My Body, My Choice
Most philosophical debates are insoluble. Here I mean insoluble in the practical sense: from the standpoint of possible solvers (with present technology, human beings), it's impossible to reconcile and reach mutual understanding. There are two reasons why this is so:
- Trappings: The ideas being debated are presented in ways that fundamentally disagree. This is maybe the simplest meta-level difficulty in reaching understanding. Put simply, the framing, couching, context, terminology—what have you—stalls progress (more specifically: descent down the ultimetaquivalence spiral. I'll talk about that soon). Take the debate that first inspired this post's title. I'm wary of talking about abortion, but it's the archetypal example of this phenomenon1. Both sides have commandeered the "my body, my choice" bromide for their own purposes. On the pro-abortion side, the rather simple idea that the woman's being her own body gives her the choice to abort. On the anti-abortion side, the counterargument that it's not the woman's body being debated, but the fetus's; therefore, it's the choice of the fetus (which we can assume to be "I want to live, arghhh"). This is the most simplistic evaluation I can give, lest I get into horrifying minutiae.
- Horse: No idea has an objective basis. Even the principles encapsulated in the phrase "my body, my choice" (which is a terrible phrase precisely because its principles are so ambiguous it can be effectively turned to support any argument, even an abortion-neutral one2) are taken up by their supporters for a reason. What might seem to be an intractable debate because "I guess the principles are diametrically opposed—oh well!" is really an intractable debate just because it is. Those involved have conjured up these complex "principles" structured around their innate beliefs, rather than the other way around. On the pro-abortion side, why does personhood have some arbitrary cutoff, such as brain function or a heartbeat? What of the comatose, mentally disabled, or briefly medically dead? On the anti-abortion side, what's the rationale for dissolving the concept of personhood altogether? And if you're doing that, what of the numerous ethical problems that arise: of humanity as a(n arbitrary) moral property, or of the completely inadequate response we see to what is (by anti-abortion logic) an effective genocide?
But insolubility isn't really what I'm interested in, at least in this post. As above, I'm more concerned with the use of vacuous phrases like "my body, my choice," which I think pollute the discourse and obscure the larger facts (such as insolubility, but also the issues of decompositional layering I discussed in When to Decompose). I understand that short, snappy phrases are necessary when slinging potshots in public fora. I don't think I know how to fix that problem (yet). What I can say is that the motivation for all sides to claim this phrase seems particularly vindictive. It's stupid, and it is harmful; the people who originated it should be ashamed. But to attempt to warp its meaning is self-sabotage. It's far too easy to become entrenched in your ideas. This inevitably leads to a kind of reified dividual: your beliefs are real and they're an inseparable part of you. Hence:
If we're going to use pithicisms, we ought to develop our own, so they serve us, not the other way around. "My body, my choice" is terrible all around, because it doesn't mean anything. You sacrifice some parsimony, but for the pro-abortion side, "the woman's body, her choice to abort" is already a vast improvement. Similarly, for the anti-abortion side, "the fetus has a right to life" immediately introduces the fundamental disagreement at hand, rather than inviting the fifteen-minute conversation necessary to overcome instinctive, tribal hostility and move onto the casuistry. And that is the main thing we should be trying to do. I mean, who doesn't love casuistry?
In a later post, I'll talk about why we shouldn't be set on using pithicisms, or reverse-engineering principles rather than developing them from the ground up—and in what scenarios to do either of those things. Sometimes, mild deception in the pursuit of philosophical harmony is well and good. You just have to be aware of two things: how you're playing the game, and that you're playing a game in the first place. If people could be honest, with themselves and others, about what they innately desire (even if they're not sure why), our global society would be much improved. Or the right improvements would become obvious, anyway. (Can I get a what what for distributed networking and panarchy?)
Plus, it's maddeningly simple. I think it's fair to say the entire "abortion debate" is really a personhood debate. It's the perfect case for me to walk through because of that one-to-one equivalence, and the whole topic is so illustrative, I think its ease of comprehension forgives my using it.↩
You see this most often with ambivalent libertarians who throw up their arms and fall back to their default position: "just keep the government out of it; the more decentralized the authority, the better." The consistency is admirable, but I think this kind of position violates the law of excluded middle.↩
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