Sunday, February 09, 2020

Georgia Philosophical Society Annual Meeting

Saturday, February 22, 2020
Location: Mercer University McEachern Art Center, 322 2nd Street, Macon, GA

10:00 AM Coffee and Snacks

10:30-11:20 AM: “Why Meritocratic Democracy is Better than Democracy”, Dr. John Park, California State University, Sacramento
Commenter: Dr. Micah Lewin, GSU Perimeter College

11:30 AM-12:20 PM: “Distributing Carts Before Horses: Or the Presumptions of Distributive Justice”, Chris Byron, University of Georgia
Commenter: Dr. Yi Deng, University of North Georgia

12:30-1:50 PM: Lunch: The GPS business meeting will take place from 12:30-1:00. All present are invited to vote on the new officers for 2020-2021 and/or new motions.

2:00-2:50 PM: “Early Intersectional Approaches of Black Feminism: New Archival Evidence”, William A. B. Parkhurst, University of South Florida
Commenter: Dr. Sabrina Hom, Georgia College

3:00-3:50 PM: “Exercising One’s Voice: Merleau-Ponty and the Grounds of Conversation”, Dr. Susan Bredlau, Emory University
Commenter: Dr. Eric Dickman, Young Harris College

4:00-4:50 PM: “Abortion, the Pro-Life Argument, and the Relevance of Gender Issues”, Dr. Rosalind Simson, Mercer University
Commenter: Dr. Nathan Nobis, Morehouse College

5:30-7:00 Post-conference reception: Macon Beer Company, 458 2nd Street, Macon, GA


I think this is a great paper on a very important set of issues.

I want to begin with a brief critical comment though before turning to some broader reflections on the issues.


First, I want to observe that some moral obligations can and do fall on special groups: those with special abilities or resources may have obligations that the rest of us don't: e.g., rich people can have obligations poor people can't; people with a certain kind of knowledge can have obligations that people who lack that knowledge cannot, and so on.

So, it's possible that women, or pregnant women, have special obligations to bear children, given their unique abilities here: that could be.

If anyone responds that's not fair, since men don't have any comparable obligations along these lines, an appropriate reply might be, “Too bad: sometimes people have special obligations: life isn't always fair.”

Another response is to try to equalize those obligations, as much as possible. I will return to that good idea in a moment.

Now, suppose -- merely for the sake of argument! - that pregnant women have special obligations to remain pregnant and have children in virtue of their unique abilities.

Would meeting that obligation that guarantee the unfortunate social inequalities for women that Professor Simson reviews? Would banning abortion have to make many women worse off, economically, socially, politically and more?

No. That wouldn't have to happen. A state that forbids abortion could also provide serious, substantive economic and social support for pregnant women. (For various reasons, I think the state is a better candidate for ensuring this support, not the woman family, if she has one, or anyone else).

While pregnancy and childbirth are always some burden, this could be made this less burdensome; things could be done to ensure that women’s' needs are taken care of when she is pregnant, and prevent the real possibility that a pregnancy be an economic catastrophe for her, with lost wages, perhaps a lost job and health insurance, and huge medical bills.

In some parts of the world, women are provided kinds of protections that must make pregnancy and having children less of a burden.

Here, however, so-called "pro-life" people tend to strongly resist any such policies, despite their being good for women's and children's (and men's) lives. These policies sounds “pro-life,” but apparently they aren't, according to most people who strongly oppose abortion.

In a recent short book a co-author and I wrote on abortion, Thinking Critically About Abortion, a theme of the Good Samaritan emerged, in a slightly new way than how Thomson uses the story.

The Good Samaritan, you probably know, helped someone else in profound need at some expense to himself: someone had been beaten and left to die and the Good Samaritan paid for a room and medical care for him. Many think the story basically presents Jesus's ethics, since it's given in response to the question, "Who is my neighbor?"

The suggestion is that we all should be like the Good Samaritan. Ultimately this seems to be a command, since we must love our neighbors and this story demonstrates who our neighbors can be. Although I am not religious, these seem like very good moral ideals to me. What follows from them, it seems, is that we (or society) should be Good Samaritans to pregnant women (who are, arguably, being Good Samaritans to fetuses) and provide serious support for them when pregnant.

You might think that people who call themselves Christians and people who claim follow the New Testament would agree with the Bible's suggestion here.  Yet they generally don't, which is unfortunate for many reasons: if we are going to have politicians making what seem to be religiously-motivated policies, it would be at least be better if they appealed to the best parts of their religions.

So, my general point here is that banning abortion wouldn’t have to promote inequality. In real life, however, it would, and that’s a problem.


I now briefly turn to one of the other main arguments.

I appreciate that the violinist case is interpreted as revealing that the right to life is not a right to everything needed for life, especially not a right to anyone else's body.

This is the point of the case, and this is more helpful than seeing it as an analogy: the violinist and pregnant women are similar and different in many ways and we don't want to get caught up in that, since the point is just that nobody has a (natural) right to anyone else's body: at best, someone would have to deliberately grant that right and it sure doesn't seem that women who "indulge in intercourse" (that's Thomson's funny phrase) are granting that right to any non-existent, merely possible future person: at least it seems like nothing like that is usually on their minds (hopefully).

We can see Professor Simson however basically asking the philosophical questions,  "If fetuses indeed had the right to the woman's body, what else would follow for other cases? What implications would the justification for this right have for anyone else, especially men?"

And so she has us think about what obligations men would have in various cases where they cause harm to children. The argument, of course, is that if women have these obligations to fetuses, then men (or really anyone, including non-pregnant women) would have comparably strong obligations to children they accidentally harm; yet few think that anyone would ever have these obligations, so women don't have these obligations to fetuses.

I think philosophers would find this an interesting argument since there's all sorts of distinctions to think about concerning doing and allowing, killing and letting die, differing relationships and intentions and more.

I suspect, however, that typical foes of abortion, even a politician or a leader of an anti-choice organization, would first react with bewilderment to these sorts of cases and questions, followed by a quick, "Look, all these examples are just different, and they make no difference to whether an unborn baby has a right to his or her mother's body, since of course they do and so abortion is clearly wrong."

When asked why this is so, my experience suggests they would often respond with not a whole lot of positive engagement. Not what we would hope for, as philosophers.

The challenge for us as philosophers, I think, is to help overcome these types of reactions, to all complex and challenging issues, especially those of moral and social consequence.

Many of us teach the topic of abortion, and try to help people think about this complex issue in more thoughtful, reflective and systematic ways. Yet what we do doesn't seem to make much, if any, difference for the broader world: how though would the character of the public debate on abortion change if more people had even just one really good crash-course ethics class session on abortion, or a short unit, or even a full semester ethics class? Yet there is almost no interest in this, including with pro-choice people and organizations.

I do think that philosophers know a lot about these topics, and I can only hope that we could make a difference if there was a real desire to learn. I know this is a hard challenge, and maybe I'm hoping for too much, but we really have to find a way to do better on this and make more of a difference. Our world literally depends on this. 

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