Late-Term Abortions

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I wanted to post on this over a week ago, but computer difficulties ensued, and my file of stuff to blog about was inaccessible. Bruce Alderman offers a fairly careful explanation of why some people who are otherwise inclined toward pro-life directions on abortion might allow for abortion in some late-term cases. He even goes far enough to say that most of the late-term cases should be less-controversially ok than even many of the earlier-term cases.

Shouldn't it be obvious that late-term cases should be more morally problematic than early-term ones? After all, those who think moral status develops from lower moral status to the full status of adult human beings will often say most of this development takes place in utero, and more pain is caused by late-term abortions as well, so those who base the moral question on how much pain is causes should think earlier abortions are not as bad. What Bruce points out, though, is that most late-term cases are often done for reasons that pro-lifers are more often willing to acknowledge as less problematic. The example he gives is of a teenager who had an abortion because her life was at risk if she continued the pregnancy. I'd be willing to guess that the exception most easily allowed by pro-lifers would be cases where it's two lives lost or one lost, and having an abortion leads to the only one lost. So I'm not sure allowing these cases leads to a view all that far removed from the typical pro-life position.

Where I think Bruce's view departs from the typical pro-life opposition to late-term abortions is that he notices that most late-term abortions are not for the typical reasons women give for early-term abortions. The vast majority of late-term abortions are to save the mother's life, to avoid pretty serious health consequences for the mother, or because some kind of major birth defect is discovered late in the game. This makes Bruce conclude that it's strange for pro-lifers to have such opposition to doctors who perform late-term abortions, as if those abortions are much worse than the early ones.

I do have a couple problems with Bruce's analysis (and the rest of this post is adapted from my original comment on his post). He seems to treat abortions having to do with life-threatening situations for the mother and those having to do with defects in the fetus as if they're in the same category. I wouldn't consider them remotely the same. I can understand an abortion to save the life of the mother, at least if she has other children to take care of. It would be a great tragedy, and I'm still not sure it's morally ok to perform an active killing of an innocent to save someone's life, but I can understand the motive.

I'm a lot less understanding of those who would have an abortion at 26 weeks just because they think there's a likelihood of some kind of disease or disorder in the child. That's no better than those who kill their child when they found out there's a risk (but certainly no guarantee given all the false positives of such tests) of Down Syndrome. That sort of act is just downright evil and cannot be motivated by anything but selfishness on the part of the parents or an extremely warped sense of what quality of life a Down Syndrome person can have. Lots of pro-choice people fully agree with me on this.

Not all cases are like this, though. Sometimes it's a matter of some condition that you know is there and that you know will not allow for continuing development past a few days or weeks. But isn't our obligation to care for such children and try to make their lives comfortable rather than killing them? The mere presence of such a child in the womb rather than having been born shouldn't change that. My suspicion is that the majority of late-term abortions are in this last category and not the life-saving category. Even if I'm wrong, they shouldn't be lumped together, and it would still follow that late-term abortion doctors would be doing something pretty seriously immoral if they do it for this reason, and most who do it are doing it for this reason at least sometimes.

That, of course, doesn't make it ok to kill doctors who perform late-term abortions, but I do think this is an important enough issue not to smooth over as if there's no distinction to be made between late-term abortions whose motivation is less bad and late-term abortions whose motivation is pretty awful.

41 Comments

Two points:

1. I thank you for attempting to examine the question of why late term abortions happen. I often see numbers thrown down (like 15,000 a year) but no attempt to even do simple reporting steps like talking to one or two women who had late term abortions on why they had them.

2. The standard here is a double edged sword. If the pro-life position is that all unborn babies are entitled to equal protection of the law as full humans then getting *more* upset at late term abortions makes no sense. In fact getting more upset at late term abortions implies the pro-choiceish position of a sliding scale where an unborn baby close to birth is almost 100% human while one far away from birth is much less. I think many pro-lifers were so enamoured of a short term political tactic (get a law against abortion, even if it is only about a trivial portion of cases and may not prevent any abortions) that they forgot some of the larger implications of their rhetoric.


I would encourage you to check out Andrew Sullivan's blog. For a week or so he invited readers to send him any first hand information they had on late term abortion they wanted to share. The word 'birth defect' here masks the actual extent of what it sounds like most of these cases are. We aren't talking about an extra toe or even Downs Syndrom. We are talking about babies without brains, with brains growing outside their skulls, massive body problems that mean either almost instant death upon birth or death after a period of horrible suffering.

I'm not going to say there's never been a late term abortion for a casual reason but it appears most if not all of them happen for pretty serious reasons. You may argue that even if they are serious they still don't justify abortion but it would be nice to see you address real life cases as opposed to hypothetical ones of women casually deciding at 8 months to terminate a pregnancy for no particular reason or aborting over relatively mild birth defects.

Equal protection of the law doesn't mean equal moral attitudes. I have equal protection of the law to any other adult human being, but I certainly think it's morally worse to kill an innocent person out of a particularly hateful kind of racism than it would be to do so to kill a criminal out of vengeance for what they did to your family. Both are wrong, and each person deserves equal protection of the law to prevent those not in official capacity from taking their life (leaving open whether the death penalty is morally allowable). But it does seem to me that one is morally worse in a pretty significant way.

You might also think the same act for the same reasons is worse when done to a different person, even if there's equal protection of the laws for the two people. For instance, killing me is evil, but it's even more evil to kill my 10-month-old daughter. But I don't have less of a right to life than she does. So it's perfectly compatible with a pro-life view that equal moral status begins at conception to think that later cases of abortion are worse than earlier cases. There's no inconsistency in the combination of views you're complaining about. You might think each act of abortion is fully murder, but some murders are morally worse because they cause more pain to a subject more capable of feeling the pain. You might think some are worse because the parents, particularly the mother, has formed a stronger biological connection with the child and thus has to distance herself from such a relationship to request the abortion. There are lots of reasons you might see late-term abortions as prima facie morally worse than earlier-term abortions, all the while retaining the view that the moral status of the fetus is the same at any stage of development. You just have to accept that not every moral question is decided by the moral status of those affected by your actions.

I also think restricting late-term abortions in general will limit abortions more than restricting none, and given the current Supreme Court judicially-activist legislation-from-the-bench we're not going to get more restrictive laws than that. So those who want to limit abortions are stuck with limiting late-term ones. Limiting some is better than limiting none.

I think there's probably a significant selection-bias in which examples get talked about at Sullivan's blog. People who have abortions for pretty selfish reasons pretty late in the pregnancy probably aren't talking about it very much or using it as examples to help convince people that late-term abortions should be allowed. Since the Supreme Court has declared it unconstitutional somehow to keep records of how many late-term abortions occur and for what reasons, there's no reliable data to go by here. It's certainly a fact that 10% of those pregnancies that test positive for that high-false-positive test for Down Syndrome end up leading to a live birth. Those are real cases, aren't they? All I was doing was pointing out that not all late-term cases involve the same moral issues that make abortion seem much more tolerable (although I think moral resistance might still be possible) in these really hard cases.

I know of a case very recently in the family of someone in my congregation where they were predicting death within six hours due to the presence of very little brain capacity. The child lasted several times that long, but it wasn't a long life. It still seems horrifically wrong to me to end that life deliberately before birth, and it doesn't seem any less wrong to do so before birth than after. I know of another case where they predicted something like that, and the girl actually lived two years. It wasn't easy for her parents to care for her, but it would have seemed greatly wrong to me if they had aborted her upon hearing the news in the final month of pregnancy. I'm typically opposed to euthanasia even in cases of higher animals. I thought it was morally wrong for my parents to put our cats and dogs out of their misery when they developed severe cancer and so on. It's very hard for me to think human beings deserve less protection. I can see how morally implausible views like utilitarianism can justify such things, but I can't see how they make moral sense given a remotely plausible account of the moral value of human beings and higher animals.

Nevertheless, my point very clearly wasn't that late-term abortions are all morally wrong because of the cases I listed where most people would oppose them. My point is that we can't talk about late-term abortions as if they're all the same thing, when there are moral distinctions that apply to different cases of late-term abortion. That's surely true, and you don't have to think all the cases I mentioned are even very common to point out that someone who routinely does late-term abortions is probably doing some that are nowhere near as tolerable as the ones Sullivan points to as the typical kinds of late-term cases.

I think we’ve had this discussion before but I’m still perplexed: ‘I can understand an abortion to save the life of the mother, at least if she has other children to take care of.’ Why is a woman’s life worth preserving during a pregnancy if she’s instrumental in bringing up other kids? If her life is expendable during a first pregnancy I suppose it’s because others will jump in to bring up her orphan (or it’ll die too); those others (the state?) could presumably bring up more than one orphan. So why do you seem to care about the life of a 10-month old girl more than yours? She’s nobody’s mum yet, while you’re dad to several.

I can’t see what’s wrong with admitting that we lack a coherent framework for capturing all the cases we want to capture; or why it’s preferable to appear to oscillate at whim e.g. between utilitarianism and virtue ethics rather than ‘drop’ intuitions, or drop the project of legislating in detail altogether. And you can’t call a girl of 9 or 10 ‘a teenager’ just because she’s pregnant. But it seems absurd to think that if we somehow manage to put together a patchwork of a bill and vote it into law we’ve achieved something morally or intellectually respectable. Just because late abortions are the ones that can currently be restricted doesn’t mean they ought to. I’m amazed it took a ‘murder in the cathedral’ to make pro-lifers consider precisely what it is they’ve been staunchly opposed to, but now the debate has moved on to euthanasia - you’re right about that - it sounds mercenary to hold that ‘limiting some is better than limiting none’.

I’m sorry to hear of the recent case within your congregation. I respect that some people may find value in a life on little brain capacity lasting some six-hour multiple; but I can’t clearly make out what one’s deprived of if one doesn’t get to survive as long in the circumstances either. Of course you’re right that evolving paradigms e.g. in science may shift moral ground: We can’t belittle Aristotle for thinking the way he did in the 4th century BC nor can we rule out Peter Singer’s views becoming more palatable. I think people shudder at the prospect of being outlived by an offspring incapable of achieving self-sufficiency; so please don’t rush to call people selfish when they could be behaving altruistically.

Perhaps you do have specific views as to how women in particular ought to conduct themselves, on the basis of some teleological or religious position, though invoking either would shift the ball-game. As it stands, I find it weird that you’d apparently pause to consider if women have a right to life or health during a pregnancy only if it might be against the interests of a pre-existing child not to do so. Quality of life is an underlying issue. In rural China many women just commit suicide; and that anti-feminists may object to sex-selective abortion eliminating females is pretty ironic, I think. But perhaps I'm getting emotional again.

My point about abortion-to-save-a-life is that there you've at least got one life vs. another, and you have to raise questions about competing moral concerns, where it's not immediately clear which you should prefer. I can see why people might favor one concern over the other. That doesn't mean there isn't a right answer in each particular case, but it does mean that it's not immediately clear just from the abstract fact of competing moral concerns which one will win out. I was contrasting that with cases where there isn't such a conflict between saving one life vs. saving the other (e.g. saving one life vs. saving both or saving one life vs. both dying), where at least the number of lives that survive is not an issue of competing moral concerns, and you need to bring in other moral factors if you want to find a moral conflict (e.g. killing vs. allowing to die).

I'm not sure why you think it's mercenary to favor limiting some abortions but not others in a case where the others are constitutionally prohibited from restrictions. I'm also not sure why you think you're agreeing with me by saying that. Wasn't I explaining why it's understandable to end up with that result?

One thing I'm worried about is misdiagnosis or inabiility to predict what capabilities will develop. My cousin has a son who has some disabilities (he has no corpus collosum) but was expected not to be capable of much at all, including walking and talking, both of which he now does just fine (his hemispheres exchange signals by sending them down the spinal column and back up, and his pathways there are thicker than most people's in order to compensate). They gave him a maximum of 2 years, and he's now 8 and has no prospect of a shorter than normal life. They said he'd be extremely mentally deficient even if he lived longer than that, but he's completing second grade, which is well beyond what the diagnosis allowed for. She was strongly advised to have an abortion and was told it would be cruel not to. She didn't, and it's become clear that the doctors were simply wrong. This is a general problem with euthanasia that I think applies to these late-term abortion cases for the sake of expected problems with the child. Some cases are clearer than others, but I take this as evidence that doctors routinely give worst-case scenarios and present them as guaranteed results.

I'm not sure what you mean by anti-feminism, but the people I know who oppose China's policy are not anti-woman in any explicit sense. They just disagree with mainstream feminism about what feminism or being pro-woman entails. It doesn't entail forcing women to have an abortion when they don't want to, for instance. The pro-life feminist movement has quite a lot in common with religious conservatives' views on gender, actually. It relies on difference feminism's commitment to valuing the differences between men and women as a good thing. There's a Gilligan-like argument for the views that I assume are the ones you're calling anti-feminist and thus they seem to me to be based in a kind of feminism that's becoming more recognized in academic feminism in the post-Gilligan period. I don't see any irony here, anyway, because there's no real misogyny among the people I know who oppose abortion. It's a pretty distorted view of pro-life reasoning to think hatred of women or even preference for men has anything to do with it, especially given that pro-life views in the U.S. are more often and more strongly held by women than men, despite the caricature presented by some feminist groups of pro-lifers as being men who want to restrict women's behavior.

In any case, I'm not saying anything about women not having a right to life or a right to health. If anything, I'm arguing more like Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous abortion paper that having a right doesn't mean everyone is obligated to provide you everything necessary toward making sure you get the thing you need. If I have a right to life, that doesn't mean I have a right to the death of someone else if that's what it takes for me to survive. If I have a right to health, that doesn't mean I have a right to someone else giving up their life if that's what it takes for me to remain healthy. I wasn't questioning a woman's right to life or health, just whether it's morally ok to expect the life or health of one person always to outweigh the life of someone else, which is what the pro-choice argument about these cases seems to me to assume (and I do find that ironic given that it's Thomson's pro-choice argument that should demonstrate the faulty reasoning in these cases).

OK, thanks. Perhaps I’d already got emotional by the time I used the word ‘mercenary’ but I wished to object to a perceived blanket determination to restrict abortion in whatever way legally possible, even if this would mean restricting it in cases which account for just about 1% of the total and may not involve ‘unwanted pregnancies’ at all. Unlike first trimester abortions, there’s usually drama and trauma surrounding late ones and it struck me as insensitive to seek to impose legal restrictions on women in such circumstances just because we can. It’s an interesting manoeuvre you’re attempting with Thomson but I don’t quite see it going through. Thomson’s argument only works in the case of a woman who uses contraception so as to avoid getting pregnant or who gets raped. It doesn’t work in the case of a wanted pregnancy which goes wrong.

It is a muddle, and it’s hard to make sense of the whole abortion continuum consistently from any single perspective, which is why I’d oppose the kind of legislation you seem to have in mind. Even if there is a right answer in each particular case, it’s little consolation unless we know what the answer is. How much longer do you think society should give philosophers to figure out the answers?! There’s a lady who recently won her case against Poland in the European Court; she couldn’t effectively exercise her right to an abortion because of some pact the government had signed with the Vatican. She was a partially sighted single-mother of two and is now a blind mother of three. Some people may think this is a ‘triumph for life’ and that abortion to preserve a woman’s health is beneath contempt.

I’m glad your nephew is doing as well as he does. I suspect that if doctors in the US feel the breath of ‘ambulance chasers’ down their necks they may be more likely to present a worst case scenario so as to avoid being subsequently sued. In a welfare state there may be considerations of offsetting the cost of providing the tests as against the cost of providing for disabled children. Ante-natal testing is an issue, and perhaps women who are confident they wouldn’t have an abortion no matter what should refuse it.

I’m not familiar with any brand of feminism which entails forcing women to have an abortion when they don't want to, or with any brand which entails forcing women to have a baby when they don’t want to. Unless this is what being a ‘pro-life feminist’ means: forcing women to have a baby when they don’t want to; which sounds weird in the absence of additional, controversial assumptions. But perhaps controversial assumptions are implicitly there if pro-life feminists have a lot in common with religious conservatives, in which case pro-life feminists would need to defend those.

I don’t know if the differences between men and women are a good thing (for whom?), but they are there. I’m not sure what follows from this though. (I fully agree with your politically incorrect position over racial differences; men and women may find certain tasks harder but so what?) I think it’s ironic that sex is a significant variable in patriarchal contexts, where there’s no ‘veil of ignorance’. People know what the deal is, and resort to sex-selective abortion so as to bring up a male, which means there’ll be fewer women for men to rule over. I wonder why people think pro-lifers are mostly men. Perhaps, as usual, men are more vocal and insist on taking the lead; so I guess most pro-life women aren’t pro-life feminists or they wouldn’t let them.

Thanks for this thoughtful response to my post. I'd like to clarify a few things, if I may.

First, I absolutely agree with you that abortion should not be an option if there is merely a chance (even a 100% chance) of a "disease or disorder," as you put it. But that's not really the issue.

Kansas law, as of 1998, forbids abortion if the baby is viable, unless the mother is in danger of immanent death or permanent health damage; this diagnosis must be made by a physician who has no financial relationship with the physician who will perform the abortion.

The same 1998 law requires Kansas physicians file a report with the state every time they perform an abortion. (Accumulated statistics are online here for anyone who is interested.) This law led to an order of magnitude decrease in the number of late-term (defined here as after 22 weeks) abortions performed in the state, from thousands per year down to a few hundred.

Nearly all late-term abortions since then have been performed for the reason that continuing the pregnancy would cause "irreversible impairment of a major bodily function" for the mother. For reasons of medical privacy, the state does not collect statistics on which bodily function is affected.

So that's the context of my earlier post. And it's certainly possible to question the objectivity of the physician making the diagnosis. However, I think that focusing on late-term abortion is a losing strategy for the pro-life movement, simply because there are so many restrictions already in place. We're not going to make a huge dent in the abortion numbers by questioning how much a woman's health is compromised.

