Recently, Alas, A Blog wrote an article saying that Democrats don’t really care about helping the poor, they only care about increasing government’s ability to take your money. We can prove this, because Republicans consistently give more to charity than Democrats – and because if Democrats really cared about the poor they would stop supporting a welfare system that discourages lifting yourself out of poverty. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd Democrats in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased labyrinthine bureaucracy as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry! That wasn’t it at all. They were saying that civil rights activists don’t really want to prevent hate crimes against Muslims, they only care about supporting terrorism. We can prove this because they seem pretty okay with the tens of thousands of Muslims who are being killed and maimed in wars abroad that they don’t promote any intervention in – and because they refuse to ban Muslim immigration to America, a policy which would decrease hate crimes against Muslims but also decrease the chance of terrorism. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd civil rights activists in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased terrorism as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry again! That wasn’t it either! They were saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses, they just support government coercion of women. We can prove this because they refuse to support contraception, which would decrease the need for fetus-murdering abortions – and because they seem pretty okay with abortion in cases of rape or incest. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd pro-lifers in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased oppression of women as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, still wrong! I’m totally breaking apart here! They were saying that atheists don’t really doubt the existence of God, but they are too proud to worship anything except themselves. We can prove this because atheists sometimes pray for help during extreme emergencies, – and…
No, wait! It turns out it was actually third one after all! The one with the pro-lifers and abortion. Oops. In my defense, I have trouble keeping essentially identical arguments separate from one another. Anyway, it’s called Pro-Lifers Don’t Give A Damn About Fetuses, They Only Care About Coercing Women, and the main points of the argument, in their original form, are as follows:
Birth control, as we’ve seen in this thread, is another example. Free, high-quality birth control has been proven, in both studies and in real-world examples, to massively reduce abortion. If pro-lifers real goal was to prevent as many abortions as possible, and if they really believe that the 1.2 million abortions every year are 1.2 million child murders, then they should be willing to compromise on their opposition to birth control in order to prevent millions of child murders. To say otherwise is to say that being uncompromising on birth control is more important than preventing child murder…
The very common pro-life position, which you can see in dozens of examples of actual pro-life legislation, that raped women should be free to abort, but other women shouldn’t be, makes no logical sense at all if pro-lifers believe that a fetus is morally an innocent human child. No one would say that it’s okay to kill a five-year-old if her father was a rapist. The rape exemption is absurd if the goal of the pro-life movement is to save innocent fetuses; but the rape exemption makes perfect sense if their goal is to target women who choose to have sex.
This thesis in its starkest form says 48% of Americans – 144 million people who are between 45% and 55% women and which includes between 45% and 50% of American women, a group that includes all 26,000 members of Feminists For Life and nearly all the founding mothers of feminism including Mary Wollstonecraft, Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and very ambiguously Susan B. Anthony – pretty much just want women oppressed for the heck of it.
I want to show this thesis is wrong on the object level in two different ways, then move on to showing it’s wrong on the meta-level, then say that even if it did make sense and wasn’t wrong on two levels it should never have been made, then end by beating it up some more.
By the way, I am firmly pro-choice and have been my entire life, so I have no horse in this race except the horse named Principle of Charity, which has lost its past two hundred ten consecutive derbies and is widely suspected of being dead.
Can We Prove Pro-Lifers Don’t Care About Fetuses?
In saying pro-lifers should support contraception, Alas is making exactly the error that The Last Superstition warned against. Ze’s noticing that Christians do things that don’t agree with modern moral philosophy, and so assuming Christians are either stupid or evil, instead of that they have a weird moral philosophy ze’s never heard of.
So instead of excusing pro-lifers, start by tarring them further. They don’t hate women. They don’t love oppression. It’s much worse than that. Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.
Consequentialism is a moral philosophy that says it’s okay to do a lesser evil if it leads to a greater good. I have argued for it at length elsewhere, but one of the reasons I argue for it is that most people don’t believe it. Only about a quarter of philosophers are consequentialists, and all the evidence shows that even fewer ordinary people do. Studies of the famous fat man problem show only 10% of people are willing to kill one person in order to save five others, something a true consequentialist would do in a heartbeat.
