I’m working on my Ph.D. in psychology and in a recent class of mine, we were discussing the trolley problem in the context of moral development. My professor ended by saying, thankfully, we don’t actually have to make these difficult choices in real life because doing so would be psychologically damaging to most people. However, we do make these choices every time we vote. Political policies affect hundreds of millions of people, many of them in life and death ways, and even more lives when considering the effects at an international level.
I don’t think it’s wrong to engage in politics (depending on how it’s done), but it just doesn’t seem like a wise use of time for most people. In this article, I listed several reasons why I think it’s unwise, but I wasn’t able to go into great depth regarding how complex politics are and that most people don’t have the time, knowledge, or ability to gather the necessary information to make an informed vote. I only alluded to the complexity of the issues in that article so here I am going to go into much greater depth to show why the issues are so complex (and it’s still abbreviated for length).
I am going to use abortion to illustrate my point because I think it’s one of the simplest issues and it’s often the most important for people on both sides. Still, it’s a complex issue that goes far deeper beyond the rhetoric heard in typical political discourse. Personally, I’m pretty strongly convinced that abortion is wrong, but at the same time, I have a lot of uncertainties about the degree to which it is wrong and how important it is in relation to other issues. I am not going to argue for any position on abortion, but instead, I am just going to present the factors that should be considered to make an informed decision on this one issue.
0. Bias Check
I listed bias as reason zero because we can know our potential biases, but we can’t know for sure if we’re acting in a biased manner and we can’t counteract our biases simply by knowing them. For instance, liberals are more likely to score high on the personality factor of openness, which means they are more likely to accept new or different ideas. This may sound great, but not all old ideas are bad and not all new ones are good. Conservatives are likely to err in the other direction. We want to hold all ideas to the same level of scrutiny, but our biases often prevent that from happening.
There are a lot of things that bias us. Perhaps the strongest is what we already believe. If you already identify with a particular party or have a strong view on a particular topic, you are biased toward what you already believe and are likely to be less critical of your own views and more critical of other views. We are similarly biased by any sort of group membership we might have or other personal factors. This can be race, religion, being part of the NRA, LGBTQ, political party, the state we live in, sex, education or intelligence, socioeconomic status, personality, and so much more. Essentially, any factor that correlates with political outcomes is likely due in part to some sort of bias. How can we know if it’s bias or an accurate assessment of reality, and either way, how can we tell if the effects only apply to our group or to us individually? We usually can’t, but hopefully, recognizing the potential for bias opens us up to a more thorough examination of the issues and more objective calculations for decision making.
1. Theology of Government
What is the role of government in promoting virtue and restraining evil? This is the underlying issue. Governments (including the U.S.) allow all kinds of immoral actions (according to both sides) for a variety of reasons, but mostly in the name of liberty. Jesus didn’t live in a democracy so it’s hard to draw conclusions about how we should be involved in politics based on how Jesus was involved in politics, so we should be fairly open and accepting toward others who disagree with us on this topic.
Here are the questions we must ask. Should the government be a theocracy? If yes, then who’s religion or theology and how do we handle non-believers? To what degree are eternal consequences important for the government to regulate? Is it just me, or does it seem odd that Christians will fight for the right of unbelievers to blaspheme and turn people away from eternal salvation, but they fight tooth and nail against abortion…all because some arbitrary, man-made document created over two hundred years ago said this is how it should be? From an eternal perspective, unbelief, biblical illiteracy, nominal belief, blasphemy, are probably a lot worse than most, if not all things we currently consider major crimes, yet they are completely unregulated and many Christians argue that’s the way it should be.
If we should not be a theocracy, then to what degree should Christians be comfortable with allowing actions that are immoral by Christian standards but not according to other standards (e.g. drunkenness, prostitution, same-sex marriage, etc.)? How should we argue for our views on some topics but not others while remaining logically consistent (e.g. drunkenness and abortion both cause a lot of deaths and per year and other negative consequences so how do we decide to be against one and not care about the other?)? Should we risk our witness as Christians or spend our social capital on these issues rather than the gospel?
On top of that, the Christian should also consider the degree to which individuals should participate in politics. Paul tells us (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26) we are individual parts of one body. We each with unique gifts and talents that we should focus on and be cautious about doing things we aren’t called to do. Does this apply to politics? If you weren’t called to politics, maybe you shouldn’t be participating at all. I’m not saying that’s the case, but it should at least be considered.
