How To Talk Politics at Thanksgiving Without Causing a Family Feud: The key is humility and a genuine willingness to learn

This piece was written for, and appeared earlier this week in, Discourse Magazine. See it there at https://www.discoursemagazine.com/ideas/2022/11/14/how-to-talk-politics-at-thanksgiving-without-causing-a-family-feud/.

As you pack your bags for your Thanksgiving trip, you may be starting to worry about that “crazy” uncle, extreme aunt, or other sour relative whose political views are so different from your own that anxiety turns expectations of what should be a happy family gathering into the grim anticipation of impending doom.

Many people resort to telling their children, siblings, and spouses not to discuss certain topics at the family gathering for fear of setting off those relatives—or just giving them an excuse to rant about whatever their cockamamie view is that day. Total avoidance is the only way they can see to keep the peace and prevent the polarization that exists across the country from leading to acrimony at their own feast.

The suggestion that we should not discuss the controversial topic du jour is now often defended with claims about how it is uncivil or disrespectful to disagree with anyone or to bring up controversial issues that are sure to encourage disagreement. Despite the popularity of this view, it is a mistake.

Not only is the avoidance policy a fool’s game, destined to fail regardless, but it is also misguided from the outset. There will always be disagreements. If we don’t disagree about defunding the police, Black Lives Matter, this president’s immorality, that president’s idiocy, or the government handling of COVID-19, we’ll find something else to disagree about. Trying to suppress disagreement simply causes festering animosity.

The reason the animosity festers is that if you refuse to allow yourself to disagree with someone, you’re essentially accepting that they are not capable or worthy of honest discourse. You might think Uncle Dan can’t be reasoned with; he’s an imbecile, so why even try? Thinking in those terms leads not to acceptance or love of the other, but to disgust, and that disgust is often hard to shake. So disagreement will emerge one way or another, and trying to prevent it is likely to make the disagreement that finally erupts more acrimonious and less civil.

Importantly, though, honest disagreement is not uncivil or disrespectful in the first place. Indeed, it’s a sign of respect. If my 3-year-old told me that I was wrong to think a particular politician is terrible because that politician is actually quite wonderful, I would not argue with him. Why? Because as a 3-year-old, he is simply not in a position to have a reasonably well-thought-out view of the matter. 3-year-olds deserve respect, but not for their political views.

Uncle Dan, I assume, is not a toddler, but if I refuse to argue with him about a politician, I am treating him as I would my 3-year-old. This is the opposite of respect! To show respect for Dan, I must be willing to engage with him. I must recognize that he, like me, is a person with his own views and his own reasons for those views, and that he is also capable of changing his mind, like any rational being. Yes, disagreement is a sign of respect.

This Thanksgiving, I encourage you to treat those family members with whom you disagree with respect. Engage them, not with vitriol, but with curiosity and an eagerness to learn—if not to learn how you’re mistaken, at least to learn why they think differently from you. Assume they have reasons because they probably do. If they don’t, perhaps you can uncover the etiology of their belief instead. In discussion, maybe they can also come to understand why you think the way you do. Indeed, you might both learn something about yourselves and each other.

I can’t say this is an easy task. It can be difficult—in part because of the anxiety we often manufacture around such discussions and in part because it requires allowing ourselves to be intellectually and emotionally vulnerable. You cannot go into a discussion like this holding steadfast to your own beliefs about the topic at hand. If you think they are wrong, remember that they are also thinking you are wrong. In fact, maybe you’re both wrong. You won’t know unless you are willing to take them seriously, treating them as a reasonable person who can be corrected—and recognizing that you also may need correction.

When you approach a discussion this way—recognizing that you and Uncle Dan are both due the respect of disagreement and are both capable of being wrong as well as capable of being corrected—you can learn more about the world, as well as more about each other. Admittedly, you may not change each other’s minds; perhaps after extensive discussion you each understand where the other is coming from but still think the other is clearly wrong. Yet even if neither of you changes your beliefs about the topic, you will have learned more about each other!

Increased mutual understanding through discourse is extremely helpful—and exactly what we need in these polarized times. The same model of respectful disagreement that works among individuals can work for society as a whole. It can lead to more compassion for each other and a happier Thanksgiving feast with love and fellow-feeling—something to be truly thankful for.

Watch me discussing these ideas on C-Span Sunday morning: https://www.c-span.org/video/?524342-5/washington-journal-andrew-jason-cohen-discusses-politics-civil-discourse.

An Irony of Identity Politics

There is a rich irony brewing in our culture. On the one hand, people often feel uncomfortable weighing in on issues involving groups to which they do not belong. For example, a man might feel uncomfortable expressing his opinions about abortion, particularly while in groups populated by many women. On the other hand, people are often content to point out when members of groups to which they do not belong express treacherous opinions. It is not uncommon, for instance, for a man to reprimand a pro-life woman for setting back the interests of women by defending her pro-life views. The cultural uptake of these two impulses is, I think, both contradictory and immoral.

Legal scholar Mari Matsuda wrote that “[t]hose who are oppressed in the present world can speak most eloquently of a better one” (346). I think it is because our culture has bought into this line of thought that we have succumbed to the first impulse. A man might think to himself that he should not voice his opinions about abortion, especially among women, because women possess authority to discuss the issue that men lack. The oppression women have faced as women places them in a better position than men to speak of a better world when it comes to abortion politics.

