Sunday, October 02, 2005

Defending Bennett

Bennett was responding to an argument that said, "Abortion should be legal because it would help lower the crime rate." He attempted to provide a counter example -- a case where "X should be legal because it would help lower the crime rate" was obviously false. The example about aborting black babies certainly qualifies as a counter-example to the argument he was objecting to.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett has been taking some heat recently for making the statement, “[I]f you wanted to reduce crime, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down"

Liberals pounced on this as an example of blatant racism. Bennett is a well-known conservative who has written several books on morality, such as The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. He strongly insists that conservatives have the correct view of morality. The quote cited above gives liberals a chance to catch him making a statement that no moral person would utter.

Bennett’s defense is that he was merely making a Socratic point. He was not advocating the abortion of black babies as a way of fighting crime. He said in his very next sentence that such an option was morally reprehensible. Instead, he was attempting to show that a specific argument offered in defense of abortion in the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner was flawed.

I cannot report whether the argument that Bennett was targeting actually appears in Freakonomics. However, for the purposes of this essay, our interest is in the argument that Bennett wanted to refute, regardless of whether he attributed that argument correctly.

The Historical Record

Here is what actually happened.

Bill Bennett was doing his radio show “Bill Bennett’s Morning in America”, when he raised the argument he attributes to Freakonomics. Bennett said, “[Y]ou know, one of the arguments in this book Freakonomics that they make is that the declining crime rate, you know, they deal with this hypothesis, that one of the reasons crime is down is that abortion is up.”

Bennett then seeks to defeat this argument, saying, “I do know that it's true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could -- if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down. That would be an impossible, ridiculous, and morally reprehensible thing to do, but your crime rate would go down. So these far-out, these far-reaching, extensive extrapolations are, I think, tricky.”

The Social Benefits Argument

First, I want to note that the argument Bennett was criticizing deserves to be criticized. At best, it begs the question of whether the fetus is a person with a right to life such that aborting the fetus counts as unjustifiably killing an innocent person – in other words, murder.

The problem with this argument can be illustrated using a counter-example much like the one Bennett actually used.

Let us say that we can identify a group of people who are statistically more likely than average to become a criminal. None of these individuals have actually committed a crime. However, we can show that they are statistically more likely to commit a crime than others. From this, it follows that, if we kill all of those people -- even though they are not guilty of any wrongdoing (yet) -- we could lower the crime rate. That is, the crime rate would be lower as long as we do not count killing these innocent people as crimes.

Here, I am not talking about aborting fetuses. Let us talk, instead, of 12-year-old boys who are getting poor grades in school. Let us assume that they are more likely to commit crimes in the future. If we permit parents to kill off such children, we can expect the crime rate to be lower than it would be if we protect the 12-year-old’s right to life. Still, morality demands that we protect that right. Allowing parents to choose to kill off such children would be a “morally reprehensible thing to do”.

Similarly, one can argue that the social benefits argument, that high abortion rates may reduce crime rates, may be true, but it still leaves abortion a “morally reprehensible thing to do” – assuming, of course, that fetuses have the same right to life as 12-year-old boys who are getting poor grades in school.

Of course, this assumption is the very thing the two sides are arguing about. Somebody using the social benefits argument has to assume that the fetus does not have a right to life before he can even start his argument. As a result, it would be question-begging for him to try to use this argument to prove that the fetus does not have a right to life.

It is a bad argument.


I want it known that I think that women have a right to an abortion early in their pregnancy. I am not writing in defense of a “right to life” for a clump of cells that have no beliefs, desires, or interests of any kind. However, a bad argument is a bad argument. The fact that the Freakonomics argument supports the same general position I support does not keep it from being a bad argument in defense of that position.

To be fair, Bennett showed the same capacity to criticize an ally’s bad argument at the time he made his the statements that got him into trouble. A caller called in to say that one of the adverse effects of abortion is that it reduced the labor force that would have otherwise been contributing to Social Security, thus helping to make Social Security insolvent.

Bennett, though he disapproves of abortion, recognized that this was a bad reason to disapprove of abortion, because it assumed too many things that were unknown. The aborted fetuses would have otherwise had to grow up to be productive members of society, as opposed to criminals and other drains on productivity. People who tend to have abortions are those whose children require a lot of state support – aid to dependent children, welfare – and who do not grow up in the best environments. So, it is not necessarily the case that the Social Security system would have been better off.

