Saturday, December 13, 2014

Is morality objective, or subjective? A lengthy debate within the context of the abortion question

My friend Andrew posted the following image on his Facebook wall the other day, and it showed up in my timeline:

The following debate ensued in the comments section.

Andrew Doris This is a load of shit Andrew. Even if you are pro-life, and think that's the most important issue of all, how does that make any of those other issues less serious? How does believing we are a corrupt and immoral country because of abortion preclude parallel corruption and immorality in other areas? If abortion were illegal, as you like, would everything else resolve itself and be just peachy?

Torture is a problem. Unchecked unilateral wars are a problem. Police abuse is a problem. Dishonesty and blanket surveillance are problems. These problems have many complex causes, and no easy solution. Prohibiting abortion, whatever its merits, will not solve those problems. It's one thing to passionately disagree with someone about issue X, but it's quite another to object to the discussion of any issue besides X.

Andrew Doris Sorry for the aggressive tone. I'm just salty about Andy Harris' douchebaggery

Andrew Guernsey It's total hypocrisy to say "all lives matter" and then discard the lives of millions of children in the womb with abortion on demand. If someone is out getting mad about a black young man getting killed in an altercation with police but then silent when black babies are killed in the womb we've truly missed something. Think about it, if the government allowed the systematic and targeted killing of old people deemed unfit for society---this would surely dwarf our other injustices in society. You could not be consistent in opposing torture of terrorists and allow torture and killing of the sick and elderly. Yet abortion on demand is little different than this example except that the preborn cannot speak up for themselves.

Siobhan Fagan I think that the root of all of the other offenses stem from the same as abortion: a lack of respect for human life. That's why, to me, if we can recognize the dignity of the most innocent of lives, that will translate into a respect for the lives and dignity of terrorists, a just approach to war, and a decrease in abuses between all people. I think that you can't just outlaw abortion, but you have to change people's attitudes towards it before you can affect change. Everyone is outraged when a person is tortured, but a person is tortured because someone's life is valued more than theirs. When we come to recognize that everyone has equal dignity, these problems will lessen substantially. So I suppose I disagree with your assessment that there are complex causes to these problems. There's really one root problem at issue here.

Andrew Guernsey I'm with President Obama on this one, if you take his words on Sandy Hooke seriously--we will be judged as a society primarily based on how what we do to protect our most vulnerable children from harm. (see the video) It is my firm conviction that Frederick Douglass' Fourth of July speech rings even more true today with abortion than it did in 1852 with slavery: "There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour. "

Noor Khalil The problem is whether or not unborn fetuses are really "human life". Obviously, you consider them innocent lives, but other people may differ on that. However, there is much less debate on whether black people or terror suspects should count as human life.

Andrew Guernsey Any amount of debate can't change the scientific facts--namely-- that human life begins at the moment of fertilization---and every act of abortion kills a genetically unique member of our human species. There was a time when the slavery question was considered "legitimate debate"---but that didn't change the fundamental evil and injustice of the practice. Based on that logic, how many people in disagreement in society does it take before your rights as a human being cease to exist? 50%? 30%? 15%?

Siobhan Fagan I mean, scientifically speaking unborn fetuses are human life from the moment of conception. That's not a debatable fact. What is debated is the level of dignity to which people think they are deserving and the level to which human life actually exists--for example, while they are human, at what point are they 'real' humans/babies. Similarly with terror suspects and blacks, it is my perception that while people don't disagree as to whether or not they are human, it is the level of dignity they accord that is in question. In the past, blacks were defined as three fifths of a person and treated as such. Terrorists are being tortured because their life and dignity is deemed less worthy than those they would kill.

Siobhan Fagan Whoops, sorry to be redundant upon Andrew's point.

Noor Khalil I didn't say that they weren't human, I was just explaining where the debate lied. However, at fertilization, embryos cannot feel pain or emotion, unlike full grown humans, which complicates things.

Andrew Doris Andrew: It's only hypocritical if they agree with you on that other issue though, which makes it a completely uninteresting comparison. Black people are only analogous to fetuses if you're pro-life. Old people are only analogous to fetuses if you're pro-life. Torturing terrorists is only the same as "torturing" fetuses if you're pro-life. To anyone who isn't already pro-life, there are obvious and morally relevant distinctions between those things, so you're not probing anyone or contributing anything to the discussion that might make people view things in a different way. All the post does is say "I really think I'm right about abortion guys!" which, trust us, we know.

