On Morals, Ethics and Abortion.

Abortion is an intractable human moral dilemma, one which needs ethical not ideological solutions. Legalising infanticide is not one of them.

 

The distinguished evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, recognised as one of the most important women in science, notes in her book Mothers and Others that amongst primates, infanticide by unrelated males and females is a major contributor to infant mortality. Three species stand apart however, marmosets, tamarins and humans, as virtually the only primate where mothers have been observed to deliberately harm their own babies. Elsewhere in her seminal book Mothernature she states, “Anthropologically speaking, late term abortion and infanticide are identical.”  

Many tend to dismiss evolutionary explanations of unpleasant human behavior – things like violence, war and rape – as they often confuse a description of immoral behavior as an excuse for and promotion of immorality itself, something referred to in the philosophy of science as the naturalistic fallacy. Would they now also dismiss the work of Hrdy whose research most will not know but which has been present in our culture, seemingly in quiet ambush, for exactly 20 years: Prescient research which today allows us to draw stark parallels between our most primitive animal natures and contemporary, so-called ‘progressive’ policy. The policy I am referencing is of course  Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran’s bill on late term abortion, which effectively legalises infanticide and which has the dubious honour of placing Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal on shaky ground as satire.

Perhaps progressives thought they needed a suitably radical retort to the fetal heartbeat bill which sought to stop early medical abortion as soon as a fetal heartbeat was detected, which can be as early as six weeks. The bill has been repeatedly struck down in many states as unconstitutional. Let’s hope the same fate awaits Tran’s bill.

The pro-life/pro-choice debate is a highly polarised one. Or it was. You do not need to be pro-life to find Tran’s bill repugnant. Rather than a progressive triumph for women, this bill is more a battle cry of feminist hegemony – one that actually endangers women’s hard won reproductive rights. Too often the terms “woman” and “feminist” are taken as synonyms. They are not. Feminists are defined by their politics, not their sex or gender and as poll after poll shows, most women (and men) identify as egalitarian but not as feminist. Feminists’ stock response to this is usually to insist that this is because women don’t actually know what feminism is. I beg to differ, as I have argued in popular media here and academia here.

This is a delicate issue. One which ideologues need to be banished from.

Ethical considerations ask us how we live and what we do in the face of intractable moral dilemmas. Abortion is one such dilemma. Before safe, medical abortion, the spectre of infanticide has haunted our species since its own conception. The custom of baptism and naming ceremonies, for instance, are shadows cast from a time when infants were not imbued with personhood until such rituals had taken place. Before such rites, infanticide was sanctioned by the tribe. Thankfully, we have progressed since then, or had. Progressives, ironically, are asking us to take a retrograde step.

If one is concerned with ethics and wishes to either increase happiness or lessen suffering then access to early, safe medical abortion is one of the ethical cornerstones of a compassionate civilisation. But is it moral? That is a different question. Often people use the terms ethics and morals interchangeably, which is something that has always puzzled me because they are not the same thing and this parsing could be useful when attempting to discuss such fraught issues. 

Moral considerations ask us to think of what we would, in the words of Kant, hope for and aspire to. We cannot in good conscience hope for more suffering or be indifferent to it. We have tolerated abortion, especially early abortion, because it lessens infanticide. We cannot invert this ethical logic and tolerate infanticide to legitimise abortion. We cannot violate moral law to prop up utilitarian ethics. Cultures the world over have tolerated abortion under strict conditions because the alternatives; infanticide, grotesque numbers of infant mortality in foundling homes, street children,  the horrors of abandonment witnessed in Romanian state orphanages, are a far deeper stain on the human soul. Early abortion is the least worst option. But it’s never good. Never moral. And we know it.

We can hope that one day contraception will be 100% effective. We can hope pregnancy proceeds without life threatening complications. That no children lose their mother in childbirth. That no woman is ever impregnated by a rapist. That no family has to weigh the health and wellbeing of their extant children with future, unplanned offspring. That all unwanted children will be adopted into a loving home, or cared for in well run and benevolent institutions. We can hope that all unwanted children will live to know love, but right now, these are futile hopes and we need ethical not ideological solutions. Yes, these solutions fall short of our moral aspirations, but they are better than the alternatives.  Early, medical abortion is not moral but is ethical. The Democrat bill violates both morals and ethics and because of that is unconscionable and must be challenged by both pro-life and pro-choice advocates alike.

