Choice-talk, if taken literally, is invalid. [part 2]


This is an entry in the Pro-Abortion series.

One may reply that I am plunging any ethical position into impotency, because I am denying that anyone may choose to believe anything. Yet it is not clear why this is so. What makes the pro-choice position so vulnerable is precisely that it relies on choice as its justification. The anti-abortion and pro-abortion positions do no such thing, and need not use choice-talk in any sense but metaphorical. In practice, we really only need to use consent literally.

Consent is part of many different ethical areas, and even the most authoritarian fundamentalist believes that some things should be left up to the person’s consent. But I think we should be careful not to confuse consent with choice (even in the metaphorical sense). “Choice” is a positive term which denotes an act of thought. “Consent,” on the other hand, does not necessarily denote an act of thought. Consider:

“A baby cannot choose to have sex or choose not to have sex with a pedophile.”
“A baby cannot consent to have sex with a pedophile.”

While both propositions are obviously true, only the second proposition really informs our beliefs about sex with babies. Whether a baby can actively reflect on having sex or not is not relevant; the fact that a baby cannot consent to having sex is all that matters to call the action unjustified. Consent is not a sufficient justification for any action, but it is an absolutely necessary one. The issue of choice has no ethical relevance; but when actions involve other people, the issue of consent takes full relevance.

I think the relevance to the abortion issue is obvious. Pro-choice advocates uphold the choices of the woman and argue that the fetus cannot choose because it is not a moral agent. But choice is irrelevant: the fact that the fetus may become a person who did not consent to eir existence is very much relevant.

Anti-abortion advocates appear to be taking the issue of consent seriously, but they use it in a completely opposite fashion from what is rational. They argue that fetuses cannot consent to be aborted, and that therefore we should not abort them. But this is predicated on the belief that the abortion is an imposition of harm. Abortion does not impose harm because it inflicts no physical harm on the fetus and it inflicts no moral harm because it does not prevent the fulfillment of any conscious values, since the fetus has none. Rather, it is childbirth that imposes harm on a person, since it exposes a person to an incalculable number of risks of harm and suffering without eir consent. There is no more freedom to force someone into a game of Russian Roulette without their consent than there is freedom to force someone to exist without their consent.

There are a lot of misunderstandings about determinism, some of which may be relevant here. For instance, people believe that determinism means that we can’t change our minds about anything. This is a bizarre assumption, especially since change is pretty universal, and everything is in a state of flux. Rocks do not fall forever, leaves do not always grow or always fall, birds do not always stay in flight, and so on. From the day we are born, neurons constantly form and reform networks based on experience and knowledge acquired. Why should we expect that the mind would not change as well?

Of course people’s beliefs change, but we must not fool ourselves into thinking that there is some kind of “self” or “soul” changing its own mind. And when we want someone else’s mind to change, we should not fool ourselves into thinking that we do not thereby become part of this process. For example, anti-abortion advocates and anti-abortion ideas do scare women into childbirth, and, even if the anti-abortion was actually true, the wrong of abortion would not justify the wrong of intimidation and threats of violence.

Even in the metaphorical sense, no choice is truly free. If any notion of free will exists, it is buried under the mass of human instincts, human needs, parental indoctrination, schooling, propaganda, “involuntary consent” and self-censorship to which we are subject on a daily basis. There is no such thing as a single “free thinker” in the entire world, although we might delude ourselves into believing that we are. Believing ourselves to be superhuman, we assume that our beliefs are objectively true, and therefore that everyone else is necessarily delusional or mendacious.

Schopenhauer points out the nature of the illusion of choice:

[M]an does at all times only what he wills, and yet he does this necessarily. But this is because he already is what he wills.

This really drives home the problem with questions like “doesn’t determinism means we would never change our minds?”; while pretending to speak like a determinist, the libertarians still maintain their dualist belief and refuse to include the mind (the will) in the category of things that are subject to natural law. This is a form of Special Pleading. Our will changes because everything changes. The fact that we subjectively perceive this will as being somehow “ours” does not make it distinct from everything else in the universe.

Another favourite claim of libertarians is that determinism excludes moral responsibility. Yet I have always found this argument unconvincing. If a machine in a factory is dangerous and could kill someone, would you not shut it down? Complaints that the machine is not “really really responsible” for what it might do would be ridiculous. So even if we compare human beings to factory machines (again, a comparison which is not entirely accurate), determinism does not exclude moral responsibility.

In fact, I believe that the determinist perspective is the only way to make sense of moral responsibility at all. Causality tells us that whatever a person does is part of their nature, it is a consequence of what they are. If someone imposes harm on others, the determinist perspective allows me to say that the actions of the person in question are derived from eir nature, and that therefore the person can be said to be responsible for those actions. But if the libertarians are correct, and there is no causal connection between a person’s nature and eir actions, how can anyone be held responsible for anything?

Keep in mind that the libertarian claim is that the mind is not within the purview of causality, that it has some kind of special, unique power to make choices on its own. This is completely contrary to our normal metaphorical understanding about choice, which is that a person makes choices based on what they know, think and feel. According to the libertarian account, what a brain knows, thinks or feels cannot causally connect to the mind, since the mind is outside of causality. A mind can make any choice for any reason, and these choices cannot be predicted (by knowing a person well enough to make some rudimentary guesses) or measured (by EEGs, say). Given that, why should we hold people responsible for any crime? Why would we not treat all murders as crimes of passion, temporary impulses that have no basis in personality?

I contend that all libertarians really are merely pretending to be libertarians, and in fact think as determinists, most of the time. They do actually believe that they can partially predict other people’s behaviour, and are surprised when their predictions fail; they do think a person’s actions are derived from eir nature; if they believe in evolution, then they also do not really believe that the mind is something alien to the rest of the universe.

2 thoughts on “Choice-talk, if taken literally, is invalid. [part 2]

  1. […] what they have in common. (03/09) Choice-talk, if taken literally, is invalid. [part 1] (03/15), [part 2] (03/17) Defining tyranny within the abortion issue. [part 1] (03/23), [part 2] (03/25) The Prime […]

  2. […] The Prime Directive Do not impose harm. Atheism – Anarchism – Antinatalism Skip to content HomeVision StatementFAQsFAQ against the current court systemFAQ by Libsocs for “An”capsOngoing archive (June 2008-)July 2006-May 2008 archive ← The top 100 reasons not to have children… Choice-talk, if taken literally, is invalid. [part 2] → […]

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