Progressives and eugenics

by Henry on July 31, 2007

This is a pretty weird post from Ross Douthat.

Ezra writes that it’s “very unfair” to apply the word “eugenics” to, say, the contemporary trend toward the elimination of Down’s Syndrome by selective abortion, because “traditionally, the term has been used to denote efforts to direct or encourage breeding by high status, socially dominant individuals in order to select for their characteristics, and discourage breeding by low status individuals (criminals, the insane, blacks, etc) in order to wipe their characteristics from the gene pool. For Ross to conflate that with parents who decide to abort infants with medically disastrous genetic mutations is a real stretch.” First of all, Down’s Syndrome is not a “medically disastrous” genetic mutation, unless you take an extremely broad definition of the term “disastrous.” Second, while the means of “traditional eugenics” were obviously very different from what’s emerging now – involving state power rather than parental choice, and selective breeding/sterilization rather than prenatal genetic screening and abortion – the ends were the same: the genetic improvement of the human species through the scientific management of the reproductive process.

Does Ross seriously believe that people who have abortions because their foetus appears likely to have Tay-Sachs syndrome or Downs syndrome are doing so because their “end” is “the genetic improvement of the human species?” Can he even realistically contend that the genetic improvement of the human species crosses most people’s minds when they are making this kind of decision?? This claim seems to me to be ridiculous on its face, regardless of your underlying position on whether abortion is a good or bad thing.

What’s going on here, as best as I understand it, is something like the following. There’s a long-standing label in US politics called “progressive,” which used to mean something like “social democrat or non-revolutionary socialist.” As vaguely-left Democrats have increasingly become disenchanted with the term ‘liberal’ and its milksop connotations, they too have begun to embrace the term “progressive.” However, for them, it doesn’t mean ‘social democratic, but instead something like ‘vaguely pro-union liberal with balls’ (or ovaries depending … you get my drift). This in turn has led critics on the right to start harking back to some of the old-style socialist progressives’ sins, and to try to hang them around the necks of Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and company.

Here, Ross has been trying to assert in a series of posts that there is some sort of continuity between ‘old’ progressives’ views on eugenics, and ‘new’ progressives’ views on abortion. Which is kinda nonsensical. The modern liberal position on abortion isn’t rooted in the imperative towards genetic improvement of the species, or anything like it. It’s rooted in a particular notion of individual rights. That’s why they call it ‘choice’ rather than ‘embrace your genetic duty by destroying imperfect foetuses for the benefit of mankind.’ The old-style eugenics of H.G. Wells, Swedish social democrats, Anglo-American family planners etc has nothing to do with modern liberalism, or with liberals who have started to call themselves progressives. Instead, if it’s an embarrassment for anyone, it’s an embarrassment for social democrats like myself, who have some real continuities with that older tradition (although hopefully not with that particular part of it).

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1

Guest 07.31.07 at 7:15 pm

Thanks very much for the clarity and plain speaking. It was a pleasure to read this post.

2

P O'Neill 07.31.07 at 7:22 pm

One of the few consolations is that the Douthat-Klein debate is the more intelligent version of what’s coming whenever Liberal Fascism hits the bookshelves.

3

Uncle Kvetch 07.31.07 at 7:26 pm

It’s not “kinda nonsensical.” It’s completely nonsensical. But it’s one more example of an increasingly popular meme among certain of my less intellectually astute countrymen, so it’s hardly surprising.

There is literally no limit to how far this might go. By November 2008, at least 30% of the American public will be prepared to tell pollsters that yes, they truly believe that Hillary Clinton feasts on the still-beating hearts of children, which she rips out of their chests with her bare claws.

4

Barry 07.31.07 at 7:27 pm

Mainstream mass media columnist attacks strawman leftists. Same old, same old. The important thing is to not forget Ross’s actions.

5

marcel 07.31.07 at 7:30 pm

I have two adult children, now in college. In the early 90s, my wife and I had an abortion of a planned pregnancy, because the amnio and followup exams indicated very serious neural tube defects. We were advised that if we continued the pregnancy to term, the child would be missing some parts of the brain (including but not limited to the corpus callosum), and others would be malformed. The high-risk ObGyn and genetic counselor advising us could place no lower bound on the likely cognitive abilities of the child, nor upper bound on how much care it would need. We already had two children and could not justify having to neglect them as much as would be necessary to care for this child. Improvement of the human race was not something that ever occurred to us, nor did it ever play any part in our decision. Love and concern for our two existing children, and for each other were the only considerations.

6

Xanthippas 07.31.07 at 7:36 pm

Douthat’s problem is he equates disability with diversity, as if aborting a fetus that is cursed with a debilitating and incurable genetic disease is the same as aborting a fetus because it’s female, or black. The two are not equivalent, and the motivations are different.

7

Rob 07.31.07 at 7:36 pm

The point Ross just doesn’t get is that progressives are for personal choice on abortion and so the reason for the abortion is immaterial. The real question should be in which instances do abortions meet with Ross’ approval?

8

"Q" the Enchanter 07.31.07 at 7:37 pm

On Douthat’s logic, you are engaging in eugenics when you look for intelligence and physical beauty in your baby-making mate. (The ends are the same, after all…)

9

Xanthippas 07.31.07 at 7:37 pm

Oh and yes, it’s ridiculous to equate “progressivism” of today with “progressivism” of the past on issues that are completely unrelated to modern progressives(like abortion and eugenics.)

10

Shelby 07.31.07 at 7:47 pm

at least 30% of the American public will be prepared…

I thought the consensus figure was 27%.

Certainly Ross is wrong about “what’s emerging now,” at least in the US and Western Europe. I’m less sanguine about what may be occurring in some other places. In fairness to Ross, eugenics as practiced in the early 20th century extended (eventually if not initially) to more than “encouraging” and “discouraging” particular breeding pairs, a point that Ezra elides and which is much closer to the use of abortion in response to a fetus’s medical condition. (I’m pro-choice, but I’m just sayin’.)

Interestingly (to me, anyway) this also touches on the back-and-forth between Ezra Klein and Megan McArdle regarding the modern use of “Progressive” as a political label. Her point being that the original Progressives were associated with various ideas that (a) modern self-styled Progressives do not share, and (b) have generally been rejected by mainstream political discourse. Eugenics being Example A. That being so, do the new Progressives not risk being tainted by or wrongly associated with such ideas? And if so, perhaps another label would be better?

The counterargument (as best I can tell) is that the public is too ignorant to know about the previous Progressives, so the only downside is that conservatives will unfairly imply that the new Progressives share the old ones’ ickier ideas as well as their more successful ones.

11

ajl 07.31.07 at 7:53 pm

“Her point being that the original Progressives were associated with various ideas that (a) modern self-styled Progressives do not share, and (b) have generally been rejected by mainstream political discourse.”

Right, which is a very strange point considering that Early 20th Century conservatives were also associated with various ideas that modern self-styled conservatives do not share, and have generally been rejected by mainstream political discourse.

It’s like holding David Cameron accountable for the sins of the British Empire.

12

"Q" the Enchanter 07.31.07 at 7:54 pm

Just went and looked at Douchat’s post. It’s brimming with other brilliant arguments too. There was this gem:

Indeed, many defenders of genetic enhancement through prenatal intervention…have embraced the term “liberal eugenics” (to be contrasted with the old, authoritarian eugenics), rather than repudiating it. Which suggests that it’s not all that “unfair” a word for conservatives to use to describes the practices and trends in question.

Even adopting this sorry logic (some in the gay community have adopted the term ‘fags’; ergo…?), it’s obviously totally inert as a response to Klein’s point, which was (as Douthat well knows) about using the term ‘eugenics’ simpliciter.

13

Uncle Kvetch 07.31.07 at 8:01 pm

That being so, do the new Progressives not risk being tainted by or wrongly associated with such ideas? And if so, perhaps another label would be better?

This presumes that there’s some kind of label out there that wouldn’t get everyone to the left of Joe Lieberman smeared as a bunch of amoral monsters by the McArdles and Douthats out there–a presumption that I find laughable.

Have you forgotten the Sacred Conventional Wisdom, Shelby? “Conservatives may do horrible things, but liberals are horrible people.” No one gets anywhere in politics in this country unless and until they internalize this belief.

14

dsquared 07.31.07 at 8:10 pm

I am going to keep making the joke about Ross Douthat’s nickname being “IwoulddoanythingforlovebutIwont”, until somebody laughs.

15

Warren Terra 07.31.07 at 8:12 pm

To avoid the “balls” problem (and “ovaries” while a noble attempt at balance, does not carry the same overtones), may I suggest “gumption”?

Any word starting with “gumpt” can’t be all bad, after all.

P.S. with respect to the actual topic, Douthat is just trying to perpetrate an especially baseless Godwin’s Law violation, and should be treated with appropriate contempt.

16

jacob 07.31.07 at 8:15 pm

If you poll ten historians of the Progressive Era what “progressive” meant, you’ll get ten or more answers, but surely none of them would be “social democrat or non-revolutionary socialist.” Interventionist, as opposed to laissez-faire, yes. But that also meant decidedly un-socialist things like urban reform that replaced politicians elected by the workers with unelected, middle-class experts. It included a public education system that sought to homogenize American culture into a white, Protestant, middle-class uniformity.

Indeed, one can describe progressivism (whatever it is) as the rise of the American middle class as a political group. Hardly the making of socialism light.

17

Shelby 07.31.07 at 8:17 pm

ajl,

There’s been a continuity among “conservatives” from the early 20th C to the present; I don’t think (but could be wrong) that there’s any similar tradition linking today’s Progressives to those of 90 years ago. Rather, there’s a modern effort to brand a certain strain of liberalism “Progressive” – to paraphrase Megan, salvaging the name from the dustbin of history – to get away from the “liberal” label. Conservatives are stuck with the history associated with their name; Progressives are choosing a name and gettign stuck with its history.

Uncle Kvetch:

I see various Sacred Conventional Wisdoms (including the precise opposite of yours) in different places. Though I don’t consider myself “liberal” within the meaning of modern American politics, I have never considered it a pejorative term, though of course others do. I’m also not “conservative” in that context, fwiw.

18

bi 07.31.07 at 8:18 pm

Michael Moore is Leni Riefenstahl, except fatter. Criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Abortion is eugenics.

There’s a common pattern here: the four-letter N-word.

19

Sebastian holsclaw 07.31.07 at 8:23 pm

The linkage is a lot less than Douthat is suggesting, but not the near zero-level you seem to be suggesting either.

Margaret Sanger was the founder of Planned Parenthood. She wrote:

Birth control for the individual, for the nation and for the world. We are fighting for the children of the present generation. We are fighting for the children, the women and the men of the next generation. We want a race of thoroughbreds.

and

The main objects of the Population Congress would be:

a. to raise the level and increase the general intelligence of population.
b. to increase the population slowly by keeping the birth rate at its present level of fifteen per thousand, decreasing the death rate below its present mark of 11 per thousand.
c. to keep the doors of immigration closed to the entrance of certain aliens whose condition is known to be detrimental to the stamina of the race, such as feebleminded, idiots, morons, insane, syphilitic, epileptic, criminal, professional prostitutes, and others in this class barred by the immigration laws of 1924.
d. to apply a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is tainted, or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.
e. to insure the country against future burdens of maintenance for numerous offspring as may be born of feebleminded parents, by pensioning all persons with transmissible disease who voluntarily consent to sterilization.
f. to give certain dysgenic groups in our population their choice of segregation or sterilization.
g. to apportion farm lands and homesteads for these segregated persons where they would be taught to work under competent instructors for the period of their entire lives.

The first step would thus be to control the intake and output of morons, mental defectives, epileptics.

The second step would be to take an inventory of the secondary group such as illiterates, paupers, unemployables, criminals, prostitutes, dope-fiends; classify them in special departments under government medical protection, and segregate them on farms and open spaces as long as necessary for the strenghtening and development of moral conduct.

Having corralled this enormous part of our population and placed it on a basis of health instead of punishment, it is safe to say that fifteen or twenty millions of our population would then be organized into soldiers of defense—defending the unborn against their own disabilities.

The third step would be to give special attention to the mothers’ health, to see that women who are suffering from tuberculosis, heart or kidney disease, toxic goitre, gonorrhea, or any disease where the condition of pregnancy disturbs their health are placed under public health nurses to instruct them in practical, scientific methods of contraception in order to safeguard their lives—thus reducing maternal mortality.

