this-is-my-son1

Devon, PA.  This is my son.  As you see him here, he has been alive for just about one-hundred-forty days and has, this and other ultrasound images suggest, my nose and not his mother’s.  I have not seen him any more closely than you have, have not held him in my hands, and will not hear him cry for about another one-hundred-forty days.  As you see him, he has just drawn his arm up across his left cheek, as if to shield himself from the ultrasound.  My middle brother used to make much the same gesture whenever Dad pulled out the super-8 camera with the spotlight fixed on top.

I did not learn anything from this ultrasound that I needed to know.  But now that I have seen him, I turn to my wife more often, reach my palm out for her belly, and try to feel him there, growing within her.  We have a name for him, and now I begin to associate a face with that name, small though it is, and shy though he is.  We begin now, also, to ask his older sister, as she looks at a picture book or tries to draw a circle, “Will you read to him?  Will you teach your little brother to draw?”

Such are the only changes this little picture stirs in us, because, without it, we already knew what sort of creature we were dealing with, what sort of creature we were waiting to encounter face-to-face: a child, a son perhaps, certainly a person.

The difference between this little son of mine and me, since it evidently will not be found in the shape of the nose, lies elsewhere.  It is legal rather than genetic.  I enjoy the full protection of the law.  He does not.

My government operates a labyrinthine bureaucracy that might someday figuratively kill my soul, but it works quite ambitiously to keep my body alive.  Its finances have more than once and indirectly also helped my son, young though he is, and yet that same government not only denies that to kill this child would be murder, but puts money in the hands of those who perform such killing with clinical efficiency.  Never is it more clear that the eyes of government, the eye of the law, are merely metaphoric, than in this fact, because no human being could look upon this picture and deny what he sees is a fellow human being.  And yet, that is precisely what my government says-and then turns away and leaves others to dig a grave, or rather, plow a landfill.  True, the functionaries of power occasionally gown their denials of the humanity of unborn children like my son in the taffeta frippery of phrases like “sweet mystery,” and they speak of the “terrible choice” of abortion without explaining why something “terrible” should remain a legal “choice.”  They unleash the dulcet strains and plangent tones of thoughtfulness and gravity on just those occasions when they most wish to avoid thinking altogether of the actual weight of the children their laws consign to the tin mass graves of trash cans.

All politics, Alasdair MacIntyre once said, begins with children.  It ends with them, too.  Discussing the Good or the “good life for man,” in that hoary Aristotelian phrase, has to it a certain ring of abstraction.  But, if we think of politics as the science of living in the world so that it resembles as closely as possible the kind of place in which we want our children to grow up, live well, and possibly grow old, then we will be talking about the same thing, only more concretely and more surely.  Granted this description of politics, what happens when the dominant political spirit of an age becomes so truncated that it not only “begins with children” but ends there too, precisely in the sacrosanct, legal permission for childrens’ murder at any point up to, and even significantly beyond, their “escaping” the womb?

Such a spirit is precisely what it appears to be.  It is the philosophical offspring of those who wish to escape from politics-more precisely, of those who would escape the responsibility of having to act with children in mind.  In cutting society and its politics adrift from children, such persons try to preserve themselves in a vague, Never-Never-Land, where adults may enjoy all the power and self-determination of their seniority while indulging their concupiscent desires without any sense of limitation, finitude, or purpose beyond a moment’s pleasure and the prospect of its iteration.  Open season on the unborn child, in other words, makes it convenient for adults to remain overgrown, over-libidinous children as long as they like-or at least as long as medical technology can prop them up.

Indignant hands with coat-hanger bracelets about their wrists immediately fly up in objection.  “This is not about immaturity and pleasure; it is about rights, sovereignty, and vulnerable women.”  This is all rubbish, of course.  If it were merely about “vulnerability,” one would have to presume some kind of preferential option for the most vulnerable.  Look at my son; is anyone more vulnerable than he and others like him?

It may indeed pretend to be about “sovereignty,” as in the ownership of one’s body.  But no one is owner of himself, and our bodies are constitutive of ourselves rather than inert property over which we exercise complete control.  Look again at my son.  He is unimaginable apart from his body, small though it is; and the course of his life will be measurable and intelligible largely in terms of that body’s growth, decay, loss, and resurrection.  And his total dependence on his mother does not indicate something unique, temporary, and inhuman.  He merely displays more obviously the dependence of all persons on others at all times.  If dependency and weakness are child-like, then none of us ever ceases to be a child in this respect, even though we should hope to leave behind childish things in others.  The murder of abortion and murder in the streets do not meaningfully differ; in each instance the fragility of human life consequent to its intrinsic dependence on others is on display because of an act of betrayal.

Finally, it cannot be about rights for at least two reasons.  Practically speaking, if the legal protection and support of abortion was consequent to the protection of a right, one presumes it must be one of the venerable ones like “liberty,” or one of more recent manufacture like “privacy.”  But how would one adjudicate between the claims of these rights and the equally venerable and more evidently foundational “right to life”?  One cannot adjudicate between the two, so long as one operates with a meaningful definition of the word “right” as something that intrinsically belongs to a person regardless of his condition or actions, something “inalienable.”  When rights are in conflict, there is no rational resolution within the system of rights.

Theoretically speaking, it cannot be about rights, either.  For the very concept of rights is a crude modern teratoma, a ghastly fiction, sprung from peculiar misapprehensions of natural law.  Human beings have found very little in their history that speaks of a right to life-for life is patently “alienable” from human beings and our cemeteries are everyday reminders of that alienation in spades.  We speak of “rights” to make ourselves feel more secure, less fragile, and less dependent on others, than in fact we are.  Gravestones inform us that it is not death that we are in a position to condemn or “forbid,” but only those who bring death about in certain ways.  They tell us that the execution of the guilty may be just, the slaying of the enemy in battle may be valorous, and that the slaughter of the innocent is always murder.  That portrait of my son does not silently speak of rights, but certainly proclaims a primeval innocence.  We would have to look elsewhere-to the clinics of Planned Parenthood, to the Supreme Court, to the Oval Office-to see other portraits that embody the evil of legislated, juridically sanctioned, administratively manufactured murder.

And so, the defenses of abortion are not arguments but prevarications.  They clothe murder-for-convenience in the knickers and periwigs of American liberal respectability. 

The violent arms of the “right to choose” fly up again.  Once more, they proclaim, abortion is not about convenience, but about the necessities of the desperate.  If that is the case, then let us look at this image of my son and speak, as W.H. Auden once did, of the “necessary murder.”  “Necessary” is a common word; do we know how to use it?  No such slaughter could be necessary, for that would mean it could not possibly be otherwise.  Are there really no alternatives to the killing of children in the womb?  What precisely is the evil so grave that such killing is its only counteraction?  Early and un-idyllic maternity? A strain on the budget?  The burdens of a deformed or retarded child?  “Excess population”?  The loss of a mother’s life in giving life to her child?  These are conditions of various gravity and sorrow, to be sure.  Some of them are the kinds of fictions in which those filled with avarice and who crave an ethereal worldly domination routinely trade.  Only one of them even approaches a condition of “necessity” and that one confirms in pain what we nearly all profess in comfort: love entails sacrifice.

In recent days, some in the media have decried the protests against President Obama’s invitation to Notre Dame, to deliver the commencement address and receive an honorary degree, as mere “political partisanship.”  To be sure they are correct, but not for the reasons they believe.  I am partisan in desiring the same legal protections for my son that I myself enjoy.  I am partisan in believing that the best world for mine and others’ children is one that welcomes them into life as sacred gifts rather than objects of property available for free exchange, manufacture, genetic strip-mining, domination, and elimination.  I am politically partisan in believing that, because all politics begins with children, any politician who would turn the arms of the law against the children for whom they should exist in service is one who participates in an intrinsic evil.  Any political official, but especially the one who holds the “highest office in the land,” should be viewed as such, and so long as he persists with the grave looks of eternally suspended “thoughtfulness,” with the sly smile of political maneuvering (“That’s above my pay grade”), or with the hunched shoulders of feigned ignorance (“Hey, we just don’t know when life begins”), he should not be honored, but denounced as a villain.

I pray that by some miracle President Obama will not speak at Notre Dame this weekend.  Some small degree of sincerity and self-knowledge should convince him to step aside.  But, so long as he does not, and so long as he stands at the podium or holds in his hands an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, so long will this picture of an actual child-my child-be here as a reminder of the kind of American his law, American law, does not protect.  Look at him.  He is a person.  And like every person, he is not merely a person, but this person.  And this is my son.

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Caleb Stegall May 14, 2009 at 7:23 am

Well done. Well, well done. And a hearty virtual handshake for the coming happy birthday.

I can tell you from experience in the legal trenches that the regime of “necessary” murder leaks the logic of death and destruction into everything it touches, including both the age old Anglo-Saxon rule of law and every other actual “right” that is expressly claimed by our political founding.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 14, 2009 at 8:37 am

What follow here are not “gotcha lines” for Dr Wilson’s argument; they are three real questions from a quasi-liberal fence-sitting on the morality of abortion.

(1) If life is as precious as anti-abortionists say it is, then what is to be said of the potential for life lost every month when a woman ovulates? And to be clear, this isn’t a throwaway question. If all human life is supposed to be intrinsically valuable, and the lost egg (or sperm, in certain conditions) represents the lost possibility for life, oughtn’t we be doing something to encourage fertility as often as it’s possible?

