David S. Oderberg’s “Why Abortion Isn’t Important”

This is an important article by philosopher David S. Oderberg, which first appeared in the Human Life Review, 2002. I highly recommend Professor Oderberg’s works, particularly his books on ethics, Moral Theory: A Non-Consequentialist Approach and Applied Ethics: A Non-Consequentialist Approach.  His work in metaphysics, Real Essentialism, is no less valuable, but is highly technical—I recommend in only for those already well versed in metaphysics.  It is dry and difficult, although the case he makes—for the reality of essences—could not be of greater importance.  My readers probably know that I hold the nominalism of William of Ockham to be GROUND ZERO of where Western Civilization went off the rails. Everything that has gone wrong since has gone wrong because of the denial of real essences and Platonic forms.  Indeed, I believe this is the basic thrust of Oderberg’s case below “abortion isn’t important,” he says, in the sense that, horror that it is, it is only one local manifestation of a much deeper sickness of the intellect and the will that has infected our civilization for a very long time now.  It is “not important” only in the sense that it is first of all a symptom of a much deeper and more pervasive disease.

But I don’t mean to interpret his words for you. I mean only to present them to you:

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Why Abortion Isn’t Important

Human Life Review | Summer 2002 | David S. Oderberg

Abortion is not important. I never thought I could write such a sentence. In fact, I never thought I could think it. But I do. That’s not all. I also think that euthanasia is not important. Nor cloning. Nor contraception. Nor IVF, embryo experimentation, genetic engineering, nor any other issue at the core of pro-life activity and policy. In fact, pro-life activity and policy themselves are not important. However, before you write a letter of outrage to the editor, or tear up your subscription, allow me to explain.

To clarify what I mean by these issues’ not being important, let me point out that I am not saying for a minute that pro-lifers should stop being pro-lifers, that we should spend our afternoons tending our rose bushes rather than campaigning, protesting, writing, or whatever it is that we do best in defending the pro-life cause. Like most pro-lifers, I am opposed to every single one of the things listed above. Every one of them is a moral crime, an attack on the sanctity of human life, and every one of them should be opposed in heart and mind and action by all people of good will. And yet—they are not important.

As a professional philosopher, I am trained to look at the big picture. True, most of my fellow philosophers, at least in the Anglophone academies, have pretty much given up on big pictures. We philosophers hardly ever talk about big pictures at our end-of-term garden parties, or in the common room between lectures. We don’t knock on each other’s doors and say, “Hey, Fred, what do you think of the state of Western civilization?” It’s just not done. What is done is to knock on a colleague’s door and say, “Hey, Fred, what do you think about Quine’s denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction? Don’t you think recent theories of meaning have cast doubt on his critique?”

Don’t get me wrong. Quine’s denial of the analytic/synthetic distinction is important and well worth debating. Plenty of good papers have been published on it. My list of things to research in philosophy would be a lot shorter if I didn’t have subtle or not-so-subtle technical distinctions to analyze. It was good enough for Aristotle and St Thomas Aquinas (let alone all the other great figures in the history of my subject)—so it’s good enough for me. Yet through it all, through the endless training in technicalities, and even despite the best efforts of many of those who taught me to philosophize, I have, one way or another, been trained to look at the big picture.

Which is why I have come more and more to see that pro-life issues, including the ones on which I have published at length and will continue to publish, form a smaller component of the overall stance that should be taken against society than many pro-lifers would think. Social activism, like everything else in the marketplace of goods and ideas, inevitably involves a division of labour. Animal rights campaigners (for all the bad mixed in with their good intentions) campaign for animals and very little else; animals are their world, the abolition of the battery cage their raison d’être. Campaigners against paedophilia have the welfare of children as their sole social concern, and see social policy through the prism of their anxiety that children be protected at all costs. Anti-globalists interpret every facet of economic policy in terms of its promotion or reduction of the depredations of transnational big business.

Pro-lifers are no exception. Of course I exaggerate, but the basic point is correct, that when a person embarks on the defense of a cause (and why they pick one cause rather than another depends on all sorts of reasons both personal and political), they tend to focus exclusively on that cause and to see all other social issues primarily in terms of how those issues reflect upon it. The division of labour is a good and necessary thing, both in economics and in social activism. I am certainly not advocating the disappearance of single-issue campaigning, or of multi-issue campaigning (like pro-life activism) that revolves around one large chunk of social policy. No policy would ever change if activists regularly spread their campaigning too thinly, thus depleting their intellectual and emotional (not to mention financial) resources beyond their usefulness in any one specialized operation.

