On Offense (Free Speech and The Right to be Wrong)

When I first discovered the online skeptic movement, I was thrilled. A community of people devoting themselves to rationalism—to actively opposing fallacious reasoning and cognitive biases for the noble goal of maximizing truth? I am unequivocally on board with these ideals, and on the whole, the skeptic movement tends to be far better than average in its approach to scientific reasoning. “Better than average,” however, still is not perfect, and the unfortunate reality is that even skeptics fail to exercise critical thinking at times.

There is a distressingly common trend, even among self-styled rationalists, where empty rhetoric is parroted in lieu of rational argument, disregarding the entirety of what someone says if it contains elements that run counter to the former person’s malformed ideals. This runs entirely counter to the expressly stated goals of skepticism. Free speech is one such recurring example. There are those who say that freedom of speech is absolute—that imposing any restrictions on the content or context of someone’s speech is uniformly a violation of that person’s rights. This is, of course, demonstrably false, yet the claim persists. “Free speech” is a nuanced concept, and holding it up as if it were some immaculate, unconditional virtue is the polar opposite of rationality: it is perhaps even dogmatism, that unholy grail of skepticism sins, and those who would have you believe it to be absolute and axiomatic would ask you to surrender your reasoning capacities in favor of their hollow ideology.

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Lady Parts Justice

I’m a big fan of abortion. When politicians say “nobody’s pro-abortion,”* I’m the guy who says, “Fuck you, buddy. I’m pro-abortion.” Anyone who wants an abortion should be able to get one, and I’m not interested in attaching excepts to that statement. Any time a woman wants an abortion and gets one, that’s a win for freedom. Like most anyone, I have various emotional reactions to certain kinds of abortion, some of which seem particularly distasteful, but merely being uncomfortable with something just isn’t an acceptable justification for banning it.

Apparently nobody’s told the GOP that, though, because they keep trying to pass harsher and harsher restrictions on abortion services all over the country. It’s to be expected, I suppose, as a natural consequence of their legal inability to outlaw abortion for religious purposes. (That, unlike having tax money go to birth control, would be a violation of the First Amendment.) Since the Constitution and the Supreme Court have both been entirely clear on the illegality of these bans, they’ve been increasingly trying to do away with abortion by making it practically impossible to get one. That’s a damn problem, and I can’t even conceive of how they still have voters.

(Oh wait. Yes I can: religion. “God says abortion is killin’ babies, so it’s wrong. Let’s support the GOP’s attempts to remove a woman’s right to control her own body to please Jesus!” Yawn.)

That’s why I’m incredibly pleased to see this video:

That video comes to us care of Lady Parts Justice (seriously, check them out), the brain-child of one of the minds behind the Daily Show (aka the best news show on television—and it’s not even a news show). The Daily Show uses humor to connect with people. It takes incredibly serious issues and, almost as if by magic, makes them significantly less depressing. It makes being informed entertaining. Not only does it feel good to know stuff, it feels good to laugh, so combining the two is an excellent strategy for spreading an important message.

And this message is important.  Republicans—and some Democrats, yes, but mostly Republicans—are busily fighting their “culture war” against the liberal, uh, reality, and abortion is just one such battle. As with so many other strategies undertaken by the GOP, the war on choice is an attempt to use government to impose their religious values on the rest of the country. Sadly, however, most Americans don’t appear to be terribly concerned with this marriage of church and state. I find it incredibly hard to maintain apathy in the face of this kind of injustice, but it seems the majority does not share my perspective. (What a shame that is!)

This campaign seems like the perfect way to bridge the gap. The crusade against women’s liberty has been underway for a good many years now, and we on the left are still playing catch-up. Making it fun to fight back against oppression is a great idea, and I commend the people over at Lady Parts Justice for their efforts. I look forward to seeing more of this kind of thing from them. The conservative Christian political wing deserves to be mocked. Turning women into cattle is not okay. The war on rationality is not “legitimate.”

*Okay, sure. Some politicians take the “nobody wants to see more abortions” route. This might be true, assuming you mean “let’s prevent unwanted pregnancies instead of terminating them.” I’m all kinds of in favor of promoting open access to birth control, but not at the cost of restricting access to abortion services. We need both.

On Abortion and Vaccines

At first glance, it might seem strange to combine an evaluation of abortion with vaccination, but the two are inexorably linked. At their cores, they are both rooted in the same issue: the right to bodily autonomy.

