Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Dr. Tiller, Forfeiting One's Right To Live, and Inconsistent Moral Obligations

[Update, 6/10: As usual, Ryan captures the absurdities nicely in his comic.]

A progression of events:

(1) A doctor is murdered by religious fanatics who believe that Every Sperm Is Sacred and women should be forced to bring every pregnancy to term regardless of their wishes.

(2) Ed Feser, professor at Pasadena City College and enthusiast for doctor-killing, writes a blog post calling the victim a "serial killer" and comparing him to Jeffrey Dahmer. He says that "by committing his crimes, Dahmer had forfeited his right to life..."

Just in case anyone missed the point, Feser continues by arguing that Dr. Tiller was actually worse than Dahmer in every relevant respect. Hintedy-hint-hint.

(3) Brian Leiter points out this post, observing that Feser is an apologist for murder, which strikes me as being an unremarkable statement of obvious fact.

(4) Feser goes nuts about this, accusing Leiter of being a "liar" by so characterizing his remarks (along with providing a link so curious readers could judge for themselves), and pointing out in his defense a couple of sentences in the original post in which he had covered himself by saying that it's wrong to take the law into your own hands, etc., sentences that I have to say jarringly failed to fit with his overall argument. And I really do mean he goes nuts. Feser compares Leiter's claim that by (a) saying that Dahmer had forfeited his right to live, and (b) saying that Tiller was worse than Dahmer, Feser was acting as an apologist for Tiller's murder, to claiming that black is white and up is down.

(5) Jeremy Shipley enters the fray to make some obvious points about why few readers were likely to take seriously the claim that, if Dr. Tiller was really a "serial killer" who had forfeited his right to life, and the law totally refused to punish or stop him in any way, 'vigilantism' would continue to be wrong:

"Suppose a racist government refuses to protect a minority from persecution. Don't members of the minority have a right to protect themselves? Or, suppose a government refuses to outlaw rape. Would it not be justifiable to protect women by means outside the law? Do you really believe that there are absolutely no circumstances in which vigilante action is justified?"

...from which Shipley makes the obvious point that Feser's pro forma "condemnation" of the murder the rest of his post apologized for was not meant to be taken seriously. Duh.

(6) Feser posts a pseudo-detailed reply to Shipley...he presents it as if it was a point-by-point reply, responding with huge blocks of text to individual sentences of Shipley's, but he conveniently omits the entire paragraph quoted above. (If he'd included it, the reply that he'd made would have ceased to make any sense at all.)

(7) Feser concludes by complaining that Shipley did wrong by failing to "read what I wrote charitably..."

So....fair enough. I will now attempt a more charitable interpretation:

Feser really did mean those couple of lines "condemning" the murder, despite the fact that the obvious implication of everything else he said was that the murder was justified. Also in the spirit of charitable interpretation, I won't interpret Feser as just typing random words and not realizing what those words meant when he penned a crystal-clear argument for the conclusion that Dr. Tiller deserved to die.

Charitably, I'll assume Feser's few token lines condemning the murder should be taken as seriously as his argument that Tiller had it coming. It must simply be that Feser subscribes to a paraconsistent deontic logic in which P(A) and ~P(A) sometimes non-trivially overlap. Dr. Tiller's murder was both permissible and impermissible.

That must be it.


Michael B said...

If your post here does not reflect the maximum number of incomprehensions, misrepresentations, seeming deceits, etc. you've ever achieved, you might point your readers to the post that does achieve that distinction. It could be used as a medical tool, in inducing vomiting.

Or, simply for comedic effect. The image of one who takes himself seriously while suffering from diarrhea and simultaneously indulging auto-cranial-posterior displacement syndrome potentially supplies endless quantities of mirth.

In short, if you're devoted so unthinkingly to Leiter and Shipley, or whatever the motivations, you're free to do so, but you're not apt to be taken seriously by others who are capable of simple premise-to-conclusion thought and cogency.

UnBeguiled said...

Given his audience, this is my stripped down interpretation of what Feser was wrestling with:

We have an intuition that Dahmer's murder was right, and an intuition that Tiller's murder was wrong. But this second intuition creates tension with our intuition that abortion is wrong.

For dogmaticians, such tension leads to chaos. Hence, the explosion of bad arguments by the busybodies on the blog.

That's how I see it anyway.

anotherpanacea said...

