Abortion Advocacy as Moral Suicide
Virtually every school of modern ethics, including Neo-Thomism, stakes its claim to truth on an entirely rational system of thought. In any rationalist system of ethics, every basic principle must be stated in universal terms in which "I" am denied a privileged perspective. I may not, for example, make rules that apply to everyone but me--only the Congress of the United States is free to do that. If I advocate an unrestricted right to abortion, then, it must include my mother's right to have aborted me for whatever reason she chose.
This may appear to be a variant on the familiar right-to-life argument which goes, "Aren't you glad your mother did not believe in abortion," but there is this essential difference. The "aren't you glad" ploy assumes that my existence is self-evidently desirable, but in insisting upon a universal right to commit prepartum infanticide we surrender our privilege of taking anything for granted, even our own existence. Of course, abortion advocates of bad faith or limited imagination might readily assent and proclaim their willingness to die for their mother's right, but it is hard to find anyone willing to die even for a close relative, as Admetus found out to his cost, and when his wife Alcestis accepted death on his behalf, he was desolate. And, any abortion advocate who proclaims his willingness to die for the sake of his mother’s freedom can only prove his good faith by immediately killing himself.
Suppose the abortion advocate made the counter-argument that "I" would not really have existed when my mother made her fatal decision, which makes my existence irrelevant to the discussion. To this one must answer, "Yes, but you do exist now, and given the choice, which would you deny--your own existence or your mother's right to choose? Imagine the situation as a kind of thought experiment with two buttons, the first labelled "YES, unrestricted right,” the second "NO, restricted right." If you push "unrestricted," then your mother would have been free to terminate you for any reason no matter how whimsical, but if you push "restricted," it means your mother would have been limited in her choice, and one can then decide under what circumstances it would be better never to have existed.
If you choose yes--only to wink out of existence--then you have denied your own being, your own particular point of view that has evolved from the moment of conception up till now. You have not only rejected one of the few universal human attributes--the desire for self-preservation--but you have in principle stripped yourself of legitimate personhood: Can we really argue with a person who has never really existed? This argument is, in a way, an analogue of Anselm's proof of God's existence--that God must exist because our mind is constructed in such a way as to conceive of him. If our conception of ourself involves us in self-annihilation, then we are the opposite of all that God is; we are nescient, impotent, and incompetent--in a word, nothing.
I was originally lead by a philosophy professor to think little of Anselm’s proof of God, and the focus in that course was primarily on the proofs offered by St. Thomas. Over time, though, I’ve grown quite fond of Anselm’s proof and, while not competent enough to give any kind of judgment on it, I do give it a lot more respect than I used to.
I’m thankful that I do not spend much of my time trying to argue with abortion advocates. From what little experiences I have had, I don’t know if they even qualify to be in the Capax Rationis category. I can just imagine a bug-eyed young zealot, jaw tight and huffing through her gritted teeth responding to the argument against self-annihilation with gibberish, buzz words, and enough self-righteous indignation to drown a yak. There is something about many modern-young women that makes them such perfect ideological zealots – and I’ve seen this not just on the pro-abortion and feminist side but also on the conservative and pro-life side.
Something like Anselm’s proof is behind the argument of a favorite book of mine, The Meaning of Belief: Religion from an Atheist’s Point of View (2017) by Tim Crane. Crane enjoins his fellow atheists to tamp down their condescension, ill-will, and bad temper and, in the process, suggests that God is innate to human consciousness.
Not to be pedantic, but isn’t proof you are describing more akin to the Platonic realist proof advocated by Augustine? Materialism is absurd because when we look at our own human consciousness (a hard problem for materialists in itself) we see that we are “wired” for certain profound concepts – truth, beauty, justice, the sacred, God – that have significance within but also transcend the material world around us. Even in our mundane mental activities, we are constantly relying on non-material concepts like math, logical propositions, etc. to make sense of the world. We are not at all the sort of sophisticated meat computers you would expect evolution to produce if it was just trying to replicate genes. I’m not adept enough to express this as an absolute scholastic proof, but to turn away from it and have any confidence in atheism seems absurd, especially given that such a turn necessarily involves abandoning any higher purpose in life as a kind of delusion. And it is the sort of proof that I think every believer grasps instinctually on some level or other.
