Monday, June 02, 2008

Choosing Among Evils

Doug Kmiec had a rather unpleasant experience at Mass last Sunday, when he was refused Holy Communion on the grounds of his open and unapologetic endorsement of Senator Barack Obama for President. The decision to deny Kmiec Holy Communion, to judge from the media accounts of the event, was made unilaterally by the priest celebrating the Mass. Archbishop Roger Mahoney, that icon of Catholic orthodoxy and strict discipline, condemned the move, as did two different canon lawyers interviewed by National Public Radio for a story on the event that aired this evening on All Things Considered. According to an opinion piece he published at catholic.org last May, Kmiec's excuse for his endorsement was "To some of my fellow Catholics, Senator Obama's answers on abortion make him categorically unacceptable. I understand that view, respect it, but find it prudentially the second-best answer in 2008".

This is a debate that has come up before, and it raises some interesting issues. Let's take Kmiec, who has sometimes described himself as a conservative, at his word when he claims to be against abortion himself. What, then, does it mean to say that he thinks that Obama is nevertheless "the second-best answer in 2008"? The answer, it turns out, is rather incredible. In spite of his views about abortion, which Kmiec himself does a very good job of showing to be both facile and banal, Obama nevertheless seems to Kmiec to offer a greater opportunity for limiting abortion than does the Republican party, which makes opposition to abortion a part of its official platform. Thus, as usual, an allegedly pro-life argument is made for abandoning pro-life legislation in favor of a different sort of "pro-life" legislation:
Commit us toward a course of environmental stewardship that will not be dependent upon fossil fuel

•Focus tax and health policy reform in favor of the average working family and the poor

•Reaffirm an American foreign policy respectful of international standard

•And end an unjust, preemptive war – another obvious life issue -- that deprives families of some of our most self-sacrificing yet often least advantaged young men and women and drains our economy in a 3 trillion dollar fashion, crippling our practical ability to be the force for human good that Americans want their country to be
These things, you see, are more consistent with that whole "seamless garment" thing that faithful Catholics are supposed to care about. In short, the sophistry tells us, as long we the overall good of pro-lifeyness is moved forward, then it's OK to fall down on one or two of the more finial pro-life positions. Basically it's just an old-fashioned liberal excuse for not caring as much about abortion as about the other favorite issues of the left.

Typically, arguments like this also tend to paint a picture of more serious opponents of abortion as "single issue" voters, who unreasonably make abortion a kind of on-off switch with regard to the acceptability of a given political candidate. Kmiec doesn't go quite this far, though he cannot resist saying that an Obama candidacy will
•Transcend the politics of division – so well illustrated on any given day by the unfortunately base tactics of the Clinton or McCain campaigns (see the recent GOP ad in North Carolina once again dredging up Reverend Wright)
It's hard to imagine saying this with a straight face about a man who says, almost every time he speaks, that a McCain presidency will really just be a third term George Bush presidency, but perhaps Kmiec has never heard of guilt by association.

Well, until now, anyway. He knows about it now because his association with Obama has cost him his chance to receive Holy Communion, at least on one occasion. The canon lawyers interviewed by NPR stressed the formal elements of the process whereby excommunication is made a matter of public knowledge, ad did Mahoney, and nobody addressed the question of the latae sententiae nature of certain kinds of excommunication (of course). Mahoney, to his credit, did not complain (that I heard, anyway), when Kmiec arrogated to himself the task of deciding whether or not he was still in Communion with the Church and criticized the priest who refused him Communion in very inappropriate terms. Whether or not the priest acted in accordance with canon law (or even common decency), it is clear that the question of whether or not a particular person has excommunicated himself by his own actions is something for the local ordinary to decide, not the person in question.

In situations such as this I always find myself wondering, What are the limits of this person's commitments? Imagine, for example, a slightly different candidate than Obama. Make this candidate identical to Obama in every respect, political and otherwise, except three. First, let this other candidate by fully opposed to abortion in just the same way that Kmiec is (or claims to be). Second, let this other candidate be white rather than black. Third, let this other candidate be a vicious racist. What would the Kmiecs of the world make of such a candidate? I suspect that nobody of Kmiec's ilk would stomach such a candidate, no matter what this Other Candidate's views happened to be about global warming, health care for the poor, or the war in Iraq. Now, it has often been alleged--and I think that it's true--that no president is going to have anything like a significant impact on abortion policy in this country. Even the Supreme Court seems to have very little, if any, impact on said policy (indeed, in the few instances in which one might have thought that a more conservative court would have been an advantage in this area, the impact of the Supreme Court has been, if anything, negative). The same, of course, is true with regard to public policy regarding race relations. So a racist president, though a disgusting spectacle, would not bring about anything like the virtual apartheid from which we escaped in the 1960s. Those days are, in a word, gone. (Now, those of you who happen to find unrealistic thought experiments rather distasteful--and I'm with you on that, as long as it's somebody else's thought experiment we're talking about--substitute for "vicious racist" something like "benign but vocal racist", or whatever it takes to help you imagine such a person actually getting elected these days). In spite of the fact that such a person could have no meaningful impact on racial legislation, nobody like Kmiec would ever vote for him. Nor would I, or, indeed, any sane person.

What's the difference between espousing racist views, and espousing views like Obama's regarding abortion? There are two ways to conceive of the difference. One is a nominal difference, the other a real difference. According to the nominalist, abortion is called wrong because some people think of it as the killing of a human being. Others may not think of it in those terms and, according to the nominalist, such people do not call abortion the killing of a human being. For them, indeed, it is not the killing of a human being or, if it is, it is not a significant killing of a human being. For the nominalist, then, the "wrongness" of abortion, such as it is, amounts to nothing more than a conventionalist judgment about the acceptability of a certain practice to a certain group. There is no compelling need to consider such judgments other than to acknowledge that they exist and to "respect" them, as legitimate, if wrong-headed, views. According to most of these very same people, however, the judgment that one race is superior to another is not such a judgment because it is not only wrong-headed, it is also unreasonable, it is not a legitimate judgment at all and must not be tolerated. (There are some nominalists who think the same about the judgment that abortion is the unjustifiable killing of a human being, but I will pass over such persons in silence, as they appear to be confined to Canada for the nonce.)

The realist view says that abortion takes the life of a human being, and that any taking of the life of a human being has to be justified in some way. Usually we think of such justifications as involving things like self-defense, or defense of the common good, or some other situation in which there is a grave threat that must be answered with deadly force. It is difficult to imagine what sort of grave threat a fetus could present along these lines, though one does sometimes hear of those who think that abortion may be justified to save the life of the mother, but for the most part those who defend abortion rights don't really understand the need for justification in these terms. According to the defender of abortion rights, the only justification that's needed is to point out that the fetus is in the body of another person, and that other person, that is, the mother of the fetus, has absolute autonomy over her own body, even to the extent of taking the life of the fetus, just so long as said fetus is an invader in her body. For the realist, however, the need to justify the taking of a human life goes beyond arguments grounded in personal autonomy, since we would not ordinarily excuse the killing of, say, a three year old child on the grounds that having to care for it was an infringement on the autonomy of its parents. It is rather curious, when you come to think of it, that some of the people who favor abortion rights also oppose capital punishment, and in some such cases the reason for opposing capital punishment is expressed as a rejection of the idea that the taking of human life can be justified. For such people, I imagine, the real obstacle to understanding the realist view of abortion is quite simply the fact that they just don't believe that the fetus is anything important. It is not autonomous itself, and autonomy seems to be the main thing. It does not look like a human being, indeed, when it is a mere conceptum consisting of a single cell it seems almost absurd to say that it is a human being. Perhaps it is human in some adjectival sense, as, say, the hairs on my head are "human" hairs, but who on earth would say that it is a human in a noun kind of way, as in "human being"? It is, of course, far easier to support abortion rights if you just do not think that fetuses are anything like human "beings", if you think that they are not "persons" and, hence, don't actually have any rights or duties.

Herein, I think, lies the difference between the Kmiecs of the world, and those Catholics for whom life issues are more coherently understood. If there was a man running for president who knew full well that there were whole populations of "real people" being intentionally killed--let's say, for example, that there is some backwards county in northwestern Idaho where they are rounding up blacks and shooting them--if there were such a man running for president who said that he thought such activities ought to have the support of the law, then I imagine that even Doug Kmiec would say that he couldn't find it in his heart to vote for him. And yet that is exactly what Barack Obama, and others who support abortion rights, do say, though they do not say it knowingly. Of course Barack Obama does not believe that abortion is the moral equivalent of racial genocide, because of course he would fully oppose it if he did view it that way. So Barack Obama at least has the excuse of ignorance; what is Doug Kmiec's excuse, if he really believes what he says he believes about abortion? Can it be any more obvious that he does not believe what he says he believes about abortion? He does not think what the Catholic Church thinks, at any rate, that is, he does not think that human lives equal in value to his own are being intentionally taken every day, or he would be far more outraged than he is at the moral sloppiness of the Barack Obamas of the world who fail to understand what it is they are defending, just as any rational person would be outraged at a racist who defended himself by saying that he just doesn't think other races are equal to his own. I'm sure that Barack Obama is a nice man who is very sincere and who really wants to do good things, but even if I found his other ideas politically acceptable, I could no more vote for a person who favors abortion rights than I could vote for a person who is openly and viciously racist. Such a person is morally crippled and does not have a healthy understanding of the foundations of morality. Such a person, no matter how "nice" they may appear, no matter how well intentioned, cannot be trusted to make sound policy decisions.

If I were a priest, I would not withhold Holy Communion from anyone unless my Bishop instructed me to, but in the case of someone like Kmiec I might be tempted to do it, just because of the guy's hubris in thinking himself fit to make moral pronouncements about issues he clearly doesn't fully understand. Unlike Obama, who is rather famously not Catholic, Kmiec pretends to be not only Catholic but pro-life. And he's not a complete idiot: he's a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University and at Catholic University of America. His argument, which is nothing more than "choose the least of the evils", is bogus. In his radio interview today he averred as to how "not voting" for one of the candidates on offer is actually a greater sin than voting for a pro-abortion candidate, but what a crock of shit that is--it amazes me that an educated person would even think once, let alone twice, about taking a statement like that seriously, let alone actually endorsing it as one's own, considered view. Since when is refusing to vote for candidates whose views are repugnant the moral equivalent of refusing to take part in a democratic process? If I go into a voting booth and write in "Mickey Mouse" because my other choices are complete losers, am I sinning by "not voting"? If I register as a Democrat so that I can vote in the primaries for the candidate I think most likely to lose the general election, am I somehow subverting democracy and "not voting" in an honest way? Or what ought I to do when it's not just a matter of picking some jerk to be the dog catcher, but picking a monster to be president? Well, gee, all of the candidates on the ballot this year just happen to be members of the Nazi Party, but I have to vote for one of them, it would be a sin not to vote for any of them, so I guess I'll just pick the least objectionable Nazi in the bunch. Please. No wonder people complain about CUA; I don't know what the story is at Pepperdine, but this is the sort or thing that gives professional ethics a bad name, at least among reasonable people. I don't know about Doug Kmiec, but I would not vote for a Nazi even if all of the slots on the ballot were filled with Nazis. I would sooner go into the voting booth and write in "Doug Kmiec" than vote for a Nazi. I suspect Doug Kmiec would too, but after today it's difficult to tell for sure.

51 comments:

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Very well said!

Paul, just this guy, you know? said...

One of the things that makes me insane in all the writing I've seen about Doug Kmiec is a how much deference people seem to want to extend this man.

Thank you for simply demolishing his arguments and following the facts to where they lead: Kmiec is not pro-life, he is content for abortion to remain legal, and has put his intellect and reputation to work in the service of the most pro-abortion candidate in history.

moti said...

Scott,

I’d like to offer some reasons a pro-lifer might have for voting for Obama (or for some other pro-choice candidate). The first is that we have no good reason to believe that electing pro-life presidents helps reduce the number of abortions. As you say, the power of the president directly to influence these matters is limited. Moreover, there is plenty of evidence suggesting that some Republican-backed policies (e.g. abstinence only programs) are abysmal failures with respect to their ability to reduce the numbers of unplanned pregnancies and STDs. We also know that countries that strongly defend women’s right to have an abortion and which make contraception easily accessible—such as the Netherlands—have much lower abortion rates than countries that do not (including the United States, of course). Someone for whom reducing the number of abortions is a top priority ought to study various policies in an effort to determine which of these are more likely to have the desired effect. It’s an empirical question, right? Of course, our imagined prospective voter has other priorities as well and if these conflict either with the means to the end of reducing the number of abortions—for example, if easy access to contraception is itself problematic for this voter—or with some other ends, then most of what I’ve said will not convince. But I’m limiting what I say to a voter for whom reducing the number of abortions (with the ideal being zero abortions) is a top priority which is trumped only by other issues of equal or greater moral weight. In other words, our prospective voter does not prefer the reduction to zero of abortions over any other possible outcome and she does not believe that such a reduction in the number of abortions justifies any means to that end. She just wants to eliminate abortions as much as is physically possible while avoiding any means to that end which are themselves as bad or worse than abortion (e.g., murdering every woman and girl on earth).

You ask, “What's the difference between espousing racist views, and espousing views like Obama's regarding abortion?” and you suggest that there are two ways to conceive of the difference, the nominalist and the realist. I guess I don’t understand why you think a realist is committed to a pro-life position. Moral realism does not commit one to any particular normative stances. A moral realist who believes the statement “abortion is morally permissible” is true—really true—may be perfectly consistent. So I don’t see how the question about the analogy between racist views and views on abortion hangs on the realism/anti-realism debate. Do you really believe the beliefs of those who defend abortion rights are informed by moral skepticism? I’ve witnessed plenty of debates about abortion but have yet to see someone cite Mackie. Identifying those who defend a woman’s right to an abortion with moral skeptics attributes to both parties beliefs they need not—and in many cases in fact do not—hold.

We do not need to go spelunking metaphysically to understand the difference between someone who espouses racist views and someone who believes that a woman does (or ought to have) a right to abort her pregnancy. In previous posts, you’ve quite clearly and forcibly explained where some racists go wrong. Specifically, you’ve blogged about the conflation of phenotype with genotype. Someone who believes that e.g. black people are inherently less intelligent, less creative, more violent, have small brains, or whatever, is just plain wrong. As you point out in previous posts, ‘race’ does not pick out any biological category, and we (scientists, interested layman, etc.) can rather easily show and explain why this is so. I do not mean to suggest that all racism is necessarily grounded in false biological theories. My point is only that the question of race, at least in this regard, is no longer open. Consequently, a view of human beings that makes important distinctions (like moral ones) based on the color of the skin or the shape of the eyes or whatever is laughable where it is not frightening. When it comes to abortion, the situation is, perhaps unfortunately, not nearly as clear. Of course plenty of people have very strong beliefs one way or the other, but there is simply no “theory” equivalent to modern biology that can tell us the answer to the question “is a zygote a person (or a human being or a fully morally equal person, etc.).” Of course if someone is pro-choice because, and only because, she believes something false about what a zygote is, then she ought to reexamine her beliefs. But two very intelligent people who know all that science has to say on the matter and who know everything else contemporary human beings with their moral capacities intact know, can still come to opposite conclusions on this matter.

I suppose this last claim can be denied on the grounds that it rules out the possibility that some people have some additional special capacity not had by other people which allows the special group to know things the others do not. And of course this is logically possible, though it does not get us any closer to knowing which group is the lucky one. Members of group A can stomp their feet and claim access to the privileged state while members of group B can do the same. But for anyone with even a semblance of democratic instincts this state of affairs will be unsatisfying. An informed citizen with functioning moral capacities can know, or can quite easily come to know, that racism is founded on false beliefs and she can do so while relying on an epistemology that requires her to think like a responsible citizen. This is the only epistemology she needs at the polls. She cannot do the same with respect to the abortion issue. Of course, none of what I’ve said holds for anyone lacking in democratic instincts. But it’s not clear why such a person would care about what happens on election day in any case, since neither Obama nor any of the other candidates are calling for revolution or running on an anti-democracy platform.

You write, “In his radio interview today he (Kmiec) averred as to how "not voting" for one of the candidates on offer is actually a greater sin than voting for a pro-abortion candidate, but what a crock of shit that is--it amazes me that an educated person would even think once, let alone twice, about taking a statement like that seriously, let alone actually endorsing it as one's own, considered view.” I didn’t hear the Kmiec interview so what I say here could be off base, but it’s hard for me to believe that Kmiec was making the sweeping claim that it’s always better to vote for someone than to not vote at all, which is the claim you attribute to him and then go on to mock (rightly). Whether Kmiec meant it or not, it is very plausible that in some elections it is better to vote for the lesser of two evils than to fail to vote. If Kmiec was talking about this issue in the context of the upcoming election, he was just saying that it’s better (for pro-lifers?) to vote for Obama than to vote for McCain. Given that, as you say, neither of these men is likely to bring about significant change (e.g. overturning Roe), then the abortion question for all intents and purposes should be limited to the practical, empirical questions I raise above or it should be taken out of the equation altogether. And given that McCain believes that the President may act contrary to the law, and given that he wants to continue a military occupation that has already resulted in the deaths of at least hundreds of thousands of civilians, and given that he has backtracked on his longstanding positions on torture, one can begin to understand why a citizen for whom the dignity and the lives of others is of paramount importance has a reason to vote against McCain. And a vote against McCain just is a vote for Obama, albeit perhaps a nose-holding one.

Moti

Scott Carson said...

Moti

I agree with you that it will sometimes be morally permissible to vote for a candidate who represents the least of a concatenation of evils. What I intended to mock was not the idea that we may choose the lesser among evils when we are compelled to choose, but two other ideas that I take to be false: first, the idea that we are really compelled, in the way Kmiec asserts that we are, to choose in this sort of case and, second, the idea that it even makes any sense at all to make the sort of moral claims about the relative importance of abortion that Kmiec makes.

In short, I quite simply disagree with you about whether intelligent and well-informed people can disagree about the moral severity of abortion (with a possible caveat that I discuss below). In my view, it is just the same as the racism case: only an intellectual error can explain the adherence to pro-abortion views by otherwise intelligent people. It has nothing whatsoever to do with anyone having any sort of "special capacity" to know anything, whatever you mean by that (if, as I suspect, you are referring to religious beliefs, then I think you're introducing something that is entirely irrelevant; if you have something else in mind, then I think you're introducing something that is pure fantasy; either way I think we can agree that such claims to special knowledge need not be--indeed, cannot be--taken seriously in this context).

Your introduction of the term "person", I suppose, is intended to work against the claim I just made, by introducing a non-empirical category that renders the whole question difficult, if not impossible, to decide. I think we have had this conversation before, actually, when you were still a student here, so you already know that I think that the term "person" is basically a mere convention that has no referent, a mere device invented by the philosophical community for no other reason than to make possible such arguments as the one you yourself are making. In my view, the humanity of the fetus is an empirical question, not a philosophical one, just as racial equality is an empirical, not a theoretical, matter, and the rest follows by a logic that is literally inevitable. Clearly you do not agree, or you would be as outraged as I am by abortion. Do I think you have made an intellectual error? Yes. Do I think the error is morally culpable? In truth, I have no way of knowing for sure, but knowing you to be a person of deeply held, thoughtfully considered moral opinions, I do trust that it is an issue that you have thought about, and thought about as carefully as you could. To be honest, I cannot claim to know for sure just what your views about abortion are, but I suspect that if they were the same as mine, you would be making different sorts of arguments.

Now, that "caveat" I mentioned above. Someone might object that I, too, do not show much evidence of being as "outraged by abortion" as I think the Doug Kmiecs ought to be. Someone once claimed that if I really thought that abortion was exactly the same as, say, the Nazi killing program, I would be involved in some sort of underground movement to put a stop to it, but here I am, comfortably living my life as though millions of human beings aren't being murdered every year right in my own back yard. To this sort of charge I'm afraid I actually plead guilty, though with an explanation. I readily admit that fetuses do not command the same level of emotional attention that older human beings do. For whatever psychological reasons, most people care more about other people as those other people grow and develop. Even infants, who are (sometimes) very cute, do not fascinate us as much as a stimulating and intelligent interlocutor. If a cute little baby is at such a disadvantage, there's no way a "clump of cells" is going to command much respect. But that is merely an emotional response; the fact that the "clump of cells" is not as cute as the baby, or as articulate as the adult, has no bearing on the question whether the clump of cells is a human being deserving of respect. We hide this (the psychological predilection to ignore clumps of cells) by pointig to the lack of sentience, or to the lack of capacities to feel pain, move, think, whatever. Indeed, the fact that clumps of cells feel no pain does, to some small degree, make it a little easier to bear the knowledge that millions of them are being killed every day. But that should not excuse us: we would not feel any better about the Nazi Holocaust if we were to suddenly learn that all of the victims were given sleeping pills prior to being comfortably euthanized in some massive "Logan's Run" kind of situation. The excuse is purely psychological: because we are capable of feeling comfortable about it, and because we have been enculturated to feel comfortable about it, and because, if we were to face the truth, we would have no idea what to do about it, we cope by working for a political solution while, at the same time, living our comfortable lives as though millions of humans are not being unjustly killed every year right in our own back yards.

Finally, a minor point. I think you misunderstand my use of the terms "nominalist" and "realist". I was not referring to the technical, philosophical uses of these words in my post, since I was not assuming an audience conversant with the technical uses of those terms. I meant only that there are folks who understand that fetuses really are human beings, while there are some others who don't really think that they are anything all that important. Sure, a moral realist need not be pro-life at all; indeed, most utilitarians are not. But that sort of "realist" is not what I have in mind.

moti said...

Scott,

As I said earlier, I did not hear the Kmiec interview so obviously I must leave whatever claims he made out of it.

With respect to the distinction, which you deny, between being a racist and being pro-choice, I suppose I’d need to hear more from you about what kind of error it is, precisely, that the intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed defender of abortion rights is making. This actually helps me clarify my point which, I suppose, is just that someone with racist views cannot be intelligent, thoughtful, and well-informed. I suppose there could be such a person but she’d also have to be malicious, self-deceiving, weirdly irrational, or have some other deep psychological defect (or combination of defects). I’m assuming that the latter sort of defect is not in play here because I take it we’re talking about people who really are well-meaning, sincere, etc. But I guess you could accuse me of begging the question since I’m assuming that someone can defend a woman’s right to abortion without being deeply psychologically defective.

As for my own beliefs about abortion, you happen to be right that they differ from yours, though it seems to me exactly how they differ is irrelevant here. In my response to your post, I offered some reasons a pro-life voter might have for voting for a pro-choice candidate and, more specifically, for voting against McCain. The strongest reason, I think, is that pro-choice candidates tend to support policies that actually reduce the number of abortions. If there is one statement everyone can agree on, it’s probably something like: ceteris paribus, the fewer abortions the better. The devil, of course, is in the Latin, though I think that we too seldom remember the English.

