Thursday, January 22, 2009

Roe v. Wade Day

I'd be remiss if I didn't post something here on Roe v. Wade Day, so here's an abortion post. As with most of my abortion posts, I'm going to link to something I wrote 4 years ago. It's a treatise on when life begins. Maybe it'll seem redundant, and I know a good number of people have read it before, but I really believe it's an important post, and well worth the read. If you've never made the time to read it, or if it's been a while, I'd strongly recommend you take a look.

I'm pretty busy with a bunch of other stuff right now (namely studying to take the bar again) so I'm only going to put up a limited set of original thoughts.

One of the ways in which my thoughts on abortion have nuanced since I put up that treatise is that I pretty much expect everyone to agree that life begins at conception. Because it's pretty much incontrovertible that some sort of new life has come into existence. The fetus, quite simply, is a life.

This opens up a new, more nuanced discussion, of when specifically that life deserves protection. I've found that this nuance makes for a more productive discussion between pro-life and pro-choice advocates. I suspect the reason has something to do with the fact that it seems like a new debate. Trying to debate the question of "is a fetus a life" left both sides entrenched. Pro-lifers couldn't budge from the position of "yes, it's a life", and pro-choice people generally refused to answer the question, and when they did it was with a staunch "no".

Now, instead of a yes/no question, you've got a spectrum. "When does a life deserve protection" is something that can be answered with any point on the spectrum from conception to never.

In more productive abortion debates we always seemed to get to this point anyway, but starting out by framing the question as "when does life deserve protection" offers a lot more room for advancement, and makes both sides feel like they can really participate.

It also helps set up a few solid points for pro-life advocates. First, if you've got a life then it's pretty hard to say there isn't something of value. The debate can still rage on about how much value that fetus has, but it takes a pretty unreasonable person to say that a life is devoid of worth. Second, you're making the question one of deliberate line drawing. And when you're talking about a fetus, there aren't too many clear lines. Pretty much you've got conception and (arguably) birth. Everything else in between is really quite gray. The pro-life advocate is drawing a clear line. People might disagree with its location, but at very least the line is clear.
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This framing also helps set up an analogy I've grown kind of fond of. I haven't had great opportunity to use it, so I'm going to try it out here, to see what people think:

A caterpillar and a butterfly are the exact same thing. They seem like really different creatures, but actually they're the same. We wouldn't say that the butterfly is a life and the caterpillar is not. They're just lepidoptera at different stages of development. We might be a little more awed by the butterfly, but we know that ultimately there's no difference between the two. We know that killing a caterpillar is just as wrong as killing a butterfly.

Likewise, a fetus is just a person at a different stage of development. A lepidoptera goes through five caterpillar stages, to a pupa, to a butterfly. A human goes from a fetus, to an infant, to a toddler, etc., on up to adulthood. An infant is significantly different from an adult, and we give the adult more rights and responsibilities, but it would be just as wrong to kill both a baby and a grown-up. So too, with a fetus. Sure, it's quite different from an adult person. But so what? Babies are quite different from adults too. Isn't it all just another stage in human development? How can it be wrong to kill one, but ok to kill the other?

I'm sure there are responses to this analogy. I haven't run this out there much, so I haven't really heard them. But I'm intrigued by what pro-choice advocates might say.
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Anyway, that's all I've got for now. I know back in October I promised I'd do a full abortion post sometime in 2009, and once I'm done with the bar, I'll get to it. But for now, this will have to do.

So, to sum it all up:

Because no one can reasonably dispute that some sort of life begins at conception, the question we've got to answer is: when does life deserve protecting?

Oh my baby don't be so distressed
Were done with politesse

26 comments:

patric said...

oooh... here's a thought (and i like your new question)

when does it become a "human life?" when are we human? what is human? are we human or are we dancers?

Matthew B. Novak said...

So long as we aren't The Killers...

Matthew B. Novak said...

Oh, and my contention, made partially in that butterfly analogy thing, is that we're human the entire way through.

Jeff said...

We know that killing a caterpillar is just as wrong as killing a butterfly.

Actually, I'll gladly squish a caterpillar if it's making googly-eyes at my apple. Read the incredible nonfiction book The Very Hungry Caterpillar for proof of the destruction that can be wrought by these awful creatures.

Anyway, I can squish a caterpillar because it's ugly. I can't kill a butterfly because it's cute. Babies are cute, and universally considered to be so. Fetuses (feti?) are of ambiguous cuteness, especially during the first few weeks when they look kinda like a jellyfish. But they also kick, and that's pretty cute until they kick you in the wrong place and then it hurts. And they only seem to kick when you want to go to sleep and that's just annoying. Also they're really cute when they're at 33 weeks or so and you get a 3-D ultrasound of them and then when you see them cry on the outside you recognize the goofy face and pose they made in the 3-D ultrasound. Did I mention 3-D ultrasounds are awesome? When you have kids I highly recommend it, even though your friends will hate sitting through the 45-minute video of your unborn kid playing with his/her cord, or possibly picking his/her nose, or maybe that's a smudge. Ok, I'm off topic.