Andrew Doris Also my original point still stands. Even if it is hypocritical, that doesn't mean it's wrong. If people protesting Eric Garner, torture, and unjust war are hypocrites for not also opposing abortion, fine - but they're still right about Eric Garner, torture, and unjust war, so alleging that these things don't also make us immoral and corrupt is still nonsense.

Andrew Doris Hi Siobhan, nice to make your acquaintance. FYI, I'm Andrew's roommate and familiar sparring partner, so don't misinterpret my rhetoric as animus

In response to your first comment, I get the social conservative mantra that each digression from ____(insert subjective religious belief here)____ represents a cultural perversion that explains everything else that's wrong with society. Maybe I won't successfully tease that illogic out of you over Facebook. But empirically, just on this case alone, is what you're saying really plausible? That it all comes back to abortion? Abortion was illegal for a long time in this country and others. During that time, torture, unjust war, racism and police abuse were much MORE common, if anything, than they are today. If respect for the equal dignity of human life is a precondition for both decreasing those things, and also for prohibiting abortion, why have those trends gone in opposite directions? Does society value human life more or less today than it used to?

Secondly, nobody really disagrees that everyone has equal rights. The disagreement lies in who counts amongst "everyone." Presuming you're not a strict vegan, you believe animals are not included - I agree. Declining to afford animals the right to life does not lessen our belief in equal dignity for all, it just narrows our belief about who "all" includes. But some people disagree with us - PETA, maybe. How convincing would it be for them to lament that all of society's ills stem from our lack of respect for other living things? To me, not very. Yes, technically both animals and terrorists fall in in the category of "living things," but since we see relevant moral distinctions between humans and animals, that strikes us as a ridiculous diagnosis for society's problems with foreign policy or law enforcement.

Andrew Guernsey It's a question of priorities. Not killing innocent human beings is the first prerequisite of a moral society imho, right before not enslaving them, torturing them, denying them equal justice under the law, racially discriminating, depriving of wages etc. You're right, this post is essentially me venting frustration about the comparative apathy around the fact that the first thing that this country does when new human life begins is for nine months to deprive him or her of legal protection from intentional (and often painful) killing . I'm making claims about objective reality, not subjectivity or preferences like favorite foods. Even religious claims are not subjective. God either exists or he doesn't---there is no mushy middle. But that's a topic for another time.

Siobhan Fagan Hi, nice to meet you as well.
What I'm saying is that abortion is one of the strongest symptoms--today at least--of the cause: the lack of respect for human dignity. With abortion, I think that the easiest place to begin recognizing human dignity is with prenatal infants because they are the most innocent, though its also easiest to deny the existence of humanity in this case. It's far easier to rationalize away torturing a terrorist to save normal people from death than it is to rationalize away killing a child. I think society over time has alternated a lot between whose lives are valuable and worthy of dignity. As society values human life more than it used to, the offenses are seen as far more egregious.

I think that Thomas Aquinas answers your second point best, but I'll try. While all creatures deserve respect, only rational creatures have dignity. This is why we object to references to persons as something other than people; a man called a beast/demon/animal. Respect of all life--animal, vegetation, human--is essential as the rational man's responsibility is the keeping and care taking of the world. Needless injury and destruction of animal and nature isn't in accord with this. In fact, animal abuse has been linked to abuse of humans as well, which is why many states aggressively prosecute animal abuse or have mandatory reporting of animal abuse so as to prevent this. The root of abuses of animals and nature is a lack of respect of the dignity of life. So I suppose I partially agree and disagree and if this is incoherent, it's 4am and I'm sorry.

Noor Khalil But are embryos/fetuses rational creatures?

Siobhan Fagan Is a mentally handicapped person a rational creature? Would you call a 2-year-old a rational creature (especially if you've had any dealings with one)? If the accepted age of reason is 7 or 8, is that when a human person becomes a rational creature? What about a person with Down's syndrome? When do they become rational creatures? A human person at any stage of development or mental capabilities is a rational creature by virtue of they are, in a healthily developed and grown state, capable of rational thought.

like I said to Andrew last night, I cannot explain this as well as Aquinas did in the Summa.

