Tag Archives: abortion

Trump & Abortion

Abortion is a contentious matter in the United States and politicians must expect to answer questions about their position. As such, Trump should have been prepared when the questions turned to abortion during Chris Matthews interview of him on MSNBC.

While Trump has expressed a pro-choice position in the past, he told Matthews that he was now pro-life. When Matthews inquired about the legal implications of an abortion ban in terms of punishing women, Trump asserted that the “answer is that there has to be some form of punishment, yeah.” Since Trump has routinely been rewarded for talking tough and expressing misogynistic views, he was probably genuinely surprised when he experienced a broad backlash for his remarks—most especially from anti-abortion advocates.

In response to this backlash, Trump’s campaign released a statement saying: “If Congress were to pass legislation making abortion illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban abortion under state and federal law, the doctor or any other person performing this illegal act upon a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.”

Interestingly enough, many anti-abortion advocates hold to this view as well (at least in public statements): women should not be punished for getting illegal abortions and the punishment should be limited to the abortion provider.

While some might claim that Trump’s initial position was an expression of misogyny, his inference was certainly justified given the usual approach to illegal actions. If abortion was criminalized and crimes should be punished, then it would follow that a woman who chose to have an abortion should be punished. This is the case with other crimes.

To use an obvious analogy, if Sally hires Jean to kill Jack, then Sally has committed a crime and should be punished for her role in it. A just court would and should punish Sally for her role in this crime. It would be patently absurd for someone to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making murder illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban murder under state and federal law, the assassin or any other person performing this illegal act for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” As such, if abortion were a crime (which opponents often consider murder), then it follows that the woman should also be punished.

Another analogy is with illegal drugs. If Sally buys illegal cocaine from Jean, then Sally has also committed a crime and should be punished.  It would be ridiculous to say “If Congress were to pass legislation making cocaine illegal and the federal courts upheld this legislation, or any state were permitted to ban cocaine under state and federal law, the drug dealer or any other person performing this illegal act (providing cocaine) for a woman would be held legally responsible, not the woman.” Once again, if abortion were a crime, then the woman should also be punished.

Obviously, the analogies could continue through a multitude of crimes, thus showing that the position advocated by Trump and others is contrary to the usual workings of justice, namely that those participating in a crime are to be punished. That said, there is a way to hold to the position that the woman should not be punished and the abortion provider should.

Holding this position requires asserting that the woman lacks agency in the crime and is thus not responsible. One approach, which is not uncommon, is to argue that women in general lack agency. This sort of view was used to justify, for example, denying women the right to vote and treating them as property.

This approach would be analogous to that taken by some states in regards to child prostitution. Although prostitution is a crime, children lack the agency to consent to sexual relations and are thus not responsible for the crime. Instead, those providing or purchasing the sexual services are responsible for the crime. As such, they should be punished and the children should not.

While some might find this approach appealing, it is obviously problematic. One rather absurd implication is that denying that women have agency would give them this legal status across the board—thus undermining the possibility of fully holding women accountable for crimes they commit. There are, of course, so many other problems with this approach that it has no legitimate appeal.

Another option is to accept that while women have agency, they generally lack such agency when it comes to choosing to have an abortion. Or, rather, women do not truly choose to have abortions—they are coerced, tricked or beguiled into having them. If this were generally true, then the position that women should not be punished for illegal abortions while those performing them should be punished would be reasonable.

To use an analogy, if Jean kidnaped Sally and her daughter, then killed the daughter, Jean would be the criminal and Sally would be a victim. As such, Sally should obviously not be punished. The challenge is, of course, to show that abortion providers generally use coercion to compel women to get abortions against their will. This, however, seems contrary to the facts.

As another analogy, if Jean was able to beguile Sally into believing she was in terrible danger from Jane and only Jean could save her at that moment by killing Jane, then Sally should not be punished for agreeing to this. Likewise, if abortion providers beguile and trick women into having abortions that they would not have had without being under the mesmeric influence of the abortion providers, then women who have illegal abortions should not be punished. What would need to be shown is that abortion providers have such powers to beguile. This also seems unlikely.

It could be claimed that surely there are cases in which women are coerced or beguiled into having abortions against their will. This, I accept, probably does happen. I am also confident that people are also coerced or beguiled into committing other crimes. As with such cases, I would agree that the person who is forced or beguiled into participating in a crime should have any punishment reduced or eliminated based on the degree to which they lacked agency. Obviously enough, those that coerce or beguile people into crimes should be subject to punishment proportional to their contribution to the crime. This all assumes that the crimes are morally worthy of punishment—crime is a matter of law and there can be unjust laws.

Lest anyone be confused about my overall position, I would prefer that there were fewer abortions (as argued in another essay). But, I do accept that abortion is generally morally acceptable under the current social conditions. As such, I oppose banning abortion and certainly oppose punishing abortion providers or women who have abortions. My point is that those who wish to criminalize abortion need to accept that the punishment of women is entailed by this view. As such, the position that abortion is a crime and that abortion providers should be punished while women should not be punished for their role in the “crime” is an inconsistent and untenable position. This, naturally enough, is for cases in which abortion is not the result of coercion or deception.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Pro-Life vs Anti-Abortion

Like almost everyone else, I would prefer that there were far fewer abortions. While this might seem like a problematic claim to some, it actually is obviously true. People who oppose abortion obviously want there to be fewer abortions. However, those who are pro-choice are almost always not pro-abortion. That is, they do not want abortions to occur—they would prefer that women did not end up in situations where they see abortion as the best option.

While I do not fall into the pro-life camp in terms of political labelling, I do take a position in favor of life. To be specific, I prefer to avoid killing when doing so is possible and I fully accept that killing anything is an act of some moral significance. In some case, the ethics of killing are easy: I have no issue with killing the bacteria that are working hard to kill me and I accept the need to kill other living things in order to use them as food. In other case, like abortion, the ethics are rather more challenging. After all, abortion involves killing a potential human being and this is clearly an act with great moral significance. Because I have a general opposition to killing, I have the obvious general opposition to abortion. However, I do accept that killing can be morally justified and believe this does apply to certain cases of abortion. As such, I favor reducing the number abortions and support certain means of doing so. I do not, however, favor it being banned.

For those who follow abortion in American politics, the usual means of reducing abortions are aimed at making it harder for women to get abortions. Numerous states have passed laws requiring waiting periods and have imposed medically unwarranted restrictions on abortion clinics aimed at closing them. I am completely opposed to these means of reducing the number of abortions. While I have various reasons supporting my view, my main reason is that these approaches put the burden almost entirely on the woman. Roughly put, it is the woman who bears most of the cost of the moral and religious views of those who impose such restrictions. These costs can be extremely high and not only in terms of the financial cost.

