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Abortion and Guns

Entry 1986, on 2019-06-27 at 12:10:47 (Rating 4, Politics)

Imagine a woman has slipped and is about to fall over a high cliff, but at the last minute a man has grabbed her hand is is holding her suspended over the abyss where she would certainly fall to her death. He has called for help and it will arrive in about 10 minutes. But after 5 minutes his arm gets quite painful and he is late for work, so he decides that it is OK to let go and let the woman die. He then stands up, rubs his arm a bit to restore circulation and goes to work as if nothing had happened. He feels a bit guilty about not saving the woman, but his friends assure him that it was his body and his decision, so he moves on and labels those who criticise him as bigots who weren't in the situation themselves so have no right to judge.

Imagine a man has noticed that his neighbours, who he doesn't entirely trust, have acquired vicious dogs to defend themselves from threats such as him. He feels that this is menacing to his safety so he gets an even bigger and more vicious dog to defend him against his neighbours. Unfortunately his dog got loose and killed an innocent person walking past his house. But his friends assure him that is not his fault, and he shouldn't feel guilty because he was just taking fair precautions to protect himself and his family, and accidents like that just sometimes happen, and people who don't live with the threat he does, have no right to judge.

Now imagine that the man who let the woman die by allowing her to fall is disgusted by the man who owned the dog which killed the innocent bystander. He doesn't see why anyone should own a viscous dog like that, because they so often cause accidents and rarely fulfill their true purpose of protection.

And imagine that the dog owner is equally disgusted by the other person. Why could he not have stopped the woman from falling just a little bit longer? And why did the control over his own future take precedence over the future of the person he had the moral responsibility to protect?

I'm sure you can see that these stories are allegories for the abortion and gun ownership debates which are prominent around the world at the moment. Hopefully by removing the deeply emotional connotations of the real debates, and by neutralising the deep political divides inherent in them, it might make the essence of these issues more clear. And I hope that it is apparent that both arguments are about freedom and autonomy on one side, versus harm to others on the other.

And further, I hope that it is obvious that someone shouldn't strongly support one story and reject the other, because the two actually aren't that different. Yet, today I could almost guarantee that a person form the political left would support the first person but condemn the second, yet a person from the right would do the opposite. To be clear, I am really talking about the real issues my stories allude to: abortion in the first case, and gun ownership in the second.

Now, I'm sure that supporters of abortion and gun ownership can both point out ways that my stories are different form the real issues they portray, but are they?

For example, a pro-abortion advocate might say that the woman suspended over the cliff is a fully functional, conscious adult, and the unborn child is a dependent, non-conscious entity. But then just change the story slightly and imagine the woman is in a vegetative state which she will recover from in a few months, and that she depends on life support provided by the man to live. Is there really a lot of difference in that case, and would it be any more justifiable to let her fall to her death then?

Or a gun ownership proponent might say that proper dog owners would always keep their dogs safely secured so that no accident could happen, but change the story slightly so that the locked up dog didn't protect the owner from an attack by his neighbour, so he is forced to give the dog more freedom leading to a greater chance of an accidental attack. Is the attack any more justified then?

Note that I am not saying I agree or disagree with abortion or gun ownership, because I have a nuanced view on both. In general I don't like either, but I do understand that good cases can be made supporting both, too. What I do want to say is that the way each side of the political divide tends to support one but utterly reject the other doesn't reveal the existence of much careful, objective thought on these topics.

Because attitudes on these subjects are so closely linked to political affinity I would hypothesise that people pick their viewpoint based on what their "tribe" believe rather than an conclusions they might have reached themselves after careful consideration. When I debate both sides on these two subjects I rarely get any thoughtful feedback, and instead tend to get a lot of meaningless catch-phrases and outright aggression.

In fact, despite what I initially would think, I have got the most hateful and viscous invective from the supporters of abortion, and the gun ownership people are strangely less aggressive, at least in their debating style!

If people could disconnect from the widely accepted political narrative on these subjects and look at them more objectively, maybe by using an allegory like mine which might shine more light on the underlying issues, then I think progress might be possible. Critically, people should see these as not simple, black and white issues, because there is significant subtlety which is generally ignored.

