Conservative philosophy is both stupid and pretentious


In case you didn’t know, John Rawls’ concept of the “veil of ignorance” is the idea that society should be structured by people who have no idea of what role they will occupy in it — that a truly just society has to be defined by principles that are equitable and unbiased. So, for example, when Thomas Jefferson was working on the Declaration of Independence, he should be ignorant of where he’d end up in this new nation — there’s a chance he could end up as a wealthy landowner, and also a chance he could end up a black woman, slave to a wealthy landowner. We’d have a very different country if that had been the case for those founding fathers, who ended up creating a nation designed for their advantage, and black slaves…well, sucks to be you.

You’ve probably exercised something similar to this in the standard cake-cutting problem. If two people are splitting a cake, one person cuts, but the other person gets to choose which half they get — basically, the cutter is behind a veil of ignorance about which piece they get, so they’ll strive to divide the cake fairly.

Straightforward, right? Really hard to implement on a large scale, but I like the idea. Unfortunately, it can also be abused. Carl Bergstrom tweeted this example out.

Aaargh. I sympathize with Bergstrom preferring to go birding. It breaks my brain to try and see her warped point of view, and unfortunately, I felt compelled to try.

I just can’t get past “would you rather be conceived…”. Prior to my conception, I did not exist. I would not have even basic preferences, like whether “I” would like to live or die, until “I” had undergone significant biological development. Eggs and sperm do not have preferences. Neither do embryos. Fetuses probably (but not certainly) lack a conscious sense of self, which I suspect is going to emerge in the infant (you need awareness of others to do that). I don’t see how this is even a decent thought experiment.

This is a bit like imagining asking sperm to vote on state laws, or dipping into the gene pool to get their opinion on the equitable distribution of opportunity. Those aren’t conscious agents who can even conceive of a philosophy of personhood, and almost all of them are going to disappear, oblivious of everything, before the next generation which can think & reason & feel & make choices arises.

It’s a really weird premise, too. “You” are a being independent of your physical, biological self, and you’re floating around in the ether making decisions about where you will manifest? It’s like imagining that you had a prior existence wondering whether you’d poof into existence as either a person with a lawn mower or a blade of grass, and invoking Rawls to rationalize how individual blades of grass deserve full social and civic rights. It’s nonsense. It’s totally McArdled.

Screw it, Bergstrom is right. I’m going to go spidering.

Comments

  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    In countries where abortion is illegal, how many pregnancies end in abortion? How many end with the death of the mother?

  2. raven says

    Ex-ante, would I rather be conceived in a country where abortion is illegal, or where one in five pregnancies ends in abortion.

    This isn’t even a choice that requires much thought.

    The vast majority of people in the world in general and the USA in particular have opted for the society where abortion is legal.
    If Megan McArdle wants to live in a society where women are second class citizens subject to forced birthing and female slavery, her choices are limited. She could always move to Afghanistan or El Salvador. Romania is out since Ceausescu was executed by his own people.

    The blob of cells that would be the future Megan McArdle isn’t going to know or care if they get aborted, not having a functioning brain.
    The future Megan McArdle living in a christofascist dystopia most likely is going to care a lot about freedom to live their own lives and make their own decisions.

  3. spinynorman8 says

    This is a textbook illustration of the problem with Twitter, a medium that allows people to blurt out half-baked, stupid or reactionary ideas with the minimum amount of thought. And in doing so add more pink noise to an already deafening discourse.

    Carl’s response is spot on and reflects the mindset of someone who respects themselves and their time too much to waste on this type of too-easily refuted drivel.

  4. says

    In case you didn’t know, John Rawls’ concept of the “veil of ignorance” is the idea that society should be structured by people who have no idea of what role they will occupy in it — that a truly just society has to be defined by principles that are equitable and unbiased.

    Here’s strike one: the former is not the same as the latter.

    And let’s face it: there’s no way on earth that any significant number of people can build a society of state without having ANY CLUE where they’ll end up in it. And even if they didn’t, there’d be plenty of people and interest-groups who would be eager to remind them.

    This is (as you describe it at least) just a silly fantasy that sets an impossible standard for achieving a just and equitable society.

  5. says

    If you’re not careful and aware when you make decisions you end up part of a cult that believes:
    “Don’t worry, a Christian politician cannot be racist.”
    — Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary
    WTF! Ignorance is NOT bliss

  6. says

    As others and as our book says, you need at least three data points to make any kind of projection on where you are going and where you will end up: past, present and desired future. Ignorance in decision making leaves you flapping in the wind of chance. You are like a seed blown on the breeze, not knowing if you will land on fertile soil.

  7. PaulBC says

    I started formulating a response in my head, but I think PZ covered it completely. There is no “I” in an embryo. Even a religious doctrine that human life “begins” at conception doesn’t carry the notion of a consciousness or preference at that stage.

    It’s also a hypocritical viewpoint since very few conservatives are pushing to shut down fertility clinics who carry out IVF. Would “I” “rather” be shoved in a deep freeze and abandoned? If you’re talking about me, then no, I wouldn’t. But if you’re talking about a single cell that is just like other mammalian zygotes aside from a particular information-bearing molecule, then it’s safe to say that nobody really cares much about its fate unless they have a political need to pretend to care.

  8. moarscienceplz says

    “I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
    – Mark Twain
    Even assuming “I” was an unbodied soul before I was born. I think it is easy to decide that never being born is preferable to being born to a mother that did not want me.

  9. StevoR says

    If vague memory serves, wasn’t there another philosopher after Rawl’s who said not only should there be a veil of ignorance but rather we should assume that we will be born into the worst position and circumstances of a given society first and then decide how we want to make it / whether we want to live in it?

    To eliminate, among other things, those people that will wish to take the chance of being born better position and not care about those worse off playing the odds.

    (Or / & judge a society by how it treats its most vulnerable and least privileged and lowest ranking members.)

  10. PaulBC says

    Everyone is subject to a veil of partial ignorance and a lot of unwarranted assumptions.

    “Second amendment advocates” (to use a very silly term for gun nuts) obviously have an assumption about which side of the gun barrel they’re going to be standing. I have my own assumption, and since I never intend to buy a gun, I am at least unlikely to be wrong about that. This does inform my policy preferences. I don’t think that’s a bad thing either. Not every decision should be subject to a game theoretic analysis like cake cutting.