The moral foundation for my opposition to this method of reducing abortions is based on the fact that such imposition is unfair and the fact that this method imposes an extremely high cost on women and society as a whole. It is the wrong way to reduce the number of abortions. As such, I favor approaches that would reduce the number of abortions while distributing the cost more fairly and also reducing the cost to women and society as a whole. To this end, I offer the following general proposals.

The first is doing what is required to reduce sexual violence against women—this would reduce the number of abortions and, rather importantly, make the world safer for women.

The second is to mandate effective and realistic sex education for the youth and also make effective contraception readily accessible. If people have a better understanding of sex and have access to the means to prevent pregnancy, there will be fewer unwanted pregnancies and hence fewer abortions. This has other obvious benefits, although some people do oppose birth control.

The third is to provide greater social support for mothers and children. This would include such things as affordable day car for all working mothers, financial support for lower income mothers, and other support that would make raising a child less of a financial burden. This would reduce the number of abortions by making the choice to have the child more viable.

The third is to address the numerous aspects of gender inequality that burden women. These include wage inequality, the glass ceiling, and other such things that contribute to making it difficult for women to have a family and a career. This would lower the number of abortions by making being a woman and a mother less of a career handicap, thus giving women a greater opportunity to choose to continue an unplanned pregnancy.

There are, of course, some obvious objections against these proposals. The first is that doing so would require the use of public money. The “advantage” of the usual approaches is that they are initially free for the state and the cost is put upon the women. Such cost shifting is beloved by the morally shifty. As such, it comes down to the ethics of deciding who should bear the burden and cost. Being pro-life rather than anti-abortion, I hold that the cost should be shared—I am willing to pay a price for my principles rather than expecting others to bear that cost.

The second objection is that these approaches would require some radical changes to society. Those who oppose fairness and prefer the “traditional” approach of keeping the women burdened will find this problematic. However, they would seem to be wrong about this—morally defending unfairness is rather challenging.

The third objection is that this approach will still allow abortions to occur—there is no proposal to impose new restrictions or ban abortion. My reply is that I do acknowledge that it would be preferable to have no abortions—just like it would be preferable to never have to harm anyone or anything in any other context. However, if it is accepted that a person’s interests can warrant harming another living being, then there are clear grounds for warranting abortion in many cases. As such, while I favor reducing the need for abortion, I cannot favor eliminating it—anymore than I can support a total rejection of ever doing harm. I do, of course, recognize that such complete pacifism could be morally commendable.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

The Texas Anti-Abortion Law & Lies

English: Seal of Texas

In 2013 Texas passed a law imposing strict conditions on abortion providers and justified it by asserting that its intent was to improve patient safety. Opponents contend that it is aimed at restricting abortion and that there is no medical justification for the law. The issue has reached the Supreme Court which is currently down to eight justices due to the death of Antonin Scalia. As always, the battle over abortion is philosophically interesting.

One rather interesting matter is the fact that proponents of the law insist that it is solely intended to improve the safety of women. One reason for this is that openly asserting that the law is intended to restrict abortion would be politically and legally problematic. After all, the Supreme Court has consistently held that women do have a right to abortion and that laws cannot impose an undue burden on women. Hence, the law is presented as aimed at addressing a health issue rather than restricting abortion. This leads to the question of whether or not the claim about the intent of the law is plausible.

Opponents of the law have pointed out a blatant inconsistency: procedures that impose more risk than abortion (such as a colonoscopy) do not face the restrictions imposed on abortion. If the true intent was to protect the health of patients, then the same restrictions would be applied to procedures that presented equal or greater risk. While it might be argued that the legislature decided to just address one procedure at a time, they have had ample time to advance bills covering other procedures. Their failure to act consistently shows rather conclusively that the law is an anti-abortion law, despite the claim that it is motivated by health concerns.

Opponents have also pointed out that the medical experts and professional medical organizations uniformly hold that there is no medical justification for the law. As should be expected, supporters of the law claim that they know better than the medical experts. While experts are not always right, the majority opinion of the qualified experts is the most reasonable thing to accept as true. Especially when the opposing view is put forth by non-experts who have a clear bias in the matter (they are anti-abortion). Thus, by the reasonable standards of freshmen level critical thinking, the rational choice is to believe the medical experts. As such, the medical justification for the bill is unfounded and this would seem to leave as its only plausible goal the restriction of abortion.

It could be argued that the supporters of the law are truly motivated by concerns about health and truly believe that the law is in accord with best medical practices. This would require attributing to such supporters the inability to understand the principle of consistency and either ignorance of the medical facts or an unfounded rejection of experts.

A more plausible explanation is that the supporters are being disingenuous—they are well aware of the inconsistency and medical facts and support the law because it is an effective means of creating undue burdens on women seeking abortion.

If supporters are engaged in lying to defend the law, then the moral matter of these lies becomes a point of concern. On the face of it, such deception would seem to be morally wrong—especially lies told by legislators to the public.  A moral person, one might argue, would be honest about the facts and her intent and would not resort to duplicity.

This could be countered by appealing to the consequences of the lies. The idea is that the good done (in terms of reducing the number of abortions) would outweigh any evil arising from the lying. That is, this could be defended on the grounds of lying for a good cause. This assumes many things, such as abortion being morally wrong and the principle that the consequences of a lie can morally justify the lie.

Another approach to justifying the lies is to accept that the lies are wrong, but that the evil of abortion cannot be countered if one is honest about the facts and one’s intentions. The Supreme Court has ruled that the state cannot constitutionally put an undue burden on a woman seeking an abortion. Justice Stevens has defined “undue burden” in terms of its severity as well as lacking “a legitimate, rational justification.” In the case of the Texas law, if the honest admission was made that the law was intended to make accessing abortion as difficult as possible and that there is no medical basis for the law, then it would be easy enough to show that it would fail the undue burden test. After all, this admission would be a direct admission of such a failure.

However, if the claim is made that the law is intended to protect the health of women and is based on medical considerations, then it becomes more difficult to establish the existence of an undue burden. It could thus be argued that opponents of abortion are required to lie in order to limit abortion. As such, it is the law of the land (as interpreted) that is making them lie—so they are not morally to blame. They have no choice if they are to oppose what they regard as a great evil.