Anselm’s proof seems rather more abstract and mathematical to me. To speak of God as nonexistent, once God is properly defined, is not just to make a possibly incorrect statement but to literally talk nonsense, just as it is nonsense to say 5 does not equal 5.
The obvious drawbacks of this proof are that nobody starts out with an intrinsic sense of this proof – it’s rather cold – and that the modern mind has to beat itself against the proof for a long time, learning slowly to think like a Greek or a Medieval mind, before it starts to resemble anything other than mere wordplay. But once you stop trying to think of God like you think about contingent beings, and supplement it with a bit of possible worlds modal logic, then I think the proof is shockingly good.
I’m an Aristotelian in ethical and political philosophy so it is frustrating that I still don’t have confidence that I understand the Aristotelian-Thomist proof. It seems to resemble, in the simplest terms, “something contingent can’t come out of nothing, so something must exist by necessity and contain the potential for all contingent things within it”.
Your remark is useful and far from pedantic. I did use the words “in a way” and “analogue.” The aspect of Anselm’s argument I was referring to in a slapdash way is: “And assuredly that, than which nothing greater can be conceived, cannot exist in the understanding alone. For suppose it exists in the understanding alone: then it can be conceived to exist in reality; which is greater.…” There is an underlying assumption here that our mental conceptions are connected, albeit less real, than actual existence.
I should put my cards or at least one of them on the table. I have only met one man who reasoned his way into accepting the existence of God: Anthony Flew, a far more rational man than I could ever wish to be. (If the chronology were not impossible, I might imagine Flew to have been the Scottish Skeptic in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.) The best I can do is refute to my own satisfaction the attempted proofs of non-existence–and such proofs are notoriously difficult to establish.
This is entirely off topic, and I don’t like conversion stories generally, but my own story, told very briefly, may help establish my point and bring it back around. I was brought up an atheist. My father was a mildly embittered ex-Catholic, but usually quiet about it. He did not care much for churchy people, but he never quarreled with Christians. The strongest thing I remember him saying was that religion was fine for people who needed it. He was a strictly moral man, and both his wife (my mother) and his friends told me that he was entirely reliable.
As he grew older, my father took us, at most once a month, to an Episcopalian church, and in college, I started going frequently but not regularly to a Unitarian church, mostly for something to do on Sunday morning, I quit when I realized that none of them actually believed anything. I then began attending services at a rather High Church Anglican church on Wentworth St in Charleston. I had several Baptist friends who attempted to convert me, and I admired them for their probity and kindness.
My study of Plato plus a little Augustine led me a little way toward asking why some people behaved decently and others not. I also began to ask myself if human decency was only an artifact of certain cultures, and, if it were, then shouldn’t I take sides with the advocates of that culture. I was a great reader of modern poetry, and Eliot’s conversion had a strong influence. As a philosophical atheist, I memorized most of Ash Wednesday. The big change came when I lived in San Francisco, and, to be frank, confronted evil in a more advanced stage than I had any direct knowledge of previously.
When I returned to graduate school, the chairman asked me to teach an introductory Greek course for Christians–a cynical ploy to boost the number of students taking Greek. I had of course read a good deal of the Bible, more the Old than the New Testament, and the textbook assigned forced me to read John’s Gospel with care. I came to the conclusion that the writers of the New Testament might well have been merely inspired composers of fiction, but it was an ennobling fiction. I started attending Anglican services regularly and when asked would say I was a fellow-traveling Christian. It was a few years before I dropped the epithet.
