Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Revealed Belief

Prior to Judith Jarvis Thomson, the big philosophical issue regarding abortion was the issue of when a zygote/blastocyst/fetus/baby achieves personhood - the moment at which a being acquires recognizable interests - as opposed to the related, perhaps more important issues of how strong those interests might be compared to other interests, or whether those interests include a right to continued existence. (For a concise treatment of the major philosophical arguments on abortion since 1973 or so, see Chapter 5 of Benatar's Better Never To Have Been, entitled "Abortion: The 'Pro-Death' View.")

Modern Catholics and evangelical protestants have largely taken the position that personhood accrues to a zygote as soon as fertilization occurs. However, it is clear from their other positions and behaviors that this belief is only for the purpose of making the anti-abortion argument, and does not reflect a true belief in the personhood of a zygote/blastocyst in the relevant sense.

For example, reviewing the policies supported by anti-abortion religious groups, one is struck with how little they accord with the stated position that a zygote/blastocyst is a person, and the destruction of a zygote a murder; what the supported policies all appear consistent with is a desire to punish women who have sex. In the "moral foundations" thinking of Jonathan Haidt, we might say that concerns for authority and for purity are masquerading as concern for fairness or for harm/care.

In addition to punishing women who have sex, anti-abortion religious people also want to force everyone to submit to the will of their God - concern for authority and in-group loyalty again masquerading as concern for fairness and harm/care.

Imagine for a second that a zygote really is a person, whatever that means to you.

Now realize that up to a quarter of all recognized pregnancies, and HALF of all fertilized zygotes (some sources say up to 70%), are spontaneously miscarried.

That's a lot of death. If you take a zygote to be a person, half of all children are dying before they ever take a breath.

But "No pro-life group has called for the foundation of a National Institute for the Prevention of Miscarriage," notes a commenter in the above-linked thread.

Of course, intentional harm is both more deserving of blame than unintentional harm and more preventable than unintentional harm. But the assignment of, apparently, ZERO value to the accidental deaths of billions of zygotes (after all, God willed it) while claiming that the intentional killing of these zygotes is MURDER is hardly consistent.

In sum:

  1. Religious people do not believe that zygotes or blastocysts are persons.

  2. Religious people want to punish women for having sex.

  3. Religious people want to force everyone to submit to their God.


See also: Five Reasons to Have an Abortion

17 comments:

  1. I just had a very long conversation about this on another blog a week or so ago. I think most religious people don't actually want to punish women for having sex and/or force women's reproductive power to submit to the patriarchy; rather, they're simply confused and haven't thought things through. Or, they don't care to think things through: abortion just *feels* wrong, and that's good enough for them. Similarly, making someone carry a rapist's child to term feels wrong, so abortions are okay in cases of rape. Miscarriages are out-of-sight/out-of-mind, or, if brought to a forced-birther's attention, are chalked up to the work of God.

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  2. Intuitively, the way you phrased this in Haidtean terms sounds exactly right to me. Of course, to say that they want to punish women for having sex is a polemic way of putting it. But if religious anti-abortion groups are also anti-contraception, it is accurate. The purity part here is "don't have sex for pleasure".

    Also, this is not at all in opposition with these people not having thought things through.

    What happens in anti-abortionists who are nonetheless not opposed to contraception is a more difficult question. I don't think they want to punish anyone for anything. Their position must, I suppose, be explained in much less conceptual terms. Their mind just gets triggered to show the "evil"-flag by hearing that something that somehow has to do with humans is destroyed, but not when the creation of something is prevented. The zygotes are persons talk is an attempt at the impossible: to capture this position in any sensible value framework.

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  3. The analysis of this post is at least partly supported empirically. Doing a little homebrew hypothesis testing by running correlations using a nifty tool at the General Social Survey, we can find that the variable ABCHOICE (where respondents were asked whether a woman should be allowed to have an abortion for any reason) and variable PREMARS1 (a question about premarital sex that is probably a good proxy for attitudes toward recreation sex), we find a pretty strong negative correlation (-0.463), more or less what one might expect if Sister Y's Conclusion (2) were correct.

    Less certain about (3), but maybe if I have time during my lunch hour I can pick through the variable catalogs and see if there's anything useful there...

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  4. >> In the "moral foundations" thinking of Jonathan Haidt, we might say that concerns for authority and for purity are masquerading as concern for fairness or for harm/care. <<

    The more Haidt-ian view, I would think, is simply that the purity and authority foundations, being more salient (for conservatives than, especially, libertarians) are qualifying or countervailing against, rather than masquerading as, concerns for fairness or for harm/care. (By the way, I understand that a sixth, libertarian-oriented, foundation may be added to the theory, which might resonate especially for readers of your blog).