I'm not in agreement with him, but it seems that Feser does have a coherent position here, one that it is difficult to understand because it is what most philosophers would take to be a strange adherence to authority:

If abortion is murder, and murder causes one to forfeit one's right to life, then Dr. Tiller did not have a right to life.

However, Feser claims that, under ordinary democratic conditions, only the state had the right to actually deprive Dr. Tiller of his no-longer-rightfully-held life. Feser compares the murderer to a stranger who chastises a child in the grocery store, an inappropriate act unless the parents themselves are wantonly abusing their children, which he claims they are not.

Yet what seems most incomprehensible (and what the cartoon you link captures) is the conflict between Feser's claim that US allows and even promotes abortion, which is for him murder, and his claim that the US is not then analogous to murderous totalitarian regimes like Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia. It's difficult to understand how Feser could really believe that, and as a result, it seems likely that he's being disingenuous in his regret over Tiller's murder.

Bobcat said...

Maybe I'm missing something, but it seems possible to believe that (a) abortion is as morally bad as murder while (b) believing that the USA is not as bad as Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. What we'd need to know is, How culpable are people for engaging in abortion? After all, act A can be as bad as act B, but it might be the case that the badness of A is much harder to see than the badness of B. And if this were true, then that could be exculpating.

anotherpanacea said...

Bobcat: While it certainly might be possible to have a non-obvious wrongful act that leads to the same or worse consequences as murder (driving a gas guzzler, for instance, or purchasing goods made by child slaves) Feser moots this possibility in his first post when he claims that part of what made Dr. Tiller worse than Dahmer was that he "committed abortions" knowingly, voluntarily, and without remorse.

In a state that legalizes abortion and preserves its legality in the face of a public debate where what Feser calls the "natural moral law" is given ample room for expression, our collective approval of knowing, voluntary, and remorseless mass murder is much worse than a state that engages the services of secret police to hide its activities or disguises many of its crimes as the exigencies of war. In this, Feser's account of natural law differs from someone like Robert George, for whom the corruption of modern secular life is what clouds our God-given cognitive faculties, preventing us from directly intuiting the murderousness of abortion.

(Let me reiterate that I am not speaking in my own voice here, but rather trying to work out the argument.)

Ben said...

Michael B,

The idea that what I say here doesn't reflect what seems to be to be the obvious natural interpretation of Feser's slimy little apologia for domestic terrorism, that I'm not even mistaken in my reading, but that I must be lying because I'm "devoted so unthinkingly to Leiter and Shipley", is hilarious. I'm pretty sure I've never met either man, and have no connection to either of them except that I read Leiter's blog sometimes.

Sometimes I agree with him and sometimes I don't...the one previous time he mentioned me on his blog, back in 2004, was in the context of a political argument about the election on which we were on very different sides. As far as the other alleged object of my unthinking devotion, Jeremy Shipley, I'd never even heard of the guy before the back-and-forth on Feser's enthusiasm for killing doctors. I didn't even know who he was until I saw your comment and decided to google him. I gather that he's a grad student at Iowa...?

As far as the Vomit Question goes, if there are people in whom vomit is not induced by reading blog posts about why a doctor who was recently murdered in his church was a wicked servant of Moloch, worse than Dahmer, who had forfeited his right to live, who aren't induced to vomit by the series of increasingly smarmy and nonsensical explanations of how Feser's argument squares with his very thin pretense of disapproval of the murder, but are induced to vomit by an unsympathetic summary of the back-and-forth...well, gee, I'd have to say that those are people for whom causing them to vomit, frequently and painfully, would be a mitzvah.



Re-read Feser's post. He wasn't "wrestling" with anything. He was explaining what he took to be the obvious fact that the victim of a recent, horrifying act of domestic terrorism was an evil monster who had forfeited his right to live.

His "intended audience" are partisans of a bigoted and fanatical political movement which had spent years harassing and demonizing Tiller as an evil serial killer running a wicked baby-killing mill, etc. After someone took their rhetoric seriously and acted on it, rather than showing the slightest hint of embarrassment or re-consideration, rather than wrestling with anything, Feser proceeds to explain why the victim had it coming, and to accompany this with the thinnest and most ridiculous possible disclaimer that of course he doesn't approve of the actions of those who act on his beliefs. I see no reason to take that disclaimer seriously.


