Friday, September 4, 2009

Abortion and probability

Suppose x thinks that it is 95% likely that fetuses lack moral standing. I will argue that x ought not to have or perform an abortion except perhaps for extremely serious reasons, assuming x reasons correctly probabilistically. The argument is simple:

  1. (Premise) One ought not do something that one takes to be 5% likely to result in the death of an innocent with moral standing except perhaps for extremely serious reasons.
  2. (Premise) x thinks that it is 95% likely that fetuses lack moral standing.
  3. (Premise) x reasons correctly probabilistically.
  4. x thinks that it is 5% likely that fetuses have moral standing. (By 2 and 3)
  5. Everybody thinks that if fetuses have moral standing, they are innocent.
  6. x thinks that an abortion is 5% likely to result in the death of an innocent with moral standing. (3-5)
  7. x ought not to have or perform an abortion except perhaps for extremely serious reasons.

Observation 1: I think it would be unreasonable to think that the likelihood that fetuses lack moral standing is more than about 95%. The pro-choice arguments for the claim just aren't that strong.

Observation 2: One can argue for (1) as follows. It would be prudentially irrational to induce a 1/20 risk to one's life except for extremely serious reason. But likewise one should then not induce a 1/20 risk to the life of another innocent with moral standing except for extremely serious reason. (This, I guess, uses some version of the Golden Rule or of Kantian universalizability.) How to argue that a 1/20 risk to one's own life is prudentially irrational except for extremely serious reason? It might be useful, once again, to switch from the first person to the third person perspective. Suppose everybody in the U.S. individually took an independent 1/20 instantaneous risk to their lives. Then 15 million people would instantly die. We would think this is a tragedy, unless perhaps the remaining 285 million people got an extremely big individual benefit from individually taking the risk.

Observation 3: A public policy that on the costs side had an expected value equal to 25,000 deaths per annum of innocents with moral standing would need extremely strong justification on the benefits side. But if, say, there would be 500,000 fewer abortions per annum were abortion illegal, then keeping abortion legal has an expected value equal to 25,000 annual deaths on the costs side, if the probability that fetuses have moral standing is 5%. So it would need an extremely strong justification on the benefits side.

Final remark: Of course, I think that all things considered, it's clear that fetuses have moral standing. But it's interesting that even if it were quite probable that they don't, nonetheless there is good reason to worry morally about at least some, maybe many, cases of abortion.

29 comments:

Mike Almeida said...

(Premise) One ought not do something that one takes to be 5% likely to result in the death of an innocent with moral standing except perhaps for extremely serious reasons.

My sense is that something like premise (1) is right. But here's a worry. There is some number of cars N on the road such that having N cars on the road raises the chances of killing an innocent to .05. Is it morally impermissible that there are N cars on the road? Does morality require that we limit the number of cars on the road to less than N? It sure seems not. But then we seem to have a counterexample to (1).

larryniven said...

I dunno, I don't think anybody takes their driving a car to be 5% likely to result in the death of an innocent. If you're one of the rare people who (a) knows the number N and (b) knows the number of cars on the road and (c) would be the Nth person on the road were you to start driving, then I guess there's a counterexample, but otherwise I don't think that's a counterexample. Just being the Nth driver doesn't suffice.

Alex, what qualifies as "extremely serious reasons"?

Alexander R Pruss said...

On reflection, "extremely serious" is probably exaggerated. "Very serious" is better. No, Larry, I don't have any way of making that more precise. Initially, I was thinking of reasons that are sufficiently serious that one would be reasonable in taking a 5% risk to one's own life for them.

However, on reflection, I think the bar for reasons for endangering the lives of non-consenting others is much higher than the bar for endangering our own lives. Thus, while one might reasonably sign up for college even if crazed killers roamed all campuses and killed one out of twenty students over any four year period (but one had better be getting a really good education then!), it might not be right to sign up for college if crazed killers would kill one in twenty younger siblings of college attendees (imagine you are a woman in a country where women going to college is frowned on by fanatics, and the fanatics have decided that killing women who go to college isn't deterrent enough, so now they instead try to kill the women's younger sisters, succeeding in 1 out of 20 cases), unless one had one's younger sibling's consent for the risk.

