07 March 2011

Back to Politics: Why Being a Republican Means Cutting Planned Parenthood Funding

I love Yes Means Yes generally – I own their book too; you should get it; it’s good – but this post especially made me smile.

After weeks of thinking about the conservative social movement, and how it relates to abortion in particular, I came to a very obvious conclusion that nevertheless felt groundbreaking for me.

Morality and consequences go hand in hand, and to try to limit behavior using one without the other is difficult, bordering on impossible.

Think for a moment about training people to do things: raising children, teaching classes, leading groups. There are a lot of different ways to do that. You can offer positive reinforcement, when someone does something you like. You can offer negative reinforcement when someone does something you don’t like. You can delay the reinforcements to the end of an arbitrary schedule, shifting them into rewards and punishments. You can refuse to associate with people who don’t do as you say. You can convince people to want to do what you say, or figure out what their motivation is behind their actions and use that to your own advantage. You can ignore behavior you don’t like (with the optional bonus of praising behavior you do like, when it appears). (Want to read more about that and how you can use it to your advantage? Don’t Shoot the Dog! by Karen Armstrong.)

All of these things (and modified forms) are what we use to get other responsive creatures (animals, friends, children) to do as we wish. Now let’s take that back out into social policy.

There is certain behavior that we want, that benefits society. Part of that is raising kids in stable and loving homes, with parents who are active and invested. That’s one of those great constants that liberals and conservatives agree on, mostly because if anyone comes out against it, everyone on the other side accuses that person of loving child abuse and being all about the whole serial killer thing.

So the disagreement comes from two places. One place is what constitutes a stable and loving home. The historical stereotype of that place is one where a mother and father are legally committed, have sex, make babies, raise babies together on account of the whole committed thing, and hopefully pay attention to said babies or get ruthlessly judged by the neighborhood carpool. Liberals often deconstruct that by saying that none of those elements individually (man and woman, legal commitment, sex, raising babies together, etc.) is actually a magic element that makes sure the kids are happy and stable. Conservatives often use that stereotype as an example of something that’s been historically successful, and therefore encourage families to be as much like that stereotype as possible, at least from the outside. They argue that those individual elements are necessary for a strong and nurturing home.

I could go on tangents about that all day. What I want to talk about is behavior, and how you influence people such that they choose that kind of relationship for their family.

What we want is stable homes for children. Historically that mandated controlling sex, on account of the whole sex makes babies thing. So in order to control the outcome, it was necessary to control behavior.

Sex is a very hard behavior to control. It’s hard to control on an individual level, and it’s hard to control on a group level. There are a lot of positive reinforcements built into the body related to having lots of sex as often as possible (either because God wants to tempt us or because evolution favors organisms that enjoy procreation). To control it, you need something stronger.

That’s where consequences and morals come in. What I realized after thinking for about it for a while is that neither of those things is individually strong enough to control sexual behavior. That may be obvious – actually, it should be obvious, because very often the two together aren’t enough to control sexual behavior – but it put some things in perspective.

Stay with me for a second here. Consequences (by which I mean pregnancy, in or out of wedlock), with no moral stigma, are not enough to control behavior. First of all, the consequences come a lot later than the decision; second of all, people deal with consequences all the time. Maybe they’re inconvenient or difficult or unfortunate, maybe they’re wonderful and sweet and charming, but people find a way of dealing with them because that is the only option. Moral stigma makes consequences a lot more difficult, and it shores up the decision-making part of the process; it takes up the slack.

Now let’s look at the other side, which happens to be the world we live in now. Birth control, abortion, reproductive health, gay sex – all of these take the immediately visible consequences away from sex outside wedlock. (There are diseases, but many of them are not immediately discernible to the general populace. Babies are, especially in smaller communities.) Suddenly, there aren’t visible consequences, and that takes away one of the two major cornerstones of attempts to control sex. If even both of them together exert only a very tenuous control over sexual conduct (and it is tenuous, even for people for whom both of those are very strong motivators), think for a moment about what happens when one of them is removed.

Yeah. So what does this mean? Of course conservatives want to limit access to abortion, birth control, and reproductive rights. If we get the consequences back, it’s hella easier to control the behavior than if we’re just relying on morals! Especially since those damned liberal jackasses are all “morals should be an individual decision,” like whatever, let’s see them run the country and drag their opponents through the mud if they’re not willing to judge like an angry God!

The funny thing is that they’re using their moral convictions as arguments about bringing consequences back in. As in, they are explicitly using that language. That’s why feminists are all throwing out words like “paternalistic,” because the double-whammy of you-shouldn’t-do-this-because-it’s-wrong and here-are-the-consequences-for-doing-that is how you raise children. That's why it sounds condescending when people are like, it's wrong that you had sex (I'm judging you; there are morals at work) and you have to keep your baby and carry it to term and take care of it (there are physical consequences at work). The unspoken addendum is, next time I hope you'll show better judgment and make a wiser decision!

The thing about raising children is, often (not always) getting angry is a negative consequence. Children get very upset when their parents are mad. Thus the moral judgment is itself a negative consequence in addition to the physical consequence of "baby." That doesn't necessarily hold true politically. Republicans getting angry at women, or gay people? Pshh, when are they not? This isn’t a parent-child relationship, and a lot of liberal people have figured out that the trick is to not care. Not care and fight back.

So what is the only way of reestablishing that control? By removing the factors that limit or remove physical consequences, because if the moral judgment doesn't help people decide, then having to change diapers for twenty-nine months will, by golly. Bye bye, Planned Parenthood funding.


  1. Zombie Hume, vampire Kant, and other dead moral philosophers in your background look askew at your casual bandying about of the term morality and its application to religious conservative fervor.

    I think it is giving them too much credit to call it a morality (despite their constant attempt to misappropriate the term), or even to dignify it as a manifestation of the Euthyphro dilemma. It's just a one step removed consequence scheme with stigma, hellfire, and damnation playing the part of the stick and an angry arbitrary god its wielder. So it isn't that there are two negative reinforcements, there is just one: consequence. Science and progressive society just stole the only real arrow from their consequence quiver and they will lie, cheat, and steal to get it back.

    Other than that, you are right on target.

  2. Heh. Kant I stopped acknowledging ages ago, but I can't disappoint my buddy Hume.

    I in no way meant to imply that I agreed with the actual "moral arguments" put forth by the right, and I in fact do agree with you that it is merely the means of offering another negative consequence -- a kind of punishment, distinguished from physical consequence (baby) by how much it is enjoyed by those implementing it.

    It was more a case of what givens I wanted to use in the argument. Most of us have heard the phrase "with the right givens, you can prove anything," which is at least anecdotally, if not universally, true. It's a whole different argument, proving these "morals" faulty (not one that can't be or hasn't been already made), but I felt it tangential to what I was trying to get across, and so made the semi-conscious decision to use their terms -- to allow that particular "given" -- in order to shift the focus to what I was trying to emphasize.

    It was, however, sloppy. :)