Monday, October 8, 2007

Rights 2.5 A digression; Abortion

I have created a monster! Kurt has seen to give me the second part of part two, inspired by comments from Beth apparently. As I am too busy (lazy?) to write much lately, I am pleased to add this to the ongoing series on rights, by Kurt. Thanks.

This is an expansion on a section I had in Part 2, but deleted because the article was getting too long, and I wanted to avoid a bit of controversy. As the discussion is moving in that direction, here it is.

It is difficult to discuss the right to life without touching upon the abortion question. Like any other aspect of culture, we can analyze this based upon human wants and needs, as constrained by environment and technology.

In a purely agrarian society, the average child has paid for his upkeep by the time he is twelve or younger if male, or around fourteen if female. From that point until emancipation, it's pure profit. In other words, all things being equal, a child is a blessing in such a situation.

Once again, it is a matter of satisfying wants and needs. To know how many kids an individual family is going to have, we really only need to know these things: 1. How valuable is each child at each stage of life; and 2. What is the death rate among children in the culture. A third variable which only affects highly affluent societies is the cost of a child vs disposable income. I don't spell this out later, but I think it is pretty clear how it works.

Lets take a village family in rural India as our example. Lets say they are in the north of the country, where wheat is the principal crop, and even today much of the labor is performed by men and beasts. A boy child is a great prize in this culture. As previously mentioned, a boy will pay for himself in terms of work by the time he hits puberty, and the family may get a dozen years of labor beyond that before he marries and moves away. Where land is plentiful, there is every incentive to have as many boys as possible.

Girls, on the other hand, are not so valuable in this environment and level of technology. Just as there are vastly more oxen than cows in north India, there are many more men than we would predict. Girl babies simply haven't been surviving, in the same way that female calfs have a habit of dying. On the other hand, families have many more sons than are needed, because the family has to overshoot in case a male child dies young. Overpopulation results, of a peculiar shape, with too many people and too little land, and too many men, and not enough women. The predictable result is endemic warfare, and, indeed, the region has been awash in blood since the time of Gautama.

Technology has had two thoroughly surprising results in the region. First, the reduction in infant mortality has made the necessity to "overshoot" disappear. Second, the option of raising a second son (or daughter) and getting them education allowing for a profitable career has changed all the math. Every family still wants a son to carry on the family farm. But they also now want an extra son or two to go to college and enter into civil service, or move to America and open a Subway, or Seven-Eleven.

Back in the USA, abortion has been legal nationwide since Roe v Wade in 1972. In the peak years of the late 1980s, about 1.6 million abortions were being performed annually, or about 40 percent of total pregnancies. [Figures are from memory; I might be off a little. This really doesn't affect my argument.] Abortion and infanticide are no different, from a philosophical perspective; it is just a matter of choosing when to end the life. Given this what can we conclude of a culture which is killing almost half of its babies? One of two things must be true: Either the society is too poor to feed further mouths, or else the costs of child-rearing have risen to astronomical levels.

As the richest society in history, we obviously are not straining to feed the extra odd baby. But if you follow readers' Digest, at least once a year they run an article under the banner, "Cost of raising a child through college now over $250,000 (or some other large figure; the number isn't the point). The cost of raising a child today are not just economic, although there is that as well. There are also soccer games (and practices) to attend, giggling overnight parties without sleep, and a wedding with a crushing amount of responsibility and bills. Who would possibly want to subject themselves to that? Not Americans, is the answer.

Simultaneous with our loss of millions of potential productive citizens, we are outsourcing jobs to that Indian viallage and importing millions of undocumented immigrants. Both of these trends point in the same direction: In a very real sense, we are arbitraging expensive US babies for cheap foreign babies. Keep in mind my central theory of culture: This is a choice we have made on a cultural level, based upon the expectation that millions of mothers have made at the individual level.

Here in Asheville, we have had an explosion in the last decade of both the Hispanic population and Ukranians from the former Soviet Union. Like immigrants of the past (my grandfather Ehrsam swam ashore in New York harbor in 1905) they are thrifty, hard-working, and ask for nothing more than a chance at happiness. But there is a very real question, how would our present nation look if more than 40 million babies had been born, rather than aborted? What different policies might have been followed; what different results might have occurred?