As for whether ‘person’ is a referring term or a “mere device invented by the philosophical community for no other reason than to make possible such arguments as the one [I am] making”, I think there are good historical reasons to doubt the latter proposal, though of course this does not establish that ‘person’ does indeed refer. In any case, I suspect the issue is a moot one because terms like ‘humanity’, which you seem to prefer, are not much more precise than is ‘person’. We often say of some particularly morally repulsive human being that he’s “lost his humanity” and obviously we do not mean to be claiming that this human being is no longer human in the biological sense. In Hebrew, when we want to say that someone is a particularly good and compassionate person, we sometimes say that he is a “ben adam” (son of Adam), which just means ‘human being’. So when you say, “the humanity of the fetus is an empirical question,” of course you are correct in the sense that the fetus (or the zygote) is a member of the class homo sapiens sapiens and not a fish or a rabbit. But it seems to me at least arguable that something can be a member of the class homo sapiens sapiens and yet fail to be human in the more normative sense which we sometimes refuse to apply to those homo sapiens sapiens who have acted in ways we find deeply objectionable. In other words, we can take ‘person’ off the table and still remain stuck where we were before. And therefore I deny that accepting the humanity of the fetus leads “by a logic that is literally inevitable” to the conclusion you favor.

I agree that it is more difficult for us to sympathize with a clump of cells than with a child or an adult. You think this difference in our emotive response explains why we are more likely to be outraged by the killing of an adult or child than we are with the destruction of an embryo. I won’t deny that this explanation is plausible. But I don’t think it explains what needs explaining, namely, why our emotive response differs in the first place. You have claimed that because a clump of cells does not look and behave like “we” do, we are more likely to fail to treat it with respect. I agree. But what about the claim that a clump of cells’ not looking and not behaving like “we” do is evidence that it is not “we” and therefore not deserving of the same respect?

I can’t remember where I encountered this example before (it’s not mine), but I think it might help us here. Imagine a building is on fire and you are the only person present who can do anything about it. You have a choice: either turn left and save the 3 year old child or turn right and save the zygote in the dish (and whatever equipment is required to maintain the zygote). You can’t do both. Presumably, you would choose to save the 3 year old child. When you are asked to defend your decision, will you be limited to saying, “I’ve been acculturated, and perhaps genetically ‘preprogrammed’, to hold in higher esteem 3 year old children than zygotes in dishes. My response was purely emotional. If I had had my wits about me, I could just as easily have flipped a coin. Morally, it’s not at all clear that I did the right thing”?

I guess my point here is that I agree with you about our emotional responses, at least with respect to how they differ in regard to the age of the homo sapiens sapiens to which we are responding. But what is stopping me from claiming that this difference is tracking a real difference in the value of that to which I am responding? When I see e.g. a ten dollar bill on the ground I respond differently than when I see a penny on the ground. Does this show that the only real difference here is my response? (I do not mean to suggest that a fetus is like a penny. I’m just using this as an example of a case where our responses are tracking real properties.) How much moral worth e.g., zygotes have seems to be the point in contention. Claiming that they are the moral equals of 3 year old children does not make them so, nor does explaining away the view of those who deny the equivalence as the mere product of emotion.

Needless to say, I have not even tried to show anything about the value of zygotes or children or old people or anything else. I’m just pushing back on your claim that intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed people must be making some kind of intellectual error when they defend the right of women to abort their pregnancies. Again, if you could say more about precisely what kind of mistake this is, perhaps I’ll better understand your position. Or you could concede that the class of intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, psychologically “normal” people is larger than some would have it. I know this last proposal is not likely to bear fruit, but I thought I’d throw it in there anyway!

Moti

DimBulb said...

If I were a priest, I would not withhold Holy Communion from anyone unless my Bishop instructed me to...

Doesn't that decision ultimately reside with the priest, and not the Bishop? Or rather, shouldn't it in normal circumstances?

Scott Carson said...

Moti

You're quite mistaken if you think that it's not possible to be both a thoughtful and intelligent person and a racist. At least, you're quite mistaken if you think that the thoughtful, intelligent people who favor abortion rights are any different from certain racist persons who behave in public as though they are thoughtful and intelligent. I personally know plenty of people who appear to be thoughtful and intelligent, but who are racists; often they are people who would deny that they are racists at all, just as the supporters of abortion rights deny that they are supporting something morally repugnant. Few thoughtful and intelligent people (whether really or apparently so) are going to admit that they both (a) have thought their views through carefully and (b) hold views that are morally repugnant. We're not talking about the members of the Aryan Nation here, or even Archie Bunker. I'm not sure you've met very many different kinds of racists if you think that those are the only two kinds out there.

Hence there is really no difference at all between the intellectual error made by the racist and the intellectual error made by the supporter of abortion rights. In both cases there is a rather elementary failure to see that there is no genuine, non-arbitrary difference between two things: between one race and another, in the case of the racist; and between clumps of cells that are inside a womb and clumps of cells that are outside of a womb, in the case of the supporter of abortion rights.

Your behaviorist metaphysics (they don't act like us, so they aren't the same as us), while quaintly post-modern, will lead you to some very unsavory results very quickly. As for the moral equality of the zygote being the matter at issue, I fully agree, and I have been waiting (rather patiently, in my view) for over thirty years for someone to actually put forward a viable argument (if you will pardon the expression) to show that the ontological status of the zygote is really any different from the ontological status of a three year old, or a fifty year old, for that matter, vis-a-vis its moral worth relative to those other forms of human life.

I have a rather bitter dislike for fantastic thought-experiments (as I mentioned in my post, I only like them when they're mine), but I have to admit that the one you mention involving the zygote and the three year old is not really all that fantastic, in spite of its rather spooky similarity to Peter Unger's railway switch cases, and that tempts me to actually take it rather seriously, even if I take it seriously just for fun, as it were. Suppose it weren't a three year old and a zygote, but twin 25 year old women. Which would you choose, and why? Such a case seems rather difficult to me, because I'm not sure what criteria I would apply in the case of twin 25 year old women that would enable me to choose one over the other; I'm afraid in a case like that I may just have to flip a coin, on the off chance that I both have a coin to flip and have the time to flip it. The thought experiment, in the form in which you put it forward, is only meaningful qua thought experiment, if we antecedently assume that there really is some sort of difference between the two forms of life, a difference that I can detect and that does not rely on anything like the toss of a coin (which assumes that the two forms of life are equally valuable), hence it begs the question. I don't actually know which I would choose because, of course, such situations never really arise, hence my dislike for such "thought" experiments), but I do know that if I chose the zygote I would be scorned by folks such as yourself, because you've already made up your mind about which form of life is "really" human, or which one has the "real" value. If I were to ask you, "what's wrong with choosing the zygote? Why should I choose the three year old instead?" I would get answers like "The three year old is more viable, has greater potential, can do more things, is more sentient, can feel pain, is more like us, can form more significant bonds with other humans, has a sense of self, a first person point of view" and so on, and so forth. What I won't get, and haven't been able to get as long as I've been discussing abortion with people, is anything like a sound argument to show that any of these traits mark a normatively significant difference between a fetus and a three year old. That's why I have always thought, and continue to think, that if someone in that situation were to choose the three year old (and I suspect that is, indeed, what most people would choose), it would ultimately be for purely emotional and psychological reasons. Three year olds appear cuter, more human, and have a great pull on us. The reasons for this are, I suspect, biological: a three year old child is more viable than a zygote (it does not need that apparatus that you mention in the thought experiment), so having a preference for it probably confers some sort of selective advantage over any preferences for "mere lumps of cells" in a petri dish that cannot survive on their own.

As for "human" being as slippery a term as "person" (you will note that I did not, in fact, use the term "humanity", as you rather wickedly insinuated)--I'm afraid I find the assertion rather far fetched--but then I've always been something of a skeptic. I know that there are people who think that biological species are themselves mere social constructs, and others who, though not quite so radical, nevertheless point to their alleged study of genetics in support of the view that all of life exists in a continuum and that there are no "real", non-arbitrary boundaries between homo sapiens and other such taxa; I know that there are such persons, but I think that such persons are more to be pitied than scorned, more to be enlightened than debated; but above all they are to be regarded as uneducated. Indeed, it is precisely this lack of education that leads such people to be, in general, supporters of abortion rights.

Scott Carson said...

Moti

I forgot to address an aspect of your posts that I think is far more interesting and important than your attempt to make sense of some putative distinction between clumps of cells inside the womb and clumps of cells outside the womb, namely, the claim that certain policies may actually be more effective in limiting abortion than an outright ban on abortions.

Before I get into that, though, let me first say that I find it rather strange that you would say

If there is one statement everyone can agree on, it’s probably something like: ceteris paribus, the fewer abortions the better.

I really have no reason to think that "everyone can agree on" this statement, since I have no reason to think that supporters of abortion rights have any reason to think that abortions ought to be limited. Some of them may, indeed, believe that abortions ought to be limited, but they cannot possibly have any good reason for thinking such a thing. Hillary Clinton, famously, has said that she thinks that abortions ought to be "safe, legal, and rare", but it's not clear why something that ought to be both safe and legal also ought to be rare. I want public swimming pools to be safe and legal, but why should they be rare? Colonoscopies ought to be safe and legal, and perhaps they ought to be rare, too, but the reason for thinking that colonoscopies ought to be rare seems to me to be rather different from what most people think are the reasons why abortions ought to be rare. So if Clinton thinks they ought to be rare, it is not because she thinks that there is anything morally suspect about them, it can only be because she thinks that, like all medical procedures, abortion involves risks--to the mother. Clearly there can be no genuine concern for the wellbeing of the fetus in a position such as this, hence there can be no reason for thinking that there are any reasons for limiting abortion other than to protect women from having unnecessary medical procedures.

So no, in fact, we do not all agree on this statement, not even ceteris paribus. The only way to make an agreement here is for the ceteris to not be paribus at all.

Turning to your claim about policy, I find that it is also strange that you would rely so heavily on mere correlations to make such strong claims about which policies will, and which will not, have the effect of lowering the rate of abortions. As I am sure you are well aware, statistical correlations show quite clearly that violent crime goes up as a function of the restrictiveness of gun control legislation: the more restrictive the legislation, the higher the rate of violent crime. Do you also advocate very liberal gun laws? Or do you suspect that the correlation has more to it than meets the eye?

Statistical correlations also show that certain kinds of educational programs have an effect on the rates of sexual assault. Does it follow from this that we ought to get rid of the laws that ban sexual assault entirely, and rely instead only on those educational programs to do the job? Or are you actually asserting that a ban on abortion will cause the abortion rate to go up rather than down? It seems to me that if it is wrong to take a human life without justification, and if we have laws against taking human life without justification, then those laws ought to apply to any act that is the taking of a human life without justification. In short, your advocacy of these policies constitutes a kind of question begging, since there is no way you would advocate getting rid of laws against, say, gang related murders, just because it turned out to be the case that sending gang members to the Juliard School brought the murder rates in gang neighborhoods down to zero.

So, beyond the fallacies of false cause and begging the question, your proposal that we ought to support candidates whose policies are more likely to bring down rates of abortion suffers from sheer impracticality: we cannot know for certain that this or that social program will reduce abortion rates as a matter of direct causation, and it is unlikely that a ban on abortion will cause the rates to go up; at worst, they will state the same. Hence a ban on abortion, with or without the concomitant social programs, is simply the more reasonable alternative.

Darwin said...

While I hesitate to intrude on Moti and Scott's conversation (if only out of the feeling that someone who studied under Scott is perhaps better suited to the argument than I) I'm intrigued by Moti's statement that racism has been rendered impossible for the intelligent person by the findings of science, paired with the burning room thought experiment.

One of the most basic definitions of racism is, it seems to me, assigning value to the human person based on one's assessment that an individual possesses a greater or lesser degree of similarity to one in regards to strictly accidental characteristics. (In the case of race: hair type, skin color, nose shape, skull shape, etc.)

The sense, unless I am missing something, in which Moti says that racism has been rendered impossible by science is the sense in which science has shown that the characteristics generally associated with race are not differences in kind. However different we may look to one another, we are at root all human beings.

Now it seems to me that it's not very much different from the racist approach which has been rejected to argue that a human is of less inherent value because of its age or its ability to respond normally to stimuli. One can imagine all sorts of rather more disturbing variations on the burning room: your neighbor's six month old infant child, and a three year old Aborigine child; a "crack baby" of minority extraction versus the child of a white concert pianist; my unborn son of six months gestation versus and eight year old with severe Down syndrome.

All of these, just as the three year old vs. zygote dilemma, simply confront us with a "like versus unlike" choice within our own species. If we take living members of that species to all have an identical level of inherent worth, then it would seem we should see them all (born or otherwise) has having some sort of identical inherent value.

Now, I may be barking up the wrong tree here if your assertion that racism has been invalidated by science means that racism is only wrong conditionally on it being the case that given individuals are "equal" in some given set of characteristics. If that is the case, then the fact that unborn children (especially those in very early stages of development) are clearly very different from "us" would mean they need not be treated equally. But then, in that case, if I could show that by some measure a specific group of people of a minority were "inferior" to me in a given set of characteristics, then it would be fully moral for me to treat them badly and be prejudiced against them. And I have the feeling that we don't want to "go there".

moti said...

Scott,

First, with respect to what you call my “wicked insinuation” that you used the term ‘humanity’, there’s a very easy explanation for it. In your response to my first post you wrote, “In my view, the humanity of the fetus is an empirical question, not a philosophical one, just as racial equality is an empirical, not a theoretical, matter, and the rest follows by a logic that is literally inevitable.” You wrote it, I responded. If there is any wickedness here, I fail to see it. But more importantly, my response called into question the argument from the humanity of the embryo to the moral impermissibility of abortion. What I suggested, in effect, is that you commit the fallacy of equivocation because ‘human’ or ‘humanity’ has more than one meaning. When Kant writes about “respect for the humanity in persons” he is not thinking about human beings qua biological beings. Nor is Primo Levi asking himself a question the answer to which is self-evident when he ruminates on the condition of some of his fellow concentration camp prisoners in his Auschwitz memoir Is This a Man? Nor are we making biological claims when we say that someone has lost his humanity. You go on to pity the poor, uneducated souls who believe that biological categories are social constructs or that life exists in a continuum or whatever, but this is all quite irrelevant because I’m not claiming that embryos are not human beings in the biological sense. I’m claiming that intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically “normal” people can believe that embryos are human beings in the biological sense without thereby committing themselves to the claim that abortion is morally impermissible. Obviously I haven’t convinced you, but then you haven’t really responded to my argument (well, you do say it’s far-fetched. I suppose that’s a response.)

As for thought experiments, I share your general disdain for them. As you may remember, one of my philosophical interests is ethics. Unfortunately (in my view), the field is rife with trolley problems and too much of the literature seems to be a game of one-upmanship. The thought experiment I introduced was intended only to bring out some of the considerations involved in attributing or recognizing value. In any case, I’m not sure how the case begs the question. Nothing is assumed antecedently, besides that the reader know what a fire is and what zygote is and what a three year old child is. I introduced it mainly as an illustration of how most people tend to value three year olds more than zygotes. The case brings this “intuition” out quite clearly. It does not resolve anything, nor did I mean to suggest that it does.

You write, “You're quite mistaken if you think that it's not possible to be both a thoughtful and intelligent person and a racist.” I agree with you here. What I claimed in my last post is that one cannot be intelligent, thoughtful and well-informed while remaining a racist unless one is also somehow psychologically defective in certain ways (e.g. malicious, self-deceived, etc.). I’ve known plenty of racists and of course I’m familiar with many others with whom I am not personally acquainted. None of the racists I know claim to be racists, nor do they believe they are racists. Some of them, who are white, even have black friends! I suspect most racists today fit neither into the Archie Bunker nor the Aryan nation categories. I think we have very good reason to believe that DNA pioneer James Watson is a racist but of course he’s neither thoughtless nor stupid. So if and when you meet someone who actually claims that it’s impossible to be both intelligent and thoughtful and a racist, Watson serves as a nice counterexample. And there are plenty of others.

Again, my claim is that it is possible to be intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically “normal” while being a supporter of a woman’s right to abortion, though it is not possible to have these characteristics and remain a racist. I’ve sketched some lines of thought that might lead one to support abortion rights. If those lines of thought are indicative of stupidity, thoughtlessness, ignorance, or psychological defects of the sort I’ve mentioned, then I’d be glad to hear more about it. In my last post I asked if you could say more about the intellectual error defenders of abortion rights are (necessarily?) making. I am sincere in my curiosity. If I am being stupid, thoughtless, or ignorant (or all three), or if I am displaying symptoms of mental illness, it’s important for me to know about it.

I am not sure what my “metaphysics” are, though I’m quite sure they’re not behaviorist. I was claiming only that something’s looking and behaving radically different from something else may reasonably be considered by intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc. people to be evidence of that thing’s having a different moral status. Of course this reasoning is defeasible and just as you have been waiting over thirty years for a sound argument showing that the ontological status of a zygote is really any different from the ontological status of a three year old, lots of other people have been waiting for just as long or longer for a sound argument showing that the two things have the same ontological status. Of course, this is one of the things that motivated my initial post. My claim there and again here is that the absence of such arguments in the abortion debate shows that there is an important difference between voting for a racist and voting for someone who defends a woman’s right to abortion. As you’ve made abundantly clear, you reject the relevant distinction between the racist and the pro-choicer. I’ve argued for the distinction and you’ve denied my conclusion. But I still don’t know what your reasons are.

Lastly, I never claimed that certain non-ban policies may be more effective in reducing the number of abortions than an outright ban would be (though it’s certainly possible). I claimed that we have no reason to believe that electing pro-life presidents helps reduce the number of abortions. Our discussion began on the topic of voting for pro-choice candidates. If reducing the number of abortions is a priority, then we ought to look elsewhere for the mechanisms that would best accomplish this goal. You offered your own reason for this, namely, the limited ability of the president to affect significant change. I did claim that “abstinence only” programs have been an abysmal failure, which is true, but these programs do not ban abortion. And I suggested that if we are serious about reducing the number of abortions, we simply ought to look at various programs to see how effective they are. Is this not a reasonable recommendation? As for the causation/correlation business, it too is irrelevant, since one can advocate for a ban on abortion while simultaneously supporting whatever programs most effectively reduce the number of abortions. If saving babies is what it’s all about, it seems obvious that this is the best approach for the pro-lifer.

As for why a defender of abortion rights might want to reduce the number of abortions, I can think of several reasons just off the top of my head. Of course there are all the reasons you will mock, such as the risk abortion poses to the mother, the psychological difficulties many women (and men) have faced as a result of abortions, etc. Perhaps you are right to think this is what Hillary Clinton has in mind. I don’t know.

But you’ve overlooked a really obvious reason a defender of abortion rights might have for limiting the number of abortions. It’s one of my reasons for wanting to reduce the number of abortions. Embryos have moral value. Therefore, their destruction should be avoided as much as possible—in ways that are consistent with other things of moral value, such as a woman’s autonomy, her health, etc. Is this not a perfectly good embryo-involving reason for reducing the number of abortions? I’m really quite surprised that you reject “the fewer abortions the better.”

Moti

Scott Carson said...

Moti

I guess at my age I shouldn't rely too heavily on my short-term memory; thank you for drawing attention to the fact that I did, indeed, use the word "humanity", without making me seem stupid, thoughtless, ignorant, or just plain senile. I will simply say that, as far as I am concerned, the term "human being" is not equivocal, and perhaps for that reason I was willing to slip the term "humanity" in there, though clearly I forgot that I did so. At any rate, the principal difference between us, as far as what you seem to be calling "metaphysics" goes, appears to be this: I myself think that, if human beings of any kind whatsoever have a particular right, or value, or whatever you think grounds normative differences, then all human beings have th same right, value, or whatever to an equal extent. To put it more simply, I deny that there are any reasons at all to treat one human being, qua human being, any differently than any other. It is for this reason that I think racism is wrong, and it is for this reason that I think it is wrong to take any human life without justification. In point of fact, I believe it to be wrong to take any human life, simpliciter, but given that this view is perhaps a little more radical than many would accept, let me stick with the "without justification" clause, since that will give us more to talk about anyway.

It will give us more to talk about because, of course, it is precisely the question of justification that is at issue for people who are willing to grant that abortion takes a human life but who claim that it is nevertheless justifiable (though she does not herself think that it is a human life, Thompson nevertheless grants it for the sake of argument in her well-known "violinist" thought experiment). Some people, for example, think that it is permissible to kill in self-defense, or in the case of capital criminals, or in defense of the common good during wartime. These sorts of situations are thought, by some, to constitute legitimate justification for deadly force. None of these justifications is grounded in anything like a moral difference between the killer and the killed person, however. Even the defense of capital punishment is couched in terms of defense of the common good (at least by the more thoughtful defenders of the act; I grant that there are some who still cling to the notion of retribution, who think that the capital criminal, in some sense, "deserves" to be put to death, but I myself do not accept that reason).

What I have been waiting for lo these thirty years, is some sort of argument to show that the killing of the fetus can be justified, even if we grant that the killing could be justified as a form of self-defense or defense of the common good. Since these two criteria, self-defense and defense of the common good, are the only criteria that have ever been accepted as justifications for the taking of human lives, then I don't think it is unreasonable to use them as baseline criteria for the defending abortion. Some of the defenses of abortion that have been offered in the past (to protect the psychological welfare of pre-teen mothers or victims of rape, to select children for sex, to prevent bringing one more hungry mouth to feed into a poor family, etc.) would never be accepted as a justification for taking the life of any clump of cells outside of the womb, so I don't see any reason to take them as justification for taking the life of a clump of cells inside the womb, given that there is no significant difference between those kinds of clumps of cells.

Here, you will say, lies another crux. Just as I have been waiting to hear what makes the fetus different, others have been waiting to hear what makes it the same. Believe me, I am well aware of this aspect of the debate. I don't think either of us is really arguing about that, though--we're really arguing about whether it's reasonable to give the same moral weight to support of abortion that we give to support of racism. Clearly whether one thinks it reasonable will depend upon one's view of the status of the fetus, however, and that's why I was surprised that you would argue so forcefully that it is not reasonable, even though you knew perfectly well that I have a certain view about the status of the fetus.

Given my "metaphysics" then (though that was really your term--I do not believe it to be a matter of metaphysics), I really have no choice but to oppose abortion, or indeed any act that treats some human beings differently than others in a deleterious way. I do flatter myself to think that I am open minded, however, and, as I have said, I am still waiting, after more than 30 years, for the argument that will change my mind. Perhaps being open minded and a skeptic at the same time is not a very promising combination in this regard.

As for what your "error" might be, your litany of "intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically 'normal' people" strikes me as completely irrelevant. The fact is that plenty of such people are also moral monsters. If you do not know any such people, then you are lucky. Talk of Primo Levi and Kant and all these other intellectuals notwithstanding, I simply refuse to believe that you, Moti Gorin, would ever think that it is morally acceptable to kill of whole groups of people, whatever justification be given and whether or not the people recommending the killing appear to you to be otherwise "intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically “normal” people". The blunt fact of the matter is that you, personally, don't think that clumps of cells inside the womb have the same moral status of clumps of cells outside the womb, and for that reason, and that reason alone, you favor abortion rights. You have not been able, or perhaps willing, to say what makes those clumps of cells different, other than to point to their different behavior, a criterion that you yourself seemed to concede was not a very compelling reason, only a reasonable reason. Lots of reasons are reasonable in one sense or another, but in the end, any reason that tries to say that there is a significant difference between, say, people born in Africa and people born in Northwestern Europe, will fail, and the same will hold true for any reason that tries to establish a significant difference between fetuses and those of us who have escaped the womb. If you believe differently, then by all means say what the reason is, but for my purposes in this particular discussion, it is enough for me to count it as a victory that you would admit that you could not support even Barack Obama if his political platform were identical in every way to the one he has now, with the exception that he also favors killing off all of the Italians. If you admit that, then you have already admitted that if fetuses have the same status as other humans, you could not support a candidate who favored abortion. The fact that you, personally, don't happen to think that fetuses do have that status is irrelevant. The point is that it is not unreasonable to equate support for abortion with racism--or worse--unless one happens to have, antecedently, the idée fixe that fetuses have a different moral status than other human beings.

