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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, November 16, 2012

Is abortion a greater evil than sex abuse?

Is abortion a greater evil than child abuse? Of course it isn't! Indeed, I don't generally regard abortion as an evil at all. We could doubtless get into hypothetical cases of late-term abortions carried out on a mere whim, but are there many, or any, such cases in the real world? In the real world I think you must either suffer from a distorted moral sense or be in the grip of a theory if you regard abortion as the real evil (as opposed, say, to denying an abortion to a desperate woman or teenage girl).

And yet, we see statements made from time to time that abortion is a worse evil than, say, the sexual abuse of children, or that the widespread occurrence of abortions in modern societies constitutes an evil akin to black slavery or the Nazi Holocaust.

Frankly, these sorts of statements are repugnant. What is especially repugnant, and to many people unintelligible, is how something that has great benefits in reducing or avoiding suffering - the ready availability of abortion to desperate women and girls - is being compared to sources of terrible suffering, such as slavery, sex abuse, and the Holocaust. Surely someone who makes these comparisons must be crazy or evil... right? Wrong.

I don't think that Catholic moralists, for example, are crazy or evil. Nor do I think that they are hypocritically rationalising what is really a hatred of women or a wish to keep women in subjection. Yes, there may be an element of that if we delve back far enough into Catholic (say) sexual morality. The Catholic moral system may fossilise ancient attitudes of misogyny, and particularly fears of women's sexual power and freedom.

But I think we should take people like Cardinal George Pell, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, at their word. They really do accept a moral system that, as a matter of fact, rationalises many ancient moral attitudes and ideas on a false basis ... and ends up producing totally different results from a moral system based on amelioration of suffering (or, if you are a moral abolitionist like Richard Garner or Joel Marks, from a settled attitude of simply being opposed to suffering).

People like Cardinal Pell are not crazy or evil. In many circumstances, they will think and feel and act much as I (for example) would. They will show people respect and compassion.

But when it comes to thinking about anything to do with sexuality, they are in the grip of a cruel moral theory. They have been indoctrinated into it, and they actually believe it. From inside that theory, it is all consistent and makes sense, even if you are otherwise a decent person.

If you don't understand that point, you'll find much of the behaviour of your opponents simply incomprehensible, and you'll be dumbfounded when your own expressions of moral repugnance have no impact on them. Your opponents will appear to be monstrous. From their viewpoint, however, whatever you say is ill-informed and essentially irrelevant. They will dismiss it, but not because they are monsters or even because, as individuals, they are arrogant. Mainly, they are deeply mistaken about reality (which makes them the exact opposite of moral leaders or moral authorities).

Seen from the outside, of course, Catholic (and similar) sexual morality appears ridiculous and repugnant. All the more reason to continue the fight against it.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this! I think far too many people, when they observe someone with different moral values to their own, leap to the conclusion that "this person is evil/stupid/immoral", rather than asking "what kind of moral theory might explain their behaviour, and how might this person have come to have such a moral theory?". I think this is a useful question to ask because it lets us think of possible remedies, rather than simply dismissing and alienating the person.

Anonymous said...

How does a moral error theorist make these comments?

Russell Blackford said...

What exactly would be the problem with a moral error theorist making any of the comments in the original post? It's not at all clear exactly what kinds of moral language, if any, moral error theorists have good reason to drop.

Some moral error theorists might be fictionalists about moral language, some might be revisionists about moral language, some might be prepared to employ moral language in certain contexts because they consider some claims framed in this language to be approximately true, though not strictly true.

Typical moral error theorists say that moral judgments are not objectively binding, any more than other value judgments are objectively binding (e.g. judgments of beauty or sublimity or sexiness). They say that the moral overlay - the appearance of a "layer" of objective moral properties - is an illusion, just as what might be called the aesthetic overlay is an illusion.

But a lot more work needs to be done before it's obvious that moral error theorists should stop making certain kinds of moral judgments, and if so which kinds.

You'll notice, though, that there is nothing in the original post where I say that certain moral judgments are objectively, bindingly correct.

Anonymous said...

Thanks. Just getting my head around MET and have a long way to go. But that helped.

Verbose Stoic said...


"They really do accept a moral system that, as a matter of fact, rationalises many ancient moral attitudes and ideas on a false basis ... and ends up producing totally different results from a moral system based on amelioration of suffering (or, if you are a moral abolitionist like Richard Garner or Joel Marks, from a settled attitude of simply being opposed to suffering)."

Well, I think that moral systems based on amelioration of suffering at least run a great risk of being heinous and, even worse, seem to be pretty much wrong, attempts to build pragmatics and personal desires into something that should be impersonal and not always produce the "happiest" ending. And that's what draws me, I think, in part to the Stoics and to Kant in terms of what I think is properly moral. And when these issues come up, it tends to turn out that I have more principles in common with Catholics than with the, um, humanists, maybe? Now, you could say that that's only to be expected since I'm nomially Catholic, but I disagree with it too much and really do attach my morality too much to the Stoics for that to hold water.

So, when you go on to say this:

"Mainly, they are deeply mistaken about reality (which makes them the exact opposite of moral leaders or moral authorities)."

From my perspective as someone who stands between the two views, I wonder what you, in fact, are claiming they are mistaken about, and how you know that YOU aren't mistaken. To me, both views get things wrong frequently enough for me to want to work out my own view (which I have been working on for some time). So it really doesn't settle anything to say that they're wrong, as they think you're wrong and I think you're both wrong. And so this:

"Seen from the outside, of course, Catholic (and similar) sexual morality appears ridiculous and repugnant. All the more reason to fight against it."

Becomes pointless and, in fact, prone to creating conflicts. From your view, what they do is ridiculous and repugnant, and so you will fight against it. From their view, what YOU do is ridiculous and repugnant, and so they will fight against it. And I can see the case from both sides ... and agree with neither, and in fact at some point in time from my view consider what each of you do to be ridiculous and repugnant, and so by your thought should fight against both of you. How do we end the conflict, a conflict that each side justifies with the same reasons?