Chad Perrin: SOB

22 November 2006

the anti-pro-abortion argument

Filed under: Cognition,Liberty — apotheon @ 08:30

The argument in favor of what is commonly known as the “pro-choice” side of the abortion debate that I have encountered more often than all other arguments put together is, in fact, more accurately something of a “pro-abortion” argument. It does not specifically encourage abortion per se, but it does specifically encourage the notion that the option of aborting a pregnancy is a fundamental characteristic of a woman’s individual rights. The argument goes something like this:

During a pregnancy, what grows inside a woman’s body is a part of her body. We all have a right to do with our bodies whatever we desire. As such, our rights as human beings extend to abortions.

The particulars may vary from case to case. For instance, one might define the growth of a new life as being part of the mother’s body only until medical “viability” (when it can be kept alive outside the body if need be), or until the cells that make up the growing blob begin to differentiate from one another, or until it has a measurable blood type of its own, or until it suits some textbook definition of a human body, or any of a number of other criteria. In general, however, until that (generally kind of arbitrary) cut-off point is reached, the argument is as presented above: the undefined thing inside the womb is “part of the mother’s body”. Just as a woman has a right to get a wart removed by a dermatologist, the argument goes, she has the right to get the potential child removed by someone in the ob/gyn clinic.

Guess what: the “part of the body” argument is crap and nonsense, unless you are ready to accept that the bacteria living in your mouth and intestines, viruses you contract from infected sex partners, and parasites from undercooked pork are also “part of your body”. One does not amputate a bacteria, just as one does not amputate a fetus. The dividing line between mother and child during pregnancy is, in fact, DNA. The mother’s DNA differs from that of the child: by the same token, the mother and the child are not one, even if the child is dependent upon the mother for continued life.

This is not to say I’m a so-called “pro-lifer”. On the contrary, blanket bans on abortions (even with exceptions for the mother’s health) are anathema, as far as I’m concerned. There does need to be some criteria by which we can judge whether an abortion is allowable, but “when it is no longer part of the mother” ain’t it, no matter how you define that distinction. I do not seek to demolish the “part of the mother” pro-abortion argument to weaken the case for keeping abortion legal. Far from it. I seek to eliminate that specious argument specifically because its obstinate popularity harms the argument for what I believe to be right, the legality of abortions, by virtue of the fact that it is recognizably wrong to someone who bothers to examine its merits (or lack thereof) and has the capacity to recognize a fallacious argument when (s)he encounters it.

Ultimately, laws regarding abortions should be chosen the same way all laws should be chosen: by deriving them from a fundamental, self consistent system of ethics based on a bare minimum of axiomatic principles. The ultimate result of such a means of deriving laws related to abortions, so far as I’ve determined thus far, consists simply of a need, if a person is to be judged a criminal in choosing abortion, to prove one of the following:

  1. the person willfully acted to end a life that should reasonably be believed to be an ethical being
  2. the person acted to end a life that should reasonably be believed to be an ethical being out of depraved indifference

There’s also the possible outcome of finding that the person is not actually responsible, in an ethical sense, for acting to end the life of a presumed ethical being because the acting individual is not qualified to make such a decision or, for that matter, to recognize the fact that (s)he is not qualified to make such a decision. This is the “insanity defense”, basically, though it applies to unavoidable ignorance and the fact that the accused may not be an ethical being him/her self.

It should be noted that I use the term “ethical being”, a shorthand version of the term “ethically significant being”, in a very specific manner here, with a very specific meaning. I refer to a being that is capable of ethical reasoning, and thus to make ethical decisions responsibly. This capability need not be measured in necessary experience. The mere fact of having the raw intellectual capacity for ethical reasoning, regardless of the knowledge required to apply such capacity, is sufficient to qualify one as an ethical being. It is the potential at the current state of physical capability to achieve ethical reasoning after the necessary experiences of social life that defines one as an ethical being.

Any argument, even if it agrees in results and goals with the ethical argument, that is based on patently false presumptions like “it’s part of the mother” is counterproductive. It makes those who know what the hell they’re talking about look bad by association, and make the job of getting the point across just that much more difficult. If you are inclined to making such half-baked assertions in defense of the notion that you should not be legally prevented from getting an abortion, please, don’t “help”.

The problem with the ethical approach I have outlined as a valid argument in favor of keeping abortion legal is, of course, that we don’t know at which point the life in the womb becomes an ethical being. We (where “we” means “experts”) can make educated guesses, and certainly we should not be giving abortions after that point, but before the point where an educated guess simply cannot be reasonably sure of the ethical reasoning capability of a fetus, we cannot be certain of the criminal character of an abortion.

Because of this fact, a burden of proof in the accusation of guilt is not met, and no violation of law should be deemed to have occurred. Period. If you can’t prove that the person should reasonably have believed that a murder was being committed, the act wasn’t murder. It boils down to the presumption of innocence, and it’s ultimately that simple — innocence not of a violation of law, but innocence of an unethical decision. Law should follow ethics; ethicality does not follow law.

simplifying choices

Filed under: Cognition,Geek — apotheon @ 06:47

Joel Spolsky (of Joel on Software), famous ex-employee of Microsoft and chronicler of his own opinions on software development, has some opinions about choices. He thinks choices are bad, that they make people unhappy. As he puts it, Choices = Headaches. Leaving aside for a moment the logical absurdity of a programmer, talking to other programmers, using an assignment operator in the languages with which he is most familiar in that manner, he makes some excellent points.

