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  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    4. There are also the necessary objections to utilitarianism. The first is that people who just believe zygotes or embryos or fetuses are people and killing people is wrong therefore abortion is wrong will be unable to identify with any utilitarian framework. The second is that all life is of the same or incomparable moral value: the death of a bacterium is a tragedy just as the death of an adult human is a tragedy.

    I don’t see how this latter part interfaces with utilitarianism. Neither a bacterium nor a zygote appears capable of experiencing pain or pleasure, at least not as we understand them in everyday life. I suspect that either we need some tremendously large and very ad hoc patch to ordinary utilitarianism, or else what we’re really talking about here is a teleological ethics.Report

    • Apologies on taking so long to address this. I was at a wedding over the weekend.

      By utilitarianism we’re not just talking about the happiness or pain of the fetus, but also an intrinsic “moral value”, I think, kind of how we may discuss the value of a Monet or a Ming vase in utilitarian fashion without presuming that either is capable of feeling pain. If this is a very large and very ad hoc patch then so be it I guess.

      I’m not sure whether teleological ethics would object or not to this understanding. I don’t personally believe in purposes, and I don’t consider any claims to understand purposes are valid for forming policy.Report

  2. Sam M says:

    “Having a child in the United States is prohibitively expensive…”

    I think that’s a little strong.Report

    • Kyle Cupp in reply to Sam M says:

      Not really. Where I live, the costs of prenatal care and delivery for self-pay patients runs close to $10,000, and that’s if the patient pays everything up front so as to get the self-pay discount and if there are no complications. Getting on a long-term payment plan, even an interest-free plan, can raise those costs significantly.Report

      • Sam MacDonald in reply to Kyle Cupp says:

        And yet… few people seem prohibited from having babies due to cost. I believe healthcare spending in the US is outpacing similar spending in most other industrialized nations, yet our birthrate exceeds theirs.

        Someone might point out, “Yes. But this us largely due to a very high birthrate among America’s underclass.”

        This would seem to support my case rather than refute it.

        It is my uderstanding that a high income is NEGATIVELY correlated with family size. That is, the richer you are, the fewer kids you tend to have.

        This seems to fly in the face of claims that costs are keeping people from having babies.Report

        • Spending is increasing because so much money is diverted to unentitled parties, not because patients actually are receiving more valuable care. There is also the huge outlier of the Bush Medicare expansions.

          Cost is definitely preventing people from seeking medical care, whether that care is treatment for chronic illness or childbirth. Your analysis also assumes that fewer children is caused by higher income, when in actuality both are more likely functions of more-demanding jobs.Report

  3. John Howard Griffin says:

    For example, if you believe a bacterium is of the same moral value as a human, how do you reconcile this with the fact that one human is composed of massive amounts of bacteria in symbiosis with the cells and compounds produced by our own genome? Equating the moral value of a single-cellular organism with the moral value of a multi-cellular organism would necessarily entail either defining both moral values as zero, defining both moral values as infinity, rejecting the existence of individual organisms (i.e. proposing that there is some as yet undetectable force connecting me intimately to a bacterium in South Africa), or rejecting math.

    Let’s try a thought experiment:

    1. You are a parent of three children. You find yourself in a situation in which you can only save two of the children (maybe you are in a fire, lost at sea, etc.). How do you choose which two to save, and which one to allow to die?

    My guess is that most people would reject this question because “all my children are precious and irreplaceable”. In other words, they have infinite moral value.

    So, humans already treat certain things as having infinite moral value, they are just very selective in what is chosen to have infinite moral value.

    Changing the thought experiment can make the selection easier: Assume you have two children and there is another child that is not your biological or adoptive child (you are not related in any way). Now, which one do you choose to allow to die?

    For most people, this is an easy choice: my children are always more valuable than humans who are not my children. In other words, my children have infinite moral value, other children have a finite, lesser moral value.