Further reading:

The Quest for Meaning, Values Ethics and the Modern Experience. Robert H. Kane PhD. The Great Courses
Many thanks to Professor Kane’s correspondence whilst writing this

Who’s Afraid of the Naturalistic Fallacy. Dr. Oliver Curry

 

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Religion, Atheism and The Evolution of Symbolic Thought.

Stone tools provide the first evidence of the evolution of symbolic thought and began to emerge in our hominid ancestors around 2.5 million years ago  (our species, Homo Sapiens, emerged a mere 120,000 years ago). The cognitive architecture in the brain had to be in place before the first spark of creativity occurred, before the hominid looked at the crude lump of rock and saw the refined handaxe within it.

hand axe .jpgJust as millions of years later, Michelangelo  looked at a lump of marble and saw Pietà.

Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black.jpg

The evolution of symbolic thought very likely enabled the evolution of language and technology. The same mechanism also gave rise to art and spirituality, two elements which some together in pre-historic cave paintings and depictions of shamans.

Religion might be said to be  codified human spirituality just as science is codified human innovation and curiosity and ethics is codified morality. They come from the same wellspring  – symbolic thought – and are deeply embedded in evolved human nature.

To call for the end to religion, as many atheists who follow the lead of Dawkins and Harris, is to say you are going after human nature. You then, however, find yourself in bed with social constructionists and postmodernists who deny human nature. This isn’t a rational position. We cannot erase spirituality without also erasing everything else symbolic thought gives us.

I can’t be sure, but I don’t think that’s where Dawkins or Harris would want to be. Yet it’s where the argument takes them. (Edit: this is not a criticism of these individuals. I admire and respect both – and I know Harris doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater with respect to spirituality and symbolic thought. This is just a discussion of the premises of the atheist argument, which Dawkin’s and Harris’ have popularised.)

I agree with them that religion and science should be kept separate. Religion is not science. That is true. Many people also assert that it’s not rational. I don’t agree.

Many of our instinctive biases help us stay alive on a daily basis. To use Jonathan Haidt’s elephant/rider metaphor, the elephant will instinctively take fright at the small thing rustling in the long grass, which could be a mouse, a snake or a tiger. The point is, the elephant doesn’t know until the mouse or tiger reveals itself. This is what we call common sense. Our instinctive biases have functions in terms of fitness. How ever much we scorn them now as intellectuals and rationalists, they helped our ancestors succeed – which is why we are now here, looking at this magic screen, reading words and thinking about abstract things such as symbolic thought. Meta!

But great as it is for helping us not get run over by a bus or eaten by lions, common sense isn’t great for science. Which is why we created the scientific method in the first place. We don’t need a subjective method. That’s already our state in nature. Science is not common sense, it is uncommon sense.

The very natural fear we have of jumping out of our comfort zones, also hampers us taking that further risky step, which might end up in total humiliation and social ostracism; there is no greater fear for a social animal, as humans are.

But getting back to religion; has it actually hampered the progress of science? I can’t see that it has.  The Enlightenment still occurred after the dark ages and in the midst of murder, mayhem and religious zealotry. We still have that of course but, since the beginning of recorded history, when have we ever not?

Would it be possible to erase spirituality and religion from human nature and also not take symbolic thought with it? I can only see that, if it were ever possible to trace that thread along the tangled bank of evolution to cut it off at the source, it would only render us less complex and less human.

I agree, science and religion are two discrete areas, but who am I to deprive a person who has lost loved ones of the hope they will meet them again in another life? It’s none of my bloody business. And it isn’t illogical of them to believe in an afterlife, if it helps get them through the night and look after their surviving loved ones.

I understand that, because atheists do not approve of an unreformed radical Islam and see it as a threat to hard won Western freedoms, they feel the need to go after all religion so as to be logically consistent and not seem bigoted. But the premises of this are flawed. The atheist argument, which denies religion is a part of human nature appears to me to be just as woolly as their opponents, who think God made man in his image. I think we can do better.

If atheists want to go after religion as a political force, then just be honest about it. Argue for a separation of church and state – argue for the continuation of that separation in the West and against religious mission creep into scientific realms. I would agree with them on that.

Science and religion are two separate areas, and both vie for expression; of curiosity on one part, and comfort in the face of certain death on the other. I don’t think that’s a glitch, I think it’s a feature.

In the same way that I think religion should stay out of science, I think science should stay out of religion. Fight to keep that separation distinct yes, but not to erase one or the other. That’s as illogical as postmodernists denying the biological basis of human nature.

Disclaimer: I’m agnostic.