Blues, Greens and abortion

Abortion is one of the most politically-charged debates in the world today - possibly the most politically charged, though that's the subject for another thread. It's an excellent way of advertising whether you are Green or Blue. As a sceptical atheist who thinks guns should be banned and gay marriage should be legalised, I naturally take a stance against abortion. It's easy to see why: a woman's freedom is less important than another human's right to live.

Wait... that sounds off.

I really am an atheist, with good reasons to support gun bans and gay marriage. But while pondering matters today, I realised that my position on abortion was a lot more shaky than it had previously seemed. I'm not sure one way or the other whether a mother's right to make decisions that can change her life trumps the life of a human embryo or fetus. On the one hand, a fetus isn't quite a person. It has very little intelligence or personality, and no existence independent of its mother, to the point where I am comfortable using the pronoun "it" to describe one. On the other hand, as little as it is, it still represents a human life, and I consider preservation of human life a terminal goal as opposed to the intermediate goal that is personal freedom. The relative utilities are staggering: I wouldn't allow a mob of 100,000 to kill another human no matter how much they wanted to and even if their quality of life was improved (up to a point). So: verify my beliefs, LessWrong.

If possible, I'd like this thread to be not only a discussion about abortion and the banning or legalisation thereof, but also about why I didn't notice this before. For all my talk about examining my beliefs, I wasn't doing very well. I only believed verifying my beliefs was good; I wasn't doing it on any lower level.

This post can't go on the front page, for obvious reasons: it's highly inflammatory, and changing it so as not to refer to a particular example would result in one of the posts I linked to above.

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Seeing this makes me happy because I had a similar revelation a few years ago and it always makes me mad to see people use the glaringly bad justification for being pro-choice which you've overcome. On the other hand, after thinking about the matter quite a bit I still am pro-choice. You say:

On the other hand, as little as it is, it still represents a human life

I think the key word is "represents".

A lot of bad reasoning seems to come from proving a controversial idea can be fit into a category of things that are mostly bad, and then concluding that the controversial idea, too, must be mostly bad.

For example, some people are opposed to a project to genetically engineer diseases like cystic fibrosis out of the human genome, because that's a form of "eugenics". I think this is supposed to cash out as saying that the CF project shares some surface features with what the Nazis did and what those American Southerners who tried to force-sterilize black people did, and those two things are definitely bad, so the CF project must also be bad.

The counterargument is that the features it shares with the Nazi project and the Southern project are not the features that made those two programs bad. Those two programs were bad because they involved hurting people, either through death or through force-sterilization, without their consent. The CF elimination project hopefully would be voluntary and would not damage the people involved. Therefore, although it shares some similarities with the Nazi project and the Southern project (it's about genetics, it's intended to improve the species, etc), those aren't relevant to this moral question and the argument "But it's eugenics" is flawed.

(If you haven't read the 37 Ways Words Can Be Wrong sequence, I suggest that now. Think of a person taking a blue egg that contains vanadium, pointing to a bin full of blue eggs that contain palladium, and saying "But this is a blegg, and we all know bleggs contain palladium!" Well, no.)

The "human life" issue strikes me as very similar. "Taking a human life" is a large category mostly full of bad things. It contains things like stabbing a teenager with a knife, poisoning a senator, strangling an old person in a nursing home, starving a toddler, et cetera. All of these are really bad. They're really bad for various reasons including that they cause the person pain, that they disrupt society, that they violate the person's preference not to be killed, et cetera.

Abortion possibly does fit into the category of "taking a human life." But although it shares the surface features of that category, it isn't clear whether or not it shares the interesting moral feature which is exactly what the whole argument is about. Killing you or me is bad because we understand death and have preferences against it and don't want to die. Whether or not killing a fetus is bad depends on whether or not the fetus also satisfies those conditions - not on whether from a certain angle the problem looks like other cases that satisfy those conditions.

The question isn't whether or not we want to stick the fetus into an artificial category called "human", it's whether it has the specific features that make that category relevant to this particular problem in the first place.

See Leaky Generalizations and Replace The Symbol With The Substance

And a fetus lacks the sentience which makes humans so important, so killing it, while still undesirable, is less so than the loss of freedom which is the alternative. Thanks! I'm convinced again.

The trouble with this reasoning is that universally accepted norms cannot be based on lines drawn at arbitrary points. There must be a strong focal (Schelling) point where the lines are drawn, or otherwise they will soon be pushed in one direction or another. Or to put it differently, slippery slope arguments usually have at least some validity.

With this in mind, arguments against things based on placing them into common categories with bad things can be perfectly valid in a very important sense. Yes, they usually produce powerful propagandistic rhetoric as a side-effect, and sometimes that is their primary purpose. However, often there are no convenient focal points where you would ideally like to draw the lines, and the best available focal points are around some much broader category, so if you won't draw the lines around the broader category, there is a very real possibility that some pressure will push them all the way to things you'd definitely want to prevent.

So, for example, people who want to draw the line so as to condemn all eugenics (under some coherent and widely accepted definition of the term) have a workable focal point to defend. In contrast, if you'd like to draw the lines around some forms of eugenics and not others according to some sophisticated ethical analysis, chances are such norms would be unstable and the lines would soon be moved in one direction or another.

There must be a strong focal (Schelling) point where the lines are drawn

In this particular case, birth seems like an excellent conservative line.

Surely not -- almost everyone (and the law in all countries as far as I am aware) agrees that there is some time after which is no longer permissible to have an abortion (except in circumstances where there mother's life is in danger, etc), and that that time is earlier than birth.

That merely means that it will be hard to convince people to adopt that line, not that it isn't a Schelling point, nor that it is not a conservative one with respect to the issues of harm to a person.

In any case, here are two countries:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_Canada

In Canada there are no legal restrictions at all. The laws were struck down by their Supreme Court, and no others laws have been passed.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_Australia

In Australia it is regulated by state, not nationally. In the ACT, there are no restrictions whatever. They repealed the previous abortion code entirely.

Neither of these means it is trivial to get a late term abortion, of course. Not criminalized is not the same thing as unregulated as a medical procedure.

We may draw a distinction between what is right and what should be proposed as a social norm. The former informs the latter.

