Thursday, July 22, 2010

Bad Argument Type #1: Practical or Pragmatic Considerations

I wanted to analyze some argument types that I find unappealing. Today I will focus on practical or pragmatic arguments. They are quite popular, but ultimately they are quite weak. Since this subject is rather abstract, I will attempt to use examples to help clarify.

Practical or pragmatic arguments typically ignore moral or ethical considerations and focus on more immediate considerations. But without a moral basis, the arguments are on shaky ground as new evidence could potentially remove their validity. In other words, the nature of the practical considerations could change to something favourable and thus eliminate it as an opposing factor.

As I said in the beginning, I think examples will be essential. A popular topic on this blog is abortion. I will show here how a practical or pragmatic approach to this question is a poor choice, even though at first it may seem appealing.

One approach to the abortion debate has been to show the harm it causes to women. Pro-life activists will say abortion causes emotional distress on women which can last for many years. They say the guilt can be very difficult to bear. On top of these emotional issues, they point out the physical ramifications, including the possibility of a "botched" abortion, or effects in the future such as increased cancer risk. While these may be true, I believe this approach may ultimately fail.

There are several reasons why this is not the best approach. First of all, abortion is very common. It is in fact the most common medical procedure out there, or something along those lines. A lot of people know women who have had abortions. Many of them do not experience physical or psychological issues after their abortion. I do not believe even the majority do. It could be as low as 10-20%. Therefore, by presenting those as arguments against abortion, someone would only have to be reassured that such effects are rare. The person would then be an advocate for abortion once again.

On top of this, as medical science advances, it would perhaps become possible that even fewer women would experience negative effects, thus weakening the arugment even further. Further, people who use this argument are in a precarious situation. I've heard people say that all women experience negative effects after an abortion. They say that those who claim not to are simply denying the truth, or being dishonest. But this position reeks of conspiracy theory. It cannot be disproven because those in the know are presumed to be lying.

Another weakness of this argument is that it makes women the absolute focus, without considering the baby. This is exactly where the pro-choice side wants people to be. Once the focus is exclusively on the women considering an abortion, the pro-life side cannot win. The focus must remain on the unborn child.

The best argument is a moral one from the point of view of the life of the child. There is a unique, individual child with all his DNA indicating his hair colour, personality, and other characteristics, etc. Often by the time women realize they are pregnant, the child is advanced in development including heart beat and brain waves. But most of all, there is a unique individual being considered. This fact cannot be lessened through medical science. Science will never find a way to reduce the personhood of this child through some objective means in the same way as the negative impacts on a woman can be.

The sanctity of life is a philosophical and theological argument that maintains its full force in any circumstance.

There are other areas as well where using practical or pragmatic arguments can be advantageous but often are unsustainable into the future.

A second example is pornography. I was reading some newspaper articles from the 1960s about pornography. Back then it was a VERY shady undertaking. It was thoroughly illegal and there was great public fear about it. At the same time, it was already a big business. One of the fears that came about was that if men were exposed to pornography, they would become violent, perhaps killers or rapists. Therefore, it was said, pornography must be stopped.

This again is a poor argument. It is in fact even used today, but some are claiming the opposite is true. They say that because of the availability of pornography, men who would ordinarily be rapists have instead fulfilled their illicit desires through pornography. Thus, violent sexual crime has decreased because of porn. If this is true, the original argument is completely destroyed. Does this now mean that pornography is neutral or even good? Well, according to the pragmatic approach, then yes. That's why it's a bad argument.

It may be more immediately impactful to say that porn will turn men into violent rapists, but in the long run, it is a rather ineffective argument. A better argument is again a philosophical one. Porn is bad because it strips the good of sex and instead of being used to unify spouses, it is used for personal gratification, thus rendering the user selfish. It also makes women into objects and men forget about reciprocal love. This selfishness then leads to a deterioration of intimacy and love. That argument cannot be eliminated because it remains true.

There are many more situations where we are tempted to use pragmatic or practical arguments when defending a truth, but it is very important to know the philosophical basis behind a viewpoint. This is not to say practical considerations should not be used. I think if the information is correct, then it can be quite valuable. However, I think it is always essential to know the basis behind a moral argument.

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