Great Beethoven fallacy
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|In the back alley|
The Great Beethoven fallacy is a rhetorical argument sometimes used by pro-life proponents. It essentially judges that terminating a pregnancy would have prevented the existence of an extraordinary human. Ludwig van Beethoven is a common example, but other famous people can be and are substituted.
Maurice Baring, a prominent Roman Catholic, was one of the earlier users of the argument, though it is unclear where the argument originated. It was taken up by British MP Norman St. John Stevas and critiqued by Peter Medawar (who won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1960) and Jean Medawar.
The hypothetical discussion as described in The God Delusion:
Doctor 1: About the terminating of pregnancy, I want your opinion. The father was syphilitic, the mother tuberculous. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, and the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth was also tuberculous. What would you have done?
Doctor 2: I would have terminated the pregnancy.
Doctor 1: Then you would have murdered Beethoven.
“”The reasoning behind this odious little argument is breathtakingly fallacious, for unless it is being suggested that there is some causal connection between having a tubercular mother and a syphilitic father and giving birth to a musical genius the world is no more likely to be deprived of a Beethoven by abortion than by chaste abstinence from intercourse.
|—Peter and Jean Medawar|
This argument is fractally wrong. In The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins notes that "robbing" a human embryo of its potential life through abortion is "a rhetorical argument whose extreme stupidity is its only defence against a charge of serious dishonesty." He goes on to state that the question, and the legend behind the tale, are entirely false, noting that Beethoven was the oldest surviving child of his parents (being second only to one who died in infancy — which was common at the time), was not disabled as a child (though deaf with old age), and neither parent had syphilis nor tuberculosis at the time of his birth.
If we suppose for a moment that Beethoven truly was born in the described configuration of parents, siblings, and medical conditions, the argument is merely an elaborate non sequitur and an appeal to pity.
Furthermore, it is equally ridiculous to suggest that the decision to terminate a pregnancy, regardless of the outcome, has any bearing on the potential for the future.
Some anti-abortion arguments try to move the goalposts by saying that humans by nature are usually good, so abortions are more likely to kill good people than evil people. Of course, not only are the premises assumed to be self-evident, this disregards the circumstances and socialization that allows people to be good or bad, which is also the same core issue with this fallacy. After all, dictators don't spawn from a vacuum. Poor circumstances, for instance, generally contribute to crime. Also, it just so happens that people who need abortions the most are lower-income. This is not to say that future criminals will be aborted, but rather, forcing lower-income women to give birth will not improve their standing in society and has huge potential to hurt their standing.
Pro-choicer: I want your opinion about terminating a pregnancy. The mother's had three children already. The first two died of diphtheria, and her third child also died within a year. She is pregnant, and the father is either her first cousin or half-uncle. Would you recommend she have an abortion?
Pro-choicer: So, would you like to know what the life you saved did?
Pro-lifer: Of course! (The pro-lifer then goes into a fantasy about somebody growing up and curing cancer or AIDS.)
Pro-choicer: Let's see, he killed six million Jews and some six million other people he didn't like, all for reasons out of their control, dragged the Earth into a long bloody war unlike any that preceded it.
Pro-lifer: Oh my god, you are totally right! Let's kill every baby before they are born, because potentially they could be another Hitler!
This isn't actually an argument for having an abortion, only a demonstration that an aborted fetus could as easily have turned out to be a monster as the next Beethoven. Since nobody can predict this, taking it into consideration is pointless.
An argument somewhat akin to this underlies Roald Dahl's short story Genesis and Catastrophe, concerning the birth of Adolf Hitler, and is like the plot of Stephen Fry's novel Making History in which a time machine sends back pills that make Adolf Hitler's father sterile, preventing his birth (although this backfires when a worse dictator comes to power instead of him).
- Saunders, P. What do Ludwig van Beethoven, Justin Bieber and Tim Tebow have in common? (September 24, 2012). Christian Medical Comment. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
- Mikkelson, D. (March 11, 2007). Two Questions. Snopes. Retrieved July 17, 2018.
- One edit by a drive-by subscriber to this fallacy has substituted Barack Obama
- Darkins, Richard. 2006. The God Delusion. Great Britain: Bantham Press. P. 338.