Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Abortion and meta-ethical subjective relativism

How does one approach a contentious, emotional issue such as abortion from the perspective of meta-ethical subjective relativism?

Some people are ethically offended by abortion to the same degree as I'm ethically offended by the murder of any born person. Some people, such as myself, are not at all ethically offended by abortion itself. I really don't care one way or the other: Have as many or as few abortions as you please. What offends me ethically is interfering with the mother's autonomy.

The fundamental principle of meta-ethical subjective relativism states that there is no matter of objective truth to either position. If abortion offends you more than interfering with the mother's autonomy—or vice-versa—that's just a fact about your consciousness. In just the same way, if murdering random people on the street offends you more than interfering with the autonomy of the murderer—or vice-versa—that's just a fact of your consciousness. Science can undermine specious rationalizations (no, a six-week-old embryo does not experience any sort of pain or pleasure) but it can't settle the fundamental question objectively, by appealing to real properties of real objects.

Now, it's determinably true that murdering people on the street offends almost everyone, hence it's unsurprising that laws against doing so are uncontroversially accepted. However, it's determinably true that abortion does not offend almost everyone; worse yet, any law permitting or prohibiting abortion will deeply offend half the population. We can't just take a vote and go with the majority; the issue is too emotional, too important for such a simple measure. It's not a matter of raising the sales tax half a cent to pay for a new baseball stadium.

We could, of course, pick up guns and start shooting. At some point, most everyone left alive will have the same attitude (and the rest will pretend pretty hard), and we can go back to the preponderance of opinion. This is not a particularly efficient method of resolving controversy, but we do sometimes have to resort to it. That's how, for instance, we answered the controversial questions: Should Germany rule Europe and Japan rule Asia? But we'd like to find a way to resolve these questions without killing a lot of people.

One method we can address these sorts of questions is by "raising" the level of abstraction until we can find a principle that most people agree to and that most people agree to apply to the direct issue. This is the method that we use to address controversial questions such as what religion to profess, what opinions to write and publish, whether or not to allow the police into a private residence, etc. I may have to grit my teeth at Ann Coulter, but my desire to put her in jail for her horrible, offensive opinions is outweighed by my desire for the abstract notion of freedom of speech.

So what abstract principles can we consider to control the issue of abortion? The pro-choice side has several good principles: principally medical privacy and the higher value of the mother's sapience vs. the embryo's non-sentience. These are all good principles; moreover, they're principles I think should be universal (applying in all cases); I agree with these principle regarding abortion as well as all cases other than abortion. To prohibit abortion would violate these principles, which I don't want.

But, of course, I really don't care much about embryos anyway, so my position is biased. What about the principles the pro-life side promulgates?

The stated principle is, of course, that an embryo is unequivocally human, and we should protect all human life: To kill an embryo is then the ethical equivalent of killing any human being. This is not an entirely bad principle, but does it hold up as a universal principle?

One argument is that it's simply more consistent and "simple" to protect all human life, the so-called "seamless garment of life." But this position, when examined closely, is not particularly consistent or simple, being filled with arbitrary boundaries: It's more of a ragged, patchwork garment. I tend to value human life, but not absolutely: I have no problem with self-defense nor with voluntary euthanasia, and, while I'm opposed to the death penalty, I just can't get too worked up about executing a guy such as Timothy McVeigh. (Note that it's a fallacy to argue that if you permit the killing of some human beings, you must therefore permit the killing of any human being, as if all our moral beliefs must be reducible to a single principle.)

I also have to ask: Is this "human life" principle actually sincere, or is it disingenuous? For some, of course, it's completely sincere, but is it sincere for everyone, or even most everyone? One strong counterargument comes from the popularity of rape and incest exceptions. It would be a fallacy of reduction to argue that permitting the killing a rape-generated fetus entails permitting the killing of a rape-generated born child, but even so, the notion that some particular kinds of sexual relations would render the resulting entity non-human (or render a human being outside the protection of law) seems bizarrely counterintuitive.

Another strong counterargument is that most (but again, not all; I'm dealing in generalizations here, not universals) pro-life proponents are either strongly against—or only tepidly for—easily accessible birth control. You do not typically see anti-abortion protesters handing out condoms outside the clinic.

Applying the scientific method in a sociological sense, the simplest explanation that accounts for all of these phenomena is that the pro-life position is (in general) strongly influenced by the principle that consensual non-procreative sex is wrong, and that women should suffer the natural consequences of their wrong acts by bearing the baby to term. I simply cannot support this principle: I wholeheartedly approve of people having all the consensual, non-procreative sex they want.

