Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Charges of “pro-life hypocrisy” abound on the internet. Unfortunately, they also exist in professional philosophy journals in the form of “inconsistency arguments.” These take the following form:
P1: Were pro-life people consistent, they would X.
P2: Pro-life people fail to X.
C: Therefore, pro-life people are inconsistent.
Accompanying such arguments is an implicit understanding or explicit assertion that if the pro-life person does not change her beliefs or behaviors in order to be consistent, then her continued inconsistency counts as hypocrisy.
In philosophical journals, these arguments often center on “inconsistencies” in how pro-life people treat the tragedy of miscarriage compared to the travesty of abortion, or how we handle embryo rescue cases, embryonic adoption, and the impermissibility of killing abortion practitioners. For example:
. . . it seems one’s moral obligations to prevent the loss of human fetuses would require a far more significant redistribution of the resources we are currently putting toward preventing (among other things) induced human abortions. Contemporary antiabortion theorists almost universally fail to act in either way; suggesting they are either unaware of the overwhelming loss of life caused by spontaneous abortions [miscarriages], or behave monstrously when they oppose voluntary, induced abortions while ignoring the much greater loss of life caused by spontaneous abortions.
In everyday conversations, the topics range even farther. For example, you might hear:
Jack: Dianne, if you really wanted to reduce abortion, then you would support comprehensive sex ed. But you don’t. If you really want to be “pro-life” you should change your mind and support comprehensive sex ed. If you don’t, I can’t help but think that you aren’t really “pro-life” after all.
And if you have spent any time on the internet, I bet you have heard:
In their 2020 Journal of Medical Ethics article “Prolife Hypocrisy: Why Inconsistency Arguments Do Not Matter,” Colgrove, Blackshaw, and Rodger (Colgrave et al.) provide two responses to these arguments as they appear in philosophical journals: the “Other Beliefs Objection” and the ‘Other Actions Objection.” In what follows, I summarize their article and draw some practical implications for engaging inconsistency arguments.
Charges of Pro-Life Hypocrisy Are Empty Rhetoric
Inconsistency arguments have rhetorical force. Not acting as your beliefs appear to require at best indicates a kind of confusion, and at worst hypocrisy. Since most people (rightly) want to avoid hypocrisy, exposing inconsistency in people’s beliefs or hypocrisy in their behavior gives them reason to change.
But, in cases where people are genuinely hypocrites, inconsistency arguments fail from the outset: hypocrisy is a problem with the will, not the intellect. I may believe that I should not eat meat from factory-farmed animals and still eat fast food burgers because I just cannot resist greasy $0.99 deliciousness. You do not need an argument to help me understand that I should not eat the burgers; I am already convinced. But I lack willpower, and you cannot argue willpower into someone.
While inconsistency arguments can do nothing to change an actual hypocrite’s behavior, they sometimes change a merely inconsistent person’s mind. In their best forms, such arguments show that believing a premise P leads to a conclusion that violates generally accepted claims. So, we should reject P. For example, if I claim that all jukeboxes are persons and that no one should hit persons in order to get free things, but then I ask the Fonz to hit this jukebox so that I can hear my song for free, it would reasonable to ask me if I really think that:
2) No one should hit persons in order to get free things,
3) It is OK to hit the jukebox to get a free song.
But, (2) is a generally accepted moral principle, and “no one” finds it morally reprehensible when the Fonz hits a jukebox in order to make it play. So, unless I think that “everyone” is wrong about Fonzie’s behavior, or I think that I should commit assault in the service of free stuff, I should solve the inconsistency in my beliefs by denying (1): I should not think that the jukebox is a person.
Such inconsistency arguments can persuade when both dialogue partners accept the generally accepted claims (2) and (3). But as Colgrove et al. argue, pro-life people reject many of the “generally accepted” claims inconsistency arguments assume. For example, many pro-life people will think that babies who die in utero should receive death certificates, or that paternal child support should cover pregnancy. Such inconsistency arguments cannot work to change the pro-life advocate’s mind.