The car argument applies to the policy question, rather than the individual question. For, unless one is drunk or otherwise incompetent, one's individual being on the road doesn't raise anybody's probability of death by 5%. There is a good way to check this empirically: Drive for a hundred days and verify that you haven't killed approximately five people.

And it's clear that if you were causing a person's death in one of twenty days on which you drive, you would have no business being on the road, except for "very serious" reasons (such as to drive someone to the hospital when neither an ambulance nor another driver was available).

Peter Youngblood said...

Mike,
I'm not sure, but I think we can make a distinction that weakens your counterexample. In the case of the cars, driving a car would not be exactly equal to killing an innocent, even if it may result in the killing of an innocent. However, in the case of abortion, the very act would be the killing of an innocent. There is a "directness" there that isn't in the proposed counterexample, where "results in" is used in a slightly different sense.

Mike Almeida said...

larryn,

Not sure what you're talking about. The counterexample doesn't say a word about what it is permissible for an individual to do or not do. It talks about the permissibility of there being N cars on the road. It does not remotely follow from that that any of the N drivers is such that he is not permitted to be on the road. All that follows is that someone is not allowed ot be on the road. The clumsy move from one to the other involves a quantifier shift fallacy, going from ~P(Ex)Rx to (Ex)~PRx. And the counterexample depends on no epistemological assumptions at all. It doesn't matter to the counterexample who knows what. Epistemological concerns matter to blame, but not to obligation. So most of what you say there is beside the point.

Mike Almeida said...

The car argument applies to the policy question, rather than the individual question. For, unless one is drunk or otherwise incompetent, one's individual being on the road doesn't raise anybody's probability of death by 5%. There is a good way to check this empirically: Drive for a hundred days and verify that you haven't killed approximately five people.

Alex,

Right, but it is false that it is impermissible that N people be driving at the same time. But suppose you insist that the moral obligation that applies to rules is not the same as moral obligation that applies to individuals. No matter.
For any driver S there is some number of days N on the road such that being on the road for N days makes the chances of S killing an innocent .05 or greater. Just sum the chances of killing an innocent over N days of driving. Let H be a history driving for S such that if S drives all of the days in H then S has a .05 chance of killing an innocent person. It follows that S ought not to dirve all of the days in H. But that is at least intuitively false. S does nothing wrong in driving all of the days in H.

But don't get me wrong. I agree that there is something right about premise (1). So I agree that we should be able to distinguish the case you talk about from these counterexamples. I just don't think it is easy. And it might be very useful to find a clear and decisive distinction here.

Mycol said...

Dr. Pruss,

Premise 5 is doubtful. I, for one, would deny that any fetus is innocent just because it has a moral standing. Innocence, as I understand it, implies moral accountability.

Moreover, premise 5 only expresses the propositional attitude of "thinking" that since fetuses have moral standing, then fetuses are innocent. Consequently, premise 5 is false just from the admission that I think otherwise.

Lastly, I see no reason why the pro-choice stance must be in conflict with your position. Since, after all, the pro-choice can merely argue that all cases that infringe on the woman's right to her body are very serious cases.

Best Wishes,

-Michael Jordan

Alexander R Pruss said...

Revise "innocent" to "non-guilty". That should do the trick. But I still think that "innocent" might be the right term. Suppose George is tried for murder. Evidence is adduced in court that he was paralyzed and unconscious during the time of the murder. I think we would say that the fact that he was in a coma shows that he is "innocent" (of the murder). But while paralyzed and unconscious he is, evidently, not responsible. Anyway, that's the sense in which I meant "innocent". Nobody thinks that fetuses are guilty of capital crimes. (Or maybe: nobody that is in the mainstream of the debate; maybe some reincarnationists think that.)

