Killing In the Name Of: Jason Brennan on Abortion and Self-Defense (2 of 2)

[This was originally a postscript to the preceding post, but that made the post cumbersomely long, so on second thought I’ve reposted it here.]

I’m not sure whether there’s an academic literature on abortion and vigilantism, but if there is, I’m not familiar with it. As it happens, there’s an online journalistic literature on the subject that’s worth reading.

One of the earlier items I found was a 1994 symposium in the magazine First Things, “Killing Abortionists,” intended as a response to the actions of Paul J. Hill, who was convicted of killing an abortion doctor and a security guard in Pensacola, Florida. Apparently, he came up with the following rationale for his action: “Whatever force is legitimate in defending a born child is legitimate in defending an unborn child.”

None of the symposiasts notices what seems to me the obvious problem with this axiom: contrary to first appearances, it doesn’t really tell us what force is legitimate in either case. Imagine that child-killing was legal and widely practiced in American society. How informative would it be to know that you could stop this ubiquitous child-killing by “whatever force is legitimate”? How does the quoted phrase tell you what force is legitimate? Suppose you had to shoot your child-killing neighbor. Should you shoot him? Now suppose you had to shoot your sister. Should you shoot her, too? While we’re at it, suppose you had to start a civil war. Should you start one?

It doesn’t really help here to say, “Well child killing is wrong, and if I saw a child being killed in the street, why, I’d rush to its rescue and kill its killer.” The problem is, you’re not confronting a child being killed in the street. You’re confronting a society of child killers. It’s not the same thing. We can’t equate one-shot and iterative violence, abstract from the differences between them, and treat them as though they were interchangeable. They’re not.

Much of the symposium is pointless and evasive; the two theorists’ responses (Hadley Arkes and Robert George) are particularly so. Though I don’t agree with any of it, the one response that seems to me entirely on point is the late Cardinal O’Connor’s. Whether you agree with his arguments or not, it’s obvious that they can’t be dispatched by a few thought-experimental invocations of what Batman would do. For one thing, for Batman to be helpful, we’d need to know what Batman thinks of the Principle of Double Effect. Despite a childhood of watching the show, I don’t know whether he does (did). (Does Batman ever intend to harm anyone? I leave it as an exercise.)

In a famous piece in The Atlantic (September 1995), George McKenna lays out what he calls “A Lincolnian Position” on abortion (which ends up being a stridently anti-Lockean position as well). No pro-choicer is wholeheartedly going to agree with the position McKenna takes, but he does a good job of explaining why opponents of abortion can consistently take a political rather than terrorist/vigilante approach to its containment or abolition.

Zac Alstin’s 2009 piece, “The Moral Tableau of Abortion,” makes the arguable but plausible point (also made in the First Things symposium) that mothers are more causally central to the production of abortions than abortionists. Mothers constitute the demand that generates the supply side of the abortion industry. As long as mothers want abortions, supply for them will arise, however covert; you can attack the supply side all you want, but unless you change the minds of would-be consumers on the demand side, you won’t get rid of abortion. Since you can’t kill mothers without killing fetuses, it makes more sense as a long-range strategy to convince mothers not to have abortions than either to kill abortionists or kill mothers-and-fetuses.

Though he doesn’t make the point explicitly, since Alstin rejects consequentialism (p. 56, left column, fifth paragraph), he has a rationale for rejecting the idea that the goal of the anti-abortion movement is what we might call fetus rescue-maximization (or minimizing the numbers of fetuses killed). It’s questionable whether a campaign of assassination actually realizes fetus rescue-maximization, but whether it does or doesn’t, fetus-rescue maximization is not the goal. Of course, given his deontic-sounding rejection of consequentialism, it’s not clear that Alstin would agree with the reasoning I employ in the original post, but my point is, Alstin’s argument suggests that Brennan’s conclusion is not as easily secured as he (Brennan) thinks. (Incidentally, Alstin’s piece reminds me that Brennan’s post has a precursor in this Slate column by William Saletan.)

And that brings us up to date. Some of the best coverage of Colorado Springs I’ve seen has been at Slate (well, best if you like Planned Parenthood, as I do–even though I currently have no practical use for it whatsoever, and even though I personally prefer the name “Planned Non-Parenthood”).

This piece by Saletan calls Republicans out for the double standard they employ when it comes to anti-abortion vs. Muslim terrorism. Try to imagine the reaction if someone had said this in response to the Fort Hood or San Bernardino attacks: “Violence begets violence! So tell Uncle Sam to stop the violence with those drones, or we’ll just have to shoot up some more American civilians”! And this piece discusses the connection–ahem, alleged connection–between anti-abortion rhetoric and incitement to violence.

My favorite tidbit is the revelation (to me) that Ted Cruz has accepted the endorsement of Operation Rescue president Troy Newman, “a man who has called for abortion providers to be executed.” He doesn’t seem to be suffering for it. Imagine my going to Gaza this summer and getting the endorsement of Khaled Meshal and Musa Abu Marzouq. I’m sure they’ve said equally blood-curdling things about Israelis. I mean, if Ted Cruz can get away with consorting with would-be murderers, why can’t I? But trust me–I can’t. And wouldn’t. And won’t.

Postscript, December 16, 2015: Headline from a story on p. A20 of today’s New York Times: “Colorado Springs Tries to Recover as Nation Moves On.”

Deb Walker, the executive director of Citizens Project, said she understood why some people might have felt relieved when many national news reporters left town. But she also worried that the city of more than 400,000 may have missed a chance to have tough conversations about topics like gun control, abortion clinic safety and women’s access to reproductive health care.

No point in having those pedestrian conversations when we can jack off to fantasies of this sort.

Meanwhile, from the (main) Republican debate:

Safety and fear have not loomed so powerfully over a debate, or an electorate, since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. But if the threat of terrorism has become the defining issue in the race, Republicans are sharply divided on the toughest and smartest strategies to prevent more attacks.

Well, at least if the attacks are initiated by Muslims.

“I promise you, the next time there is an attack on this country, the first thing people are going to want to know is, why didn’t we know about it and why didn’t we stop it?” Mr. Rubio said. “And the answer better not be, ‘Because we didn’t have access to records or information that would have allowed us to identify these killers before they attack.’ ”

The vague prior indications of an attack were roughly the same in the case of both Robert Dear and of the Malik/Farook duo. But in neither case was there literally probable cause to believe a crime was about to be committed (until the crime was imminent, of course). So what exactly is Rubio’s point? Does he think that people–or government officials–should start acting on hunches, whims, and fears? But then how to safeguard against idiocies of this sort? Or just overreactions to false alarms of this sort? The Obama Administration:

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said in a briefing that the administration would not “second-guess the decisions that are made by local law enforcement officials in any community across the country” in responding to terror threats.

Why do people like Rubio think that their administrations will have predictive capacities that the last two administrations have lacked?

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