There was no intellectual moment of “aha” and no epiphany, though I did believe I had received a revelation of Satan’s presence. It was quite simply horrifying. What had happened to me was a gradual habituation to Christian faith and Christian living. I believe something similar happens to many people. Rationally, I had reached the conclusion that goodness and beauty and justice were real, and they were contradicted by the evil and the ugly and the unjust. Jefferson–an unlikely source to cite in such an argument–says in a letter that his young relative should cultivate artificial good manners, because they will in the end become part of his nature–a very Aristotelian remark, it seems to me.
So, then, speaking only of me, it seems that the virtues are real, that cultivating them is the route to sanity and happiness, and–here we cross a sort of pons asinorum or at least make a real of faith–that only something like Plato’s forms, whether conceived by Plato (in his various approaches) or by Aristotle or by Augustine or Thomas, are the only explanation that helps to explain the otherwise inexplicable reality of the Good.
Although no great shakes as a logician, it struck me that something like a Darwinian account of the evolution of morals was more consistent with the arguments of Plato’s nemeses Critias and Thrasymachus–and that if I were an honest man it was either Christ or Sade. My ex-Catholic father had prepared me to reject any argument in favor of immorality or unkindness or injustice, and so that left only one alternative.
Perhaps I should have added that as an atheist, I was horrified by the idea of abortion. As a budding young scientist I had cut open a cocoon and seen the pupa or whatever we call it exposed and dying from the cut. It was a disgusting sight, and whenever I hear of abortion even to this day I see the living thing, a fetal butterfly, violated and dying. I once saw a television interview with the mad poet Robert Lowell, who said that the only way he could get his mind around nuclear holocaust was imagining the effect on spiders. Judge Learned Hand once observed that Plato, in trying to explain justice, had to invent an entire political community. More often, however, we can be astonished by a flash of revelation we get from little incidents in nature, but only if our minds and characters have been prepared for it.
Thank you for the thoughtful reply. I suppose proofs are more useful to one born into the Faith and looking to shore it up against this bizarre world we now find ourselves in. The point I take from your reply is that actual conversions, such as yours, almost always happen gradually and without any one, tidily-defined reason. This is not to say that faith is purely subjective, but if we spend enough time with the Gospels we begin to recognize their transcendent power and insight as something quite beyond what sorry humanity is capable of, and something fishermen and tax collectors would not go to horrible deaths in far off lands over if it was mere allegory. And this is a kind of proof.
Conversely, and to tie it back to the original article, over time we may gradually develop a full sensitivity to metaphysical evil. A premodern pagan might make a brutal but natural argument for abortion in certain circumstances: the world is cruel, resources are scarce, sometimes we must make cruel choices about which offspring to support. But abortion in the modern world is something far worse – when one sees an abortion protestor screaming for the right to butcher her healthy offspring so she can have casual sex and travel the world unimpeded, one gets the sense of facing an evil with no natural explanation. Similarly, one can image a natural pagan shrugging a bit at homosexuality – a small minority of people don’t fully develop towards their natural ends – we can only explain people who fanatically deny any link between sex and procreation, who seek to tear down all distinctions between man and woman, who seek to pump prepubescent children full of gender-bending hormones (and destroy anyone who objects) as in thrall to the Devil.
But, if we become aware of metaphysical evil that cannot be explained in natural or material terms, we also become aware of a metaphysical good that cannot be explained in natural or material terms. And that is an encouraging thought.
Thanks for the extremely useful and germane response. In my first book, I tried to make an argument along the lines of David Hume’s approach to natural law as evidenced by a statistical convergence toward a common norm, though I have aded the proviso that we should bear in mind the saying common in certain sociological circles that in the human species social evolution replaces biological evolution; thus, the fact–it were a fact that could be established, which I very much doubt–that primitive peoples might once have lived according to the patterns of group marriage as sketched out by Morgan and adopted by Marx and Engels, would be less relevant that the evidence of more developed cultures.
On the pagans, you are right, though a bit harsher than I should be as far as Greeks and Romans go. As I argued in earlier installments, the Greco-Roman emphasis was on the family rather than on the individual child or mother. Thus, the decision to abort–or far more commonly, expose–the child of married parents would like primarily with the decision-making males in the family, typically the father. Abortion was considered not nice at all–this, in a society where people were far franker about their vices than we have been in the Christian West. Of course they drew their lines in the sand differently. It was considered OK, if not always admirable, ,for an older man to have a thing for a younger man, but both would marry and have children and both, if they were going to cheat on their wives, would do it typically with women. We Christians have an either/or standard, which is certainly preferable, but all too often Christian fanatics, looking back at the Greeks, draw the false conclusion that homosexuality was a predominant form of sexuality. What we today would consider the “fag” or the “swish type” was ridiculed, and effeminate Athenian men were warned–on pain of death–not to exercise civil rights like attending the ekklesia.
Parental love, although it is said by social historians like Aries and Stone to have been invented some time in the recent path, is a fact of ancient life. We know this not only from Greek literature–from Odysseus who calls himself “the father of Telemachus,” from Hecuba who goes mad over the loss of her children, and even from Aeschylus’ depiction of Clytaemnestra as a horrifying unnatural mother–but also from grave stones, inscriptions, and, in the Roman case, wills. (There is some excellent fairly recent studies of this.) The duty and respect of children and the affection of parents is a commonplace of ancient life, and their lives were structured toward children and grandchildren and toward an ever-perpetuating family that constituted earthly immortality. The older anthropological literature does include information on sick societies–George of Denmark’s studies of polyandry, Colin Turnbull’s Ik, who look with indifference upon their dying children, but the older anthropologists knew they were observing freakish eccentricities whose failure only served to test and prove the general rule.
To explain the pagan and Jewish anticipations of Christian morality, I often have recourse to Paul’s metaphor of the tarnished mirror in which we can see only the distorted images of the truth, but they are nonetheless, for all the tarnish, images of the truth.
I should probably clarify that I am in complete accord with your ethical and political philosophy: Virtue is a balancing of the universal moral precepts first identified by Plato with the particular attachments given to us by nature as identified by Aristotle. There is no perfect formula for this balancing act; the best we can do is try and sail a middle course. This is not to say we cannot identify certain objective concepts that help us chart our course such as subsidiarity. And sociobiology is a very powerful tool given to us by modernity for determining and objectively quantifying what is “natural” – at minimum a principle or behavior that wrecks my own genetic line cannot be reasonably described as natural. One sure way to irritate an atheist is to accept the premise that religiosity is an evolutionary adaptation, but point out that it is obviously a positive adaptation, and this can be quantified by looking at inter alia fertility rates. If the atheist is so militant as to not at least learn to respect religion as something healthy on this basis, one can only express sympathy that he is so maladaptive as to hate healthy things. Certainly when I look at a typical crowd of “new atheists” or howling abortion advocates, “high mutational load” seems to be a fit description.
This balancing of universal, “divine” principals with our particular natural duties readily harmonizes with Christianity. Materialist right-wingers loves to blame Christianity for inventing the concept of universalism, which ruined Western Civilization, but anyone who has actually studied the classical world knows that universal thinking came in well before Christianity and had spread in a variety of forms well before Christianity. Christianity was distinct precisely because it did not embrace a gnostic rejection of the world and valued particular attachments. It was a great scandal to universalism that God came down to Earth and incarnated as a particular man, who spent most of his life here living an everyday life as a carpenter and concerned with his particular attachments to his family, his friends, his neighbors, and his ethnicity. He had a universal spiritual mission, but it was accomplished through these God-given particular attachments and did not come at their expense. This is the only way to understand his perceived rebuke of the Canaanite woman. Unfortunately, Beltway conservatives and “trads” add to the confusion by slapping a Christian gloss on classical liberal universalism and calling it natural law.
This is a very roundabout way for me to say I am not harping on metaphysics because I do not value sound ethical and political thinking, which I have learned a lot about from you. What I am trying to say is that sound ethical and political thinking does not appear to be enough these days. The ancients could be forgiven for thinking there was no evil, only a lack of education. And Jefferson or Hume, living in the world they lived in, could perhaps be forgiven for thinking one could swap revealed religion out for sound thinking about nature without a negative social consequence for society. But we know better, and I don’t see how we get out of this mess without an aggressive metaphysical certitude that shocks people into even caring about sound ethical and and political thinking again.