(2) All of the decrying of contraceptives (which, loosely defined, will include abortion) that goes on on this site leaves me with the question of how we intend to provide for the conditions of human flourishing (as per the Greeks and picked up by MacIntyre and his intellectual descendants) when there simply aren’t enough resources to provide for our population. This is the Malthusian problem writ large: population grows geometrically and food (and other resource) production grows arithmetically (to say nothing of how food productive capacities would shrink if we did not treat the land with the petro-chemicals and corporate-farming practices that seem necessary to sustain current production). The real questions: where are the extra resources going to come from, and if the answer is, “We don’t know,” then is it responsible to bring into the world geometrically larger (that is, fruitful and multiplicative) sets of progeny?

(3) If philosophers have found just one truth in the abortion debate, that truth, it seems to me, lies in locating the source of human value in the sorts of actions that humans can perform. For Aristotle, after all, our lives are more or less valuable in accordance with the degree to which we fulfill the human function of reasoning and rational action. As to abortion, the unborn cannot perform this function, so certainly their lives do not seem as valuable as human adult lives. However, we might be inclined to reply that it’s the POSSIBILITY for rational action in the unborn that needs protecting. Fine. But this doesn’t protect the whole set that you’re trying to protect, Dr. Wilson. What of the unborn that will be born with any variety of the severe forms of mental retardation? As children and as adults, these will never grow to fulfill the rational human function, and no array of conditions for human flourishing will ever allow them to flourish as human beings.

So, my question: in these sorts of circumstances, which are not nearly so few as some would posit, isn’t abortion not only permissible, but the responsible course of action?

avatar Weasly Pilgrim May 14, 2009 at 8:53 am

Thank you for this post. It resonates with me as my wife is also with child (our fourth) and our child is just past 21 weeks old.

This paragraph particularly struck me:

The violent arms of the “right to choose” fly up again. Once more, they proclaim, abortion is not about convenience, but about the necessities of the desperate. If that is the case, then let us look at this image of my son and speak, as W.H. Auden once did, of the “necessary murder.” “Necessary” is a common word; do we know how to use it? No such slaughter could be necessary, for that would mean it could not possibly be otherwise. Are there really no alternatives to the killing of children in the womb? What precisely is the evil so grave that such killing is its only counteraction? Early and un-idyllic maternity? A strain on the budget? The burdens of a deformed or retarded child? “Excess population”? The loss of a mother’s life in giving life to her child? These are conditions of various gravity and sorrow, to be sure. Some of them are the kinds of fictions in which those filled with avarice and who crave an ethereal worldly domination routinely trade. Only one of them even approaches a condition of “necessity” and that one confirms in pain what we nearly all profess in comfort: love entails sacrifice.

This being my wife’s sixth pregnancy (there were two early-term miscarriages along the line), she has entered that surreal category of being over 35 years of age and pregnant. If it was the case before 35 that the pressure was strong to submit to all sorts of testing to determine the “desirability” of the child, after 35 the pressure becomes almost unbearable. At every turn, she must sign waivers and resist all sorts of tests the sole point of which is to determine “desirability”. I use scare-quotes on purpose here because the word is never mentioned; instead everything is couched in pseudo-medical gobbledygook about viability and genetic health and whatnot. But make no mistake, all these tests aim to determine whether the child will be desirable (or convenient), and if not, legions of “genetic counselors” will be on hand to ensure that we parents don’t make the mistake of carrying the child to term. In fact, we are at this moment trying to decide whether we will even have the mid-term sonogram as it will come with some sort of post-sonogram counseling that we understand to be state-mandated. (Also my wife already had a sonogram a month ago while visiting the emergency room for a kidney infection.)

All that to say that if abortion is not about convenience, but about the necessities of the desperate, as those who support it claim, then the desperate would seem to be those who cannot countenance the birth of a child who is in someway undesirable. They are certainly desperate in their attempts to ensure that we do not bring an undesirable child to term.

So thank you for saying something that needs to be said, and repeated, and repeated again. And best wishes to you and your family as you prepare to meet your son.

avatar freddy May 14, 2009 at 9:40 am

“But how would one adjudicate between the claims of these rights and the equally venerable and more evidently foundational “right to life”?”

Contract law. The mother (and father) have created an implicit contract with their child to care for and nurture him, in and out of the womb, to an age of independence. The parents voluntarily constricted their claims to an absolute, defendable-with-violence right in their own person when they undertook to conceive him inside that space.

That Murray Rothbard seemingly missed this point is a perpetual curiosity.

avatar Dan May 14, 2009 at 10:09 am

“We speak of “rights” to make ourselves feel more secure, less fragile, and less dependent on others, than in fact we are.”

I can only speak for myself but when I speak of rights I do so in recognition and deep reverence for the integrity and dignity of the human person. I speak of rights to testify to the world of that this dignity is not merely a fact to be recognized but a duty to be acted upon by all men and their institutions.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 14, 2009 at 10:09 am

Aaron, these are questions of uneven quality — some simply require an answer, others have weaknesses in their assumption of facts — but all are worth addressing:

1)This first observation rightly points to a general weakness in many pro-life arguments, and it seems a just riposte to those arguments but not so much to mine. As I acknowledge, and as you further illuminate, human life is fragile and perpetually subject to death at every moment, at every stage. To suggest that the evil of abortion lies in the violation of the right of the patient (the victime) to life is an understandable but inexact description of that evil; the moral evil of abortion lies in the act of the agent (the one who performs it, and secondarily those who abet him). We would all be more honest if we simply spoke of abortion as murder, rather than get convoluted in chatter about rights; however, for obvious reasons, those who care about saving children and stopping abortion have chosen the familiar rhetorical strategy of appealing to rights. Why? Americans understand the concept of rights in their bones, even if it is literally impossible for them to understand that concept strictly speaking (intellectually) and still believe in such a convenient fiction.

To answer the details of this first question more directly: we see that people die all the time, and that the pre-natal period is always rife with death because of miscarriages even at undetectably early stages in the child’s development. Death itself is a natural evil, from which no technology, much less any set of human laws, can finally free us. Abortion as a form of murder strictly describes the actions of those who would deliberately kill a child by ripping it from his mother’s womb. It is the nature and intention of this action that makes it a moral evil rather than the specific “preciousness” of the child (I shall qualify this in response to 3).

2) I sometimes wonder if a great number of FPR writers’ work gets misread. I do not mean my railing against contraception; if readers interpret those as the jeremiad of someone who believes that contraception — and above all, abortion — are the actual and symbolic great evils of our age and testify to our degeneracy and concupiscence, then they have read me right.

Rather, I mean the frequent FPR attacks on unfettered growth. How easily these could be misread as the foundations for the kinds of awful eugenic and population-control measures with which the twentieth century was rife and which continue into the present (in America more than elsewhere, perhaps). But, so far as I may speak on behalf of others on this site, I would say that is a misapprehension.

In speaking against certain kinds of growth, I take it that I and others of my stripe are specifically saying that modesty, temperance, and, well, “smallness,” are all ways in which each human being entering this world can live in a manner in keeping with the patterns of nature and which, in turn, make it possible for us to welcome more children into the world. The simple fact is, most people who rail against “excess population” and bring up Malthus are not defending the world against “too many people,” but are using that defense as a screen to maintain ways of life that are by their very nature destructive and devouring of creation and, not incidentally, destructive of the good life for the human person. It’s not too many people, but too much and inefficient industrial growth and consumption that should concern us.

But what, you rightly ask, will happen when, theoretically speaking, we all live reasonable and responsible lives and yet the population still grows beyond what our newly temperate economics can sustain? Well, I recommend then what I recommend now: that form of temperance called “abstinence.” Rather, I have argued on this site that the temperance necessary to a husband and wife if they are not to have more chidren than they can support is a foundation for other virtues proper to a good marriage and a flourishing human life.

There’s no “right to sex” any more than there is any other sort of right. As the sundry condom and contraception policies complement the breakdown of the ancient morality of chastity and temperance, people will eventually see that a well-measured abstinence — a bit of self-control — was our first and best resource for solving the major “crises” we more or less legitimately perceive. To the reader who says, “That’s too tough,” I simply iterate, “You are not alone. There are plenty of people in this world who would rather consume sex the way they consume popular music, beer, and popcorn. And thus your desire to consume freely, unaccountably (as in, irresponsibly) becomes your justification for the murder of innocents.” Those who are most worried about excess population should either abstain from sex entirely or take a course in Natural Family Planning. They should do that anyway, worried or not.

3) Finally, you preach to the choir when you introduce Aristotelian teleology. We understand a person to be a person largely because we can see from experience and study two things, a) we see that a certain kind of embryo will normally proceed over time — and barring any contingent interruption — to develop by his own nature into a human adult posessing all the faculties you describe (above all, reason); and b) we see that not all embryos or all life forms become or can become human adults and that, therefore, what determines the species and nature of a small creature is the kind of adult he is potentially capable of becoming. In other words, we know my son is a person not merely by looking at his face in this image. That image merely confirms for us two things: barring any kind of contingent interference or defect, this creature — this kind of creature — will normally develop into a human adult with all of the faculties typical of such a being. And, second, we know that he is already a human being because the course of development just described is the one proper to him; most other courses are entirely impossible, e.g. he cannot develop into a chicken or a brontosaurus, and those other courses that are possible are mere contingent deviations from or perversions of the course he would, by his specific nature, normally take; e.g. he might not be very bright, or he might have some more severe trouble, but we can see that these are contingent deviations from the familiar and natural course of human development.

To say that unborn children do not have reason, and that therefore they are qualitatively less valuable than reasoning adults does not hold, because, if our natures are determined primarily by our ends (what it is in our specific nature to become), then defining man as a rational animal is not an account of “how all men or most men happen to be” nor is it of “how this individual man is.” It rather defines the kind of being into which a human being normally develops if not diverted by some contingent obstacle (ranging from a genetic abnormality to bad schooling).