One group particularly heinous in their rejection of consequentialism is Christians. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul argues that “One may not do evil that good may come”.
The Christians agree with me, against Alas, that their rejection of consequentialism is fundamental to their rejection of abortion. According to catholicexchange.com:
This summer Catholics celebrate the 44th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae that banned artificial contraception. This encyclical caused a rift that led to the development of a school of moral theology in the church known as Consequentialism. Conseqentialism, which has highly influenced Catholic teaching in our seminaries and universities over the past 40 years, essentially denies objective truth. It has led to what Pope Benedict XVI has called a “dictatorship of relativism”. Many of our so-called Catholic theologians and politicians like Hans Kung, Sister Carol Keehan, former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius are ardent supporters of this nihilistic philosophy. Hardened in their convictions these young turks of Consequentialism are largely responsible for our present culture of death. This culture sanctions everything from contraception to abortion, homosexual activity, sex outside of marriage, divorce, sterilization, in-vitro fertilization, pornography, embryonic stem cell research, euthanasia and even false notions of a just war.
Catholic Exchange may not be an entirely authoritative source, so let’s find someone who is. How ’bout Pope Pius XI (1857 – 1939), who declared:
No reason, however grave, can make what is intrinsically contrary to nature to be in conformity with nature and morally right. And since the conjugal act by its very nature is destined for the begetting of children, those who in exercising it deliberately frustrate its natural power and purpose are acting against nature, and are doing something that is base and intrinsically immoral
Alas‘s argument of “Why don’t Christians promote the lesser evil of contraception in order to fight the greater evil of abortion?” assumes a consequentialist viewpoint. And it is really hard for consequentialists to take non-consequentialists seriously or to realize how earnest they are about their position, but a decade or so fighting this particular battle has convinced me that yes, they are serious and earnest, and no, you can’t just round them off to basically a consequentialist and expect their moral beliefs to make sense.
Now the Pope could be lying, of course. This whole “natural law” thing could just be a sham intended to justify oppression of women. But if so, the Pope is definitely playing the long game, seeing as how it started with Aristotle (4th century BC), reached its zenith with Thomas Aquinas (13th century AD), and has continued through to the present mostly intact, and is the source of religious positions on everything from euthanasia to homosexuality to the afterlife. Once again, if you try to understand Christian moral philosophy without understanding natural law theology, you’re going to have a bad time. I’ve said it, Ozy said it better than me, and Edward Feser said it better than either of us.
I will also add that “lesser evil of contraception” itself assumes a modern, non-Christian moral philosophy. Although I think there’s still some controversy, a lot of the Church seems to line up behind contraception being a mortal sin. That means it is sufficient, in and of itself, to send you to Hell. Someone who lives an otherwise blameless life but uses contraception once will still burn for all eternity if she doesn’t later repent of it.
You can, as I do, think this is stupid. But if so, please localize the stupidity here, and not ten logical steps down the line when the people who believe this make the entire reasonable choice of not being totally gung ho about the thing that sends everyone who uses it to eternal torture.
What about the “people allow abortion in cases of rape” argument? The first important counterargument is that no, a whole lot of people don’t. The Catholic Church, which once again is pretty high up in the fight against abortion and which I am overrepresenting solely because they’re really good at putting their official beliefs down on paper does not:
In Romans 12:21 Paul says that we should not be conquered by evil but that we should conquer evil with good. The act of rape is a grave sin and an injustice that claims too many people, most often women and children, as victims. The Church teaches that victims of rape deserve immediate medical, emotional and spiritual care. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services (#36) states that Catholic healthcare providers have a duty to provide this care and to prevent the contraction of disease or the conception of a child.However, if a child is conceived in a pregnancy caused by rape, then this child is just as innocent and precious as the woman who was victimized and he or she should not be killed because of the actions of the rapist. The Church teaches that through mercy and love, a non-violent solution for both mother and child is far superior to helping a victim of violence (the raped woman) commit violence against her own child through abortion.
And once again, we find this confirmed by the Pope.
