Philosophy: October 2007 Archives

It's often said that making abortion illegal won't reduce abortion much because people will be driven to underground abortions, which are less safe and thus cause more damage than legal abortions because they also affect women's health. Suppose this is right (and suppose it didn't contradict the complaint you hear sometimes from pro-choice activists that making abortion illegal will prevent people from exercising what they think is a sacred and fundamental right to kill their fetuses). Does it follow that abortion should remain legal?

Ryan Anderson argues that it doesn't follow [hat tip: Mark Olson], and I think he's right. The argument assumes consequentialism, for one thing, or at least that any non-consequentialist goods will be irrelevant in this issue, and I don't think that's true. The pursuit of justice and punishment of those who are seriously unjust is an important enough consideration that I think the government is violating one of its most basic moral duties if it doesn't have laws against killing fetuses, and that's true even if the consequences of illegal abortion are worse than the consequences of legal abortions.

But Anderson also points out some problems with the assumption. If Roe is ever overturned, and states enact different laws on abortion, you might find underground abortions in states where abortion is illegal, but underground abortions aren't going to be a matter of course in states where abortion is illegal if it's not that hard to go across the border and get a legal abortion. It may have an effect on people without the resources to get somewhere, but those aren't the people who could pay for an underground abortion either. Also, I don't see why it should be considered an injustice against the poor simply because other people can get away with evil when they can't; it's not fair, but I wouldn't say an injustice is committed against me if I'm not allowed to rape someone when someone else is. Remember that this is supposed to be an argument to convince pro-lifers to prefer to keep abortion legal, so we have to assume, even if just for the sake of argument, that pro-lifers are correct in seeing abortion as immoral.

One other things is noteworthy about his response. He notes an eerie parallel with the kind of reasoning used by the defenders of slavery against abolition. They argued, on consequence-based grounds, that releasing slaves would be bad for the slaves. But this seems to be one case where it's very clear that there's a moral obligation to release them (and for those who put them in this position to expend a lot of resources ensuring that the consequences for them wouldn't be bad, although I don't see any parallel here unless the abortion industry can figure out how to resurrect dead fetuses). Isn't the same true with abortion, if the pro-lifer is correct that abortion is immoral?

A colleague who shares an office with me presented the following argument today (I can't remember where he said he got it from, but I'll try to ask him when I see him next Tuesday so I can give credit to the source):

1. If a complete stranger tells a woman to have sex with him or she'll never see her children again, she should have sex with him (and there's very good reason to believe he's telling the truth), because her children should be more important to her than her preferences about who she has sex with.
2. The issues involved with her decision are parallel to the issues involved in cases of rape and cases of a divorced parent preventing the other parent from seeing their children.
3. Therefore, preventing a parent from seeing their children is worse than raping someone.

Now some people might not accept premise 1. But assume premise 1 is true. I don't think you should have to deny premise 1 to get out of this argument. But the trick is identifying precisely where the argument goes wrong. Its conclusion is certain to be very unpopular. Rape is commonly viewed as one of the most despicable things anyone could do, and we never say anything remotely as bad about a woman who gains custody after divorcing her husband and preventing him from ever seeing his kids. But according to this argument, rape is not as bad as preventing him from seeing his kids. So where does the argument go wrong? Or is it actually true that, as bad as rape is, it's actually worse to rob a parent of access to their kids?

Update 10-23-07 1:17pm: The argument came from someone named David Thomas (not the founder of Wendy's, from a book called Not Guilty: The Case in Defense of Men). Second, I think I was overstating the conclusion a bit. It's not a comparison of the moral badness of the two actions. He was just trying to argue that we should care as much about men being kept from their children as we do about rape, and the fact is that we don't. Third, the cases he has in mind are not custody cases where men aren't granted visitation rights. He's thinking of the many cases when men are given visitation rights legally, but the police and courts won't enforce them, and the men never see their kids.

In a long post about a lot of unrelated things, Joe Carter includes a quote from Peter van Inwagen's God, Knowledge, & Mystery about philosophers and theologians in terms of citing authorities:

One advantage philosophers bring to theology is that they know too much about philosophy to be overly impressed by the fact that a particular philosopher has said this or that. Philosophers of the present day know what Thomas Aquinas and Professor Bultmann did not know: that no philosopher is an authority. Philosophers know that if you want to pronounce on, say, the project of natural theology, you cannot simply appeal to what Kant has established about natural theology. You cannot do this for the very good reason that Kant has established nothing about natural theology. Kant has only offered arguments, and the cogency of these arguments can be (and is daily) disputed.

It's been a long time since I read that book, and I don't remember this quote. It was at the very beginning of my graduate studies, almost a decade ago. So seeing this quote now, with all I've learned since, makes me cringe in ways I would not have thought to do so when I read that section of the book.

Thomas Aquinas would no more have assumed that you could cite a famous philosopher as an authority in this way than any philosopher today would, and anyone who thinks he would knows very little about Aquinas, with all due respect to van Inwagen. Aquinas' main methodology in his largest and most significant work is to state a question, present objections to his view, some of which are from previous figures, a biblical text, or a contemporary figure, state his own view, often citing a similar authority but not always, and then argue for his view before finally responding to the objections. He did not cite authorities as if that proved anything. He gives reasons. He did not take authorities to be a sign of the truth of anything, since the authorities appear just as much in the objections he's responding to as they do in the statement of his own view.

I don't know about Bultmann, and I don't know which contemporary theologians he has in mind (although the ones I know give actual arguments and don't generally take famous figures as substitutes), but it takes someone very unfamiliar with a giant of the tradition to say this about Aquinas, and it disappoints me to find one of the top philosophers of our day saying it of him.

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