Weighed, analyzed, confronted

On the theme of taking pride in being ignorant, here's Michael Gerson on Barack Obama:

What took place instead under Warren's precise and revealing questioning was the most important event so far of the 2008 campaign — a performance every voter should seek out on the Internet and watch.

First, the forum previewed the stylistic battle lines of the contest ahead, and it should give Democrats pause. Obama was fluent, cool and cerebral — the qualities that made Adlai Stevenson interesting but did not make him president. Obama took care to point out that he had once been a professor at the University of Chicago, but that bit of biography was unnecessary. His whole manner smacks of chalkboards and campus ivy. Issues from stem cell research to the nature of evil are weighed, analyzed and explained instead of confronted.

Weighing, analyzing, and explaining them does not entail not confronting these issues.  Indeed, I shudder at the confronting that does not follow the weighing, the analyzing and the explaining.

One more thing.  Later in the piece, Gerson writes:

Obama's response on abortion — the issue that remains his largest obstacle to evangelical support — bordered on a gaffe. Asked by Warren at what point in its development a baby gains "human rights," Obama said that such determinations were "above my pay grade" — a silly answer to a sophisticated question. If Obama is genuinely unsure about this matter, he (and the law) should err in favor of protecting innocent life. If Obama believes that a baby in the womb lacks human rights, he should say so — pro-choice men and women must affirm (as many sincerely do) that developing life has a lesser status. Here the professor failed the test of logic

It doesn't follow by a matter of logic alone that "uncertainty" in the matter should tend one way rather than the other.  Besides, the mother's autonomy seems more well established than the fetus' personhood, so one could say well established rights should take precedence (in the case of conflict).  But Gerson obviously distorted Obama's point.  Aside from this, Warren's framing of the question ("gains rights") is devious: human rights are not "gained" and "lost" (except in certain places) as one accumulates chips.  You have them or you don't.  Suggesting otherwise (in the case of the fetus) seems something of a heap paradox: when is a heap a heap? Two? Three?

There may, of course, be nothing wrong with the "heap" view of rights, Warren (and Gerson) just ought to acknowledge when it has been sneaked into a question to a pro-choice Presidential candidate in front of an admittedly hostile pro-life audience.  In light of those facts, Obama's answer–with its weighing, analyzing, and confronting–was right on point.

H/t mahablog

27 thoughts on “Weighed, analyzed, confronted”

  1. Gerson definetly is guilty of a false dichotomy: it’s not either Weighing, analyzing, and explaining on one side and confronting on the other. Maybe Gerson real point, but badly expressed, is that Obama seems to stop right before confronting.
    Even that point, however, is not completely true, as proven by his clear strong stand on abortion : ” I am pro-choice. I believe in Roe v. Wade …”
    Now, on the whole issue of “uncertanty” it’s definetly a failure of logic to say that Obama “failed the test of logic”. The “uncertanty” argument is used in other arguments too, such as human impact on environment or others.
    About abortion and uncertanty, here’s one argument (
    “There are four possibilities:

    The fetus is a person, and we know that;
    The fetus is a person, but we don’t know that;
    The fetus isn’t a person, but we don’t know that;
    The fetus isn’t a person, and we know that.

    What is abortion in each of these four cases?
    In Case 1, where the fetus is a person and you know that, abortion is murder. First-degree murder, in fact. You deliberately kill an innocent human being.
    In Case 2, where the fetus is a person and you don’t know that, abortion is manslaughter. It’s like driving over a man-shaped overcoat in the street at night or shooting toxic chemicals into a building that you’re not sure is fully evacuated. You’re not sure there is a person there, but you’re not sure there isn’t either, and it just so happens that there is a person there, and you kill him. You cannot plead ignorance. True, you didn’t know there was a person there, but you didn’t know there wasn’t either, so your act was literally the height of irresponsibility. This is the act Roe allowed.
    In Case 3, the fetus isn’t a person, but you don’t know that. So abortion is just as irresponsible as it is in the previous case. You ran over the overcoat or fumigated the building without knowing that there were no persons there. You were lucky; there weren’t. But you didn’t care; you didn’t take care; you were just as irresponsible. You cannot legally be charged with manslaughter, since no man was slaughtered, but you can and should be charged with criminal negligence.
    Only in Case 4 is abortion a reasonable, permissible, and responsible choice. But note: What makes Case 4 permissible is not merely the fact that the fetus is not a person but also your knowledge that it is not, your overcoming of skepticism. So skepticism counts not for abortion but against it. Only if you are not a skeptic, only if you are a dogmatist, only if you are certain that there is no person in the fetus, no man in the coat, or no person in the building, may you abort, drive, or fumigate.”
    I think Gerson charges Obama of #2 or #3.

