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.