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Friday, March 28, 2014

Post-Debate Reflection

My debate with Matt Dillahunty has come to an end. If you didn't get a chance to listen to it, you can do so here. The winner of sporting events is clear-cut; the winner of debates: not so much. What matters are the arguments, and whether the arguments were adequately answered, though other factors can sway people's opinions. In terms of content, I’m pleased with what I had to offer, though Matt probably topped me in terms of style. As far as who “won”? I think most debaters think they won the debate (and most listeners believe their debater won the debate) regardless of how well or poorly their opponent did. Personally, I’m not as interested in who won the debate. What I care about is the fact that I was able to present my case to Matt's supporters.

My arguments were that the unborn are full human beings from fertilization, and that they are fully persons from fertilization. Matt gave no response to these arguments; more than that, he flat-out refused to engage these arguments. He just asserted that personhood is irrelevant because the woman's bodily autonomy is sacred (kind of ironic, coming from an atheist). Specifically, he claims "no one has the right to use your body against your will," without evidence or really even an argument for that conclusion. As well as giving an argument for the full humanity and personhood of the unborn, I gave an argument for why personhood is very relevant to this issue, and Matt didn't respond. He just kept repeating his mantra.

I think we were given too much time for cross-examination, and I think that's where I did the worst in the debate. I'm used to giving presentations, not the back-and-forth of cross-examination. After the fact, a friend pointed out that Matt thrives on cross-examination; he has years of experience doing that on The Atheist Experience. I'm not so used to that. I think Matt was also able to capitalize on the long pauses I gave while I was thinking of what to say. I suppose podcasts aren’t the best format for taking time to formulate what I want to say. I want to take care not to say something I don’t mean, but in an audio-only format I think silence really counts against debaters.

When it came time for me to cross-examine Matt, I tried to press him on the personhood issue. He still flat-out refused to address personhood because, to him, it's irrelevant to the question of abortion. Yet, once again, he didn’t provide a real argument for why it’s irrelevant, so much as a simple assertion. Despite his insistence that personhood is irrelevant and his refusal to engage personhood arguments, Matt continually implied his position on personhood through language such as “non-conscious clump of cells” or “human quote life” (i.e. human “life”). He also continually betrayed his presupposition that fetal life is irrelevant with examples and analogies that fail to account for the fetus at all, such as his modification of the baseball analogy to be breaking a window in your own house, which doesn’t affect more than one person. It’s bad enough to refuse to engage your debate opponent’s arguments. It’s worse to imply disagreement or mockery of those arguments and then continue to refuse to actually address them, much less refute them.

During cross examination I also tried to press Matt on child support, but like the personhood question, he wouldn’t give a solid answer, instead asserting that I wasn't listening to him. The reality is he just wasn't willing to take a stand on child support, but to be consistent, if the woman should be able to opt out at any time during pregnancy, so should the man. But we don't accept that, because what matters are the needs of the child, not the desires of the parent.

Matt also didn't adequately respond to my discussion of rights. He asserts that society grants rights, but he doesn’t then try to explain why society values some rights more than others, or whether society is correct in doing so. Moreover, he doesn’t explain how a right grounded in society—which is ever changing—could be an absolute right. Does Matt believe bodily autonomy always trumps the right to life? If so, why? If the answer is simply “because society says so,” and society changed its mind, would Matt go along with the change? If not, why not? And if not, how does he ground rights? Because it clearly wouldn't be simply "rights are whatever society grants as rights." That’s where you get to the heart of Matt’s foundational principles, but he refuses to address those root questions.

Similarly, if rights come from society, there’s nothing inherently right or wrong with society restricting or taking away completely the "right" to an abortion—because society is what’s determining rightness or wrongness in the first place. Matt needs to provide a much stronger answer than “society grants rights” to justify continually fighting for the right to abortion. Otherwise the society that Matt believes in is a society in which no one is safe, because the many can take away the rights of the few, or the strong can take away the rights of the weak, as we’ve seen plenty of times in the past. Only if all human beings are recognized as rights-bearing entities are all people in that society safe.

Unfortunately we weren't given a chance for closing statements. I really wish I had more time to interact with that last caller, but if you'd like to see my full in-depth response to the Burning IVF Facility thought experiment, you can read it here.

All in all, it was an interesting and intense time. Matt Dillahunty is definitely one of the most heavy-weight debaters I've had the chance to debate. If you listened to it, I'd love to hear how you think I did, or what you think I could have done better. Please feel free to give me your thoughts in the comments.

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