The second impulse, that of rebuking ideological dissidents in oppressed groups, is rationalized in different ways. Some think that a pro-life woman deserves censure when she expresses her views because she has a duty to be a good role model for other women; others think it is because she has a duty to show gratitude to feminists who have made her current way of life possible by continuing their activism; still others think it is because she must be in solidarity with other women by expressing views most other women subscribe to rather than the ones she does express.

Whatever the merits of the rationales for these impulses, they contradict one another. The first impulse cautions against participating in debates one is not qualified to participate in. The second impulse recommends that we participate in those debates. The man who tells a woman she harms other women by expressing her pro-life views has taken a stand on the issue of abortion, since he thinks the pro-life position is harmful to women. When asked moments later about his own views on abortion, he may insist that “it’s not his place to discuss issues that primarily concern women.” But he’s already taken a stand.

These impulses not only contradict one another, but are also each immoral. The strongest case for the immorality of the second impulse finds itself in the vulnerability of oppressed people. Women are already oppressed, so why should we go out of our way to make the lives of pro-life women harder than they already are by treating them as defectors? There is a line between criticizing the arguments advanced by a pro-life woman and criticizing the pro-life woman herself on the grounds that she does not live up to some ideal that women should live up to. While the former is always permissible, I think the latter rarely is. Isn’t feminism, at its core, about liberating women from the oppressive expectations of others after all?

The first impulse, by contrast, is immoral because by censoring your own views about certain matters, you make it harder for others to get to the truth of the matters in question. Making the world a better place is a collective effort, and we need to pool together the best intellectual resources at our disposal to enable us to make it better. Sometimes, the best intellectual resources when it comes to reasoning about the abortion issue will include the ideas of men.

But what of the thought that men are unqualified to reason about the abortion issue because they have not been subject to the oppressions women face? Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy once observed that the views of outsiders have historically been crucial to helping insiders make sense of their circumstances. Take, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. As a Frenchman, Tocqueville produced valuable insights about American society and the relationship between industrialization and democracy––insights that are studied to this day in the academy. Why couldn’t it, therefore, be the case that men could produce valuable insights about the abortion controversy as outsiders of womanhood?

When our contributions to public discourse could move us closer to a better world, we should contribute. This requires that we overcome our impulse to bite our tongues when we have that nagging feeling that it is not our place to share our views about certain matters. Men who have thought carefully about abortion should feel free to express their views; whites who have thought carefully about affirmative action should feel free to express theirs; and so on. As I said before, making our world a better place is a collective effort. And the efforts of all those who have thought carefully about these issues are needed to make our world better––not just the efforts of those whom you would expect to have vested interests in these issues.

We need also to ignore the impulse to reprimand those in oppressed groups who deign to flout the ideological lines their groups seem committed to. This is in part because we need people to feel comfortable volunteering their perspectives so we may make our world better, and in part because it is wrong to place expectations on vulnerable people to behave a certain way when it is expectations of this very kind that lead to their vulnerability in the first place.

It is tempting to succumb to these impulses, especially when we live in a culture that ceaselessly seeks to rationalize them. But acting on both impulses pulls us in opposite directions. We pride ourselves on staying in our lanes when we remain silent as debates concerning people unlike us rage on yet take it upon ourselves to identify and reprimand treasonous behavior by those unlike us. And acting on both impulses impoverishes us with respect to our goal of collaborating with one another to make our world better than it is. It seems we have some unlearning to do. But until we have done it, we will remain suspended in the irony that is modern identity politics.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

On immigration

I was recently part of a discussion about immigration that prompted some thoughts. I thought I’d share them.

First, I’ll note that too many people think about immigration as an issue about immigrants alone. That is a mistake. See Chandran Kukathas’s new book, Immigration and Freedom, for a very well worked out argument, but here just note that limits on immigration are essentially limits on us—those of us in the country to whom a potential immigrant wants to come. If you are a US citizen and want to marry someone from outside the US, you’ll have to deal with the government to see about the possibility of that person coming here. You may want to live in the US with this person, but whether you will have the freedom to do so depends on immigration law. Similarly, of course, if you want to form a business partnership with someone from abroad. Or if you want to hire someone from abroad. Your freedom to marry or work with non-citizens is limited by immigration law. That’s really just scratching the surface of the issue, but its enough to show that limits to liberty caused by immigration restrictions can affect any of us.

Some will say that the loss of freedom is a price worth paying—it is, after all, a freedom to do something many will not want to do. (Perhaps failing to fully grasp the truth that a government empowered to stop others from doing what they want is a government empowered to stop you from doing what you want.) It’s true that if we allow too many immigrants to enter a country, they can dramatically alter our lives. (Of course, if this is true of countries, it’s also true of local jurisdictions, but I’ll leave that aside.) If 50 million immigrants from a country with an authoritarian government and an “authoritarian culture” (where everyone prefers living under an authoritarian government) came en masse to a country of 300 million, no matter how liberal the latter country was until then, their arrival may will lead to a change in the culture. (I take the basic idea for this argument from Hrishikesh Joshi’s excellent “For (Some) Immigration Restrictions“—the only thing I remember reading in the last few years that seriously made me doubt my pro-immigration stance.)

This worry about an immigrant group altering a country’s culture rather than being assimilated into it doesn’t seem very powerful in the normal course of American politics—a large enough group (50 million, eg) is unlikely to come in a short enough time span to have the effect. If that is wrong, though, we should ask whether such a group would want to alter their new home. It seems more likely that most people who move to a new place move there thinking it—as it is—has something worth moving for and so would not want to change it.