Thanks for this. I can hopefully avoid ruining my afternoon by writing a long (and similar) post about this now.

I live in a state where a legislator is trying to mandate investigation of miscarriages to see if it was accidental or if the mother was "guilty" of "murdering" her fetus. It's absurd because abortions are still legal in the US despite being increasingly difficult to get access to, but that's the level of [strong language redacted] that's been getting a horrifying amount of air time lately.

And yet, pro-choice individuals seem to object to referring to the individual in question as a baby - a much stronger analogy - far more strongly than they do to calling them a "human" or even "human life".

Hmm.

With all due (and considerable - I'm something of a fan of yours) respect; how many pro-lifers do you think are actually reasoning in the manner you describe?

I sure don't know. I may be "pro-life", but I'm conscious that I am in no sense a typical pro-lifer. Many of them seem to rely on "natural law", which is childishly easy to deconstruct, and to object to contraception, homosexuality or other practices I do not object to.

But selection effects well in mind, it seems to me I've heard this argument many times before - and always in the mouths of pro-choice individuals making this argument, not pro-lifers describing or justifying the position they actually hold.

And indeed, Yvain later made a top-level post of (a generalized form of) it.

I haven't top-levelled this specific line of thinking because I figured it was already addressed in the two Sequence posts mentioned at the bottom. If people who have read the sequences agree that they didn't get this exact implication when they first read them, I'll top-level it.

I reject treating human life, or preservation of the human life, as a "terminal goal" that outweighs the "intermediate goal" of human freedom.

More generally, I don't believe there's any simple relationship between my valuation of the two that can be expressed without reference to other parameters.

That is, there are many contexts in which I endorse trading actual human life for human freedom. Still more so, potential human life. And there are many contexts in which I endorse trading human freedom for human life.

That is, there are many contexts in which I endorse trading actual human life for human freedom.

Absolutely. For example if people were invading my freedoms to a sufficient degree I would happily trade their life for my freedom. Kidnappers beware!

I reject treating human life, or preservation of the human life, as a "terminal goal" that outweighs the "intermediate goal" of human freedom.

Hmm... not a viewpoint that I share, but one that I empathise with easily. I approve of freedom because it allows people to make the choices that make them happy, and because choice itself makes them happy. So freedom is valuable to me because it leads to happiness.

I can see where you're coming from though. I suppose we can just accept that our utility functions are different but not contradictory, and move on.

In some sense, they are contradictory. Or at least mutually opposed.

That is, if you and I uncovered the Visitors' plan to forcibly prevent humans from engaging in any activity that lowers our expected lifespans, you would (I infer) endorse that plan, and I might not. Depending on the situation, I might even act to disrupt that plan, and you might act to stop me.

Of course, that's not going to happen. But you might vote and donate money to support criminalizing unhealthy practices (because doing so buys life at the cost of mere freedom) while I vote/donate to support legalizing some of them (because sometimes I value freedom more than life).

In any case, I'm happy to move on in a pragmatic sense, but I wanted to be clear that there really is a point of pragmatic opposition here; this isn't an entirely academic disagreement.

Abortion is one of the most politically-charged debates in the world today - possibly the most politically charged

It may be in the US and many religious countries, but it isn't a big issue in France - I haven't heard of any politician talk about abortion here, and it's not subject to much debate in the media either. My wife says "Yes, there is some debate, some hospitals are even refusing to perform abortions, you just don't pay attention because you're a man", so OK, it may be a bit of an issue, but not a very polarizing one.

(And of course, it's not a big issue in China, where abortion is sometimes encouraged by the state.)

I think it's been blown rather out of proportion by political forces, so what you're describing seems very likely.

I don't think so. I think some people feel very strongly about this issue independent of politics. Their strong feelings are something that politics is trying to harness/exploit.

Elsewhere, I've posted that I believe abortion is sad. And I do. But the question of whether or not abortion should be legal is an entirely different question than whether or not abortion is sad.

Which shows, if you haven't seen it before, the nastiness of politics: people are forced to cut away beliefs that might give their enemies a foothold. Several of my liberal friends think that abortion jokes are funny, but dead kitten jokes are beyond the pale. It could be because they're so misanthropic that they think infant cats are more valuable than infant humans, but I think it's much more likely that it's because they've trained themselves that abortions are non-valuable. It's a lot easier to Other something that suffers from your policy preferences than it is to defend a stance based on careful consideration of the numbers.

Legalizing abortion has several positive effects. It has several negative effects. It's not clear to me whether it's better to legalize it or not, but it seems likely that legalization is better than criminalization.

For the op and others here who consider preservation of human life a terminal goal: do you also consider the creation of human life a terminal goal of the same magnitude? If not, why not?

I find it very unintuitive that something's creation could be unwarranted but its preservation vital, terminally, independent of any other considerations.

When you state it like that is seems unintuitive, but the idea that creating new people is somewhere around morally neutral and that destroying existing people is morally bad is a very strong and common intuition. Do you really not share it?

(Of course, "terminal" is the load-bearing word here. A knife that slices someone's neck has very different secondary consequences than a knife that rearranges reality such that it was as if the victim was never born, but neither biology nor cultural knowledge personal experience have given us any reason to form intuitions about the latter case.)

Hmm... I'm certainly not SURPRISED by it, but I don't share it, no. I see it as being a crooked sort of kludge necessitated by the idea that people are equally valuable. "people" is a very big and complicated category, and treating it as a single moral point leads to weirdness.

Practically speaking, a person gets created over an extremely protracted period. It's not when they're conceived, it's not when they're born, it's not when they learn to speak or use the internet, it's the entire process. In contrast, people die close to instantaneously. "creating a human life" only seems morally neutral because the "human life" you're creating when you make a baby is extremely rudimentary.

But it's not generally acceptable to talk about people this way, so the difference between a fetus and a piano tuner gets surreptitiously offloaded into a difference between birth and death.

Another difference that gets misplaced onto birth vs. death is the matter of discriminate vs. indiscriminate actions. If people could create people they liked as easily as they could kill people they don't, we might see this very differently.