As you will readily observe, this does not answer the final section of your question. A genetically defective unborn child will never become a rational animal. This requires two brief replies, one of which you can deduce from what I said above. A genetic irregularity is just what it says, a “genetic irregularity,” it is a contingent circumstance that will partially frustrate the normal development of the human child into what he would normally (that is, following his nature to its specific end) become.

No less importantly, we need to consider what we mean when we talk about “human beings” as a “species.” If my teleological analysis of the human person were restricted only to speaking of individuals, as if to talk of “species” were to pronounce a fiction, then two things would immediately follow. First, we could never speak of the telos, that is to say, the natural and proper end, for any being; if each being were truly unique despite the appearance of shared characteristics, then we would never be in a position to define the end (telos) of that life, because it would necessarily be unique, and thus unpredictable from the lives of other beings. Second, supposing for a moment that somehow we could still speak of a telos even though we had sworn off the concept of species, the conclusions you draw would indeed be correct, i.e. we could say that this individual was inherently less valuable than another individual simply because he lacked the ability to fulfill his telos.

We cannot speak of a telos without the concept of “species” however. And to call someone a “human being” is to describe his species not his individuated particularity. Once we know someone’s species, we are in a position to say that, under normal circumstances and barring contingent obstacles, this creature will develop by his nature into a rational adult. Moral concepts like “murder” and “justice” are intelligible only between members of a species, that is, beings who share the same telos and nature. Therefore we should understand that morally all persons are equal because they equally share in having human nature, even if every one of those persons may only unevenly and partially develop toward the fulfillment of that nature. To speak of human beings as variously valuable depending on the extent they have realized this telos tries to reduce the definition of the human telos from the level of species to that of the individual without acknowledging the logical consequence of that reduction. Again, I don’t think it is possible to do this coherently. If we were all just individuals rather than members of a species, we would have no teleological basis for comparison or moral evaluation between one person’s full development and anothers. Morality requires, therefore, analysis at the species level (so-and-so has human nature, and could by that nature become rational, even though he is in fact contingently an idiot) if it is literally to mean anything at all (i.e. I don’t mean if morality is to do us any good, but if morality is to comprise statements that are logically meaningful).

In many other respects, of course, we can describe the varying value of human individuals and can make further judgments consequent to that. I tried to suggest this in my essay. But I am pretty sure that when we speak of “murder” we describe a particular kind of act of one member of the human species against another, where that shared species rather than unshared individual characteristics defines the act.

Because this post is so long, let me conclude by thanking everyone for the kind words of congratulation on my son. Also, anyone who reads this far might as well continue up above to Caleb’s fascinating links on abortion, Sebelius, and Kansas.

avatar Steve Nicoloso May 14, 2009 at 11:17 am

Why a quazi-liberal abortion-fence-sitter would even be lurking around FPR beggars the imagination, but okay… I’ll bite….

If all human life is supposed to be intrinsically valuable, and the lost egg (or sperm, in certain conditions) represents the lost possibility for life, oughtn’t we be doing something to encourage fertility as often as it’s possible?

A lost ova (or spermatozoa) is not a human life. The lost egg (or sperm) is a lost possibility for life only in the same sense that one man has failed (on any given day) to fertilize millions of women; which, tho’ it is a trivially true observation, is no critique of the natural pro-life position.

is it responsible to bring into the world geometrically larger (that is, fruitful and multiplicative) sets of progeny?

Each parent must be responsible for his own progeny; and must evaluate whether it is indeed responsible to engage in an act ordered by nature to produce progeny. It isn’t for you, or (contra China) for “us” to decide.

For Aristotle, after all, our lives are more or less valuable in accordance with the degree to which we fulfill the human function of reasoning and rational action.

I’m not aware of this reading of Aristotle, but if he said it, he was wrong… and Aquinas corrected him. Of course, even if Aristotle is authoritative, he still doesn’t mean that a fetus’ essence could be determined solely by whether he was wanted (i.e., by the mere opinion of another), nor that the status of the fetus was equivalent to, or on the order of, a toenail clipping. See Ed Feser’s recent post on Act and Potency. The upshot is that, “A fetus too isn’t a potentially rational animal or a potential person. A fetus is an actual rational animal and thus an actual person who hasn’t yet realized all his potentials.”

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 14, 2009 at 12:44 pm

Steve, if someone wants to find discussion from anti-abortionists, where does one go? Where they are. Like, FPR.

James, your son is not yet a reasoning being. He likely will be some day, even when he is at his most unreasonable. As for looks, well, he looks like a nascent monkey to me. Or any other nascent great ape.

What does a blastocyst look like, James? A sphere comprised of 70 to 100 cells, soon to be implanted in the uterine wall (with any luck). In what sense is the blastocyst a human being? In potential only. It doesn’t look human, it doesn’t even look great apish.

More to the point, what gives that embryo the right to usurp authority over the mother’s body? The fact that she engaged in the act of sex? What if she was raped? There is no consent of any kind granted under those circumstances. And yet the embryo is in exactly the same position with respect to the mother as if she had consensual sex but with contraception, or even sex intended to beget a child – the embryo is an invader, possibly unwelcome.

I don’t believe that the possibility of being human is sufficient to award the rights of being human. I don’t believe the rights of the embryo, whatever they might be, trump the rights of the mother to decide what happens insider her body.

If you, James, and your wife are enamored of all the possibilities inherent in your embryonic son, so much the better. Your son likely will lead a better life because of those feelings.

But your feelings also do not trump the rights of a some other woman to maintain authority over her being even at the expense of the embryo.

Jake

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 14, 2009 at 12:49 pm

@ Dr Wilson – For the sake of clarity, let’s focus on the first question, and we can move on from there.

That first response sounds to me like the Doctrine of Double-Effect wrapped in sheep’s clothing. We are exempt from direct action to discourage non-pregnancies because non-pregnancies are natural and happen all of the time. Is this what you’re saying?

Well, the naturalness of pregnancy-related death does not make it morally acceptable, anymore than the naturalness of a landslide or of a tornado makes the death and destruction that they wreak morally acceptable. We take action to prevent the effects of these events because we do not want to endure the pain and suffering associated with them; that we do not feel similar pain for other natural moral evils does not mean that we shouldn’t. It simply means that we don’t.

So, the question here still stands: why think that anti-abortionists aren’t similarly obligated to cultivate life wherever it isn’t being cultivated? As I’m reading your position, it sounds a little like this: You have in your hand a bunch of seeds, one of which you know will die every month if you don’t water it. You contend that, once you’ve watered the seed, it will grow to be a thing of immense value, to be a member of the set of the most valuable things in the world. In fact, if you water it, that seed will not die, but it will have everlasting life in Kingdom of Heaven and the Family of Christ. But on this view, though, when you allow a seed to die, aren’t you depriving a potential human of the great joy that is life (and indeed, that is eternal life), if you would only water it?

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 14, 2009 at 1:10 pm

Jake, please read the thread of comments before offering your own. It will save me time. To save you the time: don’t argue with me about rights, since I have made no claims about them other than that they are unhelpful and fictitious distortions of natural law principles and the concept of “ius.” As to your account of my son’s appearance, while I cannot guarantee his growing up to look like me will make him look anything less like an ape, I can say that the argument in my essay does not depend on appearance to make its case. But it would appear that you didn’t read the essay, either, before throwing your orthographically curious moniker into the ring.

Aaron, I’m not sure I was concealing the doctrine of double effect. Perhaps you misread me if you think I was. I may be misreading your response in turn. Are you resisting the distinction between natural and moral evil I make in my first comment, or ignoring it?

I believe someone commented above to the effect that an embryo is not a seed; locker-room talk should be sufficent to demonstrate that. But, to further that distinction still more, a seed of corn cannot begin to grow on its own. It has no agency. As you say, at the very least, it requires something external to itself to see it planted and watered. At the earliest stages of human life, those wee cells that Jake tries to dismiss by dehumanizing them immediately spring to action and he’ll take care of himself unless someone or something interferes. Myriad events can occur to derail his movement toward full development into an eighty-year old cynic. Some of those events are unpreventable, and human agency cannot be responsible for it. Some possible such events, however, would not come about except through human agency, and the most dramatic of those is abortion. Hence, I focus my consideration of abortion as the act of a rational agent to end the life of an unborn child; it is in the action and intention of the agent, rather than the effect, that the specific attributes of abortion lie.

You’re welcome to continue this line of questioning; however, it’s going to be awhile, most likely, before I can offer response.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 14, 2009 at 1:11 pm

Why a quazi-liberal abortion-fence-sitter would even be lurking around FPR beggars the imagination…

I don’t consider myself a “quasi-liberal abortion fence-sitter,” but on the basis of this post, some people have called me that.

A beautiful, wise post, James; thank you for taking the time to write it. I particularly liked how you attempted to move the argument away from “rights” entirely, and focus on the context, the choice, the act, instead; that I fully agree with, as I think that any movement to genuinely limit the prevelance of elective abortion in America has to focus what leads or allows individuals to decide to abort a child, rather than on legal contests over whose rights are being trumped by which victim. We need more anti-abortion arguments which follow your path, rather than the more common, legalistic tropes of the movement.

