Abortion and Uncertainty

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently I’ve been reading the late Ronald Dworkin’s Justice for Hedgehogsthe cover of which features an adorable hedgehog. Dworkin is a fun political theorist. His writing is a joy to read. There are many areas in which Dworkin and I do not agree, but today I ran across a thought of his that I found very compelling and very relevant, and I’d like to share it with my readership. It concerns the distinction between the concepts of uncertainty and indeterminacy. This matters more than it may sound like it does.

If you’ve noticed, a lot of people like to assume that, if we cannot make up our minds as to the morality of something, the appropriate response is to say that there is no right answer. So if, for instance, you listen to the arguments for and against abortion and you cannot decide whether abortion is permissible, the natural response is often to say that it is impossible to decide whether abortion is objectively right or wrong. If you were of this view, you might say that there is no right answer, and that, consequently, women should be permitted to choose for themselves.

A lot of people who are pro-choice on abortion claim this point of view. They claim that the moral issue is too convoluted for anyone to independently judge whether abortion ought to be encouraged or discouraged. For these people, if you tell a woman “you should have an abortion” or “you should not have an abortion”, you are equally wrong in both cases. It is the woman’s choice, because the moral issue does not seem decisive one way or the other.

What many people are missing here is that this view expresses indeterminacy of moral value, not mere uncertainty, and indeterminacy is itself a substantive moral position. Compare these two scenarios:

  1. After listening to the arguments for and against abortion, I cannot decide which set of arguments is the stronger, so I claim to not know the answer to the question of whether or not abortion is morally permissible.
  2. After listening to the arguments for and against abortion, I cannot decide which set of arguments is the stronger, so I claim that there is no right answer to this question, and that it is a woman’s right to choose.

In the former case, we are admitting to having not made up our minds or formed an opinion. In the latter case, we are making a normative claim that has moral consequences. The two views are not equivalent in what they demand. Anyone who cannot decide which arguments are stronger can claim uncertainty, but to claim indeterminacy requires its own argument. These views can even lead to different policies.

Dworkin recounts an argument used by the Catholic church. The church argues that if you are uncertain as to the morality of abortion, you should side against it on the grounds that if it turns out that abortion really is murder, it will be much more wrong than it would be right if abortion were not murder. This is a position compatible with uncertainty, but not with an indeterminate view.

Someone with an indeterminate view might still wish abortion to be illegal, on the grounds that a lot of people are upset by it, or legal, on the grounds that, when a thing has indeterminate value, liberty demands that we permit it, but in each case the view is reached not by appealing to the moral value of abortion or lack thereof, which has been wholly denied, but with an appeal to an additional external value–pleasing third parties or liberty/autonomy for women.

Dworkin notes that a lot of people confound uncertainty with indeterminacy, adopting indeterminate views that they cannot justify. It is a bold claim to say not merely that the decision of whether or not abortion is morally permissible is difficult, but to say that it is impossible to resolve either way. Such a claim requires sound argument, the same kind of sound argument that would be required in order to justify or repudiate abortion.

We can expand the topic far beyond abortion to the question of whether there is an objective morality in the first place. A lot of people argue that because we cannot be certain of our moral views that we cannot adopt them as objective views or attempt to legislate on the basis of them. This view is confounding uncertainty with indeterminacy. It is a logical fallacy to say that merely because I am not entirely certain of my moral positions that morality as a whole is indeterminate. What sort of reasons could someone give for making the leap from personal uncertainty to the belief that no one of any capacity is capable of making moral judgements? On what basis could such a view be justified?

It looks to me as if there is no basis at all for that view, that it is arbitrary and, dare I say, extremely conceited. It is the conceit of the centrist who thinks the right answer is that everyone who has any view at all is wrong, an answer which the centrist himself cannot justify in the slightest but persists in attempting to put into the law.

This has me rejecting all arguments that rely on indeterminacy. I see no way that an indeterminate view could be justified or established. How do you establish that the competing moral answers are precisely equally valid, such that neither is the stronger? It cannot be done. All indeterminate views are indecision views wearing cheap suits. They are a kind of unearned scepticism, in which we unreasonably assume that the inverse of a proposition is true purely on the basis that we cannot be certain of it. Inability to be certain of moral claims is not indicative of their irrelevance or lack of force.

As for the abortion debate, this has me rejecting the legitimacy of a certain group of views which themselves often produce policies that agree with my own. To say that the morality of abortion is indeterminate such that it is “a woman’s right to choose” is no more justifiable than saying that the morality of anything or everything is similarly indeterminate. Those of us who wish to permit abortion must justify abortion. Glorified indecision is not acceptable.