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.


Dennis said...

I'm depressingly mathematical; on the other hand, I may be better prepared to come up with a correct answer on this. It's more than possible, while still admitting a total order on moral intuitions, to think that some things are simply infinitely worse or better than others (provided that you're not a consequentially-inclined utilitarian like Neil). I'm inclined to think that, relative to most actions, abortion is only infinitesimally bad -- that is, I think it's intuitively obvious to most pro-choicers that (abortion) is worse than (no abortion), but also that (a million, a billion, whatever abortions) is worse than (one murder). In addition, there's a question of whether to interpret "morally acceptable" as equal to "morally neutral." I would say these aren't the same, as we might imagine minor slights, for instance, as okay and yet bad. So to say "abortion is bad" isn't quite incompatible with "many abortions are bad," or even "murder (say) is worse than any number of abortions."

I would simply say that it's not incoherent to suspect that something is okay and yet not neutral. But yeah.

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.

Dennis said...

In my last comment, please read the word "not" before "worse than (one murder)." The example doesn't really make sense otherwise...

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.

Justin said...

It might be possible to clarify some of the issues involved by filling out the story a little. Let Kate be the name of the woman who has the 87 abortions. Here are some pertinent facts about Kate:

1.) She especially dislikes the negative side effects of taking the pill -- much more than the average woman does.
2.) She finds sex with a condom especially uncomfortable.
3.) Kate's lovelife consists of a sequence of fairly long-term monogamous relationships, and she takes special precautions (e.g., AIDS tests) to make sure she doesn't get any STDs.
4.) She has a good friend Sue who can give her all the abortions she wants for free.

In light of all this, Kate decides that abortion is her preferred method of birth control. This is how she comes to have her 87 abortions.

By stipulation, then, the 87 abortions provide no economic problems for Kate. Also, it at least isn't obvious to me that Kate must have "psychological problems". It's not that she keeps getting abortions because she keeps putting herself at risk. Still, I have the lingering intuition that there is something not good about what Kate is doing.

This seems to me unlike the porn case. Someone who watches "too much" porn is making a life decision reflecting values I don't share. What do Kate's 87 abortions reflect? The fact that she has had sex at least 87 times in her life? That doesn't bother me at all. Consider Sue, Kate's friend, who on 87 separate occasions uses a condom that prevents what would have been a pregnancy. I have no intuition that Sue is doing something the slightest bit wrong.

Here is one way my intuitions could be coherent. Suppose abortion is .02 wrong. Then having 1 abortion is just barely bad, while having 87 abortions is a whopping 1.74 units of badness. That would explain my reactions to questions 1 and 2 in the original post.

But if this is what my intuitions are responding to, I don't think it shows my intuitions are actually coherent after all. Because I also have the intuition that abortion is either really bad (if it's killing a person) or else it's not bad at all (if it's not) -- there's no way possible that abortion could be just a little bit bad. And this all-or-nothing intuition that I have can't be squared with the .02 units of badness proposal. It might be possible to work out a philosophy according to which abortion is .02 bad, but I would want to reject any such philosophy.

Also, consider this. If 1 abortion is .02 bad, then 87 abortions by 87 separate women should also add up to 1.74 badness units. But the fact that, say, 87 women across a certain area had an abortion on Monday doesn't get my intuition going in the same way Kate did.

Similar remarks would apply to an account that tried to explain my intuitions in terms of risk. Maybe there's a .02 subjective probability that something really bad (1 unit) happens when someone has an abortion and a .98 subjective probability that nothing bad at all (0 units) happens then. I don't want to grant this, though, because I want to grant pro-lifers that if there's a real risk that something horrible is happening with abortion, the prudent public policy would be to eliminate that risk.

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.

Justin said...

My comments about risk at the end of my previous post were sort of meant to apply to an explanation like yours, but let me say more here.

By risk, I mean the chance that something bad is happening with an abortion. There's a difference between the following two things: (a) there's a 100% chance that abortion is a little bad, .02 units of bad, say; and (b) there's a 2% chance that abortion is very bad, 1 unit of bad, say. (a) doesn't reall involve risk -- if you have an abortion, it's a sure thing you're doing something a little bad. (b) inovlves risk -- if you have an abortion, you're probably not doing anything bad, but there's a slight chance you are. In my previous post I focused on (a) cases; here I want to focus on (b) cases.

(BTW: this talk of units of badness isn't meant too seriously. It's just a way to get clear on our intuitive thought that some bad things are worse than others.)

Risk might factor in here in 2 different ways. First, Kate's assessment of risk might be relevant to my intuitions about whether she's done something bad. If Kate thinks that with each abortion she's taking the chance of killing a person, and yet she has the 87 abortions anyway, then that might explain why my intuitions on the original case go as they do. Small risks can add up into big risks -- it's one thing to play Russian roulette once, another thing to plan on playing Russian roulette 87 times.

But, I don't think my intuitions in Kate's case are sensitive to *her* assessment of risk. Even if I imagine that Kate is completely convinced that abortion is okay -- there's no risk at all by her lights -- I still have the intuition that there's something wrong.

Here's the second way risk might factor in: *I* might view abortion as risky, regardless of what Kate thinks. If so, this could explain my intuitions: I regard 1 risk of this sort as acceptable, but 87 risks are too many.

It may be that this sort of risk assessment is what my intuitions are responding to. But then I've got some problems. I would be willing to grant that if abortion genuinely involved the risk that we're killing people, it shouldn't be allowed. Or, maybe let me weaken that: if there is such a risk, I at least don't think it's *obvious* it should be allowed. But as a matter of fact I do think it's pretty obvious that abortion should be allowed. So, if what my intuitions are responding to is an assessment of risk, I worry that they don't cohere with other things I believe about abortion.