The focus should be on reducing first-trimester abortions. While direct legal restrictions seem to be out of the picture, I think there are possibilities for indirect action that target the reasons people choose abortion.

Financial incentives for pregnant women can alleviate the fears that they will not be able to afford to take care of the child. A support network could help those who feel they are not ready for the responsibilities. Better education may reduce the number of unintended pregnancies (or it may not; people don't always make rational choices in the heat of the moment).

As a moderate Democrat, I support the goals of the 95-10 Initiative of Democrats for Life, though I believe that non-profit groups and churches have just as much a role in providing these kinds of support. Ultimately, it will take a cultural change to make a significant difference in the abortion rate.

Bruce, did you see this story? It says that the majority of Tiller's cases involved serious bodily defects and thus were legal by Kansas law, but it seems a number of them were outright illegal because they were for issues not allowed:

Dr. Tiller also took some late-term patients with healthy fetuses. Though the clinic's medical records typically remain confidential, he said they were only the most desperate cases: very young girls, victims of rape, drug addicts, women in abusive relationships.

It's hard to see how those would be legal given the state of the law in Kansas, but he did say he did abortions in such cases. On pro-life grounds, rape should make no difference to the moral status of the fetus. [Judith Jarvis Thomson argues that it does matter, even if the fetus has full rights, but I don't think her argument works unless you make assumptions that I think are both (a) false, such as the claim that you only acquire parental responsibility by engaging in voluntary acceptance of such responsibility and (b) inconsistent with how the law treats parental responsibility in other cases, such as our expectation of fathers to pay child support even if they didn't consent to the mother's choice to have the baby.]

The age of the mother also doesn't factor in unless the age is contributing toward a health condition, and those cases would fall under that category. The same is true of drug addicts. As for abusive relationships, that's even less legitimate grounds for abortion than rape cases unless it was abusive sexual behavior that led to the conception, in which case it is a rape case.

So I don't see how a pro-lifer should approve of these abortions, and in any cases it does seem as if Tiller was basically admitting to criminal activity by saying this. This didn't make it ok to murder him, and it doesn't mean the majority of his cases had these problems, but I saw your post as a way to explain why what Tiller did wasn't all that bad. Even acknowledging most of your reasons why what he did wasn't all that bad, I think most pro-lifers will resist the conclusion that he wasn't a moral monster, and they do have reasons to distinguish between some of the things he did and the ones you're seeking to see as acceptable.

EO, I don't think the idea is just to limit as many abortions as possible. That wasn't the motivation behind the partial-birth procedure, at least. Many who supported that legislation, including a significant number of Democrats (including the current Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate) did so not because they want to limit abortion as much as possible but because they found the procedure itself horrific. There surely were people voting for the bill who would support any measure to limit abortion, but that bill wouldn't have gotten majority support if that were all the reason anyone had for it. I think the same is true of laws like the Kansas limitation that Bruce mentioned above on late-term abortions that don't have to do with the life of the mother or bodily damage to the fetus.

I wasn't relying on the details of Thomson's violinist argument. I was relying on the principle she assumes to make that argument work. She says there are cases where someone has a right to something and someone else has no obligation to provide that something. It seems to me that the paradigm case for this is when the other party has no moral responsibilities whatsoever, as with a fetus. You can think someone might have a right to health without thinking the fetus has an obligation to provide that by sacrificing its life.

I'm not sure if all of the major pro-life feminist organizations seek to change the law to make abortions illegal or whether they just seek to persuade women that abortion is almost always morally wrong. I know the most prominent one, Feminists for Life, seeks to outlaw all abortion. They derive their arguments from post-Gilligan feminism, even if most post-Gilligan feminists do not hold their position. I've read some of their justifications for pro-life positions, and they rely pretty heavily on feminist literature for their moral framework. This is not some anti-feminist group seeking to use feminist terminology. The best philosophical article that I've seen written from this perspective is by Celia Wolf-Devine. I can't remember the name of the piece, but it applies standard feminist ethics to the question in a way that tries to drive a wedge between feminist ethics of care and most feminists' support for abortion rights.

Here are a few arguments I've seen from this crowd, just to give you a flavor. They see violence as incompatible with the ethic of care, and abortion is the violent ending of a life. That gives a strong presumption against it. Feminist ethics favors finding solutions to difficult moral questions not by trying to contrast the rights of those involved but by figuring out how to meet the needs of all involved, which favors at least delivering the child. There's an emphasis of community as opposed to the individual, where an individual right to do something that might conflict with another individual's rights is not to primary ethical question. Instead, we should be focusing on how to engage in cooperative and healthy relationships, particularly with those who we're already in relationships with (and pregnancy, whatever else it is, is an existing connection between two organisms in an ongoing caring and sustaining relationship). Most of the feminist arguments in favor of abortion rights are seen as male-typical ways of thinking (including your resistance to this, judging by the way you portrayed this as forcing women to do something they don't want to do). In an ethic of care, what you want to do and what you think you have a right to do, especially when others' rights might conflict, are not primary concerns. So they resist such arguments. They claim that feminists who support abortion rights are using arguments feminist ethics normally would reject but for some reason retain when dealing with this question.

I tend to think the ethics of care is overblown. There's surely something to recognizing ethical considerations that men have ignored in moral philosophy, and there's something to noticing ways that women continue to use arguments that ignore such concerns, so I have a lot of interest in this line of argument, but I don't think such concerns are all there is to ethics, so I think Wolf-Devine's argument goes too far. But it's certainly feminist down to its foundation. I don't think there's much room to question that. This is derived directly and explicitly from the kind of reasoning Nel Noddings and other prominent ethics of care advocates will use with other moral questions.

All I meant by saying there is common ground between religious conservatives and difference feminists is that both recognize the differences between men and women and affirm those as perfectly legitimate. They affirm women as women and don't see femininity as a bad thing for feminist women to avoid in an attempt to try to occupy the oppressive role of having to try to be just like men but always falling short because they're still women. Difference feminists generally don't support limiting the roles of women or promoting male authority in marriage, but they do recognize that women reason differently from men on average and value different things in some ways than men often do, and some of the recent support for religiously-conservative views on men and women actually derives from similar points (which suggests to me that such views aren't as anti-woman as many make them out to be but rather are seeking to apply biblical texts in a way that reflects some sense of equality and participation of women, even if many feminists still won't be satisfied with the outcome).

I don't think women are making any decision to allow men to take the lead in resisting abortion. It isn't even true that men take the lead on this issue. My complaint is that there's a perception that it's a male-dominated movement, when it simply isn't. The most prominent advocates against abortion rights are organizations led mostly by women, and the vast majority of people who get involved in these organizations are women. The media in the U.S. tend to interview the same two or three men that they associate with this movement. They especially like to gravitate toward the more extreme sorts like Operation Rescue, which is not remotely represntative of the mainstream pro-life movement. But even when they go with mainstream people, they choose pastors (which are still predominantly men) and political activists whose time is mostly past. The pro-life organizations that have been doing the most work for the past ten years have been more often than not led and staffed mostly by women, and the ground-level efforts in crisis pregnancy centers are almost entirely carried out by women.

Right, thanks for doing all this explaining; I don’t know what feminism is any more! I certainly don’t think that men are anti-women by definition, or that women can’t be; it’s women who have those sex-selective abortions. So it doesn’t make much difference to me precisely who’s behind the pro-life movement: Perhaps it’s mostly housewives married to religious conservatives who feel the need to defend the currently unfashionable lifestyle of being submissive, barefoot and pregnant, or who just get mad at other women for competing with their husbands in the workplace. That’s OK with me. I just don’t find it obvious that being a woman entails going down a one-way street, and I think the onus is on whoever holds there’s a single lifestyle mandated for all and only females to state what this is and defend the claim; invoking feminist credentials won’t lower the standards.

I’m not sure that women philosophers in particular have an obligation to bring into prominence every concern that men may have ignored in moral philosophy, as if they’re some Trade Union reps. I can’t see why different cognitive styles are necessarily incommensurable, or what may privilege a priori ‘female-typical’ ways of thinking over male ones. So I don’t quite feel like apologising to difference feminists for my ways of thinking, yet; I just wonder if there’s space in the schema for trans/bi/homosexual people too; and btw, the ‘forcing women’ bit was your own expression about what feminism doesn’t entail, which I found striking and merely repeated, substituting ‘a baby’ for ‘an abortion’.

It may be well intentioned to try to convince others to enjoy what they can’t avoid and there may be pragmatic reasons for accepting what we can’t change, but whilst I agree it’s no good crying over spilt milk I don't think spilling milk is a good thing. So I won’t pretend there’s particular value to e.g. having a lower IQ rather than a higher one. Of course there’s no pill for increasing human intelligence yet while there is a pill for preventing or terminating a pregnancy; which means that women may control their fertility if they want to, unless they ought not to; which is a separate question.

That something is harder for us to achieve doesn’t mean we should leave it exclusively to those to whom it comes easier; not if we value that something, or if there’s value to meeting a challenge. I’d refuse to deny e.g. the value of philosophy just because I’m no good at it; it would be Aesopian ‘sour grapes’. So I sense a normative/descriptive ambivalence permeating this whole debate; unless it’s just intended as ‘therapy’ for the frustrated. I’m not sure if ‘having to try to be just like men’ is oppressive because it means e.g. having to sell your labour to pay the bills. But women can’t be falling short of men because they’re still women any more than black people are falling short of whites because they’re still black.

I read your conversation with Bruce; you won’t be surprised I commend his strategy. Thanks again for setting things out so thoroughly.

Do you really think the women who have sex-selective abortions in China are entirely uncoerced?

I actually know of no one who wants to defend the view that women should be submissive, barefoot, and pregnant all the time. That's as bad a caricature as the view that pro-choicers think women should conceive as often as possible in order to have as many abortions as possible. Among women who think wives should be submissive to their husbands, very few of them actually marry men whose views on reproductive matters are different, and thus it doesn't usually produce marriages where there would be conflict over reproductive choices. But to assume that a pro-life view necessarily involves the view that it is husbands who determine whether an abortion occurs is pretty dumb, to be perfectly honest. Lots of women oppose abortion on principle, and one might easily argue that their doing so in larger numbers than men derives from their experience of pregnancy or their experience of a lifetime of experience anticipating pregnancy (and perhaps, as I said before, from men's increased sense of sexual freedom at being able to have sex without as serious consequences). I'm not sure why you would assume that it has anything to do with holding philosophical views because their husbands told them to. To claim to be against anti-feminism and to make such an insulting assumption about women is pretty contemptible.

I've also made it quite clear that I don't think opposition to abortion should require opposition to contraception, and you've acknowledged this and declared those who hold this combination of views to be better than those who oppose contraception. So I'm not sure why you would assume that the only motive among those who oppose abortion is to try to keep women perpetually pregnant. It comes across more as an attempt to stifle serious discussion by resorting to insults.

As I said, I think the pro-life feminists are indeed arguing that women ought not to have abortions and that this takes on the moral seriousness of not killing any human being, which would therefore create a prima facie reason for making abortion illegal. There are ways to overcome prima facie obligations, but that's the starting point that I think they're taking.

As for women falling short just because they're women, I think we should keep in mind that just because someone generally opposes a lot of ways that women are made to be inferior to men by seeking to make them just like men but never equal in those ways, you might also find some ways that women are not like men but ought to be. It's just that this particular variety of feminism sees women harmed and indeed oppressed by the abortion industry and wants to encourage women not to participate in that harm. This is in addition to the moral reasons they offer against abortion in terms of the moral relationship between mother and fetus, so it's not really their only argument (and as an argument it might well be defeasible in ways that the standard pro-life arguments about moral status would need stronger reasons to overcome due to being a concern about someone's right to life rather than just about someone's being treated well).

‘Do you really think the women who have sex-selective abortions in China are entirely uncoerced?’

I don’t know how we can be sure one acts ‘entirely uncoerced’, or what it means really. How about women who cut off girls’ genitals because otherwise nobody will want to marry them? Does that count as acting uncoerced? You do seem to assume that some women are less coerced than others, and I wonder how you can tell. Could it be that when women act in a way you approve of you tend to think they’re acting uncoerced and vice versa?

‘I actually know of no one who wants to defend the view that women should be submissive, barefoot, and pregnant all the time.’

It’s good to learn they can get a break! (The preceding is meant as a joke.) Of course I was painting a caricature: You seemed bothered that public perception about who’s behind the pro-life movement may not be accurate and I just meant to reassure you that it doesn’t really matter, to me anyway. So it’s ironic I got you all worked up instead; and it’s a pity you didn’t get to comment on what I puzzled about, like the descriptive/prescriptive conflation. I’m sorry. I’ll admit too that I got a whiff of an ad hominem when you commented on my ways of thinking, and it seems rather lame to me now that I pointed out I was only quoting you; but I tried not to get personal and stick to the argument instead.
So, depending on whether it’s taken as an empirical claim or a normative claim, fringe feminism seems to entail the following: There are ethical theories which women philosophers are not entitled to hold. Women philosophers must be feminists defending moral positions of the care/difference/whatever variety. Judith Jarvis Thomson is not a ‘real’ woman. Women who have abortions are not ‘real’ women; which reminds me of that Catholic position you set out before (which, yes, I know you don’t hold), about women who use contraception not having ‘real’ sex; are fringe feminists mostly Catholic? But that it’s signed ‘Judith’ instead of ‘Jeremy’ can’t be what’s wrong with Thomson’s argument, that it’s not the sort of paper that should ever come out of a lady’s laptop. Sex-selective censorship of philosophers doesn’t quite dispose of arguments. And I honestly fail to see why censorship might be more acceptable when the censor’s a female feminist than slavery would be where the slave-master’s a black anti-racist; and yet this seemed to be your implicit position. Unless you assume that what’s feminist is good or that that’s what I think.

Whilst I accept there are differences between men and women, I don’t think cognitive models necessarily pick ‘essences’ or are irreducible. I guess my model of my way of thinking is some ‘gestalt deductivism’. Three posts ago I suggested that your position seems to me to depend on some brand of teleology/religion which would need to be independently defended, or similar. You addressed the suggestion indirectly, in my view, by going through several examples, which may reflect a more ‘bottom-up/inductivist’ way of thinking. What you said seems to me to confirm the hypothesis that the feminist positions in question assume either revelation or some kind of essentialism/natural law or kinds etc, which I’m sure you’ll agree aren’t exactly unproblematic. So we got here in the end; it may have taken a bit longer but we got here, and I think that’s what matters.

For degrees of coercion, I should direct you to my previous arguments about this (here, here, here). Maybe you'll want to further those conversations, but I'd rather start without having to repeat the kinds of arguments I've already spent some time presenting. I've just taught that subject again this summer, and it's likely that I've changed my mind on some of those issues and refined my views somewhat, so I don't necessarily endorse everything I've said, but I do want that starting point on the table. I do think there are ways to undermine consent in matters of degrees, and I think it's certainly possible to do that by having strong government disincentives toward having more children. The stronger the disincentives, the less clear it is that the women in question are consenting voluntarily.

Perhaps you ought to take a look at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Feminist Ethics. That will probably give a better sense of this than anything I could do. There's definitely a normative claim involved, and I don't think it's as bad as the nonsequitur that women think a certain way and therefore we all ought to think that way. There's no insinuation that someone who relies on what they see as male ways of thinking is less of a woman, though. It's certainly nothing close to the claim that she's wrong as a woman for saying something that would be ok for a man to say. This is a normative ethical theory about what factors men and woman should alike take into account. The feminist element is that it's sexism that has led male philosophers to ignore these central ethical concerns and focus on others that aren't as central to the core of ethics, and Thomson is working within the framework that results.

I'm not entirely sure where the idea of censorship comes in. I never suggested censoring anything. I'd be surprised if you were the sort to draw the inference that disagreeing with something amounts to censoring it. You don't seem that sort of person. But it leaves me wondering what charitable interpretation is left for why you think I'm advocating (or claiming feminist ethicists advocate) censorship of competing views.

I don't think this needs to involve any teleology or essentialism. That may be one way to motivate it, but I don't think the ethics of care people are assuming it. They've noticed some trends in male-typical and female-typical ways of thinking. For all they say, it could be entirely due to contingent factors that men and women ended up this way. But here's what they clearly do say. One of those groups suppressed the other's ways of thinking by controlling philosophical discourse and deciding it was sub-standard ethical thinking, even irrational. The moral thinking that got marginalized happens to be the one that's more important for the best ethical view. So it's incumbent on feminists to restore ethical thinking to take into account those factors that women have traditionally considered that male ethicists have labeled irrational. There's no teleology in that sort of claim. It could be entirely due to contingent factors how they think men and women ended up with the views they got, as long as it turns out that the view women have that's been ignored and marginalized is in fact the better ethical approach. That's what feminist ethicists claim.

Thanks for the links to your arguments; the second ‘here’ didn’t work actually and there’s little point in commenting directly since you’ve likely moved on, but I appreciated the sensuality of the chocolate metaphor. I guess I still can’t see how you’d argue that the wife of an American religious conservative is any less coerced than the wife of a Chinese peasant farmer in the absence of assumptions e.g. about how women behave when uncoerced. Do you think that a European woman who has a second child is coerced into having it because of all the incentives? Or that it’s necessarily a bad thing if she is? Perhaps Chinese women who can’t afford to pay the baby-tax can’t afford to have an additional baby; we all have to go without things we can’t afford. This is not an argument for abortion of course; perhaps an argument for reliable contraception. I’m just considering the diametrically opposite direction of government policies to control women’s fertility in Europe and in Asia, and I can’t tell in which continent women may be better off without making additional assumptions.