I'm convinced that if you removed this misogynist and anti-sex plank, the pro-life movement would collapse. You can't even pass an anti-abortion law in South Dakota without a rape and incest exception. I'm equally convinced the pro-life movement would collapse if this plank were made explicit and taken to its logical conclusion: legal prohibition not only of abortion but also homosexual, premarital and extra-marital sex, even perhaps prohibition of birth control and non-procreative martial sex.

The whole controversy is being sustained on lies and bullshit. Just add the values of honesty and sincerity, and it's easy to find a level of abstraction that we can all agree on.

12 comments:

  1. You're very right, Larry. The whole problem with the abortion "debate" is that both sides are, depending on one's preferential beliefs, equally valid.

    Abortion is, along with illegal immigration, the issue fraught with the most indecision and concern for me. I am deeply uncomfortable with the possibility that our understanding of what the fetus experiences in utero is too minimal and that we have, in abortion, a colossal mistake. But more than that, I fear that denying women a choice they have had for ages, especially when we can offer it to them far more safely than before, is an unacceptable infringement upon their autonomy.

    This is exacerbated by an absence of universal, quality peri- and neo-natal health care; a cultural stigma for out-of-wedlock birth; the known links between unwanted children and being abused and the cycle this creates; the lack of comprehensive sex and sexuality education; and an effective, efficient adoption system where people (gay, straight, single, and unionized) who want to be parents can be parents and putting up a child for adoption is seen as an act of love instead of pathology. Absent these, I have no choice but to privilege a woman's autonomy; to do otherwise is to turn, for some women, pregnancy into state-sanctioned chattel slavery.

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  2. The whole problem with the abortion "debate" is that both sides are, depending on one's preferential beliefs, equally valid.

    That's true, however, of many types of controversies, including, as noted, those such as freedom of speech, etc. which have to be resolved at a more general level of abstraction.

    I am deeply uncomfortable with the possibility that our understanding of what the fetus experiences in utero is too minimal and that we have, in abortion, a colossal mistake.

    I have to say, I don't share your discomfort. I feel pretty confident that experience is an abstract property of neurology, and that at least up through the first trimester, there's simply no neurology worth speaking of. If we are making any mistake here, it is ethical, not scientific.

    [prohibition of abortion] is an unacceptable infringement upon their autonomy.

    All laws entail an infringement of autonomy. It's worth noting that finding such infringement in this case acceptable or unacceptable is a conclusion, either by directly comparing the moral value of the life of the fetus to the mother's autonomy, or by indirectly, abstractly, comparing some principle with its antithesis.

    This is exacerbated by an absence of universal, quality peri- and neo-natal health care; a cultural stigma for out-of-wedlock birth; the known links between unwanted children and being abused and the cycle this creates; the lack of comprehensive sex and sexuality education; and an effective, efficient adoption system where people (gay, straight, single, and unionized) who want to be parents can be parents and putting up a child for adoption is seen as an act of love instead of pathology.

    I don't think the issue of abortion is exacerbated by such considerations, I think fundamental anti-sex attitudes underly all of these positions. "Why should I spend my hard-earned money to take care of some immoral slut bitch's brats?"

    Absent these, I have no choice but to privilege a woman's autonomy; to do otherwise is to turn, for some women, pregnancy into state-sanctioned chattel slavery.

    That's another excellent general principle: it's pretty damn hard for me to tell the difference between compelled pregnancy and chattel slavery.

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  3. This is similar to an argument at Alas, a Blog.

    However, the fact that some people propose weak arguments for a proposition has no bearing on the truth of the proposition itself. After all, plenty of people made arguments intending to show how heavier-than-air flying machines could work, and the great majority of these arguments proved to be unfounded. What bearing did this fact have on evaluating the possibility of heavier-than-air flying machines in general?

    That said, I find some merit in the rape exception to abortion bans.

    While generally US tort law does not impose any duty to aid another person, it does impose a duty on parents/guardians to aid their children/wards. Restatement (Second) of Torts, §§ 314 and 314A (1965). Presumably this duty is imposed on the theory of consent: no one is required to become a parent/guardian, but if you do so choose, you assume certain obligations in the process.

    What is the act by which one “chooses” to become a parent? Consensual sex seems to be one threshold. A father cannot absolve himself of legal liability to provide for his offspring simply by saying, after impregnating a women, that he does not consent to becoming a father. Legally the time for him to exercise his lack of consent was at the time of sex. I see no reason the law could not impose a similar requirement on the woman.

    Of course, where sex occurs without consent, then this analysis no longer applies. At that point, standard assumptions about a duty to aid apply, and if the woman chooses no to extend aid to a fetus, that’s her choice.

    Incest is a curious cultural taboo. Sure, incest increases the risk of birth defects, but as I understand it the risk isn’t greater than other legal behaviors, such as smoking or drinking while pregnant. Rather, I suspect the rationale for the incest exception is related to the rationale for the rape exception: Incest is assumed to be the result of rape, but we want to spare a woman the need to accuse a family member of rape.

    Ultimately, I note that US tort law (and prudent sense) rarely imposes a duty for one anyone to dedicate their body to the service of another against that person’s will. We don’t require a parent to give a kidney, or even a pint of blood, to help an child, so why would we require a pregnant woman to dedicate her body for nine months for the aid of a child (even conceding the argument that a fetus is a child)?

    Basically, anti-abortion laws resemble the draft. I don’t know that such intrusions on autonomy can never be justified, but it should require some extraordinary social emergency. If humans were dying out, maybe anti-abortion laws would be warranted in the interest of biological diversity. But that seems a pretty remote possibility today.

    nobody.really

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  4. I couldn't agree more, but I would like to add something:

    ... and that women should suffer the natural consequences of their wrong acts by bearing the baby to term.

    For the anti-choice movement, pregnancy isn't so much a "natural consequence" as it is a social punishment enforced by the males who "know better" in a female's life. Tradition-based societies rely heavily on negative and demeaning stereotypes to keep women subordinate to men, who are generally seen as shepherds and caregivers, rather than partners and associates in the human experience.

    Forcing a pregnant woman into either decision is morally reprehensible, but the anti-choice side is really about punishment and using pregnancy as a way to subjugate women and maintain power.

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  5. Kelly: I agree. I'm using "natural consequences" only in the descriptive sense, as opposed to artificial consequences such as imprisonment.

    [T]he anti-choice side is really about punishment and using pregnancy as a way to subjugate women and maintain power.

    No argument there.

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  6. Yes, I have run into the "pregnancy is punishment" crowd when discussing abortion with pro-lifers.

    The ultimate irony being that their attempts to keep sexual education out of schools and their attempts to spread MISinformation, such as saying that condoms are basically useless (thus inducing those who listen not to bother using them because why use them if they both make it feel less nice and also don't help anyway) results in more pregnancies.

    That's why they are upset about birthcontrol pills and such - that takes away the "punishment" for having lots of fun sex.

    Damn, where's that colony ship when I need it?

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  7. I like the basic premise of moving higher abstractions as a way of resolving the thorny issues.

    I don't agree with some posters that the arguments on both sides of the debate are equally valid without allowing some extraordinary irrationality - ie: claiming some sort of mystical "ensoulment" at conception for instance (which is weak even theologically).

    The bits that make a human brain "work", specifically a cortex, myelinization of nerves and the whole raft of neurotransmitter hormones (like Norepinephrine, Dopamine, Serotonin and the Neuromodulators) et al. are not fully in place until the THIRD trimester. Month 8 or so.

    Igf we want to err on the VERY safe side (which I think makes senses here), most of the gross physical structures are present by the end of the 6th month or so. ALTHOUGH, there is NO reason to think that they function meaningfully at that time. Before that, Fetuses simply do not have the basic equipment required to experience ANYTHING. In other words, they aren't a 'person' in any non-religious sense of the word. Yes, they look superficially like a person, they are 'alive' in the sense that your pancreas is 'alive', but without the machinery of 'personhood' (a functioning Brain), they're just a complicated, non-viable collection of developing organs existing within the context of the mother (who IS, incontrovertibly, a person).

    Quasi-Responsive movements and reflexes (which are demonstrably present quite a lot earlier - and which form the basis of some truly horrific propaganda, particularly the 'Silent Scream' images and all that hogwash) only require a rudimentary spinal chord and a thalamus.

    Also, as a male who has to put up with NONE of this crap, I am unwilling to lend my voice (other than in a purely advisory capacity) to efforts to legislate against even late term abortions; even if I think they might be justified in the abstract.

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  8. Gregory: I don't agree with some posters that the arguments on both sides of the debate are equally valid.

    Not all the arguments are equally valid, but the ethical positions of both sides are fundamentally matters of opinion, not of objective truth.

    You are of course absolutely correct that many pro-life advocates attempt to rationalize their ethical position using unsound science.

    In other words, they aren't a 'person' in any non-religious sense of the word.

    Not to be a devil's advocate, but your position assumes that it's a matter of objective truth that personhood derives from neurology. While I happen to share that opinion, I don't think it's a matter of objective truth.

