Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Paternal Responsibility

There's some tension in feminist thought regarding paternal responsibility. On the one hand, feminists typically hold that a pregnant woman has absolute discretion over whether to get an abortion or see the child to term, with no obligation to consult the father or consider his wishes. Yet if the woman chooses to have the baby, the father is held responsible and made to pay child support. This seems unjust.

To be held responsible for an outcome, one must have some control over it. The father certainly shares responsibility for the pregnancy (assuming he had sex voluntarily). But since childbirth in the feminist utopia depends upon failure to abort, one can only be responsible for childbirth if one is responsible for a failure to abort. And if the decision to abort or not is made without so much as consulting the father, one cannot plausibly hold him responsible for it. If abortion is accessible (in the broadest sense of the term, including moral and emotional considerations, etc.) to the mother, but she unilaterally decides against it, then her continued pregnancy is her responsibility and hers alone. She could have avoided it, but chose not to. It would be unjust for her to force others to pay the costs of her decisions.

Now, Dr. Pretorius makes the obvious point that the child's welfare matters here too. I certainly wouldn't deny that. But amongst all the snarkiness he doesn't seem to have noticed that this doesn't actually help his position any. That a child has the right to be adequately provided for does not in itself entail who has the burden of fulfilling this right. Presumably the burden falls on those who are responsible for bringing the child into the world -- with social welfare as a 'safety net' if required. In the case of the unilateral feminist described above, it was the mother who was solely responsible. If she is too poor to adequately provision her child, the state should step in and help (for the sake of the kid, who should not be punished for his mother's selfishness).

Pretorius actually suggests the more specific principle:
(P) Children have the right to be [financially] supported by their biological parents.

This is not plausible. Suppose a mad woman extracted sperm from you whilst you were sleeping, and used this to get herself pregnant. Nine months later, the bills start arriving, demanding that you pay for this child that you never even knew you had. Are you obliged to pay them? If the mad woman is married, and the otherwise sane couple are taking good care of the kid, does the child really have a further right to be financially supported by you in particular? Is he somehow harmed if the money comes from somewhere else instead?

Or, less fantastically, consider a case where the father is a rape victim, and ask all those same questions. It seems clear that if someone is manipulated into becoming a biological parent against their will, then they are not responsible for the child, and hence it would be unjust to hold them responsible by forced child support payments. That's not to deny the child's basic rights to welfare. It's just to deny that the manipulated victim is the one who has to fulfill them. If a general welfare right cannot be adequately fulfilled by those responsible, then the burden passes to society as a whole (social welfare), not any particular non-responsible individual.

The crucial question now is whether the father in our original "unilateral feminist" scenario was "manipulated into becoming a biological parent against [his] will". As previously noted, it's crucial here whether abortion is "accessible" to the mother, in the broadest sense of the term. Given the normal progression of things, being responsible for conception typically suffices to carry over into responsibility for the consequently born child. But if abortion is a live option, then childbirth is not just a consequence of conception. It's a consequence of conception plus the decision not to abort. If the man is excluded from the latter decision, then he cannot be held responsible for it.

So, we should reject (P). Indeed, quite apart from the unfair attributions of responsibility, it's a pretty ludicrous right in its own, uh, right. From the point of view of the child's welfare (which Pretorius purports to be concerned with), what matters is that his needs are met. It does not matter who meets them. So (P) is not really about the child's welfare at all. It's about holding the father personally responsible. But that's something that feminists cannot reasonably do if they want to exclude the father from prior important decisions.

One might object that some of the child's needs are special in the sense that they can only be met by the biological father. This is obviously false concerning financial needs: child support payments are not intrinsically more valuable than social welfare payments of the same amount. But it is more plausible in connection to emotional needs. Perhaps fathers have a moral obligation to love their children, no matter the circumstances of the birth. (Though I think in at least some cases this would be an unreasonable demand, as the prior examples make clear.) Regardless, this cannot be a legal obligation -- you can't sue people into becoming good fathers. Forcing money out of them certainly won't help.

In fact, considerations of the child's welfare should lead us to reconsider paternal exclusion from the decision not to abort. The unilateral feminist is intentionally bringing into the world a child who will have an uncaring father. That seems at least somewhat irresponsible. If she could abort it and instead (say) have a child a year later with a more dedicated father, that seems clearly preferable from the next generation's point of view. (Indeed, it seems preferable from everyone's point of view, assuming feminists are correct about how harmless abortion is.)

