Tuesday, January 22, 2008

A Nation Born Blind

In the Gospels Our Lord is sometimes portrayed as healing the blind, as though that were a remarkable thing to do, as though restoring sight to the blind were an act of kindness, the relieving of a malady. Imagine how strange it would have seemed, both in antiquity and to our own ears, were one of these blind people to say to Our Lord, "What are you doing? I don't want my sight restored, I'm happy just the way I am!" Blindness has two vectors: one is either born blind, or one becomes blind after being born with sight. I find it very difficult to believe that a person who became blind after being born with sight would actually prefer to remain blind; but I also find it hard to believe that, if offered the capacity to see, someone who had been born blind would refuse the gift. Even without knowing what it is like to see, I think, a person born blind would be unable to think of any rationally compelling reason to remain blind if sight were in the offing.

Aristotle, famously, remarked that vision is the most precious of the sensory modalities:
All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; and above all others the sense of sight. For not only with a view to action, but even when we are not going to do anything, we prefer seeing (one might say) to everything else. The reason is that this, most of all the senses, makes us know and brings to light many differences between things (Metaphysics 1.1 980a21-26)
This would appear to be a nearly universal human sentiment, and so it would seem strange, not only if a person born blind were to refuse a gift of restoration of sight, but also if we, who have sight, were to refuse to give such a gift, were it ours to give. Suppose you had the capacity to restore sight to a person born blind. Would you say to him, "You've never had sight, so you can't possibly know what you're missing, you can't possibly feel slighted by being sightless, and so you have no right to complain if I refuse to give sight to you."

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

And yet that is what we do say, all of us, and we have been saying it for thirty-five years now. Only we're not saying it about sight; we're saying it about life itself. We say to the unborn: "You're not fully developed, you're a mere potentiality. You have no commitments, no web of relationships, no similarity to the rest of us who can walk and talk and reason among ourselves. You are totally alien, you have no cognition, no sentience, and since you have no nervous system to speak of, you can't even feel pain as yet. And so you have no right to complain if we refuse to let all of these things develop in you."

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

A person who has other commitments. A person who already has as many children as she wants. A person who thinks that the economic burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that the psychological burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that there are already enough children in the world. Or, perhaps, a person who never wanted any children to begin with, who got pregnant by mistake. Or against her will.

All of which are perfectly reasonable worries. And yet, none of the people who offer such reasons as these for killing a child in the womb would think it reasonable to offer the very same reason as justification for terminating the life of a child outside of the womb. Why not? We comfort ourselves with the abject Otherness of the fetus. It is so very unlike us, after all, and it has none of the same capacities for social interaction that we have, it has none of the self-awareness, none of the "personhood" shared by those outside the womb. Very convenient for us, really, that the fetus is so very different.

Oh, sure, we learned a long time ago that it's not right to treat other persons differently if they seem to be different from us. We don't hold slaves anymore on the basis of racial differences, because that would be wrong. We don't discriminate against women in the workplace anymore (or we try not to) because that would be wrong. That person of the other race may appear to be very unlike me, but really he isn't all that unlike me, he has all the same capacities for walking, talking, and reasoning that I have. If I am a man, I may think that women are rather different from me, but they aren't, really, they have all the same capacities for walking, talking, and reasoning that I have. But a fetus--well, of course it does have all the same capacities that I have, but it cannot yet actualize them, and if I act quickly enough, it never will be able to actualize them, and that is enough to comfort me in the thought that it differs from me in a significant way: it is not a person, and I am. So I may treat it in any way that I desire: it has no duties, no rights--only persons can have those.

In this way do we lie to ourselves. Because we don't want to think about what kind of a person would kill a child for the reasons given above. It's better to pretend that what we're killing is not a child at all.

We prefer to say to the person born blind: "I don't want you to see what I see, it is inconvenient for me to share with you the faculty of vision, and so even though I have the capacity to give you sight, I am not going to do it."

What kind of people are we?

17 comments:

Apollodorus said...

Yes. I think.