I agree with you that electing pro-life presidents will have no effect on the number of abortions. This time it is you who have forgotten something, namely, that I admitted as much in my original post. As a matter of fact, electing a racist president will have no effect on race legislation either, which was the point. Your missing that, I'm afraid, was not merely a matter of forgetting.

I myself do not reject "the fewer abortions the better"; what I reject is the idea that people who defend your view can reasonably accept that principle. On the position that you defend, embryos may have instrumental value, but the instrumental value that they have is no different than the instrumental value that umbilical stem cells have. You therefore have no compelling reason to think that the number of abortions ought to be less. Indeed, given that removal and use of embryos for scientific research is itself a form of abortion, you have reason to think that the number of abortions ought to be greater.

If, by some bizarre chance, you think that the value of embryos lies in the fact that they have the potential to grow into human beings, and their value has to do with some putative connection to the value of being a human being outside of the womb, then I literally despair of talking any sense into you--you have descended into the realm of magical thinking. But I feel quite certain that is not what you think the value of embryos is, because you're "intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically 'normal'".

And yet, still mistaken. Believe it or not, Virginia, it is possible to be both--such people do, as a matter of fact, make mistakes. I had a friend once--Paul Halsall, in fact, who I have mentioned many times in my blog--who argued that anyone who votes for any Republican is "either stupid or evil". Since I had myself voted for Republicans in the past, I felt somewhat on the spot to come up with something to say about that. All I could think of, however, was "Why can't they be both?" In the case of abortion, I think some supporters of it are, in fact, evil, some are just plain stupid, but some are "intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically 'normal' people" who have simply made a mistake, though not necessarily as a consequence of being stupid. As I intimated in my other comments, I think it has to do with psychological facts about us, but not psychological facts that make us "abnormal". Indeed, it is perfectly normal to feel a stronger emotional connection to a three year old than to a fetus. I do not deny the psychological normalness of that, and I locate the willingness to support abortion in that broadly normal psychological fact about humans. But racism, too, is grounded in a psychological fact about humans that is broadly normal, and normal in precisely the same way: there seems to be a certain selective advantage that is conferred on what used to be called "tribal thinking", that is group selection favors populations in which there are marked preferences for members of one's own population group. This purely biological fact about us, however, does not mean that there is any rationally viable reason to be a racist, it is just a sad fact of our biological condition. Many of us have overcome it, but many, obviously, have not.

Sadly, I do not predict that many will overcome the purely biological response to fetuses that helps them to feel comfortable about destroying them. That it is possible to feel comfortable about destroying human beings for no rationally compelling reason was sadly demonstrated during the Nazi Holocaust, if not long before in the many horrifying events of human history having to do with human hate, greed, and tribal thinking.

So, I think you're perfectly "intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically 'normal'" even though I am literally horrified by your moral stance on abortion. That is, unfortunately, a very sad fact about our relationship. If it makes you feel any better, "most of my best friends", as they say, favor abortion rights, and certainly virtually all of my colleagues do. I don't deny that I'm something of an outlier. Does it comfort me to know that your views are grounded in psychological reasons that are not really fully up to you to control? Only a little. Among the people I know who are racists is my own sister; she would be horrified if anyone told her that she is a racist, because she does not believe that she is one. I have rather incontrovertible empirical evidence that she is one, but she herself would not be persuaded by it. Does it make me feel better about her that, at least she says that she doesn't like racism, and that she herself is not a racist? It's hard to feel really good about that, but I suppose it's better than if she went around using the N-word all the time and actively working to thwart the interests of blacks. Still, it's not very encouraging and it is a sad fact about my relationship with her that we are so far apart on that issue. If you were the sort of person who thought that fetuses had the same value as other humans but still had no qualms about killing them, then obviously things would be different, but as things are, I have to make certain allowances or I couldn't be friends with very many people in my line of work.

Interestingly, I am the one who is regarded as narrow-minded, even though the folks in my line of work who think I am wrong about abortion are far less tolerant of me than I am of them, and many of them have refused to have anything to do with me when they discover my views. That tells me that they think that I am as wrong as I think they are, but whereas I am willing to look for reasons not up to them for their moral blindness, they do not extend me the same charity, assuming instead that I am just a misogynist or an idiot.

However, when I think about the people who so unfairly (and hypocritically) judge me in this way, I take my comfort not from Primo Levi, or even Kant, but from Nietzsche of all people. I think he explained such folks pretty well in Beyond Good and Evil. But don't try telling them that.

moti said...

Scott,

You write, “If you believe differently, then by all means say what the reason is, but for my purposes in this particular discussion, it is enough for me to count it as a victory that you would admit that you could not support even Barack Obama if his political platform were identical in every way to the one he has now, with the exception that he also favors killing off all of the Italians. If you admit that, then you have already admitted that if fetuses have the same status as other humans, you could not support a candidate who favored abortion.” I’ll read your “favor abortion” as “favor abortion rights”.

Anyway, this is what I will admit: If the military of the United States were currently engaged in killing lots of Italians and Obama were running on a platform that included a continuation of this killing, and if one of the consequences of his winning the presidency very likely would be the continuation of this killing, and if he were running against a candidate who would end the killing (or who would probably end the killing), then of course I would not support Obama. And if I believed that embryos are the moral equals of Italians, and we replace “Italian” with “embryo” in the above story, then of course I would not support Obama. However, as you point out, and as I point out that you point out, this is not the situation we find ourselves in. Presidents do not have the kind of power over abortion rights that they do over live military adventures. Remember what I’m arguing here. I’m arguing that a pro-life voter may have good reason to vote for a pro-choice candidate. Similarly, I can easily imagine a situation where an anti-war voter, such as myself, has good reason to vote for a pro-war candidate. If the president’s control over matters of war and peace were as limited as is his control over the core legal issues surrounding abortion, then I probably wouldn’t care all that much about the president’s position with respect to war and peace. From the perspective of a pro-life voter, if electing candidate A does not save more embryos than electing candidate B does, what difference could it possibly make to that voter what either of these guys believes in his “heart of hearts” about abortion? Who cares?

Let’s say for a minute that I support Obama—either as the lesser of evils or otherwise. And let’s say I discover that Obama fantasizes about engaging in all sorts of acts of vicious, wanton cruelty. Maybe he daydreams about it. Maybe he shares his fantasies with his buddies over tea. Whatever. Let’s further imagine that I have very good reason to believe that this odd and rather shocking feature of Obama’s psychology will not have any effect on me, you, or anyone else. Why should I, qua citizen, give a rat’s ass about this nasty quirk? What matters to me, qua citizen, are policies. Unfortunately, contemporary politics has been so fouled up by “character-based” campaigns (which never end) that it’s easy to forget that the only beliefs, desires, etc. that should really be of any interest to citizens are those beliefs, desires, etc. that impact the workings of government and, by extension, the lives of people. And this is why I cannot grant you even this victory. If Obama favored killing the Italians but I knew that this favoring would remain inefficacious, I might have plenty of reasons to vote for him. Especially if, contrary to his stated aims, he implemented policies the effect of which was to save Italians.

If a pro-choice candidate implements policies that reduce the number of abortions, and if his position on the abortion question (i.e., his being pro-choice) was practically irrelevant, then a pro-life voter has good reason to vote for that candidate. Does this make sense? It’s the point I’ve been trying to argue this whole time, though of course I’ve gotten off track.

I have tried to avoid getting mired in the problem of abortion, though of course I’ve failed. I believe the problem is intractable. I think plenty of intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, well-meaning people believe that abortion is a moral monstrosity, and if I shared their beliefs my voting preferences might change. All I’ve wanted to suggest is that it is perfectly reasonable for a pro-life voter to vote for a pro-choice candidate, given your stipulation (the impotence of presidents in this regard) and given what I take to be a fact, namely, that pro-choice candidates tend to favor the sorts of educational programs and contraception programs that actually reduce the number of abortions. And if these programs do not do what I and many others believe they do, or if presidents begin to lose their ability to influence such programs, then it seems to me the abortion question should be removed from presidential campaigns altogether.

Two minor (polite) corrections. You wrote, “I agree with you that electing pro-life presidents will have no effect on the number of abortions. This time it is you who have forgotten something, namely, that I admitted as much in my original post. As a matter of fact, electing a racist president will have no effect on race legislation either, which was the point. Your missing that, I'm afraid, was not merely a matter of forgetting.” In my earlier posts, I more than once mentioned your point about the limited power of presidents, and I gave you credit for it. So I’m not sure what you are insinuating when you say that my “missing that…was not merely a matter of forgetting”. I gave you credit for the point and used this credit to make my own point. In any case, I’m sure your insinuation is not a wicked one. Secondly, it was you, I believe, not me, who brought up metaphysics. I did mention the word in my first post but did so derisively. You then accused me of having a “behaviorist metaphysics”, which I denied. Though I waver on this point, when it comes to metaphysics I often find myself empathizing with the positivists.

Obviously, there is much more to say here but I’m not going to say it. If there are any points from your most recent post that I’m ignoring (and there are a lot) and that you’d like me to respond to, let me know. Again, I think the abortion problem is intractable and my point never was to try to convince you that embryos are less valuable than three year olds. My point (at least with respect to this issue, over an above the voter issue) was only that intelligent, reasonable, well-informed, etc. people can be defenders of abortion rights. You concede this point but go on to say that such people are still moral monsters. Well, in my first response I think I included a moral capacity in this list of characteristics. Given the length of the list (tedious, isn’t it), it seems I forgot to include it later, though it seems to me that being psychologically “normal” does include having one’s moral faculties actively engaged.

Darwin,
I will reply to your post later.

Moti

moti said...

Darwin,

I claimed that an intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed person who is psychologically “normal” cannot be a racist because the kind of racist I have in mind is someone who believes that some people are inferior in some important respect and therefore less deserving of respect, good treatment, etc., and that the allegedly inferior people are inferior in virtue of their belonging to some subset of people that does not, in fact, exist (i.e., a “race”). As I said in my first post, I do not claim that every racist is this kind of racist. The kind of racism I have in mind is sometimes called “scientific racism” because it is founded on the false belief that humanity is comprised of different “species” (broadly construed), and that the superficial differences we note among people from various parts of the planet (e.g., skin color, shape of the eyes, etc.) are indicative of their membership in the purported class. Such a racist makes at least two mistakes. First, he thinks such classes exist. Second, he thinks that members of one class are superior to members of another. (I say this is an additional mistake because even if such classes did exist, it would not follow that members of any one class must be superior to or inferior to members of another class).

It should be clear enough why an intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc. person cannot be a racist, at least not this kind of racist. The difference between the racist’s beliefs and the supporter of abortion rights is that the latter does not have any beliefs that science shows to be provably false. The defender of abortion rights (at least the kind I’m imagining) does not make the first mistake from above; she does not claim that human beings can be divided into scientifically relevant, distinct “species” (again, broadly construed). Where Scott and I disagree, I think, is on whether or not the defender of abortion rights is making a mistake when she claims that e.g. zygotes are not as valuable morally as three year olds. Scott has wanted to claim that the issue is an empirical one, though I can’t see how this is so. The racist can be shown to be wrong on empirical grounds (mistake number one), but it seems to me the supporter of abortion rights cannot be shown to be wrong in this way. (Nor, I should add, can the opponent of abortion rights.)

I do not think zygotes are of less moral value than human beings who have been born only because zygotes are different. After all, each human being who has been born is different from every other one, and needless to say that’s not enough to show that anyone is of greater moral value than anyone else. I think zygotes are different from born human beings in ways that are morally significant. Scott has listed some of these ways, though he does not agree that they are morally significant. I take sentience to be morally significant. A being’s being sentient provides us with a reason to treat it in certain ways and to avoid treating it in other ways. A being’s being sentient is a sufficient but not a necessary condition for generating an obligation to treat it in certain ways and to avoid treating it in other ways. Women are sentient beings so we have an obligation to treat them in certain ways, one of which, I believe, is to avoid putting constraints on their thoughts, words, or actions, unless these constraints can be justified. Pro-lifers think it is permissible to constrain women in ways pro-choicers do not because pro-lifers believe the value of the zygote (embryo, fetus, whatever) trumps the value of women’s autonomy, possibly their health, etc. I’m not sure how to resolve the problem or if there is a resolution, besides the political process. What I do know is that our obligations toward women (and all other born people) are clear—any constraint on their thoughts, actions, etc. must be justified. In the absence of a sound argument showing that zygotes are of greater moral value than the liberty of women, it seems to me the burden of argument lies with those who would restrict liberty.

Moti

moti said...

Scott,

I’d like to float an argument for keeping abortion legal by you, one that I presented very quickly at the end of my response to Darwin. It’s not an argument for the moral permissibility of abortion. I’ll assume as given some of the things we’ve already conceded and I’ll try to show that a woman’s right to abortion should be legally protected.

Person P is pro-life. Person C is pro-choice. Their disagreement centers on the question of whether the life of the embryo trumps the autonomy of the woman. P believes that C is intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, and psychologically “normal” and C believes the same about P. P believes that despite her having these virtues, C is making some kind of error that commits her to a position that is morally wrong. C believes that despite P’s having these same virtues, P is making some kind of error that commits her to a position that is morally wrong. P and C agree that women are autonomous and that a just legal system will protect that autonomy. But, again, they disagree about the value of this autonomy with respect to how it compares to the value of the life of the embryo, which leads them to disagree about whether women have, or ought to have, a legal right to abort their pregnancies.

If I’ve accurately captured the nature of the dispute, then a woman’s right to abortion should be protected. Because we assume that P and C are disputing in good faith (i.e., they both are open-minded to the possibility that they are wrong, they are attempting to discover the truth, they respect their interlocutor, etc.) and because they are both intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc.,it seems to me that both parties must admit that the reasons for their beliefs about the value of the zygote—however passionately those beliefs may be held—are currently insufficient to compel the other party to concede on pain of irrationality. In other words, what we have here with respect to the “big question” surrounding the morality of abortion is a good, old-fashioned, honest stalemate.

In order to resolve the question of whether a woman’s right to abortion should be legally protected, we have to bring in considerations that are external to the debate on the moral permissibility of abortion—that, after all, is precisely what C and P are at loggerheads over. P and C agree that the autonomy of the woman should be protected unless coercion is justified, and they agree that any justification for such coercion must meet a very high standard (because they’re both lovers of liberty). They disagree about whether coercion, in this case, is justified. Now, it seems to me that P and C must each recognize that the standard for justification has not been met, simply in virtue of the nature of their disagreement about this justification (each of them recognizes the intelligence, thoughtfulness, well-informedness, etc., of the other, as well as her good faith). Therefore, there ought to be a presumption in favor of the autonomy of the woman.

C recognizes that at some point in the future it may become clear that abortion is actually morally impermissible, and clear in a way that anyone who is intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc., will recognize on pain of irrationality. If this time ever comes, then of course there will no longer be the presumption in favor of the woman’s autonomy. P goes on believing that abortion is morally impermissible but she recognizes that in the absence of evidence that is compelling for anyone who is intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc., we, as a society that values autonomy, cannot justly place legal constraints on the autonomy of women.

So P and C go on having arguments about moral issues surrounding abortion in the hope that one day anyone who is intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc. will know clearly whether the standard of justification has been met. Until then, however, because the standard has not been met in a way P and C both recognize, the right to abortion should be protected. In the meantime, practically speaking, both P and C should do what they can to make abortions as rare, and as safe, as possible by means that are consistent with their shared values.

Moti

Darwin said...

Moti,

One is never sure, in this sort of situation, when the party should simply be called over -- especially on a topic where, as all of us have agreed, there are fairly intractacle disagreements. I will, thus, keep this very short, and invite you to disregard it entirely if you find it drags things on past the point worth discussing.

-In regards to "character based" elections, I think perhaps you make the case rather too strongly for policy. Certainly, we should look closely at policy -- and disregard to an extent positions which we believe a candidate will never successfully act on. However, we do live in a republic, and thus the leaders we elect may often end up making decision (without having to consult our votes again) about issues which were wholly unforseen at the time of the election. Thus, it seems to me reasonable to vote against someone for holding despicable views, even if he seems unlikely to be able to act upon them. (I think that was Scott's point in arguing that otherwise it would be wholly acceptible for vote for a "vocal but benign" racist.)

-In re sentience -- that's certainly a line one could draw, but in that case, I'm not clear why we should stop at abortion and not legalize infanticide (and euthenasia for the severely disabled). A three month old infant is not discernably more sentient than a fetus at five months gestation. If the latter is fair game because it "lacks sentience", why not the former as well? Now to be fair, I suppose a lot of intelligent and psychologically "normal" people throughout history have no problem with killing infants or the unfit -- especially when they represent an undue burden on their caretakers. But it would seem that our society's reluctance to "go there" suggests this is not actually our reasoning.

-When it comes the discussing the need to respect a woman's right to self determination over her body, it seems that we would also need to consider the disproportionate impact on the two parties involved: the woman potentially suffers some degree of health or financial impact, the fetus potentially suffers a rather gruesome death. Thus, even if we took their states not to be wholly equal, it seems that the weight might well come down on the side of the fetus.

Scott Carson said...

Moti

I haven't yet read all of your most recent comments because today was the last day of classes and things are getting rather swampy around here (both literally and figuratively), but I did manage to have a quick look at your proposal for keeping abortion legal, and I think I have enough time to dash off a response to that, before I try putting together a more carefully considered response to some of your other comments.

The difficulty with your proposal, as I see it, is that you are still arguing from the position of someone who thinks that the anti-abortion position is up for revisability. I'm interested in that, because you don't seem to think that opposition to racism is up for revisability, you seem to think that the wrongness of racism is a settled issue. And I suspect that if someone were to propose eliminating the laws against pedophilia, you would be tempted to say that the wrongness of sex between a 50 year old man and a 6 year old girl is also not up for revisability--these things are simply wrong, and we aren't going to change those laws.

That you would think that an anti-abortion person such as myself would feel differently about abortion strikes me as a symptom of your own view about the status of fetuses. Suppose what we were talking about was slavery, and that we're living not in 2008 but in 1830. Plenty of very intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate people thought that slavery was acceptable; some thought that it was perhaps not very seemly but nevertheless something that we could allow to die out slowly; still others thought that it was wrong but that the solution was to simply not let new states continue the practice. One might say, sure, at that time those sorts of responses were reasonable, but if someone were to find today some weird compound somewhere in the south where they are still holding slaves, we wouldn't suddenly start debating whether the laws against slavery should be taken off the books and then enter into a national dialog about the moral acceptability of slavery, and even if we did I don't think many people would suggest what you're suggesting, that is, let people continue holding slaves until we come to some further consensus about the wrongness of it.

I think that your argument hinges on this:

Because we assume that P and C are disputing in good faith (i.e., they both are open-minded to the possibility that they are wrong, they are attempting to discover the truth, they respect their interlocutor, etc.) and because they are both intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, etc.,it seems to me that both parties must admit that the reasons for their beliefs about the value of the zygote—however passionately those beliefs may be held—are currently insufficient to compel the other party to concede on pain of irrationality.

I will grant you that neither side is going to "compel" the other by means of rational argumentation--if that were going to happen, it would already have happened. But I don't think that the reason why neither side is going to compel the other is due to there being any doubts about the truth of the matter, any more than that, if there were a long-standing disagreement about the moral status of racism, that long-standing disagreement would ipso facto be evidence for any doubts about the matter.

Are the people who oppose racism at this date and time still "attempting to discover the truth"? The other day you seemed to indicate that you thought that the truth of that particular matter was already settled, and I agreed with you. The difference between us on the abortion question is this: I think that the truth of the matter is as settled in the abortion case as it is in the racism case, but you don't think so. If a racist came to me and asserted that I had to take racism more seriously as possibly true because there are lots of thoughtful, intelligent, and psychologically normal racists out there who think it is morally OK, I would just laugh in his face. I'm doing you the favor of not laughing in your face, but you are in exactly the same position as the racist: you are a supporter of abortion rights telling me that I have to take the moral acceptability of abortion more seriously as possibly OK because there are lots of thoughtful intelligent and psychologically normal people out there who think it is OK.

I don't think for a minute that you would want it to be legal to take the lives of any other group of defenseless human beings--I think you would oppose such policies as vehemently as I oppose abortion. Probably more vehemently, because you're more of an activist than I am. So when you say that we ought to let abortion be legal until we figure out what it's moral status is--well, I will take you at your word that you offer the argument in bona fides (even though it is just the contrapositive or Reagan's old argument: we should keep it illegal until we figure out it's status, on the off chance that it is actually very wrong), but there's no way I can endorse the proposal.

Which is not to say that I don't value any of the other things you mention. Women's autonomy is very important; but of course, so it the autonomy of the fetus. Women and fetuses have a moral relationship that doesn't exist anywhere else in nature in quite the same way, so the problem is rather unique. Thompson's argument with the violinist, while emotionally effective, fails to persuade that an individual's liberty to make certain choices about the condition or direction of her own life ought to extend to the unilateral decision to terminate the life of another person. In short, values may be ordered, and I myself am not convinced that the value of the life of another person ought to be ranked by me as falling below any of my own personal values.

moti said...

Darwin,

You are right—the party is probably just about over. I’m writing in large part just to keep busy, and because I think it is valuable to discuss things with people who see things very differently than I do. But of course there is the problem of diminishing returns, a problem which actually motivated my last post—about which more below.

I did not mean to suggest that “character” (whatever that is) never matters. I stipulated, following Scott, that as far as fundamental abortion law is concerned the power of the president is quite limited. If this is right, then I can’t see why the president’s beliefs about fundamental abortion law should weight very much with voters. But if both candidates were running on otherwise identical platforms, then this belief might come into play. And when we move from the abstract to our upcoming election, it seems obvious that people who are concerned with unnecessary killing have an easy choice to make. Neither McCain nor Obama are going to overturn Rove. But McCain has surrounded himself with bloodthirsty advisors who are itching to send more people off to die, perhaps in Iran as well as Iraq. So you can vote for someone who has beliefs with which you sympathize, but which are utterly inefficacious, and who is a warmonger, or you can vote for someone with whom you have fundamental disagreements on matters that he can’t affect in any case, and who is much more likely to prevent lots of killing. Take your pick.

As for sentience, you’ll notice that throughout my posts I limit my claims to the embryo or the zygote. This is because I agree with you that a 5 month old fetus is sentient, and I think that 5 month old fetuses have a different moral status than zygotes. Don’t ask me to draw the line. My position, I realize, is a more difficult one to maintain in some respects than is the one held by someone with a “one size fits all” view. I think the problem of abortion is difficult, at least philosophically.