I'm not sure if I'm in the category you call for, but I feel that this comment ought to go somewhere under this post, and this seems like the best fit.

I consider killing an arbitrary person much, much worse than killing a random person, because the latter cannot be used as a weapon to silence people you don't like. Abortion generally doesn't discriminate against the baby (although there are cultures where sex-selective abortion is popular, which makes me uncomfortable, and which will be more of a problem as they get more than one bit to discriminate on); a woman aborts not because she dislikes the particular child, but because she doesn't want to have a child at all.

I don't like the idea of killing babies, but as long as it's done indiscriminately with regards to the individual baby, the only important moral difference from abstinence-as-birth-control is that it's painful to a creature with about the consciousness of a small animal.

Ultimately, I think that monoculture is more dangerous than infanticide. (As a corollary, I have to support the "right" of religious parents to let their toddlers die of easily-curable diseases because they don't believe in evidence-based medicine. Though once children are able to ask to get out of their parents' households, they should be offered political asylum if necessary.)

For mostly unrelated reasons, I think abortion should be mandatory if the baby is the product of rape. We can't afford, as a society, to let rape be a viable reproductive strategy. Yes, it's horrible and cruel to someone who's already a victim of a horrible, cruel travesty, but it's still better than letting rape continue to exist for the entire future.

For mostly unrelated reasons, I think abortion should be mandatory if the baby is the product of rape. We can't afford, as a society, to let rape be a viable reproductive strategy. Yes, it's horrible and cruel to someone who's already a victim of a horrible, cruel travesty, but it's still better than letting rape continue to exist for the entire future.

How genetically heritable is the property of being a rapist? This seems like an important empirical fact to nail down before advocating this sort of policy.

Precisely! And more than that, even if propensity to rape is both heritable and highly variable in the population (I've no idea if this is true), it doesn't follow that by culling some children of rapes the total number of rapists will go down.

Rapists can have children in normal marriages, like everyone else. And I've read somewhere that most rapists commit more than one rape; if true, then the mandatory abortion policy must be enforced in almost 100% of all rapes to drive the numbers of rapists below replacement rates.

Also, since the postulated rapist genes haven't been selected out of existence, there is probably some balance of rapist vs. none-rapist genes in the population. If we cull some but not all rapists, then we might create incentives for the remaining rapists to breed more to make up. And we'll be selecting for more successful rapists, resistant to our methods of catching or of punishing them.

I wasn't aware that things like that could vary in heritability. Rape is not specific to humans, so it can't be purely cultural; where else would it come from, if not genes?

I wasn't aware that things like that could vary in heritability.

Not just can. Almost everything with any degree of complexity varies in heritability, especially things that are behavioural.

Rape is not specific to humans, so it can't be purely cultural; where else would it come from, if not genes?

It only "comes from genes" in the same sense that eating, having a liver, and breathing oxygen "come from genes".

Eating, having a liver, and breathing oxygen are inherited, but have zero heritability (since they do not vary). They cannot be selected for or against.

Even something that does vary from one person to another (some people commit rape and some do not) and "comes from genes" in this trivial sense may have zero heritability. If it is not heritable, your suggested policy of killing the offspring of rape will have no eugenic effect, and nor will any other policy of trying to breed the behaviour out of the population.

Regarding discrimination: some abortions are due to prenatal screenings for various sorts of disability. Does this bother you?

Regarding mandatory abortion of rapists' babies: you acknowledge the obvious downside, which is that it constitutes a second assault. Have you considered the incentives it creates, if someone who cannot stand the idea of having an abortion gets raped and considers whether to report the crime?

I hadn't considered the incentive problem. And, considering the already abysmal reporting rate, I'm going to have to reverse my position on that point until I come across a better third option.

Oh, and regarding disability screenings: as a general rule of thumb, I'd say it's okay unless there exist many adults with that particular disability who prefer to go on having it rather than be "cured". For example, I would be extremely wary of aborting intersex fetuses, or those likely to have any kind of cognitive disorder.

I'll point out that this policy involves a kind of historical contingency that might be problematic.

That is, to pick an extreme example for clarity: if in 1900 ~100% of people with property X choose to have it "cured," and in 2000 ~100% of people with property X choose to go on having it, it seems to follow that you endorse preventing their births in 1900 but not in 2000. Of course, if the program of preventing their births in 1900 is actually implemented, then there aren't any people with property X in 2000, and so their births get prevented as well, even though (in some weird counterfactual sense) you don't endorse that.

I'm not sure how much that actually matters, but it seems at least worth acknowledging.

Any action you take prevents the birth of an infinite number of counterfactual future humans. If you're going to analyze things this way, you'll have to estimate e.g. whether the total number of people born, and their utilities, in scenario 1 (people with X are born in 1900) are greater than in scenario 2 (people with X not born).

That's certainly true, but I don't understand how it relates to the policy I was referring to (Pavitra's in the great-grandparent).

The usefulness of the rule of thumb relies in part on that mostly not happening.

I'd say it's okay unless there exist many adults with that particular disability who prefer to go on having it rather than be "cured".

That sort of preference seems equivalent to preferring to be hit over the head with a baseball bat to me.

That sort of preference seems equivalent to preferring to be hit over the head with a baseball bat to me.

Which is difference more in connotative judgement than in nature from preferring to be tied up and hit with straps and various leather paraphernalia...

You mean "which is different", right?

Edit: if 'which is difference' isn't a typo then I can't parse your sentence...

The preference is evidence that the "disability" really isn't, like homosexuality.

The preference is evidence that the "disability" really isn't, like homosexuality.

It can also be evidence that humans use 'sour grapes' as a coping mechanism.

Near one end of the spectrum of advantage, novel difference and unambiguous disorder is schizophrenia. There are those who declare that cognitive problem to be just a difference to be embraced or even something that can produce special success but I claim it is something that really is purely a negative thing. People can be successful despite schizophrenia, but not because of it. I would not make the same judgement with respect to, say, ADHD or Aspergers.

I am influenced, for example, by this Stanford lecture.

(A claim the evaluation of which does weigh 300 wedrifid-subjective pounds! I don't care much at all what you do to yourself but what you do to other people against their will I do consider to be my business!)

