Sunday, April 14, 2013

Abortion Rights Make a Great Litmus Test

People often say that no issue should be a litmus test. I tend to disagree. Not because any one issue is singularly more important than all other issues combined, but because there are a large number of highly correlated contentious issues. By finding out someone’s position on any one of these issues you can draw strong inferences about their probable opinions on the others. Obviously, accuracy increases as more specific answers are known with certainty but quite often knowing the answer to only a few issues is an efficient way to learn a lot about a person quickly. Abortion is one of these core contentious issues. It is often a polarizing issue and it should be so be careful.

One of the reasons that abortion is such a good single issue topic is because it’s got several ideas all tangled together. If someone has a strong opinion one way or the other about whether or not abortion should be illegal then that tells you quite a few things about their morality, worldview, and philosophy of mind. The purpose of this post is to untangle three of these issues. The position I am most familiar with is my own so within each topic mine will be the position that receives the most thorough commentary but where I feel confident doing so I will try to give objective commentary on viewpoints different than my own.

This blog post began as a thought experiment I posted to Facebook which got some lively commentary from my friends and seemed to provide a good entry point into the conversation.
Imagine the following scenario: you're at the edge of a tall cliff laying down with your arms out-stretched desperately grasping two things to prevent them from falling. In one hand you have a newborn baby and in the other you have a container with a viable fertilized human zygote. Your hands are getting sweaty and both things are about to fall. Your only choice is to let one go to save the other. If you clearly know which choice you would make then you obviously don't think the two things are equivalent.
This thought experiment quickly brings the relevant issues into perspective. Is abortion about the equivalence of babies and embryos? Is abortion about how we feel emotionally or is it about what one should do regardless of feelings? Can we trust our intuitions? Is abortion about value judgements? Is comparing the death of a baby to abortion even a fair comparison? Hopefully I’ll be able to give these issues a fair treatment in this essay and I hope that whatever I do not cover sufficiently is explored further in the comments.

When does a person begin?

In the abortion debate, this question is often asked as “when does life begin?” I do not believe that is an honest treatment of the central issue for most people. If you are a vegetarian who believes that all harm to all animal life at all stages should be prevented then whether or not something is alive is the question for you. For most people however, “life” isn’t the deciding factor for whether or not abortion should be illegal. The deciding factor is whether or not a person is being murdered. This is the question that the thought experiment given above most clearly sheds light on. The reason most people would drop the container with the zygote rather than drop the baby is because in only one of those cases would most people immediately feel as though they had just murdered someone.

Every society as far back as history has records has argued over the question of who may kill whom under what circumstances. Many different sets of rules have been tried out and experimented with over the millenia but, at least in the western world, the matter has been more or less settled for the better part of two centuries now. A person may kill another person in self defense. A person may be killed by the government for certain heinous crimes. Soldiers may kill other soldiers in war. There are a handful of other cases where killing is deemed acceptable but almost all other cases where a person kills another person is considered murder. Abortion is one of the last remaining cases where there is contention and it centers around a disagreement about what is and is not a person.

For several centuries in colonial and early America, killing a slave was only a crime if the slave was not yours. Even then the only crime committed was one of property damage and was usually subject to civil rather than criminal procedures. The reason was simple. A slave was not considered a person. Not for the purposes of law, not for the purposes of society, and not even for purposes of spirituality by many at the time. The belief that african americans had no more soul than did a domestic animal was common amongst the devout for longer than most would like to admit. We watch movies today and feel abject horror at people being treated as property which can be disposed of at will. The thing which has changed is that we perceive them as people. We view it as murder. That is how many anti-abortion activists perceive abortion and they hope that future generations will be just as abhorrent of the current definition of “person” as we are of the seventeenth century definition.