Only a deliberate action by an agent (or organization of agents) can infringe on a right. If I go skiing in the mountains, and a mountain lion eats me, my right to life and to bodily integrity has not been infringed. Thus, pregnancy itself is not the case of an infringement of a right to one's body, except when the pregnancy has resulted non-consensually.

But nevermind. It does not seem that the mere fact of one's body being used in some way gives one permission to risk the life another. Suppose that I have a tiny worm living inside me. The worm in no way affects my health or well-being. Suppose, further, that the only way to get rid of the worm is to do something that has a 5% chance of killing my younger brother. (It's hard to imagine this. But maybe there are fanatics roaming about, and when they hear of someone having gotten rid of a worm in their bodies, they have a 5% chance of killing a younger brother.) Without that younger brother's consent, I have no right to rid myself of the worm.

So the mere fact that the fetus is inside the woman's body does not give the woman a right to remove it in a way that has a 5% chance of resulting in the death of someone with moral standing. So the seriousness cannot simply come from the fact that this is going on in the woman.

Of course, pregnancy affects a woman's well-being in all sorts of ways in which my imaginary worm does not. I do not think, however, that these effects are sufficient to allow a 5% risk of loss of life by someone with moral standing. Here is a way to see this. Suppose that current medical technology was such that any abortion had a 5% chance of killing the woman. In that case, it would be considered medically irresponsible to perform abortions except in the most serious cases, such as those where the woman's life is already endangered. The mere fact of pregnancy would not warrant a 5% chance of killing the woman, even if she consents to the risk. And a fortiori, the mere fact of pregnancy would not warrant a 5% chance of killing someone else who did not consent to the risk.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Revise "innocent" to "non-guilty". That should do the trick. But I still think that "innocent" might be the right term. Suppose George is tried for murder. Evidence is adduced in court that he was paralyzed and unconscious during the time of the murder. I think we would say that the fact that he was in a coma shows that he is "innocent" (of the murder). But while paralyzed and unconscious he is, evidently, not responsible. Anyway, that's the sense in which I meant "innocent". Nobody thinks that fetuses are guilty of capital crimes. (Or maybe: nobody that is in the mainstream of the debate; maybe some reincarnationists think that.)

Only a deliberate action by an agent (or organization of agents) can infringe on a right. If I go skiing in the mountains, and a mountain lion eats me, my right to life and to bodily integrity has not been infringed. Thus, pregnancy itself is not the case of an infringement of a right to one's body, except when the pregnancy has resulted non-consensually.

But nevermind. It does not seem that the mere fact of one's body being used in some way gives one permission to risk the life another. Suppose that I have a tiny worm living inside me. The worm in no way affects my health or well-being. Suppose, further, that the only way to get rid of the worm is to do something that has a 5% chance of killing my younger brother. (It's hard to imagine this. But maybe there are fanatics roaming about, and when they hear of someone having gotten rid of a worm in their bodies, they have a 5% chance of killing a younger brother.) Without that younger brother's consent, I have no right to rid myself of the worm.

So the mere fact that the fetus is inside the woman's body does not give the woman a right to remove it in a way that has a 5% chance of resulting in the death of someone with moral standing. So the seriousness cannot simply come from the fact that this is going on in the woman.

Of course, pregnancy affects a woman's well-being in all sorts of ways in which my imaginary worm does not. I do not think, however, that these effects are sufficient to allow a 5% risk of loss of life by someone with moral standing. Here is a way to see this. Suppose that current medical technology was such that any abortion had a 5% chance of killing the woman. In that case, it would be considered medically irresponsible to perform abortions except in the most serious cases, such as those where the woman's life is already endangered. The mere fact of pregnancy would not warrant a 5% chance of killing the woman, even if she consents to the risk. And a fortiori, the mere fact of pregnancy would not warrant a 5% chance of killing someone else who did not consent to the risk.

It's also worth noting that, in actual fact, women tend not to cite their bodily integrity as a reason for having the abortion.

larryniven said...

"The counterexample doesn't say a word about what it is permissible for an individual to do or not do."

??

Here's your phrasing:

"Is it morally impermissible that there are N cars on the road? Does morality require that we limit the number of cars on the road to less than N?"

Cars don't just magically appear on roads, Mike - people put them there. "It's morally impermissible to have N cars on the road" implies "it's morally impermissible to put the Nth car on the road," which is precisely the reason that you ask a question about limiting the number of cars on the road. You can maybe say that once there are already N cars on the road it's not a question of what the next person does, but then we're no longer talking about the same scenario - what's the analogy there with abortion? Once you've already performed an abortion, you aren't then allowed to kill a toddler? I don't see how that particular situation is relevant.

And I suggest you re-read Alex's premise: "one ought not do something that one takes to be 5% likely to result in the death of an innocent." So you can actually be the Nth person on the road without taking yourself to be, yes? In which case (again) it is not just about there being N cars on the road but rather about what the Nth person does (or doesn't) believe.

Finally, I'm not trying to say (as you seem to think) that in reality this is the case, I'm just trying to read what Alex actually wrote. It may well be that "epistemological concerns matter to blame, but not to obligation," but the premise as written says something different.

Sanctification of a Young Hydralisk said...

alex, if you ever get a spare moment you should swing around the str.org blog comment thread and share your amazing thoughts every now and then.
i think us young folks could benefit from it.

Mike Almeida said...

"It's morally impermissible to have N cars on the road" implies "it's morally impermissible to put the Nth car on the road,". . .

No, it does not have that implication. If there is an Nth car on the road, it follows that some car ought not to be on the road. It does not follow that precisely the Nth car ought not to be on the road. The inference is bad. You cannot infer (Ex)~PRx from ~P(Ex)Rx. That is, you cannot infer that there is some car such that it should not be on the road, from my claim that it is impermissible that N cars are on the road. It can be the case that someone ought to do x and not the case that there is some x such that he ought to do x. For instance, it can be true that someone ought to rescue the child, but false that there is some specific person such that he ought to rescue the child. This happens in cases where the obligation is wide scope on a disjunction, O(A v B v C v D). That does not entail that OA v OB v OC v OD.

Mycol said...

You could revise the word “innocent” to the word “non-guilty”, but then you lose much of the rhetorical force that you are presumably aiming for. All you are saying here is that the fetus has not morally failed in some way. Moreover, if we take your revision, premise 5 does not seem to be what you want to say. For here you are stating that if a fetus has moral worth, then it is non-guilty. But the fetus is non-guilty whether or not it has moral worth since it is not a moral agent. And if we use transposition on premise 5, it seems implausibly true because even if a fetus did have some culpability, we’d be in a difficult position to say it had no moral worth. Heck, murderers have some moral worth despite their culpability.

Your analogy dealing with George seems to agree with my argument since the prosecution’s case rests on the idea that George is a moral/legal agent. If you wish to equivocate “innocent” to “not responsible”, then your equivocation is not very interesting. In the same ways, trees and rocks are not responsible. And, again, if the word innocent is to mean not responsible, then premise 5 can be reinterpreted:

Premise 5: Everybody thinks that if fetuses have moral standing, they are not responsible.

But I certainly do not think this, nor do I (and presumably most people) base an entity's moral standing on whether such an entity is not responsible. Indeed, if an entity is responsible, then moral agency is implied and hence that being has at least some moral standing.


In regards to rights being infringed, I had the moral or political community in mind and not the fetus. When the community obligates the woman to have the child, then they are also laying an imperative on her to keep the child. But this denies her the exclusive right to govern her own body; and as Judith Thomson would surely argue, this denial is a very serious moral issue when the woman does not want the fetus living inside of her.

Your worm analogy puzzles me: Is the worm supposed to be analogous to the fetus or is the brother? In what way does the analogy of two lives concerning two very different species relate to abortion which primarily has to do with one life and the right to one’s own body?


Moreover, if this 5% chance talk is carried over from your initial argument, then I think you are now confusing strict probability and degree of belief. Earlier your argument seemed to rest on the degree of belief and not strict probability (since otherwise it would be that 95% of abortions kill beings with no moral worth and 5% do kill beings with moral worth. But that seems implausible.). But now you are talking about 5% chance of killing your brother that has moral worth. This is not the same type of probability spoken of within your initial argument.