Some may think that these things are not matters of choice, that people from other cultures are simply different from Americans (or Americans and Europeans, from whom so much of our political culture is derived) and so can’t help themselves. The idea would be that if they were raised in an authoritarian or socialist regime, they can’t stop being authoritarian or socialist at heart. This idea, though, requires an unsubstantiated essentialism: Americans (and perhaps Europeans) are essentially freedom-lovers, individuals willing to do whatever is necessary to get ahead in liberal marketplaces and everyone else is … not. They are essentially authoritarian, socialist, or whatever is the dominant way of living in their culture of origin. Again, though, this claim is unsubstantiated. Indeed, it is contradicted by the millions of immigrants already present in the US (and Europe) who come to adopt the culture of their new homes.

Perhaps a more plausible view is that while culture does not make individual essences, it does causally affect people as a contingent but important matter with lasting effects. The thought would be that though they can adapt, people from other cultures are statistically unlikely to be suited for liberal markets and countries as they are and would likely take too long to change, if they change at all. There may be some truth to this claim, but without further investigation, it seems incomplete. There are, after all, historical and international events that affect people in many ways. Ignoring the history of imperialism and colonialism, for example, is likely to leave a lot out of the discussion. Ignoring these sort of world altering events and processes would basically be to essentialize cultures—failing to recognize that they are what they are due to causal factors and they can also change . Like the essentializing of individuals, this essentializing of cultures is unsubstantiated.

The fact is cultures change. I’d go further and say they either change or they die. They may die slow deaths, but stagnation is death nonetheless. Once this is recognized, much of the rest becomes less significant. We should embrace change and hope it will lead to growth. Indeed, with more people with different backgrounds, skill sets, and beliefs, our markets grow and make us all better off. As our markets grow, so does our culture.

Embrace change.  Embrace pro-immigration policies.

Solidarity and the Speech Rights of the Marginalized

Those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism tend to take free speech seriously. Beyond opposing the state regulation of speech, those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism also tend to favor social norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of different kinds of speech. Recently, however, members of the popular culture have expressed support for social norms that are less permissive of different kinds of speech, specifically for members of marginalized groups. This is evidenced by the growing number of people who are content to deride Black opponents of race-based affirmative action policies as “Uncle Toms” and “Aunt Jemimahs,” as well as by those who are content to lambast pro-life women for being traitors who’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy to hold the views they hold. For the remainder of this post, I will show the problems with a line of argument someone could take to defend these liberty-constraining norms. By doing so, I hope to provide those sympathetic to libertarianism and classical liberalism something in the way of a response to those who favor social norms that are punishing toward those members of marginalized groups who express certain controversial views. 

Someone might argue that people, and especially members of the Black community, are permitted to meet the criticisms of race-based affirmative action policies made by a Black conservative with racially charged epithets, threats of ostracism, and ostracism by appealing to the value of solidarity. They might say that in order to overcome the threats of anti-Black racism in liberal society, Black people ought to show a united front. A single Black person alone cannot significantly change how racist their society is, but perhaps all or most Black people can. So all or most Black people should express support for policies and norms that are likely to significantly change how racist their society is. A Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to set back the interests of other Black people, since all or most Black people must show a united front to confront anti-Black racism in society. Alternatively, a Black person’s failure to support such policies and norms might be claimed to be unfair, since other Black people have burdened themselves to the benefit of the Black person in question by engaging in certain kinds of activism but the Black person in question does not likewise burden herself to the benefit of other Black people who have arguably benefited her. 

I draw issue, however, with the claim that members of a marginalized group such as the Black community must show a united front to overcome the oppression they face as group members. It seems that dissident members of marginalized groups have been positively instrumental to the end of overcoming the oppressions that members of these groups face. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois were engaged in debates about what was necessary for Black liberation to be brought about in America. Dubois strongly disagreed with Washington’s views about how Black people bear the brunt of the responsibility for making something of themselves in American society, and wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “Honest and earnest criticism from those whose interests are most nearly touched,––criticism of writers by readers, of government by those governed, of leaders by those led,––this is the soul of democracy and the safeguard of modern society” (36). As Dubois says, it appears that dissent within marginalized groups about matters that affect group members is crucial to these group members identifying viable means through which to resist the oppression they face. 

We can see this insight at work especially when we consider the cases of Andrew Sullivan and Camille Paglia as dissenting members of the LGBT+ community. In 1989, Andrew Sullivan (a gay, conservative political commentator) published the first national cover story in defense of same-sex marriage legalization in The New Republic. The principles he appealed to in this piece, however, were not those that were embraced by all, or even most, gay people. And in 1990, Camille Paglia (a lesbian academic) published Sexual Personae, a work in which she offers a compelling defense of androgynous gender presentation, albeit by predicating her view on traditionalistic understandings of gender of which members of the LGBT+ community are skeptical. The contributions that both of these thinkers made to public discourse on the matters they wrote about were profound. And if we were content to enact social sanctions against them for being heterodox members of the LGBT+ community, we might find ourselves deprived of the social progress they may have in part been responsible for since they would be deterred from speaking their minds. This, I think, speaks in favor of norms that are more, rather than less, permissive of members of marginalized groups speaking their minds when their views stand in tension with the “consensus” views of their communities. 