For mostly unrelated reasons, I think abortion should be mandatory if the baby is the product of rape. We can't afford, as a society, to let rape be a viable reproductive strategy. Yes, it's horrible and cruel to someone who's already a victim of a horrible, cruel travesty, but it's still better than letting rape continue to exist for the entire future.

Apart from me finding this personally morally repugnant in its own right it is clearly inconsistent with your earlier statements about selective abortion and assumes a consequentialist evaluation that is too superficial to even correctly support your own terminal values.

You write a whole paragraph about how it is important that "it's done indiscriminately with regards to the individual baby", because "a woman aborts not because she dislikes the particular child, but because she doesn't want to have a child at all". You don't want a women to be permitted to discriminate on bits of information about their own potential child but propose to enforce a discrimination based on one bit of information about one of the parents. The DNA of the fetus (necessarily) gives far more information about possible future behaviour of a child than a single instance of behaviour of the father - particularly when the father takes no part in raising the child.

But far more important is the effect that such a mandate would have on the outcome of rape. Rape is already grossly under-reported (citation is, I assume, not needed). There are strong psychological pressures against reporting it, even aside from the additional trauma from being involved in extensive legal proceedings. Making a gross abuse of her person the consequence of reporting a rape would (and should) make rape even more under-reported.

If you are a women living in a mandatory abortion dystopia then the right thing to do is to refrain from reporting a rape until a) you can confirm that you did not conceive or b) you decide for yourself that you want an abortion. If necessary, lie. "Oh, I said yes. I wanted him bad and I just love it rough. And if I wanted to stop I would have said 'flugelhorn'!" A rape victim being forced to defend her rapist is a horrible, cruel, travesty but it is what she needs to do to protect herself from what is quite possibly a greater violation.

Unfortunately someone else may report to the authorities that you have been raped - either because they are a misguided do-gooder or outright malicious. The rapist could be convicted (and your unborn child sentenced) based on the testimony from others and despite your own declarations of willingness. In such cases, where practical, it is ethical to do whatever it takes to stop them ie. Cryopreserve anyone who gets in your way!

it is clearly inconsistent with your earlier statements about selective abortion

Ouch, truth.

On the other hand, there's a difference between discriminating and discriminatory, indiscriminate and nondiscriminatory. (No less ambiguous terms immediately occur to me, and I was not strict with this usage in the grandparent.) I don't particularly object to discriminating against serial killers, for example.

But the perverse-incentive argument holds in full force. Perhaps I should edit the grandparent so people don't keep trying to re-dissuade me of something I've already disclaimed?

Ultimately, I think that monoculture is more dangerous than infanticide.

We can't afford, as a society, to let rape be a viable reproductive strategy.

I'm not sure you understand how long Biology would have to remain in the driver's seat for these things to remotely matter...

Evolution can work quickly under artificial selection.

But perhaps you were talking about transhumanism displacing inherited psychology? In that case, I'd observe that probably either (1) many rapists would choose to become more effective rapists, rather than alter their utility functions, or (2) we'd probably need some sort of government screening upgrades or something, which leads back into the monoculture problem. There may be no good solution.

I naturally take a stance against abortion. It's easy to see why: a woman's freedom is much more important than another human's right to live.

I think this is backwards?

If you haven't already, consider reading Judith Jarvis Thomson's "A Defense of Abortion", the core thread of which intuition-pumps the reader to the following effect: even if a fetus were granted the full moral status of a conscious, innocent, adult human, it would not be impermissible for an unwilling incubator to kill it to get it out of her.

I naturally take a stance against abortion. It's easy to see why: a woman's freedom is much more important than another human's right to live

Fixed, thanks.

Fixed, thanks.

Um, no it's not. It currently says:

a woman's freedom is less more important than another human's right to live.

Oh for crying out loud. Please tell me it's fixed now.

It currently says this:

I naturally take a stance against abortion. It's easy to see why: a woman's freedom is less important than another human's right to live.

So, you are a pro-life person who values life over freedom, yah?

Well, I was at the time I wrote the comment. I wrote it specifically to get LW's opinions on the matter. I am now pro-choice.

Oh, I get it now. Thanks. All confusion cleaned up.

the core thread of which intuition-pumps the reader to the following effect:

This sounds like: You should read this book, it uses dark arts to persuade you.

I don't think clearly-marked intuition pumps are automatically Dark Arts, although if they involve a lot of emotional language they can overlap. Thomson rambles but doesn't cheat.

So: verify my beliefs, LessWrong.

For all my talk about examining my beliefs, I wasn't doing very well.

This is primarily about policy decisions rather than beliefs. While they are related in that beliefs about the outcomes of available decisions inform the decision, policy decisions are harder in that any decision you might support will have downsides while other decisions you oppose can have upsides. Examining your position on policy debates is a more advanced skill that examining your beliefs.

The abortion debate is something I've been thinking a lot about because I'm anxious that I will need to declare 'my colors' at some moment in an awkward social context and I want to prepare something to say that will not offend. This is tricky because in certain social groups I think a weak or an uncertain stance could still be considered offensive. I am leaning towards something that seems potentially sympathetic but that is actually too vague to infer a stance such as, 'There is so much wrong in the world today, I feel overwhelmed and don't know where to begin with fixing it'.

In actuality, I don't feel very strongly about the abortion issue and I spend time wondering if I lack a morality that other humans have -- if I'm actually less "moral" than whatever human morality would be.

My sense of morality (determining whether something is right or wrong) is that a person thinks about a situation and if they feel dismay, then they decide that situation is morally wrong. They then try to decide what is the source of their dismay -- what is so awful about it and, if possible, who is to blame? In some types of morally gray areas, we feel dismay but we're not sure who is to blame. 'It's just a bad situation.'

I think this is how a lot of pro-choice people feel about abortion?

However, when I interrogate my feeling about abortion, I don't feel any dismay for the sake of the baby. I happen to be someone who easily feels dismay in other contexts. For example, if I think about a young soldier dying in combat, I feel dismay at lots of different levels. But when I think of an aborted baby or a miscarriage alike, my moral apparatus just shrugs. (Is this immoral?)

