Laurie Toby Edison

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Absolutist vs. Consequentialist Bullshit

Laurie and Debbie say:

Melissa McEwen at Shakesville recently delivered a very satisfactory smackdown to Richard Dawkins when he decided to discuss his opinions of abortion on Twitter. In this series of tweets, Dawkins said, “My criterion for “relevant to morality of abortion” is standard consequentialist morality. Opponents follow absolutist morality. Simple.”

First, to quote McEwen: “Not only women have uteri, get pregnant, and/or have need of access to abortion.”

McEwen makes (for the hundred thousandth time, because she’s such a wonderful warrior in battlefield of women’s bodily autonomy) numerous important points about why no useful abortion discussion can even take place if the experience of the women carrying the babies is not included. But she goes on to challenge the “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language.

First of all, I want to get these terms out of the way, because I don’t want any bullshit rules-lawyering clouding up this post. Dawkins is claiming to parse a difference between Absolutism (which believes that certain actions are right or wrong, regardless of consequence or intent) and Consequentialism (which holds that it is the consequence of an action that makes it ultimately right or wrong). So the built-in troll defense for all of the above is that Dawkins didn’t call pro-choice activists like myself “absolutists” as in extreme left-wingers but rather “absolutists” in the sense that we think women have a right to bodily autonomy because it is a basic human right instead of a contributing factor to the greater good. And that Dawkins’ point of view is the consequentialist view of morality and therefore naturally disposed to come up with a different answer than the absolutists.

She’s not wrong at all, but she missed an important point. Simply by bringing up this “absolutist vs. consequentialist” language, Dawkins is engaging in more than one shoddy arguing technique, and responding to him on his own terms only gives this crap some standing. This particular Twitter argument has already scrolled off the bottom of everyone’s screen, but the underlying style of argument deserves a lot more attention than the people who use it. What he’s doing is called “intellectual fingerfucking” and the only good thing about intellectual fingerfucking is that no one actually gets pregnant; otherwise, the practice varies from wasteful to destructive and this is a destructive version.

First of all, if a woman decides to (or decides not to) have an abortion, she is not sitting down and thinking “Am I being an absolutist or a consequentialist?” She’s thinking (and feeling) some version of “I have this very complicated thing going on in my body, my head, and my heart, and I need to do something about it, because it’s going to affect my whole life.” In other words, she’s having a major life experience (which, by the way, is both absolutely happening to her and fraught with consequences, and she knows both those things, though usually not in that language).

Using technical derailing ethical jargon builds a false context for real issues. By setting things up in this on-the-one-hand/on-the-other-hand framework and labeling that framework with big intellectual-sounding words, a “pundit” can redefine a very human problem as if it was taking place in some sterile academic atmosphere, rather than being a problem of blood, bone and tissue, heart and mind, real human life and real human risk.

At the same time as this kind of argument falsifies and dehumanizes, it also bullies all kinds of people out of the conversation.

In a recent post on the concept of “stance,” as commonly used in the litmus tests of many evangelical Christian positions, Fred Clark at Slactivist approaches this problem from another perspective:

Doing the right thing — i.e., doing good, loving — is almost always a matter of where we’re choosing to stand and of who we choose to stand beside much more than it is an abstract matter of the rectitude of our stance. This is why the Bible is so belabored and repetitive in its discussion of the weakest, the oppressed, the downtrodden, the least of these — those Nicholas Wolterstorff calls “the quartet of the vulnerable,” meaning “the widows, the orphans, the resident aliens, and the impoverished.”

Who does have time for this garbage? Well, let’s start with people (men) who run their own foundations. People (men) in “think tanks.” (Doesn’t that phrase always make you want to drop them into “feeling tanks” and see if they can swim?) Professors. And (here’s the big one), people who advise the lawmakers all over this country (and all over the world) on how they can continue to remove women’s rights, how they can justify their own “convictions” (which were created within the last hundred years and flourish in an ongoing context of absolutism, consequentialism, and stance) and create the kinds of increasingly horrifying anti-abortion laws which are popping up all over–and ruining lives.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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