Dr. Pretorius attacks unwilling fathers by saying: "you know, sometimes you don't just have the right to do whatever you want regardless of how it affects other people." Yet in the immediately preceding sentence he was insisting that a woman has the "right" to carry her baby to term, no matter how this affects the father (or, presumably, the child itself). Very ironic.

Bringing a child into the world is a very serious undertaking, and can be a significant burden for those who do not welcome it. Recognizing this, feminists embrace abortion for the choice it affords women, allowing them to avoid this burden. But why are men deprived of the same choice, the same chance to say, "No, I'm not prepared to accept this responsibility right now"?

Doesn't it go against liberal principles to allow one person to unnecessarily burden another against their will? If so, then men - just like women - cannot fairly be burdened with an unwanted child. Either the child can be brought to term without incurring rights against the father, or else the father too should be allowed to abort it. (The former sounds more plausible.) For feminists agree that, even post-conception, a child is an unnecessary burden. It may be aborted if that would be most convenient for the woman. It seems plain sexism not to extend the same courtesy to men.

43 comments:

  1. having sex seems to make you partly responsible even if a later event could have adressed the "problem" creating it in the first place surely has some significance.

    Having said that I do think there is sexism in current rights systems. I.e. we need more fathers rights (to take care of the children if they wish) and I must say I would be pretty disturbed (to put it mildly) if a partner of mine decided to abort our baby unilaterally.

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  2. Dr Pretorius is pretty damn snarky...

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  3. Fatherhood and Child Support: Do Men Have a Right to Choose?
    http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1468-5930.2005.00292.x?cookieSet=1

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  4. This is one of the most difficult issues out there. (I've always said that should I ever impregnate a woman who doesn't want an abortion, I'll be the first person in history to make myself hated by both the christians and the feminists by suing to compel one.). There was some interesting discussion on a law blog here, here, and here.

    My take is simply that we have an irreconcilable moral conflict rooted in biology. If we accept that a woman has an absolute autonomy-based right to control her own body, and further accept that a child has an absolute justice-based right to financial support from those who bear responsibility for its existence (which includes the man who failed to take appropriate precautions against e.g. pregnancy, except in the case of rape/sperm extraction), then we are forced to swallow our compunctions and hold that the woman has the sole right to decide whether or not to subject the man to eighteen years of child support payments. If we also hold for autonomy reasons that this is wrong, we have to face the fact that we have a conflict. In that case, we might actually make a decision on the basis of some kind of Rawlsian priority rules, but it's not clear that there's any way to get there absent a raw political choice.

    Your strategy is to try and undermine the right of the child to payments. Unfortunately, I don't think you've succeded. If we take as an axiom that the child has a right to be supported by someone, then you must deal with the case where the mother is unable to provide that support alone. While it might arguably be more just to force the mother to do so if she declined an abortion (assuming the abortion was affordable and accessible), the fact remains that she can not be forced to do so, or the innocent victim child will suffer.

    In such a case, additional support must be called in from somewhere else. Where? The two obvious options are (a) the father and (b) society as a whole through the tax system. Of those choices, (a) is clearly preferable. First, the father is slightly more culpable than society as a whole, since in most cases he declined to use a condom etc. Second, allowing fathers to externalize the costs of their unprotected sex onto society would create a moral hazard in the economic sense, leading to more unwanted babies.

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  5. The nit-pickey catch is, I think, your unnecessary reliance on the notion that a subsequent controlling cause divests actors of any responsibility for their contributions to previous, but necessary, causes. For example, if I, knowing that you like to murder people, supply you with a gun, I bear some measure (although obviously less than yours) of responsibility for your subsequent murders completely apart from the fact that you held ultimate control of the killing/not killing decision.

    Again, lets exclude the rape/sperm extraction case. The mere fact that an abortion was an option which would completely eliminate the pregnancy does not divest the man of the responsibility for creating the situation where an abortion was necessary. (This is especially so where abortion has both financial and emotional costs for the mother.) Since this responsibility is greater than society's (except in the case where society can be clearly held responsible for the mother's inability to support the child on her own), the child ought to look to the mother first, then to the father, before looking to society for support.

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  6. Justice isn't based purely on causation. Since we are mostly deterministic biomachines, we can't really be held accountable for anything we do (not even murder) purely on the basis of "causation."

    Instead, the rules of law reflect rules that we ourselves would feel fairly judged by. There will always be people who cannot put themselves in another's shoes, and who will object to any legal rule that puts them at a disadvantage. For example, the rich man may feel that insider trading is a petty offense, and the father may feel that his 20-minute fling with the mother is not deserving of 18 years of support payments.

