“If I had watered the flowers yesterday, they wouldn’t be dead today.” Such counterfactual statements are tricky because there is no way to confirm their truth, since in this case I didn’t water the flowers. For it’s always possible that they would have died anyway due to some unknown cause or because they needed watering two days ago if they were not to die today. Still, even though counterfactuals present such problems, we can still make reasonable claims about them. Consider, for example: “If Barnes had not had the flu, then he would have gone on the trip and died in the plane crash.” It’s possible something else would have prevented his going, but he could well assess for himself that nothing else simultaneously happened to keep him from going (no death in the family, for example) so that he most likely would have been on the plane if he hadn’t had the flu—and, thus, the flu saved him.
I often think about such cases because I think they point out how the smallest seeming choices and occurrences ripple forward in time to great consequence. One such example in my own life was in October 2008. My then wife, Jennie, and I had in July moved to San Marcos, Texas from Iowa after I graduated with my PhD but could not find a tenure-track position anywhere. We moved so she could do an MFA in creative writing (poetry). But then we decided to get divorced in early October. While I was feeling alone, and impatient not to be, in late October when I was asked whether I wanted to go to Austin for dinner and drinks with a few friends and a woman visiting one of them from out of town, my initial response to myself was, “no.” I’m not much for going out, but then I reconsidered and decided to do it after all. Having made that choice, on March 15th, 2009, I ended up moving into an apartment in a row house basement in Washington, DC, with that friend of a friend. I’m fairly confident that that would not have happened if I had not changed my mind about going out with them to Austin, for she was leaving the next day and I would not have seen her again otherwise, at least not under those same conditions.
As I see it, and what makes counterfactual thinking not only tricky but potentially maddening and depressing, not only did my last minute choice lead to my moving to DC but it also contributed to Jennie’s (my then ex-wife’s) suicide on February 26th, 2010. That is a story for another time, but while she might have killed herself if I had remained in Texas, I know it would have played out very differently. And I know that I would not now be an associate professor of philosophy at the University of North Georgia.
All of this reminds me strongly of the Chinese wisdom story about the farmer finding and bringing home a number of wild horses. His neighbor congratulates him on his good luck. The farmer’s response is basically, “We’ll see.” Not long after, the farmer’s son is riding one of the wild horses and falls, breaking a leg. The neighbor chimes in with an, “Oh, that’s terrible!” The farmer is again, “We’ll see.” Not long after, men come through conscripting all the able-bodied men to fight in a bloody war. The farmer’s son is spared, as he has a broken leg. We can imagine the neighbor’s response and the farmer’s reply.
I don’t take this story to be so much about counterfactuals as the need for humility in assessing the good or evil of something (which we should perhaps keep in mind regardless of who wins the presidential election in a few days). However, we can put the two together—epistemic humility and counterfactuals—and see that if the farmer had not found the horses, the son may well have gone off to war. But, needing to acknowledge our epistemic limitations, it may well have happened that in going off to war, he avoided dying in the earthquake that the rest of his family died in while he was away at war, a war he survives. The upshot here is not, of course, that none of our choices matter or, again, that we can never say anything useful or true about counterfactuals. The upshot is, I think, that we must not be too quick to judge the rightness or wrongness—in terms of consequences—of what happens nor what would have happened.
This gets much more complicated if we are not fully consequentialists of a utilitarian sort. For example, if you hold that it is always wrong to kill someone no matter the consequences, then it is not possible to flatfootedly say, “Even though John was innocent, if I hadn’t killed him, many more would have died, and so his death, albeit tragic, was a good thing.” This is an important complication and it will require one to finesse what comes next.
I hope you will permit me a bit more autobiography. Shortly after I started my PhD in August 2002, I met and start dating an undergraduate student at the school. I was 27 and she was 20. We started dating in early September and shortly after Christmas we found out she was pregnant. We had been carful, but that (obviously) doesn’t always suffice. While we felt in love, we did not feel like it was the right time for a child. We decided that having an abortion at that time would allow us to have a child we could better love and care for later, a child that would not otherwise exist but for the abortion of the fetus then. It was not an easy decision but we made it.
Almost a year and a half later, we broke up. Soon after the break up, she started dating the father of her two children. All these years later now I see her and her children on Facebook as we reconnected this past year. They are beautiful and it is beautiful to see her love for them. But what would have happened if we had not had that abortion? There are too many possibilities and too little information to say much with much confidence. The pregnancy may have been healthy and given birth to a healthy baby. Or maybe not. What would have happened either way? One can imagine any number of possibilities, but I have a hard time imagining that with any of them she would have ended up with the children that she now has.
Moment by moment we make choices whose effects ripple forward in time. We open up and actualize one timeline, one life over another. You will never know, but your forgetting your coffee on the counter and deciding to go back in the house to get it before you drive off to work may place you either in or out of harms way later that day. Similarly and simultaneously it might place another in or out of harms way. Or going back into the house for the coffee may well mean you didn’t stop for coffee on the way to work where you would have met the future father or mother of your child. In the end, all you know for sure is what happens. We cannot plan our lives around such seemingly small things as going back or not for the coffee. However, we can acknowledge both that such seemingly trivial things as going back for coffee may mean life or death and, as she and I did when finding out she was pregnant, that not having a child now opens up the possibility for other children later, children that would not exist otherwise.
Can anyone know that that’s what will happen? Can anyone know that by having an abortion today they are giving life to later children, children who would not otherwise exist? No. At least not with any certainty. But we can know with some confidence that having this one child means not having other children, for perhaps instead of this child, you would have become pregnant with twins five months from now. Or, because of having just had the one child, the mother gets a hormonal birth control implant in her arm and has no more children for several years such that if she hadn’t she would have had two children back to back because circumstances were different with the later pregnancies.
I do not take any of this to imply that abortion is unproblematic or easy. And, as mentioned above, there are further complications if one is not a consequentialist. However, I take it that we, like the farmer, must be cautious about our judgments of women who choose to have abortions. The situation is never so black and white such that we can ever flatfootedly say that by having the abortion she is depriving the world of a life and depriving that life of its own world. In carrying any pregnancy to term, one is depriving the world of other lives and other lives of a world to experience.
I do not take any of this to be a stand alone argument in favor of a woman’s choice. However, I do think it compliments other arguments in favor of a woman’s choice, again, suggesting that we can never flatfootedly say that a particular abortion is bad because it stops a person from coming into existence. Every choice we make has consequences for who we meet, who we end up helping, hurting, falling in love with, etc. If my wife had not wanted to make a point to her then roommate about what it’s like to be a woman on OK Cupid, then we would not now be together. If I had not………. And on and on it goes, each choice giving rise to a different world, populated with different people, a different history, than otherwise.