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No wait, there are plenty of logical positions on abortion!
Lay logic, though difficult to reconstruct, turns out to be much more sophisticated than the logic that philosophers use to assail it.
Written by Bo Winegard.
In a recent article for Aporia, Noah Carl argued that both liberals and conservatives hold contradictory (even dishonest) views about abortion because there are only two logically coherent positions about abortion, namely either opposition without exception or support throughout the entire pregnancy and perhaps even after birth. But since both positions are unsavory, even morally execrable, few people have the stomach to accept them.
I admire Carl’s typical Cartesian clarity, but in this case, I think his desire for logical precision leads him to support an implausible and unnecessarily stark dichotomy. There are in fact many logically consistent positions on abortion; but even if there weren’t, morality is not and cannot be constrained by a philosophical preference for logical consistency. Morality, like art, is about the guts as much as it’s about the brain. Sometimes a yuck is good enough.
Carl lays out his austere logic with admirable lucidity:
[…] there are only two logically coherent positions on the issue: a) abortion involves killing an innocent person and should be banned in all cases, or b) abortion involves killing a non-person and should be allowed in all cases, including up to several weeks after birth.
Since these positions are the only logically coherent ones, according to Carl, anybody who contradicts them by supporting popular compromise positions such as exceptions for rape or mother’s health or by supporting apparently reasonable cutoffs after 24 weeks or even after birth is not being ethically honest. (Importantly, this does not mean the person is lying. Rather, it means that he or she is not following his or her own ethical logic.)
Carl is not naïve or unsympathetic; he understands why most people blink when looking into the undisguised face of their own apparent moral commitments, for without the pleasant mask of nuances and exceptions and perhaps even sophistries that face is appalling. As he writes:
Why, then, do so many people hold such views? One obvious reason is that the two logically coherent positions are morally repugnant: forcing a woman to bear her rapist’s child or consciously ending a newborn’s life just seems wrong.
And he notes that this seems leads to moral dumbfounding, which, to quote Jon Haidt, is “the stubborn and puzzled maintenance of a judgment without supporting reasons.” In other words, although logic demands that people either support or oppose abortion throughout a pregnancy without exceptions, unreliable but intransigent emotions intrude. And these often compel a person to condemn or condone behaviors because they “seem” wrong even when such judgments contradict the person’s own explicitly stated moral logic; therefore, the person remains steadfastly committed to a moral position, e.g., rape exceptions, that he or she cannot rationally (i.e., verbally) defend.
Although there are many objections to Carl’s argument, some of which I will explore further, the most fundamental is that the (undefended) assumption that conscious reasoning is a more reliable guide to moral rationality (and logic) than emotions or intuitions is, if not fallacious, then at least question-begging. Carl correctly notes that both of the extreme (though logical) positions he laid out—the only logically coherent positions—“seem” repugnant. But why seem? Why not are? Using “seem” suggests that the apparent odiousness of forcing a raped woman to have her rapist’s child or of aborting/killing a neonate is illusory, a perceptual error like the bending of an object in the water.
This is an unnecessarily spartan moral ontology, for there is a more plausible alternative, which is that since most humans think that both extreme views on abortion are abhorrent, they are abhorrent. The seems is the reality. And although it is true that many humans are not clever or articulate enough to defend this position under cross-examination, that does not mean that it is implausible or wrong. For just as a person can ride a bike without being able to describe how he or she does it, so too a person can have a prudent moral view without being able to describe how it accounts for this or that nuance. And if the moral intuitions of most humans suggest that some abstract but logically coherent moral position is not only wrong, but also abominable, we should examine the assumptions of the logically coherent moral view before we assail the wisdom of widespread moral intuitions.
Consider first the view that “abortion involves killing an innocent person and should be banned in all cases.” Stated in the abstract, the idea that killing an innocent person (fetus) is always wrong seems sensible enough. So too does the idea that telling a lie is always wrong. But it is not difficult to imagine scenarios in which telling a lie becomes justifiable, perhaps even morally obligatory. (The standard example here is when a Nazi asks if a family is hiding a Jewish person in its house, it would be heinous to tell the truth and laudable to lie.) Therefore, even if one accepts that abortion is the killing of an innocent person, it is not clear that it should be banned in all cases.
The two most common exceptions that most conservatives endorse are for rape and the health of the mother. Carl claims that both are illogical because it would be morally abhorrent to kill a child (already born) in both cases. As he writes:
Again, suppose a woman becomes pregnant, has the child, and raises it until the age of five. However, the child was conceived through rape, and the woman finds being its mother too much to bear. Should she be able to kill the child? Obviously not. Yet if you believe a fetus has the same moral status as a five-year-old, the situation is identical to the one where a pregnant woman is carrying her rapist’s child.
But this assumes that there are no morally relevant differences between killing a child of five and (using the logic of the conservative who imputes personhood to a fetus) killing a child in the womb who is much less developed. Carl would likely respond that he’s not claiming there are no morally relevant differences; rather, the logic of accepting fetal personhood forces one to accept that there are no differences. This is dubious though.
In one case, the person is inside the mother’s body, and the mother would have to carry him/her to birth at significant cost to herself before potentially giving the child away for adoption. In the other, the mother would already have chosen to go through the birth; and the child would be much older and more developed. The child’s death would be more harrowing to others—friends and relatives alike—which is not inconsequential. And the mother could have given her up for adoption many times before she reached five. Thus, these two cases are the same only as lying about an affair and lying about the deliciousness of grandmother’s tuna casserole are the same. They both involve killing a person; but they are radically different in all other morally relevant ways.
But more importantly, there is no need to force personhood onto such an unforgiving procrustean bed. Like many concepts, personhood is fuzzy and continuous, not sharp and discrete. Sex eggs are less person than embryos; embryos are less person than fetuses; fetuses are less person than neonates; and neonates are less person than five-year-olds. If we accept this more reasonable though undeniably messier view of personhood, then the intuitions of conservatives become quite sensible.
Although it is morally laudable to protect innocent life, sometimes equal or greater moral concerns prevail and, since the world is complicated, full of tragic tradeoffs and compromises, morally sensitive people have to accept that one good might be greater than another (or one evil less than another). In the case of abortion, since personhood is a continuum, the killing of the innocent life becomes more abominable the older and more developed the life is. And this means that the relative weights of conflicting values change across the pregnancy (and after).
We might believe that killing a fetus is generally wrong. But we might also believe that compelling a woman to birth the child of her rapist is wrong. To be mathematical about it, suppose we believe that forcing the woman to give birth after being raped is 7/10 on a moral wickedness scale; we believe that killing a fetus after seven weeks is 6/10 on a moral wickedness scale; and we believe that killing a neonate is 9/10 on a moral wickedness scale. Then, we may rationally support rape exceptions without supporting killing a neonate.
With an understanding of personhood as a continuum, we can also see that the liberal position on abortion is also perfectly coherent. The liberal believes that female autonomy and reproductive freedom are more important than the life of a fetus at, say, 15 weeks, 20 weeks, and maybe even 24 weeks, but not after birth. (Of course, this does not mean that this is the correct position; similarly, it does not mean that the conservative position is correct either. I make no judgment on the relative wisdom of those views here.)
I am not claiming that most people explicitly hold such a philosophically refined view of personhood. They almost certainly do not. But such a view is possible; and the job of the ethicist, as I see it, is not to eradicate the intuitions of ordinary people, but to inspect and examine them respectfully, often preserving them in a more sophisticated form. Sometimes it may turn out that common intuitions are so confused and unhelpful that they require elimination; but my suspicion is that this is rarer than many moral philosophers imagine.
Moral dumbfounding is pervasive, not because people are foolish, incoherent, or irrational, but because they did not evolve to be consciously aware of the logic of their own intuitions. Often, this logic, though difficult to reconstruct, turns out to be much more sophisticated than the logic that philosophers use to assail it.
Bo Winegard is the Executive Editor of Aporia.