Debating Crucially Important Issues
This relates to the controversy regarding secular arguments against abortion. I’ve heard bold assertions that we should not acknowledge the existence of secular arguments against abortion, that we may do so but only if we couch our acknowledgement with assertions about how bad the argument is, and that there is no debate about abortion – it’s too crucially important to even consider mooting it further. However, I don’t really want to get into the specifics of this latest spat; rather I would prefer to think about the more general question: when an issue is crucially important for all or some people, should we declare the debate over and attempt to stifle any attempt to bring up the other side of the issue?
Firstly, there’s a distinction to be made between thinking about an issue and debating the issue. The former can be a discussion between people who agree with each other, or simply self-reflection. The latter involves bringing objections into play – either potential objections (via a “devil’s advocate”) or actual objections from a sincere objector. I’ll take it as uncontroversial that we might still think about issues, and so I’ll concentrate on the question of debating those issues.
I’ve been speaking of objections, but we have already met with a problem. Which “side” counts as the default, “correct” position such that the other side is the “objecting” side? Take abortion for instance. It seems plain to me that the more powerful side (at least within the secular community) is the pro-choice side, at least on account of sheer numbers. Suppose it was the other way around and most secular folk were pro-lifers. Under the anti-debate mindset we’d be seeing posts titled “Abortion is Not a Debate”, angrily telling us how the rights of the unborn are too important to be mulled over in the abstract by beard-stroking, ivory-tower philosopher-sorts. It’s clear that we need some other way to decide which position is the right one.
It seems to me that the only way of sorting out a question about which people disagree, is to have a debate about it. Yes, we can think about it ourselves without speaking to those who disagree, but unless our position is subjected to a conflict with contrary opinions, it is unlikely to be very strong or convincing. Furthermore, even if we are so sure that our intuitions are correct, we should still explore ways in which we might be wrong so that we understand why we are right. This is an important part of J.S. Mill’s argument in Chapter 2 of On Liberty:
Even if an opinion be indubitably true and undoubtingly believed, it will be a dead dogma, and not a living truth, if it be not fully, frequently and fearlessly discussed. If the cultivation of the understanding consists of one thing more than another, it is surely in learning the grounds of one’s own opinions, and these can only be fully learnt by facing the arguments that favour the opposite opinions. He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that. Unless he knows the difficulties which his truth has to encounter and conquer, he knows little of the force of his truth. Not only are the grounds of an opinion unformed or forgotten in the absence of discussion, but too often the very meaning of the opinion.
One might say that yes, we should have the debate at some point, but once we’ve figured it out, there’s no need to return to it. I think the above, wonderful passage from Mill shows that to be foolish.
Now on to possible objections.
Let’s take this back to abortion again. Are we not being insensitive to those who need to, or may one day need to have an abortion? After all, we’re putting their basic human rights up for debate – their right to bodily autonomy. I don’t think so. Judith Jarvis Thomson put bodily autonomy right on the table in her famous paper, and it provided a nice thought experiment frequently used by pro-choice advocates. Putting a critically important issue up for a debate is not the same as saying that that issue does not matter. It is precisely because people take it seriously that they are willing to expend so much time and effort thinking about it seriously.
Might some who have experienced the practical reality of an important issue feel uncomfortable witnessing a dispassionate discussion about it? Sure, but while that may be unfortunate, these debates do need to happen. If those who cannot stand impartial debates about a particular subject are being forced to listen to one then that is certainly wrong, but in all likelihood they aren’t and should perhaps find something else to do. There are plenty of issues that have a profound impact on the real lives of real people. Issues like welfare, immigration, healthcare, economics, free speech, trials in court, and so on. These debates have to happen, continually, if we are to be a democratic society. We cannot simply leave it to a prevailing orthodoxy.
Another objection: doesn’t this mean that everything should be up for debate, such as “is evolution a lie from Satan”, “is it ok to murder people”, or “should we all kill ourselves”? Well, if we were to debate everything then we wouldn’t have enough time. Here’s a quick list of reasons off the top of my head why we might want to devote time to debating a given issue:
- Some (significant?) amount of people disagree with us.
- Our argument might need refining, or we are becoming too complacent regarding our position.
- We have an intellectual curiosity in the question itself.
- It might be a fun exercise.
Now, I propose that “is it ok to murder people” doesn’t usually satisfy any of these reasons, and that’s why prima facie it seems absurd to consider debating it. But it might - for instance we may want to study what it is about others’ lives that means that we want to prevent injury to them, or call into question our own bodily autonomy when we use it to harm others. On the question of suicide, we will have to investigate the value of our own life and what it is that (usually) makes us want to stick it out until the end. With abortion, we are forced to confront issues of autonomy, the status and worth of a developing human fetus, and whether taking an innocent life is always wrong. It leads to related questions about infanticide and the value of human life more generally. These are all interesting philosophical and political questions about who we are and how we should act.
If we engage with those who disagree with us in a fair and rational manner, we may even end up changing their minds. I’ve been pro-choice all my life, but after reading Peter Singer’s “Practical Ethics” I realised that his defence was much stronger than mine, and decided to adopt it. Even if we fail to convince people, the debate may help us refine our own position, or perhaps sow some doubts in their mind.
I hope this post is successful in convincing some that there can be good reasons for debating crucial and emotive issues. I write it as someone who has a relatively very easy and comfortable life, and I appreciate that not everyone is in this situation. Nevertheless, it saddens me that some want to stifle the investigation into the sort of ethical questions discussed in philosophy departments around the world, in favour of a status quo. It is anti-progressive and anti-intellectual, but of course you may disagree with that. How about we put it up for debate?