I think the proportionality objection you raise is a serious one. In fact, I think it’s the strongest response to the proposal I floated in my last post. Besides denying that the destruction of a zygote is a big deal morally, all I can say, really, is that I think you underestimate the impact banning abortion would have on women. You say, with respect to the costs women might bear if they are forced to carry to full term, “[the] woman potentially suffers some degree of health or financial impact”, as if the only reason a woman might have for wanting to abort her pregnancy is to protect her earning potential or avoid some minor health problem. The decision about whether to bring a child into the world, and at what time, and with which person, etc., is a very serious one. It impacts a person’s life plan and most fundamental projects in very deep ways. Whenever a life is affected in this way, we should be extremely careful about allowing people whose life it is not (especially when those people are more powerful and historically have been oppressors) to make the decision. There was a time, not so long ago, when women did not have all that much control over their own lives. When a woman got pregnant it was just assumed that she would marry (or be tarred as a “slut”) and spend the rest of her life devoted to exercising her “marital duties”—one of which often was the having of more children (whether she wanted them or not). It is difficult to understate the importance of easy access to birth control and legal access to abortion to the liberation of women in contemporary industrialized countries, and everywhere else. Bertrand Russell once wrote, “Marriage is for women the commonest mode of livelihood, and the total amount of undesired sex endured by women is probably greater in marriage than in prostitution.” He was certainly right about the first part, and husbands everywhere can only hope that he was wrong about the second part. Our society was not (and still is not) organized in a way that makes things easy for a woman with a child, to put it gently. I suspect I would be a less strident (if only marginally so) defender of abortion rights if it were.



Scott,

You write, “If a racist came to me and asserted that I had to take racism more seriously as possibly true because there are lots of thoughtful, intelligent, and psychologically normal racists out there who think it is morally OK, I would just laugh in his face. I'm doing you the favor of not laughing in your face, but you are in exactly the same position as the racist: you are a supporter of abortion rights telling me that I have to take the moral acceptability of abortion more seriously as possibly OK because there are lots of thoughtful intelligent and psychologically normal people out there who think it is OK.”

I do not believe there are lots of intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed and psychologically “normal” racists out there. If one is a racist, then one is lacking at least one of these features. I know we keep going back and forth on this point and we’re not getting anywhere, so I’ll just drop it. Or you can give me a counterexample (e.g., a famous name) so that I’ll know what you consider to be an intelligent, well-informed, etc., racist.

You wrote, “you are still arguing from the position of someone who thinks that the anti-abortion position is up for revisability” and then went on to say, “That you would think that an anti-abortion person such as myself would feel differently about abortion [than about racism] strikes me as a symptom of your own view about the status of fetuses.”

No. Earlier you touted your open-mindedness and your skepticism and you’ve repeated the story of how you’ve been waiting all these years for a sound argument showing that a zygote is less valuable morally than a three year old. Quite naturally, this led me to believe that the anti-abortion position is up for revisability, at least for you. Or have you also been waiting all these years for a sound argument showing that some “races” are superior in morally salient ways to others? If you have not been waiting for this argument, then perhaps you recognize the distinction between racism and abortion more than you’d like to admit.

You have misunderstood me. I am not claiming that you have to take abortion rights more seriously. Nor am I claiming that the supporter of abortion rights ought to take more seriously the moral status of the embryo. You seem to have read me as claiming that abortion should remain legal only because the jury is still out on the moral question. Reagan’s argument clearly begs the question but mine does not (though I admit I could have been clearer). What I tried to offer was an argument for maintaining the legal right to abortion that avoids begging the question by not invoking those moral claims that are themselves the subject of contention between the pro-choicer and the pro-lifer, and, as usual, I was writing faster than I was thinking. Let me add some restrictions here. In a way this will make things harder for me overall, but at least the broad outlines of what I’m trying to get at will be seen more clearly…I hope.

Think of it this way: two people are having a disagreement. One of them maintains that aborting zygotes is morally permissible because zygotes are morally worthless (position X) while the other claims that aborting zygotes is morally impermissible because zygotes are very valuable morally (position Y). Each party recognizes and is willing to admit that the position of the other is plausible enough to be defended by an intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful, etc., person. Needless to say, each of them thinks the other is making some kind of error and that their own position is the true one. Enter a neutral mediator who does not know which is true, X or Y. There is no way to resolve the problem by citing reasons internal to the debate without begging the question, either against one of the parties or against the other (and I think this pretty accurately describes the standoff). The mediator cannot adjudicate with respect to the moral question, so she shifts her attention to the legal question. From her perspective, there is a 50% chance that the legal resolution will be consistent with the true moral proposition and a 50% chance that it will not be. (Notice, this does not require that either party believe that there is only a 50% chance that her view is the right one. Each remains fully convinced of the truth of her view. Nor does it require that “the truth is somewhere in the middle” or anything else ridiculous like that. Either X is true or Y is true, but not both). Now, let’s go on to stipulate that both parties agree about Z, which is the proposition that a woman should not be legally coerced unless a very high standard of justification has been met. So there is agreement about the impermissibility of legally coercing women in the absence of strong justification. But there is disagreement about whether, in the case of abortion, coercion is justified.

Our mediator has to decide whether a woman’s right to abort a zygote should be legally protected. Yes or no. There are four possible outcomes.

A. Yes, women are granted the right to abort zygotes and zygotes are, in fact, morally worthless. Women’s autonomy is not restricted and nothing morally wrong has been done to zygotes.
B. Yes, women are granted the right to abort zygotes and zygotes are, in fact, morally valuable. Women’s autonomy is not restricted and something morally wrong has been done to zygotes.
C. No, women are not granted the right to abort zygotes and zygotes are, in fact, morally worthless. Women’s autonomy has been restricted and nothing morally wrong has been done to zygotes.
D. No, women are not granted the right to abort zygotes and zygotes are, in fact, morally valuable. Women’s autonomy has been restricted and nothing morally wrong has been done to zygotes.
From the perspective of the mediator, A is the best outcome, because women maintain their autonomy for free, so to speak (1 good, 0 bad). B preserves women’s autonomy but at a high price (1 good, 1 bad). C is the worst outcome because women’s autonomy is limited and nothing of moral value is preserved (0 good, 1 bad). D limits women’s autonomy but something of value is preserved (1 good, 1 bad).

The mediator wants to minimize moral harm. A is the only outcome that avoids harm altogether. So that’s one notch in favor of abortion rights. B and D “tie”—both involve harm. And since B allows abortion while D forbids it, B and D cancel each other out. We’ve already seen that nothing speaks in favor of C, which forbids abortion.

Thus, a neutral mediator who takes into account the shared values of the contending parties will decide in favor of abortion rights (given the zygote-only restriction) and will do so while avoiding begging the question against anyone. Neither of the opposing perspectives of the disputants is assumed.

Ok, so the argument is a bit artificial and it assumes that there is a way to quantify moral value and, moreover, that the moral value of a woman’s autonomy can somehow be “weighed” against the moral value of a zygote and that these values are equal (enter the proportionality objection Darwin raised). And surely there are other problems as well. But it seems to me that because the moral disagreement will not be resolved anytime soon we should be looking for other ways to resolve the practical (i.e., legal, social) problem.



Moti

Scott Carson said...

Moti

I think I do see a little more clearly what sort of position you are trying to take, though I'm not at all sure that understanding your position a little better alters my judgment about the direction of your argument.

I mean, I see that what you want to do is adopt a "neutral" position with regards to abortion rights, the position of someone who simply does not know whether it is X or Y that is true, but even saying that much makes me suspicious, and for the following reason. You basically admitted, earlier, that if we were to substitute "Blacks are valueless and may be held as slave" for X and "Blacks are as valuable as any humans and may not be held as slaves" for Y, then you yourself would be in no doubt about the truth of Y, and you further claimed that no intelligent, thoughtful, and psychologically normal person would have any doubts about the truth of Y (or at least the falsity of X; let us just assume for the sake of argument that Y = (~X), in this and in the abortion case). What would you, personally, say about an allegedly "neutral" person who came into this debate, claiming not to know whether X or Y is true? That this "neutral" person is just lying about what he really believes? That this "neutral" person ought to know better? That this "neutral" person needs to be educated before he can even begin to understand the arguments in favor of X and Y? The principle of charity seems to suggest the last possibility, though I think the other two are clearly live options. But let's assume that someone coming into the racism debate as a "neutral" is only neutral because he doesn't understand all of the facts. I think that you and I agree that all of the facts make it quite clear that only Y can be true in the racism case, and that anyone who still maintains X, after a full education, is either making some kind of intellectual error, or is just morally debased. If you think there is some tertium quid in the racism case that I am missing, let me know, but I think we do agree on that much.

Now clearly, the "education" that this "neutral" person is going to get isn't going to come out of thin air, from some god's-eye point of view; it is going to consist in a presentation of the empirical evidence from advocates of one point of view or the other (presumably other "neutrals" could help out in this regard, but the same empirical evidence is available to all sides in this debate, and there's no a priori reason to silence the advocates of X and Y in the presentation of the empirical evidence, at least not as long as we're trying to maintain "neutrality"). Any argument that "persuades" the "neutral" to adopt one position or the other, if it is grounded in the empirical evidence, will necessarily involve claims about how the evidence is best interpreted. So I don't see how any "neutral" in any of these debates can claim to have anything like a guarantee that they will come to what you and I agree to be the only possible rational conclusion in the racism case.

So, having said all that, I suppose I should say this, too. You're right to suspect me, at least a little, when I say that I've been waiting for 30 years for the argument that will persuade me otherwise regarding abortion. If I am to be consistent, I ought to say that I'm still waiting for the argument that will persuade me otherwise regarding racism. So, OK, I will say it. I will be open minded about every and all moral possibilities, in any given kind of case. But that does not mean that I have any expectation that my mind will be changed. I will continue to wait for an argument that will change my mind about racism, but I am as certain as anyone can be that no such argument will ever be forthcoming. So, put that way, I will say the same about abortion. I continue to wait for The Argument; but believe me, in 30 years of thinking about this, I have heard a lot of different arguments, some of them made multiple times by different people and from different perspectives, and all of them have been found wanting in one way or another, whereas the argument against abortion never fails. So I will keep waiting, but I am as certain as anyone can be that no such argument will ever be forthcoming.

As for legality, I think my claim that your support for something like option (A) depends not on neutrality, but a commitment to low fetus value, stands. Reagan's argument does not beg the question any more than yours does, but your failure to see that is due, not to your neutrality, but your lack of neutrality. How so? Let's assume that only two things are at stake here: the life of the fetus, and the woman's autonomy; what I say will hold, ceteris paribus, for whatever valuable properties you might want to plug in here in the autonomy position. I don't really know how to quantify human life, since I myself think that all human life is the same, but for the sake of argument let's say that the life of the fetus can have any value from 0 to 100, where 100 just means that the fetus is as valuable as any fully grown, fully functional and "valuable" member of adult society. Let's let the value of the woman's autonomy range similarly, where 0 means her autonomy has no value, and 100 means her autonomy is as valuable as anyone's. On my view, even if the value of the woman's autonomy is 100, the value of the fetus's life has to be 0 before the woman's autonomy can possibly trump it. Now, a genuinely "neutral" person entering into this debate should, as you say, start from the assumption that he just doesn't know what the value of the fetus is; but he should also start from the assumption that he doesn't know what the value of the woman's autonomy is either. In fact, there is this crucial difference between the fetus and the woman: whereas the fetus's life is definitively at stake, no matter what position anyone cares to take in the matter, it is at least open to question whether the woman's autonomy is really at stake at all in this case. So given that, a priori, the fetus will lose its life if it is aborted, but the woman may not lose anything at all if she keeps the fetus until time to give it up for adoption, then Reagan's argument is clearly more rational than yours. The only way in which your argument could seem more rational would be to assume, a priori, that the value of the fetus's life is 0, but that is precisely what is in question, hence it turns out that it is really your own argument and not Reagan's that begs the question.

It seems to me that the principal difficulty in the abortion debate hinges on just this: whatever we should decide about the moral status of fetuses per se, nobody can deny that an abortion totally annihilates the fetus, making abortion something of an all-or-nothing affair from the fetus's point of view. If we were trying to balance the value of a woman's autonomy against, say, the value her being required to keep the child once born and forbidden from giving it up for adoption and denied any help with raising it, then I think things would be very different. But the all-or-nothing bit really compels an attempt to answer the question: is the fetus an instantiation of human life, or is it not? Is all human life equally valuable, or are some human lives more valuable than others? In my mind, the answer to the first question is biologically indisputable, though there are folks who dispute it, just as there are folks who dispute the equality of the races. As for the second question, we all know that many arguments have been offered throughout history to show that some human lives are less valuable than others, but the racism case is a perfect example of just how shoddy those arguments always turn out to be.

I mean, just out of curiosity, tell me truthfully: if you, personally, believed that the fetus was a human being, having the same ontological status as a human being outside of the womb, would you have the same feelings about the necessity of balancing its value against other values? Perhaps, after all, you do not agree with me that human life is a trumping sort of value. This is the direction that pro-abortion arguments have taken recently: I know of people who are willing to concede that the fetus is a human being, but they deny that all human beings have the same value, and they make this argument in the absence of any fuzzy concept such as "person". If your hesitation, however, is only over the question whether the fetus is a human being with the same ontological status as other human beings, then I think your hesitation regarding abortion is morally a little easier to understand, and I think it would be easier to reconcile with your desire to be a "neutral" in the argument (if that's what you want to be--I'm sorry to keep flitting around the question of what your own views are; but as long as we know what mine are, why not know what everyone's are, eh?).

moti said...

Scott,

It seems you still haven’t understood my proposal, because you says things like “As for legality, I think my claim that your support for something like option (A) depends not on neutrality, but a commitment to low fetus value, stands.” And because you imagine the neutral mediator being “educated” about the considerations involved in thinking about the morality of abortion. Clearly, you believe that a neutral person who is educated about these things and who makes no intellectual error will come down on the side of those who want to ban abortion. And, clearly, someone who is just as committed as you are, but to the pro-choice position, believes that a neutral person who is similarly educated about these things and who makes no intellectual error will support abortion rights. Now, how in the world would I be advancing my argument (or anyone else’s) if I were merely imagining that each side in the dispute were trying to convince a neutral observer? We would end up exactly where we were before, and I would be begging the question just as Reagan did, and your criticisms of my position would be decisive.

I thought I was clear enough last time, though obviously I was not. First, my case is a toy case. The defender of abortion rights believes aborting zygotes is morally permissible because she believes that zygotes are morally worthless. The opponent of abortion rights believes aborting zygotes is morally impermissible because she believes zygotes are just as morally valuable as any other human being. Their beliefs concerning more developed embryos or fetuses are not, for now, in dispute, and for the defender of abortion rights, the complete moral worthlessness of the zygote is a necessary condition for the moral permissibility of abortion. The neutral observer is not trying to adjudicate between one person who says “aborting zygotes is morally permissible” and another who says “aborting zygotes is not morally permissible” with respect to the question, “Is aborting zygotes morally permissible or is it not?” Instead, the neutral observer is trying to determine what the possible outcomes are of the decision legally to protect or to not protect the right to abort zygotes, in terms of moral harm. The observer begins with something the disputants can agree on, namely, that the autonomy of women should not be constrained absent a very strong justification. By stipulation, both parties agree that women’s autonomy is valuable.

The neutral is not interested in the moral question at all. She does not even have a position with respect to the moral question, though she knows that only one of the disputants holds the true view. She is there to do a cost/benefit analysis of granting or denying the legal right to abort zygotes in terms of minimizing moral harm while maximizing consensus. Any outcome that preserves the autonomy of women has at least the value associated with this autonomy, and both parties recognize this value. Any outcome that limits this autonomy has some disvalue, and both parties recognize this disvalue. Given these assumption, the neutral observer will decide in favor of abortion rights (at least with respect to zygotes) because doing so minimizes possible harm. This is what I showed (I think) in my last post.

As I gladly admitted in my last post, there are some problems here, some of which you spell out in your response. For example, I assume that even if zygotes are of very high value, a woman’s freedom to abort them has, in and of itself, value. And there are myriad other problems with this kind of talk of quantifying value, especially when we are talking about things like women’s autonomy, human lives, etc. Obviously I don’t claim that I’ve provided anything close to a decisive argument in favor of abortion rights. I’ve tried only to offer a possible way of thinking about how we, as citizens, might decide about the legal right to abortion in the face of what is our inability to resolve the moral problem. Of course you will reply that the moral problem IS resolved and I’m just making some kind of error when I don’t recognize the obvious solution. And then I’ll say, no, YOU’RE the one making the error. And then we’ll stomp our feet. This is exactly the kind of conflict I was attempting to sketch a solution for.

You ask me if I believed that a fetus (I’ll read that as zygote, embryo, etc.) had the same moral status as a human being outside the womb, would I feel the same necessity of balancing its value against other values. I suspect if I believed that a zygote is morally equal to, say, a three year old child, I would not feel the same necessity of balancing its value against other values. I’m not sure I feel this necessity as it is, and I do not believe that a zygote has the same status as a three year old child. If I really believed that zygotes had this status, I would like to think that I would work very hard to do whatever I could do to minimize the number of abortions. For example, I would try to make things easier on women and children (and men who are parents, too) so that women never felt that they had to decide between having a child and keeping their jobs. Some European countries mandate long maternity and paternity leaves as well as flexible work schedules for parents (e.g., part time, working from home if possible, etc.) I would work to ensure that every would-be mother knew that reliable and safe childcare was available to her, irrespective of how much money she had. I would educate young people about sex so when they reach the age when they’ll (almost inevitably) start fooling around, they’ll understand all the possible consequences of what they’re doing. And of course I’d make contraception readily available. These are among the things other industrialized countries do, and their abortion rates are much lower than ours. In the case of Germany and Holland, for example, their rate is one third what ours is (http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0922117.html). As far as I know, ours is the only industrialized country where the pro-choice/pro-life debate so often takes center stage. I believe that if one supports women, I mean really supports them (not just in words but in ways such as those few I’ve just mentioned), one won’t have to worry too much about abortion. It’s not like women want to have abortions because they enjoy destroying zygotes or undergoing uncomfortable medical procedures.

This leads me to another point I’d like to make. A certain segment of the pro-choice community always strikes me as frighteningly ridiculous. These are people who want to ban abortion and go around flaunting their “family values” but who, if you even mention some of the social policies I’ve mentioned above (e.g., regulations on employers, access to healthcare/childcare for everyone) will turn their noses up and tell you to go back to Russia. They don’t support the very policies that either provably or plausibly will lead to massive reductions in the number of abortions. Instead, they defend the ability of “the market” to solve everyone’s problems and put the entire burden on individual women. “Let’s change nothing, besides jailing women who try to procure an illegal, unsafe abortion. You don’t want to get pregnant? Well, don’t have sex!” Imagine if by some freak genetic shift men were the ones who got pregnant. Then go tell one of the many “pro-life” womanizers out there to stop having sex unless he wants to carry a fetus in his stomach for 9 months and then face the decision of whether to keep it and quit his job, or give it up for adoption. Those are your options, Senator. Within a month McDonald’s would be selling 99 cent McBortions. No, if I really believed that embryos were just as morally valuable as three year old children, I would not waste my time balancing values. I would work to implement those policies that would reduce the number of abortions. Anyway, I’ll stop my ranting.

Scott Carson said...

Moti

Believe me when I say that I think you have made a herculean effort to explain your position to me, and I certainly admire both your patience and your stamina, so I hope you don't get the wrong impression when I say that, as of now, I think I understand you much less well than I thought I did before. At this point, I must confess that I really have no idea what you're talking about.

Having said that, however, I will at least voice my agreement with much of what you suggest as possible social solutions to the problem of abortion, though I would, perhaps, not implement them in quite the same way that you would, being one of those benighted folks you talk about who happens to think that the market handles things much better than a coercive state apparatus. I wouldn't tell you to go back to Russia, of course--I would only tell you "Great idea!" and hope that you found ways to implement your ideas that didn't involve holding the gun of the state to people's heads. After all, if it is only autonomy that is at stake, and not lives, then it hardly makes sense to enforce respect of one sort of autonomy by robbing everyone of another sort.

But that is, of course, a debate for another day. Since you didn't address my argument about the neutral who wants to decide what to do about racism, I'm going to count this as a victory, even though I literally have no idea what you were talking about and of course it's not a zero-sum game anyway. I don't know which department I fell down in: intelligence, thoughtfulness, or psychological normality, but there you have it. Perhaps ignorance is bliss. It certainly seems that way from here.

moti said...

Scott,

I’m sorry you don’t understand my argument. I imagined two people with very specific beliefs about the morality of abortion (beliefs that are not necessarily held by most advocates of either position) and I showed that given my assumptions, abortion should be legal. You can reject my assumptions, of course, but you can’t do so because they beg the question. In any case, it should not be too difficult to make out my argument. I suppose others can judge for themselves, assuming anyone else is out there.

As for your neutral mediator/racism question, I fear answering it requires me to talk once again about what you claim you don’t understand: as I’ve already explained at some length, the neutral does not get “educated”, because the neutral is not concerned about the moral question. The neutral finds areas of consensus and then determines what the best course of action is legally, in terms of minimizing the chances of moral harm. The neutral tries the settle the legal question without relying on the contentious moral principles grounding the positions of the disputants. The whole point of my introducing this thought experiment, or decision procedure, or whatever it is, was to circumvent what seems to me to be an argumentative deadlock, a situation in which real people who have really thought about the issues in the real world can’t get anywhere without begging the question. This is just not the situation we find ourselves in with respect to race. I don’t know what else I can say.

I did not say that the market never handles things better than a “coercive state apparatus”. I suggested that people who think “the market” always works best in meeting people’s needs are wrong. And the important point here is that the policies that have been most effective in reducing the number of abortions have been carried out by the state. If someone is truly a believer in the absolute moral value of the embryo, it’s hard for me to understand why she would let some general, abstract scruples about the “coercive state apparatuse” get in the way of her throwing her full support behind those life-saving policies.

As far as I know, there is no empirical evidence supporting the claim that a legal ban on abortion would reduce the number of abortions (note yet another very important difference between abortion and racism/slavery). But there is lots of evidence showing that other programs dramatically reduce the number of abortions. Should we wait until some entrepreneur comes along and starts his own program? Or should we support those programs which we have very good reason to believe lower the rate of abortion, even if they are run by a coercive state apparatus?

Scott Carson said...

The thing I love about you, Moti, is that you are a Mensch.

I confess that I still have no idea what to say in response to your main argument, since I still cannot make any sense out of it (which I am sure is entirely my own fault) but I will say this about your final comment.

Or should we support those programs which we have very good reason to believe lower the rate of abortion, even if they are run by a coercive state apparatus?

If you really have no objection to using "a coercive state apparatus" to lower the rate of abortion, then it's not clear to me why you would oppose a state ban on abortions, since somebody's autonomy in some sense is always at stake when state coercion is used, and there's no principled reason to favor one sort of autonomy over any other. It seems as though your only objection to such a ban is your belief that there is no empirical evidence to support the claim that a ban would do the trick of reducing abortions. Of course, there's no reason to think that a ban would increase the number of abortions, so your objection seems to be only that, in the absence of empirical data it is just a waste of time trying to ban them. But of course there is no real empirical evidence that any of the programs you have discussed are really reducing the rate of abortions, either--as the gun-control example shows, we have reason to believe that there are merely accidental correlations, and the possible explanations of what is going on are hopelessly underdetermined by the empirical data (as is usually the case in an empirical context). So there doesn't seem to be any good reason, in principle, to be willing to support those social programs instead of a ban, especially since no argument has yet been made to show that anything of value is really at stake in the ban that is not also at stake in state coerced social programs.

moti said...

Scott,

Really, I’m not a mensch, at least not in the non-strictly biological sense in which you meant it. Ah, the irony. (See, a mensch wouldn’t have said that.)