    One can argue that, if the mother does not want to accept the burden of supporting the child, she should not have taken the baby to term. However, the implicit contract was clear to both parties when they had sex. The question is whether or not we want to change that implicit social contract, and what the consequences of that change would be.

    If I were the mother, I would want to have a relatively unencumbered choice as to whether to take the baby to term or not. If the price of that choice comes at some cost to the would-be father, that sounds acceptable to me. I think one can argue that the maternal instinct is as significant as the mating instinct, and perhaps we should accord comparable freedoms and responsibilities to both.

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  7. Suppose you and I are joint owners of car. It's an older car, and we both know there is some chance that eventaully the parking break will give out. However, the parts needed to fix this are very expensive and, given our situation, it would be quite burdensome for us to pay for the repairs at this time. We both decide to take the risks and keep the car anyway because our lives would be much worse if we didn't have it.

    One day, the parking break fails and the car begins rolling toward the neighbor's car (which we may assume is unoccupied). Though we both see this, only you are close enough to stop the car by throwing yourself in front of it. If you do, let us suppose you will suffer bruises and a broken leg but no permament damage. Despite my pleading, you refuse to stop our car, so the neighbor's car is damaged.

    We both share equal responsibility for taking the risk that lead to the damage. However, due to circumstances beyond our control, you had an opportunity to stop the car which I did not. You could have thrown yourself in front of it. However, you refused to allow me equal decision making power in your decision of whether to jump in front of the car, so I have no responsibility for that decision.

    So a decision that I had no responsibility for made the difference between whether the neighbor's car was damaged or not. Does this mean that you, but not I, am responsible for the damage to the neighbor's car?

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  8. I fully agree with your logic Richard, although I think the uncomfortable truth is that not only is it sexist to not allow the man the choice to abort but also to prevent the abortion. The implication would be to remove the absolute right of abortion, which would be anathema to many.

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  9. I am not sure whether you have to have veto power over an activity to be held responsible for it.

    That seems very libertarian and incompatibilist.

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  10. Clark, why is that? How does the woman's choice to abort impose any unfair burden on the male who wants the baby?

    Derek, we would share responsibility for the damage because it cannot fairly be blamed on your failure not to sacrifice yourself in such a fashion. That's why I insisted that abortion must be "accessible" to the woman in the broadest sense of the term, by which I mean that it causes her no harm (including moral or emotional harm). If it did cause her harm, then the man could not reasonably expect her to make such a sacrifice. Childbirth would then be the expected consequence of conception, in a way that it need not be if abortion is fully accessible in the way I've described.

    Doctor, in this age of birth control, I don't really think it's true that there is any "implicit contract" or expectation that (esp. casual) sex partners will raise a child together in case of unexpected pregnancy. Again, assuming the full "accessibility" of abortion, it becomes entirely unnecessary for conception to lead to childbirth. Typically, feminists welcome this result. Here I'm pointing out the selectivity with which they do this.

    Paul, I deny that "a woman has an absolute autonomy-based right to control her own body." As I explained in comments to Pretorius' reply: her right to swing her first ends at another's face, and her right to control her uterus stops when that uterus is in the process of placing an unnecessary burden on another.

    "you must deal with the case where the mother is unable to provide that support alone."

    I did -- in several places. For example:

    1) "If she is too poor to adequately provision her child, the state should step in and help (for the sake of the kid, who should not be punished for his mother's selfishness)."

    2) "That's not to deny the child's basic rights to welfare. It's just to deny that the manipulated victim is the one who has to fulfill them. If a general welfare right cannot be adequately fulfilled by those responsible, then the burden passes to society as a whole (social welfare), not any particular non-responsible individual."

    You continue: "The two obvious options are (a) the father and (b) society as a whole through the tax system. Of those choices, (a) is clearly preferable."

    That's not "clearly" true. Indeed, I think it false, for the reason explained in quote #2 above.

    I've argued that if abortion is readily accessible then being responsible for conception is not sufficient to be responsible for childbirth. But it's even questionable whether the guy is always responsible for the conception. Clearly this will depend on the specific circumstances. (Did they take all reasonable precautions? Did they discuss the issue before having sex, and agree that abortion would be appropriate in case of accidental pregnancy? Did she lie about being on the pill? Did neither want to use a condom, or did the bastard pressure her into it? Obviously such facts could make a huge difference.)

    I'm not convinced by your "moral hazard" argument either. It'd be unjust to punish innocent people just for sake of deterrence. A lot depends on your assumption that they guy has done something morally blameworthy, which he might not have [see the circumstantial questions above].