    For one thing, making policy is hard work, and it is difficult to get high quality work out of people without setting incentives for them. If you don’t have any stake in your policy decision, you’re probably going to miss a lot of things. Rather than a total veil of ignorance, which is impossible anyway, it is more effective to include all stakeholders effectively making wagers as to the outcome of the decision on their well-being. The problem was not Thomas Jefferson’s knowledge of how independence from Britain would benefit him, but the total exclusion of others affected, such as the slaves whose human rights he had usurped.

    This is one reason why the US has an adversarial system of justice rather than one based on the ludicrous belief that any human being could make a fair and unbiased determination of guilt.

  11. keinsignal says

    Why not take it all the way: “if I were a molecule of potassium, would I rather be a part of a human cell, or a grain of road salt?”. Atomic rights!

  12. PaulBC says

    “Or would you like to swing on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar…” (Sorry, all this “would you rather” triggered an involuntary musical memory.)

  13. Allison says

    In response to the forced-birther question: “what if your mother had had an abortion?”

    For most of my life, I felt I would have been better off if my mother had had an abortion when she was pregnant with me. It would have spared me (and the people around me) a lot of suffering.

    The response I liked best was:

    Replying to @CT_Bergstrom
    trick question it’s the same country

  14. larpar says

    I don’t think it matters much which country I was conceived in, but I’d rather be born in one with legal abortion.

  15. Reginald Selkirk says

    Those aren’t conscious agents who can even conceive of a philosophy of personhood…

    What you did, it was seen.

  16. microraptor says

    Speaking of stupid and pretentious, an online far-right clothing company, Lions Not Sheep, was just busted for putting “Made in the USA” tags on clothing it was selling that had been manufactured in China.

  17. says

    The problem with Rawls’ approach is that it still allows political power to be aggregated (i.e: “king” might be a possible role) then the power-hungry sociopath steals the role and doesn’t even say “thank you”.

    An egalitarian society is better – there’s no point in lying, cheating, or stealing to get someone else’s position. While I think that is a reasonable thing to want, I also doubt humans’ ability to be egalitarian. I don’t know what can be done – perhaps cull sociopaths at the age of responsibility? But they’re super adaptable. Stories of Napoleon Bonaparte are that he was a trouble-maker as a child. Other sociopaths only blossom when they get access to money/power. Those people are more damaging than terrorists.

  18. Timothy Hamilton says

    I still have trouble believing that anyone takes Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance seriously. It relies on prior beliefs about human nature & the world. An easy example. Imagine a slave holding society in which it is widely believed that some people are unable to properly care for themselves. A slave owner asked about some social policy. This slave owner, perhaps naive, perhaps not the sharpest critical thinker, genuinely believes that if he were a slave in his society that he would want someone wise and scrupulous to watch over him to make the decisions that he would not be able to. Just like we “know” justice is fairness and rooted in equality.

  19. silvrhalide says

    @2 Is that the future Megan McArdle that would be living in the christofascist future that the Republicans are trying to bring about in the US (and partially succeeding, at least in the red states) or is that the future Megan McArdle who moves to Afghanistan in order to live in a country with no abortion, no birth control and precious little medical care, since you can’t leave the house unless accompanied by a male relative? Because the second one is where she discovers that she is a second class citizen for being Christian AND female in an islamofascist FAILED state.
    Although the latter part about the medical care or lack of same, is apparently coming soon to a red state near you!

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2022/08/06/abortion-maternity-health-obgyn/
    “Three candidates turned down one of the firm’s recruiters, who was working to fill a single job in maternal fetal medicine in Texas, he said: “All three expressed fear they could be fined or lose their license for doing their jobs.”
    In another example, a physician contacted by phone by an AMN Healthcare recruiter trying to fill a post in an antiabortion state “simply said, ‘Roe versus Wade,’ and hung up,” Florence said.”

    and this:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/magazine/interactive/2022/afghanistan-taliban-takeover/?utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most&carta-url=https%3A%2F%2Fs2.washingtonpost.com%2Fcar-ln-tr%2F3795e5a%2F62efdd35cfe8a21601207c09%2F597776a69bbc0f6826c3fa0d%2F13%2F72%2F62efdd35cfe8a21601207c09&wp_cu=5c411ed9e0ce999386860f7d77994200%7CC0DBC0C3123C2BA7E0430100007FAD1A

    For the record, I’d rather be born into a country (or state) where 20% of pregnancies end in abortion as opposed to living a short, painful and brutal life from Tay-Sachs, severe osteogenesis imperfecta or any number of other genetic diseases or developmental disorders that would result in a life not worth living.
    Not all abortions would have otherwise ended in a living functional human being anyway. The whole idea that women get abortions only for convenience is bullshit.

    The link below is an accurate measure of exactly how “pro-life” the “pro-lifers” (liars) really are:
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2022/08/07/insulin-cap-budget-congress/
    Keep in mind that red states tend to be poorer with higher incidence of diabetes, heart disease, etc.

    @13 Well, this is the version I remember… :D

  20. vucodlak says

    I’ve encountered variations of McArdle’s argument a lot when talking about reproductive choice with right-wingers about abortion, and what strikes me is the incredible selfishness of the conservative position on abortion (and just about everything else). They literally cannot conceive of anything being more important than their own existence- if they could, they’d recognize the absurdity of the question.

    On its face, the question assumes that your life is more important than your incubator’s parent’s life. It assumes either that your existence is a net positive in the world, or that you are so important that it doesn’t matter either way. It assumes either that your life could only have turned out exactly the way it has turned out, or that nothing could happen in your life that would alter your opinion about the preciousness of your own existence.

    This is a view that ignores that there are and have been many, many people in who would rather have not been born at all. It ignores the suffering experience by those who lose their parent to childbirth. It ignores the misery of those who are not wanted, or who cannot be provided for. It ignores the existence of all who differ from the questioner in any significant way.

    In short, McArdle’s argument is a viewpoint that’s self-centered to the point of solipsism. As far as the typical conservative forced-birther is concerned, they are the universe.

