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. 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.

  3. 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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