But what set you off on this now? You've only said what most of us already knew you believed. Of course, yoou've said it well, and better than I could have. But why now in particular? You seem...well, even more surly than usual.

Roland said...

I hope you are right, but I would not bet on it. In the era of identity politics, I'll bet there are some who have so accepted their blindness as an attribute of personal identity - who have become so committed to their blindness - that they would not readily forego it. Rather, they might even see your suggestion as insulting in its implication that they are somehow incomplete in their current state.

It might be obvious to us that they are, in fact, incomplete, but an aversion to speaking such obvious truths is the whole basis of political correctness.

cnb said...

Thank you, Scott, for this. A superb way of putting the question.

Scott Carson said...

Apollodorus

Today in particular because today is the thirty-fifth anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision. In this diocese it has been declared a day of penitence and reparation. That's why I put it in terms of "we" rather than "they", in terms of what we, as a nation and a people, have wrought together through the democratic process, rather than what they, the supporters of abortion rights, have perpetrated against the innocent.

For what it's worth, I didn't intend for it to sound surly at all, but rather forlorn. Go figure.

Roland,

I'm sure you're quite right: there are plenty who will never see, and it is indeed because of their commitment to the darkness. They are like the dwarves sitting in the little cabin at the end of Lewis's The Last Battle.

Scott Carson said...

Craig,

Thanks! I look forward to the day when nobody needs to put the question any longer.

Dan said...

This is excellent, although I think your analogy slightly downplays the severity of the evil at work here. To me, refusing to give someone the gift of sight (or any other gift we are capable of giving), is an evil that pales in comparison to the act of physically ending a human life through direct action.

Both sins may reflect a kind of selfishness, but there is something more grievous about the second.

Scott Carson said...

Dan

You make a good point, but properly speaking my analogy was not intended to compare the refusal to give sight to the refusal to give life. My intention was actually a lot more pedestrian than that.

Some folks in the pro-abortion movement seem to think that a fetus can make no claims on us at all, because, if it is anything at all, it is mere potentiality. So what I really was interested in comparing the fetus to was the idea of a person born blind not wanting to see. Even though the person born blind has no idea what seeing is or is like, he will still desire it; even though the fetus is nothing more than mere capacity, it does not follow from that that it will not desire life in the fullest, as we live it. It is a form of blindness to pretend that fetuses have no interests at all simply because they are not yet sentient.

Like many of my analogies, this one was inept enough to permit of multiple interpretations, some of which are actually better than the one I intended.

Talent or luck--you make the call!

Apollodorus said...

For what it's worth, I think I understood the analogy as you intended it.

It may be a bit unfair to your opponents, though, to speak of them as committed to darkness. Of course, if you're right, then that's true de re, but not de dicto, as it were. For me, at least, it is an essential element of charity to try to understand other people's views on their own terms. As someone who has only gradually come to the sort of view on abortion that you've outlined, I may be better positioned than you are to understand the opposing view. Now, there are certainly people for whom the mere idea that a fetus makes any sort of moral demands on us is just ridiculous, and I admit that I'm not yet charitable enough to be able to understand that line of thinking. Many people, though, have a deep sense of conflict between the goods of the unborn child and the goods of the mother, and they find it impossible to decide the issue in favor of the child in every instance in good conscience. In my view, the conflict is real, but at least in the vast majority of cases can only be decided in favor of the mother's good if we are willing to adopt a sort of consequentialist calculus of goods that I do not think we should accept. Yet the sorts of considerations that lead people to find consequentialism intuitively plausible are not, so far as I can tell, obviously ridiculous or blatantly evil. I reject consequentialism, but not because it is just obvious that it is mistaken.

In other words, I'm convinced that people can be genuinely conflicted about abortion without being stupid, malicious, or selfish. So I don't think it's especially fair to speak about people who support it as 'committed to darkness.' I'm perfectly willing to admit, however, that an awful lot of popular pro-choice rhetoric does seem to me to fit that description.

Dan said...

