Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Abortion, Hubris, and Moral Trust

I'm generally a fan of Bitch, Ph.D., but the first half of her featured post Do you trust women? seems awfully misguided. Her core claim is that unless you're a pro-life absolutist, "there is no ground whatsoever for saying that there should be laws or limitations on abortion other than that you do not trust women." After all, non-absolutists recognize that moral discernment and careful judgment is called for here. The only question is whose judgment should be relied upon, and the only reason not to trust the discretion of the pregnant individual herself would be rank sexism, right?

Obviously not. For example, one might worry that self-interested considerations would cloud the judgment of the pregnant individual. Or one might simply be very confident in one's own moral discernment. Either way, the mistrusted individual's gender has nothing to do with it. Perhaps there is a sense in which this would mean that one did not "trust women". Here one would not trust any individual who found themselves in that situation, and some women find themselves in that situation, it follows that one would not trust those women. But the mistrust is nothing to do with their gender; it is not that one mistrusts women per se. Rather, one mistrusts people, and of course some people happen to be women.

Now, silly cries of sexism aside, one might question the appropriateness of this more universal mistrust. I will return to this issue shortly. First though, another howler from Dr.B:
When pro-choice feminists like Wolf, or liberal men, or a lot of women, even, say things like, "I'm pro-choice, but I am uncomfortable with... [third-trimester abortion / sex-selection / women who have multiple abortions / women who have abortions for "convenience" / etc.]" then what you are saying is that your discomfort matters more than an individual woman's ability to assess her own circumstances.

That's just stupid. When I say "I have doubts about the morality of X, for reasons Y", what I am actually saying is that X is morally dubious because of Y, not because of my doubts. (Duh.) If you feel discomfort about abortion because you think issues Y matter, then perhaps you are implying that issues Y matter more than the individual woman's discretion. But this is (obviously!) completely different from claiming that "your discomfort" is what matters here. Dr. B's conflation wrongfully maligns reluctant pro-choicers as selfish. This move may have rhetorical force, but it's intellectually dishonest.

(I've discussed a similar point before: when one asserts that P is true, this is not to assert that P is true because of one's assertion. This gets the order of explanation wrong. One asserts P because of an antecedent judgment of its truth. Similarly, one feels discomfort about abortion because of an antecedent judgment about what matters. One's response is a consequence of the judgment, not the basis for it.)

However, Dr.B. doesn't elaborate on this point (and perhaps doesn't really mean what she says), and instead goes on to discuss the 'hubris' point I hinted at above:
In short, [you're saying] that your judgment is better than hers. Think about the hubris of that. Your judgment of some hypothetical scenario is more reliable than some woman's judgment about her own, very real, life situation?

And you think that's not sexist? That that doesn't demonstrate, at bottom, a distrust of women? A blindness to their equality? A reluctance to give up control over someone else's decision?

Again, this is confusing a whole bunch of separate issues. In particular, the latter question is independent of the earlier ones about sexism. It's quite obviously consistent with anti-sexism to hold that the masses can't be trusted to make good moral decisions. There's nothing misogynistic or gender-biased about that. This is equal-opportunity cynicism. So again, I'll ignore the silly cries of sexism and focus on the more general question of "hubris".

The problem here is that the objection proves too much. Any kind of moral judgment or legal imposition involves this sort of "hubris". Should the rich pay tax to help those in need? Wait! That shows a distrust of the wealthy, and a "reluctance to give up control over someone else's decision"! We should trust them to decide for themselves how much they ought to give to charity. (We're not absolutists about this, after all; it's clearly an issue which calls for careful judgment and discretion.) What about involuntary euthanasia: should family members be able to pull the cord on their comatose grandpa? Maybe, I don't know, but it's clearly a proper issue for public debate. Should reluctant fathers be able to pack up and leave, without providing any sort of child support? (If you think not, does that show that you're a sexist misandrist who doesn't trust men?)