    This shows that humans are inherently biased when it comes to assigning a moral value hierarchy. So, trying to solve the “collective problems” you highlight is inherently flawed, because we are all biased towards those we are related to (or those in our race, tribe, gender, et al).

    You seem to be saying that collective problems can be solved by humans by agreeing to a moral value hierarchy. I am saying that this is not possible because we cannot agree on the moral value hierarchy.Report

    • I don’t see how this is relevent to my criticism.Report

      • John Howard Griffin in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        I was primarily addressing this:

        given the purpose of solving collective problems such as “When and how should we allow abortions?” or “Should we restrict the eating of certain types of meat?” this world-view has nothing to offer.

        I don’t think it has nothing to offer – I think it has a great deal to offer. However, I am extremely biased.Report

          • John Howard Griffin in reply to Christopher Carr says:

            This is an extremely large question. For me, the search for an answer begins with the question “Do humans own the planet?”

            I answer that question “No”, while most humans answer that question “Yes”.

            If humans own the planet then the moral value hierarchy is what I commented on in your original post: that a human life > any other form of life. If humans do not own the planet then the moral value hierarchy is that a human life !> any other form of life.

            If the value of a human life is not greater than the value of any other form of life, then we do not have the right to continue to produce more humans at the expense of other life. This provides great clarity in regards to abortion or eating meat. Suddenly, abortion becomes quite moral as a means of reducing the constant addition of humans to the biosphere. Similarly, eating as much meat as Americans eat becomes quite immoral, for similar reasons.

            But, no one wants to talk about the constant growth model – whether it be economics or humans. I’ll end here.Report

            • Jaybird in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

              The idealist says that the statues exists inside of the stone and the sculptor frees it from the dross surrounding it.

              The realist says that the sculptor imposes his will upon the stone.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to Jaybird says:

                The pragmatist works within the limitations of the stone itself. Michelangelo’s David, magnificent as it is, contains some flaws of anatomy imposed by problems in the stone itself.Report

              • John Howard Griffin in reply to Jaybird says:

                Old joke:

                Do you know the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, and a cynic?

                An optimist is a father who will let his 15-year-old son borrow the car with his friends.

                A pessimist is one who won’t.

                And, a cynic is one who did.Report

              • John Howard Griffin in reply to Jaybird says:

                And, more to the point, they are both (all) correct. It just depends on one’s perspective.

                Blind men and elephants. We are all blind.Report

            • I’ll agree that unchecked growth economis and eating massive amounts if meat could use more criticism.Report

              • John Howard Griffin in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                That’s great. But, it’s not unchecked growth that is the problem. It is the idea (the math, if you will) that there can be growth in a finite system.

                We can say “it will level off to a steady state, births will replace those that die, with a fairly steady number of humans”. But, that then begs the question of what is the appropriate number of humans on the planet? This then quickly leads to discussions of authoritarianism, for how do you control the population without central control.

                These topics have been discussed (at length) by much smarter and more eloquent people than I.Report

              • You could say that technology causes more problems than it solves in that regard (but then again, technology also cleans up our messes); and I believe Jaybird brought this up in the last comment thread, but how do you think this squares with space colonization? Also, I’ll add that people have been panicking about population growth since Malthus, and it’s always leveled off to a steady state or been corrected by violent resolution, such as in Rwanda. I think avoiding that kind of violence is the most pressing concern.Report

              • E.C. Gach in reply to Christopher Carr says:

                I don’t think anyone can deny that at some point, if population doesn’t naturally trend off, it’ll have to be addressed through public policy.Report

              • BlaiseP in reply to E.C. Gach says:

                Meet Julian Simon, Doomslayer.Report

            • E.C. Gach in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

              It is not a matter of “owning” not “owning.”

              And “owning” “not owning” does not imply one moral hierarchy over another.

              What is your basis for making those inferential leaps?Report

    • E.C. Gach in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

      For most people, this is an easy choice: my children are always more valuable than humans who are not my children. In other words, my children have infinite moral value, other children have a finite, lesser moral value.

