Sunday, October 23, 2005

Frozen Out of Comments, But I Must Comment

The abortion issue always gets my attention, but blogger is freezing me out of the comments section. So forgive another post.

Connie raised utilitarianism as an answer to the abortion issue, to which I respond:

Utilitarianism is a bankrupt philosophy. That has been demonstrated repeatedly. If you accept greatest good for the greatest number you can easily justify punishing the wrong person (even if you know it is the wrong person) for a crime in order to deter others from committing similar crimes.

What really happens with utilitarians is that they inevitably have to sneak other philosophical value models into their own in order to make it work. There is always a "why" lurking in the utilitarian's choices that goes well-beyond "greatest good for the greatest number" because it is a largely vacuous concept aside from the stark opportunity for one person to jump on a grenade to save several.

But EVEN that example raises questions. Why should one individual commit suicide to save a number of others? Why are several people more valuable than one? What is the justification there? I suppose it would have to depend on the value of persons. Utilitarianism takes that for granted and thus relies on some other value system (like Christianity), which is not shocking considering the heritage of the folks who started pushing utilitarianism. (Is Christ the ultimate utilitarian? He who ransomed his life for the billions? Unlikely, for he also emphasized leaving the flock untended to go after the single stray.)

Still, let's just accept utilitarianism in the abortion dispute. It gives us no answers. One utilitarian could say, "We must allow abortion because it is usually poor mothers who would give birth to these unwanted children and we would experience a strain on our social services PLUS we'd probably have more crime down the road." Another utilitarian could say, "We should compel these women to have the children because we have a growing population of the aged who must be supported by a growing pool of workers among our younger population." Both would be using utilitarian reasoning but delivering the opposite result. In neither case would either have any concern for human rights, which has interesting implications for utilitarianism as a method of governing.

Jay wondered why his fellow Jews are so detached from the pro-life movement which he believes is their heritage, to which I respond:

I think about Francis Schaeffer in this connection, Jay. When Roe v. Wade came down, the evangelical Christian society was out to lunch. They didn't care. You can find quotes from heavy duty Christian types expressing basic cluelessness on the issue. Schaeffer brought the sanctity of life issue to his community via the prophetic mode.

His basic message? This is evil and wrong. It is so evil and wrong that I and everyone else must question whether Christianity is real at all if you have no will to oppose it. You don't oppose it because you are too caught up in your real values of personal peace and affluence to care. He pierced some shells of indifference with that message and the evangelical world joined the Catholics as opponents of abortion on demand.

If a Christian can be prophetic about abortion, I KNOW a Jewish person can do the same. Who is that person, Jay?

31 comments:

connie deady said...

See, this is where we divide. I tend to grow weary of the debate and tell pro-lifers to take their religion and shove it up their proverbial dupa. (A regional ethnic term).

You (not you personally) weary me when you complain about government and your complaints about government restrictions, taxation, yada, yada, yada, but you take away the most basic freedom of all from a woman because of what your religion believes. It's wrong for government to make decisions for people, but it's okay for religion. It's just hypocrisy.

To me it's the ultimate hypocrisy of the right. For all your complaints about judicial activism and need for strict constructionism, religion trumps all, because you would do whatever religion says and enforce it on others.

Anyway as to the abortion issue, it's not easy. For a pro-choice person, it's difficult to approach from any philosophy that is absolutist unless they don't concede that life begins from conception. For me, it just shows me the impossibility of having any absolutist philosophy, because to adopt that philosophy results in so much human suffering.

So my preferred approach is to throw up my hands in the air and say I can't make those personal kinds of right and wrong decisions for people, particularly when the grounds for deciding right and wrong is religious. That's why I like the rare approach as well as the support systems for pregnant women with encouragement to adopt.

I guess I don't get why people are so up in arms about unborn life and so callously indifferent to existing, suffering life.

Hunter Baker said...

Connie, you infer that religion is the only reason a person could oppose abortion. That's not required at all. It's a pretty darn good motivator, but you can get there via "pure" reason without much difficulty. I've written against abortion in popular and academic press and have never invoked "The Bible says."

Point of fact, I haven't invoked the Bible at any point in this little debate, but you say I'm arguing from religion. It may make you feel better to think so because that seems to devalue my position, but it's an incorrect emphasis. I talked about religious communities and their need to oppose evil, but I didn't use revelation to define the evil or support my reasoning in calling abortion evil.

Jay D. Homnick said...

