I warned commenters against turning the Soup Nazi Approach to Sex post into an abortion debate. Any free-ranging discussion of abortion tends to fail; I’ve only had productive conversations when I spend a lot of time narrowing the focus of a conversation and screening off anything else. I’m not surprised to see the discussion that broke out entering a tailspin, but I think there’s something to be gleaned from the wreckage.
I’m certainly not recapping the whole thread, so I picked the quote below because it gives me a good opening for my riff, not because I have any intention on weighing in on who started it. So, at some point in the discussion, a commenter said:
And if we’re going to pick out inconsistencies in people’s opinions about abortion… how about all the people who claim to believe that a fertilized egg is a person, and yet who don’t give a toss about the natural abortion rate of fertilized eggs? Its about 30%. If a fertilized egg is a human being, that makes implantation failure the single greatest cause of human death on the planet. And yet the amount of research money going into preventing these deaths is approximately zero dollars and zero cents, American. I wonder why that is.
This is meant to be a proof that Christian views on fetal death are inconsistent and can’t be the basis for legal or ethical restrictions. The conversation didn’t go well, and the word ‘sociopath’ got broken out downstream. Let me try and fill in the gaps of this discussion, since I am interested in talking about how we evaluate different kinds of death. I am still not interested in having a broad discussion of abortion in the comments of this post.
Christians tend to differentiate between ‘natural death’ and all other types (one commenter in the last thread labeled abortion and murder as examples of ‘induced death’). This categorization happens by some black box method (I definitely don’t understand it well enough to categorize it). So, although all deaths are sad, depending on what this black box outputs, there are different levels of duty to prevent death, and, in some cases, there is a duty to not act to prevent death, since such an act would be an implicit rebuke to the natural order.
Thus, Christians frequently oppose abortion but put spontaneous miscarriage in the same category of death by old age. Depending on how their black box of ‘natural death’ works, they could fall on either side of the extraordinary measures/Terri Schiavo-type debate. Almost all of the black boxes are opposed to cryonics, uploading, and other transhumanist attempts to achieve immortality.
Without nailing down how a particular Christian’s natural death black box works, you can’t spring the rhetorical trap the commenter set. The real argument was not about the intellectual integrity of abortion advocates, it was about whether their black boxes were calibrated correctly. So although it looks like you’re having a simple argument about a contradiction, you’re actually having a dispute that goes to the heart of their morality and metaethics. You’ve signed on to something at least as hard as persuading them that gay relationships are on the same moral footing as heterosexual ones.
So, just as a reminder, it’s ok to walk away from an argument that got a whole lot bigger than you’ve got the time to handle. If either of the disputants won’t recognize that the argument just got foundational, cut your losses and go. But now that we all know the scale of what we’re dealing with, I would like to have a conversation about those black boxes. Let’s have the Muppets take us through the transition from tactics to content:
I’d love to hear people (Christian or not) discuss how their black boxes label natural death. It’s also possible to reject this entire categorization schema and wish to prevent all deaths, with effort being allocated proportional to impact, probability of success, disability-adjusted life years, etc. Do you think that your black box is common to most people? What would you need to persuade someone of to get them to start using your black box?
I want to take a crack at the extraordinary measures/Terri Schiavo problem. I’m frightened by the way that some natural death black boxes seem to make us the slaves of scientific progress. Once you establish that failure to act to preserve life counts as inducing death, it becomes morally impossible to opt-out of any new heroic measures (sometimes even if the chance of success is small).
This problem is partially the fault of trying to stick with duty, instead of asking about what that duty is meant to serve. Once you catch yourself wishing that the machines or protocols keeping your loved one alive hadn’t been invented, you’ve judged that you and your charge would be better served by pulling the plug. You hesitate because your rule-based morality has declared that choice anathema. That’s when it’s time to go back and ask what that rule was meant to guard and decide whether scientific progress has created possibilities the old rule can’t cover. Are you in a position to pick the values over the rule generalized to guard them?