kill five innocent railway workers or murdering a very big man by pushing him in front of the train car to stop it. But other versions exist, such as torturing a terrorist’s mother to prevent a nuclear bomb from going off. And the “correct” answer usually involves differences in “social utility” (read life-worthiness) and/or erasing the moral distinction between permitting evil and committing it.

To the extent that the moral dilemma works in the movies—as a story point, it’s cliché—it works in part because, to the hero, the value of human life is transcendent and unquantifiable. That’s why the Green Goblin uses the dilemma to morally torture Spider-Man. But the Green Goblin is also making a utilitarian point: If all lives of are equal value, then you must save the people in the tram. If you save Mary Jane, then all lives don’t have equal value. But you don’t really value all those people like you value her, do you?

Tomlinson’s Question

Here is Tomlinson’s Utilitarian Gotcha, slightly adapted from the Daily Mail:

You’re in a fertility clinic. Why isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help.

They’re in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled “1,000 Viable Human Embryos.” The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one.

Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die.

Tomlinson smugly claims that in ten years of asking the question he’s “never gotten a straight answer,” that “no one has EVER answered it honestly.” The Independent’s Sarah Young crows in her lede that the question “undermines the core argument against abortion”. Less subtly, the title to David Edwards’ Raw Story entry claims the question “baffles abortion foes”. But if I were to choose a word to describe the question, it wouldn’t be baffling … although it would begin with the letter b. Indeed, all it undermines is the assumption that our two camps occupy the same moral cosmos.

The Black-and-White Fallacy

Let’s strip Tomlinson’s Utilitarian Gotcha to its essentials. Forget, if you will, the laziness of putting a dedicated pro-lifer who presumably objects to IVF—the question isn’t meant for anyone else—in a fertility clinic without a good explanation. Forget the tear-jerking shtick of placing an unaccompanied kid alone in a room in that same clinic, also without explanation … a room, by the way, that just happens to have a conveniently-labeled, portable container (not a proper freezer) full of embryos. Forget even the incredibly short time between the fire alarm going off and the smoke becoming perilously dense.

In fact, forget the whole preposterous backstory. It’s schlock. Who’s facing this dilemma, Rocky or Bullwinkle? Did Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale set the fire? The labeled container full of embryos is the giveaway; it might as well be the cartoon-standard round iron bomb with a lit fuse. Tomlinson doesn’t merely believe us dishonest and manipulative. He thinks we’re all dimwits.

The Utilitarian Gotcha itself is a black-and-white fallacy, a phony dilemma created by forbidding two morally licit real-world options: 1) trying to save both, even if you fail and die; and 2) only saving yourself (I said “licit”, not “praiseworthy”). There’s nothing new or devastating about this question, except perhaps for the contempt for our intelligence. In fact, you can practically hear Scott Eric Alt roll his eyes: “Really? That’s it? This is the question that’s supposed to confound us? This is the question that gets Raw Story in a heat of excitement and Mr. Tomlinson many new followers on Twitter? Really?”

“We all instinctively understand the right answer is ‘A’,” Tomlinson reportedly states. “A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. … Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically.” As science, Tomlinson’s “instinctive understanding” argument is ill-informed, amateurish twaddle. Even the survival impulse—a real, recognized instinct—isn’t invincible. Positing an imaginary hard-wired bigotry against the unborn doesn’t make the embryos’ relative worthlessness a moral fact. It only shows the evaluation has no rational or evidential basis. Tomlinson is merely trying to transform a gut reaction into an indisputable truth.

Black-and-White Thinking

You can’t save everyone everywhere from everything. No one contests the truth of this. But the Utilitarian Gotcha tries to prove, or at least force us to admit, that you shouldn’t even want to save everyone, even if it were possible—some are more worthy of life than others, and some aren’t worthy of life at all. Nothing new here; most atrocities and inhumane practices in man’s long history begin with the assumption that some lives are worth less than others, even worthless. But the utilitarian needs this concession so they can achieve putatively lofty goals by intrinsically evil means.

By no means am I claiming that Tomlinson and his devotees are bad people. One problem is, people who are prone to black-and-white thinking, sure of their own goodness, tend to believe that all good people think like they do. Oh, they know they’re capable of doing some minor bad things. But they don’t really believe they’re capable of doing or desiring evil things. They’re unwilling to “hug the cactus”, to really recognize and accept the dark, ugly parts of their souls. Only evil people can do evil; only evil people can let evil things happen. And they’re not evil.

So black-and-white thinkers can’t believe good people could ever oppose their goals or means. Those who do must, therefore, be fools, madmen, or scoundrels. Is it any wonder, then, that people like Young and Edwards are so easily impressed by Tomlinson’s flimsy, hokey trap? Is it any wonder that Tomlinson himself thinks no one has ever given him an honest answer? It doesn’t occur to them that a good person would do anything other than what they themselves would do in the same situation, or do it for any reason other than their reason.

What the Utilitarian Gotcha Proves

But the rest of us know better. We know what paves the road to Hell; it also surfaces the road to Dystopia. We know people flee burning buildings without intending the deaths of those trapped within or thinking them less worthy of life. We know there is a moral difference between what we’re forced to let happen and what we intentionally make happen. We know good people don’t all think alike because we aren’t all good in the same way and to the same degree, whether or not we believe in original sin.

In the real world—the world outside the Utilitarian Gotcha—the motives and grounds on which good people base their decisions are more varied and less predictable than Tomlinson and his fans care to admit. Moral choices that appear clear and simple in the classroom or in the comfort of one’s easy chair become obscure and difficult when you’re actually in the arena facing the lions. That’s why the Catholic Church has both martyrs and confessionals.

In real-world dilemmas, you make the best choice you can under the circumstances, using whatever criterion seems conclusive, then you try to live with the consequences. Or you die because of them. All the Utilitarian Gotcha ever proves is the creator’s failure to grasp the messiness of human life and the complexity of the human soul.

Photography: See our Photographers page.

About the Author:

Born in Albuquerque, N. Mex., and raised in Omaha, Nebr., Anthony S. Layne served briefly in the U.S. Marine Corps, and attended the University of Nebraska at Omaha as a sociology major while holding a variety of jobs. Tony was a "C-and-E Catholic" until, while defending the Faith during the scandals of 2002, he discovered the beauty of Catholic orthodoxy. He currently lives in Denton, Texas, works in the home-mortgage industry in Dallas, participates in his parish's Knights of Columbus council, and bowls poorly on Sunday nights. Along with Catholic Stand, he also contributes to New Evangelization Monthly and occasionally writes for his own blogs, Outside the Asylum and The Impractical Catholic.

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