I jest, of course, but there's some seriousness behind it. A friend of Ben's was a sort-of vegetarian that actually decided what animals to eat based on whether or not they were cute. (Cows were apparently cute, and chickens weren't.) I guess my point is that there are a lot of criteria one can use to determine whether or not a life is worth protecting. What are your criteria?

Jeff said...

Oh, and if a third-trimester fetus in the "cute" stage would threaten the mother's life if it were to be born, whose life would be more worth protecting?

Matthew B. Novak said...

I won't say that's an easy question, but it's pretty routinely resolved in favor of protection the mother's life.

And I guess you're right that there are a lot of different criteria. My response would probably be something along the lines of "but a lot of them are really silly and/or without any philosophical relevance." Thus, I can pretty easily reject cuteness. Because that would just let us kill ugly people, right? You've gotta come up with a meaningful criteria. I propose the criteria of "being alive".

Jeff said...

Yeah, but you take that too far and you turn into a Jain wearing a surgical mask so he doesn't accidentally breathe in a gnat. (Not to offend the Jains in the audience. I just don't think Matt's a Jain, is all I'm saying.)

So is all life worth protecting? Even if it's human, is all human life worth protecting? How far can we take that - can we prevent restaurants from serving fatty foods to kids because it will kill them some years down the line?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Jeff -

I get what you're saying, that we can continue to push where the line is drawn. But there are two really simple and reasonable responses that help me define my position. First, yes, all life has value, but human life has more value. So we'd draw the line at human life.

Second, how far do we take that? Let's just start with direct causation. If something is both the proximate cause and the cause-in-fact of the end of a human life, then it should be outlawed. This is the standard tort/criminal liability test that we've got now, and it makes perfect sense in this setting too. So an abortion is both the cause-in-fact and proximate cause of a human's death, and serving fatty foods isn't related to death in a close enough manner to meet either of those tests. It's a really clean, neat, efficient test that has served us very well for a long time.

Ben said...

Jeff,

I'm actually wracking my brain to remember which friend of mine you're referring to.

Jeff said...

Little blue footsteps girl. Lauren, I think.

Zhubin said...

I don't really see how you're reframing the issue. I don't think anyone has ever argued that a fetus isn't a life. The heart of the abortion debate has always been when the life of the fetus deserves protection, hasn't it? It's certainly the heart of Roe v. Wade and its seesaw-balance between the mother's right to abortion and the state's right to proscribe abortion as the pregnancy comes to term.

And look, you can spend fifty years suggesting analogies and line-drawings, but at some point you'll have to accept that the gray area between conception and birth just isn't going to turn black and white. Once you can see that your opinions on the issue are ultimately just that - your personal opinions, as subjective and prejudiced as anyone else's - you can see why pro-choice advocates believe that the decision needs to be a personal one.

Matthew B. Novak said...

First I think this does reframe the issue for a lot of people. I have certainly had pro-choice advocates tell me a fetus "is not a life". What's more, for pro-life advocates, the question has always been "life vs. not-life", with an assumption that all life should be protected. This causes them to more fully explain their views and lays the groundwork for a more common approach. Sure, most intelligent abortion discussions got to this point anyway, but this helps people start off on the right foot.

I think you're wrong about my position being just an opinion. Or at very least, I think you're wrong in your assertion that everyone's opinion is just as valid as everyone else's. There are certainly better and worse takes on the question of when life is worth protecting. I think we'd probably all agree that Jeff's earlier example of cuteness is a really bad way to draw the line.

So yeah, I think it's pretty clear that there are better and worse places to draw the line, and there's no reason we should leave it to individuals to do that. What's more, if we allow individuals to decide where the line should be drawn they might well end up on the "worse" side. Which means we'd be letting them kill a life that actually deserves protecting. That's pretty much the worst thing that can happen.

We don't leave it to other individuals in other settings to decide whether or not someone else's life is worth protecting (in cases of termination of medical treatment we leave it to the individual who is recieving the treatment, not a third party), so why would we in this situation?

You can't just decide someone else's life isn't worth protecting, and therefore kill them. Even when society does say someone's life isn't worth protecting (e.g. a capital criminal) we don't leave it up to an individual, we decide through our legal process. We're opposed to vigilantism on precisely these grounds. Individuals don't get to be the arbiter of who lives and dies.

Why should it be any different with abortion? As you've admitted, it's a life. Individuals don't get to determine whether or not it should be protected.

