The Professional Status of “Pro-Life” Positions on Abortion
Should junior job seekers try to avoid outing themselves as “pro-life”?A version of this question was discussed recently at The Philosophers’ Cocoon. The worry that prompted that discussion is that the pro-life view on abortion is perceived as sexist, and so philosophers who would like to avoid having a sexist colleague will avoid hiring people who defend that view.
There are a number of questions one could unpack here: (1) What exactly are we referring to by “pro-life” views on abortion? (2) Which, if any, of these views are sexist? (3) Does sincerely defending a sexist view make one sexist? (4) Is a job candidate’s sexism sufficient grounds for not hiring them? (5) Is the charge of sexism a red herring? Might it be viewed as sufficiently objectionable by others in the profession that some anti-abortion views restrict the liberty of women, regardless of whether the position or the arguments for it are sexist? (6) What should pro-life job candidates do?
I can’t take up all of these questions in this post. But I will share some thoughts about the first two, since I know everyone wants to hear what a man has to say about sexism and abortion.*
To start with a rather obvious point, there are lots of relevant distinctions to make here. Let’s just look at one: the distinction between the question of the moral permissibility of abortion (“the moral question”) and the question of the moral permissibility of banning abortion (“the legal question”). It’s worth making this distinction because it doesn’t follow from the judgment that some act is wrong that it should be illegal and its prohibition enforced by coercion. (Nor is it the case that some act has to be immoral for it to be right to make that act illegal.)
The moral question of abortion is really complicated, and I think philosophers—especially those most familiar with philosophical work on abortion—acknowledge this, and would not jump to the conclusion that someone who argues that most abortions are immoral is sexist.
I certainly don’t think they should jump to that conclusion; whether the conclusion is warranted depends on whether the anti-abortion argument in question is sexist. If one’s argument against abortion depends on premises that hold women’s interests to not be of equal moral importance to the interests of others, that’s one way an argument may be sexist. But not all anti-abortion arguments do that. To take a simple example, classical (total) utilitarianism does not weight interests differentially based on whose they are, but nonetheless the view implies that most abortions are wrong.
Of course, whether jumps to certain conclusions should be taken is different from the matter of whether they are taken. Am I right in thinking that this is not an especially popular jump?
What about the legal question? An assumption that a philosopher is sexist in virtue of supporting legal prohibitions on most abortions seems to have somewhat more warrant than the assumption that a philosopher is sexist in virtue of holding merely that most abortions are immoral. This is because to support making abortion illegal is to support special governmental prohibitions and use of force on women in regard to choices about their own bodies and lives in highly personal, invasive, and significant ways. But how much more warrant, I don’t know.
(I want to say that it is probably better to assess the individual arguments than make an assumption based on the conclusion of the arguments, but I see the counterexamples to that—do I need to assess individual arguments for race-based slavery? can’t I reasonably assume they’re racist based on their conclusion? At the same time, it’s not certain the analogy supporting these counterexamples is apt.)
And again, whether the belief that such views are sexist is warranted, there’s the question of whether the belief that they’re sexist is widespread. I’m not quite sure what to think about that. We could find out if you shared your views on the matter. Then there’s the question of how such beliefs affect hiring and the distribution of professional opportunities, and the further question of what job candidates with anti-abortion views should do in light of this, if anything.
Discussion of these and related questions are welcome.
(Since one’s own position on abortion may influence one’s view of whether certain views of the topic are sexist or perceived as such, it may be useful to share your position when you comment on these matters.**)
* Is there anything worse than having to explain a self-deprecating joke?
** For what it’s worth, I find Elizabeth Harman’s arguments in favor of the moral permissibility of early abortion compelling, and I am generally opposed to legal prohibitions on abortion.
Note: comments on this post are moderated and may take some time to appear.
Related: Political Hostility and Willingness to Discriminate in Philosophy, The Philosophy and Politics of Early Abortion in the U.S., Philosophers On the Ethics and Politics of Abortion.
UPDATE: Comments are now closed on this post.
I think a publication record can be perceived as sexist, but I also think the best way to deal with that perception is to be honest about why you hold your view and make every effort to not be sexist and a good, supportive colleague.Report
This is a really intriguing post, thanks Justin! One of my thoughts reading it is: is it really true that it’s sexist for men to oppose abortion, but, at the same time, it’s not sexist for women to oppose it? And why would (i.e., should) that be true if, for example, the moral status of abortion hangs on various metaphysical facts? More generally, how is the sexism not ad hominem? I.e., the disapprobation attaches, not to the argument itself, but to the sex (gender?) of the speaker?
Judge Barrett’s confirmation hearings are useful here, too. She’s being asked about abortion (and the ACA) at length. The Democrats seem to think RBG should be replaced by a woman, just not this woman. Of course, they have other procedural objections (cf., Garland etc.), but there’s also *substantive* ones that this is the “wrong woman for the job”. This strikes me as weirdly sexist as well: all women are supposed to approve of abortion, and it’s anti-feminist to have a different view, even from a female. Why not just celebrate that women–like men–can disagree on stuff, and it doesn’t make her a “bad woman” to look at abortion differently?
Personally, I wouldn’t want to litmus test what pro-female looks like, as it seems disrespectful to women who have different approaches. Let’s be pro-female by celebrating a diversity of views, for example, and the very intelligent and accomplished females who hold them.Report
Jon, I’m sure there are some people who support the position you argue against (certain views are sexist for men but not women to hold), but I think there are relatively few philosophers who would hold it, so it’s basically a straw man in this context. Your mode of presentation is oddly exculpatory of Barrett. It’s clear why Democrats don’t like Barrett: her views are antithetical to theirs. The Democrats you’re discussing hold two sets of views which are not in conflict: a woman should be appointed, and a holder of certain views should be appointed. So your criticism of them is just irrelevant.
You’re right that a litmus test can be dangerous, but, if one considers abortion a case of massive human impact (as Democrats tend to), it’s quite reasonable to claim that someone who wants to ban abortion is hurting women, at least in one significant way.
I’ll conclude by noting that, if women tend to have personal experience which men don’t have but which is relevant for forming considered judgments on abortion issues, then it may not be sexist to give women’s views more weight. I take it that many left-wing folks think the first claim is true.
**Disclosure: I’m a cis man. I’m pro-abortion, and (like Justin) broadly support Harman’s views.Report
“To take a simple example, classical (total) utilitarianism does not weight interests differentially based on whose they are, but nonetheless the view implies that most abortions are wrong.”
This is probably not the place to get into it, but I think you’re being a little too fast here.Report
It certainly seems plausible that this sort of utilitarianism would naturally lead to the view that for most moments in most pregnancies, intentionally terminating that pregnancy at that moment would be wrong, just as it naturally leads to the view that for most moments in most adult lives, intentionally terminating that life at that moment would be wrong. But it seems quite unlikely that the actual abortions that occur are at a representative sample of moments in pregnancies, and a classical utilitarian would need to supplement the moral thesis with an empirical one to reach this judgment about most actual abortions.Report
“this sort of utilitarianism would naturally lead to the view that for most moments in most pregnancies, intentionally terminating that pregnancy at that moment would be wrong, just as it naturally leads to the view that for most moments in most adult lives, intentionally terminating that life at that moment would be wrong”
Even this is surely incorrect, and even if by “classical utilitarianism” we mean (and only mean) Bentham’s version. For the fetus experiences *no* pain or pleasure until at least about the early 20’s of gestational weeks, i.e., until half the pregnancy is over. Now, if you mean the abortion is wrong if *forced* upon the pregnant woman, and hence harming *her* interests–well, of course any utilitarian would say that, as would ever other rational person in the world, but surely that’s not what we’re talking about. A termination by the woman during this period would surely be acceptable for this kind of “classical” utilitarian. Of course, Millian utilitarianism easily extends this into late pregnancies with its distinction between higher and lower pleasures since the fetus doesn’t have the former, so that even a modest benefit to the woman’s higher pleasures would justify abortion, not only in most actual cases but in most counter-factual cases. Or rather, it makes your claim that “intentionally terminating that life at that moment would be wrong” completely indeterminate, since the *reason* behind this intention (and hence its actual or likely outcome) is decisive, not the moment at which it occurs, so you can’t make sweeping claims about what is true “at most moments” during such periods.Report
Scott, it’s the loss of the happiness that would have been experienced and produced by the fetus were it not aborted and instead lived a “normal” human life of average length, that explains most of the disutility of a particular abortion. Any pain inflicted on the fetus—and pregnant person—counts, too, but that is not what is really doing the work in my assertions or in Kenny’s.
(Perhaps Kenny’s use of “moments” led you to think he was talking just about the momentary effects of an abortion (that is, effects during it), but he wasn’t. He was talking about the effects of “an abortion at any moment,” and those effects include effects way after the procedure.)Report
Justin, you’re quite right, which means of course that the relevant response is not the one I made, but Richard Hare’s point that if an abortion occurs this could be (and often is) then followed in due time by the conception and birth of *another* child who would not have been born had the abortion not occurred, making the total happiness just what it would otherwise have been (and possibly more, if the abortion was made to avoid some unhappiness in the life of the pregnant woman or child, as is often the case).
Of course, under this view it not only follows that any abortions which do not lead to more such births, on the part of that woman or others, may be wrong…and any missed opportunities for conceptions and births by fertile women are equally wrong. This being, IMO, one of many reductios against classical “total” utilitarianism, I don’t actually take this view very seriously. I don’t know how those who do answer the second point, but if they have one for it, this can presumably also be applied to the case of abortion. So either the view is completely bonkers, and obviously so, or they have an answer for it which would again suggest that you’re jumping the gun in claiming that most possible abortions would be wrong under this view, but I’ll leave others to defend it further if they can.Report
First, in my view the perception as “Sexist” is not ordinarily going to be based on some kind of rational reconstruction of the grounds for a pro-life position. It is just as likely to be based on a kind of gut-level social grouping instinct, where those who defend pro-life views are taken to be on a different and potentially dangerous ‘team’. That perception activates a host of associations that job-seekers will never be in a position to block or argue against; they simply won’t get a chance to be in the interview room to defend themselves. That’s probably why this is a concern. And when search committees are getting 500 applications, all it takes is for the committee to have one person who makes these associations and explicitly pro-life candidates are dead in the water.
Second, we should remember that for many of our colleagues concepts like ‘sexism’ and ‘misogyny’ are no longer defined in terms of individual beliefs such as “women’s interests matter less than men’s.” Rather, for these folks–who have received enormous accolades here and elsewhere and who continue to set many high-powered agendas in the field–simply having a practical orientation that functionally contributes to gendered oppression is basically enough. So all one of these folks has to do to fortify their sexism- perception is to think that the public defense of a pro-life position, whatever its rational grounds, is even slightly likely to increase the chances that, say, Roe v. Wade will fall. So a pro-lifer shouldn’t be comforted by the fact that their arguments are reasonable, respectful and egalitarian; many of us are busily finding new and creative ways to ignore the arguments.
Third, Justin, I LOLed, but it’s useful for pro-lifers of a certain demographic profile to think about why you needed to make the self-deprecating joke. You needed to signal that your voice matters much less. But for male job seekers in particular, that’s strong evidence that they should shut up about this until they have tenure, right?
All of this being said, there are a few explicitly Catholic institutions with large philosophy departments, so pro-lifers shouldn’t be *overly* concerned here. Indeed, many of the same dynamics I’ve described here have long worked against pro-choicers at those (comparatively less common) places.Report
“it’s useful for pro-lifers of a certain demographic profile to think about why you needed to make the self-deprecating joke. You needed to signal that your voice matters much less. But for male job seekers in particular, that’s strong evidence that they should shut up about this until they have tenure, right?”
I don’t think I’d say that what I needed to signal was that my voice matters less. Rather, I wanted to make clear that I am aware of the moral and epistemic disadvantage I may be at in discussing this issue and that I understand this disadvantage (or rather, the lack of attention paid to it) is itself part of the controversy surrounding abortion–and conveying all this is, in turn, part of trying to establish trust with my readers. I believe one can be serious without being somber, and so I did this with a little joke.
