Saturday, September 24, 2005

Justin is incoherent, but also really smart

[Here's Justin's comment on my parental consent post. I wanted to put it up here just to make sure that nobody missed it because of troll infestation at Ezra's. Again, the words are Justin's not mine, which is why I'm referred to in the 3rd person.]

I like the argument.

I strongly suspect that the general population's moral intuitions about abortion and what should and shouldn't be legally allowed are something of a mess. Here's a question sequence I've asked students:

#1) Is abortion morally wrong?

Ignoring those who say yes, for those who say no consider the next question...

#2) Imagine a woman who has 87 abortions over the course of her lifetime. She has each one with complete indifference -- they don't give her pause for thought, much less any regret. Admittedly, this isn't very cost efficient for her, and the abortions don't protect her from STDs, but for whatever reason abortion is her favored method of birth control. Is this woman doing anything morally wrong?

Many people who confidently say 'no' to #1 feel at least some inclination to say 'yes' to #2. In fact, my own unreflective intuitions (but not my considered judgment) go this way. But, it would seem, this is incoherent. If abortion really is morally neutral (a 0 on the moral ledger rather than a -10), then a whole bunch of it should be morally neutral too (37 x 0 = 0). So, if you're okay with abortion, as I am, it seems that you should be okay with the woman in #2 too. But again, I find that my intuitions just don't want to point this way.

Related to this point, if abortion is genuinely morally permissible, then there is no *moral* reason that we should want abortion to be rare. There may be financial reasons (e.g., abortions are expensive) and there may be psychological reasons (e.g., even though abortions are morally permissible, people have a hard time allowing this point to fully sink in, and so they have hangups) to want abortion to be rare. But, from a moral perspective, we shouldn't really prefer a country where abortion is rare to a country where it's extraordinarily abundant.

Public polls on where people stand on abortion -- for X, against Y, etc. -- seem to me to reflect incoherence. That is, they don't reflect a carefully worked out and subtle view which could justify how you could be in favor of X but against Y. What they reflect is a deep underlying incoherence accordin to which abortion is sorta okay and sorta not.

Views on parental consent laws are, I think, a case in point. If abortion is genuinely bad, then parental consent should be irrelevant -- parental consent can't make an immoral action moral. On the other hand, if abortion isn't bad, then Neil's sort of reasoning seems good to me. It's plausible to me that the usual motivation for parental consent doesn't generally apply in abortion cases or, if anything, applies in the opposite direction of how the laws actually go (as Neil argues).

Still, at a gut level, Neil's argument feels "glib", like it's missing the deep point here. At least in my own case, though, I suspect that this intuitive reaction to the argument should be ignored. My intuitions here ought to be rejected, just as my intutions that there's something wrong with the woman in #2 above ought to be rejected. I suspect that those intuitions of mine which speak against Neil's argument aren't really responding to some deep and good considerations which speak in favor of parental consent while acknowledging that abortion per se is morally permissible. I suspect that what my intuitions are responding to is an underlying incoherence I have on abortion.


Brandon said...

Saying "Abortion is morally permissible" to question 1 and "87 abortions is morally dubious" to question 2 seems unproblematic to me. It's not a matter of having incoherent beliefs if "morally permissible" is not the same as "morally neutral," as Dennis says. Compare to:

1) Is viewing pornography morally permissible?

I think most of us lefties (barring the occassional anti-porn feminist) would say it is. But what about...

2) Is viewing porn for hours on end on a daily basis morally permissible?

Suddenly it seems a little glib to say, "Sure!" At least to me. The reason for that, I think, is that porn is sort of morally dubious, in the same way that abortion is morally dubious. For one, both phenomena can be symptomatic of other harms - a woman having sex in a context where she is unwilling or unable to protect herself from pregnancy in a way that is much less invasive and costly than abortion is liable to be in other trouble besides. Similarly, the separation that porn fosters between sex and love is (to me) morally dubious. The objectification of women in porn is also a serious problem. And of course the (decreasing, supposedly) danger of the "porn star" lifestyle - drug abuse, weird sexist relationships, etc. Watching too much porn, like having too many abortions, is either a symptom or a cause of a kind of dehumanization that is not necessarily manifest or causally efficient in the case of the occassional porn watcher or the one-time aborter.

This will not do much for my philosophy cred, but Stanley Cavell has a good argument about this that I'll try to post here later.

Brandon said...

So, basically, the key is that abortion itself isn't a grave moral wrong, but it's vaguely morally dubious because of what it can be symptomatic of, and what it can cause.

I think this is true of all sorts of things that socially liberal folks think are permissible and yet dubious. Drug use, alcohol use, profanity, and on and on. My theory, basically, is that all these things are fine if done in the right way at the right time, but doing them very often is either a symptom or a cause of a graver harm.

Conservatives think we are "fallen" and so believe that the slightest dabbling with these things will send us on down the spiral. Liberals have a rosier picture of human nature, so we allow people to dabble in these things so long as they can keep it under control.

Brandon said...

Well, shit - I just read Dadahead's comment, which stole the thunder of my example. But where he just laid out the hypothetical, I think I've explained what's wrong with it.

wRog said...

Sorry, it's a stupid argument. You lose the moment you accept the pro-lifers' framing of the question:

"Is abortion morally wrong?"

as if there's only one kind of abortion, and the term of pregnancy (1 week vs. 40 weeks) doesn't matter in the slightest.

