Night Owl Mk. II

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Boldfaced statements are parts of the original essay (or a subsequent reply) to which the respondent has directed his comments.

Italicized/emphasized comments prefaced by (R) are those of the respondent and are presented unedited.

My replies appear under the respondent's comments in blue text and are prefaced by my initials (MB).

(R) This is a tough issue for me, Mark - I suppose it's tough for most thoughtful people.
(MB) And, it is well and good that this is the case. That means that we must give the issue more than cursory consideration.

(R) While I like to consider my thinking 'original', my opinions generally could be classified as libertarian, as least wrt most social issues.
(MB) Funny, I normally rate as a "libertarian" whenever I take one of those political views tests/surveys, but I've never voted for a libertarian candidate and have many bones to pick with the platforms they run under.

(R) Once I could lump abortion into this group of issues, and could appreciate arguments in favor of a woman's 'right to choose'. Something about this position has always made me uncomfortable, however, and as the years have gone by I find myself less swayed by the personal, emotional and legal arguments in favor of abortion rights.
(MB) Since almost everybody gets a thorough indoctrination into religious and societal values early in their lives, they tend to keep nagging at you when one must consider difficult issues in their adult lives. This happens even though thinking people try to place facts above emotion.

(R) These are the arguments you present so well in your essay - essentially, they can be classified as utilitarian (an unhappy parent and an unloved child do not benefit society) or legalistic (human rights begin when life begins, which due to the uncertainty of medical science and the plurality of religious beliefs is best defined based on the existing legal point as which human rights are conferred - the point of extrautero (sp?) viability).
(MB) These are some of the hard facts of reality that conflict so strongly with the indoctrinated values I spoke of in the previous paragraph. It's the inherent conflict between reality and indoctrination that makes this issue a difficult one.

(R) Let me first address the utilitarian arguments with a simple observation - what is easy or comfortable is not necessarily right.
(MB) Exactly. That's the main difference between an decision based on emotional rationalization and one based on intellectual reasoning.

(R) I'm not suggesting that the decision to abort a fetus is easy or comfortable; indeed, I imagine it to be one of the most wrenching decisions a person could make.
(MB) That could hardly be questioned. This is also why all possible options must be available. You can't solve a difficult problem sufficiently if potential solutions are arbitrarily excluded.

(R) I am suggesting that many of the factors often presented to support the decision smack of utilitarianism, and sadly boil down to 'the parent's life/emotions/social standing/etc would be changed for the worse by the birth of this child', 'a child born into these circumstances cannot expect a happy life', and generally 'society is better served by aborting this fetus' - long-term ease and comfort for the parent, child and society is, in balance, worth the short-term emotional and physical pain of the abortion.
(MB) That's not the complete range of solutions nor does that include all factors present in the decision. However, it does express the logic of making a decision by weighting alternatives. If one's personal beliefs automatically exclude one or more alternatives, it's difficult to see how a sound final decision can be reached.

(R) IMO, what these arguements fail to address is the possibility of a higher moral value than long-term ease and comfort; most people would support our legal code and argue that human life was one of these superior values. If it could be demonstrated that life begins at conception, we could not support abortion rights without violating this superior value.
(MB) That conclusion begs a couple of questions. First, does any set of "superior values" actually exist? Second, does such a set of values only become inviolable if life begins at conception? If one doesn't believe that there is any sort of absolute morality, he will not reach any conclusion supporting any notion of inviolable superior values. Such notions, for all practical purposes, have theological implications that must, themselves, be supported before any consequences derived from them can be supported.

(R) But when does life begin? In the absence of a definitive religious authority one could argue that our legal definition of life should be the basis of determining when the legal human right-to-life begins.
(MB) Correct. In the absence of a religious explanation, legal definitions are all that remains.

(R) But the legal test of human rights is based on viability, and viability is a complicated, moving concept.
(MB) Actually, that "legal test" is based upon whether or not an individual has been born. Viability is a medical question that is used to determine whether or not a fetus could survive outside the mother's body.

(R) Does viable imply 'sustainable', regardless of cost?
(MB) Generally not, although some will interpret it that way. After all, how "viable" is a fetus that is so insufficiently developed that could never hope to live without all of its major functions being artificially supplied or supported?

(R) If so, it is probable that we will soon have the technical means to inseminate human eggs and raise fetuses exuetero - so, then, legally, will life begin at conception?
(MB) This depends on the connotations one seeks to apply to the word "life". Nobody will argue that a fertilized egg is "alive". However, neither will any thinking person argue that a sperm or an egg is "alive". What is the magical change in our connotation of "alive" that happens at fertilization? Again, this threatens entanglement with issues of theology.

(R) What if viability does not assume 'sustainability' - that the fetus must be capable of living on its own?
(MB) Then, the term "viability" has been redefined and is no longer the same measuring stick. It would then be an answer to a completely different question.

(R) The problem with this position is that no child, either as a fetus or as an infant, is capable of living by itself - needs must be met for a child to survive, and the difference between the need for nourishment and the need for a respirator is simply a matter of degree and expense - and arguing against the respirator brings us back to utilitarian arguments superceding the higher value of human life.
(MB) Here, it seems that a common answer is being sought for two different questions. A fetus that can't possibly live under normal circumstances is not the same thing as one which can. As a parallel example, a normal car can't run without gasoline, but the same model of car which is missing one or more critical parts won't run whether or not gasoline is available. Therefore, the common answer of supplying gasoline won't suffice to decide whether or not the car is "viable" in all circumstances.

