Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Equal outcomes not equal means

Ed note: Since I originally scheduled this for Monday you guys get a bonus.  Normally today would be Ignitum Today Wednesday.   Enjoy!

One logical error that frequently comes up in discussions regarding Natural Family Planning (NFP) and artificial contraception is this idea that because both methods achieve the same result, they are equal in their moral evaluation.  This can be best summarized as:
The moral value of two actions is equivalent so long as the outcomes are the same.
As a technical matter I am not sure of the specific type of philosophy this is.  It can be argued this is a form of consequentialism (a action's moral weight is dictated solely by its results) but to me this is incorrect due to the idea of the comparison.  The actions' moral value is not stated.  The only thing the principle states is that the actions are equivalent if the outcomes are the same.

The argument in question goes something like this:
If NFP is used to prevent having children, and artificial contraception does the same, why not use artificial contraception?  The two accomplish the same thing.
To examine the error, let us consider another example.  Suppose I wish to earn $100.  Of the top of my head I have three choices:

  1. I can beg in the street until I have enough money.
  2. I can get a job to earn the money.
  3. I can shoot and rob people until I get the money.

Clearly these methods to obtain the $100 are not morally equivalent.  Yet this is exactly the argument used by those who attempt to draw a comparison between contraception and NFP.

This is not to defend the validity of NFP.  But it points to one of the major mistakes that people make when discussing the topic.  I suspect it comes from our society's utilitarian viewpoint that creeps in on a regular basis. Nevertheless it is a fallacy to equate methods with the outcome of those methods.


Anonymous said...

In the example of obtaining $100, one plan came at the cost of nobody either willingly or unwillingly (the case of working for payment), one plan came at the willing cost of other people (the case of begging), and one came at the unwilling cost of other people (the case of robbery). So your example is loaded because clearly ethically the choice which does not come at any other person's cost is the most ideal.

For the most part (without getting into the details of the cost to society for less effective birth control increasing taxpayer costs), neither the natural method nor birth control affect people outside of a marriage. For argument sake I think we can agree that neither method comes at the cost of other people (insurance coverage of birth control is significantly less expensive than insurance coverage of unplanned pregnancies).

Therefor your example is interesting, but kind of loaded. A more appropriate example would be "I want to eat an orange, I can either (A) peel the orange and eat the fruit within, or (B) eat the orange peel and eat the fruit within". Sure, one plan is accepted by most people as correct, but neither plan hurts anyone. It might be silly, but both end up with me eating an orange without hurting anybody, including myself. The same end point is achieved without having harmed anyone in both processes.

If contraception is "wrong" and the natural method is "right", but both achieve the same goals without hurting anybody the process, I am sure you could understand the confusion of non-catholics on this issue.

Your point is interesting and well made, but to convince me on this issue you will have to show how two choices (neither of which have different costs to society or the individual) which achieve the same outcome can have different moral weight.

Your friend,

CatholicGuy said...

The intent of the post is not to demonstrate the validity of NFP over contraception. My point was merely that to note that the outcomes are the same do not imply validity of means. It is an fallacy argument that I come across over and over again (and in fact having this discussion on reddit).

" For argument sake I think we can agree that neither method comes at the cost of other people"

I would dispute that both in the "harming people" and "cost" categories, but both are discussions for future posts.