For what it’s worth, I write this as an Obama voter, one who is >a href=”http://inmedias.blogspot.com/2008/11/only-reason-i-feel-conflicted-about.html”>deeply troubled by the abortion regime my vote implicitly endorsed, but who, I suppose you would argue, wasn’t troubled nearly enough, or in nearly the right way. Which is good. Speaking just for myself, I need to be reminded of the stakes in this particular argument–for the fate of my soul, for (perhaps) the souls of millions of unborn children, for the soul of the nation as well.

avatar Russell Arben Fox May 14, 2009 at 1:12 pm

Let me try that again…

“one who is deeply troubled by the abortion regime my vote implicitly endorsed…”

Sorry.

avatar skeeton May 14, 2009 at 2:02 pm

You say that seeing the picture of your son stirred only minor changes in your perspective. I know a gray and grainy ultrasound photo no longer inspires the level of wonder that it used to do, but I say to you, please do not cease to be awed by the mystery and majesty of creation!

My wife and I lost our fourth child two weeks ago. He died in utero at 17 weeks gestation. We were very much pro-life before this tragedy occurred. However, my wife and I had our lives turned upside down after having the opportunity to hold our son for 30 minutes. We named him Gabriel and gave him a proper burial.

Had we obtained a 3-D ultrasound of him the the day that he died, he probably would have looked quite similar to your son’s photo above. We would have reverenced the photo and tried to discern who he favored – does he have my nose? – but it probably wouldn’t have stirred dramatic changes in us either. However, we met our son face-to-face. We cradled him, sang to him, and cried baptismal tears that fell onto his body. That experience makes us want to shout from every mountaintop that this was no mere 17-week-old fetus. This was my baby boy, my son, and his name is Gabriel!

Please allow yourself to be in awe of creation.

avatar Jake - but not hte one May 14, 2009 at 4:01 pm

James, this is what you said:

“I enjoy the full protection of the law. He does not.” And you say you seek for the embryo that will become your son the same legal protections under the law as you enjoy. Okay. Don’t call them rights, call them legal protections. I say a woman has legal protection from an embryo usurping authority over her being. The embryo’s legal protections, whatever they might be, do not preempt the woman’s.

Slavery is not permitted under the law. How is an embryo taking authority over a woman’s body any different than any other kind of slavery? One being decides that the well being of another is less important than his or hers. The fact that decision was not made by the embryo as a more or less rational being does not lessen the taking.

“That portrait of my son does not silently speak of rights, but certainly proclaims a primeval innocence.” I don’t believe the picture speaks of anything but potential. And from the picture alone, it is not even necessarily one of potential humanity.

The Catholic Church apparently believes that being starts at conception. What then of all the frozen fertilized ova? What of all the little blastocysts tucked away in their little freezers? Are they any less deserving than your son? Are you championing them, or discouraging their creation so as to avoid their eventual destruction?

A lack of logical consistency by anti-abortionists in treating all life (by their definitions) as precious is an immense failing, in my view. Can you demonstrate how in your particular system of beliefs and actions you treat all human life with the same concern as you do your embryo son? If all life is not equally precious, why not?

Jake

avatar skeeton May 14, 2009 at 4:48 pm

Jake,
At the risk of jumping the gun on Dr. Wilson, I would like to draw one differentiation between a slave and a woman who carries a baby in her womb.

Presumably, a person forced into slavery would take no action that would result in his being forced into slavery. In fact, a potential slave, if you will, would probably do everything in their power to avoid being forced into slavery.

However, a woman who becomes pregnant has participated in an activity that is known (with a high degree of likelihood) to result in her condition. To speak of an accidental or unintended pregnancy is tragically imprecise. Intercourse has a purpose – the propagation of the species. To engage in that activity and call the result unintended or accidental is dishonest. Better to call it unwanted, because at least that would be a truer representation.

To call the pregnant woman a slave, I think, is a very flawed analogy.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 14, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Mr Wilson,

Thank you for your heartfelt article. :)

I offer my congratulations regarding your son; as well as best wishes for the Weasly Pilgrims and their little one. :)

Children are indeed a gift from God! :)

I expressed my opinion regarding abortion on another article’s comment section. So… just couple of thoughts from someone who knew what real love is…

“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”– Mother Teresa

“The greatest destroyer of peace is abortion because if a mother can kill her own child, what is left for me to kill you and you to kill me? There is nothing between.”–Mother Teresa

Choose Life!—Your Mother Did! :)

avatar D.W. Sabin May 14, 2009 at 5:51 pm

Wilson, Congratulations…….you are in for the very essence of the word “wonderful”. Attending my wife’s three births remains some of the most incredible moments in my much-enjoyed and frequently disgusted life. The smells, the phenomenal strength of my bride, the light and sounds of the birth event, bantering with some amazing medical attendants, holding the child in my arms and then, finally understanding the wonder and obligation and honor of it all…..all of it, I came away exultant each time , with a profound gratitude for my mother and a priceless love and respect for that woman we refer to as The Concept.

Even the touchy-feely La Maze (sp?) course were enjoyable and i caint abide the touchy- feely…particularly one night returning home when we had just attended the final childbirth course and were caught in a police road block along a street with several bars and when the hapless Officer shined his light into the car, illuminating our pillows and demanded to know where we had been, The Concept gave him “the look” and then barked, “For crying out loud, look at me officer, where do you think we’ve been, do I look like I’ve been doing shots and beers ?…and if ya don’t hurry up, I’ll have it right here”. The look on the cops face…..whee doggies , that was priceless too. She is a feisty woman she is.

As to this notion of “where does life begin” or that the “embryo might not have a “right” to usurp authority over the mothers body”….I just don’t know where to begin. It is such a convoluted and bizarre train of logic and it depicts perfectly the utterly confused nature of the discussion. Last time I checked, the embryo is attached to the mother via the umbilical chord and a placental sac and so is a part of the mother, including her blood stream while in the womb. Discussing whether or not the embryo has a “right” to usurp the authority of the mother is like declaring the Heart has no right to stop beating or that perhaps the stomach has no right to make me dyspeptic after watching the morning news. There is no distinction of rights between mother and baby because they are one. I will be so bold as to assert that the child remains at one with their parents, particularly their mother even after birth but this is beside the point. Mothers are sacred… I can’t help myself for this sentimental emotional opinion.

Personally, I am in general agreement with prudent means of contraception but abortion is, pure and simple infanticide. If the media and our great class of public intellectuals would call it what it is, we might get to the real issues such as a greater respect for unprotected and indiscriminate sex or the greater need for a reasonable and more socially rich adoption process or the fact that this is not a matter of a right between the embryo and the mother and is at the heart of a fundamental respect for life.

Sure, there are issues such as dysfunctional families, unwanted births, rape, disease and they are important issues and I cannot imagine that any woman or their family members take the issue of aborting a life in a manner less than seriously and with a certain amount of heartbreak. But this notion that a woman might have a cavalier right to “free” themselves from the hostile usurpation of their rights by an embryo….well, it boggles the mind. It also makes the process of exercising an institutionalized and codified infanticide easier which is exactly why this rationale is put forth. It is far easier to make this act legal….and dehumanize the embryo than it is to actually deal with the far more complex issues I enumerated above.

I have a very ambivalent series of intellectual and emotional responses to this confounding and difficult issue but one thing is very clear to me …anyway….and that the act is infanticide and any culture as wealthy and purportedly advanced as ours that sanctions it is on shaky ground about to get shakier.

This does not mean that I countenance anyone bombing, physically harassing or otherwise terrorizing a physician who is following the law as was promulgated, mistakenly, by the U.S. Supreme Court instead of via the Legislature.

I am glad my mother did not either have to make a decision to abort me or actually desire to abort me and as such, feel unable to condone anyone making that decision against the life of another human being. This is not a “rights” issue…it is an issue involving a reverence for life. If we fail to face it in that light, we are escaping our responsibilities as living sentient beings.

avatar Esmeralda_Pearl May 14, 2009 at 6:29 pm

“My wife and I lost our fourth child two weeks ago. He died in utero at 17 weeks gestation. We were very much pro-life before this tragedy occurred. However, my wife and I had our lives turned upside down after having the opportunity to hold our son for 30 minutes. We named him Gabriel and gave him a proper burial.”–skeeton

Skeeton,

I am sorry for your loss. Please accept my condolences to you, your wife and your family.

*hug*

avatar Peter W. May 14, 2009 at 9:56 pm

Hi James,

I really liked this. Perhaps your best piece for FPR so far. (I had to look up “teratoma”.)

Aaron asked:

(1) If life is as precious as anti-abortionists say it is, then what is to be said of the potential for life lost every month when a woman ovulates? And to be clear, this isn’t a throwaway question. If all human life is supposed to be intrinsically valuable, and the lost egg (or sperm, in certain conditions) represents the lost possibility for life, oughtn’t we be doing something to encourage fertility as often as it’s possible?

The language of “value” can subtly subvert moral debate by making morality seem like a matter of maximizing something. And any argument that rested on a premise that entailed that a world with 6 billion human beings is 50% better than a world with 4 billion human beings would be at best adding a needlessly controversial element to what is already a controversial issue. But we don’t need to think of value in that way, in fact we don’t even need to use the language of value at all. We could just make the claim “Here is a being that is one of us, a member of the community, and hence a being that we should not kill.” Is all human life equally precious? I’m not sure what to say about that, but I don’t think I need to answer in the affirmative to insist on the moral rule that says “Don’t kill innocent human life.”

As for potential, Steve touched on this, but let me try to put the point a slightly different way: An embryo isn’t a potential human being, it *is* a human being. It is a living organism, distinct from its mother, even though dependent on her. To call something a human being is just to identify what species it belongs to. So while it’s true that it lacks many of the features that human beings have at later stages of development, it’s potential isn’t the potential to become a human being, it’s the potential to develop in the way that human beings do.

