It's not an Exclusive Disjunction

About nine or ten years ago my good friend Paul Halsall (until recently an assistant professor of history at the University of North Florida) said that in his opinion all Republicans are either stupid or evil. At first I thought he was just kidding. I'm not a member of the party, mind you, but he knew my politics. He made it quite clear, however, that he was completely serious. Not being the sort of person to let petty political squabbles stand in the way of a valuable friendship, I refrained from telling him that I felt exactly the same way but about the other political orientation.

His view, though crudely put, is not all that far removed from Plato's. In the Gorgias Plato famously argues that vicious behavior is the result of mistaken moral reasoning. People who do wrong do so because they have a false belief about what the right thing to do actually is. Everybody, according to the view that is put into the mouth of Socrates, will do what he thinks is the best thing for him to do; the problem is that some people believe that really nasty, vile ends are the best things for them to pursue. What such folks need is a kind of re-education. They need to be taught how to understand what is really the best thing to do, what is objectively the right thing to do. Then, since they will still desire to do what they believe to be the best thing to do, they will wind up doing the right thing--and wanting to do the right thing, rather than mistakenly wanting to do the wrong thing. So people who commit evil acts do so either because they are mistaken in some way (and to make mistakes is, I suppose, "stupid" when viewed from a certain perspective) or because they want to commit evil acts--that is, because they are evil (interestingly, Plato seems not to have considered this a possibility; in his view they're all just stupid--er, I mean, mistaken). Well, anyway, I call this the Halsall Disjunction.

I was put in mind of all of this upon reading today's issue of the Wall Street Journal, where Cathleen Cleaver Ruse of the Family Research Council has an essay on the Stenberg v. Carhart partial-birth abortion case. There is a great deal of eyewitness testimony regarding such procedures on file in that case, and Ruse mentions the following testimony of a physician who opposes a ban on partial-birth abortions:
I mean, I know what my purpose empty the uterus in the safest way possible. Yet, this language [in the statute] implies that I have this other purpose, which is to kill the fetus. So, to me, it's like--kind of like there is an elephant in the room besides me and my patient...there is somebody judging what my purpose is in bringing the fetus out a certain way.
This has got to be either the most inept attempt to appeal to the Principle of Double Effect that I have ever seen, or else this woman is liable to the Halsall Disjunction. She is either monumentally stupid, or else she is just plain evil. Let's consider the possibilities in turn.

To say that one's "purpose" in performing an abortion is "to empty the uterus in the safest way possible" is, of course, true. But how stupid do you have to be to overlook the fact that completing this "purpose" has a necessary effect, namely the death of the fetus? By "necessary effect" I mean not that the death of the fetus is merely foreseeable--it is literally unavoidable. Especially when you crush its head first with steel forceps. What this woman has said in her sworn testimony is not very different from telling the police, after shooting your husband in the face, "I'm sorry officer, but you're really confusing me--I didn't kill my husband at all, I merely pulled the trigger on this gun. It was the bullet that came out of the gun that killed him." I say it's not "very" different because, of course, when you shoot a gun at somebody it is possible that you will miss and the person will not die. When you crush the head of a fetus with steel forceps there is no way that you are not going to kill it.

I don't think that this woman would want to confess to that kind of spectacularly obvious stupidity. She knows perfectly well that, in order to empty the uterus in this particular procedure it is necessary first to kill the fetus. The only other alternative interpretation is that she is purposely turning the focus of her language to the "purpose" of the procedure as stated in terms of one of its results--namely, the "safe" (for the mother, anyway) emptying of the uterus--and away from the necessary means for obtaining that result. To argue in this way--using language to obscure one fact and highlight another one with the effect of diverting attention from what is really at issue--is Sophistry in the highest degree. What would be the purpose in diverting attention in this way? It can only be because you know perfectly well that the other effect of this procedure--the intentional killing of the fetus--is something that most people--even people who otherwise support abortion rights--will find abhorent. To use language in such a way as to produce pleasure in an audience who might otherwise experience displeasure is also a hallmark of Sophistry.

Is Sophistry evil? It depends, I suppose, on your point of view. This particular physician may think that the problem is not that she is evil, but that her audience is either stupid or evil (maybe she thinks that they're all Republicans) and will have no conception of the value of what she does for a living, so she has to pretend to be befuddled by the whole thing so as to make it seem that only a moron would question the morality of what she does every day. So instead of being either stupid or evil she is merely arrogant and hubristic.

Personally I don't see why we have to be so exclusivist about all of this. Why can't some people be both stupid and evil? It's not like the two properties are mutually exclusive, after all. And in the case of this particular physician it seems to me that we actually have firm empirical evidence that the intersect class is not empty. Indeed, there seems to be a class of persons who are both stupid and evil because of the fact that they are arrogant and hubristic. They are evil principally because they are, in Plato's more charitable terms, mistaken about what is right, and they are mistaken about what is right because they are too arrogant and hubristic to consider the possibility that they may be mistaken.


Tom said…
I would just add that the ability to convince yourself that you don't intend the means you choose is something most people seem to possess, and generally exercise it in situations far less extreme than crushing fetal skulls.

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