Fetal Attraction: Abortion and the Principle of Charity

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.

164 thoughts on “Fetal Attraction: Abortion and the Principle of Charity

  1. Michael Dickens

    Fantastic article overall.

    I don’t hear many people claim that pro-lifers in general hate women. I much more frequently hear the claim that male Republican politicians want to restrict women’s rights. It seems at least somewhat more plausible that a small subset of anti-abortion individuals would oppose abortion simply for misogynistic reasons.

    I think some of the counter-arguments you raise can be applied here: given that so many male Republican politicians grew up in traditionalist Christian communities, we would expect them to oppose abortion for this reason alone. Still, I know a fair number of women who believe that the majority of male Republicans are incurably sexist, and this reasoning seems too weak to persuade them.

  2. Pingback: Why I’m not quite a consequentialist (a reply to Scott)

  3. Chris Hallquist

    FWIW, Libby Anne, former pro-life fundamentalist Christian and one of my fellow bloggers on the Patheos atheist portal, has argued at considerable length that while most pro-lifers really do believe the “saving babies” argument, there is a strong undercurrent of wanting to control women, and in fact to a significant extent that’s how the movement got started:


    Also, I really need to write another post on consequentialism.

  4. Pingback: Literally Inconceivable: Contraceptives And Abortion Rates | Slate Star Codex

  5. Madeleine Ball

    I’m not a fan of the fat man variant of the trolley problem as any sort of insight into people’s ethical behavior. A fat person isn’t going to slow a trolley down in any appreciable sense. I don’t think telling people to believe otherwise for the purposes of a thought experiment is going to change their instinctive response.

    In other words, I think they don’t want to push the guy because their subconscious is thinking, “Dude, no way is a fat dude going to stop a trolley. Nothing light enough for me to push off a bridge is heavy enough to stop that damn trolley.”

  6. Patrick

    The point where the principle of charity switches from the idea that you should address the best arguments for a proposition before rejecting it, to the idea that we should assume that people actually hold good faith belief in those propositions, is the point where we find out just how hard it is to be a Bayesian.

  7. Damien

    I’ve been dipping in at Bleeding Heart Libertarians again. Statements that liberals don’t really care about the poor, just about feeling good or increasing the size of government, aren’t particularly rare there. “You can tell because they keep pushing policies that make things worse for the poor, for the past 100 years.”

    I used to be a pretty deontological libertarian, Non-Coercion Principle and all. I don’t think I was dishonest back then, just stupidly caught up in theory and excessively forgiving of the flaws which I knew about.

  8. Douglas Knight

    Edit 3: Joe in the comments finds a study that casts doubt on the claim that contraception decreases abortion rate using the Peltzman effect.

    That’s a confusing phrasing. It implies that he is arguing against the Peltzman explanation. I suggest you drop the “using the Peltzman effect” or replace it with a complete sentence, like “He suggests risk compensation causes the opposite effect.”

  9. amuchmoreexotic

    Two more reasons why anti-abortionists don’t “really” think a fetus is a person:

    1. If you ask anti-abortion demonstrators what punishment women should receive for having abortions, they get confused, even though by their professed beliefs it should obviously be the prison sentence for murder.

    2. The kind of people who oppose abortion also usually oppose state welfare or benefit payments to help women raise their children. You could argue that using contraception to reduce abortions is consequentialist thinking, or just ineffective, but why would anyone who genuinely thinks abortion is murder not want the state to pay for women to raise their children, so the women aren’t tempted to resort to abortion?

    For these reasons, it seems clear to me that opposition to abortion is motivated mainly by a primitive and messed-up hatred and fear of sexual pleasure. I also estimate that Elizabeth Scalia has had 5 (±2.3, P=0.95) abortions.

    1. Randy M

      “1. If you ask anti-abortion demonstrators what punishment women should receive for having abortions, they get confused, even though by their professed beliefs it should obviously be the prison sentence for murder.”

      Same as allowing for rape exceptions–political compromise.

      “but why would anyone who genuinely thinks abortion is murder not want the state to pay for women to raise their children, so the women aren’t tempted to resort to abortion?”
      Because welfare dependancy is not particularly good for people anyway. Pro-life people do support adoption, however, so that someone (preferably without such poor impulse control, perhaps) can raise the child.

      1. Barry Deutsch

        Same as allowing for rape exceptions–political compromise.

        But if political compromise is an acceptable reason to let murderers – some of them mass murderers! – go free, then why is political compromise on using birth control so completely out of the question?

        1. Randy M

          Out of the question? I don’t support, and suspect few do, making contraceptives illegal.
          Pro-life doesn’t mean anti contraceptive, and even being both doesn’t mean thinking both should be the same state of legality.

        2. Randy M

          Actually, that’s a new way of looking at subsidized contraception to me. It’s rather entangled with several issues that are hard to all discuss in this buggy comment box (maybe just with IE?), such as tolerating a vice vs subsidizing a vice (both consequentialsist and purity type arguements could be made), the brokeness of the federal governemnt, influencing a culture and other side effects of officially encouraging contraceptive use, and the negative effects of increasingly paternalistic government policy (ie, contraceptives are not really all that expensive AND are offered free at many semi-private enterprises already).
          I would say if this is shown to have a significant effect, it would probably be worthwhile–though note that governement forcing private ensurers to cover it is a different matter.

      2. amuchmoreexotic

        Surely welfare dependency is better than being aborted, which is the likely alternative, especially at the moment when there aren’t enough jobs available.

        Also, it’s interesting that you think that the archetypal woman who needs an abortion would have “poor impulse control” rather than be a victim of contraceptive failure, or the partner of a man who got cold feet when it came to having a baby, or a rape victim. I mean, I don’t care about blastocyst rights so I think poor impulse control is a totally acceptable reason to have an abortion, but it’s just more evidence for the “woman-punishing” theory of the pro-life side’s true motivation.

        Since character traits like impulse control are largely hereditary, and not that affected by parenting style, is it really such a good idea from your point of view to allow the children of sluts with poor impulse control to live and be adopted? They will probably just go on to have more disgusting, impulsive, libertine sex and abortions.

        1. Randy M

          “Also, it’s interesting that you think that the archetypal woman who needs an abortion would have “poor impulse control” rather than be a victim of contraceptive failure, or the partner of a man who got cold feet when it came to having a baby, or a rape victim.”
          Well, I am rather intriguing.
          “Since character traits like impulse control are largely hereditary, and not that affected by parenting style, is it really such a good idea from your point of view to allow the children of sluts with poor impulse control to live and be adopted?”
          I consider every person to be made in the image of God, good genes or demonstrably bad parenting notwithstanding, so yes.

  10. Emily

    When a small group of people (and not a random small group, but one selected for their high likelihood of future unplanned pregnancies) are given access to free contraceptives, this makes them less likely to have abortions. But you didn’t change overall social norms by giving them contraceptives: the social norms already were what they were. So this does not speak to what happens access to contraceptives/norms around contraceptives change in a society. These are two totally separate things. Unfortunately, it’s going to be pretty hard to test that in a rigorous way.

    1. Mary

      Might make them less likely. They are, after all, the category of people least likely to use contraception in a reliable and consistent manner, so it’s not sure.

      1. Emily

        I was not being clear: this is a reference to the study linked to in Edit 3. Absent empirical evidence on the subject, I would not have an opinion on this.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      Well, Gilbert’s cast some pretty strong doubt on that study earlier. But I would expect that if the mechanism is risk compensation, the few people who got the contraceptives would say “Oh, good, I’m not at risk anymore” and have more sex.

