Vox Kills Piece Implying a Philosophical Reason to Oppose Abortion

AP Photo
AP Photo

UPDATE: Vox’s Ezra Klein has published an explainer about his decision to spike the piece described (and linked below). Klein first confirms that Vox did solicit the piece and that he was the editor that chose not to run it. As for the reasons why, here is his explanation:

The idea that every human being has a moral obligation to produce as many children as physically possible has, to say the least, a lot of implications. Two of them, though by no means the only ones I raised to Matthews, were that birth control and abortion are, under most circumstances, immoral. I am very, very uncomfortable telling anyone that it is their obligation to bear child after child, starting at the moment of first fertility and ending only at menopause. And I didn’t think the piece made its case convincingly enough for us to stand behind a conclusion so sweeping and dramatic.

(As it happens, I also didn’t really think of the piece as particularly pro-life in the political sense of the term; its basic argument is not one that most pro-lifers, or really anyone, would endorse — that’s why it’s called the repugnant conclusion.)

But the other issue was that the piece was commissioned when we were looking to launch a new section for unusual, provocative arguments. That section, for various reasons, didn’t launch (though maybe we’ll revisit it someday!), and so we didn’t have a place to put this piece where it felt to me like it would make editorial sense. If we had launched the section, I would have asked Dylan to send back an edit that dealt with the various objections, but in the absence of the section I thought the result would just be too confusing, and too unusual, for the site.

Given that Klein has been accused of spiking a piece for political reasons, he is eager to deny it. Unfortunately, the email rejection doesn’t leave him space for an outright denial (at least not without throwing Dylan Matthews under the bus). Instead, he offers an absurdist, straw-man version of the argument made in the piece, i.e. “every human being has a moral obligation to produce as many children as physically possible.” A sentence later he writes, “I am very, very uncomfortable telling anyone that it is their obligation to bear child after child, starting at the moment of first fertility and ending only at menopause.”

No one who read the piece could possible conclude this apart from motivated reasoning. In fact, an entire section of it argues exactly the opposite [emphasis added]:

Suppose I have a choice as to whether to have a baby at 15 or at 35. If I have the baby at 15, I’ll earn much less money in my career, the baby will go to worse schools and live in a worse neighborhood, and generally her life will be much tougher. If I have her at 35, I’ll be able to adequately provide for the baby, pay for college, and so forth. If I have the baby at 15, then, did I do anything wrong? I did not, by actualist reasoning. There is no one there to complain about what I did. The baby is, after all, happy to be around. By creating her, I did not violate her rights. And the hypothetical baby I would’ve had at 35 isn’t around to complain. But this cannot be right. If these are the options I have, I ought to wait. The world where I have a baby at 35 is just happier than the one where I have a baby at 15.

Having completely misrepresented the piece he rejected, Klein adds that he would have asked for a revised version, but the new place to publish it didn’t exist. Of course, that was never mentioned in the email sent by Dylan Matthews, and there is no way to check the timeline of events, i.e. did Vox decide to kill the new vertical before or after it rejected the piece. Given his handling of the piece itself, we probably can’t take Klein’s word for it.

The original story follows below:

Politics makes us stupid. That was Ezra Klein’s thumbnail version of a dilemma social science says exists at the core of all political journalism.

While Klein never claimed his new company would be immune to so-called cultural cognition, he did promise it would use its awareness of the problem to at least combat it.

Now we’ve learned that Vox has given up trying. A philosophy blog called the Leiter Report shares an exchange between Vox’s Dylan Matthews and Kristian Claëson, a Swedish philosophy professor. Matthews wrote to Claëson asking if he would write a piece about a specific argument in philosophy known as the “repugnant conclusion.” Here’s his letter:

I’m an editor for the US news site Vox.com, and we’re trying to start a new series where philosophers and other thinkers argue for provocative and/or counterintuitive propositions that our readers might find intriguing.

I’m a big fan of your work from my undergraduate years — there aren’t a lot of fellow hedonic utilitarians in philosophy! — and in particular found your argument for accepting the repugnant conclusion very compelling. It’s a fascinating problem, and one that’s fairly easy for lay readers to get into — people care about population size, and “We have a duty to make the world’s population as large as possible” is a proposition that demands peoples’ attention.

I’m writing to ask if you’d like to write up a popular version of your argument on this for Vox.

The pitch was simple: Write something on this provocative idea for our site. Claëson agreed and wrote this piece. Here’s the opening:

You should have kids. Not because it’s fun, or rewarding, or in your evolutionary self-interest. You should have kids because it’s your moral duty to do so.

My argument is simple. Most people live lives that are, on net, happy. For them to never exist, then, would be to deny them that happiness. And because I think we have a moral duty to maximize the amount of happiness in the world, that means that we all have an obligation to make the world as populated as can be.

That, in brief, is the repugnant conclusion. It’s called that because many philosophers find the idea repugnant. In any case, after submitting the article to Vox, Claëson didn’t get a response. Finally, he wrote Matthews to ask if there was a problem. He received this response from Matthews [emphasis added]:

Afraid I have to be the bearer of bad news, Torbjörn. I ran the piece by some other editors and they weren’t comfortable running it; I think the concern is that people will misinterpret it as implying opposition to abortion rights and birth control, which, while I know it’s not your intent, is a real concern.

I’m sorry to waste your time; I really am a big fan of your work and appreciate your willingness to work with me.

It’s worth noting that the words “abortion” and “birth control” never appear in Professor Claëson’s piece. That said, anyone reading Professor Claëson’s piece would be justified in concluding that it was inherently anti-abortion (and anti-Malthusian as well). The piece certainly doesn’t offer any objection to a specific abortion (say, to save a woman’s life), but collectively it is a pro-birth argument. Vox’s readers would have correctly judged these implications and, presumably, not cared for them. That’s exactly why the piece was killed.

Thanks to this leaked exchange, we have a pretty clear view of what Vox is behind the scenes. Forget about rising above cultural cognition through self-awareness and self-reflection. That’s right out. The real Vox avoids anything which might offend progressive verities, of which support for abortion certainly ranks near the top. By its own lights, Vox has become stupid, intentionally so.


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