Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pro-Life, Animal Rights and Subjective Morality

Often times in ideological debate we make the mistake of trying to strengthen our argument by creating a false narrative for our opponent's character.  This is partially due to emotional frustration with the perceived consequences of their belief.  But it is also a cheap attempt to undermine their position by painting it as based upon character flaws. 

So the conservative is greedy and uncaring, so he opposes redistribution.  The environmentalist hates business, so wants more regulation.  The corporation doesn't care about anything but profit, and thus acts without moral consideration.  While there may be some truth to each of these claims, they have no direct bearing on a particular position's merits.  So a conservative may be charitable and compassionate, and still oppose progressive taxation.  An environmentalist may love business, and still want to regulate a particular business.  Etcetera.  While looking at an opponent's character may be useful in a sociological sense, it can be quite misleading and lead to irrational and unfair arguments.

One of the strongest cases of this is on the issue of abortion, specifically on the pro-life side. Understandably, because they believe that the fetus has all the special meaning of a birthed baby, abortion is in many ways no different than murder.  The more radical pro-life position is to indeed equate abortion with murder.  Yet it is not, necessarily murder at all.  If you do not attach the same meaning to the life of a fetus as you do the life of a birthed baby, then killing it is a very different act.  If one is not religious, and doesn't think there's anything wrong with killing a fetus because they don't consider it a meaningful life, then they are being entirely principled in supporting a woman's right to choose. It is perfectly congruent with leading a moral, compassionate and righteous life. So while your moral disagreement is perfectly legitimate, your narrative is false.

I think an illustrative example of this is the subject of animal rights. If you believe that animals are meaningful lives, in the sense that we ought not kill them for our own pleasure, then "murder" is being committed on a horrendous scale daily. But hunters and meat-eaters are not bad people - or even immoral. They simply have a different belief about the meaning of animal life - one that is perfectly reasonable within the bounds of modern attitudes. The "pro-choice" attitude among vegetarians would be that people ought to be allowed to make that determination for themselves, considering that the question of meaning and animal-rights, just like the question of meaning and fetuses, is reasonably debatable; There are very good reasons on both sides for making different, subjective decisions.

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