And sure, let's make it as a yes-or-no question. Are you still beating your wife?

Adding in mathematical/logical fallacies (37 abortions bad => 1 abortion bad -- try the same argument with Tylenol and see how far you get...) just makes it all the more absurd.

Mary said...

This is the way I've worked it out in my head. Abortion should be legal.However, I'm pretty sure I would not have had one had I ever been in a position to need to consider it because I would have probably chosen one of the other two options...(and probably would had enough social support to do so.)

However, I believe fetal life is life, and it's a morally slippery slope. As fetal development progresses over nine months, the moral dubiousness of this choice increases.

However, I don't know any other woman's (or man's) circumstances, and this is not my moral choice to make for them. This sounds crass,I guess, but life outside the womb trumps fetal life.

Someone who had a lot of abortions would demonstrate an increasing and disturbing disrespect and disregard for life, in my mind, as well as disrespect and disregard for the power of her own body. One's body's ability to conceive a life should be treated with respect and awe. (This is all assuming a child was conceived in a consensual sexual relationship. In rape or incest, the idea of life outside the womb trumping fetal life comes into play.)

I know this is probably philosophically weak and incoherent, but trying to make a philosophical either/or choice kind of strikes me as the same thing some religions try to do.

And I have mixed feelings about parental consent laws, more so since I became a parent, as others have reported. I guess I would go with the option that keeps more (born) women alive.

Blue said...

You know me Neil, I think far too much political dialogue seems to be deontics trying to use cosnequentialist arguments to advance their goals. It seems that relatively few people view abortion in a pragmatic light, and are generally just trying to support their principle (young male liberal bloggers may be a significant exception).

So while you make a worthwhile rebuttal to a certain consequentialist point, one knows that your opponents won't be convinced, and at the very best will fall back to "but you're killing babies!", which doesn't make the world a better place.

BTW: I disagree with the pron example, because what you said was indistinguishable from an overdose of porn being bad because it crowds out other activities and desires, which we know is wrong for other reasons. Whether or not, absent all other things, a lot of abortions or a lot of porn is bad to a pro-choicer / pro-first-amendment-er, has to be answered without reference to being a social deviant.

Blue said...

PS: "relatively few outspoken people". A lot of people don't care that much about abortion as an issue, but the elites who talk about disproportionately do.

Mary said...

I don't understand the philosophical terminology, but this is the consequence that I fear: I believe abortion is morally dubious, but if it is not legal, then some women will be hurt or killed by unsafe, illegal abortions performed by themselves or people acting underground, as happened before Roe v. Wade. This is a consequence that is less preferable to me than some women having an abortion. Safe, legal, rare is preferable to unsafe and illegal, or safe, legal, and common.

Neil Sinhababu said...

That's what we in the business call a consequentialist argument, Mary, and I think it's a good one. Whatever the situation is regarding women's rights, the consequences of banning abortion include a whole lot of suffering and death through unsafe abortions, and this is an pretty huge harm. I don't know exactly how many women who'd have legal abortions would be stopped by a ban. Given what teenage motherhood can do to one's life, it's reasonable to think that lots of young women would go for unsafe illegal abortions.

Regarding your earlier post, one thing that I'd like to learn about fetal development is the time at which various mental attributes develop. According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Assn, for instance, the brain wiring that allows for experiences of pain only appears in the 7th month. Given my views on the moral significance of pain, I'm willing to say that there's nothing wrong with an abortion before that point. Other people with different moral views would do well to figure out when the mental attributes they care about start to pop up. I'm thinking that when I run my intro-applied-ethics classes, I'll make sure to make everyone aware of the basic facts of fetal development.

Neil Sinhababu said...

I'm taking my comment from Ezra's and reposting it here. The example under consideration there shifted from Kate of the 87 abortions to a woman who tries to have an abortion in each of the 50 states, but it's pretty much the same for the issues at stake here. Justin, does this constitute a sufficient explaining-away of your intuition? Could the illusion discussed herein be at the root of the incoherence you're talking about?


When we consider the person who's trying to have an abortion in each of the 50 states, we consider her as someone who shares our mild but deep-seated, irrational uncertainty about the status of the fetus. To some extent, we imagine her being less than 100% certain that she's doing harm to no one. Shouldn't she at least feel the pull of illusion on her, telling her that something in a worrisome Sorites relation to a person is deep inside her?

If this illusion grips you at all, and if natural sympathy operates within you, you'll feel some concern about the fate of the fetus. Maybe not enough to dissuade you from having one abortion, but perhaps enough to dissuade you from doing the 50 states abortion tour. The analogy I'd make is to misogynistic porn that you can get for free. You're not supporting the industry, because you're not paying for it. So you're not causing any evils. But this just isn't the kind of thing that a nice person feels totally okay about getting into. Something in you ought to rebel against it.

For me, the problems go away when I force myself to imagine the abortion tourist being completely clearheaded about the fact that the fetus has no moral status. One ought at least to cringe at illusory evil, but when even illusion is gone there is nothing to cringe at. When I imagine her regarding a first-trimester abortion as equivalent to liposuction (which I think is the right way to look at it), with no illusion whatsoever that anything more is going on, I feel no disapprobation at all.