Monday, March 14, 2016

Reductio Ad Absurdum and the Birds and the Bees

Sometimes I wonder if anyone but me remembers what reductio ad absurdum means. Let's let Daniel Dennett explain it, because he does it quite well:

OK, so you've got that, right? This is a technique where you contingently accept your opponent's argument and show that it leads to an absurd result. It's not merely looking for contradictions (or P = not-P), but can look for untenable results... those that are clearly unacceptable. In this second form it's similar to a slippery slope, except that the untenable result is immediate and not part of a long chain of events. For instance, I might be able to avoid an audit by taking some action. If the action would result in my death, that's not a contradiction, but it's nevertheless an untenable result.

It's common enough, as Dennett points out. Everybody uses it in argument. The funny thing is that, for it to be effective, all parties must be able to recognize an absurdity or untenable result. I'm becoming increasingly less convinced that people can do it.

I'm going to jump right into an example and talk about the no-no and its consequences. On the one hand, there is a classic proposition:
People should reserve sex for partners with whom they want to have children.
Now that's pretty straightforward, right? You should be careful with sex because it's a valuable, productive activity with consequences. You still get to have sex, but you do it with carefully chosen partners for whom these consequences are a blessing. The exception is those people who have been neutered and have removed themselves from the gene pool. They have committed to not having children. Either way, some form of commitment is implied. And short of that, there's an awful lot of fooling around you can do without intercourse.

Some people find this untenable because they don't wanna. Sex is fun and they want to have it, and they want to have it without concern for consequences. And they're so selfishly afraid of commitment that they not only don't want to commit to caring for children, but they also don't want to commit to not having them.

I deliberately went looking for this,
because Rule 34 of the Internet. No exceptions.
OK. For the sake of argument, let's go with that: Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead. Have sex whenever you want. Dance the horizontal mambo, ride the bologna pony, take the stretch limo to the carwash, or pick your own euphemism. But everyone who does soon finds that that having sex on these terms leads to an untenable consequence: unwanted children. Rather than recognize the untenable consequence and reject promiscuity, people attempt to "fix" the argument.

Considering the choices of raising a child or aborting the pregnancy, many people choose to abort. On the one hand, this leads to the untenable consequence of human death.  Rather than recognize the untenable consequence, people then attempt to ignore it or define it away[1]. In so doing, their actions lead to another untenable consequence: that of absolute inequality. When a woman has the sole right to decide whether to abort or not, under the laws of the United States, she also has the sole right to enslave her partner for a period of at least 18 years. In recent court cases it has been decided that it does not matter if he is aware of the pregnancy and it does not matter if both parties signed a legal contract absolving him of all rights and responsibilities. The biological father will be financially responsible for that child. He has exactly zero say in the matter. Even though both partners engaged in a consensual activity, even if both agreed in advance that they did not want offspring, he cannot demand an abortion. He is, in fact, enslaved. This is clearly untenable, but rather than recognize this untenable consequence of promiscuity, people attempt once again to "fix" the argument.

One attempt to fix it is to give fathers veto power over pregnancies. In other words, both parents must want a child to bring it to term. This leads to the untenable consequence of interfering with "a woman's body", which is summarily rejected, leaving the previous untenable argument -- slavery -- in place. This makes it no less untenable.

Now, a reasonable person might recognize that we're obviously getting into absurd territory here. But that doesn't seem to be the case in our society. Instead, double-standards are then perpetuated. Women who choose not to care for their offspring are "brave": men who choose exactly the same thing are "deadbeats". Women who kill are comforted: men who abandon are imprisoned. Rather than recognize that this is blatantly sexist bigotry; that the basic human rights of males are being violated at the whim of women as the result of a string of societal and personal bad decisions on the part of private individuals; rather than recognize these untenable consequences, people attempt once again to "fix" the argument... all so they can continue to have guilt-free nookie.

The most recent attempt comes to us from Sweden, where the Liberal Party's youth wing proposes that men should be able to legally opt out of parenthood at any time up to the 18th week of pregnancy (coinciding with the last week a woman can legally have an abortion). By doing so, he informs the woman of the financial burden that she alone would face while she can still choose to abort. Avens O'Brien writes about this in "It’s Time The Sexist Double Standard Stopped – Nobody Should Be Forced To Be A Parent", published on the Libertarian Republic's website. We can envision some clear immediate consequences.
  • First, it would clearly raise the number of men who wish to opt out of parenthood. It's not a stretch to imagine that at least half the out-of-wedlock pregnancies are not wanted by men. But unlike similar terms in Geneva, this Swedish proposal isn't limited to out-of-wedlock pregnancies. Some married men will opt out of pregnancy as well. I don't have polling data for it, so let's just acknowledge that paternal opt-outs would go from zero to some significant number larger than zero. More broken families.
  • In some of these cases, the women will reluctantly abort. In many of these cases, the relationships will undoubtedly suffer. More deaths to celebrate.
  • In other of these cases, the women will not abort, but will carry the pregnancy to term despite increased financial hardship. More poverty.
  • In some of these cases, the increased financial hardship will be borne by the taxpayers, who will be held liable for the personal sexual decisions of the man (who chose to absolve himself of responsibility) and the woman (who chose to carry to term anyway). More social dysfunction. 

All paths lead to untenable consequences, and yet it is a hallmark of the morally blind that they will not recognize the fact. As you can tell from O'Brien's headline, people will eagerly double down on their prior bad choices with more of the same.

Meanwhile, Ivar Arpi, who writes for the Svenska Dagbladet daily tweeted, “No, men shouldn’t be able to have legal abortions. Men should take responsibility for their children. Period.”

If only we had this same expectation of women we could have cut short a long chain of absurd, untenable consequences with unworkable "fixes".

But hey... that three minutes on a sweat-soaked mattress was totally worth it, right?

I told you. No exceptions.

[1] I can document actual examples where a parent refers to a wanted pregnancy is a darling child for whom the parents are anxiously awaiting the arrival; and where the very same parent refers to an unwanted child at the very same level of development as a "mass of tissue". The same people support both abortion and laws charging the killer of a pregnant woman with double homicide. They do not recognize or acknowledge this as a contradiction and become defensive and angry when it's pointed out.

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