Even if it were true that liberation for marginalized people is possible only by getting all or most members of each respective group on the same ideological page, it would not follow that dissenters in these groups do anything wrong by dissenting. Consider a parallel context in which a problem of collective action does not generate obligations for individuals to resolve the problem. It might be true that one of the only ways to put a stop to the atrocities that take place on factory farms, for example, is by getting everyone to adhere to a vegan lifestyle. Still, it would be inappropriate to claim that individuals are obligated to adhere to a vegan lifestyle on these grounds, because any individual’s adherence to a vegan lifestyle will not make a difference to the number of animals being brutally slaughtered on factory farms. Likewise, it would be inappropriate to claim that dissident members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their views, because any individual’s choice to suppress their views, at least in the vast majority of cases, will not make a difference for how oppressed other members of their groups are. And if dissident members of marginalized groups have no obligation to suppress their views, the strongest basis for justifying social sanctions against them is unavailable to those who wish to belittle or ostracize these members for expressing their views.
 
There is obviously much more to be said about these issues. There might, for example, be other lines of argument one could take to justify the claim that members of marginalized groups are obligated to suppress their dissident views. Or, one might be concerned with justifying the claim that dissident members of marginalized groups have moral reasons, rather than a moral obligation, to abstain from expressing their views. I do not have enough space to address these arguments in this post, though I hope to take them up in future posts. Still, I think it is useful and important to know that at least one of the arguments that could be offered to justify less permissive speech norms for members of marginalized groups is unsuccessful.

Thanks to Andrew Jason Cohen for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this post.

About Service To All

Political polarization is a now common phenomenon. Whereas people in the past believed their children should not marry someone of a different race or religion, it now seems that a growing number of people believe their children should not marry someone of a different political party. (See this.) Perhaps this switch is understandable.

Humans tend to be tribal (see Greene) and as the tribal connections based on race, religion, and even ethnicity, have grown weaker, it may be that bonds based on political affiliation have become more important. In any case, we have seen instances where store owners want to refuse service to those who reject their ideological commitments—perhaps only one (mask wearing requirements vs mask wearing prohibitions) and we may see more (Democrat vs Republican). Should store owners be legally permitted to refuse service to those they disagree with on some ideological ground? This is not a new question; it’s an old question simply focused on a new sort of difference.

In the past, we’ve asked whether white store owners should be able to refuse service to people of color, whether heterosexual store owners should be able to refuse service to homosexuals, whether Christian store owners should be able to refuse service to non-Christians. My answer here is the same as my answer to all of those: yes, with a caveat. (NOTE: I am not asking if someone from one group should refuse service to anyone outside their group; I am asking if they should be legally allowed to. In my view, it is frequently the case that people ought to be legally allowed to do things they ought not do.)

My basic view is that in denying a person service, the store owner is not essentially doing anything to the individual and so cannot be said to be harming them. I won’t press that point though. It is sufficient that if it is harming them, it does so without violating their rights or otherwise wronging them (it may be stupid or misguided; I suspect that for many refusing service to someone of a particular group, it is less about those others and more about their desire to live their own life as they think they should).

Absent wrongful harm I do not think interference—e.g., to require the store owner provide the service—is permissible. Putting this differently, my basic view is that one needs an argument to show that a business-owner’s refusing to serve a particular customer wrongfully harms that customer if one wants to override the presumption of liberty that the store owner has to run her store as she wishes. While I suspect such weighty arguments are rare, I do think they can be made in certain instances. For example, if all of the grocery stores in a given area refused to sell to someone, it would likely be a clear and wrongful harm to that individual (especially if, as in the relevant historical case, those being denied service had no recourse). A single store doing so, by contrast, is unlikely to hurt the person (or at least not in anything but a de minimis way).

I imagine that some would suggest that there is always a wrongful harm here in the form of a dignatarian harm—i.e., a harm to the individual’s dignity—perhaps especially if the refusal is based on the individual’s race, religion, or ideology. Pointing to a dignatarian harm, of course, does not suggest there are no other harms (causing someone to starve by refusing them service, for example, is an obvious harm; plausibly causing them to have to travel a great distance for service would as well). Here, though, I am assuming there are no other harms at issue—if there are (and they are not de minimis), interference may well be warranted. I am skeptical, though, of the likelihood of dignatarian harms being caused by a store owner refusing service to someone—at least absent structural issues. If 99 of 100 stores of the relevant type are willing to serve the individual, why would a single outlier cause a harm to the person’s dignity? Where I live, there are (I think) six chain grocery stores. It’s hard to believe that the owners or employees of the four I never enter have their dignity harmed by my withholding my utilizing of their businesses. If you think this is only because they are corporate owned, I will add that a bit further away there are several family owned grocery stores and none of them seem to have their dignity harmed by my choice either.

Some might suggest there is a difference between store owners and customers that is somehow relevant. Perhaps so. The only difference I can think of (actually, I didn’t think of it myself!) is that the customer is (or might be) engaging in the transaction to get something needed, while the storeowner is only getting money. The customer is thus supposedly at the mercy of the storeowner in a way that the reverse is not true. I do not think this difference is real. After all, the store owner is looking to get money from the transaction so that they can pay for the things they need. If all stores refuse to serve a particular person, that person will suffer; if everyone refuses to buy from a particular store, that store owner will suffer. Again, so long as the customer can go elsewhere for what they need, I think there is little cause for concern. (Again, if there are no competing storeowners willing or able to do business with the customer, the situation may be different.)

