July 18, 2005

Life and Death, Cost and Benefits

My friend Jeremy Lott, writing for BeliefNet.com, argues, essentially, that there can be no utilitarian justification for legal abortion. I'm glad he brought this up, since with a court battle coming up where I expect I'll have to point out the distinction between "pro-choice" and "pro-Roe" at least once or twice, it's high time I sharpened my arguments for choice. A smart pro-lifer like Jeremy makes a great whetstone.

This is long, so I've tucked it beneath the fold.

Jeremy starts by discussing economist Steven Levitt's theory that legal abortion lowers crime rates.

I will concentrate on the ethical dimension of this proposition. That is, suppose that economists and social scientists from other disciplines subject Levitt's conclusions to a battery of tests and find he has proved not only loose correlation but ironclad causation. In other words, suppose that more abortions do translate into lower incidence of crime, and go from there. Should that affect how we think about abortion?

Short answer: no.

There's a grain of truth here: Confirmation of Levitt's theory, by itself and out of context, shouldn't change ones position on abortion. But Jeremy's trying to go further than that-- too far, in fact. Such information should, without question, affect how we think about abortion. Take Jeremy's examples. First, summary execution:
People who are found guilty of murder could be executed quickly, without the possibility of appeal. Yes, this would result in the death of the occasional innocent party, but most economists who have looked into the issue agree that higher execution levels are likely to raise the stakes for people contemplating a capital crime, and thus lower their incidence.

But legislatures do not do this horrible thing because efficiency is not their only concern. There is also justice… many of us would become screaming death-penalty opponents if the legal safeguards against summary executions were removed.

We would change our position because we recognize that not all methods of deterring or punishing crime are legitimate. At some point, the crackdowns on crime become at least unjust, if not outright criminal.

All that this proves, though, is that most of us think the costs of summary execution outweigh the benefits. That the innocent would be more likely to be killed, and that the power of the state would be dangerously expanded and capable of doing more harm, heavily outweigh the benefit of reduced crime. That doesn't mean that the benefits of summary execution are irrelevant to an analysis of the policy, though. There are, after all, some situations where summary execution is the practice, namely in the heat of battle. Few object to the summary execution of a rogue soldier or a mutinous sailor during wartime. In this case, the cost of entrusting officers with life or death powers, circumscribed to a particular situation, do not outweigh the benefits of protecting other men, and in some cases the nation, by quickly dispatching a threat without standing on ceremony.

There's a similar response to Jeremy's take on torture:

More crimes could be solved if cops were allowed to beat confessions out of people, but police are barred from doing this for two reasons: respect for the dignity of our fellow persons and the intuition that torture corrupts the torturer. In order to inflict damage on suspects, torturers must treat them as less than human, and this process has a tendency to distort how one looks at the world.
Those two reasons do not exhaust the argument against torture-- and it's a good thing, because by themselves they are quite weak. What is the benefit of "respect for our fellow persons?" Why do we care if the torturer is corrupted? I submit that these are two variations on the statement that a world with regular torture is a less-happy world. The innocent may be tortured, and the risk increases as the torturer himself breaks through psychological barriers to inflicting pain; the slippery slope to a regular source of pain without any direct benefit is very plausible, and the benefits of reducing street crime are outweighed by that cost.

When we move beyond street crime, to terror attacks that kill dozens or thousands, that calculus changes. There are some who estimate that the cost is so high that it's worth the potential loss of life and ensuing grief to avoid the path that torture leads down. I don't agree, but I don't claim that this is an easy question, either.

Which brings us back to where we started. Says Jeremy:

As with torture, so with abortion. There have always been, and will always be, abortions. But giving it the sanction of law corrupts society all the way down the line.
Obviously, there is a cost to legal abortion. The argument that pits a "culture of life" against a "culture of death" is, essentially, a slippery slope argument positing that devaluing some types of life will lead to less respect for others, and, implicitly, more misery. It's an argument that carries especial weight against late-term abortion: If you can destroy an eight-and-a-half-month-old fetus, why not a newborn? Why not a one-year-old? A line needs to be drawn somewhere or we quickly reach a point of social breakdown, which is part of the reason that partial-birth abortion bans are so popular. Bans on late-term abortion carry very little cost in terms of impeding women's ability to abort (we are assuming benefits to legal abortion, remember), and offer the important benefits implicit in drawing that line.

Jeremy would draw that line at conception. If you believe, like Jeremy (a convert to Catholicism), that the moral status of an embryo is, by divine law, identical to that of a human child, this is a no-brainer: Devaluing them is a monstrous defiance of God's will. But if your religious beliefs (like mine) offer no such clear-cut guidance, then you must take into account the costs of outlawing even early term abortion. One of those costs, assuming Levitt is right, is higher crime rates. Add in the "reverse" slippery slope, toward absolute sanctity of post-conception embryonic life, and there's also the risk of closing off promising avenues of scientific research that may extend life and increase happiness.

I can support fairly stringent abortion restrictions-- even up to outlawing surgical abortion, assuming that chemical abortion (which only works in the first two months of pregnancy) is available. But by my estimate, the cost of outlawing abortion completely is just too high.

Posted by John Tabin at July 18, 2005 03:12 PM

very well reasoned as usual john.

Posted by: ltabin at July 19, 2005 04:32 PM

I agree with Jeremy.

Posted by: Johnny Lott at July 19, 2005 07:36 PM

Obligatory cheap shot: How am I supposed to take your argument seriously if you don't spell Levitt's name right?

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at July 19, 2005 11:07 PM

Let me ask you a question about your penultimate paragraph: Would you bristle if you had penned an op-ed on abortion that didn't bring up the subject of religion and I attacked your position by characterizing you as "John Tabin (a mostly nonobservant Jew)..."?

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at July 20, 2005 02:16 AM

1) I've corrected that.

2) It would depend on context, namely whether that fact was relevant to your point. But you raise a good point: It is unnecessary and distracting to bring religion per se into it, since I'm really just using religion as a shorthand for a certain premise. (I would add, though, that religion is about the best reason I can think of for accepting that premise.) Here's another way of phrasing that paragraph:

Jeremy would draw that line at conception. If you believe, like Jeremy, that the moral status of an embryo is identical to that of a human child, then the misery inflicted on the embryos themselves weighs heavily, even prohibitively, toward an outright ban on abortion. That doesn't make the costs of such a ban don't exist; they do. One of those costs, assuming Levitt is right, is higher crime rates. Add in the "reverse" slippery slope, toward absolute sanctity of post-conception embryonic life, and there's also the risk of closing off promising avenues of scientific research that may extend life and increase happiness. And if, like me, you find the embryos-are-people position implausible, those costs may well outweigh the benefits of an abortion ban.
Better? (This is exactly what I meant when I said you'd make a good whetstone.)

And please don't feel like I've "attacked your position"-- it ought to be possible to have a friendly disagreement that doesn't inspire warfare metaphors, even over abortion.

Posted by: John Tabin at July 20, 2005 03:38 AM

I didn't think of "attacked your position" as a warfare metaphor. I'm rusty but I think I remember it as normal debate parlance.

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at July 20, 2005 07:20 AM

>All that this proves, though, is that most of us >think the costs of summary execution outweigh the >benefits.

I don't think most of us look it as a cost/benefit analysis but as a matter of justice. The normal thought process goes like this.

Proposition A: It is wrong to murder people.

Proposition B: Those who murder people should lose their own lives for having deprived someone else of his life.

Proposition C: We really should be sure that someone has violated proposition A before invoking proposition B.

Posted by: Jeremy Lott at July 20, 2005 11:56 PM