Today’s guest post comes from Brian Carey.
Reductio ad wha?
Reductio ad absurdum, despite sounding more like a spell from Harry Potter, is an argumentative tactic where the point is to take a person’s view and to show that it leads to some especially unpalatable conclusion. The idea then is to say to your opponent “okay, you can believe that, but if you believe that, then you have to believe this, and isn’t this obviously wrong?” Hey presto. Reductio ad absurdum! Their argument is reduced to the absurd.
The problem with this tactic, as one philosopher once said, is that there is no conclusion so absurd that there won’t be someone who’s still willing to accept it. Reductio ad absurdum can never show that an argument is false, only that it commits us to some especially strange conclusions. But at the very least it can clarify what the real costs of holding a view actually are.
Here’s an example:
Abortion is murder?
“Abortion is murder” is not a claim made by everyone who is pro-life (so none of what follows applies to those people) but it’s fair to say that this is a common claim when it comes to arguments against abortion.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that this is true. What would follow from it? In other words, if we *really* believed that abortion is murder, what else should we believe?
First, consider the right to travel for an abortion abroad. If abortion is murder, should there be a right to travel abroad to commit murder?
Now, maybe one could object here and point out that it’s simply not practical to check whether a woman is pregnant before she leaves the jurisdiction, and one could point out that even if a woman is pregnant, goes abroad, and comes back without being pregnant, we can’t assume she had an abortion. Besides, Irish law can’t apply to what people do abroad, right?
A couple of things need to be said in response. First, while it’s true that Irish law doesn’t apply to you when you go abroad most of the time, that’s not always the case. Most countries, including Ireland, apply certain kinds of laws extraterritorially, which means you can be prosecuted here for doing something that might not be legal abroad. At the moment, this mostly applies to things like conspiracy to commit terrorism, but there’s no reason why it couldn’t necessarily be extended to cover murdering an Irish citizen abroad, even if murder is legal in that jurisdiction. (Remember, we’re assuming that abortion is murder)
Second, while it’s true that we can’t check whether every woman is pregnant, what if we had a woman who strides up to border control and proudly claimed that she’s travelling to the UK to have an abortion? There’s no practical difficulty here in working out whether she’s pregnant or intending to have an abortion – she’s just admitted it to us. Remember – if abortion is murder, we need to treat this case like we would treat a case of a mother who approaches border control with her two-week old infant and claims she’s travelling to the UK to kill it. Surely in that case we would at least want to detain the woman and subject her to a full psychiatric examination.
Finally, consider that those who object on practical grounds when explaining why women should have the right to travel rarely do so on principled grounds. This essentially admits that they would like to detain women if they could; it’s just that the logistical difficulties are too great
Consider now a woman who threatens to kill herself unless she is allowed to have an abortion. If abortion is murder, this is analogous to a woman who takes a 2-week-old child hostage and who threatens to blow herself and the child up unless we kill the child.
If the only choice in that case is between letting the woman kill them both, or saving the woman, maybe we ought to save the woman (since the child will die anyway). But if those are not our only options – if, for example, we could detain and arrest the woman without harming the child, then surely we ought to do that (in fact, if we had to kill the woman to save the child, this would also be justified).
If a woman makes a credible threat to murder me, it is right that she is detained until she is no longer a credible threat to my life. If abortion is murder, and if we apply the same principle consistently, then it follows that if we are presented with a woman who issues a credible threat (via suicide) to the life of her child, then we ought to detain her until such time as she can give birth and is no longer a threat to the child.
So, there’s the bullet that pro-life people must bite if they think abortion is murder. They must favour detaining suicidal women who demand an abortion (possibly women who have been raped) and force those women to give birth.
Unfortunately, I’ve recently pressed this argument against two pro-life people who decided that they would rather accept this conclusion than reject the premise that abortion is murder. That’s fair enough – at least they’re consistent. But at least arguments like this can make it clear exactly what is at stake if you really believe that aborting a foetus is the moral equivalent of murder.