The above steps may seem to place emphasis on a health program instead of on tariffs, moratoriums and debts, but I believe that national health is the first essential factor in any program for universal peace.

With the future citizen safeguarded from hereditary taints, with five million mental and moral degenerates segregated, with ten million women and ten million children receiving adequate care, we could then turn our attention to the basic needs for international peace.

There is Peter Singer’s “Should the Baby Live? The Problem of Handicapped Infants” in which he suggests that it is appropriate to euthanize children with treatable diseases like hemophilia if their parents feel they could raise their other children more effectively without the burden.

20

omicron 07.31.07 at 8:24 pm

3: Comments like this make me want to lead a push to have Godwin’s Law entered into the criminal code.

21

Sebastian holsclaw 07.31.07 at 8:25 pm

Oops, the blockquote showed up on the preview. There should be an end quote at “We want a race of thoroughbreds.” That was Sanger.

The next quote on the Population Congress is hers as well. It ends with “we could then turn our attention to the basic needs for international peace.”

22

bi 07.31.07 at 8:26 pm

Sebastian Holsclaw:

Abortion = birth control = eugenics? I guess that means contraceptives are an instrument for mass murder.

And Michael Moore = Leni Riefenstahl + fat.

23

novakant 07.31.07 at 8:29 pm

Sorry, but Infantile Tay-Sachs and Down Syndrome are completely different cases and mentioning them in the same breath is misleading. The former is indeed ‘medically disastrous’, while the latter is not.

Also, I’m pretty sure Peter Singer can be counted as a ‘modern liberal’, though obviously not all liberals share his views.

24

A Bit Disturbed 07.31.07 at 8:31 pm

Aborting the retarded because they are a pain in the ass to care for may not be Eugenics but it is still a bit unnerving.

25

bi 07.31.07 at 8:34 pm

novakant: …in the same way as Alex Jones is a “modern liberal”.

Riefenstahl! Riefenstahl! Riefenstahl!

26

bi 07.31.07 at 8:36 pm

And how can we forget that “Nazi” stands for “National Socialism”? You can’t deny that there’s a clear link between this farce called “Democratic Socialism”, and Nazism! QED.

27

Timothy Burke 07.31.07 at 8:39 pm

Yes, I think this is a really awkward attempt to tie contemporary choices about reproduction to the eugenicism of “old progressives”. I agree that the associations between early 20th Century progressivism/social reform and various ideologies of social control and state power is an interesting history that is still fairly relevant to consider in the context of later political and social history.

But this is the wrong association. I think Henry is 100% right to say that when people today choose to abort fetuses that have been diagnosed as having various conditions, they’re almost universally making that choice in individual or personal terms, with almost no consideration for the collective biological health of humanity or for genetic outcomes. Everything I’ve ever heard, read or seen about people facing that decision is couched in terms of individual rights and responsibilities: can I, can we handle raising such a child, or can we deal with the emotional devastation of giving birth to a child who will live for only a very short time under conditions of severe disability and pain? None of the discourse I’ve encountered is about “what am I doing to my race? to humanity? to our genetic future?” I’ve never heard of any potential parent in 21st Century North America or Western Europe who has given two shits about those kinds of questions when thinking about the potential decisions they may face after prenatal testing of a fetus.

28

theo 07.31.07 at 8:44 pm

Sebastian’s “thoroughbreds” quote he cites is a laughable misrepresentation that routinely pops up in right-wing circles.

“To create a race of thoroughbreds . . .”
This remark, again attributed originally to Sanger, was made by Dr. Edward A. Kempf and has been cited out of context and with distorted meaning. Dr. Kempf, a progressive physician, was actually arguing for state endowment of maternal and infant care clinics. In her book The Pivot of Civilization, Sanger quoted Dr. Kempf’s argument about how environment may improve human excellence…

http://www.plannedparenthood.org/about-us/who-we-are/margaret-sanger-planned-parenthood-founder.htm

If someone could point out any real overlap between the leadership of Planned Parenthood of the feminist era and the eugenics movement, that would be quite interesting. Keep in mind that Sanger died in 1966.

And Peter Singer? Please. Just because he’s not conservative doesn’t make him liberal. The disability-rights leftists hate him more than anyone else on the planet.

Sebastian’s reputation as a reasonable conservative has been greatly overstated. But at least he didn’t pull out the “Margaret Sanger is racist” cant, for which he is to be commended.

29

Sebastian holsclaw 07.31.07 at 8:46 pm

“I think Henry is 100% right to say that when people today choose to abort fetuses that have been diagnosed as having various conditions, they’re almost universally making that choice in individual or personal terms, with almost no consideration for the collective biological health of humanity or for genetic outcomes. Everything I’ve ever heard, read or seen about people facing that decision is couched in terms of individual rights and responsibilities: can I, can we handle raising such a child, or can we deal with the emotional devastation of giving birth to a child who will live for only a very short time under conditions of severe disability and pain? None of the discourse I’ve encountered is about “what am I doing to my race? to humanity? to our genetic future?””

But that ought not be good enough at a place like CrookedTimber. This is a left-leaning website. The left is fantastic at noticing how ideological institutions use their influence to ‘shape’ individual choice. We see it in discussions here about the wage gap and a woman’s “choice” to raise children rather than pursue a career all the time.

Under the logic very commonly used here by those on the left, Planned Parenthood is clearly such an institution and relevant. Now if you all want to disclaim that style of analysis, I’m happy to go along.

30

Stuart 07.31.07 at 8:48 pm

Henry, I’d agree with you on the merits that choosing the word “progressive” to denote left-of-center politics isn’t necessarily related to turn-of-the-century progressivism, even though it goes under the same name. But surely you know that the same argument has been run in reverse – e.g. the idea that federalism a/k/a states rights is a bad thing because that’s the same thing segregationists used to invoke. Just as it’s certainly possible to believe in decentralized government without being a racist, it’s possible to admire much of progressivist politics, and maybe even use the same name, without also being a eugenicist. To me this is the same thing: people spend way too much time seizing on labels as a way to score rhetorical points, and not enough time looking at things on the merits.

For me, if people want to call themselves progressives, great. Or if they want to call themselves Blorg or Zaphod Beeblebrox, for that matter. Whether “progressive” is a meaningful name depends on what one views as progress. But that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post.

31

Sebastian holsclaw 07.31.07 at 8:51 pm

“If someone could point out any real overlap between the leadership of Planned Parenthood of the feminist era and the eugenics movement”

Did you read the rest or did you just stop at the first quote? The Population Congress stuff is straight up eugenics and I quoted almost half of the proposal.

I don’t believe that the progressive/eugenics linkage is all that tight. But it is there–at the very least to a level that would completely satisfy Neiwert if he were talking about fascism and Republicans.

32

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.31.07 at 8:56 pm

To be clear, I agree with stuarts post #26. The linkage between progressive/eugenics isn’t super-tight though it absolutely does exist. But if it is off limits, there are a lot of “conservative” linkages made around here that should be off limits too. But if it is ok to tar federalists with slave-owners or conservatives as racists, you shouldn’t be so touchy about the fact that progressives are enamoured with state power over individuals and that the history of the very progressive name involves advocating in front of Congress for active eugenics.

33

theo 07.31.07 at 8:56 pm

Besides, I can play the same linking game —

Slavery advocate Nathan Bedford Forrest founded the KKK, which disguised itself (poorly) as the CCC, which has been strongly linked with the Republicans’ Washington Times (via its managing editor Fran Coombs, and its editor in chief) and to former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott.

This chain beats Sebastian’s. Unlike Margaret Sanger and the current Planned Parenthood, who don’t exactly see eye to eye about eugenics, the right-wing figures and organizations I’ve listed all share one common trait: they’re all racist.

34

Brock 07.31.07 at 9:00 pm

Under the logic very commonly used here by those on the left, Planned Parenthood is clearly such an institution and relevant. Now if you all want to disclaim that style of analysis, I’m happy to go along.

Sebastian’s rhetorical move here is an instance of Poetic Justice as Fairness.

35

Brock 07.31.07 at 9:02 pm

I don’t believe that the progressive/eugenics linkage is all that tight. But it is there—at the very least to a level that would completely satisfy Neiwert if he were talking about fascism and Republicans.

More Poetic Justice as Fairness.

36

david 07.31.07 at 9:06 pm

The implication that anyone in this sort of situation would be thinking about “the genetic improvement of the human species” is ridiculous. But it’s also worth pointing out that people with Down’s Syndrome ARE PRETTY MUCH INFERTILE ANYWAY. So I think it’s fair to rule out eugenics as a possible motivating factor here.

37

novakant 07.31.07 at 9:06 pm

Funny, I mention Singer and you guys up in arms like James Dobson. I happen to disagree with him on several issues quite strongly, but think he does raise valid questions and so do many of his philosophical colleagues. There is a segment of the left who hate him, but that doesn’t make him any less progressive.

38

theo 07.31.07 at 9:07 pm

Did you read the rest or did you just stop at the first quote?

I was tempted, since you included no context and it looked like you just cut and pasted it from an anti-abortion website. But I actually read on.

The Population Congress stuff is straight up eugenics and I quoted almost half of the proposal.

The Population Congress was when, 1930? I’m not denying that Sanger had pro-eugenics views. I just think you’re making an absurd argument in tying them to a group that has explicitly and sincerely disavowed them for the last fifty years or so. I.e. the “Planned Parenthood of the feminist era.”

You know, one of the interesting thing about liberalism is that liberal views are subject to change, in response to social conditions and scientific developments (or sometimes, what scientists think they know.)

Whereas, in the CCC case, conservatism has a continuous legacy of defending the prerogatives of the privileged. Or in the case of Southern conservatives, the privileged and white.

39

jdkbrown 07.31.07 at 9:08 pm

Sebastian–

Holding Singer up as a model progressive is rather strange. Singer is an extreme and committed consequentialist. Sometimes his consequentialism brings him to positions that progressives find congenial, but sometimes it doesn’t.

40

theo 07.31.07 at 9:18 pm

novakant,

I agree with you that Singer is both provocative and frequently wrong.

Peter Singer clearly isn’t a typical theocratic conservative, but that doesn’t mean he’s progressive.

He’s most frequently associated with (leftish) animal rights advocates, but right-libertarian laissez-faire utilitarians could also reasonably claim him.

Perhaps he’s the touchstone political philosopher for some future Libergreenian party, but as of right now he’s a poor fit for progressivism.

To make the point more concretely: I cannot imagine a single politician on the American left who would want to be seen associating with him.

41

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.31.07 at 9:19 pm

“Sebastian’s rhetorical move here is an instance of Poetic Justice as Fairness.”

You fail to understand the concept: “Orin Kerr writes: “The Engligh language needs a word for when advocates on both sides of an ongoing debate switch rhetorical positions, and yet they insist on decrying the inconsistency of their opponents while overlooking their own inconsistency.” If prof. Kerr will settle for a phrase, let me suggest ‘poetic justice as fairness’. I know it will never catch on among the non-Rawls joke getting set, but it’s the best I can do. (Actually what I am talking about is a slightly more generic version of what Kerr is talking about.) ‘Poetic justice as fairness’ denotes a vendetta-based, rather than abstract reason-based approach to argument. Dialectic as feud; Hatfields and the McCoys do thesis and antithesis, with stupidity as synthesis. The rule is: if you think your opponent commited a fallacy in the recent past, you are allowed to commit a fallacy. And no one can remember when it started, but the other side started it. It is difficult to break the tragic cycle of intellectual violence once it starts.”

I’m specifically not arguing that progressives should be tarred as embracing eugenics. I’m arguing that the evidence marshalled is

A) stronger if you accept progressive analysis of institutions and ‘personal choice’ than if you accept a more libertarian analysis of personal choice

and

B) that if the move is invalid against progressives, the same move is invalid against conservatives.

A Poetic Justice as Fairness argument would be “because you commit a logical fallacy in linking modern federalists to racism it is fair (not fallacious) for me to link progressives and eugenics.”

I’m not doing that. I’m saying, yes the links are there in both cases, but in neither case should they be considered strong enough or tied to their modern philosophies to tar their respective current incarnations. I point it out now because when I point it out when it is happening around here, it gets a rather different reception than when one of your own oxen is around to be gored.

42

mpowell 07.31.07 at 9:20 pm

At the very minimum, aborting Down Syndrome fetuses could only qualify as eugenics if Down Syndrome persons passed the condition on to their own children. My understanding is that it is unusual for Down Syndrome persons to do this. I also understand that is is pretty much impossible with Tay Sachs.

43

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.31.07 at 9:20 pm

“I just think you’re making an absurd argument in tying them to a group that has explicitly and sincerely disavowed them for the last fifty years or so. I.e. the “Planned Parenthood of the feminist era.””

Not trying to be snarky, but what are you referring to when you say ‘explicitly’?

44

Warren Terra 07.31.07 at 9:30 pm

Comment 39, from mpowell: I also understand that is is pretty much impossible with Tay Sachs.

Indeed, although – if there really were a eugenics movement, which there is not – people could abort fetuses that are heterozygous for Tay-Sachs. This doesn’t happen, because the people who are choosing to abort after abnormalities are detected are not seeking some eugenic improvement of the gene pool: they are seeking children with a viable future.

The point that there is no modern eugenics movement, and this is just a smear on modern progressives.

45

Brock 07.31.07 at 9:34 pm

A Poetic Justice as Fairness argument would be “because you commit a logical fallacy in linking modern federalists to racism it is fair (not fallacious) for me to link progressives and eugenics.”

I’m not doing that. I’m saying, yes the links are there in both cases, but in neither case should they be considered strong enough or tied to their modern philosophies to tar their respective current incarnations. I point it out now because when I point it out when it is happening around here, it gets a rather different reception than when one of your own oxen is around to be gored.

Shorter Sebastian: “I’m not committing a fallacy, I’m changing the subject.”

46

Brock 07.31.07 at 9:34 pm

Oops, that second paragraph should be in italics as well.

47

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.31.07 at 9:35 pm

You are welcome to believe it is changing the subject. It seems to me like agreement with elaboration, but your mileage may vary.

48

aaron_m 07.31.07 at 9:56 pm

“I’m specifically not arguing that progressives should be tarred as embracing eugenics. I’m arguing that the evidence marshalled is

A) stronger if you accept progressive analysis of institutions and ‘personal choice’ than if you accept a more libertarian analysis of personal choice”

Ha ha, on this logic because progressives think governments should do some things we can say that this tends towards a better argument for tarring progressives for all the bad things governments have ever done, i.e. regardless of the principles behind the actions.

Way out to lunch!

The chorus of the song on my radio while I writing this sarcastically goes “sheep go to heave, goats go to hell.’ Somehow feels like appropriate theme music.

49

novakant 07.31.07 at 10:03 pm

Theo, I was just a bit astounded at the reflexive disowning of Singer, especially while discussing a problem that can be framed quite well using some of his thoughts, even if one disagrees with his conclusions. I do think that many of his central ideas, (e.g. focus on suffering, questioning of traditional values and identities, ethical universalism and egalitarianism) are genuinely progressive and are hard to square with most forms of conservatism. While I have problems with his consequentialism and utilitarianism, I think they are rooted in a completely different framework than that of libertarians or technocrats. But then I think that neither conservatives nor libertarians have a coherent or even interesting philosophical basis. As for politicians, they are wise not to embrace any philosopher.

50

c.l. ball 07.31.07 at 10:05 pm

There’s some hair-splitting going on here, I think, and most sides are wrong.

First, eugenics is a rather broad term (see M. Freeden, “Eugenics and Progressive Thought: A Study in Ideological Affinity,” The Historical Review 22:3 (Sep., 1979), and need not be confined to hereditary or genetic forces to improve ‘races’ or humanity. So Douthat is wrong about what eugenics is, but this actually furthers his point about recommendations that all mothers be screened for Down Syndrome.

Second, it is consistent with eugenic doctrines to abort ‘diseased’ fetuses. That doesn’t mean that parents are thinking “I should abort the pregnancy to make humanity better.” But that it is socially acceptable, if awkwardly so, and medically encouraged to abort such pregnancies is consistent with eugenic arguments. (We decided not get an amio given the risks when my wife, then 36, was pregnant; I calculated that it was only worthwhile to do so if we intended to abort; we decided we would not abort; I get puzzled reactions from many friends and family to this line of reasoning).

Third, it is clear that Douthat and others are using the eugenic aspect to push an anti-choice agenda. But that doesn’t mean that there are not serious ethical issues about abortion to be asked, including the moral status of declaring certain lives not worth living. Anti-abortion and pro-abortion advocates both approach the issue in an a-philosophical if not anti-philosophical manner.

Also, most forms of Down Syndrome are not hereditary, and parents with Down Syndrome do automatically have children with the syndrome.

And that Sanger quote is stripped of its broader context, and possibly incorrect. The “thoroughbreds” line came her quoting someone else.

51

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.31.07 at 10:14 pm

“Ha ha, on this logic because progressives think governments should do some things we can say that this tends towards a better argument for tarring progressives for all the bad things governments have ever done, i.e. regardless of the principles behind the actions.”

Hmmm, I don’t think that is similar to what I’m saying. Maybe I’m calling it the wrong thing.

There is a view that it is inappropriate or at least suspect to claim ‘individual choice’ as the reason for people doing things–the specific example that leaps to mind is women staying at home to take care of their children rather than continuing on in their career. This view is that institutions strongly influence the ‘choices’ such that appealing to individual choice doesn’t have sufficient explanatory power to largely explain the choices. (I say ‘largely’ to distinguish it from a trivial “institutions have some influence” view). I have typically thought of this view as “progressive”.

From this analytic view, it isn’t entirely appropriate to try to close out the conversation of aborting diseased or defective fetuses by merely appealing to personal choice when there are institutions that are attempting to exert influence regarding the choice.

52

Warren Terra 07.31.07 at 10:18 pm

Re #50, and others debating the meaning of ‘eugenics’: For those interested in the subject, I recommend Kevles’ book on the history of eugenics, which I read a few years ago.

I would encourage potential readers of Kevles to read a history of genetics first, not because its necessary to understand Kevles but because it provides context; Sturtevant’s classic work would be an excellent choice. I also remember Kohler’s ‘Lords of the Fly’ being an excellent if somewhat more focused history, but I cannot remember how much general background it contained.

For the serious genetics nerds, Crow and Dove’s Perspectives on Genetics, a collection of a quarter century of ‘Perspectives’ pieces in the journal Genetics, is a must-have.

All of these books were published several years ago (or more) and used copies are available fairly cheaply.

53

c.l. ball 07.31.07 at 10:21 pm

Re 44 …people who are choosing to abort after abnormalities are detected are not seeking some eugenic improvement of the gene pool: they are seeking children with a viable future.

But there is no reason to take the latter claim as not being ideologically linked to the former claim. Put differently, aborting children without a viable future is consistent with “improving the gene pool” or ‘improving’ humanity (also part of the eugenics ideology). The macro-ideology of eugenics need not be propagated by a conscious micro-ideology of eugenics.

And children with Down Syndrome have a viable future — indeed, that is part of the problem from the eugenics stand-point.

54

aaron_m 07.31.07 at 10:59 pm

“From this analytic view, it isn’t entirely appropriate to try to close out the conversation of aborting diseased or defective fetuses by merely appealing to personal choice when there are institutions that are attempting to exert influence regarding the choice.”

Oops, OK. I was certainly not reading what you and others were saying carefully enough.

Yet I still wonder if there is a problem in terms of debate strategy. Any time there are choices and institutions one can appeal to the logic you describe. That is not how most people that make substantive arguments about the way some institutions shape some choices operate.

More generally the debate strategy risks being viewed as disingenuous because in general abstraction the claim can’t be falsified by those that happen to think that some institutions affect some choices in some specific ways (i.e. not falsifiable as long as we have institutions and choosers interacting with each other).

55

thag 07.31.07 at 11:03 pm

larger point here:

Douthat, for some reason, has frequently been given a free pass into polite society.

That should end.

He is not an “honest conservative”, or a “reasonable person with right-leaning views”.

He is another right-wing propagandist, no better than Goldberg or Hewitt or Malkin.

56

functional 07.31.07 at 11:04 pm

This in turn has led critics on the right to start harking back to some of the old-style socialist progressives’ sins, and to try to hang them around the necks of Matt Yglesias, Ezra Klein and company.

Or they’re trying to ask, a la Jane Galt, “given that you’re not actually racist, why the hell would you pick a name with so much racist/eugenicist baggage?”

57

Sebastian Holsclaw 07.31.07 at 11:15 pm

“More generally the debate strategy risks being viewed as disingenuous because in general abstraction the claim can’t be falsified by those that happen to think that some institutions affect some choices in some specific ways (i.e. not falsifiable as long as we have institutions and choosers interacting with each other).”

Well right, which is why it is such a difficult argument to deal with the “women choose/are forced to raise children” context. But from the progressive point of view the institutional pressures are considered very very important. (Or at least that is how I read the argument, I’m not always sure I’m getting it right, as I don’t actually buy the argument for the most part). It seems to me that a viewpoint which buys into the idea that institutional influence often trumps personal choice can’t be so dismissive of potential institutional influences on personal choice. So a progressive can’t just say dismiss eugenic links by saying “people aren’t choosing it because of concerns about ‘the race’, they are choosing based on their personal concerns.

For a progressive, many of people’s ‘personal concerns’ end up being shaped by institutional pressure. That pressure may play to eugenic concerns. I think it ultimately works out that Planned Parenthood’s actual eugenic history doesn’t have much to do with it–but from the progressive point of view as I understand it, dismissing the whole inquiry because of personal choices isn’t legit.

A libertarian on the other hand would have no such trouble.

58

marcel 07.31.07 at 11:21 pm

One thing that I find distubing, after reading all the comments so far, is how much of the discussion — on both sides — appears to be proceeding under the assumption that abortion ends a human life. The ethical difference between abortion and infanticide turns largely on the distinction between potential and actual: a foetus is potentially, but not yet actually, a child, potentially but not yet actually a human being. To many of us, this is a profound difference.

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fardels bear 07.31.07 at 11:27 pm

But the objectionable aspect of the eugenics movement was not concern for future generations. Hell, any environmentalist will tell you we need to preserve the environment for future generations. Wanting to improve the lot of future generations is not morally objectionable is it?

The question becomes, when is compulsion justified? The Clean Water Act is compulsory (when enforced). But where do we draw the line? As Oliver Wendell Holmes argued in BUCK v. BELL:

“It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes…. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

We now draw the line somewhere between compulsory vaccination and involuntary sterilization. Is there a principled reason for doing so?

60

Brock 07.31.07 at 11:45 pm

We now draw the line somewhere between compulsory vaccination and involuntary sterilization. Is there a principled reason for doing so?

Two answers – one principled, one pragmatic.

The principled: Involuntary sterilization robs people of their autonomy with regard to an important aspect of their lives, viz. the choice of whether or not to bear and raise children. Compulsory vaccination does no such thing.

The pragmatic: Involuntary sterilization is apt to be used as a weapon by those in political power. In other words, that’s a power that the state should not have.

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Bruce Baugh 07.31.07 at 11:56 pm

Novakant, the thing about Singer is that he illustrates how one view really can loom large. Enough of us are disabled or care about disabled people that we simply prefer not to endorse the views of someone who sincerely believes that humanity as a whole would be better off if we’d never been born. Whatever merits there may be in the rest of his arguments, I’ll wait to get them from someone else.

Sebastian knows perfectly well, of course, that one can find prominent federalists and other sorts of conservatives who argued this very year that we have to wall off the US’ southern border to keep out the leprosy-bearing hordes and that the people who made that argument remain welcome guests at big-ticket gatherings, media commentary slots, and the like,w hile you have to look long and hard for anyone in the modern progressive movement who’s got a good word for the early 20th century legacy of left-wing racism. He won’t ever acknowledge it in the midst of this kind of exchange and there’s no point in expecting him to start being honest about it now, but he has been informed about the difference, with documentation, at Obsidian Wings and elsewhere, and he is not arguing in anything like good faith now.

Dsquared, your #14 made me laugh.

62

Francis 08.01.07 at 12:04 am

so, is Douthat’s name pronounced “Do That”?

63

Helen 08.01.07 at 12:47 am

There is a view that it is inappropriate or at least suspect to claim ‘individual choice’ as the reason for people doing things… This view is that institutions strongly influence the ‘choices’ such that appealing to individual choice doesn’t have sufficient explanatory power to largely explain the choices… I have typically thought of this view as “progressive”.