I do feel dismay from other sources. I feel dismay if other people are saddened (a mother, the father, a grandparent, even a pro-life advocate) and I also worry about what effects a disregard for the life of a fetus for its own sake (e.g., like the one I have) could have on family and society. (For example, it would be awful if employers thought pregnancies were so disposable they could choose one more convenient for their schedules, and less romantic if timid but otherwise capable and loving couples never felt any pressure to work together to face the challenge of raising a baby they hadn't expected.)

So my question is, is the main thing going on in the abortion debate this sense of dismay that I lack? (I realize that many to most pro-choicers may also feel dismay, but weigh this differently against the freedom of the mother.)

For example, if I think about a young soldier dying in combat, I feel dismay at lots of different levels. But when I think of an aborted baby or a miscarriage alike, my moral apparatus just shrugs. (Is this immoral?)

Is there a difference in visualization? Most of us know a lot of young men who are of age to be a soldier (and/or fit that bill ourselves), and are pretty familiar with depictions of death during war. Pretty much the only exposure most people get to the physical presence of miscarriages is anti-abortion pamphlets. Babies might also be distant enough that the word conjures a vague annoyance rather than something worth defending.

Is there a difference in visualization?

This is a reasonable hypothesis, but I don't think so. I try imagining a miscarriage in greater detail and still feel indifferent. Also, I don't feel ambivalent or indifferent about babies. I adore holding them, have recently raised one past the baby stage and am currently working on acquiring a new one. But if this hopeful pregnancy results in a miscarriage, we'll just try again in the next cycle and while we want a baby, I don't mind if my neighbors don't and their birth control fails and they decide to abort. (Though I do wonder and worry if they will always feel comfortable about their decision.)

I ask myself why I feel such a significant difference between a young soldier and a fetus. I feel like I can empathize with a grown boy, whereas I don't consider that a fetus has feelings. Also, a huge amount of resources and emotional investment have gone into raising someone by the time they're grown, whereas sometimes the resources gone into a fetus of a few weeks are so negligible as to be unnoticed. (A counter-example would be a couple that have much emotionally invested in their pregnancy, in which case the miscarriage is very sad and I would not in any way trivialize their pain. For me, the sadness depends on how the people around that pregnancy feel about it. I also feel sad when people want a baby and don't conceive; and of course in that case there is no death of a potential human. My feelings on the issue simply don't take into account anything about the fetus for its own sake.)

Intriguing, I guess. I would like to see the graph of grief verses child age and see if it has an uncanny resemblance to the values I would assign, but according to the post, I shouldn't recognize reproduction potential as the source of my grief. (In any case, I'm open-minded but don't currently buy it.)

My explanation would be that I see the value of a life as being the web of connections between them and other people (including themselves). These connections can wax and wane over a lifetime. When I feel sad about soldiers in combat, my mind tends to linger on the thought of girlfriends that they have, or could have had, as well as the grief for their parents, while the thought of them being married and having children at home missing them seems too sad to linger on for long.

I personally consider it virtuous to (politely and respectfully) speak my mind without worrying about offending people, so I can't sympathize with the particular challenge you're facing. But I want to say that I find your solution clever and I like it:

My sense of morality [...] is that a person thinks about a situation and if they feel dismay, then they decide that situation is morally wrong. They then try to decide what is the source of their dismay [...]

I believe moral psychology agrees with you. Joshua David Greene says:

Under ordinary circumstances reasoning comes into play after the [moral] judgment has already been reached in order to find rational support for the preordained judgment. (p. 165)

He also quotes Jonathan Haidt:

When faced with a social demand for a verbal justification, one becomes a lawyer trying to build a case rather than a judge searching for the truth. [quoted in Greene, p. 165]

Now lots of people would say this is an atrocious state of affairs — we ought to base our moral judgments on reasoning, not on intuition. But there are few people who could criticize you for it without being hypocritical.

Your attitude is also a clever solution to your problem because you disavow responsibility for your moral intuitions; your job is to merely interpret your intuitions.

Thank you for holding up a mirror to my thoughts. I agree these are my views/solutions and I iterated them here.

My Less-Wrong-Story is that sometime in the first year I gave up on an external/objective morality because the arguments here were compelling that there couldn't be one.

I had been clinging to the idea of the existence of objective morality because without it, value would be 'arbitrary'. By this I include determined (e.g., by evolution), complex, and potentially spontaneous and beautiful but not instrinsically "correct". Also, not deducible or reducible or necessarily logical like things embedded in physical reality must be. (Morality is technically embedded in physical reality in the way that it actually objectively exists, but describing this entity would describe how a person feels about X, not how they should feel about X.)

I spent a lot of time worrying that my brain wanted to give reasons for every value. I want to break this egg because I want to make a cake. I want to make a cake because I want the birthday party to be fun. I want it to be fun because I want to be happy. I want to be happy because ... because why? The terminal values aren't pinned to anything, but my brain expects them to be. In theory, religious people should pin the terminal values to God, but I don't believe the mapping is very thorough or accurate.

Ah, yep! There's a fact of the matter regarding how a person feels about X, and about how a person feels they should feel about X, and how a person feels they should feel they should feel... and so on. And the recursion continues forever.

But you can only ask why someone wants X a few times before we have to stop, or we go in a circle, or we get confused.

I wouldn't allow a mob of 100,000 to kill another human no matter how much they wanted to and even if their quality of life was improved (up to a point).

Be careful about statements like this due to scope insensitivity. Can you really understand the collective mental effects of the desires of 100 000? Unless you have used some math in coming to this conclusion, your opinion is unlikely to be correlated with reality.

Unless you have used some math in coming to this conclusion, your opinion is unlikely to be correlated with reality.

The 'up to a point' allows for potential consequentialist exceptions for when there may be sufficient instrumental value in allowing the killing despite the aversion. That does not lessen the validity of directly valuing preventing the murder of one based on the 'right to freedom' of 100,000 people. For that conclusion the only relevant evidence is, in fact, any information which indicates what his preferences really are.

I don't quite see what you mean. How would he know what his preferences are in this case without doing math? Why is 100 000 the point at which the 'right to freedom' balances the taking of a life?