      1. Emily

        I think our views about how risky activities are is based not just on the actual risk but based on the perception of the risk in the culture we’re in. I posit that for this group, getting on birth control caused a smaller perceptual change compared to the actual change, because the perception is based both on their actual risk and on general impressions of the riskiness of various types of sex acts within their culture.

  11. Randy M

    Coming into this late, I don’t know if I’ll say anything that hasn’t been said, but a tangential point springs to mind on this good post (and I’ll even try to apply the lesson on causes that I disagree with 😉 )
    “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 ”

    Really? Cause here’s a simple theory:

    Politicians and even voters are unlikely to support less popular causes;
    If I help popularize this cause, it may get more support by people who can make a genuine difference in law;
    Or if not cause someone to have second thoughts about actions they were going to take personally who may have been on the fence.

    Given the reasonableness of this theory, I think it could be granted at least equal motivational status as signalling.

  12. MugaSofer

    “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.”

    As a teenager who’s against abortion but pro-contraception, have you considered posting on the arguments that convinced you?

  13. Steve

    > 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.

    Note that “going bankrupt” *is* an “out” which hurts other people–you avoid debtor’s prison by letting your current assets be administered by someone else, usually leaving the holders of your debt with any quantity from “a small fraction of what they lent you” to “nothing at all.”

    However, I don’t think this means pro-lifers believe fetuses have more rights than lenders; I just thought it was interesting to add.

    1. houseboatonstyx

      A better example might be, if you’re a police officer in a heavy police car with a push-bar on it, and you observe an obviously badly maintained car lose a wheel and veer toward an embankment above a crowded beach, do you think, “Well, he didn’t maintain his car, so he should sufffer the consequence of his action”? Or do you think about the innocent people on the beach who will be injured if his car falls on them?

  14. Rory Judith

    While I agree with the other arguments made in the post, it seems to me that there’s a fairly plausible way to get around the problem of multiple layers of motivation, namely by arguing that while their explicit motivation is care for the foetuses and their actual motivation is signalling, they are less concerned with signalling care for foetuses than lack of concern for women (“hate” being arguably more accurate than “lack of concern” in describing this motivation as the best way to signal a lack of concern someone is to actively attempt to hurt them, rather than to merely not go out of one’s way to help them, thus making it behave more like hatred than actual lack of concern). By this hypothesis, pro-choicers are members of communities where feminism is unpopular and are attempting to make it clear that they are not feminist by pursuing goals a feminist would not pursue, which would mean pursuing goals which hurt women. Thus while hurting women would not be their purported goal (since that wouldn’t make them popular in any community) or their actual goal (which would still be the aproval of their community), they would pursue goals which hurt women while maintaining plausible deniability that this was their motivation in much the same way and to a similar extent as political activists pursue the causes that those around them consider virtuous.
    While the other arguments you’ve presented still show that this hypothesis is highly uncharitable and is irrelevant to the issue of whether abortion is actually moral, I do think it is plausible on account having been part of other communities in which placing a low value on certain things which noone actually considered bad was high-status enough that avoiding these things was, provided one had an excuse, high-status. So while there’s no reason to think this is what’s happening here, I do think it’s meaningful to talk about a political movement “realy wanting” something which noone in it claims to want, even if its members are mainly motivated by signaling.

    1. houseboatonstyx

      I think there’s another possible middle position that’s not being mentioned. Some of us animal rights supporters will donate time and money to stop experiments on lab rats, but will not donate to save free rats from natural dangers in the wild (even if the natural dangers involved suffering equal to that of captivity etc).

      So you might say we are not really concerned about rats themselves. But it would be jumping too far to say we really hate or want to oppress scientists.

    2. Randy M

      If that’s what you want to tell yourself. It could also be that feminism’s chosen association with abortion is what animates anti-feminism more than being what motivates anti-abortion. ie, “I don’t hate abortion because women want it, I ‘hate women’ because they support abortion.”

      (I do not hate women or think anti abortion people generally tend to).

      1. Rory Judith

        I was not claiming that they did, only arguing that the concept was meaningful. As I said, Scott’s argument still shows that the position is uncharitable, dubious and unproductive, and I was not claiming that it was more likely than the alternative you suggest. I am not “telling myself” that anyone hates women, only that, contrary to what Scott implies in “what does it mean to really believe something”, a claim that a political movement “really believe” something they deny can be defined in a plausible way. I was only talking about the specific claim that pro-lifers hate women because it was the claim in regards to which the meaningfulness of this concept was being discussed, not out of any particular attatchment to the claim.

  15. Gilbert

    OK, while I’m already embarrassing myself with multiple comments in a row that could have been unified, third point:
    Suppose someone has a few weeks to live and will spend them in terrible pain. But also suppose they are opposed to euthanasia for reasons you consider dumb. Is it OK to kill them without discussing it with them beforehand?

    The not telling them part would seem to make the possible consequentialist objections non-central, and the Dutch have actually gone there in practice. But I’m kinda hoping you still have enough instinctive horror of that scenario to count it as evidence against the consequentialist-central mode of moral reasoning.

    1. MugaSofer

      While this is a counterfactual – I’m opposed to euthanasia, generally speaking – I think I would tell them they were going to die anyway, then kill them when they had made their peace and so on.

      1. Gilbert

        From my Christian standpoint I see why this would be slightly less evil than killing them without telling them.

        But here I’m trying a reductio against the consequentialst-central view of morality. And on that view telling someone you’ll kill them in violation of their values looks like an additional evil beyond actually doing it. So basically I’m specifying not telling them to take away the possible excuse that their mistaken view that they will be a victim of terrible evil counts as a bad consequence for consequentialism purposes.

        1. MugaSofer

          Oh, indeed. I meant decieving them into thinking they were going to die naturally.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      No, because I’m a preference utilitarian rather than a hedonic utilitarian. See 5.3 here.

      1. Roman Davis

        I think the way the question is posed is that you think that they would prefer to be dead, they just don’t know better. That’s the way, I interpreted it, anyway. In which case, killing them might be the right thing, but I’d be hard pressed to support legislation to make it legal.

        1. Berry

          An ideal, unbiased and perfect information version of themselves would want them to be euthanised, etc…

        2. Scott Alexander Post author

          Oh, I see.

          I notice that if the situation could just as easily be reversed. I could be dying of a terminal disease, insisting I wanted euthanasia, and someone else could be telling me they were actually quite sure they were smarter than I am and if I were as clever as they my preferences would be against euthanasia just like they were.

          So in a sort of rule utilitarian way, in order to not have this situation where anyone in power can enforce their preferences on anyone not in power just because (like everyone) they think they’re right and the other person is wrong, I would have to reject my ability to “interpret” this other person’s preferences in that way.

          If I somehow were told by God or something as a direct revelation from on high that yes, this person if they were smarter really would prefer euthanasia, that might be a different situation. The same might be true of some sort of extremely well-researched and well-coordinated institution that makes decisions like this (I’m thinking of an analogy to the point about why stealing is wrong but taxes are okay; in reality I would probably reject letting such an institution exist).

          There’s also a much less philosophical reason for my willingness to let the person keep suffering – if they continue rejecting euthanasia, that places a limit on how much suffering they can actually be in. If you remove that – let’s say the person has lost the ability to communicate, but that their last wish (before actually experiencing the pain involved) was not to be euthanized, it would be a much scarier situation, and although I would probably comply with their wishes based on the principle mentioned above I would also be traumatized for life by having to make that moral decision.