I am certainly not a dogmatist on this issue. In general, I think abortion is a mistake. But I cannot divine the thoughts of the women who chose the procedure, nor can I refute the basic economic logic of the situation. When you look at our culture through the lens of my analysis, the question is not why so many abortions, but why so few? After all, most babies will not grow up to be Hedge Fund managers, or physicians, or NBA stars. Yet if that is not the case, there is no way that the average child can pay her own way. Until we see a dimpled cheek and a smile.

Peace to you all.


Beth said...

Wow, the value of human life has been measured by how much money or labor we are able to produce?

I'm utterly speechless.

DuWayne Brayton said...

To be clear, I disagree with the premise, but I am certain that Kurt is not saying this is a good thing. Indeed, I think it's rather the opposite.

kehrsam said...

Beth: Surely you don't think it was an accident that all of those farm families in 19th Century America had 14 kids while their Yuppie descendants only have one "trophy child?" The only difference is children in farm families pay for themselves pretty quickly.

Cultures are not sentient, so they cannot make such calculations. But many individuals do. Keep in mind that a Yuppie baby is much more expensive, on average. than a working class child who will probably not expect violin lessons or annual trips to Aspen.

It is all a matter of wants and needs. If love and affection are what you need, you'll have that baby, regardless of the strictly economic consequences. But you might not have more than one.

As for good and bad, that's a dichotomy I've been trying to avoid, and why I removed the core of this essay from the last post.

kehrsam said...

DuWayne: With regard to what Eric said in your earlier rights post, let me suggest an analogy: Science adopts as its premise Methodological Naturalism. Thus, when we encounter a phenomena, we do not assume that something supernatural is occurring. No gods are allowed in the mathematics.

I am applying a similar approach to culture. "Rights," whatever they may be, are incorporeal. They cannot be detected in any way. From the standpoint of the study of culture, then, they may as well not exist.

Now one might believe there exists a God who created the natural world and has the power to interfere in its workings. I do, after all. And one may also believe that that Creator God has endowed me with inalienable rights, what ever that means. You do, after all, and sometimes I might as well. But these are separate issues from the science.

As to your notion that we have rights within our own bodies, history is not kind to that notion. I avoided the issues involved with slavery in Part 2 precisely because there is a large emotional component to that discussion. But slaves do not own their own bodies, nor do the subjects of an absolute monarch. Christian theology also holds that our bodies properly belong to God, not ourselves.

Keep in mind that the idea of The Individual is extraordinarily recent in Western thought, dating from the Renaissance and really only becoming important with Descartes and then Rousseau. Good discussion!

Beth said...

You bring up a good point, who indeed do our bodies belong to? Since we did not ask permission to be born, it would seem then that the bodies and minds we have were given to us to be stewards of it so to speak. But I think as the golden rule suggests we should never do to others what we ourselves would not want for ourselves.

You mention the large families of the 19th century and truly I think the lack of birth control has some affect on those differences between then and now.

kehrsam said...

Beth: As far as birth control goes, there is a simple test available: Did city families in year X have more or fewer families than farm families?

The trend is pretty clear: Families in urban areas were smaller than families in poor rural areas. And families in relatively wealthy rural communities were enormous. Contraception was not the issue: Crude contraception was available, as were technologies of abortion and infanticide, as previously mentioned.

As for, Wow, the value of human life has been measured by how much money or labor we are able to produce? I don't like the conclusion any more than you do. And that is not the whole of argument, of course. As I have suggested, many modern American couples have children when it is distinctly against their purely economic motives to do so. Love has a value, as does friendship, not to mention great joy in the thought that your child is not the spawn of Kevin Federline.

But emotions work around the margins. We are a wealthy society and can afford extravagance in our child as easily as in our automobiles. Since the majority of humans over the majority of human history have been operating at the subsistence level, however, economics tells most of the story.

Beth said...

Which is why I say why does our country allow abortion, if we are a more civilized and technological nation? And, it wasn't too long ago that abortion was illegal in our country, weren't the same arguments for historical abortion still there, but we bucked the trend by having it illegal? And, what about other life issues such as euthanasia where we clearly are putting value on human life that is deemed unproductive?

kehrsam said...

Keep in mind that until recently the image Americans had of their country was that it possessed unlimited resources. If you doubt it, look at any textbook of the early postwar period, especially those for grammar school. And if land and resources are plentiful and cheap, the more people you need to work, because every worker not just supports herself, but also creates a surplus.

