Cartesian Ethics

A post at Practical Ethics News has been worrying me for a couple of days.  Michelle Hutchinson argues that pro-life abortion counselors ought to lie to patients heading for abortions. They might, for example, show them pictures of more advanced fetuses, or exaggerate post-abortion trauma, or lie about how early a fetus can feel pain.  After all, the counselor believes that a fetus is a person and that the client is on the verge of committing murder.  Surely a few lies are worth telling in order to save a person's life.  We'd certainly think so if this were a question of a police officer talking to a mother who's about to kill her toddler. If it takes telling her some lies to stop her ("Calm down, your husband tells us he's going to reconcile with you!") and save the child, the police officer should do that.

My reaction is: definitely not. No lying to women on the verge of abortion permitted, even if the police officer is justified in lying to the homicidal mom.  But why not?  It doesn't seem like much of a response to say the fetus is not a person, so the counselor would be wrong to proceed on the basis of a false belief.  She believes the fetus is a person.  People have to make decisions on the basis of what they believe.

A more promising line of thought is that the counselor has a belief about the personhood of the fetus, but also has to have many beliefs about other people's beliefs, and that this "social knowledge" should slow her down.  She's got to believe that lots and lots of people no less intelligent or sensitive than herself believe the fetus is not a person. That belief about other people ought to temper the confidence with which she holds her own belief.  In fact, it ought to drive her confidence down to a level too low for her to feel justified in deceiving the patient into changing her mind.

In other words, when you're about to try to alter someone else's behavior by some prima facie problematic means, it's no time for Cartesian epistemology--for going solo as far as the pivotal, motivating beliefs are concerned.  That's a time to look at the big picture--at how your own beliefs square with everyone else's. 

The social approach will allow the police officer to intervene with the homicidal mother.  Just about everyone thinks toddlers are persons, so none of his beliefs about other people's beliefs will get in the way of his plan to protect the child by lying to the mother about her husband.  So far so good.

The social approach will also stop people from bringing about some outcomes we might like.  For example, if I think animals are persons with rights, the social approach will stop me from telling lies to my friends who see animals otherwise.  I've got to notice and take it into account that people of equal intelligence and sensitivity disagree about the moral status of animals.  So I should back off, and not tell my friends lies about how every pound of hamburger contains a few grams of human flesh, due to slaughterhouse accidents. Or lies about how the stunning process is rarely effective, when in fact it's usually effective.  Though I'd like other people to stop eating meat, it strikes me as intuitively correct that I shouldn't lie to them to alter their behavior.

So--two points for the social approach to moral epistemology, and it's looking like the abortion counselor should not lie to her clients.  But--Michelle Hutchinson points out--isn't the social approach also going to prevent an abolitionist, pre-civil-war, from telling intuitively acceptable lies in order to stop slave-owners from beating or selling their slaves?  Must an abolitionist back off from total confidence in the belief that slavery is wrong, and African-Americans are full human persons?

I don't think it's necessarily true that equally intelligent and sensitive people disagreed about those issues.  Defenders of slavery may have been obviously biased miscreants who owned tons and tons of slaves. But suppose the social approach would occasionally interfere with the good works of leaders who are ahead of their time.  What exactly does that prove? The individualistic approach would lead to some flagrantly bad outcomes too.  Suppose another bad mother is trying to kill her toddler, but this one believes the child is the devil.  Thus, in her mind, it's right to try to get other people to help her commit the murder.  On the Cartesian approach, that's what she should do--and her lies and manipulations can be justified.

You could take a rule-utilitarian approach here, and decide which moral epistemology should be adopted by figuring out whether the Cartesian or Social approach is likely to have the best consequences, if adopted by all.  I think the Social approach will win this race. On the whole, people are more likely to have true beliefs (about any topic) if they make appropriate use of social knowledge, than if they don't. If you tinker around with what "appropriate" means in various contexts, to reflect expertise, etc. etc., the social approach to knowledge shouldn't slow down the vanguard too too much.

So--no, abortion counselors shouldn't lie to patients, in an effort to prevent abortions, no matter how fervently they believe the fetus is a person and abortion is wrong.


ɪɴɾɡɞɖɷɧʕɺʮʧʜɕʧʗʋɣɞʅ said...

I think we have to be fallibilists. It is always possible that we are wrong. Maybe abortion really equals murder. Knowledge is a kind of epistemic entitlement that is always open to challenge, since it is not "monotonic": new data can bring us back to previous convictions (but for different reasons).


History if full of examples of societies that accepted as normal things that today deeply shock us. I don't see how a "social" version of morals can really help us.

I might have a wrong belief and it would be rational for me to act accordingly. I should be responsible for the fact that I have a wrong belief, not because I acted upon it.

In civil societies most of these issues are solved through the legislation. People can have all kind of bizarre beliefs, but they are responsible for their actions.

So if you think your child is being held hostage inside the trunk of a stranger's car, you should try and violate private property and free him. If he's not there, you will pay the consequences.

If the law says that abortion is not murder then people who believe abortion is murder should be prohibited from working as counselors. If they are conselors, then it is rational for them to act upon their beliefs and lie. This can be moral or not, depending on wheter you consider abortion to be homicide or not. Which is a separate issue.

Aeolus said...

I think it's in The World the Slaveholders Made that Eugene D. Genovese describes intellectuals in the antebellum South who argued that the paternalism of southern slave society was more humane than the dog-eat-dog capitalism of the North. We have to remember that ideology is in the first place about members of the ruling class justifying their rule to themselves: pulling the wool over their own eyes, if you will. I imagine there were numerous intelligent defenders of slavery who sincerely viewed themselves as humane, sensitive, and caring. Human beings have a great talent for this sort of thing. So I don't think it's easy to escape the "What about slavery?" response.

ʎɵɵʑɗəʂʘɡɱʨʤɡʨʄʩɞʐʜɴ said...

bad sentence there: "I should be responsible for the fact that I have a wrong belief, not because I acted upon it."

I meant the opposite. Social responsibility is linked to actions.

Wrong can usually be two things: against rationality, or against morals.

I think it is rational to act following our beliefs, if these beliefs were acquired following solid epistemic principles. (but who decides what these principles are? I don't think there's an objective end to the epistemic chain)

But the beliefs might be immoral.

Jean Kazez said...

OK, but those defenders of slavery might have been dismissible as obviously just rationalizing their own investment in slavery. So the abolitionist didn't have to take them seriously. In the abortion debate, those who say the fetus is not a person can't be dismissed so easily--they're not just people who have had or will have abortions, trying to acquit themselves.

Also, from a purely internal standpoint, I think it just feels different to say the fetus is a person with full rights and to say a slave is a person with full rights. Even to someone ardently pro-life, I imagine a fetus still seems sort of "gray-area-ish" and hard to come to terms with. It's more that they're "committed" to the idea that the fetus is a person, than that they're sure it's just plain true. (Well, maybe...I do think the issue of animals has that "gray area" sort of feel, where whatever you say, nothing seems just plainly true.)

crystal said...

One reason not to lie is that it sort of poisons people's view of your stance once the lie is found out.

Maybe in the case of lying to the mother of the fetus, you aren't trying to change her beliefs - you know what she believes and you change facts to appeal to what she already does believe; that a more advanced fetus is more worthy of life, for instance.

Proto said...

By this logic there is no truth, or rather, this logic bring us no closer to a solution but merely suggests that one shouldn't take matters in own hands when there is well reasoned opposition.

Since "lots and lots of people no less intelligent or sensitive than [yourself] believe" the opposite of what you believe, you have created a predicament for yourself. Now you must admit that there is a real possibility they might be right, by your own logic.

If we can't determine who's right or wrong, it stands to reason that we should choose the side of caution, just in case it _is_ a life.

Not to mention how incredibly stupid this argument gets when talking about rights of minorities, etc.

Jean Kazez said...

Proto, "there is no truth"... That's not the idea of my post--in fact, just the opposite. In cases where we are quite sure there IS a truth of the matter, we lower our confidence about what that truth is when equally intelligent and well-informed people disagree. What I am doing here is taking seriously the possibility that there are moral truths. If that is the case, then it makes perfect sense to be more modest and tentative in situations where equally respectable people disagree. Once you are modest and tentative in your conviction that fetuses are persons, it's got to be much harder to justify lying to patients to get them to act as if that were true.