Empirical poltics, also abortion

I’m always baffled by how ready many people are to declare anything and everything “not an empirical issue,” without any kind of argument, as if it were just obvious what things are not empirical issues. It’s one thing to say that about, say, ethics, but I have no idea why anyone thinks that’s a sensible thing to say about about politics, or about miracles, or about ESP and telepathy. Will Wilkinson just put up a great post on the politics side of this. Here’s what he’s responding to:

Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.

In response, Wilkinson goes down the list of issues and explains how empirical evidence could change his position on every single one of them. The relationship between evidence and the right policy choices isn’t as straight forward as the relationship between evidence and factual questions, but I think it’s clear that the evidence does bear on these questions.

I’d also like to reinforce what Wilkinson says about the relevance of evidence to questions about “the nature of human life and human society.” You’d have to be pretty ignorant of modern psychology to not think that science tells us quite a bit about human life. Just see Steven Pinker’s writings, or Luke Muehlhauser on scientific self-help. And history, economics etc. do allow us to learn things empirically about human societies, even though this can be difficult.

Finally, I’m going to quote in full what Wilkinson says about abortion, since I agree with it and I think a lot of other people would too, though it’s a position that’s not often expressed publicly:

This is far and away the hardest one. I favour legal abortion. I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them. I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise. Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies. Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

  • jamessweet

    Yes, I also have no difficulty coming up with data that would change my opinion on each of those issues, except for possibly marriage equality (even if there were data showing that same-sex couples were terrible parents and that homosexual activity was a death knell, I might still not be entirely convinced that it was within the realm of the government to legislate… I certainly think there are some people who make terrible parents, but I don’t favor government bans on them getting married!)

    One thing to add to the abortion thing: I would change my opinion on so-called late-term abortion if presented with data that truly elective (i.e. no medical reason whatsoever) 3rd trimester abortions were being performed in droves. I tend to think that an abortion that late is morally problematic in the same way that infanticide is problematic (Will does a good job at covering that), but realistically, VERY few abortions are performed that late without some damn good medical reason. And I simply do not trust the gov’t at this point in time to adjudicate what is a valid medical reason and what is not, so I strongly oppose any restrictions on abortion that late.

    If, however, it turned out that there were tens of thousands of women who for some reason just waited until month 8 to “decide” whether they wanted to keep the baby, I might rethink this. It’s still a problem because, unlike laws against infanticide, you are burdening the woman to continue to carry the baby in her body, and that’s not really okay either… but it would at least give me pause. An abortion that late is not a whole lot different from infanticide — it’s just that it doesn’t actually matter because almost nobody gets one that late unless the baby is doomed anyway.

    • lordshipmayhem

      Any description of late-term abortions usually comes with a disclaimer, that it is almost never used for the convenience of the pregnant woman but because the foetus has a problem which modern medical science cannot fix that render it untenable outside the womb. Often, this also means that the mother’s life is endangered as well. In other words, the mother had been looking forward to loving and raising a child, but those hopes and dreams have been cruelly dashed, and the couple must try again.

  • jamessweet

    And by the way, despite this, I don’t entirely disagree with the quote Wil is responding to, although if it were me I would have italicized the word “necessarily” in the final sentence. There are, for example, death penalty opponents who would not ever change their stance regardless of the data, and I do not think they are being unreasonable. (Well, I guess if the data said that any society which lacked the death penalty immediately descended into anarchy and everybody killed each other on the first day, then it would be unreasonable to oppose it… I guess…) Now, for me, my objections to the death penalty are more pragmatic than ideological, i.e. I do not necessarily think it is wrong per se to murder certain criminals (which is what we’re talking about, really). So it is easy for me to think of data that would change my mind. But I don’t think that principled objections to the death penalty are necessarily unreasonable.

    It is difficult to think of data that would change my opinion on freedom of speech. I mean, I guess there could be, but it would have to be similarly ludicrous to the example I gave in the previous paragraph, i.e. it would have to be something like any society that doesn’t aggressively censor its citizens’ speech immediately disintegrates in an orgy of violence. I would be willing to tolerate a hell of a lot of practical downside before I would let go of my ideological attachment to freedom of speech.

  • jamessweet

    Sorry to hog the comments… just such a neat post!

    Although I largely agree with what Wil wrote on abortion, I am not sure this statement is empirically supportable:

    It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech.

