Friday, April 5, 2013

The "You aborted Beethoven" argument, and other discussions

   I got into a bit of a conversation with a Catholic on abortion and she presented an argument about how Frederick Douglass could have been aborted and implied that it would have been horrible had that happened. I have heard a similar argument before back in 2006 when an abortion ban was on the ballot in South Dakota. Then, it was about Beethoven, and went similar to this:
Doctor 1: "I want your opinion about terminating a pregnancy. The father was syphilitic, the mother had tuberculosis. Of the four children born, the first was blind, the second died, the third was deaf and dumb, the fourth also had tuberculosis. What would you have done?"
Doctor 2: "I would have terminated the pregnancy."
Doctor 1: "Then you would have murdered Beethoven."
   This argument is deeply flawed, and I have four points to discuss on this argument. Before that, however, there is one minor flaw to address. The Beethoven story is untrue. As for Douglass, due to how slaves were often bred as though they were cattle, I find it hard to believe that there would have been much of a chance that he would have been aborted. What cattle farmer is going to help a cow abort a pregnancy? If the cow can't survive the pregnancy, sad day for the cow. Likewise, I suspect it would be a sad day for the female slave if she could not survive pregnancy. Now, I say this is a minor flaw because the truth of the set-up story does not take away from the argument. However, whenever someone lies* (or repeats a lie they heard from someone else) in order to make their point, I tend to find that to be a sign that their point is flawed and the lie is needed to help conceal the flaws.
  1. It's post hoc — While this is not to be confused with the logical fallacy with a similar name, it is using end results to either criticize or praise a decision where these end results cannot be known at the time the decision has to be made. In other words, the argument is using the advantage of hindsight. (This is also known as "Monday morning quarterbacking" and is the idea behind the idiom "Hindsight is (always) 20/20.") The argument need to be adjusted to remove this hindsight. It seems that the argument can be generically viewed like "Something very positive could come out of this, therefore this should be done." This adjustment will become important for the third point.
  2. It contains selection bias — Perhaps the most obvious flaw is that these arguments contain an extreme positive, using people who are famous as the examples. Sometimes ordinary people are used (when I have seen this, the example is the person presenting the argument hirself). But never are infamous people used, except as a counter argument. The first time I heard the counter, it may have even used the same set-up as the Beethoven claim, but instead of Beethoven, it ended up being Hitler. On this note, I tend to find it to be another sign that an argument is flawed when it invokes famous people for no apparent reason It's a good sign that the argument won't be nearly as convincing if you flip the script. A good argument really should be able to handle both extremes. (This is not to say that "pro-lifers" anti-choicers themselves won't stay consistent on the argument — I suspect many would and do — but rather that it won't be as persuasive to anyone who is undecided.)
  3. It is a quiverfull argument (inconsistent application) — If the goal is to produce people who could possibly make an important difference in the world, then why stop with existing pregnancies?** (I'd like to hear a really good explanation for why not.) It's general probability that the more often you play a game, the more likely it is that you will eventually win (unless the game is such that it is impossible to win, of course). My brother and I are both engineers as well as the only two offspring my parents produced. What if they would not have stopped at two? Maybe if they would have produced twenty children, perhaps they could have contributed a combination of engineers and scientists amounting to twenty. What if one of those twenty would have found a cure for cancer? Now that discovery has been delayed because they didn't have those twenty children! (To be somewhat fair, Catholics do tend to encourage people to have multiple children, but they do not encourage people to have as many children as possible.)
    Update: Since posting this, the woman with whom I had this discussion has talked how she doesn't want to get married yet and doesn't want to have kids yet, although she is nearing 30 years of age. That just shows me how much more she doesn't believe her own argument than previously expected. /Update.
    • Objection to #3: If a family has more children than they can afford, this will hurt the chances their children have at becoming successful — That general rule about probability is just that: general; it does not apply in all cases. Raising children is one of those cases as raising children costs money. Having lots of children, then, costs lots of money. Have too many children, and you won't be able to provide them with the resources they need to blossom. In regards to quiverfull families, I have heard that quite often the older children essentially raise the younger children themselves. If they're busy raising children, how are they going to have time to dedicate to their studies? Not to mention, it may very well be more difficult to afford college. But arguing that it is OK to not have children for financial reasons is a pro-choice argument!
    • Human Factories — I talked to my brother about this and he went so far as to suggest we need to harvest sperm and eggs from people and then mix and match them and (I guess) we'd grow them in a lab. (Not sure if we quite have the technology for this quite yet, but then we should get working on it!) One of the problems with the natural, quiverfull approach is that there isn't going to be a lot of genetic diversity between the children. This solves that problem.
         Of course this wouldn't be very practical — How are all these children going to be fed?! — but I doubt many "pro-life" people are going to be rejecting this idea due to practicality; more likely they'll object over scientists "playing God." (Also, this idea could always be implemented up to the point of where it is "practical;" and I'm putting that in quotes because what is practical is going to be somewhat subjective. The point, though, is that practicality can only be used as an argument for not implementing an idea but never as an argument against the idea as a whole.)
      • We can take this even further yet! Being that practicality is an issue with this, the population impacts can be reduced by only using select people as breeding stock. Or/and genetic modification could be used (but then you end up with the wrath of Khan)!
  4. It overlooks the impact of abortion on potential future offspring — I have heard, and this should come as little surprise to anyone, that people usually plan to have a certain number of children. My parents, for example, decided to only have two. So let's create a hypothetical. What if a woman who was planning to have two children would have had an abortion before having that second child? Would she have changed her mind on how many children she was going to have? Not likely. She would likely still go on to get pregnant again and have the second child. But notice what else could happen here. If she does not have the abortion, that pregnancy would result in the second child (and she won't have any more children!). What if it is this later child (the one conceived after the abortion) that ends up doing something great in the world? In this case, the abortion was necessary for this to happen! The bigger point, though, is that abortion has little impact on the number of children that are born. People aren't going to suddenly have more children if you outlaw abortion. (The main exception would be if they had as many children as they wanted, but then got pregnant again.) So this argument that something good could result by not aborting a pregnancy ends up being nearly cancelled out by essentially the same argument that something good could have resulted from the pregnancies that now won't happen because an abortion didn't.