    There are nontrivial objective criteria which would put fetuses in the same class as born human beings and exclude all intuitively non-human entities. Such criteria would be no more arbitrary than the uncontroversial criteria that includes young children and excludes sapient adult animals such as chimps, orangs and dolphins.

    The question of course, is which set of criteria to attach ethical importance to.

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  9. "Not to be a devil's advocate, but your position assumes that it's a matter of objective truth that personhood derives from neurology. While I happen to share that opinion, I don't think it's a matter of objective truth."

    There's some question of whether ANY argument could be considered 'objective truth' applying 'subjective relativism'.

    A Functioning Brain IS the standard we use at the other end of life to determine whether it's worth keeping someone alive.

    I think as well that the lack of the mechanisms required to sustain a subjective, independent experience is a pretty big bright line. Of course, 'objectively' it is extremely difficult to PROVE the existence of any subjective experience other than our own and even that is suspect...

    My argument is not a very 'abstract' (high level) argument - it mostly counters the visceral "OMG - you're torturing and shredding BABIES!" hysterics. Not even true in the second trimester. 1st Trimester? It's fingernail paring so far as inconveniencing another being is concerned.

    Whereas, forcing a pregnancy to term very clearly 'inconveniences' if not fully threatens the life of another being

    I don't see how the opposite position could be argued without invoking irrationality or sentimentality ("it sorta LOOKS like a BABY!" "Yeah, so does a cabbage patch doll. Nobody's HOME.")

    Please understand too - I'm not talking about WANTED pregnancies here: a wanted fetus is imbued (completely externally!) with the hopes and dreams of the parents and is therefore an exceedingly precious thing.

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  10. There's some question of whether ANY argument could be considered 'objective truth' applying 'subjective relativism'.

    There's no question at all: No argument can establish the objective truth of a preference. Only the non-preferential physical facts of reality are matters of objective truth.

    A Functioning Brain IS the standard we use at the other end of life to determine whether it's worth keeping someone alive.

    Of course. I told you that I share your opinion about the neurological basis of personhood. I'm just saying that it's an opinion, a preference, not a physical fact.

    Of course, 'objectively' it is extremely difficult to PROVE the existence of any subjective experience other than our own and even that is suspect...

    That's simply not the case. It's no harder to prove the existence of subjective experience (so long as one does not define "subjective experience" as a priori mystical) as it is to prove the existence of gravity or atoms.

    It's impossible to be certain that others have subjective experiences, but it's impossible to be certain about any scientific truth.

    To summarize: It's a scientific truth that adult humans and human children older than about two are sapient, i.e. self-aware. It's a scientific truth that adults, children and infants are sentient, i.e. experience pain and pleasure. It's a scientific truth that embryos 12 weeks and younger are definitely not sentient. (The sentience of fetuses from 13-36 weeks is a matter of scientific controversy.)

    It's also a matter of scientific truth that there are objective (non-minded) criteria that include adults, children, and infants as well as human fetuses, embryos and blastocysts, and include nothing else.

    To disambiguate these two approaches, let's call the first criterion "sentience", and the second criterion "humanity".

    It is a matter of opinion—and I want to stress that it's an opinion I personally share—and not scientific truth, that "sentience" is an essential criterion for ethical decisions about human beings.

    However, to believe otherwise, to employ only the "humanity" criterion and completely ignore the "sentience" criterion for ethical decisions does not entail a logical contradiction, nor does it contradict any observed fact. As noted by you, me, and everyone else here, employing only the "humanity" criterion leads to some very bizarre conclusions about ethics, conclusions that we all find quite distasteful, but it is not in any sense "false".

    (It is also the case that pro-life advocates appear to often buy into the "sentience" criterion, and go on to misrepresent the scientific truth (i.e. lie) to fallaciously include embryos and fetuses into the definition.)

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  11. "The sentience of fetuses from 13-36 weeks is a matter of scientific controversy."

    There is undoubtedly a controversy.

    However, before the third trimester, it is NOT a SCIENTIFIC controversy.

    Show me evidence of higher cognitive function (not brainstem mediated twitches) prior to 20 weeks, and we can call it a scientific controversy.

    Anyway, bit of a hijack, horse is thoroughly beaten, I'll stop after this...

    I'm usually just lurking, but I am deeply concerned about how misinformation and deliberately manufactured controversy is used to reframe debate in this and other matters.

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  12. However, before the third trimester, it is NOT a SCIENTIFIC controversy.

    You're probably right. I'm not myself qualified to judge.

    Your comments in this regard are entirely appropriate, and not at all a hijack.

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