Abortion and the slippery slope

I was scrolling through twitter and came across a conversation about abortion. NO surprise there, but what surprised me was seeing a classic bad argument telegraphed by someone I wouldn’t have expected it from. Here’s the relevant bit:

@yeselson to @jneeley78: A fetus does not have the same qualities as a 10 month old infant. There is a sharp break.

And then

@DouthatNYT to @yeselson and @jneely78: A fetus does not have the same qualities but there is *not* a sharp break. That’s the entire problem.

@DouthatNYT to @yeselson and @jneely78: The 1-day old infant is indistinguishable from the negative-1-day-old fetus, etc.

It wouldn’t be fair to Ross Douthat to suppose I could figure out his his detailed view about abortion from two tweets. But whatever the view may be (I know he’s against it, in any case), the “no bright line” argument has been used to make the case against abortion, and it’s a bad argument. It’s bad no matter what the best view of abortion may be.

One reason is related to Richard Yeselson’s tweet. Douthat is right: there’s no sharp break between fetus and 10 month old infant. There’s no point along the path from fetus to 10-month-old where we find a sudden, dramatic change. Nonetheless, I suspect what Yeselson really meant was something else: there’s a dramatic difference between a fetus and a 10-month-old. The difference is even more dramatic as we move back from fetus to embryo to conceptus. Suppose someone thinks that the qualities a 10-month old has make it wrong to kill the child. Suppose the same person thinks that a two-week-old embryo doesn’t have any of the relevant characteristics. That view may be right or wrong, defensible or indefensible, but the argument will turn on what characteristics are and aren’t relevant; not on whether there’s a bright line between creatures that have them and creatures that don’t.

The logic of the point is even clearer if we turn the argument around. Someone might think it’s not wrong to abort a two-week-old embryo because the embryo doesn’t have any of the features a creature needs to be given moral consideration. For example: the two-week-old embryo can’t feel pain; it doesn’t have a mind in any interesting sense of the word “mind”; it has no emotions, attachments, personality, concerns about its future. You may think there are other reasons why it would be wrong to abort it; for all I’m saying, you may be right. But whether you’re right or not, the following argument is just plain crazy:

  • Premise: It’s not wrong to kill a 2-week-old embryo.
    Premise There’s a continuous developmental path from 2-week-old embryo to adult human being, with no sharp breaks or discontinuities.
    Therefore, it’s not wrong to kill an adult human being.

Even if you accept the premises, you don’t have the slightest reason to accept the conclusion. Furthermore, adding extra premises won’t help. The conclusion is false. Any collection of premises that imply a false conclusion can’t all be true. But if the continuity argument worked in one direction, it would have to work in the other.

In fact, it works in neither. In fact, the whole business of missing bright lines is irrelevant. Suppose human development was a matter of stutters and saltations. Suppose that instead of continuity, there were sharp leaps across large gulfs. All of a sudden a fetus can feel pain just as you or I can, when 24 hours earlier, it couldn’t feel at all. All of a sudden, the fetus can process complex information, when just the day before, it had no more mind than a mollusk. If someone thought that abortion was wrong, would large gaps like this be a reason for them to change their mind? I can’t see why. After all, if someone had thought abortion was not wrong, would sharp breaks in development give them a reason to change their mind?

Discontinuity might matter psychologically: it would make distinctions stand out. That might focus the mind, but it wouldn’t settle the question. If you think it’s only wrong to kill creatures with the right cluster of characteristics, discontinuity might help you write clear rules. But if you think, for example, that it’s wrong to kill a creature who will eventually come to have those characteristics, the fact that the path calls for leaping across chasms wouldn’t change the argument.

Blurry borders are more the rule than the exception. A normal adult is responsible for her decisions. A 9-month old isn’t. There’s no bright line in between and yet some people really are responsible and others really aren’t.

Continuities can make for practical problems. Laws and policies have to be clear to be applied fairly. But that kind of problem is a routine part of lawmaking. It doesn’t get us anywhere in trying to decide when abortion should be permitted, if ever. After all, slippery slope arguments are called fallacies for a reason.