This thought might help to nudge the relevant intuitions: there was a time when I was a fetus, there was never a time when I was an ovum. My life history starts with my conception. If my mother had had a miscarriage I would have died before I was born, whereas if I hadn’t been conceived I never would have existed.

So I disagree here with Jake; a blastocyst *is* a human being. To deny that you would have to do one of the following things: 1) deny that it is alive, 2) deny that it is properly classified as a member of the species homo sapiens (and what grounds could you have for denying that), or 3) redefine “human being” so it is no longer a species classification.

Now since a blastocyst is a human being, it must be false to say that it doesn’t look like a human being. What it would be true to say is that it doesn’t look like human beings look at later stages in their development, but why should that be the criterion for deciding whether we should be allowed to kill it?

But here Jake might say something like this: Well, in a biological sense a fetus may be a human being, but species-membership isn’t what matters morally speaking. For a human fetus to be the kind of being we are not allowed to kill it would have to fit into a different kind of category – it would have to be a person. A lot of philosophical defenses of abortion take this route, arguing 1) that the rule against killing only applies to persons, 2) that to be a person certain criteria have to be met, typically including self-awareness and the ability to reason, and 3) that fetuses do not meet these criteria. I think there are two important objections to this line of reasoning. The first is that it is vulnerable to reductio ad absurdum counterarguments, because by the most common criteria offered, it looks like not only are fetuses not persons but newborn babies aren’t either (it was only some considerable time after my birth that I developed a concept of self and the ability to reason). The second type of objection is that this whole way of thinking fails to take seriously the way in which we have to welcome the young into community with us. Being treated as persons before we have developed the traits of self-consciousness, reason, and the rest is how we become members of the community, it’s how we become who we are.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 15, 2009 at 12:01 am

@ Dr Wilson – You may be right that I’m simply not getting the distinction you’re trying to drive between natural evil and moral evil–or at least its in the question of abortion. As I’ve read your original post and your responses, you seem to argue that abortion is a moral evil, because it is perpetrated by rational agents so as to illegitimately end that which is precious to all of us, namely human life, and especially innocent human life. In contrast, pregnancy related deaths (and death in general) are natural evils because they are not, in every case, preventable; rather, they are a regrettable (that is, evil) natural phenomenon that no rational actor engages in. Is this the distinction between moral and natural evil?

Well, if it is, it still doesn’t say why we shouldn’t be cultivating life in instances of lost spermatozoa or ovum. On your view, it seems like the loss of these would serve as instances of natural evil: a natural and regrettable occurrence in which no rational actor takes place.

If I haven’t misread you so far, I think you’ll probably object on the grounds of the regret associated with the lost reproductive materials. After all, they’re not seeds, right? Well, that just doesn’t sit right, because eggs really are like seeds: with a little love (so to speak) they can both grow and blossom into their full (and valuable) potentials.

Now, even so, your point about agency stands, but in a very unsturdy fashion. A blastocyst has agency like a plant or an amoeba has agency. I’m not really sure that many people would take this to be an agency of a compelling sort at all. Interestingly, though, that blastocyst has the same sort of agency that a spermatozoon has (or that an ovum has, for that matter). After all, sperm are designed for the specific purpose of fertilizing an egg, and when they are wasted and do not reach this egg, I’m guessing that you would have to say that this waste constitutes a natural evil, because (apart from the obvious instances) this waste did not occur on behalf of a rational agent, etc. etc. But notice one thing: you’ve already written that death is a regrettable natural evil that, in many instances, we ought to take measures to avoid. Wouldn’t this mean, though, that we ought to take measures to avoid the waste of sperm, since that waste constitutes the very same sort of natural evil that you’d have us take measures to avoid in phenomenon like pregnancy?

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 15, 2009 at 12:06 am

@ Dr Wilson – It might sound disingenuous to offer my congratulations at this point, but I’ll offer them anyway. My brother and his new wife are working toward your and your wife’s current circumstances, and expect to arrive there within the year. No doubt, unclehood may offer a new perspective (for me, anyway) on this whole discussion.

But anyhow, congrats on the new addition to your family.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 15, 2009 at 9:03 am

Dear Aaron,

I confess to being a little surprised at your line of reasoning. Because of your past comments on other posts, I had presumed you to have a fairly substantial background in academic philosophy and that therefore you would be reasonably comfortable interpreting — if not accepting — the language of teleology, potency, and act, not to mention the post-Augustinian distinction of natural and moral evil. I will try to offer some *brief* response to your last queries, though I confess in advance that I don’t really understand them.

The distinction between natural and moral evil should not be so complex as you make it; the definition you have culled from my writing seems overly loaded with detail to survive as a definition. If we are agreed on what an “evil” is, some negation of the particular goods toward which all (analogously) good things tend, then the only distinction to be made is between a moral evil, where a rational agent brings about an evil, and a natural evil, which is an obviously much broader category that comprises all those instances where we can see something is evil but cannot assign it to a rational cause (as in a rational agent who has caused it).

Moving on, my argument of last day, which I couched in what I hoped could pass for humor, was to say that sperm and eggs are indeed seed. But a sperm and egg made one — and they do indeed become one almost instantaneously — is a human being.

Peter Wicks provides precisely the kind of response I intended to offer to “Jake” and so I will merely second what he says about the nature of potency. Whether you call the being brought into existence through the union of sperm an egg a blastocyst (a phase that lasts a very short time, incidentally, and so has no logical application in Jake’s crude smearing of my child and others at a similar stage of development), a zygote, an embryo, a fetus, a child, a son, a teenager, or an old coger, all you are doing is describing a stage of development in the life of a human being. Each of those stages describes a particular compound of potency and act; an unborn child is a human who has more potential in him than does a twelve-year-old boy precisely because he is farther from the entelechy, the fulfillment or end of human life. I can rehearse these points again, but I think anyone who objects needs to go read a little elementary metaphysics and stop despoiling the generally productive conversations for which FPR has become so well known (this is not in direct reference to you, Aaron).

But I’m not entirely sure how to get from these remarks to address your final query, Aaron, which seems to hinge upon a formulation like the following: a sperm has a particular end — the fertilization of female eggs; an unborn child has a particuar end — the same as we all have, the reaching of his entelechy in the good life for man. Therefore, if the interuption of the unborn child’s journey toward his telos is an evil, why is not the preventing of every sperm from fertilizing every egg an evil?

It seems pretty clear to me that this paragraph, which I believe to be an accurate account of your own, does not adequately define what the particular nature of a sperm is and the particular nature of an unborn child. A sperm is not a human being, it is a sperm. An unborn child is just an unborn child. To block the fulfillment of the former may possibly be an evil (under certain circumstances, and at certain times historically, that has been one articulation of Catholic sexual morality — but that strikes me as a crude and inaccurate articulation), but deliberately to block the development of a child, that is, to end his life, is murder. Let’s define murder: a human being’s taking of the life of another human being, where the latter stands in a relation of innocence (a carte blanche relation of justice) to the former.

And here, in closing, is why I find your line of reasoning not merely obscure but a bit noisome. The question my discussion of abortion naturally leads to is that of a particular form of murder. You have by some thread I cannot follow drawn it into a larger question of the general fertility of the universe. Now, I can well conceive that such a direction might be legitimate; indeed, my posts on contraception, I hope, have suggested some directions such a line might take us, as would any other reading of Papal encyclicals on marriage. But they do not seem directly relevant to the argument of my essay, which discusses quite directly the humanity of unborn children that is juridically denied in this country despite the most basic scientific evidence to the contrary. Indeed, it strikes me (and perhaps this is idiosyncratic, since I am convinced that all defenders of abortion are rationaliing or “masking” the exercise of their will with the mere appearance of reason) that your whole inquiry seems to be trying to obscure the simple syllogism at the heart of the abortion debate.

While not everyone will agree with this, I suspect you would. A) Murder is evil; B) Abortion is murder; C) Therefore, abortion is evil. Why do we need to answer broader (potentially fruitful, but not directly relevant) questions about fertility in the context of this syllogism? We have to only if you deny a) that murder is evil, or that b) the unborn child is a human being. But these denials are quite other than the ones with which you have confronted me.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 15, 2009 at 9:39 am

Well, let’s make it clearer, then. What I’m trying to push with these replies is that the logical conclusion of the anti-abortionist position is a kind of reductio, at least insofar as it entails a worldview to which very few people (including any number of Christian denominations) would be willing to admit of or to make manifest.

So, what I’m saying through the line on spermatozoa and ova is that the care that anti-abortionists espouse for each mereological addend in the sum of human development ought not initiate with the conceptus, but with the egg and the sperm. Why think that it begins there? Because in the same way that a conceptus will not become a blastocyst, will not become a fetus, will not become an infant, (etc.) without a degree of care at each stage, an egg will not become a conceptus and there will be no human being without a certain sort of care at pre-conceptus stage, as well. And if what makes disparate stages of human development equally valuable is the simple fact that each particular stage participates in the sequence, and the pre-conceptus stage is a necessary part of that sequence, then it ought to be just as valuable (and protected and not wasted) as any other part of the sequence.

So, since the ‘telos’ of the egg and of the sperm are to become fertilized and to fertilize, how do we not act with agency, and thus commit a moral evil, when we actively deny the fertilization of sperm and egg?

