Blinded by the Dark

Considering a pseudo-random question that seems relevant to our current societal climate:

Why does being vehemently against something — hating it with a passionate rage — blind us to any merits of the thing?

careful now
Beware what lurks in the darkness of hatred and fear. (Image: “careful now,” by neeel, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Consider any number of candidate topics: abortion, guns, the President, nameacontroversialsubject. Why do so many of us end up so adamantly against whatever it is that we cannot bring ourselves to consider the least amount of good in it? Why does it seem that acknowledging even the tiniest merit is some kind of betrayal, rather than an admission that we don’t have all the answers and that most (if not all) issues are not clearly black and white?

Sometimes it seems as if we are afraid to recognize anything good in that thing we despise, because we might begin to question ourselves instead of the hated thing. But in general we’re careful not to question our own conclusions or premises, let alone how we got from one to another; and just as careful not to question our motives or our leaders — and so we build fortifications around our position and prepare not only to defend it, but to attack the other. We guard ourselves against an obvious risk: if we ever accept that the thing we hate has some good aspects, we may begin to recognize that its opposite, the thing we love, is not as pure and perfect as we thought.

As an artifact of my engineering training, I wonder: is there a scale, a curve, a function that describes the point at which opposition produces recalcitrance? And is there a way to draw one another back from the precipice it represents?

I may be the only person who wonders, or cares. But, then again, I’m quite comfortable in the “grey areas” of life — between the black and the white.

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Ladies, Stand Your Ground

Warning: Controversy Ahead.

I wrote this a couple of months ago, after considering the notion for many more, but there never seemed to be a good time to post it. I thought about posting it when I heard that someone was planning a rally in support of legalizing rape; I’m still not sure if that was a real thing, but it seemed a monumentally stupid idea — what next, rallies to legalize robbery and burglary and other crimes? Then a GOP Presidential hopeful mentioned abortion in the context of self-defense against incest or rape, and was criticized for it, and now another made thoughtless, asinine comments about punishing women who have abortions.

Maybe there is no good time to post something like this.

This post is about self-defense, and abortion. I advise you to leave now if you don’t want to be offended, because something I say here will almost certainly offend you — no matter where you stand on these issues.

Use of Deadly Force Authorized

(Image: “Use of Deadly Force Authorized,” by Brian Reynolds, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)


First, an observation: I believe the decision to abort a baby must be one of the most difficult decisions a human being may ever make. I do not intend to second-guess anyone who has made that decision, nor do I intend to criticize or vilify them.

Second, another observation: I recognize that some people believe that I should not express my opinion on abortion (or perhaps even that I should not form an opinion) because I am a man and not a woman. Obviously, I disagree.

Now, to the root of the matter: It seems to me that, regardless of one’s personal views on either issue, logical consistency requires that our view of abortion should align with our view of self-defense, especially where the latter is covered by various “stand your ground” laws. To that end,

  • It appears logically inconsistent to support using deadly force in self-defense — often related to “stand your ground” laws — and at the same time oppose abortion.
  • It appears logically inconsistent also to support abortion and at the same time oppose using deadly force in self-defense.
  • Logical consistency would seem to require either supporting both, or opposing both, abortion and using deadly force in self-defense.

I do not think it is necessary to like self-defense killing or abortion, or to be in favor of or advocate either one, in order to recognize that they rest on the same premise: that we have the right to defend our lives and property using force, up to and including deadly force.

If a homeowner has the right to use deadly force to protect their life and property, or the lives of others in the home, then a woman has the right to use deadly force to protect her life and person — say, in the case of defending herself against rape. By extension, a pregnant woman has the right to use deadly force against an attacker if her baby is threatened. But in a similar fashion a pregnant woman also has the right to use deadly force against her unborn baby — to remove it from life-support, if you will — if she believes that the baby poses a threat to her life and/or person.

Coming at the issue from the other direction, if a pregnant woman has the right to use deadly force — or, in the case of a seeking an abortion, to contract for the use of deadly force — to protect her life, her lifestyle, or her property, then homeowners or citizens have the right to use deadly force to protect their lives or property or the lives or property of those they love. However, if a pregnant woman has no such right, then neither does anyone else have the right to defend themselves against threats of violence or loss.

Self-defense, after all, is based on the individual’s perception of the threat. The threat may be direct or indirect, and perceptions may be clouded by a variety of factors, but the decision to act or not rests with the person who is threatened at the time the threat presents itself. We may, from a different perspective or at a different time, disagree with the homeowner or the pregnant woman on the degree of the threat; or we may disagree with the decision they made when faced with the threat; but the decision was theirs at that time, not ours at some other time. And to support one and refuse to support the other appears to me to be logically inconsistent.

We can make a similar case about abortion and the death penalty. That is, we can make the case that if the death penalty is a just punishment for certain crimes, enacted after weighing the evidence and coming to a verdict, then abortion may be considered as a death penalty in itself, with the potential mother as judge and jury, possibly as both prosecution and defense, and in some tragic cases even as executioner. For me, that is a much more difficult concept (and following it too closely may lead to considering abortion as a form of justifiable homicide), but I still can consider it somewhat equivalent.