Yes, Hunter, you're coming up against a common debating tactic: "You're religious so your arguments from reason are really code for religion." Charles Schumer used this against Ashcroft, as you might recall.

Of course, the absurd outgrowth of this argument is that you have to be irreligious in order to be entitled to argue from reason, and only arguments from reason are acceptable in debate; ergo, only an irreligious person can ever win a debate.

Where I usually come from is an intermediate place, not arguing from Jewish religious imperatives but from the Jewish tradition of reason and law, from the Talmud through Rashi and Maimonides and others. Although that reason tradition flourished within a religious framework, it cannot legitimately be labeled as religious per se.

James Elliott said...

Hunter, if utilitarianism is such a bankrupt philosophy, why did you so zealously advocate it as an argument for the torture of suspected terrorists who may well be innocent?

I'm afraid that you can't have it both ways.

Hunter Baker said...

Why do you assume I was arguing from utilitarianism? I could have been arguing for the restraint of the evil by the good. I could have been arguing a form of just war. I think you are confusing any discussion of ends versus means with utilitarianism. The two are not synonymous because there are ends that utilitarianism would never recognize as legitimate or even in existence as other than illusion.

James Elliott said...

That's sheer hair-splitting sophistry, Hunter.

Explicit within your argument was the presumption that, even if innocent, the harm wrought upon the tortured individual was outweighed by the good (i.e. number of lives potentially saved) that could come from information garnered from the person tortured. It was classic utilitarianism.

I'm not arguing that utilitarianism isn't a poor ethos: It is, as you pointed out, causally weak and, if applied as intended, can be used to justify anything, even the Holocaust. But you have used tacitly utilitarian arguments to justify your prior positions. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's probably not a goose.

connie deady said...

Yes, Hunter, you're coming up against a common debating tactic: "You're religious so your arguments from reason are really code for religion." Charles Schumer used this against Ashcroft, as you might recall.

Of course, the absurd outgrowth of this argument is that you have to be irreligious in order to be entitled to argue from reason, and only arguments from reason are acceptable in debate; ergo, only an irreligious person can ever win a debate


I've never made that argument in my life. I think that actually arguing from reason and religion go well together. Most rationalists, going back to Plato see truth and the good as something that can be reasoned to. Religion might be based on faith as much as reason, but it still assumes an absolute that human beings can divine as well as aspire to - be it natural law, God's law, etc.

Hunter, forgive me for conflating religion and opposition to abortion, but you spoke of it several times in your own post, talking about Jewish and evangelicals etc. Of course I'm married to a Catholic and they are probably the strongest pro-lifers around (particularly where I live).

Religion forms the basis of our values of right and wrong and belief systems generally. I'd call even agnosticism a religion in that sense. I believe most opposition to abortion comes from religious reasons, because religions define life at conception. If they don't then I don't see the reason for strong and I would say obsessive opposition. Religions define it as life with all the rights of born humans.

I don't like abortion. I think also that the Dems need to come to center on increasing restrictions to abortion, in an efforts to decrease numbers, as well as better access to birth control information. I think that anything we do as a society that disrespects human life lessens us. I agree that it's a philosophical issue that isn't won by reason (in support of abortion). Bottom line is it's the ultimate conflict of rights.

Tom Van Dyke said...

If I were to charge sophistry whenever I see it, I would do little else, Mr. Elliott. Besides, it's a mite unfriendly.

To your point, which isn't bad, I would say that the harm to innocents is an unintended consequence of the internment process. Every human action, like operating our domestic justice system, inevitably involves such errors, as man isn't perfect. Surely we will not empty the jails because of that.

Theoretically, that's to say philosophically, the system works perfectly. If in practice an unacceptable amount of error is the byproduct (and what is acceptable is a matter for righteous soul-searching), then the system itself becomes morally questionable, but not until then.

A corollary to Hunter's statement is that utilitarian means (all means must have utility) are not ends. There is nothing in human endeavor that is foolproof; if we waited for absolute moral certainty that nothing could ever go awry, we could do nothing. All means are utilitarian in their way.

Hunter Baker said...

I think something James is missing is that it is possible for a non-utilitarian to reach the same result as a utilitarian on a particular issue.

This is part of my earlier point. We are all utilitarians in the sense that we compare costs and benefits of our choices, but the shortcoming of the system is that it cannot give you the ultimate values needed to make critical distinctions. As I said before, utilitarians claim to have an objective system, but there is also some ultimate foundation at the bottom of it that goes unacknowledged.

connie deady said...