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  11. That's why I insisted that abortion must be "accessible" to the woman in the broadest sense of the term, by which I mean that it causes her no harm (including moral or emotional harm).

    It strikes me here that you're assuming a rather specific sort of situation. At least as far as my experience goes abortions are very rarely the sort of decision that are easily made. At the very least it's a not insignificant medical procedure with profound social consequences. In an age of magical "make it didn't happen" abortions your argument would have more force, but if it depends on precisely that sort of abortion I simply don't see how it applies to the actual world any more than if we supposed that women spontaneously generated pregnancies, or that men were able to magically subtract their genetic material from a fetus.

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  12. > At the very least it's a not insignificant medical procedure

    This is rather like saying (to use the fist metaphore again) "it is ok for me to hit you as long as it hurts my fist" (which it will).

    Anyway, as significant as an abortion is - it is LESS significant an "operation" than a pregnancy.

    Also more generally than richards examples - can we blame a person who has sex and creates a baby if they took all reasonable precautions?
    (having worked out what exactly is a reasonable precaution)

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  13. "We would share responsibility for the damage because it cannot fairly be blamed on your failure not to sacrifice yourself in such a fashion."

    So your position is that bruises and a broken bone are too much sacrifice to ask of someone in the name of saving another from liability for destroying a car. So someone bears no moral responsibility for their failure to make such a sacrifice.
    But, you seem to say, asking someone to have an abortion isn't nearly so big a deal.

    I think there are two dimensions along which you fail to take the abortion choice sufficiently seriously. First, the mother may elect not to abort because she believes it would be morally wrong. Even if we think (as I do) that she is mistaken in this belief, a person's freedom of concience is important even when they are are wrong. It is not absolute, but to ask someone to give it up is to ask them to make a substantial sacrifice.

    Second, you fail to take seriously how intrusive unconsented medical procedures are, even if (as genius clames) the abortion procedure is a 'less significant' procedure than taking the pregancy to term.

    If I had to choose between being forced to pay substantial child support and being forcibly subject to unwanted medical procedures, I'd easily choose the former. The aversion to both stems from the great value in being able to choose for oneself how one's life goes. Forced monetary payments are in general a much smaller intrusion into one's life than are forced medical procedures. Only where the child support payments would leave one completely destitute and unable to run one's life would they rise to a comparable level. But the solution to that worry is to limit the extent of support payments based on the payer's means.
    (Note that similar considerations lie behind my rejection of libertarianism. The libertarian is right that forced taxation is a morally significant intrusion in my ability to run my own life; where they go wrong is in failing to take seriously is that impact of poverty, disease, and starvation on people's ability to run their lives is much greater than that of taxation of disposable income).

    That said, there is certainly a moral obligation on the part of the mother (absent special circumstances) to consult with the father about whether to abort. That is not, I think, an obligation that it is appropriate for the state to enforce. And I don't think a failure to so consult remove the father of any responsibility he would have if abortion were impossible.

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  14. Richard: you argue that the father is not responsible even in the case of the child whose mother can not provide sufficient support. You do not, however, answer my claim that the rest of society is even less responsible. Even if the mother's decision not to have an abortion makes her 99% responsible for the production of the child, with the father's decision not to have a vasectomy accounting for 1%, that's still 1% more than the rest of society.

    Therefore, if we believe that responsibility to pay should be connected to responsibility for the costly act (do you?), then the absolutely unavoidable conclusion is that in a situation where the only possible sources of support for this child are the father and society as a whole, it is better for the father to be burdened.

    The only way for you to avoid this is to reduce the father's responsibility to zero, so that we are neutral between support from him and support for society -- in which case we can fairly start talking about welfare and such. But your attempt to do so rests on an untenable notion of responsibility.

    You say:
    I've argued that if abortion is readily accessible then being responsible for conception is not sufficient to be responsible for childbirth. But it's even questionable whether the guy is always responsible for the conception. Clearly this will depend on the specific circumstances. (Did they take all reasonable precautions? Did they discuss the issue before having sex, and agree that abortion would be appropriate in case of accidental pregnancy? Did she lie about being on the pill? Did neither want to use a condom, or did the bastard pressure her into it? Obviously such facts could make a huge difference.)

    But is any of that really what we mean when we say "responsibility?" Let's look at responsibility in a slightly more analytic fashion.