[As to my philosophical background, perhaps it won't surprise you to learn that my institution attends to the medieval philosophers only in their influence on Philosophy of Religion. So, whatever "repairs" Augustine/Aquinas made to Aristotle have not yet seeped onto my reading list.]

avatar TDO May 15, 2009 at 9:50 am

Jake,

Most of your posts in this thread seem to fall victim to the same logical fallacy, namely that of begging the question, of assuming as true the conclusion that you’re attempting to prove. Take your most recent post, for example. You begin it by declaring that it would be helpful to approach the question under the assumption that the blastocyst is a potential human being. Not only do you use this premise without offering any argument in its favor, but also you simply ignore Peter’s arguments to the contrary position, that the blastocyst in fact *is* a human being. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, that when you analyze this issue according to the assumption that the blastocyst isn’t fully human (and thus resembles a skin cell or blood cell – which, by the way, is an odd claim anyway since blood cells are anucleated and thus actually could not be used for cloning), you end up concluding that it is not worthy of the protections that we “full human beings” enjoy. I won’t recapitulate Peter’s arguments, which offer a conclusive objection to your “skin and blood cells” argument, here. Rather, I suggest that, instead of simply assuming from the beginning that his arguments are false, you read them carefully and respond to them, since you must do so in order to approach this question in the way you propose.

Another of your posts above contains the same fallacy. You commend Prof. Wilson for his emotional attachment to his son’s possibilities but argue that his own personal “feelings” cannot be imposed on others, especially women, in order to justify the protection of unborn life. Thus, your argument implicitly contains the assumption that moral judgments are nothing more than expressions of personal emotion and thus cannot be universal, since others may have different feelings about a particular moral issue. Again, it is not surprising that, when you start with this premise, you arrive at the conclusion shared by all liberals on this question. Now I doubt that you actually believe this premise, since you yourself have attempted on this site to use rational argument persuasively in favor of what I think you take to be universal moral maxims. Still, even if you do hold this premise to be true, you offer it without argument on its behalf. You fail to realize that Prof. Wilson would not find your argument persuasive because he does not, in fact, share this premise. Quite the opposite, in fact – Prof. Wilson seems to argue rather explicitly in his article that his views on abortion are not expressions of emotion but rather the ineluctable conclusions of right reasoning, accessible to all human beings and thus universal. Again, if you wish to sustain your line of reasoning, you will have to offer a strong contrary argument showing, instead of simply assuming, that all moral judgments – or, at least, Prof. Wilson’s moral judgments about abortion – derive from his personal emotions, and you will then need to argue further that such moral judgments cannot be universal and thus should not be used as the foundation for public morality. I look forward to reading your arguments to this effect.

Let me just add here my own congratulations and best wishes to Prof. Wilson and his family, and my thanks for this article.

TDO

avatar Empedocles May 15, 2009 at 10:08 am

I too think that the argument is manipulative in showing a well-developed fetus at the start rather than the difficult case of a fertilized egg or zygote. For some reason my article “This is my Oak Tree” that starts with a picture of an acorn wherein I spend a lot of time praising my Oak Tree’s many leaves and the shade it brings keeps getting rejected by Arborist Monthly.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 15, 2009 at 10:19 am

Dear Aaron, Okay, this is what I surmised; and so I think my previous comment may already have indirectly addressed your argument adequately. However, it will do no harm to briefly (I mean it this time) recapitulate in more direct response.

To say that the telos of sperm and egg alike is to become a human being is to say that their function is to exist for something other than themselves. They are instrumental goods whose “goodness” is entirely understood in terms of their serving a purpose in which they will no longer exist. So too, you could push the point, might we say that dust has as its highest end its use as the material cause of the human person; its telos may well be providing the constitutive material property of human life, and therefore it too has as its end the ceasing-to-be-itself.

But, granting this point, I think my argument would clearly tell us at least three things.

First, that the telos of a human embryo is not to become something else — something other than itself, a different nature, a different essence — but merely to become *more actually* what it already nonetheless actually is.

Second, that the good of human life lies not in its being part of the wide process known as “fertility” but in its being a specifically human life; it is the kind of being that is fertile, rather than fertility itself, that we take into consideration when defining murder.

Third, we can quickly discern a clear hierarchy of goods at least partially measurable by taking into consideration things that are good in themselves, and things that are merely instrumental, and therefore can be understood as goods only insofar as they cease to be themselves in making possible the good for something else. Anyone who sees human life as valuable (after the fashion that most, but not all, westerners do) has some understanding of that life as itself a good; the Christian understanding of the end of human life to be the love and virtual unity with God is no exception here, since it confers the human person as an end in itself that finds its continuous fulfillment in unity with God. If the human self were obliterated in that unity, then we might think of the individual as a mere instrumental good (as, evidently, some religious traditions do), but that is another day’s work.

The life of the human individual therefore is a superior good, because a good-in-itself, relative to any instrumental good. There are other more obviously mixed goods — things that have a certain goodness in themselves even as they are also clearly instrumental goods — the chief example of which would be other species of animals. These are harder to rank, hence the unfortunate and degrading prevalence of “animal rights” groups in our present culture. One must have a particular understanding of the human person as the highest good in nature, as a true good-in-itself, in order to treat other animals as distinct from and inferior to human beings. But even lacking that power of distinction and ordering so essential to human wisdom — as so many environmentalists seem to be — one can still see that a sperm or an egg can only be understood as an instrumental good and therefore is evidently inferior to, and distinct in essence from, the nature and telos that is created the moment these two things unite.

So far as I can tell, to argue otherwise would necessitate your also arguing that all dirt must be saved in custom molds in anticipation of its coming to use in the creation of human beings. There is a reductio ad absurdum that could derive from this conversation, but it cannot be derived from my argument.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 15, 2009 at 10:34 am

Empedocles, See the comment thread for distinction between a seed and a creature. “Manipulative” is another word for rhetoric; the question is not whether my essay is manipulative — clearly I am trying to guide the soul of another to my conclusions. The question is whether it is honest. And it is clear from the comments of others above and, I hope, my essay, that the only evident dishonesty is deny that a creature at the earliest stages of more fulling becoming itself is not the creature that it is. The redundancy here is intentional; there is a vapidity in any argument that tries to expand differences of stage to differences of species. If such an expansion were possible, you would have to be capable of saying that an adolescent is a different species (has a different essence) from a human adult.

A sperm or an egg really is a different species from the human being who comes into being when these two things become one. It is not a “sperm at a different stage of development,” it is literally a different kind of being with a different telos.

As for acorns, if you wish to insist that an acorn is essentially the arborial equivalent of an unborn child, I can go with you to some extent (though I have stated above the problems with this claim). However, that doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. Human beings do not consider even a fully grown tree to be as high a good as a very small child. One doesn’t have to be a Christian to reason that far, though one cannot be either an irrationalist, fideist, materialist, or a nihilist.

avatar Peter W. May 15, 2009 at 11:42 am

Empedocles, What makes the zygote case more difficult than the well-developed fetus? What is it that you the well-developed fetus has that it lacked when it was a zygote that changes its moral status? There are of course many differences between a zygote and a well-developed fetus, but if you think one or more of those differences makes a *moral* difference then say which and why.

The acorn/oak tree analogy is extremely common in this debates. It has been around at least since Judith Jarvis Thomson wrote her famous article “A Defense of Abortion” in the early seventies and it may have been in circulation before that. So it won’t surprise you that the following response is also common:

Let’s say the phrase “oak tree” is ambiguous because it could be used either as a biological classification or in a more restrictive way, so it refers only to members of the oak family that have reached a certain point in their development. Either way the analogy doesn’t work. If “oak tree” is being used in the first way then acorns *are* oak trees. If “oak tree” is being used in the second way (so that we don’t speak of something as being an oak tree until it has grown to the point where it’s trunk has a certain thickness, it’s ready to start producing leaves, or whatever) then it’s true that an acorn won’t count as an oak tree in that sense, but the analogy no longer does what it was intended to do. Using oak tree in this sense to say that an acorn isn’t yet an oak tree is just like saying a human fetus is not yet a human adult.

Aaron, while it’s true to say that a human being won’t come into existence unless a sperm fertilizes an egg, it doesn’t follow that either the sperm or the egg is a human being. It doesn’t even mean that either of them has the potential to become a human being. When a sperm and an ovum come together a new organism which is neither the sperm nor the ovum is created. That organism is a human being, whereas human sperm and eggs are produced by human beings, but they are not themselves human beings. Abortion may be a complex and controversial issue – I don’t deny it – but these are mundane facts about sexual reproduction.

avatar Peter W. May 15, 2009 at 11:46 am

(Apologies for the redundancy. I didn’t refresh my browser to see that James had already replied to the comments that I was responding to.)

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 15, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Dr. Wilson, There’s clearly an important difference between dust and the spermatozoon/ova: whereas dust has numerous conceivable functions, spermatozoa and ovum have but one conceivable function, and that is fertility. So, when those later two are wasted, they die without having fulfilled their biological function. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine what it would mean for dust to be wasted, other than for it to sit and wait to be used for one of it’s many functions. Obviously, spermatozoa and ova are not like this; when they’re wasted, they’re gone for the rest of the life of the being that allowed them to be wasted.

Now, I can see your argument as to the instrumental value of spermatozoa and ova, but I don’t think that we’ve decided the question as to whether the value spermatozoa and ova is simply instrumental. I guess what I’m missing here is that I don’t see that simply “having a different DNA” than the final product means that a constituent part of the product is less valuable than the final product, itself. After all, the conceptus ends when it grows to a blastocyst; the fetus ends when it becomes an infant; the child ends when it becomes an adult. The only unity between these parts is that they have the same (human) DNA, my question is: Why is this specific DNA valuable in the first place?

As I read Aristotle, he would defend (protect/care for) the previous series of stages not on biological grounds, per se, but on the grounds that those are the necessary stages in the human being fulfilling its rational function. But if that’s the case, that the series doesn’t begin at conception but at the first stage necessary in the human achieving its rational function, then isn’t it the case that human development begins with the formation of ova and spermatozoa?

