Essay:What is the point of debating topics on which nobody is likely to change his mind?

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"It’s like shearing a pig – plenty of squealing but not much wool" — Vladimir Putin[1]

There are some subjects, like abortion, that people don't seem to want to change their minds about. You will run into many people who have gone from being atheist to Christian, or from Christian to atheist, and you will encounter many people who switched political parties because of a radical change in ideology. People seem open to changing their minds about economic issues, especially when they are young. People will even reconsider their aesthetic objections to gay sex and say "I can live with the fact that people in this society do stuff that I personally don't enjoy watching or thinking about."

But how many people do you know who changed their opinions about abortion? Usually, the only change you see is that a person who got one or more abortions in their youth grew older, to the point that they were no longer likely to need to get another abortion, and then decided "I may as well support making this option unavailable to others, now that I won't be negatively affected by such restrictions." The same occurs with cannabis consumption; people use it in their youth and then say "Well, I quit using it, so now I have nothing to lose by saying it should be banned entirely to keep it out of the hands of my children." This smacks more of opportunism than legitimate changes in philosophy, so I think we can safely disregard these cases.

You can debunk a lot of arguments about abortion, such as "Abortion is harder on a woman's body than childbirth and exposes her to more health risks." But it doesn't change people's fundamental values, and therefore doesn't alter what basic policy they support. They will still say that banning abortion is the right thing to do because of ethical principles. Some people are willing to sacrifice the safety and happiness of millions of women in order to save one unborn child's life, regardless of how miserable that life might happen to be, just because they value preventing (or at least trying to prevent) that "murder" above all other priorities. It's a question of ultimate ends that are not subject to rational examination.

One could raise other examples, but it's probably better to stick with those that criticize outsiders rather than the mainstream RationalWiki community, lest this essay be construed as an unwelcome attack. Those side issues would then become a distraction. The point is that debate on some subjects just isn't very productive at shifting the numbers in support of various stances, and all we can do is vote on those topics periodically and let the majority (whether of the electorate or their representatives, or of Supreme Court justices) decide the matter. The tide may turn as old generations die out and new generations with different opinions come of age, but otherwise it's pretty hard to get people to change their minds.

The purpose that organizations like NARAL serve is to rile up the supporters for a given point of view and mobilize them to become activists and apply pressure for change. Whichever side is more passionate and applies the most pressure has a better chance of winning, because it doesn't come down to numbers alone. However, it would be naive to think that the arguments raised are actually going to sway the other side. Those are strictly for the purpose of strengthening the resolve of those who already agree, and maybe weakening the opponent's resolve just a tad when they are forced to admit that certain arguments can't be refuted. They will never come completely over to the other side, though.

See also[edit]


  1. Howse, Christopher (26 June 2013). There are many ways to shear a pig, Mr Putin. The Telegraph