Sunday, June 07, 2009

Abortion, torture, and rhetoric

Back in April, Ramesh Ponnuru made a very important point about the relationship between our discourses on abortion and torture:
In the course of attacking, of all people, Jim Manzi, Daniel Larison writes, "I have started doubting whether people who are openly pro-torture or engaged in the sophistry of Manzi’s post are part of the same moral universe as I am, and I have wondered whether there is even a point in contesting such torture apologia as if they were reasonable arguments deserving of real consideration. Such fundamental assumptions at the core of our civilization should not have to be re-stated or justified anew, and the fact that they have to be is evidence of how deeply corrupted our political life has become, but if such basic norms are not reinforced it seems clear that they will be leeched away over time." I have often felt much the same way about the abortion license and its defenders. But, well, we are where we are.
Indeed, the similarities between the two debates are overwhelming. On one side, you have simple, plainspoken moral conviction: "Abortion is murder" or "Torture is wrong." Those convinced that abortion is evil, or that torture is evil, don't feel that elaborately reasoned justifications for their positions should be necessary. In fact, in their minds, the presence of any debate at all is a sign of overwhelming moral degeneracy.

On the other side, we see a fuzzier, situational analysis. Maybe abortion is wrong, one will say, but shouldn't the mother be able to make that choice? What if her life is in danger? What if she was raped? Torture might be wrong, we hear, but what if it's adminstered only to a few "hardened terrorists"? What if it saves innocent lives?

Of course, our major political ideologies occupy both sides of this argumentative divide, depending on the issue -- the left is pro-choice but anti-torture, while the American right is pro-life but vaguely supportive of torture. These positions aren't logically inconsistent, but their rhetorical incoherence should lead the overconfident among us to question our judgment. If you make dramatic pronouncements about how one issue involves Incontrovertible Moral Principles and the Fate of Civilization, but are aghast at a lack of pragmatism and nuance on the other, you ought to at least notice the irony.


Superheater said...

The problem with the comparison is that NOBODY is in favor of real (Hanoi Hilton) torture. "Waterboarding" is discomforture-and there's a difference.

Jirka Lahvicka, Czech Republic said...

I think that being pro-choice and anti-torture (or the other way round) can be entirely coherent. These are two completely different issues anyway - one is about taking (or supposedly taking) someone's life, one is not; one is about grossly limiting freedom of just one person, one is about trading off freedom of mother for freedom of a (potential) child.
Probably the most important point: the abortion issue is shaped by religious beliefs (in my country, which is probably the most atheistic country in the world, there is no abortion debate AT ALL, it is simply not an issue, even our Christian Democratic party does not talk about it during elections), torture is not endorsed by any religion (as far as I know).

zubin said...

I think that the pro-choice stance is less about ideology and more about pragmatism.

What if the major reason that a person got an abortion was that they didn't think their potential child would have a good life? (particularly because of how child-caring needs would damage that person's economic opportunities)
I would say in this case, abortion is probably better than 50% effective at 1) improving the life of the potential-mother 2) preventing the child from suffering through a disadvantaged life.

On the other hand, there is very little evidence that torture is effective at all. Could that partly explain the correlation between why people who are pro-choice are more likely to be against torture?

If it was shown that torture prevented increased human suffering, then I think more people who are pro-choice would consider changing their minds. But then again, I'm not confident at all about that prediction.

mpowell said...

"Indeed, the similarities between the two debates are overwhelming."

Talk about irony. It may be true that the public debate involves the exchange of simplistic absolute positions, but in actual reality there are lengthy, detailed arguments behind both. I happen to agree with the one against torture but not against abortion, but at least I can see that the position admits of a reasoned defense, though it rests on a false premise. Regarding torture though, the arguments are quite sound and detailed. I guess that at their core they rest on such dubious absolutists assertions as, "it is generally a bad thing to subject another person to intense pain and suffering", but their have also been extensive discussions that whatever 'balancing' of interests you consider, the case for torture is extremely poor. It is the extremely poor quality of this case and the specific acts of intellectual dishonesty its defenders have engaged in that lead one to doubt their moral fibre.

Tadash said...

I don't think you correctly described the situation.

While a good number on the left might oppose torture based on a "moral conviction" that is it wrong. I would argue that a even larger group protests torture because it is not proven to be effective. In that context torture simply becomes punishment instead of serving as a means to gather information.

I don't think your analogy holds.