I don’t think the lesson to take from my remarks is that male job seekers should “shut up about this until they have tenure,” but rather, as with the discussion of any controversial subject, it is an author’s (or teacher’s) responsibility to successfully convey to your audience that you really understand why what you are discussing is controversial, and that you are doing what you can to proceed in a trustworthy manner.Report
As Al says, you’re being a little too fast with your claim about what classical (total) utilitarianism implies. The view by itself implies nothing about the moral status of abortions. You (obviously) have to combine the view with empirical assumptions about the effects of abortions, compared with whatever alternatives are being considered. An honest attempt to do that should probably lead everyone to suspend judgement about the moral status of most abortions. The facile argument, which I hear often, is that, because we can expect most children born these days, especially in developed countries, to at least have lives worth living, their existence will add to the total amount of utility in the world, and therefore aborting them would be wrong. I hope I don’t have to explain the glaring errors in this argument. I suspect that Justin only put that bit in to provoke me into responding. He is obviously missing his RoME talks, where he would include a bit designed to get me to say something, and then he’d put up a Power Point slide of me saying it. Of course, as a good utilitarian, I always oblige, knowing how much pleasure that gives him and the audience. Maybe next year we can do it again in person.Report
You are such a good friend, Alastair. 🙂
It is true that classical utilitarianism itself implies nothing about the deontic status of abortions, but that’s because classical utilitarianism itself implies nothing about the deontic status of any actions. But I do think that given reasonable empirical assumptions and a not-overly-demanding conception of what makes a life worth living, classical utilitarianism does indeed imply that very many abortions are wrong. That said, I may be mistaken about the empirical assumptions.
And to be clear, I’m not saying that on this basis classical utilitarians are committed to the judgment all abortions should be prohibited. We’d have to look at the value of the resulting consequences of various regulatory schemes.
I’ll also add that there are many varieties of consequentialism and it would be a mistake to interpret my remarks about just one version of it, classical utilitarianism, as applying to the whole family of views.Report
But why do you think classical utilitarianism has that implication? Given what we know about the effects the average human has on the world as a whole (other humans, sentient creatures generally, non-sentient bits of nature which also affect other sentient beings, etc.), it seems far more likely to me that adding a human to the world will decrease total utility, compared with many other available options, than that it will increase it. Consider standard maximizing total utilitarianism, which is probably the most common version of the theory (though not the correct one). For a choice to be correct, on that theory, there have to be no better alternatives. Now consider someone, or couple of someones, deciding whether to have a child (either by starting a pregnancy, or continuing one that has already started). How plausible is it that there are no other options available to that person, or couple, that would contribute more to total utility? None at all. Nothing they could do with their time and resources that would contribute more to the world than bringing a mewling, puking, brat into the world, who will then consume resources like an average American, and act with the kind of selfish disregard for others (sentient beings generally) that is all too common? Of course, not everyone is like that. Some people probably do contribute positively to net utility (compared with the alternative in which they don’t exist). But no-one is justified in believing that their future tax deduction will be one of those. I don’t think they’re justified in believing that the kid will definitely detract from net utility either (which is why I said the reasonable position is to suspend judgment). But if I had to come down on one side or the other, I would come down on the side of detracting from net utility. Of course, the uncertainty involved in making these judgments, along with the fairly well-known negative effects of restrictive legal systems, argues very strongly against legal prohibitions on abortion, even if we erroneously thought that most abortions would be suboptimal from a utilitarian perspective.Report
In thinking about the permissibility of abortion from a utilitarian perspective, it’s not enough to think about whether the fetus who is aborted would have had a life worth living. It’s also necessary to think about what externalities that life would produce. Especially in the developed world this means taking into account the extra CO2 that will end up in the atmosphere if there is another driver on the roads, another meat eater (likely), etc. Factoring these considerations in, it wouldn’t be a surprise to me if a simple total act utilitarianism entailed that the decision *not* to abort a pregnancy is often wrong even in cases where the we can expect the fetus to have a life well worth living if it is carried to term.Report
Exactly Dale, that’s what I was getting at with my description of the likely behavior of the future tax deduction in question.Report
In response to Alastair and Dale and other people objecting to my claim that classical (total, act) utilitarianism would judge most abortions to be morally wrong, two points:
Humans are amazing happiness machines. Our ability to find and experience happiness, even in bad conditions, is almost bizarre or perverse, but it is evident from the fact that around the world and over the course of human history, with all of the variety of circumstances that contains, people have managed to be happy. Even when we are experiencing pain, we can also be experiencing tremendous happiness; our cognitive sophistication allows us to “multitrack” in this way, and our powers of rationalization (even if sometimes “irrational”) help us find happiness in bad experiences. (And I don’t mean by “happiness” here anything beyond pleasurable experiences.) We also have the capacity to generate extraordinary amounts of happiness for others.
Of course I know that humans excel at suffering, too, and causing suffering to others. But I do think we often, owing to status quo bias and related modes of thinking, overestimate the extent to which humans would be made miserable by having to exist in conditions we take to be worse than our own.
So, to follow up on one of Dale’s points, suppose the failure to abort the fetus who later becomes “Fred” leads to Fred adding a typical amount of carbon to the atmosphere. How strongly does this count, on utilitarian grounds, in favor of the judgment that it would have been morally permissible to abort that fetus? Not much at all, I think. First, the extent to which Fred’s addition of carbon itself contributes to some additional global warming is negligible. Second, the extent to which that negligible contribution to global warming itself causes any negative changes to our environmental or material conditions is negligible. Third, the extent to which these negative changes to our environmental or material conditions have a negative effect on human happiness is… well, given that the changes are probably not noticeable, and given humans’ remarkable adaptability, I’d bet the effect of these changes on human happiness is almost zero (the only reason it’s probably not zero is that Fred’s activity may have downstream threshold effects that cause later environmental-damage-caused-unhappiness to show up a nanosecond sooner than it otherwise might have). So if we had aborted the fetus, in regard to environmental considerations we perhaps would have generated at most a very very tiny amount of happiness. But if we don’t abort, and if Fred ends up having a somewhat typical human life, then we create a very much larger amount of happiness in Fred and others who Fred makes happy. Of course, environmental considerations aren’t the only negatives to take into account here, and other negatives, such as Fred’s later torturing puppies to support his chocolate habit, may present more substantial worries for my view. But we have to tread carefully here. Sure, it’s a mistake in moral mathematics to ignore tiny and non-noticeable effects in the aggregate (which I’m not doing here, btw), but it’s also a mistake in moral mathematics (the fallacy of division) to attribute to an individual act bad effects generated only by very many iterations of that act.
2. Sound Comparisons
Alastair asks, “How plausible is it that there are no other options available to that person, or couple, that would contribute more [than their having a child] to total utility?” The idea here is that the relevant choice is not “either have the baby or abort the fetus” but rather “either have the baby or abort the fetus and instead do any number of other good things with the additional resources you’ll have as a a result of aborting the fetus.” Alastair is right to draw our attention to the good-producing options made possible by aborting the fetus. But to do just that, without also drawing our attention to the good-producing options made possible by having the baby, means we aren’t making a sound comparison. For just as “aborting the fetus and giving the money you otherwise would have spent on your child to Oxfam” is an alternative to having the baby, “having the baby and raising it vegetarian, or as an effective altruist, or in a low-carbon lifetyle” are alternatives to aborting the fetus. A sound comparison will look at similar ranges of options for each alternative. And if you think the low likelihood of these alternatives to aborting a fetus, such as raising a child vegetarian, means we shouldn’t take them into account, then again, by parity, we ought to disqualify many of the good-producing alternatives to having a baby Alastair wants us to consider.
Now I don’t think these points themselves settle the matter, but I do think they cut strongly against the kinds of moves Alastair and Dale are making.Report
Justin, I think that our differences come down to empirical ones, as is usually the case when people disagree about what utilitarianism entails. In part, I think that this may be because I am more inclined than you are to think that one (Western) individual’s contribution to climate change and other environmental problems will make a material difference to how other people’s lives go. At least I am less confident that this is not the case. Assuming that we’re thinking about expected utility, we have to take into account the fact that there is some probability that even a small difference in the amount of CO2 will result in the crossing of some threshold. To be clear, my utilitarianism is not of the sort where the issues take exactly this shape.Report
I agree that our differences come down to empirical ones, and I’ll admit that I brought no hard evidence to the debate. (What’s the saying? Don’t bring an intuition to a gun fight?)
And I’d add, for readers who don’t work in moral philosophy, that the landscape of consequentialist moral theories is wonderfully rich, varied, and productive of important philosophical questions, and it would be a mistake to conclude anything about the normative implications of consequentialism in general for subjects like abortion or the environment from this discussion of just one variant of it.Report
Justin, this is an interesting discussion, but I think orthogonal to the point you were originally trying to make. Can we all agree that (and agree that you should have originally said): if someone argued on the basis of classical (total) utilitarianism, that
AW: because birthing a child would create more net positive utility in the future, abortion is wrong
then AW would be an example of a pro-life argument which does NOT use the lower moral status of women (or anyone else) as a premise. This is true regardless of whether anyone (or any competent philosopher, anyway) has ever actually subscribed to AW, or whether AW in any sense is a correct or plausible use of total utilitarianism. Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that every pro-life argument rests on such premises, even if it harms women as a class as a result of its being widely accepted.Report
Given the rest of the OP, the answer to the initial question, “Should junior job seekers try to avoid outing themselves as pro-life?” is clearly: yes! This is obviously bad, right?Report
Presumably it depends quite a bit on the role of one’s pro-life views in one’s professional life! If you’re an ethicist or political philosopher whose main intellectual contribution is the discussion of arguments for and against the legality of abortion, it may be quite important to be known as a defender of a controversial view on this subject! But if this distinctive personal view is not particularly closely connected to the professional features that one hopes to make a name for, it’s probably prudentially wise not to be particularly forward about this.Report
I doubt it’s worse than outing yourself as having an AOS in a subfield with few, if any, jobs each year.
More generally: it seems to me that most paper titles won’t communicate that the author is “pro-life”. So as far as bare CV-reading goes, I don’t think I’d worry. As far as content is concerned, I think it’s probably fine as long as the candidate is publishing in a good venue and making a high-quality contribution to the debate. If the candidate is just rehashing the same old talking points, then that will count against them as soon as someone takes a closer look (at which point the reader will have to wonder why the candidate bothered weighing in). Worries about sexism might lurk in the background, but it seems to me that the more significant concerns attach to the quality of the paper and the reputation of its venue.
If the candidate published the piece to try to signal their fit with a religious institution, well, that seems like a decent strategy to me. Sure: by signalling your religious-institution-compatibility, you might also be decreasing your more general market desirability. But that’s the same kind of tradeoff we all make with respect to research vs. teaching institutions, AOS prestige, etc. There is no “neutral” and fully-compatible job market candidate. To be on the market is to make these kinds of choices. Plus, there are *a lot* of religious institutions in the US. It seems to me that someone who’s a plausible candidate for such institutions is actually in a better job market position than someone aiming to be a plausible R1 or R2 candidate.
For my part, I wouldn’t jump from learning that a colleague or candidate opposes abortion to thinking they’re sexist, or to rejecting their candidacy out of hand. Learning that fact about a colleague or candidate *would* prompt me to take a closer look at their reasons, beliefs, and practices, however, and what I discover in that process might well prove infelicitous to the colleague or candidate.Report
My comment may have been somewhat ambiguous. Just to clarify: I’m not talking about myself (though I would hope that wouldn’t matter). It just seems obviously wrong for philosophy, as a profession, to count a job candidate’s being pro-life (personally or politically) against them in hiring. Considering that the reality appears to be that, at least, on net, it does count against them, that’s bad. No, it’s not the worst thing in the world; but it is bad, right?