        3. MugaSofer

          “I notice that if the situation could just as easily be reversed. I could be dying of a terminal disease, insisting I wanted euthanasia, and someone else could be telling me they were actually quite sure they were smarter than I am and if I were as clever as they my preferences would be against euthanasia just like they were.”

          Shouldn’t you believe them, if they’re actually smarter than you? This seems to assume they’re wrong, which is kind of cheating, isn’t it?

          I mean, when someone tells their child they can’t have all the sweeties, we don’t compare it to a passing Hindu slapping your burger out of your hand.

      2. Gilbert

        My point here is that this would seem like a very noncentral case of preference-violation. Most people really dislike their preferences having been violated, but this person wouldn’t be around to dislike it. And freedom does seem to be good for some vague kind of flourishing, but this person won’t flourish either way. I could also specify that they are sleeping right now, so it’s really about preferences they theoretically could have at some later date, kinda like with abortion.

        Also, unless you believe in some kind of dignity not related to abilities, this would seem like a very noncentral case of human preferences. A human in lots of pain doesn’t have much more abstract thought than a dog in lots of pain.

  16. Gilbert

    And on the contraception-abortion-connection results you link to, I note that free contraception reduced the birth rate more than the abortion rate. In other words the probability of pregnancy was reduced, but the probability of a given pregnancy resulting in abortion was increased.

    The part a study in one culture can’t see, is that general acceptance of contraception leads to a more libertine sexual culture and thus to more pregnancies. Possibly this pregnancy-increasing effect overpowers the direct pregnancy-reducing effect of the individual act of contraception.

    Anyway, this nexus of having contracepted making abortion seem more acceptable is part of what we Catholics mean when we rave about the culture of death.

    1. Barry Deutsch

      And on the contraception-abortion-connection results you link to, I note that free contraception reduced the birth rate more than the abortion rate.

      I didn’t see any statistics reported in the article which would enable you to make that comparison (the article reported birth rates for one group – teens – and abortion rates for a different but overlapping group, women in general).

      If you have a copy of the study itself and are willing to share it with me, please let me know. 🙂

      1. Gilbert

        I hadn’t read the actual paper when I posted the grandparent comment, but I have meanwhile found it.

        Basically it turns out they have a self-selected sample where one would expect the self-selection to be strongly correlated with everything they measured and then compare it to the general population. In other words this pseudoscientific turd proves neither my nor your nor any other point, because it is totally irredeemably worthless for any epistemic purpose.

        Now looking at what it would be evidence for if, counterfactually, it was evidence for anything, they fitted most of their participants with IUDs, so the babies not aborted were killed anyway. So even the counterfactually reliable results shouldn’t move the counterfactually consequentialist pro-lifer.

        But looking at your point, their reported reason for reporting the reduction in teen pregnancies was that most of those are unintended so they are a proxy for unintended pregnancies in general (and obviously they didn’t collect any actual data on intendedness). Unless you have evidence that free contraception would be massively more effective in preventing unintended pregnancies for older women that doesn’t sound like it would bias the conclusion against my point.

        But that’s all counterfactual speculation, the take-home point is that this study isn’t worth the electrons it’s printed on. So I go back to my point being supported by the international and time series comparisons. As for your point, I’ll just relax and see if you or Scott can come up with actual evidence.

        1. Scott Alexander Post author

          Guttmacher Institute says that “The two-thirds of U.S. women at risk of unintended pregnancy who use contraception consistently and correctly throughout the course of any given year account for only 5% of all unintended pregnancies. The 19% of women at risk who use contraception but do so inconsistently account for 44% of all unintended pregnancies, while the 16% of women at risk who do not use contraception at all for a month or more during the year account for 52% of all unintended pregnancies.”

          This seems like it might support a model in which availability of contraception within a country causes a culture of increased sexual promiscuity both among users and non-users, but users then benefit from the contraception and non-users don’t, meaning that unintended pregnancies should increase in non-users and decrease in users.

          But I also find their use of declining fertility rates to explain abortion/contraception links interesting.

  17. Gilbert

    Minor note technically on-topic in a noncentral way:

    We Catholics have a three-part test for mortal sin: a sin is mortal if it involves grave matter, clear knowledge, and full consent. If one of those elements is missing it’s venial.

    There is some legitimate controversy over the gravity of contraception, but the main point here is in the subjective elements, both of which are interpreted fairly narrowly. Most people contracepting don’t actually believe it gravely sinful, so they are lacking clear knowledge. Even those that do so believe may often be motivated by fear or habit, both of which can impede full consent, though that depends on the situation. Abortion clearly is grave matter, but even there the subjective elements are often absent.

    So basically we don’t think damning oneself is quite as easy as your summary implies.

    1. Mary

      “Clear knowledge” actually is not required. If you could not have had clear knowledge, on reasonably prudent efforts — invincible ignorance — yes, you are not guilty. However, if you could have — vincible ignorance — your guilt is at most mitigated, in accordance with how much of a reasonable effort you made. If you made no efforts to obtain clear knowledge — the supine or crass form of vincible ignorance — it can hardly mitigate at all.

      Studied or affected vincible ignorance, if anything, increases guilt; that’s when you deliberately avoid learning whether something is right or wrong.

      1. Gilbert

        As the World Catechism says:

        1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin

        So the official English translation of “plenam … plenumque” seems to be “full … and complete” rather than “clear … and full”. That’s slightly more accurate but still basically the same thing. Now I’ll have to figure out where the “clear … and full” I got memorized stems from.

        Anyway, you’re right that willful ignorance doesn’t qualify as a lack of full knowledge, but there is still a very broad range between willful and invincible ignorance, and that range doesn’t correspond to mortal sin. The vincible/invincible ignorance distinction makes the difference between imputable guilt/no imputable guilt, which is quite different from the difference between mortal/venial sin.

        1. Mary

          Vincible ignorance has a whole range of possibilities, from minor guilt when you made almost enough effort, to, yes, mortal sin if you willfully avoided knowing that you sinned. If you point the gun out the window at the crowd and fire, killing someone, you are no more or less guilty depending on whether you closed your eyes first, so that you could not actually see that there was a crowd.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      I’d actually just been reading about this in the context of the recent brouhaha about whether atheists go to Heaven. My impression is that it is perfectly consistent with either the philosophy that no one ever sins mortally (see my post on Hansonian Optimism, and this post too) and with everyone sinning mortally all the time (in which it excludes, for example, someone who accidentally committed murder by shooting what they thought was a deer but turned out to be a human, but in which everyone else knows, in some little corner of their head, that what they’re doing is wrong).

      As far as I can tell from the atheism debate, the Catholics themselves are pretty split on which interpretation to take. I am sort of suspicious this is by design – people can threaten atheists with “You’re going to Hell!” but can also, when they want to look tolerant, do what Pope Francis did and proclaim that atheists can go to Heaven too.

      1. Patrick

        Except he didn’t. People are just awful at Catholic theology and misinterpreted him. He had to issue a clarification to correct this, it made the news a few days ago. Rest assured, Catholicism still teaches “join or burn” theology.

        1. amuchmoreexotic

          Yeah, it turns out atheists were “redeemed” when God sent his son on a suicide mission into the Roman Empire, but they are not “saved” until they accept that the suicide mission was real and become Catholic. Mmmm.

        2. Patrick

          I presume it was some other Vatican official. I doubt he drafts his own press releases.

          But I also doubt that he’s a universalist, imprisoned and stymied by his own denomination’s shackles.

      2. Gilbert

        There is actually some truth to that accusation. It’s true that magisterial teaching is somewhat vague in this area not only about atheists but also about sins of the Christian faithful. And I agree this is partially deliberate. I think the motivation is a lot more benign though. Basically this is a balancing thing. On one hand Catholics have a right to some guidance on how not to go to hell but on the other hand there’s this “judge not lest ye be judged” thing. So we really shouldn’t be in the business of speculating who else other then possibly ourselves might find their eternal prognosis less than optimal. And of course for most specific sins the subjective factors neatly split the population into the most strongly biased person and the folks with near zero information.

        So let me talk vague generalities some more.

        The first pole of your continuum was “the philosophy that no one ever sins mortally”. This could technically be stretched to be barely compatible with Catholic teaching but basically no. The critical point here is that it’s clearly dogmatic that we do have the freedom to sin mortally and die in that state. Unless it is backed by special revelation in an individual case, the claim to be certain of one’s own salvation is clearly heretical. (In case you wonder, the reason that was dogmatized was because some Protestants claim saving faith includes such certainty.) In therms of your Hansonian Optimism post that would mean the King is clearly able of doing evil himself. The loophole here is that something possible might still not happen, so we could hope that at the final judgment it turns out nobody actually died in mortal sin. Catholic liturgy occasionally does pray for that result, but it is at best a possibility the other possibility also must be
        kept in mind . So universal reconciliation is kinda like the friendly singularity of Catholicism, something we can hope for but not something we can count on. Nobody ever sinning mortally in the first place would go beyond that and I actually haven’t seen a lot of arguments for that position, but technically someone could argue there still is a chance. I’d say that’s too much of a stretch to take serious, but at that point we would be talking practical rationality and a failure in practical rationality is something different from heresy.

        The other pole you mentioned would be that mortal sin “excludes, for example, someone who accidentally committed murder by shooting what they thought was a deer but turned out to be a human, but in which everyone else knows, in some little corner of their head, that what they’re doing is wrong”. There is some truth in that, because there are things everyone does know in a little corner of their head to be wrong. And I would be very skeptical of someone claiming never to have done something they somehow knew to be wrong. On the other hand, the ignorance Catholic teaching is talking about is clearly ignorance of the moral law, not of some kind of consequence. Theoretically someone could say contraception being bad is one of the things everyone knows intuitively and that claim wouldn’t be heretical. But it’s actually so dumb I’ve never heard anyone saying it. The closest I’ve seen in real life is that everyone know Catholicism doesn’t like contraception, so dissenting Catholics must somehow be aware of their
        double-think. I know this is not true from my experience of once having been a much more liberal Catholic than I am now. But yes, this is something an orthodox Catholic could believe.

        So basically the two poles you talked about are out, but there is a large continuum between them that magisterial teaching hasn’t settled. OK, so much for the spectrum that is compatible with Catholicism, now on to what is reasonable.

        The whole question hinges on how honest people are about their reported beliefs. So this is the Catholic flavor of the range of essentially identical arguments your post starts out condemning by example. And then I think that rationalization and honestly mistakes both obviously happen and are hard to tell apart in individual cases.

        So let me get to your example of threatening atheists with hell. Now it’s a really common trope for atheists to claim that they would convert if the evidence turned out that way. The question whether that is true is pretty much equivalent to the question whether their atheism damns them, because (assuming there actually is a God) this is the difference between invincible and vincible ignorance. I’m pretty sure there are people who are honest about this, even to themselves. For example, most converts don’t report they somehow knew all along but just deceived themselves before their conversion. Plus empirically hell threats don’t seem all that effective. On the other hand, I’m also quite sure that many people on both sides of basically every issue are a lot less open-minded than they fancy themselves to be. So even if there is no sure way to tell the difference in individual cases, it’s clear what the difference is.

        To get a little cute here, atheists who actually feel threatened by hell maybe should, because at that point Christianity is enough of a live option for them that they should be investigating it very carefully. Of course it’s not a reliable heuristic, because fear isn’t all rational. Still, atheist complaining about Catholic hell threats seems a bit odd to me, because it seems to signal doubt not only about their beliefs (which is good) but also about the honesty of their own presentation.

  18. Barry Deutsch

    Great post! Thanks for responding to me. I’m persuaded. The post of mine you’re responding to is a pretty sucky post, to be honest.

    I still think that there’s fruitful areas to be explored there – in particular, with the many, many pro-lifers who say they aren’t against birth control, but nonetheless won’t support birth control as an anti-abortion policy. Even if it doesn’t convince them to be pro-choice, maybe it will convince them to be more pro-birth-control.

    But that particular post of mine – which was extracted from a fairly nasty debate thread on a right-wing blog – is not one I can stand behind, for more or less the reasons you outline.

  19. houseboatonstyx

    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.

    That seems an odd factor to prioritize in the case of abortion. Bearing an unwanted child hurts many other people: the children already in an over-crowded family, the rest of the family that has to do without the mother’s income, those who must support the unwanted baby one way and another perhaps throughout zir life (usually taxpayers), etc.

    The only other person harmed is the fetus zirself, and aside from some possible very short physical pain, that gets into quite a few philosophical questions. Which is worse: to come into the world as an unwanted child, or not to come into the world at all? (Or, depending on religious doctrine, to postpone one’s next incarnation till a wanted pregnancy becomes available.)

    1. Mary

      They did a study in Czechoslovakia when a woman needed a doctor’s approval to get an abortion, where they took a group of women who not only were denied it, but appealed the decision and were denied, and a group of matched women with their children who hadn’t asked, and compared the children.

      The differences were tiny. Most were not statistically significant. And not all of them favored the control group.

      Remember the post a little back where Scott talked about how attempted suicides often concluded within three days that it was a wonderful thing that they had been stopped? Our judgments of terrible harm happening if we don’t do something are often quite far off.

    2. MugaSofer

      >Which is worse: to come into the world as an unwanted child, or not to come into the world at all?

      See, I don’t understand this. How is adoption worse than dying young?

      I’ve seen this argument before, but never had it explained. Could you maybe expand on your reasoning here?

      1. anon1

        It is common for unwanted children, once born, to be kept rather than put up for adoption. I don’t fully understand why people do this, but it seems reasonable to prefer never existing over being brought up by people who do not want you and perhaps cannot support you adequately.

        1. houseboatonstyx

          Yes. This is where looking at consequences gets into a very messy area. What with hormones and wishful thinking and cultural/family expectations and such, even women who wanted abortions find themselves emotionally unable to put the baby up for adoption at birth. So denying the abortion in effect locks both mother and child into an unhealthy longterm situation.

          Btw, why are we taking seriously the Catholic position that after death a soul may go to hell, without taking seriously the reincarnational position that before birth a soul takes some other body instead of an aborted body (or the hopefully Christian position that a baby who dies before or after birth, goes to heaven)? Why not disregard all these equally?

        2. Randy M

          It is only being taken seriously (by Scott) for purposes of determining if Catholics are being internally consistent.