Science and Religion: A Small Patch of Common Ground?

If someone argues for common ground between science and religion, some people will resist, and some people—maybe the same ones—will misunderstand. And so it might help to point out what I’m not about to do. I’m not offering a defense of theism. In fact, if someone insists that the point I’m making isn’t really about religion, I’m not necessarily inclined to disagree. But I suspect many scientists hold beliefs that go beyond anything the evidence could ever show, and that they hold them because they think the world wouldn’t make sense without them. And even though it doesn’t exhaust religion, a religious outlook is partly a matter of thinking that the world makes sense in a way that isn’t just a matter of our projecting sense onto it.

My point takes us back to my favorite philosopher, David Hume. Hume is my favorite not because I agree with him (I often don’t) but because the question “What would Hume say?” is so often so useful. It’s a reminder that many of the things we think are a lot less obvious than we’d like.

In particular, I want to focus on what Hume had to say about cause and effect, and about laws of nature. I won’t worry about whether what I say captures what the real Hume thought. My Hume is the one most philosophers met as undergrads. It’s also the one behind David Lewis’s term “Humean supervenience.” This Hume believed that there’s no such thing as causal connection. There’s no “nexus” between cause and effect that connects them and underwrites the production of the effect from the cause. If this Hume is right, then we can talk of forces and powers as shorthand ways of describing regularities in the phenomena, but we have no good argument for thinking of them as something that glues things together and keep the world running. The world, on this view, is just one damn thing after another. As it happens, the damn things form patterns—or at least so they have so far in the parts of the whole that we have access to. But there’s nothing deep about this; there’s no underlying necessity. To use Lewis’s useful word, there’s just the mosaic—the totality of events, with whatever regularities it contains. To put it another way, Nature doesn’t have a nature.

I don’t have data, but I’d bet that most scientists don’t see the world that way. I’d bet a great many scientists think that forces, structure, causes, laws underly the patterns we see rather than being exhausted by them. One reason is that it’s hard to keep the Humean picture in your head. Hume—unlike many Humeans—was honest about this. I sometimes suspect that he was the only Humean in history devoid of bad faith. If the Humean picture is correct, then the way events in the world are arranged just is; there’s no deep difference between a world with laws and a massive cosmic coincidence. We count patterns as laws, and we describe things with causal talk when the patterns happen to turn out in certain ways. But in Hume’s wonderful phrase, all things really are loose and separate. Even the fact that the end of your sentences bear a rational relationship to their beginnings is, sub specie aeternitatis, just a lucky fluke.

I doubt that any of us can seriously see ourselves as Humeanism requires. Insofar as we take ourselves to be rational agents, we can’t also see ourselves as Humean congeries. But my guess is that when scientists think about the world beyond themselves, they also reject the Humean view. I’d expect this to be particularly true of physicists. I’d expect them to be particularly inclined to think that our best theories are getting at something deep. Nonetheless, there’s no empirical justification for looking at the world that way. Nothing that could ever turn up in ordinary observation nor in the lab is incompatible with Humeanism. There’s at least a logically possible world where Humeanism is true and all the appearances are exactly as they are in this one.

I sometimes joke that my religion is that I’m not a Humean. The point is that I don’t think I can show that the Humean picture is false, but I can’t shake the thought that the world makes more sense than Humeanism allows. If naturalism is the view that everything important about the world is scientifically accessible, then I’m not a naturalist.

This doesn’t add up to religion. Religious believers have more elaborated views of what gives the world its sense. But unless you’re a rare sort of person, I’m betting you’re not a Humean (maybe even if you say you are!). And so I’m betting that you think there’s more to the world than science can tell us. At least to that extent, you have something in common with religious believers even if you usually think otherwise.

