Sunday, February 07, 2010

Moral Reasoning and Parental Notification Laws

Each side in the parental notification issue has their "poster children" for why parental notification laws should, or should not, be passed. On the "should" side are the instances where boyfriends and statutory rapists talk and/or coerce their pregnant underage girlfriends into abortions without their parent's knowledge - in one prominantly quoted case leading to the death of the girl from complications of the abortion because the parents did not know that a surgery had been performed.

On the "should not" side you are advised to go read "Abortion and parental notification laws" and the two posts (here and here) the author links written by someone who works within the justice system processing judicial exception requests to parental notification laws.

However, I really am not interested - at least in this post - about the "poster children" . . .

[As a disclaimer, I (as the parent of a 17 year old girl) believe that there is no reason why my daughter should be able to get surgery without adult supervision (her parents or a judge) just because it happens to be an abortion rather than having a mole removed. Indeed, as someone who believes that an unborn child is the type of being whose life it is seriously wrong to end, I am much more comfortable with her getting the mole cells killed without my permission than I am with having an unborn child killed.]
What I am interested in is the concepts of moral agency and moral reasoning - not only as regards parental notification in specific but also more generally about human moral decisions in general. This post is triggered by this comment in the linked post above:
Don't you think that if your child isn't coming to you, you've already failed and lost the "rights" to make their decisions?

And the expression rational "moral" agent; what does that mean? It sounds like a nebulous expression for "I'll decide when you're ready to start agreeing with me on all topics"!

Is disagreeing with your personal, religious and political ideas the type of thing that makes someone incapable of their own "moral" agency?

Not trying to be a pain, just throwing it out there. I'm not sure how we can legislate that every parent gets exactly the type of relationship with their child that they desire.
While the "poster children" examples on both sides are indeed rare exceptions designed to evoke an emotional response, the questions in this comment - despite their inherant hostility and condescenion - are more fundamental to the real questions:
  1. the expression rational "moral" agent; what does that mean? It sounds like a nebulous expression for "I'll decide when you're ready to start agreeing with me on all topics"! One of the common defenses of the unfettered right of a woman to choose to have an abortion is that to inhibit that by law, or even by moral pronouncements, is to demean a woman as a moral agent - that somehow it is believed that she is impaired from making these decisions on her own. This is presented as a misogynist impulse designed to control woman and the decisions about their own body:
    This is a very unforgiving perspective, not to mention a punitive one. As Digby has said over and over again, the laws intended to strike down Roe aren't about ending abortion. They're about regulating women's sexuality, so that Papa always guides the family. After all, he's the only one who can think clearly enough to lay down the law.
    I think all humans are impaired moral agents - again, all humans are impaired moral agents [different link]. I believe we are moral agents - I think the hyper-determinists on both ends of the spectrum are wrong: we do have real moral choices that we can make that are neither determined by our "synapses firing just so" (the brain vs mind discussion), our culture, and/or our experiences; or by an omnipotent God. We are not robots programmed by nature/nurture or God.

    That we are all (mostly all at least) moral agents capable of making, and being responsible for, our own decisions does not mean we make the right decisions. This is my favorite list (compare Aquinas's Summa Theologica, Prima Secundæ Partis, Question 94, Articles 4 and 6) of the some the reasons we reason poorly:
    1. insufficient experience: we do not know enough to reach sound conclusions;
    2. insufficient skill: we haven't learned the art of reasoning well;
    3. sloth: we are too lazy to reason;
    4. corrupt custom: it hasn't occurred to us to reason;
    5. passion: we are distracted by strong feeling from reasoning carefully;
    6. fear: we are afraid to reason because we might find out we are wrong;
    7. wishful thinking: we include in our reasoning what we are willing to notice;
    8. depraved ideology: we interpret known principles crookedly; and
    9. malice: we refuse to reason because we are determined to do what we want.