Of all rights, the right to control one’s own body seems the least controversial. If rights exist at all, then the right to make choices regarding what happens to your body should be paramount. In a way, it is from this right that all others derive—the right to free speech is the right to use your body to speak. The right to be free from physical violence is the right not to have your bodily integrity damaged by another. The right to privacy, where it exists, is to regard a person’s private space as an extension of their body. Property rights are useless without the right to use tools being implicit within the right to bodily integrity.

Before we move on, let’s address the question of whether—and how—rights exist. The religiously minded answer to the question of whether rights exist is inevitably “Yes, of course they exist. God gave them to us.” This answer is not satisfactory, and not only for the not quite trivial reason that no such beings exist, so they cannot “give” us anything. That point aside, rights are legal privileges that dictate what actions a government can and cannot take. The “right to free speech” is a legal principle that forbids a governmental body from restricting the speech of its citizens. This is a powerful principle, and much of the developed world takes it for granted, yet it is not present everywhere. There are countless people for whom speaking out against the dominant ideology would mean political suicide—or very conceivably death.

We needn’t consider such an extreme example, however, to realize that rights are not inviolable. Even the United States recognizes that “free speech” does not allow a person to say absolutely anything they desire. Even in the context of a free society, some speech must be limited for the public good. These exceptions are not immediately apparent upon hearing the phrase “free speech,” but there can be no question that the majority of the developed world, this concept is treated with great reverence. The list of examples of speech that can or should be restricted has been fleshed out over time; as it became apparent that new instances of speech were particularly troublesome, they were considered and argued by legal scholars. Thus, we see that rights are social constructs, and while they may not be “endowed by [our] Creator,” they are still very much real, and they contain just as much nuance as any other area of legal scholarship.

With the example of free speech, we see that a right is contingent upon something else to exist—rights are not self-evident. But what? The answer seems to be harm: rights apply only as long as the application of that right prevents harm. We do not allow speech that directly invites harm—we censor lies, threats, and provocations of violence and lawlessness because each of these things has a palpable risk of harm if left unchecked. We recognize that shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater carries an immediate risk of panic (which carries an immediate risk of harm), and even though we may possess the ability to respond by shouting “There is no fire!” in return, quelling a mob is significantly harder than inciting one, and what damage has been done cannot be undone by such a counter-exclamation.

To the case of abortion, then. The arguments in favor of keeping abortion legal by and large make an appeal to the right to bodily autonomy—the principle that demands “I am the ultimate arbiter of what happens to my body.” We instinctively recognize this right in ourselves, yet some people seem to have difficulty extending the idea to others. We do not recognize the government as possessing the power to forcibly tattoo citizens. If agents of the government sought to enforce a policy of compulsory body piercings, there would be outrage. “No government can force me to pierce my nipples,” men and women alike would shout. Similarly, the government has no reasonable basis for banning the voluntary practice of navel piercing, but it does have a reasonable argument for regulating the practice—by establishing health standards, the government is justified in demanding that such procedures, when voluntarily undertaken, be done in ways guaranteed to mitigate the threat of harm. We would never abide a policy of involuntary violinist-tethering; if, however, a violinist were in dire need of an organ transplant, we do have voluntary donor programs that serve this very function!

Those who oppose abortion have traditionally adopted a stance of moral indignation, suggesting that a woman’s pregnancy has rights that exceed the woman’s right to autonomy. This approach, enduring though it may be, is utterly baseless. We do not grant rights equally to an adult, a child, a dog, a statue, and a box of paints. We recognize that each item in that list has fewer rights than the item preceding it. The paints have the potential to become a portrait, but we would never dream of hanging them on our wall. The statue may have all the same external physical characteristics of a person, but it gets no rights afforded to human beings because it isn’t a person. We recognize that the dog has some rights due to being a living, thinking creature. We see that dogs feel pain, thus they should not be subjected to needless torture; however, we do not seriously discuss a dog’s right to free speech or to the freedom of doggy-religion. Because children are capable of speaking, reasoning, and feeling pain, they are entitled to more rights than the family pet, but by virtue of their inability to engage in higher reasoning and to understand the consequences of their actions, we do not grant them the full rights and privileges of an adult. With these factors in mind, it seems we must conclude that rights—including the right to bodily autonomy—are contingent upon and proportional to one’s ability to feel, to plan, and to reason. Due to their reduced capacity for these things, the child’s and the dog’s rights to autonomy are consequently entrusted, at least partially, to their respective caretakers for as long as (and to the degree that) they lack the ability to do these things. Inescapably, then, a fetus can have no rights of its own because it has no more ability to engage in these higher-level activities than the statue or the box of paints.

