Tolerance or Violence?

A friend and I recently had a rational debate about abortion. Yes, rational debate is possible, even about touchy subjects.

Neither of us convinced the other, but we understand each other better. Perhaps even more important, we confirmed that disagreement does not imply evil. Rational, well-meaning people can have clashing beliefs.

The abortion issue is difficult to resolve for two reasons:

  • First, it inflames emotions on both sides. Strong emotion makes it harder for people to think straight. That’s why politicians and the media constantly incite it. Enraged people are easy to deceive and manipulate.
  • Second, even without emotional incitement, the abortion issue is complex. Neither side wants to admit the fact, but it is.

Paying a debt

Consider an analogy. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

You take the money. You’re satisfied that I’ve paid my debt.

The reason you’re satisfied is that we agreed about:

  • How much I owed you, and
  • The procedure I used to count the money.

A visit to Threetown

Now consider a variation. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table, just as before: one, two, ten.

“Wait,” you say. “You gave me three dollars, not ten!”

“It’s only three dollars in base-10,” I explain. “Base-3 is much better. That’s ten dollars in base-3. I’ll prove it to you. Watch.” I re-count the money: one, two, ten.

We’ve got a problem. You define “10” in one way and I define it in a different way.

Neither of us is simply making it up. Both definitions are legitimate in their own terms. (Check the links if you want the background info.)

You’d prefer to be repaid in base-10 dollars. I’d prefer to repay you in base-3 dollars.

You could argue that almost everyone uses the base-10 number system. But we’re currently within the city limits of Threetown, where the law requires everyone to use base-3. If people want to use base-10, they must go outside the city limits.

It’s a bizarre situation. You should probably just wait until we leave Threetown to demand payment.

Neither of us can prove our definition of “10,” so our only other alternative is to fight. That would cause more than $7 (base-10) worth of damage to both of us.

We could do it, but the costs would exceed the benefits. It seems unwise to cause a bigger harm to redress a smaller harm.

A visit to Alabama

We left Threetown, whereupon you insisted that I repay you in base-10 dollars. Lacking any further excuse, I did so. We’re square.

But we’re now having lunch in Alabama, where they define a fetus at any stage of pregnancy as a legal person. Under a recently-enacted law, abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother. To get an elective abortion, a person must travel across the state line to a more permissive state.

Some people who live in other states don’t define the fetus as a person, though they don’t care if it’s a person or not. To them, the only thing that matters is what the mother wants.

Here we are again: two conflicting definitions. One side says the fetus is a person, the other side says it isn’t. One side says the fetus takes priority, the other says the mother does. Neither side can prove its claims.

Do we fight, or do we live and let live?

If someone’s coming at you with a bayonet, the situation is very clear. But if some state has a law that makes it slightly more difficult to get an abortion, that’s a lot less clear.

When a situation is morally and/or factually unclear, I believe in a policy of “live and let live.” It minimizes harm and maximizes freedom.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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3 Responses to Tolerance or Violence?

  1. J P says:

    I agree with much of what you say, but I don’t think I’m all the way there.

    This debate, it seems to me, is about reality. You recently dealt with the elimination of gender from language. Sex and gender are not matters of opinion (though some insist that they are). It is how we are made, verifiable with scientific tests such as DNA.

    I would suggest whether a “fetus” is a human life is also about reality vs. opinion. Fifty or sixty years ago the “just a clump of cells” view was reasonable. There was no such thing as ultrasound or DNA then. But we have those things now.

    So it is scientifically indisputable that 1 the “clump of cells” is of a DNA makeup separate and distinct from that of the mother and 2 that from virtually the beginning that”clump of cells” is alive, responding to stimulation.

    So the “clump of cells” is not like a tumor (which shares DNA with the mother) or a foreign inanimate object like a penny in the digestive system.

    In your Analysis, Base 3 is a real thing, whether or not a city might choose to make it the norm.

    It is my belief that the abortion debate is, in its essence, a necessary offshoot from the “I have a right to sex without consequences” worldview that has predominated since the onset of The Sexual Revolution of the 60s.

    So I would define the debate as not a difference in opinion or definition, but one of whether or not opinion is superior or subservient to reality.


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      You’ve given a reasonable argument. I think there are some nuances you bypassed, but the nuances themselves are open to dispute.

      First, I agree that sex and gender are not matters of opinion. Sex is biological. Gender is grammatical.

      I think that “gender” as applied to people is an illegitimate concept whose only function is to confuse issues related to it. Ayn Rand would have called it an “anti-concept.” Consider what “gender” includes:

      * Biological sex
      * How someone dresses
      * How someone feels (even if only “at the moment”)
      * How someone acts
      * How particular societies expect men and women to act, dress, etc.

      Applying “gender” to people opens the door to a hundred sophistical arguments, e.g.:

      1. Social roles are socially defined.
      2. Gender includes social roles.
      3. Therefore, gender is socially defined.
      4. Gender includes biological sex.
      5. Therefore, biological sex is socially defined.

      It’s the kind of pseudo-intellectual horseradish that passes for scholarship in universities these days. People actually get paid (a lot!) to come up with that drivel.

      Second — and it’s a nuance that might be idiosyncratic to me — I think we have different kinds of concepts and beliefs for different purposes. Factual beliefs enable us to understand factual situations and to act successfully in them. Moral beliefs enable us to guide our conduct in ways that seem right to us.

      A fertilized egg has the DNA of a human being. For biological classification, that’s determinative. But moral guidance is something else. I think that on a common-sense basis, most people would not consider a fertilized egg to be a human being. On the other hand, they would consider a newborn baby to be a human being.

      But even though we’re using the same term — “human being” — our purpose has changed. We’re no longer trying to understand biology. We’re trying to guide our conduct. We’re no longer talking about when a fetus becomes human, but when it becomes a moral person with human rights.

      In the near future, we will probably see robots that look like humans and can produce all the same behaviors as humans. And I expect we will consider them moral persons with “human rights” even though they have no human DNA and aren’t biological at all.

      So (accepting my supposition for the moment) if a fertilized egg is not a moral person, and a newborn baby is a moral person, where do we draw the line? When does a non-person become a person, with all the rights and privileges appertaining thereto?

      If we draw the line at the ability to think or speak, that’s too strict: a newborn baby can’t do those things, though it will eventually develop the ability. We want the line to match our intuitive sense of what is and is not a person. Our intuitive sense is just that: it’s a feeling that we have but cannot prove.

      There are other issues as well. Abortion, like feminism generally, decreases fertility and thus decreases the ability of the population to sustain itself. Perhaps it is unfair to expect women to “lie back and think of England,” but nature is what it is. They should take it up with God, not blame it on “the Patriarchy.”

      My opinion. It will save me from ever being nominated to the Supreme Court. 🙂


      • J P says:

        I cannot fault your analysis here, except that I think trying to draw a line of personhood somewhere between fertilized egg and “Here I am, feed me” is a fool’s errand. Perhaps I could be called an absolutist here, but I see that as a difference in degree, not a difference in kind.

        There is, after all, not (yet at least) a point where vegetative Aunt Tillie slips back out of personhood and back into the blob of cells that can be unplugged from the machine because she is really just an it.

        Anyway, I will join you on that list of the un-nominatable and we can chat about more topics like this then. 😀


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