This is part of my earlier point. We are all utilitarians in the sense that we compare costs and benefits of our choices, but the shortcoming of the system is that it cannot give you the ultimate values needed to make critical distinctions. As I said before, utilitarians claim to have an objective system, but there is also some ultimate foundation at the bottom of it that goes unacknowledged.

I think you are absolutely right. That was why I equate religion and pro-life, because religion provides the values for apposing abortions. Utilitarian just says "greatest good". How do you define good.

I guess my bottom line on abortion is that I see a lot of suffering, economic costs and wasted lives by foreclosing the option of abortion. It's a quality of life issue. Forcing one unwed teenager to have the baby increases the likelihood that she will be poor and on welfare and raising a child who is poor and on welfare.

I do have some purely philosophical rationalist arguments against pro-life, but I'll save that for another day.

Matt Huisman said...

But is it primarily a quality of life issue? What would you say if that unwed teenager had the baby, but one month later decided that her quality of life was too severly impacted, and she needed to terminate the baby? How is this situation materially different than an expectant mother one day before delivery wanting to terminate pregnancy?

There may be a line somewhere in the pregnancy where it is scientifically murky as to where life begins. But the scientific evidence is pushing that line earlier and earlier in the pregnancy. In my opinion, our society has allowed utilitarian-like considerations to dominate the conversation by choosing to live in the murk of 40 yr old scientific information because we are sympathetic to the person we know (or can see).

Matt Huisman said...

Forcing one unwed teenager to have the baby increases the likelihood that she will be poor and on welfare and raising a child who is poor and on welfare.

What if it didn't. What if all of those babies could be taken away and the economic costs could be mitigated? Would that change things?

My guess is no. We'd be back to arguing about privacy...and then you'd end up looking like Richard Cohen...pro-choice, anti-drug, anti-prostitution.

James Elliott said...

What would you say if that unwed teenager had the baby, but one month later decided that her quality of life was too severly impacted, and she needed to terminate the baby? How is this situation materially different than an expectant mother one day before delivery wanting to terminate pregnancy?

Matt, I'm sorry, but this stretches speculation and "what ifs" into nonsense. Either case is a violation of the law and could not exist as a hypothetical.

Now, I agree that the whole question of time limits should be revisited.

As an interesting aside: Abortions are down across the country. 81% of all counties in this country have no clinics that provide abortion. Teenage pregnancy rates are falling across the nation. (A bit of bragging: teenage pregnancy fell the most in California, the only state that refuses federal funds for abstinence only education and continues comprehensive sex ed in its public schools as a rule).

Matt Huisman said...

Matt, I'm sorry, but this stretches speculation and "what ifs" into nonsense. Either case is a violation of the law and could not exist as a hypothetical.

I believe that Connie had stated a 'bottom line' that quality of life was the issue that should determine our abortion debate. I argue that definition of person/life is the primary concern. If quality of life or privacy (for the mother) is so important, why would we interfere with a mother that wanted to end the life of her one month old baby?

Obviously we would interfere, because we would define that baby as a person/life worth protecting. The entire weight of the pro-choice arguement hinges on the murkiness of the life of the fetus, and states that life doesn't begin until delivery.

My point is that technology has rendered the difference in personhood/life between a one month old baby and a late-term fetus materially insignificant. It is hardly a descent into speculation and nonsense to point this out, or to point out that it is the real center of the issue.

Matt Huisman said...

Now, I agree that the whole question of time limits should be revisited.

Out of curiousity, on what grounds should time limits be revisited?

Tlaloc said...

This is the most cohesive argument that I've come across:

Abortion is the termination of a pregnancy

Murder is the killing of a human being

Abortion then is murder if and only if the fetus is a human being

A human being is an organism of the genus Homo Sapiens Sapiens

Early in development a fetus cannot be said to be an organism but is instead a component of the mother organism

Therefor in the period before a fetus develops into a true organism it is not a human being and it is not murder to terminate the pregnancy

A fetus could be said to be an organism when if removed from the womb it could survive without artifical life support

This argument gives us guidelines for finding the appropriate term limit for abortion, it balances the fetus and the mother by precluding abortion once the fetus is a human being and allowing it before that point. It isn't based upon any religion but merely a series of logical observations and inferences.

The Classic Liberal Anonymous said...

"A fetus could be said to be an organism when if removed from the womb it could survive without artifical life support."

Why no artificial life support?

Tlaloc said...

