This essay was first published, with illustrations, in Life Matters Journal Volume 4 Issue 3 — February 2016.
morass: 2. a complicated or confused situation
Think of all the array of views related to abortion that you have ever encountered. It’s a lot, isn’t it? And now let’s try to imagine all the array of contradictory views related to abortion as they have inhabited all the minds of all people through all of history. That array must be staggering. How could such a plethora of mutually exclusive ideas have originated? I think it is largely explained by the psychological morass on moral issues in general, and this issue in particular, that the human race somehow goes on living with. Recognizing and trying to escape this psychological morass can allow us to find the truth about the morality of abortion.
In making this assertion, I am assuming that there are indeed moral truths to be found about abortion and other moral questions. Certain answers to the question of whether abortion is right or wrong, just or unjust, can be identified as truer or better than others. Further, I would argue that the answers to moral questions—the moral truths—must ultimately be found through our intuition rather than through intricate arguments or philosophies (although these are certainly a useful part of the process).
Psychology professor Paul Bloom, author of the recent Just Babies: The Origins of Good and Evil, has offered some justification for an intuitive basis of morality. In an interview, he commented that while some moral values “are the product of culture and society” and “not in the genes,” “there also exist hardwired moral universals – moral principles that we all possess. And even those aspects of morality . . . that vary across cultures are ultimately grounded in these moral foundations.”[i] With this kind of psychological understanding as a basis, I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us. (I discussed this in “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate.”[ii]) In a similar vein, the journalist Christopher Hitchens described his understanding of human moral intuition in his work God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything:
Like murder and theft, this [incest] is usually found to be abhorrent to humans without any further explanation. . . . [the Golden Rule is] a sober and rational precept, which one can teach to any child with its innate sense of fairness . . . . [The Rule] is gradually learned, as part of the painfully slow evolution of the species, and once grasped is never forgotten. Ordinary conscience will do, without any heavenly wrath behind it. . . . [C]onscience is innate. . . . Everybody but the psychopath has this feeling to a greater or lesser extent. . . .[iii]
Despite this conscience, or intuitive moral sense, that humans possess, an array of psychological factors obstruct our intuitive grasp of moral truths. This is a vast topic, but in this article I have selected twelve psychological factors that might work against our finding moral truth on any issue, as well as three factors that are specific to the abortion issue. I think of this article as sketching the broad outlines of how psychological factors interfere with moral intuition. My aim is to provide a basic framework to be filled out by further research.
The psychological factors are as follows:
1. The mental longing for simplicity. No elaboration is needed here. (I can keep it simple!)
2. Upbringing. In the long-standing nature-nurture debate, I would take the following position: we are born with intuitions of certain moral truths already within us in latent form, but various actions or inactions by parents and teachers can undermine the development of those moral intuitions, or create an overlay of false values, or both. Even a casual look is enough to show us the importance, in the development of our attitudes, of background and upbringing.
3. Tribalism.Even someone who switches, for example, from pro-choice to pro-life or vice-versa may immediately start demonizing the side they had just been on.
4. Projection.We expect others to view some things and value some things just as we do.
5. Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.
6. Denial. We see only what we want to see. Or sometimes we see something, but compartmentalize it away from the part of our mind that would reject it.
7. Lack of introspection.If it is true that intuitions of moral truths exist within us and that they began to form in us before we were capable of rational analysis, then it should be clear that to find them we must look within and that this search within will not be a process of thinking up new ideas, but of rummaging through what is already there. We may need to make such efforts frequently, and with patience, over a period of time.
8. An excessive faith in the efficacy of logical argumentation to resolve moral issues. This faith seems to be borne out of a psychological need for an orderly understanding of our environment, perhaps borne in turn out of an illusion that such conceptual order gives us some kind of control over our environment.
(This is certainly not to say that there is no place in moral investigations for logic. I think that all the thought experiments and probing for inconsistency and arguments that go on are indispensable, but they are indispensable because they nudge us toward more accurate moral intuitions, which are not essentially based on logic.[iv])
9. The manufacture of perceptions. As just one example, if you hear “My body, my choice” enough times, and are not presented with alternative views, after a while you will come to really believe that there is only one body involved in an abortion.
10. Doctrinal baggage that comes along with the valuable elements of a religion. Atheism advocate Sam Harris has described a transcendent experience that he once underwent sitting by the Sea of Galilee. He writes:
If I were a Christian, I would undoubtedly have interpreted this experience in Christian terms. . . . If I were a Hindu, I might think in terms of Brahman. . . . If I were a Buddhist, I might talk about the “dharmakaya of emptiness.” [v]
The meditative and devotional techniques of various religions can bring about in us these transcendent states, arguably the most wonderful states we have ever experienced. Although Harris and others strive for totally non-religious forms of meditation, it must be admitted that religions are, today, still ahead of conventional science in the knowledge of such techniques. As a result, when someone experiments with such “religious” practices and discovers that they constitute a certain specialized wisdom that science seems to be lacking and that most directly leads to happiness, they are likely not only to adopt that valuable meditative practice, but also to buy the whole religious package, including whatever that religion teaches about astronomy and evolution—and the ensoulment of a newly-conceived baby. If the religion teaches that ensoulment does not take place for the first three months, for example, and that abortion before that point is permissible, then even if that teaching happens not to be correct, they will believe it.
This psychological factor is different from factor 5 above, in that I think it can occur even in a psychologically very healthy person.
11. Limited human intelligence.
12. Unlimited human ego. A big percentage of discussions about moral issues comes down to a garden-variety contest of egos. Discussions become more about winning, belittling, and mocking than about trying to understand clearly. People write on any topic partly because they want attention. It has been said, “More people write poetry than read it.” Similarly, it may be that more people talk than listen.
Most of the 12 factors listed above can contribute to different forms of cognitive dissonance: we sense a contradiction or incompatibility between the beliefs psychological factors move us toward and the beliefs our moral intuitions move us toward. We cope with cognitive dissonance by adopting ideas that violate our natural intuitions, and then shoring those ideas up with techniques such as confirmation bias.
Among the psychological factors that work against intuitively finding the moral truths within, there are also some differences of perception that do not come into play in relation to most moral issues, but do come into play in relation to the abortion issue:
13. Incorrect intuitions about the unborn.Some people see the unborn, especially the early unborn, as a snapshot, and some see it as part of a process. If a small embryo were to remain just as it is, frozen in time (a snapshot) we would have to say quite fairly that its life would not have much value.
Both ways of looking at the unborn are scientifically useful for different purposes. It is not science, but only pre-logical intuition, that identifies the unborn as an organism with little moral value or an organism with great moral value. If there are indeed moral truths to be found, however, one of these two intuitions must be less correct than the other.
14. Incorrect intuitions about the importance of bodily rights. One important source of variations in intuitions about the importance of bodily rights is different cultural senses of the relative weights to be given to the individual and to the collective. Almost the greatest relinquishing of bodily right imaginable is when a person submits to being conscripted into an army, where he or she will risk all his body organs being blown to bits. Different cultures vary greatly in their acceptance of military conscription. Yet if there are indeed moral truths to be found, one particular moral truth about bodily rights must be correct—not all of the diverse intuitions about bodily rights can reflect that truth. (I have written elsewhere about bodily rights.[vi])
15. Incorrect intuitions about what’s wrong with killing.Among all who get involved in discussions about moral issues, killing and violence seem to have, in general, a bad name. One would think that that would give us some common ground. But it turns out that although killing is universally disreputable, it’s disreputable in a nebulous way. We disagree on exactly what is wrong with killing.
My moral intuition is that what is most wrong with killing is that it deprives an organism of its future life. But in discussions about abortion, I have often encountered expressions such as this one: “I can’t imagine caring one way or the other being aborted if I didn’t possess a fully functional nervous system.” Here any harm to be done by killing seems to depend on the organism’s caring, at the time of the killing, about its future life (this view does not, after all, contest the fact that a currently unconscious embryo will have a fully functional nervous system soon and will eventually care about its future life). This view seems to exclude the possibility that any harm can be caused by depriving an organism of its future life, whether the organism deprived of life cares about it at this moment or not. Thus the only real harm that this view is willing to consider is the harm of frustrating a desire, on the part of the organism, to live.[vii]
This is one example of how there are different intuitions about what is wrong with killing. Yet if there are real moral truths to be found, then not all the intuitions can be correct.
By identifying 15 different psychological factors that interfere with moral intuition, I have tried to develop a kind of checklist. I think that if anyone can go through the checklist and neutralize in themselves each of the above-mentioned psychological factors, their thinking will become clear. Their minds will become cleared of endless clutter. And when other people encounter a clear mind like that, they in turn become forced to clear their own minds.
This clarification process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological factors enumerated above will be loosened. Arguments, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.
Personally I expect that the truth that we will find through moral intuition will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously dehumanized group. (The importance of psychological factor 13 above cannot be overestimated.) Do I expect all this due to some psychological blinders of my own? Time will tell.
[i] Sam Harris, “The Roots of Good and Evil: An Interview with Paul Bloom,” Sam Harris (blog), November 12, 2013, http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/the-roots-of-good-and-evil
[ii] Life Matters Journal 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, also available at http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/moral-intuition-logic-and-the-abortion-debate/
[iii] Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2008), 53, 213-214, 256.
[iv] “Moral Intuition, Logic, and the Abortion Debate” in Life Matters Journal, Volume 4 Issue 1 (June 2015): 24-29, and http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/moral-intuition-logic-and-the-abortion-debate/
[v] Sam Harris, Waking Up (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014), 81-82.
[vi] “Dismantling the Bodily-Rights Argument without Using the Responsibility Argument,” July 8, 2014, http://www.NoTerminationWithoutRepresentation.org/dismantling-the-bodily-rights-argument-without-using-the-responsibility-argument/
[vii] For a discussion of this issue, see Kelsey Hazzard and Acyutananda, “What Babies Don’t Know Can’t Hurt Them, Right?,” Secular ProLife (blog), January 4, 2016, http://blog.secularprolife.org/2016/01/what-babies-dont-know-cant-hurt-them.html.
Further thoughts on the above LMJ essay:
1. Psychological factor 4 above is “Neurotic emotional needs. Such needs can affect one’s felt or at least expressed moral and political views in a number of ways. One way – certainly not the only way – is when the needs result in commitments, sometimes fanatic commitments, to groups or ideologies.”
I think it would be safe to say that in the context of the abortion issue, the groups or ideologies most concerned in this way are the Catholic Church and evangelical churches on the pro-life side, and the pro-choice feminist movement on the pro-choice side. My point here is not to take issue with any Christian teachings as such, or with pro-choice feminism as such; and certainly not to say that commitment to either can stem only from neurosis. My point concerns unquestioning belief. I think that it is human nature always to question, but that those Christians who happen to be fanatic about their religion due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that abortion is wrong without further examination, just because their religion says that that is God’s command. And I think that those pro-choice feminists who happen to be fanatic about their ideology due to some psychological need, will be prone to believe that protection of the unborn is wrong without further examination, just because their ideology teaches that it is somehow part of a system of oppression of women. (By the way, pro-life feminists have offered at least some clues as to how that belief became the majority belief within the feminist movement, which, apart from the embrace of abortion rights by its majority, must be the most inspiring revolutionary movement the world has ever seen. See Serrin Foster’s speech “The Feminist Case against Abortion.”
Again, to say that people who have neurotic emotional needs (more so than the fairly neurotic average in society) – angry people for instance – gravitate toward a particular movement does not necessarily reflect at all on the movement itself. Many of the most psychologically healthy, or even radiantly healthy, people I have met are to be found among the ranks of Catholics and evangelicals; and it’s likely that some of the finest people may be found in the ranks of pro-choice feminists also. The position of the latter on abortion rights may be based not on moral blindness, but simply on blindness about the reality of the unborn. And regarding Catholics and evangelicals, I am awed by what they have done in holding the line against abortion, as much as it could be held, for all these years.
2. Above I said, “I will make one further assumption to start with: that not only are there indeed moral truths to be found, but that identical truths are to be found deep within all of us.”
Slavery in the US was never proved to be morally wrong. If after all the years of harsh exploitation of the slaves and bitter strife among the whites, a formal paper in some philosophy journal had finally convinced everybody that slavery was wrong, that document and its philosophical proof would now be more famous than the Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, or the Thirteenth Amendment. But there was no such paper; rather, undoubtedly there was a multiplicity of contradictory papers, all of which together played only a modest role in the process. The collective moral sense simply evolved. Uncle Tom’s Cabin probably played a bigger role than any formal proof.
The politics – not least war, that “continuation of politics by other means” – and economics involved in the end of slavery were very complex. But moral evolution must have played its part. The chains of people’s psychological complexes faded over time so that the chains of slavery could more readily be broken. People who were incorrigible vessels of outmoded thinking died off.
And I said above:
“A similar process (along with scientific progress) will decide the abortion issue. The grip of all the psychological foibles enumerated above will be loosened. Logical syllogisms, thought experiments, and other philosophical approaches, within or without formal papers, will play a part in breaking their grip; I think that the part that they will play will be a significant one, but not, alone, a decisive one.
“Personally I expect that the truth that we will find will be mostly a pro-life truth. I expect that, as in the case of slavery, the issue will be decided to an important extent by the fuller recognition of the humanity of a previously-dehumanized group. (The importance of 13 above cannot be overestimated.) . . .”