  21. birgerjohansson says

    Just let the Vogons take over. The people who voted in MAGA hats and tories deserve it.
    .
    I live a continent away, but since stuff that happen in USA and Britain inevitably affects the EU countries I have to keep informed in sheer self-defence.
    I would love to never again have to read about T**** or B****! And of the troglodytes who bring them to power.

  22. says

    birgerjohansson@23

    I would love to never again have to read about T**** or B****! And of the troglodytes who bring them to power.

    Seconded.

  23. birgerjohansson says

    I live in one of those strange countries where we have “legacy conservatives” that are neither crazy nor corrupt. The kooks that grab headlines with their Jewish space lasers would not be welcome.
    Too many of our conservatives still believe in the neoliberal fallacies that have been disproven so often, but they do not challenge abortions nor do they mess with gay people.
    My point is it is possible to get along, if both sides are free of corruption and do not embrace populism.
    I have no idea of how USA or Britain could get there, short of towing the corrupt junk to be sunk in the Marianas trench, leaving place for brand new conservative parties.

  24. anat says

    I wish my mother had been in a place where abortion was legal when she was pregnant with me. I was a bit of a surprise – though my parents were married when I was conceived they were not ready to be parents, and as I understand it were originally planning to wait for a bit. I think things would have been better had they been able to get back to their original plan.

  25. says

    @silvrhalide

    “living a short, painful and brutal life from Tay-Sachs, severe osteogenesis imperfecta or any number of other genetic diseases or developmental disorders that would result in a life not worth living.”

    Wow. That’s some ableism, right there. Who the fuck are you to decide which life isn’t worth it?

  26. says

    “Second amendment advocates” (to use a very silly term for gun nuts)…

    Well, “second-half-of-Second-Amendment advocates” is more accurate but too many syllables.

    In response to the forced-birther question: “what if your mother had had an abortion?”…

    I’d say “What if my parents had never had sex? Same (non-)result. Your point…?”

  27. says

    “This is a bit like imagining asking sperm to vote on state laws”. Thats what Republicans want. Once the sperm produces a sentient, functioning human being its an entirely different matter. Hmm? I stand corrected. They only want Republican sperm to vote.

  28. silvrhalide says

    @28 Presumably you know how to read, since you made it this far. You might want to work on the reading comprehension though.
    I said that I would not want to live under certain circumstances, such as Tay-Sachs, severe osteogenesis imperfecta, and several other diseases. Do you even know what any of those are?
    Here’s some help:
    https://rarediseases.org/rare-diseases/tay-sachs-disease/
    “The most common form of Tay-Sachs disease is the Infantile form, which can present around 6 months of age as reduced vision and an exaggerated startle response and eventually progress to a gradual loss of skills and seizures by age 2 and early death, usually by the age of 5.”
    So, basically a toddler’s entire short life is spent in increasing agony, until they die in increasingly violent seizures or until their heart stops from the neurodegenerative part of the disorder.

    https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/osteogenesis-imperfecta
    Type II. Most severe type. A baby has very short arms and legs, a small chest, and soft skull. He or she may be born with fractured bones. He or she may also have a low birth weight and lungs that are not well developed. A baby with type II OI usually dies within weeks of birth
    So to be clear, if a baby is unlucky enough to have the severe form of the disease, that baby can’t be held without breaking its bones. Assuming it survives the birth process at all. And it won’t survive much longer. In constant pain from broken bones.

    Have you ever watched someone die, slowly and painfully, from repeated and increasingly severe seizures? It’s not pretty. I had a friend who died from glioblastoma. I was his words for 2.5 years, because one of the early signs of glioblastoma is losing the ability to read and later, aphasia or the ability to speak coherently, the so-called word salad. I spend his final Christmas Eve with him. He was in terrible pain, even with opiates on demand (he had a permanent port for them by then) and could barely see. He spent Christmas Day with his family, then lapsed into a coma. It took him a week to die. A week of agonizing seizures, increasingly frequent and increasingly painful.
    It’s the reason I sign all the right to die petitions to get the right to die laws on the books.
    There are unquestionably conditions under which people do not want to live or people do not want to watch their loved ones live. If you can call it living.

    Ableist fascists like you are the reason this woman could not choose to die in the state and the house she called home.
    https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/11/02/brittany-maynard-as-promised-ends-her-life-at-29/
    https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2015/jan/22/california-right-to-die-brittany-maynard
    ““Brittany was a Californian. We lived in this state, and she would have preferred to pass away peacefully in this state,” Diaz added.”
    https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-euthanasia-california/california-cancer-patient-sues-for-right-to-doctor-assisted-death-idUKKBN0LF2PR20150211
    ““If and when the leukemia returns, I want to have the option to ask my doctor to aid me in my dying,” she said. “I don’t want to die in a hospital, I’ve seen too many of my friends in the cancer patients’ community die that way.””
    Proud of yourself?
    It’s just all about the lulz and the woke points with you, isn’t it? So you can look in the mirror and ask “who’s the wokiest prog of them all? I am!” The people who might choose differently from you, for themselves or for their nearest and dearest who maybe can’t make that decision for themselves, out of love and compassion and respect, just get ground underfoot or kicked to the curb so you can feel your cheap self-righteous feels.

    Keep whacking at that straw man you set up, WMD Kitty.

  29. whheydt says

    Re: silvrhalide @ #31…
    My wife was in the hospital for 2.5 weeks in June. She made a strong point that she wanted to die at home. It is very hard to argue with someone who has to speak one word or a couple of syllables at a time. As it happened, she did die at home. A bit less than 24 hours after she came home from the hospital. The cause was ALS.

  30. hopeleith says

    It’s the bone deep ignorance of people like her that really grates on me. Making abortion illegal doesn’t reduce the number of abortions, it increases the number of women who die from them. We know this, we also know that the US already has a higher rate of maternal mortality than any other G20 country (roughly double that of Canada and triple that of Germany), and if you look at POC mothers, a MUCH higher rate ie 17/100,000 overall and 43/100 000 for black women. But she is also apparently unaware of the fact that the biggest abortionist in the world is natural causes, up to half of all fertilized eggs either fail to implant or miscarry on their own in the first trimester. Her “gotcha” about choosing to be born in a country where abortion is illegal is no gotcha at all, the egg’s chances of surviving are much the same in either case.

  31. says

    I have a technical point about Rawlsian philosophy. The veil of ignorance is never absolute nor is the amount of information hidden from the agents deciding a question always the same. It depends on the level of the question.

    Briefly, in the original position-that is when the first principles of justice are decided-the veil is at its most encompassing. Each person only knows that they are 1. rational 2. general facts about humanity. i.e. basic biology, history. that there are multiple comprehensive doctrines etc. It is not clear to me that agents here would stipulate that fetuses are persons because that question would be a general fact about humanity that they would know.

    Jefferson writing the DoI and influencing Madison during the constitutional convention would be roughly equal to the constitutional phase of Rawls’s system. In this step the agents would know a little bit more about their social and economic position AND they would know what First Principles were selected . While Jefferson wouldn’t know if he was a slaver owner or a slave he would know that he is American, the general condition of the colonies etc. etc. AND he would know that slavery was disallowed be the First Principle of Justice, that is all have claim to equal rights and liberties. So Jefferson should have advocated to end slavery because of his knowledge that slavery was disallowed by the First Principle of Justice not merely because of the self-interested conclusion that he didn’t want to end up as a slave (through of course that works too).

    Whether or not abortion should be permitted by law is not a question of the Original Position nor of the Constitutional phase but the Legislative phase. In this phase the agents know the first principles of justice AND the Constitutional schema AND the detail history of how bans on abortion actually work in the US context, that is the bans don’t really curtail abortion and tend to kill women. (One can argue they also know they weren’t aborted.) That the control of one’s body is a supreme importance gets reified in the Constitutional phase as it is clearly a basic liberty. Abortion bans are disallowed not because of the self-interested reason of an agent might end up pregnant but because the agents already agreed that the control of one’s body is of supreme importance and that bans generally don’t reduce abortions.

    So the question of how can you allow abortion when you might end up aborted is a bad question. It is trying to decide too concrete of a case behind too thick of a veil of ignorance.

  32. says

    It rather seems “would you rather be conceived ….” is effectively the same as “would you rather exist ….” which makes it an easy answer: I’d choose “women can get health care.”

  33. says

    @Timothy Hamilton

    This it is similar to the technical error as the abortion argument-you’re not making the veil thick enough. The agents in the original position know both the facts of history and humanity AND the widespread beliefs about the same. They do not know either what society they are from nor where in history they are at. The notion that “some people are born slaves” is a disputed belief-it is not a given, it is not a fact, and it is not a cultural universal. It cannot be used in the original position to select first principles because the agents know that a lot of people believed this and a lot of people didn’t-a lot of societies didn’t have slavery and a lot of them did. It is a different thing than the fact “all persons need food to remain alive” (which is both known and can be reasoned with in the original position).

    Once First Principles are selected any general notion of basic liberty will disallow slavery even in societies with widespread beliefs about some people being slaves by nature. The agents working through the process only know what society they are from after leaving the original position and cultural variables are not relevant until that time.

  34. khms says

    Ok, so it’s 1/5 abortions, and presumably approx. 1/2 men and women each. (Let’s ignore trans people here – not only do conservatives have serious trouble understanding them, their numbers are low enough to not influence my argument anyway.)

    So, let’s see. That makes 1/5 aborted, 2/5 men, and 2/5 women. So in that environment, I’d have a 40% chance of being a woman who might want an abortion and has a chance of getting one. (The other 60% simply don’t have that problem in the first place.)

    And let’s just assume all the 1/5 aborted get a normal life in the other option, no matter how unrealistic that is. So now I have a 50% chance of being a woman without access to abortion.

    Guess what? I’ll take the option with abortion.

  35. says

    keinsignal @ #12 and leerudolph @ #17, I LOLed.

    I read this recently at Religion Dispatches – “Odd Comments by Michigan Football Coach Reveal Who Anti-Abortion Christians Think They’re Defending”:

    …As he led up to his plea for “courage,” [U. of Michigan football coach Jim] Harbaugh also said “In God’s plan, each unborn human truly has a future filled with potential, talent, dreams and love. . . I have living proof in my family, my children, and the many thousands that I’ve coached that the unborn are amazing gifts from God to make this world a better place.” Harbaugh seems to be referring here not only or even primarily to actual human embryos and fetuses, but about a fantasy group of tiny humans, “the unborn” people who have yet to be conceived.

    Perhaps recognizing the quasi-religious fantasy at play here can help us understand the current state of forced birth legislation, which no longer even pretends to care about the life of the actual person who must give birth….

    …What if for Harbaugh and others it isn’t only about developing embryos and fetuses, but a whole class of people—“the unborn”—who are out there somewhere waiting on the sidelines just hoping for their chance to suit up and get in the game? As Harbaugh sees it, these “amazing gifts from God” just want to “make the world a better place.” And all it takes to give them this chance is a little courage.

    Not surprisingly, Harbaugh went on to quote from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, a text which dates back to the sixth century BCE, and whose purpose is to explain the ancient Israelites’ captivity in Babylon as punishment from God for straying from the law and worshiping false gods. Jeremiah 1:5, which reads “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I dedicated you,” is the hands-down favorite verse of anti-abortion Christians looking for scriptural support for their position.

    (Let’s leave aside for the moment that this verse is part of what’s known as the “Call of Jeremiah” and demonstrates only that Jeremiah was chosen by God for his special prophetic office, not that all of us regular human beings were similarly known and chosen.)

    Regarding Harbaugh’s plea on behalf of the pre-conceived unborn, we should notice that Jeremiah 1:5 reads “before I formed you in the womb I knew you” not “while you were growing in the womb I knew you.” In other words, God isn’t referring to Jeremiah’s mother’s pregnancy but to a mythical time before his conception when Jeremiah apparently already existed, at least in the mind of God. We should be open to the fact that Harbaugh and others on the Christian Right who refer to this passage when discussing abortion may actually be serious about their reading of it and referring to the right of pre-conceived humans to exist.

    Harbaugh himself is a practicing Catholic and the father of seven children. According to his Wikipedia page, he has three children from his first marriage, which ended in divorce in 2006, and four from his current second marriage. If there is a group of unborn, as-yet-unconceived children out there, as Harbaugh seems to imply, then it would be the duty of every man to help bring to earth as many as possible of these people who have so much “potential, talent, dreams, and love” to share with the world. All men would need, then, are some women with enough “courage” to help them get the job done.