So what is a person? Answer that question and, for many people, you answer whether or not abortion should be illegal. A person’s answer to that question depends largely on their philosophy of mind. The three most prominent philosophies of mind today each offer very different answers. All three can be found within the abortion debate.
  • The simplest and oldest answer is the one held by dualists. A person is anyone with a soul. The people who adhere to this philosophy are the ones who most frequently claim that “life begins at conception” because that is when they believe that ensoulment occurs. The staunchest anti-abortion advocates who lobby for making the practice completely illegal are usually dualists. People who adhere to the other two philosophies sometimes adopt the absolute position but it is less common.
  • The next philosophy is connectionism, which says that a person is anyone with a functioning brain. These people are the ones who are most frequently look at when during the developmental stages certain types of brain activity are present. Perhaps pain sensation is their particular indicator or perhaps it’s a certain type of neocortical activity. No matter what the particular signs they think are important, though, connectionists believe that by examining the brain you can determine whether or not something is a person.
  • The third and youngest philosophy of mind is functionalism, the modern day descendant of behaviorism. For functionalists the answer doesn’t come as easily. A person is someone with a personality. In almost all cases you can determine whether someone has a personality by simply interacting with them. However, there are obviously times when interaction cannot be used to make this determination (e.g. whether to pull life support from a comatose patient) and other means must be resorted to. Determining the personhood of unborn children definitively falls into that category. I know that in even the youngest baby I’ve ever interacted with I have perceived a personality. I am equally certain that no embryo has a personality by any sane definition of the word. Logically there must be some transitional period in between conception and birth during which the thing I perceive as a personality develops. In lieu of a good scientific demarcation of this period, many functionalists are willing to go with viability outside of the womb as a good legal standard.
No matter which of these philosophies of mind a person ascribes to, their perception of what is and is not a person is instrumental in their opinions about the abortion debate. Murder is not, however, the only question involved.

Even if it’s not a person does that mean it’s not valuable?

Questions of this nature were the first criticisms offered to the thought experiment and the short answer is: “no”. Obviously someone can both think that a zygote is not a person and simultaneously think that a zygote is valuable. When reading the thought experiment in this article’s introduction you may have felt that it cheated by setting up a false dichotomy. Just because the baby would be chosen doesn’t mean the zygote was valueless and should be discarded at will. Very few people would argue that a zygote isn’t valuable, especially to the person whose zygote it is. Most people highly value their zygotes. Some people value their zygotes so much that they have them mass produced and spend thousands of dollars every year to have them preserved in fertility clinics just in case they want to have a child at some point in the future. What's not clear is how the question of a zygote's value should bear upon our laws.

The most common anti-abortion argument that centers on zygote value argues that they have “intrinsic” value. That is to say that they have value whether anyone values them or not. It is sometimes illegal and almost always considered immoral to destroy objects with intrinsic value. For instance, in some countries it is illegal to purchase a Van Gogh painting and then use it to fuel a bonfire. Such works of art are said to have intrinsic value that outweigh a person’s right to dispose of private property as they see fit. If such works of art should not be destroyed, the argument goes, then certainly zygotes should not be destroyed.

This argument rests on several core concepts that are not universally accepted one way or the other. The concept of “intrinsic” value in this argument is the first point of contention. Does a Van Gogh have more intrinsic value than does the doodle I just made on my notepad? If so how is the magnitude of intrinsic value determined? As soon as any single person’s judgement comes into the picture then a level of subjectivity is introduced that the original argument lacked. It would be possible to argue that collectively humanity values Van Gogh’s work more than mine and that the difference can be seen in the amount someone would be willing to pay to own them. I do not, however, believe that the proponents of this anti-abortion argument are advocating that we use free market mechanisms to determine the amount of value held by zygotes.

It is, however, commonly accepted that a person has intrinsic value. Intrinsic value arguments are at the core of every civil rights law ever written. It is accepted that people have intrinsic value and that this intrinsic value is compromised if you violate any of their fundamental rights. Whenever utilitarian arguments are defeated it is almost certainly a values argument that was the victor. When pressed for the logic behind the assertion that “every person has intrinsic value” some people may be reduced to a “just cause” argument and look at you like a monster for questioning them in the first place. Others may say that without that joint agreement, society would quickly dissolve and we would soon revert to the “cold and brutish” state of nature. While this argument is sound in most of its applications it is not at all clear that is applicable to abortion. If we abolished the civil rights movement we would almost certainly revert to a time when opportunistic oppression was the norm. It would have repercussions far beyond who got to stand in line on election day. It is not clear that allowing abortions to be freely and legally sought would have any similar domino effect.  Finally, some argue that every person is of immeasurable value to at least one other person. The valuer referenced is often either a god or perhaps the particular person’s mother. Arguing that every zygote is valued by a god may hold spiritual truth for many people but it certainly is immediately disqualified as a valid argument for American legislation. Arguing that the source of value is the mother is also patently false if the mother wants to have an abortion.

