On Emotional Blackmail “Thought Experiments”

Back in the day, at the height of War on Terror hysteria, “prolife” Faithful Conservative Catholics[TM] degraded themselves to endlessly defend the use of torture. In the course of their shameful prostitution, a favorite technique they adopted was as follows:

You have the choice of A) torturing some vile hairy terrorist who has placed a nuclear weapon under an orphanage or B) CERTAIN FIERY DEATH FOR ALL THE PRECIOUS CHILDREN, PLUS ALL THEIR ADORABLE PUPPIES AND ALL THE INNOCENT PEOPLE IN THAT CITY!!!!!

Which do you choose?:

“A” like a normal decent human being, or

“B” like the heartless bastard and ivory tower liberal I expect you are, you moral imbecile?

I’m not trying to influence your rational deliberation. I’m just asking questions.

Now the basic lie told in defense of all such scenarios is that they are “thought experiments” intended to help clarify what we really think so we can make better and more rational choices. Like all lies, and especially Big Lies, that is exactly the opposite of the truth.

In fact, such scenarios are designed to force you to one and only one conclusion via a grotesquely emotionally manipulative scenario bearing no relationship to real life, while carefully concealing gaping flaws in the logic. That is why I learned long ago that the best reply to all such “thought experiments” is to refuse to play the game and to relentlessly point out that nearly all such emotionally manipulative scenarios bear no resemblance to real life and are carefully architected to stampede their victims to the pre-ordained conclusion the designer seeks (in this case, to force you to cheer for torture). Disagree with the emotional manipulator and you stand condemned, not merely of a mistake in logic, but as a moral monster of such black-hearted evil and slack-jawed stupidity that you should be drummed out of the human race as the hideous spiritual freak you are. That is the the end sought by the architect of the “thought experiment”.

And that is not an attempt to clarify anything. That is an attempt to blow so much smoke that any attempt to so much as think an opposing or questioning thought is machine-gunned with extreme prejudice.

I mention this because ran across another sample of such intellectual bullying recently:

Now, for those who really care to, there is a reply to this emotionally manipulative argument from the good people at Secular Prolife here.

But, for myself, as with the attempt to muscle me into cheering for torture or perish under a hail of stones as a Moral Monster, I prefer to critique the use of the false dilemma itself as a supposed mode of “thought clarification” and call it what it is: an emotionally manipulative lie that clouds, not clarifies rational thought. Virtually every example of such “thought experiments” reveals not one damn thing about what we “really” think, but only what the architect and designer of the “experiment” is bound and determined to make us think–and forbid us to think.

In the case of the Burning Fertility Clinic “thought experiment” the goal toward which we are being stampeded is as obvious as it is sloppily argued for: We are to believe, pronounce and profess that since any normal person would save the little boy and not a bunch of test tubes, therefore nobody really thinks life is sacred from conception. The problem is that we would also save a little boy (particularly our own) before we would save a stranger or our grandfather or our spouse. That does not prove that these people are not human beings. It just proves that ridiculous emotionally manipulative trolley problems are a lousy way of arguing.

This is not, as I hope the two examples I have given show, something only one side in the culture wars do. Indeed, similarly manipulative lies can be and are told by prolife people. The manipulative false dilemma that has been posed by the “prolife” cult of death for years is that if you vote Democrat out of a desire to save lives by promoting universal health care, a living wage, slowing climate change, ending the death penalty or making sure poor families have enough to eat and don’t feel as pressured by poverty to abort YOU ARE A BABY-KILLING MONSTER WHO WANTS TO MURDER ALL THE BABIES BECAUSE YOU HATE THE BABIES, YOU BABY-KILLING MONSTER!!!!! This has had a powerful mind-clouding effect on many and many a decent person who does not want to be a baby-killing monster. But it has not helped clarify a single thought. It has, as emotionally manipulative strongarming always has, made people stupider, not more rational.

Now the paradox of the Burning Fertility Clinic Strongarm scenario is that, while it is undertaken in the case of Freedom of Choice, is absolutely hostile to choice (as such emotionally manipulative tactics always are, regardless of who deploys them). The goal of all such arguments is not to provide the victim of the manipulation with a choice, but to stampede them to one and only one conclusion or face expulsion from the human race as a moral monster. That is why I always call out the manipulation rather than give the manipulator power by agreeing to play the game.

The other irony of the Burning Fertility Clinic argument is that, while it is undertaken presumably to protect women from the very real threat of “prolife” Inquisitors who eagerly want to hurt post-abortive women with punishments such as prison and even the death penalty, it fails to take into account the very real hurts it deals out to those who have had to make agonizing choices.