Given my confusion, I cannot properly address your analogy.

Best wishes,

Michael Jordan

larryniven said...

Dude, okay, two things. First, "it is morally impermissible for anyone to be the Nth driver on the road" doesn't mean that every set of N (or more) people being on the road includes one guilty party (that, in your words, "If there is an Nth car on the road, it follows that some car ought not to be on the road."). Since I guess you want to do this symbolically, you've been comparing:

~P(Ex)Rx (there's not permitted to be an x such that Rx)
and
(Ex)~PRx (some x exists such that x isn't permitted to be R)

What I'm talking about is:

~P(Ex)Rx (there's not permitted to be an x such that Rx)
and
O(\-/x)~Rx (there is an obligation for every x not to be R)

I know for sure that ~ExPx goes to \-/x~Px, but you're now saying that permission and obligation don't work in the same way? (Maybe they don't - I'm just guessing.) Your child-rescuing thing seems to be more like:

O(Ex)Rx (it's obligatory that at least one person rescue the child)

In which case the best I could do would be ~P(\-/x)~Rx - in other words, it's impermissible for everyone not to rescue the child. So that much appears to work out. If that's correct, the only question is whether every person has an obligation not to bring about a morally impermissible situation - I say yes, and I note also that your child-rescuing example doesn't dispute this (since any given person choosing not to rescue the child doesn't by themselves bring it about that the child doesn't get rescued).

And second, again, how does the case where there are already N drivers on the road make sense with abortion? Even if you're right and "situation x is morally impermissible" is compatible with "it's morally permissible to bring about situation x," the specific counterexample you propose is hard to conceptualize in the context of abortion. Right? But if it doesn't track, it's not enough (in some sense) of a counterexample.

Alexander R Pruss said...

MJ:

I always use material conditionals in arguments unless otherwise indicated. If you accept the consequent of the conditional--namely that fetuses are non-guilty--you accept the conditional.

The worm story is there simply to show this: It is reasonable to restrict people's pursuit of bodily integrity when that pursuit has a 5% chance of resulting in the death of a non-guilty being with moral standing.

I agree that there is a difference between objective and epistemic probabilities. I think that for moral decisions like these, it is the epistemic that matter. And in both this case, and the abortion case, there is an epistemic probability of 5%.

(I do not think there is a morally significant difference between a perfect marksman's shooting at a shape in the bushes that, in her mind, has a 5% chance of being an innocent human, and a less careful marksman's shooting at an animal that's so close to an innocent human that she has a 5% chance of killing the human instead. In the latter case we have objective probabilities and in the former we have epistemic probabilities. Both actions require a very serious reason.)

James said...

I suppose this is largely unrelated, but it's a question that's just occurred to me. If it's morally impermissible for P1 to do X, then is it also morally impermissible for P1 to fail to prevent P2 from doing X (or at least to do something intended to dissuade P2 from doing X) if P1 is easily able to do so?

larryniven said...

James, nah: it is (I'm fairly certain) morally impermissible for me to follow a speeding driver until they stop, forcibly remove them from their car and put them into mine, and drive them to the nearest police station, but I shouldn't go around preventing police officers from doing the same thing.

If there's a general moral prohibition against X, though, then maybe yes.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike:

I think the only things that can be permissible or impermissible are actions. (And, in fact, actions of individuals, but that's more controversial.)

James said...

Larry: I'm not quite seeing how your counterexample relates. Wouldn't the relevant activity be failing to prevent police officers from arresting people?

Mike Almeida said...