I don't think we're disagreeing about anything. Is it just barely possibly to construct a coherent reading where you take everything Feser says at face value? I guess, but that's not really the point. The question, to my mind, is not so much, "is there some logically possible way of understanding Feser's position so that he's not trying to suggest what he seems to be going out of his way to suggest?" It's, "given the context of the discussion, and the actual words he uses, are we under some obligation to pretend not to understand what he's getting at?"

As you say, his stated reasons for one important element of that just-barely-possible coherent reading of his position so spectacularly fail to add up that it's impossible to take it seriously, and frankly, it's hard to believe that he means any of that to be taken seriously.

Ben said...


Yep, it's certainly possible to believe that abortion is as bad as murder without believing that the U.S. is as bad as Nazi Germany (although, given the number of abortions performed over the years, it's not as easy as it might initially look), but that's only relevant to this discussion if we simply assume without argument the reasonableness of Feser's bizarre contention that vigilantism would only ever be justified in societies just as bad as Nazi Germany. Even with the most generous helpings of Natural Law Ethics and Just War Theory that you could ask for, that simply doesn't follow.

If you seriously believed Feser's contention that Tiller was a worse-than-Dahmer serial killer openly operating a wicked, Molochian baby-killing mill with the full knowledge and blessing of the authorities, and this wicked death camp could be shut down at the cost only of the life of one serial killer who had, remember, Forfeited His Right To Live, then how on earth could you justify your failure to save the lives of countless precious fetuses by doing so? (Remember, in this case, terrorism worked. The clinic is being shut down.) I don't think you can, which is why I have trouble reading Feser's surreal claim that vigilantism, regarldess of circumstances, would only be justified in societies that were in every respect just as bad as Nazi Germany, as anything more than a very thin and silly cover for Feser's failure to take responsibility for the obvious implication of his claims.

Michael B said...

Well, well, impeccable timing. But no, Mr. Logician, you don't even represent the simplest of statements correctly or even reasonably. I didn't say I knew your motivations, in fact I explicitly suggested the opposite, noting, emphasis now added:

"if you're devoted so unthinkingly to Leiter and Shipley, or whatever the motivations ..."

So, you can't represent the simplest of comments reasonably/responsibly, but I'm suppose to engage in and invest time in a far more involved and complex set of discussions?

Michael B said...

Given the quality of comprehensions and the "probative commentary" here, I'd better be explicit. The latter question is rhetorical only; taken at face value it effectively answers itself.

Ben said...

Michael B.,

If you yourself pulled the trigger to murder Dr. Tiller, and are thus only this eager to defend Feser's claim that Tiller had forfeited his right to live because it helps you overcome your crushing sense of personal guilt, or whatever your motivations, you're free to do so, but let's not pretend that we can just say whatever we want and completely cancel it out and avoid responsibility for our silly claims by appending the phrase "or whatever your motivations..."

And....dude....who *asked* you to engage and invest time in a more involved and complex discussion? There's no complex discussion going on here, only mockery of Feser's attempts to weasel out of the obvious meaning of his nasty little rant.

Nor did you ever try to start any sort of complex discussion about any of this. You just showed up and started ranting and raving about how absurd what I said was (w/o mentioning details) and how much I made you want to vomit.

I mean, so far the dialogue is sounding a lot like:

Me: "Hey, look at this slimy thing Feser said. Let's make fun of it!"

You: "Shut up! You're stupid! You must be saying this stupid stuff because you're unthinkingly devoted to Shipley or something! You make me want to vomit!"

Me: "Um...I'm unthinkingly devoted to some random grad student in Iowa? That's kind of strange."

You: "God, I didn't say that! I said 'or something!' God, you're stupid, you stupid vomit-inducing jerk!"

Me: "Uh...."

You: "Well, if you're going to be like that, I'm not going to have a complex and involved argument with you! So there!"

Michael B said...

Much simpler, Ben, the logic of incomprehension and obduracy, or whatever it is more specifically that motivates you and is reflected in your commentary, is not something I'm willing to waste time and effort upon.

But what's the complaint? You profess to be describing what you see, I what I see, via analogy.

Michael said...

Shorter Michael B: I actually have no argument and I refuse to present one. But I hammer collegiate english so as to make myself appear intelligent when I have nothing.

For example, of the 125 words in his first comment only 9 were devoted to making an actual statement (and one that wasn't even that strong as it was apparently checked with "or whatever the motivations" leaving an out in case someone could actually find a point.)

