Friday, March 27, 2009

Stupid arguments from pro-choicers

William Saletan has another thoughtful piece on the morality of abortion in Slate. Key quotation:

So why do I keep bringing up abortion as a moral problem? Because it is a moral problem. It's the destruction of a developing human being. For that reason, the less we do it, the better. When I say abortion is bad, I'm not saying it's necessarily worse than bringing a child into the world in lousy circumstances. I'm saying it's worse than avoiding unintended pregnancy in the first place. That's why I keep pushing contraception. If you cause an unintended pregnancy and an abortion because you didn't want to wear a condom, you should be ashamed.
Of course, Saletan is not arguing that abortion ought to be illegal. We don't (and couldn't) ban all actions with bad-making features. Oftentimes, this is because passing a law banning the action would have even worse results, or because enforcing the law would involve the violation of fundamental deontic constraints (e.g. rights.)

At most, that an action has a bad-making feature is a pro tanto reason against performing that action. It is not -- or so I would claim -- even a pro tanto reason for making the action illegal (I would distinguish between bad-making features and wrong-making features. An action has wrong-making features if, for example, it would violate another's rights. Not every action with bad-making features has wrong-making features, and probably vice versa.)

However, I agree with Saletan that in most cases the fact that an action would destroy a developing human being is a reason against performing that action. It is also a reason, a moral reason, to avoid creating a situation in which the destruction of a developing human being will be a likely consequence. When such reasons are ignored -- as in Saletan's example of a person who doesn't take reasonable precautions against conception before having sex -- shame is a fitting first-person attitude to have.

So much for Saletan's argument. Looking at the forum section on his article and around the blogosphere, I see pro-choice individuals (of which Saletan is one) respond in several ways. I will deal with each response in turn.

1. Because he is a not a woman, what Saletan thinks doesn't matter.
This is an incredibly silly response, but let's unpack it a little bit. If the pro tanto reason I identified above exists, then all Saletan is doing is pointing out that exists. In that case, his gender/sex doesn't matter: there is a reason and that's that. If the pro tanto reason does not exist, then Saletan is wrong. But he would be just as wrong if he were not a man. Thus, in either case, Saletan's gender/sex is irrelevant.

I should add, this particular response -- frequently seen from pro-choicers -- is pernicious in another way. What motivates it is an argument like this: Abortion is about pregnancy. Men can't get pregnant. Therefore, men can have nothing to say about abortion.

Aside from its status as a crude ad hominem, the argument, by parity of reasoning, would exclude infertile women from saying anything about abortion. It also denies the fact that men, pro-choice or not, have a stake in the debate. After all, they have mothers, sisters, etc. Since men presumably care what happens to their female family members, laws pertaining to abortion have an indirect impact.

2. Saletan is helping out the religious right
A sound argument is a sound argument. A valid argument with true premises is an example of good reasoning, whether it is being uttered by Adolf Hitler or Barack Obama. And an invalid argument is a bad one -- again, regardless of who is speaking.

I almost feel ridiculous even addressing this kind of point, except I've encountered it personally: I will follow the arguments where they lead. If your ideological opponents take solace (warranted or not) from my reasoning, then attack my reasoning. If you can't, then you have bigger things to worry about than the feigned comfort of your "enemies."

3. Moral approbation interferes with a person's autonomy
Less one argument than a whole cluster of them. A more dogmatic libertarian than myself would just say: you're wrong, because only physical force/violence can violate a person's autonomy.

I don't want to take that route. My own position is that autonomy can be undermined in a number of ways, including the case in which one person exercises violence against another. But I don't think moral approbation interferes with autonomy much, if at all. When I say, "What you are doing is morally wrong," what I am saying is that I believe there are good reasons against performing some action.

If I am right, then you should listen to me. If you do listen to me -- after reflecting on my argument, etc -- then you've exercised your autonomy, in the fullest sense of the term. Autonomy isn't just a matter of acting on the first desire to pop into your head (otherwise, the heroin addict is the exemplar of autonomy.) Rather, autonomy requires judgment. Judgment requires a reflection on reasons. Bringing reasons to a person's attention isn't undermining her autonomy, but facilitating it.

If I'm wrong, then you shouldn't listen to me. But by finding the error in my reasoning, you're better off than you were before. Again, your autonomy hasn't been undermined.

Of course, all of this is contingent on the idea that there really are reasons that apply to people, independently of their own preferences. Someone who denies the existence of such reasons -- moral reasons -- won't comprehend much of what I've written. At the same time, I would wonder how such a person could even begin to criticize laws, e.g. with regard to abortion, as "good" or "bad" without falling back, tacitly, on the idea of moral reasons; and, more broadly, on the idea of moral truth.

There are some other pro-choice themes I'd like to address, but I'm running out of time for today. The fact is, I am pro-choice, but I get so very, very tired of people offering stupid (non-)arguments for conclusions I already endorse.

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