As for the people who don’t? I give them the benefit of the doubt. Some people say that some of the normal rights we give criminal suspects – the right to confront their accusers, for example – should be suspended in cases of rape out of deference to the trauma suffered by the victim. Still others challenge the very concept of “innocent until proven guilty” in these sorts of cases and the right to hold normal trials at all, again out of deference to the trauma suffered by the victim. And if some anti-abortion people want to relax their sacred beliefs out of deference to the trauma of people who have been raped, I am totally going to let them do it without attacking them or pillorying them for their kindness or accusing them of secretly hating women (if they do, they are doing a very bad job of it).
But I think most of this is just political compromise anyway. X proposes an anti-abortion bill, Y tries to drum up opposition by saying “But what about rape victims?!” (who are less than one percent of abortions), and X tries to head off the objection and restore support by saying “fine, no abortion for anyone except rape victims”. It’s a good political strategy and it would be surprising if people didn’t use it.
And If So, Where Are The People Who Do Care About Fetuses?
A while back, I identified the noncentral fallacy as my least favorite argument ever. And one of the reasons I hate it is that it’s so common.
“Is a fetus a human being?” is a classic example of the noncentral fallacy. “It’s wrong to murder a human, fetuses are humans, therefore it’s wrong to murder a fetus” is exactly the sort of argument people fall for in droves, even though absent a whole lot of implied logical qualifiers it’s got more holes than the PGA tour.
The abortion issue combines about a dozen of the moral quandaries people are really bad at reasoning about. Just to give one example, if we agree it’s wrong to kill an infant, but the only difference between a fetus and an infant is location (inside vs. outside the womb), why isn’t it wrong to kill a fetus? I think these problems are resolvable, but the burden of proof is on me to show that they are and it hardly seems necessary to look for hidden motives in people who disagree.
Some people bring up the whole parasitic violinist argument, but it misses some important parallels (assume the violinist was only connected to the host because of some choice the host made) and I – and a lot of other pro-choice people – think it’s stupid. This seems like a poor argument to convince the sort of pro-life people who are already biased against it.
So if Alas is right, and pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses – where are all the people who really care about fetuses? In a world where there is a multi-million-person movement of people who get extremely upset that we are killing chickens for food, it would be really weird to find that no one at all has any legitimate qualms about killing millions of what’s basically a smaller, less developed human baby. It’s exactly the sort of moral question that people would end up having wildly divergent views about, and for everyone to settle on one side – some people openly, other people secretly – is such a miracle that if I thought it was true I would immediately drop everything else I was doing, try to figure out why people’s moral reasoning is in sync on that question and no other, and then try to figure out some way to apply this improbable success to all the other moral questions people actually disagree about.
There are quite a few pro-choice people who believe that abortion is morally wrong, but that the government should not ban it. Is it that hard to believe that, given an action many people think is morally wrong but should not be banned, other people with different views on the role of government might say that since it is morally wrong it should be banned? In fact, isn’t the person who says “This is murder, so let’s not do it” a whole lot more honest than the person who says “This is murder, but I think we should continue to permit it anyway”?
In short, in order to believe Alas’ thesis, we would have to accept both that a hundred million pro-lifers who claim they believe in rights for fetuses are lying, and explain the absence of about a hundred million pro-lifers we would expect to find merely by the difficulty of the moral dilemma alone. I don’t think Occam would be a big fan of this.
What Does It Even Mean To Not Really Believe Something?
I still don’t have a good answer to this question. There’s a very simple view in which people who claim to care about fetuses are just lying, in the same way that a student who procrastinates and then says the dog ate her homework is lying. In this model, the people who lovingly place memorials for the unborn in cemeteries may have, on a page of their diary somewhere, deep in a locked cabinet: “Made a beautiful marble statue today in order to divert attention from the fact that I really like coercing women. Hopefully the press will eat it up and buy all this BS about unborn babies. Going to go wave a picture of a bloody dead baby in front of an abortion clinic tomorrow for exactly the same reason.”