I don’t mean to imply that the repliers above say otherwise.Report
I think it turns a lot on what they have to do to “try and avoid outing themselves”.
If you don’t work academically on the pro-choice/pro-life issue, it’s almost certainly good advice not to bring it up. It is statistically likely that some of the people involved in the hiring decision will be pro-choice and care reasonably strongly about the issue; there is lots of evidence that people end up at least somewhat more negatively inclined to candidates in that situation, even if their explicit view is that they are professionally obligated to disregard it (and not everyone has that explicit view). But this is a special case of a general thesis: it’s good advice not to bring up any contentious political issue not salient to your professional activities. (I think it’s good advice not to bring up the fact that you’re pro-choice either, even though probably that’s less dangerous in practice – you don’t gain anything much by doing so, after all.)
But the context of the original Philosopher’s Cocoon post was: if you do work professionally on the issue, and indeed have published work on it, should you hide it? There I think the opposite is almost surely true, for a bunch of reasons:
(1) Except in pretty rare cases, omitting some part of your published work from your CV will meaningfully weaken it.
(2) Likewise, denying yourself the option to talk about part of your research program will meaningfully weaken your ability to sell it.
(3) It is fairly unlikely that you get to the shortlist stage of the process without someone putting your name into Google Scholar or PhilPapers. At that point, the fact that you actively left a paper off looks a lot more weird.
(4) If working on pro-choice/pro-life issues is a significant part of your research, it’s probably unwise in the longer term to hide it from your potential future colleagues. (There will be tenure conversations in the future.)
The unifying theme here is that it’s probably not *that* important whether the committee knows you’re pro-life, so if it’s actively useful to your application then don’t try to hide it, but don’t bother bringing it up otherwise since there is some possible downside.Report
**I am a cis-woman philosopher who writes about abortion and who has had an abortion. Given these various identity markers, I unfortunately do not feel comfortable connecting my name to my comments, though I hope to one day live in world and participate in a profession where I would feel differently about attaching my name to my comments**
“Sexism” seems like the wrong term. To assume that a man holding an anti-abortion moral view necessarily is prejudiced against women seems, well, kind of sexist. To assume that women cannot or should not hold this view is also sexist. The distinction Justin makes between moral permissibility and legal permissibility is essential. Arguing for certain strict forms of legal impermissibility under any conditions, or failing to recognize relevant social, political, and economic aspects of abortion when arguing against its (moral or legal) permissibility, can perpetuate, reinforce, or ignore patriarchal and misogynistic structures of oppression at work in such legal restrictions. I take it this is a reason why some feminist-identifying scholars could negatively assess (certain) anti-choice forms of philosophical argumentation. I think this is true as much as some scholars will negatively assess my CV for my arguments in favor of forms of abortion permissibility.
This is a personal, not philosophical reflection, so please don’t take it as a premise to be argued against: I do sometimes wonder why people spend their time on certain philosophical projects. If you are going to argue that abortion is not only morally impermissible, but so morally impermissible that it ought to be legally impermissible, I wonder why it is not a better use of your time to work on arguments for how to realize more just social, political, and economic systems so that we can live in a world where women are sufficiently supported, not further oppressed, if the option of abortion is taken off the table. But until I see such a program for meaningful social justice in the absence of legal abortion, I personally don’t really care how novel your argument is for the moral impermissibility of abortion.
I also am intrigued by the original poster on Phil Cocoon identifying their view as “pro-life” which I take to be a rhetorical political position, not a philosophical one. So they are situating themselves within a divisive political debate rather than a philosophical conversation. Also interested to see no clearly female-identifying people involved in this conversation yet – maybe women readers of the blog tuned out because they actually don’t care what men have to say about abortion and sexism?!Report
“I do sometimes wonder why people spend their time on certain philosophical projects. If you are going to argue that abortion is not only morally impermissible, but so morally impermissible that it ought to be legally impermissible, I wonder why it is not a better use of your time to work on arguments for how to realize more just social, political, and economic systems so that we can live in a world where women are sufficiently supported, not further oppressed, if the option of abortion is taken off the table.”
Like Calum Miller, I’m a pro-life philosopher whose work focuses primarily on the ethics of abortion, and I’ve published quite a lot in this area.
It seems to be a very common argument to say something along the lines of “if you were pro-life, you’d do x, y or z”, where x, y and z are actions that the pro-life critic thinks should be done in preference to working on pro-life philosophical arguments. But we could say that about almost any philosophical project (except perhaps EA) – it might be a better use of time to work on arguments how to realize more just social, political, and economic systems so that we can live in a world where all people are not oppressed, or poor, or starving.
Moreover, this example fails to appreciate that from the pro-life point of view, while any form of oppression is a grave wrong, abortion is an even more serious wrong. And so concentrating one’s efforts on the graver wrong is a very reasonable thing to do.Report
I’d add to what Bruce says that pro-lifers do lots of this already – they just typically do it under their broader banner of church charity. It is hard to dispute that churches – who form the majority of active pro-lifers worldwide – spend many many millions on relieving poverty. There is still a large amount done under the pro-life banner as well, though.
That said, for those who are into QALY frameworks, there is a good case that pro-life activity is reasonably cost-effective, given that for every life saved you typically save the large majority of that individual’s life. Sometimes this is really very simple: it merely requires someone standing outside an abortion clinic offering help to women who may be ambivalent.
Most abortions are carried out for career reasons. Pro-lifers typically do a large amount to encourage career progress among pregnant women, fighting maternity discrimination. Such maternity discrimination plausibly increases where abortion is legal – abortion’s legality means that it can easily become an expectation of women, and hence there are fewer career protections for women. In my experience, pro-choice lobbyists frequently oppose the introduction of rules requiring doctors to inform women about the career support available to them during pregnancy.
Outside the Republican platform, it is very difficult for other people around the world to see this accusation as having any force. It appears to us primarily as a projection of the Republican platform onto the global pro-life movement, which I think we can all agree is unfair. In any case, there are at least some positive signs even from the GOP on this front: the introduction of the Unborn Child Support Act, for example.Report
In fairness, Republicans probably make up a disproportionate % of the pro-life movement in Western countries simply because pro-life views are so much less common outside the US. But yes, it is unfair to project them on say, a Belgian Catholic who combines social conservatism with leftish economic views and lots of stuff about supporting mothers.Report
Pro-Choice Philosopher: thanks for your comments, with which I have considerable sympathy. OTOH, who knows why philosophers invest time in the things they treat as important, whether it be the latest twist on a pro-life argument or the 74th footnote to somebody’s view on 4-dimensionalism. We get obsessed by an idea, we see how it might make a difference if only it convinced people, and we work it through, often to be disappointed by others’ disinterest, and our own later realization of its relative insignificance. I’ve got a couple ideas I consider really important myself, only one of which is truly unique, and a few other relatively novel ones which I know are just little glosses on what’s been said before. The rest of my work is just repeating and dwelling on what others have said, and often said better, and that’s probably true for most. C’est la vie philosophique. So yeah, I too wonder why they write much of what they do instead of something more useful and productive, but that goes for about 90% of philosophers, not just the pro-life ones (insert Sturgeon’s Law here).
On the other hand, I have seen people really changed by a good argument. I was years ago. Another professor I know openly admits to being a thorough Catholic who swears faith and allegiance to the catechism, but has moderated his views on abortion after confessing a complete inability to find a theory of personal identity which can condemn it (and I am convinced he has explored this subfield much more than I have). Doubtless the pro-life philosophers think that there might be minds out there who will find their arguments convincing, and I’m sure they’re occasionally right about that. I hope their readers look at others of course, as I eventually did, but I do believe that arguments, even obscure ones, sometimes make a difference, or I wouldn’t be in this neck of the woods.Report
“What exactly are we referring to by ‘pro-life’ views on abortion?”
Good question: It’s my sense that “Pro-life” often only means “pro-birth” in practice and at best “pro-human” life in theory. Anti-abortion advocates are rarely concerned with other forms of life: non-human animal or plant life. Or even with life during the routinely long period between birth and death.
After birth occurs, they are often not very much interested in supporting the life processes of other humans (outside their own small communities or family) at all: through, for example, robust forms of public education, health care, environmental sustainability, and so on. Further, “pro-life” advocates are frequently “pro-death”: pro-death penalty, pro-militarism, pro-campaigns against immigrants and foreigners, etc. Should these issues be addressed, too?
The narrow focus on abortion in the SCOTUS debates, for example, and elsewhere (perhaps also universities and even ethics classes) often hides or masks these aspects. Should we be asking candidates or colleagues or court nominees as well about their dietary practices (speciesism) or other values (problematic or controversial views on race) in relation to broader beliefs or positions about life? I’m not certain of the answer to those questions, but if there is going to be interrogation or even just curiosity, why should abortion be privileged over other forms of power, control, and the like?
While this was not part of the original question (above), my own sense is that SCOTUS hearings ignore or downplay the way the courts can have a greater (and often detrimental) impact on the country through seemingly technical decisions about technology, surveillance, environmental regulation, lobbying, and much more.Report
“Anti-abortion advocates are rarely concerned with other forms of life: non-human animal or plant life. Or even with life during the routinely long period between birth and death. After birth occurs, they are often not very much interested in supporting the life processes of other humans (outside their own small communities or family) at all”
These sorts of claims are quite common. At an academic conference, I once heard someone say in a presentation that “pro-lifers don’t give a shit about children once they are born”. I never see any empirical evidence to support these assertions, though, and I doubt they are accurate. Do you know of any?Report
Doubtless this is often a rhetorical exaggeration. But you should note that, precisely to the extent that you extol fetal rights over women’s (and more generally, adults’) rights, you diminish the latter below what they would otherwise be. Now, this is fine if you have a sufficiently good reason for doing so. But it still is a real cost. Compare: if you have a good argument for redistributing wealth from a landowner to a peasant, well go for it–that may be true justice. But you ARE making the landowner worse off, so you really need a good reason for that. If you redistribute the land for the benefit not of living, breathing, thinking peasants, but for the sake of wildflowers or even ducks, even destroying large parts of cities or infrastructure to increase the number of swamps or prairies where they can grow, then “these are living things, and I consider all living things persons,” or “I reject the life-person distinction, because if you can kill ducks or flowers, then you can (sometimes) kill infants, but you can’t kill infants, ever!”–well, this again is not very good. This is where the “but it just might be a person, we can’t take the risk, and what do we lose if we’re wrong” argument–again found on one of your blog posts–wears pretty thin. You know, that carrot you just ate might be a person.* But it probably isn’t, and there’s no good evidence that it is. If you snatch it out of people’s mouths, or take their land and houses just in order to grow more (non-harvested) carrots for their own sake, then you are diminishing other people’s rights and lives considerably. And if you’re wrong, then this harm has no corresponding justification to make it all worthwhile. That, I think, is a large part of the basis of the accusation–that “pro-life” people are wiling to sacrifice many rights of entities which are *obviously* persons in the interests of entities which are certainly not persons, or which we at least have no good reasons to think are persons, barring some simple confusion between humans and persons, or some religious ideology which we cast about for secular-appearing arguments to support.