      This shows that humans are inherently biased when it comes to assigning a moral value hierarchy.

      How does that show bias? Valuing one’s own children may indeed be the moral thing to do. And if it is, you don’t seem to have grounds on which to claim that people are woefully biased and thus unable to make any claims to truth.Report

    • Boegiboe in reply to John Howard Griffin says:

      The first thought experiment only demonstrates (predominantly Western?) cultural taboos on saying one loves one child more than another to the extent they would choose to allow a child to die. When people are really placed in these situations, such as in wars, they choose which child to let die, and try to allow their grief for that child be assuaged by the survival of the other children. It’s not that their moral hierarchy is flawed, but that they just can’t answer your question rationally because of the (psychological, social, etc.) harm they would incur from breaking the taboo.Report

  4. BlaiseP says:

    Without wishing to cast aspersions of wobbliness on anyone’s ethics, it seems important to note each of us has a slightly different moral calculus in play. As such, we are all dependent on the seemingly arbitrary nature of law to guide us through such troublesome issues.

    As a Bleeding Heart Liberal, I have deep reservations about the abortion of convenience while would-be adoptive parents stand ready to receive these children into their homes and families. At the end of life, I stand equally appalled by the needless suffering inflicted on the dying without the foresight to sign Do Not Resuscitate orders. Enough innocent people have been executed to warrant an outcry over the Death Penalty.

    Is it a tendentious conflation to consider all the above issue as germane to the Sanctity of Life espoused by the anti-Abortion position? We would all wish a good death for ourselves: the Greeks said a good death was to be coveted. Auden:

    Yet law-abiding scholars write:
    Law is neither wrong nor right,
    Law is only crimes
    Punished by places and by times,
    Law is the clothes men wear
    Anytime, anywhere,
    Law is Good morning and Good night.

    Others say, Law is our Fate;
    Others say, Law is our State;
    Others say, others say
    Law is no more,
    Law has gone away.

    And always the loud angry crowd,
    Very angry and very loud,
    Law is We,
    And always the soft idiot softly Me.

  5. David Cheatham says:

    As I pointed out, there is, indeed, a finite amount of people who actually stand by the sidelines at abortion clinics and yell things. These people are _most_ vocal about it being murder, and yet refuse to do anything. They don’t need to spend time on this, or travel anywhere. They’re already there, spending entire days yelling at people, and not doing anything else.

    And ‘anything’ doesn’t require murder. Like I said, an alternative would be slam your car into the front door of the building hours before it opens. Or attempt to burn the empty building down. Apparently protesters do sometimes _glue_ the front locks of such buildings, but even _that_ absurdly trivially thing is not that common, probably because they have cameras and people get arrested for it.

    Nice to know that apparently spending time in jail is not worth it to attempt to save someone’s life. Or them blowing up their own car.

    And the trolley problem doesn’t apply to killing _murderers_. Most people agree with the third question there on that site, if the guy to push in front of the train was the reason the other people were going to die, they’d push. People generally agree murderers should be killed to keep them from killing other people. In fact, even the law is on board with that, except it doesn’t count fetuses as people.

    Saying ‘All people do not want to go all the way’ does not, in fact, explain why a few people don’t go all the way, and others go pretty far, and the rest just resort to physically blocking the doors or something.

    Instead, it’s maybe one protester who decides to break the law by refusing to stand back. And that’s it. Oh, except when someone actually _does_ shoot a doctor, like George Tiller, at which point the pro-life organizations are shocked, shocked I tell you, to know that someone killed someone they’ve been fingering as an unrepentant and unstoppable mass murderer. But that happens once a decade.

    In fact, there’s probably more _vigilant murder_ of gang members by members of their community who are feed up with their actions. Despite gang members being much harder to kill and the risk of getting killed in return.

    Either the American people are a more okay with just letting murder happen 50 feet away from them than I suspect, or the pro-life movement is full of very very very stupid people who cannot figure out how to disable abortions from happening for a little bit, or the pro-life movement, even the protesters at abortion clinics, don’t actually think that killing fetuses counts as killing people.Report

    • Sam M in reply to David Cheatham says:

      “Nice to know that apparently spending time in jail is not worth it to attempt to save someone’s life. Or them blowing up their own car.”

