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Winegard is wrong about wisdom (and abortion)
Noah Carl responds to Bo Winegard's claim that we should not 'assail the wisdom of widespread moral intuitions.'
Written by Noah Carl.
In a recent article for Aporia, I argued that neither liberals nor conservatives are honest about abortion because they don’t take their arguments to their logical conclusions. Few conservatives are willing to say it should be banned in all cases (including rape or when the mother’s life is threatened). And few liberals are willing to say it should be allowed in all cases (including up to several weeks after birth).
Bo Winegard has written a critique of my article, which I will respond to here. Before doing so, I should applaud him for making his case both civilly and eloquently.
The “most fundamental” objection, Winegard writes, is that my argument wrongly assumes “conscious reasoning is a more reliable guide to moral rationality (and logic) than emotions or intuitions.” According to him, “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 not “assail the wisdom of widespread moral intuitions.”
I agree with Winegard that there is wisdom embodied in our moral intuitions. Yet these are not the only source of wisdom when it comes to morality. As Friedrich Hayek noted in Law, Legislation and Liberty, there are three sources of human values: instinct, reason, and cultural evolution. Here, we are dealing with a conflict between the second and the other two. And it’s by no means clear that the other two should take precedence.
As an aside, I’m not sure whether the tendency to see the “logically coherent positions” as repugnant is rooted in instinct or cultural evolution, though I’m inclined to suggest the latter. Since abortion wasn’t feasible for most of human evolutionary history, and infanticide was widely practiced, it’s unlikely the intuition is hard-wired.
In any case, what’s also true is that many people see the supposed “compromise positions” as repugnant. Many conservatives have the intuition that killing a fetus is abhorrent. Many liberals have the intuition that forcing a woman to gestate is abhorrent. Therefore, arguing along the lines that “the two logically coherent positions might be logically coherent, but they’re widely seen as repugnant” isn’t a very strong objection.
You’d presumably find that more people see the “logically coherent positions” as repugnant than see the “compromise positions” as such, but this is only a difference of degree. And it’s partly because many people haven’t given the issue much thought, so are willing to accept positions that are inconsistent with their starting assumptions.
Having raised his most fundamental objection, Winegard proceeds to argue there are, in fact, “plenty of logical positions on abortion.”
He begins by suggesting that it’s perfectly reasonable for conservatives to make exceptions for rape and the mother’s life being threatened. I argued in my original article that from the conservative point of view, killing a fetus is the same as killing a five-year-old. And since it’s obviously wrong to kill a five-year-old in cases of rape or when the mother’s life is threatened, it must be wrong to kill a fetus too.
Winegard rejects this analogy on the grounds that there are “morally relevant differences” between killing a five-year-old and killing a child “who is much less developed.” For him, “personhood is fuzzy and continuous, not sharp and discrete,” meaning that “fetuses are less person than neonates; and neonates are less person than five-year-olds.”
Yet this is precisely what conservatives dispute!
It is liberal, utilitarian philosophers who claim there are “morally relevant differences” between humans at different stages of development and hence that infanticide of severely disabled newborns can be justified. The most sophisticated conservative philosophers insist that “children in the womb have to be protected no matter the circumstances of their conception – the same principle we apply to children outside of the womb.”
Indeed, conservatives argue that abortion is tantamount to murder because although the fetus is “much less developed” than a child, it has the potential to become a child. Or they insist that human life is sacrosanct, regardless of how developed the human in question happens to be.
Winegard’s observations about the nature of personhood also lead him to defend liberals; specifically, against the charge of using morally arbitrary cut-offs. However, the mere fact that personhood is fuzzy – that we can’t say exactly when a human becomes a “person” – does not mean that all cut-offs are equally arbitrary.
From the liberal point of view, is it worse to kill an embryo comprising four cells than one comprising only two cells? Arguably not. Just because the former is more developed than the latter doesn’t mean it’s different in any morally relevant sense.
Is it worse to kill a fifteen-year-old than a five-year-old, given that the former is more developed? Obviously not. The fifteen-year-old is not more developed in any morally relevant sense.1 They are both aware of their own existence; they can both anticipate the future; they both have a conscious desire to go on living.
While personhood is indeed fuzzy, it is not continuous in a way that would imply the wrongness of killing is a strictly increasing function of development. For any number of weeks after conception that’s used as a cut-off, one can ask, “Why that number of weeks?” And responding, “my subjective judgment tells me this particular point in development happens to be the right one”, is not convincing.
Birth might appear to be a morally relevant cut-off because that’s when the baby ceases to infringe on the mother’s bodily autonomy. But this raises the question: why is it okay for the mother to infringe on the fetus’s bodily autonomy? Abortion is not merely failing to sustain the fetus; it is actively killing the fetus.
The answer is presumably that the fetus doesn’t have a right to bodily autonomy because it lacks certain cognitive capacities. However, the fetus doesn’t suddenly acquire those capacities at the moment of birth; it develops them gradually over the first few weeks of life.
What’s more, basing your support for abortion purely on the mother’s right to bodily autonomy leads to absurd conclusions. For example, it implies that one fully conscious conjoined twin is justified in killing his fully conscious brother. It also seems to imply that parents are justified in neglecting their children.
As eloquent as Winegard’s arguments are, I’m not persuaded by them. Most people hold positions on abortion that aren’t justified by their stated reasons.
One could argue that it’s worse to kill the five-year-old, since he or she has more years of life remaining.