I can’t prove this isn’t happening, but it does seem kind of absurd, plus you would expect one or two of these diaries to be discovered, or someone’s private conversation to get leaked, or something like that. As far as I know this has never once happened, even though when politicians are actually lying about their motives we tend to hear about it all the time (eg Nixon’s tapes).
The more complicated view is that the pro-lifers are deceiving everyone, even themselves. But this has its own problems.
It seems likely that everyone in politics is being a bit self-deceptive – this won’t come as a surprise to anyone who reads Robin Hanson. Most people discuss political ideas not in order to help other people, but in order to signal how concerned and intelligent they are, or as part of group bonding rituals. Otherwise they wouldn’t be posting “I HATE ABORTION SO MUCH” on Facebook to see how many “likes” they can get, they’d be out canvassing door-to-door or (even better) just working overtime at their job to donate money to anti-abortion charities without ever mentioning it to anyone. Certainly the average person who puts an “Abortion Stops A Beating Heart” bumper sticker on their car isn’t doing it because they have theory by which their action later results in babies being saved (or women being oppressed, or anything at all happening in the external world). I can even notice this sort of process happening in my own head in real time when I think about efficient charity.
Yet all of these actions manifest on a conscious level as being genuinely concerned about the issue I’m talking about, or putting up a bumper sticker about, or donating money to.
So we have a model of the brain that includes at least two levels: a surface honest level, where you really care about fetuses, and a deep signaling level, where you just want to impress the other people in your church and signal to yourself that you are a compassionate caring person.
I’m not sure how much room that leaves for an intermediate level, accessible neither to your real desires nor to your conscious motives, that wants to oppress women, or what it would mean for such an intermediate level to exist if it had no effects either on your deepest thoughts or on your actions.
One could argue that the historical cause is oppression of women. For example, some claim that one of the reasons cannibis was banned in the United States was that William Randolph Hearst was afraid hemp paper would threaten his investment in the paper industry and so started a moral panic around it. In that case, one might be able to claim concern for the paper industry is the real reason drug warriors oppose marijuana, even though there isn’t any part of their minds which is secretly thinking about paper mills.
But this, too, seems unlikely to me. Opposition to abortion dates back well before government coercion of women could have possibly been an issue, back when women were their husbands’ property and men didn’t need to come up with excuses to treat them poorly. In pre-1900s discourse it was almost always discussed in the same breath as infanticide – see for example the quotes by the early suffragettes above. And, of course, it is implied by exactly the same natural law arguments that apply to non-gendered issues as well like euthanasia (in fact, if I weren’t so logorrheic I probably could replace this entire article with “Compare opposition to abortion and opposition to euthanasia, draw relevant conclusions”. Too late.)
So I think claims like “pro-lifers really want to control women” displays way too little philosophical curiosity about what exactly “really want” is supposed to mean.
Beware Genetic Fallacy
At the beginning of this post, I gave four examples of claims that group X doesn’t really believe position Y that they claim to believe. These sorts of arguments are pretty common in politics, which is too bad because they’re all just the genetic fallacy.
Even if we could prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that every single pro-lifer was only in it for the misogyny, that wouldn’t affect the validity of pro-life arguments one bit. If abortion is a form of murder equal in moral culpability to murder of the born, then even if every other person in the world who holds the position is a jerk, we shouldn’t do it.
I’m pushing this point in order to propose at least the partial elimination of this form of argument. It doesn’t address the main point at hand – that is, whether the government should ban abortion. It makes the debate much nastier – instead of attacking opponents’ ideas, suddenly we’re launching personal attacks into their moral character while leaving their ideas alone. It’s totally unsolvable one way or the other – we can’t stick a probe in pro-lifers’ minds and read off their true values. And since people, religious or not, aren’t actually that good at responding to insults by meekly turning the other cheek, it’ll probably lead to a never-too-difficult response in kind (“pro-choicers don’t really care about women, they just want a culture of total moral relativism and to chip away at respect for the sanctity of life”). It encourages the style of politics where your enemies are innately evil and so you don’t have to second-guess yourself or seek compromise with them.