      Which is why all REAL environmentalists are active members of the Earth Liberation Front. The rest of them are liars or hypocrites.Report

      • David Cheatham in reply to Sam M says:

        If all, or even any percentage of all, of environmentalists went around asserting that finishing constructing a house was going to kill someone, yes, they would be liars or cowards for not destroying construction equipment. As no one actually _does_ say that, though, it’s a moot point.

        The ELF is actually a pretty good proof of what I’m talking about WRT to how people behave to things they _actually think_ are killing people. A single SUV driver is not going to kill anyone, even statistically, with pollution. And yet there are people willing to light SUVs on fire.

        On one hand, we have one ‘side’ where they believe the earth is being damaged, the majority claim being that it’s being very slowly damaged and generally no one is standing around yelling at construction crews…

        …and there _still are_ people willing to commit massive property damage. To quote the FBI: ‘In 2005, the FBI announced that the ELF is America’s greatest domestic terrorist threat, responsible for over 1,200 “criminal incidents” amounting to tens of millions of dollars in damage to property.’

        OTOH, we have this other group, who is fighting, according to them, _murder_. Not trees being cut down, not oil being burned to slightly damage environment, but clear, direct, outright murder of people…

        …and they’re content with yelling at people and glueing locks.

        Something’s really really off there. Where is the ELF equivalent for anti-abortion people, who wander around firebombing abortion providers?

        While no one knows how many people are in ‘ELF’ (Or even what that really means), for 1200 incidents (And probably only 200 non-trivial ones that went beyond slashing tires or spray paint or something.) I’ll guess it’s about 300 people in total, clustered in groups of maybe a dozen at a time. Which is basically the same as the number of abortion protesters outside clinics.

        (I actually find it strange to have to point out how _little_ violence or even vandalism there is from an organization on the right of the political spectrum, because frankly most of the political violence and vandalism and actual terrorism _is_ from the right at this moment in time…but it’s all anti-tax or white-power or crazy Beck-conspiracy nonsense. )Report

  6. Boegiboe says:

    How to reconcile a variable value of the right to choose with the notion that making exceptions for non-consensual sex amounts to punishing sex is another difficult puzzle, but one that can be solved I think by simply changing how we conceptualize the issue. For example, we could determine (via democratic process or legislative decree) that full abortion rights extend to twelve weeks. This would be the cut-off for those who did not voluntarily assume the risk of their actions, i.e. the victims of rape. We could assign a value equivalent to assumed risk that might take two weeks off the maximum time allowed to make a decision and thereby mandate that regular abortion procedures must be performed before ten weeks. To say that this amounts to punishing women for consensual sex is an extremely uncharitable reading.

    I don’t see how this is a reconceptualization. It seems more like a hand-waving attempt to dodge the issue of by throwing numbers at it.

    Here’s a reconceptualization: All abortions are legal, but they must all be announced and recorded in a way that is quite public. Whatever is known about the circumstances are announced and recorded at the same time: expected due date, perceived conception date, relation of father to mother (e.g. husband, lover, hook-up, rapist), and so on. Different localities could have different reporting rules, but prior restraint in abortions would never be allowed–only the potential of being publicly shamed and/or ostracized afterward would be codified.

    Of course there are problems with this. Tendency to under-report rape may be exacerbated. Some localities might have no reporting at all, like we have now. There may still need to be a line drawn whereafter the fetus cannot be aborted, but must be delivered. But, this framework provides a realistic way of balancing the varying value of the fetus with the varying value of an adult’s self-determination.

    I’m not saying this would work. I’m saying this provides a real change in perspective which might illuminate the discussion. How much is the pro-life stance about wanting to treat fetuses as equal, and how much is about just making it harder to make the decision to abort.Report

    • DensityDuck in reply to Boegiboe says:

      “Of course there are problems with this.”