Some anti-abortion activists suggest that because an embryo has the potential to become a person, it is entitled to the rights of a person, but this is absurd. A thing’s value is not determined by what it might one day become but rather what it is. If this were not the case, we would punish the amateur artist with prison for destroying a canvas’s ability to become the next The Starry Night when they fail to produce anything more moving than a painful self-portrait. An embryo’s ability to become a person is contingent upon an exhaustive list of conditions that are not guaranteed to occur, just like how any given blank canvas has the ability to become the Mona Lisa. It is incoherent and frankly offensive to insist on the treatment of potential as the equivalent of reality. To regard a cluster of cells that has the potential to become a person as having all the same rights as an actual person, is to fundamentally misunderstand the entire spheres of morality, legality, and biology.

But even this obscene false equivalence of potentiality to actuality is not what the anti-abortion crowd advocates. Instead, they would rank the well-being of this potential life above the woman’s by denying her the right to bodily autonomy. I don’t think there is any contention over whether children have the “right to life”—they certainly do! (Although I would stress that a “fetus” is not a “child.”) Children, however, do not have the right to be raised by their biological parents: we are free to give our children up for adoption, as abortion opponents just love to remind us. In the same sense, even if an embryo had any right to life, it would not have the right to impinge upon another’s right to bodily integrity. If such a right existed at all, I would insist that it exercise that right in someone else’s womb—someone who actually wants it there.

Yet we should always remember that rights are conditional. Just as the right to free speech does not guard against harmful speech, we must consider the potential harms of abortion. Does an abortion harm the fetus? There may be reasons to answer this question with a yes, but we cannot simplify rights to a false dichotomy of “harm exists” and “harm does not exist” because such a binary standard would be functionally unworkable. Instead, we have to look at a sliding scale, acknowledging that some actions are more harmful than others, and conceding that there is a certain threshold at which harm becomes inexcusable.

How do we draw this line? I don’t claim to have the perfect answer, but a good first guess would seem to be to use pain as a standard. A shoe does not feel pain. An amoeba does not suffer. A tree does not weep. These kinds of discomfort require neural activity—not just that, they require a sufficiently developed nervous system. Pain is a mental state, so things that are not capable of mental states cannot experience it. This is why we feel no remorse for killing and eating carrots. Most aborted fetuses lack this capacity. If it comes down to a choice between a pregnant woman’s bodily autonomy and the fetus, which is incapable of suffering, only someone with no moral compass could choose the latter, just as a choice between the rights of a woman and a park bench is easily decided in the woman’s favor. Where, approximately, is the line separating an acceptable imposition of pain from an unacceptable one?

To answer that question, let’s turn to the topic of vaccination. There can be no question that a government mandate requiring a person to be vaccinated is a suspension of their bodily autonomy, but we’ve already seen that rights can be suspended, so this alone is not a worthwhile question. Instead, let’s ask whether it is an acceptable violation. Violating the right to free speech is judged permissible when doing so prevents larger harms. For the most part, forbidding people from speaking freely in public can be seen to have very negative repercussions on that society in, for example, being subjected to official sanctions for actions that do not cause harm (as does sometimes happen). Thus, there must be some nuance to interpreting the acceptability of constraining rights. Let’s turn to cost-benefit analyses to better understand this.

In a cost-benefit analysis of forbidding “blasphemy,” we see the following:
Cost: People go to prison for disagreeing with religious claims.
Benefit: Religious believers don’t have to endure the inconvenience of hearing someone disagree with them about their religion.
Conclusion: Having the occasional person disagree with you is significantly less damaging than being imprisoned over disagreeing with someone. That cost does not justify the harm.

How about forbidding calls to violence?
Cost: People can go to jail for saying things like, “Hey everyone, let’s go firebomb that building!”
Benefit: Fewer buildings get firebombed.
Conclusion: If enforced, this leads to a very plausible deterrent effect, strongly suggesting a more stable society as a result of having less crime. This fairly convincingly outweighs the inconvenience of having to express yourself without asking people to commit themselves to violent actions.

What about vaccination, then? Well, contrary to popular urban legend, vaccines do not cause autism. There are recorded instances of vaccines having unfortunate side effects, but these have been largely corrected for through the wonders of modern medical science, wherein scientists identify the mechanisms that cause sickness and address those mechanisms—you know, instead of just hoping really hard. (There is actually a lot of misinformation about vaccines that is constantly spread around by anti-vax ideologues with no grasp over science.) On to the cost-benefit analysis, then:
Cost: In the case of the MMR vaccine, a less than one in one million chance of severe side effects.
Benefit: A breathtakingly effective way to avoid the harms of diseases that ravaged preceding generations for hundreds or thousands of years.
Conclusion: When you calculate the difference, you see that the risk of harm from the disease is over ten times greater than the risk from the vaccine.

