Friday, July 18, 2008

Objectivism & Religion, Part 17

Abortion. Rand and her followers tend to be unapologetic defenders of abortion, including abortion right up to the moment of birth. Objectivists are not only uncompromising on this issue, they also give it a high priority as a cause to champion. According to the Objectivist site abortionisprolife.com, “Any one who advocates the outlawing of abortion (especially in the first few months of pregnancy)—like Steve Forbes—is an enemy of individual rights in principle, and thus an enemy of capitalism.” Since many advocates of the free market are opposed to abortion, the uncompromsing stance of Objectivism on this issue serves merely to prevent Rand’s followers from making alliances with other pro-market forces.

The issue of abortion rests on whether the fetus is regarded as a human being. Peikoff recognizes this in his article celebrating the Roe vs. Wade decision. “[A]bortion-rights advocates [should not] keep hiding behind the phrase ‘a woman's right to choose.’” Peikoff wrote. “Does she have the right to choose murder? That's what abortion would be, if the fetus were a person.” Objectivists are certain that a fetus is not a human life. How do they know this? Because, as Rand argued, a fetus is only a “potential” human life. But why is it only a potential life? To say that a fetus is only a potential, rather than an actual life, is merely to repeat that it is not an actual life in other words. It is, in short, to assume the point at issue. If we are to be strictly honest about his issue, we have to admit that it is not obvious whether a fetus should be regarded as a human life or not. At the stage of conception, it is only a few cells—and how can a few cells consitute a human life? Quickly, however, in the matter of a few weeks, it develops into something more interesting and substantial, gradually taking on human form and characteristics. Perhaps the most reasonable position would be to regard a fetus as an emerging life. Granted, this would mean that we couldn’t quite determine when a fetus becomes a human life. Abortion would thus remain what it is for most people: morally problematic. That, indeed, appears to be the attitude of the majority of Americans who, while regarding abortion as immoral, nevertheless believe it should remain legal in the first (and possibly second) trimester(s). Where many Americans differ decisively from Objectivism is in their view that late term abortions (i.e., partial-birth abortion) should in most instances be illegal.

Objectivists in their own way are every bit as unhinged and extreme on the issue of abortion as are those “pro-lifers” who would charge those who have abortions with first degree murder. They are constantly comparing fetuses to tissues, useless body organs, collections of cells, etc. Peikoff goes so far as to describe a fetus as a “cluster of lifeless cells”—a contradictio in adjecto if ever there was one! Such descriptions, besides betraying an imbalance of mind, are in bad taste. Whether we are for or against the criminalization of abortion, surely there is no reason to regard a fetus as only a clump of meaningless cells!

The arbitrary and inconclusive nature of the Objectivist argument for abortion rights can easily be appreciated if we compare it to Objectivist-based arguments against abortion. Yes, such arguments do exist: there are indeed self-proclaimed Objectivists who delight in using Objectivist modes of argumentation to reach the opposite conclusion on the question of abortion. Mark La Vigne argues as follows:

[The Objectivist position on abortion], of all things I have read and understood of objectivism, as advocated by A.R.I., is the single most inconsistent area of the Institute's intellectual endeavors. Human life is human life. "A is A." Mr. Peikoff would lead a reader to believe that an infant developed instantaneously, at the moment of birth, into a "real human being." This defies all known logic. Rather than simply stating the facts, perhaps what is needed is a further demonstration of them:

Mr Peikoff claims that the embryo "exists as part of the woman's body." True or false? False. It is dependent upon the woman's body, but the real test of it as an integral part of her body is whether it can successfully be removed without harm to her, and implanted in another woman without harm to either the surrogate or the embryo. The answer is "yes" in each instance. Can it, at this stage, exist independent of some woman's body, other than by freezing? No. That does not, however, make it part of a woman's body.

La Vigne makes a few good points against Peikoff’s arguments, but his points hardly constitute an argument for the pro-life position. It is merely an argument against Peikoff’s bad arguments. Nor does the “A is A” reference help one jot (unless it is inserted for reasons of satire).

A more serious argument (perhaps too serious) along Objectivist lines is presented by G. Stolyarov.

The question then becomes, “When does a potential cease being a mere alternative among many?” Prior to the conception of a child, there is absolutely no guarantee that a particular genetic code will be furnished to serve as the basis for the uniquely adjusted rational faculty of a child-to-be. Therefore it is moral to prevent conception by means of abstinence or contraceptives, and the couple will therefore possess a genuine choice of whether or not to expend a substantial portion of their lives and finances on the upbringing of offspring. However, once conception has occurred, the peculiar genome is already in place, which will result in the inevitable development of a rational creature absent intervention. Granted, the fetus does not yet possess volitional consciousness, but neither does a man who is asleep. Does that grant a serial murderer the right to enter his home, loot his property and kill one whom he mistakenly judges to be “potentially awake”? The fact that that particular man (or child) will, if unhindered, be able to exercise his volitional consciousness, classifies him as a human being.