Doctors and Torture

Count me among the many people who were disgusted to read about the role of physicians and psychologists in torturing supposed terrorists. This post isn’t remotely intended to defend them. It’s on one of those picky and perhaps perverse hypotheticals that philosophers tend to spend their time on. In particular it’s about a post by Bill Gardner on the excellent blog The Incidental Economist. Here’s a link: http://theincidentaleconomist.com/wordpress/torture-and-professional-ethics-there-is-no-defense/

Bill distinguishes two questions: (1) “is an extenuating circumstance defense of torture ever morally valid?”, and (2) “is an extenuating circumstance defense open to physicians and psychologists?” Bill thinks the answer to the first question is no, and he provides links to two papers by Henry Shue for his reasons. We read Shue’s argument somewhat differently; I don’t think Shue means quite what Bill thinks he does. However, that’s not important for present purposes. Bill’s argument doesn’t depend on answering “No” to question (1). What he says is this:

The answer to the latter question is clear. Physicians and psychologists cannot participate in torture.

To make his point, Bill quotes from the explicit, written ethical codes of doctors’ and psychologists’ professional associations. Here are a couple of salient bits. First, from the AMA code of ethics

Physicians must oppose and must not participate in torture for any reason.

Second, from the American Psychological Association’s code of conduct:

Torture in any form, at any time, in any place, and for any reason, is unethical for psychologists

Bill sums his point up this way:

The extenuating circumstances defense has been anticipated and is explicitly ruled out. You cannot be an ethical physician or psychologist and participate in torture.

We may be almost in agreement. I find it hard to imagine any circumstances that would justify a doctor or psychologist participating in torture. I might even be persuaded that there aren’t any such circumstances at all. But I’m not satisfied with the form of the argument.

Suppose a physician or a psychologist binds herself in good faith to the Code of Conduct of her association. Suppose she’s taken an oath. No doubt about it: oaths create moral obligations. But so do other things. And sometimes obligations come into conflict. If the oath a physician took comes into conflict with another obligation, the fact that she took an oath doesn’t tell us what she should do all things considered.

Lest we get sidetracked into questions about whether moral obligations can ever really conflict, let me put the point in a slightly different way. Taking an oath (or binding oneself to a code of conduct in whatever way) creates a pro tanto obligation. That’s the term people tend to prefer nowadays for what W. D. Ross call prima facie obligations. Whatever we call them, the point is that they can be overridden. And to use the language Bill has already invoked, when they are overridden, it’s generally due to what we call exenuating circumstances.

The idea is straightforward. Suppose I’ve promised to drive you to the airport. I’m in my car on the way to pick you up and I see someone collapsed in the middle of the road. It’s pretty clear that I don’t do wrong if I stop and help the person, even if the result is that I can’t get to you in time to take you to the airport. I haven’t kept my promise to you. But (adjust the circumstances to suit your mileage) I’d be a worse person if I had. In fact, all things considered, I would have made a morally bad decision if I’d stood by my promise.

Now the language of the AMA and APA codes may seem to defeat my point. The codes are written in absolute terms: under no circumstances will a doctor or psychologist do such and such. Now there may be very good pragmatic reasons for writing the codes in that way. Doing what they forbid is very likely to be very wrong. But considered purely as moral demands, the codes overstep. Considered purely as moral demands, they assume that the code-makers have sorted out in advance what morality would demand of us in all possible cases. Don’t know about you, but there’s nobody I have that much moral faith in. No one is morally bound to refrain from doing what emerges as the right thing because of a prior commitment that couldn’t reasonably have been expected to anticipate every potential extenuating circumstance.

This mean that if there really are cases where torture is the least bad alternative, then that could be a reason for the doctor or psychologist to set her oath aside. Keep in mind: I’m not saying there really are any such cases. But I am saying that I don’t know that there aren’t.