    IIRC, there are cultures where early infanticide is acceptable, and I am not so sure we can assort that those cultures have not “cultivate[[d] the appropriate moral sentiments”. That may be the case, but I am not sure.

    However, I agree strongly with this:

    Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one.

    I differ with Wil only in that I do not feel confident asserting without qualification that birth is the only “salient socio-psychological” “metaphysically arbitrary line”. But it’s certainly an excellent one, and I have absolutely no inclination to advocate in favor of a different one!

  • michaeld

    Another way to empirically look at abortion would be what policies lead to the fewest abortions. That’s the argument I prefer over arguing over when life begins etc as it provides a nice foot hold for people against abortions and the legislation that leads to lower abortion rates tends to be legalization of abortion, comprehensive sex ed and supporting young mothers.

  • josh

    The paragraph you quoted at the end is pretty much in line with my way of thinking. I think it’s worth emphasizing that the difference between abortion (read: societally allowed) and infanticide (read: societally disallowed) is an arbitrary line and IT WILL ALWAYS BE SOMEWHAT ARBITRARY. There is no metaphysical moment when a fetus/baby/whatever becomes a person, becomes autonomous, is endowed with rights, begins life, etc., etc.

    It’s a gradual process of transition where at one end (a single cell with no emotions, feeling, personality, etc.) we clearly shouldn’t care about it’s treatment and at another (full grown human) we all agree we should. Wherever you draw the line is partly arbitrary. Birth is probably as reasonable a line as you can draw since it’s a natural, relatively rapid transition which severs the most immediate connection between woman and child, and it occurs well before anyone can remember a sense of identity or, anything really.

  • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

    I can think of things that would have led me to other positions in hypothetical universes, but I can’t imagine evidence coming to light that would change my mind on most of these issues. In a world in which the human species is going extinct, *maybe* an anti-abortion law would be worth considering (though not necessarily adopting). In a world where fallible human beings were not in charge of collecting evidence and determining guilt, and where we could be certain that a person couldn’t be rehabilitated and serve society in some capacity, and only the worst people were eligible for a death sentence, and no government had power over the justice system, I might think about changing my mind on capital punishment. But we don’t live in a world where either of those things are likely to happen (except, perhaps, following a nuclear war in the first case, and “likely” isn’t the word I’d use). It’s kind of like the god question–my position is pretty much fixed unless something I currently consider pretty much impossible should occur.

    • James Sweet

      A similar distinction came up in the “what evidence would convince you of god’s existence” discussion. Many made the point that the verdict is very much already in, and no NEW data could change the conclusion — but that if certain OLD data hadn’t been what it is, there would be chances.

      My feeling is that it’s more useful to look at it from the perspective of a blank slate, i.e. what data could have been different that would have changed your mind. On many of these subjects, the existing data is so incontrovertible that I agree it’s difficult to imagine a universe where the conclusion would have been diffent. But it’s a useful exercise nonetheless, if only because it can help clarify what one’s own reasoning.

  • sunsangnim

    If we could all just agree that an abortion policy should minimize the number of abortions, the controversy could, at least in principle, be settled. But the hard-right ideologues clearly don’t believe in minimizing abortions; if they did, they would encourage the use of contraceptives. They might also try to encourage adoption, even among gay couples. After all, if adoption is preferable to abortion when someone is unwilling or unable to raise a child, why decrease the eligible pool of families which can adopt? If they truly believed in minimizing abortion, they would advocate better sex education, and discontinue ineffective abstinence-only education. They would also acknowledge that people will still obtain abortions, even if they are illegal (strangely enough, the same people will often use this argument when it comes to gun laws, but not abortion laws). But since they don’t do any of these things, it’s obvious that their goal isn’t to minimize abortions, but rather to adhere to a strict religious dogma.

    This is one of many situations in which religion prevents compromise or even reasonable debate. I could change my perspective on specific issues, given compelling arguments and evidence (I already did this, changing from Christian to atheist). But if the other side is unwilling to weigh empirical evidence, you’re just banging your head against a brick wall.

  • naturalcynic

    Be careful of what you wish…
    The policy that will reduce abortions to an absolute minimum would be to lock up all sexually active women of childbearing age for the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle and free them only after menstruation commences or to continue locking them up for a pregnancy to come to term.

