Logical sledgehammers can miss their targets

A recent opinion piece by Khaya Dlanga caught my eye, mostly because of a couple of blog posts written in response to it. Dlanga wrote on abortion, and reflected on whether a couple could sometimes desire an abortion for reasons too “frivolous” to be considered morally acceptable. Now, Khaya Dlanga is an ad-man and a columnist – not a philosopher (at least in the academic sense). His piece was also a opinion piece, and as someone who writes those on a fairly regular basis for The Daily Maverick, I’m well-aware of how difficult it can be to cover enough bases so that pedantic commentators won’t start foaming at the mouth, while also keeping things accessible to people who might only have a broad interest in the topic at hand.

Because of this particular difficulty, I’ve always tried to remind myself to apply Davidson’s formulation of the principle of charity, according to which we “make maximum sense of the words and thoughts of others when we interpret in a way that optimises agreement”. Unless someone says truly insane things, I try to find agreement with the spirit of their argument, regardless of whatever differences of opinion I might have with particular details, or the mistakes that they might have made.

This is important to rational discourse, in that pedantically pointing out faults while failing to acknowledge whatever substance there might be to a more broad sentiment in an article or column can often be little more than intellectual grandstanding – a way of saying that someone else is lazy, inattentive, stupid or whatever by comparison to you. And of course, that might all be true. However, a failure to take context into account (such as who is writing, and for what publication) is also a sort of lazy reading, and one which allows you to sneer and point fingers while refusing to give yourself the opportunity to take a more balanced view of the topic at hand.

And this is why I was somewhat disappointed to read Tauriq Moosa and Blaize Kaye’s responses to Dlanga. They are both (as am I) pro-choice on the topic of abortion. I think we are all anti-natalists also, in varying degrees of commitment. So on the logic of the argument, we would all most likely agree that the legal right to abortion should be maintained where it’s currently permitted, and that jurisdictions that don’t permit abortion should do so. We might disagree on how late in a pregnancy is too late, or on whether minors need parental consent, etc., but none of those issues are relevant here.

The situation in question, addressed by Dlanga, is that of an Australian couple who wanted to have a female child, but where the mother became pregnant with male twins that were then aborted. The couple are now seeking permission from the Victoria State government to use IVF so as to pick the gender of a possible future child. Regardless of any mistakes Dlanga makes in the column (such as using a line-drawing fallacy, emotive language, invoking the moral panic of eugenics), his basic point is that we should have good reasons to have an abortion. Any response to the column should therefore (on the principle of charity, at least) be sure to address this point fairly, regardless of what these responses might say with regard to other issues in the column.

Saying that we “should have good reasons” to have an abortion admits at least two interpretations. One is the legal interpretation, which is the one that Moosa and Kaye focus on. Here, Kaye make the point that denying the couple the opportunity to decide which reasons are frivolous, and which are not, requires that some external agent make that judgement for them. And what affords the external agent the authority to do so? Nothing logically principled, in most cases, which is why – as stated earlier – I agree that the right to choice should be protected. Moosa agrees that the couple in question have poor reasons for wanting the abortion, but his reasons for doing so seem to largely rest on various ad hominem characterisations of the couple in question, which – along with his rejection of Dlanga’s slippery slope argument – also add up to denying Dlanga’s conclusion that legal intervention is permissible in these cases.

The second interpretation of “good reasons” is far more difficult to define, as it falls in the domain of morality. More precisely, we might be able to think of broad categories of reasons which (while legally permissible) should nevertheless be disincentivised. As JS Mill reminded us in On Liberty, the law only does some of the work – we are also guided and managed by our social networks, through the judgments that others form and express regarding our actions. Why might certain reasons be better or worse than others, and merit management via incentives (including social opprobrium)? Well, perhaps because the idea that life has value (whether blastocyst, foetus, kitten, whatever) has some utilitarian merit (again, I believe that all three of us are utilitarians), regardless of the fact that we can reach logical (and legal) agreement that this value might come in different degrees, and merit different forms of protection.

So, on this reasoning, we might want to nudge people towards not being frivolous about choices which impact on other lives. This issue has a significant philosophical pedigree, including the discussion that raged for many years from 1971, following Judith Jarvis Thompson’s “famous violinist” thought experiment, Philippa Foot’s response to that, and all the other papers and books that were inspired by this debate. A example that sticks with me from when I was reading all this material is that of someone who falls pregnant, and then realises that she and her husband were planning a vacation in 9 month’s time, and that it was therefore quite inconvenient to be pregnant at this time. You could strengthen the thought-experiment by adding the detail that this couple is weathly, and have the leisure time to reschedule the holiday to an earlier date.

The broader point is that while abortion could simply be seen, and treated, as another form of birth-control, I believe that to do so would be needlessly erosive of something that has value. Not human life, or life in general in itself, necessarily, but rather our generalised disposition to value and protect life. A world in which life is not simply treated as a commodity seems to me preferable to one in which it is, and in which the only grounds for making decisions need to be found through the sledgehammer of logical distinctions.

Khaya Dlanga is wrong to suggest that these cases justify limitations on the legal right to have an abortion, and I believe that his case against the use of technology that would allow one to determine your child’s gender is also a weak one. But regardless of this disagreement, he’s right that some abortions are more frivolous than others; that we can sometimes tell one case from another; and that where we can do so, this might merit treating these cases differently.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.