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 15, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Right, I understand your position, Aaron, I just think it is a weak one, and I persist in believing that what I have provided already in this comment-thread has been adequate to respond to the position as you have stated it in this last comment. Nontheless, let me try once again for something at which I seem to have no talent: a satisfactory answer that is brief.

I’ll address each of your points in sequence:

The basis of your argument lies in expanding the conception of teleology beyond the course or function of an individual creature to the total order of which the creature is a part. A sperm is not a human being, and so to speak of it as somehow protected as if it were one because it is an initially constitutive property of one, would require a conception of the end (a person who has lived a full life, or, to put it a better way, a person living a good life) that transcends the boundary of the species. And, if one wishes to argue teleologically in a manner that transcends that boundary, I am not sure how one could stop with just the sperm and the egg. I am also not sure why one would want to make that argument, since it goes against all reason and experience, which tells us the sperm is a distinct kind of being from the being of a human. That was the sole moral of my “dust” example. I continue to think your line of reasoning is not simply trying to press me to admit an absurdity, but is itself absurd. You are as aware as anybody of the differentiation between individual things. You are aware, for example, that a son is not his father or his mother, even though he derives materially from them. The sperm and the egg are the material cause that makes that derivation possible. Neither of them constitutes the person conceived upon their union.

Second point. Please do not interpret me as suggesting that the telos of a being is reducible to its DNA. I would similarly advise you not to reduce the unity of a human life to a perpetuated pattern of DNA. That kind of materialism is very comfortable in modernity, but is also a damning weakness of modernity. I don’t think anything I’ve said necessitates that; when I use species, nature, and essence I am not being eccentric but relying on the Scholastic acceptation of those words, which is the only vocabulary that seems adequate to the reality at which all these questions is driving.

Now I don’t quite know what to make of “less valuable” in your second point. In particular circumstances, a child may indeed be less valuable than an adult (as a soldier, for instance), and it is not the total equality of all persons that I have any interest in defending. I am simply trying to make clear that there is an evident line between a thing called an egg and a human being, and that this line indicates these are two different kinds or species of things and thus two things with different natures rather than two moments in the continuous development or life of one thing.

Third point, picking up from the second. This seems a mixed, inadequate reading of Aristotle. Let’s grant it has an element of truth, as we can see by analogy in considering the following: Aristotle takes for granted that a good man must own property and be relieved from the necessities of life. His philosophy does not try to get us to foreswear our awareness that, while property may be constitutive of a good man, it is not an attribute of the man himself. Unlike John Locke (not incidentally), one could not reasonably make the argument that, asked to point out a good man, Aristotle would direct his digit at the man’s house, loom, or slaves. My point here is that you are trying to absorb too much into the concept of a telos at this moment, even as you are materialistically reductive in trying to reduce it to DNA above, and, moreover, even as you are insincerely radical in inadvertently suggesting that, logically, a telos should encompass all things.

It does not matter that the sole end of an egg is to contribute to the material cause of a human being; the question is whether it is a human being and it cannot be a human being precisely because we know for certain that when an egg contributes to the making of a human being the egg simultaneously ceases to exist as itself as it becomes another (something else). To make the same argument for different stages life as you do is disturbingly reductive (in a fashion, of course, at home in certain modern and postmodern accounts of the discontinuity of the self). It is also patently inaccurate; in addition to the continuity of DNA and that of memory and consciousness, there is the objective continuity of the person as a whole that is continuously confirmed by those in his community who call him something like “Tim,” and who can mark the moment of his conception and that of his death and say, “that’s our Tim, all right!”

Aquinas and Aristotle both are the sources for my account (given several comments above, and in response to your first objections) that a being is constituted by both its final cause (telos) and by its present nature that determines it to that cause rather than another (its formal cause), and its being determined thus as an individual of a species (its material cause). It is clear that the sperm shares, and shares only partially in the material causality of the human person, not its form or telos. And so I would suggest that you are trying to understand things only in terms of final causes, as was, for that matter, Jake (insofar as it could be said he was understanding anything rather than bloviating).

Now, whether the sperm or the egg have a particular dignity due to them because they contribute to the creation of human life is one question. But my entire argument against your position hinges solely on my showing that they are not in themselves human life. The same argument that shows them not to be human life shows also that even at its earliest stages of development, to be pointedly redundant, a human life is a human life.

If you wish to argue that human life is not somehow sacred or that the inequalities of various human beings should somehow be reflected in law or justice (as do Utilitarians), that is another question. But I have taken for granted these things, and have seen the burden of your questioning to lie only in establishing what exactly constitutes a human being.

avatar SoMG May 15, 2009 at 3:10 pm

OK, let me help you out here.

Right-to-lifers have one right answer: fetuses are live human persons, fully entitled to the rights that other persons enjoy.

But you have the wrong question. What matters is not WHAT the fetus is, but WHERE it is.

Call me an extremist, but I claim absolute control over what and who lives inside my body, and when, and how long. If something or someone is inside my body, then I’m entitled to kill it, no matter what or who it is. If all the people in the world–innocent and guilty, unborn and already-born, great and small, high and low, rich and poor, smart and stupid–were assembled somewhere inside my body, then I’d be entitled to holocaust ‘em, any time, for any reason or for no reason. That’s part of the meaning of the word “my” in the phrase “my body”.

Sure, abortion is homicide. But abortion on demand is JUSTIFIABLE homicide.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 15, 2009 at 4:15 pm

I am not sure SoMG’s comment “helps” anything, but rather forces me to repeat an idea mentioned at the heart of the essay. The modern liberal concept of the self as individual — “monadic” — and autonomous results in the bad moral prescriptions SoMG offers. The reason these prescriptions are wrong is because the anthropology is wrong. If one has a sense of oneself as somehow independent, sovereign, etc. then, I contend, one has nothing other than a false sense of oneself. We are intrinsically dependent animals, which is not a direct riposte to the “where” argument, but is an indirect one, since it lessens the only apparent singularity of the unborn child as a dependent animal; as I say, he is only apparently more dependent than we all are throughout our lives.

The “my” in “my body” actually does not designate possession or ownership, it merely signals identity, distinguishing mine from yours, or this from that. One can try to found an ethic of ownership on this grammatical phrase, as did, it seems, John Locke. One would just be wrong to do so, grammatically and theoretically, since none of us owns ourselves.

Ugly though the universe often appears (and it looks more deformed to me than ever thanks to a few of the comments here), part of its ugliness comes from the fragility of things being pure gift or given. We do not own ourselves, and our experience confirms just how rarely we are in possession of ourselves; more often than not, we experience — if we are attentive — being cast upon the sheer gratuity of things, of being dependent and still more dependent, of always being only a few inches from non-existence were it not for our possession by another.

SoMG’s comment is helpful rhetorically, of course, because most persons only give their reluctant support to pro-abortionists and their laws out of an insecurity and uncertainty about when life begins — an uncertainty that is itself the product of obfuscation, scare-tactics, and ideology rather than, say, basic biological science. Many such persons would be immediately revolted by this “admittedly extreme” position, as well they should be. Forced with either becoming murderers, cooperating in such intrinsic evil, or recognizing the humanity of unborn children, most would elect the latter. They would probably also recommend SoMG seek some kind of help, or at least a loving friend beyond the irresponsible precincts of the internet.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 16, 2009 at 12:42 am

Dr Wilson — It’s going to sound like I’m asking to get for free what your students have to pay for, but I guess I’m having trouble making sense of the Aquinian spin on Aristotle, here. In “The Politics” and “Nicomachean Ethics” am I wrong to say that Aristotle’s naturalistic ethics makes the case AGAINST any notion of intrinsic value, and thus against the supposedly inherent (or moral) wrongness of murder? After all, he supports the exposure of children to the elements, which will result in the death of many children, because it ultimately strengthens the polis, and as I read him, he would not oppose capital punishment or even murder, so long as they did not disrupt the flourishing of the community.

But that said, I’m happy to admit that my Aristotelian acquaintance is broader than it is deep here. So before I press further, it’d be prudent for me to ask whether you think I’ve misread Aristotle, at least insofar as your argument relies upon his work.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 16, 2009 at 8:17 am

Dear Aaron,

I expected this to come up sooner rather than later; The Politics has sat open to 1335b for three days.

My questioning of your arguments was over matters of causality, potency, and act — as in foundational principles of classical Aristotelianism and of the whole tradition that sprang from his thought and continues to provide the most vital philosophic thought up to the present day. Because of the existence of that tradition, I do not hestitate to distinguish between its principles and the particular claims Aristotle may have made. But, let me see if I can address just two points in your last comment.

I’m not sure “intrinsic value” is a helpful term here; if I used it above (and I don’t recall having done so), it was only in response to your use of the word “value.” I would generally look askance upon any argument that used the word in anything more than a heuristic sense. Aristotle would not speak of intrinsic value, any more than I would, and for a reason very similar to why neither of us would speak of “rights.” All things exist for some good; all things are functional things and by their existence aim at some good. All things may be hierarchized (valued?) as they stand in relation to their particular good and as that particular good stands in relation to the Good itself (woah, says the strict Aristotelian, unsure if I haven’t just made him a Platonist in spite of his best efforts).

Aristotle understood the human person as a part of the prior whole that is the state. There’s an ambiguity in his understanding of the state, however, that someone more qualified than me would have to clarify, because if man exists for the good that is the state, the state also exists for the good life for man and men. We have here, at the very least (and again, let me match your modesty regarding Aristotle with my own!), an incipient conception that the human person is not reducible to an instrumental good of the state, because he is internal to that good.