* This should go without saying, but it's one thing to make up a hypothetical situation. It's another to make up a story and attempt to pass it off as though it really happened.

** It is known in psychology that humans form beliefs first and then find arguments to support these beliefs (Michael Shermer wrote about this in his book, The Believing Brain). This is backwards from how things should be — beliefs should be formed from supporting arguments. Based on the inconsistent application,*** it appears that this argument was formed incorrectly to support the belief. In other words, it's not an argument against abortion; it's an argument for maintaining the belief that abortion is wrong. I must point out that forming an argument to support an already held belief does not necessarily mean that the argument could not lead to the belief. But when an argument is inconsistently applied, this signals that the person presenting the argument is not convinced by hirs own argument. If ze is not convinced by hirs argument, why should ze think this should convince anyone else? This, more than any other reason, is why I do not buy into the argument.

*** See also: "The Only Moral Abortion is My Abortion" and, for a good political example, Rick Santorum.

   There are some other observations from that night's discussions that bothered me a bit, but I'll keep these shorter.
  • I think I had heard her suggest that getting an abortion damages the uterus. I was wondering if she was going to next suggest, being that this conversation was started by a conversation about rape, that rape victims have "ways to try to shut that whole thing down." Her remark, much like Todd Akin's is essentially false. Abortion is safer than pregnancy itself. And, as with Akin's remarks, I've heard this bullshit before. (UPDATE: Another, perhaps more common, bullshit health claim regarding abortion is that abortions dramatically increase the risk of breast cancer.)
  • There was also some implied Islamophobia. I caught part of a discussion about how Europeans are not having many children and how this has essentially lead to a void (my words, not hers) that is being filled by immigrants. The tone of voice suggested that this was not desirable. But why? Shouldn't she, being so-called "pro-life", be happy that there is at least some group of people out there that is willing to produce lots of offspring? The only way I see this making sense is if they are the Wrong Type of People. I see this as the most likely reason because I know many of those immigrants are followers of Islam and that Muslims are not very trusted. I grant that much of that mistrust is reasonable — a recent incident at University College London is evidence as to why — but I quite enjoy how "pro-life" people abandon their supposed principals when other conflicts of interest arise. (What also bothers me is how much alike Muslims are to Christians. Yet, Christians don't seem to like guess is simply because they are the Wrong Religion!)

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