Why is 100 000 the point at which the 'right to freedom' balances the taking of a life?

Ahh, I now see why you are so adamant that his beliefs could not be related to reality. But I note that you are assuming that 100,000 is the turning point. It is not presented as a turning point, just as an example of a figure which would (usually) not qualify.

It takes limited math to eyeball "much greater than 100,000, except with extreme extenuating circumstances". (Trying to apply more specific numeric operations to the judgement is usually bogus. We don't have enough information to come to a more specific conclusion.)

I also note that it would even be legitimate to have preferences in which the "No Lynching!" rule isn't even subject to roughly estimated math. Not everyone is a consequentialist (even if I would prefer it that they were, the short sighted potentially-universe-sacrificing fiends!)

I agree with all this.

Even in a non-consequentialist morality, the way that the number was presented implied that two things were being balanced in some way. It is extremely unlikely for a human to have a number like 100 000 just built into their value system, even if it would be internally consistent.

I consider preservation of human life a terminal goal as opposed to the intermediate goal that is personal freedom.

Uh, wow. That's exactly backwards for me. Otherwise, With Folded Hands would be a utopia rather than the dystopia most agree it is.

Likewise, your stance appears to rate slave rebellions as worse than the slaves obeying quietly -- you have to go to secondary assertions such as "slave societies will undervalue their slaves and waste their lives", which is not entirely self-evident.

I find anti-abortion values inconsistent. If you favor life then if each prevented abortion costs $500+ you could have saved more lives by investing that money elsewhere. This money then goes to save real people, with personalities and everything.

I see no reason why the costs of enforcing anti-abortion would be low.

I find anti-abortion values inconsistent. If you favor life then if each prevented abortion costs $500+ you could have saved more lives by investing that money elsewhere. This money then goes to save real people, with personalities and everything.

Do you apply the same logic to adults? How much does modern medicine cost?

yes, I am offended when people receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in publicly funded medicine.

Well, there are plenty of organisations that should be disbanded, and their assets donated to cost-effective charities. This is something of a high bar to hold people too though.

Cost to the government or cost to the people?

Cost to the government could be low if they don't put too much work into it and punish it via. fines. Cost to the people will probably be higher than that just because they have to go through pregnancy.

In order to make this argument work you need to argue that each averted abortion would divert enough money away from charities to cause someone to die.

I also note that your argument attacks the statement "We should prohibit abortion" on consequentialist grounds, while leaving the statement "Abortion is wrong" unassailed.

I have no opinion on whether killing babies is wrong. I generally consider it none of my business.

The relative utilities are staggering: I wouldn't allow a mob of 100,000 to kill another human no matter how much they wanted to and even if their quality of life was improved (up to a point).

The trouble is that pretty much all decisions that get punted far enough upstairs that they are handled by people whose job description is "politician" are trolley problems - lose-lose hypotheticals. More people die or live worse versus less people dying or living worse - which people, where, when, to what degree?

So your refusal to countenance such doesn't stop such decisions existing - it just means you won't be the one personally deciding. But as long as you benefit from the decision (e.g. live in society), I don't think this actually makes you a morally purer person.

I figure death is instrumentally bad. It's impossible to be happy when you're dead. The thing is, it's just as impossible if you're dead because you haven't been conceived, and if you're dead because you died. As such, having an abortion is no worse than not conceiving (unless the baby is in fact conscious, and doesn't like being stuck in a womb for nine months).

That said, I consider the fact that it's legal a bad sign. If you're pro-choice, you think preventing abortions are forcing someone to be uncomfortable for nine months. If you're pro-life, you think an abortion is murder. Shouldn't they easily be able to pass a law making abortion illegal, but otherwise doing everything for the pro-choice crowd?

If you're pro-life, you think an abortion is murder.

"Pro-life" people wear that belief, believe in that belief, but don't take the idea seriously. They don't act as though fetal death is equivalent to a person's death in all cases, and they focus almost exclusively on the legality of abortion when other actions (e.g. increasing access to reliable birth control) are far more likely to have a large, immediate impact.

I'm not sure that failing to aim at the target of greatest impact is a great indicator of not taking ideas seriously (at least in the sense of sincerely believing them). It seems like a separate, if possibly correlated, malady of not doing research and optimizing.

This is one of those times where you have to look at statistics rather than individuals. The existence of people who focus on abortion over fetal death doesn't mean much. The fact that there are many people who do so, together with the conspicuous absence of people who focus on fetal death over abortion, does mean something.

If someone claims to believe thousands of equivalent-person deaths are occurring every day and being ignored, even facilitated by society, and ey doesn't do the research and optimize, I have a difficult time finding em to be sincere.

Pavitra makes the important point:

there are many people who do so

This actually seems to describe on the order of every member of the "pro-life" movement.

Mm?

I'm pretty confident that human societies are facilitating huge numbers of actual deaths of adult human beings as we speak, but I don't devote much of my time to figuring out how many -- indeed, I wouldn't hazard a confident guess as to order of magnitude -- or where or who or how to stop it.

You'd certainly have grounds to challenge my sincerity if I claimed to care about their deaths, though I think it's more complicated than that.

But do you really challenge the sincerity of my claim that I believe those deaths are happening?

But do you really challenge the sincerity of my claim that I believe those deaths are happening?

No.

Society and societies aren't quite the same thing. I'm referring to the specific society in which the person resides and acts.

The distinction between believing the deaths are happening and caring about the deaths is an important one. I should have been clearer.

I wouldn't allow a mob of 100,000 to kill another human no matter how much they wanted to and even if their quality of life was improved (up to a point).

So I assume you also oppose the death penalty, then?

One of the reasons this post is interesting is because I don't expect it to raise any sort of debate at all - I expect pretty much everyone who posts on LW to be pro-choice. Is this because LW people are part of the "Correct Contrarian Cluster" (although it isn't so contrarian in this context). Or does this mean that LW is massively biased towards a certain political point of view? If the latter, should we be actively aiming to encourage more pro-Lifers to give us useful counterpoints in our debates?

Mostly, I suspect that the traditional U.S. "pro-choice" vs. "pro-life" lines are not helpful ones for making progress on this subject.