    First, note that either party can prevent a pregnancy to a degree of probability so close to 100% as to be indistinguishable. The man can wear a condom or have a vasectomy. The woman can take birth control pills, morning-after pills, or have an abortion.

    Because of that fact, to assign more responsibility to the mother than the father, you must privilege post-conception opportunity to avoid the consequence over pre-conception opportunity to avoid the consequence. Frankly, I fail to see how, or why, you can get away with such a move. If either party has complete unilaterial power to avoid a consequence that they might not want, what is the principle upon which you rely to assign "responsibility" to the person who makes the second choice?

    Imagine the following. I break your neck in such a fashion that it can easily be treated, but if it isn't treated, you get paralyzed. You then go to the hospital, and a malicious and sadistic doctor fails to properly treat you. You get paralyzed. Am I responsible for your paralysis, or is the doctor? Or are we both responsible? Lets turn it around. You get malicious and sadistic medical treatment for tonsilitis, causing you to have a very weak neck. After you get out of the hospital, I hit you in your neck, and you become paralyzed. Does the allocation of responsiblity change?

    What does timing have to do with responsibility?

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  15. Oh, by the way:

    I'm not convinced by your "moral hazard" argument either. It'd be unjust to punish innocent people just for sake of deterrence.

    I thought you were a consequentialist?

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  16. Dr. Pretorius (and Derek), that's right, I'm assuming that abortion is no grave matter, and thus that childbirth is an "unnecessary burden" even post-conception. For those who think that abortion is too grave a cost to reasonably ask the mother to bear, then my argument not longer applies. (This might be the position of those who are sincere when they say that abortion should be "safe, legal, and rare". I think I agree with them, actually, but it's more fun to explore the more radical view I've been presupposing here.)

    Paul, I prefer indirect consequentialism. So I still think that political debates should be framed in terms of justice, freedom, etc., rather than brute utility.

    Also, you keep assuming that they never used birth control. But that might not be the case. As I said, whether they take such precautions is one of the circumstantial factors that will obviously affect how responsible each party is for the conception (and possibly eventual childbirth, if you think some of this responsibility carries over despite easy abortion).

    "If either party has complete unilaterial power to avoid a consequence that they might not want, what is the principle upon which you rely to assign "responsibility" to the person who makes the second choice?"

    I've had in mind cases where the guy took reasonable precautions beforehand (used a condom, or trusted his partner when she said she was on the pill, etc.). If he was negligent, I guess that complicates things. It all comes down to what can be reasonably expected of another. If he was simply unlucky, but the birth of the child would impose special obligations on him, and abortion is as easy as we're supposing, then it would seem unreasonable for the woman not to have an abortion. Another key difference is foreknowledge: given that they took reasonable precautions, the guy couldn't have known that sex would (likely) lead to childbirth. A failure to abort, on the other hand, is rather more transparent. Your cases seem disanalogous in these respects.

    "the rest of society is even less responsible [than the father]."

    I don't it matters too much if the state takes on burdens for which it is not responsible. The "burden" is distributed so broadly as to have an insignificant impact on anyone in particular. That strikes me as much fairer than concentrating the burden on any one individual who is only slightly more responsible for it.

    Patrick: "I am not sure whether you have to have veto power over an activity to be held responsible for it."

    I never suggested any such thing. Rather, my original suggestion was that when somebody else holds a veto over an action, you're not responsible for it. (Though I'm unsure about this now, in light of Paul's criticisms. The general principle probably needs a few provisos of the sort discussed above.)

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  17. "allowing fathers to externalize the costs of their unprotected sex onto society would create a moral hazard in the economic sense, leading to more unwanted babies."

    There is another moral hazard that in theory would be very common --> that people will have children on purpose irresponsibly.

    I would suggest this might be pretty common (in fact in theory it would be almost universal)
    --- The moral hazard is the potential for having a baby to be negitive in its totality but positive for the care giver if they dont have to pay for it (note this could just be on the margins - the mother might want a baby but just "not enough to pay for it" - but change their mind if SOMEONE ELSE, e.g. you, pays for it).

    Maybe the solution is just to give the father greater power (than the women) to decide guardianship and how the family suport is spent. that means there is a clearer penalty to the woman for having the baby possibly without making it worse for the baby.

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  18. The mother is selfish because she has a baby when she's too poor? Things aren't quite that black and white in the real world Richard.

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  19. With regard to the basis of your argument, that "feminists typically hold that a pregnant woman has absolute discretion over whether to get an abortion or see the child to term, with no obligation to consult the father or consider his wishes," I've typically found that most women, including feminists, hold that the women should simply have the final say. This would suggest that your argument is a straw man. If I was going to grow a baby in my stomach I'd want the final say too.