The final point has to do with how Bill words his conclusion. He says that “You cannot be an ethical physician or psychologist and participate in torture.” There are two ways to understand this. One is that if you’re a doctor or psychologist, you can’t participate in torture and be in compliance with the stated ethical code of your profession. That I grant, but it doesn’t get to what I see as the nub of the matter. The other reading is that if you’re a doctor or psychologist, you can’t participate in torture and be doing the right thing, all things considered. To repeat, there may not be any cases that rise to the right level of extenuation. I don’t think for a moment that the ones described in the Senate report do.What makes what those post-9/11 doctors and psychologists did wrong is not just that they violated an oath. It’s that what they did would have been wrong even if they hadn’t taken any such oath.  But the question is whether an appeal to  codes of professional ethics can make the case all by itself. I’m saying it can’t.




Man, Woman, Toilet Seat

Whether or not you believe there’s a Battle of the Sexes, there’s one bit of eternally contested territory: what to do with the toilet seat. Casual observation suggests that the dominant view at the moment is that men should always  put it down or leave it down (PIDOLID) when they finish, because women always need it to be down. There’s a superficial ring of good sense to this maxim, but detailed calculations can turn up surprising conclusion. I thereby propose to bring science to bear on the question. I will model the use of a public toilet of the unisex, one-occupant variety, in a locale such as your neighborhood Starbucks. This will call for some assumptions, but I will argue that the results are reasonably robust under changes of those assumptions.

First, the obvious: if everyone followed the PIDOLID rule, women would never need to change the position of the toilet seat. Men, however, would—every time they did #1. This casts a suspicious light on the maxim. However, in the spirit of careful inquiry, let us dig deeper.

Suppose everyone followed the path of least resistance and left the seat where it was when they finished. What would things be like then?*

I will suppose that men and women visit the Starbucks toilet independently and with equal frequency. That means the probability that the next visitor will be male is .5, as is the probability that the visitor will be female. I will also assume that whether the visitor executes a #1 or a #2 is independent of the sex of the visitor. In other words, if all you know is the sex of the person entering the restroom, this provides no information about the function s/he is about to execute. Finally, we need information about the frequency of Nature’s two kinds of calls. I will assume that 4 out of 5 are for #1, so that the probability of a #1 performance is .8, with the probability of a #2 performance therefore .2

Now we need these two probabilities:

  1. The probability that the visitor is a male who will have to adjust the seat position
  2. The probability that the visitor is a female who will have to adjust the seat position

Let us begin with 1. The event in question occurs in three circumstances:

a) The visitor is male AND performs #1 AND the previous visitor was female

b) The visitor is male AND the performs #1 AND the previous visitor was a male who performed #2.

c) the visitor is male AND the visitor performs #2 AND the previous visitor was a male who performed #1.

Because of our independence assumptions, these probabilities are:

a) .5 x .8 x .5 = .2

b) .5 x .8 x (.5 x .2) = .04

c) .5 x .2 x (.5 x .8) = 04

Adding, we get .28. That is: 28% of the time, the visitor will be a male who need to adjust the seat position. The conditional probability now follows quickly. Under this regime, the probability  that you will need to adjust the seat given that you are a male is .28/.5, which is .56, or 56%.

Now let us perform the parallel calculation for female visitors. Assuming everyone leaves the seat where it was at the end of business, and assuming that the assumptions we have made are correct, there is only one circumstance in which a female visitor will need to adjust the seat position:

d) The visitor is female AND the previous visitor was a male who performed #1.

Once again, using our independence assumptions, this is an easy calculation. We have

d) .5 x (.5 x .8) = .2

That is, 20%. The conditional probability that the visitor will need to adjust the seat given that the visitor is female is .2/.5 = .4

Thus: If everyone leaves the seat where it was when they finished, men will need to adjust the seat 56% of the time, women 40%.

The assumptions are not based on actual measurement; my local Starbucks would frown on standing around outside the toilet for prolonged periods, let alone asking patrons what task they just performed. The assumption that type of task is independent of the sex of the performer is perhaps open to some doubt, but it seems unlikely that it’s too far off the mark. In any case, we can check the robustness of the results under adjustment of the frequency assumptions.