Andrew Doris "Not killing innocent human beings" has much greater force as a first moral priority when we agree on who counts as human beings. Waving that sentence around without first ensuring a shared understanding of its terms is to knowingly conflate two things, so you can claim to be the defender of grand principles that have a nice ring to them. We're going in circles. I'm not going to convince you to be pro-choice and that was never my intent. I just want you to openly concede that you can be both pro-choice and anti-torture, anti-police abuse, or anti-war in an internally consistent way.

Andrew Doris You write:

"I'm making claims about objective reality, not subjectivity or preferences like favorite foods. Even religious claims are not subjective. God either exists or he doesn't---there is no mushy middle." Far from being a "topic for another time," this is really the heart of what I objected to in your initial post. (I'll leave aside for now the God question, though I note in passing that subjectivity doesn't require a mushy middle).

There's a whole school of libertarians who think libertarianism is the only rational ideology. Stefan Molyneux is one of these people - very popular libertarian philosopher and radio host. He insists there's such thing as an objective, rational, secular, scientific and comprehensive ethical system - and that it proves libertarianism right! He wrote a whole book about it, which you can see here: I've read his book. It's nonsense.

Many liberals do the same thing: Somewhere between evolution and climate change, the left convinced itself that all their beliefs (not merely the scientific ones) were objectively true. They wave away liberal bias in higher education with the glib assumption that this is to be expected, since professors and deans are just more knowledgeable and worldly. They convince themselves that theirs is the party of objectivity; that progress as they define it is desirable by some absolute norm; that the difference between the parties is not one of values, but one of knowledge and reason; that any who disagree with them must just be ignorant or uninformed or unintelligent. It's how they try to silence your voice as not merely wrong, but "hate speech." It's nonsense for them too.

The root problem with all three of those viewpoints (yours included) is that they try to stretch moral universalism much further than it can go, all to avoid the unsettling reality that their most passionately held convictions are nothing but contestable opinion. It's one thing to have your beliefs, and to defend them passionately. It's another to say not only am I right, I'm objectively right; the 50% or more of the world that disagrees is not merely wrong, but factually incorrect. We're all guilty of it from time to time, but what it amounts to is getting too caught up in our own bullshit.

Abortion's rightness or wrongness is not a fact. It's not something the rest of the world is just too stupid to see clearly. You cannot prove it right or wrong the way you prove a math problem. It is the textbook definition of an opinion.

Andrew Guernsey On the contrary, if people don't argue ethics on the basis of reason, objectivity and shared moral principles, then no public discourse or public action is possible to remedy injustice or violations of life or liberty. If you think human rights begin at birth, 3 months, 4 months, whatever, by all means argue for it and justify your claims, but you can't claim it's "just your opinion," unless you want to argue for moral relativism. You are right that different political matters have different amounts of certainty---but the retreat to the subjective epistemology as an excuse for inaction in the face of injustice is inconsistent with other hallmarks of moral progress we rightly pride ourselves on such as abolishing slavery, female oppression, religious killings, human sacrifice, etc. Indeed, "there is nothing so absurd that some philosopher has not already said it" but the point of moral disputation is to sort out which opinions are wrong and which are right--and protecting people's rights to express their beliefs, however wrong-headed, I believe, is important to helping us identify the truth--making our opinions correspond objective reality--since no one has a monopoly on truth "a priori". As far as libertarianism and abortion goes, where do you draw the line--- do you go as far a Rothbard? This libertarian wrote a good piece on the matter, showing that even atheists and Christians can come to the some of the same conclusions about abortion from different angles.

Siobhan Fagan If a fetus is not a human being from the moment of conception, when does it become a human being? You can be pro-choice and anti-torture, but it doesn't make rational sense. It involves the same misnderstanding of human dignity that people who are pro life and pro abortion fall into. When lives and dignity are weighted against each other to find whose life is worth more, we are faling to recognize that all life is precious and all life ought to be protected. I know that this may seem circular, but if you can pinpoint the place where a fetus becomes a human being, please do. Then I may be able to understand how someone who is intelligent and well educated might be anti torture and pro abortion.