The other thing we need to consider theologically, assuming we think we should participate in politics, is the degree to which we should be informed voters and how we need to handle trade-offs in decisions. Is it good enough to vote based on party lines or a superficial knowledge of subjects, or does service to a God of Truth require us to be more informed than the average person if we’re going to vote in ways that will affect others?
Additionally, politics requires very hard decisions that will affect a lot of people in different ways. Is it better to vote for a person who will try to outlaw abortion (but likely fail) or better to vote for a person who will enact policies that will drastically reduce the number of abortions? It might not be an either/or decision like this or may not apply to this issue, but the ultimate point is that with politics, we often have to choose between principles and real-life improvements in the direction of our principles. Many people are uncomfortable making these decisions or even thinking about them, but these are the realities we have to face.
2. Morality of Abortion
This seems like a simple question but I don’t think many people have a well thought out view on this. There are a good number of Bible verses indicating that life begins before birth, and perhaps even at the moment of or before conception. I also think it seems most logical scientifically and philosophically to assume that life begins at conception. Those who focus only on the mother’s rights often ignore this side of the equation, even without the biblical considerations, and treat the issue inconsistent with how they treat other issues (just to be clear, inconsistencies show that one, if not both views are wrong).
Even if you think life begins before birth, it’s not entirely clear from the Bible when God grants a person a soul and if the life of an embryo has the same value as someone who’s been born. Most people won’t admit this, but their actions suggest they feel the same way. I say this because most people who are staunchly against abortion are not fighting against it in the same way they would if their local Planned Parenthood was legally euthanizing Christians, anyone with a particular skin tone, left-handed people, people with psychological disorders, or any other random group of people.
Additionally, from the perspective of people who don’t believe in the Bible (see the previous point about theology and government), it’s a pretty tough case to make. Not only do you have to convince them that life begins at conception, but that the baby’s life has more value than the mother’s liberty, all before the baby can survive outside the womb, feel pain, or have any sort of conscious awareness.
While it’s a minor point, we should also consider the historical perspective and whether your opinion has been unduly influenced by cultural forces. It wasn’t until several years after Roe v. Wade that Evangelicals took up the mantle against abortion and viewed it as unequivocally wrong. This doesn’t mean they were wrong, but it is important to consider how our own views might be biased by our current cultural situation rather than by pure reason. This should at least allow us to step back a little and look at the issue from a broader perspective.
Finally, there’s the issue of how wrong is abortion compared to other issues. Just to keep it simple, what is more important, to save one million aborted babies in a year or to improve the quality of life for one million people? This only gets more complicated when you factor in the potential to affect the quality of life for 10 million or 100 million people. What if, instead of saving one million babies each year (about 80 million total years of life based on current life expectancy), you could extend the life of 20 million people for an average of 4 years each (80 million total years of life)? Or instead of saving one million babies in the U.S. per year, you could save 10 million lives globally per year?
Again, I’m not saying this is necessarily the case, only pointing out that these are the factors people need to think through in order to have an informed decision on the morality and importance of abortion. Then there’s the issue of what constitutes abortion or is an acceptable abortion. Does the morning-after pill count as an abortion? I know people often say it does, but this is based on pop-media rhetoric. My understanding is that it doesn’t actually cause an abortion, it prevents the sperm from getting to the egg. It theoretically could cause an abortion, but it’s actually more likely to prevent one if the sperm has already reached the egg (and I admit I could be misinformed or out of date on this). What about cases of rape, when would it be acceptable for the life of the mother, and so on.
3. Hidden Factors
There are almost always hidden or unintended consequences to everything, which are sometimes worse than what they tried to fix. Iatrogenesis is a term that describes when a treatment or other action inadvertently causes more harm than whatever was trying to be fixed. Social media was created to connect people, and it does, but the research seems to suggest it might actually be better at making people feel disconnected and lonely. Every law or policy has the potential for unintended consequences, which could be good or bad, predictable or unpredictable, and these consequences could be from the law itself or the way the law is enacted (e.g. prohibition). The point is that we need to try to discover and think about the unintended or secondary consequences of any law or policy that we make a decision on.