  20. Tom Hunt

    Some thoughts about the genetic fallacy:

    In terms of pure argument of what is true and/or moral, it is indeed a fallacy; the arguments should hold regardless of who espouses them. However, it seems to be a useful thing as regards actual political debate. In that realm, I see it somewhat commonly that people are either inwardly or outwardly lying about their motivations (in the sense that, in arguing for policy X, the ends which they talk about a lot as the reasons why X is a good idea aren’t actually the ends to which they’re ascribing positive moral value). And in that case, it’s valuable to note this and to call people on it, because arguments for why X serves good end Y call for closer examination when it becomes clear that the people calling for X nominally in the name of Y tend to more consistently espouse policies that would promote not-so-good end Z (where X would, in theory, promote both Y and Z), even when this extends to other policies that promote Z at the expense of Y. If nothing else, that can be a reasonable indicator of the kind of person you don’t want to have in power.

    1. Michael Vassar

      This is an important point. As a general rule, ad-hominem arguments are needed as part of the explanation for any disagreement, but it’s important that they only be required as an addition to object level arguments, not as a replacement for such arguments.

  21. von Kalifornen

    It’s worth noting that while many pro-lifers are sorta-consequentialists, they still believe in rights such as with the violinist argument.

  22. Decius

    So, the people who believe CONTRACEPTION is immoral are supporting the ‘natural law’ position, which directly results in oppressing people. (Not just women, BTW).

    Even if they aren’t consequentialits, holding the belief that ‘natural law’ is intrinsically valuable (The way Pope Pius XI did) is believing that oppression is intrinsically valuable.

    I suppose that one could technically oppose allowing people to kill fertilized eggs while being indifferent to the death of fertilized eggs. It is the same argument used to support doctors who torture terminally ill patients until they finally die. However, I don’t think it reasonable roughly half of the population holds the sole (barely) consistent position that opposes the easy availability of hormonal contraception and abortion without actively supporting oppression of people.

    Oh, and the Catholic Church’s position on contraceptives, including barrier methods? There’s NO internally consistent position which exists that avoids the ‘natural consequences’->oppression connection.

    It’s not that oppression is necessarily a terminal value for the Catholic Church, it’s that oppression is inseparable from a terminal value. That terminal value can here be summarized as “sex should lead to birth”, and the manner in which it oppresses is by artificially imposing unneeded consequences on sex.

      1. Michael Vassar

        In this case, action aimed at harming someone else in order to fulfill values of the actor’s which are not aimed at preventing any harm or creating any benefit to any party other than the benefit to the actor of the actor’s values being fulfilled.

        1. Gilbert

          So in effect any action motivated by non-utilitarian ethics? Reminds me of the joke about a guy who hears a warning about a wrong-way driver on the radio and mutters “One? Hundrets!”

        2. Mary

          As Scott observed his post, many people believe that in this case, their action is oriented toward preventing the greatest possible harm that a human being can suffer, and therefore to call it oppression does not fit this definition.

        3. Fnord

          So in effect any action motivated by non-utilitarian ethics?

          No. The key feature that separates consequentialism from non-consequentialism is balancing, not concern for harm. Rights-based deontology won’t lead to actions that are “not aimed at preventing any harm or creating any benefit to any party”.

          Rights-based deontology might lead to abortion restriction, but it won’t lead contraception restriction.

        4. Gilbert

          Fnord, you’re actually right on that one. So I’ll weaken my point to anyone using this definition of oppression better be libertarian on any other question too.

        5. Fnord

          So I’ll weaken my point to anyone using this definition of oppression better be libertarian on any other question too.

          I don’t follow. Non-libertarian policy justified by a consequentialist balancing test would also not be oppression by that definition.

          I’m not even sure that all systems of rights-based deontology lead to libertarianism on all issues.

        6. Gilbert

          Fnord, I wanted to give an argument why nothing else makes sense, but it turns out the chain of inference for that is not much shorter than the one for no morality but mine making sense. So I’ll withdraw my point for practical purposes.

        7. Fnord

          Ironically, if you put it like that I may actually understand your point. Something about the primacy of moral living to human flourishing, right? Which, in turn, means that the only consistent reason for a policy of non-interference is to ensure the ability to make free choices without coercion, have I got you right?

          But, to follow an inferential chain that far, we have to be careful about our definitions. More careful than the definition given here was (with no offense meant to Michael Vassar, since it probably requires one to be more careful than is usually the case for a blog comment). Specifically, I think the idea of “preventing any harm or creating any benefit to any party other than the benefit to the actor of the actor’s values being fulfilled” is not rigorous enough under the circumstances.

          If I have your reasoning correct, I think you have a good point in that the idea of “preventing any harm or creating any benefit to any party other than the benefit to the actor of the actor’s values being fulfilled” is basically incoherent on a high enough level of abstraction. But I think that’s a result of that precise formulation being made at a low-level of abstraction, and in an informal context.

    1. MugaSofer

      >Even if they aren’t consequentialits, holding the belief that ‘natural law’ is intrinsically valuable (The way Pope Pius XI did) is believing that oppression is intrinsically valuable.

      I think you’re gonna have to unpack your reasoning there, because that sounds like nonsense to me.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      Ooooh, this is interesting. Alas claims that there are lots of studies showing more contraception -> less abortion, so now I don’t know which set of studies to believe. Gonna have to investigate.

      1. Mary

        Well, if you give one set of women Plan B to keep at home, another a way to get it over the counter, and a third a chance to get it by prescription, you will see a major difference in usage between them.

        What you will not see is differences in pregnancy rates or abortion rates.

        Which does help explain why STDs explode in countries that introduce it.

        Risk compensation. It touches so much of life.

        1. houseboatonstyx

          Even if and where there were a correlation, both might be caused by some third factor. Such as, more sex.

  23. Sarah

    The fact remains, though, that I have never seen an example of a libertine pro-lifer. I know of nobody who is genuinely enthusiastic about sexual freedom and also thinks you should damn well take your birth control pills because abortion is not an okay backup plan. This is in principle a consistent position (and actually I find it somewhat credible) but *nobody holds it.*

    Instead, we have one group of people who are in favor of all the things that make sex freer and less dangerous (birth control, legal abortion, sex ed, HPV vaccine) and another group of people who are opposed to all such things.

    This is damning to both crowds. The stated reasons for supporting a side in each issue of the “culture war” are different. If your reasons for any *one* belief in that bundle were principled, how’s come there are no people who support only *part* of your bundle?

    It sure *looks* like the world is divided into “yay libertine sex” people and “boo libertine sex” people.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I think I held that position from about ages 14 – 18, ie from the time I had the insight here to the time I had the insight here.

      1. Avantika

        Actually, I have been drifting toward that position, with some reservations, so I went and read your insights with some interest. I’m afraid I really can’t get your second insight. As far as I can tell, you say that being anti-abortion because ‘abortion is murder’ is an example of the WAITW because a fetus does not share the things that make killing a baby wrong, i.e. the victim not wanting to die. But:
        a) I’m pretty sure a newborn baby doesn’t ‘understand death’, so I’m not sure what you mean by that.
        b) Granting for the moment that a newborn baby has a ‘preference against death’, which I’m not 100% sure of, the reason for my opposition to abortion is that as a biologist I see no reason why a late-term fetus is any different from a newborn baby in this matter. All that I have read seems to say that there is no developmental thing that happens at birth, which suddenly makes a newborn baby more mentally developed than it was in the womb a few weeks back.
        Conclusion: I can understand why some countries choose to ban abortions after a certain stage of pregnancy, and while this is still an arbitrary line, it may actually be a better arbitrary line than before-birth/after-birth.

        Do/did you have any thoughts on this?

        1. Avantika

          It occurs to me that I’m not actually an expert on human developmental biology, and if anyone has biological data saying I’m wrong that would be interesting.