    And if these unborn are out there somewhere and just really need a break, then it becomes the duty of every woman to bring as many of these hopeful little souls into the world as possible. Is it fair to stop at one or two children when there are so many unborn children out there wanting to be born?

    Perhaps this concern for the rights of pre-conceived humans is why losing the right to contraception may be next. The way things are going, we certainly won’t have to wait long to find out.

  36. says

    Further down that Twitter thread:

    Josh Fruhlinger
    @jfruh
    by dicking around and wasting time for months on end, only to finish their work in a feverish burst of activity over a sleep-deprived 36 hours for no good reason, the united states senate has managed to make itself very relatable to me personally

  37. says

    The problem with applying this “veil of ignorance” rubbish in relation to abortion, is that you could also use it to oppose ANY policy that would cause ANY significant change in ANY significant number of lives. If a society does one thing, or goes one way, then many couples won’t meet and have kids who might otherwise have done so, and therefore we can’t let society go that way, because none of us can know whether we would have been born in that timeline or not. Oh, but wait, the same is true if a society DOESN’T go that particular way! So no, this line of reasoning is — to put it mercifully — not at all useful.

  38. says

    raven @ #2:

    Romania is out since Ceausescu was executed by his own people.

    For anyone who doesn’t know, here’s a brief description from Tony Judt’s 2005 Postwar (pp. 622-623):

    Romanians…paid a terrible price for Ceaușescu’s privileged status [as a darling of Western political leaders]. In 1966, to increase the population – a traditional ‘Romanianist’ obsession – he prohibited abortion for women under forty with fewer than four children (in 1986 the age barrier was raised to forty-five). In 1984 the minimum marriage age for women was reduced to fifteen. Compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age were introduced to prevent abortions, which were permitted, if at all, only in the presence of a Party representative. Doctors in districts with a declining birth rate had their salaries cut.

    The population did not increase, but the death rate from abortions far exceeded that of any other European country: as the only available form of birth control, illegal abortions were widely performed, often under the most appalling and dangerous conditions. Over the ensuing twenty-three years the 1966 law resulted in the death of at least ten thousand women. The real infant mortality rate was so high that after 1985 births were not officially recorded until a child had survived to its fourth week – the apotheosis of Communist control of knowledge. By the time Ceaușescu was overthrown the death rate of new-born babies was twenty-five per thousand and there were upward of 100,000 institutionalized children.

  39. lanir says

    Okay, this question is gibberish. I think the closest you can get to it without being completely dishonest involves blind adoption.

    In the circumstances of blind adoption you don’t know who your birth parents are or their situation. You might hear rumors but that’s all they are. You would likely still know if you had any health conditions that required surgery or other significant medical intervention shortly after birth. You know your rough circumstances such as whether your appearance and mental capabilities fall within the norm or not. You know what race you appear to be. Everything else is an unknown.

    I was adopted a month after I was born and I’ve never known who my birth parents are. I can say with confidence that I am glad I was born while Roe vs Wade was the law of the land because it means that the likelihood my mere existence was used to torment some woman I’ll never know for 9 months and then force her to give birth to me at some risk is very unlikely.

    And lets look at that what that answer means for a moment. If I answered the other way and I prefered that my birth mother not have the option of abortion then I’d be saying I don’t care how much she suffers as long as I get what I need from her. I mean, the whole point is I don’t know the circumstances of my birth parents. That 10 year old pregnant rape victim in the news last month? I have no meaningful way to rule out my birth mother having similar circumstances. If I don’t care about that I can’t see any reason why I would care much about anyone I don’t know personally. I could just focus on me and possibly the people around me. As long as I got something out of it why would it matter to me if other people pay a serious cost?

    This is the sociopath position I’ve come to expect from loud conservatives.

  40. lanir says

    @38: The article didn’t mention it but the weird fallacy with that idea even from the religious person’s point of view is they assume out of nowhere that they know there are more unborn. They’re making assumptions about the quantity and saying their omnipotent, omniscient god doesn’t know enough or have enough power to get them all out into the world. He needs their asshole help to get the job done. :/

    Personally I think the anti-abortion crowd is super simple. It’s all in the signs they use. They have this fantasy of a fully developed baby waiting in the womb to be born. There are no complications, no issues, the baby isn’t the product of rape or incest. The baby isn’t a specific person and neither is the mother. In fact the baby isn’t a person at all, it’s just a bundle of triggers for that “Aww, how precious, it’s a baby!” response. In this fantasy the mother also should feel the same way about the baby and they’re repulsed when the real world mother doesn’t match the fantasy. Since even they can’t manage to figure out a way to blame the baby, all complications are ignored. It’s why they either want to pretend incest and rape don’t exist or virulently campaign for these not to be exceptions to abortion bans.

    In other words they sell us all down the river so they can get a few moments of warm cuddly feelings for saving an imaginary baby. I wish they’d just get a damn hobby instead. Maybe grow some plants or something. :P

  41. Matthew Currie says

    This all reminds me of a bumper sticker I see occasionally on cars usually sporting other “pro-life” and related sentiments, “Aren’t you glad your mother chose life?” Yes indeed. better not make that mistake again!

    So did my then wife and I, as it happens, choose life once long ago, and when I read my kids Beatrix Potter and came to the part where the foxy looking gentleman asks Jemima Puddleduck to pick some onions on the way to their lunch, even my little kids understood what was funny about that.

  42. birgerjohansson says

    whheydt @ 32
    My condolences . I have so far known three people to die of this devastating disease. ALS research has seen some progress but is still well short of a practical treatment.

  43. says

    “basically, the cutter is behind a veil of ignorance about which piece they get, so they’ll strive to divide the cake fairly”

    Actually, the cake cutter knows they will get the smaller piece.

    Your response to McArdle is spot on and applies to the whole “right to life” nonsense of the forced birthers,

  44. whheydt says

    Re: birgerjohansson @ #45…
    Thank you. ALS is well short of any effective treatment, whether practical or not.

  45. says

    “That’s some ableism, right there.”

    No, stupid, it’s not.

    “Who the fuck are you to decide which life isn’t worth it?”

    You are no different from the forced birthers and how they use their pretend concern as a rhetorical cudgel.