*Or even a deity! To use an old argument which some philosopher apologists actually take seriously, the fact that it doesn’t *look* or *act* like a deity is no count against its not being one, for if it *was* a deity but looked like an inanimate carrot, then it must have deity-level reasons beyond our fathoming for doing just that! So if it had such reasons–and you can’t be sure it doesn’t, you mere mortal–looking like a carrot is *exactly what you’d expect it to do*!Report
Or to put it more tersely, and hoping you can take an even more obvious “yes” as an answer–yeah, such statements are gross rhetorical exaggerations and should not be made. At best they stand for, and hence should be replaced by something like, “pro-lifers don’t give sufficient attention and respect for the interests and rights of people after they are born as they should, and have no adequate justification for doing so.” Which to fully support also needs more argument, and is less dramatic, but is still very significant. OTOH, as someone who happily writes impressionistic blog posts which don’t sufficiently engage obvious criticisms of your views, or replies on discussion boards about someone’s position not being “convincing” simply because it disagreed with yours and didn’t hesitate as you thought it should in this disagreement, you are no stranger to rhetorical exaggeration.Report
People who are pro-life generally think that abortion is a grave moral evil; moreover, it’s a grave moral evil against another human being, among the worst things you can do to someone. I have never understood the immoral, but legal position that Pro-Choice Philosopher and Justin are suggesting as the ‘less sexist’ option. It’s not cool to say, and I don’t ever say it out loud because people hate to hear it, but we pro-life people generally think that abortion is the killing of an innocent human being. And no matter how sympathetic I am to the mother, no matter how much I see abortion as a collective, rather than individual moral failure, I also can’t see my way around the fact that those innocent human beings deserve legal protection. And Pro-Choice Philosopher is absolutely right that we need drastic reform to support mothers and families. And we pro-life folks need to stop the idiotic rhetoric which blames the mother. But I’ve never been able to understand how someone could think that abortion is gravely immoral, but should be legal. It’s professionally convenient if you can manage to justify this strange combination of views to yourself, but I’m not able to do it.
To the original question, I absolutely think that pro-life people are so frequently painted as sexist that I’m sure it’s just a knee-jerk reaction for most people who read this website and most people who serve on philosophy search committees. Women might get more of a pass than men.Report
Prof L, I think contributing to the factory farming industry is a grave moral evil. I also think that factory farming and purchasing factory farmed products should be legal. Does such a view seem coherent to you? What is the difference between this combination of views and the “immoral but legal’ abortion position?Report
I don’t endorse the principle that everything that is gravely immoral should be illegal. There are lots of salient differences between the case you mention and abortion. As a start, there’s the moral standing of the fetus, and the gravity of the harm. This makes this combination of views about abortion more akin to, say, thinking that slavery is gravely immoral but should be legal. I think we would all agree that this combination of views is puzzling, especially if one justifies the immorality of slavery in the typical way. I’m not trying to give a strong argument here, just pointing out that the justification for its immorality is likewise a justification for its illegality, and so it’s a little strange to say it’s sexist to hold one but not the other.Report
I’m going to post one more time and then let this die. I agree with your comment that “immoral and illegal” doesn’t necessarily seem more sexist to me than “immoral but legal”. So your argument for that claim seems right to me.
However, you added the additional statement, “I’ve never been able to understand how someone could think that abortion is gravely immoral, but should be legal.” If this was meant to reflect that such a combination of views is somehow incoherent, I just wanted to argue that this is false. Finally, I also agree that there is a difference between abortion and factory farming in terms of the gravity (if this means badness) of the harm, if I grant that abortion causes harm. However, I think we disagree on which harm would be graver, considering the total number of animals affected by the factory farming industry versus the total number of fetuses affected by abortion.Report
Thanks for the engagement—I don’t mean to be making the strong claim that the view ‘immoral but legal’ is internally contradictory. I would say that there is a very strong internal tension, given the typical arguments for the immorality of abortion, and I’ve never been able to understand how one can convince themselves of that particular combination of views, particularly if one thinks that a fetus has the same moral rights that belong to every human being.
With respect to abortion vs. factory farming, we are thinking differently about harm, but in the spirit of letting things die, I’ll desist. 🙂Report
And, sorry, a P.S.: I’m a woman who likes to hear what men think about abortion and sexism, even if they disagree with me. Moreover, since this post is about the job market, and men sometimes serve on search committees, their input is relevant. Or maybe they should stop having opinions about this, and maybe we should also exclude infertile women? Post-menopausal women? Trans women? Women who have never been pregnant? —”I don’t want to hear about your opinion on an issue that doesn’t affect you as directly as it affect me” or “You don’t have the requisite life experience to make a judgment here” —Obviously not, that would be absurd …Report
If you are pro-life, write an academic paper about it (if you feel like) and treat it like any other paper of yours (put it in your CV). But I would say do not join a pro-life rally or wear a shirt that says ‘abortion is murder’. Do not make it political. And the same goes if you are pro-choice – I think. I am pro-choice myself and I have defended such position in journals and criticized pro-life arguments.Report
My list of pro-life publications would be very much diminished if I excluded replies to yours 🙂Report
Damn, Bruce! You always have something clever to say! 🙂Report
I have to say that I am pleasantly surprised by the open-mindedness and sincere dialogue here. As one of the few philosophers whose work primarily focuses on the ethics and legality of abortion and argues that abortion should almost always be illegal, I am somewhat well placed to share some experiences.
1) My experiences are shaped primarily by not being too fussed about what the philosophical community thinks of me, nor by getting a full time job in academic philosophy. This allows me considerably more latitude when expressing my relatively unpopular views.
2) If I was reliant on academic philosophy for a career, I would certainly not be as forthright
3) I think there is a significant difference between the US and Europe (not to mention other parts of the world). While the pro-life position is much more popular in the US generally, I think it is much less popular in academic philosophy than in Europe. This is not to say there are fewer pro-lifers in academic philosophy in the US – there may well be more – but the hostility with which they are met is greatly increased. I do not think I would feel comfortable presenting my work in many universities in the US. In Europe, I would generally feel fine (even though almost no one here is openly pro-life).
4) At European conferences, I have had generally respectful responses to my presentations. Most of the audience have been silent, there have been a few quiet sympathisers, a number of thoughtful and helpful questions, and then usually one or two clearly very angry people in each talk. At my latest conference presentation one of the respondents in the audience screamed at me and stormed out of the room during the Q&A. Frankly, I did not actually feel fundamentally safe.
I do not think this characterisation is unfair, nor do I think I had presented anything in a provocative way. The keynote was a very well-known pro-choice philosopher who thought that this reaction was extreme and unwarranted. Generally, my presentations have been met with respectful and complimentary disagreement by the senior philosophers present. But usually at each presentation there are one or two who react very angrily and who I would not (obviously) feel very comfortable sharing my views around if they had a position of authority in the field.Report
The assumptions that I’m seeing in these comments – that /of course/ our pro-life colleagues aren’t doing any harm, that /of course/ we must be kind and understanding and willing to value their moral stance that in actuality, in the real world, leads to the death of vulnerable women – do in fact show a deep bias in philosophy. Just not in the direction that Justin and everyone in the comments seem to be wringing their hands about!Report
Can you unpack this claim about pro-lifers causing the death of vulnerable women? Of course, it is trivially true that just about any position or action leads to the death of some women, but why think that they are causing more deaths than otherwise?Report
If you do research on the ethics and legality of abortion and you are genuinely asking me to unpack this claim – i.e. you don’t know what I mean – I am truly shocked. But even if this is fishing, I guess I’ll bite: if you’re pro-life, and you seek to make abortion illegal, what you’re doing is not in fact stopping women from getting abortions. You are simply stopping women from getting safe abortions. Unsafe abortions, the type of abortions women get anyway, are a leading cause of preventable maternal death, particularly in the global south.Report
Well that’s the issue. It’s precisely because I’ve actually researched these claims that it has become clear that the evidence base behind them is skeletal. What proportion of maternal deaths are caused by illegal induced abortion, and can you cite a source?Report
Sure. I don’t expect these facts to change Calum’s mind, but for anyone else reading who’s curious, some numbers on unsafe abortion globally are here: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preventing-unsafe-abortion. There are also many articles out there telling the stories of specific women who have died in horrifying ways from unsafe abortions. Personally, I think everyone who wants to say absolutely anything about abortion, on any side of the issue, should have to spend some time looking at the famous photo of Gerri Santoro first.
I assume Calum is thinking of (perhaps hoping I’ll cite?) the unfortunately common claim that thousands of American women died from unsafe abortions yearly pre-Roe. /In America/, the number is not thousands, and it is indeed important for all of us to be clear on the facts. However, I would assume anyone who genuinely values life would agree that even one of these preventable deaths is too many, but I so often find myself being proved wrong.Report
Thanks; this is the perfect example. The factsheet you cite says that 4.7-13.2% of maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortion. However, the paper it cites for this claim explicitly says that the ‘abortion’ category mentioned includes both ectopic pregnancy and spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) as well as induced abortion. So even this figure (with a point estimate of 7.9%) is a clear misrepresentation of the data – the proportion of maternal deaths due to ‘unsafe abortion’ is considerably lower still. Let’s be generous and say that it is 5% of maternal deaths – would you say that something causing 5% of maternal deaths is a “leading cause” of preventable maternal death? That seems to stretch the words beyond plausible meaning.
As I said, these claims are frequently made on the basis of skeletal evidence, and the evidence cited is usually extremely misleading. Your citation of the first result you came across on Google rather proves my point, and I think consequently you would do well to limit your hubris.Report
Last comment from me, but thanks for asking! Since I am not making robust statistical claims here and am speaking casually on the comments section of a blog, then yes, I would say 5% of maternal deaths (if that is in fact the correct figure, and we have reason to think it might be higher, and when even 5% will translate to thousands of deaths every year) is enough to make unsafe abortions a “leading” cause of easily preventable maternal deaths. Others might disagree about what constitutes “leading.” That’s chill!
If your argument turns on the meaning of “leading,” though, I would suggest reading some Thomson on abortion, searching your soul about whether 5% (or 0.5%, or 0.005%) of maternal deaths is really an acceptable number to someone who values life, and, maybe limiting your hubris 🙂Report
Calum, I think you are in turn misrepresenting (or misreading) the relevance of this research. Firstly, it says 7.9% of ALL maternal deaths are due to unsafe abortions (which presumably includes preventable an unpreventable maternal deaths). Secondly, pointing out that unsafe abortion is only one way of many ways that women can die in pregnancy or childbirth, and represents fewer cases of maternal deaths than we might have thought, gives the rhetorical appearance of minimizing the impact on women of making abortion illegal, but does nothing to show that it doesn’t have considerable impact. Here’s another figure that appears only a few lines later on the linked WHO webpage:
“Around 7 million women are admitted to hospitals every year in developing countries, as a result of unsafe abortion.”
I don’t know what percentage this is of all cases of pregnant women being admitted to hospital, but I’m not sure that matters if I’m trying to show that unsafe abortions affect huge numbers of women.Report
Sure. My first point was that the evidence on this topic is usually misleading or false, and that your claim that it is a ‘leading cause’ is not really based on any substantial evidence. You helpfully demonstrated this by citing a demonstrably misleading statistic. 5% is a generous estimate, in any case – I don’t know on what basis you say there is reason to think the real proportion is higher.
But you are right, any deaths from abortion are too many. But that is why I initially said that it is trivially true that any position or event leads to the death of women. Your decision to write comments on Daily Nous rather than earn some extra money and donate it on malaria nets also probably leads to the deaths of some women. Legalised abortion also leads to the deaths of some women: whether from direct complications or from the significantly increased risk of suicide after abortion compared with continuing an unwanted pregnancy.
That is also why I said that the salient question is not whether banning abortion causes some deaths; it is whether legalising abortion would lead to fewer deaths. The evidence for that is, again, skeletal, for a number of different reasons, not least the increased suicide risk from abortion.Report
Joanna, I am confused by you first point. Yes, some maternal deaths are unpreventable. They are a tiny minority, however, which is why over 99% of maternal deaths are in the developing world. This will not make a significant difference to the estimate. Even if it did, the WHO factsheet would still be a clear misrepresentation of the study it cites.
Yes, there are other causes of maternal death than unsafe abortion (indeed, that is precisely my point). But it is not clear how that has anything to do with the thesis that pro-lifers are in a significant sense responsible for the deaths of women, without several further substantial (and probably false) premises.
