Links and Comments: An Abortion Thought-Experiment, and Conservative Thinking

Salon: The Twitter thought experiment that exposes “pro-life” hypocrisy. Subtitle: “Comedian and sci-fi writer Patrick Tomlinson on the dangerous question that abortion foes refuse to answer”

Last Monday, a tweetstorm eviscerating abortion foes went viral. Science fiction writer and comedian Patrick Tomlinson introduced it this way:

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the “Life begins at Conception” crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly.

The question is as follows: Would you save one 5-year-old child from a burning building, or save 1,000 embryos. The point: No one actually thinks that embryos are the same as living children. But an entire movement is based on lying about it, and using that lie to manipulate people, in order to control women like slaves.

The balance of the Salon article consists of an interview Tomlinson (whose work in SF I am not familiar with), from which I noticed a couple passages in particular. First, Tomlinson claims he never got a straight answer to his thought-experiment — but he did get personal attacks against him:

If no anti-choicer could answer the question Tomlinson posed, they could still respond — with everything from death threats to a DDOS attack on his website. Which only proved his point: They can’t handle the truth. And they desperately need to protect the lie, as if their very lives depended on it.

(The more interesting questions is: why do some people “desperately need to protect the lie”? I think I know; it’s been a theme in this blog.)

And, discussing the classic conservative movement,

The intellectual foundations of the movement is described by people like Edmund Burke or Oakeshott. They conceived of conservatism as a counterweight to the utopian impulses of the left. Progressives in England at the time — which is where both those men originated — were very much about legislating away human vice. They were like, we can fix all the problems of humanity through the power of government. The conservative movement had its intellectual roots as a pushback against that impulse, saying, “No, we have to base this on facts. We have to base this on logic and evidence. We have to base this on real-world examples, and we have to adapt policies to human nature, instead of assuming human nature can be adapted by policy.” And that’s what I say when I say I’m a conservative, which is what the word meant for more than 100 years, before it was co-opted by the extreme religious right in our country.

I was just reading about Burke in the Steven Pinker book I’ve been reading; Pinker contrasts the values of the Enlightenment with Burke’s “tragic view of human nature,”

In that vision, human beings are permanently saddled with limitations of knowledge, wisdom, and virtue. People are selfish and shortsighted, and if they are left to their own devices, they will plunge into a Hobbesian war of all against all. …

And so on. (Pinker p184) Pinker goes on to reflect how extreme visions of human nature — “a Tragic visions that is resigned to its flaws, and a Utopian vision that denies it exists — define the great divide between right-wing and left-wing political ideologies.” (p186)

This recalls one of the earliest sea changes in my own life’s thought — how in the 1970s it was widely thought, especially by those promoting various civil rights movements, that there was no psychological or mental difference between men and women. Give boys and girls equivalent experiences and toys, and they will not grow up into familiar masculine and feminine stereotypes. That turned out simply not to be true, as I learned beginning with E.O. Wilson’s ON HUMAN NATURE; there are in fact differences between the sexes, differences which moreover are entirely understandable via evolutionary psychology and the taking into account of the differing reproductive strategies of males and females.

The long-term problem with the conservative movement, it seems to me, is by clinging to its perception of an essentially flawed human nature, it does nothing to overcome base tribalism and hostility toward others, and a supernatural perception of the world which is objectively false. The better understanding of human nature is, again, an inescapable conflict and see-saw balance between individual, ‘selfish’ desires, the result of individual natural selection, and altruistic desires that are the result of group selection, as Wilson describes in recent books; and the innate variability of human mental perception that manifests itself in the range of personality types along the axes of Haidt’s moral foundation theory (cf.). These insights tie in nicely with Pinker’s ongoing (as I read) description of the ‘Civilizing Process’ and the ‘Humanitarian Revolution’, in which the former desires are gradually tempered by the latter, as groups of human gather and co-depend on larger and larger groups. The rule of law (‘Leviathan’ Pinker calls it) is part of it, but so is the increased empathy of individuals necessary to get along in a large community of people different from oneself. (This is one reason why everything Trump is doing is wrong. The future harmony of the world, the avoidance of nuclear war and the stewardship of the planet, does depend on international political alliances, trade agreements, and scientifically-based revision of our industrial and technological policies.)

Back to Tomlinson:

The attacks are meant to silence and intimidate, in order to preserve the status quo of the conversation and the underlying power dynamic. The nominal right wing has long positioned itself as the true arbiter of absolute morality, patriotism, fiscal responsibility, respect for the troops, defenders of life, liberty, yada yada. It lets them set the parameters and tone of public debate.

Never mind that in literally every instance, their claims to ethical and moral authority are laughably false. “Conservatives” are responsible for installing a Russian traitor in the White House, exploding the deficit under Bush II (which Obama cut by a trillion dollars, with a T) and refusing funding for the VA to handle the surge in wounded veterans that resulted from their wars of choice. They have relentlessly attacked the gains we’ve made in health care coverage and the uninsured rate with the ACA, and on and on.

With many examples around every corner:

Conservatives, it seems to me, are people who refuse to learn, or benefit from others’ experience. They just *know* what should be so.

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