I am not sure what other relevant difference there might be between store owners and customers. Surely, if I intentionally and loudly boycott a particular store, broadcasting my complaints about the store—perhaps truthfully talking about the incompetent owner and workers—the store owner could plausibly have their dignity harmed. If, though, I merely refuse to buy from them without broadcasting my claims (perhaps add that my claims would be neither defamatory nor otherwise tortious), it is hard to believe my refusal to buy from them wrongly causes them a harm. (Indeed, it’s hard to take seriously the claim that I have done anything to them at all.). Merely refusing to sell to someone seems to be the same. No harm to dignity seems plausible. (Again, mass or universal refusal or legal inability to sell to members of a group—and mass or universal refusal or legal inability to buy from members of a group—may be different.)

I’ll end by being clear that I do not see any reason to deny that there are real dignatarian harms. In a theocratic society where women are denied the rights to vote, to own property, to work outside the home, etc, it seems entirely reasonable to think there is a wrongful setback to their interest in their own personal dignity. Such harms would plausibly be independent of physical, financial, or even psychological harms. These would be harms even to women who were happy in the society, well treated, and financially, physically, and psychologically secure. Similarly, as already indicated, if all storeowners were united—or forced—to withhold service to some group of individuals there would be plausible dignatarian harm. But if we are talking of an individual store owner refusing service to such a group, it seems implausible.


Thanks to Payden Alder for getting me thinking about this stuff again and to Jim Taggart, Connor Kianpour, and Andrew I. Cohen for comments on a draft. (Connor gave the possible objection about a difference between storeowners and customers.)

Libertarians: Limited Government – or Abortion Bans?

The following is a guest post by Neera K. Badhwar, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Oklahoma and a Senior Fellow in the PPE Program in the Department of Economics at George Mason University.

Libertarians want a limited government, a government that protects rights, enforces contracts, defends us against foreign enemies, and otherwise stays out of our affairs. The vast majority of libertarians support abortion rights on the grounds that the pregnant woman owns her body and has a right to decide how to use it. Some libertarians, however, support abortion bans because they believe that abortion violates the fetus’ right to life, a right they regard as being as strong as a child’s right to life. It is commonly held that both positions are consistent with libertarianism as a political theory.

I disagree. Whereas regarding abortion as morally wrong is consistent with support of a limited government, support for legal bans on abortion is not. For a fetus’ rights can’t be protected across the board without opening the door to a hugely invasive, almost unlimited-in-the-bedroom, government. The reasons for this have to do with the nature of pregnancy, the relation between the pregnant woman and the fetus, and the nature of the state.

One reason legal bans on abortion invite governmental invasiveness is that abortion is often indistinguishable from miscarriage. According to the NAPW, “fifteen to twenty percent of all pregnancies (or approximately 1 million a year in the U.S.) will end in a miscarriage or stillbirth”. A government that looks upon almost all abortions as a crime will tend to be vigilant about every pregnancy loss. Was it really a miscarriage – or was it an abortion?  Zealous prosecutors have criminally charged women who have had miscarriages on the mere suspicion of a self-induced abortion – even while Roe v. Wade was in force.Indeed, even in California, where the law explicitly holds that a woman can’t be charged with murder for loss of her pregnancy, prosecutors charged two women with murder after they had stillbirths that their doctors judged had been caused by drugs. (In one case, the prison sentence was overturned after the woman had served four years in prison, in the other case, it was dismissed

Another reason why an abortion ban invites greater government invasiveness is that, although every state allows an abortion when the mother’s life is in danger, not many such dangers are clear-cut. If a woman is hemorrhaging, and without an abortion sepsis will set in and kill her, an abortion is clearly justified. But what if the danger is not imminent, and it’s possible that the fetus will be expelled naturally? With the threat of prison looming over them, how many doctors will be willing to take the risk of performing an abortion? If the past is prologue, not many. When prosecutors started charging doctors who seemed to them to be over-prescribing pain medicines to their patients, scores of doctors stopped prescribing them.* The results were devastating: pain patients either lived in constant pain, or turned to the black market and bought drugs adulterated with heroin or fentanyl, a potent killer. (One pain patient recently killed his doctor for leaving him in constant pain, and then killed himself. We should expect many doctors to stop performing life-saving abortions when the danger to the mother is probable, or even certain, but not imminent, out of fear of prosecution. After Texas passed S.B.8 in September 2021, a woman with an ectopic pregnancy was turned away by her own doctor as well as by a hospital – even though an ectopic pregnancyis a death sentence for the fetus, and likewise for the woman if she can’t get an abortion in a timely fashion. 

In cases like these, we can blame the doctors for not doing their job, since the Texas law does allow an abortion in a medical emergency, and a pregnancy that will kill both the fetus and the mother is a medical emergency if anything is. But the medical emergency exemption does not cover pregnancies that are threatening to women with pulmonary hypertension, or certain heart conditions or other health problems. Pregnancies in these conditions pose an especially high risk for low-income, rural women who don’t have access to good doctors. 

Legally enforced abortion bans also open women – including women who are not pregnant but could become pregnant – to encroachments on their bodily autonomy. According to civil rights attorney, Cynthia Conti-Cook, “pregnant people’s decisions—to self-medicate, to not medicate, to seek substance abuse treatment, to drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes—are all decisions that could be criminalized.” And thanks to digital technology, the state could easily surveil these behaviors. Prosecutors could also “subpoena women’s medical records and private social media files as part of criminal investigations into abortion providers”. Some politicians have even suggested keeping tabs on women’s menstruation cycles – and at least one official has already done so.

