Thursday, April 24, 2008

How Good People Can Be Guilted Out Of Their Rights

I was talking about abortion with two students today -- we've read a few articles on the issue, including Judith Jarvis Thomson's defense of abortion and Don Marquis' anti-abortion argument. Thomson's argument is a particularly interesting one, because she argues that abortion is permissible even if we regard the fetus as a person with the same rights as you or I. This is one of the many picturesque thought-experiments in her piece:
suppose it were like this: people-seeds drift about in the air like pollen, and if you open your windows, one may drift in and take root in your carpets or upholstery. You don't want children, so you fix up your windows with fine mesh screens, the very best you can buy. As can happen, however, and on very, very rare occasions does happen, one of the screens is defective, and a seed drifts in and takes root. Does the person-plant who now develops have a right to the use of your house? Surely not--despite the fact that you voluntarily opened your windows, you knowingly kept carpets and upholstered furniture, and you knew that screens were sometimes defective. Someone may argue that you are responsible for its rooting, that it does have a right to your house, because after all you could have lived out your life with bare floors and furniture, or with sealed windows and doors. But this won't do--for by the same token anyone can avoid a pregnancy due to rape by having a hysterectomy, or anyway by never leaving home without a (reliable!) army.
One of the two students (I think they're on opposite sides of the issue) wanted to argue that even in this case, you're responsible for the upbringing of the person-plant, and that a woman similarly has the obligation to nourish a fetus within her for nine months after it's conceived, even if she used contraception. She justified her opinion by talking about how bad she'd feel if she had an unplanned pregnancy, even if she had used birth control. Someone who did something like that, she said, ought to bear the consequences. And here I discovered something interesting about the issue of abortion, and about the debate over rights in general.

Our beliefs about rights often come out of our emotions, and sometimes this process leads us to the correct conclusions. Consider the indignation we feel when we think of slavery and segregation. We're outraged by these practices, and when we see them through the emotional coloring of outrage, we see them as injustices where human rights are violated.

But this way of figuring out what rights you have is deeply fallible. Many good people, for example, have some tendency to blame themselves even in cases where they really shouldn't. They have a strong desire to do things the right way, and they hold their actions to very high standards. And when something goes wrong, even though they did everything in their power make sure it went right, they feel very bad.

(With my students, I brought up a case where someone makes some complex machinery doing absolutely everything possible to make it safe, and an employer installs it exactly as he should, and the worker follows exactly proper procedure, but something one-in-a-trillion goes wrong, and the worker is killed. In this case, nobody may be to blame, but the maker and the employer are good people, it's hard to imagine them not feeling bad about their role in the death. Both of my students agreed that in such a situation, people could feel bad but not be blameworthy. This generated one of those Amazing Philosophy Moments when my anti-abortion student realized that this would make the conception of an unwanted child a similarly non-blameworthy occurrence. Her friend was excited to see her say that, which is why I think they're on different sides of the issue.)

The range of things that most good people will feel bad about, then, is wider than the range of things where they do wrong or violate someone's rights. So -- and this is what I found striking -- it's frighteningly easy to convince good people that they have fewer rights than they do. If you can make them interpret their bad feelings as feelings that they've committed an injustice, you can get them to believe that they -- and others in their position -- lack certain rights. (I'm sure this is especially significant with young women who are taught by a patriarchal society to feel guilty about premarital sex.)

There's a bunch of other stuff here that I find really interesting -- the naturalness of the idea that childbirth is a rightful punishment for having sex, for instance. And, of course, the premise Thomson famously grants -- that the fetus is a person. Maybe we'll get a chance to discuss that next time, because they want to talk with me again tomorrow afternoon.

3 comments:

Brandon said...

The frequency with which young women expressed this view in my ethics class was stunning to me. Pregnancy was either a kind of punishment for sex - you deserve it - or else you at least owed it to the fetus to carry it to term since you are responsible for the consequences of your actions. I was shocked, and am ashamed to say, had a hard time pumping the intuition you were able to pump with your students.

Witt said...

The range of things that most good people will feel bad about, then, is wider than the range of things where they do wrong or violate someone's rights. So -- and this is what I found striking -- it's frighteningly easy to convince good people that they have fewer rights than they do. If you can make them interpret their bad feelings as feelings that they've committed an injustice, you can get them to believe that they -- and others in their position -- lack certain rights.

This reminds me of a related problem, when people think that because they *want* something to happen, there should be a law *requiring* it to happen. E.g. parental consent for abortion. It seems like such a natural intuition to WANT teenagers to talk to their parents about such a life-altering decision. But the ramifications of legally forcing them to do it are pretty serious (and often do not seem to be well understood by the people who support such laws). How do you honor that natural instinct, which is on the whole a pretty good one, while avoiding the use of the law in situations where it is not the right tool for the problem?

In general, I am reluctant to encourage people to override their natural instinct to feel bad about things. That can be extremely corrosive: e.g., the way that insurance company policies are framed around making sure that a driver never admits fault in a car accident, even if she is clearly at fault. That doesn't serve society or the individual driver well.

Rights-based language makes me uneasy because it is such a legalistic and incomplete way to describe the world. Not everything can be solved by analyzing who has which rights.

Neil Sinhababu said...

Pregnancy was either a kind of punishment for sex - you deserve it - or else you at least owed it to the fetus to carry it to term since you are responsible for the consequences of your actions.

The second response seems entirely understandable to me, I guess in the way I've described the students feeling it above. It's the first one that I really don't have a good sense for how to deal with. I really wish I had some way to attack it, because the tendency of girls to punish themselves about sex has always struck me as a really sad thing about the world.

I agree with you, Witt. In large part our best strategy may just be to familiarize people with the idea that mandating certain behaviors may not be the best way of producing them. And as a utilitarian, I'm keenly aware of the ways that excessive attention to rights can prevent good things from happening in the world.

(In the above case, I was assuming lots of the premises of Thomson and the student's position for purposes of argument.)