Wednesday, October 27, 2004

An exchange on "pro-choice" logic

I recently forwarded an email to several colleagues with what I consider to be an absolutely brilliant parody of pro-choice logic by Robert P. George, Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, a graduate of Harvard Law School with his doctorate in philosophy of law from Oxford University. George currently sits on the President's Council of Bioethics and is author of numerous books on constitutional law and jurisprudence. His parody on pro-choice logic runs as follows:
"I am personally opposed to killing abortionists. However, inasmuch as my personal opposition to this practice is rooted in sectarian (Catholic) religious belief in the sanctity of human life, I am unwilling to impose it on others who may, as a matter of conscience, take a different view. Of course, I am entirely in favor of policies aimed at removing the root causes of violence against abortionists. Indeed, I would go as far as supporting mandatory one-week waiting periods, and even non-judgmental counseling, for people who are contemplating the choice of killing an abortionist. I believe in policies that reduce the urgent need some people feel to kill abortionists while, at the same time, respecting the rights of conscience of my fellow citizens who believe that the killing of abortionists is sometimes a tragic necessity—not a good, but a lesser evil. In short, I am moderately 'pro-choice.'"
One colleague responded as follows:


This is hilarious. Some comments:

First, I think it interesting that the author's impressive credentials need to be given after the parody. This would not be necessary if the parody were in fact logical--if the effect on most reasonable people would not be to make them scratch their heads in bewilderment.
I disagree. Most people these days are so image driven and clueless about logic (witness the response of the instant polling to the debates) that they often need some authority reference to make them sit up and pay attention, in my experience. Impressive credentials can do that, though (as you may mean to suggest) they neither reinforce nor undermine the inherent logic of an argument.

The fact that a deduction makes people scratch their heads means nothing in itself. It could mean the problem is faulty, or that they don't have the brains to get a valid inference.

One fallacious syllogism I like is:
Nothing is better than sex.
Sushi is better than nothing.
Therefore, sushi is better than sex.
Which usually has my students tied in knots for days.
Second, it's question-begging, isn't it? The piece is "logic"al only if you assume that a fetus is a "life" in the same sense that an abortionist is a "life." And many people think it is, of course, but that's exactly the question that the abortion debate always comes down to, and people who want to contribute to the debate would have to answer the question clearly and persuasively and not just beg it.
Well, it's an ad hominem parody, which indeed illustrates that the original piece of Kerry logic is question begging, if that's what you mean.
I don't find Kerry a very impressive candidate, as I have said. I have yeat to even hear a rumor of anyone who does--he's somebody's compomise. And all the negative advertising is disappointing. But I would honestly ask you--do you really think that reasoning like this has the potential to or is even intended to persuade real people who are not inclined to agree with it? It seems to me like cheer-leading for one's own tribe--the kind of thing one hears on commercial radio and finds on personal sky-writing web blogs and sites.
Hey, I became a Roman Catholic because of a footnote I read in a textbook on the history and philosophy of law. People change their minds for all sorts of things, and if they can be made to see that a political statement is a piece of question-begging propaganda, that's at least a step in the right direction: a bit o' fluff, a piece of sophistry will have been seen through. Hazzah!
Well, I haven't read the Kerry piece--do you have it handy? I'm aware of his general position and heard what he said at the third debate on the topic of abortion. I'm not immediately sure, though, that, since the parody you distributed is question-begging, the original Kerry position must be. So perhaps you can enlighten me. To me, he's seeing abortion as a religious but not a legal question: he opposes it but opposes legislating against it. I can see ways to attack that view, but I'm not sure it's question-begging. Is it? Perhaps I've missed something--I haven't been following the campaign very closely.
This piece of reasoning is hardly unique to Kerry. I heard Kerry use it in the debates, and I hear it all the time from people who want to support a position but feel some embarrassment at doing so in certain venues and therefore excuse themselves by distinguishing between private conviction and public policy. Now such a distinction might support a case where ignoring it would actually endanger the life of another individual. But what Robbie Georges' parody illustrates is that in most cases people would be appalled by this sort of 'reasoning' if it were turned against themselves on some other issue where their moral scruples would override their (often hypocritical) public/private dualism. The fact that people with religious views hold certain moral views on certain public policy questions has no bearing on the issue that I can see. I can't think of any public policy that doesn't involve legislating somebody's morality. Religious people believe rape is wrong. So what? There are non-religious people who think that killing of helpless innocent human beings is wrong too. What gives the protection of the innocent unborn the warrant of public policy is not that some religious people have views about it, but that helpless, innocent human life deserves protection, and that everyone can readily see this whether they like it or not, or whether it's convenient or not. This is why those who support abortion stoop to euphemisms that conceal the brutality of the practice and why they insist on the dualism of being "privately opposed." Is is not? For some thirty years the debate has no longer been over whether the fetus is human, but whether we have the right to kill and dispose of human life when it's an inconvenience. Intellectual integrity requires that we as a nation face this fact. The main reason hormonal contraception was fully legalized in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965) was the pressure from society to engage in unimpeded sex: the primary reason abortion was legalized in Roe v. Wade (1973) was as backup contraception animated by the same intention. 4000 lives per day. Nazis, eat your hearts out. As Eddie Izzard puts it: Blas-ph'me, blas-ph-o-you, blas-ph-o-everybody ...
I think that eventually someone would raise the question of whether the "logic" of the parody would apply if the abortionist were connected by an umbilical cord to a female and were in residence within her. What I'm assuming is that some would probably assert that those circumstances would make a difference, while certainly others would not. Your parody seems to me written solely for the amusement and self-congratulation of the latter, and so I can't imagine it being persuasive at all. But then, I haven't seen the piece the parody is parodying, so I may be wrong.
You haven't seen how this piece succeeds in being parody? C'mon, my friend. Even our staunch Democrat colleague in Political Science could see that, though he didn't like it. He tried to turn it against Robert George by applying it to Bush's preemptive incursion into Iraq, though he didn't see that that would provide precisely the pretext Bush people WANT, namely an exception to the rule that preemptive warfare is always wrong.

As to amusement, I confess that I find the parody amusing, though only in a tragi-comic sort of way. I see nothing amusing about the killing of innocent human beings, whether in Iraq or in utero.

Martin Niemoeller, a Lutheran pastor during the Nazi administration of Germany, wrote the following:
"First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out-- because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out-- because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the Catholics, and I did not speak out-- because I was not a Catholic;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me-- and there was no one left to speak out for me."

Order the following books by Robert P. George here: