Wednesday, March 15, 2006

"Who Would You Rescue?" Arguments

Old Business: Censure

According to a Reuters news story, White House spokesman Scott McClellan, when discussing Feingold’s proposed censure of the President, answered by saying, “...if Democrats want to argue that we shouldn't be listening to al Qaeda communications, it's their right and we welcome the debate.”

Again, the issue is not about whether we should or should not be listening to al Qaeda communications. The question is whether the White House is listening to other communications. The Administration has lied in the past about what it is doing. There is reason to suspect that it is lying now. The purpose of judicial oversight is to make sure that the Administration is listening in on (suspected) al Qaeda communications and not, for example, expanding his spying program to include anybody who criticizes Administration policy – or that it is not spying for profit and selling information in exchange for campaign contributions.

The main point here is that McClellan lied. A lie is a statement that asserts a proposition that one knows is not true. Now, I may be giving McClellan too much credit, but I think he knows that this statement is not true. However, it is a useful lie – some people actually believe it and learn to hate the group (Democrats) that McClellan is trying to target. In making this statement, McClellan clearly is more interested in a useful fiction than in truth. Because of his interest in a useful fiction, I must ask once again, why should we believe what he says about the scope and nature of warrantless spying on Americans?

McClellan's statement is a flat-out lie. If the American people were more willing to condemn those who do not present the nature of the issue under discussion honestly, we would be able to benefit by the honest debates that are actually on-topic that would result. Such statements prove the fundamental dishonest and disinterest in truth on the part of those who make them. Even if one is a Republican, one should be asking whether they endorse fundamental dishonesty on the part of those who speak for the Party.

New Business: “Which Do You Rescue?”

A posting at Unscrewing the Inscrutable pointed me to an audio recording at Calling All Wingnuts in which a caller presented a hypothetical case to an anti-abortion radio talk show host.

You find yourself in a blazing fertility clinic - the fire is ferocious. In one corner there is a two year old girl. In another, there is a petri dish with five fertilized blastula in it. You can rescue one or the other, but not both. Which do you rescue, the girl or the petri dish?

We must add the assumption that the potential rescuer knows that all five blastula would be implanted. Without this, there would be no more of a moral requirement to choose to rescue the blastula (instead of the child) than to rescue five infants on life support who would die within minutes of rescue anyway.

At any rate, my view is that an entity without desires has no interests, and thus has no interests in being rescued. Thus, the blastulae can justifiably be left behind.

However, in accepting that conclusion, I do not believe that all roads that lead to that conclusion are equally sound. These “who would you rescue?” arguments are completely invalid.

The only way that this argument could be valid is if it were possible to go from the premise, “I would rescue X” to “I ought to rescue X”. However, this leaps the famous canyon between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ at a place where there is no valid bridge.

To illustrate the problem with this argument, simply realize that the same argument can be used by, for example, a committed Nazi to prove that Arians are morally more significant than Jews.

You find yourself in a blazing building - the fire is ferocious. In one corner there is a two year old Arian girl. In another, there are five Jews. You can rescue the child or the Jews, but not both. Which do you rescue?

To the committed Nazi, this is an easy question. Yet, this hardly justifies the conclusion, “Then point at Wilkow and everyone else who thinks it's a real dilemma with a hard solution, and laugh uncontrollably.”

Of course, at this point some unthinking reader is prone to think, “How dare you compare abortion providers to Nazis!”

The fact is, I am not comparing abortion providers to Nazis. I am employing a logical technique of disproof by counter-example; showing that an argument is invalid by showing how somebody else (in this case a committed Nazi) can reach a similar conclusion under similar conditions – a conclusion that can clearly be rejected as absurd. In this way, I show that the form of reasoning used in “Who do you rescue?” arguments is invalid.

I reach the conclusion that one morally ought to rescue the 2-year-old child using the “no desires implies no interests” argument, not the “who you would rescue is who you should rescue” argument.

I do not use the “who you would rescue is who you should rescue” argument precisely because it is invalid. (Or, if I have used it anywhere, I will state here that it was a mistake. However, this is a fallacy I try to keep an eye out for.)

A lover of reason would not use the “who I would rescue is who I should rescue” argument. Nor would he praise others who do use it.

And yet, the comments at “Calling All Wingnuts” show that this argument drawing a significant praise. Why is that?

My theory is that people like this argument because of a tendency that I have argued against repeatedly in this blog – a tendency to “fix the intelligence to the policy”. This is the tendency to find a conclusion that one likes (e.g., “Invading Iraq would be a good thing”), then evaluating intelligence arguments according to whether or not it supports the desired conclusion. Any argument that reaches the conclusion is thereby judged to be a good argument. Anybody who comes up with an argument allegedly claiming that the policy would be a mistake is a fool and a traitor.

It is a way of thinking that is responsible for a great many of the problems we now face, and a way of thinking worthy of condemnation even when it is found among one’s policy allies.