Although hardly a convincing argument, I must give Stolyarov credit for originality. A fetus is not a “potential” human life because, once conception takes place, there exists a guarantee of a particularly genetic code for a uniquely adjusted rational faculty! Okay, if you say so Mr. Stolyarov! Yet once again I must belabor the obvious: all such verbalist arguments, regardless of which side of the debate they come down on, are utterly futile precisely because no one would ever change their mind after being exposed to them. They seem effective only to those who have already made up their minds and agree with the positions asserted in them.

13 comments:

Michael H said...

"Yet once again I must belabor the obvious: all such verbalist arguments, regardless of which side of the debate they come down on, are utterly futile precisely because no one would ever change their mind after being exposed to them. They seem effective only to those who have already made up their minds and agree with the positions asserted in them."

Precisely.

Do verbal arguments ever serve to sway core beliefs? Rush Limbaugh's audience is composed of 'ditto heads' for a reason. We may find articulations of positions that support core beliefs we hold in ways that haven't occurred to us before, but we are not going to be swayed in an opposite direction by someone else's argument, no matter how eloquent and persuasive it may be.

I've concluded that human beings arrive at fundamental beliefs as a consequence of emotional decisions, which they then justify through the use of 'reason'. As abortion is one of the most emotionally volatile of topics there is, whatever position someone happens to hold is virtually immune to alteration.

(A Leonard Peikoff might scream that he is immune to emotional decision making, but his emotions are inexorably connected to his premise that Objectivism is absolute. It's why he's such a relaxed, contented fellow.)

Consequently, the current position of most Americans is probably the best we can arrive at from the pespective of our existing metaparadigm. If and when the metaparadigm changes, so will society's conclusions - about this and many other issues.

Damien said...

Michael H,

Yes verbal arguments do sometimes sway people, but is Rush's audience made up of people who agree with him because he is good at persuading people, or because people who think like him to begin with, would be the ones most likely to enjoy listening to him. For example how many liberals don't listen to rush and instead enjoy other talks show hosts more, because their values are already more compatible with them? This of course does not mean Rush has swayed no one with his arguments, for example, he changed my thinking on a few things. But the question still remains, what percentage of them are conservatives because they listened to Rush and what percentage of them listen to Rush because they are conservatives? Beyond that, what percentage of Rush's listeners who become conservatives after they started listening to him, became conservatives because of Rush, and not becouse something else?

Michael H said...

I think the operative phrase, Damien, is "core beliefs".

There are few issues that elicit more passionate feelings on both sides that the abortion issue. Those powerful emotions are an indicator of underlying fundamental beliefs that people regard as absolute. When this is the case, it's been my observation that positions don't change unless someone has some sort of significant inner shift within themselves that bears on the question at hand.

As far as Rush Limbaugh, my best guess (and that's all it is), is that the majority of his listeners agree with his core assumptions, and enjoy listening to him because he does articulate his positions in a lucid and entertaining fashion. As you say, those who listen to liberal voices are similarly likely to be aligned with the core values expressed by the personality.

There are instances where someone may discover that there are aspects of many issues that someone may not have considered before, and may find themselves reversing positions after some reflection. Evaluating opposing arguments can contribute to this, but that will only occur if someone considers things with a calm, clear perspective. The before and after polling of the audiences at the debates held by Intelligence Squared demonstrates this.

The abortion issue does not lend itself to calm, clear perspectives though, due to the emotional component involved. Whatever arguments are put forth serve to contribute to the polarization rather than persuade opponents, and there aren't many fence-sitters regarding abortion.

john said...

What is the position of the author of this piece on the differentiation between the legality of a woman choosing to obtain an abortion (and the doctor performing it) versus the personal morality of that choice? Are they one and the same?

John Donohue

Wells said...

Arguments in the Abortion debate that make sense tend to revolve around some definition about when a human life begins. There will be an event before which a fetus really isn't a person, and after which a fetus is. I don't know enough about biology to make an exhaustive list of such possible events, but popular ones are

Birth,
Development of nerve cells,
Implantation of the embryo on the uterus,
fertilization,

The point that one believes that human life actually begins is usually the point that someone will set abortion in normal cases. In extraordinary cases, like if the life of the mother is threatened you pretty much have to allow abortion at any time, just like if your life is threatened by a grown up, you have some right to not be punished if you kill them.

Simon_Lote said...

The argument I find most convincing is that since we don't know when the fetus becomes a human being the practice of abortion is immoral as one may well be killing an infant because it is convinient to.

As to whether it should be made illegal is another matter.

john said...

The most interesting contrary I have even encountered to the idea that a fetus is actually a person with rights, living inside another person with rights is this (proposed by radical feminists) paraphrashing: 'If I have no right to terminate a pregnancy because the person inside me has rights, then I choose to kill it in self defense; it invaded me with no permission and it could easily kill me.'

This is not necessarily my thought; I am reporting a 'take' that I have encountered. It is provocative and interesting, because it exposes the elephant in the livingroom of those who say "a fetus has rights" and then stand on that point with such fanaticism that they blank out the rights of the woman.

John Donohue

gregnyquist said...