There are competing ethical theories about what factors men and women alike should take into account and, as I said, I don’t think that theories put forward by feminists are evidently superior to alternatives just because feminists put them forward; I’d like to see an argument. So, I don’t think that women in particular who do ethics have some special moral obligation to further specific projects in specific ways; it may be mostly women exhibiting male ways of thinking who are attracted to philosophy. And I did get the impression that care feminists dismiss other feminists’ arguments in favour of abortion rights on the grounds that they're seen as ‘male-typical ways of thinking’, as if there’s something wrong with male-typical ways of thinking, either inherently or only as far as women are concerned; so that only female-typical thinkers can be 'real' feminists. This did strike me as a form of censorship: Defining the opposition out of existence rather than presenting counter-arguments. So, whilst I’d agree with you that the conclusions I drew are counterintuitive, they’re not quite non-sequitur; but thanks for the implicit compliment if it was meant as such. Anyway, I understood the implication to be that all women, not both men and women, should behave alike, so perhaps I conflated ‘care’ with ‘difference’ feminists’ claims.

But now I’ve glanced at the SEP article as you suggested and I'm not surprised to see that there’s no agreement among feminist ethicists as to what's a ‘voluntary choice’ or a ‘healthy relationship’, which I attribute to a lack of a shared natural kind/religious framework though you may come up with a different explanation. The penultimate para concludes: ‘Yet, if feminists have no clear, cogent, and unified position on key moral issues, then perspectives less congenial to women may fill the gap.’ That’s fine with me; perhaps no single moral perspective is or ought to be congenial to all women, or men.

I've fixed the link. Sorry about that.

I'm not sure why you think someone is necessarily coerced by being married to an American religious conservative. My wife, for instance, was opposed to abortion before she even met me. Her moral resistance to the very possibility of considering having an abortion predated her knowledge of my existence. So the fact that she never considered having an abortion doesn't seem at all coerced by her being married to an American religious conservative.

On the other hand, someone who is pregnant and wants to have the child in China but already has a son (or already has a daughter and a second child) is certainly coerced, and it's not just by peer pressure from a husband. It's enforced by law. I'm not sure how you could even consider these two scenarios as similar.

What are the European incentives for having babies? Is there some economic advantage to having more children that fully offsets the actual financial and social cost of having a child in a society where having multiple children is unpopular? I doubt it. It's not as if having an abortion in Europe leads to any other children you might have being unable to get an education (not to mention causing the other children in your neighborhood serious harm, as the Chinese policy does). It's not even as if social evaluations of people who have abortions is all that significantly negative in Europe. It's generally accepted in European society that abortion is ok, and it's certainly possible to keep it secret. Those are all serious disanalogies with China's one-child rule.

But even if I were to concede that the situations are exactly mirror-image, I'm going to be very reluctant to see the two as parallel in moral import. Giving incentives and disincentives to abort and giving incentives and disincentives to have a child are not parallel, even if the actual incentives and disincentives are parallel, because one is resisting something very natural, and the other is imposing something very unnatural.

The care-ethics pro-life position (which you shouldn't confuse with the care-ethics pro-choice position, which is the majority view among those who hold to an ethics of care) is that the arguments of Thomson are not feminist. It's not that she's not a real woman or that her views should be suppressed. They re arguing that there is such a thing as genuine feminism, but they do so by arguing that women should be concerned about the issues in the ethics of care. That is an argument, even if it's not presented every time they make the claim. It's not just defining a position out of play. It's arguing that it isn't concerned with what feminists should be concerned with. I agree with you on the overall moral view. I don't see why the concerns of the ethics of care should be exhaustive. I'm just trying to point out that there's this minority view within feminist ethics that points out a tension between majority feminist ethics and the views on abortion that most feminist actually hold.

Thanks for fixing that link. You’re making some interesting points there; of course if from your opponent’s view you can derive contradictory conclusions you could call the position inconsistent rather than your argument a ‘good ad hominem’. People may be more likely to grant that a woman having an abortion is acting voluntarily if she’s, say, financially and emotionally self-sufficient than if she’s an unemployed mother of three dependent on a lover. But the idea that women should forgo the right to an abortion in order to get back at the men they sleep with does sound like cutting your nose to spite your face; a bit like Medea in reverse, and rather degrading to children.

Now I have some explaining to do: What I’d queried was the presumption that the wives of American religious conservatives are less coerced than the wives of Chinese peasant farmers. The background is that you apparently considered any suggestion that pro-life women may be influenced by others as insulting and contemptible whilst remaining skeptical that Chinese women having sex-selective abortions may be acting voluntarily. Of course we’re products of nature and nurture: People don’t need to get married before they find themselves immersed in the ambient culture; I pointed out that some women have to have their bodies mutilated by other women before they can get married at all. Against this background I tried to figure out what you think of coercion. You suggested that the stronger the disincentive the less clear it is that women are consenting voluntarily. This means that if abortion is illegal it’s unclear, in your view, that women who carry pregnancies to term are acting uncoerced. But since you favour outlawing abortion I guess it’s not coercion you object to so much as women not doing what you think they ought to. And perhaps you also think that women will do what’s right unless coerced to do otherwise. If this is your position it can be made true by definition and immune to counterexample; though of course there’re costs to immunity.

So, in your view women should do nothing which involves ‘resisting something very natural’, and I’m not exactly surprised to hear this though I’ve had to wait a while! Of course you do expect sex-education curricula to put an emphasis on teenagers ‘resisting something very natural’ by promoting abstinence, but once a teenager gets pregnant, or married presumably, all resistance should cease. I have no doubt that you can supply premises to resolve any apparent tension. All I claimed is that additional premises are needed, of a sort unlikely to be uncontroversial. As for things ‘very unnatural’, baby vaccines and contraceptives are arguably such. So, in the first instance it’s not the charge of naturalistic fallacy that needs to be answered as the charge that the reasoning isn’t 'consistently fallacious', which I guess is a variant of the problem of evil.

You make several perceptive points in tangent, though I don’t think China’s one-child policy can be quite described as providing incentives to abort. The incidence of abortion is much lower in China compared to, say, Eastern Europe or the US, precisely because of the heavy investment the Chinese have made in providing contraception. And I can just discern a nice little ethics-of-care argument for the Chinese policy, with the focus on community and meeting the needs of those we’re already in relationship with rather than on the individual and what one thinks one has the right to do. Unsurprisingly, educated city-dwelling Chinese women seem quite content with the token child and what they resent is the new business class who can afford to pay the baby-tax and break the rule; but I didn’t set out to defend any particular government policy. I think you’re right that debates still alive in the US may have faded in the background in Europe; anti-discrimination and abortion legislation is just taken for granted, which is probably why I can’t really get interested in who’s a genuine feminist or a fake one, or in exploring fringe positions that strike me as absurd, in which case it wouldn’t be right to comment further. So about care feminists I won’t say more since you’re no uncritical supporter either, which I guess is because they won’t let you hold on to the death penalty or the right of morally superior nations to invade faraway countries - just joking. Thanks for all the effort and goodwill you put into this bumpy chat; I do appreciate it.

What I mean by a good ad hominem is showing that an unwelcome position follows, not that a contradiction follows. I won't call it inconsistent if it's not a contradiction.

I didn't say women should refrain from having an abortion to spite them men they slept with. That's not the point of the argument. One conclusion we could draw is that the pro-choice argument that pro-lifers are trying to restrict women's choices is blind to the ways that the argument for women's choice can mask some of the ways that women's choices are already constrained and coerced, in much the same way that race-based affirmative action and welfare programs can mask a lot of the racial problems that remain in effect. The analogy isn't very exact, but both cases involve a way of a privileged group absolving themselves of responsibility by putting a band-aid on a much deeper problem, a band-aid that covers over the issues rather than solving them.

It's not an argument that abortion is wrong. It's an argument that the culture of abortion has a lot more about it that's problematic than the pro-choice community acknowledges, and this is done on grounds that don't depend on pro-life principles. It's perfectly legitimate to complain about certain facts about the abortion industry and the ways people undermine women's consent without trying to use that as an argument that abortion is morally wrong (keeping that as an independent issue that stands or falls on other arguments).

Of course it's coercion to make something illegal. I would have thought that obvious. I'm coerced to wear my seatbelt every time I get in a vehicle. Hardcore libertarians consider that evil. I'm not a libertarian, and I don't mind it all that much. It's sometimes an annoyance, but I realize that it's an annoyance that happens to be in my best interest. So I find it relatively innocent that I'm coerced in such a way. I'm also somewhat coerced not to kill anyone, although in that case the temptation to do so is extremely small, so it's not coercing me away from doing something I'm likely to be tempted to do. But the coercion is still present dispositionally. If I were to get the desire to murder someone, the law and its penalties would provide a pretty serious disincentive to any thought of killing someone if I were to overcome my prior moral disincentive. That's a pretty high level of coercion, but I have no problem with it, because what it makes illegal should be prevented even at the cost of people's freedom to engage in that kind of behavior.

Now with abortion, we've got a case of something that on the pro-life view is in the same category, and so I have little problem making that illegal. Some disagree, but this is about those who want to make abortion illegal can consistently maintain that the China policy is oppressive. The China policy is very different. It coerces people to do something that they may consider the equivalent of murder (that I happen to think is in the same category as murder). The illegality of abortion doesn't coerce immoral behavior. It coerces against immoral behavior. There's nothing inconsistent about this combination of views.

I think you're equivocating on 'natural'. In pro-life feminist argument, the mother-child relationship is natural in a sense greater than just that it happens in nature or that it flows from natural desires. Two teenagers having sex can certainly be seen as natural in the latter sense. But the mother-child relationship involves a biological relationship. This is without bringing in Aristotelian notions of function and purpose and the resulting normative elements. If you do that, then you certainly have a clear distinction between the normative kind of naturalness and the kind present in any old sexual relationship. That does involve controversial premises, but this is a charge that I said two things that are incompatible, and I don't think they are. It's entirely legitimate to supply controversial premises that one already accepts to show consistency against a claim of contradiction.

I may well be equivocating because I’m totally lost. What’s ‘the clear distinction between the normative kind of naturalness and the kind present in any old sexual relationship’? I've had trouble with feminist norms and descriptions from the outset; what am I missing here?

I expect the ‘privileged group absolving themselves of responsibility’ in the case of abortion consists of men. And since this is not an argument that abortion is wrong I’m left wondering why, given a choice, one would opt to share a disadvantage rather than a privilege among people. It’s not clear to me that hating humankind indiscriminately is an improvement over being a misogynist.

I’m not sure what the ‘abortion industry/culture’ is like where you live but in a welfare state ob-gyns get paid the same whether they do abortions or IVF, and the service is free at the point of delivery; which is why libertarians may find it less objectionable to buckle up in Europe since they’d have to be put back together again at public cost.

I think we can agree that abortion bans restrict women’s choices in effect, if not in intent. What I can’t see is how we could settle the issue whether a woman 'really’ wants to do what she says she does.

Take secular attitudes to Muslim women wearing the hijab, for example: In France it can’t be worn at school, only at university, while more controversially it’s the other way round in Turkey. People may well doubt whether a woman would choose to wear a hijab uncoerced but there’s also the irony of ‘coercing women out of suspected coercion’. Are religious believers the most coerced of people, an eternity in hell being the ultimate disincentive? I just don’t know. So I can’t quite be moved by arguments for outlawing abortion on ‘feminist’ grounds; but as I said perhaps I’ve got a blind spot somewhere.

The distinction between descriptive and normative senses of naturalness is pretty basic to natural law theories. Aristotle, for example, has a pretty robust notion of what's natural, defined in terms of internal explanations that serve the purposes of an organism. Aristotle would see the sex drive as natural, but he doesn't see all sexual acts as natural, and they aren't natural just because they happen. (For example, he doesn't consider same-sex sex acts natural even though they occur in nature in the broader descriptive sense.) You don't need to hold to Aristotle's views in particular to have this distinction. All you need to believe in are natural purposes of some sort, with certain kinds of behavior, activities, and relationships counting as natural in a normative sense because they stem from natural purposes, grounded in the purposes of human nature. I do think there are strong currents in contemporary feminism that accept something like that, particularly in ecofeminism, where there's got to be some assumption that ecosystem relationships serve natural purposes and thus are worth preserving.

The problem I'm raising isn't a choice between hating humankind indiscriminately and being a misogynist. The choice for women is between contributing to what mainstream feminists consider to be a structure of privilege for men by refusing to have an abortion and contributing to what pro-life feminists consider to be a structure of privilege for men by having an abortion whenever the men in their lives want them to do so. It doesn't necessarily decide either way whether abortion is morally allowable or prohibited. It just undermines one aspect of the feminist argument for abortion, since the pro-male structures are supported either way. It's not as clear anymore that the availability of the choice to abort serves women's freedom from men, since it just as easily serves women's subordination to men's preferences. This isn't a major argument. It's a small point that ought to be acknowledged among many points that contribute toward the consequence aspects. If there are pros and cons that are morally relevant, they ought to be part of the discussion, but pro-life feminists complain that this aspect is never acknowledged by the pro-choice side of the debate. I think they're right.

Planned Parenthood is a private enterprise that receives federal funding for non-abortion services. That will almost certainly change if President Obama gets his way, since he would like abortion to be federally-funded. But as of right now, the federal funding does not cover abortion. That comes from private sources of funding or the payment of clients for services rendered if they can afford to pay themselves. It's a non-profit organization, so they can't legally make money as an organization off the abortions they perform, but the doctors are certainly well-paid, and there's significant evidence that the organization has had a recurring pattern of illegal behavior in order to maximize the number of abortions they can perform.

I think it's clear enough that Muslim societal expectations about women's garb constitute at least an element of coercion. The issues there are pretty similar to the absolutely clear case of societal coercion of clitoral excision. The question isn't whether there's coercion but whether there's good enough reason to do anything about it. That involves questions about whether it's innocent enough or oppressive enough, to what extent we should tolerate cultural differences if we think the coercion constitutes oppression, whether the coercive element has good or bad effects, whether anyone's rights are violated by the coercion, whether someone's rights are violated by resisting the coercive structures, and so on. With something like abortion, those questions might be answered in different ways when it comes to coercing people to abort and coercing people not to abort. I've explained already why that might be. But I don't think we should bother wasting our time trying to show that any of these things are not coercive. Coercion happens all the time. Sometimes it's morally justified, and other times it's much more problematic. Those are the issues I care about, but those depend in part on the moral evaluation of the acts or social structures involved, and those are the things you and I disagree about when it comes to abortion, so of course we'll have different views on the moral question of coercion.

Every year millions of abortions occur naturally or intentionally in countries where abortion is legal and millions of abortions occur naturally or intentionally in countries where abortion is illegal. Few women abort each and every pregnancy, many women abort some pregnancy while most women do end up raising one or more kids. In this set-up can we tell what is or isn’t natural in the normative sense without presupposing the ‘resulting’ norms? I have nothing against the distinction; I just don’t know how to make it without begging the question.

Women having abortions might be good for the environment. This doesn’t mean that women have abortions because they’re Greenpeace supporters, or that they shouldn’t have them if they’re not. As I said I can’t see how we can tell if a woman 'really’ wants to do what she says she does, nor is it clear that if one ‘really’ wants to do something then it’s OK for one to do it. So I doubt the ‘little point’ is one pro-life feminists ‘really’ want to make.

I never thought you’d be particularly bothered about women’s subordination to men; St Paul’s not exactly the patron saint of feminism. Perhaps you judge that an argument presented as ‘feminist’ will cut ice with the pro-choice crowds. You’ve gone to some lengths to restore what you think is a distorted picture of the average pro-lifer but I don’t recall you painting the profile of the average pro-choicer. Of course it’s pragmatically smart to argue in a way likely to move one’s interlocutor but as there’s a universal declaration and a European convention there’s prima facie incentive for expressing arguments in the language of rights rather than fringe feminists; I guess Thomson could be a care ethicist intent on challenging the legal status quo.

I think you’re right to bring ‘societal’ values into the equation; female dress specs aren’t identical in all Muslim countries. I also think that the other parameters you specify are spot on though I’d like to add effective enforcement as an explicit consideration since whether a woman will or will not have an abortion in her lifetime seems to be opaque to the il/legality of abortion in the country where she lives. There’s evidence, e.g. from countries where there’ve been sharp policy reversals like Romania, that the effect of abortion bans is not so much a decrease in abortion incidence as an increase in morbidity and mortality associated with abortion. And it would make ‘small point’ pro-lifers appear petty and vindictive if they promoted legislation having this effect on women, who may be moreover paradigms of uncoerced action by your book since they chose to have an abortion in contexts where abortion is illegal.

I also omitted stating explicitly that I agree one can supply controversial premises one already accepts to show consistency against a charge of contradiction, though I’d granted the claim in the post preceding the one in which you made it. I don’t wish to underestimate the extent to which we seem to see eye-to-eye on larger issues such as methodology or meta-questions e.g. in ethics and epistemology. I just wanted to bring out how much the pro-life position seems to depend on metaphysical heavy-weight machinery and how little is apparently settled even after the graders have come out of the shed. This doesn’t mean that nothing can be done over the issue of abortion, just perhaps that it needs to be done with humility and tolerance; and the pro-life position still seems to me more arrogant than the pro-choice one, if issues of moral evaluation can't be rationally settled. But I also still appreciate resourcefulness and determination to explore alternatives and make the most of arguments when in a tight spot.

I think the idea is that you can establish norms within the general ethical theory and then apply it to individual cases like abortion afterward. I think that's how Celia Wolf-Devine intends it when she gives a philosophical argument for a pro-life position based on the care ethics developed by pro-choice feminists. Maybe that's not the best way to proceed in ethics. A number of ethical theorists think we have to start with particular cases and then derive the theory from those. I actually have some sympathy for that. But we're talking about whether people the view is internally coherent and whether what it goes on to say has some support within the general framework, and I think it does.

As I've said before, some of the pro-life feminist argument is directed at those initially inclined toward care ethics. It's a claim that they're not consistently following an ethic of care if they adopt a pro-choice view on abortion. With those who are feminists but not in the care ethics mold, they will have to take several steps back and begin arguing for the ethics of care. This isn't an attempt to convince Thomson herself. It's an attempt to get care ethicists to see Thomson as working in a different ethical framework.

