The importance of being visibly pro-choice

In the U.S., I think it’s fair to say that the abortion debate, whatever else it is, is first and foremost a legal debate. That is, it is a debate about whether or not aborting a pregnancy (“killing an unborn child”–pick your terminology of choice) should be legal or illegal, and/or under what circumstances. It is possible to regard the abortion question from a moral point of view and to judge that, for example, abortion is probably morally wrong (say) but should still be legal. I know some people who believe this (more or less). I understand that that stance makes it hard for a person to call herself “pro-choice”. But if a person believes abortion should be legal, in our contemporary context, I think it’s absolutely imperative for that person to self-identify, out loud and in public, as “pro-choice”. Here’s why.

(1) Just a few decades ago, massive strides were made towards making abortion safe, legal, and widely available. And yet we are, at present, making massive strides in the opposite direction. So if you think abortion should be legal, even if you personally don’t like it, even if you personally would never have one, or whatever, even if you think it’s wrong, your (legal) stance is currently being defeated. You need to fight back.

(2) Pro-lifers have been excellent at organizing themselves. They are loud and visible. They have succeeded in making people uncomfortable talking about abortion in neutral or positive terms. They have inundated our cultural meme pool with their framing of the abortion question (which emphasizes the fetus above all else, so that the woman who is pregnant somehow disappears, or appears only contingently related to that fetus [or zygote/blastocyst/embryo/whatever]). Pro-choicers have become invisible.

(3) As a result of the invisibility and stigma associated with being pro-choice, the excellent (winning, I’d say) arguments of the pro-choice position have become invisible as well. Most pro-lifers do not know why a reasonable person might think abortion should be safe, legal, and widely available. But in fact pro-choicers have two excellent lines of reasoning for their position. The first emphasizes the difficulties (economic, physical, emotional) of unwanted pregnancy; the second emphasizes the biological facts about developing human beings in utero.

In brief then, however else you think or feel about the question(s) of abortion, if you think abortions should be legal–that is, if you think pregnant women should, legally speaking, be free to choose whether or not to carry on with their pregnancy or to abort–then you are pro-choice, and the rest of us (and all potentially pregnant women across the country) need you to speak up.

Pro-choice and proud.

What is a soul?

I was perusing my previous posts on this blog, and I realized I hadn’t written anything specifically about the soul. That’s quite an oversight, since reading and thinking about souls is a lot of what pushed me away from Christianity and towards atheism and humanism. Very briefly then, here’s an outline of my thinking on this topic.

(1) Most people today, in North America, believe in souls. That is my experience, and, to the best of my knowledge, the polls bear it out. This means that most people are not materialists. They think there is “more” to us than the stuff of our bodies–our blood cells, veins, muscles, gray matter, etc.

(2) What the word “soul” means is actually a matter of some debate. When I’ve asked my students, at least, they can’t seem to give me a straight answer. The simplest explanation is that soul-talk is something we’ve inherited from the culture, for whatever reason, and its reference is something underdetermined by its use.

(3) From the perspective of the history of philosophy, the evolution of the idea of the “soul” is easy enough to trace. For the ancients (Plato, Aristotle), the soul is what makes a body alive. Having a soul is what separates the animate from the inanimate. Students are typically surprised to learn that plants have souls (on Aristotle’s conception of the soul), but plants are very different from stones and dirt when you think about it. (“Soul” here is an empirical posit of sorts–it does something, it explains something. Not so, nowadays.) The more rationalist and human-centered approach of Plato has recurring appeal, and shows up, in some version or other in the later work of thinkers like Augustine and Descartes (to choose from two very different time periods). In Descartes’ work, “soul” or “mind” is characteristically human. It is known best through introspection, and it is a fundamentally different kind of stuff than material substance (which, unlike the soul or mind, is extended in space). In a way, materialism has been controversial for as long as people have been thinking about what is necessary to explain the world around us. The notion of the soul has been used as a stop-gap for whatever people have thought mere matter couldn’t explain.

(4) Soul-talk, in brief, is essentially dualistic. That is, it encourages us to view human beings (and perhaps other animals) as matter + something else. The view we get from the natural and human sciences, however, is fundamentally monistic. That is, rather than view human beings as matter + something else, it sees us as very complex organizations of matter. Of course, “matter” itself is weirder than we’d ever imagined. But the fact remains that our best scientific theories (our most empirically successful theories) tell us there is one world–not the two worlds of our culture’s “soul”-talkers.

(5) Soul-talk, as a result, has become obsolete. The reason my undergrads can’t pinpoint the nature of the soul is that it has no nature. At this point in our cultural evolution, the “soul” has become little more than a placeholder for that-which-makes-immortality-possible. My soul is me, minus all the material stuff that makes me me, like my body, my face, my feelings, my personality, and so on (fishy, no?). There’s a good story to tell about why thinking about souls is natural to beings with our evolutionary history (see Pascal Boyer’s work, for example). But we’ve got all sorts of cognitive predispositions which have likely been useful to us in the past, without by the same token telling us anything true about the world. The inchoate sense of a something “more” to life or to human persons is, in all likelihood, one more example of this type of phenomenon.