Consider: the whole goal toward which the Burning Fertility Clinic argument wishes to stampede us is the conclusion “Not choosing to save the test tubes proves that you don’t think they are real persons and you don’t really value them as you do the little boy”.

Now, tell that to the grieving father who could only pull his daughter from the burning trailer, but not his son (I once listened to just such a man tell his story. It was agonizing). There are, in fact, real people in the world who really have had to make choices, not between one thing they really care about and another thing they don’t, but between two people they loved with all their hearts, leaving one to die. Your ingeniously manipulative argument, that really leaves a welt on that dumb-ass prolifer you just wanted to score off, also leaves a scar on the heart of the person who really had to make that choice and who cannot bear to be told that this proves he did not love the one he could not save. Watch your mouth.

The irony for me, as somebody who believes human beings are sacred from conception to natural death, is that I have grown mortally sick of listening to so-called “prolife” people pit the unborn against every form of human life the GOP wants to rob, harm, neglect, and kill for the past forty years. I categorically reject the idea that the unborn are the opposite of and not related to all other forms of human life at risk. But that means I equally reject rubbish like the Burning Fertility Clinic sophistry that simply deploys the same trick in the opposite direction.

Instead of perpetually asking, “When do we get to kill?” I say we should always be asking, of the born and unborn alike, “How can we work to avoid killing as much as possible?”


11 Responses

  1. Here’s a scenario which is not a thought experiment, but is happening right now: Today, thousands of people will die. They will die unloved and unmourned, discarded without thought or care. The vile liars in the pro-life movement don’t value them, but neither do the so called seamless garment ones you promote.

    Which lives am I talking about? About the estimated half of pregnancies which end before the mother is aware of even being pregnant. From my perspective, how gestation works. But from yours, each and every one of those lost pregnancies was a person of value right from conception.

    Or are they?

    Cancer killed about 600,000 people in the US during 2019. We are spending over 150 billion dollars a year on the treatment and prevention of the malady each year. In contrast, the statistic above allows us to infer that about six and a quarter million petri-dished sized people were killed by their mother’s reproductive system that same year.

    How much money do you think we’re spending on preventing those deaths? And how much should we be?

    1. You seem to have a point you are getting at, but I’m jiggered if I can figure out what it is. Until you clarify, I’m going to assume you mean obstetrics and gynecology are stoopid, research into prevention of miscarriage is a waste of time and women who grieve a lost pregnancy are over-emotional losers who should be mocked because they aren’t focusing their grief on cancer victims. Indeed, they should be told they “killed their children”. Is that how you want your post to be remembered? Because it looks like that is what you are saying.

      Again I say, “Watch your damn mouth. While you are cleverly hucking your logic grenades at prolifers, you are wounding innocent bystanders, jackass.”

  2. Also, indifference due to distraction won’t get you off of the hook when you are trying to convince yourself you’re an upstanding guy/gal. This goes for Lifers and Choicers.

    Examination of conscience:

    If I say that I’m too busy to care about the willful destruction of embryos then I must ask myself how many hours I dedicated my conscious thoughts to Stranger Things and_________, or the Tiger King. Did I balance this distraction with a conscious, pro-life manner of living?

    I fear that the near worship of self comfort is at the root of a lot of destruction, even if that destruction is not consciously willed.

  3. I read that article over at Secular Pro Life, and you’re both missing the point. The Burning Fertility thought experiment is not about trying to prove that fertilized eggs or the pre-born have no value, it is to illustrate the fact that we don’t value them in the same way as we do people who are already born. And like it or not, this bears out in every aspect of our society.

    We don’t issue Social Security numbers to embryos, or count them when we’re doing population tallies. Families members don’t gather from all around the world to grieve a two week miscarriage the same way they would for a two year old child.

    This isn’t about “personhood”, or any such red herrings; this is simply about the fact that whatever one may think about the relative worth of the unborn when compared to the rest of us, their circumstances are different enough to warrant a different set of moral, ethical and legal considerations. If pro-life people acknowledged that, then we could have a reasonable discussion about the type and scope of protections we could extend to the unborn.

    Otherwise, if they persist on insisting “its all the same”, then we’ll just keep going into stupid territory, where media figures and lawmakers alike, will reach for the logical conclusion of such arguments and advocate for women who lose their pregnancies to get tried for manslaughter or homicide, and even get the death penalty.

    1. “We don’t issue Social Security numbers to embryos, or count them when we’re doing population tallies. Families members don’t gather from all around the world to grieve a two week miscarriage the same way they would for a two year old child.”

