Monday, May 21, 2007

Why No One Cares About the Talented Violinist

Dean Barnett via Marcotte:

Because we don't know where life begins, the only logical thing to do is to err on the side of caution -- the side of life. In other words, because an abortion might take an innocent life, it should be avoided. It should also be illegal in most cases.
Barnett, Tonto to Hugh Hewitt's Lone Ranger, tries to make the case for the secular pro life position. Its sensible enough, we all agree that destroying innocent life is bad, and we don't' know when life begins, it seems reasonable enough to assume it begins at conception, ergo, no abortions!

Amanda, in her typical style, combines intelligent insight with illiberal name-calling that adds nothing to her argument (ed - cmon man, you're trying to be a liberal blogger, do you really need to bag on Marcotte, you already kissed Larison's ass, what's next, linking approvingly to Kaus?!)

Personally, I believe life begins at ejaculation, so to err on the side of caution, we should castrate every man in the country so he can’t ejaculate and murder billions of sperm. Luckily, this program doesn’t have any effects on the rights and lives of actual human beings, so there is no reason to quarrel with it.

Plus, innocent sperm are just like slaves and to be pro-ejaculation is to be pro-racist.

Seriously, I read that thing up and down and he does not mention the existence of women, even once. He seems to think babies come from cabbage patches.

Ok, a few things. Those first two statements, while funny, indicate that either a. Marcotte doesn't understand Barnett's argument (unlikely) or b. despite her understanding, she decides to ridicule and caricature his point. She knows that there is a reason a logically minded person would pick conception as life's starting point, especially instead of ejaculation. I mean, it's not like the fertilized egg has the genetic identity of the human it could become, or any significant distinction like that. Her overall point, that these discussions of abortion which are singularly fixed on "when life begins" ignore a necessary part of the debate, the fate and rights of the women who get, or don't get, abortions. She is right about Barnett and she illuminates one of the most interesting aspects of the abortion debate.

In a simplistic analysis, there are two competing rights claims. One, the right to life or protection from wanton destruction by fetus. Two, the right of women to determine their own reproduction, the sovereignty of their bodies etc etc. In this simple world, we would do something like consider if these fetus' count as "life" and if they were say, like born human life, protecting them from destruction would surely outweighs the women's claim to reproductive autonomy. It is, of course, more messy than this. One could imagine, a sliding scale of life, where as days after fertilization increases, life increases, and so the obligation to protect that life increases. A woman's autonomy, however, would also have a certain obligation to project. This system would imply a cut off point, a point where a fetus has enough "life" so that its right to life outweighs the woman's right to autonomy and privacy. This system, however, sounds barbaric, bizarre and an awful example of the calculative mindset gone too far. However, it is roughly the "abortion is kinda bad, but OK up until the end of the 1st trimester" view that many people hold.

Abortion looks like a question that could be solved philosophically, when does life begin seems like a question that philosophers are qualified to solve. And, not surprisingly, there are serious and well thought out arguments on both sides. Though it may seem like the pro-lifers have a simpler, more intuitive argument, Judith Jarvis Thompson's famous paper, "A Defense of Abortion" with the canonical violinist analogy certainly scores points for sophistication and elegance philosophically. But even she misses the point. Abortion debates, for the most part, are about conflicting views regarding women's role in society and the optimal level of socially acceptable sexual freedom and autonomy rather than 'when life begins'

I don't want to accuse "philosophical" pro lifers of false consciousness, but it is incredibly rare for someone to advocate the pro-life position and not have a corresponding set of views about sexuality in society. That's why many think, including me, that Dean Barnett is being disingenuous, he works for Hugh Hewitt, who has generally conservative views about sexual politics and thus we can assume Dean does as well. Usually it is easier to figure out, for example Robert George and Ramesh Ponnuru both make "philosophical" or logical arguments about why abortion is wrong, but they are also both forthcoming about their views on the corresponding issues of sexual freedom and the like. This, in a technical sense, should be unrelated, but we all know it isn't. The big question is: do those who approach abortion firmly from the feminist or sexual freedom/autonomy view (Marcotte, most feminists) even care about when life begins, do they think about it? Should we even care?

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