Tuesday, January 28, 2014

What Liberals Get Wrong About Abortion


The liberal case for wide access to abortion is both simple and persuasive. A woman's right to bodily autonomy and to choose how, when, and if she reproduces are extremely important. This is a right that should be protected by the state, and the state cannot force her to carry embryos or fetuses to term, just as the state cannot force her to donate organs or any other use of her body (even if this means that another individual will die as a consequence). Whether we think this would grant the state so much intrusive power such that the benefits do not outweigh the costs, or we think that there is a fundamental right to bodily autonomy that cannot be overridden by positive consequences, this is a persuasive argument.

Curiously, though, what gives this argument its force is absent in the most recent high-profile case surrounding these issues. A Texas hospital decided to use extensive measures to keep the body of Marlise Munoz alive in order to allow her fetus to come to term. This woman is brain dead due to a blood clot in her lung. Her husband has been fighting for the hospital to let her body (and the fetus) die, but the hospital claims to have a legal obligation to continue life support on any pregnant patient. The legal grounding of these claims is a matter of dispute, with a judge recently ruling in the husband's favor.

Slate's Emily Bazelon argued a passionate moral case for ending any measures to prolong Munoz's life. Unfortunately for Bazelon, however, she cannot rely on the persuasive argument liberals usually use that I summarized above. This is because the central right in question, a woman's right to bodily autonomy, is absent in this case; dead people have no bodily autonomy.

We certainly have reason to respect the wishes of those who have died regarding their own bodies. But it is difficult to argue that these claims have as much strength as the claims to bodily autonomy of the living. The interest we have in what happens to our remains is far less significant than our interest in personal security. One need only consider how much physical hardship one would endure to guarantee appropriate treatment of one's corpse to see this.

The family is admitting that she is dead, which is why they want to remove all life support. The question is whether her and her family's wishes about what happens to her body, in this particular condition, override concerns about what happens to the fetus. I think it is far from obvious what the answer should be.

Other arguments about the status of the fetus come into play here. Many liberals, myself included, believe that the fetus makes few moral claims upon us in the early months of pregnancy. This is because the fetus doesn't develop its own mental life, or a capacity for subjective experience, until later on in pre-natal development (it is this important capacity that Munoz has lost in becoming brain dead). It is only once an individual develops subjective experiences about the world that it can have an interest in what happens to it and in continuing to live.

In the context of the argument I started out with, these considerations are essentially irrelevant. Regardless of whether or not the fetus has an interest in continuing to live, a woman has a right not to be forced to carry someone to term if she does not wish to do so. But in the case of Munoz, she is not being forced to do anything. As everyone can stipulate to, she is dead. Her remains are being used to support the life of her fetus, who, at over 20 weeks into development, plausibly possesses morally relevant interests.

One point the family's lawyer argued in support of letting Munoz and the fetus die is that the fetus appears to be significantly disabled (the lawyer used the indelicate phrase "distinctively abnormal"). But I do not think liberals should be too comfortable with offering this as a strong justification for terminating the pregnancy. While a living woman may choose what happens to her body, we should not be casually implying that the life of a disabled fetus or infant is not worth living.

Bazelon rests her moral case, ultimately, on the doctor-patient relationship. In this case, Erick Munoz serves as an appropriate proxy for his wife, and Bazelon urges us that "No state, and no hospital, should invade this deeply personal sphere of heartbreak."

This is a heartbreaking case, and the doctor-patient relationship is very important. But this argument is misapplied. With the mother dead, the most significant thing to consider are the fetus' interests. And if we think these interests are important, we should treat them as we would a child's interests. And both the state and hospitals may, in some cases, act against a parent's wishes to protect a child.

If liberals want to argue that this child has no legitimate interests, they should make that case. Or if they really think the right to choose what happens to one's remains is more important than another's interest in living, they should argue for that (though I find this proposition very doubtful). The problem is that liberals are so used to having a strong argument against the claims of pro-lifers that they fail to recognize when that argument does not apply. And they are terrified of giving pro-lifers any kind of victory at all, because the dangers pro-lifers pose to women's rights are very real. But if we are going to make any progress on this issue, and if we want to show that we're taking it seriously, we have to recognize what our arguments show and what they don't. And it would appear that our arguments are not as decisive as they usually are in this case.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

There's Nothing Wrong With New Media


Photo Credit: Jason Howie
John Winters, over at Cognocenti, bemoans the central role of trivial interests in our lives. This refrain should be quite familiar by now. The "new media" are largely to blame for our callow self-interest, and our adoring of vapid celebrities, 24 hour news cycles, etc., etc....

To a large extent I agree with Winters. It does concern me that celebrity gossip is an extremely popular form of entertainment, that people care more about the lives of the rich and famous than the lives of those in poverty. We would likely better off as a species if people worried more about the "dozen good-sized wars raging, a teetering national health care initiative, an out-of-control national debt, historic gridlock in Washington and rising rates of poverty and homelessness." I'd add to these concerns animal rights, global poverty, and general inequality, and I don't think the national debt should make the list. But the point is clear enough.

I don't think the entirety of our lives should be concerned with the most important issues of our time. Or, to put it another way, I think one important issue of any time is how individuals' lives go, and each individual needn't spend all their time thinking about ways to help others. But they should spend much, much more time engaged with important issues than most people do at present.