Apollodorus,

While I agree that a consequentialist wouldn't necessarily have to agree in advance that abortion is always wrong in every situation, I think it is worth taking a deeper look at this issue.

In the spirit (I think) of this article, lets compare the situation of abortion and weighing the conflict between the goods of the unborn child and the goods of the mother with a similar conflict between two adult humans.

In some cases abortion might only inconvenience (or severely inconvenience) the mother. It would be a rare utilitarian to suggest that a human should die in order to save another human from mere inconvenience. Yet many cases of abortion are exactly that--the death of a human life to save another human from inconvenience.

In other cases abortions can be motivated by the possible death or risk of death by the mother, should she continue to carry the child. It is easy to be sympathetic toward these cases. Yet a utilitarian cannot automatically justify abortion in this case either. Again, if the situation involves(and it does) two human lives, one of which must end for the other to continue, a utilitarian would have to weigh the pros and cons of possible outcomes in choosing between those two lives. No automatic preference should be given to the life of the mother over that of the child.

So I agree that "the conflict is real" for a utilitarian in the sense that they may decide whether an abortion is for the best in a given situation. However, even from a utilitarian point of view there ought to be far fewer abortions than are currently occurring--provided, of course, that we agree that unborn humans are human.

The ones "committed to darkness" are those refusing to accept that unborn humans are still human. Being utilitarian doesn't provide a "get out of darkness free" card in this situation.

Scott,

Thanks for clearing that up for me. I often do my reading late at night (like now) which may affect my comprehension.

On a side note, I am often bothered by how seldom the interest of the father is discussed with respect to abortion. Shouldn't fathers have a stronger voice concerning their unborn children?

Apollodorus said...

Dan,

One of the reasons I reject consequentialism is that once we start trying to calculate consequences, the whole matter begins to seem arbitrary pretty quickly. So on the one hand you're right that just being a consequentialist doesn't lead one to accept all abortions automatically. On the other hand, just what it does lead one to accept is hard to say -- I'm often tempted to say, 'whatever you want.'

It is important to remember, however, that most pro-choice people do not accept all abortions automatically. In fact, most of the pro-choice people that I have ever known have believed that there are too many abortions and that many of them are wrong -- remember that the vast majority of Americans whom we always hear about, the ones who think that abortion should remain legal but should be restricted, count as 'pro-choice.' In my experience, the most common attitude begins from a focus on cases in which a consequentialist pretty clearly would decide in favor of abortion (e.g., a poor single mother with no foreseeable signs of financial or other kinds of support can choose between giving birth and raising her child in a life that will almost certainly be extremely difficult for her and her child, or having an abortion) and add to this a sense that the legitimacy of concrete cases cannot be determined in isolation from the details peculiar to that case. Taking these intuitions together, they judge that abortions should be legal in some sense or other.

For what it's worth, I prefer to keep 'consequentialism' distinct from 'utilitarianism' largely in order to maintain distinctions between the vast majority of ordinary pro-choice people I know and the sort of philosophically-driven proponents of abortion. A utilitarian is a consequentialist who also accepts the thesis that pleasure and pain are the fundamental values for sentient beings, which of course allows them to consider beings that cannot feel pleasure or pain as morally irrelevant (there are, of course, people who call themselves utilitarians who are not hedonists, but that's another story). Most people, I think, do not accept anything like the hedonist idea that drives utilitarianism, and do not think that the ability to feel pleasure and pain is the only thing that gives a being any moral significance. But I've had this argument before, so I'll leave off simply by re-iterating that I still don't think the majority of people who support abortion are stupid, malicious, or utilitarians.

Dan said...

Apollodorus,

I think it is probably obvious that most of my thoughts (and thus comments) are hopelessly idealistic. I appreciate comments like yours that remind me how messy things can be outside the world of ideas.

I'll agree that supporters of abortion aren't necessarily stupid, malicious, or utilitarian. It does seem, however, that they must be blind--whether by their own fault or the fault of this culture, society, etc.

brad said...