As these examples should make clear, Dr. B.'s position here is rather unprincipled. We don't leave all moral judgments to the individual's discretion. Libertarians may think that we should, but that's clearly not the kind of society we live in. Assuming that Dr. B. is not a radical libertarian, the question arises: why make a special exception for abortion? Why is public debate (including the arguments and moral judgments of - shock horror - men) "hubris" for this moral issue and no other?

For the record: I am quite thoroughly pro-abortion, as should be clear from my previous post. Like I said there: if anything, I think that abortion is probably under-utilized in our society, and that too many people remain pregnant when really they shouldn't. (Of course, it would be much better still to avoid the unwanted pregnancy in the first place.) Though either way, political or legal interference would likely just make things worse, so I'm all for individual choice here.

But this is a meta-political matter of civic discourse. Dr. B. wants to shut down debate. (She says: "The fact that abortion is even a debate in this country demonstrates that we do not trust women.") And she supported this position with bad arguments. As a procedural liberal and aspiring philosopher, I am strongly opposed to both shutting down debate, and to bad arguments. Hence my opposition to Dr. B's post. (At least, the first part, as discussed here. The second half is more about how women have as much right as men to be assertive and "insist on having their arguments acknowledged". Of course I don't disagree with that. Who would?)


  1. Very provocative! I'm adding you to my blog roundup du jour!

  2. Your comments have some force, but I think they may be overly technical. I am a proponent of logical rigor, and I also thought Dr. B was being a bit fast and loose, but I see a lot of value in her post.

    I think it helps to read her post not as an explicit argument that women's choices are always right, or that the only reason one could oppose women's choices would be sexism, but rather as a general assertion (not true in every particular case) that contempt for women and their autonomy is behind much of the opposition to women's reproductive rights. It is certainly true that any decision can be subject to scrutiny on rational grounds, but it is also true that anti-choicers are suspiciously eager and energetic in coming up with reasons why women's particular decisions regarding sex and abortion can't be credited. Somhow they never seem to expend nearly as much energy on anyone else's decisions about any other topic. And this fact means there is more than a simple matter of logical rigor to be addressed in understanding pro- and anti-choice arguments.

    Dr. B seems to implicitly hold a perception of the circumstances of women's sexual decisionmaking that disagrees with your description of the same situation: "one would not trust any individual who found themselves in [a situation that clouds moral judgment], and [when] some women find themselves in that situation, it follows that one would not trust those women. But the mistrust is nothing to do with their gender; it is not that one mistrusts women per se. Rather, one mistrusts people, and of course some people happen to be women." I think that this description ignores the reality of the way in which women encounter mistrust of their sexual-health judgments, and I think Dr. B implies as much in her writing also.

    It does not just happen that some of the people the right wing is constantly impugning and oppressing are women. The fact that they are women is a large part of what justifies the right wing, in its own mind, in doing so. ("If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.") This, at least, seems to me to be Dr. B's point, and if so, your suggestion that there is a coincidental overlap between the questioning of women's judgments and the institutional misogyny of the right wing does not respond to it. At best, you are both asserting incompatible factual evaluations of the situation. For the record, I think B's implict evaluation - that women's judgments and decisions about their own sexual health are scrutinized and blocked systematically, not incidentally - is the right one.

    As for the argument about "discomfort", again I think you are simply misconstruing the actual phenomenon Dr. B addresses in a way that makes it seem as if she has made a basic logical error, when in fact what she says is reasonable if you see it from a different, and I think more accurate, perspective. (And before we get into it, I gather you've read Dr. B before. From what you know of her, do you think it's likely that you can glibly assert "That's just stupid" about the things she writes? When you find yourself writing that about her, does that perhaps suggest to you that you've been over-hasty in interpreting her claims? I think it should.)

    You write: "If you feel discomfort about abortion because you think issues Y matter, then perhaps you are implying that issues Y matter more than the individual woman's discretion. But this is (obviously!) completely different from claiming that 'your discomfort' is what matters here." Dr. B is probably aware of this. Her assertion that the anti-choice position amounts to "my discomfort matters more than a woman's choice" is not a misconstruing of the logical content of their arguments; she is saying that "discomfort" is the anti-choice argument. And she is right, in very many cases.