(R) My whole problem with the legal definition of 'viable' wrt abortion rights is my problem with many poor legal definitions - it is essentially arbitrary, based on our existing state of our science and an imperfect alignment with our ethics. We cannot effectively define viability given the state of our technology;
(MB) What we can't do is make an absolute determination of when a fetus crosses the line between non-viable and viable that will apply in all cases. The best we can do is draw an arbitrary line that will apply in the majority of cases. This is not likely to change so long as fetuses continue to refuse to develop by leaps and bounds in clearly-defined stages.

(R) ultimately, we cannot define when human life begins.
(MB) Of course, my definition that "life begins at birth" eliminates the uncertainties and is clearly definable. I think the big problem here is not one of defining when human life begins. I think it lies more in defining what "human life" is. Once we have that down pat, we can more clearly define when it begins.

(R) If our ethics holds human life as a superior value, shouldn't we err on the side of prudence and assume life begins at conception?
(MB) That's a rather large assumption to be granted and demands several presuppositions that are not universally (or even logically) acceptable.

(R) You've probably been waiting for this one - the assumption implicit in my statements above, that human life is one of our higher moral values.
(MB) Yep...meat and potatoes time...*grin*

(R) The fact that much of our legal code protects human life over considerations of utility certainly illustrates this - I cannot kill my neighbor because he has no family, lives off welfare, and his dumpy house lowers my property values. Our best laws are based on our societal ethics and morality, and wadrt, these are based on Judeo-Christian values which are based on...??? A Jew, Christian, Muslim, etc, would argue that these values are handed down to us directly from God through scripture;
(MB) Which, of course, just attempts to add the force of an Argument from Authority to what would otherwise be an arbitrary dictate. Of course, it's a dictate with which most of us agree -- if for no other reason that personal survival. After all, *you* might be that neighbor that somebody else takes exception to!

(R) a more secular interpretation would be that scriptural morality includes absolute principles that effectively served societies long before they were written down.
(MB) This is an adaptation of the so-called "pragmatic argument" which states that any proposition which serves Man well is likely to be true. Actually, the notion of "serving Man well" is largely an emotional judgment and, as such, carries little weight as a logical defense of an argument.     For example, Biblical warnings about pork being an "unclean" food could be said to have served Man well since they arose out of a concern for the illnesses that often arose from eating pork. However, it is not true that pork is "unclean" since the root of the problem was in insufficient understanding that pork needs to be cooked more thoroughly than does beef in order to prevent trichinosis.

(R) I can't imagine our protocivilized ancestors foreseeing the modern abortion rights debate, but I can imagine their answer to our dilemma - thou shalt not kill.
(MB) Let's not forget that the question likely would not even have arisen in those days since abortion was unknown. Also, our ancestors were not exactly as tolerant of the unwanted, unsupported, deformed, or crippled as we are today. They simply didn't have the extra assets to support them when supporting the general population was a grueling, day-to-day task.

(R) They were probably confident in the existence of a higher moral authority in God(s);
(MB) Undoubtedly. Of course, they pretty much believed as they were told and were generally simple people in the first place. (Really not that much different from today if you think about it a bit.)

(R) I lack their confidence, but I am not arrogant enough to assume that a higher moral authority doesn't exist.
(MB) It's not a matter of arrogance. Rather, it's a matter of what the evidence will support. It makes little sense to base decisions on something whose existence is no more than indefensible speculation.

(R) On careful reflection, I think most folks would agree with me - I cannot prove God exists, but neither can I disprove Him.
(MB) There's a long series of Q&A dealing with that very point to be found within the replies to my Religion essay.

(R) I doubt Moses descended Mt. Sinai with "Thou Shalt Not Kill" inscribed by God on golden tablets, but likewise I can't say exactly where this good idea came from; maybe some guy in Mesopotamia thought it up and the idea spread, but then again, maybe...
(MB) There's no need for any "maybe". The desire for self-preservation and defense of one's family and societal group would mandate such an idea even if the concept of supernatural deities had never arisen. Consider that the same idea is rather easily shunted aside when circumstances confront one with enemies and threats.

(R) ...and if 'maybe' is true, I don't see any allowances for interpretations or special cases for rape and incest or the like - then again, I don't see any disallowances. I frankly don't know, so I'm most comfortable accepting the broader interpretation, with no exceptions.
(MB) I prefer to go with what is known, rather than speculate on a dubious "maybe". If a "maybe" ever becomes a reality, then it would be appropriate to act accordingly. Anyone can concoct a "maybe" that will lead him in any given direction. Usually, this means that the person is working backwards from a predetermined conclusion to find some means of justifying it.

(R) So there's the deal. Our laws are an outgrowth of our ethics and morality, rooted in prehistory, that proscribe the killing of humans. Yet these laws are imperfect when they attempt to define exceptions based on situational conditions that are, at best, reflections of our present state of technology and civilization; at worst, they can be viewed as based on imperfect knowledge or as simply arbitrary. As I see it, any killing of humans, be it abortion, warfare, or execution, is a grave decision fraught with consequences we do not fully understand. To justify killing in terms that are not utilitarian requires a level of knowledge and awareness we have imo not yet achieved.
(MB) Of course, we don't always call it "killing" as that infers some negative or anti-social connotations. Actually, it's not "Thou shalt not kill" in the Bible, either. The Hebrew text reads, "Thou shalt not murder". This changes the meaning profoundly.

(R) I am inclined to oppose abortion rights for these reasons. Fortunately for public order, I'm not a doctor, general, or judge.
(MB) Or, a hypocritical lunatic who shouts "Thou shalt not kill" while bombing abortion clinics and causing the deaths of medical personnel.

(R) Thanks, Mark, for letting me wax bibles were thumped in this diatribe...
(MB) Which is probably why your argument against abortion makes more rational sense than most others. Thanks for sending me your views!

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