"Why no artificial life support?"

Because then you are simply creating an artifical womb. The point is to differentiate between when a fetus is a mass of tissue and when it is a self functioning organism that just happens to be inside another organism.

Besides if you allow for artifical life support then you can't set a specific threshold because medical science will almost certainly keep pushing back the line of when they can keep a fetus alive.

Hunter Baker said...

Tlaloc's argument is seriously flawed because it is scientifically untrue that the fetus is ever part of the mother as opposed to being a completely unique entity. He is merely discriminating between a more developed child and a less developed one. (My ability to participate in this debate is seriously hampered by the fact that I am on the road minus computer.)

Tlaloc said...

"Tlaloc's argument is seriously flawed because it is scientifically untrue that the fetus is ever part of the mother as opposed to being a completely unique entity."

By what criteria are you calling it a completely unique entity? The fetus in early stages has no working life support systems but depends entirely upon those of the mother. It's tissue is embedded within the tissue of the mother. In what way then is it "scientifically" a separate organism?

Matt Huisman said...

Since we may have broken the 'delivery/birth' barrier to personhood, before we beat each other up over exactly when life begins...I'm wondering if there are any dissenters with the line of arguement that Tlaloc (and me) use...which says that the central issue in the abortion issue is when the fetus becomes a person/life (rather than a tissue blob).

Connie had earlier expressed concern that foreclosing the option of abortion meant 'suffering, economic costs and wasted lives', and therefore it was warranted on quality of life grounds. The implicit question being: Is it fair for society to expect someone to live by its morals and bear the consequences by themselves?

From my perspective, this is the real question behind the abortion issue. For the pro-choice crowd, the definition of life arguement is a big loser, being honest (or even consistent) on the privacy question is very difficult (see Naomi Wolfe/Richard Cohen), and the health of the mother arguement is, 99% of the time, a cover for the fairness arguement.

So is it fair? Are we demanding too much from women if we expect them to have a baby when life leads to/forces/coerces them into an unwanted pregnancy?

This isn't a particularly nice thing to say...but it seems to me that society expects (even demands with threat of punishment) people to deliver on its expectations (even when threatened) all the time.

Any thoughts?

connie deady said...

Terrific post Matt. I agree with you. For me, as a woman, it's less a matter of choice than it is of consequences. That's why I raised wayyyy back when the trade-off argument. I'd be willing to surrender women's right to abortion in return for true support systems, including real birth control education to avoid pregnancy, day care, adoption alternatives, education for young moms.

That really eliminates the utilitarian argument, because you have significantly reduced the suffering for the pregnant woman by giving her viable options for life during and after pregnancy.

BTW, I really have no clue when life begins. It's both a scientific and a religious question. I am absolutely opposed to any late term or partial birth abortions. As long as the fetus can survive outside the womb, it's certainly life. But in my heart of hearts I can see life if not at conception, at when the fertilized egg drops into and is implanted in the womb. Abortion is uncomfortable.

I had an ectopic pregnancy, which means the fertilized egg got stuck in the fallopian tube. Blew the tube, lost the fertilized egg. It was a life that was conceived, but I never really felt it's loss because I wasn't aware I was pregnant until then and it still was pretty theoretical. I certainly never "knew" the life or its unique characteristics

Darwin said...

Matt,

I very much like your summary. Clearly the abortion issue is the most extreme example -- and since most people develop inconsistencies under pressure the general desire is to say "let's not make it too hard on people, some things are too much to ask" yet the general principle at stake in the abortion issue is: May society ask that its members obey an absolute moral prohibition when to one extent or another the burden of obedience and it's consequences is upon the individual, not society at large?

After all, in Connie's example of being willing to let abortion go (except to save the life of the mother) if there were sufficient societal support for unwed mothers, there is still burden left upon the unwed mother. Society cannot (at least with present technology) relieve her of the burdens of pregnancy itself. Nor can society remove whatever emotional and personal costs would be associated either with adoption of keeping the unplanned child. Plus, any degree of societal support must needs be finite, and so at any given level there could be more.

Connie's position would seem to imply: society may ask a certain degree of sacrifice of the unwed mother, but sacrifice beyond a certain point is too much, and so society much allow her to have an abortion.

James Elliott said...

There are several fallacies within this debate that need to be addressed. They're nitpicky, but endemic of a lack of understanding of reality and harm clear communication:

First, the "delivery/birth barrier." No such barrier exists. Roe and all other standards for abortion have forbidden abortions during the third trimester except in the case of a threat to the life of the mother. Second-trimester abortions are limited to medical necessities. Anyone who claims a "birth" barrier muddies the debate.