Because like any organizational labeling, they encourage treating distinct ideas as a package deal.

This is perhaps clearer if I use a different example.

In general, my position on criminalizing activity is that it's something I encourage when I strongly prefer the state of the world when that activity is illegal, and not otherwise.

That bar hasn't been met on most drug use, including alcohol and nicotine, so I don't support criminalizing it. That said: I don't endorse the activity and I think in most cases the world is better if people avoid it.

So you can describe me as "pro-choice" when it comes to drug use... but you can also describe me as "anti-drug."

All of which is fine and dandy, except that if political groups start spending millions of dollars to promote the idea that being "anti-drug" includes support for criminalizing all drug use, and being "pro-choice" means encouraging my friends in their drug use, then both of those labels become problematic, since I do neither of those things.

And if those political groups become powerful enough, then even refusing those labels becomes problematic. If I say "I'm neither pro-choice nor pro-drug" in that counterfactual context, most people understand me to mean that I reject everything those two groups endorse. (They are incorrect to do so, of course, but it's foolish of me to ignore what people in fact do with language.)

At that point, if I'm going to engage in a productive conversation about what choices I endorse around drug use and drug legislation, the best thing for me to do is discard the terms altogether and talk about the underlying issues.

And if the conversation has already begun in a way that's centered around those terms, the best thing for me to do is not discuss those issues until the language environment is less distorted.

Good fleshing out of an important point..

To bring it back to the context of the abortion debate, it at first surprised me that the pro-life is also often packaged with anti-contraception. I imagine many pro-life people would not identify as being anti-contraception, but my impression is that the pro-life groups that are most vocal and most likely to affect cultural norms and policies are also anti-contraception.

For example, this 100% pro-life person claims that contraception is 100% bad:

http://stobie.home.sprynet.com/religion/100prolife.htm#contra

Is contraception ever right? No.

* (then edited to be less judgmental).

People who believe that souls attach to bodies at the moment of conception puzzle me. I'm not sure how, if at all, they deal with the existence of identical twins (who were conceived just the once and then split up later) or chimeras (who were once fraternal twins and then fused together). I doubt they'd say that identical twins have half a soul each or need to share, or that chimeras have two souls.

When it comes to issues of personhood, consciousness, personal identity, etc., there is no view (let alone value system) that wouldn't be vulnerable to such problematic questions. In fact, I'd say that by the usual standards of philosophical cross-examinations, these questions are relatively easy to address from the standpoint of the ensoulment-at-conception theory.

Most people don't care about internal consistency between their opinions. In fact, in my experience, very few people actually take seriously the explicit meanings of their claims about morality, ethics, values, laws, etc.

They care about winning debates, signalling affiliation, that kind of thing. There's no point in taking their claims seriously and formally disproving them, because they don't take their claims seriously themselves - certainly not to the standards expected by this community.

Because they're the two mainstream positions on a highly politically-charged issue?

One of the reasons this post is interesting is because I don't expect it to raise any sort of debate at all - I expect pretty much everyone who posts on LW to be pro-choice. Is this because LW people are part of the "Correct Contrarian Cluster (although it isn't so contrarian in this context)"

This is nearly the opposite of 'contrarianism' (as you partially acknowledge). The 'pro-choice' stance in most cases will be more to do with conforming than coming to a Correct choice. In fact Correct barely fits either, except to the extent that it is part of my (or our) extrapolated volition.

I expect pretty much everyone who posts on LW to be pro-choice.

I am most definitely not pro-choice. Most particularly with the 'am' part (it is not part of my identity) and in secondarily with the 'pro-choice' part - abhorring involvement in that sort of weasely definition is part of my identity. (If you prefer you could say that I am pro choice and pro life and balance the competing desideratum with a complicated system of intuitions and reasoning.) But for practical purposes I'm still going to check the same box when faced with the question "Would you prefer safe and legal abortions to be available to pregnant women (and Californian governors) at their own discretion?"

"Pro-choice" and "pro-life" are both rather weasely terms, but they seem to have been selected by implicit mutual agreement between (mainstream elements of) the two sides in order to avoid reducing the debate to name-calling ("murderer" vs "opressor" etc).

The degree to which those slogans are mainstream depends where you live and to what extent mainstream culture in your locality makes that particular ethical question the subject of huge amounts of identity-defining debate.

Indeed. I consider myself pro-convenient-fetal-death

If we agree due to correctness, then the causal chain from reality to belief should follow similar lines in each person's reasoning, and we should give similar (or at least compatible) justifications for our mutual conclusion.

If we agree due to bias, then we would likely discover wildly divergent rationalizations for our common premise, and we should find multiple mutually contradictory justifications.

I think this is a worthless debate.

I've run into far too many bloggers whose content I enjoy who then feel compelled one day to write about abortion. This inevitably pisses everyone off.

The core of the abortion debate - on both sides - is squick factor, not logic. There are compelling arguments on either side, but no one ever gives the opposition any heed. It's ultimately about whether or not abortion makes you feel funny. My own stance, and the reasons I have for holding it, are not going to convince anyone for more than five minutes before they find a counter argument that supports their gut feeling.

Also, you're wrong about gun control; there is mounting evidence that banning guns results in higher crime, while legalizing them causes crime to decrease. I don't think this argument suffers the same squick factor; while many people knee-jerk to gun control because they're afraid of firearms (and because government legislation feels like 'doing something', no matter how ineffective it is), I've successfully argued many people into changing their stance by presenting evidence.

Abortion? I don't even trust my own rationality to be completely valid, despite holding a stance which goes against what I would like to believe. It's a black hole of rationality fail.

I think this is a worthless debate.

[...]

The core of the abortion debate - on both sides - is squick factor, not logic.

Yet this is a good start, to observe that a final unmoving 'nay' emotion is the core of any morality debate. When people acknowledge that what's 'right' isn't related to a logical argument, there are two immediate consequences:

First, they realize that their morality doesn't need to be justified by logical arguments: morality is arational. This makes morality safe from logical argument. No one can convince a person that something immoral is OK by stringing a fancy set of arguments. Moral principles don't need to be justified (because they cannot be, it is not written on a tablet anywhere that good is good) and they don't even need to be mutually consistent (moral principles may have evolved for specific contexts, outside those contexts or in occasional overlapping contexts they may become nonsensical).

