Ethics: 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.

There's a debate going on about whether conservatives who refuse to vote for Rudy Giuliani to prevent a Hillary Clinton president are responsible if, because of that refusal, Hillary Clinton becomes president. I would have thought that the answer to this question is an obvious yes. But Joe Carter presents a contrary argument. His argument is basically as follows:

1. Only those who positively vote for someone could be responsible for that person winning.
2. People not voting or voting for a third-party candidate are not positively voting for Hillary Clinton.
3. Therefore, people not voting or voting for a third-party candidate could not be responsible if Hillary Clinton wins.

The first premise is flatly false. If a large enough voting bloc en masse decides not to prevent someone they see as the worse of two evils from being elected, and their influence prevents the lesser of two evils from being elected, then they are indeed responsible for the election of the worse of two evils. They might argue that it's still wrong to vote for the lesser of two evils. They might insist that being responsible for the worse of two evils winning is ok, since it would require doing something they believe to be immoral to achieve a different outcome. But the one position that Jop does actually say is just plain untenable.

Here is, according to the hypothetical, a group who could put Giuliani over the top to win, but because they didn't vote or voted for a third candidate Hillary Clinton wins. In that hypothetical, their not voting or voting third-party does indeed cause the Clinton victory. They are indeed responsible as a group, because the group did have the power to prevent that outcome and didn't use it.

Now it seems the rest of Joe's post is dedicated to defending the following claim. The people really to blame are GOP primary voters who put people like him in a position where both parties have candidates he won't vote for. If they had voted differently in the primary, then that wouldn't happen. Joe is correct, but that doesn't mean that the subsequent act of social conservatives to refuse to do what's now in their power to prevent a Hillary Clinton presidency is free from the same moral evaluation. Just because someone puts you in a tough position doesn't mean you don't have to do what's right in that tough position. You still have to make a moral choice, and you are responsible for your choice and its foreseeable consequences.

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