Second, and most importantly, is Darwin's comment about unwed mothers: Unwed mothers are not the sole seekers of abortions. The debate is not helped by associating abortion only with a marginalized group in society.

There is also a certain belief in the glibness abortion-providers and their clients approach the decision with that is also fallacious. Believe me, we pro-choice advocates look to you anti-choice advocates and do the same to you. It's a natural inclination in emotional debate, and it doesn't help either side.

I think you would have to be pretty radical to dispute that the debate, for most, centers around the question of personhood for the fetus. I'm not entirely certain Tlaloc's "viability" argument is the way to go, because there may be more awareness within the fetus before external viability is possible.

Connie's point about the risks and harm to the mother are well-taken: It is only relatively recently that birth isn't a complete crapshoot for survivability. Pregnancy and labor are by no means a safe undertaking even today. This is the argument my Seventh-Day Adventist, Republican fiancee uses, and it is an excellent point.

My personal feeling is that there is no medical certainty, or even well-accepted theory on when the child is a conscious creature (viable outside the womb or not). Given this lack of knowledge, we are faced with two competing rights: The right to self-determination and the right to life. Until we have such a defined line, we should err on the side of freedom.

Tlaloc said...

"I'm not entirely certain Tlaloc's "viability" argument is the way to go, because there may be more awareness within the fetus before external viability is possible."

Why would "awareness" matter? Consider a hypothetical conditin in which a person grows an extraneous atrophied second head. The head might have some low level of awareness but surely the person would be justified in having the growth removed as it is still just a part of their body. Hence the key is when the Fetus can legitimately be said to have it's own body, rather than being part of the mother.

James Elliott said...

I'm sorry, maybe I didn't make myself clear.

The point was that there might be a moment in development where the baby's consciousness is more fully developed than its independent biological systems.

Tlaloc said...

I still don'e see why that would matter. Even if the fetus were conscious on some level from the moment of conception it's still a mass of the mother's tissue. Again I have to posit the hypothetical condition I mention above.

Matt Huisman said...

Anyone who claims a "birth" barrier muddies the debate.

You are correct that Roe does not have an issue with the deliver/birth barrier...however, I think that it is fair to say that Roe supporters do not view the fetus as a life until delivery. They don't bother to fight for that barrier because they have found away around it by taking a very reasonable request like protecting the health/life of the mother and expanding it to mean almost anything.

I think you would have to be pretty radical to dispute that the debate, for most, centers around the question of personhood for the fetus.

See here's where I'm not so sure, James. I never hear discussions attempting to explain when personhood begins...it's always centered on the privacy issue. This goes double for the public policy types and politicians. For example, every political abortion commercial shows two women talking about how extreme it is to not allow abortion in cases of rape/incest. It is always a 100% 'how could you' arguement.

Connie's point about the risks and harm to the mother are well-taken: It is only relatively recently that birth isn't a complete crapshoot for survivability. Pregnancy and labor are by no means a safe undertaking even today. This is the argument my Seventh-Day Adventist, Republican fiancee uses, and it is an excellent point.

This is a fair point and should not be taken lightly by the pro-life side. (Which is part of the reason why I asked earlier if this was too much for society to ask of someone.)

connie deady said...

Good comments again Matt. I would take exception with your generalization about Roe supporters. Roe supporters come in sorts of shapes and sizes. I'd say that maybe only the most extreme feminist groups set a dividing line at birth for life. Perhaps those who are most strident or control the agenda feel that way, but I think that the average person who believes in pro-choice has problems with third trimester abortions.

In fact, I'm not even sure if there is such a thing. Lots of babies are born at 7 or 8 months or younger. I would think that in a case of mother's health, there is going to be a c-section or live delivery of the baby, like I had and abortion would and should never been an option. I find that concept offensive.

James Elliott said...

The partial-birth abortion ban is just like parental notification laws: It's a straw man designed only to insert a certain definition of abortion and an embryo into the law and thus lay the groundwork for further legal challenges.

Partial-birth abortions don't occur in the United States, and no third-trimester abortion is undertaken unless under medical duress (and this does not mean "mental health of the mother").

Matt Huisman said...

Can you be a little more specific on the straw man comment? I may be a little behind in understanding the fears the pro-choice side has regarding pro-life tactics.