I would like to write a follow-up to my recent article about an event that happened while I was at College of the Sequoias for a pro-life outreach, which was picked up at LifeNews. So I wanted to take a moment to explain exactly why I believe that asking questions is so important to having good discussion.
The reason that I spend time asking questions is simple: rather than telling people what they should think, I help them connect the dots for themselves. While debating can be fun and intellectually stimulating (and occasionally I meet someone on a college campus who enjoys verbally sparring), it’s usually not conducive to changing minds if you meet someone who doesn’t enjoy it so much. So rather than lay out a philosophical case for them, I ask questions to help them see these things for themselves. Rather than argue that the unborn are valuable human beings, and it’s wrong to kill innocent human beings unjustly, I help them see that what the issue really boils down to is what is the unborn? If the unborn are valuable human beings, then we can’t justify killing them through abortion.
A very important reason for asking questions is to get clarification of their views. It won’t do if I just go around assuming other peoples’ views and misrepresenting them. If someone tells me they’re pro-choice, that could mean a hundred different things to them. If they tell me that they believe abortion should be legal, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they believe all abortions should be legal. In fact, most people in the United States actually think that late-term abortions should be illegal. This fact, alone, gives us some common ground to work with because I, too, believe that late-term abortions should be illegal. This gives me a chance to ask them why they believe late-term abortions should be illegal, and ask them what the difference is between an early-term embryo and a late-term fetus that would justify our killing one but not the other. I’ve found this style of conversation to be much more effective in changing hearts and minds than just presenting the evidence and never straying from that evidence. We should treat the other side as human beings. We need to understand that they have concerns that need to be addressed, and we should be willing to address them on top of keeping the conversation focused on the nature of unborn human beings.
This doesn’t mean that I never present evidence. Asking questions of the other person doesn’t mean that I only ask questions. I present my case, as well, when appropriate. In fact, two people that I convinced to become pro-life did so just after I presented them with the biological information about human development.
So asking questions is the best way to get people to realize the answers for themselves. It’s much more effective if you can lead them through the thought process to arrive at the correct answer, rather than just giving them the answer. If someone tells me that abortion should be legal because some women can’t afford it, I can help show them that we can’t justify abortion for those reasons if the unborn are valuable human beings like we are. If someone says they don’t believe late-term abortions should be legal, I can ask them questions about what they see as the relevant difference between an early embryo and a late-term fetus that would justify killing one and not the other, and ask them pointed questions to see if their view holds up. This is much more effective than just telling someone how wrong they are. If you are abrasive with someone, it will usually cause them to stop taking you seriously. You can win the argument, but lose the person. Winning the person is much more important.
To illustrate this a little more, last year I had a conversation with a pro-choice guy, whom I’ll call Scott. Scott had a pretty bizarre belief about abortion. He was pro-choice throughout the nine months of pregnancy, but he didn’t think we are human until we take on human appearance. As I mentioned, it’s important to ask clarification questions because there are a hundred different reasons someone may be pro-choice. It’s important not to assume what they mean. So I asked him if he means we’re not biologically human, or if we’re not human in a more philosophically “morally relevant” sense. He clarified that he meant the latter. He did see that he had an internal inconsistency in his view since we take on human appearance early on in the pregnancy, to say nothing of the fact that even at the single-celled zygote stage, it does actually look like all human beings do, at that stage in their development. However, he didn’t seem very concerned about the inconsistency. I sometimes like to bring up the example of Joseph Merrick, the Elephant Man, when examining whether human appearance matters morally to a human being’s value. But this time, I decided to use a reductio ad absurdum, which means assuming the premises of an argument and taking it to its logical conclusion, thereby showing that if it leads to absurdities then the argument should be rejected.
I asked him if someone loses a body part, say a soldier loses an arm in a war, does that person become less human? He said no. I also asked if someone loses a human function, like eyesight, or perhaps just loses their eyes, do they become less human? He said no again, even telling me a story about someone he knows in a wheelchair, and how he doesn’t consider her any less human for it. He admitted that his views are logically contradictory, but he’s still pro-choice. I ended up talking to him for a while, not thinking I had made any leeway.
However, the next day he came back to talk to me. He told me that the previous day I had given him a lot to think about. He appreciated the great conversation we had. And here, I’d like to reiterate from my previous article that I’m not a great conversationalist. I was just using the essential conversational skills that we teach, to actually listen to his position and ask questions, rather than assuming what he believes and what he means. By the end of the conversation that day, he told me that he was definitely pro-life now.
And the story doesn’t end there. At my recent pro-life outreach at Fresno City College, Scott showed up again. I was mentoring another pro-life person, and he came up to talk to me. We remembered each other, and to the pro-life person I was mentoring, he mentioned he was pro-life, but unsure of the situation of rape. So we talked to him a bit about it, and I wanted to give him a thought experiment, formulated by Steve Wagner, Tim and Josh Brahm, as well as having input from other pro-life advocates. You can find this argument laid out in a paper here in a big link on the left side of the page. I am still new to the thought experiment, so I didn’t just want to muddle through it. Josh was on campus with us, so I called him over to give the thought experiment to Scott. I had to step away to talk to other people, but after Josh and Scott had finished talking Josh told me that the thought experiment had convinced Scott that abortion should be illegal in the case of rape.
I think that Scott is a perfect example of why we should concentrate on asking questions, and not just beating people over the head with facts. Everyone is different, and believes different things. We can’t just assume one size fits all in the abortion debate. In fact, Abby Johnson is a former president of Planned Parenthood, who was convinced to quit the organization and become a pro-life advocate by the efforts of pro-life advocates who treated her kindly. She wrote a book called Unplanned (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. 2010), in which she talks about her conversion from pro-choice Planned Parenthood president to passionate pro-life advocate. On page 40 of her book (emphasis hers), she writes:
“On my first day as a Planned Parenthood volunteer, the confrontational and hostile demeanor of a few in the pro-life crowd not only colored my perception of their movement but solidified my commitment to Planned Parenthood. Though my first day had been baffling, one thing was clear to me: those on my side of the fence were defending and helping women, as we protected them from those on the other side of the fence.”
It was the belligerent pro-life people who solidified her commitment to Planned Parenthood, and the efforts of kind pro-life advocates like Shawn Carney who convinced her to change. If we want to be more effective in the abortion issue, we need to be willing to meet people where they’re at, and not just try and badger them into becoming pro-life. Yes, the unborn are valuable human beings, but we also need to remember that the person who disagrees with us, even on the issue of abortion, is just as intrinsically valuable a human being as the unborn we seek to save.