  • Emu Sam

    naturalcynic, I don’t think that would work because of the many women who would try to avoid being imprisoned during that time, or who would mistakenly come in at a wrong time. To absolutely minimize abortions, we would have to sterilize everyone. We can’t just pick one gender because of the risk some might fall through the cracks. And we would have to double-check that people are sterile repeatedly. In fact, it might be best to just kill everyone. Then we can know they won’t be aborting.

    Now I have to apologize to the universe for writing that.

  • Anat

    And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies.

    That’s a ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’ situation – having members of a certain (already oppressed) group pay the cost of some ‘greater good’. The author expects to reap diminished levels of cruelty overall by being cruel to women, and in particular to those women who find themselves in a situation of unwanted pregnancy.

    Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

    It should still be the woman’s choice which harm to incur. It is still her body affected one way or the other. If it were a fact that women who had an abortion had a high chance of dropping dead soon after it would still be her choice to make.

  • ema

    Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line….

    Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line only insofar as breathing, circulating, excreting, etc. aren’t empirical, and a pregnancy and a newborn are anatomically and physiologically interchangeable.

    It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane.

    What about the impact of a society that has adopted the convention of not conferring the right to self-determination to half of its population?

    If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies.

    Meanwhile, out here in the real world, a society which subjects untold millions to increased morbidity and mortality by force isn’t cultivating a “culture of life”, and is an impediment in terms of greater general humanity and diminishing cruelty.

    Also, if it were shown that abortion tended to damage women’s mental and physical health more than forcing women to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, I would tend to look more favourably on restrictions on abortion, especially for minors.

    This doesn’t make any sense. Is it maybe a clumsy attempt at snark?

    • EmuSam

      I think it was meant to be pure logic, treating humans as robots, and weighing all effects of a policy in perfectly quantified analysis.

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  • piero

    I’ve never cared much for the “woman’s control of her body” argument. The problem with abortion is that we clearly have two bodies involved. That evolution has determined that one of those bodies be embedded in the other one is irrelevant.

    A human embryo or foetus is not an appendix of its mother’s body. It is not an organ. It is there for a limited time, and its evolutionary determined goal is to leave the host once development has reached a certain stage and become a wholly independent life.

    I would tend to adopt Sam Harris’s line on this. The real problem of morality is well-being: whatever diminishes well-being is wrong, and viceversa. A conglomerate of cells with no nervous system is not an entity for which “well-being” can be meaningfully defined. Should I worry about scratching my arm because the lost cells might feel distress?

    The problem becomes more complicated when the foetus has a more or less developed nervous system. Can it fell pain? Probably. Can it realize that it’s dying? Probably. We just don’t know for sure. That being the case. I would opt for a policy of allowing abortion up to some developmental stage where assuming that the foetus feels pain and distress would be unreasonable.

    Some could argue that the foetus’s distress should be weighed against the mother’s distress at having to carry her preganncy to completion. I don’t think this could be done in any rational way. We cannot compare the suffering of two different nervous systems an determine which is greater; my advice would be, when in doubt, don’t.

    Scientifically speaking, it is very likely that a foetus or even a newborn baby has not yet acquired consciousness, and hence, though they can surely experience pain, they could not feel distress at the thought of dying. Hence, a pain-free death should be acceptable. Unfortunately, we are hard-wired to interpret whatever looks like a person as a person. Hence, most people would be horrified at the mere thought of legalizing infanticide, or late-term abortions.

    My personal opinion is that women should have the right to abort up to the fourth or fifth month, when the nervous system is not yet developed to the extent that we might assume the foetus “feels” anything. This opinion of mine has caused torrents of rage from feminists, but I really cannot accept any other posture until further scientific developments let us pinpoint more accurately the moment in which the “well-being” of a foetus becomes relevant. I’ve been accused of misogyny, of wanting to control women’s bodies, of being a male and hence not entitled to have a say in this matter etc. But I insist: there are two bodied involved. Pretending that abortion is an issue exclusively related to a woman’s control over her body is mere denial.

    • NotActuallyStupid

      I don’t think any woman actually fails to understand there are two bodies involved. If you really think women are that stupid, well, I don’t have much sympathy for you.

      The problem is you are putting the well being of one body over the other and pretending that your law and rules and beliefs are more important than the actual bodies involved.

      If it’s your child or your friend or your wife or your girlfriend then you get a say. If it doesn’t affect you, you don’t.

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