One counter is that the law is not making them lie—they can be truthful about their anti-abortion law. They just need to provide a legitimate, rational justification for imposing the restrictions they wish to impose. This seems like a reasonable requirement for any law. After all, if no legitimate, rational justification can be provided, then the law would be illegitimate and unjustified.

A possible counter to this is to claim that Roe v. Wade has set a precedent making it impossible to provide legitimate, rational justifications for the restrictions they wish to impose. As such, they must lie to achieve their end.

The reply to this is that they do not need to lie—they need to try to get Roe v. Wade overturned. This, of course, will result in the counter that this either cannot be done or, at the very least, will take too long—hence they need to lie now and perhaps forever in order to achieve their goal of restricting abortion. While this can be seen as a reasonable position, there is certainly something problematic about using systematic lying to achieve an allegedly moral end.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Terraforming & Abortion

Copied from Image:MarsTransitionV.jpg: "....

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While terraforming and abortion are both subjects of moral debate, they would seem to have little else in common. However, some of the moral arguments used to justify abortion can be used to justify terraforming. These arguments will be given due consideration.

Briefly put, terraforming is the process of making a planet more earthlike. While this is still mostly a matter of science fiction, serious consideration has been given to how Mars, for example, might be changed to make it more compatible with terrestrial life. While there are some moral concerns with terraforming dead worlds, the main moral worries involve planets that already have life—or, at the very least, real potential for the emergence of life. If a world needs to be terraformed for human habitation, such terraforming is likely to prove harmful or even fatal for the indigenous life. For example, changing the atmosphere of a world to match that of earth would probably be problematic for whatever was breathing the original atmosphere. While it can be argued that there might be cases in which terraforming benefits the local life, I will focus on terraforming that exterminates the local life. I call this terminal terraforming.

One way to look at such terminal terraforming is to consider it as analogous to abortion. As will be shown, there are some important differences between the two—but for now I will focus on the moral similarities.

One stock type of argument in favor of the moral acceptability of abortion is the status argument. While these arguments take various forms, the gist is that the termination of a pregnancy is morally acceptable on the grounds that the woman has a superior moral status to the aborted entity (readers are free to use whichever term they prefer—I am endeavoring to use neutral terms to avoid begging the question). This sort of argument is very similar to the sort used by St. Aquinas and St. Augustine to morally justify killing plants and animals for food. Roughly put, humans are better than animals, so it is acceptable for us to harm them when we need to do so.

This argument can be pressed into use to justify terminal terraforming: if the indigenous life has less moral status than the terraforming species, then this would provide the grounds for arguing that the terraforming is morally acceptable.

The status argument has numerous variations. One common version uses the notion of rights—the rights of the woman outweigh the rights (if any) of the aborted entity. This is because the woman has the superior moral status. This argument is also commonly used to justify killing animals for food or sport—while they have some rights (maybe), the rights of humans’ trump those of animals.

In the case of terraforming, a similar sort of appeal to rights could be used to justify terminal terraforming. For example, if humans need to expand to a world that has only single-celled life, then the rights of humans would outweigh the rights of those creatures.

Another common version uses the notion of utilitarianism: the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the woman is weighed against the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the aborted entity. Those favoring this argument note that the interests, happiness and unhappiness of the woman far outweigh that of the aborted entity—usually because it lacks the capacities of an adult. Not surprisingly, this sort of argument is also used to justify the killing of animals. For example, it is often argued that the happiness people get from eating meat outweighs the unhappiness of the animals that are to be eaten.

As with the other status arguments, this can also be used to justify terraforming. As with all utilitarian arguments, it would involve weighing the happiness and unhappiness of the involved parties. If the life on the planet to be terraformed had less capacities than humans in regard to happiness and unhappiness (such as world whose highest form of life is the alien equivalent of algae), then it would be morally acceptable for humans to terraform that world. Or so it could be argued.

The status argument is sometimes itself supported by an argument focusing on the difference between actuality and potentiality. While the entity to be aborted is a potential person (on some views), it is not an actual person. Since the woman is an actual person, she has the higher status. The philosophical discussions of the potential versus the actual are rather old and are a matter of metaphysics. However, the argument can be made without a journey into the metaphysical realm simply by using the intuitive notions of potentiality and actuality. For example, an actual masterpiece of painting has higher worth than the blank canvas and unused paint that constitute a potential masterpiece. This sort of argument can also be used to justify terraforming on worlds whose lifeforms are not (yet) people and also, obviously enough, on worlds that merely have the potential of producing life.

While the analogy between the two has merit, there are some rather obvious ways to try to break the comparison. One obvious point is that in the case of abortion, the woman is the “owner” of the body where the aborted entity used to live. It is this relation that is often used to morally warrant abortion and to provide a moral distinction between a woman choosing to have an abortion and someone else who kills the product of conception.

When humans arrive to terraform a world that already has life, the life that lives there already “owns” the world and hence humans cannot claim that special relation that would justify choosing to kill. Instead, the situation would be more similar to killing the life within another person and this would presumably change the ethics of the situation.

Another important difference is that while abortion (typically) kills just one entity, terraforming would (typically) wipe out entire species. As such, terraforming of this sort would be analogous to aborting all pregnancies and exterminating the human race—as opposed to the termination of some pregnancies. This moral concern is, obviously enough, the same as the concern about human caused extinction here on earth. While people are concerned about the death of individual entities, there is the view that the extermination of a species is something morally worse than the death of all the individuals (that is, the wrong of extinction is not merely a sum of the wrong of all the individual deaths.

These considerations show that the analogy does have obvious problems. That said, there still seems to be a core moral concern that connects abortion and terraforming: what (if anything) morally justifies killing on the grounds of (alleged) superior moral status?

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

The Left’s Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.

I.

In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.

II.

The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.

III.

As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.

IV.

If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.

V.

The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.

VI.

Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.

VII.

An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:

One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?

In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.

VIII.

In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

[My Amazon author page]

The people we don’t want to stand with: Free speech – again – and the troubling case of Troy Newman

Russell Blackford, University of Newcastle

In previous Cogito posts, I have defended freedom of speech, interpreted in a broad, non-legalistic sense. For example, I have defended Peter Singer’s liberty to express his controversial views on issues at the beginning and end of life. As I’ve acknowledged, I am sympathetic to Singer’s viewpoint, but I would also wish to defend philosophical bioethicists who argue for positions differing greatly from mine.

But what if we’re dealing with individuals whose views are, by my lights, truly extreme and deplorable? In responding to such outliers, what sorts of lines should we draw? The current controversy in Australia over anti-abortion campaigner, Troy Newman, brings those questions into focus.