From this analytic view, it isn’t entirely appropriate to try to close out the conversation of aborting diseased or defective fetuses by merely appealing to personal choice when there are institutions that are attempting to exert influence regarding the choice.

but that doesn’t mean that “the institutions” (sinister phrase!) are necessarily exerting influence in the way you suggest (“Abort! Improve the gene pool!”) “Institutions” exert influence largely in the things they don’t – and here in Australia, if I am contemplating aborting a baby with profound intellectual disability, for instance, it is because of the lack of support– special education and accommodation in particular– for me as a parent due to the cuts in government spending on such children over the years, and particularly the adults the children may survive to be. Does that make sense?

64

Helen 08.01.07 at 12:48 am

Sorry, closed the italics tag too soon. paragraph 2 is also Sebastian’s.

65

lemuel pitkin 08.01.07 at 12:54 am

The historical progressive movement was a generally anti-democratic reformism that began with urban government and expanded from there. Key principles were fostering a uniform national identity, elevating professionalism/credential, constitutional reform, an expanded role of the state, skepticism toward liberal (laissez-faire) economics, and yeah, a biological view of human wellbeing, which did express itself in support for eugenics as well as public health measures, etc.

Key thinkers Jane Addams, early Walter lippman, Herbert Croly, plus of course Wilson and his circle. A mixed bag that doesn’t map easily onto contemporary left-right divisions. In any case there’s not much connection between those progressives and contemporary American left — too little if you listen to Tom Geoghegan.

66

Daniel Nexon 08.01.07 at 1:13 am

How about:

There’s a long-standing label in politics called “conserative,” which used to mean something like “monarchist” or “human beings are inherently unequal so stop with all this ‘liberty, fraternity, equality’ nonsense.” The fact that so-called “conservatives” refuse to abandon the label is clearly indicative of their support for Restoration and the restriction of the suffrage to a small class of particularly wealthy white male landholders.

67

novakant 08.01.07 at 1:21 am

we simply prefer not to endorse the views of someone who sincerely believes that humanity as a whole would be better off if we’d never been born.

Bruce, I’m not an advocate for Singer, but for including his viewpoints in a discussion in order to get a clearer understanding of what we’re talking about. Singer himself had a mother suffering from Alzheimer and acknowledges that these ethical problems are horribly difficult. Yet such choices are made on a daily basis by doctors, relatives and spouses and I think it’s better to talk about them, than leave them in vagueness.

I’m a bit puzzled, how you would square your view with the case that started off this thread, namely a family or a woman deciding to abort a child for the sole reason that it has e.g. Down Syndrom. Most of the commenters here have argued that it is their free choice to make.

68

sappycynic 08.01.07 at 1:23 am

Can someone please tell me what is actually wrong with eugenics ?

All domesticated plants and animals have been selectively bred to make them more productive/socially desirable, what is wrong with applying selective breeding to the human race ? (Its hardly a new idea, I think Plato first suggested it).

Due to advances in genetic engineering / modification, eugenics is once again going to become a big issue, regardless of the ‘immorality’ of selective breeding / sterilization. Its better to talk about it now, rather than declaring eugenics taboo due to some post Nazi hangover.

69

sappycynic 08.01.07 at 1:23 am

Can someone please tell me what is actually wrong with eugenics ?

All domesticated plants and animals have been selectively bred to make them more productive/socially desirable, what is wrong with applying selective breeding to the human race ? (Its hardly a new idea, I think Plato first suggested it).

Due to advances in genetic engineering / modification, eugenics is once again going to become a big issue, regardless of the ‘immorality’ of selective breeding / sterilization. Its better to talk about it now, rather than declaring eugenics taboo due to some post Nazi hangover.

70

Henry 08.01.07 at 1:24 am

Sebastian – this is schoolboy debating stuff. I’ll pay you the compliment of believing that you understand that just because many lefties believe that some structures may sometimes constrain choices doesn’t mean that they’re obliged to believe any old cobblers that someone tosses together as a structure-constraining-choice claim (especially when the person doing the tossing admits that he doesn’t believe it himself).

c.l ball – you do realize that there is a yawning chasm between your claims (which you suggest are equivalent) that

aborting children without a viable future is consistent with “improving the gene pool” or ‘improving’ humanity (also part of the eugenics ideology)

and your suggestion that there is “no reason to take the latter claim as not being ideologically linked to the former claim.”

To put it this way – your stated personal beliefs on abortion and testing are “consistent with” a wide array of ideological perspectives, some of which are quite silly and/or repugnant to most people in modern industrialized societies. If I were to use this ‘consistency’ as the basis for arguing that there is no reason to believe that your personal position is not linked to one of these repugnant ideologies, I imagine that you’d quite rightly be offended. More generally “consistent with” doesn’t even slightly approximate a causal argument and shouldn’t be made to sound like it does. If you have an _actual_ argument demonstrating a plausible causal chain between the classic eugenics ideology described by Douthat and the actual decisions made by people, and have some evidence in support, you should lay it out so that people can respond/criticize/agree-or-disagree etc.

71

Brendan Frost 08.01.07 at 1:30 am

Marcel wrote: a foetus is potentially, but not yet actually, a child, potentially but not yet actually a human being.

In fact, “fetus” meets the dictionary definition of “child.”

72

Sebastian Holsclaw 08.01.07 at 1:45 am

“I’ll pay you the compliment of believing that you understand that just because many lefties believe that some structures may sometimes constrain choices doesn’t mean that they’re obliged to believe any old cobblers that someone tosses together as a structure-constraining-choice claim (especially when the person doing the tossing admits that he doesn’t believe it himself).”

I don’t believe it because for the most part I don’t buy the institutional excuse for generally dismissing individual choices about policies or cultural phenomenon you dislike. I’m making a point about the structure of the argument–it really isn’t appropriate for progressives to dismiss an argument on personal choice without examining the societal influences. Planned Parenthood is a big influence on the way the national structure of abortion works. It was in fact formed with eugenics well in mind. Many years have indeed passed, and so far as I know the organization has no overt eugenic ties or aims. Looking at that together with the stated choices of the people, you could THEN conclude that eugenic concerns aren’t a big factor. But a progressive can’t just dismiss it with “It’s all personal choice”. That isn’t how their arguments work.

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KCinDC 08.01.07 at 1:49 am

Douthat’s bio says, “it’s pronounced ‘Dow-thut.'” Presumably that means /ˈdaʊ θət/. So not at all like “Do that”, since both vowels are different, the “th” is voiceless, and there’s less stress on the final syllable. That could explain the lack of laughter.

74

Bruce Baugh 08.01.07 at 1:50 am

Novakant, I’m not attempting to amount a logical argument. I’m attempting to explain a bone-chilling fear that makes it hard for me to be logical, and that I know also affects a bunch of my disabled friends when it comes to Singer. I think there is a deeply damaging crack in his moral makeup that lets him be a nice, friendly, intelligent person who still prefers people like me dead, and I can’t deal very well with that. And so far I haven’t found anything so uniquely worthy in the rest of his work that I must appeal to his exposition of it rather than someone else’s.

I don’t know a comparison to suggest, so I’m trying to describe the emotion, to see if it matches up to anything in your experience. This is about dread rather than logic, and is a very rare thing for me when it comes to political stances.

75

Brock 08.01.07 at 1:56 am

But a progressive can’t just dismiss it with “It’s all personal choice”. That isn’t how their arguments work.

Rhetorical moves like this are a lot more plausible when applied to a specific person, rather than to this abstract “progressive” that you’ve constructed as a debating opponent.

76

lisa 08.01.07 at 2:13 am

If we step back from the abortion debate for a second, Ross didn’t say people who have abortions have the same aims as the eugenicists, but the same end results. And I guess he’s correct. According to his logic the end result is apparently what’s wrong. Therefore he’s against the genetic improvement of the species, not abortion. Weird.

77

Thomas 08.01.07 at 2:22 am

Henry, if one were looking for evidence for Sebastian’s argument, one could start with #5 above. Describing the reasons for an abortion, he says “We already had two children and could not justify having to neglect them as much as would be necessary to care for this child.” But of course the amount of “neglect” is not anything that would happen “naturally.” It’s a product of a certain set of social institutions, which privatize the burden of care. See also #62. A society which had truly rejected eugenics wouldn’t have the incentives ours does.

Of course, a society that has those incentives might not rely just on those. No, it might encourage the elimination of defective fetuses in other ways as well. For example, my wife’s OB–a pro-life Catholic–advised her regarding the so-called “triple test.” When she declined (she is strongly pro-life and had no intention to seek an abortion), he made her complete paperwork noting that she had declined. The standard of care, in law, requires that she be offered it. Her refusal marks her as abnormal–so unusual that she needs to complete paperwork protecting the doctor.

If she succumbed to the pressure, it wouldn’t end. A positive test would lead to yet more testing, and more testing, if confirmed, would lead to strong warnings about the difficulties of raising a defective child. Those warnings too are part of the standard of care, legally required.

So this straightforward exercise of free choice is bounded on all sides by law and incentives. Should we be surprised that almost all fetuses with Downs Syndrome are destroyed?

As for your response to Ball, it seems sufficient to note that in some/many cases, the defective fetus is purposefully rejected with the intention to begin another pregnancy–that is, to replace this instance of a defective fetus with a future improved fetus. Isn’t that a direct enough relationship?

78

John Emerson 08.01.07 at 2:47 am

Singer strikes me as an example of what happens when a mad-dog rationalist tries to be “relevant”. His arguments run on rails in a neat analytic-philosophy way, and he doesn’t have a context-finding sense which will tell him when the rails are taking him in the wrong direction.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.01.07 at 2:49 am

“Rhetorical moves like this are a lot more plausible when applied to a specific person, rather than to this abstract “progressive” that you’ve constructed as a debating opponent.”

The argument that a woman’s choice to raise her child at home is strongly influenced by society and that we can’t trust statistics about how many women ‘choose’ it, is widely held by those on the left on this blog and in its comments. In fact the number of people here who would disagree with that statement seems vanishingly small. I’m not setting up a strawman.

Do you personally disagree with it?

80

Henry 08.01.07 at 3:12 am

Lisa – ‘ends’ here means ‘goals’ unless I am badly mistaken (Ross claims that he is distinguishing between means and ends, and says that the ends are the same.

Sebastian – the reason why your claim falls is that it is hopelessly implausible – there isn’t any reasonable causal chain that can stretch from the eugenicist rhetoric of some of the founders of the family planning approach (which, I note in passing, I specifically mentioned in the original post) and the choices that these women are making today. This is why it’s silly; and that’s what I took you to be conceding above.

Thomas – your argument doesn’t do what you think it is doing. It merely shows that women’s choices over abortion are structured by external circumstances and institutions, something I’m entirely happy to accept, and to agree that it is often unjust (e.g. when women are obliged to get abortions to keep their jobs). It doesn’t do what it would need to do to support Sebastian’s causal chain – that is to show how these choices are linked back to the eugenicist rationales of people back in the 1920s.

And as for your second rhetorical question. No. It isn’t. It’s also pretty fucking offensive (not the “first time”:http://crookedtimber.org/2006/05/07/you-know-how-when-people-explain-jokes-theyre-not-funny-ok-but-this-one-clueless-libertarian-got-on-the-subway-and/ you’ve pulled this kind of rhetorical stunt either).

I am travelling to a conference tomorrow, so please don’t take my silence as acquiescence to the crushing force of your further arguments on the matter etc etc.

81

Brock 08.01.07 at 4:20 am

The argument that a woman’s choice to raise her child at home is strongly influenced by society and that we can’t trust statistics about how many women ‘choose’ it, is widely held by those on the left on this blog and in its comments. In fact the number of people here who would disagree with that statement seems vanishingly small. I’m not setting up a strawman.

What you’re doing is changing the subject, from “Is Douthat justified in his smear against those who call themselves ‘progressives’?” (not me, I still prefer “liberal”), to “Did someone else who might call him or herself a progressive make an argument somewhere that’s something like what Douthat might say to justify his smear?”

It’s a cheap rhetorical trick, and it’s not a game I’m inclined to play. But, if you really insist on an admission, I’d find a simplistic argument like the one you’re presenting rather dubious. I don’t know whether any actual Timberite or commenter has made precisely such an argument, because the sociology of child-raising is not really my area of interest.

But if you can dig up something Henry, or anyone else participating in this thread, has actually said on the topic, it’s perfectly fair to quote his or her actual words and compare them to the justification you’re offering for Douthat’s smear. But don’t put words in the mouth of your “progressive” and pretend you’ve pointed out the hypocrisy of everyone who finds Douthat’s comparison insulting.

