Abortion Discussion at Briggs’ Place

This post (from a source I find sometimes interesting but often wrong) appears to take the simplistic (but common) position that the state of personhood which defines murder is discrete

In addition to agreeing with commenter Alex Heyworth that “logical consistency is not a necessary condition for moral codes, nor even a common one”, I would also claim that logic, even when it does apply, does not require that the marker used to separate what is legal from what is illegal should correspond to anything other than agreement by the majority (or by whoever has the deciding power in a given culture).

With regard to the legal question, there may well be agreement on many cases. But in the continuum between what certainly should always be allowed and what certainly should always be forbidden there is a range of cases on which people may disagree. In the absence of any universal agreement on the moral issue, what the law does is attempt to strike a balance between competing moral positions. Often this means that it just draws one or more lines of convenience without actually claiming that they separate the moral from the immoral. So a legal distinction at twelve weeks of gestation, or twenty, or whenever, does not need to imply that any particular state of the fetus changes at any of those times.

Even for the purpose of an individual moral decision, there may well be competing values at stake and I have never seen a good argument for the existence of a common scale on which such competing values can be compared. We each decide on what seems right at the time. In many cases we have no qualms about the choice, and the vast majority agree. But there is no guarantee that all cases will be this simple, and we are often faced with situations where a choice we have made in good conscience may later be felt to be wrong (and maybe later right again). Sometimes we do fall into indecisive mental “churning”. But even if we do make a choice, that does not imply the existence of a truly “best” moral decision. What tips the balance towards our actual judgement at any given time may depend on past experience and current neuro-chemistry rather than any absolute prioritization of competing values. However, despite the fears and fear-mongering of some, this does not deny the possibility of *any* absolute moral principles. There are lots of cases where we do have essentially universal agreement on what is right, and even more where careful consideration leads always to the same answer even among those who might initially disagree with it. But I suspect that any project to find a *complete* set of absolute moral principles will fail.

With regard to the personhood of a fetus I doubt that anyone believes in a magical discrete change of status at any particular time. But many people see the progression from fertilized ovum to conscious infant as a gradual process where the attitude towards killing should range from negligible concern at the start to absolutely abhorrence at the end. And although I don’t *require* logic in morality, I see no lack of it in such a position.

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4 Responses to Abortion Discussion at Briggs’ Place

  1. SteveBrooklineMA says:

    Nicely written, and I agree. It’s going to be around 100 degrees Fahrenheit tomorrow here in Madison WI. That’s a hot day. To say that, do I need to specify exactly at what temperature a day becomes a hot day? I don’t think so.

    I followed you here from WM Briggs site. I have been reading his blog for several years now. It is often interesting, but I have come to regard him as a bit of a crank.

  2. alan says:

    Yes, he’s a bit of an odd duck but interesting nonetheless. I find many of his criticisms of the use of statistics quite apt, but then he mixes things up by both mocking the unwillingness of conventional statistics to answer the question that “the customer is interested in” (because they can’t) and then accusing them of giving unjustified precision while, in my opinion he does just the same kind of thing himself by making heavy use of “priors” to give precise answers to just those questions that the traditionalists would say we can’t really answer.

    I first came to him as a result of his dispute with Phil Plait (“Bad Astronomer does Bad Statistics”) where he criticizes the time selection displayed to show global warming (even though it does not actually maximize the apparent effect) but then concentrates on an even smaller window to argue for a recent reversal (even though it is clearly of smaller magnitude than the year-to-year fluctuations).

  3. SteveBrooklineMA says:

    It looks like we are on the same page with regard to Mr Briggs. I would like your opinion on these latest two posts of his though…



    I think these may beyond what I can swallow. His position seems to be so absurd, I might find it hard to take him seriously in the future. I am torn between posting another reply (I did post one snarky one) or just throwing up my hands and walking away.

  4. alan says:

    Hi Steve, Thanks for the pointers to those two posts.
    I have thrown in my 2bits on Briggs’ site and also in a new post here.
    (In one sense he’s right about the 1 in 1.6 million being bogus; if the 13 months were only considered after noting that they were high then the probability of their being high is no longer 1/3 each. But to have such a string occur at all by chance in just a century of data is still pretty damned unlikely.)

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