So what is a soul? Nothing much. Just a figment of our imaginations. A holdover of our evolutionary past; a hangover from Christianity. A lie we need to outgrow.

Women and babies

I’ve been working through a body of feminist work in ethics for my dissertation that goes by the label of “care ethics”. It’s a subfield of study that got jumpstarted in the early 1980s, when the American psychologist Carol Gilligan wrote a damning critique of Lawrence Kohlberg’s work on human moral development in her book In a Different Voice. Work on “care” in subsequent decades took the notion in two very different ways. According to Gilligan, and to philosophers like Nel Noddings, “care” is primarily a psychological orientation. It’s a disposition to be responsive to others, to care about them, to think about social life relationally, etc. And, very importantly, it’s allegedly something women are better at than men. According to other philosophers (Sara Ruddick, Joan Tronto, Margaret Walker, and many other feminists), care should be thought of as work, as something people (of whatever gender) do. Whether you frame things in terms of psychological care or in terms of practical care makes a big difference, it turns out.

One of the reasons feminists prefer the practical conception of care over the psychological conception of care, as far as I can tell, is that the psychological conception of care seems like a recycled version of the claim that women are more “naturally” suited for tasks like childcare and so forth. They’ve been wary of that claim at least since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique in 1963 (which documented the dissatisfaction of white, middle-class housewives with their dull, mind-numbing and “care”-filled lives).

One of the (many) things I do in my dissertation is look at the debate in care ethics over how to think about care. And so I’ve tried to reconstruct the argument for focusing on practical care (how care as work is distributed in our societies) rather than psychological care by assuming that women are more caring than men, and seeing what follows from that.

The argument runs as follows.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

(2) here justifies the femininity of care work in our world. But clearly, the argument as it stands is invalid. We seem to be missing at least one premise. Something like:

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.

By “work” I mean simply to include the work entailed by a practical conception of care. The argument thus becomes:

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

This new iteration of the argument from a psychological conception of care to a justification of the femininity of care work is still incomplete however. It assumes a straightforward connection between a person’s psychological orientation and that person’s ability to perform a task (well). We must consequently interpose yet another intermediate premise.

(1) Women are usually more psychologically caring than men.

(1a) Psychological care consistently drives effective practical care.

(1b) Work is best distributed according to ability.


(2) Women ought to do more care work than men.

On this iteration, the argument is valid, as best I can see. Is it sound?

Given that I have granted the truth of (1) for the sake of the argument, the soundness of the argument hangs on the truth of (1a) and (1b). Very briefly, I am skeptical that psychological care consistently drives effective practical care. Psychological care may well be a factor in driving effective practical care. It might move a person to try harder to care practically than someone less so motivated, for example. But other factors might be equally or more important in the effectiveness of practical care (effort, or experience, for example). Be that as it may, (1b) is more problematic than (1a), and its dependence on (1a) makes it more problematic still. Even if we grant that women are more “caring” than men, and that this psychological disposition makes them more effective practical carers, there may be a variety of reasons for distributing care work more widely. For instance, the presumption of women’s sole or primary responsibility for care work might prevent the achievement of other goods (as Friedan argued). The lives of men might be enriched by a greater responsibility for care work (as social workers and social theorists have long argued). The lives of women might be enriched by less responsibility for care work. There is no reason to suppose that men are incapable of caring in the practical sense (such a claim would be plainly false [full disclosure: I’m a stay-at-home dad]). And many women express a desire for greater male involvement in care work. These are all good reasons, on my view, for resisting the inference from (1) to (2).

Whether women are “naturally” more caring or not, they are certainly more than just that. And men are not “naturally” uncaring. Feminists have concluded that the distribution of care work is something to be discussed, to be negotiated, to be adjusted, according to the needs and desires of both women and men. Logically speaking then, the psychological conception of care functions to bolster patriarchal distributions of care work only in conjunction with further, problematic, premises.

Of course, the psychological conception of care, in its association with women, is problematic to say the least. Complex human behaviors cannot generally be traced straight back to biology without reference to culture (perhaps with some exceptions). I’m an evolutionist, so of course I think it’s possible that human males and females have certain characteristic cognitive differences. But I also know that one of our evolved traits is an amazing cognitive flexibility, which accounts for the possibility of wide cultural divergences. To the best of my knowledge, there’s no precisely formulated and cross-culturally replicated analysis of care that conclusively shows that human females are more caring than human males by biological nature; although I grant as a matter of course that women in Western culture (and many other contemporary cultures, no doubt) are taught to be more “caring” than men. But then I also see feminism as a movement to rectify the gender imbalance in that cultural lesson.