Second, free of the fear that admitting lack of justification will open principles to attack, they can begin to pinpoint precisely where their instrumental values end and their terminal values begin (the values with reasons and those without).

Instrumental values can be modified and updated according to evidence. For example, it seems banning guns is an instrumental value related to decreasing crime, so it is easy to change one's position if one is shown evidence that banning guns does or does not decrease crime. The imperviousness of the pro-life stance to rational argument indicates to me that the value to protect unborn babies is much closer to a terminal value.

I suspect pro-life advocates aren't giving their real reasons for being pro-life because the real reason doesn't sound like a reason that could hold up as well in argument. It might be something along the lines of, 'Babies are special. I want them to be given special status in society so that taking care of them is each individual's and the community's top priority.' I think one way to test this is to ask someone that is pro-life if such a situation would be utopian. (That is, if a described situation would be perfect despite other negatives. For example, if the special status in society is what they're seeking so they don't mind as much if babies die due to unpreventable non-human causes.)

Note: I just gave the first example of a possible underlying moral principle that I could think of and I wouldn't guess it's exactly that. You would have to navigate towards the answer as people thought about what exactly makes them feel squicky. There could also be population differences. Some people may want protected status for babies, some people may want infant mortality to be minimized, etc.

Second note: Giving this putative terminal value for being pro-life has just moved me to be more pro-life. I now hypothesize that people with pro-choice positions may be more skeptical about the ability and appropriateness of using rules to enforce a social value. I find that the value I listed above gives me room to still be pro-life even though I observed upon inspection that I personally feel indifferent to the possibility of a miscarriage as long as I eventually conceive a healthy child.

I naturally take a stance against abortion. It's easy to see why: a woman's freedom is much more important than another human's right to live.

Wait... that sounds off.

It does sound off for the reason you wanted to imply, but it also confused me for another reason. I don't think you meant to write "against", I think you probably meant "for" or "in favor of".

Also, I'm not entirely sure that Less Wrong wants to be used as a forum for politics. From the Less Wrong Wiki:

For all of these reasons, Less Wrong tries to avoid particular political disputes. Of course, discussing conflict reduction skills in the abstract is appropriate and encouraged! In fact, it is the best way of preserving our deliberative, rationalist focus in the face of small-scale disputes and conflicts.

I don't know what the Less Wrong community's general response to political discussion is (I'm fairly new here). I do know that I don't mind discussing it, as long as people are going to try to stay calm about it. I am pro-choice, in general. Fetuses do not seem to have much intelligence, or an awareness of life. I don't think it's a stretch to say that they aren't sentient. If that's true, they certainly still are valuable; as a general rule I would try to avoid personally killing a dolphin or a chimpanzee, and I consider fetuses to be more valuable than that. However, I don't think that they fully qualify as human, so it's not necessarily murder. It's still bad, but it's a small enough bad that abortion may be justified if carrying a pregnancy to term will be problematic.

I don't think you meant to write "against", I think you probably meant "for" or "in favor of".

Typo, thanks for spotting it.

Also, I'm not entirely sure that Less Wrong wants to be used as a forum for politics.

I posted this on LessWrong instead of anywhere else because you can be trusted to remain unbiased to the best of your ability. I had completely forgotten that part of the wiki though; it's been a while since I actively posted on LW. Thanks for the reminder.

Part of the reason we manage to remain unbiased is because we avoid talking about things that make us stupid.

Part of the reason we manage to remain unbiased is because we avoid talking about things that make us stupid.

We're not doing a very good job at being rationalists if we can't overcome that. The slogan "Less Wrong: Refining the Art of Human Rationality Except Where it Gets Really Emotional" doesn't sound very impressive, does it?

The pithy response would be that if you think you can handle it, then go ahead and good luck with that. The real response is that you have to know your own limits if you want to do more than make a show of effort. Just because it's my goal to eventually be able to bench-press 300 pounds doesn't mean a good way to get there would be to put 300 pounds on the bar and get going.

Abortion doesn't weigh 300 pounds for everyone. That other people find abortion difficult doesn't mean it subjectively weights more than the bar plus 40 pounds. Witnessing someone bench abortion with relative ease can also be expected to be beneficial to onlookers. Especially when replies that get too blue/greeny are ignored and treated like spam.

Better to say that 300 pounds isn't heavy for everyone, but yes.

I really do mean abortion doesn't weight 300 pounds for everyone. I, for example, don't care much at all about abortion - it is almost entirely divorced from my identity - so I do not have to use much in the way of 'rationalist muscle' to avoid the gravity of emotional bias. On the other hand there are some topics about which I am passionate. Those subjects may weigh more for me than they would for some of the people for whom abortion represents a huge burden of temptation towards bias.

This was just a tangential thought that your analogy prompted. What constitutes 'politics' is itself subjective and can be fit into a bench press metaphor where the weight is intended to represents fighting bias.

I support this particular post, believing it to improve rather than hinder unbiased thinking. To use your bench press analogy this is like benching a suitably challenging weight in order to confirm that you can maintain safe form under strain. It also includes active correction of previous flaw in form, which is exactly what 'lesswrong' is (analogously) about.

You're a high-karma regular, so (1) I can believe that you would benefit from engaging in a political discussion with other rationalists, and (2) I suspect that you may underestimate the difficulty of the task.

It is highly probable that there exist both several LWers who would benefit from participating in this thread, and several who would be better off without it. The question is whether it is better on net for the thread to exist or not.

After reflection, I think I agree with Snowyowl: it's all right in the discussion area, but not in main.

After reflection, I think I agree with Snowyowl: it's all right in the discussion area, but not in main.

What? This is in main? What on earth is it doing here? Totally agree. :)

I've noticed that a lot of people (outside of LW) seem to claim that the bodily autonomy of women is some kind of hyper-value, and often seem to brag about how important they consider it by using counterfactuals, while also claiming that Counterfactuals Are Evil. That's a bit odd because these types of liberals tend not to fall into such seemingly un-utilitarian traps that easily.