  46. says

    @27 Anat

    ” I think things would have been better had they been able to get back to their original plan.”

    This brings to mind what Ursula Le Guin said about this:

    “It’s like this: if I had dropped out of college, thrown away my education, depended on my parents … if I had done all that, which is what the anti-abortion people want me to have done, I would have borne a child for them, … the authorities, the theorists, the fundamentalists; I would have born a child for them, their child.

    But I would not have born my own first child, or second child, or third child. My children.

    The life of that fetus would have prevented, would have aborted, three other fetuses … the three wanted children, the three I had with my husband—whom, if I had not aborted the unwanted one, I would never have met … I would have been an “unwed mother” of a three-year-old in California, without work, with half an education, living off her parents….

    But it is the children I have to come back to, my children Elisabeth, Caroline, Theodore, my joy, my pride, my loves. If I had not broken the law and aborted that life nobody wanted, they would have been aborted by a cruel, bigoted, and senseless law. They would never have been born. This thought I cannot bear.”

    That and more at https://www.readingistherapy.com/ursula-le-guin-on-abortion/

  47. raven says

    @38 SC

    What if for Harbaugh and others it isn’t only about developing embryos and fetuses, but a whole class of people—“the unborn”—who are out there somewhere waiting on the sidelines just hoping for their chance to suit up and get in the game?

    This is also Mormon gibberish.

    They believe that our father god is just a human who has been around longer and lives on planet Kolob with his fleet of goddess wives that are so important no one even knows their names. He spends all his time having sex with the goddess fleet and producing spirit babies. (You would never know Mormonism was made up by an overaged adolescent with 40 wives.)

    The spirit babies hang around in pre-existence until a body is created on earth and they snag it and become humans. The Mormon god is so powerful that the vast majority of spirit babies end up both non-Mormon and nonxian.

    This is a fringe belief even for xians.
    There is so much wrong with it that it would take pages to list, starting with the fact that 40% of all zygotes end up miscarried.

    PS There is nothing that says that these imaginary spirit babies/preborns can’t you know, wait in line and take their time finding an egg or zygote to invade. What is the hurry here anyway? In Genesis, it says the earth will last forever.

  48. says

    “I still have trouble believing that anyone takes Rawls’ Veil of Ignorance seriously.”

    Stupid and ignorant people generally have trouble understanding the thought processes of those who aren’t.

    Maybe you should actually read Rawls.

  49. says

    “This is one reason why the US has an adversarial system of justice rather than one based on the ludicrous belief that any human being could make a fair and unbiased determination of guilt.”

    These aren’t the only options, and the former one leads to a lot of bad outcomes.

  50. raven says

    Mormonwiki:

    Before this mortal life, everyone existed as spirit children of God. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ teaches that during this period, which Latter-day Saints call the first estate (see Jude 1:6), everyone knew and worshiped God the Father (see Godhead).

    Some Latter-day Saints believe that, prior to being born as spirits, individuals existed eternally as intelligences or self-aware, individual entities whom God gave spirit bodies. The word intelligences, as used here, however, comes from the Book of Abraham, and refers to spirit children of God:
    and
    Mortal life would provide each spirit being with a physical body. Through the physical body, mankind could be tested. The loss of memory of the premarital (sic, should be pre-existence) existence and the separation from God would force men to live by faith. The plan allows man to gain wisdom through experience, guaranteed by his free agency.

    More than you wanted to know about Mormon beliefs.

    They will tell you are purpose on earth is to make bodies for the spirit babies, which is why they have large families.

  51. says

    “This is (as you describe it at least) just a silly fantasy that sets an impossible standard for achieving a just and equitable society.”

    The problem is the bit in parentheses.

  52. says

    “This is a textbook illustration of the problem with Twitter, a medium that allows people to blurt out half-baked, stupid or reactionary ideas with the minimum amount of thought. And in doing so add more pink noise to an already deafening discourse.

    Carl’s response is spot on and reflects the mindset of someone who respects themselves and their time too much to waste on this type of too-easily refuted drivel.”

    Carl’s response appeared on Twitter.

    There’s a reason why numerous intellectuals and activists have landed on Twitter, often after having the sort of mistaken view of it that is common here.

  53. snarkrates says

    WMDkitty, Although our pets are not human, there are those of us who take their well being and our obligations to them as seriously as we would our children. There comes a time in their lives consist mainly of suffering. When that time comes we have to choose, because our pets cannot choose, and not to choose is to choose for suffering to continue. Is that specist? Or is it compassion? Not choosing is a choice, and it isn’t the right one in many cases.

  54. PaulBC says

    Jim Balter@46

    Actually, the cake cutter knows they will get the smaller piece.

    No they don’t. The cake chooser may be in a generous mood. Assuming the pieces are nearly equal in size, they can easily afford this miniscule act of kindness. It is interesting how game theoretic and economic models assume we all act like Ferengi.

    Actually (I’m trying to remember where I read this, maybe Poundstone’s Prisoner’s Dilemma but I can’t find it right now) early game theoreticians, e.g. at RAND, were frustrated by the behavior of their subjects, typically secretaries working with them. They would set up a game in which the equilibrium had the winner taking a large prize and instead the players would arrange it so they could split the prize, presumably to reinforce a social connection. People are inherently cooperative, at least some of the time, and these models often fail.

    Aside from human psychology, the cutter may have better eyesight as well as precision than the chooser, making it a matter of chance whether the latter chooses the larger piece even if they are trying to.

    Sorry… not trying to be pedantic or one-up. I get your point and it may even be correct if qualified precisely. However, PZ’s statement seems both accurate and sufficient to set up the game conditions.

  55. says

    Jim: Thanks for the cite. Unfortunately, that description isn’t very different, or more plausible, than PZ’s summation thereof, so for the most part, my point about it being “just a silly fantasy that sets an impossible standard for achieving a just and equitable society” still stands. From the article:

    Of course, if we were designing a society in the Original Position, people might try to ensure that it works in their favour. The process is thus vulnerable to biases, disagreements, and the potential for majority groups ganging up on minority groups. Rawls’s solution to this problem comes in two parts. Firstly, he makes some assumptions about the people designing their own society…

    So…he responds to objections by assuming them away. Reminds me of the old joke about an economist “assuming a ladder” when he finds himself in a hole.