And yet that is what we do say, all of us, and we have been saying it for thirty-five years now. Only we're not saying it about sight; we're saying it about life itself. We say to the unconceived:: "You're not developed, you're a mere potentiality. You have no commitments, no web of relationships, no similarity to the rest of us who can walk and talk and reason among ourselves. You are totally alien, you have no cognition, no sentience, and since you have no nervous system to speak of, you can't even feel pain as yet. And so you have no right to complain if we refuse to let all of these things develop in you."

What kind of a person would say such a thing?

A person who has other commitments. A person who already has as many children as she wants. A person who thinks that the economic burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that the psychological burden of another child is too great. A person who thinks that there are already enough children in the world. Or, perhaps, a person who never wanted any children to begin with. All of which are perfectly reasonable worries. And yet, none of the people who offer such reasons as these for not conceiving a child this night would think it reasonable to offer the very same reason as justification for terminating the life of a child already born. Why not? We comfort ourselves with the abject Otherness of the unconceived. It is so very unlike us, after all, and it has none of the same capacities for social interaction that we have, it has none of the self-awareness, none of the "personhood" shared by us. Very convenient for us, really, that the unconceived are so very different.

Scott Carson said...

Brad

What, exactly, do you mean by "the unconceived"? I mean, what, precisely, is the object of reference, the ontological correlate, of this expression?

To be honest, I can't think of anything at all that it could possibly refer to. There are some folks (in my experience they have usually been freshmen, but you sometimes find even a rather mature person in this category) who like to think that, say, a sperm cell, or an ovum, does not really differ in any significant way from a conceptus. There is, of course, no good biology behind such a view, but some people do like to think that they are being clever and they seem to think that, if you oppose the destruction of a fetus you automatically commit yourself to opposing the destruction of sperm and egg cells. And, I suppose, skin cells, fat cells, and who knows how many other sorts of human tissues and by-products these morons would like to think gain moral standing by virtue of their clever analysis. I suppose it's intended as some kind of reductio argument, but I'm afraid it falls rather flat, since it fails to draw the proper ontological distinctions. I can't say as how I know of any thoughtful persons who take this line of argumentation seriously, so I assume that you have something else in mind by your expression "the unconceived".

So, since I'm sure you meant to be clever and all, I look forward to your elucidation.

Just be glad that you aren't talking to Parmenides.

Apollodorus said...

Yes, this 'unconceived' business is a bit bizarre. Funny enough, though, Peter Singer has recently made a similar, though not quite so ridiculous, argument. Rather than trying to treat something that doesn't exist as though it were a being with certain potentialities, he argues that arguments grounded in potentiality should lead us to respect stem cells as potential human beings. Since he takes this to be obviously absurd, he concludes that we should reject arguments based on potentiality. Singer's argument has more to commend it than Brad's, since stem cells have the advantage of existing and existing with the potential to become embryos and therefore human beings. Yet even Singer should recognize that he's equivocating on 'potentiality.' To my mind, these sorts of counter-arguments have no power; Ryan Anderson and Maureen Condic's recent post on the First Things blog shows that pretty clearly. If people want to resist arguments based on potentiality, they need to show either that we need not respect 'merely potential persons' or that some particular stage along the way of development into a person somehow gives a human being the status of being worthy of respect. So far, I can't see how either of these strategies can come off. Arguments that we need not respect even actual persons seem far more plausible to me.

Anonymous said...

Are all you posters male?

Scott Carson said...

Well, it's kind of hard to tell with the cowardly anonymous ones, isn't it? But in general the answer is no.

One way to read your post is as a suggestion that men and women will, almost by nature, as it were, have different opinions on this issue. That kind of ideological bigotry seems to be gender neutral.

Lisa Carson said...

Jeez, Scott, why attack people who are writing in? To answer the question posed by Anonymous, I think all the posters before me are male, which explains their strange attachment to philosophy but not their opposition to abortion. I am female and completely opposed to abortion. I am also opposed to the idea that because pregnancy is a uniquely female condition, females should have any difficulty perceiving the evil of abortion.