I’m not saying it doesn’t sometimes have value. I think a good explanation of how signaling behavior changes people’s thought processes can help them tease out which of their views are entirely due to signaling, and so consider changing them. This would probably take the form of “You don’t really believe X, you’re just saying that to signal Y”. But this is both a bit more philosophically sophisticated than the “pro-lifers just hate women” argument, and – crucially – is part of a general insight about human nature rather than a coincidental insight that the people you’re opposed to just happen to be jerks.
It seems unlikely that the people at the Genocide Awareness Project don’t care about fetuses and want to keep women down (especially since two of its directors are women). It seems unlikely that the huge freak-out across the right-wing blogosphere about the Kermit Gosnell trial was because Gosnell might in some way have helped women escape government coercion. It seems unlikely that the bloggers I really know and like who consistently oppose abortion for principled reasons, like Elizabeth Scalia, are just trying to punish women for having sex.
And it seems unlikely that a group of millions of people with a two thousand year old moral tradition telling them to oppose abortion, and a known history of having cognitive biases that would cause them to hate abortion, actually are lying and hate abortion for a totally different reason that not one of them has ever secretly let slip, and which is so far from normal human morality that it would require them to be the villains of their own life stories, at the same time that millions of people who actually worry about abortion are mysteriously AWOL.
So at the risk of beating a dead horse…PRINCIPLE OF CHARITY, PEOPLE!
Alas ends with the following relatively gloomy pronouncement:
If what we have is two sides, one of which has the policy goal “reproductive freedom for women,’ the other of which has the policy goal “women shouldn’t ever choose to have sex, but if they do they should be forced to give birth,” then there is no possible compromise.
But I’m more optimistic! If you debate pro-lifers on the object-level issues like “Does a woman’s right to privacy outweigh a fetus’ right to life” or some other horrible muddled version of the question like that, then no, you will never be able to make progress.
But if you devote yourself to the actual substantive disagreement – which is on the level of what meta-ethics to use or maybe even further back – then you can either change some minds or, at the very least “be confused on a higher level and about more important things”. This continues to be my strategy and I’m pretty happy with how it’s worked out.
EDIT: Some people in the comments have steelmanned the original objection to “Pro-lifers just want to force women who have sex to bear the consequences for their supposed misdeeds”. This sounds both more plausible than the original and, not coincidentally, less outrageous.
But analyzing it more closely, it turns into pretty much the same as the standard argument pro-lifers endorse. We usually agree that people should bear the consequences of what they do. For example, if someone spends money rashly and then goes bankrupt, this is the natural order of things. We also agree that if there’s some “out” that helps them avoid those consequences, that is good – for example, if they can take a new job that earns them more money, we are happy they managed to avoid bankruptcy. But if that “out” hurts other people, we tend to go back to thinking they should bear the consequences of their own action – for example, if taxpayers have to bail out an irresponsible corporation, we’d rather the corporation bears the consequences of its irresponsibility than the taxpayer, even if the bailout could save the corporation.
The pro-lifers seem to be doing much the same thing. Sometimes sex has unwanted consequences. There’s a convenient way to avoid those consequences – abortion – which would be very helpful. But if that convenient way to avoid the consequences hurts another person – the fetus – then we’re back into “take the consequences of your own action” mode.
So while I agree there is a certain element of “you must bear the consequences of your own action” going on here, I don’t think it is opposed to claiming the main issue is the rights of the fetus, nor that the pro-lifers are particularly denying it, nor that it’s anything especially evil.
EDIT 2: Was just reminded that I was against abortion (but pro-contraception) for a few years as a teenager, and it definitely felt like I was really concerned about fetuses. Then I got a better understanding of noncentral fallacy and figured out better tools to use on the problem of fetuses’ moral value and went back to being pro-choice.
EDIT 3: Joe in the comments finds a study that casts doubt on the claim that contraception decreases abortion rate using the Peltzman effect. An article on Patheos makes the same claim at much more length, showing that in most countries, increased availability of contraception correlates with increased abortion rates. There are controlled, experimental studies tend to show that providing free contraceptives decreases abortion rate, but Gilbert casts serious doubt on one Probably needs some more investigation.