The really salient and accurate point underlying his superficial points about the importance of simplicity in an interface is that being able to choose exactly what you want from a pool of as few options as possible is, all else being equal, a net win. Having to make the decision does not make you happier. On the contrary, it is likely to make you less happy. The absurdity of the redundant and poorly presented array of options available to users of Microsoft Windows Vista for taking Windows out of a fully-operational mode when not actively using the thing is aptly illustrated by his description of the situation. He’s right that the process could, and should, be significantly simplified.

Joel conflates having options with having to choose between them, however, at least to some extent. The end result is that he ends up settling on a solution to the problem of choosing how to shut down the system that is reminiscent of mid-’90s Macintosh design philosophy: automate everything you possibly can to save the poor widdle easily-confused heads of the users, and prevent those users from meddling with it. Personalizing the Mac should be limited to deciding between laptop and desktop, and choosing a case that matches the drapes. Our users can’t handle any real critical thinking tasks, so don’t curse them with options.

Obviously, this is not the philosophy to win the hearts, minds, and happiness of human beings. It didn’t work. Things have changed at Apple — and they have changed for the better — as a result of the lessons of usability and marketing hard-won by the depressing Mac sales figures of the previous decade.

There are really two ideal approaches to your system interface, both of which draw on the lessons almost taught in Joel’s recent essay, and also on the contradicting lessons of the open source movement: people want options, as we discover in the proliferation of Linux distributions, BSD versions, and legions of open source utilities and applications, but they don’t want to have to choose among them over and over again all the damned time. In combination, this is a lesson that may be far more understandable to your average sysadmin than to your average programmer. After all, programmers spend all day trying to create software that they think answers users’ needs. Sysadmins, meanwhile, know exactly what the needs are, but have to decide on the best way to achieve them and, when they figure out what works best for them, they script it in Perl (or whatever) so they don’t have to choose the same things over and over again every time an oft-repeated task is needed.

The point here is that people like to have the options that allow them to pick out an ensemble that best suits their needs and preferences, but they don’t like to have to select all the garments and accessories that make up that ensemble over and over again (to abuse a metaphor). This is really what happens, to some extent, with open source software: one puts together a preferred system configuration by an iterative process of tweaks and nudges approaching perfection (as defined by the user), then uses that well-configured system happily. Apple takes an opposite, but equally valid, approach with MacOS X: there is a default, feature-rich user experience ready and waiting, but it is easily dismantled bit by bit and altered to suit the needs of the user. One is the cook-from-scratch approach to the perfect soup, and the other is the reduce-from-gumbo approach. It is easier to cook the perfect soup from scratch than to reduce a gumbo, but at least with a premade gumbo you have something already edible, which greatly lowers the bar for entry to the wonderful world of serving soup.

I’m full of bad metaphors today, apparently.

So, we have two unavoidable options, really, because there will always be a need for both approaches to choosing the right user environment. You can’t really abstract those out to reduce to one single option. When building a system from something approaching scratch (such as by way of a minimal install of your favorite Linux distribution, on which you install all the software you really want and not one whit more), you put yourself in the position of having to make a lot more decisions before you even really have a very usable, productive environment — but the beauty of the exercise is that, when you’re done and all is ready, you are done making those decisions, the only exception being when you need to create a user environment again (and even that is simplified by already knowing your own software preferences).

The moral of the story is that options are good, excellent really, and necessary to happiness, despite Joel Spolsky’s statements to the contrary. They just need to be presented in a sane way, such that there are ways to avoid making more than the absolute minimum number of decisions, to choose how many decisions you really want to make, and to make as many of them as possible only once.

Start with a default feature-rich environment with all the bells and whistles, but with the actual choices at your fingertips minimized to the specific options most likely to be most favored by the most people. Allow for an option to throw away everything, and build from scratch. Allow for an option to change defaults. Allow for an option to remove stuff. Perhaps above all else, allow for an option to minimize the visible options, reducing things to only what the person actually wants to see, when an ideal configuration is reached and decided on (with, of course, an option that opens up all the previously hidden opportunities).

Don’t overburden us with unnecessary options all the time whether we want any of them or not. At the same time, though, don’t actually eliminate the options — just let us decide which options we want to see.

People — like Joel and, one supposes, Jim Allchin — seem to have the mistaken impression that they must choose between giving us all options in front of our faces all the time or only those options we are most likely to want according to some imaginary measure of the average end user. They should simply learn to trust us to know what we want, both in allowing us to choose from all the options, and in allowing us to tell some of those things we decide against to go the hell away and never return to pester us in the middle of typing an email or, for the love of gob and all that’s wholly, trying to turn off the damned computer.

All original content Copyright Chad Perrin: Distributed under the terms of the Open Works License