There has always been a dichotomy in our culture between rural and urban populations. And abortion, legal or not, has always been available in urban areas, seldom in rural ones. Not coincidentally, families in urban areas have always been smaller than those on the farms.

Abortion has not always been illegal. In fact, the first abortion statute dates from the 1850s. As for euthanasia, it has not been necessary until recent years, as most people died at an age when they remained productive. Until people started living thirty or more years past retirement, there was no debate over euthanasia. I think this tens to support my overall argument.

kehrsam said...

My apologies, Beth, I neglected to address, Which is why I say why does our country allow abortion, if we are a more civilized and technological nation? This is an excellent question, and all I can say quickly is that the answer forms a major portion of Part 3.

Also in my last comment I mention that anti-abortion statutes were a fairly recent innovation, dating from the 1850s in many states. I should have noted that the practice of codifying criminal law in statutes is not much older, dating from the late 1830s, so they got around to abortion reasonably quickly. Abortion was not generally illegal under the Common Law, although it was usually considered pretty close to the edge. Without doing the research this morning, my impression is that prosecutions were fairly rare in the 19th Century.

Beth said...

I look forward to Part 3 Kurt.

steven said...

To someone like me, who believes that the greatest good a society can do is to protect the rights of the individual, the issue of abortion is completely dependent on when personhood begins. If we can't decide the question of when personhood begins then we can't decide whether abortion is right or wrong. I happen to believe that personhood begins at or very soon after conception, and that abortion, in almost every case, is wrong. But I also realize that many people disagree with me in good faith.

The issue of assisted suicide is a very different issue, despite the fact that many people seem to lump these two issues together. The deciding factor for me in supporting assisted suicide, with some reservations, is that it is possible for the person who is going to die to give their consent for the procedure. An unborn child can never give their consent for anything.

kehrsam said...

Steven said:To someone like me, who believes that the greatest good a society can do is to protect the rights of the individual, the issue of abortion is completely dependent on when personhood begins.

And this is precisely my thesis, that the "right" begins exactly where the society decides that it begins. The "right" is therefore nothing more nor less than what the society grants.

There are thus two ways to define a "right," and this is where the whole muddle occurs with regard to the idea. "Rights" may be defined as those freedoms a culture grants to a particular group, or else they are an amorphous claim with no actual content. Because definition One clearly exist, we tend to conflate it with definition Two, which is nothing more than expressing a sincerely-held desire on our parts.

Once again, as a Christian, I would really like to defend the idea of rights as God-given things that can be taken away by neither other men nor government. But that is not what observation reveals.

Rather, rights appear to be granted because the freedoms they represent lead to more innovation, and hence to more good things for the people of the culture to enjoy. The funny part is that we as individuals are seldom aware of the workings of the larger culture.

Once again, we are stepping on my Part 3 argument here. But it is refreshing to see such an able comment base on this site.

DuWayne Brayton said...

First, has everyone voted for Shelley? If not, do so.

Steven -

I actually disagree with Kurt on natural rights, but that ultimately lies in my definition of rights, rather than how it pans out socially. However, using my definition, makes it easier to express my attitude about a welfare state. Again, it doesn't change the reality of it (by much), just makes it more explicable.

I think we all have a natural right to live, on an individual level. We also have other natural rights, but they are largely irrelevant to this aspect of the conversation. So we have a right to life, so long as we, the individual can protect that right (or any other natural rights).

How this integrates into society, is in how society chooses to deal with those rights. Society can either actively repress it, take a benign position or actively support it. In effect, most every society does each of these things, depending on the right and the individual in question.

So, one way that society can choose to actively support the individual right to life, is by ensuring that individuals have the things they need to survive, such as food, clothing and shelter. I am a believer in a strong, though minimalist welfare state. I.e., I believe that we should make sure that individuals have all of these things and health care, but not the best or even particularly comfortable manifestations of them.

I.e. the home is very basic, no frills, easy to maintain (modular, mass produced parts and systems). No tee vee, computers and internets for those who are pursuing education only (including children), again basic if they are there at all. Commons are under heavy surveillance, maintained in part, by "volunteers" from the affected community. Everyone in the community has to make some contribution of time, to help maintain, whatever that part may be. Food is basic, providing nutrition, no frills, no frozen dinners and the like. One way to volunteer, might be to help others, who don't have cooking skills, to make sure they can eat. You get the picture.