The second thing I think you're wrong about is the quick dismissal of my analogy. Sure, there's tons of them. But that doesn't undo the power of this particular parallel. Because what I'm saying with this analogy is that it isn't just between conception and birth that development is gray. It's between conception and adulthood that development is gray. This parallel lays out that a fetus is just as worth of protection as an adult. This fits hand in hand with my point above that there are better and worse places to draw the line. With this parallel I'm flat out saying: the best place to draw the line is at conception. If you want to say "there is no better or worse opinion" then you need to get engaged with this particular claim to show how conception fails to be a superior place to draw the line.

The proper response to a claim of superior line drawing isn't a base assertion of relativism, it's a demonstration that the line itself fails, or that some other line is superior.

Zhubin said...

I'm simply saying that the line you want to draw does not objectively exist. There's no point between conception and birth that a fetus definitively becomes life worth protecting. This is not because we haven't yet reasoned out that point, it's because the intersection between life/not-life is far too blurry for it.

In the absence of objective lines, the only possible positions are those built on subjective opinions, none of which are answerable to, or even necessarily in the same room as, any other. Your argument that life begins with conception, for example, is only persuasive for someone who cares about abstract categorical definitions as much as you do. It is entirely reasonable for someone who is more practically-oriented to believe that the clump of unformed cells that exists in the seconds, moments, days and weeks after conception is not a life at all, much less a life worth protecting, and that to sit there ruminating about its "thingness" is a joke. It is also reasonable for a person to believe that human life is defined by consciousness, not in the fusing of chromosomes, and that only upon the development and ignition of the higher brain functions does the fetus become a life worth protecting. It's also reasonable for a person to believe that only upon its ability to exist outside the mother does a fetus become anything beyond an extra organ. Hell, it's equally reasonable for a religiously-minded person to believe that life worth protecting is formed at the moment of conception because that is when the soul is created.

Those are, off the top of my head, just a few different perspectives regarding the beginning of life-worth-protecting that are not informed by your philosophical premises. Your line-drawing and analogies do not speak to them: the biologist does not care about your metaphysical arguments when he can see right there that you're talking about an amorphous blob; the consciousness-ist only wants to know when the fetus becomes sentient and how that can be determined; the religionist finds your failure to acknowledge the God-given soul horrifying and morally depraved. And you can't argue with any of them, really, even though everyone's been trying to for decades.

(By the way, this is not even mentioning the very critical point (that you always leave out) that protection of the fetus is not considered in a vacuum, but must be considered in the context of the mother's own life situation. This should significantly affect any reasonable person's opinion on the issue, and thankfully it does: only the worst of the worst pro-life advocates believe the life of the fetus, no matter how precious or valuable it is, overwhelms the mother's interest in her own life or in not bearing the child of her rapist or relative.)

I'm not suggesting that your line fails or that another line is superior, because I recognize that the criteria by which I determine the beginning and worthiness of life are subjective, and that I cannot slap down an Objective Trump Card to any of your own criteria. I'm suggesting you recognize that, too.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Those are, off the top of my head, just a few different perspectives regarding the beginning of life-worth-protecting that are not informed by your philosophical premises. And you can't argue with any of them, really, even though everyone's been trying to for decades.

Ah, but that's exactly why my position is so preferable. I don't have to argue with any of those various positions because when we protect life beginning at conception we're also protecting life once it becomes ensouled or conscious or an infant outside of the mother, or whatever other line anyone wants to draw. Protect life early enough, and you satisfy everyone. That's the trump card.

I'd also argue that there's a very clear line between pre and post conception. So while there might not be any easy objective lines between conception and birth, there is a clear line between not-yet-existing and existing, and that happens at the moment of conception. So even if we weren't already holding the trump card, setting the line at conception establishes a clear line that isn't established by any other criteria. Thus, it's a superior criteria.

By the way, this is not even mentioning the very critical point (that you always leave out) that protection of the fetus is not considered in a vacuum, but must be considered in the context of the mother's own life situation.

I hardly think it's fair to accuse me of always leaving this point out. After all, I'm the pro-life advocate who's repeatedly talked about wanting comprehensive reforms that address the well-being of the mother. In fact, if anything, you could probably say it's routine for me to acknowledge the importance of the mother's situation.

All of that being said, sure, let's address the point. I'm offering a position that protects life from the point of conception. I think that, in a vacuum, that's undeniably a better position than any alternative. But we aren't in a vacuum, so we have to consider what the interests of the mother changes.

What does it change? Nothing. The value of life - whether in a vacuum or not - is simply of such fundamental importance that it trumps all else. There is no time when a different value allows us to kill another person. But if you want to argue that we shouldn't protect life, it seems to me that there are two options for response.