      HIPAA making such identity-linked reportage illegal, for example.

      And you might as well also suggest that for certain categories, the mother in question should perhaps be given some kind of indicator to show her poor moral character. Maybe a red “A” sewn on a white piece of fabric, and she’s legally required to wear it everywhere.Report

      • Boegiboe in reply to DensityDuck says:

        Yes, thanks for filling in some more of what’s wrong with it. Actually, the scarlet letter thing would be easier to manage. Maybe the amount of time she has to wear it would be calculated from a formula–say, none in the case of rape, 2 weeks for a 1st trimester abortion, 6 weeks for a 2nd, minus 1-10 days based on a doctor’s opinion…

        My point is that the majority’s feelings on abortion most closely match, not a crime, certainly not murder, but something to be ashamed about, maybe, if you could have done something more to prevent the need. By showing what a legal regime that “properly” punishes each abortion to the extent that it ought to be punished, I was trying to bring in a concept that seems badly lacking in the abortion debates, and yet has quite a lot of explanatory power.

        Because the traditionalists who oppose abortion rights do have a tendency to want to legislate about other things they think are shameful, whereas those who support abortion rights tend to think people’s shame is the business of themselves and their circle of friends, family, coworkers, etc, not the law.Report

    • Granted, it was a fairly simple reconceptualization, namely that instead of punishing women who had consensual sex, we’re giving women who were raped the benefit of the doubt. I think seeing it as the latter rather than the former is a potentially very-powerful game-changer despite its simplicity.Report

  7. David Cheatham says:

    Also, I didn’t really ‘suggest’ that pregnant women have their medical care paid for, or certainly don’t get the credit for it.

    The pro-choice people have been saying that for decades. The left has been saying that for decades. That’s part of that Planned Parenthood is _for_, although they obviously don’t have the funding for it, although they do some cheap prenatal tests. It’s really a blatantly obvious idea, once you lean that 50% of all abortions have ‘cost of child’ as one of the considerations, and ‘25% have it as the primary considerations. Remove that, and hey, obviously less abortions. Not rocket science, and I should not be credited in any way for the idea.

    But the question you should be asking yourself is “But, wait, this seems like a non-controversial issue that the pro-life people should be behind, so if it’s not a secret, and it’s been around forever, why aren’t they?”

    To figure that out, you have to ask yourself what political purpose does the pro-life movement serve? Who does it get votes for? What group does it elect? What group is essentially in control of it? Does _that_ group want less abortions at the cost of higher taxes, or do they just want a bunch of people voting against the baby-killing Democrats? (Oops, gave it away.)Report

    • That’s pretty cynical, Mr. Cheatham. I know lots of pro-life people who care far less about taxes. I could imagine them being manipulated by politicians (aren’t we all?), but at the end of the day, the people I know would be willing to listen to reason no matter where it came from.Report

      • David Cheatham in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        Oh, sure, individuals will, but there are two sorts of people in charge of the pro-life movement: a) Those that are anti-women and would like the law to go further into anti-contraceptive, which is why the movement isn’t in favor of those either, despite that being an obvious way to reduce abortions _also_. b) Those that are using the movement for political gains, which is why the plan, for the longest time, was ‘keep electing Republicans and eventually we’ll replace the Supreme Court’, which is possibly the most inane political plan ever…unless you’re a Republican running for office.

        At this point, the straight-up Republican control of the anti-abortion movement has been lost, (Just like the anti-tax people hijacked the other half of the party, and named it the Tea Party.), but, like that just left, basically, the anti-women people in charge.

        No one running any of the pro-life groups has ever, as far as anyone can tell from the POV over here on the left, has even been actually in favor of actually doing anything to reduce the number of abortions. It’s either political posturing, or (and now entirely), a way to rail against loose women and even imprison them.

