Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Searching For Humor

This is way up on the tasteless scale, so feel free not to follow this link. (But you did, didn't you...)
Greg Gutfeld, the satirical Molotov Cocktail of the Huffington Post, decided that people needed to lighten up about the abortion issue and posted a couple pages worth of abortion jokes. However, the mostly pro-choice readership found them deeply offensive. Why? Well, because most of the jokes involved what abortion is -- and the pro-choice camp really doesn't tend to like to talk about that.

So for those of you who did decide to skip reading it (I told you it was tasteless, didn't I?) here's one of the more on target ones that stuck in my head:

A woman and a fetus walk into a clinic together. The fetus says, "I'm scared." The woman says, "You think you're scared? I'm the one who's going to have to walk out of here alone."

Now, why is this funny? It's based on the humor inherent in a character who doesn't realize how out of proportion her problems are to the other character's problems. When the woman complains that she'll have to walk out alone, it reminds the reader that the fetus has a much bigger problem, she's about to be killed. However, despite the fact that the woman is about to participate in killing the fetus, she wants the fetus to feel sorry for her because soon she'll be alone.

It's said that explaining a joke is a sure way of making it not funny, but the reason I went through the exercise is that in a way the joke gets to the core of the abortion issue. Pro-choice advocates often like to say that no one is in favor of abortion, it's a terrible decision that people only make when they have no other choice, it's private and painful and whatever other platitudes come to mind. Now, I don't question that it is a difficult decision for many women, and that they wish that didn't have to make it. However, one of the prime elements of the pro-life movement is to point out: Look, there's someone else here who has an even bigger problem. Having a baby will mess up your career and cost a lot of money and put a strain on your person relationships. But having an abortion kills the unborn baby. There's a sense in which all the fuss about how hard the decision is boils down to pretty much the same line of thinking that felt sorry for the Menendez brothers because they were orphans.

The other point behind the joke deals with the other half of the pro-life movement's message: that no matter what people may tell you, you will be alone after an abortion in a way that you weren't before. Despite the lack of proportionality between the woman's problem and the fetus', the pro-choice movement doesn't even want to deal with the fact that the woman has something to be scared about. She's going in with someone (in a very true and intimate sense) and coming out without. She's going in whole and coming out broken.

According to the narrative of the joke, both people are ending up for the worse in this situation. The baby is being killed, and the woman will be alone. That doesn't fit with the tidy narrative of "choice" and so the joke "isn't funny" over at the Huffington Post.

5 comments:

plunge said...

I dunno. The premise of the joke relies on the idea that the fetus really is a person in the same sense as any other person: even a thinking talking person (which not even the pro-life side agrees with).

I would think that Catholics would probably not find all that funny jokes whose core premise relied upon getting some basic element of the Catholic faith wrong.

plunge said...

arg, posted before I was done. The core of the abortion debate will always be about the moral status of the fetus. Some define it as morally equivalent to a baby from the moment of conception. Some disagree. But trying to argue about the issue while totally ignoring the implications of that lack of agreement ultimately get us nowhere but to straw men.

I personally find the extremes of both sides insurmountable. I don't think there's any sensible way to deny that a fetus develops all sorts of capacities and functions long prior to birth that give rise to important moral interests that easily trump mere inconvience, or even health risks. Abortion on demand till the moment of birth seems utterly unsustainable as a position. On the other hand, I don't find anything sensible in the idea that a zygote or even an early embryo is an individual with any functional capacities relevant to moral protections. DNA is a set of instructions for a construction team that an embryo is only the first stage of: none of the wiring has even been put in. There is nothing there that would make any more sense to claim the attachment of a soul too than an apple or a dead body.

But again, people (including myself) must realize my position is based on my conclusion that moral claims have to be based on some existing functional capacity or else they are essentially arbitrary and capricious. If you don't agree with me on that premise, then it's no doubt that you wouldn't agree with my conclusions. And thus the debate cannot sensibly proceed without acknowledging where everyone is coming from.

Darwin said...

I would probably go in the exact opposite direction and say that moral claims based upon function capacities are necessarily arbitrary, because any detectable funcation capacity admits degree, and the first emergence of a functional capacity is almost impossible to detect.

The other difficulty, in my mind, with functionality is that most of the types of functionality one can successfully assign to a human being (as in, an individual of sub-species homo sapiens sapiens) in either the very early stages or very late stages (say, a three week old baby or a extremely disabled or near death person) are functionalities one could also detect in individuals of other species.

Some of this is arguing backwards. It seems to me pretty clear that one could humanely put down a cat, dog or indeed higher primate for reasons of convenience. A dog can feel pain, respond to stimulus, express desires, retain memories, and appears to exhibit a certain degree of personality. Indeed, a dog can do some of these things rather better than a newborn baby or someone in the last stages of dying. It may be that a newborn or someone in the last stages of dying has more cognitive abilities and experiences a feeling of consciousness in a way that other species cannot, but even if this is true we have no way of verifying it from the outside.

So based on the idea the newborns, the severely disabled and dying people must be "fully human" it seems to me that we must take essence and identity to be the primary defining traits of humanity rather than functionality. And at that point, if it is the human organism itself that deserves respect and protection, then it makes sense that this protection should extend all the way back to conception.

Clearly, I'm starting from certain assumptions, primarily that post-partum humans who are alive yet cannot be verified to possess cognition or consciousness are still worthy of full protection as a human person. But it seems to me that if you accept that, then you pretty much have to accept a definition of humanity based on being and essence rather than functionality.

plunge said...