While there may be some aspects of the intrinsic value argument that are meritorious, it ends up devouring itself in my opinion. The intrinsic value of the woman seeking the abortion, the value of her civil rights, and the value of her freedom are all universally accepted by pro- and anti-abortion advocates alike. The same can simply not be said for the value of a zygote.

How should the laws of a government be structured?

The last thing I wanted to comment on before wrapping up this blog post, which has grown far longer than I had intended, is the topic of how we want the laws of our country to be built in the first place. In the introduction I commented that the abortion issue was indicative of a group of political ideas that often cluster together. There are people who believe that abortion is immoral who also think that abortion should be legal. These people illustrate the difference between “freedom from” and “freedom to”. Put differently, should the laws of our country be designed to “permit” those behaviors we believe are good behaviors or should our laws “prohibit” those behaviors that we believe are harmful to our society.  If someone is of the latter camp then immoral behaviors should only be made illegal if they are clearly detrimental to society.

Some people argue that this distinction is one of trivial semantics. I disagree. I think that much can be learned about how a person wants society to be run from this distinction. Permissive laws assume that all behaviors, unless otherwise sanctioned, should be prohibited.  Prohibitive laws assume that all behaviors, unless otherwise condemned, should be permitted.  The differences between these two were small when the list of things one might ever have the opportunity to do in the first place was small.  However, as the twenty-first century rapidly expands the list of the possible the two viewpoints are becoming more and more different.

The difference is perhaps best illustrated by examples.  One example of permissive laws are zoning laws. These types of laws give property owners a very narrow band of options for how land that is zoned in a particular way can be used. Laws such as these are most common at the local level because such top-down design decisions become difficult to maintain the larger a society gets. Arson laws are of the prohibitive variety. They are just as agnostic about the zoning of a building as they are towards uses of fire that don’t interact with buildings. They specifically pick out one behavior that is detrimental to a society and place it out of bounds.

To give a paired example closer to the topic of abortion you can examine what sex is and is not legal. Sodomy laws generally do not specifically prohibit anal sex or oral sex or any particular type of sex except as examples. They tend to give a short list of what types of sex people will be allowed to have and say “anything else is right out”. Laws against rape, on the other hand, are of the prohibitive variety. They simply say that a specific type of behavior is beyond the pale. So long as everyone is consenting, however, the laws against rape simply do not care what costume you wear nor do they care what animate and or inanimate third parties may become involved in the fun.

All laws do not cleanly fit into one category or the other. Often times prescriptive laws will contain specific situational prohibitions. Sometimes prohibitive laws will contain addendums that offer certain situational prescriptions. Abortion laws come in both varieties. Bans on partial birth and late term abortion are prohibitive. Bans on abortion except in the cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother are prescriptive. By determining which types of abortion laws a person favors you can determine whether they believe that society should be designed from the top down or if society should shape itself from the bottom up.  Knowing how wide of a range of societies a person is willing to live in may be the most important bit of information offered by their stance on abortion.


Abortion is a great litmus test topic. By finding out what someone’s position is on abortion you learn a lot about them very quickly. You can find out what they consider the word “person” to mean. You can find out what they believe the source of value is and come to understand how they balance utilitarian goals with intrinsic value goals. You can also learn whether they believe our laws should be structured to tell people how they may live or how they can’t live. The difficult part is to ask these questions in order to truly gain knowledge about a person. If your goal is not one of genuine curiosity then you may find yourself in a fight quickly. I’ve done my best to present my opinions honestly and with minimal bias.  Hopefully no matter what your opinion about abortion is I at least acknowledged your reasoning in a respectful manner.  May the conversation continue.

Blake Lemoine

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Causal Relationships and the Crash of 2008

It has become a dominant meme, especially among conservatives, that "giving out subprime loans like candy was the cause of the economic crash of 2008". This is true under only the most naive definition of the word "cause". The naive definition is "A happened then B happened and there was obviously a relationship between the two therefore A caused B". A much better definition to use is "A caused B if and only if A happened then B happened and if A had not happened then, holding all other things equal, B would not have happened". When the second definition is applied to the cause of the Great Recession it becomes doubtful that the subprime mortgage crisis was a large part of the cause. The larger part of the cause was a systemic mistake in the risk models used by investment banks. What follows is an argument supporting that conclusion. The logic is not mine originally although the summary of it and presentation are.