First, you can argue that the interests of the mother outweigh the interests of the child. Except in cases where the mother's life is at risk, that means saying something other than life outweighs the value of life. What's more, given that adoption is an option, it means saying that something temporary outweighs the value of life (I don't mean this to diminish the difficulty of pregnancy, because I appreciate how hard it can be on a woman). What's more, except in cases of rape, it means saying that the value of life is outweighed in a situation where a person already exercised their discretion and now wishes to avoid responsibility for the consequences. I know that's harsh, and I'm all for giving people second chances and overlooking mistakes (heck, that's a routine argument in my cases), but when the cost of letting someone get a second chance is someone else's life, it's worth making the point that the parents had a really easy way of not getting pregnant.

So that's option one. You can argue that the value of life is outweighed by the temporary interests of the mother who was aware of the risks associated with her choices.

Second, you can argue that the life isn't worth protecting from conception. But then you've got to come up with some good way to draw the line, and, as you've observed, there just isn't a good way to draw that line.

A subset of this would be to say that everyone can draw their own line as to when life is worth protecting. This brings up the problem I mentioned before. "Individuals don't get to be the arbiter of who lives and dies." I'd go so far as to say that the principle of letting everyone decide for themselves when life is worth protecting is a position that necessitates accepting non-voluntary euthenasia, vigilantism, and hate crimes. I'd expect you'd scoff at that position, but all three of those have at their core someone deciding that someone else's life is not worth protecting (and/or that they're not a full person).

[The only thing that differentiates abortion from any of those is that the fetus is inside someone else. But that's a pretty silly distinction, since whether it's inside or outside, it's still the same being. Borders don't make reasonable distinctions. An African American is a person, regardless of whether he's north or south of the Mason Dixon line. A baby is a person whether he's inside or outside of the womb.]

Anyway, yes, you're right to point out the interests of the mother. I'm a zealous advocate for women's health, better adoption laws, free health care and early childhood care, better financial support so that having a kid doesn't cut off a woman's career options, etc. We absolutely need to do more on those issues. But that doesn't change that the value of life is of fundamental importance.

You're also right to point out how difficult it is to draw lines between conception and birth (and really, it's hard to draw lines between conception and adulthood). But the proper response to the difficulty isn't to run away from the challenge and leave it to each individual, the proper response is to have a well-reasoned investigation of the issues. And, since there is a clear line between non-existence and existence... there's a well-reasoned answer to be had.

AGJ said...

Zhubin, I know that I am up against a lot when it comes to reasoning. I am trying to frame this in more of a political/legal form. As I am not a politician nor a lawyer, here is my best attempt.

You posted that it wasn't an argument of when life occurs, (thus leaving us to conlude that it is a life). But then you go on to state that "The heart of the abortion debate has always been when the life of the fetus deserves protection..." "It's certainly the heart of Roe v. Wade ... between the mother's right to abortion and the state's right to proscribe abortion as the pregnancy comes to term."
You are now pitting State's Rights vs Individual Rights. That is you argument. Correct?

In our constitution (and the Bill of Rights), the forefathers in their wisdom wrote the piece to favor individual rights.

Granted, they did not view individual rights for all (Women, Minorities, etc.) But as we read it now, it is a document for all living humans in America (Yes, you could take it further and side with PETA, but I will not). As you described, the debate admits that this is a living human being, but when is it protected?

My question to you then is when should we protect minority rights? When should we protect women's rights (the heart of this discussion)?

I will pose this to you: When should we protect fetus' rights? As you inferred, we are not arguing that these are not humans. So, if they are humans, should we not follow past practice and protect their rights?

One of my students is currently battling through this dilemma. He wishes to allow his unborn baby to be born and then to give it up for adoption. The mother wishes to either abort the child or keep it if she allows it to come to full term (as long as he is willing to pay paternal dues).

It is a tough situation.

Zhubin said...

I'd also argue that there's a very clear line between pre and post conception. So while there might not be any easy objective lines between conception and birth, there is a clear line between not-yet-existing and existing, and that happens at the moment of conception. So even if we weren't already holding the trump card, setting the line at conception establishes a clear line that isn't established by any other criteria. Thus, it's a superior criteria.

Let me repeat myself: it is a superior criteria to someone who also values the catergorical definitions you value. But Jane Smith, who thinks that human life begins at consciousness, is not going to care about what happens before that moment, and your repetition of "clear line! clear line!" is not pointing out any error in her thinking. Nor is your insistence of the "existence/non-existence" distinction, because they are not relevant to her definition of human life. And you do not have a better argument than Jane Smith. You have only a different opinion.

I am not saying it is "difficult" to draw the line. I am saying that the line does not exist, and that your conception of where to draw it is subjective. Look at everything you've written: what part of it does not depend on your subjective value of this existence/non-existence of the fetus model you've set up? What part of it would speak to Jane Smith?