"What is the position of the author of this piece on the differentiation between the legality of a woman choosing to obtain an abortion (and the doctor performing it) versus the personal morality of that choice? Are they one and the same?"

The morality and legality are not necessarily the same. There are plenty of immoral acts that are and should be entirely legal, such as adultery or binge drinking in the privacy of one's home. Most abortions probably should be regarded as immoral, since, whether or not a fetus is a human life, it is life of some sort and it is best both for individuals and for society to have a kind of sanctity about life that would make them shrink from using abortion as a method of birth control. And considering all the sophisticated forms of birth control at our disposal, there is no reason that anyone needs to be resorting to abortion to achieve that end. So other than in instances of rape and where the life of the mother is at risk, abortion is best seen as immoral.

john said...

Thank you for clarifying that. As it happens, we agree.

John Donohue

Michael Sutcliffe said...

I don't think John Donahue's second last post above has been addressed at all in this thread. There are two questions here: 1) What rights does the foetus have? and 2) What obligations does the woman have to support it at a sacrifice to herself (potentially to the point of risking her own life)?

I think both points are just as relevant and necessary when taking an ethical stance on abortion.

gregnyquist said...

Michael Sutcliffe: "I don't think John Donahue's second last post above has been addressed at all in this thread."

The "radical feminist" argument that John introduces is convincing only in regards to women who are raped or when the life of the mother is in danger. It is not in the least convincing in regards to woman whose life is not in danger and who became pregnant voluntarily. Indeed, from a pro-choice point of view, it is a bad argument, because it admits the possibility that fetus is a human life—and if a fetus is a human life, it seems difficult to justify murdering it because it inconviences the pregnant woman. After all, who believes that murder is justified for reasons of inconvenience? Self-defense suggests more than mere inconvenience; it suggests that one's life is in danger.

Michael Sutcliffe said...

gregnyquist: It is not in the least convincing in regards to woman whose life is not in danger and who became pregnant voluntarily. Indeed, from a pro-choice point of view, it is a bad argument, because it admits the possibility that fetus is a human life—and if a fetus is a human life, it seems difficult to justify murdering it because it inconviences the pregnant woman. After all, who believes that murder is justified for reasons of inconvenience?

Well, if I've tried every possible reasonable means to remove a person from my property or stop them denying my own freedom, and the only way I can do this is to kill them, then I would consider that justified. Of course, their right to life does need to be respected, so a force continuum would need to be employed to ensure every opportunity of not endangering their life. But if there was no other way I have no obligation to sacrifice my life (or my property i.e. my life's work) to them.

Your argument states that a woman can avoid pregnancy via contraception, but if she falls pregnant she then has an obligation to the life she supports. I suppose her option then is to put up the child for adoption - but I think its a big ask for her to carry the child and go through child birth if she doesn't want to. There is no question she is sacrificing a good part of her life to another person against her will and you are maintaining this is her moral obligation.

My personal take is that current abortion laws have the balance about right. She does have some months where the life is effectively not yet human life, and she has no obligation to sustain that organism in her body. After that point we accept that we have a human being. I guess we may know more about when this point occurs when we understand more about consciousness. Until then I think we've made the best guess we can. In the future we also may be able to do something about that self-conscious foetus without forcing a woman to go through child birth.

Granted, the fetus does not yet possess volitional consciousness, but neither does a man who is asleep. Does that grant a serial murderer the right to enter his home, loot his property and kill one whom he mistakenly judges to be “potentially awake”? The fact that that particular man (or child) will, if unhindered, be able to exercise his volitional consciousness, classifies him as a human being.

I agree this argument really is quite hopeless. It also raises the question about immediately pre-conception, eg if a woman has a douche immediately after sex, is she killing the child?! I mean, if she did nothing, you'll still get the 'genetic code for a uniquely adjusted rational faculty' to which you refer? Which leads on to wearing a condom, I mean if you did nothing you'll still get your 'genetic code'?! Oh my God, the Catholics are right!!

SRegan said...

Mark La Vigne's argument is at least partially faulty because the same could be said of a transplantable organ, which could be moved from one person to another but is clearly not alive or endowed with rights. Like the fetus it cannot survive alone without freezing - only as part of a body.

Having said that, I find it strange that mainstream Objectivists use the 'part-of-the-body' argument because it contains the assumption that if it were NOT part of the body and in fact a human being that one would be obliged to carry it to term as a moral responsibility, which seems deeply antithetical to other elements of Objectivist ethics.

Why don't they use Thomson's 'violinist' thought experiment and argue (as seems completely natural to their position) that while a fetus is human, it is not murder to terminate its life? They even lay the groundwork by describing the fetus as 'parasitical'. It seems completely logical that an Objectivist should consider a fetus to be human but morally killable - but they don't, because Rand didn't use that argument.

Are there actually any Objectivists who use scientific evidence to try and set a time limit on abortion - for example 24 weeks, the start of brain activity? That Objectivism does not seem free to consider what 'is' in determining what 'ought' seems damning to its claim to be logic-based.