What I am advocating, however, is that pro-lifers as a whole spend more time thinking about bigger issues and how they relate to their primary concern to protect innocent human life from womb to tomb. Perhaps the single thing that contributed most to this realization was when I first read the famous paper published in 1958 by the eminent (and recently departed) Cambridge philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe. Writing about the utilitarianism that has, since Bentham and Mill, taken over virtually all moral theorizing in the English-speaking departments of philosophy (perhaps less true today of high-level moral theory than of applied ethics, where of course the damage is really done—witness Singer and Co.), Professor Anscombe noted that it had become a serious topic of moral debate among philosophers whether it could ever be justified to kill an innocent man (e.g., to save five others). Her response was brave—brave because it went so contrary to the grain of philosophy as argument and dialectic. What she said (and here I paraphrase and interpret¹) was that when confronted with a person who really thinks it a live moral issue whether killing the innocent might ever be justifiable, even if that person offers sophisticated utilitarian arguments in support, the right thing to do is to walk away rather than argue; for such a person shows evidence of a corrupt mind.

Here is one of the (to my mind) greatest philosophers produced by England in the last century, telling people—especially other philosophers—that sometimes it is better to walk away than to argue. Why? Because a person’s conscience can become so corrupt, and lead to such equally corrupt rationalizations, that to engage them in serious argument about those rationalizations is both pointless—being unlikely to have the slightest impact on their thinking—and, what is worse, dangerous—bringing the thinker of good will into serious danger of having his own conscience perverted by the sophistries of the other.

Professor Anscombe did, nevertheless, write much in defense of life— though, notably, much of it for those who already valued life, arming them with arguments, rather than for those who could not even see the truth of the conclusions the arguments were arguments for. As to activism, well, it is not often that one sees a picture of an eighty-year-old female academic lying on the ground being dragged off by the police to the local lock-up. Her crime? Protesting outside an abortuary, of course.

Had she decided that protest against the devaluers of life was more rational than engaging them in argument over the futility of utilitarian thinking? I never got the chance to ask her, but the remarks in her 1958 paper gave pause for thought. After all, thousands of philosophers across the Western world (and it is the West with which I am solely concerned) continue to pose the very sorts of question Anscombe derided as showing evidence of moral corruption. Killing the innocent? No, that’s no longer even a question—most philosophers do not have a problem with it. Rather, it’s meatier territory they stake out now. In fact, when I first learned that the Doctor Exsecrabilis Peter Singer was now somewhat of a fan of bestiality,² I caught myself being not nearly as surprised as I thought I might be: surely this was the logical working out (by a thinker who satisfies G. K. Chesterton’s definition of a maniac—not someone who has lost his reason, but someone who has lost everything but his reason) of a moral position that had already been poisoned decades ago by those first thoughts about whether morality is all about costs and benefits, and whether the job of modern moralists was to overthrow tradition and replace it with a brand new morality for our brand new times.

I assume it will be paedophilia next. Or perhaps incest. (Only a few weeks ago I happened to listen on BBC radio to a learned discussion of incest [not involving Singer] that was as remarkable for its high seriousness as for the insouciance of its participants.) I ask pro-lifers: can we really expect to have a rational debate with these custodians of what’s left of our cultural norms? Perhaps we should keep trying, lest there be one single person out there who changes his mind because of what pro-lifers have to say. Nevertheless, we also play right into the hands of the modern moralists when we approach ethical debate with such a narrow focus. What happens when a pro-lifer publicly debates, say, the so-called “morning-after pill” (alias the early abortion pill) with one of its advocates? Usually, the pro-lifer is accused of an unhealthy obsession with what goes on in people’s bedrooms. Why all this fixation on sex? they want to know. Is it the usual “Catholic guilt” thing, or the fact that they want to deny to others what they secretly wish they could have for themselves? Why don’t they get out of other people’s private lives and worry about their own?

Of course, none of these responses is remotely rational. But the point is that listeners to such debates usually take the rhetorical bait, having long ago abandoned any pretense at rational thought about the issues themselves. And so pro-lifers are portrayed all too often as swivel-eyed, obsessive single-issue fanatics. Needless to say, the double standards are obvious, since such epithets are rarely applied to animal liberationists or anti-globalists. The pro-lifers always get the worst of it: partly due to the obsessions of their opponents, who are really the ones who are utterly fixated on all things carnal; partly through a genuine fear that pro-lifers still (more so in the USA than the UK, by far) have political clout and can actually change things, at least by clogging the courts and slowing down the passage of anti-life measures, at most by getting their own measures adopted (e.g. anti-euthanasia legislation). Partly, as well, due to a tiny trace of residual moral conscience left in their critics. But partly also, it must be said, to the pro-lifers’ own excessively narrow focus.