Nonetheless, one may refuse this reading of Aristotle and say, “No, indeed, the person is just the part, the state the whole.” Granted. Our tradition gives us much more fully developed, more profound accounts of the good than Aristotle had. Because of Christianity, the notion came into the world that the final cause of human life was not bounded by the horizon of this world, but rather was located in the Kingdom of Heaven. Consequently, each individual person has a dignity that he did not have before; while he may be reducible to a “part,” he is a part of the Kingdom of Heaven rather than of Athens. One of my many objections to “rights discourse,” incidentally, is that it tries to give us an understanding of man in immanent and secular terms that only makes sense if his destiny lies in the transcendent and the divine.

If one does not believe in a heavenly kingdom, then one might as well readjust one’s vision to the kingdom of this world. In that case, Aristotle would be right to recommend the exposure of children just as you would be right to suggest (as you do in “b)” of your first comment at the head of this happy thread of comments and conversation)that abortion might be a practical and permissible means of population control. However, you would also have to confess that the so-called “right to choose” an abortion was a poor policy for that end. Rather, the state must control, measure and coerce mothers to abort their children as needed. For the mother is no less a part of the whole of the state than is her child. That’s one of the curious misfortunes about the abortion debate. One can justly decry abortion as murder, and one can, from a statist and early Aristotelian position, justify abortion as state policy. The only position that is incoherent is the one now in place, where one person is said to have a sacred (right) sovereignty while another person is not; such is the incoherence of liberalism as a secularized form of Christianity.

Finally, let us turn to Aristotle’s words: “As to the exposure and rearing of children, let there be a law that no deformed child shall live, but that on the ground of an excess in the number of children, if the established customs of the state forbid this (for in our state population has a limit), no child is to be exposed, but when couples have children in excess, let abortion be procured before sense and life have begun . . .”

Why, Aristotle? Why “before sense and life have begun”? My reading, in light of the ambiguities in Aristotle noted above, is that he is uncomfortable with abortion because he already senses that it may be murder. He senses that the destiny of the human person is not reducible to being an instrumental good of the state, but does not know what the highest good might otherwise be. And so he hedges, as our society has hedged: “If we kill him early enough, maybe he won’t be alive, or at least he won’t feel pain.” But Aristotle’s basic teleological understanding of things was already at work, and tells us, “this is an inconsistency in his argument.” He knows it is a child being killed, and, for our sake rather than the child’s, he hopes to have the deed done before the child is old enough to make a fuss and remind us of our deed. He could, perhaps, hedge here because he did not know for sure, lacking modern embryology and the instruments that advanced it, precisely when life does begin. But we know better; we don’t have “faith” better, we know better.

avatar Bob Cheeks May 16, 2009 at 12:02 pm

A person’s position on abortion reveals their moral character, that is whether they are “good” or “evil.” It’s not rocket science. What is amazing is the number of those individuals who proudly and publicly proclaim their participation in a death cult that has made opaque the truth of reality, distorted man’s tension toward God, and contracted their own existence into the world-immanent self.

avatar Aaron Schroeder May 16, 2009 at 11:09 pm

Dr Wilson,

Admittedly, this discussion is becoming more speculative than deductive, but regardless, I think a reasonable reading of the quoted passage might include something like this: Aristotle could simply demarcate the initial acquisition of sense and life as the initiation of citizenship, couldn’t he? For one might think that it would be less disruptive to the polis for the state to kill a non-citizen than it might be for the state to kill one of its own, hence the attempt to draw the line at “sense and life.”

It seems like this question may also hinge on some discussion of the Aristotelian account of vice—namely, cruelty. Perhaps Aristotle encourages abortion prior to “sense and life” because sense and life mark the initiation of a certain kind of virtue-object. So, for instance, charity toward a rock (one wonders whether such an act is possible) or a dog is a less virtuous act than charity toward another person. “Sense and life” may simply mark the point at which Aristotle believes that the human being becomes a higher object of our virtues and vices. Thus, if the child is to be killed, the more virtuous action is that which is performed on the senseless and (in some sense, apparently) lifeless child. This raises a number of interesting questions, not the least of which is what Aristotle means by the word “sense,” or the degree to which he would take objects of virtuous actions to extend along species lines.

Like I said, though, this conversation has become pretty speculative, but perhaps not too much so. And anyhow, I’m grateful for the free Medieval education I’ve received over the last few days.

avatar James Matthew Wilson May 16, 2009 at 11:41 pm

A plausible reading, Aaron, and perhaps an anticlimactic one with which to end this thread of comments; but, I confess, I do hope it will be the end. I’ve been made aware that we were not the only beneficiaries of the comments posted here, and do hope they have been helpful. All this began with what was, in some respects, an unpleasant essay to have to write — and precisely because it has in its way become pleasant (i.e. contemplating Aristotle) rather than painfully urgent (i.e. the occasion of all this is the ongoing state-supported murder of millions in a society that dares think itself both prosperous and enlightened), I think it appropriate to say farewell.

Tomorrow, while I sit among my fellow faculty celebrating the graduates of Villanova, President Obama will be making his slow march to the stage in South Bend to announce — no doubt among many “inspiring” apercu and admonitions — that abortion is something “about which we can disagree and still respect each other” or some such.

To which I reply, without any intention of entertaining his appearance of “moderation,” “Tell that to my son, or, rather, to the millions who were once as he is now, and who have been killed without so much as a death certificate.” To the extent we are complicit in his self-congratulation and in the murderous order he oversees, we will all, I hope, someday be held accountable.

avatar Empedocles May 17, 2009 at 7:35 am

Millikan’s teleology explains why dust has no telos but hearts, kidneys, computers, and sperm do. Dust has not telos, no function, no end. Something gets a function by having a certain history, a history of being copied from something else, and being selected for the possession of a feature. Thus the function of hearts is to pump blood because the genes that produce your heart are copied from your parents genes and hearts have proliferated due to their ability to pump blood. Dust is not copied from anything else and not selected by natural selection for reproduction because of the possession of some feature. Dust can receive a “derived proper function” in the case we use it for some human purpose, but this is not its natural/proper function. Aristotle’s physics was rightly criticized for assigning ends and faculties to things like dust that have none, but modernism made the mistake of throwing out all teleology in favor of atomism. But this has changed as philosophers like Millikan have revived the respectability of teleology.

avatar Maureen May 19, 2009 at 8:43 am

Re: lack of consent to an embryo’s existence

Let us suppose the hard case of rape, and that the embryo is a child of said rape, and that the mother does not want the embryo at all.

Let us suppose the hard case of shipwreck. If someone is shipwrecked onto my property, am I allowed to regard that as trespass? Am I allowed, in defense of my property, to shoot the poor helpless waterlogged victim, or abandon her to die of exposure, or order him off the beach and back into the teeth of the hurricane to die? Does the shipwreck victim become my property in any way, or does the shipwreck victim remain a person with rights? If I live on a deserted island, am I allowed to deprive the shipwreck victim of food, water, and medical care because I want her gone? Or am I obliged to keep the person alive if I possibly can?

The embryo is not to blame for anything that has happened to the mother or family, and the embryo does not have any choice about coming into existence. You cannot claim that it’s a case of breaking and entering, and thus you can scarcely claim the right to justifiable homicide.

avatar Mark Shiffman May 19, 2009 at 8:54 am

If anyone is still reading after James’ farewell to the thread, I hope this is of some service.

Two comments about Aristotle:

1. The key point required to respond to Aaron’s odd solicitude for forlorn reproductive cells has been touched on but maybe not sufficiently emphasized by James. A living thing has a nature. This nature is an internal source of motion and development leading the thing internally to the attainment of its fullness of being (Physics.2.1). The possession of a full complement of genetic materials is one of the material requirements for a living thing to have the nature of the kind of being it is to become. Sperm and ova do not have this nature. They exist in abundance to beat the odds against conception and successful birth, just as some egg-layers have to lay thousands to get a few survivors. But they do not have the inner principle of development into the full human being that requires only the right external conditions to enable it to go forward with the humanity it already has as a self-fulfilling potential. (This also suffices as a response to Empedocles, though I suspect he was being facetious again.)

2. On political and “humane” abortions in Aristotle, I think this is a point at which the subsequent tradition makes it harder to see Aristotle’s point. Thomism, resting on the foundation of a sole rational creator, is inclined to think we can end up with a harmonious system of understanding. For Aristotle, there are tensions in the nature of things that he generally articulates up to the point where they can’t be resolved by mere reason and then leaves them there. One of these tensions is between the natural ends of the human being (and also the household) and the ends of political life. The two orders of ends are in some ways harmonious and in some ways in tension in their priorities. The city needs a vast preponderance of fit citizens (and in this regard it is a matter of justice to destroy all unfit infants rather than institute some kind of inevitably unfair quota). But Aristotle recognizes that this is ethically problematic, particularly if it deadens our sensitivity to the goodness of life as such. So best to perform the politically necessary terminations at a point at which the feeling that we are performing a life-despising evil is less palpable. Aristotle is not Kant; he sees that we must devote a lot of care to promoting and safeguarding the right modulation of emotion if we want to promote virtue.

In this regard, the “manipulative” rhetoric of James and the opponents of abortion is sound. Use the ultrasounds that Aristotle didn’t have to make clear that those emotional responses ought to be elicited by the child much earlier than one would otherwise think. Then you may be able to convince some by sound arguments that this extends all the way back to the moment the being first has its internally-directing human nature.

Leave a Comment

{ 2 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: