04 August 2015

Select your outrage

It's become a right-wing talking point over the last couple of weeks that liberals seem more concerned and outraged over the fate of Cecil the Zimbabwean lion than they are over the revelations, confessed in clandestinely filmed videos, about Planned Parenthood's sales of fetal body parts. The Republican assumption is that Democrats, liberals and self-styled progressives care more about whether some lion was shot illegally or not than they do about babies being harvested for commercial purposes. Republican outrage over the Planned Parenthood videos has fueled an effort, temporarily thwarted, to end all federal funding for the organization, despite the seemingly clueless objection that no federal money actually subsidizes abortions. It's what's done after abortions that bugs people right now, just as the scientific use of cadavers has always made some people queasy and others violent. That the same people on the other side can get worked up -- if it's not just the news media -- over the lion but not over this further dehumanization of incipient humans appears to prove to the "pro-life" crowd that the "pro-choice" crowd has grown willfully ignorant of fetal humanity in their fanatic commitment to extremist feminism. Of course, the pro-choicers have accused pro-lifers of selective outrage for a long time. Their argument is that opponents of abortion care about preserving life only until birth, and then don't give a damn whether the child lives or dies. Whether that's a better argument, or whether either argument is any good, is open to question.

The appearance of selective outrage depends on assumptions about moral or philosophical consistency. The critique of pro-life conservatives depends on an assumption that if the state has an interest in children being born, it should have an equal interest in keeping them alive, which would require more comprehensive state guarantees of proper health care, that few pro-life conservatives express. The critique of pro-choice liberals, with regard to Cecil the lion, is that people who feel such compassion or moral concern for a dumb animal ought to feel at least as much for human beings in the womb, and should be equally outraged by abortion as they appear to be by the shooting of a lion. In each case, assumptions about moral consistency are arguably wrong. The "sink or swim" conservative (or pro-life libertarian like Rand Paul) can argue that a state obligation to keep everyone alive no more follows from preventing abortion than it does from preventing murder. If someone out there really is more outraged over poor Cecil than over poor fetuses, that person can argue that there really are two different things, or two different principles, at stake. However outrageous it might sound to someone else, this theoretical person could argue that there are fewer lions than human fetuses in the world and that each lion is thus more indispensable. They would more likely argue that there is a fundamental human-rights issue at stake in abortion, or a fundamental public-health issue at stake in the federal funding of Planned Parenthood, that's clearly absent in the case of an illegal lion hunt. Likewise, the pro-life Republican can argue that preventing abortion, or defunding Planned Parenthood, is not so much about a commitment to keep each human life alive indefinitely than it is about giving each human being the chance or opportunity to which they believe it is entitled. They could also argue that there's a difference between the state protecting the helpless (i.e. the fetus) and the state perpetuating presuming helplessness, as the left supposedly does in wanting cradle-to-grave welfare. If it's presumed that people want something done about the death of the lion because the lion is morally helpless -- it's asked why supposedly compassionate people don't respond similarly to the more obvious helplessness of the fetus. At least one writer I've seen on the subject notes approvingly that more conservative young people are adopting a vegan lifestyle, as if to prove the superior moral consistency of their compassion. Yet the other side could argue, however outrageously, that its defense of women's reproductive liberty rightly has nothing to do with the sort of compassion conservatives insist on.

In the end, if the argument against "selective outrage" is a fallacy regardless of which side uses it, that only supports a position I've held for a long time, which is that abortion is a singularly unanalogous issue. The ethics or it simply can't be compared to anything else because the conditions are so unique. That doesn't mean that we can't reach a decision about it and stick to it, but it does mean we should not try to reach that decision by making analogies that are bound to fail with other ethical dilemmas, or by trying to predict (or dictate) how people who take one side on the abortion question should think about separate issues. Whether women should have the right to terminate pregnancies is a moral question. Whether they will, and what the rest of us will do about it, are political questions to be settled by political will -- and that renders selective-outrage arguments irrelevant. If we think about it some more, that kind of argument is really irrelevant to any issue involving politics and ethics, but that will never stop anyone from making such arguments. The only thing a selective-outrage argument proves, from right or left, is that the person making the argument suffers from selective outrage, as do we all.


Anonymous said...

The sad fact is that, given current evidence, what the conservatives/right/pro-life/whatever really want is for minorities/"the poor" to stop reproducing. Forcing a woman to give birth to, and raise, a child she does not want is, to them, a just punishment for a woman who dares to have sex for pleasure. They will, of course, never come out publicly and state that for the record, but more often than not, the phrase I most hear from that group of people regarding unwanted pregnancy is "if you wanna play, you gotta pay."

Samuel Wilson said...

Without disputing your perception, let me add my perception that the most vocal advocates of abortion rights, and the people most suspected of getting abortions for convenience, are white women. What's going on may be that reactionaries want minorities to have fewer babies,but assuming that minority women want babies to collect more welfare, preach abstinence to them, but want whites to have more babies, and so preach against abortion to them.

Anonymous said...

But when you add to that the fact that they don't want children to be taught about sex; teens to be taught about safe sex; and refuse any sort of government support for planned parenthood (the idea, not the group) or contraception, it becomes clear (or so it seems to me) that they are more interested in controlling women's sexual lives more than they really care about children. It fits in with my observation that the more conservative a man is, the more of a control freak he tends to be.