I don't see why you keep presenting care ethics as a fringe view. It's the dominant ethical view among philosophers who work in feminism (which isn't to say that it's the dominant ethical view among philosophers who happen to be feminists). The highest-selling ethics textbook for introductory ethics courses in the English language, The Elements of Moral Philosophy by James Rachels and Stuart Rachels, devotes an entire chapter to it. I'm not opposed to talking about abortion in terms of rights. Francis Beckwith has an excellent book with Oxford University Press that came out last year (I believe) challenging all the rights-based arguments for a pro-choice position. I would probably agree with almost everything he says in that book, judging by what I've read from him before and what I know of his general views. I think that argument can be made and made well. I've only mentioned the pro-life feminist view to point out that there's this segment of the pro-life population who think they have good arguments for a pro-life position coming straight out of feminist concerns. I'm not resting my arguments on their claims.

I'm not going to spend time rehabilitating the image of the average pro-choicers on the issue of whether pro-choicers are concerned about what's important to women, because pro-choicers don't have this false portrayal that I've commonly seen about pro-lifers on that issue. Pro-lifers are regularly portrayed as being against women making choices for their own life, and that's simply not fair to what the pro-life view is even about, never mind to the actual people who hold those views. Now when I face pro-lifers who present false views about what pro-choicers desire, I'll correct those. They certainly do happen. It's just not the subject that we've been dealing with here.

As for women's subordination, it depends on what you mean. There are things that some people call subordination that I don't think can accurately be called subordination the way the term is now used in contemporary English. If I voluntarily submit to the elders of my congregation on spiritual matters, I don't think I'm being subordinated, even if I'm making myself subordinate in a sense. When I accept a job from my department to teach a course, I'm submitting to the authority of my employers, but I don't think it's helpful to describe that as the Philosophy Department subordinating me. When we call something subordination, it carries the sense that it's being done involuntarily to someone so that they are in some sense in servitude without their choice. If someone holds that view that one person ought to submit to someone else (as in my case of my submitting to the authority of the leaders of my congregation), it counts as voluntary submission, but I don't think I'm being subordinated by them. It's something I choose to do.

Given that, I don't see how you can take any Pauline writing as advocating women's subordination as that term is used in contemporary English. The strongest kind of statement you will see about marriage is that he tells wives to submit voluntarily to their husbands while telling husbands to sacrifice their own desires so significantly that it would be fair to compare their sacrifice to Jesus' willingness to die for people. That hardly strikes me as such an imbalanced gender discrepancy as to count as subjugation, even if you ignore the fact that he's telling people to do this voluntarily without enforcing it as some kind of law. Certainly there's an element of influence there, since he's a spiritual authority, but it's more of a statement of a moral view than a command to do it or face serious consequences. The closest you'll get is his statement that he doesn't allow a woman to teach over a man in the congregations, which isn't a command in its grammatical form, but it does reflect (in my view) a moral view about how men and women should relate given how God intended male and female relations. It hardly seems like subordination in the strong sense if women are restricted from exactly one thing (teaching men in groups in official congregational gatherings), even if many will be morally opposed to such a restriction. There's definitely something that I think might once have been accurately described as subordination in the sense that only male elders are governing the local congregation as being in authority over the rest of the congregation, but it's not all men being in an authority relation over all women, and it's not anything like what I ordinarily think of when I hear the term "women's subordination", which involves a whole mess of things that this doesn't involve as far as I can discern in the text.

I don't think a choice to have an abortion when abortion is illegal is automatically uncoerced. There can easily be coercion from social forces even if there's no coercion from the law.

As for your last paragraph, I do disagree about which position seems more arrogant to me, at least if the thing you can't settle is the moral status of a human organism at a relatively early stage of development. Assuming it has none seems much more arrogant to me than assuming it has some. There are other things to leave unsettled in this debate, but that's the one I've typically heard people say they can't settle, and one of the most influential people in the world (the current President of the United States) has stated exactly that sort of view.

I thought you’d be sympathetic to starting with particular cases and then ‘deriving’ the theory from those! I just don’t think you can tell a particular case without implicitly assuming what it’s an instance of. So your preferred process isn’t that different to applying norms top-down explicitly. I see huge problems with exporting psychology into ethics so I’m not keen to do it, nor am I fond of ‘natural law’ theories. But if one is, the way to block a pro-choice inference is by establishing outright that abortion is impermissible or defining women in a way such that those who have abortions don’t count as instances of the natural kind. I don't see why either brand of care ethics can't be consistent and coherent; but I think people would find the pro-life version less intuitive.

I don’t keep track of philosophers who may be feminists, and for a time I thought Hilary Putnam was a woman. I’m just conscious of the cost of having to take those ‘several steps back’ to argue for care ethics before one can push for legislative change. So I think this new book you mention could be good news for the pro-life camp and perhaps the President ought to be sent a copy; but I recall that Proverb too, and I’d like to see the responses to it.

There may well be coercion from social forces even if there's no coercion from the law but that’s the pro-choice position. Under a pro-life legal regime of course there’s legal coercion and if a woman has an abortion then she opts to defy the law rather than, say, her husband. Or is it the suggestion that a woman can’t ‘really’ be coerced by her husband if she’s already ‘voluntarily' submitted to his will? I’m not at all sure what one may ‘ordinarily think’ of a woman’s subordination to a man if it’s up to a man’s whim what it means.

It hadn’t occurred to me that men, unlike women, may need to be particularly god-like but I think the desire to subjugate others is one which is both prevalent and worth fighting against. That women shouldn’t teach men seems odd, unless the Spirit goes on strike and refuses to guide females in the presence of males who can do the guiding on its behalf. Except this sounds to me more like what people intent on dominating might say rather than what a Holy Spirit would do; I can’t be sure of course but I am suspicious of people who claim a direct line to God others lack. If however it’s all voluntary and up to the women themselves except the ‘teaching men’ bit I wonder if congregations should perhaps be sex-segregated; it sounds ‘feminist’ enough.

You may recall I’d queried whether a pro-lifer felt bound to beg and try to talk his wife out of aborting a pregnancy resulting from her being raped by another man and insist on bringing the baby up as a child of their marriage. If there is such a person then I think he ought to be declared a saint; I just doubt there are many saints in the pro-life camp, or anywhere else. If one has conflicting intuitions over an issue, it’s fine to query what intuitions may be worth or whether the issue can be rationally resolved. What I object to is refusing to own up and pretending there’s no conflict and that the matter is crystal clear and a proper subject for legislation, at which stage however pro-lifers may heavy-heartedly have to compromise their consistent and coherent position with just enough exceptions to paper-over the conflict that isn’t ‘really’ there for them just perhaps for others, which exceptions just happen to accommodate expected male intuitions on the issue. Of course you know I feel rather strongly about rape exceptions and I don’t want to get carried away. But if you’re claiming that the pro-choice position is more arrogant because it assumes a foetus has no moral status I think the charge is unfair: Thomson’s argument is premised on a foetus having equal moral status to the woman carrying it and I can’t see how any human can have fuller moral status than that, unless perhaps one’s a man.

Top-down approaches are too wide-open. If you first have to figure out which general moral theory is correct, on what basis do you decide that? You have to see if it coheres with our particular judgments about actual cases. How can we evaluate the wrongness of a theory like utilitarianism or Kantianism? We find cases where utilitarianism gives us the wrong result. Kant tells us lying is always wrong, and utilitarianism tells us we should do horrific things if we can get away with it. Top-down approaches are arbitrary. You could make up whatever theory you want if you can't evaluate them via particular judgments that you already have. You have to start somewhere, and it's going to have to be somewhere controversial, but it has to be either particular judgments about very specific cases or more general principles but not overall theories. Once you get too theoretical, you won't have any underlying judgments to base it on.

I agree that it would be better to argue against abortion in principle (or at least in many case) than to do the roundabout method, if you were only to do one. I wouldn't agree that it would be better to define certain women as not women due to their decisions.

My thought was that a woman might voluntarily submit to her husband's desires, which would involve doing something she would otherwise not want to do, but she wants to do it because she chooses to follow her husband's choice on an issue where they can't agree on the right choice. The choice to submit is voluntary. If I voluntarily go with a police officer who asks me to go down to the station, and I choose to go rather than express my right to resist (if it's not an arrest, I can't be compelled to go without a court order), then am I coerced by going? I may simply have the view that I ought to submit to the authorities over me. I'm not sure that counts as coercion in any worrisome way. What might make it coercion is if someone in such an authority position realized that I'd go along with what they say and began taking advantage of me in significant ways for non-moral reasons. It's one thing for the police to ask me to do something they think I morally ought to do. It would be another to ask me to give them my money once they know I will comply because of my religious views. That might be coercion of a worrisome sort. It would be a misuse of authority.

So on the view that a husband is authority over a wife and the wife ought to submit, you have to make the same sort of distinction. Given the premise, it would be ok for a husband to be a decisionmaker when there's a legitimate disagreement but not ok for a husband even to ask his wife to do something wrong or to expect her to do things that are completely against her best interests. But I think this is actually built in to the biblical statements on this. That's the point of husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church. Paul never says husbands should make their wives submit. He says to seek their wives' best interests and to find ways to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of their wives. Without that, this does seem much worse, but I think there's a lot more symmetry than non-symmetry in such a relationship if you take both sides seriously.

I personally know several people who were raped, conceived as a result, and did not have an abortion. I'm not sure why you want to question their existence.

On the moral status issue and arrogance, I didn't say that the pro-choice position is more arrogant. What I said is that going pro-choice because you're unsure on the moral status question seems more arrogant to me than going pro-life because you're unsure on the moral status question. There are other arguments for being pro-choice, but the argument President Obama gave during his campaign was that he didn't know how to settle the moral status question, so he'd go pro-choice. That's the position that seems to me to be more arrogant, because it assumes no moral status when there may well be moral status for all the argument has to say.

As long as both ‘general principles’ and ‘overall theories’ are universally quantified perhaps the distinction doesn’t affect the point I was trying to make about 'natural law' theories such as care ethics. You may recall I’d queried whether from a fairly low-level descriptive statement such as ‘few women abort each and every pregnancy while many women abort some pregnancy’ one could ‘derive’ whether having an abortion is inconsistent with being a caring female without presupposing that it is inconsistent. I wouldn't agree either that ‘it would be better to define certain women as not women due to their decisions’, unless the alternative is to define them as 'not caring’, which sounds lethal to care ethics rather than women. And if one invoked coercion to explain why some women have abortions one would have to explain why women can’t be coerced into other things, e.g. caring, etc etc. So I don’t think there’s an independent argument against abortion to be made on care ethics grounds since the pro-life care ethicist needs to assume, either implicitly or explicitly, that abortion is inconsistent with the ethics of care. This may well be a coherent yet counterintuitive position. It’s like maintaining that all swans are white by denying that what’s not white can be a swan; fine. But most people take it that there’re white swans and there’re black swans too.

Thanks for going into the ‘submissive wife’ bit at some length. It's still not clear to me if a woman ‘voluntarily’ submits upon marriage once and for all or on a case by case basis. You say it’s not OK for a husband to ask his wife to do something wrong or completely against her best interests, but I’m not sure that a wife could judge if what he does is either. I can’t see why husbands should seek their wives' best interests unless men are somehow better placed to ascertain women's best interests than women themselves are. If so, a woman couldn’t second-guess her husband and it’s therefore unclear who would be responsible for a submissive wife’s decisions. Anyway, if women are thought to be somehow morally or intellectually deficient compared to men this may partly explain why Paul said they should refrain from ‘teaching’ their moral/intellectual superiors in church. The way you’d put it previously I was left wondering how who may be unreliable compared to a man if she speaks in a mixed congregation may become at least as reliable as a man the moment she steps out of the church building; or why this should be so.

Btw is there really some religious command to bribe public officials, or did I totally miss your point? I'd bet you have misread me though and I’d be grateful if you would re-read the last para in my previous post to see if you may wish to join me in questioning the existence of men ‘who were raped, conceived as a result, and did not have an abortion’. Of course you don’t need to address the charge I’m making there unless you want to.

It's not lethal to care ethics if some women aren't making moral decisions based on caring. It might be lethal if you couldn't establish any overall tendency, but even a lot of individuals wouldn't be enough to do that.

Actually, most people who hold the view about men and women in marriage that I've been outlining would say that certain things would be bad enough to draw the line at. If a husband asked a wife to do something thoroughly immoral, she shouldn't do it. Most Christians even of the very traditional approach to this (and I don't think the one I'm outlining is the way it was always done) would say that a woman shouldn't submit to her husband if he asked her or even commanded her to worship other gods. The question is how far that extends, but I think most who hold this view would restrict it to matters of reasonable debate and not extend it to clear moral issues. Some have taken it to reflect a lesser ability for women to figure out things for themselves, but it need not do so, and I'm not sure there's any biblical ground for thinking that's what Paul is assuming. He in fact allows women to deliver prophecies in gender-mixed settings, and he insists that older women should teach younger women, so he doesn't think women can't learn and teach well.

It makes me think there's got to be some other justification than an inability to learn and teach. There is in fact another explanation available that some contemporary scholars have attributed to Paul's thinking, and I find it plausible. There's a role distinction in the Trinity in Paul's thinking. He sees equality of nature but distinction of role in the Trinity, and he puts the relationship between husband and wife in one place as analogous to the relationship between the first two persons of the Trinity. One plausible view, then, of what these gender roles are all about is that they represent something about God. How the Trinity functions gets written into how human beings conduct ourselves, illustrating the perfect equality but role differences in the Trinity. This isn't a universally-accepted view as to what Paul was thinking, but I think it's pretty plausible given that he does put the two relations in parallel in one place, and he doesn't seem to think women are incapable or inferior at teaching or evaluating. He just restricts the role. It's hard to see why he would do so unless he thought there was some deeper principle at work, and this does seem to be a plausible candidate for a deeper principle.

If this is right, then it's not about intrinsic differences at all, and then those who take this as religious doctrine that guides life might well see themselves as free to welcome and encourage women to take leadership roles in politics and teaching roles in academia while advocating male authority and leadership in the family and church. This is in fact a pretty common view among many evangelicals in the United States.

It's not that husbands are better placed to seek their wives' interests, while women shouldn't seek their own best interests. It's that both husbands and wives should seek each other's best interests. There's some symmetry to how the New Testament texts describe it. The one asymmetry is the particular verb that describes what each does. Women are submitting, and men are loving and serving. I don't think that's an inconsequential difference, but it's not that men are better at serving their wives than women are at figuring out their own best interests. It's that both are entreated to seek the other's good.

I have no idea what you're getting at about bribing public officials.

It seemed to me as if you were assuming that no one who conceives as a result of rape would prefer to have the child when abortion is an option.

As far as I can tell, I've already indicated where I disagree with that last paragraph of your previous comment. So maybe I am missing something.

I agree with you that even a lot of individuals doing what’s wrong doesn’t make it right so perhaps we also agree that appeals to ‘natural law’ are question begging and of dubious significance in ethics: What ‘overall tendency’ is discernible depends on the moral theory already underlying explicitly or implicitly. Women who have abortions are opaque to or screened off by pro-life care ethicists who take abortion to be wrong while pro-choice care ethicists have no trouble taking abortion to be consistent with caring. So observation is theory-laden and however the issue between the two care ethics schools is to be settled, it won’t be on empirical grounds.

I can see you’re struggling with the question of women’s submission and I appreciate your setting out trains of thought on the issue. It’s good to see the view is generally taken to defer to freedom of religion but there are more rights at stake, and the right to deliver prophecies may not be exactly central to contemporary concerns. I’m not sure about the distinction between ‘matters of reasonable debate’ and ‘clear moral issues’: How can we tell one from the other, and is the distinction for the woman to make? There’s reasonable debate in politics; is she to be told who to vote for? Whether insistence on older women teaching younger women is a counterexample to the inferior abilities interpretation I can’t judge before I hear the teaching: Getting women to propagate a culture of female inferiority and preach the need for submission to men may be a way to ensure conformity by those who lack good sense even to the extent of figuring out that this is the case and that they ought to submit to their superiors.

I’m not sure people see themselves as benefactors to friends or partners; I just feel lucky to have them. I think we like to be around and please people we have a soft spot for, not second-guess them as to what’s in their best interests; it sounds presumptuous and patronising to purport to know that, and I doubt preferences and interests can be objectively well-ordered in a unique way anyway. If it was up to me to determine another’s interests and then proceed to suit what I myself determined, I’m sure I could suit myself well. But even if I didn’t suit myself well, it’s not clear to me why this would ipso facto suit that other any better. I’ve said before, it sounds like the excuse for misogyny is general misanthropy; as if the problem is how best to distribute oppression and misery among humans.

I have trouble discerning what a man may become an authority in by virtue of getting married; whether to have Chinese or pizza for dinner? I recall you’d encourage a teenager to get married on the grounds he’d proved unable to handle his condom properly. I’m also baffled because you sometimes seem willing to attribute women’s actions you disapprove of to male influence, as if you judge that women would do better acting of their own accord and left to their own devices. But a normative claim that a woman ought to be submissive to her husband unless she ought not to sounds vacuous and question begging. So we do seem to be rehearsing a number of familiar philosophical arguments down to the problem of evil and good old Euthyphro; if people need to settle those before they get to agree on abortion I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I think you like to have your cake and eat it too: But if you drop the claim to male superiority and even ‘welcome and encourage women to take leadership roles’ everywhere else except at home and church, then I’m afraid the position sounds more schizophrenic than ad hoc. I never understood much about the Trinity so your attempt to explain things in these terms is, to me, a case of obscurum per obscurium. Perhaps this is one more ‘mystery’, or perhaps it’s one of those things you said elsewhere were just not intended to apply to a setting such as our own.

Don’t worry; I doubt you’d bribe police officers who asked you for money. I just wondered why you thought your religious beliefs might compel you to submit unconditionally to the authorities over you; do you object to the American Revolution, or just the French?