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  20. The major sillyness in this discussion is that legal rights and duties are allocated according to social norms. You might just as well criticize the price of gold because of "inherent value" or some such nonsense.

    Upon conception, society allocates rights and duties (responsabilities) to both parents. One of those rights is (now usually) the right for the woman to abort. The rights and duties allocated depend upon the situation: if a donation occurs from a sperm bank or one of many other contractual methods, there are no rights or duties assigned to the male. If the egg is donated by a female by contract, (generally) no rights or duties are assigned to that female.

    Upon miscarriage or abortion, the rights and duties become moot.

    This straightforward view obviates much of the sillyness.

    So the remaining questions are what rights and duties should be allocated. Under a general liberal conception of the right to control one's own body, even if it results in the death of another, abortion should be a rightful option requiring zero consent from any other party. Otherwise, once you cross that bright line, you run the danger of somebody needing an organ to live, and having that organ harvested from your body without your consent. For example, blood, marrow, one kidney, part of your liver, skin, and a host of other organs could be effectively utilized to save other people's lives without major immediate hazard to your own. I suggest that a father who wants to interfere in an abortion decision should consider bargaining with the mother about how much of his body would be donated to save how many people to balance the contribution she is making from her body, her risk, her bodily changes, her emotional changes, etc.

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  21. Mike - I'm not sure you mean that, or at least not as you've put it. Do I have the right to control my body even if it means the death of another in the case where what I'm controling is the motion, say, of my fists in relation to the body of another? That would seem wrong. Even the general right to control one's body (or more accurately, I think, self determination) comes with restrictions on the traditional account.

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  22. Here is an interesting one.
    A mother is a habitual extreme alcoholic/glue sniffer/thalidomide user (fill in the gap with anything almost guaranted to deform the child).

    She falls pregnant - is she responsible to stop her activity or is the state/community allowed to prevent her from engaging in that activity or is that just an unfair breach of her absolute rights over her own body?

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  23. Pretorious, we can always find cases of a right smacking up against another right of the same sort. And indeed abortion is possibly one such type of case, if you are talking about mother versus fetus. However, here we are talking about mother versus father.

    Every right creates a coresponding duty, and in the case of the liberal right to bodily autonomy the duty is for others not to attempt to control or otherwise interfere with the body. Your fist example runs afoul of your duty to the other's right.

    Which should triumph, right or duty? That's what norms are about, making decisions based on specific conflicts of rights and duties. Our society (unlike many others) has decided that the duty to not interfere with others is less restrictive than the loss of full bodily integrity.

    Our society is hot and heavy now discussing abortion as such a tradeoff, between the mother and fetus. Law has (for now) settled the question one way in the US. Efforts to give the father rights would subvert female bodily autonomy by giving the father rights to dictate how the female body was to be used. It used to be that way routinely, but now that liberal ideas have been extended to non-landowners, slaves, women, and (partly) children, it's not likely to go back.

    Personally, I don't think the tradeoff between mother and fetus should be decided presumptively in favor of the fetus because it would destroy the bright line of not allowing government to rule that you must surrender your bodily integrity in favor of another. Would you like someone with a matching immunotype to be able to demand a lifesaving organ from you by court order?

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  24. Mike,

    I find your position very confusing.
    What is the relationship betweeen your claims:

    "The major sillyness in this discussion is that legal rights and duties are allocated according to social norms."

    and

    "So the remaining questions are what rights and duties should be allocated."

    I thought the first claim implied that the second claim would be silly. Once you acknowledge the importance of the 'remaining questions,' you acknowledge that the social norms can be evaluated as good or bad (and possibly as right or wrong). But then what does the appeal to social norms amount to?

    Another puzzle: you recognize the important relationship between rights and duties, but then you go on to confuse them by asking
    "Which should triumph, right or duty?"

    If rights and duties come together in pairs, there is no conflict between rights and duties as such; the conflicts, if any, will be between specific right/duty pairs.

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  25. > be able to demand a lifesaving organ from you by court order?

    I dont think that blunt an approach would be required BUT if it WAS required (the only case in which this is an issue) it bothers me less than the alternative.

    Let us take the most likely example - would you like to die of blood loss because a person of matching blood type didn't want you to have any of his?

    In most cases you obviously won't get that situation because there are enough donors etc etc. But if it was a 100% likely scenario the "body is a temple" alternative would be extinction.