        2. Scott Alexander Post author

          I think Singer might have a point on infanticide but that there are few costs and a lot of benefits to pretending he isn’t – ie the infants can just be given away for adoption which makes everyone a bit less grossed out, and we have a nice bright line separating kill-able from non-kill-able human beings.

        3. Avantika


          I can only conclude that one has to choose a point on the developmental axis and draw a line. Singer seems to draw that line… shall we say, unusually late?
          Given everything I’ve read until now, I’d rather draw that line at say six months, with some medical exceptions. It’s arbitrary and unfair and I can already think of a ton of issues with it, but I would say it is less arbitrary and unfair than either the extreme pro-choice or pro-life positions.

        4. Avantika

          So it loks like I hold a variation of the ‘position nobody holds’: I support sexual freedom, but people who don’t want children had better take their birth control pills, because abortion is not an okay option. And if they do end up wanting an abortion, they had damn well better do it early.

        5. Avantika

          Damien: Thanks. I have not read the cited articles; my reading on the subject was all done when I was an undergrad. I will read these and get back to you.

    2. Douglas Knight

      It’s true that libertines against abortion are rare, which may be all that is needed for your argument, but people opposed to abortion who support schools teaching contraception are not rare.

      1. Michael Vassar

        There are also people who oppose laws and schools in general, and thus who might support accepting abortion and not teaching contraception as defaults.

    3. Michael Vassar

      I basically favor minimal to no government, which suggests “allowing” everything by default, but I can easily imagine that the world might be a better place if effective and convenient birth control had never been widely adopted. Birth control may have historically caused a great deal of harm via enabling pathological parenting norms and increased class inequality due to differential reproduction, among other things. I also wonder if the infantilization of the under 40 population and the ludicrous increase in work hours in competitive career tracks could have happened without widespread birth control.

      1. Mary

        Part of the problem is not the contraception but the abortions. By making it the woman’s choice, the man is therefore logically absolved of responsibility for it — whichever way she chooses.

        1. Mary

          Actually legalizing abortion produced only a slight impact on the birth rate so what it probably produced was implicit permission to be sloppy about conceiving children if you really didn’t want them.

    4. MugaSofer

      I hold that position, although I’m susceptible to argument that in the short term stable families are more important then Fun – the issue is muddled, since there’s no clear consensus on whether you can have stable families without monogamy. If it turns out you can’t, well, time for the orphanage/school/baby farms.

      1. Michael Vassar

        Didn’t our society already run for the schools?
        I’m always unsure of whether that *caused* the p-zombie phenomenon I complain about, or whether people were p-zombies already. FWIW, Frazier seems to give plausible evidence that tribal people are p-zombies just like us.

        1. MugaSofer

          To be clear, this is in the hypothetical case where I run things, yet don’t have access to better data. Obviously, if I don’t run things I can’t exactly take either of these options.

    5. Jake

      “I know of nobody who is genuinely enthusiastic about sexual freedom and also thinks you should damn well take your birth control pills because abortion is not an okay backup plan.”

      Christopher Hitchens.

    6. perlhaqr

      *waves from three years down the road*

      Hi! I’m a libertine pro-lifer. Not to the point of advocating making abortion illegal–I’m also an anarchist–but definitely of the “we should reduce the incidence of abortion to zero if possible” sort.

  24. Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Greta Christina once summarized the war on abortion’s logic as, “Women who have sex are evil and need to be punished. Punished with babies.” Now this does not make any sense to me, but when I heard it, I thought, “Huh, this seems to retrodict a lot of policies that I wasn’t managing to interpret in terms of trying to protect embryos with souls.” I am worried that you may be, perhaps, slightly too charitable here. Not all conservatives are evil, but a lot of evil people are conservatives. Maybe I was just very young at the time, but I remember when the Republican Party seemed sometimes sorta libertarian-ish sounding and honorable in a military way, versus being a seething mass of eldritch horrors from beyond space and time bent on consuming the very souls of all humanity, but times have changed and I acknowledge that.

    1. Scott Alexander Post author

      I think there’s a punishment aspect here but that it’s a lot more complicated than that.

      I mean, you could steelman the argument above to “pro-lifers want to force women who have sex to bear the consequences for their ‘misdeeds'”. This sounds both more plausible than the original and, not coincidentally, less outrageous.

      But analyzing it more closely – 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 sounds great. 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 be punished for your own action” going on here, I don’t think it is opposed to claiming to care about the fetus, nor that the pro-lifers are particularly denying it, nor that it’s anything especially evil.

      1. Pokeypie

        I would argue that forced pregnancy and birth is cruel and unusual punishment.

        Hardly many people (outside of ardent believers in sharia law) think that cutting off a person’s right hand for stealing is a great way to make a thief suffer the consequences of their actions.

        1. ivvenalis

          “Forced pregnancy”, maybe. Then again, as Scott points out, the rape/incest exception is a popular compromise.

          “Forced birth”? Let’s say a woman has been pregnant for, let’s say, seven months, and then decides (choice!) she doesn’t want to give birth. Can she get a third-trimester abortion? After all, “forced birth” is Really Bad…

      2. Mary

        Men are routinely forced to take the consequences of their actions here. Indeed, when grown women molest young teenaged boys, the boys may be stuck with child support payments.

        1. Pokeypie

          If boys want to be the ones growing fetuses inside of their uteri for 9 months (stretch marks, nausea, all the fun symptoms) and had to experience incredibly severe pain and possible injury when birthing comes, then they can have all the control they want over whether or not to have kids.

          The child support payments are for the sake of the child that was born. It isn’t to punish someone for having sex.

          On a semi-related note, did you know that when hermaphrodite organisms mate (insect world), both partners fight to be the ‘male’ in the mating process? Pregnancy and childbirth really bites.

        2. Mary

          The abortion prohibition is for the sake of the child that willl be born. It isn’t to punish someone for having sex.

          Either facing the consequences is punishment, or it isn’t.

          As for the effects of pregnancy, more than ninety percent of all Americans killed on the job are male. They also suffer a disproportionate amount of injuries. Child support is not something they find under their mattresses.

  25. Shmi Nux

    > “Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.”

    That is somewhat uncharitable. No one is a perfect consequentialist, not even you. It’s all a matter of degree. Anyway, pro-lifers are consequentialists at least a little bit, hence

    > “fine, no abortion for anyone except rape victims”

    which fits neatly into

    > “okay to do a lesser evil if it leads to a greater good”

    1. Douglas Knight

      Yes, I came here to make a comment about the same tension between Scott’s description of the thought process around contraception and rape. But I was going to phrase it in terms of being willing to compromise or not; and I was not going to call political compromise consequentialism.

    2. Scott Alexander Post author

      Pro-lifers explicitly endorse non-consequentialism.

      The people making the laws are politicians who are a lot more results-oriented (in the sense of being able to tell their constituents they passed a bill) than concerned with high moral principles.

      1. Douglas Knight

        Your theory seems to predict that politicians make the rape or incest exception and that the general public does not. I had never considered this possibility and it seemed plausible, but it’s not true.

      2. bgaesop

        I think this is what people mean when they say pro-lifers don’t care about preventing abortion: preventing abortion is a consequence, so what “actually caring” about it means is thinking and acting as a consequentialist. If they’re not doing that, then what they’re doing (caring about their deontological moral code) is something other than “caring about preventing abortions.”

