Does It Really Matter Why I Do What I Do?

by Sherry F. Colb

This week, my Verdict column takes up the question of the Virginia proposed abortion bill. I specifically focus on the possibility of a doctor approving an abortion for a woman at the very end of her pregnancy. I consider some of the reasons that people have for favoring abortion rights and how each reason, respectively, fares in offering a defense of a third-trimester abortion. I suggest that the reasons for being pro-choice start to matter when some of the reasons provide no coherent rationale for protecting the right to the particular abortion.

Having argued for the proposition that reasons matter, however, I want to reconsider that position. Of course, if one is defending the right to a late third-trimester abortion, one relies on the "non-personhood" of the 30-something-week fetus at one's peril. It is accordingly important that we defend our own positions with arguments that actually bear on those positions and, ideally, that rely on premises that our interlocutors share rather than categorically reject.

But once we have ensured that our arguments match our positions, the question still arises whether reasons matter. What do I mean by my question? I do not mean "can we logically discuss reasons and how well or poorly they connect to our actions?" Of course we can do that. I mean to ask whether we behave in the ways that we do because we have good reasons for behaving in those ways or whether our behavior has little to do with the reasoning that might precede it.

In answer to that question, we know from research that our reasoning tends to begin in earnest in the service of defending what we have done or wish to do rather than of figuring out what to do. This chronology has led some people to describe our species as "rationalizing" rather than "reasoning." It doesn't help that people tend to ask us to defend our conduct only after the fact. And even when we agonize over what to do beforehand and make every effort to decide based on reasons, we regularly fail in our efforts.

Take just one, trivial, illustrative example. We are in a terrible mood, walking down the street with a frown on our face and barely managing to avoid walking into the people strolling in the other direction. Our phone rings. It is our friend/neighbor asking whether we would like to join him for dinner. We think for a moment and then say that unfortunately, we cannot go, because we have the beginnings of a sore throat, and we do not want to make him sick.

If someone asked us why we did not go to dinner, we might say that we were in a bad mood and did not feel like going. Why, then, did we lie? We lied because turning down a dinner invitation because one is in a bad mood or does not feel like talking is, except in extreme situations, socially unacceptable. It is a bit like frowning at everyone and explaining that we simply do not feel like donning a fake smile (or neutral countenance) for their benefit. It would, however, be reasonable to spare our friend/neighbor whatever virus is overtaking us and so our lie fulfills the social obligations associated with dinner invitations. And if we in fact have a sore throat, then our neighbor might be just as glad that we refused to come to his house for dinner, no matter what our reason for refusing might have been. Indeed, he might be complicit in our lie, in that he knows we simply don't want to go, and we know the same, but we tell him a reason that he can accept and that we therefore feel comfortable giving. We both save face, because no one wants to say or to hear, "I feel like crap, and spending time with you will only make things worse."

What does any of that have to do with abortion? Abortion is an interesting issue, because unlike many "why?" questions that come up, most people confront abortion as a "do" or "don't" question either never or once (or perhaps twice) in their lives. Not having to act on the question could, in theory, liberate a person to think about it independently and reach conclusions unstained by self-interest. Yet even on this issue, people do not come to it as a tabula rasa. Most of us find out from our "tribes" what positions we ought to hold, and it can be surprisingly difficult to depart from the group's view once we know what it is. It can feel like one's very identity (as a feminist, as a Christian, as a libertarian) is at stake so that one has little choice but to embrace the position of the group. Having done so, moreover, the arguments that one will make in defense of the position that one has already taken for reasons of belonging and loyalty, will be predictable. How often does one hear a new, creative, and thought-provoking argument either for or against abortion? It is all, to be frank, pretext and reruns.

I suspect that the tendency to just embrace whatever position one's group holds helps explain Democratic fidelity to the proposed change in Virginia law. If one were simply speaking from one's heart and mind, one might say "no one should have an 'abortion' at term; do not loosen the requirements associated with third trimester abortions." Instead, people invoke talking points about the right to choose and thereby bring disrepute on what I regard as our movement. And just as predictably, people defend the religious rights of Hobby Lobby ("HL") to classify some kinds of birth control as abortion, even if the birth control prevents conception rather than interfering after fertilization, and then refuse to fund it because abortion violates HL's religion. Taking ridiculous positions is easy if one is doing so out of fidelity to the group rather than fidelity to reason.

Notwithstanding the rationalizing nature of humans, I still think it is worth making genuine arguments that bear logically on the issues that we face. But then I may have a vested interest in regarding such arguments as worthwhile. And yet if I am wrong, perhaps believing that we can all respond to logical argument may be a benign fiction, one that prevents us from devolving further into silos of tribal confirmation bias.