This of course gets us way off my point, which was just that we cannot speak about the debate as if everyone agreed on the basic premises and thus ridicule each others positions in ways that simply assume our own opinions to be true from the start. But continuing it is pretty instructive of how hard it is to resolve some of these disputes.

"I would probably go in the exact opposite direction and say that moral claims based upon function capacities are necessarily arbitrary, because any detectable funcation capacity admits degree, and the first emergence of a functional capacity is almost impossible to detect."

I think that's ultimately as irrelevant as saying that there sand dunes are arbitrary because at no distinct point does a dribble of sand become a dune. Furthermore, most of the functions relevant to moral capacity aren't really ones of blurred degree, and even when they are, we can still distinguish a total lack of function from some function, which is still helpful. Something that lacks a nervous system certainly can't experience anything, unless everything around us might potentially experience stuff too.

"The other difficulty, in my mind, with functionality is that most of the types of functionality one can successfully assign to a human being (as in, an individual of sub-species homo sapiens sapiens) in either the very early stages or very late stages (say, a three week old baby or a extremely disabled or near death person) are functionalities one could also detect in individuals of other species."

Oh noes! Then morality might not be convienient for us anymore! :) The reality that the mere _categorty_ of a species designation is irrelevant to moral capacity is something we are going to have to confront sooner or later. Classifications are simplifications for ease of use: they are rarely either consistent across all usages and examples or reflective of detailed reality.

If you aren't prepared to consider that the other modern apes, our closest living relatives, who are separated from us only by generations and the death of the intermediates, might deserve some moral consideration, where are we? What is morality even good for other than making humans feel important?

You love your mother. Your mother presumably loved your grandmother just as well. And so on. Are you suggesting that somewhere along that chain of familial love, there is a break where killing one of our ancestors for convienience was acceptable? Where does the chain break (it has to at some point, I don't deny that). Ultimately, the only way one can rationalize the sort of break that must come is by discussing functional capacity. At which point we're forced to admit that a brine shrimp has more concern for its own existence than a blastocyst.

"So based on the idea the newborns, the severely disabled and dying people must be "fully human" it seems to me that we must take essence and identity to be the primary defining traits of humanity rather than functionality."

I don't see why. All of these individuals have plenty of relevant functional moral capacities: even a fairly early fetus does. A mass of reproducing cells that could just as easily become 20 people as none does not. Seems quite simple, even if no one can quite pinpoint the change in between.

"It seems to me pretty clear that one could humanely put down a cat, dog or indeed higher primate for reasons of convenience. A dog can feel pain, respond to stimulus, express desires, retain memories, and appears to exhibit a certain degree of personality. Indeed, a dog can do some of these things rather better than a newborn baby or someone in the last stages of dying."

The fact that this realization gives you no pause against your previous "it seems clear" seems chilling. You've just listed a whole bunch of things that seem to be the key to all sorts of moral feelings. What is the point of morality if it ends up ditching empathy for emotionless categoricals? And yet, convienience, the very thing decried about abortion, is good enough to destroy something that has felt more and fears more than an early stage embryo ever has or does. While it's true that the embryo can develop into something that has much MORE capacity than a dog, the fact is that it neither has done so yet nor is that way now. How can its treatment be based on a merely potential future state? Anything could realize SOME potential, no matter how unlikely, if given the right inducements. Dogs could one day become smarter and more evocative than humans if we did the right chemical things to their brains or spliced in the genes necessary to get their frontal lobes to develop. Or, given that the common ancestors of all mammals eventually had offspring (us), doesn't all cell lines of biological life have such "potential" of its own?

Now I'm no animals rightsy. As I said, I think there are clear moral reasons to oppose the abortion of fetuses long before most pro-choicers are willing to admit. I eat meat too. But I don't think we can easily avoid the sticky contradictions in this realm.

"And at that point, if it is the human organism itself that deserves respect and protection, then it makes sense that this protection should extend all the way back to conception."

You're assuming that whatever you happen to define as something's "essence" is a reasonable concept that I should accept. But to be blunt, I don't think it's anything here than a hocus pocus ones way into anthropomorphizing something without otherwise having a real reason. We spent millenia developing moral sentiments based on our interactions with a very particular sort of beings: beings who feel and care about their treatment, their rights, their place in reality, and so forth.

Just confusing the definitions we use to describe these sorts of being with other aspects of that definition (human beings/persons with anything that carries human DNA) is, in my opinion equivocating (which litterally means switching definitions mid-argument without justification), and doesn't demonstrate anything other than sloppy classification. If you can't make an argument without special "catch-all" terms (like "human"), using only the capacities and arguments that convinced you in the first place, then I submit that something is wrong with the argument. What is it ABOUT humans that convinces us that their lives and experiences are important? And does that rationale apply to early stage embryos?

Well, a recently concieved embryo contains a sort of recipe for how to go about constructing a human being, almost none of the necessary raw material, and some of the framework. None of the most basic of framework for it to experience anything at all is yet in place. Destroying it is not destroying anything even remotely like the sort of "human organism" for which we spent millenia developing moral concepts for. Destroying it is no better or worse than not concieving it in the first place, because in either case the construction process to create that sort of being will not be completed or even much begun. At the very least, assigning moral rights to something that doesn't even have a nervous system seems so bizarrely wrong that I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it, especially when no one is prepared to assign rights to dolphins or camels or what have you.

I put it to you that if someone opposes stem cell research but eats veal, something has gone deeply astray in their concept of what a morality is and what it is supposed to do.

Sailorette said...

*cough*
Ya know, there's the problem with morality that trys to build itself... you end up arguing that some animals are more worthy of protection than some humans.

The cough is because I know no other way to phrase that to cause less anger.