Newman banned from Australia

As has been widely reported, several Labor politicians recently requested that Newman be prevented from visiting Australia for a ten-day tour under the auspices of Right to Life Australia. The request was subsequently granted, and Newman’s visa was cancelled under the Migration Act.

In a further twist, he travelled to Australia on a United Airlines flight, only to be detained by Australian Border Force officials at Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne. As I write, he is taking action in the High Court in an attempt to avoid deportation. Whether or not this proves successful, Newman has been turned into a something of martyr, not to mention a cause célèbre, for his views.

Going to extremes

Troy Newman is president of an American anti-abortion organisation called Operation Rescue. According to press reports, he has advocated the death penalty for carrying out an abortion (which he regards as a form of murder) in his co-authored book, with Cheryl Sullenger, Their Blood Cries Out. Perhaps even more troubling, he protested in 2003 at the execution of convicted murderer Paul Jennings Hill – not because he opposes the death penalty (he evidently does not), but because he saw some justification in the murders committed by Hill in 1994. Hill’s victims were the doctor at an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Florida, and the doctor’s bodyguard.

Generally, however, Newman does not appear to advocate direct violence by private individuals. He claims to have no intention of inciting or promoting such acts. Rather, he says, he wants to prohibit abortion through the legal system.

For the record, I certainly don’t regard abortion as murder, or even as something that merits social condemnation. In addition, I oppose the death penalty even for murder. As I see things, furthermore, women’s reproductive rights are required for the large-scale and ongoing social transition rightly demanded by the feminist movement. Thus, my substantive views on abortion could scarcely be more different from Newman’s.

In the past, I have been pleased to say that I stand with Peter Singer when attempts are made to prevent him speaking. Like many other people throughout the world, I also used the Twitter hashtag #JeSuisCharlie when the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, was attacked by Islamist terrorists and many of its staff were murdered. Indeed, I still support Charlie Hebdo. In an article published in Free Inquiry, however, I noted that things would be somewhat different if Charlie Hebdo really were a racist, and otherwise vicious, publication as claimed by many of its critics. In those circumstances, we might defend its legal right to publish; surely, however, we’d be less comfortable about using slogans that express solidarity.

To say the least, I am not comfortable about expressing any solidarity with the likes of Newman. Outright expressions of solidarity suggest, if not overall approval, at least an implication that someone is a valued participant in public debate. Judging by reports, Newman’s ideas are so repugnant that I’d not want to give any impression of somehow being on his side or of valuing his contribution to discussion in the public square.

A liberal response

But does it follow that Newman should be prevented from touring Australia to promote his political views?

He is free to express them in his own country, the United States, so actions such as those taken by the Australian authorities cannot totally silence him. Nonetheless, he is being prevented from delivering his message to an Australian audience in the way that he has chosen (and which might be effective). We can assume that he and his affiliated organisations would not be interested in the planned tour unless they expected it to win hearts and minds (or at least to boost the zeal and morale of the local anti-abortion tribe).

It’s futile, then, trying to argue that stopping his Australian tour has no implications related to free speech. Newman and his associates are being denied platforms that are otherwise available to them and are clearly important to their plans. This restricts their ability to spread opinions and arguments about the legality or otherwise of abortion, and about what penalties should apply to it if it’s illegal.

Newman and his associates should be able to express their views publicly. I still maintain, as I’ve said in regard to other cases such as that of Geert Wilders when he sought to visit the UK, that the public authorities should bear a heavy burden before they can justify interfering with the liberties of individuals in response to things that the individuals have said, or in an effort to pre-empt things that the individuals are likely to say.

As I acknowledged in respect of the decision (duly overturned) to keep Wilders out of the UK, entry into a foreign country could be considered a privilege, rather than a right. However, as I quickly added, that distinction is simplistic. Generally speaking, we all have the legitimate expectation that we will be allowed to travel from one country to another for peaceful purposes such as tours involving lectures and media appearances.

I am not doubting that there can exceptional situations, particularly where there is a very high risk of imminent violent lawlessness. But so far as I am currently aware, there is little, if anything, in the way of evidence that Newman planned to cross the line into inciting private acts of violence against any specific abortion providers or even against abortion providers as a general class. It appears to be his practice not to call for the commission of violent acts except under the authority of the law, i.e. as punishments when someone is convicted of a crime.

Despite Newman’s past statement in defence of Hill’s murders, there is no evidence that he planned to urge murders, or any other acts of private violence, while in Australia. But if I’m wrong about that – if some convincing evidence exists that he was intending to incite or promote private violence – I at least hope that the facts will become available to the public as a matter of urgency.

For now, it appears that the ban on Newman’s entry to Australia was solely or largely because of his views as to what the law should be in respect of abortion. In short, he was banned solely or largely for advocating political views deemed by the Australian federal authorities to be intolerable.

I do not feel conflicted, therefore, in stating clearly that Newman should not have been denied a visa solely or largely for his political views. Nor should his publications, including Their Blood Cries Out, be censored or prohibited. He should have a legal right to express even extreme, repugnant, outrageous views on public policy relating to abortion. This is quintessentially political speech, which merits especially strong legal and social protection from political suppression.

I would like to see views such as Newman’s pushed to the margins of what is accorded any credibility in a modern liberal democracy such as Australia. But it’s a further, far more drastic, step to attempt to suppress his views by political force, or to punish him for them. That is manifestly authoritarian. Even if it survives a High Court challenge, this step should not be taken by any government of a modern liberal democracy.

Ironies

One irony is that Newman is, himself, a blatant authoritarian. He seeks criminalisation, and suggests harsh punishment, for what should – at least in my view of the world – be very private choices. Thus, we see a hardline authoritarian activist turning into a poster boy for free speech. Well done, Australia! Newman is now well placed, in his future efforts, to invoke a liberal understanding of the role of the state that he does not profess in his own activism.

Fine distinctions can be made within liberal thought as to when, how, and how far we must tolerate the intolerant. Newman can, however, easily cut through all of that. As events have unfolded, he can claim, quite accurately, that he has been treated in an illiberal manner during his efforts to enter Australia and promote his ideas.

Blocking his proposed tour may even have perverse results: the eventual effect will be to give more publicity to his views than if he had simply been allowed to travel and speak relatively quietly.