And to the extent that you do recognize that maybe someone wouldn't agree with your position, you argue that, well, we have to come up with SOME line, and we might as well pick your subjective line, and then enforce your line by criminal law against every woman in the United States. That's the least sensible answer. Far more sensible, once we recognize that there is no objective answer to this question, is to recognize that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is best trusted to the only individual who will have to experience and live through it - the mother herself.

AGJ - that is a very tough decision, I agree. But my whole point is that it doesn't matter what you or I think about when a fetus becomes a human, because none of our answers are going to be based in any objective universal definition. And because of that, I think the only person who ever has a right to determine whether an abortion is the right thing to do is the woman who will be having it. I trust that she'll make the right decision for herself.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

There's nothing subjective about it. There are better and worse criteria. Sure, as far they go, consciousness is a better criteria than say, cuteness. But to say "it's subjective" is a claim that there aren't better and worse criteria. Is that really what you want to argue? That any possible criteria a person could come up with is just as good as any other criteria? How about skin color? Hair color? Eye color? Gender? IQ? Due date is on a weekend? Those are all possible criteria. They're all pretty ridiculous. Do you really mean to say it's subjective?

I'm guessing from your arguments that what you mean to say instead is only that people disagree with where the line should be drawn. And sure, that's true. But the existence of disagreement doesn't undercut the fact that there are better or worse criteria. It isn't a response to a claim of a superior criteria to say that some people would disagree with it. You need to show how that criteria fails.

A parallel can be shown with race and hate crimes. It is a superior position to say that African Americans are people and deserve the full protection under the law that is afforded to anyone else. This position rejects that skin color is a relevant criteria for determining what lives are worth protecting. There are people who disagree with this view. The fact that those people use a different criteria to determine when life is worth protecting doesn't defeat the superiority of the view that says minorities are full people. But that's precisely what you're arguing. You're saying that "different people have different criteria and that each individual criteria is precisely as worthy as any other". Thus, if we leave it all to each individual's criteria, a person who thinks skin color is a determinent factor in whether or not a life is worth protecting is allowed to operate as they see fit, and any hate crime by that person would be, pursuant to their criteria, acceptable.

What part of [my philosophical determination of when life begins] would speak to Jane Smith?

Now this is the particular difficulty of my position, that there are better and worse criteria: that you have to argue for the particular criteria. So you've posited Jane Smith, who disagrees with me (and has a somewhat reasonable view as to an appropriate criteria). Well, leave it to me to discuss the point with Jane. I'll try to convince her. And she'll try to convince me. And maybe we'll work out an agreement. Happens all the time. Less frequently in the abortion debate, because people are so entrenched, but it's certainly a possibility, and you shouldn't foreclose the reality. I'll probably never convince everyone, but there's no reason a critical mass couldn't develop.

What's more, like I pointed out before, there's the trump card of protecting life from the start, so that it's protected at the point that every individual thinks it should be. So even if an individual disagrees with the criteria of "existence/non existence" their criteria is satisfied too. Thus, even if the criteria were totally subjective, the default should be to protect life from the start because that satisfies protection at every possible criteria on the spectrum.

Once we recognize that there is no objective answer to this question, is to recognize that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is best trusted to the only individual who will have to experience and live through it.

Ah, but this is exactly the point I've made previously about the dangers of allowing individuals to be the arbiters of who lives and dies. You haven't even touched those points. They remain incredibly valid. To allow an individual to decide whether another individual lives and dies is a horrible proposition that enables involuntary euthenasia, hate crimes, vigilantism, and, really, murder.

What's more, your formulation of the position: "the only individual who will have to experience and live through it" completely ignores that we're talking about (at least) two different lives here. It isn't just an individual making a decision about their life. Their decision also results in the life or death of another individual. That's HUGE. There's also an argument to be made about all of the other people affected by the decision (the father of the child, other relatives, society being denied the benefit of another person, etc.).

...then enforce your line by criminal law against every woman in the United States.

I've said nothing of enforcement. I'd advise against making any assumptions or assigning me positions I do not hold. My actual approach as to enforcement remains largely nebulous, though I'd certainly err on the side of leniency.

Zhubin said...

I'm not saying that the existence of disagreement is a response to your claim of superior criteria. I am saying that your criteria is founded only in your subjective opinion, and am providing examples of other subjective criteria to point that out.

Let me put it this way: you are arguing that chicken is better than beef, because chicken tastes better. I am suggesting that your criteria of "taste" is subjective and doesn't mean anything to someone who, for example, considers calories to be the determinative criteria. Your criteria has no objective claim to importance, so it is pointless to argue with it.

Thus, even if the criteria were totally subjective, the default should be to protect life from the start because that satisfies protection at every possible criteria on the spectrum.

