Thursday, June 08, 2006

Show Me That You Mean It

In a comment on my post of yesterday on the anti-intellectualism of Peter Berkowitz and John Derbyshire, an old student of mine remarks that there is a non-cognitive aspect to moral reasoning that naturally makes most of us a little nervous about the sorts of “bright line” arguments against abortion offered by Ramesh Ponnuru and Hadley Arkes, among others.

I'm inclined to agree with Apollodorus that arguments--even pretty good ones--can be constructed to fit just about any purpose. In particular, I agree that the "reasons" that are often given for permitting a certain degree of latitude in moral arguments are sometimes very attractive from a subjective point of view. The trouble I have with this sort of approach, though, is the very arbitrariness that it introduces. One person feels sympathetic to one set of circumstances, another feels sympathetic to another. Why ought we to honor the sympathies of one person rather than another, particularly when such sympathies are always a function of that particular individual's own passions and desires?

This is a particularly pressing problem, I think, when the issue involves harm to others. It's one thing, for example, to say that some folks can handle polygamy, others can't, that some societies can tolerate the pressures introduced by such a system while others can't (though there is a fairly interesting article in The Weekly Standard that argues that polygamy is not conducive to democracy). But to suggest that there are some circumstances that warrant the intentional killing of an innocent human being is to stray quite far from moral reality.

Clearly there are cases in which it is justifiable to take a human life--if only in self-defense. Those cases are at least arguably not instances of the taking of an innocent human life. When we kill in self-defense, it must always be as a last resort, when the intentions of our assailant are crystal clear (if that is ever possible) and our options limited to just the one response: kill or be killed.

This is clearly not the case with the vast majority--if not the sum total--of abortions, including very early ones and very late ones. There are almost always alternatives available to the killing of the innocent human being in the womb, and it is a curious irony that very often it is the same folks who demand extraordinary precautions in such things as the use of the death penalty, the prosecution of war, and the use of lethal means of self-defense who suddenly become like marshmallows when it comes to allowing an abortion.

The fact that we feel sympathy for a particular person's situation does not entail that we ought to permit that person to do whatever s/he feels must be done; we are still capable of looking at the situation from the point of view of the other, equally innocent, human being involved and asking: if I were in that fetus's baby slippers, would I want my mother to hire a doctor to kill me?

Let those who can unequivocally answer "yes" to that question check themselves into the nearest mental hospital.

Having said all of that, I must agree with Apollodorus when he writes
I find myself frankly overwhelmed by the number of obstacles that stand in the way of a good solution to the problems that drive people towards abortion in the first place, and usually give up in face of the complexity.
This is a temptation for virtually everyone who engages the anti-abortion argument with any vehemence. It is too easy to get involved in the argument itself, working inexorably towards that conclusion that we see must follow from the logic of morals, and to forget about what must be done out there in the real world once we have proven our point to the satisfaction of most people. On an Aristotelian account of morality, of course, this would not need to be said, since for the Aristotelian virtue is not merely made manifest by action, it is made complete therein. It is not enough to combat anti-intellectualism by merely being an intellectual. One must also do something.

1 comment:

Apollodorus said...

I should, perhaps, clarify what I said earlier, though you may in fact understand me correctly. I did not intend to suggest that ethics is non-cognitive in some way that undermines the rationality of ethical arguments in principle, and you and I are on the same page when it comes to what feeling sympathy for a person does and does not entitle us to do.

What troubles me, however, is that opposition to abortion seems to be one of the few areas of moral dispute in our country that does not lack hearty activists. There are surely a good number of people who stay at the level of argument and make no movement towards action. I am more worried, however, by people who move to action of a kind that seems doomed to fail or to make matters worse. Too often, it seems to me, pro-life people would be content to see abortion made illegal, and thus they go to protests and sign petitions and vote sometimes on the basis of the issue of abortion alone. My worry, and the thing that keeps me from getting active about abortion, is that I do not see a ban on abortion alone as a very good solution. What we need, if we are to make all or most abortions illegal, is some set of institutions that can help people deal with the problems that drive them to have abortions in the first place. In my experience, most pro-life people simply do not care about this sort of thing, and that troubles me most of all.

Alasdair MacIntyre, interestingly enough, was led by his dissatisfaction with precisely that problem to refuse voting at all in 2004. I didn't follow him into that, but I can see his point.