Evidence, Abortion, Infanticide, and Other Matters

Charles Murray wrote the following in The State of White America:


Data can bear on policy issues, but many of our opinions about policy are grounded on premises about the nature of human life and human society that are beyond the reach of data. Try to think of any new data that would change your position on abortion, the death penalty, legalization of marijuana, same-sex marriage or the inheritance tax. If you cannot, you are not necessarily being unreasonable.”

Liberal-tarian Will Wilkinson* finds this “exceedingly odd,” and can “easily imagine what evidence would cause me to change my position on any of these issues.”  If that is the case, though, I think he is the one who is exceedingly unusual.  He runs through the list and comes up with data that would convince him to change his mind on each of the issues.

On abortion, for instance, he is pro-choice:

I don’t think embryos or fetuses are persons, and I don’t think it’s wrong to kill them.  I also don’t think infants are persons, but I do think laws that prohibit infanticide are wise.  Birth is a metaphysically arbitrary line, but it’s a supremely salient socio-psychological one. A general abhorrence of the taking of human life is something any healthy culture will inculcate in its members. It’s easier to cultivate the appropriate moral sentiments within a society that has adopted the convention of conferring robust moral rights on infants upon birth than it would be in a society that had adopted the convention of conferring the same rights on children only after they’ve reached some significant developmental milestone, such as the onset of intelligible speech. The latter society, I suspect, would tend to be more generally cruel and less humane. This is just an empirical hunch, though I feel fairly confident about it. But I could be wrong. And I could be wrong in the other direction as well. If it were shown that societies which ban abortion, or which ban abortion beyond a certain point, exceed societies which don’t ban abortion in cultivating a “culture of life”, which pays off in terms of greater general humanity and diminished cruelty, I would seriously weigh this moral benefit against the moral cost of reducing women’s control over their bodies.

Perhaps the sophisticated case for abortion recognizes that birth is an arbitrary line (metaphysically or not), but the popular case relies on the idea that birth is a morally significant line, while pro-lifers regard it as utterly arbitrary.  In other words, for the great majority of people, the debate is about whether or not embryos or fetuses are persons, and it is not obvious how this view is subject to evidence.  Very few pro-choicers are willing to say “yes, abortion implies infanticide.  So what?  Infanticide is good, too.”

As for Wilkinson himself, his starting point is a metaphysical claim not subject to evidence- any possible evidence must be evaluated in light of his metaphysics.  It is easy to see how someone could hold a view impervious to evidence.  For example, Wilkinson himself might decide that a woman’s control of her body is more important than inculcating moral sentiments.  Or, on the other hand, a pro-lifer could argue that people have metaphysical significance from conception, or don’t require metaphysical significance to justify their existence.

Wilkinson’s evidence-based approach to abortion and infanticide also relies on the fact that other people non-evidence based “moral sentiments.”  Obviously, for example, most people’s views on infanticide aren’t subject to the test of evidence; the question for Wilkinson is how best to inculcate such unreasoning prejudices in a population otherwise too stupid to deduce that killing Will Wilkinson is wrong.

If everyone were as rational as him, we could all commit all the infanticide we wanted.  Presumably only on our own kids- although killing someone else’s baby that can’t talk yet doesn’t seem like a case of violating a woman’s control of her own body, so who knows.  (Would the father have to consent to the infanticide- is his fatherhood metaphysically significant?  Surely it wouldn’t matter whether they were married or not?  So much has still to be revealed by the sweet light of Wilkinson’s reason.)


Before continuing with Wilkinson’s discussion of evidence that change his mind, let me digress on his broader position on abortion: a fetus is not a person, birth has no metaphysical significance, therefore a baby is not a person.  There is a physical human body, which undergoes physical, not metaphysical, changes.  But at some point, perhaps at the time it can talk, a baby grows into a person, who should not be killed by anyone, not even its parents.  Instead of making physical grunts, it makes intelligible speech!

Some babies never talk, of course.  They can go.  Some might be killed just as they were about to say something…too late.  As for other infants, talking, thinking, observing, all the rest, are physical processes that were already there- where’s the metaphysics?  The baby has merely refined his ability to use them- the physical brain has continued the process of refining itself, as it will for many years to come. 


To return to the subject of evidence, the rest of Wilk’s list is open to similar objections.  Wilk opposes the death penalty but would reconsider if it were proven to be a deterrent.  There are probably some death penalty opponents that disagree, but many think taking of life outside of self-defense is wrong, while many supporters see it as a necessary expression of revulsion against certain crimes, which takes precedence over utilitarian considerations.  It is possible for a person’s thinking, on this and the other issues, to be such that evidence can change his mind, but there’s nothing inherently unreasonable about the opposite approach.

Similarly, Wilk favors legalizing marijuana, but would oppose it if it were shown that, among other things, “its users predictably harm others and/or egregiously harm themselves,” but at least some libertarians would object to the latter reason on moral grounds.  (I suppose an opponent of legalization would be unreasonable to maintain his stance in light of evidence proving pot harmless, but much of the moral debate is over whether you can rightly coerce people to do something for their own good.)  On same-sex marriage, Wilk would oppose it if presented with evidence that it “would precipitate the unraveling of the traditional family and subsequently the stability of society and the ruin of us all,” but it is unclear from this that there is any practical way to prove this to his satisfaction.  Many conservatives do today resort to an empirical, sociological case against gay marriage, with conservative moral views about sex and marriage no longer holding sway, but it is unlikely even strong evidence would prove as powerful as the perceived moral significance of love and equality.

* Liberaltarian is Wilkinson’s self-description.  To him it means basically a liberal who gets economics.  To me it is a libertarian who harbors cultural resentments against conservatives.


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