Bennett responded to this caller by saying, “Maybe, maybe, but we don't know what the costs would be, too. I think as -- abortion disproportionately occurs among single women? No. . . I just don't know. I would not argue for the pro-life position based on this, because you don't know.”

This is a very responsible position to take. Plus, Bennett is criticizing an ally. He is being very responsible in that he is evaluating arguments based on their merit, rather than their ability to support a desired conclusion.

It is the same trait that I hope that I exhibit in criticizing the social benefits argument above.


So, now, let us look at the statement that got Bennett’s into trouble. “If you . . . abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down.”

Is this true or false?

Let us assume that we held all of our other social policies constant. Let us assume that the racism, poverty, quality of inner-city schools, were all held constant and we focused only on lowering crime rates. Is Bennett’s statement true or false?

It is not so clear to me that it is obviously false. This is not “linking crime to race” in any way other than to report a statistical correlation. Logicians know that correlation does not imply causation. The relationship may be entirely coincidental, or it could be the result of other factors (in this case, racism or poverty). However, Bennett does not need to care about these things. The statistical correlation is enough for him to prove his point.

If this statistical relationship is true, does this imply that it is permissible to call for a policy of aborting black babies?

Obviously, it does not. Such a move, Bennett correctly says, would be “morally reprehensible.” Even if the statistical relationship were true, the policy would be “morally reprehensible”.

Bennett also claims that he knows that the statistical relationship is true. I have no reason to assume that he does not, in fact, know this.

There is nothing structurally wrong with Bennett’s response to this social-welfare argument.

Now, Bennett’s counter-example has one potential area of confusion. Aborting all black babies would have to be a requirement, not a permission. My 12-year-old boy counter-example is a closer parallel because I speak about a permission to kill, not an obligation to kill. Still, Bennett was answering a phone call, and I am writing an article. I have had more time to consider my answer than he did. No doubt, he would choose a different counter-example if he had the opportunity that I did to give the matter further consideration.

The Response

There are, however, morally questionable aspects to the response to Bennett’s statement. Those who jumped on this statement are exhibiting are misrepresenting the point that Bennett was trying to make, reading things into his statement that he did not put there, and then criticizing Bennett for the fabrications of those who heard or read the statement and made no attempt to understand it.

The response has been, at best, intellectually reckless and, in some cases, intentionally deceptive, for the purpose of scoring political points.

Personally, I can think of better ways to lower the crime rate, beginning with better care and better education for children being raised in poverty – a population that, because of the effects of racism, happens (statistically) to be disproportionately black.

Yet, the fact that I can think of a better way is no criticism against Bennett. Bennett explicitly stated that he was not going to look for a better way, but was only going to look at reducing crime and the effectiveness of aborting all black children on that objective. He did not deny that there was a better way. However, he had to assume that a better way existed as well, because the abortion option was “morally reprehensible”.


Another problem with this response is that it exhibits an immoral level of political opportunism and hypocrisy. Elsewhere, we have a Pledge of Allegiance that actually does link non-theism (not under-God) with rebellion, tyranny, and injustice. There are no complaints against this. Yet, a quote that has to be taken outside of its original intent to be made into a statement linking race with crime gets all sorts of press.

It would be nice if people would at least pretend to aim for some level of consistency in what they praise and what they condemn.

I can find a number of things that Bennett is wrong about. I do not need to go through the effort of making something up.


Alonzo Fyfe said...

Greetings, David.

I argue that morality deals with the tendency of malleable desires to fulfill or thwart other desires. It's a bit more complex than this, but this is suitable for a blog comment.

In studying these relationships, I am no more putting myself in God's role than the person who studies relationships among atoms in a molecule places himself in God's role.

Morality is just another part of the universe in which we live, and it is something we can study like we study atoms, black holes, dark matter, quarks, and the like.

My statements are to be judged correct or incorrect like any other scientific statement -- like statements that water is made up of H2O.

As for my position on abortion, I will have cause to blog about that issue eventually. It's not my purpose here to make a case for or against abortion. Only to object to the way that people were abusing Bennett's statement for political purposes.

Bennett made a valid point, and those who call it 'racist' are simply reading things into his statement that they wish to find there.

People who want an excuse to condemn Bennett have unjustifiably given his words a racist intent, where none can be found. I don't think that this is right, and I opted to argue my point in this blog.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Thanks for the link. The analysis sounds quite reasonable.

Of course, anybody who reads my blog will note that I have little in common with William Bennett's ideology. However, I do believe in being fair.