Of course there is a reason to favor one kind of autonomy over another. Do you really believe that one’s ownership right in one’s car is as weighty as one’s right to speak one’s mind? Is the autonomy of the slave-owner with respect to his ability to extract labor from a slave of equal weight as the autonomy of the slave to make use of his own labor as he sees fit? (I know, I know… “and is the autonomy of the woman as weighty as the autonomy of the zygote?” I suppose I just don’t understand how zygotes can be autonomous. But let’s let this napping dog lie.)

As for the empirical question, I think your skepticism is unjustified. When you say, “But of course there is no real empirical evidence that any of the programs you have discussed are really reducing the rate of abortions, either”, you are making a claim that would be mocked by those experts who actually do the research. Neither you nor I study the relations between use of contraceptives and abortion rates. We have to rely on experts and what they say directly contradicts your confident claim. Of course, you can always open your skeptic’s toolbox and say that we don’t really, really know. And if we were discussing philosophy of science or epistemology, I’d take your claim seriously. But in this context, I think this move is intellectually unfair. I mean, do we really have to start with the cogito every time we want to discuss something? The bottom line is that the people who actually specialize in these matters are telling us that contraception use is strongly correlated with significant decreases in abortion rates. Just look it up. Is it really that implausible to hypothesize that if people have contraception, they’ll be more likely to use contraception, and if they use contraception, then (almost by definition) there will be fewer unplanned pregnancies, and if there are fewer unplanned pregnancies, there will be fewer abortions? In your view is this some kind of counterintuitive proposal? It’s not just intuitive, but the numbers support it. You shouldn’t accuse someone of committing the fallacy of false cause until you have good reason to believe that the purported cause is not, in fact, the cause.

Finally, you say, “So there doesn't seem to be any good reason, in principle, to be willing to support those social programs instead of a ban.” I’ve already responded to this claim, and I think decisively. Someone who believes that aborting a zygote is deeply morally wrong should both advocate for a legal ban and support the social programs that we have good reason to believe reduce the number of abortions. Unless she has overwhelming reason to believe that supporting these programs will increase the number of abortions, she should support them, given that, on her view, the stakes could not be higher. Doing so is perfectly consistent with supporting a legal ban.

You’ve twice taken the opportunity to declare yourself victorious. I think now it’s my turn to do so, at least with respect to my last point. I worry, however, about declaring victory. It makes me think of our favorite compassionate conservative all dressed up in his pilot costume on that warship.

Scott Carson said...

Really, I’m not a mensch

Man, you just don't want to agree with me about anything!

Frankly, I don't see how my own, personal preferences in the domain of autonomy-ranking have anything to do with anything. Of course everyone has some scale of values that enables them to say, "I value X more than I value Y." I don't doubt that for a second.

What I said was that there is no principled reason for favoring one set of values over another. In particular, there is no compelling reason to accept the coercive judgment of a state apparatus that "Value X is the one that everyone is going to value to Y degree, under penalty of law."

Well, of course there is one compelling reason: if you don't do what the state says, you go to jail or pay a fine or get probation. But you know what I mean.

But suppose I value the autonomy of women more than I value the autonomy of a fetus, such as it is. If I am a woman, that means that I value my own autonomy more than I value the autonomy of my fetus. Why should the state be able to say to me, "It doesn't matter that you value your autonomy more than you value the autonomy of your fetus--if you abort your fetus, we will imprison you."

Or suppose I value the autonomy women, and I desire to support that value by doing all sorts of volunteer work for, say, Planned Parenthood. What if the government says "Well, that's fine, but you also have to pay X amount of dollars in taxes to support our program that is working very hard to shut down Planned Parenthood forever." Since the government has the sort of coercive power to force me to support programs that I not only do not support myself, but that actually work to destroy the things that I do support, I am really stuck.

It's interesting that you say that you only need to take my comments about the empirical question seriously if we are talking about philosophy of science or epistemology. I'll think I'll reply that we only have to take the autonomy of women seriously when talking about feminist philosophy.

I don't have any problem with you declaring victory. If, after dozens of years in the business, I can't stomach a student telling me that I'm wrong and he's right, then I need to get a new job. Besides, I have the satisfaction of knowing that, sooner or later, you will experience the same thing--if you haven't already.

Not to tweak you too much here, but plenty of creationists tell me I'm wrong about evolution, too. Maybe they're right--I'm just still waiting to hear the argument that convinces me.

Now, as for whether you're a mensch...

It seems to me that anyone who takes the time to write as carefully and critically as you do about questions that we both know will not be solved by our discussion, but who does so presumably out of either (a) friendship (b) a love of philosophical dialectic or (c) a sense of civic duty (all three of which involve a sense that it is always worth arguing in favor of what you really believe to be importantly true--we're not talking about baseball here)--well, that person is a mensch.

If, on the other hand, the only reason you keep posting comments here is because you and your friends like to sit around the office laughing at my replies and saying "man, what a fossil!", well, maybe then you're not really a mensch. But I would love you anyway, even then.

moti said...

Scott,

Without involving myself too deeply in some new meta-philosophical discussion, I just want to reply quickly to your point about when to take skepticism seriously. If we are having a disagreement about what some empirical evidence shows, or what it plausibly might show, or whatever, it seems to me that it’s perfectly legitimate—indeed, it is our responsibility—to be skeptical in our interpretation of the data. But if we are engaged in trying to figure out “what the data suggest” (say, when we have a disagreement about the facts), I think there are times when it is out of place to start worrying about underdetermination, at least in its global manifestation. You believe that evolutionary theory is very well confirmed. What if I were to tell you that I have no competing theory but that your beliefs about evolutionary theory are unjustified because of some general worries about underdetermination? I tell you that because of the problem of underdetermination, you are committing the fallacy of false cause when you make claims about some evolutionary mechanisms. Would not this kind of response be out of place? I guess I’m just a bit of a contextualist in this regard.

As for my triumphant declaration, I do not really feel as if I’ve “won” anything, certainly not at the expense of someone else. Mostly I just wanted to get the Bush joke in there. I almost used it the other day when you declared victory but I thought that would be in bad taste. By comparing myself to Bush all dressed up like a big fighting man, however, the only person I might offend is myself.

Moti

p.s. regarding your thoughts on contemporary education, the absence of intellectuals, etc. I recently read Frank Furedi’s book, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, and he addresses some of the problems you raise. I recommend it. It’s not the most tightly argued book, but it’s interesting and a pretty quick read.

Scott Carson said...

Moti

I like your cafeteria underdetermination!

I do not really feel as if I’ve “won” anything

Great! We finally agree on something!

By the way, I think you'd look great in a flight suit on the deck of an aircraft carrier.

I'd never heard of Frank Furedi until your recommendation just now--do you like him generally, or just this book? I had a look at his web site, and I had a hard time picturing you really "digging him", as we used to say. It's hard to tell from just a cursory perusing, but I think I might like him.

moti said...

Scott,

I too am thrilled that we agree that if I am entitled to claim a victory it was not at anyone else’s expense. I wouldn’t have it any other way!

As for Furedi’s book, I found it stimulating. As I said, it’s not a particularly tightly-argued book, but he offers insights into contemporary political and educational culture that I think are timely. His argument is directed primarily against a segment of the Left who he believes are, ironically enough, guilty of the sort of elitism they rightfully condemn the old conservatives for displaying. In an effort to democratize culture, they dumb it down. He claims (correctly in my view) that making politics and education and art accessible to lots and lots of people does not entail that politics and education and art need to brought down to the lowest common denominator (for example, a study found that during the Bush/Gore debate, Bush spoke at a 6th grade level, Gore did not do much better. And some British political parties, in an effort to get young people involved in politics, sought the advice of the creator of the reality show “Big Brother”.) Furedi acknowledges that much of the blame lies with the commercialization of culture, but he also takes the relativists to task for their own contribution to the depreciation of excellence. He also explores why today we do not really have many “public intellectuals”, a la Sartre, Russell, etc. In his view, ideas today are neither admired nor feared. They’re just not taken seriously. It’s a nice book in a way because the position he occupies does not fit neatly into the “Culture Wars” (he gets positive comments from both Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton). It’s a short book and in the latest edition he responds to some of his critics.

Moti

Darwin said...

Having wandered off for a bit, and returned at the point when everyone is staring at the confetti-covered floor and wondering if they have the sobriety and energy to clean up...

I think the problem with your neutral observer dilemma, Moti, is the assumption that the autonomy of the woman in regards to abortion must necessarily be seen as a good thing.

As far as I can tell, you're taking all forms of autonomy as good, and thus restricting them only when we have reason to do so because the good of autonomy is outweighed by the damage of the option being considered. However, I'm not clear that we can assume that autonomy can be considered a good separate from the question of autonomy to do what.

Thus, for instance, we might say, "The autonomy of a man should be preserved whenever possible. When considering if a man may suddenly abandon his wife and child, we know that the man's autonomy must be good, but we are unsure as to whether his act of abandoning his family is of sufficient evil to make his abandonment unacceptable."

We could then lay out the same A, B, C and D possibilities and have a neutral observer conclude that it would minimize harm to assume that a man should suffer no consequences for abandoning those dependant on his financial support, since we know his autonomy is good, and it may be that his relationship to the wife and child has no moral value.

So it seems to me that it assuming the conclusion to say that we must assign positive value to a woman's autonomy in regards to abortion -- or put another way, to assign abortion to the set of issues in regards to which a woman's autonomy if a good.

While it's true that in general (and in our current society especially, perhaps to the point of fault) we place value of "autonomy", there are also numerous examples of situations in which autonomy is not seen as a good in and of itself. It seems to me that the primary cause of this is that while we see autonomy as a good, we also see relationship as a good, and so we see using autonomy in a way that violates relationship as being an abandonment (or violation) of duty.

moti said...

Darwin,

I am not assuming that autonomy is always necessarily good, or even that there should always be a presumption in favor of preserving autonomy. If I were, I would be committed to all sorts of absurd conclusions (and I do not mean absurd in a good way). I do not think “that the autonomy of the woman in regards to abortion must necessarily be seen as a good thing,” at least not in a way that privileges the autonomy of the woman at the expense of all other considereations. My proposal was not meant to provide a solution to every possible scenario involving constraints on freedom. My proposal was much, much more modest than that. I began with some assumptions, one of which is that the autonomy of women should not be legally constrained absent the meeting of a very high standard of justification. I assumed that everyone (i.e., everyone whose opinions we need to take seriously…I am not addressing myself to Pat Robertson or members of the Taliban) can agree on this much. I then moved on to what I take to be a very simple empirical truth, namely, that intelligent, well-informed, thoughtful, etc. people can and do disagree about whether the standard of justification just mentioned is met in the case of abortion. Scott and I seem to agree on this point, if on nothing else. The neutral observer is brought in not to solve abstract philosophical problems about morality or determine whether or not abortion is morally permissible, but rather to solve a practical problem. Should the law allow women to abort zygotes or should it not? Should a woman who aborts a zygote be considered a criminal (and treated as one) or not?

I did assume that something of value is always lost when we limit autonomy (I’m not sure about this assumption but this is not the place for metaethics). Obviously this does not entail that autonomy should never be limited. It does entail, however, that even if we were justified in barring women from aborting zygotes, “things would be better” if the good we are preserving by means of the ban could be preserved in a way that did not limit the autonomy of women. I also assumed that values can be weighed against each other in some clear enough way that allows the neutral observer to make calculations. I’m not sure about this assumption, either. But in any case, what I tried to show is that if you begin with these assumptions, the legal right of women to abort zygotes should be protected. This is not a knock-down argument for the moral or legal permissibility of abortion. It’s a suggestion about how people who strongly disagree about some intractable abstract moral problem might think about some of the more pressing problems of real life.

Moti

Darwin said...

Moti,

I think I understand pretty clearly what you're trying to do with your grid approach to the neutral observer settling the matter, I'm just not clear that one can make a neutral harm-minimizing ruling on an issue such as abortion, in that the harms which both sides are claiming to be inflicted (killing of human lives vs. lack of autonomy over one's own body) are so great. It does seem to me that one could legitimately solve something like "should there be a legal drinking age" via your grid method with a moderate degree of justice.

The main issue being: It seems to me that one can't assign positive value to a "freedom" which gravely harms another, and so in order to assign value to "a woman's autonomy" in regards to abortion, one pretty much has to assume (strictly in regards to the autonomy) that the zygot has fairly little moral value.

If one can't assume that the autonomy in regards to this specific issue has a positive value, then the neutral observer seeking to avoid harm doesn't actually see any options as being better than the other. And so there's no way to make a neutral ruling.

moti said...

Darwin,

You say, “It seems to me that one can't assign positive value to a "freedom" which gravely harms another, and so in order to assign value to "a woman's autonomy" in regards to abortion, one pretty much has to assume (strictly in regards to the autonomy) that the zygote has fairly little moral value.” Ok, so you disagree with my assumption that liberty is always valuable, even if that value is outweighed by other considerations. Fair enough. As I’ve already said, I’m not sure I agree with that assumption, either. My argument was not intended to convince everyone. But I do not think I’m assuming that the value of the zygote has “fairly little moral value”. You think I’m committed to undervaluing the value of the zygote. Well, what’s stopping me from claiming that the only undervaluing going on here is your undervaluing of the autonomy of the woman? We’re stuck again.

My argument leaves it open whether abortion is morally permissible. The neutral observer makes some assumptions about value but she does not assume anything that entails that abortion is morally permissible. My argument may be unsound, but if it is it’s not because it’s fallacious or because it assumes that zygotes are of little moral value.

Ultimately, I don’t think my argument will convince pro-lifers any more than some pro-life argument will convince me. This is because I do not think that either camp is making an “intellectual error”. I granted this claim for the sake of argument so that Scott and I would be speaking the same language. What intellectual error am I purportedly making when I believe that a zygote, a single insentient cell, is not as valuable morally as a three year old child? And what intellectual error are you or Scott making when you believe that a zygote is as morally valuable as a three year old child? This is not a matter of “intellectual error”.

Darwin said...

I'll leave the question of to what extent autonomy has value, since you say that you agree that that is questionable.

On the question of whether or not there is an intellectual error involved -- I suspect that this goes back to foundational enough elements of how we derive "moral value" that it would be hard to get into.

I can't speak for Scott, but it seems to me that the moral value of something must derive from its kind or essence, not from any attributes which it possesses by degree. I would also argue that a given individual identity never changes in kind -- it's attributes my change, but what ever it is, it is.

And so I would say that the intellectual error involved in holding that the early stage zygote has less inherent moral value than the three year old or the thirty year old pertains to holding that there can be a difference in moral value without a difference in kind.

Now the opening here is that one could question whether the zygote is really of the same identity of the three year old or thirty year old that it might later develop into. The obvious example being that we don't consider a dead body to have the moral value of a live person -- because we take it that death represents a change in kind from "human being" to "dead body".

That's where I'd tend to look at the scientific evidence and want to know: If someone is going to assert that there's a change of kind, where is it?

I think that a self examined pro-choicer would tend to say, "I don't know exactly, but somewhere between conception and 20 weeks gestation there's obviously _some_ sort of change."

My response to that, and the point where I'm not sure how one gets farther forward, would be that if we're not even able to commit to a place where we're pretty sure one can argue such a change happens, that we should err on the side of life rather than otherwise. It seems needlessly destructive to argue, "We're not really sure if this is a human being with moral value, so let's go ahead and support dismemberment at will."

Finally, just to add what I think is one more major difference in thought between the camps, I think one of the elements that stands between sides on abortion is that in general pro-lifers identify sexual intercourse as an action which one may naturally expect to end in pregnancy. It may well not in any given instance, especially if people are using contraception. But the act itself is, biologically speaking, for the purpose of reproduction, and so when it comes to determining the value of autonomy in regards to pregnancy we would tend to hold that one can hardly act surprised to end up pregnant as a result of having sex. On the pro-choice side, there seems to be an assumption in many cases that pregnancy is _not_ a natural result of sex -- and so comparisons are made to someone suddenly hooking you up to a violinist for nine months or some such.

moti said...

Darwin,

I think we finally found something that we can agree about. I, like you, believe that whatever an individual is, it is. The problem here is that it is difficult to imagine how this is supposed to help us get any further along in our discussion.

Take some sandpaper and rub it on a tree for 10 minutes. What remains? A tree with a scratch on it and perhaps a very small amount of sawdust. Now rub sandpaper on a tree for months or years. What remains? A pile of sawdust. Does it follow that the pile of sawdust is the same kind of thing as the tree? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on what one is asking here. Is a zygote the same kind of thing as a three year old child? Again, it depends on what one asking. There are similarities between the two and there are differences (and this is true of any two things). You believe that whatever it is that gives the child moral value is found in the zygote. I disagree. You want to “err on the side of life” because we really do not know if zygotes have moral value. And what about someone who wants to “err on the side of autonomy” for the same reason? But with respect to autonomy, pretty much everyone in liberal democracies at least purportedly agrees that the standard of justification for limiting autonomy must meet a high standard. If you want to argue that zygotes are autonomous, be my guest.

You say, “On the pro-choice side, there seems to be an assumption in many cases that pregnancy is _not_ a natural result of sex.” I don’t know which pro-choice people you are referring to, but the only ones I can think of are young children who have not yet been told about “the birds and the bees.” Remember, generally speaking it is the pro-choice crowd that stresses the importance of sex education and contraception precisely because they believe (and there is evidence to support this belief) that unprotected sex often leads to pregnancy, which may lead to abortion.

I think what you are wanting to say is that pro-life people tend more often than pro-choice people to believe that engaging in sexual activity that is not consciously directed toward the goal of procreation or which is consciously directed only toward some other end (e.g. pleasure, bonding) while the possibility of reproduction is ruled out (whether through the use of contraception or because the sexual partners are two men or two women) are doing something morally wrong. And as a general rule, you are right, that is, pro-life folks tend more often to believe this than pro-choice folks. But the claim is absurd. The “biological purpose” of my opposable thumbs probably is my ability to grasp things. But only someone who has deep and extensive auxiliary reasons to believe it would claim that I’m doing something wrong when I use my thumb to hitchhike or to finger-paint.

It’s interesting that you raise the violinist case here. When I taught introductory logic at OU, I would discuss various famous arguments in philosophy, one of which was Thomson’s violinist argument. Without fail, students would object that there is an important difference between the pregnant woman and the person who is hooked up to the violinist. The person who is hooked up to the violinist, they would rush to point out, did not do anything he could expect would lead to his being in the position he is in. But the pregnant woman chose to have sex and since she had good reason to believe that her action could lead to pregnancy, she is responsible in a way the violinist-supporter is not. My response to my students was the following: if value of the zygote is grounded in its nature, what possible moral difference can the behavior of the woman make here? I found it fascinating that Thomson’s argument always provoked the same response: “the woman chose to have sex. Therefore, she doesn’t have the right to affect the foreseeable consequences of this choice.” My point is not that Thomson’s argument is sound. But can you not begin to see why people who defend the right to abortion sometimes claim that the “pro-life/pro-choice” debate is not really about the sanctity of life but rather it’s about controlling women, controlling sexuality, etc?

You go on to claim that because the biological purpose of sex is reproduction, one should hardly be surprised to end up pregnant as a result of having sex. I agree that people should not be surprised to end up pregnant when they have unprotected sex, which is why I think sexuality should be openly and freely discussed with people of all ages. Which is why I don’t understand why pro-lifers, of all people, tend not to support the kinds of educational programs that make the basic science of sex available to people. They claim that sex ed “encourages” kids to have sex. Now, intuitively, what do you think young adults will more easily figure out on their own and in the total absence of sex education: how to have sex, or how having sex may result in pregnancy?

moti said...

Darwin,

As I’ve admitted, defending the right to abortion can be more difficult in certain respects than a one-size-fits all view. Rather than playing defense, I thought I’d put some questions to you about the one-size-fits all view. The person I’m imagining holds that zyogotes, embryos, and fetuses have the same moral status as newborn babies, three year old children, thirty year old adults, etc. She also holds that the law should recognize this moral equality. It seems to me that someone who holds these two beliefs should advocate the following policies.

1. Pregancies must be registered with the state. As soon as a woman knows she is pregnant, either she or her doctor must inform the state, and the state will provide the embryo with an identification number.

2. If a woman miscarries, she must inform the state, which will treat the death of the embryo like the death of anyone else. If there is any reason at all to believe that foul play was involved, an autopsy will be performed, the woman will be extensively interviewed by law enforcement officials, and she will undergo medical tests (e.g., blood tests, invasive physical examination) to determine whether the death was a homicide. If the woman miscarries somewhere other than a hospital, she must preserve the remains so that officials can determine the cause of death and file a death certificate, and so they can rule out negligence.


3. If law enforcement determines that the death likely was a homicide, the woman will be tried and, if convicted, will face years in a federal penitentiary, or whatever the current penalties are for murder. If the woman did not commit the murder alone (e.g., by physically doing it herself without the aid of others), then whoever else played a role will also be tried.

4. If a woman who registered a pregnancy does not produce a baby after the normal gestation period, an investigation by law enforcement officials will begin in order determine what happened to the embryo.


5. If a woman drinks alcohol or takes illegal drugs after having had unprotected sex but before ruling out pregnancy and then finds out she is pregnant, she will be charged with the same crime a woman who forces her three year old to drink alcohol or take drugs would be.

6. If a woman makes it clear that she intends to abort her pregnancy come what may and law enforcement finds out about it, law enforcement officials may detain her and physically constrain her in whatever way is necessary to preclude her harming the embryo.


7. It goes without saying that pregnancies that are the result of rape or incest will be treated no differently under the law than any other pregnancy.


Darwin, do you advocate policies like the ones enumerated above? If not, why not? Remember, embryos have the same moral standing as three year old children.

Moti

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

Moti-
three year olds aren't required to be registered.

You seem to be jumping from "killing people is wrong, no matter what their size is" to "we need a police state to make sure that no-one is harmed, and if you don't agree then you're inconsistent."

Darwin said...

Moti,

While I don't necessarily think that "winning" and "losing" are relevant concepts in intellectual discussion, I must admit that the sudden shift from very abstract discussion to a spate of "well you wouldn't want this" examples is -- odd.

Having said that -- I'm not sure that I'm really the sort of person you have in mind to aim these sorts of questions at, because it generally seems to me that the less that large scale government processes have to do with us, the better. Our primary relationships, it seems to me, are with our families, friends, and immediate communities -- not with the three hundred million other people who make up our nation state.

I'll answer only one of your points specifically, and that is number 7. Yes, I think that pregnancies resulting from rape or incest should be treated exactly the same as any other pregnancy -- for the simple reason that it seems to me unfair to visit the sins of the father upon the child. I have no problem with killing and dismembering the father (I'm afraid I'm not quite as kind as Scott in this regard) but I do have a problem with killing and dismembering the child.

Perhaps this general answer would help, though: It does not surprise me that as humans we often desire to kill our offspring. (And indeed, in less technological cultures infanticide was as common as abortion, if not more so.) We are not naturally kind (nor naturally wicked) and are predisposed to pursue our interests by whatever means possible -- until custom, social disapproval, law and morality come in to stop us. Nor do I imagine for a moment that any sort of law could completely cease the practice of abortion. I would imagine that any reasonable combination of providing additional family services and legal restrictions could reduce the number of abortions in the US from the current million per year to perhaps a quarter of a million -- certainly no less. (At the same time, I suspect that we kill the elderly -- often equally dependent upon us -- far more frequently than we are wont to admit.)