Complications

It does not follow that someone as divisive as Newman would be an appropriate choice as, say, a university’s graduation speaker, or as someone to receive an honorary degree. More generally, freedom of speech does not require access to highly privileged platforms and other honours. Normally, however, it should give some protection against being excluded from entry to an entire country where you are scheduled to speak.

It is also worth insisting that there are limits to the concept of free speech. At its foundation is the right to express ideas on general issues, which certainly includes political issues such as the legality of abortion. It does not follow that the ideas can be expressed at any time, in any place, or in any manner whatsoever. I cannot, for example, express my opposition to a disliked politician’s election by burning down her house.

Keeping someone out of an entire country because of what he might say on general issues (or for what he has said in the past) is illiberal. It does not follow that it would be illiberal to prevent him from publishing false, serious and defamatory allegations about a particular individual, perhaps in his own efforts to silence an opponent. Issues to do with free speech are not simple and they are not best handled with absolutist zeal.

In the current situation, Newman and his associates should have the right to give speeches and lectures calling for the prohibition of abortion and proposing criminal penalties for it. They should have the right to publish books, articles, and blog posts, to send letters to newspapers, to organise peacefully among themselves, to give interviews and to conduct peaceful political demonstrations.

It doesn’t follow, however, that anti-abortion campaigners should have the right to get up close and personal in harassing women who are going about their business obtaining legal abortions. There is much to be said against the more oppressive tactics adopted by many anti-abortion campaigners in Australia and elsewhere, and I think some emphasis should be given to this even while decrying state action to suppress political ideas.

Final thoughts

In a recent article in The Spectator, Brendan O’Neill makes the case – quite correctly – that free speech does not apply only to people who agree with you. While that is fine as far as it goes, O’Neill may be too impatient in dismissing a view that he quotes from one of his previous readers: “it is possible to support freedom of expression in principle without feeling motivated enough to campaign for an expression of ideas which you disagree with.”

Surely there’s something correct in that quotation. Part of the difficulty is that no one can fight every individual battle that arises over freedom of speech. I can insist as a general point that my opponents should have freedom of speech, without having the time and inclination to put up my hand for each specific opponent who runs into difficulties.

It is natural and justifiable to give priority to people who have something to say that seems intellectually attractive or socially valuable, or to people who are suffering disproportionately over speech that at least seems innocuous or reasonable. In my case, I don’t have the time or energy to argue on each particular occasion for the free-speech rights of each homophobe or jihadist or racist, of every particular crank or extremist or bigot of some kind, who gets into trouble over some deplorable message.

Yet, if we never defend the free speech of specific cranks, extremists, and the rest, that itself conveys a message: it looks as if we support freedom only for the expression of ideas that we personally like or see as having some merit. On this occasion, then, I am having my say about someone whose views I clearly dislike. This is an appropriate occasion to speak out, since it involves illiberal action by the authorities in my own country.

For all that, Newman’s ideas should be opposed strongly and relentlessly on their merits. Although he may not directly incite violence, extreme anti-abortion campaigners like Newman add to an environment in which women’s reproductive rights are difficult to extend further and are always vulnerable to being cut back. Furthermore, it’s an environment in which many women may feel (and even be) unsafe in seeking to exercise their rights.

We should not try to suppress political ideas, but there is still something very disturbing about Newman, and I can at least understand the urge to keep his message out of Australia.

With that in mind, I’ll conclude by urging that we defend and extend abortion rights – and that we take further initiatives to protect women from violence or harassment for exercising their rights. Their reproductive freedom is essential to their autonomy as individuals, and also to our society’s transition to gender equality.

Freedom of speech is important, but so is reproductive freedom. To the full extent that I can, I stand with women who need it.

The Conversation

Russell Blackford, Conjoint Lecturer in Philosophy, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny? II: Sorting Principles

In my previous essay I laid the groundwork for the discussion that is to follow regarding the pro-life moral position and misogyny. As argued in that essay, a person can be pro-life and not a misogynist. It was also shown that attacking a person’s circumstances or consistency in regards to their professed belief in a pro-life moral position does not disprove that position. It was, however, contended that consistency does matter when sorting out whether a person really does hold to a pro-life position or is, in fact, using that as cover for misogyny.

While there are open misogynists, open misogynists generally do not fare well in American elections. As such, a clever (or cleverly managed) misogynist will endeavor to conceal his misogyny behind more laudable moral positions, such as being pro-life. This, obviously, sells better than being anti-women.

Throughout 2015 Americans will be (in theory) deciding the candidates for President and then in 2016 they will be voting. Republicans in general and the current crop of presidential candidates profess that they are pro-life, but there is still the question of whether they truly hold to this principle. Republicans are also regularly accused of being misogynists and part of this involves asserting that their pro-life stance is actually an anti-women stance. One way to sort this out is to consider whether or not a person acts consistently with a pro-life position. Since people are inconsistent though ignorance and moral weakness, this will not conclusive reveal the truth of the matter—but it is perhaps the best method of empirical investigation.

On the face of it, a pro-life position is the view that it is morally wrong to kill. If a person held to this principle consistently, then she would oppose all forms of killing—this would include hunting, killing animals for food, capital punishment, and killing in war. There are people who do hold to this view and are consistent. This view was taken very seriously by Christian thinkers such as St. Augustine and St. Aquinas. After all, as I say to my Ethics students, it would be a hell of a thing to go to hell for a hamburger.

The pro-life view that killing is wrong would seem to require a great deal of a person. In addition to being against just straight-up killing in war, abortion and capital punishment, it would also seem to require being against things that kill people, such as poverty, pollution and disease. As such, a pro-life person would seem to be required to favor medical and social aid to fight things like disease and poverty that kill people.

As is obvious, there are many pro-life people who oppose such things. They even oppose such things as providing food support for mothers and infants who are mired in poverty. One might thus suspect that they are not so much pro-life as anti-woman. Of course, a person could be pro-life and still be opposed to society rendering aid to people to prevent death.

One option is to be against killing, but be fine with letting people die. While philosophers do make this moral distinction, it seems a bit problematic for a person to claim that he opposes abortion because killing fetuses is wrong, but not providing aid and support to teenage mothers, the sick, and the starving is acceptable because one is just letting them die rather than killing them. Given this view, a pro-life person of this sort would be okay with a woman just abandoning her baby—she would simply be letting the baby die rather than killing her.

People who are pro-life also often are morally fine with killing and eating animals. The ethics of killing animals (and plants) was also addressed explicitly by Augustine and Aquinas. One way to be pro-life but hold that killing animals is acceptable is to contend that humans have a special moral status that other living things lack. The usual justification is that we are better than them, so we can kill (and eat) them. This view was held by St. Augustine and St. Anselm who were fine with killing animals (and plants).