With these cost-benefit analyses in mind, why should we compare abortion to vaccination? At first glance, the issue of whether or not we can legislate abortion seems to need the same answer as whether or not we can legislate vaccination—if bodily integrity requires that abortion be legal, then mandatory vaccination must also be illegal, right? Or, conversely, if mandatory vaccination can be legal, then we should be able to declare abortions illegal on the same reasoning, right?


In the case of mandating vaccination, the benefits demonstrably exceed the costs. The temporary violation of the individual’s right to bodily autonomy is offset by the drastic improvement in that same individual’s quality of life. Also, by contributing to herd immunity, that individual’s vaccination also improves the well-being of every other member of society. What are the benefits to outlawing abortion? Doing this would endow a fetus—a potential human, rather than an actual human—with rights more powerful than the woman’s own right to bodily integrity. At best, the result of this is that a new, unwanted child enters the world. But this interpretation is a white-washing of the normal physical and psychological effects pregnancy has on a woman’s body, the potentially very serious complications of pregnancy, and the increased trauma of being forced to bear a child against her will, which has been likened rather convincingly to forced organ donation.

In my eyes, this is an open-and-shut case. Government mandated vaccinations are low-risk inconveniences akin to, well, being forced to go to the doctor’s office. At the worst, they bring a slight risk of harm well below that brought on by the diseases they prevent.* Government mandated child-bearing, on the other hand, introduces a guaranteed substantial investment of time and energy. This forces a woman to undergo a torrent of physiological changes that will very likely result in permanent and unwanted changes to her body. This is a guaranteed harm. If we are going to permit the temporary suspension of the right to bodily autonomy, which I contend we must, let it be only in cases where doing so is overwhelmingly beneficial to the person whose rights are being overridden. Demanding that women relinquish their right to bodily integrity to carry out a policy of mandatory pregnancy would be nothing short of the abrogation of moral reasoning.

So, dear reader, does this sound like a reasonable interpretation of these two issues? Why or why not? I welcome your feedback.**

*I guess you also have those incessant spurious pseudoscientific claims that endure in spite of being regularly debunked by the scientifically literate. Some might say that that’s a pretty big drawback, but it certainly doesn’t outweigh the health benefits of immunization.
**If any of this didn’t make sense, I blame the fact that I faced a constant stream of interruptions while writing this. Feel free to point out any indecipherable bits.

The Slippery Slope to Polygamy?

(It seems a bit meta to be writing a blog post about another blog post. I hope you can forgive me.)

Reading this fine example of careful reasoning has me thinking about the issue of marriage. I am pleased with how this argument was made. To summarize, the linked post addresses the argument that allowing homosexual marriage will create a snowball effect that will ultimately end with polygamist marriages becoming legal,* so for the sake of avoiding polygamy, we should not legalize gay marriage. This slippery slope argument (from gay marriage to polygamy) does not hold water, in large part because the arguments for and against each of these things use completely different reasoning. Demonstrating the legal necessity of one does not establish the necessity of the other.

The issue of polygamy isn’t receiving much attention in the media, but how about it? Is it okay for people to marry more than one person? I have to confess that I see little reason this should be universally forbidden.

After all, what’s the difference between an adulterer and a polygamist? And if it’s not illegal for a married man to support a girlfriend or two and father children out of wedlock with them, how can it be illegal for him to bind himself to them according to the laws of his church? Why is a practicing Mormon with two wives a criminal while [a politician, publicly] embarrassed by the discovery of his second family, is simply a punchline?

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Situational Values (a.k.a. Religion)

At the risk of further abusing a decayed and desiccated equestrian cadaver, I’ve had it up to here (crap—you can’t see my gestures through text. Bah, just imagine it) with the “contraceptive coverage violates my religious liberties” argument. Here’s the latest one, courtesy of Speaker of the House John Boehner’s twitter feed:

The Obamacare HHS mandate takes effect today that requires Americans to violate their religious beliefs to implement the president’s health care law. The mandate compels religious employers to pay for and refer women for abortion-causing drugs, birth control, contraception and sterilizations.”

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the absurdity of the notion of an “abortion-causing drug” and—oh nevermind, let’s not. This one’s so stupid, it needs its own paragraph. What is an abortion?

a·bor·tion   /əˈbɔrʃən/
1. Also called voluntary abortion. the removal of an embryo or fetus from the uterus in order to end a pregnancy.
2. any of various surgical methods for terminating a pregnancy, especially during the first six months.