    Let's skip, as a too-easy target, the dunderheaded Leon Kass's infamous blatherings about "the wisdom of repugnance" (though when George Bush's hand-picked bioethicist says things as blatantly dumb as that, don't you think maybe Dr. B has a point?). Consider the standard content of right-wing "arguments" against abortion: continued repetitions of the names of the tiny percentage of women who have died during abortion procedures; graphic photos of fetuses and overheated descriptions of abortion procedures; distorted language about "killing babies", "pre-born citizens", "partial birth", and the like; factually false assertions about "silent screams" and "racing heartbeats"; and on and on. The frank emotionalism, and deliberate, obsessive, pervasive, and almost exclusive reliance on morally neutral but emotionally laden factual claims ("the fetus now has fingers and toes" . . . and?) that constitute the vast majority of the content of the anti-choice position, and virtually all of its public presentation, suggests that emotional responses to (their perfervid fantasies about) abortion really are what drive that position. Add to this the fact that virtually all opposition to abortion comes from the most extreme segments of the religious community and is grounded on explicitly religious beliefs. Taking it together, it becomes obvious that the anti-choice position simply is, almost entirely, an expression of personal belief and emotional reaction to other people's equally heartfelt (and almost always more rational) decisions about their own lives and health. Dr. B is simply pointing out, and entirely correctly, that the anti-choice position is merely aggressive emotionalism run amok, and it is not unreasonable for her to assert that no one is in a position to claim that their religious beliefs and emotional posturing should be regarded as relevant to another person's decisions about their healthcare. (A final note: if you insist that the anti-choice position really is an assertion of a logical argument of the form "X is bad because of Y", then you do not say much in its favor. You merely acquit anti-choicers of being emotionally manipulative by convicting them of being unconscionably stupid. The "Y" they assert as reasons against abortion are almost always irrelevant "facts" - often falsehoods - that have no rational significance in a moral argument: the fetus has a heartbeat, ... brainwaves, . . . fingerprints, . . . human DNA; abortions are bloody; fetuses are "dismembered"; so-and-so died after an abortion; abortion causes cancer; . . . . These things are irrelevant to the morality of abortion. If abortion is immoral, it is not so because the fetus has fingerprints, or because pictures of abortion are unattractive, or because of any of the other idiotic things they like to shout on street corners. Dr. B's assertion that these claims are offered as emotional manipulation, not as premises in a serious logical argument, at least pays anti-choicers the compliment of knowing what they are actually saying.)

    Similarly again with "sexism". You are technically right that merely criticizing a woman's judgment is not by itself sexist. But that isn't Dr. B's claim. Her article is premised on the general context of anti-abortion oppression: the continued and systematic invalidation of women's - and only women's - choices about abortion and sexual health in general. From the anti-choice perspective, women not only can't get abortion, they can't get emergency contraception; if they can get EC they can't get it on request but only on prescription; if they have a prescription, any religious yahoo can simply choose not to let them have the medication, out of "conscience"; many anti-choicers are intent on rolling back contraception rights across the board, which of course falls on women most harshly; if a woman chooses an abortion, in some states she must wait 24 hours to actually act on her own decision; in some states she must read grossly falsified literature written by anti-choicers, look at unwanted pictures of fetuses, or pay for and view a medically-unnecessary ultrasound, again before she can actually carry out the choice she has made for reasons that were sufficient for her at the time she made it; if she is a minor, her parents may be notified of her choice against her will, and she may have to submit to scrutiny by one or both parents, a judge, and possibly a psychological evaluator; her medical records may by subpeonaed by a prosecutor on entirely bogus legal justification; some states have attempted to impose requirements for notification and even permission from spouses of adult married women - so that she cannot act on her own choice about her own body and health until a man gives her his permission to do so. Add to this all the bizarre nonsense about abstinence, father-daughter "Purity Balls", fraudulent scare tactics involving abortion and breast cancer, depression, suicide, and whatnot, and you have a situation in which every woman's ability to make a decision about her own sexual autonomy is systematically subjected to delay, opposition, review, and flat-out denial by hostile third parties, invariably men. And there are virtually no comparable barriers for men whatsoever. Under those conditions - not merely that some people object to some women's decisions in some cases, but that an organized effort is underway nationwide to subject every woman's decision about sexual behavior in every case to review by hostile parties, and men are not so scrutinized - yeah, the members of this organized program who then pretend to stand in that judgmental stance are sexist.