  2. Gerson’s fully embraced know-nothingism with this one, since the values weighed aren’t just those of the fetus and its life, but the privacy rights of pregnant women.  If we don’t know that fetuses have rights (or when), then to enforce them as though they do tramples the rights of pregnant women.  Obama’s running (or relying on) a least known harm argument, and it’s one that anyone who’s thought about abortion seriously has had to handle.  It may be wrong, but surely it isn’t a failure of logic.  But, you know, Gerson’s more about confronting than about thinking things through, anyhow.

  3. aikin, good points. Gerson definetly ignores the rights of women here. And again, Obama is not guilty of any logic failure.
    However, there are 2 questions here:
    1. Do all the rights have equal value, or is there a hierarchy?
    2. If there is a hierarchy of rights, which comes first?
    So, if the answer to #1 question is that all rights have equal value, then the choice between woman’s “known” rights and “unknown” fetus’ right is simple. It’s like choosing between 100 dollars cash and an envelope which might or not contain 100 dollars.
    Now, if the answer is that there is a hierarchy (“life, liberty and pursuit of happiness”) then things are a little more complex. The choice is not as simple.
    Which comes first? I think this was part of Plato’s critique of democracy as well.
    It might be simple to choose between life and privacy, but what if you don’t know if there is life?
    Equating all the rights leads to mad society.
    Also, this argument is used a lot by environmentalists. Global warming is happening, we’re not sure how much is our fault; however, it’s better to take the safe approach and assume that we have a huge impact and do something about it, even though in the process someone’s rights might be trumped.

  4. The “skepticism” in this case is not akin, obviously, to skepticism regarding global warming.  In the latter case, it’s skepticism regarding the effects of our already known to be nefarious behavior, the extent, that is, rather that “whether or not.”  The skepticism in the former case–the one about rights–isn’t one can very reasonably argue, like that.  There will not be one day when scientists (or anyone else)  will discover rights in utero, or vitro, or wherever they are.  One more disanalogy with the global warming objection (nice move, by the way, BN): no one’s basic autonomy over one’s own body is being “trampled” to address global warming–if anything, one is being denied the right to foul the planet for others.  And I don’t think one has a right to do that.

  5. BN,

    Thanks for the follow-up. I don’t think that least known harm arguments require the equality or inequality of the values on the table.  They run on a principle along these lines: if you are going to have a known diminishment of one right, then there must be some other right (or good) known to be pursued.  That is, you don’t diminish rights under ignorance.  Rights, if they are going to be *rights*, need to be durable in a robust way… and the fact that there’s a disagreement about whether there are entities that have rights or not isn’t enough to overturn privacy rights.

    The analogy with global warming is interesting.  Again, it’s a standoff between rights (as I take it, privacy and property rights with regard to what products can be marketed or what activities are mandated) and some good (clean air and stable environments).    And there is a measure of disagreement as to how effective curtailments of the first right will be in pursuit of the good of environmental protection.   Though, I wonder how widespread and deep this disagreement really is.  I was under the impression that it’s pretty clear that warming is anthropogenic, but I’m no expert.