And now, to what you may be missing. I thought hard whether to take this up again because you seem to have missed it so many times, and I’d warned I was suspicious. But you almost got me right; I assumed that the husband of ‘no one who conceives as a result of rape would prefer to have the child when abortion is an option’, and even when it isn’t I’d add. I suggested that the husband who’d welcome the child of his raped wife and another man into the family would be a saint, and that saints aren’t in abundance. I queried whether the pro-life position is consistent and coherent and whether male pro-lifers sincerely consider all abortion as impermissible with no exceptions. I pointed out that the legal exception pro-lifers seem most likely to be able to live with just happens to be the one which reflects evolved male intuitions and potentially safeguards male interests on the issue. So that women may have rights to the extent it suits pro-life men. Perhaps it’s an embarrassment to one if one doesn't think it’s OK to abort e.g. an anencephalic foetus which might live for a few hours but might be OK with aborting a healthy foetus whose dad wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And it ought to be, though this is no justification for denying what the case is. You’ve been wondering why people think of pro-lifers as mostly men intent on controlling women; I think exceptions may be a reason why.

In one sense, any argument can be question-begging, because it's always possible to deny a premise. In that sense, yes, natural law arguments are question-begging. But I prefer to use that term for arguments whose conclusion appears in the premises in a much stronger way, i.e. there's a genuine circularity in the argument. I don't think that's true of natural law arguments. Maybe people won't accept the premise, but that doesn't mean the argument is circular.

I've encountered people who take this view of gender relations to the point of having the wife vote for whoever the husband says, but I think that's crazy. I do like to discuss the merits and demerits of candidates or policy issues with my wife, and I'm sure some of that might sometimes affect her somewhat in how she votes, but I know we haven't always voted for the same people. We voted for different candidates in the presidential primary last year.

I've seen a general argument against altruism along the lines of what you're suggesting (e.g. in Ayn Rand). She argues that it's insulting to be concerned about the interests of others, because no one is better than an individual at figuring out what's good for them, and it's insulting to tell them that you know better than they do what's good for them. I don't think much of this kind of argument. If I tell a starving homeless person that I won't help them find something to eat, because it would be insulting to them if I helped them by dictating to them that they need food, I think they would justifiably call me selfish and immoral for using that as an excuse not to help. If I tell my wife that I refuse to give her a birthday present because I think it would be insulting to her if I tried to dictate to her what she might want, such an action would itself be insulting. If I told her I'd rather spend my time doing what I want to do than to do anything with her that she wants to do, and tried to excuse myself by saying it would insult her to dictate to her what I think is best for her, she would rightly complain that I'm not concerned about what she wants. Just because we might sometimes be a bad judge of what's good for someone else doesn't mean we're usually all that bad at it, and sometimes it's pretty obvious what to do if you're putting someone else's interests above your own.

I very much object to the American Revolution. The only people who might have had a claim to overthrow the British government were the African slaves. Maybe that counts as a significant enough oppression to go to war over. Paying a bit higher taxes and having to house soldiers without having democratic representation doesn't come close.

I don't think your account of why some pro-lifers allow rape exceptions is very likely. I think it comes from an immense amount of pressure from political correctness. Men don't want to look like creeps, and there's a pretty serious danger of that in the current climate if a man advocates not allowing women to abort in such situations. I think it's more peer pressure than safeguarding of men's interests. I've read a lot on this issue, and I've never heard that claim before, either, so I doubt it's playing a huge role in how people think about the motivations of pro-lifers. If that's the reason pro-lifers are thought of as men seeking to control women, then I think there's little rational basis for it. (The fact that most pro-lifers are women should be a clear enough sign anyway, and the fact that most pro-life arguments actually do involve moral questions that have nothing to do with male interests but are about fetal interest should be sufficient also.)

Thanks for your reply, which I found rather belatedly. I have no problem with what you say about question begging circularity though I’m still troubled by ‘natural law’. Care ethicists presumably don’t dispute some factual premise regarding the incidence of natural or induced abortion in contexts where abortion may be legal or illegal. The question is whether abortion is morally permissible and consistent with caring or not and the claim is that the issue can’t be decided just by ‘looking around’. Do you disagree?

It’s not clear to me whether you think it crazy of a guy to tell his wife who to vote for or of the wife to comply with her husband’s command. OK, so not all husbands command the same things of their wives; perhaps there can be no submissive wife without a whimsical oppressor for a husband. I admit I find it disconcerting if people defer to Paul as an authority on whether husbands are in the mere hope that there may be some reason for his unqualified command even though he seems to have failed to mention it and despite an obvious clash with current law.

I agree we may have fallible empathy with others’ needs and accept we may sometimes have to act accordingly on a trial-and-error basis e.g. in the case of non-verbal infants. The problem is why women may need to be treated like non-verbal infants. So I’m not quite sure what altruism in general has to do with the question why a teenaged girl ought to submit to another teenager whose major achievement in life so far has been that he’s inadvertently managed to perforate his condom or why, unlike the inept teenager, the woman who's been encouraged to take that high profile job ought to swallow her tongue the moment she enters church. Anyway, would you really wish to take issue with ascetic monastic regimes or present Diogenes with a mug when he insists he can drink from his palm rather than do something e.g. about the starving and homeless people who try to squeeze through US or EU borders in case current policies aren’t exactly motivated by altruism?

I’m puzzled by your attitude to revolution and oppression. I thought that slaves too were expected to be submissive from a Christian perspective. If you think oppression is wrong and a reason for revolt I can’t understand why you’re still prepared to go along with gagging women in church or in marriage.

About rape exceptions I won’t disagree with your sociological analysis; but if you’re right I wonder on the basis of whose interests women pro-lifers willing to risk disability and death in the attempt to bring one man’s child into the world feel entitled to abort another man’s when their own offspring is involved in any case. Of course it could be that most pro-life women are married to American religious conservatives and are therefore submissive to men who as you said don't want to look like creeps, presumably in case it’s an American religious conservative who commits the rape (smiley face). But you seem unlikely to be particularly susceptible to peer pressure or care much about political correctness, which is meant as a compliment, so unless you’re that saint dead against a rape exception you can offer a rational reconstruction of the moral reason for the exception instead. I know I’m pushing hard here but it’s an issue I wish you’d confront head on sometime.

I agree that a moral premise is required for the moral question of abortion. Just listing empirical facts won't get you to a moral conclusion. But that moral premise might be a natural law premise, i.e. that certain empirically-observable facts imply a moral conclusion. Every ethical theory has something like that. Utilitarians take pleasure to be intrinsically good and pain intrinsically bad, and our moral obligation is to maximize the one and minimize the other. Social contract theorists begin with facts about what's in our rational self-interest and then claim that we ought to pursue that. You can't have a normative theory without presupposing some implication from facts that are non-moral to conclusions that are moral. That's what normative theories do. To question the is/ought implication, as Hume does, is to reject normative ethics, and it's not a legitimate criticism of a natural law theory that it does this unless the same objection is also going to apply to every other normative theory. But I agree that you're not going to get anywhere in the moral question of abortion without some moral assumption.

If a woman submits to her husband but he doesn't try to make her submit, then it's crazy to think it follows that a man should seek to have his wife vote for whoever he thinks she should vote for. For a woman to think she should ask her husband for advice on who to vote for could make sense if he actually knows the candidates and issues better than she does. It doesn't follow that a woman should think she should vote for whoever her husband thinks she should, even if she knows the candidates and issues better than he does. The only exception might be if he doesn't adopt the biblical approach but instead insists that she should vote for whoever he expects her to vote for. In such situations, he's acting as a non-believer, and I Peter makes it plain that the reason for submission in such a context is to win him over to the truth, not because there's some assumption that he's right, that he's smarter, or that he's better. In that context, it's not even that he has more authority. It's that she subtly undermines his false belief by being better than him and not insisting on her own rights. The parallel in that passage is Christians submitting to governments that persecute them and not fighting back when taken to the lions for gladiatorial execution.

I think Paul's insistence that we submit to the authorities implies that Christians ought to be politically participating under a constitution that insists that citizens are the government. In the U.S. that's certainly clear, and I think Christians who don't vote are violating a biblical mandate to submit to the authority over us that expects us to influence our society for good. I'd say the same for someone who won't bother to be careful about doing it well. With moral issues of significant importance, and this is one, the issue of submission can take second place to doing the right thing.

There's a huge continuum between non-verbal infants and rational adults. Lots of people have no problem with paternalistic and even moralistic laws in certain contexts. I see no justification for laws against incest unless we're enforcing morality plain and simple. You can't justify it by a harm principle together with consent the way we can justify murder and rape laws, because two consenting adults who are siblings can have sex without the possibility of children with birth defects if they remove their capability to reproduce or if they're both male or both female. You can enforce some kinds of incest (if children are involved or if there's a possibility of reproduction), but outright incest laws assume that you're enforcing a moral principle besides harm and consent. Yet most people have no problem with that. We also enforce morality by taxing people to get them to contribute to social good that doesn't immediately benefit them in any way. Libertarians consider that stealing and prefer that we allow people to choose their own charities to give to or refrain if they choose to be less charitable and thus not be as good a person. But most people have no problem with this. There are also plenty of laws that enforce people to do things that benefit them, such as wearing motorcycle helmets or having insurance on your vehicle. So I don't think it's fair to say that adults can never have laws apply to them enforcing good behavior unless we significantly revise our legal system, and we do have degrees of this between non-verbal children and full adults, e.g. curfews for children, ages of consent for sex or voting or drinking or smoking. why should this also not apply with children who seek to have abortions?

If I understand your question correctly, though, you're talking about a teenager submitting to another teenager about abortion, and I'm not sure when that would ever occur unless two teenagers are married to each other. That doesn't typically happen. Teenagers are under the authority of their parents in the usual case.

I'm not sure why you think I'm taking the view that women shouldn't talk within the walls of a church building. I never expressed anything like that view. I'm also not sure why you think it's analogous to prevent Diogenes from drinking out of his hand or prevent monks from ascetic lives. If we had laws on that sort of thing, that would be insane. I'm not advocating fascism, just some occasions of paternalism, especially with children, even ones who can express their views, and even on certain issues with adults. It's not as if abortion involves only such things, after all. It's not as if the fetus counts for nothing on most views. The view that the fetus has no moral status is pretty extreme, in my experience. Some people clearly think that, but it's not the mainstream pro-choice view. Thus abortion laws aren't purely paternalistic or moralistic. The harm principle allows for the possibility, as long as other relevant issues are outweighed or factored in.

Slaves also ought to be submissive, according to Paul. What I was saying is that there's a just cause in their case, even if it wouldn't be right for them to rebel. There wasn't even a significantly just cause in the American Revolution. Paying more in taxes and such things are pretty lame reasons to start a war. I was just comparing the relative moral status of the legitimate complaints others in the New World had at the time. And I'm not prepared to go along with gagging women in church or marriage.

I don't think there's a moral justification for rape exceptions. I think people's reasoning on this either has to do with inconsistency (i.e. thinking along Thomson's lines without applying it as far as she does) or pragmatism (i.e. trying to pass laws we can get away with passing rather than trying to limit things as much as we'd like). I don't think most pro-life women would themselves have an abortion in the case of rape, either. I just think pro-lifers are more willing to allow a legal exception then. I sometimes wonder if they also just haven't thought about a justification for it. They've heard the line about it and haven't thought to question it.

If we agree that a moral premise is required to settle the question of abortion I wonder if you’re concerned too that some empirically-observable facts may imply a moral conclusion while a superset of those facts may imply its negation, so that a pro-life care ethicist may not be able to appeal to a ‘natural law’ argument against abortion which won’t be question-begging in the sense you’d call genuine. So let me try this: The distinction between a descriptive and a normative sense of ‘naturaleness’ is unsustainable unless there’s a way of telling how things ought to be independent of how things are. Otherwise there’ll be no grounds for denying that things are how they ought to be. So a statement of what ought to be the case needs to be built into the premises of a ‘natural law’ argument, implicitly or explicitly, if the unconditional collapse of the normative onto the descriptive is to be blocked. So the argument will be question-beggingly circular or the distinction untenable. As I said before, a ‘natural law’ set-up has echoes of Euthyphro and the problem of evil. An omnipotent/omniscient entity should have no trouble getting things exactly how it wants them to be; whether such entity is also omnibenevolent could be a semantic quibble.

I don’t mind owning up to being irrational when it’s the case, and feeling averse to your qualified incest scenario may well be such an instance; the trolley-case may be another. I just don’t think the central issue in moral theory is how best to dress up biology in ethical robes. But if it’s morally OK for Sophie e.g. to be partial to her own kids why can’t she be particularly partial to one of them, or carry one pregnancy to term and not the next? God presumably saves some people and not others. Perhaps partiality is a virtue or some are more equal. Anyway, I’m not aware of empirical evidence that professional women acting in an official capacity are more prone to nepotism than men are. And as you said care ethics is about how men and women, not just women, ought to behave. But if so, why does it matter if caring comes naturally or is learned? If something can be learned perhaps it doesn’t come naturally; caring could be conditioned or contingent. So here are some reasons why I think ‘natural law’ arguments do no work or any work.

I won’t argue over the continuum between non-verbal infants and rational adults but you haven’t even attempted to show why adult females may need to oscillate on the spectrum when in church or at home vs when they’re elsewhere, QED. I bet you’d object to driving regulations which applied only to black people or gay people or Buddhists or, like they do in Saudi Arabia, just women. Slavery isn’t legal if the master does not force another to submit; is it morally OK then? I’m probably the last person you should consult over what Paul meant but I do find the teaching incoherent; it leaves people nowhere, or all over the place. What should a woman do when a husband strikes her? Grin and bear it so as to subtly undermine his false beliefs, hopefully before he strikes her dead? Or call the police and file for divorce? It’s funny you take Paul to be suggesting that not insisting on one’s rights makes one a better person; because Paul himself was rather keen to invoke his rights as a Roman citizen. But I’d take a dim view of anyone, Christian or not, who’d put up with people being oppressed, persecuted or executed at some authority’s whim. You advocate responsible citizenship whilst defending the status quo just because it is. I don’t think you’re advocating fascism. You don’t live under a fascist regime. But I wonder what you’d do if you did. The argument that one’s an honourable officer in the hierarchy didn’t go down well in Nuremberg. When the going gets tough good Christians may be at best an inert mass of wimps who’d be called ‘idiots’ in ancient Athens. How do you feel on July 4th? Like chanting ‘God save the Queen’ and applying for a British passport? I doubt it. You seem pretty keen to reap whatever benefits the revolutionary struggles and sacrifices of others may have bought you and you even want to make it into a duty now to influence society but you’d have plainly refused to fight yourself for the people’s right to have such influence and remain critical of those who did the fighting. You might just let others take the risk and the brunt of grappling with and challenging the status quo and then become an eager ‘free-rider’ when the dust has settled; not my ideal citizen.

The view that women’s rights are so many arrows in an Amazon’s quiver to be surrendered in the effort to win a husband over to the truth I find absurd. Is this what feminism was about, and are there too many women in the US willing to put up with voting against conscience? Or with being battered to death perhaps in order to do God’s will and assert their moral superiority? I hope not. And did Paul also say what a husband ought to do to assert his own moral superiority in case it’s the wife who’s acting as a non-believer? Because if he left it entirely to a guy’s discretion, given the current legal framework, I can’t see why Christian men may not surrender their own right to be submitted to or teach. If there are women willing to defy Paul, I guess it wouldn’t make the men defiant if they listened to those women and judged for themselves; unless it would be an abrogation of responsibility for a man to do that! But you’re not even claiming that patriarchal relationships are somehow superior or less likely to end up in divorce, probably because this isn’t the case; which isn’t exactly surprising. I’m also suspicious of the suggestion that wives should even be ‘encouraged’ to take high powered jobs or go for promotions etc. as long as male authority at home or in church isn’t questioned; it sounds like a half-baked compromise proposed by people under siege, desperately looking for an intellectual or social niche to occupy. But if a submissive woman is expected to feed into the family budget, aim for the top in her career, risk life and limb to bring kids into the world or win a falsely-believing spouse over to the truth, if she can’t ask her husband to do his fair share of housework or childcare, since women are so much better at doing these things and it comes to her naturally, and if she’s also expected to do things she may not want to do just because he says so, whether he’s biblical and deserves it or whether he’s not biblical and doesn’t deserve it, then there’s nothing it seems a woman oughtn’t do, which may be why a woman’s work is never done!

Of course you do say that in certain circumstances of ‘significant’ importance ‘submission can take second place to doing the right thing’. I’m not sure if this is Paul or your own gloss, or your response to Euthyphro; but I bet you're aware it’s question-begging under any scenario and in every sense.

No, I wasn’t thinking specifically about abortion in the teenage marriage scenario; I recalled you advocated teenagers getting married when a pregnancy occurred and thought it funny that a teenager who’d proved incompetent to fit his condom properly might command another to submit to him on anything, or ‘teach’ his mum in church where she can’t. I know marriage is a value significant to you. When you talk of couples who are unmarried, it’s the man coercing the woman into doing things; with married couples, it’s the woman voluntarily submitting to her husband. As if the guy who has a girlfriend is not bound to marry some woman or other eventually, or as if he won’t be the same guy. Language is value-laden.

Thank you for going into that rape-exception hobby-horse of mine; and for doing so with such admirable clarity and disarming honesty. I agree with your analysis and I accept that pro-life women would not necessarily have an abortion in the case of rape just like pro-choice women would not necessarily have an abortion in any case.I still find it puzzling why women may judge it legitimate for women to have a choice in the matter only in the case when a genetically uninvolved man may have an interest in a woman opting for an abortion. But a more interesting question may be why pro-life men have this compelling intuition that there should be an exception in the case of rape, even though it brings down the whole pro-life edifice with a bang. How are our intuitions shaped and what are they worth? It’s humbling to have to wonder. Perhaps the rape-exception is a trolley-case, and the phenomena impossible to save.