    Actually, only (maybe) #8 and (certainly) #9 make us "bad people" or "a criminal". In the other seven, the community and the culture bears an equal, and sometimes greater, responsibility for training and equipping us to reason well; and establishing "known principles" clearly. That is where parental notification laws come in. We (rightly IMO) assume that:
    • as we mature we get better at moral reasoning;
    • children, until they grow gain maturity and learn to become effective moral agents, are more greatly affected by all of the reasons above; and
    • in the meantime parents have the responsibility to protect children from the mistakes this natural weakness in moral reasoning brings about

    Certainly, in a culture where our ability to make moral decisions about wearing seat belts, motorcycle helmets, using cell phones while driving, etc. is constantly being impinged upon - it is difficult to complain about impinging on a 17 year old girl's decision to go ahead with a medical procedure that both ends a developing human life and that can have unknowable impacts on the future mental and physical health of the girl. Why, in this most critical of decisions imbued with some of the most intense emotional pressures (both internal and external) is the need to have the wisdom provided by many counselors lessened or absent? It is, in my opinion, because those in the pro-choice movement who oppose parental notification laws are probably suffering from some combination of numbers 5, 7, and 8 (and perhaps in some cases number 9) above.
  2. I'm not sure how we can legislate that every parent gets exactly the type of relationship with their child that they desire . . . Don't you think that if your child isn't coming to you, you've already failed and lost the "rights" to make their decisions? No. There are a few false dichotomies here:
    • that the desire to be notified and involved in the decision implies the desire to make the decision.
    • that the child will only not inform the parent because the parent is a bad parent. What of the child who has such a good relationship with a parent that they do not wish it damaged because they have so clearly botched their duties as a moral agent by getting pregnant (assuming the consensual sex that is the cause in the vast majority of cases)? I can guarantee that my own daughter would both say that I am a very good parent (because I am willing to let her be an uncoerced moral agent); and that I would be the last person she would want to come to and say "I am pregnant" to - if for no other reason than because she has so "patiently" explained to me as she became sexually active that she is not "stupid" and will not have unprotected sex and/or get pregnant.
    • that parenthood is a "right" that we can lose. Certainly, parental rights can be taken away and given to the state (hence judicial bypass BTW); but parenthood is a responsibility both legally and morally and not a right. The state exists, IMO, not to usurp that responsibility but to give aide and support to more organic relationship between parent and child.

  3. Is disagreeing with your personal, religious and political ideas the type of thing that makes someone incapable of their own "moral" agency? Yes really. This reminds me of the "not while you live under my roof" answer in parenting. If we have a responsibility to raise our children to be competent moral agents - and morality is not individually determined but is tied to family, community, and culture - then, yes, while my child lives under my roof and within my responsibility disagreeing with my moral reasoning is indeed grounds for me believing they are not yet capable moral agents. If they do not like it, they can move out and establish their own moral context outside my responsibility - but not my concern.
One of the (bad IMO) results of the Enlightment is addressed by A.J. Conyers:
"What is Enlightenment?" asked Immanuel Kant. It is the capacity "to use one's intelligence without being guided by another." "Have courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment". Thus stand side by side, in unmistakable opposition, two ideas of the way one lives in the world. One is that of attentive listening to the guidance of another, whether of a wise guide, or tradition, or of God. The other is the notion of the self-determined "free" man, who without listening to another, becomes the master of his own soul.
However you feel about how that quote applies to mature moral agents, I do not "get" how a 16 year old girl is the "master of [her] own soul" or body.


  1. Jeremy Pierce2/10/2010 4:15 PM

    It's interesting to compare both sides on the difference between seatbelt laws and abortion laws. Seatbelt laws are presumably justified by the harm they prevent, harm in fact to the person who might choose not to wear one (and not harm to others). With abortion, there's also the issue of harm to others, even if there's less (but not remotely negligible) harm to oneself (apart from the fact that doing something immoral is itself doing harm to oneself and therefore is intrinsically harmful). Isn't harm to others a more likely ground for legislating to protect?

    But the pro-choice argument seems to me that the more momentous something is for oneself (particularly if it involves crucial decisions about one's body and reproductive freedom) the less it can be regulated, and they argue this even moreso if it has great moral import, since those choices should be more left to the individual. Part of it is the Kantian idea that Adam and Eve's choice was the right choice rather than a sin, and God shouldn't have denied that to them. Restricting people's ability to do evil violates a basic Kantian principle, on this view (though I think Kant himself would have been horrified that abortion is not treated as murder, because a fetus is a member of the kingdom of ends, and we should never use such a person's death as a mere means to an end, no matter how significant that end, and that includes freedom of autonomy of one's own body and reproductive choices).


How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly