Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Gene makes a great point on abortion

I agree with him strongly. He says that the following is a bad "argument against anti-abortionists":

"If you really thought abortion was murder, you'd be out bombing abortion clinics."

Gene explains:

"This ignores several things:

1) Prudence is a moral virtue. If an action is likely to make a bad situation worse, it is not moral.

2) As an aspect of the above, respect for the existing law is also a moral virtue. Our role model here should be Socrates: Despite thinking that the verdict in his trial was unjust, he decided that obeying the law was the right thing to do, even at the cost of his own life.

3) We are all sinners. I think abortion is evil, but that doesn't mean everyone who has had one is evil. Good people do bad things sometimes."

He is of course entirely right. Prudence is a virtue. As I said in my post on the same topic, one argument is that attacks may be counter-productive. I didn't mention #2 but I agree with that too, within reason. I'm not sure how much it applies here - we clearly suspend respect when things are monstrously unjust. Still, the point stands true. #3 is true too.

This is all a rather low bar, though. The point isn't that you'd be bombing abortion clinics. That is just one extreme end of a whole spectrum of behavior we'd expect to see if people sincerely thought - not that abortion is wrong - but that it is the murder of a baby. The real point is that we don't see much of any behavior anywhere on that spectrum, and so we really ought to conclude that most people don't actually think abortion is murdering children.

I'll repeat again - Gene is right that it's dumb to say you'd have to be out there bombing abortion clinics if you think abortion is murder. But you would expect a different atmosphere around these things. Take Hitler, who (IF you think abortion is murder) actually commited murder on a smaller scale than the abortion industry today. All the things that Gene mentions hold true there. Guys like Bonhoeffer and Stauffenberg all struggled with exactly these issues. And yet only a few did anything (again - for all the reasons Gene states). But we still acknowledge the basic reasonableness of that decision. Pro-lifers almost universally reject the people that embrace violence. You'd think there'd be a different climate if they genuinely thought this was murder. I'm not saying people would be out there doing it - but you'd still expect to see something different than what you see. These guys aren't pacifists for the most part, which points strongly to another explanation.

So let's not get distracted by this point about actually doing the bombing yourself. Of course you wouldn't see much of that. That's a very low bar to meet.

The other point I raised is - why do pro-lifers even talk to pro-choicers (and this is a point that came to mind recently)? I would hope I would have the strength of character to have nothing to do with people who supported legal toddler murder. And yet modern pro-lifers interact amicably with pro-choicers all the time. This is not the behavior of someone who thinks abortion is child murder, I'm sorry.

UPDATE: One other point - there's a disconnect between Gene's title and Gene's quote that's worth pointing out. One can say "pro-lifers don't really think abortion is murder" without being "against" pro-lifers. I'm not really offering an argument "against" pro-lifers at all. It's OK to think something is wrong and worthy of prohibition without thinking that it's murder. I think stealing is wrong and worthy of prohibition, and I don't think stealing is murder.


  1. Is this an argument you come across a lot, Daniel? This is the laziest strawman I've seen in a while.

    1. Who's providing the strawman - me or Gene?

      I think I often come across statements like "abortion is baby killing" (in fact I heard that from someone completely unrelated to this discussion over the weekend). I have come to seriously doubt many people actually think such a thing. That's not to say, of course, they aren't sincere in thinking that it's wrong.

    2. Needless to say, I don't usually respond to people by saying "but you don't REALLY think that". That's a little impolitic in most circumstances. It's OK to say in a blog environment where we mull over these things, but not in most circumstances. So I can't say I've had the opportunity to hear many counter-arguments like Gene's.

    3. I've never come across someone seriously making the argument that "If you really thought abortion was murder, you'd be out bombing abortion clinics," and if there are people legitimately advancing this idea then neither you nor Gene provide any examples. Gene makes it seem like he is pointing out a serious flaw in pro choice thinking but he can't actually demonstrate that there is a single person who disagrees with him on this point.

      Of course it's a bad argument against anti-abortionists, but it's irrelevant unless someone is actually using this argument against anti-abortionists, and neither of you make that case. Setting the bar a little low for "a great point on abortion."

    4. "If you really thought there were too many public sector employees, you'd be out there murdering postal workers" - is this an example of a bad argument against anti-Keynesians, or is it an irrelevant statement that never comes up in economic discussions?

    5. I agree. I was trying to throw Gene a bone on this - he does give the right answer - but I think the question is pretty irrelevant. That's what I mean when I say Gene sets up a pretty low bar here.

      re: "Gene makes it seem like he is pointing out a serious flaw in pro choice thinking but he can't actually demonstrate that there is a single person who disagrees with him on this point."

      Exactly. Very well said.

      I think I was concealing my sarcasm a little too much. This is my concern with Gene's post too.

      Now, while I've never heard anyone say "anti-abortionists, if they were genuine, would be bombing clinics", but I have definitely heard people say "abortion is baby killing". For reasons stated here and elsewhere, I have doubts many people sincerely think that.

  2. Despite thinking that the verdict in his trial was unjust, he decided that obeying the law was the right thing to do, even at the cost of his own life.

    This is just wrong. Socrates had no respect for the law or the state. He generally had nothing to do it. Not out of disgust or anger, but because he was genuinely unconcerned with political matters. Socrates took the poison to illustrate his philosophy - one tenet of which was that there really is no difference between life and death.

    So as not to only make this entirely a negative comment, I do agree with Gene on the overall point here.

    1. Mattheus, please read Crito! Socrates not only had respect, but he had a GREAT respect for the law.

  3. I'm coming out of blogging hibernation (three cheers for assignments!), so I'm not quite up to speed on what motivated this discussion. Was it related to this article? (FWIW, I have big problems with the reasoning outlined in that study. You could just as well argue that a sleeping or unconscious person is only a "potential human" as per their stringent definition.)

    I had a lengthy discussion on FB recently with some (Christian) friends who were decrying the following video clip of Richard Dawkins and Peter Singer:
    The knee-jerk reaction completely baffled me. It seemed to me that D&S were wrestling with difficult topics in a completely reasonable and humane way.
    - If (some) pro-lifers cite the pain that a human embryo possibly experiences during an abortion, is it reasonable to suggest that they should be consistent when it comes to the suffering of animals? Absolutely.
    - Is there a moral case to be made for euthanizing a terminally-ill infant that would otherwise die in "terrible agony"? Of course there is. [Side note: I'm increasingly skeptical of people that flaunt slippery slope arguments (on any topic).]


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