What I'm saying is that it isn't question-begging in the bad sense just because you have a premise that someone else might not grant. It's only question-begging in the bad sense if you have the actual conclusion explicitly in one of the premises. Every valid argument is question-begging in the broader sense, since the conclusion won't be true unless the premises are true, and therefore the truth of the conclusion is found in the truth of the premises. But that's not really a problem, as long as your premises are clear, and we should take the effort to make our premises clear by discussing where we disagree at the foundations.

I don't think it's true that an omnipotent and omniscient being can always have all its preferences met. It may well be that there are incompatible goods that are worth striving for but will need to be compromised in part, or else some goods subordinated to other goods. The entire history of philosophical discussion of the problem of evil should make that clear. If you read no one but Mackie, you might not see that, but what makes his paper so downright awful is that he doesn't see that.

As I said, I don't agree with everything the care ethics crowd says. But I don't think natural law ethics is as problematic as you make it out to be.

I do think slavery is perfectly morally all right as long as the master is perfect and the slave voluntarily serves. That's in fact what Christian morality is all about. Christians are slaves to God. I don't see how any Christian can be morally opposed to slavery in principle. I thought I'd linked to my series on slavery, but I guess not.

Paul does sometimes rely on his rights as a Roman citizen, but some have argued (I think rightly) that he does so only when he thinks it better serves his Christian message or Christian people other than himself. There are plenty of times when he simply doesn't resist legal authorities in that sort of way. He submits to imprisonment, stoning, and other things and encourages others to do the same. I'm sure he did what was in his power to protect others, but he didn't to defend himself on several occasions, and I think that's his application of teaching like the Sermon on the Mount. When instructing others, he'd tell them to do likewise. When he had the ability to protect them himself, he'd do so. But telling them to do something he thought it would be wrong to do wasn't one way he could protect himself and be consistent to his principles.

I don't think it's inconsistent to benefit from something that you think it's wrong to fight for but that you consider a good consequence. I don't agree with the implementation of a number of social programs to help the needy, but I take them as God's provision for my family while I'm working on my degree, even if not all the effects of those programs seem good to my mind. I don't approve of massive spending for pork by the government, but if the funding is there I'd like it to be equally distributed, and so I wouldn't insist that none of it go to my own community. I actually think the U.S. government's way of doing things is in many ways superior to what we might have if the revolution hadn't occurred, but it's consistent to think that and benefit from it while thinking the means of achieving it was wrong. All it takes is distinguishing between means and ends to make this point, as long as you're not the one engaging in the bad means.

Paul did describe what a husband of a non-believing wife should do. He said he should serve his wife and seek her best interests. I'm not sure why you want to call that asserting his moral superiority. I've already said that Paul never tells a husband to make his wife submit. He says the opposite. He tells husbands to engage in self-sacrificial love for their wives. I don't think the commands to men and women are all that far removed from each other, in fact. Self-sacrificial love and submission to the other's preferences are very similar. Paul doesn't teach that men have a right to teach or be submitted to. I think the entire thrust of biblical ethics is in fact to move away from thinking in terms of rights we can demand by emphasizing the notion of responsibilities we ought to fulfill. I don't think there's any room for a category of supererogation in Jesus' teaching, for instance.

I don't see how it's a half-desperate attempt under siege to look at a text and see what it implies. There are scriptural texts about women teaching over men in the church and about men and women's relations in marriage. There are none at all about women's roles in society. It doesn't strike me as a compromise to recognize that. People who have no interest in affirming the biblical texts as true have recognized that they don't comment on the broader societal issue. You're importing so many assumptions that I wouldn't grant (a woman is better at housework? That a church should put a teenager in a teaching position over his mother, especially one having non-marital sex? Come on!) that I don't know if it will be very fruitful to continue this discussion.

How is it question-begging to recognize that a moral claim might be less important than a different moral claim? Only absolutists would disagree. And what this has to do with Euthyphro is beyond me.

I'm not sure why you think I find every case of an unmarried couple coercive to women and every case of a married couple one of voluntary submission. What I've said is that coercion can occur with unmarried couples and that the ideal biblical model encourages women to submit voluntarily to those in authority, as it does to all Christians. An unmarried partner isn't a legitimate authority, for one, and I never said that every instance of submission is purely voluntary. I said that the biblical model encourages voluntary submission as a choice, not for reasons having to do with coercion out of self-interest but for reasons having to do with wanting the best interest of the other or reasons having to do with wanting to obey God. If everyone should seek the best interest of others, then it follows that a purely voluntary submission is motivated by such desires. What I was calling coercion wasn't like that at all.

I’m not challenging you over the is/ought distinction. I’m willing to grant that what is the case ought to be the case. But a bridging principle is useless in a ‘natural law’ argument against the permissibility of abortion if it’s the case that women have abortions; and it’s useful to a ‘natural law’ argument for the permissibility of abortions. This is where I see a link with the problem of evil; because ‘natural law’ can’t help in sorting out those things which aren’t how they ought to be from the things which are how they ought to.

You may well be right it won’t be very fruitful to continue this discussion though it won’t be because of any unwarranted assumptions on my part. I can’t see why a husband needs to back his commands at all or get anyone’s permission before issuing them so it matters whether you or I grant them. The teenager teaching the women who aren’t entitled to teach him in church isn’t having non-marital sex any more because he’s listened to you and is now married to the pregnant teenager who now has an obligation to submit to him. So if he tells her to have an abortion he’s a legitimate authority and there can be no coercion in her purely voluntary choice to submit while if he told her to have it before marriage she might have been coerced into it. I still find this puzzling. And I admit I can’t see how you can be so sure that Christians submit ‘not for reasons having to do with coercion out of self-interest’: If God holds this stick-and-carrot called heaven and hell, that’s a huge moral complication.

I won’t dispute the absence of scriptural texts about women's roles in society. But women didn’t have that many roles in society at the time outside the home and church. So the interesting question is what scripture would say if Paul did mean to restrict women in everything. The prior probability of his having explicitly mentioned women e.g. in politics or the academia is virtually nil; he just couldn’t have anticipated social developments like the feminist movement or the abolition of slavery. Do you think he’d be disappointed at either? I think he’d be surprised he’s still taken so seriously in the 21st century; and at the second coming not having come yet. It’s tricky to figure out stuff ex silentio. You wouldn’t look to scripture to figure out the moral status of fertilised eggs; you don’t expect scripture to have anticipated developments in molecular biology. Or do you?

It may be that Paul was saying Christians ought to obey the law of the land, since it was the law of the land then that women be subjugated to husbands or slaves to masters. But it is no more. We live in democracies and make the law of the land be what it is. So I asked if it would be wrong for a Christian man marrying under the current legal regime to just drop, by voluntary choice as you’d put it, the paternalistic bit. Of course I’m not sure I’ve quite got your geometry of rights and obligations. You suggested that a woman would be a better person for not insisting on her rights; that’s what I called ‘moral superiority’, that one’s a better person for not exercising one’s rights, and I thought a man could do it too. But if we have only obligations and no rights then we have no rights to give up. You say a woman ‘can’, ‘may’ or ‘might’ do the right thing rather than submit if an issue is significant enough but it’s not clear to me how the right thing and submission pull apart, how she can assess the significance of an issue or why someone with the ‘Nuremberg defence’ should take risks. And it doesn't sound like Paul. You also seem to assume that a woman who puts up with her husband wronging her will undermine his false belief and will get him to see the truth. This sounds weird. Is there any evidence that people are most likely to realise they’re doing wrong when others deliberately refrain from objecting to or pointing out their wrongdoing? The policy of appeasement and the Nazi-Soviet pact didn’t keep Hitler at bay. You say that Paul invoked his rights when he thought this would better serve others than himself. If so I can’t see why an abused wife can’t go ahead and call the police: Why won’t an abuser be well served if e.g. he spends the night in a cell? (And if there are no rights, only obligations, then she ought to call the police.) Of course Paul didn’t tell women to think which means would better serve which ends; he told them to submit. Perhaps a different end will be served if a wife submits to a husband who does right or to a husband who does wrong. But she doesn’t need to know which end is served when. She doesn’t need to know right from wrong. All she needs to do is submit.

You’re always keen to point out the sacrifices husbands have to make. But I honestly can’t see how symmetry-in-suffering can be of any comfort to anyone unless both the oppressor and the oppressed share some sadomasochistic streak. I’ve said before that a person’s sacrifices don’t guarantee that another person’s needs are met; not if one’s needs have to be determined by another. Unless it’s in people’s best interests for their needs not to be met. A parent can stay awake all night trying out different ways to comfort a crying infant, without success; so the only certain outcome is that the baby’s still uncomfortable and the parent’s deprived of sleep. If the lack of room for a category of supererogation means that Christian ethics is about maximising misery and frustration, Paul’s recipe sounds fine.

So even though you might object to them in principle, you don’t mind benefitting from existing welfare programmes since you take them as God's provision for your family while you’re working on your degree. But then I can’t see why a female student who holds a pro-life position can’t take the current legality of abortion as God’s provision for while she’s working on her degree; so she may have an abortion like you receive a benefit. In either case God’s will is done, or anyway it can’t be shown it isn’t.

I’ve just accessed your link on the morality of slavery; and if I get you right you also go on to argue for the morality of murder, rape, and genocide too, for consistency. It seems you think people can be slaves to a concept rather than a person, which sounds fascinating though I won’t be able to follow that link right now. Thanks.

I'm not willing to grant that what is the case ought to be the case, and neither is any natural law theory that I'm familiar with. Not even the Stoics, who are all about accepting what happens, are going to say anything as ridiculous as that. The idea isn't to take what happens to occur as normatively good. It's that certain kinds of things that happen naturally (and that needs to be carefully defined) are to be preferred over certain kinds of things that don't (and that also needs to be specified, since lots of things that don't naturally occur are fine). Aristotle does it in terms of proper functioning, assuming a teleology of each organism in terms of what's good for it as a member of its species. The Stoics do it in terms of the teleology of the intelligent universe. Aquinas tries to combine Aristotle's natural function with a divine intention. Any particular version will do things differently, but none of them think something is good merely because it happens. So the fact that someone does do something is never enough to make it morally permissible on a natural law theory.

I'm not sure what kind of Christian theology you're thinking of if you think the idea of heaven and hell can coerce someone to do good deeds or avoid bad deeds (or deeds called good or bad, anyway). You might be assuming a particular theology of the afterlife according to which who goes where is strictly determined by how many good and bad deeds you do. I think that's a gross distortion of the Roman Catholic view, which is more heavily focused on works than Protestant views, but to a Protestant such a conception is outright heresy. There can be no coercion to do good to avoid hell or attain heaven if doing good works doesn't earn you salvation. Protestants have always insisted that they don't.

Paul would have been delighted at the abolition of slavery. That's clear in how he treats Philemon and his runaway slave Onesimus. He strongly suggests that Onesimus should free Philemon as a brother in Christ but wants him to do so out of his own understanding of how two Christians should relate to each other rather than by strict command by an apostle. He never advocates social reform at all on any issue, since it isn't his mission to change social structures but to spread the good news to Gentiles. But there are strong suggestions in his letters that he doesn't approve of slavery.

I do think there are also deep concerns for some issues that are genuinely feminist. You wouldn't find very many people in his time teaching submission of wives to husbands who also place such a heavy instruction on the husbands. Loving their wives as Christ loved the church is pretty serious, since Christ died for the church. In Roman society, adultery was a crime if it was done by a woman or by a man with a married woman, but it was assumed that men could have mistresses as long as they weren't married to other men. Paul calls that adultery. He calls the woman's body the property of her husband, but he also says the man's body is the property of his wife. His hierarchy of man-woman is paralleled to the hierarchy in the Trinity of God-Christ, and that's less of a hierarchy than you might think once you realize that Christ for Paul is God and isn't less than God in any metaphysical sense.

He had partners working with him who were women, and working with him didn't mean tagging along. It meant explaining the good news message of Christ to those who had little understanding even of the Judaism of the time, since this was a mission primarily to Gentiles. A particular woman named Prisca or Priscilla is often mentioned as teaching in this context, and she is always mentioned first, even if her husband Aquila is always mentioned with her whenever she is mentioned as teaching. She was likely the primary teacher with special abilities in that direction, even if she seems to have done it in her husband's presence, perhaps with him as a team or something. This wasn't teaching in a congregation (what Paul limits is teaching in the churches) but argumentation in the synagogues with an intention of converting people or explaining to the new converts more detail the faith is all about. It's what missionaries do today, but it could also involve what seminary professors do. One way Paul received funding was through Christian professionals donating their money. One mentioned several times in his letters was a woman named Lydia who ran a private enterprise dying fabrics. So he seems to have no problem with women doing that sort of thing (as indeed the Romans didn't; women often had private businesses independent of what their husbands did, and Proverbs 31 indicates that Jews also would do this). So it's not just absence of evidence that leads me to think Paul would be fine with women teaching in university classes with male students, working in the marketplace running businesses, or even teaching men in informal ways outside the regular teaching of a local congregation. He had no comment on such things that actually happened within his immediate circle of partners in his mission work. He's probably be surprised at some social developments if he didn't know the long context leading to them, but I'm not sure he'd be opposed to as many of them as you think he would.

There's a popular line of thought that says that Paul thought the second coming was imminent, but I think that ignores a significant strain of thinking in his writings. He does expect that it could be imminent, but he also says things at various points that assume that it might not be and that generations could pass before Christ's return. Some people emphasize the former and think he must have expected it before his own death, but I think that ignores a lot of what he says. Even in a very early letter he says that those who have died in Christ will be raised at the last day, assuming a significant number of them, and those still alive will be called up to meet them in the air. He might have been a little surprised that it would be as long as it has been, but he himself thought that there were things not clear in the Hebrew scriptures that surprised everyone about the Messiah that weren't clear until it happened. He'd not have to rethink his whole thought structure to allow for this sort of length of time given Jesus' insistence that no one could really predict the timing of this sort of thing.

I don't at all think he'd be surprised that he's still taken seriously. He was committed to the message he believed himself to be entrusted to by God, and he didn't think that was a time-relative or culture-relative message. I don't expect scripture to tell us all the details of everything we might want to know, but I do think it provides guidance on how to reflect on new information, and I think that includes the moral status of fetuses and embryos.

There are a lot of evangelicals who take Paul's understanding of the relationships between men and women to be conditional upon his own culture. The one reason I'm resistant to that is that he bases it in the creation order and not in cultural attitudes. Peter's discussion, which focuses on the situation of an unbelieving spouse, doesn't militate against that. Peter does uses stronger language (usually translated "obey" rather than "submit"). So it's possible that what he was saying was dependent on the particular context of believing women with unbelieving husbands in a society that expects wives to obey husbands. But nothing in Paul hints at such cultural dependence, and he does base it on something more fundamental (even something pre-fall, so it can't be contingent on an order that is removed with the Messiah coming, as those who call themselves evangelical feminists sometimes say).

I'm not saying we have no rights. I'm saying we have rights only insofar as others have obligations to us. Rights are parasitic on others' obligations. Some ground obligations in terms of others' rights, but I think it goes the other way around. I don't see rights as fundamental. I also think we have fewer rights worth insisting on than some do, and that's a specifically Christian view defended by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (among other places).

What Peter says about winning over husbands by good conduct is a special case of the general principle that people will more likely be won over to the faith if they see Christians as good moral people. It's not a claim that oppressive husbands will automatically stop being oppressive. It's that evangelism of husbands in the context of being nasty to them is probably a bad approach. He isn't saying that this will have any immediate effect of changing husbands' behavior. It's a long-term goal, dependent on their first becoming Christians, which he doesn't say is any guarantee, but I do think there's a sort of subversive element there in the same way that there's a subversive element to the idea of being good to your enemies and thus heaping burning coals on their heads, which Paul takes from Proverbs in a different context.

You say it doesn't sound like Paul, but I think it does. Paul in Acts is very inconsistent, as we've already discussed, if you took him to be an absolutist about whether to appeal to his citizenship and such things. There has to be some underlying principle that he considers more important. Sometimes he stands up against Roman oppression by appealing to rights he has, and sometimes he doesn't. He says the use of the sword for justice is the God-given responsibility of the government immediately before telling Christians to treat their enemies with kindness. He must think deeper moral issues determine whether he should stand up for rights, and he must think there are occasions when the government or individuals should stand up for others' rights. What I'm saying is an extension of these kinds of principles, merely applied in a context where Paul doesn't have as detailed a discussion to be able to make such points.

Of course mere self-sacrifice might accomplish no good without a duty to figure out what someone's best interests are, but who said we don't have such a duty? The symmetry I'm emphasizing is that both sides should be concerned about the other's interests. Your objection seems to be that we have imperfect understanding of what the other might want or need. There are easy remedies for that unless you assume that people can't talk to each other to ask what they might want or need and think carefully about things they both might be missing. By your reasoning we should never do anything to help anyone, because we're imperfect at figuring out what would be best for the other person. Ayn Rand says that sort of thing, but she assumes that no one who wants to be altruistic can figure out what someone else might want except by importing their own desires onto the other person, and that's just a false assumption.

Your analogy between social programs paid for by government and abortion doesn't hold up. Social programs, in my view, are not immoral. There are problems with how they're implemented, and in an ideal world we wouldn't have to have the government do it at all, but I have no problem with governments taking tax money to use for the general improvement of society, including providing food, shelter, clothing, and so on for low-income people. I think that benefits all, and I don't see property rights as precluding that (as many libertarians and economic conservatives do). On the other hand, I do see abortion in most cases as morally wrong. This isn't the taking advantage of a morally neutral benefit but the committing of a grave moral offense against another. If the government allowed me to get some nice pension on the condition of killing my wife and kids, it would be morally wrong to do so. Simply making it legal doesn't change that.

