Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Subjunctive Moral Arguments

Over at Evangelical Outpost, Joe Carter theorizes that pro-choice lefties contradict themselves when they hold both the view that abortion ought to be legal and that we ought to oppose Bush's tax shifts because they impose a high burden on future generations. As he writes:

So what's a good pro-choice advocate to do? The option is either to concede that we have a moral duty to allow humans who have not yet been born to exist or to give up the idea that any particular political policy toward them could be “unfair.” The abortion rights supporter can’t have it both ways and be consistent. Neither moral language nor logic can be stretched that far.

It's a pretty interesting argument, really. The idea seems to be that, since we don't give ethical rights to a fetus to exist, we can't give ethical consideration to future generations on pain of contradiction.

On further inspection, though, I don't see how it holds. The proposition set forth by the opponents to shifting our current tax burden to future generations is 'If and when future generations exist, it is unfair to saddle them with debt they didn't accrue.' In this elementary form, it's difficult to see what this has to do with abortion. If one could infer from that proposition that future generations ought to exist, then there'd be a good argument, but that doesn't seem to be a valid inference. For example, I may think that if my study-partner were to show up for our study session, then I ought to treat her with respect; however, it doesn't follow from this that I think she ought to show up. Put more abstractly, believing a subjunctive proposition (if x, then y) doesn't logically entail that the subjunctive predicate ought to happen. If my study-partner shows up, then I certainly should treat her with respect, but the proposition passes in silence the question of whether I think she ought to show up.

Similarly, we can't infer that a future person that should be granted rights when they come into existence ought to exist in the first place. Steve Verdon from Outside the Beltway writes:

I mean in one case, the argument is that the fetus is not a person and hence has no rights. People three or four generations from now also do not exist, and thus also have no rights. The idea that something is "unfair" to them is just patently ridiculous...using the above reasoning.

When we talk about future generations, we're using subjunctive moral reasoning: 'if X, then Y.' If these future generations come into existence, then they'll have certain rights. Given that we're talking about a condition that hasn't yet come to pass (their existence), we're not talking about present conditions of fairness, we're talking about future conditions of fairness (which present actions influence). In other words, it's not unfair to them now (and to think of it that way doesn't even make sense; they don't exist); but if they do come into existence in the future, it's unfair to create conditions that will affect them negatively.

Mssr. Carter's later formulation of the problem is this:

That being the case, the AFG [Abstract Future Generations] not only does not currently exist but cannot exist unless women “choose” to bring them into existence. Since it is not “unfair” to prevent them from ever existing, it can hardly be considered unfair to treat them in a particular way before they do exist.
As I read it, this is a conflation of subjunctive moral reasoning and present moral reasoning (sorry, there's no pretty way to say that). In other words, as he reads it, the subjunctive claim entails a positive moral duty to bring the condition to pass. However, the form of this reasoning doesn't seem plausible when it's translated into other hypos (ie my study-partner hypo above).

In the relatively short time I've been reading his blog, though, Mssr. Carter has shown himself to be a very insightful person, so it's no surprise that his reasoning perfectly tracks an influential reconstruction of the Kantian Categorical Imperative. This is the practical contradiction theory of the CI, which holds that we can't universalize a maxim that in the future might cut against our present ends. Just in that little sentence, we can already see the same conflation of present ends and future or subjunctive interests.

Come to think of it, this post may just be an unleashing of my enmity toward Kant.