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Thomas 08.01.07 at 4:27 am

Henry, you framed the issue as one of choice. Sebastian suggested a possible alternative (though not one he would accept). You rejected it, saying that “just because many lefties believe that some structures may sometimes constrain choices doesn’t mean that they’re obliged to believe any old cobblers that someone tosses together as a structure-constraining-choice claim.” Now apparently you’ve moved from that, and good for you, though you could be decent enough to admit it. Now you claim that the argument doesn’t accomplish what it needs to, because it doesn’t tie the current eugenic program to any particular proponents. I can’t think of any reason at all to think that’s a relevant issue. Perhaps you’ll share why you think it’s relevant. (Do assertions about the gendered nature of our work/family structures require a tie between a small group of sexist proponents and the policies enacted? Do you have one set of standards for arguments, or two?)

As for the second bit: The facts may be offensive, but the rhetoric isn’t. It happens every day. An example from a quick search of the web:

“The test results came back with the news they were dreading: the foetus had an abnormality. Karen says the couple were paralysed by the brutality of the decision they were suddenly forced to make. Their hesitation, however, was only temporary. Two days after the results arrived, she had the termination.

‘It’s been horrific, but I’ve got no doubt we made the right decision,’ she says a few weeks later. ‘A Down’s syndrome child would have been a huge strain on our family and caused severe hardship. We thank God we had the knowledge and opportunity to make the choice we did. We’re already trying to get pregnant again and if the same situation arises, we’ll make exactly the same decision.'”

That’s what people do. Do I find it offensive? Yes. But the accurate description? I can’t see why it would offend you, or anyone else.

And, btw, I’m not at all embarrassed by the earlier string. You can link to it all you want. If you’re confused about what happened I can’t help you, but everyone else can read the two relevant strings. (That’s not to say someone couldn’t find something offensive I’ve said here, but just that that isn’t it.)

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bad Jim 08.01.07 at 9:17 am

Freeze-fried Jesus on a biscuit, what is the problem? Folks hook up, do the usual, check it out, and OMG there is a problem. Folk with lousy mental hygiene freak out and leave it to their god(s) or their pastors or faith-givers to decide.

Most of the rest of us tend to feel personally responsible and act accordingly.

84

a sentient being 08.01.07 at 10:09 am

i guess, bad jim, we shouldn’t be hearing from you for very long!

85

Katherine 08.01.07 at 10:36 am

Re #50,

Third, it is clear that Douthat and others are using the eugenic aspect to push an anti-choice agenda. But that doesn’t mean that there are not serious ethical issues about abortion to be asked, including the moral status of declaring certain lives not worth living. Anti-abortion and pro-abortion advocates both approach the issue in an a-philosophical if not anti-philosophical manner.

that’s a fairly standard misrepresentation of the sides in the abortion debate. The other side to anti-abortion isn’t pro-abortion, it’s pro-choice – the point being that the woman has the choice, not the state, not the church, not other people. So your “ethical issues” are for the woman, not outsider bloggers and commentators. If you’ve missed that, then you’ve missed the fundamental point of pro-choice advocacy.

86

novakant 08.01.07 at 1:23 pm

Katherine, I am pro-choice and in discussing the ethical issues related to genetic screening and abortion of e.g. children with Down Syndrome, I am not trying to take away the right to choose.

Framing the issue by connecting it to earlier eugenics movements and the purported mindset of progressives, like Ross and Sebastian do, is biased and a bit disingenuous.

Framing the issue by arguing that it’s only about individual choice, while ignoring both institutional and societal pressures as well as the connected ethical questions, like Henry and you do is also biased and a bit disingenuous.

A system were e.g. pre-screening and abortion of fetuses with Down Syndrome becomes the default option, the done thing, while parents who decide to raise such children and the children themselves are regarded as awkward and even a burden to society, would pose some obvious ethical issues, that should be discussed freely.

87

Katherine 08.01.07 at 2:04 pm

Well, novakant, I was replying to c.l.ball not to you, on his framing of anti/pro-abortion.

88

novakant 08.01.07 at 2:39 pm

I am aware of that, but unless I misunderstand you, it seems you want to shut down discussion of these matters altogether, framing it solely as a matter of individual choice. I don’t think that would be adequate in this case, because individuals make these choices within a larger societal and institutional framework, which can be biased either way. Those biases should be discussed by society as a whole, while the ultimate decision should be left to the individual.

89

magistra 08.01.07 at 4:06 pm

Despite all the references to the institutional framework, no one seems to have mentioned one of the key institutional changes there has been: the disappearance of the ‘orphanage’/’asylum’. Not that long ago (fifty years or less maybe?) the assumption would be that parents who had a ‘damaged’ child would place them in some such institution and no longer have primary responsibility for their care. Indeed, not to put one’s ‘mongol’ child in such a place could be regarded as bizarre behaviour. The changed assumption (in much of the West) that parents who voluntarily choose to break their ties with their own children through institutionalisation (or also adoption) are acting unnaturally or wrongly makes the whole calculus of deciding whether or not to have an abortion very different. I would have considered an abortion if my child was likely to be severely disabled, not because I thought such a child was inferior, but because I doubted my own capacity for lifelong care of such a child. If people are choosing abortions for eugenic reasons, they would regard parents who choose to raise severely disabled children as ‘species traitors’. Instead, I suspect most regard them as heroic, while feeling unable to emulate them.

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Katherine 08.01.07 at 4:12 pm

I can see how you might get that from what I said, but that certainly wasn’t my intention. I don’t wish to shut down debate – it is actually an extremely important debate to me, since I’ve had to decide recently whether to get the blood test that indicates risk for Downs (the pre-cursor step to an amnio test).

What I was trying to get to with c.l.ball was that, after all the talking is done, the choice is with the individual and I don’t think, when it comes right down to it, that anyone should be pushing their views on the “moral status” (as he puts it) of aborting mentally disabled foetuses onto people making extremely difficult and extremely personal decisions.

And that is what pro-choice is. It is most certainly not about being pro-abortion, which, in this debate about abortion as eugenics, is a disingenous misrepresentation of the other side to the anti-abortion lobby.

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c.l. ball 08.01.07 at 4:18 pm

First off, yipes”! My sentence at #50 should have read: Also, most forms of Down Syndrome are not hereditary, and parents with Down Syndrome do NOT automatically have children with the syndrome.

Henry, I’m not saying that there is a “plausible causal chain between the classic eugenics ideology described by Douthat” because I think Douthat get the classic eugenics ideology wrong! Pro-abortion progressives are not engaged in project aimed at improving the genetic quality of humanity. He is dead wrong on that.

I do believe, however, there is a plausible but not exclusive or certain causal chain between the macro-claim that ‘pregnancies that will result in children with abnormal life prospects should be aborted for the good of societal well-being’ and the micro-claim that ‘I don’t want to assume responsibility for a child that has Down Syndrome or abandon such a child to a defective foster-care system, or burden another family with such a child; it would be better if such a child were never born.’ I said they were consistent and not necessary. And sure people do get offended when they seen their personal reasoning as connected to a repugnant or silly ideology; the question is, what is their personal reasoning linked to?

What I find interesting about this debate is how do we establish standards for linking macro-ideologies to micro-beliefs?

It struck me as odd that your standard was that since individuals seeking abortions don’t think about improving the gene pool they are not influenced by broader eugenicist ideologies. Few argue that 19th century workers went to work saying, “Today I’m going to hove my labor exploited by capitalism” or that capitalists did so either. But we don’t use that as an argument against capitalist ideologies.

Re Katherine #86, I accept that their are individuals (like me) who hold a pro-choice ideology like the one you describe (I choose not to have an abortion; others may choose to, and the state should not intervene) but the organized pro-abortion movements advocates the every accessible provision of abortion services in ways that they don’t for other autonomy issues. It is more than reserving for an individual the right to choose. Likewise, the organized pro-life movements spend little time pushing for expanded foster-care and a lot of time opposing abortion laws. If they were pro-life, they could devote more resource to advocating birth as the preferred choice over abortion. But I’m not sure how that’s relevant to this debate.

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dial m for muesli 08.01.07 at 4:35 pm

I fear that this discussion is dissolving into the simple question of whether abortion is eugenics, the answer to which is of course no. However, the specific context in which Douthat made his argument is worth keeping in mind. Antenatal screening for disabilities is now widely used, and so one knows more about the capacities of the being one is aborting than in the past. It is hard to imagine that this eugenically relevant information does not enter into the ‘choice’ that a mother makes vis-à-vis the foetus. Moreover, there is evidence that, on the basis of such screening, clinicians encourage – or at least make it easy for – women to abort a disabled foetus, typically by failing to inform women of the options available to them if they wish to raise a disabled child. I would call this overall state-of-affairs ‘self-organizing eugenics’. In any case, Henry has unwittingly revealed the shallowness of his libertarian talk of ‘choice’.

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eudoxis 08.01.07 at 4:48 pm

It should be pointed out that selective medical abortions barely make a difference to the “end” of reducing disability in society. While it is true that particular genetic defects, like non-disjunction (under which Down’s syndrome falls) are easily spotted, they make up a small percentage of disabilities, most of which present themselves after birth.

Selective medical abortions are not exclusively about reproductive freedom, but also about the freedom to raise “normal” children. Pro-choice advocates, sometimes, invoke a fear of the abnormal fetus in defense of reproductive rights, a fear which is grounded in discrimation against people with disabilities. Such advocacy plus medical literature from institutions and government health services, the pressure of lawsuits upon the birth of infants with prenatally testable conditions, and exclusion of benefits for individuals with pre-existing conditions could be interpreted as coercion.

I wonder what the early 19th century eugenics movement would look like if modern prenatal genetic testing and abortion procedures were available then. Perhaps it would look somewhat like China, today, where modern technologies are incorporated into classic eugenics programs with a mix of forced sterilization and abortion. On the other hand, there are many countries, particularly in Europe, but also including the US, where institutional sterilization is banned, but where parent-doctor decisions about sterilization of disabled minors are still practiced (mostly on females) with the “comfort” and “interests” of the child in mind, involving society’s ideas about sexuality in people with disabilities.

The connection between eugenics and abortion is very thin, but still there in a framework of disability rights. There is academic literature related to this subject from women like Anne Finger and Tanis Doe.

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"Q" the Enchanter 08.01.07 at 5:13 pm

In re the “balls” question, I find ‘gonads’ fits the bill quite nicely.

Also, can anyone here contending that selective abortion is per se ideologically linked to the eugenicist imperative to improve the gene pool please tell me how that is relevantly different from taking supplements, preferring “attractive” mating partners, abstaining from smoking during pregnancy, etc.? All of these behaviors are “eugenic” in the asserted sense of the term.

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c.l. ball 08.01.07 at 5:42 pm

My post #92 was ill-written in the latter paragraphs:

Henry’s argument that if individuals seeking abortions don’t think consciously about eugenic ideologies that their beliefs are not influenced by eugenicist ideologies. Few would argue that 19th century workers went to work saying, “Today I’m going to have my labor exploited by capitalism” or that capitalists thought “today I will exploit the surplus value of labor.” But that does not mean that capitalist ideologies did not cause their behaviors.

Re Katherine #86, I accept that their are individuals (like me) who hold a pro-choice ideology like the one you describe (I choose not to have an abortion; others may choose to, and the state should not intervene) but the organized pro-abortion movements advocate provision of abortion services in ways that they don’t for other philosophically comparable autonomous-choice issues.It is more than reserving for an individual the right to choose. Likewise, the organized anti-abortion movements spend little time pushing for expanded foster-care and a lot of time pushing for legal bans on abortions. If they were really pro-life, they would devote more resources to advocating birth as the preferred choice over abortion. But I’m not sure how that’s relevant to this debate over macro-micro ideologies or meaning of eugenics.

This is not a plain abortion rights pro or con debate. Terminating an unwanted-because-it-was-unplanned pregnancy is not an issue here, and that choice cannot be linked to eugenics ideology (e.g., “I’m 13 and don’t want a child; I’m 30 and single and don’t want a child; I was raped; we’re happily married and don’t want a child). The eugenics-related issue arises only when people want a child but don’t want a particular kind of child.

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c.l. ball 08.01.07 at 5:44 pm

Grrr, cannot read preview screen correctly; should have been aborted.