Where I part ways with Winters (and countless other opinion writers who are aghast at frivolous millenials) is when he thinks this is a relatively new problem. Commentators like Winters always want a bad guy in this story, and the bad guy is always the internet. Why? Because it's new, exciting, and it wasn't around when they were young and everything was better. But this viewpoint is grossly mistaken.

Consider this patronizing observation:
How did this happen? We used to be smart, on the ball, with IQs soaring. I posed this query to a teenaged relative of mine who recently had his eyes and thumbs surgically removed from his iPhone. Not surprisingly, he just shrugged.
The implication, here, is that the new generation is literally stupider than the ones that came before. But there's no reason to actually think this is true. There's no reason to think that older generations didn't have more frivolous interests when they were younger, or that most of them don't have trivial interests now.

Winters complains that content is now driven solely by advertising interests, but this has always been the case. The trouble is that now advertisers are much better at knowing what readers want to read. The number of page clicks per article is much more instructive than general subscription statistics. Newspapers probably had, on average, more serious content than is posted on Facebook, but that doesn't mean people were actually interested in or reading all that content.

What the new ways of media have brought are better ways for content providers to provide content that consumers want. This means that a lot of what will be produced will indeed be pretty trivial, but that's not because people's interests are more trivial than they used to be. It's because that's what people have always wanted.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Ethics of Outing

Photo Credit: Fibonacci Blue

The very strange etiquette regarding closeted public figures is finally facing some due criticism. Itay Hod recently made news by not-so-subtlely implying that Congressman Aaron Schock (R-IL) is gay. And before that, Josh Barro openly criticized privileged gay celebrities in the closet, basically calling them cowards (he called them “decadent,” but he was underselling his point).

The traditional line from many in the gay activist community has been a complete moratorium on outing. When Chris Sosa defended the outing of Schock in The Huffington Post this week, he claimed that gay activists' reluctance towards outing derives from the historical potential for violence against those who are outed. This has certainly been a worry, but it's not the whole story; otherwise, gay activists would have been hesitant to advocate anyone coming out at all.

What we hear most often from the anti-outing crowd is that “coming out is a deeply personal, private decision that everyone must make for him or herself.” This sounds pretty reasonable, especially as a rule of thumb for dealing with those in one's own social circle. But it's highly doubtful that this reasoning applies to our treatment of those who choose to be public figures.

We constantly talk about the personal lives of celebrities and politicians. Far too much, in my opinion, but this is not the argument we hear against outing in particular. For some reason, people claim that facts about an individual's sexual orientation must be treated differently than almost any other fact about them. Why should we be more worried about the moral implications about outing public figures than we are about announcing a high-profile divorce?

Barro argued on Twitter that the anti-outing argument must rely on an assumption that there is something shameful about being gay. Perhaps this assumption lingers on, but more broadly these arguments reflect the skepticism about the validity of this kind of moral criticism. One of Barro's objectors argued that we cannot judge anyone who chooses not to come out because they have their own personal reasons that we will never understand. However, this might be true of any individual doing anything at all (like, say, committing a hate-crime), and this hardly hinders our ability to make reasonable evaluations of their character.

However, I am not really that interested in whether or not Schock is gay or a hypocrite. I'm much more concerned with the policies he endorses and seeks to promote.

He might be a hypocrite, which is a criticism people love to throw at their political opponents. And if others want to point out hypocrisy where ever they find it, they should feel free to do so. I imagine they hope to bring down their opponents in whatever way they can, and that is just how the game is played.

But I think we would be better off spending more time discussing the reasons for and against certain policies than discussing the hypocrisy of politicians. I would rather vote for a hypocrite who will promote policies that I support than vote someone with integrity who would fight those policies. And I'd rather support a hypocritical candidate with the right views who can win an election than a saint who does not stand a chance.

Evidence of hypocrisy might serve as an indicator that a politician is unreliable. I do not dispute this, but there might be plenty of reasons to think of a politician as unreliable. The charge of hypocrisy, then, is only derivatively important. Being unreliable would be the true criticism, and would probably need to be supported by additional evidence.

Of course, I do not think people should be hypocrites, and as a moral criticism it is certainly powerful. This is why I join Barro in regarding those privileged closeted celebrities as cowardly. They fail to contribute to the increasing the amount of positive gay visibility in the world, which has the potential to bring hope to those still struggling with sexual identity. They reap the benefits of the work that courageous LGBT individuals have done before them, but decline to pass on any similar benefits to those who will come after. And since the risk of even losing an entire career (which is, at this point, unlikely) is much less serious than the risk of living as a dejected LGBT teen, these celebrities deserve our disapproval.

As do, naturally, closeted politicians. But the metric most relevant to our judgments of politicians is how good they are at governing and representing the public interest. This should be our primary focus when evaluating our elected representatives.

Nevertheless, discussing our politician's sexual orientation is not somehow off-limits or below the belt. Closeted public figures really should expect it, especially when they make decisions that reflect value-judgments about homosexuality. A divorced politician bemoaning the disintegration of marriages would certainly be called out for their hypocrisy, and gay politicians deserve no special protection.