Noor Khalil Here's a simple argument: a fetus cannot feel pain until some period. Aborting a fetus before that period causes no pain to it, while torture by definition causes pain.

Siobhan Fagan There are certain conditions where a grown adult cannot feel pain. Is it right to do things to that adult that would cause pain to a person who could feel it?

Andrew Doris I can talk with Guernsey any time, so I'll ignore his comments for now and answer Siobhan's question.

I have no firm opinion on precisely when a fetus acquires its natural right to life: there's a point where it clearly has it, a point where I'm confident it doesn't, and an iffy area in between. Legally, I advocate the end of the second trimester as the moment it obtains legal protection only because, as a libertarian, I am not confident wielding government force to coerce other people's behavior unless I am really frickin' sure the ends justify the means. Up until the final trimester, I'm not.

Human reproduction is a long and gradual process involving a series of incremental biological changes. Taken independently, none of these changes provide the organism with all of the traits which I (and many other people) deem prerequisites for ensoulment or moral person-hood. I cannot with any certainty specify one event in that process as THE MOMENT when everything changes.

What I can say is that neither of the events at the extreme ends of this process - birth nor conception - make sense to me as a division point. Just as I see no morally relevant difference between killing a baby the hour before it's born and the hour after, I see no morally relevant difference between killing a sperm and killing a recently fertilized egg. Yes, there are biological differences regarding chromosomes and whatnot, but I don't find those scientific differences to be morally relevant. When I see or hear that a fertilized egg dies, I feel no remorse. It does not tug on my heartstrings the way it does when an infant is killed after birth. The little voice in the back of my head that helps me sort right from wrong does not detect an injustice. It's a cluster of cells that I hold in equal regard to skin cells or bacterium, and when it dies, my conscience does not object.

Perhaps yours does, and there's nothing wrong with believing that the moment of conception is the most sensible distinction. But I think it's silly to pretend that distinction is morally obvious or objectively provable. There is no scientific answer to the question of which organisms have rights and which do not. It is a dicey moral question, not a scientific one. It is subjective, and there is no hypocrisy in disagreeing with you.
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Siobhan Fagan First two paragraphs, I completely understand what you're saying and that makes sense to me why you feel/believe what you do.

The problem with the sperm/fertilized egg distinction is that a sperm is lacking some necessary second component to produce human life, where as the fertilized egg, in the womb (even in a petri dish at the start, and I think now artificial wombs? but that's a different topic), has everything necessary to grow into a fully developed human person. Emotionally, I'm with you. Little squiggly things under a microscope versus the emotional (and very strong tug) of "Ohmygosh a baby!" (at least that's my reaction). The little squiggly things would mean nothing to me except I know by science that they have everything necessary to be a human person in the earliest stage of development. If someone threatened to drop a baby or a tray of fertilized eggs, I know I would save the baby because of that emotional tug of recognition. Yet the fertilized egg is the beginning of life, and therefore I know logically that when fertilized eggs are experimented upon or discarded, they ought to be mourned. It may not invoke an emotional response, but logic doesn't have to be emotional. Scientifically, a fertilized egg is the start of human life and that human life has a potentiality so great that when it is not achieved it ought to be, and often is, mourned, as in the case of miscarriages. Unlike skin cells or bacteria, that fertilized egg in the womb contains in itself the essence of a human person as it (well it's actually a he or she from the moment of fertilization) grows into what you and I are now.

I completely get that your conscience does not object because you don't see the point of conception as the start of a human's right to life or the start of person hood. It is not obvious to you and that's fine. But I must disagree that morals are subjective. The truth is not subjective so there cannot be a movable moral point for each person to decide for themselves. I'm sorry, I wish I could agree on you on your last point but I really can't. Don't you hate it when you can't reach a satisfying conclusion for both parties?

If you're looking for a book to read over Christmas break, my professor's late wife was a Harvard atheist philosopher, not originally pro life but became a pro life speaker. She has a much better explanation than I can. She was a philosophy student who was so talented and brilliant she was asked to TA after her freshman year. It's a really interesting perspective. It's called The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God by Dr. Michael Pakaluk. Totally not a "gotta convert everyone I talk to" deal, but from you're pretty enjoyable to debate and since Ruth Pakaluk's points are really wonderfully perfect for a debate, I think you might enjoy it, at least from that perspective. It's like $13 on Amazon.
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Siobhan Fagan ps thanks for giving me a distraction from studying that is intellectually stimulating

Andrew Doris "The little squiggly things would mean nothing to me except I know by science that they have everything necessary to be a human person in the earliest stage of development."