#95 first sentence should read:

Henry’s argument that if individuals seeking abortions don’t think consciously about eugenic ideologies that their beliefs are not influenced by eugenicist ideologies is odd to me.

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rea 08.01.07 at 6:27 pm

Can someone please tell me what is actually wrong with eugenics ?

A lot of it was simply based on bad science–we simply didn’t understand heredity back in the early years of the last century as well as we do today. A lot of early eugenics was tinged with racism, too, which in the bad old days was regarded in many quarters as having a scientific basis. We’re not as prepared to say blue eyes = good, black skin = bad.

Some of the basic ideas behind eugenics wouldn’t be controversial today–most people would agree that if you know your genetic makeup is such that
your biological children are at high risk for developing a horrible disease, maybe you should think about adoption.

We’re less prepared to use the powers of the state to coerce people in their reproductve choices than some of the old eugenicsts were. This is where Douthat has it exactly backwards–under Roe v Wade, a statute mandating abortions of Down Syndrome babies would be unconstitutional. The constitutional right of privacy reserves this area for personal choice, not government policy.

Ultimately, if “progressivism” means anything, it means that progressives believe in progress, in change for the better. A progressive is therefore not at all surprised to find that progressives of the early years of the last century held ideas that we now regard as mistaken–that’s progress for you. Only conservatives think that changing your ideas in light of new information is a bad thing.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.01.07 at 6:58 pm

“Ultimately, if “progressivism” means anything, it means that progressives believe in progress, in change for the better. A progressive is therefore not at all surprised to find that progressives of the early years of the last century held ideas that we now regard as mistaken—that’s progress for you.”

If it means that, it is effectively a tautology when looked at historically and is completely useless looking forward. It offers no basis for discovering which ‘progress’ ought to be adopted and which ‘progress’ should be rejected.

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engels 08.01.07 at 7:12 pm

Sebastian, we’ve been over this.

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c.l. ball 08.01.07 at 8:17 pm

Re Katherine @ #91, if by “pushing their views” you mean banning abortion or creating coercive obstacles (legislating mandatory ‘consultations’ or ultra-sounds; heckling outside clinics), sure. No one should push their views in that way.

But I cannot see how arguing over the ethics of claims that some humans should never be born or that their lives are not worth living can be considered anti-choice because some people choose to have abortions on those grounds. My right to choose to tell dirty jokes to other people who like to hear me tell dirty jokes does not immunize my choice to tell such jokes form others’ ethical criticism.

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Thomas 08.01.07 at 8:46 pm

rea, I think I disagree with some of that.

First, I’m not sure that we are “less prepared to use the powers of the state to coerce people in their reproductve choices than some of the old eugenicsts were.” I think there’s plenty of coercion in the current eugenics program. Further, remember that not all choices are equally respected. The elimination of fetuses with Downs Syndrome is uncontroversial, but the creation of a fetus likely to be deaf or with dwarfism is much more controversial. We shouldn’t pretend that both courses are equally secure.

Second, recall that those favoring a constitutional right to abortion in the US now describe the right as based in sex equality. (See, e.g., Ginsburg’s dissent in the most recent Supreme Court abortion case, in which she notes that “legal challenges to undue restrictions on abortion procedures do not seek to vindicate some generalized notion of privacy; rather, they center on a woman’s autonomy to determine her life’s course, and thus to enjoy equal citizenship stature.”) Given that a law mandating the abortion of a fetus with Downs Syndrome wouldn’t in any way implicate societal sex equality (that is, women a class wouldn’t be disadvantaged in their pursuit of equality in society by such a law), there would be no constitutional bar.

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Martin Bento 08.01.07 at 9:53 pm

The problem I have with Sebastian’s position is that saying that there could be institutional incentives towards Eugenics, and that, if there were, liberal arguments about constrained choice made in other contexts would apply is not the same as saying that there are such incentives, and that they are significant enough to make those arguments relevant. It may be that these incentives exist, but you have a burden of proof to establish this is so before you can draw a parallel to the liberal arguments. I agree with novakant that it is perfectly legitimate to frame the argument that way, but that doesn’t mean the standard liberal arguments about stay-at-home moms apply. I think that’s what Henry is saying too.

To be sure, we are dealing with points on a continuum. We all make choices, and our choices are all made within constraints given externally. There has been some rather extreme social determinism in recent decades – treating discourse itself as produced not by “authors”, but by history and the forces shaping it – but that is pretty faded now (thank god), and, in any case, held sway mostly in cultural theory, not in policy nor in the political rhetoric presented to the general public. Now, we have seen from thomas and c.l. ball some arguments to the effect that there are such strong incentives. But we have to see that those arguments are pretty strong before we can say that the liberal objections apply. That they might possibly apply is not sufficient.

OTOH, I agree with rea that eugenics encompasses many things, some of which contemporary sensibilities find much more objectionable than others. The problem is that we hear the hiss of Auschwitz showers behind the word, and that gives it a meaning well beyond the complex bundle of things it actually denotes.

But this issue is going to get a lot more important, if civilization does not collapse first. It seems quite likely that extensive genetic manipulation of embryos will become possible within the lifetime of some of us. At that point, we really are talking about taking conscious control of our evolution, which is what Galston had in mind when he came up with the idea of Eugenics. One possibility is to treat this as “choice” – the parents’, or just the mother’s, decision – but that is likely to lead to penalization of the offspring of those who choose not to have, or not to be willing or able to pay for, exceptionally intelligent, attractive, or talented children. At this point, issues of constrained choice become very real. Do offspring have a right to be born talented enough to compete, provided that is possible? If we are going to decide that these issues all come down to individual choice, we should prepare for Gattica.

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c.l. ball 08.01.07 at 11:20 pm

I think the compulsory abortion issue is a distraction from the ethical questions raised by voluntary quasi-eugenic decisions. First, abortion rights groups defend their moral position by claims to autonomy beyond what USSC legal philosophy recognizes. Second, Ginsberg’s dissent in Carhart does not repudiate general autonomy claims, which the court distinguished in Casey from privacy claims. Rather it notes the linkage between reproductive autonomy and equality to counter arguments that women need to be protected from post-abortion regret or “anguish” at the nature of late-term abortions, which the majority argues (see p.29). In other words, the court implies absurdly that women are incapable of truly making such a decision. This i paternalism of the most wicked kind.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.01.07 at 11:30 pm

“The problem I have with Sebastian’s position is that saying that there could be institutional incentives towards Eugenics, and that, if there were, liberal arguments about constrained choice made in other contexts would apply is not the same as saying that there are such incentives, and that they are significant enough to make those arguments relevant. It may be that these incentives exist, but you have a burden of proof to establish this is so before you can draw a parallel to the liberal arguments. I agree with novakant that it is perfectly legitimate to frame the argument that way, but that doesn’t mean the standard liberal arguments about stay-at-home moms apply.”

The traditional move against conservative groups is to track to an icky group in history and trace it forward. This is usually done with guilt by association (often ominously invoking the John Birch Society or some such despite the fact that it had a rather negative relationship with the Republican Party). Neiwert is so good at this trope that he can even invoke the actions of Democrats as proof of fascism in the Republican Party.

If this is a legitimate mode of analysis (and I tend to think not, but many progressives seem to buy it) the Planned Parenthood/Eugenics link is much clearer. You don’t need to skip from group to group.

If you are the type who tends to believe that advocacy organization act in all manner of tricky ways (again I tend to think not, but many progressives tend to buy it), it isn’t at all shocking to suspect that a group formed with a eugenics background, which operates in a way to give eugenic effects, could be accused of still having a eugenic motive and manipulating the institutional situations to further that even if they do not proclaim such an aim at the top of their lungs.

I don’t buy this argument. I think the mode of argumentation is crap. But the argument is COMMON around here, and all sorts of apparent choices are explained away with a mere waving of hands with such arguments.

I agree that the eugenic/planned parenthood linkage is silly.

But so is the federalist/racism linkage, but it gets trotted out all the time.

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Roy Belmont 08.02.07 at 12:10 am

S. Holsclaw: “It offers no basis for discovering which ‘progress’ ought to be adopted and which ‘progress’ should be rejected.”
That’s a far more substantial issue than Sebastian’s superficial dismissing makes it seem.
Much of the “enlightened” ethical posturing taken by non-religious folks who derive their morals from logic and rational prediction gets its initial push from right there.
So that things whose outcomes are not predictable are marginalized in import or accepted as is and continued by default. Thus the automobile. With its supposedly unforeseen byproducts and their surprising harm.
What else can we do, unable to see the future?
Unless maybe we can. Or someone can, and will tell us.
Trying to get info from outside the system is one of the crazy-making parts of religious endeavor. And yet there’s all those stories, and a few examples.
Killing the tyrant in his nursery would be the thought problem. Creating an alternate historical path. “Wet work” with the most humanitarian of goals.
Eugenics is seen as wet work by its opponents, as is abortion by its, whereas programs that preserve social mores, like the legal system, even when they have consequent penalties that involve being cut out of the breeding mix for years, are not. But things like that have direct biological effects, hard to track and impossible to defend because they’re indistinct, but they’re there, determined by what’s here. We came from that.
We have a passive eugenic operating right now. People are shoved to the margins and over the side every hour of the day. Adjusting the parameters of that is all we can mess with, as long as people are mortal we’re going to shape ourselves by how we live, one way or another.
What’s needed for a really successful eugenic campaign – success being the fullest possible development of human potential in all its measure – is a template that has as its everyman-locus something beyond the projected solipsism of its originators.
Religion says it puts that question in the hands of its invisible monarchs. Rationalists mostly just refuse to let go of the reins.
There’s a hope behind the “progress” of the “progressives” Holsclaw impugns, a hope that good intentions and forethought may be enough for us to muddle through, and that muddling through may be enough to carry us forward. Toward what is left unlimned, rightly I think, because somewhere up there is a creature whose relation to us is as ours is to the scuttling four-legged things that first suckled their young, yet it comes through what we are to get there.
We don’t hold each other to account for what what we do does to what’s up that far ahead, because at best it’s open-ended, and because it’s immeasurable and vague, and because nothing about it can withstand the demanding glare of immediate reason.
Yet that’s the whole point of eugenics, and social welfare programs, and in personal effect, abortion. Making things better – family lives, society, the race. Progressives answer these vague questions with a fundamental “The greatest good for the greater number” – but when do we count that number, today or tomorrow? How far ahead are we responsible for what happens?

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engels 08.02.07 at 12:58 am

Sebastian’s “which ‘progess'” is as unconvincing as the perennial glibertarian’s “who decides?” The fact is that although such the answers to such questions are contested we can decide them, a lot of the time at least, through rational discussion. Practically everyone now agrees that the abolition of slavery was progress, although they didn’t at the time. Maybe Americans will one day be convinced that universal health care is progress and will decide to adopt it on those grounds, in which case they will join the citizens of most other developed countries who already regard it as such. Many conservatives and some self-styled “progressives” are confused about progress and wrongly claim that obvious steps backwards–such as attacking the international legal norms against waging aggressive war–amount to it, but on this score, as on others, history will likely judge them wrong.

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Roy Belmont 08.02.07 at 1:47 am

Agrees because it is the social convention to. I’ve known and worked for people who would employ the starving at starvation wages if it was doable.
Practically everyone agrees slavery was wrong except WalMart and all the other corporate monoliths that would/do happily employ pods of coerced and essentially unrewarded “slaves” as long as there were/are no legal comebacks. The assumption is WalMart and the men and women who run it and the other enterprises like it are some kind of minority and exception. Numerically yes but psychologically I’m not so sure.
My point above was that the things we can decide rationally are given the most attention because of that, but that that same hierarchy doesn’t parallel what’s going to prove to have been most important over time. Feeding the hungry is an immediate good without question but it can easily lead to worse disasters later without larger more complex adjustments, some of which aren’t going to be immediately rationally available. This doesn’t mean don’t do it, it means we need to keep that in mind.

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.02.07 at 5:05 am

Slavery is an excellent example. From our perspective, the abolition of slavery is clearly ‘progress’ but that doesn’t mean that progressives have anything remotely in common with abolitionists of the past (who were mostly VERY religious for one thing).

The conceit of the name progressive is that the modern party or thought has any more to do with the progress of the past than non-progressives.

When it came time to add states to the Union, the question was posed whether or not slavery should be allowed in the new states. Should slavery be allowed to progress in the new states? Should slavery not be allowed to progress in the new states. Since we don’t know what ‘the goal’ is, being a ‘progressive’ can only be judged after the fact. Both sides were fighting to extend their vision in the new states and to preserve the status quo in their own states.