For instance with abortion, it’s been argued that legalizing abortion has had positive effects on crime rates (discussed in Freakonomics but the actual peer-reviewed studies are cited below). I think they make a pretty good case that abortion has at least some effect on crime rates, but maybe you disagree (but you have to read and understand the original articles to know), but either way, you have to be looking for and studying these things to even know. These things aren’t discussed in the pop-media and sticking your head in the sand and pretending these trade-offs don’t exist doesn’t make you morally superior. Maybe you don’t think it matters, and it doesn’t in terms of whether abortion is right or wrong, but it’s irresponsible to say it doesn’t matter in terms of what the government should allow. Again, going back to point one, the government allows things that are wrong and we need to come to decisions on how we think these should be balanced.
About one million abortions are performed each year in the U.S. What if (and this is purely hypothetical), it was shown beyond a reasonable doubt that this led to two million lives being saved per year by limiting murder, decreasing suicide rates, improving healthcare, and increasing foreign aid (for people starving or without medical care in other parts of the world)? Would it be better in such a case for the government to keep abortion legal, at least until those other issues could be better under control? What would be worse, one million aborted babies or one million dead infants? Again, these are completely fictional hypotheticals (except that there is a good case that abortion leads to less crime), but it’s still necessary and important to weigh these factors.
This is just one factor for abortion, but we also need to consider how abortion laws affect the quality and quantity of life through the economy (domestic and foreign), healthcare, future policy decisions (re-legalizing it in a way that is even harder to over), foreign aid and international relations, elderly care, the foster care system, potential riots or other backfire effects, and other factors that might be impacted.
Before it seems like I am only critiquing conservative views (that’s not my intent, but I more closely align with those views so I don’t want to strawman other views and know most people reading this will resonate more closely with my views), we also need to consider who gets abortions as an unintended consequence. In our country, minorities disproportionately get abortions more often than white women. Worldwide, girls are aborted more frequently than boys. In essence, advocating for abortion ends up promoting racism and sexism. If we want more diversity in our country, greater representation of minorities, the best way to do this is to have more of them living in our country, yet abortion helps maintain or even increase the racial disparity in our country. How much more power would minorities have in our country if there were 30 million more of them (the approximate number that have been aborted since Roe v. Wade) compared to only 15 million more white people (not to mention additional children form the children who weren’t aborted)?
If a pregnant woman decides she doesn’t want her child, she can just go get an abortion without consulting the father or anyone else. The doctor and nurses who perform the abortion are merely doing a medical procedure, not killing a human being. However, if a father decides he doesn’t want the child, too bad; at a minimum, he’s stuck paying child support for 18 years. Moreover, if he decides to take it upon himself to cause an abortion, he’ll be convicted of murder and possibly face life in prison (see fetal homicide laws). The point isn’t about whether these laws are correct or good, but that there is a clear inconsistency between them. On the one hand, the child is treated as though she’s not a person and on the other hand, she’s treated as though she is a person…all because of whether the mother decides the child is a person or not.
Similarly, consider whether you are treating abortion equally as other issues. Let’s say you lived in our country two hundred years ago. If you think abortion should be legal because babies don’t have rights, then how can you condemn slave owners for making the same arguments (without relying on arbitrary distinctions about what constitutes a person)? Likewise, if you think abortion is just as bad as murdering any other person, are you responding to the issue in the same way you think people should have responded to fight slavery or in the same way you would act if it was legal to kill minorities?
However, there’s more to it than that because we also need to consider how our views and reasoning about abortion relate to completely separate issues. For example, if you are pro-life, how does that align with your views on the death penalty, war, collateral damage in war or military operations, healthcare, international aid, immigration, gun control, how to handle climate change, and other issues pertaining to life? If you are pro-choice, how does that align with your views on child-support, racism, discrimination, healthcare, entitlements, and other issues relating to equality and rights?
When we take a stance on an issue, by definition, we are saying that we have the truth and know what is morally right. That’s unavoidable and that’s fine, but if we want to claim to have the truth, then we need to ensure we are being consistent in the way we reason about these issues. I’ve seen people say individual rights don’t matter when it comes to gun control, but when applied to abortion, the mother’s individual rights suddenly matter more than life. I’ve also seen people say the exact opposite.
Whatever your view is on abortion, it should be consistent with related issues, unrelated issues, and your actions. If examples like this and thought experiments reveal an inconsistency, you should re-evaluate your views until you can resolve the inconsistencies (back up to point #2).
5. Likelihood of Change/Enactment
It’s one thing to have a certain position and a whole other issue to actually get that position put in place. Imagine you were 18 years old when Roe v. Wade happened (1973) and you’ve voted against abortion in every way possible since then. There’s a decent chance you’d be dead by now and abortion is still legal. During that time about 50 million babies have been killed via abortion (I’ve seen numbers range from 44 to 65 million).
However, let’s say that in that time, the policies and people you voted against could have limited the number of abortions to a quarter of the current number (by improving the lives of people most likely to have abortions). Which is the better outcome? It’s a question we need to wrestle with. Fewer abortions is good, but then again, maybe a few more years of voting against abortion will lead to it becoming illegal. This actually looks like it might happen. I’m skeptical, but if it does, and abortion becomes legal, what is likely to happen in the future? Will it be overturned in five years because there is such a strong backlash against it because of how it was enacted. Maybe 5 million lives are saved in the next five years, but maybe we could have saved 25 million through better policies in other domains.
6. Making a Decision
For the last two homes my wife and I have purchased, I made and used elaborate spreadsheets to help me figure out what the best choice was. I included all the factors I thought were important (cost, size, age, school district, resale value, etc.) and ones that were pretty minor (drive-way slope), and then weighted them accordingly in my decision algorithm. As it turns out, the objective value I gave to certain factors was different than the subjective value I placed on items when I saw the home (which is why I made the spreadsheets in the first place). My subjective ranking of the houses was similar to my objective ratings, but there were differences, most of which were small, but some were quite large and unexpected.
Once you break apart the abortion issue into component parts, you have to put some value to each part in order to weigh them against each other, otherwise, your view is subject to the whims of rhetoric and confirmation bias. Just about everyone thinks they are above such biases, but the reality is that we are not. Incredibly meaningless factors have an unexpectedly powerful effect on our decision making. This effect is shown over and over again in psychological science. We continually and drastically underestimate the power these factors have over us.
The movie Moneyball (based on a true story) is an excellent example of this and can be applied to most areas of life. My current favorite study on this topic had people write the last few digits of their social security number and then bid on items in an auction. They found that the higher the digits in the SSN, the more people were willing to pay more for an item while at the same time, they all denied that writing that last few digits of their SSN had any effect on their bidding.
We cannot completely eliminate our subjective biases, but we can reduce it by a lot. In order to do this though, we have to consider multiple factors and weigh them all as objectively as we can, without adjusting the methods to fit our preconceived ideas…and remember, this is all just for deciding our views on one issue (abortion). If you think the number of years of life is the main metric, then you need to consider all the factors mentioned above and how they affect the total number of years of life in order to make a decision on abortion laws. Once you do that, then you need to do the same thing for all the other issues and then add up all the issues together to see how it affects the total number of years of life.
I don’t know the answers to all the questions I posed, and to be honest, answering them coherently and consistently, based on accurate data with sound statistical analysis could lead to several peer-reviewed publications across several disciplines. It would be a couple years of work for a single person, assuming they already had the training to find or collect the data, analyze it, and then make sense of it all. This is why I think politics are just simply too complex for most people to spend time and energy on it.
If a person is going to vote or engage in politics, they need to have good answers to all these questions in order to be morally responsible. If they don’t, their vote is no more likely to lead to the best outcomes than a role of the dice. Imagine you could save a person’s life by correctly answering a complicated true/false question. Would you just randomly guess or would you study and think about as much as humanely possible to ensure you got the correct answer? The irony of this situation is that people say that their vote matters (I argue in my previous article that it’s so small that it’s essentially inconsequential), but when it comes to the moral responsibility to cast a well-informed vote, they hide behind the limited impact of their vote.
I want to convince people that voting, researching politics, and debating politics is probably not a wise use of time, but more importantly, I hope that even if I have failed, I have encouraged people to think a little differently about politics, to move beyond the rhetoric to think deeper about the issues, to accept the reality that they may have to vote against their gut in order to bring about a greater good, to have more humility about their own views, and to be more gracious toward the people we disagree with.
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Ariely, D., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2004). Arbitrarily coherent preferences. The psychology of economic decisions, 2, 131-161.
Ariely, D., Loewenstein, G., & Prelec, D. (2006). Tom Sawyer and the construction of value. Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, 60(1), 1-10.
Donohue III, J. J., & Levitt, S. D. (2001). The impact of legalized abortion on crime. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 116(2), 379-420.
Donohue, J. J., & Levitt, S. D. (2004). Further evidence that legalized abortion lowered crime a reply to Joyce. Journal of Human Resources, 39(1), 29-49.
Donohue III, J. J., & Levitt, S. D. (2008). Measurement error, legalized abortion, and the decline in crime: A response to Foote and Goetz. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 123(1), 425-440.