Yet within that empty bit of rhetoric we got enough 20 dollar words to fund universal healthcare. All that could possibly make the whole thing more pretentious is putting it in iambic pentameter.

In the comments that followed all that was given was continued refusal to actually make a point and engage in discussion.

This of course doesn't keep Michael B from commenting. Naturally.

Michael B said...


In fact, I deem the analogy to be apt. Further, you've not argued that it isn't apt, so your own contribution is self-refuting since it's condemned by your own reasoning of irrelevancy. Similarly, you haven't added to Ben's argument either, neither in terms of additional points nor in terms of elucidation. This of course doesn't keep you from commenting. Naturally.

I stated that I find Ben's argument to be absurd and not worth engaging; you respond essentially by whining that, "golly, take him seriously anyway, otherwise I'm going to sniff and sneer at you." So, whatever.

However, in a link provided by Ben (to Ryan's comic and the discussion that ensued below that comic) the raw beginnings of a more cogent argument were presented when Ryan allowed that it's not unreasonable to think of a Tiller as a murderer, it's only unreasonable to compare a Tiller to someone like a Dahmer or a Hitler. I responded, so we'll see where it leads, assuming Ryan (aka chaospet) allows it to be posted (it's presently awaiting his moderation).

Ben said...

Michael B.,

"But what's the complaint?"

No complaint, man, just funny. Even funnier that you keep on coming back here, over and over, again, to re-declare that you don't think anything's been said that's worth engaging in, that you aren't going to invest any time and energy into this (as if anyone asked you to or wanted you to), etc., etc., etc. "This is so stupid I'm not going to stay!" "OK." "No seriously, I'm leaving now!" "OK." "That's it, I'm really leaving!" "Uh huh." "Fine. I'm going! Watch me!"

Leave. Or don't. But stop announcing your intentions to.

"...when Ryan allowed that it's not unreasonable to think of a Tiller
as a murderer..."

...um, no, he did not say that.

Ryan's position, stated over and over in that comment thread already, is that when people compare Tiller to Dahmer or Hitler and then turn around and pretend to find something objectionable about Tiller's murder, it shouldn't be taken seriously. For example, he says:

"Suppose that Jeffrey Dahmer wasn’t ever captured. Suppose he were free and still torturing, slaughtering and eating people. And suppose the government refused to do anything to try and stop him. Would you decry the actions of the vigilante who brought him down?

"I certainly wouldn’t. And I suspect that most wouldn’t. And that illustrates just how extreme the rhetoric drawing comparisons between Tiller and people like Dahmer and Hitler is. Say what you will about your opposition to vigilantism - when the rhetoric gets that extreme, it no longer applies."

Ryan's argument is that it's possible to see abortion as murder without taking the extra step to approving of shooting Tiller, but that once you start making Dahmer or Hitler analogies, that ceases to be a coherent position. I completely agree on all points.

The line from which you seem to be somehow gleaning that Ryan thinks it's reasonable to equate abortion with murder is:

"I never said that any mention of Tiller as a murderer is patently absurd inflammatory rhetoric. I said that comparing him to Dahmer or Hitler is. There is a considerable difference.”

Now, there's a truly ginormous conceptual leap from "not all statements of X necessarily constitute patently absurd inflammatory rhetoric" to "it is reasonable to believe X."

He said the former. He never said or even hinted at the latter.

Michael B said...

No, I didn't say I was going to leave. So yet again, you can't even represent the most mundane of facts responsibly.

Ben said...

Sorry....I must have interpreted your comments in an excessively charitable manner.

When every single comment you left was "this doesn't deserve to be taken seriously" or "I refuse to engage with this" or "I'm not going to invest any time or energy into a discussion about this," I mistakenly interpreted those sentiments in the normal human way....i.e. that you were going to stop discussing these things-that-aren't-worth-discussing.

Now that I know that what you actually meant is that you're just going to keep on coming back to repetitively annoy everyone with declarations of how there's nothing even worth talking about here, I can adjust for that and stop letting your comments through moderation until such time as you decide that there is something worth discussing here and that you have something to say about it.

Stephen said...

I never said that any mention of Tiller as a murderer is patently absurd inflammatory rhetoric. I said that comparing him to Dahmer or Hitler is. There is a considerable difference.

There does seem to be a huge difference there.