Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Irrationality

I will not be disclosing my positions on abortion and homosexuality on this blog.

There!  That’s all.  Shortest post ever.

Just kidding.  I do in fact have opinions on both of these issues and anyone who actually knows me could probably divine them without much difficulty, but I won’t be revealing them here, because I have found that these issues make otherwise reasonable people on both side of the aisle act irrationally.

To be specific, most people read an article on either topic just closely enough to determine whether the author agrees with them or not and then, if the answer is “not,” stop paying attention and switch straight into disagreement mode, where they will lob attacks at the author as though she were the most polar example of the opposite position, even if she were actually promoting a completely moderate position.

For example, whether you agree with them or not, it’s pretty easy to understand the logic that makes pro-lifers believe that abortion is equivalent to murder.  It’s a little more arcane trying to understand why pro-choicers think that any sort of restriction on abortion is also equivalent to murder.  The logic, for those who have not had the misfortune to encounter it, is that any sort of restriction might prevent someone from being able to get a safe, legal abortion, which might make them decide to get an unsafe, back-alley abortion instead, which might cause complications or even death.  This applies even if the restriction was as mild as California’s Prop 4, which required minors to inform their parents before getting an abortion.

The sad thing is that I’ll now have to explain what is wrong with that argument.  The easiest strategy is to point out restrictions on how many other things are equivalent to murder by this logic.  Female circumcision, certainly: it’s traditional in many cultures, and failing to provide a safe doctor’s office operation might cause someone to attempt an unsafe operation at home.  But pro-choicers are not pro-female circumcision, even though the logic is identical, because the argument isn’t a logical argument at all.  It’s an irrational argument: basically, a justified-sounding way of calling you a murderer.

(The reason pro-choicers would be adamantly against female circumcision, by the way, is that pro-choice is really pro-sexuality.  They support whatever policy is the most sexually permissive.  This is consistent in its own way, but the preceding argument is still not logically applicable.  More on this to come, of course.)

Here are some more logically rigorous objections to the restrictions-on-abortion-equal-murder argument, and in particular why it’s inequivalent to the corresponding pro-life argument.

First, if you believe that a fetus is a person, it should be obvious that one abortion equals one death per terminated pregnancy.  On the other hand, if there is a small restriction on abortion, only a small number of people who want a legal abortion will be unable to get one.  Of those, an even smaller number will subsequently choose to get an illegal abortion, and of those, a smaller number still will have complications that might lead to death.  A restriction on abortion, therefore, is more equivalent to a thousandth or a millionth of a death per pregnancy.  Of course even one death per million pregnancies is worse than no deaths, but it’s not a one-to-one equivalence, as implied.

Second, there’s the fact that the chain of reasoning includes at least one place where the woman herself has to choose a potentially dangerous option.  It doesn’t make much sense to hold you responsible for a result that can only happen if the victim, who is under no coercion, chooses it.

Third, there’s simply the matter of degrees of separation.  Surely you can’t be held personally responsible for every result three or four steps removed from every single one of your actions; I’m sure we’re all murderers by that logic.

The above argument demonstrates the kind of drivel that people will start spouting on these topics as soon as they figure out that you might not completely agree with their position on abortion.  The same dynamic comes into play with gay marriage.  In this case, I’ll be concealing my underlying opinion on homosexuality, but I’ll share my opinion on the  legality of gay marriage:  It should be legal.  This is regardless of whether you think it’s moral or not.  Even if you think it’s the darkest sin from the pit of Sodom (because you didn’t read Ezekiel), it should still be legal.  You can’t legislate morality.  That won’t make people be moral.

More to come?  Definitely.

Hopefully, I choose to optimistically believe, if I don’t reveal whether or not I agree with the reader’s preconceived opinions, I might be able to keep him or her reading instead of just pigeonholing me as an ally or an opponent.  Then, perhaps, we can take a look at some of the nuances to these issues, the things in the middle that get overlooked because everyone has pushed him- or herself so far to one side or the other.

While I’m on the topic, I should mention that I’m not free of this kind of knee-jerk response myself.  The topic is not abortion or gay marriage, but rather global warming.  It’s so clearly happening and its deniers so obviously have selfish motives or are intentionally keeping themselves ignorant that it’s easy for me to read an article on the topic guardedly, trying to figure out whether the author is a denier or not (and, if he or she is, to reject the rest of the article out of hand).  Attempting to curb that instinct is one way that I hope this blog will make me a better person and a stronger discussion partner.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Abortion, Gay Marriage, and Irrationality

  1. Joe Sullivan

    A noble attempt at promoting discourse. I agree that there is little rational discussion on those subjects. You mentioned a third subject in passing – global warming. Gun control is another one.

    It is interesting to note that the general public doesn’t seem to appreciate which of these subjects can be determined by majority rule, and which can not. For example, abortion can be either legal or illegal, and it is possible for legality to be determined by public opinion (i.e. a vote). On the other hand, global warming is either happening or not, and public opinion has no bearing on that.

  2. You might be interested in the blog of Victor Reppert, who writes at dangerousidea.blogspot.com. He’s a Christian philosopher who seems to be pretty good at drawing out the nuances in the different arguments about abortion; I find him to be one of the reliably civil people on the subject. Doesn’t mean I fully agree with everything he says, but he’s good at asking good questions.

  3. Pingback: The Wrong Strategy « Chimaera

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