    Rawls also simplifies his discussion by imagining that people in the Original Position … must choose from a menu of views taken from traditional Western philosophy on what justice involves.

    Why should one assume that, when there isn’t a single Western nation today that doesn’t have a significant number of non-Western immigrants bringing their ideas with them? (And didn’t our “Western” concept of democracy have a bit of input from Native Americans?)

    Seriously, the above-quoted silliness is just in the second and third paragraphs of the article. I’ll try to get to the rest after I’m done making dinner. Not sure I’m looking forward to that…

  56. Kagehi says

    My first thought on the weird argument was to reword it – “Would you rather be conceived in a nation that is all white, or one in which one in every five pregnancies was not?” And this is one of the more extreme versions, which would get some of the, “I ain’t no racists”, on the far right freaking out. But, how about, “One in which its illegal to make someone poor, or one in which one out of every 5 are born into poverty?”, or literally any other bloody thing you can think of, because you can be dang sure someone will object to either the conditions given (what ever that 1 in 5 is), or the absurdity of the argument on its face. But… we all know that those defending it will just special plead “their” version.

  57. John Morales says

    PaulBC,

    No they don’t. The cake chooser may be in a generous mood.

    But the entire premise is that neither wants to miss out and this is the chosen equitable process, so you ignore the premise in formulating your objection.

  58. PaulBC says

    Raging Bee@60

    Firstly, he makes some assumptions about the people designing their own society

    …a major one being that there are people capable of “designing their own society.” You can choose the rules as carefully as possible and even under the unrealistic assumption that rules are adhered to, the outcome follows a complex trajectory that you can only guess at. Your society is always a function of the people who live in it with you (less so if you’re Kim Jong-un but it’s true for him as well).

    It’s like when a very naive person says “You wrote the computer program. You should be able to say what it will do.” No, I wrote the computer program so I could find out what it does. (At least sometimes; what I write for a living tends to be more predictable, or I try to make it so.) It strikes me that this ethical analysis assumes a level of foresight about a static set of rules that human beings simply cannot possess even in an ideal case.

    There’s ethical significance to what they are trying to accomplish, and I get why philosophers care about such things. Also, you’re usually better off having people start with benign intent than hoping the law of unintended consequences will save the day. But at basis, I am skeptical there’s a much practical importance to this line of analysis (note: I am not attacking Rawls or the significance of his ideas, just explaining why it is hard for me to think in those terms).

    I would prefer to see society adapt to present conditions with laws and policy revised continuously in response to the needs of all stakeholders. The initial setup has to allow for this. Beyond that, it’s a crap shoot.

    Cake cutting: sorry I can’t resist adding. Given that cakes are three dimensional and human beings are subject to optical illusions, I can imagine the person cutting the cake doing so it such a way the the person choosing the piece would be misled (assuming they had to choose from their vantage point).

    Easy and stupid approach: start with a slice through the diameter on top of the cake appearing to show a larger region but increase the size of the other piece underneath the surface using cuts that are occluded. Obviously, this fails if the chooser gets to watch the whole process, which is a reasonable stipulation.

    If you start with a cake that is not symmetrical, maybe with a complex boundary or holes, but happen to understand its fair division better than the chooser (you designed it yourself in a CAD tool), then you at least win yourself a 50/50 chance of getting the bigger piece (which is the best you can do if the chooser applies a mixed strategy, e.g. flipping a coin). Better yet, there are many optical illusions that could make the small piece appear bigger, assuming you know the shape of the cake. Or there could be a second-order illusion such that someone who understood a common optical illusion would make the wrong call on this particular case. Again, a mixed strategy is optimal for a non-omniscient chooser.

  59. PaulBC says

    John Morales@62 OK, but in my second objection I only add the assumption that some skill is required both in slicing and choosing and may vary between players. Yes, I know what the game matrix looks like, but this is not very relevant if you’re actually trying to tie this back into human decision-making. Nobody has complete information, perfect knowledge of strategy, or even necessarily the intent to optimize their outcome. These assumptions are interesting in developing the game theoretic framework, but they also reveal its inapplicability to actual human behavior.

    I think PZ’s characterization is correct in that it only adds the necessary assumption that the cutter has no control over the action of the chooser. Or would you claim that they do have control since game theory stipulates what the chooser must do next to optimize their outcome?

    It’s a matter of setting the least assumptions sufficient to make a point. It may be that in your framework, the cutter is guaranteed to wind up with the smaller piece, but this claim is not really relevant to the point. I think it makes perfect sense to express it as PZ did.

  60. PaulBC says

    me@64 continued… In fact, in an ideal framework, Jim Balter’s statement is still too glib, because the preconditions require that the cutter to make a perfectly even division. There is no “smaller piece” so he knows he will not get it.

    If there is any possibility that the cutter cannot cut perfectly, then we’re drifting away from the game matrix to a real cake. It is just as possible that the chooser cannot determine which piece is larger and may be far off if the shape of the cake is irregular.

    I think this is a clear case where a mixed strategy is preferable. The chooser should use a coin flip to determine which half to take.

  61. says

    PaulBC: The more I read about Rawls, the more I can’t help thinking this whole thing is a “thought exercise” aimed at manipulating people into thinking that only the most clueless and inexperienced upper-class twits can be trusted to “design a society.” Certainly the people who have had first-hand experience of gross injustice will be the ones least capable of staying behind the “veil of ignorance,” so by Rawls’ implied reasoning, they’re the ones who can LEAST be trusted to participate in rebuilding their society to get rid of those injustices.

    And it kinda contradicts one of our cherished myths about our founding, which is that “The American Experiment” was successful largely because our government was designed by men who were sensible and experienced as well as college-educated; as opposed to other revolutions that failed and devolved into bloody tragic chaos because they were led by “ideological” people who didn’t have the common sense grounding in reality you supposedly get from being a middle-class businessman.

    But at the same time, Rawls’ thought-exercise also kinda reinforces that founding myth, by implying that people who only understand the reality of their circumstances in the abstract can (re)design it right; and white Christian property-owning men (according to the narrative) understand things rationally, and not emotionally like the poor sods who are too oppressed and constrained to see things objectively.