Anti-abortion libertarians could argue, rightly, that such invasions are not essential to state bans on abortion. But the point is that they are highly probable, if not inevitable, given the nature of the state, and a commitment to a limited state requires libertarians to refrain from providing the state with additional tools for abusing us. Libertarians of all people should be aware of the tendency of government to encroach on more and more of our lives, and to be more and more punitive

Some states currently exempt women who seek abortions from criminal penalties, but there is no guarantee that these protections will remain in place. There is a strong anti-abortion movement of “abortion abolitionists”pressuring legislators to eliminate such exemptions. And if the fetus is a person with rights equal to that of a child, then it stands to reason that the mother who kills it is a criminal, and must be treated as such. 

Again, just as a RICO violation “does not require intent, recklessness, willfulness, or even knowledge on the part of the accused,” a woman who does illegal drugs and has a stillborn child can be charged with homicide, even if she didn’t know that she was pregnant, or didn’t know that drugs could lead to a still birth. Of course, the elimination of mens rea is not inherent in an abortion ban, and no libertarian would support it. But Congress and state legislatures often pass laws without the requirement of mens rea, and libertarians who want to keep the state within bounds must take this feature of the state into account.

If the fetus has as strong a claim to life as a child, then the fact that the fetus resulted from rape or incest, or that it has severe anomalies, cannot justify an abortion. After all, a child born of rape or incest, or with severe anomalies, may not be killed. This leads to a further reason why abortion bans must expand the role of government in our lives. More babies with birth defects will be born, most parents will be unable to take care of them entirely on their own, and private charities will be limited in their ability to help. The obvious outcome is that the state will have to provide support for them. But no new or more extensive state program comes without higher taxes and a new and more meddlesome bureaucracy. 

For all these reasons, abortion bans open the door to an ever-more powerful state. Two of the three reasons I’ve given – the nature of pregnancy and the pregnant woman’s relation to a fetus – don’t apply to laws against homicide as ordinarily understood. The closest thing to a miscarriage in the case of homicide is an accidental death. But whereas a miscarriage often cannot be distinguished from an abortion, an accidental death can often be distinguished from a murder. Again, no one person has the unique relation to the victim of a homicide that a pregnant woman has to a fetus. So the possibility of homicide does not invite the kind of encroachments on our bodily integrity that abortion bans invite on women’s bodily integrity. The only thing comparable to them is the war on drugs. 

Libertarians can believe that abortion is morally wrong and try to persuade others of their position without contradicting their commitment to a limited government. But they cannot support a legal ban on abortion without doing so. They must choose between abortion bans and a limited government. 

…………………………..

*The Supreme Court decision of June 27th, 2022, declaring that doctors who act in good faith can’t be prosecuted just because their actions fall “outside the usual course of [medical] treatment,” has finally freed doctors to follow their best clinical judgment, based on each patient’s specific circumstances.

Locke and Land Acknowledgements 

The following is a guest post by Kyle Swan, Professor of Philosophy and Director of Center for Practical and Professional Ethics at CSU Sacramento.


Stuart Reges is suing his employer, the University of Washington, for violating his First Amendment speech rights. The University initiated an investigation into whether Reges violated its anti-harassment policy for publishing a land acknowledgement statement on his course syllabus. His read, 

“I acknowledge that by the labor theory of property the Coast Salish people can claim historical ownership of almost none of the land currently occupied by the University of Washington.” 

Reges is protesting the recommended acknowledgment circulated by the University. The protest is clearly protected speech. I hope Reges wins his suit decisively. 

But what about Reges’s statement? He appears to be serious. In a Quillette article he writes, 

“I am a Georgist, and according to the Georgist worldview, Native Americans have no special claim to any land, just like the rest of us. But since few are familiar with that economic ideology, I leaned instead on a principle described in John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, now known as the labor theory of property or the ‘homestead principle.’ To the Georgist idea that land is owned in common by all living people, Locke added that by mixing one’s labor with the land, one encloses it from the shared property because people own the products of their labor. If, for example, you make the effort to grow corn on an acre of land, you come to own that acre of land, so long as there is still plenty of land left for others to use.” 

The labor theory Reges refers to is a theory of property acquisition. In its original state, the entire earth is given to us in common. Nobody owns stuff in the world. The question is, how can we remove things from the commons and make rightful claims to them that would allow us then to exclude others from using them? 

Locke provides some conditions. First, it has to be true that someone hasn’t already done that — the stuff has to not be already owned. Second, the person appropriating something from the commons has to do it in a way that improves it through their productive activity — gathering berries, hunting deer, growing vegetables, clearing trees — all kinds of activity counts. Finally, the way they do this has to leave enough and as good for others, so that no one would have reason to complain about the appropriation. 

Professor Reges’s acknowledgment is saying that Coastal Salish people weren’t ever in a position to claim ownership. They were never rightful owners. So when settlers came to the area in the late 1840s or whenever, he supposes these settlers were appropriating the land from the commons, rather than from a group of people. 

Professor Reges’s application of Locke’s theory is dubious. I’m a philosopher, not a historian, but it seems unlikely to me that there were no groups of native people engaged in productive activity in the relevant areas when settlers showed up. 

More importantly, though, if Reges is correct and there weren’t people there already with legitimate ownership claims, then the behavior of government authorities in the mid-19th C was very odd. Because what they were doing was negotiating treaties with the native peoples, including the Salish. Doing so suggests their recognition of legitimate claims made by these groups. Why were they making contracts to acquire land from these native peoples if they didn’t own the land? It seems incredible they would do this if they regarded the lands as unused, unoccupied, and unowned. So it looks like this was a transfer of land ownership rights, not an original appropriation of them. 