    Regardless, I do think that property rights are special cases (and here’s where things are weakest, I guess), since these rights can be trumped for the sake of maintaining the system that keeps property valuable.  That is, it seems to me that taxation is a case where someone’s property may be taken, but it is used to preserve and further improve a system that keeps that property valuable and safe.  (Police, roads, records keepers, and so on).  The same, I think may go for the curtailment of some property rights for the sake of preserving the environment:  if we don’t take care of the planet, our stuff will be worthless. 

  6. In some fairly robust sense, all moral judgments come back to what is actual. While ideas of possibility will provide an important and necessary context as well as offering clues to further inquiry, they cannot form the basis of final judgment. Thus, I am possibly a serial killer, but I am (hopefully) judged on the fact (among others) that I am not. Hitler and Stalin were possibly a pair of genuinely sterling fellows; but it is their actual monstrousness that is the basis of our judgments against them. Permitting myself a moment of rhetorical excess, surely this is as it ought to be?

    A fetus is possibly a person, and it might become one. But the woman already — actually — is a person. I submit this is the basis upon which we (logically) ought to make our judgments.

    Now, the fetus undergoes a major physiological transformation between weeks 18 and 23 (if memory serves) where the neural cells that have formed in the fetus’ cranium are flushed out and replaced with neural cells that now also possess the level of connectivity necessary for a real brain. The original set of cells lack this connectivity, and are only there to “inflate” the head in preparation for these real cells to come in and replace them. A case might be made that this is where an actual person has come into being. But at this point, one is on the cusp of the 3rd trimester. Fewer than 2% of all abortions occur in the 3rd, and we might reasonably argue that, in the absence of triage decisions and other ceteris parabis cavilling, there is no good reason for permitting a pregnancy to go to this stage only to terminate it. But again, this case is aimed at arguing about what is, and not about what abstractly might be.

  7. If I recall correctly, the Vatican has proclaimed that a person being kept alive on "life support" can be removed from the apparatus, and whoeverperforms that action has not committed a sin. It seems to me that if the church has this position on the end of life, it would also imply that under some circumstances abortion would not be immoral.

  8. jcasey, akin, and Gary you all made great points. What’s that rule? Don’t speak about sex, politics and religion? I guess abortion covers them all. I think we should stick to the moral side of the argument. I will mostly talk about individual rights, not civil rights.  I will touch on 2 things: possible vs actual rights and how to determine if a fetus is a person or not.
    I think Gary summed up well the main objection against the original argument in the first part of his comment.
    Let me start by asking something which I took for granted until now: Can we all agree that if a fetus was a person, then his right to live should take priority over the mother’s right to privacy?
    A. Here are 2 examples:

    1. You’re ready to blow up a building that you’re not sure is fully evacuated. You can’t check if it’s fully evacuated or not. If you don’t blow the building, one of your rights (pick any right except for the right to live) will be lost for a period of 9 months. Are you going to pull the trigger?
    2. A mother that is pregnant late in the 3rd trimester is told by the doctor that she risks loosing her life if she will attempt to give birth to her baby. The mother chooses abortion. I think is morally justifiable, even though the conflict in this case is between: possibly loosing the mother’s right to live and the actual lost of baby’s right to live.

    At the core of both examples there is this fundamental premise: The right to live/right to be born is so much more above any other right, that even the possibility of loosing it is greater that actually giving up any other right for 9 months.

    B. Now, Gary is trying to make the argument stronger by basically claiming that the fetus is not a person. And I think as well, that if you prove that beyond doubt than abortion would be nothing worst morally than pulling one of your teeth out.
    Here are some interesting facts: 
    Fetal heart begins to form 18 days after conception
    Measurable heart beat 21-24 days after conception
    Fetal brain begins to form on day 25
    Brain waves produced by 6 weeks
    So, when is is starting to be a person? 18 weeks? What about 17 weeks, 29 days, 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds? You’re talking about major transformation.
    One common description of when a fetus is a person is when the fetus can live outside of the mother’s womb. With today’s techonology that’s possible a lot earlier than before. Anyway, that standard sounds absolutely random. Why not when he gets his first fingernails? Or when he first turns around?
    And this whole argument about being a person I thought was used in the past as well (blacks, homosexuals, gypsies, handicapped), with not that great of a success.
    A fetus is human life and in my opinion that is enough to protect it.