      This has similarities to a point Mark already made:

      The fact that we don’t grieve a two-week miscarriage the same way we grieve the death of a two year old child does not indicate anything about their personhood or suggest hypocrisy in the belief of a pro-lifer about their personhood. It reflects that we don’t have the same relationship with them, just as we don’t grieve the death of a 2 year old child in another country the same way we would grieve the death of our own 2 year old.

      Social Security numbers and population tallies are practical administrative matters. They aren’t life or death decisions or personal responses to the fact of death. They certainly do illustrate different legal considerations for different circumstances, but that is a conflation that does not directly bear on whether they have rights. Not issuing social security numbers to the unborn is a more interesting observation as an extension of the fact we don’t issue social security benefits to those under age 62 or not otherwise meeting the benefit criteria than as a circumstance related to the moral liceity of abortion.

      With that said, it is important to keep in mind a distinction between an act that intentionally causes the death of a person, and a natural death, such as miscarriage. With that distinction in place there is no logical conclusion that results in prohibitions on abortion meaning also prosecution of miscarriage.

      On the other hand, I’m a bit lost here, and I don’t know if I missed something because I couldn’t bring myself to read all details on laws being proposed and challenged in court in various states on abortion because the rhetoric and hostility in the surrounding debates were so fatiguing, or if you and Mark are both misleading me.

      So for clarification: is some lawmaker actually seeking to prosecute women who have had miscarriages? And seeking the death penalty? I’m searching and not finding who you and Mark are referring to.

      I will note that I did hear of a couple cases where women who had miscarriages were investigated for violating abortion laws, which is an injustice that both violates the distinction I made above, and violates the 3rd Amendment, because it was clear in the cases I’m finding mentioned there was no probable cause established. As far as I could tell, once it was established they were miscarriages, the matter was dropped, although that doesn’t resolve the fact the cases were Constitutionally backwards.

      I did also find legislative proposals to define abortion as homicide. After reviewing one of them (from Texas), the valid concern is that Texas law allows for the death penalty for homicide. However, the bill to define to abortion as homicide did not include an intentional link to the death penalty, and I found clarification from supporters of the bill that they oppose applying the death penalty to abortions (I don’t know if that includes the bill’s sponsor). The bill specifically excluded miscarriage, accidents, and excision of an ectopic fetus (the last one is typical considered to be a matter of double effect, not intentional abortion).

      1. I explicitly said this is NOT about personhood. I also deliberately avoided saying “miscarriage”; the point being that regardless of whether the loss was intentional or not, either case will put women in the crosshairs of law enforcement. And we know a percentage of those convicted will be the result of miscarriages, especially among lower income women who will be pressured to take a plea deal regardless of their actual guilt.

        While I don’t know of any lawmaker that has deliberately set out to criminalize accidental miscarriages, the closest thing I’ve heard in passing, is about women getting convicted with reckless endangerment or something along those lines, for some kind of substance abuse which was then linked to a miscarriage.

    2. The fact that we don’t care about certain categories of persons says more about us than it does about that category of persons. A lot of white Americans people in the 1800’s (and alas, still too many people today) didn’t give a rat’s #$% about the suffering of enslaved African Americans. The fact that a late 1800s (or even early 1900s) southerner would have reacted to the lynching of a black man with a “meh” or even with approval, and would react with horror to the lynching of a white man, tells us more about what is wrong with that white American than it does about the objective value of the black man. The correct conclusion for white Americans to draw from this was not, “Black people are not Real PeopleTM, because we happen to not mourn or care about them as much as we do white people.” Rather, it’s “How can we develop our empathy so that we actually care about people who are different from us.

      1. Given the way that forced pregnancies were used to perpetuate the institution of slavery, I find your comparison quite offensive. Its the same thing all over again: Black women forced to produce Black bodies, on White people’s terms in order to further White people’s ideology.

        But sure, I guess its all for Black people’s own good, despite their protestations to the contrary. Like we haven’t heard that one before.

    3. https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/251534/nigeria-christian-persecution-us-government

      We don’t care much about brown people either. Two year olds? Five? Ten? 35? If Rwanda had vast oil reserves, we wouldn’t have turned a blind eye. We need more of the sacred not less. These days there are all kinds of articles popping up about how little–or even nothing– women felt about their abortions. I’m not sure if I believe them, but if they are telling the truth, it doesn’t bode well for society. It isn’t just the newly conceived that are stripped of their humanity when an abortion takes place.

      And no, I don’t trust in the humanity or motivations of the fat cats trying to overturn Roe.

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