Now everything hangs on how these contracts were presented and executed. Were the negotiations above board? Were all the relevant people groups represented? Did they all sign? Were all the terms of the contract fulfilled? Again, I’m a philosopher, not a historian, but if not, if there were problems with the agreement, then there wasn’t a legitimate transfer of the Washington territories. 

If that’s right, then a different part of Locke’s theory applies, which you can find in a later chapter of the 2nd Treatise, Of Conquest. There Locke argues that an aggressor who “unjustly invades another man’s right can…never come to have a right over the conquered…. Should a robber break into my house, and with a dagger at my throat make me seal deeds to convey my estate to him, would this give him any title? Just such a title, by his sword, has an unjust conqueror, who forces me into submission. The injury and the crime is equal, whether committed by the wearer of a crown, or some petty villain. The title of the offender, and the number of his followers, make no difference in the offence, unless it be to aggravate it.” 

And so “the inhabitants of any country who are descended and derive a title to their estates from those who are subdued and had a government forced upon them against their free consents, retain a right to the possession of their ancestors….the first conqueror never having had a title to the land of that country, the people who are the descendants of, or claim under those who were forced to submit to the yoke of a government by constraint, have always a right to shake it off, and free themselves….If it be objected, This would cause endless trouble; I answer, no more than justice does.” 

Locke’s theory of acquisition has two parts. The first is a theory about how original appropriation would be legitimate. The answer has to do with labor and productive activity. But that part doesn’t seem to apply to this case, since it looks like the Salish already had an existing claim. The second part of the theory is about how acquisition by transfer would be legitimate. The answer here has to do with agreement, and everything depends on the quality of the agreement and how it was or wasn’t honored. But we see there’s more to the story. When there has been no agreement, no just transfer and only conquest, Locke says that people retain “the native right of their ancestors.” 

Locke has long been accused of providing intellectual and justificatory cover for the (mis)appropriation of Indigenous people’s land in America and around the world. But it seems like it’s been Locke’s views that have been misappropriated.

Libertarianism and Abortion

I offer this as a tentative foray into a discussion about abortion, obviously spurred by the recent SCOTUS decision, Dobbs v. Jackson.  I note that I have long been convinced that as brilliant as Judith Jarvis Thomson’s contribution to the debate was, it doesn’t actually solve anything. (For more on that, see the chapter Lauren Hall and I co-authored in The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism.)

Different libertarians define their political ideology in different ways.  (No surprise; different egalitarians do this, different socialists do this, different welfare liberals do this; in short, all political ideologies are multiply defined.  Presumably those adopting the same name have at least a family resemblance.)  

Some libertarians adopt the Non-Aggression Principle. Others adopt a view that indicates simply that individual liberty is the predominant value, never set aside to promote any other value. Others accept that natural rights are the foundation for the view. Others adopt some form of consequentialism. My own libertarianism is defined by commitment to the harm principle: no interference with an individual or consensual group is permissible except to rectify or prevent genuine significant harm.

What does this my form of libertarianism say about abortion? If the principle was only about harm to persons, abortion would presumably be clearly permissible since the fetus is not a person even though it is human. Of course, religious libertarians are likely to believe that all human life is sacred and that the intentional ending of such is necessarily wrongful. While I do not believe that, the harm principle in my view is not only about persons or humans. Genuine significant harm can occur to non-humans and merit interference, so whether or not the fetus is a person is not all that matters.

The question then is: is abortion a genuine significant harm? To clarify, I use the term “significant” to indicate that de minimis harms are not the sorts of things we interfere with (the cost of doing so may be a greater loss than the harm itself). I use the term “genuine” to indicate we are not discussing mere hurts or offenses, but hurts that wrongfully set back the interests of another (for more on this, see Feinberg or chapter 3 of my 2018). Once this is recognized, it should be clear that some abortions may well be genuine significant harms and some may not. Aborting an 8 month old fetus merely because one decided on the spur of the moment to take a world tour is, I think, wrongful. It would also be significant—ending the life of a human that could have been very good. On the other hand, aborting a 6 week old fetus because one was raped is unlikely to be wrongful and is at least plausibly less significant since at that stage spontaneous abortions are not uncommon.

Some will now likely object that what is wrongful is subjective. I basically think this is false—it is at least false if meant in anyway that is troubling for what I am saying here. People do not simply decide for themselves what is wrongful.   For more on this, see this BHL post and this one.

Assume I am right thus far: some abortions are genuinely and significantly harmful and some are not. What does that mean for law? On my view, answering this means first recognizing that law is a blunt instrument and as such has to wielded carefully. Perhaps making all abortions illegal after 8 months pregnant is reasonable. Making all abortions illegal is not. If a clear set of guidelines for wrongfulness can be decided upon, perhaps laws against abortions that are wrongful would be reasonable. I can’t here work out what such a list would include, but I do think a law against aborting 8 month old fetuses reasonable. Perhaps also a law against aborting a fetus on a whim (perhaps have a 5 day waiting period). Laws requiring parental (or spousal) consent might sound good but are likely to run up against significant objections, including the real possibility of rape and incest and unacceptable familial pressure. The final list will be difficult to determine and absent a final list, jurisdictions may adopt differing lists (as SCOTUS allows).

Importantly, the jurisdiction issue is more complicated than some recognize. Philosophers have long debated what would give a government legitimate jurisdiction over a group of people. I won’t be able to delve into that here, but will simply assert that I do not believe any of the US state governments is likely to have genuine legitimacy over all people within their borders. For that reason, it strikes me as perfectly acceptable for the federal government or other state governments to aid an abortion-seeker in a state wherein they are unable to get an abortion legally. (For one way this can work, see this interesting story.)