From the point of view of modern progressives on the topic of inter-state relations, it could be argued that the North was attempting to colonize the South with its imperialistic aim of imposing extremist religious morals while destroying the indigenous economic structures so that the territory could be more easily controlled.

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engels 08.02.07 at 9:05 am

From the vantage point of 200 years we can agree that abolition was progress. (Despite what some have said here I am willing to stick my neck out and bet money that noone will come on here and argue for bringing back slavery.) This shows that the question of whether or not some controversial event represents “progress” is not indeterminate, although it may be hotly contested: like many legal questions, although both sides can be argued there is ultimately a right answer. So calling something “progress” is not meaningless.

Of course modern day progressives have an understanding of progress which is controversial. That’s what distinguishes them as progressives. Similarly, liberals define themselves by adopting a controversial understanding of liberty. Progressives claim that their judgments of what is progess–eg. that US health care reform is progress whereas legalising torture is not–like that of the abolitionists, will be vindicated by history. As a conservative, Sebastian is perfectly entitled to dismiss their views as a “conceit”, but then he runs the risk of being made an ass of by history.

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Katherine 08.02.07 at 12:20 pm

Re #92 the organized pro-abortion movements advocates the every accessible provision of abortion services in ways that they don’t for other autonomy issues. It is more than reserving for an individual the right to choose.

Care to expand on what you actually mean there? As written that is a simply an asertion without evidence or explanation.

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c.l. ball 08.02.07 at 5:47 pm

What strikes me as odd is that if I say I’m pro-gun, pro-gambling or pro-alcohol, no one assumes that I mean everyone has to own a gun, gamble or booze. It means I want people to be able to choose to do those things.

But re the quote. The organized pro-abortion, or reproductive freedom, movement (which is a better term overall since it encompasses not just abortion but contraception and family size) focuses not just on preserving the legal right to choose but on providing free or subsidized access to elective abortions (i.e., not pregnancies due to rape or that threaten the woman’s health). Opposing such funding is termed “anti-choice.” There’s nothing wrong with advocating such a position as a matter of policy, but it is not fundamental to being pro or anti choice qua choice.

NARAL Pro-Choice, cited above, is not claiming that women are unable to make their choices by legislative or social coercion but that there are too few abortions provided given the demand. They quote: “A study by The Guttmacher Institute shows that Medicaid-eligible women in states that exclude abortion coverage have abortion rates of about half of those women in states that fund abortion care with their own dollars. This suggests that the Hyde amendment forces about half the women who would otherwise have abortions to carry unintended pregnancies to term and bear children against their wishes instead.” (emph. added)

Medicaid does not cover voluntary cosmetic surgery. People who are considered and consider themselves to be ugly, but not due to any disease or injury, certainly have their quality of life and ability to advance their life-courses impaired, and they would “forced” to forgo such surgery since Medicaid does not fund it. Since fetuses are not persons and if they are merely part of the woman’s body, over which she has autonomy, then elective abortion is similar to elective cosmetic surgery — both are voluntary changes to one’s body.

I imagine that some abortion supporters might find this comparison trivializing,* but if you want to consider the ontological status of fetuses seriously, it is not. Why is removing a fetus different given that it is not a person and is part of one’s body? Sure it has a potential to be a person in the way that nasal cartilage does not (so far), but that makes the fetus different than other parts of one’s body. That possibly unique property is what brings up such difficult philosophical questions — ones that both the pro and anti abortion movements tend to elide.

There are real consequences to having insufficient funds to pay for medical procedures, and there is nothing wrong with advocating choice and subsidized abortions. But supporting the former opposing the latter does not make one anti-choice.

* Abortion opponents could too, since I’m saying that the fetus is like nasal cartilage.

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Thomas 08.02.07 at 6:56 pm

Naral and their supporters are making the same move that Sebastian hinted at above: The government pays for most medical care for women on Medicaid, but selects out abortion for different treatment. The different treatment means that a pregnant woman on Medicaid faces a choice of a free delivery of the child (paid for by Medicaid) or an abortion paid from her own funds (or at least not paid for by Medicaid). That, they say, is coercive. The argument isn’t nonsensical, but the refusal to employ it outside of selected contexts suggests that the argument isn’t made in good faith. For example, if it is coercive for the government to fund only one of the two medical resolutions to a pregnancy, why isn’t it coercive for the government to fund abortion, which removes any further financial obligation on the part of the mother, but not fund child-rearing? The economic burdens of child-rearing are a result of institutional arrangements and laws, just as the burdens of the cost of abortion and child-birth are. But only some of those laws and institutions are bathed in this cynical acid.

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engels 08.02.07 at 7:00 pm

Of course it’s fundamental to being anti-choice. If people can’t afford to do something, then they don’t have a “choice” whether or not to do it.

since fetuses are not persons and if they are merely part of the woman’s body, over which she has autonomy, then elective abortion is similar to elective cosmetic surgery

Ummm no, because a foetus will develop into a human being, which will then be the responsibility of the parent. Therefore preventing a women from having an abortion will have far more serious consequences for her than preventing her form having a nose-job. Obviously.

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engels 08.02.07 at 7:02 pm

why isn’t it coercive for the government to fund abortion, which removes any further financial obligation on the part of the mother, but not fund child-rearing?

Because child-rearing is not a medical operation, perhaps?

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saurabh 08.02.07 at 8:59 pm

I’m not sure if someone else in this long, long thread pointed it out but: from a eugenics perspective, aborting Downs syndrome fetuses has exactly zero impact. They are sterile in any case, and there is NO prospect of it being passed on. Downs syndrome is a chromosomal abnormality, resulting from trisomy of chromosome 21, and thus there is no possibility of improving the gene pool by aborting fetuses with Downs.

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Thomas 08.02.07 at 10:35 pm

But why would we think that’s relevant? The question isn’t about medical operations, but about coercion. If the government can’t coerce particular choices about child-birth by funding some medical operations and not others, why can it coerce particular choices about child-birth by funding a medical operation rather than child-rearing? If your answer doesn’t address coercion, it isn’t addressing the issue. If you happen to think that of course child-rearing is expensive, that follows naturally from the choice, then of course you need to start over.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 12:18 am

Engels wrote:

“From the vantage point of 200 years we can agree that abolition was progress. (Despite what some have said here I am willing to stick my neck out and bet money that noone will come on here and argue for bringing back slavery.) This shows that the question of whether or not some controversial event represents “progress” is not indeterminate, although it may be hotly contested: like many legal questions, although both sides can be argued there is ultimately a right answer.”

No. Even if the premise that a retrospective consensus constitutes an infallible moral judgement on the contested issue of slavery is granted, this isn’t even an argument that all contested issues will have such a resolution. And beyond that is the problem of determining beforehand what such a resolution will be. So you have entire layers of problems here, including:

1) Showing that retrospective consensus on a moral judgement is infallible. No, pointing to particular examples that no one may wish to dispute is not adequate for this.

2) Even if you could establish 1, showing that all contested problems will eventually fall under such a consensus, which is necessary to justify your unqualified statement that: “there is ultimately a right answer”, as opposed to “there may ultimately be a right answer”.

3) Even if you could establish 2, showing that we have sufficient knowledge of the future to ascertain its judgements in support of controversies now.

All three of these layers of objection hold, even if there are objective moral truths.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 12:31 am

C.I. Ball,

The justification for funding some medical procedures and not others rests on notions of what is “medically necessary” that are social decisions – they are only determined relative to a set of social choices. For example, strictly speaking all medical procedures are optional; they are only required, in the extreme case, for someone to live rather than die. However, we as a society hold that some procedures are “medically necessary”. These are not limited to the life threatening, but include things like cataract surgery and hip replacements that concern not threats to life, but threats to quality of life. Someone who would choose abortion if funded, but otherwise does or can not, is having their quality of life diminished, in their own estimation, by this funding policy.

Part of why we perceive abortion differently is that it is a practical, rather than merely theoretical, choice. In principle, one may choose to be blind rather than sighted, but it is a very rare human being that would make that choice. People do, however, choose to have children, and the same people who choose to have them or to have abortions may make another choice in another situation. So it is not something people would regard as “harm” in all cases; but it is something people regard as harm to themselves and/or their potential offspring in situations where they choose abortion. If we are going to fund only where the choice being supported would be made by all or most, then we should fund cosmetic surgery, since ugliness is also something few would choose. Even if we did, though, it would not be an argument against funding abortion. Selecting funding on that basis would be imposing uniform choices on all. I think that would be properly called “anti-choice”.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 12:40 am

Thomas, I think this is another case of an objection to a position that may exist, but does not, or not significantly. It may be that NARAL does not have an explicit position on government funding of child-care (I’m sure they do not oppose it), but, if so, it is because they are an issue-specific group, part of whose rationale is to advocate for positions in isolation. The feminist movement as a whole has been quite vocal about wanting more government support for child rearing by poor woman. It is a harder rock to push politically, but that is a function of the resistance to their position, not to the position. I would grant that any feminist organization that opposed public subsidies for child-care, but supported them for abortion, would be open to the objection you raise, but I’ve never heard of one. Have you?

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c.l. ball 08.03.07 at 12:52 am

Re #118

Well put. It is the theoretical or philosophical rather than practical or pragmatic in the colloquial sense aspect of the issue that I find compelling. I support reproductive freedoms — I just find it the a-philosophical or anti-philosophical nature of the general public debate bothersome given that so much of the differences hinge on key philosophical issues, especially ontological ones. And I find the eugenic implications morally bothersome but by no means sufficient to ban or restrict reproductive freedom.

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engels 08.03.07 at 1:29 am

No, Martin, I did not claim any of those things, nor do I need to. My position honestly isn’t as stupid as you think it is and I’m afraid I just don’t have the patience to explain it anymore when it seems from your comments here and on the other thread you are unwilling or unable to read what I write with any charity.

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engels 08.03.07 at 1:48 am

Okay, my last comment seems a bit rude. But at any rate, we have discussed these issues at some length on the other thread: clearly I am unable to convince you, or to even get across to you what I am actually trying to argue, so I suggest we just leave it.

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engels 08.03.07 at 2:09 am

Thomas: I don’t see the contradiction. The principle seems to be that people’s decisions in serious medical matters should not (within reason) be influenced by their personal financial circumstances. I don’t see an obvious inconsistency in someone believing that, while believing that it is okay for decisions about other aspects of life (eg. how many children to have) to be influenced in this way.

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Thomas 08.03.07 at 2:38 am

Yes, you can attempt to avoid the contradiction by trying to redefine the terms of the argument. So, we’d no longer be talking about “reproductive choice”, but instead about “decisions in serious medical matters.” But, besides the fact that it is a silly attempt at avoidance, it seems to me it doesn’t get you what you want, because in this case, there’s a cost to raising children that directly effects the “serious medical matter” at issue.

Think of it this way: the average abortion costs less than $500. A low-income woman can, according to USDA figures, be expected to spend $7500 on that child during his or her first year. Even if one assumes that’s on the high side of the expense, the first year cost is likely at least 3 times what the abortion would cost. And that’s the first year. What’s the expected cost of raising the child to 18 for a woman on Medicaid? Well over $500, safe to say.

So a woman faced with the choice on the “serious medical matter” of whether to deliver a child or abort the child can’t help but be influenced by her personal financial circumstances. What a government funded abortion does is simply increase the incentive for abortion. How that is supposed to eliminate coercion, even when limited to the narrow topic of “serious medical matters” is not at all clear. And I think it is obvious that it increases coercion around reproductive choice, assuming one cares about that subject.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 3:01 am

Engels,

OK, we can agree to disagree. No problem. I would like to point out that when you call someone’s comments “vapid po-moid claptrap” (from the other thread. I think this was addressed at least partly to me), your subsequent comments might get less charitable readings than otherwise. In any case, I hope any further dialog between us will remain polite and charitable. By the way, nothing I said in that thread or this is specific to postmodern theory.