Suppose, for example, that the ratio of #1 to #2 is 3:1 rather than 4:1, giving us p(#1) = .75. Then if men and women visit the convenience equally often, men will need to adjust the seat position 56.25% of the time, to women’s 37.5%.

Suppose that we keep the #1 to #2 ratio at 3:1 and assume that men make 60% of washroom visits. Men will still need to adjust the seat position 52.5 of the time, versus 45% for women. (Seat of the pants guessing suggests that the 3:1 ratio is too low; perhaps a grant application is in order.) In any case, it is perhaps worth noting that if 2/3 of bathroom breaks are taken by men, and if the #1 to #2 ratio is 3:1, then men and women will each need to adjust the seat position 50% of the time. (The policy implications of this fact are not entirely clear.)

What we see, then, is that under reasonably robust assumptions, if everyone leaves the seat where it was when they finished, men will need to move it more often than women. Whether this is a welcome result will no doubt vary with the reader. However, we should all be able to agree on two things: men who leave the seat down when performing #1 are to be roundly condemned, as are women who hover and spray.

*A common complaint against members of my sex is that this is just what they actually do.

Israel and Syria – Not the Same Story

There’s a rhetorical trope about Israel that I’ve seen a lot lately. It’s meant to suggest that if you’re angry at Israel for what’s happening in Gaza, you’re a hypocrite because what’s happening in Syria is far worse, includes killing innocent Palestinians, and you give it a lot less attention. This strikes me as missing some points.

Of course what’s happening in Syria is worse than what’s happening in Gaza. Of course Bashar al-Assad is a world-class thug who’s beneath all contempt. Of course what’s happening in Syria is a tragedy of jaw-dropping, mind-numbing proportions. But to point all this out is to point out what’s both obvious and beyond my capacity to know how to respond.

I’m not aware that anyone has any good ideas about what the rest of the world should do about Syria. That’s one big reason why many of us have stopped talking about Syria. But that’s not the only thing.

Assad is in a rarified class, murderous enough to numb the mind. I may not like Netanyahu, but he doesn’t come close the Assad’s level of thuggery. That, however, is part of the point. Assad is a despot; Netanyahu is the elected leader of a democracy, and could be gone in the next election. Assad’s mind is a cipher; I don’t know how to think my way into it. Not so for Netanyahu. I disagree with him. But I can imagine having a rational discussion with him, and I don’t think his view of Israel’s situation is incomprehensible. The point is that what I think I can reasonably expect of Israel and its leaders is far better than what I think I can expect of the Syrian regime.

I suspect that for many people, the reaction to Israel’s actions in Gaza includes a strong sense that the Israeli government should know better than to follow the policies it’s long followed. They should know that doing what they’ve been doing is no way to achieve their goals. I think the Israeli government and the Israeli generals are capable of understanding this. This is exactly why I find it not just puzzling but infuriating that they don’t. (For example: can anyone really think that Israel’s settlement policy is in its long-term interest?) On the other hand, I have no idea what Assad is capable of understanding.

Netanyahu may be many things, but I don’t think “moral monster” is one of them. In Assad’s case I’m not prepared to say that. To use a metaphysical metaphor, the possible world where Israel and Palestine are peaceful neighbors is a lot closer to this one than the possible world in which Assad shows a shred of human decency. That’s why I feel a different kind of anger at Israel’s leaders: it’s anger yoked to disappointment. It’s the kind of anger we feel when those we otherwise love go wrong.

Hobby Lobby and Practicing Science With a Law Degree

The Supreme Court decided the Hobby Lobby case today. The Court ruled that Hobby Lobby doesn’t have to provide birth control through its company health plan. According to the Court, there were other ways to ensure that women who worked for the company had access to contraception—ways less burdensome to the religious liberties of the company’s owners. There’s a quick summary here

Physician and health policy expert Aaron Carroll analyzes the implication for access to contraception here. As he points out, Hobby Lobby doesn’t object to providing all forms of contraception—only those that can prevent fertilized eggs from implanting or prevent implanted. In Hobby Lobby’s view, that includes two forms of IUD and the morning-after pill. As they see it, those methods of birth control produce very early abortions.

I’m going to concede, at least for argument’s sake, that Hobby Lobby is within its rights to refuse to finance abortions in any form, even under the guise of birth control. I’m interested in a different issue. Carroll points out that the best evidence doesn’t support Hobby Lobby’s view about the facts. The best evidence says that neither the IUD nor the morning-after pill work by destroying an already-fertilized egg. In other words, as near as we can tell, neither IUDs nor the morning-after pill cause abortions. Carroll goes on to say

Regardless of the data, or lack of it, many still believe that these forms of contraception are different than others. Today, the Supreme Court gave those beliefs weight. This seems likely to make it harder for women to get contraception in the future.

Let’s divide the issue. Hobby Lobby has religious objections to abortion in any form and claims a right not to help pay for it. Hobby Lobby (by way of its owners) also has a factual belief: IUDs and morning-after pills cause abortions. This second belief isn’t a religious belief, and the best evidence we have suggests that it’s simply wrong. My question, then: how much weight should the Court give to this belief? How much weight should attach to the fact that the plaintiffs think these forms of birth control cause abortions? Is it enough that they believe sincerely that it’s true? Would that be enough no matter how unlikely that it’s actually true? Or is the Court majority in effect weighing in on a scientific question? If so, on what basis? And what about other cases where a sincere religious belief gets coupled to a mistake about the facts? Does the religious belief turn into a protective shield for the factual confusion? Would non-religious moral convictions work the same way? If not, why not?

This is hardly the most important issue in the Hobby Lobby case but it bothers me. Protecting religious freedom is one thing. Protecting the right to burden others with your probably-mistaken view of the facts is another. Has anyone had anything useful to say about this?





Jesse Winchester died last Friday. Over half a lifetime ago, I saw him at a small club in southern Ontario. I remember Rhumba Man. Before the last chorus, he put his guitar down and danced—a tall bearded man moving across the floor with a lanky, angular grace. The audience whooped with delight. 

I hadn’t thought of Jesse Winchester for a while—not until January, when my copy of Rosanne Cash’s The River and the Thread arrived. There are three bonus tracks, and one of them is Biloxi, in a version from the 2012 tribute album Quiet About It. It’s a near-certainty that I’d heard the song before, but I’d forgotten it; somehow back when I first heard it, it didn’t make an impression.

Not so for the version on The River and the Thread. It didn’t sink in immediately, but over a long weekend in March I took a road trip and The River and the Thread was my soundtrack. I kept coming back to Biloxi. It was partly because of John Leventhal’s restrained, almost elegaic arrangement, and partly because Rosanne’s voice sounds as good here as it’s ever sounded, but it was also the song itself.

At first the lyrics seem banal:  a sunny day at a beach; pretty girls who look like sisters; a boy with a pail beside the water, and new Orleans off to the west. The girls are swimming; the storms will blow. The air is filled with vapors; the sun will set. And the boy with the bucket sees creatures from a dream under the water.

We’re somewhere in time, though we don’t know when. Then comes the third verse:

The stars can see Biloxi
The stars can see their faces in the sea

The seemingly small goings-on fall under the gaze of the Universe. And next:

We are walking in the evening by the ocean
We are splashing naked in the water
And the sky is red from off toward New Orleans.

Who is “we?” There’s a longing in Jesse Winchester’s voice when he sings these words. Whatever else may have been so, for him this song was personal. But it wasn’t just personal. When Rosanne Cash sings it, something else comes out: the “we” is the “we” of the prayer or the hymn.  The snapshots that make up the song have been transfigured, taken up into Eternity. The maker of the song was a mystic.

Jesse Winchester died last Friday. Some might say that he has been gathered up into eternity, but that strikes me as cheap comfort. Some might also say that he left precious gifts behind. Maybe there’s more comfort there; at least it has the virtue of being true.