No, because there is a countervailing interest that you - again! - deliberately ignore: a woman's interest in her reproductive freedom. It is not worth stripping her of the freedom over her own body just so the people with the most stringent subjective criteria of "life" can be philosophically satisfied.

Ah, but this is exactly the point I've made previously about the dangers of allowing individuals to be the arbiters of who lives and dies. You haven't even touched those points. They remain incredibly valid.

I haven't been touching them because the argument presumes your assumption that the fetus is a life from conception. Once you accept that such an assumption is subjective, then you will realize that what you are really saying is that you should be the individual who gets to be the arbiter of who lives and dies, instead of the woman who will live with the abortion. I would rather the choice belong to her.

My actual approach as to enforcement remains largely nebulous, though I'd certainly err on the side of leniency.

Your benevolence is inspiring!

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

You can't just keep shouting "it's subjective" in response to the fact that some criteria are objectively bad and some obviously make more sense. The criteria I support is entirely irrelevant to this point. All that matters is that there are better and worse criteria. You're refusing to address any of my other points because you say my criteria is subjective. Yet you don't address the critical point (that I made front and center in my last comment) that "There's nothing subjective about it. There are better and worse criteria." I provide plenty of examples. You won't engage me in a specific criteria debate because you say the criteria are subjective. When I address my response to your claim and provide a substantial argument that criteria are not subjective, you ignore the point.

All you've done is say, throughout, "You have one criteria, other people have other criteria, therefore critera are subjective". That point requires, on a foundational level, either ignoring that there are better and worse criteria or a vast misunderstanding as to what subjectivity entails.

Zhubin said...

You don't provide any argument that your criteria are not subjective. All you do is point to other subjective criteria that you strongly disagree with. How does that boost your own criteria's claim to objectivity, exactly?

Also, not to quibble, but the "examples" you throw out (color, hair color, eye color, gender, IQ, due date is on a weekend) don't address the question, "when does a fetus become a life worth protecting"; they address the question, "what characteristics make one fetus worth more protection than another?" There is a significant difference between those two questions.

Matthew B. Novak said...

I'm not saying my criteria aren't subjective. I'm saying that criteria themselves are not relative.

I think there may be a bit of confusion created by the duplicate use of the word "subjective." There's been two meanings in usage here. First there's the "subjective as in knowable only by reference to the internal thoughts." So the question of "what criteria a person prizes" (philosophical imperitives, ensoulment, consciouness, skin color) is answerable only by reference to an internal or subjective state.

The second usage has been "subjective as in relative; each person's subjective thought is just as good as another person's subjective thought." To say "each person should apply their own subjective criteria" is a position that denies there are better and worse criteria. This is the usage I take issue with. Because there are better and worse criteria.

The examples I gave earlier are all answers to the question "what lives are worth protecting" (a slightly modified version of "when is life worth protecting". I don't see a significant difference between the two, but I can give a series of equally absurd criteria for both questions [e.g., "the life is worth protecting when... it develops arms; it has tastebuds; it is born on a Saturday; it learns a language; it is legally allowed to drink alcohol; etc."])

Anyway, there are better and worse criteria. Or do you disagree with this point? Do you honestly believe "tastebud development" or "of legal age" are as good as "consciouness" or "viability"?

If you do accept that there are better and worse criteria, then the discussion becomes about which are the best. And that's exactly the conversation I try to have in my big post on when life begins. And that's exactly the conversation a supporter of consciousness or viability tries to have too. If there are better and worse criteria, then it doesn't make sense to leave it to each individual. I'm not defending my criteria here, I'm just defending line drawing.

This is especially true because we can easily concieve of someone making the subjective determination that the life isn't worth protection until the being can talk, or some other post-birth point.

What's more, I think your point of subjectivity is incredibly troubling when you apply it to all of those other areas of life, like vigilantyism, euthanasia and hate crimes. Because a person subjectively deciding "the life of a criminal/senior citizen/minority has no value", that runs exactly parallel to a person deciding "the life of a fetus has no value."

We don't allow individuals to determine when another person's life is worth living. That is, we don't allow an individual to apply their criteria to another individual. This is true whether or not you accept that there are better and worse criteria.

No matter what criteria they would use, we don't allow it. There isn't anything that differentiates abortion. Why should we allow a person to apply their individual criteria to determine whether or not another being is worth protection? We shouldn't.

Instead, we, as a society, debate the best criteria and set a line. That's exactly what I've set out to do, and exactly what you're condemning me for.

Zhubin said...
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Zhubin said...

Well, really, the first definition requires the second definition. If there's no comparison except by one's own internal values, then where's the standard by which you can determine another subjective criteria's worth? Even your own "argument" just consists of "do you HONESTLY BELIEVE...?" Hardly a proof, Matt.

