Thursday, June 24, 2021

Miscarriage & Abortion: Responding with Support, Responding with Philosophy, or Both?

When people have miscarriages, it's a major understatement to say that that they are typically upset: indeed, for them, it is often a life-changing tragedy.

Why is it a tragedy for them? Why are they grieving?

Asking these questions might seem tacky since answers might seem so obvious, but if you wish to be supportive of anyone who has had a miscarriage and is grieving, here's the answer: 

any answer is a great answer: any reasons people give for grieving a miscarriage are great reasons.

That is the basis of any supportive, caring person's responses. Caring people here are understanding and supportive of anything grieving people here have to say: they recognize that all their feelings about the miscarriage are "valid" and should be validated.

In contexts like these, however, some people sometimes want to be "philosophers," and, with the grieving person, critically evaluate what is said for why they are grieving: do they have a good argument in support of their grief?

Both pro-choice and anti-abortion people do this, sometimes. 

How often this happens, I suppose nobody really knows. But it's usually bad whenever anyone does it. 

For example, a person grieving a miscarriage might say that they are grieving because they are upset, for their child, about their child losing their life. 

Apparently, it is reported that some people want to "argue" with such a grieving person, arguing that the fetus isn't a "child" or that a fetus cannot really lose their life, for some abstract reasons (e.g., for something to be your life, you have to be aware of it, or aware of something). 

So they apparently try to convince the person that their grief can entirely be explained by factors other than the fetus itself, for its own sake: e.g., the loss of that expected future with that child. 

Again, I have no idea how often this happens, but my bet is that almost always such "philosophizing" is unwelcome: it doesn't make anyone feel any better or provide any kind of emotional comfort or support in a time of acute grief. 

And whether their arguments are good or not is irrelevant since now is just not the time or place for this type of philosophizing. (Similarly, a religious person telling someone with a loved one who died that they are now "in a better place"heavenis entirely unwelcome, inappropriate, and not comforting, even if that claim happens to be true [and perhaps it is not]). 

As another example, pro-choice people sometimes also have miscarriages, or a newborn baby dies, and they grieve their loss. 

Some people take this an opportunity to "philosophize" and argue that their grief makes no sense, given their pro-choice views, or that if they are grieving now, they should also think that abortion is wrong.   

Again, I have no idea how often this happens, but my bet is that almost always such "philosophizing" is unwelcome: it doesn't make anyone feel any better or provide any kind of emotional comfort or support in a time of acute grief. And whether their arguments are good or not (they are not) is irrelevant to this.

I suspect it is more common for pro-choice people to be on the receiving end of this type of callousness. Pro-choicers readily recognize reasons to grieve miscarriages, so they aren't surprised by any anti-abortion people grieving miscarriages. Anti-abortion people, however, think the pro-choicers are inconsistent or incoherent in their grieving, which makes it more likely they'd be the aggressors here. 

For a pro-choice person to respond badly to a grieving person who is anti-abortion, you'd either need the pro-choice person to raise the issue along the lines of "Ya know, if you are mourning here because of your beliefs about fetuses, those beliefs are mistaken" (which is unlikely, since it's just uncommon to "challenge" people when they are grieving, since it's just rude and obnoxious) or you'd need the anti-abortion person to, on their own accord, offer up their fetus-centric reasons for mourning and then the pro-choicer challenge them on that, which is again unlikely. So, again, I suspect it's more common for anti-abortion people to be callous on this issue, not pro-choice people but, again, I doubt there is any great evidence either way.

So, in general, when people are grieving anything, it's best to try to understand their feelings and validate them: don't try to argue people out of their grief or argue that they shouldn't feel how they feel.

However, things aren't so simple and this isn't an exceptionless rule. 

The reason for this is just that people can have negative emotional experiences because of false beliefs. Indeed, the major approach to psychotherapy and counselingknown as cognitive-behavioral therapyis based on this insight: people often feel negative emotions because they have false or irrational beliefs, so a goal of therapy is identifying these beliefs and correcting them, to improve emotional well-being. 

What this means is that if someone grieves a miscarriage because they believe that, say, beginning fetuses are people just like you or me, if that belief is likely false, then it might be good to address that, since that might be emotionally beneficial: improving belief should improve feeling. 

(Related, if people feel guilty for having an abortion, and they feel guilty because they think they have done something wrong—that's what guilt is a response to—then it is useful to explain to them that they didn't do anything wrong, if there are good reasons to believe that, and there are.) 