I say “somewhat equivalent” deliberately: I do not mean to say that killing in self-defense is exactly equivalent to abortion, only that they are similar. (Others have tackled that subject in far more depth than I can here, as noted at the end.) One case is more often a quick-reaction response compared to the other. One is more often a direct confrontation than the other. One clearly involves acting against an agent capable of independent thought and action. On that score, advocates of abortion often argue that the unborn child, by virtue of being fully dependent on the mother, should not be considered fully human; rather than argue that matter here, except to note that such a dehumanizing mentality is something pro-abortion advocates have in common with armies facing enemies, it seems clear that an unborn child at the very least has the potential to grow into an independent agent (as the pregnant woman was considered above a potential mother). On that basis, we can say that both self-defense killing and abortion involve terminating with prejudice the future potential of a human person.

Again I must emphasize that it is not necessary to prefer or to approve of either of these mechanisms. It is possible to wish for every unborn child to be wanted and to be cared for, in utero and beyond, just as it is possible to wish that there might be no thugs, no rapists, no burglars, no threats against people’s lives, persons, or property. Wishing for these things, however, does not make them come to pass, and so we are faced with difficult decisions that have far-reaching consequences.

Therefore, as someone who supports the right of an individual to protect their person and property with any means at their disposal, up to and including deadly force — whether homeowners defending themselves against burglars or women defending themselves against rapists — I must support the right of any woman to protect herself against an unborn life she is supporting if she feels threatened by it, up to and including the use of deadly force. Ladies, stand your ground.

I do not have to like it. I may wish for any number of alternatives. But it seems to me that I cannot support one and not the other without being logically inconsistent.

I could be wrong.

Some Notes:
1. The first GOP contender alluded to above was Chris Christie. See Chris Christie Faces Criticism for Saying Aborting a Baby After Rape is “Self-Defense” for Women. The second was Donald Trump, in his more recent MSNBC interview that, as much as it presented his egregious thinking on the subject, lent credence to the idea that he thinks very little of Republicans and is merely playing at being one.
2. The idea of abortion as self-defense was discussed in 1971 by Judith Jarvis Thomson in her article “A Defense of Abortion” in
Philosophy & Public Affairs. She wrote, “I should perhaps stop to say explicitly that I am not claiming that people have a right to do anything whatever to save their lives. I think, rather, that there are drastic limits to the right of self-defense…. But the case under consideration here is very different. In our case there are only two people involved, one whose life is threatened, and one who threatens it. Both are innocent: the one who is threatened is not threatened because of any fault, the one who threatens does not threaten because of any fault. For this reason we may feel that we bystanders cannot interfere. But the person threatened can. In sum, a woman surely can defend her life against the threat to it posed by the unborn child, even if doing so involves its death.” The entire article is online here and elsewhere.
3. This short BBC article also covers the topic of abortion as self-defense.
4. A Harvard Law blogger asked in a 2012 entry, Is the Self Defense Exception Consistent with the Belief that a Fetus is a Person? Their conclusion was that “the belief that a fetus is a person with the full complement of rights leads to uncomfortable positions in relation the self-defense exception.” Indeed.
5. The tendency of armies to dehumanize the enemy, in order to make it easier to kill them, was covered quite well by Robert O’Connell in
Of Arms and Men.

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Why You and I May Never Agree

This has been fermenting in my mind for some time now. Some folks may think I let it go too far, and have produced figurative vinegar instead of wine. But, vinegar also has it uses.

Straw Man Walking
(Some straw men are more active than others. [Image: “Straw Man Walking” by Ken Bosma, on Flickr under Creative Commons.])

I thought I’d take a stab at why it is not just unlikely that we will ever agree on many issues, but very nearly impossible. I hope you’ll bear with me and forgive any errors I may make.

First, some symbolic language:

  • Let X be a topic upon which we differ. Either you support it and I oppose it, or vice versa.
  • Let A then be some factor related to X which one of us perceives as unfavorable. The other may perceive it as favorable, or may allow that it is not precisely favorable but is also not completely negative.

Now the fun begins.

One of us formulates an argument along the lines of, “I oppose X because of A.” Perhaps we state it just that clearly, or perhaps the unfavorable A is only implied.

The other of us formulates a counter-argument along the lines of, “I support X despite A.” (Or, if we think that A is actually favorable, we might argue, “I support X because of A.”)

(Note that this is different from arguing on one side “I support X because of A,” and on the other side “I oppose X because of B.” There, we are not arguing quite the same cases. Maybe there’s another blog post in that discussion, but I doubt it.)

This “I oppose/support X because of/despite A” type of formulation works for many different arguments, even if we choose to add conditions meant to make our positions complete or more “reasonable.” The more caveats and addenda we add, the more complicated we make our arguments. “I support X, under conditions Y and Z, because of A and B, and despite C.” We might wonder whether the additional conditions are intended to convince our opponents, or ourselves.

