Saturday, January 3, 2009

the Beethoven fallacy


Beethoven's birthday, December 16 passed without much comment by me. I confess that, despite being a musician, I am not much of a musicologist, so I don't have much original insight to offer about Beethoven's life/music/significance/historical context, aside from the irrelevant fact that Beethoven's baptism is known to be December 17, but we're not really sure about the date of birth.

But I've decided that I shouldn't let this week go by without some reference to Beethoven, so I'll spill some pixels here to address the Beethoven fallacy, which can be found all over the Internet. Here I quote one version, chosen at random from a list of google hits:

"If you knew a woman who was pregnant, who had 8 kids already, three who were deaf, two who were blind, one mentally retarded, and she had syphilis, would you recommend that she have an abortion?

If you said yes, you just killed Beethoven."

Let's first address the spread of fictional information about Beethoven. There is no historical evidence that his mother had syphilis. And he was not the last of nine, but rather, the second of seven children, and the eldest of the three that survived infancy. This was typical of infant mortality rates in the days before widespread understanding of the germ theory of disease, and the discovery and usage of antibiotics and vaccines.

But then let's pretend this fiction were actually true. You still have the problem that this idea, intended to advocate against abortion, is a total non-argument. I'll explain: The suggestion is that preventing any birth would be a bad thing because that birth could result in a person who is a genius, or a brilliant artist, or someone who makes a great and lasting contribution to society. On the face of it, this may seem to be a compelling argument. However, let's look at some logical consequences. It implies that we should all strive to have as many births as possible, for fear of failing to produce a potential genius. We should all copulate as much as possible, and never use any contraception. Is there anything wrong with this idea?

"But," the abortion opponent will object, "that's not the argument at all. Equating abortion with birth control is downright offensive. Some of us are okay with contraception, some of us are against it. But you can't equate it with taking a human life..."

And herein lies the problem. The fallacy perpetrated here is used to advance an argument, but it makes the assumption that the debate is resolved. Whether a fetus actually is indeed a human child with all the implicit rights thereof is in fact a central issue in the debate, but note the wording. "You just killed Beethoven." This argument pretends that the debate is already won and is predicated upon that assumption, which can be classified under the fallacy we call "begging the question".

More on abortion later.


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