Absolutism and Abortion

Katabasis, Going Postal
Hon Jacob Rees-Mogg MP
LadyGeekTVLicence CC BY-ND 2.0

The ongoing vilification of Jacob Rees-Mogg regarding his specific view on abortion is beyond the pale for any society that regards itself as civilised and rational. There is a reason that numerous philosophical dilemmas and problems have exercised the greatest thinkers for not just centuries, but millennia – because they are intractable.

The ethics of sex, child-bearing and infanticide have been debated since the time of the ancient Greeks and quite possibly long beyond. The only major shift to have occurred recently is the advent of extremely effective birth-control technologies on either side of conception. And far from solving the problem, these innovations have made the issue yet more intractable.

I find myself, reluctantly, on the pro-choice side of the spectrum. I say spectrum because deciding one’s position on abortion is as much about one’s choice of values and the compromises one finds personally permissible between them. And I say reluctantly because whilst there are stronger and weaker arguments in both directions, the very nature of the problem – a ‘wicked problem’ as climate sceptic scientist Judith Curry (also vilified for different reasons) says of climate change – yields no possible overwhelming marshaling of arguments and evidence on either side. It really is, somewhat ironically, a matter of choice which one cleaves to.

The purpose of this piece is not to outline my own position (though I may do that another time). No. This essay is, rather, a defence of rationalism against irrationalism. A brief foray into the ‘wicked problem’ to highlight for the unwary, the willfully ignorant and the motivated reasoners arrayed against JRM with such self-assured god-like epistemological and normative certainty that there are dark monsters in these wicked woods who have haunted the cerebrums and hearts of much better men and women over the centuries than they. Beasts who will quickly consume the minds of grasshopper theorists and intestines of coffee shop revolutionaries who have never traveled further than their own navels.

Intractables all the way down

A common feature of intractable philosophical problems is they often rest on at least one other intractable philosophical problem. Abortion rests on several. And whichever side you pick, the arguments of the other should – indeed must – weigh heavily on you if you have even just a modicum of intellectual and emotional honesty.

If you smugly assert, as many have, that the views of a pro-life person are somehow irrational or old-fashioned, what you are also asserting (in what philosophers call hidden premises of the argument) is that you have solved several other painfully thorny philosophical issues prior to this. Congratulations. A professorship in philosophy is yours for the taking and fame down the ages for reaching beyond the capabilities of two and a half millennia of Western philosophers.

Let’s see what conundrums our erstwhile (as yet unrecognised) geniuses in the twattersphere and mainstream media have solved shall we? This is far from exhaustive:

– The meaning of ‘human’.
What does it mean to be ‘human’? When does a bunch of dividing cells become a human? If it requires a requisite level of complexity, when exactly is that point? If it is after childbirth, does it not beg the question to assert that it cannot also be just prior to childbirth? What distinguishes the less complex organism from an animal organism? If you assert the less complex organism has less (or no) rights, do you also assert the same of animals? Where do you draw this line?

– The meaning of ‘human potential’
Is the bunch of cells ‘special’ in some sense because it has ‘potential’ to become a fully grown adult human in the future? What if the fetus has severe abnormalities that guarantee a long (or short) life of suffering for the child and parents? Does it still have ‘potential’? In what sense? If you defend animal rights, what ‘potential’ would you ascribe to them? If it is less than a fully lived human life, on what grounds do you defend animal life?

– The conflicting rights of two (or more) humans who share the same physical body.
Does the ascription of fundamental rights in these cases occur only for the human who existed first? If so, do older generations have a stronger claim to rights than younger ones? What is the source of human rights? Is the human, as an individual, to be regarded as physically inviolable and sovereign? If so, why? If not, why not?

– The conflicting rights of two humans who conceive a child
Does contributing genetic material give equal rights to determine the future of a child? If so, why? If not, why not? If the rights of the woman as childbearer are asserted to be primary, then are all other considerations to be secondary? And therefore if the childbearer’s rights are paramount, what right do they have to demand the labour of others (the state as proxy father, draining resources from other humans in this case if the genetic father is rejected) to support the baby? If fathers have no rights to the baby or a say in its future, what rights do mothers have to the fathers’ labour? Is there a social contract here? If so, what is it, where does it originate from, how do you justify it and how is it perpetuated?

– The conflict between consequentialism and other schools of ethical thought.
Most decisions to abort are made on consequentialist grounds. It is not possible to financially or emotionally support a baby, or the relationship that led to its conception. One parent may decide, expediently, that the other would be unsuitable for parenthood. Similarly one may decide they do not want to be tied, for the entirety of the child’s life, to the other person. Does this mean that consequentialism should also be used to justify not having sex in the first place? Do you go with ‘rule’ utilitarianism or ‘act’ utilitarianism in this case? Are you even remotely consistent in the philosophical foundations and bedrock of your ethical positions on other issues? Have you ever, dear Moggsterphobe – even just once – considered any of this? ANY of it?

I have not included a consideration of the implications of rape cases as they add yet a further layer of intractable propositions and there is already a legion of them to contemplate if one assumes completely consensual sexual relations leading to pregnancy.

These are deep, deep waters for even the most resolute character to swim. If you’ve excoriated JRM, or anyone, on this issue – just how far can you actually swim with this?


© Katabasis  2017