Sunday, 18 May 2014

Abortion, Miscarriage and Differences of Belief

     Last week I happened to be in Ottawa with my wife as she attended a conference, and I was looking forward to touring Parliament. I did finally get to see it on the last day we were there, but the first day it was closed, so after a visit to the Supreme Court, I walked to the Canadian Museum of Nature instead. On the way back, my path was blocked by a rather large parade that explained the reason the houses of Parliament were closed: a major anti-abortion rally was taking place. Fortunately, I was in no hurry, so I stopped into a bookstore on the corner and had a chat with the clerks there while watching the protesters.

     I've written before about how I am torn by the debate over abortion. On the one hand, I think that objectively, morally relevant functional personhood doesn't emerge until some time after a baby has been born. At the same time, I recognize how vitally important it is for parents and others to bond early with babies, and treat them as if they are persons in order to help guide their development into real persons. In short, it's good that so many people believe and act upon something that isn't actually true. So I don't really want to be telling pro-lifers that their babies aren't actually people yet. I want them to talk to and cuddle and interact with their babies as if they were, so I am very reluctant to upset the belief that they are.
     And yet, I strong resist promoting that belief, not only because I believe it to be objectively wrong, but because such a belief can also create a great deal of unnecessary grief. If the fetus is a person and abortion is murder, after all, then miscarriage is the tragic death of a child. And while I do not mean to minimize the very real grief of parents who equate a miscarriage to the loss of a child, I think the author of this article is asking a little too much. She is right to ask us to acknowledge and validate her grief -- it is real -- but in asking us to talk about her miscarriage as the loss of an actual rather than a potential child, she wants to invalidate the feelings of people like myself and my wife, who have suffered miscarriages as disappointments rather than tragedies. One doesn't usually think of an absence of grief as something that needs validation, and to be sure we don't need to be consoled or comforted the way a grieving person does, but that isn't an excuse to dismiss our feelings as inauthentic or worse, heartless. We honestly don't feel like grieving parents of dead children, and I'm not sure there's any good reason why we ought to.

     Yet I'm still not comfortable with this as an answer. The same structure of argument could be applied to something like slavery. If I were a slave owner who genuinely, sincerely believed that slaves are not legally or morally persons, lack souls and don't feel pain or suffer in any meaningful way, then would my failure to feel guilty over whipping them be worthy of validation and respect by people who believe otherwise? I wouldn't think so. Moreover, I wouldn't want to say that slavery should be tolerated because people who believe slaves are persons aren't obliged to keep them, but have no right to impose that belief on others who do want to keep slaves. I categorically reject that argument, so I'm not satisfied with an argument of the same structure with respect to abortion. Someone who genuinely believe slaves are persons is morally obliged to oppose slavery everywhere, not just abstain from keeping slaves, and so someone who believe a fetus is a moral person is similarly obliged to oppose abortion everywhere, not merely decline to abort her own fetus.
     Of course, that is not the end of it. Let's consider, instead of slavery (where we all pretty much agree now that slaves really are persons), something else. Suppose you genuinely and sincerely believed that blades of grass were persons, could feel pain and think and had a right not to be mowed, stepped on, or eaten. If you really believed that, you'd of course be morally obliged to act so as to protect grass from such mistreatment, ideally by persuading other people of the personhood of grass so that they too would cease harming grass, and eventually you could enact legislation to impose the consequences of this belief on everyone. But of course, persuading people that grass has the attributes of personhood is no small matter, because there's no evidence whatsoever for this ridiculous idea.
     So which of these two cases is that of the fetus more like? Is a fetus so obviously a person that those of us who doubt it are plainly delusional? I don't think one can fairly say that. Is a fetus so obviously not a person that those who believe it is are plainly delusional? I wouldn't say that, either; even though I've come to the conclusion that a fetus isn't a person, it took me an awful lot of brain-time. Moreover, as I've said before, I think the belief in the personhood of the fetus is in some ways beneficial even if untrue.
     Both beliefs are reasonable. That's what makes this a tragedy in the classical sense; reasonable and well-intentioned people are on the losing side of the conflict, whoever wins. At present and for the foreseeable future in Canada, my side has won and abortion is legal. But I think we all need to be gracious in victory, and honourable in defeat.
     On the pro-choice side, we need to be better at acknowledging and validating the feelings of people who genuinely and reasonably believe millions of helpless children are dying, whether through abortion or miscarriage. We need to better communicate that we want abortion to be legal not because we like it but because while we wish it were never needed, sometimes it is and it should be available. And we should be open to the possibility of being convinced that maybe we were wrong, and the fetus really is a person after all and we should change sides.
     On the pro-life side, you need to recognize that reasonable people have come to a different conclusion from yours about the fetus, and that they might be right. Open your mind to that possibility, consider it fairly, and even if you still ultimately reject it, remember that in seeking to restrict our access to safe abortion you are seeking to impose the consequences of your belief on sincere and well-intentioned people who genuinely and reasonably do not share it.

Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Invisible Hand is not your friend, either.

     Something I've been stewing about for a long time (and written about before) is the central myth of free market ideology. I've been meaning to write more about it for a long time, but as often happens it took a quote-meme to provoke me to action. Here's the quote:
Depressions and mass unemployment are not caused by the free market but by government interference in the economy.
     The quote is attributed to Ludwig von Mises, and it suffers from the same problem I've encountered trying to confirm other dubious quote-memes in that it doesn't bother to identify which work the quote comes from or what occasion the supposed author uttered it. And of course, the first several pages of hits I get googling for it are all instances of the same forwarded meme, which doesn't help at all. I don't know if Ludwig von Mises ever uttered exactly that sentence, but it is consistent with his other writings, and in any event, since the idea is so widely accepted (and so destructive), I'm more interested in refuting this absurdity than confirming its provenance.

     What's both funny and tragic about this myth is that it tends to be held by people who think of themselves as hard-headed realists, who see everything government does with a kind of pessimism that handily dismisses anyone who proposes government might actually be good for something as hopelessly naive. As I've written before, though, such cynical pessimism is particularly crippling because nothing closes one's mind to the truth more effectively than the belief that one already knows it. Yet the belief that we would be spared economic calamity if the government just disappeared is every bit as naive -- and in almost exactly the same way -- as the romanticized view of Mother Nature some tree huggers and most three-year-olds seem to have. Compare:
Starvation and mass extinction are not caused by nature, but by human intervention in the ecology.
     It even sounds superficially plausible, because of course we are in the middle of a mass-extinction that almost certainly is caused by human "intervention". But nature, in the absence of nasty smelly habitat-destroying humans, is not in fact always a cheerful place where carefree animals frolic in harmony. Animals kill and eat each other, even in the most sustainable ecological balance, which is never permanent; natural history is full of extinctions. While we are to blame for the dodo, the moa and the passenger pigeon, we have a pretty solid alibi for the trilobites and dinosaurs; humanity wasn't here to interfere with Permian and Cretaceous ecosystems. So yes, humans are responsible for some extinctions, but it's pure fantasy to suggest there'd be no extinctions without humans.
     Similarly, it's certainly true that governments can seriously screw up an economy, and there are lots and lots of historical and contemporary examples of this happening. But it does not follow from that trite observation that all economic strife is attributable to government intervention, and that economies would hum along with prosperity and plenty for all if the government would just back off.

     There is a strong parallel between ecologies and economies, of course, and it's no coincidence that the two words are so similar. Analogous feedback processes tend to drive both systems back towards a stable balance after most upsets. And it may well be appropriate, when looking at a natural ecosystem, to adopt a kind of heartlessness about what happens there, to accept that the rabbit must die to feed the coyote, because it's all part of Nature's Way. Likewise, cycles of boom and bust (and the poverty and hardship that go with them) are a natural part of how economies self-regulate.
     But while this kind of Prime Directive is sensible from the perspective of an ecologist studying a system, it's not something you can expect the rabbit to embrace. Indeed, from the rabbit's perspective, it's entitled to do whatever it can to try to avoid being eaten, and is perfectly within its rights to ignore the ecologist's tidy model and kill the coyote.
     In the same way, while I have sympathy for the economist who tries to avoid influencing the system he's studying, it's inappropriate for him to expect the people who suffer from unemployment or disenfranchisement to shrug and meekly accept their fate because it's Nature's Way. The human being, and the rabbit, have no obligation to respect that as normative.
     It gets worse. The very act of telling governments not to "interfere" is itself an interference, as it deprives the less powerful of the only legitimate means they might have had to level the playing field. There was a time, after all, when police called to the scene of a domestic disturbance would be reluctant to interfere with a "private dispute", but now we recognize that treating domestic violence this way actually legitimizes and endorses it; it amounts to siding with the wife-beater. Government's declining to get involved with economic exploitation of the powerless isn't simply "not interfering"; it's siding with the powerful.

     There is nothing unnatural about humans collectively making and enforcing rules about how they are to deal with each other. That's just what government is. Now, like anything else, it can be done well or done badly, and I certainly agree that it's better in practice to be sparing with the rule-making. But declining to make a rule is not a way to avoid "interfering" with the economy; government absolutely cannot avoid that. The decision to make a rule affects things, and the decision not to make a rule affects things. Either way, a government is responsible for the consequences of that decision.