I’ll finish by saying that, again, I am in complete agreement with your account of Greco-Roman mores and that they were far more conservative than our own. My hypothetical pagan was not meant to represent the norm but to show that even at their most decadent pagans still had some natural sense and did not fall into the mad ideological extremes we encounter in the modern world.
I don’t believe I can make any good objection. In general, I try not to think of this period of history as exceptional in the challenges it offers, though it is often hard not to think otherwise. We have tried the experiment of elevating ourselves above the human with the consequences Aristotle predicted, namely, that we fall into bestiality, though man can never become beast but something far nastier.
On your central point, generally, I give an unqualified yes, though the “metaphysics” may be only a sort of mythological superstition that tells the believer there is a power or powers beyond his comprehension that demands certain standards of behavior. As I said in a rather roundabout way earlier in the discussion, I was led to believe in an absolute goodness because only in that way could I understand the existence of the relative goodness in human life.
When I was teaching at Miami of Ohio, we had a small group of recent Ph.D’s in various fields who got together once a week to study subjects that one of us knew. We spent two semesters studying microeconomics with a student of Armen Alchian. He was ethically a libertarian and metaphysically somewhere between Hume and an atheist version of Berkeley. Leaving economics, we took up Hume on religion and I proposed some Augustine, who, though not the equal of Hume in rigor or brilliance, had a way of putting the main subjects on the table in plain view. We did the De trinitate and, as I recall, De doctrina christiana. When we started, there were two Christians ; the rest of the group ranged from agnostics who could not care less to anti-christian atheists. After a semester, at least one–a scientist–started going to church, and two others had realized the shallowness of their anti-Christianity. Score at least one for Augustine.
A little later, I was having lunch with a Marxist-feminist classicist, who was fond of repeating Marxian platitudes. When I presumed to raise the question of how he knew that what he thought he knew had any foundation, he burst out, “Don’t give me that crap from Plato. I’ve read as much as you have!”
For me those years were seminal in my development, partly because I was having to deal with other people’s arguments against what I had come to believe were essential truths, and partly because my biologist colleague and the sociologist both recommended me to study what is broadly known as sociobiology. I started with the easy pop stuff of Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris, Fox and Tiger, but the biologist told me I had to study E.O. Wilson. It took me years. Later, when I sent a copy of my first book to Wilson, whom I by then had met a few times, he praised the work for never flinching from the necessary conclusions. He, of course, was an atheist, but he respected his Christian wife too much to criticize thue church.
Re: metaphysics I suppose we both at least agree classical metaphysics is a powerful and elegant system, which shows how quickly and necessarily we come to the orthodox conception of God if we start to treat goodness (as you did), beauty, truth, logic, causality, etc. as having extrinsic significance. Perhaps Hume and Kant showed that you can deny God if you are determined to do so – by denying all these other things have any significance extrinsic to our own minds. But there is no compelling reason to adopt their position over classical metaphysics, and their position certainly leads to the madhouse in the political realm, the ethical realm, and in everyday life. And we are now, alas, living in Kant’s madhouse. Hume, as you say, at least had some good sense in practical matters, but that all seems part of his desire to discard religion as unnecessary. Perhaps one can learn from him, but like Johnson I can only view him with contempt.
I wouldn’t expect you to object too much to my ethical/political framework – I’m sure you can see how much of it is derived from The Morality of Everyday Life. I suppose the only thing we would need to complete this framework is a good dose of Machiavelli. Trying too hard to be fair exposes us to others seeking to secure unfair advantages, and people are often pretty crummy both individually and in groups. As such, we should err to a certain extent on the side of our particular attachments, rather than universal moral precepts, under the assumption every other person or group will be doing the same thing. This is not to say we stop trying to apply the universal precepts when we can.