Now, I understand that there are certain subjective determinations that are so ludicrous that they have been rejected by modern civilization. But that does not mean that every criteria then falls into a hierarchical order. All we've done is agree that the fringe opinions are not going to be heard.

And all of this is only because there is no objective determination of life that we can measure our subjective values against. That is a situation unique to a fetus, since at birth the baby meets every objective definition of human life (it's independent, it's conscious, etc.). So to say that acknowledging a lack of clarity over the status of human life prior to birth is equivalent to condoning hate crimes and forced euthanasia for born humans is just silly. Nor is it even slightly borne out by experience; for crying out, abortion has been legal since 1972 in the U.S., and much longer in other nations, and yet somehow we have managed to avoid collapsing into Logan's Run. In fact, quite the opposite! Reproductive rights and human rights have been expanding side-by-side over the past two hundred years. So please, let's stop invoking doomsday.

And the last three paragraphs you write yet again presume your assumption that the fetus is a life from conception. Here again is the response: we should allow a person to "apply their individual criteria to determine whether or not another being is worth protection" because we have no objectively better criteria. No one else has any better idea whether it is a being worth protection or not.

If you could prove the objective value of your criteria, then maybe you would have a claim to forcing others to follow your criteria. But you can't, so you don't.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Well, really, the first definition requires the second definition.

Wow, that's not true at all. I mean, the very fact that we can dismiss some criteria as ludicrious demonstrates conclusively that we needn't accept all criteria as equally valid. And if we needn't accept all criteria as equally valid, then relativistic claims have failed per se.

Think of it another way: we can ask both "what criteria is important to you?" (subjective type one, internal priortization) and "Why is that criteria important to you?/What makes that a good criteria?" (subjective type two, relativism). Two different questions with two very different answers. Actually, the fact that we can even ask that second question and expect an answer indicates that there's more going on here than just automatic deference to everyone's internal prioritization. We can, and do, have a way of determining better and worse criteria.

All we've done is agree that the fringe opinions are not going to be heard.

Actually, it's not just the fringe. I can have (and have had) very productive discussions with people who have other really good suggestions for what are the relative criteria for determining life. This is so basic, and so routine. We might not come to a consensus, but that doesn't mean we can't prioritize criteria.

Yes, the fringes are easy to deal with (that's why I've been using them to illustrate my point), but any thinker worth his salt is going to be able to see the case for and against a wide variety of criteria, and then weigh those issues. Even if people end up weighing things differently that doesn't mean we're left with relativism, it just means we're left with disagreement. There's such an enormous difference between the two.

That is a situation unique to a fetus, since at birth the baby meets every objective definition of human life (it's independent, it's conscious, etc.).

Um... you do realize that this undercuts your point about subjectivity, right? This entire time your whole point has been that there's no objective definition of when life is worth protecting. And now you've given us one. Hmm...

So let me ask, what changes at birth? I could argue that inside the mother/outside the mother is nothing more than a border distinction, and therefore is a relatively weak point for line drawing (see: Mason-Dixon re: blacks as property). Especially when you consider that the being in question (the fetus/baby) essentially undergoes no change in the interim.

It's not hard at all to think of someone saying "a life isn't worth protecting until it can effectively communicate it's thoughts" or "until it engages in rational thought" (Aristotle's definition of the human, right?). Those aren't far-fetched criteria for the protection of life, but they happen well after birth. Your position of subjectivity can't say boo to such a view.

So which is it? Do you think there's an objective point where life is worth protecting, and we just disagree over where the line is drawn, or do you truly believe there's no objective point where life is worth protecting?

The last three paragraphs you write yet again presume your assumption that the fetus is a life from conception.

Actually, that's not true at all. I might have been a bit imprecise with the language. Let's give it another shot: I will use "individual" to denote the decision maker. I will use "being" to denote the person whom the decision is being made about. Both the individual and the being are discrete living things. (You yourself admitted the fetus was a discrete life). We assume the individual is a life worth protecting.

The relevant question then - the decision to be made - is whether or not the being is "a life worth protecting."

This is the question being asked. It is not already answered. Because it hasn't yet been answered, there's no assumption that the being (the fetus/criminal/minority/elderly/disabled) is a life worth protecting.

What I'm saying is that we don't allow an individual to answer this question for another being - regardless of the outcome. No one gets to say "that being's life is not worth living or that being's life is worth living", because no individual gets to apply their subjective criteria to a discrete being other than themselves.

The fact of the matter is, we don't allow individuals to determine when another being's life is worth living. That is, we don't allow an individual to apply their criteria to another being. This is true whether or not you accept that there are better and worse criteria. Outcome doesn't matter at all. We simply don't let individuals run around and determine what beings are worth protecting and what beings aren't.