Likewise, if that belief were likely true, and there are really good reasons to believe that beginning fetuses are people just like you or me, then it could be appropriate to "confront" someone who is totally indifferent to a miscarriage (if there were such a person). While we don't often do this, it sometimes happens that we tell people, "Look, something big happened, and you seem to have no negative feelings about it, but you should!" This might not make them feel better, in the sense of having "positive" emotions, but their feelings might become more accurate to the reality of the situation, if that were the reality.

So when is it good to be a philosopher, and when is it good to be a supportive person? And when is the best emotional support to engage someone philosophically?

To answer this requires insight, wisdom, and good judgment (especially in impersonal online environments where it's unclear whether the goal is being supportive, philosophical, both, or neither!). And we all need more of that, about these issues and many others. 

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Wednesday, June 2, 2021

Star Trek: "Human rights. Why, the very name is racist."

There's a scene from the 1991 film Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, where one of the Klingon characters states, "Human rights. Why, the very name is racist." 

She says this in response to the suggestion that people on planets throughout the universe have "human rights." 

Since she is a Klingon, and so is not biologically human, she is keenly aware that claiming that she has human rights is problematic: it's like men saying that basic rights are men's rights, or the rights of men, and then acknowledging that women have them too; or a race of people defining rights in terms of their own race ("white rights"?) but then using that same terminology to describe the rights of people of other races ("black and brown people have white rights too"? No, we all have [or should have] the same rights, described in a general, non-race-specific way). 

The concept of rights is not tied to any particular biology or species. So, yes, human beings have rights, but if there were Klingons or other non-human beings like them, they too would have those rights too. Since different species could have themthat's possible, or the concept allows itthat's part of the reason why it's unhelpful to think in terms of rights as human rights. That such beings (probably) don't exist is not relevant: suppose we called rights "less than 10-foot tall person-rights": the possibility that a greater than 10-foot tall person could exist is enough to show that this wouldn't be a good description for rights: we want a description that would apply to anything that, if it existed, would have rights.  

Describing rights as "human rights" is problematic because the basis of basic rights is not tied to any particular biology or species. Why do both the human beings on Star Trek and the Klingons both have rights? What makes them have rights? It's not their species, since they are different species. The most obvious answer is that they both have rights because both these human beings and these Klingons are conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on: they have minds of a certain type. In other words, they are persons. The human beings are human persons and the Klingons are non-human persons. (This is the basic reasoning given to think that many non-human animals have basic rights and are either persons or are person-like). 

To take this discussion back to abortion, while (human) zygotes, embryos and beginning fetuses are biologically human, they are not much like the human crew on Star Trek or the Klingon crew, and they don't have the rights these crew members have. Fetuses are of the same species as the human crew, but the basis for rights isn't biology. So even though beginning fetuses are biologically human, they don't have the rights that human beings who are persons typically have, and they wouldn't have the rights that Klingons would have, if they were to exist. The language of "human rights" suggests that anything that's human has basic rights, but if we reflect on why anyone (or anything) has rights, or what makes something (or someone) have rights, we see that's naive: it's not just being of a biological category that makes something have rights. 

People often assume (correctly) that human beings have rights. But they rarely think about why human beings have rights, or what makes them have rights. Fiction, and fictional persons who have rights, can help us understand why we have rights and help us understand why some biologically human organisms—like beginning fetusesseem to lack what gives anyone rights. Thinking about actual persons, as well as possible persons—beings who, if they existed, would be persons—can help us understand personhood, and the basis of rights, which is essential for productive thinking about abortion. 

P.S. An alternative view on personhood, which many critics of abortion claim to accept, is that persons aren't just beings that are conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on (and there are ways to explain why sleeping people and people in comas remain persons even though they can't currently think, feel, etc.); it's that any kind or type of being that is conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative and so on is a person. So, advocates of this view might say that although a fertilized human egg and a fertilized fish egg (or beginning fetus, if you don't like the egg example) seem very similar, a fertilized human egg is this type or kind of being and so is a person, whereas the fish egg is not. 

Some fair questions are this: why accept this proposal for what persons are? And why reject this proposal?

One quick reason to reject this proposal is that if being the kind of being that is conscious, aware, thoughtful, feeling, communicative, and so on makes anything (like an embryo) an actual person, thensince those characteristics also make someone responsible, autonomous, praise and blame-worthyso on that would also seem to make that embryo actually responsible, autonomous, and praise and blame-worthy. But embryos are none of that, so being a "kind" of being doesn't mean you have the actual characteristics that result from actually being that being: e.g., being the kind of being that's a person, and the kind of being that's responsible and so is different from being a person and being responsible. Here's some on that; more will be posted later. 

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