As it happens, the stats re: complications are from the Guttmacher Institute, whose research on abortion complications is of demonstrably poor quality.Report
Calum, you say “Legalised abortion also leads to the deaths of some women: whether from direct complications or from the significantly increased risk of suicide after abortion compared with continuing an unwanted pregnancy.” A recent study casts serious doubt on that second claim. At the very least, an honest reading of the evidence should lead one to suspend judgment. https://www.jwatch.org/na50427/2019/12/02/abortion-does-not-increase-suicide-riskReport
Alastair, I am not sure why you are so confident that an honest reading of the evidence should lead one to suspend judgment. I am very familiar with this paper and other papers on the topic. Steinberg’s paper is far from the best study on the topic – it does not even set up a proper control group – the best studies, on the topic of abortion and suicidality (namely, Fergusson 2013 and Gilchrist 1995) find that there is a link after controlling for confounders.Report
Sorry, mistake – I meant Fergusson 2008 (Fergusson 2013 is a meta-analysis confirming the finding).Report
Calum, we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.Report
Sure, though it’s not clear that there is any reason to disagree. By the standards of the major reviews on the topic (the APA review from 2008 and the NCCM review from 2011), the Steinberg paper simply falls far short of the best available studies.Report
Hi Just sayin’: It may be worth imagining yourself into the perspective of someone who believes that in-utero human beings have as much moral worth and dignity as out-of-utero human beings. Abortion is the leading cause of death in the US, if we think that these human beings count. This isn’t meant to convince you, obviously, nor do I mean to devalue the lives of these women who have died in these terrible circumstances, but I do think it’s important to realize that from the perspective of each side, the other is responsible for some awful things. So even though you think I’m doing harm, and I think you are doing harm, we can disagree, even though it’s really important and we each think the other is tragically, horrifically wrong — that’s okay. And yes, I believe, as you say (sarcastically) that “we must be kind and understanding and willing to value their moral stance that in actuality, in the real world, leads to the death of vulnerable [human beings]” … I don’t know about ‘valuing’ their moral stance, but at least taking it seriously, respecting the person regardless, and being kind and understanding, as you say.Report
Thanks for articulating this, Prof L. It’s almost impossible to have these conversations without understanding both sides from their own moral perspectives. Too often the conversation degenerates into finger-pointing and rhetorical warfare, or shoulder-shrugging. The abortion issue is a difficult and momentous one, which requires more of us.
PS (to your earlier comment “And, sorry, a P.S.: I’m a woman who likes to hear what men think about abortion and sexism, even if they disagree with me.”)
Being a man who thinks and feels seriously about this issue, I’m glad to have your respect as a moral reasoner whose function as such can transcend sex identity! 🙂
Best to you.Report
The assumptions that I’m seeing in these comments – that /of course/ our pro-choice colleagues aren’t doing any harm, that /of course/ we must be kind and understanding and willing to value their moral stance that in actuality, in the real world, leads to the death of vulnerable fetuses– do in fact show a deep bias in philosophy.
Look I’ve never been sympathetic to the pro-life position but the sophistry on display in this thread is incredible. It’s like you people don’t even understand what a /moral/ disagreement is.Report
‘of course/ our pro-life colleagues aren’t doing any harm’
Who said this?Report
Whether the junior job seekers out themselves depends on the context. There is no reason to bring up the pro-life position if the junior job seeker has other sufficient reasons for attempting to pursue a prestigious career in philosophy, and it may well be disadvantageous. However, there are other jobs available to those who are explicitly pro-life. But I am not sure whether writing on pro-life issues would help. It is unclear to me how seriously any of the literature on abortion is taken by most philosophers, including pro-life philosophers.
A junior job seeker should know that most of those who control the hiring at prestigious and well-supported institutions are perhaps unconsciously under the grip of ideologies that will tend to make them hostile to those who oppose access to abortion. Traditionally many philosophers have gone into logic, language, and philosophy of mathematics to avoid similar kinds of opposition. It seems to me that philosophers are generally fairer than professors in other fields, or at least have been so in the past, but there will be still an extra difficulty for the explicitly pro-life job seeker in pursuing a “career.” Some manage to overcome these difficulties, but not everyone can.
If the junior pro-life job seeker thinks that it is possible to change the relevant aspects of the academic culture or the background beliefs of academic philosophers through teaching or writing journal articles, then it seems to me important for the job seeker to re-examine this belief.Report
The fact that two prominent philosophy blogs have now treated potential discrimination against anti-choicers on the academic philosophy job market as a real, serious issue—the mind boggles.Report
Touche. As someone who once had a great job interview by phone, which ended with asking for a statement of my relationship to a religious faith–which I presented honestly, leading to being dropped from consideration–I am tempted to play a tiny finger violin in sympathy. After years of religions and religiously-affiliated business and institutions like colleges campaigning for the right to OPENLY, explicitly discriminate against people not sharing their faith or very specific theology or political ideology or practices–in effect, begging to be legally recognized as incapable of rising to the moral standards expected of other business and social institutions, and openly identifying the essence of their religious practices as discriminatory–they then turn around and pretend to be aghast at the supposed–horror of horrors–discrimination (where did THAT come from?!?) against some of their views in secular institution…well, yeah, the mind boggles.Report
To Prof L: it does not seem incoherent to me to argue that something is morally undesirable, yet still legally permissible, all things considered. Allowing for the mere possibility of this formula does not entail accepting anything morally bad as legally allowable (like the slavery example you raise). I actually really liked Yolo’s example of the factory farming industry, because I think it connects to reasons beyond only respect for an organism’s individual life (in the case of humans or animals – some woulds say what’s the difference anyway?! But I am not looking to start that debate here…) Factory farming might be morally bad for reasons related to climate justice, and safe living conditions for all beings on the planet – and perhaps this is a reason to also make it illegal. Abortion, however, might be morally good for minimizing population growth and human impact on global warming, and this could be an all things considered reason to keep it legal.
To Joona Rasanen: why should philosophers not draw political or practical real life choices and actions from their philosophical views? I would think that at least one reason to spend time arguing for a philosophical position related to political and social philosophy and ethics (as opposed to other areas of philosophical inquiry) is a hope that there will be real uptake of the idea (not merely that people read it and cite it in the insular world of academia). This is not relevant perhaps to your job interview or CV, but which political or activist rallies you do or don’t attend shouldn’t come up in any of those places. Note: after I write this post I am going to look into making a “keep abortions legal for climate justice” tshirt based on my above remark to Prof. L.
To Calum Miller: You’ve *actually researched* arguments about abortion?! Wow, gee wiz. No kidding. You say that you are “one of the few philosophers whose work primarily focuses on the ethics and legality of abortion and argues that abortion should almost always be illegal” but based on your professional website it looks like you have yet to publish in this area, so I cannot assess your formal arguments. However, your replies in the comments offer specious arguments and misleading facts. For example, the studies on higher incidents of suicide attempts among women who have had abortions vs. those who have not suggest that there is NOT a causal relationship between abortion and suicidality. Research also suggests that mental health conditions are generally present PRIOR to first abortions, and did not onset after, therefore could not be caused by, having an (elective) abortion. Notably the literature shows limited regret related to elective abortion, and most people who have abortions are either neutral to or happy about their choice to abort a pregnancy. As a final example: if we are talking about mortality and safety of people who can or do become pregnant: according to a study in Obstetrics and Gynecology, “During the period from 1998–2010, of approximately 16.1 million abortion procedures, 108 women died, for a mortality rate of 0.7 deaths per 100,000 procedures overall” in the US. The maternal mortality rate in the US for 2018 according to the CDC: 17.4 per 100,000 live births in the United States. Pregnancy leads to the death of pregnant people at an astronomically higher rate than abortion leads to death of pregnant people. And yes, before anyone pounces on my comment: yes abortion causes a 100% death rate for aborted embryos and fetuses. The empirical data might not be relevant to all or even most moral arguments about abortion for some scholars working in this area, but if you are going to work with empirical data, it should be both correctly interpreted, fairly represented, and systematically and peer reviewed.
To the Original Job Seeker: Good luck out there! The market it tough. Your CV is is your CV. Be ready to highlight the parts you want to shine, and defend or explain the questions that might come up, which from this thread you might be able to tell will be alternately diverse, tangential, irrelevant, insightful, misinformed, and often personal or political rather than (merely) philosophical.Report
“it does not seem incoherent to me to argue that something is morally undesirable, yet still legally permissible, all things considered.”
I don’t think Prof L was denying that. *Of course* there are things that are morally undesirable but legally permissible: adultery, snide remarks and promise-breaking are each examples. Prof L’s point was specific to abortion as a particular form of wrongdoing. If you think abortion is wrong because it involves taking the life of innocent human, then on the face of things we owe to the victim to view it as the kind of immoral act that ought to be legally enforced i.e. alongside murder and physical violence. Perhaps there are good grounds for adopting a morally pro-life but legally pro-choice position, but it looks at least like there’s a tension.
“Abortion, however, might be morally good for minimizing population growth and human impact on global warming, and this could be an all things considered reason to keep it legal.”
That may be a reason for keeping it legal: it’s also a reason for thinking that it is not immoral.
**pro-choice, male (for anyone interested).Report
“That may be a reason for keeping it legal: it’s also a reason for thinking that it is not immoral.” YES.
I clearly missed a bit of the extended conversation between Prof. L and Yolo that clarified Prof L’s less strict stance on immorality/legality than I first appreciated. Thanks for pointing out my oversight.Report
Apologies for jumping in mid-conversation.
There are some significant issues with the reliability of the mortality data on induced abortion. For instance, deaths attributable to abortion are often only recorded as resulting from the immediate cause of death rather than abortion. So we would expect deaths from induced abortion to be under-reported.
‘Research also suggests that mental health conditions are generally present PRIOR to first abortions, and did not onset after, therefore could not be caused by, having an (elective) abortion. ‘
I’m assuming that the use of ‘generally’ is an acknowledgement that there is evidence from several studies showing that induced abortion is associated with worsening mental health (e.g. Mota et al, 2010; Jacob et al, 2019; etc). At best we can say that there is no incontrovertible evidence showing that induced abortion improves mental health. This finding is more surprising given that 99% of abortions in the UK are on mental health grounds (ground C). Scholars often point me in the direction of the Turnaround Study; given the numerous limitations of their data, I find any of their claims to be highly questionable (on the basis of sample bias, etc).
A recent meta-analysis by Reardon (*I’m aware he’s thought to be a controversial figure) and Thorp (2017) showed that induced abortion was associated with a lower life expectancy. I found this a strange finding, however, I have carefully examined it and cannot find any obvious fault with the methodological approach. I’d be interested in your thoughts on that.
My background is in the allied health sciences and there doesn’t seem to be much prejudice from anything I have on my CV. Though there are topics I do not put on there that are (currently) more controversial than abortion.Report
Well, as we’ve seen, most people who put forward strong opinions on this matter haven’t really researched it seriously – as we saw with the citation of the clearly misleading WHO factsheet in support of the claim that abortion is a leading cause of maternal deaths globally. The fact of the matter is: it is not.
I have published two papers on the ethics of abortion and have a few more papers under R&R. Please do rest assured that the bulk of my research will be published in due course (I have to balance paper submissions with the demands of my medical career). Unfortunately, most of my papers are too long for journals – a silly problem to have, but sadly a real one.
To respond to your allegations of specious arguments and misleading facts:
1) I am well aware of the literature on mental health and abortion – far more than you are, I am sure. I have responded to the Steinberg 2019 Lancet study in a post above. The single best study – as widely agreed by the APA and NCCMH reviews – found that abortion was associated with an increased risk in suicidality even after confounders were controlled for, and argued explicitly for a causal relationship (Fergusson 2008). The second best study (Gilchrist 1995) also found an association between abortion and deliberate self harm after controlling for prior mental health. These are the only two studies on the topic which are of reasonably high quality, and hence both meta-analyses on this topic in recent times have found that there is an association even after adjusting for confounders, including, yes, prior mental health.