So, for example, a vigilanty (the individual) might have the subjective criteria that a criminal (the being) is a life that isn't worth protecting because only lives lived pursuant to the law are worth protection. Or a klansman (the individual) might have the subjective criteria that a minority (the being) is a life that isn't worth protecting because only people with white skin have lives worth protecting. Or a pregnant woman (the individual) might have the subjective criteria that a fetus (the being) is a life that isn't worth protecting because only people who have been born are worth protecting.

Do you see the parallel now? Do you see that it doesn't turn on whether or not a fetus actually is a being worth protecting, but rather turns on the danger of allowing one individual to make that determination for a different being?

And if we embrace your subjective point of view, who are we to say? Under your view, the racist's position that minorites don't have lives worth protecting is just as valid as the alternative. To say "No, we must protect the life of the minority" is a position that already assumes the minority is a being that has a life worth protecting. Which means you're supplying your subjective criteria, and discounting the criteria of the racist. Your position of subjectivity does not permit such an option

Or, we could just say: "no individual gets to be the arbiter of what beings have lives worth protecting. Instead, we'll leave that to all individuals collectively or the being itself." That's exactly what we've done in every other area, (including abortion post-viability).

You've made the point that the "mother is the most affected" individual, and it certainly has great merit. But if we look at the euthenasia parallel, we can see that a relative who is supporting an elderly or disabled loved one is nearly - if not just - as affected by the decision as the mother would be (especially in light of adoption). And yet, we don't allow that individual (the relative) to be the arbiter of whether or not that being (the elderly/disabled) has a life that is worth protecting. Nor should we in the abortion situation. This is true even though there are extra demands made on the individual (mother/caretaker relative). Instead we leave it to society to come up with a uniform standard that weighs the interests of every being involved.

And we're all free to try to convince others that the line should be drawn in a different place. The debate is never over. That's part of why it's so great to leave it to society. They're an impartial judge weighing all the interests involved (the individual vs. the being), and not just a vested individual coming at it with a single subjective view.

Anyway, the biggest point here is really the distinction between subjectivity and relativism. We can - and do - and should - weigh criteria.

Zhubin said...

I mean, the very fact that we can dismiss some criteria as ludicrious demonstrates conclusively that we needn't accept all criteria as equally valid.

No, it doesn't, because we're not dismissing them on any basis other than that we don't like them. You and I can agree all day long that green sucks, but it doesn't mean that green is objectively less good than blue, nor - and here's the important part - does it mean that we can now rank every color.

This entire time your whole point has been that there's no objective definition of when life is worth protecting. And now you've given us one.

I think I've been pretty clear that I've only been talking about the period between conception and birth. I don't know how you got that I'm arguing otherwise. Maybe that's why you've been dragging in this ridiculous vigilantism analogy.

So let me ask, what changes at birth? I could argue that inside the mother/outside the mother is nothing more than a border distinction, and therefore is a relatively weak point for line drawing.

That's fair, and that does raise issues about whether we should limit abortion in the minutes or days leading up to birth. It doesn't help objectively justify anything else, though.

The fact of the matter is, we don't allow individuals to determine when another being's life is worth living.

Not true. Individuals are free to hunt, squish, and otherwise destroy all manner of life. What we don't allow is the killing of other human life, which, again, is unknowable between conception and birth (except maybe in the minutes beforehand).

Look, I think our points of disagreement are clear, notwithstanding you thinking I've been arguing that life is subjective from birth to death. Just to reiterate my basic point, the beginning of human life* is such a hazy mess that implicates so many divergent and mutually exclusive moral and intellectual issues that it is impossible to arrive at any objective determination of its exact point. You would have us find some line through whatever reasoning is convincing to a majority and then force that line on everyone; I would rather have each person resolve this mystery on her own terms.


* N.B. This is also true at the end of life, at least in permanent comas or other vegetative states, when the line betweeen human life and a mere organic "being" virtually disappears. Here, too, we do the mature thing, and let the people most affected - the kin - make the ultimate decision of when to turn off the machines.

Matthew B. Novak said...

Zhubin -

I'm not saying you have been arguing that the definition of human life is subjective from conception to death, I'm saying that you have to hold that position.

The question is "when is life worth protecting?" Your position is that the answer is subjective (and relative); that every individual will apply their own equally valid criteria to answer it. If you are going to hold this position, you must hold it regardless of what criteria an individual applies. You don't get to limit it to birth. Because that involves applying your subjective criteria. Someone else could have subjective criteria that, when applied, result in a determination that human life isn't worth protecting until it begins rational thought or learns language or can legally imbibe alcohol. If you're sticking to relativism, you're stuck with that individual's line as they see fit to apply it. Just as you're saying my line doesn't get to trump someone else's, so too, your line does not get to trump the person who would draw it after you.

Anyway, I have neither the time nor the inclination to carry on further. Maybe next time around one of us will make some headway.