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  5. Rob, I think the masquerading part is in the rationalization. The talk of zygotes being a human being that is harmed by abortion sounds as if the reasons were fairness and harm/care reasons (because those are more intellectually respectable, so when you use moral talk for trying to convince other people, you're going to use that), while they actually aren't. This is entirely in line with Haidt's view.

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  6. Sister Y, I think it's a liberty-related foundation influenced by Boehm's account of egalitarian, bully-averse hunter-gatherer politics.

    Constant, I see your point, but the phenomenon seems akin to that of folks who are drawn into defending their essentially retributive support for capital punishment by invoking deterrence, like the moral dumbfounding Haidt has explored, and maybe even the reason-based choice research Mercier & Sperber interpret in support of their Argumentative Theory of Reasoning (we tend to satisfice in argument production, which mainly serves to support our intuitions, but are much less biased in argument evaluation directed at others), the main thing being that these mechanisms themselves are not governed by Type 2-type processes (conscious, effortful, deliberate, etc., unlike what is suggested (to me) by "masquerade."

    Maybe social exchange theory can account for some of this, given that women are more religious than men and are apparently the proximate cause of much, if not most, suppression of female sexuality.

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  7. Constant and Rob, fairness- and the harm/care-based arguments against abortion may be genuine, but just not well thought-out. Additionally, the arguments may be recognized to be more persuasive to those who care more about fairness and harm/care than they do about authority and purity. I find it far more plausible that the rank-and-file forced-birthers are being intellectually lazy and rhetorically sound than they're being cynical.

    Comparing the rhetoric and reasoning of left-wing forced-birthers with right-wing ones might be instructive.

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  8. "...[W]omen are. . .apparently the proximate cause of much, if not most, suppression of female sexuality."

    This makes some sense. Sexually liberal women are a threat to men only if they're married or their womb is otherwise marked as a man's territory. They're a threat to all women, however, who restrict access to sex in order to secure investment from men.

    Incidentally, a situation where a larger number of men are having sex with a small number of women is more fertile ground for STD transmission than is a situation where equal numbers of men and women are having sex. The women with many sex partners in the first scenario serve as hubs to make the sexual network denser. But don't take it from me, take it from this epidemiologist [www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmCUFs7zahw]. (For some reason, Blogger won't let me post comments with html tags.)

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  9. [W]omen are. . .apparently the proximate cause of much, if not most, suppression of female sexuality.

    I thought I had succeeded in posting this comment a few hrs ago, but Blogger evidently ate it (after having forced me to de-HTMLify it). Anyway. . .

    This makes some sense, as men are threatened by sexually liberal women only when they have a husband or their uteruses are otherwise marked as belonging to a man, while sexually liberal women threaten all women who seek to secure male investment by restricting access to sex.

    Incidentally, a society with a large number of men having sex with a smaller number of women is a society through which STDs will spread more rapidly than is a society with similar numbers of men and women having sex. In the first scenario, the women having sex with a large number of men serve as hubs and make the sexual network denser. ( video )

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  10. I didn't mean to imply that the forced-birthers (I love this designation!) were being cynical, nor did I take "masquerade" to be entirely a type 2 process. I'm quite ready to believe that these people on some level really believe that the zygote should count as a human being. (Or maybe they believe that they believe it. Might be enough.) The masquerading may well the work of a sub-conscious mechanism. In fact, that would make perfect sense intuitively: someone who's not aware that he is lying about his ulterior motives and convictions is more likely to be persuasive.

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  11. The View from AristotleSeptember 10, 2011 at 3:32 PM

    Even supposing point 1) is true, you've come nowhere close to showing that point 2) follows. Point 2) would be far more plausible if it were restated as "Religious people want to *blame* women for having *irresponsible* sex." You can conclude that religious people want to *punish* such women only if you think religious people see carrying a baby to term as punishment, which I severely doubt they do. It is you, by contrast, who see it as punishment.

    Moreover, the fact of the matter, which is tacitly known but rarely expressed, is that the vast majority of abortions are the result of irresponsible sex. By irresponsible sex, I mean sex without birth control when there is no wish to create a child. The degree of irresponsibility can range from negligence (e.g., having sex on one occasion without birth control) to recklessness (e.g., having sex numerous times without birth control) to "intentionality" (e.g., having sex numerous times without birth control specifically around peak ovulation with the aim of creating a zygote that will be aborted).

    The fact is that most people, religious or not, view such irresponsibility as morally and/or prudentially blameworthy (on a sliding scale of severity). (It also explains the opposite attitude most people have toward abortion in the case of rape and medically necessity.) Even putting aside the sense of unease we feel at aborting a pregnancy in such a situation, the woman has imprudently put herself at risk from an otherwise avoidable serious medical procedure. And even if she *does* carry the child to term, she has likewise put herself at risk from the pregnancy itself.