        Call me cynical if you will, but as a ‘less abortions’ member of pro-choice position, no group has done more to _stop_ the reduction of abortion than the pro-life movement. And when the pro-choice movement has an idea on how to reduce abortions, ideology on the right, not ‘pro-life ideology’ but _economic_ ideology or ‘freedom’ ideology or something like that, utterly stops that idea from being considered on the pro-life side.

        Again, this is people _running_ the groups…plenty of pro-life individuals are utterly on board with these plans. One can only imagine what they think when the plans go nowhere.Report

  8. Kyle Cupp says:

    For family values voters and social conservatives, this should sound like a wonderful policy, and it is a good starting place for the kind of healthy, productive debate one seldom sees regarding the abortion issue, the kind of healthy debate I was hoping to spark with the original article. Having a child in the United States is prohibitively expensive, and there is little doubt that the specter of massive hospital bills followed by having to financially support a child leads many women to choose abortion. And for those committed to reducing the numbers of abortions at the margins, what better or more appropriate way than for society to support its most marginalized?

    This is key, in my opinion. Whatever else a “pro-life” society is, it is a society that is hospitable to the expected invitations and unexpected visitations of life. The prohibitive costs, as you say (rightly, I think), create a financial disincentive to carry an unborn child to term. They close the door and are decidedly not “pro-life.”Report

  9. Jaybird says:

    I agree that the squares marked G. and H. in the matrix are a bit silly given present-day norms, but I included this row for the sake of mathematical symmetry and to make the reader aware of all possibilities allowed by the framework.

    In doing some googling around the web (doing some light eugenics research), I encountered this. Here’s a paragraph from pages 73-74 of A Concise History of Euthanasia: Life, Death, God, and Medicine by Ian Dowbiggin.

    One thing the Baby Bollinger story proved was that Haiselden’s views about euthanasia were not unique. The well-known American lawyer Clarence Darrow, future defense attorney during the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925, agreed wholeheartedly with Haiselden. When asked his opinion of the Baby Bollinger controversy, Darrow answered acerbically: “Chloroform unfit children. Show them the same mercy that is shown beasts that are no longer fit to live.” Blind and deaf advocate Helen Keller added: “Our puny sentimentalism has caused us to forget that a human life is sacred only when it may be of some use to itself and to the world.”


    We don’t have to go back to the Romans to get to squares G and H. We can get there by walking only so far back to Clarence Darrow (and Helen Keller, of all people).Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

      And this is the page that showed up when I googled “Baby Bollinger”.

      (Squares G and H aren’t so far back as we like to think)

    • Thank you for that Jaybird. A lot of conservative Christians are fond of noting that their ancestors formed the primary opposition to eugenics in this country.Report

      • David Cheatham in reply to Christopher Carr says:

        Then they’re very very confused.

        In the 1925, the Christians were _progressives_, and exactly the people arguing for changing society for the better. The overlap between the Temperance and Eugenics movement is pretty large, and the Temperance movement almost entirely Christianity based.

        Meanwhile ‘Conservative’ didn’t mean _anything at all_. Conservativism didn’t appear in the US until the 1950s, and didn’t solidify until 1964.

        So claiming ‘Christian conservatives’ had anything to do with the opposition to eugenics is just utter and complete nonsense, historically, as such a group did not, and could not have, existed in any shape at all, and it was the Christians attempting to social engineer society and, if not actually in favor of eugenics themselves, were at least standing right next to people who were.

        Also, note the eugenics movement, despite the quotes above, never even slightly suggested killing children as any sort of actual policy at all. It was entirely about castrating ‘defective’ adults so they couldn’t reproduce. Which is, indeed, a pretty horrible policy, but not anywhere near as bad as people seem to think they were suggesting.Report

  10. chip lyon says:

    Christopher, this matter has been beaten to death for a long time as I’m sure your aware. Science and the law give us the measurement of fetal viability that has been moved back and forth in terms of “weeks” for some time. Perhaps I’m a bottom line kind of guy, that is to say, who’s rights come first, the existing viable life, or the unidentified as of yet, embryo?Report