  9. sorry for the formatting … I don’t know how that happened.
    jcasey, if you can remove the formatting, please do.

  10. You miss the point, BN.  No one agrees that the fetus is a person (even with full knowledge of fetal development).  And determining that is not like determining whether there are actual persons in a building set for demolition.

    If I remember correctly, the original point of the post was that the good Reverend’s question was loaded.

  11. jcasey, yes …  I never said that anyone agrees that the fetus is a person … what I said was: “Can we all agree that if a fetus was a person, then his right to live should take priority over the mother’s right to privacy?”  … it’s just a hypothetical question.
    Of course that the demolition example is limited; however, in both cases there’s an uncertainty about someone that might lose their right to live. In one case, it’s uncertain because we don’t know if there is someone there; in the other case, its uncertain because we don’t know if the fetus is someone.

    Reverend’s question was loaded, no doubt about it. But I think you missed the load 🙂
    As you pointed out, human rights are for human beings. There is no time component to that. He’s making a sarcastic point about people that declare that at a certain time a fetus becomes a human being. So he’s asking Obama when does that happen? When does a fetus become a human being?  It is then when the fetus also gets the human rights.  So when does a fetus gain human rights means simply when does the fetus become a human being.

  12. As you point out, you’re hypothetical misses the fundamental point of disagreement.  So why bother.   Given that, your explosive analogy doesn’t add anything other than an illustration of how much you’ve missed the point.

  13. The hypothetical point is important to my argument. If we won’t grant the right of life even if we knew for sure that the fetus is a person, then my argument is pointless. It proves how important is to be sure, what is at stake here.
    The fundamental point of disagreement is if the fetus is a person or not. But we don’t disagree about the fact that there is no consensus either way. And here was my point. How can a person is good conscience, not being sure if someone will lose their right to live, act as if there’s nothing at stake?

  14. I’d repeat a point I made above: not “knowing” whether someone has rights is not the same as not “knowing” whether someone is in a building.  The latter situation involves knowing whether or not a subject of rights is in danger–this can be resolved by checking the building (they do it all of the time of the Discovery channel.  The former case cannot be resolved like this; it’s clearly not a straight up and down factual question.  You continually assume it is, thus the importance of this inapt analogy to your argument.

  15. OK. The point of any illustration is to help. In this case, I think you made it clear that it does not help you.
    My bottom line is this: If one holds that he does not know for sure if a fetus is or not a person, then for him to kill “it” is an immoral act.  And just because he’ll never know does not excuse him.
    Obama said these words: “When it comes specifically to HIV/AIDS, the most important prevention is education, which should include — which should include abstinence education and teaching the children — teaching children, you know, that sex is not something casual. But it should also include — it should also include other, you know, information about contraception because, look, I’ve got two daughters. 9 years old and 6 years old. I am going to teach them first of all about values and morals. But if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby. I don’t want them punished with an STD at the age of 16. You know, so it doesn’t make sense to not give them information.”
    Also when Obama says he’s ignorant about abortion, we should take his words,he really is.
    I think Gerson hates this wishy-washy position: “If Obama believes that a baby in the womb lacks human rights, he should say so — pro-choice men and women must affirm (as many sincerely do) that developing life has a lesser status.”
    He’s just asking for consistency.  You can’t hold that you don’t know if fetuses are persons and then go act like they are not.

  16. The point of your illustration it seems is to confuse two distinct senses of “not know.”  You seem unable to recognize that.

  17. sorry, I made my rebuttal too personal … I have no excuse … sorry about that. 
    Well, back to my illustration,  as you said ” it’s clearly not a straight up and down factual question”. It is not, it was never intended to be.
    The whole point of it was to show that before anyone demolish a building, they make sure that it is empty.
    So the common theme is that in both cases it’s possible that we kill a person.
    In the same way, we should make sure that the fetus is not a person before we kill “it”. Now, as you pointed out, in the first case that is both practical and possible, whereas in the second it is not.
    But just because we can’t decide either way, we should not act as if the fetus is not a person.

