There is no abortion debate.

Sometimes a good habit can become suffocating. The reason I don’t post more often is I feel a need to add lots of sources and backing to what I say. This is healthy- the world could use a bit more empiricism- but it also brushes the smaller topics and random thoughts under the rug. This is an attempt to overcome that. Let’s roll. 

It seems that media commentary and opinion could gain much by starting every piece with “Let us define our terms”. People, organizations, ideologies. When someone supports or attacks a liberal politician, what do you they mean? Liberal, and liberalism, have many disparate meanings. Collectivist, libertarian- promoting freedom or constraining it. Arguments often become heated because the sides are talking past one another. If there is no agreement on what the founding parts of an issue are, how can you talk about it? In some sense you can’t. Two people are facing each other and talking to an imaginary opponent.

In some cases, the issue ceases to have any discourse. With honesty, the abortion “debate” is not a debate. Definitions of debate state that it is an exchange between opposing views. Almost all of the time in regards to abortion there are no opposing views. There are two main views that are not logical opposites. The “pro-life” camp talks about the sanctity of life and whether it is murder. The “pro-choice” camp emphasizes the inherent right of women to decide if they want children. A clue should be that both commonly-accepted terms don’t oppose each other- one is talking about what life is, the other is talking about what choice is. There is some debate- pro-choice individuals often debate what a “person” really is- but the primary arguments don’t intersect. There is nothing to stop someone from acknowledging abortion as murder and still thinking women have a right to choose. It’s not a matter of the two being mutually exclusive, it’s just an order of priorities. No wonder the issue is just as contentious as it was in 1973. No progress has been made in discussing the merits or evils of abortion.

Other issues involve two sides that pit a civil rights argument versus an absolute moral or religious principle. Often they are not in direct dialogue. Perhaps that is why same-sex marriage, abortion, affirmative action etc. often have caricatures. Waxing philosophical, a caricature is not always used to exaggerate an opponent. It can in fact become a substitute for an opponent that doesn’t exist. Pro-choice people want to talk about civil rights. They create a side that is also talking about civil rights. Pro-life people want to talk about life, so they form an opponent who is talking about murdering babies. That’s their plank.

When an opinion column is published, one can become quite angry reading it. Some of that is that the person has defined their terms in a very different way. I read a vintage Limbaugh column a few months ago and found my irritation originated from his original point, which influenced all the consequences he described. I still know we’re not in agreement on the issue, but part of that is that the gulf begins early- before most of the substance. And you can’t tell a nationally-syndicated columnist all your reservations. They’re not right in front of you- there’s no luxury of response.

I’m not calling for a return to the “good old days” of discourse- any survey of history shows that such a period never existed- only that the nicer parts tend to stick around. Just that there seem to be very concrete issues. And it seems that the pointlessness of argument is in part rooted in this disagreement of terms and priorities. Of course there’s no way to change that person’s mind. None of what was said challenged what they find important about an issue.

It’s as if there were a war and both sides showed up on different continents. Lots of anger and destruction, but the confrontation is non-existent.

All my thinking lays on fragile ground

Credit: Gregory Koop // paper: http://journal.sjdm.org/13/13613a/jdm13613a.html

This diagram depicts how people come to make a decision- YES means a utilitarian (greater good) response. Personal means the crisis affects you.

I’ve started watching the recorded lectures of Michael Sandel’s “Justice” course, a philosophy series (that feels like a rock concert), that is one of the most popular in modern Harvard history. The first episode focused on the nature of murder and how it can be ethical or unethical, depending on the situation and what emphasis you give the actions.

What I think is interesting  is something that happens in philosophy but also in social science, my field of study. He begins with two scenarios, each with two forms. In the first one, most of the audience agree in the first forms that it’s morally right to sacrifice one to save five others. In the second form it’s the opposite- most people oppose the sacrifice.

The shift in focus changes how people defend their choice. The first forms have people thinking in terms of consequences, while the second creates an unpleasant twist that makes people think in terms of the action- to most of us, some things are just wrong to do.

This ties into how opinions are solicited on political and economic issues. The answer you get is influenced heavily by the language used to ask the question. Just like these moral questions of sacrifice, it’s pretty easy to make a question about same-sex marriage garner heavy approval and heavy disapproval. The above picture, one of those online “polls” that’s actually an ad, is shoving the viewer towards a “no” vote. The objective isn’t to gauge opinion, but rather tie the obvious answer to opposing the president.

It ultimately creates a bit of chaos, at least in my mind. How much of our political and moral opinions exist because we haven’t been asked enough challenging questions? Take an online political quiz- the results are frequently used as a shorthand for our worldview. The World’s Smallest Political Quiz wants to push participants into a libertarian mindset. Political Compass has a clear socialist and, most noticeably, anti-corporate flavor. Am I a socialist? The latter seems to think so. Am I a small-government libertarian? The former wants to make the case. In each context the result makes sense, but if I want to think of myself as a single person with a single morality, it’s not coming out so well.

In the kind of moral philosophy Sandel teaches, the single morality is something that is valued. To a pollster, morality can be pushed around to meet certain goals. In fact, one of the most exhausting endeavors in all of science (social or otherwise) is to make a survey that’s representative, comprehensive, and doesn’t have a certain goal besides getting “honest” information.

There’s no big conclusion to this piece (this is more thinking out loud). I was part of Sandel’s majority in his examples- in one case thought killing one person was clearly justified, in the other it was far more difficult. The mental feeling of that shift is…powerful. It’s strange to think how fragile our opinions could be.