Friday 24 August 2012

Intent matters.

Much discussion of abortion in the news at the moment, especially — as ever — in the US. Prompted by that, Professor Geras says this, not so much about abortion itself but about the logic behind a certain kind of moral argument. I'll quote the whole thing, as he was terribly succinct:

If my mother hadn't married my father I wouldn't exist. Even if she had married him, I wouldn't exist if they'd not been able to be together during those days in late 1942 when I was conceived - for example, if one of them had taken a holiday then, unaccompanied by the other, in Port Elizabeth or Cape Town. Does this mean it would have been wrong on my mother's or father's part to have married someone else? Evidently not. Would it have been wrong of either of them to go on that holiday? Nonsense.

I raise these profound and unsetlling questions apropos a post at Comment is Free. In explaining why she thinks it would have been better if her mother had aborted her, Lynn Beisner refers to anti-abortion arguments deploying the claim that someone or other alive today wouldn't be had abortion been legal and/or had their mothers chosen to terminate the pregnancy of which they were the issue.

But since there are many things a mother might quite legitimately - legally and morally - have done which would have led to the non-existence of her present children, the circumstance that abortion would have had this sorry effect cannot by itself establish that abortion is wrong, however dismaying the thought of their own non-existence may be for those children.

It strikes me that there's something missing from Norm's analysis here, and that is intent. There is a difference between unintended side-effects and the whole deliberate point of one's actions — an uncontroversial difference recognised in the laws of every jurisdiction on the planet. For instance, let's run with Norm's example of the consequences of taking a holiday.

On the twenty-second of February 2010, the Real IRA exploded a car-bomb a few yards from where I usually park my car at the time I would usually have been walking to my car. As luck would have it, I was working from home that night, so wasn't anywhere near it. But what if one of my colleagues had been on holiday that night? I might have had to be in the office in order to cover their absence, and so I probably would have been near that blast. So there is a very real and plausible chain of events whereby one man goes on holiday and another man, as a result, is killed.

Would the police prosecute my colleague for going on holiday? Would anyone sane regard his holiday-taking as tantamount to murder? No, of course not.

Because intent matters.

There is a hypothetically potential person who does not exist because of that time in 2004 when my wife and I didn't have sex because we were too tired from staying up till the small hours painting the living room. There are of course billions of these hypothetical potential people who have ended up nonexistent — many more of them than actual people. Just as there are people out there who have fallen terribly ill or got their dream job or been in a traffic accident or met their spouse because of chains of events that can be traced back to that time you or I did something inoccuous and trivial. But we don't think about those chains of events because it would drive us all mad, and because intent matters.

We do think about those chains of events where a person sets out to do a thing for a reason and they achieve their aim. The man who plants the bomb is responsible for the damage and death it causes. The reason for this moral culpability is not mere convenience; we're not just assigning blame in cases we can comprehend and ignoring the ones we can't. No, the reason is that what concerns us social primates is the psyches of those among us. People whose actions cause the death of innocents because they kill innocents deliberately are dangerous, and we understandably don't want them around. People whose actions cause the death of innocents because they book a holiday without realising that as a result someone else will end up in the wrong place at the wrong time, not so much.

I hardly think it's a controversial statement to say that the whole point of having an abortion is to ensure that a person does not come to exist. The decision of whether or not to abort is all about the existence of that potential person and nothing else. The decision of whether to go on holiday is not.