  18. The epistemic situation, one might reasonably argue, in each situation is categorically different.  I don’t know how many different ways to explain that basic point.  What you say, by the way, is crystal clear.  It just misses the point of the objection.

  19. Per my note above, initial stages in the formation of the fetus’ brain are largely irrelevant, since these serve no other purpose than to inflate the cranium. The cells that form this initial stage are devoid of the levels of connectivity that are an absolute sine qua non of a human — or even an ant — brain. (The human has more cells than the ant, of course.)

    Somewhere around the 18th week, completing somewhere around the 23rd, every single one of these first stage neural cells gets flushed out and replaced by a cell that does develop a meaningful level of connectivity. Sometimes this process goes awry and the wreckage that comes out — one can hardly call it a baby — often has its head flattened in a rather “troll-like” appearance. In some instances, the head is inflated with cephalatic fluid; but one can literally hold a light at the back of the skull and see it shining through the eyes. These things typically do not last more than a few days before all of the organs shut down.

    So my argument is this: the claim that you have a person actually in play fails until there is a functioning brain in place, and not merely a mass of disposable neural cells.

  20. Oh, sorry: to answer BN’s question, I would probably agree that at the point the fetus is an actual person its right to life trumps the mother’s right to privacy.

    Of course, there are those who argue that it only becomes a person when it becomes a doctor or a lawyer.

    (On a serious note, there is an argument that personhood does not really occur until some significant time post partem, when the baby has been exposed to enough sensory experience to actually begin forming primitive cognitions.)

  21. The more interesting questions to me are:
    When does a gay human being earn their equal rights?
    When do our mothers, wives, sisters, and daughter earn their equal pay?
    Many people are quick to fight for children’s rights but when they turn out to be female or gay, we don’t care anymore.

  22. jcasey, I understand that the epistemic situation is different. However,  I keep arguing that it’s not relevant to my illustration, whereas you think it is. I appreciate your patience in over explaining this to me, but I guess I just don’t get it. For me it’s the same bottom line: possibly killing a person.
    Gary, good points but what do we do about this little fact: “measurable heart beat 21-24 days after conception”  I guess it’s all about the brain. The bigger the brain the bigger the person 🙂
    Chesterton sarcastically said once: “Let all the babies be born. Then let us drown those we do not like.” … the unwanted 🙁
    I think this topic could go on forever. I think I made some of my points clear as Gary and jcasey made theirs as well. We’ll have to agree to disagree and move forward.
    I also think that we moved away from the post here, and that’s mostly my fault.

  23. BN–it’s not relevant to your illustration because your illustration is not relevant to the situation.  You’ve conflated two senses of know and now two senses of “possibly.”

  24. “The fetus isn’t a person, and we know that.”

    What can be stated is that a fetus has a potential of becoming a person. Until then, the mother is a person who must consider the health dangers and medical concerns that will consume 9 months of 24 hour a day support.

  25. Did I miss the definition of a person in all this back and forth? Dem’s a lotta words up there, so maybe I did, but it seems that you must define, and justify, what exactly you mean by a person before having this conversation. After you do that, it would behoove you to describe the distinction between person and human being, if there is one.
    Some know I’m partial to neuroanatomy, so I see the comments on that end as a good start. But they describe necessary conditions for being a person, not conditions under which it is a person, or why.
    There was also mention of personhood only being applicable ’til some time after birth. There’s appeal in that argument, but what is the baby before that? A human being? That commits us to saying persons and human beings are different things. If so, what kinds of things?
    The only position that seems to make sense is to work with what you know, i.e. in most cases, the mother is a person (and a human being if that matters), and make decisions on that evidence. It certainly makes more sense than making decisions on what you don’t know.

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