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Yvain comments on Blues, Greens and abortion - Less Wrong

6 Post author: Snowyowl 05 March 2011 07:15PM

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Comment author: Yvain 05 March 2011 08:03:34PM *  46 points [-]

Seeing this makes me happy because I had a similar revelation a few years ago and it always makes me mad to see people use the glaringly bad justification for being pro-choice which you've overcome. On the other hand, after thinking about the matter quite a bit I still am pro-choice. You say:

On the other hand, as little as it is, it still represents a human life

I think the key word is "represents".

A lot of bad reasoning seems to come from proving a controversial idea can be fit into a category of things that are mostly bad, and then concluding that the controversial idea, too, must be mostly bad.

For example, some people are opposed to a project to genetically engineer diseases like cystic fibrosis out of the human genome, because that's a form of "eugenics". I think this is supposed to cash out as saying that the CF project shares some surface features with what the Nazis did and what those American Southerners who tried to force-sterilize black people did, and those two things are definitely bad, so the CF project must also be bad.

The counterargument is that the features it shares with the Nazi project and the Southern project are not the features that made those two programs bad. Those two programs were bad because they involved hurting people, either through death or through force-sterilization, without their consent. The CF elimination project hopefully would be voluntary and would not damage the people involved. Therefore, although it shares some similarities with the Nazi project and the Southern project (it's about genetics, it's intended to improve the species, etc), those aren't relevant to this moral question and the argument "But it's eugenics" is flawed.

(If you haven't read the 37 Ways Words Can Be Wrong sequence, I suggest that now. Think of a person taking a blue egg that contains vanadium, pointing to a bin full of blue eggs that contain palladium, and saying "But this is a blegg, and we all know bleggs contain palladium!" Well, no.)

The "human life" issue strikes me as very similar. "Taking a human life" is a large category mostly full of bad things. It contains things like stabbing a teenager with a knife, poisoning a senator, strangling an old person in a nursing home, starving a toddler, et cetera. All of these are really bad. They're really bad for various reasons including that they cause the person pain, that they disrupt society, that they violate the person's preference not to be killed, et cetera.

Abortion possibly does fit into the category of "taking a human life." But although it shares the surface features of that category, it isn't clear whether or not it shares the interesting moral feature which is exactly what the whole argument is about. Killing you or me is bad because we understand death and have preferences against it and don't want to die. Whether or not killing a fetus is bad depends on whether or not the fetus also satisfies those conditions - not on whether from a certain angle the problem looks like other cases that satisfy those conditions.

The question isn't whether or not we want to stick the fetus into an artificial category called "human", it's whether it has the specific features that make that category relevant to this particular problem in the first place.

See Leaky Generalizations and Replace The Symbol With The Substance

Comment author: Vladimir_M 07 March 2011 12:38:26AM *  4 points [-]

The trouble with this reasoning is that universally accepted norms cannot be based on lines drawn at arbitrary points. There must be a strong focal (Schelling) point where the lines are drawn, or otherwise they will soon be pushed in one direction or another. Or to put it differently, slippery slope arguments usually have at least some validity.

With this in mind, arguments against things based on placing them into common categories with bad things can be perfectly valid in a very important sense. Yes, they usually produce powerful propagandistic rhetoric as a side-effect, and sometimes that is their primary purpose. However, often there are no convenient focal points where you would ideally like to draw the lines, and the best available focal points are around some much broader category, so if you won't draw the lines around the broader category, there is a very real possibility that some pressure will push them all the way to things you'd definitely want to prevent.

So, for example, people who want to draw the line so as to condemn all eugenics (under some coherent and widely accepted definition of the term) have a workable focal point to defend. In contrast, if you'd like to draw the lines around some forms of eugenics and not others according to some sophisticated ethical analysis, chances are such norms would be unstable and the lines would soon be moved in one direction or another.

Comment author: Nisan 07 March 2011 03:17:38AM 4 points [-]

We may draw a distinction between what is right and what should be proposed as a social norm. The former informs the latter.

Comment author: wnoise 07 March 2011 04:17:52AM 6 points [-]

There must be a strong focal (Schelling) point where the lines are drawn

In this particular case, birth seems like an excellent conservative line.

Comment author: Pfft 08 March 2011 04:44:58AM 0 points [-]

Surely not -- almost everyone (and the law in all countries as far as I am aware) agrees that there is some time after which is no longer permissible to have an abortion (except in circumstances where there mother's life is in danger, etc), and that that time is earlier than birth.

Comment author: wnoise 08 March 2011 11:45:56AM 3 points [-]

That merely means that it will be hard to convince people to adopt that line, not that it isn't a Schelling point, nor that it is not a conservative one with respect to the issues of harm to a person.

In any case, here are two countries:


In Canada there are no legal restrictions at all. The laws were struck down by their Supreme Court, and no others laws have been passed.


In Australia it is regulated by state, not nationally. In the ACT, there are no restrictions whatever. They repealed the previous abortion code entirely.

Neither of these means it is trivial to get a late term abortion, of course. Not criminalized is not the same thing as unregulated as a medical procedure.

Comment author: Snowyowl 05 March 2011 08:41:51PM *  5 points [-]

And a fetus lacks the sentience which makes humans so important, so killing it, while still undesirable, is less so than the loss of freedom which is the alternative. Thanks! I'm convinced again.

Comment author: virtualAdept 05 March 2011 10:48:27PM *  1 point [-]

Thanks for this. I can hopefully avoid ruining my afternoon by writing a long (and similar) post about this now.

I live in a state where a legislator is trying to mandate investigation of miscarriages to see if it was accidental or if the mother was "guilty" of "murdering" her fetus. It's absurd because abortions are still legal in the US despite being increasingly difficult to get access to, but that's the level of [strong language redacted] that's been getting a horrifying amount of air time lately.

Comment author: Armok_GoB 06 March 2011 06:43:22PM 0 points [-]

This should be a top level post.

Comment author: orthonormal 18 March 2013 05:30:27AM 4 points [-]

And indeed, Yvain later made a top-level post of (a generalized form of) it.

Comment author: Yvain 07 March 2011 12:04:25AM *  1 point [-]

I haven't top-levelled this specific line of thinking because I figured it was already addressed in the two Sequence posts mentioned at the bottom. If people who have read the sequences agree that they didn't get this exact implication when they first read them, I'll top-level it.

Comment author: MugaSofer 08 December 2013 09:15:29PM 0 points [-]

And yet, pro-choice individuals seem to object to referring to the individual in question as a baby - a much stronger analogy - far more strongly than they do to calling them a "human" or even "human life".


With all due (and considerable - I'm something of a fan of yours) respect; how many pro-lifers do you think are actually reasoning in the manner you describe?

I sure don't know. I may be "pro-life", but I'm conscious that I am in no sense a typical pro-lifer. Many of them seem to rely on "natural law", which is childishly easy to deconstruct, and to object to contraception, homosexuality or other practices I do not object to.

But selection effects well in mind, it seems to me I've heard this argument many times before - and always in the mouths of pro-choice individuals making this argument, not pro-lifers describing or justifying the position they actually hold.