Tolerance or Violence?

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

A friend and I recently had a rational debate about abortion. Yes, rational debate is possible, even about touchy subjects.

Neither of us convinced the other, but we now understand each other better. Perhaps even more important, we confirmed that disagreement does not imply evil. Rational, well-meaning people can have clashing beliefs.

The abortion issue is difficult to resolve for two reasons:

  • First, it inflames emotions on both sides. Strong emotion makes it harder for people to think straight. That's why politicians and the media constantly incite it. Enraged people are easy to deceive and manipulate.
  • Second, even without emotional incitement, the abortion issue is complex. Neither side wants to admit the fact, but it is.

Paying a debt

Consider an analogy. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table: One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten.

You take the money. You're satisfied that I've paid my debt.

The reason you're satisfied is that we agreed about:

  • How much I owed you, and
  • The procedure I used to count the money.

A visit to Threetown

Now consider a variation. Suppose that I owe you $10. While you watch, I count out one-dollar bills on a table, just as before: one, two, ten.

"Wait," you say. "You gave me three dollars, not ten!"

"It's only three dollars in base-10," I explain. "Base-3 is much better. That's ten dollars in base-3. I'll prove it to you. Watch." I re-count the money: one, two, ten.

We've got a problem. You define "10" in one way and I define it in a different way.

Neither of us is simply making it up. Both definitions are legitimate in their own terms. (Check the links if you want the background info.)

You'd prefer to be repaid in base-10 dollars. I'd prefer to repay you in base-3 dollars.

You could argue that almost everyone uses the base-10 number system. But we're currently within the city limits of Threetown, where the law requires base-3. If people want to use base-10, they must go outside the city limits.

It's a bizarre situation. You should probably just wait until we leave Threetown to demand payment.

Neither of us can prove our definition of "10," so our only other alternative is to fight. That would cause more than $7 (base-10) worth of damage to both of us. We could do it, but the costs would exceed the benefits. It seems unwise to cause a bigger harm to redress a smaller harm.

A visit to Alabama

We left Threetown, whereupon you insisted that I repay you in base-10 dollars. Lacking any further excuse, I did so. We're square.

But we're now in Alabama, where they define a fetus at any stage of pregnancy as a legal person. Under a recently-enacted law, abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother. To get an elective abortion, a person must travel across the state line to a more permissive state.

Some people who live in other states don't define the fetus as a person, though they don't care if it's a person or not. In their view, the only thing that matters is what the mother wants. (And what people in Alabama want doesn't matter at all. They are considered Untermenschen.)

Here we are again: two conflicting definitions. One side says the fetus is a person, the other side says it isn't. One side says the fetus takes priority, the other says the mother does. Neither side can prove its claims.

Do we fight, or do we live and let live?

If someone's coming at you with a bayonet, the situation is very clear. But if some state has a law that makes it slightly more difficult to get an abortion, that's a lot less clear.

When a situation is morally and/or factually unclear, I believe in a policy of "live and let live." It minimizes harm and maximizes freedom.


Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."