        1. Michael Vassar

          Yep. That’s my perspective. Of course, it leads to a lot of me angsting about how almost all humans are incapable of meaningfully caring, are not moral subjects, and are plausibly not moral objects and would be better off dying in their mid 20s or at whatever age it is at which their souls typically die, which is much less fun than how I used to spend my time, so I’m trying to adopt a different perspective.

        2. Nancy Lebovitz

          Michael, I’m glad to see you’re working on a different angle about the human race.

          “Souls dying” = being content to run on habit?

          Any ideas about why people can be strongly attached to thoughts that make them unhappy?

        3. Michael Vassar

          @Nancy, yep, more or less, WRT habit, modulo the additional roles of reinforcement learning and automatic primate behavioral patterns, just no causal role for anything conscious.

          WRT painful thoughts, they don’t care about avoiding personal unhappiness. I don’t think people are very selfish. Almost not *at all* selfish under normal circumstances.

      3. Damien


        Didn’t your ideal language ban unqualified plurals? You can cultivate that habit in English.
        Some pro-lifers explicitly endorse non-consequentialism, to the point of letting a pregnant 9 year old girl die rather than get an abortion. Some pro-lifers are more fudgy. Probably some think they’re totally consequentialist.

  26. Andrew Hunter

    I agree with about 90% of this, except the claim that “Clearly, since all these women are against abortion, they can’t be in it out of opposition to women.” Note that most fallacious claims you’re arguing against, either explicitly (like here) or implicitly, claim pro-lifers are against _women who have non-reproductive sex_. If prominent pro-life women are married and monogamous, or want to be, it would be perfectly reasonable for them to aim to punish women who broke their attempt at a sexual cartel.

    (Whether they are actually aimed at punishing defectors or not is another argument entirely.)

  27. Athrelon

    If Alas really believed that abortion opponents thought this way, they wouldn’t be wasting their time writing a blog post. Instead they’d be doing a combination of

    1) Fighting tooth and nail against this subjugation that somehow became this widespread and popular, such as by working overtime and donating the extra money to the most efficient lobbying groups.
    2) Sitting down and thinking about the cognitive psychology that might lead so many people to hold such immoral preferences, and figuring out both what other gross errors people are making, and what generalizable interventions they should perform to head this off this class of errors before people’s politics becomes ossified as “opponents.”

    The fact that they aren’t doing this indicates that they’re not actually serious about the politics and instead are using it to cover up some devious ulterior motivation.

    1. Michael Vassar

      That is honestly my attitude on this whole situation.
      No, neurotypical adults don’t hold moral positions honestly period. If they really did…

  28. amuchmoreexotic

    I once read an amazing article about the phenomenon of abortion protesters going to the clinic they’d been protesting outside to get abortions.

    Apparently they would be rude to the staff and express their opposition to abortion, even as they explained they had to have an abortion.

    I wish I could find the article. It certainly made a good case that either they didn’t really believe abortion was murder, or perhaps they just thought expedient murder was justified.

    While the principle of charity might be useful for facilitating discussion, in my experience, people are mainly fucking idiots.

    1. Emily

      If you have a moral code, unless you are exceptionally good or it is exceptionally lax, you will sometimes fail to live up to it. This sounds like a rather dramatic example of this. Failing to live up to your moral code does not mean you don’t believe in it. And you may want laws (or other constraints) that make it easier for you to uphold your moral code by raising the costs of failing.

      1. Athrelon

        “You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, you are not allowed to criticise others-after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?”

        Finkle-McGraw paused, knowing that he had the full attention of his audience, and began to withdraw a calabash pipe and various related supplies and implements from his pockets. As he continued, he charged the calabash with a blend of leather-brown tobacco so redolent that it made Hackworth’s mouth water. He was tempted to spoon some of it into his mouth.

        “Now, this led to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticise others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticise another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour-you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to the ferreting out of hypocrisy.

        “You wouldn’t believe the things they said about the original Victorians. Calling someone a Victorian in those days was almost like calling them a fascist or a Nazi.”

        Both Hackworth and Major Napier were dumbfounded. “Your Grace!” Napier exdaimed. “I was naturally aware that their moral stance was radically different from ours- but I am astonished to be informed that they actually condemned the first Victorians.”

        “Of course they did,” Finkle-McGraw said.

        “Because the first Victorians were hypocrites,” Hackworth said, getting it.

        Finkle-McGraw beamed upon Hackworth like a master upon his favored pupil. “As you can see, Major Napier, my estimate of Mr. Hackworth’s mental acuity was not ill-founded.”

        “While I would never have supposed otherwise, Your Grace,” Major Napier said, “it is nonetheless gratifying to have seen a demonstration.”

        Napier raised his glass in Hackworth’s direction.

        “Because they were hypocrites,” Finkle-McGraw said, after igniting his calabash and shooting a few tremendous fountains of smoke into the air, “the Victorians were despised in the late twentieth century. Many of the persons who held such opinions were, of course, guilty of the most nefandous conduct themselves, and yet saw no paradox in holding such views because they were not hypocrites themselves-they took no moral stances and lived by none.”

        “So they were morally superior to the Victorians-” Major Napier said, still a bit snowed under.

        “-even though-in fact, because-they had no morals at all.” There was a moment of silent, bewildered head-shaking around the copper table.

        “We take a somewhat different view of hypocrisy,” Finkle-McGraw continued. “In the late-twentieth-century Weltanschauung, a hypocrite was someone who espoused high moral views as part of a planned campaign of deception-he never held these beliefs sincerely and routinely violated them in privacy. Of course, most hypocrites are not like that. Most of the time it’s a spirit-is-willing, flesh-is-weak sort of thing.”

        “That we occasionally violate our own stated moral code,” Major Napier said, working it through, “does not imply that we are insincere in espousing that code.”

        “Of course not,” Finkle-McGraw said. “It’s perfectly obvious, really. No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct.

        Really, the difficulties involved-the missteps we make along the way-are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power.” All three men were quiet for a few moments, chewing mouthfuls of beer or smoke, pondering the matter.

        -Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age

        1. St. Rev

          The problem with Finkle-McGraw’s argument is that he’s making it in the context of a (reconstructed) traditionalist society, but projecting it back onto a modern liberal/multicultural society.

          It seems to me that hypocrisy is particularly objectionable in a multicultural society because in such a society, citizens have to expend extra effort to understand and adjust for multiple sets of constraints on acceptable behavior. I don’t have a personal problem with eating bacon, or wearing cotton/wool blends, or saying certain words, but it’s going to set other people off, so I avoid doing it in public, on social occasions, at weddings…whatever. Now, suppose someone in my office stridently objects to…people wearing blue clothes. OK, I take care not to wear blue to the office. It’s a minor hassle, price of living in a multicultural society. But suppose I discover that this same person has been going out almost every night to a secret nightclub devoted to wearing blue clothes. Am I going to be irritated? Hell yes!

          The real offense of hypocrisy under multiculturalism is wasting other people’s time.

      2. amuchmoreexotic

        But if they think abortion is murder, why not simply bring the unwanted baby to term (possibly at a little reputational cost) and then give it up for adoption? That seems like a small price to pay to prevent a murder.

        1. Emily

          Why does anyone commit what they believe to be murder? The difference between murderers and non-murderers is not mainly that the first group doesn’t believe murder to be wrong.

        2. amuchmoreexotic

          In the case of abortion protesters having abortions, it seems like they tend to believe their abortion is a regrettable necessity, whereas the other women in the clinic are baby-murdering sluts.