2) The literature does not show limited regret, it shows high levels of decision rightness, though not universal. Decision rightness and feelings of regret are separate. This is best shown by Fergusson’s 2009 paper (remember that his longitudinal study is widely regarded as the best quality study in this area) which found that although most women feel they made the right decision in retrospect, a large minority (around 33%) still had feelings of regret, while substantial majorities had feelings of guilt, sorrow, and so on.
3) The literature on mortality are highly misleading and use different measures depending on pregnancy vs abortion. As one clear example: deaths from suicide are now counted by ICD-MM as direct maternal deaths, yet they are typically not counted at all after abortion. This is important because the suicide rate after abortion is 6-7x higher than the suicide rate after continuing pregnancy (see Gissler’s many studies using Finnish data) – and suicide is the leading cause of maternal death in many developed countries. The only deaths counted as deaths from abortion are deaths from direct complications. But it is well known that large contributors to death after pregnancy and (especially) abortion have nothing to do with direct procedural complications and lots to do with the benefits of pregnancy and childbirth on risky activity, suicide, and so on. If you actually compare the death rates after pregnancy and abortion in developing countries, using comparable measures, the mortality rate after abortion is about triple the mortality rate after continuing pregnancy. Even the mortality rate from natural causes alone is pretty much the same. See Karalis 2017 in BJOG. Comparing the death rate from all causes (including suicide, the leading cause of maternal death) from pregnancy and the death rate from direct procedural complications from abortion is profoundly unimpressive.
As I said, having actually researched these issues may not sound all that unusual, but in fact – as you have aptly demonstrated – it is. I don’t want to hear the same tired arguments using the first paper you’ve come across on Google or read about in the New York Times, I want to hear specific arguments based on actual data from people who are actually familiar with the evidence. Your wild and generic claims, which frankly contradict the available evidence, do not fill me with much confidence.Report
There are reasons to lack confidence (in the literature): the evidence itself is often contradictory. Scholarly views (including putatively empirical data) are vulnerable to bias (as noted in the BMJ dispute regarding contradictory findings in studies on abortion and mental health, which revealed that each study had researchers strongly affiliated with either “pro-life” or “pro-choice” agendas). The very methods we use to answer questions, and the questions we choose to ask, are influenced by our interests, perspectives, experiences, and sociopolitical situation.
Quick example – two studies citing Fergusson’s 2008 research each draw different conclusions: Steinberg, J. R., Becker, D., & Henderson, J. T. (2011). Does the outcome of a first pregnancy predict depression, suicidal ideation, or lower self-esteem? Data from the National Comorbidity Survey. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(2) and Mota, N. P., Burnett, M., & Sareen, J. (2010). Associations between abortion, mental disorders, and suicidal behaviour in a nationally representative sample. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 55(4), 239-247. Steinberg et. al. conclude that “Policies and practices implemented in response to the claim that abortion hurts women are not supported by our findings.” Yet Mota et. al. identify a correlation (but again, not necessarily causation) between abortion and mental health disorders, yet they acknowledge at least three possible reasons for this, not all of which have to do with the abortion being the reason for the mental disorder. Even if the data were consistent in all these studies, data alone leaves open questions about how to interpret it, and even bigger questions about what to do with it from an ethical perspective. A laundry list of contradictory and inconclusive empirical studies is not an argument that abortion is therefore unethical or immoral, nor does it entail a conclusion that “abortion should almost always be illegal,” which is your stated stance in your initial post.
I would also encourage you to read some of the philosophical literature on the concept of regret. I see you want to parse regret with rightness of choice, and I appreciate bringing that distinction to bear. I wonder if the philosophical literature on regret could help empirical researchers in fact construct better questions when designing research on the topic of abortion, and help those reliant on such empirical data for their ethical analyses to better interpret the data. For example, I might say that I “regret” my abortion because I regret the circumstances that led me to need it, and so I could answer affirmatively about having “regret” but not for the reasons one might think. It is important to clarify what we even mean when we discuss regret, what difference regret does or does not make the ethical permissibility of being able to make the choice (I for one am happy to have been able to make “regrettable” choices in my life – though in my case having an abortion is not a choice I have ever for a moment regretted).Report
1) The main reviews on this topic take into account studies with conflicting results (as exist for virtually every topic within medicine). The NCCMH review, which is the foremost review on this topic, considered Steinberg 2011 of lesser quality because it had an inappropriate comparison group. Mota 2010 was considered of worse quality still and in fact completely excluded.
2) Bias is not a credible explanation in the case of the evidence I have cited, since neither of the widely agreed best papers were written by known pro-lifers. The single best study was authored by someone who was pro-choice, and he explained that his results were the opposite of what he expected to find.
3) This is why from the start I have maintained that the important thing is to look at the best studies, which I have cited. These show that suicidality is in fact linked with abortion after controlling for confounders. Citing poorer quality studies with different results is not persuasive – everyone already knows that you can find studies going both ways on all sorts of medical facts which are reasonably well established.
4) Not once did I use the data on suicide to claim that abortion is unethical or immoral. I don’t know why you would think or imply that I was making that argument. The overall argument concerned maternal mortality, not the ethics of abortion.
5) I agree that studies could be clearer on what exactly is meant, but the study I cited was at least careful enough to distinguish decision rightness from feelings of regret, which is an important first step.Report
In the pro-life metaethical / metaphysical world, abortion is a moral catastrophe similar in scale to chattel-slavery or the holocaust.* Of course, so is the fact that we damage dust-specks in the metaethical / metaphysical world of people who believe dust-specks are persons. So, it will come down to the arguments for those world views.
But to despise or be frustrated with a person for taking the *appropriate moral stance* in the pro-life world– that abortion as a practice must be stopped, that all conscientious moral actors must be made to face the moral horror they are allowing– is a sort of moral insanity or moral blindness. If the arguments of ‘pro-life’ philosophers for the existence of the pro-life metaethical / metaphysical world are bad, though they come by them honestly, then dismiss those philosophers for foolishness. If their arguments for the existence of the pro-life metaethical / metaphysical world are bad, and they come by them dishonestly, consider the possibility that they are sexists.
But really, for the purposes of hiring, the strength or weakness of their arguments are enough to go on. There aren’t any circumstances, in the saturated job market, that incompetent philosophers should have any higher chance of being hired than morally evil philosophers.
*Though obviously different in morally significant ways. I’m talking moral-emotional approximates.Report
II just add to this discussion because I am worried that young job seekers might misunderstand the job application process and the profession, and in turn derail their careers by making political statements. With respect to job searches, I haven’t noticed in particular that “good arguments” trump other factors, such as pedigree, comments about the ugliness of a building that a faculty member likes, perceived collegiality, annoying mannerisms. I have known all of these factors to derail candidates. My experience covers a variety of kinds of schools. A pro-life discussion might derail you. Moreover, just from a “professional standpoint,” you will notice over years more industrious philosophers achieving more than the more intelligent, luckier but less skilled philosophers achieving more than the unlucky but more skilled, etc. Do not assume that your primary or only task is to give good arguments, whatever that might mean. Very often the “better arguments” are simply those given by persons at superior institutions with superior opportunities for writing, funding, and publishing. The causal relationship is unclear, but it seems to me unlikely that the arguments that win do so precisely for the reason that they are the better ones.Report
It came into my mind to agree with you from Ecclesiastes and from Foucault, right on each other’s heels, and their odd resonance makes me happy 🙂
In all seriousness, my prescriptive style above is to indicate what ought (on the perhaps naïve view) to happen: what the criteria ought to be. My highly limited experience allows me to think that some gate-keepers are aware of the power of contingency and bias, but aspire to overcome it with some intersubjectively compelling standards about what constitute ‘better arguments.’
Again, that said, I find saying ‘the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong,’ and thinking about it, almost as poignant as my hopes of actually becoming a professional philosopher. So, either way I will come out all right.Report
Justin, I’m curious as to why you felt like this discussion needed to be had here when it was already had on Philosophers Cocoon quite recently. Do you think discrimination against anti choice philosophers on the job market is a pressing or prevalent issue in the profession?Report
I think it’s a good practice to call people what they identify as. In this case, “Pro life” is what the people in question identify as, not “anti choice.” (How would you feel about a pro life person calling a pro choice person “pro murder” or “anti life”?)Report
A DN reader emailed me about the post at Philosophers’ Cocoon on this topic, which I had missed, and asked me to post about it. I don’t go along with all such requests but:
(a) it seemed like an interesting topic that is also related to current political developments (in, say, state law on abortion and abortion-adjacent matters in the U.S., as well as the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, whose jurisprudential method is at odds with the right-to-privacy-underpinnings of current protections of abortion rights),
(b) academic freedom issues and the degree to which we should take concerns about the holding, research, and teaching of unpopular or controversial views seriously is an ongong matter of discussion here at DN, and this question about anti-abortion views is of a piece with that, and
(c) while DN and The Cocoon have overlapping readerships, The Cocoon’s, owing to its focus, probably skews junior; by posting the query here it will be seen by a broader range of philosophers and perhaps be more likely to be read and responded to by more of those in gatekeeping positions.
You ask, “Do you think discrimination against anti-choice philosophers on the job market is a pressing or prevalent issue in the profession?” Not especially, and one reason to post about this is to possibly dispel to some extent people’s worries about such discrimination.Report
It would be distressing if a pro-life paper, or even several or even an entire pro-life research program, really were the kiss of death for an applicant. I would hope that even philosophers who are pro-choice would see this. After all, our conception as a field is that we allow and even encourage discussion of moral views we find crazy or even abhorrent and that there would be a huge loss if we didn’t. For instance, I find hardcore libertarian positions with their claims we should do away with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, and other social insurance programs both crazy and horrifying. I’m betting a lot of other people here do too. The same goes for the claims many utilitarians make about the disabled. Again, I imagine that many posters here would say the same. But it’s hard to imagine that we would have a discussion about whether papers defending those claims would sink an applicant’s chances, and I imagine that if those who are horrified by such views said they should we would get massive pushback. That we are having this discussion when it comes to the abortion debate shows that we don’t live up to our self-conception where any view should be open for debate and that we’re not as far above the culture wars as we might pretend.Report
This is a fascinating conversation. I’m a U.S. citizen, but I’ve lived in the Czech Republic for the last three years. As a couple of people have noted, American attitudes about debates like this tend not to be shared by Europeans. Having spent a little time at a number of European Universities over the last few years, it can sometimes be pretty shocking to see how politically polarized American academic culture has become in some places.
At the same time, there’s been some really thoughtful exchanges and that’s been reassuring. Prof. L’s call to put ourselves into the perspectives of the people we’re talking with seems right on the money to me. That’s a skill too few of us actively develop today. And the exchange between Blackshaw and Räsänen liked to warm my heart; it’s the kind of thing philosophers should be modelling on a public messageboard today.
There’s good evidence that, at least in the U.S. since the 1990s, we overestimate how much we really disagree with most people we identify as our political opponents. The Pew Research Center has data going back decades, for instance, that appears to show that while the number of Americans who now hold not only unfavorable but very unfavorable views toward their political ‘opponents’ has tripled since the 1990s, so that more than 50% on the right and the left now take this stance toward the other side, over the course of this period we have at the same time come to drastically overestimate the number of people on each side of the aisle that hold the more extreme positions of the party. Interestingly, this ‘Perception Gap’ appears to become stronger as American citizens progress through higher education, and it is positively correlated with exposure to just about any media source. Musa Al-Gharbi and Sean Stevens each had a series of essays on what the data shows at the Heterodox Academy in 2018 and 2019. I encourage people to look into it.