What I do very much object to, however, is the extent to which abortion is currently enshrined as a "right" and is granted undue legal protection. If abortion were scorned and illegal in most places, but not prosecuted beyond the most egregious cases (as is the case now with prostitution) I would have no issue with the situation.

Perhaps my cynicism about our ability to stamp out what I believe to be the slaughter of other human beings is shocking. But then, how well have we really done at stamping out murder otherwise? And given that killing the unborn can be done cleanly, by professionals, and with little visible mess, it's hardly surprising that it's fairly frequent.

moti said...

Darwin,

If you enjoy more abstract discussions, then feel free to respond to my first post from today, where I addressed your last post. My second response was meant to put some questions to the person who claims to be committed to the moral equivalence between a zygote/embryo and a three year old child. I can’t see how these questions are in any way unfair or, as you put it, “odd”. Clearly you don’t like these questions and if I were you I wouldn’t like them either. It’s a lot easier in a way to make claims about natural kinds and essences than it is to defend some of the possible practical consequences of those claims. But if you don’t like the consequences, then you have three options. You can reject the abstract claims, you can keep them and show how they do not lead to the consequences you don’t like, or you can bite the bullet and accept the consequences.

You say, “Our primary relationships, it seems to me, are with our families, friends, and immediate communities -- not with the three hundred million other people who make up our nation state.” True enough, but I have no idea what this is supposed to show. The vast majority of murders do not involve anyone who is part of your inner circle. Does it follow that we should have no “large scale government processes” to prevent murders and prosecute murderers? The vast majority of embryos are not part of your primary social circle. So why do you care what happens to them?

I do not find your “cynicism about our ability to stamp out what I believe to be the slaughter of other human beings” shocking. What I do find interesting (I won’t say ‘shocking’ because it’s exactly what I expected) is your reluctance to address what seem to me to be the rather glaring consequences of your view. Instead, you start bringing in your worries about state interference. Are you balancing values here, the values of the embryo against the value of individual liberty? That, I say, is odd.

Foxfier,

If someone believes that zygotes, embryos, and fetuses have the same moral value as newborn babies, three year olds, thirty year olds, etc., and if she believes that the law should recognize this equality, then either the proposals I listed should her support or she should be advocating a radical restructuring of how the law treats the deaths of newborn babies, three year olds, thirty year olds, etc. I’m not going to split hairs about Social Security regulations because what I’m after is the more general point, which, as far as I can tell, still stands.

Darwin said...

Moti,

First off, I should apologize, because I missed your first post yesterday. This is why switching wholesale to your "practical" questions struck me as so odd.

Addressing that first post for a moment, it seems to underline for me the difficulties of getting into all the perconceptions that underlie the issue. Or to put it rather coarsely: your response struck me as all over the map.

Somewhere in the process, the question of identity that I bought up seems to have been lost. This seems to me to be a pretty clear possibility when looking for a baseline way of determining which individuals should be treated with the moral value assigned to human beings: any living organism which is a member of species homo sapiens should be granted certain basic dignities including the right to life. If one is going to get fancier than that, it seems to me that one immediately gets onto shakey ground. You've mentioned sentience, for instance, but the sentience that we can successfully detect in a newborn is not measureably greater than we can detect in a chimp. Does the chimp have human dignity? Is there a point where someone has a severe enough mental disability we can assume that he or she no longer has any right to life? I certainly see why you're attracted to the idea of using something like sentience which is hard to detect and admits to degree, but it strikes me as opening up all sorts of interesting questions that we generally recoil from the answers to. (Of course, one could claim that our natural recoil is emotional rather than reasonable.)

Touching briefly on the question of whether one "asks for" pregnancy, as it were, by having sex: First let's dispell a myth -- most "unwanted pregnancies" are not the result of wholly "unprotected" sex. They are the result of contraception being used incorrectly or inconsistency. I'd have to check the Guttemacher stats again to refresh my memory, but the percentage of woman who seek abortions who say they were using some form of birth control at the time they became pregnant is something in excess of 70%. The issue is that a) all forms of birth control other than sterilization have some failure rate even if used correctly and b) people often don't use them fully "correctly". To add to this, the people who, statistically speaking (again drawing from stuff I've read from the Guttemacher Institute in the past) use contraception incorrectly most frequently are the poor and the young -- those who can least "afford" to have children.

This is, among other reasons, why many (myself included) are skeptical of the value of "sex ed" classes which take it as a given that the majority of teenagers will be sexually active and simply enjoin them to use birth control.

Now you're right, sex certainly serves other purposes for us than simply reproduction. However, there's also a reason why we call them "reproductive organs". Biologically speaking, reason why we come in two sexes and have sex organs is in order to reproduce the species. Species that don't use sex as a means of reproduction, don't have sex organs.

Lest you should think this an oddly abstract point, let me point out a real world example which is generally accepted without question: If a man has sex with a woman and she becomes pregnant, and if she chooses to carry the pregnancy to term (over his objections) he is legally considered the father and will be held responsible by the state for providing his share of financial support for both mother and child for the next 18 years. He is considered to have consented to this by the act of having sex -- and generally speaking the fact that he thought he was using birth control correctly at the time is considered no excuse. So we do actually consider the act of having sex, even "protected sex" as consent to be a parent. But only for men.

Now, the man is only likely to take a financial and social hit. He doesn't actually have to physically bear the child. But nonetheless, we clearly as a society accept that sex as an act represents a non-revokeable agreement to assume the duties of fatherhood.

A few comments on your practical questions in a moment...

Darwin said...

Okay, I sense the need to wrap this up soon, but I'd like to address a few items from your last comment. You say:

Clearly you don’t like these questions and if I were you I wouldn’t like them either. It’s a lot easier in a way to make claims about natural kinds and essences than it is to defend some of the possible practical consequences of those claims.

Well, it's not so much that I find them uncomfortable questions, as that I don't think they're well grounded in that they seek to scare the person the questions are posed to by suggested the application of draconian means of enforcing protections of the unborn -- indeed means that we do not generally use to protect the born. These carry an implied "if you don't support these, you're not being honest in your convictions" accusation. So people tend to take them poorly.

Ah, but am I right that they are draconian?

You say, “Our primary relationships, it seems to me, are with our families, friends, and immediate communities -- not with the three hundred million other people who make up our nation state.” True enough, but I have no idea what this is supposed to show. The vast majority of murders do not involve anyone who is part of your inner circle.

Actually, I would have to look this up, but as I recall the majority of murders are committed by someone who is a close friend or relative of the victim. (For instance, a woman is more likely to be murdered by her husband or boyfriend than by a stranger.) Such are the dangers of human relationships.

Now you wonder why I wouldn't necessarily support what strike me as some rather intrusive means of enforcing laws against abortion -- if I'm serious about believing that zygotes have the same moral value as other human beings. However, if I follow you right, you're maintaining that these shouldn't seem like draconian means to me. Let's take an example or two.

1. Pregancies must be registered with the state. As soon as a woman knows she is pregnant, either she or her doctor must inform the state, and the state will provide the embryo with an identification number.

Well, I suppose I don't really have a huge problem with this. However generally with post-natal humans, you only have to register with the state and get an ID number if you want something out of the government.

Actually, each time my wife has got pregnant we have had to go in and have the pregnancy officially tested and logged by our insurance so that we can have future pre-natal care covered. Same principle, I suppose.

2. If a woman miscarries, she must inform the state, which will treat the death of the embryo like the death of anyone else. If there is any reason at all to believe that foul play was involved, an autopsy will be performed, the woman will be extensively interviewed by law enforcement officials, and she will undergo medical tests (e.g., blood tests, invasive physical examination) to determine whether the death was a homicide. If the woman miscarries somewhere other than a hospital, she must preserve the remains so that officials can determine the cause of death and file a death certificate, and so they can rule out negligence.

Having dealt with miscarriage, I can inform you that this is probably medically infeasable. There's not a whole lot that tests can determine, and the child is (except in a very, very late miscarriage) often is bad enough shape by the time its body is passed that it's hard to know what is actually the what.

3. If law enforcement determines that the death likely was a homicide, the woman will be tried and, if convicted, will face years in a federal penitentiary, or whatever the current penalties are for murder. If the woman did not commit the murder alone (e.g., by physically doing it herself without the aid of others), then whoever else played a role will also be tried.

Taking it as the case that abortion was wholly illegal and had been so for long enough that the culture was used to it, I wouldn't have an issue with prosecuting those who procure and provide them. Since we can't really imagine what such a culture would look like, I won't speculate on what would be considered appropriate punishments, but I have no problem in principle with there being punishments.

4. If a woman who registered a pregnancy does not produce a baby after the normal gestation period, an investigation by law enforcement officials will begin in order determine what happened to the embryo.

Here's where I'd like to really shock you -- we currently don't do this for young children either. I have three daughters aged 2, 4 and 6. Say that I decided, with the full and supporting consent of all my acquintance and extended family, to kill the two year old and bury her in the back yard. Unless someone who had some sort of attachment to my daughter called the police and said, "Hey, Darwin used to have a third daughter and she's mysteriously vanished -- I suggest you go investigate" there is absolutely no mechanism in our current society for following up on such things.

As a polity, we only follow up on possible murders when either a body shows up somewhere, or when someone with a relationship to the victim contacts authorities and says, "Hey, go look for this person."

That's the sense in which relationship is key. Opening up a whole other, wide area of discussion that we probably don't want to take the time to delve into, I would put it to you that the function of the state in investigating and prosecuting murders is essentially one of taking on and arbitrarily enforcing a set of responsibilities which belong primarily to people in their micro-communities, and stem from the relationships between people. Thus, the state investigates and punishes murders not because there is some great moral law which mandates that state governments must deal with murders, but rather because there is an agreement within our society that murder is something which should be punished (when discovered) and it results in too much mess and violence (not to mention potential for unfairness) if you let families and neighborhoods all investigate and administer justice themselves.

Foxfier, formerly Sailorette said...

moti-
My point was just as Darwin points out, but he said it better.

You're suggesting that because we believe they are morally equal, there should be unequal protections in place.

On a side note-- generally, when people die, even children, there isn't an autopsy.

moti said...

Darwin,

Don’t worry about being coarse with me. I have pretty thick skin and can be rather coarse myself, something that probably will be evident in what I write below.

You write that the question of identity which you raised seems to have been lost. I don’t see where. I agree with you about identity, that is, I accept that something is what it is, that X=X. But when you go on to claim that “any living organism which is a member of species homo sapiens should be granted certain basic dignities including the right to life” we are a long way from the trivial logical matter about which we agree. I take it what you want to say is that a zygote is identical to a three year old child, and therefore what holds for the three year old child (morally speaking) holds for the zygote. But a zygote plainly is not a three year old child, so plainly the two are not identical. “Ok,” you respond, “they are not, strictly speaking, identical, but because they are both members of the species homo sapiens, they have the same moral status.” In that case, let’s drop talk of identity, since it’s irrelevant, and go back to stomping our feet. I understand your claim and I deny it. I say a zygote does not have the same status as a three year old child. I agree with you that I am now in the position of having to spell out what accounts for the difference in moral status, and I agree with you that invoking sentience leads to complications. And I certainly agree with you that this “open[s] up all sorts of interesting questions” though I think the degree to which someone “recoils” from the answers to these will vary. The world is a complex place. Sometimes the ground really is shaky. One shouldn’t expect simple explanations for everything.

You go on to attempt to “dispel a myth.” Dispelling myths can often be a worthwhile activity. Here is the very informative page from the Guttmacher Institute.

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html

The evidence is quite interesting, but it hardly helps your case. You say that over 70% of women who seek abortions were using some form of birth control during the month they became pregnant. But what your source, the Guttmacher Institute, actually says is that 54% of women who have had abortions had used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant, and that OF THESE 76% of pill users and 49% of condom users report using the contraceptives inconsistently. In other words, the percentage of woman who have had abortions despite having consistently used contraception is quite low, much lower than the percentage of women who either use no contraception (the highest percentage when you distinguish between consistent users of birth control and inconsistent users) or use birth control inconsistently.

You say, “This is, among other reasons, why many (myself included) are skeptical of the value of ‘sex ed’ classes”. The “this” refers to what we now see to be empirical claims that are patently false. The evidence points clearly in the opposite direction, that is, women who use contraception consistently and correctly are much, much less likely to have abortions. Well, we’ve dispelled a myth, haven’t we?

As for your claim that there is a good reason why we call our reproductive organs ‘reproductive organs’, I agree. But, once again, it shows absolutely nothing. Just because an organ is a means to reproduction, it does not follow that using it for other purposes is morally wrong. At the risk of being crude, I’d like to suggest that you think about this next time you take a leak. Or next time you eat some dessert despite knowing full well that you are not hungry and do not need the calories. Are you “misusing” your digestive system in a way that necessarily makes your action morally wrong? Without invoking some independent reasons (e.g. theological ones) for why using a reproductive organ for non-reproductive purposes is in principle morally problematic in any way, shape or form, this is not an argument that you can win. I don’t say that out of arrogance. I say it because it’s just transparently true.

As for your second post. Yes, the majority of people who are murdered are murdered by people they personally know. But I did not deny this. I claimed that the majority of murder victims are not people who you, Darwin, personally know, and therefore it is not clear to me why you would support large government programs meant to reduce murder rates and prosecute murderers. I apologize for the confusion here.

As for the legal policies I mention, you are right to point out some of my mistakes with respect to what the law actually requires of people. But these are petty details. I can easily make slight adjustments to the cases. Instead of investigating any woman who does not produce a baby 9 months after getting pregnant, law enforcement officials will investigate any woman who is accused of abortion (i.e., of murder) by a boyfriend, a husband, a doctor, a friend, a neighbor, or whatever. If a woman tells a friend about her pregnancy and subsequently has an abortion, her friend will have the same obligation to report the crime as she would if her friend had murdered a three year old child, and the police will investigate the claims. As for the medical unfeasibility of investigating miscarriages, I think you’re just plain wrong on empirical grounds. Blood tests will reveal if the woman aborted the embryo chemically, and physical examination may often reveal if an abortion was performed (especially if we go back to the bad old days of the coat hanger). If there is suspicion of foul play, the woman will be tried in front of a jury of her peers. It will be up to them to determine if there is a reasonable doubt as to her guilt. That’s how we handle other suspicious deaths. Why not the deaths of embryos? Don’t tell me you have qualms about requiring women to undergo this kind of invasive investigation. How can you compare the life of a human being (e.g. a zygote) to such trifles?

Darwin said...

Just a couple notes:

I take it what you want to say is that a zygote is identical to a three year old child, and therefore what holds for the three year old child (morally speaking) holds for the zygote. But a zygote plainly is not a three year old child, so plainly the two are not identical.

I'm afraid you completely miss my point here. When I said "identity" I mean individual identity. As in this sense: We have the three year old named Amy. We agree that Amy has moral value and it would be wrong to dismember her.

A year ago, Amy still existed. She was a two year old. She was different in many ways, but it was still wrong to dismember her. A year before that, she was different still, one year old, it would have been wrong to dismember her. A year before that was the day on which Amy was born. She was born at noon, but I think we're in agreement it would have been equally wrong to dismember her either at 9am or 9pm.

Now here's where it gets tricky for many people: At what point in the nine months before the day Amy was born does it become okay to dismember her? Under current US law, any time. But you said earlier you agreed it was probably wrong at five months gestation. What about the day before five months gestation? Or the day before that? Etc. We know that the individual "Amy" existed since the point when she was a zygote. There is continuous identity throughout that period. So if we take it that she changed from a kind of individual with low moral value to one with high moral value, when and why? And if we're really, really not sure, is "when in doubt, dismember" really the best slogan if we consider ourselves humane?

On the question of how many abortions are procured by people who were using birth control -- you are correct that I mis-remembered. Checking back on the particular article that I'd recalled, I had confused the percentage of unexpected pregnancies that are had by people using birth control (albeit, obviuosly often incorrectly) with the percentage of abortions.

As for your claim that there is a good reason why we call our reproductive organs ‘reproductive organs’, I agree. But, once again, it shows absolutely nothing. Just because an organ is a means to reproduction, it does not follow that using it for other purposes is morally wrong.

I don't think that I argued that it was. I was simply arguing that since the primary purpose of the sex organs qua sex organs (obviously, they also double for evacuating waste) is reproduction, one can hardly be surprised that messing about with them (even with "protection") results in pregnancy. In other words: pregnancy is a reasonable result of having sex. And so one might well argue that (as is legally the case in our society with men) having sex represents consent to have a child, should a child happen to result from it.

But these are petty details. I can easily make slight adjustments to the cases. Instead of investigating any woman who does not produce a baby 9 months after getting pregnant, law enforcement officials will investigate any woman who is accused of abortion (i.e., of murder) by a boyfriend, a husband, a doctor, a friend, a neighbor, or whatever.
...
If there is suspicion of foul play, the woman will be tried in front of a jury of her peers. It will be up to them to determine if there is a reasonable doubt as to her guilt. That’s how we handle other suspicious deaths.

Um, Okay.

Keep in mind a few things: We don't generally act like, with regards to post-natal deaths, everyone is under suspicion all the time. This is not CSI or Law & Order. In real life, we do not put people through the wringer of detailed investigations into the possibility that a death might have been a murder unless its physically obvious (bullet riddled corpse) or unless someone personally involved in the situation keeps insisting that despite the appearances of an ordinary death, it must have been murder.

I'm sure that in this highly imaginary world that you are convinced you can make me uncomfortable by discussion, people could manage to come up with some comfortably high levels of proof that would be required in order to a get a warrant that would allow examining a woman accused of having an abortion. And a jury of peers is certainly a means of justice which has served us well in the English-speaking tradition.


I do, however, find it interesting that in these sorts of arguments people of a pro-choice persuasion are so quick to bring up the "But would you want to send women to jail for this" argument. Cleary, it's considered to be a winner, and people want to resort to it right away.

It's not clear to me, however, why the debate needs to center around polarities in which on the one hand abortion should be absolutely legal with very, very view restrictions, and on the other it should be treated as murder. As we've discussed, the elements of the question are pretty clearly the autonomy of the woman (as relates to her being able to decide whether she wants to be pregnant for nine months) balanced against the moral worth of the embryo. (I'm ditching the zygote terminology since you obviously can't have an induced abortion on the first day after conception.)

Now, it might be that the embryo has roughly the moral worth of toilet paper. It might be that it has the full moral worth of an adult human. It might also be that it has some degree of worth in between these extremes.

Moral worth is a hard thing to quantify, but it seems to me as entirely possible (and indeed a likely area of agreement for most people) that the embryo either has or should be treated as if it has* a degree of moral worth such that it should not be destroyed or destroyed only in certain rare circumstances -- and yet where it is failure to abide by these norms would result mainly in losing medical license (for any practitioner involved) and social opprobium.

*If we think that embryos _may_ have the same value as other humans, but we're only 75% sure (or only 75% of us are sure), might an appropriate response be to provide embryos with as much protection as possible (giving them the benefit of the doubt) while not inflicting truly grave penalties on adults who harm them (on the theory that there is, after all, doubt, and we don't want to incarcerate a known human being for harming what we're only 75% sure is a human being.)

moti said...

Darwin,

First, some corrections: you write that under current U.S. law, it is okay to abort an embryo at any time. Laws vary state to state, but as far as I know there is no state where the right to abortion is totally unrestricted. Second, I don’t think I claimed that it was “probably wrong” to abort a five month old fetus (I may be wrong about this). I did say I agreed with you that the moral status of a five month old fetus is different than that of a zygote. Third, you claim that “most people” “likely” would agree that the embryo should only be destroyed in rare circumstances. It is not at all clear that this is correct. Here is one poll, though of course it does not show anything definitively.

http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2003/01/22/opinion/polls/main537570.shtml

As for identity over time, I’m just not nearly as confident about it as you seem to be. The problem of identity over time has long been one of the central problems (some would argue a pseudo problem) in philosophy and plenty of metaphysicians continue to grapple with it. The very cells that comprise the three year old child are not the same cells that constituted the embryo. If the word ‘Amy’ denotes some collection of cells at 12:30 a.m. on June 14, 2008, but at some earlier point it denoted just a single cell (the zygote) which is not part of the later collection, then in what sense is your daughter today “the same thing” as the earlier zygote? You say, “There is continuous identity throughout that period.” Continuous identity of what? Please don’t say “substance.” Now, I don’t like referring to Amy (or to anyone else) as a “collection of cells”, at least not in a way that may be construed as implying that she is merely a collection of cells, where “merely” puts her on equal footing with any other collection of cells. A frozen turkey is also a collection of cells. Amy is a fully sentient human being, a person, and as such I believe she is entitled to a degree of respect that insentient things are not entitled to. So, to answer your question, there was never a time at which it was okay to dismember Amy, where ‘Amy’ refers to a fully sentient human being, a person.

I cannot specify some exact moment before which it is morally permissible to abort an embryo and after which it is morally impermissible to do so. But it does not follow from this that there is no period of time during which it is morally permissible and some period of time during which it is not.

You should know, however, that you face the same challenge I do. You draw the line earlier than I do but your line is no more exact than mine is, at least not in principle. When, exactly, does some collection of matter become a member of the species homo sapiens? Conception is not something that takes place instantaneously. It is a process. We can divide time into millionths of a second. Can you specify (in a principled way) the instant before which it is false to say that the matter comprising the sperm and the egg constitutes a human being and after which it is true to say that it constitutes a human being? No? Well, according to your line of reasoning, since there is a time when something is a human being but there is no known non-arbitrarily-specifiable instant before which it is not a human being, we should err on the side of life and treat a sperm cell and an egg which are separated by the space of an inch (or a light-year) as a human being. But of course this is absurd.

It is not always reasonable to expect pregnancy as a consequence of having sex. It would not be reasonable for a 75 year old woman to expect to get pregnant, nor for a woman who is having sex with a man who has had a vasectomy, nor for a woman who has consistently been taking birth control pills or some other effective form of contraception. According to your own source of empirical data (the Guttmacher Institute), only .2 % of women who use birth control pills “perfectly” will have an unintended pregnancy within the first year, while 8.7% of women who use the pill “typically” will have an unintended pregnancy. If a woman has been taking the pill in the way she is supposed to, is it reasonable for her to expect to become pregnant when she has sex? No. If a woman has been taking the pill consistently at the correct dosage, it is very unreasonable for her to expect to become pregnant. But if a woman of child bearing age has sex and does not use contraception, then it is reasonable for her to expect to become pregnant (85% of these women will have an unintended pregnancy within a year).

Are you prepared to concede that someone for whom reducing the number of abortions is a top priority should support programs that make contraception more easily available? It seems to me that you must be, on pain of irrationality.

As for how we treat post-natal deaths, you are right that we do not always presume that the death was the result of foul play. But when we do have reason to suspect that it was, law enforcement investigates. And this is where I think that if someone is serious about the high moral value of the embryo, she has to support the imaginary policies I’ve sketched (or very similar ones). One of the favorite rhetorical devices of the pro-life movement is the claim that embryos, because of their total vulnerability (they can’t speak for themselves, they can’t defend themselves, they can’t be easily seen, etc.), require particularly rigorous protections. If we could shrink a three year old child to the size of an embryo and take away her ability to speak or defend herself in any way, would you then maintain that if a pregnant woman or her doctor destroyed that tiny, silent three year old child, the penalty should be the mere revocation of professional license?