However, embracing the superiority principle does provide an opening that can be used to justify abortion—one merely needs to argue that the fetus has a lower moral status than the woman and this would seem to warrant abortion.

Many people who profess a pro-life view also favor capital punishment and war. In fact, it is common to hear a politician smoothly switch from speaking of the sanctity of life to the need to kill terrorists and criminals. One way to be pro-life and accept capital punishment and war is to argue that it is the killing of innocents that is wrong. Killing the non-innocent is fine.

The obvious problem is that capital punishment sometimes kills the innocent and war always involves the death of innocents. If these killings are warranted in terms of interests, self-defense, or on utilitarian grounds, then the door is open for the same being applied to abortion. After all, if innocent adults and children can be killed for national security, economic interests or to protect us from terrorists, then fetuses can also be killed for the interests of the woman or on utilitarian grounds. Also, animals and plants are clearly innocent beings—but they can be addressed by the superiority argument. Someone who is fine with killing people for the sake of interests or on utilitarian grounds, yet professes to be devoutly pro-life might justifiably be suspected of being more anti-women than pro-life.

A pro-life position can also be interpreted as the moral principle that abortions should be prevented. This is, obviously, better described as anti-abortion rather than pro-life. One obvious way to prevent abortions is to prevent women from having them. This need not be a misogynistic view—one would need to consider why the person holds to this view and this can be explored by considering the person’s other expressed views on related matters.

If a person is anti-abortion, then she should presumably support ways to prevent abortion other than merely stopping women from having them. Two rather effective ways to reduce the number of abortions (and thus prevent some) are effective sex education and access to birth control. These significantly reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and thus reduce the number of abortions. Not surprisingly, abstinence focused “sex education” fails dismally.

To use the obvious analogy, being anti-abortion is rather like being anti-traffic fatality. Telling people to not drive will not really help. Teaching people how to drive safely and ensuring that protection is readily available does work quite well.

Because of this, if a person professes to be pro-life/anti-abortion, yet is opposed to effective sex education and birth control, then it is reasonable to suspect misogyny. This is, of course, not conclusive: the person might have no dislike of women and sincerely believe that ignorance about sex is best, that abstinence works, and that birth control is evil. The person would not be a misogynist—just in error.

In closing, it must be reiterated that just because a person is inconsistent in regards to his professed pro-life moral principles, it does not follow that he must be a misogynist. After all, people are often inconsistent because of ignorance, a failure to consider implications, and moral weakness. However, if a person professes a pro-life position, yet is consistently inconsistent in regards to his actions and other professed views, then it would not be unreasonable to consider that there might be some misogyny in play.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Is Pro-Life a Cover for Misogyny?I: Preliminaries

Anti abortion rally in Washington, D.C. Decemb...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

During a recent discussion, I was asked if I believed that a person who holds to the pro-life position must be a misogynist. While there are misogynists who are pro-life, I hold to what should be obvious: there is no necessary connection between being pro-life and being a misogynist. A misogynist hates women, while a person who holds a pro-life position believes that abortion is morally wrong. There is no inconsistency between holding the moral position that abortion is wrong and not being a hater of women. In fact, a pro-life person could have a benevolent view towards all living beings and be morally opposed to harming any of them—thus including zygotes and women.

While misogynists would tend to be anti-choice because of their hatred of women, they need not be pro-life. That is, hating women and wanting to deny them the choice to have an abortion does not entail that a person believes that abortion is morally wrong. For example, a misogynist could be fine with abortion (such as when it is convenient to him) but think that it should be up to the man to decide if or when a pregnancy is terminated. A misogynist might even be pro-choice for various reasons; but almost certainly not because he is a proponent of the rights of women.  As such, there is no necessary connection between the two views.

The discussion then turned to the question of whether or not a pro-choice position is a cover for misogyny. The easy and obvious answer is that sometimes it is and sometimes it is not. Since it has been established that a person can be pro-life without being a misogynist, it follows that being pro-life need not be a cover for misogyny. However, it can obviously provide cover for such a position. It is rather easier to sell the idea of restricting abortion by making a moral case against it than by expressing hatred of women and a desire to restrict their choices and reproductive option. Before progressing with the discussion it is rather important to address two points.

The first point is that even if it is established that a pro-life/anti-abortion person is a misogynist, this does not entail that the person’s position on the issue of abortion is in error. To reject a misogynist’s claims or arguments regarding abortion (or anything) on the grounds that he is a misogynist is to commit a circumstantial ad hominem.

This sort of Circumstantial ad Hominem involves substituting an attack on a person’s circumstances (such as the person’s religion, political affiliation, ethnic background, etc.) for reasons against her claim. This version has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on A’s circumstances.
  3. Therefore X is false.

A Circumstantial ad Hominem is a fallacy because a person’s circumstances (religion, political affiliation, etc.) do not affect the truth or falsity of the claim. This is made quite clear by the following example: “Bill claims that 1+1 =2. But he is a Republican, so his claim is false.” As such, to assert that the pro-life position is in error because some misogynist holds that view would be an error in reasoning.

A second important point is that a person’s consistency or lack thereof in regards to her principles or actions has no relevance to the truth of her claims or the strength of her arguments. To think otherwise is to fall victim to the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because 1) it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or 2) what a person says is inconsistent with her actions. This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B asserts that A’s actions or past claims are inconsistent with the truth of claim X.
  3. Therefore X is false.

The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (although of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite but this does not prove his claims are false.

A person’s inconsistency also does not show that the person does not believe her avowed principle—she might simply be ignorant of its implications. That said, such inconsistency could be evidence of hypocrisy. While sorting out a person’s actual principles is not relevant to logical assessment of the person’s claims, doing so is clearly relevant to many types of decision making regarding the person. One area where sorting out a person’s principles matters is in voting. In the next essay, this matter will be addressed.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

The Lion, the HitchBOT and the Fetus

After Cecil the Lion was shot, the internet erupted in righteous fury against the killer. Not everyone was part of this eruption and some folks argued against feeling bad for Cecil—some accusing the mourners of being phonies and pointing out that lions kill people. What really caught my attention, however, was the use of a common tactic—to “refute” those condemning the killing of Cecil by asserting that these “lion lovers” do not get equally upset about the fetuses killed in abortions.

When HitchBOT was destroyed, a similar sort of response was made—in fact, when I have written about ethics and robots (or robot-like things) I have been subject to criticism on the same grounds: it is claimed that I value robots more than fetuses and presumably I have thus made some sort of error in my arguments about robots.

Since I find this tactic interesting and have been its target, I thought it would be worth my while to examine it in a reasonable and (hopefully) fair way.

One way to look at this approach is to take it as the use of the Consistent Application method, which is as follows. A moral principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates three commonly accepted moral assumptions: equality, impartiality and relevant difference.

Equality is the assumption that those that moral equals must be treated as such. It also requires that those that are not morally equal be treated differently.

Impartiality is the assumption that moral principles must not be applied with partiality. Inconsistent application would involve non-impartial application.

Relevant difference is a common moral assumption. It is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences. What counts as a relevant difference in particular cases can be a matter of great controversy. For example, while many people do not think that gender is a relevant difference in terms of how people should be treated other people think it is very important. This assumption requires that principles be applied consistently.

The method of Consistent Application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations that are not relevantly different. This allows one to conclude that the application is inconsistent, which is generally regarded as a problem. The general form is as follows:

Step 1: Show that a principle/standard has been applied differently in situations that are not adequately different.

Step 2: Conclude that the principle has been applied inconsistently.

Step 3 (Optional): Require that the principle be applied consistently.

Applying this method often requires determining the principle the person/group is using. Unfortunately, people are not often clear in regards to what principle they are actually using. In general, people tend to just make moral assertions and leave it to others to guess what their principles might be. In some cases, it is likely that people are not even aware of the principles they are appealing to when making moral claims.

Turning now to the cases of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus consistent application could be applied as follows:

Step 1: Those who are outraged at the killing of the lion are using the principle that the killing of living things is wrong. Those outraged at the destruction of HitchBOT are using the principle that helpless things should not be destroyed. These people are not outraged by abortions in general and the Planned Parenthood abortions in particular.

Step 2: The lion and HitchBOT mourners are not being consistent in their application of the principle since fetuses are helpless (like HitchBOT) and living things (like Cecil the lion).

Step 3 (Optional): Those mourning for Cecil and HitchBOT should mourn for the fetuses and oppose abortion in general and Planned Parenthood in particular.

This sort of use of Consistent Application is quite appealing and I routinely use the method myself. For example, I have argued (in a reverse of this situation) that people who are anti-abortion should also be anti-hunting and that people who are fine with hunting should also be morally okay with abortion.

As with any method of arguing, there are counter methods. In the case of this method, there are three general reasonable responses. The first is to admit the inconsistency and stop applying the principle in an inconsistent manner. This obviously does not defend against the charge but can be an honest reply. People, as might be imagined, rarely take this option.

A second way to reply and one that is an actual defense is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent. The primary way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference in the situation. For example, someone who wants to be morally opposed to the shooting of Cecil while being morally tolerant of abortions could argue that the adult lion has a moral status different from the fetus—one common approach is to note the relation of the fetus to the woman and how a lion is an independent entity. The challenge lies in making a case for the relevance of the difference.

A third way to reply is to reject the attributed principle. In the situation at hand, the assumption is that a person is against killing the lion simply because it is alive. However, that might not be the principle the person is, in fact, using. His principle might be based on the suffering of a conscious being and not on mere life. In this case, the person would be consistent in his application.

Naturally enough, the “new” principle is still subject to evaluation. For example, it could be argued the suffering principle is wrong and that the life principle should be accepted instead. In any case, this method is not an automatic “win.”

An alternative interpretation of this tactic is to regard it as an ad homimen: An ad Hominem is a general category of fallacies in which a claim or argument is rejected on the basis of some irrelevant fact about the author of or the person presenting the claim or argument. Typically, this fallacy involves two steps. First, an attack against the character of person making the claim, her circumstances, or her actions is made (or the character, circumstances, or actions of the person reporting the claim). Second, this attack is taken to be evidence against the claim or argument the person in question is making (or presenting). This type of “argument” has the following form:

  1. Person A makes claim X.
  2. Person B makes an attack on person A.
  3. Therefore A’s claim is false.

The reason why an ad Hominem (of any kind) is a fallacy is that the character, circumstances, or actions of a person do not (in most cases) have a bearing on the truth or falsity of the claim being made (or the quality of the argument being made).

In the case of the lion, the HitchBOT and the fetus, the reasoning can be seen as follows:

  1. Person A claims that killing Cecil was wrong or that destroying HitchBOT was wrong.
  2. Person B notes that A does not condemn abortions in general or Planned Parenthood’s abortions in particular.
  3. Therefore A is wrong about Cecil or HitchBOT.

Obviously enough, a person’s view of abortion does not prove or disprove her view about the ethics of the killing of Cecil or HitchBOT (although a person can, of course, be engaged in inconsistency or other errors—but these are rather different matters).

A third alternative is that the remarks are not meant as an argument, either the reasonable application of a Consistent Application criticism or the unreasonable attack of an ad homimen. In this case, the point is to assert that the lion lovers and bot buddies are awful people or, at best, misguided.

The gist of the tactic is, presumably, to make these people seem bad by presenting a contrast: these lion lovers and bot buddies are broken up about lions and trashcans, but do not care about fetuses—what awful people they are.

One clear point of concern is that moral concern is not a zero-sum game. That is, regarding the killing of Cecil as wrong and being upset about it does not entail that a person thus cares less (or not at all) about fetuses. After all, people do not just get a few “moral tokens” to place such that being concerned about one misdeed entails they must be unable to be concerned about another. Put directly, a person can condemn the killing of Cecil and also condemn abortion.

The obvious response is that there are people who are known to condemn the killing of Cecil or the destruction of HitchBOT and also known to be pro-choice. These people, it can be claimed, are morally awful. The equally obvious counter is that while it is easy to claim such people are morally awful, the challenge lies in showing that they are actually awful. That is, that their position on abortion is morally wrong. Noting that they are against lion killing or bot bashing and pro-choice does not show they are in error—although, as noted above, they could be challenged on the grounds of consistency. But this requires laying out an argument rather than merely juxtaposing their views on these issues. This version of the tactic simply amounts to asserting or implying that there is something wrong with the person because one disagree with that person. But a person thinking that hunting lions or bashing bots is okay and that abortion is wrong, does not prove that the opposing view is in error. It just states the disagreement.

Since the principle of charity requires reconstructing and interpreting arguments in the best possible way, I endeavor to cast this sort of criticism as a Consistent Application attack rather than the other two. This approach is respectful and, most importantly, helps avoid creating a straw man of the opposition.