I don't argue for the morality of rape, murder, and genocide. I argue that there are some occasions when killing is morally allowable and thus not murder, so prohibitions on killing are not absolute. Murder is defined as wrongful killing, so the prohibition on murder is absolute, but that's because of a gerrymandered definition designed to cover all and only the wrongful cases. I didn't endorse the view that there are any actual cases when rape is allowable. I said that the principle that makes rape wrong is not an absolute principle, and you can find cases where some of the same element is present to a lesser degree where it's less wrong, with gradations down to a point where little enough of it is left to make the action all-things-considered wrong when some very high moral issue is at stake. For genocide, I said that what makes genocide so wrong is that you're intentionally wiping out a culture as well as killing all the people involved, and there's something bad about that, but just happening to kill the last person of an ethnic group doesn't necessarily make the individual murder morally worse than another murder that doesn't have that effect. Genocidal intent also has degrees, so some of the same issues with rape occur. To describe that approach as arguing for the morality of murder, rape, and genocide is a pretty gross distortion of what I said.

It must be my fault this conversation’s getting derailed because I’m the one with the ‘gestalt’ tendencies; so I’ll try to keep this focused: To cut through several issues at once and straightaway, which command would a self-sacrificially loving husband issue to his wife who’s been raped and is faced with a pregnancy? ‘Abort it’, ‘Don’t abort it’ or ‘In this instance it’s between you and God’? Will any of the above do for you and why will anything do, or not do?

I accept what you say about Aristotle and Aquinas; I’d just claim that by the time you’ve carefully spelled out distinctions and caveats you’ll have ended up with question-beggingly circular arguments. And as you say each version does things differently, like the two care ethics schools do, so in the end you’d still have to take your pick. I also think the extent to which the early Stoics may have been influenced by Asian ethical/religious ideas, post-Alexander, is a fascinating question; but more to the point, you must be aware that neither Aristotle nor Aquinas objected to early abortion.

As you may have gathered I‘ve had no theological training, I doubt RE classes count, so I’m keen to hear what you have to say. My point about self-interest was an allusion to Pascal's 'wager'. I agree with you that Paul believed he spoke for God, and he also seemed anxious to keep his own opinions separate, which may be endearing but doesn’t mean he was always successful. I’m glad we also agree Paul’s teaching is inconsistent; what puzzles me is that this leaves you apparently unperturbed. And I’m not sure what it means to be an ‘absolutist’ or why it’s bad to be one, so if you care to name some philosophers you consider to be absolutists and some you don’t it might help. My problem with Paul being inconsistent is that he’s bound to have got something right except I can’t tell what that is, unless of course anything goes. The omnipotent may not be bound by logical contradictions; we are. But if Paul ‘thought that there were things not clear in the Hebrew scriptures that surprised everyone about the Messiah that weren't clear until it happened’, then I think Paul got that right; I’ve had my fair share of grappling with ancient texts, not necessarily religious. Interpretation presupposes context, questions, problems, expectations, some point of view; with holy scriptures one may pray that God will put one in the right frame of mind but there’s still a frame and no reading is ‘raw’. So I’m not surprised you think Paul would have been delighted at the abolition of slavery like I expect you’re not surprised that there were times and places when people thought otherwise.

I take your point about Paul enhancing symmetry between spouses except I don’t think women will accept misanthropy as a defence for misogyny. Feminists never laid property claims over any man’s body; they just sought to claim control over their own bodies or do things without having to ‘ask’ first. I think you’re wrong that a woman is being 'nasty’ if she reports a person who beat her up to the police, or that if married to the woman that person is granted automatic immunity from criminal offences against her. Do you expect the kids to pick up the phone or what? There are no dead evangelists. I thought the claim about not standing up to bullies was an empirical one and I provided a counterexample. But you give no example and you say results may not be immediate but in the long run and there are no guarantees. I wonder if you think there’s any evidence that Christian believers are better behaved compared to non-believers; perhaps there needn’t be any, if good works don't earn one salvation, and I think there isn’t any anyway. So it’s no consolation to an abused wife if loving her enemy amounts to heaping burning coals on his head. If she can’t tell a loving spouse from an enemy or love from sheer malice, I think she's in deep trouble; this sounds absurd rather than subversive, or if you prefer ‘perverse’. And you’re willing to swallow all on the basis of only and just the ‘creation order’. Is that the Genesis story? It's not clear to me what the morale is.

I don’t want to press the analogy between welfare and abortion provision. I think I’d just got impatient when I made that point because I took you to have made absurd claims: I thought your position went so much against your ‘class interests’ I’d rather you didn’t have to determine anyone else’s interests! And the idea that God engineered a morally impermissible revolution in the 18th century so that you and your family might benefit from US rather than UK state benefits in the 21st I did find rather self-centred and downright weird I’ll admit. I haven't got round to reading your 'morality of immorality' series yet, and the phrase in brackets is shorthand.

Right, I’ve finally done my bit I hope. You’d said you can’t see how Christians may oppose slavery in principle since all Christians are slaves to Christ, but reading through the first two instalments in your series I realised you have another motive for defending slavery. You say God told the Jews to make slaves of non-Jewish people conquered in war, which you add is actually merciful compared to what God told them to do to other natives - you made me smile! You think that if God tells people to do something then it’s morally OK for them to do it even if it’s only OK for people like the Jewish people were then. You know this is tricky, so you also attempt to defend slavery on the grounds that it’s for a fixed seven year term. I didn’t know all these things to be honest, but I fail to see the significance of the seven year rule. Are you making assumptions about slaves’ life expectancy? You seem to think that as long as there’s any constraint, slavery can be defended to that extent; as if only absolute power corrupts absolutely. But with husbands, you suggested it was arguable if a command to swap religions even was out of bounds; and of course you’d still have a problem with the omnipotent. So I’m perplexed you said you fail to see where ‘Euthyphro’ comes in, since I’m deafened by the echo; so either you’re hard of hearing or I’m delusional.

Many people have thought that they adorn the earth with their presence and are somehow special compared to others. To the Greeks all non-Greeks were barbarians, and when civil war broke out some Greeks became more Greek than the rest, as evidenced in Thucydides’ rendering of Pericles’ speech at the burial of the first Athenian casualties of the Peloponnesian war; it’s a good read if you get the chance. So if the Jewish people did what other ‘barbarians’ did to war hostages at the time, we needn’t invoke divine intervention to explain anything because there’s nothing to explain. Especially since God seems only to have spoken to those who were meant to take slaves and apparently omitted to instruct those who were meant to be taken as slaves; so unless non-Jewish people had an obligation to submit to the Jews, perhaps the Jews had no right to enslave them, by your book. It's not unheard of of people to invoke the divine will to justify pet projects; it may make them feel better about themselves and what they’re doing to bring God in, or help sell ideas to others, but this may tell us more about people than about God.

That Christians are slaves to Christ I’d take as a figure of speech, a metaphor, and that non-Christians are slaves to sin points in that direction I think. It may mean that the universe is ruled by fate and that free will is a delusion, but Christians needn’t be slavish any more than they need to be salty; so one might not look to the bible to determine if the abolition of slavery or a salt-free diet are good things. While it may be evident what use slaves are to human masters, it’s not clear what use slaves could be to an omnipotent being. Then, there’s the problem why Paul would strongly suggest to Philemon that he should free Onessimus, as you say he did. Is it because the perfect master keeps no slaves or because who can’t be a perfect master shouldn’t keep slaves? And why would it make any difference if Philemon and Onessimus are both Christians or not? This discriminatory ‘them and us’ theme also comes up in the teachings about the relationship between Christian and non-Christian spouses. Perhaps the perfect husband is a bachelor or who can’t be a perfect husband should stay a bachelor. So perhaps marriage is good provided no one gets married and nepotism is good where Nepos is perfectly meritocratic and you may think that something hangs there for you in such linguistic gymnastics; I think victory can only be pyrrhic.

To cut through several issues at once and straightaway, which command would a self-sacrificially loving husband issue to his wife who’s been raped and is faced with a pregnancy? ‘Abort it’, ‘Don’t abort it’ or ‘In this instance it’s between you and God’? Will any of the above do for you and why will anything do, or not do?

This is a "have you stopped beating your wife lately?" kind of question. Aren't we talking about people who hold to a moral system that takes abortion in such cases to be immoral? In most pro-life marriages, there's no chance that it would come to a matter of disagreement.

The early abortion question in the early church is more convoluted than you allow (there is evidence that it was long considered murder, even if certain scholars today ignore that evidence). One thing that's clear is Aquinas considered it murder upon ensoulment, and the standard account of their time took that to be later than conception. They took ensoulment to begin when movement could be detected. We now know that movement begins long before quickening, though. In fact, given our day's science, I'm sure both Augustine and Aquinas would consider it murder from much earlier, probably from conception on, for the same reasons that the Roman Catholic church changed their view based on developments in science.

I'm not sure why you think I agree with you that Paul is inconsistent. I even explained why I don't and why you have to take his expressions absolutely (and uncharitably) to think he's inconsistent. I don't think he's inconsistent, and I do think omnipotence is subject to the laws of logic. I also don't think he was trying to keep his opinions separate when he said "Not I but the Lord" when giving advice on marriage. He was distinguishing between Jesus' earthly teaching and his own apostolic teaching, but he considered the two consistent and considered them both to have come from God. (By absolutism, I simply mean that any prohibition makes every instance of that act wrong. So if lying is typically wrong then it's always wrong.)

I'm not sure why you think I think someone is being nasty for reporting a crime to the police. I didn't say seeking justice is wrong. I disapprove of revenge, not justice. I also have no idea why you think I would want husbands to be immune from prosecution about anything they might do to their wife.

I find it very strange that you take my view of divine sovereignty to imply that the American Revolution was all about me and the benefits I would have. What I said requires that I think God has sovereignty over what happens and that I have benefited from that particular event. It doesn't imply that my benefit was the only reason or even a very high one on the list of purposes why God allowed that course of history to occur. As for what the benefits are, it's not what people in the U.S. have compared to what people in the UK have. It's what people in the U.S. have compared to what I expect might have gone differently if the American Revolution had not occurred. I suspect the course of European history would also have been very different.

As for slavery, I think you're misreading me on several fronts. I think you're confusing this issue with the Euthyphro issue because you're mistaking an epistemological issue with a metaphysical one. If God is perfectly good and omniscient, then anything God commands will be true. That's an epistemological issue, not the metaphysical issue of the Euthyphro, which is about what makes something morally correct. It's consistent with everything I said that God makes things morally true by commanding them, but it's also consistent with everything I said that God just has perfect epistemic access to moral truth and thus may command things that seem to us to be wrong in our imperfect understanding. It's not about the metaphysics.

I think another problem is that you're taking slavery to be something like American slavery. A slave in ancient Israel had significant rights in the Torah, including protections slaves didn't typically have in the ancient near east. They didn't have exactly the same rights as property-owners, but they were relatively free except for the matter of who employed them, and they didn't receive wages in the form of coin, but they were to my understanding closer to indentured servants than to plantation slaves in the U.S. South. They had an agreement to work for someone else, something people can sign contracts to do now, and it was usually voluntary to get out of debt except in the case when it was more like a judicial sentence for fighting on the wrong side in exchange for having one's life spared. In either case, I can see how a rational person in that culture with those options would prefer it to the alternative.

But another thing that's not clear as far as I can tell is what the divine statements about this amount to. It's possible that they are commands to do this, in which case it has to be morally allowable to do so if the Bible is really God's authoritative and inspired word. It's also possible that they're just allowances because of hard-heartedness, as Jesus said the allowance in the Torah for divorce was. I take that to be a set of laws regulating divorce so as to prevent abuse of certain sorts given that men would engage in divorce anyway if it weren't allowed. So it's protecting those who would be most harmed by divorce in most cases. So you could take the slavery regulations not to impose it but to regulate it given that people will do it anyway. But I think the actual statements in the text are somewhere in between. In some cases, what's going on is merely regulating a practice that will continue even if Israel isn't supposed to be allowed to engage in it, protecting those who would be otherwise easily abused by it. In other cases, it's deemed a better option than the alternative and thus allowed as an option something like bankruptcy, something no one would see as ideal but most people like as an option in case they get into a position to need it. Given the kind of law codes of the day, there wasn't as much room for getting more fine-tuned as we might nowadays.

I agree that it would be a bad argument to begin with just the practice of slave-taking in war and then to use that as an argument for God's existence and support of the policy. If I were trying to explain that policy without already having a view on God's existence or role in inspiring the Bible, then of course it would be a pretty poor explanation to think that we should conclude that God exists and intended these passages to teach us something.

That would be such an egregiously bad argument that it's hard for me to see why you think I would make it. I'm arguing from the starting point of taking the Bible to be God's authoritative word, which I wouldn't get to by first looking at the most difficult passages to square with such a notion. I'd get to that by apologetical reasoning about Christianity (which is way beyond the scope of this conversation) and working backward from Jesus' endorsement of the Torah as God's word down to the very iota. From there, it follows that these portions of the Bible are God's word, and then the task that remains is to explain how it's compatible with the moral picture I take to be correct. I do that by looking to philosophical arguments that I think are sound and by fitting the various strains in scripture together in a way that I think is internally consistent and compatible with the ethical reasoning that I find most plausible.

So of course you could explain these texts in a naturalistic way with the attitude simply coming out of cultural norms. At least I think you could explain the aspects of this that are easier to see as problematic. I'm not sure how I'd explain the ways that these texts provide protection for slaves and wives taken by war that were far more progressive by today's standards than anything at the time. Either the Israelites were much more enlightened about such matters (even if they had far to go by many people's lights today), or there's a divine source behind it. I don't have an explanation why Israel would be much more progressive if it's not from God somehow. So a full explanation would require an additional component at least.

I don't think the idea of being slaves to Christ is that God needs anyone. The Bible is clear enough that God doesn't need people. I think it's also clear that the biblical writers who speak this way don't take God to treat us as slaves but rather as his children and heirs. But the idea is that we owe God service in a way that we could never repay, not that we are paying God back but that we simply have an obligation to do as God says. (This, again, doesn't assume that something is right merely because God says so. It's about a particular relation people have with God, not about morality in general. These are special obligations in the same way that I have special obligations to my wife, children, and parents simply because they are my wife, children, and parents.)

But the language is pretty clear and pretty symmetrical when God frees Israel from its service to Pharaoh in order to serve him, as if he is now their master and as if they belong to him. Paul really does take himself and his life and actions to belong to God in a very literal way. He thinks everything belongs to God, and our possessions are God's. We're merely stewards of them for God in the same way that Joseph as Pharaoh's prime minister (and therefore top slave, another sign of the broad nature of what the Bible can call slavery) was a steward over all that occurred in Egypt.

Ultimately, I think the reason Paul suggests to Philemon to free Onesimus is that Onesimus would be freed up to serve God more fully if he were not a slave. But he does prefer, I would say, to think of human beings as not owned by each other, given that he thinks we're all owned by God. But that doesn't stop him from speaking of our possessions as the sort of thing we have to make decisions how to use, and it doesn't stop him from saying that husbands and wives have authority over each other's bodies. So I don't think he'd say immediately that human masters and slaves are automatically non-sensical or anything. But I take the trajectory of his thought to be in the direction of at least very strong hesitation at thinking much of master-slave relations in their own right.

'To cut through several issues at once and straightaway, which command would a self-sacrificially loving husband issue to his wife who’s been raped and is faced with a pregnancy? ‘Abort it’, ‘Don’t abort it’ or ‘In this instance it’s between you and God’? Will any of the above do for you and why will anything do, or not do?'

Well, thanks for stealing the wind from my sails! I’d have appreciated some straight answers rather than the insinuation my questions are crooked plus a rhetorical question, especially since I’ve repeatedly claimed that males with consistently pro-life intuitions aren't exactly numerous. I totally fail to see how two people agreeing on something makes it the right thing to do: If a pregnant woman and her doctor agree on abortion is it OK with you or only if the doctor is male and married to the woman? I was tempted to go into a long commentary, and exploring the idea of OT ethics as a kind of Moral ‘Special Olympics’ is particularly fascinating, but I’ll resist. You’re quite right apologetics is way beyond the scope of this conversation, and probably beyond me altogether; but if we got as far for you to have to say it I know I’m responsible. My objective was to suggest that your position over abortion is ad hoc and does not follow even if one endorses your favourite ethics/metaphysics unless anything does. So if you want to try answering my multi-purpose multi-tasking questions, it'll be fine; if you don’t want to, that’s fine too; and, yes, I know I’m starting to sound like Paul.

In a healthy marriage with both spouses morally mature, there shouldn't be much need for commands. I'm not thinking of this as one person telling the other what to do but as two people thinking together through any issue where they might be inclined to disagree, and if they can't come to an agreement the wife deferring to the husband (which may result in him conceding to her view anyway if he prefers to count her expertise or how it affects her more than what he judges to be the most reasonable answer). I'm not seeing any place for a command. That would be more like husbands ensuring that their wives submit, which isn't the idea here at all.

I'm not sure why you think males with consistently pro-life views aren't exactly numerous. Just about everyone I know who is pro-life thinks the rape exception is stupid. I've seen politicians taking such a stand, but most of the ones I'm aware of had less-than-clear pro-life credentials to begin with (e.g. George H.W. Bush, who "converted" to be pro-life so he could be Ronald Reagan's running mate and then judged it politically useful to keep that view given how he judged his chances at getting the Republican nomination for president if he backed up to his original stance) and then those who haven't thought about it at all but who simply repeat a line they've been told that sounds all right if you don't think through the implications. Every singly person I've ever talked to about this issue who opposes abortion also opposes it in the case of rape. I've never actually encountered someone defending a rape exception who has genuinely pro-life convictions.

Where are you getting this "two people agree on something making it right" thing? In cases of agreement, you can say that it's at least consensual as long as no one else is involved (which means abortion is a more complicated question), but that doesn't make it morally ok if it's a morally wrongful act that the two people consensually agree to participate in. But I've never claimed any such thing.

Moral Special Olympics? I guess I'll not speculate whether you're trying to be offensive or just obscure.

It’s very kind of you to provide an excuse for me to go into that long commentary I was itching to make!