So what? I know that by science too, and I already conceded it - why does it matter? What law is written into the fabric of the universe that tells us having what's necessary to grow into a human person MAKES one a human person, and entitles one to rights? What "logic" demands we overrule our shared "emotional" distinction between an infant and an egg for moral purposes?

Andrew Doris We've circled around to just where Andrew and I were in our debate about the subjectivity of morals. My earlier comment to him applies. Outside a very small subsection beliefs so universal they can be assumed for all practical purposes, morals are not a matter of truth. They are a matter of opinion, of personal taste. If I say "Mint is the best flavor of ice cream," is that true? Is it false? Or is it neither - a subjective claim, the veracity of which depends entirely on the unique preferences and variable perspectives of the person who's evaluating it?

So it is with morality. Each person's moral beliefs are formed and influenced by a combination of their upbringing, cultural environment, and genetic predisposition. That contributes to an enormous, beautiful, awe-inspiring diversity of human thought, which we are remiss to confuse as deviation from some absolute truth of the matter. Logic comes into play, but it doesn't give us all the answers - at least not with our limited faculties.

I suspect you agree that at least SOME moral beliefs are subjective. People make normative claims about things like a "just wage", or the fairness of various levels of income inequality. Regardless of your personal opinions on those topics, surely you can't think the right answer is objectively provable, can you? Is there really anything that makes a $9/hr wage rationally superior/inferior to a $7/hr one? Is there some % of overall wealth which the top ___% of the overall income distribution cannot surpass, lest some universal moral tenet be violated? Or might different people with different sensitivities come to separate beliefs on those matters, neither of which is any more or less rational than the other?

As a Christian, there's a certain liberating humility in conceding that we humans are just as flawed intellectually as we are in sin. Our capacity for truth-seeking has boundaries - there are limits to what we can know for certain. A huge portion of the world's moral debates fall beyond those limits. The Bible does not provide all the answers, and the reasoning capacity our brains are endowed with is an inadequate tool to uncover them. That's okay! We are freed from the need for perfect moral virtue. We should embrace the idea that outside those few occasions when God is powerfully speaking to you through that little voice or conscience or whatever you call it, you're not expected to know all the answers. You're not expected to have it all figured out. There may not be a truth, and if there is you're not expected to know it.

The point of ethics and moral philosophy is not to compare our moral intuitions against the truth of the matter to determine whether those intuitions are factually accurate. Facts usually have little to do with it. A much more useful ambition is for philosophers to use our moral intuitions as a starting point, and then propose explanatory rules for why we feel as we do. It's not helpful to investigate whether murder is wrong - we somehow know that it is deep down inside us - but it is helpful to identify and articulate why we feel it's wrong, under what conditions. What separates murder from those sorts of killing we deem appropriate (war, self defense, hunting, etc.)? What are the parameters or contours of our instincts which explain why we feel morally outraged in some situations, but not others? Sometimes philosophers get it wrong, such that the rules they propose come into conflict with what our consciences tell us is right. When that happens, it isn't our conscience which we should overrule. Far from silencing our emotions, we should use them as a guide in the process.

All of which is an extremely roundabout way of saying "Don't get too caught up in your own bullshit." Trust your instincts. If you don't feel anything is wrong with killing the little squiggly things, there probably isn't, so don't convince yourself science has anything to say on the subject.

Siobhan Fagan The law written into the fabric of the universe is the natural law.

Squiggly things are already a human in the earliest stage of development. We both agree. For me, human --> human person --> human person has personhood.

As for logic overriding our emotions, that is the purpose of the will over the passions. Our logic and reason is SUPPOSED to override our emotional response to things, ESPECIALLY in moral purposed (the caps ought to be italics). Our emotions inform our will, but in a properly formed person the will is meant to rule.

Andrew Doris By all means respond, but be aware I must refrain from replying for the remainder of this weekend. I've spent hours on this already - none of them wasted, but also none spent doing homework! - and I really must transition into the sort of essays that are actually graded's been fun

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