No, presumably you would want to treat the death as a murder in the fullest sense of the word. And if embryos are like three year old children (in terms of their moral worth), then I cannot see why you should recoil from the “polarit[y] in which on the one hand abortion…is treated as murder.” In fact, if you believe that embryos have the same moral worth as three year old children, then it seems to me you are committed to this position. The fact that investigating the suspicious deaths of embryos (or the deaths that are claimed by someone to be suspicious) involves greater inconvenience to the woman is irrelevant here because surely the defender of the high moral value of the embryo does not want to draw a moral equivalence between murder and inconvenience, does he?

You go on to say that if 75% of us feel sure that an embryo has the same moral value as other human beings, it might make sense to protect them while not inflicting grave penalties on those who harm them. First, 75% of us do not have this belief. Only roughly 20% of the U.S. population believes that abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances. Second, you might as well invoke the kind of argument I gave in my earlier post, where in the absence of consensus about the moral question, a neutral observer who wants to maximize consensus while minimizing the risk of harm tries to determine how to settle the legal question. And you know what I said about that.

Either you support the state’s right to coerce a woman who attempts to get an abortion or you do not. If abortion is murder, then the degree of coercion to which the state is entitled should be as great as it is for any other murder (and given the vulnerability and invisibility of the embryo, the state should probably have even greater power to protect it than bigger human beings who can defend themselves, express themselves, etc). If you do not believe that abortion is murder, or if you are not sure about it, then you should be very careful about advocating policies that allow the state to (in some cases literally) intervene in women’s wombs. One can be “pro-choice” and still believe that abortion could very well be morally impermissible, or that it sometimes is impermissible. Being “pro-choice” just means that one believes that the state does not generally have the right to coerce women who want to have, or who have had, abortions.

Darwin said...

First, I'm a bit unclear. You say:

Second, I don’t think I claimed that it was “probably wrong” to abort a five month old fetus (I may be wrong about this). I did say I agreed with you that the moral status of a five month old fetus is different than that of a zygote.

Now, earlier you said:

As for sentience, you’ll notice that throughout my posts I limit my claims to the embryo or the zygote. This is because I agree with you that a 5 month old fetus is sentient, and I think that 5 month old fetuses have a different moral status than zygotes. Don’t ask me to draw the line.

Help me understand: If it is taken to be the case that a five month old fetus is sentient, and that its moral status is thus, in your mind, different from that of a zygote or embryo, is that difference enough that one might call it "wrong" to kill the five month old fetus. Also, taking it to be wrong, would you see it as acceptable to ban abortions at five months and beyond except in certain rare circumstances (as is the case in the UK and several other European countries)?

It seems that two separate things have been discussed thus far: whether it is reasonable to consider a zygote, embryo, and/or fetus as a "human being" and also whether it is acceptable to legally restrict a woman's ability to kill embryos and fetuses. But it seems to be, especially in the light of the above, that these may in fact be separate issues in your mind.

For instance, if you are holding that a five month old fetus is as sentient as a newborn (which was the statement of mine that you made the above quote in reply to) and yet would not consider it acceptable to restrict access to abortion after five months, then in a sense any further discussion of pre-natal humans not being "persons" in regards to moral worth is irrelevant because that would indicate that your concern is _only_ is assuring the woman's ability to "evict" the intruder in her womb.

------
In regards to identity:
You should know, however, that you face the same challenge I do. You draw the line earlier than I do but your line is no more exact than mine is, at least not in principle. When, exactly, does some collection of matter become a member of the species homo sapiens? Conception is not something that takes place instantaneously. It is a process. We can divide time into millionths of a second. Can you specify (in a principled way) the instant before which it is false to say that the matter comprising the sperm and the egg constitutes a human being and after which it is true to say that it constitutes a human being? No? Well, according to your line of reasoning, since there is a time when something is a human being but there is no known non-arbitrarily-specifiable instant before which it is not a human being, we should err on the side of life and treat a sperm cell and an egg which are separated by the space of an inch (or a light-year) as a human being. But of course this is absurd.

Um.... Okay, I'm sorry, but I have to ask: Are you saying this with a straight face?

Sure, we can get all "you never step in the same river twice" about the whole thing (charmingly pre-Socratic, and all that), but among people who are "intelligent, thoughtful, well-informed, psychologically normal" I don't think it's terribly hard to agree that one is the same individual throughout one's life. Nor is it hard to agree that an individual human being can generally be identified by his/her unique DNA. (clones and identical twins being the exception that proves the rule) Now, we can try to focus in on some very, very fuzzy area where the egg is right in the middle of being fertilized and argue that at that moment it's hard to tell where a unique individual with DNA different than the parents yet exists, but to argue based on this that we must, according to my argument, consider "a sperm cell and an egg which are separated by the space of an inch (or a light-year) as a human being" is patently absurd. An egg and sperm separated by an inch (or a light-year) are either way clearly not in the act of fertilizing, nor do they possess unique DNA different from that of both parents. That argument simply won't hunt.

BTW, as a scientific point, I'm not sure that there's a complete turn-over of cells either. Certain cells are never replaced, only repaired, after birth. Brain cells, for instance. Given that a lot of those cells are in place by half-way through pregnancy, you have a fair amount of cell continuity between a five month old fetus and the middle-aged adult it would be forty years later. What you're probably thinking of is the cycling of certain molecules through the body. Some molecules remain where they're originally put, but many (water, O2, etc.) do cycle through the body quite regularly. I think you're probably thinking of one of those cycles, which are sometimes (slightly inaccurately) referred to as the amount of time it takes all the molecules in the body to be replaced.

Also, let's take a step back and recall that in the abortion issue, this theoritical fuzzy period resulting from my approach simply isn't relevant. No one is going to get the chance to have an abortion until _at least_ a few weeks after conception. So not only are we beyond the question of whether a unique cell with its own DNA exists yet, but we're beyond the point one zygote can split into two embryos producing identical twins. Whatever questions of continuity and identity might exist in the first seconds and hours of existence, we've very clearly past that point by the time a woman even knows that she's pregnant, much less gets an abortion.

While realizing that I'm running long, let me ask a hypothetical:

When Joey is 20, he learns in a conversation with his mother that he had actually been one of twins that she had concieved. However, his parents had only wanted to have one child, so they had a "selective reduction" at ten weeks gestation. Nothing was medically wrong, and both embryos were male, so the one aborted was selected at random. Joey feels shocked that it was only random chance that he was not the one aborted, but his mother assures him this is silly because he isn't the same human being as either one of the embryos. Does his objection make sense? Does her defense make sense?

Now let's re-spin slightly. Joey's mother confesses that he was one of twins born to her, but she didn't think she could support two children so she downed the a randomly selected one of the pair in a burlap sack. When he expresses shock that he could have been killed, she assures him that he wasn't the same person as either one of these since now he's an adult, can communicate, take care of himself, etc. Is this explanation any more or less credible than the other, and why?

----

More on other points in a bit. Addressing all these points takes some time.

Darwin said...

You go on to say that if 75% of us feel sure that an embryo has the same moral value as other human beings, it might make sense to protect them while not inflicting grave penalties on those who harm them. First, 75% of us do not have this belief. Only roughly 20% of the U.S. population believes that abortion should not be allowed under any circumstances.

Yes, I'm aware of that. But you missed my main point which is: If many people (and some polls I've seen suggest that this is probably a slight majority of the population) are morally uncomfortable with abortion because they think that the embryo or fetus has a moral status of some worth, yet are not sure that the status of the pre-natal human is equal to that of the post-natal human, would it not be reasonable to advocate the the law provide all possible protections to pre-natal humans (in case they do have high moral worth) while hesitating to impose the harshest punishments on those who perpetrate abortions (in case they don't.)

Or perhaps more broadly: If a great many people have some degree of certainty (let's say ranging from 50-75%) that the embryo and/or fetus, is it not reasonable to them to advocate some degree for protection for the embryo and/or fetus, while still being hesitant to imprison or execute those who kill them? Why should the granting of protection be wholly binary? Either strictly a personal decision and absolutely no restriction at all, or else murder one.

Certainly, it's a strong (though not necessarily reasonable) arguing point to insist that one must either insist on the full force of murder charges or else back down and be pro-choice, but that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of our experience. For instance, if I find a stray dog and club it to death, I can be prosecuted under city or state law for animal cruelty. No one asserts that I should be charged with murder, and yet no one seems to have a problem restricting my ability to kill the dog. Nor is cruelty only the question, because if I take a dog and give it a painless execution with a shot to the back of the head, I can also be charged if I don't have a good reason for doing it.

Now, why would I personally, as a Catholic pro-lifer, advocate taking a non-draconian approach to dealing with people who have abortions (restricting it as much as possible, but not charging women and doctors involved with first degree murder)? Two reasons, one practical and one moral.

Morally, it seems likely to me that in most instances the woman and doctor involved are not as morally conscious of committing murder as one could expect someone who shoves a .45 in your face and pulls the trigger to be. And since (recall, this is morally speaking -- I take no responsibility for the legalities involved in our current system) it seems to me that the gravity of a moral wrong is in part determined by the extent to which the person committing it know that the action is wrong, it seems to me that those involved in abortion are generally less culpable than those involved in murder otherwise.

Practically, as a society we have to make moral/legal rulings on the basis of some degree of consensus. And I know (from personal experience talking to others) that there are a number of people who are not ready to say that abortion is murder in a moral sense, and yet do believe that it is the killing of something which should not be killed, or should only be killed as a necessary evil in certain very grave circumstances. Such people are naturally allies for one of my moral beliefs -- since they are prepared to advocate providing unborn children with protections in most circumstances. And thus it makes sense to suggest pro-life policy in such a way as to accomodate those with those beliefs as well as those with my own.

-----

One of the favorite rhetorical devices of the pro-life movement is the claim that embryos, because of their total vulnerability (they can’t speak for themselves, they can’t defend themselves, they can’t be easily seen, etc.), require particularly rigorous protections. If we could shrink a three year old child to the size of an embryo and take away her ability to speak or defend herself in any way, would you then maintain that if a pregnant woman or her doctor destroyed that tiny, silent three year old child, the penalty should be the mere revocation of professional license?

I personally don't see how there could be any difference between that and between abortion as currently practiced. But in order to understand this a little better, perhaps you can fill me in:

If this magical shrinking and silencing of a three year old were performed, and the three year old were then inserted into the womb of a woman, such that the only way to get the shrunk three year out was to have the woman be "pregnant" with it for six more months and then deliver it, or to chop it up and vacuum it out as an abortion -- would you maintain that it should be illegal for the woman to request the abortion?

In other words, is it really a functional difference between the three year old and the fetus or embryo that defines the reason you see the destruction of one as the problem and the destruction of the other as perfectly legal, or is it simply the fact that there's no other practical way to get the embryo or fetus out of the woman without destroying it?

If you see any value to the violinist dilemma, it would seem that it's the imposition on the woman that you see as the relevant factor, and the characteristics of the embryo/fetus aren't even relevant.

-----

I thought of just leaving this out one, but it seemed worth touching briefly:

It is not always reasonable to expect pregnancy as a consequence of having sex. It would not be reasonable for a 75 year old woman to expect to get pregnant, nor for a woman who is having sex with a man who has had a vasectomy, nor for a woman who has consistently been taking birth control pills or some other effective form of contraception. According to your own source of empirical data (the Guttmacher Institute), only .2 % of women who use birth control pills “perfectly” will have an unintended pregnancy within the first year, while 8.7% of women who use the pill “typically” will have an unintended pregnancy. If a woman has been taking the pill in the way she is supposed to, is it reasonable for her to expect to become pregnant when she has sex? No.

Well, let's see, 8.7% is slightly more than one in twelve. So if I take two revolvers, place one bullet in the chamber of one of them, spin the chambers, close my eyes, select one, and point it at my head and pull the trigger, I obviously cannot reasonably expect that I'm doing anything remotely dangerous that could result in my shooting myself. Right?

But enough of playing statistical gotcha. Yes, there are obviously cases when one might be having sex with relative assurance that conception is almost impossible. (I believe I mentioned sterilization as an example.) But let's think about it: What percentage of pregnancies result from having sex? What percentage of pregnancies occur among women who have had not sex in the last year? Yes, it's possible to get a pregnancy without sex -- using artificial insemination or implantation an embryo, but it's not likely to spontaneously happen, to put it mildly. Pregnancy results from sex. Pregnancy does not naturally result from anything other than sex. And one can count on not getting pregnant as a result of having sex only to the extent that one is taking preventative measures that are successful.

So to the extent that a woman has any choice in regards to having sex (and you may be assured that is a choice that I _do_ fully believe a woman should have full latitude in making herself) she has a choice as to whether or not to engage in behavior which could result in a pregnancy. Now according to our current system of paternity law, we hold that any man who engages in sex opens himself up for 18 years of financial and personal responsibility as a father. Is it so very unreasonable to hold that by choosing to have sex, a woman should be prepared to (if pregnancy results) at least carry the resulting child to term and put it up for adoption?

Undoubtedly, that might prove to be a great difficulty and personal sacrifice for some women in some situations. But at the end of the day, actions have consequences.

moti said...

Darwin,

I’m not going to respond to all your points and questions. My intention in responding to Scott’s first post was mainly to argue that a pro-life voter may have good reason (I think in some cases the reason is overriding) to vote for a pro-choice candidate, primarily because pro-choice candidates tend to support programs that actually reduce the number of abortions. In other words, my purpose for writing was political. And unless one is prepared to dismiss all empirical claims (as you do not seem prepared to do, given your own reliance on them, and as Scott does not seem prepared to do, given his own reliance on them) I take it I’ve made my point well enough, unless someone has presented some evidence showing that banning abortion reduces the number of abortions and I missed it (if you do have such evidence, you should publish it—you might be the first). I did not intend then, nor do I intend now, to delve deeply into the moral problem of abortion. I’ve already gone far enough. As I’ve repeated endlessly, I believe the problem is a difficult one, probably intractable, and in my view if we can do something about avoidable suffering and death in regards to abortion, it will be to support those policies that reduce the number of abortions.

Second, I simply cannot answer some of your questions. I do not know enough about the relevant sciences to say to what degree a five month old fetus is sentient relative to a newborn baby, and so I do not know exactly what I believe about the wrongness of aborting five month old fetuses, besides that I think it is morally worse than aborting a zygote and morally better than killing a newborn. I never said that a fetus’s sentience is sufficient to generate an overriding moral obligation on the part of the mother to avoid aborting it. I do think a fetus’s sentience is sufficient to imbue it with a moral worth greater than that of an insentient embryo, and so it follows that I believe aborting a five month old fetus is more morally problematic than aborting a zygote. I think a woman who wants to abort a five month old fetus bears a much heavier justificatory weight than does a woman pregnant with a zygote. And of course the standard of justification that must be met by a woman with an 8 month old fetus who wants to abort is even higher, quite possibly as high as it is for a newborn or a three year old. And this should be reflected in the law, though I haven’t thought enough about it to know precisely how. From what I know about current abortion law, it does seem sometimes to reflect a belief in the degrees approach I’ve just very briefly sketched. Early abortion, no problem. Late abortion, problem.

I don’t think the problem of identity is relevant to our topic. You raised it. If the true metaphysical view (whatever that means) is that a newborn infant is not the same thing as the three year old child whom we would generally say once was that very infant, it’s still true that it’s grossly immoral to kill a newborn or a three year old child. I just can’t see how it matters if there is continuity of identity from the one to the other. The same holds for the zygote and the newborn, though of course I believe there is a big difference in moral status between the two. But the difference has nothing to do with identity over time. The reason I brought up the sperm and the egg which are separated by an inch is to show you that your own line of reasoning was bunk. You presented me with a “tricky” problem—since I cannot give you some moment after which the embryo has moral value and before which it does not, you suggested that I should err on the side of life and treat the earlier entity with the same degree of respect as the later. I simply applied your own line to reasoning to your preferred locus of value, the human being. Contrary to what you say in your response, it doesn’t matter that hardly any abortions would take place immediately after conception. If your argument is sound (it’s not), then we should treat a sperm and an egg that are separated by an inch as a human being. It’s an absurd conclusion, but fortunately for me it is not entailed by my line of reasoning but yours. You would be better off avoiding talk of identity because it’s completely beside the point.

As for Joey, who learns from his mother that she aborted what would develop into his twin at an early stage of gestation, he will be shocked only if he’s quite stupid. Two months ago, Joey’s mother told him that she met his father 22 years ago when she got a flat tire, forcing her to take a bus to work for the first time in her life, and it was Joey’s father who drove that bus. If she had not run over that nail, Joey never would have been conceived. His very existence is contingent on a nail in the street. How random! What a mind blower! As for the other Joey, whose mother drowned Joey’s twin brother, it’s very likely that Joey will be shocked, and justifiably so, because he probably didn’t suspect that his mother has committed murder. Needless to say, this has absolutely nothing to do with the morality of abortion because the morality of abortion has nothing to do with identity over time.

I’ll just say a few things about the relationship between sex and pregnancy. First, I’m not playing “gotcha”. I know pro-life people tend not to want to dwell on empirical data for reasons that should at this point be too obvious to mention. Second, the 8.7% figure represents the percentage of women who get pregnant while using the birth control pill “typically”, which just means not as they should. As you were the first to point out, plenty of women use contraception inconsistently. If typical use was consistent, proper use, that figure would be much lower. So, again, education and availability is crucial.

Now, you say, “Pregnancy results from sex. Pregnancy does not naturally result from anything other than sex. And one can count on not getting pregnant as a result of having sex only to the extent that one is taking preventative measures that are successful.” Agreed. Since it is a plain fact that there are measures which are successful at preventing pregnancies, the issue seems to be the extent to which they are used, right? Hence, contraception should be easily and cheaply available.

You ask, “Is it so very unreasonable to hold that by choosing to have sex, a woman should be prepared to (if pregnancy results) at least carry the resulting child to term and put it up for adoption?” Is it so very unreasonable to hold that if one wants to reduce the number of abortions, one should support policies that reduce the number of abortions? Is it so very unreasonable to hold that if one wants to reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, one should support policies that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies, so that the issue of abortion will arise much more seldom?

If I catch your drift, this is your position: no support for policies that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. No support for policies that reduce the number of abortions. Support for policies that have no effect on pregnancy rates, and no effect on abortion rates, while criminalizing women (and disproportionately poor, black, Hispanic women).

But the pro-life movement has morality on its side?

Darwin said...

Moti,

Like you, I think it is probably about time to wind things up. In part because, like you seem to think of me, it seems to me that your ideological attachments are making it fundamentally impossible for you to address some of these questions with a very clear mind.

There are, however, a few closing points on which I wish to clarify:

If your argument is sound (it’s not), then we should treat a sperm and an egg that are separated by an inch as a human being. It’s an absurd conclusion, but fortunately for me it is not entailed by my line of reasoning but yours. You would be better off avoiding talk of identity because it’s completely beside the point.

Perhaps this is a matter of one of us having taken a class in embryology and the other not having done so, but this is approaching silly. At a basic biological level, you either have a cell or more with a unique DNA different from either parent, or you don't. An egg and sperm in vague proximity to one another are no more a unique human organism than a tree is a chair. (Though it is nice, I suppose, to resurrect questions settled by the scholastics and play around with them again.)

I think a woman who wants to abort a five month old fetus bears a much heavier justificatory weight than does a woman pregnant with a zygote. And of course the standard of justification that must be met by a woman with an 8 month old fetus who wants to abort is even higher, quite possibly as high as it is for a newborn or a three year old. And this should be reflected in the law, though I haven’t thought enough about it to know precisely how. From what I know about current abortion law, it does seem sometimes to reflect a belief in the degrees approach I’ve just very briefly sketched. Early abortion, no problem. Late abortion, problem.

I laud your moral seriousness on this -- and only wished that more pro-choice politicians shared it. The late (God rest his soul) Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was the great exception to this sad trend. Indeed, one of my own watershed moments in becoming (in my own quiet way) a pro-life advocate was some 12 or more years ago when I saw on TV a debate in the senate on the abortion issue and a woman who was the survivor of a botched late term abortion was brought in to testify. She was permanently disfigured as a result of an abortion attempt when she was a late term fetus -- but had been born (pre-maturely) during the attempted procedure and had been adopted and grown up to become an activist on the issue. My two senators (being in CA at the time: Boxer and Feinstien) stormed out of the hearing saying that they refused to witness this kind of grand standing. They (and Obama) have gone on to oppose the Infant Born Alive Act, which seeks to require that medical treatment be provided to babies born in such a situation -- since on a number of occasions the resulting pre-mature infant is simply left off in a corner to expire.

Though of course, that's only an argument from identity. Surely the woman had nothing to be upset about...

unless someone has presented some evidence showing that banning abortion reduces the number of abortions and I missed it (if you do have such evidence, you should publish it—you might be the first).

Well, we certainly know the inverse, which is that the number of abortions went up drastically after Roe. Gutemacher has presented data that outlawing abortions does not reduce the abortion rate, but it's essentially an apples or oranges argument that some countries (mostly third world) which outlaw abortions have abortion rates higher than other countries (mostly in Europe) which have legalized abortion.

Most interestingly, however, you might check out Stephen Levitt's Freakonomics, in which he discusses data that in the years immediately after Roe the number of conceptions went up 30%, while the number of births went down 6%. Essentially, the availability of abortion (combined with rapidly changing cultural norms in the 70s) resulted in people being less careful and getting pregnant more often, thus driving up demand for abortions.

If I catch your drift, this is your position: no support for policies that reduce the number of unplanned pregnancies. No support for policies that reduce the number of abortions. Support for policies that have no effect on pregnancy rates, and no effect on abortion rates, while criminalizing women (and disproportionately poor, black, Hispanic women).

But the pro-life movement has morality on its side?


This is the "blood libel" which is constantly leveled against pro-lifers, and so excuse me for taking a moment to go ahead and address it. The argument is essentially (as you have conveniently summed up) "You don't support the programs I think will reduce pregnancies (lots of contraceptives passed out in high schools, middle schools, and colleges) nor do you support the policies that I think will reduce people's reluctance to bear children (more state funded childcare, more generous welfare, etc.) yet you want to ban abortion. Thus, you are actually _causing_ the abortions you claim you oppose through your policies.

Of course, this first of all relies upon the assumption that one is accurate in one's assessment that these policies would reduce pregnancies and reduce the unwillingness to keep children.

I do not have a problem with contraceptives being cheap and readily available, though my wife and I and our co-religionists do not choose to use them. However, I must admit that I am skeptical as to the effectiveness of these sex-ed and birth control distribution-based strategies. Teenagers and college students are, as I think we could probably readily agree, far from the most organized and responsible people on the planet. Add to this that teen and college sex is often conducted under the influence of a great deal of alcohol, at at irregular hours. This strikes me as a recipe for lack of caution (and thus lack of success) in using birth control no matter how cheap The Pill is at the student health center, and no matter how many condoms are available on RA's doors.

On the flip side, I spent a couple of my years as an undergraduate at a very conservative Catholic college, where birth control was unavailable on campus, dorms were single sex, "inter vis" was only allowed in common rooms, and there was a very heavy cultural pressure to avoid having sex before marriage. Certainly, there were people who didn't follow through on this, and I new a couple of single mothers and people who got married all of a sudden during their senior years there, but it wouldn't surprise me if the overall conception rate of women at Franciscan was actually lower than at many secular colleges awash in birth control.

However, that sort of effect can only be achieved through people _wanting_ to pursue those values. This is why "abstinence only" education in public schools has not been a great success. (If I had my druthers, we simply wouldn't have "sex ed". Goodness knows the schools do a bad enough job of teaching everything else, I don't see why we think they'd be good at this.)