If this data shows what we think it does then, outside the echo chambers of fervent ideologues, there are a large number of Americans who basically agree about a lot more than they realize when it comes to our values and what we want out of this project in shared government. That means well-meaning people who hold moderate positions, and are competent enough to talk about them, might begin to change the tenor of these conversations–and so improve the harmony of social life–by simply making the effort to take part. This looks to be a real opportunity for American intellectuals today, and it is matched by what I think we can all agree is an equally pressing need, or a duty we have to participate.Report
‘The anti-abortion movement has nothing to do with life; it’s about controlling women‘ – Kate Manne. https://mobile.twitter.com/kate_manne/status/1310347996870172675Report
Thanks, this nicely illustrates what I was getting at. With a little bit of tweaking, Manne’s remark could have contributed to bridging the divide of understanding and value across which the two sides face each other. And she cites her book, so it’s not like there wasn’t something more informative to say! But as phrased, this is more of a rally for people on her side. That is also signaled through the decision to refuse to refer to her interlocutors with their preferred terminology. And so the Perception Gap grows.
Of course, people vent on twitter, and one tweet isn’t a big deal. But there’s venting in a diary or among one’s friends, and there’s venting in the public sphere. And the social science is beginning to suggest that new media platforms have become corrosive of both personal well-being and social cohesion: Jon Haidt has some stuff on the impact the former appears to be having on young girls in particular, and the Perception Gap appears to be fueled by increased exposure to just about every form of media. As professional philosophers, we have a duty to do better in communicating with the public.
This is said without any prejudice as to how the abortion debate should be decided, and with no claim that Manne is guilty of any great wrongdoing. My remarks are meant in the spirit of public dialogue, and my point is about modelling the kind of boundary-crossing conversation that helps people on either side of the divide, yet who are close enough to the middle to be able to talk to each other, get a better understanding of what’s going on. It may be that the ideologues shouting in the back on each side will never be convinced, but as long as we can ignore their cacophony, hopefully the rest of us can help each other overcome the Perception Gap and get back to the shared task of figuring out what to collectively think and do.Report
There is basically no reason to believe this at all. It is an utterly empty claim, even if someone said it on Twitter.Report
This is a perfect example of the philosophical culture here. She gets no pushback from philosophers on this, but this tweet has 1000 likes, I’m sure many of them philosophers. Imagine a pro-life philosopher putting forth such a reductive and uncharitable view, like “the pro-choice movement isn’t about women’s rights, it is just eugenics and racism” and then arguing about democratic policies (the crime bill) that have wreaked havoc on the Black community, and then taking a few examples of eugenicists in the history of the movement, and stating the obvious, that allowing abortions has had a vastly disproportionate affect on black population numbers, stating that this is obviously the goal of the pro-choice movement. We *could* advance this sort of reductive and uncharitable view. Maybe we would see more of it if pro-life were the dominant philosophical perspective and people could get away with arguments like this. But certainly we can do better than this, and we should.Report
P.s. I agree with Manne except that I would say that the anti-abortion movement is about controlling people with uteruses, most of whom are women.Report
Preface: I am a staunchly pro-choice philosopher, albeit one who in my misguided youth was “pro-life” and wised up after appreciating the human/person distinction. I also think that the pro-life movement is largely (not exclusively) an attempt to impose specific religious views on others who do not share them and have no good reason to share them, and which imposes undue burdens on an already unjustly burdened gender. Finally, all “pro-life” arguments I have ever seen put forward by philosophers are uniformly facile, question-begging, and full of special pleading, and if socially/legally implemented would do great harm. (This includes Dr. Blackshaw’s ridiculous “simple argument against abortion” which completely ignores Mary Anne Warren’s specific arguments for the human-person distinction, and her decades-old response to the infanticide objection thereto; see https://philosophicalapologist.com/2018/08/25/a-simple-argument-against-abortion-possible-replies/ )
All that said, none of this particularly distinguishes pro-life philosophical arguments from a host of other widely-prevalent philosophical arguments and schools of thought. Many philosophers hold views which take seriously either political libertarianism, or naked egoism or a moral contractualism which is ultimately based in egoism. Or for that matter a deontology like Kamm’s which openly admits that its implementation will do more harm than good to the interests of all persons affected, in the name of some abstract principle like “inviolability.” Whether these are as bad as views which place the burdens on specific already-oppressed groups of persons is debatable, but arguably many such views would, if socially implemented, harm those who are more at risk of being harmed in various other ways–e.g., the poor–more than the average person, or at least the average employed philosopher. Or they may not, depending on the details of the view, but certainly some versions of such views would cause such harms, whether intended or not (and according to some such views, their holders/implementers are not responsible for such harms if the harms are not “intended” but merely “foreseen”–we can debate whether *that* really gets anyone off the hook another time). In short, I am no friend of “pro-life” philosophy…but if we make blanket assumptions about it, we would be equally justified in doing so for a host of other philosophical positions. I don’t think we’re ready to do that, or necessarily even should do so in an ideal world; at any rate, we should not do so just for this issue alone. We are certainly able to judge each case on its merits. If a philosopher puts forward some sloppy pro-life arguments, they should be criticized for not thinking clearly. But lots of philosophers do that too, including many pro-choice ones or those whose specialties are entirely orthogonal to this issue. A few may occasionally explicitly, or via obvious implication, put forward anti-woman views. Likewise, a libertarian philosopher might say something naively prejudicial about the poor, and we can take that as a mark against how they might treat certain students we require them to respect. But we can handle those individually without making blanket assumptions about what “must” be true of any such position.
So if you want to not hire, say, a Dr. Blackshaw, ask him “have you HEARD of Mary Anne Warren, or did you simply forget to consider her famous arguments as among the ‘possible replies’ to your position worth considering?” The answer to these questions will give you far more reason for a decision than the very debatable issue of whether his positions might be construed as prejudicial to female students, colleagues, or society members at large. Turnabout is fair play: I would expect a philosopher who extensively published pro-choice arguments, but who in summarizing her position and all the best counter-arguments to it neglected to even mention, e.g., John Finnis, Don Marquis, or equally significant pro-life philosophers in her work, or address their key arguments at pertinent points, to be sent to the bottom of the pile. A committee with a pro-life bias who didn’t hire her because they thought her work might harm fetuses would be terrible, but if her arguments are bad and ignore salient counter-arguments, then they needn’t go there. And neither need anyone else.Report
Hmm. Given Blackshaw’s extensive publication record on the topics of abortion and personhood, some of which explicitly delineates Warren’s view, I’d be fairly confident that he neither ignores nor is unaware of Warren’s arguments (even if he neglects to mention her in one short online blogpost).Report
I’d be happy to know which article(s) of his reference Warren, but perhaps you didn’t notice that I was linking to a 2018 post on his blog. Perhaps the articles you’re referring to came later, and he wasn’t aware of Warren in 2018, and forgot to update his blog post. But I doubt it.Report
Well, I did notice that you were linking to a blog post, hence my mentioning the blogpost. I don’t see why every post someone makes on the topic of abortion and personhood must mention Warren by name, not least because there are far better defenders of the distinction than Warren.
For one example (and maybe Bruce can add more, since I do not know his entire corpus), Warren is cited in this paper: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/20502877.2018.1438771?journalCode=ynbi20
Again, perhaps you are upset that he clearly knew of Warren in 2018 but deliberately ignored her. More likely, there are 100 philosophers he could have chosen to address by name in a blogpost, but he thought that in a short online piece he could not address every objection and objector specifically, and so opted not to – while addressing those other views in his academic work.Report
Well, my post was pretty short too, so I didn’t mention all of his articles (far less famous than Warren’s). Get it?Report
That last reply was sent too hastily. What I should have said is: if Blackshaw’s short blogpost can be forgiven for omitting a major argument countering his claims, then surely my short comment found earlier here can be forgiven for referencing his far less famous published articles. In any case, it’s a hypothetical example; if his other work exemplified /the same kind/ of bad argumentation and ignorance of obvious and salient counter-arguments as found on the blog, then a certain judgment is authorized; if it does not, well then, just imagine some other philosopher doing so. Again, my point is that we should focus more on this type of bad argumentation than upon sweeping political generalizations about such positions.
[Moderator: if this reaches you in time, please discard my earlier response, and delete both this end-note, and the above paragraph up until “If Blackshaw’s….” –thank you.]Report
Well, your initial comment seemed to think that the only two possible explanations for Bruce’s blog’s omission of Warren’s name were ignorance or forgetfulness. This is obviously false and uncharitable – Bruce and I have both offered a perfectly good explanation for his omission which is consistent with his being a creditable, well-read and honest writer.
By contrast, my criticism of your comment was not along the same lines – it was pointing out that Bruce obviously is aware of, and able to respond to, Warren’s arguments. For this purpose, pointing to his published work was perfectly reasonable as evidence of this.Report
Calum, you are, once again, ignoring the specific purpose I had in referring to his specific blog post. I have explained that at length in my latest longer post. If you continue to misrepresent my intended point, I cannot help you any further.Report
I have never pretended to know what your purpose is, nor do I particularly care what your underlying motivations are. All I can do is address your stated arguments. You pretty clearly gave the impression that you thought Blackshaw’s omission of Warren was due to either a) ignorance (wilful or otherwise) or b) forgetfulness. My only point is that this is 1) clearly false and 2) deeply uncharitable. I’m not sure what debate or meta-debate you think we’re having.
If you think my point misinterprets your initial claim, and that you were not in fact making this implication, then I would welcome clarification of your initial claim. But I think it is a perfectly reasonable way to interpret your claim:
“So if you want to not hire, say, a Dr. Blackshaw, ask him “have you HEARD of Mary Anne Warren, or did you simply forget to consider her famous arguments as among the ‘possible replies’ to your position worth considering?”
Your follow up reply did nothing to help explain this claim, nor did it alleviate the impression your original post gave that Blackshaw’s omission of Warren must be due to ignorance or forgetfulness. To say that I have misrepresented this claim multiple times is really quite difficult to take seriously: I have just taken the straightforward reading of your claim. If you do not in fact believe this, or if you think were being unclear, then all you really need to do is say so, and say that you agree there are other possible (and more charitable) reasons why he did not include it. If you do in fact believe this, then there is no possible world in which I am misrepresenting you.Report
1) My original reference to Bruce’s blog post was explicitly given as an example of poor, incomplete pro-life argumentation. Which it is. I asserted, that, IMO, this was typical of pro-life arguments, even professionally published ones. I did not give, intend to give, or asserted that I was giving at that time, evidence of that broad claim.
2) I later said that one could reasonably evaluate “a” Bruce Blackshaw on the basis of such arguments–presumably if others given or said were of a similar quality–rather than on any presumed unspoken motivations or consequences thereof. That is, I was implicitly referring to “a” hypothetical type. If the living, breathing, full-publication-range actual Bruce Blackshaw does not fit this type, more power to him.
3) #2 might be taken as a presumption, or a statement of my impression, that the actual BB did, IMO, fit that type. I knowingly went out on a limb there for those who might read me that way, and opened myself up wide for refutation of a premature judgment.
4) You offered an article which supposedly corrected for my specific criticisms of the blog post. It did not do so.I will not repeat my explanations of how it failed; they are given earlier, and you can read them. If you made a mistake and should have given yet a different article, now (and a good deal before now) is the time to make up for that. You have presented the best possible evidence for my provocative suggestion, and fallen flat on your face in doing so.Report
This is really rather silly.
1) Yes, your second reference to Blackshaw gave a clear impression that you thought Blackshaw did, in fact, fit that type. It is still not clear to me whether:
a) You initially claimed that Blackshaw’s omission was due to ignorance or forgetfulness
b) You still stand by that claim.
Simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers will do. If yes, then you have been amply refuted. If no, then all you need to do is say so and our disagreement will have been resolved.
2) Your explanation elsewhere does not save your claim. Your initial implied claim was that Blackshaw had not even heard of Warren or forgot to consider her arguments. The fact that he cited her suggests that he has heard of her and recalled that she had some arguments for her position, even if he did not lay out those arguments at the time.
Regardless, it goes without saying that the discussion has moved on a lot since Warren. But sure, no one denies that a comprehensive historical exploration of abortion ethics would include her arguments. The problem is, no one has claimed to be providing a comprehensive historical exploration or to be responding to every writer on this topic.