Moralism and Contemporary Politics

People have asked me why I seem so focused on moralism.  There are multiple reasons, including having too much personal experience with people who operate as moralists, but what it really comes down to is that if we take moralism broadly to be a view that we should use the machinery of law to impose a moral view on the jurisdiction, most people in politics today are moralists.  (So, not just a justification of a specific law, but of the whole system of law.  A loss of viewpoint neutrality.)

On the right, we we have what are called “common good constitutionalists” or “common good conservatives” who basically say we should interpret the Constitution of the United States of America in such a way that will get us the common good of society.  Of course, what they mean by “the common good” follows from their conservative beliefs (see Patrick Deneen and Adrian Vermuele).  

On the left, you see basically the same thing without the claim made explicit. You have people pushing a particular view about how to guarantee equality and freedom in society, meaning a particular view about how society should be set up—and of course, that is a way meant to attain their view of the common good.

Of course those on the left and those on the right disagree about what the common good is.  This is what “culture clashes” are. So, for an obvious example, the two camps here would take opposing sides with regard to today’s SCOTUS decision in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization.  One side (or at least some on that side) thinks all human life is deserving of the same basic respect as all other human life; the other thinks women deserve the respect that would enable them to control their own lives.

Both sides seem to believe that the machinery of the state—the law—should be used to make society moral, given their own (competing) views about what that entails.   (And we are likely to see this play out from SCOTUS fairly quickly.)

Importantly, libertarians are different.  We believe that people should be free to live their lives as they see fit subject only to the restriction that they don’t wrongfully harm others.  Some might say that this is a form of moralism as well—one wherein the view of morality is simply thinner than those of the other two views.  Perhaps that is right, but consider how it plays out.  Those on the left would want to force people to recognize and work for equal rights for women and to pay for programs meant to help with that.  Those on the right want to force women to carry pregnancies to term.  Meanwhile, libertarians want to force people not to force people to do anything.  That last seems obviously better.

Interpretive Charity and Heated Debate

I wanted to add to the discussion my co-bloggers have started on discourse norms.

Consider the following sample dialogues

1)
A: “I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B: “I think you’re mistaken about that.  Just as criminal background checks make good sense, so would some sort of red-flag or mental health history screening.  Indeed, since we already use criminal background checks, we could easily combine the two, plus it would help if there weren’t easy ways to circumvent the background checks.”

2)
A: “ I think stricter gun regulations would fail to prevent either determined criminals or the seriously deranged from committing the sorts of horrible crimes that make people want those stricter laws, but they would violate the rights of law-abiding gun owners and possibly make them less safe.”

B*: “That’s outrageous.  You think guns are more important than kids’ lives?”

3)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B: “I disagree.  I am not depending on any particular religious doctrine when I claim that human life begins at conception. It’s a developmental spectrum, there are no sharp dividing lines, so if we don’t respect the new life that the pregnancy represents as early as possible, it’s a slippery slope.  As to the reasons why women might want to terminate, sure, if there’s a legitimate medical rationale that the mother’s life is in jeopardy, I can see that, but I think a lot of what you’re calling psychological reasons could be addressed through counseling, spiritual or secular.”

4)
A: “I think there’s no plausible rationale for tighter abortion restrictions.  Claiming that life begins at conception is a religious doctrine, so using it as the basis for law would violate church-state separation.  In many religions, personhood isn’t thought to obtain until at least the 2nd trimester.   In any case, there are all sorts of reasons a woman might seek to terminate a pregnancy, medical ones most obviously, but also psychological reasons, and I think the best public policy would be to leave it up to her.”

B*: “That’s outrageous. You think it’s ok to murder babies to preserve some illusion of women’s autonomy?”

————————

You may have noticed that dialogues (1) and (3) read very differently than (2) and (4).   That’s because in (1) and (3), the B character is responding to the A character’s arguments with different arguments.   In (2) and (4), the B* character does not actually engage with A’s arguments at all, but goes right for “baby-killer.”   Regardless of your view on either abortion or gun control, you should be able to see that in (2) and (4), B* is not arguing in a rational way, whereas B is arguing rationally in (1) and (3).   Does A actually hold the position that B* alleges?  Almost certainly not.  This is commonly known as the “straw man” fallacy; in this case augmented by an emotional appeal.  We know this because in the other pair of dialogues, B is offering actual counter-arguments. 

Why does this matter?   Because when people argue about these things, they have two sorts of objectives.  One is changing the mind of the other person, or perhaps onlookers.  The other is changing public policy.   But neither of these goals will be served with arguments that do not engage their opponents.  It’s totally implausible that A will respond to B* with “oh goodness, I didn’t realize I was advocating baby-killing, I hereby change my position.”  What happens instead is the discussion goes nowhere.

Sometimes we just get angry at people who disagree with us, and we are bewildered that others don’t see things our way.  But we should resist the temptation to straw-man.  If you don’t have the emotional bandwidth to argue with people, you’re certainly not required to do so.  But if you do think it’s worth arguing about, then your objectives will be better served with interpretive charity.  What actually is the other person’s position, and why?  Why do they think your position is wrong?  Is there something that might be common ground?  Are you talking past each other?  Are you sure that your position is informed by facts and logic?  Do you have any talking points that might be misinformed?

Sometimes we never resolve disagreements on highly controversial issues.  But if you hope to get anywhere, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Owning Civil Discourse and Social Justice