I actually intend to post more on this, soon as I have the time (I promised Beth, in a discussion at her blog) I also will be posting a response to Kurt's series, when he finishes with it. I am glad you stopped and hope you come back.

BTW, I am entirely with you on assisted suicide. Looking forward to a good discussion. If you might have an interest in adding a counterpoint to my belief in a strong welfare state, I would be happy to post it here. My email is on the front page, send me an outline and I will probably give a go ahead, as long as it's coherent.

steven said...


Being coherent is not something that I am particularly good at!

bullfighter said...

Kurt, I was full of praise for your last post, but much less so for this one.

Abortion and infanticide are no different, from a philosophical perspective; it is just a matter of choosing when to end the life.

What a load of excrement! What philosophical perspective is there that makes no distinction between senitent and insentient beings? An infant has a developed nervous system, feels pain and pleasure, etc. An embryo has none of that.

You committed a huge fallacy here; it is a red card in my book. No article should be allowed to continue beyond such an egregious statement.

kehrsam said...

Bullfighter: Welcome to this forum. I am discussing the question from the economic standpoint of the consequences of removing a large number of potential workers from the economy. In that sense, abortion and infanticide are entirely equivalent.

I am not making any comment whatsoever about right and wrong in this whole series of posts. In fact, the entire purpose of the series is to show that such concepts are themselves nothing more than social constructs. I understand your position, but please read for context a bit closer.

This is why I also took the core section of this particular post out of Part 2. People tend to get emotional on both "sides" of the abortion question, and I thought it best to avoid that at the time.

bullfighter said...

Kurt, thanks for the welcome. My comments are not personal, but I hold no bars as far as the merit of arguments goes.

I am discussing the question from the economic standpoint of the consequences of removing a large number of potential workers from the economy. In that sense, abortion and infanticide are entirely equivalent.

There are two reasons I am not fully satisfied with that retort:

1. You said, and I quoted before, that abortion and infanticide are no different "from a philosophical perspective". That's very different from the economic framework you are invoking now. Yes, I know the general context of your post was economic, but you also explicitly disavowed that context for this specific thought. Maybe you didn't mean to say "philosophical", but I can only respond to what is actually written.

2. Even granting that you only meant to make a positive statement from a material-economic-consequential perspective, I still think the statement is absurd. Taking your premise to its logical conclusion: if abortion is no different from infanticide, then contraception is also no different from infanticide; moreover, abstinence is no different from infanticide.

Actually, there is an economic/material/consequential difference: waiting for infanticide requires incurring the cost and risks of pregnancy. But that's the problem in your premise, not in the logical path that starts from it.

And, contrary to your assertion, I am not at all emotional about the issue of abortion. I am emotional about logical fallacies and rhetoric that disregards truth.

kehrsam said...

I chose the word "philosophical" with some precision, as it happens; had I meant "moral," I would have written that. And yes, since they are logically equivalent for the indicated purpose of controlling population, abstinence and contraception are equivalent to infanticide and abortion. You can throw endemic warfare in, too, if you like. Different cultures have included all of these in (generally unintentional and unconscious) means of population reduction, depending upon the costs and benefits associated with each. I had just written an entire essay about how various cultures conducted infanticide; I assumed everyone knew I was not discussing its moral implications.

As for the "emotional" bit, I was referring back to the entire comment thread starting from Beth's first comment. There is nothing wrong with emotion attached to analysis, but it is something I have been attempting to avoid, especially seeing as my central argument is that rights are nothing more than emotional tags which are purely aspirational.

By the way, while I admire your analysis of situations, your bedside manner needs a bit of work. Both here and elsewhere (say the discussion thread at Dispatches concerning the analogy between Iraq and Yugoslavia) you make excellent points, but come across as a complete asshat while making them. Yeah, I know, I often have that problem, too. Well, not always the excellent point bit. Peace, brother.

bullfighter said...

OK, so we actually agree about where the equivalence statement leads. That's good news. But then I don't get it - if the only criterion is the effect on population count, why is that statement in any way relevant in the context of discussing rights?

I just tend to assume that statements are relevant for the topic when I interpret them.

BTW, thanks for the kind words and no, thanks for the other type of kind words.