Indeed, as Colgrove et al. argue, using inconsistency arguments to change a pro-life advocate’s mind can backfire for the pro-choice advocate. Suppose the pro-choice advocate succeeds in convincing the pro-life advocate that her beliefs about fetal personhood require that she treat preventing miscarriage as a higher priority than preventing abortion, curing cancer, ending world hunger, etc. because preventing miscarriage will save more persons than all these other causes combined. As Colgrove et al. ask, does the pro-choice person—who thinks that the fetus is not a person—really want pro-life people to advocate for shifting resources away from all other public health issues for the sake of miscarriage prevention? Probably not. The pro-choice advocate likely thinks that, given the “absurd” conclusion of her beliefs, the pro-life advocate should conclude that the fetus is not a person. But to ensure that the pro-life person changes her mind in his preferred direction, the pro-choice person still needs to give the pro-life person an argument against fetal personhood.
In other words, at best the inconsistency argument does not show the pro-life person what she should believe, only what she cannot simultaneously believe.
Other Beliefs Objection
Inconsistency arguments not only fail when members of a dialogue disagree about the “generally accepted” claims; they fail even when all parties agree. In these cases, they fail because both members do not share the same background beliefs. But, as Colgrove et al. point out, pro-life people are not a uniform group:
Labels like ‘prolife’ and ‘antiabortion’ cut across categories of religion, morality, nationality, race, sex and sexuality; OAs [opponents of abortion] include Christians, atheists, democrats, republicans, males, females and so on. Not only are OAs themselves diverse people, the things—procedures, ideologies and so on—they oppose vary widely, as do their reasons for being OAs.
This grounds Colgrove et al’s “Other Beliefs Objection”: a person might appear inconsistent without actually being inconsistent because they have other beliefs at work. A may imply C, but A and B might imply not-C. To illustrate:
A: This ice cream is delicious, and I should eat delicious things.
C: I should eat this ice cream.
But what if I also believe:
B: I have a dairy allergy.
Combining A and B entails not C: I should not eat the ice cream. If you know that I believe A, my refusal to agree with C seems inconsistent. But if I then explain B, the mystery fades: if it is true that I have a dairy allergy, then I should not eat the ice cream regardless of its deliciousness.
In the same manner,
A: More persons die in utero each year from natural causes then from elective abortions, and we should prevent as many persons’ deaths as possible.
C: We should spend more time, energy, and resources on preventing the natural deaths that occur in utero than elective abortions.
But combining A and B
B: Failing to prevent someone from intentionally killing a person is worse than failing to prevent a person from dying due to natural causes
Entails not C: We should not spend more time, energy, and resources on preventing the natural deaths that occur in utero than any other death.
Assuming there is a morally relevant difference between preventing someone from killing another person intentionally and preventing people from dying naturally or accidentally, then it does not matter how many more persons die in utero naturally; abortion will take priority.
Other beliefs explain most “inconsistencies” highlighted by inconsistency arguments. The pro-life advocate may believe that abortion kills a person and that killing an abortion practitioner would save the most lives, while also believing that under no circumstances may one kill a person. The pro-life advocate might agree that you will save more lives by rescuing 1,000 frozen embryos from a burning fertility clinic while also thinking that saving a toddler from a painful death takes priority over the 1,000 because a painful death is significantly worse than a non-painful one. But, should someone believe that a painful death is worse than a non-painful one? Should someone believe that under no circumstances may one kill another person? The pro-choice advocate must engage those questions.
Other Actions Objection
In addition to having different background beliefs, people might think certain actions are more prudent than others. This grounds Colgrove et al.’s “Other Actions Objection.” They illustrate this objection by exploring the “inconsistency” in pro-life people who do not adopt frozen embryos:
“1. If OAs [opponents of abortion] believed that the death of a frozen embryo is equivalent to the death of an adult human being, then they would adopt at least one frozen embryo.
2. Virtually no OAs adopt frozen embryos.
3. So, OAs must not really believe that the death of a frozen embryo is equivalent to the death of an adult human being”
But, as Colgrove et al. point out, adopting frozen embryos may not be the most prudent way to save lives. Adopting one frozen embryo may save one life, but paying the storage fees for frozen embryos until reliable artificial wombs exist may save thousands. Perhaps the most prudent way to avoid the death of frozen embryos is to pray for them, to raise awareness, or lobby for changing laws. All of these other actions may be on the table for the pro-life advocate as a reasonable way of carrying out their moral duties. If the pro-choice person disagrees, he needs to make an argument for why only his preferred solution is acceptable rather than merely pointing out that the pro-life person appears inconsistent to him.
Seeming Inconsistency Is an Opportunity for Clarification
Recognizing what underlies charges of pro-life hypocrisy can help us understand the pro-choice people who make inconsistency arguments. Return to Jack’s inconsistency charge:
Jack thinks Dianne cannot be both pro-life and anti-comprehensive sex ed. As far as Jack can tell, if Dianne wants to reduce the number of abortions, she should support comprehensive sex ed, because he thinks that will reduce the number of abortions. Given that she does not, he suspects she does not actually care about fetuses. As far as he can tell based on his limited understanding of her reasoning, the best explanation for her apparent inconsistency is that she has some other goal in mind: perhaps she really just wants to “punish” women who have premarital sex with a baby, and since not having access to abortion would do so, she just makes a show out of caring about abortion as a means to accomplish her real goal. He’s not trying to call her names or question her integrity for no reason, he genuinely thinks she cannot actually hold all the views she claims to hold.
But—for some real reason—Dianne thinks her anti-abortion, anti-comprehensive sex ed position makes sense, and she genuinely holds both views. Inconsistency arguments fail because the maker presumes the pro-life person holds specific set of beliefs or finds a specific action most prudent. Jack thinks comprehensive sex ed is the “obvious” way to reduce abortions. He genuinely finds Dianne’s position mysterious and therefore suspicious.
In other words, it is entirely possible that Dianne believes we should reduce abortions, but she has other beliefs that prevent her from endorsing Jack’s proposed solution. Perhaps she thinks parents should be the ones talking to their children about sex rather than school teachers. Perhaps she thinks that some methods of contraception are morally problematic, so children should not learn about them. Perhaps she thinks abstinence-only education will reduce the number of abortions as much or more than comprehensive sex-ed.
Herein lies the problem with inconsistency arguments: before one can successfully charge another with hypocrisy, one must be sure there are no other beliefs at play that explain away someone’s apparent hypocrisy. If that seems incredibly difficult, it is. Moreover, if someone genuinely is hypocritical, this is not the kind of thing that an inconsistency argument can fix; avoiding hypocrisy requires changing not the mind but the will.
Inconsistency arguments can, however, provide fantastic opportunities for clarification and finding common ground. The pro-choice advocate who tries to convince me that if I really believe abortion is wrong then I should support killing abortion practitioners is looking for common ground: he (rightly!) assumes that I do not support killing abortion practitioners and wants me to either bite an extreme and morally uncomfortable bullet or realize that I cannot consistently believe abortion is killing. We make a similar move when we point out that bodily rights arguments lead to extreme positions. The problem lies not in pointing out apparent inconsistency, but in assuming that nothing other than insincerity or hypocrisy can explain the apparent inconsistency.
So, after giving someone who makes an inconsistency argument the benefit of the doubt by assuming that they are not trying to mount a character attack, respectfully explain what other beliefs you have at play that explain your apparent inconsistency, and move the conversation back to discussing which beliefs you should hold period, not just simultaneously. For example:
I can certainly see why my position seems inconsistent to you. It does seem strange that I call myself ‘pro-life’ while also thinking that we should allow people to own guns. After all, both abortion procedures and guns can be used to kill persons! However, I don’t think I’m actually inconsistent because I don’t think killing a person is always wrong; there might be times when killing a person is okay, like killing in self-defense. I think gun ownership is okay as an extension of the permissibility of killing in self-defense, but I could be wrong about that. From my perspective, however, this doesn’t seem that relevant to my position on abortion. I think abortion isn’t like killing in self defense, but am I correct in assuming that you do think they are similar? Would you be willing to talk about that more with me?
Before making or responding to an inconsistency argument, remember that each person has a different set of background beliefs at work. If people seem inconsistent or hypocritical to you, or they say you are, use it as a chance to ask more questions, not as the basis for an assumption about their character.
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