Permissibility and obligation are duals (or typically so), so the two sentences you note are equivalent. But I don't see how it's relevant. So, sure,

1. O(Ex)Sx iff. ~P(Vx)~Sx

That just says that it is obligatory that someone saves the child iff. it is not permissible that everyone fails to save the child. That's true, but it's false that, O(Ex)Sx entails that (Ex)OSx. It is obligatory that someone save the child does not entail that there is someone such that it is obligatory that he saves the child.
The same thing goes for N drivers on the road. It is not permissible that there are N drivers on the road entails that it is obligatory that there are not N drivers on the road. But none of this entails that there is someone such that it is obligatory that he is not on the road.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Mike:

I deny that there is any monadic property of being permissible or being obligatory. There are only the binary properties of being permissible to or being obligatory to.

Mike Almeida said...

Suppose there is a binary proeprty of that kind. Does it inhibit the point I'm trying to make? Or does it simply make it more difficult to express?
Probably expressions of obligation are indexed to individuals, times, circumstances and so on (in the way Castandeda formulates it). But festooning the 'O' with such indices does not seem to affect the point I'm after. Or else, I don't see it.

larryniven said...

James, really? I'm not sure, at this point, what you're talking about: are you, maybe, using "failing" to mean "trying but not succeeding" instead of just "not succeeding"? Cause if it's the latter, you and I both fail to prevent police officers from making arrests on a daily basis, right? (At least, I do.) And that's morally okay, right, even though you and I can't morally arrest people? (At least, I can't.) So...huh?

Mike, this'll be the last time I try to clarify this, because I'm getting the feeling that you don't want to play fair. I never said that, once there are N or more cars on the road, we can always identify specific people to remove from the road - indeed, I never said anything about removing anybody from any road. What I said was, before there are N people on the road, anyone who would become the Nth person if they entered the road has an obligation not to do it. Once they're on the road they've already failed to meet the obligation and we've reached the end of my claim - anything that happens from that point on (i.e., people being removed, or not) is not at all addressed by what I've said.

Joshua Blanchard said...

I wonder, if we put abortion into a broader category of an action that causes X risk to human life, whether or not there are other legal actions which are similar? Certainly various forms of reckless driving are legal, or at best punishable by mere fines.

If there are comparable actions which are legal, then the pro-choicer could make a (weak, it seems to me) case that abortion should also be legal, or at least punishable with minor measures.

Also, many will dispute the nature of extreme circumstances. Many people think that extreme inconvenience regarding significant personal goals (say, schooling) counts as a serious reason. And of course many people think, more plausibly, that rape constitutes a serious reason.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Do you think there are forms of reckless driving that kill people one out of twenty times, but that are punishable only by fines?

Drunk driving is taken very seriously.

In 2007, there were 12,998 alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities. On the other hand there were 1,427,494 DUI arrests. Assuming that the number of arrests equals the number of incidents of drunk driving, that yields a fatality rate of 0.9%.

No doubt the actual fatality rate is much smaller. While some people arrested are innocent, a lot more drunk drivers presumably manage to drive home without getting arrested.

In any case, here we have less than 1% risk to life, and we have very serious social concern, and fairly serious penalties. And rightly so.

Michael S. said...

Hi Alex: I like the argument. I think the same line of reasoning can be applied to the abortifacient issue as well. In other words, this line of reasoning can be applied in support of the conclusion: "x ought not use birth control pills except perhaps for extremely serious reasons." There are some pro-life people I know who claim to be 'unconvinced' that all forms of the pill have abortifacient potential. But to my thinking, one need not be convinced in order to have sufficient reason to abstain. All one needs is enough reason to believe that a grave harm to an innocent human being is a real possibility, given the principle of caution (as I like to call it) encapsulated in premise 1.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That's right (though the argument will work less well for people who aren't pro-life, as their low estimate of the probability of the fetus' personhood will combine with the probability of abortifacient effect, to produce what might be a quite low probability).

Moreover, the argument works, if anything, better in the case of hormonal birth control than in the case of abortion, since there are no grave reasons for using hormonal birth control in light of the availability of multiple alternatives.

Usyless said...

This comment is probably obsolete by now, but I open my own blog with a response to the argument you give in this post: http://usyless.blogspot.com/2009/11/well-im-finally-going-to-give-this.html

Alexander R Pruss said...

And a very nice response that is, indeed. I posted a response to your response on your site. :-)