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?”