Anonymous said...

If the purpose of finding out "who you would rescue" is to prove "who you should rescue," then your criticism makes a sound point. But is that the purpose? Or, at the very least, is that the only purpose?

I can imagine a very different purpose: to demonstrate that the moral intuitions of the anti-abortion activist don't quite match their moral rhetoric. Two important rhetorical points that are often repeated by anti-abortion activists are "the moral status of a fertilized egg is exactly the same as that of a child or adult" and "abortion is murder" (with the second following from the first).

Despite repeating them over and over, however, it doesn't look like anti-abortion activists fully accept them. Almost none would agree with prosecuting abortion providers and women who have abortions as murderers. Most are willing to make exceptions for rape or incest. In the given situation, most would probably rescue the child, not the petri dish.

So, if the question is not used as an "argument" to arrive at a conclusion about "who you should rescue," but rather as a means to force a confrontation with a person's inconsistencies, then I don't think it's invalid. Maybe there are better ways to get people to think about whether their rhetoric really matches what they believe, but I don’t see this as a *bad* way.

If a person hears the question and comes to the realization that they already believe that the child should be rescued, and that someone who chooses to rescue the petri dish is acting immorally, then they will have to think more carefully about their rhetorical claims that the moral status of a fertilized egg is precisely the same as that of a child or adult. It may leave them open for a discussion about *why* the child should be chosen - for your argument, to cite an example.

Starting out with your argument might not work because their ideological filters will be working at full force. Being forced to reconsider their rhetoric, though, may cause the filters to weaken. They are, after all, trying to figure out why they would (and should) save the child and you're offering an explanation which may make a lot of sense. If they accept it, though, they may at least cease the "abortion is murder" activism, even if they remain anti-abortion at some level.

I haven't listened to the audio file, so perhaps the question is being used as an argument like you describe. I'm not defending that, if that's the case. I like the question and would use it (or something like it), but in the manner I describe above.

Anonymous said...

I'm more than a little confused. I find your argument against intuition-pumping moral thought experiments here to be prima facie contradictory to your extended defense of the practice in this post. Is there something I'm missing?

Alonzo Fyfe said...

austin cline

The specific argument being used is not consistent with the thesis that it was meant merely to point out an inconsistency between anti-abortion activist intuitions and their rhetoric. It was also meant to assert that the inconsistency should be resolved by making rhetoric match the intuitions, rather than making intuitions match the rhetoric.

If I were to run two scientific tests -- one suggesting that a substance was made of oxygen and another that it was made of nitrogen -- I would have conflicting results. However, I cannot argue, "because these results are conflicting, it must be made out of oxygen."

The further implication that those who use the "Who Would You Rescue?" argument are using -- at least in the abortion case -- is that this conflict must be resolved by changing the rhetoric. Yet, nothing is offered in favor of this assertion other than the question-begging assertion that the intuitions are correct.

It would be just as valid for the person hearing the argument to realize that their rhetoric does not match their intuitions and come to the conclusion that they SHOULD resuce the blastulae (assuming that there was no question of their implanatation). Yet, the article in question insisted on laughing at such a person. Why? On what basis? This is an equally valid resolution to the conflict.

Now, saying that these are equally possible ways of resolving the conflict is consistent with saying that resolving it in the pro-choice direction is an option. My objection is with those who insist that it implies the legitimacy of the pro-choice option, which it does not.

Anonymous said...

I'm afraid this response leaves me at a loss to understand what has happened in the last three weeks that has caused you to abandon your earlier view that analogical thought experiments are among the "most significant tools available" and which are "an inherent part of the practice, as preparing food is a part of the practice of cooking."

Anonymous said...

"It was also meant to assert that the inconsistency should be resolved by making rhetoric match the intuitions, rather than making intuitions match the rhetoric."

Well, I generally try to match what I say to what I think. If I mistakenly write something that I don't really believe, I lean on the backspace key (not a hypothetical - it's not too uncommon that I delete something I just wrote because, upon reflection, I realize that it doesn't accurately reflect my thinking).

I find it implausible that one should match what they think to what they say - that kind of tosses out the whole point of reasoning, doesn't it? Don't you try to make sure you say what you think/believe? Do you know of *anyone* who says things and then tries to match their beliefs to whatever they just said? I honestly have never heard of such a thing. In fact, I think I might question the mental health of anyone who did such a thing.

"Yet, nothing is offered in favor of this assertion other than the question-begging assertion that the intuitions are correct."

I disagree with this quite vehemently. I say that your should match your rhetoric to your beliefs not because your beliefs are necessarily true (everyone believes lots of things that aren't true - we're all human, after all), but rather because it's simply inaccurate and perhaps a bit dishonest for you to say and promote things you don't actually believe (even if you believe wrongly). Consider this discussion right now: I obviously disagree with you, but I'd be annoyed if your rhetoric and words here didn't match what you really think and believe. There isn't a problem with rhetoric matching beliefs that are wrong (or that I at least think are wrong). There's a huge potential problem with rhetoric not matching beliefs - even if the rhetoric is right and the beliefs are wrong - because it means that I'm not really agreeing or disagreeing with you.