(Also, the respective arguments need not be stated in terms of outright support for a particular position. For instance, we could say, “I think X works well despite A,” or “I think X works poorly because of A.”)

With that as a symbolic basis, here’s the crux of why I doubt we will ever agree: Once we have established our relative positions, and do not take the time or make the effort to examine our differing assumptions and premises, neither argument is particularly convincing. As the poem goes, “ne’er the twain shall meet.”

Shall we consider a few examples?


  • “I object to abortion on demand despite a woman having the right to subject her body to whatever procedure she chooses, and because of the effect such a procedure would have on a potential human life growing inside her.”
  • “I support abortion on demand because a woman has the right to subject her body to whatever procedure she chooses, and despite the effect such a procedure would have on a potential human life growing inside of her.”

Gun control:

  • “I support the private ownership of firearms by United States citizens because that right is enshrined in the Second Amendment, and because citizens have the right to defend their lives and property, and despite the terrible and regrettable damage done by lawbreakers using firearms.”
  • “I oppose the private ownership of firearms by United States citizens because of the terrible and regrettable damage done by lawbreakers using firearms, and despite that right being enshrined in the Second Amendment, and despite citizens having the right to defend their lives and property.”

Socialized healthcare:

  • “I oppose socialized healthcare because of the limits it must impose on accessibility and care in order to approach financial viability, and despite the numbers of people who are unable to obtain insurance or care on the open market.”
  • “I support socialized healthcare because of the numbers of people who are unable to obtain insurance or care on the open market, and despite the limits it must impose on accessibility and care in order to approach financial viability.”

(Note that both sides in this case could use reports of people who fall through the metaphorical cracks of either socialized or open-market healthcare systems as “because of” or “despite” factors — because no system of healthcare will ever be perfect.)

The dichotomous arguments can be applied to belief systems as well: “I believe in X because of A,” or “I am skeptical about or do not believe in X despite A.” Perhaps a single example will suffice: Religion.

  • “I have faith in my chosen religion because of the positive effects I have seen in my life and the lives of others, despite the difficulty of squaring all of its tenets with the objective reality of the world around me, and despite the regrettable and sometimes reprehensible things that have been said and done by some of its adherents.”
  • “I have no faith in your (or perhaps any) religion because of the difficulty of squaring its tenets with the objective reality of the world around me, and because of the regrettable and reprehensible things that have been said and done by some of its adherents, and despite the positive effects that you and others have experienced.”

Feel free to formulate your own versions of the above, or your own sets of arguments on both sides of whatever controversies you choose: anthropogenic climate change (formerly known as global warming), the death penalty, debt financing, Keynesian economics, whatever you wish. Post them below, if you like. You may find that it can be difficult, but interesting, to formulate an opposing argument.

Here’s one sure to make people’s eyes water: Societal acceptance, if not normalization, of marriage between homosexuals.

  • “I support limiting the special status of the marriage relationship to men with women, because throughout history and across cultures, even in societies where homosexual relationships have been tolerated or even accepted, the marriage covenant has been limited to men with women; because the ‘norms’ of a society should derive from the majority of the society, and the majority of society is and is likely to remain heterosexual; because homosexual relationships are not a plausible categorical imperative for all of society; because economic and social partnership benefits can be extended to long-term homosexual relationships without conferring on them the special status of marriage; and despite the growing tolerance or even acceptance of openly homosexual behavior in society at large.”
  • “I support extending the special status of the marriage relationship to homosexual unions because of the growing tolerance and even acceptance of openly homosexual behavior in society at large, and despite any objections anyone might raise, and despite any economic or social accommodations that might be offered short of full recognition of marriages between homosexuals.”

I will forego other examples, because this post was already unwieldy enough even before that last controversy. If you’ve made it this far, thank you for your forbearance. Please permit me one last observation.

If these formulations just ended in disagreement, all would be well: you think what you think, I think what I think, and we agree to get along regardless. It gets worse if disagreement results in attempts to silence the other side. But this type of thinking becomes even more of a problem when we direct our argument away from ourselves and what we think is right and toward each other: “You should support/accept/believe in X because of A and despite B.” Left out, but at least somewhat implied, is “because I do,” which at times seems to mean “because I am an intelligent, right-thinking person and believe all intelligent, right-thinking people should support/accept/believe in the things I support/accept/believe in, and therefore if you support/accept/believe in the things I do then I will recognize you as intelligent and right-thinking, too.”

Better, in my opinion, just to disagree.

In closing, Scripture says, “Come, let us reason together.” It does not say, “Come, let us always agree.” We need to be able to handle the disagreement; not, perhaps, ever to like it, but at least to tolerate it. If you can handle the disagreement and I can handle the disagreement, maybe we can move forward together — even if we don’t necessarily want to go in the same direction.

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