I can almost guarantee that I could create a story which is equivalent in every meaningful way to the real-world issue it represents. I could create a "cliff rescue" scenario basically identical to an abortion situation, or I could create a "dog attack" story with no significant deviation from gun ownership. And I could get a person to agree with the problems with the story, yet they couldn't extend that to the real-world situation it mirrors. Why? It can't be a matter of logic. It mist be a matter of ideology.

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Comment 1 (5043) by Derek Ramsey on 2019-06-28 at 12:35:19:

Your cliff-based abortion analogy fairly captures the essence of the issue nicely in a few ways. First, the choice is active. The man is actively choosing to harm another person. Second, he is doing so for wildly unbalanced reasons. A sore arm or being late to work is not worth more than a life. Third, the murderer feels that the outcome is both morally justified and the correct outcome. Fourth, the outcome was intended by choice: he was not required to let the woman die and had the full ability to not let the woman die.

The dog analogy, like gun ownership, is not directly comparable. First, the choice is not active, but passive. The person’s choices do not directly cause injury to others. It is indirect. Second, so there is a balance of the type of outcomes. The only question is whether the life taken was justified or unjustified. This leads to the third point: the owner of the dogs feels that while the dog ownership was justified, the outcome was incorrect (i.e. an accident). Fourth, the person did not choose the negative outcome.

In summary, these are some of the differences:

1) active vs passive actions
2) relative moral weights to compare the morality of actions
3) approval or disapproval of outcomes
4) choice vs accident in outcome

There is one more difference of note regarding #2. The question of whether the positive action (self-defense) outweighs the potential risk (accidental death) is merely a matter of weighing the probabilities. It is subject to cost/benefit analysis: how much is protecting your life compared to the risk of accidentally taking another life. This is very different from abortion, where you are not weighing one life against another.

Another critical difference is that in the cliff scenario, the man has already chosen to get involved. He has a moral obligation to see it through. The analogy to having voluntary sex and becoming pregnant is obvious. No such analogy can be made to the other scenario (dog/gun).

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Comment 2 (5044) by Derek Ramsey on 2019-06-28 at 12:35:55:

“No such analogy can be made to the other scenario (dog/gun).”

This is not precisely 100% true. A gun/dog owner has a moral responsibility towards avoiding undesirable negative scenarios. That they might happen is unavoidable, but finding ways to reduce their incidence is quite feasible and necessary. As such, it might be justified to punish someone who fails to lock up their dogs/gun.

Banning dogs/guns would be a disproportionate solution to the problem. The owner does have a moral obligation to “see it through”, but it’s a lesser obligation. By contrast, banning death is not disproportionate to the problem, because death is the problem. If you ban abortion, you’ll immediately save lives. If you ban accidental gun deaths, you’ll accomplish nothing.

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Comment 3 (5045) by OJB on 2019-06-28 at 12:36:15:

Thanks for the comments. I will respond to them when I have a chance, but I think I basically agree.

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Comment 4 (5046) by OJB on 2019-06-28 at 12:50:06:

I think you have summarised my own thoughts quite well. Many people tend to see the abortion issue as a clear choice the woman is entitled to make, yet condemn gun owners even when the vast majority are not responsible for any harm.

But there is the issue of, at what time in the fetus' development does it become an entity worthy of the full protection an independent adult human should have. Any answer to that is essentially arbitrary, because if you said "3 months" I would ask "what about 3 months plus or minus 1 second".

There is also the issue that, even if the fetus isn't conscious and has no recognizable cognitive function, what about its potential? That's what I added the vegetative state scenario. A person in that state has no cognitive ability, and cannot function independently, just like a fetus, but if we knew she would recover in 9 months we would not cause her death.

There is also the scenario when the rescuer is supporting the woman involuntarily (equivalent to rape in the case of the abortion debate). I could change the story so that someone forced him to support the woman even though he didn't want to. Would be be obliged to not release her then? I would say yes.

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