To examine the cause of the Great Recession requires knowledge of "derivatives" and other related financial instruments. Investments are priced based on how risky they are. Risky ones are cheap while safe ones are expensive. When packaging bundled financial instruments from smaller ones, the banks and the credit bureaus have to compute the risk associated with the package product. Prior to 2008 they almost uniformly used a naive Bayesian model to compute this. Specifically, they assumed that the risk involved with the package is equal to the product of the risks involved with each individual item in the package. This computation is only accurate if the failure/success of the individual items are independent identically distributed values. This independence assumption is, however, patently NOT sound when similar types of products are all put together into one big package (e.g. bundles of mortgages). The assumption says that the failure of two mortgages are not related. This ignores the fact that it is possible for some external event to cause many mortgages to go into default simultaneously.

For the sake of argument, assume that the risk of each mortgage going into default was assessed as roughly 5%. If the risk of default for any particular mortgage is independent from the default of other mortgages then a package with 100 mortgages has a risk of being a losing investment of less than .0001%. If, however, the risk of one mortgage defaulting is closely related to whether or not other mortgages go into default (e.g. the defaults share a common cause) then the risk of the package is closer to the 5% risk associated with each individual mortgage. The packaged mortgage instruments were priced based on the .0001% risk. This caused the banks to invest HEAVILY in them. These are not, however, the only things being packaged this way. The banks were (and to a lesser extent still are) packaging all kinds of financial instruments together using the same incorrect risk model. The credit agencies endorse the risk model of the banks because the financial incentives for them are based on the number of ratings they give rather than the success of their previous ratings. The banks have incentives to use the faulty model because 5% is still a small chance of failure and so long as their customers THINK the risk is .0001% they're making money hand over fist. The problems associated with this incorrect risk model compound when it is recursively applied to packages of packages.

Immediately after the housing bubble popped the banks began reassessing their risk models. Similar instruments packaging other financial products which had not yet seen problems were sold and bought at more rational prices and those products never caused any problems. They caused no problems despite the fact that the bottom fell out of some of those markets after the housing bubble popped. The reason they caused no problems was because the pricing and risk models had been correctly updated BECAUSE of the crash. If, however, there had never been a housing bubble the OTHER incorrectly priced packaged instruments that later went bust WOULD have had a very similar impact. Therefore event B, the Great Recession, would've probably still happened in the absence of event A, the subprime mortgage crisis. However, if the pricing model used by the banks had been accurate to begin with then event B probably would NOT have happened even in the presence of event A. This line of reasoning leads to the conclusion that the risk model used for pricing financial instruments was a larger cause of the 2008 crash than was the subprime mortgage crisis. However, this line of reasoning is probabilistic in nature and it is because of the probabilistic uncertainty involved that I said the subprime mortgage crisis was a partial cause of the recession.

The great pity though is that even with the argument broken down that way using language that many people can easily understand it is no where near as pithy or understandable as the dominant causal explanations. As I mentioned in the intro, conservatives have a tendency to say: "liberals forced banks to give out loans to poor people like candy and the crash was caused by that irresponsibility". This post was largely a critique of that idea but the liberal explanation fares no better. The most common liberal explanation is: "greedy and evil wall street cronies took advantage of the lack of regulation to steal billions of dollars from the American people through exploiting the poor and back room deals". That's not true either though. Even if every banker and trader had the heart of the kindliest of generous grandmothers the crash would still have happened if those kind generous bankers were using a mathematically incorrect risk model. The crash didn't happen because of the greed of the poor OR the greed of the wealthy. It happened because there are systemic incentives in place that reward people for using bad math.


Hello Ladies and Gentlemen of the internet. I've started this blog because I find myself writing incredibly lengthy posts in other people's threads on social networking sites. It was pointed out to me that a blog would potentially be a better medium for expressing ideas that are difficult/impossible to reduce to pithy comments or status posts. The themes in this blog will vary between politics, philosophy, science, and other topics of the day as they occur to me. The unifying quality of them will hopefully be that they will be treatments of those subjects as seen through a rational secular libertine lens. Those are three mutually independent modifiers by the way. Nothing about secularism ensures rationality or libertine values, similarly the other pairings are not necessarily linked. Also, I use the word libertine rather than Libertarian because I am not a member of that political party although I share many, but not all, of their values. Hope you enjoy.