    Either way you look at it, Rawls’ thought-exercise is useless, at best. Sort of like that founding mythology it sorta supports and sorta contradicts, depending on how you squint at either…

  62. says

    “But the entire premise is that neither wants to miss out and this is the chosen equitable process, so you ignore the premise in formulating your objection.”

    Indeed. If we simply abandon the assumptions then perhaps the cake cutter is feeling generous and simply hands the other person the whole cake. The whole purpose of the “I’ll cut, you choose” process is to pressure the cutter into dividing the cake as evenly as possible.

    “OK, but in my second objection I only add the assumption that some skill is required both in slicing and choosing and may vary between players. Yes, I know what the game matrix looks like, but this is not very relevant if you’re actually trying to tie this back into human decision-making. Nobody has complete information, perfect knowledge of strategy, or even necessarily the intent to optimize their outcome. These assumptions are interesting in developing the game theoretic framework, but they also reveal its inapplicability to actual human behavior.

    I think PZ’s characterization is correct in that it only adds the necessary assumption that the cutter has no control over the action of the chooser. Or would you claim that they do have control since game theory stipulates what the chooser must do next to optimize their outcome?

    It’s a matter of setting the least assumptions sufficient to make a point. It may be that in your framework, the cutter is guaranteed to wind up with the smaller piece, but this claim is not really relevant to the point. I think it makes perfect sense to express it as PZ did.”

    Well that’s because you’re an imbecile.

    I won’t comment further of the inability of dimwits to understand Rawls. More at https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/rawls/

  63. John Benson says

    I think you’re assuming she’s being completely ingenuous. She say’s “rather be conceived,” not live. Well yeah, the sperm or egg probably would rather be conceived. What she doesn’t answer is “would you rather live” in that country. So she’s taken Rawls model and turned it inside out, and privileges one side, and treats the living human who will be forced to carry the pregnancy to term and potentially face mortal consequences to naught.

    She’s just trying to stay on the wing nut welfare system.

  64. says

    I won’t comment further of the inability of dimwits to understand Rawls.

    Which means you won’t be backing up your insults with any superior corrective information of your own.

    Well yeah, the sperm or egg probably would rather be conceived.

    The egg, yes. Not sure about the sperm though — once it’s done busting into the egg, it might suddenly change its mind and think “Holy shit, the bitch chopped off my only means of getting around, and now I’m being devoured! IT’S NOT FAAAAIIIIRRR!!!”

  65. says

    I won’t comment further of the inability of dimwits to understand Rawls.

    Which means you won’t be backing up your insults with any superior corrective information of your own.

    Well yeah, the sperm or egg probably would rather be conceived.

    The egg, yes. Not sure about the sperm though — once it’s done busting into the egg, it might suddenly change its mind and think “Holy shit, the b***h chopped off my only means of getting around, and now I’m being devoured! IT’S NOT FAAAAIIIIRRR!!!”

  66. brucej says

    There’s a reason her nickname is “Meghan McArgleBargle” or “Fractally Wrong Meghan”

    She’s a stereotypical ‘contrarian, libertarian-leaning’ pundit with the typical libertarian skin-deep understanding of disciplines she thinks she’s an expert in.

    My suggestion is definitely ‘go birding’ without even reading her drivel.

  67. DanDare says

    I find it amazing how hard people work to missunderstand Rawl’s.
    Here is a practical example.
    Eight years ago I designed a role playing club. I knew what I would like but I had to consider my ideas from the point of view of others who might attend. I did this as a mix of thought experiment and observation and asking questions.
    I looked from the POV of:
    Someone who only plays and has no intetest in GMing
    Someone who only GMs and doesn’t play
    Someone who does mixed GMing and play.
    Someone who is deeply into religion.
    Someone who is atheist.
    Someone on the autism spectrum
    Someone who is gay.
    Someone who is trans.
    I play acted how things might feel and play out if I was each such person.
    Years later the club is still going strong.
    That is the veil of ignorance at work.

  68. John Morales says

    [meta]

    Raging Bee @69, you can of course comment however you want, but your comment had me double-checking. Your italicised quotations were each to a different commenter, but that was not apparent since you provided no attribution and you segued them seamlessly.

    (Were I to do that, I’d consider myself some combo of lazy or sloppy)

  69. says

    DanDare: First, that was a role-playing club you designed, not a whole political/legal/social system. And second, what you did — which is the right thing to at least try to do for either a role-playing club or a whole society — was not at all like the “veil of ignorance” process as described by anyone here. Listening to other points of view is necessary for building a just(ish) society, and it can be done without having to make any of the ludicrous assumptions described in the commentaries on Rawls. So either you didn’t follow Rawls’ “veil of ignorance” process, or said process wasn’t well described here.

  70. says

    John: Your criticism is noted. Sometimes I stop and add citations like I should when responding to multiple comments, other times I don’t, for whatever reason. In the latest instance, I didn’t bother because my comments weren’t 100% serious in spirit or content. It’s part of an overall commenting style I’ve evolved over many hears bloviating on SciBlogs, FTBlogs and Patheos; it would probably help if I made my style a little more designed and less evolved.

  71. says

    Oh, and WTF happened to David Marjanović, Edward Heath, Modusoperandi, Azkryoth, and all the rest of the Dispatches crowd anyway? Maybe they found another Fat Socialist Poopyhead to hang with…

  72. John Morales says

    [Also, last I heard, ‘Walton’ succeeded in becoming a lawyer serving the underprivileged — but that was years ago]

  73. StevoR says

    @ 71. DanDare : GM ing = ??

    Gaming?

    @46. Jim Balter :

    “basically, the cutter is behind a veil of ignorance about which piece they get, so they’ll strive to divide the cake fairly”

    Actually, the cake cutter knows they will get the smaller piece.

    Nope. They may hope and expect that each of them will get an equal piece if they cut the cake into equally large pieces. Or they might gamble on the person being charitable or dieting or hungry or whatever or in the real world they might well, y’know, talk with the other person. As a general rule, its designed such that there is an incentive for the cake to be shared as evenly as possible with neither missing out or gaining.

    /Cap’n Obvs?

    @ various : Neither eggs nor sperm is sentient or self-aware just as clumps of cells developing from their fusion aren’t self-aware for quite some time and until a significant amount of neural development thus neither has any intention or, um, conceptions. Again bit obvious / pedantic but still..

Leave a Reply