    I suspect that religious people are more likely to be cognizant of the blameworthiness of such irresponsible behavior. This is because, being traditional, they still feel comfortable with the concepts of vice and virtue. By contrast, secular morality has largely replaced concrete "virtues" with vague "values" (even though this need not be entailed by secularism).

    Jonathan Haidt himself has argued that Aristotelian virtue is the key to the good life. Perhaps this explains why more self-described conservatives say they are happy than self-described liberals.

    Does anyone doubt that the kind of women who put themselves in the position of choosing whether or not to have an abortion is, on average, less likely to be happy than women who avoid so putting themselves?

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  12. Does anyone doubt that the kind of women who put themselves in the position of choosing whether or not to have an abortion is, on average, less likely to be happy than women who avoid so putting themselves?

    Well, actually...

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  13. The View from AristotleSeptember 11, 2011 at 8:21 AM

    I know of those seminal studies, though some find them hard to swallow. What they imply is that condoms are deleterious to the happiness of women and gay men. Thus, the prudent woman who wishes to maximize her happiness while avoiding pregnancy ought to use other forms of birth control. Of course, those other prophylactics do not prevent sexually transmitted infections, diseases, and infestations, the first two of which women and gay men are especially vulnerable to.

    Thus, the prudent woman should have sex with prophylactics other than condoms with men who they have good reason to believe do not have a sexual infection, disease, or infestation.

    But this leaves out the rub. During orgasm, women release far more oxytocin--the pair-bonding hormone--than men. This causes women to get emotionally involved with the sex partner who contributed to their orgasm. Needless to say, emotional involvement is not always wanted, and it entails its own risks (of heartbreak, etc.).

    Thus, the woman who seeks no emotional involvement with a partner should either avoid orgasm during sex or avoid sex altogether. Of course, neither is conducive to happiness.

    Therefore, the wise woman should have sex only with partners with whom she seeks emotional involvement. But you already knew that, right?

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  14. Aristotle,

    I agree with you on the first paragraph. I think what Sister Y imputes to malevolence is better explained by unthinking emotive expression and a desire for belonging.

    The fact is that most people, religious or not, view such irresponsibility as morally and/or prudentially blameworthy

    Is blameworthiness the same as punishmentworthiness? Only if your sense of justice is based entirely on retribution rather than rehabilitation, deterrence, or incapacitation. This conception of justice is primitive and disutile.

    Jonathan Haidt himself has argued that Aristotelian virtue is the key to the good life. Perhaps this explains why more self-described conservatives say they are happy than self-described liberals.

    Authority often is subject to the halo effect. It ought not to be. Haidt is an authority in a particular circumscribed field.

    And, if you're familiar with this blog, you'll know that self-reports will get you nowhere. People diagnosed with major depressive disorder tend to have more accurate views of their social circumstances than do "normal" people.

    And in any event, even if conservatism is good for oneself, it wreaks destruction upon others. See, e.g., the Iraq war, climate refugees, LGBT teen depression to the point of suicide, a 9.2% unemployment rate, workplace unfreedom, twenty-four-year-old parents leaving the kids without a father because they couldn't afford the medication to treat their toothache, etc. If virtue makes you do good things, you win my applause and admiration. If virtue just makes you feel good about yourself, go fuck yourself, preferably without any lube or preparatory fingering.

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  15. Sister Y wrote: "Of course, intentional harm is both more deserving of blame than unintentional harm and more preventable than unintentional harm."

    What about the fact that exposing someone to high odds of harm can be very much intentional, even if the desired outcome was that harm should not occur? Deliberately exposing someone to the threat of deadly harm is basically equivalent to attempted murder or at least gross negligence. To drive home the point, we can imagine a race whose only means of reproduction is magically conjuring a baby into existence, sans womb. If the only place this conjuring could occur was in the middle of a minefield with a 50/50 chance of killing any baby trying to crawl out of it, it would be obvious to most people's moral intuition that to do so would be flat-out *wrong.* If zygotes are people, then I think these cases are morally equivalent.

    We might say that uneducated people deserve the benefit of the doubt because they may not know of the high rate of miscarriage, but legally, at least, this raises a sticky issue - ignorance is no excuse for breaking the law. In a world where the law considered zygotes to be people, and enforcers seriously investigated zygotic deaths, the prisons would be overflowing.

    (Of course, to seriously investigate zygotic deaths you'd basically have to have a high-magnification camera in every woman's uterus, but hey, a world with zygotic persons probably isn't far from that. One can only dream.)

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  16. Interesting! That's like a more secular version of Chip's thing about the Andrea Yates thing - if you really think Hell is a possibility, how can you have children knowing you're subjecting them to that risk? Similarly, how can you conceive knowing it's extremely likely that your "child" will die?

    I guess in both cases the answer is, God says to do it. He's way more moral than us, obviously.

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