As for social policies, I am certainly not in principle opposed to policies that help provide support to women with children, and especially those in crisis pregnancies. However, I am concerned that many of the approaches often put on the table by the left side of the aisle tend to accidentally encourage single motherhood over marriage, and two income families over single income ones. As such, they're going to tend to create the need for abortion as much as reduce it.

I do, however, take the issue of helping people in need, and most especially women in crisis pregnancies very seriously. That is why I donate several thousand dollars a year to several crisis pregnancy centers which provide support, money, job training, child care, and even housing if necessary, to poor and/or young women in crisis pregnancies. Many of the other avowed pro-lifers that I know do the same. I assume that because we are so often accused of "not caring" it must be the case that the average pro-choice advocate is actually giving far more, but I've never looked into the data on that...

Darwin said...

Moti,

Do please excuse my rudeness in saying that I was done, and then coming back with yet another comment. My only excuse can be that -- being engaged in the manual labor or reflooring my downstairs, I have plenty of thinking time on my hands and have been mulling over the whole of our conversation.

One of the things which you seemed to find, throughout, odd was my hanging upon the importance of the fact that there is a continuity of identity between an adult, the child that adult was before, and the fetus and embryo that child was before. The point of this seems obvious to me from within my worldview, but it may well not from the outside.

Being a somewhat medieval character in many ways, it seems to me that the inherent dignity of a thing stems from its nature. Thus, the inherent human dignity which, it seems to me, both abortion and racism violate is the result of the individual wronged behind a human being, and thus deserving of human dignity.

Now, thinking in this fashion, it seems fairly obvious that in order for something to undergo a change from "a thing which has an inherent right to life" to "a thing which has no inherent right to life" that thing would have to undergo some sort of change in kind. Thus, if I am, at the age of 29, a thing which cannot be killed without just cause, then I must throughout my existence as a being have been a thing which cannot be killed without just cause _unless_ one could identify some point at which I underwent some sort of clear change in kind, and suggest that prior to that I was sort sort of thing whose nature did not possess inherent human rights.

Now, if I follow you correctly (especially your comments on the gradual acquisition of moral worth of the unborn human) it seems to me that you identify such things as human dignity and the right to life with having certain measurable attributes rather than being of a particular kind. (Perhaps you do not consider "kind" or "nature" to be real things?)

I must admit, I find this an unsettling way of thinking of things, since it would suggest that the wrongness of treating people of a given race or disability as if they had no (or less) inherent dignity was simply a matter of measurement -- while if one could somehow argue that certain people possessed less of an attribute one considered essential (call it sentience or what you will) one could then with impunity treat them in ways we would generally consider unacceptable to treat another human being.

This is not to say that I have some way of proving that an attribute-based way of determining moral worth is _wrong_. It's more that it strikes me as dangerous enough (and potentially allowing things we "know" -- in the Platonic sense of possessing inherent knowledge -- to be wrong) that I consider it important to refuse to accept such a view.

moti said...

Darwin,

I'll wrap things up on my end with just a few closing remarks. I'll start with the argument that you still don't seem to understand. It might be my fault. Of course a sperm cell and an egg that are separated by the space of an inch do not comprise a human being. And of course a cell either has a unique DNA or it does not. The point is that you cannot specify (in a principled way) the point in time before which a cell does not have that unique DNA and after which it does. The development of the cell is something that takes place in time. At some point in time, we are prepared to say, "Yup...now the cell has a complete DNA which is unique." But if we ask whether the cell had that complete and unique DNA a millionth or a billionth of a second before that time, we won't always know what to say. There will be gray areas. There is a point in time at which we know the cell is complete and there is a point in time at which we know the cell is incomplete, but there is a stretch of time between these two points during which it is not clear. This has nothing to do with whether or not someone has taken an embryology class. It's a simple matter of common sense, and perhaps elementary logic. Just as I cannot provide some clear rule that states e.g. "when an embryo is 5 months, 3 days, 4 hours, 3 minutes, 8 seconds, 9 milliseconds old, it is valuable but if it is even one millisecond younger it is not" you cannot provide some clear rule that states at exactly what point in the physical process of fertilization something becomes a human being but fails to be a human being one billionth of a second before that point. Just think of it in terms of seconds. At second 1, it is not a human being. At second 2, it is a human being. Now "zoom in" on that time between second 1 and second 2. Was it a human being at 1.5 seconds? Let's say "yes". Ok, now zoom in on the interval between 1 and 1.5. And so on. Physical processes take place in time and we can "zoom in" infinitely many times. So, if I have a problem because I can't specify the instant before which something lacks a degree of moral value that it has after that instant, you have the same problem because you cannot specify the instant something becomes a human being (because, again, the process of becoming a human being, biologically speaking, is a process that takes place in time). And if this problem forces me to "play it safe" and grant to the earlier period what I grant to the later period, then you too are forced to "play it safe" in this regard and consider a sperm and an egg which are separated by an inch as a human being. Again, this really has nothing to do with embryology and everything to do with common sense and elementary reasoning. If you still do not understand what I'm getting at, then I suggest running it by someone else who may be better at explaining things than I seem to be.

When it comes to identity, I think if you were thinking more clearly you'd see that I'm actually doing you a favor. As you argument now stands, your claim that a zygote has moral value rests on some rather fuzzy and contentious metaphysical claims regarding identity over time (e.g. "something" persists but you can't say what, "most people" would agree with you that there is continuity of identity, etc.). What I've suggested is that identity has nothing to do with the morality of abortion, and what follows from this is that EVEN IF there is NO continuity of identity between the zygote and the infant, it would not follow that the zygote is worthless. A three year old person is not morally valuable because there was continuity of identity between it and the newborn or the zygote. Just imagine you discover that there was an accident at the hospital and one of your children is not actually your biological child. There is no continuity of identity between the child that you are raising and loving and the newborn that came from your wife's womb. Would anything at all follow about the moral value of either the child you're raising or the child who came from your wife's womb? Of course not.

As for empirical data, I really don't have much else to say. You say abortion rates climbed dramatically after Roe. Gee, I wonder if that has anything at all to do with the fact that legalizing abortion made it possible to count abortions. If you legalized cocaine use today and starting keeping track of it, cocaine use will climb dramatically tomorrow. I don't understand your claim that comparing countries that ban abortions with countries that do not is like comparing apples and oranges. The apples and oranges charge is usually leveled at those who compare the safety of abortions in these countries, because it's plausible to think that safety will vary greatly based on the degree to which a country is developed. But abortion rates are something else entirely. Or do you believe that people in countries that ban abortion are more fertile than Europeans? Do South Americans have more sex than the Dutch? You say what I'm essentially claiming is that because you don't support those policies that I "think" will reduce abortions, you are causing abortions. No. It's not a matter of what I think about these policies. I believe that certain policies are effective at reducing the number of abortions because the people who actually study these things tell us that they reduce the number of abortions and they provide evidence. I'm not just speculating here, as you are when you write about those sloppy, careless college kids who are too busy partying to wear condoms or take their birth control pills or whatever. I form my opinion based on what the research shows, not based on my own very limited observations of tiny segments of the population and my amateur psychologizing.

You tell some anecdotes about how it seems like promise-keepers or whatever are better at avoiding pregnancy. I apologize for sounding rude here, but your anecdotes, like almost all of ours, are worthless as evidence. The evidence on STD rates, pregnancies, and abortions among promise-keepers and those who have taken part in abstinence only classes is pretty clear. Look it up yourself. Again, when it comes to empirical evidence, you cannot win. Better to stick with claims about "essences" and so forth. The farther away you can get from earth, the better for you. That way, you can't be proven wrong and you even get to sound profound.

You say that abstinence might work for those who want to abstain for religious reasons or whatever. Maybe (again, read about promise-keepers). But in any case, we do not live in a theocracy. You have every right to encourage your children, friends, neighbors, etc., to live according to principles you find worthy or noble or good. If part of that teaching includes avoiding extramarital sex, contraception, etc., then, again, you have every right to advocate for those principles. And you can even say that the only morally acceptable way to reduce the number of abortions is by reducing the amount of sex. But that, of course, is nothing but your opinion, and it's one that can't be defended without appealing to religious doctrines that not all of us accept.

Instead of playing coy, you should long ago have simply stated what you really believe, which is that the only moral way to avoid abortions is by acting in accordance with the practical norms provided by your religious authority, irrespective of what the empirical evidence shows. We could have saved ourselves a lot of time.

Darwin said...

You know, I really had possessed the firm intention to let you have the last word on that one. And the intention even survived the first couple sentences of your comment. But as errors and mis-understandings gave way to condescension and finally insult, that intention gradually evaporated. Allow me to, to borrow your phrase, do you a favor, and advise you that you will generally get farther in civilized conversation if you try to assume the best intentions on the part of your interlocutor and watch your tone. It's possible (though I doubt it) that one can get along without these abilities in grad school, but let me assure you that later in life they are essential.

Now, first of all, you seem to possess a conviction that I am against the use of contraception to reduce unwanted pregnancies, and for abstinence programs (or at least, from context I take it that this is what the "Promise Keepers" organization or movement you talk about it -- the only movement by that name that I'm aware of is a Evangelical group of married men who emphasize responsible fatherhood and marital fidelity). This seems a bit odd to me in that I said, "This is why "abstinence only" education in public schools has not been a great success." And also, "I do not have a problem with contraceptives being cheap and readily available, though my wife and I and our co-religionists do not choose to use them."

The complaint that I made against sex ed was simply that given that our public schools are so bad at getting their students to learn anything else well (and surely if you're spent some time teaching under graduates you must be aware of this) it seems a little naive from my point of view to assume that people whose sexual behaviors are not known for being deeply responsible will use contraception correctly even if they are taught how and it is readily available.

Now you got pretty snippy about this doubt of mine and said, "I'm not just speculating here, as you are when you write about those sloppy, careless college kids who are too busy partying to wear condoms or take their birth control pills or whatever."

As it happens, I'm not exactly just speculating either. Consult this study on contraceptive failure by age from the Guttmacher Institute:

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/3105699.html

Half way down, you'll find a chart showing failure rate by contraception time by age group, income, and relationship status. Let's look at the table for women who are making at least 200% of the poverty line, so we know we're not dealing with inability to afford contraception. The failure rate (percentage pregnant after one year) for married women on the Pill over 30 is 3.3%. The failure rate for for unmarried non-cohabiting women under 20 is 7.6% and for unmarried cohabiting women under 20, it's a whopping 31.4%.

Looking at condoms, for married women over 30 the failure rate is 6%. For unmarried non-cohabiting women under 20, it's 14% and for unmarried cohabiting women under 20 it's 51%.

Now, I'm aware that when I say this I'm moving from data into speculation, but it seems to me that the difference here can't be medical. Under optimal conditions, these methods of birth control probably work about as well on an 18-year-old as on a 30-year-old. So what that leaves us with is that young people use birth control much less well than married adults. That would suggest that either they simply aren't very responsible over all, or no one has ever told them that if you skip doses on the pill or don't use a condom right, it doesn't work.

Now, I have a pretty low view of our education system, but I'm pretty sure these teenagers have heard this information plenty of times. They simply aren't taking that information as seriously as people fifteen years older. They aren't worrying about consequences. (And if you want studies on that, there are rafts on studies on how teenagers routinely underestimate the risks that they take and as a result engage in irresponsible behavior.)

What to do about that? Frankly, I don't have an answer. There is quite simply no way that we are going to go from a culture in which the majority of kids have sex before graduating high school to one in which very few do. Cultures don't turn on a dime. So it's reasonable to expect that young people will go on having sex at high rates for the foreseeable future. If you want to provide them with buckets of birth control - fine, go ahead. I suspect that it will keep the problem rolling by providing people in a demographic that already under estimates risk with a "hey, sex is low risk so long as you use birth control" message, but since those of us who fine the mainstream culture unattractive are welcome to opt out of the public schools, I don't really have a huge issue with it. If this seem uncaring, I'm sorry. I suppose this is one of the key things that marks me as having a conservative approach to things: It does not seem to me that it is easy to change things, even though massive and well funded programs.

Now on your point about my identity argument necessitating assuming that eggs and sperm are all human beings: Believe me, I'm not failing to understand what you're saying. I just don't accept it. However, it may be that there's some miscommunication in how I'm getting there. So I'll take one last shot on clarifying.

Recall, my claim was that if we know that a three-year-old has moral value because it is a unique human being, then it seems that if we trace the existence of that three year old back, we must assume that it continues to have that value until we hit some clear change point before which it was something else other than a unique human being. The fact that there is a change does not necessitate that it did not have value before -- it just means that we now have the possibility that it belongs to some "kind" which does not have the same moral value as a human being. (Since, so far as I can tell, you think that the moral value of a thing stems from the degree to which it possesses certain measurable characteristics, it now seems to me that you are immune to this argument. Though how, in that case, you can be sure that those who want to grant less rights to people of a certain race or with a certain disability are wrong, I'm really not sure.)

Now, you're right, there are certain very early points at which it may be impossible to detect whether a unique human individual yet exists. So what? At point A when no sperm and egg have come in contact, but are simply floating around in a semi-dazed state enjoying the after glow, we can look at the situation definitely and say that no new unique human organism exists. At point F, when we find several cells that are alive and well with their own unique DNA, we can say definitely that a new unique human organism does exist.

Now, you're trying to point to point C at which point a the egg is in the process of being fertilized and does not yet have a full set of DNA formed because the joining of the two strands is going on right at that moment. Is there a unique human organism there, you ask me. If it's truly in the middle of things, I'll say: "I don't know." I would lean towards saying that as soon as the fertilizing begins, we have continuity with the human individual that we _do_ know the moral status of. By I honestly don't know.

How is this different from your not knowing what the moral status of zygote, embryo and fetus are for all nine months, other than a general assumption that it must be gradually growing in weight?

Well the real difference is in our overall approaches. I am placing moral worth on the human individual qua human individual. You seem, so far as I can tell, to be putting moral worth on certain attributes. So you're being entirely consistent with your way of thinking about morality in our relationship with other humans. I'm just now sure how you can be sure it would be wrong to kill a newborn, with sufficient cause. Peter Singer, for instance, recommends a certain period during which infanticide is allowable. Is his reasoning any difference from yours except from where you think the threshold of moral value might be. (This doesn't necessarily mean that you're wrong. It must means that you should be ready to agree that Singer may well be right according to your way of thinking.)

And a couple minor clean-up items:

As for empirical data, I really don't have much else to say. You say abortion rates climbed dramatically after Roe. Gee, I wonder if that has anything at all to do with the fact that legalizing abortion made it possible to count abortions.

First off, try to be consistent. You earlier faulted me for questioning studies of incidence of abortion in countries where it is legal and not legal -- in order to argue which you need to accept the reliability of Guttmacher's estimates of the number of abortions in countries where it is illegal. Now you're saying we have no idea how many abortions there were in the US before Roe?

Well, Guttmacher claims they have pretty good data going back into the early 60s, and that's what Levitt (who, incidentally, is not a pro-life advocate at all) used in his analysis. And remember, abortion was legal either fully or to an extent in many states before Roe. No, Levitt's data on conceptions and abortions going up after Roe is about as any other data on the abortion phenomenon. If you want to ignore it, you might as well put your "I love empiricism" credentials on the shelf right now.

I don't understand your claim that comparing countries that ban abortions with countries that do not is like comparing apples and oranges. The apples and oranges charge is usually leveled at those who compare the safety of abortions in these countries, because it's plausible to think that safety will vary greatly based on the degree to which a country is developed. But abortion rates are something else entirely.

Well, I don't know about you, but it would seem to me that if your economy is in the tank, there's recurrent political instability, housing is terrible and food is hard to come by, you might just have a little more incentive to get an abortion than if you live in Denmark. But hey, that's just me.

A study of the incidence of abortion world wide is here:

http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/journals/25s3099.html

Now, Mexico and Nigeria both had abortion rates of 25 per 1000 women of child bearing age. That's higher than the 22.9 rate for the US at the time of the study (1996). Does that mean that banning abortion doesn't reduce it? Well, I don't know, are the living conditions in the US similar to in Nigeria or Mexico? Maybe we should look at some more economically comparable countries where abortion is legal: Cuba 77, Hungary 34, Russia 68.

Or, perhaps we should compare the US rate of 22.9 to a first world country where abortion is constitutionally illegal: Ireland at 5.9.

Now, some Western European countries in which abortion is legal have rates nearly as low as in Ireland: Belgium 6.8, Netherlands 6.5, Switzerland 8.4. However, several other European or Western nations where it is legal have rates much higher than Ireland: Canada 15.5, Sweden 18.7, Denmark 16.1, Australia 22.2.

I've read and blogged about the annual Guttmacher studies on abortion world wide for the last couple years, and honestly, the case that illegality does not decrease incidence was very, very weak the year they made that their theme.


In closing -- I hope that my tone in this last, and before, has not been overly acrimonious. If it has, I apologize. I have found this exchange helpful in some ways in understanding how someone with a very different approach to moral thought reasons. I hope that such benefit has been mutual.

moti said...

Darwin,

Like you, I intended to give my interlocutor the last word. But, alas, it is not possible for me to do so without clearing up some additional misunderstandings. Let's begin with the empirical evidence, since that is perhaps the one area that promises a clear resolution.

It's not surprising that cohabiting women under 20 years of age experience failure rates much higher than married women over 30. First of all, women for whom pregnancy is a serious possibility and who are under the age of 20 generally are much more fertile than women who are 30 and older. This is a "medical fact", despite your contention that there is no such fact to explain this difference. But in any case, I agree with you that women under 20 are, as a rule, more irresponsible than older women and that this explains at least part of the difference in failure rates. But I'm not sure how this relates to the larger point at issue. The same report explicitly states that availability is crucial and the evidence for this claim is that women who live below 200% of the poverty rate experience much higher failure rates than the women you focus on (that is, women who live above 200% poverty). My claim is that making contraception more easily available reduces the number of abortions. Have you said anything that threatens this claim? No, you have not. I have never claimed that making contraception easily available will reduce the number of abortions to zero. That would be a crazy claim.

Second, you suggest that I was inconsistent because on the one hand I rely on data about the abortion rate in countries where abortion is illegal but on the other hand I claim (in your words) "we have no idea how many abortions there were in the US before Roe". I did not mean to suggest that we "have no idea" how many abortions there were before Roe. I was just making a very simple and uncontentious point: when something is illegal, it is more difficult to track. Therefore, the number of abortions that we know about that predate Roe is very likely lower than the actual number of abortions that took place before Roe. This does not rule out the possibility that the number of abortions really did increase as a result of a Supreme Court decision; it just raises a sober objection to the claim that the actual number of abortions shot up dramatically after Roe. It seems obvious that the actual number of abortions will be higher than the reported number when abortion is illegal, does it not? So there's no inconsistency here.

You write, "Well, I don't know about you, but it would seem to me that if your economy is in the tank, there's recurrent political instability, housing is terrible and food is hard to come by, you might just have a little more incentive to get an abortion than if you live in Denmark." As I'm sure you are well aware, birth rates are lower in many of those politically stable countries where housing is great and food is easy to come by than they are in many countries whose citizens are not so lucky. So it's not the case that women in Denmark and women in Peru get pregnant at the same rate but people in Peru abort more often. Rather, women in countries like Denmark get pregnant less often because they use contraception more than women in countries like Peru do. Clearly.

If your argument has any chance of success at all, it will be due to what you say about countries where abortion is illegal and rates are low (Ireland) or countries where abortion is legal and rates are high (Cuba, Russia). The studies on Russia and the former Soviet states are interesting. They show that abortion rates have decreased as contraception has become more easily available. As for Ireland, the study you cite states: "Although legal abortion services are completely unavailable in Ireland, at least six of every 1,000 Irish women of reproductive age have abortions each year. Since this statistic counts only women who give Irish addresses when having abortions in England or Wales, the true rate is likely to be higher." As for Cuba: "The high rate in Cuba may be attributed to a desire for low fertility combined with access to a limited range of contraceptive methods, use of low-quality IUDs and irregular contraceptive supplies" and "The relatively high rate in Cuba (78 per 1,000) includes menstrual regulation, an early abortion procedure carried out without pregnancy testing, as well as termination of known pregnancies. In 1996, 60% of the procedures were menstrual regulations." Menstrual regulation is a method used by women who are not sure they are pregnant but want to make sure that if they are pregnant, the pregnancy is terminated. If 60% of "abortions" in Cuba are menstrual regulations, the rate of actual abortions (i.e., the destruction of an embryo) will be lower than the rate provided (though it's impossible to say how much lower).

Again, I do not claim that making contraception easily available will reduce the number of abortions to zero. What I claim is that making contraception easily available reduces the number of abortions, and therefore someone for whom reducing the number of abortions is a top priority should support programs that make contraception easily and cheaply available.

I apologize if in my last post I was insulting. I certainly did not intend to be. I try not to take things personally when arguing with others but I shouldn't assume that the threshold of others is as high as mine is. What you perceived as an uncivil tone was probably caused by my exasperation. I have argued a very simple point which, again, is just that people who want to reduce the number of abortions should support policies that reduce the number of abortions. I assumed that since you do not support some of these policies, either you had a moral objection to them or were mistaken about the facts. It's not enough for you to say "if people want to hand out buckets of contraceptives, that's fine with me". Unless you have either a moral objection to contraceptive use or have good reason to believe that there is no causal connection between the availability of contraception and the rate of abortion, YOU should support policies that make contraceptives easily and cheaply available because you want to reduce the number of abortions. Because I took you to be in agreement with me about the empirical evidence, I assumed that your refusal to admit that one should support these policies was grounded in some moral objection that you had thus far failed to express. But now I see that you do not agree with me (or with the experts) about the empirical evidence. I can't explain this disagreement except by hypothesizing that you do have moral objections to the use of contraceptives and that these moral objections motivate your skepticism with respect to the empirical work, and that you do not want to introduce these objections for whatever reason. That's fine with me. But let's be honest about where our disagreement lies. Do you really believe that increasing the availability of contraceptives does not reduce the number of abortions, or do you believe that these programs should not be supported irrespective of whether or not they reduce the number of abortions? Again, it's not enough to say "it's fine if other people support them but I don't" because my claim is that if you care about reducing the number of abortions, YOU should support programs that make contraceptives more easily and cheaply available.

I will address the moral question very briefly. If you want to claim that an embryo is of equal moral worth as a three year old child because a zygote is the same kind of thing as a three year old child, there's nothing I can really say to change your mind. But you should know, if you don't already, that the problems surrounding talk of natural kinds are deep and extensive. It's not at all clear how to determine what is a natural kind and what is not, or even what we are talking about when we talk about natural kinds. In my view, any metaphysical theory that entails that I should even think twice when I'm trying to decide whether to save a three year old child or a frozen, insentient single cell from a burning building (if I can't save both) is deeply flawed. That we have the same moral obligation toward a single, insentient cell as we do towards a three year old child in my view serves as a powerful reductio against the metaphysics.


One last thing: when I spoke of "promise-keepers" last time, I did not have the organization with that name in mind. I had heard of them but I don't know much about them. I used the term to refer more generally to those groups that make abstention pledges and so forth (I thought that's what it meant to be a "promise keeper"). I just looked the Promise Keepers up. They seem to believe that the role of the wife is one of submission to her husband. These aren't the folks I had in mind. Again, I just meant the young people who pledge to stay virgins and so forth. Things tend not to go so well for them with respect to pregnancy, STDs, etc.