If anyone else is interested, here is the other thread he is talking about:

http://crookedtimber.org/2007/07/24/jacob-levy-doesnt-like-progressives/

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Roy Belmont 08.03.07 at 6:49 am

…People do, however, choose to have children, and the same people who choose to have them or to have abortions may make another choice in another situation.
How many children have been chosen in this manner, do you suppose? Going back to whatever dim marker sets the boundary of what we are.
It seems most likely that most of our ancestors and many of our contemporaries weren’t “chosen” in this sense at all, but merely happened and were accepted into the world through the usual means.
There’s a fundamental assumption at work here that’s generated solely and completely by the consumer attributes of our present circumstance. We choose this milk that butter, we choose this car that couch. We choose and choose and choose because we’re given all these choices. By what? Who’s providing all that? Us? I don’t think so.
The absurdity of women owning entire the fetal being in the womb is incredible, but there it is. As if an 8 month old child still wrapped in placenta was a tumor, to be excised or lived with.
The same indefinable boundary exists in that second paragraph above. What we are elides into something that came before us. It doesn’t just drop. The ocean comes in to its high tide line but it’s never the same and it never stays there. A constantly moving border doesn’t parse, so it’s ignored. But there it is, human beings don’t have tidy entrances.
So two things interplay around the abortion question. The lack of firm threshold in transition, and the larger, still mostly unremarked integration with the social matrix that both the mother and the child must assume.
We aren’t a bunch of atomized consumers except in the unwinking regard of the television and its masters and minions. We’ve been sold a version of our identity that makes us isolate and clamoring for satisfaction. And the marketers of that satisfaction are quite happy to us divide around these nonexistent questions of pseudo-morality.
There are objective moral truths, because all morality is goal-directed. Once you’ve got an accurate fix on the goal of your moral system it all falls into place. The goal of society, of the socius in which the question of abortion is made is kept intentionally vague so that these questions don’t resolve – and they won’t as long as we accept the bogus sense of ourselves as discrete consuming units.

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engels 08.03.07 at 1:12 pm

I would like to point out that when you call someone’s comments “vapid po-moid claptrap” (from the other thread. I think this was addressed at least partly to me), your subsequent comments might get less charitable readings than otherwise.

Martin, are you telling me that because I offended you–by not taking sufficiently seriously your, ahem, radical insight that it is “impossible to know” whether the life of an average modern-day US citizen is better than that of a medieval galley slave–you are now to going to deliberately misread everything I write from now on as a form of punishment? Just so I know what to expect…

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 3:07 pm

No Engels, what I mean by not being charitable in reading is not interpreting every ambiguity in the most favorable possible way for you, where “favorable” means what I would be inclined to accept or regard as defensible. That’s quite different from reading in invalid ways. This sort of charitability is a form of courtesy. It shows that I am seeking agreement, not disagreement, which I was, early on. If this is not what you meant in accusing me of reading you without charity, then I don’t think I agree that I have done this, and to read you charitably in the sense I just gave would meaning adding many qualifiers not present; it would actually be less true to what you said than the reading I gave. If I actually misread something you wrote, point out how. Or just drop it, like you said. BTW, the statement of my position you just gave was highly uncharitable: it specifies an example I did not give, and compares an average citizen of the United States, who is highly privileged globally, to the lowest of the medieval low. Arguably, it falls within the scope of my skepticism, but it is an example selected to cast my argument in an unfavorable light. You can do this, you are arguing against my position, but it is deliberately not charitable to my argument. And you combine this uncharitable reading with sarcasm, which I did not do.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 3:26 pm

For example, above I took your assertion that “ultimately there is a right answer” at face value, and showed that it was an invalid generalization. Now, it is possible that what you were really thinking is “there may be a right answer”, and if I were bending over backwards to be charitable, I could assume you were thinking that and soften your statement to remove the logical hurdle (hurdle #2), though I think this would do less justice to what you actually said than the interpretation I took. It would just replace the hurdle with another one, though: if only some contested positions have such ultimate right answers, how do you tell when current controversies fall into that category?

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engels 08.03.07 at 3:34 pm

Shoter Martin Bento (after Chalmers): ‘Zabludowski has insinuated that my thesis that p is false, on the basis of alleged counterexamples. But these so- called “counterexamples” depend on construing my thesis that p in a way that it was obviously not intended — for I intended my thesis to have no counterexamples. Therefore p.’

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Sebastian Holsclaw 08.03.07 at 3:49 pm

Martin’s point 3 is the crux of the issue for me:

“3) Even if you could establish 2, showing that we have sufficient knowledge of the future to ascertain its judgements in support of controversies now.”

Calling yourself ‘progressive’ does nothing to show that you are on the side that history will judge was correct.

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engels 08.03.07 at 4:15 pm

Well of course that’s true, Sebastian. But as far as I am aware, there are not many progressives who believe that merely calling themselves “progressive” is sufficient to settle all political arguments in their favour.

The point I was making is if we look back on the slavery controversy now, we can all agree that abolition was in fact progress, despite the fact that, as you rightly point out, differing opinions were held at the time. So someone who claimed at the time that abolition was progress was not saying something meaningless. She was saying something meaningful, which we now know to be true. Someone who claimed that it was an arrogant attempt to impose “Enlightenment values” on a different but equally valid way of life would have been wrong. Etc, etc.

I don’t claim that anyone’s judgment on what is and is not progress today is infallible. But progressives do have reasons for their convictions and in some cases I think we can be very confident, eg. I am certain that legalising torture would not be progress, even though some people may use the language of progress to try to justify it.

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engels 08.03.07 at 4:31 pm

Btw I wouldn’t call myself a “progressive” and I do have some reservations as regards the traditional idea of progress. But many of the arguments made against it on this thread and the last one have been remarkably weak, imo. I don’t want to spend another whole thread defending it, and I certainly don’t want to get dragged into another discussion about moral relativism, so I shall try to leave it there.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 4:58 pm

Engels, now you have taken this to the point of complete and deliberate misreading and are being intellectually dishonest. Note that I said “You can do this” – I did not even rule out your counter-example, but pointed out that it was, in fact, not charitable; it was not chosen to put my argument in a favorable light. If you’re not going to be charitable, you cannot expect me to be either. Which is a shame as I was hoping we were moving to a less combative dialog, and I may have unintentionally scuttled that by referencing the “po moid” comment.

First of all, your example is not a “counter-example” precisely because my point applies to it: I cannot access the subjective experience of being a medieval galley slave either.

Secondly, you have taken uncharitable reading of this point into misreading. Let’s review the discussion: You said “Who wants to turn the clock back to the 15th century?” I took this as “Who wants to live in the 15th century?”, which was not uncharitable, but simply the most direct interpretation in my judgment. From what you later said, you actually meant: “Who would judge the 15th century morally superior to the present?” – so there was some misunderstanding there, but not as a result of uncharitability or bad faith.

So I asserted that I cannot recover the subjective experience of someone in the ancient world, so I cannot use this as a basis for comparison. I did not say that there had been no progress. Indeed, I said, more than once, that there had been, though I qualified it as relative to values I accept. I did claim that moral values were not objective, but that’s a separate argument: premodern experience would still be inaccessible to me even if they were. Admittedly, it was a glib comment, in response to one even more glib. I actually think trying to reach the subjective experience of other situations is very important, and that is one of the reasons I value utopian thinking; but it is not an easy problem. You have distorted and stripped all nuance from this view, have heaped sarcasm and schoolboy insults on it, and then complained that I am not reading you charitably.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 5:18 pm

#133 #134 slipped in. Now, Engels, that is a much more modest and nuanced statement of your position than you have been putting forth. I can even agree with much of it. I do think we tend as a species to have too much rather than too little confidence in our moral judgments. IOW, taking the “judgment of history” as a yardstick, I think there are more historical situations we would regard people, in hindsight, as having been overconfident that their moral judgments were correct than underconfident. With that caveat, though, I too would like to see an enforceable ban on torture. By the way, torture was formally abolished by European governments in the 19th century, and its actual use declined during that period as well. From “The Fall and Rise of Torture: A Comparative and Historical Analysis, CHRISTOPHER J. EINOLF, University of Virginia

“While exact statistics on the historical prevalence of torture cannot be determined,
the available evidence suggests that torture decreased in Europe during the 18th and
19th centuries, as it came to be legally abolished throughout the continent, and then
increased greatly in the 20th century. Elsewhere in the world, torture either remained
high or increased from the 19th century to the 20th.

http://www.asanet.org/galleries/default-file/June07STFeature.pdf

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engels 08.03.07 at 5:23 pm

Martin, I’m not being “intellectually dishonest” and I wish you’d can it with these repeated, whiny attacks on my character, motives, manners, etc, etc. I’m sorry that you’ve got so upset about this but I’m afraid I’m honestly not getting anything of value from your uniquely confused brand of moral relativism, or from your continual whining, so I’m not going to respond to any more of this.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 5:38 pm

Well, I’ve heard that one before, but if you don’t like whining, don’t whine that I’m not reading you charitably enough.

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Martin Bento 08.03.07 at 6:07 pm

Roy, I would agree that the emphasis on individual choice that lies behind the pro-abortion arguments is of a piece with the generally atomized view of human nature that prevails in modern capitalism. Seeing people largely as makers of choices rather than fillers of roles makes it easier to sympathize with the contemporary feminist view of many things. Is that good or bad? My relativism swings both ways; I am cautious of assuming a specifically modern position is suspect, for the same reason I am cautious of assuming it valid; I have no vantage point outside my own culture to make the call.

If I compare the 19th century notion of courtship to the 20th century one of dating, the key difference is that courtship was seen as winning the approval of the potential mate’s family, not just the individual, and was usually done at her (it was men courted women) home. From the viewpoint of finding good potential spouses, I can see the sense of this. A marriage typically links two families, not just two individuals, and people, particularly at the ages of marriage in the 19th century, do not necessarily have good judgment; one can get second opinions. Also, experiencing the relationship in a domestic environment is more like what marriage will eventually be like than most dating situations. Nonetheless, I do not want my family partly making my mating decisions, either casual or long-term. Perhaps that is just my culture talking, and perhaps it is not. I do not claim my position is objectively valid, but I still hold it.

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engels 08.03.07 at 7:24 pm

Martin – How can I put this succinctly? Oh yes: fuck off.

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Eli Rabett 08.04.07 at 4:44 am

Douthat and others of his ilk should be progressively neutered. Taking crap like his seriously leads to brain damage.

[This is Henry, returning to a couple of points criminally late due to travel etc – comments are now closed and there is no easy way to reopen them – if anyone wants to make rejoinders email them to me and I will append them manually]

novakant – you can’t have read my comment upstream. I am not claiming and have not claimed that people make choices independent of other social factors which structure those choices – rather that the current ideology justifying abortion etc is one of choice (without pronouncing on the pros and cons of that ideology) and thus radically different from that of eugenics in the 19th and early to mid 20th century. I specifically acknowledge the importance of such structures above.

c.l. ball – you had originally said:

there is no reason to take the latter claim as not being ideologically linked to the former claim. Put differently, aborting children without a viable future is consistent with “improving the gene pool” or ‘improving’ humanity (also part of the eugenics ideology). The macro-ideology of eugenics need not be propagated by a conscious micro-ideology of eugenics.

I had taken you to be saying that the link between the language of eugenics and the language of choice was an ideological one, in which the micro-ideology of choice was unconsciously influenced by the macro-ideology of eugenics. Fair enough if that wasn’t what you meant, but you can surely see where the confusion arose. More generally, I am not sure at all that you’ve succeeded in liberating eugenics from geneticism – it is pretty clear from the article that you cite that left eugenicists too wanted to improve gene pools, even while they (a) wanted to engineer the environment to do this, and (b) disagreed with conservatives over the qualities that the environment should select for. See pp. 646-647 in particular on this. Freeden argues at greater length in a later explicatory “article”:http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0018-246X%28198312%2926%3A4%3C959%3AEAI%3E2.0.CO%3B2-O that:

The clue to the question I have been asking – why do ostensibly discrete, even opposing, ideologies coalesce, form links and back concrete policy measures – can only be discovered if one accepts that ideologies are not mutually exclusive but share some idea-elements structurally. As Soloway has recently demontrated, birth control can provide an instance of such a link. For eugenists, socialists, feminists and others, birth control was often, though not necessarily, part of the idea-environment of varying core-beliefs. For each of these ideologies, birth control had a different function to perform. For eugenists it was
important to restrict inferior stock; for socialists to improve the conditions of the working class; for feminists to further the independence of women. Within the context of each ideology, birth control combined with other elements to create a distinct pattern; but it nevertheless served as an idea on which various ideologies could form a union of convenience.

This seems remarkably close to my argument against Douthat – that different ideologies share the same position on issue _x_ does not, obviously mean that they can be collapsed into a single ideology.

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