    Or to enforce the golden rule - would you donate blood to a future you (in exchange, if you like, for monetary compensation and a cookie) if you knew that the future you would die without it.

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  26. Derek: the silliness lies in thinking that rights and duties are assigned fundamentally based on philosophy, rather than social norms.

    Once you have established social norms as the basis, then you can reason based on the norms, and suggest patterns of rights and duties which closely match the norms. Which is why I pointed out the norm of control of your own body, which happens to be liberal.

    I don't suggest the norms are good or bad: I'd simply point out that if you tried to assign rights in violation of the norms, they probably wouldn't work. The enforcement problems would be too large.

    A single instance of a right/duty pair will not conflict. But as soon as you have two, they can conflict. Which is why we have to make a choice in the "what happens when you swing your fist towards my nose" example. Your right to swing your fist can conflict with my right to swing my nose and your duty to allow me to swing it unhindered and unbroken.

    geniusNZ: As we compose sets of rights to satisfy our norms, it's not unlikely we'll find exceptional cases where a general right doesn't work. Thus we have all sorts of carve-outs in rights. For example, while here in the US we have freedom of speech, we also have libel, slander, and fraud laws. Likewise, when the economics and effectiveness of medical science changes, so do the advantages/disadvantages of liberal bodily inviolability, and so the norms might well change. Not to mention there is always the possibility of voluntary, non-command exchange. But our norms already allow a number of exceptions for such cases: the military draft, prison labor, guardianship of incompetents, medical treatments for minors, and (appropriately to this discussion) third trimester bans on abortion except when the woman's health is at risk.

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  27. So if any of our positions were the norms you would support them?

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  28. But reasoning on the basis of existing norms is pretty easy.

    Problem: Should fathers have to pay child support even if mothers have the final say in whether or not to abort?

    Relevant Social Norms:
    - The mother has ultimate say on whether to have an abortion.
    - The father is required to pay child support if the baby is born.

    Now that we've identified the relevant social norms, it's pretty trivial to apply them to the problem and get an answer: Yes.

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  29. Also, frankly, the idea that complex ethical issues can be resolved by means of a gallup poll leaves me more than a little queasy.

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  30. "the idea that complex ethical issues can be resolved by means of a gallup poll"

    You mean preference utilitarianism, right? :-)

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  31. How about this:

    In many cases a father who originally wants the mother to abort gains from her decision to have the child later in his life. This is because children often seek out and want a relationship with their natural fathers when they become teenagers, and many absent fathers, once they get a bit older, will get a lot of happiness from this relationship. If these fathers don't have to pay child support, their gain is paid for solely by the mother. Not only is this unfair, but it creates an incentive for a father to claim he wants the mother to abort even when he'd quite like her to bring up his children for free while he hangs out down at the TAB with his mates.

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  32. Frankly, the idea that complex ethical issues can be resolved by ignoring what people think in favor of ivory-tower abstractions leaves me more than a little disgusted.

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  33. You might want to go to the doctor and have that checked out, then.

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  34. Eeek! As far as I'm concerned, the approach of deriving morality solely from social norms is a non-starter. Need I point out the blatantly obvious counter-example here?: on the social norm view, in a society in which the torture of innocent babies is socially acceptable, it follows that such baby-torturing behaviour would be morally permissable. My intuitions say otherwise on this one. This shows that there must be some other moral standard independent of social norms.

    Do we really want to leave complex ethical issues up to the masses?

    (Awaits being charged of elitism :P)

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  35. Frankly, the idea that complex ethical issues can be resolved by ignoring what people think in favor of ivory-tower abstractions leaves me more than a little disgusted.

    Is this only because the existing social norms do not give such power to ivory-tower elites?

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  36. The alternative to observing social norms is to inflict a procrustean solution on the masses.

    Don't like the social norms? What makes you privileged? What makes your "values" righter? Why can't you persuade people to a norm you prefer, rather than want to force it on them with legal rights?

    In addition, use of the political process allows education, horse trading, compromise, and a host of other strategies that can better satisfy multiple groups with conflicting norms than a single decisionmaker could.

    Now let's see who's next to abdicate reasonable argument.

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  37. No, the alternative to mindless conformity with social norms is to think critically about what is right on independent grounds. That's just what "reasonable argument" is, and what everyone here takes themselves to be engaging in. You ask "Why can't you persuade people to a norm you prefer?", apparently oblivious to the fact that this is precisely what we're all doing. We're discussing what is right and fair, not drafting up legal dictates.