          Their action in choosing abortion reveals their true preference is at odds with their stated priority of protecting foetuses, since they could fairly easily just have the baby. But of course, if they have a baby, everyone will know they had sex and are bad. To me the phenomenon of protester abortions reveals that it really does all boil down to punishing other women for having sex, and signalling that you are a good and moral person who defends innocent babies.

        3. von Kalifornen

          I think that they do support that. The feminists are not satisfied due to the remaining period of pregnancy and risk of injury, death, and cost in giving birth.

        4. amuchmoreexotic

          Von Kalifornen – my point is that some anti-abortionists, when faced with the prospect of actually having to bring their own pregnancy to term, do just have an abortion. So the risk, cost, etc of giving birth apparently outweigh the life of the fetus in practice.

        5. Mary

          In other words, they — if they exist and are not an urban legend — are like most people who commit murder, or rape, or burglary — perfectly capable of seeing the wrong of something when someone else does it, and not when they do it themselves.

          We conform our laws to our moral intuitions when we don’t have a conflict of interest. We do not legalize murder because their action in choosing murder reveals their true preference is at odds with their stated priority of protecting lives, since they could fairly easily just have let the victim live.

        6. MugaSofer

          To be fair, some people do just that.

          It’s always mystified me that some people see abortion as somehow better than adoption, but it is a claim that gets made. Something to do with love and parenthood or some nonsense.

        7. amuchmoreexotic

          Mary, I think what is different about the case of the anti-abortion abortion havers (if real – I accept my sourcing is not exactly ironclad and it might be a rare or legendary phenomenon), is that they apparently resort to abortion to avoid such a relatively low cost.

          It usually takes quite a lot to drive someone to murder. If they truly believe abortion is murder, why is avoiding the remaining 7 months of pregnancy worth resorting to murder?

          If a Dieter Laser style mad doctor implanted a uterus and a fetus in me, and said that I had to bring the pregnancy to term, I’d definitely get an abortion. But if he’d arranged it so that if I didn’t bring the pregnancy to term, a child or an adult (somebody I regard as a person) would be killed, I would reluctantly go along with his mad scheme.

          MugaSofer – It depends on how good the adoption system is, but there’s a serious risk that if an adopted child doesn’t get enough love at an early age (which as Maslow’s monkey experiments established, is vital for mammals to not grow up all fucked up), adoption will produce an unhappy, screwed-up adult who might be miserable and cause misery to others.

          Step-parents are statistically not as good as biological parents – just look at relative risk of being raped or murdered by your stepdad rather than your dad.

          Better never to have been than to have a shitty life, so abortion is the responsible approach to minimise suffering.

        8. houseboatonstyx

          The reputational cost may be quite large, if the woman who spends energy on anti-abortion is also known for being anti-contraception and anti-casual sex.

        9. amuchmoreexotic

          houseboatonstyx: Sure, but what part of the Christian value system (which we’re supposed to accept as coherent on charitable principles) says that maintaining one’s reputation justifies murdering a child?

          My question to Christian womanhood is this: Why you gonna act like you isn’t a slut if you is a slut?

        10. houseboatonstyx

          amuchmoreexotic, I’m not so much defending the woman’s action, as adding a possible charge of hypocrisy, depending on how much energy she spent gaining that reputation.

        11. Mary

          Do you think that the American value system accepts drowning your sons and blaming it on a fictious black man because you want to be free to pursue a love affair? How therefore you do explain that it’s happened?

        12. amuchmoreexotic

          Mary – the case you cite is a bizarre outlier, and murder is a rare and extreme act anyway, whereas anti-abortionists having an abortion where convenient is probably common. Aside from the study which shows 24% of women having an abortion think abortion is “morally wrong”, national figures show being Catholic doesn’t put people off the use of contraception or abortion in practice. More evidence that all the sympathy for poor preborn babies is about signalling virtue, rather than actually caring.

          I admit that I can’t show iron-clad experimental evidence that most anti-abortionists would have an abortion if they were faced with an unwanted pregnancy, at least until my project to aerosolise viable spermatozoa is completed.

        1. amuchmoreexotic

          So why do they identify as Catholic at all? I think Scott has a very charitable view of Catholics based on his interactions with Catholic bloggers who’ve done the reading and do have an intellectual foundation for their crazy ideas, and have read what Pope Sanctimus XVII said in the Epicyclical Bull of The Blessed Antumbra Of 1917 or whatever.

          But the average wafer-muncher on the ground hasn’t done all the reading, and only identifies as Catholic as a form of tribal affiliation. As Razib Kahn explains: “Theology and texts have far less power over shaping a religion’s lived experience than intellectuals would like to credit.”

          If you’re a member of a religion which accepts the Pope’s doctrinal infallibility, but you don’t agree with the Pope on a matter of doctrine, then what are you, really? This is why the Assumption of Charity is nothing more than a polite fiction: most people don’t have anything approaching a coherent worldview.

        2. Mary

          Original Sin.

          You must remember that the Catholic Church guarantees that there will be corrupt and disbelieving members until the end of the world. If you ever found that the Catholic Church was filled exclusively with living saints, you would know it to be a false church, teaching lies.

        3. amuchmoreexotic

          Well, if the hardware we’re running on is so corrupted by original sin that only 14% of Catholics can be properly Catholic, then I guess Jesus must have failed in his suicide mission.

        4. Mary

          Depends on his parameters. 14% is better than nothing, and indeed it is the defined doctrine of the Catholic Church that He would have died to save just one person.

          Also there is always the possibility of repentence.

        5. amuchmoreexotic

          Doesn’t disagreeing with the pope but calling yourself a Catholic go beyond original sin? Aren’t those people actually heretics? Shouldn’t you be raising an army to crush them like you did the Cathar dogs before them?

      1. Scott Alexander Post author

        Probably because Catholics use less contraception and so have more unwanted pregnancies. It may still be that Catholics have abortions in a lower percent of unwanted pregnancies than Protestants do (although both Protestants and Catholics seem pretty pro-life, so this statistic doesn’t seem very interesting one way or the other)

        Re: your last sentence – about half the time I link to someone’s blog, they get a trackback and come over here to see who’s talking about them and read the comments. Consider editing that out maybe?

    2. JJJ

      I bet there are liberals who would chance their position on the death penalty if they saw their child murdered.

      1. Multiheaded

        I bet that some opponents of death penalty, left or right, would want to avenge their loss personally, while not endorsing retributive justice as a legal norm or saying that everyone should take the law into their own hands (although they’d try to avoid a jail sentence and so on).
        Personally, I believe that the balance should be more in this direction – retributive justice sucks as a principle for the penal system, but personal vengeance at least provides some (psychological, social etc) benefits for the grieved parties at the perpetrator’s expense. Therefore, we certainly need to resist the temptation of retributive and “tough” laws, but at the same time might afford to be more lenient towards some kinds of vigilantism. (That’s also how it works on Anarres, btw.)

        1. Berry

          This is commonly known as the “Bartlett response” to the question Dukakis famously flubbed on during the Presidential debate.

      1. amuchmoreexotic

        It doesn’t seem like an urban legend to me, because there are many independent accounts of the phenomenon which aren’t just the same text with minor details changed

        Maybe Scott could ask around about this phenomenon within the medical community and get some first-hand accounts?

        1. Mary

          Urban legends do acquire many details around the substructure, even when people don’t have an obvious motive to elaborate them and make them different.

    3. Roman Davis

      I can see the utility in believing that most people are fucking idiots. It does seem to bear out some of the time. I see no utility, at least as a general measure in believing that all the idiots are on the side of me.

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