Does that mean I advocate that pro-lifers should stop being obsessed by matters affecting the sanctity of life? Of course not. If we are not obsessed by life and death, we might as well not be obsessed by anything. What I do advocate, however, is that pro-lifers increase their obsession—not just with life matters, but with the whole state of Western society. We need to be obsessed by the state of utter desolation into which Western society is throwing itself. It may well be (as I believe) that what is left of Western civilization is doomed to extinction—but doing and caring nothing about it is just not an option. It is not only on what we achieve (and we may achieve a lot in the short or medium term), but on what we defend that we will be judged. And we must come to the realization that when a society has reached a state in which abortion and other attacks on life are not only tolerated; not only legalized; not only accepted as normal; but are positively embraced by millions of people as the very solution to what ails that society—then we must realize that something has not only gone seriously wrong, but went wrong a long time ago, long before the Sixties, long before any of us was alive.

We do not need to become social or cultural historians to analyze the current state of things. We should also acknowledge that there is a feedback loop among the phenomena under discussion: explanation is not always in the one direction. A general state of slow-burning moral disintegration gave rise to the climate in which the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s could take place; but equally, with that revolution now secure and its aging vanguard installed as our rulers, the revolution feeds back into the wider state of decay and gives it added momentum. Which way the explanation should go in a given case is best left to the historians. What is more important is that we need instead to see that actions such as abortion can only ever become the norm in a society in which the very bonds that tie us together as human beings have been torn apart. We need to understand that the anti-life movement is a secondary cancer, a metastasis of a primary tumor that began to grow when the West began to lose its religious sensibilities, its sense of communal obligation, its norms of respect and due deference for the elderly, the wise, the experienced, those who govern in our name, its standards of gentility and politeness, when people began twistedly to interpret manners as hypocrisy, noblesse oblige as exploitation, civic duty as state oppression, state patronage as a human right, love of neighbor as poking one’s nose into the business of others, hypocrisy as the greatest vice of all (to which I reply—better double standards than no standards), and proper autonomy as the right to do as one pleases.

The primary cancer is as deep as it is old, and it is almost certainly terminal. But for us—as campaigners, writers, thinkers, activists—its terminal nature cannot be of prime concern. What we must attend to is the enrichment of our thinking about pro-life issues by studied consideration of just how the anti-life culture is rooted in a much broader social pathology. We need not, and must not, become self-styled experts on everything that is wrong with Western society (which of us can claim any such expertise?), and we must not dilute the pro-life message to the point where it no longer stands out against the cacophony of perpetual social commentary that clogs the exhausted airwaves and ever diminishing magazines of “opinion.”

Still, pro-lifers must widen their perspective. We must understand the simple fact that a society in which people are judged not by their looks but by their virtues is a society in which abortion would be impossible. That a society in which travelers regularly give up their seats to the elderly is a society in which euthanasia would be impossible. That the antithesis of a me-first society in which physical perfection is the ultimate goal is a society in which genetic screening for physical handicap would be considered not as a moral outrage, but as just plain absurd—unthinkable, even. This is what I mean by saying that abortion is not important. A society which has gone as far as devaluing the lives of its own members has gone wrong long before. It is not just the metastases which must be attacked, but their malignant origin. Sure, let us be obsessed by anything that touches on life and death—how could we not? But let us also be obsessed by much, much more.

NOTES

1. To read her exact words, see ‘Modern Moral Philosophy’ in her collected papers entitled Ethics, Religion and Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. III (Oxford: Blackwell, 1981), pp.26-42.

2. See his review of Midas Dekkers, Dearest Pet: On Bestiality, published on http://www.nerve.com in 2001 and also in the British magazine Prospect (April 2001).

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One comment on “David S. Oderberg’s “Why Abortion Isn’t Important”

  1. TKDB says:

    There’s a lot of truth to this. Supporters of abortion routinely resort to arguments based on consequentialist calculus, as if they expect them to be utterly devastating. “If you really care so much about reducing abortion numbers, why don’t you support groups like Planned Parenthood that distribute contraception?” “If you really care so much about life, why do you want to go back to the days of back alley abortions where the mother is likely to die from the procedure?”

    They seem to be literally incapable of comprehending the idea that the pro-life position is rooted in the idea that abortion is a matter of opposition to something fundamentally evil, not consequentialist harm reduction.

    Like

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