First, I never aspired to make claims about ‘the early church’. I made a claim about what Aristotle thought, and about Aquinas, who probably thought it because Aristotle did. Of course you’re right there was thought to be a time-lag between conception and ‘ensoulment’: A detail you omit is that a male foetus was thought to take just 40 days to get a ‘soul’, less than half the time it took a female foetus to get one; and I think that’s significant. I didn’t know actually that women pregnant with male foetuses were thought to feel ‘kicking’ any earlier than those pregnant with female ones, and before the 6th week! Is that Aristotle, or Aquinas’ gloss? Whoever said it can’t have interviewed too many women, let alone conducted a controlled study. There are competing explanations for the apparent U-turn over early abortion; e.g. abortion bans appear to coincide with social developments such as the rise of the medical profession or of the feminist movement which was an open threat to patriarchy. These alternatives arguably merit more attention than dubious claims about the Catholic Church’s deference to scientists. Anyway, ‘ensoulment’ has more to do with metaphysics than science, so I’m not at all sure which development could have made Aquinas change his mind about it. I bet no scientific development could convince you humans have no souls.

Secondly, although I tried I’m afraid I can’t share in your awe before the ‘enlightened’ Israeli attitude in treating slaves and wives. Why is that any more marvellous than e.g. the status of ‘perioikoi’ living around Sparta and the status of Spartan women? Or indeed the publicly funded state education system for Spartan boys and girls alike? That was a flicker in ancient history: Consider how long it took before females were taught to read and write again, let alone at public expense. If you think the Spartans wouldn’t be so ‘progressive’ if it wasn’t from God and that there was a divine source behind Lycurgus and the Spartan constitution that’s fine with me. Personally I’m more concerned to own up to circularity; because we’re only judging ‘progress’ with hindsight and against what we now take to be the norm, which is that all children go to school. This is what I mean by problem of evil analogies or echoes of ‘Euthyphro’: I can’t see how those who lack perfect access to truth can tell who’s perfectly knowledgeable any better than what’s good, or how we can tell the ‘most difficult passages’ in the Bible from the easier ones. Or why one can’t do the same thing with the Quran; especially if God is thought to reveal in ‘specially adapted’ instalments. I admit I’d be inclined to look favourably upon any development of monotheism that did away with a Trinitarian God.

I appreciate that you resisted speculating over whether I was trying to be offensive or obscure when I mentioned the Moral Special Olympics; I think I was just trying to be pithy, so as to resist the temptation to comment. I still can’t see how you thought that view of OT ethics you outlined in terms of ‘allowances’ like the mountain going to Mohammad so they meet mid-way or something was any better than the ‘egregiously bad’ one you’d taken me to have attributed to you! I find it pretty desperate to be honest, for a realist or a theist; that anything can be good in fact and not just in principle since divine commands are indeed inconsistent. That people are deceived into thinking they’re being moral through a 'special adaptation' of the standard they'd otherwise fail to meet. Still, could you see abortion legislation in a context of ‘allowances because of hard-heartedness’, since women will go ahead and have abortions anyway whether it’s legal or not? If you could do that then perhaps there’s little to argue about. Because I wouldn’t argue over the difference between ‘lying is wrong except when it isn’t wrong’ and ‘lying is not wrong except when it’s wrong’; though I’d appreciate an assurance from you that you wouldn’t lie to me, except I can’t be sure what it would be worth.

You said before it would be morally wrong to kill your wife for a nice pension. I agree. So I hope you never form a clear and distinct impression that God wants you to kill your own or anyone else’s wife, or if you do that you’ll call Medicaid first. As I said, it seems God cares to instruct only those who are to do God’s work and omits briefing those who are to suffer it. So there’s a pragmatic reason to opt for naturalistic explanations since there’re enough people about already doing things you and I may consider immoral, in the name of a God who’s said to move in mysterious ways. I grant I can’t prove supernatural forces aren’t at work but what historian would invoke the supernatural? Not Thucydides. And I’d like to watch you try to convince Leonidas and the three hundred that a rational person would prefer slavery to death: If you hadn’t won that lottery ticket and God were kind enough as to give you a choice, I expect you’d prefer to go to hell than be annihilated just because you’d get to live eternally.

I think a difference between us is that you’re likely to rest content caressing a pet theory to smooth over wrinkles whilst I remain alive to competition, problems of evaluation and choice; something like ‘tunnel vs peripheral vision’ perhaps. This may be why I fail to see the point of stretching concepts on procrustean tables or over the number line till I get a ‘fit’: I lack any incentive to shoulder the intellectual and moral costs; I think cutting corners, sweeping under the carpet or making a virtue out of ad hocness are ways not to do philosophy.

Of course I agree with you that no consistent pro-lifer can defend a rape exception. But as you said previously, people may support legislation allowing an exception in rape cases on pragmatic grounds. And as I suggested elsewhere, such pragmatists have forfeited the right to judge those doctors who perform abortions in cases of rape. And who’s forfeited the right to judge doctors who perform abortions in cases of rape has forfeited the right to judge those doctors when they perform abortions consistently along Thomson’s line. So the difference between a pragmatic pro-lifer and a pro-choicer becomes hard to discern.

I also agree with you that abortion is a complicated question, and the human pedigree may not be as noble as we may like to think; so I wouldn’t worry too much if there aren’t so many men of the consistently pro-life variety. I do appreciate what you say about a healthy marriage relationship; I guess one spouse deferring to the other might lead to an infinite regress but perhaps they could take turns or something and anyway I think you may be nearer to those evangelist feminists you’d mentioned earlier. As you may have noticed I speak my mind; and I hope you can forgive me for giving you such a hard time because I know I did. Thanks.

I don't have time to respond to everything, but this is getting long enough ago that I should say something. I think you've misunderstood what I meant by allowances.

Take the divorce case. Given the Pentateuch presentation, there's already an expectation of marriage as two becoming one in Genesis 2, which excludes polygamy even if there's no explicit Mosaic law against it. It also, in my view, excludes divorce (with some exceptions), since separating two that have become one undoes a bond generated by God. Unless that separation has already immorally occurred (and thus there are exceptions when the other chooses to recognize that separation), it follows that divorce is generally disallowed.

So take Jesus' statement that Moses allowed it because of hard-heartedness. It's not merely that they were going to do it anyway so we might as well protect the victims, although I think that's part of it. It's that legislating against it requires trying to handle the exceptional cases, and maybe that's not so easy to do with divorce, and maybe without legislating against it you'll need something to protect the innocent victims, so the Mosaic law has no absolute prohibition but does regulate the behavior and disincentivizes it considerably.

I wonder if the slavery situation is similar. Given no bankruptcy or prison (two ways people have dealt with the problem of debt in other societies), temporary work under the authority of the lender is a way to handle it that recognizes both the individual's responsibility and need to make amends to the lender and the person's intrinsic status as a human being by regulating slavery to disallow the excesses and abuses in other ancient near eastern societies.

It doesn't follow that we should allow anything wrong just because people are going to do it anyway, especially in a legal system where we regularly build exceptions into the law all the time, which ancient law codes didn't and couldn't do as easily. We have all manner of exceptions, mitigations, and excuses for killing. We still outlaw it.

I'd prefer Torah-regulated slavery to death, and I think I'm being rational in doing so. But that doesn't require preferring hell to annihilation as if mere continuance is always better than nothingness. I think I can be agnostic on the latter question, actually. The reason hell should be so bad isn't that it's merely unpleasant. It's that it's an eternity of being bad and being around others who are bad who will never get better. Being morally bad is much worse than experiencing pain. I wouldn't enjoy it at the time, but I think it's more rational to choose to be tortured than it is to choose to do evil to avoid the torture. I'm with Plato and the Stoics on that. Then there's also the element of being eternally separated from all goodness, including the perfect good that is God. The most desirable thing in the universe, if God exists, is to be with God eternally, and that's worth tolerating quite a lot of bad in the meantime.

I disagree with you about the pragmatist justification for rape exceptions and not judging doctors who perform those abortions because of rape. The pragmatist justification for allowing rape exceptions is that reducing abortions is good even if we can't reduce them as much as we'd like. Better to restrict them in non-rape cases if we can do so, and that means voting for laws that have rape exceptions. Outlawing parking on one side of the street doesn't mean you endorse parking on the other side of the street. You might prefer to outlaw parking on both sides, but the only way to outlaw it on one side was to go along with those who only wanted to restrict one side. If you think there are reasons not to park on the other side that are moral reasons (e.g. perhaps this street has many driveways, only a few parking spots, and lots of handicapped people who live on it with lots of signs telling people that handicapped people live there), then it might be wrong to park there even if it's legal. Such a legislator who preferred outlawing parking on both sides might then judge those who park there to be wrong even though they voted for legislation that only limited parking on one side.

I'm probably a lot closer in practice to evangelical feminists than some of the people who say things similar to what I say. But they will certainly take issue with some of my views.

I don't mind you giving me a hard time. I just have limited time to respond, so it takes forever for me to get to long comments, and I think at this point I have to limit myself to responding to the points I can most easily say something about in a short time (basically on grading breaks) and just let some of what you say go unresponded to.

I’ve read through your post several times; the depths of my ignorance and the heights of your knowledge re the Old Testament are pretty obvious, but I still can’t marvel at those ‘enlightened’ institutions you so admire. If what you call ‘Torah-regulated slavery’ is like agreeing to wash dishes because you forgot your credit card at home I grant it’s rational to do the dishes though I don’t know why you’d call that ‘slavery’. But I can’t quite see Leonidas doing Xerxes’ laundry, or why he should. I admit I still find Greek institutions more impressive than Torah ones, and I’ve already explained why and owned up to circularity and the lot: Aristarchus had come up with a heliocentric astronomical model in the third century BC which nobody thought much of until after the Copernican revolution. If there’s social change in future so our laws get to converge towards the Torah, then your favourite ancient people will be judged to have been more ‘progressive’ than mine; but what you describe could never be a platonic form, I think.

I’m amazed you imply there won’t be any good people in hell, or bad people in heaven: You’d gone out of your way earlier to deny any correlation between being God’s favourite and doing right; so I don’t see how it might raise your chances of being with your God eternally if you tolerate evil so as not to do evil yourself. People in hell may be unlucky, but if Socrates and Plato are there that would be something; especially if Aquinas is in heaven! I’m not clear what precisely you’d be an agnostic over: Choosing between annihilation and hell, or between annihilation and eternal life when you don’t know if you’re destined for heaven or hell? If you’re annihilated you can’t go wrong. Of course you’re right that we desire the desirable but I haven’t noticed the universe warping around my wishes by itself; nor do I think it’s under any obligation to do so.

Re the pragmatics of abortion legislation, I’m afraid the parking analogy leaves me unmoved. Where I live it’s traffic wardens, not legislators, who enforce parking restrictions. If traffic wardens are powerless to enforce a restriction on the side where equally handicapped people live and are inconvenienced, it’s because the legislators denied wardens the mandate. So if the legislators want to judge anyone they may only judge themselves to be schizophrenic and apologise to the handicapped residing on the ‘wrong’ side of the street and to traffic wardens, before stepping down. What they may certainly not do is try to police the street themselves and harass law-abiding motorists. Of course people don’t have to exercise their rights: That’s why they’re called rights rather than obligations; I just don’t see how it’s open to those legislating rights to blame the consequences on those exercising them. I claimed that doctors doing abortions in rape cases may also do other terminations parading their consistency under Thomson’s banner where pro-exception pro-lifers can only display paranoia in every direction; this still seems right to me.

An incoherent position doesn’t necessarily improve when incoherently held. And a pragmatic male pro-lifer can’t hide behind other people’s intuitions while denying either his own intuitions or his schizophrenia. Why do all those ‘other people’ have the intuitions they do, anyway? If for pro-lifers it’s ‘all and just’ about numbers why not back the contraception lobby to the hilt in the first instance, rather than boycott it? Why not lobby to restrict abortion rights to women measuring 1.70 m in height or over, if it’s likely to result in at least an equal reduction in abortions as the rape exception? If the rape exception is stupid and lacking in moral justification the height exception is no different. So you may wish to reconsider.

But you certainly don’t have to do anything within any specific time-frame, and thanks for being so gracious about the ‘hard time’! I was quite frustrated too, actually, because I said it would be fine with me if you didn’t want to answer the ‘master question’ and meant that; but you apparently read a challenge into what was a statement of fact and in the attempt to rise to it, you ‘crushed’: I was embarrassed when you both presupposed a rape-exception legal framework and also called the exception ‘stupid’, and when you suggested a marriage can be ‘healthy’ while the spouses go wrong! You surely know which those good old issues are that you need to resolve or give up on, and not so as to converge with feminists of any stripe. It certainly wasn’t my intention to make you sacrifice intuitions: I expected you to acknowledge they’re there, to yourself in the first instance; which is why it didn’t matter if you let me know or not. So take your time.

It's not like agreeing to wash the dishes because you left your credit card at home. In one case it's like signing a contract to work for someone for seven years because they agree to pay off a debt you wouldn't hope to be able to pay back with seven years of work on your own. In that case it's a voluntary agreement.

Or in the other case it's like spared the death penalty in exchange for a life sentence in a very low-security prison that actually amounts to being able to live in someone's home and work for them for the entirety of the sentence. It might be hard labor, but it's less than criminals or prisoners-of-war have usually gotten in the history of the world.

The only sense in which there won't be good people in hell is that people won't be good once they get there. I think the Christian gospel is that no one deserves to be in God's presence, but those who repent and follow God are given that possibility. So if you're thinking of good people in this life vs. bad people in this life, the first is an empty set if you're talking in any absolute sense. If you're talking in a relative sense, then some people in this life are better than others, but I don't think that tracks with who is saved or what people will be like in the afterlife. If God isn't present, then none of what God brings people to do will occur, and if God is present in the fullest sense then none of what resists God will be present. You get a much starker contrast than what we see in this life.

As for annihilation, I don't accept the argument that there's nothing unfortunate about ceasing to exist. When Epicurus says that, he assumes that the only intrinsic good is pleasure, which he then defines negatively, in terms of absence of pain. Of course the absence of pain is gone, so there's no negative or positive value to annihilation. But if the intrinsic goods include things like not having succeeded at your goals or having been a bad person, then you can have had a bad life without having any consciousness at all, and I do think those things are intrinsic goods. I also think it's unfortunate for good things to end, and that's true even if the person it's good for is no longer around to have bad exeriences from the good things ending.

I'm not sure why you thought I was arguing that people should police the street and harass law-abiding motorists. I would say they have a right to protest people who they think are parking immorally. I don't approve of those who blockade abortion clinics, but people who peacefully hold signs and make it clear they're willing to talk if anyone wants to talk to them aren't doing anything wrong. In this country they have every right to do that. That's what the First Amendment guarantees. I happen to think it's a pretty ineffective way to oppose abortion, but I think they have a right to do it, and I'm not sure if you were opposing that. But that's not what I was talking about. I was merely talking about those who make the case (not necessarily in front of abortion clinics) that abortion is wrong and try to enact legal changes to try to restrict it when there's no chance of restricting it as much as they'd like. The parking analogy was simply to explain why someone might do that, and it doesn't require getting in anyone's face on the street to change their mind or prevent them from acting on what are legal rights even if immoral.

If Democrats starting advocating laws to restrict abortion to all women over 1.7 meters tall, most of their constituents would vote them out of office for holding a view inconsistent with the pro-choice views that partly won them their offices. One might argue that certain restrictions are compatible with a generally pro-choice view when other factors are present. Protecting the life of a premature newborn who survives an abortion is consistent with many pro-choice views. Parental notification (or consent) in the case of a minor, when such notification (or consent) is required for any other major surgery is simply being consistent with other practices. Many pro-choicers think moral status increases as the pregnancy goes on, so third-trimester limitations make sense to many pro-choicers. So your example is completely arbitrary form a pro-choice perspective. The kinds of limits actually being pursued are not. If pro-lifers are willing to sign on to restrictions that they can get away with because the pro-choice politicians are willing to go along with them, then they achieve progress toward their goal. That's not inconsistency. It's a step in the direction they'd like to go in.

So if they can achieve a lot more than that and almost ban abortion, but there are irrational holdovers who won't allow rape cases in the ban, what are pro-lifers to do? If their goal is to ban abortion in more cases than it's possible to get votes to achieve, but they finally get enough votes to have a ban with a rape exception, then the consistent ones might make some speeches wishing they could ban more, but I think it serves the cause best to enact the ban with the restriction. Such a law would mean the pro-choicers have given enough up that it no longer seems like the irrational pro-choice act to ban abortions from people over a certain height, which pro-choice politicians would never do. It seems like enough people are close to the pro-life view but just haven't gotten all the way there. So even if the best pro-life view would prefer more, it isn't irrational to go along with it as if it's a trick that pro-lifers should suspect pro-choicers won't go along with. The pro-choicers aren't really a strong enough force to worry about if enough people are willing to enact a ban with only a rape exception.

Besides, the whole argument assumes there's no rational position that can accept a generally pro-life view with a rape exception. I think the best pro-life view doesn't go for the rape exception, because the moral status of the fetus determines that it's wrong to kill the fetus even if the woman didn't choose to be pregnant. I think that's the best position. But there might be a rational principle (even if one I disagree with) that allows the rape exception on Thomsonian grounds without allowing an exception in cases of failed contraception. With rape, a woman had no choice to engage in sex at all, and with failed contraception she knowingly participated in an act that could, if the contraception failed, produce a child. I don't happen to think the involuntariness of the situation removes obligations, but someone might think the involuntariness of rape is strong enough to remove obligations while the involuntariness of failed contraception or failure to use it is not strong enough to remove obligations. There's a consistent position available there, even if I don't think it's the best pro-life position. It's easy to imagine someone who wants more restricted to go along with those of that view and at least ban what both want to ban. It's hard to imagine someone wanting to ban abortion just for tall women and having any rational basis for it, so it's hard to imagine pro-lifers seeing a group of pro-choicers saying such a thing and then expecting them to make a serious attempt to pass it in any way that pro-choice voters will tolerate.

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