    Your comments seem to neglect the distinction between the social norms which currently prevail in our society, and those that we ought to adhere to. Obviously these are two quite distinct concepts (we cannot know a priori that our society is already morally perfect). And we are interested in discussing the latter. As I see it, it was you who "abdicate[d] reasonable argument" by suggesting that such inquiry was "silly", and we should just look to whatever social norms actually happened to be (therein confusing what 'is' with what 'ought' to be).

    As Tim points out, this conflation is obviously in error. If torture were more socially accepted, that wouldn't make it right. For more, see my posts on arbitrary ethics, and - especially - society and morality. (This meta-issue fits better with the themes of those posts rather than this one. So I'd be happy to continue the discussion there.)

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  38. Before you pompously chide me, Richard, you ought to reread what you wrote yourself. Your own original post dreadfully conflates ought talk with rights talk, stuff like "child's basic rights to welfare". I'll be happy to observe the distinction when you observe it.

    And that may be quite difficult when you are talking about liberalism, because liberalism not only has oughts, but also has political programs for creating rights.

    I wrote: "reason based on the norms", "education, horse trading, compromise, and a host of other strategies". You call this: "mindless conformity with social norms". I suggest that you too may be abdicating reasonable argument.

    Now, the reason I called the discussion silly is the same reason a punch in the nose is considered an appropriate response to certain philosophical arguments denying reality. If you wish to ignore that there are norms, and instead base your arguments on principles that you pull out of who knows what oriface, well then you're being silly.

    As a matter of fact, chances are that your premises are merely norms in your circle of friends, subculture, class, or whatever. I'd love to see you show how they were not norms.

    As I was saying, "What makes you privileged? What makes your "values" righter?" Are you forgetting that each individual who contributes to social norms considers his opinion to be what society ought to be? How do you deal with the fact that there is no uniformity of agreement on what ought?

    And what purpose does your supposed analysis serve? Or should I ask who it is supposed to serve? A god? The populace? Your ego? Which are you trying to satisfy? By what standard of satisfaction? Rightness by whose standard?

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  39. 1) I note that is is VERY often that I can see a better way for a person to achieve their own aims (quite frankly I can see many ways I could achieve my own aims better). This means that the it is not all that hard to armchair philosophise superior to actual actions or norms in some/many/most situations.

    I personally like to debate by assuming the person I am debating with's norms.

    I find in general "non uniformity of agreement on what ought" is mostly related to an inability/unwillingness to uncover the common ground (and each person's internal contradicitons) rather than a lack of such a thing. having said that the mental effort required to find such common ground might honestly be beyond some people.

    2) I note that horse-trading and other forms of norm forming politics are often many ways quite an effective method of destroying welfare (by the standards of the people engaging in those politics). I found those environments where the LEAST amount of that was going on were the best environments.

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  40. "Your own original post dreadfully conflates ought talk with rights talk, stuff like "child's basic rights to welfare"."

    That's no conflation, it's a straightforward conceptual connection. A "right" (as meant in this context, i.e. a moral right) is simply that which moral agents ought not to violate. Perhaps you are confusing this notion with the legal/political 'rights' that our society just happens to enforce. But I never made any such error. (I was never talking about the latter notion at all, so I certainly wasn't "conflating" it with anything.)

    (For the record, I wouldn't even bring up 'rights talk', but for the fact that I was responding to someone else who had already done so. I was continuing the discussion in Dr. P's own terms.)

    "How do you deal with the fact that there is no uniformity of agreement on what ought?"

    In this case, as already noted, what the rest of us were doing was engaging in rational argument about the matter. But perhaps you mean to ask a broader skeptical question. In that case, I refer you to my essay on moral diversity and skepticism, which addresses just that topic and might be a more appropriate venue to continue the discussion.

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  41. Any sensible person believes that women should make every effort possible to consult with the father of the foetus and come to an agreement on what's to happen.

    In the end men are responsible for sperms and they have every "veto power" before contraception. After this point women have the veto because they are responsible for their body. If there's a baby, both are responsible for the child's future. I don't see how it can work any other way.

    I don't think it's a good idea to be able to sue for a woman to abort against her own will except in the case of where continuing to full term would seriously endanger her health. Neither is it a good idea to be able to sue for a woman to be forced to carry a child to full term (as in the Nazi breeding camps).

    I suppose it doesn't really support liberal principles "to allow one person to unnecessarily burden another against their will" but because there is no black and white answer to the question, the best case scenario has to be worked out that first takes into account the welfare of the potential kid and secondly the welfare of the parents equally.

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