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter

Planned Parenthood & Fetal Tissue II: Providing & Researching

Supporters of Planned Parenthood

Supporters of Planned Parenthood (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As noted in the previous essay, a series of undercover videos have brought Planned Parenthood and fetal tissue research to the attention of the public and the media. Obviously enough, providing fetal tissue and its use in research are matters of considerable moral concern.

While there are two issues here, they are obviously connected: one cannot engage in fetal tissue research without this tissue. In the case of the Planned Parenthood videos, the fetal tissue in question is acquired from abortions performed by Planned Parenthood. These abortions are, it is generally accepted, not being performed to provide such tissue. Rather, the abortions are being performed for other reasons and the women are consenting to allow the tissue to be used in research. The ethics of the situation would, obviously enough, be different in women were being impregnated for the purpose of having abortions to generate fetal tissue.

One way to argue that providing such tissue for research is morally acceptable is to draw the obvious analogy to people donating their remains for research or medical school training. In terms of the similarities, human remains are being donated for a positive use (research or training) rather than being buried or cremated. So, if is morally acceptable for hospitals to provide such remains for research and training, it would also be acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.

While this reasoning by analogy is appealing, proper assessment of the argument requires considering relevant differences that might break the analogy. If the providing of fetal tissue for research differs from providing cadavers for research in a morally relevant way, then the analogy could fail.

One clearly relevant difference is that when an adult donates her remains for research or teaching (or agrees to be an organ donor), she is consenting to the use of her remains. While some might argue that the use of human remains is always wrong, the role of consent does seem to be morally significant. Even if using my remains for research would be wrong, using them without my consent would seem worse. Getting back to the actual issue, it is evident that the fetus cannot consent to the donation of its remains. If the fetus did have the capacity for informed consent, this would certainly radically change the broader abortion debate—a fetus with that capacity would be unequivocally a person. Because the fetus cannot consent, its remains could only be used without its consent—thus breaking the analogy.

One reply to this is to argue that the woman has the right to provide such consent, thus restoring the analogy. In the case of donating remains for research, the legal next of kin can (in some cases) make the decision to donate a cadaver for research. Assuming that this is morally acceptable for cadavers, it would also seem morally fine for fetal tissue—the woman would be next of kin for the fetal tissue. Thus, if the fetus does have kin status, it would seem that the next of kin would have the right to decide to donate the remains for research, just as if it were an adult cadaver.

It might be objected that this gives the fetal tissue too much moral status—for the woman to be next of kin to the fetal tissue, it would seem to have to be kin to her as well. Those who take objection to granting the fetus such status could contend that the foundation for the woman’s right to have an abortion also extends to give her the right to decide what happens to the fetal tissue. This would not require granting the fetal tissue any status, other than something analogous to property. In this case, donating the fetal tissue would be morally acceptable, on par with a person donating blood for research.

Assuming that the woman can consent to providing the remains to Planned Parenthood, the organization would have as much right to provide the remains to researchers as would any organization that handles the donation of cadavers. As such, it would seem to be morally acceptable for Planned Parenthood to provide fetal tissue for research.

I obviously did not address the broader moral issue of abortion, which is a distinct issue from the two issues being addressed. While it is clearly relevant, it is not my intent to address the ethics of abortion itself here. Instead, I will now turn to the ethics of using fetal tissue in research.

One stock way to approach the ethics of using fetal tissue in research is utilitarian in nature. The idea is to weigh the negative and positive consequences of fetal tissue research, argue that morality should be based on weighing said consequences and then drawing the appropriate conclusion.

In terms of the positive consequences, the usual line is that the use of fetal tissue is important for medical research aimed at benefitting fetuses and infants. This is hardly surprising: the use of adult human remains has been instrumental in medical advances. While fetuses are obviously human, they do differ in important ways from adults (and children)—hence the need for the fetal tissue in such research.

Since the fetuses are already dead, disposing of the remains rather than using them for positive research to help other fetuses would be a terrible waste, analogous to refusing to allow organ donation or cadaver donation for research.

In terms of negative consequences, one standard line is that using remains in such a manner devalues and disrespects human life, thus pushing us down the slope to terrible consequences. In some cases, people present full slippery slope fallacies, which are clearly flawed. In other cases, people do connect the dots and show how this can contribute to dehumanization and move us towards dire consequences.

These consequences should certainly be considered: treating people as mere things comes at a cost that might exceed the gain claimed in research. There are, however, responses to this.

One is argue that even if there are these negative consequences, the positive consequences of the research outweighs them. A second approach is to argue that such research is consistent with maintaining human dignity: we have, after all, been able to conduct research and training with cadavers without such dire consequences. A third approach, which is rather cynical, is to note that the worry that the use of fetal tissue in research will slide us down the slope is like worrying that splattering a little more mud on the mud will make the mud muddy. That is, people already treat other people so horribly that this will not have any meaningful impact—and at least this use of human remains is aimed at positive ends rather than something awful.

Another approach is to reject the utilitarian approach and make use of an alternative moral theory. One promising option is to use a Kantian argument about using rational being as means rather than ends. While it could be objected that the fetus is a not a rational being, Kant does have a way around that—in his discussion of the ethics of animals he argues that even beings that lack moral status should still be treated as if they were people. At least in certain circumstances. However, Kant does still explicitly allow animals to be used for medical research—so the same might apply to a fetus as well.

One could also contend that the fetus has a moral status that does not depend on it being rational—it simply has a status comparable to that of an adult human. The obvious, if awful, reply is that even if the fetus had the same (or similar) status of an adult human, as fetal tissue it would have the status of a dead adult human. If the use of adult human cadavers is acceptable for research and training medical students, then the same would be true of fetal tissue. Since the use of cadavers in research seems to be well-established as morally acceptable, then the same would apply to fetal tissue.

As noted above, I am not addressing the moral issue of abortion here. Sticking with the analogy to adult cadaver donation, I am not addressing the issue of how the adult died (or was killed) but the ethics of using the already dead remains for research. How the remains became remains is obviously important, but an entirely different issue. Sticking with the analogy, the ethics of Bob being murdered is distinct from the morality of Bob’s cadaver being used for research. While murder is rather clearly wrong, this does not entail that it is thus wrong for Bob’s remains to be donated by his next of kin for research. Since I have written numerous essays on abortion and have nothing new to say on this issue, I refer the reader to these past essays for my arguments on that issue.

 

My Amazon Author Page

My Paizo Page

My DriveThru RPG Page

Follow Me on Twitter