If, upon further reflection, you find that your beliefs should change, that's fine - but in the meantime, you should say what you really believe (or not say anything at all, if perhaps you're feeling confused and conflicted).

"It would be just as valid for the person hearing the argument to realize that their rhetoric does not match their intuitions and come to the conclusion that they SHOULD resuce the blastulae (assuming that there was no question of their implanatation)."

Since, inter alia, the only reason at the moment for now concluding "the bastulae should be rescued" is that this is what a person's rhetoric had been, then I disagree. It's not valid to come to such a conclusion on the basis of the premise "this is what I keep saying." If a person ponders things for a bit and comes across other reasons for such a conclusion, fine - but rhetoric isn't a valid one.

To put it simply, just so there are no misunderstandings:

1. Compare rhetoric and beliefs/intuitions (the hypothetical is good for this).
2. If they don't match, stop using rhetoric that doesn't accurately reflect what you think.
3. Either say things that do accurately reflect what you think, or don't say anything.
4. Re-check beliefs/intuitions, because if rhetoric and beliefs don't mesh, there's a problem somewhere.

In the end, the beliefs might end up matching the original rhetoric - but not until after some serious contemplation and certainly not on the sole basis that this is what one was saying. Most likely, though, beliefs will remain the same because strong moral intuitions don't seem amenable to great changes. I'm not saying that people never change them, but it's not a constant sort of occurrence.

I should point out that there is a third option aside from the two you list: both the rhetoric *and* the beliefs/intutions could be wrong.

"My objection is with those who insist that it implies the legitimacy of the pro-choice option, which it does not."

Is it? Strictly speaking, this isn't the objection you raise above. The objection you raise above is, I think, summarized as "matching rhetoric to beliefs/intuitions is no more valid or reasonable than matching beliefs/intuitions to rhetoric." This is a much more general objection and, for the reasons I state above, something that I think is quite wrong. I think it's bizarre, in fact, so I'm hoping that this "legitimacy" objection is what you actually meant all along.

The "legitimacy" objection that I just quoted isn't one I would dispute. I agree that the hypothetical situation doesn't imply the *legitimacy* of the pro-choice position. It's possible that the abortion opponent's answer will be to save the child because their intuition is less anti-abortion than their rhetoric and, moreover, that this is wrong - that they *should* be more anti-abortion.

That doesn't change anything as far as I'm concerned: even if their less-anti-abortion intuitions and beliefs are wrong and their strong-anti-abortion rhetoric ultimately correct, they shouldn't use rhetoric that is inconsistent with their beliefs. They should modify their rhetoric to match their beliefs or keep mum while they work things out and then only return to the stronger rhetoric once they have come up with valid reasons for believing it this time.

Even if the person never comes up with good reasons for adopting the stronger conclusion, and even if that conclusion is correct, I'd continue to maintain that they shouldn't use the stronger rhetoric because it's wrong for them to push things they don't truly believe.

Alonzo Fyfe said...


Sorry for the delay, but I thought that I would give your question its own post. So, I have written an essay specifically devoted to the question of why my objections to the use of moral intuition in the Rescue argument differs from the types of moral analogies that I defend in the post you referenced.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

Austin Cline

Your characterization of this as a case in which a person says something that they do not in fact believe, then trying to change their beliefs, is inaccurate.

Rather, the situation in this case is analogous to revealing an inconsistent set of attitudes.

I have heard a number of bigots present a similar argument in favor of several types of discrimination. They meet somebody (who is white) who argues for racial equality and ask, "Would you want your daughter to marry one?"

Often times, the target of this question discovers a ulturally learned aversion to the idea of his daughter marrying somebody from another race. If we accept your approach to this situation, as soon as this father realizes that he would not like that idea, he should end his rhetoric of racial equality and insist on segregation.

Instead, I would argue that it is perfectly sensible for this father to say, "I have been infested with this culturally conditioned prejudice. However, it is wrong. The fact that I do not like it is morally irrelevant."

The same is true of the person who says that blastulae are persons who is presented with the "Who would you rescue?" argument. It is perfectly sensible for him to answer that he has been infested with a culturally learned bigotry that devalues the personhood of others. That does not make it right to disregard the personhood of those others.

In genreal, I put no stock in 'moral intuitions'. Moral intuitions are nothing more than culturally learned prejudice. The moral intuition in the 1860s that slavery was permissible, the moral intutition that many people have today that homosexuality is wrong, cannot be used as the basis for any sound moral argument.

The greatest evils in human history (including those evils that people commit in the name of God) were done by people who had the strongest moral intuition that what they did was right.

So, I take moral intuition to be a completely unreliable guide to moral truth.