And contraception?

con·tra·cep·tion   /ˌkɒntrəˈsɛpʃən/
the deliberate prevention of conception or impregnation by any of various drugs, techniques, or devices; birth control.

Abortion is an intervention, either surgical or medical (85% and 15%, respectively, per the CDC), to terminate a pregnancy. Contraception, by definition, cannot be abortion because abortion can only occur after impregnation. An abortion can be done, realistically, at any point in a woman’s pregnancy, all the way up to the final (ninth-ish) month of pregnancy, although third trimester abortions are exceedingly rare (91% occur in the first trimester, and most of that remaining 9% in the second). Contrast this with the notion of “abortion-causing drugs,” by which the author is presumably referring to ella, a “Plan C” pill that a woman can take up to five days after sex to prevent pregnancy (it also triggered a good deal of outrage in the wingnut lobby). It should be obvious—but apparently it isn’t—that swallowing a pill is radically different from undergoing an invasive surgical procedure. One cannot merely swallow a pill six months into her pregnancy and consider the whole ordeal over. The implication that these drugs are fundamentally equivalent to a surgical procedure is at best a gross misrepresentation of the facts (and is more likely a deliberate distortion intended to compel people with more emotion than sense to yell vociferously). Comparing abortion to contraception serves only to demonstrate an unwillingness to engage in rational discussion. It is a red herring, meant only for deception.

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Respect my Freedom to Boss You Around!

I’m really sick of believers insisting that their right to religious freedom allows them to force their doctrines on everyone else. Believers: Stop it! What, you don’t think this happens? How about this crap as an example?

Some schools have decided not to allow girls to be offered the vaccine, which protects against a virus spread through intimate contact which causes cervical cancer. They have cited ‘strict Christian principles’ and that the girls ‘do not practise sex outside marriage’ and so do not need the vaccine.”

This is the sort of child abuse that Richard Dawkins rails against—the presumption that the children of religious parents will just magically share their religious beliefs. “Mommy and daddy are idiot literalists, so I’m an idiot literalist too! Yay!” No. This paradigm isn’t even remotely acceptable. For one, parents don’t always send their kids to religious schools because they’re explicitly religious; sometimes, parents do so because the schools have a better reputation than public schools, and neither the parents nor the children actually practice the school’s preferred religion. All of that aside, do you know how successful “Don’t have sex!” sex education is for kids? It completely isn’t.

Most people will have sex before they die. Most people will either sleep with more than one person or sleep with someone who has slept with more than one person. (Feel free to disagree if you’re in some weird situation where most of the people you know deviate from this statistic.) What does this mean? It means that denying a vaccine because “true” Christians don’t have sex with anyone at all ever except for their spouse is completely, hopelessly wrong.

In sum, this boils down to the school announcing, “We’re adopting a hostile stance to our students to actively punish any girl who has sex for violating the brand of Christianity that we’re trying to impose on her.”

The UK isn’t alone in this, of course. I wrote previously about Catholic resistance to birth control coverage even for non-Catholics. This hasn’t gone away. These Christians still want to impose their absurd stance of contraception as an immorality on everyone else. When government agencies have illegally endorsed Christianity by giving preferential treatment to Christian services or hosting Christian iconography and secular organizations have lobbied to have these violations of everyone else’s religious freedom, the Christian persecution complex has kicked into high gear. They should be free, those who object to secular governance say, to have their religion displayed in public spaces, without even the slightest consideration of what effect this will have. The message implicit in these sorts of government-sponsored religious displays is that the US government endorses that religion above others (hint: it doesn’t and may not). More globally, however, the message is loud and clear: “My religion is superior, and you should obey it.

“Religious freedom” does not mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that you are permitted to force me to abide your dogmas. In case you were wondering why I get angry about the pervasive infection of politics by religion, all of this (and more!) is why. You should probably be angry too.

Aan Update

Alexander Aan is in prison. His crime was questioning the existence of God on facebook. For this non-offense, he was sentenced to two years in prison in his home country of Indonesia. His case is the perfect example of why it’s important for secularists (from both atheist and theist camps) to speak out against theocracy. Blasphemy is a victimless crime.

He’s written a letter from prison to express his appreciation for the movement to get him released from prison. I’m not optimistic, but it’s nice to see that we can at least do some good for him. If you want to send support:

Atheist Alliance International is very active on this issue, and will forward messages of support to Alex if you email info [at] atheistalliance [dot] org with “Message for Alex” in the subject line.

It doesn’t matter what religion you are, you should be free to believe as you like. Talking about your faith can never be a crime, and governments cannot legislate belief. Alexander Aan is the innocent victim of a loathsome government. Let him (and your government representatives?) know how you feel.