    The same comments carry over to "hubris". Dr. B obviously isn't saying that any claim that one moral belief is correct and another incorrect is "hubris". She's saying that the constant assertion that the moral beliefs of an entire group of people, about issues on which they hold unassailable personal expertise, are wrong in every case, on the basis of one's own idiosyncratic and sexist preferences, is hubris. And it is.

    I think you're taking a conveniently sterile, classroom-exercise stance on Dr. B's post. It's not that "Dr. B.'s position here is rather unprincipled." Instead, it's that Dr. B was not offering an exercise in deductive logic on sequentially-enumerated, purely symbolic premises. She was taking a thoroughly-embedded stance in the reality of omnipresent, ongoing, organized, ubiquitous, and itself highly irrational opposition to everything women say and do in the realm of sexual decisionmaking, and noting that this systematic oppression is not accidental. Analyzing her argument without acknowledging the basic, unstated, impossible-to-ignore premise - the very context in which the phenomena she is addressing are lived out - is unfair. Imagining - as I presume you do not, but which your text certainly seems to imply - that this context does not exist, or that systematic negation of women's judgment is not a factor in their trying to exercise their sexual autonomy - is insane. Dr. B's post was indeed a bit of a rant; it is not deductively rigorous, as you've proven. But that's rather missing the point, isn't it?

  3. Hi Kevin, thanks for the comments. You offer a more charitable interpretation of Dr. B's post, but it seems a bit of a stretch. I'm certainly not about to deny that many right-wing extremists are sexist. Yet that is quite different from what Dr. B herself explicitly claims. She is explicitly targeting moderates, those who aren't "pro-life absolutists", and indeed her discussion of "discomfort" is explicitly directed at reluctant "pro-choice feminists like Wolf, or liberal men, or a lot of women, even". Anyone who isn't whole-heartedly pro-abortion, in other words. So given what she's actually written, I think my interpretation and subsequent criticisms are entirely fair.

    Again with the hubris quote, what Dr. B quite plainly says is that it's "sexist" and hubris to think that "Your judgment of some hypothetical scenario is more reliable than some woman's judgment about her own, very real, life situation". Your version is much more reasonable, and if she had written that then I'd have no basis for complaint. But that isn't what she wrote.

    Dr. B could have written a post arguing that "this systematic oppression [of women] is not accidental" (and probably has done elsewhere), but this post wasn't it. She was quite plainly arguing that "there is no ground whatsoever for [moderates] saying that there should be laws or limitations on abortion other than that you do not trust women." Her next sentence confirms this: "I am completely serious about this."

    So again: the arguments in your comment are (mostly) quite reasonable. But they're not Dr. B's arguments.

  4. And let's be honest, since this is a philosophical blog, it seems as those "real-world" examples aren't really what Richard wishes to talk about, at least here. Those kinds of pro-lifers, while numbering many, are obviously very irrational as you point out. But what about a pro-lifer like me that is also feminist, let alone a moderate pro-choicer? Richard isn't denying that there CAN be people like those you describe, merely that it isn't a logical necessity for a moderate to be one of those people.

    And it's actually quite important because when the good Dr. goes on rhetorical sprees, it can become all too easy for someone that doesn't want to spend the time, as Richard has, to analyzes an honest moderate argument to make generalizations. Every pro-choicer should read Richard's post and realize that they shouldn't be decrying moderates as being sexists, but sexists as being sexists and denouncing their use of a position to give their disguise their sexism and give it legitimacy (a legitimacy that moderates should enjoy, btw, if they aren't sexist).


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