The fact that you are willing to die on the hill of lamenting that an informal online blog post (seemingly chosen at random, despite Blackshaw’s extensive academic corpus on these questions) doesn’t happen to mention your favourite pro-abortion philosopher really speaks quite strongly to a lack of charity that, unfortunately, pervades discussion on this question. I had hoped for better within academia. If you really want to read and respond to the best arguments against abortion, you would do well to consult the recent academic literature on the topic.Report
Scott Forschler, as Calum Miller points out, I’d expect a hiring committee to look at my research record, not complain about a 800 word blog post for a popular audience that doesn’t happen to mention a particular philosopher by name.
Further, the blog post in question does not omit Warren’s argument. The final two paragraphs are on precisely that, but since the personhood claim is made by many philosophers I don’t name any of them – I just describe the argument. I don’t think much of her attempt to show the permissibility of infanticide does not follow from her view of personhood.
Finally, for the record, it is currently “Mr Blackshaw”, although hopefully I will be submitting my PhD thesis within the next 12 months.Report
Mr. Blackshaw, you DO omit Warren’s arguments; there is absolutely no reference to the person-human distinction in your original blog post on this topic. The follow-up I linked to briefly describes the distinction, but discusses none of the ARGUMENTS for it. Not Warren’s, not anyone else’s, not by name nor by description or summary. I also never said, of course, that a hiring committee should only look at blogs; I only gave that as an example of the type of “pro-life” argument which fails to mention let alone counter key and obvious objections to it. Nor, of course, did I say that every article or blog post has to cover every critical argument by name or even description. But some are more obviously relevant than others, and omitting these reduces the quality of the work. I maintain that this is typical of pro-life arguments, and the article mentioned by Miller supports this as an additional case, to wit: 1) The article does list many authors who make this distinction, but again ignores their ARGUMENTS for this distinction. And here, while I don’t think Warren’s delineation of her five factors is the best position on this issue, she has some good arguments,e.g., that if we met space aliens we would use psychological criteria rather than check their DNA to determine if they are persons with high moral status. You don’t appear to address that or any related argument here. And you apparently forget about the distinction 8 pages later, when you say (as if reporting an obvious, commonplace truth) that “many” have thought racism wrong because it violates rights arising from our “common humanity.” But actually, MANY think such rights arise from our common PERSONHOOD (and “humanity” only if used as a synonym for this, as it often is). Surely you are not baffled by science fiction scenarios where heroes battle to free enslaved races of aliens, but ride Banthas into battle and occasionally even sacrifice a Taun-taun to save a person’s life without impugning their moral status as heroes. You have said nothing about how you would address this argument, or explain how we could possibly have intuitions, let alone sound ones, about such cases, on the basis of recognizing some common–but biological rather than psychological–humanity. So the article actually substantiates my point that you don’t consider many important, relevant arguments of your critics very seriously. Now, there can be value in giving a reductio to a position which shows that there is (or may be) *something* wrong with it, while neither drawing any conclusions about where and how it goes wrong, or giving an alterative theory. As far as it goes. But it doesn’t go very far; worse, if you think it has gone pretty far, you may be mistaken in ways you could have avoided had you actually tried to do these things. Again, a modest reductio point may be a nice brick in a large wall, if you or others keep building. But offering this article as an example of a piece of writing where, unlike your blog post, you actually address Warren’s ARGUMENTS, only illustrates your failure to grasp my objection.
2) You also ignore the specific arguments of Warren and others about how to reconcile their abortion arguments with intuitions about infanticide, partly by pointing out that an absolutist intuition here is simply wrong, and that when we make important distinctions between classes of cases, there is good reason to think that some infanticides are permissible and perhaps even obligatory. This may be true or false; you don’t deal with it, though. Perhaps you do in other more excellent and comprehensive articles I remain unaware of. Referring me to these will enlighten me on this specific issue, but remains orthogonal to my main point.
Ultimately you & the other authors of that article apparently don’t find the powerful instrumental arguments against, e.g., infant rape, to be strong enough, and seek some fundamental intuition that it’s just intrinsically wrong, whatever that means. Well, that gets us back to my meta-point: *lots* of philosophers on many topics ultimately just rest on intuitions, and don’t spend enough time dealing with their critics who try to defuse, counter, or explain (or fully or partially explain away) such intuitions in ways compatible with opposing views. And some of those views, if widely held, might harm people. But it would be wrong to ban them or ask them to conceal their views on this basis alone; for one thing, there’d be too few left standing. I gather, for instance, that presentists want to stop me from quantifying over extinct animals when I say that some animals have scales, which would substantially interfere with my saying things which I think occasionally need to be said, at least in the form I am wont to use. And they too often use arguments I consider extremely flimsy, though I will not discuss this further. But I’m not too worried about them reaching into my life that way. In general, I think we (including hiring committees, critics, and the philosophers themselves) should worry more about the quality of the arguments in question than whether some other people reach those conclusions in ways which involve essential prejudices against other people, or are motivated thereby, and/or might cause harm if widely shared. As long as the arguments considered don’t essentially involve such prejudices, then we can bracket that worry and just focus on their quality. And yes, I’m saying this as someone who thinks that most of the arguments on your side are of very low quality. But that’s a separate point. Even if there were lots of presentists trying to pass laws against my quantificational habits, we shouldn’t not hire them, or ask them to hide themselves, just because their conclusions might hurt us. If their arguments are sloppy, we can and should deal with them that way. If they are convincing, we should perhaps instead adopt their views. I’m not too worried about pro-life (or presentist) philosophers doing this, given past efforts. But even if I was, I would rather deal with them on the argument level, and let the chips fall where they may.
For that matter, they might change their mind once confronted with opposing arguments, as I did on the abortion issue many years ago. I would much rather work with a colleague with an opposing view on an issue but obviously alive to the arguments and open to the possibility of modifying or changing their views if warranted, than one who agreed with me for idiotic and blindered “reasons.” I might approve of the latter as a voter or fellow citizen, but not as a philosopher.Report
” you DO omit Warren’s arguments; there is absolutely no reference to the person-human distinction in your original blog post on this topic”
My goodness, you are being uncharitable. Is this just a pro-life thing or do you treat all philosophers this way?
What you are referring to is a two-part popular blog post on what I clearly call a “simple argument against abortion”. The first blog post ends with “I’ve tried to anticipate some of the most common replies here” and provides a link to part two – which has a paragraph on the person-human distinction.
I’m not going to engage you any further here because in my view you are not acting reasonably or charitably. Feel free to reply to my published academic work in the journals it appears in.Report
No Bruce, I’m merely distinguishing between an ARGUMENT and a POSITION (aka, a conclusion, view, claim, etc.). You mention a POSITION Warren held. You do not mention let alone counter her ARGUMENT for this position. Is ignoring this distinction a pro-life thing? Or is it just you? 🙂Report
Final comment. This is a popular blog post aimed at a non-academic audience, labelled a “simple argument against abortion”. It astonishes me that you are treating it otherwise and are complaining that it doesn’t address everything you think it should. It’s not aimed at you! I’m not surprised every pro-lifer you engage with ends up declining to continue a conversation with you.
As it happens, one of the best arguments against Warren is one that I *did* mention in the blog post – that her view implies the permissibility of infanticide. Her defence against this argument is poor at best. It certainly isn’t convincing. Much better is McMahan’s admission that it implies infants can be sacrificed for the benefit of persons, and he finds this extremely uncomfortable and counter-intuitive.Report
Well Bruce, I don’t find YOU convincing; and apparently in your book, that suffices for an argument. If you find McMahan more “convincing” merely because he admits to discomfort which might edge him toward your position, while Warren forthrightly admits to none, then I’m afraid you don’t know what “convincing” means (it does NOT mean: I like this more, or it is closer to my prior position, than something else). And/or you are (again) not distinguishing between a convincing POSITION and a convincing ARGUMENT. ’nuff said; I would indeed rather talk to people who give arguments rather just baldly assert positions as you are doing here, so please do go away.Report
“I would indeed rather talk to people who give arguments rather just baldly assert positions as you are doing here, so please do go away.”
SIgh, you’ve drawn me back in again. Apparently, on the basis of reading a popular blog post, you think I just ‘baldly assert positions’. Why don’t you do your due diligence as a philosopher (if you are) and actually read some of my published research and engage with it instead of persisting with this silliness. You’ll find plenty to choose from.
And don’t tell people to go away. You don’t have that right here – it’s not your blog.Report
“Apparently, on the basis of reading a popular blog post, you think I just ‘baldly assert positions’.”
NO. Not JUST that. But also on the basis of your earlier comment which I was just replying to, to wit: “[Warren’s] defense against this argument is poor at best. It certainly isn’t convincing.”–asserted without, once again, ever DESCRIBING her defense, or identifying any specific failings with it. (Perhaps partly, too, on the basis of the very article Calum recommended, which ultimately just rests upon an intuition about intrinsic wrongness, without considering the possibility that this intuition is simply a reification of a great deal of obvious instrumental wrongness, as many philosophers have suggested. Although this source wasn’t foremost in my mind when I wrote that comment.) Why don’t YOU do your due diligence and actually describe and try to counter your opponents’ arguments instead of merely baldly asserting that they are unconvincing, and then hypocritically accusing me of your own failings.
“And don’t tell people to go away. You don’t have that right here.”
I DO have the right to ask you to do what you said you were going to do, given that you have good reasons for it, namely your apparent disinterest in dealing with opposing arguments. Still waiting for and open to evidence to the contrary here, of course. I do not have the right to command it, and did not. Continue as you see fit. But don’t expect toleration for your continued evasion of the relevant issues, like your persistent confusion between a position and an argument. As I’ve said before, we philosophers deal in arguments, and should consider them even when they come from dubious quarters and suspect motivations, or have unpalatable consequences. But we should never stop evaluating their QUALITY; that’s what we’re good at, perhaps all we are good at, qua philosophers, all we add uniquely to the world. So we need to stay open to them. But when a monstrously bad one is given, or when evasion and lies substitute for argument, expect the full force of our wrath to come down, for that’s what we’ve been preparing for, for a long time.Report
As I *have* just now read and engaged with your public research–precisely the article Calum pointed me to as, apparently, the best example he could think of off-hand to show how well you dealt with a certain class of pro-choice arguments, only to find that you (jointly) didn’t deal with those arguments even there–please stop telling me to do so. Unless you want to concede that this was a terrible example and can point to a better one. But honestly, if someone publicly presents a flawed argument, and I critique it, then presents (or relies on a co-author’s presentation of) a supposedly better one, which when examined patently does NOT address the particular criticism given, then it’s not on me to go out and look for yet more from you. It’s on you to suggest something still better, if any is to be had.
Again, all of this little sniping is over my point that I think the arguments on your side are generally lousy, in spite of which I STILL think they ought to be heard and given a place in the academy–the question this thread began with and which I don’t want to wander TOO far from, as engaging as that can be. But in trying to convince me that you have non-lousy arguments, you’ve simply, gratuitously, added more evidence supporting my point. If this is the best you can do, again, I’m not worried about your swaying many to your side no matter how many forums we give you to present them in, as long as criticism is allowed. ‘Cuz there’s lots of us who relish doing that.Report
Bruce, you are making too much about the completely insignificant distinction between a two-part blog post and two posts. I don’t care how you individuate your postings (I thought we had enough confusion over numerical identity in other contexts already!!) What I care about is whether you addressed Warren’s ARGUMENTS, or any related arguments, in either part. By leaving off in a huff because of this completely fabricated issue over the numerical identities of your blog postings, you are clearly the uncharible one. BTW, you are also behaving as EVERY (and I mean literally every–in the (x) sense) pro-life arguer has *every* behaved with me–announcing unilaterally that they will stop discussing the issue with me before addressing all my substantive objections to their position, under the false pretext that I was treating them uncharitably. I keep looking for a counter-example; perhaps Calum will be one. Hope springs eternal.Report